Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
- Philip Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb”
The dream ends.
At the last he is as much beyond the beasts ordinary people become as his scintillant, incisive, far-ranging blade of a mind had been beyond their slow plodding thoughts.
You hold his head in your lap for a long time afterward. You kiss each of the long claws, still wet with your own blood; you press your face to the great cleft where you’d let his life out. You trace each starveling rib, the whole curving cage of them big enough to crawl into.
The night is long, and the moon very close; your hands are stiff with cold when at last you set to work with the knife.
The body transformed, hunted and slaughtered, flayed and strung up and burned; the mind destroyed; shall we call it the soul, then, which persists in the nightmare?
Brador, did you know that some part of Laurence would linger?
For killing, you find, you have a talent. Gehrman was the one who taught you at Byrgenwerth, what feels like a very long time ago; but since then you have parted ways. He has other students now. Every night hunter and beast hurl themselves at each other in the streets.
Beasts are not your business. Yours are the rabble-rousing abstainer who preaches against the blood; the counterfeiter who offers her customers filthy pig’s or horse’s blood; the spy in the Choir who reports to anxious magistrates; the anxious magistrates in their houses with windows barred against beasts, guarded by men who also take the blood for a little extra strength. The hunter who yet walks and talks and smiles like a man but whose compatriots have glimpsed his uncovered eyes and seen there the sign of the beast.
The Church will lift all of you up in time. But first there is work to be done upon this earth.
Laurence denies himself. He fasts intermittently, until his face grows gaunt, the hollowness of his cheeks only enhanced by the mask over his eyes. He abstains from blood ministration for days at a time, or restricts himself to a mere few drops, though always eventually the time comes when you find him in his chambers: his head lolling, the needle in his arm, his cheeks hectic with color.
He denies himself—you; but then you have never had the hold upon him that you would have liked. Laurence has always—tolerated you; he has called you dear Brador with a mocking gleam in his eye, though whether he is mocking you or himself, his own changeable moods, you have never been certain. He has never liked to show that you affect him, even with your mouth on him, even at the moment of his crisis.
Now he will not allow you to touch him. He has traded the familiarity of shirt, vest, trousers, sleekly cut coat for the heavy vestments of his position. Sometimes—less and less often—he permits you to draw aside the long skirts, stiff with embroidery, and open the trousers underneath just enough to draw him out. He grips the arms of his chair with hands that are begloved and half-hidden inside his long draping sleeves.
He will not so much as put his hand on your head. He is slipping away from you all the time.
You remember Lady Maria. Laurence is not quite so unnaturally tall, nor so colorless as she, but they shared the same slim elegance, the same imperial grace. And you remember the way Gehrman watched her, hungry and unable to be satisfied; for she had eyes only for her patients, and cared nothing for love and less for the ways two bodies might join.
Well, cold Maria is dead by her own hand, and Gehrman looks suddenly a decade older and more. The hunters have no need of him any longer; the Church workshop rings day and night with the clang of hammers, the hiss of the bellows. Meanwhile Gehrman’s workshop is quiet, though the windows are always lit.
He is tender to the doll. You watch from outside as he touches its cheek, its hair, as he sews clothes for it with his own hands and then dresses it with reverent care: the bonnet adorned with silk flowers, the sweeping skirt, the soft gloves. In life Maria never wore such things.
The doll will never give him what he wants. He leaves it and comes to speak with Laurence. They have not been close in years, but now they spend hours closeted together in Laurence’s chambers, late into the night.
The moon is full, and hangs very low tonight. You leave them there; you have a hunt to attend to. When you come back, Gehrman is gone.
Laurence seems tired—drained, somehow; but there is a sort of exhausted wonderment you haven’t heard from him in a very long time in his voice.
“We shall fix this yet, Brador,” he says, through lips dry and cracking.
You look away from the covering over his eyes, and put knowledge off for another day.
Gehrman, his heart broken, passed from this world and into a long dream.
Did you see your future then, Brador? Did you think you could escape?
You don’t understand his moods.
When Laurence is melancholy, you find him unshaven, bags under his eyes, his hair unwashed. He lies half the day in bed; when he rouses himself, he drifts listlessly to his desk and no further.
You find pages close-written with his despair. Many-eyed Rom is a mindless thing showing no evidence of insight; Micolash and his acolytes chase nothing but shadows. The blood heals but does not cure, only creates a dependency; the city will be entirely lost to beasthood.
Always, the conclusion: further refinement is necessary.
You still want him—desperately, furiously. You want to heat his blood, to wake him back to his bright torch of a self.
He won’t look at you, but neither does he send you away. Though you suckle at him until your jaw aches, he won’t get more than half-hard; he barely seems to notice you there. He lies there with the paraphernalia of blood ministration scattered around him: his sleeve rolled up; his mouth wet with blood, his eyes glazed with it.
You are the only one who sees him in these moods. You shut the doors to his chambers and order everyone out; they obey with alacrity because they are afraid of you. You bring him his meals, and let others tend to his duties.
For though none among them is a match for his intellect, there are other clergy now: a choir of true believers, radiant with faith, who minister to the populace day and night. They patrol the corridors of the healing wards and tend to patients, they go door to door through the city streets seeking the sick who wish to become well and the healthy who wish to become more than human. The Healing Church has become a great beast, which lives and breathes and moves of its own volition, for its own purposes.
In his manias—
Laurence goes from the laboratory to the cathedral to the healing wards, tireless, relentless. Other clergy labor over their sermons but he simply steps into the pulpit and begins to speak: of the glory of the cosmos which awaits, of piercing the thin veil of this world and seeing into the next, of the Great Ones who move between the stars like the leviathans in the sea; of humanity uplifted to join them in grandeur beyond imagining. His face shines with exaltation, and though at times you cannot understand what he’s saying, when he leads the congregation in prayer you can feel something—moving. Something in the world has reawakened; something is paying attention.
He takes blood instead of sleeping—pauses in his work only long enough to place the needle, then continues with the tubing trailing from his arm. He fucks you, fast and hard enough to leave blood smeared down your thighs, the two of you clawing at each other like beasts. You come to him fresh from the hunt and he licks the blood from your hands.
He sends expeditions ever deeper into the labyrinth: they return decimated when they return at all, as a bare handful of raving men of the dozens who set out.
He presses the patients harder—gives them more and more potent blood, and takes reams of ferociously intent notes on their growing deformity; when they die, he spends hours bent over the autopsy table, searching. He orders an entire hamlet slaughtered.
How long has it been since you woke into the nightmare?
Dimly, still, you remember other places in the waking world than Yharnam. You were born in a house on the shore of a distant warm green sea, where the distorting shadow of the Great Ones lay more lightly upon the minds of the dwellers there.
Some antediluvian madness draws people here, like moths to a flame. Pthumeru was not the first city built in this place; it, too, grew upon the bones of some nameless citadel, and that upon the grave of another. The soil is rich with blood and ash.
Here living things grow swift and strong, though strangely twisted and prone to overrun the bounds of prudence. Trees bear heavy fruit, translucently pale; children smile with a malevolent gleam in their eyes; philosophy flowers into cult, and cult into madness.
In Yharnam shadows move of their own volition, and there are eyes where there should not be. Nights are long, and the moon draws too near, and the stars are very cold indeed; and time passes strangely, sometimes creeping like a limbless thing crawling on its belly and sometimes careening onward like a carriage drawn by horses whipped beyond enduring.
And here in the nightmare: time passes yet more strangely in this place which is not a place. Slowly—swiftly—in stuttering bursts: you have grown old.
The beast who was Laurence sleeps like the dead, and does not dream.
Ah, the first taste of blood—
The chief of the tomb prospectors is Gehrman, who recruits new explorers from the ranks of the desperate and the reckless, leads expeditions, and generally does his best to save soft scholars from the manifold perils of the labyrinth.
He’s a tall man, calm, steady in demeanor, but he’s not immune to Laurence’s challenge—Laurence, who cannot be satisfied with anything less than that every secret be laid bare, who pushes him to delve ever deeper, who carries within his spirit a fire that cannot fail to ignite an answering flame and burns away every doubt, every caution.
The expeditions grow longer. They lose more men. They emerge exhausted and bloody, bringing with them the hides and organs and occasionally entire carcasses of strange beasts, unsettlingly organic artifacts from civilizations long dead of uncertain causes, and a frightening wildness in their eyes. Prospectors begin to desert in the night; one of them runs mad and cuts a bloody swathe through the barracks before Gehrman brings him down.
They continue. The next expedition lasts a month; they come stumbling out six days late, filthy and footsore but with a new febrile glitter in their eyes, and none more so than Laurence. He is alight, and when he allows you to kiss him, the rich saltiness of blood lingers on his lips.
He’s even brighter, more brilliant than before. Ideas pour from him with the shocking pressure, the vividness of arterial spray. He paces through the night, sleepless; he begins experiments and then, too impatient to wait for results, begins more.
You can’t keep up with him. You dig your nails into your thigh to stay awake, hard enough to draw blood, and then fall asleep anyway. Sometimes he relents and goes to bed with you, and then you wake a bare handful of hours later and find him gone already.
Where you see only a vial of blood, he sees infinite branching possibilities, and he wants to realize every one.
He has long meetings with Master Willem behind closed doors, and the shouting can be heard down the hall. He can patch it over, you try to tell him, he’s always been Master Willem’s favorite. Instead he leaves Byrgenwerth, and what else are you going to do? You go with him.
Nothing can stand against the fire in his brain, in his veins, in his eyes: not Master Willem and not all the scholars of Byrgenwerth together, not the labyrinth, not the cosmos, not good sense, and certainly not you.
And not Yharnam. For him, they raise up a cathedral.
You, keeping your lonely vigil—
You, awake in your cell—
You, who bled yourself clean and never ran blood-mad at all—who chose freely to join your compatriots in a hell of your own devising—
—who tore an eye from a blood-drunk hunter and waited for your fate—
You thought, when you heard of the nightmare, that you might find him; and did you like what you found?
Laurence comes to Byrgenwerth already well-versed in history, politics, literature, and rhetoric; mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry; and half a dozen languages ancient and modern. To this erudition he desires to add the arcane secrets Byrgenwerth keeps to itself, and these he devours with voracious hunger.
By the end of the first semester he already discusses carelessly what you have labored for years to learn. His talent is unmistakable, even to the scholars who mumble their way through their lectures with all possible haste and then, with the air of having discharged an unpleasant duty, return to the work that interests them.
Soon he has private sessions with Master Willem twice a week. He comes back from them eager to discuss, to speculate, to analyze and theorize and devise, to consider examples and counterexamples and counterfactuals. The other students come and go, jousting with him in the common room late into the night, but none of them are a match for his tireless intellect.
Neither are you, but you listen as he leaps from one idea to the next , drawing associations across time, space, subject, philosophy, epistemology. For him, you make of yourself an empty vessel that yearns to be filled.
It’s late, one night. Even the students who have slipped away for illicit vices will soon be returning, red-mouthed and bleary-eyed. Laurence is two-thirds of the way through a tome he has unearthed from the depths of the archive. He finds the work of the obscure scholar incomplete but not entirely without merit—indeed, suggestive of alternative approaches to the problem of cosmogony; his expressive hands describe interlocking orbits through the air.
You can’t help yourself: you kiss him.
You catch the delicate bone of his narrow jaw easily in one hand, feel with the other the shape of his skull, so close under the fine skin. You can feel the blood pulsing close to the surface and you want to press in closer, to bite, to gorge yourself on him. Mere alcohol is nothing to the intoxication of his closeness.
He pulls away, hair ruffled, mouth still half-open with his unfinished thought, and blinks at you; you want—you want—
He’s clearly inexperienced, but not in the least shy or hesitant. He’s the one who pushes you back and climbs over you, imperious and demanding, as boldly exploratory in this as in all things until his body makes its own instinctive knowledge apparent.
The two of you rut mindlessly against each other until he reaches his crisis. It’s the heat of his spend on your belly that brings you off a moment later.
Half a minute, perhaps, of lying there with eyes half-closed, his hot cheek resting on your arm—then—
His eyes fly open again, his head comes up, he pushes himself up to sit, and he’s off again on the subject of forgotten scholars and their avenues of inquiry. You smile, helplessly, with the ache of an unfamiliar tenderness in your chest like the first evidence of hemorrhage deep under the skin; like a sinkhole’s black mouth yawning open to swallow a carriage, a house, a city entire.
Was it evolution for which Laurence brought this to pass?
Consciousness is an error: a useless byproduct of evolution’s blind groping toward infinite propagation. The Great Ones have dispensed with it. They do as they will, governed by instinct that runs deeper than conscious thought, a natural law as certain as the laws which govern the cosmos.
Laurence’s brilliant mind—what purpose did it serve? What good did it ever do for him or those around him? To exist in the ceaseless present, without regret for the errors of the past or worry for the uncertain future: is this not the greatest joy?
Brador, you who looked unflinching upon a village slaughtered and chose, eyes open, an eternity guarding your greatest sin; who saw the beast in your lover’s eyes and went eagerly to his bed; who were the first to look the cleric beast in its hideous face—this is the truth against which you barred the door of your cell: Laurence was happier as a beast in the nightmare than he ever was with you.