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“This won’t hurt a bit.”

The metal bites their back and the hunter can feel the deadening numbness sinking into their flesh.

They had not expected this to go so horribly wrong.

Upon finding the pathway to Central Yharnam, they were pleasantly surprised to discover that they had circled all the way back to the clinic they had first awakened in. They were less than pleased to find the inhuman remains of the clinic’s original human owner. Even more concerning was the behavior of the woman who had been impersonating her.

The threaded cane moves far more deftly than their heavy axe. She presses forward, not allowing them to retreat and administer blood. They take a desperate swing and stumble forward with momentum when she dodges. The bladed whip twists around their wrist and shreds through their glove.

Despite her insisting otherwise, the poison now coursing through their system stung as it traveled. It was as if their nerves screamed out for a split second before the sedating effect turned the signals to static.

The imposter wrenches the whip to the side. The axe falls from their hands. Their arm twists, she belts out a triumphant laugh, and the hunter crumples to their knees. Her knee slams into their temple. Their vision swims, dims, and they feel their forehead hit off the wooden floor.

 


 

When they come to, they feel as if they have traveled back in time; the ceiling feels burned into their memory. They’re on the same gurney, they figure, that they began the hunt on. This time, however, they can feel the tightness of leather straps holding down their wrists and ankles. They can see a thin tube running from the inside of their elbow to a glass container too hazy to discern what is inside. Their tongue feels thick, heavy, and useless in their mouth.

They drift in and out of cognizance. At their most lucid they can feel panic pooling in their guts, fear and anger rotting into nervous sickness as they press vainly against the restraints. When their thoughts grow foggier it is the most they can do to stare unblinking at the familiar ceiling.

It is in one of their less aware moments when the false Iosefka finally visits them. They can see her sitting with her legs crossed in the corner of their vision, a spot of white in the darkness of the room.

“Awake, are you? I suppose it's true, then, what I've been told about hunters. You're gifted with an exceptional metabolism. I have you taking enough sedative to murder a horse."

The hunter tilts their head upward to look at her; it feels like lifting a boulder. She purses her lips and toys with the hem of one of the layers of her dress.

“I’m glad you’re here, to be honest. It’s obvious that you do not appreciate my work. I can at least try to convince you otherwise.” The corners of her lips tug upwards into a terse smile and she laughs breathily.

The hunter struggles to speak. “Your work.” Their voice is low and hoarse. They swallow and clear their throat. “You’re mad.”

She tsks. “You’ve just yet to understand. I’ll be patient for you.”

Their head falls back onto the operating table with a thunk. “I’m the patient.”

There’s a long pause. As they drift upon the edge of consciousness they hear her snicker. 

 


 

They snap back into awareness an unknown amount of time later. The tube in their elbow has been removed. The restraints, however, have not. They can see the woman standing over a nearby desk and the hunter can hear the clinking of small pieces of metal.

Now that they are sober, they can truly take her in; pale eyes, blonde hair, familiar Church garb. The threaded cane is at her side.

The hunter clears their throat.

She turns and smiles. “Ah! There you are. I wanted you to be present for the full process. I’ll be waiting for my dilution to finish before we really begin, so at the very least I can start getting you acclimated.”

A process sounds awfully ominous to the hunter and they feel that it should be avoided at all costs. However, their weapons and materials have been taken from them. If they are going to battle, they think, it will have to be a battle of wits.

They feign defeat, forcing tension from their overwound muscles. “Okay. Acclimate me.”

She smirks, brushes her hands off on her skirts, and then tents her fingers in front of her mouth. Her eyes glint with curiosity as she matches stares with the hunter.

“A few questions before we begin,” she finally says. “Have you dabbled in any substances prohibited by the Church?”

They consider the question; not because they want their answer to be comprehensively truthful but because they wonder if it will affect her desire to impose her process upon them. “Beast blood,” they answer. “The compressed pellets. For the hunt.”

“Of course, of course,” she replies, nodding. “Do you remember how many times?”

They shrug as well as they can while restrained and prone.

“No matter. Another question. Have you ever eaten something or come in contact with a substance that makes you unduly sick?”

An allergy? They furrow their eyebrows. “Not sure. I’ve eaten seafood that’s disagreed with me, but it may have been incidental.”

“Have you suffered from any life-threatening illnesses?”

The hunter can’t help but laugh. “Why do you think I hauled myself to Yharnam? To take a tour?”

“You received blood treatment, correct?”

“Yes,” they reply. “Here.”

“What a coincidence,” she says dryly. “To be cured once more in the same clinic.”

“And by a far more agreeable looking physician,” the hunter says, equally sardonic, “though you are severely lacking in bedside manner.”

She waves her hand dismissively but a smile is tugging at her lips. “Moving on. Do you ever find that you lose yourself during the hunt?”

The hunter pauses, then shakes their head and prepares to lie. “No. I’ve remained lucid. More than I want to, given the state of this place.” They feel trepidation when it comes to sharing the dreams, the visions, the lost time, the days-long night that has them losing track of when and where they are. Better to pretend they were still as fresh as they were when scrambling through Central Yharnam.

If she doubts them, she shows it through no more than a slight tilt of her head. “Have you seen anything that you feel you cannot explain?”

“Such as?” The hunter narrows their eyes.

She throws her hands wide. “Anything. Surely you’ve heard of the beastly illness afflicting the city before. Sometimes, though, it rears its head in ways that are new and bizarre. Strange symptoms that could be emblematic of something beyond beasthood. When you entered the clinic,” she leans forward now, whispering almost conspiratorially, “you surely saw…?”

Their stomach twists; she means the pitiful blue creature that they had killed out of a mixture of disgust and mercy. “I’ve had a few insights into that sort of thing, yes.”

“Good.” She leans back, resting her elbows upon the surface of the desk. “One more question and we can begin.” She schools her face into seriousness. “Have you laid with any others during the hunt?”

The hunter snorts, taken aback. “Is that your business?”

“It’s more important than you would think.”

“How could that possibly be important?”

“People with child undergo high amounts of stress even without the hunt—”

“No, I haven’t,” the hunter snaps.

“There’s no need to be shy about it. I’m no prude.”

“Neither am I,” they retort.

“So you’re absolutely sure that you’ve had no intercourse—”

“I haven’t.”

She laughs. “Ever?”

The hunter simply glares.

“How fortuitous,” she says teasingly. “Perhaps I can finally put to rest the myths about virgin’s blood.”

“I’m not,” if the hunter could, they would rest their face in their hands, “a virgin. I just haven’t gone seeking it out during the damn hunt.”

She purses her lips. “Then it’s been some time, hasn’t it?”

There’s something to her tone that gives the hunter pause. They consider, reconsider, and try to reach a consensus.

“It isn’t as if I’m rusty,” they reply.

“Of course not.” She quirks an eyebrow. “Have you felt no desire to do so during the hunt at all?”

They shake their head. “Too busy trying not to die.” She doesn’t need to know about quick and desperate sessions spent with their own hand in dark, safe corners. It was stress relief more than anything and when they remembered to do so they cleaned all the blood off beforehand.

“Well, you’re safe here,” she says without a hint of irony.

“Is that an invitation?”

Her expression is of mock surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“You seem more interested in my ability to satisfy than my ability to be experimented on.”

“Oh, no,” she says, smirking. “I’m still very focused on treating you.”

“The treat would be yours, I assure you.”

She barks out a laugh. "I've caught myself a Casanova! Do you expect me to lift my skirts and then hand you the keys to the place when you've finished? You'd do better to expect otherwise."

“I don’t expect that at all,” they say with a smile. “Just a bit of fun before you most likely kill me.”

“I’ve never killed a patient,” she replies with a pout.

Just made them as good as dead, they think, but they bite their tongue.

She steps forward, stands at the side of the gurney, and taps her fingers against the metal. “I wouldn’t be averse to such a diversion, but I really must finish preparations.”

To their surprise, she clambers onto the table. In their shock they wriggle under her weight, wincing as she presses against some sore spots on their abdomen.

She straddles their chest. “Stay still, would you?”

The hunter attempts to calm down. Her fingers press against their neck, cool against their almost feverish warmth. She peers at their pupils, checking for the signature iris tearing of beasthood. She uses one hand to grip their jaw.

“Open up,” she says, and they begrudgingly comply; she turns their head from side to side as she inspects their teeth.

“You’ve kept yourself rather clean.” She relents her grip and the hunter closes their mouth.

“Would you prefer me filthy?”

She tsks. “I’d prefer you quiet.”

“Then give my mouth something to do.”

“You dog! I’d muzzle you first.”

“Don’t be drastic. I’d only bite if you asked.”

“I think the problem is more you barking than biting.”

“Then take the leash off,” they say, pointedly tugging their wrist against the restraints, “and I’ll show you what a good dog I can be.”

Her eyes narrow. The hunter immediately knows that they have made a mistake. Her smile is thin, terse.

“Do you really think I would let you go that easily?”

The silence grows oppressive. The woman is still, unmoving on top of them, until she gathers the white fabric of her outfit in her fists. Her skirt bunches up around her waist. She rolls her hips in a way the hunter finds far too obscene. She notes the tinge of red on their otherwise ashen face. Her smile grows slowly and shows teeth.

“I’ll hold you to your words, good hunter. Go ahead and prove yourself to me.”

Her hips lower over their mouth. They reflexively try to lift their arms but their wrists only press against leather. Their lips push against warm dampness. Her fingers wind into their hair.

They’ve done worse to get out of better, they figure, as they run their tongue in a broad stroke along her cleft. In response, her grip tightens. Emboldened, they gather her clit into their mouth and carefully suck; their scalp twinges as she pulls upwards.

They find more satisfaction in hearing the sounds of her enjoyment than they expected. She’s quiet but frequent, small exhortations of approval washing over them as they bury their face in her. When she lets out a particularly loud gasp they hazard a glance upwards. She must have disrobed further while they were busy. They can glimpse the concave below her ribs covered with a gossamer sheen of sweat. Her hand is on her own breast. The expression on her face is enough to make them redouble their efforts just to witness her reaction.

She cries out and leans forward, practically pushing up against their nose in an effort to strengthen the contact.

They slow their pace, dragging their tongue along her outer folds; after a few seconds, she makes a sound of disapproval and pulls at their hair.

It doesn’t take much longer. She comes quietly but the hunter nearly suffocates when she clamps her thighs and rides it out on their face. She catches her breath, untenses, and allows the hunter to do so as well.

She pats their sodden face and smiles. “Well done.”

They feel a flush of warmth at her praise followed by a flash of panic. This plan was backfiring worse than a busted shotgun. Their eyes kept slipping from her glowing face, to the bunched-up fabric below her breasts, to the downy hair between her legs still positioned just above their face.

She slips her arms back into the sleeves of her dress and descends from the operating table nonchalantly. As she adjusts her skirts she looks back at the hunter over her shoulder. “I held you to your words so you should expect to hold me to mine.”

“And those were?” they ask, trying to hold back hope.

“I said I would love to try my hand at a hunter. I intend to do so.”

She smiles. Their stomach sinks.

 


 

Old blood, she had explained as she slipped a needle into their straining arms, calm and cool even as they spat and screamed at her. She looked just as ecstatic as she did mid-cunnilingus. Other injections followed and she rattled off ingredients that the hunter paid no attention to.

She even had the gall to run her hand through their hair when she had finished. By that point they were just exhausted and teary-eyed. The thing that made them feel the sickest is the arousal still lingering in their system.

“Have some faith,” she had said. “Give yourself time.”

They found themselves leaning into her touch as they drifted into unconsciousness.

 


 

They wake up, feel the churning in their stomach, and lean over the side of the table to hurl.

Their vomit is as dark and thick as pitch. It slides from their throat in a coagulated, sticky mass that makes them choke and struggle to breathe until it passes. They retch and shiver uncontrollably. Cold sweat trickles down their back.

For one strange moment, they feel ashamed—if they have rejected the blood treatment, then her experiment has failed and her time was wasted. They push the feeling away.

They lie back and try to even out their breathing. It isn’t long until she checks on them. She spots the dark stains on the floor immediately and claps her hands together.

“The first round is a success! You’re starting to shed your old organs!”

The hunter passes out.

 


 

Time passes indiscriminately. The hunter is grateful that they still look human, but they aren’t grateful for much else. The woman’s constant poking and prodding is making them lose their grip on reality. The fact that they feel almost relieved when she appears, if only for another human face, for someone to talk to, to mentally cling to in order to ignore the hideous writhing inside of them is evidence enough for their slipping sanity.

One session is different. There is no cart of mystery medicine, no array of needles or scalpels for rearranging their insides. It’s only her and the look of careful contemplation on her face.

“On your stomach, if you would.” The hunter watches with dull surprise as she unties them. They flex their wrist and feel the joint pop. She gestures at them impatiently. With growing trepidation, they roll over and lie on their belly.

“What is it that you’re doing?” they ask as they crane their neck in an attempt to look back at her.

She ignores them. Her hands hook under their hips and lift. “Hold yourself up,” she tells them, and they slide their knees forward in order to kneel. She reaches around them, unclasps their belt, and tugs at their waistband. She pulls down their pants and undergarments to their knees, then pushes their thighs apart. The hunter makes a sound of concern and goes tense.

“You’ve been very good for me,” she says reassuringly, “so I’m letting you have your turn.”

The hunter opens their mouth, then closes it, unsure of how to respond. Their face is warm with both shame and anticipation. They feel too exposed. The seconds drag on and they don’t understand what her intention is, as beyond removing their clothing she hasn’t made a move--

Her fingers dip between their legs.

The hunter bites their tongue and tries not to whimper.

 


 

“What is it that you’re doing?” they had asked, nodding their head towards the scattered gears on the desk.

“When I first arrived, there was a bit of a scuffle,” she explained. “This timepiece fell. I’ve been trying to put it back together.” She held up the outer housing, a fine piece of carved wood with an opalescent center face. The hands were of silvery latticed metal and the numerals were inserts of mother-of-pearl. She turned it around to reveal the gutted mechanisms. “If I follow the maker’s marks, then I should be able to get it in working order again. However, it seems to have been so well made that the marks are barely present. Much of it is guesswork.” She deftly inserted a few of the gears, slender fingers expertly fitting the pieces together.

The hunter wondered what the use of the clock was when the night seemed to last for weeks. To remake the clock to count the time of the hunt would result in something incomprehensible.

After a few moments of manipulation the hunter could hear a steady tick-tock-tick, and with a huff the imposter began pulling the pieces out again.

“I know what makes it tick. What I need is the form.” The clock came apart in her hands, then together again, then apart, but she still seemed unsatisfied.

 


 

The hunter comes apart by her hands. Their thoughts go white-hot and formless. They cry out and clench their thighs together, but her fingers are still at work. The feeling is strong enough to hurt. They choke back a sob and press their forehead against the table.

Finally, she removes her hand and wipes it off on their back. She hums, satisfied, and pats them with her palm.

 


 

They managed to escape not long after. The last treatment of old blood was blissfully interrupted by the discovery of bold hunter’s marks in a drawer. Left unrestrained under the assumption that they had become too weak to move, the hunter had dragged themselves to the desk in search of something, anything that they could use. They had almost cried when they found the slips of paper that must have been left by some other hunter on some other long night.

The only revenge that they had the strength to take was to steal a single minuscule gear from the scattered innards of the clock. They gripped it tightly, harsh enough against their palm to hurt as they dissolved back into the familiar dream.

Chapter Text

The hunter was in a bind.

After a particularly harrowing excursion into the labyrinthine depths of a chalice dungeon, the hunter had earned a constant burning pain in their lower abdomen. Even upon consecutive restorative deaths and having flooding their system with blood healing, the ache stubbornly remained. It twinged sharply with each movement and only seemed to grow worse with time.

It was something that they did not believe that they had the resources to fix, and neither did any of their trusted acquaintances. The nun was familiar with blood treatment but none of the other more visceral experiments of the church, and while the hunter would gladly trust the chapel dweller with their life they did not believe that the sheepish creature had any previous experiences with a scalpel.

There was only one person they had met during the hunt that they knew had memorized the obscure atlas of organs inside them and they had no desire to come in contact with her again, but when the pain began interfering with defending themselves during the hunt they knew that something had to be done. No amount of self-treatment or procrastination would fix the problem. They hoped as the claws of some fetid beast dug vainly through their dissipating body that the gouges it left behind would fix the issue for them.

They reawakened beside the lantern fully intact but guts still heavy with pain. They made a decision.

 


 

The wreckage of the lower loft of Iosefka’s Clinic was as familiar as ever. The congealed mess of blood where a wolf devoured a man still stained the floor, the scattered bottles and broken glass had earned a thin layer of dust over their original grime, and the strap-laden gurneys made the hunter avert their eyes.

With a long sigh, they stowed their axe at their side and ascended the stairwell. They couldn’t see very much through the crack-ridden gauzy glass window of the door. They knocked, waited, and then knocked again.

“So the prodigal pet project returns.” Her voice made them tense. They must have been too preoccupied with worry to hear her approach the doorway.

“I’ve a favor to ask.” They kept their voice steady and affected with calm.

“Oh, do you?” Her tone was laced with toxic sarcasm. “Let me just open this door so you may take what you need. More of my time, for instance. What else would you like to waste? Or are you on some maligned quest for revenge that you feel you’re owed?”

“No, that isn’t---” they paused, took a deep breath, and tried again. “There’s something wrong.”

There was no response, so they continued. “I think I’m sick with something—”

“You’re genuinely here for help.” Her comment was quiet and felt more like she was talking to herself than the hunter.

“Yes, I am.” The hunter waited and the silence stretched; they set their feverish forehead against the glass. “If you don’t wish to let me in because you think the risk too great then I understand, but in all honesty I should be the one to worry for my wellbeing in your damn lab—”

The door swung inward and they stumbled. The woman stared at them coolly as they regained their balance.

“Will you be willing to repay me for my time?” she asked.

Danger made the back of their neck prickle. They weren’t sure which time she meant, exactly. They held out a few glassy bubbles of kinblood and the slug-bursted skull of a madman in response.

Her eyes widened and her fingers twitched as if to snatch it away. “Are you quite serious?”

The hunter tossed them lightly. She all but dove forward in order to reach them, letting out a short cry as she caught the skull just before it could shatter on the ground. The hunter felt a bit safer now that her hands were full and they gave their surroundings a once-over. Their eyes widened in disbelief as they saw the timepiece ticking away upon the desk. Tick, tock, tick went the seconds spending themselves in intervals just uncanny enough to prick the hunter’s awareness. The stolen brass gear was a burning weight in their pocket.

She shuffled the delicate echoes in her arms and balanced the skull in the crook of her elbow. “Well, since you are quite serious.” She inclined her head and led the way to the inner portion of the clinic, past sheet-covered lumps of bodies and buckets congealed with filthy needles. The hunter felt their heart attempting to climb up out of their throat but followed with steady strides.

Upon reaching the room in the upper loft, she delicately set her payment upon a gurney and gestured for them to sit on a high-backed wooden chair. “Tell me what ails you.”

They took a seat, balancing upon the far edge of the seat. They pushed the presence of the restraining straps latticed across the wood from their mind. “There is a constant pain,” they explained, pointing at their gut, “here. It doesn’t leave even with blood. Or when I awaken anew. My fear is that I’ve contracted the sickness of Old Yharnam—”

She waved her hand dismissively and shook her head. “No.”

They raised an eyebrow. “No? Then is it something you did?”

“No.” She sighed loudly and crossed her arms, as if the idea were completely ridiculous. “Your reawakening undid all my hard work.”

“Then what is it?” they asked with growing exasperation. A sudden realization drained their face to deathly pale. “I couldn’t possibly be—”

“No, no. Of course not. Yours is a problem I’ve actually seen before.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “There’s a small organ in the place you’re complaining of—what likely happened is that you broke it open during the hunt but re-sealed it with blood. So, the bile meant to be inside the organ is now trapped on the outside and is hurting you.”

The hunter felt an odd twist of relief and exasperation. “Really? Something as simple as that?”

She nodded. “I could even fix it, if you like.”

The hunter did not like, but it was a necessary evil. “I paid you for a reason, didn’t I?”

“Only for a diagnosis,” she replied. A sharp smirk grew as she watched the hunter stiffen with indignation. “I jest, of course. I’ll have to make some preparations—”

“I’d prefer to get it over with,” the hunter snapped. “I’d rather not give you time to incubate some plot and hatch it on me while my insides are outsides.”

She pouted, exuding saccharine innocence. The hunter nearly gagged. “I would never,” she said, clasping her hands together. “I’ve quite given up on treating patients, you know. I'm just willing to make an exception for you.”

“I’ll believe you when I stop finding new bodies on your tables,” the hunter said flatly.

Now her affront seemed real; the pout twisted into a frown. “Those are old,” she explained. “I’ve just yet to clear them out. I haven’t taken on a new project since—since you left.”

The hunter tapped their fingers on the armrests of the chair but stopped when dark flakes of long-forgone blood stuck to their fingers. Instead, they crossed their leg and bounced their heel against their calf. They hoped that the silent treatment was making her nervous but in truth they just had no idea of how to respond.

In the end, she simply rolled her eyes and sighed. “You are at liberty to doubt me as much as you wish, but if you only want my help in this utterly banal and ultimately pointless way, then yes, I will do only as you ask.”

“Right.” The hunter uncrossed their legs and leaned forward. “So, what needs done?”

“I have to clean my equipment unless you want to take some infections with you. I’ll have to find anesthetic—”

“I’d prefer to stay awake.”

“Local anesthetic, then,” she clarified, waving her hand dismissively. “And blood, of course.”

“Of course.” The hunter rooted through their pockets for vials. “I can provide that.”

“I’ll have some general cleaning up to do, as well, just to clear up some space. And you need work as well,” she said, pointing at them. “You’re too tense. I can’t risk you deciding to attack me while I’m working.”

The hunter’s eyes narrowed. “And what do you suggest?”

“A nap, for starters. When was the last time you slept?”

The hunter ground their teeth. The bags under their eyes likely rivaled the ones wielded by the kidnappers.

She gestured for them to follow her, and with a sigh they shoved their fists into their pockets and trailed behind her. A door hidden half by shadow and half by a pile of molding literature led them yet higher into the clinic. The staircase was narrow and spiraled upwards before ending at a door that the woman paused to unlock. Inside was a compact bedroom that seemed hastily thrown together but the contents made the hunter jealous. Not even the Dream could boast of a goosefeather mattress and a down comforter. The wooden frame was cattycorner to the wall and surrounded by half-melted candles and scrawled notes, but the cloudlike contents of the bed made the hunter all too aware of their coiled muscles, echoing with strain like a too-tight violin bow about to snap against the strings.

“I am being genuine,” the woman said quietly as she gestured towards the mattress. “Rest and prepare yourself. I’ll have a whole room to clean before I can do anything for you.”

They sat upon the bed with a huff, disguising the fact that sinking a few inches into the welcoming softness made them want to moan. “Well, my apologies for being wary. Not long ago,” the hunter said tersely, “you held me against my will and reupholstered my insides.”

“Not long ago,” she said, and the corner of her mouth quirked upwards, “time made and makes for strange bedfellows.”

The hunter took pause. They stared at her, at her heavy-lidded eyes, at the strands of light hair stuck to her flushed cheeks. For some reason they thought her flushed face was not wholly caused by the climb up the stairwell.

She raised an eyebrow. “Good hunter. Do you need assistance in resting?”

The hunter swallowed, suddenly parched. “Perhaps.”

She discarded her clothes. The white dress fell to the floor like shed snake skin. A hand was placed on the hunter’s shoulder, weaving under their layered overcoat and pressing against them; they sank into the bed with a long exhale. Her other hand untucked their undershirt and slid up their sides; they almost had to wriggle away from the ticklish sensation.

The hunter was struck with the realization that they finally had the opportunity to make their own moves since they were, for once, not strapped to the surface they were laying on; however, the way she was practically sitting on top of them combined with the naked smoldering want in her eyes made them feel paralyzed.

She leaned forward, dragging her lips along their clavicle. They could feel the warm puff of her breath against their skin as she slowly kissed her way downward until stopped by their undershirt. At that she paused and leaned back, suddenly appearing pensive.

“I wish it hadn’t ended like that,” she stated. “You were so close to understanding, yet you left.”

The hunter stared at her, their abrupt arousal just as quickly souring to disbelief. “I think I’ve made my position on the whole thing very clear.”

“I know.” She hooked her thumbs beneath her undergarments and began pulling them down. “I just wish that you would have let yourself been convinced.”

“I really don’t think that you—”

Whatever response they were beginning to spit back died on the tip of their tongue. She finished fully disrobing and what the hunter saw gave them pause. There were needle marks across her abdomen, curved like a crescent moon along the bottom of her belly. The hunter lightly dragged a fingertip against them in awe.

She smiled. “This is my proof. I don’t need you to proceed. I’ll simply do what you ask of me.”

“You’re going to do it to yourself,” the hunter stated, still in such surprise that the meaning of what she had said drifted right past them. “Why?”

Her eyes narrowed. “You ask me why. Do you know how jealous I am of you?”

“What?”

“You reek of the moon. What I wouldn’t give…” Her hands slid up their chest and came to rest in a loose grip around their throat. “You don’t know how lucky you are. How close you are.”

Worry twisted in their guts but she did not tighten her grip. She merely took a breath, smiled, and then patted their face. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so disappointed that you left. I failed to convince you of how ascending further could have helped.”

Helped me?” They sat up, wincing as her weight shifted to their thighs and briefly pressed against their sore spot.

“Yes,” she said, pouting. “I was only doing what was best for you.” She leaned forward, placing her chest against theirs, but they pressed the flat of their hand against her and pushed her back.

“Do you even understand what you did?” they said, feeling as if they have to bite off every word to keep from yelling. “You kept me here—”

“I know that it might have been frightening for you,” she said as if explaining something to a small child, “but in the end, it would have been worth it. You could have been so much more than what you are now.”

They sighed, exasperatedly, helplessly; it’s like arguing with a brick wall. In response, her eyebrows furrow and the hunter swears they spot the initial glistening of tears.

“You don’t understand and you never will. I’ve come to terms with that. But do not insult my work and do not devalue what I could have done for you.”

They held up their hands in surrender. “I’m not trying to insult you. I just wish you’d try and understand me, as well.”

At this she paused, face blank. The hunter could practically see the gears turning.

“Is there anything,” she said finally, “that would make you feel as if your wrongs are righted?”

The hunter tilted their head thoughtfully. A grin slowly grew on their face. “Let me be on top this time.”

She snorted a laugh and the hunter could see the relief eminent in the slump of her shoulders. She flopped onto the other side of the mattress and hooked her arms behind her head, resting in the resulting cradle made by her interlaced fingers. She spread her legs as if they were in stirrups. The sight was so ridiculous that the hunter couldn’t help but snicker.

“Well?” Her tone was soaked with sarcasm. “Any other requests? A particular volume at which I should moan?”

“Moaning is to be done at your own discretion,” the hunter replied, hurriedly trying to remove the myriad belts and clasps of their outfit. They tossed it to the floor in a heap before crawling on top of her. “I just wanted to have a modicum of control for once.”

She hummed, tracing her fingers along their chest. “You think me laying back means that you’re in charge?”

“If only by a hair.” They slide their own hands up her thighs and into the welcoming wetness between them. One finger crooks inside while the other hand begins to rub slow circles.

For a few moments they are victorious; she arches her back and enjoys the sensations before abruptly clamping her hands onto their hips. One thumb digs in above the bone and pain explodes in their abdomen. They cry out and their legs go limp, sending them collapsing against her.

When they open their eyes, she looks as smug as a snake that has discovered it can slither through a mouse hole. The pressure on their hip is now light but an odd heat flashes through them at the knowledge that she could easily press again.

They kiss her because it is the only thing that they feel they can do. Her mouth is firm against theirs, opening only to bite lightly on their bottom lip. One hand stays on their hip while the other pushes their thighs apart.

They feel as if they are dissolving in her arms like seafoam against a shore. It’s ebb and flow, ebb and flow, her hips curving against theirs. When the levee breaks, they feel sore and drained and strangely lightheaded. She comes soon after them with a satisfied smile. Her fingertips drag against the angry red scratches that she has raised on their back and the hunter shivers.

“I think that I really should rest,” they say quietly.

“Of course,” she replies with a nod. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and gathers her clothes. The hunter watches in a daze as she slips on the church garb and fixes her hair.

 


 

Sleep is a welcoming abyss. It is the first in a long time that the hunter is not plagued by any form of dream.

The room the woman has prepared is the one near the entranceway. The hunter had figured that the gurneys were silver metal beneath the grime but it was still a surprise to see one so pristine. They hoist themselves atop it and try to ignore the worry writhing in their gut like tangled snakes. Seeing the clock ticking in its place on the desk piques their interest and they try to make sense of its staccato rhythm. Each time they believe they’ve discovered a pattern the intervals change and they’re left with nothing but confusion.

The woman arrives with a cart sparsely populated with supplies and motions for them to lie back. They’re thankful that she is all business this time around and offers no flirtatious overtures as she cleans a patch of skin on their abdomen with a soaked strip of cotton. She injects something several times along her chosen site and the hunter feels the sensation there fade away.

Finally—they brace themselves, a thin book in their mouth to keep teeth from grinding, a death grip on the operating table to keep from instinctively defending themselves—she makes the cut. They don’t particularly want to watch but force themselves to. The blood wells slowly and she keeps dabbing it away with a new cloth as she cuts a bit deeper—and now the hunter can feel echoes of pain, places the medication cannot reach being torn upon the edge of a scalpel.

She snicks something with the knife and pulls it out: a tiny scrap of organ barely even the size of her thumb. They watch as she sets it in a tray and begins the work of cleaning up the thing’s mess—that something so small could cause such havoc amazes the hunter—and they watch with disgust as she clears them out, streaks of yellow pus smearing over blood on her cloth. Eventually their guts are tidy enough for her liking and she offers them a wan smile. They return it by nodding, feeling great relief now that the ordeal has ended.

Her finger slips inside the incision. It drags against the torn flesh before overcoming static friction and sliding along their blood. The hunter flinches violently, the drool-covered book falling from their mouth. Her other hand pushes on their chest, hard, and keeps them from rearing up.

“It isn’t too late, you know,” she says. “To surpass your own stupidity.”

The hunter shudders and has to bite the inside of their cheeks to keep from screaming. “Finish it, gods, just finish it, don’t play around like this,” they beg, voice wavering higher in pitch as her finger digs deeper, beyond what the cut was meant to reveal. They can hear the damned clock ticking away their time. Her nail scrapes something deep inside and it hurts, they can sense it in the sharp pain that makes it feel as if pierced by fang instead of finger.

“Come with me,” she says pleadingly, pushing in a second fingertip. The hunter’s mouth falls open and they recite a frenzied mantra of please, please but they can’t seem to say what it is they want her to do.

When her fingers crook inside them they kick wildly, catching her shoulder with their heel; her fingers slip out of the wound. They push against the surface of the gurney and roll to the side, not heeding the drop to the floor nor the blood seeping from their incision. They land heavily, knocking their skull against the wood. They purposefully knock over the cart and search on hands and knees for any spilled blood vials. They shove three at once into their thigh in their panic. One pierces them but falls out and spurts blood onto the floor. The other two infuse them with vitality and they feel the wound stitch itself shut.

The woman has backed away now and is simply watching them as one would watch a cornered animal. Her hand hovers over her threaded cane, their blood still dripping from her fingertips.

The clock chimed the hour; apparently, it was three o’clock. The sound, absurd in its misplacement, defused the tension.

“I am going to leave now,” the hunter said.

She was silent, merely watching as they stood and gathered their things. They tightened their belt, relishing the fact that it no longer sent a spurt of pain through them. They dug in their pockets and found the missing gear. They tossed it onto the blood-smeared gurney and crushed a bold hunters mark in their fist.

 


 

When they eventually return, they aren’t sure why they do so. Perhaps her fingers can help dig out the incessant cry of the spectral infant haunting their brain. Perhaps they’re curious as to if she’s become one of the pitiful blue emissaries or if she’s simply died from her self-treatment.

They find her on the second floor, kneeling on a table and shaking uncontrollably. The strange twitches seem to travel up her body in waves, starting at her hips and ending with her hands as she grasps at something invisible. Her eyes are hazy but she focuses on the hunter and smiles.

“You’re a bit…late, I’m afraid.” She nods her shuddering head towards the desk.

The hunter spots the wreckage of the clock, its gears scattered across the wood and some parts having even fallen to the floor. The face of it is shattered. They swivel their head and fix their gaze upon the woman, who appears to be dry retching.

“God, I’m nauseous…have you ever felt this?” She briefly clutches at her belly and winces but never loses her vacant smile. “It’s progressing. I can see things.”

She continues mumbling, claiming to be more than mere beast, but the hunter can see things as well. The time she was following was that of a serpent choking on its own tail, drowning in its own offal, tangled upon itself in endless knots. The hunter doubts that she would ever come to terms with that. As she grasps at the pain in her stomach, they also doubt that she would ever come to term, period.

The hunter takes a seat beside her. She looks at them with eyes fast growing tears, whether of pain or joy or both the hunter does not know.

“Don’t you see? How they writhe, inside my head. It’s rather…rapturous.” The last word is a gasp, a prayer; her eyes briefly roll back in her head.

There’s nothing more to be said. The hunter leaves her to herself but is kind enough to haul the down comforter from the bedroom to the operating table. They wrap her in it to at least ward off the chill. She takes little notice of the blanket but grasps their hand just as they feel prepared to make their exit. She holds it only briefly, nails digging into their palm, before her hand drops and her focus returns to her writhing.

The hunter stays for seconds that feel like years. When they can bear it no longer they leave via the first floor lantern and do not return.