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Paleblood

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A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. - Oscar Wilde


 

Rest, Gehrman found out long, long ago, did not come easily in the Hunter’s Dream. In essence, it would be like falling asleep in a dream within a dream and as such it made sense that such a redundant act would prove futile. Not even the Doll found rest, always tapping her finger in impatience when rendered lifeless and left to rot and crack in the graveyard.


Sleep, if he managed it, would open his mind to the voice of the wretched moon and its whispers and Gehrman always woke up more tired than when he fell asleep, his only recompense a throbbing headache and a crick in his neck.


How many years passed since he had slept soundly? How many decades, how many centuries? No, if centuries had passed, surely these accursed beings would have already sucked the world dry and moved on.


Even so, if he woke from this dream, how old would he be? Would he turn into dust the second the glorious sun touched his skin? Would he even get to the feel the heat of day warm his old bones before they turned to ash?


The old hunter sighed, rolling his wheelchair over to the door to look at the menacing moon. “Don’t you ever get tired of me, dearest?” he snickered. “You can’t keep me here forever.”


Of course, the moon had nothing to say.


Chuckling, he drifted away from the threshold. “All things must die. Even me. Maybe even you, someday.”


The moon shivered in the dusky red sky, but Gehrman paid it no heed as a bell of welcoming chimed outside the workshop.


“Ah, a new hunter…” Gehrman glanced back at the moon, but what he saw chilled him to the core.


He saw nothing. An orange and navy sky devoid of any cloud, star… or moon.

 


 

 

It happened so suddenly that evening.  As I stood out on one of the Grand Cathedral's higher balconies and watched Old Yharnam burn in the distance, the moon vanished from the sky.  At first, I thought a cloud had merely veiled our glorious Yharnam moon, but minutes passed and the light did not return.  Growls louder than usual rose from the city streets and I came to realize the true direness of the situation.

I ran for the lift, staggering under the sudden weight of my holy blade, brushing past blood saints and blood ministers who had all gathered to murmur quietly at the beloved moon's absence, speaking with covered mouths and hushed tones as if saying it out loud would make it more real.

The main hall did not contain the usual congregation.  Executioners gathered, faces grim and weapons cleaned and sharpened in preparation for the coming raid on Cainhurst's Vilebloods.  I blended in with these seasoned warriors, my own  attire and trick weapon matching theirs, minus the helm.

"Father," I called out, approaching Master Logarius.

"Lael.  You've noticed it, too, boy?" My father addressed, turning his attention away from his advisors.

"It's not just the moon, sir," a blood saint interjected, hands visibly shaking.  "There is a weakness among us and a change in the air.  Something changed.  Something big.  Something's coming."

"Oedon has abandoned us!"

"Our blood is weakened!"

"Great one, why have you forsaken us!?"

The crowd of clergy-folk stirred, the mutters rising to a dull roar until even the Executioners shifted in discomfort.

"Silence!" Amelia -- my younger sister -- commanded, creating a loud crack by slamming a borrowed cane on the banister.  "I understand your unease, but the blood would never forsaken us.  In that, you must have faith."  The young blood saint's voice, while clear, shook slightly.  She nodded, as if reassuring herself.  "We need to send an emissary up to the Choir.  Perhaps they will have some insight on the current crisis."

I looked at my comrades, the polished blades and helms heralding the war ahead.  My own holy blade weighed heavily on my back, much heavily than ever before without the strength powered by the blood.  The words of the blood saints rang true; weakness plagued us.  Alternatives were few for my trick weapon:  the Kirkhammer had been too heavy for me even before the moon vanished and a threaded cane required an amount of skill that I did not possess.  I could wield a hunter’s saw or axe, but such weapons were for use against beasts, not Vilebloods.

As much as I yearned to join the rest of the Executioner Order against the Vilebloods, without my full capabilities, I would only get in the way.

I took a step forward.  “I will --”

Logarius stopped me, ponderous hand on my shoulder.  He shook his head and muttered, “No, Lael.”

I stepped back, somewhat confused but accepting of his denial.

As another volunteered and was sent off for the Upper Cathedral Ward, the crowd dispersed, leaving mostly Executioners.  The tension, while not completely gone, had thinned with a collective exhale.  Of course, while the panic had left, the lingering feeling of dread continued to hang over the church.

After things calmed down a little, my father pulled me aside, keeping his hand on my shoulder.  “Son, Lael, I know you trained hard so you could join us.  You’ve improved a lot these past few years.  It’s a shame this crisis hit us when it did, because I very much looked forward to seeing you on the battlefield.  I’m proud of you, Lael, I need you to know that.”

I stared at him, brow furrowed.  What had brought this about?

Logarius continued.  “And it is because I am so confident in your abilities that I need you to stay here and look after your mother and sister.”

I sucked in a quick breath and held it.  Stay.  Sit idly by while people risked their lives for our safety.  For the Church.  For the Blood.  Such seemed… dishonorable.  The actions of a lesser man to cower with the women and children.  Amelia could likely defend herself.  She was nearly as well trained as I was, but mother, sweet crippled mother, still sat day in and day out in the Hunter’s Workshop, crafting weapons for the citizens that wanted to protect their families from the beasts, wheeling herself around in a wheelchair that she would swear belonged to Gehrman, the First Hunter.  Father said that mother’s stories about the man were all true.  They both knew him when they were children -- wards of the church, orphans -- and they liked to hear his tales of the hunt and to gape in awe at his arsenal of strange weapons.

So very long ago.

I exhaled, looking from Logarius’s expectant gaze.  “I understand, father.  I’ll guard them with my life.”

He clapped me on the shoulder.  “Good boy.  Be good while I’m gone,” he said as if heading off to fight the Vilebloods without the strength of the moon wasn’t a death sentence.

As if commanded by some invisible force, the Executioners left swiftly and in perfect order, flowing out as if the door was the drain and the warriors were the water.  If the atmosphere hadn’t settled before, now it was downright tranquil.  An amount of normalcy returned, everything lapsing back into routine.

Tired of carrying the now over-heavy weapon on my back, I turned to a passing custodian.  The awkward one in the red robes.  “Here, you,” I said, unlatching the buckle and handing him the blade.  “Return this to the armory.  And don’t drop it!”

He scrambled to lift the sword properly.  As expected, I imagined.  The thing was longer than he was tall.  “Y-Yes, Mister Executioner, sir, r-right away… ha ha ha…”

The custodian disappeared around a corner, but after a moment I heard a heavy thud and a pained hissing.  

“I said not to drop it!”

“Aaaaah!  Sorry!  So very sorry!”

I sighed and intercepted Amelia on her way down from the dias.  “Sister.  Have you seen mother?”

Amelia had her hand to her forehead.  A headache, I presumed.  Likely a migraine due to her deteriorating eyes -- the result of too many nights reading by candlelight.  “You were off training, but mother collapsed this morning and we had her moved to her chambers…” she paused, looking around for in case anyone had lingered.  “Lael, it’s…” she swallowed hard.  “Lael, if anyone says anything, if anyone asks, she’s going blind and the bandages are to protect her eyes from further damage.”

My breath hitched, heart skipping a beat.  “The beast plague--?”

She nodded.

I groaned, feeling my shoulders fall.  “It’s gotten too far up… For a vicar to have-”

Amelia cut me off, holding a finger to her lips.

“... Does father know?”

The despairing look in my sibling’s eyes told me that yes, father had gone into battle knowing that his wife was turning into a monster.

Hearts heavy, my sister and I ascended to the vicar’s quarters.  The candles flickered in the modest room, casting shadows through the windowless room of stone.  Statues loomed over the withering figure on the bed, hands held up in prayer.  Oh, great ones, let her ascend.

A church hunter kneeled at mother's bedside, face cast down in respect as he spoke.  "-- dedication to our sacred cause is unmatched.  We will miss you greatly in the Hunter's Workshop, Vicar Iuliana."

I let out a sound not unlike a snort.  "You make it sound like she's dying, hunter.  Knowing mother, she'll drag herself into that wheelchair and make her way to the workshop come hell or high water, right, ma?"

Vicar Iuliana let out a weak chuckle.  "My sweet children do know me the best," the ailing vicar laughed as she reached out her arms.  "Come here, Lael.  Did you bring your little sister with you, too?"

At this point the church Hunter rose and stepped off to the side, giving me a polite bow as he left.

Amelia went forward into mother's arms while I stayed behind.  "Yes, mother, I'm here, too."  She put a hand to Iuliana's forehead.  "How are you feeling?  Do you need more medicine?"

The candlelight cast eerie shadows on Iuliana's elderly face, making the clean, neat bandages over her eyes impossible to ignore.  "No, no, dear, I'm fine.  Just because a lady loses her eyesight doesn't mean she's suddenly useless."  There was a tone in her voice that said she really knew what was happening to her, but didn't want to say it.  Saying it out loud would make it real.  "Why are you standing so far away, Lael?  Give your mother a hug."

A knock came at the door and a blood saint ducked into the room.  "Lady Amelia, the Congregation of Saints is asking for your presence."

Amelia nodded.  "I'm sorry, mother, I must take my leave."

Iuliana smiled.  "It's fine, dear.  The whole world can't be put on hold for me.  Go on, my daughter."

My sister gave mother a kiss on the forehead and left, leaving mother and I alone in the dim light of her sick room.

"Lael."

Shocked by the sudden seriousness of her voice, I straightened.  "Yes, mother?"

"Come here."

I kneeled at the vicar's bedside, clasping her hand between my own.

"Do you know why your father left you behind?" she asked.

I heard the wisdom in her query and answered the best I could.  "To fulfill my duty as your son and protect the family, mother."

She nodded.  "Yes, that is part of it.  But, Lael," Iuliana took a deep breath and pulled out the Vicar's Amulet from beneath her nightclothes.  "... Your father is very proud of you and all you've accomplished.  That is why he decided that if he dies out there, you will be taking over as head of the Executioner Order, just as I will leave this amulet to Amelia to take over as Vicar.  Do you understand what this means, Lael?"

I swallowed.  "It's a great honor, but surely father will not--"

Iuliana held up a hand to stop me.  "We must always plan for the worst.  And, Lael," she brought her hand up to rest on my cheek, the dim candlelight dancing across her bittersweet smile.  "My sweet, dearest son... Before the beast blood takes me, before I hurt anyone... I need you to kill me."

I dropped her hand, pushing away from the bed.  My back hit the hard stone of a praying statue, cold and clammy.  "No..."

"Lael..."

"No, mother, I cannot, I..."

With a weak, shaky hand, she pointed to an old Kirkhammer mounted on the wall, the shining blade unsheathed and exposed.  "... Please..." The word came out like a gargle.

With a trembling hand, I pulled the blade from the wall mounting and approached my mother's bedside.  Carefully, I reached down and pulled the bandages from her eyes, wincing at the yellowed sclera and dilated pupils.  She'd gone gaunt, the softness of her face vanished from the blood.  Her once platinum blond hair had become like straw, dull and oily.

She pulled the Vicar's Amulet from around her neck.  "Give this to your sister and tell her... That I have never been more proud of her..."

I remembered sitting by the fire with Iuliana and Logarius, the two of them telling their children stories of great hunters and arcane discoveries, but also of faraway kingdoms and princes and princesses, tales of love at first sight and lost children finding homes.  Tales of Mother's adventures as a hunter before she had settled down and become a member of the church.  Mother's smile and Father's laugh, always near each other when they occurred.  The day Mother handed me my first blade, forged by her own hand in the workshop.

The one who had birthed me, shared her blood to create me, spent so much of her life raising me... Wanted to be ended by me.

And now I wielded her Kirkhammer's blade.  I... A quick death.  Yes, quickly.

I sank my blade into her heart, the metal burying into the mattress beneath her as her holy blood spilled.

"Thank you..." She said weakly, eyes sliding shut.  "I'm sorry..."

My eyes burned and for a moment I thought I had caught the beast plague.  However, wet tears dripped from my chin onto my white executioner's garb.

I flicked the blood off the blade and left, my limbs going stiff.  We had kept the true nature of Iuliana's sickness a secret as not to cause panic, and as I passed by members of the church and imagined looking them in the eye to tell them that the beloved Vicar Iuliana had fallen to the beast blood and asked to be killed... I felt sick to my stomach.  I wanted to mourn my mother's reputation, to cry out and tell them all that they would never reach her level of enlightenment.

I walked down to my sister's chambers in a trance.

Amelia spoke without turning.  She was fixing her hair for the meeting, most likely.  "Ah, brother, what did mother have to say?"

I slipped the amulet around her neck and left the room before she could respond.

Mother was dead.

Father expected to die.

I couldn't protect Amelia.  Her eyes were going, too, and I remembered the headaches that mother used to get before they bandaged her eyes.  Just like Amelia.

I didn't think.  I just needed to get out.  I needed to get out before everyone turned into a beast and --

 

I didn't remember much further past that.  I blacked out, that much I realized.  I came to consciousness slowly, my head throbbing with pain.  Senses came back like molasses.  First, I could feel that I was cold.  Then, that I was on stone.  The air was musty and still and nearly choked me.

I heard something move beside me and someone brought a waterskin to my lips, using tiny, soft hands on my throat to help me swallow.  Parched beyond belief, I drank it like it was the first taste of water I'd had in years.

After a moment, that water was replaced by a much sweeter sensation.  A feeling like moonlight had entered my veins, like the stars had suddenly come down to earth and for a brief, amazing second, I was the cosmos.

I gulped in a huge breath of the stale air as my eyes snapped open, revealing ancient stone and dim, mystic lights.

"Welcome back."

I looked at the girl who had spoken, a blindfolded waif at the side of my... bed?  I looked down at the strange stone altar.  Tubes ran from the creases of my arms to hers, a strange machine between us that that flowed silver, silver like moonlight.

"W-where am I?" I stuttered out, at a near loss for words.

The girl made no change of expression.  "The ancient Pthumerian crypts upon which the city of Yharnam was built."

"H-how...?" I managed, trying to figure out how to work my tongue again.  It felt strange and heavy in my mouth.  "Why...?"

"I carried you after I came to the conclusion that nowhere else was safe for what needed to be done."  She tilted her head.  "Do you not remember what happened?"

"I..." I struggled, tugging at little strings of fragmented memories.  I could remember... Stars.  The sky.  Everywhere... And nowhere... I... I... EYES...

My head throbbed with a splitting headache.  I cried out in pain.  "Who are you?"

She leaned forward, picking up a cloth-wrapped item from beside me.  The girl set it in my hands and carefully, mindful of the tubes, I unwrapped the Kirkhammer blade from its coverings.  I ran my fingers over a new carving upon the sword, a Caryll rune.  I traced the shape... Formless Oedon.

The girl switched off the device and pulled the catheters from our arms.

She took a short breath and settled back into the chair.  An expression similar to a smile worked its way into her face.  "You called me Aydan."

I sat there, not knowing how to answer when she suddenly stood.

"Come.  We have wasted enough time here."

I blinked, shifting my aching body off the stone slab.  "Uh... How long have we been here?"  Maybe I could go back and apologize to Amelia for running.

The answer was immediate.  "Your body slumbered for twenty-seven years."

"Excuse me?" I blurted, baffled.

She didn't respond, and I was left to follow her, stumbling as I figured out how to walk again.

Eventually, I gave up on trying to decipher the situation.  If anything, the entire ordeal felt like one of those stories about the old days when men would go out and drink alcohol and forget everything they did that night.  Of course, that brought of the possibility of bedding some wench and waking up next to her, which, fortunately, did not happen --

Aydan’s scholarly garb was oddly well-fitting from my view.

But no, no.  Even inebriated, I doubted that I’d become that involved someone who appeared to have the emotional capabilities of a dead fish.

I sighed, rubbing at my face to try to coax away the creeping blush.  "Where are we going?"

She stopped at what appeared to be a lantern surrounded by strange, ugly creatures.  "To the dream."

Aydan took my hand and touched the light and reality fell apart in front of me.



Chapter Text

My eyes opened to a field of white moonflowers.  A calm, home-like feeling settled into my bones.  There was a warmth here, a sense of belonging.  This was a haven.  

Not too far away, a small chapel sat upon a gentle hill, the surrounding landscape covered in gravestones.  The condition of the gravestones varied, some appeared almost brand new while others were crumbling with age.

For a hopeful moment, I looked up to the sky searching for what had gone missing, only to find it just as barren of the moon’s graces as any other place in Yharnam.

After a moment, I realized I still held Aydan’s hand.  Dropping my grip, I returned my hand to my side, bashfully.

The scholar ignored me, however, instead striding forward towards the small building.  I followed her, having re-discovered the ability to walk competently.

I almost expected her to start lecturing me or something, but she did not acknowledge me even when we reached the cobblestone path.

"Welcome, mistress."

I jumped at the voice, having focused so closely on Aydan that I had not noticed the woman near the stairs.  Wait... I blinked, taking a closer look.  There were hairline cracks along her cheeks, her hands clearly connected with ball-joints.  This... was a very lifelike doll, then?  She spoke?

Aydan walked right past the Doll, ignoring her like she wasn't even there.

I gave the Doll an apologetic smile, but she averted her eyes and bowed her head, as if repulsed or shameful.

My brow furrowed, but I continued to follow Aydan's lead up the stairs to the church.

What surprised me, however, was that the interior was not that of a church.  An exact replica of the Hunter's Workshop where mother had spent her declining years was before me, and I could almost feel her warmth, even though she had certainly never been here.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, smelling the sharp iron scent of blood chunks, the familiar musk of leather and mixed with a hint of moonlight.

To drive the stake in further, I could swear I heard that distinct creek of her old wheelchair--

"Well, look what the cat dragged in," an old man snapped.

I opened my eyes.  A... crippled old man was sitting in some replica of mother's wheelchair.  Or perhaps... Was it hers?  If as many years had passed as Aydan claimed, surely someone would have salvaged it and reused it.  The whole idea of someone else using it, though, bothered me.  How could some random old hunter understand the history in that chair?  How much it meant to her?

"That wheelchair... Where did you get it?" I hissed, accusation in my voice.

The old man raised an eyebrow.  "I've had a lot of people angry at me, boy, but this is the first time my wheelchair has been a concern.  The question is... Why?"

"It belonged to Vicar Iuliana, a cherished keepsake of a passed mentor.  A meaning that you couldn't possibly understand."

His brows pulled together.  "Iuliana... I do recall that name... Ah, yes..." He leaned back, looking up at the ceiling as he remembered.  "The little orphan girl, always running around the workshop... A vicar, you say?  She did well for herself," he chuckled, “Started hunting for the church, did she?  Probably why she needed this old thing, eventually.”  He paused, a light sigh escaping him.  “She’s dead then?  Old age?”

A hard ball of emotion tightened in my throat as I listened to this man talk so casually about her.  “What do you care?”

“You don’t know who I am, do you, boy?”

My hand twitched for my sword.  “What does it matter?”

The old man narrowed his eyes at me as I did, straightening his posture.  “Stop acting like a beast, boy.  Or would you attack a curmudgeonly old man?”

“I will relax when you answer me,” I said through clenched teeth.

The old man scoffed.  “Have it your way, boy.  I am Gehrman.  The damned wheelchair was mine first.  Does that calm your boiling blood?  Does it bring peace to your rage-addled mind?  You have your answer, was it worth all this argument?”  Gehrman frowned and glared at Aydan.  “And you… of all the hunters in Yharnam, you chose this child?”

Aydan said nothing, tilting her head curiously.

“I am no child,” I protested, ignoring that this man was apparently my mother’s long-dead idol.  “I am the son of the Great Executioner Logarius and the Exalted Vicar Iuliana!”

“Where we come from does not define us.  Helps shape us, perhaps, but has nothing to do with who we are.  Just because your parents are great people does not mean that you follow in their footsteps.  Their glory is not yours to leech off of and claim as your own.  If you want to prove yourself to me, boy…” his eyes flickered over to Aydan, “... Survive this hunt.”  He raised a finger, pointing to the Byrgenwerth scholar as a tone of warning leaked into his voice.  “Survive her.”

Aydan’s lips turned downward as she turned and walked away, striding over to the workshop bench and picking up a whetstone to run it along the edge of her threaded cane.

I huffed.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Aydan wasn’t dangerous, as far as I could tell.  She’d obviously taken care of me during the time I was asleep.  I figured that anyone who could be trusted to tend to a half-dead body for twenty-seven years could be trusted in nearly any other situation.

Gehrman, however, ignored me.  “Nearly three decades now, girl, and you’re still keeping this up?  Isn’t that cold shoulder getting a little frosty?”

Aydan looked back at him, a blank, emotionless face persisting.  It struck me, suddenly, how strange the expression looked.  For a moment, I wondered if she was similar to the doll outside, but dismissed the thought.

As my companion remained silent, I cleared my throat.  “Whatever the case,” I interrupted, “I… apologize for my outburst, sir, I-”

“Lael,” Aydan said, standing up suddenly.

“Yes?”

“I have finished weapon maintenance.  It is time to depart.”

I glanced between her and Gehrman, feeling the hostility from him, mainly, but not so much from her.  If anything, she radiated a melancholy indifference.  “But-”

“Do not linger where you have no purpose,” she finished, lifting her cane and walking out of the chapel, expecting me to follow.

I took a step to follow her, but Gehrman stopped me.  “Boy.  I knew your parents.  I'm sorry for what happened to them, but your mother and father are the least of your problems tonight.  Remember that."

Still trying to process the flurry of new information, I nodded, even though I didn’t quite understand what he meant.  Something happened to father...?  He likely fell to the beast blood shortly after mother, to be honest, or maybe the Vilebloods did him in.  I wanted to be positive and hope that he died of old age, but optimism had begun to feel foolish in this strange dark future.

Again, I tried to access the hole in my memories.  I couldn’t have possibly spent all of twenty-seven years asleep underground.  No way could Aydan have procured and maintained the necessary stores of food and water required for that stretch of time.  That, and she couldn’t be a day over twenty-seven herself.  I hadn’t aged, she remained young, the numbers just didn’t match up.

Aydan didn’t make any sense, really.  Gehrman had warned me to survive her, and with his annoyance towards her, I interpreted the statement as an expression of frustration.

I turned to see her standing in the doorway, her petite silhouette framed against the moonless sky.  I realized how odd her appearance was, with her silvery hair and bandages over her eyes like she had the beast blood.  I would have to ask her about those.

Bidding Hunter Gehrman farewell, I followed my mysterious benefactor out to the graveyard.

In Aydan’s presence, the Doll from before had made herself scarce and I kind of wondered where she had found to hide.

The scholar took my hand again and knelt before a tombstone.  As I peered closer, I could see that the names of various places around Yharnam and the surrounding villages were carved into this line of markers.  Aydan did not hesitate to press her hand to a set of glowing words labeled “Byrgenwerth,” and I had little time to peruse the other available locations before we were simply there.  

We appeared in a deserted, forested area and I decided that the time was as good as any.

“Miss Aydan,” I said, stopping her before she could start advancing forward without me again.  “How is any of this possible?”

She stopped and turned towards me, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge what I’d asked.  Her face remained blank.

“How am I alive?  How could you have taken care of me for twenty-seven years and remain so youthful?”

The scholar made no reply, only tilted her head in that slight manner.  Completely disregarding me, she walked forward, lifting her face in a way that implied she was sniffing the air.  Which it turned out she was, as I realized when she readied her threaded cane.

She ventured forward, stepping out cautiously as monsters slinked towards her, the gigantic insect-like beings prowling out of the underbrush.

I pulled out my blade, but Aydan lifted a hand, motioning for me to hold my ground.

Reluctantly, I obeyed.  What did she plan to do against a small horde of beasts?  Perhaps her actions would give me some clue as to her origin.

A clicking kind of growl rippled out of the gathering creatures, but the scholar held her ground, planting her feet and tossing her cane aside.

The cane clattered as it hit the ground, the sound causing the monsters to agitate and leap at her, claws and teeth bared.

However, at the very last second, Aydan curled in on herself, fingers curling into subtle talons as she let out a piercing beastial shriek.

The beast roar sent her assailants tumbling away, a few of them turning tail and running back into the woods while the rest recovered and leaped at her.  Taking my cue, I rolled into the fray and started stabbing and slicing things.

Aydan must’ve retrieved her threaded cane, because during the fight I heard the crack of the whip and the cries of the beasts as the blades cut into their festered flesh.

I darted for the monsters’ thin waists and when that wasn’t an option, I hacked through their necks.  Not as easy as it could’ve been.  Twenty-seven years of sitting on one’s ass didn’t do much for flexibility.  At every turn, only narrowly did I dodge a razor sharp claw or a gaping, toothed maw.  Strangely enough, the weakness that had plagued me before -- when I had first fled the cathedral -- had waned.  The inhuman speed and strength had returned in some quality.  However, that increased ability only just gave me what I needed to defeat beasts and the reduced capabilities certainly made the battle much more difficult.  In a way, what happened was not increased ability, but reduced weakness.

We fought together, blood blossoming from fresh lacerations gleaned from gleaming talons.

I struggled, barely escaping from beneath a monster that would otherwise spell my doom.  Losing blood fast, I rolled away, quickly slicing at the beast in a desperate hope to end the fight.

As the foul creature roared and shrieked its death cries, I felt something return to me.  My wounds had ceased bleeding, some even closing up as if time had reversed.

Breathing heavily but thankful for the mysterious regeneration, I looked around for Aydan.  The scholar had knelt on the ground, her bladed whip resting beside her.

“I did not expect to be so weakened,” I commented, taking steps towards her.  “But the way appears to be cleared.  Why don’t we continue on?”

Aydan rose, shaky.  As she turned, I saw her entire front was soaked in a pale substance, like quicksilver diluted with milk.  Before I could really inspect the fluid, Aydan ripped her cape from her shoulders and tied it around her torso, hiding mystery ichor from view.

I didn’t press the subject.  She didn’t seem worried, so I paid it no head.

The scholar snapped her whip back into a cane and passed me with a hurried stride.  I followed, wary to keep up with her gait after such a tiring battle, but I found that my stamina had returned faster than usual.  Perhaps twenty-seven years of rest had more beneficial effects than I thought?  Whatever the case, I kept up with Aydan as she approached the school entrance.

The entire building was deserted except for the occasional monster outside.  The interior remained fairly safe.  A single scholar sent the two of us a wicked glare but otherwise left us alone and we did the same to her.

It occurred to me.  “Why are we here?”

Aydan did not answer, instead, she opened a pair of ornate double doors, revealing an outcropping of stone brick that overlooked a glorious lakeside vista.

To the side sat a man in a rocking chair, his appearance something I felt I should know.

I watched the scholar carefully as she approached him.  For a moment I felt like she would kneel before him, fall to her knees and grasp his hands, but almost the exact opposite happened instead.

The scholar stood before the Provost, her stance indifferent as the vacuous elder reached out towards her, gnarled hands brushing against her robes.  Incapable of words any longer, Provost Willem’s choked cries crescendoed as Aydan lowered her hood to reveal her pale, silver hair.

Not hesitating, she turned from him, leaving the blind old man grasping pitifully at air as she approached the edge of the balcony.

I stepped out from the threshold, unsure what to make of the scene.  Halting my procession beside the Provost, I looked down at the withering old man.  Some said he was the most enlightened of us all.  If so, then what was enlightenment?  This shriveled, mindless old man, dressed in decadent robes and exalted like a god amongst men?

What was someone like that if not only a doll?  A puppet?

At least mother had free will and a mind of her own before she died.

The Provost forced himself forward, dropping his staff and falling out of his rocking chair.  Sprawled out on the stone floor, he reached for something with a boney hand.

Aydan.  I knew he grasped for Aydan and somewhere deep in my gut, I understood and dreaded why he did so.

My gaze turned towards Aydan, silhouetted against the moonless sky.  “It’s no use,” she said after turning her blindfolded gaze from the water beneath us.  “Without the moon, he has gone dormant.”

Willem tried to drag himself towards her, his tiny, withered body shuddering with the strain of movement.  How old had he become?  He’d been elderly before my slumber, what ancient age had the schoolmaster reached, sitting outside and longingly contemplating the empty cosmos?

Aydan moved from her lakeside perch, looming over Provost Willem with her head tilted.  “I must seek alternative methods.”

And thus, with silent horror, I watched the tiny scholar lean down and almost lovingly caress the Provost’s face before she ripped his head from his body, spraying blood that wasn’t quite blood all across the stone balcony.

She didn’t stop there.  Taking a strange, curved knife from the pockets of her robes, she carved open his skull, the sickening crunch of bone splitting reaching my ears and churning my stomach.

Aydan remained completely expressionless throughout this entire time and stopped only after she threw aside a slab of flesh and bone, rended from the old scholar’s head and tossed aside, bloody with that strange quicksilver goo.

I retched and turned away.

“Lael.”

Glupping and steeling my will, I reluctantly lifted my eyes, dreading what I would see.

Aydan had turned the deceased Provost’s head so the hole she’d carved out faced me.  Nothing was red as it should have been, everything turned milky white by forces I couldn’t yet comprehend.  I could barely see any brain, the entire inside of his skull had been lined with bulbous, now lifeless eyes and nestled in the center of this mass of queer eyeballs was what looked like a brand.

The Caryll rune for “eye” looked out at me from the back of Provost Willem’s gored head.

Pain split my own skull and I heaved, falling to my knees as I vomited, spraying red blood and that same strange silver substance across the stone.  My head felt like it would explode, like pustules were forming on my brain and --

Bulbous, hideous eyes.

I may have screamed as it overflowed, the stars returning to the sky only to flicker and fade and I wasn’t sure if they’d decided to take up residence inside my skull or my veins because it hurt just as much either way.

My vision distorted and Aydan became very thin, her ribs protruding from her torso like they were about to burst from her as her hair flowed in the breeze.  The sight hurt me further, intensifying the heat of whatever was happening to me.

I screwed my eyes shut and after a moment I realized it would all be solved if I removed them.  I reached up to try to do so, but gentle hands stopped me.

“Shh…” she said, brushing my hair from my face.  “You’re doing so good, it’s going to be fine,” she cooed.

“Vicar Iuliana… Mother… Mother, I…. I don’t want them, my eyes are… killing me!”

My mother didn’t respond, but something did for her.  It held me in its pale embrace and I floated with the absent moon reflected on the water while the pain in my blood worked its blazing path through my veins.

When it ended, it ended like a band of rubber, snapped back into place.

Tremors wrecked my body for but a few moments as a sort of renewed vigor came to me.  My breath heavy, I looked up at my companion.

“Aydan, what the hell was…!” I gasped.

The scholar stood before me smiling lightly, not as thin as my vision had made her, but still thinner.  The silvery ichor soaked through her Byrgenwerth robes.  However, the blood didn’t belong to Willem.

“... He’s crying, Lael… They’re all crying…” Aydan managed to choke out before she collapsed from blood loss.

My heart rate picked up.  No.  I owed her my life, and even after that…

Her comforting hands, brushing against my face and holding me in serene embrace.

I lifted her slight form and ran.

 

Chapter Text

Not every night resulted in a hunt.  The Healing Church would announce the date the next hunt would be and if folk had any sense they would do everything to get out of the city before the nightfall.  Of course, since Yharnam was nestled up in the mountains far from any other large settlement, the only people that could afford to leave were the those with considerable wealth.  The ones with considerable wealth tended to either be associated with the Healing Church or one of the other ridiculous cults in Yharnam.

Yes, ridiculous cults.  All of them.  Vilebloods, Hunters of Hunters, the Healing Church, Byrgenwerth, and then those crazy Mensis zealots that the Church definitely kept a secret.  Yeah, no, you couldn’t keep such a mass exodus of people secret.  Sometimes she swore she could hear the damned bells through the solid walls of Cainhurst.  No, Isolde, you’re just paranoid, Mensis isn’t that creepy.  Yeah, well you haven’t seen the fucking buildings down in Yahar’gul!  ‘I have no mouth and I must scream,’ thank you very much!

Isolde followed a basic set of rules.  If she couldn’t kill it by stabbing it repeatedly with a good ol’ reiterpallasch, then it didn’t exist and she didn’t have to care.  That was the one decent thing that came out of this cursed place.  Swords that shoot bullets.  Gunblades.  She hadn’t seen anything so stupidly awesome since a farmhand back home had done a backflip off the roof of the barn and landed in a big ol’ haystack without a scratch on him.

Of course, then she’d tried to copy him and ended up landing on the guy and breaking the poor arsehole’s arm.  Best farmhand couldn’t help with nothing round the farm and Pa had gotten mighty angry.  So angry that he’d threatened to marry her off or some shite if she didn’t clean up her act.  Pfft.  Okay.

So some batty -- birdy? -- group of mercenaries by the looks of it had rolled through town and this forty-something broad Eileen had taught her how to stab people after some arse had gotten too fresh with her in the local tavern.

The Bird Herd -- Crows?  Who cares? -- said they were off to some place called Yharnam where shite had gone nuts bananas so they could stab people.  Or at least, that’s what Isolde had gotten out of the explanation.

Stabbing baddies sounded much more fun than getting married to cowherd sheep-face down the block and having a flock of sheep-faced children so of course she joined up.  Who wouldn’t?  Bye, Pa, I’m gonna go with this birdy bunch and stab some uh… werewolves, I think?  Anyway, bye now!

Wow, if Isolde had to choose the dumbest fucking decision she’d ever made, leaving with the Crows for Yharnam would be right up at the top.

Where did it all go wrong?

Well, probably when she started drinking the blood.  Should have never drank the blood.  Eileen had gotten a transfusion of the stuff one hunt and disappeared off to do fuck knows what while the rest of them had to bunker in some abandoned building.  Something about nightmares and seeking the pale blood.

After that whole debacle, Isolde avoided the red stuff like the plague.  Then some arsehole slipped her something she still wasn’t sure she understood and she got stronger, faster, more resilient, but not like the boss had when she got the transfusion.  At first, it was great.  Then the hunger set in and she needed more of that same stronger blood.

Overcome by shakes like some sort of addict, Isolde dumped her Crow gear and ran off for Cainhurst.

The day came when she stood on the shore of the great lake watching the flames climb as the Executioners attacked and realized that abandoning the Crows for the Vilebloods hadn’t been her best idea, either.

Nearly thirty years had passed since that day, and the vile blood in her veins kept her youthful and strong.

The Vileblood Knight leaned over the edge of the roof, smirking down at the group of crazed citizens down below her in the square.  Without the big old moon, bonfires had become the only real source of light during the hunt.  Unfortunately for the hunters below, their bigass pyre lit up the whole square for her.

“Good evening, Yharnam!” Isolde bellowed, lighting series of molotovs and lobbing them into the crowd.  “Yes, fuck you, fuck you,” one molotov hit a poor bastard square in the face.  “Oh, fuck you in particular, that right?”

About to toss another cocktail, the ex-Crow’s eyes zeroed in on a flash of black feathers and she nearly dropped the lit concoction on her feet.  Instead, the bottle dropped harmlessly down the side of the building, exploding in a small gout of flames on some poor bastard’s doorstep.

She shouldn’t have been so loud.

Isolde high-tailed it out of there.  She could hear Eileen’s voice in her mind calling her a traitor or some shite.  Isolde knew what that woman could do with those knives.  No way was she going to let that particular encounter happen anytime soon.  Sorry, Eileen, I’ll schedule your appointment… how about never?

It had gone on through the years, the chase.  Being hunted.  As a Vileblood, Isolde had been pretty safe.  Numbers were important and the Crows didn't have the manpower to attack multiple Vilebloods.  At least, not anymore.

A nauseating memory of watching her compatriots slaughtered hit her and she near slipped on a roof tile.  People who had survived before, friends who she had thought to be immortal, sacred.  Death happens so often, but never to people she knew.  Not until Yharnam.  Not until the cursed long hunt.

Isolde had been so afraid.  If her friends and mentors were not safe in the universe’s design, what was to say she was, either?  What was there, throwing her lot in with folk who risked their lives so often?  What happiness, what satisfaction or peace could be found?

She still could remember what that fear felt like, for it had never truly left her even as she had jumped ship and ran to Cainhurst.  Deep down, she’d known what she’d imbibed that day.  At the time, it had been an escape.

But really?  Her fear-blinded eyes could not see the gilded bars of her new cage.

The ex-Crow loomed above Central Yharnam, eyes scanning the streets below for the past that haunted and hunted her so diligently.  Nothing, but that only meant that Eileen wasn’t up for a fight.  The old bat was still there, just not prepared or momentarily uninterested.

Whatever the case, Isolde made a few more leaps across the sprawling rooftops of the city before she rolled onto a familiar flat roof.  Haven.  Or at least, a place where the past would merely slap her instead of stabbing her.

Isolde paused at the door, a little nervous about this particular confrontation.  A small, stupid part of her wanted to go back and find Eileen, instead.

Enough.  She slipped off her gloves and tucked her helmet under her arm before gently pushing the door open.  Unlocked?  Strange.  Lady wasn’t usually too keen on letting folk in during the hunt.  Wasn’t like her to keep the door unlocked.

That alone put Isolde a bit on edge.  She kept out her rapier, the gunblade loaded and ready to lose a bullet in a monster’s face.

It was quiet.  Not too quiet, though.  The Doc liked things mellow so she could hear the creaks in the old wood floors.  Rightfully paranoid during these dark times.  However, Isolde knew every creak, every weak floorboard, having tread across the dusty carpets many, many times.

“Sefka?” Isolde called out tentatively as she approached a corner.  “Sefka, Sweet?”  The Vileblood eased around the corner, unsure what she’d see--

And then some white-robed Executioner was holding half a Kirkhammer set to her throat.  The blade part.

“Who the hell are you?  What are you doing here?” the boy hissed, before he caught sight of what she was wearing -- Cainhurst Knight regalia, very ostentatious -- and she could hear the growl rip through his teeth.

Before the bastard could slit her fucking neck, the nimble knight ducked and swung her leg out, taking advantage of the Executioner’s anger to catch him off guard.   The fool dropped to the ground hard.  She flipped up almost immediately, promptly pinning him with her feet.

“And here I was thinking you arseholes were extinct!” Isolde groaned, pressing her foot down on his chest as she raised her reiterpallasch, winding up for a swift killing blow.

“Isolde!” snapped a familiar voice, making the Vileblood hesitate.  “No killing my patients!”

“‘E attacked me first,” Isolde retorted.  “How do I know he’s not gonna stab me the minute I turn my back?”

Iosefka ignored her question, instead pushing the indignant knight off the Executioner runt.  “Your friend will be likely wake soon, child.  Attend to her instead of harassing my guests.”

The boy grumbled, his eyes narrowing at the mention of the word ‘child.’  He did, however, rise and brush past Isolde, rudely jostling the knight’s shoulder as he did so.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Isolde snorted.  “What a fucking prick lord.  Why you even got one of them types here anyway?  Thought you didn’t let hunters in during the hunt, even all them fancy church folk?”

Iosefka frowned, which didn’t do much for her face.  Wasn’t much you could do to improve a face as perfect as that.  Cute black hair, coiffed in a pixie cut around a round, soft face.  An elegant, pear-shaped woman who commanded authority.  “I know.  I was skeptical at first, but he just showed up on my doorstep one night, begging for sanctuary.  He had a girl with him who was grievously injured.  Something strange about her, though, haven’t figured it out yet, but that’s pretty much the story.  Let them in, patched her up, took some blood samples for my studies, then you showed up and a fight started in my back room.”

Isolde shrugged.  “I told ya, he put his tiny sword to my throat first.”

The doctor waved a hand, taking a few steps forward.  “I don’t care for your reasoning.  I don’t what your excuses or platitudes or any of your charming sayings from your hometown.”  With each word, the doctor came closer until the two women were face-to-face.

The knight smirked.  “This isn’t about me attacking your Executioner boy, is it?”

Iosefka made a sound of disgust and surged forward, capturing her paramour’s mouth in a hungry kiss.

Isolde hummed in approval and wrapped her arms around the doctor’s waist, one hand firmly grasping a shapely ass-cheek.

Unfortunately for her, the doctor pulled away almost immediately.  “Ugh, what have you been eating?”

Good question.

Well, mostly, uh, dogs.  The wolves.  Cooked.  But there had been some desperate times… corpses stopped looking so disgusting after a few months of nothing.  She’d bang at doors, begging for food, for a can of beans, for anything, and everyone would turn her away.  Blood wasn’t everything.  It couldn’t sustain her.  So she had to turn to some alternatives and Isolde expected that the cannibalism was part of the reason why Eileen wouldn’t get off her ass.

Iosefka didn’t need to know that, though.  It didn’t matter because the doctor had moved onto a different question.  “Why are you here?  Where have you been?”

“To be honest, Eileen’s on my tail and I need to lie low for a smidge,” Isolde laughed, playing it off as a joke.  “Though, seeing your lovely ass is always a good thing.”

“You’re horrible,” Iosefka scolded, twisting out of the embrace.  However, the smirk on her lips betrayed that she wasn’t angry, not really.  “I have to go check on the boy’s companion.”

Isolde nodded.  “Don’t leave your back door unlocked.  I thought someone had broken in.”

This made Iosefka pause.  “I always lock the back door.”

“Huh.  Weird.”  Play it off like she didn’t realize something was off.  They could be watching.

Iosefka caught on.  “Perhaps Lael stepped out for some fresh air earlier.  I’ll remind him to make sure he locks the door next time.”

As the doctor retreated into the sickroom, Isolde wandered between rooms, constantly switching up her pattern as she did so no one would be able to discern where she would or wouldn’t be at any given time.  It was easy to disguise her careful sweep as a meandering, noisy exploration of a paramour’s living quarters.  However, any spy worth their salt probably had already seen through her.  Otherwise, Isolde figured Iosefka could handle any two-bit knifey-shivdark on her own.

Her searched turned up nothing.  Well.  Perhaps the lock really did just need to be replaced.

Dismissing the concern for the moment, Isolde made sure the back and front doors were secure, her haste to check on Iosefka causing her to miss the fine marks of a rushed lockpick attempt on the door handle.

 

Chapter Text

I did not sleep well.  Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the sky and my stomach churned uncomfortably.  After a time, I had dug through the cupboards and found a sedative which managed to knock me into a dreamless sleep.

Even with those few hours of sleep, I had not expected my skills to be so diminished as to let a damned Vileblood put me on my ass so quickly.

I sat at Aydan’s side, head bowed in shame as I held her hand securely in my own.  Iosefka was a church-sanctioned healer; why would she allow some Vileblood whore into her so-called safe haven?  Whatever the case, I did not know if I felt safe staying any longer, especially not with Aydan injured.

For all I knew, the damned Vilebloods could be responsible for the moon’s disappearance.  It certainly gave them an advantage, to fight weakened warriors.

Feeling Aydan’s hand twitch in mine, I perked up and studied her face for any sign of wakefulness.  The doctor had removed her bandages, but left a cloth over the top half of the scholar’s face, though she wouldn’t tell me why.  I had noticed signs of the beast blood in Aydan’s behavior, so perhaps she, like my mother, was photosensitive.  Though, I remained unsure how the doctor would have determined that fact.

Even if it did turn out to be some sort of deformity, I respected Aydan’s right to hide it.  Mother had lost most of her foot in a hunting accident and she tended to keep herself covered with a blanket even in the company of family.  That was before the spine damage that resulted in her retirement.

Aydan's facial muscles flexed in that subtle confusion beneath the white cloth as her hand tightened in mine.  By reflex, she reached up, fingers groping to understand the foreign sensation.

However, when she slid the cover from her face, my gut wrenched like from before.  My vision swam at the edges, forms blurring as I took in the blackened pits that remained where her eyes may have been -- may have never been.  Necrosis, death of the tissue, had spread down her cheeks, spilling over like a foul ichor.  A sheen remained in the sockets, whether it came from blood or other bodily fluid, I could not tell nor did I really wish to know.

My sight flickered, blacking out completely for a moment as the headache returned, the pressure inside my skull increasing like my brain had ballooned within.  Whatever caused this encephalitis did not matter, I just wanted it to stop causing the horrid hallucinations.  Aydan’s necrosis spread, oozing like pestilence through her skin and dying her hair with tendrils of black --

The ceiling?

My eyes shot open as I bolted up, gasping for breath.

I looked around frantically.  Hunter’s Dream.  I had lost consciousness, then.  I would have to ask what the difference between falling asleep and passing out was, because I hadn’t visited the Dream when I attempted to sleep, earlier, even before I took the sedatives.

Still shaking, I curled up in a ball, hugging my knees to my chest.  I couldn’t do this.  I didn’t know who to trust.  Iosefka seemed like such a nice woman until I learned she harbored Vilebloods.  Father would know what to do.  He always knew how to handle the Vilebloods.  Even now, I was sure he had emerged victorious, no matter what the treacherous doubting thoughts said.

And Aydan… I wouldn’t have even had to bring her to a doctor if Mother was with me.  Mother knew everything about treating wounds, fixing weapons, making sure people survived.  Even Amelia would have been some help.  Some reassurance.

Even though I knew Aydan could help, even though I knew Aydan stood between me and utter failure…

I feared her.

She was beautiful.  She was graceful.  She was a vital asset on the battlefield.  She was the one who had silently watched over me for more years than I had been alive before I went to sleep.  I looked at her and saw everything my parents valued and could see them being proud that I had chosen to follow such a talented young woman.

And I was absolutely terrified of her.  

Something that would fit so perfectly into Vicar Iuliana’s life shouldn’t have that kind of emotion attached to it.  What had she done to deserve my fear?  How could I have let myself corrupt something pure into something so… dark?

Byrgenwerth… Willem… EYES... BLACK ICHOR… head about to explode...

My hands shook.  I squeezed my eyes shut tight and tried not to exist.  How could Father say he was proud of me?  I didn’t deserve it.  I failed everyone every single time.  By my seventeenth birthday, I still couldn’t lift a kirkhammer.  I remembered Father’s proud smile at seeing me training, but now… did I deserve any of it?

A gentle hand came to a rest on my shoulder and I jumped out of surprise, flinching away from the contact.

I stared wide-eyed at the neatly dressed life-like doll.  She pulled her hand back, hesitant as concern crossed her face.  A heavy moment passed, words unspoken on both sides before she finally broke the silence.

“Welcome, young hunter,” she greeted with a soft smile.

The knot in my throat burst and I threw my arms around her and weeped.

She folded her hands in her lap and let me use her as a shoulder to cry on.  Words slipped out my mouth, proclaiming fear.  I wanted to go home.  I wanted my mama.  I didn’t want to fight monsters anymore; my head hurt and made them scary.

The Doll rose, taking my hand.

I calmed, wiping tears from my face.  Silently, she led me up a set of stairs to a little bath of strange white, tiny men.  I raised a brow at the Doll, stifling a sniffle.

She nodded towards the bath.  “They can relieve you of your burgeoning Insight.”

Shakily, I dropped to my knees in front of the small pool.  The messengers reached out with tiny hands, brushing them over my face and through my hair and it felt oddly relaxing.  When the pressure in my head wanned sufficiently, I rose.

The messengers held out their hands, blood stone shards pooling in them.  I held out my hands and collected the materials.  I gave them a smile.  “Thank you,” I breathed.

Speaking of breath, mine came so much easier after that.  Relief in the form of a clear head settled into me and left me feeling better than any form blood healing.

Carrying the handful of shards, I thanked the Doll and turned into the workshop.

Gehrman stirred slightly from his rest.  I didn’t want to wake the old man, but if I were to tinker with my weapons, he’d probably end up roused by the noise.  Who knew?

I set my small mountain of blood stone shards on the workbench and got to work.  The blade, as flawless as it may have been during its golden years, had deteriorated somewhat.

Weapon maintenance wasn’t my strong suit.  Yes, I had watched my mother at work, but I had been young and most weapon repairs were handled by squires.  Normally, I would have started out as a squire before I became an Executioner, but I had privileges as the son of both the head of the order and a prominent vicar.  I had received a crash course on the basics before they launched me into combat training and that was it.

Nevertheless, I repaired the blade to the best of my ability, smoothing away nicks and scrubbing dried blood from the detailing.  I re-wrapped the grip with fresh leather before I studied the Caryll rune carved into the base of the blade.  It was a strange addition, since Caryll runes were usually memorized, but I could see the use in having it embossed in an item one looked at often.  I would be less likely to forget it in case my memory lapsed again.  Perhaps I could add more?  Maybe Gehrman had a book of them…?

“What are you doing with half a weapon, child?”

I looked up to see Gehrman had woken and had supposedly been watching me for a time.  I swallowed.  “Well, two reasons, really.  The reason I tell myself, that I couldn’t lift a kirkhammer before and likely still can’t, and then the actual reason that I… well, I really don’t think I could bare to replace it.”  I took a cloth and began rubbing a shard along the blade like one would coat a violin bow with resin dust.  It would absorb into the metal and strengthen it.

Gehrman eyed me with an unreadable expression.  “Placing sentimental value on a weapon is foolish, especially here in Yharnam.  You need every advantage you can get out there, boy, and that old thing isn’t going to give it to you.”

I turned away.  “It was my mother’s.  I killed her with it.”

The old hunter remained silent for a moment.  “Ah.”  His expression softened slightly.  “I never caught your name, boy.”

I paused.  “Lael, sir.”

“A good name.”  He nodded thoughtfully, looking off as if reminiscing.  “Lael, when you say you killed Iuliana-”

The looming possibility of accusation led me to interject.  “The beast blood.  She feared losing herself.  Feared what it would mean for us.”

Gehrman closed his eyes and sighed.  “I see.”

I finished sharpening the blade and returned it to the jury-rigged harness on my back.  Scooping up the remaining forty-some blood stone shards, I deposited them into a pocket.  They’d come in handy somehow.  Eventually.

Exhaling, I let myself lean against the workbench and slide down to the floor, burying my face in my hands.  “Sir, how I acted last time, I’m sorry, I just-”

“You have bigger things to worry about than your temper.”

“Aydan,” I realized.

No reply, only an agreeing silence.

My breath came a bit harder.  “What do you know about her?  Is… is she human?”

“... Mortal, perhaps,” the old hunter mused.  “I would not say human, however.  But then again, everything in this world is mortal if you hit it hard enough,” he gave a bitter chuckle.

I shivered.  “What does she want with me?”

Gehrman hesitated.  “That’s none of my business.  I will not pretend to understand how your Aydan thinks.”

I deflated.  “Thank you, anyway.”  I stood, bid him farewell, and made to leave.

“Wait.  Take a gun,” the old hunter said, gesturing to a cabinet.

Yes, that would be a good idea.  Knowing when to use ranged and when to use melee was a major part of executioner training.  Without a firearm, I was effectively fighting with one limb.  I took a hunter’s pistol and thanked Gehrman again before wandering down the path.

I thanked the Doll again as I passed her before I went to kneel in front of the headstones.  A new location had begun to glow, a hastily scrawled ‘Iosefka’s Clinic.’

Pressing my hand to the inscription, I opened my eyes.

The ceiling again, though I was no longer on the floor.  I sat up slowly, squinting at the lit lamp.  I’d grown accustomed to darkness, it seemed.

“Don’t get up too quickly, kid; ‘Sefka said you bumped your head pretty hard.”

Oh, great, the Vileblood was still here.  I glared in the infidel’s direction, still a little too out of it to confront her.

She narrowed her eyes at me, raising a freshly plucked and slightly red eyebrow.  Her hair seemed neater now -- cleaner.  Of course, the doctor wouldn’t have wanted a filthy street dweller prowling around her clinic.  Iosefka probably made her bathe.

Sighing, she perched on the arm of the couch.  “I had a talk with your girlfriend -- Aydan, right?”  When I didn’t respond, she continued.  “She’s weird.”

I snorted, against my better judgement.

The Vileblood stood and wandered around the room.  Strange, the woman couldn’t sit still, fidgeting with things as her eyes darted, focusing on anything that moved even the slightest.  “Kind of reminds me of her Majesty, Annalise, all puppet strings and siren songs…” She trailed off.

“Except she doesn’t lead a covenant of heretics and monsters,” I spat out, retorting on reflex.

She didn’t flinch.  “Not yet, no,” the Vileblood mused, examining a vial of mysterious fluid.

I found myself sighing in exasperation as I pushed myself into a sitting position.  I was wary.  Doubting myself and Aydan couldn’t be more tiring.  “What do you want?”

The vial returned to its place and the Vileblood didn’t meet my eyes.  “Bored.  Take me with you when you head out again?”

That wasn’t the truth.  “No.  Why would I?”

Now her baffling ruddy eyes met my own.  “So you don’t end up back here.  Or dead.  Your girlfriend told me how your fancy ‘Hunter’s Dream’ isn’t working correctly.  Death isn’t cheap anymore, you lucky bastards.  You get mauled by a beast?  You die like the rest of us.”

I pushed myself to my feet, about to protest, however, she continued.

“I’ve been at this for thirty years.  No special blood except the dregs, and even that just keeps me from breaking under physical strain.  No dreams, no crazy Byrgenwerth sorcery, just a sword and a gun.  Now, that Aydan girl?  She has skill, but she’s squishy and you’re a newbie warrior practically fighting with half a sword.  You want to survive?  You need me.  No one else will offer you this kind of assistance.”

I stood there, mouth gaping.  What was I supposed to say to such a ridiculous request?  As much as my gut told me she was being reasonable, I wasn’t sure how well I’d take traveling with someone I’d taken a vow to kill.

“She will be accompanying us.”

Looking towards the doorway, I saw Aydan.  She’d replaced the bandages on her face, the black pits hidden from view once more.  The scholar stood on her own power, apparently having made a good recovery.  

“But-” I began to protest.

“There isn’t the time for this kind of delay again, Lael.  I need to complete my objective and if we experience more delays, I fear we won’t make it,” she explained, suddenly approaching me and grabbing my head in her tiny, delicate hands and pulling my face down to her level.

Several moments of awkward silence passed where we could feel each other’s breath.  I could tell her brow was furrowed, a sign of contemplation.

“We will have to be careful about exposing you to enlightening sights.  The incident earlier overwhelmed you and you sought out relief.”  I thought I could hear a shade of annoyance in her voice.

I dug into my pocket and showed her a handful of blood stone shards.  “Got these, though.”

The Vileblood cleared her throat.

I realized why and blushed.

Aydan, however, didn’t pick up the nuance.  “Yes, Isolde?”

“Nothing, just… making sure you know I’m here,” she chimed.

I groaned and pulled away from the scholar, leaving her moderately confused.  Again.  “Listen, we’re not in a relationship-”

Aydan tilted her head and that tiny smile spread across her lips.  The rare sight was enough to make me stop mid-sentence.  “Ah.  I see,” she clicked her tongue.  “Isolde, would you give us a moment?”

The woman raised an eyebrow but shrugged and complied.

I blinked and a sudden terrifying thought brewed.  Had Aydan and I been… together during my lost time?

As she lifted a hand towards me, I flinched away.  Undeterred, Aydan shooshed me gently and ran her thin fingers through my blond curls, melting my tension.

I swallowed.  “Aydan, I don’t know if I-”

She interrupted me with a gesture, taking a moment before she spoke with her usual monotone.  “You have been unsure about me.  Your lack of memory has made you uneasy about relying on me, since you are not sure if you can trust me.”  Aydan paused, moving her hands to straighten my coat.  “You are suspicious of my intentions and do not understand my motivations.  If this is to work, you will need to know significantly more.”

Aydan gestured for me to take a seat.  Reluctantly, I did so.

The scholar continued.  “I arrived in Yharnam twenty-seven years ago.  I am not… originally from here, as you may have gathered.  I had associates in the area for much longer, however, but only deigned to investigate in person when the situation became too much to leave alone.

“You were not the first person I encountered.  I went to many individuals for assistance, but none have been able to help me.  They lost themselves or decided my cause was not worth their time.  However, when I met you…” She paused a moment, exhaling.  “I knew I had found the help I needed.”

I still didn’t think I understood.  It must have shown on my face -- it didn’t matter that she didn’t have eyes, Aydan saw everything -- because she knelt in front of me and place and hand on my cheek.

“When I found you, you were half-mad.  I managed to relieve your mind, but the process overwhelmed you and we both lost a lot of time.  However, while I retained those memories, you did not, for you are only human.  You slept for a time, regaining yourself as you are.  I took you out to Byrgenwerth in an attempt to restore your lost memories, but it appears that unless specific conditions are met, they are lost.”

“That doesn’t answer anything,” I replied, “What are you?  What you looking for?”

She stood, remaining silent for a long time.  “... I am not sure what I am, presently.  I believe I may have been Pthumerian, however, if that is enough.”  Aydan’s head tilted.  “As for what I’m after… There is an infant, held captive by your Choir.  I hear his cries no matter how far I travel.”  Her brow furrowed.  “They are neglecting it, leaving it out with something terrible.  I don’t know why they’d do such a thing, but I have to stop it.”

In that moment, I remembered seeing my mother holding baby Amelia.  I remembered the joy on her face, I remembered the dedication, the love, the caring.  Looking at Aydan, fresh white bandages covering her empty eye sockets, I could only see my mother, eyes covered as she lay convalescing in bed.  What would mother want me to do?

“Okay.” I answered, swallowing hard.  “I’ll help.”

“You will not squabble with Isolde during our journey?”

I shook my head.  “I can’t promise I’ll be the kindest to her, but I’ll do my best to tolerate her for your sake.”

Aydan nodded.  “Thank you, Lael, that’s all I can ask.”  She leaned down and kiss my forehead, the gesture holding an uncharacteristic amount of emotion.  However, the intention was clear.  I did not blush for a platonic kiss, but my chest did inexplicably swell with pride at her approval.

“What’s our next move?” I asked.

The scholar rose.  “We need to gain access to the upper cathedral ward.”

I sucked in a quick breath.  “I’m unsure where a key may be, but my first guess would be to check with the Vicar.  My… my sister.”

Aydan nodded.  “I will inform the doctor of our imminent departure.”

 

Chapter Text

The three of us set out into the city.  Aydan had no trouble walking on her own, her recovery aided by the doctor’s diligent care.  Nevertheless, I kept a close eye on her.  Our companion, on the other hand, scaled the building the moment we left the clinic, citing a preference for seeing her surroundings.  Isolde assured us that she would follow our path to the best of her ability.

I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with having a vileblood following me where I couldn’t see it, but before I could protest, Aydan tugged on my sleeve and shook her head.  Conceding to her judgement, I sighed and did my best to ignore my paranoia.

We fought our way to the Cathedral Ward, gathering supplies of quicksilver bullets and blood vials along the path.

It came to my realization how much I enjoyed watching Aydan fight.  Each movement carefully considered and brutally efficient to the point where she could have been dancing.  Even in the thick of battle, an errant glance towards my partner could take my breath away.  Thus, I did my best to keep my eyes from her, especially when I had the fortune of catching the sight of her breathing  heavily as she licked the blood of beasts off her hands.  Even though the image was disturbing, my heartbeat would quicken for a reason other than fear.

Aydan stopped me shortly after we entered the cathedral ward, kneeling beside a fresh body.  It didn’t appear as deformed as others, which may have sparked her curiosity.  “Neither claws nor teeth killed this man,” she stated.  “... Small blades.  Sharp.  Well-maintained.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Someone still sane?”

The scholar used her cane as leverage to lift herself back to her feet.  “Well, I never said that,” she mused, and continued on,  no more on the subject.

Confused, but not surprised, I followed her.

As we proceeded, we found ourselves walking over corpses of beasts.  Fresh blood was splattered all over the square, slicking the stones and painting the walls.

“Someone is nearby,” I observed.  “Those things weren’t killed by a reiterpallasch, so it wasn’t our ally on the roof.”

Aydan grunted in reply, pausing to examine one of the corpses.  “Two individuals nearby, in fact.  These were not killed by the same weapon as the previous man.  The other hunter valued precision and speed.  This hunter cuts with a larger, heavier blade, and cares mostly for brute force.”

I nodded, peering down at the body that looked like it had been ripped to shreds.  I’d seen similar results before from traditional hunter weapons -- cleavers and the like.  It was likely the hunter wielded a saw cleaver or spear, though the hunter’s axe remained a possibility.

The scholar stiffened suddenly, tensing as she lifted her cane.

I immediately when on the defensive.  “What-”

“Shh!” Aydan insisted, holding out a hand for me to stay back.

A scream echoed from the roof of a nearby building.  I turned just in time to see Isolde hit the ground with a dull, wet thump, a gleaming blade protruding from her gut.  She breathed in raspy gasps, hands shaking as she ripped out the pristine silvery blade and threw it aside.

Rustling fabric alerted me to the presence of another.  The black-clad woman descended from the rooftops, landing gracefully on her feet.  She stopped to pick up the discarded blade, rejoining it with its twin with a metallic snap.

I didn’t have much time to get a good look at her before Isolde croaked out:  “Run!”

“Grab Isolde!” Aydan commanded readying her cane to fight the crow.

I threw the vileblood over my shoulder and ran.  I knew the district like I knew my blade.  I grew up running in these streets, but the corners and roads where I had once played never looked so sinister.

The woman pursing us made a disgusted sound.  “You dare?” she hissed.

Feeling a blade pierce my thigh, I yelped but kept running, faster now as the threat extended not only to Isolde, but to Aydan and I.  Blades clashed behind me as Aydan defended us, keeping the hunter’s blades away from Isolde.

We needed to get someplace where this hunter couldn’t follow us.

One place I remembered as safe.  Oedon Chapel served as storage for all of the Cathedral Ward’s extra incense.  Those without the money to purchase the beast-repelling substance would cloister in Oedon Chapel during the Hunt.  At least, before the Church had closed the gates, but that was neither here nor there.

I ran for the chapel, boots thunking heavily against the hard, cold ground.  The light of the lit incense burners signaled hope.  I didn’t know the nature of the foe pursuing us, but if there was incense burning, it meant that someone was alive and sane inside.

“Someone, help!” I shouted, hoping that whoever had slaughtered the monsters in the square made sure my cry for aid would not attract further adversaries.

I slid past the threshold, dropping Isolde onto the stone floor and shoving a handful of blood vials into her hands.

Hearing footsteps, I looked up in time to see a woman of the night -- of all people -- standing slightly behind a tall hunter.  The man’s face was obscured by his rather nondescript hunter garb, but I could tell he gave Isolde and I a glance before nodding to the woman at his side and pulling out his saw cleaver.

The woman knelt down beside the wounded vileblood and began tending to her injuries.

The assailant's attacks were quick, and Aydan's long range weapon did little to defend against the feathered foe's small blades.  Even though her movements remained confident and full of grace, I could tell that she struggled.

I watched as the mysterious hunter jumped between Aydan and our assailant, blocking the woman’s blow and causing her to pause her relentless flurry.

“I’ve no quarrel with you, Bertram.  Get out of my way,” the woman commanded.  Her face was covered by a strange, beaked mask and her cape made of black feathers.  A Hunter of Hunters.  Why would she be pursuing us?  It did make some sense for her to be after Isolde, but not so viciously.

The hunter, Bertram, didn’t appear like he would concede to her.  When he spoke, he did so with a heavy Northern brogue.  “Nor I with you, Eileen, but Oedon Chapel be a sanctuary.  I won’t have you bloodying my doorstep."

The crow let out a sharp, short laugh.  “You’d deny me my prey?  I’ve been chasing this traitor for nearly three decades, boy, and you’d turn me away on principle?” Anger coated her words like venom.

Bertram remained firm.  “If this traitor of yours becomes a problem, mine it’ll be, not yours.”

Eileen snorted in disgust and backed down.  “When you’re done playing house, Mac Conmara, I’ll return to help clean up the bloody mess.”

The crow stalked off, hostility clear in her posture.

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

Looking over at Isolde, I wiped the sweat from my furrowed brow when I saw her teeth clamped down on the prostitute’s wrist, eyes wide like a beached fish.  The whore’s startled expression sent me to my feet, wrenching the frenzied Vileblood away from her.

Blood dripped down Isolde’s face, the look of shock persisting.  She sat there, staring bewildered at the woman as she gathered her skirts and indignantly retreated back into the chapel.  

“What in the world was that?” I demanded.

Isolde blinked slowly, the glaze over her eyes fading as she focused again.  “... She is… special.”

I scoffed in disgust.  If she wasn’t going to give a straight answer, so be it.  I turned back towards the entrance.  Aydan approached, the hunter a few steps behind her.

“We should be safe here for now.  Mister Mac Conmara here has graciously offered us sanctuary,” Aydan said.

I leaned down and pulled a throwing knife out of my thigh with a wince.  “I thought your quest was time-sensitive.”

The scholar nodded.  “It is.”

I raised my eyebrows in question.

A moment of silence before she sighed quietly.  “Trust me.”

At that, I conceded.


 

We got Isolde to calm down and she immediately ran off with the prostitute to a deeper part of the chapel.  Whatever they were up to, I didn’t care.

I was surprised at how many people dwelled in Oedon chapel.  At least, I thought there might be more survivors than the meager few Bertram had collected.

Speaking of the strange hunter, he claimed to have arrived in Yharnam recently, a sick man in search of Yharnam’s infamous panacea:  the healing blood.  It had cured him of his illness, yes, but left him a dreaming “madman,” as he said.  I could smell the moonlight on him, but he told me he’d never smelled moonlight stronger than he could sense on Aydan.  The scholar shrugged off the comment and continued her conversation with the old lady.

I liked Bertram Mac Conmara.  He asked questions about the Healing Church and the city's history that I answered with pleasure.  We held a decent conversation, and for a while I felt like an apprentice again, answering the holy inquiries of a lost pilgrim or skeptical local.

“So, wha’kinnae task have you?” Bertram asked after a time.

"Excuse me?" Did he mean to ask what duties I had as an Executioner?

"For the Hunt.  What's your quarry?" He clarified.

Aydan whirled and tilted her head at the foreign hunter.  “A task?  You were given a task?”

Bertram removed his hat, revealing dark skin and a scarred brow.  He had the maturity and rugged manly looks that I lacked.  “Aye, miss, when I woke, I found a note.  ‘Seek the pale blood,’ it did say.”

Aydan made a disgusted noise.  “And I suspect Gehrman gives you instructions?  Guides you on your path as if he knows every step of it, as if he walked those very steps himself?”

The foreigner blinked, taken aback by Aydan’s sudden intensity.  “I- The ol’ hunter-”

She cut him off, reaching into her pocket.  “I know what path he is leading you on, good hunter,” she hissed.  “You will need all the knowledge you can get on your journey.”  Aydan presented him with a strange, worm like object that seemed to be made of eyes and starlight.  “Consume it by crushing it in your hands and the Great Ones shall grant you eyes.”

The hunter hesitated before reaching out and taking the strange item.  “The Great Ones, lass?” he chuckled, "You're all raving mad, that's what this is," he protested,  but as he crushed it as instructed, his eyes went blank and he tensed, gasping out a curse from breathless lungs.

He managed to stay on his feet, however, and after a brief moment he opened his eyes, blinking a few times before he zeroed in on Aydan and his expression shifted dramatically.

Fear crossed his face before being overcome by a determined rage.  He pulled out his saw cleaver, the blade stopping inches from Aydan’s throat.  “What manner of foul beast are you?”

I leapt into action, my sword at Bertram’s throat faster than he could react.  “Lower your weapon,” I hissed.

“Child, are you blind?!  Do you even know what you’re following?!”

“M-master Bertram -” stuttered out the Chapel Dweller from below in fright.  “Master Lael--!”

All of a sudden, Mac Conmara’s eyes went so wide as to possibly reflect the whole moon.  Ringing reached my ears and footsteps and shouts came from all around as the refugees cried out in complaint against the sound.  My sword dropped from my grip, one hand touching an ear that came away wet with a substance like quicksilver.  Leaning down through the haze of shrillness, I retrieved my weapon and slowly returned to my original position.  I wavered, trying to hold my blade steady but stumbled when the ringing swelled.

I heard the Dweller’s high pitched cries and barked at the fool to shut up.

Another voice joined the cacophony of screams and sobs.

“A beast, a true beast, the true threat… what do you want here?  What is it you want?!”

The ringing--

“Lael!” Isolde shouted over the screeching.  I could see her out of the corner of my eye, holding herself up against a column.

Overwhelmed, I ran.

I ran until the noises stopped, until my head stopped throbbing.

It so happened that I fell to my knees on the steps of the Grand Cathedral.

Exhaustion weakened my bones as I let myself crawl up those steps.

Everything had been so simple when all that mattered what the church, the blood.  Family.  Safety.  Making father proud, making mother happy.  If only things could have stayed that simple.  Instead, I pledged myself to some crazy Pthumerian power mom who seemed willing to slaughter all of Yharnam to reach a baby.  Plus, she wanted to travel with one of my father’s sworn enemies and accept help from this... insult to vilebloods, to be honest.  The way father had described them, at least they had seemed like orderly, honorable people, with principles and ways of doing things.  Isolde violated all of them in a way that somehow managed to be offensive to even me.

The streets of Yharnam were darker than one would imagine.  Without the moon, the streets were lit only by the occasional incense lantern.  The steps of the Cathedral were illuminated by the hand lantern dangling from my waist, but one could look out and see the corpses of the recently slaughtered beasts.  Bertram had been thorough.

I jumped at the feeling of a hand on my shoulder.

Isolde leaned down into the lamplight, concern on her face and something that looked just a bit too much like pity.  “It’s just me.”

I sighed in relief, beside myself.

“Your nose is bleeding, friend,” she indicated as she sat down on the step next to me.

“Not your friend,” I grumbled.

The vileblood scoffed in amusement.  "How mature of you."

I took a deep breath, trying to steady my mind.  "So, what happened back there, with the Crow?”

Isolde’s eyes hardened as she turned away.  “Ah.  Eileen.”  She dug at the step, chipping off a loose piece of stone.  “I used to run with them, before I got addicted and crawled, trembling and craven, off to Cainhurst.”  The stone broke in two in her strong hands.  “Her Majesty had the world believe that her Vilebloods were elite and noble, the height of class and poise, but that her concerns were only for the upper echelon.  She didn’t care how the rank and file acted.  Most of us bought into it, anyway, fighting through the shakes and pains, thinking that our hard work would earn us even a drop of blood from Her Majesty’s wrist, thinking we were part of something.  She kept her court close, let them drink from her, but the rest of us?  Our addiction became a gilded leash.”

She straightened, testing the weight of the rock in her hands before chucking it out into the darkness.  It hit something fleshy and silent.  A corpse, most likely.

“The worst part though?  I’d been clean since I deserted years ago.”

I silently watched as Isolde looked down at her trembling hands.

“That whore?  Ruined it.  Don’t know how, but her blood… it felt so much like the sweet, sweet blood of Her Majesty...”

Swallowing, I realized the implications of what she’d told me.  I groaned.  “I’m not in the right mindset to handle a paradigm shift at the moment, Isolde.”  Looking over my shoulder, I gazed up at the Grand Cathedral and found myself letting out another tired sigh.  “Come on, let’s check this place out before Aydan catches up with us.”

Isolde raised an eyebrow.  “Aren’t you supposed to be her little disciple or something?”

I felt like I could just let off steam.  It was Isolde; she wasn’t going to judge me or relay anything I said.  “Just because I feel the vague urge to lick blood off her body doesn’t mean I want her fucking with my head all the time,” I stood up and offered a hand.  “Come on, my sister might still be here.”

Isolde joined me as we climbed the rest of the stairs.  “Your sister?  You really think?”

I nodded.  “She’s the Vicar here.”

The ex-knight whistled.  “You’re kind of a big deal, then, with family in the clergy?”

“Yes, my father-” I stopped.  Should I mention my relation?  “... My father is Master Logarius,” I admitted just as I pushed open the cathedral doors.

“Martyr.”

What?  “Excuse me?”

“Martyr Logarius.  That’s what they call him now.”

I stared at Isolde, bewildered.  “What?  Why would they-”  I stopped as I heard a familiar voice.

“--lure the meek into the depths. Remain wary of the frailty of men. Their wills are weak, minds young--”

My heart soared.  “Amelia!”

The white robed figure in the front of the altar went quiet, motionless with her hands clasped to her chest.  The silence hung in the air, lingering as if someone had screamed.

When she finally spoke, her words were a faint, unsure sob.  “Lael…?”

I took off towards her.  “Amelia!  Thank the Great Ones you’re still alive in this nightmare!”

“Lael…” she said again, still not turning away from the altar.  Amelia began to weep, bending over herself and shaking with each wavering cry.  “Lael… Lael… you missed Mother’s funeral…  We even waited for you… but you never came back..”

Finally reaching her, I fell to my knees beside her and pulled her into a hug.  “I’m sorry, sister, I don’t know what happened to me, but I was asleep for a long time and I’m back now.”  She was so thin underneath her robe, practically a living skeleton.  How long had she been kneeling here at Laurence’s Altar?

“I have something to tell you, something important,” she said, tears abating for a moment but still she refused to uncurl herself.  “Lael, my dearest, sweetest brother Lael… Father is alive.”

My eyes widened in hope and joy.  “How?  Where is he?!”

She shook her head, still keeping herself hidden.  “Lael, you have to promise me something.”

“Anything,” I breathed.

“Don’t go looking for Father.  No matter what happens to me, Lael, I-” she made a choking sound.

I heard movement back by the door.  “Lael, get away from her!” Isolde hollered.

Amelia finally began to let herself unfurl, revealing the amulet in her hands.  She moaned in pain, a wet sound like she was about to vomit.

“Sister, what-”

Her eyes were bandaged.

My veins went ice cold and the sharp stab of a quick headache passed through me.  Expansion.  A new EYE--

A hand wrenched me back as Amelia erupted in a gigantic white wolf, hands clenched tight around Mother’s amulet even as she transformed into a monster.

“AMELIA!” I screamed, trying to pull away as from the hand even as she howled.  I struggled to get loose of the being holding me.  “Let me go!  That’s my sister!  THAT’S MY SISTER!”

The hand shook me hard and I looked up, eyes just managing to focus on the pure white hair and clean bandages.

Aydan’s strange smile greeted me and my heart stopped for maybe a moment.  She pressed my sword into my hand and leaned in close, lips grazing my ear, speaking sweetly:

“Yes, she is your sister, and is why you must kill her.”

 

Chapter Text

“Yes, she is your sister, and that is why you must kill her.”

A chill ran through my bones, the almost cold breath of Aydan’s whispered words sending shudders down my spine.

Not Amelia.

I let my sword drop from my hands, the sacred steel clattering against the stone.

This all had to be a dream.  A nightmare.  Some cruel joke.  I pushed away from Aydan, stumbling away from her to curl up against the wall, burying my head between my knees.  The pounding headache returned full-force, a bubble of inaccessible knowledge clogging my brain and stabbing at my skull.

Everything was wrong.  Amelia should never have succumbed to the beast blood.  How could someone like me be expected to survive if even she could not?  Mother shouldn’t have died, Father shouldn’t have gone out to fight.  They were paragons of their own kind.  In what logical reality was I the last one remaining?

Any minute now, Amelia would come and tug the blankets off my bed--

“Lael,” a voice called, quiet and far away.

It got closer and closer until suddenly--

“Lael!” Amelia shouted, pulling the covers off my bed.  “Up, up, up!  You’re late for training!”

I opened my eyes to the stone ceilings of the Grand Cathedral's residents' quarters, a sliver of sunlight piercing through the curtains and painting a stripe across the room.  Not just any room, either.  A blanket crocheted by a thankful elderly churchgoer rested atop the pile of lighter sheets and a heavy quilt to help combat the chilly Yharnam nights.  Half-melted candles wilted on the nightstand, wax dripping down the wood like frozen waterfalls.  My room.  My bedroom.

It had been a dream.  The nightmare was just that:  a nightmare.

My heart-rate settled and I let myself relax.  Carefully, I peeled myself out of my glorified cot and pulled on a pair of trousers.  "Sorry, had a weird dream last night," I told my sister.  Really, it had been rather fanciful.  Certainties I had forgotten returned to me.  No plague had taken my mother nor my sister.  The Executioners had triumphed over the Vilebloods.  Yharnam remained moderately safe, with the Cathedral district standing as a bastion of hope for those that still remained in the recovering infected areas.

The chains of fear remained, however, and as silly as it was, I tugged a robe on and ran past Amelia.  Putting on a smile, I jogged past fellow clergy-folk as they went about their morning routines and wished me a good day.  I returned their sentiments, but my true goal was the stairs...

I raced up to the top, pushed through the throng of people and emerged into a beautiful Yharnam sunrise.

The breath left my lungs.  Warmth on my skin, my face, the morning sun shining through my long golden curls, it all brought a sense a peace I felt grateful for, now that I'd imagined what it would be like without it.

I spread my arms wide and closed my eyes, letting my heart and soul absorb the sun's healing rays.

"Enjoying yourself, Lael, darling?" Chimed a voice that brought back more certainty and happiness.  I had a fiancée.

Laughing, I pulled the black-clad scholar into an embrace and twirled her, to our mutual delight.

"My, someone's amorous!" she exclaimed as I set her down.  She was the granddaughter of the Byrgenwerth Provost, and we had met through some mutual friend of my father and her grandfather.  Her hair impossibly took on a white moonlight hue, a with the slight shine of a darker color towards the roots.  Her eyes were--

I blinked, confused.  "Aydan?"

She raised an eyebrow and smiled.  "Yes, Lael?"

"Have I ever told you how lovely your obsidian eyes are, my love?"

Her smile softened, expression melting from the saccharine joy to a more subtle satisfaction.  "Don't you have something you're supposed to be doing?"

I straightened and made towards the door..  "That's right!  Father's expecting me--!"

A tiny hand squeezed around my wrist, halting me.

When I turned to look back at Aydan, her head had fallen forward, hair shading her eyes and leaving only a grim frown visible.  "... Aydan?"

"What are you willing to lose for this dream?" The scholar said in eerie monotone.  She paused and tilted her head thoughtfully.  "... Do you love me, Lael?"

"What-- yes!  Of course I-"

The sun rose suddenly behind her.  I shielded my eyes from the glare and felt Aydan's hand slip from my wrist.

However, overwhelming sunlight gave way to paralyzing darkness, a glow in the distance illuminating a blood-soaked scene.

The sweet dream faded, returning me to the nightmarish Hunt.

A chill permeated the air, highlighting the pungent odor of gore and steel.

The hunter from my dream -- Bertram? -- stood over the corpse of a great white beast, blood soaking the floors and saturating his attire.

Two more bodies lay sprawled on the ground, face-down and mutilated with bites and claw-marks and signs of a saw cleaver having finished them off.  One, a Vileblood in the garb of a Cainhurst Knight, the other, a familiar Byrgenwerth scholar, empty eyes never appearing more devoid of life.

"Come to y'senses, have you, boy?" Bertram called out, wrenching his blade out of Amelia's skull.

I stood silently, unable to process the scene in front of me.

The moon-scented hunter descended from atop my sister's blood-drenched beastly remains, stopping only to rip the Vicar's Amulet from between her still-clenched fingers.

My hands balled into fists.

Bertram nudged Aydan's corpse with his boot and I felt my teeth grind against each other.  "You dinnae know what you were dealing with, boy.  This here is a monster, no doubt.  Some siren or other foul beastie.  T'is nothin but bad news if they be bleeding silver or white, and it appeared to have a tight hold on you."

An angry growl rose out of my throat.  "Shut your fucking mouth."

But he didn't stop talking.  He kept going like he hadn't even heard me.  "Come to think, you aren't exactly the most normal lad, either," he mused, snapping his trick weapon back to a one-handed mode.  "Come, let's see what color you bleed, Church Boy."

I backed away, groping for the blade I had dropped.  If Aydan was gone... I wasn't sure what I would do with myself.  Maybe I could just run, go back to the dream and lay in the field of moonflowers and let the damned Doll braid my hair for the rest of my life.  However, I could see Aydan's disapproving frown in my mind's eye.  She'd want to continue.  She wouldn't want the twenty-seven years she'd spent keeping me alive to go to waste.

"Get away from me," I hissed, baring my teeth and grasping my mother's sword with both hands.  Blood boiled in my veins and I could practically feel the blood vessels in my eyes burst -- and not just the two on my face.

I couldn't run anymore.  I had to keep moving forward.

"Lael," a voice called, quiet and far away.

My eyes snapped open.

A roar like a scream echoed through the arched cathedral, a rush of air and a tremor accompanied by a shrill curse.  "Fucking dog breath!  Hey, what's taking you two so long over there?!"

This... was real.

I unfolded out of my fetal position, hand sliding out to pick up the blade I had discarded.

Amy was in pain.  She needed her big brother.

Aydan set a hand on my shoulder, expression grim, as usual.  "You won't do this alone."

When I smiled at her, it hurt with a bittersweet appreciation.  I acknowledged her reminder with a kiss on the cheek.  "I know.  Thank you."

"What the fuck," Isolde hollered, diving to avoid a swipe.  She recovered, ripping her blade through a layer of flesh and jamming a blood vial into her thigh.  "I'm getting mauled by a giant dog and you two are over there confessing your undying love?!"

Despite my expectations, Aydan didn’t respond to the kiss, instead readying her threaded cane and launching herself into the fray.  I ran in after her, following her subtle  directions.  Every howl of pain, each cry of despair sent a stab of guilt through me.

I ended up on my back a few times, thrown across the room, pinned beneath a paw, but each time, Aydan or Isolde would draw Amelia’s attention away from me, giving me a moment to recover or inject a blood vial.  Isolde took her share of hits, as well, but Aydan moved with the practiced grace of a dancer, like a comet bouncing between planets.

With Aydan’s careful strategy, we managed to immobilize Amelia.  The scholar’s bladed whip dug into the beast’s ankles, hog tying the poor girl.

Amelia screamed, thrashing in her bonds and nearly throwing the Vileblood across the room -- again.

Wasting no time, I hopped up and straddled the back of her neck.  “Sleep well, Amelia,” I offered in prayer as Mother’s sword severed her spine.

And Vicar Amelia finally found some semblance of peace, because whatever the other side was, it couldn’t be as bad as Yharnam.


Aydan and I returned to the Dream.  Isolde stayed behind, since she lacked the capacity to enter.

Amelia's amulet weighed heavily in my pocket, holding everything that was truly left of her.

Taking my sword with her, Aydan retreated into the workshop, taking the leftover from my pile of blood stone shards.  While she busied herself there, I let the Doll channel my blood echoes and tie a few little braids in my hair.  In return, I gathered a bouquet of moonflowers and twisted them into a crown to place upon her head.  She thanked me for the gift and -- after many anxious glances towards the workshop -- excused herself and went elsewhere, out of sight.  From what I gathered, she had some fear of Aydan.  I made a mental note to ask her about that next time and went to lay down in the flowers.

I closed my eyes and tried to figure out what had happened back in the cathedral.  Was it some sort of disassociative episode?  I didn't have any history of mental illness, nor did my family for what I knew.  Father and Mother were both orphaned as children -- their parents died in the Hunt -- and they turned out alright.  We did, apparently, have a tendency towards beasthood, but no account of transformation I'd heard mentioned hallucinations or disassociation.

I rolled over in the flowers, turning on my side.  The ground was strangely comfortable, and it didn't hurt to lay there for a while.  The moonflowers were truly gorgeous, even without their namesake to illuminate them.  I gathered a few to my nose and inhaled deeply.  Oddly enough, the scent reminded me strongly of Aydan, as if she occasionally rolled around in field to cover herself with their smell.

I snorted at the ridiculous image and left myself flop back, laying spread eagle.

What I didn't expect was to see a blindfolded beauty leaning over me.  "We need to talk."

That's never a good way to start a conversation.  Folding my arms behind my head, I sighed.  "Yes, we do."

Aydan nodded.  "This is for you."  She presented a circular weapon, like a hoop surrounded with a serrated razor edge, but with a leather-wrapped steel rod through the center and a grip with a length of chain on one end.  It was not unlike a giant, bladed sunburst.

I swallowed and stood, inspecting the unconventional weapon.  "What about my mother's sword?"

Wordlessly, she snapped a switch and the grip came loose, Iuliana's blade sliding out of the sheath.

Taking a steady breath, I took it in my hands.  It wasn't too heavy, and could easily be strapped to my back.  Aydan reached over and put her hand over mine on a the grip, guiding my fingers to a different switch.  The coil of chain came loose and the thing could be swung like a giant morning star.

"You did this all just now?" I asked, turning my gaze back to the scholar, only to gasp when I saw a black, ooze-like substance leaking from beneath her bandages.  "Are you... crying?"

Her brow furrowed and she touched a hand to her face, feeling the 'tears.'  "Ah," she acknowledged.  "It is of no consequence." She shook her head.  "For the weapon, I petitioned Gehrman's assistance, which he provided freely."  Aydan managed an uneven, half-hearted smile.  "He merely told me some truths that I did not wish to hear."

I remained silent, setting down the trick weapon and gathering her up into a hug.

She relaxed, muscles releasing tension and letting her melt a bit, for once.  "Lael, I’ve not been completely truthful,” the scholar admitted.

Of course.  I’d expected as much.  To expect transparency from anything felt foolish, anyway.  “It’s… it’s alright.  I wondered what happened when I… blacked out back there, in the cathedral.  In the dream, was that… was that you?”

Aydan slipped out of the embrace and took my hands.  “You created a Delusion, which is similar to a Dream, a separate reality like the Hunter’s Dream, but lacks the permanence and cannot switch hosts."

I stared at her.  "... I thought only Great Ones, the ultimate enlightened, could do things like that.  And that doesn't make sense; how were you able to enter it?"

Aydan smiled -- a genuine smile -- and rested a hand against my cheek.  "Lael.  So like an infant, nonsense babble falling from your mouth as you try to learn how words are formed."  

She clasped her hands together at her chest and opened them to release butterflies that fluttered and faded like clouds passing in front of the moon.

"How--?"

"As you gain Insight, it is my belief that your Delusions will develop and become Dreams, too."

I stood, dumbfounded.  "How do you know all this?  Really, Aydan.  This is far too much information for someone who isn't sure what they actually are."

The scholar remained silent a time.  "Perhaps I lack the eyes to see what I am," she mused.  "Perhaps this form is too inferior for me to comprehend my actions or even what I truly am, but I remember my intentions and I remember you."  She tilted her head.  "Do you remember me?  From your slumber.  I... I was there.  I think I guided you, somehow.  Do you remember?"

The longing in her voice was unfamiliar.  I hadn't heard so much emotion from her before, but I could remember... something.  A hand.  Someone holding my hand.  "I..."  Slowly and deliberately, I took her hands in mine, rubbing my thumbs over her smooth knuckles.  "I remember being lost," I admitted shakily.  "I remember being upset, and I remember someone reaching out and taking my hand."

I didn't know what any of it meant.  Aydan maybe had some semblance of an idea, but overall didn't seem any more aware than I was.  We were both puppets on cosmic strings, dancing for some creature's scheme.  If that creature was her, a version of her that existed on some higher plane, I wasn't sure if I minded.  Aydan would make a superb puppeteer.

I pressed a kiss to her softly smiling lips and -- after a brief hesitation -- she reciprocated.  It was clumsy and perhaps a bit awkward, the first time I'd kissed a girl and for Aydan, perhaps the first time she's even thought of kissing, but it was ours and that made it okay.

We managed to fashion a harness for the Sunburst Blade -- Aydan chose the name -- and promptly left the Dream.

Isolde perked up from her perch against the wall.  We were still camping out in the Grand Cathedral.  "Took you two long enough.  Hunter's Dream must be pretty exciting," she deadpanned.

I shrugged.  "It's pretty.  A bit lonely, I'd imagine."

The Vileblood snorted.  "Yeah, because you were looking at the scenery.  Right."

Aydan cleared her throat. "Come, then, we must make our way up--"

"No," I interrupted.

She went rigid.  "Pardon?"  The emotion, the affection, it all vanished after we left the Dream, as if all capacity for human feelings left her upon waking.

"Isolde, can you still get into Cainhurst?" I asked.

"I dunno," she replied, raising an eyebrow.  "I haven't thought to try.  If you wanna get in, though, 'Sefka had an unopened summons.  Noticed it when we were there."

"Then that's where we're going next," I decided.

"Lael," Aydan warned.

"I'm going after my father.  If you don't want to follow me, I'll understand.  I only ask that you don't continue on your own," I pleaded.

The scholar's face remained motionless behind her bandages, but she seemed to mull it over a moment.  "Fine.  For you, I will delay my quest.  If we couldn't find the key here, Mister MacConmara won't have it, either.  Hopefully, his mind is far enough gone that he will pursue us, and not the child."

I nodded.  "Thank you."

Isolde sighed, setting down the sword polish and reloading her Evelyn.  "At least you won't be so helpless now with that monstrosity of a Trick Weapon."

It occurred to me that, between socializing with the Doll and speaking with Aydan, I had forgotten to speak with Gehrman.

Lael, as drawn by my friend Jason

 

Chapter Text

Gehrman cleared off the workbench, tidying up the mess that the abomination had left behind.  Bits and pieces of metal and blades were scattered around to the point where once or twice the First Hunter found himself rising out of his wheelchair to better reach them.

Metal shavings cut into his hands, but it didn't matter.  He didn't know what was going to happen to Yharnam when this so-called 'Aydan' girl finished playing her game.  Would the Hunter's Dream remain?  For all his luck, he'd end up saddled with Mergo.  Hell, perhaps she'd somehow warp his body and make him the next Wet Nurse.  Heavens only knew what she had in mind for Logarius' son.

So, he helped make a blade for what felt like the first time in a century.  With Aydan's hands also at work with the metal, it became imbued, somehow, radiating a power he'd never seen before.  It would likely cut through anything, no matter how dense or metaphysical, given enough determination and the correct mindset.

As he finished tidying up, the light footsteps reminded him that he wasn't alone.

"I've always wondered,” the old hunter mused bitterly, “how is the Hunter's Dream sustaining itself without the Moon Presence?  At first, I was sure it was that 'Aydan' girl, but not even she is here constantly enough," Gehrman leaned his head to look at the figure silhouetted in the doorway, the lack of moonlight cloaking the form in shadow.  "How many pieces have you divided yourself into?" He asked, voice breathy.

The figure remained silent for a moment before giving its answer.  "I am one of three."

Lifting his lantern, the old hunter swallowed, feeling fear for the first time in a long time as the Doll's cracked face came into view.  "Which piece?"

"I am Oedon's Mind.  However, it is by Will of the Formless One that this Dream remains as it is."

The Doll.  The last remnant of his past, infected by the accursed Nightmare, just like everything else in the hope forsaken world.

As if sensing his distress, the Doll shook her head gently.  "For a time, this body was a conduit to channel echoes and nothing more.  It was when the Moon Presence descended upon Yharnam that a third piece was created.  As Oedon's Mind, I am little more than a phylactery of memories.  You have nothing to fear from me."

He laughed at that.  "Don't I?"  No, he really didn't.  After taking the Doll, Gehrman had nothing left for the Nightmare to consume.  No more misguided, desperate tithes to give unto Oedon.

The Doll frowned, but stepped forwards and lightly placed a hand upon his own.  "This vessel, broken and imperfect as we may be, loves you."

He didn't need this.  His eyes slid shut as he inhaled, heat pooling in the old hunter's chest.  It would be easy, Gehrman realized, to pretend nothing was wrong, to just continue as he always did and let Oedon’s plan run its course.

“Tell me,” he began, “do you know who that doll was made for?  Do you know whose likeness I captured when I crafted her?”

“I always assumed you made me to look like the woman you once loved.  Was I wrong?”

Gehrman nodded.  “Somewhat, yes, but more like a daughter.  I made that doll for a promising young apprentice.  I don’t think she ever saw it.  The real one is likely down in the old Workshop in Yharnam, covered in dust and cobwebs.”

“How sad,” the Doll said, brushing her segmented fingers down the side of Gehrman’s face.  “I’m sure she would have loved it.  But it is in the past, now.”

The old hunter lifted his eyebrows.  “Ah, but you don’t know her name.”

It stopped moving, staring at him blankly.  He knew why, too.  Fragments like her were fragile, and such an insignificant piece as this fragment of a fragment could easily be upset by a shift in the purpose of their vessel.

The Doll had been given Mind, not Name.

Gehrman leaned forward, wheelchair creaking as he shifted his weight.  He spoke only as his lips brushed the Doll’s porcelain ear:

“Iuliana.”

The doll, now named, stumbled back away from him, eyes searching the room in confusion.

When she spoke, the voice that left her mouth was different than before.  Older.  “Gehrman?  Why are you here?  Why am I in the old workshop?  This place burned down years ago… Is this…” She blinked, much more calm.  “Is this the afterlife?”

Gehrman exhaled loudly.  He almost hadn’t expected that to work, but now it had and it could either be the remnants of the Moon’s power trying to appease him, or the ghost of Vicar Iuliana could really be inhabiting his doll.  With no way to discern the two possibilities, he supposed he could ask her something only Iuliana would know, but the Moon Presence had its tentacles shoved so deep up into his temporal lobe that it couldn’t be anything they’d experienced together.  Or anything he’d expect.

Thinking too hard about it made his head hurt.  He’d been swimming up to his ears in this cosmic bullshit for what felt like centuries and he was pretty sure he’d stopped treading water a few decades back.

Oh, Laurence.  What’s taking you so long?

“No, but it may as well be.  Feel free to act like it is,” Gehrman waved a hand in dismissal.  “Your son and his little ‘Pthumerian’ girlfriend will likely be through here occasionally.”

“What?  Lael?  Why would Lael be here?”

Gehrman grew weary of the Moon’s games.  He’d grown weary of them long, long ago.  There were only so many times you could mess with a man’s head before he grew jaded, refusing to believe in any possibility of hope.  He would not play along.

He adjusted in his wheelchair.  “It’s time for a nap, I think.  Would you mind wheeling me out to the back garden?”

Iuliana crossed her arms.  “Why are you acting so strange?  Is this some trick?  Do you even hear me?”

“I suppose I could do it myself,” he shrugged.  "Maybe I'll sleep here..."

The Doll stumbled suddenly, crashing back into the cabinet and making the glass jars clink together.  After a moment of wide-eyed shock, she calmed down and righted her posture, sinking into the statue-like stance of the Plain Doll.

Of course, Iuliana hadn't been real.  The fragment of Oedon had latched onto the presumed identity, using his knowledge and the memories of other dreamers to create a mock consciousness.  He'd done it to the Doll before, and every time she would act as if she remembered nothing of the episode.

She stared down at him.  "Why do you hate me so?" The Plain Doll asked.  "Why not be done with it?  Why not kill me and end the Hunter's Dream if you find it so repulsive?"

Gehrman let out a bitter laugh.  "For a piece of Oedon, you're quite dim-witted," he observed.  "If I kill you, how will hunters gain an upper hand against your ilk?  Without the Dream..." Gehrman's fingers tightened on the armrests.  "Without the Dream, how else would I ensure Yharnam is washed of Pthumeru's tainted blood?  How else would I avenge the countless deaths, the broken minds, the lives ruined by the blood?  No, no, I am trapped here.  Until Laurence's vision of a peaceful Yharnam comes to bare, I will not rest."

The Plain Doll narrowed her eyes.  "I wish you good fortune in your everlasting nightmare, Beloved Hunter."

Gehrman closed his eyes, refusing to watch her walk out.  When the sound of her shoes on the cobblestone ceased, he exhaled loudly.  "As least the damned Moon Presence didn't talk," he muttered.


"And to escape this relentless thing I plunged gladly and unhesitatingly into the stinking shallows where amidst weedy walls and sunken streets fat sea-worms feast upon the world’s dead."

- H.P. Lovecraft, "What The Moon Brings"

Ink illustration of Isolde, Lael, and Aydan

 

Chapter Text

“You’ve been quiet,” Isolde commented, raising an eyebrow at Aydan.  “Both of you.  It’s creeping me out.”  The Vileblood had decided to join them on the ground instead of traversing the rooftops after the incident last time.  She didn’t want to risk another run in with Eileen.

Lael glanced at Aydan, who seemed lost in thought or concentrating deeply.  “Not much to talk about,” He answered, only able to speak for himself.

Isolde rolled her eyes and began ascending the stairs up to Iosefka’s clinic.  “Whatever.”  She banged on the door.  “Hey, ‘Sefka!”

A moment passed with no answer.  Isolde knocked again.  “‘Sefka, it’s us!”

Another minute, Isolde growing visibly agitated.

The vileblood tried at the doorknob, scowling.  “Locked.  Of course it is.”  The ex-Crow pounded on the door a few more times before she growled and lowered her Evelyn at the lock.  “Fuck this--”

Aydan stopped her, setting a hand on her arm and nudging the gun away.  “Come.  We’re leaving.”

“Are you daft?!” Isolde exclaimed, whirling on Aydan.  “Iosefka’s in there!  She might be hurt or dead!  I’m not leaving until--”

The audible sound of someone stepping on creaky floorboard resounded.

“‘Sefka?” Isolde called out hopefully.

An envelope slipped beneath the door, the seal of Cainhurst facing up.

“Leave this place,” a Iosefka’s soft voice answered through the door.  “You have what you want.  Now leave, and please don’t bother me again.  I’ve enjoyed your company, I have, but I need you to leave now.”  Her voice sounded pained, words wavering like she’d been crying.

Isolde’s eyes were wide in disbelief.  “What?  Iosefka, what’s wrong?”

“I need you to leave,” she repeated, voice tensing.

The vileblood’s eyebrows furrowed, and she leaned forward with intent before Aydan stopped her once more.  “We must leave this place,” the scholar agreed.  “We have what we came here for.  Let us collect it and depart.”

Her hands balled into tight fists.  What had she done?  Had Isolde finally crossed a line?  Had she been gone too long?  Had Iosefka finally come to her senses and realized that Isolde was just a shitty person who didn't deserve someone like her?

Or... Had someone picked the lock?  No, no, Iosefka was fine.  That sounded just like her, but maybe she's gotten a bit sick?

Thoughts crowded her mind, throwing her back and forth and she desperately needed silence.  On top of that, her throat burned, veins tight and hands all a shaking.  The taste of that woman's blood lingered on her tongue, reminding her of the sweet might bequeathed by a queen's blood.

“Fuck this,” Isolde snapped.  “I have some problems to deal with, apparently.  You two head off to Cainhurst without me.  I’ll do my best to meet you at the gate.”

Lael looked at her with his big ol' eyes.  "What if that Crow comes back?"

Her eyes glinted against the light of the dim oil lamp.  What if Eileen caught up with her while she was alone?  "Let her," Isolde hissed.

Let her see what the fallen birdie was like at full power, fueled by blood that twisted in her veins and made her perpetually dance that line between man and beast.

The vileblood knelt down, plucking the summons off the ground and flipping it to read the name.  "Lael, Son of Logarius, Lord Executioner of the Healing Church," she read aloud before extending it to the boy.  "It's for you."

Lael took the envelope, jaw dropping open.  "Lord Executioner?  I... I guess I am..." He swallowed hard, eyes squeezing shut as he presumably held back tears.  He took a moment, exhaling and letting himself relax.  Strangely, his hands shook ever so slightly, a motion he didn’t seem to notice.  "Isolde... Be safe, okay?"

"I'm not the one who needs a babysitter, kid."

She didn't need him to tell her to be safe in such a contrite manner.  He hadn't noticed the shakes; he couldn't feel the headaches.  Lael wasn't violently relapsing into a crippling addiction, and Isolde rather didn't want anyone to see her like this.

Isolde puttered around the lower floor of the clinic, tenuously holding back the bubbling rage until the moonlit-scented pair disappeared through the lantern.

A roar of frustration tore out of her throat as hands like claws swept across the counters, glass shattering as old, dusty beakers and dull, rusted scalpels hit the floor.  Skin prickling, she tore back her sleeves.  Scars still remained from years ago, when she’d quit cold turkey and ended up scratching her arms down to the bone, half-mad from withdrawal.

All those years ago, she’d stumbled blindly.  With the Executioners attacking Cainhurst, she’d escaped with only her weapons and the clothes on her back.   More than a month of had passed before she’d managed to collapse in some little clinic in Central Yharnam, only to wake up to see the face of a person truly deserving of adoration.  Iosefka, a Church-sanctioned healer, had taken her in, treated her self-inflicted wounds and helped her on the road to recovery.

Isolde had stayed clean for so long.  Not a drop of royal blood had passed her lips.  She’d functioned.  A bit manic, probably a more than a little addled from everything, but she’d kept away from the red stuff.  Her everlasting thanks went out to that woman from before -- Arianna -- but for all her gratitude, Isolde couldn’t help but blame her.  If she hadn’t given the taste of her blood in the first place, Isolde would be fine.  Perhaps a little less alive and bit more dead, but at least she wouldn’t be a few minutes away from vomiting all over Iosefka’s entry hall.

Iosefka.  Iosefka.  Isolde dragged herself up the stairs.  “Sweetums, ‘Sefka, darling…” she called out, voice wavering pitifully.  “I’m sorry.  I messed up.  I relapsed.  All your hard work… I’m sorry.”

No answer came.

“You must think I’m so selfish…” the vileblood said, her voice cracking as tears ran down her face.  “It’s okay.  I’m not going to burden you with myself anymore, so don’t worry about me.”

Silence.

“If things drag on as they have, with Eileen after me, with those little brats insisting on going to Cainhurst, that crazy Hunter chasing them, and now this…” Isolde swallowed, “I might not survive this Hunt.”

Nothing.

“I want to thank you, though.  For being there for me.  I’ve left behind everything I’d ever had for pipe dreams and delusions.  You came for me when I was alone and gave me something I didn’t ever want to leave.  At least now… hopefully I’ll come back.  I’m going to do my best to survive, ‘Sefka.  Even if it means…” Isolde sighed, “even if it means drinking every last drop of royal blood in Yharnam.”

The vileblood waited a solid moment for a reply this time.  Hell, maybe Iosefka hadn’t even been close enough to hear her.  Maybe she’d given her little bleeding heart speech to an empty hallway.

Enough waiting.  Isolde rose and flew out into the city streets, following a familiar curve of pathways until she found herself in the Cathedral District once more.

Oedon Chapel seemed so inviting, you know, for a Healing Church chapel.  She’d never really had any welcome from the Healing Church.  They didn’t particularly like the Hunters of Hunters because of their heathen beliefs and any good standing with the Church was moot after she tasted Queen Annalise’s blood.

Isolde felt the shakes and pains, and no matter how hard it was to justify what she was about to do, no one could tell her it wasn’t necessary.

A flash of red split her skull in half -- or at least, felt like it did -- and most thought melted away.

Shouting.  The strong scent of incense tickling her nose.  Demands, shouted from her mouth.  They returned only refusals and requests that she leave.  She could smell the trail, she could smell the royal descendant and it made her hair stand on end as all lucid thought abandoned her.

Screams.  She remembered screams.  She remembered when the higher ups ordered them to kill those that opposed them, and she remembered their screams as she and her comrades ripped them to pieces in a form of murderous art.  She’d thought that if she did well and conformed to what they expected, they’d give her more than a few drops of royal blood.  Nothing changed, however, no matter how many Executioners and well-meaning Hunters fell to her rapier.

Begging.  Isolde remembered more than once having her ration spilled to the floor just so the commander could watch her lick it off the stone like a dog.  Glory for the Queen.  Glory for the Vilebloods.  More like glory to whoever could kiss ass enough to get more than the pittance of royal blood given to the knights.  The knights had it the worst due to their turnover rate.  Sure, it was difficult to kill a Vileblood, but it happened, and it was usually a knight.  Why waste royal blood on a soldier that was going to die?  Why give precious resources to a liability?

Gunshots, recoil twisting into her arm as blood splattered onto the floor.  Screams.  More screams.  Begging.  It didn’t matter.  It was their fault for getting in her way.  If they’d wanted to live, they shouldn’t have opposed her.

Her blade sliced through flesh and she rampaged until she came across what she had been looking for.

When Isolde came to, Arianna was cowering on the floor at her feet, a hand wrapped protectively against her belly, the implications of such clear.

Blood soaked her reiterpallasch, sticky and warm.  Her hands still shook, the movement flinging the hot cruor across the stone like an artist flicking watercolor paint over a canvas.  Her legs trembled, eyes locked on the prostitute’s arteries.  Heart beating fast from fear, that royal adrenaline would make the tainted blood that much more potent.

Isolde’s eyes fell onto pleading brown ones.

Certainly, the shakes didn’t stop, but the emptiness filled with ache.

The royal whore was pregnant on the night of the Hunt.

The vileblood knight exhaled, her reiterpallasch slipping from her hand.  She couldn’t do this.  The vileblood in her wouldn’t let her kill what was obviously the Child of Blood that the Queen yearned for -- or at least that’s what Isolde told herself.

No.  If this woman of the night carried a Child of Blood, then it changed everything.  Annalise could be unseated, perhaps even killed if done correctly.  Cainhurst could have a true heir, not an immortal tyrant.

Isolde motioned to kneel, but froze as she saw the woman's eyes shift to something behind her.

Acting on reflex, she scooped up her reiterpallasch and whirled just in time to block a downwards strike from the Blades of Mercy.

The Hunter of Hunters had entered silently... Or perhaps Isolde had been too engrossed in bloodshed to notice Eileen's entrance.

For what it was worth, the Crow backed off quickly, posture defeated.  "Isolde, child, have you lost your damned mind?" Eileen demanded.  "Never in all my years have I seen such senseless slaughter from the likes of a Vileblood.  What is this?"

Isolde was taken aback at how open her ex-mentor seemed to be.  Years of hounding her and suddenly the old crone showed concern, of all things?  "Why do you care?  You just want me dead.  I'm just your last loose string."

Eileen remained silent a moment, unreadable behind the beaked mask.  “The Isolde I knew did not tend towards senseless slaughter.  Beast blood consumes judgement, but your blood is Vile.  What drives your insanity?” the Crow demanded, indicating in a sweeping, stiff gesture the carnage her pupil had made of the inhabitants of Oedon Chapel.  “Why?”

“None of your business, old bat,” Isolde hissed, reeling away from Eileen to retrieve her Evelyn from where she’d discarded it during her frenzy.

A solid force slammed into her, pinning her against the wall with an elbow digging into her throat.  “Away with your damnable pride, girl!  What pestilence has you in its grip?”

“Fuck off,” Isolde growled, thrashing against Eileen’s fast grip.  She managed to get a hand loose and knocked the crow mask to the ground before the old woman righted her mistake and corrected her hold.

“I have all night, child, but do you?" Eileen threatened.  The crow had gotten old -- real old.  Lines on her once elegant, matronly face told just how brutal the years had been to her. "It would be nothing for me to just slit your throat now."

Isolde went limp, a whine bubbling out of her throat.  She'd run from this predator for decades, but with the mask off, all she could see was the wise, battle-ready warrior she'd run off to Yharnam with.  The woman who taught her how to hold daggers, taught her how to fight, how to survive.  "I'm scared!  I've been scared my entire life!" She confessed.  "Scared of marriage, scared of dying, scared of the blood-- scared of the shakes, the loss of bloody fucking control -- and I'm scared of you!"

Eileen's eyes widened, baffled.  "Me?"

Isolde felt a burning sensation behind her eyelids that wasn't from the withdrawal.  "Everyone was dying!  The Hunters of Hunters were dying because we were only human!  But you, you went off one night and came back reeking of the bloody moon!  None of the others had that advantage and they fucking died because of it, Eileen!" Isolde cried.

Those that hadn't died in hopeless battle ended up trying alternative methods, experimenting with the blood of beasts and anything that could give them an edge.  None of it made them dream, however.  None of it was kin coldblood, the moonlit substance that made hunters into Hunters.  This led to chaos, brothers and sisters becoming beasts and going mad.

"They wanted to save Yharnam!  They loved Yharnam!  They loved the people, the beautiful city!  But they didn't want to die, Eileen, and neither did I!"

When Isolde had gone rogue, there had still been a few members of the order remaining.  Now, the only survivors were the her and the Eileen, proving that their fears had not been unfounded.  They had every right to fear death in this forsaken place.  Isolde didn't know what they'd all seen in Yharnam.  What about the skyline that made them want to believe that it could be saved.

Eileen remained silent, expression guarded and unreadable as the tears finally fell from Isolde's eyes.

"I'm a coward," the fallen crow sobbed.  "I wasn't even a true Crow like the rest of them.  I wasn't even a Vileblood.  I'm a bloody country bumpkin, running away from a fucking marriage into something I wasn't prepared for."

Suddenly, Eileen dropped her.  The outcast let herself crumple onto the ground in surrender.

"Get up," Eileen growled.  "Do you still fear death, Isolde?  Do his claws rake at your back?  Get up or by the gods I will finish you now."

It far too much like a second chance to be believed.  Isolde rose, staring questioningly into her mentor's stoney grey eyes.

Eileen gestured to the pregnant woman who still lay frightened on the ground.  "You'll not be having any more of that.  You're off the blood except for healing.  Understand?"

Isolde nodded, confused.

The old crow reached behind her, underneath the cloak and pulled out a tightly folded bundle of armor.  "I was keeping this to put on your corpse for the pyre, but I won't have you running around in that filthy dress.  You'll be properly armored."

She examined the parcel, realizing it was her old Crow attire, mask and all.  "I don't deserve this," the outcast uttered.

"No," Eileen agreed.  "You don't.  But you're not a beast, Isolde.  You're human, and likely the last one left in this hell."  The elderly bird scoffed.  "Get dressed.  Then we'll have a discussion about what happened here."

Isolde nodded, eyes wide as her fingers curled into the feathers of her long-lost cloak.

The feathers felt like home.

She removed her make-up first, removing the last vestiges of her life at Cainhurst, even though her lips were still stained by the pigment.  You couldn't wear make-up under the mask -- it was uncomfortable and would dirty the inside of the mask, anyway.  Without the improvised cosmetics, Isolde looked almost gaunt, her cheeks sunken in and dark circles cradling her eyes.  

She went to tie up her long, wavy black hair but stopped.  She didn't need to look regal anymore.  With the slash of a blade, she cut it off, leaving a mop of hair barely long enough to reach her ears.

Unceremoniously, she removed her Cainhurst attire, throwing it about and letting it get soaked in blood.  Hopefully, she would never need to touch it again.  However, when it came to her Hunter of Hunters garb, she treated the now nearly threadbare armor with the utmost respect.

How she had missed this.  The comforting weight of the cloak on her back, the way everything fit that made it feel secure, like she could move in any direction she wanted and not have to compensate for the clothing.

She did not don the mask.  Not yet.  Isolde retrieved her old mentor's discarded counterpart and knelt before her, holding up the mask reverently.

Isolde hadn't been prepared for Eileen to laugh.  "I'm not the Queen, child.  I told you get up; that doesn't mean kneel."  The old crow took her mask but didn't put it on, choosing to let her face show for the time being.  "Now, tell me why you've been harassing poor Arianna, here."

The outcast wondered why Eileen refused to address the fact that Isolde had slaughtered three innocent people and they were standing among their shredded remains.  Maybe Eileen thought she'd had a reason to attack them.  Perhaps some things were better left unmentioned.

Isolde swallowed and told Eileen her plan.

 

Chapter Text

The streets of Yharnam remained, at large, fairly unchanged.  The beasts had not returned to the Cathedral Ward since our previous foray.  Neither Aydan nor I had access to Cainhurst via the lanterns, so we would have to travel through Hemwick.  Shivers ran down my spine at the thought.  Hemwick was a slum of heretics and witches -- at least it was until the Church sent Executioners en masse to disrupt Cainhurst rule and quell the dissenters.  They didn’t take kindly to hunters there, always so upset that the Healing Church had severed their ancestral connection with Cainhurst.

Historically, they had even more reason to be resentful towards the Church.  Early in the Church founding, the village had been razed by Executioners searching for Vilebloods.  By historically, I meant I was maybe five years old the first time, but whenever anyone spoke about such incidents, they referred to them as Church history for whatever reason.  In hindsight, maybe insisting that it was the past made them feel like they weren’t so directly involved in the murder of so many people.

Back when I blacked out, the Church had only just begun to convert Hemwick into a center for cremation and bone marrow ash harvesting.  Who knew what state we would find it in?

I looked up at the faded plank over the threshold, considering.  Did I really want to go through with this?  I could still turn back after reaching the entrance, but walking down this path would set me further into my father’s shoes.

Dry grass crunched beside me as Aydan approached.  “Second thoughts?”

Crickets chirped, a constant, droning staccato in the dark.

I turned my gaze towards the scholar.  She seemed less pallid, color starting to return to her cheeks.  I found it strange, since I was so used to her corpse-like complexion.  Or perhaps she’d always looked so human and I just never noticed because I was obviously losing my marbles.  I’d seen so many strange things that I couldn’t be sure I’d actually witnessed them.  Did Aydan actually lack eyes?  Second thoughts seemed to be the theme of the evening.

Shaking my head, I answered her.  “Merely apprehensive.  I’m frightened about what we may find.”

Aydan cocked her head to the side.  “But you know what we will find.  It is not unknown.  Why fear what is assured?”

I stared at the dark passageway.  “I fear it because it is inevitable,” I breathed.

“Sir!”

Whirling, I pulled my mother’s sword from its sheath and stood at ready, though I’d never known a foe to announce himself.  “Reveal thyself!”

From beyond the bend, a man with gold hair in Executioner garb stumbled, panting from exertion.  “Hail, friend!  I did not expect to --” he looked up, eyes widening, “Young Master Lael!” He grinned, the years melting from his face.

I sheathed my blade and held out my arms.  “Alfred!” I exclaimed joyously.

We approached each other merrily, laughing as we exchanged the secret handshake we made up as kids.

“We all thought you were dead,” Alfred said, “but here you are, looking like you haven’t aged a day in… By the Blood, how many years has it been?  Twenty?”

“Nearly thirty, or so I’m told.”

“Twenty-seven,” Aydan clarified.

Alfred side-stepped me and sauntered over to Aydan.  “And, salutations, dear lady, but what might you be doing out on such a dangerous night as this one?” The older Executioner swept his cloak back and took the scholar’s palm, pressing a kiss to the back of her hand.

Aydan raised an eyebrow but showed no intent to actually answer him.

I grabbed Alfred by his hood and dragged him back.  “Hold on there, ladykiller,” I grumbled.

“Oh, my apologies, have I intruded?” Alfred teased.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” I huffed.

“You haven’t changed enough!”

The scholar cleared her throat.  “We journey for Cainhurst.  Join us or be gone.”

Alfred straightened, suddenly all business.  “One cannot enter Castle Cainhurst without invitation these days, unfortunately.  I’m afraid whatever your quest is, it is for nought.”

“Then it is fortunate that we happen to have one,” I shot back, raising a smug eyebrow.

A dark look surfaced on the older man's face for but a moment before sinking back into pleasant surprise.  "Well, then, I certainly can't let the great Logarius's son and his lady friend venture into Cainhurst on their lonesome, can I?"

It didn't sound like a bad idea.  I turned back to look at my companion.  "Aydan?"

The scholar's brows were knitted tight, furrowed and irritated.  She considered a long, heavy moment.  "... Why not?" She deadpanned.

I frowned at the hint of bitterness in her voice and eyed Alfred for any sign of beasthood.  None.  Alfred was likely the furthest away from beasthood between the three of us, so I didn't see any reason for Aydan to feel edgy.  "It wouldn do no harm to bring him with us," I pointed out.

"I never said it would," the petite scholar replied.  "Come.  The night is wasting."  She turned on a heel and strode briskly through the threshold.

Alfred shot me a confused look but fell into step beside me as I followed her.  Likely his confusion stemmed from the fact that with Amelia and the rest of my family dead or otherwise indisposed, the only one left to take up the mantle of head of the Healing Church was me.  Which was the dumbest idea in history because if I couldn't save my mother and sister, how could I be fit to lead the church?  Alfred must be confused because I obviously didn't live up to the image in his mind of a great leader like my father.

As we approached the wooded outskirts of Hemwick, Alfred motioned for us to come to a stop.  "Wait.  Hemwick keeps guards on this path.  They don't like letting in outsiders.  They should let us through, though."

I nodded, sheathing my sword back in its place in my trick weapon.

The walk remained uneventful until about a minute passed.  Men and their dogs emerged slowly from the bushes and from behind trees, guns lowered in our direction.

Oddly, they had very little sign of beast plague among them.  Some seemed taller than the average human, but it could simply be the result of inbreeding.  All in all, the men of Hemwick were mostly unaffected by the afflictions of Yharnam.

One of the guardsmen lowered his weapon and stepped forward, but the rest kept their weapons trained on us.  "Hemwick welcomes soldiers of the Church," he drawled in a hoarse voice, perhaps the result of inhaling too much smoke.

I let Alfred do the talking.  "And what a warm welcome it is," he laughed, eying the firearms.

"Aye," the man nodded solemnly.  "Can't be too careful these days."  He paused and looked each of us over, his gaze lingering on Aydan.  "The two of ye can go ahead, but the girl can turn around and make her merry way right back to Yharnam."

In that moment, the aims adjusted ever slightly, all rifles trained on Aydan.

I blanched.  "No.  I owe this scholar my life.  I trust her implicitly.  I will not be going anywhere without her."

The guard snorted.  "Then I guess ye can leave with her.  We'll not be having the beast blood in our village."

"She's not-"

Aydan lifted a hand.  "These bandages are due to injury, not plague."

“If ye were with anyone but a pair of Executioners, we would have slain ye where ye stand.  Get ye gone before we reconsider.”

I watched Aydan’s hand twitch towards her threaded cane, which was strange.  Usually she remained the most level-headed one in the group, never quick to anger.

However, if I saw the movement, then the guardsmen saw it, as well.  Fingers moved to caress their triggers, all eyes on Aydan.

The air thickened with tension.  What was Aydan doing?  Surely she would not resort to violence so quickly--


 

My fingers tightened around the fine leather and steel grip.  I remembered this place.

I had eyes on my face back then and saw things from a different vantage point.  Higher.  At least two feet taller, with pale skin covered in a pale dress as I walked through a field of pale flowers, hand-in-hand with a woman as beautiful and as pale as the moon.

“Aydan,” she called, the name disconnected not quite matching the movement of her lips.  It wasn’t my name.  It was close to my name, but it was not my name.  “Why do you linger?  Make haste, dear."

My feet shuffled forward, hindered by heavy metal clogs and a strong, shining chain about two feet in length between them.  Each step reminded me of the bolts screwed into my ankles, the weighty manacles on my wrists attached the same way.  Metal hit metal lightly as I struggled to keep pace with my Queen.

The chains did not bother me.  It was the duty of the lesser to serve, and the great honor of being the Queen's handmaiden was my solemn assignment.  The chains were part of my being, so heavily bolted into my body that to remove them would rip away most of my lower torso.

That night, her Majesty led me to a clearing filled with flowers and I was the first of many to have their eyes removed.  A test subject, enlightened under the stars for to be closer to the cosmos that seemed so unknown, so far away and unfathomable.  Images of the event did not flow together, instead returning in vague flashes and the memory of pain.  Then, a modicum of bliss.

It felt strange, looking back on this moment.  At the time, I’d thought I’d reached the pinnacle of happiness.  Little did I know just how soothing the sun felt on one’s skin... Bliss.  Sweet bliss...


 

Blinking, I grabbed hold of Aydan’s sleeve, tugging her out of the way just as she swung her blade and the rifles fired.  The threaded cane went clanging off to the side, razor sharp edges thrown off course as the scholar flailed.  We both hit the ground, my shoulder burning where a bullet had penetrated.

I heard Alfred trying to play damage control, negotiating furiously with the guardsmen, scolding them for daring to assault such a highly ranked member of the Healing Church.  He could easily kill them and be completely within his rights.

But that wasn’t what I was thinking about.  Still pinned beneath me, Aydan had furrowed her brow and started brushing her fingers over the bullet wound.

I gave her a puzzled look, confused until she dug her fingers in.  I gasped, letting out a faint squeak of pain as she pulled the still-hot bullet out of my shoulder with her delicate little hands.

She pushed me off, rolling me onto my back on the ground beside her before twisting up and looming over me.

Emotionless, she bit into her wrist and held it up to my mouth.  “You are injured.  Drink.”

I had been correct.  Out of her thin wrist a silvery liquid oozed, the color of moonlight diffused through the clouds.

Paleblood.

I can't help but think I'd seen the shade before, a color associated with... balloons?  Or eggs?  A strange thought that had to come from a memory just out of grasp.

Complying eagerly, I latched my lips over the seeping elixir and drank of her deeply.  Losing myself a bit, I may have let out a small moan at the taste and sensations that accompanied the holy blood.  It was that feeling again, from when I first woke up.  Out veins had been connected, the ancient dialysis machine binding our circulatory systems, hearts pushing blood through each other's arteries.  Of course I would crave this, our mixed essence.

Whispers created tremors in my mind, massaging away the ache from the sprouting Insight, or perhaps it was Aydan’s bloodied fingers brushing through my hair.  Quiet promises I couldn’t quite comprehend yet soothed my racing heartbeat.  Something told me I’d one day be able to speak those promises in return.


 

When I opened my eyes to the Hunter’s Dream, I realized I must have passed out.  Or maybe I half-died or the like.  I teetered to my feet.  Everything felt fuzzy, like my cells weren’t quite bound together properly.

I still didn’t know exactly what had happened.  I went to stop Aydan from attacking the guardsmen, which somehow triggered some sort of… hallucination?  It felt more significant than that, however, more like a strong memory or dream.  Then, Aydan gave me her blood to heal.  Her pale, silvery blood.

Gehrman.  I had to talk to Gehrman.  About… something.  Something important.

How did legs work, exactly?

I stumbled forward, almost tackling the Doll to the ground in the process.  I apologized profusely, but she insisted I had no reason to feel sorry.  It was an accident.  She gave me a soft smile and for a moment I thought I knew her from somewhere else.  Like someone I knew a long time ago --

Wait.

Abruptly, I turned from her and bounded up the stairs -- a miracle I didn’t trip over my feet -- and threw open the door to the Workshop with enough force and noise to startle Gehrman out of his nap.

“My Aunt Maria?  Really?!” I accused.

The old Hunter blinked, still trying to pull away the haze of sleep.  “Come again, child?”

“The Doll!  You based her off of my Aunt Maria, didn’t you?!”

Gehrman stared at me a moment before sighing in exasperation.  “Your mother, actually.  They were twins.”

I practically choked.  I had no idea what my mother looked like when she was younger.  “That doesn’t make it any better,” I groaned.

The old man squinted, as if someone had just shone a bright light in his face.  “You’re a bit blurred around the edges, boy,” he observed.  “Take a deep breath and ground yourself.”

I did as he asked, closing my eyes and relaxing my muscles until I felt firmly planted in the Dream.

He nodded.  “Much better.”

Looking down at my feet, I saw that the shriveled little messengers had gathered around my feet, rubbing their faces against my ankles and grasping at my cloak and pant legs.  It appeared that someone had given them little black bowties.  It certainly hadn’t been me, though.  That only left Aydan, which was an odd image to imagine.  I shooed them away, leaving me alone with the old Hunter.

“I…” How to begin?  “I have some matters I wish to discuss.”

Gehrman raised an eyebrow, waiting for me to elaborate.

I swallowed, unsure how to explain.  “When I fought… when I fought Amelia, I had some sort of breakdown,” I started tentatively.  “I convinced myself that nothing was wrong and that this accursed Hunt had never happened, that my family was happy again in the Grand Cathedral.”  I frowned, trying to figure out how to continue.  “I met Aydan there and she… she talked some sense into me.  After I woke and we emerged victorious, she explained that I had created a world she called a Delusion, and that it was the precursor to Dreams.”

The Hunter’s eyes, that had been squinted in confusion and contemplation, widened at that.  He took a deep breath and leaned back in his wheelchair, eyes staring blankly forward.  “Huh.”

I frowned and watched as his eyes became distant, remembering.  What had I said that had sparked this?

Gehrman scowled down at his knees.  “I don’t know of your affliction, Lael, and you have my apologies for my ignorance.  However, I’d like to tell you a story.  I’d like to tell you how I came to be stuck here, in this Dream.”

My eyes softened, realizing just from the tone of his voice that this was not a tale he shared with just anyone.  I gathered a stack of books and sat down, perched precariously on the dusty old tomes and ready to listen.

“They have a saying, the scholars.  Doesn’t matter to what leader they pledge their loyalty to.  Whether they hail from Byrgenwerth, the Choir, or Mensis, they all say the same thing:  ‘Every Great One loses its child and yearns for a surrogate.’  

“The founder of your Healing Church, Laurence, is an old friend of mine.  He thought he had all the pieces of the puzzle, all that was left was to find a child worthy of a Great One,” he paused, eyes glancing momentarily behind him at the bloodstained altar.

“The plague had already begun -- it had been raging for at least twenty years at that point-- blades of undreaming hunters sharpened and bloodied, when Laurence approached me with his plan.  He wanted to beckon a Great One, to have audience with a god of old, and his scheme was to lure it with a child of impressive blood.”

My eyes strayed to the memory altar as it dawned on me what they had done.  Dread gnawed a hole in my gut.

Gehrman continued.  “He came to the conclusion that he’d need a child of Pthumerian descent and turned his eyes towards Cainhurst.  With no method with which to infiltrate the castle, he reached a roadblock -- that is, until I took a close look at your mother and her sister.”

I didn’t think it was possible for my stomach to sink further.

“At first, Maria attempted to create a child of the stars artificially.  She was quite the scientist, your aunt.  Your mother refused to have anything to do with it, keeping to her hunting.  Unfortunately, her experiments bore little fruit.  The Choir took a liking to them, I believe, but they were no help to Laurence’s quest.  Later, she’d try to conceive a child of blood herself, but I understand there were difficulties of some sort.”

Gehrman stopped, looking up at the ceiling, brows furrowed.  “I… It’s foggy, but… I don’t recall where…” his voice wavered as he struggled to remember.  “Laurence managed to find a child, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where…”

“Sir, you don’t need to struggle on my behalf,” I assured him.  “I don’t need every detail, so don’t worry yourself.”

The old Hunter exhaled, leaning his head back against his chair.  “Very well.  Your mother was there at the ritual -- or was it Maria?  No, no, it was the Doll.  Of course it was the Doll.  We beckoned the Great One with this child, a nameless moon presence.  Laurence asked it for the ability to hunt and kill the beasts, and thus it created for us the Hunter’s Dream.  What we didn’t know, however, was that Dreams need a host.”

I nodded, understanding.  “It chose you.”

Gehrman nodded slowly, accepting.  “Thus, I am trapped here, Lael, never seeing the sun.  Trapped until Laurence finds another child of blood or Lady Maria succeeds in her experiments.”

My heart joined my stomach on the floor, sinking like a rock.  Oh no.  “Sir… Gehrman… Vicar Laurence turned into a Cleric Beast and my aunt Maria killed herself in despair not too long after.”

I watched the First Hunter’s face fall, his body freezing.

“I am sorry, sir.”

He sighed, slow and shaky.  “Don’t make my mistakes, Lael.  You owe it to your mother.  Whatever that girl -- that thing -- is trying to do to you, don’t give in to it.  She seeks the Child of Queen Yharnam, Spawn of Oedon, that much I know.  Do not let her do to you what has been done to me.  Do not let her become your Laurence, Lael.  Hold onto your humanity with every ounce of strength you have.  Promise me, Lael.”

His intensity startled me.  Even as he told his tale, he’d sounded rather indifferent and irreverent.  It caught me by surprise and I found myself answering automatically.  “I promise.  And I swear, I will do everything in power to let you see your sun against without sacrificing my own.”

Gehrman visibly relaxed.  “That more than I could ever ask.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Heart humbled, I left the workshop with head bowed.  While it was obvious that not every tragedy in Yharnam had come to bare due to the moon’s beckoning, Gehrman took on the guilt for all the city’s sins squarely upon his shoulders.  Clearly, he had begun to buckle under that weight.

I made to move towards the awakening altars, but a tug at my pant legs held me back.  “Why, hello,” I greeted the curious little messengers.  

They moaned and grunted in that way they do, clamoring for my attention in such a way that alarmed somewhat.  I had not seen them so energetic since they siphoned the eyes from my mind.  One held some odd object in its hand, reaching it out as if to give it to me.

“What is it you have there?” I squatted down to their level, extending a hand and letting the tiny white men deposit the dessicated eyeball into my hands.  Oh, well.  I was disgusted but not surprised.  “Ah… A present for me?” I asked.  “How lovely.  Thank you kindly.”

Patting one of their heads, I dropped the diseased eye into the pocket of my cloak.  Perhaps Aydan would have a use for such an odd thing.  It was a bit of a weak apology gift, but it was better than nothing.

I returned to the awakening altar.  Aydan and I hadn’t reached a lantern in Hemwick, so I would have to travel a bit to get back to her.  Oddly, I found the Grand Cathedral lantern unresponsive.  Perhaps my trip would take a bit longer than expected, then.  I pressed a hand to the markings that would wake me at Oedon Chapel and steeled myself for awakening.

Nothing could have prepared me for the bloody sight I arrived to.  “By the blood…”

Bodies were strewn through the chapel, that alcoholic man, the loony old lady, both painted across the floors and walls.  Incense jars were shattered and the bones within exposed but still burning.  Enough lingered that beasts were repelled, but the smoke on the floor had risen and now I practically swam in it, the haze reaching up to my chest.  The whore was nowhere to be seen.  Wasn’t… wasn’t there someone else here, too?

“Hello?!  Is there anyone here?” I called out, wading through the smoke.

A sob pierced the silence.  “Oh, oh, Master Lael, is that you?  Oh, Master Lael, it was just horrible… just horrible…”

I looked down at the deformed church dweller.  If it weren’t for the red robes of a Healing Church janitor, he would have been lost beneath the clouds, concealed.  “What happened here?  Where’s Bertram?” I demanded.

“Oh, Mister MacConmara hasn’t been seen since you and your sweet girl were here.  Sorry about the Mister’s behavior, he’s been through alot, Master Lael, please forgive him if you see him.  Tell him about the lady.  The lady’s been taken.  Your friend, the one Miss Eileen wanted, she… oh, Master Lael, it was terrible.”  The little wretched thing started weeping, its grey face buried in its long, spindly hands.

I stared, absorbing what it said.  The lady... The prostitute?  Taken?  By...

Isolde .

My eyes narrowed.  I'd known we couldn't trust her.

Ignoring the dweller's cries and pleadings, I flew out of the chapel into the square, determined to hunt down the infidel...

... Only to come to a screeching halt as I laid my eyes on something horrifying.


 

I killed them.

Lael disappeared in a moon-scented mist and I turned around and slaughtered the village militia.  The older Executioner, Alfred, did not hesitate to join the bloodshed.  In fact, he did so with glee, cackling about how the villagers deserved it, with their ancestral ties to Cainhurst.  They brought it upon themselves by aiding the nobles in times passed.

We waited in that blood-soaked glade for Yharnam's young light to return.  Huddled around a fading campfire, I coaxed stories out of the senior, tales of Lael's youth and his adventures as an adolescent.  I absorbed this new information with a solemn demeanor, but deep inside I did feel that foreign warmth Lael so often instilled inside me.

The Executioner provided rations.  I nibbled curiously at the cured meat and dried fruits, unsure of my body's reaction since I'd lived off of blood and the Dream for the better part of a century, it seemed.  Thankfully, my stomach accepted the nutrients without much fuss.

"..." I noticed the Executioner take a breath as if to speak.

"Share your thoughts," I demanded.

Alfred squirmed in discomfort.  "The boy has been taking quite some time.  Perhaps we should advance without--"

I cut him off.  "No.  We wait."

And we waited.  We waited for hours.  I knew that night would not pass while Mensis still conducted their ritual.  The Hunt would last until the Nightmare was ended.  Despite what I'd told the others, we could afford to waste time.

Alfred had other ideas.  "Is it wise to linger like this?" He inquired after an hour.

"You will wait.  Lael is more important than your revenge."

He balked at that.  "To the point, are we?"  He sniffled, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbing at his nose.  "I meant no such implications, my fair lady.  I care about the young master just as much as any of us-"

"Oh, I truly doubt that."

"You would doubt my faith?  Who are you to accuse me?  Some scholar from Byrgenwerth?  It's your ilk that broke off to form that twisted, disgusting cult in the valley.  I wouldn't be surprised if you did away with him to further your plans, wench," he spat.

Ah, so the true colors came forth at last.  Fortunately, he had his little outburst while Lael was absent.  It would displease me greatly to see my ray of sunshine upset.

I smiled, feeling the radiation of cold light from within me.  "Would you like an answer?  I am-"

"Aydan!  Alfred!"

My head perked up.  I rose, leaving Alfred behind by the fire as I ran towards Lael, only to stop as his form manifested strangly in my mind.

His breath came with difficulty, but I could sense gentle Insight in his head.  Pride surged in my chest only to be replaced with suspicion.  What had happened in such a small amount of time to make him accept something he had previously so vehemently rejected?  The amount of enlightenment,  as well... he must have encountered one of my... relatives?  At least, relatives was the closest concept I could name that translated.

It was difficult.  I had so many ideas and thoughts that swam and tickled at the back of my mind.  Actions and words had meaning I could not completely comprehend beyond knowing that I was correct; plans and words preordained and reflexively put into place by the consciousness I could no longer comprehend.

My silence must have concerned him, because Lael reached out and put his hands on my shoulders.  I misinterpreted it, as he pulled me close and pressed his lips firmly to mine.  Relief.  The human tendency to be thankful for life.

He no longer wore Executioner garb.  I could feel fabric that fit him more tightly, less voluminous.

A new weapon was on his back.  I could tell because I could feel it.  Moonlight.

A memory blazed, piercing as a new cyst of insight ate through whatever brain matter remained in my head.  A sword.

We resonated, the sword and I, but I hid my pain.  I refused to let Alfred see any weakness.

Speaking of whom.

"What the hell are you wearing," Alfred growled without question.

Lael stiffened against me and pulled me closer like a security blanket.  "I've taken up my aunt's burden.  I don't expect you to understand," he answered softly.

"What is that supposed to mean?  That does nothing to explain why you're running around in a filthy vileblood's clothes!"

Lael's eyes steeled in a way they never had before.  He stood tall, posture pin straight as he managed to look down at the taller man.  "That's no way to speak to the Lord Executioner, is it?"

Alfred met his challenge, puffing out his chest and maintaining a steady glare.  They stood like that a moment, Lael giving a strong state of his own.  Eventually, Alfred backed down, conceding command to his superior.

I could feel the echoes of blood in Lael's veins, far more intense than before.  If I listened close, I could hear the a second child join in Mergo's chorus of cries.  Just what had happened in the short time we parted?

"Scout ahead," Lael instructed.  "I need to speak with Aydan in private."

The executioner narrowed his eyes but complied, stalking off into Hemwick Charnel Lane.

As soon as the third wheel was out of sight, Lael's arms wrapped strongly around me, a half-crazed laugh bursting from his mouth.

I let him have his moment.  He set me down, laughter tapering off.

"Where were you?" I asked.

He smiled at me.  "Have you been eating?  You've gotten so thin."

My brow furrowed.  "It has been but two hours."

"It's been... It must have been days."

I frowned.  "... A new Delusion?"

He shook his head.  "No, no.  It had a host.  My Aunt Maria.  I--"

 

"A corpse..."

Her porcelain-white hand gripped my wrist like a vice.

"... Should be left well enough alone."

I had never seen someone more beautiful.  She was the mirror image of the Doll given agency, given a weapon and a body capable of fighting.  Perhaps my mother looked like this once, long ago.

Maria let go but I did not back away.  "Aunt Maria?  What are you doing here?  What happened to all those people in the tower?"

She paused.  "... You are Iuliana's son," she stated, voice soft.  Her head tilted.  "My nephew.  You are not dead?  How strange."

The slight heel of her boots made a distinctive sound against the old floorboards.  I backed away, eyeing the double-bladed weapon in her hand.

I readied my weapon, seeing the intent in her glassy eyes.  "I don't want to fight you.  You're family; maybe the only family I have left."

Maria laughed, a delicate thing as her Rakuyo separated with a clang.  "Then you should not have come this far."

I reached for the weapon Aydan had so painstakingly crafted for me, the Sunburst Blade.  I swung the wicked, spiked flail at Maria, the slight blue glow turning golden the moment it hit her statuesque, marble skin.

"Sunlight.  How distasteful."

Her hand twisted in the spike, blood spilling out over the enchanted steel.  I tried to pull it back, wrench it out of her grip to no avail.

Maria's head tilted curiously.  "Though, appropriate, perhaps..."

A sharp crack sounded as she flexed her fingers.  The blade broke in two, Iuliana's sword falling to the floor as it was freed from its shell.

I stood, dumbfounded, a now useless chain held in my hands.

"But in the end, futile."

Damn.  Damn damn damn.  I scrambled away from her, dashing to the far end of the clocktower.  My mother's sword laid purposelessly on the ground, out of my reach.  Without a blade, I stood no chance.

I needed a new plan.

Groping behind me for anything, a shard of wood, a metal pole, anything -- my hand hit the wrinkled flesh of a cluster of messengers.

They offered me a relic I'd stored with them for safekeeping.

Taking Ludwig's Holy Moonlight Greatsword in hand, I met my maternal aunt blow for blow.  Training from years ago returned to me, remembering the feeling of a Holy Blade in my hands, of my father teaching me, standing besides my fellow students, my comrades-in-arms, as we took part in our sacred duties.

Ludwig, with his dying breath, asked me if the hunters of the church were the stalwart protectors he'd envisioned.

In my arrogance, I told him yes.  The Yharnam may have fallen, but as long as I drew breath, the Healing Church had honor, no matter how small.

How wrong I was.  Those women, their heads bulged into masses of formless flesh as they screamed for my aunt or pattered around rambling of dripping, of water and lakes and reflections and eyes.  Heartbroken and humbled, I knelt down in the muck and helped a young woman search for her eyes.

"I'm sorry, sweet lady," I'd apologized after aimlessly searching with her for a time.  "It appears your eyes are lost."  I reached into my pocket and took out the strange eye the messengers had gifted to me earlier.  "I know it is not the same, but mayhap you may find some solace in this."

Her spindly fingers reached out shakily and cradled the eye of a blood-drunk hunter.  "Oooh.  A golden boy has given me an eye.  What a sweet sunspot he is."

I bid her farewell and watched her curl up with her newfound eye, rocking back and forth as she sang wordless hymns and lullabies.

It was for that woman and all the rest that I would defeat Maria and make sure all their suffering wouldn't be for nothing.

The fight was long and arduous, especially with her speed against my heavier weapon.  But I won.  Scorched and bloodied, yes, but victorious.

Looking down as Aunt Maria dissolved around my blade, a shiver ran up my spine.  The echoes of her life, faded and distorted, dusted over my mind like cobwebs before dissipating into the already-present cacophony of consciousness.

How many more times would this happen?  How many more people I cared for would die by my hands?  Mother, Amelia, Maria.

And for what?  The church?  My path to Maria had revealed the church's true face to me.  I barely could stomach the title Lord Executioner after witnessing the inhumane work Maria left behind.

Then for what?  Why was I still fighting?  Why did I force myself to face foe after foe after foe only to save no one?

I watched the clock face rotate to reveal my path.

Taking up the Holy Moonlight Greatsword, I continued on.

The only way to find answers was to move forward.

 

"The Hunter's Nightmare," I realized, reaching out and pulling Lael back into an embrace.  "I am sorry I could not be there for you."

Lael smiled, a slightly bitter undertone within it.  "My eyes are opening, Aydan.  I do not believed you would have felt comfortable.  I heard the Orphan's cries at every moment.  Your kind heart would have drowned in his sorrow.  It is better that I braved it alone."

Our foreheads touched and a strange, foreign shock tickled my chest.  I could feel his enlightenment, a pressure that mixed with and penetrated my own.  He surprised me with the rapidity of his growth.  I had not expected our minds to mingle so freely.

I would have to exercise caution as we proceeded.

"Tell me of him."

"The Orphan?" He puzzled.

I nodded.  "Yes.  What was he like?  Did you see his mother?"

Lael took a deep breath and described the Orphan of Kos.  He detailed for me his grotesque birth, the spindly, humanoid form that gazed at the sun and sobbed.  He told me how the Orphan metamorphosed, growing wings and taking to the sky.  He recounted Kos's face, the peaceful expression of the majestic sacrificed deity.

And he held forth how he put the Orphan out of his misery.

I listened, enraptured.  Dampness spilled down my face -- ah...

Tears.

"They sound so beautiful," I said, voice cracking.

Lael held me close as I cried for reasons I could only speculate.  I felt such immense sorrow... yet so much joy.  Hope.  I felt hope.

Hope for a family.

Chapter Text

"Now, that is a face not even I could have anticipated," said the blindfolded man with countless bags strapped to his back.

"... You work for the Church," I realized.  My Executioner garb was dyed red from the blood I'd had to trudge through to get this far, the sacred robes weighed down heavily by gore.

The harrowed dreamer responded with a respectful nod.

I exhaled, tension melting from my muscles.  Finally, someone trustworthy in this strange mockery.  My back rested against the opposite wall of the small hallway, breath haggard.  Tucking my greatsword into its holster, I extended a friendly hand.  “Lael.  You?”

He gave an amused smile and took my hand.  “Simon.  I must say, I didn't think I’d see the son of Logarius in a place such as this.”

“This… wasn’t really a planned detour,” I confessed.  “Haven’t I met you before?”

Simon folded his hands behind his back.  “Oh, young Master Lael…” he chuckled.  “I hope you’re not planning to use my mind for this place.  One nightmare was enough for me.”

I blinked.  What… were we having two different conversations?  “I don’t understand.  I come to you as a friend.”

He scowled, straightening his posture.  “I can hear you there.  Come teach your pet some manners before I run out of patience,” he half-growled.

“What are you--”

A cold, almost wet sensation lashed around my legs before my vision began to blur, sinking me into a strange, damp darkness as they encompassed my whole body pulled me away from Simon.  I felt something break, like when you finally get the leverage to pull apart two powerful magnets.  A connection severed.

When my vision returned, I saw only pinpricks of light in a vast nothing.  Stars…?  My gaze turned upwards and I couldn’t help but smile.

So that’s where the moon went.

I bathed in soothing void and moonlight, tendrils of dreamy sensation tingling against my nerves.

Hands reaching out, I held the source to me, reeling it in and letting my heart soar.  It made no sound, but the unseen consciousness gave a mental equivalent of a trill.  The happy vibration traveled from my brain down to my toes, touching everything in between.

Nuzzling into its ephemeral core, I sang.  Not with my mouth, though.  I'm not sure where the center of my happiness laid.  My fingers?  My toes?  My e y...e...s...?

Penetrating darkness dug into my mind and squirmed... writhed...

Yet, I couldn't find anything wrong with that.  It felt nice.  Stress built up and melted away, the tension leaving an ethereal body.  Such a solid, physical sense of violation brought so much novelty, such mounting euphoria--

Almost like... a coupling...?

I woke up with a gasp.

Quiet.  Silence.

I shifted in a bed of hay, ceasing as I realized the slender form in my arms.

My breathing mellowed.  We'd stopped to let everyone rest after clearing out most of Hemwick.  Alfred was on watch outside the barn while Aydan and I slept.

I mean, I was a little surprised that Aydan slept at all.  I put my ear against her back and listened to her steady heartbeat and even breathing.  Huh.

"Was that you in there?" I breathed against her ear.

She shifted.  "... Hm?" Came the sleepy reply.  "In where?"

"My head."

I could almost hear the smirk in her voice.  "I'm always in your head."

A bubbling laugh left my throat.  "Yes, perhaps so," I admitted, plucking straws of hay from her hair.  "But not everything needs to remain there."

Her head tilted, cuddling back into my chest.  "Oh?  You have a method of making thought reality, then?"  She asked, sounding legitimately confused.

I smiled, taking her chin and tilting her face around to mine.  "With finger-tips and tongues."

Aydan's lips parted complacently beneath my own, making way for gentle intrusion.

"Well, ye are certainly closer than before."

I jumped, pushing away from Aydan and leaping to face the intruder.

A chuckle sounded from behind a masked face.  "It's been some time since I've seen Hunters stupid enough to become intimate while out on the Hunt," Eileen laughed.

Aydan sat up, plucking sticks of hay from her hair.

Feeling distinctly disappointed, my heartbeat slowed as my body registered the lack of danger.  "You're the woman who was after Isolde."

A nod.  "Aye."

I let my gaze harden.  "Then perhaps you know about what she did at the chapel."

She crossed her arms and sighed.  "Aye.  We've come to an agreement."

My brow furrowed.  "You've forgiven such... mindless slaughter?"

"Humor an old woman, child.  One becomes more ready to forgive the less friends you have left."

I supposed that could be... understandable.  I would withhold any judgment until I could question Isolde myself.

Aydan finally rose from her nest of straw, digging around for her threaded cane.

That reminded me.  After we left the barn, I stopped her.  "Aydan, I found something you might enjoy."  I reached into my pockets and pulled out the strange, wriggling form of the Kos Parasite.

Perking up and practically tossing the cane aside, the scholar reached out and cupped the little invertebra in her hands, feeling it and figuring it out.

I shrugged.  "I haven't figured out what it is, yet.  I've come to the conclusion that a special rune is needed to unlock its potential, but it's still an interesting little trinket--"

She whirled, lashing out with a tentacle and smashing a barrel to pieces.

I stared.  How...?

"Yes, this will do," Aydan agreed, something akin to an eager grin on her face.

Well, I wouldn't question it.  Perhaps some individuals had an affinity that allowed them to wield such thing.

Eileen scoffed.  "Trick weapons are getting more esoteric by the day.  Whatever happened to a good, old-fashioned blade?"

"They stopped being enough," I quipped, nodding to the curved silvery dagger in the old woman's hand.  "Of course, if everyone had blades of siderite, that wouldn't be a problem."

With a scoff, the Crow uncrossed her arms and shook off her fluffy cape.  "Perhaps, boy, perhaps."

A crash came from back inside the barn.

“Oi!  Listen, I know yer fecking-- feck!!” cried a familiar disgusted country girl.

For a moment I dreaded seeing her again, but when Isolde came stumbling out of the barn covered in hay and vomit, I decided that the evening was going quite well.

She ran over to a well and dropped the bucket in only for it to come back up filled with a mixture of muddy water and... well, those looked like bloated eyeballs.  The feather-clad assassin shrieked in disgust and scooped out the eyes before dumping the whole bucket over her head.

A second familiar face leaned against the wall, hands over her growing belly.  "It wants blood, not milk," she said ominously.

"Yeah, I think I fecking know that!" Isolde retorted.  "'Cept 'Leen took the pale stuff, I'm tainted with dregs, and feck if I know what Byrgen-Bitch and Pretty Boy are pumping and you used up the last of 'Sefka's mix hours ago!"

Aydan made a frustrated growl.  “She would have been fine if you'd left her in the sanctuary.  Out here, she's away from the… Father’s protection.”

Isolde balked.  “... You know the stories then?” she hissed.  “It's not common knowledge, even among those of Vileblood.”

The scholar put a hand to her chin in contemplation.  “No.  It's one of those concepts I just know.  Part of me is furious that you removed her in such a critical state.”

I stepped forward.  The woman looked haggard, her plum dress frayed at the edges from constant walking.  "Your child requires blood untainted by dreams or filth?"

The whore nodded tiredly.  That put everyone here out of the equation.  Unless... Wait, where was Alfred?  He was supposed to be on guard.  I looked to Eileen.  "Mistress Crow, have you seen our other companion?"

"The Executioner twat?"

I snorted.  "Indeed."

"Said something 'bout clearing the way and took off an hour back."

A frown creased my face.  I wasn't too sure about him going off alone this far into Hemwick.  We were approaching the charnel house -- or, well, perhaps it could be called a charnel lane for all it remained confined to one building -- and we had no information on the kind of enemies that could be encountered.  Of course, all signs pointed to old women with irons and pitchforks interspersed with misshapen hunters servants.  But still, years had passed and we had no idea if any Cainhurst forces remained in the hamlet. They should have perished with the rest when my father razed Hemwick ages ago on his march to Cainhurst, but with the amount of oddities occurring even within Central Yharnam, there was no telling what sort of warped space lay ahead.

I took up the Holy Moonlight Sword, feeling comfort in the dancing rays of blue along its edge.  Aydan, moon bless her, put a comforting hand on my shoulder.

“I still do not approve of this course of action.  If you continue on this path, old machinations may be set into motion that you nor I can stop.”

I bowed my head.

“However,” the scholar continued.  “I will support you no matter your endeavor.  If this is truly the path you must take, if you feel the righteousness of this crusade in the depths of your heart, do not let my disapproval make you stray from your glorious ascension.”

My breath came hard, each word from Aydan like a shot of adrenaline into my skull.  My ears popped as the pressure increased again.  If I closed the eyes on my face, I could see the stars beneath my scalp.  It didn't hurt anymore, not since that horrid nightmare and that bloody battle, not since Maria.

In my mind’s eye I saw myself, dressed in the gowns of the Lord Executioner, holding aloft a blade of golden light and leading the world towards a new dawn.  At my side stood Aydan, veiled in moonlight and mysticism, my second in command.  Perhaps even… a wife?  Yes.  That was the obvious conclusion here.  I'd save my father.  I'd save Yharnam.  Together we would see the sun again and I'd marry Aydan.  It was the least I could do for her help.  Who wouldn't want such a dedicated wife?

Some tiny part of my brain reminded me that she wasn't human, but at that point, I didn't think any of us were.

“This is the right path,” I assured her.

Aydan conceded.  “I will trust your judgment.”

“If you two are quite finished, there's no lack of work ahead for us,” Isolde snapped, supporting Arianna with one arm and holding a reiterpallasch with the other.

I kissed Aydan’s hand watched the curious expression on her face before directing the group forward.  “Come.  Our erstwhile companion girds himself against horrors for our sake.”

The was a scoff of protest from Isolde and a bitter chuckle from her mentor.

We started our way deeper into Hemwick, silent for the most part.  Arianna leaned heavily on Isolde, slowing our pace.

Isolde broke the tension.  “I been thinking.  Your name is ‘Aydan,’ right?  That sounds a lot like ‘Oedon,’ and it can't be a coincidence that ye know a lot about ‘im, too.”

Aydan had no outward reaction to her speculation.  “You make a compelling argument.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Oedon is a name we give to the Formless Will of the Healing Blood.  It is the Voice that brings us together, gathers us in safety and protects us,” I recited.  It would be best to nip such misconceptions in the bud.

Isolde scoffed.  “Church talk.  ‘Sides, it's not like the bloke is doing a good job at protectin’, is he?”

We came upon the graveyard clearing, a gated plaza of tombstones flanked by a barn and what could once have been a house.  In the distance, a stone brick road dropped off into nothing, saluting the moonless sky and sitting memorial to the ominous castle on the horizon.  Laborer women, dogs, and other disfigured creatures lay dead and bloodied, their grotesque forms illuminated by Eileen’s lantern and Aydan’s strange glow.  Arianna reeled away from the corpses, curling tighter against Isolde’s supporting arm.  It wasn't for fear of the dead, no, a proper Yharnamite had no fear of seeing death -- their own or that of others.  Her retreat came from disgust, perhaps disdain on being reminded of the sort of people travelling with her.

There we found Alfred.  Framed between the edge of the outcropping and the mountain range of dilapidated shacks knelt a man illuminated by torchlight, the implement stuck firmly in the ground to keep it upright.  His cloak fell over his shoulders as his hands clasped in prayer over the body of a slain executioner.

I held out a hand, halting my companions.  This was a pain for the two of us, as brothers in arms.

Joining him in the blood-damp grass, I bowed my head and joined in his reverent silence.

Time passed.  It didn't matter the amount.  Just enough.  Alfred spoke, “We need not fret over Hemwick’s infamous witches.  They, too, have become twisted by their dark ash magics.  The witches are no longer of this world.”

The cold anger in his voice spoke volumes.  So much suffering and not a single drop of blood shed in vengeance.  I understood his frustration and in the light of the torch I could see the years in his face.  Twenty seven years of Hunts weighed on his shoulders, years spent watching his remaining comrades drop around him until he stood alone.

I put a hand on his shoulder, but it was Isolde who stepped forward.  “Tonight we end this, once and fer all,” came her brazen declaration.

Alfred’s eyes slid closed as he breathed in deep, torso lifting and falling with the exhalation of his grief.  “For all our sakes, I pray you are right.”

He retrieved his torch and rejoined the party, falling into step behind Aydan and I, opposite Eileen, Isolde, and Arianna.

The former Vileblood led us back a ways to an obelisk at a crossroads and handed Arianna off to Eileen.  “I honestly don't know how this thing works.  It's been so fecking long…” she cursed as she circled the monument.  “Yer the one with the invite.  Try touchin’ it.”

I frowned.

Isolde was out of patience.  She stopped a high heeled foot.  “It don't bite!  Just touch the physical representation of Annalise’s metaphorical cock and get on with it!”

I frowned harder, pulling the invitation out of my pocket and giving it one last look over before reaching out to the stone statue and --

The sound of hooves made me pull back.  Everyone turned to look at once, seeing the inexplicable horse and carriage approaching casually.  Okay.  Maybe horses and footmen were exempt when the apocalypse happened.

For Blood’s sake, Lael, don't question it.

We stood there a moment as the carriage door opened, showing room for maybe four people.   If we squeezed in.

“... Isolde and Alfred sit with the kind horseman,” I decided.

“The feck?  Why?!”

“The castle is more likely to accept you?  I don't fucking know!”

We managed something.  Eileen with her old bones got to sit, tiny Arianna perched securely on her lap.  I squeezed in with Aydan, though she didn't quite sit on my lap.  We somehow managed to half-sit on the seat half-sit on each other.  Alfred managed a fetal position between everyone's knees, squished in on the floor.  Isolde made some attempts to get in, but after Eileen threatened her with a knife she got on top with the footman.

Somehow the carriage sensed we were ready and the door closed on its own, jamming Alfred’s toe in the process.

The ride was bumpy as all hell and no one even thought about the fact that the Executioners destroyed the bridges to Cainhurst decades ago.

We sat in awkward silence.

Eileen coughed.

Arianna started heaving and everyone immediately panicked.  Alfred ripped his own cloak and held it up to catch the resultant torrent of milky pink that ejected from her mouth, officially saving us all and becoming a true, selfless hero.

After explaining the pregnancy situation, Alfred consented and made a small incision at his wrist.  He emptied some of his relatively cleaner blood into a couple of vials and gave them to Eileen to hold onto.  

Aydan crawled over Alfred despite his protests and started cooing and humming to Arianna’s slightly bulging abdomen.  She wouldn't get off her until Eileen brought out the knives again and Aydan retreated with a hiss.  

Alfred started reciting prayers in deadpan.

Isolde, oddly, was silent outside.  Not a single complaint.

The carriage lurched to a stop.

Alfred tumbled out first, landing on the frost-covered stone on his hands and knees, praising sweet land and ground.

I was behind him, exhausted and rubbing my face in exasperation.  Aydan followed, somehow dainty as ever.

Eileen carried Arianna in her strong, decrepit old woman arms.  “Isolde?  Girl?” she barked.

I looked to where Isolde had sat and whistled in amazement.  A terrified look was frozen in her face, hands clasped like claws on the edge of the carriage.  To her left was the desiccated corpse of the footman and an obviously long dead horse in front of them.

“What the fuck,” she uttered after regaining her breath.  “What the fuck.  What the fuck.  What the fuck.  Oh my god. What the fuck.  I cannot describe what I just…?  What the fucking fuck.  What was that.  Eileen.  Eileen help me down.  Somebody.”

The forever scarred vileblood was helped down from her perch and no one dared ask her what she saw.

I sighed and started up the stairs.  Aydan and Alfred gathered themselves and followed immediately.  After Isolde figured out how to exist as a person again, she and Eileen helped Arianna up the stairs.

The doors opened for us, revealing the infested courtyard beyond.

Blades and guns were taken from sheaths, the metallic chime of siderite joining combined with the clang of a primed reiterpallasch met the creak of a Logarius wheel chorused with the gurgle of unfurling tentacles.

My Holy Moonlight Sword glowed an ethereal golden as it infused with arcane energy.  Strange, it had been an otherworldly blue when Ludwig wielded it.  Perhaps it changed from person to person?  Or perhaps with the deity blessing it?  Whatever the case.

The courtyard teemed with bloodlickers.  I knew enough of them to know this would be a long and tedious battle of attrition.

“We make a run for it,” I decided.

Eileen stepped forward and glared over the prospective battlefield.  “... Aye.  A wise choice.  Isolde.  Put away the sword and carry Arianna.  I’ll cover your run.”

I sucked in a breath.  “Are you sure?”

The Crow nodded.  “Aye.  This quest is important.  A mortal queen on the throne will let this damned cycle of hatred end.  It may be but a small piece of Yharnam’s troubles, but is that not what I've done my whole life?  Solve Yharnam's small problems?”

“Eileen…” Isolde started.

I nodded and stepped just barely into the courtyard, snapping a quick finger at the unlit lantern.  “Aydan.  Need anything from the Dream?  It will be some time before we get another chance.”

The blind girl shook her head.  “I am prepared.”

“Alfred?”

He shouldered his wheel and gave a Hunter’s salute.  “I will follow your righteous cause into the depths of the abyss and back, my Lord Executioner.”  Odd.  I could've sworn he was mad at me.

I leveled a gaze at Isolde, who stared in bewildered concern to Eileen.  “Vileblood.”

Her head shot up and she looked at me.

“We've disagreed often in the past, but if anything happens here, it has been an honor to Hunt with you.”

Her eyes fixed to the frozen stones at our feet.

“Miss Arianna.”

Slowly, her face lifted to meet my eyes.  She looked tired, almost ready to keel over and just let death take her.

“I am sorry for everything you've been through this long night.  No one deserves this.”

The woman shook her head and sighed.  “I've had plenty of time to resign to my fate.  I don't need your pity.”

I nodded with a slight frown.  Fair enough.  “Very well.”

We gathered and went over a basic strategy.  According to Isolde, the doors opened on their own when a resident or invited guest approached.  We would need to make it past the bloodlickers and stand at the door long enough for it to open.  Eileen had already volunteered to cover us.

When we had our course planned out, we made a run for it.  I took point, Aydan and Alfred at my flanks with Isolde carrying Arianna in the center and Eileen defending the rear.  The three of us batted away the beasts that approached from the horde of dozens of bloodlickers, throwing them just long enough to get past.

We were almost to the door when they started to swarm.  It creaked as we approached and I pushed Isolde and Arianna at the widening crevasse.

Eileen, Aydan, and Alfred stood and fended off the swarm which grew by the second.  I urged Aydan and Alfred through, but the door inexplicably began to close.  

From Isolde's outraged shouts, it didn't usually do that.

I shouted for Eileen, but had to squeeze through at the last second, the last thing we saw being the Crow goring a bloodlicker’s face and throwing it's bloody tendrils halfway across the courtyard.

Isolde kicked a candelabra.  “That bitch!  The fucking pious bitch just wanted one last fucking punch in the gut before we took her down!  You hear me, Annalise?!  I'm going to gut you!”

Alfred slapped her.  “Shh!”

“What?!”

“Are you out of your goddamned mind?” he hissed, gesturing with his arm to the open, empty foyer.

Or… oh.

A dozen or so mourning ghosts had stopped in their tracks and turned to stare.  Three old, corpse-like servants hand stopped their frantic scrubbing and gave the invading party glares of anger and frustration.

“Weapons, everyone,” I whispered.

To my right, I heard Aydan’s dry chuckle.  “I told you this was a bad idea.”

Chapter Text

A crusader cloaked in leather and wool stood perched at the edge of the outcrop.  His journey to this place had been… arduous.  With the special blood transfusion allowing him revival even without the moon’s influence, he'd thrown himself repeatedly at the beasts and serpents of the woods.  Swamps, more like.  It took hours to get this far, just to come to stand at this ominous precipice.

Leather creaked as his fingers tightened around the grip of his saw cleaver.  His toes curled in his boots as he watched the still water below.  A milky substance caked the elegant stonework where it had flowed like blood from the veins of the slain provost, dull in the dim lantern light.

A second liquid -- a few precious silvery puddles -- had dried atop it, beautiful and luminous in the utter dark.  A few flakes coaxed into a vial off of the porous stone gave the hunter something to work with.  It was better than nothing.

Whispers in his head, messages from the Blood, compounded with advice from Gehrman and that lovely, sweet Doll… told him that this was the first step to cleansing Yharnam.  You could not fight a disease without exposing the source of the infection, after all.

Yet, something had happened.  The she-spider slept, hibernating now that there was no moon to hide from the people.  Perhaps.  Who knew?  Her duties could still be carried out in slumber -- who was he to interpret the limitations of the Great Ones?

Wriggling.  Writhing…

The stars…

They're screaming.  They want their mother back…

Vial upturned, the Hunter's eyes followed the flakes as they fluttered down towards the dark abyss beneath.

They met the surface with a light, almost imperceptible ripple, silver spreading like roots before a light from below burned it away, throbbing with an annoyed intensity.

With a short few words of prayer, the Hunter threw himself into the lake.

 


 

Faces.  Isolde recognized them.  Not all of them, of course, the years had done a number on her memory.  Yet, here and there she'd catch a glimpse of a comrade’s face as she wrenched her blade from ephemeral ghostly flesh, splattering blood that shouldn't exist across the polished stone.

Fucking ay… these arseholes needed to torment her from beyond the grave, too?  Wasn't it enough to trip her down the stairs?  Wasn't it enough to spill her portion and watch her suffer?  Wasn’t it enough to put her the nail in her pathetic loser coffin; they had to shit on her and defile the headstone, too?

The scholar did not participate directly with the fight, instead hanging back to guard the princess.  Princess.  Ha.  What a title for a whore!  Aydan stood protectively, lashing out with brutal precision at any being that attempted to assault the expecting mother, ripping apart ghosts with her strange, shining tendrils.

Odd.  The weapon -- a parasite of Kos?  Was that what Lael called it? -- did not appear to lend itself to the graceful, controlled movements the scholar made.  What should have been a clumsy and unwieldy implement instead yielded to her every motion, subtle nuances twisting them every which way as if they belonged.

What a freak.

As the fighting died down and the foyer cleared, Isolde fell back to check on Arianna for herself.

Aydan raised up on her toes, ready to attack, her teeth bared.

Fortunately, Isolde didn't have to deal with that noise.  Lael noticed immediately and rushed over to calm his crazy girlfriend.  However, Isolde had another concern.

“If Byrgen-Bitch is going feral, I dinnae want her around Arianna.  I've lost enough tonight and I’m not losing my last hope fer revenge,”

Lael turned worried eyes to the former crow before looking back at the scholar.

“My apologies.  I am… protective of pregnant women and infants.”

Isolde scoffed.  Whatever.  At least she wasn’t growling when out of combat, so she wasn’t blood-drunk or the like.  Damn.  Eileen would’ve known what to do.

Without a word to her companions, Isolde ascended the staircase.  Dust stirred with each heavy step, gloved fingers scraping a layer of grime from the aged banister.  The crow narrowed her eyes, coming to a halt halfway.  It was beautiful, once.  Even now, the royal fittings seemed to defy belief, opulent beyond Isolde’s country bumpkin imagination.  Even in a state of filth and ruin, Cainhurst felt like a fairytale.  

Yharnam itself was stunning.  Statues on every street corner, fountains and monuments so beyond anything Isolde had ever seen.  How could this magnificent city be plagued with the monstrosities Eileen had spoken of all those years ago?

Isolde was young, once.  Twenty summers had passed in her life when she arrived in Yharnam, ready to keep the peace by slaughtering those taken with madness.  Young people make mistakes, but when does one stop being young?  With Eileen ten years her senior, Isolde never really felt her age.  Annalise’s blood kept her looking pretty, but years had passed since she’d had a steady supply.  If Isolde had a mirror, she knew she’d see dark bags beneath exhausted amber eyes, heavy laugh lines on a face that was too emaciated to start sagging but tried its best anyway.

There was a chip in the banister that she began to idly pick at.  Like a scar, it told a story.  Once, a fledgling knight became desperate enough for the queen’s blood that she started a fight with another for their share.  That fledgling knight was not some sop from the hamlet or even from the city, but the type of person with the skills specific to killing hunters.  That knight killed another in the dead of night and threatened the servants into keeping quiet.

What a disgusting, foul beast that knight was.

Isolde took a deep breath of stale air and for once, surrounded by a canvas of her mistakes, felt her age.  “We must press on,” she declared, words shaky in the frosty atmosphere.

Rooms full of ghosts posed no real corporeal threat.  They were a party of four combatants -- the obstacle trivialized by sheer numbers.  Aydan picked off any that approached Ariana while Isolde fought beside two Executioners, though one no longer looked the part.  She wondered what happened.  When she first met Lael in Iosefka’s clinic, the boy’s zealotry had been clear, his dedication to the Healing Church possessing a pathetic innocence.  Something happened between the Grand Cathedral and Hemwick, something profound enough to make an indoctrinated little boy into a jaded young man who shed his Executioner’s robes for garb of Cainhurst make.

She watched him as they fought.  He moved differently.  In the cathedral, his attacks lacked any significant planning, every movement reactionary.  Now, Lael’s movements became almost surgical, eyes no longer wide with fear as they coldly calculated the situation and advanced accordingly.  What happened?   What happened to give a green apprentice the combat ability of a veteran in the course of hours?

After each skirmish, the question lingered on her tongue.  What happened?  Instead, she remained silent.  The energy between them changed.  No longer did his gaze drift to her in paranoid caution.  Blue eyes fixed on the horizon, looking forward towards his enemies and the prize that lay beyond.  Ah, there it was, then.  Lael became someone worthy of leading -- a leader she could respect.

They made camp in the library.  Arianna needed the periodic rests and it gave everyone a chance to check supplies.  They gathered chairs around and the boys ripped apart some furniture to make into a small campfire.

Arianna huddled up against the cold.  “It’s restless.  Please, blood…” she begged.

Isolde piped up.  “Well, where is it, then?”

“Eileen had the vials,” Aydan deadpanned.

Lael swore.  “I might have something--

Alfred raised a hand.  “No.  I can spare more.”  He stood and kneeled beside her, unbuckling his bracers to expose pale flesh.  Making a cut, he offered it to the expecting mother.

Either too tired or too desperate to question it, Arianna eagerly latched onto his wrist and drank.  The older Executioner pulled up a chair beside her and draped his cloak over her shoulders, holding the frail woman beneath his arm.

Isolde managed a half-hearted chuckle.  “And he turns coat fer the lady.  Classic, that.”

Alfred looked at her, confused, while Lael sighed.  “Isolde.  Enough.”

Yet again, the kid was showing some balls.  The finality of the statement shut her up and she returned to scraping the dried blood out of the mechanisms of her reiterpallasch.

After Arianna had her fill and felt up to continuing, Lael and Isolde went off and activated the mechanism for the bookcase to unlock the higher level.  Once Isolde had seen how much of the castle was sealed off, they had resigned to taking the rooftop route.  It would be difficult with Arianna, but they’d manage.

During a certain stretch, the courtyard was visible through the blizzard.  A horde of bloodlickers congregated at a spot near the doors, all feasting at the same corpse.  Eileen.

Swallowing the urge to scream out her apologies, her thanks, everything went unsaid, the former crow persisted onwards.

Isolde baited out the gargoyles while Lael and Alfred took them down with terrifying precision.  Aydan carried Arianna over the rooftops, showcasing a level of strength Isolde didn’t expect.  Alfred, still a bit unsteady from letting the expecting mother drink from him and already carrying a heavy kirkhammer, didn’t trust himself not to accidentally send them both toppling over the side.  The scholar, however, didn’t look all that steady, either.  Her milky skin was flushed and her movements took on a strange quality.  Lael either couldn’t or wouldn’t notice, too focused on the expanse of roof ahead.

A tall being sat upon a wooden throne, surrounded by parapets in the shadow of a building that should have been there.  A crown, dull and weather-beaten, perched atop the dessicated martyr’s withered head.

Lael hesitated at the threshold, hands tightening around his sword.  Aydan set Arianna down and made to approach, but he held out an arm, signaling a halt.

The Executioner stood there, burying the tip of his blade in the snowy roof tile.

For the first time since Hemwick, Isolde saw him quake.

Fear.

 


 

“A bird hath come to roost in our castle.  Come, child, kneel and tell us thy name.”

Still in grubby, blood-caked feathers, Isolde dropped to her knees and tried to hide the shakes.  Why did they have all this damnable ceremony?  Anything for more… she needed it; didn’t they understand?  Surely the rest of them quivered in need for the blood of the queen?  She couldn’t be the only one!  Surely the rest of them were as wretched as her!  “Isolde, Your Majesty.”

The queen hummed.  “Where doust thou call home, Isolde?”

“Nowhere important, Your Majesty.”

Another hum.  “You would make our castle thy home?’

“If you will have me, Your Majesty.”

Isolde hazarded a glance at the queen’s face and saw cold beauty staring down at her, judging her worth.

“Tell us, why forsake thy feathered brethren?  Why should we trust one that betrays so easily?”

What did they expect her to do?  Lie?  No.  Isolde’s voice was full of anguished necessity.  “I… I need it, Your Majesty.”

A wicked smile cracked open Annalise’s flawless face, full of cruel amusement.  “We see now.  Thou art pathetic.  Come, child, drink deeply of our corrupted blood and ease thy weakened will.”

And Isolde gave in.

 


 

No longer.

 

Annalise’s reign ended tonight.

Chapter Text

I recall that boy.  I recall when I first saw him, there in the Nightmare.  Dressed in the white regalia of an Executioner, stained with blood and ichor, he fought through the shallow surface layer of my prison.  I watched from afar as he was batted around, beaten. I watched him get up, time and time again. Sometimes he would seemingly give up, but something always brought him back to his feet.  Some then-unknown force, a dedication to an unseen cause or figure -- at the time I found this foolish. I’d learn later what he ran towards, and found a modicum of respect for the boy for not buckling under the weight of what had been pressed upon him, though, I could not ascertain how much of that strength came from ignorance.  Would his cause be so alluring, his loyalty and drive so steadfast, if he knew for what exactly he fought for?

More than once I watched him die.  I watched him returned, too, and at first I wondered how.  Then I smelled it on him, that mysterious moon-scent, the lunar-essence chokingly stronger than any I’d met before.

The first time we spoke, he approached in fear, believing me another enemy in his path.  Wide-eyed and bloodsoaked, he bared his blade at me. When I showed no sign of hostility, he still remained jumpy.  We spoke briefly. He told me his name, who his parents were. I’d known of him. I’d known him as a weakling. A disappointment to his brute of a father -- some milksop the Healing Church had placed upon a pedestal simply for his birth.

The years had not changed that at all.  Yes, there was that strange, foolish drive to continue on in the boy, but I stand by my observations at the time.  No matter how this child appeared, with the small scar on his lip or the blade on his back or the regalia on his body, all I saw in him was fear.

He asked if there was any way out of here and went on about how he needed to get back to the Dream -- to Yharnam.

I told him everything and nothing, for I had long resigned to my eternity here and had no hope to give him.  I had only secrets that might best stay hidden, especially from what was sure to be the unappreciative eyes of an Executioner whelp.

Something changed, though.  I expected him to reach the Accursed and become disheartened, to start to join the ranks of the crazed Hunters that riddled this stretch of the Nightmare.  This reality did not come to pass. Instead, he pressed on, fighting the beast over and over until somehow its mind returned. Well, if one could call that sanity.

I believe after that time, the boy started to break.  The lies and heinous actions of the church he'd grown up having so much faith in were laid before him.  I wondered if he would fall to some despair, but something drove him forward. Something drove him ever onward, and he stepped out into that hamlet clad no longer in the garb of an Executioner, but rather the fine brocade and leathers of a Vileblood noble turned Hunter.

I knew of Vicar Iuliana and her son.  It did come as some surprise that he would embrace his heritage as such.

I wondered if his change of heart was wise, but truly, the crimes of the Vilebloods are nothing against the vast scope of atrocities committed by the Healing Church and its affiliates.

But it, ah, really didn't matter.

I stood within the Astral Clocktower, my only company the bloodstains on the floors and the ruins of a chair.  Dust, still freshly kicked up by the battle that occurred hours ago, danced in beams of light.

There was no purpose for this place anymore.  The secrets were exposed, the evidence of Byrgenwerth's sins slain in pity.

Yet, we lingered.

I did not turn to the creak of the board behind me.  “You're not here to kill me.”

Brador laughed, bitter and deep.  “No, no, that would be doing you a favor.”

I also let out the lightest snort, feeling the warm of the sun through the cracks in the glass.  “Do you think it may free us?”

The assassin stepped closer, amicable.  “I don't want to risk getting saddled with your curse.”

“You don't know that.”

“I do not, but it is too grievous of a fate for me to leave up to chance, Simon.”

I huffed, frustration filling the space between words.  “He doesn't even know what he's done to us.”

“Are we sure it's the boy?”

“What else could it be?!”

“Could always be the scent that follows him.”

I shook my head.  “For what purpose?!”

Brador, curse him, shrugged.  “Who knows? I do not believe it is in the creature's nature to have known motives.  It is not our place.”

Wisdom sometimes comes in unwanted words.  “Not our place? Well, then--” I shifted my posture “-- what about my place?  I carry the burden of his damned ignorance!”  

The man clad as a beast chuckled.  “Your anger is refreshing.”

“I don't even have a chair!”

Brador smirked and the edge of my fury softened.  “I could bring something for you, from the ward or the cells.”

At this point, I simply sat down on the bloody floor.  “I would not refuse such a gesture, though I'd wonder what you're after.”  Exhaustion. Perhaps this simply was the consequence of answers, in the end.  I had always expected that my end would come from this pursuit of knowledge, this quiet crusade to bring light to the Church’s wrongdoings.

The assassin tilted his head to look down upon me, a devilish grin on his face.  “You could always ask me.”

A beat of silence passed before I processed what he said.  Ask. Ask Brador questions. Ask Brador for answers. The implications of such a statement-- “How did you get here,” I asked, voice soft and confused.

“The shape of the Nightmare is changing.  Parts are breaking off, segments dropping into the encroaching sea.  My cell seemed to be where it has begun to stop.”

The Nightmare was shrinking.  That… that at least meant that some souls trapped here would find rest.  I rose and approached the clock face, turning my attention outward towards the hamlet.  Brador was right. The sea had risen, covering the homes and reflecting the harsh sun above.  However, it seemed that the clocktower had risen alongside it, else we would have drowned.

Brador spoke up again.  “Soon, I have reason to believe that the Lumenflower Gardens and the Astral Clocktower will be all that remains of the Nightmare.  If you’d like me to try to drag some chairs and maybe a cot up here, we need to act now.”

I didn’t turn to face him.  “Why the concern?”

The assassin didn’t respond.

This time, I turned.  If he wouldn’t answer that question, I’d ask something else.  “Why didn’t you hunt the boy? You could have spared us this trouble.”

Brador did a little half-shrug again.  “If he’d been some outsider or the common ilk, I would have, but what sort of agent of the Church would I be if I hunted Iuliana’s boy?  They were his secrets to unveil. Far be it from me to stand in his way.”

My head tilted back as I thought that through.  “What sort of logic is that? I work for the Church, too, and you’ve hunted me.”

“That boy may as well be the Church.  It would have felt wrong. Would you expect me to kill Laurence himself if he came through here?  Also, you’re common ilk.”

“And he has brought us what?  Brought me what?!”

“Simon.”

“What?!”

“Do you want the furniture or not?”

I stared at him and spoke through clenched teeth.  “If we must go now, I suppose yes.”

Brador rose and turned towards the door.  Wordlessly, I followed, my frustration not quite abated.

On my way towards the entrance, I kicked at some wooden remains of Maria’s chair.  If only the boy hadn’t killed the previous host.

Maybe the Nightmare’s new management wouldn’t have had to pick a replacement.


 

Before we return to main event, I would like to present a memory:

A Hunter wakes up in the catacombs.  This frustrates me, for he always makes so much noise.  I understand to some degree that he is among a breed of hunters famed for their noise making.

The creatures here listen to me.  Giant beings, large enough to crush a human with their bodies act like puppets under my command.  I may no longer appear as one of them, but we came from the same cradle, the same beginning. I am simply much greater.  However, despite their obedience, they lack the minds the comprehend my commands. To their credit, I speak to them often in my own language, or through thought.  I do not think they are equipped to understand the old tongue. It is because of this that I send them away. I do not want an unfortunate misunderstanding to cause inconvenience.

Or, cosmos forbid, harm my latest project.

The Hunter Who Woke makes a loud noise and startles the Watchers, which irritates me.  I have had one too many a failure to allow what has become my greatest success to be at risk.  I cannot let anything disturb my slumbering treasure.

I give calm chase.  I find the Hunter Who Woke stuck in a trap.  The Watchers had placed these for me in case any of the human blood sources escaped.  This is the first time one of them has gotten this far. I am pleased that the mechanism worked.

Gathering the ends of the net in my hands, I drag the Hunter Who Woke back to the chamber where the others are kept.  He spits curses at me, calls me all manner of names. Makes all sorts of a fuss.

In Pthumeru, we developed many devices in relation to the harvest and administration of blood.  The humans are somewhat weak-stomached in comparison to us, I believe. They do certainly commit their atrocities, but never so openly, never so purely, never so gracefully.

One such device was a sort of spiked platform.  I have no means of translating the name perfectly, but if I tried to translate it, I think I would use the word bloodletter in there somewhere.  A Pthumerian bloodletting device. A mass of sturdy needles with a hollow cores like half three-fourths of a pipe protruded from a slab and had channels that would run into a central pipe, flowing into a large collection jug.  It allowed the collection of blood from sacrifices without much of a fuss.

The Hunter Who Woke One Time Too Many thrashes in his net.  Each moment he continues to shout, my irritation rises. This one could wake the others.  This one could wake my precious project, slumbering peacefully in the other chamber.

The Hunter struggles.  He kicks and tries to grapple me and by all means, by his size he should succeed.  My vessel is small and lacks much muscle, but I am vast. I am formless and mighty and I overpower the human, throwing him against the Pthumerian bloodletting device.  He screams, trying in vain to escape as I pound my vessel’s tiny fists against his chest to drive him deeper into the machine. He gurgles pitifully and still struggles.  His struggling only increases his bleeding.

I pull a lever on the side of the machine and the whole slab shifts with a metallic clank to tilt slightly upwards.  There is a grotesque squelch as he slides further down the needles. He says something, eyes locked on something behind me.  It sounds like a name, or maybe just nothing in particular. “Sigis--”

Blood dribbles from his mouth and he can’t seem to make more words come out.

I wipe a bead of sweat from my brow.

A cough comes from behind me.

Another blood bag has woken up.  Again, this irritates me. I don’t have many humans down here.  I can’t just kill them all. This one is quiet, though, as I turn to face him.  I point a thumb at his friend who draws his last feeble breath on the machine. “Are you going to join him?”

He shakes his head.

“Good.  Stay quiet.”

I turn to leave and rejoin my sunshine.

“Wait,” he says, voice soft, raspy.  “I remember you. Aren’t you the girl who was with the Executioner Beast?”

I stop.  “Does it matter?”

He doesn’t even look up.

I linger just a moment, in case he has something else to say.  After a long moment, I walk over and slam my elbow hard against the top of his head, knocking him back out.  I take a moment to examine the chains holding him to the wall and once I am satisfied that this one is secure, I walk back into the main chamber.

In this chamber, sconces are lit and gives off a soft, warm glow.  In the center, there is a raised dais, upon which there is an altar.

I pause in the threshold, taking in the atmosphere of the room.

He has stirred.

I approach, my pace hurried as I climb the stairs and approach the altar.  “Lael? I didn’t mean to wake you,” I say, running my hand through his hair.

I am fortunate, he hasn’t woken entirely.  A drowsy, beautiful sunspot. His blue eyes just barely flicker open.  “Where… who are you,” he mumbles. “Where am I?”

Running my hand down his cheek, I answer his question.  I tell him my name. I tell him that he’s safe, that I will take care of him.

He mishears my name.  “Aydan? What a pretty name…”

Aydan...

… is not my name.

However, he seems pleased with it, so I will accept it.

“Go back to sleep.  You’ll be safe. I will be here when you wake up.”

I continue to rub his cheek and he drifts off.  I do not think he will remember this.

But I will.

… Aydan.

He called me Aydan...


 

The only difficulty involved with slaying the corpse that had once been my father was the emotional part.  A shell had erected around me after the Nightmare and as he fell to our combined efforts, it started to crumble.

No detail of the fight itself was important.  Our numbers and combined skill made the encounter trivial.  I went through it almost in a haze, calculating each movement and coordinating with my fellow hunters.  We were quite the team, a scholar, an Executioner, a Hunter of Hunters, and whatever in the world I was these days.  We did not move entirely in tandem. Isolde and Alfred got in each other’s way once or twice. Nothing that cost anyone a life.

It didn’t even look like my father.  The grotesque thing we fought was taller than him, elongated and inhuman.  What we fought was a corpse puppeted by purpose. I barely even recognized his techniques.

My father died a long a time ago.  The thing that died on my sword was just a ghost with his name, a road bump on the path to a revenge that wasn’t even my own.

I felt oddly numb.

Isolde walked over and plucked the Crown of Illusions from the snowy plain of the roof where it had fallen.  She looked at me, as if she planned to ask me to do the honors, but I stared blankly and she thought better, turning and handing the crown to Alfred.

Aydan’s hands rested on my upper arms.  “You did it,” she said.

I opened my mouth to speak but only a sob came out.  I’d hoped for closure. I’d hoped for something, anything.  I’d hope for some part of my father to have remained here, but instead all we found was a husk.

I came here seeking the last fragment of my family and found that there was never really anything to find.  The closest thing I had to family was the pregnant woman we’d dragged all the way here, a strange distant cousin who regarded me with disdain.

I was so alone.

My arms wrapped around Aydan and I pulled her close, sobbing against the top of her head.  She held me back, her little hands curled up against my back as she made soft, soothing sounds.

We were not interrupted.  The group left us alone for a time, allowed me to mourn.  After a time, I pulled myself together and took Aydan’s hand.  There was something I needed to say.

She was all I had in this world.  Aydan was everything, the only one I knew who would never hurt me or betray me.  The last person I fully trusted. I needed to keep her close, I needed…

My voice was still raw from sobbing.  I wasn’t even entirely done crying. “Aydan, when this is all over, when morning comes… do you want to get married?  I don’t care how we do it. My people’s way, or yours, or if we just leave Yharnam and find a small country chapel… I just… Aydan, will you marry me?”

I must have sounded so pathetic.

Her hands took my cheeks.  “This is important to you,” she asked, her voice soft and contemplative.  “I… I am important to you.” There was the smallest hint of a smile, but like a dam breaking, it spread and she smiled fully.   “I will gladly become your wife, Lael. You only ever needed to ask.”

She pulled me down and kissed me, hungrier than I expected.  Without really realizing that we moved, I found myself pushed up against one of the spires of the roof as she pressed against me --

“Feckin -- can it wait?!”

Aydan startled, seemingly forgetting that there were others here.  I watched a hint of irritation flicker over her features when she pulled away.  There was the impression that this interruption was a slight that she would not forget.

… I didn’t know what to do with this fresh insight, but seeing her angry didn’t change the fact that I was quite madly in love with her.

Aydan backed off, retreating like an animal reluctantly conceding defeat as I stepped  forward and prepared to take charge of the group once more.

Isolde looked exasperated.  The Hunter of Hunters was somewhat bloodied from the fight, as was Alfred, who stood beside her with Arianna on his arm and the Crown of Illusions clutched in his hands.

Alfred looked at me.  “Congratulations, Lord Executioner.  There is a more pressing matter at hand, however.”  He holds out the crown. “It feels wrong for me to put this on.”

I took it.  I felt its weight in my hands.

My father gave his life to keep this from getting into the hands of those who would misuse it.

I did suppose that it was only right that it now falls to me.

Aydan approached, appearing almost suddenly and I let her take the crown from my hands.  Carefully, she stood up on her toes and I bowed my head to let her bestow it upon me.

We all stepped through the doors of the new part of the castle that appeared in the wake of my impromptu coronation, if you’d like to call it that.  Stairs that led into a hall filled with statues, the lights dim and the room dusty. The opulence of this chamber was far from gilded, and no amount of time had changed dulled the grandeur of this place.

“Well, well,” a soft, melodious voice rang out, echoing through the hall.  “A crow cometh back to roost, bring with it two of mine blood… Kneel before me.”

I looked at the Vileblood Queen, Annalise, and wondered how anyone could have ever feared this waif of a woman.  A twig, trapped in this chamber for eternity. “I don’t think I will, ma’am.”

She laughed, a weak sound.  “Thou’rt practically a prince.  Why wouldst thou kneel? Nay, thou hast cometh home, child of treacherous blood.”

I paused.  By the holy blood, I pause.  I did not consider…

A hand rested on my shoulder.

It did not belong to Aydan, hers was still clasped in mine.

It was Arianna.

Chapter Text

Finally, the spider dissolved, fallen beneath the hunter’s saw cleaver.

A queen drenched in blood held out her hand.

In the dark void of the spider’s watery domain, he took it.


 

Arianna held me back as Isolde and Alfred butchered the Vileblood Queen.  Alfred’s laughter and Isolde’s angry shouting echoed discordantly through the large hall.  I understood. They didn’t need me for this anymore, but I’m… glad I’d made sure it could be done.

My cousin rubbed my back, which struck me as incorrect.  I should be strong enough, not forcing a pregnant woman who has had her whole world upended to take time to comfort me.  My cousin. That was an odd way of thinking about Arianna, but it was true. I may not know the exact intricacies of our relation, but as two individuals of Vileblood descent, of course we’d be related.  That made her family.

Closer family than that pulverized flesh that Alfred and Isolde were making a mess of.  Annalise didn’t scream, did not cry, did not lift a single hand in defense. She held herself with dignity as long as she could, even when she was pulled from her throne and laid into.  There was something admirable, I suppose… but also something incredibly inhuman.

I took the Crown of Illusions from my head and set it on Arianna’s head.  “All hail the Vileblood Queen, Arianna of Yharnam. Long may she reign.”

She smiled bitterly and scoffed, putting a hand to her bulging belly.  “I feared this sort of plan was far too grand, that the damned Vile-Crow woman forced some delusion of decadence upon me.  But it appears my castle is a ruin and a crypt, my holdings a humble village filled with old women and corpses. There is no grandeur here.  Just cold and stone.” She relaxed and leaned back a bit. “I find myself more at peace with this the more I learn of it.”

Isolde had shared the full plan with all of us earlier and I’d been unsure if Arianna was fully on board.  She’d seemed so cold with everyone, unwilling to speak, but now, in this, the culmination of Isolde’s plan, a peace had settled over everything.  “I… I’m glad. That you’re okay with all this. I never could live up to expectations I had on me from birth; I can’t imagine the pressure of this for you, and in such a delicate time.”

Arianna shook her head.  “A home and a family is far from a burden.  And you’re quite bereft of both, as far as I’m aware.  If this scheme works, you’ll always be welcome here, Lael.  I mean it.”

Aydan had been sitting nearby, but she got up suddenly, excusing herself to get a breath of fresh air.

That was understandable, the smell of blood was strong and Aydan had been… erratic, lately.

“Thank you.  You have no idea how much that means to me.”

This was… good.  A family to come back to would be nice, no matter what shape that family took.  If we could find a way to lift the curse from Castle Cainhurst, perhaps even they could grow food again.  Time should hopefully move again, now that the guardian creature that took the form of my father was slain.  It was okay. We’d figure out something.

Later.  I had another commitment.  Aydan’s mission, the mission I’d agreed to help her with that I’d selfishly postponed to tie up loose ends.

I glanced over at Isolde and Alfred and realized that I should get a fire started.  I got up and bashed apart a bureau for firewood. We’d made sure to gather kindling and tinder earlier, and I gathered the parts of the fire and got a small fire started in the middle of the stone floor.

By the time I was done, Isolde had come over, a thick slab of pulsating meat in her blood-drenched hands.  We fashioned a spit and skewered it in three pieces. The third piece confused me at first, but then I saw the intent in Alfred’s eyes as he sat down by the fire with us.

I looked at Isolde.  “You usually cook it?”

She shook her head, rotating the meat over the fire steadily.  “Not cookin’ it fer my sake.”

Isolde and Alfred had sat with Arianna nestled between them and in a way, I almost felt like I was intruding on something.   Arianna’s head rested on Isolde’s shoulder and Alfred was right up against her with his hand atop hers. Perhaps Arianna had adopted them like she’d adopted me, but it was less a matter of family.

The Crow looked at me, catching my eyes on the three of them.  I didn’t look away, meeting her gaze. A split moment of guilt flashed over her face as she glanced at Arianna, who was gazing peacefully into the flames, but Isolde looked back at me.  There was reluctance.

Ah, that was right.  Isolde had something with the doctor, Iosefka.  But… the way it had ended… it seemed like something had changed.  An argument, something had happened. Something bad enough that the doctor hadn’t let them in.  Plus, it didn’t seem like it had been a committed thing.

Isolde must’ve decided that whatever she’d had with Iosefka was really over, because she took off a blood-covered glove and took Arianna’s other hand.

This made perfect sense.  Even with the hostility between the three of them before, that this sort of thing would happen now, I understood.

There was a chance this scheme of Isolde’s was going to kill all three of them.

We sat there a long time as Isolde roast the queenly flesh over the fire.

Revenge was an empty goal, anyway -- that thing that both Isolde and Alfred had come here for.  In the wake of their revenge, they had nothing left to either of them, except… except perhaps each other.  That was what mattered in the end, wasn’t it? Those you cared about. Not closure. Not revenge. Not heroics.  Just… being with someone and enjoying their presence.

I wished Aydan was here.  I wanted to hold her and look at her the way Arianna was to Isolde and Alfred.  But she still hadn’t stepped back inside.

Eventually, Isolde pulled the spit off the fire.  “No promises about taste,” was all she said as she held it out.

Alfred took his piece and wasted no time biting into it.

Arianna waited until Isolde had her portion, and then cautiously took a bite, then seemed surprised and undisturbed by the flavor and continued.

Isolde waited until Arianna had taken a bite to start eating hers, unbothered and unimpressed, like it was just a normal little campfire lunch.  After all three of them had finished their portions, Isolde lifted Arianna’s hand to her lips and kissed her knuckles. “Long live the Queen of Cainhurst.”

“You’re too kind,” she responded, with a tone that gave me signals that I should leave.  “I honestly feel positively awful, though I felt bad before dinner. But… the fire is nice.  We may die, but… I’ve got you two.”

Aydan was still outside, anyway.  I stood up. “Excuse me. You three are having a lovely time and I won’t intrude on it.  I’m going to go check on Aydan.”

Isolde nodded at me, but they really just sort of all leaned on each other.  A blob of three people ready to die, but treasuring the moments they had left in any way they could.

I left the throne room, stepping back out onto the roof that had been our battleground not very long ago.

Aydan sat cross-legged in the center of the roof, a silhouette against the dark sky.  I walked up to her and sat beside her. “Evening-- are you all right?”

Her breath came quickly, chest heaving with each inhale.  Her usually pale flesh was rosy, and she looked more alive than she ever had.  Her lips were parted in this sort of shocked expression that would’ve been more evident on a person with eyes, but I’ve been with her long enough to recognize panic on her face.

I started to panic when she didn’t respond immediately, but after she took a moment to catch her breath and gather her thoughts, she did speak.  “Rom, the Vacuous Spider is dead. I’d been taking advantage of her obfuscation. I’ve always known, what I needed to do. I’ve known directives.  I’ve known objectives. I haven’t known why I needed to do things, just that I needed to do them.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

She doesn’t move, staying perfectly still.  “This form is not disposable. It is taking all of my control not to burn through it.  I am… so very large. I am the sky. I am the blood. I am the beasts. There is… so much of me.  But I am forcing all my attention into this small, little human…”

I sucked in a breath.  “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Her head tilted curiously and a smile spread across her face, warm and real.  “No, not really, though… talking to you is nice. Lael. Do you know precious you are?  How perfect and beautiful and unique you are in this world?”

Reaching over, I placed my hand over hers.  “I know that I love you, Aydan. Whatever you are, Aydan, I love you.”

 She grinned, a cheek-to-cheek grin.  “I want to crawl inside your head, entwine our beings eternally and never come untangled.  And I would, but your cousin is about to give birth to ah, Oedon’s spawn and I don’t want to miss it.”

I didn’t even have time to respond to her desires before I heard the pained cry echo out from the throne room.


 

“Now, now, all that struggling just won't do now, will it?”

I ran a hand through the woman's raven black hair.  She flinched away from my touch, squirming and trying to break from the straps holding her down.  Really, hoist by her own petard there, since these were restraints she'd use on her own patients.

“What was your name again?  Iosefka, was it? That woman who came calling for you made quite the mess.”  I watched Iosefka's face as I spoke, watched the panic change it's degrees and saw my subject focus a bit more closely upon me.  Perfect. “It's too bad you didn't try to get her to rescue you. I don't think there are any other Hunters out there I can trick into sending me more test subjects.”

Troublesome, really.  This was the night I had to act and yet also the night where I had the least access to subjects.

Children only went so far, after all, and there was a desire to see how this specific blood would affect adults, as well.  I was already rather sure of what the outcome of these experiments would be on that front, but my own goal remained well in sight.

“This little flytrap of yours is going to help me, Dear,” I said as I slid the needle beneath her soft, human flesh.  “The Pthumerians were once mortal, just as you and I. And yet they could become gods.” I giggled, excited. I leaned down and whispered in her ear like a tantalizing secret. “Who is to say we can't become gods, too?  Why should we, the human race, remain in these unenlightened forms?”

Iosefka's eyes squeezed shut and she seemed to resign herself to her fate.  It wasn’t like she could provide any conversation. I’d made sure to gag her so she couldn’t make a fuss or do something foolish such as bite her tongue off.

I set the drip to flow, a lovely infusion of Ebrietas and Ebrietas alone, no pesky interference to muddy the waters and create a beast.  Iosefka stopped struggling, eyes squeezed shut and skin damp with sweat. In that moment, she ceased to be particularly interesting. No use in gloating and raving to an unresponsive subject.  I frowned and stepped away with a sigh.

Now that the threat was quite effectively neutralized, time had opened up to relax a bit.  Hours and hours of camping out and days of secretly breaking in and scouting out the place, evading the still-living and the few individuals who would occasionally visit the good doctor had strung my nerves tightly.

I left Iosefka to her eventual fate and ascended the stairs to her operating room, a nice little space deep within the building that would be easily defensible should the need arise.  I slumped in a chair, adrenaline still running through my veins from this close victory.

When the lover had come to visit, that Vileblood scum, I’d worried, especially with the moon-scent that seemed to accompany her.  I’d not met the woman face-to-face, but in her wake, there had been some scent that reminded me of days past.

Speaking of that scent…

It lingered here, stronger.  In fact, it seemed to drift from the floors, as if the moon herself had bled on Iosefka’s operating table.  My head lifted, and my gaze fell on a vial. A corked sample beside many others, some purified into the good doctor’s special formula, some still raw, blood fresh.  Yet this one, next to those sample of pure red and the distilled yellowish plasma, nestled a single vial of the purest milky paleblood.

Like a whip, I snatched it from the rack and uncorked the vial.  Abandoning safety and procedure, I pressed my nose against the rim of the glass and inhaled that sweet, beautiful moonlight.  Soft, cold, sweet and intoxicating.

I could pinpoint the moment I broke out in a cold sweat.

It smelled like her corpse, that last night.

Moisture beaded on my forehead and gravity felt like a myth.  My stomach couldn’t decide the proper spot to sit in my body.

The scent of dirt wasn’t present in the clinic, but I could swear I smelled it, too, the damp earth that had yet to harden over her grave, so freshly dead, so freshly buried.  The itch of threadbare, hand-me-down Byrgenwerth robes against my adolescent skin as I unearthed her. Over and over, every night that I could get away with it, to see the face that haunted my dreams.  To see her. Again and again, one more time, I’d needed to see her. Just one last night, to feel her. Nights when sleep evaded me, missing her form next to me in the dormitories and in the night when the moon was at its peak, taking a shovel and tearing up the dirt to see her again.

I watched her begin to decay, watching those lovely blue eyes rot out of her head.  I brought her bandages to cover them, ignoring the smell of decay as I sat with her in the earth for as long as I could risk, whispering to her about my day, new things that we’d learned, bestowing kisses I had never been able to steal when she still breathed.  How could I have? She was the provost’s granddaughter, and I lacked any real connections like that. She’d deserved someone better.

I’d wept.  Mourned for weeks like this in sickness.  I knew her brain would be decaying, but I’d love her still, even without the genius I’d grown to adore, to idolize, to love with all my being.  I missed it when she could whisper back to me, when we could stay up for hours, half-tangled in each other for warmth and hiss fervently about our studies, academic arguments and debated hypotheses.

Lab partners.  Dormmates. Friends.  Why not lovers? Why never lovers?  Was it too much to wish for her to softly utter my name in her sweet voice once more?   Lumnia, Lumnia...

Our last night together, she’d somehow stopped seeming so rotted, and I combed her white hair gently, somewhat confused that no strands were coming loose readily when they did before.  I’d been aware I was sick. I knew this whole escapade was sickness, so I assumed perhaps I’d developed a fever and began to see spectres. It was that night that moonlight permeated her.  I thought it a creation of my own sickened mind, conjured by the presence of the moon lingering overhead, looming like a boulder over our shoulders.

That night, it had gone dark, a cloud blocking out the light, perhaps, but my addled mind blacked out for several moments, and when my eyes worked again, Sabien’s hand had closed around my wrist, cold and damp as the scent of the moon choked the air around us.  No words came from my mouth as she lifted my hand from her head and sat up, silent. I sat frozen, astride her lap with the comb held tightly in my fingers, stiff from shock.

Sabien didn’t even seem to fully process that I was there, only that there was something on top of her that she managed to wiggle out from beneath before turning to the edge of the grave and hoisting herself out of it.  I watched her stumble slightly, the leg that Sabien had broken that wouldn’t have healed before the infection or the bloodloss took her. I didn’t remember which. Some sickness that took her too fast, killing her before we even had time to administer healing blood.

I watched Sabien’s corpse walk with the slightest limp into the school where her friends and family slept and walk back out with a cane.  She didn’t turn her empty, bandaged-covered eye sockets towards me, let alone acknowledge my presence or that I’d been watching her.

And I stayed there in the dark, long after Sabien’s corpse had disappeared into the trees and when I awoke, it was to my own fever breaking days later in the infirmary.

We’d never found her body and over the nearly three decades it had been since that night, the speculations of those around me who had found me catatonic in that empty grave and my doubts led me to believe that the whole incident had been some fever dream and in truth, I’d done something -- moved it, destroyed it, sunk it into the lake.  I’d certainly been ill in body and mind enough to forget if I’d done something.

The moon had disappeared sometime during my illness, and after a time I left Byrgenwerth, eager to escape the ghosts that had turned me so ill.  The Choir was welcoming. They provided me with supplies for my studies, new kinds of blood, new kinds of beings, gave me test subjects at a steady rate, as long as I continued to produce results.

Moonlit scents were uncommon and often faint.  A moon-blessed hunter was no sacred rarity and never did any of them carry the moon’s scent so heavily as Sabien’s corpse had.

Until now.

My hands felt clammy, enough so that I feared the vial could slip from my fingers.  Frantically, I set the vial back in the rack with shaking hands and wiped my sweat-coated hands on my robes before snatching the vial and re-corking it.

I stomped down the stairs, my feet heavy with purpose as I stormed back to the doctor’s side.  The woman’s head had lolled to the side, but I ripped out the gag and briskly slapped her cheek.  Groggily, deliriously, her eyes reopened and she looked at me in confusion and alarm.

My demand was clear in the vial held in my hand.  “Where did you get this?”

Iosefka blinked slowly, as if trying to push through the haze of Insight surely inflating her brain as everything began to melt to make way for stars, but we still had a window of time where she could talk.

I snapped my fingers close to her face and tapped at her cheek again.  “The paleblood, Doctor, where did you get it!?”

Iosefka’s pupils were starting to turn milky white and every once in a while a bone would crack as it slowly and painfully started to shift and reform itself.  Her head rolled back to the side, but her eyes were trained on me, something like an amused wonder starting to dawn on her. “He called her Aydan,” Iosefka mumbled.

A name, that’s something.  “And what did she look like,” I demanded next.

The doctor had to think on this one, too.  “Layers… she hides from not only herself, but another hides her, by her own design, playing with them, walking among them, as close to one of them as she can be… but she’s revealed now...”

“Physically, please!”  I was getting impatient, and the window of opportunity would close quickly.

And in her delirium, Iosefka managed something coherent from dry lips.  “Eyes like the void, nothing there, with the nothingness leaking out, a decay that spreads and devours… pale like her blood… like her hair… small, but so… so unknowingly--” Iosefka’s voice started to waver comprehension upon her that clearly overwhelmed her still developing Insight, “-- large… but that mass is all in the cosmos, outside of her.  A hand in a glove unaware of the arm--” Iosefka could not continue as mucus began to flood her throat, too twisted to let out a human utterance any longer.

The black decay of her eyeless corpse.

It was her.  It had to be her.

It had to be Sabien, or at very least, the thing that had taken control of her corpse.

Laughter bubbled up in my chest, giddy and delicate, accompanying a surge of pain in my head.

The reality of the situation was quite obvious, wasn’t it?  Sabien, in all her beauty and genius, had been chosen as a vessel for the gods.  A being more mighty, more powerful than Ebrietas, forgotten and alone. A being who had deigned to walk among them, a god gracing Yharnam with her presence.

It was not hard to become a moon-contracted hunter.  I’d considered it before, simply to chase after what I’d thought had been visions of a fever dream.

The vial in my hands became a temptation.

What else would I do?  Stay here and continue making Celestials when I knew a god in Sabien’s skin was out there?

Or I could search for answers directly.

… Fuck it all.

The doctor started to scream, but I moved around the table and pulled a syringe from the tray.  The needle dipped into that paleblood and I watched the milky blood fill the chamber. I would not dilute it.  It felt like blasphemy to dilute this, this gift from the gods. Perhaps this meant I was chosen, too, that she left this here, that Sabien left this here for me.   Join me, Lumnia , she’d say.  Yes, yes…

No.  Not Sabien.

The doctor said her name was Aydan.

Aydan.  The goddess.  The exalted.

“My Goddess, you deemed darling Sabien worthy of your love,” I muttered to the syringe of purest paleblood as I rolled up my sleeve, taking only a moment to tie the tourniquet tight over my bicep, pulling it taut with my teeth.  “I may be nothing compared to her splendor, but perhaps you’ll accept my most humble of devotions.”

The needle sunk into my flesh, gliding into a vein, a gentle kiss of pain, akin to a nibble from a lover.

A presence had settled over the room and the scent of the moon felt stronger than ever as I emptied the syringe slowly and carefully into my veins, undiluted.  Stars exploded behind my eyes, but I kept my slow procession.

When the syringe emptied, I opened my eyes to a woman standing in front of me, small pale creatures crawling up my body, but in front of me stood a tall, uncanny woman, a woman who looked nothing like Sabien, with pale hair and a bonnet.

She reached out and ran what I saw now to be articulated, doll-like fingers, over my cheek.  “We hear your prayers, sweet child. We are fragmented, but we hear you.” Her voice was soft, lightly accented, and comforting.  “You offer of devotion is… not satisfactory to us, however. We have many devotees.”

What do you want, then?  I’ll do anything, I’ll be anything--!

“Anything?” The woman put a finger to her chin, thinking.  “We are seeking equals. Companionship.” Her head tilted. “Would you like to become like us?  It will be hard work, but you are a scholar. Perhaps you can help us find the correct path… is that something you’d want?”

The pale creatures’ hands had reached my neck, clambering over each other.   Yes.  Thank you, merciful god, I knew I could be chosen.  I knew I was special, thank you, Aydan.

The doll laughed, a soft sound.  “Perhaps it is because we understand you better than ever, but… Oedon hears your prayers, Child.  Come talk to me in the dream.”

I woke up flat on the floor, a whole story away from where I’d begun my hallucination.

… Had this lamp always been here?

I reached out and touched it and it lit, and I felt my body disappear.

When I awoke, I was in a field of moonflowers, the woman -- the Doll -- from before held my head in her lap.  “Hello, Good Doctor,” she said.

I looked up at her in awe.  The scent of the moon was… everywhere.  “I’m not really much of a doctor, more of a researcher, really.  Where is--”

“We are in three-- well, now we are in two.  We are one entity, but we’ve fragmented ourselves.  The Red Moon is upon us, and the Will of Oedon and well as the Body of Oedon have reunited by accident.  I am but the Mind. The one you seek is the Body, though I believe that soon we will all be one, for the first time in an era…”

My… head hurt.  I reached up and rubbed at my temples.  “This is all--”

“Very painful for you, I’m sure.  But you’ll help us make more, ascending your race, yes?”

“I… I will try my best, My Goddess.”

The Doll -- the Mind of Oedon -- gently pet the top of my head.  “Good. You may rest for now. Stay here, where it is safe. You’ll get to see her again soon enough.”

And for some reason, this was okay.  I laid there among the flowers, head rested against fabric and porcelain, and felt fully at peace.