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Remembrance of the Rot Goddess

Chapter Text

Miquella and Malenia are both the children of a single god.

 

As such, they are both Empyreans, but suffered afflictions from birth. One was cursed with eternal childhood…

 

…and the other harbored rot within.

 

*

 

When she wakes once more, there is nothing but darkness.

 

Breathe, she thinks, forcing her muscles to contract, to shudder. It is a broken sort of movement; one that catches more sand than air. Though she is not of mortal ilk, and therefore difficulty here will not much hinder her, the pain is grounding - and alongside it, she notes, are three critical facts.

 

First - the ribs on her left are crushed from where Radahn bashed her broken form against the spears in his own shoulder, but something even now knits the fractured shards of bone back together into something whole. It is exceedingly painful, but she has survived greater agonies.

 

Second, and worse, is the gaping wound that still resides in the center of her chest, warped metal digging into the edge of the lesion that she cut into her skin with the weight of her own form. Miquella’s blade doesn’t miss, and neither does the blunt end.

 

But worst of all, the third - between the lack of light in the sky, the dry texture of sand on her tongue, and the sweet, cloying smell of ground… something… she knows that she cannot be lying where she fell on the field.

 

Someone must have moved her body after the bloom.

 

Quite a distance, too, for nights in Caelid are not so dark. They spent two days on a forced march through those lands. Though, of course, she has simply not managed to muster the strength to open her eyes, yet.

 

But when she tries, straining to blink, there is too much resistance. More than is reasonable.

 

Far too much, in fact. Her eyelids remain shut.

 

She tries again, fails again, and shifts, biting back a scream as she struggles to maneuver her remaining arm out from under her head to rub at her eyes, but recoils on contact, for the texture is not that of skin, but of lichen and-

 

- her breath hitches in her throat, and she scratches at it, because maybe it will come off, but the marred skin, the disconcerting texture, stays where it is. There is no gauntlet on her flesh hand, and good for it, for when her fingers come away jarringly wet, the damage done is less than it could be otherwise. But it is not, she realizes in dawning horror, just blood staining her hands.

 

The smell, the lingering scent of too-sweet earth and stagnant leaves and spoiled meat…

 

…it’s coming from her.

 

There is no way to avoid it now, because the evidence of it drips down her wrist, turning what little of her stomach has not yet been wrenched from her body by her own blade. The second bloom was worse than the first.

 

Gingerly, she presses a shaking fingertip to the bridge of her nose, and does not feel skin.

 

What has grown over in its place is rough and almost bark-like in texture. Not quite, though, for it is too brittle, like lichen, but long left to the elements. She traces the web of it across the ruins it has made of her eyes, now damp with what rot she’s carved out of the ruined skin along with the blood.

 

She cannot even feel where her eyes were.

 

There is no time to mourn for lost sight. Radahn will be contained, that much is certain - he will not make it far, not after what she’s done, with the rot now boiling his blood as it runs through his very being. The danger now is limited to the old battlefield.

 

…she hopes.

 

Yet, though contained, she cannot guarantee no stragglers remain among his host, and this is a danger for more reason than one. She had her knights take to the field as quickly as possible, only seizing what camps were necessary to ensure they had the freedom at their disposal to make a safe retreat, if she’d needed to order it.

 

(She’d sounded the retreat, shortly before the duel. It was not worth losing her knights when her half-brother was within her capacity to handle. Faith she certainly had in them, but she knows all too well that faith is not always enough.)

 

Caelid is not a safe place to recuperate, but she may not have a choice - 

 

Regardless, she thinks, there are ways around this, senses other than sight. Some of her ilk are better at it than others, but she’s always been keenly attuned to life and death the way that some of her half-siblings can catch the scent of a single drop of blood shed across a castle.

 

And someone must’ve dragged her here, which means there’s either a corpse or living being nearby.

 

It takes some focus, but when the strange, second sight comes, she finds it easier than ever before to parse the intricacies of the sense. Wherever she is, there’s a thick blanket of fungal growth among warped trees and shallow, muddied waters. Corpses aplenty, though not many of her host or Radahn’s.

 

Dead fish on the shores, in the lake, in the dirt. Enough so that her stomach turns.

 

But she does not have long to ponder them, nor the body leaning against the nearby tree, a young woman half-consumed by the violent rot at her side, which eats into her shoulder from where an arm certainly must’ve been, because the sound of battle rings out from barely a few dozen meters away.

 

Some of the sounds are familiar - the edge of a winged spear catching on metal, the scraping of a blade’s edge against the joint of armor, wet footfalls of someone light on their feet but not in their garb.

 

Finlay fights not like a woman possessed, but akin to a well-honed tool, automatic but not unthinking. Maleenia thanks whatever remains of the Greater Will that out of all of them, it was her who lived. Disobedient til the end, for she’d seen that blow Finlay had landed on the Starscourge, and-

 

-she could’ve killed Finlay, in the aftermath. The knight’s spear, small wound as it dealt, was what gave her the opening, in the end. 

 

And yet, Malenia does not call out, thinking better of it, and pauses. It takes a moment of focus and a shuddering breath to sense out what she has remaining in the way of limbs. Finlay, it seems, has recovered her prosthetics, and the act makes her burn with a strange and unknown shame. The port on the left leg is slightly damaged, but Miquella’s work on the extension of the limb itself will hold, so she should be able to fix it with the proper tool.

 

(The blade is beyond warped, but she did not expect, in all honesty, to see it again. Nonetheless, Finlay has left its mangled remnants by her side, the crushed golden fingers only half-attached.)

 

If she could fully sit up, she thinks, perhaps she could manage it. Sitting up, however, is an exercise in trying to turn without aggravating the wound on her chest any more than absolutely necessary. The last thing she wants is a repeat performance.

 

It is eerie to hear Caelid so silent after weeks of battling down through the plains from the north. Even but a day ago, there was more than one mere swordsman fending off several ill-omened creatures. It is strange to hear silence where there were so recently two armies. 

 

But, she forces herself to admit, it is not just the absence of battle that unnerves her so.

 

The fish are not the only dead animals within what strange sense she has in lieu of sight. Turning to lift her head, it becomes quickly clear that the ground is littered with carrion birds, turned carrion themselves. This smell, she can now discern, is a more familiar kind of rot - corpses left to decompose, baked beneath a relentless sun.

 

Shit. Her flesh arm is wounded too, she learns, as it fails to hold her weight when she tries to rise above the elbow - something in an upper muscle isn’t quite right, a torn ligament, a broken-

 

There’s a laugh from the dark, and she flinches, freezing in the middle of the motion at the vague sensation of the presence behind her. The gloomy shape lingers, coalescing into something approximately the size of a large man but not fully tangible.

 

“Some,” the grave voice of Morgott calls, “had hopes for you. Once.”

 

Speaking is still beyond her, for breath requires movement of the lungs, and there is still a deep hole knitting itself back together, tendrils of meat winding amongst themselves like climbing flowers-

 

He makes a discontented noise. “Look,” he mutters, “at what you’ve wrought, sister.”

 

She cannot, and he must know that. But from what little she can glean-

 

-that young woman’s corpse. Another, armored, slumped against the broken shape of a doorframe, in the only remaining wall of what must have once been a shack. Sickly, mold-tainted roots twist around the foundations of old ruins of what was once a lakeside fort. There is no lake left now. Just a swamp.

 

But he’s wrong - she was not the only one who wrought this destruction. Off in the distance, a large shape staggers through the sand, dragging a trail of bodies behind. The rot may not settle calmly amidst the dust, but neither do the meteor fragments.

 

And yet… she cannot stop thinking of the flower petals left in the wake of his footsteps. The battle but five minutes away, and the sickly smell of the blood shed. Finlay’s face, burned into her mind, eyes now overgrown and bleeding-

 

“I,” she coughs out, finally, reaching for the detached prosthetic with the edge of a limb, “have tried-”

 

He does not let her finish. “Effort,” Morgott interrupts, voice entirely detached from sentiment beyond reprimand, “is meaningless in the wake of consequence such as this.”

 

He does not intervene as she struggles to sit, and she is thankful that he, at least, does not comment on the disorder of her person. Perhaps he does not believe it worthy of remark - the bloodied mess of her face, the hole in her chest, the mangled remnants of her armor.

 

“To engage him so was a wilful betrayal,” Morgot says, quietly. “I cannot tell if I hope more for it to be thoughtless or not. What have you made of yourself?”

 

What have any of them? They have all changed, she thinks, since Godfrey fell. Too loud and too silent. 

 

Marika most of all.

 

“More than most,” she mumbles. “You failed to stop him. We both know what would’ve-” 

 

“You,” Morgott interrupts, “have sealed your doom, by stooping to their level. Perhaps even more than that.”

 

She had thought she was too wounded to feel fury. She was wrong. “Do you have,” she mumbles, “ anything to offer beyond criticism, brother ?”

 

Morgott makes a solemn noise. “You make the same mistake as the rest of our lot, bar one.”

 

“You exempt yourself from that. Do you exempt-”

 

“She,” her half-brother cuts in, “has forsaken us, little Malenia. There will be no winner, when the dust has settled. There is no going back. Your father’s place at her side will be claimed by none other.”

 

You exempt yourself undeservingly ,” she all but spits. “You and your-”

 

“-careful,” Morgott interrupts. “Of you all, he alone never strove against mother’s-”

 

“-she’s left, ” Malenia cuts back in. “You are not wrong, in that she has forsaken us. Do not attempt to beguile me into believing that you hold her in any sort of esteem.”

 

Morgott sighs. It’s a heavy noise, and the weight of it makes her burn inside, because it’s almost pity, and she cannot abide that. “Perhaps,” Morgott says, with a quiet hum. “There is merit to the vision she had. One free of ambition, bar stability. One I seek to honor.”

 

She has nothing left to say to that. 

 

“And one you have failed to realize,” Morgott finishes.

 

The quiet king of Leyndell stands in the wake of the ruin she wrought. In the distance, Radahn roars - a ragged noise, with none to answer him save for an army and a half reduced to meat, blood soaking the sand. Limgrave is littered with the damn things - broken corpses and roaring kings - from the whelp’s fool attempt at grasping beyond his own nature, hand after reaching hand. 

 

“I would tell you to give regards to your brother,” Morgott starts, quietly, but she does not let him finish this time.

 

“I have nothing,” she says, tempering her voice insofar as she is able, “to say to yours.”

 

A shake of his head. “Perhaps,” Morgott begins, coldly, “you are more the ill omen than I. Ruin of us all, in the end.”

 

There is a shout from beyond, followed by the splash of steel in shallow water. Finlay has finished, and has not the sense to stay away. The conversation must end soon.

 

“Do you want,” Malenia starts, letting the bitterness seep into her voice, for the fault in this all is Morgott’s as well as her own, “to test that theory of yours?”

 

But he merely shakes his head.

 

“Caelid can hardly bear the burden of the third, can it?” 

 

“Besides,” he says quietly, eyes fixed on the approaching knight, “I have not come solely to berate you for your sins. I come bearing ill-portents.”

 

“When do you not?” she retorts. “Keep them to yourself.”

 

“You are smarter than that, Malenia,” he retorts, coolly. “The branch rots. The curse has cut the scion from the center of the offshoot. You will find no solace upon your return.”

 

It is what he came here to say, she thinks, bearing the pain no mind as she rises on one bloodied stump, coming to kneel on the jagged edge of warped metal in one swift, only half-broken motion to grab at his robes. Even she cannot tell if she seeks to strike him or throttle him, because either way he deserves it, for thus speaking about Miquella-

 

Because only one creature would dare to do such a thing, to waltz into their home in her absence in complete disregard of all propriety to carve a piece from the Haligtree, and knowing Miquella-

 

“To command death,” Morgott continues, infuriating in what little explanation he deigns to give, “is not in the child’s nature.”

 

“It is that of my guards-”

 

“-And for that,” he replies, bitterly, “nothing will come of the union but the sorrow innate to them both.”

 

A hand - not his - on the joint of her broken shoulder. Finlay attempts to help her upright, but her knight struggles under the weight of her movement as Malenia lunges for him, cursing. 

 

“I take my leave, Severed,” Morgott says, with icy politeness, as Finlay stares at him in a combination of shock and awe, having finally put the pieces together. “But I caution you, child. I find you so easily led. Let it not be your downfall a third time.”

 

She grabs for him a third and final time. There is a burst of pain in her chest, Finlay’s fingers digging into the shoulder she can still feel, and then there is nothing much at all.

 

 

Chapter Text

The darkness is overwhelmingly heavy. She feels heavy, though to simply exist is paradoxically effortless. She does not feel much beyond this, of course. The most she can make out is the occasional brush of cold armor beneath her knees, a hand in her hair.

 

That’s more tangible, more familiar a sensation. It is a thought as much as a truth, and Malenia chases the thread of a memory through this strange, dream-like nothingness-

 

-this is the last time I ever let you touch my hair.” Miquella is meticulous, of course - his small hands work more delicately than any careful smith, but the braids are tight, and he seems set on crafting far too many.

 

Of course, she thinks, dimly fading into the memory. 

 

Dreams have always been his purview. It was inevitable that they’d have been left as a safeguard when his needle snapped.

 

*

 

It is an old and painful memory, and the moment it begins, Malenia knows it could’ve been nothing else.

 

*

 

The cold sandstone is wet with blood and a heavy, thick smell.

 

She shifts, wincing, and something does not quite feel right. It takes longer than she expects to figure out how to open her eyes again, but when she figures it out, she almost wishes she hadn’t.

 

Pain licks at the edge of her knee like the edge of a flame. Only one knee, she realizes, in dawning horror, as the flower petals curl along the bare edges of her skin, because the other is-

 

She screams, howling, because it’s gone. 

 

The pain does not stop there either, no - it burns up the whole side of her body, down to phantom fingertips that are nothing more than a ruined smear of something she’s only ever seen in her nightmares, thick ichor and dead, oily butterflies-

 

Someone scoffs, and she flinches at the sound, in spite of herself, because the room is the worst kind of full - the edges and entrances are packed, curious heads eager to marvel at the horror of what has been wrought in the atrium, a bloodied mess of a god-child lying helpless in a patch of rotting flowers and crumbling insects.

 

She will not cry. No matter what weakness this is, the pain, the- she can bear to scream, but she will not cry. Not when her mother stares, disapprovingly, from the balcony steps, at her last, failed hope.

 

Her father has not forsaken them, but he has no power over her judgment. Just a hand on her Queen Mother’s back and a plea that is well as ignored.

 

She cannot face them, but she has a duty to more than- a deep breath, but no matter the frantic look, she cannot see her-

 

“- Miquella, ” her father calls, chidingly. “Do not touch her, child.”

 

How could she have not heard the footsteps at her back? Miquella has always been one to honor the spirit of the law above the letter, for there is a gentle hum of assent and a slight, gold light, but no hand upon the tangled mess of her limbs. 

 

His kindness does not sit well amidst the faces of the room. More than that, beyond the glares of horrified disapproval, it does not sit well with Malenia for a different reason altogether. Pity, she thinks, is the last thing she wants. If she had to survive it, she’d far rather it come in place of the disgust of the woman eyeing her like a broken statue .

 

“I am no longer certain,” Queen Marika says, quietly enough to be a passing remark rather than a pronouncement but loud enough to be heard, and deliberately so, “that there is merit in the pursuit of further attempts at betterment. We shall have to speak later, Lord Consort.”

 

Worst of all, her father agrees. If he did not, her words would elicit something more than a mere tired sigh. 

 

“Malenia,” Miquella whispers, still leaning over her, “Malenia, lift your arm for me.”

 

Lifting what Miquella calls an arm is the very last thing she truly wants to do. Instead, she longs to throttle him for dragging her down with him, because she was so close to escaping whatever ill fate plagued the both of them from the moment of their conception, to being able to stake claim to the idea of being the normal one, to being, perhaps, something that could measure up to Godwyn, even if she couldn’t stand on her own-

 

-and now she can’t, she realizes, tensing, because she will not be able to stand on half a bloodied leg.

 

“Your arm,” Miquella quietly urges. “The bleeding. I must stop it, but I think- there’s something, it came to me in my sleep, but it may stop the spread-”

 

“-this is your fault,” she mutters, still quietly, but undoubtedly loud enough for more than just Miquella to hear. 

 

Miquella nods, biting back a comment of his own, for the two of them know she meant it. 

 

Just… not about him.

 

*

 

The first bloom was better than the second. The only casualties then were her pride, her dignity, three limbs and her Queen Mother’s hope.

 

But the first bloom was worse than the second, too. In Caelid, it was intentional. In Caelid, the consequences were a known cause. She may have been backed into a corner on the battlefield, but at least it was her choice.

 

In the roots of the Haligtree, she had no say in the matter.

 

*

 

Through the haze of dreams, she thinks on how strange it was. To be regarded as ordinary for all those long years. She alone, amongst all of the god-children, was unremarkable, yet unblemished. The time was brief in the time of gods, but it was the longest by a good while.

 

To have been another set of twins, she knows, was a blessing. The omens, for all they were reviled , were known to be dutiful counterparts and held the favor of more than just each other.

 

For a time. Like all the rest of it, that fell apart in the end, but like the world’s hopes for her service in its favor, it was long before the shattering of the ring.

 

It was, of course, not all blessings - though she cannot imagine she could have done much better than to have Miquella for a brother. Her Queen Mother’s marriage brought with it murmurs and rumors aplenty, and as the sole product of such a union, there were high hopes for the pair of them. After all, it was why Marika sought the return of her better half in the first place.

 

And yet, Malenia remembered thinking as a young child, correcting Miquella’s form as he’d struggled to hold a rapier steady, that they were not quite what their mother had hoped for.

 

You will grow into it, she’d said, quietly, taking a seat beside him in the castle’s solarium. 

 

Miquella had not responded at first. He’d simply sat there, staring blankly at the horizon.

 

Miquella, she’d repeated, more gently this time, this will-

 

-it will not pass, he’d admitted, quietly. And you know as much yourself. Do not pretend - it is unbecoming of us both. 

 

*

 

It is true, the young girl admits, for she is not left with much choice in the matter. She can feel it in her bones - a subtle sense of wrongness, a vague twisting set into every fiber of her muscle. 

 

“If it does not pass,” Malenia gingerly proposes, “then we will learn to work around it. With it. I will find a more knowledgeable instructor for you than I. Perhaps Godwyn-”

 

“I have faith enough,” Miquella interrupts, smiling gently, “in you to remain my blade. At the very least, I can wield a hammer.”

 

“That’s all very well and good,” she says, pulling a metal feather from his hands, “but if you expect me to serve as swordsman for us both, then I expect a sword.”

 

“Only the finest,” Miquella says. After a moment, he muses, “I could add filigree-”

 

“-filigree is for armor, ” Malenia interrupts. “I expect fine craftsmanship of a functional blade, not something that would slip and cut my fingers should I make full use of the hand-guard.”

 

It earns her an undignified noise, and while sincere in her words and desires alike, she is glad they amuse nonetheless. “I shall save it for the armor, then,” he says.

 

The summer is a warm one. A mild breeze keeps it from becoming overwhelming, blowing gently through the walkway, carrying delicate, golden leaves along with it. It is certainly far from cold, but she cannot place the source of the strange, unshakeable chill within her.

 

Miquella’s voice cuts through the veil of such unpleasant thoughts. “Are you alright?” 

 

She must be, certainly. There is no cause for frustration, beyond their permanent circumstance, and besides that, she has won every match (as she always does, for Malenia is not accustomed to losing even against her knights, never mind her twin who cannot properly hold a blade). Even their circumstance cannot hold much frustration for herself, for she has been growing, unlike her twin, and learning all the while. She’s heard them speculating, for she may even lay claim to the domain of the blade - Goddess of Swordsmanship - if she can surpass Godwyn-

 

“How could I fail to be?” she asks, quietly. “I have not disappointed the lot of them… not yet.”

 

“And yet,” Miquella says, “you speak as if it is a foregone conclusion.”

 

“Come off it,” Malenia argues. “The pair of us are an ill replacement for the rest of Mother’s get, and you know that.”

 

“I would not be so sure of that,” Miquella says, thoughtfully. “Given our competition? Besides, have you seen father’s?

 

It is true - the child most favored of them all is called Golden for more reasons than one. But, spoiled by his parentage as he was - in the Eternal Queen’s eyes, at least - he will never be heir in truth. Queen Marika is well aware of that, now, as are they all, but-

 

-but she can be succeeded by none other than those who could be deemed Empyreans, that is, the pair of them. She and Miquella were born to that end, to serve that role that none other could fill (unless the talk is true, and their father may have found his own way, but she knows better than to repeat servants’ talk). 

 

Nonetheless, she often finds herself dwelling on the simple fact that if Godwyn could take the mantle up, there would be no need for beings marred by old, immutable curses. 

 

“If you wish her pride, Malenia, I am sure that-”

 

“I do not wish for her attention, ” she interrupts, before she can bite her tongue.

That those words ring true does not make them feel any better to say. She does not need Queen Marika’s grace, does not need her esteem nor her care, but the injustice of it all is rank and burns more deeply than just childish dissatisfaction. For every whispered implication that she is bound - like her twin - to some poor fortune, there is another likewise that seeks to make the horror of Miquella’s condition and subsequent treatment his own fault, and there is no winning with divine gossips. For all their father says to disregard such talk, it festers in her mind like a plague, and she can see it plain on his face - it does not sit well with him either .

 

“Come,” Miquella says. “Let us go to the base of the tree. I have made a gift for father that I wish to show you.”

 

*

 

Here’s how it goes, in the end:

 

Miquella conjures rings of light in groups of three as she watches, nauseous for an inexplicable reason she cannot name, fiddling with a delicately smithed feather.

 

She does not think - merely moves to excuse herself to leave - and she will never forget that simple lapse in judgment, for as far as blame can be thrown in the end, though it may boil down to happenstance and providence and the maneuvers of gods beyond just them, she was the one whose finger was cut.

 

There is a cold burn at the base of her skull as blood drips from the edge of the fingernail. The voice croons from behind the pair of them.

 

“Young Miquella,” the ill-omen begins.

 

“Greetings to you as well, Old Mohg, ” she mutters, before Miquella can respond. “Or does ‘Young Malenia’ not have the same ring to it?”

 

It is the nature of their half-brother to appear as if he had always been in the room. Bloodshed does not always draw him out, but they have a habit of avoiding it when possible. Miquella finds him unnerving for reasons he cannot explain, though she has always found the other of the pair more unsettling. Mohg, for one, is a different kind of hostile. Morgott has never minced words and cuts deep wherever he can.

 

How it goes is this: Miquella’s face pales and Malenia sees red. There is much she remembers about that day, for it has haunted her dreams above all else ever since, but she has never remembered the words her half-brother spoke beyond this: an ill-timed proposal. 

 

Miquella had looked at her, and that had been enough. 

 

The method had been the main source of madness of it - there was no formality, no ceremony, and the secrecy of his approach had left her certain beyond doubt that he had known it would be received poorly. What had truly drawn her ire - beyond Miquella’s discomfort, beyond the imposition, beyond the complete disregard for propriety - was this:

 

He had not judged her sufficiently capable of consideration in his approach. She was no threat to him. Not in this.

 

(This, Malenia thinks, stirring vaguely, is why Morgott was the one known for his fortune-telling.)

 

Tres, a voice had muttered, as the bell rang, and that was it - there was a metal feather brain-deep in the demigod’s eye socket. It was, Malenia thinks on it now, a strange thing to feel as her last with that wrist - the sharp scrape of the quill digging into the meat of her palm and the strange burn of another’s blood on her skin.

 

He’d won, of course. While she grew, unlike Miquella, who did not, at the end of the day she was still but a child. And so, this is how it ended: with loss.

 

The bleeding omen, gone when she awoke, had lost his chance, his eye, and Miquella’s forgiveness in one fell swoop - for his brother was always the one with a better eye for consequence. 

 

For Miquella, he was denied any remaining shadow of a doubt that divinity and family alike could protect him.

 

And as for Malenia, well, there would no longer be false hopes of her avoiding her birthright.

 

She’d gained her first aspect with her first life lost - bleeding out on the floor of the atrium, claws buried deep in her abdomen.

 

It is fitting, she thinks, now, stirring in the arms of something, someone-

 

How fitting that the shattering proved this, if nothing else: you cannot bleed the world dry of the corruption within it. 

 

“Hush,” a voice mutters. “Sleep, commander. Fret not, for I will see you safely home.”

 

Finlay, she thinks, has always been - if nothing else - a terrible liar.

 

 

Chapter Text

Finlay has been able to conceal no truth from her since they’d first met, Malenia thinks, and yet, she has never been able to fault her for it.

 

Sleep takes her once more, or rather, another dream does. It must be so, for it has been more than an age since she sat on the steps of Leyendell’s castle, burning with something that cannot rightly be called envy.

 

*

 

The gossip may have been more infuriating than not - though she did not often admit it - but it was not the main source of grief brought by the bloom.

 

Certainly, there was the expected degree of unpleasant gossip. More than servants spoke of the event. To question why the demigod had chosen to cut down his own kin was, apparently, one taboo too far. But he was not forced to appear publicly as she was, and his own haunt was out of sight and therefore out of mind. Thus, the burden of revulsion fell to her.

 

The disappointment of many in her condition was verbalized, and though none were so bold as to do so before her, many made the mistake of assuming Miquella’s usual civil demeanor meant that his overhearing it could and would be politely discounted. It sparked a special kind of fury within her - for daring to make this Miquella’s problem, for one - not the hot drive towards quick retaliation, but something slow-burning that festers. A deep-rooted bitterness and dissatisfaction with the order of things.

 

They say it’ll happen again.

 

That’s the main crux of the issue - the gossip of the prejudiced and the ill-informed is something she’s long become accustomed to, but there is a marked shift from within her family that takes shape the moment that Miquella began to pick dead insects from her hair on that tiled, atrium floor and their father subsequently shouted for him to stop.

 

There are too many uncertainties as to her own nature. But above all else, with the bloom comes the pervasive, unspoken concern that the Scarlet Rot - her new eponym - is contagious.

 

The rest of Queen Marika’s issue are not permitted to spend more time in her presence than necessary, though this is not much of an issue considering few are willing. Miquella, of course, disregards this, and neither godly parent feels inclined or keen to pick that battle. Godwyn is perhaps the kindest of the rest, leveraging what love their mother has for him to coax her from her new chambers in Leyendell - too far a cry from the Haligtree to ever truly be a home - for the comfort of the training ring. 

 

There’s just the minor issue of limbs to contend with, or at least - there was for a while. It became slightly easier, she thinks, after Miquella crafted the prosthetics.

 

*

 

The blade is not an arm, but it is slowly becoming something akin to one - an extension of herself nonetheless. Miquella designed it for her, after all, and he knows her better than anyone else. The quick-lock blade was ingenious, for not only does it mean she will never be caught off guard, but it is far easier to move the blade without a sword-arm when the blade is her sword-arm.

 

Perhaps she gives Godwyn too little credit, for he has been of aid where he can, and such spars as he offers are welcome trials to whet her teeth on.

 

The others care not for such matches, though she tells herself that it is of no fault of their own. Ranni of Caria has always been one more for spellcraft than swordplay, and though she undoubtedly holds no small degree of resentment for Malenia and her twin, Malenia has seen the way her eyes trace Godwyn’s form strangely - not in admiration but with a calculating sense of detachment. Rykard duels, that much she knows, but is too bookish to bother dueling others, for he deems the libraries a far better use of his time. Radahn is never one to turn down a fight, but he comes solely to watch and pester Godwyn - not her. Besides, he would not dare disregard the careful instructions of their father to keep a safe distance from his fated - yet undesired - daughter.

 

“Malenia,” calls the man she has not given the attention she ought to have, “yield for a moment.”

 

The sword folds back into the prosthetic with a satisfying click. 

 

“You have much improved,” Godwyn begins, tentatively. “I fear you shall outpace mine ability to impart mine own knowledge in time.”

 

“Strong praise from the God of Blades,” she mutters. “I shall strive to deserve it.”

 

But Godwyn laughs. “There is no God of Blades, little Malenia,” he says, voice soft and laced with regret. “We both mourn such titles.”

 

“There is yet time for you-”

 

“-but none for you,” he finishes, though there is still a question in it. “Did you wish there to be?”

 

Godwyn stands tall in daylight, beneath the gently falling leaves of the glowing Erdtree, like he’s always belonged there.  “Do you long,” he continues, after several heartbeats, “for the press of steel against steel? Does the crossing of blades burn within your blood-”

 

-you know it does not ,” she interrupts, biting back worse words. There are ears here, those she would not have privy to further embarrassment on her part, the indignity of acknowledging her future has been clipped short-

 

“-yet this would, I suspect,” Godwyn says, leading her from the edge of the ring to where he stores his fencing foils, “remain unchanged even if you had not another birthright to lay claim to.”

 

“I catch not your meaning.”

 

His blade safely stowed, Godwyn finally meets her gaze. These days she comes close to meeting him for height, though he has many more years under his belt. Perhaps she will surpass him in this, in time, if nothing else. “You do not enjoy it,” Godwyn mutters. “You stand fast and bear blades against others, as is your lot, but you do not relish in such work. We are the same in this.”

 

It is the first time, Malenia wonders, that she has ever truly had to consider the fact that there was no joy in putting steel through the eye of her kin. 

 

“No,” she mutters. “‘Tis true. Necessity, but no more.”

 

She will leave the bloodshed and its enjoyments to the Lord of Blood, wherever he may be keeping blessedly to himself beneath the sewers of this cursed city. But Godwyn does not nod, nor avert his countenance - he stares, expression heavy with unstated thought, until her voice rings out first.

 

“It should be no surprise,” Malenia mutters, with measured force, “to the Golden Son of Leyendell that I am, after all, my father’s daughter.”

 

Measured force may be putting it too mildly - her words echo the same scathing bitterness that her Queen Mother so often repeats, for the statement has lingered behind closed doors for perpetuity. Yet it is a quiet bitterness - one that rings only in halls where it risks falling on no ears but those of the godly twins (for whom such resentment is no secret). Even without such repeated declamation, it is only natural for resentment for one’s spouse to bleed into that for the child. Perhaps she gives her father too little credit, and perhaps ‘tis the other way around, but Radagon of the Golden Order has never been a lover of bloody battles in spite of his aptitude for them, and his begrudging commitment to such dirty work fosters no small degree of well-concealed discontentment from higher powers.

 

Still, it is true for almost each and every one of them - each child of the gods bears a distasteful fragment of their sire’s proclivities - all but Godwyn , who is every inch of him his mother’s son.

 

Godwyn, however, shakes his head - not in disagreement, but to indicate that she has mistaken his meaning. “That may be,” he begins, with gentle solemnity, “and I believe that is no small honor in and of itself-”

 

(And only from Godwyn could such works make her blink, taken mildly aback, for he is the only among the gods who could claim such words as a compliment and have her believing them as more than an insult).

 

“-but more than that,” he continues, simply, as Miquella watches in the distance, idly spinning small rings of light until they balance at his fingertips, “you are your brother’s sister.”

 

*

 

Perhaps, she thinks, she should’ve taken the sign for what it was, in those days.

 

That the only among Marika’s blood besides the Dreamer who would deign to spend time by her side was the only other who died young, and the first for whom it stuck - the God of Death. 

 

*

 

Miquella could not help but want better for the both of them. It was, after all, his nature to dream of a better world, to urge their siblings to disregard such suspicions of rot’s contagion and strive to foster relationships with their half-siblings, to speak on prophecy with the Omen and spellcraft with the Lunar Princess. 

 

Each time they would smile sweetly - lovingly, even - and bear his words and presence like a dear friend, conceding in some small way a lesson or conversation or even a dreamlike possibility of a future that would not necessitate distance from Malenia. Each time, however, they would wake the moment their feet carried them but ten feet hence - or some respectable distance - from his presence, one refusing to turn his back on duty to the divine, and the other out of an abhorrence for it. 

 

But they continue to love Miquella in spite of the nature of his twin, because one cannot help but love Miquella. He takes no joy in that - even less once it became clear that it was his nature to be beloved, regardless.

 

She finds him sick over it one afternoon, for he’d missed several days’ worth of her testing the newest adjustment to her leg, and the blacksmiths denied he’d been lingering by the forges, so she’d sought out the gardens to find not a trace of him.

 

As such, she’d sought her father’s gardens, the ones he’d had but never dwelled long in - in which she, like the others, was not permitted to walk. He’d despised the statuary but had it not in himself to be rid of it, and so it remained vacant more often than not. Miquella’s presence there was likewise rarely permitted, and indeed, he was not there - but a small feather was. 

 

Several grew, she knew, at the base of his neck, behind the ears - a soft, downy sort of thing, like a stray chick - and he forged a great many in gold filigree, akin to a craftsman’s signature. Not a mere clue, she knew, but a sign. She’d likely been seen already.

 

Behind Lord Radagon’s gardens, after all, grew the Erdtree.

 

*

 

It took only a short climb to find him nestled among the branches, face altogether too pale and reticent to be well.

 

“You are ill,” she notes, clambering up to the branch opposite her brother’s form. “Can I avail you of it? You have taken some great pains to not be discovered, so I will not do you the disservice of suggesting I fetch a physician-”

 

“Malenia,” he interrupts, “does it not affect you, as well?”

 

She blinks.

 

“You are- have I not merely kept your kind opinion by the selfsame curse that ingratiates myself towards others? For of them all, you have been-”

 

“-I am kinder than the others,” Malenia says, patiently, “because neither of us are wanted here. Not at Leyendell, and perhaps not by those at the Haligtree either after what I’ve wrought there. But what I will avail you of this moment, Miquella, is the notion that I care for my family due solely to compulsion, and nothing else. And you are family far beyond the others.”

 

It is a quiet blasphemy, to speak such words in the branches of the world-tree. Miquella does not say much to that.

 

“We are,” she continues, running a hand over the very metal fingers he made, “cut from the same cloth. And, given the caliber of my curse, I am not surprised to find that your blessings are more troublesome than expected.”

 

“That does not improve upon it-”

 

“-have you known me to be an insincere person?” she asks. “Do you think my force of will to be weaker than some divine curse? For I have proven once already that I am too stubborn to die when the Lord of Blood spilt mine, so you cannot think I would - in a battle of wills - prove weaker than a force you do not wish to wield.”

 

Though it is not intended to, her choice of words sparks a small, reflexive laugh from the branch across the way, and levity is a victory over silence.

 

“None could think you weak,” Miquella admits.

 

“Besides,” she continues, leaning into the levity, for if it could not help her, perhaps it will help him, “such charms have not once gotten you out of our Queen Mother’s ill moods. There is a precedent for immunity. Father does not like you for such things - you are merely the sole of his spawn not to be afflicted with the color of his hair .”

 

“Well,” Miquella says, quietly, “perhaps more due to our shared talent for miracle-working. Ranni is far more of a mind for sorceries. And he is fond of her, in spite of her hair.”

 

“Perhaps a miracle of color-change is in order, then. You would be alike to his Godwyn if you managed that, for him.”

 

This receives a choked laugh, and for that, Malenia is grateful. 

 

“Listen,” she says gently, “I am not fool enough to call it a true blessing, and you ought to fear not - I will bear you no grudge for complaints on the matter, for I know you are kind enough that complaining of being adored to one whose blood brings only disdain will give you pause-”

 

(One glance at his face, eyes averted, confirms her suspicions).

 

“But,” Malenia continues, “it affects me not and never will. I remain by your side because I was born by it, and you have done much for me in the way that I will always look out for you. You cannot begrudge my service as your blade, Miquella - you forged the golden edge of it yourself.”

 

“Blade of Miquella,” he repeats. “You ought to aspire to a greater title.”

 

“I aspire to nothing more,” she says, quietly, “than to protect mine own, and be known as anything but Malenia the Severed.

 

*

 

They remain, Malenia recalls, in the Erdtree for most the rest of the day, passing idle chatter. By duskfall, color has returned to Miquella’s face and tension left his frame, but the worry lingers.

 

Far below them, a cleanrot knight patrols the halls, presumably seeking the pair of them.

 

“I recognize that one,” Miquella says, gesturing with his chin. “She watches you spar.”

 

“She watches everyone spar,” Malenia responds, rolling her eyes. “She’s merely a young lancer with a military bent, for she is always at the training ground.”

 

“No,” he says, quietly. “She attends only when you are present.”

 

There is a strange severity to his tone - not directed at her, but she can tell he meant what he said, and that it concerns him far greater than it should.

 

“Is she more than that, then?” she asks, tentatively. There are, of course, possibilities - some noble’s scion, perhaps? A servitor of some will more elevated than their own?

 

“I know nothing about her personage nor character,” Miquella responds, “merely that she is one who came with us from the Haligree to Leyendell, and that she is always drawn to you.”

 

“In horror, perhaps,” she tries, but Miquella has no patience for jest in this.

 

“Malenia,” he says, with all seriousness, “I dare not tread on our brother’s toes, for I am no prophet, but it feels purview of mine enough to state that her attention to you is no light thing.”

 

“You profess,” she says, incredulously, “that she pays me attention.”

 

“It need not be such a kind of attention as you might imagine a starstruck mortal might pay an Empyrean,” he mutters, thoughtfully, “but something significant commands it. She is drawn to you in a way that carries the weight of cosmic order as much as anything else. I do not know how, but I know this to be true.”

 

Her first instinct is to protest, but she realizes two things with alacrity. First, she cannot speak to the woman’s behavior at the training grounds when she is not herself present (for how would she?) and second, Miquella would not state such things thoughtlessly.

 

“How,” she asks, gingerly, “do you know?”

 

“Because,” Miquella begins to answer, “she is there watching as often as her duties allow, Malenia-”

 

“You have stated that-”

 

“-and not once, ” Miquella finishes, with a small degree of horror, “have I caught her eyes on my person.”

 

The weight of that sinks in, slowly.

 

“You should ask her name,” Miquella murmurs, after a moment. “I cannot guarantee she will give it to me. But a mortal who can shuck the weight of a compulsion that affects gods for the call of a stronger pull is certainly more than a mere young lancer with a military bent.

 

*

 

Her name, Malenia learns, is Finlay. She is far better than a novice lancer, she was born amidst the cold peaks, and she has no small degree of admiration for Malenia’s aptitude for combat. Among other things.

 

Malenia is not used to such interest in her person - from mortals or gods - and thus finds herself approaching Miquella for advice for the first time in a very long time indeed. She asks him whether it is best to keep her distance or to cultivate some kind of mentorship, or worse, familiarity, to which he only responds that Finlay’s admiration of his twin cannot be without cause. And it must be more than merely well-deserved admiration, he states, for it is rare to find mortals with such a strong sense of duty who do not throw themselves headfirst into the life of a sycophant. 

 

Finlay’s eyes glitter with strange light to see Malenia hold her own against Leyendell’s golden child, and she is the third of the only three in this wretched city for whom that can be said to be a truth. 

 

The degree of encouragement Malenia chooses to grant is the choice to strive to be worthy of such pride, and no more. The burdens of the Consort to the Eternal and ruler of this city stretch the limits of what Radagon the man may bear, so he and the commanders of the Haligtree guard are grateful for Malenia’s interest in a way she had not hoped to expect.

 

She trains them herself between their guard rotations, affording no particular preference to Finlay for her interest, and the lot of them - she is surprised again to find - bear far more loyalty to the children of the Haligtree than those of Leyendell. Perhaps she should’ve expected it - she is no stranger to being long treated like an afterthought.

 

In time, she finds she leans on Godwyn less and less, and is surprised to find him all the prouder for it. Command, Malenia learns, takes an aptitude and willingness to work with others that she’s long thought lacking among the Leyendell honor guard - raw strength can only carry a general so much. It is no general she learns this from, however - it’s young Radahn, whose men love him fiercely enough that they assist him in concealing heretical experiments with levitation of small creatures, purportedly for warfare if not some childish whim, from their superiors. 

 

But above all else, it is this, she notes with no small degree of incredulity, for which she and Miquella are finally permitted to return home when she requests it. Radagon sees no reason to deny her such agency when she has demonstrated with abundant clarity that she can command men and wield a blade alike. 

 

(She suspects it is in part because he wishes he could accompany them, that this is a kindness to atone for the curse he gave her along with her life. With such little means as he can bear to grant one. Regardless of the intent, she will not question such good fortune.)

 

Their Queen Mother is satisfied enough with the lack of further incidents , and Malenia expects her lack of protest is in part because she’d far rather have the Haligtree spoiled than Leyendell. Realistically, it is more likely that Miquella’s expressed interest in experimentation with the Haligtree’s growth (some grand work with unalloyed gold and autonomy from things beyond the stars) that proves of greater interest to her than claims of familial unity. After all, if it is a service to the Greater Will, then it cannot be said to be an exile.

 

And so, the twins leave Leyendell with little more than a fare-thee-well from Godwyn and a company of knights eager to return to a home they can scarcely recall.

 

*

 

Godwyn’s parting words were his last to her, for he wrote no letters, and then his tongue was silenced.

 

The last thing the Scion of the Golden Bough spoke before her was simply this - “when next we meet, little sister, I expect you will stand strongest of the lot of us.”

 

*

 

“I am,” Knight Finlay admitted, as they marched through the night’s long road, “more privileged than I can imagine, to have borne witness to such sights as I saw in Leyendell.” 

 

But she meant no golden spires, nor divine miracles. 

 

“To witness the god’s-kin take up arms against each other in sport,” the echo of Finlay says, with ominous reverence, “is not something I will forget, Lady Malenia.”

 

In this hazy memory, as Radahn’s blood festers with her own contagion and Morgott’s harsh words swim coldly in her head, as Godwyn’s corpse rots within the tree he once cherished, she cannot help but be haunted.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Finlay is no longer the sole knight of the Haligtree to hold her in higher regard than Malenia’s childhood self had ever hoped to see, but she cannot help but sense a distinction from the others’ pride embodied in her spirit.

 

There is duty, of course - her knights are a proud and faithful lot - but it is more than mere duty. Knight Finlay watches, Malenia notes, with the attachment and patience of something more than a starry-eyed subordinate or lover of bloodsport. The more she looks, the more she sees, and the more she finds herself forced to admit that Miquella - to his tempered delight (for indeed there is a strange melancholy in it) - is right. There is an admiration there that she cannot explain any other way, an attachment that goes beyond mortal wonder in the divine. 

 

Some tenuous connection. A small thread of fate.

 

Poor Finlay, she thinks. To be bound to such a creature is a terrible fate indeed.

 

The fascination is twofold, she knows. The more she watches, the more curious she grows. Finlay’s eyes brighten at her presence and three butterflies fly loose from where they’d perched beneath Malenia’s braided hair. Yet, throughout all of this, she cannot escape a similar sense of melancholy to whatever afflicts Miquella. It’s hard to describe, but easy to pinpoint - something akin to that age-old fear that any bold enough to extend a hand will be, in time, dragged down with her. 

 

She knows deep within her soul that Finlay is no ambitious lordling, that she intends no use of Malenia as a stepping-stone to divine aspirations. Finlay strives not for signs of favor either - she is content enough to dwell happily within the frame of the existence and purpose she has chosen. Worst of all, Malenia cannot help but envy her in that.

 

In another, kinder world, she thinks - it would have been different. But they have not the luxury of a more gentle world. Malenia is no prophet, no omen, but she has known herself better than any and can be destined to bring Finlay naught but pain and grief and-

 

- and I was not wrong, Malenia senses, with a distant dread. The second bloom must have wrought something terrible upon the poor knight’s flesh. That she still stands - to say nothing of carrying a godling northward - is almost unbelievable.

 

*

 

In a kinder world, Malenia thinks, the jagged edges of Finlay’s pauldron digging into the broken flesh that bore the full, sharp weight of Miquella’s prosthetic at her own bidding - in a kinder world, Finlay would have died on the battlefield, sole witness to a less-brutal victory, leaving only two halves of two brothers to witness the bloom. 

 

There would be no delicate scrape of gloved fingers against Malenia’s bruised face to tie unruly tresses back, away from her wounds. There would be no indignity of having to lay her commander on the cold dirt floor of a concealed cave to combat crooning sirens and then hunt for a meal that she alone requires. She would not have to retrace the steps of their march south from the Haligtree knowing each comrade who refused the retreat - and more besides - fell in Aeonia. If they were lucky. Many, likely, were not. 

 

But this is not that world, and to her horror, Malenia finds she cannot bring herself to even wish for it.

 

*

 

There was another night they spent alone, Malenia recalls.

 

It started innocently at first. A friendly bout, for the evening was quiet and Malenia was in good enough spirits to consider it harmless. Perhaps it was, she thinks, but in the moment, staring her knight in the face-

 

-something had given Malenia cause to freeze. It takes a moment to put her finger on it.

 

“Have I offended?” Finlay asks, stepping back, uncertain. “Or is it an error of footwork that has so captured thy attention, General?”

 

It is simply this, Malenia notes, folding her blade back into her arm, the alloyed gold of her fingers clenching around the shape of the pommel: there is something that she owes it to them both to say.

 

“Knight Finlay,” she starts, and if her eyes are averted it is merely out of respect for the necessity of the act, for she cannot afford to be governed by any ounce of cowardice. There is no hesitance at the thought of surrendering what infrequent joy she is permitted to take in the company of another, certainly not to the duty she knows commands her, for she is better than her forefathers in that respect, for she must be-

 

-Knight Finlay,” she repeats, “I must make something transparent to thee.”

 

“By all means,” Finlay assents, with an uncomfortable amount of trepidation in her voice. “I am all ears.”

 

“For thine ears and thine alone I must inform thee - unlike my siblings, I can and must take no consort.” Finlay needs not know entirely what she means - the finer details of godhood are not important to the conversation, and Godwyn’s true nature is not well known beyond quiet family gossip. 

 

“My nature,” she continues, as measuredly as she can manage, for she must not appear bitter, “is too distasteful to permit even a distant possibility of inheritance. I am obliged to inform thee that such luxuries are beyond the scope of a life such as mine.”

 

“Luxuries such as…” Finlay starts, tentatively, and with no small degree of confusion, “companionship? Or godhood?”

 

“Only one of those is a luxury,” she says, the tension cracking as she rolls her eyes, as the corner of Finlay’s mouth threatens a grin. “The other is a condemnation.”

 

“General, I care not for- allow me to make it plain,” Finlay says, after a moment of painful consideration. “The minds and manner of gods are a mystery to one such as I.”

 

“Thou’rt not alone in such things.”

 

“But,” Finlay interrupts, quietly, “I would contest both statements, if I may be so bold.”

 

This was not the answer she expected. Disappointment - that she expected - or perhaps anger, or shame, or hurt, but they have been no stranger to pensiveness. “Let it not be said,” Malenia says, words carefully chosen, “that I do not listen to those bold enough to face me and speak. I would hear thy thoughts.”

 

“As for the first, that thy nature is distasteful to the gods, I think it no blasphemy to say that unless such words were spoken directly, that there is an incomplete- perhaps not so far as to say faulty, but the principle is sound - assessment of thy domain.”

 

They have been spoken directly , but Malenia does not dare say as much. “My domain,” she repeats, instead, “is decay, Finlay. I am barred from gardens for withering what I absentmindedly touch. They have plagued men with arrows dipped in my distilled blood. There is no greater worth to be found for the sane, there.”

 

“Painful, perhaps,” Finlay says, sitting upon the stone edge of the balcony. “But rot is not solely a cursed work. There is beauty in it, as well.”

 

She follows the line of Finlay’s eyes to the flowers that bloom on the branches of the Haligtree, little blossoms peppered amongst damp lichen and the odd mushroom. Another butterfly - this time perched upon the petal’s edge, drinking deeply from the stalk as the faint, smoke-like wisp of its wings flutters gently in the evening’s breeze.

 

Finlay watches them not like she seeks to prove her point, but with genuine admiration for the world they have both dwelled in. It is that which overwhelms her, to say nothing of how different the woman looks bereft her usual armor, no helm to hide the earnest nature of her expressions, nor the lock of auburn hair that occasionally falls from behind her ear.

 

“Some beauty, perhaps,” Malenia says, throat dry, “does little to console for what was taken.”

 

“Death is part of life,” Finlay says, shrugging. “There is a balance to Prince Miquella in that. Creation would find no meaning bereft of destruction, and all dreams must find themselves grounded in reality. But more than that - thy worthiness cannot be solely discounted due to thy affiliation with such rot, for I am not the only to have marked the exemplary balance between the twin prodiges of the Haligtree. There is a reason thy knights take pride in service to thee, General.”

 

It is no untruth. Leyndell’s knights draw straws to avoid the Omen Prince’s honor guard. The Lunar Princess has not the time for the Carian Knights nor a shred of palpable attachment to them. Lord Rykard’s adherents question the prince’s sanity at least once a fortnight, absent of the zealous few that follow him with a cultish devotion. 

 

“That was the first,” Finlay says, pulling at the petals of a small wildflower from where it has grown, nestled between the stones that make up the balcony railing. “The second is far simpler.”

 

Malenia does not speak. What can she say, to any of this?

 

“My… admiration is an imperfect word, but perhaps interest shall suffice - my interest in thee is not borne of a desire to become consort to a god.”

 

“That is secondary,” Malenia interrupts, “that is - I did not seek to make accusations, I simply-”

 

She takes a deep, painful breath. “Finlay,” she begins again, slowly, honorifics left behind, “I am without the luxury of agency, in this. It is not so simple as defying a parent - it is swimming against the very nature of Order.”

 

“If it was Order,” Finlay mutters wryly, “‘twould encompass all things natural.”

 

“Mistake me not, it is not simply of a loyalty to her, or him, or that, I-”

 

In the shadows of the Haligtree, she can make out the distant, low-pitched growl of an old beast. No condemnation, but still - if nothing else, a warning .

 

“The world will not abide it,” Malenia says, quietly. “And therefore I am bereft of any choice in this matter, for I would not risk the church determining someone I care for a threat.”

 

“I speak only of happiness,” Finlay says, painfully guarded, “and its merits. A world with so much joy as this cannot demand misery of its gods.”

 

How wrong you are, Malenia thinks. She is no god - not yet, not ever - and still she all but laughs at the words. It is the price paid for any degree of autonomy. “I am,” Malenia mutters, “no god. Nor do I aspire to be one. I am no more than a general, a sister, and a tragedy in the making.”

 

“If thy feelings are thus,” Finlay says quietly, “I shall not press. But I believe such words ill-convey the strength of thy character and person. Mistake me not, I seek not to dictate thy desires, and perhaps I am overstepping the borders of propriety to speak so, but - if those bold enough to speak to thy face shall be heard - thou’rt not unworthy of having them by virtue of thy birth.”

 

“I am not bold enough to pretend to any expectation of thy affection or even attention beyond what has already been invested in me,” Finlay admits. “I am content insofar as thou’rt satisfied with where we do - and will - stand. But what ails me is the possibility of-”

 

“-do not pretend,” Malenia says, harsher than she intended, “that I merely lie to spare thy feelings.”

 

“I spoke solely of thine, ” Finlay says in a clipped tone, before inclining her head in a slight bow. “Forgive me, General.”

 

It is an uncomfortable ending to the conversation, and Malenia notes with some degree of surprise that she is not content with where things stand. They part ways, Finlay returns to her post, and Malenia leans against the balcony of the Haligtree garden, metal fingers wrapped absentmindedly around the stem of some dead weed, staring into the darkness. The sky here is preferable to that over Leyndell, she thinks, miserably. The branches here do not blot out the distant stars, haunting as they are in their strange orbits. 

 

They have built something here, at this distant castle. She and Miquella - they have made something greater of this place, will make it greater still, and she is not content. She lied not: to be born of a god is to be condemned to something akin to dissatisfaction. To stagnancy, perhaps - or, lack of justice. But she has not felt so unsettled, so painfully bitter about it since that fateful day in the depths of this very place. 

 

“Would you rather,” Godwyn’s voice rings in her mind, asking in a cold whisper, “have died in the atrium, at your twin’s feet, at the hands of one who shares the burden of your mother’s blood? You yet walk for a reason - he has made you legs.”

 

There is nothing to be done for it, duty be fucked . There is no covenant at Elphael, save the oaths she and Miquella have sworn for the other’s sake, for the Eternal has given her nothing but a name and a form and her dissatisfaction. 

 

She crushes the rotted remains of the flower into the stonework, inhales deeply, and makes her choice.

 

*

 

It has always been the same bitterness, she realizes, coldly. As wrong as Morgott has been about much, what had insistence on propriety gotten her? It spared her no tragedy, it spared Finlay no injury, it spared not her army nor her fool of a half-brother from the burden of her curse. 

 

*

 

There is always a push and a pull. 

 

The Haligtree’s many halls wind around the branches, the delicate stone embellishment of its lattice walls threading between boughs like unnaturally rigid spiderwebs. There will be a cost, she thinks, but there is nothing to be done for it. If she is condemned to the inevitable, then there is no circumventing it. If such a fate is within her power to circumvent, then there is no need to condemn herself in spite of it.

 

But she had been missing a piece, and the realization of it is freeing. 

 

The branches of the Haligtree teem with fungus and strange, crimson insects, but still it grows. Miquella dreams, casts miracles deep within the brace of it, and golden lilies bloom before mortal eyes around pools of stagnant water. The mortals of Elphael crush them into poultices and mix them with wine for the sake of sweet dreams, call him a Saint for it, but it is her crest the knights choose to wear. 

 

Cleanrot knights. A push and a pull. Balance, Finlay had said, and she was not wrong. If she is to serve as a grounding force for Miquella, an anchor for his vaulting ambitions of surpassing their nature, something tangible to dream for, then she cannot be an antithesis to the universe.

 

Her feet carry her with quiet purpose, and the world shifts into place, like heavy shackles sliding from her single shoulder off the top of that balcony into the unfathomable depths of the mist beneath it. Finlay stands in the quiet hallways of upper tiers, and for the first time, Malenia notices how truly red her hair is.

 

Her knight turns, alert to the sound of her footsteps and then surprised to have been followed, but this all melds into something that Malenia identifies - or so she thinks - as confusion. 

 

“I-”

 

“-I am sorry,” Finlay interjects before cutting off as Malenia herself freezes. Malenia nods, just once, to indicate that she ought to continue first-

 

(- she inhales deeply, and the cloying scent of the Haligtree’s lilies lingers sweetly and horribly in the back of her throat, but she finds she does not mind that she cannot shake it. It is horrifying, inescapable, but as intoxicating as a hard-fought victory. Like wet iron, mixed with dirt and damp, humid air.)

 

“I had assumed,” Finlay says, fighting to keep something from showing in her face, Malenia notes ( What is it- is it anger- not wrath, but humiliation, or else resignation, but- is it pain?) , “that those such as thee were subject to the same keenness of emotions as mortals. It was imprudent of me to assume thy values or desires were akin to mortal ones, that happiness and grief alike are to you the same as they are to us. It was an overstep, and while I could not help-”

 

It is not quite what she means, Malenia can tell, and she waits with patience for Finlay to try again. “I likened thyself and Prince Miquella,” Finlay begins once more, “to lives such as mine. It is easy to forget, at times, that the world does not work the same way for us, dwelling here with you both, after Leyndell, while at others it is impossible to not be reminded of it.”

 

“Thou wouldst apologize for-” Malenia feels her face, inexplicably, narrow. “For blasphemy?” she tries. “Speaking on my behalf?” gets a better reply in the form of a half-nod and averted gaze. “Finlay,” she mutters, “Knight-Captain. Thy apology pales to the one I find myself to owe.”

 

“I care not for blasphemy,” Malenia admits, “for I am no god, and we have both seen the beauties and horrors of their city enough for me to permit the small rebellion of conceding that there exists no perfect being, no glittering golden order.

 

“There is no perfection to be found at the Erdtree,” she continues, emboldened, “nor in the branches of the Haligtree. I am the last, great work of Marika and the third in a line of failures, Finlay. Thrice has the Eternal sought the Greater Will’s answer and exiled or no, I will live as no ill omen, ” she finishes, taking a step forward until a stray piece of hair brushes the edge of Finlay’s shoulder. Finlay stands, back against the pillar of the gazebo, right arm dangling between Malenia’s own, fingers wrapped around the wool of her tabard.

 

She cradles it in gold. Finlay inhales deeply, but does not flinch. 

 

“Thou did’st speak of my happiness,” Malenia says, voice low and barely above a whisper, carrying conviction she has not known since she took up a feather like a blade. “But what of thine own?”

 

Finlay’s hand is warm, she notes, as the knight quietly traces the edges of the joints. 

 

“I am happy,” the woman at her side admits, after a brief moment. “I do not think I would’ve found joy in a different life. But I am not certain what thou wouldst hear of me.”

 

“The reason for thy reticence,” Malenia mutters, quietly. “In that respect, if nothing else.”

 

“Thine own,” Finlay responds, and oh, Malenia can find no judgment in it, not in the tone of her voice or the gentle concern in her expression, from the thought in her brow to the way her eyes pass over Malenia’s face, her own countenance, til settling to meet her own gaze. 

 

As if surprised by what she finds there, Finlay extricates her hand from the prosthetic and Malenia almost protests before the gentle press of a thumb to her cheek.

 

“They say the rot pools in stagnant water,” Finlay says, voice strained, with a faint crack. “T’would be best to shed no more tears.”

 

“Forgive me,” Malenia begs, and presses her lips to Finlay’s own. 

 

It does not start in joy - there is a very tangible moment of overwhelming fear, something that has been a stranger to her since she was but a child with another’s hands in her hair, when she had first learned to fear touch. 

 

Finlay is warm and her face is soft beneath the one hand of hers that can still feel, the strange and foreign sensation of lips beneath her own, the sound of stolen, ragged breaths and the creak of metal as they rearrange themselves to be closer, as Malenia pulls her in by the small of her back, as Finlay winds one arm around her neck, tangling in the mess of her braid, and counterbalances herself with the other against the edge of the gazebo. 

 

It is wonderful and it is messy and it is a special kind of agony, because the strength of it is enough to sweep her away, she fears chasing the rush of it but losing it far, far more, and she moves away just enough to kiss up the line of Finlay’s jaw-

 

-pain. The pain of it runs deep and cold and there are no hands left to feel-

 

Malenia chokes, recoiling, as her lips suddenly-

 

-brush lichen .

 

A shuddering breath from the woman leaning against the pillar. The branches by the side of her head, that she clung to but a moment before, have all withered but for that selfsame, fucking lichen. Malenia finds she cannot breathe, cannot think, cannot -

 

Finlay unclenches her right fist. The thumb that brushed Malenia’s own cheek is overgrown with something that does not bear the texture of human skin, much in the same way that there is a patch of something that is no longer skin on the face of the woman before her. 

 

“Malenia,” Finlay starts, urgently. “Malenia, I am-”

 

“- forgive me, ” Malenia chokes out. “ Forgive me, I cannot-”

 

(There’s that pain again, that ancient, familiar friend. Burning within her gut, a blade-shaped hole of despair and inevitability. She recoils in its wake, at the jarring, burning agony of it, and it is all she can do to beg for forgiveness.)

 

*

 

“Miquella will aid us,” Finlay says, as calmly as she can manage, as if she knows the only thing that could make this worse is revulsion and she’s fighting it every inch, Malenia thinks.

 

*

 

“A little farther,” a voice chokes out, barely beyond a sob. “Be still, Malenia. I have sworn an oath, as have you. We must remain steadfast.”

 

“...forgive me,” Malenia mumbles around the blood on her lips.

 

*

 

The two instances blend together in perfect, excruciating clarity as the dream falls from her grasp, and Malenia sobs. Finlay’s arm cradles the broken shape of her over a warped pauldron, tucking the golden shards of Malenia’s other half between her side and her arm. She is favoring her left, Malenia notes, in the haze of sleep and pain and newly blooming horror, when suddenly the painful truth of the matter reaches what dim state of awareness she can muster. 

 

She cannot see - even if she had still boasted eyelids and the energy to lift them, no eyes lie beneath. But some distance behind, in the wake of footsteps through snowfields, she can sense something lying at the base of a large tree. A forsaken piece of half-rotted meat.

 

The mangled remnants of a limb. 

 

They’ve not much to dress wounds between them. This was no orderly retreat - neither expected to survive the bloom - and Finlay, dutiful as always, had cared not regardless. Malenia is slung over her shoulder where once the arm held fast in the joint, carrying her across half the damned lands between while the wound Malenia drove into her own chest ate through her very flesh.

 

The guttural sound that escapes her lips is muffled by bloodstained metal, damp wool, and her own weakness. Forgive me, she chokes out. Forgive me.

 

*

 

She can still taste the residue of Finlay’s lips on her tongue, mingled with the burn of iron and bile and what stagnant water there was to drink in Aeonia. The dream is not so easily shrugged off, ephemeral as it is. But something has broken, the heavy hand of the dream without an anchor to steer it-

 

-Miquella will aid us, Finlay had muttered, all those years ago in the gazebo under the Haligtree. Miquella will aid us, she’d said, and Malenia had almost believed her. 

 

Miquella ,” she screams, if even she can, for she is unsure which of the two is the nightmare and which the memory, “ cannot solve everything .”

 

*

 

“Rest easy, Malenia,”  Finlay says, holding her tighter, as if Malenia is in any position to flee the consequences of what horror she has wrought. “I have always forgiven you.”

 

“I forgave you for waiting,”  the woman carrying her whispers, voice catching on the edge of the syllables. “I forgive you for this now. And while you need no absolution from me, if you seek mine,” Finlay continues, shifting as she walks to reach around her torso for- Malenia cannot tell, cannot fucking think at the cost of another limb left in her wake, at-

 

(“Look at what you’ve wrought, sister,” Morgott had muttered, and she has withstood a thousand fallen soldiers, torn out her own self to end the conflict with all its collateral, made her peace with the loss of the woman who struggles to bear her northward through the snowfield. Or so she’d thought, but to be dragged and have to look behind, to bear witness to the bloodstained footsteps and sloughed-off limb, to know that each moment Finlay tarries she bears more of a burden that Malenia should’ve kept from her- to-)

 

(Perhaps he was right. Perhaps effort is meaningless in the wake of consequences such as these.)

 

(And yet, this is how she knows herself to be naught but a blight - she longs, nonetheless, to cling tighter with what broken limbs she has.)

 

"Rest easy, Finlay urges, and there is a sharp pain in her arm - the sensation of being pierced, the burn of unalloyed gold, and a dawning panic brushed away as her senses fade to nothing-

 

Sleep, Miquella’s voice calls from the darkness, and she does.

 

*

 

“I am grateful for thy aid,” the Cleanrot Knight says, grasping the needle in her hand.

 

“It is for her as well as thee,” Miquella of Elphael admits, fletching a golden feather as they sit at the tree’s base. “For I cannot be at her side in this war.”

 

The woman before him nods. “”Twill stave off the rot, then?”

 

“Well enough for now,” he mutters. “If I had more time to refine it, ‘twould be more stable. But it will suffice, should the first prototype fail her, and it shall keep thee as safe insofar as I have talent in the meantime.”

 

“And if it is removed?” she asks, and for the life of him, Miquella cannot tell if it is out of apprehension or duty.

 

“If it is removed,” he says, with finality, “then ‘twill be because she has need of another, or else a second bloom. The consequences of such an instance will spell a death her Cleanrot Knights have already accepted, have they not?”

 

“She would not bear such a thing well,” the knight admits, right hand twitching from some reflex, but it cannot hide the rough, broken skin that Miquella knows already to be there.

 

“‘I have sworn an oath,” he mutters, gently. “And the woman I see before me bears the weight of the rot better than most. I would not surrender hope yet. But in exchange, I ask for a renewal of thine oath - should the moment come-”

 

“-I will not hesitate,” Cleanrot Knight Finlay says, and Miquella believes her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

How fitting, she thinks, dimly, that even now she should only dream of endings.

 

*

 

The night the world ends is the second time her blood is shed at the base of the Haligtree. It is the first time an attempt - to her knowledge - is made on Miquella’s life - and it is the last time she calls any but him family.

 

Their sins are not the same, of course. She’d still have fought, she knows - the loss of Godwyn rankles, eating away at her if she gives more than a mere thought for the fact that he - like her - found his place in the world at the edge of a blade. To gain a domain and lose a life in the same moment, but-

 

-the Black Knives cut Death into and out of his flesh, the little Lunar Princess’s corpse lies, they say, as an afterthought atop her divine tower, for Marika cares not for bastards-

 

- Marika, who bears the burden of guilt for the whole of it, and has the audacity to mourn a fallen son after the blame she once laid upon her youngest daughter. Marika, who - the messengers whisper - tasked the Fell Omen with concealing the monstrosity Caria’s hired blades made of her once-beloved child. Once Leyndell’s light, now nothing but warped, pallid flesh that brings death to all but the divine, sealed away underground just like the rest of them .

 

Miracles and horrors, the lot of it. Rumors of war weigh heavy on the tongues of weary couriers. The roots of the Erdtree wither in places, and the people of The Lands Between do not take to this well. Bereft of an heir once more, Leyndell turns to the Elden Lord for guidance, but their father makes no appearance beyond the necessary first. Caria might fall, Malenia notes, blankly, for there are none left to stand for it but broken rebels, bereft a figurehead. Radahn has traveled farther south, to Stormveil and the lakes of Caelid beyond, his loyalists in tow. She cannot bring herself to blame him for turning his back on the lot of them.

 

There would be Rykard, after all, if he had not been barred from Leyndell and Caria in one fell swoop. What little news comes from the west clarifies not whether he left willingly in an act of spite, as he claims, or whether he was driven out - but the eerie silence feels far more reflective of the latter. Proud fools who run with their tails between their legs do not wait patiently, and if Rykard had not made his peace with his exile, there would be protest from his men for the sake of slandered reputations. But there is no protest, no word, no cry. All that leaves the volcano is silence.

 

That, in and of itself, is ill tidings: scouts do not leave the volcano either.

 

Leyndell, too, is quiet in its grief. Stormveil is in uproar without a guiding hand or two. Caria bubbles with the precursor to civil war. 

 

Elphael, alone, is stable.

 

At least it is at the start of it all. She and Miquella, like the others, are targets for something, for several veiled assassins were sent that night, though far more likely to occupy her time than to succeed . She cuts them down at the Haligtree, convenes with Miquella, bolsters Elphael’s defenses, and then all they can do is wait for some word, some sign. But the people are calm, and their odds, Miquella agrees, are good. There are better targets for rancorous demigods than Miquella’s experiments with gold-infused botany, and there will be no rebellion at Elphael.

 

Come what may, she thinks - they will face it together.

 

Until the sky cracks at the seams.

 

*

 

If someone had asked her younger self what might unmake the world… Malenia would, as a child, have no answer.

 

That is, until she was bereft of three limbs, for the answer would have changed to herself as despoiler of all Marika the Eternal had touched, depending on the one who asked and and what degree of honesty felt appropriate. The better part of a week before this, she thinks, staring absentmindedly at the golden sky - her answer might have been bloodshed, or audacity, or perhaps even hubris. Perchance Radahn, too far gone on starlight to notice what he’d pull down from above would be the ruin of them all. Even Rykard, his head buried too deeply in some accursed book. Else, some great war spoiling the roots of the tree. The Eternal’s golden hound, tugging too hard at the collar he donned himself. 

 

She would not have guessed grief.

 

*

Miquella had requested she accompany him to the branches of the great Haligtree, to collect clippings of golden shoots to evaluate the growth and quality of the leaf. He had listened, wordlessly, as she spoke on their supply lines, on the latest word from her scouts and the state of the south, his eyes firmly fixed on the shape of the leaves beneath his fingers.

 

It was then that the world split. Far beyond the mountains, the faint glimmer of gold in the distance suddenly fractured into something indescribable.

 

Like lightning, she’d thought, if only lightning could peel back shards of the sky and melt it into golden dust, carving through the cosmos like an ugly, ruptured scar. 

 

It was not silent either - miles away, the deep peal of a bell echoes, or else some other metal on metal, first once, then twice, steady and pounding and each time a flash -

 

-it was not silent, but neither was Miquella.

 

A forge, ” he’d choked out. “ ‘Tis the sound of-”

 

She realizes what he’d meant half a moment too late. The Erdtree, bloated on a week’s worth of soulless body, bark cracking with divine fire, explodes into a flurry of golden leaves. Grace rains down on The Lands Between, carried to and fro like petals in a storm as winds reel from the marks Marika’s left upon the firmament. 

 

Miquella says nothing - merely stares at the aftermath, dumbfounded. Malenia, however, inhales deeply and rises from the branch she had sat upon. Whatever forge-dust this is, the burn is not that of unalloyed gold - it’s something stronger still, but less - 

 

-it does not wound as Miquella’s little needles do. There is no sense of disjointed otherness to this, and as she extends her hand, it does not remain long once it makes contact with skin, leaving only warmth and a strange yet familiar strength. 

 

“We must away,” she says, willing her voice not to crack. But Miquella does not move.

 

“... what has she done? ” he mutters. “What has he done? They-”

 

“-they’ve fractured it,” Malenia interrupts, gently, as Miquella has the very word halfway out. When he finally makes eye contact, she cannot bite back a noise of frustration at his confusion. “I am no fool,” she says, slowly. “That’s what this is, is it not?” 

 

“And thou’rt not shocked?”

 

“There is no time for shock,” Malenia answers, hauling him to his feet. “We must prepare for war, ere it reaches our doorstep, for it is far closer than the horizon after this.” Already, there is commotion from the city, alarm-bells ringing, distant shouts.

 

“Miquella,” she urges, hand on his shoulder, “Words will not make it better, but twist thyself into no knots over his lack of regard for thee in whatever he’s done, whatever role he might have played in this.”

 

“You speak as if he yet lives.” His voice cracks on the last few syllables, and her heart burns with something that cannot fully be called empathy. “Would he truly-”

 

“-father married her , ” Malenia interrupts, as kindly as she is able, though the strange pain will not cease . “I would not put it past him to defer to the one that bears the leash. Either he is dead or ‘twas his damned hand that held the hammer, Miquella. Regardless, I guarantee he gave not an ounce of thought to us, so we can ponder the possibilities if we retain the luxury of doing so by night's end.”

 

She cannot even bring herself to care that her words infuriate him all the more, earning her a quick glance of betrayal. Anger does not sit comfortably on Miquella’s face, nor does it sit easily within her heart. She will not grieve for their lost love a second time, even if the wound still rankles. Not yet.

 

“Come,” she urges, swallowing, palm open for him to take. “We’ve a city to calm.”

 

*

 

If Elphael is this bad, Malenia thinks, as Miquella speaks with all the restraint in the world to a crowd of panicked laborers with reassurances that the Eternal has not forsaken them - though that is exactly what she’s done-

 

-if Elphael is this bad, Malenia thinks, as she sends patrols of Cleanrot Knights to gently maintain order in the streets, to bar the city’s gates, to begin amassing in the Consecrated Snowfield as a deterrent, as she for the first time leans on Miquella to supplement the loyalty she commands, because all the combat prowess in the world cannot guarantee loyalty at the end of the world- 

 

-she’d kill to see the state of Leyndell. 

 

There’s beauty in this too, she thinks bitterly, as the people calm in his presence, as orders are distributed and listened to, as Elphael braces to survive what she cannot delude herself enough to hope will be a quick war of succession. Order is re-established in mere hours - streets emptied, chapels filled, supply lines secured, inventory taken. 

 

There’s beauty in this, she thinks , for if nothing else, what he begrudges may save those he is responsible for. 

 

*

 

It takes three weeks to realize that the war will not be quick, and it will not be a mere fight over succession. Granted, it is unclear what has become of the Eternal, but she utters no words, and what few words slip free from Leyndell suggest that Radagon of the Golden Order entered the Erdtree mere moments before he was consumed by it. 

 

That, and each knight bold enough to venture close to the base of the tree to confirm tales of his absence was cut down by some dutiful guardian that already has Leyndell abuzz with rumors. 

 

Miquella does not hazard a guess, for he needs not - it is undoubtedly Morgott’s doing. Of the two of Leyndell’s children that yet remain, it is only the Omen Prince who holds his golden lineage in any esteem.

 

One of Leyndell, but one - more dangerous - of Caria. Radahn’s eyes turn skyward in dual grief, for if the dead moon would be his enemy then he would command the stars. This is the crux of the matter: Leyndell will not bear it if war erupts in the south, for Stormveil belongs to Marika’s get and this Veiled Monarch does not consider Radahn that.  

 

But those are the mere arguments for the war as one of succession , not what set the tinderbox alight a second - nay, third time. No, ‘tis the-

 

“- the fire, ” Miquella mutters. “Thou’rt certain it was the Praetor’s people?”

 

“Mount Gelmir seems quiet,” she admits. “Bar the eruption. But such things are too messy for Leyndell.”

 

There is little to report of the mountain, bar the flooded villages and new lava tunnels and earthquakes to block off several old ones. Leyndell’s host, or so the theory goes, took significant losses when the volcano erupted. Rykards’ mortal host must have as well, but constructs and puppets are fireproofed as a first order of business - common sense, for a sorcerer known to toy with flames for entertainment in his youth.

 

Still. There may be survivors yet. But there is no word from the west.

 

*

 

She has not seen Leyndell’s new heir since he last was taller than her, a mere scrap of a child with similarly sharp edges. Now she towers before his shriveled, ragged form, another general dishonored, bearing another mantle of responsibility that Marika the Eternal has shed.

 

He is the first of their family to grace the Haligtree with their presence. He is like as any to be the last.

 

“I will not,” she declares, golden fingers tapping softly against the stone of what has become Elphael’s war table, “commit my soldiers to a foolhardy cause.”

 

Foolhardy ,” the Omen Prince repeats, incredulous, but she does not budge. “Does this mean, then, that they spoke true in stating that Leyndell will know no aid from the north?”

 

She does not dignify this with a response either - she doubts not that Morgott will delight in informing her of the capital’s latest slander. He will dig own grave, in time, and she will not step in with the shovel in his stead.

 

Morgott can surely read it in her gaze - her exasperation with such exaggeration, that he would not be here, humored, if she did not intend to reach some accord. But she does not hide it for a reason - her spoken disdain for zeal rankles at him as she knew it would, and this is what spurs him on to his second objective.

 

“Thou’rt quiet, child,” Morgott says, “for one with much to explain.” 

 

The words are not spoken for her. Miquella, face guarded, blinks twice. “Forgive me brother,” he begins, diplomatically but not politely, “but I see not what insult I have given to warrant such declarations.”

 

Morgott’s expression shifts, brow raised, but he need not gesture to the delicate, golden leaves that do not wilt in her proximity for all three participants of this small conference to know that he speaks of the tree.

 

“Is it not the case then, that Elphael’s little lordling, apple of his father’s eye, deigns to throw his lot in against the Greater Will-”

 

(No quiet growl rises from the Haligtree’s depths. Thinking on it, however… she has paid it no mind til this point, but the beasts’ usual presence has been muted for some time. Still, there can be no cause for worry. If such an absence was unexpected, Miquella would have no cause to conceal the ensuing panic from her, and Miquella’s blank face betrays nothing.) 

 

(She trusts he knows what he’s doing. Only now is she certain that Morgott did not come here under the quiet cover of night for aid and aid alone.)

 

“If I had chosen to do such a thing, brother,” Miquella says with measured, gentle tone, “to be the third to turn my back on the world? Certainly then my blade would have cut Leyndell’s quiet king down when the opportunity provided itself. We would not instead graciously humor him with the possibility of a treatise against a common enemy. Consequently, I request a bit more respect than what has been thus far shown.”

 

“I,” Malenia interjects, if only to move the conversation along to more productive grounds, “care far more for limiting the child of Caria’s endeavors to tread outside of Mount Gelmir. We share this in common.”

 

She does not hesitate to continue when Morgott moves to interrupt with what she suspects is to be some repeated protest about joining the fray. “But thou’ve given me no reason to commit mine army to a fight I’ve few stakes in. Invade Elphael, Rykard’s forces will not. Thou’ve lost the bulk of thine, and I would not entrust mine to thy command after the showing of what’s become of those Radahn previously committed to thee on the slopes of that deathtrap of a mountain.” 

 

“And thou wilt not march,” Morgott repeats with no small degree of consternation, though this is no surprise to him.

 

“There is no cause to. I am better served coordinating our defenses from here for the time being. The Greater Will has little bearing on it - the Praetor has no quarrel with me, and thou’ve plenty to answer for thyself.”

 

“Moreover,” she continues, because if she is to trust her twin, then the inverse must be true in matters such as these - “Miquella has duties to undertake this evening, and he regrettably must take command for mine too, on account of our unanticipated guest. If Leyndell wishes to continue to parlay for some manner of joint effort, it must needs continue to do so in the unfortunate sole presence of Elphael’s general rather than her lord.”

 

“Prince,” Miquella says, with the requisite gentility, and rises to depart, flashing her a look as he does so. There is an unstated question there - about what she wishes to discuss absent of his presence or what she thinks she can glean from Morgott in his absence even knowing that she will simply later share what she’s learned with Miquella regardless. But there is trust there - she would even be so bold as to claim gratitude, even. 

 

Miquella slips from the room with quiet purpose. No comment leaves Morgott’s lips - the room is near silent, bar the rustling of leaves in the wind, the distant footfalls, and the absent-minded tap of his fingers against the stone table.

 

Once the soft sound of Miquella’s steps has long since faded, she is the one who opens negotiations. “I will not waste my soldiers’ sacrifices.” 

 

“You leave me the less diplomatic twin,” Morgott retorts, with some hint of bemusement. “What could he possibly have to attend to at this hour?”

 

“And I am ashamed to say I am left with the opposite, in your case,” she says, letting her own tone take a sharper edge, even in jest. “But it is apparent that there would be little progress given my alternative to you, for when last I won that particular battle, I was but a child.”

 

This earns her merely silence. It is an uncomfortable pause - her words do not land well - and this was her goal.

 

“If we have no mutual purpose in the wake of Gelmir’s volcano,” Morgott eventually says, denying her the satisfaction of some bitter glare, “then I will be off.”

 

“Hold a moment.”

 

This, of course, is where she can see the seed of surprise take root - he was not expecting her to make an offer. Miquella would be proud of how well she can keep the corner of her lip from twitching, but he would not be surprised.

 

“There is something I would ask of Leyndell’s king.”

 

“Ask its prince,” Morgott admits, “for I dare not claim thy father’s title.”

 

It is more information than she’d hoped for, and more, it seems, than he initially intended on disclosing. 

 

“I would have its prince pay respects to the tomb of the one I could not, on my behalf.” 

 

There was little in the way of a funeral besides the cataclysm they now find themselves embroiled in - the death throes that follow in the wake of a god’s grief. But if there had been, before their Queen Mother had chosen to shatter the remnants of the world she’d not yet broken, there is little doubt in the war-room that no child of Marika’s would be permitted in attendance. Godwyn was, after all, the only one she had not yet disregarded.

 

“Leyndell’s borders are not closed to Elphael’s children,” Morgott says, after a moment. “The time for that was when I buried him.”

 

“I dared not further inflame conflict,” she admits. “My presence causes unease in the capital.” 

 

It is then that the tension she sought to sow takes true root, she notes - though there is an additional discomfort that suggests there may be more than a mere realization of her intentions.

 

“You do not wish to be directly involved,” he says, slowly, “to maintain the morale of what’s left of Leyndell’s army.”

 

She does not discredit the suggestion, and he cracks a wry grin. “I should’ve anticipated,” Morgott continues, “more intelligence in thee than there was ere last we spoke. Little prodigy, how thou’ve grown.”

 

( Do not grow too quickly, he seems to say, without speaking, for the sake of us all. )

 

“Not just their morale,” she eventually clarifies. “My cleanrot knights have chosen their fate. Leyendell’s have not. Proximity would not favor their long-term prospects. But,” she finishes, delicately, “perhaps a token force to hold the line - a rear guard, such that the Praetor’s forces cannot push towards Elphael or Altus, would be within my capacity and our shared limitations. I will not spare more than that.”

 

“Where,” Morgott asks, thoughtful and far warmer than a moment before, “would this force be positioned?”

 

“House Marais may be amenable to hosting a bastion. We have traded curative knowledge previously in exchange for the aid of Lord Maleigh’s children in our own endeavors, and only the daughters fight. They would be grateful for the additional defense, would provide a tactical position, and would not begrudge our presence.”

 

He does not thank her, simply notes in that canny voice of his that he would make use of such a force. His pride will not permit him such a concession of gratitude.

 

And then, her true purpose in garnering his sole attention, in her own concession of a handful of troops and the final condemnation of House Marais - for the man before her is the only godling who may know the truth of the rumored aftermath of the battle that brought him to her doorstep.

 

He weaves a vague tale for her of the Gelmir battle, sharing pieces without tipping his hand altogether, and it is no trouble for Malenia, for his reactions are of a far greater value than the details - and each and every one of them screams shame.

 

Morgott spins his yarn about an abominable trap, toying with Leyndell’s soldiers like a wildcat does its prey, letting them breach the mountain manor as his men sealed the exits, so when the volcano blew, the half that was not burnt was eaten, and what dregs that escaped had to dig themselves out through sulfurous tunnels, choking on ash and no supplies.

 

He spins his yarn, voice laced with thick, bitter disdain, but the shame lingers there in the low notes of his story. That he let himself extrapolate the entirety of the situation from what parts Rykard chose to feed to him. That his men breached the surface only to turn on the reinforcements like hounds in a frenzy, starving and broken and burning with what they believed to be abandonment. He does not linger on the madness of the survivors, but there is more shame there than anywhere else - though not born from empathy, she notes. There is a secret there, too. 

 

She does not ask how Radahn has taken Morgott’s failure to protect his men and what became of the Redmane knights that fought under Leyndell’s banner. There will be war anew, for that, but there is no shame there, and that’s the thread that catches her in the end, makes her want to grab him by the shoulders and shake an ounce of sense into the stubborn prince, to argue that Marika will never look past what she’s made of him. That he will never measure up to what their mother wanted, and he knows it, and yet still he fights for her banner, picks fights with Miquella.

 

It is a mourning, she notes, for a family she could have had. There is kinship in their twin fates, or there would be, absent of the barrier that is their shared parent.

 

She longs to say it, but even Miquella - in all his grace - could not do so without him taking it as an insult, so she leaves it unsaid, does not needle his pride.

 

*

 

Morgott lingers a few days yet, though under guard and with restrictions placed on where he might safely explore Elphael. He is surprisingly amenable to their restrictions, perhaps in light of Malenia’s military concessions, which allows them to tackle a different and novel problem.

 

“He will invade, then?” Miquella asks, as the three of them watch the sun set and stars rise from one of the balconies on the tree’s south side. 

 

“I suspect as much,” Morgott admits. “He is overextending in response.”

 

“Forgive me,” Malenia interrupts, “but did the Lunar Princess not similarly fall the day that Leyndell’s Golden Son did? Is she not dead ? You do him injustice to ascribe only vengeance as a motive - Radahn is smarter than that.” 

 

Miquella, however, weighs other possibilities. “You are certain he seeks Caria, then?”

 

“Very likely Leyndell too,” Morgott interjects, “if Gelmir yet stands when Rykard is through with it. T’was an earthquake, a week hence, far to the south. My scouts suspect he has put some project of his to test.”

 

They were right, then, to think Radahn sought the stars, and Morgott would not stand for that. Malenia, she finds, will not either. There are reasons the outer gods are not to be tempted with bold gestures. The war table afore them is proof enough of that, if nothing else is. Mount Gelmir is proof enough of that.

 

And their half-brother’s fingers tangle in the very depths of space, as if he could pull the moon from its orbit in his misguided fury. As if he did not watch each and every duel between her and Godwyn as she traipsed around Leyndell like an awkward pup that had not yet grown into new limbs after the rot ripped them from her. As if he could not see the consequences.

 

No, that is uncharitable - as if he could see the consequences, and simply did not care.

 

“Who,” Malenia mutters, “do you seek our aid against? I will fight no dual-front against Gelmir and Redmane. I am not certain I will fight Redmane regardless-”

 

“-Stormveil,” Morgott interrupts. “Has been through three monarchs in a month. The latest is a cocky young thing. More a shame to our lineage than most.”

 

“Not my lineage,” she mutters. “You would pit us against a whelp? Are mortals beyond a Prince?”

 

“I would pit thee against Radahn,” he says. “A joint endeavor. I would not see one calamity become two.”

 

Morgott’s sentence ends too harshly, tone unexpectedly clipped in a way that leaves a bad taste in her mouth and sends a shiver through her sword-arm. “I do not mean to cast a doubt upon Leyndell’s military prowess,” she murmurs, “but do not they have need of a commander in Gelmir?”

 

“Gelmir is no longer a war,” Morgott admits. “‘Twas a slaughter, and while I intend to ensure the Blasphemer pushes not into the capital, there is no use in throwing our power against him when disaster will strike in Caelid if left unchecked. Our efforts there are to limit collateral - nothing more.”

 

“You believe me no match for him.”

 

“I believe,” Morgott says, with a slow certainty, “that the less I speak of my reasoning, the better. But,” he continues, “thy role is in thy blade. The Starscourge must be thoroughly grounded, and I would rather see him rooted than rotting.”

 

“I have given Leyndell more than I owed, ” she grits out, as Miquella starts, no longer lost in thought. “I have humored plenty. I have no desire to field battles for the sake of bloodshed or sport, and while a petulant, proud fool , he is right on one count-”

 

“- he is right on one count ,” Miquella interrupts, though it is clear from his voice and the pallor of his face that he does not mean Radahn. “We shall speak on it, Prince. Return to Leyndell, and prepare for thy march south. Either my General shall join thee at the edge of Marais territory a half-month hence or thou wilt receive our answer at a blade’s edge. But thy welcome is worn out, and Malenia is right - we have given far more than duty and honor command .”

 

( Would she not be jaded so, were she able to see the shape the end would take while the world pressed on, blind to each fractured shard?)

 

*

 

She meets Miquella at the roots of the Haligtree before dawn breaks.

 

As a courtesy of trust, she discloses all first - what Morgott claims occurred deep beneath the volcano, the frenzied flames licking at his soldiers’ heels, that she sent Miquella from the room not to keep their visitor off-guard, but to give Miquella the necessary time to conceal from Leyndell’s keeper the project he had undoubtedly conceived in the wake of the Shattering.

 

Such efforts were not lost on him, she notes, as her brother graces her with a rare grin. But it does not fully reach his eyes. Something weighs heavily on Miquella, and it does not do so easily.

 

“I will not leave thee,” she mutters, “unless we both agree it is necessary. I am myself not certain Radahn’s doom demands our intervention.”

 

“But it is thy wish,” he says, softly, small hands tracing the patterns of the tree’s roots as they wind up the stonework. 

 

“To slay him now would be no different than condemning my own self before the bloom, I have no desire to-”

 

“Would’st thou abandon him to our fate in his wrath? He will come for us, eventually. We are too proximate to Rykard, and a starfall in Gelmir will wreak havoc in the north all the same. I trust thou will make clean work of the matter and return to us.”

 

She does not finish her thought, that she has no desire to be the hand of Leyndell’s justice in this, this calculated violence to cut the contamination out afore it takes root deep within the earth. Godwyn deserved better, and so does Radahn.

 

But Miquella is right in one thing - distasteful as it is to wield the blade, if he is too far gone in his grief, ‘tis far better to choose the battleground than to gamble the fate of her people on mercy for a well-armed fool.

 

“And what of thee?” she asks, for it had never need be a question before. “I will not leave thee to the wolves-”

 

-the wolves are silenced ,” Miquella interrupts. 

 

His words hang heavy in the air for the moment. She had not meant the literal hounds, but Miquella, it seems, has. 

 

“The wolves are-”

 

“-I did not do so on my own, Malenia, for I am not such a fool,” he interrupts, expression dark and warped with something nigh unreadable. Discomfort, certainly, but the source eludes her-

 

“But I-” He cannot get the thought out altogether, and it leaves her deeply unsettled, for of the pair of them, eloquence graced Miquella in the womb far more than her. “Perhaps,” Miquella eventually continues, “it is better to show thee. I had meant to do so regardless, and have need of thy aid.”

 

It is all she can do, as Miquella parts the roots to the oldest portion of the Haligtree’s core, to mull the sentence over in her mind. The wolves are silenced, she thinks, and with it, for just a moment, she can see the world as Miquella does - full of endless possibilities, one set of shackles thrown off-

 

-for a longer chain, she realizes, with a sinking feeling in her throat. The lower atrium remains, but the dust has been cleared from the sandstone floor, along with a second shackle still.

 

Where once sweet-scented petals lingered in the stagnant air, a persistent reminder of the first great fracture-

 

The heavy, twisted blossom is unmistakably absent.

 

Miquella-

 

“-twould not harm me,” he interjects. “But I did not reach for the aeonia without first ensuring it would work.

 

“‘Twas a secret kept from me that needed not be so,” she replies, from between golden fingers, for until her arm touched her face she was not quite certain this was real. Yet no petal lingers of the wretched flower that once graced the atrium floor, not even a trace stamen. “There was no- why ? What could have possibly pre-empted meddling with this in secrecy?

 

“Mercy,” Miquella mutters, kneeling to the ground just as he did all those years ago, pulling something small and glittering from a crack in the flagstone. “I sought not to give thee false hope without some deep root in possibility. But more than that, I had hoped-”

 

-Miquella winces, and the weight from before once more takes shape in his expression. He swallows his words once, pauses on second attempt, finally saying only thus-

 

“I had hoped,” Miquella mutters, “to save them. The hounds. They bore a different sort of shackle.”

 

It is clear from the pain in his eyes that the price for a dream realized was another cut off at the root.

 

“Miquella,” Malenia starts, carefully and with no small amount of fear, “ where are the wolves?

 

*

 

They were a gift, the letter said. An earnest present from neighboring Caria - a celebration of the twin’s birth, and an act of spite for their father.

 

The red wolf pups were a gift from fate wrapped in excuses, a bitter vestige of a broken marriage coaxed forth by the Fingers. Companions for twins who had no need of them, unwanted things born of conflict, but they were toothless in the end, had not the will to kill a child for the unknowing bloom of her blood-curse.

 

Miquella’s gift had kept them pacified - malleable, even. They were sweet things - good hunting companions in the cold, northern snowstorms. They were innocent, unknowing creatures - much like the pair of them - and each, it seems, was a blade to the neck of the other.

 

And now they are meat, slowly rotting into the soft earth.

 

“Miquella,” she starts, but does not finish, for all she can do is stare . From a distance, there does not appear to have been a great struggle - each shadow bears severed carotids, though one appears bereft a limb and eye. The killing blow for each, however, seems a clean cut to the throat, the blade could not have faltered.

 

“I bore it not,” he mutters. “Thy knight assisted me.”

 

“You roped her into this?” She cannot fathom the utter confidence he has sometimes, for if it had not gone according to plan, which - what was his plan? “ Finlay. She has no need of- I have advanced her burden far enough without meddling with the echoes of rot in these godsforsaken chambers, let alone godkillers-

 

“Malenia,” he says, swallowing, “‘twas not my first resort. I had further need of them, but the circumstances-”

 

“-an explanation,” Malenia interrupts, “would be apt. I cannot complain at their removal, but I would understand the theory tested, and whether or not we are about to join the ranks of Leyndell’s reviled.”

 

What he has scraped from the floor, Miquella now holds between his fingers - a delicate, golden sewing-needle. The design is ornate, much in the style of runic statuary, but there is something hauntingly primal to it - the eye forming amidst two twisting strands of metal. “Will it not catch in fabric, if used?”

 

“Twas not intended for fabric,” Miquella mutters softly. “It will cut through flesh well enough. But I fear-” 

 

He trails off with a frustrated noise. “It is poor form to request assistance in exchange for a gift, but the situation would benefit from thy talents.”

 

“You want me to dispose of the corpses,” she corrects, eyes flickering back to the pair of them, in the mulch at the base of the Haligtree.

 

“I will be able to filter any influence they might have out of the tree,” he says, delicately. “And there will be no questions.”

 

“Why was Finlay given order to kill them?”

 

The question does not ring in the empty space, for the foliage is thickest here. But the silence leads her to believe she has perhaps misjudged the circumstance. If Finlay was not given order to kill-

 

Miquella inhales deeply, resting a hand against a nearby tree root. “I do not wish to live like this,” he says, quietly. “I do not wish,” he repeats, slowly and carefully, “to make the same mistakes as father, in accepting his lot.”

 

“He was an-”

 

“-were we not all cursed?” Miquella asks, more raw than indignant but indignant all the same. “Mother brought this upon herself, but even though the rest of us had no choice in the matter, even she- I-” 

 

You, ” Miquella continues, eyes pressed firmly shut, “cannot deny familiarity with the consequences of making a single, righteous choice while utterly blind to how fate would warp to take advantage of the agency of someone young and unknowing. She was never a god.”

 

It is her turn to sigh, for he - in a strange way, Miquella is not wrong, but she cannot pretend to understand the intricacies of agency among the divine who chose their own path. “She made more than one choice,” Malenia says, gently. “And so did he. Every moment - they chose again. ‘Twas more than a choice - ‘twas commitment, with all the responsibilities and trappings it bears.”

 

“You think he was a coward.”

 

“In some instances, I do,” Malenia admits. “This is secondary to thy corpses and needle, however.”

 

“It is the very subject of it,” Miquella protests. “A dream and a price. ‘Twill stave off divine influence, when embedded in the flesh. The theory was sound, for father and I had discussed it in vague passing some years back, and then I proved it-”

 

“- ah. ” This explains the corpses, then, and why Miquella’s eyes are fixed firmly anywhere but before him. “You said it worked.”

 

“I did.”

 

“The hounds… they were cut off from the Greater Will, then?”

 

“I had hoped,” Miquella says, with the tone of one recently come into knowledge of how futile that hope was, “to grant them an agency beyond bound service. They were only receptive to it in my presence, for they were built as servitors and there was little of them left beyond the flesh the Fingers had warped. Their minds were not peaceful, and I had not the time or knowledge to make them so without-”

 

“-binding them to thee a second time.”

 

“One begged for death,” Miquella chimed in, in a false-jovial tone. “Insofar as a hound that cannot speak can. Finlay’s comparison of its cry was that of a horse stuck full of arrows, absent a leg. I am ashamed to say I have not the field experience to validate such an assessment, but needless to say - it was not a noise I am keen to hear a second time.”

 

“The other did not howl?”

 

“The other,” Miquella said, “mistook my tree for hers, and sought to avenge itself upon it . Finlay was admirable help, so I pray thou do not chide her overmuch for assisting me.”

 

“Finlay killed both?” she asks, running a hand through the fur beneath the neck, swallowing as, with some effort, the mulch around them begins to melt into something thick and rank. “The cut on this throat is from a smaller blade than a shortsword. She’d have not have half-heartedly intervened, nor bothered with anything other than a kill- 

 

“The one who lunged for thy tree,” she mutters, a mere moment later, “was it mine?”

 

She is the one with the dagger-marks, after all. Finlay wields no dagger, and the hound was dispatched from the front.

 

But to mistake Miquella for Marika-

 

“Does it matter?” Miquella asks.

 

In the end, it does not. They sit there for a moment. Miquella rests by the tree’s base, running small fingers along the patterns in the bark, tracing each one as if to memorize what he himself put there. She kneels in soft, rotting leaves next to the last tangible memory they will have of what might’ve been their birthright - two corpses, now compost.

 

But eventually, when there is nothing left but the wolves but discolored flowers and stained, dead leaves, Miquella speaks once more.

 

“I trust thee,” he says, with quiet purpose, “if thou must, by thy judgment, travel south. As much as I dislike the idea, it may be necessary.”

 

“I would not-”

 

She would not leave him defenseless, she thinks to say, but to speak so is to sell Miquella short. 

 

“I have faith in thy soldiers,” Miquella continues, gently, “as I have faith in our guards. We have selected skilled and capable people, we have their loyalty, and I am confident that if thy blade graces the battlefield, it shall return home to me in the end.”

 

“The battlefield is a place I fear not,” she mutters. “Nor separation. I have not the vision for the future that graces thee or the Omen Prince. ‘Tis uncertainty that leaves me uneasy of parting.”

 

Miquella shifts, and a shard of bark crumbles beneath his hand, falling away to rest against his knee. It lingers but a moment, as if it belongs there, against his skin. “Malenia,” he whispers, “the needle shall stave off the rot, but it is yet unfinished. I would carve one greater yet, but the shape of the dream is still beyond my grasp. To do so would require…”

 

He does not finish the sentence immediately, but it is clear it is one he has mulled over for more than a mere minute. She wonders, sitting on the bare earth like a child, like they did so long ago when he was still taller than she, how long this conversation has been in the making.

 

“...we would,” Miquella finishes, albeit reluctantly, “be separated for some time regardless. I believe the answers I seek can only be found if sought beyond the limits of the conscious mind.”

 

“You must sleep,” she says, realization dawning. “For how long?”

 

“Enough time that I pray I wake to more peaceful days,” he says. “I do not shirk my duty, Malenia - our people will be provided for. They will dream of my voice. I shall not abandon them to Leyndell, and they will feel my presence each day with every fallen leaf. Each root, twisting, through the damp earth, will bear my mark. I shall carry them on every branch beneath their feet. Every new growth will remind them that Elphael does not forsake its people, when we could have left this all behind so easily, Malenia.

 

“Neither,” she says, swallowing, “of us could abandon what we built. ‘Tis not in our nature, for we are not so easily weeded from this place.”

 

What a pair they make - the stubborn root and pervasive rot. “I will return,” she swears. “Thou shall wake to my face after the last blood has been shed, I promise thee.”

 

A quiet step, and a delicate hand tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I shall hold thee to such words,” Miquella murmurs, with grave sincerity, “and I shall leave thee with mine.”

 

“Keep the needle in thy heart like a vow,” he entreats, pressing it into her hands, “and it shall be thy wings, for where else could thy heart lead but back home?”