RETURNING READERS: PLEASE READ THIS NOTE IN ITS ENTIRETY BEFORE CONTINUING.
At last, after a long, five-year public hiatus I've returned with the final version of this story.
It's been a wild ride in my personal life and a lot has happened over the years, but even though I stopped posting I was always working on Deluge in some capacity. Further honing my writing skills, expanding the lore I've built here, and – most importantly – getting to a place where I could balance my hectic life with the wish to write on a daily basis. Now, at long last, I've finally achieved all those goals, and it's time to finish this story I've been working on for a decade.
Some backstory: I started writing this story in January 2012 in an attempt to get a long standing idea out of my head. Its initial purpose was to explore the aftermath of one of my favorite games, but I did not anticipate this story would become one of my greatest creative assets. It's given me freedom to explore my writing process and hone my skills without the massive, world-building pressures of my original works.
This is a pre-and-post canon "what if" fanfic that begins immediately after the events of Order of Ecclesia. While the game features both a compelling plot and characters it ended on an ambiguous note that made me yearn to know what happened after the credit scroll. I also wished to delve deeper into elements the game tended to gloss over (such as the Order itself and the villagers). Though this story is a fan creation I've tried to base everything on the canon material, including the central relationship between Shanoa and Laura.
What's new: This entire fic has undergone an overhaul, from the first chapter all the way to the end. I've re-written the entire thing to update with my current, more refined style, tied in late-stage story elements with new overarching themes, revised a major character portrayal, and added a story arc detailing Shanoa's past which amounts to over 110-thousand words and eleven chapters of entirely new material.
Because of the massive number of changes throughout it's highly recommended/imperative to re-read this story if you're a returning reader. I know it's a lot of material, but I've done my best to make the journey as fresh and enjoyable as possible. Returning readers will also note that (at the time of posting) this current version ends right before the climactic battle the last version left off with. There is a reason for this, and I will explain further in the end notes for chapter thirty-seven.
I'm also posting the cover image I made for the FFNet version here because I'm very proud of how it turned out.
Shout Outs: Of course, no writer should ever work alone, and there's two special people I'd like to thank before we delve in. Friends I met on AO3, and they were imperative in helping me make this story the best version of itself.
maserspark – There's no words to express how much you've helped me and this story. I don't know if I would have made it without you. Thanks for taking a chance on a random woman from the internet and becoming the best friend and writing partner a girl could have.
HeartbeatDivinity – For being kind, listening to my story, and helping me refine the new material. I know it wasn't an easy road, but we got there, and your input revealed flaws I missed and since rectified. I look forward to working on the rest of this story (and many more projects) together.
A special thank you to all my readers – new and returning alike – who have been patient and understanding with me throughout the years. I love reading each review and hearing how this story has influenced people. It's a true joy to know I've managed to create something so special.
Warnings: This story does contain some coarse language, instances of graphic violence, and sex. Nothing in excess, but enough to warrant the assigned rating.
Emptiness had eaten away at Shanoa's heart, and yet – driven by something the warrior could only assume was desperation – she refused to succumb.
She might have laughed at the irony if she was in a better state of mind. This internal void came in the wake of her emotional revival, but it was fitting, in a way. The logical conclusion to her suicidal ambitions. She never expected to survive the encounter with Dracula. That was one of the reasons why she'd sought to challenge Castlevania in the first place. For her to fall in battle with the Dark Lord – banishing him from the mortal plane – would have been a fitting end for Ecclesia's wayward Blade. A last sacrifice to ensure Barlowe's schemes died with her. She was his creation, after all; raised as an offering to some wicked purpose. A corruption that needed to be put to an end.
As she carved her way through the vast, winding halls of Dracula's domain her thoughts were consumed by the misdeeds that brought her there. Her ignorance had enabled Barlowe to set forth the events which culminated in the Dark Lord's premature resurrection. Her blindness had destroyed the only family she'd ever known. Barlowe gave the orders, but her hands committed the deeds.
And the guilt sought room to fester.
So Shanoa had chipped away at what little self-worth remained in her heart, hoping she'd come to despise herself. The loathing, she surmised, would numb her instinctive fear of death. It worked, to her relief. As she encroached upon Dracula's lair the warrior gained the necessary conviction to offer her soul in sacrifice. Her death would ensure humanity's survival, and she owed the world that much for her foibles. A hollow ring sounded inside of her when she delivered the killing blow. Shanoa accepted her fate without question, and the warrior offered a silent prayer of thanks to whatever god existed that this final deed was almost painless.
Until Albus – persistent to a fault, even in death – intervened on her behalf.
Gratitude followed his passing, and the warrior did hate herself for that. Despite the preceding self-degradation, in the blackest reaches of her heart she had the gall to be relieved that Albus offered his soul in her place. It wasn't until the ordeal was over, as she watched the castle collapse into the dimensional vortex, that Shanoa had been able to accept the fact she'd never wanted to die. But what kind of monster was she to be glad that someone else– no, he was more than that. Her own brother had died in her place.
Enter this emotional void; a pit where no conflict existed. It called to her now, the temptation to lose herself in the familiar emptiness and forgo the onset of grief, but that was not living. It would spit in the face of everything Albus had died for, and once again her sense of duty demanded she abide by the aspirations of others.
Shanoa fought against the urge as she trudged through the dense forest. Thin rays of light from the encroaching dawn offered some illumination, but every so often the warrior stumbled over a log or jutting root obscured by the early morning darkness. She didn't have a torch at her disposal, and under normal circumstances she would have called upon Ignis or Luminato to light her way. A constant reminder of yet another pressing issue; one she'd discovered soon after Albus' soul left her body.
She'd lost the ability to summon Glyphs.
Shanoa made another futile attempt to forge a Glyph – any Glyph – in the palm of her hand. Energy hummed through the tattoos on her arms, but the incantations remained elusive. It was infuriating. She could remember their names, but summoning a Glyph required more substance than that. She was missing the associated knowledge; the secrets inscribed in the absorbed sigils. Without it they were nothing more than empty words.
Which left the question of why? How did she lose the knowledge? Did it have something to do with Albus, or…
Shanoa bid herself to ignore those thoughts. She wouldn't find the answers here, even if some part of her screamed she already knew the truth. She needed to get out of the darkened forest. An apt metaphor, she noted, for her conflicted mind. The longer she stewed alone in this grief, a void hounding her steps, the more dangerous it would become.
There was only one place she could go, and it wasn't long before Shanoa emerged from the wilderness and stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Wygol village.
The world fell silent save for the soft tap of her boots against stone. She walked a slow procession past buildings of uniform design; familiar structures that harkened a swarm of disconcerting memories. Visions that once seemed inconsequential (stilted conversations, confused looks when the warrior failed to display any sign of a personality) now made her cringe in embarrassment. Shanoa had always known her interactions with the villagers were awkward, but she lacked the emotional incentive to identify what, exactly, she was doing wrong. To think it had been that obvious all along…
That begged another question; one darker than the last. Who was she to these people? She knew who they were (or had somewhat of an idea) but they knew nothing of her. An empty heart could not forge friendships, and without a lifetime of memories she lacked a proper identity. Besides, whatever perceived kindness she displayed towards them was not driven by some desire to do good. Shanoa simply did what needed to be done. That was her purpose. No different than a soulless machine, and yet for some inexplicable reason a few of the villagers had tried to draw out some shred of humanity from her. She still couldn't understand it. They had nothing personal to gain from fostering her emotions, but – she supposed – selfless acts by nature did not ask for anything in return.
They were just like her brother in that regard.
Shanoa came to a stop beneath a wooden sign hanging from a nearby building. Its hinges creaked as it swayed in the slight breeze; the image of a jewel-encrusted bracelet painted on its surface. Something stirred inside the warrior's chest. An unprecedented feeling of warmth and comfort, and in that moment Shanoa knew she'd made the right decision.
Albus was willing to sacrifice everything for her sake. He loved her for reasons she couldn't understand, but perhaps Laura could see why. The jeweler must have seen something in the warrior's heart that was worth salvaging, especially when one considered her past actions. Shanoa neededto know how she managed to inspire such devotion in others. Laura had always wanted to teach her, and now she was capable of listening.
Shanoa knocked on the front door of the jeweler's shop with a heavy fist. She waited for what seemed like an age, though it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. She was about to knock again when she heard movement coming from behind the door, followed by the scrape of sliding metal as the bolt unlocked and the door slowly swung open.
"I swear to God in heaven, Marcel, if you're drunk again, I'm going to–" Laura gasped as their eyes met and she fell silent.
A shift happened in the moments that followed. For the first time Shanoa could see all the emotions the reunion was supposed to make her feel: delight, embarrassment, a burning need for comfort. They glimmered within her heart, though none of them were strong enough to break the damnable seal. She attempted a smile, but it didn't feel right. Not the kind of smile she'd gifted Albus. This one felt empty.
"I- I'm sorry," Shanoa said. Her voice was hoarse from the recent battle with Dracula and the tears she'd wept in its wake. "I know it's early, but I…" Her poor excuse for a smile faded. It struck her that she must cut quite a sight; battered and bloody with dried streaks of tears clinging to her face, not to mention the strange hour of her visit. Shanoa wanted to explain, but where could she even begin?
"No need to apologize, it's just." Laura paused as a myriad of questions rippled beneath her concerned expression. "You didn't tell anyone where you were going, and then the castle appeared, and I thought." The jeweler gulped; a slight tremor ran down her arms. "I started to worry that something had happened to you," she said in a soft voice.
"How long have I been gone?" Shanoa asked.
"About two weeks."
Shanoa's mouth fell open in surprise, but she said nothing. Time was meaningless inside the walls of Castlevania. She'd lost all sense of it the moment she crossed through the front gates. The warrior suspected it took at least a few days for her to traverse the winding halls, but for two weeks to have slipped by in that maze?
"You went inside the castle, didn't you?" There was a curious look in the jeweler's eyes; of memories once discarded now dredged to the surface. She gently pushed Shanoa aside and walked into the quiet streets. She looked first to the North where Castlevania had once stood, and when met with an empty horizon she turned to face Shanoa.
She watched as Laura read the story etched into her battered armor and the wounds that crossed her exposed flesh. She never chanced to reveal the details of her mission or what purpose had led her to a remote village in the Carpathian wilderness, but as she stood before the jeweler's concerned gaze Shanoa felt the shroud of secrecy surrounding her persona disintegrate. Perhaps it was better this way.
Laura didn't react to the revelation with bewilderment or surprise. Instead, there was infinite tenderness in her eyes; an emotion Shanoa hadn't anticipated. The jeweler took a few tentative steps forward before cradling the younger woman's face in her hands. A slight crack split the resolve holding Shanoa together. Tears escaped the corners of her eyes and stained Laura's fingers.
"I once told you that I didn't want to know what brought you to Wygol," Laura said in a gentle voice. "Not because I wasn't curious, but because whenever we broached the subject of my imprisonment or the man responsible your eyes became filled with intense hatred and despair. You kept claiming you couldn't feel – that your soul was devoid of emotions – but I've always known that was a lie." The jeweler caught a stray tear on the tip of her thumb. She held it there; the drop of water glistened in the soft light. "You've had your emotions all along. Perhaps buried so deep in your heart you forgot how to reach them, but they've always been there. I've tried so hard to help you see that. I thought that by crafting things of beauty I could get you to feel something other than the negativity which clouded your mind." She paused. "I wasn't up to the task, but at least someone else was."
Laura smiled; a warm, heartfelt expression. There was a world of emotions contained within the simple curvature of her lips. A slight pang of envy flared in Shanoa's chest. Why couldn't her own expressions convey such depth?
"You smiled just now," Laura said. "It might have been empty, but it's the first time I've seen you smile."
Shanoa closed her eyes as a shudder passed through her. It was over. There was no longer a need to keep her life's mission a secret.
"I think it's time I told you about Albus, and… about what I am," the warrior said in a whisper. Her bottom lip trembled with the effort it took to speak. "Not just because I need you to know, but because I–" A sob interrupted her. She hated the sound. It laid bare the full extent of her grief. "I don't know what happens next."
A sudden gust of chill wind swept through the village and both women shivered as it passed. Laura's hands left Shanoa's face, trailed down her arms, and she clasped one of the warrior's hands in her own. With a slight tug she led Shanoa inside her shop and closed the heavy door behind them.
The familiarity of her surroundings eased some of the tension that plagued the warrior. The usually full display shelves and hanging racks were currently bare of any jewelry, however. Laura locked up her wares every night in order to dissuade potential thieves. Burglary was an unlikely threat due to Wygol's relative isolation, but Shanoa recognized the need for caution.
The far side of the store was also home to Laura's workbench; the site of most of their often-one-sided conversations. Laura liked to talk as she worked, and Shanoa would hover nearby, watching with interest as the jeweler twined metal and cut stone into intricate works of art. Laura's profession required a delicate hand, and the warrior could feel that same gentle touch guiding her further inside her friend's (yes, they were friends, she could recognize that now) abode.
Shanoa knew the storefront well, though she'd never seen the rooms beyond. Laura's living quarters represented a privacy that it had never seemed appropriate to breach, but the jeweler threw open the door connecting the two realms without a second thought. It took Shanoa by surprise. Perhaps the prominent distinction between the professional and the personal lay solely in her own mind. Or perhaps Laura simply didn't care for such formalities.
The room beyond was larger than the storefront and served as a combination of kitchen, dining room, and lounge. A plush couch and matching armchair stood to the left of the doorway. The nearby walls, Shanoa noticed, supported rows upon rows of crowded bookshelves. She tried to read some of the titles printed on the spines, but the light was too dim to make them out. A staircase along the left wall led to the second floor and (she presumed) the bedroom. Another door – set in the near corner, underneath the staircase – was open a crack. She had to squint, but Shanoa could make out the shape of a bathtub within the darkness.
There was a fire burning inside a glass-front wood stove on the opposite side of the room. The flames offered some illumination in addition to the pre-dawn glow filtering through the windows. Laura guided her towards a small dining table and some chairs placed in front of the stove. The air warmed as they drew near and Shanoa allowed herself to relax a bit at its calming touch. Laura pulled out a chair and the warrior near collapsed into the offered seat. A smile tugged at the corners of Laura's lips for a moment before she settled into a more somber expression.
"Some of those cuts need to be bandaged. Last thing we want is for any of them to get infected," the jeweler said as she rummaged through the nearby kitchen cabinets. "I know I keep the medicine kit around here somewhere…"
Shanoa didn't pay her much heed as the full weight of exhaustion descended upon her. One of the unexpected blessings of Castlevania's dimensional instability was the nullification of her bodily needs. She didn't have to concern herself with food, water, or rest while traversing its halls. Now that she'd left the time warp, however, the side effects of two weeks of endless battle were beginning to show themselves. She wasn't hungry – yet – but she had to fight to stay awake.
'I can't sleep now. I have to tell her. I need her to understand.'
The warrior's gaze settled on Laura. She found it curious how the older woman still managed to look elegant despite the fact she'd just been roused from slumber. Her dark brown hair was tied back in a long ponytail, though a few stray curls had escaped the binding and framed the jeweler's beautiful face. Laura had always struck her as a bit of a fashion plate; a trait that was evident even in her nighttime apparel. She was dressed in a lavender cashmere nightgown held in place by a white sash tied around her waist. The garment looked a bit too formal for its intended use, but clothes were a subject that had never held much interest for the warrior.
"Here it is!" Laura's voice interrupted her thoughts as she retrieved a wooden box from one of the cabinets and carried it over to the table. Shanoa peered inside as she opened the lid. It contained a standard medical kit: rolls of bandages, a washcloth, and a bottle of clear liquid the warrior assumed was an antiseptic of some kind. Laura sat down in a chair across from her guest. Her emerald eyes alert as she surveyed the wounds covering Shanoa's face and arms. A temptation flared behind the jeweler's eyes but was snuffed out almost as soon as it appeared.
"Well, the good news is none of them appear to be life-threatening," Laura said. Shanoa scoffed at the comment and a small, amused smile played across the jeweler's face. "Abram should have a look at you, but I doubt he's awake at this hour. I'll do what I can for the time being," she said as she retrieved the antiseptic and washcloth from inside the box.
"Don't thank me just yet." Laura doused a section of the cloth with antiseptic. "This is going to sting."
"I can handle it," Shanoa said without hesitation.
The jeweler grinned at her confidence and targeted a long gash on the younger woman's right forearm. A crusted layer of dirt, grime, and dried blood peeled away from the wound as Laura passed the washcloth over it. Shanoa felt a slight tingling sensation, but nothing she'd consider to be painful.
"That's odd," Laura said in a low voice, almost to herself.
Shanoa gave her a quizzical look. "What is?"
"I use this solution to clean my own wounds. It hurts like hell." The jeweler fixed Shanoa with a curious look of her own. "You haven't even flinched."
Faint memories stirred in Shanoa's mind; reminders of an agony she'd been forced to endure. The darker aspects of the training that had tempered her into Ecclesia's Blade. They were too vague for her to pick out details, but the ghosting pain that throbbed in her bones was enough to confirm their validity.
"It's difficult for me to feel physical pain," Shanoa said in a hollow voice.
Laura quirked an eyebrow at the comment but didn't press the matter. The warrior's gaze lingered on Laura's hands as she tended to the wound. Her lips were slightly parted, though she didn't speak until after the jeweler had finished wrapping a bandage over the gash.
"Have you ever heard of an organization called the Order of Ecclesia?" The warrior's voice faltered when she spoke the name of her former home.
"I can't say I have," Laura said as she started to clean another, deeper cut.
"In order to understand what it is – or, I suppose, what it was – I have to tell you about the Belmont clan."
The jeweler tensed at the name. "Dracula's sworn enemies," Laura said in a voice trembling with… something.
Was it fear? Shanoa glanced up at her friend's face in an attempt to gauge the unexpected reaction. Her expression was difficult to read; taut with anger and a swarm of other emotions Shanoa was too inexperienced to discern. Laura didn't meet her gaze. Her eyes remained focused on the filth falling away from Shanoa's rendered flesh, though she seemed to sense the unspoken question in the warrior's mind.
"I've heard stories of their conquests ever since I was a little girl," the jeweler said.
"From whom?" Shanoa asked. Albus had told her the villagers were the last surviving members of the Belmont clan, but she never received the impression that any of them were aware of their heritage. Then again, the subject hadn't come up in conversation. Laura's terse expression grew even more rigid at the question.
"My father was… proud of his lineage." A statement she said with no small hint of disdain. "He made sure I was well aware of our ancestors' 'holy deeds' and 'duty to mankind'." She shook her head. "But that doesn't have anything to do with you. What matters is I know about the Belmonts, about Leon's oath and Dracula's power, and you don't have to repeat any of that ancient history for my sake."
"There was speculation the clan had died out," the warrior said.
"That was intentional."
Shanoa was tempted to pry further but quelled the urge. Laura's past was not at stake here. Hers was.
"This could be a fabrication, another one of Barlowe's elaborate lies, but it's the only explanation I can give," Shanoa said with a small sigh. "The disappearance of the Belmont clan created turmoil amongst Europe's religious and political leaders. They feared, should Dracula return, there would be no one powerful enough to stand against the Dark Lord. The Order of Ecclesia was one of many organizations formed with the express purpose of finding an alternative means to slay him. They were doomed to failure, however; all except for Ecclesia. The Order managed to develop another way to kill Dracula. One that did not require the aid of the holy whip."
"How?" Laura asked when Shanoa fell silent. There was a glint in the jeweler's eyes that indicated she already knew the answer.
Shanoa looked away, unable to meet her gaze. This was all wrong. She had slain the Dark Lord, joined the ranks of fabled Belmont champions, and saved humanity from the clutches of Darkness. It called for celebration, for her heart to be filled with pride, but reality was a far cry from the images spun by heroic ballads.
So, this was it, her moment of triumph, and yet Shanoa could not recall another time she'd felt so meek.
"They created me," she said at last.
"So that's why you came here." Laura's voice was soft, but amazement lined the edges of her words. "I should have known. Monsters appear where the dimensional borders are weakest, and that was Castle..." She trailed off. The last, unfinished syllables of the word rang in the air, and still Shanoa could not bear to look at her. "You've slain Dracula." There was power in that statement; echoed by the strong force with which Laura had said it. Another tremor ran down the warrior's spine as she nodded in affirmation.
"I am the Blade to banish evil. I am the Morning Sun to vanquish the horrible night." Shanoa spoke the words, but there was no such fervor behind them. "I don't know why I was chosen to play this role, and now." A lump rose in her throat. For a horrifying moment, the warrior teetered on the edge of the internal void – a great, black chasm of despair – but her sorrow had not been fully realized. It couldn't break through what remained of Dominus' emotional seal. Not yet. "Now it's taken everything from me," she finished in a whisper.
Her memory was an elusive, fickle thing. Albus' soul hadn't lain dormant inside of her. He'd managed to restore the identity that Dominus had stolen, but he couldn't force her recollection. As a result, the amnesiac cloud still hung heavy within her mind. She could make out stray fragments, however, and with his memories Shanoa was at last able to piece together a brief (though quite lacking) history of who she was.
She was raised in the secluded Order. An orphan of unknown parentage and dismissed ability. Until there was a change, an event she couldn't recall, and the neglected child was named Ecclesia's Blade; the one person who could host Glyphs within her flesh. She would wield Dominus in their name and realize mankind's greatest wish. A grand purpose despite her common origins.
There was another child – a boy cursed with fierce ambition – a second orphan under Ecclesia's care. He was her constant companion. A sibling in name only, but their bond was as strong as those forged by blood. Laura paused in her task when Shanoa spoke of Albus, her green eyes burning with intrigue. Shanoa told her how he had discovered Dominus' heavy price and its Dark origins. He sought to save her from that horrible fate but couldn't prevent Barlowe's sacrifice of her memories and emotions. She'd hunted her former brother without question. A months-long pursuit which culminated in Albus taking Dominus into himself.
"What happened to him?" Laura asked when she didn't clarify on that point.
Shanoa was silent for a long moment. She couldn't bring herself to answer. How could she? It was an atrocity she'd never be able to atone for. Her hands throbbed, and she remembered how they'd been covered in his –
"Dominus was born from Dracula," Shanoa said, if only to divert her own traitorous thoughts. "A piece of him still resides within the sigils. When you absorb Dominus you become subject to Dracula's influence. Somehow, I was able to resist any Darker inclination, but not Albus. I could only watch – helpless – as the Glyph devoured his soul." She paused; her voice dropped to a whisper. "And, in the end, it killed him."
She recounted less harrowing events. Barlowe's betrayal, the subsequent struggle, and how she'd impaled her former master on ethereal blades. Still, he managed to escape her grasp and crawled to his accursed effigy, leaving a trail of blood and viscera across the floor in his wake. He offered his own life to raise his Lord. A horrid sacrifice to break even the strongest magic. The effigy split, and she watched the black masses of Dracula's spirit escape their long-standing confinement.
Duty and loss, fed by the weighty knowledge that Dominus remained in her flesh, had driven the warrior to challenge Castlevania's halls. She carved a bloody swath through the fortress, forcing her way to Dracula's chambers despite the efforts of his demonic army. Ecclesia's Blade slew the Dark Lord with a Glyph forged from his own macabre power, but Albus – once again – saved her from herself.
"He offered his soul in my stead. He wanted me to live; to carry on with my life." Shanoa felt tears reform in her eyes, but they did not fall this time. Some internal force held them at bay. "And I… I wanted to tell him I love him, but I couldn't even manage to do that. Instead, I just begged for him to stay." She buried her face in her hands as her diaphragm heaved with regret. Still, no tears. "I should have taken those last few moments to tell him how much he means to me. I was able to smile for him, but that small gift can't compare to what he gave up for my sake."
Silence followed; triggered by the heavy weight of Shanoa's words. After a few long moments she felt Laura's hand stroke through her hair in a soothing manner. It was strange, but the action managed to relax her somewhat.
"Was it a genuine smile?" Laura asked.
The warrior nodded but did not raise her head. "Yes." Her voice cracked as she spoke the word.
"You were cursed; unable to display sincere emotion. The fact that you managed to break those bonds – to smile for him – was all the proof Albus needed of your love." The hand in Shanoa's hair found its way underneath her chin and Laura coaxed the warrior to tilt her head up. After a moment's hesitation Shanoa allowed her gaze to meet Laura's. Unwavering confidence reflected in the jeweler's eyes; a belief in Shanoa's capabilities the warrior herself lacked. "Words can't always express the true depths of what we feel, but a look can."
"Are you sure I'm capable of doing that?" Shanoa asked. She was not the jeweler. Even under the present circumstances she doubted her blue eyes reflected the same emotional depth that Laura's did.
Another small smile formed on the jeweler's lips. "I'm positive."
Shanoa made no attempt to argue. They sat in contemplative silence as Laura tended to the last of her wounds. There was something freeing about watching the filth wash away from her skin. It was the cleansing nature of the act, Shanoa surmised, which fostered the small feeling of rejuvenation. A spark of positivity to hold onto in the midst of chaos, and yet she had only scratched the surface of this conflict. There was so much left to say, sins she lacked the courage to admit to, but there was one thing Shanoa knew she had to confess.
"I'm afraid," the warrior said. She trembled at the implication of those words. She hadn't quaked before the Dark Lord. The strength of her darker ambitions had kept all semblance of fear at bay, but now – faced with the reality that she would live – Shanoa was as timid as a lost child. Which, for the sake of honesty, she was. Concern flitted across Laura's face as she looked up at her guest.
"An unknown future." Shanoa tried but could not meet Laura's gaze. "I fulfilled my destiny, but Ecclesia is the only home I've ever known, and Albus my only family." A memory danced on the edges of her recollection; of a hulking beast she once recognized, but it never solidified. Still, somehow, she understood what it meant. "There's nothing left for me to go back to," she said in a whisper.
"You can stay here," Laura said.
Shanoa forced through her embarrassment and looked at her friend. There was a fierceness in Laura's eyes. The same damned sense of devotion she'd recognized in Albus near the end.
"You don't have to–"
"Humanity owes you a debt," Laura said with insistence. "You saved all of us from Dracula's clutches. Let me be the first to repay you." The look in the jeweler's eyes softened. "It's hardly adequate, but it's a start."
Shanoa sighed. A knot of tension escaped her chest on that exhale, and it became evident that keeping her eyes open was a chore.
"I am tired," she said in a small, resigned voice.
Laura chuckled as she finished wrapping the last bandage on the warrior's arms.
"We're almost done." She dabbed the wet cloth over a large gash that split across Shanoa's forehead. "Most of these are going to need stitches, I'm afraid." Once the wound was clean she wrapped a bandage around the warrior's head. Laura studied it for a moment before giving Shanoa an apologetic smile. "It's not the most glamorous look, but it'll have to do for now."
"I'm not trying to impress anyone," the warrior said as she stood up. There was one last thing to say, however, and it needed to be backed by genuine emotion. Shanoa forced her walls to recede – just for an instant – as she found her friend's gaze. The rapid tattoo of her heartbeat and the tears reforming in her eyes were indicators she'd at least managed to attain that small victory over her emotional shortcomings. Hardly adequate, to echo Laura's sentiment, but a start, nevertheless. "Thank you."
Once again, she found it difficult to read the jeweler's expression. It contained too many emotions; all fueled by a sense of passion originating from somewhere Shanoa could not identify. A complexity beyond her current ability to understand, but perhaps someday she could.
"Come," Laura said.
She grabbed Shanoa's hand and led her towards the staircase. The climb to the second floor took longer than it should have. Shanoa's feet were heavy; weighed down by fatigue and the bulk of her gear. Laura was patient, however, and made no comment on the warrior's sluggish movements.
The second floor was a large, open loft which served as Laura's bedroom. Shanoa's vision had grown too foggy for her to make out any details, but her eyes fixed at once on the bed extending into the middle of the room. She'd already begun to shuffle towards it when Laura spoke.
"The bed's all yours." A small chuckle of amusement lined her voice.
Shanoa paused for a moment; held back by her damned social naivety. "You don't mind?" she asked. "I can sleep on the couch downstairs–"
"Don't be silly." She heard Laura move to a different part of the loft. "The bed's more comfortable, for one, and the noise from my shop carries into the living room. I don't want to risk waking you on the off chance I get some rowdy customers." Shanoa's ears pricked up at the sound of creaking hinges followed by the soft rustle of fabric. "Or any customers, really," Laura said in a softer voice.
The warrior cleared her vision (somewhat) with a rough shake of her head. When she looked up she saw Laura walking towards her with a nightgown in her hands. She held out the garment and Shanoa took it without comment. Laura's eyes then fell to her battered armor.
"Do you need help taking that off?" the jeweler asked as a slight blush formed on her cheeks. The sight comforted Shanoa. At least she wasn't the only one feeling a bit awkward.
"Thank you, but it'll be easier if I do it myself."
"Fair enough." She gave Shanoa another smile. "And don't worry about making a mess. You can leave everything on the floor and I'll clean it up later. Just get out of that filthy gear and into an actual bed."
"Yes, ma'am." Shanoa was shocked to hear a teasing lilt to her own voice. It was the first time she'd noted any sense of brevity in her tone since the ritual. Laura outright laughed at the quip.
"Thought I'd never see the day," the jeweler said more to herself than to her friend. She headed for the staircase with a wide grin plastered on her face. "If you need anything call and I'll be right up."
Shanoa watched her descend, waiting for absolute privacy before she began to undress. Laura was about halfway down when she paused and looked up at her battered guest. Shanoa watched her wrestle with a thought before the jeweler turned and hurried up the stairs. The next moments happened in a strange blur, and the warrior could only watch – frozen in place by a mixture of surprise and anticipation – as Laura pulled her into a tight embrace.
"I'm glad you're alive," Laura said in a voice that thrummed with the kind of unabashed emotion that Shanoa dared to believe she could one day possess.
'So am I.' Shanoa was able to make that small, private admission as she gently returned the affectionate gesture. 'So am I.'