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A Name Is A Powerful Thing

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The very first thing he registers is the pain.

Freezing cold at first, then growing into a hot flame that consumes his heart and lungs, smoke and pain dancing like old friends within him. It pierces into his chest over and over and over without reprieve, flows into him like a stream of hot lava, unwavering even as he implores for it to stop. No, wait. Please stop. Soma screams, pleads, begs. It doesn’t listen, screaming over his own voice and surging into him like darkness into stab wounds, murmurs growing into chatter growing into cacophonous wails of anguish and rage around him.

In his torture Soma opens his eyes—

He sees a house, tiny and cozy and beckoning him like home. Flowers all around the property and an impossibly blue sky above, the twin laughs echoing within the house accelerating his heart in pure, temporary euphoria. He blinks his eyes, the scene changes, and now Soma sees the reds and oranges of fire, the metaphorical smoke from earlier now filling his senses again and igniting his own rage—fire against fire, a debilitating feeling of loss and grief overtaking him with his anger. The smoke is overwhelming. Still, he does not choke; instead he opens his mouth in a ear-splitting roar, turning around on his heel as the world melts away around him to make way for rich, bright droplets of crimson blood.

They trickle down his clawed hand, dripping to the floor, and the figure before him gracelessly crumbles to the ground. Gold, gold and white, his opposite irreparably marked by red. The fire in his heart falters, and from above thunder breaks, horror and grief coldly pouring down onto him like a storm as his castle rises from the ground. They will pay, is all he knows in his numb despair. They will all pay.

For there are no innocents in this world, not anymore.

And just like that it’s all gone. White and red surround him, the stench of blood carried by the breeze, the silence of an early grave. A soft, carpeted floor covered in someone else’s ichor. Soma immediately falls to his knees. He’s gasping for air, hands clawing at his chest as if to free him from whatever’s intruded into his very soul—in response the darkness squirms inside his body, thick like blood and aching like acid. It feels like it belongs. He wants to puke it out until it’s completely left his body.

Meanwhile the imagery doesn’t fade, melting into each other instead and replaying in short flashes of quick scenes that worm its way into his brain, etching themselves in as if it belonged there. A house, fire, blood, golden hair, his castle. If he closes his eyes he can still see it, clear as day, can still feel the myriad of emotions flashing across his heart. This is foreign, and yet it’s not. This isn’t his, and yet it is. Fire, a castle. A castle. His castle.

These are Dracula’s memories, flowing right back into their host.

What a sick, merciless joke. Soma would laugh, but no matter how hard he tries the sound just doesn’t come. The darkness throbs in his veins, agitated. It sends goosebumps all over his skin.

He blinks. Almost immediately Soma becomes aware of another dark presence in the room, something similar to him, and yet vastly different. Graham? No, the man is dead. It’s… strange. It feels familiar and comforting, yet burning like unwelcoming fire. He doesn’t know how it clicks in his mind or why, but when Soma twists his head to look at the balcony door, he calls out for Arikado to step forward into the light.

The seconds that pass between his request — his command? — and the moment that Arikado’s footsteps finally fill the air feel eternal, like punishment for a crime Soma didn’t even commit. The Japanese agent walks into the room with the nonhuman grace of a monster playing charades, face expressionless and framed by raven black hair, his entire body irradiating a darkness Soma’s growing quickly accustomed to.

Vampire, the souls in his body scream.

No, not quite.

It’s not the same. Power of the same caliber as Dracula’s own stares him down from across the room, but it’s not as fierce, not at the same level as his own. Vampiric, yes, but something else is in there too. Something gentle, resonating with Soma. Arikado stops a few feet away from him, his eyes now taking on a strange glow, red and intense, analytical and yet surprisingly compassionate.

Somehow, it fills him with rage. Somehow, it fills him with sorrow.

There’s a bubbling sensation at the back of Soma’s mind, words repeated in a language he doesn’t know. Or a word, rather, murky in the overwhelming sound of his own pulse in his ears. Soma grits his teeth as he raises to stand, wobbly from nausea and yet strengthened by the influx of souls and dark power around him, Dracula’s might already settling into him, stabilizing him, scaring him. Soma blinks hard, opening and closing his hands into fists. Inhale, exhale. Focus, focus, focus. Arikado remains quiet before him, calm and composed against the horrors of the room, and the sight sends another flare of anger through Soma’s body, heartbreak piercing him for some reason he can’t explain.

He attributes the ugly feeling to the indignity of being lied to, of a force like this being imposed onto him without his consent, and so he snaps.

* * *

There is a body tied to a wooden post before him, features already licked away by the flames at its feet. Silence and darkness blanket the scene, encapsulating him and the burning body together in its brutality, forcing his eyes to the only scene they can turn to. Fire, again. It’s always fire. So painful, so heartless, so uncaring of what it takes.

Every fiber of his body wants him to reach forward, but he can’t move. He cannot scream, cry, can’t even command the destructive blaze to stop in its ravenous ascent. Stuck in place, frozen in time, all he can do is watch as they rip away skin and darken what’s underneath. The smell is overwhelming. Death hangs in the air like an unspoken word, a noiseless scream from the body as its jaw goes slack, flame ripping away at tissue and setting it free. And then, with a sickening crunch hidden in the crackling of the fire, the jaw falls off just at the same time that his heart shatters.

It’s not his own scream that pierces through the air, but rather someone else’s roar, an agonizing sound that consumes even the infernal explosion from the bonfire and seems to echo from everywhere around him. No, he’s still just standing there like a dumbfounded fool, voice lost in the darkness as he watches the flames rise and swirl and change.

The fire twists, its shape morphing before him until it’s standing proud in a ball that bursts into the crude shape of a skull. The body is gone, consumed. Empty eye sockets stare at him from the flame, teeth coming in next, the face an omen that sinks his stomach. Fear takes hold and he immediately stops breathing, lungs constricting when that horrible, horrible roar returns as a maddening, booming voice, shaking even his heart with the echo of its angered words.

“What have you done!?”

Soma’s eyes shoot open with a choked gasp.

Nausea hits him like a ton of bricks. His heart slamming against his ribcage like a wild animal and shooting adrenaline through his veins, Soma takes a deep, shaky breath, rising to sit up on the bed. Underneath him the bedsheets rustle as he lifts a hand out of his blankets and up to his face, desperately rubbing sleep off. Outside of his cocoon of blankets, the late night air is cool against his damp skin, the low light of the moon filtering through his window and illuminating bits and pieces of his bedroom. His bedroom, in his apartment. Gone is the heat of the bonfire, gone is the omnipresent voice that choked him with its speech, gone is the devilish skull of flame and raw hatred.

A nightmare, then.

Or rather, a memory.

Right.

Soma sighs. He closes his eyes and presses his palms against his face, inhaling and counting to five, then backwards as he exhales. There’s a wetness on his cheeks that he rubs away when his heart’s stabilized. His tears don’t surprise him; the anguish and despair contained in that imagery are too much for him to handle. He always cries when he sees this dream. Memory. Whatever.

It doesn’t take as long for his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness anymore, not after the castle. The world a little clearer, a little easier to pick apart, he reaches for the phone lying face down on his nightstand and unlocks it to check the time. 3:14 in the morning, it reads in elegant white letters against a dark blue wallpaper. Figures, Soma thinks, that the worst memories would bubble up around this hour.

He can’t stand the feeling of his own clammy skin in the cold autumn air. That, and the nausea’s still twisting his gut uncomfortably, drying his throat.

Groaning in disgust Soma finally gets off the bed, stumbling about in the clear darkness until he reaches the bathroom. He doesn’t turn on the lights, he doesn’t have to. Shakily he turns on the faucet and drinks greedily to moisten his throat. Once satisfied he washes his face, lets the water and the wind chill him back to the waking world and out of the memory of furious fire, hoping to wipe the image of the burning body out of his mind.

But thinking of it again only leaves him feeling even more upset and crying again. Great, he thinks. He’s even shaking. Soma laughs, darkly, patting at his own cheeks with wet hands, eyes closed. He’s much more shaken than he’d thought, isn’t he?

It’s been happening a lot more often, lately. These memories woven into restless dreams, they’ve been bubbling up into the surface of his subconscious more often, despite the incident that incited them in the first place already being two months buried into the past. And they happen mostly when he dreams, when his walls are lowered and when Dracula’s influence floods in like a raging river.

Soma groans. Readjusting to life had been difficult at first, but not impossible. In reality he’s tired, sleep deprived and overwhelmed with schoolwork and dealing with an awakened soul resting next to his. Dracula doesn’t rest, not like his power does. He’s still very much aware and awake, stirring in Soma’s bloodstream, bleeding his memories into the poor boy. He hasn’t told Arikado. Or Julius, or Yoko, or anyone else for that matter. It’s fine, really. So long as Soma’s not spitting fireballs and claiming dominance over souls again then everything’s fine by him.

Life goes on, after all, millennium old vampiric dark lord resting in his soul or not.

It’s fine.

A sigh, shaky. Whatever. The water on his face is drying slowly, dripping down his nose and onto the sink. The sound of it fills his enhanced hearing, unpleasantly loud and yet comforting in the quiet of the early hours of the morning. It’s Thursday by now. He should be asleep; he’s got class in a few hours. Soma opens his eyes and rises to stand again, reaching for a towel, gaze searching his own in the mirror.

When he finds it, time stops.

Red, is what he processes first, followed by the eerie light. Red, red, red—his eyes are red, glowing just like Arikado’s had once in that bloodied throne room. This is new, Soma thinks dumbly, redirecting the hand that reached for the towel to rest upon the cold glass instead, over his doppelganger’s palm. This hasn’t happened before, not since the castle. This is new. This is new.

This is wrong.

Soma’s blood freezes in his veins, solidifying and nearly flooring him with terror. Memories come back to him in waves, in his waking state, the same subliminal imagery he’d felt the first time Dracula awoke in his body. There’s a really, really disturbing feeling of mild dissociation starting at the fingertips on the glass and working its way up into Soma’s brain, at the back of his eyes, blurring the world with a thick fog that he blinks away rapidly while sneering. The figure in the mirror mimics him almost completely, even down to his movements and expressions.

But their eyes aren’t the same. Oh, no; the eyes are calm and collected, boring into Soma’s with an apathy that pierces him with fear.

Apathy. No compassion, no gentleness, not like Arikado’s eyes—

“Who are you?” he asks his reflection in a slurred mess of words stumbling out of his mouth. It’s such a stupid question to be asking, but it’s the only one he can manage. This is wrong. Something rolls down his cheek and now he’s crying again, a steady flow of salty tears staining where he’d cleaned, cold and terrified and hoping he’s still asleep. His reflection doesn’t reply. Not at first, at least. And not how he expects it to.

Because when his reflection does speak, when he opens his mouth, there’s fangs in his mouth and a stream of constant, scarlet blood flowing through smiling white teeth. Gone is the apathy in his eyes, replaced with a fiery look of agony and desolation in his wild red eyes that chills Soma to the bone, pushing his consciousness away into a black abyss.

“You already know.”

The next time Soma wakes with a start there’s birds chirping outside of his apartment, the telltale beams of sunlight on his floor opposite to where the moon had slipped in and speaking of late morning. He’s gracelessly sprawled on his bathroom floor, a pounding headache pulsating at the back of his head, unhelped by his ringtone blasting from his bedroom. He can’t move, so he lets the song end. He can’t move. Eyes wide and on the ceiling and mind swimming with thoughts of red eyes and glistening blood, all Soma can do is tremble.

Maybe this isn’t fine after all, he thinks as his phone goes off again in the distance.

* * *

Soma skips class, for all he cares. Kinda hard not to, when next thing he knows his apartment’s bursting with life after he picks up a call from Arikado that leads into all three of his guardians meeting in his own living room.

He’s still a little shaky when Yoko hands him the hot chocolate she’s brought and made in Soma’s own kitchen, but at least he manages to smile at her, his reassurance and gratitude genuine. She smiles back at him, pats him on the shoulder as she takes a seat right next to him. Her hand doesn’t leave him. It’s comforting. Arikado sits on the other couch, arms crossed and one leg resting over the other, staring ahead. Julius stands propped up near the kitchen entrance, arms crossed as well, eyes on Soma.

The Belmont speaks first: “Alright, Soma. What’s wrong?”

Right now, under Julius’ concerned blue stare, Soma feels like punching himself. He’s been careless, and he continues to be careless now when his shame and fear grip at his throat and close it shut. Soma knows he shouldn’t — can’t — hide this anymore, not with all three of them looking at him like he’s a child to be comforted after a thunderstorm, much less deal with it on his own when he’s so terrified of what might happen should Dracula flare up again and make Soma falter.

So why is it so damn hard to talk?

In his mental anguish he hesitates, stares. Julius notices, ever clever and sharp as any Belmont should be, age be damned, and Soma cringes. The older man sighs, “Soma—”

“I saw Dracula in my bathroom mirror and he spoke to me.”

If the apartment was eerily silent before, now it’s dead quiet and dangerously tense. Soma squeezes his eyes shut, fights a shiver, inhales deeply. It’s done, now. He’s only got so much time before word of his nightmares escapes his big, dumb mouth. Wait, what? It should escape his big, dumb mouth. Hiding the truth isn’t going to help him, or anyone, or the world.

He can’t even hide the truth, anyway, not after Arikado heard him spluttering and crying out like that into the phone line, repeating the same words his blazing nightmare apparition had said over and over until the agent had finally snapped him out of it. Hot shame colours Soma’s cheeks; no way the agent didn’t tell the others of his outburst, however vague he must’ve been. He’d wept like a man possessed, after, calmed only with the promise of a visit.

Julius speaks again, “Are you absolutely certain that it was him?”

Soma nods numbly. He looks down at the chocolate in his hands, warm and inviting, and takes a deep gulp of it to calm his nerves. Then again, maybe so much sugar will only make things worse. Oh well. “Red eyes, fangs, blood pouring out of his mouth—even his voice was the same.” Soma sighs. He purposely leaves out how it was his face in the mirror, not Dracula’s old, wrinkly visage. “It was him, in my reflection. It was Dracula.”

“But he lies dormant now, doesn’t he? You beat chaos and sealed him away within yourself,” Yoko’s trying to step in, to help. She brushes some of his hair out of his face. So touchy. “Maybe you were just dreaming.”

“He awoke in his bathroom, Yoko, and sounded quite distressed in our phone call,” Arikado chimes in, his calm only betrayed by the twitching of his fingers on his forearm. At least he leaves out the details of said phone call. “I hardly think a regular nightmare would push anyone that far.”

But then Yoko stumbles and says something Soma wishes she hadn’t: “Well, Mina’s said that he hasn’t been sleeping—”

“It’s nothing too serious!” Soma’s already defending himself, ashamed at being caught red-handed only to realize he’s turned himself in with his outburst. Sleep deprivation is a fun little thing, isn’t it? He feels anxiety bubbling in his stomach when Julius and Arikado turn to look at him with concerned eyes, one prominent and the other faint. “Just— just some nightmares, is all. You know, because I’m in college and I’m stressed out and pulling all-nighters. Everyone does that in college.”

“Describe them, these nightmares.”

Julius’ voice startles Soma. In response Yoko’s hand rubs at his arm, comforting.

“Uh.” Soma clears his throat. “Why?”

“You mentioned a voice.”

Oh, god, no. “Yeah, usually dreams have voices in them.”

“Not Dracula’s voice, they don’t. And they’re your dreams, Soma. We’ve got a right to be worried if you suddenly start mentioning that the unfortunate guest within your soul appears in them.” Julius raises an eyebrow, a smirk tugging at his lips. If the situation weren’t still tense Soma knows he would be smirking. “Now, kid. Spill the beans.”

Soma bites back a miserable little whine. Fine. Fine, then. Fine. “They’re— it’s— it’s like watching a horror movie, but you’re inside the movie and everything is gory and terrible and miserable,” Soma stumbles as he explains, clutching the mug with both hands and staring down at the brown liquid. It’s shaking in his grasp, and it’s laughing at him, he swears it is. “There’s fire, and blood, and usually Dracula’s directly involved and I’m looking at what he’s doing. Everything’s happening around me but I can’t interfere; I can’t change the outcome, can barely even move or think while they’re happening. I think it’s because they’re set in stone already, his memories.”

He freezes in his tracks.

Silence.

More silence.

And then, “You’re seeing Dracula’s memories?”

Yoko spoke this time. She’s looking directly at him, now, along with Julius, twin looks of distress and shock on their faces. Soma doesn’t need to turn around to see if Arikado’s looking too—he can feel his wide gaze on him as easily as he can feel the breeze. Vampiric presence and recognition, probably. He really doesn’t like it.

“I guess,” he finally replies, ducking again into the safety of his chocolate when he sees Julius’ scowl. The room goes cold, suddenly. Soma doesn’t want to figure out why. “They’re… they’re awful. I don’t have another way to describe them, honestly.” A pause. “Fire, blood, tears. Sometimes he’s killing people, other times he’s commanding a horde of demons, mostly he’s seething in rage. I don’t know why, but all he’s showing me are images of his first war on Wallachia.“

Julius steps away from the wall, finally. He’s silent for a moment. “And how long have you been dealing with this, exactly?”

So the dreaded question appears. Soma looks up and gives him a sheepish, anxious smile. “Two... months?”

And the Belmont stares at him like he’s just told him the world is ending. “Two months—” he chokes on his own words, turns around to pace to the front door and back to the living room twice, steps heavy on Soma’s flooring. His hand raises to rake his hair and nearly undoes his ponytail. “Soma,” he speaks while walking, “that is too much time!”

That stings a little. Soma knows he shouldn’t have hidden this, much less dealt with it on his own when he’s so terrified of what might happen should he falter. Accepting the fact that Dracula’s not truly gone from his soul was terrifying and difficult and felt like walking through hell itself. Accepting the fact that he's gaining enough strength to now manifest in grotesque hallucinations during witching hours is twice that.

Soma shudders.

Concentrate.

Julius is still pacing the room, mumbling now and stroking his beard as his brain tries to come up with what to do about this new information. Once again Yoko seems to pick up on Soma’s inner distress and pats at his back, smiling and comforting, snapping all of Soma’s attention to her. “Hey, at least you came to us for help now, right?” she says, brushing Soma’s hair out of his face again. “We’re gonna get you through this, Soma.”

The boy looks down at his drink. “I’m—I’m scared, a little,” he confesses. “It’s been happening a lot more often lately, but it was never anything this bad. At best it’s just the nightmares when I’m sleeping and some weird deja-vus when I’m awake, but never anything as intense as this. And I’d never heard his voice outside of the castle.” Soma shudders, clears his throat when it seems to start closing in on itself. “That’s new. It’s also a first. It’s like sooner or later he’s gonna start bleeding into me again.”

“That’s not going to happen,” the witch quickly presses. Yoko ruffles his hair, sets her other hand on his arm. “Soma, he isn’t you, and you aren’t him. And you’re not even in the castle, so I really doubt he’s gonna do anything more than just spook us really bad. It’s just like any magic outburst, then. You just need to learn how to control it!”

Yoko sounds so confident, so light, but it’s clear as day in the slight trembling of her smiling lips that she doesn’t know what to do either, slightly panicked as she is even while reassuring Soma. He can’t blame her, or anyone else for that matter, really; how the hell are you supposed to react when your protege tells you he’s seeing Dracula’s memories? In front of them Julius finally stops pacing, choosing instead to stand by the living room window and looking out through Soma’s blinds at the busy streets below. He’s quiet, too quiet. Worried. A darkness within Soma laughs at the sight. He drowns it out with chocolate

Soma swallows hard, looks off to his left, meets Arikado’s eyes. His stare is no longer wide and surprised, but what remains instead hurts him—a sight cold, far-away, guarded. Even for someone as stoic as him, in the two months since their initial meeting Soma’s gotten to know him enough to see a little bit of emotion and humanity slipping through the cracks in his mask every now and then, the kindness in his eyes. Arikado may not be fully human, but his heart is. To see him so closed off is terrifying, those piercing black eyes boring into Soma like he’s being analysed, dissected.

Feared.

It’s Arikado who breaks eye contact first, surprisingly. Soma averts his own gaze back to the mug of chocolate when he starts to speak. “Then I suppose the best course of action would be to keep a close eye on you while we figure out how to go about this.”

From his spot by the window, Julius snorts. “Are you suggesting we babysit him?”

“If that’s how you want to word it.”

Soma’s head snaps back up to look at Arikado. “Wait, what?”

“Hey, when do you have class tomorrow? I can drop you off at school and then pick you up when you’re done,” Yoko says, all smiles and enthusiasm again. “It’s faster than taking the train, at least!”

Julius finally turns to see them, smiling at Yoko. “You should ask him for his full class schedule, in that case.”

“Am I gonna be the chauffeur? On a motorcycle?” Yoko laughs.

“You offered.”

“You guys are gonna be staying in my apartment?” Soma blurts out.

It’s Julius who laughs this time. He steps away from the window now, waving Soma’s worries off, setting a hand on his hip. “Nah, we’ll just be dropping by every now and then to check up on you.”

“We’d best stay communicated on any further developments,“ Arikado adds, fishing out his phone from his pocket and typing quickly. “I’ll do some research on soul seals and how to maintain and strengthen them on the side. Anything that happens, I want you to immediately tell me.”

“I’ll see what I can find, too. Must be something out there in the old records, so we can combine efforts that way and speed things up,“ Yoko provides. She then looks down at Soma’s gawking face, laughs, ruffles his hair. “I also know a few tea mixes good for achieving peaceful sleep.”

“That would be helpful, thank you,” Arikado bows his head for her before Soma can say anything.

“I’ll just be a Belmont,” Julius avows.

Arikado rolls his eyes. “Very helpful indeed.”

What the hell is happening, is all that Soma can think, mind racing in a panicked mix of emotions he can’t figure out completely. His hands shake, so he lowers the half-full mug onto his lap out of fear that he’ll drop it. On one hand he’s touched, happy to know that his guardians — his friends — would go to these lengths for him, and on the other he’s horrified they’re going so far out of their busy schedules and lives to do this for him. It’s not like they need to do this, anyway; they could just summon him later when they’ve figured out what to do about the seal or whatever. This is crossing several lines of privacy and he really can’t have that.

Something anxious rises up Soma’s spine, urges him to put a stop to all of this before it escalates any further. “The situation’s not that bad,” he pleads his case with a thin smile. In no time Soma hears three different phones go off one right after the other. Oh, god, Arikado’s gone and made a group chat, hasn’t he? More panic. “I’m sure we can just... figure something out without babysitting me, right? There’s no need to walk me everywhere and keep me under surveillance in my own apartment and stuff.”

“This is Dracula we’re dealing with. Castle or not, we have to be careful,” Julius says that as if that explains everything—and it does, really, but for some reason it only riles up the anxiety in Soma like wind against fire. Soma just stares. Yoko seems to agree, by the way she’s nodding and humming next to him with every word Julius says.

It’s unfair.

Arikado finally spares him a glance as he lowers his phone to his lap. He then closes his eyes, exhales slowly. “Forgive us for the extremism of our actions,” he apologizes, “but until the situation is solved, or at least within our understanding, we’d be calmer knowing we can be there for you should anything get out of control.”

Out of control, he says. Instantaneously, Soma deflates; those words feel so much like daggers that pierce his confidence, spilling out all of his fears like water. Don’t they trust him, a thought rises in his mind.

And just like that, suddenly Soma’s furious. “So you trust me so little with this that now I’m in house arrest, or what?” he challenges.

Arikado’s eyes narrow. “That is neither what I said nor what we’re doing here.”

“You’re implying it!”

“Soma, you’ve spent two months suffering through Dracula’s memories in silence,” Arikado elaborates, expression stoic and calm. Defiant. It’s unbearable to look at, again. It’s pissing him off. “The truth is that you can’t be left alone. We’re not going to forbid you from having a life, but if he’s already manifesting like that then we need to keep an eye on you. It’s for the best—”

The chocolate spills all over the floor and the mug shatters when Soma rises from his seat, bellowing, "You cannot contain me, Adrian!"

Wait.

Stop.

Silence falls over them all like a thick blanket. Soma blinks, then draws in a sharp breath and instantly clamps his hands over his mouth, eyes widening and falling to the broken mug and the brown stain on the floor. The anger is gone, as is the need to be left alone, the seeming annoyance at his friends, replaced instead with ice in his stomach and white noise in his ears as his heart rate speeds up. It’s like he’s been slammed right back to reality. His skin crawls, the darkness in his bloodstream left simmering after his outburst—no, wait.

Not his, definitely not his.

That wasn’t even his voice.

Oh, god.

What the fuck, Soma thinks. He’s heard that voice before, at the back of his mind in the castle, thundering in the sky of his dreams, rippling through the mirror in his bathroom. His throat closes in on itself, the air stuck in his lungs and burning. That horrible, deep voice—Dracula. Dracula just spoke through him. Spoke. If Soma had been afraid before now he’s absolutely fucking terrified.

The darkness in his bloodstream shudders as the dark lord laughs. Soma can’t breathe. It’s like time has stopped as the scene replays in his mind like a broken record, over and over and over and leaving him trembling. You cannot contain me, he said. He spoke directly to his friends. He spoke.

And then something catches his attention, an oddity in a sea of terror shining brightly for him to spot and take, formulating a single question in his brain.

It’s like a breakthrough that pulls him out of his fears. Soma blinks and looks up again, eyes still wide, looking between Yoko and Julius’ alarmed faces. He shakily lets out the breath he’d been holding and lowers his hands off his mouth, opening his mouth to speak. No words come out at first, but Soma keeps trying, opens and closes his mouth like a dying fish out of water until he finally finds his voice.

“Who’s… Who’s Adrian?”

His answer comes in the sound of Arikado’s phone dropping to the floor, right over the sharp breath he takes and doesn’t seem to let go of.

Chapter Text

Autumn is Soma’s second favourite season, probably. The trees turning red and yellow all around them as the temperatures drop is always a beautiful sight to behold, always calming and refreshing when Soma’s too stressed and swamped in his studies while preparing for the end of this semester in December. It's around twelve degrees Celsius outside of campus this morning; cold but tolerable, but still forcing Soma to wear his white coat buttoned.

In his campus’ gardens Soma sits with Mina while nursing some takeout coffee she’s brought, the warmth as he holds it doing wonders to his cold fingers. More red leaves hit the ground around them every time the wind blows, and underneath this tree as they are, some of them keep stubbornly trying to bury Mina underneath them; Soma is spared, sitting further from its branches as he is. He can’t help but chuckle as she picks them off her hair, her clothes, tosses them to the ground.

Both of them are waiting for their next classes to begin, taking what little time they have out of them to meet up and talk. It’s just that today’s talk is already going a little bit different from their usual chats, what with the subject of Dracula repossessing him being the first thing that comes out of Soma’s mouth after Mina gives him Soma’s fourth worried today look since Yoko dropped him off this morning.

“Remember all those nightmares I’ve been having? Yeah, it’s getting worse, actually,” is what Soma says to her first. He gestures vaguely, sinking further into his seat, pouting. “Not that the nightmares weren’t vicious already, but... after I woke up from a particularly awful one, I saw him in my bathroom mirror at three in the morning and passed out. Then, uh” — Soma whines and speaks faster — “he spoke through me, kinda.”

He takes a sip of coffee and bites back a yelp when it burns his tongue. Hiding the truth from Mina feels pointless after everything they’ve been through together and the support she’s shown in the aftermath of the eclipse. It also feels useless when things are already getting this bad, what with the dark lord slowly reclaiming his tainted vessel and putting literally everyone Soma cares about at an alarmingly high risk he can’t just ignore anymore.

Speaking to Mina is also easier and always clears his mind, he’s found. Talking about Dracula comes as naturally as if they were talking about a TV show or videogame that they both like, with no strange hesitance to hide and pretend that everything is fine and nothing’s going to hell around Soma. She’s calming, and she’s understanding, and together they’ve been dealing with Soma’s nightmares in whatever way they can think of.

Or, well, his memories. Nightmare memories.

It’s complicated.

The darkness in Soma’s veins stills, for now. Dracula isn’t exactly the chattiest guest, but ever since his outburst Soma’s been paying attention, pinpointing and dissecting which emotions and thoughts are his and which are the count’s—just this morning he’d almost insulted Yoko before he realized it wasn’t even his idea. It really does feel like they’re bleeding into each other again, the line between where Soma ends and where Dracula begins already blurring dangerously.

Maybe that’s why he waited so damn long to tell anyone, then?

Soma puffs his cheeks. Asshole.

After a short silence and a sip of her coffee Mina nods, inhales deeply, and asks, “What did he say?”

‘You cannot contain me’ ,” Soma quotes. A shiver runs down his spine. He frowns at deliberately leaving out the name Adrian, quickly attributes it to the count, and groans. Okay, fine. “He’s quiet now, thankfully, but I don’t know when he’s gonna pull me out of the stage again and do whatever he wants.”

“Have you told the others about this yet?”

Soma instantly deflates further into his seat. He nods. “I did, yeah. They showed up to my apartment yesterday, actually.” He starts pulling at the fur on his coat, eyes set on the action if only to keep himself busy and not have to look at Mina’s worry. He’s sick of the worried looks. He’s even sicker of the guilt they keep making him feel. “They’re gonna be keeping tabs on me from now on until we figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.”

Mina offers him a pat on the leg at his change of demeanour, along with a little smile and a soft laugh. “There, there. I’m sure they have your best interests in mind.”

“They really do!” Soma’s quick to defend. He whines again and reaches for his coffee. “And I appreciate it a lot. It’s just… It’s just that I kind of wish I knew how to help them help me, you know?”

His friend doesn't instantly reply. She's hit with another leaf instead, a grumble escaping her as she rips it out of her hair and tosses it at Soma when he snorts at the sight. They’re left smiling at each other afterwards, peaceful and playful, before Mina sighs and takes a sip of her own coffee. Soma follows her lead, feeling awkward just staring and being left in the silence.

She lowers her cup first and stares at it, taps her fingers against the cardboard. A second later, Mina sighs. “I think,” she says, still not lifting her gaze, “that you're already helping them by just being you.”

A pause. “Huh? What do you mean?”

“Within you lies a power that you’re slowly learning how to control and understand,” Mina explains. She looks at Soma then, pokes him right on the chest with a sweet, confident smile meant for comforting. “Maybe the others will find a way to strengthen the seal and silence him, but in the meantime, you're helping by sorting through what's you and what's Dracula and keeping it separate. You're helping by being strong and fighting his influence.”

The awkward laugh that escapes Soma is an expression of the bitterness that drips into his words straight from his heart. “Yeah, well,” he averts his eyes, sinks back into his seat and his fur collar, “this wouldn't be a problem if I weren't him in the first place.”

Somewhere within him the darkness chuckles. Soma glares at a leaf on the ground. Shut it.

But Mina huffs over the sound, flicking him on the shoulder and getting him to look at her again. Her face is serious, determined, but she still retains that softness and comforting aura about her, the familiarity of an old friend practically reading his anxieties and snapping them in half. “You're not him,” she corrects, stressing each of her words carefully, “and he's not you. You're…” she trails off momentarily, puffing her cheeks, looking away and snapping her fingers as she wills the words to come back to her. When she breaks through, she sets her brown gaze back on Soma’s silver, grinning. “Soma, you're more like the lock on a cage. You're the cage, the safety. Not the beast inside it.”

The darkness stirs slightly, murmuring something that Soma can’t quite hear or understand. He blinks, looks down at the ground, eyes stuck on a couple of leaves dancing in the wind. A lock and a cage, she says. The comparison isn’t entirely wrong; after all, what’s a vessel with its own free will to its original soul but their own personal cage?

It may be Arikado and Yoko who can strengthen the seal cast upon him, and Julius who can beat him, but it’s only Soma who can contain Dracula. Now that he’s aware that the dark lord has awakened and is slowly growing in strength, Soma can reinforce his efforts and adapt to Dracula’s tricks. One way or another Soma’s still their primary line of defense.

That’s it, that’s his role. His piece in the puzzle. Tensions melting away Soma ends up smiling slowly, spirits instantly lifted as he eagerly brings his cup to his lips and takes a sip. “I like that,” he whispers. “Thanks.”

Wind blows in a different direction than before and more leaves fall, now pushing their way into Soma’s lap regardless of his position relative to the tree. He groans, flicking them off his legs. Mina laughs at his side.

She then sighs, gently. She takes a vigorous sip of her drink and lowers the cup, her fingers playing with the now-empty empty piece of cardboard. “But,” she adds, snapping Soma’s attention back to her in an instant, “even calling him a beast is kind of pushing it, now that I think about it.”

A raised eyebrow. “Then what would you call him?”

“A vengeful spirit, maybe? Like a ghost that can’t pass on for whatever reason.” When Soma wheezes incredulously, Mina’s cheeks turn pink, her hands gesturing frantically as she explains. “I mean! Isn’t he basically a soul trapped within yours? That—That sounds ghost adjacent!”

Oh. “Uh,” Soma provides. Helpfully so. He clears his throat and goes back to picking at the fur on his coat. “I mean, I’d never thought of him as anything but Dracula, but when you put it like that it kind of makes sense…”

What foolishness, comes a dark whisper at the back of his mind. Dracula’s voice is unwelcome here, so Soma drowns him out with coffee.

“Hey, why don’t you try asking him what he wants?”

Soma’s skin crawls so bad that he nearly spits the coffee and drops the cup in his hands. “Come again?”

“Ask him!” Mina exclaims. Soma’s jaw drops. He takes a second to search her face for any mischief, finds only confidence and sincerity as she shuffles closer to her friend. “Even if he finds ways to communicate and affect the world around you, he’s still trapped, isn’t he? Maybe he would be willing to cooperate.” Mina nods. “After all, often times when ghosts are left behind in the physical world it’s because they have some sort of unfinished business that they cling to.”

An anxious, distressed laugh rises out of Soma’s chest, just at the same time that his alarm goes off. They’ve got to get to class, soon. Or at least he does. Soma rises to stand, offering a hand down to Mina to help her up as well. They walk off towards the side of the building together, side by side, Soma still nursing a rapidly cooling coffee while Mina goes throw away her empty cup before entering campus.

Not wanting to walk into class with it in hand Soma throws his head back and shotguns the rest of the drink. The darkness in him retches. He shuts it down and throws the cup away carelessly into the trash. “If he’s still in this world I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m his reincarnation,” Soma says.

“Still, it doesn’t hurt to try! You might even get some insight on why he’s stirring.”

He shudders at that. Oh, Soma already has some kind of a vague idea of why he would be reawakening: the destruction of the human race, for starters. The annihilation of the Belmont bloodline and that pesky whip of theirs ranks close in terms of priority as well, as does the idea of unleashing his castle’s chaotic realm all across the world and ruling it with an iron fist. Soma’s seen the memories where Dracula unleashes his legions of hell to ravage Wallachia. He knows there’s only a lust for ruin in the dark lord’s heart.

But, Soma thinks as he opens the doors for Mina to step through, that still doesn’t explain much anyway. Questions prick at the parts of his brain still untouched by Dracula’s influence, leave him humming as he follows Mina through the hallway. There’s that overwhelming sorrow in his heart when he first awoke, the agony contained within the memory of the burning body, the strange feeling of incompleteness left behind by each dream he has. The desolation in the mirror Dracula’s eyes. The way his blood boils and hurts when he sees Arikado as of late.

The name Adrian.

Curiosity gnaws at the back of his mind. Soma sighs, questions after questions piling over each other. He wants answers, is the thing, and he’s not sure if any of his guardians would be willing to give them to him. But Dracula, on the other hand...

Lord almighty, that should be fun.

* * *

Darkness swirling above in the clouds, making its way down below into the world and engulfing it all in a suffocating, inky miasma that closes his throat and pulls him down like an anchor would a ship. An overpowering stench of rotten meat in the air, hopelessness and rage written in it, clinging to the world and staining it all. This land is dying, it says. This world is dying. Bile rises up his throat, yet he cannot retch. He wants to turn back and run, run away until his legs give out under him, to hide. But he does not move, watching, feet frozen to the cobblestone and eyes trailing the scene before him.

Two figures do battle in the darkness, their forms hidden by the thick fog and the lack of light around them. One small and another tremendously tall, both irradiating an air of power and rage that clash just as often as their swords do, their steps flowing and gliding across the room in inhuman speeds. A broken throne stands behind them, all stone and standing over a wine red carpet, intricate designs glaring devilishly in the darkness. Above them the sky rages on, thunder cracking within its clouds and joining the cacophony of their battle and their shouts.

A booming laugh shakes the air, squeezes at his heart and lungs until oxygen eludes him completely. He recognizes the voice, but it eludes him completely, torn away within a second by a scream from the shorter fighter as a stray fire spell scorches at his leg. It slows him for a moment as he stumbles. But then he presses on, wild-eyed and growling, silver hair flowing in the wind as he rushes forward, as he thrusts his long sword into his enemy.

Their swords clash, metal groaning as they push against each other. “You unleashed your hatred upon humans, slaughtering them indiscriminately!” comes a voice from the smaller man, gravelly and loud, echoing low like a desperate earthquake. “I had no choice but to disobey you!”

Pushing at him with all his might the taller figure barks out another fit of explosive laughter, dipped in darkness and dripping with poisonous amusement. “So you chose to side against me, for the sake of humans? Traitor!” he screams, voice powerful like roaring thunder, piercing through his heart. “Humans are not worth the air they breathe!"

"It is not your place to judge the worth of humans!"

"But the powerful always judge the weak, do they not?”

An ice cold anger coats the scene, sending shivers down his spine as he watches the two of them continue to struggle hopelessly. It is then that the taller figure laughs again, the poison in his words leaking, seeping through the silver haired’s skin and pushing him out of their position with a harsh cry. The laughter echoes in the area as the smaller fighter crumbles to the ground, kneeling and heaving, then slowly recedes like a tide, building up at the back of the taller man’s throat.

“Humans made their judgement of me, as well. Once.” He keeps his glowing red eyes on the fighter as he speaks, voice guttural, flat, penetrating. “And thus,” — a wicked grin dances across his features — “I sentenced them to extinction.”

The sound of a blade embedding itself into the cobblestone rings through the arena, seemingly cutting through the fog as well. “Monster!” the fighter shouts, rises to his feet. The sword in his hands glows purple, softly, as his shadow shudders on the stone, morphing and ascending behind him. He wobbles in place for a second and then stands tall, raising his blade towards the man who scorched him, his shadow transforming into a hellish creature that quickly mimics his stance. “Face me once more, then; I stand ready! I will not flee as I did before!”

His reply comes in the shape of fire, again, searing and powerful, engulfing the taller man as a piercing scream fills the air.

“Have at you!”

There's no tears staining his cheeks or any fear rushing through his veins when Soma starts awake this time, only the haste of his heartbeat at the sight of fire, followed by the bitter knowledge that he’s just witnessed yet another one of Dracula’s memories in his dreams. Soma groans, grumbling into his pillow while his hand leaves the cover of his blankets to reach for his phone, cursing the dark lord in his soul for waking him up on a goddamn Monday.

3:55, it reads once he’s unlocked it. Soma closes his eyes, sighs, lets his hand holding the phone fall onto the mattress. At least it took longer for the dream to leak into him this time, he thinks.

Memory, a part of him corrects.

He offers it a growl. Whatever, damn it.

Soma slowly opens his eyes, blinks in the glow of his phone’s light, shuts one eye closed again in discomfort. The blue glow of his phone’s wallpaper cuts through the dark and covers his face gently, the device not yet entering sleep mode again as he holds it against the mattress, staring. In time, he opens both eyes again. Soon they adjust to the light and he blinks rapidly, turning the dream around in his mind as 3:55 turns to 3:56.

The wind blows outside, its chill filtering into the room, hitting his cheeks as he snuggles further into himself under the thick, fluffy blankets. Who was that man fighting Dracula in the throne room? Silver hair, a blade glowing purple, a shimmering shadow, a power rivaling the dark lord’s own and yet feeling completely different. Soma blinks, remembering the way he’d fought, the fierceness in his eyes, his loyalty for humanity even as he wielded such tremendous dark power. He wasn’t like anything Soma has ever faced or seen before, no vampire or demon, no regular monster.

How old is that memory? The fighter’s clothes, they weren’t modern. Not by a long shot. Neither was his way of speaking, if Soma’s literature classes are anything to go by. So who was he? Are there any more like him?

Soma’s snapped out of his reverie when the light on his phone dims. He clumsily presses his thumb on the screen at random, ends up accidentally pressing his texting app’s icon and opening the group chat Arikado had made days ago.

A pathetic little whine escapes him, then. He could ask, really. 3:56, the clock reads. Would anyone be awake at this time? Local vampire Genya Arikado might be, but Soma doesn’t really want to risk waking him if that’s not the case. That’s another stupid, curious question Soma still doesn’t have the answers to: do vampires need sleep? Arikado already walks under the sun like it’s nothing, for god’s sake, and Soma doesn’t know how many other myths and folktales are going to be proven fake by the agent.

But anyway.

The question remains: who was that man fighting Dracula in this memory? It’s still scratching at the back of his mind, itching for an answer, and as the clock changes to 3:57 Soma finally grows distressed enough to start fidgeting under the blankets. He’d really like to go back to sleep soon. By this point Soma’s just wasting time, lying here in the darkness while he contemplates sending a mass text or not.

“Hey, why don’t you try asking him what he wants?”

Soma stills.

Without caring to tap the screen again to keep the light going, Soma’s phone’s screen finally goes black. He blinks, eyes quickly readjusting to the blackness, and feels the darkness in his veins shiver uncomfortably as the gears turn in his head, alerting him to the dark lord’s presence and awareness. Just like that Soma doesn’t have to send any texts anymore; if Soma’s awake, then Dracula’s awake. It’s as simple as that.

Then, who better to ask about these cryptic memories than his own other self?

Mina’s just struck gold, is what Soma thinks to himself as he throws the blankets off and rushes to the bathroom with a grin covering his face.

He turns on the light just for practicality’s sake, then slams his palms on the sink, staring straight into his reflection on the mirror. Soma’s unsurprised when equally silver eyes stare back. He purses his lips. Then, slowly, he reaches for the switch again and turns off the lights, disappointed when his eyes remain stubbornly silver.

Soma turns on the lights again, flinching at the rapid change from light to darkness and back to light. Maybe he should be gentler with his poor eyes, but right now he only has time to focus on one thing and one thing only. He sets a hand on the cold glass, opens his mouth, and freezes. How the hell is he going to go about this, exactly? How does one summon a millennium old vampiric lord of darkness who once reigned hell over an entire country in his prime?

Oh, fuck it. Biting the bullet is easier than standing around looking stupid to his other self. “Hey, Dracula?” Soma finally calls out, gaze scanning his own face. That was pathetic, so next he clears his throat and speaks deeper, more commandeering. “Show yourself.”

He waits a second, two. The darkness in him remains quiet.

No response.

Soma makes a face. “Show yourself,” he repeats. No response. The silence swallows his words after they’ve echoed through the bathroom, swallows his groan when enough seconds have passed to piss Soma off. “C’mon, show yourself. Or what, do you want me to Google Translate that into Romanian so it’s proper enough for you?”

The darkness remains still.

Fine, then. If that’s how he wants to be.

Soma removes his hand from the mirror and turns on his heel, rushing to his bedroom and fishing his phone out of the mess of blankets he’s left on the bed. He unlocks it and opens his browser as he walks back, typing in the words, translating them as he slams his palm on the mirror once again. He plays the translation twice to get a feel for it, mumbling it under his breath each time. Then, once he’s ready, he glares into his reflection’s eyes, expression serious, and utters them back at his dark self.

“Arata-te,” Soma says.

The darkness finally responds. It coils within itself in his chest, making Soma smirk. Bingo, he thinks, watching his reflection closely for any changes.

And then he nearly falls over when a rumbling laugh at the back of his mind explodes in response to his words, startling him so hard his hand slides off the mirror and he has to bite back a shriek.

A beat passes him.

Two.

And, well, now he’s pissed off.

Growling through grit teeth, Soma once again slams his hands on the sink, the impact stinging against the skin of his free hand. He glares at the mirror, feeling his blood boil. “Listen, Drac. Soul sharing or not, you are still a guest,” he’s chastising, “and so long as I’m the host you’re gonna answer me when I call out to you.” No response from the mirror. Oh, now Soma’s definitely growling . “God, would you answer me already?! I know you can hear me, Dracula!”

Threatening the dark lord while he’s still residing in his soul is the most foolish and idiotic thing he has ever done, and even though right now a Death by Dracula is very plausible, and even if he can already hear Arikado’s voice shouting ‘When will you learn?’ into his brain, at the moment Soma doesn’t care. He wants answers, damn it. Right here, right now, Soma has no fear.

"I do hear you, boy."

Soma has one fear.

It’s a little morbidly fascinating to watch his reflection change right before his eyes, here during the last minutes of the witching hour and under the neon glow of his bathroom light. The first change comes in the eyes, as they gain the eerie red glow so characteristic of a vampire, squinting as the doppelganger’s smile grows into an amused grin that shows off two fangs that clearly weren’t there before. His reflection stands ramrod straight, looking down upon Soma despite being the same height, a look of deep amusement and thinly veiled satisfaction playing with his features.

Even his hair seems puffier than Soma’s own bed hair. It’s such a stupid thing to notice now of all times, but it’s what Soma’s panicked mind picks up on the easiest. Watching it all happen like this makes it feel even more real, confirms that that night with the first event wasn’t just a hallucination born out of sleep deprivation.

Soma shudders.

His reflection — Dracula — makes a noise at the back of his throat. Soma swallows hard and straightens his back. “Well? Have you summoned me only to waste my time?”

Dracula’s not really speaking, not per-se. Now that Soma can truly look at him without immediately passing out in terror, it’s more like Dracula’s only moving his mouth within the mirror, his words silent and spoken directly into Soma instead. Dracula’s voice feels like water ripples in his brain, whispers in his ears, like emotions in his heart; it doesn’t echo through the room, ethereally communicated through whatever link it is that he and Soma share instead.

The sound of Dracula clearing his throat startles Soma back to reality. In his staring Dracula’s become impatient, and just like that Soma becomes aware that he’s standing in his bathroom at three — four? — in the morning, having a chat with the goddamn dark lord himself.

What the hell is he doing, honestly?

Oh. Right.

Soma gathers all the bravado he can possibly find within himself, crosses his arms, and glares, tucking his phone under his armpit. “I want to know who the silver haired man in the dream was,” he demands.

“Memory,” Dracula instantly corrects him, and it’s even more annoying to have him say it like this than in any other way. The dark lord then sighs, amusement replaced by pure, unfiltered exasperation. “As for his identity,” he continues, “I find it exceedingly insulting that one such as you would call upon my presence for something you could easily do on your own.”

Soma splutters. He scoffs, “What? In what freaking universe can I figure out your memories on my own?”

The dark lord closes his eyes, turns his head slightly to the left. “You ought to stop this foolishness, boy. Your denial only annoys me.” He opens his eyes again, Soma’s own face looking at him with such an intense irritation it makes his skin crawl. “You and I are as one. You’d best quit lying to yourself and accept it, and then look deeper within for the answers that you seek. After all, you should know what I know."

“We are not the same. And you’re still keeping information from me, so talk,” Soma snaps.

“Have you ever wondered why it is that we coexist, boy?” Dracula ignores him. “Filthy human reincarnation or not, your life is merely a continuation of mine. You are a vessel that I will reclaim. You are me.”

Soma, growling, uncrosses his arms to point between them with the hand still holding the phone. “You are you, and I am me. You’re a prick, and I’m not.” A shaky inhale. “Reincarnation or not, I have a soul, and I am my own person.”

"The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?"

That gives him pause, a sharp breath making its way into Soma’s lungs and painfully lodging itself in there, frozen. Wide silver stares into smug red, and in the following silence Soma’s uncertainty carbonizes into indignation. He grits his teeth, growls. His doppelganger in the mirror smirks.

Soma drops his arms to his sides. He’s had enough of this foolishness. “Hey, Dracula,” he sneers, glaring daggers into the mirror and willing it to shatter. “Who’s Adrian?”

Watching the mockery of his reflection lose all of his composure is perhaps too satisfying a feeling, the smirk once on Dracula’s face fading and escaping to paint itself on Soma’s own lips instead. “Boy,” Dracula warns. Nothing else follows but the dark lord’s silent anger; it looks like narrowed eyes and bared teeth, his fangs clear in view, his stance aggressive as if he could pounce out the mirror any second. It feels like fire and ice, like an uncomfortable rumbling in Soma’s heart. It almost sends a shiver down Soma’s spine with how wrong it all feels.

Silence creeps up on them like crystal, coiling around them, daring them to move and shatter it. Soma doesn’t. He’s too busy scowling at Dracula, posture tense, the hand holding his phone hurting from how tightly he’s gripping it. For a few minutes neither of them yields, red and silver finally equal in stubborn boldness, until Dracula shuts his eyes and exhales loudly through his nose. Their little glaring contest is stopped, then, leaving Soma as the victor and Dracula’s long-suffering resignation as his prize.

“His name was Hector,” is what the dark lord reveals.

And Soma blinks. “Hector?”

“That is all.”

“Wait!”

The mirror shudders just as the bathroom light flickers above Soma, the world growing cold for a second. Without thinking Soma reaches forward and sets a hand on the glass, only for the dark lord to vanish within a blink of an eye from Soma’s reflection. Red makes way for silver and his fangs quickly disappear to imitate a wordless shout, Soma’s perfect double staring at him from the mirror. The darkness in his veins shudders for a second and then abruptly grows silent, Dracula’s presence erased almost as quickly as it was written.

Just like that he’s gone. Locked away within the deepest shadows of Soma’s soul, quieter than silence itself, still like a sea with no winds to stir it. It’s a clear order to stay away and not bother him.

And in his absence Soma stares at the mirror, dumbfounded and speechless. At least he got a name, he thinks as he finally frees his gaze and lowers it to the phone in his hand, unlocking it to read 4:21 in those elegant white letters. Hector, Dracula said. The silver haired man, the fighter with the dark power, his name was Hector. So Adrian is someone else entirely.

Oh, boy. Soma grumbles under his breath, groaning out loud as he removes his hand from the mirror’s surface, then closes his eyes and runs it down his face. Fine, then. This will have to do for now. More questions than answers in his mind and sleep chased away for the night, Soma huffs and turns off the bathroom lights, leaves for his kitchen to fish out something to nibble on, and types out a private message for agent Genya Arikado.

* * *

“Start from the beginning.”

Soma struggles to do even that.

He sinks into the leather backseat of Arikado’s car, the noise the action makes drowning out his low growl, arms crossed and eyes lowered and glaring at the passenger seat before him. The car engine purrs and swallows them in its noise, the mild traffic of early morning commutes stopping them in place. A minute passes and no words come out; his mouth remains stubbornly shut, and in frustration Soma pinches at his arm in an attempt to break free of this silence’s hold.

Come on, come on, come on.

It doesn’t work, not really. He tries to ignore the way he can see Arikado eyeing him from the rear-view mirror, how it keeps making his blood boil, tries to dissect apart which emotions are his and which are not.

Soma groans, shuts his eyes, still left with no words and surrounded in an uncomfortably growing silence. All he has to do is mention the name Hector. That’s it, that is all, but once again speaking is hard and Soma’s skin crawls with anxiety. In retrospect, this is all probably just Dracula trying to keep him quiet from the inside, the darkness wrapping around his throat and keeping words from leaving him in some stupid, misguided attempt at self-preservation when literally everyone who needs to know that Dracula’s back already knows it.

Ridiculous.

“Soma?”

Soma growls, squeezing his eyes tighter. “Hang on,” he manages out. His nails dig into the fabric of his sweater, stabilizing him. “He’s being an asshole.”

Pause, sigh. “Understandable."

A snort escapes him and pierces through the silence. Arikado sounds so nonchalantly exhausted and resigned at Soma’s words, as if he were somehow used to this, as if he were just about ready to follow up with a sarcastic ‘have a nice day’ , that the boy nearly bursts out laughing. His guest’s concentration is momentarily broken and lost as the laughter escapes him in a chuckle. It leaves Soma free and feeling airy as Dracula releases him in surprise, and so he scrambles to gather his thoughts, speaking quickly.

"I had another nightmare today,” he blurts out. Soma’s grin is wobbly as he shrugs, gesturing vaguely with both hands just for the sake of willing the words to flow and keeping the darkness away. “Well, not a nightmare. This one was actually really tame.”

On the rear-view mirror, Soma sees Arikado’s dark eyes land on him momentarily as traffic finally begins to move before them. "Another memory, you mean,” Arikado says, mostly to himself than Soma. It still makes Soma groan. Arikado seems to ignore that, setting his eyes back on the road and nodding. “Describe it, please."

Soma nods back, shuffles on his seat, huffs, and looks out the car window. The city moves quietly outside, Soma’s neighbourhood left behind as Arikado drives him to campus. This is a first. Normally Yoko would be the one driving him to school on her motorcycle, but in light of recent events Soma’s seen it as a better idea to ask Arikado privately for a ride instead. It’s the only way to catch him in person lately, what with how busy he’s been after the first Dracula fiasco. It’s also the only way Soma can think of to discuss the subject at hand and ask all the things that he wants without anyone else interfering.

He blinks, slowly.

Right.

Dracula stirs and protests against it, but Soma pushes through, speaks through his influence as the memory replays itself in his mind’s eye. "There was darkness and a lot of fog, and I was in the castle’s throne room, but the ceiling was completely gone and I could see the thunder above. There were two people fighting: Dracula and someone else entirely, but I could tell it wasn’t a Belmont. This guy had silver hair and a large sword that glowed purple. His shadow also transformed into a beast right behind him. And he said something about…”

He trails off. Traitor, the word rumbles in his mind, and Soma frowns.

A question pops into his mind and Soma purses his lips together for a second, brain searching for the way to ask this while Arikado glances at him again, one eyebrow raised. Soma clicks his tongue. “Arikado,” he speaks again after the short silence, slowly as if testing the waters, “do you know anything about a Hector serving under Dracula?”

That seems to catch Arikado by surprise. But it’s also the beginning of a shitshow, if the fact that both of his eyebrows are now furrowed is anything to go by. “Hector?”

Soma tries speaking over his sudden anxiousness. "In the dream—memory, whatever—he said something about disobeying and siding with humans instead.” He looks out the window again, rubs at his arms over his eternal white coat, grumbles. “I’m just—I’m just curious, I guess. There was power emanating from him, something devilish and wicked, but he… he got called a traitor. He was fighting against Dracula. Kept up with him, too.” Soma sighs. “I wanted to know why, but Dracula wouldn’t say anything about it when I asked, just kept being a—”

Even if the car hadn’t had to stop under a red light again in the first place, Soma’s still pretty sure Arikado would’ve slammed the brakes anyway. He still stops the car a little too abruptly for it to be healthy for Soma’s heart and looks back at him over his shoulder, face contorted into what Soma can only describe as a million disapproving and horrified expressions smashed together into a pair of wide eyes and a slack jaw.

"You spoke to him?" Arikado breathes.

It feels like the air in the car freezes over under that stare, the even icier shake in Arikado’s voice startling Soma into sitting up as if he were just being scolded. Oh, wow. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that. Soma laughs awkwardly, averting his eyes everywhere he can to avoid looking at Arikado, one hand still over his chest trying to will the leftovers of his heart’s ‘holy shit did we die’ reaction to calm the hell down and leave.

Slowly does it stabilize again, growing quiet. Soma huffs out a breath of relief, but it gets caught in his throat when he risks a glance at Arikado and finds him still wide eyed, still staring. The leather of the steering wheel groans under his grip. Soma’s not getting away with not answering anymore, not here in Arikado’s own car and stuck in traffic as they are.

So he does the next best thing, which is offering the truth with a sheepish little smile Soma knows has disarmed several angry professors of his before. "Y… Yeah? I kind of, uh,” he shrinks further into his seat, “summoned him into my bathroom mirror again?"

A sharp breath and more leather groaning fills his ears, leaving Soma painfully aware of the iron grip Arikado’s got on the steering wheel tightening dangerously. "Soma,” Arikado speaks in a tight voice, his wide eyes back to normal and now piercing through his protégé, “I would advise you to reconsider your approach to the situation and instead disengage. Dracula is dangerous. Do not contact him. Do not listen to him. Do not speak to him.”

The agent turns around again, grip on the wheel lessening as the traffic light turns to green again. Soma stares. In the silence Arikado exhales through his nose, eyes on the road. “Whatever he does, whatever he says, never engage him. Is that clear?” That last bit he adds in a softer voice, barely audible over the car engine, yet obviously levelled only for Soma to hear.

Again they plunge into silence as they drive. Soma pouts, arms crossing over his arms as he glares at the back of the passenger seat again. Arikado is worried and just wants him to be careful. Soma knows that, he knows, but he still feels himself grumble under his breath at the agent’s words, blood pressure rising with barely contained frustration. What’s the point in trying to keep him away from the dark lord at this point? Once again there’s a wall being erected right in front of him, answers kept behind it while Soma is left alone with the shadows. A ridiculous illusion of protection. It makes no damn sense; Soma is the cage holding Dracula back, a critical piece in the puzzle, and he’s still being kept in the fucking dark.

Before he can even stop himself Soma’s already sneering. “You’re not answering my question. Who is Hector?”

Arikado remains silent for a moment. “Unknown.”

Soma scoffs. “Keeping me in the dark is only gonna do so much. I think I have a right to know of these things, don’t you?” Soma’s glare finds Arikado’s quick glance in the mirror. He challenges him further, sarcastic grin showing teeth as he adds, “I’m already neck-deep into this mess. In fact, I am the mess.”

His guardian still isn’t speaking. Arikado’s still looking forward at the road, gripping the wheel tightly, lips pursing slowly. Soma observes him through the mirror; there’s a cold, steely layer to his eyes now, something analytical, something guarded that he knows is refusing to look back.

“Soma,” Arikado’s voice is low when he speaks, almost taking on a warning tone that stops Soma dead in his tracks. “Disengage.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” The boy can barely hear himself over the thunderous echo of his heartbeat in his ears, over the sound of his teeth gritting against each other, over his scorching anger. “No, we won’t disengage. I want answers, damn it, and you’re going to answer me because I’m sick of—”

“You’re letting him get under your skin.”

The words feel like being doused with cold water, all-consuming and slowly dripping into the cracks of his soul, at once extinguishing the fire in his heart. He blinks, he stills, and in the clarity the darkness finally makes itself known, pulsatiing and squirming as it curls tighter around his heart in a pathetic effort to remain.

Soma releases all the pent-up air in his lungs as a wheeze, shivering as he shuts his eyes closed and forces the darkness in his bloodstream to relent, to crawl back from the abyss it came from. Slowly, slowly it lets go, Dracula’s curses spoken in ancient Romanian at the back of his host’s brain. Soma doesn’t like how he’s understood them, but once it’s done he breathes out a curse, slumping into his seat, a hand pressing against his forehead to try and will down the headache that will most likely try to set in.

In the following exhaustion Soma coughs out half a dejected laugh and leaves his eyes closed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Arikado’s instant reply is carried within a whisper. He pauses. “Just don’t let your guard down again.”

“Right.”

He feels more than sees when Arikado turns a corner. The man is quiet and the is air tense. Soma sighs, dispirited. Dracula almost took over again. And he probably would have, if Arikado hadn’t been as quick to shut that down as he was. The dark lord is dangerously clever; he picks up on Soma’s recklessness, his worries, his desires, and twists them all with his dark touch to make him easy to reconquer, will malleable like clay. Guilt feels like a stab to the heart—Soma needs to be careful, learn how to resist him and stop these events from occurring. It’s the least he can do to make up for this particular fuckup.

When Soma opens his eyes he can see the familiar sights of his campus come into view, an obvious sign that the car ride is now over. Great, Soma thinks. He’s going to end this ride with more questions than he has any answers.

Arikado pulls over by the campus entrance, deathly quiet and stiff, not quite urging Soma to get out yet still unlocking the doors for him. Soma gets the hint, sighs again, lifts himself off the leather seat with a murmured apology dancing across his lips again. He’s halfway through opening the door when a new question pierces him like an arrow and he halts.

He blinks. Soma doesn’t turn to look at the agent when he calls, “Arikado?”

Neither does the agent when he replies, “Yes?”

The boy fiddles with the handle, bites his lower lip. “I’ve been wanting to ask… that morning, in my living room, Dracula mentioned something,” Soma speaks fast. “Another name.”

Arikado’s vampiric presence spikes up with crystal clear agitation behind him. Still, the effort he makes at sounding unconcerned and neutral when he replies is commendable. “It’s not important, Soma. You’d best not worry—”

“Who’s Adrian?”

Within Soma something boils, anxiously, and bellows an unknown string of anguished words in ancient Romanian. The regret is instantaneous. Soma tries to quiet the dark lord by curling into himself as if in pain, only to end up gritting his teeth when the panicked response from Arikado consumes his senses and suffocates him in the car. He doesn’t speak, but Soma can hear his laboured breathing, the now-familiar leather returning underneath the sound. Soma doesn’t turn around. Soma can’t turn around, the darkness in him consuming him again, ripping through him from the inside with its sharp claws, disgruntled, indignant, hurt. It keeps urging him forward, begging him to open the door and leave.

Finally, Arikado shatters the silence one last time, the shards digging into Soma’s shared heart. “Soma,” he says, voice tight and shivery, dripping with a barely-restrained emotion that Soma cannot identify. “I will do research into this Hector so long as you promise me to leave that name behind. Do not think of it. Do not worry about who it belongs to. Just promise to never utter that name ever again.”

Soma nods to himself and opens the door. “Yeah,” he acquiesces, heart slamming in his ribcage. “Okay.”

The world outside of Arikado’s car is somehow warmer despite the early morning temperatures sapping away at his body heat. Soma jumps out of the car and slams the door shut behind him, uncaring in his frenzy, and runs away as far as his legs will take him until the darkness stills and he can once again breathe.

Chapter Text

If Soma were to describe what it feels like to be put under a Belnades spell of this kind and magnitude, he would begin by saying that it’s a lot like the refreshing breeze blowing in the middle of a hurricane.

Here in the safety of Soma’s dining room, with the smell of their takeout food so prominent in the air and the sound of late afternoon traffic roaring outside of the building, Soma grinds his jaw and exhales slowly, eyes shut painfully tight. Breezy and kind as it may try to be, Yoko’s magic is still an uncomfortable, intruding feeling shooting into his bloodstream and wrapping around his heart, strengthening a naturally made seal through artificial means. It results in the storm inside bellowing and protesting against her spell, fighting it from within like an antibody would a disease, slipping through Soma’s own restraint and efforts. It’s a team effort, then; Yoko’s holding Soma’s hands in hers as she casts, the energy flowing from her palms and into Soma strong and unrelenting, yet obviously restrained as if she were doing everything in her power to hold back for his sake, the procedure lasting longer than it should.

Why she’s being so careful to provide comfort for Soma when the situation would be best quickly slain at the root and left behind he doesn’t know, but even if it’s unnecessary he still finds it in himself to be grateful for her sensitivity.

Because if it hurts this much while she’s holding back then it could easily have been worse, if he’s going to be honest. Way worse. The spell is over in an abrupt, shuddering flash, something akin to a television screen shutting down in the darkness. Soma’s left gasping for air as his eyes shoot back open, grip on Yoko’s hands tightening momentarily before he suddenly lets go, the breeze within subsiding and making way for peaceful, quiet nothingness.

The darkness in Soma drops into stillness.

Soma tests the waters. He calls out within him, gets no response. For once Dracula is silent.

Oh, thank god.

In his relief Soma lets his cheek meet the wood of his dining room table and closes his eyes. He sighs, the sound tangling with Yoko’s little chuckle. “There,” Yoko says, ruffling Soma’s hair from across the table. “That should work for the time being. It won’t restrain Dracula completely until we can find something stronger, but for now it should stop him from taking over like he did that one time.”

Fatigue hits him like a vine creeping slowly up a wall. Still, Soma manages a smile and a weak thumbs up, slurring out his response. “Thanks, Yoko.”

“No problem. I’m here to help, after all.” She hums. “How do you feel?”

“Like I got caught and tossed around by a hurricane,” is Soma’s miserable reply. It makes her snort, and the sound makes Soma smile, then groan in exhaustion, then yawn as he drops the thumbs up. He huffs once it’s gone, adds, “I wanna sleep for three hundred years.”

Yoko gives him a proper laugh in response. Then there’s movement, sound. Soma cracks open one eye and sees her reaching over for the takeout food on the table, opening one of the little cardboard boxes and setting it next to him. “You should eat up, then. It’ll help in recovering your strength.”

The one silver eye Soma opened flutters back closed. “But I can’t move.”

“Yes you can. The spell wasn’t that bad; I made sure of it.”

“Yoko, I’m dying,” Soma whines.

“Like hell you are, Soma!” Yoko’s chastising him, but she’s also laughing, poking at Soma’s cheek until he opens his eye again. The grin on his face grows when he sees hers, and in response she grabs his shoulder and starts shaking him. “Wakey wakey, boy! Sit up and eat your noodles so we can go and continue playing videogames until nightfall!”

Soma finally bursts out laughing, a weak succession of breaths through a grin that struggles to remain in his lethargy. He feels light, airy, with sleep pressing at the back of his eyes and begging him to succumb and come to rest. He ignores it. Instead he pushes with all his might until he’s sitting up again, reaching over for the takeout box and chopsticks Yoko’s set next to him.

He’s only vaguely aware of Yoko getting up from her seat and going over to the kitchen for something as he starts to eat, so focused on weakly and numbly chasing for his food as he is. Soma could’ve cooked, he thinks as the rich flavours hit his tongue. This tastes good for takeout, but it still doesn’t beat homemade. There’s pork and chicken in his fridge, a few vegetables and fruit, some grain and pasta elsewhere, milk, spices, eggs. Surely he could’ve made something. It still feels weird having a full pantry after so long, but Soma makes the most of it, learning recipes online to take advantage of it while it lasts.

It’s Arikado’s doing, honestly. Too many groceries left on a timer, purchased through an app after the agent checked Soma’s kitchen and expressed his horror at its emptiness. Soma can’t help it; he’s in college. Grocery shopping isn’t exactly high on the priorities list. And if he remembers correctly there’s still some instant noodles in his pantry and some leftover pizza from that one gaming night with Mina, wrapped in aluminium and waiting for him to claim it again. Sure, he’s grateful, but it’s not like he’s downright starving.

But anyway.

Yoko returns to the table with two glasses of water in her hands, setting them down and grabbing for her food as well. Soma makes a grateful noise at the back of his throat as he swallows hard, reaching over to drink it down. Yoko clicks her tongue in mock disapproval, snickering under it.

In response Soma slows down, cheeks reddening. He sets down the glass with a sheepish smile. “Sorry. I just realized I’m starving.”

The witch shrugs. She digs into her food with less ferocity than Soma, hums. “It’s fine, really. I’d be more worried if you weren’t hungry,” she explains.

“So… me feeling like a limp noodle and then wanting to eat even the cardboard box is normal?”

Yoko nearly chokes on her food at that. Soma chuckles, and Yoko refuses to reply with her mouth full, so she waits until she’s done, playfully tilting her head from side to side in the silence. “Better than craving blood, no?” is what she says.

Soma’s movements halt as soon as he hears her words, and he draws in a sharp breath that he tentatively keeps trapped in his lungs. A stillness befalls them as he blinks at her, stunned into silence, holding the takeout box limply in his right hand. Something uncomfortable buzzes at the back of Soma’s mind, and he frowns, slowly, breaking eye contact with Yoko momentarily. He locks gazes again when he notices the way the mischievous glint in Yoko’s eye dulls as her face falls, the reality of what she’s said hitting her with just as much force as it’s hit Soma.

“Jesus, I’m sorry,” Yoko bows her head, curling into herself and laughing awkwardly. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Her words douse Soma with heavy guilt and break him free of his trance. Almost immediately he’s already reaching forward and waving off the tension, pacifying her over his own agitation. “No, it’s okay! I don’t crave blood. Neither does Dracula. I think.” He blinks, frowns, repeats, “I think.”

It feels weird. He expected indignation, to feel the darkness within bubble with rage as Dracula tried to set her straight on her insolence, but instead there’s nothing. No booming roar of anger in Soma, no foreign resentment for the Belnades sitting before him, no smartass commentary from an otherwise dead man. Instead there’s a calm, relative silence in Soma’s head, tranquil like a lake unperturbed, clear and steady and reassuring.

The peace sends a shiver down his spine, for some reason.

She gives him a quizzical and concerned look at that, like she’s caught on with the anxieties brewing under the surface and is fully expecting him to continue. So Soma does, smiling just as awkwardly as she’d laughed, sitting back and breaking eye contact to pitifully dig through his food with the chopsticks. “It’s just… quiet,” he says. “I kind of expected him to get mad at you for that because he’s a sensitive prick, but he’s not saying anything. I can’t even feel him stirring in my veins right now, either. It’s like he’s completely gone. Which is great, I guess, but,” Soma’s frown deepens, “I keep expecting him to be there, for some reason. Like I never realized how crowded it was until now.”

Yoko’s quiet as he explains himself, uncharacteristically so. With her chopsticks she digs through her food, not quite eating, not quite playing with the noodles in the box. She hums in the following silence, brow furrowed as well, and Soma wonders if she’s choosing her words carefully in her head. He feels a pang of guilt ripping at his stomach at that, but it’s quickly eroded away when she lifts her gaze back up and smiles.

“He’s not truly gone, unfortunately,” is what Yoko cheerfully decides to open with. “The spell acts as some kind of restraint, binding Dracula to the pits of your soul and forbidding him from acting out until the next full moon.” She starts gesturing with the hand holding the chopsticks, and absently Soma makes the mental correlation between Yoko and the chopsticks and a witch and her magic wand. It’s not too far off, maybe, but it’s still stupid enough for him to bite the inside of his cheek and regain his focus.

Unaware of the cartoonishly insulting comparisons in her protégé’s head, Yoko continues. “That’s when we’ll need to strengthen the seal to avoid it breaking. As for Dracula... right now he’s dazed, put to sleep momentarily from exertion. That’s why you feel quiet. It won’t stop him from talking your ear off once he’s back awake, though,” she gives him an apologetic smile, “but it should keep him from taking over you or getting under your skin like he’s been doing.”

Soma almost whistles. He offers her a hum instead. “That sounds complicated.”

Yoko’s smile doesn’t leave even when she goes back to eating. “It really isn’t,” she speaks into the cardboard of her box as she pushes the rest of her food into her mouth, speaking with it full when she sets it back down. “You just have to be up to date with the spell to avoid complications, like taking medication or paying your bills.”

“Ah. I see.”

They go back to eating in silence. Or at least Soma pretends to do so, seeing how he’s not really hungry anymore, or tired, or even focusing on the world around him. More than anything he’s stuck thinking, the noise of his own hyperactive, aimless thoughts echoing and bouncing off now-empty spaces once occupied by the dark lord. He thinks about everything and nothing, about school, about life, about his friends, about Dracula.

About the two names uttered by the dark lord, accompanied by questions still without answers.

He blinks. A curiosity completely untainted by any darkness’ ulterior motives grabs him with a vicious grip, the gears turning in his head as he connects the dots under its influence. Arikado and his aversion of Dracula that borders with downright hostility, the name Adrian, Dracula’s blood boiling whenever Arikado’s present or even mentioned. Soma isn’t dense enough to miss the connection between it all, but the details are what escape him—the whys and hows, a missing link to explain everything else.

Soma can’t ask Arikado directly. Not yet, at least—not with the car incident still hanging heavy over their heads like an awkward social guillotine. They haven’t even spoken since, with their only interactions being within the group chat as general reports and questions. Their private messages remain untouched since that morning. It feels bad, if he’s going to be honest. Perhaps Soma should text him later, try to smooth things out between them again, if only for the sake of getting his friend back. Lord knows Arikado’s probably too shaken and sullen to do it.

Maybe he can’t get the answers he wants from Arikado, but he would at least like to end this horrible silent treatment they’ve so stupidly stumbled into. Because even if he were to ask, Arikado would just dodge his questions and tell him not to get involved with something Soma’s already so intricately entwined with. So, in light of recent events and given his options at hand at the moment, that leaves only one other person he can pester for answers.

“Hey, Yoko?”

The Belnades witch before him is quick in her response. Yoko’s seated in place, food finished, elbows on the table and fingers clasped under her chin. Her gaze was lowered and unfocused as if deep in thought, the smile on her lips just as cheerful as the hum that escapes them. “Yeah?”

Soma does what he’s been doing best this past month and just bites the bullet: “How did you meet Arikado?”

Yoko’s gasp gets tangled with her spluttering in the most undignified way possible. “Wha—Why do you wanna know that?”

“It’s important,” is all that Soma can pathetically come up with to justify himself. At least he catches the cringe before it escapes him, disguises it as a shrug. “I mean, we’re kind of a group consisting of a Belnades, a Belmont, and not just one, but two weird vampires,” Soma says, raising a finger on his left hand as he counts them all in. “We already know my meeting you all was a bunch of happy little coincidences in the castle, but I really wanna know how you three got together in the first place.”

“Er, well,” Yoko desperately tries to get back on track, caught off-guard as she was. Then she clears her throat, setting aside her box of takeout and making a grab for her glass of water, sliding a finger over the rim. She seems to consider her words for a moment, humming low before continuing. “He’s been around for as long as I can remember, honestly. Always there, always helping.” Yoko taps a finger on the glass. “My mom knew him, too. She fought together with him and Julius back in 1999. And I guess that’s what brought Julius and I together now, but the Belnades and the Belmont families already have history together anyway.”

Soma blinks as the words process themselves in his brain. “Arikado was in the battle of 1999?”

“Yep,” Yoko says, popping the p between red lips, her smile turning a little sadder. “He knew Julius beforehand, too. And yes, I know, that makes him very old, but you know how it is with vampires.”

“I had no idea he was that old,” Soma mumbles. Across from him Yoko chuckles, takes a sip of her water and then rises from her seat, taking her empty box and Soma’s still half-full one to the kitchen to throw one out and store the other in the fridge.

Soma only has a few seconds to feel embarrassed he’s not helping before she’s already done. Instead he gets off his seat and walks over to the living room, fiddling with his game console, preparing for the promised gaming session she offered before arriving.

The sound of Yoko sinking into his living room couch behind him enters his ears just as he turns on the TV and the console. “Like I said, you know how it is with vampires,” she says when he grabs the controller and turns around to join her on the couch, already sitting cross-legged and holding onto one of the living room pillows. She smiles. “The point is that he was pretty directly involved and was responsible for pushing Julius towards victory. We owe a lot to him, Arikado,” she announces with a nod. “And I am grateful for him.”

She’s still smiling as she speaks, genuinely and fully as if talking about an old friend. And perhaps she is, Soma realizes as he sits on the couch, the cushion sinking further under Soma’s weight as he settles into it. Yoko’s twenty four years old, only six years Soma’s senior. She must’ve been born in 2011, but she already knows Arikado so well, speaks of him as if he were just another part of her family. Was he there to witness her birth, close as he seems to be to Julius and Yoko’s mom? Was he a simple battle ally, a childhood friend of Yoko’s, or a caretaker of some sort?

He grumbles a little under his breath as the console finally reads the CD inside it and loads up their videogame, the camouflage-patterned screen booting up and showing a pair of people engaging in close quarters combat. Vampire lifespans are confusing, Soma thinks. 1999 was thirty six years ago, but who says Arikado’s not even older than that?

In the quiet left behind by Dracula’s absence, another question pokes at Soma’s brain. He presses the start button and loads his and Yoko’s old save, clears his throat. “Was it Dracula who turned him into a vampire?” he asks in the silence.

Next to him Yoko pauses. In Soma’s peripheral vision he can see the way she tenses, the way her eyes are trained forward on the screen. Her smile is gone, momentarily. It takes her a second to gather herself back up, but when she finally does she smiles again, tightly, glancing at Soma as if she knew he was watching. “I think that’s Arikado’s story to tell, not mine,” she says, curling further into the couch and holding the pillow closer. “But let’s just say that he’s got some personal beef with Dracula and leave it at that.“

Eventually all of these secrets are going to drive Soma mad. He acquiesces for now, though, storing away this information for later use. He should be enjoying his alone time in his head, anyway; it’s not often things are just quiet and that he gets to spend time playing videogames with Yoko.

“Yeah, sure. Okay.”

The conversation is dropped, then, in favour of the both of them spending the rest of the afternoon playing a thirty one year old stealth videogame that at some point suddenly forces them to climb a ladder for two minutes while a lone woman sings in the background.

* * *

The clock on Soma’s phone reads 10:15. It’s early by his own standards, but sleep deprivation hits him harder now that he’s alone in his own mind, and given how he has no class tomorrow Soma figures he might as well sleep in and enjoy himself. Yoko’s already gone by now, the living room left a mess of snacks and other leftovers in the darkness, a disarray that Soma forbid Yoko from even thinking about cleaning as she left. It’s his apartment, after all—his mess to fix. He can handle it later.

In the silence of the night, brushing his teeth under the neon glow of his bathroom light, Soma stares at his reflection as if expecting it to change after any of his blinks. Maybe it’s only been a few hours, but the stillness and absence are already starting to feel odd, leaving Soma twitchy and anxious and with too much space in his thoughts to do anything with it. He just wants answers, is what Soma thinks as an excuse to his impatient waiting for Dracula’s return, and Dracula needs to be awake to ask him anything, or to see any new dreams. And besides, it’s totally normal that two months of dealing with the lord of darkness would make anyone used to said presence, evilly vampiric or not.

Yoko said the spell would only restrain him. Dazed as he must be, something of this scale can’t quite possibly knock Dracula out of commission for so long. When the hell is he going to wake up?

His answer comes when a sudden shudder shakes Soma down, the darkness at the depths of his mind suddenly shifting and squirming within. It’s like the blank spaces get slowly filled in just as Dracula’s groggy Romanian words echo through Soma’s brain, the genuine exhaustion and confusion contained in them painting a smirk on his toothpaste-covered lips.

“Morning, Drac,” Soma says through the toothbrush in his mouth. The grin grows. “Or should I say evening?”

There is a pause followed by an indignant stirring in his veins after he says that. Then Soma’s aware of Dracula’s growling rattling his own heart, but the anger and annoyance fail to seep in as usual, instead rolling off him like boiling water without even scorching him. Nothing stays, all of it flowing, Dracula coiling around Soma but not puppeteering. The relief could nearly floor him; it’s Yoko’s protective spell put in place and working, effectively separating them from each other for the time being.

He should remember to thank her for that again later.

Soma blinks once, and within that fraction of a second his reflection’s eyes have already changed to that sickening, glowing red colour once more. Dracula works through the motions, slowly possessing Soma’s doppelganger, taking just a little longer than usual and leaving Soma to assume he’s just still groggy from his involuntary nap. It’d be hilarious if he weren’t so obviously filled with absolute rage. He takes his time and Soma gives him said time, finishing his brushing with a quick rinse and dry.

When he looks back up to meet Dracula’s eyes the barely contained outrage in his other self’s red gaze pierces through him instantaneously, uncomfortable even after having already seen it before, even under these specific circumstances. Soma hides it all behind a shit-eating grin fueled by petty insolence alone, the knowledge that he’s shielded by a Belnades spell urging him on through the fear.

And so he chuckles. “Don’t you have any better place to manifest in other than my bathroom mirror?”

It’s like throwing fuel into a fire, its fury reflected only in the nearly murderous glint of Dracula’s red gaze. “What did you do?!” his voice rumbles into Soma’s bones, unwanted and foreign now that they’re distinctly separate. “What did that damned witch do to me?!”

“Calm down, Drac,” Soma sighs. He plays with the neck of his black pyjama shirt. It’s still creepy that his reflection doesn’t follow. “You’ve just been put in timeout for being an asshole.”

Dracula’s prompt bellow of rage almost makes him wince. “I am the dragon, Dracul! You will not contain me!” He makes eye contact with Soma and holds it, the completely unhinged look he gives Soma through the glass feeling disturbing to see on his own face. “Heed my words, boy: no matter what you do or how much magic you use, I will always remain buried within you, waiting. Heard but never seen until the moment that you slip” — he grins, all teeth, his fangs gleaming in the light — “until the moment that you drown in the darkness and assist me in bringing forth the eternal night.”

Soma draws in a sharp breath, jaw locked. For a moment he can’t move. He just glares at the apparition in his mirror, aggravated and terrified in equal measure, arms crossed over his chest to hide and prevent any shaking. “I am never going to give into you,” he grits out, flinching at his impertinence taking hold of him first. “And for the sake of both of our mental well-beings I think you better start accepting that fact.”

“Fool,” the dark lord laughs, cold and acidic and noxious. At least he’s not angry anymore, is what Soma thinks as Dracula smiles, disdain and amusement written all over his features. Dracula hums, a low and echoing sound. “You think your attempts at distancing yourself from me, from the truth, will let you be loved by the light? No, boy; you will always be an enemy to the light. No matter how you choose to live in the present, I shall forever remain a bloodstain on your past, the evil in your heart!”

The boy groans out loud, shifts his weight from one leg to another as he glares down goddamn Dracula in the mirror for the second time this month. But something bothers him, pushes him forward. “You keep going on and on about you being all things evil and bad in the world, or something, but it doesn’t stick. What exactly are you supposed to be, anyway? Or, well,” he gestures with one hand towards the mirror, “in reference to the world, what are you?”

Words uttered by other people echo in his mind, phrased like facts yet uttered like old folk tale warnings. Dracula is the source of all evil. Dracula is darkness incarnate, the Lord of Evil, an evil count turned vampire who wants only humanity’s destruction and extinction. Dracula is on par with Death itself. It’s the same story of evil and good every time, always vague and never clear enough. Always missing something. Soma pouts angrily, whining under his breath. Can anyone blame him for wanting some freaking direct answers? The man in the mirror is a part of him and yet Soma doesn’t know the full extent of his power, reach, or even history, for god’s sake.

In reality Soma would rather not deal with this at all. Right now he wants so badly to reach over for the light and shut it off, to turn on his heel and go to sleep, but pissing off Dracula further than he already is is so likely to lead somewhere he won’t be able to get out from that even he knows it’s a bad idea. So he just lets him talk, fear leaving him and making way for the dry acceptance that this is his life now, whether he likes it or not, watching as Dracula’s grin widens and his fangs are exposed further.

“I am the King of Darkness, the Lord of Shadows! I am humanity’s greatest punishment, the eternal night, God’s thorn on his side!” Dracula raises his arms to the ceiling as he speaks, looking so damn pleased with himself within the mirror. He lowers his arms and then turns back to Soma, grinning, “ And your life, ephemeral as it is, will do nothing to contain me!”

This guy sure likes hearing himself talk. An exhaustion heavier than Soma’s guilt settles on his shoulders, slumping them and dragging him down. He’s so tired, suddenly. Tired of it all. “Listen, Drac—I am your reincarnation,” he admits. In the mirror, Soma sees the moment that Dracula’s eyebrow rises and his grin falls. He just sighs in response. “I can’t deny that, and I won’t. I don’t. But as easily as I know that, I also know that you and I are more like two sides of the same coin rather than the same exact coin.” He pauses, blinks, sighs again. “I feel like that got away from me real fast, but... I think you know what I mean.”

Dracula doesn't answer him, holding his gaze within an icy silence and an expression that slowly changes from patronizing into peeved and then solidifies into a mask of muted neutrality. Silence, again—something that’s been following Soma too closely and too often, already annoying him in its presence.

But Soma’s too tired to get mad for long, the drowsiness from earlier returning tenfold and calling for him to sleep instead.

There’s no warning or any words from Dracula when he decides to disappear from the mirror, just a scoff and a slight narrowing of his eyes, and then in another blink he’s gone. From within the mirror Soma’s drained expression and silver eyes stare at him back once more. They flutter closed. He sighs heavily, forehead meeting his palm, and then reaches over, turns off the lights, and exits the bathroom.

Dracula still doesn’t say anything even as Soma enters his bedroom and goes over the rest of his pre-sleep routine, even remaining silent as he texts the group chat to let them know Dracula’s back on the stage. At the back of his mind, coiled around himself and simmering in his own rage, brooding, but very much awake. It’s a little distracting; the dark lord may be quiet for now, but after so many hours without him his presence is now very much so like an elephant in the room. It’s almost like he’s sulking after a tantrum gone wrong.

The comparison makes Soma laugh as he throws himself on his bed, another long, weary sigh exiting through his nose as he checks his phone one last time before bed. 10:30 still isn’t a bad time to go to bed, actually. Soma texts his final goodnights and places his phone on the nightstand, sinking deeper into his pillow.

But there’s still that weight in his chest from before, loud and discomforting and distracting. So he waits, then. Seconds turning into minutes, lying awake, alert to every movement from the darkness in his bloodstream. After deeming that enough time has passed Soma calls out into his mind, a thought knocking on the magical barrier Yoko put between them,  ‘Dracula?’

Dracula stirs, the darkness shifting, itching where he is. Yet he remains silent. Soma frowns, blinks. ‘Dracula,’ he calls out again, more knocking. ‘Aren’t you tired?’

This time the dark lord scoffs and answers him right away: “Sleep is a frivolous activity.”

‘That’s not what I meant,’ Soma’s own voice echoes through his mind, aimless and annoyed, omniscient in his realm. He curls deeper into his blankets. ‘Aren’t you tired of playing this role? I mean, I’m not like you. You call us both an enemy of the light, but I still live in it anyway.’ Soma closes his eyes. ‘I’m nothing like you.’

“You are merely a temporary anomaly,” Dracula’s voice is a barely restrained whisper, a sharp breeze against his cheek. He pauses, leaving behind white noise for a few seconds, a tingling on Soma’s fingertips that causes them to twitch. “Our existence is one of dark hatred for humanity and its gods. Such is our nature, and sooner or later you too will return to your roots.”

Soma’s little laugh is coated in unrestrained, bitter sorrow. He sinks into the pillow, jaw clenched and eyes shut tight, hands curled into fists. ‘So is… Is that really my fate?’ he asks, quivering like a child. ‘What, is that really all we are? All we can be?’

Is that all we ever were?

If Dracula replies to him at all Soma doesn’t know. Because he shuts him out entirely after that, helped by the spell’s protectiveness, not quite wanting to hear whatever answer a dark lord could come up with as he turns on his side like a petulant child throwing a tantrum right back at him. Soma lets his thoughts darken and still instead, willing sleep to come to him and take him away from reality for at least the next eight hours or less.

He gets his wish soon enough, when the silence blankets him in the soft, numb daze of sleep, dragging him down into the darkness.

* * *

The chandelier's lights flicker with the wind that slips in through the open door and windows of the room, a nearly supernatural current following them in every step, playfully fluttering the tails of their clothes and tangling itself along with their breezy laughter. Windows as tall as the walls themselves that come to a halt before the ceiling, every row of them filtering in the full moon's light, their transparent curtains dancing along to a waltz performed by an undead orchestra. It echoes off the walls in a perfectly harmonious chorus, impish and mischievous and yet saccharine, an eternal phantom melody bound to play for its undying master.

He stands in a ballroom fit for a king, watching the scene before him as if spellbound by it, eyes set on the two figures swaying and twirling to the ethereal music the castle provides on a selfish whim. In his heart he feels the sharp press of longing, the breathless sensation of recognition and tenderness like a lost flame calling for its oxygen—my beloved, my dearest, the only light in the world. It’s his and it’s not, and it feels foreign and strange, such deeply personal and intimate thoughts and feelings blooming in his chest like unwanted flowers in a garden, brought forth in this moment in time encapsulated in the golden walls of this dancehall.

Golden paint, golden lights, golden hair sweeping in their dance, their two shadows merging as one and together stepping into the puddles of pale moonlight on the marble floor—she makes his world feel like solid gold, Midas touch hidden in that smile that reaches and seizes at his heart. They couldn’t be more total opposites, dancing in a dead ballroom to a dissonant symphony of the night, a woman of life and a man of death. But in a way, in here they meet right in the middle, a pair of outcasts finding solace in their shared oddity, dancing with complete abandon and uncaring of the world outside, hidden in this place where they both can stand as equals in respite.

She has hair the colour of sunlight and eyes reminiscent of the skies, a pure image of heaven clasping the hands of a dead man and smiling with such sincere adoration that it could make his heart melt. It’s as close as he gets to paradise in his eternal exile, a taste of perfection in this otherwise cruel, merciless, pointlessly unending life. He wants more of it, addicted to her grace as he is, and so he twirls her playfully in his arms, unadulterated euphoria rising out in a gentle laugh of his own when she giggles in her joy.

Lost in each other as they are their dance continues through the night, the black of her dress coalescing with his dark robes every time they twirl and slide. Their waltz stands proud as a demonstration of their shared devotion. He stands still as they circle him in their dance, as her hair comes undone, as the world begins to fog around them into seamless white, thick mist slipping in through the windows and taking the golden hues of the ballroom away. Yet they dance still, two spectres of a time long past blissfully unaware of their surroundings; a demon and an angel simply enjoying their extraordinary union.

It is only when the song finally comes to an end that they stop abruptly, hands still clasped together, laughing even as the mist surrounds them. He presses her forehead to hers, then, a delicate action that draws a soft sigh from her lips, and whispers for her, “I think I might love you.”

She answers him with closed eyes, with a smile, with another whisper. “I know that I love you.”

When their lips meet in a tender, chaste kiss, with the last of the fog encircling them and obscuring his view, he swears he sees her form change, the black and blue hues of her simple dress replaced with an ancient and intricate dress of white and more gold.

* * *

His pillow is soaked in tears again.

It’s already morning when Soma wakes up this time, brought back to the waking world with a choked sob escaping through trembling lips. He’s only vaguely aware that he’s slept through the whole night, somehow, yet he doesn’t feel rested. It’s a first, at least. The sight of sunlight already feels odd after so many restless nights of waking up at three in the morning. For now he lets himself just lie on his side for a few more minutes, gaze lost on the pale wall in front of him, the warmth of the blankets keeping away the morning cold.

That’s the first time Soma sees a memory of this kind, something so affectionate, so warm, so damn vulnerable and unlike the dark lord in his veins. There’s a leftover, oppressive feeling of desolation and heartache at the back of Soma’s heart, pushing to get in and yet kept at bay by Yoko’s spell. Soma tiredly knocks on their barrier, calls out to Dracula through it. There’s no response. Dracula remains silent even when Soma calls out for him again, but the darkness still moves and shifts quietly, aware of his presence. He just doesn’t want to be disturbed.

Soma can guess why.

His phone goes off on his nightstand. Soma groans, sniffles. A hand leaves his cocoon of blankets to wipe at his eyes. Images of Dracula dancing with a woman in a golden ballroom flood his mind when his eyelids close, uncomfortably familiar and aching with ardent yearning. Soma shivers. Dracula seemed so happy. So purely, undeniably happy. When was this? Who was that woman? Why did her dress change so abruptly as the dream came to an end? Curiosity tugs at his mind, dipping him into a sea of growing questions he could ask the dark lord, confusion and interest urging him to force him out of hiding if he must.

But he finds that he can’t. Not now, anyway, not with this suddenly gaping emotional wound bleeding out like this in his shared heart.

So Soma lets it be for now, gives the dark lord some privacy as he shoves the images at the back of his mind and grabs his phone to check what he’s received. His hands still shake. The boy blinks his eyes into focus at the notification, and it’s only once he’s read and processed what it is that he’s doused with anxious excitement instead: an email from agent Genya Arikado.

Information regarding Hector Laforeze, the subject reads.

Soma practically jumps out of bed.

He rushes through his morning routine and makes himself some coffee for the long read ahead, only sitting down on the dining room table when he’s got a full mug of the bitter liquid mixed with as much sugar as he could fit in. He shouldn’t be surprised that he opens it to a wall of text—it’s probably for this very reason that Arikado opted for an email rather than a text message. Skimming through it reveals it’s professionally worded, well-edited, and so very much like him that Soma can’t help the grin that spreads over his face.

Dream safely tucked away for the time being, Soma takes a sip of coffee and begins to read.

Good morning, Soma.

I hope this email finds you well. I would like to apologize for my sudden absence and silence these past few days, but my explanation for it is that I have taken my promise to heart and as such have been researching on this man you mentioned from Dracula’s memory—Hector—with help from my fellow agents and other close sources.

As such I have now gathered a number of details I believe you will find satisfying and interesting, and since I know Yoko has by now performed her sealing ritual, I believe it is safe enough to pass them onto you for you to do with them as you will. Regardless, I still ask for you to be cautious in your approach to it.

Summarized, the information gathered is as follows:

  • Hector Laforeze, date of birth unknown, appears in historical records as a Devil Forgemaster serving under Dracula during the 1476 Wallachian war against the dark lord. His role as a Devil Forgemaster allowed him to harness the power of the dark arts and, as the namesake suggests, bear the ability to create and forge demonic and wicked creatures that would serve under his orders. It is said that a Devil Forgemaster’s power rivaled that of Death, and Hector was considered incredibly powerful in his field. The practice has been lost to time, however, and there are no more known Devil Forgemasters in this day and age.
  • Despite official records stating that he died in the war, Trevor Belmont's own notes say that he survived, against all odds, and that in time Hector assisted him in combat three years later. He’d betrayed Dracula and suffered greatly for it, Trevor said. Trevor did also speak highly of him in his diaries and letters, and by trusting his judgement I have every reason to believe that Hector was indeed an ally of humanity.
  • He was last seen with a woman named Julia Laforeze, whom he married in 1481, and lived with her for the rest of their lives while keeping direct contact with Trevor and the Belmont family. Trevor mentions him often in his personal records. They seem to have remained good friends, even after the war.

And I believe that would be all we could find. I hope this information quenches your curiosity and gives you the insight into said memory that you wanted. Thank you for your patience on the subject.

Yours sincerely,
Arikado Genya.

Soma lowers his phone and takes a sip of his coffee.

Hector, Devil Forgemaster, friend of the Belmont family. Got to live a life happily ever after the war, married and with friends. Not exactly what he’d expected, but the Devil Forgemaster part still piques Soma’s interest just as the darkness in him writhes around in irritation, peeved at the mere mention of marriage. Soma grumbles into the mug as he wills Dracula down from his fit, only feeling slightly apologetic in his action.

With a succession of quick taps on the screen Soma closes the email app on his phone and opens his texting app instead, already wording his gratitudes for Arikado. It’s only polite, he thinks, and he feels like he owes him anyway. This information is very much worded like a peace offering, an open door for interaction. The least he can do is return it.

But there’s something in the email that keeps bothering Soma, yet another goddamn thing he’s noticed that he bites back and refuses to mention even when the agent replies nearly instantly. He lets the conversation flow instead, reports in about his condition, about Dracula’s insistence in becoming as one and his sulking. He fails to mention the memory this time, just as he fails to mention his conversation with the dark lord, as he keeps his observation a secret.

This is the first time Arikado consistently speaks of one of Julius’ ancestors as casually as one would an old friend.

Chapter Text

Bursting out through the gates of the main building of his college campus and into the frigid December air, Soma skids to a stop and drops down to his knees as if in agony, ignoring the multiple weirded out looks of his fellow classmates around the main area when he shouts. He extends his arms towards the sky as if in prayer, gloved hands pleading, eyes searching the grey clouds above.

“Oh, god” he cries out into the silence of the gardens, “at last, I am freed from my torment! My life begins anew!”

Uncontrollable laughter erupts behind him as the gates open again, Mina’s footsteps fast approaching him. She pokes at his forehead when she reaches him. “Get up, silly! People are staring!” Mina’s saying through her giggling, shoving him a little when all it does is get Soma smirking. “You are being such a drama queen right now,” she adds.

Soma’s smirk finally breaks into loud cackling. He dusts himself off as he gets up from the ground, grinning down at his friend and exhaling loudly. “The semester is over, Mina. And I survived!” Soma throws one hand in the air again, the other clutching at the front of his sweater. “You hear that, god? I lived! It’s a Christmas miracle!”

Mina’s laughing again, swatting at his arm to get him to lower it, saying something about shushing before he ends up causing a scene. Soma does quiet down, but still keeps himself in high spirits as they walk down the campus’ main steps, already planning on getting as far away from school as they possibly can right now. They ought to celebrate, is what Soma says. He suggests karaoke, she suggests bowling, they both entertain the idea of going on a vacation.

In the end their exhaustion and lack of money has them settle down on lazy videogames and a movie night full of awful Christmas movies they can wholeheartedly laugh at instead. Something low energy, fun, easily repeated, and cheap. Sounds perfect to their tired college student hearts, if he’s going to be honest.

Genuine happiness swirls in Soma’s heart, bringing with it a spring to his step as they walk. Soma’s proud of himself, honestly; even while living alone in Japan, even with a millennium old dark lord embedded in his soul giving him multiple nightmare-memories that haunt him through the nights and deprive him of several hours of much-needed sleep, even when said dark lord throws hissy fits at the back of his soul when things don’t go his way and when Yoko strengthens her seal every full moon, Soma’s still pulled through and aced his first two college semesters with flying colours. It almost makes his life feel normal, for once, like he’s just an ordinary college student trying to survive and actually succeeding in one of his short-term goals.

Out here in the front lawns of his college campus, walking side by side with Mina, Soma feels at least a little invincible; he’s conquered school already, Dracula be damned. Watch out, world, Soma Cruz is coming through.

Nothing could ever ruin this moment, is the one thing Soma just has to think right before his ears pick up on a very familiar gruff voice bellowing a colourful English curse tangled with a sardonic laugh, jinxing everything like some sort of self-fulfilling idiot. It stops him dead in his tracks when he hears it, half a suggestion for pizza or whatever dying in his throat, a horrified expression bubbling up on his face as the next few sounds of loud Japanese discourse happening somewhere to their right spell out his doom.

Mina’s quick to confirm Soma’s fear, pointing over to the racket, “Isn’t that Mr. Belmont?”

And oh, god, Soma doesn’t want to look. But he must, he knows he must, and so almost as if pained by it Soma slowly turns his attention to the commotion, and as soon as his eyes find the source of that damn voice he instantly feels his smile and all his optimism leave him behind for greener pastures.

Oh, no.

What it is that Julius goddamn Belmont is doing here in Soma’s campus on the last day of school is a question Soma can probably throw three guesses at and eventually get right, but why it is that he’s seemingly so immersed in what appears to be an incredibly heated argument with one of Soma’s professors is what he can’t even begin to wrap his mind around. The Belmont stands towering tall before a petite woman with short black hair, her arms crossed over her chest as she stares him down, expression unfazed and neutral and maybe even a little bit bored. Julius has one hand on his hip and the other gesturing in the air, his face baffled, grin incredulous and slightly challenging.

It’s Ms. Kozuki, Soma’s quick to realize after about a minute of staring, and right away his heart drops through his stomach and pierces a hole in the asphalt at his feet as somewhere at the back of his mind Soma hears an echoing, rumbling groan. Julius is currently verbally brawling it out with Ms. Kozuki, Soma’s strictest history teacher. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

Ohhhh no.

"How the hell did you even know who I am?" is the first thing that Julius says loud enough for Soma to perfectly understand out of their discussion, spoken like a thinly disguised threat and yet worded like a question. Julius is half glaring now, eyebrow twitching, gesturing hand lowered to rest at his side.

If he’s trying to scare Ms. Kozuki out of this conversation then it’s not very effective. The history professor tucks a stray strand of her hair behind her left ear, sighing. "I am a paranormal investigator in my free time, much so like yourself. I am, therefore, aware of the history your family holds,” she explains. “Through research, of course.”

Julius’ eyebrows shoot up so high up his forehead Soma almost expects them to rocket out into space. He practically wheezes. “Do you have any idea how creepy that sounds?”

“Not at all, Mr. Belmont,” Ms. Kozuki’s voice cuts in again, slightly raised as if to make her point heard over his outburst. She speaks so calmly and unemotionally even then, the exact type of voice Soma knows Julius can’t stand when he wants answers, “I simply happened to look into the... peculiarities of the 1999 solar eclipse, so to speak, and found your name among them."

Julius straightens up. He then opens his mouth as if to say something fueled purely by his anger, but then just kind of grins instead, crosses his arms and raises one hand. "Oh,” Julius snaps his fingers, “so you're a nutcase."

That finally prompts an indignant huff out of Ms. Kozuki. “Excuse me?”

“There’s public records on Julius?” Soma blurts out, eyes still glued to the scene.

Next to him, Mina starts urgently tugging at his sleeve. “Should we stop them?” Mina asks in a whisper. Soma’s not looking at her, but in his peripheral vision he sees her stuck in the same position of observing the trainwreck happening in front of them. “Soma,” she tugs again when Ms. Kozuki uncrosses her arms and rests her hands on her hips, “should we interfere?”

Maybe, yes, but now Soma’s too busy gritting his teeth now, trying to will down the dark lord in his veins as he suddenly starts throwing yet another hissy fit at the mere mention of 1999 to loudly to tell her that. And so the madness unfortunately continues before him. What happened here, exactly? Just a few minutes ago Soma was making plans to celebrate the last day of school, and now here he is, holding Dracula back and watching hopelessly as one of his guardians argues pointlessly with his history professor on school grounds.

How the hell did it come to this?

Julius and Ms. Kozuki’s conversation seems to have taken a more intense turn. In addition to that, now they’re slowly but surely gathering a crowd of young students snickering into their hands at the scene they’re causing; if Mina was worried Soma’s dramatic exit would attract unwanted attention, she must be absolutely dismayed that Julius is doing this to himself now, even if not on purpose.

The history professor doesn’t seem to care. She just cranes her neck, glaring at the Belmont. “It’s written in the history books, after all,” she articulates, “that Belmonts dealt in black magic. That they dealt very intimately with monsters.”

“The Belmonts fought monsters, ma’am,” Julius snaps.

And when Soma draws in a sharp breath at his eerily familiar words—

He’s standing in a throne room surrounded by swirling darkness outside, the cobblestone walls cold, reflecting back the shadows of the dancing candlelight of the sconces attached to them. Proud and challenging he looks down his nose at the hunter standing before him, at once picking up the peculiar scent of the blood rushing through his veins—bittersweet, thick and strong, so achingly unpleasant and so very telling of the Belmont lineage.

But this boy, this child, with his icy blue eyes glaring and full of trembling, raw anger, he pales in comparison to every Belmont before him. He holds himself like a cheap replacement for so many lost generations before him, unworthy of the weapon forged by a holy knight that he carries, claiming to fight monsters on behalf of humanity’s survival. A lie, a blatant lie, spoken with such confidence that it almost annoys him over the hilarity of its words. So he can’t help it when he winds up laughing, a sound piercing and noxious, chest racked with aggravated amusement as the boy grows even more infuriated at his own insolence.

He speaks quick, interjecting before the Belmont child has any opportunity to get even a single word in.“Well, Belmont,” he says, hand moving in a sweeping motion towards the pooling darkness at the corner of this chamber, “for a clan who fights monsters your family clearly has quite the tradition of siding with said monsters.” He pauses then, grin growing in maddening hate as said darkness shifts. “Isn’t that right, Adrian?”

The Belmont child audibly grits his teeth as he falls into a battle stance. But he doesn’t care about that, no. Because as the boy tries and fails to challenge him the darkness behind him falls, and out from that corner steps a man dressed in pitch black that he knows oh so well, golden hair flowing behind him as he walks, his equally golden gaze trained right on his own red—a sight cold, far-away, guarded.

And when the apparition opens his mouth—

“Soma!”

Mina’s voice cuts through the daydream like a blade, running it through in one swift motion and leaving him gasping for air, clutching at his chest, stumbling back and blinking rapidly in his wake. Adrian, his mind repeats. He just saw Adrian. Numb nausea tingles in his stomach, on his fingertips, in his head. Reality is cold. The darkness and the cobblestone are gone, making way for dead trees and snow, for daylight, for Soma and a swirling emotion crying out and pounding on his soul’s barrier that he can’t even begin to identify.

He blinks again, gaze lost and searching for nothing until it lands on Mina’s brown eyes, wide and worried and confused. She’s finally turned to look at him, both hands on his shoulders as she shakes him gently. “What are you doing?” she asks over the commotion going on behind her. “We have to interfere!”

It’s like a switch flips inside his brain as sensation flows back into him at her words, feeling like blood rushing through his bloodstream, melting away the numbness and intensifying the world around him. The sounds, the colours, the smells; reality seeps in, grounds him. Just like that it’s over. Whatever that was it’s gone now, the uncomfortable flashback brought forth in broad daylight leaving behind even more questions that his darkness refuses to answer, Dracula simmering down from his outburst.

Soma takes a deep breath, straightens his back, and nods. “R-Right!”

Julius isn’t backing down from his argument with Ms. Kozuki, still holding his ground about something or another about the entire Belmont family line that she’s insulted. Soma and Mina dash forward into the scene, shoving their way past any curious bystanders still watching the shitshow unfold. When Mina reaches them first and interrupts her while speaking Ms. Kozuki actually looks surprised, then downright taken aback when Soma pushes his way in between her and Julius.

“Excuse us,” Mina says, bowing apologetically next to the professor. “Please don’t fight!”

“Miss Hakuba?” Kozuki asks. Her brown eyes then land on Soma as the boy pushes Julius back with a hand on the Belmont’s chest, the grin he gives her artificial and very obviously uncomfortable. “And Soma Cruz. Do you know this man?”

“We’re very sorry for any inconveniences my uncle’s caused,” Soma recites the lie Arikado taught him back in September when all four of them met. It’s specifically crafted for Julius. Saying it out loud like this now, Soma starts to wonder if it’s not more like a jab at the Belmont.

Ms. Kozuki’s expression becomes neutral again as she crosses her arms. “You’ve never mentioned a blood relation to a Belmont.”

Soma positions himself to Julius’ right, close enough to elbow him on the ribs should he need to; he would really much like it if the situation didn’t escalate any further, thank you very much. The Belmont’s stance relaxes as he very obviously backs off. “I don’t see why he has to,” Julius says, lighthearted and capricious. “Anyway,” he shrugs, “I came to pick up my nephew, and here he is, so if you’ll excuse us I think we’ll be leaving now.”

“I would like an apology first,” Ms. Kozuki commands.

A raised eyebrow on Julius’ face. “What?”

”You’ve called me a nutcase.”

“Well, pardon me, ma’am,” the Belmont snaps with all the force and sting of his beloved whip, “but you were the one who suddenly boarded me with invasive question after question on private family matters for no reason. I was literally just minding my own business when you came over and accused me and my family of dealing with monsters and whatnot.”

Julius barely seems to register the elbowing Soma gives him once he’s done talking. He just clicks his tongue, watching with thinly disguised satisfaction as Ms. Kozuki purses her lips together, as her already cold gaze freezes over even more in her staring contest with Julius. Within Soma the darkness twists indignantly, annoyed at their petulance, and for once in three months Soma’s equally surprised and irritated when he’s inclined to agree.

The tension in the air is practically palpable. Soma doesn’t move, nor does Mina, both of them carefully expecting things to escalate again and getting ready to dispel the situation as if they were the only two mature people in this conversation. At least the crowd around the four of them has dispersed slightly upon Mina and Soma’s entry, whoever else is left growing impatient when nothing else seems to happen.

Ms. Kozuki remains stubbornly quiet for a few more minutes. When she finally gives in she sighs deeply through her nose, lowering her face in silent acquiescence. “I… see,” she mutters, then uncrosses her arms and offers an apologetic bow. “Mr. Belmont, please forgive me for my behaviour and insensitivity.”

Soma hears the grumble in Julius’ throat, elbows him before he can release it. He clears his throat. It seems like this time Julius does feel it. “I apologize as well, ma’am.”

“Thank you. Now, please excuse me.”

And with that the woman hastily takes her leave. She leaves behind an awkward silence, but at least the tension dissipates as Julius visibly relaxes. As if on cue Soma and Mina exhale loudly, crisis averted and nerves trying their damnedest to return to normal.

Then Julius laughs. “Well, that was certainly something,” is the brilliant sentence that Julius chooses to break the silence with.

Oh my god.

Immediately Soma practically screeches himself back into full-hysterics mode, turning on his heel until he’s facing a wide-eyed Julius. “What the hell were you thinking?!” Soma’s shouting, hands raised towards the Belmont. Now waving them around like a dying seal, he splutters to find his words. “Julius! That’s my history professor! What if I have class with her again next year, huh?! She’s just gonna remember me as the guy whose supposed uncle decided to verbally throw down with her in the middle of the freaking courtyard!”

Pause, inhale. And then Soma’s eyes widen. “And now she thinks you’re my uncle!” the boy shrieks, hands flying to dig into his hair. “Jesus, what have I done? I soiled it! We’re screwed!”

“Calm down, kid. I’m sure Arikado can pull something out of his ass and get you a new teacher or something,” Julius is laughing.

Soma groans as his face is buried in his hands. "Arikado's the reason we're in this mess!"

“Well, that’s his fault for thinking it would be a good idea for you to call me your uncle—”

Mina’s voice cuts in, urging them to stop before the crowd gathers around them yet again and they’re forced to flee the premises. Immediately after hearing it Soma pulls his face out of his hands, sees her standing in front of Julius to quiet him down, stern and probably on the verge of losing her wits. The Belmont relents quickly, laughing and shrugging her off. The tension completely melts away when they start talking about the semester ending, and Soma allows himself to smile at the sight. What a rollercoaster this afternoon’s already turned into, but even so, Soma can’t say that he isn’t happy to see Julius on Christmas day.

Yet for some reason that makes the darkness within stir. Looking at Julius is inciting the dark lord—for a moment when Soma sets his eyes on him he swears he sees a younger boy in front of him, clean shaven, wearing his hair loose, inexperienced and furious and young. And that man in the darkness with the golden eyes… Julius knew Adrian. He knew. Soma’s smile drops, a sigh escaping through his nose as he pulls himself together, as he fights to push the darkness back to the pit it came from and to word his thoughts for the Belmont to hear.

He interrupts the conversation between Julius and Mina by clearing his throat. “Well, I have no idea why you’re here, but I guess it’s a good thing you’re the one who showed up today,” Soma says, gesturing with his hand at his head, “because I literally just had a flashback of you a few minutes ago.”

* * *

“I’ve known Arikado since I was around fifteen years old. He was an ally of Dracula’s turned against him out of disagreement for his methods, or something. Along with my guardians at the time, it was him who taught me how to fight against creatures of the dark, helped me unlock the holy magic in my bloodline, gave me a bit of an edge in supernatural combat.” Julius takes a sip of his coffee, then sighs, shrugging after setting the mug down. “He thought it’d be useful that I sparred with an actual vampire before we took on Dracula in 1999,” he adds. “Long story short, he was right.”

Talking about sensitive topics like Dracula and the Belmont lineage in a small, unknown coffeeshop Mina’s often frequenting to do homework in isn’t exactly how Soma expected to spend his Christmas afternoon at all, but it’s how he finds it going after Julius decides to shed some lights on the dark lord’s words the boy heard in the memory.

Small and cozy and practically devoid of other clients even at this hour, the coffee shop they sit in is perfect for the privacy that Julius seeks. The warmth of the establishment from the drinks being brewed does wonders against the cold outside, and the rich smell of coffee envelops the place in a comfortable, sleepy atmosphere that soothes Soma’s nerves and smooths down the darkness. The three of them sit on a small table for four that stands right next to an old painting of a young woman on the wall, each of them nursing a drink sponsored by Julius as rewards for finishing the school year: Soma’s got a mocha, Mina has a cappuccino, Julius takes a simple black coffee with a little cream on it. Through the speakers on the walls jazz music plays, cliché but calming, in the background and soft as Julius taps his mug and explains himself.

In the following pause Julius huffs, sinking back into his cushioned seat and making direct eye contact with Soma. “So yes, I guess there’s some merit to what Dracula said,” the Belmont continues. “1999 was not the first time that the Belmont family sided with someone that we were supposed to kill. Back in the 18th century, my ancestor Richter supposedly fought side by side with another vampire to take down Dracula during his time. And Arikado told me that you already know about Hector” — he smirks — ”so now you also know about who assisted Trevor in that particular battle.”

Soma hums. He’s got an elbow propped on the table, his cheek resting comfortably against his open palm, the fingers of his free hand lazily curling around the handle of his coffee mug. Mina sits to his right, head lowered and both of her hands wrapped around her cappuccino. The mixture of smells from both drinks is so sweet that Soma almost grows nauseous. His particular drink is still half-full, steaming, waiting for him as he processes Julius’ words, as he lowers his gaze from the Belmont’s eyes and down to the table.

Getting answers for once feels odd and foreign, but it also feels good, truths finally shaping up in the fog and clearing the way, giving Soma the peace of mind he needs. Arikado knew Julius as a mere teenager, trained him before the Battle of 1999. He was also friends with Yoko’s mom. If Soma’s quick mental math is correct then that’s about forty years of Arikado being a prominent figure in Julius and Yoko’s lives. Soma bites his lower lip, a query for input knocking on Dracula’s conscious and promptly going unanswered: Who was the golden eyed man?

No response. Dracula’s silent, almost stubbornly so. Lodged at the back of Soma’s mind and keeping his distance. For once in this past month Soma grows annoyed at the barrier between them erected by Yoko’s spell; it’s enabling the dark lord’s sulking. If it weren’t for it interfering, Soma knows that he would have a deeper insight into his own memories.

Whatever.

Fine, then. He takes the next best shot, meets Julius’ gaze again. "What about the man with the golden eyes I saw?” he asks in a challenging tone, as if to let Julius know that he’s demanding to get answers, pale fingers tightening around the mug’s handle when the question sends a discrete shiver down his spine. “Who was that?"

Julius sighs. "He was a general of Dracula's that decided to join our cause after testing our might in battle." Julius pauses, mug halfway raised to his lips. He mumbles into the rim, "He died in the war."

Pause. "Oh."

“Yep.”

“I… I see. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

The bluntness of Julius’ answer startles Soma back into silence. A slowly creeping coldness grips at his heart, a sense of deep loss claiming him as easily as the flashback occupied his mind an hour ago. The golden eyed man is dead. Though his blood simmers Dracula is still oddly quiet, and in his silence Soma wonders if Arikado got to meet the general as well, if the two of them got along during the war considering they were both vampires. Imagining them standing side by side makes Soma smile—he pictures a man with an intricate, old-fashioned suit of gold and darkness standing next to the suit-wearing Arikado, both stoically discussing life eternal and the battle at hand. Would Arikado have liked someone like that? Did he find solace in meeting another humanity-helping vampire?

Were they friends?

Dracula’s bitter chuckling shatters the mental image, poisonous hatred dripping where the shards now lie in Soma’s mind. It doesn’t matter now, is what the laugh says, because the golden general is dead and Arikado can go rot in eternity all alone. In an instant Soma feels anger flare in his heart, grip on the handle tightening once more. It hurts, somehow. He’d known about the struggles held in the Battle of 1999, of the lives lost, but for some reason being able to put a face to one of the losses just makes it hurt that much worse, makes Dracula’s laugh feel more like salt in a wound that Soma didn’t even know he had.

Soma drowns the laughter out with a greedy gulp of coffee and takes pleasure in the way Dracula retches at the taste.

Fuck you.

Next to him Mina taps her fingers against her mug, alerting Soma of the stretched silence and how uncomfortable she must feel. Guilt bubbles in his throat, but she fidgets in her seat, meeting Julius’ eyes before Soma can even think of what to say to break the silence. “Mr. Belmont? Can I ask you something?”

The man offers her a sincere smile. “Yeah, of course.”

She takes a small breath and smiles back. "Well, you mentioned you’ve been a vampire hunter since you were a teenager. And Miss Kozuki kept mentioning the rest of the Belmonts...”

“You wanna know the story, am I right?” Julius picks up after she trails off.

“If that’s okay,” Mina shrugs amicably.

Julius doesn’t seem to mind. He chuckles under his breath, helps himself to a large gulp of coffee as if to prepare himself for the road ahead. When he lowers the mug Soma can see it’s now empty. “Short version, Belmonts dedicate their lives to fighting the dark lord. It’s just who we are,” he begins, grin proud and yet somewhat melancholic as he speaks, eyes lost. “Long story, Belmonts have been fighting the dark lord ever since the 11th century. You can blame my greatest of grandparents Leon Belmont for that; if it weren't for him, the family wouldn't even be in this business in the first place."

Leon.

Leon, Leon, Leon, the darkness cries out, coiling around Soma like a snake and squeezing hard. It leaves him breathless for a moment. The boy shudders, heart-rate accelerating uncomfortably, an anxious feeling spreading through his body and leaving him shaking slightly as he secretly tries to catch his breath, as he wills Dracula to step back. He doesn’t, so Soma focuses on the present instead. Whether Julius or Mina notice his little outburst, they make no mention of it, and for that he’s grateful. So he ignores it as well, clears his throat, asks Julius to explain further.

And so Julius does. “He was a knight who gave up everything to found the House of Belmont in Romania back in the 11th century, with the help from an alchemist named…” Julius snaps his fingers as he searches for words. He groans, gives up. “Something-something Gandolfi—I can’t remember right now. It was Leon that forged the Vampire Killer, too.” The Belmont sighs. “He’s our earliest ancestor, Leon. You can guess how highly esteemed he is in the family.”

The question slips out of Soma’s lips before he can even help it: “Did he face Dracula?”

“Supposedly, he was the first in line to have fought Dracula and won. But we don’t really know for sure,” Julius shrugs, apparently blissfully unaware of the growing storm that Soma keeps holding back. “The few scraps we have from his time fail to mention the specifics on why he chose the vampire hunting business over knighthood. But they do say he was blessed by god himself with the holy power required to fight the darkness after he made a great sacrifice for it. At first I thought it was ridiculous, but,” Julius breaks eye contact, stares down at his left arm on the table, “considering I’ve got holy power flowing through my veins, I guess I have no choice but to believe it by this point.”

The Belmont falls silent for a moment. He clenches his fist and stares at the visible veins, laughs. “Our bloodline is one irrevocably tied to the dark lord himself,” he says, voice a little gentler and lower than before. “One way or another, we’re all still carrying out Leon’s legacy.”

Soma averts his eyes, purses his lips together. He feels guilt crawling up his arms and down his spine, invasive darkness twisting in his veins and joining seamlessly with the cacophonous mess of emotions Soma’s got brewing in his heart. Before him Julius remains unmoving for another second, then sighs and opens his fist, reaching over for the mug to take another sip of his coffee.

Belmonts fight monsters. In their bloodline they carry the duties of a hunter, protecting the innocent from Dracula’s wrath and preventing his destructive return once a century. Julius Belmont is a man of fifty five, already having defeated and sealed Dracula when he was just nineteen, yet still carrying the duties of a long since dead man on his shoulders even after his victory. When Soma looks at him, truly looks, he sees a man moving with exhaustion and clinging still to the legacy laid out before him, haunted by the remnants of his past and shackled to the job by Dracula’s possible return.

Unable to rest just in case something happens to Soma.

The guilt grows. Along with it an urge rises up in Soma, one to say something, anything, just to make it all stop. He clears his throat to get Julius to look at him. “Julius, I—I’m sorry,” Soma says, bowing his head, fidgeting with the handle of his own mug. “I’m the reason your family hasn’t found any rest.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Julius sounds genuinely confused.

“Dracula? Me being his reincarnation?” Soma gestures in front of himself pathetically vaguely. “Us being the reason you’re in this mess?”

A pause, delicate and fragile. Julius’ sigh gently breaks it, and when Soma looks back up at him he sees the Belmont shrugging. “Don’t worry about that, kid. You may have been Dracula in a past life, but in this one you are you, Soma Cruz, history nerd and ally of the Belmont clan. You haven’t even done anything wrong.” He gives Soma a smile, soft and small and reminiscent of a parent reassuring a child. “And I told you I sensed Vampire Killer growing quieter after the castle, didn’t I? Listen, maybe it’s a sign. A sign that we can finally put an end to this endless war” — Julius lifts the mug and smirks — “now that Dracula’s reincarnation is just a puffy cotton ball like you.”

Soma instantly scoffs. “Cotton ball?”

“Like a bunny, you mean?” the grin is clearly audible in Mina’s voice when she speaks.

“Yeah,” Julius nods. “Like a cute little cotton bunny.”

Soma crosses his arms. He struggles to keep the displeased expression firm on his face when his upper lip trembles and threatens him with a smirk. “Excuse me,” he says, “I’m no bunny. If anything else I’m more like a cute little cotton bat.”

Julius is laughing now, loud and booming and good. “Little? I’ve seen your bat form, kid. It’s human sized!”

“A cute, huge, human sized cotton bat, then,” Mina adds before drinking.

The currently soft jazzy song playing through the coffeeshop’s speakers finally ends, making way for something a little more energetic and fun, as if switching to fit the newly lifted atmosphere around the three of them when Mina’s comment ends in Julius dramatically nodding and agreeing while Soma laughs into his hand. The conversation quickly shifts and twists into a questionnaire on creatures contained in the Belmont bestiary, with Julius proudly detailing everything written down by his family and Soma offering comments here and there when certain monsters he’d also found in the castle come up.

Dracula continues to stir uncomfortably in Soma’s veins. Leon, Leon, the darkness echoes, aching, calling out in different intonations of equal rage and yearning. Soma tries his best to ignore him for now, over the guilt that still remains in Soma’s heart, awkwardly frozen and lodged there for the time being.

But it’s fine, he thinks. Soma can deal with that later, is what he thinks as he finishes his mocha, as he offers Julius one last smile before leaving the coffeeshop and spending the rest of the day celebrating his last day of school with Mina.

Dracula’s not going anywhere, after all.

* * *

On August 11th, 1999, a total solar eclipse occurred that was highly visible throughout most of Europe and some parts of Asia. Due to the high population in its trajectory, it was one of the most-viewed total solar eclipses in human history, with the longest eclipse point taking place in Romania for a total of two minutes spent in darkness. In official records it’s gone down as an astronomical event of great beauty and importance, and in a few public records it’s gone down as one of the strangest moments in European history.

It’s only once he’s arrived back at his apartment that Soma can get on the case and do some more research of his own. Hours upon hours of information later, sitting on his couch and wrapped up in a blanket, bathed in his laptop screen’s light at two in the morning on December 26th, Soma sips on his hastily-heated coffee and collects as much data as he can.

He starts by looking into the eclipse. A quick search through the internet lands him on various websites that don’t do Ms. Kozuki any favours against the ‘nutcase’ claim, some of them old, very few of them new; it just doesn’t seem like that much fun of a case to investigate on anymore, apparently. They’re all either conspiracy theory sites or videos on strange and unresolved cases, with a side dose of a few supernatural magazines and blogs talking about the event as part of other weird phenomena listings.

Their reports are always fragmented, focusing mostly on individual cases, but by slowly putting it all together Soma’s got a faint idea of what the actual timeline must’ve been like.

As early as the very first day of January, in 1999, multiple records of hysteria and paranormal activity on the region of Wallachia surfaced, with the strangest of it all being the people claiming to see or be possessed by ghosts and demons on the months leading up to the eclipse. But that’s not all, no; hauntings, murders, cryptids, disappearances, exorcisms—a treasure trove for conspiracy theorists and paranormal researchers, culminating in the crude articles and videos Soma’s got open in multiple tabs on his browser. It’s all worded like bizarre history, with people treating it like scary stories to tell around a campfire, but the truth of the matter is what makes Soma shudder: it’s all so obviously Dracula’s very own prelude before the eclipse even took place.

He’s heard about it from Julius and Arikado, before. About how starting on January first the castle rose from the grounds, just as predicted, and how the months leading up to the eclipse were filled with strife and bloodshed to make sure that nothing from the castle escaped into the city or beyond, the magic employed keeping the area and structure hidden from the untrained eye, bits and pieces of Julius’ tale. Something about the then leading priest of the Hakuba shrine helping during the battle by sealing Dracula within the eclipse. And now there’s the recent news of Yoko’s mom being involved, of Arikado’s presence, of the dead general’s defection. Thinking of that now, coupled with the information on the screen, makes Soma frown as a question pops in his mind; if their magic was supposed to protect the city, then why are there so many reports on this stuff scattered about anyway?

Soma sips his coffee, eyes glued on the white lettering on a black background of the website on screen. The quiet solitude in the early hours of the morning chills him beyond the blankets, but the darkness in his veins stirring prevents him from downright shuddering. It’s odd, but it’s reassuring, and Soma hums as he sets down the cup.

‘Hey, Dracula,’ he calls out into his darkness, stern and curious, echoing in their shared space. ‘Are you there?’

“I am always here, boy.”

It’s spoken like a low threat, but for some reason it still makes Soma snort. At least he spoke, is what he thinks first; the dark lord seems to get a little chattier and more willing to cooperate whenever it’s just the two of them on their own, as if he were simply overwhelmed by the mere presence of other people. Soma bites his tongue to keep the laugh from escalating, but the rumbling in his heart tells him that Dracula still heard. Or that he knows. Something or another or whatever—it’s hard to tell what the vampire is feeling when it’s not being directly broadcasted through their link.

He takes a sip of the coffee and promptly ignores his other’s grumbling. ‘Do you know anything on this stuff?’ he asks. ‘How did they keep your castle hidden and yet still end up with so much of this leaking out?’

“Our castle is a creature of pure Chaos. To believe that it can be so easily contained by a mere mortal is pure hubris speaking in its rawest form.” Dracula hums, flowing, his voice moving from Soma’s left ear and to his right. Soma wonders if he’s somehow pacing in his soul. “In the end, they simply were not powerful enough.”

Absently scrolling through a website after putting down his cup, Soma says out loud, “You could be a little more helpful, you know. Who pulled the barrier off, Julius? Yoko’s mom? The Hakuba priest? Arikado?” A pause, a hum. “And who took care of everything else that leaked out? The golden eyed general, maybe?”

Dracula laughs. “It certainly is bold of you to assume that such little people were involved in a war of this magnitude.”

Oh.

Wait.

What?

Soma clicks his tongue and runs a hand through his hair, face contorted into a mixture of confusion and frustration at himself. He stares at the screen, gaze lost. Dracula keeps laughing. In his mind’s eye Soma sees a memory of himself running through the castle’s halls back in September, short sword piercing through hostile zombies dressed in modern uniforms, some of them wielding swords and others wielding guns.

The ease with which Romanian authorities covered it all up as mass-hysteria, the lack of data on disappearances and murders.

How the hell did the idea of more people being involved elude him so completely?

Soma feels his throat dry. “How many?” he asks into the silence, staring at his red eyed reflection on the monitor. Dracula doesn’t speak again, just keeps laughing in the darkness, the doppelganger on the screen grinning smugly at his ignorance. So in the silence Soma thinks of the castle. He thinks of the zombies he’s destroyed, of their weapons he picked up, of the paranormal reports made back in 1999, and suddenly draws in a sharp breath as his eyes widen in shock.

“Jesus Christ, was—was the military involved?!”

Dracula laughs again. “You can be quite clever for such an obtuse boy, hm?”

But Soma’s not listening. He’s scrolling through the websites again, ears ringing with white noise as his heart slams in his ribcage, trying to find any mention of military intervention in Wallachia during the first half of 1999 and if it stayed after the August 11th eclipse after all. He doesn’t find much, other than a few mentions of an unexpected and almost discreet armed presence in the city, some old photographs of convoys traversing small towns.

This complicates things, badly. Sure, the military participating in the war would’ve accounted for the tight control around the area, maybe even for the big cover-ups surrounding the paranormal occurrences in Wallachia, but it also makes absolutely no sense. Magic was involved, after all. What’s the need for the military when you need holy magic? Did they just gun down a bunch of demons while storming the castle? Unless the military can do magic. Yeah, right—and Soma’s an ordinary eighteen year old.

Why the hell were they there, of all places? Maybe Arikado called them in, practically omniscient as the agent is. Did they know he was a vampire at all?

Soma wheezes out a hysterical little laugh as he rises from his seat on the couch, laptop carefully put aside. He paces his hallway, following the same trajectory from the living room to the main entrance door that Julius had traced once when he’d first told the Belmont about Dracula’s presence. This is getting bad. Dracula’s return, the military, the six month long cover-up as the war escalated slowly; the more into this mess that Soma looks into, the deeper the rabbit hole goes, the more the August 11th eclipse starts sounding like the last-ditch attempt at ending the war.

But what happened before that, exactly? With all of these people involved and the eclipse ritual succeeding in sealing Dracula away, how come Julius—

Wait, Julius.

What happened to Julius after the war?

Ms. Kozuki mentioned files on him. Soma rushes back to the couch, jumping right back into the internet and typing out Julius’ full name into the search bar. When they first met in the castle the man had amnesia and could only remember his own initial, attracted to the castle by a prophecy he’d heard of and almost instinctively fearing the name Dracula. He’d been convinced about his condition being caused by an accident, and he didn’t have the whip on him, either. Something about sealing it in the castle to keep the dark lord at bay.

Soma clings to the accident part and skims through website after website, once again sipping at his cooling coffee.

There’s a surprising amount of information on the Belmont family circulating online, now that Soma’s looking. Most of them are historical records stashed away on corners of the internet probably visited only by historians or obsessive nutcases like Ms. Kozuki, ranging from boring stuff detailing land deals and going all the way to talk about famous members of the family succeeding in fields other than vampire hunting.

But where it starts to get interesting is when Soma gets to the collection of data on records that speak ill of the Belmont family.

It’s here where he learns of their excommunication by the church in the 15th century, of the early claims that the family was cursed and dealt with black magic. They’re not too far off the course, if Soma’s going to be honest, but to see that the stain on their reputation remains even centuries later leaves a sour taste in his mouth. Because Julius doesn’t deserve that; he’s a man bred to fight, trained to die, who lost thirty six years of his life to bring peace to a world that doesn’t even know of his sacrifice. The guy’s practically a hero, for god’s sake. A kind and loving hero underneath his gruff exterior, doing his best to guide Soma through a life that seems to keep wanting to screw him over and over as time flows.

He deserves better.

Soma growls into his cup, frustrated at an uncaring world, and then he lands on what he’s been looking for and abruptly freezes to a halt. Right there, staring at him in bold black letters on a scanned white paper, is a Romanian missing persons case on Julius Belmont, dated August 15th, 1999.

What the hell?

Oh, this is getting ridiculous. This is getting downright infuriating. “Dracula,” Soma calls to the darkness out loud through grit teeth, frustration bubbling up his throat as he sets the cup down. Inhale, exhale. Try to calm down. “Explain.”

The darkness laughs, hums. It sends a shiver up his spine, angry trembling down his arms. Dracula doesn’t talk. In the absence of words, Soma finally loses control on his carefully contained temper; he slams the laptop closed and throws a punch to the cushion next to him, growling and breathing heavily, openly outraged at the vampire. “Explain, goddamnit!” he rags out, “What the fuck did you do to Julius?!”

“In reference to what?” the dark lord practically taunts him, purring at the back of Soma’s mind. He laughs again when that riles him up further, feeding the fire in Soma’s veins. And then he sighs, says, “Your anger is misplaced, boy, for this time I do not hold the answers that you seek. That irksome priest sealed me away before any this took place. Search our memories all you want, but you will find nothing relating to the disgusting hunter’s disappearance after the eclipse.”

Soma exhales slowly. He closes his eyes and drags both of his hands down his face, the anger simmering with his darkness, pulse loud in his ears, heart quick and pained and completely distraught. Soma feels Dracula lurking at the back of his mind, observing him, taking in his rage and laughing, laughing, laughing. Inhale, exhale. Count from one to ten and backwards. Breathe.

It’s useless to get mad. Because Dracula’s right, in a way; an August 15th missing persons case is beyond his knowledge. He’d been sealed away in the eclipse by then. There’s nothing Dracula can answer regarding Julius’ case.

But there’s someone else who can.

With Dracula laughing still in his heart, Soma reaches for the discarded phone on the coffee table and unlocks it, pacing the room again as he types up a message. It’s three in the morning, again, but this time Soma doesn’t care—by this time, Arikado owes him answers. So he writes about the battle of 1999, about his memories of uniformed zombies, about the flashback he’s had of Julius, about the teacher who harassed them about the Belmont family’s darkness. He types down question after question and practically begs to be told the truth, the uncertainty and confusion eating away at his mind and heart so badly that he feels like he’ll explode.

He enters his kitchen and sends the message with a growl and a pitiful cry into the darkness that he barely bites back, sinking to his knees, resting his back against his fridge and letting the cool night air calm him down. Breathe, breathe, Soma needs to breathe, to calm the fuck down after his outburst and think carefully about how he’s going to handle this once he gets a reply. He gracelessly drops his phone to the floor, buries his face into his hands and shuts his eyes tight, trying to will his breathing back under control, ends up choking back a frustrated sob between clenched teeth when all he feels is misplaced grief growing like ice over glass.

There’s a chance Arikado will be mad. The mere idea has him whining out in misery—he just wants answers, damn it. He’s tired of being kept in the dark. Soma’s dug himself neck deep into this mess just by being kept away from the truth. Darkness pools all around him during witching hours, grows. It calls for him, laughs at him, pities him. Then Dracula hums a mocking little tune against his ear, something familiar and old and twisted, and right then Soma suddenly feels small, vulnerable, terrified of the monster kept in his heart’s cage as he shudders uncontrollably.

It’s about time Arikado gave Soma some straight answers, lest he winds up somewhere the rest of his guardians cannot follow.

Finally the tears escape his eyes. He feels so tired, suddenly. Sleep deprived and alone in the dark as he is, with thoughts racing and caught up in the anxious bottleneck mess of his brain, Soma almost misses the ping of his phone going off. It startles him so bad he jumps, but he recovers quickly, picking it back up as his free hand wipes away the tears from his eyes to properly read the notification on screen—to read Arikado’s single reply.

Meet me at my apartment tomorrow at 4 PM. I will answer all your questions.

Chapter Text

Leave it to Arikado to live in an apartment building with enough floors to it to require an elevator ride to get to him.

The low humming of the elevator’s mechanisms whirring to life outside of it fill Soma’s ears almost completely, distracting him from the stirring and humming of the darkness in his veins. It’s cold, and it’s quiet, and his outburst from the night before is still echoing in his mind, in his veins, in his soul. Soma bites his lower lip. He stares ahead at the doors, arms crossed and purposely ignoring the mirror surface on the walls, the way his reflection smiles in his peripheral vision, looking straight at him, smug and amused underneath the neon lights that shine down from above.

Dracula looks like he wants to speak, but he just doesn’t. He stays silent, staring. Waiting.

It makes his skin crawl.

Discomfort is a state of being that’s too familiar to him by now, but he refuses to let it overwhelm him and cloud his future, to be the only thing he knows. Stubbornly, slowly, Soma wills the dark lord down. Just make it through these six floors, he thinks to himself, flinching when Dracula chuckles and moves around the space within his soul and on the mirrors on the walls, pacing again like a lion rounding its prey. Soma closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. Just six floors, and then everything will end. Arikado will help.

He’s very aware that he’s clinging to that idea like it’s a safety rope by this point, but it’s the only light he has, and he’s going to make the most of it.

The elevator stopping and the loud ping in the air as the doors open quickly snap him out of his thoughts entirely, his reflection in his peripheral vision going back to normal and following him closely as he jumps slightly, as he steps out into the pristine hallways of the building. Soma holds his phone up, looks at the number written on one of Arikado’s messages, and makes his way to the far-end of the hall.

It’s not a high class complex per-se, but it still feels comfortably fancy, antique, something old and fashionable that tugs at the back of Soma’s heart and brain. He blinks in the warm lights of the hallway as he walks, admiring the architecture and decoration, and wonders what type of people hide within the doors leading to each apartment. It feels… comfortable, like home. Soft. Like the type of place he would retire to once he’s old and wrinkly and swimming in money. Soma snorts at that, Dracula huffing in indignation at his comparison. Good, he thinks. That’s what he gets for being a smug prick all day.

604, 605, 606—the golden numbers on each of the doors pass him by as slowly as he moves. Soma looks down to his phone again, checks Arikado’s messages thrice just to make sure he’s really on the right floor. The agent lives on the sixth floor, in apartment number 609. It should be close by, is what Soma thinks as he looks back up to the hallway, searching. And it’s the last thing that crosses his mind when he looks up to see Arikado suddenly standing there at the end of the hallway, dressed in his eternal black suit and with a hand in his pocket, expression unreadable, dark eyes trained right on Soma.

What comes out of Soma’s mouth when he bites back the startled scream at the sight is instead an awkward splutter of completely cringeworthy incoherencies.

Soma’s hand instantaneously flies to his chest, trying to soothe down his own wildly beating heart out of the scare and regain his composure. He stumbles back a step, wheezes, and even from the three apartment long distance he can still clearly see Arikado raising an eyebrow at the sight, the eternally stoic mask he wears cracking only slightly.

The darkness simmers, boils, growls. Soma grits his teeth and huffs. Shut up, shut up, shut up.

From where he stands, Arikado calls out, “Are you alright?”

A hasty nod. “Yeah. Yeah, just—just give me a sec,” Soma replies, anxious laughter spilling out his lips as the dark lord roars within. Stay calm, stay calm. He ends up laughing again. “Sheesh, Arikado. Way to make an entrance.”

“My apologies, Soma,” Arikado bows his head, “but you’d already told me you were arriving. And I sensed your presence” — Arikado’s hand finally leaves his pocket as he gestures to the boy before him — “so I thought you would sense mine as well. I merely wanted to greet you.”

“I probably sensed you too, but I was... distracted,” Soma says.

“Clearly.”

With that Arikado falls silent once again, waiting until Soma’s done pulling himself back together. It takes a while, if only because of Dracula’s growing animosity towards the other vampire, but eventually he pulls through, only to come face to face with a palpable tension hanging in the air between them. Smiling apologetically, ignoring it to the best of his ability, Soma slowly approaches Arikado. The man then gestures broadly towards his apartment, silently inviting Soma inside, only moving when Soma’s already walked in and closing the door behind them both with a soft click.

Soma… doesn’t know what he’d expected from Arikado’s apartment. Something big and fancy and speaking of an expensive taste, probably, based off the way Arikado dresses, speaks, the way he holds himself like he’s been a man of high class for however long he’s been alive for. Like nobility, or something akin to royalty. When he takes off his shoes and steps through the small entry hallway and into the cozy, medium-sized apartment Soma feels himself slow to a halt to stare at his surroundings.

A joined kitchen and dining room to his right, the living room to his left, a door through the living room leading out into a balcony already covered in snow. A hallway past the living room that Soma’s sure leads to another private section of the apartment, shrouded in shadows where the balcony sunlight cannot reach. Simplistic decorations and furniture that mix modern and vintage in a surprisingly coherent fashion; paintings, bookcases, several plants. So enthralled by the sight he is that Soma almost doesn’t catch it when Arikado clears his throat behind him, jumping again and laughing awkwardly when the agent sighs. Wordlessly, the vampire gestures to the living room for Soma to sit, announcing his intention to prepare some tea and leaving to it once Soma’s seated.  

Even the couches and the coffee table are carefully matched as if to evoke a vintage era, clashing a little with the flat-screen TV on the wall and the sleek sound system in the room. The living room is spacious enough for all five of them including Mina, six if Hammer ever returns from whatever he’s doing in the United States. There’s a photograph of an unknown landscape on the end table by the couch, a few more accompanying the array of old-looking tomes on the bookcase, a couple statuettes supporting them. Old and new, vintage and modern, homey and clinical—a delicate balance that makes Dracula shift uncomfortably, somehow agitated by it all.

Soma would get up and explore the room if he wasn’t stuck to the couch with his back ramrod straight and his fists laid over his knees, trying and failing to calm his nerves thanks to the jittery sensation of his darkness all over the place. He bites his lower lip, inhales slowly, exhales. The sound of Arikado moving through the kitchen is what keeps Soma in the present, his entry feeling like a blessing and a curse when the sight rouses Dracula’s ire in the darkness once again.

He’s carrying two cups of hot tea in his hands. “Careful,” Arikado mumbles as he hands one over to Soma. “It’s still hot.”

The smell is somewhere between sour and sweet, slightly fruity. Soma hums, eyes on the liquid. “Oh, wow. It’s red. What kinda flavour’s red supposed to be?”

“Rosehip,” says Arikado as he sits down on the couch across from Soma.

Soma frowns. “What’s a rosehip?”

"Small, bright berries found on rose bushes once the flower dies. They contain the seeds for the rose plants and can be used to make medicine."

“Huh. Interesting.” Soma takes a small, careful sip of the drink, flinching only a little when the liquid burns his tongue. It is still hot. “It’s good. I mean, I’m more of a coffee guy myself, but, hey,” he sets the cup down, “sometimes tea’s pretty cool too.”

Arikado sighs. “Indeed.”

This anxious apprehension slowly coiling around them like a noose is going to suffocate Soma to death. Arikado sits with his legs crossed, drinking as elegantly as he would any other time, but just by looking at him Soma can see the tension in his shoulders, the way his eyebrow twitches slightly as he sets his cup down on the coffee table.

Soma lowers his head, still stuck in the same uncomfortably straightened position, heart pounding and lungs fighting for oxygen in his nervousness. It’s all perhaps the most awkward moment of Soma’s life, a cold stillness on the outside clashing with the hot frenzy stirring within him. How the hell do they go about this, exactly? He feels miserably warm and distressed, too bashful to talk, too overwhelmed by his surroundings and the dark lord furiously growing more and more restless in his heart—it’s like a dying snake thrashing about near his feet, ready to lash out and bite him with its poisonous fangs in its hysterics.

And the silence stretches on, icy and painful like needles in his skin. He shivers. Dracula paces all over Soma’s soul while growling, old Romanian curses and other such words echoing through their shared space. Soma’s grip on his jeans tightens a little, a grimace growing on his face. Be quiet, he calls out. Dracula’s distracting him. Soma needs to end this quiet and speak.

Mercifully, or perhaps not, Arikado sighs and cuts to the chase. “Soma,” he says after a resigned sigh, eyes closed, “You had questions that you wanted answered.”

Soma freezes. He looks up, meets his guardian’s tired gaze once the man opens his eyes. All at once it’s anxiety that takes over. Trepidation rushes into him like water through cracked Earth, uprooting the curse of silence and carrying his words through the stream of his quick, shivering voice: "Did you know my history teacher's a nutcase and knew about Julius from a freaking conspiracy theory website on the battle of 1999?"

Arikado raises an eyebrow at him. “Julius informed me of that, yes,” he begins, leaning back onto the couch. The action is probably meant to seem relaxed and calming, but with his vampiric presence feeling so tense it just comes off as stiff instead. He nods, face blank. “And you did mention that in your messages as well. It worries me that she’d know of these things, I will admit. What did she say?”

The wheeze that escapes Soma feels somewhat freeing. “It’s, uh, it’s more about what I found online after that, really,” he stammers out. The anxiety spikes and stabs him in the heart when he sees Arikado frown, but Soma scoffs over it instead, shoulders slumping as he speaks before the man can. “Hey, come on. Julius barely even covered it and I got curious. And it’s too late by now to get mad at me, anyway.”

“I still would’ve prefered it if you’d asked us about it first.”

“Yeah, right. Like you would’ve told me anything.”

Oh, hell.

Soma shuts his mouth as quickly as the words leave his lips, shame slithering around him like a snake. Dracula’s low cackling echoes in his soul. Soma mentally curses and tells him to shut up, fights to keep his full focus on the present, to keep him from distracting him from what’s important. It’s uneasy around them again. It’s peace cracked like glass.

Not wanting any more silence and to get somewhere with this visit, Soma acquiesces first. “Sorry.”

Before him Arikado does a mighty fine job at pretending he’s not tense or bothered, expression blank and seemingly aloof. He stares down Soma for another second, then simply sighs, exhaustion radiating from him like heat. “No, I suppose you’re right…” he trails off, grumbling a little under his breath. He then slowly reaches for his cup. “Let’s not linger on it for now, though. Please, continue.”

He’ll take the segue like it’s a blessing. Soma nods, takes a deep breath, and instantaneously the flood gates open up once again. “I mean, there’s just—there’s just so much,” he breathes out. Soma wrings his hands together, determination in his face when he makes eye contact with Arikado again. “But… You know what? I guess just… just tell me about the battle of 1999 first. What was it like? What started it? Y’know,” he shrugs, “all that stuff.”

In the following pause, while Arikado takes a sip of his tea, Soma leans forward, elbows on his thighs and hands clasped together. For a small, precious moment, the darkness stills. It’s quiet. Silent and static it pools at the bottom the boy’s soul, and Soma takes his chance to focus, anxiously awaiting the answers to months-old questions that Arikado holds.

When Arikado lowers the cup his eyes lower as well, remaining trained on the coffee table.  “One of Nostradamus’ prophecies spoke of the dark lord’s return in 1999,” he begins, setting the cup on the table. His voice is surprisingly gentle for the subject matter, smooth and soothing. “On January first, 1999, we caught word of a Romanian cult attempting to resurrect him in Wallachia, and thus our company made haste for the country. In the following months we fought in the dark to protect the light, trying to stop them from ever accomplishing their goals, but” — Arikado’s mask cracks with far-away displeasure — “in the end, we were too late.

“Dracula was resurrected on the fifth of August, 1999, and with him so did his castle rise once again.” He makes eye contact with Soma again, holds it. His voice gains an edge. “The battle was then contained to the castle. We had external help in maintaining a barrier to hide it from the public, but it still couldn’t stop some things from escaping into the city. However, we had help in exterminating those, too. It all came to an end six days later, on August 11th, when Julius and the then-leading priest of the Hakuba shrine, Akio Hakuba, sealed Dracula and his castle within the eclipse.”

The darkness swirls, but over that there’s a breezy feeling in Soma’s heart, something light and curious and excited. It’s only just now, as Arikado speaks so casually of a thirty six year old battle, that the reality of it all starts hitting Soma like a bag bricks. Arikado was in that war. He lived through it. To the vampire all of this might as well just be yesterday’s news, made relatively recent by the fact that he’s cursed by life eternal.

How old are you? Soma wants to ask, but he decides against it for the sake of sticking to some sort of semblance of professionalism and not offend him. It’s not even a priority, anyway. So the next question flows out more naturally: “Was it the military who helped with the cleanup?”

Arikado blinks. “The military...? No, not quite.” He sounds taken aback. It takes him a second to recover, shaking his head slowly. “Just as there was a cult attempting to resurrect the dark lord, so was there a faction that opposed to said goal. They too had heard of Nostradamus’ prophecy and were attempting to take matters into their own hands.” Arikado hums and pushes a stray strand of hair behind his back. “Our objectives aligned. I suppose you could say that we teamed up.”

“Yeah, well, I guess that explains that, but when I looked online there were still photographs of armed forces around the area during the first half of 1999,” Soma says. There’s a pressure in his chest that’s making it hard to breathe, a little, so he takes a deep breath before continuing. “And, let’s be honest, that doesn’t make much sense at all. Dracula’s army isn’t exactly something you can just shoot dead. Unless they could do magic through their guns, or something?”

A sigh. “I suspect Yoko’s told you of her mother’s involvement?”

Soma shivers, rubs at his arms, clears his throat. The temperatures seem to be dropping, so he grabs and takes a sip of his tea. Even that is getting colder too. “Yeah, she said you knew her mom. And Julius, too,” Soma points out. “He said he’s known you since he was fifteen.”

“The group that came to do battle with the cult wasn’t without their trump cards,” Arikado says, steepling his fingers on his lap. The mask is back on his face. “In order to stop Dracula once and for all, the prophecy required a hunter, a scholar, and a soldier to gather together and do battle with him. The hunter referred to a Belmont, as you may have guessed, so I found and trained Julius from 1994 onwards.” He pauses, gestures with his hand. “The scholar referred to an elemental mage among their ranks: a woman named Lenora Belnades.”

“Yoko’s mom…” Soma mumbles.

And Arikado nods, humming in confirmation. “Lenora’s mother had gathered the group herself in the sixties, taught them the ways of elemental magic and other dark arts. The weapons were merely for anything non supernatural. She passed her duties onto her daughter after she met her untimely demise in the early nineties.” He averts his eyes as another sigh escapes him. “Lenora was eighteen at the time, but her family had been preparing for the war way before her own birth,” he says. “She had been trained for it since she was a little girl.”

Soma grimaces, jaw locking. “Just like Julius,” he mutters under his breath.

“Just like Julius,” Arikado softly echoes. The man lowers his head. Through the cracks of his stoic mask Soma can see sadness seep out, the worn-down look that surfaces on Arikado, making him look older, drained. “The Belmont and Belnades families have destinies that have been intertwined with Dracula since time immemorial. Julius and Lenora were the next ones to follow in those roles,” he explains.

There seems to be a particularly revolting trend of training people to live and die for a world that doesn’t even know of them or appreciate them circling around in these families. Silence falls, melancholic and palpable. Soma’s hands tighten together, his gaze lowering to the floor and glaring a hole into the agent’s wooden floor, frustration bubbling up inside him. Bullshit. It’s such bullshit, all of it. The dark lord in his veins curls around him, whispers something in Romanian that Soma drowns out by biting his lip as hard as he can.

It’s all your fault, Soma hisses in the darkness, riled up even further when Dracula refuses to answer to his calls. It’s all your fault that they’re like this.  

He can practically feel the way that Dracula stares him down, unfazed. It’s infuriating. Soma wants to scream, to say that he’s a irredeemable monster, to say they’re nothing alike, but even that is a lie. Soma isn’t the dark lord, and yet he was, once, and he brought destruction and chaos on the land, forced these families to sink into an eternal curse of strife and bloodshed they can never seem to escape from. Will the cycle ever break? Maybe, if he tries, but it’s already this late. Lenora is dead. Julius lost his time. It’s too late; a thousand years too late.

It’s all our fault.

Anger and sorrow squeeze at Soma’s heart, darkens the scene around him. A hunter and a scholar—Julius Belmont and Lenora Belnades. Both eighteen at the time and already leading a war, fighting through hell and back to keep Dracula from ravaging the lands in his wrath. It’s all just hideous. What kind of world sets such a weight on two teenager’s shoulders?

What kind of cruel god?

The silence stretches for long enough to become uncomfortable. Soma clicks his tongue, growls. A question still remains. He takes a deep breath and struggles to make eye contact with Arikado again, scowl still remaining. “And what of the soldier?” he asks. “In the prophecy, who was the soldier?”

If Arikado had an answer ready or not, Soma guesses now he’ll never know. There’s a moment when the man draws in a sharp breath and mumbles something under his breath, but his voice ends up quickly getting lost in the sudden echo of a guitar tune going off. Like a bubble bursting it startles both of them, breaking a tension that Soma didn’t even realize was there, letting the air back into his lungs as the boy finally breathes in as well.

He ends up watching Arikado take out his phone from his pocket and rise from his seat as if in a daze. “I’m afraid I must answer this,” he says, almost apologetically so. He offers Soma a quick bow. “Please excuse me for a moment.”

Arikado disappears into the shadowed hallway, already talking into the phone, and Soma’s left alone in a cold living room with a neglected cup of tea that’s slowly going cold.

The antsy feeling from before returns and shakes him down to the core. His legs are starting to tingle from the stiff posture and the tension, so Soma gets up, paces the room a little, stops in front of the balcony door. He sets a hand on the glass, shivers at the cold. It must be around five in the afternoon by now, but it’s dark enough outside to feel like late afternoon, grey with the clouds above and the white snow slowly covering Arikado’s balcony. It’s been snowing since this morning. It’ll pile up at this rate, make a mess.

Dracula’s voice hits him like a cold wind that sneaks in from the outside and freezes at his heart. “He is lying to you, you know,” the dark lord speaks in the silence, twisting, coiling around Soma. “Just like the rest of them have been lying all this time.”

‘So now you choose to talk,’ Soma snaps, fingers twitching. Oh, great; now he’s trembling. ‘Whatever, I don’t care. Leave me alone.’

“Once this pathetic excuse for a guardian you have returns, he will do everything in his power to feed you yet another lie,” Dracula ignores him, purring in the darkness, sneaking from his heart and up his neck. “And you will believe it, of course,” he laughs, “naïve and weak and ignorant as you are. Again, and again, and again, and again.”

Soma grits his teeth. ‘I told you to leave.’

He goes ignored. “But you can put a stop to it. You can see for yourself, separate the truth from the lie. And you already know the truth, anyway; tell me, boy, who was the soldier the prophecy spoke of?”

The dark lord’s voice gets closer, colder. It’s a sensation like being doused in cold water during winter, and in its wake Soma feels an ache in his heart, a deep-rooted pain. His hand clutches at his sweater as Dracula hums in his mind, pacing once again and twisting at his darkness. Soma can’t breathe. He’s left wheezing, struggling for oxygen in a world that seems to run dry of it, suffocating in the dark lord’s embrace.

It takes only a second. Piercing its way into his mind’s eye, intrusively and uncomfortably and suddenly, the memory of the golden eyed general now occupies his thoughts. Adrian, Dracula had called him. The same name he’d blurted out in the living room, the one that froze Arikado in his tracks, the name that Arikado keeps telling him to forget about and move on from. Adrian, the dead general. Adrian, Adrian, Adrian. A traitor to his master, just like Hector once was, giving his life for humanity’s sake, fulfilling a centuries old prophecy through his sacrifice. Adrian.

A hunter, a scholar, and a soldier—a Belmont, a Belnades, and a vampire.

“Hadn’t I told you before, boy?” Dracula’s voice is but a mere whisper in the numbness. “The answers you seek lie within our memories.”

It all clicks together at the same time that Soma feels his heart drop.

How unfortunate. How utterly, heart-wrenchingly unfortunate. Soma wants to laugh, or cry, or scream, but nothing comes. Instead he’s left staring at the static, vibrantly white snow outside, heart crushed by frustrated despondency. They’ve lied, truly. They’ve all lied, trying to keep Soma from a truth that’s just as his as it is theirs. Arikado’s vampiric presence entering the room once again is a constant that Soma could recognize anywhere, but it doesn’t do much else. Everything is murky. The man stops at the end of the hallway, though; Soma can just tell. Is he surprised to see Soma standing, or afraid of Dracula’s reincarnation? Does he trust Soma so little?

Speaking is such a drag, now, but he has to break the silence. And he wants to know, too; to hear it from someone other than the echo his own memory. “Arikado,” Soma speaks without turning around. “Did Julius tell you about my flashback?”

There is a very long pause before Arikado speaks. It says everything, that silence. It feels endless. “He said you saw him as a boy, back in 1999,” is what Arikado says in the end, voice modulated yet toneless. It’s echoing through the room, in the distance. “He did also tell me you saw the general.”

“That I saw Adrian, you mean,” Soma corrects him. Arikado’s presence spikes up in surprise, and for some reason Soma almost laughs. Adrian, Adrian, Adrian, the darkness chants, hypnotizing and miserable, pressing at his temples, pulling him away. “A general of Dracula’s, defecting from his army and joining your cause instead… Quite like Hector, don’t you think?”

Everything feels like it’s slowing and blurring all around him. Soma removes his hand from the window, breathes out a laugh. Is something wrong? He can’t really tell. It must be the realization that he’s been lied to for goddamn months and that Arikado intends on still lying to him even now that’s breaking his heart in half. Soma huffs. “Answer me then, Arikado: was Adrian the soldier in the prophecy?” The question comes out in a slur, uncomfortable and big in his mouth.

Pause, again. Uncomfortable. Soma throws his head back, stares at the ceiling. He’s so tired. “Yes,” he hears Arikado say. “I didn’t know him personally, but I do know he assisted Julius in the final battle.” Another pause from Arikado, another carefully worded answer, another toneless fucking lie. Behind him Arikado takes a deep breath, shaky and controlled and so very much like the boy he raised. “He… his sacrifice led us to victory,” he adds. “He won’t go forgotten.”

The world spins, the words dull, sensations slow. Lies. Silver eyes flutter closed. He’s falling back. Lies, lies, lies—all lies.

Why is he lying this much?

Something inside him breaks as his eyes fly back open. “Oh, no. Your soldier didn’t die.”

Soma falls.

It’s very much like being plunged into cold water, his voice like an echo rising out of the darkness and consumed by the rushing current as Soma sinks, sinks, sinks and floats at the bottom of this dead sea. He blinks, almost lazily so, the ceiling and balcony door now murky in the waters. No, no. No, this is wrong. There’s a ringing in his ears, a tingling on his limbs, a numbness shackling him as the world slowly fades away. He’s here, and nowhere, and everywhere all at once, watching as his head lowers once again, as he stares at his own hands without willing the action to come forth at all.

He sees his body moving, feels his shoulders shaking with huffed laughter, but it’s not his own. Because Soma’s floating instead, somewhere in the distance, somewhere in the silence, scattered about like dust particles in the sunlight filtering through a window. Movement doesn’t come to him. Speech doesn’t come to him. All he has left are his thoughts, the horror of what he knows is happening filtering through the darkness like needles into his skin. And sharp like glass shards reflecting what little light he has in this realm, the remnants of a Belnades seal hang suspended in the air around him, opaque and undone and useless in their collapse.

The cage’s doors lie open. Yoko’s seal has been broken.

How the hell did this happen?

Arikado’s voice calling his name is but an echo in the dark, but it still pierces through it, reaches Soma’s disjointed reality and directs him back to the dirty window to the outside that he has. Is this what Dracula saw? He blinks—or so it seems—and he feels himself grin, but neither action is his. Dracula puppeteers his body from within, with Soma trapped in the darkness and failing to work out words, the warning to the agent dying in his lips before he can even formulate it.

“He didn’t die,” Dracula says instead with Soma’s voice, rumbling through the soulspace he’s left the boy in. The dark lord’s satisfaction is sinking its teeth into Soma’s heart. It feels repulsive, and in the darkness Soma opens his mouth in a wordless scream that fails to become real, replaced once again by Dracula’s own words.

The dark lord is grinning. “Adrian didn’t die. He lives on still, hidden in the light, playing with disguises and running away from the truth like a coward.” He turns around, numb in Soma’s place, and the completely unguarded look of horror in Arikado’s face sends ripples of guilt and distress through the darkness in Soma’s soul. “Stop lying, Adrian,” Dracula adds. “I believe it’s time that we put an end to this charade.”

Arikado, Soma calls out. Please.

It happens too fast. One moment Arikado’s staring at them wide-eyed and frozen, as if soaking in the reality before his eyes, and the next he’s lowered into a stance that launches him forward in a lunge. His hand reaches behind him for something Soma can’t see at first, until he sees the glimmer in the low light of the kitchen and until the sharp sound of a knife cutting through the air reaches his ears. Inside, Soma screams. Outside, Dracula laughs. Arikado acts quickly, pushing and pinning them to the glass door, newly-summoned knife pressed carefully against Soma’s throat. Though seemingly composed and flat, the vampire’s expression twitches and wavers, his wide, red eyes trained on Dracula’s.

Under Dracula’s possession, fear of what he could do filters its way into every disjointed space in Soma’s soul. Dracula is dangerous. If left unchecked and unstopped, who’s to say the dark lord won’t completely take Soma over and bring forth the endless night he so achingly lusts for? He must be stopped, no matter the cost. The knife in Arikado’s hand shines under the living room’s lights just as the world outside dulls and darkens, a grim reminder of their shared duty and impending sacrifice.

He knows what must be done, has known it since that fateful night of his awakening in the castle. Yet betrayal still hurts and pierces him just as harshly as fear does. Thus two instincts in Soma start to pull at him in two different directions, each fighting for dominance: an acceptance of his necessary destruction and a human-like rejection of it.

But the choice isn’t his to make. It’s Arikado who holds the knife, after all.

And Soma doesn’t really know whether to be comforted or terrified by that fact.

He can feel Dracula grinning even when the knife presses closer against his throat. To Soma the knife is only a numb pressure against his skin, barely palpable in the confines of his own soul. Before them, Arikado remains silent. So Dracula laughs with Soma’s voice again, frigid and cruel, taunting when he asks, “You’d pull a blade on your own ward? That’s quite heartless for someone like you.”

“The seal should’ve kept you at bay. How did you get out?” Arikado instantly demands. The hold he has on Dracula tightens as the vampire’s grin grows. “Talk,” he growls out.

"Now now, Adrian. Do you remember my curse?” Dracula inquires. The flinch Arikado fails to keep in check prompts a dark chuckle. “It doesn’t take much to bring it forth once again, even centuries later. Lost, confused, frustrated, alone—when this one's heart fell to his own cesspool of negativity, the curse easily took hold. Then all it took was a simple push, one small knock for the cracks to come crumbling down." The dark lord grins. “All of you did all the work for me, really. The only thing I had to do was wait.”

Arikado’s mask breaks the moment he grits his teeth in response. Even from deep within, Soma can see his fangs. Dracula’s humming feels like an earthquake in Soma’s soul, agitating the darkness that Soma struggles not to drown in. ”After all, a seal of this kind is only as potent as the soul that keeps it. Or did you forget to inform him of that little detail as well?” Dracula taunts, tilting Soma’s head and barely reacting when Arikado adjusts the knife with the action. “Quite careless of you, I must say.”

The blade trembles with unrestrained rage. “Dracula, let him go.”

A laugh. “Why should I? He is mine, Adrian,” Dracula’s adrenaline shoots up Soma’s spine, “And I’ve simply come to reclaim that which is rightfully mine!”

Without any other warning Dracula takes the blade into his hand and shoves Arikado back, sending the agent stumbling backwards. The piercing pain on Soma’s neck and palm as the blade slides and ruptures his skin is sudden and leaves him screaming in his own mind, the trickling of his own blood a sensation that breaks through the darkness and hypnotizes him into sentience.

Outside Dracula laughs and lunges forward, Soma’s uninjured hand reaching for the agent’s neck. Stop! Soma cries out. He watches as Dracula and Arikado fight, watches himself grab for his guardian and shove him against the bookcase, watches Arikado’s face twisting in pain at the impact. Stop it! Stop! I won’t let you do this!

Soma’s hands find the afterimage of his own hair in the void, fingers tangling into white curls and pulling. The knife rests discarded to Arikado’s side. Arikado’s not getting up. He’s breathing heavily, left prone and at Dracula’s mercy as the dark lord slowly approaches him. Arikado! Soma screams into the void, aimlessly reaching forward in the darkness, willing himself to focus on his guardian. Get up! Please, you have to stop me! You have to kill me! You have to—!

The words die on him immediately the moment that Arikado opens his eyes. It’s like hell freezes over when they make eye contact. When those fiery, resentful, bold golden eyes, so reminiscent of his mother’s, set on their own silver and red.

Dracula’s sick delight at the sight has Soma retching in disgust. There you are, Adrian, is what the dark lord thinks as Arikado picks up the knife again. Took you long enough.

This will not continue.

Screaming into the darkness as the agent rises to his feet before them, Soma pushes at the dissociative nothingness, struggles to remain, concentrates on his bleeding injuries to gather any sense of self and physicality back into himself. The pulsating pain on Soma’s hands and on his neck where the blade sliced him keep him still in the present, guide him. He sinks into the void and lets it flow through him completely, blood flow turning into sentience, grabbing onto anything he can until he finds Dracula’s presence buried under his own.

Perhaps sensing him, Dracula suddenly halts. It’s merely a moment, but in that fraction of a second Arikado’s already rushing forward, tackling his possessed and screaming charge to the ground. They land close to the coffee table, with Arikado pinning Dracula to the ground and pulling the blade down to where his heart is, figure still changing in the low light as Soma struggles to hold Dracula’s form in place from the inside, gripping him tightly in the darkness.

“Boy!” the dark lord bellows into their space, pushing at him like a hurricane. “Do not interfere!”

Fuck you, you bastard! Soma snaps back. He grips at him tighter. You should’ve killed me if you wanted me to stand back!

Arikado’s hair grows longer and curlier, falling off his shoulders and cascading down to frame Soma’s face. Golden hair like that of the woman from the dream, flowing freely as the darkness is peeled away from it like paint underwater. “Dracula,” he’s gritting out, pushing the thrashing dark lord down with all his might without fully sinking the knife down, “do not underestimate me. I’ve taken you down before, and I do not fear doing so again, no matter the cost.“

Dracula’s laughing, chest rising and falling. Yet the knife remains unmoving. “You’d risk killing the boy?” he chokes out. Arikado grimaces. “Sacrificing the life of an innocent mortal is unbecoming of your precious oath to humanity. Tell me, Adrian, could you truly go through with something so atrocious?”

The knife lowers just enough to prick at Soma’s skin. “If it’s what must be done,” Arikado concedes after a short pause.

Soma freezes.

By this point, Soma knows that he has to die. Even from the depths of his own soul, the action feels like it stabs straight into his heart anyway, painful and horrible and absolutely necessary. Time grows short; the dark lord’s power slowly rises the longer Dracula remains in possession of Soma’s body. He can feel it. Soma’s hold on Dracula remains taut and strong, but this close together, holding him back like this, their thoughts, feelings, and sensations mix once again—now that he’s made himself known and a nuisance, he is just as aware of Dracula as Dracula is of him.

And so the dark lord smirks. “He is still here, you know,” the dark lord scoffs. The maddened grin splattered on his face grows when Arikado’s eyes widen, when he draws in a sharp, surprised breath. Yet the knife remains unmoving. “Shall I tell you just how terrified he is of you right now?” Dracula boasts, “Of the heartbreak rushing through his veins? Or would you rather hear the cries where he begs you to go through with it and put an end to his life? I feel it within me as well, after all,” he sighs, “For he and I are as one.”

We are nothing alike, Soma counters.

“Or perhaps,” Dracula ignores him, “you would rather hear it yourself.”

It feels like suddenly being plucked out of the cold embrace of the ocean, out from the numbing cold and into freezing winds, slammed back into his own body while still being held from within. The murky darkness and burnt edges of his vision fade away, reality crystal clear yet blurry in his agony, the rush of oxygen into his lungs sweet and freeing from the oppressing severance of body and self. It hurts. It burns, it aches, it crawls up his heart and squeezes and destroys. Arikado’s screaming something, but Soma can’t hear, his blood and the darkness in him rushing into his ears, his heart, his brain, silencing the world.

Yet the knife remains unmoving, set in its way and resigned to this ending, as if there was no other choice to follow. The darkness laughs, the dark lord laughs, and Soma sneers at the pain, at the sound, at the sensation of inky blackness tangling with his blood and life. For a precious second of clarity, Soma knows that he is bait. A cruel, merciless display meant to toy with Arikado’s will, meant to make him falter and bring down his walls to destroy him from the inside. Arikado will die at this rate, Soma realizes. Then Yoko, then Julius, then Mina; they will all die if this is allowed to continue, killed by Soma’s own hands. He can’t let it happen. But he can’t move —Dracula’s hold on him still remains tightly knit into his skin, pouring into his veins, ready to pull him back any second. Chains of darkness wrapped around his soul.

An idea whispers in the agony, softly like air, gentle like reassurance. Dracula’s hold on him is tight enough to push them both uncomfortably together, no gaps left behind. Right now, at this moment, it truly is as if Dracula and Soma are finally joining as one.

Fine, then. Soma knows what he must do.

It’s so hard to keep his eyes open. He manages a wicked version of a smile through the pain, a weak laugh, something pathetic and as miserable as he feels. “Ari... kado…” Soma struggles out, grimacing in torture of the darkness that continues to flood his senses like dizzying fog. “I’m… I’m sorry,” he apologizes, “I can’t push him out.”

Arikado’s saying something, but Soma still can’t hear, still can’t see anything beyond the golden hue of his eyes. Soma takes a deep breath. It aches. Soma makes a fist. When did his arms fall to his sides? Who knows. It doesn’t really matter, not right now. “But that’s… okay…” Soma grins, “Because neither can… he.”

Before the dark lord can react, with the last remaining bits of whatever physical strength he has left, Soma raises his head and slams it back against Arikado’s floor as hard as he can.

The pain is instantaneous and nauseating. It’s reassuring as well, the ethereal connection and forceful linking of Soma’s veins and Dracula’s darkness reverberating with the impact, their pain shared through it and all-consuming. Soma sees stars. Dracula falters. Arikado’s shouting now, somewhere in the distance, ringing in the fog just as Soma suddenly lets go and wraps his sense of self around Dracula as tightly as he can, grinning as they’re plunged back into the cold waters of their shared soulspace.

Intertwined together as they are in this messy array of darkness and chains, Dracula is dragged down screaming, fruitlessly fighting all the way as the world above grows distant and misty. He can’t feel his body anymore, can’t hear Arikado’s voice. But Soma doesn’t care. As exhaustion claims him and they phase through the bottom of their consciousness, all that comes to mind is the metaphor of the cage, the silver gates of his soul closing as they fall through and trapping them both inside.

And so the world fades to black.

Chapter Text

Through a thick, endless fog walks a figure clad in white, nearly getting lost in the grey of the world surrounding him. No light but the clear paleness of the fog filters into this place, making it hard to see and distinguish anything here, and yet his heart guides him through as easily as any map would. The ground crunches under his boots as he walks through the silence, such a small and gentle sound ending the borderline dead stillness as if cancelling a spell, as if breaking an enchantment placed upon this frozen world.

Something is falling from the skies onto his hair, his coat, covering the ground and nearly transforming the whole scene into a white abyss. Though it looks as white as snow and flutters downward just as gently, the burning smell in the air suggests otherwise—ashes, then, carried by nonexistent winds and raining down from above, the remnants of an intense fire elsewhere. And yet the temperatures remain cold, low and unwelcoming as Soma makes his way through, the breeze gentle against his cheeks.

He can’t tell how long he’s been walking for. He can’t remember how long he’s been walking for, but that matters little at this point. There’s somewhere he must go, someone he must meet. Someone that Soma has locked in this world with him, an unwelcome passenger clinging to his soul and slowly bleeding him dry from the inside like a phantom orchid in a garden, a seed of evil that’s taken hold of him and must be uprooted to avoid further contamination of the self.

It’s only obvious that Dracula would manifest his presence here by summoning his entire castle.

Soma actually snorts at the sight, breath coming in puffy gusts of white against white. He comes to a stop and stands before the drawbridge, staring up at the structure through collected silver eyes. Ashes fall and cling to the wooden boards of the bridge, flutter on and into cobblestone. They don’t remain. The castle stands tall and dark against the pale fog, merely a silhouette hidden behind its swirling clouds, menacingly tall and irradiating its evil aura directly into Soma’s heart wavelength as if they were equals. It calls to him, beckons him in, singing for its master from another time and age, recognizing him and inviting him into its maze-like corridors.

His blood shivers in his veins, yet Soma manages to remain calm. Dracula’s castle looks so quiet and serene, almost unthreatening, Pandora’s Box hiding all its horrors and secrets within itself, waiting to be opened. Breathing, living. Walls pulsating like a slowed heartbeat echoing Soma’s own, wishing for the boy to open its doors and spill it all into the world.

No way in hell he’s going to let that happen.

The burning smell in the air is nauseating when he takes a deep breath, slow and stabilizing, invigorating his lungs like a rush of energy. Soma grits his teeth. In his left hand he holds an old and familiar blade from the day of the eclipse, Claimh Solais recreated from the memories dormant in Soma’s heart, summoned to serve him in his executioner’s quest. It shines with a gentle glow in the fog, reacting to him when he grips it tighter, determination and duty mixing together with the light within.

It’s time to put an end to this once and for all. In this world of fog and fire Soma decides to be the light, come to vanquish this horrible darkness and put an end to Dracula’s wrath, to claim back a soul and body that are rightfully his. Soma steps forward, footsteps loud on the creaking wood of the drawbridge, the gates large and intimidating in their diabolical design as they open to his approach. It’s as if they sensed him, reacting to a master set on self-destruction. And in turn he senses Dracula’s presence buried deep within the castle walls, a beacon in the dark to guide him through the maze.

Better not keep him waiting for long, then, is what Soma thinks the moment he steps forward through the opened gates and into the courtyard, the last thing to come to mind the second they close behind him.

No turning back now, we’re just getting started.

* * *

Footsteps loud against carpet and cobblestone. Claimh Solais shining under candlelight as he swings it, crimson zombie blood splattering on the walls and on his sleeves, acrid and heavy and dark. Heavy breathing through his mouth, grunting with effort as he attacks and defends. Exertion, hope. The lack of use of the power of dominance in this realm, purposely sealed away to avoid complications, his reliance on skill alone. And so it lies dormant still. Smoke in the air, ashes outside, darkness swirling, fatal silence clinging to the air like vines crawling up the wall.

Dracula’s castle is just as unwelcoming as it first was months ago.

But something’s different this time, something eerie and discomforting that stabs at Soma’s heart with dread and something akin to offence. The corridors and rooms of their castle have already changed and twisted to suit their current environment, a sick and cruel mockery of Soma and Dracula’s souls haphazardly shoved together and clashing in the darkness; it’s in the contrast between the candlelight and electrical lamps illuminating the rooms, in the old furniture and the broken electronics scattered here and there, in the familiar photographs of his friends hanging close by to old paintings of people he just can’t recognize.

He’s left hyper-aware of his surroundings, then, on edge and aggravated by the differences in this castle from the one he knew during the eclipse. It’s not familiar enough to feel like home, but it’s not foreign enough to feel like something unknown, either, instead feeling more like a half-forgotten dream bubbling and echoing at the back of his mind upon awakening. It’s a dissonant, vicious assault on his subconscious, wanting his attention and yet shapeless in the mist, never quite returning to him completely. Left static, swimming in white noise, a mere blur in the dark.

A shake of the head, a growl in his throat. Soma pushes on. He won’t let it get to him. It mustn’t get to him.

Focus.

Soma jogs through this hallway, hand still holding the sword down to his side, ready just in case anything decides to jump at him from the shadows. He reaches a fork in the road and without even thinking turns and picks the left path, in his heart feeling the pang of Dracula’s presence pulling him over to the correct road. A single streamlined path lies ahead, the road to the throne room. There’s no point in trying to explore the rest of its rooms.

Candlelight dancing as he rushes forth, broken televisions littering the way and forcing him to jump over them. Soma makes it to the end of the hallway, reaches forward to open the wooden door, and suddenly he stops, draws in a sharp breath, his back ramrod straight. An anxious fluttering pierces through his heart and stomach, his skin crawling as a shiver runs him down. Something’s wrong here. He can feel it seeping out through the wood of the door before him like the cold breeze outside of Arikado’s balcony door. There’s something waiting beyond this door.

He grips the sword tighter and swallows hard. A larger enemy, perhaps? Maybe, considering the usual structure of Dracula’s castle and the minions that awaited him his first time around. Whatever it is it’s calling to him, a siren’s song that begs him to come in, sweet and melancholy and vaguely familiar in its tone. Something strong, something holy. Soma blinks. Think, think, think; how many monsters in Dracula’s castle carry with them a holy alignment?

No matter. Claimh Solais glows gently by his side, warmth rushing up his arm. It feels comforting, echoing with memories of home, of his friends, of life. Right. Whatever it is, he can take it on. The sensation makes him smile, fills him with the determination to nod and pull the door open, finally stepping inside.

And then he freezes in his tracks.

Honestly, he really should’ve expected this, what with the holy magic emanating from the room and all.

Standing in the middle of the room is a figure Soma has only seen once in his mind’s eye, yet one that he can clearly recognize simply from the way he holds himself, by looking at his glaring pale blue eyes. He barely registers the sound of the door slamming closed behind him. This younger mirage of Julius Belmont stands low, holy whip in hand and obviously ready for battle, furious gaze trained on Soma’s. Deja-vu hits him like a large ocean wave, at once flooding him with recognition and disbelief; a memory, again. This room is a memory, an echo of that flashback from before.

But there’s something off about it, little details that escape him. The throne is missing, for one. So is Adrian. And if Julius is glaring at him like that… Soma’s hand tightens around his sword. Oh, great. So that’s how it’s going to be? He’s going to be literally taking a trip down memory lane on his way to Dracula’s throne room, this time taking the dark lord’s place in each of them?

Julius unfurls and cracks the whip towards Soma before the boy can even wonder if this is before or after Adrian’s entrance.

Adrenaline instantaneously seizes at his heart as he raises his sword hand to meet the whip, jumping back in a panic, but the impact doesn’t come. The whip never quite reaches Soma, laid before him in the air unfurled and dangerously approaching, stiff as if frozen in time. He can’t move. Soma can’t move. Neither can Julius, is what Soma guesses when he looks beyond the whip itself, sees him still reaching forward, directing the attack. Both of them have stopped.

The lights begin to dim and envelop them in the darkness. It’s a time spell, his instincts scream, but something tells him that a time spell just doesn’t quite cover it. Then what the hell is happening, is what Soma thinks angrily just as suddenly he hears a voice, piercing and challenging in the blackness and the silence.

“Dracula,” it says, echoing. A woman. In Julius’ hands, Vampire Killer gains an ethereal blood red glow when she speaks, light peeling off it like red rust with each word. “Respond, Dracula. I know you can hear me.”

No fucking way.

Vampire Killer is talking. Adrenaline becomes astonishment becomes complete and utter confusion. What the hell? What the hell. The Vampire Killer just spoke. Frozen in time as he is Soma’s jaw can’t fall open, but his heart quickens and aches. Another voice comes in then, surging from within his chest and laughing in the darkness, pulled out and away from him in tandem with his own—it is the physical remnant of Dracula’s memory that’s etched in Soma’s heart, reacting to the imagery and sound of this room.

Together, as one, they laugh. “I sense you more than anything, my dear,” comes Soma’s voice, comes Dracula’s voice. His mouth isn’t moving, yet like the illusion in the mirror once did, they still talk. “How utterly unexpected. The Vampire Killer herself, delighting me with her presence once again.”

In the red glow emanating from the whip, they can see the vague figure of a woman taking shape, particles like droplets dancing in the air and forming her outline. Once it’s done piecing her together she stands before Julius in the darkness, still like a spectre in the night, crystalline and delicate, a blood red diamond—the Vampire Killer’s very soul, comes a whisper in Soma’s heart.

Most of her features are lost to her light. Soma vaguely feels like he knows her name, but it eludes him, lost to a blank space in his memory. For now it is unimportant. A pause, a silence, deliberate and taunting, followed by a hum. “How many centuries has it been since we last spoke like this?” through Soma the dark lord asks.

"Far too many, Dracula," the woman replies, her figure glowing brighter with each word. Her voice grows gentler, softer. She sounds mournful and resigned. Tired. Yet the Vampire Killer’s glow doesn’t diminish in the slightest as she grows silent, as she sighs. "I see our tragedy unfolds once again.”

At this they laugh. "As dictated by the passage of fate."

"No, it is not fate,” she says, sets a crystalline hand over her chest, lowers her head as she shakes it. “Dracula, how much longer must we be forced to do battle? You don't have to continue down this path any longer. Surrender yourself, let your soul rest at last."

Rumbling anger through their veins flowing out of them in a mocking laugh, tangled with a growl and pooling at their feet. "Who are you to talk to me of letting my soul rest?” they demand. The Vampire Killer’s mirage raises her head again at their outburst, her expression calm. They scoff, “You, who put yourself at the eternal servitude of your dead lover's descendants?"

"The duty I carry was of my own choice, and I follow through with it purely out of love,” she declares. Her light glows brighter, warmer. “But yours is a role forced upon you by the darkness of the Crimson Stone. Dracula,” her voice turns pleading, “I know you. I know who you are, and you are not the Chaos that has twisted you so."

Another laugh, this time a mere snort. Her words are meaningless. They’re exhausted, so very exhausted, aching for victory and battle. "The man you speak of is no longer here, Vampire Killer,” they call out. Before she can speak again the choose to interrupt, hissing, “You won’t even call his name.”

Whether she intends to respond or not, they won’t allow her to do so. Strength and rage pour out of their heart, anguish dripping through whatever they leave untouched. “Enough!” they bellow out, thunderous and echoing in the darkness. Her light shimmers, shrivels. “I am Chaos! I am balance! I am the night that paints the skies, the ultimate evil, the harbinger of death and destruction in our world’s cycle of rebirth!"

"It is not your burden to bear!"

"Yet it is the one that I carry!”

The image of her crystalline body shatters with his scream, shards of blood red flowing back into the whip, her light gone and leaving Julius shrouded in the darkness. Yet around them, slowly, the darkness is then blown away like dust, revealing once again the walls of their castle. “The world needs a dark lord, Sara,” they speak into the following silence, as even Julius himself is blown away into dust. “And I have been chosen."

Dracula’s memory shatters and Soma draws a sudden deep breath, dropping the sword as he too falls prone to the ground.

Julius is gone, as is the grip of the dark lord’s presence in his body, leaving Soma once again alone in the room with only the sound of his own panting. He struggles for air, right hand trembling as he runs it through his hair, wide and wild silver gaze on the floor as his mind fires away memories after realizations after questions and answers. There is so much new information here that he needs to parse. Because left behind in the blank spaces of his mind is an open window through which a vibrant light filters in, Dracula’s memory illuminating a small portion of Soma’s past life.

Soma remembers the castle rising from the ground, remembers Dracula’s eyes—his eyes—opening to find ruined stone fixing itself whole again as he was once more given flesh, summoned to the world by some filthy human cult. Soma remembers the barrier going up as soon as he awoke, remembers the six days of the Battle of 1999 where Dracula was around to summon and command his army against Belnades witches and armed soldiers of the light. He remembers Adrian’s presence, strong and mighty and achingly familiar, mixed and tangled with the disgusting stench of the Belmont child’s blood. He remembers struggle, remembers bloodshed, remembers death and agony.

He remembers the moment of truth in his throne room on August 11th, 1999, staring down Julius Belmont and readying for a fight, only for the spirit contained in the Vampire Killer to interrupt it all after centuries of absence, calling out to him and uselessly pleading with a dead man. The weak, pathetic attempts to stop him, to prevent the fight, drowned out by the sound of metal against metal, of magic being released, of screams and shouts as they warred three on one. He lost that battle in the end, left bloodied and exhausted and furious as the Hakuba priest recited his spell, the eclipse high in the skies and plunging it all into its darkness.

And before the memories abruptly stop Soma remembers that same spirit’s cries as Dracula’s last ditch attempt to remain anchored to this world took place, severed only by her own interference, fading to black and taking one last image of Julius’ anguished face with them.

Oh, god, Soma feels like throwing up. Nausea and rage don’t mix well at all. There’s still a few blanks in the memories even as they settle in the window’s light, but what little he has clear visuals on makes him shudder and whimper, overwhelmed by sensory overload and too much information all at once. Breathe in, hold, release. Calm down. Dracula’s presence flares up deeper inside the castle, and Soma forces himself to swallow his anxiety down, to focus on the task at hand. Claimh Solais shines to his side, glow stabilizing once Soma takes it back into his hand and shakily raises to a stand.

Shaky, nervous laughter escapes his lips. There’s just so much left to unpack. He walks over to the door at the opposite end of the room with the world swimming around him, trying to focus first on the Vampire Killer’s spirit. Sara, Dracula had called her. A blood red, crystalline spirit of wicked light. Who is she? Where did she come from? Does Adri—Arikado know anything of her?

Does Julius?

Guilt tastes like bile in his mouth, feels like ice clinging to his lungs. The mere mention of Julius after everything he’s seen feels like a stab to the heart. On wobbling feet and ignoring the renewed need to throw up in disgust Soma throws the door of this room open and walks out into the next carpeted corridor, breaking out into a sprint and willing down the panic in his heart. Don’t think about it now, don’t think about it now—just hurry down to the heart of the castle and confront Dracula. That’s the only way he can apologize for a thirty six year old sin.

Because if it hadn’t been for Sara he’s sure Dracula would’ve killed Julius.

* * *

The next ominous-feeling door in the castle comes five rooms later, on the second floor, exuding a thick darkness and shaking his heart as he takes the handle in his hand and pushes himself inside.

Behind it lies an audience chamber shrouded in cool colours and decorated with a crimson red carpet. Pillars of bones and skulls scattered through the room, tacky in their presence yet so very much like the dark lord who most likely put them there. As Soma enters the room, footsteps muffled by the carpet below, a cold, anxious feeling of dread rattles his lungs with each breath, kept at bay only by the knowledge of what’s to come.

He grips the blade tighter and swallows down his unease. It’s just a memory incoming, most likely, hiding in the shadows and getting ready to leap out at him. That, or an enemy. Illusion or battle. But it doesn’t matter, though; whatever’s coming his way, Soma’s ready for it this time. Because if this is a trial set by Dracula himself then Soma fully intends to pass it.

So when the sensation of Dracula’s memory rumbling and stirring in his heart comes in this time, Soma doesn’t fight it. He closes his eyes and lets it spread through his body, moving him like he’s a puppet, going through the motions of Dracula’s echo. He doesn’t fear it. It won’t harm him: It can’t harm him, because it’s all his. And there is much to learn hidden within them; sunken into these memories as he is, perhaps Soma can finally, truly collect whole truths, understand his own history and destroy the dark lord through them.

Because the answers he seeks always lie inside their memories, don’t they?

Soma opens his eyes.

There is a woman with long, raven black hair panting before him, wielding a crimson red sword that she keeps lowered as she stumbles back. An open wound on her shoulder oozing her own ichor onto her weapon. Red on red, blood dripping to the floor where it pools in small circles. She wobbles on her feet, yet her eyes remain as cold and impassive as Arikado’s masks despite her obvious pain, as if uncaring, as if resigned, staring down the dark lord as if defiant of death itself.

And seeing this the dark lord laughs, Soma’s chest rising and falling in sick satisfaction at seeing yet another display of humanity’s pitiful bravado fall before his eyes. One pale hand gestures towards the woman, the laughter turning into an irritated and incredulous scoff. “What nonsense is this?” they say, two voices mixed into one once again. “You will never defeat me with such feeble tricks!”

She doesn’t react, not at first. She just lowers her face, blood dripping from between chapped lips, her body struggling to straighten back up and stand. And when her pale eyes meet theirs, there is no smugness in them, no fury, no fear. There is nothing but stoicism. Fiercely, defiantly, this woman with hair as black as the night itself wordlessly raises her blade, pointing it towards them with a shaky grip she doesn’t seem to mind leaving unchecked.

And then her hand opens, the red sword clattering on the floor where she carelessly drops it.

“My power alone may not be enough,” she says after a short silence, the intonation of her words betraying her stoic face. Around her outstretched hand darkness and flame swirl like twin streams of energy tied into one, reaching forward, coalescing into a dark ball—and it feels familiar, it feels wicked, almighty, uncontrollable and his. “But with Dominus,” she continues, and her voice is silk, her words are fire, “I can destroy you.”

When she closes her fist the power contained in her hand detonates into a display of red and purple energy surrounded by pure darkness, the room suddenly engulfed in shadow before exploding into an infernal and ravenous fire. Gone are the skulls and bones, the carpet, consumed instead by raw, agonizing energy that turns the world to ash. Fire. It’s always fire. Her power bleeds out into the scene around them, flooding the world with its flames, reaching out for them and burning them both. The scream that rises out of Dracula’s throat gets lost in the cacophony of the woman’s magic ripping them apart from the inside, flames piercing them through like spears.

It rouses the darkness in their heart, pulling it apart with a strength that matches their own. The Chaos in their veins screams, bellows in the void—fire against fire, a fragmented whole. Claws of energy tearing at their soul.

Hatred pouring into them.

Anger at their destruction at the hands of a mere mortal.

Agony flavoured like smoke and ash.

Consumed from the inside by the flames of her spell, in the end it all turns to dust. When their torture ends they’re left charred and aching in death, with the last thing they see before they’re blown away into ashes being her figure collapsing on the floor, unmoving for a second before melting away into the carpet underneath her.

Soma comes back from the memory screaming and on his knees.

Once again Claimh Solais lies discarded to his left. His hands immediately fly to his chest, gripping at his sweater like a lifeline, breathing once again out of control and adrenaline wild in his veins. Another window opens in his mind, filling in the blank spaces with its light and bringing forth more memories.

But there aren’t as many this time—he remembers being incarnated for merely a few hours, of which most were spent waiting in his throne room and then doing battle with the woman with black hair. He never knew her name, but her blood felt familiar, rushing powerful and defiant in her veins. A Belmont, perhaps? Try as he might, with such little memory of her that isn’t tainted by their duel, Soma just can’t tell. But she’d been determined to stop the dark lord despite her blank expression and modulated voice, never faltering even as the fight turned bloody and her life became threatened. And her power… that tremendous, burning power, all-consuming and uncontrollable—

Dominus, she’d called it. But Soma remembers it differently, more intimately. He remembers it from his battle with Julius in 1999, from his close encounter with Chaos earlier this year, from the very battle against this mysterious woman.

The power of Dracula simmering within him is one he’s come to know very well in the past few months.

Soma takes his sword into his hands, rises from the ground using it as a crutch, takes a few moments to catch his breath. In, out. Inhale, exhale. He remembers her collapsing, her unmoving corpse hidden away by her hair as Dracula faded away back into the dark abyss of defeat. The illusory taste of smoke is still heavy in Soma’s mouth—indeed, it’d been fire against fire. Belmont or not, whoever that woman was, she wielded Dracula’s own power against him and paid the ultimate price for it. How she did it he doesn’t know, but the mere idea of a mortal dying to bring him down sends a shiver down his spine.

A suicide attack. Bravery of the highest kind.

And he doesn’t even know her name.

Eyes closed, he feels more than sees Claimh Solais’ glow when he holds it close to his face. The blade irradiates a gentle warmth against his skin, reflecting his heart as he utters a small prayer for a woman long-since dead, for a nameless hero whose sacrifice will never be forgotten.

* * *

Just because he’s expecting the memories now it doesn’t mean it gets any easier to maintain the synchronization when the content hidden in them shakes him down to the very core.

Because in the next memory he’s facing Arikado’s remnant, Adrian, in a fierce battle between vampire and vampire. In this memory Soma and Dracula somehow remain separate, the horror at fighting Arikado clashing with the rage of fighting Adrian. With the heartache burning like the flames he throws towards the blond, all of Dracula’s rage and misery are directed towards Adrian, towards the boy who’d betrayed him, towards someone he’d once loved.

Soma doesn’t understand. Slightly desynchronized as they are, Soma can’t understand. He doesn’t even know if he wants to understand, fear cold in his veins as he relives this particular memory, as he wonders just where it is that this is all going to end. Because this feels too much like the confrontation in the living room, with Adrian’s golden eyes piercing him with unmasked desolation, enveloping him as Dracula’s memory uses his body to clash against him. Adrian goes all out in his attacks, holding nothing back even when Dracula changes forms into something more monstrous, even as his body sustains injuries severe enough to knock back any mortal man. Immortality against immortality. He stands proud and golden against Dracula in the darkness, like the sun vanquishing the night, burning and determined to put a stop to this madness.

And put a stop to it he does, the moment that Dracula stumbles and Adrian delivers the final blow, sword piercing into the dark lord’s chest and plunging right into his heart.

Even now, pain and heartache still feel the same. “Go back whence you came!” Adrian is shouting, shaking, unrestrained anger and grief dripping out of his words, “Trouble the soul of my mother no more!”

Blood rushes into Dracula’s mouth, copper and iron staining Adrian’s face as the dark lord chokes, coughs it out, sputters with his words. Adrian’s grimace grows, visibly miserable as the lord speaks. “H-How? How is it that I have been so defeated?” Dracula chokes out through his blood.

"You lost your heart. Your soul.” Adrian swallows hard. “You have been doomed ever since you lost the ability to love."

Laughter hurts, but still Dracula allows a bitter one to escape his crimson lips. Soma feels his pain, feels his anger turn to sorrow—and it confuses him, intrigues him. “‘For what profit is it to a man, if he gains the world and loses his own soul?’ Matthew 16:26, I believe,” Dracula quotes.

The dark lord pauses then as another fit shakes his lungs, his monstrous form burning away into purple fire. He falls, but Adrian catches him. Inhuman strength holds all of his weight even as Dracula goes limp in the other’s arms. The blond vampire doesn’t remove his blade, but he gently helps the dark lord down as he collapses, surprisingly tender and delicate in his movement as he lays him down on the dark floor.

Silence carries with it a million unspoken words, several years of strife, a broken bond. Grief and loss etched into two pairs of eyes, one golden and one red. Dracula blinks away the blurry mist in his eyes, unwilling to cry, undead heart shriveling into itself with sadness. An echo of love, twisted. The dark lord breaks the silence with a deep breath. "Tell me, what…” Dracula struggles for breath, trying to hold Adrian’s gaze. “What were Lisa's... last words?"

Adrian takes a moment to respond. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes. The words flow out of him like a gentle breeze. "She said, 'Do not hate humans. If you cannot live with them, then at least do them no harm, for theirs is already a hard lot.'” Then his golden eyes flutter back open to meet Dracula’s once more, determined and restrained. “She also said that she would always love you,” Adrian finally adds. “For eternity."

Misery tastes like blood trailing down his mouth, liquid heartbreak that pools on the floor. Chaos screams within his heart, unwilling to accept defeat, but by this point it doesn’t matter anymore. His darkness is coming to a halt, his life is seeping away through open wounds. Dracula closes his eyes. "Forgive me, Lisa... There is a monster inside of me,” he breathes out.

Even in death Adrian is still holding him, but he can’t feel the boy’s hold, can’t sense his vampiric presence in the room. All that he is is fading. With the last of his strength Soma hears the dark lord whisper, “Farewell, my son."

"Farewell, father," comes a soft reply, nearly lost to death’s mists as Dracula finally dies.

He blinks to find the ceiling of this room back in place, the chandelier above slowly regaining its flames. The darkness and memory have gone into the fog. Soma lays on the floor where Dracula once was, sword still in his left hand, and raises his right hand up towards the ceiling, reaching out for nothing in particular. Father, son. Dracula and Adrian. Grief.

So this is why Arikado was so jittery about Soma so recklessly using his birth name.

Another window opens in his mind’s eye, gentler this time. Memories pour in like rain, cold and piercing yet comforting still. He blinks, and then Soma remembers Lisa Tepes entering his castle and stealing away his heart within the first five minutes of her visit, speaking of science and change, mentally challenging him and invigorating him with her mere presence. Her soul golden like precious metal shining in the light. He remembers Adrian, too, remembers the day of his birth, remembers holding him in his arms like he was a treasure and a blessing, remembers raising him within the castle’s walls, remembers endless love and the path to salvation staring back at him hidden in those golden eyes.

Then he remembers Lisa’s burning in the fifteenth century, the way the church celebrated her death like animals dancing around a wildfire. His nightmare apparition finally gains a face as Soma remembers her cruel death down to the smallest detail. And with the image of her death another window opens, then another, then another, until most of his past life is illuminated in the darkness and Soma can remember details dating back to 1455.

Forgive me, Lisa. There is a monster inside of me, Dracula’s words ring clearly in Soma’s mind.

Lisa’s death shattered something within Dracula. He remembers anguish and hate rotting him from the inside as Chaos once again took hold, remembers releasing an army of hell upon the land, a curse. He remembers his own son, Adrian Fahrenheit Tepes, standing up against his genocidal plans and offering redemption only for Dracula to lash out at him and leave him deathly injured in the dark. Adrian fled, then, and Dracula completely lost track of him. No matter how hard they looked, none of his servants could find his son. And no matter how badly his guilt ached, nothing could stop that which he’d already set in motion.

He remembers facing Adrian once again a year after Lisa’s death, this time on opposing sides as his son sided with three other hunters, renaming himself Alucard and claiming to be his mirror. Soma remembers the stench of Trevor Belmont’s blood, the miserable laughter that bellowed out of Dracula’s lungs at the sight of his own flesh and blood allied with the whip-wielding vampire hunter, a self-fulfilled prophecy of betrayal laughing back at him from somewhere in the afterlife.

Vaguely, he can somewhat recall that Sara had called to him over his heartbreak during that battle, their first official meeting as the Vampire Killer and Dracula. But the specific contents of that conversation elude him, blurred away by the rage and hatred that followed during the battle with Trevor Belmont and his son. Soma blinks. Even now, there are still blanks in his memory, one final window remaining closed in his mind. One last patch of darkness laying over his life.

Alright, then.

Soma wipes at his eyes and takes a deep breath. There’s a steady flow of tears dripping down his cheeks and to the floor, an echo of Dracula’s melancholy still rippling through him. He gets up again, walks over to the next door, and suddenly thinks of the man who’d awakened him during the eclipse. Genya Arikado, Alucard, Adrian Fahrenheit Tepes—whatever name he chooses to call himself, whatever disguise he picks to wear, that won’t change who he is at heart. He is the son of Count Vlad Dracula Tepes, the Prince of Darkness, an immortal soul cursed to wander the Earth for all eternity.

But he’s also the dhampir soldier in Nostradamus’ prophecy. The protector of the light, his father’s opposite. Soma’s guardian.

The Belmont’s guardian.

Emotionally exhausted yet willing to press on, Soma opens the door and enters the next hallway, determined to finish what Alucard started centuries ago and get back to him in one piece.

* * *

This far into the castle the structure and architecture gain a darkness and ruin to them much more associated with the dark lord than Soma himself, the rooms and hallways slowly but surely losing their modern touch until nothing Soma easily recognizes remains. Decay clings to the walls instead, rusting away cobblestone, presenting burnt carpets and shattered furniture as he rushes through.

Dracula’s presence grows stronger the deeper into the castle Soma gets, pulling him further into the structure until he’s climbing up the top floor towards the throne room. Slowly but surely he makes the climb, the utterly nonsensical and chaotic internal layout not once slowing him in his way. His heart throbs, his skin crawls. Dracula is close. So up and up he goes until the rooms slowly grow light and foggy again, that endless blanket of white smoke from outside seeping into the highest point in the castle.

But with the smoke so does that burning smell from before come back, so do the ashes. The world grows cold. Soma gags, heart rate piquing in disgust. That fire, again. It’s always goddamn fire. What a sick twist it is that even his own subconscious would be burning away from outside-in.

Focus.

When the final gate opens and Soma comes face to face with the wide open area right before the throne room, decayed cobblestone covered in ashes and dust from the fire. It’s uncanny to see the final staircase leading up to Dracula’s throne room shrouded in white smoke rather than black night for once, with the silhouette of the clock tower in the distance barely visible in its thickness and the sky raining down ash. Soma shudders at the sight. Unease and anxiety grasp him from inside, twisting and coiling in his stomach, plunged into acidic exhilaration and manifesting in the shake to his sword hand, in the heart palpitations in his chest.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The dawn of the final judgement is upon Dracula’s doorstep.

But something’s not right.

Soma frowns and drops his gaze to the floor, bites his lower lip. Dracula’s close, extremely so, and Claimh Solais glows expectantly, singing the prelude to his destruction. On the floor Soma’s shadow dances with the blade’s song. But there’s something missing still, one last dark patch in his mind that hasn’t been opened and illuminated yet. The dark lord’s memories reach back all the way to 1455 and then abruptly stop, entering a darkness with no end in sight. And without the context of this final string of memories there’s several holes and questions left behind in the others, things that Soma just can’t recall, names and places and references that blur out, that make no sense.

He shudders again. Somehow, the world has grown even colder. Claimh Solais glows even more brilliantly in the smoke, and in its light his shadow grows. But his shadow shouldn’t be that large at all, or that unstable, or so malicious in its aura, or—

Oh, shit.

Soma jumps back just as a large scythe falls and embeds itself on the floor, severing the shadow from his feet. He stumbles back towards the door, blade raised, heart pounding, nerves high. Laughter echoes in the realm, carried by a sudden gust of wind that chills Soma further down to the bone. He clicks his tongue. The severed shadow slowly rises from the ground. It swirls into itself and grows tattered and burnt edges that flutter in the wind, takes on a humanoid form and reaches a skeletal hand out of its fabrics towards the scythe, taking it, lifting it off the floor with no effort at all.

Perhaps this is actually the final memory, is all that Soma can think while lowering his stance to a battle position, half in annoyance and half in dread. But then why is he still coherent? Why can he still move?

The scythe dances between bony hands, Death’s floating figure rising high above Soma. Silence, for a moment. A stare down between mortal and undead. Then Death chuckles, sets a hand over his chest, bows. "Lord Dracula," the reaper calls out. “Welcome home.”

Correct, but also incredibly and absolutely wrong. So Soma scoffs. "Sorry, buddy,” he tightens his hold on the blade, “You’ve got the wrong number."

The wind grows stronger. "Ah,” Death breathes out, and with the low note of his voice the stench of rotten meat rises from the ground, powerful enough for Soma to gag. “So it's the young reincarnation, then?” He grips his scythe tightly with both hands. “I’ve been expecting you."

“Yeah, about that,” Soma says. He points his blade towards the spectre, slowly steps forward. “This is my soul, so what the hell are you doing here? There’s no way you can be real.”

“You would be correct to assume that, young master. I am a memory, a remnant of the darkness your past self has sided with. And I was placed here to detain you.”

A smirk. “Oh, so you’re a bodyguard.”

“That is one way to put it, yes,” Death sighs. He takes a second to raise the scythe, pointing it back at Soma, mirroring his stance from high off the ground. Soma tenses. "As a being native to this realm, I sense your murderous intent within the very fabrics of this world. Your mission is one of self-destruction.” Death’s voice lowers dangerously, seeps into the ground, causes the earth to tremble like an earthquake. His voice is as cold as ice, a warning as he adds, “Therefore, I cannot allow you to continue on your quest."

Death attacks without a warning, rushing forward and cutting through the air with the scythe. At the last second Soma sinks to the ground and rolls out of the way, rising to his feet as quickly as he can. When he turns around Death is already gone, disappeared within the mist. But Soma can still feel him. So when the hair on his back stands Soma immediately twists on his heel and raises his sword, metal against metal clashing when Death's scythe connects with the weapon.

He's pushed backwards, away from the door, skidding on the cobblestone. Death rushes at him with its scythe held tightly between bony hands. Soma jumps to the side, meets him halfway, then spends the next minute blocking and parrying the reaper's hits one after another, grunting at the effort.

A recent, familiar memory of his last encounter with Death flutters past the back of his eyes. Soma cries out, pushing himself out of the way with a twirl and nearly avoiding another slash from the scythe as Death sends it spinning after him. He’s already panting from the effort of getting all the way here, already sweating cold. The ashes are making it hard to breathe. But he knows he’s simply getting lucky; usually, the reaper’s weapon is absolutely despicable and a bitch to avoid. If he doesn’t find a way to end this pointless battle now Soma’s going to be too exhausted during his encounter with Dracula.

The scythe spins right back into Death’s hands as he rushes forward again, swinging it in a wide line before him. Soma jumps back towards the staircase, stumbles, grimaces when he hits the fence of this landing hard enough for it to creak. He jumps away from it, away from Death, back towards the center of this area to go back to blocking. “Sure doesn’t seem practical trying to kill someone you don’t want to kill himself!” he shouts.

“You will not be killed, but rather assimilated,” Death calmly retorts. He twists the scythe around himself, adds, “You will be made whole.”

“I’m already whole, damn it!”

Soma parries Death’s scythe, slides his sword along the blade of Death’s own blade. He grits his teeth, pushes him aside, jumps back and lowers his center of gravity to stabilize his stance. Claimh Solais is a pulsating warmth against his clammy palm, flaring with each beat of his heart. Ashes continue to fall. That stink of rotting meat is mixing with the burning stench and digging into Soma’s lungs with each ragged breath he takes. His stomach twists, his chest hurts. He’s growing dangerously tired, left blocking and stalling and fruitlessly attempting to preserve his life, obstructing Death’s attacks rather than getting any hits in. Soma needs to get off the defense.

But Death is quick and merciless and always on the offense, untouchable, mighty and absolute just like the final rest that he delivers upon the world. Soma’s just delaying the inevitable by this point. Because even as a memory, there is no outrunning Death. There is no beating Death. Fending him off is futile. And what is he doing here, lying to Death itself? Soma isn’t whole. He hasn’t been whole ever since becoming aware of the missing pieces months ago, back during the eclipse.

You will not be killed, but rather assimilated.

He takes a deep breath and tightens his hold on the sword.

So be it.

When Death next comes for him Soma doesn’t stop him. He doesn’t jump away, doesn’t raise Claimh Solais, he doesn’t dodge. Small yet steady he stands as the reaper swings his scythe. But in this world of smoke and mirrors guarded by the remnant of a memory, Death’s scythe carries with it something other than his own demise, fabricated as he is from the only materials that Dracula could’ve put him together with. Acceptance comes in closed eyes, in a deep breath, in spread arms. It doesn’t cut him down. Through assimilation of the impossible, Soma finally receives a missing piece, a light cutting through the darkness like a scythe’s blade.

He receives a memory protected by the illusion meant to exhaust him.

A sick satisfaction and affection flow through his veins along with the vampiric curse of the Crimson Stone, and victory feels like enhanced strength, like eternal life, like sin of the mightiest kind. Love and gratitude cause him to sigh at the sight before him. The blond hunter in front of him holds his weapon in his hands tightly enough for the leather to creak.

“You abandoned humanity?!”

The words are worded like an accusation and carried in waves of pure light, brilliant, familiar, burning with an overflowing distress. Even so, his own face remains impassive. This man, he looks on in utter disbelief, the confusion and despair of his expression mixing seamlessly with the heartbreak in his voice. So foolish, so naive. Innocent. He doesn’t understand. Not yet, at least, but he can. He will. He just has to be told the truth.

He senses a rage from the whip. Even tainted with vampirism and trapped within a weapon, Sara’s soul is still so full of life, so mighty, so clear and easily recognizable. Audible only to his vampiric hearing is her voice, her outraged cries demanding answers just like her betrothed is, the heartache and betrayal in her strong vampiric presence crystalline and clear. Their rage is almost funny in how misplaced it is. He is not their enemy. He never was. Can’t they see that he’s trying to avenge them?

Fine, then. They at least deserve to know.

“That’s right, Leon,” he begins. He offers a raised hand, outstretched towards the man, palm facing the skies. “That was my goal. By becoming a vampire, I have obtained eternal life.” He takes a deep breath, then grins, mad, fury growing like a parasite. “It was my revenge against god.”

What are you saying?!” Leon takes a step forward, shaking his head. “No! Have you forgotten our oaths?! Please, the curse can’t take you too!”

For a dead man, the blood flowing through his veins never felt so alive. “Our oaths? Leon, you and I, we have risked our lives and fought for the sake of god. But in my hour of need, he abandoned me.” He steps forward, slowly, shivering as he raises his voice with each following word, ”When all I ever wished for was Elisabetha's safety, he turned his back on me, my cries falling on deaf ears as he mercilessly stole away the one I loved most!”

Then he screams. It’s all-consuming, this rage, this hated, this agony bubbling in the cracks of his heart. It boils and flows out into crazed laughter, a powerful booming cackle that makes Leon flinch back, vengeful whip raised and ready. “So I took my revenge!” he shrieks. “If limited life is god's decree, then I shall defy it! And within that eternity, I shall curse him forevermore!”

He lowers his hands again and covers his face, miserably chuckling into his palms as he laments the loss of his and Leon’s innocence to the truth. Because even loyal as they were their god still isn’t here, their god has left them stranded, their god won’t listen to their cries. His shoulders shake. The heartbreak pouring out of Sara and Leon is as overwhelming as his own is. Leon’s saying something now, but he cannot hear. There is a chaotic energy flowing into him from the Crimson Stone, pulsating like a migraine, like grief, whispering into his soul and burning away at the edges of his mind.

Something inside of him is breaking.

But he doesn’t care.

When he uncovers his face, Leon’s already unfurled the whip, ready to attack. Stupid man, blind to the truth. Still just a bud. But he cannot bloom as he is. “Leon,” he calls out with a gentle smile. He once again offers a shaking hand towards his friend, eyes stinging as tears begin to fall. “After what you've been through, you should know. You should understand the pain of having everything you have be taken from your hands. But neither of us has to be alone. So come with me, Leon,” he says, stepping forward. “Come with me. I will give you eternity, too.”

Rejection feels like a blade through the heart, sounds like a shattering noise in his chest as pure, dark anguish floods into his soul. It looks like Leon closing his eyes and shaking his head, taking a step back. Rejection hurts and twists at his world, longing affection burning away into outraged betrayal instead as his hand falls back to his side. Fangs bared he growls, and the scent of Leon’s blood is nauseatingly pure, blessed by a god that in turn simply cast him aside.

“Mathias,” Leon mumbles out, his voice drenched in sorrow, in guilt, in resentment, in pain. The name burns like flames. Slowly, behind Leon, a light rises from the dark—like a window opening and illuminating the world, it carries with it the truth. It hurts, it’s cold. Once again his heart is shattering. When Leon opens his eyes, his expression has already steeled into a flat painting of resignation, but even his gaze remains miserable as he shakily whispers out his final refusal into the overwhelming light.

“You wretched fool.”

Leon fades away as the light consumes it all, white and ashen as Soma opens his eyes.

Crusades ending in bloodshed, misery and pain, knighthood and glory as empty as his heart. Yet Leon Belmont was always by his side, supportive and trusting so loyal that it almost scared him. They believed completely in each other, and they were bound by an old friendship. A bond thicker than blood itself.

Soma remembers Sara and Elisabetha’s faces, their time together as friends as they awaited for their return. He remembers Elisabetha’s love following him into marriage, remembers her decay as sickness took away her strength until it then took her life, her death happening during the crusade. He was hit with a grief so profound it left him bedridden. An enormous hated then started blooming inside him, growing like a poisonous flower that slowly took hold of his heart, the thorns that pierced him bleeding him out of whatever faith and love for a negligent god he had. Poison turned into fury turned into a plan for blasphemous revenge. And then something broke. So when he heard of the Crimson and Ebony Stones, when he heard of the vampire lord causing an eternal night through them, he knew what he had to do.

He remembers pushing Leon towards the vampire’s castle, placing all his remaining and twisted faith in his success. He remembers planning Sara’s death to power up Leon’s whip. Soma remembers betraying the world, and Soma remembers the world betraying him back.

And all the pieces lie where they fell.

Death is gone, assimilated into Soma’s memories as he was. The ashes are still falling from the skies, steady in their descent, that god damned burning smell strong and clinging to his lungs. Silver eyes blink away tears as empty laughter rises in his chest. So, this is it? This is what the dark lord is, what he was?

Soma Cruz. Vlad Dracula Tepes.

Mathias Cronqvist.

Finally, at last, Soma understands.

Chapter Text

The two large doors to the throne room are pushed completely open with a trembling, loud, powerful creaking sound that consumes the entire area, slashing away at the previous silence and keeping it at bay as they slowly drift back closed. Footsteps muffled on the crimson carpet join the echo as out of the smoke and into the room steps Soma Cruz, holding Claimh Solais limply in his left hand, dragging it across the floor and cutting the carpet apart in his stride.

Clapping comes in next, mocking and slower than Soma’s deliberately slow marching. A passive-aggressive combat of sound. Glaring silver eyes exclusively rest on the throne as he advances, trained on the figure slouching with his legs crossed, on the man greeting him with a mocking smirk. The man ends his clapping when Soma stops a few feet away from him, opting instead to prop his left arm on the throne’s armrest, resting his cheek against his hand and letting his long, curly black hair cascade down his chest and over his elegant green cloak. His other hand rests across his lap, limply and careless.

The throne room’s doors behind Soma shut back closed with a loud bang, locking them both inside with the silence of their meeting, with the overpowering darkness and the flickering candlelight shadows in the uneasy, supernatural breeze slipping in from the small windows high above. Nobody moves, then, stuck in a painting of this prelude to extinction as they are. Soma’s grip on the sword tightens just a little, breath hitching in his throat in restrained exhilaration. So, the time has finally come. Past and future, the first and the last; finally, forced together here in their shared inner world, they can stand face to face.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Light and darkness meet at last.

Soma has a mission to complete.

But he can’t move now, stuck standing before the dark lord as he is while dumbly staring at his younger visage. It’s not like looking into a mirror per-se, but the familiarity in his features makes his stomach twist—it’s surreal, like watching a remnant of a dream from the outside, standing on the opposite side of the throne room when Soma disctinctly remembers always sitting at the throne. Why Dracula’s chosen to appear in his youngest form now Soma doesn’t know, but it irritates and distresses him how much of an obvious familial resemblance there is between Arikado’s black-haired disguise and the human man Dracula once was. Arikado has his father’s facial structure, his hair, his elegance, his composure. But at the same time, he’s got his mother’s eyes, her smile, her gentleness and compassion. A perfect mixture of them both, rising from the darkness of his heritage and becoming a champion for the light instead.

He remembers seeing Lisa’s echo in Arikado’s eyes during their battle in the eighteenth century, remembers it breaking his heart to pieces as he died. His shoulders tense. Soma growls under his breath, then sighs, tired. Is this why Dracula chose to appear like this? To stir up their memories, to toy with him?

Do they share their feelings now, so mixed and tangled as they’ve become?

Probably not.

It’s hard to focus. Memories of past sins weighing him down drive a sickening mixture of emotions to swirl in Soma’s lungs and chest, much more powerful and brutal than the smoke and ashes from outside. Posture tense and breathing shallow, jaw locked with a million words and actions that find no good way to come forth, he’s instead left scowling at the dark lord, seething in rage and hands shaking in sorrow. Because what does he say after everything he’s seen, where does he begin?

What does he do?

Overwhelmed as he is Soma fails to make the first move yet again. And almost as if sensing his hesitation Dracula smirks and chuckles under his breath, ever the image of smug satisfaction as he tilts his head at the boy before him. In response all Soma can do is suppress a shudder and give him the breathy phantom of a growl.

Yet Dracula remains unmoving in his throne.

It’s going to drive Soma fucking insane.

Seemingly growing tired of the silence left behind, finally Dracula hums. It echoes through the room like thunder despite being gentle, amplified and worsened by Soma’s barely contained temper and turmoil. Dracula gestures at his reincarnation with his free hand. “Welcome, Soma Cruz,” he calls out, loud and overpowering in the throne room’s oppressive quiet. “Congratulations on making it this far.”

Asshole, Soma thinks. He doesn't have the time for this. He clicks his tongue in defiant annoyance, then maintains eye contact as he offers a slow and exaggerated bow, replying only once he’s straightened back up: “Of course I’m here” — he grins — ”Or what, did you doubt yourself, Mathias?”

That wipes the smirk off Dracula’s face faster than anything else would’ve done, replacing it with a twitching glare. It reappears instead on Soma’s face and remains in place even as the dark lord sighs in obvious exasperation. Opposing mirror images even down to their expressions. “Snippy, are we?” Red eyes flutter closed as Dracula pauses to sigh. Then, “I wonder… How long has it been since I abandoned that accursed name?” the vampire lord asks into the silence.

“One whole millennium, give or take,” Soma shrugs as he answers him. He feels more than hears himself scoff, just a mere spasm as he straightens back up in his place. “That’s just about how long ago you abandoned your humanity, too. You left it all behind with Leon and Sara, didn’t you?”

Glowing red eyes stare at Soma through the thin layer of smoke left inside the room as he speaks, their gaze daring, defiant, conceited. They shine with unrestrained delight as a twisted smile dances on Dracula’s face, the lamps’ fire surging momentarily. The dark lord then snickers under his breath, thunderous, mercilessly pleased and proud, his twin fangs shining in the low candlelight. Soma’s breath hitches in his throat at the sound once again—the sarcastic smirk on his own lips turns into a sneer, a sudden, barely restrained rush of anger in his veins making him shake and tighten his grip on the sword. Echoing through the room is the laugh of a madman. It's the laugh of a sinner. Soma can’t stand the sound.

And then Dracula, Mathias, he simply sighs. The vampire lord uncrosses his legs, pushes himself out of his slouch, and rests both forearms on the armrests, now sitting properly on the throne. A deceiving, gentle smile decorates his features. Sat here as he is on a throne of stone guarded by the sculpture of a skull on top, bathed in the low light of gentle fire, Dracula looks every bit as intimidatingly murderous as always, confident and powerful and masterful in the wake of success.

“I see you’ve regained our memories,” he observes.

Soma snorts at the back of his throat. The candlelight flares up again as Dracula’s smile widens at the sound, shadows flickering before him, illuminating his face, giving his eyes a downright treacherous shine in the darkness. Soma gets the feeling it’s all performative, atmospheric. Such a Tepes thing to do.

“Yeah, I did,” he replies, willing his tension down, his heart to stabilize, his mind to focus. “And I think I can understand everything now. Everything, save for one thing.” Soma sighs, squints his eyes at the man before him, slightly raises his head to look down his nose at Dracula—intimidation tactics sampled straight out of his own past life. As loud as he can he demands, “Where is your plan going now, Mathias?”

The younger Dracula steeples his fingers in front of his mouth just as his smile grows into a wicked grin. “Plan? Why, there is no plan. All I’ve done is give you the answers you so longed for, boy,” is what he chooses to reply with. He hums then, softens his eyes and voice to add, “You may consider it a gift. All the truths the world denied you, that your guardians hid away, I gave to you instead.” His eyes gleefully squint. “For that, you should be grateful.”

“Come on, Drac. If altruism was your true goal then you would’ve shown me everything back in the real world from the get-go,” Soma snaps.

Another scene abruptly comes to mind, a recently discovered memory in the sea of times long past that licks away at the sands of his mind’s shore. It’s small, gentle. An image of low candlelight illuminating Leon’s young and pensive face as Mathias devised a plan to get them both and their company to victory during the crusades, the map of Jerusalem on their table old, torn, covered with a tactician’s notes that he slowly explained to the others. It was a common occurrence back then, and many memories exist of strategy meetings like that.

It was exhausting. Mathias worked away every night to ensure their survival, carrying with him the responsibility of keeping their platoon alive and safe. He remembers Leon admired him for that. Because in a world of knights who lacked education, Mathias was a genius. Cronqvist the Wise, they called him, their leading tactician, the light ensuring their safety sent down from the heavens in the name of god.

A light snuffed away the moment Elisabetha died.

With a blink the memory recedes away like a current at sea would, leaving Soma behind with a cold emptiness and all the hair standing on his back. Dracula’s eyes gain a curious glint to them in the darkness. Soma presses his lips into a tight line. He’s not fooling anyone, Mathias. No matter how long he lives for, how many times he dies and comes back, a tactician’s mind will always remain sharp, instinctively trained to plan ahead and manipulate its way to victory.

The candlelight dances in the room’s monochrome breeze. Slowly, Soma takes another careful step forward, exhaling through his nose and speaking loud enough for his voice to echo through the room. "Awakened and trapped within me as you were, you needed a way out. So you decided to go about it by forcing your most gruesome memories upon me in my dreams, waiting until I was too weak and disturbed to fight back when you eventually possessed me.

"It just got so much easier when all you had to do was keep confusing me instead, didn't it?” Soma quickly adds, grinning. “I was irritated and frustrated enough as it was, anyway. And in our panicking to keep up, we ended up doing all the work for you. Then all you had to do was just bring back your curse and keep chipping away at me from within until the seal finally broke.” Laughter then spills out of him, small and spiteful as he shakes his head. "Am I correct?"

You’re letting him get under your skin, Arikado’s voice echoes in his mind, cold and refreshing against the fires of Dracula’s influence. Soma’s grin is sarcastic, tired, but the words bring with them that same feeling once again. It’s stabilizing, calming, protective even in the man’s absence. A discreet reminder of who he is now, of what he must not become. Help against the dark lord in the only way Arikado knew how to give it. But then Soma thinks about the apprehension he’d shown after that morning in Soma’s living room, about the ease with which he lied about the Battle of 1999, about his guardians’ secrets, and his heart tightens into itself, hurts, suffocates him like the smoke outside once did.

It is the pain of being lied to versus the joy of being protected—both of them coil around his throat, silence him as he struggles with the lump left behind. He sighs it out in the end, silver eyes lowering to the carpeted floor as he sets a hand on his chest, as he feels his slowed heartbeat through ash-covered black sweater. It’s not their fault. It’s no one’s fault. Their methods might’ve been ill picked, but Julius, Arikado, and Yoko did all they could.

The seal should’ve kept him at bay. None of them could’ve known this would escalate so fast. Dracula played them all from the shadows of Soma’s heart, even Soma himself.

Before him fire flickers and shadows dance. Soma raises his head again to find Dracula’s smug expression unobscured, posture back to the leaning slouch he had at the start. The dark lord’s wicked grin shows his fangs, sending a shiver down Soma’s spine.

Icy cold temperatures descend upon the room as he laughs, "After all this, you still have to ask?"

And anger returns in grit teeth with each of his words. Soma’s glaring again, his grip on his sweater and sword tightening within seconds. "You're a magnificent son of a bitch, you know that?"

"So I've been told," comes the lighthearted reply.

He just clicks his tongue. "But there’s still something I don’t understand,” Soma’s quick to add. He lowers his free hand and shifts his weight from one foot to another, suddenly antsy under that uncomfortable, hungry red stare. “Until now, everything I saw was cherry-picked by you. But if your goal in the end was to possess and use me to raise hell, then why?” He licks his lips, frowns. “Why give me back our memories in the end?”

Silence falls, again, cold and empty and reverberating through the throne room. It brings with it the anxious tingling of expectation, confusion crystal clear in Soma’s veins as he watches the dark lord hum and avert his eyes towards the wall. Claimh Solais’ shine trembles at the sight, growing in intensity when Dracula sighs, pushing himself off the throne and finally to a standing position.

“Once, over a thousand years ago, Leon and I were God’s warriors through the crusade,” Dracula calls out, stepping forward towards Soma. “Two champions of peace, protecting the land in His name.”

Rising candlelight once again flickers wildly as he walks, shadows all around them twisting, turning, growing with the flames as Dracula slowly steps forward, as he descends down the short staircase to his throne, green coat dragging behind him. Soma instinctively steps back, eyes firmly on Dracula, Claimh Solais’ agitated glow in his peripheral vision as he raises the blade toward the dark lord, stance defensive and prepared. He gets a smirk in return for his troubles. Tall and proud, broadly gesturing towards his right, this image of Mathias Cronqvist directs Soma’s attention to the far wall, to the macabre display of shadows forming afterimages of memories Soma has already seen.

When Soma finally rips his silver gaze off the vampire and rests it on the wall, he sees two dark silhouettes on the wall stand one next to the other, the afterimages of Leon Belmont and Mathias Cronqvist unmoving, yet familiar in their distinctive postures. Their forms flicker with the fires, Leon’s drawing his sword, Mathias’ holding parchments in his arms.

“In that war I was their master tactician, and Leon was my right hand man,” Dracula announces, approaching Soma still, stopping a few feet away yet remaining uncomfortably close. Soma doesn’t lower his sword. “We were a force to be reckoned with, nigh unstoppable. Even as young as he was, Leon fought valiantly, not a single trace of fear in his blue eyes as he brought down heretics with the masterful grace of a holy knight.“ Dracula pauses. The shadows remain still on the wall, side by side. “Loyalty to the end,” the dark lord announces, ”together we fought in the Lord’s name.

“And yet, even as loyal as I was, God still abandoned me, took away everything I loved and then simply cast me aside.”

Both shadows disappear from the wall when Dracula suddenly raises an arm, immediately snuffing out the lights and slamming every window high above the walls shut, plunging the room into a pure darkness. Dracula remains for a second, standing there and staring at his clawed hands, then suddenly, messily melts away into the inky darkness, plunging into it and disappearing from Soma’s sight.

Icy panic and throbbing alertness strike at Soma’s chest. Oh, fuck. The boy stumbles back, blade held tightly with both hands, Claimh Solais illuminating his face in the shadows as he grits his teeth, wild eyes scanning the impenetrable darkness for the impending threat. Where is he? What has he done?! Stupid, so stupid. Dracula’s caught him off guard.

Yet he finds nothing. Void surrounding him so completely, enveloping him in this inky nightmare, Soma’s pulse trembles with his heart, pounding loud in his ears and mixing with the booming sound of the dark lord’s laughter. “In my grief, I sought revenge,” he calls out. His voice sends ripples through the darkness and inside Soma’s veins, omnipresent and unbearable in the nothingness he’s left behind. “Thus, through my plan, the Crimson and Ebony Stones came into my possession.”

And then, without warning, the darkness pooling at Soma’s feet rises and grabs for his shoes, coiling around his ankles.

The scream of terror gets caught in his throat with his heart, forsaken for a moment as the boy fruitlessly attempts to pull back. “And so abandoned by God,” comes Dracula’s voice in the darkness, echoing, piercing. The shadows rise up to Soma’s knees, begin to pull down with inhuman strength, formidable and horrifying. In his struggle Soma falls prone, attempts at crawling away in the dark pointless as he’s pulled into the swirling void.

It’s cold. Careless, he’s been so careless. This shouldn’t have happened. “Consumed by vengeance,” the emptiness whispers into his ear. Soma doesn’t hear himself screaming, thunderous heartbeat drowning everything but Dracula’s voice as he desperately slashes away into the darkness with the blade, heart racing as the dark tendrils wrap around his hips, pulling him away.

“Into the darkness you and I fell.”

Suddenly, just like that, Soma is released. The dark lord’s voice shatters the illusion, the windows above loudly bursting open and bringing forth what little light they can, the candlelight fire once again dancing in the breeze as together they all light back up in one swift motion. And there, where he once stood, Dracula looks at Soma down his nose with a blank expression on his face.

Nausea hits him unexpectedly along with flooding relief, the shock and adrenaline rush ebbing away into temporary sickness and leaving Soma almost gagging. Like ashes blown away in the wind the shadows go limp and break away into powder, swept off from Soma’s body with the breeze, leaving him once again free to crawl back and rise to his feet. Ragged breathing burning his throat, Soma wills his heart to calm down as he fixes his gaze on Dracula, as he still raises the blade in self-defense.

His skin crawls. Soma’s mind swims, his heart slowing down and leaving him with the aftermath of his anxiety, numbness tingling at his fingertips. Darkness pooling all around him, pulling him down, overpowering him. The helplessness of futility and the pain of desperation crawling up his spine. No way to escape. Soma’s heart twists, sorrow and anguish taking hold where once was fear, squeezing him breathless in its wake. This powerlessness, this anguish… Soma recognizes this feeling. He knows it all too well, after all, has known it all his life.

Or at least he did, once, thirty six years ago and beyond into his past life.

For this is what life eternal has always felt like.

Every single day since Elisabetha died, since immortality cursed his veins. Every day since Lisa was burned at the stake, since Adrian pierced his heart with his Lisa’s own sword, since Chaos entered his bloodstream and he let it willingly puppeteer him from inside. Emptiness shaped like darkness pulling at his core with every instance of his return. Bits and pieces lost to each resurrection. For Dracula, this was life. This was reality—this is reality.

It’s always been like this.

Silent and staring down at him through glowing red eyes, before him Dracula simply tilts his head, black curls moving over his shoulders. His lips twitch into the ghost of a smile. “Ironic, don't you think?” he asks, modulated voice a warning in the darkness, restrained. “Once I stood bathed in the light, in service as God’s faithful champion, ready to live and die for the forces of good. But now here I am, shrouded in darkness as His very opposite.” A sardonic laugh escapes him, a hand flying to rest on his chest. “I stand now as the ultimate evil, a physical representative of Chaos itself.”

Dracula chuckles under his breath again. He steps to the right, slowly circling Soma as the boy calms down, stabilizes. “But I like to believe that I have been chosen,” Dracula announces, removing his hand from his chest and now gesturing with it, gaze searching the ceiling. “Fate dictated that I fall, and fate empowered me with the Chaos of the Crimson Stone, turning me into the dark lord. Because in a universe kept in balance through equivalence, everything in this world must have its opposite.”

Then, he stops, gaze dropping to his open palm. “However, this world… it has stagnated,” Dracula hisses, curling his hand into a shaking fist. “It has been spoiled and destroyed from within by humanity, tainted by their malice while God simply stood by and watched it happen.” Red eyes turn to Soma then, their unrestrained disappointment and rage sending a shiver down the boy’s spine. “You’ve seen it, have you not? Hidden in our memories,” he calls out. Soma grits his teeth, watching. “Time and time again, humanity repeats their same mistakes as if addicted to their own failure and misery. And in our eternity, they’ve made their judgement of us, as well, branded us a monster and taken everything away from us just like God once did.”

Dracula then smiles, finally turning to look at him fully. “You feel it, don’t you? The fear they hold for you, their hatred. This world will betray you, boy, just as it once betrayed me. Such is our fate.” He then offers a raised hand, outstretched towards his reincarnation, palm facing the skies. A mockery of his offering to Leon one millennium ago. “So why not give in instead? Why fight against that which is already ordained?” Dracula tilts his head. “You and I are the same. We have no one to help us… no one but ourselves. So join with me, Soma Cruz, and let us be judgement itself.”

One thousand years of betrayal and misery ring in Soma’s ears, the aching sensation of desolation in the dark illusion from before still clinging to his veins, piercing, painful like needles in his skin. God took Elisabetha, so Mathias took eternity into his own hands. Humanity turned its back on Mathias, took Lisa and Adrian, so Dracula took their light. Soma understands now, he knows. An eye for an eye, this is the passage of fate. It is destiny that turned them both into the necessary evil hidden in the hearts of men.

The two of them are Chaos. They are balance, they are hate.

Soma understands this.

And yet, in the silence that follows Dracula’s words, as he stands tall offering eternity and revenge to his reincarnation, all Soma can think about are Arikado’s eyes during the eclipse.

He remembers the dark power irradiating from him when he’d called for Arikado to step out from the shadows after awakening. It had been a power of the same caliber as Dracula’s own, but it wasn’t as fierce, not at the same level as his own. Vampiric, yes, but something else was there. Something gentle, resonating with Soma—it was Arikado’s human half, the compassion and understanding hidden in his red gaze now clear for a boy holding all the answers of his own past.

Even knowing what he was, Arikado had believed in him anyway. Awakened or not, absorbing the dark lord’s power into his soul as he rushed through the castle and into the Chaotic Realm, as he fought his own darkness, Arikado had believed. And even in his possession, in his apartment, he’d still called out to Soma, wanted him back in one piece. Soma isn’t Mathias. The man has always seen them both as separate.

And if Dracula is ash, then Soma is the phoenix.

In the darkness Soma smiles. Who knew that even centuries later the path to salvation would still lie hidden in waiting within those golden eyes?

Here in the darkness of Soma’s soul, in this recreation of Dracula’s throne room, stand two halves of the same whole, two sides of one coin, the past and the future of a single soul. Together they share a life, a history, the pain and understanding of being torn apart by a cruel world palpable in the air around them. But Soma and Dracula, they are not the same. Vampire lord and human reincarnation as they are, the difference is abysmal.

And it’s time to put an end to fate’s cruel design.

“No,” Soma challenges him in the silence, slowly shaking his head and pointing his blade at the dark lord. Empowered in his heart as he is, his voice feels mighty in the dark, the light come to vanquish this horrible darkness once and for all.

Hearing him, Dracula’s hand instantly drops to his side. His red eyes widen as his smile twists into a sneer, fangs bared as his mask of gentleness cracks slowly at the seams. “I don’t understand… You reject your fate?” A pause. Then laughter, incredulous and offended, slowly spilling from his lips. “Even after all you’ve seen, after everything we’ve lived… you refuse?”

“I won’t let you continue like this,” Soma calls out. “Sure, maybe we share a past, but we don’t share a goal. If you think about it, then our paths diverged the moment I was born.” He grips the blade tighter, glares. “You must be well aware of this notion.”

“We share a life, boy!” Dracula’s screaming now, rage twisting his features once again. The candlelight dances in reflection of his fury, shadows flickering across his face, red eyes glowing, scowling, piercing. “I am the blood that runs through your veins! I am the dark shadow that chills the hearts of men as you pass! I am the fury... your hate and your vengeance. And I am” — he grins, crazed, twin fangs in full display — “your destiny."

And Soma offers him a challenging grin. “Sorry, Drac, but I’ve already made my choice.” Claimh Solais shines brighter than the morning sun in Soma’s hands as he circles the dark lord, heartbeat strong and ferocious in his veins. “And my choice doesn’t involve following some shitty destiny in your place.”

The flames around them shiver again, dancing in a reflection of Dracula’s wrath. The dark lord’s face steels back into a blank state as he straightens his back, dissatisfaction painted in his very being as he circles Soma. “What a shame,” he breathes out. “Truly, with our memories unlocked, I’d believed we could’ve finally achieved unity. Or that at least you would’ve faced assimilation with dignity.” He looks at Soma one last time, openly condescending and disappointed, before closing his eyes and inhaling softly, chest rising, the darkness around them growing. Eyes closed Dracula raises his left arm to his side, that same sharp, thin blade from Soma’s dream materializing out of his sleeve and falling into his outstretched hand.

Soma lowers into a battle stance immediately. Dracula then opens his eyes and raises the blade before him, pointing it back at Soma in a mirror of his earlier posture, smiling warmly at the boy. “But if this is your final choice,” Dracula laughs, lowering himself as well, “then I suppose this concludes negotiations.”

Thus the former knight charges forward with a diagonal slash.

Expecting him already, Soma at first parries the thinner blade with ease, then moves on the defensive as Dracula repeats the movement in a pattern, a quick succession of slashes raining over Soma as the dark lord pushes the boy forward. Soma blocks, grits his teeth. It goes on, no opening in sight, but the next time that Dracula's blade clashes with Soma's the man laughs, drags the metal together against each other. He then swings broadly to throw the boy off-balance, Soma left stumbling back a few steps. An opening, at last. Yet with  muscles tensing and releasing in a quick leap backwards, Soma dodges in a hurry when Dracula stabs at his legs.

No matter. Dracula twists his wrist and raises his arm, sending the blade twirling back over his head in preparation for a swing. He sends a powerful slash down from above, one hastily parried when Soma lifts his arm, Claimh Solais taking the brunt of the hit instead and singing with the strike. Locked like that they remain. Soma grunts with exertion, pushing Dracula back this time, then leaping forward and swinging with all his might at the dark lord's abdomen.

Their swords clash, metal against metal ringing in the room along with their footsteps on the floor, their shouts, the dark lord’s laughter and Soma’s own cries as he parries and attacks. Offense and defense, a strange rhythm of halves, dancing in the darkness as they fight for a shot at existence. Candlelight blowing in their wake as they move through the area, Claimh Solais glowing with every hit.

It is a battle of destiny, fought for everyone’s souls within the mind of a mere boy.

Forced back by a powerful swing he blocks, Soma twirls on his heel, diagonally swinging Claimh Solais and meeting Dracula’s next slash with a powerful sound. Their blades are thus locked, then dragged downwards to the right as Soma pushes at the vampire lord’s knightly weapon, keeping him there until Dracula pushes back to the left. He shoves the boy away and sends the both of them backwards, spinning, meeting back face to face with their swords raised once again.

Grin wide and frenzied Dracula laughs, fangs catching in the light, shining in the darkness as he swings his blade in an eight-shape once again. Oh, shit. It doesn’t look good. The thinner blade meets Claimh Solais multiple times, unstable in its slashing, sending Soma stumbling backwards.

All the hair on his back stands on end the moment Dracula’s eyes glow as red as his own body, vampiric presence dangerously spiking up. In an instant the dark lord disappears in a flurry of afterimages sliding to his right. Silence, for a moment, and Soma nearly suffocates on it as he turns on his heel, wide silver eyes desperately searching in the dark. Because he knows this move, has seen Adrian do it in the many memories of their battles.

Cheating bastard must’ve picked up on it as well, is what he thinks when Dracula reappears behind him and to his right once again, swinging broadly and meeting Soma’s blade, sending the boy flying, tumbling on the floor.

Soma’s back hits the wall. Claimh Solais remains stubbornly in his grip. But all the air is knocked out of his lungs, vision swimming as he chokes on nothing, grit teeth tingling. A dark chuckle fills his ears. Through a sight blurred with pain Soma sees Dracula’s slow advance towards him, his blade raised, held horizontally to his left. Like a lion coming for his prey. Panic settles in. Adrenaline pumping and survival instinct kicking in, Soma pushes himself off the wall, Claimh Solais a glowing crutch.

This is bad. Soma needs to put a stop to it now.

“Mathias!” Soma calls out, wobbly feet stabilizing as he raises his sword, moving to step away from the wall when the dark lord flinches to a stop. In the dark lord’s hesitance Soma steps forward instead, shouts, “Listen to me, Mathias! There is another way!”

Dracula’s furious roar echoes even within Soma’s heart when he hears those words, the very castle rumbling in its wake, sending dust falling from above. “Do not use that loathsome name, boy!” comes Dracula’s deranged scream. He rushes forward again, right hand swung in a careless motion to send a flurry of scorching magic fireballs towards Soma. “I am Chaos incarnate, and you will join now with your better half!”

The dust makes Soma cough as he rushes to his right, rolling at the last minute to get away from the fire. The heat is unimaginable. “You never stopped being Mathias!” he cries out, running further towards the center of the room when Dracula launches another surge of fire at him, urging him to shut up. “It wasn’t Chaos at first,” Soma continues, dodging, “but the vampire soul trapped in the Crimson Stone! It’s corrupted you into what you are now!”

“Quiet! I chose this end, and so fate chose me!”

Left backed up against a pillar in the room, the one fireball that explodes against it above Soma sends its flames down onto him, scorching him, forcing him to roll out of the way to extinguish some of the flames. Pain just as hot as the flames themselves occupies Soma’s mind for a minute, only shoved away through adrenaline’s electrifying entry into his veins.

When he jumps back up to a stand he sees Dracula already rushing at him again, barely has any time to block the dark lord’s powerful, quick swings. They lock blades then, left glaring at each other behind their weapons in a standoff, Dracula’s fangs giving him an even more crazed appearance as he pushes Soma down, red eyes wide and uncontrolled.

Soma pushes back just as hard as he can, grunting in the effort. “This… this isn’t fate, Mathias!” he grits out, panting already. “Sara was right! The cycle can be broken!”

“You know nothing about fate,” comes Dracula’s rumbling response. His eyes glow, the whine of their swords loud against Soma’s ears as the dark lord presses further down. The stone throne behind Dracula stands empty without its master. Low laughter fills the air, “This world, cruel as merciless as it is, it can only betray you. It is pointless to defend.” Dracula smiles, “So why fight for it at all? Why risk your life for those who will persecute you later?"

Pushed down into a low position, legs bent awkwardly and hurting with the full weight of his and Dracula’s bodies on them, Soma grits out pained shout through his grimace. Exhaustion feels like needles in his muscles, like icy air drying his throat. Dracula’s might is tremendous, the dark, vampiric power he holds together with his tactician’s mind overpowering Soma, tiring him out. It is firsthand experience versus muscle memory, rage versus hesitance, a mere boy taking on a demon of unimaginable power.

An endless lifetime of nihilism and pain tears at Soma’s heart. A world of cruelty, an uncaring god, corruptive Chaos hidden in their veins. This is fate, their ultimate end. It’s pointless to fight it, Dracula says. It’s pointless to try.

But.

But, Soma thinks, grip on Claimh Solais’ glowing form tightening, he still has to do it. Even if it’s pointless, he still has to try. He can’t give up now. Because this is his life, his destiny. And in his human life Soma’s been given what Mathias could never have: a second chance to right what once went wrong.

The future is now his to decide.

With one last cry the boy taps into his remaining might, forcing the dark lord back as he pushes, pushes, pushes with all the vigor his human heart can produce. Dracula’s smile fades as he mirrors him in their lock. “Because,” Soma grunts out, the answer to Dracula’s question giving him strength, silver eyes glaring into crimson red, “Because this is the world that Adrian and Lisa tried to save!”

Dracula’s eyes widen as he draws in a sharp breath. He recoils as if struck, and in his shock, his hesitation, the weight is removed from Claimh Solais’ blade. Soma takes his chance. With one final push he sends the dark lord staggering backwards, moving quickly to kick him in the abdomen and fling him back, back towards the throne, towards the short staircase leading up to it where Dracula stumbles and falls.

A chance opening created and taken, Soma rushes forward and swings his blade, connecting it with Dracula’s unsteady grip and sending the thinner sword flying away from the dark lord. It clanks somewhere else in the room, echoing in the darkness as Soma hurries to straddle the man on the floor, Claimh Solais pointed directly onto his chest. Dracula lies where he fell, his gaze furiously wide and trained on Soma’s, outrage written all over his face.

Panting in exertion and fatigue, Soma lowers the blade close enough to his other half’s heart, Dracula flinching under him as he pricks at the skin below the layers of green and black fabric. "Move one muscle and I'll stab this sword right through your fucking heart," Soma warns.

Red eyes widen as Dracula gasps. A pause, a silence. Then he grins, blurting out a laugh, saying, "You are aware that should I die, so will your life come to an end, yes?"

He swallows a lump in his throat. "Yeah, I am,” comes Soma’s response. Though his hands shake he steadies them with a deep breath, heart pounding in his chest. “But I am your cage. Stopping you no matter the cost is the point. Living through it is just a luxury."

The dark lord doesn’t reply. A short silence settles in, then, broken only by the sound of past and future incarnations trying to catch their breaths. Sweat trickles down Soma’s neck, his sweater uncomfortably sticking to his torso, unwanted warmth draining him further.

Dracula stares, expression blank, so Soma stares back, searching through the cracks. In the aftermath of their battle, tired and human in appearance, Soma sees past Dracula and sees the truth. He sees the shadow of what once was a man, a knight who once fought for the light now fallen and consumed by his own darkness. Mathias Cronqvist and his eternal quest for revenge, his misanthropy born out of the world’s own hatred and betrayal. The exhaustion as time and time again he’s given flesh once more, miserable and spiteful, determined to end it all, to sink with the burning ship as he gets the last laugh.

He is a product of circumstance stuck in repetition just as the mess of humanity he so despises. A man unwilling to change even in the next life, born anew as he is in a boy named Soma Cruz. Soma grimaces, panting. In his soul he carries centuries upon centuries of sins and darkness, opposed only by a chosen few: hunters, scholars, and a single golden soldier guiding them all.

This illusion of fate, it’s only a self-fulfilled prophecy created by a man trapped in sin.

It doesn’t have to be this way anymore.

So he takes in a deep breath, lowering his head closer to the dark lord below. “Dracula… there is another way,” Soma whispers. Dracula raises an eyebrow. Good, he’s listening. Hands shaking again, the boy gulps down his nerves, offers his path through another soft whisper, “Merge with me.”

The blank mask on Dracula’s face shatters to make way for unadulterated shock. "What?"

"Under my own terms, I can allow us to become as one," Soma explains himself. His grip on the unmoving sword tightens when he sees a cynical grin spread over Dracula’s face. "No. Listen, hear me out—in a way, you are right. I feel your pain, your anguish, your hatred. I was you, and your past sins are just as mine as they are yours.” Soma’s glare intensifies, fueled by an internal fire of individualism. “But I’m not you, either, and I’m still not going to let you ruin the universe through my body. I make my own destiny. But, even then,” Soma breathes, “I can still accept you.”

"Such nonsense,” Dracula shakes his head, red eyes still on Soma’s as as laughter rakes his chest, Soma’s blade dangerously digging into his skin. “Stupid boy, is it not your responsibility to expunge me from your heart, not to accept me into it?"

“That’s the thing, Drac. I can’t,” is Soma’s reply. “I can’t hide or run away from you anymore. Not after everything you’ve pulled.”

“And what is it that makes you so sure I won’t do it all over again?”

“Because we both know that I am your best shot at redemption.”

Another sharp breath, held and contained in Dracula’s lungs as his eyes widen, as the laughter dies in the middle of its fit. Soma’s throat tightens, the visceral response he’s received urging him on, nervous yet determined to continue as he lowers himself further. “Join with me, but rather than raising hell, just lock yourself up in my soul and sleep,” he whispers for the dark lord, sweet and merciful, the light at the end of the tunnel. “Live through me, Mathias. And when my time to leave this world arrives, in exchange for your compromise, I can offer you the one thing you really desire.”

One thousand years of betrayal and misery, the aching sensation of desolation in the darkness of the Crimson Stone, Chaos clinging to his veins, piercing, painful like needles in his skin as it carefully took hold. Resurrection once a century to bring destruction and ruin, miserable human lives hypocritical in their worship of his judgement. Neverending cyclical eradication of life. Eternity breaking at the seams. A world of contradiction and conflict.

This world, it doesn’t need a dark lord.

“True death,” Soma finally murmurs after a pause, heartbeat pounding in his chest and ears and mixing with his voice. “Eternal peace."

Silence between them is always something cold and fragile, but this time it’s slowly overtaken by shock and vulnerability, a pause in speech and movement as Dracula processes Soma’s offer. The dark lord’s jaw falls, exposing his fangs again. Without his full attention to maintain them, some of the candles surrounding the throne flicker and die, leaving behind smoke rising from the burnt wicks. Smoke within smoke. The burnt smell from outside has been such a constant that Soma’s grown used to it by now.

Below Soma Dracula remains unmoving, speechless, wide eyes searching his reincarnation’s face—perhaps for falsehood, perhaps for mockery. A man built with lies searching for more lies in Soma’s heart. The boy guesses he can understand his apprehension, but still he presses his lips into a tight line, hope and anticipation glowing like the blade he still holds to Dracula’s heart.

Claimh Solais glows brilliantly still in the ensuing darkness. It’s not a simple choice; existence or extinction, chaos or peace. The tension in Soma’s shoulders is ready to release in a quick stab should Dracula make any false movements, resignation tasting like bitter victory. Because if he refuses, Soma needs to be ready to bring them both down at once.

What bursts out of the dark lord’s mouth is a wheezing laughter, a large grin. His answer comes afterwards, buried in a whispered warning, “If you take in a snake, you will only get bitten.”

In response Soma smirks, a chuckle leaving him in kind. “You really shouldn’t be underestimating the guy who’s got you locked in his soul and now holds your life in his hands,” he counters.

The grin doesn’t quite leave Dracula’s face, instead turning into a little, amused smile, breezy laughter still erupting from his rising chest. It sends a shiver down Soma’s spine, a cold feeling rushing through his veins before it grows uncomfortably warm, leaving him shuddering in its wake, slightly out of breath as his heart tightens, hurts. Dracula just watches him, laughing. Claimh Solais’ glow flickers like the flames around them. The dark lord keeps his red eyes on Soma for a moment longer, even as the world rumbles around them, even as the castle shakes and the ceiling breaks apart into dust again.

Soma draws in a sharp breath, and just like that the world begins to swim around him, that tight feeling in his heart spreading through his chest and latching onto his lungs. It hurts. Yet the blade doesn’t move. Dracula finally stops laughing, but the smile remains, expression otherwise unreadable as he lays there. Soma’s vision blurs. Around them the castle continues to shake until it all finally begins to crumble proper, bits of walls and ceiling coming apart and falling around them both, echoing through the world in their crashing, the white smoke filtering in and enveloping them in its pale thickness.

A sudden oxygen deprivation leaves Soma nauseous, lightheaded. It’s warm again, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. Something is finally falling into place. The tightness and tension relents and leaves Soma shuddering as he starts panting, both hands circling Claimh Solais’ pommel for stability.

Everything in this world is fading. He’s losing conscious. Red eyes close with a hum as the smoke covers Dracula’s form, enveloping it in its fog and ashes, hiding him, taking him. The smoke is overwhelming, the sound of the stone around them breaking down is overwhelming. But even so, over the cacophony and through the mists of his own fading mind, Soma still hears Dracula’s sigh, feels it close by as if released directly into his ear.

“Soma Cruz,” comes the echo of the man’s voice, amusement clear in its tone as Soma finally drops the sword, strength leaving him as he too falls on the collapsing floor.

“Do not disappoint me.”

And so the world fades to white.

Chapter Text

There is something in the distance, a sound echoing somewhere in the blank mists of his mind. It’s tugging at the pieces left behind, resonating with his sense of self.

He exhales slowly. Fragmented yet whole as he is in the fog, left floating in this shapeless world in the wake of the castle’s collapse, reality lies scattered about like stars in the night sky. But the sound is the first thing he becomes aware of, a noise muffled and yet strong, coming and going like the echo of the ocean’s waves in the quiet of said night. A small flame in his soul flares with every instance of its return, remembrance peeking through. It is a purposeful something in an otherwise aimless nothing.

It sparks a flicker of recognition in what he thinks is his complete mind, bringing back with it bits and pieces of sensation and coherence. He decides to focus on the sound, holding onto each burst of it like a safety rope to guide him out of the fog. One by one the pieces fall into place, until suddenly Soma Cruz feels weightless, exhausted, wrapped in something warm and comforting that pulls at him to stay in its soft embrace, the dissociative ocean at the back of his conscious compelling against the intruding sound from outside.

Sleep, the warmth whispers against his ear, sleep and rest some more. And it’s tempting, perhaps, but Soma knows that he can’t—he didn’t go through hell and back within his own soul just to go back to sleep. So he pushes against the pull of slumber, trying to make it out of the ocean and into wakefulness once again, slowly but surely becoming aware of his body and his surroundings, senses reconnecting and blood pumping under his skin. Not too difficult a task once he remembers the process from resurrections long past. As he hurries on Soma feels himself frowning, feels his throat rumble with a groan, feels the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes deeply in his exhaustion.

He finally breaks through by opening his eyes and with a small gasp from his lips.

The waking world is but a murky image of a grey ceiling, but at least it’s something other than the white fog of unconscious. It’s dark here, though. Soma blinks, murmurs tiredly, turns his head to the right. The rustling under his ear alerts him of a pillow resting under his head. So, he’s on a bed. Alright. He’s laying on his back on a soft, large bed, with the thickest and warmest blanket he’s ever felt draped over his body. It’s honestly the most comfortable he’s been in what literally feels like ages.

And that makes his frown deepen; because this is new, he thinks. What he remembers most recently is losing conscious in Arikado’s fairly illuminated living room. But this is most likely his bedroom, and this is most likely his bed. The dhampir must’ve moved him after he passed out, then—

Oh, hell. Soma draws in a sharp breath.

If he had to be moved then how long has it been?

Blinking rapidly, Soma tries willing the shadowed world around him to regain its sharpness, looking for any clues on the passage of time in his near vicinity. It’d been late afternoon when he came to visit Arikado in the first place. He looks for a light source and finds the windows covered with thick black curtains, the minimal sunlight seeping in through them impossible to use to guess for a time of day. They keep the room shrouded in a gentle darkness that keeps trying to lull him to sleep. Well, shit. Like a mockery of a coffin, some ancient part of him whispers.

He blinks the thought away and moves on to the dresser near the wall. There’s a couple of photographs on it that he can’t make out, sitting there next to a stack of several skinny, old-looking books and an open box spilling out envelopes and other papers. No clocks, though. And certainly no calendars.

Soma’s fingers twitch. With tremendous effort he wills his right hand out of the blankets and feels around on the bed and nearest nightstand. It’s exhausting, but he presses on, whining under his breath and biting his lower lip. His phone, his phone—where is his phone? If it’s still charged then the date and time should be visible on the screen. As would be an unknown amount of notifications of any unread text messages and missed phone calls from worried parental units and friends. Oh, Lord. That should be fun to deal with.

Uncertainty is starting to eat away at Soma’s patience and leaving an open path for tingling anxiety to rush in instead. It can’t have been that long, right? After all, the trip into the castle only felt like a few hours at most. But who knows, really. Soma huffs, lays limply on the bed for a moment as he fights once again against the exhaustion in his veins. An exhaustion unaccompanied by the usual simmering darkness he’s grown so used to these past few months.

Huh.

Soma closes his eyes. Though he’s sure that Dracula and his power lies dormant now, he doesn’t feel empty or incomplete anymore, and both of their lives’ memories are still intact, the door to the past left open with no lock. With little to no effort Soma can recall Leon Belmont’s face just as easily as he can remember what he studied for his history final. Soma snorts and opens his eyes, smiling in the darkness. So Mathias really, truly accepted the offer. A full, actual union, yet still he remains as the dominant conscious.

But now on top of figuring out the date, there’s the whole ordeal about soul merging and Dracula’s dormant state to deal with, too.

The loudest groan of his life escapes Soma’s mouth. That’s a whole different can of worms to open, isn’t it? But that can wait. Right now what he needs to know is the date and time, so instead of dealing with everything else Soma takes in a deep breath, pushes himself to turn to his right, and instantaneously freezes in his tracks when his eyes land on Yoko Belnades slumped on a chair next to Arikado’s bed.

Despite the soft darkness of the room Soma can still see that her blue eyes are closed in a deep slumber, her long eyelashes resting gently on her cheeks. Her head is lolled to the side against her shoulder, blonde hair caught in an awkward angle that Soma’s sure will stick out awkwardly when she wakes up, her breathing calm and gentle and coming in small huffs. But even in the tranquil oblivion of sleep Yoko’s features remain stressed; her eyebrows are creased, her lips twitchy, her arms crossed over her chest, her right hand clutching something Soma can’t see.

A heavy mixture of relief and guilt ties Soma’s stomach into a tight knot at the sight; relief at finally seeing a familiar face, guilt at the implications of her restless slumber, her dreaming on a chair instead of anywhere else. He pushes himself into a sitting position, gripping the blanket when it slips off him, silver eyes doing another quick scan of their surroundings before setting back on Yoko. The boy sighs. It had only been Soma and Arikado before. The man must’ve called her in after Soma passed out, and given the situation at hand and their line of work, then he most likely called Julius as well. Yoko’s probably supposed to be keeping watch over him for now. And if she fell asleep like this, then it’s not a stretch for Soma to assume that she’s been here for quite a while.

Soma chuckles under his breath, bitter as he shakes his head. A hunter, a scholar, and a soldier.  

How fitting.

Whatever. The muffled sound from earlier comes back from beyond the bedroom door, lower this time, boisterous only to Soma’s enhanced hearing. Upon hearing it his entire body tenses as his eyes lock on the door. It’s two voices down in the hallway, both deep and agitated in different ways—he quickly recognizes them as Julius and Arikado having a heated discussion. Oh, hell. So the gang’s all here, is what Soma thinks as he swallows hard, as something in his heart flutters anxiously at the thought of all three of his guardians fretting about the outstandingly reckless, dangerous stunt he’s just pulled.

About the upcoming shitstorm that will ensue when he tells them exactly how deep the terms and conditions of his dealing with Dracula go.

Soma sighs. Well, at the very least he owes it to them to finally put their minds back at ease. Now in a sitting position, Soma reaches a hand to Yoko’s arm and shakes her gently. He clears the weight of sleep and exhaustion in his throat a few times before attempting to speak, hoping the sound reaches her as well in the depths of her sleep. “Yoko,” comes the rough imitation of his voice. He clears his throat again. Even once she begins to stir Soma continues to shake her, calling, “Yoko, wake up.”

Caught between the worlds of wakefulness and slumber, Yoko mumbles something under her breath, her eyes fluttering between open and closed as she slowly moves out of her previous slouch, stretching, returning, waking. Soma removes his hand and smiles. He watches as his youngest guardian breaks into a yawn that she covers behind her palm, straightening up on her seat and turning to look at Soma once she’s done, blinking rapidly in the darkness.

And then Yoko freezes completely the moment she makes eye contact with Soma.

His blood goes cold. Even in the dark Soma can still see the way Yoko’s blue eyes widen, her face painted with several emotions in the span of a few seconds. It’s confusion turning into recognition turning into complete, pure horror, built up and released in a sharp gasp as Yoko grips whatever she’s holding even tighter. And Soma’s smile is instantly wiped off his face, that guilt and relief colliding into a panicked rush, escaping him in a shriek when Yoko points a flame spell contained between her index and pinky fingers at his face.

She gets up so fast the chair is pushed backwards with a loud scraping sound, falling with a clash against the wooden floor of Arikado’s apartment, breaking the silence and shattering it into pieces. Yoko’s face is illuminated by her fire, alarmed and afraid, emotions flaring with her spell and leaving her like an open book. Soma splutters for Yoko to stop, tries to find his voice in the rawness left behind by his scream. He finds nothing. The boy can barely hear anything beyond his pounding heartbeat, and the heat of Yoko’s spell feels at odds with his cold sweat.

When he finally pulls through it’s once he’s pushed the blanket off him after being shoved back against the headboard, with both of his hands raised in front of him in a placating gesture of complete surrender. “Yoko!” Soma shouts. It hurts his throat, so he coughs, ends up spluttering again. “What the fuck, Yoko!” he croaks out, “It’s me!”

But Yoko doesn’t back down, glaring at a boy six years her junior with all of her miserable might. “Please don’t move,” Yoko warns.

Her voice is shaking almost as much as her casting hand is in the dark. Soma’s first instinct is to answer her with another plea—to beg her to reconsider, to put away her magic, to listen. But the words don’t come. He’s stopped dead in his tracks instead, because as soon as she says that the sound of a switchblade opening fills Soma’s ears. And in the light of her spell Soma can clearly see the weapon in question held tightly in her free hand, that object she’d been holding close even in her sleep.

The bedroom door is thrown open before he can even think of doing anything in response.

Light spills into the room as two figures rush into the room, illuminating the room. Maybe flinching away from the light and shielding his eyes from it won’t do him any favours in the current situation, is the grim thought that knocks at the back of Soma’s mind. But it’s a thought he easily ignores, wiped away when he immediately recognizes the two silhouettes and presences as belonging to Julius and Arikado, all of his hair standing on edge with his fight or flight instinct flaring up at the sight.

He’s left panicking, a little. Even through the cracks between his fingers Soma can see that Julius has Vampire Killer ready in his hands, and he can smell Julius’ blood now, so pure and holy, bringing him back to so many of his encounters with members of this same bloodline. It’s been so long. An angry energy rumbles forth from the whip, and for a second Soma wonders if Sara is awake, or if she’s simply resonating with the panicking heartbeat of a lord of darkness reborn. It feels weird. It is weird, how the overwhelming feeling of power in Julius pulls at Soma backwards in time, almost dissociating, showing him quick images of his many, multiple deaths at the hands of Julius’ ancestors.

And yet that’s not the worst of all. No, the worst part is the man that still stands by the doorway, bathed in the light, unmoving and staring straight at Soma with wide eyes. Though Arikado’s face is mostly hidden in the shadows, his expression unreadable, Soma can see the unnatural glow of his golden eyes, his blond hair cascading over his chest and back, unruly and uncharacteristically unkempt. Arikado, Alucard, Adrian. So, he’s still out of disguise. The hesitant power contained in his veins feels so comfortingly sorrowful in its release from Arikado’s willingly placed seal, like a familiar blade whose sole purpose is to vanquish the darkness.

Laughter, from within. Well met, my son, a distant part of Soma laments, one that he snuffs out by gritting his teeth. His eyes sting. He attributes it to the light. Please step forth and let me see you again. A pathetic little whine escapes his mouth instead, heart aching as his voice dies in his throat, blocking it.

Julius slowly approaching the foot of the bed breaks him out of his uncomfortable reverie. They make eye contact then, hold it. In his peripheral vision Soma sees Yoko still has him under her spell, her flames kept constant and in place as she straightens up. Despite Julius’ best attempts at keeping the calm charade Soma can tell he looks just as agitated as he did when facing him in 1999, the thin bravado unforgettable, yet commendable in its survival. Figures, really. He’s up against Dracula for the second time in his life.

“Better be careful, now,” Julius says, the whip taut and in full display, ready for a strike. “You’re surrounded.”

Soma’s heart twists. Another plea rises out from the bottom of his lungs, mumbled out in his anxiety. “Julius,” he says, flinching openly when the man’s grip on the whip only tightens at his voice. Soma lowers his hands, squinting. “Julius—”

“Alucard,” Julius interrupts, “Who do you sense?”

There is a short pause as Soma’s eyes land on Arikado, still finding nothing but his glowing gaze in the shadows of his face. Bitterness and anguish meet like old friends in Soma’s heart at the sight. So that’s what you’re going by right now, Soma thinks. He wills it down. Arikado remains unmoving. He takes in a deep breath before finally he says, voice tight, “I don’t know.”

Yoko draws in a sharp breath. Her fire burns just a little bit brighter, warmer. Without moving from his position Julius speaks again, incredulous: “What do you mean you don’t know?”

Soma blinks.

Oh.

It makes sense, really. Arikado doesn’t respond, but his eyes look far away, searching, piercing through Soma, reading him from the outside-in like a mystery to be resolved. Arikado’s looking at Soma with that same wide stare from the living room incident, unresponsive to anything else as he examines the puzzle pieces laid out before him. The question written in his eyes is obvious: which of the two souls is he dealing with here, the young reincarnation or the millennium old dark lord?

Guilt clogs Soma’s throat and has him grit his teeth, pulse rising as he swallows hard. The short answer would be both, and yet that barely even covers it. But they have no way of knowing that. For a terrifying second Soma considers mentioning the merge, but as things are right now, if it’s taken the wrong way, then he risks losing all three of them’s trust and sealing his fate. However, without that context, then Arikado’s not going to have an easy time picking them apart and seeing where it is that Soma starts and where his father begins—or if they can even be picked apart anymore.

No one in this room can afford to take any risks. Thus the prince’s reluctance is a calculated attempt to reduce any possibility for a fatal mistake.

He takes a deep breath as shaky as his breaking heart.

Desperation kickstarts Soma’s survival instincts and pushes him to plead for his life. “I know what you’re thinking,” Soma says before anyone can speak again, slowly, voice as modulated and firm as he can keep it with Yoko’s fire spell so close by and with the deafening, rumbling energy from the Vampire Killer in Julius’ hands distracting him. “But you have nothing to fear.” He begins to lower his hands from his face, blinking as his eyes grow used to the light once again. “I am Soma.”

“Yeah, pardon us kindly if we don’t believe that,” Julius instantly retorts.

Soma clicks his tongue. The rusty tactician’s mind he once used to win wars bubbles back up to the surface, already carefully planning his next few words. “My name is Soma Cruz,” he begins, eyes alternating between all three of his guardians as he speaks. “I was born on August 21st, 2017, in Sighișoara, Romania, but I’ve been living in Japan since I was four. My parents are working abroad and left me alone for my first year of—”

“How do we know you’re not just peering into Soma’s memories right now?” Yoko’s demand is piercing even while shaky in its delivery, her face reflecting a myriad conflicting emotions in the warm light of her fire spell.

And goddamnit, Soma grits his teeth, the Belnades witch has a point. He did break her separation seal, after all, and the memory bleed was the first thing he brought up to them in the first place. He’s running out of options here. The tension in the air and in his heart is going to choke him. In his distress Soma’s eyes meet Arikado’s again, and he finds him still searching, still silent, still frozen. It’s only a matter of time until he figures it out.

He takes a deep breath. Even though he knows they’re still waiting for Arikado’s input, Yoko and Julius still need convincing not to attack, twitchy and restless as they are. There’s one more thing he can still try.

Time. What Soma needs is more time.

Okay, then.

“Can I just point out that Yoko was asleep when I woke up?” he begins, speaking quickly, averting his eyes towards the wall to avoid looking at her expression when he says that. It still hurts when he hears her startled gasp, though. Foolish of him to believe it wouldn’t. “Let’s be real here,” he calls out, “if I were someone who wanted to do her harm, I would’ve taken my chance immediately without even caring to wake her up like I did. Then I would’ve, I dunno, moved on to take care of the rest of you, or—or I would’ve jumped out the window, or something.” He pauses, closes his eyes. “But I didn’t.”

A sigh, then, escaping from Soma’s lips along with the rest of his energy, with his anxiety, leaving behind only despondency and exhaustion. In its wake Soma finally drops his hands down to his lap, uncaring, eyes closed as he lowers his face. “And even now, if I were someone who really wanted to, I could try and take you all on even if it was a losing battle.” He pauses to open his eyes, clasps his hands together. Smiling weakly he then adds, “But I’m not.”

The warmth of Yoko’s spell is such a constant now that Soma has stopped fearing it by this point. What else does he say? He runs out of words, bites his lower lip. Julius and Yoko have gone silent as well. Nobody’s moving. And by god, how Soma wishes he could know what they’re thinking, that he could convince them that there really is nothing to fear. But Arikado remains silent. How much longer is the prince of darkness going to take before he makes his choice?

And what will he do once he finds no trace of neither Soma nor Dracula, but rather an amalgamation of what’s left behind?

Footsteps, deliberately loud in the fragile silence. Soma looks up, squints his eyes at the light, but slowly opens them more comfortably when Arikado finally moves closer. He locks gazes with Soma’s—silver, maybe? Or is it red? Soma doesn’t know, but the sight sends another wave of anxious yearning down Soma’s spine, redemption held in that collected golden gaze again. It’s always been there, waiting, hopeful, hidden behind that stoic mask of his, the one that he’s perfected over the years.

Nearly six centuries later and Adrian hasn’t changed a bit.

Then, low like a whisper yet loud like thunder, Arikado asks, “Are you the bird, or the cage?”

And Soma—

Soma doesn’t know.

He blinks. Once upon a time Soma would’ve answered readily, saying he’s the cage, the lock and key, but now he finds that the correct solution to the puzzle is much more complicated than it first was. Is he the bird, or the cage? Past or present? Vlad Dracula Tepes or Soma Cruz? Both, yes, yet also neither. Soma breaks eye contact to look down at his hands. In his chest his heart shudders and aches, torn apart from the inside by the weight of the world.

Arikado’s voice resonates in his mind, throws him back in time, down to 1999, to 1797, to 1476, further and further down to the moment of his son’s birth. The smile that comes from that memory is melancholic and perplexed. How fucking surreal is that? Soma’s barely nineteen and yet he can clearly remember the day that Arikado was born, can feel such a misplaced, unending parental affection for a man many times his age, a man who’s killed him three times and counting.

Bird or cage, bird or cage—what exactly was left behind after both halves merged?

In the end Soma still doesn’t know. Arikado remains unmoving before him, mask perfectly in place, calm and composed even as Soma emerges from his crisis. He’s still waiting for an answer. Bird or cage, it doesn’t matter now—maybe by now Arikado’s finally figured it out, holding the answers to Soma’s identity.

Then perhaps it’s time to just be honest and accept his flesh and blood’s choice. “I’m what’s left,” Soma chokes out. Arikado doesn’t move. The smile hasn’t left his face, now a bitter chuckle joining it and leaving him at the sight.

Silence, then. Warm and unforgiving, suffocating, painful.

Vampire Killer hums. Yoko’s spell continues. Looking at Arikado sends an endless count of deaths flashing before Soma’s eyes, a prelude of what’s to come. But they shatter and end the moment that Arikado suddenly smiles, when he steps forward and sets a hand on Soma’s shaking shoulder.

It’s like all the air escapes Soma’s lungs when he does that, an eternity of pain silenced at the simple touch, shadows chased away when Arikado gently shakes his head. "No,” he whispers, bathed in the light, genuine, glad. “You are what was here at the beginning, and you will remain here even to the end. You’ve more than proven that today.” The chuckle that escapes him is tangled with a sigh, nearly tangible relief pouring out of him in waves as Yoko finally ends her spell. “The path you took was the most challenging one,” Arikado adds. “But you did well, Soma Cruz. Welcome home.”

Vampire Killer’s hum dies down as Julius finally lowers his stance, hiding his face behind his hand and sighing, slumping against the wall. Yoko drops the switchblade and stumbles back. And oh, god, it’s only now that Soma realizes how badly he’s missed them all. There’s no way for him to stop the tears from spilling out of his eyes anymore, a lifetime of pain and sorrow ending with his guardians’ acceptance and forgiveness, with Arikado’s carefully chosen words. Welcome home, the man said. Complete as he is now, Soma knows exactly what he meant.

Six centuries and a few hours spent in his mind. That’s how long he’s missed him for. Adrian, Alucard, Arikado—whatever the hell it is that he’s calling himself now. He’s giving Soma such a gentle smile that an embarrassing, undignified hiccup rakes his chest, then another, then another and another until the boy is left bawling, shrieking in relief as he unabashedly throws his arms around Arikado to pull him into a hug.

He hears Yoko wet laugh as Arikado stiffens, but the man recovers quickly, setting a hand on Soma’s back and patting awkwardly. Soma grins through his tears. Another pair of arms join them from the left and Soma winds up giggling with Yoko over Arikado’s weak protests, scolding Soma about never doing anything like that again through her tears. He nods for her, and now it’s the two of them crying. Great. It’s a mess. Cut it out already, is what Julius adds as he steps forward, joining the group hug much gentler than Yoko did. At least Arikado’s stopped objecting by now, opting instead for patting at Julius, offering his shoulder to cry on if this old man can’t hold back his tears either. It just makes Julius laugh.

And the grin remains on Soma’s face. It’s a mess, maybe, but it’s a mess he’s earned, and it’s one that’s soothing an ages old hurting heart and burning away a lifetime of loneliness with its light.

We are not alone.

* * *

It’s been two days and two hours since the moment when Soma went unconscious.

With his eyes once again lost on the wooden floor of the living room Soma huffs, grip on one of Arikado’s teacups tight and lips pressed into a tight line, twisting and turning the information in his head. So, okay. Apparently traversing your own soul and fighting your past self takes up two days and two hours of real time to do. It’s not as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s not reassuring, either, the total time elapsed between December 26th and into December 28th too big for it to be comfortable at all. His phone rests on the coffee table, turned off and without charge, left behind. No way to check his messages and calls this way, but no way to let the world know he’s still alive.

Yoko sits next to Soma again like she always does after something terrible goes down, rubbing at his arms reassuringly, though practically clinging to the boy like he might disappear again if she doesn’t keep him in place. In a way, through her fear, it’s almost a grounding gesture; she squeezes at his arms, pulls him back from spiraling down at the news.

Soma blinks. The tea in the cup warms his hands, fills his senses when he takes a quick sip. Rosehip, again. He smirks. It’s not a good morning coffee to wake his mind, but given everything else then for now it’ll have to make do. And he gets the feeling Dracula would’ve liked the blend choice.

A deep breath through his nose. He holds it there. Right. Two days and two hours, and his phone is off. There’s a question in his mind, so Soma looks up to make eye contact with the next person with answers, the one sitting in front of him.

Julius is sitting over on the couch Arikado had been occupying last time Soma was conscious here, practically lounging with his arms crossed, Vampire Killer safely hanging from his belt again. He looks calmer now, relaxed. The relief at the sight keeps nearly flooring Soma. “Do my parents know?” Soma asks him after a pause. Then he blinks, another question popping up and his grip on the teacup tightening slightly. “Does Mina?”

“Mina knows. We told her a few hours after you passed out,” comes the quick reply, uttered through a shrug. Soma releases his breath. “Until the situation was under control we didn’t allow her to come near this apartment, so she couldn’t come pick up your phone. But she took care of your parents’ situation otherwise—so, if anyone asks, your phone just died and you’re trying to get it replaced.”

Soma raises an eyebrow at the man. “I got this phone for my birthday this year and I already killed it?”

“Technology is fickle,” Yoko chimes in.

A snort escapes Soma over Julius’ laugh. The boy turns to look at Yoko, asks, “Okay, so how did I do it?”

“Dropped it, probably.” She winks. “Just say someone bumped into you really hard and it fell out of your hand. We can even smash it against a wall if you want it to be convincing.”

“If you’re really going to do that, then at least give me the time to find a quick replacement,” Arikado calls out as he steps into the living room, holding cup of coffee he gives to Julius, then taking a seat next to him and crossing his legs. He tucks his stray, golden curls behind his ear, looking tired as he slumps back on the couch. “We cannot afford leaving him uncommunicated. Least of all now, of all times,” Arikado adds, golden eyes settling on Soma again, “when he still needs to be kept under close observation.”

Right. Soma breaks eye contact with Arikado by dropping his gaze to the tea, chuckling awkwardly. Did he really have to remain out of his disguise for this conversation? It’s stirring up some intense memories and making everything else much harder to parse.

Arikado almost succeeds in appearing relaxed when he sighs, but it’s so much easier now to read him without the disguise that Soma can’t help but notice his exhaustion, his nerves. “I sensed inner turmoil in your soul from the second that you went unconscious,” he explains, gaze averted. “The severity of it is what made me call Julius and Yoko. We’ve all been watching over you since, and I hope you understand us wanting to continue to do so, given the” — Arikado trails off momentarily, clears his throat, and makes eye contact with Soma again — “peculiarities of your awakening.”

“You’re worried about how you couldn’t tell who it was that you were sensing, so you just want to make sure,” he explains. Before him, Arikado doesn’t reply. He just nods slowly in acknowledgement, and Soma shrugs, sighing. “I guess that’s fair. I’d like to know, too.”

Once again Arikado simply nods. Soma takes a sip of his tea. It makes sense, really; watchful as he was through his inner odyssey, and with their shared history and the type of relationship they share, it’s only obvious that Arikado would’ve picked up on the merge first and so quick. But even with all his acceptance the change in presence must still have him on edge. What does he think of him now, Soma wonders idly. Does he sense the man his father was, or does he sense the boy that Soma is the most?

Does Soma now think of him as the son he’s always had or a man he’s barely just met?

“Yeah, about that,” Yoko’s saying after the short pause, catching Soma’s attention just as she’s turning hers to Arikado. “You never explained what it was that you meant by that. Do you sense Dracula at all?” She waits for an answer for a few seconds. But it’s complicated, so when she gets none she turns to Soma instead after calling his name, frowning, asking, “What did you do when you went unconscious?”

Soma doesn’t say anything at first. Should he tell her himself, or should Arikado do it? He doesn’t know. Soma risks a cautionary glance at the man in question as if asking for permission, gut twisting after every single possibility of how badly this could go starts playing in his mind. Yoko’s grip on his arm tightens slightly. But Arikado offers him a small, tired, discreet nod, saying everything and nothing at the same time.

He’s got his back, is what the gesture means. It’s funny—there’s a history behind that nod, being one that Soma used to give on him centuries ago, when Adrian was a child and he needed his father’s encouragement. That somehow serves to calm Soma down, warming his heart even if it still strikes him as weird that he’d remember a man he’s just met barely two months ago as his own child.

But anyway.

“Well,” Soma sets the cup down and entwines his fingers together on his lap. He bites his lip, inhales sharply, bites the bullet. “For starters, I kind of locked the two of us in my soul. Yeah, yeah, I know,” Soma interjects as soon as he sees Yoko’s eyes widen, “It was really bold of me to do something that stupid, but I kind of had a plan. Like, I thought to myself, ‘If Dracula has nowhere to go, then I can confront him in my own terms, right?’ And so I was gonna fight him for the right to remain.”

Soma slumps back, drags a hand through his hair. He sets a hand on his chest and hums, feeling for the constant hum of harmonious darkness in his bloodstream. “And I did,” he says, “but the problem is that Dracula also had his own plan. Since it was both of our souls in one space, he built up a version of the castle from his own memories and hid himself inside it. And when I went through it, he slowly started to unlock bits and pieces of my past life — my time as him, I mean — to me. And, uh,” Soma shrinks into himself, eyes deliberately trained on his lap, “then I started... remembering things."

A pause, met with silence. He’s so used by now to feeling tension in the air rising and lowering in waves. But he feels too tired to be overwhelmed this time. Curious instead Soma lifts his gaze, sees Julius still in his same posture as before, wearing the same expression, yet irradiating an anxious aura and barely hiding his agitation.

It’s just like when he was a teenager, Soma thinks just as Julius nonchalantly asks, “What kind of things?”

Soma smiles and gestures vaguely. “Everything? I, uh,” he offers him an awkward laugh like it’s some sort of peace offering, “best way to put it would be that I feel like a thousand year old person in the body of a nineteen year old.”

Silence.

More silence.

And then the Belmont gets it. His blue eyes suddenly fly open, jaw dropping as he gasps. “You mean you—”

“I sensed it within him the moment he awoke,” Arikado interjects before anyone’s mind can jump into any unsavory conclusions. It makes Soma smile again, a little more genuinely, hopefully. “He is Soma, but he is Dracula; so in a way he is both, yet neither at all. It’s... complicated. However, what this means is that there is a balance in his darkness now that makes it hard to differentiate between both souls, bound so tightly together as they are.” He pauses, stares for a second, gold gaze searching. Then he hums, adds, “And yet you’ve successfully managed to remain as the dominant conscious.”

The smile drops from Soma’s face as he huffs. Right, then. So it’s time. He shrinks back into his seat, crosses his arms, and decides to just blurt it out as it is: “That’s because Dracula and I made a deal.”

It’s almost hilarious how instantly everyone in the room tenses when he says that.

A fear of the unknown encapsulates the room, stealing away everyone’s breath as Soma straightens up, pretending it doesn’t hurt him that Yoko has let go of his arm. It’s most obvious in Julius and Yoko that he’s caught them off-guard, but even if he tries to hide it, Soma can still see Arikado’s just as afraid as the other two humans in the room. But he’s doing a mighty fine job at keeping it together, at least. Soma will give him that.

Soma speaks quickly. “Listen. With the whole memory mixing thing going on, we were already too intertwined by that point to try and separate him from me, so I offered him a deal instead,” he announces out loud, looking between all three of his guardians with a quickened his heartbeat thundering in his chest. He’s met by a fragile silence. Good, he thinks, now they’ll listen to the rest of his story. The hand over his heart clutches tightly at his sweater, aching to feel the dormant darkness stir. “I accepted Dracula into my soul, merging together once and for all. That’s why you can’t pick us apart. And you won’t pick us apart. But that’s okay, because it’s exactly what we both wanted, anyway.”

Silver eyes meet Arikado’s golden gaze, holding it. He should understand. Adrian’s face darkens considerably at his words, understanding illuminating his mind like the dawn of a new day, the beginning of a new era. So, they finally see eye to eye. It only took this long. Soma grits his teeth, grim determination pushing him forward, a thousand years’ worth of pain and misery still fresh in his heart as he finally declares the terms of the contract.

“Because now that we’re as one, when I die, I bring Dracula down with me for good.”

* * *

Up in the sky, positioned right above the imposing structure of his castle, the bright ring of light around the shadow of the moon on the sun’s surface remains impassive to his desperation and destruction, to the Belmont child’s screaming and the Vampire Killer’s protests, her pleas for him to stop. Reality is slipping away, his dark magic the only thing that keeps him grounded through his pain. His cursed blood drips onto the carpeted floor, out of his mouth, through the many wounds inflicted on him through the battle. It mixes with the rest of the bloodstains from every participant in this battle, all four of them left injured and exhausted; because this was a war, and it’s always been a war. Even centuries later, it never changed.

He’s choking on his own blood, desperately coughing it out of his lungs as he struggles to maintain the barrier around him and the Belmont child. Vampire Killer is wrapped tightly around his throat, leaving him on his knees. Somewhere in the distance he can hear the disgusting Hakuba priest reciting his spell, the magic the priest uses pushing the swirling darkness of his heart out of him and upwards to the black hole on the sun.

A solar eclipse, three chosen warriors, the holy whip’s return. Nostradamus’ prophecy given life. This was the perfect opportunity to get rid of him once and for all, though the Hakuba priest is an unexpected addition unheard of in the legends he’s heard. But Hakuba magic is sealing magic, protective and holy, tied to the moon. It makes sense that this miserable bastard would be here to seal him away.

Unfortunately for them, the Hakuba priest’s spell is also ritualistic in nature, a one-time chance that will kill the caster if interrupted.

A binding spell is impassive and impersonal—it has no way of knowing which soul it’s ripping out and sealing away. That’s entirely up to the caster, and even so, it’s still too easy to fool the seal with a dummy soul. Soul Steal was never a difficult spell to master and to use. It doesn’t matter who he picks, but the current lineup amuses him, perfect as it is, the greatest revenge towards Leon and his lineage’s betrayal hiding in the Belmont child’s screams of agony as he struggles to rip his brilliant soul from his body.

Everything that he is and knows is fading away, melting down as his dark soul is slowly ripped out of his body, pulled into the eclipse as he in turn pulls the Belmont soul along, coherent enough to remain ready to swap places at the last minute, ready to save himself. A cacophony of dissonant sounds and sensations fills his being. Over it he can barely hear the echo of Adrian begging for him to stop. Pleading, screaming, calling him father for the first time in ages. But he won’t stop. He can’t stop, not this time, not when victory ensures his existence, when he’s so close to survival.

And stopping is a right he lost a long, long time ago.

The world grows murkier by the second. The Hakuba priest must nearly be done with his ritual, continuing even through Adrian’s desperate urges to end the spell. Bold for a human, he’ll give him that. Blood flows down his chin, choking him as Sara’s soul flares in another furious roar, her pain palpable in the red light she emanates within the barrier. "That is enough, Dracula!” she screams into his soul, into the darkness of the night. The burning sensation on his neck grows worse the longer Vampire Killer remains wrapped around him as it is, tight and holy and powerful, resonating with the woman’s anguish. “I will teach you the strength of our will to resist the passage of fate!"

Sara’s light crystalizes the rope, clinging to his neck, locking him in place as she makes her way down to his heart, piercing him from the outside-in. White-hot pain shoots up his nervous system and into his brain. The scream that rips out of his throat shakes the castle itself, rising into the eclipse along with the tendrils of his soul that the Hakuba priest finally yanks away as his ritual ends. Right at that moment Sara tears into his heart, shattering his soul-stealing spell with her light, with her darkness, forcing him to let go of the Belmont child’s life.

His plan fails. The world melts around him as he’s ripped out of his body, carried away by the windy currents of the seal. The eclipse awaits. Conscious breaking apart into pieces, the last thing he can hear is Sara’s sharp voice cutting through him like a holy blade, slowly fading away into nothingness before it all goes dark.

“Rest well, Mathias. And may we never meet again.”

Soma’s eyes shoot open with a choked gasp.

Nausea hits him like a ton of bricks. Wild heartbeat slamming against his ribcage and shooting adrenaline through his veins, Soma takes a deep, shaky breath, rising to sit up on the bed. It’s okay, he thinks. It’s okay. He sets a hand over his chest, feeling his heart and trying to will it to calm down, an exhausted acceptance and understanding shooting through his body in waves, comforting him, soothing him. It’s okay. It’s just a dream, a memory.

It can’t hurt him now. Not anymore. This is a new life, and all of that happened thirty six years ago.

It’s okay.

The gentle light of the sunrise filters in through his window and illuminates the bits and pieces of his bedroom untouched by the night’s shadows. Birds sing, the proof of spring fighting away the cold winter and bringing down life, warmth already seeping into the apartment. Soma sighs. He rubs the sleep off his eyes and takes a deep breath, counting from one to ten and backwards as his senses slowly come back to him. He’s in his bedroom, in his apartment. He is Soma Cruz, woken up by a memory of his final moments as Vlad Dracula Tepes. A piece of the past come to haunt him in the present.

He is Soma Cruz.

A whine, muffled. He’s sweating. Soma gets off the bed and stumbles over to the bathroom, repeating an eight month old routine without even thinking about it in the first place. The early morning light makes it easier to move around. He’s still tired. These memories woven into restless dreams, grim reminders of Soma’s past life, they’ve been happening a lot more often than he’d like, ever since his and Dracula’s merging back in December. Residues of times long past, plaguing his mind even after his acceptance of them. They make readjusting to a normal life difficult, so clear and overwhelmingly present to a boy who’s remembered a millennium’s worth of memories within the span of two days and two hours.

Eyes already adjusted to the darkness, Soma steps into the bathroom and shakily turns on the faucet, washes his face. Nausea still twists Soma’s stomach when he thinks of Adrian and Julius’ screams again, of Sara’s crystalline magic breaking Dracula apart from the inside just to save her charge. Protective in all of her right against a mad man who’d been willing to jail a Belmont’s soul in the eclipse if only to save himself.

Soma feels sick. The sensations of losing himself to the eclipse are still recent in his gut, cold, intrusive. Don’t think about it now, he thinks to himself, willing down the bile in his throat as he rises to stare at his silver-eyed reflection in the mirror. It’s not his fault. He is Soma Cruz. None of that was his fault.

But it was, in a way. Because even in times long past he was still Dracula as well, is what Soma thinks as he sets a hand on the cold glass, searching his own eyes for something that he knows won’t come. The darkness in his veins remains still, silent, stable. Absolute quiet. Even as 2036 rolled in and crawled by Arikado still doesn’t sense the dark lord in Soma, either, just this amalgamation between his father and his protege. The part of his soul that belonged to Dracula lies dormant and at ease, has been there for this past year as Soma recovered from his visit to the center of his mind. Life goes on, the world spins on.

A deal is a deal. Peace is peace.

And yet.

He sighs, frowns. Sometimes Soma wonders if the dark lord can still see the world through his silver eyes, just like he told him that he could if they so joined. If he’s still there at all. If he’s satisfied or disappointed with the new life they’ve entered together, this discovery of an entirely new persona that they must work to fabricate in the presence of two lives. If he’s still the one giving Soma memories in his dreams again, pouring them in through the cracks, rather than it being the oppressive trauma left behind with the dark lord’s departure.

Is he watching now, Soma wonders. Is he waiting for his chance, whenever and whatever that may be? Is he holding the answers to their shared existence?

What would it take for him to awaken again?

“Arata-te,” Soma whispers on a whim. The Romanian flows freer now, more naturally than it ever did in his whole life.

No response. He waits a second, then two. The calm and silence are deafening. Soma closes his eyes, lowers his head as his hand curls into a fist against the mirror. He can’t feel anything in his veins. “Arată-mi eu,” he mumbles through grit teeth, mind already rushing back to his last moments in 1999 and making him gag, shaking in barely-contained confusion, frustration, and something dangerously akin to empty loneliness.

There is still no response. He’s very aware that none will come.

So why does he keep trying to feel for anything that will stir?

It doesn’t stop, not even months later, but it gets easier to deal with the longer Soma has to discuss it with his guardians and come to terms with it all on his own. The memories keep on coming and the confusion doesn’t quite leave, his past and present merging just like their souls. Slowly but surely he untangles this mess of memories. Thus 2036 rolls on by and Soma goes on with life, observing, adapting, learning from his past while shaping up the future.

There’s times when he falters, some memory he’s dreamt of or some words someone said stirring something in his soul that feels oddly like his early darkness’ anxious bubbling, Dracula’s echoes still rippling through his veins like tiny, skipped heartbeats. So it’s only natural that he’s pulled along to ask Arikado about it when it happens, about his newfound identity, looking for context to these memories and snippets of his early life. Because Julius helps unlock most of the mysteries behind 1999, and Yoko has records on the Belmont and Belnades families, but neither of them have been as constant through eternity as Adrian has always been.

It’s strange looking at him hiding under that Japanese agent’s disguise again, like a sun shrouded in the darkness of the eclipses he so hunts for. A golden treasure sealed away for another time. Soma doesn’t know how to feel about it at all. Their muddy past makes things complicated, yet pushes them together to cooperate in this second chance, the peace left behind since December still persistent. Soma and Arikado, Dracula and Adrian. What a pair they make, Soma always thinks when Arikado sits him down to talk, to figure out the past with his own murky, centuries old memories and whatever personal records he still has for reference.

As his guardian, his enemy, his salvation, and technically still his son, Arikado holds the answers to much of what Soma can see. They both know this to be true; it’s like an unspoken rule between them that shatters the barriers Arikado had set up before, and through it his answers slowly become more truthful and familiar, now unhindered by the overpowering presence of the dark lord’s awareness that Soma had been shrouded with before the merge. But there’s a problem regardless, something that keeps them both from ever reaching a true understanding, an entirely new barrier set up between past and present.

Because come August 21st Soma is now a nineteen year old boy holding the soul of a thousand year old man, but Arikado is only a nearly six hundred year old man with half of his life spent in the darkness of slumber.

* * *

The climb to the Hakuba shrine is one Soma has made ever since he was a child, the one set of old memories that are fully his and that he can relive any time he wants. They're a familiar set of stairs in a familiar place in town leading up to a familiar shrine housing familiar people who have been friends with Soma since the day he befriended Mina, always smiling and happy to see him, supportive in their own right. The Hakuba shrine feels like a home away from home, with Mina and her parents being something like a family to him when his own still isn’t home.

It doesn’t escape Soma how ironic it is that the holy family that cast him away would now be greeting him with open arms so many years after the fact.

But whatever, now’s not the time to be thinking about the past. Summer rolls by with the distant sound of several cicadas’ cries, the short break from school feeling like a godsend in the heat glaring down with the early afternoon sun. He and Mina begin the walk up the old stone steps leading to the shrine, taking their time and talking about everything and nothing at the same time. Soma feels light, unbothered. Elation feels like a blessing when Mina laughs at his jokes, some tale about Hammer’s shenanigans ending and getting lost to the summer wind as they climb.

In the short pause after, something startles a crow in the distance, its cries and the fluttering of its wings louder than normal to Soma. Next to him Mina sighs, delight clear in her voice. “Speaking of Hammer,” she announces, grabs his attention, “It’s been a year since the eclipse, right?”

“Just about, yeah.” Soma hums. In the distance the fluttering of wings remains a constant even as it slowly fades away, more cicadas picking up in their absence. “Why?”

“Well,” Mina grins, claps her hands together before her, “after Julius told us about the 1999 eclipse last year, I’ve been trying to bug my father about letting me learn some Hakuba spells.” She turns to look at Soma with a hopeful glint to her eye, her smile confident and comforting without even trying to be. She gestures between them both, adds, “You know, to help you out?"

A little wave of warmth and joy chimes within Soma’s chest, spreading through his veins with each beat of his heart. Ever since day one, Mina’s always been there for him, always faithful and constant through this slow journey of self-discovery. She does what she can for a cause that far surpasses everything that she’s known all her life, taking it all in stride if Soma tries to tell her of all the dangers involved. It’s only natural that she’d want to grow with him as well, that she’d pick up on her family’s ancestral magic and do everything to support all of them involved.

Because she’s in too deep now, is what she always says. It’s how she’s always been. No matter what Soma tries, or how hard Arikado’s tried, Mina’s not going to leave him behind. So they might as well let her learn and help.

And the truth of the matter is that Hakuba magic is the best possible failsafe Soma could ever have.

It’s still reassuring to know that she’s trying so hard for his sake. So he mirrors her smile, offering her a surprised hum and raised eyebrows as he slows down his walk. "Really? And how's that going along?"

"Ah, well,” Mina’s cheeks redden slightly. ”I guess the best way to put it is to say that I'm slowly picking it up. I mean, I’m no rookie, but I’m no pro, either."

Soma laughs, patting her arm and moving forward again. “Just keep at it! I’m sure you’ll get it eventually.”

“Yeah,” Mina mumbles out behind him.

The conversation is dropped suddenly, but Soma doesn’t mind. His attention back to the stairway, he takes a few more steps, and then abruptly comes to a stop, blinks.

It’s like the world around them changes completely for no reason, darkening as a cold sensation in his heart spreading where once there was joy. What the hell, he thinks. He’s getting goosebumps, and they’re only halfway up the steps to the shrine, yet the distance seems a little greater than it’s ever been before. Endless, ever rising. Above in the skies the sun glares down through the thick foliage of the trees surrounding the staircase, suffocating and intense. The crows and cicadas around them have gone silent Soma frowns, something stirring at the back of his mind, skin crawling with an unknown feeling that, try as he might, he finds no proper way to classify.

Static, buzzing, echoing. He knows this sensation, has felt it before through both of his lives. Think, think. What the hell is happening? If only he could just—

The sound of Mina’s voice calling out his name behind him snaps him out of his trance, but it doesn’t get rid of the shivers going up and down his spine. It’s a sickening sensation. Mina’s not by his side anymore, and Soma has to turn around to look at her standing a few steps behind him, gaze lost as if deep in thought. Soma stares. Every fiber of his body wants him to reach forward, but he can’t move. He doesn’t know why. Stuck in place, frozen in time, all he can do is watch as Mina lifts her gaze and locks eyes with his, her worried, thoughtful brown eyes piercing right through him.

Mina’s got her hands clasped together over her heart. "And what about your ability?” she calls out again, biting her lower lip before continuing at all. “Have you felt it at all?"

Something’s crawling up Soma’s spine. He shakes it off just at the same time that he shakes his head, slipping a confident grin onto his face for Mina and Mina alone, instinctively wishing to soothe her nerves before his own. "Nope,” he says. “I lost it when we escaped Dracula's castle, remember?” He shrugs, gestures vaguely at his own chest, hums. “I haven’t been able to use the power of dominance at all since the eclipse. Not even when Drac was around. And now that he’s not even here, I highly doubt it’s going to be making any sort of return at all."

"I see…”

The wind picks up when Mina trails off, rustling the trees and picking up stray leaves off the steps, noise everywhere drowning out the white noise in Soma’s ears. He tries hard not to drop the smile, watching Mina as once again she averts her gaze as if to consider her next words.

Whatever the hell’s going on around then Mina’s feeling it as well, he can tell. Soma finally breaks through the petrification spell cast upon him by forces unknown, climbing down to set both of his hands over her smaller shoulders. “What's wrong, Mina?" he asks as gently as he can, voice low and modulated for her.

And Mina takes a moment to respond, to even look back at Soma. "It’s just… Just now, I thought I heard...” She grumbles out something else, her hands still clasped together tightening their grip. The wind stops. When Mina finally looks back to him her eyes are wide and afraid, her voice trembling slightly as says, “Soma, would you believe me if I—"

“So you’re Soma Cruz, aren't you?"

The voice that interrupts Mina comes from down below, almost echoing in nature’s silence and the static that grows louder and more painful in Soma’s brain. It is high pitched and nasal, confident, yet cold enough to send a shiver down Soma’s spine, his grip on Mina’s shoulders tightening momentarily before he lets go, looking down at the intrusion.

Standing a few steps below them is a pale woman with curly blond hair and almond brown eyes, smiling gently at the two of them, her hands hidden in her sleeves and underneath the many layers of her robes’ fabrics. She looks young, impassive. Her features are distinctly European. Just another visitor to the Hakuba shrine, is what Soma thinks at first, but he doesn’t get to complete that thought. Because there’s something off about her smile, about her eyes, about the dark energy irradiating out of her like heat that sends waves of anxious energy through Soma’s veins.

This woman is dangerous and knows it, Soma’s mind is screaming. Her smugness is infuriating. On high alert now Soma grits his teeth, removes his hands from Mina’s shoulders and turns to look down his nose at the woman, setting a hand on his hip and keeping his face hidden under a mask of arrogant annoyance. "Yeah, I am,” he calls out, channeling it like Dracula, intonating it like Soma. He tilts his head. “And you are?"

Her smile grows larger. "You may call me Celia," she replies, her eyes gaining a flinty, cruel look. She then lifts her hand to reveal a small knife in her grasp, pointing the blade towards Soma. "And you, Soma Cruz,” she declares, grinning, "are the last barrier standing in my way.”

Dracula.

She wants Dracula. Panic sets in, but Soma can’t react. No, no, no. There’s a sudden rumbling below the three of them and a flow of darkness at her feet, a pool of black magic bubbling from the stone steps of the staircase and taking on a humanoid shape, a gurgling sound coming from the shadow. Mina screams, hides behind Soma as the darkness melts off it to reveal a rotten, reanimated corpse standing between Soma and Celia, wobbling on its feet and moaning, bleeding, empty eyes lost yet staring right at him.

Before anyone can move, without a single word, Celia stabs her knife into the zombie’s head, killing it instantly.

And then it happens.

It’s a hissing noise like a firework going off, a windy sensation in the air as the zombie’s body collapses on the floor, as its soul is released from its body and flies around aimlessly, looking for where to go. He knows that damn sound, could recognize it anywhere after countless hours of running around in Dracula’s castle. Like a needle attracted to a magnet, it quickly locks in on Soma, pierces him through as it enters through his chest and lodges itself into his emptier than usual soulspace. It knocks the air out of his lungs. With its entrance now there’s a loud thumping in Soma’s chest, setting off the white noise in Soma’s brain and turning it into a cacophonous explosion of the undead creature’s voice, of a scream belonging to this twisting soul wriggling in confusion in his soulspace.

It’s so loud. It’s so damn loud, so disgusting, so unknown and yet so familiar. He can’t hear anything else. Something within Soma begins to stir, rusty gears turning as the power of dominance returns to try and calm this soul, to claim it, to soothe it for its future use. No, no. Not like this. It’ll ruin everything. He doesn’t want it, but it doesn’t stop. It’s too late to stop. Gasping for air Soma collapses to his knees, his left hand clutching for his chest and trying to rip the soul out, his attempt to stop the process before it can end completely and utterly pointless.

The power of dominance fully awakens with a loud release of darkness from Soma’s body, the zombie soul assimilated successfully into him, its power ready for use. It brings with it an immunity to poison, as usual. So familiar in its power. The noise in Soma’s head dies out at once, making way for Celia’s cold laughter instead, for Mina’s panicked voice. Panting, hurting, all Soma can do is cry out.

And from the deepest confines of his heart, Soma hears a familiar voice.

Chapter Text

Up here in the mountains, so far above from the sea level and so close to the heavens, the air quickly grows thinner and the temperatures drop steadily, snow beginning to fall after a certain threshold has been passed. Hammer's truck whines and roars as the man drives up unsteady roads and through quickly accumulating snow on the pavement, making Soma think that perhaps asking to be left alone in the back was actually a bad idea. So he clings to the panels until the truck stabilizes after a particularly rough patch, exhaling in shaky relief when smooth roads pick up once again.

Soma sits back, shivers, and wraps his arms tightly around himself to try and keep any warmth he possibly can. His breathing comes out in several puffy white clouds of vapour in the cold. Maybe he should’ve brought something warmer than his typical sweater and coat combo if he was going to end up atop a secluded mountain in the middle of September, but when Hammer called, he hadn’t even had the time to prepare before he’d impulsively shoved himself onto the truck. And although Soma has a long knife with him now, courtesy of Hammer, it’s still no Claimh Solais, holding no elemental alignment. But ah, well. It should at least make do for now until he finds something else.

Eyeing the blade, the boy chuckles under his breath. Of all the people he could’ve asked for help with this, Hammer was the only one he trusted not to talk him down. And what a weird duo they make now, he thinks as the truck rattles once again; Soma and Hammer, the reincarnation of Dracula and a misplaced military man with no real ties to this millennium long supernatural war.

It’s really good to have him back.

A sneeze escapes him, a shiver. The snowfall picks up a little more, and this far up the mountain, the serene stillness of the world feels ill at ease with Soma’s pounding heartbeat and rushing darkness. Snow caking the trees and trees lost among trees. Soma’s smile is anxious and restless, shaky. Civilization is a long way down, isn’t it?

That makes him bark out a bitter laugh. Lord, Soma shouldn’t even be up here. This is dangerous, stupid, and risky as all hell. Arikado told him to stay put, said that he’d deal with everything himself, but it was stupid of him in the first place to assume that Soma would listen. Because Celia Fortner wants him dead and will stop at nothing to see it through, and Celia Fortner woke something that should’ve stayed dormant, ruined everything Soma so carefully planned for. Soma grits his teeth, glaring at the landscape as the truck shakes and struggles. Celia and her cult that Arikado so spectacularly have failed to stop before they found Soma are a threat that he can’t afford to allow to continue, and they don’t even deserve to live—

Soma stops, blinks. He wheezes out a breath and shudders, at once released from the murderous impulse that so easily crawled up his spine. Ah, there you are, he thinks, letting it echo through his mind. He’s been quiet all this time. Soma ends up laughing nervously, resting his head against the panel behind him. "Drac,” he calls out, eyes closed and mouth turning into a smirk when he feels his darkness shivering, “would you hold off on the murderous rage for a little bit longer, please? Stick to the plan."

With each of his words the darkness boils more and more in his veins. It’s uncomfortable and slightly painful, and Soma’s features twist into a grimace as Dracula’s rumbling growls echo through his head, his heart, his soul. "Plan?” the dark lord asks, a thunderous, barely contained whisper in his ear, “You don't have a plan. You're making it all up as you go, aren't you, boy?" Soma gives him an awkward grin, and in response Dracula growls. “Insolent idiot. This filthy cult doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as us , doesn’t deserve to be allowed to live. We would be doing this world a favour by slaughtering them all one by one in their own stronghold instead.”

That horrible, oppressive anger slips into Soma’s own heart. He shivers. ‘No unnecessary violence on my watch,’ Soma gives up on talking out loud, opting instead for talking back within his thoughts as he used to do so long ago. He pushes back against the anger and Dracula simply growls.

It’s honestly bizarre, how quickly they’ve fallen back into old habits even like this, how easily and at ease Soma feels having half his soul awake on his long trek up the mountain at the back of Hammer’s truck. But even if it feels right, Dracula still shouldn’t be here. It’s through pure force of will alone that Soma remains at the front, aided by Mina’s quick thinking placing a Hakuba spell in her necklace after Celia made her escape and Arikado hurriedly called her in. It hangs off his neck now, dangling as the truck moves. But even so, minds separate but souls merged, Soma and Dracula are still clipping into and through each other, emotions mixing, voices intertwining.

Even if Soma’s the one in control now, it’s still like having two voices coming out of one mouth, two personalities haphazardly smashed together and contained in his body.

And Dracula’s anger has been a constant thorn at Soma’s side since the second he awoke.

The road straightens out and the truck stabilizes once again, so Soma huffs, brings up his legs to his chest and rests his arms on his knees. ‘And yeah, I don’t have a plan,’ Soma admits, eyes fluttering closed as he rests his cheek against his arms. ‘But, well,’ Soma grins, ‘that’s where you come in, Cronqvist the Wise.’

Silence rushes in where the anger recedes away. It takes a second, two, and then slowly, a dark, humourless laugh echoes through Soma’s mind, rushing out of his lips in white huffs. This close together as they are, it feels more like a threat. Dracula takes a deep breath, growling low, and Soma can imagine his fangs bared as he ends up grimacing along with him. “We had an agreement,” comes the dark lord’s statement out of Soma’s mouth.

His eyes fly back open at that. Then Soma shakes his head, shakes Dracula off. "And we also don’t have much of a choice,” Soma says out loud. He grits his teeth, grips the knife Hammer gave him tighter. A sigh escapes him. “Listen, even if we decided to lay low, we are still the main target anyway,” Soma explains, looking at the sky, at the snow. “Better to come here and fight them ourselves rather than getting a nasty surprise later, right? So until we find a way to release our power and put you back to sleep,” he pats at his chest, smirks when Dracula growls again, “we're going to have to do this together."

Dracula goes silent, but Soma can still feel anger rippling through his blood, dangerously visceral and choking him with its power. Fight or flight, it feels like survival instincts trying to kick in. When the dark lord next speaks, it’s in Soma’s mind, an echo in the darkness. "They will try to pry us apart,” he says, rumbling. “You will either lose yourself or die in the process. And once they’ve done this, they will use what’s left of us to further their own personal agenda, whatever in hell’s name that is.” Soma inhales deeply, feels cold. And Dracula just scoffs. “Do you see it now, boy? History only ever repeats itself.” He pauses, briefly. “We are nothing but a weapon."

The exhausted ‘Haven’t we suffered enough already?’ goes unsaid, but Soma still feels it in his veins.

It’s not like Soma doesn’t know that. And it’s not like Soma isn’t fighting for Dracula just as much as he is fighting for himself, either. Dozens of resurrections later, Soma already feels just as spent as Dracula does, feels the weight of a remembered lifetime in his lungs. He closes his eyes. They will not be used anymore, is what he thinks as he inhales and exhales slowly, gently, calming. Soothing. The anger recedes only so much, but a victory is a victory, no matter how small, and thus Soma takes it as such.

He drags his free hand down his face as he sighs. Celia Fortner wants him dead. Celia called him the final barrier standing in her way. And she awoke Dracula by forcing a soul into Soma’s soulspace, so she knows exactly how the power of dominance works. What she and her cult want is Dracula’s soul in its purest state—alone—but whether or not she’s aware that Dracula will not survive if she kills the host is the unknown that drives most of Soma’s fears.

And what Celia might do instead if she figures out the truth is something Soma doesn’t want to think about at all.

The truck hits a difficult patch on the road again, shaking about. ‘They can’t do any of that without killing us both . And even if they could succeed in leaving you alive, no fucking way am I gonna let them get to you in the first place,’ Soma thinks after a pause, hugging himself for warmth after he shivers again. Dracula’s grumble comes out under Soma’s breath, unconvinced, so Soma frowns and tries to appeal to him again. ‘Just… think about this as our second chance,’ he adds into the silence. ‘We stop the cult, we save the world, and maybe we can think about earning that redemption we want.’

“But why should I care about any of that now?”

Not his words but said with his voice, again. Instantly, Soma shuts his mouth and tenses. The anger, the apathy, the betrayal and the disgust, none of them have left. They remain still over him like murky waters, and under them Dracula laughs. “This close together as we are, I could easily overpower you and shatter the spell that girl put on us,” he whispers into their space, wrapping his darkness around their combined soul, cold and uncomfortable and suffocating in their grasp. Soma gags. Dracula hums, crawling up their bloodstream and making the boy shiver. “I could snuff out your mind and take possession of you any second, now. And then, through you, I could easily destroy them all."

The logical side of Soma’s brain wants him to fight back, to push Dracula away and deny any control he might have. But he doesn’t. Dracula’s dark tendrils dance across their soul, rushing down his bloodstream in waves. He should break free, but he doesn’t. Instead, dipped in the silence and still as rock, Soma just waits.

And waits.

And waits until Dracula’s darkness twitches uncomfortably, waiting for a reaction instead of going in for the kill. Soma smirks, chuckles. Without the curse to wear him down and with the necklace’s seal in place, Soma knows that Dracula won’t even bother to really try taking him over—and besides, if he really wanted to, then he would’ve done it already. But the dark lord gave up that chance the moment that they merged, when he surrendered himself to mortality and the promise of death. The darkness recedes away when Dracula huffs in defeat, and once he’s freed Soma rests his head against the back of the car again, now lazily looking up at the darkening sky.

Snowflakes fall on his face as the car slows down, cool against flushed skin. He can feel Hammer’s driving slowing as he starts picking a place to park. Soma hums. “Don’t be stupid; I’m the one fronting right now because I owe it to you,” he mumbles, left drained after Dracula’s stupid trick. The car engine dies and Hammer opens the door. A sigh, then, right before Soma rises to stand. ‘And besides,’ Soma points out as he jumps off the truck, ‘you've already placed your trust in me before. I’m sure it can't hurt you to do it again.’

* * *

It almost looks like their soulspace once did, Soma thinks, with the snow falling steadily and the fog that quickly sets in as the night rushes into the mountain. Hammer walks him over to an abandoned village a few kilometers away from where he’s parked the car, carrying a small handgun and a machete along with him. Soma grips his knife. The phantom smell of burning is still engrained in Soma’s mind as the skies become painted with the reds and purples of the evening. And as the road into their destination becomes trickier to traverse in the sinking light, Hammer deals with the problem by handing Soma an angle-head flashlight and turning on his own, settling it in his vest’s breast pocket.

Able to see in the dark as he is, Soma actually snorts, but doesn’t turn down the flashlight out of courtesy. He instead examines it in his hands, weighing it. “Never seen a flashlight like this,” comes a mumble.

“Military stuff, usually. Or really rare finds,” Hammer responds. He adjusts his backpack strap over his shoulder, nodding Soma to walk along the decaying, dark buildings again. A grin settles on his face, then. “But I got these off an auction specifically for your use.”

The boy grins. “You mean it wasn’t part of your collection already? I’m surprised.”

“Nah, that ain’t gonna sell,” Hammer declares. “Think about it, kid; who the fuck would wanna buy a flashlight off some dude buyin’ and sellin’ weapons on the internet?” He stops, hums. “Well, some freak, maybe. You never know.”

Soma laughs out loud at that, behind his palm. Hammer grins at him. Then the conversation dies and he follows quickly behind Hammer, turning the flashlight on purely for show, sticking close to not lose him in the mists.

Only their footsteps can be heard this deep into the mountain and the village. A suffocating, deadly silence hangs in the air, thick like the fog yet delicate like ice. Dracula stays silent, yet stirs uncomfortably the further into the village they get. Something’s bothering him, and it’s bothering Soma through him as well. But through the snow and the streets Soma can’t see much else, eyes scanning and piercing the area in search of any threat, grip on the knife tight, senses heightened and on edge.

The fear of the unknown quickly crawls up his spine once the lightheartedness of the earlier conversation has completely fled the scene. He can feel something in the distance, something that guides him along, pulls him like a rope. Darkness, laughing mischievously and hissing deeper in, sounds audible only to his ears. Soma grumbles and shines a flashlight on the buildings as they pass. Wooden, homey, broken. Aged. This place is old, sure, but it’s clear it’s not been abandoned—there’s still a certain thumbprint of life emanating from the houses themselves, clues of use, memory-like in their stay.

Come on in, they almost say. Come home.

It makes Soma’s skin crawl.

The anxiety bursts out of him in a question. “What’s the deal with this place, anyway?” Walking still, Soma turns to look at Hammer, pleading eyes searching the man’s face. “Hey,” he gives a wobbly grin, “you think it’s haunted?”

A perky little “Yep” isn’t the answer Soma wants, but it is the one that he gets, and his stomach drops as Hammer continues talking and walking as if nothing’s even wrong. “Read about it. This place had a deadly gas leak in the 80’s that killed literally everyone. Nobody found out till a few days later.” Hammer sighs. “Been abandoned since. Horrible shit, really.”

“How can you talk about that with such a straight face?” Soma gasps.

Eyes still on the houses his flashlight examines, Hammer shrugs. Flatly he says, “It ain’t the worst I’ve heard.” A pause. “Or seen.”

Oh. That’s as truthful as it is cold. Soma looks on ahead again, shaky breath huffed out in a big, white cloud. “Yikes.”

“Damn right, yikes.”

Silence, again. The purples and pinks of the sundown have all but left the skies by now, darkness cascading down onto the world, white fog turned murky and impenetrably grey instead. Sensing and recognizing the night the street lights on the roads flicker on, illuminating the snow and humming, glowing. Moths fly close. Abandoned places don’t carry electricity through them, Soma thinks. Someone lived here, then. And rather recently, too.

Dracula stirs again, grumbling in Soma’s mind as the roads twist and turn and move further from their entry point, That tingling sensation returns and sets as a weight at the pit of Soma’s stomach, growing and worsening the moment when finally he and Hammer come out of the roads and enter a large, open plaza covered in snow. Yellow street lamps brighten the area. Still, their flashlights are drawn out and instantly hit a large patch of something in the middle of the square, twin beams of light visible in the fog.

“The fuck is that?” is what comes out of Hammer’s mouth, words preceding a shriek and moans of pain when a loud crack echoes in the air and Hammer drops his flashlight, Vampire Killer’s cheeky hum loud and familiar in the dark.

And in all honesty Soma really should’ve expected Arikado would pull something like this.

The event prompts Dracula to laugh through Soma’s mouth, low and rumbling even when Julius steps out of the fog, whip in hand, keeping eye contact with Soma as he approaches them both. Busted, huh. Now blushing furiously Soma gives the Belmont a curt nod, a sheepish smile, an awkward laugh as he shoves Dracula back down. The dark lord keeps laughing. Then he senses more than sees Yoko before she steps out of the darkness as well, chastising Julius as she rushes over to check Hammer’s hand.

It’s easier for Soma to notice their presences now that he can focus on anything other than the oppressive wrongness of the village.

Julius is approaching fast. “Julius,” Soma greets, tries to be friendly. But the Belmont is glaring. Anxious and panicking Soma then says the question he sees in Julius’ blue eyes before the Belmont even can: "What, ah, what are you guys doing here?”

“Arikado sent for us,” comes Yoko’s voice from behind him. It’s all she says. Soma turns to see her, finds her already helping Hammer back up to his feet, quickly examining his hand. Hammer’s in obvious pain but shrugging it off. So when she gives up on him, Yoko’s glare sets on Soma, just as imposing as Julius’ own. “And we thought we’d told you to stay home.”

Oh, come on.

That snaps Soma out of the apologetic stupor, annoying him instead. He winds up scoffing, in tandem with Dracula himself as he speaks. "Oh, sure,” he crosses his arms, “stay home with a huge target painted on my back, just waiting to get me and any innocent bystanders killed. Let's face it: it's safer I'm here in danger than back home and in danger.” Soma tilts his head, an eyebrow raised as he looks between Julius and Yoko. “Besides, this involves me as much as it involves you."

Red lips purse into a fine line, Yoko’s expression stuck between aggravated and conflicted. Soma hears her grumble under her breath, but it gets lost under Julius’ groan, under the sound of his footsteps on the snow. "He's got a point, Yoko," the man is quick to acquiesce, already hanging the whip from his belt. He grumbles, then, "But that doesn't mean we can't keep you under our watch now, either."

“At least the Belmont sees eye to eye,” comes Dracula’s voice inside of Soma’s mind. Soma shrugs him off. "I guess that’s fair.”

Julius nods and says, "Then welcome to the investigation team, both of you.” He stops then, opting for gesturing at Hammer with one hand as the other rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry about the whip," he apologizes, voice taking on an uncharacteristically, genuinely remorseful tone. "We weren’t exactly expecting any human visitors, if you know what I mean," the Belmont says.

“Man, I don’t wanna know what you mean!” Hammer shrieks, waving his injured right hand around. He’s picked up the handgun he dropped, put it in his holster. The machete is now held firmly in his left hand. “Still with that goddamn whip?” the man scoffs. “In the middle of some weird cult bullshit? Are you fuckin’ serious?”

“Yeah, I’m fuckin’ serious,” is Julius’ dry reply. Hammer’s left stammering for a response, but it’s clear the Belmont’s done with that subject when he turns to Soma instead. "Anyway," he beckons the boy over as he walks towards the plaza, "Arikado should be arriving shortly. In the meantime, get over here, kid. Gotta show you something."

Yoko’s voice is intoned like both a warning and a plea, "Julius, I don’t think—”

"He's already here,” Julius turns around on his heel, arms spread wide as he explains himself to Yoko. Already following him close, Soma stumbles back with the quick action. Julius chuckles, “and Dracula’s awake. They’re gonna figure this out whether we like it or not. So, might as well just tell them everything already."

Feels odd to be referred to as a duo, is what Dracula mumbles at the back of Soma’s throat, the thought coming out as a low growl. Stupefied for a second, Soma is compelled to agree. The Belmont turns around again, leaving Yoko and Hammer a few steps behind as he guides Soma to the center of the plaza. The fog around it clears the closer they get, and there’s that twisting, uncomfortable feeling of something being off again, growing in intensity as they approach that lump on the snow. Soma shines the flashlight over it once he’s close, and when the light pierces the fog clearly enough, he halts.

Shining pinks and reds in equal amounts on the snow, defiling the pure white around a melted area on the plaza’s floor. On the ground, untouched by snow, there’s burn marks and even more red ichor, surrounded by an uneasy aura that swallows the scene whole. Dread blocking his throat. But that’s not the worst part, because what freezes the blood and darkness in Soma’s veins are the twelve corpses scattered in a circle around the patch, some still buried under the snow, others already dug out and moved off to the left.

Disgust and horror taste like bile. Is this a murder scene, Soma asks. No, Dracula replies. There’s something else going on, here in this macabre scene of mass death in the middle of a creepy, silent, abandoned nowhere. In a way, they already know what this is. Soma feels sick, gags, a hand covering his mouth. And in his weakness Dracula seeps in momentarily, speaks through him, dropping Soma’s hand and turning him around to look at Yoko and say, "This is the product of an alchemy ritual, is it not?"

Her recognition over who’s talking is clear in the way she tenses and stops. She takes a deep breath. "Yeah. Buried under the snow was a ritualistic glyph, too. But I already burned it away,” Yoko speaks slowly after the short pause, eyes searching Soma’s face as he steps in to front again. Her alertness doesn’t leave, but she’s calmed a little when Soma smiles apologetically. Yoko pries her eyes off Soma’s, circles the burn marks, gestures at them. "This thing cost every single caster their lives. Violently. I don't think there's many members of the cult left. But that's not all," she quickly adds. "Underneath that alchemical residue, somehow, there's remnants of strong dark magic as well."

Dracula’s stirring in Soma’s soul, growing more and more restless as Yoko speaks. He’s bubbling up and down Soma’s throat like a noxious poison, leaving him slightly breathless as he rubs at his chest. “And what were they trying to do?” Soma cuts straight to the chase.

Movement, behind Soma. He turns to see Hammer taking his angle-head flashlight out of his breast pocket, pointing it before him. His gaze is lost somewhere in the fog as he says, gesturing forward with his chin, “I’m thinkin’ it’s got everything to do with that.”

Soma’s eyes follow the light, and once he finds what Hammer’s seen, he feels two sets of hearts drop.

How they didn’t notice it before is something that neither of them knows, but Soma attributes it to the overwhelming dark energy coming from the burnt glyph on the floor distracting and hypnotically pulling them in. There, still hidden in the low light and the thick fog, is the shadow of a building reaching high up to the dark sky, sending shivers down Soma’s spine, two drops of anger trickling down together this time. It’s like salt in the wound. His hands clench into fists at his sides. What a sick, disgusting sight it is, unnatural and unwanted, an alchemical mockery of their magnificent castle standing in the snow.

It looks like several of the village’s old houses and buildings smashed together into the shape of a ruined tower masquerading as an attempt at a castle, bits and pieces of bizarre architecture sticking out from the central mass. Balconies higher up the tower drip down a liquid something that falls into an opening in the snow, akin to a pit, the drawbridge connecting castle and plaza stuck not even halfway down. That incessant pull shines like a dark star at the top of the structure, pulsating like a heartbeat. It’s alive, Dracula hisses out into their soul, rage like scorching fire. It’s alive, and in pain, and forced to exist in its own violent decay through a sacrifice of twelve that it cannot undo by itself.

Celia Fortner and her people did this. Foolish lives wasted away for a useless, idiotic purpose. Destruction for the sake of preservation, murder for the sake of living. So exhausting, so human. “Insolent bastards,” Dracula and Soma speak together this time, their voices mixing into one frigid mix.

Humans are not worth the air they breathe.

A laugh snaps Soma out of his enraged daze, separating him and Dracula again as Julius now occupies Soma’s focus. “I guess that’s one way to put it.”

The hunter steps forward towards the castle, one hand resting on the whip that’s now hanging from his belt. He hums out loud, rubbing his beard with his thumb and index fingers as he turns to look at the three of them. Then, "Here's what's gonna happen. You" — he points at Soma, then at Yoko, currently hunched over by a body — "stay with her at all times. You do everything she tells you to do, go where she goes, and listen to what she says. I guess the walking Swiss Army Knife can come along, too.” At this Hammer splutters and Julius ignores him; “Point is, you three stick together. Got it?"

Hammer grumbles under his breath, but otherwise does nothing as he goes over to work with Yoko instead. “Such a typical display of the Belmont ego, to think he’s the one calling the shots,” comes Dracula’s voice. Soma just snorts. "And what about you?” he asks the Belmont, arms crossed as he squints at Julius through the fog. “Unless you’re planning on going in there on your own?"

And Julius simply nods. "That’s the plan, yeah.”

Over from where she is Yoko gasps, rising from her spot examining one of the twelve corpses. “Excuse me?” she calls out, rushing forward to grab for his arm, pushing past Hammer and Soma on her way. “Julius, you’re not going anywhere on your own. I’m coming, too.”

"No, Yoko. You've got a job to perform here, and then two meddling kids to watch over." The Belmont smirks when he hears Hammer’s offended cry, then points back at the castle over his shoulder with his thumb. "Besides, that drawbridge over there? It's stuck. I'm probably the only one here who can bring it down in the first place."

“Oh my god. Are you— You just—”

Yoko doesn’t finish her sentence. She just shrieks, grabbing for the front of Julius’ jacket and pulling him away from the other two. It makes Julius yelp. “Excuse us for a second,” the witch says through grit teeth, the barely-contained anger in the grin she then gives Soma powerful in its own might.

She drags Julius off to the side, far enough from Soma and Hammer that they can’t hear what they seemingly start bickering about, but close enough that their silhouettes still remain in the fog. Silence falls over them like the snow, again. Soma spares a look and an incredulous gesture at Hammer, and the older man replies in a shrug before he goes back to uncovering the corpses. He’s already on duty mode, it seems. It makes Soma shiver.

Alright, then. Left to his own devices and not wanting to look at the twelve cultists any longer, Soma turns his attention to the tower masquerading as a castle. He grimaces, huffs. 'What do you think, Drac?' he asks into their space.

The castle is alive and breathing, agonized and begging for an end to its existence. It’s alchemy, Chaos, and darkness in waves, mixed together in a way they shouldn’t even be—the impossible given flesh, hellish magic and old sciences blended. A completely unnatural union. It already felt incredibly wrong to be here in the first place, and it’s even worse now with all that horrid energy coming from within the structure, that cacophonous agony hiding something within its cries that keeps pulling them both in.

Soma looks up to the top, to that heartbeat-like pulse of darkness crying out at the highest floor. Something awaits there. It’s a trap, most likely. A sweet siren’s song that’s enchanting them both. But it’s the first clue they have, and the only guide on what to do, and they’re not going to get anywhere quick if they stay here waiting for Julius and Yoko to come to some agreement and then babysit him all the way through. Celia’s cult has no problem sacrificing lives to achieve their goals, so who knows what other sick tricks she’s got up her sleeve, or what she’s planning to hit them all with. She could kill Yoko and Julius for all she cares.

Time runs short. Soma understands that. He knows.

Thus Dracula stirs in his veins like a rush of adrenaline, breezy laughter coming out of Soma’s lips. “You already know.”

‘Glad to hear we’re on the same page for once,’ Soma smiles. Peering into his senses, Soma detects a way into the castle through a gap somewhere to his right, a beacon in the dark. That’ll do, then. He turns off his flashlight, spares a glance at the bickering witch and hunter duo and the military man dragging a body over to the pile. Slowly, carefully, Soma steps away from the scene, over to the castle.

It’s only once he can’t see any of them anymore that Soma finally breaks off into a sprint, running through the snow and following the dark energy. There will be hell to pay for this later, he understands, but for now he and Dracula have a score to settle. “Just remember what we’re doing this for,” Soma whispers then, deliberately thinking of Arikado’s golden form and leaving it there for the dark lord to see, “and let’s try not stray from the light.”

* * *

Rushing forth in a sprint, the long knife held tightly in his hand and ready to be drawn any second he requires it. Footsteps muffled on carpets and loud on stone, creaking on wood, splashing where water lay. Stone walls upon wooden floors with metallic ceilings, broken doors, cracked glass on windows that look nowhere but into another wooden wall behind them. Dead ends, staircases leading nowhere, empty rooms. Red rust and chain-link fences placed in illogical places. Flickering electrical sconces and dancing flames on candles, then glowing, humming ceiling lights shining down from above. Broken pipes flooding entire rooms, a gas-like smell following him everywhere he goes. The surreal given flesh.

Tendrils of pulsating, glowing darkness attached to the walls like veins protruding on skin, magic rushing through them and loud in Soma’s ears. Power plugs on the walls and floors, decaying furniture and destroyed decor, glass shards on the floor. Blood splattered everywhere he runs as he brings down demon after spectre after undead creature with the knife, absorbing their souls and keeping them stored for later use.

Hellfire comes naturally with Dracula being awake. The demon on the receiving end screeches, writhing in place as the flames scorch it quickly, ravenously, mercilessly. It will die. Then its soul enters Soma’s space. It hurts, but it quiets down rather quickly, silenced by Dracula’s will as Soma fights through his discomfort to welcome the newcomer in. The power of dominance takes care of the rest. Lesser souls like this one always turn into energy, into spells. Information and knowledge. Soma grits his teeth. He doesn’t like it, but he will do what he must to survive, to grow in power just to stop Celia Fortner’s madness.

Then it’s quiet again. Alright. Soma sprints forward, room after room, on and on and on in his quest through their castle.

Except it’s all wrong.

It isn’t their castle, not by a long shot, but it sure is trying its damnedest to be. And it’s infuriating, bordering on downright insulting. Chaotic and disorderly as it is it almost feels unfinished in its design, hurriedly brought together through alchemy as it is and was, completed only through assimilation of other resources in the area—the village’s other houses and buildings, Soma guesses as he runs. That would perhaps be an explanation for its messy structure and surreal look, Dracula’s addition echoes inside of Soma’s soul.

A failed replica mostly borrowing from that of modern origin, then, powered up by tormented, screeching darkness forced into existence through a ritual. Some wishful thinking from a group of maniacs twisted and mangled just as badly as their own goals.

It makes their blood boil in tandem, rage consuming them both and leaving them panting heavily as they run, darkness flowing out of them, singing with the castle’s own. All these years and humanity’s ego still hasn’t changed. How utterly disgusting. Who does Celia think she is, imitating the power of the one force who stands opposite to God himself—

Soma abruptly stops.

He blinks quickly. It’s like waking up from a sudden, invasive daydream. Head swimming as the anger leaves him, Soma stumbles back, panting. Something’s wrong. Dracula’s muttering something in ancient Romanian in his soul, but Soma doesn’t hear, thundering heartbeat spiking up as he tries to discern his surroundings in a panic instead.

How they arrived here he can’t remember, but Soma’s now standing in the middle of a long corridor with a wooden floor and several windows on both walls, the snowfall from outside visible through their clear glass. Curtains hanging off the windows dance with an unknown, spectral current as the electric lights above flicker weakly, leaving the hallway in darkness regardless of their attempts to illuminate the area. Soma blinks twice. Compared to the rest of the castle, this place is much too clean—and if it weren’t for the veiny, dark tendrils on the walls, then he would’ve been fooled into thinking he’d been transported somewhere else entirely. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened, after all.

A sudden anxiety hits him like a truck. Soma wheezes, makes a grab for Mina’s necklace, and right away a refreshing wave of calmness shakes him down, breaking the crystal clear fear and letting the shards shatter and fly away like dust in the wind. Breathe in, breathe out. Slowly, gently. Soma staggers over to rest against the wall and smiles tiredly. Hakuba magic is holy magic. It’ll keep him safe here and now. It’s okay.

“This is merely a placebo effect, you know,” comes Dracula’s exhausted rumble in Soma’s mind.

Without even thinking about it Soma grumbles a “fuck you” into the quiet of the room. But in his nausea, his words are nothing but a slurred mumble, and hearing them makes Dracula chuckle weakly through him. Soma clicks his tongue. ‘What the hell is wrong with this place?’ he decides to change the subject altogether, looking back at the dark lines on the wall. ‘Like… you feel it, don’t you?’

There is a pause, then something that sounds like Dracula‘s simmering laugh, sharp at the edges, making him shiver. “This is Chaos’ influence,” comes Dracula’s hiss. “Whatever it was that that wretched woman summoned through her ritual, it is a creature of Chaos, and it is not happy to be alive.”

Soma’s blood runs cold. ‘Are you holding up alright?’

A laugh. “Are you asking how I feel?”

‘Smartass,’ Soma snaps.

They’re wasting time. Soma pushes himself off the wall, follows the darkness with his eyes, off to a turning point in the hallway and beyond. The tendrils’ dark energy comes like a hateful, mournful hum, almost as if they were weeping in despondency at their existence. They must lead to the top, Dracula thinks. Soma’s skin crawls, and his breath shudders as he looks away, composure lost for a deadly second as he waits it out. A fountain of darkness and agony contained within a castle of agony. It’s almost as fitting as it is revolting.

Swallowing down fear, Soma whispers into his soul, ‘We’re not too different, are we?’

A full minute of silence passes. Dracula doesn’t respond. But he doesn’t have to, not anymore; everything he wants to say is broadcasted into their shared soul in waves, an uneasy anger, urgency, and determination shaking Soma’s heart. He smirks.

Right; they need to get out of here. With careful steps quiet on the wooden floor, Soma follows the tendrils down the hall, the knife in his hand suddenly heavier than before. A part of him wants to touch them, but Dracula keeps advising against it, saying something about overwhelming amounts of Chaos surging through them. Who knows what they’d do. Soma frowns, tears his gaze off the wall, turns the corner, and at once freezes in his tracks when his eyes land on a man standing in the middle of the next, much wider room.

Under the flickering, humming ceiling lights, his eyes are almost completely obscured in shadows, the smirk on his face macabre in the dark. Soma instantly tenses at the sight, doused with cold dread and instinctively lowering himself into a fighting stance, knife held out, pulse high. It makes the man laugh under his breath, completely unfazed. Darkness bubbles up and down his veins. A low growl from Dracula escapes through Soma’s mouth. This bastard knows he’s caught them by surprise; after all, the oppressive darkness did a mighty fine job at hiding his presence.

This man stands with his arms folded behind his back, posture near-perfect, his blue suit making him look completely out of place with everything else. Senses now in overdrive Soma hears him clear his throat, inhale through his nose. “Welcome, my lord,” the man calls out, unfolding his arms and gesturing at the hallway with an open, gloved palm, “to the home we have created just for you.”

Ah, so it’s another damn cultist.

That twisted, sick anger comes back once more, settling at the pit of Soma’s stomach and leaving him hissing like a venomous snake. How many more survived, he wonders. Soma raises from his stance, knife still carefully pointed forward. And Dracula stirs, agitated and offended both at once, bleeding it out into Soma’s space.

Soma’s grin shows teeth. Well, they called out to him, so he should reply. So when he next opens his mouth, he lets the dark lord speak as asked, “You were expecting me.”

But unlike Yoko, this man can’t seem to tell who is who. His glare could freeze the room. “I did not speak to you,” he spits out the words like they’re acid, and the smile he offers next is forcefully set in place, as if to chase away the hiccup in his demeanour. It’s followed by a bow, graceful and proper and downright infuriating. “My name is Dmitrii Blinov, my lord,” he says as he rises, “and I will gladly free you and be your next host.”

Soma blinks.

He takes a second, two, and Dmitrii’s smile is unwavering, clear even in the darkness. It’s all clicking within itself, absurd and ridiculous as it is, a madwoman’s vision spoken through another madman. Free Dracula’s soul, he says—so, these people still think that Soma’s the cage. Laughter echoes in Soma’s soul, a roaring cackle of disbelief and rage spilled out into Soma’s chest. “So he doesn’t know!” Dracula exclaims, “None of them know! Blood spilled for nothing, for a mere illusion, for an incomplete truth; it is the blind leading the blind!”

Oh, god, Soma’s going to be sick. Dmitrii Blinov, Celia Fortner—foolish idiots toying with a power bigger than themselves, so very much like every human before them, like all those idiots who once tried and failed to control Dracula’s own might. Dracula’s laughter still echoing in his mind, Soma huffs and winds up chuckling under his own breath, partially sharing in Dracula’s astonishment, partially to let out his own exasperation at this man, this castle, this cult. Dmitrii doesn’t react. It’s downright maddening.

He’s shaking, now. And he feels nauseous. “Let me guess,” Soma laughs, words thin and piercing like ice itself, “you want him to possess you instead so you can inherit his power.”

“In a way, you would be correct,” Dmitrii’s quick to say, voice silver, words intonated like a gentleman of olden times. The lights continue to flicker above. “We are very aware of your status as the current holder of Dracula’s soul, but you are not worthy, not as we are.” He sighs, clasps his hands in front of himself. Brown eyes squint dangerously as he smiles and adds, quickly, “To cut to the chase, you are an obstacle, and ergo, you must be eliminated.” Pause, smirk. “Surely you understand.”

“This fool is as worthy of my time as every sinner my armies massacred in Wallachia was,” Dracula growls. His anger is intoxicating and ashen, distracting, burning the edges of Soma’s vision and leaving him struggling for air in his rage. Quickly Soma shoves him down, then lowers the knife as he walks forward into the room, pacing the perimeter, circling the other man. “Really, now,” Soma calls out through ragged breaths, tilting his head. No weapons in sight, but something is off. Something dark. He scoffs, “There was already someone else like you, y’know. A year ago.” His pacing stops. “Can you guess how that ended?”

He expects a stronger reaction than just Dmitrii easily chuckling and dismissing him with a wave of his gloved hand. And so another flare of anger rushes in. “That fool was a worthless freelancer,” Dmitrii says, so casually and without a damn care in the world. “So we ought to thank you, boy. It is good that he’s gone. I, however,” Dmitrii sets his hand on his chest, smugness incarnated as he straightens his back and smiles wide, “am more than capable of handling the Chaotic energies associated with our dark lord.”

The darkness in the atmosphere crawls up his skin, into his heart, his brain. A hum, dripping with sarcasm. Then, “And what makes you so sure of that?”

“Are you familiar with the word, ‘Ecclesia’?”

That gives him pause. Ecclesia, Ecclesia, Ecclesia—it tugs at their memory, blurry and misty and oddly familiar, but try as he may Soma can’t recall anything. Neither of them can. So, then. It must be something outside of their own experience. Again. It makes Soma scowl at Dmitrii’s growing grin. Because even immortal and eternal as they are, context is still context, and something that they so desperately lack each and every time that they're given flesh, bound to the castle and unable to go forth and explore the world as time moves on.

As Soma remains silent, Dmitrii hums, shrugs, and seemingly takes it as a no. “Ah, well, I can’t say I blame you, boy. We were nearly wiped out. Twice.” Soma's frown deepens, grip on the knife tightening again. But Dmitrii's not looking at him anymore, busier now with taking off his gloves and quickly continuing to talk. “But all that you need to know is that we understand exactly what we’re doing.”

What the hell is he talking about? Twice? Twice what? Soma inhales, fully meaning to ask, but when Dmitrii's gloves finally come off he chokes on the air instead. The man shoves them carelessly into his suit's pockets, and as soon as the man lifts his hands, palms to the front, Dracula's darkness shudders inside of Soma's veins.

On his hands lie two intricate glyph tattoos: on his left he holds an image of three darkened orbs rushing out from an incomplete circle, and on his right a ball surrounded by thunder-like lines and decorated with splotches of misty ink. He stumbles back and Dmitrii grins, but Soma doesn't care. Power emanates from both, something burning like fire, feeling like a punch in the gut, like electricity that raises all the hairs on Soma's back. It feels familiar, both like an old memory from a thousand years ago and like a recent experience from mere minutes back.

'That's alchemy,' Soma calls out into their space, shaky as he forces his coughing fit to recede. The lights above finally go out and die. But it’s not all. 'That's fucking alchemy mixed with dark magic!'

Dracula hums in agreement within. He otherwise stays silent. Then there's a stirring sensation in Soma's soul that leaves him breathless, their catalogue of souls flashing quickly in his soul as Dracula searches through it one by one, his alchemist’s mind already testing a theory. Before them Dmitrii finally decides to speak, apparently done observing Soma's easily telegraphed freakout. “You recognize it, don’t you?" he says, waving his hands, grin so punchable in the newfound dark. "After all, this power is not so different from your own, isn’t it?”

A loud hiss, from within. Abruptly, Soma then feels a flame demon’s soul enter his bloodstream, locked and loaded and ready for use. Dracula’s doing, most likely. “He is not wrong. The one on the left,” the dark lord points out, and Soma’s wide eyes fly to rest on Dmitrii’s left hand, “it is a fire spell. I will need time to recognize the other.”

‘Please hurry,’ Soma pleads. Dmitrii’s lowered his hands now, bent down into a battle stance. Soma grits his teeth. So, that’s how it’s going to be. Knife held up, skin crawling, darkness bubbling, Soma stammers out, “Who the hell are you people?!”

Dmitrii smirks. “That’s classified information, I’m afraid. Now,” he raises a hand to eye-level, as if to snap his fingers, and says, “let us begin.”

Chapter Text

Three fireballs spread before and rush towards Soma, forcing him to jump back and to the side in surprise to avoid them in their quick approach. Left, right, and forward they come, and Soma growls under his panting breaths, careful to stay out of the way as they rush past him before hissing and dying out only a few feet away from their original caster. A short, ugly laugh escapes Dmitrii in the shadows. An uncomfortable heat spreads through the room as Dmitrii’s left hand tattoo glows red and orange once again, voice merely a hushed whisper as he casts, another set of three fireballs exiting his palm once he’s done and leaving Soma dodging again, exasperation burning almost as badly as the scorching fires of dark magic will if Dmitrii’s spells manage to connect.

One, two, three careful steps to dodge, all the while holding the knife tightly in a trembling hand, blood and darkness rushing through his veins arrhythmically and almost causing it to hurt. Heartbeat loud and painful with exertion, breaths coming in huffs, in panting, grunts and shouts as the fire demon’s soul flares up within his heart. Once out of danger Soma stumbles back, then raises his knife hand in a quick motion, releasing a wall of flame before him, courtesy of the soul’s power.

Magic stamina draining in his veins feels like letting out a deep breath, weakening him further; he’s already been casting too much. The wall rushes forward towards Dmitrii, interrupting his casting and forcing him to run away as it chases behind him, but he still remains unhurt, barely even fazed as the spell ends and he once again regains his footing.

Soma actually groans out loud at the sight. With all these ranged attacks that he has, in the entire duration of this fight Dmitrii hasn’t even moved. He barely even looks affected by all the continuous magic he’s been wasting like it’s nothing. It’s outrageously ridiculous, comes Dracula’s bellowing roar from within Soma’s soul, externalized in a low growl through now-sneering teeth, in the tightening grip of the knife in his hand.

It’s a ranged battle of fire against fire, neither party truly managing to get a hit in, only succeeding in dancing around each other and slowly tiring the other out with a well-placed spell. A complete waste of their time. And Dmitrii’s use of this type of spell is deliberate in its presentation—in a way, it is almost like a simplified and bastardized version of Dracula’s own Hellfire.

It’s like this is all just some twisted, sick game to Dmitrii, some stupid display of power and worth through imitating the dark lord himself. As if that would give him an advantage in his goals, as if that would please Dracula and give him his favour.

What a stupid son of a bitch.

Anger is an easy, intoxicating thing to feel within this castle’s walls, surrounded by darkness and a cult’s alchemical residue as they are. Soma takes a deep breath, then momentarily loses sight of Dmitrii’s annoying, shit-eating grin in the darkness when the red tattoo on his hand stops glowing. He freezes, startled. Then the man lowers his left hand and raises his right instead, a purple light emanating from the ink this time—the other spell in his arsenal. Well, shit. Soma lowers himself, body tense and mind going haywire with every possibility to dodge when Dmitrii laughs and fires two large spheres of dark energy into the room, spread out in random patterns, bouncing wildly against the walls.

Attention snatched away from Dmitrii and instead drawn over to the spell, Soma dodges the one sphere coming his way, the other carefully observed in his peripheral vision. The one he’s dodged bounces off the floor, then off the wall, propelled by its own speed over towards Soma once again, this time angled upwards. He quickly moves out of its way, grips the knife so tightly it starts to hurt when the handle digs into his exposed palm. The longer this spell goes on for, the faster they will go. Silver eyes on the spell he watches carefully as it keeps bouncing on and on, this spell longer in duration than Hellfire’s imitation—

“Get down!”

It comes from the left, the one sphere he lost sight of.

Soma can’t react in time. Getting hit by one of these feels like what Soma imagines being hit by a moving truck would feel like, the mere force of the impact on his left side shoving Soma far off towards the wall, resulting in a scream ripping through his throat when his shoulder slams against the wooden wall of this room. All the air leaves his lungs. Soma slides down and onto his knees, one hand flying to grip at his shoulder, pain surging through his nervous system and leaving him shaking as he grits his teeth, breathes deeply to try and stabilize himself again.

He can hear Dmitrii laughing in the distance, something murky in the air as his head spins back into place, hidden underneath Dracula’s roaring in his chest. “Idiot!” comes the dark lord’s voice, booming like the pain, flaring like fire. “Focus, would you?!”

And Soma groans under his breath, using the wall to push himself back to a stand, nausea coming and going as the pain slowly, slowly subsides. ‘I’m trying my best here!’ Soma snaps back. ‘ It’s hard enough to predict this attack’s pattern as it is, now try doing the same while keeping both spheres in sight!’

“Quit making excuses.”

‘Give me a goddamn break! This is the first time I get hit!’ Soma argues back.

The lack of Dracula having a physical form means Soma’s stuck glaring at Dmitrii in the darkness instead. The tattoos on both of his hands have stopped glowing for now, and Dmitrii now stands with his arms crossed over his chest, his eyebrows twitching, his right index finger tapping against his cheek in the most obviously condescending manner Soma has ever seen across both of his lifetimes.

“Growing careless in your exhaustion, are you?” Dmitrii’s hum is followed by a chuckle. Soma doesn’t reply, choosing instead to step away from the wall and raise the knife again, stance lowered and ready to continue the fight. Seeing this, Dmitrii’s expression falls, raising a twitching eyebrow and sighing. “I must say I’m disappointed,” he adds in the silence. “As the current holder of our lord’s soul, I honestly expected a better challenge.”

Soma’s silence finally breaks. “Sorry to hear you’re going to lose a battle to a disappointment, then,” he spits out.

Dmitrii’s smirk is replaced with an unfiltered look of pure contempt. Good, Dracula thinks. Silently the man uncrosses his arms and raises his left hand again, allowing the tattoo to glow orange and red, deeming the exchange over with the release of more fireballs that Soma’s quick to dodge. He’s moving to the left, avoiding them as they come. The pain where the sphere hit on Soma’s side comes back again in small bursts, slowing him down as he attempts to run over to the other corner of the room, trying to get an angle on—

Wait.

Pain, like a blunt object hitting him. Like that on his shoulder, or like the ‘getting hit by a moving truck’ metaphor. Physical pain that feels like it’ll leave a bruise, not magical pain, and most certainly not something imbued with elemental damage. Blunt, physical trauma. Pain.

A question pops into his mind, then, worded internally for his other half. ‘The purple spell, the one on his right hand,’ Soma calls out inside their space, into his blood as he brings another wall of fire for Dmitrii to dodge, buying himself time. ‘It has a physical property. Why?’

In his veins Soma feels Dracula stir, the familiar sensation of his darkness stopping in its tracks and flowing again, though slower this time, a tell-tale gesture of the dark lord’s thinking. “It was not physical; it was still a magical attack. However,” comes Dracula’s voice, modulated, calm, borderline scientific, “a high concentration of pure energy would be enough to imitate a physical effect. It would take a tremendous amount of power to cast, though; that would explain why he cannot cast it all the time.”

An idea pops in Soma’s mind. The fireballs in the air die out as Dmitrii prepares another round. Soma keeps his distance, but lifts his arm again, bringing forth another wall of fire to stop two more from cornering him. And behind the flaming wall, Dmitrii’s screeching echoes into the room. “Come on, boy!” the man shouts, his expression once the fire dies out hateful and wild. “Do me a favour and die already! You’re honestly beginning to annoy me!”

Soma doesn’t respond. It’s useless, really; with all the Chaos in the air and all the magic he’s used up, it’s not surprising that Dmitrii’s beginning to lose it. The boy grips the knife tighter, breathing heavily. ‘If they can hit me , then I can hit them back, right?’

He doesn’t get a conventional reply. Instead the dark lord’s unexpected, wheezing laughter slips through Soma’s mouth, and Soma instantly shuts it down, bites his tongue in regret. Because the sound takes Dmitrii by surprise, giving him pause for a second before he ends up sneering, roaring in offended anger as he raises his right hand in front of him. “Insolent brat!” he screams. The tattoo is glowing again, brighter and brighter, the spell recharging and getting ready to fire. “I’ve had enough of your games—this ends now!”

Up from above and humming from inside the walls Soma hears the castle’s darkness as it once again wails, feels the echo it leaves behind as a shudder in his veins, power resonating with the alchemical magic of Dmitrii’s spells. Chaos, roaring from above, responding to a madman’s calls. Soma’s skin crawls. “So he’s drawing power from the castle itself,” the dark lord says into his soul.

He doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t have to. It’s now or never, then. Soma only gets one shot.

Breathe.

Dracula makes a sound. An uncomfortable, sudden cold spreads through Soma’s body the moment the flame demon’s soul is taken away from his bloodstream, replaced instead with the vibrating hum of a mandragora soul’s expectant scream. Fear as cold as the air rushes into Soma’s lungs as he gasps. Why this soul? It always hurts them both to use it, a high risk strategy he only leaves for swarms of demons in the castle. It’s just counterproductive. Instinctively Soma takes a step back, but Dracula pushes him back forward, steadying him in place from within.

It doesn’t matter, is what the gesture says. This is their only and best strategy. “Angle yourself,” the dark lord commands. “Once he’s stunned you will only have about three seconds to act.”

Oh, hell. No time to waste. Soma takes a deep breath and lowers himself down to a fighting stance, the verbal spell already dancing on his tongue. ‘This is gonna suck,’ he words a statement like an apology.

Dmitrii’s roaring laughter echoes through the room as his casting hand glows painfully brighter, readying itself to fire. Dust falls from the ceiling, the windows shake. He sets his free hand around his wrist, angling his arm for Soma, steadying it, gaze wide and lost as he then screams, “Begone!”

The energy released from Dmitrii’s hand comes out in a large, single sphere of concentrated energy this time, so mighty in its power that it sends the man sliding backwards with apparent recoil. Right away Soma feels his heart skip a beat, the energy emanating from the sphere monstrous even from this far. And in his veins Dracula simmers, the mandragora soul resonating with the magic it imbues in his blood.

Soma feels it running faster to make way for the magic, evaporating and flowing out of his mouth. In tandem with it, Dracula screams through him. “Be still!” is what they shout. The magical release feels like needles underneath Soma’s skin prickling him to come out, his voice amplified to a screeching, painful sound, one that reaches Dmitrii and causes him to scream back and cover his ears, face contorted in pain.

And thus the countdown begins.

One second passes. The sphere’s trajectory is that of a straight line, easily intercepted given Soma rushes forward to meet it halfway.

Two seconds pass. It feels like Soma’s veins are humming with the sound that still rushes through them. Dracula’s incoherent thoughts in his brain hurt. Stopping his run before the sphere can connect, Soma finally swings the knife.

Three seconds pass. The euphoria that rushes through his body when the knife successfully connects with the sphere momentarily drowns out the pain of the spell. The impact still hurts. Instantaneously, the sphere bounces back.

Just as Dracula predicted, the mandragora’s spell’s stunning property ends after three seconds pass, and Dmitrii finally jerks back to a stand. He barely has any time to react before he’s hit full-on by his own amplified spell. The scream comes out of Dmitrii when he’s propelled backwards is abruptly stopped when his back hits a wall. Dracula stabilizes back just about enough to laugh at the sight. Soma bites his tongue to silence him.

With a ringing in his ears and his knife arm already going numb, Soma jogs over to Dmitrii, fingers pressed on his own neck and feeling as his pulse goes back to normal. He shudders, groans. The sudden and unnatural rush of blood leaves him feeling disgusting within. It’s always like this with that spell. See, he doesn’t like using mandragoras for a reason.

“Stop complaining,” comes Dracula’s tight voice.

Annoyance flares up in the boy’s heart, but it’s so perfectly mixed that he can’t tell whose it is. Soma makes it over to Dmitrii as the man’s struggling through a coughing fit, still on the floor and clawing at his own chest. Soma squats before him and pushes him up to a sitting position, back against the wall, and holds the knife up to his throat.

Through a cough Dmitrii laughs, staring at the weapon. Soma’s glare deepens. “Came up short, it seems,” the cultist wheezes out.

Soma growls, but otherwise says nothing. Because Dracula simmers in his veins, a murderous intent growing steadily in his heart and spreading through his bloodstream like some kind of toxic disease. The darkness in the walls pulsates uncomfortably as Dracula’s cold anger rushes through Soma’s veins. Hatred, dark and mighty, claiming his mind. Damned cultist, is what he thinks. “It would be best for everyone if his life ended right here and now.”

It’s a little depressing, in all honesty. Anger and disgust always go hand in hand for the dark lord. But Soma takes a deep, shuddering breath, urging the man to stand down, not to give in to the Chaos of the castle’s walls . It’s different now. And no unnecessary violence, he did say. Plus it’s best if they make the damn fool useful instead, so Soma presses the trembling knife against Dmiitri’s throat, doing his best to keep his expression from breaking.

“You’re gonna answer some questions, now,” comes the demand.

Dmitrii glares back. “You dare look down on me?”

“Call it whatever the hell you want,” Soma snaps. He presses the trembling knife a little further when he sees Dmitrii’s fingers wriggling about, stopping him in his tracks. Within his soul he hears Dracula mocking and pointing out the flaw in his performance. Soma grits his teeth. “Now,” he adds after the short pause, not caring to reply to the dark lord. “First of all: what is Ecclesia?”

“I am Ecclesia,” Dmitrii proclaims.

The grin on his face sends a wave of pure, unsteady anger through Soma’s body. It’s his own this time—he’s slowly losing his patience. This is bad. So bad that Dracula breaks through to growl, steadying the knife as he leans in to snarl, “Do not dodge my question.”

“You really think it ends with me?” Dmitrii ignores him, laughing. Soma slips back in, no longer trembling, fuming at the cultist’s smugness even when under the threat of a knife. Dmitrii tilts his head. “We are many to your single-minded attack. Even if I were to perish here, there’s still more than one who will kill you and inherit his soul.”

A hiss through grit teeth. “You lot are out of your minds.”

The castle’s walls painfully scream once again. And underneath the sound Dmitrii just laughs, eyes wide and crazed, doing nothing but worsen the simmering, murderous rage in Soma’s heart. Like fire it burns, like ice it spreads. Uncomfortably overwhelming in their shared heart and soul.

When Dmitrii’s laughter finally dies out it makes way for a smug smirk instead. “But I don’t have to die. After all,” he says, “I’m not the one who’s supposed to die.”

At once a pair of silver eyes widen. Oh, shit—

It’s too late.

The telltale orange glow of Dmitrii’s fire tattoo flares up to Soma’s right as the man lifts his hand, holding his palm open and bringing it close to the boy’s face. Soma’s breath catches in his throat, eyes wide as he takes his gaze off Dmitrii’s face and to his palm, the knife still held to the older man’s throat, yet his body stuck frozen in place as he watches the energy surging in the ink lines. Dracula’s panic feels like an icy shot into his veins, the indignation of being caught off-guard once again stinging like acid, enraging him, the grimace that results from that both of theirs.

So this is how their quest ends, Soma laments, staring death in the face and awaiting the end. A quest for redemption botched by a madman hiding his intent in the castle’s Chaos. Ridiculous.

They’ve been outstandingly careless—

“Soma!”

He swears to god that Arikado’s position as a guardian of the light hiding in the dark is what gives him the ability to appear when he’s most needed, always right on time to rescue all of his precious humans whenever things are at their worst. Soma blinks, taken aback, and within that second everything has already changed. Arikado’s voice is accompanied with a whooshing sound in the air, then a stabbing sound, ending in a scream of pain from Dmitrii as he shoves Soma off. A throwing knife, Dracula realizes as Soma lands prone and away, watching Dmitrii try to shakily stand. Arikado’s just stabbed the man’s hand with a small knife.

Calling the emotion that spreads through Soma’s chest pride feels odd, but it’s the only name he has, and so it sticks.

Dmitrii’s back is pushed back to the wall in an attempt to stabilize himself, the savage, bloodthirsty glare he directs somewhere beyond Soma sending chills down the boy’s spine. Wounded and angered as he is, he almost looks downright feral. Droplets of red fall on dark wood, pooling. Dmitrii holds his bleeding hand close to his chest, growling, resting his entire weight against the wall.

And then he grins, guffawing suddenly over the sound of footsteps on the creaking floor. “Genya Arikado, the guardian,” Dmitrii speaks, loud yet strained as his hand continues to bleed. He scoffs. “She did warn us about you.”

“Dmitrii Blinov, I presume,” Arikado cuts to the chase, stepping forward from Soma’s right. Dmitrii scoffs. The man instantly comes to a stop directly in front of Soma, a hand in his pants pocket, the other loosely holding another couple of throwing knives. He’s blocking the sight, so Soma rises to stand, a hand on his once again pained shoulder as he looks over Arikado’s shoulder.

Arikado’s tension is visible only to someone who knows how to find it. Soma can’t see his guardian’s face, but the scorn in his voice is nearly palpable, the controlled anger in his low hum. “So, that makes three of you. Now tell me, how many more Ecclesia members are hiding in this castle?”

Before them both Dmitrii stumbles to his right, laughs. “Why should I tell you that?”

“Because I know that almost everyone else in your branch of the cult is dead,” Arikado’s words are sharp, causing Dmitrii’s grin to fade and him to growl. Yet the agent remains unfazed. “And if my information is correct, if you are here, then only Celia Fortner and Dario Bossi still remain. Am I right?”

That silences Dmitrii for a moment, just about enough for him to straighten up and lean back against the wall. “So very well informed, are we?” Dmitrii deadpans.

And Arikado ignores him. “You said something about inheriting the dark lord’s soul,“ he says. But Dmitrii doesn’t respond, so Arikado takes a slow step forward, grip on the knives tightening discreetly at his side. “I do suggest you start talking, Mr. Blinov.”

“My, you both are stupider than we’d thought,” Dmitrii taunts. He takes his left hand away from his chest and looks at his trembling, injured palm, grimacing and hissing in obvious pain. “Painfully so. It’s almost laughable.”

Oh, that’s it. With heavy, thick darkness boiling in his veins, Soma’s restraint finally breaks at Dmitrii’s words. He steps past Arikado and stomps towards the cultist, stopped only when Arikado’s quick reflexes have him set a hand on Soma’s shoulder to pull him back. His grip is stronger than Soma’s ever felt it before. The boy doesn’t fight him off, but he still glares daggers at Dmitrii from where he stands, pointing the knife at him for emphasis.

Dmitrii’s back to grinning. It’s infuriating. “Would you stop it with the bullshit already!” Soma snaps, heart-rate quickening as his anger rises.

“Soma,” Arikado warns, pulling him back.

And that’s when Dmitrii removes the knife from his hand.

It’s a quick action, taking him only about a second to grip and pull the knife out, the scream that pierces its way out of his lungs making Soma cringe as the rage leaves his body and is replaced instead with cold realization. Arikado tenses, raises his knives. But Dmitrii’s too fast—backed up against it as he is, the man then slaps his bleeding hand on the wall, over one of the pulsating tendrils of darkness, smearing his own ichor against it and instantly causing the entire room to start shaking.

Soma’s breath catches in his throat. That’s a blood ritual, he can tell. Something he recognizes from many reincarnations past. And within his soul Soma feels the prickling sensation of Dracula stiffening, recollection and acknowledgement leaving him breathless and blank, frozen in place.

He’s going to escape.

There’s nothing they can do about it. Because dust from the ceiling falls over Soma as he’s sent stumbling backwards, the trembling growing in intensity in mere seconds. Behind him Arikado acts quick, his grip on Soma’s shoulder tightening as he pulls him close by, trying to ground them both with his inhuman strength as the shaking grows. And then it’s like the darkness in the castle suddenly screams, reacting to Dmitrii’s blood as the wall his hand lays on moves, twists, inhales, wooden planks ripping themselves apart with a strong snapping sound that reverberates in Soma’s heart.

Like a gaping maw with sharp teeth the broken wall surrounds a deranged Dmitrii as he bursts into laughter, his blood dripping to the floor again as he stumbles backwards into the walls, into the castle, away from the scene. His laughter mixes with the screaming, with the darkness, with Dracula’s breathless gasping in Soma’s ears, the cacophony that it all leaves behind in Soma’s chest downright unbearable. The boy’s knees go weak, leaving him clinging to Arikado for support as the world spins madly with the sheer amount of energy bouncing off the room’s walls. Arikado grips him tight, but it feels as though he’s shaking, unsteady. Probably, maybe. Soma can vaguely feel it. Neither of them can’t really tell.

But he can still see as the planks close back up again, swallowing Dmitrii’s laughing form behind them, trapping him in the castle. Just as quickly as it started, his disappearing act finally comes to an end. Dmitrii’s laughter echoes in the room one last time, the only thing left of him as he successfully makes his escape, and the room slowly shakes back to normal again, the planks searing themselves back together into a smooth wall as if nothing had happened.

Just like that he’s gone, lost to the castle.

A second passes by, then two. A full five seconds of silence settle in.

Until the air in Soma’s lungs finally comes out in a loud wheeze.

He expected the nausea, really. Soma quickly lets go of Arikado, stumbling forward and away, hands on his knees as he struggles to once again steady his own breathing. The remnants of Chaos’ influence in his heart feel like melting ice that pools at the pit of his stomach. Cold, uncomfortable. It makes him shudder. This castle is a goddamn nightmare, is what Soma thinks, a sentiment shared by the still recovering dark lord in his soul, both of them coming back to their senses now that Dmitrii’s finally taken his leave.

Soma senses more than sees Arikado stepping forward again, closer to Soma, then feels the hand he decides to set on his protege’s back. Is it supposed to be some sort of comforting gesture, are the dark lord’s words that Soma ends up having to swallow back before they leave his mouth. ‘Don’t be so damn rude,’ he fights back. Breathe in, breathe out. With adrenaline gone Soma’s left feeling the exhaustion from his previous battle, the pain on his shoulder also coming back again with a vengeance this time.

Once he catches his breath he chooses to stand up straight again, turning slightly on his heel to face Arikado. The man’s got his brows furrowed in that concerned way of his, arms crossed over his chest as he stares down Soma, shoulders tense, posture ramrod straight. A stoic expression on his face despite the obvious stress hidden in his body language. Typical Arikado—typical Adrian. Soma can’t help but smile at the sight, exhale tangled with a laugh as he chooses the best worst way to break the ice.

“That sucked,” Soma says.

“I thought I’d told you not to get involved,” Arikado replies.

And right away Soma’s jaw drops all the way through the ground and to the castle’s first floor, shoulders slumping in defeat as Dracula chuckles darkly in his veins. Shut the hell up. “Are you serious?!” Soma cries out. Arikado’s eyes narrow, fingers twitching on his arm. Soma’s hand fly up to the air. “Telling me to stay behind was a stupid idea from the get-go!”

“No, it was not,” Arikado snaps back. “I am aware of your reasoning for coming all the way here on your own, but this isn’t a game, Soma. My request was legitimately for your own safety.”

“I’m not exactly alone,” Soma tries to fight back.

The agent inhales sharply through his nose. “That’s the problem,” he fumes. Darkness pours out of him in waves as his narrowed eyes search Soma’s face. “What the cult wants is Dracula’s soul, and you’ve delivered him right to their doorstep on a silver platter. This is irresponsible, Soma. I’m disappointed. My colleagues would’ve been able to keep you both protected and in check—”

He stops abruptly right there, Arikado’s words dying out on his tongue and making way for a short gasp instead, his eyes widening as if he’s been taken by surprise. There’s a tingling sensation at the tip of Soma’s fingers as he watches Arikado close his eyes and take a deep breath, willing down whatever spell he’s broken, cleaning up the remnants from his self. The dhampir runs a hand down his face, inhales deeply before speaking again.

“Forgive me,” he mumbles then, sounding abashed, small. At odds. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. This place is… it…” Like candlelight in the wind the words die out again. So Arikado sighs, shoulders slumping, his exhaustion resonating with Soma’s own. “It has me on edge, for lack of a better word.”

Oh.

Oh, Soma mouths. Oh, oh no. The tension rushes out of Soma’s shoulders as he walks up to his guardian, reaching for his arm. “You feel it, too?!”

“Chaos’ influence, yes,” Arikado nods. He brushes some stray bangs out of his face, looking off to the wall that Dmitrii escaped through. Soma lets him go. "Like I said, Yoko and Julius have already briefed me on the situation. Particularly in regards to this castle.” He gestures at the veiny tendrils on the walls, the pulsating darkness in them, clears his throat. “Because of the unnatural origins behind it, the Chaos in this castle is impure, unstable. Fluctuating and alive, though highly concentrated in one place. There is so much of it that I believe a great portion of it is leaking out of its own structure in waves, and in that state it easily resonates with anything else also tainted by Chaos." Arikado pauses, sighs. “The end result is observed in emotional instability within the subject. Think of it like a remote controller raising the volume on a television, if you will.”

A memory abruptly comes to mind when Soma blinks, one of Dracula sitting before an alchemy set with a younger Adrian sitting on his lap, curiously asking his father to explain everything as the dark lord worked. He blinks again and the memory changes, now picturing a young Adrian reading his mother’s medicine books as she worked, question after question spilling out through his lips that she’d answer with glee. He speaks like a scientist, Arikado—because he’s still a scientist’s child, in the end, and is still a scientist in his own way.

Thus a misplaced melancholy stabs into two hearts. It’s just something so domestic, so simple, a life neither of them can ever go back to. Within Soma’s soul Dracula says nothing even as the memories finally fade, making way for Arikado’s features once more. The agent’s giving Soma that one look again, the one he always wears when he’s worried but doesn’t know how to word it, or even if he should.

And damn it, even that is familiar as well. It’s something he’s kept since he was a curious child playing in his father’s labs, or asking his mother what all of her medical notes meant. It’s such a purely Adrian expression to wear.

Enough, Soma thinks, painting a grin on his own face just for Arikado. Dracula mumbles indignantly. "Well, that’s all the more reason to stop it, then," Soma says over his other self’s moping. And then a second later his brows furrow. “Is it affecting anyone else besides just us?”

Whether Arikado was going to say anything else is a mystery Soma will never know the answer to anymore, given the man shakes his head and answers straight away. “I assume it’s bound to affect everyone in this place. It’s just that us creatures of the night are more easily influenced by things like these.” Arikado’s voice is tight, and his eyebrow twitches. He then drops the subject entirely, “We ought to reunite with the others. How do you feel?”

That’s not an easy question to answer at the moment, Soma finds.

He’s angry, is the truth, a sentiment that Dracula seems to share. They’re angry. But is this rage truly their own, or is it only Chaos’ influence twisting their own initial indignation now that they’re so far up the castle’s floors? Are they dangerous, Soma asks. I don’t know, comes a mumble in his ear, cold and gentle like wind. For a moment Soma considers shrugging it off, but just thinking about Dmitrii makes his blood boil again, a dangerously murderous impulse making him flinch before he squashes it back down.

This isn’t right. It’s not a good idea to keep this in. And so the truth is that they need to be kept in check, so despite Dracula’s protests Soma blurts out the facts tangled with a scoff: “I’m pissed off, actually.”

Despite the discreet breath he draws in Arikado stays silent anyway, expression blank, so Soma takes it as an invitation to continue. “That guy, Dmitrii,” Soma vaguely gestures with the knife over at the wall, “he’s just another Graham, but worse. Because this time, it’s not just one, but a bunch of people who want to get their hands on Dracula’s soul. And I don’t think they know what getting through to him actually means.”

“I will not let them get to that.”

The warmth that spreads in Soma’s chest causes him to smile. It’s comforting to hear Arikado sounding so determined, in a way—it finally feels like they’re both standing as equals. Arikado looks like there’s more he wants to say, like there’s something caught in his throat. In the end, he chooses not to say anything.

It’s fine, really. Something still pricks at the back of Soma’s mind. A word, uncomfortably unknown, something Dmitrii said, something Dracula repeats. “Yeah, I know. But I want to help. So, since I’m here—since we’re both here,” Soma pats at his own chest as he says that, pretends not to catch the way Arikado stiffens, “then I feel like you should tell us all you know about this new threat. About this ‘Ecclesia’.”

Within a quickened heartbeat Dracula stirs under Soma’s hand, darkness moving, watching through silver eyes as Arikado closes his and pockets the throwing knives in his suit’s sleeve. There must be a special compartiment specifically made for them in there, is the one thing Soma manages to take note of, right before his thoughts are suddenly cut in half by an explosion shaking everything again, this time coming from somewhere lower within the castle.

“What is it now?”

* * *

“Do you remember the Belmonts’ absence between the early 19th century and 1999?”

“Vaguely. Why?!”

Following right behind Arikado as they run, Soma turns a corner, then nearly crashes against the wall when the world shakes again, as a loud gunshot rings out in the air. His skin crawls, heartbeat quickened and transporting uncomfortable amounts of adrenaline through his body. There’s only one person in this place who had a gun with him, and Soma knows that he wouldn’t be firing it unless absolutely necessary.

Something’s gone very wrong.

They’d been up on the sixth floor when the first explosion rang out, not even halfway through the way to the top, the structure shaking uncontrollably as yet another one came in and caused them to stumble on their way out of the room. They’re on the steps connecting the fourth and fifth now, retracing their steps. And the way back down is peppered here and there with more explosions after explosions, the rumbling they leave behind causing Soma to stumble on the stairs against Arikado.

Arikado grabs onto him, steadies Soma firmly back to standing once the rumbling dies out. He pats the boy on the back to get him back to running. "To find another countermeasure for Dracula’s return," Arikado continues, effortlessly maintaining the stoicism in his voice, “many organizations were established, but most failed to produce satisfactory results, and so they were dissolved. The Order of Ecclesia was one such group.”

“But that makes no sense!” Soma shouts. He skips the last steps of the staircase by jumping off and landing in a crouch. Both Dracula and his knees protest immediately, but he ignores them to quickly get up, then waiting until Arikado joins him before setting off again. “If they’re supposed to fight Dracula, then why…?”

“We don’t know for sure. Most records on the Order were lost after a fire in the 19th century destroyed their research.”

Dracula’s words slip out of Soma’s mouth. “You really don’t have anything else on—”

On the fourth floor as they are, the next gunshot that rings out is clearer and louder, accompanied by roaring laughter and the sound of magical release somewhere deeper in. It immediately silences their conversation, leaving them standing in a long hallway with several doors and staircases strewn about, concrete walls muffling the sounds of a magical battle coming from somewhere Soma and Arikado try to locate. The temperature in this floor is unnatural and uncomfortable, causing Soma to break out in a sweat and breathe heavily in the scorching air. Fire spells, again. Why oh why do they all have to have fire spells?

And then wind and ice cut in, something refreshing in the atmosphere that tries to combat the fire, squash it back down. The breeze comes from the west, plays with Soma’s white hair, chills him down just as the realization comes. It’s Belnades magic. Yoko’s magic, specifically. And if she’s here on this floor then the Belmont child is bound to be with her, is what Dracula thinks, vampiric senses already trying to pinpoint where exactly the hunting duo would be.

He doesn’t have to search too far. Because as soon as he starts to do it another explosion roars in from down the hall, one that blasts one of the doors off, leaking a quickly advancing wave of fire out into the hallway. Soma’s heart stops. The intruding, breezy sensation in his veins returns as Dracula replaces the mandragora’s soul with another—an armoured monster, something protective. It should provide a barrier, the darkness in his heart whispers as the magic tingles in his forearms, ready for use, for release.

Well, then. There’s no time to waste. With the fire coming in fast Soma rushes to stand in front of Arikado, ignoring the man’s protests in favour of raising the knife between him and the fire. He slashes the air, drawing a protective glyph, and finishes it by stabbing the knife forward and allowing what little energy he has left to exit his soul through the seal, a protective barrier rising and taking the brunt of the damage when the fire reaches them, forcing it to circumvent them and avoid them both.

The ensuing heat is downright monstrous. Arikado steps closer and grabs onto Soma’s shoulder, says something that the boy can’t hear in the uproar and exhaustion. This is bad, he thinks. Soma bites his lip, shuts his eyes tight. After that duel his magic stamina is now almost completely depleted.

Somewhere inside the fire Soma hears a man’s scream mixed with a woman’s shout. “That’s Yoko,” his last bits of available conscious manage to say as he fights to maintain the barrier. Winds blow, the fire intensifies. It pushes Soma back, stumbling until Arikado grabs onto his other shoulder and holds him in place. Soma swallows hard. “Yoko is—”

He’s cut off by one final explosion, one last push of the fire guided by a large gust of wind that crashes against the barrier and nearly shatters it with its force. The scream in the air abruptly ends. The flames left behind go wild, reaching the ceiling, dancing with the wind until they’re slowly consumed, broken apart with nothing else to sustain them. Dracula’s vampiric senses twist in Soma’s gut. Whoever the original caster was, their presence is now gone.

The only thing that comforts Soma as his magic stamina finally gives out is sensing Yoko and Julius still standing in the aftermath.

It’s a nauseating and borderline anemic feeling to run out of magic, leaving both of them disoriented as Arikado catches Soma when he falls back. The cold air from outside slowly creeps up Soma’s damp spine, and he shivers, the dark lord grumbling something else inside Soma’s soul.

‘Stop complaining,’ Soma grins in the darkness.

“Soma,” Arikado calls out before Dracula can even respond, unknowingly interrupting them both. “Are you alright?”

The boy takes a deep breath, pushes himself out of Arikado’s hold. “I’m fine. I just used up too much magic.”

“Can you walk?”

Yes, is what he wants to say. Instead Dracula slips in and blurts out, “We’re wasting time.”

Unguarded as he is in the aftermath of the fire, Arikado’s expression darkens. Oh, hell. Soma flushes and covers his mouth, nodding furiously rather than speaking, trying desperately to do some damage control in any way he can . It works, a little. Somewhat. He thinks. It’s hard to read Arikado when he just huffs, nods back, turns on his heel and walks off to the source of the fire.

There’s nothing else Soma can do but follow after him, so he does. ‘You need to stop doing that.’

“Pointing out the truth?”

‘Being a rude asshole through me.’

The darkness in Soma’s veins simmers with a flare of anger, but the dark lord can’t do much else. Soma’s startled back into the present when Arikado approaches the open, burnt door and calls out Yoko’s name into the subsequent room, earning a shouted response from the woman herself.

Just hearing her voice has all of Soma’s exhaustion brushed aside like it’s nothing. It’s invigorating. Because it’s Yoko’s voice, loud and clear even after all that shouting, and she’s replying to Arikado, Julius’ voice joining hers. She’s okay, and so is Julius, and hopefully Hammer is too. Arikado enters the room and Soma grins, jogging over to join him.

And when he does enter the soot and ash-covered room and happily calls out to everyone inside, when four pairs of eyes land on him with varying degrees of surprise, it’s Julius who first breaks the ensuing silence, his anger clear when he shouts, “Well, there you fucking are!”

Soma’s grin drops.

Julius looks terrible, is the first thing the boy unfortunately notices as the man approaches him slowly. His jacket is covered in burn marks, his hair in complete disarray, and the whip he carries in his hand is humming low with dark energies echoing with those of the dark lord in Soma’s soul, Sara’s presence strong and mighty amongst the Chaos in the castle. Is she awake, Soma wonders. There is no response. Eyes on the whip Soma instinctively takes a step backward, cringing as if struck, hands flying up in front of him when Julius stabs a finger at his chest.

Dracula’s indignant growl at the touch bubbles at the back of Soma’s throat. “You clever little sneak,” Julius is glaring, yelling. “I told you to stay with Yoko! You can’t just run off like that!”

Soma splutters. “Y-You were planning on running off, too!”

“That’s not the point!”

“Oh my god, can this wait?” comes Yoko’s voice. Soma eyes her over Julius’ shoulder. She’s standing next to a clearly exhausted Hammer, not even bothering to hide her irritation even when Arikado sets a hand on her shoulder to calm her. Her sardonic laugh is sharp like knives. “I mean, a guy literally just exploded.”

Julius turns around to point at her so fast his ponytail almost hits Soma. “You stay out of this.”

And Yoko loses composure. “Excuse me? You’re gonna talk to me like that?”

“I’m telling you to—!”

“Enough!” Arikado bellows from his spot in the middle of the room. Soma blinks. Under the neon glow of the flickering lights above, the black colouration of Arikado’s eyes melts until it gives way for the gold underneath, deflecting the light, practically shining. Soma senses it when Julius stiffens. “You’re not thinking clearly. Neither of you are,” the dhampir slowly points out, voice low and measured, face carefully contorted to express his warning without needing to speak at all. His frown deepens. “So I would advise you both to gather your bearings before things get out of control.”

Chaos’ influence is strongly felt by those touched by it in the past, Dracula echoes at the back of Soma’s mind. Yoko snaps out of it quickly enough, blinking twice, then lowering her face and setting a hand on her forehead. She doesn’t say anything. Nobody does. So in the following silence Soma keeps a close eye on Julius, gaze sometimes drifting down to the agitated whip in his hands, the twitchy movement of his fingers on the weapon.

Sara’s resonating with his Chaos induced hysteria, Soma can tell. Julius’ shoulders slowly slump, a groan escaping him the moment he finally seems to come back to his senses. He presses his fingers to his temples and Soma finally relaxes. He’s so tired, Julius. Perhaps the man’s holy blood is somehow having trouble fighting off the Chaotic influence that so overwhelmingly permeates the area, covering the whole room like the ashes and burn marks left behind by the fire.

That makes Soma scowl, searching the room, humming. Silver eyes land on a pile of ashes to his left, the marks on the floor marking the epicenter of a great explosion. His skin crawls. “ Whoever it was that they were battling,” come Dracula’s words, cold and blunt, detached, “that must be all they’ve left behind.”

Soma feels sick.

“My, what a mess we have here.”

Dracula feels rage.

It’s a voice the two of them have heard before already, one coming from behind Soma, close to the doorless entryway. Soma can feel it in his skin when everyone in the room tenses, turning around so fast that he feels whiplash, the knife raised back up just in case. There, before them all, stands Celia Fortner’s clear form, her expression blank yet tinted with unguarded disgust. Soma curses in his mind; he didn’t feel her presence at all. Neither of them did.

Chaos’ overwhelming presence in this place is really starting to get old.

Next to Soma, Julius reaches for his whip. Turned around as they are now, Soma can’t see Yoko, Hammer, or Arikado’s movements, but he senses the magic release in Yoko’s direction as she readies another spell to use. Ready as always. Arikado’s darkness grows anxious in the air, readable to the young reincarnation familiar with its signature. He must’ve drawn his knives, again. And with the sound of a gun being loaded echoing through the room,  Soma knows that Hammer’s got the gun ready.

In response, bathed by the neon lights, Celia’s smile as she chuckles is downright ghastly. She hides it with one hand, barely. “Save yourselves the trouble of attacking, everyone,” Celia announces, setting her free hand on her chest. “What you see is merely a projection. I am not stupid enough to be here in person, after all.”

That would explain why they couldn’t sense her, Dracula thinks. Fair, but it still does nothing to calm Soma’s bubbling nerves. Three sets of footsteps fill the air, slow and steady, measured. Yoko, Hammer, and Arikado walk over to stand by Soma and Julius, weapons still drawn regardless of Celia’s previous words. The sight makes her hum and look off to the side, over to where Dracula remembers the pile of ashes remains.

Nobody speaks, but the silence is delicately snipped in half when Celia sighs. “So you’ve defeated Dario,” comes her voice again, crystal clear disappointment in her words. Celia shakes her head. “I must admit, you lot are much more of a pain on my side than I had initially imagined you would be.”

“Celia Fortner,” Yoko breathes from her spot to Soma’s right, audibly flabbergasted and dry in her intonation. Even after whatever battle she’s just fought, her magic aura still remains strong, flickering like a flame. A Belnades through and through. “I didn’t want to believe it, but… It really is you.”

“The Belnades witch knows my name,” Celia smiles. “What an honour.”

And Yoko scoffs, flaring up again. “Of course I do—my mother told me about you. You were one of the few displaced children in the aftermath of the battle of 1999.” A spark of thunder pops in front of her for a second. “Your parents were part of the cult, after all. It’s all in the records.”

Someone’s breath catches in their throat, a collection of spluttering words coming next, shaky holy light reacting badly to the news. It takes Soma and Dracula less than a second to recognize it as Julius’ aura, his shock, his fear. “Now I remember,” Julius laughs darkly. “You Ecclesians were single handedly responsible for the events leading up to the battle of 1999, let alone the war itself.”

Ah.

Ahaha.

It all always comes back to 1999, it seems. Soma feels the rush of annoyance turn into anger, bites it down, lets it escape him in a growl instead. Inhale, exhale. Is this a joke? A fucking multi-generational joke? Belmonts, Belnades, Tepes, Fortners—families carrying on their bloodline’s wishes. Dracula’s words escape through him, sharp and ready like knives. Soma lets them. “Her subordinate did say something rather interesting about this being this little cult’s third revival.”

“Bravo!” Celia begins to clap, demeanour too light for the darkness echoing through the castle’s walls, the one brewing in Soma’s heart. Her grin is downright manic, her eyes shaking in clear delight. “Finally, we are up to speed. I must say, you catch on rather quickly for your age, Julius Belmont.”

“You’re one to talk, hag.” Julius’ grip on the whip audibly tightens. “It’s been thirty seven years since the war, and I’ve been told you were a kid back then. Shouldn’t you be in your forties by now?”

Celia scoffs. “Asking a lady about her age? Where are your manners?”

“Sorry, ma’am, but genocidal maniacs aren’t exactly worth being polite to,” Julius snaps.

Arikado stepping forward, hands in his pockets, interrupts the conversation, bringing it back to the topic at hand. “If you were responsible for 1999, then Ecclesia doesn’t want a new dark lord; you explicitly wish for Dracula’s return, even if it’s through the possession of a willing host.” Arikado stops a few feet away from her, standing between her and the four humans under his protection. “Why? What is your goal?”

We are a weapon, is the rumbling thought in Soma’s mind, the disheartened echo. History only ever repeats itself. Soma feels a stab of pain in his heart at Arikado’s words, at the realization, cold bitterness and understanding mixing oddly within him, his and Dracula’s feelings colliding. Despair wrapped in defeat and hatred. It’s too much, but Soma sets a hand on his necklace, trying to will him down and not give themselves away, keeping his expression as blank as he can possibly keep it. They mustn’t allow Chaos to slip in.

It seems to work for now. Celia keeps her gaze on Arikado, ignoring Soma, and shakes her head. “This,” she gestures at the room, ”is a church, and I am a holy woman. The Order of Ecclesia acts on the desires of all of mankind—our species’ cries for salvation at the hands of Lord Dracula!”

For some reason, Arikado tenses. His darkness swims in the air around him, anger rising from him, and right away Dracula senses Chaos taking hold of his one son. They can’t let that happen—not here, not ever. Soma lowers the knife and steps forward, ignores Yoko and Julius’ agitated whispers as he approaches Dracula’s son. Once close enough he pats Arikado on the back, keeping eye contact with Celia and stopping to Arikado’s left.

The darkness lowers again, and Soma feels Arikado’s anger dissipating away like mist. Good. Eyes on Celia, Soma sees the woman’s curious stare, her brows furrowed at the scene.

Dracula’s growling snaps her attention back to the boy. His shaky anger comes in like a sea current in Soma’s veins, and the boy hides his surprise by biting his tongue, wills it down with a scoff meant for Celia to hear. A question comes to mind, then, something Dracula wants to know. Soma asks it for him, “And what makes you think he’s salvation, huh?”

“Soma,” Arikado shakily warns.

In front of them, Celia laughs, rolls her eyes, and points at Soma with her open palm. “Ask yourself, boy, why does our dark lord continue to return, regardless of defeat? Why were you born?” Her words are ice, piercing. Soma doesn’t reply, and in his silence Celia’s grin grows, acidic giggling bursting out of her as she answers her own question, “It’s simple: because mankind itself yearns for his return.”

His heart skipping a beat, all the blood freezes in Soma’s veins. The rest of the room dims, his attention only on Celia, on the way that Dracula goes completely still in his heart. It’s quiet, inside. Celia lowers her arm, sighs. “Murder, hatred, suffering… humanity’s wickedness is slowly destroying the world from the inside out. Dracula's power comes from the darkness in people's hearts; from the Chaos roaming freely in the world. And only Chaos may destroy Chaos.” She pauses to cross her arms, setting a hand under her chin, smiling. “Thus, once we free the dark lord from his shackles, he will bring forth his armies and eliminate the darkness in the world. And once he’s done, we shall all finally be cleansed and reborn, completely free of sin! Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Man, you people are fucking nuts!”

Hammer’s shouting is muffled in Soma’s ears, but the outburst still startles Soma, kickstarts his heart again as the man steps forth to stand in front of him and close to Arikado. Hammer holds the gun up and pointed towards Celia, pushes Soma behind him. “I don’t know what your deal is, lady, but if you think we humans are just here for you to pick us off, you are sorely mistaken. Cleansing the world?” Hammer snorts, then snarls, “What the hell gives you the right to choose what to do with human lives, huh?!”

Celia barely reacts. She tilts her head to the side and hums. “You are ignorant, I see. Strange,” she shakes her head, “I expected a man like you to understand the wickedness inherent to people’s hearts most of all.”

“You don’t know shit about me, lady,” Hammer challenges back.

Arikado moves closer to him, also standing in front of Soma, reaching a hand to Hammer’s gun arm and forcing it down through pure vampiric strength. “Hammer, stand down.”

“Careful there, sir,” Soma hears Celia laugh. With laboured breathing and a blurry sight, Soma looks past Hammer and Arikado and sets his eyes on Celia, making direct eye contact with her. She smirks at him, and Soma gags, nauseous. “You wouldn’t want to lose yourself to your own emotions. After all, this castle…” She chuckles. “Well, I’d say it brings the best of you out into the world.”

Kill, Soma mouths, just at the same time that Dracula comes back full-force, murderous and blind. The world is spinning now. Soma stumbles back, hastily caught by Yoko as she puts down her staff, the sound of Julius calling out his name lost somewhere in the cacophonous whispering in the boy’s heart. ‘Dracula,’ he calls out, desperate, searching through the sea of souls for him. ‘Don’t.’

“She deserves to die. I refuse to be used as a weapon by a mere mortal with a god complex.”

Soma blinks hard, draws a sharp breath. Panting, he stubbornly keeps eye contact with Celia, glaring even as her grin grows. ‘We won’t. I promised you we won’t. So right now I need you to keep your shit together for a little bit longer.’

“My lord,” Celia calls out, raising both of her arms in front of her as if in greeting, her face a mix between delighted and completely fucking insane. Soma’s skin crawls. Dracula’s darkness boils. “This is our life’s work,” she continues. “For thirty seven years we Ecclesia have looked for you, and now, finally, we will at last set—”

Celia doesn’t finish her sentence. A small, magically imbued throwing knife whooshes past Soma, humming with its radiance in its trajectory up towards the ceiling. It’s astoundingly fast. Soma tears his gaze off Celia and follows it with his eyes, watches it embed itself in the ceiling, right in the middle of a glyph etched into the concrete so high above. The boy blinks. Celia’s glyph, most likely. How she got it there Soma doesn’t know, but as soon as the knife pierces through the glyph, the holy alignment of the weapon burns away the dark symbol, leaving it consumed by blue flames and instantly ending Celia Fortner’s projection.

She’s gone, just like that. Soma looks over his shoulder, staring wide-eyed at Julius. The man is still staring at the ceiling. “I got mighty sick of her voice,” he says, voice dry.

A nervous chuckle, from Yoko, behind Soma. “No kidding.”

“Thank you, Julius.” That’s Arikado’s words, sounding genuinely relieved. It’s the one thing that gets Julius to tear his eyes off the burning glyph.

The Belmont child’s smile doesn’t meet his eyes, nor does his chuckle hold any mirth. “You owe me one.”

Arikado hums in response, but otherwise says nothing. Silence falls, again, broken only by Soma’s shaky breathing as Yoko tries to stabilize him again, helping him stand upright again now that the dark presence of Celia’s glyph and form are both gone. But it’s difficult to keep steady when the souls in his veins are screaming, when Dracula’s anguish and rage keep bubbling up inside, the more aggressive side of their shared rejection of their fate.

What Ecclesia wants is nothing but another demon war, not unlike the 1476 Wallachian genocide, or the 1999 attempt before Dracula was sealed away. Celia Fortner sees them as a saviour, as the one to cleanse the world. And she will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. It makes Dracula laugh, through Soma. So misguided, so stupid in her quest. So what the hell are they supposed to do now?

It’s too much. In the end, all they can do is laugh, laugh, laugh until Soma’s left with his face buried in his hands, willing his darkness down from the boiling point and keeping his eyes shut tight, trying not to snap. They know this darkness, this mad desire, this blindness. She’s just like they were, once. Too far gone to be saved, too dangerous to be left alive. Celia needs to be stopped.

The frustration escapes through Soma’s lips in a miserable whine, accompanied then by a string of two words:

“Well, fuck.”