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Mark of Cain

Chapter Text

 

 

The toll of the bell was shockingly loud on the still air. It was layered in discordant pitch because of the several clappers placed inside, both deep and high-pitched peals reverberating from the massive cathedral bell to ensure that all heard its warning.

 

Yoongi glanced up from the objects in his hands, turning his head to the side to study the stretch of open stained glass windows across the floor. Through the billowing folds of the heavy curtains that were dancing in the gentle breeze he saw that it was drawing close to the dusk hours. The sudden bell tolls made sense now, for dusk was the perfect time for the beasts to emerge from the shadows and start their reign of terror all over the lands.

 

“Time to hunt,” he whispered to himself, turning his attention back to the task at hand.

 

In his left hand, Yoongi was holding a silver bullet - one with a short body and a rounded snub head. In his right hand was his knife, and he was using the wickedly sharp tip to carve into the soft head of the bullet. He had already completed the cross engraving, and so he was carefully deepening the cuts to ensure that it was not too shallow. The task was somewhat a meditative exercise for him, though it was one that also had practical benefits when it came to using the bullets.

 

Even when the bell was tolling, Yoongi knew that there was no reason to leave the private chamber in a hurry because his companions were going to be heading right his way. All that he needed to do was await their arrival, so he decided to continue carving into the bullet whilst he waited.

 

The silver was soft, so very soft under the sharp tip of the knife and the pressure that he was exerting on it. As the blade started carving into the metal a fine layer of dust started to form in the grooves, which he would need to blow and rub free as he worked. It barely made a sound as he worked, little more than a soft scrape that was lost under the rustle of his clothing and dry creaking of his gloves as he flexed and relaxed his fingers.

 

Several bullets were already placed on the table that Yoongi had painstakingly carved over the duration of the evening hours; seated with his feet folded up to rest on the surface so that he could slouch back in the chair. He was working by candlelight now, which meant that he had to go slow to make sure that the blade did not slip. He might just be wearing thick gloves of leather but he did not want to risk slicing through them because of his careless actions.

 

Yoongi was seated in his favourite room in the whole of the cathedral - a private study chamber. It was a circular room made of grey stone, with wall sconces that contained many glowing candles, a wall of colourful stained glass windows that were bracketed by heavy curtains, and a large fireplace that helped fight the chill during the cold nights. In terms of furniture there was a table with several armchairs, and many bookshelves lined the curved walls that were filled with dusty tomes and parchment scrolls that were attractive to look at but did not fully arrest his attention. He and his companions had utilised the room well, for they had stored their weapons, tools and some personal effects inside a wall compartment that they had started lightheartedly calling ‘the armoury’. It did contain a great many weapons so that it resembled the cathedral armoury, though that room was larger than the whole study chamber and filled with countless rows of weapons of all varieties.

 

Though the chamber was situated within the upper cathedral, there were so many more winding staircases that went higher and higher towards the very sky. Yoongi was not permitted to enter such sacred areas because he was only a hunter, meaning that he spent most of his time in this chamber or the lower level - in the rare instance that he went down to dine in the hall or to bathe and sleep in the hunters’ wing. Most of the time he simply slept in this chamber, curling up in one of the armchairs close to the fireplace because it was easier to sleep when he was alone and everything was so calm and quiet.

 

It seemed like the bell had been tolling for just mere seconds when the double doors across the floor swung open. They were pushed with such force that they swung back to hit the stone walls, the impact shockingly loud in the silence of the chamber.

 

When Yoongi glanced up at the doorway he saw a familiar sight, the one that he had been waiting for. He stilled the act of carving the bullet so that he could study his companions, his gaze shifting from face to face in turn.

 

Namjoon and Taehyung entered the chamber as a pair, both of them clad in their hunting gear just like him. The gear consisted of several layers: a starched shirt that was tucked into thick leather trousers, over which a leather jerkin and body harness were placed. The final layer consisted of outerwear: a hooded long coat with a face mask that could be left worn around the neck like a cowl; leather gloves; and knee or even thigh-high boots that added an extra layer of protection and fully cover as much skin as possible.

 

Overall, the hunting gear was completely black in colour - only the metal buckles on the harness and the shirt buttons adding a hint of metallic and silver gleam. The length and sleeves of the long coat were decorated with crow feathers and strings of fetishes, like tiny bones and fangs, which musically clinked together and oftentimes trailed along the floor behind them.

 

His companions looked so tall and intimidating in their hunting gear, though they had at least not slipped their masks in place over their faces. This meant that he could still see their faces, could see their determined expressions as they entered the chamber with a purpose.

 

Taehyung’s sandy hair was currently pulled up off his face and knotted in a small bun so that it was out of the way, exposing his strong eyebrows and large, intense eyes. There was a gentle set of creases between his eyebrows and more on his forehead, his lips pulled in taut at the corners to show that he was anticipating what was to come. He had even pulled up the lengths of his long coat and buckled the material in place to keep it out of the way whilst he was moving, showing just how ready that he was for the hunt.

 

Namjoon’s dark hair was short and thus was worn off his face at all times. His face was almost expressionless, contrasting against Taehyung in a noticeable fashion. It was not that he was cold, rather that he was cool and unfazed by what was happening all around them. After so many moons spent hunting and leading their hunting party through Hell itself, it was no wonder why he no longer seemed to show fear at the sound of the tolling cathedral bell.

 

“Where is the source of the attack coming from, brothers?” Yoongi asked, lifting the bullet to his lips so that he could blow dust off the rounded nub head.

 

“It appears to be coming from Blood Fold,” Taehyung replied, dragging open the armoury doors to reveal the weapons that were stored within the small compartment. “That means we must make haste if we wish to board the airship in time, Yoongi.”

 

Yoongi ran his thumb over the head of the bullet as he thought this over. Then he turned to look out of the windows in the general direction of Blood Fold, noticing a rather worrying sight that had not been present just moments ago.

 

There was a spreading redness across the distant horizon that was most certainly a growing fire. Within minutes it would rage completely out of control and start destroying the hamlet and there was so very little that they could do to stop it.

 

Yoongi had heard tales of hunters that used fire, known as ‘witches’, but he had never witnessed such a sight with his own two eyes. Fire was a beast that the hunters had yet to find a way to destroy, though they could control it to some degree. There was just no way of knowing just how much that it would rage and what it would consume before it was finally put out once more. Fire purified, but it was also indiscriminate in what it decided to burn.

 

When Yoongi turned back to look at his companions he saw that his youngest brother was in the act of retrieving his weapon.

 

Taehyung was considered reckless amongst the hunting ranks because he was not afraid to get close to the beasts. His main weapon of choice was simply double dirks - the knives with long and wickedly sharp and pointed blades that were almost the length of his forearms. They were double edged for optimum cutting ability, meaning that he could slice through anything made from flesh and blood that got in his way.

 

As a result of this close contact, Taehyung’s uniform had to incorporate incredibly thick leather to protect his skin at all costs. Some beasts had blood so diseased that it was caustic; burning away skin like it was little more than paper right down to muscle and even bone. Despite the heavy and thick added layer of leather he was still capable of movement, meaning that he was light and quick on his feet and able to use the knives to their full advantage.

 

Taehyung reached inside the compartment to retrieve his knives, which were stored within their sheaths. He had to strap them onto his thighs, securing the buckles tight. The sheaths were so long that they almost reached his knees, hiding the deadly blades within their sturdy leather body. He wrenched on the straps to feed them through the buckles, working quickly because he had much experience with this task. A single lock of hair fell forward over his brow as he did so, the lock lightly curled like a comma.

 

“Blood Fold, again?” Yoongi asked, so used to this revelation that he was not even shocked at this point. “That must be…what, the third attack this moon cycle alone?”

 

“The hamlet suffered greatly during the last attack. It lost dozens of settlers to the affliction,” Namjoon remarked, moving to stand beside Taehyung whilst he buckled the second sheath around his muscular thigh. “Their defences must have fallen to the beasts once more. They are highly aggressive in that region.”

 

On the contrast, Namjoon relied on just one weapon during their hunts - a shamshir. The blade had a radical curve to it that tapered to a sharp point; and it was double edged so that it could both slice and gut depending on the way that he swung and thrust the weapon. He used the sheath with his free hand as a kind of shield, able to deflect many blows with the long and thick length of sturdy leather and solid steel.

 

Namjoon quickly retrieved his shamshir from the compartment. He had no need to affix it to his body nor sling it over his shoulder on a strap because he carried the lengthy sword in his fist instead. The sheath was a deep red, the hilt of the blade gilded with gold and stones that made it a beautiful sight to behold. Beautiful and deadly - the perfect combination that matched its wielder well.

 

“Blood Fold has defences?” Yoongi asked in a sarcastic manner, shifting to get to his feet and moving over to join his companions. “You could have fooled me, Namjoon…”

 

Namjoon made a soft sound at this that might just have been from amusement, his lips quirking up enough to make deep dimples appear at the corners of his mouth.

 

“The settlers seem to rely too much on holy blood wards than true defences,” Taehyung said, straightening up once more; his uniform loudly creaking rustling from the sudden movement. “The holy blood wards are effective at keeping the hoards at bay, but they are also unreliable. Any damage to the ward from sabotage or even weather renders their power obsolete and opens up passage for the beasts.”

 

“Taehyung, a holy blood ward is as effective as a crucifix against the beasts,” Yoongi argued, gently forcing himself between his companions so that he could retrieve his weapons. “They have grown too bold in their ways now to fear the faith. Only the cold edge of steel slicing at their throats discourages them from slaughtering us. You should know this by now.”

 

Yoongi’s beloved arm of choice was a spear, a moon spear that consisted of an incredibly long pole of wood on which a triple pronged blade of silver was set. The head of the spear had been forged with the blood of a saint, which made it absolutely deadly to all forms of beasts. Nothing afflicted could stand being touched with such a blessed weapon, for the silver that cut into their flesh meant the wound would suppurate and never heal, and the saint’s blood would get inside their diseased veins and cause immense agony. As it writhed about in pain it made such an easy target to pierce with his spear and end its disgusting life.

 

Wielding the polearm required great skill and years of training, for it was an unreliable weapon to use against the beasts. It had great reach for stabbing and parrying, but improper grip could see the weapon knocked right out of one’s hands. It affected the wielder’s flexibility too and it was not a weapon for the flighty type that would dive away at the first sign of confrontation.

 

Unlike Taehyung’s knives, which allowed him to slice and dash away as fast as possible; or Namjoon’s shamshir, with the long blade that he could quickly swing to attack and keep the beasts at bay - Yoongi was incredibly exposed whilst using the spear. He had to stay in place and bait beasts towards him so that he could thrust at a weak spot and hope to pin it against something, or just mortally wound it with a stab to the gut. Such a technique required nerves of steel and a great belief in oneself, two attributes that Yoongi possessed in abundance. At least his years of training had allowed him to learn the best way to switch hands during an emergency, as well as how to use the solid length of the pole to thwack beasts hard enough to drive them to the ground.

 

But should something get too close and render his spear useless, Yoongi had a secondary arm that was more than capable of protecting him. It was a flintlock pistol that was loaded with propellant that would ignite upon depressing the trigger and fire bullets. It was deadly but slow to load, meaning that he only used it during rare times of emergency. It was also incredibly heavy to wield in one hand, the steel body and wooden grip solid and weighty.

 

Yoongi liked to cut the heads of the bullets with a blade to carve crosses directly into the soft silver. Apparently, there was no holy power to be found in the crosses but there was still a benefit. Every single bullet would explode upon impact, fragmenting into tiny shards that tore right into whatever beast was unfortunate enough to get in his way. That was why he took the time to painstakingly carve every single bullet, and not only because he found the exercise incredibly meditative; like a form of prayer.

 

Yoongi affixed his spear onto his back by slinging its holster in place across his body, feeling the familiar long pole running down his spine. Next, he retrieved his freshly carved bullets and slipped them inside small pockets along the length of his thick belt. After securing a pouch of propellant on his belt he was finally ready - his ammunition stocked and his weapons at hand.

 

“Aye, Yoongi, I know the only real way to keep a beast at bay is to kill it before it can attack,” Taehyung said with a smile, reaching over to take hold of his shoulder and give it a soft squeeze. “It is time to spill blood, my friend.”

 

Namjoon moved to exit the chamber first, Yoongi and Taehyung falling into step right behind him. They had to go down a spiralling flight of stone stairs until they reached the next floor, passing several members of The Clergy that were also moving throughout the building. They made sure to drop their heads in respect as they passed them by, from the priests to the nuns - both clad in their robes of blinding white cotton. In return they whispered quick blessings for them because they were ready to leave for the hunt; like praying for their souls and wishing that they would vanquish the beasts and attain victory, amongst other supportive words.

 

On the lower floor there was a lift that would take them up and down the many levels of the cathedral for the sake of quick travel. The carriage was made from brass and glass, with many cables and gears that were controlled by way of levers in the wall and floor. They entered the empty carriage and Namjoon wrenched down on one of the levers mounted to the wall, the sound of gears turning in response.

 

Yoongi felt the floor suddenly shifting underneath his feet as the carriage started ascending. He managed to stay anchored and not stumble, gently rocking from side to side between his taller companions; bumping against their arms because they were standing so close together. Through the glass walls of the carriage he was able to look out at the great town that was stretched out across the horizon below.

 

Sanctorium was the newest capital of the lands, a large sanctuary with towering walls of a castle fortress, a grand cathedral built directly in the centre, and a sprawling maze of a town that had developed around it. The town had been reclaimed through the efforts of the hunters, who had worked without rest for many moons cleansing every single inch of the town free from the frightening beasts and afflicted abominations that had been diseased and turning into monsters. It now housed the largest amount of settlers within the land and was the safest of all the grand towns thanks to their efforts and many tragic deaths.

 

The old capital was the ruined town of Basilica, which had once been the glowing beacon of salvation in the dark and unholy lands. Now, the sight of its monolithic cathedral and university rising up out of the craggy mountain was enough to send shivers down the spines of all that gazed upon it across the horizon. It was a testament to just how dangerous that the horrors of the affliction truly were, for not even the indomitable mountain sanctuary of Basilica had been able to keep it out.

 

There were many tales about what had happened to the old capital, but it had been so long since the destruction of the town that no one seemed to know the true cause. Yoongi had heard rumours of foul misdeeds from the university that had resulted in God punishing the inhabitants for their blasphemous ways, which was the favoured explanation of the fall of Basilica in the town. In reality, it seemed more likely that the horrific deaths of the most sacred and powerful hunting party that had protected the town during an attack was the reason why it had eventually fallen to the hoards of beasts. Sadly, no one knew what had caused the deaths of the hunting party - The Virtuous Princes. That had been lost through the ages and was still shrouded in mystery as black as night.

 

Yoongi belonged to one of hundreds of hunting parties that filled the reclaimed towns and hamlets all over the land - The Uncorrupted. He had trained within their ranks for most of his life after the fall of his village and deaths of all save for himself and several children. He had been rescued by hunters from within a tunnel underneath the village church, in a hiding spot that his mother had stashed him inside to keep him safe from the beasts. His rescuer had been none other than the now passed leader of The Uncorrupted, Petyr, who had since been honoured as Martyr Petyr and had a grand statue inside the cathedral.

 

Every hunting party belonged to Christendom, united in their belief in God, the Holy Saviour, and the divine powers of healing and salvation that His worship granted. Christendom had come from the distant lands of the west so many moons ago, brought by The Church - fair-haired and pale skinned people that had once spoken many a foreign tongue and had conquered their lands through their religious teaching. Now it reigned supreme, and many natives resided within the varying levels of The Church, just like Yoongi and his companions.

 

Along with The Hunters, there were also priests and nuns that preached and healed the masses that resided in the towns - known as The Clergy. These devout beings were numerous and filled every settlement as far as the eye could see, which made them easy prey for the beasts. They were recognisable by their uniforms of white cloth and headpieces, for the nuns wore wimples and the priests wore birettas.

 

The Sacerdotium ruled over the hunting parties and all reclaimed sanctuaries - an organised rank of anointed saints that possessed all control in the lands. All lived under their rule and protection, for they were touched by God and wielded His Divine Will over humankind. Yoongi had never met the holiest members of The Sacerdotium because they did not leave the inner cathedral, housed within its sacred walls where they blessed water, created holy blood and prayed without rest. He had gazed upon the lesser ranked members from across the cathedral, often hidden within the shadows and a haze of incense that escaped the orbs they carried around their waists - the holy men clad in garb of blue and gold with their tall mitre caps.

 

The Sacerdotium was the figurehead of Christendom, The Hunters were the sword with which they delivered justice, and The Clergy were the loving heart and tender embrace of worship that they ordained. These three organisations existed to unite the people together under God to fight the dreadful affliction and beasts that spread it and slaughtered humans to dine on their flesh.

 

The lift ran up the cathedral before coming to a stop at the very top of the tower. It was here that the airships docked, tethered to the building by way of metal chains so that they could stay floating in the sky at all times. Just stepping outside the lift carriage was enough to assault their ears with the tremendous roar of their engines, great gouts of hot air and flames licking out of the exhausts so that the air was heavy with heat.

 

Yoongi could only flinch at the noise, following his companions across the dock towards the only docked airship.

 

The airships were impressive structures of dark wood and metal, with winged sails that were retracted and extended during flight. There was a hatch in the side of the ship that allowed them to climb inside the ship for flight, along with ladders that ran up to the deck that the crew worked on to man the vehicle. Yoongi had never stood up on the deck on an airship before, but he travelled inside them during every hunt because they were the fastest way for hunting parties to reach the surrounding hamlets and villages to defend them from attacks.

 

Yoongi boarded the airship first, twisting around to offer his hand to Taehyung to pull him through the open hatch. His companion accepted the assistance, their gloved hands meeting and their fingers entwining together. He pulled him inside whilst Namjoon waited out on the dock for the rest of their hunting party to arrive. The interior of the ship was filled with benches for them to sit on, along with a complex system of leashes on the walls that allowed them to dive out of the vehicle and sail down to the ground below.

 

The hunters showed up in small groups over the following minutes, all of them dressed in their gear with their weapons at hand. There were thirteen such hunters in their hunting party, which was just one of several parties that were united together under the same league and flag. On account of their different sized parties they were often referred to as ‘a murder’ because of their uniforms resemblance to crows. The men and women boarded the airship and proceeded to sit down on the benches or snap their leashes in place and stand in wait. The air was palpable with a sense of anticipation, every single hunter awaiting the moment that they would finally be able to shed beast blood in the name of God and avenge any fallen innocents.

 

After Namjoon had boarded the airship it finally lifted away from the dock, the sound of the metal chains being released to free it from its anchoring point. Within seconds it was taking to the skies, the echo of the crew shouting instructions at one another coming in through the open hatch.

 

Riding above Sanctorium, Yoongi could not help but move to the edge of the airship so that he could look outside. There was a handle that he could grip hold of to ensure that he did not plummet through the open hatch, and so he took hold and leaned forward to do so.

 

Sanctorium was built within a small mountain range, which provided the town with plenty of natural protection. The cathedral was built in the centre of the settlement, with miles and miles of land all around it that was kept hidden behind thick and tall walls of stone - a veritable castle of a town.

 

The fields down below were overrun with livestock, damp paddies filled with rice, and crops and orchards that were cultivated by most of the settlers of Sanctorium. These fields were divided by tributaries that ran from a waterfall within the mountain, along with abodes that the townsfolk lived in. Water ran freely within the town, drawn up from wells and collected from the tributaries to flood the fields; rich with blood that healed illness and poisoned any beast or afflicted abomination that drank it.

 

Blood Fold was a hamlet that resided on the very borders of Sanctorium. It was situated between the capital and a massive sprawl of woodlands that was known as the Ancient Forest, which was where a great many of the beasts that attacked the settlement came from.

 

Blood Fold contained a large congregation of worshippers and The Clergy, who were housed in a church within the village. The most important offering that came from the settlement was blood, holy blood that had a variety of uses. For hunters, it was a weapon that could be utilised in several ways - thrown in glass vials that would shatter and spew the blood all over beasts to burn their flesh; or used to bless silver and steel to increase the deadliness of their bladed weapons. For The Clergy, it had restorative and symbolic properties for healing and worship. The blood was collected every week and sent to Sanctorium. Some of it used within Blood Fold to create the sacred ‘holy blood wards’ that were painted around the hamlet to create a barrier that repelled the beasts.

 

Yoongi could see that Blood Fold was in deep danger, and not only from the beasts. The raging fire was just as deadly and threatened to burn the entire settlement to the ground if it was not quelled soon. The flames licked up high, billowing plumes of black smoke taking to the sky that affected visibility and obscured their aerial perspective. He was unable to properly survey the damage through the thick smoke, the acrid scent making him reach up to cover his lower face with his gloved hand.

 

“I fear there must be something in Blood Fold that attracts the beasts,” Yoongi muttered, dragging his gaze away from the glowing patch of flames to look back over his shoulder. “Of all the hamlets in the surrounding area, Blood Fold is under constant threat. The beasts should avoid Blood Fold at all costs, yet they almost seem to congregate to it…”

 

“The scent of blood will attract the foul beasts,” Taehyung remarked, scraping a whetstone against the edge of one of his knives to sharpen it. “There is a great abundance of it to be found within Blood Fold. Mayhap the beasts know how important that the holy blood is to us? They were once human, brother, and they might still retain some of their faculties. Do not forget this.”

 

Yoongi thought this over for a moment, turning his head to look back down at the raging sea of fire. Underneath its loud roar he could finally hear the sounds of distress coming from the hamlet - screams of horror and fear mingling with hideous shrieks and growls. It was as if the gaping maw of Hell had opened up below him, and in a way it had.

 

Death, fire and great evil was loose in Blood Fold tonight, and there was no telling if they were going to be victorious or not. At best they might just be able to salvage the settlement with minimum innocent deaths and no party casualties. At worst, they could lose Blood Fold, its inhabitants and many of their party to the beasts and dreaded affliction. Every hunt was filled with uncertainty, but Yoongi felt like tonight was the deadliest hunt that they were going to face in quite some time.

 

Namjoon’s voice was crisp and loud as he declared, “Tonight, brothers and sisters, we hunt!”

 

Yoongi turned away from the open hatch to look at his companion, wanting to show him the great respect that he deserved.

 

Namjoon was younger than him but this meant very little because he was so mature and wise beyond his youthful moons. He should view him as a younger brother, just like he did so with Taehyung. But sometimes, Yoongi felt more like Namjoon was his elder when they were alone together in their private chamber and he was finally free to speak his thoughts without fear of judgement and misunderstanding.

 

Taehyung might just be a brilliant sparring partner, but he was young and free from the worries that Yoongi carried in his heart. Only Namjoon seemed to be able to gleam what was lying underneath his calm and quiet surface and shed light on the dark and restless troubles that were raging away inside him. Fear of death and failure, doubts in his own abilities and faith - Namjoon listened to it all with an ear as if he was a priest absorbing confessional sins. When he spoke his own thoughts on the troubling matters he never failed to still Yoongi’s restlessness and bring him peace of the mind. Compassion, intellect and thoughtfulness were Namjoon’s outstanding traits, and they made him just perfect for the role of leading their hunting party.

 

Despite his youth, Namjoon had become the official leader of sorts since the untimely passing of their hunting party elder, Ricardo, who had died during a hunting mission that had gone horrifically wrong. He had belonged to the legendary hunting party that had been led by none other than Martyr Petyr in times of great emergency. The entirety of the hunting party had been eradicated that night, leaving a dreadful wound in their wake that none of The Uncorrupted would ever forget. They had lost their strongest brothers and sisters in the tragedy. Yoongi did not even know where they had been sent or what they had been doing, but they must have come across a great and powerful evil for it to have slaughtered them all.

 

Namjoon’s declaration was enough to stir them all up, several hunters making hearty noises in agreement as they all gave him their utmost attention. He paused for a moment to let his words hang in the air before continuing his rallying speech.

 

“God gave us weapons to fight back against evil! With His blessing we wage war on these beasts that seek to destroy all innocence and goodness! The afflicted are a scourge against humanity and they must be cleansed from this great earth by all means necessary!” he shouted, bringing his fist up to pound it against his chest for emphasis. “Foul blood will be shed tonight, brothers and sisters!”

 

“Hear hear!” they all cheered in unison, several of them bringing their weapons up high over their heads.

 

“There will be no mercy for evil! The beasts will taste mercy only at the ends of our blades! Only then can their once mortal remains be at peace! We will send their trapped and tortured souls to Heaven!” Namjoon brought his hands up high in the air, his palms outward in supplication as he chanted the rallying cry of all hunters. “God is the light! God is good! God is-”

 

“Eternal!” they all finished as a team, holding their hands up high as if in prayer.

 

Namjoon moved to fix his mask and hood in place, the action signalling that it was time to start the hunt.

 

Yoongi pulled up his own mask to cover his face, fixing the thick cloth in place up over his nose and ensuring that the protective spectacles shielded his eyes. Then he dragged the hood up, fully hiding his face away within the layers of black cloth so that not a single inch of his body was exposed to ensure maximum protection.

 

The other hunters had also fixed their masks and hoods in place, not a single face was on display now. Not even their eyes were visible, for they were hidden behind the black lenses and silver wire frames of their spectacles. The hoods had a slightly peaked back to them, lifting up with a point in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of the peaked hats of The Clergy. They looked like death itself, which they were going to deliver to the foul beasts in abundance.

 

It was time.

 

The hunt was on.

 

Yoongi snapped the leash in place on his harness and then he dived right out of the open hatch - the first of their party to do so. For a mere moment he got to experience the sensation of flight, hovering in the air between the airship deck and the very Heavens above him. But then he started to descend at a rapid rate, the train of his long coat flying up high above him almost like wings.

 

A quick glance up as he descended showed him that Taehyung was in the act of diving out of the hatch after him, head first with his knives already drawn in preparation. His face was completely covered and yet he knew that he would be grinning from ear to ear like always; enjoying not only the thrill of the hunt but the sensation of flying through the air like a real crow.

 

“Try and best me, brother!” Taehyung called as he shot past him. “The 31 deaths in our last hunt was just a hint of my skills! Expect more tonight!”

 

“Make sure you kill them this time! Injuries do not count!” Yoongi shouted in reply, hearing his companion laughing uproariously in response.

 

Upon springily landing on the thick grass a moment later, Yoongi unsnapped the buckle to free himself from the airship. They had touched ground right on the outskirts of the settlement, meaning that they had enough time to prepare themselves for an assault. The bare cover of trees disguised them from sight, but said trees might not exist if the fire carried on spreading throughout the land. Through the gaps in the trees he could see the burning glow of the wildfire, along with the destroyed remains of the stone village homes and the moving bodies of many beasts that were stalking the surviving humans.

 

Yoongi reached back to slip his spear free from its holster, his primary weapon at hand so that he was ready for the hunt. He saw Taehyung and several other hunters racing towards the fold, braving the hunt first because they were better equipped for direct confrontation. Knives, swords, axes and maces were their weapons of choice - just perfect for rushing into the initial surge of beasts to take down as many as possible and thin the herd.

 

Yoongi had to hold back for a moment, allowing his brothers and sisters to start the slaughter so that he could then assist them. No polearm wielder would ever race into the hunt because it was a deadly mistake to make, allowing them to be easily swarmed and torn to shreds. He saw their sharpshooters racing towards the closest obstacles that they could scale and offer them the best vantage points - their bows, crossbows and rifles capable of slaughtering a beast from a distance. They scaled the buildings and trees with startling ease, almost crawling up them like lizards so that they had the perfect vantage point.

 

Namjoon unsheathed his shamshir, the metal rasping as he brought the blade up in front of him. He gave him the softest nod in acknowledgement, and so Yoongi let go of the spear with one hand to press his fist against his breast and return the acknowledgment. Then his companion ran forward through the trees, and so he took that as a sign to give chase and join the fray.

 

Yoongi spared a final glance up at the airship, tightening his grip on the wooden shaft of his spear as he did so. The craft was floating right in front of the full moon, which was hanging pregnant in the sky and starting to turn a mingled shade of yellow and deep orange from the thick smoke coming from the inferno down below. It was an ominous sign, one that made him whisper a prayer to God for protection from this great evil.

 

As Yoongi started sprinting up the path through the sparse trees he heard the sound of the beasts roaring and screeching, a sign that some of the hunters had located them inside the ruins of the hamlet. The sound of their shrill cries still managed to make his skin crawl even now, after so long spent hunting. It was truly possible to believe that the dead themselves had arisen from their graves and started walking in the night - screeching, rasping and wailing that echoed on the air as keen as blades.

 

Bloody and tattered cloth dangled from the scant tree branches, painted with holy blood wards that should have kept the heinous beasts well away from the settlement. Yet they had somehow found their way inside once more, and they could not seem to discover how even after multiple attacks during the last moon cycle. They flapped in the soft breeze, dancing like tendrils of hair floating in water.

 

Upon breaking free from the trees, Yoongi raced into the opening of the village. He slowed down but did not come to a complete stop because it was dangerous to stand stationary when there were beasts all around him. He just needed to take a moment to gather his bearings and figure out where he was. Having been to Blood Fold many times before he knew the layout of the settlement intimately well, but tonight was different than usual.

 

Blood Fold was a large hamlet, with a central church around which there were cobbled streets that contained homes. The homes were made of stone, thatch and wood, and some of these materials had aided the fast spread of the fire. Yoongi could see roofs and entire structures burning down with ease, and the chaos made it difficult to discern his exact location. It took him a moment but he finally managed to do so, realising that he was not too far from the main square of the hamlet. He let his breath out in a sigh of relief, moving to run down the dirt and cobble path to get deeper into the settlement.

 

Yoongi did not run through the village because he knew that was dangerous. He stuck to walking at an incredibly fast pace instead, taking the time to stop and examine all corpses that he found to ensure that both beasts and humans alike were slain.

 

Sometimes, Yoongi thought of himself as more of a hunter that cleaned up the mess rather than create it, but such an act was invaluable during attacks like these. Too many beasts could lie in wait and snag hold of the ankles of unsuspecting hunters, dragging them down for deadly attack or hindering their movements so that another beast could strike and tear them apart. Not only that, but humans could rapidly turn on the onset of death and become beasts themselves. They might just be considerably weaker than their creators but they were still a danger to both the innocent and hunters that got too close.

 

The main square of the village was filled with corpses of the dead, but not many beasts. His brothers and sisters would be dispatching them wherever they were hiding, hopefully saving some innocent lives in the process. But from what Yoongi could discern a great deal of the villagers would no doubt end up dead before the hunt was finished tonight. He could see the bodies of men and women, priests and nuns - a great many of which had been slaughtered to the point of death. This meant that he need not kill them himself, though he made sure to check that they were unbreathing and unmoving just to be safe.

 

The few humans that he discovered that were still alive were so close to death that Yoongi did not even feel like he was killing them. It was more like he was snuffing out a tiny flame that was almost burnt out; most of them unable to make a sound, never mind move.

 

The sound of gunshots sliced through the air, their sharpshooters having spotted their prey and started unleashing their arsenal upon it. As expected, the beasts ran to escape the barrage of bullets, arrows and bolts that were being rained down upon them, meaning that it was now Yoongi’s time to fight. Someone needed to take down the injured and fleeing beasts as fast as possible and there was no better hunter for this role than him.

 

The first slew of beasts that Yoongi came face to face with were not particularly strong nor terrifying. They were afflicted - newly born beasts that inhabited the bodies of the dying humans who had been infected by the dreadful disease and had started transforming into animal-like abominations. Most of these were base predators, canine in nature so that they struggled to walk upright and kept having to drag themselves along the ground; their faces still in the act of splitting as their skulls started to burst free and release their growing muzzles and massive fangs.

 

Yoongi showed no mercy for them, not even when they howled from the pain of the bullets that riddled their bodies. To show mercy to these foul creatures was a sin, one that meant the humans they had once been continued suffering. It was better to kill them as fast as possible and grant mercy to their trapped souls than pity their ruined mortal shells.

 

It was easy dispatching many of the injured beasts because they stayed so low to the ground. This presented him with the opportunity to stab his spear down and impale them, often through the back of their necks or lower spines. The former blow often killed them, the latter disabling them enough for him to wrench the pronged blades free and plunge it into their skulls instead. A few of them tried to fight back, but Yoongi was able to parry their flailing arms aside and stab right at their chests and bellies until they fell to the ground with bowls of pain.

 

Yoongi made his way around the square and several streets, working in tandem with either their sharpshooters or their first assault hunters so that he could finish off all injured and dying beasts. He did not catch sight of his companions in the chaos, though it was difficult ascertaining who was who when their uniforms made them all look so similar - only their weapons identifiable at a quick glance.

 

The number of beasts within Blood Fold was higher than usual, for Yoongi quickly started to reach double figures in his count. There seemed to be no end to the afflicted, which he had to kill a far greater number of than the beasts. He was so very worried that this meant the humans had been slaughtered and that no survivors were left in the burning ruins of the hamlet. But he tried to push such worries aside so that he could focus on the task at hand.

 

Through the thick and toxic smoke Yoongi could see that the church was in complete ruin. This was a bad sign because the church was important in not only protecting the innocent, but in terms of their hunt. If the one sanctuary that they possessed was overrun with beasts then they would have no choice but to abandon the hunt because it was a lost cause. This was something that their elder had taught them long ago, and Namjoon was no doubt going to follow his sage wisdom. Losing the church meant losing Blood Fold, something that they could not allow to happen.

 

Even when it seemed likely that the church was gone, Yoongi braved entering it through a shattered wall - one that had been knocked down by the strong body of a hulking beast. It had burst through the thick layer of stone and cement like it had been little more than paper, and trails of blood fanned out in many different directions to reveal that the beast had attacked at least one member of The Clergy.

 

That was not a good sign, for Yoongi had entered the church in the hopes of locating the hidden crawl space that the children would be stashed inside - wanting to ensure that they were still alive and safe. If a beast had managed to get inside and ravage The Clergy this meant that the chances of their survival had just greatly decreased, though there still remained the chance that it might not have been able to find the hidden babes.

 

Yoongi dropped down on one knee so that he could examine the blood, struggling to see much at all because of the darkness inside the sacred place. He followed the violent splashes until he spotted what looked to be a dismembered limb lying on the floor just a few feet away - most of a lower arm. Within seconds he was able to detect even more severed limbs and viscera, the dawning realisation hitting him that The Clergy had suffered greatly in the attack. They might just all be dead, judging from the scattered remains and desecrated corpses that littered the holy sanctuary.

 

At least these poor souls were at peace now, free from agony, fear and most importantly - becoming afflicted.

 

“I will find you, beast,” Yoongi whispered under his breath, straightening up and bringing his spear out in front of him. “Savour the blood that you drank tonight, for it will be the last you will taste…”

 

The location of the crawl space was likely hidden away behind the altar, a trapdoor that could be lifted to go down into a secret basement level. That was where Yoongi had once been stored by his mother when his hometown had been destroyed by beasts, and so he assumed that he would once more be able to locate such a thing within this sanctuary.

 

Yoongi crossed the floor, hearing the sound of squelching from under his feet as he stepped through puddles of blood. He prayed that he would not step down in any viscera because the thought was incredibly distressing. He saw that the inside of the church had been destroyed, the pews shattered in parts and more bodies strewn across them. The metal candle holders that were placed around the interior of the church had also been knocked over, though the candles had mostly been extinguished as a result. The few that had not went out had set cloth hangings on fire, but the stone walls and flooring of the building meant that the flames would not spread outwards and would remain contained.

 

There was a body lying on the steps of the altar, a priest judging from his white vestment. It was now stained vibrant red with slick blood because the poor man had been attacked by the beast that had forced its way inside the church.

 

Yoongi had mistakenly thought at the priest was dead. The poor holy man had been savaged by something large, possibly a Lupine judging from his missing chunks of flesh and mangled limbs. That was one of the most frightening of beasts because it was so large and fast, a canine creature with a massive head filled with hundreds of teeth. Such a beast would also be more than capable of smashing through the church wall, which meant that he needed to find it and kill it before it also tore him and his hunting party to shreds.

 

It was just as he was about to step up onto the altar that the priest’s body seemed to move, and so Yoongi paused and twisted to look down at him.

 

“Please…kill me,” the priest begged, his voice raspy and thick. It was a miracle that he was even able to speak at this point, his body a mangled ruin. “The beast…I do not want to become a beast…I…belong in Heaven.”

 

“May your soul find peace in Heaven, Father,” Yoongi whispered, as he brought his spear up high over his head. “I grant you the blessing of death so that you may be saved from sin.”

 

“God bless you, kind…hunter.”

 

Just a single thrust to the heart was enough to put the dying priest out of his misery. The blade sank in deep with ease, piercing through his thin vestment and punching into his chest so that Yoongi felt the impact travelling up the length of the pole. That was it, a single blow that would grant him eternal salvation and ensure that his mortal remains did not turn into a beast before his mortal death.

 

Once, Yoongi had felt immense pain having to end the lives of the innocent like this. The task had never failed to make him violently shake and utter prayers to God asking for forgiveness for the act of murder. But after seeing the suffering that awaited them; having watched the afflicted writhing in agony as their bodies shifted into abominations that the human frame was never meant to withstand whilst their minds rotted away - he knew that ending their lives was merciful.

 

Yoongi had just started ascending the steps of the altar when he heard a shrill screech coming from outside. The volume was so loud that he was able to discern that it was coming from right outside the ruined sanctuary, and so he dived behind the pulpit to utilise its coverage and hide himself from the sight. The screech was followed by heavy breathing and panting, along with the dull thumping of something that was unmistakably feet stomping down on the damp earth.

 

After listening to the beast dragging itself around outside the church for a moment, Yoongi realised that he was not in its line of sight. He shifted out from behind the pulpit to dart across the aisle, pressing himself up against the destroyed wall so that he could risk a glance around the corner.

 

Yoongi’s assumption had been correct, the beast that had defiled the church and ravaged many of The Clergy was a Lupine. He could see it prowling around the outside of the church because it had sniffed him out, but it was unable to see him because he was hidden away in the shadows. This gave him some time to observe the beast, to track its movements and see if it had been injured in some way so that he could plan his attack.

 

Lupines were a beast that should not be taken lightly. Even the most skilled hunter could be torn limb from limb by their savageness if they made a single mistake, meaning that fighting such a monster often required two or more hunters to bait and attack it in turn until it was too weak to pose a serious threat.

 

The Lupine walked on all fours much like the canine it resembled, its body skeletal and covered in some tufts of coarse, black fur that sprouted from its pallid flesh. It was able to get up onto its hind legs for a moment or two, curving its spine so that it could swing out and knock humans flying with a hard swat. The face of the beast was still vaguely humanoid, with two human eyes set above a slightly elongated nose and jaw that allowed it to bite and snap much like a dog. Sometimes, they had the remains of human hair still clinging to their scalps, though that was rare.

 

The first strain of Lupines had apparently possessed the heads of wolves, but as a result of the affliction turning humans into monsters most of them now still retained their human faces. Looking into their eyes, Yoongi oftentimes fancied that he could see the anguish, the agony that they had went through turning into such a beast; the twisting and stretching of their limbs, the sudden growth of their skulls as their jaws jutted forward and burst free of their human flesh. That was why he savoured destroying them, knowing that he was freeing the poor humans from such an unthinkable existence.

 

The Lupine lowered its head down to sniff around the earth, its tongue slipping free to lap at it. That was a sign that there was probably a puddle or smear of blood that had attracted its attention. Judging from the slaughter in the church it might just have come from its body, having dripped free from its fur whilst it had been patrolling and looking for new prey to slaughter and turn into more abominations. It made sense as to why a great many of the afflicted he had needed to kill had been canine in nature, for it looked like the beast had savaged so many of them.

 

Taehyung dived out from one of the alleyways across the square as quick as lightning, his twin knives drawn and ready to spill blood. His companion must have noticed him hiding behind the church rubble, or he was planning on luring the beast out towards another hunter so that they could work together and slaughter it. Whatever the case, his baiting had given Yoongi the edge that he so desperately needed to attack the beast.

 

Upon detecting Taehyung the Lupine threw its head up and it tried to track his fast movements. It let out a mighty screech upon seeing him, lifting its legs and stomping them down so hard that the earth seemed to tremble beneath Yoongi’s feet. It was preparing to leap at him but was unable to do so because Taehyung was so fast, racing around the courtyard and diving behind rubble so that it was unable to strike. He was purposefully distracting it so that it would lower its guard and keep its back open to attack, meaning that Yoongi could get in close and strike first.

 

Yoongi saw the opening and he went for it, racing forward and leaping high into the air as he swung his spear back. His aim was true, his blow landing right between the beast’s scapula and sinking in deep. His weight drove it right down to the ground with a scream of agony, leaving its head exposed so that Taehyung could dart forward and slash it with his knives.

 

The Lupine thrashed underneath him but Yoongi was not only stronger, he was in a position of great power. He was able to stand on its back and force it to stay down, glancing up to see that his companion was racing towards them. He had to roll aside to avoid one of its flailing arms, slashing out with the knife and drawing blood that streamed into the air from the gash.

 

Taehyung fell upon the beast like a man possessed, the thrill of the hunt coursing through his veins. He must have slashed and stabbed at the beast’s head and arms a dozen or more times before it grew too weak to flail around in both a defensive and offensive way. This allowed him to strike right at its throat and deal the killing blow, the knife blade sinking it several inches to sever arteries and end its wretched existence.

 

The Lupine let out a series of raspy and wet cries that sounded just like gargles to Yoongi’s ears. Then its head dropped to land on the ground with a sickeningly loud thump, signalling that it was truly dead.

 

“Was that your kill or mine?” Taehyung asked, hastily snapping his wrists back and forth to knock blood and fur free from the blades of his knives. “I could not do it without your assistance, but I did deal the finishing blow…”

 

“Assisted kills do not count,” Yoongi suggested, wrenching the spear free from the beast with some effort because it was so firmly lodged between the vertebrae of its spine. “Neither you or I could have taken down such a foe without each other, Taehyung.”

 

“Then none of your deaths are yours to claim, my good fellow!” Taehyung taunted, bringing one of his knives up to brow so that he could salute him. “Continue finishing off the beasts! I will leave some behind, just for you!”

 

“Ah, you have no respect for your elders!” Yoongi called, watching his companion darting off across the church courtyard in search of his next beast to slaughter. “I ensure that the beasts you think you killed are dead and not just wounded! I should be able to claim all your deaths!”

 

“Assisted kills do not count!” Taehyung retorted, using his words against him just because he knew that it would get under his skin.

 

Yoongi shook his head at the young hunter’s insolence, hearing a chuckle escaping through his mask as he stepped off the back of the deceased beast. The Lupine was dead, completely still and bleeding its diseased blood all over the cobblestone and dirt path of the courtyard. He examined its corpse for a moment before turning back to the church, wanting to finish his examination of the ruins to check if there were any child survivors that would need rescuing.

 

Rather than chase after Taehyung to search for more beasts Yoongi raced back inside the church and up the altar steps. He searched the floor behind the pulpit for a moment, scratching his gloved fingers around until he located a seam in the wood that revealed a trapdoor. He placed his spear aside to free up his hands so that he could pull up the trapdoor, wrenching it open to reveal the hidden basement crawl space.

 

Yoongi retrieved his spear and fixed it into the holster, knowing that he would need to rely on his pistol if he encountered any beasts down below. He could not use his polearm in such a cramped space without risking getting cornered or being unable to move properly, the long length of wood too awkward to wield. He felt so incredibly exposed without his spear in hand but there was nothing that he could do. At least he had a firearm with which to protect himself, which could easily kill most beasts that he might come across.

 

The crawl space was completely dark because there were no torches fitted into the earthen walls. The only illumination came from the fire within the church that cast some light down into the dark hole. He could make out the first couple of steps and so he started descending, moving at a slow pace as to not stumble. Yoongi kept his hand on the grip of the pistol as he did so, squatting ever so slightly to keep his balance as he went down the steps.

 

The first thing that hit Yoongi was the scent of the earth, which mingled with the pungent scent of blood that hung heavy on the air from the dead within the church. It smelled damp, smelled ancient and powerful in that way that old earth managed to do so. The light started to fade away fast, leaving him squinting to see what was inside the tunnel. The flickering torchlight revealed to him the sight of chunks of stone and that was when he realised that something terrible had occurred.

 

The crawl space was in complete ruination, some of the tunnel having collapsed from an accident of some kind. Yoongi could see the horrific sight of puddles of blood soaking into the dirt; could hear it dripping from somewhere down the tunnel.

 

Had the tunnel collapsed as the result of a freak accident? Heavy rainfall might have eroded away the inner walls over the years and caused the earth to eventually come raining down on the children. It was a horror that he could did not want to imagine, his heart aching at the thought of the babes having been stashed away in the sanctuary for their own safety only for it to collapse and tragically kill them all.

 

Or had something found its way inside the tunnel and attacked the babes that had been hidden inside it? Judging from the puddles of blood and the distant sound of dripping, it seemed like there was blood all over the place and possibly up on the roof of the tunnel.

 

Could a tunnel collapse do such a thing?

 

A sudden wail sounded from down the tunnel, echoing off the high ceiling and earthen walls so that it reached a tremendous volume.

 

There was a child still alive down under the rubble, one that had managed to escape the beast that had slaughtered the rest of the babes but was trapped and in need of assistance before they also perished.

 

Yoongi felt his heart almost stopping in his chest in shock, the horrified feeling rapidly replaced with that of elation. Even if the child was injured in some way they were alive, and that meant he might possibly be able to save them.

 

Yoongi did not hesitate, quickly moving to go down the tunnel in search of the child. He had no clue where they were because of the darkness inside the collapsed tunnel, he could only feel his way around in the shadows and hope to find where they were. He dropped to land on his knees in front of the collapsed chunks of stone. He had to crawl across the earth, feeling at the mixture of rubble and things that felt like tiny hands and limbs that were located underneath them. He felt no response from the limbs that he touched, none of the hands gripping hold to let him know that they were alive and they needed help to get out from underneath the rubble they were trapped in.

 

Yoongi was about to give up hope of finding the child when he felt something touching him, snagging at the lengths of his long coat to try and hold on. He fumbled to grab hold of it, feeling his breath catching in his throat at how tiny the hand was that he was holding within his own.

 

Yoongi wanted to speak to the child, to let them know that he was going to rescue them and that they were safe now. Even if he had to carry them back to the airship and temporarily abandon the hunt, he knew that he would do so just to ensure that they were not left to die in this tunnel. But he found himself incapable of speaking, reaching over to start dragging the rubble away instead.

 

In the flickering light from the trapdoor hole Yoongi was able to discern a pale arm and something that looked just like long, black hair. The arm was covered in blood because the child seemed to be injured in some way, hopefully not mortally so. He cleared enough of the rubble away so that he could grab hold of them and drag them free, seeing that their clothing was tattered and filthy from being buried underneath the rubble. The child made no sound at all during his rescue attempt but they still seemed to be alive, judging from the sluggish movement of their limbs.

 

It was only as he fully freed it from the rubble did it let out a sound - a raspy hiss that was unlike anything a child would make.

 

Yoongi realised that he had made a grave mistake. The child in his arms was not a child at all, it was in fact a beast and he had fallen for its evil trap.

 

The creature let out a shrill sound as its head suddenly shifted, its lower jaw opening far too wide to reveal a maw of countless needle-sharp teeth. They burst out on a severe angle so that its head became elongated, its beady eyes as black as its head of deceptive, long hair and its nose nothing more than slits in its pallid flesh.

 

Yoongi had never seen a beast like this before, never in one of his countless hunts. Judging from its pale countenance and tiny eyes it might be subterranean in nature - which would explain how it had managed to get inside the tunnel. It was this creature that had slaughtered the babes and not an accidental collapse of the ceiling and walls. The collapse had occurred afterwards, almost as if God had sought justice for the deaths of the innocent and had trapped the beast in the tunnel so that it would die in anguish and pain for its evildoing.

 

But Yoongi had freed it from the rubble and now it was going to try and savage him just like the babes.

 

Yoongi reacted on complete instinct, dropping the beast before it could snap at his face or try to tear out his throat. He snatched his pistol from the holster to swing it up and depress the trigger to shoot the beast right in its godforsaken head. It lunged at him as it did so, going straight for his left arm because it was an easy target. They grappled for a moment before he was able to pull the trigger. The bullet tore right through it, cleaving a trench through the maw of its mouth so that its upper skull burst open in a haze of fetid blood and chunks of meat.

 

“Shit!” Yoongi cried out in horror, twisting away just in time so that the spray of gore did not hit him directly in the face and soak into his mask. He felt it splashing against his hood instead, soaking into the thick cloth within seconds.

 

The beast collapsed on the ground with a meaty thump, well and truly dead. He did not need to riddle it with more bullets or pierce it with his spear because the thing no longer had a head with which to attack him. All that it could do was weakly twitch for a moment before falling completely still.

 

Yoongi could feel a searing burn coursing up his arm from his wrist, a pain that he had never felt before. He brought his arm up so that he could examine his wrist, a horrible sensation starting to build up under his ribs that felt like terror. After pulling back the layers of his long coat and shirt he noticed the one thing he had been desperately hoping to not see.

 

There was a bite wound right on his inner wrist.

 

The beast had sank its treacherous fangs in deep into his wrist during their momentary grapple, and Yoongi could see the wound starting to well with blood. It was deep, a jagged and crescent-shaped bite that had lacerated his flesh. It was not a surface wound, a scratch that might just stay clean and not succumb to the affliction because it had not gotten deep enough to get into the blood. It was serious, serious enough to mean one thing and one thing only to him.

 

Yoongi fixed his sleeve back in place, hiding the injury from sight because it seemed like the best thing that he could do right now. His only other option was to reload his pistol, shove it under his chin, and pull the trigger to end his life before he ended up turning into a cursed beast too.

 

“Oh, God,” Yoongi whispered, closing his eyes and bringing his uninjured hand up to make the sign of the cross.

 

The sound of pounding footsteps came from above him, signalling that someone was racing into the church. He twisted to look up at the open trapdoor, hoping that it was an ally and not a beast that had been drawn to the sound of his firing pistol.

 

“Yoongi! Come on, brother!” came Namjoon’s booming shout. “Blood Fold has fallen! The village is overrun with beasts! We must retreat!”

 

Yoongi glanced around the tunnel for a few seconds, hearing no movement coming from the darkness now because the beast was dead. His hopes of finding some survivors had been completely dashed and he now had a grievous wound that showed the costs of his mistake.

 

“How did you find me, Namjoon?” Yoongi asked in shock, emerging out of the basement to get back onto the ground-floor. He saw that his companion was across the aisle, lingering to the side of the destroyed wall so that no beasts would see him and try and attack whilst his back was exposed. His shamshir was drawn, the blade coated in gore that showed he was too busy to even clean it between slaying the beasts.

 

“Taehyung told me that you were in the church,” Namjoon replied, pulling his mask down just enough to stop his voice from being muffled. “I saw the dead Lupine outside in the courtyard and I worried that you might have had an encounter with it. But I see that you are perfectly fine. I should not have doubted your skills.”

 

Yoongi felt the most pressing urge to tell him that he was in fact not fine, that he should leave him behind in the ruins of this lost hamlet because he was afflicted. Yet he found himself walking towards Namjoon instead, holding his tongue and not revealing the dreadful truth to him.

 

“Come, we need to retreat right now,” Namjoon said, snagging hold of his elbow to pull him out of the church. “There are too many beasts and no survivors! We have lost it, brother! There is no hope for Blood Fold now!”

 

In the retreat to get back to the airship Yoongi saw their fellow hunters racing through the streets. A lot of them looked to be flagging but not injured, struggling to flee from the apparent hoard of beasts that had taken over the hamlet. He twisted this way and that until he was able to see Taehyung, who was carrying another hunter slung over his shoulder that looked to have been injured or even killed.

 

Upon reaching the airship, Yoongi snapped the leash back onto his harness and then he started the ascent, gathering tight handfuls of the rope so that he could pull himself up. His arm was starting to ache in a way that made scaling the rope leash difficult, but he just forced himself to persevere so that he could get back inside the safety of the airship. He could only look up as he dragged himself up the rope because he did not want to look at the earth down below. Focusing on the open hatch was the best thing to do, even when he saw many hunters rapidly scaling their leashes and leaving him behind.

 

Yoongi was the last hunter to board the airship, save for the body of the hunter that Taehyung had brought with him. They were pulled up on a leash by two of their brothers and sisters, not wanting to leave the body behind because they deserved a real burial in the cathedral to honour their sacrifice. It crossed Yoongi’s mind that had he not been as fast drawing his pistol that he might just have been getting pulled up into the airship like that too - a corpse with a mangled throat or missing head; one that had been disembowelled and hollowed out like a husk.

 

No one seemed aware of the fact that Yoongi had been attacked, no one could smell the stench of blood coming from his agonising injury. It was as if nothing had happened, for only he knew the truth that he was hiding like a sin. Sitting on one of the benches, his injured arm nursed against his stomach and his face still hidden by his mask, he could only stare down at his feet and listen to the heavy breathing coming from his exhausted hunting party.

 

The airship started lifting higher into the sky after a moment, the sound of the engines roaring as the crew started sailing through the thick smoke that filled the air above the scorched hamlet. That was it, they were officially retreating from Blood Fold because the settlement had been destroyed and the beasts had conquered it. The Sacerdotium were going to be greatly displeased with this devastating news, the loss affecting their supply of holy blood from the hamlet.

 

Namjoon moved to drag his hood down first along with his mask, which he left hanging around his neck. His brow was coated in sweat that he hastily wiped free, heavily exhaling out of his mouth as he did so. He had a look of complete defeat on his face that showed abandoning the hunt hurt him. After all, he was their hunting party leader and he was supposed to ensure that they were victorious, and abandoning a hunt would make him look like he was incapable of taking control of them.

 

“I ordered a retreat because Martyr Petyr once told me that if the church has fallen then the town is lost,” he explained, glancing over them all as he spoke. “Tonight, we lost control over Blood Fold and we lost one of our own - Sister Annabelle.”

 

At this, they all glanced over at the corpse that was their fellow hunter, Annabelle. She was lying still on the floor, her uniform slick with blood and her right arm completely missing at the shoulder because some beast had torn it off as if she was nothing more than a child’s doll. The sight of such horrors should have made them all scream and cover their faces, but they were all so used to seeing torn apart humans that not a single one of them gagged at the sight of her mangled body. It just felt different seeing one of their own like this, a sister that had hunted side by side with them and had saved many of their skins by loosing her arrows just in time.

 

Taehyung dragged his mask down with a strangled sound, his face also coated in sweat. He looked like he was sweating from the heat of his uniform and exertion, but Yoongi’s skin was cold and clammy rather than hot.

 

“It was a Giant. It grabbed her from her vantage point and…and it swung her through the air in a fit of rage. She…her body just…”

 

Taehyung stopped talking at this, reaching up to roughly wipe at his brow and eyes with his fingers. It was not to wipe away tears because he was not crying, at least not yet. It was difficult crying when the body was so pumped with adrenaline.

 

“I grabbed her whilst Byungho distracted the Giant, but she was already dead,” he finished, slouching and dropping his head forward so that he did not have to look at any of them.

 

There had been a Giant in Blood Fold? Then it was no wonder why Namjoon had ordered a retreat. A Lupine was bad enough, a dreadful beast that could kill them with ease if it ambushed them. But a Giant was something else entirely. It would take an entire team to bait and attack such a foul monstrosity - as tall as one of the hamlet homes and capable of crushing everything with its fists and feet. They were slow and exceedingly rare, but it took just one of the beasts to attack a settlement to completely destroy it with ease.

 

“The church had fallen to a beast, a Lupine. I saw the chaos for myself,” Namjoon continued, shifting his gaze to look over at him. “The Clergy were all dead, slain by it. What of the sanctuary, Yoongi?”

 

“The babes were dead. A beast found its way inside the sanctuary tunnel and slaughtered them all. I do not know what it was, I think it might have been a Yanshu, but I have never seen such a beast with my own eyes before. It was…”

 

Yoongi found that he was unable to finish this because his mind had gone so completely blank of thought. It did not even matter, he could see that none of the other hunters were even listening to him at this point. They were far too distracted staring at Sister Annabelle to really care about the other dead right now.

 

On the airship ride back to the dock, Yoongi found himself thinking about the fact that they had lost one hunter tonight and that he was going to be the next one. There was no recovering from the affliction, no amount of holy blood and prayer could undo its poison. Only death could still it before it took over the host body and turned them into beasts - a process so agonising that death was truly a mercy.

 

The bite on his wrist constantly throbbed in a way that made his stomach feel loose under his ribs. Underneath the throbbing pain there was an itchiness that almost felt like there was something burrowing into his flesh. Yoongi tried to not think about the fact that the affliction was going to work its way into his blood like a swarm of parasites.

 

When the airship docked at the cathedral again Yoongi found himself incapable of moving to exit it. His legs did not seem able to support his weight because he was in shock. It was only after Taehyung had vigorously shaken him by the shoulder for a moment that he managed to come around once more, gasping in surprise and looking up at him.

 

“Yoongi, are you alright?” he asked in a concerned voice, his strong eyebrows lightly furrowed.

 

“Aye, brother,” he muttered, finally reaching up to pull his mask down and breathing in the scent of air that was not noxious with thick smoke. “I am alright, I just…the church…”

 

“I am sorry that you had to witness such horrors, Yoongi,” Taehyung spoke over him, mistakenly believing that he was talking only about the dead babes that he had discovered in the collapsed tunnel. “I had been hoping that we would be able to rescue the babes at least. But we were simply too late and the beasts were too great in power and number.”

 

Yoongi made a soft noise at this, accepting his hand to allow his companion to pull him to his feet. He exited the airship at long last, following Taehyung across the dock so that they could enter the lift and travel through the cathedral. They rode down to the ground-floor because Taehyung dragged the lever all the way down, even when Yoongi had no desire to visit the altar, dining-hall or the hunters’ wing. He slumped back against the wall whilst the carriage descended, hoping that his companion did not notice that he was somewhat weak.

 

Upon exiting the carriage, Yoongi saw that Namjoon was kneeling on the altar pew right in front of one of the saints. He was no doubt going to tell the man all about their failure and repent in the hopes of being forgiven by their masters. He had his head bowed and one hand pressed against his chest, lost in the hazy cloud of incense that was coming from the saint’s swinging orb. The man had his hand on the crown of Namjoon’s head whilst he listened to him talk, most of his face hidden behind a mask of gold.

 

“I am going to our chamber,” Yoongi said, dragging his gaze away from their leader as he reached up to wipe at his face.

 

“I must clean away the grime of the hunt,” Taehyung said, twisting to look back over his shoulder at him. “I will come up with Namjoon as soon as he is ready. Would you like me to bring you anything?”

 

Yoongi shook his head at this, moving to step inside the carriage so that he could ride up the cathedral once more. He felt so dizzy that he could barely stand, his breathing laboured and rattling in his chest with every inhale. When the carriage came to a stop he staggered to the side from the vibrations, but he managed to exit and stumble his way inside the chamber without collapsing.

 

Yoongi stripped off his long coat, slipping it onto the back of the chair so that he was free from the outer layer. Just moving to remove his coat caused him immense discomfort and he had to clench his jaw to fight the urge to cry out from the pain. The sleeve of his shirt was slick with blood because the wound had been bleeding so extensively, and when he stripped his glove free his hand was covered with crimson smears.

 

Yoongi dropped to sit down in the armchair, pulling his sleeve up so that he could examine the wound again. It was still bleeding from the lacerated slashes that formed a ring in his flesh. The skin around each slash was shredded, curling free because the beast had badly savaged him. However, he was now able to see red lines starting to snake out from the wound that looked like an infection, shockingly vivid against his lightly tanned skin. They were traceable with his fingertips, Yoongi able to run his fingers all the way up to his inner elbow to follow the lines.

 

It seemed like his companions were gone for an eternity, leaving Yoongi sitting in the chair with his legs tucked up against his chest and his injured arm cradled against his stomach. He stared out of the open windows across the chamber, seeing the still glowing orange flames spreading across the horizon because the inferno in Blood Fold had not naturally burned out yet. It was difficult seeing the stars through the thick smoke but the sky was starting to lighten in parts because dawn was approaching. Not that dawn brought much sunlight with it, just a bare amount of light from the faded sun that managed to break through the darkness.

 

When Namjoon and Taehyung finally entered the chamber they did so in the midst of a conversation. Yoongi saw that they had both bathed and stripped out of their heavy uniforms to wear something fresh, which he had been unable to do so. But even after washing away the dirt of the hunt they both looked so morose because of what had happened, their faces showing the true depth of their exhaustion and upset.

 

“Brothers, I have something I must tell you,” Yoongi whispered, hating the fact that the quiet air of the chamber made his voice sound as loud as a shout. “Something important…”

 

“Important?” Namjoon asked, sparing a quick glance over at Taehyung before focusing on him again. “What do you mean, Yoongi?”

 

Yoongi slowly snagged hold of his shirt sleeve so that he could unbutton it and pull it up. The sight and scent of the blood alone enough to make Taehyung gasp in shock, the realisation that he had been injured hitting him hard.

 

There, on his inner wrist and spreading up towards his forearm was his hidden and deathly injury. Just one look told them all that they needed to know.

 

Yoongi had been afflicted with the disease, the one that would turn him into a beast.

 

His companions were so shocked by what he had just revealed to them that they were incapable of even saying a single word. The air was heavy with silence for what felt like forever to Yoongi and he longed to say something to break it, but he lacked the ability to do so.

 

Taehyung moved to slowly sit down on one of the windowsills without saying a single word. He slumped forward, pressing one hand against his brow to hide his face from view.

 

It seemed like so long ago that Yoongi had last seen such a look of devastation on Namjoon’s face. Looking at him right now, seeing the slackness in his jaw and his rounded eyes, it felt like a beast had sank its fangs right into his heart. His companion, his dearest brother who he loved like his own kin - suffering because of him.

 

Oh, if only the beast had slaughtered him and saved him from this agony.

 

“How did this happen, Yoongi?” Namjoon asked, his voice barely that of a whisper as he moved to draw closer to him.

 

“It happened in the church, down in the hidden sanctuary. I thought that the children had all been killed by a tunnel collapse because there was rubble everywhere. I heard something that sounded like an injured babe trapped underneath the rubble and so I tried to rescue them. But it was a trap, a beast had slaughtered the babes and it sank its fangs right into my arm before I could shoot it. I was a fool, I should not have fallen for such a trap.”

 

“Dear God, Yoongi,” Namjoon whispered, bringing his hands up to clasp them under his chin and tightly closing his eyes. “Will this night of suffering never end?”

 

“I have been contemplating the many ways in which I would commit suicide and end my wretched life,” Yoongi replied in a matter of fact voice, feeling no need to sweeten his words around his brothers. “Diving from the chamber windows seemed very fitting, as did a bullet to the brain. Yet I seem to have come over quite pathetic and lack the courage to do so.”

 

“Death is the most honourable thing that you can do at this point, brother,” Namjoon said in that same soft whisper. “Be it from your own hand or the hand of another. I…I will volunteer, if you are unable to do the act yourself. I cannot abide the thought of you suffering, Yoongi. You are too good a man to become a beast.”

 

“…There is something.”

 

Taehyung’s voice was so soft that it was barely a whisper, so quiet that Yoongi was amazed he had even heard it. He was still perched on the windowsill, but he had lowered his hand so that he could look across the room at them.

 

“There is something else, something that does mean not having to die. I have heard rumours of a hunter that has somehow survived the affliction,” Taehyung continued in that same soft voice. His expression was completely serious, conflicting against his usually cheery smile. “They reside in the unholy ruins of Basilica, where no hunter or believer would dare to tread.”

 

“Rumours are nothing more than glorified lies,” Yoongi remarked, refusing to be swayed by the promise of salvation when he knew that death was the only thing that could save his soul now.

 

“But it is true, Yoongi! I swear on the lives of the saints that a hunter resides in the ruins!” Taehyung argued, almost snapping at him because he was so visibly distressed. “What will throwing yourself from this cathedral achieve?! Do you not see that it is a waste to destroy yourself when there very well might be another option?! We should not be sitting here, contemplating the ways in which we can end your life, brother! We should be trying to find ways to save you!”

 

“…Aye, you are right, Taehyung,” Namjoon agreed after a moment of thought. “I fear that my want for Yoongi to not suffer any pain clouded my thoughts and blinded me. I do not want you to die, brother. If I had the power of God Himself I would cure you of the affliction. But I cannot persuade you to die, not when there exists the chance of salvation. How do you feel on the matter of this legendary hunter?”

 

“I think that the legend is a culmination of the hopes of many hunters before me that became afflicted and sought a curative of some kind. But I do not think that this hunter is real, that they haunt the ruins of Basilica,” Yoongi admitted, not wanting to lie to his companions. “Still, Basilica is a ghost town, a cursed ruin that was once the most powerful kingdom for The Church. I can think of no better place to die than within the grand cathedral, on the altar before God…”

 

“We cannot go with you, Yoongi,” Namjoon pointed out in a soft voice, unfolding one arm so that he could reach over and take hold of his shoulder. “Leaving with you to is bound to arouse the suspicions of not only fellow hunters, but with The Sacerdotium. Not only that, but the ruins of Basilica are a deadly threat. We might become afflicted too, supposing that we do not simply die at the hands of the beasts.”

 

“No, I understand,” Yoongi said with a nod, quickly fixing his shirt sleeve back in place over his injured wrist. “I do not want you to follow, nor would I allow you even if you demanded that I take you with me. This is my burden to carry. If I am unable to find this so-called hunter and I start turning, I promise that I will kill myself before I become a beast.”

 

“Yoongi, be careful,” Taehyung whispered, shifting to get to his feet so that he could move over to him. He came to a stop right in front of him, taking hold of his head so that he could angle his face and get him to look up and hold his gaze. “I know that must sound frivolous, after everything. But be careful. You cannot find the cure if you die before you find the hunter; hmm?”

 

Yoongi promised, “I will slaughter every beast that gets in my way, brother. They will not take my life from me.”

 

Taehyung slipped his arms around his neck so that he could pull him close, forcing him into an embrace that caught him by surprise. Yoongi wrapped one of his arms around his waist to return the affection.

 

“Go with God, Yoongi,” Namjoon said, slipping his arm around his waist and Taehyung’s neck so that he could join in the embrace.

 

“God is always at my heels, Namjoon,” Yoongi replied, closing his eyes so that he could savour the sensation of their warm arms around him.