The heavy feeling of weariness was overpowering. Within the crumbling ruins of a town leveled by the ignorance of humans, a dark-clad figure stood before a massive wooden cross as if in silent vigil, ebony cloak flapping violently in the bitterly-cold winds of the approaching evening.
I thought my journey would have brought me some sort of peace, Alucard mused, one gloved hand placed over the left side of his chest, as though in pain. But...there is always something missing. Always that emptiness that refuses to be filled.
The dhampire winced as he dwelled on his father's last moments. "You were doomed ever since you lost the ability to love," he had told him. His father had thought the statement was sarcastic… Alucard remembered the scorn he himself had felt and the anger that had been evident in his own voice...and now he regretted having shown such resentment. Even if Dracula, his father, had missed the barely hidden traces of pain in his own son’s voice.
"For what profit is it to a man if he gains the world and loses his own soul...?" Dracula had spoken as he slipped into the nether worlds. The words seemed so painfully clear now. Alucard's gaze averted to the delicate white rose in his other hand. The only consolation he now had was the hope that his father and mother were reunited once more, in peace. They would not have to face the icy hatred that humanity was known for. If only more humans could be as understanding as you were, Mother, he thought sorrowfully. If that were so, none of this madness would have to exist...
The dark clouds that threateningly loomed overhead cast eerie shadows over the large wooden cross that graced the center of the ruined town. Alucard could feel his eyes lock upon the humble structure as another pang of sorrow stabbed his hollow soul. If only he could see his mother now... He missed her sweet, calming voice that he remembered so clearly from his childhood. And more than ever, he felt the need for her reassuring voice.
Kneeling before the massive wooden monument, Alucard placed the white rose upon the cold ground and silently made the sign of the cross. This would be his last, lingering moment within the mortal world, the final moment he had before he would return to his eternal slumber. His cursed blood prevented him from living among humans. He would always be alone, forever doomed to be embraced by the darkness...
Rising to his feet, Alucard stared down at the fragile rose that lay on the cold ground. The ivory-colored bloom wavered slightly as the chill breeze nipped its petals. Dead leaves from the surrounding wood began to collect at the rose's side, painfully reminding the dhampire of how the villagers mobbed his mother and sent her to her flaming doom. It seems so out of place there, he thought once more. Quavering in solitude with not a soul to turn to for comfort...and everyone lashing against it. How odd that I can relate to such feelings.
Without so much as an ounce of effort, Alucard's mind drifted to a different subject...the radiant visage of the one person who actually understood who and what he was...Maria. Without her help, he may have not been able to stop his father and help him come to realization about his corrupt ways. The dhampire let out a soft sigh as he closed his eyes partway, envisioning the brave young woman who had come to his aid. The emptiness within his soul was panging once more. Now he knew just who it was pining for.
"Maria," Alucard murmured, clasping his chest a second time, "I am truly sorry I left in such haste...but the blood within my veins has condemned me to a life of that of an outcast. My father would say that I have the blood of a noble within me...but humanity would state otherwise. Which side should I believe...?"
The only response was the vicious howling of the wind. Alucard fell silent. Now…he realized the only choice available was the infinite blackness of eternal sleep, he realized. Maria had been one of the few to understand him. Alas, even if he had but one chance, he could never confess his feelings to her.
Alucard slowly opened his heavy eyes. Nothing seemed to change...not the oaken cross, not the murky skies, not the white rose or the chilled grass...and not the painful fact that he was still alone. Nothing will change that fact, he realized as he turned away from his mother's forlorn grave. Fate has thrown me into a life of solitude. If only I could see Maria one last time before I finally go...
As if to punctuate the dhampire’s thoughts, the chilling wind whipped up into a furor...just before they died off completely.
Alucard’s heightened senses literally screamed to him that he was no longer the only one within the quiet ruins. His heart leapt in response; the scent of the newcomer's blood was familiar...so familiar that he found himself halt from shock.
From the forested edge of the ruins, the shadowed outline of a running form approached swiftly. A young woman, one with long golden tresses framing her shoulders and a hunter's green outfit hugging her lithe frame. The fact that she was greatly exhausted was evident; her once steady pace seemed burdened and her breathing was hard-won. The very sight of her made Alucard's mind reel.
Is...it possible...? he thought, eyes widening. Could it truly be...
Alucard suddenly found his voice acting with a will of its own when he suddenly realized just who was advancing towards him.
That voice! At last, I’ve found him!
Maria never remembered feeling so relieved in her entire life. She felt as though her wildly-thumping heart would explode when she heard the familiar voice gasp out her name. Skidding to a halt, the young woman heavily collapsed to her knees, gasping for air. "Thank God," she managed to wheeze to herself. "I’ve finally found him! Now…I just hope…he doesn’t vanish again…!"
Shaking off the fatigue that shackled itself to her body, Maria, unsteadily, lurched back to her feet and hoped that her tired legs wouldn’t go out from under her again. What should I say to him? she wondered cautiously as her breathing became more normal. Alucard wasn’t expecting me to follow him…
The sound of rapid footfalls approaching was enough to cause Maria’s heart to spiral into another fit of fluttering. She shakily fell to her knees again. What would she say? What COULD she say? The young woman barely had an inkling of what Alucard’s next reaction would be. But the persistent sense of worry that she felt for him quelled her previous anxieties. She just felt relieved that he was all right.
The footfalls stopped. Gradually looking up, Maria saw the tall, dark visage of Alucard standing beside her own hunkered-down form. His expression did not seem to shift from the typical calm and dignified one that she was ever so used to seeing…but there was something somewhat different this time. A small hint of worry glinted within his eyes.
Alucard kneeled down next to the worn-out Maria. "Why did you follow me?" he said in his smooth, cultured voice, but then shook his head, canceling his statement as he placed a gloved hand on the young woman’s shoulder. "Nevermind that. More importantly, are you all right?"
Maria’s heart skipped a beat. She just couldn’t understand why she suddenly felt so nervous! Silently gulping down the lump that suddenly pushed its way up her throat, she nodded weakly. "I’m fine, just a bit tired."
Alucard nodded as well and offered a gloved hand to Maria. "I was not expecting to see you so soon," he said as the young woman gratefully took the offer. He gently helped her back to her feet. "Still…’twould have been better that you stayed with Richter…"
Maria’s face was immediately shadowed with a frown. "And leave you all alone like that?" she said, seemingly frustrated. She crossed her thin arms and stared intently into Alucard’s stony eyes. The dhampire simply met her gaze calmly and without a word. Seeing her attempt at a feeble guilt trip fail miserably, the young hunter’s expression and shoulders dropped as she averted her gaze to the cold ground.
"I was worried about you," Maria finally confessed, her voice dropping to nothing more than a hushed tone. "When you found us after your father’s castle collapsed…I saw something within your eyes, heard something behind your voice." The young woman gazed into Alucard’s eyes once again, as though she was attempting to read his soul. "And I can still see what I saw before."
Alucard’s expression quickly softened. "And what is it that you see?" he questioned, his voice slightly audible.
Maria closed her eyes and lowered her head, as if making a confession to a priest. She might as well have been; Alucard’s eyes and voice were enough to bring out any hidden truths. "I see…I see sorrow. Grief. Confusion. All the emotions of a man torn by conflict."
Alucard’s voice died off in his throat when he found himself unable to deny what had been said. His head hung in shame. "If only I knew where to begin to tell you," he finally murmured hesitantly, looking up at the boiling clouds that loomed overhead. "Everything I have faced, all that I have seen…there has just been so much…!"
"That is why I came," Maria continued. Her voice, once quavering, quickly became stronger and more confident. "Alucard…I want to help you."
Alucard’s voice cracked as his gaze snapped back to Maria, his tone surprised. "H-Help me…?" he barely managed to sputter. "But…why? You know how my kind is treated! And any that have associated with my father or myself…they were never accepted by humans. Or, even worse, they…they were…"
The dhampire’s voice broke off suddenly, as if some sudden painful memory had surfaced from a distant, black lake of the mind. He turned his head, unable to look at Maria. His entire face became taunt. "My mother…" he said, voice oddly tight. "My mother was one such person. But because she dared to love my father…because she loved Dracula…her fellow townspeople burned her for what they saw to be a crime in their own eyes…"
Maria was utterly shocked to see a solitary tear streamed down from Alucard’s tightly clenched eyes. Never in her life had she seen such an emotional side to him. He had always been so calm, so noble, so gentlemanly! But the sight of the dhampire’s tears and vivid emotions evoked a stronger sense of respect from Maria. Sighing heavily, the young woman gingerly placed a hand on Alucard’s pale cheek.
"’Tis a good thing to share your feelings with another," Maria said softly. "Leaving them welled up inside is like letting a festering sickness sit in one’s stomach for too long."
Alucard finally opened his eyes and turned his head, looking back at Maria. His face, still wet with tears, was cloaked in grief. "Forgive me for my sudden outburst," he murmured apologetically. "Whenever I think of what happened to my mother, I just…"
Maria could feel sympathy creep into her heart as she listened to Alucard’s saddened words. His anger, she mused. His anger turns to grief…Yet he tries to hide his tears from others. Why does he shed tears before me, of all the people upon the Earth? So few understand his grief…perhaps that is why he tells me of his woes. I am one of the few who are willing to listen.
The young woman gently wiped away the tears from Alucard’s pale and grief-stricken face. "You have nothing to apologize about," she murmured in hopes of lifting his spirits. "Truly, it indeed takes a brave soul to let others know of one’s grief."
"Indeed," Alucard whispered. "Even so…my blood prevents me from living amongst humans. If I were to dare revealing my true identity, I would only be bringing suffering. I cannot bring suffering amongst mortals…I cannot burden my mother’s soul in such a way. ‘Twould be best that I returned to the rest I left behind…"
"But isn’t there a way that you could try to live your life as a human?" Maria persisted, intent on giving Alucard at least one reason to stay. "There is human blood within your veins, is there not? You are a man of honor, Alucard. You live by your code of honor by defending those weaker than yourself. That makes you more human than just about anyone I have seen or known. I am sure that your mother is proud of you. But running away solves nothing! If anything, it worsens pain and prolongs the inevitable!"
Alucard suddenly became utterly silent as Maria’s spirited words settled within his mind. The only sounds to interrupt the stillness were the high-pitched moaning of the wind and the rustle of a multitude of dead, shriveled leaves. Other than that, not a thing stirred…save for Maria’s wildly-thumping heart.
Oh God, the young woman prayed, her entire soul seeming to shiver. Please say that he won’t leave again…I’ve been searching so long!
For what seemed like an eternity, the painful silence continued. Maria felt as though her heart would explode in her quaking chest as she waited for Alucard to make some sort of response. Looking into his eyes, she could see that his gaze seemed distant, as though deep in thought. No doubt she had made some sort of impact with her words! But would her words alone be enough to convince the dhampire not to leave the mortal world…or her…?
Alucard’s eyes finally seemed to go into focus once more. His voice broke the uneasy silence with its confident tone.
"You are right," he murmured, taking Maria’s now-trembling hand into his own, still hands. "Running away will not solve anything. Perhaps it is time that I faced my heritage…"
Maria nodded. "And do not worry," she said. "You will not be facing the future alone." Her voice became greatly hushed. "Because…I will be with you to help you. I’ll make sure that you aren’t alone. This I swear!"
"I am thankful," Alucard whispered as he placed his other hand against the left side of his chest and bowed slightly. "And I am honored you have chosen to come. In a way…you remind me of my mother…"
Another moment of stillness settled between the two. Maria’s quaking heart finally began to calm as her wits collected; she had succeeded! The young woman resisted the sudden urge to throw her arms around Alucard’s shoulders and embrace him as a feeling of elation tingled through her soul. Instead, a low, guttural rumbling tolled through the skies, interrupting her triumphant thoughts. Much to her surprise, a solitary drop of cold rain spattered right beneath her left eye. "Rain…?" she muttered, looking up and blinking rapidly. "Damn, don’t tell me it’s starting to rain now!"
Several more droplets pattered against Maria’s face, as if to counter her words. The humid scents that followed the sudden drizzle were cloying, stagnant, almost unnatural. The hunter could feel a cold chill slither down her spine when all those scents crashed into her senses.
"This storm," Alucard said, his voice more of a murmur as his nose wrinkled in disgust. His stony gaze centered upon the skies as jagged streaks of lightning began to illuminate the heavens with their brilliance. "Something about this storm…it isn’t natural."
Maria clasped her bare arms and shivered as the temperature dropped slightly. "We don’t have any other choice," she said. "We have to find a town to seek shelter in, or this tempest’ll overwhelm us!"
Alucard unclasped the dark cloak upon his shoulders and draped it over Maria’s shivering form. "Are you certain that we will be safe within any of the cities that we might find?" he said with a note of hesitation. "I’m afraid of what could happen if someone found me out…"
Maria pulled the warm cloak snugly over her shoulders. "Just keep a low profile," she reassured the dhampire. She could feel herself becoming a slight bit more confident. "If anyone asks, I’ll just tell them that we’re only a pair of vampire hunters waiting for the storm to subside before moving on. It’s the truth, is it not?"
Alucard looked reluctant. "Are you sure that they’ll buy that story, even if it is the truth?"
"I don’t see why not!" Maria responded, an innocent smile forming on her face. "Who wouldn’t trust little ol’ me?"
The only reaction Alucard gave off was the raising of a thin eyebrow. Maria groaned mentally. Indeed, he IS honorable, she thought, but he’s so humorless…
"Perhaps it WOULD be a good idea to seek shelter," Alucard finally said as more jagged blades of lightning thundered through the evening sky. He glanced at Maria, who was still huddled beneath the cloak that seemed all too large for her slim form. He offered a gloved hand to her in gentlemanly fashion. "Which way shall we head?"
Maria smiled as she took hold of the offered hand. "The closest town is to the north, if my memory serves to be correct," she said, pointing towards the described direction.
"Very well then, let us be off…before this storm worsens any…"
Wasting not a single word, the pair, remaining close as to not lose one another in the approaching darkness, departed the solemn ruins, leaving it to its formerly undisturbed slumber.
Even so, the frail white rose that lay at the base of the somber wooden cross could do nothing as it was overwhelmed by the mob of wilted leaves that collected beside its shivering petals.
Such was fate…