Prologue: An Estate in Yharnam
There was a monster living in the upstairs bedroom of Laurence's family estate. It growled and groaned and screamed. His mother's face would grow suddenly pale at the sound and his father would run upstairs. Each time, the sound finally stopped, and his father would come down stairs slowly, gripping the railing with white knuckles.
One early morning, his father came to Laurence and took him from his bed. He carried him to the monster's room. Laurence was too afraid to cry or try to escape from his father's arms. He was three, and he was preparing himself for hid eath on the other side of that door.
But there was no death in that room; it was only an old man propped up on several yellowed pillows in a creaking metal bed.
"This is your grandfather," Laurence's father said. "He's very sick, and you won't see him again after today, so you should remember this." He set Laurence on a chair by the bed. He whispered something to the old man, and the old man opened his ancient gray eyes. Slowly, he turned his head to look at Laurence.
"Who is this?" the old man snarled.
"My son," Laurence's father said.
The old man looked at Laurence's father. "Who are you?"
Laurence's father took a deep breath. "Just say goodbye to him before you go, Father."
Something rumbled in the old man's throat and his head lolled to the side as if he might be dead. Suddenly, he moved, hands quick as a snakebite. He grabbed Laurence by the frilled collar of his nightshirt and pulled him close. His breath stank like an animal rotting on the roadside, "You'll die like this. Like my father did, like your father will. It's in the blood, boy. Our blood is cursed."
Laurence's father shoved the old man away, but there was no need to. The old man went into convulsions against the stacked pillows. Laurence's father gathered him into his arms again and took him away.
In two years, Laurence's father could no longer hold him. In another three, he could no longer walk up and down the stairs. In one more, he was lying in the same bed where the old man--who had not been as old as he seemed in Laurence's memory--died.
Laurence left his father there when he went to Byrgenwerth. His father no longer recognized him when he said goodbye.
A golden-haired young man stood with Ludwig, hands behind his straight back. Although Ludwig figure was hulking by comparison to such a slim man in student's attire, his presence was as powerful as the hunter's. When when the young man turned to look at him, Brador felt a shiver of fear go down his spine.
He knew who the young man must be, although he'd never seen him before. The hunters and students alike whispered about Willem's favored student.
"Ah, you're right on time," Ludwig said. "I'm afraid I may have slightly mislead you about why I needed to see you."
"At my request," the young man said. He strode over to Brador and offered his hand. "Brador, right? My name is Laurence."
"I had a feeling it might be." Brador shook Laurence's hand with more firm confidence than he felt. He found himself glancing at Ludwig for reassurance, but Ludwig's expression was as unreadable and distant as always.
Laurence's eyes sparkled in the lamp light. "Ludwig, I believe you have a lot to prepare for tonight. Perhaps you should take your leave while I have a chat with Brador."
Ludwig bowed his head and walked with certain steps through the door Brador had come through, closing it behind him.
Laurence sat behind a desk covered with manuscripts, books, and jars and motioned for Brador to join him. "Sorry for the mess. I was up all night trying to make sense of something--but you're not an academic, are you? Ludwig tells me you're a man of action."
"When the situation calls for it." Brador stood before Laurence's desk, his hands clapsed behind his back. He was trying not to look too closely at the slug-looking creatures in the jars. They reminded him of home.
"Good, good... Sit down, won't you? I don't bite, despite any rumors that may say otherwise." He flashed a white-toothed smile. Brador pulled one of the chairs over. "The heart of the matter is this; I asked Ludwig to find one of his hunters who fit all of the criteria on a list I gave him. You're the one he chose, and I trust his judgement. One criterion was that you should be familiar with where we're going."
"Sir? No, don't call me that. Laurence will do."
"All right," Brador said, and he forced himself to add, "Laurence."
"Before we get too far into this..." Laurence leaned forward over one of his open books into the lamp's gilded light. "I don't like secrets, but if there is one thing I've learned from Master Willem it's that they are sometimes necessary. Everything I'm going to say to you from here on out is a secret. No matter how harmless you may think it is, you must not repeat any of it, even to those who you would think already know. One mistake, and you will lose my trust. If you don't think you can manage that, you're free to go."
Brador sat stiffly in his chair. He felt as though every muscle in his body were pulled tight, like rigging in a storm. "I can manage it. I would assume that was one of the items on your list for Ludwig."
Laurence smiled. "It was, in fact. Well, the first secret is this. I have a friend in the Fishing Hamlet who is keeping an eye on things there, and he's sent me some information that has made me uneasy. I feel the need to go there personally. Master Willem is not aware of my friend's presence at the Hamlet, and I doubt he would be happy with the idea of me going there. He's become... paranoid, I think. Things are changing here. He's not prepared for all the changes that are coming." He paused. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. "Do you still want to be part of this?"
"You need to know that I love Master Willem like a father. Actually, more than I love my father. But there are larger things at work. I've made arrangements to meet my friend there without his knowledge."
"May I ask a question?" Brador asked.
"Does Gehrman know?"
"No. Neither does Maria. They'll know when we arrive, though." Laurence furrowed his brow. "I'm in an odd position. In all truth, I'm not more than an assistant to Master Willem. My reputation is far greater than my actual standing. All the same, such a reputation requires... an ounce of precaution. I want you to come as my bodyguard, for lack of a better term."
"Are you expecting danger at the Fishing Hamlet?"
"Not exactly. Bodyguard isn't the right word, I just don't have a better one." Laurence tilted his chin up slightly. "Perhaps companion? Except that you're a stranger. The truth is I'm afraid to go alone. You'll have to forgive me for that. I used to be braver. But... How far into the dungeons have you gone?"
"Not far. Just enough to clear out the beasts that come too close to the surface."
Laurence pressed his lips together for a moment. "There are things there that make a man afraid. But beautiful things also that make him unable to fully leave it behind. I'm caught in the pull between fear and insatiable curiosity. I need someone who isn't. I need someone who is sure."
"Someone too simple-minded for all that scholarly nonsense, you mean?"
Laurence blinked at Brador, then he laughed. "Oh, not simple-minded. That was not on my list. Someone practical to keep my head from floating off somewhere ridiculous. Someone who will watch the road so I won't wonder off into the forest."
Brador lifted his eyebrows. He realized that his muscles had relaxed at some point, and he felt more like himself sitting across from this man who was not as legendary as he'd been led to believe. In fact, Laurence seemed very young, although they were the same age.
"I can do that," Brador said. "What did your friend say that has you so worried about the Fishing Hamlet. They're a hateful lot, but not much happens there."
"Ludwig did say you were from there, right? You came here for our blood ministration and became one of our hunters."
"Was all that on your list?"
Laurence just grinned. "You're right. Not much happens there. Their attitude toward our presence aside, they do pull Phantasms out of the water for us, and so they are valued. Unfortunately, they have become somewhat mistrusting of our hunters lately, My friend has the feeling that they're hiding something."
"We're hiding things too, aren't we?" Brador asked.
Laurence's smile faded. "Yes, but there's a difference."
"We hide things only for the greater good--things with common people have little interest in knowing anyway. I have no way of knowing why they're hiding things. That's why I need to go there myself."
Brador nodded thoughtfully. "When are we going?"
Laurence looked up at the clock on the wall. "Ah, about an hour and a half. Perhaps you should go gather your things and we can meet by the gate."
"All right." Brador got to his feet. "I'll be there. You can rely on me."
"I believe that I can, Brador," Laurence said, watching him with intense eyes that made Brador remember why he'd been so fearful when he'd first walked through the door. He felt those eyes on him even when he was back in his own quarters gathering his things.
His life had changed, Brador knew that. It would remain to be seen exactly what that meant.
"What is it like to be back home?"
The wagon jerked and wobbled over the unpaved road into he Fishing Hamlet. Everyone they passed watched them go by. His time at Byrgenwerth had made him forgotten the salt smell of the place and the ragged clothing on gaunt bodies that were worked more than they were nourished.
"This isn't home anymore. Never really was. It's just where my mother dropped me," Brador said.
Laurence nodded. "I know the feeling. I was born in Yharnam, but it feels like another country now. It's--"
A local priest ran up alongside their wagon, out of breath. Laurence immediately held up his hand for the drive to stop. When the wheels settled to a stop in the mud, Laurence dropped down and put his hand on the priest's shoulder.
"Deep breaths, man."
The priest weakly twisted away. "You're one of them from Brygenwerth aren't you? If you aren't here to stop your people from their madness, you should get out. We don't need more of you."
Brador went to Laurence's side, and they exchanged looks. "What madness is that?" Laurence asked, carefully.
"That foreign bitch won't let the fishermen dock at the shore. She says something's wrong with them--Only thing wrong with them is that they're running out of drinking water out there. Bad enough your lot forces us to pull so many of the Phantasms up--it's bad luck. Now there's nets full of them baking in the sun."
"Maria is here to ensure the safety of your people. There must be a reason. If you could show me to her, perhaps I could help clarify things."
"All talk!" The priest shoved at Laurence and lifted his hand to strike him.
He didn't get the chance. Brador was between them, his blade drawn and at the priest's throat. "Show us to Maria, Priest."
A crowd had gathered around them, watching.
"You can take yourself to her," the priest spat. "She's by the shore."
"That will be fine," Laurence said, touching Brador's side lightly. Brador stepped away from the priest and put his blade away. "We'll sort this out."
"For yourselves. Not for us." The priest stumbled back, then turned toward two of the onlookers, who guided him away from the street.
"Do you know the way to the shore?" Laurence asked. His voice was light and casual but there was fear in his eyes.
Brador nodded and pointed. "It'll be that way. We should leave the wagon here." He paused. "Maybe we should meet with your friend before we go. Wouldn't hurt to know a little more about this before we get too deep in."
"Maria first. I don't want to meet with my friend while so many people are interested in our whereabouts."
Brador furrowed his brow, but he didn't ask why. He led Laurence through the Fishing Hamlet. They were no longer being watched from the streets, but he could see shadows in doorways and windows.
"Did he look strange to you?" Laurence asked as they walked.
"Pale," Brador said. "But a lot of people around here get pale, even if they're out on the boats all day."
"Did his hands not appear... a bit webbed?"
Brador shrugged. "Runs in families around here."
"I hope so..."
The sky over the shore was steely gray; there'd be a storm once the sun dipped below the horizon, Brador was certain of that. He spotted Maria by the water, standing straight with her arms crossed. She was like a glass chandeler in a city tavern--out of place, and clearly feeling it.
Laurence called out to her, and she turned. Even from a distance, Brador could see that she was surprised to see him. She walked up the shore to meet them halfway.
"Gehrman didn't tell me that you were coming," Maria said, "Or I would've had someone to come meet you."
"He doesn't know. Where is he?"
Maria's thin eyebrows rose. "Ah... Well, then. I'm sure you got an interesting welcoming from the locals. Gehrman is meeting with some of them now trying to sort out this situation we've found ourselves in." She nodded over to the ships that were floating just beyond the shore. "We haven't made it generally known yet, but the men on those ships are all dead. We aren't sure why, they were preparing to offload their catch, and they started... howling, I suppose you should say. Then they dropped like flies. They're under quarantine for the moment. We don't want weeping widows running out onto the rocks and getting killed by the same thing."
"Have any of the victims undergone the experimental procedures?"
Maria looked at Brador. She didn't seem particularly impressed. "Who is this?"
"He was chosen by Ludwig. He can hear anything you have to say."
"As you like. I wouldn't argue with you or Ludwig. The answer is yes. All of them. We've done procedures on everyone who hasn't outright refused at this point." She waved for them to follow her down to the docks. "You might want to come get a look."
"Is it safe to go closer?" Brador asked.
Maria shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. We have the best mind of Byrgenwerth here with us, so if anything goes wrong, I'm sure that he will save us."
"That would be Master Willem, not me," Laurence said, smiling. "But thank you for the compliment. As to your concerns, Brador, Maria is being flippant only because she knows it's safe. It won't be something airborne, I'm sure of it."
Brador wondered how Laurence could be sure, but he didn't ask. He would've been unlikely to know the answer anyway.
Maria led them out onto the dock and handed a monocular to Laurence. Brador got out his own so that he could see what Laurence was looking at. There wasn't much to see at first glance. The fishing boats looked abandoned except for the nets full of phantasms that writhed in their lazy deaththroes. Then, he spotted the first human--perhaps?--body bent over the side of the ship, half in the water. The man's skin had turned a whiteish-blue and he was so thin that his spine appeared to jut out.
No, Brador realized. His spine was jutting out, like a perch fin.
"Good gods," Laurence whispered. "In all my time in the dungeons, I never saw anything like that." He handed his monocular back to Maria. "Have you?"
"Not me. Nor Gehrman either, and I'd thought he'd seen everything."
"Is it a new kind of beast, do you think?"
"Hard to know. Gehrman refuses to say what he thinks, one way or the other. What I think is that we're on the verge of having an emergency on our hands. Perhaps it's lucky that you came. You're better with common people than us hunters."
Laurence chuckled. "Am I? Well, I'll--"
Laurence was interrupted by a great boiling within the ocean. Instinctively, Brador grabbed his arm and the three of them ran off the dock, away from the water. Angry waves slammed against the shore as the waters parted and a creature screamed up. It was like a huge squid with tentacles flying out from all sides, but somehow among the tentacles it had the face of a woman.
"Laurance, is that...?" Maria began.
"It must be," Laurence whispered.
Brador tried to pull Laurence back further from the shore. "You shouldn't be so close."
Laurence put his hand over Brador's. "It's fine."
Brador let go of Laurence, and watched Laurence walk closer to the screaming creature. He held up his hand and shouted over the noise, "It's all right. Please. We mean no harm." He took something from his pocket--a large stone with something etched on it-- and showed it to the creature. "We only wish for communion. You are holy to us."
The screaming didn't cease. The creature began to twist and convulse. Laurence dropped his hand to his side, the stone falling onto the sand. Slowly, he began to shake his head, stumbling back. Brador ran up to his side and caught him before he fell to his knees.
"She's in pain," Laurence said, his eyes were wide and full of tears. "She's in pain, Brador. We must help her. I think she's dying."
"How can we help something like that?" Brador asked.
Laurence stared at Brador. He could see Laurence trying to answer him, but he had no answers to give.
"Come on," Brador said, softly. He led Laurence further away from the shore, and Laurence allowed it this time. Maria was running back toward the Fishing Hamlet. For a moment, Brador wondered if the steely hunter hid some cowardice in her, but then he saw what she was running toward.
The people of the Hamlet were coming toward the shore. Hundreds of them. More than he could remember ever seeing at once. But they weren't like the people they'd passed on the way to the shore. They had fins like the men on the fishing boats, and they were howling with anger. They'd armed themselves with whatever was around, some holding whaling spears over their heads as they rushed toward them.
"Stay here," Brador said to Laurence. Laurence didn't seem to hear him. He was staring out toward the screaming sea creature. Reluctantly, he left Laurence there to join Maria.
She had her sword, the legendary Rakuyo, held out in front of her, shouting at the villagers to stop before she had to hurt them. They didn't seem to hear her.
"I don't think we have a choice," Brador said as he came up to her side. He drew his dagger then split it into two at the hilt.
She glanced at the weapon. "Ah, Gehrman's work. Then, you should be a strong ally, if you know how to use them."
"I do," Brador said.
Without another word, they ran toward the crowd, cutting down the biggest threats first. Brador cut into one who held one of the whaling spears, and he heard a loud "thwump" behind him. He turned to find one had been downed by a large, hooked arrow. He followed the trajectory up toward the windows of one of the [fishing?] buildings. The one who held the bow was dressed like he belonged in the Hamlet, but Brador was sure he didn't.
Laurence's friend, he realized.
He had no time for thanks now, more waves of the villagers were coming. Somewhere in the chaos, Brador spotted Gehrman, leaping down upon the villagers with his scythe.
Four hunters, Brador thought, and the villagers were more than a match for them. Something had gone wrong here a long time before Laurence had begun to worry about it. He wondered if things had started to go wrong when he still lived here, and he simply hadn't noticed it. Could something like this have been kept so quiet for so long?
In the midst of the battle, there was a sudden silence. One of Brador's blades was in a villager that stared at him with inhuman bulbous eyes. The villagers had stopped fighting. Now, they were falling to their knees.
He realized that the creature's screaming had stopped.
He pulled his blade free and turned toward the shore. The creature had collapsed onto the rocks. Laurence had gone to her, sitting with her and touching her face like a man touches a loved one on their death bed.
Brador ran over to Laurence, ahead of Maria and Gehrman who were more cautiously watching the villagers. He knelt down and put his hand on Laurence's shoulder. Laurence looked at him, startled out of his mourning.
"We did this," Laurence said. "We did this somehow. She showed me."
"There's nothing we can do now. We should get out of here before the villagers get riled up again."
Laurence shook his head. "I can't leave her."
"We'll get her when it's safe."
Gehrman reached them, his eyes still on the villagers. "Master Laurence, why are you here?"
"Simon told me there was trouble. This place is too important to-- But I didn't know how important. Did you know about her?"
Gehrman glanced down at Laurence, then back away. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly?" Laurence stumbled up to his feet. "How do you not exactly know you're in the presence of a Great One?"
Gehrman said nothing, but Brador spoke up. "There are stories here of a spirit in the water."
"Yes," Gehrman said slowly. "We thought they were just stories. We're only hunters, Master Laurence. We are not able to see the things that you can. I've been with you in the dungeons when they spoke to you, and I heard nothing."
Maria was still standing in the space between them and the villager. She shouted over to them. "They're beginning to stir again. We need to get out of here."
Laurence looked down at the creature--the Great One--again. In a quiet, distant voice, he said. "We have to kill them."
"What?" Gehrman asked.
"They knew a Great One was here, and they didn't tell us. This could have been stopped. This is their fault." He lifted his eyes to Gehrman again. There was a cold light in them, that made him almost unrecognizable. "If Byrgenwerth takes the blame for this, it will destroy our research. Everyone must know that it's their fault."
Gehrman lowered his scythe slightly. "Master Laurence, I..."
"How many beasts have you killed in the dungeons without a second throught. Look at them!" He pointed to the villagers, who were beginning to get to their feet again. "Can you not see that they are beasts?"
"Brador," Gehrman said. "These are your people aren't they?"
Brador looked out at the villagers, then back to Laurence. "No. Brygenwerth is my home. These are beasts. We kill beasts."
Gehrman frowned, then raised his scythe again. "Right. Then the hunt is on."
Brador nodded, and they ran to meet Maria as the villagers began to howl.
There were still villagers--human or mostly human--huddling inside the huts when the battle was over. Gehrman ordered them to be bound until they were sure they hadn't turned. Maria had done the deed, along with the bow-wielding hunter that Brador assumed was Simon. It was hardly a time for introductions. They were all four tired and quiet. Brador began to return to the shore to find Laurence, and Gherman followed him.
"Did you still have any family here?" Gherman asked as they walked.
Brador shook his head. "They died when the plague came through ten years back. That's when I left."
"For the blood ministration at Byrgenwerth?"
"Yeah. Most around here wouldn't ask outsiders for help, but I saw that kind of foolishness kill enough people. I didn't want to be one of them."
"And you never saw anything like this?" Gherman gestured toward a fish-man lying dead on the ground.
"I would have said something if I had. Didn't know about the... the Great One either, if that's the next question."
"Master Laurence and Master Willem will want answers." Gherman looked up to the darkening sky as the first droplets of an oncoming storm had begun to fall. "Change is coming. It has been for a while, and this'll do it."
They approached the shore in silence. Laurence was still there, hunched over beside the Great One. Gherman stood quietly as Brador knelt by his side.
"We need to get nets and tarps," Laurence murmured, unmoving. "We can't let the rocks in the sand tear her skin, so we can't just drag her."
Brador frowned. "A storm's coming tonight. We should pull her further inland before it gets started. Maybe cover her with a tarp until morning and get her when the sky clears."
Slowly, Laurence raised his head to look at him. "Leave her here?"
"She'll be safe, Master Laurence," Gherman said. "I'll stay to keep watch."
"Okay..." Laurence looked back down at the Great One. "We must keep her safe, so that we can know what mistakes led to this. This isn't something we can ever risk repeating."
"Of course, Master Laurence." Gherman was silent for a moment. Brador could feel the tension eminating from him. "Master Laurence, perhaps we could use some of the villagers who have survived to help us move her. They are so afraid, I don't think they will try to do any harm."
"There are survivors?" Laurence asked.
"Those that hadn't turned stayed in their huts until the fighting was over. Maria and Simon are keeping an eye on them now."
Laurence drew a slow breath, then nodded. "They can help with moving her. Get to it. Brador will stay with me."
Gherman gave Laurence a slight bow, then walked back up the shore toward the Hamlet.
"Help me to my feet. I'm not feeling well," Laurence said. Brador nodded, then held him by his crooked elbows so that when he rose, they rose together. "Take me to one of the empty huts. I can't be here when the others come back. I can't watch them bind her up and drag her body in the rain."
Brador walked with Laurence, up a hill to a hut that stood apart from the village, so that they wouldn't have to pass very many bodies along the way. The door of the hut had been locked before, but Maria had broken it down to round up the villagers who were hiding there. Inside, there was nothing but a brazier on the floor, a few jars of oil and preserved fish, and a mat to sleep on. Brador led Laurence to the mat, so that he could sit with relative comfort.
Laurence sat silently as Brador lit a fire in the brazier. The coal was mixed with incense that lifted a pale gray smoke from the pan up to the ceiling and filled the hut with a comforting scent.
"Sit with me," Laurence said. Brador paused before he sat on the mat, half an arm's length from Laurence. "Ludwig told me that you've been at Byrgenwerth for seven years. That's two more than was required to pay back your debt for the blood ministration."
Brador furrowed his brow, unsure where the line of question was heading. "Correct."
"Why did you stay?"
"Nowhere else I wanted to be." Brador watched the flame from the hot coals flicker and dance. "And I enjoy the hunt."
"Do you? Did you enjoy it today?"
"It didn't feel like a hunt today. I liked doing what needed to be done. Creatures like that can't be allowed to live."
"Mm." Laurence slide his arms out of his coat and pulled it around him like a blanket. "What about the rest of the villagers, do you think? What should we do with them?"
Distantly, Brador heard the familiar distant sound of sea birds screeching as heavier raindrops hit the roof of the hut. "Those beasts were villagers once. No reason to think these villagers won't be beasts if we leave them here."
"It's not something we tend to share, even with our hunters--that all the beasts were humans once. Does it not bother you?"
"I don't think so," Brador said softly, but something about the question made him feel strange, like something was wriggling in the back of his brain. "How long have you been at Brygenwerth?"
Laurence blinked at him. "Ah, er. Well, I was fourteen when I arrived, so I suppose that makes it nearly thirteen years now."
"Why do you stay?"
"Why do I stay," Laurence echoed, his voice quiet, but with a meaning to it that Brador couldn't quite fathom. "My first two years at Byrgenwerth, I was virtually ignored. I had been the smartest boy in my class where I'd come from, but at Byrgenwerth it was as if I had to start over again. Willem must have seen some potential in me, and he started bringing me to those first excavations in the dungeons, although only to carry supplies. I was there when they found the first treasure rooms, full of incomprehensible artifacts. I was there when they found the first living Pthumerian. It was fascinating, but I couldn't understand it until..." Laurence looked at Brador. "I'm sorry, you asked such a simple question, and I'm rattling on. It's been a long, terrible day."
Brador held Laurence's gaze. His eyes were fascinating, ever-changing like the firelight. "I don't mind."
"I don't talk about it very much, but I know the rumor's gotten around that I can speak with the Great Ones. It's not entirely true. They speak to me, sometimes, but I don't know how to speak back. I remember vividly being sixteen and getting lost from the group down in those dungeons, and in the darkness somewhere I heard His voice. Like the sound of the ocean or..." He looked up at the ceiling. "Or the rain. No words. Or, no words that I could understand. Just pure meaning which I've been trying to unravel ever since. Master Willem says that when they found me, I was babbling and reaching to grasp at the air, but I don't remember that part. When we returned, Master Willem was the only one who believed anything I said. He was the one who helped me understand that what I'd come into contact with was, in fact, a Great One. Formeless Oedon, as they call him, but I've always found the name to be lacking."
"That's why you stay?" Brador asked. "Because Master Willem believed you?"
"I could say yes and make it simple, but it's more than that. Oedon followed me there for a while. He used to speak to me there. I think I'm still waiting for him to speak to me again. But now..." Laurence shook his head, pulling his coat tighter around his shoulders. "The Great One on the beach--she was Kos, she has to be. She's almost exactly how the Pthumerian texts described her. I had Kos right in front of me, and I couldn't save her. I won't recover from that."
"She was in trouble before we got here. All we can do now is what you said; figure out exactly what happened to her and make sure nothing like that ever happens again."
Laurence shivered. The rain was getting heavier, and it was cooling the air as evening approached. "She was trying to tell me something, but I was too excited to be acknowleged by a Great One again that I didn't listen. Oedon was right to abandon me."
"I don't know about any of that," Brador said. "I just know that feeling sorry for yourself doesn't fix anything."
The look Laurence gave him made him think for a moment that he had overstepped, but Laurence said, "Ludwig chose well." He narrowed his eyes, and suddenly he seemed very far away. "I have a lot to do tomorrow. I should get some rest."
"Mm. Here." Brador pulled off his jacket and folded it up, so that the softest part of it was on top. "It's not much, but it's better than having your head flat on the floor."
Laurence tilted his head. Suddenly, he was only a young man again, as if he'd never heard the words of any gods. "Won't you be cold?"
"No. I don't get cold easy."
"Lucky," Laurence said with a small smile. "I'm nothing but cold."
Brador began to move away from the mat, but Laurence put his hand on his arm to stop him.
"All right," Brador said. He watched Laurence settle down onto the mat, curving his body around him so that they were still not touching.
"Don't let me sleep past sunrise," he murmured.
Before long, Laurence was asleep, and Brador was watching the flames again.
In the morning, none of the uncertainty or sadness that Laurence had shown the day before seemed to remain. He woke and ran his fingers through his hair until it laid flat, then he walked to the shore with Brador by his side. Gherman was there, as he'd promised, and Laurence checked under the tarp to make sure that the Great One's body was undamaged. For all the mourning he'd done before, he looked at it now as if it were merely an object.
"I'll write a letter to Master Willem about what's happened, and Simon will take it back to the school. I want you and Maria to stay here to watch the villagers."
Gherman frowned. "Master Laurence, the villagers were helpful in moving the... body. Didn't complain much. Seemed more interested in helping her than hating us."
Laurence watched Gherman for a moment. There was something unspoken between them, but Brador couldn't guess what. "Good. We'll need them again to move her somewhere more suitable. I'm... afraid I'm going to have to do an autopsy, for lack of a better word. Taking it all the way back to the school before we begin is unfeasible. Who knows what will happen to her in the meantime. Something with a roof. I'll need some knives cleaned, as well as some of those jars they use to keep their oil in."
Again, Gherman seemed to hesitate before he spoke. "I'll get started looking for a good spot."
"Right. Come on, Brador," Laurence said. They walked up from the shore to the Fishing Hamlet to the wagon they'd ridden there in. The driver was asleep at the reins. Laurence took a bag from the back of the wagon. "I wish I'd thought to bring a change of clothes. But at least I brought this." He pulled out a box which held paper, ink, and a stylus.
Brador found himself wanting to laugh, but he kept it to a subdued smile. "You academics have strange priorities."
Laurence looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Probably."
Laurence wrote and sealed the letter quickly, using the side of the wagon as his surface, and they went to Maria and Simon. The villagers were all bound by their wrists and staring with wide an empty eyes. Brador scanned them for anyone familiar from when he lived among them, but he saw none. He tried to imagine him in their place now. But he was never one of them. All he'd heard as a boy was that he was too serious, too restless.
Maria and Simon both spoke to Laurence in hushed voices. They both looked tired. Maria kept running her thumb back and forth on the hilt of her sword, and he got that feeling he'd had before when Laurence had spoken to Gherman that there was some anger or fear which Maria was hiding, and which Laurence recognized, but which neither of them mentioned. Maria watched him hand the letter to Simon. Simon looked at neither of them as he walked away toward the wagon.
"Would you mind, Brador," Laurence said, raising his voice so that he could hear. "If we left you here to watch the invalids while Maria and I take the rest of the villagers down to the shore to move the body somewhere more suitable?"
Brador furrowed his eyebrow. "You don't think I could be more help at the shore with you? Can't imagine what invalids might get up to if left to their own devices."
"One cannot be too careful. If nothing else, I think that's become extremely evident since we arrived here."
"As you wish," Brador said, bowing his head slightly.
Gruffly, Maria rounded up the able-bodied villagers and led them out of the hut. Laurence lingered for a moment. The look he gave Brador was meaningful, probably, but Brador wasn't sure how. Whatever it meant, Laurence left him behind there all the same.
There were only a handful of villagers that Maria hadn't taken. Most of them were old, one was missing an arm, and three more were children.
Three children left in the entire Fishing Hamlet. There had always been few, because so many died in their infancy, and so many more left as soon as they were able. Still, three was so small a number that he wondered if some of the beasts they killed had been children.
Surely not. None had been small enough to be.
He found a place by the wall to sit, arms crossed, as he watched the villagers. He could feel the eyes of the priest who'd stopped them before watching him back. He tried to ignore him, but he knew it was only a matter of time before--
"I spit on Byrgenwerth and all you Hunters!" he growled. An old man sitting next to him began to weep queitly. "I told them not to let your lot stay, but they were all greedy for the money and the goods you gave us for those Phantasms. Now look what's happened!"
"Quiet yourself, priest."
"Why should I? What do I've got left to lose?" The priest leaned forward, sneering. The sweat on his pale skin glistened in the dim morning light. "You think I don't recognize you, don't you? You were a boy here. An orphan as I recall, only we wouldn't let you stay here because you carried the plague. Came back to get your revenge, is it?"
"No," Brador said calmly. "But I wouldn't say people like yourself deserve my mercy either." He smiled wanely at the priest. "You missed a detail somewhere in there as well, Priest. You burned down my house while my mother still breathed to protect yourselves from her illness. I didn't die because I ran."
The weeping old man began to wail, rocking himself back and forth. Two of the children had begun to cry too, while the other was pushing himself away from the group. Brador grit his teeth, and in a flash he drew his blade. "Quiet, old bastard! Or else perhaps I'll think you a beast and cut you down like the rest."
The old man choked on his tears, and muffled his sobbing with his hands. The children all kept still. The priest glared at Brador, but he said no more. There weren't any words left. They'd committed their atrocities, and felt no need to bother with remorse.
It was more than an hour before Maria and Gehrman returned with the villagers. Maria was angry and silent and it was Gehrman who told him to go to Laurence by the well. Brador was glad to leave. He had never liked dwelling in the past.
Near the well, they had erected a make-shift tent of spears, nets, and tarp. Underneath it several tables had been lined up, on which the Great One lay. Laurence stood, looking down at her with his hands behind his back, but when he heard Brador approach he looked up. His expression brightened.
"I trust those villagers didn't give you too much trouble," Laurence said.
"None at all." Brador approached the Great One with learned caution. Something like that, you never knew what they might do. Even in death. The labyrinth had taught him that. "You sure it's safe to cut this thing open?"
"Have some respect. Call her Great One or Kos," Laurence said sharply. Then, his tone softened. "I'm not sure that anything's safe. We're constantly delving into unfamiliar territory. But what is the alternative? I have no interest in stumbling through life in ignorance and fear."
Brador stood next to Laurence. The face of the Great One peeked out from under its tentacles. There was something unnerving about something so human hidden within something so alien. "Master Willem says there are some things to fear, though, doesn't he?"
"Master Willem and I do not always agree," Laurence said. "Although, if you're afraid of what might happen, I won't keep you here."
"I'm not going anywhere."
Laurence smiled. "Good." He took a deep breath and looked at the array of tools he'd gathered from the village, that were now laid out on two chairs pushed together. "It'll hardly be the most glamorous work, but I'm sure a Hunter like yourself has a strong stomach."
Laurence waited a long time before making the first incision. The creature's skin was thick and pale and inside was blood the color and consistancy of mercury. He drained what he could into oil jars that had been cleaned out as he progresed through unrecognizable organs. He pulled each one out as carefully as someone else might carry an infant.
As the day continued, Brador brought Laurence water now and then and made him stop long enough to drink. The first time, Launrece took the glass and drank quickly. The fourth and fifth, his hands shook, making the water slosh. The seventh time, his hands were shaking so badly that he dropped the glass.
"Perhaps you should stop," Brador said. "Or at least eat."
Laurence gripped his hands together, trying to make them stop trembling. His fingers were stained silver with blood. "No, it's something that happens now and then. It's fine."
"Your cuts are becoming unsteady. You may damage the... Great One."
"Don't manipulate me," Laurence snapped. He took a deep breath before he spoke again. "It's the stress. I need... to return to the school, but. There's something here that isn't right. Her body is... the organs seem out of place inside of her."
Brador frowned at him. "How do you know what place they're supposed to be in?"
"Conjecture. Granted, I could simply be wrong, but I believe there was a change going on inside of her when..." He cleared his throat. "When she died."
"You think she was transforming like the villagers?"
"Perhaps. It's possible that whatever caused this change in her killed her like it seems to have killed the men on the fishing boats." He took a deep breath and returned to his work. He reached in, almost up to his shoulder. He muttered to himself as he felt around, "This... I think this should be lower and. No, this shouldn't be here at all. It's..." His eyes widened and he whispered, "Oh no."
Brador straightened, instinctively squeezing the handle of his blade. "What is it?"
Laurence shook his head, stumbling away from the body of the Great One. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, but no words came out. His knees buckled, and Brador had to be quick to catch him before he fell to the ground.
He was unmoving, heavy in Brador's arms. For an unthinking moment, Brador was sure that he was dead, and his heart went cold.
But it was only a moment. Laurence's eyes blinked open, and he stared up at Brador. "What... What happened?"
Brador clenched his jaw briefly. "You lost consciousness."
Laurence closed his eyes. "Curse this frail body," he whispered. "Help me sit on the ground here."
Brador lowered Laurence down, so that they were both sitting. Laurence was still leaning against him. Brador was sure that if he moved away, Laurence would not be able to stay upright.
"You need to rest," Brador said.
"I know what happened to her." Laurence's voice wavered as he spoke. "I know what she was trying to show me. She was pregnant. That's why the organs had shifted. Something in the water--something that the fishermen were doing, what we told them to do. It killed them both; first the fetus, then her." His face was pale. "It was the blood. The blood we used in the experimental treatment we used for the fishermen. It had to be. It transformed them and it killed her."
Brador furrowed his brow. He didn't fully understand what Laurence meant--or if he did, he chose not to. Hunters who understood too much went mad. All he knew was that the man he was meant to protect was weak and shivering on the ground with him.
"You can't be sure any of that's true," Brador said. "And even if it is, we can't fix it. What I know is that you're sick."
"I've been sick." Laurence tried to pull away, but he didn't have the strength. "All the men in my family die before they're forty, and they die a thousand smaller deaths before that. The hands go first, succuming to tremors. By the end, all faculties have withered and the mind is gone too. But not just that, not just my family. All the other sicknesses. The plague that you had, that so many of these people were dying of. All the puss and vomit. The deathly, racking coughs. The rotting of flesh. The stink of putrid last breaths. The final indignity of dying alone when everyone you love can no longer bear to look at you. I want to end it. All I've ever wanted was to end it." He looked at Brador, his eyes brimming with tears. "And in the process, I've killed a god and her child."
"I know that I'm just a Hunter from this... broken little hamlet. I know that you are more brilliant and important than I'll ever be," Brador said. "But if I could give you a piece of advice; terrible things happen all the time. Either you use them to make yourself stronger or you waste them on self-pity. I don't think you're the kind of man who should waste them."
Laurence stared at him. A tear escaped from his eye and clung to the line of his jaw, but only one. Slowly, he nodded. "We can't waste it." He touched Brador's cheek with his soft, trembling hand.
"Master Laurence!" a familiar gruff voice broke through the quiet between them, accompanied by the sound of horse hooves clicking on the village street.
Laurence immediately drew away from Brador and used the table to drag himself to his feet with whatever was left of his strength. When he spoke, his voice didn't give away his physical weakness or his anxieties. "Ludwig. I knew you'd come as soon as Simon got word back to the school."
"You've already started cutting into her," Ludwig said, dropping down from his mount. "Master Willem won't be happy about that."
"There isn't much I could do at this point that would make Master Willem happy."
Ludwig frowned, but his eyes were sympathetic. "He's sending his own men to take care of this situation and retrieve the body. I rode out ahead of them." Ludwig paused, taking a deep breath. "He wants the remaining villagers killed. It's the only way to stop the potential for their contaminated blood to spread."
Laurence swallowed thickly, for a brief moment uncertainty once again flickered in his features. "How can he be sure that contaminated blood's to blame? We should be keeping them under surveillance, not-- Unless he knew before any of this started."
"Your guess is as good as mine," Ludwig said. "The best you and I can do is get back to the school and determine who our friends our before this goes any further."
"What are you thinking of doing?" Brador asked.
Ludwig and Laurence both looked at him, and he could see both of them calculating whether or not to tell him. Whatever it was, it had begun before today.
Finally, Laurence spoke. "Master Willem has been moving away from blood ministration for some time. Many of us would prefer not to close off that avenue of research."
"That's the short version," Ludwig said.
"Which is all we have time for. You're right, Ludwig." He looked at the Great One, his eyes cold and hard. "I need to return to the school. For more reasons than one, despite the consequences."
"I noticed your hand tremors. Have there been any other symptoms?"
Laurence shook his head silently.
Ludwig watched Laurence for a moment, a look of concern on his face that Brador had never seen before. "Brador, I'm taking Laurence back. I want you to stay here. Make sure that the job gets done with the villagers. Can you handle that. I know that you're--"
"I'm a hunter," Brador said. "I can handle it."
"What happened here can never be known." Laurence said, his head bowed, finally showing his exhaustion. He reached out to Brador, taking the hunter's hands in his own shaking hands. "We were talking when we arrived about our homes, how they had nothing to do with where we came from. Perhaps the truth is that our homes are with the people we can trust with our secrets. I trust you with this. All of this. Do you understand?"
Brador was sure that he did understand, although he couldn't think of the words to express it. Instaed, he nodded his head. Ludwig took Laurence's arm then, and helped him up onto his horse.
"When you come back to the school, we'll discuss what our next move in," Ludwig said to Brador. He shook Brador's hand firmly. "You did your job well so far. Continue to do so."
"I will," Brador said, and he watched as Ludwig rode off with one arm around Laurence to keep him steady.
When he'd first met Laurence, he'd thought his life had changed in some unknowable way. Now, he was sure. His life hadn't changed, it had simply found its purpose. A reason he hadn't died in the fire with his mother. A reason he kept fighting.
It had all been so that he could meet Laurence, and so that he could keep him safe from the monsters he created for himself with his good intentions.
Epilogue: A Church in Old Yharnam
There were sick people sleeping on the floors of the abandoned church in Old Yharnam when Laurence arrived. He brought in beds for them and trained the Byrgenwerth students who had also left Master Willem to administer the blood treatments.
In a matter of weeks, the sick people were well again, the people of the town had begun to call the place the Healing Church. Laurence had gained the nickname Vicar.
He sat in the small office he'd made for himself out of one of the shrines, a tube in his arm connected to a vial of blood. Brador stood next to him, his hands behind his back.
In the main hall of the church, the howling and screaming of the sick could be heard--the same sounds he'd grown up with.
But this was different.
His grandfather had been doomed. These people would be saved.
He would save them. He was sure of it. He had to be sure of it.
Or else, what had it all been for?
Brador put his hand on Laurence's shoulder and leaned down. "Your treatment is finished."
Laurence grinned up at Brador, then nodded. "Thank you." He put his hand over Brador's and took a deep breath. His heart felt full, reassured. Unquestioned. "I don't think I could do anything anymore without you."
"Of course you could," Brador helped Laurence draw the needle out from his arm and pressed down on the spot it had pricked with his thumb until the bleeding stopped.
"You underestimate yourself, as usual." He rested back in his chair, looking down at a map of the city that he'd laid out on his desk earlier that day. He'd come back to it again and again, tracing the lines of it with his eyes. "Brador, what do you think about expanding this 'Healing Church' into Central Yharnam?" He pointed at a spot on the map. "There are the ruins of a Cathedral there that could work quite well, I think."
Brador looked at the map, tilting his head slightly. "You could heal a lot of people in a place like that."
"My thoughts exactly." Laurence looked up at Brador. Brador's eyes were dark and unwavering as a starless night sky. "Think of all that we could do, now that we aren't ruled by fear."
They watched each other in silence, something unspoken between them that made Laurence feel warm.
He was going to save every sick person in Yharnam, and Brador was going to be by his side through it all, ready to forgive him for any means to that end. It made him feel as if he could do anything.