A Bloodborne Tale
“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’”
—John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad
Feverish I have been; feverish near unto frenzy, for the blessed blood taints me, as it has done so many among us who Hunted upon the sprawling snowfields and spiraled spires of Cainhurst’s haunts. Too much spillage. How were we to avoid the Vileblood corruption when it rained down all around us in our bladed symphony and wheel-broken mayhem? Were I a stronger man I would not have feared beasthood. Yet, though thrust among the Healing Church’s ranks, I have always known myself to be more a failed scholar of Byrgenworth than an Executioner imbued with strength equal to my faith. Indeed, I had learned too much from the gaping-mouthed ghouls and dull-eyed scholars to have faith in the insidious Church, even whilst beneath the tutelage of Master Logarius, the purported paragon of faith. If I were to fault anything, it would have to be having been in such company as so many revered men. For my heroes have been revealed to me in all of their deficiencies, from Willem to Logarius, and even my most admired confidant, Nicolae.
But how had I come to this land of Vilebloods and its tantalizing heresies? Even now my mind is mingled with pasts and futures not my own— with lives belonging to the sanguine dregs of others and all the temptations that inhabited such individuals. Some things are more clearly branded in my mind than others. The rationale for my restless resettlement has always remained fairly pellucid. Even then I suspected that my addition to the Executioners was Willem’s scheme to rid himself of a scholar too flawed to be of use and too strong-willed to be obedient. After all, I was arrogant, naturally, and increasingly so as my sojourn at Byrgenworth proved my own insufficiencies as a scholar. I had been a feeble practitioner of the arcane arts. Laughably so, I must confess. I had no more eyes on the inside than the common Yharnamite. And the smirks and sneers of my fellow scholars further incensed me, tempting my transgressions. When I had stolen the Chalice and entered the Pthumerian tombs, Willem had no doubt been inclined to let me wander there until my death. But when I returned— my sword broken and my body on the verge of death— I held within my possession a valuable relic hitherto undiscovered. Willem ordered that I be treated well, so I might recover, and then he sent me to the Church, saying I needed to atone for my sins by becoming an Executioner. Knowing that to refuse was to forfeit my life, I obeyed him. I had seen the experiments conducted at Byrgenworth and had no desire to be likewise mutilated.
What an unsuspecting imbecile I was! A naif and fool. I wandered into Yharnam as a lamb unto a slaughterhouse. That is not to say that I was unaware of Willem’s intentions. As I have said, I was a disobedient young man disinclined to conformity. To send me to the Church, it seemed, was as to send an unruly charge from an overwrought governess to a military general. Either I should be disciplined or destroyed, and no additional course was to be considered. I suppose it helped in my “reformation” that Yharnam struck me so overwhelmingly when I first beheld it. It overawed me in a way that not even Byrgenworth and its many secrets could. Indeed, to see it was as to see a grim, black-hearted wastrel lurching out of an alleyway and looming large, his shadow dark and fetid and wholly encompassing you. It intimidated me, in short, and inspired in me a festering resentment.
Yharnam—what can be said of that dizzying edifice of vertiginous hypocrisy? One can see how the edifices and gables and spires of Yharnam rear upward toward the heavens like desperate supplicants to their lofty gods overtopping them. Thus city and citizenry are unified in their desperate conceit for deliverance. It was built upon Old Yharnam, as upon a fuming crypt of cremation. So, too, Byrgenworth was built upon the dead; that venerated seat of learning but a lectern whereat fools in dunce caps preach atop the bones of more learned sages of the Eldritch Truth. There are secrets in Oedon’s Chapel that would drive mad the Yharnamites huddled below it like stupid, blood-glutted farrows at a sow’s teats. I do not embellish when I say that Oedon’s Chapel is a cannibal mother to those of us clear-eyed enough to see it.
Yet, I had little time to accustom myself to that dizzying array of compounding architectural complexities. It was not long after I arrived in Yharnam and was introduced to my compatriots that Master Logarius led us upon the proverbial warpath. I was not yet settled into my quarters in Yharnam when I was rushed along Hemwick Lane with the others, ill-fitted with my clothing and my ridiculous golden helm. It was upon that road that I acquainted myself with my brethren. I had no formal introduction, nor even sufficient time to habituate myself to our cumbersome wheels. Hoisting the weapon upon my back, I wondered if it was merely a contrivance born of absurdity whereby to mock me as the newest recruit. But soon enough I saw that all of my brethren strapped the unwieldy weapon upon their back.
It was, in my opinion, no small amount of tomfoolery that we walked the entirety of the way to the threshold of our enemy’s domain. How ironic that we should walk while bearing upon our bowed backs the wheels wherewith we could outfit enough carriages to carry us. But it was as much a walk of Faith as it was a bonding exercise among our ranks. Master Logarius was, if anything, a man of certain principles. Adversity was his tempering stone. A hard man, he nonetheless inspired faith within the Executioners; perhaps because of his difficult temperament.
There were many of strong faith among the Executioners’ ranks. I felt misplaced among them, and unworthy. They welcomed me happily, and yet despite their camaraderie, I knew I was placed among them too late to be counted brotherly. I was, as a nuisance to Willem, expendable and likely soon discarded. For what was the reason for my swift induction into such venerated ranks except as a sacrificial goat? True, I had proven myself of some worth in the Pthumerian tombs, but much of my survival impinged upon wise retreat and selective killing. But this was war. The Vilebloods were warrior nobles of renowned prowess. They had imbibed forbidden blood and had gained horrendous strength from its occult legacy. How could an unseasoned scholar such as myself fare against such bloodlusting monsters as what enumerated within Cainhurst Castle?
The march was long and hard. I felt half-dead as we approached. Blood was made available upon the journey, to enliven us, and it helped to invigorate me, though it seemed to me to be lacking of essential vigors to compensate for my innate apprehension. My prevalent sense of dread only increased within me as we passed through the woods. It was truly odd, considering I had braved the Pthumerian tombs with nothing but my sword to accompany me. Yet, I would later discover in such apprehension the latency of a conflicted nature and inclination that would, inevitably, elucidate such fears as mere ambivalence arising from divided allegiances. Given time, of course. In the meantime, however, I was as a blind man groping in a hallway, confused as to which direction to go.
Thus, I turned to Nicolae, in whom I believed a trait of amicability presided and whom therein I might confide my apprehensions without derision or flippancy.
“I do not know if I am of merit or mettle to be among you,” I confessed.
He gave the most good-natured smile and patted my shoulder in a familiar way unknown to those cold-hearted minds of Byrgenworth.
“No one knows the worth of any untested tool,” he said. “It must be measured, as they say, when blade bites bone. Only then do we know if any of us are worthy of our call to serve.”
We came, at length, to the sleepy village of Hemwick. Here, in this backwater village, and on any misty morning, the fog rolls up from the sea and mingles with the ashen smoke of those charnel houses and mills, inseparably, as if a great fugue over the land; a forgetful dream rising up from the unplumbed depths. What a dilapidated sprawl of cottages and windmills! They were derelict not unlike the corpses they stripped and burned to fuel the Vileblood’s ambitions.
Women and men both worked united in this purpose. Yet, when they saw our arrival through the woods, they ceased immediately in their efforts. Initially I feared an altercation between our small army and that gaunt peasantry. But this fear did not manifest to form. Though its citizenry were enslaved to their masters, they did not contend our passage. Rather, they fled indoors, among their macabre labors, and did not emerge until we were well beyond their smoky village. Master Logarius commented that such an enterprise would benefit the Healing Church greatly. Ash marrow bullets were much coveted in the Church’s arsenal. Such an arsenal, he vowed, would help pave the road to the Church’s true ascension. Even now I cannot help but see a road cobbled in skulls and pooled with blood when I recall his words.
When I first saw Cainhurst Castle I was mesmerized by its forbidden beauty. Its ancient legacy was attested in every old stone upon which the towering edifice exulted itself. Its spires rose upward from the mountainous island, surrounded by the briny depths of the sea. A pale moon glossed the icy pinnacles and I felt a strange familiarity with such a forlorn image. Nor could I remember such a familiarity in my life. Byrgenworth’s insights had stripped me of my previous life. What memories I had were shattered glass shards. The attempt to summon to mind my past was, and even now is, as futile an endeavor as to draw out the blood from one’s own veins. It cycles, and determines who I am, yet I cannot harness it as upon a spool for closer reflection. What I knew, without one whit of doubt, was that Cainhurst meant more to me than either Byrgenworth or Yharnam could. At the time, however, I did not know if it meant my death or, perhaps, a new awakening.
When we arrived at the Cainhurst Castle’s bridge we were met by silence. There were no forces awaiting us on that long stone bridge. Nor were there forces hailing us from the castle’s many windows. The wind skirled sibilantly against its tottering beauty, but apart from the elements we heard nothing. Snow fell, as if patting down the silence with its own immaculate hush. My unease grew in such silence. Yet, I was not certain what I was truly uneasy about: my own life and its potential loss, or our imminent disturbance into that silent, stony mistress that lorded over this land. It seemed sacrilegious to intrude there. This excited in me dread and euphoria, as one would feel in taking pleasure from one of Yharnam’s many whores— whether from her gaping thighs or her gaping veins.
The Castle was silent. The moon reigned above it like a skull-crowned monarch, glowing pallidly with its endless life.
“Have they alighted?” an Executioner asked, voicing what we all thought at that moment.
Master Logarius said nothing. He instead pointed wordlessly toward the portcullis. There was an audible gasp from someone among the Executioners. Perhaps it was from myself. Regardless of its origin, the gasp was justified, for the portcullis mocked us with its Pthumerian gawp, it being lifted— as if in betrayal—to invite us in to ravage the castle it was intended to protect. Perhaps, I thought, the Vilebloods had indeed alighted from the castle, seeking sanctuary in a distant land, or some distant sea. I hoped so, for I was in no mood for bloodshed upon such alluring grounds. We followed Master Logarius beneath the portcullis and into the moonyard of the inner walls. There was a water fountain there, frozen in the wintry wastes, and statues allotted here and there in intermittent clusters. To one side I saw the land fall away into a descending hollow that appeared to have been a cave once upon an age. The crush of rocks at the bottom indicated a concerted effort to close that passage. It begged the question as to what had been discovered there, and why it was feared.
The silence was unsettling. Indeed, it reminded me of still waters wherein a predator lurked, circling a fool oblivious to the teeth at his ankles. Instinctively, I drifted toward the center of our army, sheltering myself within our ranks. I feel no shame in admitting myself in want of advantage by their insulating numbers. They were, so far as my untested mettle was concerned, a mobile bulwark within which I might protect myself.
It was as we passed halfway between the portcullis and the Castle’s large, imposing doors that the sinister silence erupted into a clashing cacophony. Two large bodies of Cainhurst knights rushed us from afore and behind. It was a trap! To one flank gaped the hollow of crushed rock and to the other were the sheer walls of the Castle itself. Master Logarius was in front, and met the knights with his scythe, cutting them down like harvest-ready wheat. I had never seen such a terrible bloodletting before. His soldiers did no less in their efforts, crashing into, and smashing, the Cainhurst knights with their heavy Wheels. The Cainhurst knights were fast with their swords, but the Wheels overpowered their thrusts and slashes, turning them aside. Those whom were mounted upon horseback advantaged themselves of their height, slashing down at the Executioners below them. However, the Executioners were trained well— discounting myself—and soon overcame these knights by forming a phalanx with their wheels. Like a carapace of spokes and rims and hubs, they moved together, protecting each other while Executioners beneath them used their swords to cut the horses to stumps, thus throwing the knights for efficient dispatch. My brethren were coordinated and calm, even while surrounded in ambush. I had neither the collection of mind, nor the training of arms, to be of use in such a chaotic fray. I cowered among the Executioners, as a worm among armored beetles. Their power was matched only by their ferocious animosity toward the Vilebloods they smashed and mangled and mutilated. And their hatred was fostered by their faith in the Church. I was not possessed of such faith. I was an apostate.
Neither was sheer strength my forte. I was not an Executioner imbued with brute force, nor were the arcane powers mine at easy beck and call, as I had learned alongside my peers in Byrgenworth. Something else was my acuity, though it would be some time before I learned of my latent talents.
The ungaily Wheels we used by the Executioners were cumbersome for me, and so I carried mine only as an observance of my newly acquired duty, preferring my blade in such butcher’s work, as I had during my exhumation of the Pthumerian Catacombs. Speed was an endowment advantaging me, and clever, furtive hands. While I could never wield the Wheels as my brethren did, I made use of the blade in an efficient manner when I could not longer cower behind my brethren. I was surprised at my own bloody work. The Pthumerian Catacombs had not been an ordeal like that of war, and here, in the moonyard of Cainhurst Castle, I discovered that when confronted with annihilation I had, at my disposal, a natural deftness for swordplay. I suppose this should not have astounded me so greatly. Though a thorough skeptic concerning the legacies of the Church, and the first Ministrations of the Old Blood, I still claimed for myself a certain pantheon of figures whom I admired. Ludwig, the Holy Blade, and his strange sword, had always intrigued and inspired me, even when I was an inept scholar at Byrgenworth. My admiration for Ludwig was why I allowed myself the use of the Holy Blade, despite it being a pale imitation of that great glowing moonlight sword of legend. To my shame, however, I must admit my inability to wield the imitation’s secondary form with any aptness or dexterity of hand, my strength being inadequate. Rather, the sheathe remained exactly that: a sheathe. I did not partake in such cumbersome additions when my natural disposition toward speed would have been disadvantaged for no particular betterment.
My inadequacies were mirrored, fortunately, in Cainhurst’s forces as we destroyed the ambushing forces and entered the Castle’s great hall. They had neither strength of numbers nor quality of strength in their warriors to hold the tide. As we ascended the central staircase, and killed whosoever was unwary enough to intercede our path, it became increasingly apparent how minimal their forces truly were. Indeed, they had supplemented their forces with the many stone statues that adorned that gigantic complex, arranging them like farcical imitations of the forces they lacked. It would have been laughable had the circumstances not been so serious. Perhaps they were desperate. Perhaps the were mocking us with their stolid-faced statues. Perhaps it was both.
There were more knights within the castle, and upon every level of its tottering heights, but they fell before us as do sand idols before the thrashing tides. Their armor, forged of thin silver in pompous fashion, offered little protection against the blunt impacts of the Executioners’ Wheels. Rather, the refined finery of those silver plates collapsed inward alongside ribs and skulls, inlaying the crimson pulp with smeared silver wrapping— nothing more.
I was not unaware of the stories concerning the servants of Cainhurst. The nobility had quaffed much of the forbidden blood, and, consequently, were given to inhuman transformations should the blood have provoked their more bestial natures. It was not unlike the Beast Plague in Yharnam, and, as such, these unfortunate circumstances necessitated the employment of Hunters. Only, here in Cainhurst the servants of the nobility were often trained to cull the nobility of the affected among its ranks. The knights, too, engaged in these culling efforts, but I found it endlessly fascinating that such duties should fall to inferiors and subordinates among what I presumed to be an arrogant aristocracy. Perhaps, I thought, they were not so arrogant after all. Perhaps there was a bond between them quite to the contrary as that of the Healing Church and its legion of unsuspecting naifs. Here, the nobility inspired fealty by laying their napes beneath the blades of their servants. The Healing Church, on the other hand, promised salvation with their ministrations, all the while opening veins to greater, more terrible infections than mere Ashen blood.
The Cainhurst servants engaged us as heartily as the Cainhurst knights had. They were formidable with their rapiers and unassuming, slinking ways. Ultimately, they were smashed like the many scores of other bodies left in our wake. Yet, I felt a keen sorrow for them as they ran to meet us on behalf of their masters. The small, withered men and women were half the height and stature of their betters, and still managed a certain nobility in their brave, foolish deaths. Apparent as their mistreatment was at the behest of the nobility, the servants nonetheless were— or wherefore became— dedicated to that ancient bloodline.
I have oft wondered what went through the minds of our victims that night. I would have thought it strange to see a siege led by men in golden helmets and carrying those impractical Wheels about. But I did not doubt that, once the battle had been engaged, whatever mirth might have assumed itself in their minds at such a ridiculous sight rapidly transformed to horror. Having never seen a Wheel utilized in such a barbarous fashion, I was myself quite shocked to see the butchery that followed. Broken bones, smashed guts, caved-in heads— for being such an absurd weapon, the Wheel manifested shockingly gory proceedings. Vileblood blades were either turned away by the cumbersome rims or arms were snapped by the ensnaring spokes. The small, hunkering servants were pulverized to steaming heaps of meat and bone within moments. It was horrifying.
But I noticed a more horrifying phenomenon beyond the mere spectacle of slaughter. Following behind my brethren, like a gosling in the currents of its parents, I could see much what they, in their murderous frenzy, could not see. And I am grateful that I had enough sense, at first, to fear for my well-being. Moreover, I was appalled by so much rampant carnage and delayed enjoining my own blade in service to the Church except in instances where my own life would be forfeit. Yet, among the visceral nausea, there came, parallel and intensifying the former, an Eldritch abhorrence. At first I merely dismissed it as the fanciful notion of an overwrought mind. Yet, thinking back on it now I know it to have been no mere fancy born from the violence arrayed around me. What I saw had indeed transpired: as the Vilebloods perished, their blood circumscribed those abominable Church weapons, girdling them like a torrential stream upon a waterwheel. I do not claim to know if it was a crimson curse of the Vilebloods in the throes of their deaths, or some diabolical upon the Executioners’ Wheels imbued by the Church. But what I saw, as my brethren smashed knights and servants alike, was a literal cyclical curse.
That is not to say that the scholar in me was not intrigued by the apparent phenomenon. My mind subsequently rifled through its admittedly limited tomes of knowledge, seeking a corresponding phenomenon or similar account. The nearest similitude readily recalled was a brief overview of Pthumerian sanguinomancy and an anecdote concerning an incident in a fishing hamlet. Regardless of the unfamiliarity of the phenomenon, I understood it for what it was: a bloody curse. Nor was it superstition that deemed it so in my recognition. The more my brethren killed, the more blood-drunk they became, and consequently the more blind they were to the vengefulness of the spirits harnessed about the rims of their Wheels. Even mild-tempered Nicolae was besot with the crimson lunacy. His countenance was disquieting to behold.
The resistance within Cainhurst diminished by degrees of quality and quantity. Soon the knights were all destroyed, and the servants rapidly fell in succession. We came to a dining hall, and there within it were noblewomen armed with daggers. Attired in flowery dresses, beautiful and damned and damning a man with their winsome beauty and false frailty, they gave me pause. Even the blood-crazed Executioners looked upon them with some hesitation. Yet, Master Logarius had iron in his soul sharper and stronger than any manmade blade and, so, bade us bind and blind those that did not immediately fall in the ensuing violence of disarming them. This, I knew, was to spare his own flock the temptations of their beauty. Indeed, the noblewomen tempted the cloistered scholar in me with their seductive eyes. I felt pity for them, and knew it to be a failure in my human flesh, or perhaps a foible of my beast’s blood, and therefore a vermin of soul to be silenced with a merciless boot. When my brethren slit their throats I felt a great pang crying out to those wretched beauties, even as I abhorred their power over me.
We ascended the Castle, coming to a vast library that would have shamed Byrgenworth with its collection. The scholar in me bemoaned so many unread works. Who knew what arcana inhabited that vast, many-storied library with its labyrinth walkways and oaken staircases and tiers upon tiers of shelves? And yet, even here great butcheries were perpetrated in the name of the Healing Church. Master Logarius was like the Wheels with which the Church armed his followers: ever grinding inexorably onward in his bloody path.
‘Twas easier to gain entry into the depths of the Pthumerian labyrinths than the upper reaches of Cainhurst castle. Battle was bloody up its heights, with both knights and maidens raising arms against us. They all fell, however, as we wound our way upwards, led by Logarius and undauntable Nicolae. The castle was as a puzzlebox, demanding due vigilance and keenness of mind. Many times we found ourselves confronted by dead ends, and barbarous traps, but Master Logarius and Nicolae both persevered, leading us upwards, never once stonewalled for long. I marveled at our progress, for I felt quite heady and troubled by the entire foray, my mind bucking me like an obstinate stallion. The castle itself held some sway over me, it seemed, though I dared not voice such misgivings to my brethren.
One thing was certain, though: the Vilebloods were ill-prepared for our assault. They had not expected the Church to be so bold, or perhaps their pride assumed themselves too strong to be overthrown. We slaughtered their horses and laid waste to their servants long before they could muster a defense.
Logically, I thought of it as no massacre, but merely as an impersonal culling of the beastly herd. It was no secret that the Vilebloods had partaken of filthy blood and in so doing doomed themselves toward the plague of beasts. The ashen plague was of their making as well, and would undo them in time without the Church’s machinations.
Or so I had been told.
We ascended to the very heights of the castle, finding ourselves upon its windy roofs and snowy turrets. The frosted crown of the castle was as treacherous as its inhabitants. A chance misstep and I nearly lost my foothold as we scoured the rooftops for the remaining beasts and royalty. Master Logarius must have had a keener eye than myself, for he led us along the precarious catwalks and spires toward some unseen . I almost thought him mad, for a time, and wondered if he was chasing cold phantoms from the foggy sea.
We were met by the Vileblood King upon the rampart of the remaining expanse of the castle. When he arrived, with his heretical Chikage, we thought our revenge near its end. He was unaccompanied, standing solitary against a score of us. His last stand was hopeless and vain.
Foolhardy as I was, I was caught unawares when the King thrust his sword into his own body. I mistook his actions as a final act of defiance, and aristocratic arrogance to deny us the killing blow, and so I dropped my guard, struck thereupon by his blazing blood as he withdrew the blasphemously steeped blade. I fell and did not rise until after the King had been slaughtered by my brethren. Nicolae knelt over me, surveying the damage. I could see only with one eye, the other benighted by the vileblood fire.
I attempted to stand, but Nicolae ordered me to rest, and so I rested. When I awoke later, I felt delusional, for I saw my brethren manifesting from thin air upon the battlements of the castle. Their demeanors were grave, despite our victory. I rose unsteadily to my feet and asked them what was the matter. They informed me that Master Logarius had been slain during the execution of Queen Annalise. I felt a great pang of guilt, thinking that my absence might have forfeited our Master’s life in the final confrontation. Yet, my remaining eye alighted upon the bloody head of the fallen Vileblood King, and I wondered at his missing crown. It was curiously strange, but I said nothing of it, knowing that discretion in Church matters was holy in its own way.
And yet I recalled it vividly, intimately, as if I had known that crown my entire life. It had been embedded in its long, slender turrets with jewels of jade, amber, ruby, sapphire, and amethyst. It was a garish piece of ornamentation, and yet I had sensed within it a jewel beyond equal; a jewel yet unseen, except perhaps in dreams, and a jewel to which access was granted solely through such a strange crown.
We left that forsaken castle and returned to Hemwick Lane, greeted by its residents as heroes. They were all of them now liberated from their ancient bondage to Cainhurst and its Vileblood dynasty. Nicolae assured us, with his naive smile, that the residents would find salvation in the teachings, and the ministrations, of the Healing Church. Yet, even then I could discern the ravages of the Ashen Blood in their gaunt faces. They were dying slowly, painfully, and cheered us with agonized grimaces. What would the Church do if Hemwick should succumb as Old Yharnam had? Its weaponry against evil was maintained through the blessed work of Hemwick. Without bone ash the Church would lose power, despite having just conquered its greatest enemy.