He had seen many souls in his life, but not one as wondrous as this.
Long fingers stroked across a membrane as frail as gelatin. He was overshadowed by the brilliant shining resting in his palms. It felt warm, smooth, peaceful. Touching it made his tension melt. He weaved his fingernails through spindling roots, took pleasure in each trembling shudder it gave. This soul was living, as strong as a lion's beating heart pulled from its ribs, still attached by veins and arteries.
What power would it give him? All souls had some little quirk to them. Demons gave off blazing heat, monsters sluggish and lowly sputters. Sometimes, they allowed him to see through the aberrations of time, to tear through the fabric of space. On occasion, even change himself. But, this one? He had never held one so refined and preened. It couldn't contain just one solitary gift. It was a plethora, a robber's satchel, a king's treasury.
Its warmth could keep anyone heated for centuries. It bore strength, intelligence, vitality. The man was proud of it because he had made it. But, the defiant little soul wouldn't listen. It had fought him to the very end, to the depths of this abyss. Now it knew the price for its betrayal. It could shudder, force pleas from stilled lips, but it was too late for begging—for mercy.
He stopped. These weren't his thoughts.
The confused man glanced up and down his fingertips. His hands were not his own. He always kept his nails trimmed, fingers free of rings and dangling trinkets. His skin was fuller than this, pale, but with the barest blush of life. Gone were the white cuffs and sleeves that covered his arms. What he was dressed in was finer than anything he had ever worn in his life, jet black satin and crimson trim netting lace over his wrists.
This couldn't be him. Not Soma Cruz.
The young man had understanding of his strength. The power of soul dominance bestowed to him was a flicker of his old self—of a demon long since locked away and tamed. He could never steal such a force. Souls always had to come to him, to submit after their bodies were destroyed. He had friends that could flick the souls of the dead off of him, others that could shear the vibrant energy in his hands to restore their health, but none that could make the souls of the living submit to their will. That was forbidden magic. Wrong.
What was he doing?
He opened his fingers. Wretched Dracula closed them. The two minds fought for dominance over each other. It was a pathetic, powerless attempt on Soma's part. Dracula was over a millennia old, well rooted in Soma's soul. The young man was nothing more than a quirky growth atop tainted soil. If their body was empty, having no more souls than the conjoined monster and man, then Soma would win. But, if the forces of darkness clung onto him, gave him their wicked power, he would be pulled under. He was drowning now, so submerged that all he could see were warped swirls in wicked eyes.
What in the hell was this soul? Why was Dracula so eager to lap its contents? Their fingernails dug deep into that soft membrane. A pained gasp sent shivers through the vampire lord's skin. It was Soma that felt fear and loathing, not Dracula. He squeezed harder, eyes glowing as raw mana ran down his fingers. It brought more hitched breath, weak crying.
"S-stop!" the soul pleaded through its battered body.
The form beneath him was nearly invisible in the glory of its stolen soul. Vampire lord and human stared at the shuddering figure. A fire burned in their gut. Dracula's was born out of anger, Soma's from fear and disgust. Both agreed that this should not be happening. The vampire's rage came from betrayal. Soma was too confused and horrified to know more than his own trepidations.
They asked the victim at their feet the same question in a guttural chord. "Who am I?"
Dracula demanded to hear his title, the flattery of his glory. Soma was just looking for answers to what was going on. The soul in his hands shuddered. Dracula drew his nails in, Soma locking the monster's joints. The vampire was not named. Neither was Soma. It only fanned the flames of rage and dread in both spirits.
Of all the names Soma had borne, he heard the one he feared the most. "Father!"
Horror wrestled the last of Soma's control from his hands. Wretched Dracula, hunger incarnate, clamped down. The wonderful soul that had lit up Soma's eyes was torn apart by his gnarled claws. Liquid power seeped down them, sticking like honey, the bindings to it falling apart in ragged hunks. The cries for him went silent. He looked down, eyes aching in pain, but never splitting open with tears.
Beneath him was a very, very young man, pale and still as the dead.
It took him a moment to realize he was using his own throat. He patted his hands over his neck before retracting them, flipping them over. They were clean, well-groomed. He shivered, his skin beaded with sweat. The cold night air enveloped him more than his tangled covers. Soma drew his knees up, finally crying the tears that Dracula would never let him shed.
Telling himself that it was just a dream did nothing to calm him down.
Nightmares were all too common for Soma. He had lived through abyssal horrors, knew the full strength of darkness outside and inside himself. Sometimes, Dracula's memories leaked out. Fights with Belmonts, deep nights with warm, eager bodies, things of that nature. Never any with his son, though. Dracula was selfish with those, locking them in the deepest part of Soma's soul. This was one he wanted jettisoned—forgotten.
Soma's sobbing turned to weak hiccups. Damn it, Arikado had been so young. Younger than Soma was now, maybe. It was so hard to tell with the dhampir. He didn't really age. All that adjusted was his general sense in fashion, his hair color and style. But that soft jaw, his thin, pointed nose, his eyes—Soma would always know him by that. To see all of that set as lifeless as a zombie's corpse hurt him.
Fingers clenched into white roots. "What have I done?"
Julius always told him to forgive himself for what had happened. Yoko wanted him to let go of such memories, since they weren't his burden to bear. Both hunters never blamed Soma for what Dracula did to their families. How hard it was to cling to their words when he was drowning in his own self-loathing. Of all the people in the world Dracula should never have hurt, his son was first and foremost. He fumed at his own soul, his brain boiling. How could he?
Shaking fingers snaked towards his nightstand. He snatched his phone up. The cold metal trembled in his hands as he tried to keep his thoughts straight. A little part of him chastised him for being so scared and foolish. He was alright. So was Arikado. There was no need to call him.
His hands weren't his, for just one moment more.
Soma leaned his head back, mind soothed as a deep voice curled around his brain. "Soma? What are you doing up so late?"
"I…" Soma clunked his skull against the wall. "I need to know you're okay."
Arikado sighed. "I would think a text message would have sufficed."
"Yeah, but you take half an hour to type one out," Soma grunted. "I…I had to know right away."
His friend's voice rushed over him, like a cool comb to his roots. "I am fine, Soma. Go back to sleep."
The young man groaned. Back to sleep? No way in hell! There was no way he could face whatever mess he—Dracula—had created. What was all of that ritual about, anyway? Why was he ripping Arikado apart like that—tearing his soul to shreds?
Soma curled over his knees. "I think I'm going to throw up."
"Did you catch something?" Arikado asked.
"I—I—" The nervous man buried himself in his hands. "What did I do to you?"
The agent wasn't following Soma's rambling. "You've done me no offense, Soma. It is a bit late at night, but—"
A wet, sloppy groan came out of Soma's aching throat. "I destroyed your soul."
Arikado didn't say anything. Soma couldn't even hear him breathing. He pulled his head back, making sure the dhampir hadn't hung up on him. The line was still open. Where Arikado didn't react, Soma gushed. That quiet was as damning as any jury.
"I-I saw it. It was bright and beautiful," Soma stammered. "I took it between my fingers, and you screamed, but I couldn't—"
"Soma, stop," Arikado cut him off.
It wasn't the same pleading he had heard in his nightmares. The dhampir's curtness revealed the truth of Soma's memories all the same. He swallowed back his snot, fighting his body for control again. Panic and anxiety tied his throat in knots. Dracula deserved to suffer for this. All that was left to feel pain was Soma's body. He ached hard enough for them both.
Cold breathing seeped in his hot ears. "I will be to your place shortly. Leave a window open."
"Y-you don't have to—" Soma fought his own sorrow. "T-this is just—I'm being stupid, right? Tell me I'm just being a big, dumb 'fraidy cat."
Arikado said no such thing. "I need to show you something."
Soma drew a breath in through his nose. It was buzzing in pain, the cartilage beneath his skin prickling. "O-okay."
A soft click in his ear shut his mind off. Soma reached forward, tatami mats scraping his knees. He pawed for cold windows fogged by humidity. First went the glass, then the screens. He rested his chin on the window frame, his head lulling. The lights of the city around him sparkled. Dull, orange cones splattered onto his face. He stared at passing cars beneath him, people walking around late at night, insects flashing by. Everything was glowing, alive.
He tried to burn them into his mind—scald out the loveliness he had ruined.
One squeak came from a car's transmission below. Another chirped within the complex's walls. A bat went flying out of the trees, diving after glowing insects. One more skittered into thick, winding branches. There was a rush of winds, a din of chittering. Soma flinched as shadows flashed above his eyes. Black wings sailed over his head, little claws grazing his hair as a tiny creature darted into his room. Soma had nothing to fear from any bat. They were gentle, reverent to him.
The one burrowed into his futon, kinder still.
Shadows rose from Soma's comforter. The darkness that flowed out was as black as the vacuum of space, soaking sheets in its pure depths. Out came thick hair, pallid fingers, a sharp suit and sharper eyes. Long legs folded beneath a trim form, a body not accustomed to Japanese mannerisms now taking them on to keep compatible, soothing. There were very few children of the night that Soma would allow in his home. Arikado was one exceptional guest.
"Hi." Soma pawed at his eyes, wiping away stains. "Would you like some sake? Kind of think I could use some, right now."
"I would prefer tea, but I will take whatever you offer me," Arikado replied.
Only a true night owl would ask for caffeine in the middle of the night. Alcohol wasn't sounding like a wise idea, either. Soma was enough of a mess as it was. He wobbled to his feet, then padded to his bedroom door. Water. There was never anything wrong with water.
His shadow doubled as Arikado followed him out to the kitchen. The agent's lips were pressed together, forehead creased. Worried. Very, very worried. It wasn't like Soma could play off what had happened. If Mina had called him up crying like that, he would have spent the rest of the night at her house, holding her as she slept. Though Arikado was not so forward with his emotions, he had his own stubborn insistence on watching others. He guarded more with his senses than his arms.
They sat down together, green glasses filled with ice cubes and cool water. Soma finished his glass first, watching Arikado out of the corner of his eye. Vampires couldn't drink water. Arikado could. That was one hindrance Soma hadn't passed on. He looked into his glass, his dark eyelids and irises reflected back. He had gouged so much from Arikado's life—a reflection, garlic, a peaceful death. Now, his soul, too. What was left of him that was made him remotely humane?
Why had he come to see the person that had maimed him?
Arikado lowered his glass. "This nightmare of yours. Have you had it before?"
"No. I think it's something Dracula tossed up to me," Soma murmured. "He does that, everyone once in a while."
Arikado tipped his head. "I did not think anything survived of Dracula, save for your powers."
Soma rubbed the side of his cheek. "Well, I'm still him. I might be this thing around his soul, but we're one and the same."
The agent sighed. That was about as good of a definition as any, for Soma's condition. He knew where the young man had heard it before. "Have you been playing those odd 'Persona' games again?"
"Nah," Soma smirked. "They take too much time, anymore."
The young man had a full enough life as it was. He had his studies, his social life, the bi-monthly demon incursion to swat off. Maybe a cooking class or two, when they cropped up. The most gaming he had had in several weeks was on his phone, playing little knock-off games while on the train. Even reading or watching shows was too time-consuming. There was so much to do, and his life was so little.
Maybe that was why he was cracking.
"You…um…" Soma struggled to look Arikado in the eye. "You wanted to show me something?"
The dhampir nodded. He blinked, his eyes sparkling in the dark. "Though, I think we had best do this some place comfortable."
Soma nudged his chin towards the living room. "Probably should do it in there. Unless you want to end up in my bed, again."
"I think I'll pass," the dhampir smirked.
Fingers padded through the dark room, finding the low-seated sofa flopped on the ground. Soma sat down into it, then reached for a light. Arikado pressed his wrist down. The young man tried to follow him through the shadows, wondering just what that was about. Soma couldn't see as well as Arikado in the depths of night. He didn't think the dhampir was trying to pull anything, but it was a bit perplexing for him to be so pushy about something so small. Then again, Arikado always was a bit of a nag.
He felt Arikado sink next to him. "Do you recall what Yoko does to help purge unwanted souls from your body?"
"Yeah. Kind of a tingly, pingy feeling," Soma nodded.
Arikado smiled, despite himself. Soma's words were nonsense twice over, to a non-native speaker. "We're going to do that."
Soma pulled his head back. "I-is that safe?"
"I wouldn't be sitting here with you if I didn't trust you, Soma," the dhampir murmured.
The young man dropped his head. Why did Arikado trust him, anyway? Granted, Soma usually pulled through, save for the occasional emotional breakdown. But, the first time they had met—when Soma was no more than some dweeb in a poofy coat—what made Arikado think he was pure enough to drive back his old, dark ways? He was the first to know what evil lurked within the young man. Stranger still, the first to give him a chance to succeed. Such a gamble had to come out of desperation. No other force but fear could have drawn the son to the father's darkness again.
And yet, here he was, fearless of that wicked power.
Cold fingers rubbed against his palms. "Soma, how do you sense a monster's soul?"
"There's usually color. A lot of shining. Warmth." Soma felt silly, trying to describe it. "It's like, its body falls away, and blip! Out pops the soul. It hits me right in the gut every time. "
Arikado nodded. "I want you to remember what that feeling is like. Close your eyes, and find that same energy in me."
Energy and Arikado weren't words that went together. He was cool, his skin several degrees below a human's warmth. Colder still was his glance, the distance he kept form others. Soma fidgeted, rubbing back on the hands that held his. He wasn't quite sure how souls were even in a body. It wasn't like they were an organ that could be scooped out. Yet, they were still rooted, clinging to the very flesh that housed them until its cold, bitter end.
Soma closed his eyes, then breathed out. Though Arikado was not as lively as a human, he had his slow pulse, his diligent blood. It fanned through organs in splitting paths. Soma pushed against them, feeling the way they moved. The stillness in Arikado gave way to a gentle heat, a swirling ember in his chest like a second heart.
The reincarnated dark lord sucked in a breath, hot tears behind closed eyelids.
There was little left of the shining beauty he had once held. In the base, buried in Arikado's body, there was that old gleam, a brilliance between white and gold. Across its surface were many throbbing veins. They sealed hunks of color together, stitched like a quilt from scraps. So, the dream was true. He had destroyed Arikado's soul. All that was left of it now was this tattered, ragged hunk.
"What have I done?" Soma cried.
"Dracula once sought a pact with a high-level demon. The cost of such an allegiance was the sacrifice of a soul equal to his." Arikado's voice was cold, flat. "There was no vampire as powerful as him that he could harvest. I was the closest candidate."
Soma's teeth dug into his lips. "But you were his kid!"
"I had grown rebellious and was defying his rule." Black tendrils fell from Arikado's bowed head. "At that point, Dracula no longer saw me as his son. I was merely an enemy of his kingdom that had to be stopped. It just so happened that I fit into his plans."
Soma shook his head. "I should have never…Damn it. How could anything—"
Warmth stilled his shivering. "Soma, you did not do this to me."
"Then, why can I still remember doing it?" Soma sniffled.
Cool fingertips reached for him. Soma pulled back. Why would Arikado dare let him touch his soul, let Soma ever see him? He opened his eyes, only for the glow of Arikado's broken soul to remain. How was he still alive, sentient and conscientious? This thing attached to him was a wreck!
"I apologize for this. I thought it would comfort you, to know I still have a soul," Arikado grimaced. "There was a time when I thought it was gone—when I was all but catatonic. However, it grew back. With it came my old will. It just took some time to heal."
"So, that's why it's all scarred up," Soma gulped. "But, why is it so weirdly colored?"
Arikado beckoned for Soma to come closer. "Look again."
Shaking hands rose up. They kept back, fearful of the patchwork light. Arikado lifted Soma's hands by the frailest protrusions of bone beneath smooth skin. He drew Soma back to that source of warmth from his chest. The young man shuddered as he finally took hold of the broken soul. The stitching felt so weird and bumpy, unlike the smooth surface of every other soul he had known.
Fingers traced across the soul's membrane. Each colored hunk was soft, pliant. He lingered on a beige piece, then saw a flash of light. There was something unusual there, holy. He could smell barbecued meat, sweat, old metal. Something a bit like Julius, but off. Maybe a relative with the same scent.
Soma opened his eyes. "No way."
"Keep going," Arikado urged.
The awed man continued his investigations. Light blue revealed divine retribution, fear, a weird sort of love and forgiveness. A swath of red made the center of Soma's stomach flare up, as if he was laughing. Dark blue brought determination, green and pink so many comfortable, warm sensations. He pressed on, the feelings becoming more and more familiar. He could feel the heat from Julius' heart, the glimmer of Yoko's smile, his own tremulous insecurity.
Soma stopped. "That's—that's me." He shook his head, confused. "Why am I a part of your soul?"
"Because you healed me," a low voice whispered.
"I…" Soma couldn't believe it. "But, I hurt you."
Arikado shifted on the couch, the frame creaking from his movements. "When people have wounded souls, others can sense that pain. Loving ones attempt to fill the injury with a piece of themselves. That was how I knew you were redeemed—when I felt your warmth within me." A natural smile crept past his defenses. "I will never be what I was, but I am mended through others. I can never share enough gratitude for such kindness."
Soma looked back to the cobbled soul. What was once hideous now made his heart ache. Those little vines were coming from the base of Arikado's being, embracing each memory left in him. No longer did they feel disgusting, uneven. Perhaps it was frailer than it had been, but it was still a whole soul. Within it shined that spirit Soma had come to cherish.
He held his thumb over his patch, hoping this was as much Dracula's gift as his own.
Like a monster before the rays of dawn, his anxiety vanished into thin air. The void in his mind settled into an eerie peace. He felt the heaviness of his body, the ache in his back. A yawn left him. Arikado chuckled, then patted him on his hands. The nightmare had been vanquished, Dracula's barbs pulled aside. Now, in the soft expanse of darkness, Soma could finally rest.
He slumped. "Thank you. I…I'm tired, all of a sudden."
The sofa squeaked as Arikado stood up. "Then, to bed with you."
The young man leaned into Arikado's side as the dhampir helped him back to his bedroom. He flopped onto his mattress, face smashed into his pillows. Even messing with the sheets seemed like a Herculean effort. He yawned again. This time, teeth longer than his own echoed his gesture. Soma laughed. How silly it was, for him to be this tired. Even more ridiculous, that Arikado was, too. He really shouldn't have bothered with Soma's phone call, if he was that weary.
Soma opened his eyes. No, he didn't regret his actions. It was good to know the truth.
"Thank you for being honest with me," Soma murmured.
Arikado tugged a sheet over him. "You may have several of these episodes, throughout your life. I want you to have someone you can talk to about them." He paused, then rolled another blanket upward. "I don't want you to feel as guilty as you did tonight. Especially not about things you haven't done."
Soma rolled his head back, flipping himself up to face Arikado. "I don't deserve any of this. But…thank you."
"That's quite enough thanks," Arikado sighed. His exasperation was coupled with a sad smile. "Get some rest. You'll need it for tomorrow."
The young man nodded. "I've got to catch the train…take a test…"
It was morning before Soma could finish his thoughts.
He sat up, then bowed his head. Yellow light coated him, the last of the night's chill drifting through his opened window. He rolled out of his bed and onto the floor. One foot landed on a stack of clothing. Soma bent down, then shook his head. He never set out his clothes the night before. Who would have—
Soma sighed. It was just like Arikado, to do chores before leaving.
He found little pieces set straight throughout his apartment. The couch cushions were smoothed flat. The glasses they had used were washed and placed in his dish drainer. His textbooks and notes were left beneath his keys. A fresh bottle of water was propped alongside them. Soma flushed. It was like when he used to live with his mom—when she used to fuss about every little thing.
The young man went through his morning routine, then rushed out to greet the day. Others may have doted on him, but the world would not be so patient. He stopped in an old train station, folding into its crowds. He was a single flash of white in a black mass. It wouldn't be long until he was clothed the same way. He lowered his head, following the crowd into his train. Sometimes, he wondered if he should dye his hair as well, just to blend further in. There were days he'd give anything just to be a nobody.
He sat down, then flopped his notes open. A loose piece of paper slipped out. Soma caught it before it could hit the ground. His notebook was getting really battered, the pieces falling apart all the time. Soma flipped the paper up, then lifted his eyebrows. This wasn't his handwriting.
It wasn't a very long message. "Do not fret. Your best will be more than enough. –Arikado"
Soma slumped back. He really, really didn't deserve Arikado's care. The memory of his scarred soul flickered in Soma's head. He stared at the crowds around him. How many of them had the same rips and tears in their soul? Was there even such a thing as a whole soul, the way people hurt others and shared themselves?
He closed his eyes and saw a glowing sea of souls around him. Gone were the identical suits, the similar haircuts, the dedication to acting as one. Everyone continued their quiet reading, fiddling with their phones, ignorant of how amazing they all were. The girl next to him was sapphire, the boy across the way gold. Some were silver, red, green, shades he had never seen in monsters. Cracks ran down one yellow soul, patched together by scarlet bands. Another had a quarter of blue taken out, only for mint to fill its gap. He stared in quiet wonder. Some were beautiful, others horrifying, but all were awe-inspiring.
For once, he was glad to have Dracula's soul—to be a silver ring eclipsing darkness.