“I don’t care what happens,” Trevor says, crossing his arms in front of him. They’re two days from the capital and the weather has had an unexpected thaw; it’s sleeting, forming a thick slurry under his nice fancy unicorn-skin boots, to say nothing of Sypha’s footwear. Mud and sand and wet coat them all from head to toe. A sorry sight they’ll make, strolling into the capital to announce the end of the scourge. “You keep your hands locked on Alucard and keep going.”
“And if you fall in?” Sypha asks, looking nervously to Alucard. The bridge that should be there has been wrecked, pulled apart piece by piece. Judging by the entrails still twined between some of the supports and the claw marks ripped into stone, the destruction is yet another casualty of Dracula’s attempt to end humanity.
“Then come rescue me,” Trevor says in a put-upon tone, “after you pull yourselves out of the water. I know how to swim, you don’t.”
Alucard, mapping the flow of the earth-brown water over the barely-visible pathway of rock they’ve picked out, simply frowns. There are plates of ice going by, and pieces of wood in unknown sizes as well. There are a few pots, too, and other household goods. It looks like a flood has hit upstream, and in a sizable village too. Trevor wonders, tiredly, when the country will catch a damned break.
“We should cross now, before the water gets any higher. Otherwise, our window will slam shut, with us halfway in it.”
“It can wait a few days,” Sypha tries, her hands curled on Alucard’s arm. She looks urgently between the two men. “You’re still recovering from your illness, Trevor.” Unspoken is the hesitant fear that Alucard will still, as the capital looms larger, bolt for the hills. It curls in the shadows of Sypha’s eyes, the shadow in the hollow of her throat. For Trevor, though, moving forward is the only way to get through this: he has to maintain momentum or he, too, will bolt, back into the hinterlands to hide in the mountains for the rest of his life. It’s time to face humanity, he thinks, after a winter of dealing with monsters.
He thinks he prefers monsters after all.
“I’m fine,” he says with grumpy good humor, then slaps his chest a few times. “See?” He also represses a cough, but Sypha luckily doesn’t notice; she’s turned with Alucard to face the river more fully. Alucard does notice, but instead of protesting he gives him a small, quiet smile. He looks better than he did this morning, better than last night, better than last morning. Trevor has faith that, in this battle, the human side of him will win out: Alucard is too committed to the ideals of his mother, to the ideals of life, to give up on its most central ideology: constant change, unceasing growth.
“It’s that famous Belmont stamina after all, hm?”
“Yeah,” Trevor agrees, stepping up to stand close behind both of them, close enough that they all could pull into a huddle if they wanted. “Go on, hurry up.”
Alucard gently extricates his hand from Sypha’s, then, in a strange there-and-not Trevor doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to, wags his tail—he’s become a wolf before their very eyes. Sypha gives a little laugh.
“I know this isn’t the time, but you’re so cute like this.” Alucard gives a little grumble, trotting closer to press his thick ruff into her side. “All right,” she agrees, drawing a hand down his back once, “I’m coming.” And off they go on the narrow stoneway, Alucard guiding her with steady paws, Sypha using the butt of her chicken-claw staff to guide her leaps. Trevor follows closely behind, hopping after them and calling encouragement.
Sypha slips here and there and is caught by Alucard’s teeth, gentle on her robes. They get about hallway across before Trevor notices the water is rising. It’s starting to flow over the top of his boots.
“Hurry up a bit,” Trevor urges, and Alucard tosses a dark-eyed look his way before, thankfully, picking up the pace. “Don’t pause anymore. Keep going.” Easy for him to say, though. He can hear Sypha breathing hard, can see Alucard’s flanks working hard as they struggle against the cold and debris that are hitting them faster as the water is rising- ankle height now, and slippery for it. His own body is tired, worn out from cold and recent illness and stress, always stress, but there’s no time to do anything other than struggle to be alive.
“O-!” Sypha calls, her cry cut oddly short, because she’s gone under for a heart-stopping moment. Alucard dives after her. His dive is so forceful that the river, already busy churning with its own self-absorbed malice, barely ripples to show where he’s gone in.
Trevor is so busy watching for Sypha and Alucard, so busy watching their heads resurface, a blue shoulder in Alucard’s teeth as he begins to swim, urgently, to the shore, that he doesn’t notice the change in the river. It creeps under the soles of his feet and up and up and up, and before he can make any sense of it those fingers of water have pulled him toe-first into the water and are dragging him down and away, swifter than he had even expected.
He tries to cry out but there’s just water and wood and things in the water, all battering him at once. He’s used to being hurt and he’s used to taking his hits, but something about the complete powerlessness of being swept away like this leaves him flailing, struggling where no help will come. He opens his mouth to cry out despite knowing it’s a bad idea, and that’s the last thing he remembers before his memory goes soft and then quite dark indeed.
Consciousness returns to Trevor like it’s a bolt that’s been sunk into his flesh; he screams.
“Trevor,” Sypha shouts, but she sounds distant. Trevor can’t tell if she genuinely is or if it’s just something gone wrong with his head, but either way, there are more pressing matters: something is biting at his leg. He gives a mean kick and sees the slick, sinuous coils of a river mermaid roil near the surface momentarily. Disgust rears in him, but he waits patiently until he feels another sharp stab of pain before kicking again, this time with his other leg. The surface churns this time, and the mermaid when she surfaces has an ugly red gash near her gnashing mouth that Trevor hopes hurts very badly. The thing’s gills gape and flutter at the air as she screams at him, revealing the circular gnarl of her mouth, a spiral of inward-pointing teeth currently slick with his own river-thinned blood. Her breath smells like a rotten basement, all wet and earth and dissolving wood.
“I’m having a bad week, thanks for asking,” Trevor growls, adrenaline coursing through his veins. He’s caught between a few trees that have been washed further down the river, which is an ideal habitat for hungry mermaids in the late part of their fasting season. “I killed Dracula, and you think I’m going to be brought down by a river eel with tits?!”
The monster reels itself up on the tree, giving him a good look at her. She’s enormous, even by his current standards. (As it turns out, storming Castle Dracula gives one a new set of guidelines for “impressive monster,” even if one is a professional monster hunter already.) The lower half of her body is the same spongy black-blue-green-gray as an eel’s, but sized up to match the woman’s torso on the upper half. Her body is writhing urgently, worm-like, and as she lifts her arms, fins at her elbows folding down demurely. She gives him an ugly sneer. As the water wicks from her body her hair springs up, drying unnaturally fast, to reveal thick, oddly matte red curls. It looks like red river-clay drawn impossibly fine.
“I’ve heard of you, Belmont son,” she says. Her voice is the notably nasal whine of a river mermaid—for whatever reason, oceanic mermaids’ voices pitch lower, form more evenly into a human voice, Trevor recalls. He feels a stab of frustration- what good is that knowledge to him right now? “You inspire no gratitude in my people. We were promised rivers of blood and ponds of offal, and that we had until you crushed our lord Dracula.”
“Sorry to put the kibosh on your eternal snack run,” Trevor shoots back, trying to gain leverage to free himself from where he’s stuck. He isn’t pinned, but he can’t get a grip on any of the smaller trees to haul himself up, and the larger tree is too big for him to claw his way up, not with its bark stripped and its surface rubbed smooth by the water. “There’s always next time, I guess.”
“I will save your head,” the mermaid tells him, flexing her impressive four-fingered hands in front of Trevor. Her claws, razor sharp, arch as if with a will of their own. “And lay my eggs in your eye sockets. It is an honor for my girls to be born of such a terrible man. Know that I offer you that respect, Belmont, and taste satisfaction as you die.”
“Sounds complicated,” he shoots back, groping under his sodden cloak, but the river gives a heave suddenly and he’s up and then down and more debris is crashing on him, and he whips his arm out to brace himself, his hands empty—another surge and he’s bouncing again, the wood grinding unpleasantly against his spine. The mermaid gives a popping squeak, then another, and another, and finally her voice goes wild, trailing up high like they do when they celebrate drownings. She writhes and shimmies, slapping him in the face with her tail in the process, and then, abruptly, vanishes from his sight. She’s likely gone down over the opposite side of the tree and into the river again.
Trevor sucks in a tight breath and holds it—not even he’s fool enough to look forward to fighting a mermaid in her own element. He’d read a story as a boy about a man who had been castrated by the creatures as revenge for turning down their advances, and he’d be lying if he’s not afraid for his family jewels as much as his head right now, pinned like he is. He’s still bracing against small trees trying to hammer him into a pulp, his arms flaring in dull pain; there’s no way he can manage to keep himself from being beaten to death by trees and fend off a mermaid.
But she stays gone for longer and longer, and then Sypha is bounding across the log and such an intense burn of relief lights in his chest that he goes light-headed and has to hold on as tight as he can to the trees around him to keep from whiting out.
“Holy shit,” he says, reaching out for her. She lies down on her belly without a word and sticks out an arm. He pulls himself up using her, trying to be gentle as he can while also keeping his body from being mashed to pieces in an increasingly choppy bay of trees.
“Come help,” Sypha says, turning to point at the shore, where Alucard is engaged in battle with four mermaids. A fifth is slithering hatefully up onto the pebbled shore, the lower back of her eel-body oddly rigid. “I froze her to get her off of you, but-!”
“Yeah,” Trevor agrees, rolling his shoulders, before he takes off running down the tree. No need to discuss strategy—they’ve worked at this for so long, so constantly, that at this point nobody needs their steps in the dance pointed out to them.
Trevor breaks the circle up by taking the eyes out of one of the mermaids’ face, splattering her close-by sister with her blood.
“Stay clear of the splatters,” Trevor yells out, descending on the blinded one with his whip. “The blood is poisonous!”
His flames don’t seem to have much effect on the river mermaids, but it seems that the whip works well as ever regardless: he cuts one’s rib cage open and finely-layered fish guts tumble out down her belly, dying her fins red as she wails and gnashes her horrible sucking clasp of a mouth. Alucard sweeps in for the kill, neatly decapitating her. Trevor hears a hiss and turns to slap one away, but ends up shattering her into pieces instead; Sypha has frozen her through.
They handle the remaining monsters in little jumps and clusters, trying to keep their stamina up, until finally Trevor’s initial attacker is the only one left. She gives them a spiteful, high-pitched shriek, which makes Alucard stagger. Seeing her opening, she lunges for him like a snake going for prey, only to be beaten back by a wall of fire and speared by a lance of ice. The fresh scream she emits is, even to Trevor’s ears, painful.
“Holy,” Trevor breathes, his hands on his thighs as he sucks air urgently. “Damned hell, Sypha. I’ll never get tired of that.”
“I will,” she sighs, shaking our her sodden robes. “Are you all right?”
“Bruised,” Alucard notes, his eyes raking up and down Trevor’s body. “Your shirt is ripped, too.”
“Oh yeah?” Trevor lifts his elbows up to look at himself. Sure enough, his shirt, already having seen better days, is basically in tatters now. Under the questionably white rags are deep bruises already turning funny colors. Now that adrenaline is wearing off, he can feel the shake of his knees, the ache in his back, the slicing pain at his leg where the mermaid latched on to him to feast.
“What horrible creatures,” Sypha comments, using the heel of her staff to turn one’s body this way and that, looking at the mouth drawn lax and exposed, bristling with an endless spiral of teeth. “We should get your leg handled right away. Who knows what’s in that water?”
“Disease,” Alucard comments ominously, “but his leg should be clean enough. Their venom has an anti-coagulating effect, and so the wound will bleed profusely.”
“Why am I always the one getting beaten up?” Trevor asks plaintively. “Do all monsters have it in for me?”
“I think so,” Sypha agrees, already beginning to shiver in the winter chill, thaw or no. “It’s sort of in the job description, isn’t it? I am grateful that you keep them at a distance from me, though.”
“Urgh,” Trevor comments, simply because he doesn’t want to come off as soft. Still, he leaves unsaid: better him than Sypha.
“I heal from injuries I take too quickly to be seen outside of battle, which is both of your doing given your willingness to share your blood,” Alucard says, trying to sound comforting. He offers an arm to help hold Trevor up off the bleeding leg. “You have plenty of skill. You lack only in heritage.”
“What the fuck,” Trevor says, hanging in Alucard's grasp and staring in outrage as Sypha crouches to inspect the holes in his pants. “That’s gratitude for you, isn’t it?”
“I suppose he’s well-bred enough,” Alucard tells Sypha, who gives a tired snort as she straightens up. Her fingers are dusted with green. The mermaids’ venom has numbed his leg by now, but Trevor glances down and confirms that, yes, Sypha has just mended his leg up. Admiration blooms anew. “Technically, anyway.”
“It turns out our stray is a champion after all,” Sypha half-laughs, leaning up to give Trevor a kiss made no less sweet by the current dampness of her lips. He scowls: admiration cancelled.
“Shall we put him out to stud, then?” asks Alucard innocently, and spends the next two hours running from Sypha as a wolf.
Trevor watches over it all with good humor; he supposes that not everything has to change.