And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


4. Yes, We Few Do Yet Remember You

You need to talk to someone. You can feel this with unwarranted urgency, as if you might miss the chance if you didn't start tonight. But you can't kid yourself. It's been so long since your last friendly conversation, and you can't even really remember any of the ones you've had. You shudder to think how you might be now if you hadn't talked and sang to yourself all that time alone.

Not to mention, a lot of your peers here are unlikely to be much better. Perhaps less rusty on conversation, but friendliness? You don't want to pick fights on accident, or convince others you're after something. And you don't really want to just lamely if harmlessly flounder for lack of things to say, either.

And so you'll start off easy, with someone you are pretty confident wants to talk to you, though admittedly you aren't sure what about. You also aren't sure where to find Bell, but that problem was frankly inevitable. You need to figure out how to navigate this place. Were you bad with directions in life, or is this the fault of all that time in the mire?

You suppose getting lost makes it moot that your best guess for where Bell might be was based on basically nothing. You aren't sure where you are, but you know you haven't been here before. That isn't all that surprising; most of the tunnels you haven't visited. How you keep forgetting which turns are right, though... You haven't gone that far into the lair at all, since you never really needed to. You think you've stumbled on a path further in, rather than to some resource, like that pool of water. Whatever it is, it seems relatively free of ghouls. It branches, and you take the right-hand one, more or less at random. If nothing else, you can get a bit more of your bearings, perhaps.

Further down you see where the ghouls are. There are at least twenty, all held still, gathered in a tight cluster around... a wight you don't know. You can only tell one figure in the press is a wight because they're staring right at you. You wave towards them, but they don't seem to respond at all. They just keep looking at you intently. A spoken greeting dies in your throat. You can feel sickly power shedding off of them, and the tunnel is awash with it, even behind you. How did you possibly miss it walking in?

You turn around and go back the way you came. You're starting this off easy.

This time you manage to stick to the outer area where you seem to belong. Seeing wights there other than your fellow peons of Fleshrender's isn't rare, but it's not as prevalent as maybe it should be, now that you stop to wonder about it. Is Fleshrender just especially in charge of missions to outside? But there's not that much any of you have to do. Just one or two of you doing a patrol every day. That can't be everything. Are you just not noticing most of the comings and goings? Or is there another entrance and exit? You really need to find out more about this place. But first things first.

You're heading towards what is more or less the general communal area, as best you can tell. It's where Fleshrender usually has you gather, anyways. You're being more careful not to take any weird turns this time. You come to a tee, and remember you go left here. You've only taken a few steps when you notice a feeling of pinpricks on the back of your head. You turn around and look behind you, and there is Bell, looking right at you. The same cryptic look is on her face as ever. Was that just luck, or could you actually notice the gaze?

Either way, you turn around and walk over to her. She looks a little surprised, but then she smiles, so that's a good sign. You smile back. "Hello, Bell."

"Oh, hi there. I'm almost shocked to hear your voice outside of one of our little meetings." Her face darkens. "Oh. Does Fleshrender want something from me?"

You shake your head quickly. "No, no. Nothing to do with him. And he didn't seem like he had anything important to do when I came back from patrol. I just wanted to talk to you." You smile. In retrospect, it's obvious your first time stopping to chat would seem weird. "Sorry I haven't been talkative. At all. Especially since you've been looking at me like there was something you wanted to say for a while now."

Bell narrows her eyes. Then her smile grows wider, and you can see her pointed teeth. "Here I thought you hadn't noticed. Were you just nervous, settling in?"

You shift in place, and half-heartedly nod. "Something like that." It wasn't really nerves, but... you don't know why you hid away, exactly. Fear? Disgust? Some unconscious impulse of self-denial? You're leaving it behind, whatever it was. "Anyways. I wanted to talk to you. To everyone, but it only seemed fair to go to you first."

"Alright. Well, this works out! Honestly, uh, I was a little unsure if you were all there, you know? You natural ones are all a bit odd. No offense! You've got a lovely, uh..."

"Horn." You put a hand to it, brushing your fingers against its uncannily wooden texture. "You don't have to lie to spare my feelings, Bell. I don't like the look of it either." You would like her to spare your feelings about the apparent state of your mind. You'll believe her that she wasn't trying to insult you with that, at least.

"Alright, admittedly, not lovely. But it has a certain appeal." She stops for a second, looking intently at your horn. You can almost see in her eyes when she finds the phrase she was looking for. "You cut a uniquely imposing figure. Plus it makes you taller than Fleshrender and you can tell that gets under his skin."

Being something he finds annoying doesn't strike you as funny as it does her.

Bell doesn't seem to notice that you're unamused, or at least doesn't care. "Anyways. Months stuck in that swamp—"

"Bog." Bell stops when you interrupt, and purses her lips. "It's a bog. A swamp has trees." She is looking at you in confusion why you care, and you can't figure that out either. It leapt to your tongue, and there's something that should follow but you can't quite place it. The harder you try to grab it, the more it slips away. You shake your head. "Sorry."

After a moment, Bell just shrugs. "Like I was saying. Months out in the bog and I'd probably need some time to come around to socializing too."

"Yeah." You aren't sure you like that being pointed out, but she's certainly not wrong. "Those three years are not something I want to repeat."

Bell's eyes go wide, and then she takes a step towards you. "Years? Three years?" She's waving her hands, and you honestly can't tell what it's supposed to mean. "But you're... How?" A little of the energy wanes, and then she cants her head. "How could you tell, even?"

"Oh. It's a guess, I wasn't counting the days. But there are still winters out there, so I couldn't be off by that much." Was three years an especially long time? You hadn't stopped to wonder about that. It's hard to judge on any kind of personal basis. It was just... a void. Time that meant nothing. You almost feel like it could have gone on for three times as long and it would have been just the same.

Bell slowly nods. "Well, you're just full of surprises, apparently. At least they're good ones." She grins again, and seems fully past her surprise, which you still don't entirely understand. "I'll admit, I've been sizing you up."

That makes your stomach sink. You hope it doesn't show on your face. You don't want to look weak if she hasn't fully committed to a course of action yet. Wait, was she being cruel on purpose? "Sizing me up."

"Oh, don't look like that!" Bell waves her hand in front of her face. "I don't mean for a fight. Sorry if I scared you. I was just... Your power, you know? How much you have compared to everyone else. It's a bit tough to measure on our level, but I'm pretty good at it. You aren't like Sybil or Pepin."

You don't relax just yet. "What do you mean?" It hadn't really occurred to you the sense could give much information about you. You can't tell any difference between your peers, except that Pepin's power is exceptionally faint. You can't really sense your own power at all, to compare. Is there much to sense about you? You are no Fleshrender, but you can't be too weak, either.

"I mean you're stronger than them, obviously. Weaker than me still, but for someone the master didn't craft himself... You're pretty good! Makes me wonder what you ate all that time. The reason I bring this up is because I wanted to offer you a proposition. Sorry, I know I've gone about this all wrong and spooked you, but..." Bell sighs, and let her smile falter. She looks—not desperate, but like she is genuinely looking for help. "Hear me out?"

She's clearly willing to give you a moment, and you take it. It's not that Bell spooked you. You suppose she did, actually, but it's more than that. She's... abrasive. But you can't really muster the ill will to blame her. She wants something from you, and seems to want your goodwill to get it. She probably just can't tell. It wouldn't be surprising if the master's lair was not a good place to learn manners, or consideration. You can't help but wonder if most other wights here are like this. If so... Well, you can definitely work with that.

"Alright. I'll hear it."

Bell grins again, and you can't help but watch the rows of her teeth slide apart. They don't look like a human's at all. "I want us to help each other. This place is dangerous. Fleshrender doesn't care about us at all. Okay, not true, but point is he's not going to help if we ever need it. And nobody above him cares, either. We're just token cannon fodder guarding this entrance. We don't matter. If we did, we'd have been put somewhere else."

You frown. Bell pauses, and you take the opportunity to speak. "Is that what we are? A force guarding the entrance?"

Bell is looking at you like you're stupid. She speaks up slowly. "Yes. What did you think we were?"

You don't have a good answer ready. Eventually you admit defeat and give the bad one. "I thought we were just soldiers. And not really... specialized? There doesn't seem to be much organization here. Just patrols, and..." Well there has to be more. The food comes from somewhere. Little as you want to think about it, the ghouls come from somewhere. And you doubt it's the master shepherding them all back personally, the way he did you.

Bell shakes her head. "Ah. Well, I guess I'm not surprised Fleshrender didn't even tell you anything. But so you know, the lack of organization is all him. The master isn't nearly so sloppy. Fleshrender's only stuck here because it's about the only place he might do good, if somebody does stumble on us here. And the thought is probably that he'll do less harm here than anywhere else in the meantime." Bell laughs to herself, wryly. "Well. You're lucky you've got me here to explain all this, eh?"

You nod. "Thank you. Honestly. I would have put this together eventually, but this is much easier. And less embarrassing." You crack a small smile, and Bell nods encouragingly.

"Yes! Oh, but now we're sidetracked." She pauses for a moment, and looks around the tunnel. But it's still just the two of you. "What I want to propose is pretty simple. I'll watch your back if you watch mine."

"Oh." That is... less than you expected. Isn't that your duty, as comrades? Frankly, it's just your responsibility as a person. If you had seen Bell in danger before this, you would have helped. You know that. Someone trying to kill you wasn't enough to quell that urge.

She misunderstands why you paused. "I really mean it. You seem strong enough to help me, in a pinch. And it's a lot harder for something to sneak up on two than one. Plus, I'm stronger, so it's a pretty good deal for you, yeah?"

"It makes sense. And I appreciate that you're extending me the invitation." You aren't sure how exactly to put what you're trying to say. In the end you decide it doesn't really matter. Bell seems fine with bluntness. "Is there really that much we have to look out for, though? You don't mean patrolling together, do you?"

She shakes her head. "As good an idea that would be, not our call. As for your other question... Better to be safer than we need to, right? And—" Bell stops, and then raises herself up taller. You hadn't noticed she was slouching. She's still smaller than you, though you know that doesn't mean much. "If you're worried I'm trying to trick you, I'm really not. I'm an alarm bell. What's the point in that if there's nobody to listen for it, y'know?"

"Oh wow. That really must mean a lot to you if..." You stop talking for a second. Something big just hit you. "You named yourself. And you chose Bell." Some awful part of you is trying to smile, but you don't let it. "Because you think of yourself as an alarm bell. And not because it's a normal, nice name."

"Yeah? I mean, we can't all be Ee..." Bell trails off, and frowns. She slouches again, and it is clear on her face she is trying and failing.

"Ythona." You are a little hurt, but mostly find it funny.

"Ythona! We can't all be Ythona." Bell sighed with the relief of getting the answer handed to her. "Sorry."

"It's fine. We haven't actually talked before, after all."

Bell nods. And then she cants her head. "So. What's your answer?"

There are things Bell isn't telling you. If this is so important that she named herself after it, she must have played the role for someone else before. Something must have happened. And there's some reason she's coming to you, and not the others. Was it really just that they were too weak? Although, she only dismissed Sybil and Pepin, so what about Bonecruncher? But those aren't things you can just demand she tell you right now. It's time to answer.

[] Accept her offer. You'll watch each other's backs. You want to trust Bell, and this is probably the easiest way for her to trust you. And she's absolutely right, it's better to have her protection, even if hopefully you won't need it. And you want to have someone especially close to you again, even if this isn't quite sentimental.

[] Reject her offer. You can't trust her. This is too early. There's so much you still don't understand, and you can't walk into something like this all but blind. Playing factions could get you killed, and trying to cover for her could too. You need to watch out for yourself, first.

[] Be honest. You were already going to look out for everyone, including her. If this is meant to be a bargain, she isn't really getting anything from you. And if she was asking for your undivided vigilance... You'll still accept her offer, but not before mentioning this, in case it changes her mind. You seem to think pretty differently. It will be better overall if you don't start things off with deception or mismatched expectations.

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