Once upon a time, when he was knee-high and had hair the color of dawn, his father had taken him into the great storing halls, where the grimoires and the bestiaries lived, where the swords and the maces and the whips lived, where the stony stares of their ancestors pinned them down from eternity.
He had looked over everything with awe, excitement slowly bristling down along his spine. He’d been young, but he knew these things from under even his bones, from the core of his being.
‘A Belmont boy through and through,’ his father had laughed that evening, bouncing him on his knee and smiling at his mother, who paused from her embroidery to praise them. The brocade couch she presided over was, as was custom in his childhood, women’s land. It was covered in the sleeping forms of his sisters, who had drifted off one by one, leaning and snuggling and yawning until it looked like a scene from a fairytale: beautiful sleeping girls, lashes fluttering now and then as the wood in the fireplace cracked or popped.
The wind had beaten at the house that winter, driving drifts so high up the walls of the family mansion that his eldest sister took to simply opening her window and using the snow to wash her face. He had romped eagerly in mud come spring, much to his mother’s distress, and even as young as he had been, he could still remember, if he worked at it, having to sit on a wooden bench and get scolded as he waited for his breeches to dry on the wood stove in the kitchen. He still remembered watching the steam rise from his clothes.
Trevor had spent more and more time in those whispering (evil books but he’d loved them) halls under his father’s guidance, and he had grown, cracking his whip and getting his fair share of knocks and breaks and bruises, and his sisters had grown, hair spilling down their shoulders and roses growing in their cheeks, and soon marriage was in consideration for Esthe
He shoots up like he’s been bitten, drenched in sweat, bile rising in his throat, mind looping again and again and again on an image, the last gasp of life he’d seen of his family- a hand rising, grasping to the skies, weeping fluids from its cooked flesh, before falling heavily. Esthe, or Katrine, or-?
Sypha groans on the ground at his back, reaches back and smacks at him ineffectively. She’s asleep again before her hand even touches him, so it flutters down and rests on the fur of his cloak. Trevor stares down at it in the dark, shuddering.
“Trevor?” Alucard says, from across the clearing, eyes catching the starlight and reflecting silver. He’s got his sword in hand. He looks like he’s been practicing forms. Probably does every night when it’s his turn to watch. Fancy bastard.
“Mngh,” Trevor says by way of explanation, and gives a hard shudder. “Gnh.” And because he’s a bleating coward, he lies down again as if he’s still asleep. Sypha’s hand rubs against the fur of his cloak in a sleeper’s version of a caress.
He wants to howl at the moon until he comes apart at the seams.
They travel at dawn, at dusk, the hours before and the hours after. They hide at noon, they hide at midnight, and though the dangers are different the reasons for them aren’t. Midnight brings monsters, noon brings men, and they all have their reasons to be wary of the former and leery of the latter.
It’s a hard travelling pattern to adjust to. Sypha is used to the roads, but not the hours. Alucard is used to strange hours but isn’t used to being in public, clearly, and very nearly gets them into some spectacular rows with passing travelers just by being sassy. If less was at stake Trevor would have found it funny, but as it is, he just settles into bitchy sullen sniping, content to attract Alucard’s holier-than-thou condescension as long as it spares them from another biting goat attack.
They’re three weeks in and frozen when they find another empty town, and another, and another. Then, another.
“We can’t,” Sypha protests, her small hands boxing around like she can beat back Trevor’s suggestion with sheer rage.
“Look,” he says, tiredly, but Alucard cuts in, hair spilling over his shoulder and catching fire in the setting sun,
“The people here are long gone.”
Trevor snaps his head around, ready to argue on instinct, but then his poor frozen brain catches up.
“Even so,” Sypha says, rounding on Alucard now, shaking her hands, her fingers, at both of them. “It’s wrong. If the people are dead, these are the possessions of the dead. And if we help ourselves, then we are robbing from the dead. We are grave robbers, in essence.”
“We’re fucking freezing, Sypha!” Trevor yells out, tossing his head back and directing his words more to the sky than anything. He’s so tired he isn’t even angry, just frustrated. Travelling with others is… hard. It’s hard to stay casual, disengaged like he’s used to. It’s hard to drink himself into a stupor when other people are relying on you. “We’re dirty, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and I for one need to patch my fucking clothes or I’m going to start getting crunchy spots when I go to sleep at night. On my skin, I mean, just so we’re clear, where I am freezing in a literal sense and getting-“
“Trevor,” says Sypha, making a face,
“No I’m really being serious, my pants are-“
“Trevor!” Alucard says, at the same time that Sypha does too.
“Ugh,” he says, and shivers.
Silence falls. Alucard is looking at him with those sleepy gold eyes, but they don’t look half so sleepy right now. Sypha is looking at him too, though her gaze slides around uneasily to the dead village they’ve walked into. The place is clean, tidy. Likely the villagers had left to hide in the woods from what they assumed were human troops sweeping through, not realizing that it only made them easier prey for the demons of Dracula’s night.
“Are you unwell?” Alucard asks. Trevor makes a flat, annoyed sound and kicks a rock.
“I just said I’m cold. There’s ice on the ground, of course I’m cold.”
“Winter is coming,” Sypha says slowly, looking Trevor up and down more carefully. It makes Trevor wish he’d never suggested the very practical and reasonable thing of checking the village for usable goods. “It will be easy for us to,” she colors and faces Alucard, looking apologetic, “well, for Trevor and I to fall ill. Do you succumb to illnesses?”
“Rarely,” Alucard replies, nodding slightly. Trevor turns his back on both of them to peer through a shuttered window. (He feels irritated, like he’s being purposefully left out of something, but he doesn’t know what.) The house is dark and empty, but lacks any sense of menace. Trevor cranes his neck- is that a bottle of drink? “But they are unlikely afflictions to come across in normal circumstances.”
“How convenient!” Sypha says, sounding pleased as she usually does when she discovers something interesting about Alucard. She’s probably keeping notes.
“It comes in handy,” Alucard agrees, cordial and light as he rarely is with Trevor.
“Are we just going to chat all evening long, or are we going to make up our minds about my- frankly- practical idea?” He swirls around in a huff when he can’t take it anymore, spreading his arms and gesturing to the houses around them. “This is the first place we’ve found that isn’t drenched in rotten fucking intestines, and I think we should make good damn use of it. If we’re not, we should get the hell out of here before the light goes any further. Ages more to go, you know.”
“All right,” Sypha agrees, though it’s her turn to shudder. “I… suppose you’re right.”
“Finally,” Trevor huffs.
Alucard is already gliding off, eyes scanning here and there. He calls out as he goes:
“We might as well stay the night, too. Scout for where you wish to sleep.”
Sypha’s cry of outrage at that causes a bloom of cheer in Trevor’s belly, but he’ll never tell.
It’s a good haul. Too good, really- though the village isn’t wealthy, they were clearly already stocking up for the coming winter. If he’s honest, looking at the piles and piles of food and grains and wood makes him hurt. It’s been years and ages of pain, but he can’t quite shake the tremor of grief that goes through him when they find another nightmare sitting where a sheep-smelling homestead should be. These people might have been all for burning his home to ash, but even he doesn’t want to see them die in front of him.
He feels like he should, though. He thinks of that one hand, slender and weeping, rising up from the fire. He feels like he should hate them all.
“I found you some fabric,” Sypha says brightly, her arms filled with a creamy woolen spill of new cloth. “I can sew you some new pants if you’d like.”
“You know how?” Trevor is impressed. Sypha colors and shrugs.
“Well, we Speakers mostly make our own robes, too, so compared to that, a pair of trousers isn’t much work.”
Alucard hasn’t shown up yet, but it’s a small village, ten houses at most. He’s probably found a book like the gross nerd he is. Worse, he’s probably reading it. Or smelling it. Or whatever.
“That’s handy. Find any thread and needles?” She tosses her head and taps the outfolded collar of her robes, where, sure enough, four shining needles are stabbed into the fabric. Trevor whistles. “Richer than they looked. Silver needles and nice fine cloth?”
“I do wonder,” Sypha admits, shifting her stance and pulling some fine-spun thread from a pocket. Speaker robes are rife with pockets, a fact that Trevor often finds himself a bit jealous of. The sun is sliding below the rim of the earth. Storm clouds are gathering in the distance.
“Found some good whiskey, too,” he admits, holding up his hands defensively when Sypha rears like a snake about to strike. “I didn’t take it!” He had some, though he won’t tell her that. It’s sitting in his belly now, warm and cozy, seeping down to his limbs like hot sand. “I grabbed some dry-cured sausages. Look.” He produces the loop, which, like the silver needles and the fine cloth and the stinging whiskey, is entirely too nice for such a small, shitty, empty town.
He isn’t creeped out. But he's starting to have some doubts.
“It’s very convenient,” Sypha says, biting her lip uncertainly. She’s clearly on the same track he is. The town’s small enough that it doesn’t even have a tavern, but it’s got glass windows, and cured sausages, and- based on what Alucard has tucked under his arms as he rounds the corner towards them- at least a few books.
“Too convenient,” Trevor agrees, a bad feeling balling in his guts.
Alucard agrees that it’s odd, suspicious, but stops short of saying it’s sinister. Trevor snorts at his refusal to acknowledge the fact that things are always, always too good to be true.
“The town may have traded in some sort of illicit goods,” he sooths, thumb petting at the green leather of a book like a huntmaster petting his lead hound.
“And we will profit off that?” Starts Sypha, flaring bright into indignant heat.
“It’s creepy, and doesn’t bode well. Nothing goes this well.”
“You yourself said that you’re cold. The houses are well-made and well-supplied. We should take the time you need to rest and continue on then.”
Trevor sees red. “The time I need?! I’m fine, thanks, but pardon me if I’m a little more concerned at the idea of staying in some kind of- of-“ He falters, an arm outstretched to the village. He doesn’t know what this is. He just knows it’s lucky and good, and nothing in his life has shown ‘lucky and good’ to be safe.
“Trevor,” Sypha says, and she’s doe-eyed and clutching at that fabric like it’s a lifeline. Alucard and Trevor both look at her. “You were right. Let’s just… stay the night. One night. Please? There’s a storm coming, and I don’t have time to finish your pants otherwise.”
“You weren’t too on about this yourself, Sypha.” He can’t fight her when she turns on the doe eyes. (Her hair is getting longer. It’s down past her chin now. He needs to give her a haircut. He has to.) She almost never uses them, perhaps sensing that it’s an unfair advantage. Or maybe she just likes the fight. Either way, he can’t fight her like that, and he can’t fight against Alucard too, so he sighs heavily and tries one more time. “Something isn’t right here.”
“I have checked the town,” Alucard says gravely. “Nothing at all indicates anything truly unnatural.”
Trevor spares an uncharitable thought for the fact that he’s clearly wrong, based on his own damn self being there.
“Fine,” he spits. “But mark my words. Something’s off.”
Sypha shrugs and Alucard makes no response. Their silence speaks for itself: they know.
They choose a nice, cozy house with a big hearth and a bigger lock on the door. Alucard inspects the mechanism with obvious intensity, running his fingers over the metal plate on the outside and inside of the door. Sypha busies herself with lighting the fire, getting it started with a flare of magic and directing Trevor to take inventory of the house.
It’s small enough to be easily defensible, large enough to give them all some personal space. Trevor peels off to explore, leaving Alucard to pore over the books and Sypha to hum over the fire.
The ground floor is stone, with a well-made kitchen table lined with several benches. There’s a ladder down to a root cellar well-stocked with ceramics filled with pickled things, onions and garlic hanging in the cold underground air, potatoes and carrots keeping in dark wooden containers open to the dirt below.
Trevor feels a sharp dizziness rising in him as he looks at the strings of onions hanging from the ceiling. It’s been so long since he was in a home that seeing this feels unnatural. It feels like he’s walked into the women’s bathing room or something, and emphasizes how wrong this all is. He just can’t tell if it’s the place that’s actually off, or if he’s so used to being feral and hard that running up against all this is just setting him haywire, making him turn curdled and wrong in the head.
“Trevor,” Sypha calls from up above. “How does it look?”
“Great,” he replies, sounding as acerbic as he feels. “More supplies than you can shake a stick at.”
“Really?” She appears at the top of the ladder. Trevor moves aside so she can climb down as well, and takes some relief in the fact that when she looks at all this, she smiles. "I thought you were being sarcastic." Okay. This is a good thing. Okay.
“I thought you weren’t inclined to rob from the dead?” He can’t stop the barb, but he is glad she seems to be thinking practically. Sypha bites her lip and looks at him from the corner of her eye, the look on her face uncertain. Something about it seems off, but fuck him if he can figure out what.
“I am thinking of it as a reward,” she finally says, haltingly, as the fire upstairs snaps reassuringly. He can hear Alucard walking up the stairs, perhaps giving them privacy but more likely trying to find some more books to stick his blood-sniffing nose into again. “For helping the people, but pre-emptively given. There is the prophecy, so…”
Trevor raises an eyebrow. “Seems complicated.”
“Alucard may have suggested it,” Sypha says, stepping around Trevor to inspect the root cellar further. Her gaze goes to the produce, to the bins for the root vegetables. “My goodness, this is a very well-stocked place.”
His stomach clenches, because she’s got a little moue on her face. She’s so young and so pretty and she needs a haircut, and she knows something is off too. Too good to be true is apparently something Seekers know about too.
Rather than curse it further by saying anything, he clambers up the ladder and heads over to the hearth, devoting himself to poking at the already-robust fire. Sypha comes up soon after, carrying a pot that she puts on the kitchen table before sliding the trap door shut again.
“You know what’s in there?” He asks, picking at the wax sealing the lid on.
“Let’s find out,” she says, big blue eyes sparkling with mischief.
“If it’s smelly, his Lordship up there will be moaning endlessly,” Trevor points out, but he comes closer to the table and hands her a knife from his arsenal.
“If it’s the right kind of smelly, it’s worth it!” Sypha fires back, levering the knife to weaken the wax.
“You like that kind of stuff? Pickled things?” It’s sort of an odd preference, more like something her grandfather would have a taste for.
“Fermented things, Trevor. You of all people should understand.” He raises an eyebrow when she wiggles hers at him, and lets her start to pry the top off. “I hope it’s cabbage. Oh, or eggs!” The smell that rises up is… well, Trevor himself isn’t a serious fan of the stuff, but whatever it is, Sypha recognizes it and lights up. She pulls off the ring of wax and gazes in rapturously.
“Ugh,” he says, and moves away. “That stuff reeks, Sypha, and if I think it smells bad- well, usually a bad sign.” Contrary to Sypha and Alucard’s opinions, he knows he smells bad. He just doesn’t care. It helps him blend in to not smell like daisies and milk.
“Don’t you want a little? We’ve opened the entire jar, we might as well…” She looks so wistful, standing there in the slowly-warming kitchen. (The fire is huge and the firewood is plentiful, but he can’t shake the chill settling between his shoulderblades, lying supine and steady on his spine.)
“All right,” he agrees, shucking his cloak finally and hanging it on a hook by the door. The edges are in tatters, which is made more noticeable by its neighbor, Alucard’s coat with the gold trim. What’s he doing up there, anyway?
Sypha finds some bowls- wooden and dented and oiled, which helps him to feel a little less like he’s tightening some kind of noose around his neck. She finds a stale loaf of bread in a cupboard too and steams it in a pot to moisten it again, a trick Trevor wishes he’d known long before this.
They have at it, and it may be that they’re so hungry, or it may be that they’re so cozy and the wind outside is hissing at the well-sealed walls, but it tastes like the best damn thing they’ve had in ages. Come to think of it, it may well be. It’s been a long time since he had anything but desiccated meat and watery ale. It isn’t a varied meal, but it’s big for their empty bellies and it’s rich with flavors as well-known as old friends. They swap some stories, and by the time Sypha is slicing the bread into two last pieces, they’re sitting leg-against-leg on the bench together. It feels easy and light, like something from another life, another world, for another Trevor.
Alucard still hasn’t come down by the time they’re done eating, and it starts to make them worry again. Trevor is washing their dishes in a basin filled with some collected snow and a sliver of found soap. Sypha wrinkles her nose, walking to the front door to store the pot outside where it will stay cool.
“Do you think the smell was so bad he simply refuses to come down?”
“Let him,” Trevor says dismissively, but he’s fed and warm and is even thinking about taking his boots off to darn his socks, and maybe even offering to Sypha since she’s pulling out that fabric and a knotted string from her cloak. In the face of all that comfort, he can’t just leave their weird, floating idiot to brood in the attic like a- um, well, like some kind of social pariah, but. It’s the principle of the thing. (His father clapping him on the shoulder as he lists off the fatal weak points on vampires: the throat, the heart, the fangs if you were mad and desperate.) He and Sypha are in that category of social cast-offs too, so if you close one eye and squint, they’re all the same anyway.
“Go check on him,” Sypha directs, “and take off your pants.”
“Whaaaaa-“ Trevor bleats out before he can stop himself, reeling back as if to fend off an attack.
“They fit you well enough,” she says, doubling down, and is it his imagination or did she just rake her eyes up and down his body like-? “And it’s that or I take your measurements directly.” She shakes the cord at him menacingly. Trevor eyes it, thinks about that look up and down he thinks she just gave him, and shifts, uneasily. He knows where hands have to go for measurements.
“Can’t I just…. Uh, what am I supposed to wear in the meantime?”
Sypha snorts. It’s inelegant but the house still smells like catfish, so if he’s honest he’s not sure what he was expecting. “Do you honestly think that as a Speaker, and a healer, I don’t know what you have under your shirttails?”
Trevor snaps his head away from her gaze and looks straight out the window. “Noooo….” He says, slowly, trying to stall. It isn’t that he’s modest. It’s just that he’s modest in front of young women. There’s a line, after all. He’s… he’s sure there’s a line. It feels very unsettling to be the one defending his modesty, though. He’s not used to being the skirt in the chase. “Oh shit, it’s snowing.”
“Pants,” Sypha says, pulling a large pair of scissors from her pocket, along with the thread she’d flashed before. “Or I’m going to start naming all your parts until you’re convinced it will not be a surprise for me.”
“What about Alucard?” Trevor says urgently, putting a protective hand on his pants.
“I would say he probably knows what you have too,” she sasses, and snips the scissors at him meaningfully. “Pants. Off. Now. I don’t have all evening, and they’ll be rough as is. Any more delays and you’ll be wearing skirts.”
“Fuuuuuck,” Trevor moans. “Wait, but, snow. I need to close and latch the shutters.”
“I can handle that,” Sypha says, tossing her pretty curls, and with a gesture the shutters all fold against the windows. The house isn’t fancy enough to have latches for the shutters, but she starts opening the windows (glass in a house like this feels so, so weird) and securing them with the bars placed on the sills. “And while my back is turned, you can take off your pants.”
“Or what?” He shoots back, one last-ditch effort. “Wait, why can’t I take them off upstairs?”
“Because then you’ll still be shy and hiding upstairs, and that’s stupid. I know what you look like, Trevor, though I presume you’re wearing underthings. I won’t die because I see the outline of your penis in your underclothes.” She closes the first window and moves on to the next.
Trevor wheezes, another protest dying on his tongue.
“I know this might be hard to imagine,” she finishes, smelling blood, “but your penis is not so powerful as to change me in any fundamental way.”
He finds Alucard upstairs. The attic is surprisingly well-insulated, and heat is already collecting up here. Trevor gives a sniff but can’t smell the fish. He’s uncertain of whether he’s just gotten used to the smell, or if it simply dissipated somehow.
“We found some food, if you eat… uh, normal things. We ate, but there’s still plenty.”
Alucard is leaning against a doorframe in the dark. Cracks of light are stabbing up between the floorboards, but the sound from downstairs is oddly muted. He can’t hear Sypha at all. The walls are sloped but wooden, which he hadn’t been expecting based on the straw roof from the outside. A single window spreads light along a long slender corridor. There’s the room Alucard is staring into, another room past that, and a room to Trevor’s right. The footprint of the house is too small for the attic to be spacious, but it’s an efficient layout that makes the most of it. Trevor finds his respect for the old owner of the place growing.
The man flicks his eyes over to Trevor. “I will not eat,” he demurs, shaking his head. He peels himself away from the doorway, hesitating.
“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me you’ve got dreams of building another spooky chasm of horror up here.”
Trevor steps up to where Alucard is standing, glances at the mostly-closed door. He has enough faith in the vampire to know that he would have alerted them, urgently, if there were bodies or animals or demons. But Alucard looks puzzled, and Trevor hopes it’s something really stupid and simple like… like a darning egg or something, that’s put the look on his face. Then he can make fun of him all night long and it’ll be great.
Alucard motions with his chin, nudging the door open with the outspread touch of his fingers. It’s all a bit melodramatic, Trevor thinks sulkily, especially since he can’t see in the dark so the effect is totally lost on him.
“I am afraid,” Alucard says, seeming to realize from Trevor’s puzzled squint his mistake, “that we have bitten off more than we can chew.” He feels around his pockets and then draws out a sparker, clicking it a few times to light what turns out to be a candle mounted on a wall sconce.
Trevor looks uncertainly at what’s revealed.
“I apologize.” Alucard gestures at the… fixtures? To be honest, Trevor doesn’t know what to make of them. “I should have listened to you.”
“Alucard,” Trevor says, stepping in and looking at the mirror (what the hell, how were these people getting this money?). “What the fuck are these things?”
A strange round-mouthed white fountain (?) with a square back, a white pedestal with what looks like a basin built into its top. It looks like a dry sink, but with all these holes and levers poked into it. He can’t make heads or tails of it, but Alucard’s alarm makes him worry anyway.
“Ah…” Alucard looks taken-aback, then recovers himself with a shake. “It’s a toilet. And a sink.”
Trevor whistles, impressed. “Fancy fucks, eh?”
Alucard shakes his head. “This technology won’t be invented for…” His eyes slide to the side, calculating. “Well, I suppose it depends on where you look. It exists now, in other parts of the world. But not… in this form.”
“Foreigners?” Trevors asks, growing bold. He touches a little silver level and jiggles it, feeling a point of resistance.
“No,” Alucard says slowly, tipping his head and watching Trevor’s explorations.
“You know what this crap is, though.”
“The castle exists in and out of time,” Alucard comments. He sounds defensive. “I have seen many of the wonders that humans will, or have, created.”
“So spit it out, vampire. What’s the big secret? What’s got you so worried?” Trevor wheels around to face him. “Somebody looted your precious castle, or some wealthy fucks imported something from the ends of the earth, or-“
“Do you really think,” Alucard snips in, eyebrows rising in disdain, “that my father would allow looters to make off with anything from his castle? And, I told you, these objects do not exist in this form yet. Not here.”
“You’re not giving me a whole lot of information, so who the fuck knows? All I know is that you’re apparently afraid of the world’s biggest pisspot.”
By way of answer, his lips narrowed into a thin tight line, Alucard reaches forward and presses the silver level Trevor had been touching earlier. Water swipes through the bowl, rushes down, vanishes. New water comes in. Trevor feels like a rube and a peasant and a goat-fucker, but he also can’t help but feel like his eyes are about to fall out of his head at the sight. Alucard steps into the tiny room with Trevor, turns another lever, watches water pour out into the basin and vanish again down into that hole. Trevor gapes.
“So,” Alucard continues, somewhat heavily. “Why is this here, how? The pipes go nowhere. Where is the water coming from, where is it going?”
“Oh,” says Trevor, pieces snapping into place. Nice but empty village, things that don’t make sense, or do, but in pieces apart, and when they all come together they’re odd, a sum less than their parts. A storm, and travelers, and desperate need. “Oh fuck. But I bet you’ve seen this.”
“I already said,” Alucard sighs, looking resigned to deal with his stupidity,
“No, I mean this exact pisspot.” Caught off-guard by the urgency of his tone, Alucard spares the magical future chamber pot another look.
“Well… yes, I suppose.” He frowns and leans in closer. There’s a small crack in the ceramic top’s finish. “… Yes. You are correct. This is… I know this precise toilet.”
“Called it,” Trevor says, muscling past Alucard to shutter the window in the hall. This one is much nicer, with multiple glass panels and neatly-formed leading holding the thing together. The shutters have a heavy metal clasp, too. He would bet his left shoe that Castle Dracula has just this kind of nice, fancy storm shutters.
“Do you know what this is?” Alucard has followed him, snagging the candle (for Trevor? Nice of him, actually), and when Trevor struggles to latch the shutters he swats his hands away and secures them with a confidence that confirms Trevor’s suspicion. He can hear Sypha coming up the stairs, but like before, the sound is oddly muted.
“Yeah,” Trevor confirms, watching Alucard close the window against the wind creeping behind the shutters.
“Trevor, I am tired of waiting.” Sypha says, stomping up the stairs with a predatory gleam in her eyes, “Take off your pants.”
Alucard drops the candle.