The grim reaper silently floated through the corridors of his master's castle.
At his side, his bony fingers tightly held the shaft of his iconic scythe. But at the moment, he had no use for the weapon. Not after the cruel twist of fate that had reduced him to his current situation.
He wished that he could see his lord again. He could not. While the creature of chaos that served as his temporary residence had manifested, Dracula had not. Someone else was responsible for his presence here: a man who had seized control of the unholy power expected from one known as the lord of darkness. The young vampire hunters had referred to this usurper as Brauner. And while Death had been able to confirm the existence of this trespasser, he had yet to locate him or his associates.
This annoyed him. He was capable of perceiving the entire castle, and yet not the very vampire who resided in it.
It would not do for him to destroy the hunters, either. Not as long as they remained his sole hope of exacting his revenge. The fact that they had already defeated him in combat did nothing to contradict his decision.
To a greater extent than any previous moment during his centuries of servitude, he felt powerless. Strong enough to defend against the occasional assassination attempt, perhaps, but completely incapable of turning the tides of fate in his own favor. In the past, his best solutions would have been to kill the right person or harness the correct soul, and he had insufficient ability or motive to do either. All he could do at the time was wait. And hope.
The time, to his great surprise, intervened.
The white-haired man checked the clock that dangled loosely from his waist. "Right on time", he announced loudly to the area around him.
Death stared blankly at the human. This was not normal. Mortals were not expected to greet the very incarnation of their demise so casually. The means of summoning him to their location was typically magical. And in all but one case, he would have been able to recognize the person by his soul.
No. It couldn't be.
The reaper walked closer to the human, carefully eyeing his reaction. As he drew closer, it was easier to identify his physical characteristics. His slightly effeminate appearance, the dark rings around his eyes, the eyepiece that covered one of them, his complete lack of facial hair...
In a tone that displayed both suspicion and relief, he spoke. "You are not St. Germain."
"A friend of yours?" the human replied, then paused. "No. I cannot imagine you being on good terms with him."
"Then you are aware of..." Death stopped. He didn't need to waste words. He was becoming more aware of the circumstances that brought him here.
He started again. "You travel through time." A brief pause to consider his surroundings. "But this place is unknown to you."
"A temporary problem", the human replied. "For me or for this place. We stand in a time rift."
It explained much about the situation, Death considered. Time had always been one of the few forces that eluded one such as him, and a temporal disturbance would be enough to bring him here without his knowledge or consent.
...they stood in a time rift...
...he had walked closer to the human...
He looked down at himself. His appearance had changed dramatically from the one he wore in his reality. While most of his skeletal form was unaffected, he found that he was standing on two unstable-looking limbs that with some effort could be called legs, and he did not appear to be wearing his usual robe. "This rift has transformed me. Explain."
The human shrugged. "I fear I know little of your appearance. I sought only your soul as I brought you here."
"You have need of me." Realization dawned. "The rift is unstable. A timeline is due to collapse."
As the other nodded, Death finished his thoughts with absolute certainty. "My timeline. Dracula's timeline."
"You are perceptive", the human responded. "I know of a solution, but I will require your assistance. As well as that of the other twelve."
There were other souls here. Unfortunately for the reaper, he could not seem to identify or manipulate them from this distance. "It appears I am limited here."
"Pity. It would have made your trials much easier." As Death once again gazed upon him, he elaborated. "I must test you. Only once you have proven yourself will I reveal the circumstances that have brought you here."
It would not do for the immortal to complain, but he considered it. He never cared much for time-defying mortals, even when they weren't as annoying or counterproductive as St. Germain. In truth, he knew, his biggest complaint was his inability to wrest control over them. Mortals were meant to answer to Death, not the other way around.
"My name is Aeon", the human introduced himself. "Shall we begin the first trial?"
This Aeon individual, Death quickly ascertained, was holding back. He could not accept the possibility that one possessing his talents could have been defeated so easily.
He did not regret it. In this bizarre dimension, where his usual manipulation of life no longer applied, he had yet to grow accustomed to his limitations. He was still armed with his reaping implements and could continue to produce more, but they were not nearly as fatal as before. He could not float, but he found himself surprisingly mobile as he teleported and leapt around his opponent. No matter how much of his power had been stripped from him, he was not powerless.
As Aeon fell, he reminded the victor that, in this world outside the boundaries of time, he would find the individuals he was seeking, and he could pursue his goals. But, in the end, it would be his ability to battle that would see him through the trials ahead.
He wished he could be more confident about this. The truth was that it had been so long since he had been in a situation he could truly call a battle... and won it.
With no other options, he wandered the empty world, hoping to find the others. This was difficult; he was restricted to basic senses and could not pinpoint the locations of the other souls. Fortunately, this land was small, and the others could not get far before his teleportation would allow him to catch up.
He found one. Quickly, he moved in to confront...
It seemed that there was more time manipulation at work than he had anticipated. The young witch had not been in existence for more than four centuries. She wasn't one of the zombie impersonators, either. This was the real deal; the one who had assisted Trevor Belmont in his campaign against Lord Dracula.
A chance for revenge, he thought. He slammed the end of his scythe against the ground to catch her attention. "Belnades witch!" he called. "You shall be punished for your deeds!"
The woman looked up at him, only to be taken aback. "Who are you?"
"You fool. You may not recognize my form, but you know what I am. The claimer of souls. The final judgment. The end of all things." He lifted his scythe and pointed it at her. "You made a powerful enemy that day."
"...you are the grim reaper?" She shook her head. "I do not believe we have met. Directly. I suppose you know of me."
Death's fierce gaze faltered slightly. No mortal would have noticed. "You dare to deny the truth? Your journey with Trevor Belmont to face the dark..."
"...I know no one named Trevor."
Death began to question himself. A closer look at the witch confirmed his suspicions. She was young. She did not possess the same amount of power that had made her such an asset in the siege against his master. This woman, in her current form, must have predated it. As far as she was concerned, they had never met before. There was no grudge.
"You do not know me."
She shook her head. "Perhaps not as well as you claim. But everyone knows of the grim reaper." With some hesitation, she took a few steps forward. "Do you intend to battle me?"
Aeon had told him to find the others. And he knew he had to battle them. This, then, would be the first challenge. And it would not do to allow his emotions to get in the way.
"Indeed. I challenge you." He could not naturally smile, so he allowed his voice to do it for him. "You will remember this battle for the remainder of your existence."
She had not held back.
If anyone had, it was him. He had deftly eluded her magical onslaught and struck her frail body repeatedly with his blades until she could stand no longer. And then he had left her there, satisfied with his victory.
He didn't want to consider the consequences of cutting her down there, leaving her dead before Dracula's first assault against the populace, and preventing the propagation of the Belmont bloodline. Certainly, he would have appreciated such an outcome, but any further damage to the timeline could have caused it to collapse altogether.
This place was more like a dream, or nightmare, than anything else. He was trapped, unable to use the very abilities that defined his existence, and instead limited to the ones he had adopted to assist his master. In a world where he could not possibly bring himself to end another's life. And yet a world that saw fit for him to strike at the mortals at will, without orders to that effect...
He needed to wake up. And the only way to do so was to fight his next opponent. One approached swiftly through the trees that existed here.
The Blue Crescent Moon.
This werewolf, otherwise known as Cornell, had not been in existence for close to a century. Death knew; he was the one who forcibly fed the extracted beastman essence to his lord's remains to facilitate his revival.
He was in his lupine form. This wasn't normal for him, especially if he had not been engaged in conflict.
"Blue Crescent Moon", the reaper spoke, "why have you come here?"
"It is none of your business", the other replied. "I will never join Dracula."
"In that case", he said in a threatening tone, "you will perish for his cause."
Cornell would not take this lying down. He leapt at the reaper, claws extended. Death's logical insight quickly took a backseat in favor of his survival. Even with the range advantage, Death was forced to use his scythe defensively, preventing his opponent from scratching his bone. After a few assaults, he sidestepped the next dash and sliced him in the back with a sickle. Cornell howled in agony, and Death took the opportunity to continue to cut him.
...and now he could see it. The beastman's soul. It shone against the gloomy shade of fur that covered his body.
This was a new development. The reaper decided to investigate it. He knocked Cornell off his feet, prepared his scythe, and cut deeper into the soul's location. It was starting to emerge more rapidly now, and Death instinctively reached out to grasp it.
As the beastman lay prone on the ground, Death took a closer look at the soul. It shone at him. He smiled. This would be the perfect gift for Lord Dracula once he returned...
...no. He suddenly understood. Cornell died of natural causes, in human form, many decades after Dracula's rebirth. There was no conceivable way that he had just killed him. His soul could not leave this rift without causing a paradox of some sort. Even more importantly, there was no visible afterlife in this realm. There was nowhere for his soul to go, even if he died naturally.
The conclusion was straightforward. As long as he and Cornell and the others were here, none of them could possibly die. No matter how much he tried to kill them. He was thankful for this; in the heat of battle, he had forgotten the situation that had confined them. He could have accidentally ended existence itself if not for this safeguard.
And yet... the soul remained. Clenched tightly between his bony fingers. And Death suddenly realized that he had no compulsion to let go. There was no afterlife. No soul demand. Not even Lord Dracula had shown any interest in his new acquisition.
Cornell's soul belonged to Death, and Death alone.
He couldn't pocket it; he was not wearing a robe. He tried absorbing it with his scythe, but for some odd reason, his blade was incapable of holding it.
Giving up for the moment, he allowed the soul to rest in his palm as he grasped his scythe and continued on his way.
It was inside an abandoned church that he finally came across someone with whom he shared animosity.
"Belmont", he hissed.
Simon turned away from the altar to face him. As soon as he laid eyes upon the reaper, he lost his composure. "You! I destroyed you!"
He spoke the truth. Death remembered the conflict vividly. This particular descendant of the accursed clan had destroyed his master in the... late 17th century. But not without receiving a vicious curse, albeit one he managed to remove through drastic measures. This involved another fight against the reaper, who had lost a second time.
Even now as he stood before him, he displayed some of the early symptoms of the curse. This would not amount to much. Yet.
"Do you truly believe that I can be disposed of so easily?" Death taunted. "I will outlast you. I will outlast your entire clan. You only prolong the..."
His words were cut off as the legendary whip of evil's bane struck him on the cheek of his skull. The Vampire Killer, beloved heirloom of the clan, remained in the mortal's possession. And much like the other undead minions in Dracula's employ, he found that it stung like hell.
He drew his scythe and charged. The time for words was long over.
The human charged into him with his shoulder, knocking him backward, and then flailed his whip at him. Death struggled as the blessed artifact wrapped around his spine, allowing his opponent to swing him to his side and send him soaring directly into the altar.
He rose slowly, holding his collarbone, and summoned several sickles to fly toward his opponent. Simon whipped them out of the air. Fool. Death dashed forward, seemingly vanished, and suddenly appeared behind the mortal with a vicious swing. And in his efforts to stop the lesser onslaught, he had left himself open.
Now Death had the advantage. He kicked at the human, pushing him toward one of the stained glass windows that lined the border of the room. As he staggered, he swung twice more with the scythe. Simon ducked the first, causing it to smash the window and reveal that behind it was a very long drop from the windowsill. The second aimed lower, catching him in the legs and sending him sprawling to the ground.
He struggled to stand. Death walked slowly toward him. His right hand tightened even more around the scythe, possibly crushing the soul it still held against the weapon. His left hand shifted slightly and became a long, straight blade.
With another kick, the human rolled onto his back, and a second later, the blade impaled him through the chest.
Death lifted him easily with one arm and held him in the direction of the window. "I should let you fall", he growled in his supernatural voice, before bringing him back. "Such an act is not my style. There is a chance you could survive."
He turned to the side and thrust the limp, unconscious body into the wall. The jostling motion only further loosened his victim's soul. "You deserve nothing less. I feast."
He unhinged his own jaw easily, pulled the Belmont's body closer to himself, and devoured his soul in one swift motion.
The flavor was satisfying. He could feel the inherent power of the soul as it brushed against the inside of his mouth. And then he swallowed, and the soul found itself pulled by gravity and supernatural forces until it rested against the inside of his ribcage.
This was a new taste for Death, and seconds later he realized exactly why. He had never swallowed a Belmont's soul before. Every time he had fought a member of the clan, he had lost the battle. Every time he had claimed one of them as he died, a higher power was demanding its presence. He had simply never had the opportunity before.
...he had defeated a Belmont. Finally.
He would have considered celebrating, if not for one depressing fact he had to remember. This place was beyond death and beyond time. In the true timeline, he had still lost on two separate occasions to this mortal. This was not his true death, either. His victory was utterly meaningless, except to prove his strength to the time traveler.
...but... he had swallowed...
He looked down at his ribcage. The soul continued to rest there, unharmed. Of course. In this dimension, it could never come to harm. Death would not be able to destroy or digest it. But... at the same time... he had successfully claimed it. The Belmont would not be able to escape. His body would remain here, lifeless, until the soul was returned. And as long as he had any say in the matter, he would not return it.
Even in this place, where death held no power, he had killed Simon Belmont. The hunter's soul belonged to him. He had won. Utterly.
As his satisfaction started to wane, he lifted his hand to look at the soul that he had borne to this place. The soul of the Blue Crescent Moon. Dracula would find it completely useless for his purposes, and no one would come for it. No one but Death himself.
This left him with one very desirable course of action.
Easily abandoning any fear of long-term consequences, Death helped himself to seconds.
Sypha Belnades limped across the grassy hills, using her staff as a crutch. While she had survived the fight, she knew that she had not won it. As far as the unusual man would be concerned, she had failed the trials. Briefly, she wondered what consequences she would have to bear.
"I demand a rematch."
She stopped in horror. The grim reaper was standing directly behind her, and she could tell. Her voice faltered. "Why must you torment me so?"
"This time, we fight for your soul."
An unfortunate threat. As she was all too aware, her injuries meant that she had even less chance of surviving a second fight.
She turned to glare angrily at him. "These trials have nothing to do with souls! Why must you come to steal my own?"
Death's mouth would have watered, if it was capable of moisture. "It is simple. In this world, I can."
Several hours later, Death had made his way to what appeared to be a river. He walked unsteadily along its bank, noting how its current continued to flow. Even in a timeless world such as this one, it seemed that nature still took its course.
He considered taking a few gulps of water to ease the pressure against his sternum. He quickly decided against it. His body could not hold liquids. The only result would be damp bones and a number of irate souls.
He counted them again. Nine.
Most of the new arrivals were foes of his from centuries past. He couldn't help but marvel at how much more easily he had defeated them this time, even before his seemingly insatiable appetite kicked in. And to think that all of them had proven themselves too strong to be defeated when he had faced them in a more canonical manner.
He was beginning to form a theory. Perhaps Lord Dracula's enemies had divine guidance. A force, mightier than even that of his own master, could have ensured their victory. In a place like this, where the forces of heaven and hell had little sway, their natural advantage was gone, and they had to face him with only their own natural abilities and equipment.
With their natural abilities and equipment, they were well-armed mortals.
He, in contrast, was a force of nature. No longer bound by the employment of the natural forces that bound their world. No longer bound by his vow to the dark lord. Here, he could attack mortals and claim their souls on a whim.
Here, he was a god.
How could he possibly lose to such weak creatures?
Some of the other individuals, who he could hardly even call opponents at this time, had been unexpected participants. He had managed to round up and claim almost the entire group of warriors who had stopped his master in the late 15th century. One of the golems that served in his unholy army had been wandering and seeking a purpose, and Death had been surprised to find that he had a soul of his own. A larger one, with more flavor and yet less vintage than the others.
Even Carmilla was here.
He hadn't expected to meet one of his compatriots in this world. Aeon's selection had been more varied than he had first believed.
When they met, she revealed two pieces of information that she had obtained from Aeon. First, that their sovereign was indeed one of the individuals brought to this dimension. Second, that the purpose of these trials was to find the most worthy of the group, who would then be directed by Aeon to perform a task of great importance for him.
She then informed him that she intended to relieve him of his souls and present them to Lord Dracula as a gift. That way, she claimed, she would not only seize the position of Aeon's chosen individual, but would also receive great praise from her master and earn his respect as his trusted confidant.
He put an end to her delusions of grandeur immediately. Even now, he could feel her soul brushing against his individual ribs, possibly attempting to seduce him from within. It would not work. Perhaps she would find it enjoyable.
He came to a stop near what appeared to be a waterfall. There was already a battle in progress.
On one side, a massive minotaur, using his great strength to wield what appeared to be a pillar of stone as a weapon. On the other side, a young spear-wielding boy...
...the child was Eric Lecarde. Death recognized him immediately. How could he possibly forget one of the two individuals who had been personally responsible for his master's previous defeat? Even if he was... considerably younger than expected. Aeon, or whoever had summoned the thirteen, had missed a grand opportunity when he brought such a talented warrior from a time period when he was still struggling to hone his skills.
The last time Death had seen him... he was already dead...
For the first time since the grim reaper had arrived, he remembered Brauner.
He had taken control of Dracula's power. Somehow. Death wasn't sure of the details; after all, he had yet to meet the man in any vampiric form. Considering the inexperience of the hunters that sought to track him down, and his infuriating ability to elude the grim reaper himself, the possibility that he could become the dark lord and bring a permanent end to Dracula's reign was becoming entirely too believable.
There had been a prophecy foretelling Dracula's return decades from now. And even he was starting to lose faith in it.
...and if this was to be the final outcome, then the boy in front of him would forever be known as one of the two lads who had destroyed Count Dracula for good...
The minotaur struck the boy with the pillar, sending him fifteen feet into the distance and landing unceremoniously in the pooled water with a large splash. Death almost enjoyed watching it.
...no. Something was wrong. The minotaur... it was not Dracula's. Or his own. There was another power controlling it.
It could not be permitted to steal his rightful prey.
Death teleported to a position directly behind the minotaur and sliced it in the back of the knees with his scythe. Its legs buckled, and it struggled to maintain its grip on the pillar.
He was an open target. Death slashed away at his legs, and then at his torso. He did not hesitate; he would end this battle as quickly as possible. By the time he was finished, he was no longer concerned about the complete lack of soul to be found within the bovine corpse.
It would have been an appetizer, anyway. Now for the main course. He floated over to the young boy's prone body.
The boy struggled to rise when he noticed the new arrival. His mouth drooped into a frown, and his voice was filled with disappointment. "It... it's my time, isn't it?"
Death nodded slowly. The boy looked past him to his former opponent. A hint of happiness returned to his expression. "You stopped it... thank you."
This was an unexpected reaction. From the child's viewpoint, Death considered, it wasn't an impossible conclusion to reach. That he had brought the rampaging creature to its end... but not in time to save him...
He sighed. "It's too bad, isn't it? The fate of the world lies in someone else's hands." His voice became a bitter mutter. "It's the story of my life..."
"Do not envy the Morris clan", Death replied automatically. "You do not understand the sacrifice they make."
He stopped talking. Seconds later, he felt a need to admonish himself. Why had he shared that piece of information? It was true, of course, as he learned too well from witnessing the fates of the American-raised Belmont scum. But he knew better than that. He should not aid the enemy. He should not care for the fates of the humans his master so despised. And he most certainly should not reveal facts that would eventually play out in the human's future...
"...if you say so", the boy said. "I have no further regrets. I will come quietly."
So that was Eric's perspective, Death realized at that moment. He was still young, and would not meet Dracula for many years. He did not see Death as the servant of his enemy, or even as one of the undead. He looked at him, and he saw...
...the grim reaper...
...the one who came for him after he fell in battle...
...the one who would spirit him to heaven, or to hell...
So often, when in the presence of Dracula or his enemies, he found it far too easy to forget that he was such an entity.
The Lecarde was unconscious now. Death forcibly opened the youth's mouth, and peered inside, and saw the glow of his soul. After resting his scythe in the river's shallow waters, he reached past the boy's jaws and down his throat with his skeletal arm, wrapped his fingers around the soul, and pulled it free. It came loose easily; this was often the case when the mortal had already made the decision to part with it.
Of course, there was only one place where the boy's soul was going to go...
This was another new flavor of soul for the reaper. It shared some of the aftertaste of the Belmonts' souls, with a unique twist that he couldn't quite identify.
And now there were ten. Two to go. Three, if he counted Aeon.
He considered moving the deceased body out of the river, but recoiled in pain as his hand came close to the spear. It was clearly of the type used against Dracula's minions. He abandoned the idea immediately. The corpse would just have to remain here.
...wait. Was he...
He gazed down at his ribcage again. Among the many trapped souls, some desperately seeking their escape, and others bitterly accepting their fate, the newcomer rested peacefully. Happily.
He tried to figure out the reason, and came up with one quickly.
His soul had been claimed by the grim reaper. He had lived a benevolent life, and believed that it was time to be carted off to his eternal reward. He welcomed his fate. Death was quiet. Relaxing. And as long as he was carried in this manner, he was safe.
Unlike the other nine, he did not think of himself as a victim. He had no reason to fear the reaper.
What a fool.
...or was he?
Carmilla's words came back to him. Aeon was providing these trials for a single purpose. There was a task that needed to be performed, and he was trying to find the right one for the job. And to test them, he was putting them in an environment where they would meet and battle each other.
And Death had been winning the battles. By a landslide.
If this trend continued, there would be a very clear conclusion for Aeon to draw. The best choice for whatever purpose he demanded, this purpose that was somehow tied to the potential destruction of everyone's timeline... would be the grim reaper himself.
Why wouldn't he be the best choice? He was superior to all of them. Trained in combat, freed from restrictions, and with so many of their souls firmly claimed, he could be considered nothing less than their god.
...did that mean... the others were his worshippers?
He knew all of them. Most despised him, and the rest would come to do so as the years passed. There was no chance that any of them could possibly hold him in veneration.
...if he continued on this course... if he was the one chosen by Aeon... the one who protected this timeline from its imminent erasure... and saved billions of mortals from nonexistence...
...they would flock to him.
He reached into the water and lifted his scythe again. Its unnaturally perfect form glinted in the ambient light, and he noticed that the bloodstains of his recent acquisitions had been cleansed completely from its blade.
With newfound purpose, he stood tall and walked away from the river.
He had claimed the souls of many mortals. For once in his existence, fate was giving him the opportunity to prove that he deserved them.
Only a fool would turn this opportunity down.
As much as he despised Carmilla's intentions, Death found her information accurate.
Appropriately enough, the encounter took place in the well-decorated throne room of what appeared to be the ruins of an all-too-familiar castle. At the sight of the new arrival, he lowered his scythe to his side, crossed one arm over his ribcage, and lowered his gaze in deference. "My lord, it has been a long time."
"Perhaps for you", the dark lord Dracula responded, floating toward his vassal in a manner that bordered on ominous. "I was not informed that you were summoned."
The mere sight of his master in this rift would have been sufficient cause for Death to celebrate. However, there was far greater reason for his joy.
He had never beheld Dracula with this much power before.
Logically, that would have meant that he had increased in power since the last time Death had seen him.
More relevantly, this meant that he continued to exist since the last time Death had seen him. The crisis from which he had been abducted would not last. Dracula would return. He was not doomed to failure.
He displayed none of these feelings to his master. They had formed a relationship built on mutual respect during the previous centuries. Any outburst of emotion would only be degrading to their stature. "You are aware of the current situation, my lord?"
"These words of trials and timelines bore me. Someone aims for my destruction by changing history?" Dracula shook his head. "He is pathetic. He knows he cannot challenge me to my face."
"Even so", Death replied, "the method may prove effective. We must address this with all seriousness."
"It has been some time since you have advised me so earnestly", Dracula said after some thought. "I may be inclined to believe you. What do you propose?"
"I do not believe the time traveler is our enemy. His trials may hold the key to our timeline's survival."
Dracula lowered his eyes to the reaper's chest, and the souls held within. "The spoils of these trials? You have been keeping busy in my absence." As some of the souls became more familiar to him, his eyes widened. "You have outdone yourself. These souls have been particularly elusive. I assume you shall provide them to me as tribute?"
In almost any other case, Death would have never thought to use the next few replies. At the moment, he was more amazed that he had come to this decision so quickly.
"No, my lord. These souls are mine, and mine alone."
"Insolence!" the livid reply came.
"Not at all. This world works by different rules from ours. You can no longer order your own success." He hesitated with more than a small amount of fear. He knew where this conversation was going. Nevertheless, he needed to continue. "This is one of the trials. If you desire these souls so greatly, you must earn them.
"And, as you are my master, I feel no need to withhold the opportunity from you." He raised his scythe. "My lord, grant me a duel."
Dracula raised an eyebrow. "You are challenging me?"
"I am." Death ran his hand over his ribcage. "Win and I shall obey your request. You shall be granted my full collection."
The dark lord ran his lengthy fingernails over his chin. "Very well", he decided. "I shall compete in your little game. You will not, however, be spared the consequences of your defeat."
"If you win."
"Amusing. You believe you have any chance at all?"
"I know I do", the reaper said. "I will hold nothing back. Nor will you." He no longer found it necessary to disguise the delight in his voice. "Is this not the place where we pursue our dreams? Fight me to the best of your ability, and I assure you the outcome will be glorious."
"Nothing back", Dracula repeated, floating a few feet away from his opponent. "It can be arranged." He threw his cape back and held his arm to the sky. "Begin."
In an instant, the throne room caught fire.
Death didn't flinch. "As you will, my lord."
Twenty-one minutes later, the entire room was in ruins.
The chandelier had fallen from the ceiling, a deliberate move by the reaper as he attempted to fill his master with the resulting shrapnel. Many candelabras lay bent on the carpet, permanently damaged from their use as makeshift implements to block and counter scythe swipes. Various parts of the floor and walls were heavily damaged from attacks, and one of the support pillars was missing entirely, its rubble resting against the opposite corner of the room.
The fires had yet to die down.
"That is enough!" Dracula yelled as Death struggled to stand, having been struck by one of his orbs of dark energy. "The time for fun and games is over!"
The ceiling of the room, already structurally weak from the battle, broke apart as the dark lord levitated into the air. The sunlight beyond proved to be no consequence to him.
"DEMONIC MEGIDDO!" he shouted, and the room erupted in dark energy. Every remaining wall collapsed, and the floor broke away. When the spell cleared, there was nothing left of the throne room, save the top of the tower where it used to stand. Upon closer inspection, as he floated back down to the former arena, there was not even a sign of...
"You missed, my lord."
The whisper came from directly behind his right ear. A second later, there was a large thin blade projecting through his chest from behind.
Death cleanly landed on the top of the broken tower. He lowered his left arm slightly, allowing his master's feet to touch the ground as well. "Do you concede?"
"...I am the dark lord... I am your undisputed master... I cannot..."
Death craned his neck to view the smoky scenery around the pair. "It is a pity, my lord. Over the course of our dispute, it appears your throne was destroyed."
Dracula raised an eyebrow. "You have made far superior attempts at symbolism."
"Perhaps." He withdrew the blade from his master's back. "You are in need of a seat. Shall I provide?"
Freed from the immediate threat, the vampire turned to face his vassal. Said vassal was leaning back upon his scythe as if it was a stand, holding himself several feet from the stony floor in a kneeling position, such that his posture emulated a chair as closely as possible.
"Your behavior has been... bizarre", he considered aloud as he indulged the reaper's unusual request and sat upon his lap.
"The circumstances have called for it", the reply came from behind his head. "I would have accomplished nothing here through merely acting as your servant."
"So, for the sake of our captor's request, you feel the need to overthrow me."
Death's body started suddenly, though not with enough force to cause Dracula discomfort. "I intend no such act, my lord! I have never considered betrayal!"
"...your manner suggests..."
"Hear me out, my lord! I request that you deem me your champion!"
There was a brief pause. Dracula turned his body to the right, allowing his legs to casually dangle over the side of his confidant's thigh, and turned his head to gaze directly at his skull. "What?"
"I have bested your fiercest enemies in battle, as I have bested you. I ask that you appoint me as your representative. I shall complete the remainder of these tasks and assist the time traveler. I will restore the timeline and secure your position as the lord of darkness." He nodded his skull. "With your approval, my lord."
"I see no reason to oppose the time traveler's mission. However, you have not explained how this concerns me or my submission in battle."
"I have already claimed ten souls, my lord". His hand slid gently over his ribcage, and then moved to his master's shoulder. "I must demand that you join them."
The vampire's voice remained skeptical. "You intend to inform me... that for the sake of our existence and my throne... I must perish." He shook his head. "Ludicrous."
"Ludicrous, but necessary."
"Do you believe you will succeed?"
"As long as this body continues to exist, I will fight in your name, my lord."
"When will I be reborn?"
Death tilted his head. "We are trapped outside time. When we are released, you will have not died at all."
"So you say." Dracula paused for a moment, lost in thought. "We have not spoken of this. From what era were you taken?"
It was such a simple question, and yet Death realized that he had never even thought of asking or answering it. "I was performing tasks in 1944, my lord."
"1944." Dracula nodded. "And you are confident in your success?"
"My record has been nothing short of perfect here."
"...and you never even once considered betraying me?"
Death stared at him. "Beyond my natural duties, my sole allegiance is to you."
"I see." He seemed to be trying harder than ever to not betray his current emotional state. "My soul is yours to use as you desire. You have performed more than well enough to deserve it."
Death's reaction was also forcibly subdued. This was not the time for a victory dance. "Thank you, my lord."
Dracula did not waste any words in reply. He merely laid his head back, allowing his back to rest upon Death's now-outstretched left arm, and exhaled heavily. There, visible in his breath, was his fully-exposed soul.
Death inhaled sharply, and the soul drifted toward his jaws. He allowed it to fill his mouth, brushing against every facet of its inner surface, and then lightly swallowed. He appreciated the flavor for a moment, and then drew the next portion of Dracula's immensely powerful soul into himself.
It took him several minutes to finish.
It was not because the soul was particularly difficult to consume. In truth, it was because, mere minutes ago, Death had bested his beloved master in direct combat. And, moments ago, said master had freely offered his soul to his subordinate.
Moments and souls such as these were to be savored.
From his vantage point atop the tallest tower in the ruined castle, Death easily located the thirteenth individual. Moving as nimbly as he could, he crossed and descended the outer walls until he was in the proper place to confront him.
Alucard noticed. Quickly drawing his sword, he turned and pointed it at the grim reaper. "You have come."
Death nodded. "You possess the final soul I need. Come here."
"No", the dhampir said sternly. "I will never join you or my father. For the sake of..."
"You will." In a quick motion, Death tossed his scythe to the ground. "And you will grant me your soul without a fight."
Alucard's sword did not lower. "You speak madness."
"Would you prefer that we resume our usual argument? You will say you will not return to your father's side. I will say that you will, or you will suffer the consequences of betrayal. You will support your mother's final words to not hate her killers. I will support my master's belief that those responsible must perish." He shook his head. "And all of it will be meaningless, because that is not why I have come here.
"You have spoken with Aeon. You know about the trials. In truth, you are my final encounter. And once I have finished you, the time will come for me to act. Or do you intend to defeat me?"
He gestured at his ribcage. "Observe the souls that I have collected. I have defeated everyone that I have met. You may not fare better. Or if you do, you will know that one victory is less meaningful than the eleven that came before."
"With or without a fight, I will need your soul. Join me. Join your father." He paused meaningfully. "And join everyone else. The three legendary warriors who accompanied you when you first opposed your father. The girl who assisted you in freeing a Belmont from Shaft's influence. The boy who currently wields the spear that shares your name." He nodded his skull. "They are all here. They are waiting for you.
"And once you have joined them, I will meet with Aeon, and accomplish his task, and I will save every human soul in existence."
He knelt down and picked up his scythe. "Or, if it is your preference, we can attempt to kill each other first."
Alucard never broke eye contact with the grim reaper. He took several steps forward, keeping his sword at the ready. "Is it true, then? You will be the one responsible for preserving history?"
"I have proven myself capable of the task." Death nodded. "I will do it, for Dracula's sake, and for the sake of the world."
The sword lowered. "And my soul shall never come to harm?"
"I have already claimed your father's soul. I swear that your soul shall be treated with equal respect."
"If this is some form of trickery..."
Death gazed deeply into the other's eyes. "Adrian... I have never lied to you."
With a metallic sound, the sword was swiftly returned to its scabbard. The dhampir once again faced the other entity. It was a quiet moment.
With no warning, he began marching forward, his fists clenched at his side. "You are a fool."
Death was taken aback by this response. "I am not. I assure you that I can save you."
"I know you can save them. You could have done this all along." Alucard's glare became even angrier. "You call yourself the god of death. In truth, you are, and you always have been." He took a deep breath and drew closer. "It is a pity. The humans could have respected you. You would have taken their souls, but it would have been for a good cause."
It was true, the reaper considered. Eric's reaction alone was proof of this. "I know. You of all people should understand. I am not merely a demon."
"And even now, you refuse to admit it. As soon as this opportunity came forth, you leapt at it. You want me to treat you as though you are some sort of hero." He shook his head in disgust. "And you do it so naturally... it is clear that you should have been one for centuries."
In truth, the idea appealed to him. The humans could gather around him, worshipping him and begging him for their mercy. And if it was his whim, he could. And whenever a major threat came along, he would do what he could to save them from destruction. And that would only increase their devotion to...
Alucard wrapped his arms around his waist and held him tightly, yet his voice was still angry. "This is what you should be. This is what I always wanted you to be." He looked up at Death's skull with a surprisingly frustrated expression, given his usual stoic nature. "Why did you ever listen to my father in the first place?"
"He is my master."
Alucard's expression once again became that of disgust. "He is. And that is why you are what you are. A murderer. A blight upon human morality. A living nightmare." He released the reaper and turned away. "You say that you are more than just a demon. I think you should have never been a demon at all."
Death also turned away, trying to hide all hints of disappointment. He had been certain that the boy, who he had once called his young master, would understand. His only reply was a soft mutter. "If I had not joined your father... I would have never helped raise you..."
The dhampir turned again. "Let us speak no more of this. You may take my soul. Fulfill your rightful duty. Save our existence."
As Death returned his attention to him in a hopeful manner, Alucard nodded slightly. "I am not my father. Innocent humans are more important than my personal grudges."
"Right on time", Aeon said as he pocketed his watch and turned to face the new arrival. "You have proven yourself to be..."
He stopped. He peered more closely at Death, adjusting his sole eyepiece to be certain. With some small amount of surprise in his voice, he continued. "I do not recall telling you to claim their souls."
"I sought to defeat them and prove my superiority", the reaper replied. "I believe I have eliminated all ambiguity."
"Quite." The time traveler's expression became steady again. "You will, of course, be required to release them before you depart the rift."
"I understand." Death stepped toward Aeon. "Now, tell me of this threat to Lord Dracula and the others."
"The preparations are complete. It is time to tell you." He gestured with a single hand. "Our enemy approaches us from ten thousand years in the future. He serves a being who seeks to destroy your lord in this time period and replace him."
"In which time period?" Death asked cautiously. "We do not all come from the same moment, I have discovered."
"It may be meaningless to you", Aeon said hesitantly, "but the rift is centered in 1444. Naturally, each individual I have brought postdates that year."
"Lord Dracula and I have existed long before then."
"Oh, did I not make it clear?" Aeon put his hand on the watch at his hip. "He intends to destroy both of you."
Death took a sudden step forward and grasped Aeon by the front of his collar. "You speak nonsense. What assassin could possibly be capable of traveling through time to end Death itself? I always come back..."
"You would like to know." Aeon calmly grasped the bony hand and forced it to release him. "Unfortunately, only one of us will have the opportunity to find out. The door is ready, but it only holds one."
Death pondered this briefly. "With or without souls?"
"I imagine you want to bring your cheerleading section with you."
"You are more than welcome to join them."
"No, no, not at all." Aeon was good at covering for his defensiveness, Death noted. "If you kill me, there will no longer be a force keeping the rift stable, and you will be removed from existence before you ever have a chance to prevent it." He touched his eyepiece. "Unless, of course, you feel up to the task of holding the universe open for yourself?"
"Who bears the burden of the rift if you are the one to win?"
"I suppose I could leave it in your hands. I would rather not." Aeon lifted his staff in a threatening position. "So, for our convenience, you may consider putting up a fight worth my time."
"We will fight here?" Death asked, looking around. The area was comprised entirely of gears and other machinery. While he was not familiar with this exact design, he had a pretty good idea of where they currently stood.
"Of course. You are not worried about fighting inside a clock tower, are you?"
"I asked for your benefit." Death's voice had a hint of pride behind it. "I believe I know this type of terrain better than you."
Death's main advantage in this fight was that Aeon, aside from his temporal abilities, was limited to slow staff attacks, punches and kicks. He had seen this fighting style before, and these moves would be easily countered by his sharpened offense.
His main disadvantage was that Aeon had temporal abilities.
He dove to the side as a massive laser erupted from the human's staff. Rather than slicing through the grim reaper, it struck the support pillar for the gear he stood on, and the gear detached and fell deeper into the structure seconds later.
"A waste of time", Aeon lamented. "The battle continues."
"I prefer to end it", Death countered, releasing his scythe and allowing it to spin toward his opponent. Aeon seemingly glided upon his feet away from the immediate threat
Both combatants were far too adept at dodging. The problem was that Aeon was far more patient, and it was easily to identify that his strategy was to build up his energy before releasing it in one significant attack.
Death vanished suddenly, reappearing behind Aeon with a full-force slash. It connected cleanly, and he collapsed to the floor. Raising his scythe to his shoulder, he walked toward him slowly. "I have accepted more challenges than should be expected of any mortal. If you truly intend for me to help you, dawdle no longer."
The gears instantly stopped rotating. The pendulums hung in midair. Time had come to an utter halt.
Aeon stirred and rose to his knees. As he looked up, he found a scythe pointing directly at his neck. "I am no mortal", Death said calmly. "Many have attempted to halt my approach. None have..."
Around the pair, time shattered into fragments.
Now Death was completely motionless, his visible jaw frozen in midword. Aeon stood fully and dusted his coat off. "Even you have a limit", he addressed the statuesque skeleton. "Death, like all things, is governed by time."
A set of black spears that resembled minute hands, twelve in number, surrounded the reaper. A larger one, greater in size than the entity, floated above. Aeon turned away and extracted his pocketwatch to gaze upon it. "When time ceases, you do as well."
Click. The stopwatch closed, and Death was impaled thirteen times.
"A pity", Aeon concluded. "I can no longer reach the other souls? Then it appears the task falls..."
Without warning, a bony hand seized his throat, and he found himself unable to speak. His body was forcibly turned to face the grim reaper.
"A mortal's death may be dictated by time", he angrily intoned, "but I am timeless."
Aeon could only stare at him, shocked. A second later, his windpipe was no longer being crushed, and he staggered backward. He rubbed his neck a few times, and then looked up again with a smile. "Is that so? In that case, you may stand a chance after all." He turned to face the inner face of the clock tower, and the world that existed outside it. "It is time. Shall we proceed?"
As the human invoked some sort of portal with his staff, Death lowered his head. "I did not use my full power. I could have destroyed you, if the moment had not warranted otherwise."
"I know." He turned to gesture. "Enter, if you will."
The landscape that awaited Death was familiar. The tops of the various towers of Dracula's castle, all laid to waste. In the distance, a giant rift in time, threatening to engulf the entire dimension if its ability to resist ever waned. And the perpetrator...
Not even Death could hide his surprise.
...it was... Death...
This particular incarnation appeared to be more powerful. At thirty feet in height and wearing a robe typical of the entity, it reminded him of his usual appearance at times when Lord Dracula was in power. In addition, it effortlessly wielded the same divinely-granted power and command over the souls of the afterlife that Death had found himself lacking once he had arrived here. He considered the possibility that it had already gained fatal dominance over this realm, and thus stripped it from him.
Its voice spoke in a supernatural bass. "I come from ten thousand years hence." The massive skull tilted downward and loomed over the lesser incarnation. "You call yourself Death. Laughable."
"I am the rightful Death", Death replied. "Time favors me."
It produced its scythe. "It is meaningless. This timeline no longer exists."
"It is not going anywhere!" Death produced his own, and approached.
Unfortunately, he had failed to consider that this alternate Death's scythe was to his scale, and thus had a significant range advantage. It cleaved through him effortlessly. As he recoiled from the strike, he noticed to his surprise that it had done nothing to him.
With a boost of confidence, he swung his own scythe at... at his height, it would have to be the entity's legs. And it also passed through ineffectually.
This became a pattern as the battle continued. Death threw sickles, channeled his own power and even resorted to direct punches and kicks. The other Death summoned skull demons, caused explosions and even produced a giant laser that ripped across the top of this particular tower. And none of it affected the other.
"Your resistance is worthless." It dispersed its scythe and pointed a giant bony finger at him. "As long as you persist, you are trapped. Grant me your souls and I will end this."
"They are mine", Death responded with contempt. "You have no right to them."
"There can be no missing souls."
"What about me? What about Lord Dracula?"
"Your lord shall continue to exist in the afterlife. And you", it said, raising its finger to point at itself, "are already here."
"So", the reaper muttered, "you truly are me."
"Have you taken leave of your senses?"
Death looked up suddenly. He hadn't expected a third individual to be here.
"He is not attacking you!" the voice continued to say with disdain. "He is attacking this world!"
As Death considered his surroundings, he realized that the voice was correct. The lasers had not struck him, but they had demolished several of the towers. The explosions? Structural damage. The skulls? Continued to chew away at the scenery. If he didn't act soon, there would be nothing left to protect...
"You have one option. Choose it. I will wait as long as necessary." To punctuate the remark, the future Death summoned even more skulls into the distance.
Death didn't notice. He was too busy looking around. "Who speaks to me?" he asked.
"Fool", the voice said more clearly. "You will address your master with respect and deference."
Shock quickly made way for delight and confusion, as Death gazed directly down at his ribcage. The souls were still there, and one had risen to the top to address him. The easiest soul for him to recognize.
"My lord! Since when can you address me in that form?"
"You do not notice." Dracula's soul paused to think of an explanation. "You have claimed many souls, and yet you are unable to absorb them into yourself." The soul moved slightly in the direction of the others. "We remain, trapped within you, bearing witness to your every action."
His voice became even sterner. "Under no circumstances will I permit you to bestow any of us upon that abomination."
Another laser passed through Death harmlessly. In the distance, fires erupted in the forest. "I have little choice, my lord. I am incapable of defeating him."
"Are you daft? Did you believe for even a second that Death can kill Death?" Dracula's tone softened, attempting to sound wiser. "If your usual methods are ineffective, you attempt something else."
"I have nothing else, my lord", Death said quietly. "We exist beyond any source of divine or diabolic power, and I have no souls at my disposal."
The response was incredulous. "I count twelve."
"It means nothing." Death looked past his soul to the others. "I cannot absorb them. I cannot summon them. Their bodies are not here, nor are they capable of entering this place." He shook his head. "You are merely observers."
"I have never known the power of dominance to be so limited."
Death flinched slightly. "I do not have the power of dominance, my lord! I have never been able to grow powerful from my reaping! How many times over the centuries have I needed to remind you?"
"You have a point", Dracula finally admitted. After a short period of silence, interrupted only by the continuing sounds of devastation, he spoke again. "This cannot be allowed to continue."
"Even the harvester of souls has a soul. I have seen and possessed it many times. Reveal it to me."
Although he remained confused, Death did not defy his master's orders. With some concentration, he allowed his own soul to reveal itself. It floated within the center of his ribcage, slightly larger than the others, and far brighter.
It was bright enough for the other reaper to notice. "I have no desire to take my own soul. I repeat. Release the others."
Dracula's soul moved down until it was in direct contact with it. "I have designated you my champion. It is shameful that you, bearing the title, could lose a battle that I can so easily win." His voice grew darker. "Open your soul to me."
"My lord!" Death protested. "You are in no physical state to take my soul! I beg you to reconsider!"
"Open your soul to me."
Even in this place, where he was under no true obligation to obey his master's orders, he gave in. The boundary of his soul weakened, and the dark lord's soul moved closer to come into contact with the essence held within.
Dracula's voice resounded even louder. "It has been many centuries since you first pledged your servitude. I admit that for much of that time, I have taken it for granted." A short pause. "Your soul, as always, lies within my grasp. I have only ever needed to ask.
"I hold your soul now, as you hold mine. But I bear the power of dominance, and you do not." His voice became authoritative again. "Soul in my possession, I order you to share the power of dominance with me. I order you to use it in conjunction with your other souls, and I demand that this accursed doppelganger of yours be defeated!"
Death could not refuse this order. Even if he could, he would never even consider it.
The power flowed freely between the two souls. Once the process was completed, Dracula's soul moved away from the larger one. "You have your orders. Do not disappoint me."
And Death, for the first time this day, could hear the voices of the other eleven souls. His enemies. His rivals. In any other situation, they would have not even considered giving him the time of day. But their fate was on the line, and as cautious as some of them were, they knew. For their sake, and everyone else's, they had to obey him.
And, if he demanded that they grant him their power, they would.
His first order came quickly. "The Vampire Killer of evil's bane. I know I am susceptible to its power. Grant it to me."
Seconds later, it arrived. Death bowed his skull slightly in gratitude and raised his right arm to the sky. There it was, a seemingly ordinary leather whip, containing the soul and vengeful spirit of a long-deceased love interest of the Belmont clan. She would never be released, and she never seemed to care. As long as she existed within that weapon, it would prove effective against the dark lord and all who served him.
He held it tightly in his skeletal hand, and found to his great relief that it did not weaken him. It was his to command.
There was another impulse of power that flowed through his body. He noticed it immediately, and with some confusion, until he remembered the truth.
He had claimed the souls of two Belmonts.
An identical whip appeared in his left hand. He nodded in satisfaction. He was ready.
With a surprising amount of speed he leapt high into the air, aided by the lupine agility of the Blue Crescent Moon, the very first soul he had stolen this day. As the larger reaper reacted in utter surprise, he unleashed both whips and began striking rapidly. It roared in pain as its robe began to tatter and its bones appeared to be suffering burns. He did not stop; large wings erupted from his back and kept him aloft as he continued his onslaught.
There was a sudden flash of power, and Death was knocked to the ground. Quickly calling on the reflexes of the Danasty rogue, he landed in a roll and sprung to what passed for his feet. It caused him no injury, but his assault had been repelled.
"Enough. Your souls dare to defy me?" The future Death cupped his bony hands together. "It is no matter."
A large, bluish pillar surrounded it, keeping the smaller reaper away. As he watched, a figure seemed to appear within the pillar. He recognized it immediately. It was himself, and he was whipping at the larger entity.
...except... he seemed to be moving in reverse...
Eventually the Death image ended its assault and leapt backward outside the range of the pillar, dispersing in the light. A second later, the pillar was removed, revealing that the abomination had suffered no injury whatsoever.
Death's jaw dropped in amazement. The other souls were equally surprised and disappointed. He could hear them.
"...he just... undid the entire assault?"
"Can he control time?"
"I would not be surprised if he tried it again."
"That's not fair!"
Death spoke silently to his souls. "I need another option."
"Keep up the pressure", one said. "Do not let him repel you. He will fall in time."
"Is there a way to avoid that barrier?" another asked.
"Kill in one blow", a much louder voice suggested.
For a few seconds, there was complete silence.
"Such an attack would work. He would be unable to prevent it."
"Does such an attack exist?" Death pondered aloud.
"See? We're talking about something more powerful than Death himself! If there's a way any of us could finish him in one hit, don't you think he'd know about it?"
"That returns us to the question. How do we keep him from..."
"...I know one."
This soul had yet to speak at any time prior to this point. Attention quickly diverted to her. "You do?"
"I did. I knew it. Even Dracula would be destroyed instantly."
"Preposterous", said dark lord scoffed. "The nun knows it? There is no holy power so great."
"It is worth considering", Death decided. "Where is it?"
"I had it... until he stole it. Barlowe told me to retrieve it. I followed him... and suddenly I was here."
"When was this? When are you from?"
"Wait." Dracula's voice was almost a laugh. "Barlowe of Ecclesia? That fool never destroyed me! He revived me!"
"That's not true", she insisted in her monotone. "He raised me. He wanted to destroy you. He would never..."
"Then you are the glyph witch?" Dracula's voice showed utter disdain. "Her words are nearly true. The spell she knew was enough to finish me." The soul shook slightly. "Finish me. And she does not know it now."
"I remember", Death said. "It was an unusual method. By invoking a technique that drew on the power of the dark lord when facing him in battle, Shanoa left him powerless and easily destroyed."
There was a lone mutter from the side. "Doesn't anyone care that we're talking about her entire future in front of her?" He was ignored.
"No", Shanoa continued to protest. "The glyph union is meant to destroy you. Why would it come from you?"
"Imbecile", Dracula told her. "You sought this Dominus, and you never realized that it came from my own power?"
"You lie. Why would..."
"An excellent plan", Death interrupted. "We will try it."
The souls fell silent. In the distance, another tower fell to the rampaging reaper.
"We cannot", she said. "I no longer carry this power. Not yet."
"My lord does not lie. The power indeed came directly from him." He gestured toward his master's soul. "Thus, he will grant it to you as we speak."
"Reaper, you are overstepping your bounds."
Death nodded. "Your champion requests this of you. Bestow this Dominus upon her. I have reason to believe it will be sufficient for my task."
"You believe so." He pondered. "It would be easier to simply use my power directly."
"No. She can cast it in the manner I seek. I must invoke her skills."
"You are aware that casting the spell will..."
"If you know", the dark lord said after some pause, "then I shall give you your chance."
"Thank you, my lord." He nodded. "All will be..."
"There remains a problem", Shanoa interrupted. Her soul was currently receiving energy from Dracula's soul, most likely using the same reversed power of dominance he had displayed earlier. "Dominus is a three-part glyph. His power has not been properly organized for casting."
"No matter", Death said. "We will simply reproduce the method of its construction." His hand once again ran over his ribcage. "Between us, we have more than enough memory and expertise."
He looked up. The other reaper had taken to stabbing the other towers with his oversized scythe. "And time."
It was over an hour later when the spells had been prepared to everyone's satisfaction.
"In addition to my lord and Shanoa", Death announced, "I will need three other individuals with strong magical talent." He gazed upon the group. "Two are obvious. Carmilla, are you trained in such arts?"
"No", the vampiress admitted. "Despite my many talents, I am not a sorceress."
"A pity. I will be forced to focus my attentions on the other women." He pondered. "That leaves us with only one other option. Is that not correct, young master?"
"You are enjoying this", Alucard quietly spoke. "Do you not care about the severity of the situation?"
Death rested two fingers on the rib closest to the dhampir's soul's position. "If I did not, I would not have come this far." He tapped a few times. "At the same time, consider what we are attempting. Dare I say that this would not have been possible under any other set of circumstances?" He removed his hand. "It would be a shame to not enjoy it."
Alucard sighed. "What is it you need?"
"You are fortunate. You will be given the most dangerous task. Have you paid attention to the plan so far?"
"You will be stationed at the neck."
Alucard's voice turned suspicious. "Is your intent to put me in harm's way?"
Death shook his skull. "Consider our enemy. He desires to kill your father and reclaim the others. If his task is completed, you will have never existed."
Before the soul had enough time to protest, he continued. "Therefore, can we not conclude that he has no interest in seizing your soul?" He nodded. "You are the safest of all."
This seemed to satisfy him. This left only one more request. He pointed at Carmilla's soul. "I have a task for you after all."
"What could you possibly desire from me?" she grumbled spitefully.
"Help the young master and the women. We need as much blood as possible."
Her voice brightened. "Blood? Yes, I can. It will be my pleasure."
Twelve more minutes had passed, and even the larger reaper was starting to grow bored with his rampage.
"You should not have claimed them. You have only made this harder for everyone."
Death stood and approached the other reaper. "We have only one attempt at this", he silently reminded the souls. "I expect nothing less than a fight for your own survival." He could have grinned. It was impossible to tell. "And I have already witnessed such efforts from all of you."
"Have you seen the truth?" The monstrous Death gazed closer, and shook his head. "You have only released three souls. It is not sufficient."
Shanoa began casting the spell. Dracula watched carefully, checking for any errors in her method.
Death opened his bony fists, releasing Sypha and Maria. At the same time, Alucard dropped from his neck to his spine. All three souls were releasing blood, making their next task possible.
In as fast a motion as they could provide, they copied Shanoa's glyphs, and then returned to their positions.
It took less than fifteen seconds. Death stood defiantly before the other reaper. On his arms and back, drawn in blood, were the exact same glyphs as those worn by Shanoa. The magicians fueled their power into them. He was finally ready.
"Now is the time to die!" Death shouted.
The giant produced his scythe. "What is..."
His assumption was correct. The other reaper had not come to this world entirely by his own will. He had his own master. A dark lord from the future, who was providing him with the means to change history.
And this dark lord's power was enough to earn the loyalty of this other Death... and he saw reason to claim Dracula's position. His power had to stem from the same source as Dracula's power.
The same power that was currently being tapped to create this Dominus. Power that was being channeled through time...
The very air seemed to explode.
Eventually the dust cleared to reveal... the other reaper. It had not been damaged, but it was no longer moving. It was no longer a threat. The plan had been successful.
He finally allowed himself to relax. He released the two sorceresses and signaled Alucard's soul. With little hesitation, they returned to his ribcage.
He did a count. There were... eleven souls.
One of the others noticed. "Hey... what happened to..."
"I told you", Dracula's voice admonished him. "The price for using the power of Dominus... is your very life."
Death's voice was surprisingly upbeat. "I know." He raised his hand to the sky, and power gathered in it. After a few seconds, it flashed in a glow of power, revealing the missing soul.
Shanoa was disoriented. "What... just happened?"
"Do not forget. In this place, death has no meaning." He held the soul closer to his skull. "Even if it had, consider the one responsible for enforcing the sacrifice." He nodded his skull and placed her soul in his mouth. "Would I permit you to escape me so easily?"
She returned comfortably to the confines of his ribcage, without any need for swallowing.
To Death's great annoyance, the crisis was not yet over.
He and the souls had waited for a while for someone, most likely Aeon, to arrive and declare them victorious. It was not happening. The future reaper was still motionless, but the rift remained.
Finally, the order came. "You know what you must do."
Death looked up in surprise. Nothing had yet changed. The only difference was the scythe in the giant Death's hand, still held over his head. It began to glow.
It had to be the key.
He walked up to its prone body and began to climb.
The first steps were easy. Its robe was billowy and provided an easy grip as he continued to pull himself up its body. Once he got to its waist level, its ribs formed a convenient series of steps, and he used them as such.
Once he reached the giant's shoulder, the difficult part began.
"Spear", he called, and Eric's soul provided for the first time this battle. With the spear that bore his master's son's name in hand, he plunged it into the giant's arm. Then, with his other arm, he produced his scythe and swung it even higher. Using the two sharpened blades, he managed to scale its height until he reached its hand.
The scythe was much larger than he expected. Its shaft was as thick as his torso. Wrapping his arms and legs around it, he started to shimmy up its length.
"Use it", the voice said.
It shone even more brightly now, and Death found himself drawn to its power. Calling upon the strength of the inexplicable yet clearly existing soul of the golem, he pressed his legs against the large reaper's hand and lifted the giant scythe himself. It was nearly impossible for him to balance a blade so gargantuan. Before he lost control, he once again called for wings, and they were provided. He flapped backward, just in time to lose control of the scythe as it tilted forward...
He was in the right position. He fell with it. And as he fell, the scythe cut into the massive Death's head, and through his collar, and ribs, and pelvis, and finally split his legs and dug into his robe. And as it cut, it claimed.
Death landed painfully upon the top of the building that served as ground, not releasing his grip on the scythe. Seconds later, the robe drifted gently to the ground, covering him.
He had done it. He had used the sinister impersonator's scythe to capture its own soul.
"Well done", the voice said. "You have proven yourself a natural with the blade." A pause for emphasis. "It is yours."
"But I cannot", he started, before he felt the scythe twisting in his hands. A few seconds later, he felt it shrink to a more manageable size. At the same time, the robe seemed to become much lighter and easier to bear. He reached up with his arm, and it easily found one of the sleeves.
It felt comfortable. He released the scythe and worked his other arm through the robe as well. A few seconds later, he was wearing it, and he found it a perfect fit. With one hand, he lifted the glowing scythe again and tested its weight. It was surprisingly light, which was nice, because he didn't want to lose his balance again. Not with so little ground to stand upon...
Or not. With the power of the robe he wore, he was floating. He was used to the sensation, of course, having done it for most of his existence. What surprised him was how... small the ground was. He noticed a pair of small glinting objects on the building. He lowered his altitude to take a closer look, and noticed that they were the spear and his old scythe. He picked them up, and found that they were shorter than the length of his elbow to his wrist.
No. The scythe and robe had not shrunk. He had grown.
And by his estimate, he had become just as large as his former enemy... and was wearing his robe... and was carrying his scythe.
"Arise, my new Time Reaper", the voice said.
"This is impossible", Aeon muttered as he checked the gate. "Surely the time of the battle has passed..."
Suddenly, he stopped. There was a new power in the air... one familiar to him, and yet not...
"No", he whispered. "It was all part of his plan..."
Death looked up at the rift above him. "What is the meaning of this?"
"You and your claimed souls have caused more than a few problems", the voice replied. "I don't mind. I can settle for this. For now."
"For what would you settle? You called me... your time reaper."
"Exactly. I am what you call a dark lord." The voice was indeed powerful, and hid what seemed to be an amount of beastly fury behind it, but it was completely civil. "But it has been a long wait. More than ten millennia, to be exact.
"Once I secured my power, I began to wonder. Why did it have to take so long? Why not simply take my rightful place earlier?"
"Rightful?" Death shouted. "You are disrupting the flow of the timeline!"
"Of course. It's the natural effect of any change in history. In truth, it's hardly a problem." The voice remained casual. "Simply let it happen, and it's painless. When it's over, you won't even notice that things were ever different."
"This is not painless!" He gestured to the landscape around him. "All is devastation!"
"It's a shame. The fabric of time tends to strain when people try to push it in several directions at once. If those time travelers hadn't interfered, there wouldn't have been a scratch."
"What?" Death pressed his scythe against the ground. "Did you expect to enact your plan unopposed?"
"A plan? What makes you think this was a plan?" The voice began to laugh, and as it grew, it sounded more like a shout or roar. "My reaper, all I did was suggest that you go back to a year of your choice, one before 1450, and kill Dracula." There was a hint of a smile in his voice. "Naturally, you picked one with a lot of fours..."
He shook his head angrily. "We dispatched your crony. Why do you refer to me in the same manner?"
"You were my servant. This time... are you saying you don't want to be?"
"Absolutely not! My sole master is Dracula!"
The voice audibly sighed. "Dracula died. That's why you agreed to listen to me in the first place. I knew that if he died sooner, you'd have no problem returning to work for me, correct?"
"He is not dead."
"You say that, so soon after claiming his soul?"
"I bear his soul!" This voice was really starting to annoy Death. "He shall return at the appropriate time!"
"You refer to the stone he bears, correct? That is no obstacle. You just remove it and break it. It should be simple."
"You speak of treachery!"
"You still obey him?" There was a short pause. "I had no idea... I was certain you would listen to me."
"What form of insane logic..."
"You hail from the year 1944?"
Death stopped suddenly. "How have you learned this?"
"I know much about the history of our universe. But I may not know enough... I was certain that the dark lord that year was not Dracula, and you did not obey him."
"You refer to Brauner..."
"That's the name, yes." If Death paid attention, he could hear pages turning. "It's clear to me that he overthrew Dracula and stole his position. Would that not leave you open to obey a new lord?"
"He shall return", he argued, a little less adamantly than before. "There's a prophecy about 1999..."
"Is it true? I wondered if it was an error. After all, a whole row of Draculas, then Brauner, then Dracula again one more time, and then it goes on to list some other names..."
Death was stunned. "Then you claim... Dracula lasts no later than the millennium?"
"That's what history says. And that's why I thought you'd be happy to get your beloved replacement sooner."
The voice took on a proud tone. "I know a great deal about time travel. The trouble is those guardians. I cannot stand up to them. So when I met you, I realized... you could.
"I gave you the option to serve me. You were reluctant, of course, and then I made my offer. And to you, I will offer it as many times as I must. You will have nothing short of mastery of time."
Death stared. "You can promise that?"
"I sent you back. The guardians tried to intervene, and that's why you are where you stand. But isn't it clear now... that the only one who can stand up to you... is you?" There was that smiling voice again. "If I keep convincing you, and keep working backward, eventually even your earliest incarnation will be loyal to me. And then... there will no longer be any resistance.
"As dark lord, I am content to rule over the mortals and the afterlife. You can assist me with that. I ask only a few small favors. Dispose of other candidates and ensure that I remain in power. And in return, I grant you the power to reap time."
The voice was getting more excited. "Are you annoyed that Brauner became the dark lord? Go back a few years to when he was still mortal and kill him! Remember when Mathias lost his faith in God? Go back to when Elisabetha died and force her to remain alive! If they can treat her illness, it works out! If they cannot, keep her alive long enough to keep him happy!" There was that hint of a roar again. "It's entirely up to you!
"You have been the enforcer of fate since time began. With my help, you can be the one who determines it! Write history in your own image! Choose who lives and who dies! You were born able to harness this power, and I will give you the opportunity! At each other's side, we will rule existence itself!"
Death was surprised. This offer... he no longer wondered why he would have ever agreed to it in the future. This was... almost a dream come true. To be able to act completely upon his own will...
...there was the question of what the higher powers would say, of course...
...if he truly could retain this power at the beginning of existence, he would be the highest power...
...to be able to take advantage of this offer, he would have to betray Dracula...
...he claimed that Dracula would not last...
...this went against everything Aeon and his group would stand for, and everything he himself had defended this day...
...they would be at his mercy too...
...in fact, with this power, he could actually kill St. Germain for once...
He was tempted. Sorely tempted. But it still didn't seem right... somehow...
A question came to mind. "Why did you order me... the one of your era... to kill Dracula?"
"He is the main obstacle to your joining me at this very moment." The voice became almost friendly. "I understand your feelings for him. Truly, I do. And that's why... I admit it. I struck at him, hoping you would never learn of it. If I could have changed history without your becoming involved, you would have been more than happy to side with me."
Something connected in the back of Death's mind. He had greeted Dracula today, but the dark lord had been acting oddly. Several times, he had suggested that Death's actions befit a traitor. He had struggled more strenuously than before to convince him otherwise. Perhaps... this very conversation, and decision, was the cause?
"...you continually speak of my fealty as though it was romantic."
This actually stopped the conversation for a moment. The voice eventually returned. "You do not have such feelings. I know. But your loyalty... is closer than you think. Your devotion, beyond that of logic. Your self-sacrificing tendencies when it is to your master's advantage. Are you aware that whenever you and your dark lord are both alive, you always adjust your form's size such that you can gaze into his eyes whenever you stand face to face?"
Okay. This conversation was really starting to bug Death. He didn't know if he could ever face Lord Dracula again without thinking about it.
Wait. That was an interesting tidbit there. "My current height matches yours?"
The pieces started to fall together. "You had a specific reason for predating 1450, did you not?"
"...you have figured it out, haven't you?" There was a brief sigh, fairly rough in nature. "It would have ensured that my first attempt to take the position would have been successful."
"Then... you are Galamoth?" He shook his head. "You act nothing like him."
The voice became quiet, and now that he knew, the reptilian roar behind it was almost impossible to miss. "Ten thousand years is a very long time." A brief pause. "I know you still have trouble believing that the previous Time Reaper you fought was you."
Death grumbled. "You are still the usurper you have always tried to be."
"A very long time", the voice repeated. "So much of the world has been destroyed..."
"And you intend to use me..."
"My offer to him was genuine. And it still is."
He felt the need to ask. "You are the rightful dark lord in your time?"
"I am. It was a long order of succession... but many of them had taken their own lives..."
Death had never expected this when he first prepared to challenge the one responsible for destroying his timeline. He had expected a cruel monster, craving destruction and trying to reshape existence in his own image.
He had found Galamoth. Subdued... friendly... desperate...
And yet, he considered the one in between. The Time Reaper. The one Galamoth wanted him to be. And what were his proposed goals? Craving destruction... and reshaping existence in his own image...
Death did not want to be that cruel monster.
Do you know why you collected the souls of the others and brought them with you?, he thought. It was not because they could help you in the fight. You only learned that later. It was not because you wanted to support them and save them. You only thought of that when you claimed Eric Lecarde.
No, you claimed them because you could. And because they were delicious.
And maybe that was why he found this offer so tempting. Maybe he was the monster here...
"I serve a dark lord named Dracula", he eventually said out loud to the world around him. "Cruel or kind, justified or not... I have stayed by his side. It is my duty." He lowered his head. "He opposes you."
"He has a son by the name of Adrian. I helped raise him as if he were my own. Now, he hates and opposes his father. Some call it bravery. Some call it betrayal." He nodded his head. "He opposes you."
"I was called here by a man by the name of Aeon. He is odd. He lives beyond my grasp. He meddles with time in order to protect it. He promotes peace by forcing us to fight. And yet... he respected me enough to bring me here, and fully believed that I could aid in his goals." Now he was shaking his head. "He opposes you."
"I... honestly do not know what I want. I did not come here by my own will. I have seen enemies and friends, and they have been the same people. I have obeyed my master, and I have ignored his orders. I have fought for others, and I have fought for myself. I have taken souls for fun, and for gain, and for their own good. This place, where fate and duty and death do not exist, has been... a playground to me, and no matter what I have done, I have always found it... enjoyable."
"I have not yet decided what I want, nor am I certain that it will ever matter." He looked up again. "I do know that if I agree to your offer, the universe may become what I want it to be. Any of those things. And yet... in that place, there would be an undeniable fact that could not change. That my master... and my master's son... and the time traveler... were all wrong."
He picked up the glowing scythe. "I would never want to live in such a place." And without any further hesitation, he drove it into the temporal anomaly. As if he knew what it would do all along, the temporal anomaly faded into a memory, securing the rift permanently. If Galamoth had protested, Death never heard it.
It was over.
"Took you long enough", Aeon said.
As Death sat silently, Aeon debriefed him.
Nothing would be done about Galamoth. His plan had been averted. He was a legitimate dark lord in his time. Leave his fate to those living ten thousand years from now, everyone decided.
The existence of a Time Reaper, however, would be analyzed and questioned with all haste.
"Those of my kind believe that two groups should exist: those who can travel through time, and those who can affect it. Most individuals fall into the second group. When someone joins the first, all precaution must be taken to ensure that he leaves the second immediately." He gestured. "If Death can travel through time, he is no longer fit to reap."
"What if he alternates?" Death considered aloud.
"We would only accept it if he was forced to reap solely one timeframe, and always moving forward." Aeon shook his head. "This is difficult to enforce. We prefer to abandon the idea."
"The Time Reaper cannot exist. His tools shall be left here. Once this dimension is properly collapsed, no remnants will remain." He gestured toward Death. "The Death of the future shall reemerge naturally. You, of all people, should know that."
Death nodded. "I do."
"Then all are in agreement. Shall we prepare to evacuate?"
Death raised a bony hand. "Not yet. I... wish to request that... I stay here for a while longer."
Aeon raised an eyebrow. "In your so-called playground?"
"So much has happened to me... I would like to reflect. While I still have no other concerns."
The human's expression didn't change, but his voice was mockingly accusatory. "You want to play with your toys a while longer."
As condescending as it was, on some level, it was true. Death knew it. He continued to tower over the human, even in a seated position. His robe was still glorious and his scythe was still powerful, and... as long as he was still in this rifted dimension, outside proper time, he still held inconceivable power over existence itself.
The Time Reaper could not be allowed to exist. He would have to leave it behind. Yet anyone in his position would resist.
"An hour", he said.
"An hour", Aeon repeated.
Death pondered briefly, and reached both hands into his robe. Seconds later he produced ten souls, each balanced on the tip of one of his bony fingers. "You will want these back."
The other nodded. "You will put your toys away one at a time, then?" He tapped his eyeglass with a finger. "Preferably in the condition you received them in?"
It was simple for Death. With a wave of his hand, all ten were back in their mortal bodies.
"I will replace them immediately", Aeon said, and then stopped. "The other two?"
"Later", the reaper replied with a dismissive gesture.
Fifteen minutes had passed.
The Time Reaper was hard at work, scraping the blades of two scythes together.
He knew his companion was there. "I wonder. Is the blade sharp enough to cut through time, or is it simply sharper than my usual blade?"
Aeon gazed at him. "Is this the reflection you had in mind?"
"Not precisely. I thought for a while to myself, and I ended up comparing them."
"Are you certain? To me, it looked as though you were using that shiny scythe to sharpen your normal one for twelve minutes." He flipped his pocketwatch. "And 31.46 seconds."
"You were watching?"
"It is a perk of my position. Large tasks take milliseconds." He closed the watch. "You desired time alone."
Death mentally winced. The human truly did elude him.
"Your scythe will never be able to cut time. We traced the property to the magical power of the other scythe, and to the one who granted such power." Aeon shrugged. "And who am I to judge Death's implements? They can be as sharp as the job requires."
The reaper felt oddly relieved. "Then you will..."
"You have been a significant help in preventing reality's collapse. I can afford to be lenient." A breath. "To a point."
Death looked down at his robe. "Do I deserve it?"
"What do you see? Am I a noble god who is obligated to behave like a monster, or am I a monster who wants to be seen as a noble god?"
Aeon did not answer.
"Does it even matter to you?"
Aeon nodded. "It seems the correct questions come to you eventually. I am not in the business of good and evil. I work with accurate and inaccurate.
"But since you asked, I can confirm two things." His eyes turned to the clock on his staff. "First, if you had not physically manifested with intent to serve a dark lord, it would have been impossible to bring you here.
"And second, through everything you have ever done, no matter how people have judged you, you have been Death." He turned one of the hands slightly. "And this trend appears to continue for some time."
The reaper looked at him briefly, and then returned his gaze to himself. "I have never answered questions with riddles."
"If I do, it is because I know riddles cannot be wrong."
Death silently nodded, not breaking eye contact with his robe. At least until he thought of something. "None have treated me like a defender", he pointed out.
Aeon understood his meaning immediately. "They were in no position to remember."
"Then perhaps this reflection is equally wasted."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps you are fated to carry the burden for the remainder of your existence."
"What would merit such a fate?"
"I was taught to never try to comprehend the mind of a god."
Death nodded slightly. "I should like this burden to be extended to two others."
"You retain two souls."
"Precisely." Death reached into his robe and seized one in each hand. "We have enough time for a game. Will you join me?"
Aeon raised an eyebrow. "Name the game."
"Certainly a dangerous game. How do you intend to play?"
"I play the role of the Time Reaper. You play the judge. The Time Reaper completes his goal and the judge rates his performance."
"It sounds unbalanced. The judge has no win condition."
Death tilted his head. "It is a cooperative game. Both win or both lose."
"And what are the conditions for a loss?"
"All rules are set or approved by the judge." The reaper held his hand out. "Meeting more difficult conditions earns a higher rating."
"Sounds intriguing." Aeon turned to walk away. "I shall take a break and discuss this first. We reconvene in five minutes."
Thirty-five minutes of the hour remained when Aeon returned to Death's side.
"Your game has been approved. Under observation."
Death nodded. "Set the initial rules."
Aeon shook his head. "First, you set the goal."
"Return two souls to their proper places in the timeline."
The human blinked. "I expected you to raise the bar a little higher."
"I am a first-time player. I have a time limit, and I am under considerable pressure to not lose."
"True enough. The first rule is clear. You may not leave the rift."
"Not strict enough. I will not move from this position."
Aeon nodded in understanding. "You have a strategy in mind."
"If I did not, I would not play. I will play both pieces simultaneously and ambidextrously."
"You will not allow them to escape until they are in place."
"Agreed", Death accepted.
"There is an issue of information control."
"I believe it is not a concern", the reaper said. "You have already eliminated all evidence of events ten thousand years from now. Dracula, from the late 1990s, was the chronologically last soul you brought. Alucard, from the early 1970s, was the second-to-last. Dracula has provided no information to Alucard about the future."
Aeon nodded. "You were third-to-last."
"It is my understanding that I will not manifest in Alucard's year, and will manifest next in the year of Dracula's revival. No information gained from either has been both relevant and hidden from me. I have learned nothing improper."
"Will this trend continue?"
"I shall navigate solely by sight and touch. I shall not speak and I shall not hear. None shall address me, save the souls. My education is thus limited to geography."
"Geography can be a useful subject. Too useful."
"Draw a line connecting the location of both goals. I will never stray more than a mile from the line."
"Nor will you exist more than ten minutes from the goal times."
"I will not."
Aeon crossed his arms. "You will also not leave any other evidence of your presence."
Death shook his head. "Too strict. I desire an error margin of three visible remnants."
"One visible remnant. And it will not be significant enough for investigation."
The human nodded. "I can think of nothing else at this time. Any other rules will be added when necessary."
Death stretched out his arms. "I understand."
"Then you may start. One soul in each hand. Our eyes are upon you."
An observer may have called that process completely tedious and unnecessary. Death knew, in truth, that it was vital.
As the grim reaper, he knew that there were certain rules that must be followed, lest he be allowed to sow chaos. And when temporal mechanics were added to the equation, any permissions could be devastating.
He took Alucard's soul in his left hand, and Dracula's soul in his right.
An instant later, his left hand was in Hungary, 1973, and his right hand was in Wallachia, 1999.
Without the rules, he could have killed any of millions of people in each timeframe. Or destroyed the landscape. Or claimed the souls. Or switched the souls, reviving Dracula decades early. Or learned every facet of the future, to be applied when he returned to his time decades earlier. Or summoned demons. Or raised the dead. Or any number of other actions that could send the timeline spiraling out of control and contributing to its destruction. It was no exaggeration. The Time Reaper truly could change the course of existence at his whim.
With the rules, he was permitted a strict series of actions that he would have never been able to do otherwise. And those alone made it worth taking this chance.
The daylight was visible in both timeframes. They would need to be returned to their coffins. Dracula's was in his castle. Alucard... a seemingly simple house.
The existence of the buildings proved no obstacle for him or his souls. He reached through the coffins, cupped his bony hands along their bases and allowed the souls to remanifest their bodies.
He had left open the possibility of touching the former souls. So he did. His thumb brushed lightly across Alucard's body as he slept soundly, while his other hand merely held his master as he dozed lightly. He said no words to either, for he had said he would not. Anything he would have wanted them to know was already known, as they remembered everything he had done that day.
He drew both hands from the caskets. He was technically done. He could stop now.
No. There was one other thing he wanted to try. He had left himself enough room to do so.
Following a direct line, his left hand traveled to Wallachia, and to the mountain where Dracula's castle would manifest 26 years later. The fortress was not there. The hand drifted lightly over the cliffs of the mountain until it found an appropriate spot.
With a surprising amount of strength and speed, he shoved his pointer finger into the side of the mountain. No structural damage resulted; merely a four-inch-diameter hole extending a foot into the surface.
His right hand left the castle and traveled to the same facet of the mountain. Indeed, the hole was still there. He thought for a moment, and then inserted his right pointer finger. It was a neat fit.
He bent his left finger, causing it to dig deeper into the crevasse and press firmly against the rock above it. Small chunks of rock broke off. Simultaneously, the gap around his right finger widened. To an observer from that era, it would have done so for no reason whatsoever. Except, of course, that it had always been like that.
That was enough to confirm his suspicions. His task long since complete, he removed his hands from the future.
Aeon clicked his pocketwatch and looked at it. "Your time fell within parameters. Well done."
Death's voice was not as enthusiastic. "I needed to try it. I needed to know how it felt to change history."
"You change the future with every action." The watch vanished into his pocket again. "We prefer that nobody notice the difference."
There were now fifteen minutes left.
Death was sprawled out on the top of the castle ramparts. The glowing scythe had been placed out of reach upon one of the few surviving towers.
"I am surprised", Aeon admitted. "I expected more activity from you."
Death rolled over slightly to face him. "You would have never permitted me to experiment with time."
"Certainly true. But you know that this place is of no remaining consequence."
"I considered that you might enjoy demolishing this realm in a display of unbridled power."
"You would think that." Death shook his head. "A Time Reaper has already destroyed this place. It was not entertaining."
"Perhaps for him."
"I have long since decided to not be him." He slowly sat up. "But in fairness, you indulged my game."
And as the human watched, Death grew. His bones made disconcerting popping noises as they expanded in size. His robe increased at the same rate, and soon it was draping the sides of the castle around him. He reached out an arm to grip the top of a nearby tower and used it as support to pull himself to an upright seated position. Seconds later, his back rested against the still intact clock tower. Leaning against it, he brought his legs together to recline against the length of the ramparts. Eventually he stopped his growth, and it was clear that his body was more massive than the entire castle.
"That was not quite what I described", the comparatively tiny mortal said, leaning against the side of his right leg.
He reached out and grasped him with a single bent finger, then lifted him to the top of his exposed ribcage. "Is it not a greater display of power to not destroy this castle with the merest touch?"
"I will not desecrate my master's castle any further. I will respect the dead."
"Dead?" Aeon asked with a raised eyebrow. "That would mean..."
"I blame no one", Death interrupted. "It was deceased before I was brought here."
There was a brief moment of silence. Death slowly undid his robe and removed his arms from its sleeves. Seconds later, he had removed it entirely, leaving it draped over the entirety of the castle beneath him. His skeletal form was once again completely exposed.
Ten minutes remained.
He pressed his back against the clock tower a bit more firmly. "I have always possessed power. I have often caused destruction." He shook his head. "It is rarer that I am not obligated to use them."
Aeon had scaled him to his shoulder. He had barely noticed. "So in truth, relaxing is a new experience for you."
"It sounds to me like Death could use a holiday."
The giant skull turned to face him. "This was my holiday." It lowered slightly. "I thank you for it."
"Of course. Perhaps the next time the universe's very existence is ripped apart by supernatural forces from beyond, I will invite you back for more fun?"
"I would not want to miss it."
"And when you go forth at the end of days, shall I stop by and say hello?"
"Of course", Death said. In all honesty, he wasn't sure whether or not either of them was being serious.
There was a quiet moment. Death slowly stood, leaving the castle and the robe behind. With a slight gesture from his right hand, a temporal portal large enough to fit him opened.
"It is time, then?" Aeon asked.
"This is my final act as a Time Reaper", he answered. "I trust you can close it after I leave?"
"You are aware that this leads to..."
"I would have stopped you if it had been anything but the correct time and place", Aeon interrupted.
Death plucked the human from his shoulder and held him in front of his skull. "You are not confident in me, then."
"Not at all", he admitted. "I merely know the truth. No matter what you try, it is never too late to fix it."
This prompted a slight chuckle from the reaper. "Time traveler, I admit it. Your existence does not annoy me."
"That is good to hear", Aeon replied. "I would not want to be on your bad side."
"Truly?" Death produced his scythe at his side. "Even after your soul is again beyond my grasp?"
"Do you believe I was ever afraid?"
The human was moved closer to Death's visage. "Are you?"
Without warning, Aeon leapt at him and landed on the verge of the reaper's eye socket. After taking a single breath, he stepped inside. A small amount of climbing later, he leaned against the inside of Death's skull. "I suppose not."
"Perhaps you should be afraid."
Aeon shook his head. "It would be..."
With no further hesitation, Death claimed his soul.
Aeon's reaction was pure surprise. And then panic. After all, he had been using his power to hold the rift open. With his power cut off, they would...
...no. Of course not. Why would the rift collapse? There was a great and powerful Time Reaper holding it open. How silly of him.
"That was unexpected", he admitted to the entity around him. "Is this my end, then?"
"No", the reaper replied. "You deserve to be spared." His voice darkened. "But five minutes remain, and I have not yet tasted your soul."
Insignificant as it had been, he enjoyed that. Considering how Eric had reacted earlier, perhaps Aeon did too.
Death could have almost smiled, if it was physically possible. A day without reaping. Combat against a wide enough assortment of opponents to justify calling it a tournament, and one he had won. A battle for the sake of mankind, and he had emerged victorious, and earned the respect of many of his most hated enemies. Even if they would not remember it.
And while his temporary reward was limited to the point that it took on the air of responsibility, he had found a way to make it truly valuable. And the time traveler hadn't even noticed.
Or maybe he had. It was impossible to figure out what he was thinking.
He had opened a portal back to 1944, later on the same day that he had been pulled from time, and it led directly back to Dracula's castle. All of that was true. The real trick was where in the castle he would arrive.
With such temporal power at his fingertips, he had been able to perceive the entirety of the universe on that day. Every town. Every mortal. Every facet of the dimension.
...and he had found Brauner.
Paintings containing alternate dimensions? A clever trick. Especially since it was one that he was physically incapable of detecting or countering. Until now. He had found his enemy. And he had opened his portal directly to his location. Inside the painting.
He emerged to find that the young vampire hunters had beaten them there. Excellent. More witnesses.
His scythe was sharp. Even against a so-called dark lord, all it took was one slice.
The vampire's soul was powerful enough. The magic of the paintings had dispersed, and the throne room was once again open. It was time for Lord Dracula to return.
He had experienced this moment on many occasions. This time, he relished it more than ever.
He was floating in the throne room of his master's castle. He could feel the sheer life coming from its walls. After spending the day with its cold, dead corpse, it was a welcome change.
Lord Dracula stood beneath him, sipping from his glass. He had not been given enough time to recover his strength. It didn't matter. Death had met his incarnation from the turn of the millennium, and witnessed the sheer power he had held. And he had still beaten him in combat. He truly was his master's champion, and he knew perfectly well that if his liege was ever threatened, he would be there to protect him until his body could no longer move. He was the superior. He was the guardian.
The vampire hunters arrived. He was ready.
"Why did you revive me?"
The battle had not gone as well as Death had hoped. In fact, he realized, in the excitement of his success, he had forgotten his theory. Divine providence may have supported his enemies again, even as it had abandoned them in the time rift.
Still, he had to admit, he enjoyed the concept. His master had offered to fight alongside him as they faced their young opponents. He accepted wholeheartedly, and while this meant he could no longer afford to summon his sickles in fear that they could strike his lord, they had found new ways to combine their talents. He had provided a flurry of sickles for his lord to immolate, creating a devastating wave of unholy fire. He had combined his power with his scythe and allowed his master to wield him, and the resulting magical effect was truly devastating.
But in the end, Dracula was weaker than usual, and he fell first.
At least, until Death decided to repay his favor from earlier. Dracula could not be allowed to lose, even if he had to feed him every ounce of his own power. And the last thing he had felt was the sheer bliss of his master devouring his soul, and growing to his full strength again...
"I apologize, my lord. I believed we had more of a chance to defeat them."
"You call this a chance?" Dracula's soul berated him. "I gave you a strict order. Do not revive me until the fated year. I was to gather my strength for a final assault beyond their comprehension!"
"I know, my lord. It will not happen again."
Dracula was not finished. "How did the Morris awaken the whip?"
"It was the Lecarde clan, my lord. You know of them."
"He did not travel with a Lecarde. The father was dead, and the children were vampires. At what time did he have the opportunity?"
"...I... believe the witch cured their condition."
"How? You know our greatest chance for success is to weaken the whip. You should have stopped her!"
"Do you remember your words before our battle? I believe you said 'this time, we fight for real'."
"Does that not directly imply that you fought them already, without intent to win? Why?"
Death had not been prepared for this onslaught of accusations. He had only one explanation for everything, of course.
"My lord, there was a usurper!"
Dracula calmed slightly. "You will elaborate."
"His name was Brauner. He took your castle and your power."
"Indeed", the dark lord considered. "It would explain why my power had been weakened so." His expression became angry again. "Why did you allow this to happen?"
"My lord, I tried to stop him."
"In truth? Evidence suggests that he was in existence for over a week, while my return lasted less than an hour. Are you truly so ineffectual?"
"No! I simply could not reap him!"
"So instead, at the moment he became the dark lord, you made the decision to serve him."
Death was utterly stunned. "No, my lord! I would never do that!"
"You would. You did the same thing to Bernhard. And that was why you came crawling back to me once the Morris ended his reign. Why else would you behave so much like a disgusting sycophant?"
Death could not bring himself to argue anymore. His shock was too great. His master, the one he had loyally supported for nearly nine centuries now, was accusing him of being a traitor. And unlike his similar reaction in the time rift, he truly meant it.
If he had known just how much stress he had gone through trying to figure out a way to defeat Brauner...
If he had known his state of mind, the one that had convinced him that he could truly support his master that day...
If he had known exactly how much power he had turned down, potentially enough power to dictate the very course of existence, to stay at his side...
Death knew, no matter how much he argued, that it would not matter.
Dracula would come back one more time. It was fated. And he would lose, and he would no longer be the dark lord.
Death had seen this. And Aeon had made it perfectly clear, in his odd way. As he knew what would happen in the future, he was no longer in any position to change it.
Any effort to win himself back into the heart of his master would be wasted. All he could do now was fulfill his duty. It would soon be over. There would be more dark lords. He did not know if he would meet with any of them. And no matter what happened, ten thousand years from now, there would be Galamoth.
He delivered Dracula's soul to a safe resting place and returned to his reaping. No further words were spoken.
Many decades passed.
At one point in the early 1970s, a dhampir disappeared from his sleep, only to be returned shortly afterward. Hundreds of miles away in Wallachia, a strange mark appeared on a mountain face.
Nothing became of it.
In the late 1990s, a famous prophecy came to fruition. The dark lord Dracula took his most powerful form yet and engaged in what would be his final attack on mankind. And the grim reaper, too, was at his side.
He never spoke.
There was a brief moment when the lord of darkness vanished from existence, only to return shortly afterward. And when he did, he returned with a great deal on his mind.
In an uncharacteristic move for the man, he apologized to the reaper. He would not call it an apology, of course, and it was not phrased in any manner that suggested true regret. Such was not his style. But he did admit that he had misunderstood his subordinate, and he knew now that he had never had any intention of betraying him.
The reaper did not reply. It had been fifty-five years. He was too far gone.
A man by the name of Julius Belmont would be the one to defeat the dark lord, along with some trusted associates. One of them, the son of the dark lord himself, had composed a scheme with a Japanese family that would seal away Dracula and his castle for the remainder of eternity.
The individual known as Hakuba was protected by many defenders. This was a key mission, and if its central person was to be killed before the ritual was over, then their efforts were for naught.
It was needless. No additional strike came. The reaper watched as his master was sealed away for good, and did nothing to prevent it.
Some have attempted to revive the dark lord since that day. A particular man named Soma has been involved in such conflicts several times. Each time, he faced the reaper. Each time, the reaper fought him. And when Soma won, he claimed the reaper's soul.
What was the reaper's intent? Did he regret the loss of his master and seek to reinstate him? Was he hoping for another person to take over the position? Was he merely seeking one more battle against those who could stand against him, trying to regain the glory he had once felt?
No one knew. He did not speak to anyone.
Aeon watched these events as they transpired. Sometimes, he thought, he wished he could have prevented them. While he refused to meddle in the affairs of good and evil, he could not help but think that his actions, as vital as they had been to the timeline, had only served in time to utterly devastate the reaper. And it was that devastation that would cause him to become the Time Reaper when the opportunity arose again.
He could have done nothing, of course. He could not erase the memory of a god.
Even if he could, he would not have done it. Perhaps this outcome had been fated for the grim reaper after all, regardless of his actions. The more important thing was that he had met him in person and led him down the road to an experience that he had truly treasured. And he would never take those memories from him.
It was the only time in history that anyone had ever seen Death act so... alive.