He did not belong here.
Where did the dhampir belong, in the grand scheme of existence? He was not of God’s design, not at ease in the company of devils. But, neither should he be here. The tips of his shoes grazed the emerald edge of endless night. It wasn’t just that Agent Arikado was a monster that repelled him from this place. It was the flags in his blood, the missing pigment in his skin, where he had come from and where he had left.
Here, in the aching chamber of Japan’s heart, was the place where its men and women crossed into eternal darkness alone.
Here was the place where white men took cameras, filmed corpses, mocked the sacred and fearsome path the heartbroken took.
Here was Aokigahara—the sea of trees stained with scarlet tides.
Arikado was not welcome here.
He saw the forest’s anguish through darting mist. Specters stared at him with empty eyes. They stood, jaws agape, fixed for just a beat in time. Arikado wondered what they were thinking—if they had any thoughts at all. The only guidance these people had left were from monks and priest. But, ghosts had no mind for holy men and their pleas. They were fixated on their own states, whatever thoughts they took to the afterlife.
Uneasy fingers pulled black hair behind pointed ears. Arikado kept still. Listening. Watching. Feeling. He waded in the anxiety and anger of the dead, unsure where to tread next. He wanted to pull back, to get into his car and drive away, to fly home on leathery wings. Such cowardice drew sour bile behind his fangs. He may not move forward, but he certainly couldn’t go back.
Not without claiming another lost soul.
Arikado breathed out. Mist followed his sigh. From between ripples in space came his familiar—his own ghost. The spirits in the forest moved back, wary of the strange creature. It had no concept of its abhorrent appearance. Hardly a mind, at all. It only came to this world to serve its master, and it would be gone as soon as that was done.
With a sharp bite, Arikado made his wishes known. “Find Soma.”
White light leaned forward. Arikado followed it. He laid his left hand against red plastic ribbons, clinging to it as it wound through slender trees. These crimson cords were supposed to be like breadcrumbs for those in doubt—those that may not want to join the large, dark eyes now clapped on him. Some were still taut, locking like chains between trunks. Others fell. Their tattered remains tangled around his shoes, clinging to his legs as if they were as resolute as cypress stems.
Fear and anger beat against both sides of Arikado’s ribs. How could Soma do this? How could he come here? But, Arikado knew too well how he could. He didn’t need the paltry scrap of paper Soma left behind to know the terror he felt at his existence. Soma was not supposed to be. Neither was Arikado. Their only validity came from fighting the forces that shaped them.
If Soma wasn’t strong enough—if Arikado couldn’t protect him—
Branches bowed for the humid breeze passing through his hair. Arikado took it in. How chilling this forest was, even under such sweltering pressure. It traced beneath his suit jacket, along his forearms like the lingering touch of a lost lover. He drew himself together, careful to step around the husk of an abandoned tent. Shattered glass glinted from the forest floor. Even in such a cursed light, Arikado had no reflection. All he saw from abandoned mirrors were the faces of the damned watching over him.
What little hope there was flickered. It came and went in one flick of a flashlight. There were other living people out here—people not pleased with his intrusion. Arikado kept his distance from them. Fighting Soma would be rough enough. He couldn’t possibly hope to wrestle with the whole of the forest.
Arikado rubbed his eyes, wiping away streaks on his face. What could he say? Where could he start? Most importantly, would Soma listen to him—to any logic? Arikado hadn’t given him many reasons to trust him before. He couldn’t hope to be so fortunate tonight.
All he could do was pray and walk.
Spirits and men fell from his drooping march. The only force left to him was his guide. He followed it when he could no longer see, when he could no longer tell places or plants apart. Not even stinging holly could snag him from his path. All Arikado’s world was in front of his ghost’s face.
Fire splattered. Bones rattled, creaking forward. His familiar pointed out, reaching for slick fabric. Arikado’s heart fell. Poor, naïve Soma. He had no idea how to set up a tent. Determination was the only thing that got him this far into the forest—to contemplate any of this.
With a whisper, Arikado waved his ghost away. “Please.”
It went out like a snuffled candle.
The hesitation he felt at the edge of Aokigahara was gone. He kneeled before the mess of Soma’s tent, his fingers raised to its slumped zipper. What a strange puzzle this was in front of him. Was he alive? Dead? He hadn’t hanged himself, at any rate. That was encouraging. Still, this was not a philosophical conundrum he wanted to waste any time debating. The question of Soma’s status had to be answered with concrete facts.
Metal hissed as Arikado ripped the tent’s zipper apart.
So did the tent’s occupant. “Ah, shit.”
Pressure flooded Arikado’s chest. He wanted to scream, shout, slap sense straight into Soma’s face. Nothing left his tight grimace. Soma was alive. Miserable, perhaps, but so was Arikado. Camping out here had not agreed with the young man. His hair was fraying from the humidity, eyes glossy, cheeks and fingers rubbed red and raw. This was no castle slayer before Arikado, no millennia-old monster. It was just a frustrated child, tired beyond sense and reason.
“May I come in?” Arikado asked.
Soma groaned. “Are you going to go away if I say no?”
His flippancy drew a fang from Arikado’s lips. “Absolutely not.”
Another sigh granted him access. Soma pulled from the tent’s edge, knocking bedding and poles aside. Arikado pressed against one support, locking it in place. The last thing they needed was for this tent to fall apart. Soma was flustered enough as it was.
With a thick thump, Soma plopped himself on his rear. He reached for his jacket, quick to bury himself in its trim. “I guess you found my note?”
“And you read it?”
“And you came out here to stop me?”
“If I can help it, yes.”
That last question stuck like an arrow between Arikado’s ribs. He fought his sinking frown. Surely, Soma already knew the answer to that. He leaned towards the young man, his breath cold as mist. “Because I do not want you to die.”
Many reactions would have made sense. Raw laughter. A slap across his face. Snarling and screaming and crying. Soma did none of those things. He sunk into his jacket, cold, as vacant as a ceramic mask. For a moment, Arikado saw his own image in Soma’s face. It was the same detached chill he wore to war, the greatest armor he had. Melancholic, tepid acceptance of reality.
Seeing Soma like this was awful, but tolerable. It beat the alternative that the young man had in mind.
The dhampir bowed his head, black hair cascading down his shoulders. “May I ask what you were planning to do?”
Soma nodded towards a backpack dumped in the corner of the tent. “I’ve got a bottle of pain killers and some sake.”
Arikado wasn’t so stupid. “And your knife?”
With a groan, Soma clapped it into Arikado’s palm.
How strange it was, to get the blade back. Ironic, considering how many times Arikado had given it to Soma in hopes of saving his life. The dhampir pulled its carrying case through his belt, clipping it to his back side. Arikado could give it to him again. Right now, it was not his to possess. He would get it back when he earned it.
“Anything else?” Arikado asked. “Perhaps one of those pistols Hammer sold you?”
Soma swore into his knees. “You’re a complete asshole.”
Arikado already knew that. “That does not answer my question.”
White hair fluffed up as Soma jerked his head back. “Do you think we’d be talking if I still had a gun?”
Maybe. Maybe not. Soma was in no mood for speculations. Arikado kept his answers concrete. “You have made your point.” He folded his hands behind his back, bracing the knife propped against it. “However, you could have ended your life at any time with any method you desired. If you can pardon my jubilation, I am glad you hesitated.”
Soma’s retort came from his middle finger.
So be it. At least Soma was talking to him, to some extent. The young man had every right to swear at him, hit him, run from him. It was Arikado’s fault that he even knew what he was. The burden of Dracula’s past—his very being—was nothing for a weak person to carry. That Soma had managed even these few years with it was amazing enough. It was a weight not even Arikado could endure alone.
The pair sat in silence, its seconds dragging like grains of salt in their wounds. Churning heat radiated from Soma. Its corona sunk into Arikado’s jacket, burning waxy skin. The dhampir didn’t dare move. He felt like a dog with a rabbit laying at his side. Any sudden movement would send it sprinting away, into traps hidden in the dark forest.
With a cracking sigh, Soma finally started speaking to him again. “Are you mad at me?”
“Frightened, more so,” Arikado whispered. “Any anger I have relates more to hypotheticals.”
Soma shot him a perplexed look. “Like?”
Arikado didn’t enjoy clarifying his thoughts. “Like what would have happened if Miss Hakuba found your note prior to my discovery.”
Shame flickered through Soma’s brain. It drew him back into his knees. “It’s not like I said anything bad in it.”
“It said, ‘I have to go. You know why.’” Arikado stiffened as sharply as the knife against his back. “Do you know how that would have wounded her?”
That question dug too deeply into Soma’s skin. He bristled, angry at the burs in Arikado’s words. “She knows, Arikado! She’d get it! She’s not an idiot.”
“Then I must be an idiot,” Arikado confessed, “for I do not understand why you are doing this.”
Soma stared at him. The pupils in his eyes were as empty as the sockets of the ghosts wandering this forest. Confusion stupefied him. Arikado didn’t turn way, didn’t apologize, didn’t even give a hypothesis. He had evidence before him, blocks to stack. But, he left the whole mess in in a discombobulated heap at Soma’s feet. It was his work to build, and Arikado’s to tear down again.
The most obvious words came out of Soma’s mouth. “I’m Dracula.”
“I’m a threat.”
“I could turn into a monster at any time and kill everybody.”
“Then why don’t I just save everybody the time?” Soma asked. “That way, you don’t have to babysit me, and Julius doesn’t have to keep worrying about me going off the deep end, and Yoko doesn’t have to get hurt helping me, and maybe Mina can go get some normal friends and have an actual life.”
It’s not as if Arikado hadn’t considered the option before. He had felt the boy’s presence before he had set a single foot on the earth. Killing him before he grew up would have been simple. A grace greater than his own stayed his hand. Slaying Soma was not the same as protecting the world from Dracula. The young man had committed no grave sin against the earth. He was not hording riches and women, slaughtering masses, pitching dried husks aside and wiping blood from his lips. He was just going to school. The greatest damage he did in terms of drinking was at a Starbucks. Coffee and blood weren’t of the same grievance when spilled.
Now was not the time to admit such callous thoughts. Not when Soma’s soul was bleeding.
“You must know that we share a deep affection for you, Soma,” Arikado murmured.
“I…I know.” The resolution in Soma’s words shuddered. “I like you guys, too. I love you guys. But, if I ever hurt you…if I couldn’t keep you safe…” He gave up, his breath rushing out in a single burst. “I can’t screw up if I’m already dead!”
Arikado held his tongue. The right words struggled to come to him. A thousand maybes were there, needling him like so many mosquitoes. Maybe Soma could become what he used to be. Maybe it was a mistake to let him live. Maybe he could even cause havoc from beyond the grave. But, maybes weren’t of any help. All that could heal was what was known.
Arikado knew Soma’s pain.
“Such a conclusion is one I once shared.” Thin fingers pulled black hair back, holding them out of an uneasy face. They exposed eyes as dark as Soma’s gaze, as fixed and broken as the face of an abandoned bisque doll. “Julius has told you of my previous seclusion, has he not?”
Soma nodded. “You slept for over three hundred years, right?”
“That was not my original plan.” Arikado’s fingers tightened, pinching the trembling out of their skin. “I initially sought a more…permanent solution.”
He didn’t need to connect the dots for Soma. They lit like ghostly fire in the membranes of his eyes. The young man stared at Arikado, as if he could drill into the dhampir’s brain and measure the levels of his honesty like motor oil. Arikado didn’t turn away. This was a pain they both needed to face if they were ever going to walk free from this forest.
With a gentle hum, Arikado pacified Soma. “Obviously, I did not take it.”
“Obviously,” Soma echoed.
“Julius’ ancestor—Trevor—he believed that my life had value, even with the dangers associated with letting me live. He…” Arikado drew his right hand to his tie. For a moment, he held its knot, letting his mind take root in its strength. “He saw more potential than poison in my future. That optimism saved more than myself. His family, their allies, entire generations…”
The truth seemed so egotistical. It fit just too neatly into Arikado’s pleas. Of course, he had saved the Belmont family. He had guided them when they needed his mind, raised them to be soldiers and scholars against the plagues of the night. Arikado was not some pivot on which the rest of the world turned. The Belmonts were deserving of their victories. He was just fortunate enough to be loved by such a pride of lions.
Arikado closed his eyes. It wasn’t enough to dam up his memories. “This body—what we are—it is a curse. But, our companions are worth suffering that curse.” He wiped away what leaked, casting the beads on his fingertips aside with one fling. “At the very least, I would take this pain over their suffering. It is not easy, but for them, I would endure anything.”
Soma just kept staring.
Chilled embarrassment pulsed through Arikado’s veins. Who was he to give a speech on the power of friendship, anyway? He was as stereotypical as a lone wolf, his shadow engulfed by moonlight. What little emotion fell from him drained away. Even now, he still felt like a gawkish teen, pleading for his father to listen to his trifling, idealistic beliefs in the good in others. Maybe some of that deafness remained in Soma’s soul.
Silence stole Arikado’s voice. It floated from him in a sigh, curling like the ethereal fog drifting around the tent. The spirits of Aokigahara were watching them. Some left in a puff, their anger stinking of sulfur. Others idled, confused by the strange souls hidden behind threadbare nylon. What did they see? What did they think? Did they smell the scent of monsters swirling from the human and dhampir’s souls?
A question shocked Arikado out of his mute wonder. “Do you see them, too?”
The dhampir turned towards Soma. His surprise settled under an easy answer. Of course Soma could see the ghosts around him. He was just as supernatural as any creature born in the shadow of Dracula’s Castle. Arikado eased up, nodding. “Yes.”
“I’ve been trying to count them, for a while. Got up to a hundred and fifty.” Soma’s sigh trailed on too long, stretching into a yawn. “Do you think everybody who dies here stays here?”
Arikado shook his head. “If that were true, there would be thousands of ghosts here.”
“So, why did these ones stay?” Soma asked.
“I would suppose their death did not quell their anguish.” Light flickered past Arikado’s nose, painting its length pale green. “Death is not a universal cure for all ailments.”
Dark eyes watched another spirit go. “But, for some, it was.”
That was a point Arikado hated to concede. “Perhaps.” He leaned towards Soma, unwilling to let the young man draw another breath before he could say his piece. “For Dracula, it never was.”
Soma froze. His wrists locked in place, as if Arikado’s hair had tangled them. Arikado felt stress shift like a spear between his palms. He’d hit something tender. Vital. He could only hope that when he drew back, Soma’s soul would not bleed out.
“But…” The humidity of the forest fell into Soma’s chest. Pushing it out left him gasping for air. “But he killed so many. He…I…”
“Death did not stop the Belmonts from overthrowing him. Death did not spare him from dozens of hunters coming after him.” Arikado held steady, driving deeper into Soma’s logical cavity. “Even his own death did not stop him from returning to this earth.”
That fact crashed against Soma’s cheek. He jerked back, stricken. Arikado could only fathom how much that truth hurt. This was the result of his father’s defiance against life and death, the latest loss in a gruesome lottery. Dracula was not suffering for his sins. Soma was.
The difference between them was the only comfort Arikado had—the only sign that either could be saved.
Numb muttering fell out of Soma. “Even if I killed myself, I could...I could come back.”
“It is a possibility,” Arikado agreed.
“I could be Dracula again.”
“That is possible as well.”
“I could be doing this forever.”
“You could. However—”
One word was enough to stop up Soma’s cascading thoughts. “However?”
With practice grace, Arikado took the opening Soma left. “Are you familiar with the concept of karma?”
A long groan preceded Soma’s answer. “Yeah.” His eyes dropped, arms tightening around his knees once more. “Kinda screwed in that department. Going to have bad luck for the rest of my life ‘cause of that.”
“I am not speaking of the laymen’s version of karma,” Arikado clarified. “I mean to discuss the spiritual interpretation of it.”
Soma’s brain went as vacant as his stare.
Arikado bit back a sigh. He should have expected such a reaction. Most young people had no tastes for discussing religion anymore. It was verbose, contradictory—disheartening. Hardly a comforting topic to bring up when they were both on edge. Still, Soma was listening. That was all that mattered. He could bicker all he wanted after Arikado said his piece.
“You may be the proof of karma’s existence,” Arikado explained. “That is to say, your spirit continues to return in physical bodies representing the virtues and flaws of your previous life. For many years, this was in ghoulish, undead flesh. Now, however, you are human—a creature of both wisdom and warmth. To return to what you once were—to be closer to a godly form—that should be comforting.”
Soma shook his head. “It just sounds like a lot of work to get back to where I started.”
“Consider what this could mean.” Arikado folded his legs, drawing his ankles beneath him. “You are existing in one of the highest forms in all of creation. You have been granted one more chance to redeem yourself. If you live your life fully and correctly, perhaps this will be the last life you will have to suffer.”
Neurons tangled in Soma’s brain. They frazzled like his hair, ripped to pieces by stress and humidity. Vertebrae creaked as he leaned forward, catching his head in his hands. Arikado frowned, his own spine slumping. So much for spiritual comfort. Maybe a Shinto or Buddhist approach would have resonated better. If it didn’t stir some personal revival, perhaps it would have reminded the young man of the lovely lady he had left behind—the one woman who would always pray for him.
With slow, soft mumbling, Soma let his confusion dribble out. “I thought you were a Christian.”
Arikado smirked. “I try to keep my mind open and my mouth shut.”
“Fair enough.” Softer teeth than his own flashed as Soma yawned. “Guess I can do that, too.”
The weight of the young man falling against his side didn’t compare to the relief that rose inside Arikado’s chest. Anxious men didn’t fall asleep in the middle of a haunted forest. Soma’s torment scattered like chastised demons. It left his body aching, his frail shell crumbling. Arikado sighed, then patted Soma’s hip. A little rest would clear what remaining fog clouded Soma’s thoughts.
“We should not stay out here for long,” Arikado warned. “Neither the forest’s guardians nor its spirits are welcoming.”
“Guess not,” Soma agreed. “Just a little bit?”
Dedication to law and order tugged at Arikado’s limbs. He breathed out, cooling his nerves. Carrying Soma to his car would be difficult, in woods this dark. More troubling would be picking up his campsite. It was best to do these tasks when the sun was out. As long as the immortal would accept their company, they could deal with the laws of mortals in the morning.
“Just a little bit,” Arikado echoed.
At that permission, Soma dropped like a bag of bricks into his lap. The dhampir grunted, readjusting Soma’s position. How Mina tolerated his peculiar sleeping habits, he didn’t quite understand. With two tugs, he pulled his shoes off by their heels, then pushed them aside. If he was going to be sitting here for a while, he was going to do it as comfortably as possible.
The knife on his belt prodded his back, reminding him to keep vigilant.
A soft mumble pulled him out of his lingering fears. “Can we go to McDonald’s tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I want pancakes.”
Arikado rolled his head back, praying for a patience that surpassed his own. “Alright. I will purchase some pancakes for you tomorrow.”
He felt Soma’s smile in his skin. “Thanks.”
Cool fingers patted the young man’s spine. If pancakes would get Soma through the night, then it was a fair price to pay. Heaven knew Arikado would need the coarsest, blackest coffee he could get tomorrow. If that meant sucking down sludge from a fast food chain, he’d do that. Just as long as Soma would never scare him like this again.
Eerie silence only broke for Soma’s breathing. His pulse beat louder in Arikado’s ears than any earthquake. All that was sound and life came from Soma. It did not mean the world was dead. Arikado stared through the tent’s thin fabric, watching the tenants of Aokigahara flicker around them. Their glare was just as fixed, longing of the attention they so desperately wanted. It was worse when they gave up, fading away into the oblivion they made their home.
None of them belonged there.