And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


5. Yet Have No Harbor to Offer You

Bell is looking at you. Maybe it's your imagination, but you think you can see a glimmer of hope in her eyes. You don't want to dash it right now. But you would hate to betray it later more.

"I want to accept your offer." Bell narrows her eyes as soon as you start with 'want'. "But I should be honest. I already would have tried to look out for you. And for everyone else. I think that's my duty. More than that. It's the right thing to do." You smile, hoping you like as sincere as you are. "So maybe you would get what you're after without giving me anything. Or maybe this means I wouldn't really be giving what you were asking for. Either way I felt I should tell you. If that isn't a problem, I will happily accept."

Bell isn't bothering to hide the disappointment on her face. It's mixed with suspicion, and... she's angry with you, too. You shift in place slightly under her gaze. Your chest starts to tighten. You know this was the right thing to do, but it still hurts. You were finally given a bridge and immediately you burn it. Is some part of you sabotaging yourself on purpose?

Finally, Bell sighs and speaks up. "You really mean what you're saying, don't you? All of it. You're really going to try, and you really think you've got to." She rolls her eyes and makes some weird stuttering sound with her exhale. "You naturals are all bizarre. Three years out in that bog, all alone, after being half-eaten by feral ghouls, and you're still soft? You're insane."

Your chest gets tighter. You want to say something back, to defend yourself, but nothing leaps to your tongue. And it's just as well. What could you possibly say? Try to convince her you're right to feel this way? You would only seem self-righteous and give her more reason to dislike you. Apologize and risk that annoying her worse?

Then Bell laughs. "But it's impressive insanity. I can respect it. Playing bell for everybody has got a nice ring to it. But..." Her expression turns almost apologetic. "It's stupid. So I've got to at least try to knock some sense into you as your senior here."

You nod, slowly. This is... good? Not as bad as you were imagining a moment ago. It's left you a little too bewildered to really judge.

Bell's expression turns stern. "So you know, none of the others are going to return the favor. Pepin's a coward, Sybil only cares about food, and Bonecruncher isn't stupid enough to stick his neck out for no reward."

You swallow. You aren't going to believe her just on her word, but you think she really believes what she said, at least. But... "Well. Then what about you?"

Bell grins with what seems almost like pride, but shakes her head. "If you leap into a fire to pull one of those three out, don't think I'll come to save you both. But... I'll keep an eye open for you, if you aren't just all talk about doing the same for me. After all, you're bound to get it once you know the others better, and then you'll come crawling back to me to do this properly." She doesn't sound entirely serious. "So I should help you stick around long enough to get to that."

You smile. "Thank you, Bell. I really appreciate that. And all your assistance today besides."

Bell basically preens, which you think is a joke. "It's simply me being a good soldier for our master. Same as you. Though..." She tilts her head. "You said it wasn't just duty, didn't you?"

You cautiously nod. Bell asked it lightly, but this feels like a dangerous question. Still, you've basically already said it. "If I can help someone who needs it, I should. Even if I'm not obligated to do that for any other reason. That's just... the right thing to do."

"Why?" You stare at her blankly. You don't know how to begin to answer that. She scowls and thinks for a second. "Why is that the 'right' thing? It's not what's best for you, and it's not what's best for the master. And you haven't even spoken to the others yet, so it's not what's best for people special to you. So, what's so 'right' about it?"

Now it's your turn to take a bit to come up with an answer. "Because it's what a good person would do. Helping other people simply is a good thing. If I can keep my eyes open and warn someone, even a stranger, I should. If I gave up on that... I would be betraying myself."

Bell is looking at you curiously. You aren't sure how to feel about that. Then her eyes light up. "Oh, I think I get it. Betraying your past self. Like if I decided to stop being a bell. Though... How did you settle on that of all things out in the bog? You weren't part of a pack, were you?"

Is she assuming you don't remember yourself in life at all? Does that mean she doesn't? You knew many of the wights had chosen new names, but you had always imagined they simply weren't as lucky as you in their fractured memories. For a moment, you worry if you should keep this a secret. But it isn't like it's dangerous. You can't be alone in remembering something, there can't be a story like Bell's behind every other reasonable-sounding name. "No. I was alone for all that time. It's from before that. When I was alive."

Bell's eyes go wide, and your heart skips a beat. "Wait, you remember that?" She sounds intrigued, not suspicious, and you let yourself relax. You nod. "Wow, that's... Well I guess I should have guessed. Wait, does that mean you remember dying too? Because, uh, now I am feeling sorry for bringing you getting half-eaten up earlier."

"It's okay." Your thoughts hadn't jumped to that before, but now... You try to focus on the conversation enough to keep your mind's eye busy. "But I do remember that, yes. Thankfully not with full clarity." You would gladly suffer through remembering it more fully if it meant you could glimpse your family's faces and hear their voices, but that you keep to yourself.

"Glad to hear that, at least." Bell looks lost in thought for a second, and then gets a nasty look on her face. "Wait, do all you naturals remember that? Is that what's wrong with Pepin?"

You don't know what to say to that, and so just shrug. But it jogs your thoughts. Knowing he is also a natural wight helps explain why he is as scared as he is, beyond just being weak. But at the same time, maybe that's a way to help you actually get to him.

It seems Bell doesn't know exactly what to follow that with either, and your talk falls into a lull. You feel a little awkward, now that you think about it, that you're just clogging up a tunnel. It would have been better to move to a room somewhere, but it's probably a bit too late for that now.

Suddenly Bell speaks up with an edge in her voice. "Ythona." She purses her lips. "I have to ask you a question. When you said you would look out for everyone else. Who exactly did you mean?"

You hope you don't look as surprised as you feel. For a second you almost panic, but there's no way she could know about what happened earlier today. Still, if she's suspicious you don't want to hurt the people you're meant to, either... "I mean everyone here. Whether I know them or not."

Bell sighs and shakes her head. She steps closer, staring straight into your eyes. You suppress the urge to back away. "Ythona, I'm going to tell you something important. Not a difference of opinion like earlier. So you need to listen." She doesn't wait for you to confirm that. "If you ever, ever think Fleshrender needs your help... Leave him. Help and he'll kill you after, just for seeing him weak. I'm not exaggerating. You asked earlier what we've got to look out for? It's him." Bell suddenly stops, and looks at the tunnels again. You're still alone, but she drops to a whisper all the same. It's almost a hiss. "We're never gonna be safe until he's dead, again, and buried this time. Anyone else would be better. However bad you think he is, he's worse. It's not even him, it's..." Bell huffs, and she gets louder, still hissing. "We could be an actual unit. We aren't the guards. That's Fleshrender and all the ghouls. We're just five toys to keep the lunatic from getting bored!"

Bell's eyes widen and she looks both ways again. She sighs, and then deflates.

You nod, slowly. That wasn't what you expected. On some level you're relieved, but it's not exactly pleasant, either. "Thank you for the warning."

Anger flashes over Bell's face. "Not what I want to hear. Tell me you agree. That if it comes to it, you'll leave him to save all the rest of us."

You swallow. You press a few of your nails into one palm. "Bell..." You sigh, and steel your voice. "I hate him too. He's all but threatened to kill me before. He stole some of my food today. But I thought he..." You huff a sigh. "I thought he couldn't just murder us. That the master wouldn't accept that. And so that's why all he does is act cruel. Am I... wrong?"

Bell sighs. "No, he can't just wantonly murder us. Or at least he thinks he can't." Bell grimaces at that thought. "But that doesn't mean he isn't dangerous. I wouldn't want to bet my life on his sense of restraint if he gets emotional, for one. For another..." Bell pauses, and then snarls. "Just, look. If he gets himself in trouble, leave him to get himself out of it. It's what he deserves. Besides, it's what he would want, anyways." She closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath. "If you don't listen to this much, I can't help you."

You open your mouth, but you only croak. What can you possibly say? She's asking you to commit to murder, even if by inaction, if you get the chance. She's asking you to commit treason, even when she seems to like the master. You're all but out in the open. She's only just met you. Are things really that dire? Or is this why she couldn't make her deal with the others? You don't want this. You can't start staking out what side you're going to be on when things fall apart. You just want a place, and people to share it with you. You don't want to worry about all the problems around and within it. Is that so much to ask?

Of course it is. Bell gets tired of waiting for you to answer and turns to stalk off.

But, no, you aren't giving up on this.

"Bell." She turns to look at you with annoyance in her eyes. But she's looking, isn't she? You smile. "It was very nice to meet you. I'm sorry about... But I'd like to talk to you again."

She stares at you for several seconds before giving in. "...Yeah. We'll talk, now that I know you can."

You nod, and this time you're the one to turn around. You feel Bell's eyes on your back as you head back towards your room.

That definitely didn't go as well as you would have liked. But it wasn't as bad as it might have been, either. You sigh to yourself as you make nearby ghouls avoid you. Is that why there are so many up here, serving no apparent purpose? To be easy to call up in an attack? Who is possibly going to attack this place? And... Can Fleshrender actually marshal that many of them? Is he that powerful?

No, you aren't thinking about this right now. You finally spoke to someone, and despite the way it started and ended, it was nice. Hopefully feelings will settle and future talks can be more casual. And you should have plenty of time tomorrow to talk to the others, without any scheduled errand. Fleshrender will take up some of that time, but hardly all of it. And there will be another day's meal, and you'll be in better condition to make something with it. Maybe you could show someone. You'll have to eventually, there's no reason they should all be eating meat raw.

You make it to your room, and step past the curtain. You stretch, and then lay down on the ground. You shift, and roll over onto your back, and feel something under you. You sit up and reach behind you, and there was nothing there. Then you touch a hand to your back, and of course, there's the little knot of wood from before. It's already mostly gone, and you use a little power to undo the last of it. You sigh in relief, and lay back down. Then you roll back onto your side, curl up, and finally sleep takes you.

Tonight, you dream again. You dream several dreams. Maybe you always do, but you can never remember them. This time, however, you hold onto one when you wake up the next day. You've always wanted to know what you dreamed of now, and at least tonight, it was...

[] About your past.

[] About your future.

[] About your self.

End of Arc 1, Elegy.

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