All was darkness, illuminated by a single ball of light.
That statement was wrong in almost every way imaginable, but it made the setting accessible to mortal comprehension. There was no darkness or light; the realm beyond that of life contained nothing that would stimulate the optical nerve, and the difference only existed to distinguish the entities present. It was not a ball; souls are shapeless and lack mass or volume. It did not consist of "all", as the outer entity was a soul in itself, with its own indefinite boundary that was not readily apparent.
Even the term "single" was in question.
This will be complicated, voiceless and inaudible words reverberated from the minute motions of the enveloping darkness. I expected to receive one soul, and yet you have arrived in unison.
The smaller soul fluctuated to better understand the situation. "Where am I?"
First things first. An invisible force pulled at the smaller soul, and its shape changed accordingly. In mere seconds, it had been split into two. This incurred little harm, as the two had been separate mortals in life, and in fact one had been female and one had been male.
Now then, the less gendered outer soul continued, it is my duty to claim the soul of a mortal who has used a technique that called upon the power of dominance, a dark act that can only be fueled by such a soul.
"That… would be me", the female soul admitted.
This should have been an easy task, the greater soul continued. However, as the act of wielding the essence of the lord of darkness has inexplicably failed to corrupt your soul, I cannot simply cast you into eternal torment without proper judgment.
"You wish you could, don't you?" the male soul muttered.
You would be wise to know your place, mortal. You know as well as I do that the time of your arrival was long overdue. A brief pause. You are correct. However, my ability to separate official duty and personal whim is renowned throughout the afterlife. You can imagine many Belmonts are well aware of and thankful for this.
Instead, it is my duty as psychopomp to judge her by her thoughts and actions. In this way, we… can… is this some form of elaborate prank?
"Is something wrong?" the female asked. "Am I not supposed to be here?"
Not only have I received an amalgam of souls where one was expected, not only did you arrive in the immediate wake of my master's demise, and less than an hour after my own, with the cause of death being an incontrovertibly unforgivable act that was immediately controverted, but the soul in question does not even possess more than a week of memories?
"Dominus stole her life in more ways than one", the male said quietly.
If nothing else, I am convinced that the power of dominance should never fall into mortal hands again. However, this is making it particularly difficult to dictate her fate in any manner other than personal whim.
"Actually," the male suggested, "if I may offer an alter-"
I do not need a human to tell me how to perform my duty. A short pause. You may be useful nevertheless. You have considerably more memories of this Shanoa's life than she has of her own.
"But we don't-"
Your fate shall be determined separately, Albus, but as long as you are present, I am willing to permit you to advocate for her. The voice grew sterner. Accept it. I do not intend to be any more lenient toward you after your actions.
The male soul grumbled to himself.
We shall start by addressing the most obvious moral concern. Which is that she killed you. A pause, and a slightly surprised tone. And stole your soul.
"The soul thing was my intention", Albus explained. "And she killed me based on questionable advice given to her by a man who took advantage of her lack of memory."
You speak of a man named Barlowe. While I am not at liberty to discuss the fate of his own soul, I am able to corroborate your claim that he manipulated Shanoa to his own ends.
"Exactly. She is innocent-"
I must question what she is innocent of. I happen to know that she is responsible for killing the dark lord Dracula. I also happen to know that less than twenty-four hours prior, she took part in his resurrection.
Except that, despite what goals he may have possessed, he never once asked her to revive Dracula, while he spoke to her many times about the importance of killing him. The darkness shifted slightly. If you intend to employ that defense, you are arguing that she was aligned with the dark lord.
"No", Shanoa said simply. "When I went after Dracula, I already knew that the master had lied to me." A deep breath. "And I am certain that his resurrection was Barlowe's doing."
His soul was used to break the seal. Applied to the power of dominance.
"It was not my intent."
A long pause. So the only action that you actually intended was Dracula's demise.
"Exactly", Albus said. "Who wouldn't want-" And he cut himself off, remembering exactly to whom he was speaking.
A curious argument. Given her history and the course of events, I would have initially made the assumption that she should not have even known who Dracula was. Unless you are claiming that she believed Barlowe's tales of him. Even after she knew that he was lying to her.
"The evil that permeated the countryside-"
-was in existence prior to his resurrection. In addition, I can vouch personally that Dracula had yet to perform a single act of malice after his rebirth, and that he had actually greeted her amicably with an offer of comradery when they met. A beat. No matter what his history says about him, she should have had no reason to genuinely believe that he was a threat.
"He was evil", she argued. "I just knew it."
You are setting a dangerous precedent with that claim. After all, you also killed this man. You are going to need a stronger argument to claim that one murder can be blamed on your mentor and the other cannot. And if you cannot claim knowledge that Dracula was truly the dark lord, that makes his death no better than murder with malicious intent.
The male soul turned toward the female soul in a state of panic. He clearly had not been expecting this as a possible conclusion.
You also killed me, the larger soul continued. Do you believe that I am evil?
Neither soul spoke.
A deep sigh. I promise you that any potential offense that I may take from your response will not affect your fate. Answer the question.
"You were guarding Dracula", Shanoa finally answered. "You had to be stopped."
If I had not been, would you have judged me differently?
"I would. At this moment, I cannot think of you as inherently evil."
I see. The larger soul paused again. In your eyes, Dracula is sufficiently evil that anyone near him is also guilty of evil by association?
"Don't let him walk you into a trap like this", Albus suggested quickly to her. "This is not-"
"Yes", she proclaimed as defiantly as a mortal could without being aided by emotion. "I do not know why, but… when I hear Dracula's name, something inside of me speaks to me. Telling me that he must be destroyed. You may think this was Barlowe's doing." The soul shook. "I think he was telling me what I wanted to hear to manipulate me. For every ounce of my being tells me that Dracula is evil, and I am beginning to believe that perhaps the entire purpose of my existence was to bring him to his end."
The other soul winced immediately.
Extremely strong words, the largest soul said. Particularly if you consider that you came to this conclusion at a time when he did not even exist on the mortal plane. A brief pause to consider the implications. Is there something you do not like about him that extends far beyond the threat that he has historically posed to humanity?
She could not provide an answer.
At minimum, the existence of malicious intent has been thoroughly proven.
"You're wrong!" Albus angrily replied. "Consider this. She had Dominus the whole time."
"You said it yourself. It does bad things to mortals. In fact, at the time I had it, wouldn't you say I was acting like an evil maniac?"
Your culpability for your actions will be addressed after we are finished with her judgment.
"Seriously? Why would I shoot at her? Even you must be able to see that the very fact that she had Dominus meant she was acting outside of her will!"
I disagree. I instead notice that it has granted her mental capabilities far more focus than those of the average mortal who is driven by emotion.
"That… wasn't the normal outcome. More importantly, she was informed that Dominus was tied to Dracula. Maybe that's how she recognized the evil he possesses?"
Those words were spoken by Barlowe at a time when he was maniacal. Those are two good reasons to distrust him.
"Then consider this." Albus's tone had become confident. "Why did she refuse to use Dominus? You can't say it was because of my words, as I was also maniacal."
"Only against Dracula!"
A bizarre choice. Why would she employ such a power against the very being who embodied it?
"It was probably an act of desperation! Dracula was clearly building up to a potentially lethal attack. She was probably out of options."
That would make more sense for someone who possessed a greater amount of emotion. The soul's voice became slightly intrigued. She did not even make such a desperate move when confronted with the very physical incarnation of mortal death?
Albus paused briefly to think, and then continued. "She wasn't there to kill you. She had to stop Dracula. Dying in battle against you would have left the task unfinished." His voice became slightly smug. "Besides, I'm not sure she thought you were able to kill her."
The larger soul became silent for several seconds.
Explain her ring.
The ring she was wearing when she fought me. The one with my image. The one that raised her physical capabilities to a nearly supernatural degree, but worn in understanding that her soul would become mine with the merest injury.
"I… know nothing about it."
She also wore it when battling Dracula. This does not sound like the action of someone who was not willing to die in exchange for achieving victory.
"Yes, but there's a difference!"
"No", Shanoa explained. "I think he is right. Stopping Dracula… that was what I had left to live for. I would have gladly died to do so."
"Yes, but what about your soul?" Albus countered. "You didn't want your soul to be corrupted in the process. So that's why you were fine with the ring and not fine with Dominus, maybe?"
That argument is completely irrelevant at this time. She used the power of dominance and her soul is uncorrupted. There is no issue left.
"No." Albus's voice grew angrier. "That is entirely the issue. You don't think mortals should be permitted access to that power. And believe it or not, I agree."
You took it.
"To keep it away from her!" He was shouting now. "Even when she didn't use it, Dominus completely destroyed her life! Her life was manipulated so that she could use it! She was forced to claim it! It caused all this conflict! It took her memory and her emotions! If her soul is uncorrupted, that's the only bright spot on the very blot on existence that you call the power of dominance!"
That… is a very bizarre argument to make. You are claiming that as a result of the power of dominance, we no longer have any grounds on which to judge her soul?
"No! I'm saying that she shouldn't even be dead!"
You realize that with that statement, your argument has effectively lost all credibility. A sigh. She is deceased. There is no room to argue if she deserved it.
Albus's voice became uncertain. "But… she's not. The use of Dominus costs a soul, right?"
From one perspective.
"And you just received two souls. So take mine and send hers back!"
"What do you mean, no? This isn't something that's up to you!"
The larger voice became even more forceful. First, you should understand how much of an insult it is to me to use supernatural means to prevent me from claiming a soul that was rightfully mine, and then attempt to use it as a bargaining chip against the very power that claimed it. And second… are you even aware of what this power you refer to as "Dominus" does?
"It… unleashes the power of dominance as an attack."
It does. A very widespread attack. Comparable to an explosion. The idea that it corrupts the user's soul does in no way negate the fact that it can also do significant physical damage to the user. The voice became quiet. She is dead. I have confirmed it.
Albus's voice was equally quiet. "No… then everything I have done…"
"It is okay." Shanoa tried to sound reassuring. "I knew this might happen. I can accept this. Let us focus on what we can do now. If you can help ensure that I receive happiness in the afterlife-"
"It's not okay!" Albus's soul turned away. "You need to live! I can't go on knowing that I allowed Dracula to take everything from you!"
"You did what you could."
"Can't you make some kind of exception?" he asked in a particularly strained tone. "You keep saying that the power of dominance shouldn't be handled by mortals! Why don't you prove it? Take it back from her, negate her responsibility in all of this, and fix the damage it caused?"
You are not in a very good place to make demands. I am not in a position to accept emotional appeals.
"But… you have to be able to do something! I mean, aren't you the one deciding what comes next for her? Why can't you just give her the fate she desires?"
She lost her memory. I no longer know if she possesses any desires.
"It doesn't matter! She did what she thought was the right thing! Her actions were just a reflection of her heart! Just… ignore all this Dominus nonsense and surely you can see what she really wanted in her life!"
Shanoa shook her head. "You are not making this any easier."
The reaping soul paused for a while in contemplation.
As ridiculously emotional as "Albus" was being, he had a point. "Shanoa" had to have some desires of her own. Something by which it could judge her. Otherwise, it would never be able to provide her with any fatal consequences that would fit her.
But as far as it could tell, the only thing she truly remembered was that Dracula needed to be defeated. Regardless of its opinion of this, it needed to understand why. It wasn't his past. It wasn't just the evil and destruction. It wasn't even limited to the possibility of his return. Even in a state of near-emotionlessness, her hostility against the dark lord extended beyond that of most Belmonts.
She was willing to fight for what she believed in. She was willing to die for it. But she wouldn't accept any damage to her soul. For what she truly wanted, at a time when she found no other value in her life…
…Albus had gone out of his way to ensure that her soul would survive Dominus, even if it meant losing his own…
…but he also acted out a course of events that actually led to Dracula's return…
…but neither of them wanted Dracula to return…
You care for her.
"I do." Albus's voice was almost despondent by this time. "I would do anything to make her happy."
Do you love her?
"I… uh… it's not like that. I don't think it was. Even for her. When I first met her, I… called her my sister. I swore to protect her." His voice grew more motivated. "I'm not going to stop now! Not yet!"
I think I understand. You claim to be her guardian.
"Basically. It's better than anything Barlowe did."
The larger soul had to agree with that sentiment. And your current desire, through everything that you have done, is to take responsibility for her actions upon yourself in hopes that I will permit her to continue to live, find her own happiness and fulfill her desires?
"That's… what I wanted, yes. But if you can't-"
I accept your proposal.
"You… what?" Hope began to return to his voice.
In light of her amnesia and the influence of others upon her life, I cannot find her to be culpable for the majority of her actions. If you are willing to accept the responsibility, it will save me a great deal of effort. In return, I promise that I will find a way to return her to the world of mortals and ensure her a happy continued life.
"But you just said you couldn't-"
I cannot ignore the fact that she died. Her afterlife remains my decision. Its voice became more sincere. I will be unable to make her revival immediate. It may involve supernatural means. It may even involve Dracula. But I promise you that it will happen, and that I will ensure that it does not corrupt her mind or soul in any manner. Will you accept this?
Albus slowly nodded. "For her sake… yes."
Very well. The fate of Shanoa has been determined. Now come this way and I will be able to assign you your own fate. The darkness seemingly bent around the male soul and enveloped it more deeply, and soon the two were out of sight, leaving only a single soul and the featureless aether around her.
Seconds later, the darkened soul returned, though no longer surrounding her. Your "brother" is particularly bold.
"What is going to happen to him?" she asked.
I am not at liberty to discuss his fate with you. A pause. Its tone became brighter. You should be thankful to him. He risked a great deal to bring you to this point.
I admit that I have not met many who were able to plan ahead like him. He rarely thought about the immediate consequences, yet still went through great lengths to ensure that it was at least possible for his goals to be fulfilled, no matter how outlandish.
Like now. By requesting that he accept all official consequences of your actions, I am now able to discuss the future with you in a more personal manner.
Both souls immediately began to bend and twist in physically impossible ways. Seconds later, they had settled on alternate forms. Shanoa once again bore the form she had possessed when she was locked in battle against Dracula, and the other one looked more similar to how it had looked when she had battled against it. Not exactly, though. Its body was more closely sized to her own, and its robe was now considerably less tattered and black in color in a way that still contrasted against the nothingness around them.
The jaw of its skull opened. It will indeed be some time before your revival. I hope this will make the time more bearable.
"So…" Shanoa gazed uneasily with her unexpected eyes at the form of the being she knew as Death. "What will happen?"
I have not planned that far ahead. But I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. Death's skull nodded. Everything Albus did was his attempt to keep you as safe and happy as he possibly could. He truly cared for you, even if he did not always show it.
That is why… I truly hope that I am capable of meeting his standards for you.
You have brought your gift with you. I accept it. It extended its right arm and grasped her wrist. With its left hand, it slowly and carefully removed her ring from the finger it encircled. It gazed at its emblem briefly, an almost mirror image of its own visage, and then carefully slid the ring onto its own bony finger.
Its hand then slipped into its cloak briefly, and emerged with a ring of its own. This one seemed far less supernatural in design, but still looked particularly valuable. Particularly the deep blue gem on top that closely matched Shanoa's own outfit. It took her hand again, and soon the ring was placed upon her own finger.
It was ornate, she had to admit. It reminded her greatly of the gems that Laura had tried to offer her. It also provoked the same lack of emotional response.
I am not one to be ceremonial, Death admitted. Yet I remain in closer contact with our world's deities than any of your mortal priests. If anyone dares call this improper, they will answer to me.
Shanoa continued to stare at her hand. "Wait… we-"
I admit that this is particularly sudden for me. You must feel the same way, given your lack of memories. Its voice lit up. But I have faith. As long as we keep working toward this, you will remember why you fell in love with me in the first place.
Her eyes darted up to meet its skull. "I-"
Dracula is another concern. But I shall address him honestly. He will understand that, as you have defeated me in battle, you have earned this. And as you have defeated him as well, he no longer has any grounds on which to object.
But for now, there are many souls that need my attention. It paused for a moment in thought. Suddenly the aether below her body parted to reveal a particularly large and ornate bed, complete with black sheets that closely resembled the color and texture of its own robe. The bed rose up slowly, and soon Shanoa found herself atop it.
This will suffice for the moment. You have had a particularly busy day, before and after your demise. Its skull nodded again. Rest peacefully. When I return, we will determine what other luxuries I can provide to make this place more comfortable for you.
"This is not-"
Suddenly she found Death's cloaked arms embracing her, its covered ribcage resting against her chest, practically asking her own body to return the favor. We will make this work. I promise you that.
And suddenly there was the sensation of bone against the side of her face, save for a small amount of nothingness that caressed her cheek, and then the entirety of the other being faded into the aether, leaving only Shanoa, the fancy and spacious bed that currently supported her body, and the complete lack of anything else.
"What just happened?" she asked, and no one heard.