Opening note: So, uh, this is the first time I've written a fic in literal years. Since the first half of the 2010s, anyway. This is a project born of pure fondness, because a.) I have original fiction I'm trying to build skill for and b.) Star Ocean 3 is an old-ass game now, and seems to have less of a persistent tiny following than my other aging JRPG loves, Baten Kaitos, Skies of Arcadia, and Drakengard. This particular effort was also inspired by my roommate, the two of us nearly thirty now, dropping every single solitary fuck given and writing the epic (and somewhat self-parodizing) self-insert fanfic of their dreams. The difference is, though, their beloved fandom is Star Wars, which has little chance of dying out anytime soon.

Nonetheless, this seemed like a fun, self-indulgent idea, and at worst some writing practice to keep myself on the word count wagon. As anyone perusing my old stories can see, I was once a Albel/Nel fan, and I guess technically still am, but...well, my opinions on where that might realistically go have changed a bit. I've also never written a Fayt/Nel, and so an emotionally messy triangle between all three felt like an interesting idea. This fic was originally intended to be dark-humored, and still is, just..not right away.

Either way, I hope all two of you enjoy this.

Death and Other Parties

"Seasons don't fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun, or the rain."

-Blue Oyster Cult, "Don't Fear the Reaper." A relic of Terran culture circa 1976 A.D.

Chapter 1: Prologues

The most troubling state of being, for Captain Albel Nox, was not so much boredom as it was an insatiable restlessness. Boredom was a slog all right, but at least he felt whole in it; if you were bored, there was nothing wrong with you, but rather with the world's ability to provide anything of interest. In restlessness, the problem became internal, personal. Even an interesting world can't cure restlessness, because it was Albel himself who had become stagnant.

The captain rose up from his desk for perhaps the fifth time that afternoon, and in two long strides crossed the length of his castle suite to the window that looked out into the training fields. He looked over the soldiers, many of them huffing through the heat and the weight of their armor as they hacked in practiced, angular swings at straw dummies, and wondered not for the first time that day whether he shouldn't pay them a visit to administer a lesson in humility. Even past boyhood, his frame had always been far too lean for traditional Glyphian plate armor, but he made up for it with speed and brutal finesse. Nonetheless, in spite of his rank and reputation, some of the newer soldiers had looked at him and his lightweight, Aquarian-inspired uniform with perhaps too much hubris in their eyes. The fools didn't even realize that his clothes were intended as an open challenge. Why else would any dignified officer walk in the snow with so much skin exposed, and dressed more like the maligned Adray Lasbard than a proper Glyphian knight?

Albel locked his gaze onto a beefy recruit in particular who had sized him up earlier and contemplated the value of bashing the boy's head in a few times with a practice sword. Yet it rose again, the niggling hesitance, the strange fatigue for everything. For the last month, whether he was in Kirlsa or the capital, decisions came thin and fleeting, ideas and commitments thin as paper in their appeal to him where once he grabbed heartily onto whatever struck him as a worthwhile time. The world bored him at times, yes, but that was its problem. Now he bored him, and he wasn't sure why.

Worse-he thought as the appeal of humiliating the recruit paled, thinned, rapidly faded-he was slowing down now. Something sharp in him had dulled. He was becoming quieter, or at least his silences now bore less of his old looming, fierce intensity whenever he was in the presence of others. Something about him was now as if too confused to move.

Albel scratched at the stone wall with a clawed finger, his eyes still on the recruit but looking through him rather than at him. The battle with the false gods had been a year ago, and he supposed the restlessness began to creep on him then, but in smaller ways. That he'd help to deal the killing blow on Luther, their supposed creator, meant less to him than he expected. Maybe it was the Aquarian's magic aiding him that made the victory feel less the result of his own strength.

The Aquarian. Gods, he couldn't even muster an insulting epithet for her anymore. Perhaps she had indeed cursed him while they shared their room on the Diplo. As per an unspoken pact of honor, neither had touched the other, and he rarely spoke an antagonizing word, but Aquarians were known for their sly tricks. Perhaps he should pay her a visit to wring an answer from her.

He thought about it, disliking how the idea held onto its appeal for him over other things. Yes, Aquaria might be a worthy trip, a change of scenery. And a different breed of maggot to thrash if nothing else.

But the idea of thrashing maggots felt more forced than it used to, as if he was trying to mold his brain back into its old shape. A part of him, horrified, wondered if the desire for fighting would fade from his thoughts, would eventually mean nothing to him.

Surely, the Aquarian had cursed him. This was her revenge for killing her people.

A loud knock at the door turned his head. "What?" he hissed as a guard entered the room.

"Sir," the guard said, "I was told to report that there is no sign of the investigative team you sent below the castle."

"It's been a full day, what could possibly be keeping them?"

"I-I don't know, sir. The soldiers keeping post reported some noise, but nothing else."

It annoyed Albel to see that the guard was afraid of him. He wanted respect, not cowed weaklings. The soldiers of Kirlsa's Black Brigade, where Albel spent most of his time on duty, knew well his caustic manner of speech and learned to take it in stride. Perhaps the guard was unused to anything but the mincing politeness and formality of court.

Albel sighed and gathered up his sword, strapping it into his belt. At present, he wore the casual clothes of a Glyphian military officer, with a full black tunic and pants, all made of pressed wool. Were he dressed as usual, he would hook his sword in the corded red cloth around his waist like an Aquarian.

"Fine. I suppose I'll investigate myself. None of you worms seem fit for the job."

"Are you sure, sir? It seems such a menial job for a captain."

Albel turned an eye on him, well aware of how his reddish eyes rooted grown men to the spot. But his heart wasn't in it this time. The guard stiffened, face paling behind his visor, but Albel felt none of the satisfaction and quickly looked away.

"Would you prefer to take their places? That task should have been child's play for those men. It should have been an insult to their profession. Instead they've vanished. Something down there is more than some simpering petty officer can handle."

He could feel the guard's guilty silence, and that was enough. Equipped to his liking, the Crimson Scourge burning faintly at his hip, he pushed past the guard before the man could scramble to the side. "Move it, fool."

In the winding hall, away from the hearth in his quarters, the castle stones trapped a chill that carried with it the perpetual, heady scent of woodsmoke and leather. Though born and raised in Kirlsa, Albel attended his father's visits to the capital as a child enough times to make the atmosphere rich with nostalgia and an odd sort of comfort, even when the walls themselves worked with the cold instead of against it. From the stairs, he made a turn for the dungeons, where the hidden wing had been discovered.

It had all been by sheer accident: a careless guard had banged his arm against a wall at the far end of the prison, and the sound that came rang hollow rather than the heavier clang of a reinforced outer wall, which is what the back of the prison should've been. A day's careful removal revealed an entire stairway curling into a black, dusty depth. One of the older staff commented that the stairs themselves were made of a different stone from the rest of the castle, as if removed from a level of rock more abundant when the mountains were first mined for their resources.

With the King on a diplomatic errand in Aquios regarding his future marriage, Woltar in Kirlsa, and Vox in his grave (good riddance, spiteful maggot), Albel was the highest command present in Airyglyph, and so arranged for a small elite team to plumb whatever lay beneath. Given the state of the aqueducts, it seemed reasonable to anticipate an infestation of monstrosities-sending a cadre of shuddering weaklings might end in disaster.

Another guard saluted Albel as he made his way to the jagged hole, now lit up with a series of braziers that illuminated the dust and muck of age in the crevasses of the stones. "Sir. Any orders?"

"Keep your post," Albel replied. "I'll be back." Then he stepped over the small pile of rubble and descended.

More braziers burned at each twist of the stairway, which circled into the ground as if it were once inside a narrow tower. Albel tried to recall his scant knowledge of the castle's history; people spoke of some revisions over the centuries-much of the main areas were made of newer stone, after all-and of course the entire rehaul of the west wing, which Aquarian forces had destroyed in one of the earlier wars. He grunted bitterly at the thought; Aquaria once the aggressor against his people! Their cries of theft and unwarranted aggression over the Final War (such uncreative hubris, calling it that name) revealed their hypocrisy, or their ignorance.

Finally, he reached the bottom. At the base of the stairs a long hall unspooled, both walls lined with cells closed in by rusted iron bars and more torches lit by the investigative team. This had been a prison once, too, but for whom? The most dangerous of criminals?

Albel approached one of the cells and peered in. The light from the nearby brazier cast only so far through the bars so that the far end still lay deep in shadow. He squinted into it, adjusting his eyes to the dark, until a pale shape resolved itself in his vision. A skeleton, still clothed in deflated rags. Whoever these people were, someone had sealed them off here and left them to rot. For the second time that day, the idea of curses occurred to Albel.

He moved away from the cell, heading in a beeline to the seemingly interminable end of the hallway. How far did this damnable place go? He performed a rough calculation, concluding that he was moving south, deep beneath the great mountain that reared over Airyglyph city.

An acrid taste entered his mouth through his nostrils. Something like static began to hum around his ears. Albel halted, feeling his hair begin to rise from the sudden energy. A quiet laugh echoed through it, seeming to emanate from all around him.

"Another guest…First six, then one. Foolish bravery, or is it recklessness?" The voice was male, soft and almost soothing, except for an edge that made Albel imagine a smirk upon the speaker's face. It was with some annoyance, too, that he realized how close the voice was to resembling his own.

A man appeared in midair, hovering just before him. He looked young, handsome even, though his hair was white and his skin the pale blue of a frozen corpse. Over his shoulders was a fur-lined robe of a great king, black and billowing, and his clothes were that of ancient Glyphian royalty Albel had seen in the treasury halls of the castle above. A broadsword hung from his hand, its blade glowing orange-red as if made of lava from the mountain's core itself.

Eyes like black pits regarded him from above. The handsome face sneered.

"You look like something of a fighter, but you are still a man of this world. You are no match for me."

If there was anything Albel loathed, it was contempt- or more specifically, contempt directed at him. The smugness and the fine features made him want to rip the manlike entity's jaw off. Yet a part of him sensed that provocation was exactly what it sought from him.

"Oh-ho! So you're the cause of all the problems." Albel looked him over as he might something the castle hounds had left on the carpet.

The man kept his cool regard, tone impassive. "And what if I was? Do you believe you could do anything about it? Perhaps you should run along home, or would you prefer to become one of my servants like those who came before you?" His mouth split into an arrogant grin that nearly sent Albel's hand scrabbling for the Scourge. The urge to kill this bastard struck Albel so hard that it alarmed him. He had better control over his anger than this, didn't he? How was it that he was seconds away from behaving like some snapping pup to an enemy whose power he had yet to gauge?

"Don't expect to die painlessly," Albel heard himself say, his voice a low, muttering growl. "I'll smash your face until you're begging me to kill you and get it over with."

For a moment, it seemed that the man's eyes widened into a wild stare, his expression almost manic, and so unlike the pretentious figure that had been hovering before him. Then he laughed, a deep, dignified sound, and the strange stare was gone.

"You're a brave one, aren't you? However…"

Albel watched as the man evaporated, appeared again further down the hallway. The man held open his arms, the fiery sword still gripped in one pale fist, and intoned, "I am a servant of the gods, created by Folstar, the God of Death. Do you really think I would sully myself by fighting a lowly mortal like you?"

The man paused, so briefly Albel thought he imagined it, to examine the captain's face. Like a performer checking his audience for a reaction. Then he threw his head back and bellowed an incantation like a list of names: "Korima Raxa Mizua Sazka Klaatu Barada Nikto! Come out my servants!"

Between them, a row of shaggy figures materialized. They stood hunched on two legs, as if in a partial crouch, their bodies draped in hairy skins matted with blood. Animal skulls, goatlike in shape and flecked with dried gore, sat atop their pale necks. Albel eyed the one nearest to him, expecting to see its real face staring through the sockets of the skull worn over its head as a filthy helm, yet nothing but a hollow darkness hung behind the crevasses of bone. A tongue, overlong as if pulled with its roots out of a human mouth, slid out from the hole in the lower jaw and dangled there, oozing old saliva.

Then it moaned, croaking out a word he almost recognized. The voice, through the harshness and loose gravel of its ravaged throat, sounded familiar. "C-c-c-cap-p-tain…"

Realization struck, and deep in the gut of the unflappable commander Albel Nox, something curdled.

"You scum." The words roared out of Albel before he had time to stop himself. His brain was reeling. They were his men, worthless fools as they were at times, but his. They might die in battle, but for such an atrocity to befall them rent the very core of their captain in two.

The man was talking again: "You, who were abandoned by the gods you served and left behind on this land...May I, in my great kindness, extend-"

Albel dodged between the wailing monstrosities with frightening speed and lunged, sword forgotten. His clawed gauntlet stretched towards that smug, simmering, shit-eating maggot face.


Then it wasn't there.

He caught himself just before he landed, hitting the ground in a feral crouch. The man had been there, that infuriating grin expanding between the metal fingers of his claws, but then he saw nothing but the hall beyond. He rose, twisting around, reminding himself that the enemy had shown him how he could vanish and reappear anywhere he liked. Behind him, the creatures that were once his men shuffled and bit off hacking groans of agony.

Suddenly Albel felt something grip his leg. He looked down to see a skull-was it from the skeleton he saw in the cell before?-now fleshy with raw muscle over the bone, a long tongue slipping between teeth sharp and fine as needles and snaking in a trail of thick mucus up the outside of his trouser. Its lidless eyes with their black irises bulged in the sockets as it grinned obscenely at him.

Albel's hand went to his hip, groped at empty air. The Crimson Scourge was absent.

Red lips peeled further up the impossibly-sized teeth, eyes shining with manic glee.


And it was gone.

Albel stared dumbfounded at the space where the head had been, his sword hand still clutched in a claw shape at his hip. He looked around for the mutated men that had been his charges, but he was alone now.

Hours later, the missing team stumbled in from the snow, looking just as they had before their ill-fated investigation. They babbled, and few of them spoke anything resembling speech, but they looked whole and healthy. In body, at least.

Upon their unexpected arrival, Captain Albel accompanied them to the medical ward. Then he left, saying nothing.

"Are you sure?"

Sophia looked up at him sadly in that doleful puppy way that she'd perfected since they were young. Yes, Fayt was certain he had everything he needed for his return to Elicoor, but her tone told her she meant something else: the return itself, the commitment to living on an underdeveloped planet as if it were some kind of ascetic experience, or a penance.

They stood on the deck of the Eagle, Cliff's personal ship since he handed the Diplo over to Maria. In the year since "everything happened"-as they frequently chose to put it when they spoke about 4D, Luther, all of it-Fayt spent most of his time with what he said was an attempt at returning to normal, yet instead felt like preparation for the inevitable. He stayed with his mother in their old home, which felt surreal with its familiarity that was now empty of his father-and technically empty of whoever he had been before it all.

For the first few months, Ryoko Leingod floated through her existence, and so did he, feeling helplessly like a stranger to her and hollow with his own grief finally settling in. His old self began to die from the moment Hyda was attacked, he thought, and a part of him felt too numbed by everything that followed, too hounded by the new government trying to take hold. He sat beside Ryoko some evenings, feeling a gulf between them no matter how much she told him what a relief it was that he had lived. In the air always hung the other questions too: Styx, the experiments, what she and Robert and the Esteeds had always known.

Sophia dropped in, of course-and he noticed with some guilt that she was better at comforting his mother than he was. But then Sophia had always been better about feelings and reading other people than he had. Her knack for reading him, though, was exactly how she got him to admit what he'd asked of Cliff just a month after all of them had parted.

"Why?" she had asked, cornering him just outside his front door.

He had shrugged. "I guess it just feels right. I don't feel home here anymore. And mom...she's trying, but I don't think I help much."

"She loves you." Sophia said with balled fists. "Of course things are strange. We nearly lost our entire world. We did lose a big part of it. You need to be patient with yourself."

"How do you know returning to Elicoor isn't part of me working through this?"

He met Sophia's glower with the ghost of a smile, but he was serious and she knew it.

Later that evening, she called him on his communicator. He let it ring until it went to his mailbox. Her voice on the message she left was soft, hiding a bitterness he rarely felt in her. "Fayt...are you sure this isn't just running away?"

Maybe it was. But maybe he also needed it.

Cliff came down from the bridge to join them by the teleportation dock. The Klausian was big and boisterous as ever, but busier than ever as well. Though he never mentioned it, Fayt knew he had taken a risk carving out time for him.

"You ready to head out?" Cliff asked him.

"Yeah, as much as I can be ready. Thanks for the ride, Cliff. I really appreciate it."

"Say nothing of it. Me and the other old geezers left over from Quark needed the break."

"Thirty-seven isn't old!" Sophia protested.

Fayt grinned. "Yeah, complain about your age when you hit fifty, okay?"

"You won't be saying that when you get all the weird pains and stuff. My joints crack when I get up in the mornings."

"Are you sure that's not just from all those sparring sessions with Mirage?"

Cliff broke into a small smile. "Y'know, I'll miss you, kid. We had some good times down there, didn't we?"

"Maybe you're right, you are sounding old. I happen to remember torture being part of those 'good times.' And a little bit about a war."

"I said 'some.' Some good times. Just you, me, and Nel. Even as hostages at first, we turned into a pretty good team."

Fayt caught something in Cliff's tone as he mentioned Nel's name. He wouldn't put it past the Klausian to have guessed something about why he chose Elicoor of all places. And if he sensed Cliff's implications, so did Sophia, but she said nothing.

"Anyway, life will definitely be simpler down there," Cliff continued. "Maybe you'll get some actual rest for once."

"I hope so," Fayt said. "As long as they don't try to use me for any more wars. I think we gave Elena more than enough to go by."

"I feel like someone will try to use us no matter where we go," Sophia said quietly. Fayt looked over to see her staring at her shoes. He was leaving her, wasn't he? About as much as he was leaving his mom. But unlike Ryoko, she was putting up a little bit more of a fight.

Fayt opened his mouth to say it: I'll be back, don't worry. I'm not leaving you and mom forever. I'm sorry I even need to leave you now. But it caught in his throat, and faded away the longer it remained stuck.

Instead, Cliff broke the silence. "Hey, don't sweat it. You've got your communicator packed, right Fayt? Call us anytime and I'll drop everything to come get you. Well, I'll try anyway." He shrugged his massive shoulders.

Fayt nodded, then turned toward the teleportation platform. On the blue screen mounted beside it were the coordinates for somewhere in Irisia fields. He had already put on the old clothes Nel had given him a year ago, when she bailed them out of the Airyglyph prisons. The leather and cotton had numerous stitches from all the places where battle had left him with another hole to repair with little more than needle and thread. He shouldered his canvas knapsack, all signs of his true culture hidden within it underneath healing supplies and food. He faced Cliff and Sophia again.

"Well, I guess it's goodbye for now," he said.

Cliff stepped forward first and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Then, thinking better of it, the Klausian pulled him into a surprising hug. "Take care of yourself, kid," he said as he stepped away.

Next was Sophia. Fayt turned to look at her, her name halfway out of his mouth, when she collided with him hard, clasping her arms around him with all the strength she could muster. He could feel her tears against his neck. "Fayt…" she mumbled, and then released him without another word.

Fayt found himself unable to look at her again as he stepped into the humming blue light of the teleporter. He knew he would soon regret it.

The sound of the church organ reverberated through the walls of the bathing quarters as Nel performed her ablutions. It filled the quiet with a sinister minor key, in a tune far removed from any hymns played during services. Furthermore, it wasn't even a day of worship.

Nel rose naked from the pool of sacred water drawn all the way from Kaddan, cocking her head to take in the music. Must be Clair, she thought. Only a few of formidable authority could get away with sneaking into the chapel on off days, much less noodling around on the liturgical instruments with secular pieces like that. Nel suspected that the queen actually liked to hear something new echoing through the castle halls for once, and after the war no one would deny the Aquarian general her peacetime pleasures.

She grabbed a drying cloth from the hook nearby and dressed herself in her casual clothes, murmuring her final prayers. She knew how she looked, going about ritual as usual as if she had seen nothing, as if she had learned nothing from leaving her world. Her Majesty certainly knew that something was different-and what wouldn't be? She did go far beyond the heavens with a bunch of off-worlders, after all. But this was far more complex than a simple journey away from home, because she had met her gods, and they had failed her.

Now she wasn't sure to whom she prayed, but praying itself quieted the thought. At the very least, it was a symbol of her people, and of who she once was-who she still hoped she was, in spite of it all.

Nel pulled a cord to alert the attendants that she was finished. As a ritual requirement, the waters that made the bath must always be running, great pipes built centuries ago diverting it into a marble basin large enough to be a small swimming pool, but the priests and castle staff made sure to keep the place rigorously clean out of both respect and good health. Believers of Apris were required to bathe in sacred water as a form of purification, either as prayer-if they could manage it that often-or to mark significant occasions. Pregnant women bathed when they were close to giving birth as a blessing for safe delivery of a healthy child. Nel often bathed after coming back from missions-more so after killing. Murder was a mortal sin in the eyes of Apris, but kingdoms didn't always survive by good will alone. Especially not with neighbors like theirs.

Nel followed the sound of the organ through the castle corridors, her loose runologist's robes fluttering around her ankles, curious to see if her guess had been right about the music's source. The marble and stone walls around her were lightly damp with the faint mist rising up from the river that flowed underneath the castle walkways, visible beyond the metal rails that ran parallel to her stride. She made her way through the vast threshold that opened up into the balcony overlooking the chapel with its grand pillars and rows of pews. Behind the wooden altar, Apris stood tallest among his wives, who flanked him just as the moons seemed always to gather around the north star at the peak of night.

Nel eyed the god's looming statue for a moment, then followed the upper walkway that circled around behind it and the man-made waterfall that blocked the chapel's organ from view. When she was a child, it often seemed as if the music bellowed out from Apris himself, borne by the rushing water.

A lit candelabra flickered, illuminating the musician-who was indeed Clair-sitting at the great oak instrument whose brass pipes climbed up the walls in peaked rows. Nel once realized, years ago, that perhaps the reason the organ was so hidden away was to prevent its wood from swelling then rotting in the light spew of the falls.

Clair looked up as she concluded the piece, her smile half-hidden in the dramatic shadows cast by the candlelight. She was in her military uniform, though she had removed the scarf which now lay curled at her side on the bench.

"Oh, hello," she said. "How was the bath?"

"Fine." Nel paused a beat. "What's that one? I don't think I've ever heard it."

"You haven't. I made it up."

"Just now?"

Clair gestured widely, indicating the almost gothic lighting around her. "You could say I was following a particular mood."

"I'm sure some would find that a surprise. I get the impression that many people assume only pretty things out of you."

Her friend gave her a mordant look. Few were allowed a glimpse past Clair's cultivated veneer of gentle politeness, though perhaps some cleverer witnesses might pick up on how she could veil any criticism with the verbal equivalent of poison that tasted like rosewater. This was not to say Clair was at heart unkind. Not at all. She hated very few, but also laid herself bare to much fewer. Her language of friendship was showing you her sharpness in all its biting wit, never aimed at those who didn't (in her opinion) deserve it.

"I'm a soldier. What pretty things do they expect me to make, a nice glittering wreath of shrapnel?" Nel frequently noted how often Clair avoided calling herself a general. It made an odd kind of sense; titles like that at times loomed large, engulfing one's feeling of personhood. Close friends since they were children, they never wanted to be anything other than the whole of themselves to one another.

"Maybe that can be your wedding garland when your father finally finds you a husband."

"Gods, I shudder to think what he's up to now that he's returned. I worry about him when he's away, though. You know he turns sixty this spring?"

"Yes, but he's still strong for his age. Lasselle won't send him off anywhere too dangerous."

"It's not the potential assignment I'm worried about. It's that my father insists on making everything more of a challenge for himself than it needs to be. Now it's like he's trying to prove himself the same as the man he was in his thirties." Clair idly tapped a C note on the organ.

As Nel watched her, an odd mood overcame her. Perhaps it was the remnants of her recent empty prayers taking hold. "We're all getting old, I think," she said.

"Maybe you are," Clair replied with some mirth. "I can't remember ever feeling young. Side effect of the hair color I inherited, I suppose."

"War's changed all of us. Even you. We were never truly allowed to be children."

Nel's gaze lingered on Clair, who stared at the keys of the organ. "You're not wrong…" her friend began, but then trailed off into some unfinished observation. Clair had noticed the difference in her, and Clair was worried, but this time in a way very different from a fear for Nel's life. It also occured to Nel that Clair herself might've come back from another briefing of the missing and the dead, or another memorial for the lost she had led into battle. There was little else for the general to do in the full year of peace except anticipate the possible and attend to the casualties.

The odd mood swelled, bottomed out into a place that sent a surge up Nel's throat. For the first time since her father's death, she felt she might cry, though for what she wasn't sure.

"You should sing something."

Clair cocked an eye at her. Gods forbid the men of Aquaria discover that this famous beauty could also sing. And they would find out over Clair's dead body. Nel had a good voice too, she supposed, but she exercised it far less. "Oh? Anything you had in mind?"

"I don't know. Something we grew up with, I guess."

Clair thought for a second, then pulled at one of the polished stops from the rows of knobs beside her. When she pressed the keys, a gentler sound like a flute echoed through the chapel.

The tune was simple, almost like a lullaby. It took Nel a moment to recognize it: "In the Rays of the Sun." She and Clair had hummed this more than once after overhearing it from street performers or ordinary citizens at their work. Nobody could decide whether it was meant as a hymn to Apris or as a simple love ballad, and the ambiguity was enough for the Church to debate the appropriateness of its use in services.

"In the rays of the sun my heart thrives..." Clair's soprano rose above the sound of the organ. Nel watched how her throat moved when she sang, head tilted and eyes nearly shut against the world around her. The rush of emotion in Nel rose again, but then faded peacefully so that, for a moment, she felt settled, calm in her own skin for once.

The song concluded. Clair let the melody peter out and they both listened as the remnants of sound echoed softly through the chapel. "How was that? Maybe a pipe organ built for a temple wasn't the best choice of musical accompaniment."

"It sounded fine to me."

"Then it was good enough, I suppose." Clair stood up from the bench, retrieving her scarf with one hand. "Now, are you going to get some rest for once, or do I have to force you?"

"I could say the same about y-"

Clair was looking at her, and her eyes had turned a solid black.

Nel stared in mounting alarm as her friend's face warped before her. Nostrils shrank, the skin wrinkling so that they slid up to flank the bridge of the nose, whose tip harded, blackened, shot forward into a sharp peak. The chin receded into the base of the nose, a swirl of darkening flesh that, for a moment, gave the face the collapsing mouth of a toothless old woman. But that too disappeared into the jutting thing-the beak, Nel realized incredulously-at the center of what had once been Clair.

"What is this?" Nel had found her voice. "Is this some witchcraft?"

The face now looked completely birdlike, the skin grey and puckered as a newborn hatchling, the beak black as a shard of onyx. The beak gaped, opening into a red throat, and a harsh, croaking tune came hurtling out-"In the Rays of the Sun." Nel's feet felt made of lead.

Then she blinked and it was all over. Clair-normal, whole, and deeply concerned-stared back at her, her eyes returned to their rich amber.

"Nel? Nel, what's wrong? What are you seeing?"

"Clair, I thought I…" Nel's mouth hung open, at a loss to describe what had happened-what she thought had happened. Many of the survivors had gone mad, as they tended to call it, after the war. Sometimes veterans saw things that weren't there. One recruit who was at the final battle at Arias dreamed vividly of being buried in corpses almost every night.

"But no, this has never happened before." She never meant to say it aloud, and the expression dawning on Clair's face snapped her into sobriety. "Sorry. I don't know what came over me. Your face just...changed. I don't know. I've never seen anything like it."

"Are you sure it's not the light?" Clair put a hand to Nel's forehead. The calluses high on her palm were rough against Nel's clammy skin.

"I'm not ill, Clair. And no, it wasn't the light."

"Perhaps you need sleep more desperately than I thought. But please, go see the medic tomorrow. I've never seen your face so pale."

Nel nodded as the hand lifted from her, suddenly reluctant to explain anymore. Clair had enough stress as it was. And it had ended, hadn't it? Her friend was here before her, just as normal.

They walked back to their rooms together and said their goodnights, Clair casting her a final glance before disappearing behind her bedroom door. Nel took her time, her bones suddenly aching with weariness. The burst of panic the vision had given her had sapped all her energy, so that even her eyelids struggled to stay open.

She entered her room to find the lamp lit already. Through her weariness another echo of alarm straightened her spine. Her skin began to crawl with a vague sensation hovering in the air that she couldn't quite place, and that at first seemed to just be her senses groping for any sign of danger. Yet there it was, a subtle crackle in the atmosphere, not unlike the strong scent of ozone before a storm, or after a strong spell.

She took another step forward and that's when the first feathers blinded her. They fell from the ceiling in chaotic swirls, filling her nose with down like soot. She coughed, her breath pushing them from her face in a black current.

After a moment, the feathers settled. They were enough to cover most of the white stone at her feet. She picked one up to inspect it. The bird that owned it must have been as large as a wolf. The sleek vane of it shone like filthy oil. Above her, the ceiling was empty-the feathers might as well have appeared from thin air.

On instinct, Nel stepped over the fluttering heap toward her bedside, where the Blades of Ryusen rested in a latched wooden trunk. She knelt, flipping the metal latch quietly, and eased it open, checking her peripherals for any movement all the while.

She found the trunk empty, except for a single scrap of parchment at the bottom. On it, scrawled in ink, was a language she had never seen before on the continent of Gaitt, but one sentence she could read clearly: A little bird told me you had something nice.

Closing notes:

Yes, I altered the scene from Albel's ending in the game. I'm not a fan of rewriting whole sequences in the game (anymore) but I did make deliberate tweaks for reasons other than avoiding a total retread. I also have an entire document of rambling notes and speculations to flesh out the setting, the fact that clearly Aquaria and Airyglyph have had multiple wars, but no one talks about them, etc. For Nel's part, Aquaria was and is fun to expand upon, given I really enjoy religious studies. While the game goes with what looks like a hybrid of Catholic and Greek pagan imagery for the Church of Apris, what Nel's bathing in (not from game lore, though the Aquarian veneration of Kaddan's waters is) is basically a Jewish mikveh.

For this I also rewatched all of the solo and paired endings, just to refresh myself as to how the game generally deals with the aftermath. I downloaded the PS4 port of the game a little while back, but I've only just left the Kirlsa mines, and I need a bit to calm down after the fucking Hauler beast sequence. You would think hours of Bloodborne would give me more patience.