A/N: How many of you guessed I'd be dabbling in Berserkdom, eh? And to mix Bloodborne in at the same time! I'm actually quite proud of what I've made so far and I'm enjoying working on this particular fic as I go along. I've always been fascinated by Bloodborne,and by spiritual parentage, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft in a medieval setting (i.e. Berserk) is just a natural next step. I will admit, I'm a latecomer when it comes to Berserk, but I have most assuredly fallen in love with every part of it.
Except Griffith. Fuck Griffith.
Though I find his example an intriguing study of the pursuit of power and one's willingness to throw away all that is good for the sake of a dream that one values even higher than friends and family. There's a potential psychology thesis in there somewhere...
Nevertheless, without any further procrastination, I pull back the curtain for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
"I have never seen the sea before. My mistress spoke of it. She said it leads to the astral world. Beautiful, graceful, ominous, and dreadful. A spectacle that touches everyone's heartstrings in such a way. Such a place must be connected to the astral world, she said. All I did at the time was imagine it, but… standing at the seaside like this, I understand what she meant, for the first time. I'm now in a place I don't recognize. Though it's been but several days since then, it feels like I've come a very long way. I've set out upon a journey without return."
- Schierke, burgeoning Witch.
Meridian flows of time trickle past like streams of crystal. The air is clear and gentle, the flowers that caress my body bend and bow beneath my form, but never do they wilt. Clouds drift above, beyond, and below around me, white as snow, yet colored by unseen fire and unbidden shadows. Behind them, the moon hangs quiet, its light filtered through a canopy; above me, atop the hill I rest on, a white and green leafed tree stands, its great gnarled branches stretching far, wind from the vastness rustling through its foliage. Around me circles a wall of stone etched with innumerable distinctive names, each one more memorable than the last.
This is my world. A quiet, peaceful world both infinite and infinitesimal. I have no wants. I have no needs. My will is, and it is calm.
A shuddering… a shifting of the wings so minute others would not have known. But I know, for all is as I will here. Negligible minutiae is as to me a noxious fume of sour desire and unseen law. A thing unaware of me impinging upon my place.
A thing like me.
My eyes stir, opening like fluttering drapes that frame a windowsill. So long had it been since I've been disturbed. Must I again recount my place? Ambition wafts like foul odors; like an unwelcome heat; like a misplaced step.
I'd corrected many an ambitious one in my time. Most had simply been unaware of me, such as I am. Or rather, such as I prefer to be. But revelation is an unfortunate necessity if my will is to be abided. Perhaps that is a fragment of my older self; a sliver of a creature so old and insignificant that even my perpetual memory can barely recall. Most tolerate each other's desires; conflict is not wanton between us. But me? I do not stay for much. I suppose I am what "most" implies; an exception to the majority.
Well, I've always been abnormal. An aberration.
Something else… a faint tingling of my ears. The palest vibration of the air… an ancient memory recounted. Sound. A familiar sound.
The echoing… the repeat of its high pitch, stalked by an echo decidedly more profound than its precursor.
The ringing of a bell.
The starless blue firmament of twilight above beckons me. An unconscious thought establishes my form, and I stand. About me, an energy stirs; an action taken; an ancient stagnancy disturbed. Little eyes, pale faces, looking at me, questioning… quieting.
A rhythmic rustling of fauna to my side as I gaze beyond. A shared understanding belied the inefficiency of words; the ineptness of communication.
I step forward, and the sky embraces me.
"It is a relic of an ancient place, older than either of us by eons," he had once told her, placing the unassuming trinket into her cupped palms. She'd laughed at him, making light of the gravity in his voice.
"My, how old it must be indeed when even the primordial consider it antiquated."
He need not scold her for her mirth, nor council her on its value, for she was shrewd beyond her peers.
"Ne'er have I seen it's like in all my days," she continued, examining its etchings and structure with keen eyes.
"Nor will you again, for it is the last of its kind. But it is by far the most powerful."
Her eyes turned from it to him, the answer to her question unasked already on his lips.
"It is a beacon… to call forth something great."
Her expression shifted, her face darkening softly as an evil image came to mind. "You mean… one of them?"
"No. They are young. This… it is…" He faltered, unsure how to describe what he had not seen; only supposed. "Eldritch."
She smiled at him gently. "Am I to keep it then, as I do all the things you bring me? My home is not a storehouse you know."
Her humor was lost, for she was certain any semblance of amusement had long since been driven out of him. Still, he had once been an ordinary man, and there was no reason she should not treat him as she might any other.
"Study it. Learn from it, if you can. And if not, lock it away. I have no use for such an artifact."
That had been hundreds of years ago, and yet nothing had she gleaned from her time spent investigating the thing. Had she not known the ghastly rider she called friend better, she might have thought it all a practical joke. As it was, she placed it under lock and key, put away out of sight and mind, for that which she could not even begin to understand concerned her greatly. Though she herself was a humble witch, many others considered her the greatest practitioner living; at the very least for the sake of their beliefs she had a reputation to uphold.
But the bauble confounded her. Inscribed with an alphabet she'd never seen, with a dialect she'd never come close to deciphering, and designed with the purpose of summoning something she had no manner of understanding. She wondered if perhaps the creature it called for was even listening at all; she'd had a scare once, when her beloved student Schierke had knocked it over during her singular incursion into her little vault of nether items. It clattered against the wood floor, but it never made a sound.
However, that implied to Fiora that it perhaps worked similarly to a behelit; only intent could bring whatever it was linked to into their presence. And any relation to a behelit concerned her with understandable severity.
But now was not the time to be hesitant. The fires burned brightly around her, the nauseating heat countered only by her affinity for magic. Outside, a battle raged. Guts, Schierke, her dear knight friend, and all the others were fighting.
And Guts… poor, brave Guts who now bore the Berserker armor… But she would not condemn someone to use it maliciously. After all, her faith was in Schierke. Even now, with her beloved student railing for help amidst the confusion and chaos of battle, she smiled at the image of the girl in her mind's eye.
If the Hawk had sent minions of Zodd's caliber, she would not be leaving this place alive… not that she intended to anyway. But it was upon the thing in front of her that her attention dwelled. Known to be hasty she was not, but if it truly was such a powerful artifact, even in these flames it would not be destroyed. And she could not let it fall into the wrong hands. Her only desire was that it might be taken away from the world. Away from those who might abuse it's power. Perhaps intent went a long way in its use; she'd never managed to find out much about it.
It sat on the table in front of her, the sounds of battle audible through the roaring of the flames. She reached out, plucking it up by its handle. It was such an unassuming thing…
With tentative strokes, she shook the small bell in her grasp.
All other sound seemed to fade upon the advent if its ring. For a moment, she felt no great change.
Then came the response.
Like a mountainous ravine, a sound echoed back. A great bell, low and heavy, intoned from a distant place. A call received.
A sound reached her ears, a low methodical thump of boots, as if treading upon stone pathways, the distinct crunch of gravel beneath steady strides. Closer and closer. And then they stopped.
She could feel it.
As a witch, she was well aware of and in tune with the many spirits that lurked behind the ethereal veil. She'd communed with almost all of them at one point or another, some of them many hundreds of times over the course of her life.
This felt nothing like any of them.
This was different. It was not an element. It was not an aspect. It was something else. A consciousness. A will. A complex organism. A physical presence.
She heard the sound a leathery appendage gripping lightly upon the high back of her chair.
"So, it does work," she said with a light huff of wit. It did not respond. She kept her gaze forward, gazing out of the flames that engulfed her window. "I know not from where you come, nor your intentions. But this," she cupped the little bell in her hands gently, "cannot be left to fall into the wrong hands."
She reached around, offering it to the thing behind her. "Even if you have no other interests here, please, at the very least take it away from this place."
There was a moment's hesitation before a five-fingered gloved hand reached into her field of view and claimed it.
She felt a breath leave her bosom she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Ah, thank you. It's relieving to know it is returned to its rightful owner."
For a moment, she half expected to hear the return of the footsteps as they faded away into nothing. Instead, she heard the shifting of clothing as a figure came into view beside her.
For the first time in a very long time, Fiora felt a genuine wave of surprise. Though masked, cloaked in a long jacket, gloves, thick pants and leather boots, its eyes were undeniably human. For several long seconds, she stared into them; they were honest human eyes. But there was something else there, a depth she couldn't fully grasp. An age… an understanding.
The figure turned its gaze to peer through the flames, and with a stride, he stepped forward mindless of the blazes, out into the inferno.
Like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Fiora let a sigh escape her lips as his shadow was consumed by the conflagration, a contented smile gracing her lips.
Zodd felt his blood boil excitedly as he watched on, both he and his beloved nemesis pausing in their bout to witness the black swordsman pressure Grunbeld in a miraculous display of power and tenacity. Of the many apostles sent to claim the head of the old witch, Grunbeld was second only to him. Even in his apostle form, a great crystal fire dragon of enormous size, the human fought on, heedless of pain… heedless of the gushing blood that dripped like waterfalls from between the plates of his black armor.
Of course, a miracle can only be called a miracle if no explanation can be found. But Zodd knew. It was the armor itself, that Berserker's armor that allowed the boy to do what he was. More of a curse than a miracle, the armor was designed to numb the wearer's sense of pain and exhaustion, allowing them to fight to the utter brink of death. But a monster lived inside that armor; a monster that fed on aggression and hatred. He'd seen it before after all.
"My beloved nemesis," Zodd began, an excited disbelief spreading across his bestial face. "Do you plan on making him walk the same path as you? To follow your footsteps down the path to Hell?"
The knight before him, impassive as he always was beneath his skeleton's armor, only stared at him silently, which was in and of itself, perhaps, his answer. Yet Zodd's blood surged, sending his great body all a-tingling. So many great memories of a long gone time resurfaced as he watched the Black Swordsman lay into Grunbeld with an all-too-familiar ferocity.
But with every crashing blast of sound from steel upon steel, Zodd felt his fur bristle uncomfortably. Something else was there, hidden beneath the cacophony. When the human was finally thrown free of the Apostle soldier and a moment of silence was allowed to hang, he could pinpoint the nature of the sound.
It was a bell. A bell of significant size and somber tone rung across the battlefield, each strike of the unseen clapper against the sound bow sending his fur rippling in unease. His eyes searched for the source, yet, somehow, he knew there was none. Even Grunbeld seemed to have taken notice of the bizarre intonation. It wasn't until the crackling of burning timber that accompanied the inflamed tree that centered the sacred interstice gave way to a rhythm.
Crack... Crack... Crack... announcing at measured intervals. Only then did Zodd's sharp eyes catch the flicker of darkness within the fire. A silhouetted form that grew ever more distinct with each echo. Out of the flames stepped a man. Cloaked all in drab, dirtied leather, a mask hiding his face and a cap hiding his eyes, the only distinction Zodd could make of him was his masculine physique and cool confidence. Not a sliver of fear could he detect from the stranger's posture; Zodd would know, being several centuries old as he was, his battle senses were sharpened to a lethal point.
Nosferatu Zodd. If it wasn't too poor of form to brag, there was no finer predator in the known world.
Grunbeld was the first to speak upon its revelation. "Another surprise? There is no end to them, it seems."
The giant of a former-man stepped forward, still keenly aware of the recovering swordsman not a dozen paces away. "Not that it matters. Our master has ordered the annihilation of this place, and all who guard it are to meet the same fate." The Apostle gestured his fellows behind him, the so-called "War Demons" of the Band of the Hawk. In addition to Grunbeld and Zodd himself, a detachment of Apostles had been dispatched to ensure the Spirit Tree, its little mansion, and its witch mistress all burned to cinders.
"I will deal with the branded one. The rest of you deal with him, and then on to the witch."
The malformed soldiers obeyed with an unhealthy abundance of glee and enthusiasm, even as their forms shifted from humanoid to their monstrous Apostle forms. Save for the fact the there was something unsettling about the newcomer, Zodd might have returned his attention to the Skull Knight, as he was want to do. However, even a brief glance to his rival showed his was not the only interest gained by the interloper.
Even as the entourage of Apostles approached, the man merely batted an eye, acknowledging the small horde, but from Zodd's perspective, that was all he did. No sooner had he been eclipsed by the mosh-pit of demons than there was an explosion of blood and gore, and screams filled the air as body parts were torn from their places.
But to Zodd's surprisingly lack of surprise, the blood, assorted organs and screams were not the stranger's, but his kin. In a display of ferocity and skill, the man tore them apart with only his gloved fists alone.
No... that wasn't quite right. There was something else there as well... Something Zodd couldn't quite discern.
When the last overly-confident and foolish Apostle had been slain, body torn open and heart ripped from its chest, the man, drenched in blood, yet unhindered by its slick texture, once again stood tall. His eyes, the only bit of flesh visible from beneath his garb, peered to and fro as if in recognition. He lifted his head, taking a series of knowing, audible sniffs. When he spoke, it was with a guttural grace and gravity as had never before graced Zodd's ears. It was both pleasing to hear and bespoke of his familiarity with the darker side of the universe.
"Beasts," he said, his accent vaguely Midlandish, yet also not. There was a brief flutter of light from his right hand, and a device appeared therein.
Zodd had to blink to make sure he'd seen correctly. He was familiar with magic; when one lives long enough, they're bound to learn a thing or too. But was this man a sorcerer? No, he doubted it was that simple. Sorcerers fought with magic and spirits and little trinkets, not with their bare fists and certainly not with a ferocity as befitting an Apostle, which Zodd was forced to admit the man clearly possessed.
"...Beasts thou art," the man continued, more muttering to himself than speaking to an audience. "I see; this is my calling."
The thing in his hand was brought to bear, and Zodd perceived it to be some sort of large, hand-held saw. He stepped forward, and a menacing aura leveled around the burning field that made even Zodd check his blood lust. This was no mere human. Was it perhaps another Apostle? It was certainly not one he'd ever seen or heard of.
"The encroaching one," he said, his words cryptic, "art thou his servants?"
Grunbeld, who had stepped away to confront the swordsman Gutts again, halted at the sudden spray of friendly blood and gore, and now eyed the slender figure with careful surprise. "The encroaching one?" he parroted, unable to discern the identity he referred to. But they were servants; the newborn fifth of the God Hand.
He would receive no clarification, as the man approached the increasingly agitated Apostles before him. "No... It matters not. The bell has already been rung." With a flick of his wrist, the saw swung out, lengthening into a sharp cleaver. He took a step forward before a massive hammer smashed into the ground mere inches from his toes. Grunbeld stood aside and glowered down at him.
"You will face myself before this bunch. I can already tell you are a force to be reckoned with, but you will find no avenue of victory before my might."
The man seemed to eye the hammer before him, only to lift a leg and plant his boot solidly on the head of the weapon, undeterred. "Victory," the man muttered, lifting his head to match gazes with the legendary Apostle. "Victory taketh many shapes."
Grunbeld's eyes narrowed as he once again felt the unsettling weight off anxiety burden his shoulders. A sudden clatter drew his attention as he beheld the group of humans moving away into the forest, no doubt to make their escape. A flare of frustration coiled up the giant's spine as he returned his attention to the man before him.
A loud, somber tone, like the one barely heard before, only clear and crisp in the burning air, resonated through the place. The man reared back with his weapon wielding arm. "Ask not, frail ones, for whom the bell doth toll," he spoke in that same foreboding voice. Only then did Grunbeld notice a strange abnormality. The man's eyes, once human in appearance, were no longer so. Instead, a blackness engulfed them; a dark abyss permeated by the pin-lights of stars. It was as if he were looking into two orbs canvased by the nebulous colors of the night sky.
This was no human, and this certainly was no Apostle.
Zodd, who had seen the rise of many forces that minds both vast and simple could accurately call "gods," knew instinctively that what they were dealing with was far more than a mere monster in human flesh. This was something stranger. Something older.
"This...!" The words died in his throat, but his companion-in-battle knew as well.
"It's incarnation," the Skull Knight finished. Nothing more needed to be said to interest Zodd in the most immense way. Incarnation was a method for those unable to directly interact with the physical world to obtain a flesh and blood body; to change from "ghost" to "living." But incarnation was a method reserved for those whose vast powers regulated them to the ethereal world; beings like Griffith, who just recently became the fifth God Hand. So then... what exactly was this?
The man, for that was the form he took, reared his striking arm back.
"…For the bell tolls for thee."
Grunbeld quickly raised his shield to block the weapon, only to recoil from the force of the blow. His eyes widened when he realized the blade of the weapon had punctured through the steel plating and wooden frame, nicking into the iron shell of the cannon hidden within. But before he could retaliate with a crushing blow from his hammer, the man had lifted himself up over the giant and with a movement so clean and sharp it was analogous to a saber, he pulled his weapon free, the thing retracting into a more compact form, exposing its sharp saw-toothed edges. In a flurry of movement, Grunbeld felt his skin split open from a series of slashes so swift, he'd barely been able to see the man's arm move.
When his senses finally caught up, he roared a painful howl and swung his mace with a furious rage, tearing the earth apart and seeking the flesh of his foe.
But the man was nimble, ducking, sliding and hopping under, around and over every strike. When he'd managed to drive him away beyond the reach of his weapon, he again raised his shield, this time intent on blasting the man to smithereens. In a flash of red, the rustic iron hunk of metal slammed into the barrel of his cannon, the force of which threw his aim wide and away from the man. The giant grimaced in surprise as his arm followed the course of physics. In a moment, he gathered the situation, and he couldn't help by feel a chuckle of victory rise in his throat. As impressive as the strength was behind the man's throw, and even more impressive the density of steel that the saw-blade was to actually nick his cannon, he was clearly a fool for throwing away his only... weapon...
His eyes widened in incredulity as he beheld the man, right arm weaponless, but left hand now armed. Or rather now cannoned. A great gun; larger than was reasonable for a creature of his meager stature, the man gripped a cannon of the size one might find defending the walls of a great castle, and hefted it was such speed as belied an unprecedented strength.
And he was staring down its blackened barrel.
With as much speed as he could muster, Grunbeld turned his own cannon-arm back to man and pulled the trigger. Twin flashes of flame spewed from the barrels of their respective weapons, and the shells detonated with a spectacular flash.
Zodd beheld this confrontation with intense interest. From the smoke flew an uncertain shape, even as it flew past his head and sunk deep into a distant tree. It was the man's cleaver.
The smoke cleared away, difficult as it was considering the burning tree adding to the darkening canvas of the sky. Both combatants stood apart from each other, nursing wounds from their exchange. The cloths on Grunbeld's left arm were in tatters, the armor and shield that had once covered it missing, and the cannon's shell now a blown out hunk of slag. The stranger's left arm, conspicuously missing the cannon that had graced it moments before was singed and blackened, but beyond that, there was no physical injury to be seen upon his person. He didn't give it a second thought. With a roll of his shoulders the human-shaped thing looked down on the giant; an impressive feat given the difference in their stature.
"Thou don'st man's flesh like clothing," he said with more certainty than Zodd might have expected, gesturing with a finger to the legendary giant. "Return to thine nakedness, creature; thy true bestial form."
Grunbeld grimaced from the pain but managed the find himself grinning through it. Did this not-human seek to chastise him for wearing the skin of a mortal? "Hah! Your hypocrisy is staggering. Do you not also borrow the form of man for your convenience? Even I can see as much!"
The man blinked, a short confusion roiling over him. Presently he spoke again, this time with a tone that made Zodd's fur bristle and skin crawl.
"…I see. Mayhap, did I overestimate thy perception? I'd thought thine eyes might be able to perceive me, being servants of the encroaching one as thou art."
He looked down at his own body, examining it as though it were the first time he were seeing it. "No, that's not the case. I have simply forgotten how imperceptive the waking world is…" His eyes rose to scrutinize the armored solider before him. "You know I am not fully man, yet you cannot see my true form?"
Grunbeld raised a brow unknowingly. Why would he be able to see the thing's true form if the thing hadn't transformed? Or perhaps, most infuriatingly, the thing was making light of him? "You would deign to slight me with your mockery?" The giant growled rhetorically. "Then I will show you neither respect nor mercy!"
The man's eyes widened imperceptivity as the giant before him changed from human to… something. Was it reptilian? No, it was also stone… or rather, crystal. A crystal lizard? But lizards didn't grow to this size. Perhaps it was more appropriate to call it a crystal dragon. No sooner had he come to such a conclusion did white vapors of flame seep from the creature's mouth.
"I am Grunbeld, captain of the Hawk's War Demon Army. To you who stand in my way, in the way of the Hawk's orders, I will give no quarter!"
The man's sky-lit eyes narrowed, but the crinkling of the corners of his eyes belied the smile beneath his high collar and mask. For a moment Grunbeld wondered if he delighted in the challenge of battle, the same as he and every other apostle did. But then the man bent backwards with such speed and abruptness that Grunbeld almost though he'd vanished, and in his place whirled a blackened figure with a massive sword approaching him at terminal velocity.
Grunbeld felt his huge body reflexively recoil as the giant blade crashed against his crystalline hide. And the accompanying pain of said hide cracking under the sharpened force of the blow. With a panicked breath, flames spewed from his mouth toward the berserker below, driving it away with the threat of incineration.
Grunbeld had almost forgotten about the swordsman. And yet, even from his heightened vantage, he could no longer see the subject of his distraction. The man, if that was even what he was, which he doubted, had vanished.
Zodd blinked, having lost sight of the being after Guts nearly chopped it in half on his way to Grunbeld. In the short second Zodd's eyes had left him to track the black swordsman, he'd disappeared, along with (now that he noticed) the weapon that had been blown into the nearby tree.
The hunter ducked as he pushed aside a low-hanging branch of a tree, stepping out of the shadows and into the light. He did not look back upon the patch he had trodden; a slayer of beasts he may have been, but his prey those monsters were not. For he was an interloper in someone else's hunt. That black armored man, and that skull-embroidered horseman. And it had not escaped his gaze that the women and children were also nearby, assaulted by more beast-men. He slew two upon his exit.
Each one oozed with blood and taint; a familiar, yet foreign aura that resembled the sensation he'd felt before. 'Servants of the encroaching one…' He knew not its name, only that it was attempting to stand in his place. He could feel its presence in the world around him.
But the task was a far more complicated than simply tearing space apart and setting the young god in its place; age was no sure measure of skill or power, and so he needed to proceed with some amount of due caution. Moreover, it had incarnated into the waking world, a difficult process depending on where one comes from and the faculties of the current age. If it was incarnated, then he would need to find its physical form and hunt it down, slaughter it, and scatter it's remains to the four corners of the Earth. Let it stew for a few aeons as it learned the proper humility and respect as was due to him.
A reclusive creature he was… so long as none rose to challenge his authority in this place, he had no quarrels… nor any desire to quarrel for that matter; he was content to remain within his own dreams. Now he had to flex a little muscle.
But as far as incarnation went, by whatever means it was brought into the world, the way he was brought in was not a ritual easily replicated. The ringing of the bell brought him forth, but only for as long as the desired task of the beckoner remained uncompleted or he is not killed prior to. But he had not heard the intonation of the bells in… far too long; they likely no longer existed. And now there was evidence the encroacher was gathering an army of beasts to its side, and as was the case with humans, where a god walks, men soon follow.
The hunter sighed as he looked up into the sky. Some gods could see the future… or rather, the likely outcomes of certain events. The chronology of causality. This was however limited in scope, and regrettably a skill he did not possess; it was against his nature after all.
Something told him however his new rival did, or perhaps, employed one who did. Call it instinct… if such an abstract suspicion could accurately be called such.
He would need a more certain form of permanence. He needed true incarnation… not the cheap imitation the bells afforded him. His feet hit the packed dirt of road that lead through the forest. It stretched out into the woods in either direction, hiding their destinations from view.
His journey must start somewhere after all.
Rebekka felt herself falling.
Above her was water.
Below her was water.
A thin line of empty space stretched out across the horizon in all directions. She was not falling, nor was she rising. And yet the sky and the earth were collapsing, and she was their epicenter.
When the opposing sides of the universe crashed upon each other, she felt herself crushed into oblivion. Yet in that infinitesimal space, where the thin horizon's light was no longer visible, where only darkness surrounded her and the waters of the deep blinded her in darkness, she looked into the vast gloom and knew she was not alone. Something else was with her. A mass, large in her vision, yet she knew was so very far away, shifted like jelly in the distance.
All around her was water, yet she knew which way was down, down, down… for down she went, as if plummeting through the sky. There was no great mass of earth rushing to meet her, she knew, but even so, something was there. For a brief instant, a sphere of fading light eclipsed her vision, and she thought it was the moon she was racing to meet. Perhaps it was. But for a single moment, the black eclipse that occluded the celestial body moved; moved to her.
A great eye.
She'd been found.
She woke up screaming. The dark of her room did nothing to calm her racing heart and groggy mind. She was back in her bed, safe and sound. But the vividness of the dream felt so real… She let her breath slow and her aching chest still. Her nightgown was damp with sweat and stuck to her like a thin, transparent film. Or rather, it should have been transparent. Instead, it was red.
With a sudden panic, she ran to the small mirror in her room and beheld herself, a dark crimson flow spilled down her dress, thickened drops of blood spattering onto the floor, soaking her toes.
She gripped the collar of the thing and tore it in two down the middle.
There, in the middle of her naked chest was a thing. A symbol. Like a claw, it reached down to grasp and unseen object, and from its strokes flowed blood like a river. Had she carved it into herself in the night? Her bloody fingers told the tale…
So stunned was she by the copious fluid, the impossible quantity, that she couldn't bring herself to move. Then, from the blackness of the red writhed a small thing. First one, then two, then five, then ten… Multitudes… Uncountable tendrils snaked from within her wound.
She couldn't stop herself from letting out a scream. But from her mouth came not sound, but more of the same; thrashing masses of slimy, slithering fingers. As if the blood on the floor were but the surface of a great pool, and her feet stood upon its surface, they rose from below, encircling her legs with the sensuality of a lover, and caressed her palms with an uncanny grace.
It terrified her. She made to pull them off her only to realize she couldn't move a single muscle, so strong were the things that gripped her. They wormed their way up over her tender flesh, converging on the only uncovered anatomy left; her eyes. Like a twisting maelstrom of shadow they eclipsed her vision, and she was once again plunged into the depths of darkness.
She woke again.
Her breath was calm. Her senses sharp. All lethargy and fatigue gone. The uncomfortable dampness of nightly sweat all but a faint memory of an experience half remembered. The dark was receding from the breaking dawn outside her window and she swung her legs out from beneath the covers and onto the wooden floor.
'That dream again…'
More often than not, she found herself in this same position, reeling from the half remembered dream…or perhaps nightmare of the night. She once again approached her mirror, pulling apart the neckline of her nightgown to reveal a white mark of skin, pale as a scar, but unbefitting of the term. It appeared more as a birthmark, though she knew it hadn't been there more than a month ago. She often found herself forgetting she'd never had it to begin with.
It was such a strange thing, but one of the many she had begun to accept as unbending reality.
With a breath of refreshing morning air, she pulled off her nightie and quickly put together her customary attire. Satisfied, she stepped down the stairs to the main floor.
The fireplace that once housed a roaring blaze now smoldered quietly, certain embers still clinging to life at hands of a man seated at the table before it. He, like the few who had trickled into her father's clinic from the wilds, was nursing a wound that had begun to heal up nicely.
"Oh, you're already awake, Mr. Wallace?" she queried as she moved to inspect his bandaged wound. The conditions of the city weren't the best, even in the building her father had turned into a "clinic," so she had to make sure every morning that all bandaged wounds were carefully cleaned and rewrapped. At least, that was how it used to be...
Wallace waved off her concern. "Never ye mind that busywork of yers, lass," he said with a thick, woodsman accent that bespoke how much time he'd spent outside civilized territories. "I's just waitin' ferya to wake up so I c'n put another log on th' fire." Even as he spoke he reached over to the small pile of wood near the stone fireplace and began stacking two or three in place.
She noticed how the arm she'd bandaged just the night before was now unwrapped, the sleeve still pulled back, but the gashing wound he'd sported on his way in now sealed and well scabbed over.
She frowned as she watched the man work. "You needn't trouble yourself, Mr, Wallace," she chided as she came over to aid him.
He motioned her aside. "Trouble? 'T'ain't no trouble 't all, I promise ye. Yer work 'n me arm was nothin' short 'f 'strordinary."
Once, she might have blushed at the stranger's praise, but now, she felt only quiet in her soul.
"Strange though, I tell ye," he continued on as men tend to do when desiring to fill the empty void with conversation. "I was lookin' ferward to havin' that dream 'bout the white hawk again… Pity 't weren't nothin' o' the sort."
She eyed him askance as she returned to the counter where she knew some ale was residing. She couldn't exactly sympathize; never once had she had the so-called, "hawk dream." It seemed everyone had been blessed with the image of a hopeful, glorious white hawk descending from the heavens to bring goodness and freedom to all – everyone except her.
"Oh?" she asked as innocently as she could. "What sort of dream did you have then?"
Wallace took a moment to think, turning to her with an open mouth as if to answer when his mouth abruptly shut and he found himself grinning with a chuckle in his throat.
"Well, I don't reckon I c'n rightly say. 'Cept that was incredibly strange." He let out a chuckle as he rubbed his wounded arm; his amusement gave way to a grimace. "Pain's a wretched thing," he admitted "but it's healin', thanks to ye."
She wanted to say what she always said, and now grew tired of saying. 'It wasn't anything I did.'
Long ago when her mother had passed away to disease, her father gathered all the money he could manage and set about studying the subject of medicine, setting most of the money aside as an investment on a sizable house on the city of Ashburrow. Ironically, due to the cleanly nature of the building per her father's requirements, often newcomers were encouraged to fake sickness so that they might stay the night in a warm, clean bed. Once her father caught wind of this, he set about remodeling the place into a combination inn and clinic.
A "Cl-inn-ic" if you will.
Divided in half so the sick might not mingle with the healthy, the common room of the main floor was a place where one might request a strong drink or warm food. To that end, she'd learned well how to provide such things. Though her father was now away, attempting to establish another clinic in a nearby city, she did her damndest to keep the place running, not just in the manner of consumable services, but also in the way of medicine.
She knew how to clean wounds, bandage them, treat for sickness and disease, stitch wounds and set bones, but even she had no medical explanation for the mysterious concoction she'd administered to her guests on occasion.
Last night's dream had not been an isolated incident; it had been recurring for nearly a month now, perhaps longer. The first night she'd woken from it to find that strange scar on her chest and a bottle of red blood in her cellar. Though she'd never known her father to possess the supplies necessary for infusions or transfusions, she nonetheless brought it out when the situation called for it, which coincidentally enough happened that very same day.
If she were a pious woman, she'd say it was fate, or the hand of God. But she was a skeptic and less than superstitious. Even so, she had a hard time explaining everything that had begun to happen since that day.
Now her clinic was empty, save the burly form of Mr. Wallace, and two other guests. Each had arrived on her doorstep with one ailment or another that coincidentally required a transfusion. Lucky for them, she supposed, that she just so happened to have the materials necessary.
They were healed overnight.
And each of them awoke the next morning with a distant look in their eyes, quiet, introspective dispositions, and a sullen, brooding aura. She hadn't asked the reason, but at the time she suspected it was the recent news of the Kushan villains moving from town to town, city to city, killing, raping, and kidnapping any and all they pleased. Then again, the hushed voices of the three, huddled secretively in the corners of the house, that silenced if so much as a floor board creaked out of place indicated a much more enigmatic purpose.
Two others had arrived much the same way they had, been treated and left on their way. But they always came back. Quietly, and in the night. They stole up to their rooms, and she would wake to find them sitting next to the fire, staring out the adjacent window at the pre-dawn sky, their eyes haunted by something beyond her sight. Yet they always brightened when she approached them.
She had asked at one time whether they had known each other from some other venture, but had been told that their first meeting had been within the confines of her clinic. Yet the way they interacted with each other left her suspicious if that were actually true. One night, one of them, the first man she'd treated (a Mr. Dunham) approached her cautiously. He spoke in a low tone. He was quiet, but firm. Confident, as if every word he spoke was the truth, but he didn't know how he knew it to be so.
"Treat the desperate, the sick, and the eager. The blood is and will always be with you," he'd said. What he'd meant by it, she didn't know even to this day, and she wondered if perhaps even he knew. But she'd done so regardless, as was her father's strict vow to do so. And every morning, should her previous stock run dry, a new bottle of glassed blood would be sitting within her cellar. The lock was notably undamaged and unpicked, and a layer of dust covered the ting in such a way as to imply it had sat neglected in the corner of the cold room for far longer than Rebekka could guess. Yet the blood was fresh, thick, and to her continued disbelief, working.
Her eyes left the counter in front of her where she was chopping vegetables to eye the familiar form of the man in the doorway. Speak of the devil and he shall appear… as he father had often cautioned.
Wallace tipped his hat respectfully. "What news from the front?" The other two men greeted him with only a nod and a long look.
Dunham, markedly younger than Wallace but bearing notable gradients of grey in his facial hair, shook his head grimly. When he spoke, it was with a similarly grave countenance. "Empire's rolled up the western regions," he announced dismally. All eyes in the room were on him as he shook off the cold of the morning from his coat and he approached the fire. He let his eyes meet each of theirs in turn.
"Wyndham's been occupied."
That news sent a chill through her shoulders, and it wasn't from the cold. If Wyndham was occupied, then by all measures of warfare (which she admittedly knew little of) the war was over, and the Empire was the victor.
"God's teeth…" cursed one of the men at the far end of the room. Gottfried was a thin man with deceptively dense body structure, and unlike his fellows, seemed more at home in the cold than by the now-roaring fire. Among the five she'd administered blood transfusions to, he was the quietest; to hear him exclaim was a peculiarity.
Dunham gave a morose chuckle. "If God were a beast of terror and cruelty then 'God's teeth' have indeed sunk into the heart of Midland. The aristocracy has moved the bulk of their forces to Vritannis to join forces with the armies of the Holy See. I heard Emperor Ganishka is residing in the palace at Wyndham."
The information hung in the air, digesting at a lethargic rate.
"…We need more information…" came the timid, yet agreeable voice of the fourth man in the room. More of a boy than a man, he was youthful and fair faced, though he was as tall as any of the men around him. His name was Alexander. "Ourselves alone won't suffice."
The other three men in the room were silent, not so much in revelation but rather in thought; they already knew that much. For whatever reason, they'd been chosen for a mission, and it was their contracted duty to accomplish that mission.
Dunham let out a breath of air as he twisted his hands this way and that in front of the flames. "We know, lad… We know. But for the time being, we're all we've got."
Silence reigned for some time, save the crackle of timber and the noise of kitchen-work. It was times like these, when certain words were uttered and particular phrases spoken that she doubted their prior involvement with each other. Presently said silence was broken by Wallace's sudden tone.
"Hold a moment," he said, mostly to himself since no one else moved to interrupted him. "Vritannis?" He turned to Dunham with a serious gaze. "Yer sure?"
The man gave a nod, confident in his tale.
Wallace returned to a contemplative state, folding his hands in front of him on the table he sat at. He spoke again again, this time with deliberate slowness.
"I h'd a dream in th' night," he began, "where I's standin' on a Vritannian highway." His eyes were distant, as if recounting a distant memory. "Thar was fire everywheres, and these…" He struggled to think of the word. "Monsters? Demons? Marchin' through the streets and puttin' everything that moves to th' sword." He looked up at his four compatriots. "Mayhap... that's where our hunt begins."
"Beasts, you mean." Alexander spoke up with such suddenness that all eyes flickered to him. He faltered for a moment, perhaps contemplating whether it was his place to correct his elders. But with a sudden expression sired by boldness, he carried on. "They were beasts. The instant I saw them, that's what screamed in my brain. I felt like it was my duty to kill them. Like I'd been born to."
Gottfried's eyes narrowed at the boy and both Dunham and Wallace turned to regard him fully. As one, their eyes glanced among themselves, as if silently confirming an unspoken theory. After a second or two, Wallace nodded silently.
"Yes... That was the word I thought at the time... Beasts."
Dunham blinked curiously. "A unanimous dream between the four of us..." he postured, none rising to counter him. He looked at Wallace with an expecting expression. "What does it mean?"
Wallace shook his head with raised hands. A short chuckle escaped his lips. "Look not t' me, friends. I'm no fortune-tell'r by 'ny means."
"And yet our futures have been shown to us," Alexander continued, rising from his seat to approach his elder associates. "This is by no means a coincidence, yes? We all agree so?"
A silent, slow nodding of heads.
"So..." Dunham's eyes furrowed as he contemplated his own thoughts. "...To Vritannis?"
As if emboldened by his suggestion, Gottfried pursed his lips and stood to his full height. "Aye gentlemen. To Vritannis."
Rebekka watched as the four, faces suddenly split by leering grins that none could explain, set about packing their belongings, designating who to stay and prepare packing arrangements and who to go out and purchase necessary supplies. She knew they would not leave this night; a trip to Vritannis from her little town was no trivial thing. It would take many days of travel if attempted on foot, and none of them possessed the distinct smell of horse that indicated they were riders. She began pouring the bits of produce into a small cauldron to soak as she set about chopping potatoes. If they were leaving, then she'd make sure to make enough to fill their bellies to the brim. Her father was never one to let a customer leave their care improperly attended to; that included providing a suitable final meal that would not easily leave them wanting for more soon. And she was nothing if not a loyal daughter.
With a sudden lurch, the smell of the food made her take a step back and clutch her spontaneously nauseated belly. She held her breath, and her vomit, as she struggled to regain control of her self. After several seconds, she did, her breath quickly returning in deep intakes.
There it was again... That unsolicited sickness she'd been suffering as of late. Though she was a practitioner of medicine, she had no explanation to explain her episodes. Once her guests were sent on their way, she'd make sure to head into the town and ask a few friends if they knew. She also needed to purchase more needles.
She looked back up to the suddenly bustling room, the five men moving about swiftly and with purpose.
No, four men. She blinked and shook her head vigorously. For a moment, she thought she'd seen a fifth man amidst the den, with otherworldly eyes and an eerie presence. The image was simultaneously vague and vivid,and it sent a shiver down her spine and made her heart skip a beat.
She looked again.
No fifth figure met her gaze.
For a moment, she entertained the idea that her mind was simply playing tricks on her. At the least that's what her skeptic mind told her. But another voice whispered in her ear with honey-sweet softness... And with all the inexplicable happenings in recent weeks, she found herself pliable to its words; that voice had a name.
A/N: And there we have it! Chapter one of many!
Because I prefer to make longer chapters on FanFiction, my update rate suffers as a result. However, on SpaceBattles dot net, I feel less obligated to make individual installments so lengthy, and instead present them as more... episodic in nature. For that reason, I've combined this (what might be called "episodes one and two") into a single chapter. I really hate to release small chapters here on FF, so I encourage you to also keep up with me and my works on SpaceBattle's forums, where you wont have to wait for sufficient content to be produced before I compile it into chapters for .
Or not. It's up to you.
See you all next time, here or there, hell or high water! o7