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White Flower

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Guild girl was exhausted. Stamping paperwork, sending adventurers away on quests, giving out rewards for the previously mentioned quests, and the stress of customer service had worn her down for the day. Standing at her counter, she stamped one final document for the day, and sighed. Today had been a long shift, sixteen hours and she had to cover for one of her coworkers who had fallen ill.

Sixteen hours of work meant for two, it was miserable, and in fifteen minutes, it would all be over. As soon as the thought passed through her mind, she heard the front door of the adventurers guild building slowly creak open. Cool night air wafted into the otherwise warm interior, causing her to involuntarily shudder.

In the doorway stood a very tall figure covered head to toe with pitch-black stitched leather. A tricorn hat obscured whatever hair lay beneath it. The man, for he was too wide of frame to be a woman, approached her counter with slow almost cautious steps, as if he were afraid to trigger some kind of trap.

Guild Girl internally sighed, it looked like this shift was going to last longer than fifteen minutes. She then blinked with the realization that no one else but her and the new intimidating stranger were in the lobby. Her coworkers had retired for the day hours ago, leaving her to suffer the paperwork of her extended shift. The adventurers that were hanging around before had all either retired to sleep or were going about the town drunk.

As the figure approached her, she noted that a very long upturned leather collar tied together with brown string obscured his entire face and neck from view, and his eyes, in turn, were hidden behind dark-tinted round spectacles. She couldn't make out an ounce of skin from underneath the stranger's get-up, and when he came to a sudden stop in front of her counter, she had to stifle a flinch.

He seemed to be staring right at her, waiting silently.

Guild girl's lips turned up into a reluctant smile. She noticed that he bore no tags that would have marked him as an adventurer, so either he was new to the guild, or his tags were hidden beneath all of that leather, like the rest of him.

A long moment of pure silence passed between them, and the anticipation of what he had to say continued to build within her. That anticipation then turned to awkwardness as she remembered that it should be her greeting him. She cleared her throat.

"Welcome to the Adventurers Guild!" She said with forced enthusiasm. "What can I help you with today?"

Another moment of silence passed and he tilted his head slightly, as if in question. Was he mute?

"Um... du-do you know what the Adventurers Guild is?" She asked, trying to keep a straight voice.

He shook his head, his full-body leather suit emitting a stretching noise with the movement. Guild Girl settled back. Whoever this stranger was, he didn't seem intent on any kind of malcontent. There was still a sort of primal fear she kept buried for the stranger, his entry was unsettling, as was his mannerisms. And by the gods he was tall, seeming to cast a shadow over everything he passed.

"Well, this is a way station for traveling adventurers; as it is for new adventurers looking to sign up for the first time with the guild. Oh um, we also hand out quests from that board over there." Guild girl stated, pointing a shaky finger at the board.

It was mostly empty of paper now that the day had practically ended. Adventurers having torn the papers off so they could complete their new tasks. Three notices still stood pinned to the wooden surface, all for rat clean up in the sewers.

He then turned to the board, only moving his head to see.

"So..." Guild girl started.

He quickly turned his head back to her, causing her to let out a small gasp and she jumped with surprise. She stilled quickly and took a deep, steadying breath. He tilted his head again in question.

"Are you already registered with us?"

A shake of the head 'no.'

"I see... would you like to register with us?"

A small pause, and then a single firm nod of confirmation.

"Alright well... I'll be happy to help you get registered!" She said with real enthusiasm.

Guild girl was happy to get anyone registered to adventure, even overly tall leather-clad creepy weirdos. Plus the fact that he wanted to be registered made him slightly less unsettling to her, it made him more... comprehensible? Guild girl opened the drawer at her counter and pulled out a single sheet of paper, the guild sign up sheet, and laid it flat on the tabletop before the stranger.

"Just fill out the info on this sheet and I'll get you your porcelain tags." Guild girl told him.

thankfully sign up wasn't that long of a process when it came to the paperwork she had to fill out, at most, she would be stuck here for another half an hour. The man picked up the paper and stared at it for several long moments before laying it flat once more.

He reached for the quill, and pulled it from its ink well, lightly tapping it against the lip of the well to shake off excess ink. He began signing the document, his movements never seeming wasted. As he was doing that, Guild girl reached down for another drawer, pulling it open and retrieving a fresh set of white porcelain tags for the stranger. They would be an odd contrast to his black uniform, but she didn't think the stranger would care overly much.

She had a feeling he wouldn't be staying at porcelain for long anyhow. He quickly finished filling out his form and slid the page over to Guild Girl with his index finger. She smiled at him and lifted the page, her eyes immediately drifting to where he wrote his title. She was glad to see that it wasn't anything forboding or long.

"Thank you Hunter!" She exclaimed. "Here are your porcelain tags, these will mark you as a starting adventurer. Upon each time you rank up, you will receive a new set of tags. Obsidian will be your next rank after porcelain."

He nodded.

"Now, for your first adventure, I suggest taking a rat clearing quest in town. The sewers are always in need of a good rat clean up. Just keep in mind that these are giant rats, not your average household variety."

Upon mentioning rats, Hunter's head fell slightly. That was to be expected, new adventurers never liked rat clean up. Thankfully there wasn't anything more dangerous on the board right now, but that could change tomorrow. Hunter took the tags and clipped them around his belt. That was fine, not all adventurers wore them in conventional places. He pointed to the job board and walked over to it at a brisk pace.

Guild girl ended up tilting her own head as he pulled off all three rat quests, and brought them back to her. She started as he handed them to her. Her jaw dropped slightly as she realized what he was implying.

"You want to do all three of these? That's not safe, even for giant rats. Each page is for one hundred rats, and we'll need a pair of front teeth per rat to prove you did the deed." She explained to him.

Hunter merely nodded.

Guild Girl sighed and stamped the paperwork.

"Just please be safe, come back tomorrow morning and try to party up with other porcelains at least. You can complete this quest anytime within the month, so don't go rushing down there unprepared."

Hunter gave no reply to her, and Guild Girl sighed.

"Welcome to the guild, we're happy to have you. Will there be anything else?" She asked him.

Hunter shook his head, and then; oddly, gave her a low bow, as if she were some kind of royalty. Guild Girl didn't know quite how to reply to that and merely remained silent as he stood back up straight, and marched his way out of the lobby, closing the door slowly behind him as he entered into the dark night.

She wasn't certain as to why, but the room seemed to warm as Hunter left it. It was as if the very building itself had been tense from Hunter's presence. Guild girl took a deep breath and rubbed at her eyes.

"Just a little bit more paperwork..." She muttered to herself. "And then I can sleep."

She jumped as she heard the ringing of a bell right next to her ear, and she gasped as she tried to find the source of the noise. The bell suddenly ceased, and Guild Girl clasped her hands in an attempt to steady them.

"I need more rest." She told herself.

Chapter Text

Guild Girl opened the door to the lobby of her beloved workplace, feeling nice and refreshed after a long night of much-needed rest. The other guild girls welcomed her back, her sick co-worker apologizing for her ailment. Morning light flooded into the lobby through open windows, and as Guild Girl set herself back up at her counter, she was shocked to realize that she had forgotten to tie her hair into a tail! It hung down straight, hiding her ears behind them, and she sighed.

"Like the new hairdo." One of the other guild girls remarked, smirking.

"I... had a long night alright?" She replied. "I'll fix it on break."

Her coworker shrugged in reply, and the first adventurer for the day opened the door. Guild Girl gasped upon seeing who it was.

Hunter stood there, the light illuminating his dark form...

Which was drenched in red blood. Light reflected off of the blood-stained leather much like a fresh coat of paint, and he walked into the lobby, tracking bloody footprints along with him. Her coworkers also gasped but didn't say anything, likely intimidated by this new face. It was then that Guild Girl saw that Hunter was wearing a large brown rucksack with something jagged and tinted yellow sticking out of the top of its opening. Whatever it was, the bag was overstuffed with it, for several points could be seen attempting to pierce through the bag with each of his movements.

Unlike last night, Hunter's approach was not cautious. Indeed he seemed quite casual and laid back with his gait. This was of course, not enough to set Guild Girl at ease, seeing as the man was drenched in blood. Honestly! It was as if he took a shower in the stuff before walking in. Hunter finished his approach, stopping coolly before her.

"Hello," Hunter said, his voice deep and gravelly. "I've finished."

Guild Girl started. Well, it seemed that he wasn't a mute after all. He slung off his rucksack, and set it on the countertop before Guild Girl.

"Three hundred sets of buck teeth." Hunter stated.

No way.

"You... you're serious?" Guild girl asked him.

Had he spent all night in the sewers? Alone!?

"I apologize... I did not realize that I sounded like I was joking. Nonetheless yes, three hundred sets, I will count them out for you, a lady should not dirty her hands with such things. Not without gloves anyhow."

Hunter then reached for the top of his sack to open it up, but Guild Girl quickly raised her hand to stop him.

"No no that's quite alright, we have people to count out things like this." She told him. "Um... if you'll just wait for a bit while we count them out?" She said gesturing to a round table with several chairs to the right.

There were several areas where he could have sat, but the table she indicated was the closest. Hunter looked to where she was pointing and then back to her. He was acting... noticeably less creepy since their first meeting last night, less stiff and sudden. He nodded at her.

"I think I'll do that, thank you very much." He said allowing some silence to pass before saying. "Nice hair."

Guild Girl smiled and nodded thanks, and he began trekking towards the nearest chair, the floorboards creaking silently beneath his weight. Bloody footprints remaining where he stepped. Droplets also fell freely, staining the wood red. Guild girl frowned, and quickly raised a hand to Hunter, her brows raised with concern.

"Hold! Can you uh..." She slowed as Hunter turned back to her.

"Yes madame?" He asked her with a tilt of his head, blood trickling out of one of the corners of his leather tricorn hat like a small river fall.

The blood fell onto his shoulder and slid down the rest of the leather, pasting it even further in crimson. How did she put this without sounding rude?

"Um, can you... wash up before sitting down?"

Hunter looked down at his apparel, and surprisingly, he chuckled. This, of course, resulted in a huge dump of blood onto the floor as he moved his head downward, causing Guild Girl to cringe. Hunter looked back up to her and put a hand to his covered face in a gesture that seemed to convey embarrassment.

"I am sorry my dear, I barely notice the stuff anymore. I will wash up and be back soon." He told her, turning around slowly as to not spray blood from his clothing with the sudden movement. Guild Girl grimaced at the blood that was now liberally coating the floorboards. They would need to get that cleaned up quickly, lest it scare away the new adventurers. It wasn't the first time someone had come in bloody from rat cleanup of course... but the amount he was covered in was something she hadn't seen before.

Thankfully a Rhea janitor quickly wheeled a fresh bucket of water over to the viscera, the tiny man muttering curses under his breath. It was most likely not going to be the first time he had to clean up today, at least Hunter didn't drag in any sewage with him. That was odd... he didn't even smell like sewage, and he had been down in those gods forsaken catacombs for the entire night! Guild Girl shook her head slightly at her thoughts, and smiled, remembering Hunter's impeccable manners.

What a polite man, covered in viscera or not he was acting quite amiable. That statement on him being unable to notice the literal gallons of blood coating his... well coat, was a bit unnerving. One of her coworkers rounded the counter, as Hunter made his exit, stepping back into the sunlight. Her coworker seemed concerned about something, her eyes betraying fear.

"Who was that weirdo?" She asked, tapping Guild Girl on the shoulder.

She sighed. She was starting to do that a lot lately.

"New adventurer; came in before closing last night." She said, pulling the bag off of the table and onto the floor next to her. It was heavy, and she let out a grunt of effort as she sat it on the floor. "I gave him three quests to kill rats in the sewers and I think he just started as soon as he left."

Her coworker shook her head.

"That was irresponsible Guild Girl... he could have gotten hurt; and how did you communicate with that guy anyway? He didn't even say anything. Though I guess you do have a thing for quiet weirdos."

What?

"What are you saying? He was just talking to me a second ago, don't act like you didn't hear him."

She was in the booth next to Guild Girl, there was no way that she didn't hear Hunter. His voice may have had a lot of base, but it certainly wasn't quiet. It had certainly carried to everyone in the room, surely. Her coworker widened her eyes and started to glance around as if looking for something. What was that about?

"You hear that?" Guild Girl's coworker asked her scanning the ceiling, then the walls nearby.

Guild girl tilted her head in an attempt to hear whatever it was her coworker was talking about. She heard nothing out of the ordinary.

"Um... no?" Guild Girl said. "Are you alright?"

Another guild girl then approached the two of them and placed a hand on her coworker's shoulder.

"No, I hear it too. The bell right? It's still going... when did we get a bell? Oh wait, It just stopped."

...

...

...

Hunter reentered the guild lobby an hour later, his leathers nice and clean. Finding a canal nearby to wash himself off. The inside of his outfit was untouched by the blood of course, it was nearly airtight. Hunter merely needed a few wet towels and some time, and he was all clean. It appeared that other adventurers had entered as he was washing up. They all looked his way and fell silent. Hunter sighed, though he knew that they couldn't hear him yet. They don't have the sight for it. Hunters brow furrowed at the thought, but as he began thinking about the sight, his thoughts became hazy. He blinked, standing there silently for a moment before shaking his head. As he began his stride, the adventurers nearby parted for him quickly. Hunter noted that the floor was completely clear of rat blood, they had a good janitor.

He approached Guild Girl at her counter and clasped his hands before himself. The adventurers continued to stare at him, dumbfounded. Was it inappropriate in this place to approach the counter first? No one else was upfront or in line. It must have been something else.

What if they have the sight?

No, it wasn't possible. There wasn't enough they could be exposed to. Their stares did make him uncomfortable nonetheless. He would be fine. Hunter furrowed his brow. What was the sight again...?

He cleared his throat as Guild Girl stared at him expectantly.

"All clean madame! Now, I trust that those foul chompers have been inspected?" Hunter asked her.

Guild girl took a deep breath.

"Um... yes." She said.

Hunter noticed she had a penchant for 'Ums' and 'Uhs' he wished that he didn't make people so uncomfortable. But he couldn't help what he was. Hmm... what he was...

Fuzz

"For completing those three quests in such quick succession, we will reward you with ten gold!" She proclaimed happily.

Drawing his attention away from his muddled thoughts, Hunter refocused on Guild Girl, noting the mirth in her voice. Hunter smiled beneath his leathers. He liked it when people could be happy around him.

"I thank you, my lady, for such a handsome reward," Hunter said. "I trust that there will be other quests available soon? I like to remain busy when I can."

Guild girl nodded in response.

"Yep, that's why your fellow adventurers are waiting so patiently... and um... quietly."

It was dead silent in here, a product of his presence no doubt. Hunter nodded.

"Might I ask as to when new quests will be made available?"

"Oh in about... half an hour from now." She told him.

"Thank you my dear, I will take a stroll and then return." Hunter said, turning his back to her.

He tried to walk as casually as he could towards his exit, the eyes of adventurers following him as he went. He noted that several of them were quite young, too young for such a dangerous lifestyle. It was a good thing he killed those rats. Much safer now for them after the extra work he did.

Upon walking into the sunlight, he took a deep lung clearing breath and released it. It was such a lovely day. Hunter began his stroll, his feet echoing off of the cobbled street. Not many people were walking about at this early hour, with the sun barely just rising. A fine layer of dew coated the windows of the building he just passed, and bird song could be heard faintly.

Hunter didn't walk far until he noticed a man walking towards him. Covered head to toe in plated steel. His face was concealed behind a caged visor, and his helmet must have once had horns protruding from its sides for shattered stumps of white bone jutted out of where his ears would have been beneath the helmet. A red plume blew in the wind from atop his helm, and a fur collar lined his throat and shoulders. Several dents and pockmarks marred the entire suit of plate, including the small buckler with an X cut into the metal. What seemed to be a short sword lay sheathed at his belt.

Hunter continued to stare at the stranger, who merely kept following his path towards Hunter. He was confused as to the intentions of the stranger. Hunter then tensed with an anxiety that he couldn't quite understand... unless

He knows.

Knows what? Hunter couldn't understand for certain, but the tension didn't fade.

Hunter balled one of his hands into a fist as the armored man drew closer, ready to lash out at the first sign of aggression. Much to Hunter's surprise however, the man simply strolled right on past him. Hunter turned his head slightly to keep the stranger in view as he walked on. He gripped the doorknob to the adventurers guild, twisted, and pulled it open, stepping inside.

Hunter let out a breath. This was confusing, he believed that everyone here was able to see him, at least his first layer. Was that man unable to see him? It could be that adventurer simply did not care if Hunter existed or not; a stark contrast from his colleagues indoors. He continued on his way, reminding himself that their sight can never extend to the point where they could see-

His thoughts became muddled and he lost his train of thought, and he stopped his walk.

What was he thinking about again?

...

...

...

Goblin Slayer shut the door behind him, entering into a surprisingly quiet lobby. Everyone turned to regard him for only a moment before returning to their own hushed conversation. Goblin Slayer tilted his head ever so slightly, normally he cared not for what his 'fellows' felt, but if this rowdy bunch was speaking in hushed whispers then it could be something serious.

Perhaps it had something to do with gobli-

Goblin Slayers' thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a church bell, ringing right next to his ear. His reflexes took over, and he attempted to dodge away from the noise, causing a startled gasp to escape a few adventurers nearby. Goblin Slayer scanned the doorway for the source of the noise, but the ringing ceased almost as soon as it started.

Goblin Slayer stood, hand on his shortsword's hilt before he eased off of it. He approached the counter, moving past other adventurers staring at him, and sighted Guild Girl. She seemed worried, as did everyone else in the lobby. Shifting eyes and silent conversation took place between the other guild girls, who seemed frightened of something. Though whatever it was likely had nothing to do with goblins, so he didn't care.

"Any goblin quests?" He asked her.

"Did you hear that bell too?" Guild girl suddenly asked him.

Goblin slayer paused only for a second before replying.

"Yes."

It seemed a silly question. The bell was so loud that everyone in the room would have heard it.

"Any goblin quests?" He asked once more.

Guild Girl sighed but smiled. She seemed to smile a lot around him though he wasn't sure why. Likely it was the reflex of the customer service job.

"Yes, we have three. Two of them are in caves to the south, and another resides to the north in an abandoned dwarven fortress." She told him, pointing to the board. "The two caves are in close proximity of one another," Guild Girl said, lowering her finger. "But they should only have around twenty each, and no towns are nearby for them to threaten. We believe that they have taken a few women however..." Her eyes fell a moment to the ground before she looked back up to Goblin Slayer. "The dwarven fortress has a much larger reward, the dwarven priesthood says that the goblins are dug in for defense and that they number in the hundreds. Several villages are being stolen from, and many women have already been taken." Her face darkening. "The fortress is called Koganusân in dwarvish. It used to be riddled with traps and the like, though it seemed the goblins disabled them somehow. Still, be careful, there is apparently a mechanism that can ruin the entire fortress. Try not to activate it."

A way to ruin the fortress hmm? He would have to find that mechanism. After saving the women of course, if they could even be saved at this point.

"I will do the dwarvish fortress. If the other ones are still here when I come back, I will take care of them as well." Goblin Slayer said, marching over to the job board.

He normally waited for the other adventurers to pick out their quests and go before he had his selection. Though it didn't seem like they were in any particular hurry today, and Goblin Slayer wanted to get to work immediately.

...

...

...

Hunter found his way back into the lobby after about an hour of strolling. People around town opening up their shops and stalls in the market were visibly unsettled by his presence. Not that he blamed them of course he was, after all, a-

Fuzz

The lobby was notably vacant of most of the adventurers that were there before. The younger adventurers still seemed to be sitting about, discussing general plans and approaches for various quests they had decided to take. The conversation lulled as he entered, much like last time. He casually walked to the job board, trying his best to appear normal and relaxed to their eyes. This seemed to work somewhat, for after he reached the board, the child adventurers began speaking once more.

His eyes scanned the board, noting that only two pages remained on the board, all of the other quests having been taken by other adventurers. Hunter drew his lips to a line as he saw another rat quest on the board, and he shook his head. He would take the other one, no matter what it was. His eyes found the page, and his lips turned up in a smile beneath his upturned collar.

Goblins. They certainly weren't rats. What did he know of goblins? He hadn't the chance to experience this new land and its creatures. He frowned. New land? Why would it be new? Hadn't he lived here his whole life? His brow furrowed in confusion before his thoughts became muddled. What was he thinking about? Ah yes, goblins. He pulled the page off of the board and approached Guild Girl at the counter.

Hunter placed the page before her and leaned against the counter.

"I would like this quest madame." Hunter said.

Her brow furrowed at his request, and much to his surprise, her eyes conveyed worry. Why would she be worried about him? This was a lower level quest, wasn't it? He leaned in slightly and whispered

"What's the matter?"

Guild Girl took a deep breath.

"Well, you can take this quest if you really want too..." She said, shrugging slightly. "It's well within your rank, but goblins are dangerous; much more so than rats." Her features falling slightly. "If you plan on going on your own, then I strongly discourage it. Please party up with some other porcelains or steel ranks." She said, determination in her voice. "Goblins may be weak on their own, but they're much more dangerous when they work together."

Hunter nodded to her suggestion, but for some odd reason, he was filled with a firm confidence in himself. He knew that he could handle any challenge that was thrown his way, though he couldn't explain why. Hunter was about to tell her that he could keep himself safe in this situation but stopped himself.

She was truly worried about him. Hunter could see it in her eyes. Guild Girl had likely given this warning several times before only for those words to fall on deaf ears. While his confidence did not recede any, he would acquiesce for Guild Girl. Easing those worried eyes would be worth being burdened with other adventurers.

"Very well..." Hunter said slowly. "Who can I ask?"

Guild girls eyes brightened noticeably at his words, and she smiled. She pointed at one of the tables "Those four over there are porcelains much like yourself. They picked up the other goblin quest on the board, so if you want, you can leave this one here and help them out." She put down her finger and clasped her hands together primly at her waist. "Sure, you would have to split the reward, but you and they would be much safer."

Hunter nodded to her.

"I'll make sure they don't get gnawed on to badly." Hunter told her with a small laugh, leaning back off of the counter. "Thank you very much your guildlyness." He said, bowing low.

A light tinge of red-colored Guild Girls cheeks as she waved her hands before her.

"Please you don't have to bow so much." She told him. "I'm not royalty!"

Hunter smirked, standing straight-backed once more.

"No comment on the term 'guildlyness'? I thought that was pretty laughable." He told her, mirth in his voice.

Guild girl paused her waving for a moment, and put a single hand to her lips, stifling a giggle.

"Now, I'll be going," Hunter told her, nodding to the table of young adventurers. "I'll keep them safe."

Guild girl nodded and remained silent as Hunter pulled up to the table of young adventurers. They stilled once more as he drew close. It was a small round table of brown wood. Four chairs made of the same material stood around the table, holding up the weight of their occupants.

These adventurers were indeed young... perhaps fifteen to eighteen. Far too young to be fighting at this age. Hunter was struck with an odd feeling, that of hypocrisy. Why would he feel like a hypocrite for judging their age? Ah, he had been young in when the war first began...

Hunter's head ached but he ignored the pain, what was he doing? Ah yes, the young adventurers.

The first one he sighted was the youngest looking of their little group. Long blond hair flowed down to her waist, framing a round face with delicate features and wide blue eyes. She was slight of frame and clutched the brown shaft of her staff nervously. The top of her head was hidden beneath a white, blue and gold-trimmed floppy hat which Hunter found silly looking. The girl wore white robes with a broad blue line running down its center. A gold trim bordered that blue line, and Hunter turned his attention to her staff. The head of the staff was a golden, upside-down heart with what appeared to be a blue gem held in its center. Other blue gems were embedded in the gold, with another round one capping the top of the staff while three other diamond-shaped ones were arranged around the center gem. Four gold rings clacked together, hooped around the bottom of the upside-down heart.

The Healing Church? No... not the Healing Church. They wouldn't be here, they were-

Fuzz

The next one Hunter took note of was another young woman with long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. This woman had dark eyes and sharp features. She was lean and well-muscled, which bespoke years of combat training. A large yellow bit of cloth was tied around her shoulders, the tied portions hanging low over her chest. She wore a flowing white robe with a blue sash tied around her waist, and baggy black trousers for her legs. Firm boots meant for stomping faces covered her feet, and a leather satchel was slung over her shoulder. This young lady's clothing was meant for ease of movement in combat, much like a hunter...

Fuzz

Hunter then observed a young man, the one seated closest to him. He seemed to be around the dark-haired woman's age, and his brown eyes burned with a hidden confidence which only diminished slightly once Hunter turned his head to him. He was lean, much like the dark-haired woman; perhaps they had similar training? A red headband held up his short brown hair which; if allowed to fall free, would frame a face with the soft features of youth. A bandage covered the bridge of his nose, as well as his left cheek, likely minor injuries from roughhousing. A simple steel breastplate covered his torso, held in place by leather straps. A blue jacket lay under the armor, covering his arms and neck with a stiff collar. He wore firm leather gloves on his hands and baggy brown trousers. Two leather satchels were held up by his belt loops. A red sash was worn around the breastplate which circled around to his back where a sheathed sword lay. Hunter disapproved of where he chose to wear his blade. He had made a similar mistake in his first days in the war.

War? That was what he was thinking about earlier! What war was he a part of? It must have been before he went to Yharn-

Hunter blinked, confused.

The final member of the group definitely seemed to be the oldest, based on her serious demeanor. Red hair grew down over her ears, concealing them from view. Her hair framed a face with stern features and spectacled green eyes which analyzed Hunter as much as Hunter was analyzing her. This was a woman of keen intellect, Hunter could tell. A pointy brown witch hat sat atop her head, and a brown cloak flowed down her form, held in place by a large ruby button clipped above her breasts. She wore a low-cut green dress which flowed down just past her knees, and calf-high boots covered what the dress did not. A long staff similar to the blonde girls sat in her grasp, yet the gold head was shaped more like a curved mace with a large red ruby cut into the shape of a diamond jutting from its top.

That red ruby for her cloak reminded him of something, but the same frustrating confusion came back in force, attempting to make him stop thinking about it. Why was this occurring every time he thought of his past? His thoughts shouldn't be this foggy... why was this happening-

Fuzz

Hunter blinked, then smiled, though he knew that his soon to be companions wouldn't be able to see it. He bowed low to them, much in the same fashion as he did for Guild Girl.

"Greetings, I am Hunter." He said, standing straight-backed once more. "I am a porcelain rank myself, and I was wondering if I could join with you to clean out those goblins."

They shifted uncomfortably in their seats; the priestess, in particular, avoiding eye contact. He tilted his head at the silence that followed.

"Is there a problem? Is it my breath?" He asked them, forcing mirth into his voice.

The joke eased them, but only slightly. The young man opened his mouth to speak before the dark-haired woman cut him off.

"I am Fighter." She said, raising an eyebrow at him. "You're that weirdo."

Hunter's jaw hung open slightly at the jab. The boy nodded at his friend's words.

"I am Warrior... and yeah." He said. "I mean, when you walked in earlier you were movin' like a board with legs... what did you think people were gonna call you?"

"Uh..." The white-robed girl started. "I'm Priestess?" She finished in a questioning tone of voice.

The pointy hatted girl cleared her throat.

"I have to agree with my party, you are unsettling. Please leave." She told him curtly.

Fighter and Warrior nodded to their friend's opinion, though the girl in white remained silent. Hunter grew still and silent for a very long moment. The four then began shifting uncomfortably in their seats once more.

"I didn't think you would all be so rude," Hunter told them. "I told Guild Girl that I would be coming along, so I think that you should allow me to accompany you." He said, pointing a thumb at himself. "I'm very good in a fight."

Warrior scoffed silently at that, sitting up slightly straighter.

"Look weirdo-" Warrior started.

"It's," Hunter said, interrupting the young man and leaning in close. "Hunter."

Warrior froze at the sudden proximity of Hunter, and pointy hat girl and Fighter tensed visibly. Priestess then stood up slowly from her seat. She put a hand up between Hunter and Warrior.

"W-we shouldn't be so rude to Hunter everyone." She stated, her voice quavering slightly. "Some people just don't have the same social norms that others have. Try to be a bit more tolerant?" She asked, her voice evening out. She slowly sat down in her seat once more, the wood creaking beneath her weight, little that it was.

Hunter smiled and stood straight once more.

"Yes... I was merely anxious around all of you strangers. That was all." Hunter lied. "I apologize for that outburst."

The three rude ones eased slightly. Warrior scratched his cheek and sighed.

"I'm sorry too." Warrior said, stretching out a hand to Hunter. "You're welcome to come along Hunter."

Hunter grasped Warrior's hand and they shook. The boy had a firm handshake, that was always a good thing. You couldn't trust a man with a flimsy handshake. Men with weak handshakes tended to be untrustworthy. He knew that from-

Hunter clenched his jaw with frustration, glad that Warrior couldn't see the motion. They released the shake, and Fighter stood up as well.

"I guess I'm sorry too geezer." Fighter told him, stretching out her hand for shaking.

Hunter ignored the geezer comment, and grasped her hand, shaking it firmly. This one was trustworthy. Even if she did misjudge his age. She sat down, but pointy hat girl remained seated.

"I am Wizard." Was all she said.

"Pleasant." Hunter said curtly.

That seemed a suitable exchange for Wizard, for she pulled out a simple leather-bound book from a pouch, and began reading it, not offering further comments. Priestess stood up from her seat and rounded the table to Hunter. A small smile formed her lips, and they shook as well. Hunter frowned. A weak handshake, like grasping a dead man's hand. He reminded himself that someone so young likely did not learn to develop a strong shake. Hunter would have to show her the proper way to shake hands, lest someone with Hunters mindset would mistrust her.

"Grip firmly when shaking hands young lady," Hunter told her, finishing the shake. He then wagged his index finger at her. "You need to show whoever you're shaking with that you are strong enough to be respected." He finished, holding his hand out once more.

Priestess tilted her head at Hunter's outstretched hand, and she gripped once more. Dead fish.

"Don't be afraid to squeeze," Hunter told her. "I have very strong hands, I'll be fine." He finished, laughing lightly.

Priestess complied, gripping his hand harder. Hunter nodded in approval, and then they shook once more.

"Very good." He said, releasing the shake. "Remember, you don't need to grip too tightly either. You don't want to squeeze their fingers together now, then they'll think you have something to prove." He finished, shaking his head with a tsk.

Priestess nodded slowly. "Thank you?" She said in the same curious tone.

Hunter nodded, then brought a chair up to the table from one of the empty ones nearby, placing it between Fighter and Warrior, truly redundant titles. Why were they going by titles anyway? That seemed ridiculous, his name wasn't a title... Hunter furrowed his brow as he sat down. Yes it was, his name was a title, wasn't it? Same as everyone else? Wasn't that the norm? The mental haze came over him once more in force, and Hunter shook his head.

"Are you okay?" Priestess asked him.

Her eyebrows were scrunched together with worry as she looked at him, her irises betraying her concern. Hunter waved a hand dismissively.

"It's nothing, just a headache." He told her. "Now, about these goblins..."

"Yeah," Warrior started. "We took the one three days travel north," He said, nodding his head south." Hunter frowned.

"That's south." Hunter corrected him.

Warrior raised an eyebrow at Hunter and pulled out a small compass from one of his satchels. Warrior flipped it open and nodded in the opposite direction from the one he said a moment ago. "North." Warrior said, more confidently.

Fighter cleared her throat. "There was a dwarf fortress quest on the job board earlier, but Guild Girl just flat out told us that we would die." She said, casting an accusatory glance at the woman behind her counter. Guild girl merely waved in response, smiling.

Wizard blinked, and then set down her book flat on the table.

"She told us that it was above our rank." Wizard corrected, raising a brow at Fighter, who waved a dismissive hand in response.

"Same thing." Fighter declared, putting her feet up on the table and leaning back in her chair. "They're just goblins, what're they gonna do? It's like storming a fort of five-year-olds. How many five-year-olds could you take in a fight?" She asked, not making eye contact with anyone.

The table went silent.

"Who're you talkin' to?" Warrior asked slowly.

Fighter smirked at the reply, and sat up straight in her chair, taking her legs back off of the table. She leaned her elbows on the table and scanned the party.

"Any of you." She said. "How many five-year-olds do you think you could take in a fight?"

Hunter and priestess balked at the question, though they wouldn't be able to tell with Hunter's face concealed as such. Wizard groaned softly, and picked up her book once more, reading through its contents. She clearly wanted no part of this idiocy. Warrior oddly enough scrunched his brow. He scratched his chin in thought for fifteen whole seconds before answering.

"Depends on if they have weapons or not." Warrior said, shrugging. "If they're barehanded I say I could take on an entire kindergarten, maybe two."

Fighter tilted her head at the answer.

"Only two? You use weapons you dolt." She said casually.

Warrior then slapped a hand on the table, the sound echoing through the lobby and causing Hunter to flinch. Old reflexes most likely.

"So what am I supposed to do!?" Warrior shouted. "Slice them all up!? They're five-year-olds Fighter!"

Wizard then shut her book suddenly and sat up from her chair. She stomped off muttering something about 'morons' under her breath, covering her eyes with her hand with her head tilted down to the floor. Hunter slowly glanced at the other few occupants of the lobby, and they were all staring at Warrior with horror. Priestess sunk in her chair, both hands on her face in an attempt to hide from the embarrassment. Hunter quickly stood up and addressed the room.

"They're comparing goblins to five-year-olds!" He exclaimed, putting his hands up to chest height, palms forward." That's all, we're not planning on dicing up children alright?"

That didn't seem to calm the onlookers any, and Hunter pinched the bridge of his nose through his leather collar. He gritted his teeth and shot a sudden, angry look at Warrior before grasping the lad by the earlobe and yanking him to a standing position. Warrior gave a yelp of pain as Hunter dragged him off by his ear. Funnily enough, Fighter giggled as her friend was led away to his fate, standing to follow. Priestess quickly stood from her own seat, likely wanting to escape the public embarrassment herself.

These kids were going to take a lot of work to keep safe, he just knew it.

Chapter Text

After an intense session of vicious scolding by Hunter, Warrior tended to flinch every time Hunter rose his voice slightly to be heard. Hunter couldn't believe that a young man his age needed to be taught about proper etiquette! Honestly, Fighter and Warrior had no sense of how to act in public. It was perfectly fine if they wanted to humiliate themselves when they were on their own, but Hunter wouldn't stand for it when the entire party was involved in their ridiculous argument. Funnily enough, Wizard backed everything he told Warrior, following up with scathing criticism for the lad. Hunter had to admit, he felt bad for Warrior, who looked down during the rant like a beaten puppy.

Or a beaten five-year-old, but that was neither here nor there.

Fighter was, of course, being scathed the same way at the same time, as Hunter was addressing both of them. However, Fighter clearly did not care about what Hunter had to say on the matter of public decency. It was aggravating, and that was only worsened when Fighter had called him an 'old fart.' Hunter wasn't that old! Probably!

They had only been a 'party' for about an hour, and the young adventurers already seemed to accept Hunter as the party leader for this quest. They seemed to believe that Hunter had previous experience with combat and leadership, though they didn't say it openly. Oddly enough, he believed that he did have more leadership experience. The thing was, when he tried to think about that experience and how he attained it, that infuriating brain fog would come to smother it like a pillow over his face.

Hunter could think about the fog itself, but every time he thought about his past, he would be left confused, and then frustrated. He had recognized the pattern eventually and was left trying to comprehend the memory smothering fog instead. Why was this happening? Was he developing dementia? He wasn't that old of course, but he knew that if he thought about his exact age, that fog would return to smother the information. Hunter needed to find a way to pierce it, he couldn't keep going on like this, not knowing who or what he was.

For now, however, he would be satisfied with simple adventuring. Perhaps once they became more comfortable around Hunter, his party members could help him with his dilemma. Hunter would simply try his best to not think of his past; oddly... he felt as if that were what the fog wanted of him, to forget and go forward.

Hunter would not give in so easily of course. He wasn't one to surrender to such things as this.

His party hadn't taken long to gather themselves for the trip. They had bought several basic supplies, including six days worth of food for five people for the trip to the caves and back. Hunter had wondered about the red vials at the potion shop and their resemblance to The Blood when they approached the store, and that got him thinking about it. However, that infuriating fog smothered any information he could have possibly gleaned from his muddied thoughts. Hunter knew, however, that it was unwise to go somewhere he had never been unprepared. He bought several different varieties of potions with the extra gold he had attained from his rat slaughter. This involved cures for several different kinds of ailments, poisons, and even minor wounds. Hunter stopped the party to ask them if these potions were merely snake oil, but they just seemed confused by the statement. He then clarified, asking if the potions were able to function as advertised.

They all agreed that potions would, in fact, perform as promised. This impressed Hunter, who thought that such consumables had to be infused with some kind of blood to do such things. Upon thinking of it, the fog came again, and Hunter had gritted his teeth in anger at his failure to recall his past. He tucked the vials away in a small pouch at his waist, and Priestess seemed to note his frustration despite his concealed face and asked him what he was upset with. Hunter had lied and told her that he had a cavity, which caused severe pain in waves.

Priestess merely asked him why he wouldn't just go to one of the temples to get it healed, and Hunter had no reply. Priestess thankfully hadn't pressed the matter further but now the others of the group likely wouldn't ask him about his random pauses whenever he thought of his past.

Hunter had thought they would want to pick up weapons for the trip, but he realized that everyone in the party already had armaments. Warrior had his sword, Wizard and Priestess their staves, and Fighter her bare-hands. Hunter was the only one that had no weapons, though he could fight with his fists well enough. That was how he cleared out the sewers, he had no weapons but the rat's flesh tore apart easily under his fists. His hands would perform well enough for now.

Something about it felt wrong however, Hunter knew he was supposed to have a weapon... maybe several. Where had they gone? The fog came to answer his question. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the prodding from Warrior about what kind of weapon he used, merely shrugging in response. Hunter and company then reached the iron gates of the city, which were raised for them to exit. The iron gates remained shut early in the morning and only opened upon noon.

A wide dirt road stretched out to the north before them, wide green fields stretched out to either side of it, contrasting the brown dirt of the well-trodden path. The sky was a clear blue, not a cloud in sight. This, of course, made the sun shine down with a ravenous hatred. It was going to be a hot day. Hunter sighed, thinking about the long trek and his leather outfit. The sweat chafing that was going to come made him think of stripping and making the trip in his undergarments. Such things, however, were not proper, so he would remain dressed.

The party then began their slow journey to the goblin cave, Warrior and Fighter chatting up a storm whilst Hunter contemplated his mind's apparent deterioration. Priestess and Wizard had remained silent for most of the trip, only speaking when Fighter and Warrior tried to involve them in their conversation. An hour passed like that until Fighter turned her head to him, Hunter sensing a question approaching from the girl.

"So... If you fight with your fists too, then who trained you?" She asked him.

Fuzz

"I'm a self-made martial artist, my dear." Hunter lied. "Have been for a long time."

Fighter didn't look impressed with his reply, as she turned around to regard him, now walking backward.

"Self-made martial artist? Nuts to that." She said. "It takes training from a good master to make a martial artist, and if you killed three hundred rats with your bare hands, then you had a good master!" She shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at him.

He had told them about his trip to the sewers as he had spent his gold earlier. They had seemed skeptical at first until he showed them the gold. Oddly enough, that seemed to be proof enough of the deed. He could have gotten this gold from anywhere, it was foolish to assume truth based on possessions, but he didn't tell them that.

"How do you think the first martial artist was made, my dear?" Hunter asked her, shrugging his shoulders. "They couldn't have had a master if they were the first, meaning they had to develop their own techniques over the course of their lives. Those techniques, in turn, were likely passed down to others over time." He then pointed a finger to Fighter. "Techniques are a lot like genetics, passed down from generation to generation, improving over time." He finished, lowering his finger.

Fighter seemed to consider this, scrunching her brow in consideration.

"Ya know," She started. "I've never thought about it like that..."

Hunter shrugged in reply.

"Not everyone has to have a master, to become one themselves," Hunter said, raising an index finger. "I'm certain you could form your own techniques on your own, or even change the ones you know to try and improve them. It is much like evolution I suppose you could say, but for combat."

Fighter seemed very interested in that statement and turned back around facing forward with a hand on her chin. Warrior glanced at her, and then Hunter, who merely shrugged. Some more time passed, a bit more silent as Fighter contemplated Hunter's words. Wizard oddly enough was now shooting the occasional glance at Hunter. She seemed to believe that he wouldn't notice, but he could tell that Wizard was analyzing him once more, seeming to draw up a new conclusion about him. Why would she be doing that? Priestess also seemed to regard him differently after his conversation with Fighter, shooting him shy looks as if she were in trouble...

Oh no.

They thought he was wise now.

That meant they would think he was old. They already did think he was old, he didn't need this on top of that. Hunter sighed, ignoring the looks he was receiving. Another ten minutes passed before Fighter nodded at some sudden epiphany. She turned back to Hunter and put a balled fist into her palm.

"I get it! You're a master!" She exclaimed. "That's why you're so old!"

Hunter groaned with annoyance. She had completely missed the point of what he had been trying to tell her, but Hunter didn't feel like explaining the philosophy of what he had said.

"I'm not a master," He started. "And I'm certainly not old."

Fighter raised a brow at him.

"Well, how old are you then master?" She asked him, grinning slightly.

Hunter groaned again, recognizing that she only called him master to jab at his supposed old age. The problem was, he didn't know how to answer the jab, he didn't even know how old he was. If he thought about it, the fog would smother it as it did every other time he tried to recall his past.

"A gentleman's manners are ageless." Hunter replied, hoping the statement wasn't as weak to her as it sounded to himself.

Fighter frowned at the reply, then pointed to his mask.

"Well, what do you look like under that leather then? Are you all wrinkly or smooth?" She asked him.

Wizard gave a groan of annoyance.

"What does it matter Fighter?" Wizard asked. "It's obvious that he's older than you are, why must you press the issue? Leave the old man be."

Old man? That coming from Wizard? Hunter's head fell.

"Hey now," Warrior started. "You're hurting the geezer's feelings."

Priestess merely remained silent, finding sudden interest in her shoes. Hunter could not allow this to continue. He raised a hand to the laces which kept his collar upturned and undid them. It was a bit annoying to do as he was walking, but Hunter didn't feel like breaking stride. As he was fiddling with his laces, four pairs of eyes turned to him, slowing their pace. What he was doing right now would help Hunter find out what his general age was without having to deal with the fog.

He undid the final lace, folding his wide collar back down and exposing his face. He took a breath of fresh air and sighed in relief. Why hadn't he done this earlier? It was hot today! He took off his dark round glasses as well for his fellow adventurers to judge his looks. If he had crows feet then they could be a good indicator for what his age was. In hindsight, he probably should have brought a mirror to look at himself, but he hadn't thought to buy one.

The four adventurer's eyes widened at his exposed face.

"Woah..." Fighter started. "You're ugly as sin!" she finished, pointing at his face.

Hunter frowned. Then Fighter grinned devilishly.

"Just kiddin' you look alright I guess." She told him, shrugging.

Hunter rubbed his face, feeling at his beard that he allowed to grow freely. Warrior frowned as well, but for a completely different reason.

"I wish I could grow a beard." He said simply, turning back to his walk.

Hunter shrugged.

"You'll get there one day. You're still young." He told Warrior, removing his hand from his beard.

Wizard didn't offer any opinion on his looks, but her eyes quickly shifted away when he attempted to meet her eyes. What was that about? Maybe he was ugly to them after all? Hunter scrunched his brow with the realization that; besides his beard, he had no idea what he even looked like. He knew that thinking about past reflections would merely bring the fog. Hunter would definitely be stopping by a mirror when he could. Or a clear pond, he wasn't picky.

He turned his head to Priestess and gave a small smile. She smiled back, turning to walk straight once more. How did he approach this? Perhaps he should make the sentence sound like a challenge? No... it would be easier if presented as a question.

"So," Hunter began. "How old do I look to you all?" He asked.

Wizard turned back around finally at that, finding sudden interest in the ground. Fighter turned her head to the side, looking at him with an appraising single eye. Warrior did the same, nearly identical in their execution. Priestess didn't seem to be paying attention, for she gave no comment. She seemed distracted by something on the horizon, but before Hunter could question her, Fighter gave her answer.

"You look like your somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-two?" She said in a questioning tone of voice.

Warrior gave a sudden hearty laugh at the answer.

"I was literally about to say the same thing!" He said, a wide grin plastered on his face.

Fighter smiled a moment and cracked up herself. They laughed like that for a time, and by the time Hunter turned his attention back to Priestess, she was looking at Fighter and Warrior in their throws of laughter with a confused expression about her. She looked to Hunter for answers, to which he merely shrugged.

"How old do you think I am?" He asked her, deciding not to ask about what she had sighted a second ago.

It was probably something unimportant if she didn't call attention to it. Priestess looked into his eyes and drew her lips to a line with the effort.

"I think you're... forty?" Priestess seemed to ask.

Hunter wished that he could answer with his age, but not even he knew it. Still, that was quite a range between ages, so far he was somewhere between twenty-five and forty. How could there be such a gap? It could have been because Priestess was the youngest he supposed. A fifteen-year-old might look at someone in their late twenties and think they were older than they actually were. There was one more person to ask however...

"Wizard," Hunter said, turning his head to her. "How old do you think I look?"

Wizard remained silent for a long time before giving her reply.

"Twenty." She stated, not turning back to look at him.

Hunter frowned at that. Now the gap was even larger!? Twenty to forty? How could they have such disparaged opinions on his age? He felt like he was much more experienced with life than his fellow party members, and he certainly had better manners then they did. He supposed that Priestess had the best manners out of the lot of them, ironic seeing as she was the youngest party member.

"Hey..." Fighter started. "Aren't you twenty Wizard?" She asked the redhead in a coy tone.

In response, Wizard merely began walking faster, as if to escape Fighter's question. Why would she be behaving in such a manner? He looked to Fighter who merely gave a knowing grin, shooting Hunter a wink before turning back to Warrior to chat.

Ah!

So that was it, Wizard found Hunter attractive! He smiled proudly, knowing for a fact that he was indeed, not ugly. This was only a small victory, however, seeing as he still didn't know his own age. Why would they be having such difficulties discerning such? Nothing quite like a twenty-year gap to leave a man confused. Hunter would be looking at his reflection the first chance he got.

How old did he think he was? Hunter had assumed that these adventurers were children, but apparently he could be closer to age with them than he previously thought. Or he could be forty, in which case, it would still be okay to call them children and not be a hypocrite. He would leave his collar undone for a while yet, breathing air directly was nice, and it was hot today.

He slid back on his spectacles, as their dark tint would help protect against the sun's rage. Hunter still felt like he was cooking within his leathers, but at least he could breathe freely once more. The party continued onwards much as they did earlier, with Warrior and Fighter leading the conversation. As time passed, Hunter became acutely aware of the looks Fighter would give Warrior. When they weren't talking directly, she would shoot Warrior furtive, shy looks. Hunter grinned, he would have to tease her for it later when the opportunity arose.

They continued forward onto the path, passing the occasional stray traveler or merchant wagon. They generally kept to themselves, the merchants the only ones stopping to ask them if they had any wares they were looking for. However, every single merchant they had passed for the day denied having a mirror. Honestly! What good merchants didn't have mirrors? It was ridiculous. Upon his inquiries, Fighter had asked him why he wanted a mirror so badly, to which Hunter replied

"I just want to see how unruly my beard has grown."

That seemed to have been a good enough lie for the party to believe, and they had ceased their questions. Eventually, the sun began to dip beneath the horizon, and Hunter breathed a sigh of quiet relief. It had been getting stuffy in his leathers, and he felt caked in sweat. He'd need to bathe if they could, he felt all sorts of nasty. Perhaps there would be a nearby river he could use? It would soon be too dark to see his reflection in it, and the running water would likely distort the image anyhow.

They decided to push forward until they reached the forest, the party not wanting to camp in an open field. Soon they were engulfed in the dark, walking forward at a slower pace than before. It was nearly pitch out. They, of course, wouldn't want to camp outside the forest in the fields just for light. Hunter agreed with this line of thinking, open fields in war couldn't be trusted... Hunter frowned, this wasn't a war, why was he-

Fuzz

Hunter growled, causing his fellow party members to look back at him with concern. They had entered the forest about an hour ago, and several broad-leaved tall trees stretched out into the seemingly infinite darkness to either side of the path they had been traveling. Fighter had just lit a torch when Warrior put a hand on his sword, glancing around at the encroaching darkness.

"What is it?" Warrior asked him, sword half drawn.

Hunter was about to lie and speak of his apparent 'cavity' as he had earlier as a motive for his growl, but he was interrupted by an odd whizzing sound, tearing through the air...

Hunter's eyes widened as he quickly jump stepped away from the path of the projectile, narrowly avoiding the crossbow bolt that was now embedded into the tree that was behind him. The bolts shaft shook with the impact, and Hunter immediately ran to where the source of the bolt came from. It was nearly pitch black outside, but Hunter was used to the darkness of night and could see the outline of a humanoid figure off of the path in-between the trees.

This seemed to startle the man, who stumbled back, dropping something wooden to the dirt at his feet. Likely the crossbow itself. Hunter tackled the figure to the ground, and that was when he heard other, unfamiliar voices begin to shout. An ambush of some kind? He could handle this. Hunter delivered a punch to the man's jaw below him, easily knocking him unconscious. After that was handled, Hunter quickly shot to his feet and strained his ears to listen for the next movement.

He heard clanging steel and the sound of fists meeting flesh. Wizard was in the process of canting something, for he could make out her voice in the turmoil. Priestess was also saying something, and he could hear the jingling of rings on metal as she chanted

"Miracle: Holy Light!" She shouted.

Upon that, the darkness instantly vanished, replaced by a bright incandescent light, making Fighter's torch look dull in comparison. An orb floated above the girl's head, giving off a strong glowing light. With that, Hunter also saw their attackers. These men weren't as well equipped compared to most adventurers that Hunter had seen, but they still had decent weapons and armor. Several wore a chain vest without sleeves to cover their torso, with armored steel gauntlets and greaves. Simple clothing lay under their armor to pad against chaffing, and several dull axes, swords, and spears were in their grips. The men had that look in their eyes that was prominent in all men who had fallen to this lifestyle. Dull and nearly lifeless. They had nothing to lose, and Hunter wasn't going to hold back on them, doing so would invite death onto his small party.

Warrior was locked in combat with a man nearly twice his own size and wasn't doing well. The bandit had been getting on in years based on his crows feet, but his muscles were that of a man twenty years his junior, and those scars bespoke of many battles. Warrior was facing off against a stronger and more experienced opponent. The larger man seemed to delight in fighting Warrior, and he was laughing at the young man as he swung down upon Warrior with mirth.

Fighter was currently planting a firm boot into the face of a much smaller individual, crushing his nose flat with a spurt of blood and causing him to hit the dirt with a thud. He did not attempt to rise.

Priestess was surrounded by three men closing in on her, blades drawn. Wizard was in a similar situation, with two men closing on her with axes, yet she didn't seem worried in the least. Likely she had a spell capable of handling her opponents. Priestess, however, had nothing to defend herself.

Hunter darted to Priestess's aid, straightening his fingers and leaving his palm open. The first man to reach her raised his sword to bring it down on her head, but Hunter was too quick, delivering a swift chop to the man's wrist. The blow snapped the bone inward, causing an arc in where the arm met the hand. The bandit let out a blood-curdling scream of pain and fell to his knees, cradling his now useless arm. Hunter finished him off with another chop to the top of his skull, caving that part of the head inward. The dent caused one of the poor man's eyes to pop out of his skull, and he fell to his side, surely dead.

The other men turned their oddly glazed eyes to Hunter to regard him. Their eyelids widened upon seeing his face, and they charged him, no lethargy in their gait. Their eyes were feral, like that of a crazed beast, and seeing Hunter had triggered their fight or flight response. He would have more time to think of them later, for now...

They needed to die.

A man swung wildly at him, a blow that Hunter easily sidestepped. In response, he delivered a swift chop to the left side of the bandit's ribs, feeling several crack beneath the blow. The man coughed blood as he delivered a second blow in the same location, feeling the bones completely shatter.

That didn't stop the second man from attacking, stabbing wildly in an attempt to shishkebab Hunter. It was childs play to dodge, after the barrage of blows from the wildman, Hunter stepped in close, curling his fingers inward to resemble that of an eagles claw. This had been one of the best ways to deal with those pesky rats in the sewers. Hunter swiped at the bandit's throat, feeling his fingers impact the flesh. As he felt the contact, Hunter quickly curled his fingers again, wrapping them around the flesh. Hunter tugged then, ripping out the man's right artery with a now bloodied fist.

Hunter rammed his shoulder into the man's diaphragm, knocking him to the ground as the bandit fruitlessly attempted to stem the bleeding. Hunter turned his attention back to the man who's ribs he'd pulverized, yet the fury in his gaze did not vanish. They were not this furious approaching Priestess... something about Hunter must have set them off, but what? Maybe they knew something about his past?

He already knocked out one earlier, so he would question that bandit after he was finished with the others. Hunter darted into the man's guard as he swung, slower this time, in an attempt to cleave Hunters head off. Hunter chopped his neck, bending it and cracking the bone easily. The bandit died, his eyes fogged over as he fell.

Hunter turned to make sure that Priestess; who was shaking visibly, wasn't in any immediate danger. She was clear, the bandits that were still alive were busy with the other party members. As he turned to Wizard, he noted that he smelled burnt flesh. A charred husk of a body sat flaming on the ground, an inferno that; if off of the trail, likely would have started a wildfire.

The other man was still alive, and Wizard did appear slightly more worried this time, holding up her staff to ward off the bandit. Hunter sprinted up to his backside, and smashed an overhanded blow onto his right shoulder, dropping the unfortunate bandit to his knees and crunching the bone beneath the blow. He gave a cry of pain as Hunter stabbed his fingers into the man's lower back, piercing chainmail and flesh with relative ease. Hunter then closed his hand, feeling his fingers gripping the bandit's spine. The man immediately stilled, and Hunter violently jerked the spinal cord.

Blood sprayed from the sudden movement, bathing Hunter and the dirt around the two in a shower of it. He dropped the spine without a moment of care onto the earth. Hunter shook the blood off of his hand, spattering blood onto the corpse that now lay at his feet, unmoving. Hunter was beginning to get a fresh paint of red on him from the throat he'd torn out a bit ago, but he didn't allow his pleasure to be shown, not in front of Wizard. Really he shouldn't show anyone this side... the side that came out in the heat of battle.

Hunter loved to fight. Not necessarily the killing, but the thrill that came with the struggle of mortal combat. Kill or be killed, that was what drove him to fight. Hunter wanted to taste the thrill. These men weren't of any particular challenge, of course, he felt as if he'd fought far deadlier opponents in his past. Hunter looked into the eyes of Wizard, anticipating horror at his actions to reflect in her gaze.

Surprisingly, they were grateful, as if he hadn't ripped a man's spine out. Hunter reminded himself that she had just charbroiled a guy, so they were both about as shocking he supposed. Hunter nodded to Wizard and dashed to help Warrior with his battle. Fighter had joined in as soon as she'd finished her fight, but even together, this large brute of a man was simply too skilled for them to handle. The large bandit fought with an impressive skill that wasn't present in his men.

His blows were not only quick, but each and every single one was powerful, knocking warrior back a foot every time their blades connected. Fighter had to remain on the defensive as the large man was too fast for her to attack without risking a serious wound. The large man's bald head reflected in the light of Priestess's miracle, and Hunter had made it a point to regard him as Baldie for the foreseeable future.

Baldie dodged a swift counter thrust from Warrior and retorted by bringing his hands upwards over his head for a strong overhand blow. Fighter took advantage of the reckless attack and delivered a roundhouse kick to the man's throat. Baldie barely seemed to register the blow, as he merely grunted upon her boots' impact. He swung down, intending to cleave Warriors head in two. The young man barely had enough time to bring up his sword to block the strike.

Hunter's eyes widened as Baldies blade clove right through Warrior's sword, cleanly chopping into the young man's left shoulder. The blade sunk three inches into Warriors flesh, cleaving through the area where collar bone met shoulder. Warrior let out a yelp of surprise as Baldie shot out with a straight kick into his gut, knocking him flat on his back five feet away and dislodging Baldies blade from the shoulder with a wet pop.

Fighter cried out, swiftly rushing to Warrior's side while barely ducking under one of Baldie's horizontal swings. The air seemed to bend around the strike, and Hunter knew that something was extraordinary about the bald bandit. Baldie then turned to regard Hunter with wild eyes. Upon sighting him, Baldie's eyes widened, and some form of clarity returned to them.

Baldie gritted his teeth with rage and brought his sword to bear against Hunter, who stopped his charge. Hunter narrowed his spectacled gaze at Baldie.

'This man knows me!' Hunter thought meeting Baldie's eyes.

"You!" Baldie shouted, pausing before letting out a rage-fueled shout.

The yell echoed throughout the entire forest, and if Hunter wasn't hallucinating... he felt wind brushing past him, seeming as if the power of the shout itself propelled the air forward.

"The eyes!" Baldie shouted at Hunter. "They won't watch us anymore!"

It was then that all lucidity left Baldie's vision, returning to that of blind rage as his boots pounded dirt towards Hunter. This seemed horribly familiar to Hunter, not the man himself, but what he had just said. Hunter knew that he couldn't allow himself to become confused for this fight, he could try and think about what Baldie had said after Hunter disemboweled him.

He stepped into Baldies guard, dodging a whizzing vertical swing which; if allowed to connect, would have likely split Hunter from the top of his hat down to the belt of his trousers. They were eye to eye, so neither could claim a reach advantage on the other, but now that Hunter was within Baldies guard, this fight was over.

Hunter delivered what would have been a bone-shattering chop to Baldie's throat, but against this brutes bull neck, it merely caused the large man to cough with surprise. Hunter dodged backward, narrowly avoiding a quick counter swing that would have cut Hunter's head clean off at the neck. Before Baldie could bring his sword back from it's still continuing momentum, Hunter stepped towards the large man again, this time delivering a double-handed open palm strike to Baldies midsection with all of Hunter's considerable weight. Each palm connected with both sides of Baldie's ribcage. This caused the brute to stumble backward, and this time something gave beneath Hunters blow.

Baldie coughed up a minuscule amount of blood, spattering his lower lip. This, however, did little to slow him, and he swung again. Hunter didn't need to dodge this attack, as Baldie had misjudged the range of his swing, missing by about three inches. Hunter took the time to check his periphery.

Priestess had rushed over to assist Warrior, who was clutching his wound and sobbing lightly through clenched teeth. Fighter looked to be ready to jump back into the fight after seeing Hunter holding his own against Baldie, but Hunter quickly rose a hand to her, halting her advance. He didn't need to say anything for her to understand his intentions. Fighter likely thought that she would have gotten in Hunter's way, but that wasn't close to the truth.

Hunter grinned at Baldie. He wanted to feel the thrill of fighting this man for himself, and if anyone got in the way, it would spoil the competition. Hunter stepped forward, ready to exchange blows with the brute.

Wizard, however, did not seem to notice his gesture.

"Flame!" He heard her shout loudly.

Suddenly, Baldie combusted into just that, becoming engulfed by those rolling orange waves. Hunter frowned disappointedly as Baldie dropped to the ground, screaming in pain and rage as he rolled in an attempt to put out the roaring flame. The fire did not give however, and soon, Baldies struggling slowed, and eventually ceased altogether, with the large man holding a hand up towards Hunter, fingers curled as if to strangle him before he finally collapsed.

Hunter regarded the burning remains with a deep frown. Hunter wouldn't blame Wizard for her intervention. It would be unseemly to yell at a lady for helping him, and he didn't want to alienate her by telling her that he liked fighting to the death. Hunter drew in a deep breath through his nose, smelling fire and burning flesh, and turned to Wizard.

"Thank you very much, Wizard." He said, shooting what he hoped would pass as a dapper smile.

Wizard blinked, the shock of what had happened likely just crossing her mind. She took a shaky breath, clutching her staff tightly and nodding to Hunter. He nodded back to her, turning to see Warrior sitting up, Priestess finishing an incantation that Hunter hadn't heard her begin. The boy's wound would have likely crippled him for life, if it weren't for the healing magic of Priestess. That itching familiarity called him to think back on his past, but he ignored the feeling, as it was currently futile to recall his past.

He walked over to Warrior, who was rolling his freshly healed shoulder experimentally. His undercoat had been cut open upon the impact of the blade, and it and Warrior's breastplate was spattered with his own blood. He, like Wizard, was breathing shakily, the adrenaline of the battle apparently not quite finished with him yet. Priestess was merely shaking, not bothering to hide her fear.

Fighter was the most composed of the party, excluding Hunter, of course, her breathing deep and even. She offered a hand to Warrior, who accepted. She heaved him up to his feet, Warrior using the arm of his formerly cleaved shoulder. When Hunter approached them, Warrior looked down to his feet, shame showing in his posture.

"I couldn't even nick him!" He shouted. "I'm so sorry Hunter, I should have been able to hold him off at least..." Warrior said, his tone betraying a deep self-pity.

Hunter sighed, approaching the young man and placing a hand on his shoulder. Warrior then looked up to Hunter's eyes, and then Hunter did the only thing that made sense at the moment.

He slapped Warrior upside the back of the head with the hand he had laid on his shoulder. Not with enough force to do any real damage, but enough to get his point across. Warrior in response brought both hands up to the back of his head where Hunter had thwapped him and cried out.

"What the hell was that for!?" Warrior shouted, glaring daggers at the much taller man.

Hunter shook his head.

"You will not allow yourself to feel guilty for this loss." Hunter began. "That man was nearly twice your size, he was older and more experienced, and as a result had accrued more skill than you had. All things considered, it was impressive that you didn't simply lose your head." Hunter then motioned his thumb across his own neck in example. "I chopped that man's bull neck with a force that could crack a rock in two and he barely even flinched at it." He finished, chopping a hand into an open palm.

Warrior nodded slowly at the end of the explanation.

"Yeah but I cried." He said flatly.

Hunter groaned.

"Your shoulder had been practically cut in two; I would be crying too. Most people would. Pain exists. if you cry you cry, if it helps deal with the pain, then you should cry more often while fighting." Hunter said with a light-hearted chuckle. "But you will not pity yourself, self-pity is the mark of a weak man."

He then noted the cleaved sword at Warrior's feet and grimaced. If the blade hadn't blocked the attack in time, Warrior likely would have lost his arm as well as his shoulder. The strength Baldie showed was indeed impressive, Warrior's blade wasn't made of cheap steel either. Hunter leaned down, gripping the hilt of the blade and bringing it up to inspect.

The end was broken to half it's length and jagged like a steel serrated tooth, but otherwise, the edge was still fine. Hunter flipped the blade over, presenting it to warrior hilt-first with a smile. Warrior tilted his head at this action, his mouth slightly agape in confusion.

"Um..." Warrior started, tilting his head back up straight. "It's broken Hunter, what good is it now?"

Hunter huffed in annoyance.

"Listen, you should keep this blade as a memento of this battle. Think about it Warrior." Hunter began, gesturing to the corpses with the hilt of the sword. "Your first quest beginning with a bandit raid? Against a man with rubbish bins for arms and surviving? Keeping this would be a great conversation piece, and think about the stories you could tell to you and Fighters children-"

Fighter squealed, her face turning a beet red as she attempted to cover her face with her hands. Hunter grinned coyly at Warrior and winked at the young man knowingly with a downward tilt of his head, exposing his eyes. Warriors jaw hung open once more as Hunter held out the hilt to the young man's open hand. Warrior tightened his grip on the hilt as his own face began to redden, glancing at Fighter shyly.

Hunter left them to their 'tension' turning to see Priestess sobbing silently nearby, knees pulled up to her chest as she sat with her back to a tree. Hunter stepped over to her while Warrior and Fighter stewed in their embarrassment; much to Hunters guilty pleasure. When Hunter drew close to Priestess, she looked up at him, her eyes already slightly red and puffy.

Hunter kneeled down next to the girl, and placed a hand on the top of her head, and smiled.

"I know it's hard seeing a man die for the first time-" Hunter began.

Priestess then shook her head at his words, causing Hunter to pause.

"That's not-" She started, gasping in between her sentence. "That's not it."

Hunter frowned, brow furrowed.

"Well, why are you crying then?" Hunter asked her, removing his hand from her head.

Priestess rubbed at her eyes as she spoke to him.

"I saw them earlier today..." She started.

'So... that's what it was' Hunter thought.

"It looked like they had been following us off the side of the road, but I disregarded them." She said, removing her now wet sleeves from her eyes. "I thought they were bounty hunters or other adventurers I didn't know... I didn't think they'd try and kill us... I'm so sorry..."

"That's odd... How did they get up here in front of us? They had the time to set up this ambush, clearly, but moving through those woods to set up on the road ahead of us would have taken them too long to accomplish, we'd have been way farther ahead of them by then."

Priestess looked down, shrugging in reply.

"Some kind of magic?" Hunter asked her.

She shrugged again. Hunter took a deep breath.

"Now young lady, you couldn't have known that they would have set up here already." Hunter began, attempting his best fatherly tone. "Think about it, look at those woods." He said, pointing to the deeper sections of the forest.

She looked up, sighting what he was indicating towards. The trees here grew so close together that it would have been difficult for any man to squeeze through them quickly. Priestess didn't say anything for a while, and then silently nodded. Hunter took that as a good enough reply, and stood up, offering a hand to Priestess, which she took. He easily pulled Priestess to her feet, for she couldn't have been much more than a hundred pounds. Hunter dusted off her shoulders, and then lightly pushed her towards Warrior and Fighter.

"Save them from their embarrassment, would you sweetheart?" He told Priestess, nodding to the two red-faced teens.

Priestess nodded slightly, stepping over to Warrior and Fighter lightly. Warrior sighed, and turned to Wizard, walking up beside her as she stared into the flame that was Baldies corpse. Hunter scratched at his chin as she didn't turn to regard him, and he just decided to start.

"Was this your first? Killing I mean." Hunter asked, looking down at the top of Wizard's pointy hat.

"Yes." She replied flatly.

Silence.

"Are you alright?" Hunter asked her.

Wizard didn't reply for a long moment, and Hunter allowed the silence between them to pass. Of course, there wasn't complete stillness, as the three party members behind them were talking hurriedly. She finally looked up into Hunter's eyes. Wizard had to crane her head a fair bit to accomplish the action. Was Hunter too tall?

"I thought... I thought it would feel different. Oddly I simply feel normal. Does this make me a bad person?" She asked him.

Hunter shook his head in reply, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Not at all. It was them or us. I've known many people that have killed but didn't feel guilt or pleasure from the experience." Hunter said.

He had no idea if that were true or not, as he couldn't remember. It did feel right to say, however.

"This life we've chosen is one of constant fighting my dear," Hunter stated, "There will be more times where it will be you or them depending on how many bandits are around. Speaking of which... Do you think there'll be more nearby?" Hunter asked.

He removed his hand from her shoulder, the action causing Wizard to frown in... disappointment? Hunter wasn't quite sure.

"I doubt it." She said simply. "Bandits usually stick to the outer territories, this is a well-traveled path close to the city. It takes a truly stupid vagabond to try and rob someone here, even at night, as many merchant wagons will travel with an entire company of guards." Wizard tilted her head, looking back down at Baldie's corpse. "These men are either morons, or they came after us specifically."

Hunter frowned.

"Why do you think that?" Hunter asked, though after what Priestess had told him, he believed it.

"The way they looked at you, Hunter. Why were they so keen on killing you? Those two men that attacked me looked almost bored doing it... but when you helped Priestess, her attackers went from bored to feral almost in an instant..." She said, trailing off. "You can't have a bounty on your head, the Guild never would have registered you if you did, so they couldn't be bounty hunters. Do you know why they would be after you?" She asked turning back and narrowing her eyes at him.

Hunter shook his head and said simply.

"I don't know; could be after my hat."

Wizard scowled at that.

"I'm sorry lady Wizard," Hunter started, smiling lightly. "This hat is top quality leather, and it's lucky."

Surprisingly, Wizard gave a smile of her own.

"Not so lucky that it brought an attack down on you." She started. "Maybe it's cursed?" She asked, tone serious.

Hunter put his hands up defensively.

"Nothing magic about this article of clothing my dear." Hunter said, swiping the hat off of his head and presenting it to her.

He felt his hair with his free hand to determine it's length. Thankfully it was cut short. A man needed to keep short hair, less for an opponent to grab on to if you get into a friendly tavern tussle. Plus people generally respected a short-haired man more than a long-haired man, though this varied. His commander had long hair after all-

Fuzz

Fuzz

Fuzz

Hunter blinked, surprised with the force of the fogs assault. He didn't growl, and he wasn't even frustrated. It seemed as if he'd caught the fog off guard somehow... and now he had one single bit of information from his past. Hunter had a commander with long hair, however much good that'd do. If it were a commander, then that suggested a military past. He would have to ask about the military in this land, see if he felt any familiarity with it.

Wizard tentatively grasped the leather tricorn hat and brought it up to eye level to examine, flipping it about in her grip. After a moment of quiet contemplation, Wizard nodded. Then she removed her own hat and placed Hunters on top of her head instead. Hunter stifled a laugh as the hat was too wide for her head, sinking down below her eyes. After another long moment, she removed the hat, revealing slightly frizzy red hair, and placed the pointy one back on her head. Wizard presented the hat to Hunter, who accepted it gratefully.

"So..." Hunter started. "Not cursed?"

"Further examination will be required at a later time." She said, ghost of a smile on her lips. "Let's get back to our group, shall we?"

They regrouped the rest of the party who stood merely a few dozen feet from them. Everyone still seemed a little bit jittery, likely the effects of adrenaline fading after the fight. Warrior's leg was shaking lightly, even as he tried his best to remain standing still. Hunter then realized that this very well may have been their first fight to the death. This was no sparring match or training session, this was the real deal. It seemed to have hit them hard, for even though they tried their best to remain calm, it was easy to tell that the party was shaken up from the encounter.

Hunter knew that it would be unwise to continue forward into the forest at this time of night, as Priestess's light was slowly fading away. He doubted any of them would be able to sleep after this encounter, but they would not continue until the sun rose again. Hunter was certain that they wouldn't want to camp out next to the corpses; normal people minded sleeping close to cadavers.

"Alrighty everyone," Hunter began. "We're going to continue on, but only for about a mile." He said, gesturing to the path ahead. "We'll camp when we're sufficiently away from the departed, and continue from there."

Fighter sighed tiredly, shooting a look at the man who's jaw she dislocated. He lay face down in the dirt, unmoving... save for the slow, almost unnoticeable rise and fall of his upper back. Hunter's eyes widened and shot forward to the downed man. This caused Wizard and Priestess to gasp in shock as Hunter soon had his hand poised to chop down onto the bandit's neck.

Hunter did not complete the motion, for the man did not attempt to dodge or lash out wildly. He simply lay there, still face down. His jaw being shattered as it was, Hunter doubted he would be able to get questions out of the man. Though he was opposed to outright killing a man while he was unconscious, Hunter knew that it would be foolhardy to simply leave him here. A shattered jaw did not equate to shattered legs, and he could likely return to where he had come from and report on what had happened, albeit the only way that was possible now was if he wrote out the scenario. He stood straight-backed again, and Hunter turned back to the party, who were tense once more, eyes wide and scanning the trees around them.

"We must bind this man, we'll leave him in the middle of the road with a note," Hunter told them. "The note will explain that he was a criminal attempting to rob and kill us, and whoever finds him could take him to town while we continue on." Hunter finished.

Warrior took a deep, shaky breath, and nodded his understanding. Fighter did the same, claiming to carry a rope in her satchel. They easily bound the unconscious man, and pulled him to the center of the road, laying upon his side. Hunter noted that the bandit's jaw wasn't nearly as destroyed as he had previously thought, the bone likely did have cracks in it true, but otherwise, it appeared that Fighter merely knocked half of his teeth out.

Good thing he was bound. Hunter then began piling the bodies of the fallen into a second pile beside the bound man, shooing away any help from his fellow party members. They had been through enough tonight without having to handle bodies. It was easy work, Hunter was a very strong man. He had saved Baldies corpse for last, seeing as it was still burning at the time. Soon after Baldie ceased burning, Hunter pulled the bald bastards now smoldering corpse to the opposite end of the body pile from where sir shatter jaw lay.

Baldies gear was scorched black, and all but the chainmail remained upon him. He was unrecognizable, his eyes had melted out of their sockets and his skull mostly visible. The thick muscle had been burnt down nearly to the bone, and the smell was abhorrent. Hunter grabbed the large mans blade in his left hand as he dragged Baldie by the collar of his chain with his right.

Hunter laid Baldie flat and folded the man's arms over his chest. Hunter then took the hilt of Baldies blade and wrapped the hands of the large brute around the hilt with the tip of the sword facing towards his feet. Hunter continued to kneel a moment, nodding with respect to the man's great skill. Hunter stood with a small groan, and knuckled his back, turning to see his party staring at him.

"What is it?" Hunter asked them.

Fighter pointed at Baldie's corpse.

"Why be so respectful to him in particular when you're just piling those guys up like hay?" She asked him, genuinely curious.

Hunter gave a small smile.

"He was an excellent warrior, worthy of at least some dignity in death," Hunter stated, crossing his arms. "He may have been our enemy, but respect should be shown to the worthy dead. It may be seen as grotesque to say it aloud, but I did not respect those men in that pile, they presented no challenge."

Fighter stopped pointing at Baldie's charred remains and put a hand to her forehead.

"I feel faint." She said, changing the subject. "Can we get going?"

"Yeah, I don't wanna be here anymore either." Warrior said, backing her.

Hunter shook his head, pointing to where he tackled the man.

"There's another one I knocked out over there," He started. "I'm going to question him, if he gives me no answers then we'll just tie him up like his buddy over there and get going."

Priestess gave a sigh of relief as he finished the sentence, and Hunter raised a brow. The girl flinched under his studious gaze.

"I'm sorry... I-I thought you were gonna... torture..." She began.

Hunter's jaw dropped in shock.

"I would never do such a thing!" Hunter shouted, causing Priestess to flinch. Hunter stopped the offended rant that would have spewed forth and took a deep, calming breath. He continued in a softer tone. "If he doesn't answer me, we'll just leave him here, rest assured."

Priestess nodded, looking at the ground. Hunter pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I am sorry for shouting," Hunter told her. "I just couldn't believe you would think such of me."

Fighter scoffed.

"We've known you for a day," She stated simply. "You can't know what to expect from someone from that short a time frame."

Hunter paused his retort and then nodded.

"You are right of course, my pardon. Know that I don't intend to torture, maim, steal, murder, eat babies," Another gasp from Priestess and a scowl from Wizard. "Or joke about eating the aforementioned babies."

Warrior laughed out loud, the shock of the battle apparently having passed.

"And you yelled at us about fighting five-year-olds?" Warrior said, pointing at Hunter.

"That wasn't in public young Warrior, you can make such dark jokes when not in a public place, it is not unseemly. Everyone does it once in a while." Hunter replied with a shrug.

Hunter took a piece of paper from his satchel, along with a quill and portable ink well. He quickly wrote out a letter explaining what had happened, placing it in the collar of one of the dead men in the pile. Nodding at a task completed, Hunter started walking towards the downed bandit he had clocked at the beginning of the battle.

The party began following after him, and soon they encircled the unconscious crossbowman. Hunter frowned with the realization that this man was barely one at all. His youthful face couldn't have been more than fourteen. A brown bruise was forming on his cheek from where Hunter had struck him, contrasting against his pale skin. His brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and his chainmail was ill-fitted, the short sleeves of the mail reaching his forearms. Hunter was happy to have not killed this young man, such a thing would not have done well for his conscience.

Why was he here? How did he get mixed up in such grizzly business? Hunter frowned, pushing such thoughts away, he needed to question the youngen for his motives, not his reasonings for this lifestyle. Unfortunately, there was no way to tell when he would awaken. Hunter began to give orders to tie him up when the young man's eyes shot open. In an eyeblink, he was sitting straight up, staring at Hunter with wide eyes. Hunter held back his fists, hesitant to strike down a child. The young man was unarmed anyhow.

Warrior and Fighter tensed, ready to beat the young man back to unconsiousness at the slightest hint of aggression. Priestess backpedaled with a small scream of surprise, and Wizard, surprisingly, was readying her staff as if to clobber the young bandit upside the head. He pointed at Hunter with a shaking hand and trembling jaw.

"No! He sees me! He sees me!" He shouted, his voice scratchy. Hunter noted the darkening of the crossbowmans trousers as the boy urinated, and Hunter furrowed his brow. "Please master! Please master! Please master!" He shouted, entering a psychotic mantra as he backpedaled on all fours, failing to tear his gaze away from Hunter.

It seemed as if the young man were struggling to turn his gaze away from Hunter, to not look at him. His sneck strained to the right and left, though the boy's eyes refused to leave Hunter's own. Wizard backed out of his path as he crawled away, still attempting and failing to look away from Hunter. Her jaw was slightly agape in shock as she heard the boys chant, and the rest of the party appeared to feel likewise, their poise dropping from readied attacks to a less certain posture.

Hunter stood slowly and put his hands up, palms forward.

"Young man, please calm yourself." Hunter told him, taking a single step forward.

This incited a bestial scream from the boy, and the young man seemed to have snapped, the fear in his eyes replaced with a firm determination.

'He's going to attack now!' Hunter thought.

He was about to jump forward to retrain the boy but was shocked to realize the point of the lad's determination.

"He won't see!" The young man shouted, stabbing the fingers of both hands into his eyes.

"What are you doing boy!?" Hunter shouted, sprinting up to him.

Hunter was too late, as the lad had already torn out his own eyes, the stringy line connecting his eyes to his head snapping with a spurt of blood. He heard Priestess heaving behind him as Fighter and Warrior gave out surprised cries. Wizard quickly stepped away, a look of horror plastered on her face as she covered her mouth with her hands, eyes wide and unable to look away.

The boy then crushed the eyes in his grip, the organs oozing between his fingers in a white gory paste. Hunter then screamed as the boy then opened his jaw wide, sticking his tongue out at far as he possibly could. Hunter was about to reach the lad when he snapped his teeth down on the length of his tongue, chopping it off in one chomp. The tongue fell into the boy's lap as blood spurted from the newly formed stump in his mouth. His jaw hung open limply.

"Stop it!" Hunter shouted, finally reaching the boy and gripping his shoulders.

Oddly he did not resist Hunter's touch. He worked fast, reaching into the pouch at his side for a red healing vial. He found one first try, and bit the cork, tearing it out of the glass container and pouring the liquid down the boy's throat. The young man gave no resistance, but oddly, nothing appeared to happen. The wounds did not seal, and the stump of his tongue still bled profusely.

Hunter ground his teeth. Snake oil after all. He was about to shout to Priestess for a healing miracle but stopped as he remembered that she had already used up her spell slots for the day. He turned his gaze back onto the boy and fell cold.

He was already dead. The boy was limp in his grasp, head lolling to the side. Hunter laid him down and placed a finger on the boy's neck to be certain. No pulse. How could this have happened so quickly? He had just bit off his tongue, he couldn't have bled to death that quickly. Hunter then froze with the realization, that this young man hadn't died from his injuries. Hunter didn't know why, but he knew that the lad had died from the shock of seeing him.

"He's... He's dead..." Hunter said, his own voice shaking.

He turned his head, seeing that Fighter had her head buried in Warrior's shoulder, weeping openly at the horror she had just witnessed. Warrior was simply staring wide-eyed, jaw agape at the corpse. Wizard was on her knees, doing much the same, her hands covering her mouth to stifle a scream. Priestess was on all fours over a puddle of puke, tears plopping into the vomit below as she took shaky breaths.

Hunter stumbled away from the boy, blinking rapidly.

"No no no no no..." Hunter started. "I can't... I should be... No."

He shook his head suddenly, clenching his teeth. Now wasn't the time to give in to his guilt. His party needed to be led away from this place. Now.

"Let's go!" Hunter shouted. "We're going back to town, to hell with the quest!"

Warrior snapped from his shock and looked back to Hunter with dull eyes.

"I..." Warrior began.

Fighter quickly stilled her breathing, tearing herself away from Warrior.

"Please can we just keep going? We'll camp... and figure out what to do tomorrow." Fighter stated.

Hunter scowled.

"None of you are in any shape to fight now!" Hunter shouted, feeling veins of anger pop on his temples. Fighter and Warrior then stumbled back from him, fear showing in their eyes as he glared at them. Hunter stopped himself and took a deep, calming breath. There was logic to what Fighter had said, if they were to walk back now, it would be in total darkness.

"We'll camp, and we'll figure out what to do tomorrow." He said, giving in.

Fighter calmed visibly, but still remained tense.

"I just... I just didn't want to walk back to town... in the dark." She stated.

Hunter nodded.

"I'm sorry, I just... I'm feeling disturbed too. We can't stay here, you go on for a little bit towards the caves, I'm going to take care of his body. I'll catch up quickly, don't worry. Don't hurry up though, I won't be long." Hunter said.

Fighter nodded, walking over to Priestess and placing a hand on the weeping girl's shoulder while wiping at her own eyes. Warrior took a breath and shook his head at Hunter.

"We should stick together right now," Warrior began, voice surprisingly steady. "I don't want to go anywhere without a full party right now."

Hunter didn't argue the point, Warrior was completely correct. What was Hunter thinking? What if there were more bandits ahead? Hunter nodded his agreement.

"You're right of course, I just thought you wouldn't want to see..." He said, indicating the body.

"Yeah... I know." Warrior said, joining Fighter.

Hunter turned his head to regard Wizard, who was looking away from the body into the darkness of the forest. She was still on her knees, hands supported on her staff as she attempted to hold her lunch. Hunter took a breath, and approached the woman, kneeling down next to her.

"We're gonna get going soon," Hunter told her softly. "Are you alright?"

A stupid question, of course, none of them were alright. Wizard shook her head, breathing slowly.

"Can you stand?" Hunter asked her.

A pause, and another shake of the head.

"Just wait a moment, I'll be right back for you alright?"

A nod.

Hunter stood up and approached the boy's body. What had possessed him to do such a thing? Why was he so afraid of Hunter? Hunter's eyes widened. It was because...

The fog smothered his effort to remember his past, as it always did, and he gritted his teeth. Hunter drug the boy over to rest next to Baldie, placing his hands over his chest in the same manner. Hunter then tore a shirt off of a dead man in the pile and placed it over the boy's face to cover the horror of his wounds.

Priestess had been calmed down and given water by Fighter and was on shaking feet. Wizard was still in the same position, her breathing only slightly more even. Hunter walked over to her, and kneeled down once more, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Can you still not stand?" Hunter asked her.

A nod.

"Alright," Hunter started. "I'll carry you until we find a place to camp alright?"

A pause, then another nod of confirmation. Hunter picked the girl up in his arms easily, she was very light. This seemed to calm her, and Wizard buried her face in his chest, hands still gripping the staff. Poor thing, she was more sensitive than he initially thought. Priestess was; after all, standing on her own, and she seemed the most innocent out of all of them. The act of killing itself didn't bother Wizard, at least that was what she claimed. Few, however, would be undisturbed by what they had all just witnessed. They continued their trek until Priestess's light waned almost to nothing, and set up camp on the side of the road.

Hunter told them that he would keep watch for the night if they were somehow able to sleep. Warrior wouldn't have it and said he would keep watch with him. Wizard was still catatonic in his arms and gave no reply. Priestess, surprisingly took up the offer, climbing into a single tent with Fighter. The girl was made of sterner stuff than Hunter had thought, but she still didn't want to be alone in the tent. Fighter obliged, promising that she would watch over the girl while she slept.

Warrior dug a small firepit in front of that tent and gathered several small branches into a pile. He took out his belt knife, shredding the smaller twigs for tinder and lighting the campfire with a still-lit torch. Hunter had not put down Wizard, she clung to him tightly, refusing to be set down when asked.

Hunter sat down in front of the fire with Wizard in his lap as he sat cross-legged. She was curled up against him, breathing lightly, staff beside them on the ground. Surprisingly she had fallen asleep as well, he had thought that what had just happened would keep all of them awake, but Hunter had been wrong before. Warrior tossed another twig into the flame, causing a few flakes of ash to fall to the bottom of the pit. The boy had a far-away look in his eyes. Hunter knew he was thinking back to the battle, and that of the young bandit who had killed himself out of fear.

He didn't draw Warrior out of his thoughts, Hunter was busy thinking of his own worries. That boy had been terrified of him. His companions grew enraged at the sight of Hunter, but the boy was fearful to the point of hysteria. Who was the master he was calling out to? Why couldn't he look away from Hunter?

Fuzz

Of course, that was the answer; nothing. He looked up to the sky slowly and frowned as he sighted something that was most definitely NOT right. Two moons hung in the sky, one larger and green in hue, with a smaller pink one next to it. Hunter knew for a fact that this was wrong. Thinking of it was pointless, so he merely accepted the feeling that this was not right. Two moons? The absurdity of it made his mind spin with questions. Questions that were answered with the fog.

He sighed lightly and simply allowed the two moons to continue their existence, unquestioned. At least for now. The party had a big day tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Hunter couldn't sleep for the entire night. It wasn't that he was particularly paranoid, he simply... just didn't feel tired. This was the second day he had gone without a wink of sleep, and he felt absolutely fine. Whenever he pondered the reason for this, the fog would, of course, answer his inquiries. Hunter decided that it was some kind of magic, and left it at that. The fact that he didn't need to sleep wasn't what was at the forefront of his mind as the sun peaked through the trees surrounding the camp.

He'd been contemplating the wrongness he felt upon sighting the twin moons in the night sky. Hunter couldn't explain it, he simply felt as if it were... incorrect. After all, the moon should be a shade of-

Fuzz

Ah right, he had no idea. Hunter faked a yawn as he looked over to Warrior, who's eyes were baggy from lack of sleep. He hadn't slept either, and he returned a yawn of his own. Hunter checked the daylight and decided that it was time to get going. He nudged the still sleeping Wizard in his lap, whos breathing was deep and even. A blanket had been draped over Hunter's shoulder by Warrior, who in turn used the blanket to conceal Wizard beneath the heavy cloth. Only her head was exposed, and she did not awaken at first. Hunter nudged her again, and her eyes fluttered open as she took in a sharp intake of air.

She blinked, furrowing her brow in confusion before looking up at Hunter.

"Morning." Hunter told her.

Wizard didn't reply as her eyes slowly began to close once more. Hunter nudged her again before she could pass back out. Her eyes shot open again, and she narrowed her disapproving gaze on Hunter, a small frown playing at the corners of her lips.

"Come on, we need to pack up camp and figure out what we're doing." Hunter told her.

Wizard drew her lips to a line, but nodded, sitting up in his lap. Hunter then turned his thoughts back to that of the fog. He still got the distinct impression that it was sapient somehow, and actively trying to muddle his memory. He no longer thought of this as an illness of the mind, but a malevolent outside force bent on suppressing his past. He would need to find a way to pierce the infuriating haze and remember himself, though that currently seemed impossible. He would merely need to find a way to catch the fog off guard again as he had done remembering his commander's hair length. Hunter's thoughts were interrupted when Wizard's eyes widened with the realization of where exactly she was sitting, and she all but scrambled out of his lap to a standing position. Hunter had seen beets less red in the face!

Her hat had been laid over her staff next to him, leaving her head bare. As a result, her red hair was frizzy from rubbing up against his leathers. Hunter decided not to tease her for her embarrassment. He then stood to his full height, Wizard only barely coming up to his ribcage. Hunter popped his back as Wizard sputtered something unintelligible, the tall man twisting side to side. He leaned over to pick up the pointy hat from the ground once he finished and dusted it off with a few gentle pats. Dirt then flew in small clouds under the force of his blows until the hat was relatively dirt free. Hunter then placed it atop Wizard's head, which stopped her sputtering. She remained silent and then gripped the sides of her had, pulling it down over her eyes.

Hunter couldn't believe how embarrassed she was. There was nothing wrong with post-battle cuddling, Hunter had-

Fuzz

He looked to Warrior, who stood up on tired feet. The young man looked haggard, the blood from his injury having dried a long time ago. Hunter realized that his own outfit had been almost drenched in blood, but it had dried sometime in the night as well. He looked back to Wizard, looking her up and down with a discerning eye. She had some dried blood on her as well. It most certainly had rubbed off on her from Hunter's outfit.

They would have to find a river and wash the stuff off at some point. Hunter walked past Wizard, coming up to an exhausted Warrior. The young man had strolled over to the tent where Priestess and Fighter resided and reached a hand to unzip the tent flap. He was beaten too it, however, as the tent unzipped from within, and Fighter's tired head poked out, hair messy despite the ponytail. The bags under her eyes matched that of Warriors, and she rubbed at them with a wrist.

"We ready to go?" She asked with a yawn. "Priestess slept fine, somehow."

As if being summoned by her name, Priestess's head popped out of the flap under Fighter's own, her scalp just under Fighter's chin. Her eyes weren't as baggy, but that gaze she gave spoke all it needed too. Priestess was going to be scarred for life, but some scars, Hunter knew, could heal away completely with time.

Or you learn to wear them with pride. Hunter was certain that she wasn't completely far gone, Priestess would recover in time, give it a couple of months, maybe not even that much. What a resilient little thing she was. Hunter faked another yawn as the two girls unzipped the tent the rest of the way, stepping out into the morning sunlight. Hunter gestured for everyone to gather around him, and then he spoke.

"Alright, we're going back to town," Hunter said, pointing a thumb south. "You guys are pretty shaken up. I don't think we should continue."

Warrior frowned through his exhaustion, as did Fighter. Wizard said nothing, and Priestess continued staring off into nothing. That worried Hunter.

"I want to finish the quest." Warrior said. "I need to take my mind off of what happened last night. I know it seems weird, but if I can hack through a goblin or two, I would be better off for it."

Fighter nodded to this, and Hunter frowned in response. She quickly put up a hand to forestall any objections.

"Look, I feel the same way. We only just left town, we can't just go back after day one..." She said. "I feel fine, we can handle this."

Hunter's frowned deepened at that, and Fighter shifted on her feet.

"Priestess certainly doesn't look as if she's ready to go anywhere right now," Hunter began, nodding towards the young healer. "She needs to go home and rest up, same to Wizard."

Wizard shook her head at that.

"I am fine. I was just not expecting... that." She said.

They all knew as to what she referred. Priestess took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a long moment before reopening them. A slight glimmer seemed to shine through the dull gaze she had earlier.

"I can do this." Priestess told Hunter, voice resolute.

He was impressed with them, wanting to continue this quest despite the trauma of yesterday. However, Hunter would have none of it. He was taking the party home, whether they wanted it or not. He shook his head.

"Absolutely not. We're going back to town. Pack up." He said, voice loud and commanding.

That certainly felt familiar. Speaking in that tone of voice urged him to try and remember, though Hunter held off. He wasn't going to attempt digging through his mind, not now. Warrior and Fighter's gaze dropped to the ground in apparent defeat, and Wizard scowled but remained silent. Priestess actually shook her head, glaring Hunter straight in his bespectacled eyes. Strong stuff, this little Priestess.

"No. We should keep going!" Priestess shouted.

Hunter shook his head again, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

"Definitely not." Was all he said. His tone light as if he were saying no to a child.

And really that wasn't far off from the truth.

Priestess drew her lips to a line, the dullness in her eyes suddenly replaced with a strong determination.

"We need to save those girls Hunter!" Priestess shouted.

Hunter was taken aback by her words. What was that she had said? Save those girls? When were girls involved? Guild Girl certainly hadn't said anything of the sort. At least not that he could remember. It seemed that his bafflement was noticed by the party, for they stared unbelieving at Hunter.

"Do..." Fighter started. "Do you not know that was a part of the quest?"

Hunter shook his head.

"No, I just joined you all, I didn't ask for details beyond what Guild Girl told me. What girls?" Hunter asked.

He couldn't believe that he didn't ask for details. In hindsight, it seemed awfully out of character for him to not find out where he was going or what he was doing. At least it felt that way, he couldn't remember of course.

Wizard looked to the ground, and then back up to Hunter's gaze.

"Goblins can't reproduce on their own." She said, causing Hunter to stiffen. "They have no females... so they have too... they have to steal away human girls to... propagate."

Hunter was grinding his teeth openly, the rage he felt barely contained. His teeth were bared like that of a rabid wolf, and indeed, he wanted to sink his claws into something. He had curled his fingers reflexively, and the party looked unsettled, taking a step back away from him.

Hunter looked north.

"I will go," Hunter told them, his voice nearly feral. "You will leave."

Priestess opened her mouth, but Hunter quickly turned his head to her, freezing the words in her throat.

"A hunter must..." He began.

Fuzz

Hunter blinked, all previous rage suddenly dissipating to be replaced with confusion. What was that about? A hunter must... what? His hands uncurled, and he closed his lips back over his teeth, taking a deep breath.

"I can handle this on my own. I'll save the girls, you'll go home." He told them, trying his best to sound calm.

Priestess frowned and redoubled her efforts.

"No, we're going!" She shouted. "You're not going on your own."

Warrior shot a glance at Priestess, and he clenched his hands into fists when he turned his gaze back upon Hunter.

"Yeah!" Warrior shouted. "We're going, whether you want us too or not!"

Hunter groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose as he frowned. Wizard and Fighter nodded to everything that the other party members had said. They weren't going to leave, and Hunter wasn't about to use force to make them go. He may have been willing to force them just a moment ago, though what would he do? Smack them on their rear? He wasn't their father, he apparently might not even be that much older than they. Who was Hunter to deny them the opportunity to rescue women in need? He sighed a long, drawn-out sigh.

"Very well," Hunter said. "But none of you will hesitate to do what needs to be done, understand?"

They all nodded, Priestess looking triumphant. The dull look in her eyes was almost completely gone now, most of its brilliant blue color returning. It was much the same for the rest of the party, looking revitalized after the argument. They were all made of sterner stuff after all.

They ate breakfast consisting of hardtack, washing down the unpleasant meal with water. The party upon finishing their meal; then packed up camp, breaking down the small tent and packing it away in Warriors satchel. After that was accomplished, they all relieved themselves behind nearby trees, as they had not done it yesterday after setting up camp. Once that was settled, they went on their way, all agreeing to take a quick bath in a river or lake if they were to come across one.

Hunter really hoped they came across any kind of body of water, he was drenched in sweat and needed a good cleaning.

...

...

...

Goblin slayer continued on the path towards the two other goblin caves, his pace staying brisk. A new adventuring party had come this way according to Guild Girl, looking to slay some goblins. He knew what was in store for them, and this party had a day lead on him. Hopefully, if he hurried up, he'd be able to join them and show them the proper way to dispatch the little beasts. The sun shone furiously overhead through thick leaves, spotting the wide dirt road with a broken shadow. Soon it would begin to set, reducing the temperature and casting the land in the orange tint of dusk. Wagon wheels and dozens of footprints going both directions were set in the earth, some fresh, others not so much.

They were a party of five based on what Guild Girl had told him. Five against a small cave were only decent odds, but apparently, they were going in blind, that pitted the dice against them. Goblins may be a bit more stupid than your average human adult, but a child's intellect was a good comparison to a goblins own mind.

Unfortunately, children could also be crafty, which was how many new adventurers fell to these quests. It was a shame that goblins were not taken more seriously by the guild and its adventurers. If they all banded together in one massive crusade against the little green monsters, they likely could wipe the pests off the planet.

But adventurers didn't work that way.

Goblin slayer stopped his musings when he sighted something glowing blue on the ground ahead. Some kind of magic item? Fallen off a merchants cart on the way to town? It was possible, though not likely. Magic items were usually never sold, but it did happen on occasion, though the price of such items were unaffordable to most. A merchant selling magic items would be sure to keep them safe and concealed. The likelihood of a magic item simply falling off the wagon was very low. However low those odds were, however, that didn't explain the blue glow. As Goblin Slayer drew closer, he saw that it wasn't just one source of light for the blue hue.

Multiple skulls lay in the dirt in a large pile, the tops of them cracked open to expose a light blue burning flame. There was another, larger skull on the left side of the pile, emitting a marginally larger flame. Before Goblin Slayer knew what was happening, he found himself... compelled to move forward.

He attempted to regain control of himself, but his body wouldn't listen. Indeed he could not even control the movement of his eyes, which remained glued to the large skull. It was as if he were a prisoner trapped within his own body. The helplessness enraged him, reminding him of the weak child he had been, and for a moment, he regained control of himself. This did little, however, as all this did was slow his pace. It was as if Goblin Slayer were being urged on by the skull.

He neared it, and crouched down in front of the smiling grin of the skull, and picked it up with both hands. Goblin Slayer's hands then inexplicably began to squeeze the temples of the large skull in an attempt to shatter it. He attempted again to stop, but the force compelling him to act was even more powerful now. With strength he didn't know he had, Goblin Slayer shattered the skull between his hands.

The bell rang loud in his ears, accompanied by the hushed whispers of thousands of voices. He knew that they wanted to share their secrets with him, their infinite knowledge of the world. However, the voices all spoke at once, and he could not distinguish one out of the cacophony of insane words. It was maddening, and for an instant, the world around him became thick with a deep fog that obscured the entire forest around him.

Then the bell began to ring in tandem with the voices, and if Goblin Slayer was correct, it was the same kind of bell he had heard in the guildhall before he departed for these quests. It was gone almost as soon as it began, and Goblin slayer pulled his hands apart, the remaining shards of bone falling to the dirt below. He was shaking, his breath uneven. He didn't want too, but his gaze was drawn to that of the other skulls nearby in the pile.

And he reached a shaky hand for that pile, ignoring the small note that fluttered away in the wind, carried into the depths of the forest.

...

...

...

Hunter felt unsettled. He was not sure why, but he was compelled to look behind him. Something was very wrong, and he wasn't sure exactly what. It could be his imagination, though Hunter knew that was unlikely. He would simply have to be more observant until this quest was completed. The sun was nearing the tree line, about to set into darkness. Soon, they would need to set up camp once more. Today had passed mostly in silence, the group likely still thinking back to the events of yesterday.

Hunter was in the lead of the party, which walked in a v pattern. Priestess and Wizard were in the back of the formation, with Fighter and Warrior just behind Hunter, who was the point of their v. He turned to the path ahead, unquestioned by the party for his constant glances backward. It was likely that they were doing the same thing when Hunter wasn't looking. Everyone was on edge and awaiting another ambush. The forest had thinned considerably through today's walk, the sides of the path were now sparse of trees, giving way to semi-open land.

Hunter sighted something that made him smile for the first time that day and held up a hand to stop the party. He heard Warrior grip the hilt of his sword.

"No it's alright, look over there." Hunter said, pointing a finger to the far right side of the path.

Where he indicated was nearly hidden behind several bushes, but there was a small, babbling brook that could just barely be seen. It was likely that Hunter only saw it because of his overgrown height, which meant that the party wouldn't actually be able to see it. He turned his head to be sure.

Indeed, they looked confused, looking where Hunter indicated, then back to him.

"There is a stream just past those bushes, let's take turns cleaning up. We'll set up camp while the first one of you goes in." Hunter said. "It'll probably be a bit cold, but anything to get rid of this stink yes?"

The party nodded wearily, Hunter remembering that Warrior and Fighter had not slept since the encounter yesterday. Likely they thought he was haggard and exhausted as well, but Hunter didn't feel so. He wasn't sure why he wasn't tired, this would be his third night without sleep assuming he took watch, and his eyelids felt none the heavier. He hoped the party didn't notice, for he wanted to take watch tonight for them all so they would be rested up for tomorrow. They would have to start walking off-road to find that cave, it was likely to be away from this path a fair bit, though it shouldn't take another day to search it out.

Fighter sighed, her shoulders slumping as if a great weight was hoisted upon her shoulders. She raised her head, the bags under her eyes large and nearly black.

"Can I go first?" She asked.

No one took issue with it, and as Fighter cleaned herself in the running stream, the rest of the party began setting up their individual tents. With the exclusion of Hunter of course. This didn't go unnoticed by Warrior, who upon setting up his tent, raised an eyebrow at the much taller man.

"Aren't you tired?" Warrior asked Hunter.

What would be a good lie?

"I've had specialized training, I can go days without rest and function at top performance." He said, surprising himself with how confident he was in saying it.

It was almost as if it weren't even a lie. Warrior shrugged in reply but continued.

"You should sleep too..." Warrior told him, yawning. "We should be alright."

Hunter shook his head, smiling.

"I appreciate your concern, but have no fear, I feel perfectly fine for watch tonight." He told Warrior, flashing a thumbs up.

The young man shrugged again, too tired to argue.

"I'll bathe in the morning..." He said, rubbing his eyes. "I want to sleep now."

Hunter nodded, and bidding goodnight to everyone, Warrior climbed into his tent, zipping the flap shut behind him. Priestess exhaled and sat down near the freshly dug firepit. She then began tossing small branches into the pit willy-nilly, and Hunter sighed, pulling out a belt knife he had bought back in town. He crouched down next to Priestess and held up a hand to stop her.

"Young lady, you can't start a fire without tinder." He told her.

Priestess's eyes widened, and she nodded.

"You know how to make tinder?" He asked her.

She shook her head.

Hunter took a twig out of the firepit and began scraping away the bark with the edge of his knife, the wood coming off soon after like curling string.

"There are many way's to make tinder, but we'll just be doing it this way for tonight."

Hunter offered her the knife hilt first, and she took it hesitantly. Hunter handed her a stick and instructed her how to hold it so she wouldn't accidentally carve off any fingers. Soon after, she began scraping away, making a neat little pile of tinder. The lesson for the day done, Hunter stood and knuckled his back, sighting Wizard finishing up with her tent. She zipped it closed, and exhaled, exhausted with the days walking.

She turned to look at him and quickly turned her gaze away as she noticed him observing her. Hunter had to do his best not to laugh. He should feel guilty for finding the girls crush on him slightly hilarious, but he didn't. Wizard had called him a geezer before he revealed his face, and now she could barely even look at him. Hunter internally shrugged. It was the struggle of being probably handsome; what could he say? That reminded him... he would be taking a look into the water to catch a reflection of his face. Hopefully, it moved slowly enough for him to get a glance at himself.

Back in town, when he had washed off his leathers, he didn't even think to look into the waters. However, upon remembering the canals, he realized that he wouldn't have been able to make anything out anyway, as the water there was flowing too fast. Hopefully, Fighter would finish up soon so he could get a look before the sunset.

Hunter realized that he would have to shake his leathers very hard to get them dry enough to be comfortable in once more. Damp clothing was true misery, and wet leather even worse so. Just imagining the chaffing almost made him grind his teeth. He had been sweaty all day today and yesterday, and the chaffing had nearly driven him to madness. This was the struggle of wearing all leather. Cutting edge style versus non-chaffing peasant clothes. He always seemed to choose style, but maybe one day that would change.

Hmmmmm...

Nah.

When they got back to town, he'd need to buy some oil for his outfit, lest it lose its firmness from all this water absorption. Hunter was happy to see that Fighter was all done and clean, donning her still semi-clean robes. Her hair was wet and out of its ponytail, and she wrung the long black strands out with both hands. Out of the tail, her hair was truly long, likely reaching all the way down to the middle of her back. Hunter would have to explain to her the advantages of short hair, seeing as Fighter's personality would definitely get her into a tavern tussle at some point.

He approached the bushes, indicating that he would be the next one into the bath. Hunter received no objections and walked around the bushes to see the stream hidden just behind them. It was a very narrow flow, barely enough room for him to move once he was submerged. The water was crystal clear, a good sign, he may even be able to drink from it. The flow didn't even move very quickly, allowing him to get a peek at his face. The sun was still just over the treeline, giving him enough light to see easily.

He gazed into the slow-moving stream and gasped. Hunter took a step back, shook his head, and then peeked into the water again. Madness. Pure madness.

He didn't have a reflection.

Hunter's mind spun, trying to figure out why such a thing was possible. Was it his imagination? Was he at the wrong angle? Yes, that must be it, surely. He peeked over a bit more this time, and again, saw nothing. The hair on his neck stood on end. Hunter had to suppress a scream of anger and frustration. He couldn't even see what he damned well looked like!

He kicked at the cattails growing nearby with a boot to ease his frustration, but it helped him none. Hunter knew now for certain that magic was involved. It was suppressing his memories and concealing his own visage from him. He would find a way to break this apparent curse, and he would remember who he was.

He sighed in defeat and began stripping...

Hunter hoped with all the hope he had that he wouldn't find out that he was an amnesiac vampire.

...

...

Goblin Slayer stumbled along the path. Ignoring what the voices commanded him to do. It was a supreme effort on his part. His breathing was ragged, and he knew he was being watched. He was being watched by something he couldn't see. Goblin Slayer grit his teeth and tried to ignore the feeling, continuing on the path.

It was watching him.

It was watching him.

It was watching him.

It was watching him.

His head slumped as he halted his progress, short sword having been drawn hours ago.

"If you kill him, it will stop watching." The voices told him, in a hundred separate tones, male and female.

Kill who...? kill who...? No.

"Kill him! Kill him!" They demanded of him.

Something darted between the trees... it was the thing that was watching him. Goblin Slayer had already tried chasing it, but it was impossible to catch. He couldn't make out anything but a faint outline of its shadowy form. It peeked out from behind one of the trees ahead, staring at him.

It was watching him.

It was watching him.

It was watching him.

It was watching him.

Goblin Slayer growled, unable to shut out the paranoia. The thing had been following him, just out of sight. The sun had set hours ago, and a deep fog now surrounded him. He saw the silhouettes of horrid monstrosities in the lit fog. It was bright tonight, two full moons illuminating the forms. The creatures dissipated as he drew near to them, giving way to even worse silhouettes. Somehow he knew that the fog creatures weren't the ones watching him. It was the thing that was just out of sight, following him.

Watching him.

It was watchin-

"No!" Goblin Slayer shouted into the fog.

"Kill him and it will stop!" The voices shouted, echoing in his mind.

Thousands of eyes... in the fog, watching him now too, wanting him to do as they commanded.

Goblin Slayer collapsed onto the road, the fog seemingly parting for him in his fall.

...

...

...

Hunter's leathers had dried to the point where he could wear them comfortably. The interior of the suit was fast drying, however, the outer leather was not so quick to dry. Hunter had been sitting in front of the campfire all night so far, keeping watch so his beleaguered party could get some proper rest.

Wizard and Priestess insisted on staying up with him for at least a few hours into the night, and Hunter had no objection. They had been chatting about etiquette and the church that Priestess was a part of. It was a large organization, reaching nearly every corner of the world. At least the civilized parts of it.

Wizard had talked with them about her academy, and how she was top of her class. Her remarkable intellect had allowed her to graduate early, and she took up the life of an adventurer to grow more powerful in her ability. She also had a little brother who, if his grades were good enough, would allow him to graduate early as well. Priestess, on the other hand, wanted to keep people alive on their journeys with healing magics.

They had asked Hunter what drove him to become an adventurer, to which he simply replied.

"I wanted to."

Oddly, this seemed a suitable answer for the both of them. Hunter supposed that not everyone needed a life-changing event or strong ambitions to become an adventurer, but Hunter in truth; had no idea why he had signed up. He thought back to that night he wandered into the guildhall, the night chasing him in...

He had been confused by that. Why would the night be chasing him? He was in the night now, and he felt fine. Hunter then tried to think back to the day before he went into the guildhall, and the fog was there to greet him. Whatever had happened to him was just before he entered the guild, for he had no memory of any time before stepping through that threshold.

The realization unnerved him.

Soon, the two girls bid him goodnight, Wizard's gaze lingering on him a second longer than Priestess's. She had seemed worried for him, likely she thought that he was nearing the point of total exhaustion, not having slept for two days. Once they entered their respective tents, Hunter looked up to the moons in the sky, thinking on how wrong it felt to see them there.

He continued to stare for a long while until perhaps hours had passed. That was when he had heard the footsteps.

There was a shuffling of bare feet on the road, someone walking with a limp in their gait, taking their time. Hunter stood up from his seated position but didn't awaken his party. A traveler at this hour was uncommon, though not impossible. Hunter couldn't see whoever it was as a deep fog had rolled in. It obscured most everything but the two moons shining bright overhead, the pink and green colors piercing through it. Through the fog, they appeared as colorful smears of light.

Hunter approached the source of the footsteps, but if the person heard him they didn't respond. Upon drawing closer, he made out the form of a man a few feet ahead of him, limping towards Hunter. He heard faint mutterings under the man's breath, in a deep, scratchy voice.

Hunter's hands curled into claws, remembering the madmen from yesterday. The steps drew closer, and Hunter tensed further, ready to lash out at the nearest bit of flesh he could see. An old man appeared through the fog.

His feet were indeed bare, rough and calloused as if he hadn't worn a pair of shoes in his life. Baggy brown trousers that reached his ankles dragged some dirt along with them. He wore no shirt, exposing a bony torso and lanky limbs. He was bent at the back as he moved forward, supporting himself on a knotted wooden staff with both hands. If he weren't slouched, the man likely would have stood at an average height. Several white ropy scars lined his skin as if some kind of wild animals or monsters had mauled him with claw and tooth. His face bore deep wrinkles, and Hunter was certain that more hid beneath his long white beard. The facial hair reached his chest, almost matching the wispy white head of hair that flowed down his back untied. His skin was a light tan color, likely the old fellow had been pale at some point, but exposure to the sun had darkened his pigment considerably. A bandage that may have once been white were it not for the dried blood was wrapped around his eyes, and the sight of it made Hunter still.

The old man froze in his tracks but did not cease his muttering. It was somewhat easy to understand what he was saying, despite how quiet he was speaking.

"Don't bite the tongue," The old man said, his scratchy voice seeming to strain with the effort. "Need the tongue... Not the eyes... never the eyes..."

Hunter eased his stance, but not by much.

"Old man," Hunter began, forcing concern into his tone. "You look haggard... would you like to share my fire? Perhaps some water for your journey?"

It seemed foolish to invite what appeared to be an old madman into his camp, but Hunter didn't feel threatened by him. Oddly, Hunter felt at ease seeing the old fellow. He didn't understand why that was. The old man ceased his muttering, and sat up straighter, looking towards Hunter as if he had eyes. His hearing had likely improved due to the lack of vision, allowing him to figure a general location for where Hunter was.

"I... am Unseen... unknown..." The old man said.

The way he said Unseen... it was as if that were his name, his title.

"You are known as Unseen?" Hunter asked, raising a brow.

The old man shook his head with a small rasping chuckle.

"I am not known... I am unknown, as for who I am... I am just Unseen."

Hunter frowned at Unseen.

"Okay Unseen..." Hunter said slowly. "Would you like some water?"

Unseen shook his head.

"I do not... I have to find the eyes. It is my path." Unseen said, a sorrowful frown on his face.

The frown deepened as he looked in the exact direction of Hunter's camp. How did he know it was there? Did Unseen hear the crackling of the fire? What was this about finding 'the eyes'?

"Three in exchange for one... Too late... Too late..." Unseen said, continuing his path.

He stepped around Hunter, giving the tall man wide berth as he continued on.

"You don't want any water? Or safe sleeping for the night?" Hunter asked after Unseen.

The old man didn't reply, continuing his mutterings as he disappeared into the fog. Hunter frowned as the mutterings grew quiet as Unseen walked further away. He decided that Unseen would be taking water with him, whether or not Hunter had to force it into the old man's grasp. He didn't know where Unseen was going, or how long the journey would be, but to go without supplies was simply unacceptable at his age. He pulled his canteen out of one of his satchels, and ran towards Unseen, following the footprints the old man had left in the dirt.

Hunter froze as he saw that the trail of footprints ended abruptly in the middle of the road. He looked ahead, and side to side. The footprints didn't go off the path or forwards... they simply ended. Hunter took a step back, shaking his head in disbelief. Where had Unseen gone? Foul magics were afoot. He turned to head back to camp, and that was when he heard it.

The ringing of a bell followed by the whisperings of hundreds of voices.

Hunter gasped as he gripped his skull with both hands in an attempt to shut out the chorus of whispers, promising him their secrets if he merely listened. He only ended up shutting them in... and almost as soon as it began, the ringing was gone along with the voices, and Hunter's head shot up, looking into the fog towards his camp.

Hunter could see further ahead as if the fog was being repelled from him. The light of the campfire seemed brighter along with the light of the moons, and Hunter gasped as he realized something.

He remembered... his commander...

...

...

...

"You there," The commander shouted, his long black hair flowing in the wind. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing soldier!?"

Hunter shook in place as the much larger man approached him, towering over him with a wide bloodshot gaze. The commander wore a bright red uniform with gold knots tied at his shoulders. Several blue buttons were left undone down his torso, which revealed a white shirt beneath stained with sweat. Red trousers covered his legs, barely reaching his ankles. Sturdy brown leather boots adorned his feet, and they were well worn with use. A broad nose complemented a squarish clean-shaven face with scarred features, adding to the fear Hunter felt. The white scars contrasted against his deeply tanned skin, which was said to be host to even more scars beneath the uniform.

At fifteen, Hunter was understandably terrified of this man. Many were. Commander Sumen had a reputation among the military as a no-nonsense man with a thousand battles worth of experience. If you were to get on his bad side, you'd be cleaning chamberpots for weeks.

Preferably under enemy fire.

Indeed Hunter was more terrified of his commander than the battle that was happening just over the trenches, though not by much.

Sumen and Hunter were surrounded on both sides of the narrow trench by other soldiers. The dirt rolled into the trench in clumps as the troops peaked their rifles over the lip of it to fire blindly, bayonets affixed to the ends of each of them. The air smelled of moist soil and blood.

"You haven't affixed your bayonet! Do it now!" Sumen shouted to be heard over the hail of gunfire.

Hunter looked around for his bayonet, it had fallen somewhere along his sprint into the dirt surely. He had been running for a mile with his company to reinforce this position against the-

Fuzz

Chuden's army was getting chewed up here in the trenches, a deep fog obscuring the enemy from their sights until it was too late. The army had been firing blindly into the fog in hopes that they might slow down the advance of the-

Fuzz

The bayonet could have fallen anywhere, and Hunter stilled as Sumen grabbed the barrel of the younger man's rifle. Sumen then pulled his own bayonet from his belt and quickly affixed it to the under barrel of the rifle.

"They're almost over the trenches boy!" Sumen shouted. "Get ready to stab!"

Hunter shook his head and then nodded to his commander.

"Yes sir!"

...

...

...

Goblin Slayer held his belt knife point first towards his eyes. He had removed his helmet, laying it flat on the ground. He kneeled on the dirt road, the fog closing in all around him... that damned thing watching him. Knowing him. If he just cut out his eyes... it wouldn't see him anymore. Goblin Slayer knew that, but he wasn't sure why that was. A part of him acknowledged that this was madness, but he couldn't stop himself. His grip was steady as he brought the knife closer to his retina. Remove the eyes.

Remove the eyes.

"Kill him!" The voices demanded of him as they and their beast watched him expectantly.

Remove the eyes.

"You will do it now! You will find him!"

Remove the eyes.

"Obey us! You will obey us!"

Then bite off the tongue.

A gnarled calloused hand then reached forth from the fog, gripping his shoulder. In an instant, the voices were gone, and the thing watching him was blinded. How he knew that he couldn't say.

"You have too much of it... no good." A scratchy voice said, a wrinkly face peeking through the fog.

His eyes were concealed by a bloody bandage as if the old man had gouged out his own eyes; much as Goblin Slayer had been about too.

"I found some eyes at last... for him... I will take your eyes...most of them." The old man said in a kindly tone.

Before Goblin Slayer could react, some kind of dark fog could be seen traveling up the old man's arm, wrapping around his head and concealing his face. His grip stiffened on Goblin Slayer's shoulders a moment before loosening. Goblin Slayer blinked, and just like that, the old man was gone from the fog. Goblin Slayer realized that in reality, the fog itself had disappeared, seemingly having taken the stranger with it.

"Two in place of one... So saddening... Oh, woe is me for this sight..." He heard the old man say, his voice seeming to come from nowhere but everywhere at once.

Goblin Slayer shot to his feet, pulling his short sword and scanning his surroundings. He was alone, and the thing was gone. He eased lightly but kept his weapon drawn. Had that old man just saved him from his own terror? Goblin Slayer chided himself for his irrationality, he would never again bring a knife to bear against himself. What had those skulls been? Why did he crush them?

Why did he feel like he knew so much less now?

He shook his head. This had nothing to do with goblins. He donned his helmet, and continued forward into the night, confident that nothing was watching him.

...

...

...

"Commander Sumen..." Hunter said to himself as he sat back down next to his campfire.

Sumen was certainly not a title, Hunter knew that. This meant that Hunter's name couldn't be... well, Hunter. He had written down his title at the guild because he didn't know what his actual name was. Hunter did know what he did for a living, or what he had once done, and went with that.

It felt normal when he wrote it down... so he didn't question it. Now, the war.

Who was it with? His country, Chuden it was called, had been fighting against something horrid. Something concealed by fog, much like the fog surrounding him now. Were the two connected in some way? Was that why he felt as if he were still at war? Hunter would need to ask about Chuden, and see what the news was from there. Maybe he could track down commander Sumen as well?

How would he go about that? Would the people of this land think that Sumen was a title? Hunter shook his head. Maybe he should just buy a map and look for it that way. After that, he could go looking for the commander. Was Hunter still a part of that military? It didn't feel right to think so... and as for his age... Well, he certainly wasn't fifteen anymore, it felt that way.

Hunter gulped.

Sure it felt that way, but how could he know for sure? He shook his head again. He was not a little baby anymore. The party said that he was somewhere between twenty and forty, so he would simply go with twenty-five for now. Hunter frowned.

That didn't feel right either.

Twenty-six?

Felt wrong.

Twenty-eight?

Felt wrong.

Forty?

Felt wrong.

Hunter resisted the urge to punch something. He thought of more ages to apply to himself... but that seemed fruitless. Every number he thought of for his age simply didn't feel right to him. Well, time to decide on an age until he came up with something more correct.

How about...

Hunter frowned. What did this matter?

He decided to quit pondering age and turned his thoughts back to that of the war. Those were guns his fellow soldiers were wielding. He remembered guns now, and very fondly. Just load some bullets in one end, and watch something die as you pulled the trigger. It was much like a magic wand, if that wand was fueled by gunpowder and lead. Hunter furrowed his brow when he realized that not one gun had been seen ever since he wound up like this.

These people used swords, axes, bows, and other such weapons. Why did that seem... primitive to him? They should be using bayonets on the ends of rifles by now, why were they so behind on the times? Hunter frowned when he remembered something about his arsenal, well, more felt. He felt as if most of his weapons had mostly been for melee combat, as opposed to marksmanship.

Yet here he was, fighting with his bare hands. Where were his weapons? A rhetorical question, of course, the fog wouldn't give him anything willingly. Hunter thought about the memories he had regained and realized another tidbit of information about the fog.

Once he had a memory back, the fog could no longer obscure it from him. Hunter needed to find out what triggered their return. That was when Unseen re-entered his thoughts. When the old man disappeared, Hunter had heard a bell accompanied by dozens of voices... was that it? Hunter would have to find Unseen again somehow, he needed more of that bell...

He continued thinking all throughout the night until the sun peaked over the trees once more. Hunter snapped out of his thoughts as the fire died out, realizing he had been staring into the rolling orange flames the entire night. The smoldering embers barely held any hint of the orange flame that had once consumed them. Hunter cracked his neck one way, then the other, and stood up. When one was truly deep in thought, it was hard to escape back to reality before seemingly all time passed.

He cleared his throat.

"Wake up everyone!" Hunter shouted. "Time to get to work, we aren't far now!"

It didn't take much to rouse the party awake, they were soon out of their tents. They all ate breakfast as Warrior took a bath in the stream, and took care of other needs before they started off on the last leg of their journey.

The sun didn't cook them as it had the last two days, it was actually pleasant, though it hadn't reached it's full height before they all went off the trail. Warrior had told Hunter that he should at least take a nap before entering the goblin caves, but Hunter merely replied with 'I'm fine' and they continued. They walked over rough terrain, for the forest was bumpy and littered with several small obstacles. Large clumps of stone and upturned trees seemed to be common in these woods. Birdsong flooded the air, gracing the party's ears with almost harmonic tunes. Hunter allowed himself to enjoy the scenery.

It really felt as if they were on the cusp of a marvelous adventure, at least in that moment. When they found their objective, however, the illusion would disappear. If what Wizard said was true, then they were going to encounter some disgusting things within that cave, and Hunter wasn't certain if this group could handle the stress of it. Hunter then noticed Warrior's shortened blade, now worn at his side as opposed to his back. It was too short for the scabbard now, which still lay strapped to Warrior's back, empty. The broken blade was tied in place by a flimsy waistband.

Hunter was surprised that none of them had taken the time to simply... take things from the madmen's bodies before they had left them. Warrior certainly could use a new weapon now, and perhaps one of those madmen would have had a set of chain mail that would have fit him. Hell, the entire party could do with chain mail, why hadn't they looted the bodies? Hunter almost scoffed at the thought. They had just been traumatized, looting was likely the last thing on any of their minds.

Or maybe it went against their moral compass to loot the dead? Perhaps...

Oh well.

"So," Hunter began. "What's the game plan here?"

The party all stopped their trek, turning to look at him.

"What for the caves?" Warrior asked him, placing a hand on his chin. "We're just gonna run in there and kill em all. Goblins are weak and stupid. Should be easy."

Fighter nodded to Warrior's assessment, slamming a fist into an open palm.

"Like storming a cave of five-year-olds." Fighter said, giggling.

Hunter rolled his eyes, and Wizard sighed. Priestess merely shuffled on her feet, clearly uncomfortable with the metaphor. Hunter shook his head at the two.

"Goblins still know how to use weapons right? You could still get stabbed if they swarmed you." Hunter told them. "We aren't going to simply rush it, know your enemy young Warrior."

Warrior groaned.

"Hunter seriously, I've fought dozens of these things before in my village. Once you see em you'll understand." Warrior told him, as if to an ignorant child.

"Warrior," Hunter said, slight annoyance evident in his tone. "You fought those goblins out in the open right?"

Warrior nodded slowly.

"And where are we going to be fighting them in now?"

Warrior paused, and Wizard groaned with annoyance.

"We're going to a cave, you buffoon," Wizard told him. "Cramped spaces?"

Hunter nodded.

"Exactly, you aren't fighting them in the open now, we're on their home turf. They can hide in the dark and shiv you before you have a chance to say 'berries and cream'." Hunter said, earing a couple of raised eyebrows. "What?" Hunter asked them in response. "I'm right. Also, it's like Wizard said, it'll be cramped. It's a cave, so watch where you're swinging that sword of yours. You may not even need to use it so much. You said they were weak yes? In that case, we should all remember that a good kick to the face is a good tactic against these creatures. If these goblins truly are like five-year-olds, then it should be easy to cave their heads in with a well-placed boot."

Wizard gasped at his words, and Hunter shrugged, looking to the redhead.

"Sorry my dear, but it's true. I have to speak to them in ways they can understand." He said, indicating Fighter and Warrior. Fighter shrugged, and roundhouse kicked a nearby tree, a loud thud easily heard.

Fighter brought her leg back down to the ground, and stood with hands-on-hips, smirking.

"I've got the kicking part down already Hunter." Fighter told him.

"So you do. Your poor shins..." He said, rubbing his own shins with the thought of the collision. Oddly he felt as if he could do far more to that tree with a kick, but he didn't want to act the braggart.

Nobody liked a braggart.

She waved a dismissive hand.

"I've been kicking ironwood tree's my entire life, felt like kicking a pillow just now." She claimed, puffing out her chest.

Fighter was a braggart.

"So you have." Hunter said in a tone meant to praise a small child.

Fighter huffed at him and crossed her arms at him. Hunter chuckled and crossed his own arms.

"Anyway..." He said, finishing his laugh. "We won't be splitting up. We'll be sticking together. The formation will be as follows: Priestess in the center covered by everyone. She's the healer, so we need to keep her safe. She's the only one who can't fight that well on her own. Wizard will also be close to the center," He said, pointing to the redhead. "She may have spells, but in a close-quarters fight, I fear you may not be of much use. Your spells are impressive, however, so you'll support with those spells when I, Fighter, and Warrior need them. Basically, only set something on fire if we can't kill it fast enough or it threatens to reach Priestess." He finished, moving his gaze to Fighter and Warrior. "Us three will cover their flanks so nothing can jump out of the darkness at them, I will be in the lead, with Warrior on my left and Fighter on my right." He said, taking a deep breath. "Is that acceptable to you all?"

Wizard and Priestess nodded immediately, followed by Fighter and Warrior's groans of displeasure.

"We'll be walking along so weird though..." Warrior said, shoulders sagging. "They really aren't that bad to fight, seriously. I'll do it, don't get me wrong, but you're overpreparing."

Hunter rolled his eyes.

"Wah I'm Warrior my sword is small!" He declared in a nasally voice.

Warrior's jaw dropped and he pointed a sharp finger at Hunter.

"Aren't you supposed to be the mature one?" Warrior asked, tone close to a shout.

"I am." Hunter confirmed. "Just showing you how you sound to the rest of us. You know, a little baby person."

Warrior sputtered as he attempted to come up with something else to say, and Fighter laughed loudly, reddening the young man's face further. Surprisingly enough, he heard Priestess and Wizard join in with light giggles. Warrior sagged once more. Hunter grinned.

"Great, now that's done. We'll follow my plan." Hunter declared.

Everyone agreed, Warrior, giving a slow ashamed nod.

"Off we go."

They continued onwards, the pleasantries of the forest not lost on them. It was such a pleasant day, and Hunter was hesitant to leave it behind to deal with these goblins. Unfortunately, it didn't take much longer to locate the cave mouth. A wooden spike banded with twine was lodged into the earth before the cave, a large bird skull sitting atop of it. A red flag depicting some sort of symbol waved lightly in the wind. Upon closer inspection, Hunter saw that the symbol represented that of an eye, with it's lashes looking like the rays of the sun. A thin pupil ran down the center of the 'eye' and Hunter felt unnerved looking at it.

He felt as if this weren't the first time he'd seen this symbol.

Chapter Text

The eyeball seemed to draw Hunter in with its gaze, for he could not look away. It may have only been a cloth banner, but something about it drew his attention, and for a brief moment, he feared that he would be unable to take his eyes off of it. It was as if he were compelled to gaze upon this horrible visage for the rest of time. Eventually, however, he managed to break the stare with the banner, looking to his party.

Oddly, they were staring at it too, yet they didn't seem nearly as disturbed by it as he was. They looked to him, and Wizard tilted her head, looking him up and down.

"Do you recognize this symbol?" She asked him. "You keep staring at it like it's going to leap out at you."

Hunter grunted.

"It certainly feels like it wants too," Hunter said, only half-joking. "It does seem familiar, but I can't quite recall why that is such."

He didn't feel the need to lie about this particular issue. The symbol did seem familiar to him, though he couldn't remember a single detail about it. Hunter then decided to go with what felt right... and what felt right, was that this banner was signaling danger ahead. Hunter would be on his highest alert. He briefly considered telling the party to wait here while he scouted ahead, but quickly discarded the thought. They weren't likely to sit around out here even if he told them too.

Hunter himself wasn't going to leave either; for while the symbol deeply unnerved him, he simply could not bring himself to not go in. It was a compulsion on his part, he needed to enter. He rationalized that it was likely that, since the banner was familiar, he might recall something of his past by venturing within the depths of the cave. Though he could not completely deny the tugging he felt in his gut, urging him onwards into the unknown. The feeling frightened him, for he knew he would not disobey.

He noted the cow skull sitting above the banner, it's white bone dry. Hunter had been told that goblins would often steal livestock as well as human girls. He wondered as to why such creatures didn't have females of their own. It seemed an impossibility. They needed human women to copulate? That made no sense, for then how would the first goblin come about? These creatures origins were not natural. He was certain.

Hunter decided that before entry he would reiterate the formation he had told the party of earlier. No misunderstandings would be made.

"Stay on guard; I'll lead," Hunter said. "Wizard and Priestess will be in the middle, with me, Fighter, and Warrior on each flank. We'll guard you two from sudden attack." He nodded towards Priestess. "Have that light miracle at the ready, we'll start with torches but if those go out before we finish we'll need it. Fighter will guard the back flank, keep those tree kicking legs at the ready dear. You never know what might jump out of the dark."

Priestess nodded and Fighter shot a grin, flashing a thumbs up. Warrior raised a brow at Hunter, then turned to look at the mouth of the cave.

"Hunter, it's just a goblin cave. These torches should burn well after we finish this all up." Warrior explained.

It was a good point, though Warrior didn't seem to realize that there were other ways to put out a torch.

"It's just in case Warrior. Honestly, you could do with a little extra paranoia in your life." Hunter told him. "Not too much of course, wouldn't want you to think that every little granny walking down the street would want to poison you." Warrior frowned at Hunter, and Fighter shrugged. "Well, better safe than sorry yes? That's all I'm trying to say." Hunter said, returning his own shrug.

"Yeah, I guess." Warrior responded, turning towards the mouth of the cave.

They all did likewise, and Hunter lit a torch, holding it aloft in his left hand. Without meaning it, he looked back to the banner and sneered. The unsettled feeling did not leave him, but now he also wanted to set the damn thing ablaze. He did so, swiping the torch slowly under the banner until the cloth caught fire. The flames licked up towards the eye swiftly, and soon nothing but ash would remain.

"Why did you do that?" Wizard asked.

Hunter shrugged.

"Felt like it. The colors are atrocious. Oh, one second, can you hold this?" He asked Wizard, handing her the torch.

She took it with only brief hesitation, keeping it well away from her wide-brimmed hat. Hunter then folded his collar upwards and retied its laces to conceal his face once more. He had the feeling that goblin caves would be rank and foul-smelling, the leather would help mask that somewhat. His task complete, he took the torch from Wizard once more and started towards the entrance.

The sun was directly overhead, indicating to Hunter that they had plenty of time before the night came. He rolled his shoulders and craned his neck side to side. He took a deep breath, held, then released. Staring into the mouth of the cave, he was confronted by an unwelcome feeling.

Claustrophobia. He had felt it somewhat in the sewers, though he had mistaken it for fear of the rats. He wasn't afraid of rats; simply disgusted by them. The close walls of the sewer had been what made him uncomfortable, but there was still space enough to move around... to breathe.

This cave could get far more narrow than those sewers, so much harder to breathe... Hunter shook his head. In his remembrance of the war, he had been stuck in a narrow trench surrounded by other soldiers. Hunter hadn't felt claustrophobic then as a fresh-faced fifteen-year-old, at least as far as he could remember. Hunter reminded himself that he had more important things going on around him in that moment. Gunfire, screaming troops, his scary as hell commander shouting at him. He also supposed that it could have been mitigated by the open sky. Having so much fresh air to breathe was likely to have made Hunter feel better about the enclosed space.

"Um... Hunter? Are we going in now? You're makin' me nervous." Fighter asked, casting a sidelong glance at him from the back of the formation.

Hunter frowned. He had done it again, got lost in his thoughts. He needed to focus.

"Yes. Just making sure we're perfectly ready." Hunter lied. He took a step forward, and the rest of the party followed in step.

Noting that everyone had their guards up, Hunter picked up the pace. He didn't go too fast, of course, wouldn't want to walk face-first into trouble without seeing it first. They entered the cave, the darkness settling over them as they passed the entrance. The stone beneath their feet was oddly moist, not like that of dew or bat waste... but something thicker. Each step threatened to make Hunter slide off into the darkness ahead. The cave mouth was wide on each side, likely it would narrow the further down into the bowels they went. Hunter frowned, noting that the slick layer of... something threatened to send him sliding down with its odd lubrication. There was an incline that headed downwards into the cave.

It wasn't too steep. Likely if the gray stone underfoot was dry Hunter would pay this incline no mind. However, if someone were to slip now, they would slide straight to the bottom. Hunter halted the party with a hand, and Warrior groaned in annoyance. It was a good thing Hunter was in the lead, for the rest of the party may have slipped on the wet stone. Hunter was blessed with amazing balance, so he had no trouble keeping his stance.

"Watch your footing, the ground here is slick." Hunter told them.

"Oh," Warrior said. "Kay then."

Hunter rolled his eyes behind his spectacles and continued forward slowly. He was ready to reach out to either side of him to catch someone losing balance, but fortunately, the party maintained their footing. Hunter looked to the gray stone, taking his gaze away from the darkness ahead. The slime that coated the stone was clear and translucent. It reflected the light of his torch, and indeed, he could see his own reflection in the muck. He looked up from the sludge, gave a silent gasp, and looked back at his reflection.

It was gone.

Could it be that he could only see his reflection when he wasn't trying to? Hunter shoved the thought aside. There would be more time for this later. For now, Hunter just wanted to figure out what the grime beneath his feet was.

It had no odor as far as he could tell through his raised collar. If it did have a smell, his companions made no note of it. What was this stuff? He shot a quick glance back at the party and saw they were looking at the slime as well. Their torches reflected off of the sludge, and Hunter stopped walking, noting the plop of his boot rising and falling onto the slime. The party halted.

"Any of you know what this grime is?" Hunter asked, not looking backward.

"I don't know what this crap is..." Fighter stated behind him. "looks gross though."

Warrior gagged.

"Whatever it is, it's like someone sick came in here and blew their snot all over everything." He stated, making Hunter cringe with disgust.

Wizard scoffed.

"Unpleasant description aside, it does seem to coat everything... look at the walls and ceiling." Wizard told them.

Indeed, Hunter followed suit, glancing upwards. The same slime reflected his torchlight back down upon him from the roof of the cave but didn't drip downwards. Perhaps it was adhesive of some kind? If it were, it would be harder to walk on would it not? He looked to the walls next, and indeed, they were coated just the same. It didn't appear to run downwards, whatever it was. It merely... was still. It acted akin to an undisturbed pond.

"Is this some kind of goblin excrement?" Hunter asked, lifting his foot experimentally.

He saw his bootprint in the sludge as he raised his foot, and frowned as it reformed almost immediately. There was no print anymore, it was as if no one had set foot there in the first place. This stuff couldn't be natural.

"No..." Wizard said, a slight quiver to her voice. She sounded queasy as she said the words. "Whatever this sludge is, it's not from goblins."

Hunter sighed.

"This is the right cave right?" Hunter asked the party.

They remained silent a moment. The silence seemed to pass for far too long in the overly slick cave, and Hunter was about to break the silence when Priestess piped up.

"It has to be..." She said, her tone betraying her nervousness. "The quest said it would be in this part of the forest... and that there weren't many caves over this way anyhow..."

Hunter let out a breath. The hairs on his neck were standing on end already. This was supposed to be a simple quest. However, he did not account for the slick wall boogers he'd have to contend with. Hunter considered arguing the point but decided against it. That heraldry outside meant something was in this cave, goblin or no.

And that compulsion to venture forward was still strong. There had to be something here that was linked to his past. Hunter was certain of this and though he didn't know as to why that was; he knew he wouldn't stop now. He was simply in too deep. Hunter almost laughed at the thought. He had barely taken a few steps past the mouth of the cave, he was anywhere but deep. Sunlight poured in from behind them, though it didn't reach as far as the light of the torches did.

"Alright, let's keep going. Don't slip, hold on to someone if you need too, but don't slip. If you do, you're going all the way down to the bottom." Hunter said. He heard an audible gulp from behind him, and Hunter didn't blame whoever made the sound.

What was at the bottom anyhow? He took more tentative steps forward. The party followed after him with a careful step; the sounds of their footprints almost silent on the slime. They continued on like that for a long while, their progress slowed by the need to be careful. Thankfully, the incline began to even out to a more flat surface. The sludge was still coating everything, albeit in a slightly thicker coat. The slime wasn't threatening to overtake their shoes of course. It barely reached the middle of his soles, but if it got deeper then this, there might be problems. Each step felt as if he were sinking into mud, and he resented the feeling.

Now that the terrain had finally flattened, Hunter breathed a sigh of relief. This was followed by the rest of the party doing the same. He turned back to them. They all seemed fine, their legs were a little shaky from the slippery walk down but other than that they were okay. Hunter looked back up the incline, noting that they hadn't actually traveled that far from the cave mouth. He could still see the sun's rays faintly, like the light at the end of a tunnel.

That was good. Likely it was still midday, and Hunter needed to know that there was a way out. Thankfully the cave hadn't narrowed too much on the trip down, but Hunter steeled himself for further spelunking. He turned his gaze to Priestess, who was looking at the slime curiously. She drew a line with the butt of her staff in the stuff. The sludge reformed almost as soon as the depression was made in it.

How bizarre... it didn't seem to flow or drip, but the slime reformed after being pressed by outside sources. Why was this? Hunter noted with a small gasp that the goo didn't stick to the bottom of Priestess' staff. It was wet, though no amount of slime coated the bottom. Everyone immediately spun about, looking for something to wack in response.

"No," Hunter said quickly. "Look at the bottom of your feet, what do you see?"

He received odd stares from his party, but they did as he asked lifting a foot up to inspect their shoes. They all gasped almost at the same time.

"It's almost dry!" Warrior shouted, the sound echoing down the cave.

"Be quiet you fool!" Hunter hissed. "You've likely just alerted the goblins with your loud mouth!"

Warrior's eyes widened, and he placed a hand over his open mouth, looking past Hunter and into the cave beyond. Hunter readied himself and turned forward; ready to bash the first head he saw emerge from the blackness. A few moments passed, though not a sound could be heard approaching. Hunter still did not lower his guard, for he knew that the slime could mask the sounds of approaching footfalls. He allowed another few moments to pass, the party tense behind him as he glared into the dark. Still nothing.

He leaned forward, waving his torch slowly to illuminate the path ahead. It didn't do much to help, for he barely moved, but nothing seemed to be ahead. Nothing was approaching him from the darkness. Hunter breathed a sigh of relief and turned his head back to Warrior.

"Inside voices boy." Hunter said curtly.

Hunter couldn't help feeling annoyed. It was so much so that he could barely think of naught else. Warrior could have still alerted the goblins, ruining any element of surprise they could have gained. Goblins weren't absolutely vacuous based on what he'd heard. They were still capable of thought. What if they were plotting an ambush even now?

Warrior nodded meekly, his frown showing his clenched teeth. Hunter shook his head at the younger man. Wizard was, oddly enough, squatting down to inspect the slime further. She swiped the surface with her index finger, leaving a trail in the sludge. It immediately popped back upwards, and Wizard frowned. She attempted again, this time trying to pinch some of it between her index finger and her thumb. Hunter tilted his head at Wizard as Priestess held a hand up to her mouth, the rings of her staff lightly jingling.

"What are..." She said. "What are you doing Wizard?"

Wizard ignored her, pinching some of the viscous material, hard. She then pulled, and Hunter nearly stumbled backward. The slime, if he could even call it such anymore, was yanked upwards. It looked similar to pinched skin being pulled. Hunter almost heaved with that comparison. What if this wasn't slime?

What if it was skin?

Wizard had a similar reaction and immediately released the translucent material. It flattened out almost as soon as it was freed from Wizard's grip, and much to Hunter's horror... the skin seemed to bruise. It was still translucent but now was a brown color. Wizard stood and placed a hand on her chest as she backed a step away with widened eyes.

"This is... this is flesh..." She said, her voice quavering.

Hunter's breathing quickened, and his head felt light. A primal fear was shooting up his spine, and the compulsion to go forth almost completely vanished. The party likewise, did not look as if they wanted to continue. They all glanced back up towards the mouth of the cave, the sunlight looking warm and inviting.

"Alright," Hunter said, steadying his voice. "I think that this is; in fact, the wrong cave. I want to leave."

Thankfully, no one objected, everyone, nodding their agreement. Hunter altered their formation. It was mostly the same, though Fighter now led towards the exit, whilst Hunter stayed in the back, ready for anything to jump forth from the shadows of the cave. They began trekking back towards the exit, Hunter holding his torch before him like a shield. The flesh beneath his feet reformed with each of his steps, and upon closer inspection, he noticed tiny pores in the translucent flesh.

Hunter almost gagged. Was that why it was so slick? Was this sweat they were slipping on? What kind of disgusting creature could exist as such? This didn't feel familiar at all. The banner outside did, but not this. Not this flesh. Suddenly, Fighter gasped, and Hunter wheeled on her, ready to jump forward and strike. That was when Hunter saw it.

The sunlight was gone.

The mouth of the cave was not merely blackness, however. Glowing red bone jutted up from the mouth of the cave, blocking all exit. The bone was uncannily similar to that of teeth, and that realization made Hunter grit his teeth from fear. The teeth were large, smooth, and layered over one another. The teeth were long and pointed, stabbing into the roof of the cave. The layering of teeth blocked the sunlight from entering in, and Hunter's jaw trembled slightly.

"No!" Hunter thought.

He had to be strong for the party. He couldn't give in to fear, for if he did, it could spell certain death for them all. Hunter took a deep calming breath. Teeth could be broken, and Hunter was certain he could chop a tree down with his bare hands if need be. Perhaps he could do the same to these cave teeth?

"I think I can get us out," Hunter said. "Let's get up there before anything comes up after us, but don't hurry. We can't afford someone to slip down. We need to stay together." Hunter said, forcing as much confidence into his voice as he could manage.

Fighter was breathing deeply, but quickly. It was clear that she was on edge. Priestess had her lips drawn to a line, and she clutched her staff tightly. Wizard was doing likewise, though she seemed to be on the brink of tears. Hunter frowned at this. She didn't seem the type to tear up... even in a situation such as this. Warrior's face was pale, and he looked ready to start hacking at the walls. Hunter didn't know what cleaving this flesh would do, but it could make this situation far worse for them.

"Everyone steady," Hunter said, the determination in his voice very real. "We'll be fine. I'll protect you all. I promise." And he meant it. He wouldn't allow anyone here to die in such a place.

This did little to ease Warrior, who still was gripping his sword with an iron grip. Had he not been wearing gloves, Warrior's whitened knuckles would be bare for all to see. Priestess actually did look relieved and smiled at Hunter. Wizard's eyes widened, and she wiped her eyes with her sleeve, wetting the cloth. She did not meet Hunter's eyes but her stance was notably less shaky. Fighter was still breathing deeply, though it wasn't quite as rapid. Perhaps it was his delivery that calmed them, but Hunter did mean what he said.

They continued up until they reached the top once more. They all let out sighs of relief, and Hunter rounded the group, putting a hand on one of the teeth. He rubbed it, feeling that it was indeed, smooth bone. Wizard eyed him curiously, but everyone else kept their gaze glued to the cave below. While these did seem to be teeth, no gums lined their bottom, and the eerie red glow bathed everyone in an almost ethereal crimson glow. He wasn't sure as to why the cave mouth radiated a red glow, for no source could be seen by his naked eye. The glow didn't cast light farther than their torches did, but Hunter straightened his hand. If he delivered a strong enough chop, he may be able to chip the bone. If he was unable, then there were other things they could try. Wizard may have a way past these teeth, and if not, perhaps Warrior would lend Hunter his sword to use as a makeshift pry bar.

Hunter brought up his hand to swing upon the bone but was interrupted by a scream from behind.

He whirled, spotting the form of Priestess being dragged down into the darkness by some unseen thing. He heard a slicking crunch from somewhere down below in the cavernous depths. He spotted Priestess's bright blue eyes, almost out of sight, wide with fear and wet with tears. Hunter didn't hesitate and leapt down after the girl. No other thought was present in his head. He had to save her.

He promised.

The party shouted something after him, but he could not make out the words.

Hunter slid down after the screaming girl. Priestess shouted for Hunter to save her, and that's exactly what he planned to do. The sweat let him gain on the girl, his torchlight keeping her in his sight. Whatever was dragging her was faster than him, however, and she continued downwards, those blue eyes almost fading into the blackness completely.

That was when Hunter leaped, reaching forward with his right hand to catch Priestess by one of her flailing limbs. He flopped belly first onto the sweaty flesh and was a mere half a foot from grabbing Priestess's hand. Hunter still held his torch in his left hand, and the light allowed him to see what was dragging her.

A long, gangly arm stretched back into the blackness out of sight. The skin of the arm was a stony grey color, but the way it wriggled about bespoke of its biological nature. A clawed hand was dug in around Priestess's ankle, sharp black claws drawing blood as it dragged her further down. Hunter swiped an open hand at Priestess's arm and missed. Soon the terrain flattened out, and Hunter came to a roll. The path continued downwards, as did Priestess, who continued her screams.

Hunter growled in anger, baring his teeth like a rabid wolf as he lept once more on the sour flesh of the cave. Sliding down into the unexplored depths of the cavern. Again he saw Priestess's innocent blue eyes, glistening with tears as her shrieks echoed off the cave walls. The path narrowed, and Hunter suppressed the claustrophobia. There were more important matters than his fear to deal with.

Thankfully, it seemed that the creature had slowed its drag, and Priestess was now within arms reach of Hunter. He swiped, gripping her wrist with his right hand. This did nothing to stop the drag of the arm, which continued to pull them further down. Hunter soon lost grip of his torch, the flaming wood bouncing on the flesh behind him. What if it caught fire? The whole cave would go up in flames and everyone would die!

Hunter shook his head and pulled on Priestess's arm. She winced at the pain of his pull, but he needed to be able to dig his heels in if he was to have a chance of slowing this thing down. He quickly got into a crouch, still gripping the girl's wrist, and grabbed for her other arm with his now free hand. It was difficult, for he could not see a thing in this blackness. Thankfully it didn't take long to find the limb, and he dug his heels into the flesh below, feeling it scrape against the edge of his boots.

He heard the flesh under his heel tear with the friction, and indeed the arm did slow its pull. Unfortunately, that did not stop the pull entirely. They were going so fast that Hunter feared that he'd meet his end by way of face on rock. He needed to get to that arm, but how? It was all he could do to slow its drag. Hunter grit his teeth as Priestess wept, and Hunter was about to shout something, anything to calm the girl and let her know he was still with her.

That was when he felt a sharp pain in his ankle, and he was ripped away from Priestess in a sudden jerk. The force of the pull must have dislocated Priestess's shoulders, for a loud pop and a cry of pain could be heard as he was pulled away into the darkness. Hunter grit his teeth as he realized that he was being dragged the opposite direction of Priestess, for her cries soon faded to nothing.

Hunter growled, his rage coming to a bubble, and his fear completely forgotten. He lashed out with his leg, his foot colliding with the hand of his captor. He heard bone shatter beneath the blow, but the grip did not waver. He kicked again, and again as he was pulled top speed through the depths. The flesh beneath him was slick with sweat, the lubrication easily adding to his momentum. Then, suddenly, he felt his feet collide with something thick, yet malleable. It felt like he had kicked an entire vat of semi-frozen jelly. Then his legs were absorbed by the gelatinous mass, the hand of the creature still gripping his ankle. It seemed to be trying to drag him through the viscous stuff. Soon enough, his entire being was engulfed by not only the blackness but by a smothering soft sticky something. It was all around him, and Hunter attempted to lash out.

He couldn't move, and that was when the fear returned, in force.

He couldn't breathe.

He felt as if he were encased in warm flesh, and it seemed to flex around him, hardening at his every movement to keep him in place. He struggled, his lungs burning for breath. Hunter wanted to scream, but he needed to keep as much air in him as possible. Adrenaline pumping throughout his system, he continued his struggle. Hunter held his breath for seemingly so long that his lungs seemed ready to burn out of his chest.

"The dream isn't with me anymore!" He thought suddenly.

What the bloody hell did that mean!?

Fuzz

He struggled, feeling that this would indeed be his final death if he allowed it. Final death?

Fuzz

His movements gradually slowed with his struggling... If he allowed it...

Wait.

If he allowed it!

Whatever was around him was tensing against his every movement to hold him still. Was this some part of its digestion? If so, it was likely trying to either get him to pass out or suffocate him completely. If he stopped struggling, would it take him somewhere else? Hunter knew that it'd be pointless to keep struggling now, for his movements were now weak from lack of air. He decided to try it, hopefully, this would work.

Hunter stilled, playing the corpse while still holding his breath. How long had he been struggling? It felt like an eternity. He was close to bursting that was for certain. Soon he would be left gasping for air that wasn't there. The tensing of flesh around him ceased after only a second of his stillness. A few more seconds passed, each one feeling like a minute due to his choked mind. More seconds... and then he felt himself being shifted along by the undulating flesh all around him. The sticky moist flesh coated him in a fine layer of something viscous. His breath gave, and he began gasping for air...

Only to find it. He took in a huge lungful of it and was shocked. The burning pain in his chest subsided considerably. How was this possible? Hunter then felt the urge to smack himself in the face. His upturned collar had created a small pocket of air for him to breathe. Style saved his life. He noticed then that the sharp pain in his ankle was gone, replaced by a burning throb. The hand must have released him soon after dragging him into this disgusting thing.

He kept his breathing short, there was no telling when he would be able to get out of this thing. Hunter grew frustrated at the slowness of his decent, or at least what he thought was a descent. The undulating flesh around him seemed to open up for him as he was being shifted downwards into further depths of the cave, but this seemed to last forever. Priestess was likely in a similar situation, and she had no pocket of air to breathe. Hunter grit his teeth, he had promised to save her, and he would. Hopefully, this would eventually take him somewhere where he could move.

More time passed, and he found himself worrying after the rest of his party. They were still at the top of the cave, at least that was what he hoped. It could be that they had been dragged into the darkness by other cave arms, and were suffering the same fate as he and Priestess. Hunter grit his teeth with frustration. It was foolish to dive after Priestess alone, but Hunter didn't even think about what he was doing at the time. She had been in danger and Hunter merely reacted.

If he had stayed, perhaps they could have coordinated a better rescue. There was no point in thinking of this now. The milk had already been spilled; hopefully, he could clean it up before it spoiled. He just wished they would stay at the top of the cave, but he doubted it. They were terrified yes, but he didn't believe that they'd leave Hunter and Priestess behind. If they could even leave in the first place.

He was drawn out of his musings when he felt the shifting mass of flesh disappear from beneath him, and then, all around him as he plummeted into the darkness. He flipped in the air for a couple of seconds before he collided against the 'ground'. His face rebounded off of soft squishy flesh, but he stowed away his disgust. The soft landing had likely spared him from breaking something. Hunter groaned, and pushed himself up off of the flesh, slipping and falling back down once more.

Wherever he was, everything was slick. The stink was only barely tolerable like he'd been dumped into a mound of half-rotten meat. His lack of vision was irritating, but at this very moment, he was more concerned with just getting on his feet. He slipped again and again as his frustration continued to build. He couldn't seem to get a grip on anything to help him gain footing, and he could do little more than sit straight up. Occasionally his fingers would find purchase in holes. As he tried to pull on those holes for leverage however, they would tear apart beneath his hands.

The wetness he felt now was more like oil, and trying to move in an oily flesh cave was proving to be his match. He flailed in anger, trying to dig his fingers into the expanse of flesh around him. As soon as he moved in that manner, the ground beneath him began to sink. The hair on the back of Hunter's neck stood on end as he desperately tried to claw his way back up. It encased everything beneath his knees by the time he found a handhold. Jabbing his thumb up and through soft squishy meat, he hooked the digit on some harder material within the flesh. Hunter gripped with all of his fingers, and he hoisted himself upwards, pulling himself out by a few inches.

That red glow then returned, coming from no source yet illuminating the entire room.

Seeing what lay around him made Hunter's jaw quake.

It was indeed flesh as he had thought, but it was all an aggressive bright red color. Whether that was due to the illumination of the light or if it was its actual color mattered little. What truly mattered, was the faces. Twisted, horrible faces glared at him with eyeless sockets. They seemed melded with the flesh, jaws agape with chopped off tongues and empty gums. Hunter then realized that the holes he was trying to find purchase in earlier... were the empty eye sockets and open jaws of the faces. Indeed, he saw the damage he had wrought upon his handholds. They were almost torn in half in some places, mangled to the point where they barely resembled anything that was once human. They were caked with an oily thick red fluid that looked to resemble blood, and he noticed that his own outfit was now drenched in the same material.

He saw several different kinds of faces, men, women, the elderly... and most horrifically of all, the children. All eyeless, yet seeming to glare at him with hate. There were so many everywhere, on the undulating walls, the floor and...

Hunter looked up hesitantly at the only handhold that didn't give beneath his grip and nearly released. Looking down on him was the face of a little boy. He couldn't have been more than eight years of age. His skin was flaked and cracked, and only mildly coated in the red sludge that was smeared over everything below. However, the boy still had his eyes. At least he had one of them now. His right eye was now gouged out by Hunter's thumb, which was now hooked underneath the boy's brow to keep his grip. The left eye, however, seemed to stare at him with horror, the green hue glistening with tears.

Immediately after Hunter noticed the tears, the boy screamed. Hunter let out a scream as well, letting go of the boys head with a wet bloody pop. He then felt the flesh suck him downwards, and Hunter immediately sunk to his chest. He looked up to see several other dry cracked faces above him, their eyes all staring at him with fear. Then they too started to weep. The wide expanse of the cavernous flesh cave began to drip with tears. It looked akin to a rainfall and the salty liquid meshed with the red oily fluid of the eyeless flesh expanse. Tears pattered off of his suit as he was sucked downwards up to his neck.

And he was still screaming, panic overtaking his senses as he began to flail. The flesh squeezed around him, and he could feel the faces press up against him as he was dragged beneath the surface. Then he was back in the darkness.

...

...

...

Goblin Slayer approached the mouth of the goblin cave. He was likely too late already to save this party. It had been easy enough to follow their trail, and yet his delays getting here would likely end in their deaths. As he drew closer to the entrance, he noticed the jutting bone sticking up out of the earth in front of the cave. It resembled pointed teeth, like that of an angler fish. Goblin Slayer stopped in his tracks, looking to the ground in front of the cave. Indeed, the trail did lead into the cave, likely before these teeth closed them in. Was this really a goblin cave?

He looked to the right, spotting a pile of ash that only now began blowing away in the wind. What had they set on fire? Goblin Slayer approached the pile of ash, noticing that as the pile blew away, the skull of a cow was exposed. Had they set the banner aflame before entering the cave? If so, then that meant that this was, in fact, a goblin cave. This animal skull meant that a shaman was among them.

He placed a hand on the teeth. It was hard, yes, but no harder than that of normal teeth. Goblin Slayer pulled a hammer from his belt. The steelhead reflected the sunlight from overhead. This tool was only meant for some in-the-field maintenance for his armor, but it would do for this. He raised the hammer and smashed it's flat head against the closest tooth, feeling the bone crack beneath the blow. He examined the damage. Indeed, a spiderwebbed crack was present in the bone. It was small, and substantial work would need to be done to get through.

He raised the hammer overhead once more and smashed it in the same exact location. The spiderwebbed crack spread from the blow, and a third strike shattered that section. Blood seeped from the area, and Goblin Slayer paused. What was this cave? Had the goblins found a way to live in a mimic? He'd never heard of mimics growing to this size, and if it were a mimic, it would have attacked him back by now. Goblin Slayer shoved those thoughts aside and swung once more.

He repeated this until he had a small hole he could reach his hand through. The hole was at height with his chest, and he leaned down, peering into the cave using the light of the sun. Three terrified looking porcelain rank adventurers stared back at him in the red glow of the cave.

...

...

...

Hunter felt himself fall once more, this time his collision with the ground was not so soft. He broke his fall with outstretched arms, the palms of his hands throbbing with pain. The red glow overhead illuminated the dark cavern he found himself in. Thankfully, the ground beneath him was normal everyday stone. Not an ounce of flesh on it whatsoever. The ceiling where he fell out of, however, was still that fleshy undulating mass. It hadn't taken it long to shift him through its disgusting musculature, and Hunter took a deep calming breath. The faces above horrified him to the point of near hysteria, and he had been suffocating once more before he remembered to play dead.

His leather collar had saved him again as well. The pocket of air being a welcome mouthful. He stood on shaky legs, breathing slowly as he scanned the rest of the cavern. His spectacles had been occluded by the viscous red material above, and he took them off. The dark tint would only make seeing everything more difficult. He packed them away in his satchel with the potions and attempted again to scan his environment.

The fleshy ceiling was about ten feet above him. Hunter despised the close proximity of the mass but was thankful that he was out of its embrace. The space around him was wide and open, as opposed to the enclosed madness above. The air was cool here as well, contrasting the musky warmth of the face chamber. The red glow seemed to only illuminate about thirty feet of this room around him. Any further than that was sheer darkness. He could see no walls anywhere around him, just the stone ground and the flesh ceiling.

They contrasted one another, the stone unmoving and cold while the ceiling pulsed and writhed while emanating the unsettling warmth of its life. He realized then, that Priestess could be in here with him. If she had gone through the same ordeal he had, it would have deposited her in this chamber. He thought of shouting out her name but was interrupted by the sound of cackling. It sounded as if an old woman with a throat full of wet snot just won a hand at cards. The cackling didn't come from just one source however, for soon out of the darkness ahead, tiny green creatures emerged.

Hunter realized then, that these must be the goblins they had come searching for. Had they been the ones to assemble the wretched flesh above? It didn't seem likely, for how could one create such a thing as that? Hunter felt as if he had seen such done before, but the fog occluded the memories.

The things had long hooked noses, and few of them didn't have disgusting warts popping up from their green skin. Yellow eyes contrasted the red glow, the rectangular pupils looking like that of a goats. They were small in stature and pot-bellied; wearing only a simple brown rag loincloth to preserve their modesty. More poured out of the darkness, multiplying from ten to thirty. The ones closest to him held nets and rope, while the ones in the back held large heavy ended wooden clubs.

Whatever these things had planned for him, they wanted to capture him alive first. Hunter wouldn't have it. Suppressing the shock from his earlier trauma, he darted forward, catching the first goblin by surprise as he chopped the thing's neck. It cracked easily beneath his force, and it died with a scream of surprise.

Likely they thought he would stand still after all that. Why? Perhaps the process of being digested by the living cave was expected to leave the victim traumatized for easy capturing? It almost worked, but Hunter recovered from such horrors quickly. He lashed out with a leg, caving in the chest of another nearby goblin as it fell beneath his blow, spitting up blood. He jump-stepped forth into the hoard, dodging thrown nets as he picked up a goblin by the throat.

The creatures were very light and very weak. With a squeeze of his hand, the goblin's throat was crushed, and as he was moving, he threw the thing back towards an oncoming net. The dead goblin stopped the net midflight as it wrapped around its small form, dropping to a roll. Hunter dodged a goblin trying to smack his knees and retorted with a strong slap. The blow snapped the neck and it dropped its weapon to the ground.

He dodged and weaved like that for what seemed like ages; avoiding the goblins clumsy attempts to hurt him. Soon the goblins had abandoned their nets. They had been wrapping each other up in them every time Hunter dodged away. It seemed that with every movement, two or three goblins dropped dead beneath his blows. As much as it pained him to say it... it truly did feel as if he were fighting five-year-olds. He felt no thrill from fighting these things.

And he desperately wanted to feel that rush. Hunter needed it to distract him from the horrors he witnessed above. It did not come, and soon, every goblin that had come for him lay dead and broken at his feet. Bones jutted from snapped arms and legs, and faces lay caved in. Puddles of blood ran like tiny rivers on the rough uneven stone. Hunter took a deep calming breath as he surveyed the carnage. He wasn't sure as to how much time had passed, but from a quick guess, he had been fighting for about three minutes.

That was hardly much time at all outside of combat. However, three minutes of fighting felt far longer than it really was. He counted the bodies quickly and realized that about a hundred of the things lay dead. His party had told him that only twenty goblins lived within this cave, yet a small army of the things had been waiting here for him. His eyes widened.

What if they had reached Priestess?

He shouted for the girl, his voice echoing through the cavern back to him. No response cave, not from Priestess or any other goblins waiting in the dark. He stepped over the carcasses at his feet and continued to shout for her. Still no response. HUnter searched through the darkness, the ever-present flesh shifting above him. It's presence unnerved him, but there was little he could do about that.

He made a mental note to return to this place with gasoline. Lots of gasoline. Ten minutes of walking in a straight line finally lead him to a wall. The stone of the ground met the flesh of the wall halfway. The red tendrils groped downwards; as if they wanted to spread their influence further down. Hunter frowned at the disgusting sight, but he'd seen worse today alone. He followed the wall to the right, staying a good few feet from the wall in case the tendrils attempted to wrap around him.

It wasn't long until he saw the faint white glow of something ahead. He quickened his pace, eager to find out what the source of the light could be. This took him away from following the wall as he made a beeline for that light. He encountered more goblins along the way, yet these did not attack him. Indeed, they seemed to not even notice him. Their heads were completely covered by brown bloody cloth. It looked as if they had slipped a potato sack over their faces, and they muttered to themselves in a strange dialect.

He killed them as he passed, seeing no reason to let the things live. Hunter soon was standing before the source of the light, and his eyes widened upon recognizing it. A glowing barrier of white fog stopped his path. He could make out the vague outline of something just past the fog gate; something massive. Somehow, Hunter knew that this fog was the very same one that muddled his mind.

He placed a hand against it. The fog gave resistance to his touch but parted for him as he pressed harder. Soon, he had completely passed through the fog, and what waited for him past it made him pause his step. A massive goblin stood across from him by about fifty feet. It was easily ten feet tall, with arms wide as trees and legs like boulders. Its dark green skin was covered with yellow goat-like eyes. The eyes covered the beast head to toe, and they blinked in unison. Hunter then knew the reason for the mad goblins wandering outside of this chamber.

The red glow now illuminated the entire room, the fog beneath him darkening to resemble that of a rain cloud. The ceiling was no longer pure flesh, but stone with writhing ropy red tendrils reaching back into the darkness behind the massive goblin. Hunter couldn't see any walls besides that of the archway behind him, and the floor was concealed by a puddle of pale fluid.

It came up to his ankles and was thankfully only as thick as water. The big many-eyed goblin wore nothing other than a large loincloth, and all of its eyes turned on him as it ground its sharp teeth. That was when Hunter heard the bell once more, loud in his ears. He did not flinch at the noise, and he ignored the whispers, instead focusing on the fight ahead.

Memories revealed by the bell offered themselves forward, no longer restrained by the fog. Hunter ignored them. He couldn't be reminiscing right now, he'd have time for that after the fight. He realized then, that he knew the title of this goblin, though he knew not how that could be.

The goblin took a step forward, holding something familiar in its grasp. Hunter's eyes widened as he pointed a finger at the weapon. A massive white square stone hammer head with ancient texts engraved into its sides contrasted against the darkness. The hilt of the sword Hunter somehow knew could be drawn was engulfed by the monsters huge hand, and Hunter growled.

"That's mine!"

The goblin brought the Kirkhammer to bear, and Hunter dashed forwards, ready to battle:

Morg: Guardian of the First Eye

Chapter Text

Goblin Slayer peered down into the deep darkness of the cave. The four of them had traveled down to where Hunter and Priestess had been dragged down by the 'flesh arms'. They had to step carefully, as the slick surface threatened to send them tumbling down into the unknown. Warrior, Fighter, and Wizard had been terrified as he bashed down the teeth of the cave, and all but jumped out into the sunlight; turning to face the cave with raised weapons. Once they explained the situation to him, he told them he'd try to help their friends. This was still likely a goblin cave... or at least goblins were involved. Apparently the slime beneath his feet was a see-through layer of skin, slippery with sweat.

He was disgusted by this, but his need to kill goblins was strong, so he continued on. They had gotten to the point where the party had originally decided to turn back, and Goblin Slayer noted that there was indeed a torch burning further down. It had been dropped, likely by Hunter in his descent with Priestess. From what this party had told him, Hunter was a large man, and they seemed to believe somehow that he might've stopped the arm through sheer force alone. The flesh arm was reported to be thin, but very long, and attached to something much further down in the bowels of the cavern.

Goblin Slayer had intended to journey down alone, for these porcelains appeared near shell shocked from their experience. However, upon his offered help as a silver rank adventurer, they insisted that they follow him. He had no qualms with this, and kept his blade at the ready as he continued walking down, the party at his back. Their steps were shaky; a clear indicator of their fear, yet they continued.

As he walked over the clear flesh, he noticed two large tears upon its surface, as if something with two rough edges had scraped its way down. Bright red blood poured from these rips, leaving no doubt as to the fact that this was indeed flesh. Goblin Slayer could not see any veins within the translucent skin. Maybe even the veins themselves were see-through? That mattered little at the moment. Maybe the tracks were caused by Hunter's boot heels? He must have dug in to slow the drag. The trail zig-zagged down the narrowing corridor erratically, as if the arm had been trying to shake Hunter off of its prey.

The parted flesh curled to the side, exposing the normal gray stone beneath. The blood pooled into the space left by Hunter's boot heels, draining down the two crevices towards the bottom of the cave. Goblin Slayer noted that the fire down below; while sitting upon the skin of the cave, had not spread it's flame yet. The skin didn't catch fire. How was that possible? It didn't illuminate much, just some open space around itself. As everyone drew closer to it, Goblin Slayer noted that a third trail appeared between the two others. Instead of being split flesh, however, this one was black and seared from flame. Hunter had definitely dropped his torch. It had rolled down to the bottom in his descent.

The flesh could be burned by flame, yet the fire didn't spread? It must have been flame-resistant, but Goblin Slayer didn't know how that could be. Perhaps the moisture of the skin stopped the fire from spreading? Goblin Slayer did not know for certain. How was it that this skin could even sweat in the first place? There had to be a source of water somewhere that fueled this disgusting epidermis. Maybe an aquifer was further down in the cave; hydrating whatever creature this was.

Goblin Slayer was drawn out of his thoughts when heard something whizzing towards him, and he quickly ducked to the left. He slid easily along the slick surface of the cave as Goblin Slayer heard three voices shouting in unison behind him. He brought his blade up at the same instant of his slide and cleaved off the hand of a stone grey fleshy arm at the wrist. Oddly the blow cleaved through the limb with little effort. Dark red blood exploded from the wound as the dark clawed hand fell to the ground, sliding down into the darkness. Likely sliding all the way back into the bowels. The rest of the arm writhed like a tentacle, spraying blood from the open wound all over the rest of the party. More shouting followed by sputtering as the blood no doubt found it's way into their open mouths. It spattered Goblin Slayer's armor, and he gave no reaction, merely jumping forward and cleaving off another, larger section of the limb.

His torch showed that the thin arm stretched even further back than that, and again, he slid down, lopping off another large section of the arm. The individual arm parts fell onto the floor with a soft thud, rolling down towards the torch. His slide down was fast; his momentum aided by the sweaty skin under his feet. It was then that Goblin Slayer heard a scream from behind him. He turned his head slightly, seeing that Wizard had lost her footing, and was now slipping down towards the darkness.

He was about to throw aside the torch and catch the girl by the wrist, but Fighter and Warrior beat him to it. Warrior cast aside his blade, gripping Wizard by her left hand. Fighter, having no weapons but her fists, merely caught Wizards other wrist with her free hand. The three of them slid a bit further before they slowed to a stop. Goblin Slayer turned his attention back to the retreating limb in the darkness, slid forward, and lopped off more sections of the arm until he was standing right next to the fallen torch; which was now joined by several chunks of grey flesh and Warrior's second torch. The flesh surrounding the two flames was charred black from the heat, yet no flame caught.

He spotted Warriors broken sword, which now lay embedded in a thick section of flesh. The jagged end stuck up at an angle, bright red blood pooling around the wound in the caves skin. The limb still flailed, yet now attempted to retreat back into the darkness. Goblin Slayer got in another slice on the arm before it got out of sight. He realized that this arm moved far too erratically to have any kind of normal bone structure. Goblin Slayer looked to the dismembered pieces of limb now surrounding the torch and saw that no bone could be seen within the grey meat. Just still undulating muscles that leaked red from either end.

He had thought that these were a bit too easy to cut through. The lack of any real bones would make it so that cleaving through would be easy work. The rest of the party slid down after him, not calling his name for he could be seen clearly by torchlight. They all maintained their balance as they slid to a halt before the fallen torches. Goblin Slayer read the expression on their faces. They all seemed relieved, whether that be because Goblin Slayer was still in one piece or if seeing the arm be injured and driven back he couldn't tell for certain.

"No bones..." Wizard said, regarding the logs of arm next to her feet. "Not truly arms then... more tentacle."

Her eyes were slightly glazed over, and Goblin Slayer thought that she may be on the verge of snapping. It may be better to send these porcelains back. He couldn't be bothered to babysit insane adventurers. He looked over the other two, seeing that they also held a glazed look to them. Paranoia was evident as they looked all around them at each and every section of the wall. Eventually, their gaze settled on the deep darkness below. The corridor would narrow even further based on the walls leading down. They appeared to grow closer by the light of his torch. Soon it may only be possible for a single person to descend at a time.

"Get it together. Or go back." He told them simply.

Goblin Slayer needed not to point out why he said what he did. They weren't so far gone that they couldn't pick up on his meaning. Wizard blinked, and then looked up at him, taking her gaze away from the arms. The glazed look had somewhat vanished, yet it was still somewhat visible. She certainly wasn't stable, but it seemed that currently, she could function.

"I... yes I'm sorry." She said. "What should we do now?"

Warrior took a deep breath and drew his broken blade from the flesh with a wet slick. He swung the sword to shake off the blood and gripped it with both hands. The open wound the blade left in the flesh oozed bright red blood. He held it towards the darkness as if to ward off a pack of beasts. This wasn't far from the truth Goblin Slayer knew.

Fighter did the same, adopting a low crouch with her left leg and arm drawn back to strike. She stood right next to Warrior, looking into the unknowable depths. Goblin Slayer picked up one of the fallen torches nearby and walked towards the dip in the cave. To answer Wizard's question, he hucked the torch down into the blackness.

The orange flame illuminated everything it passed. It revealed that the corridor did indeed narrow to the point where single file was necessary. It passed ever-thickening skin coated walls until it illuminated a fork in the corridor. Two paths branched off on either side and the bloody trail caused by Hunter's boots abruptly ended at this fork. The torch collided with a hanging stalactite. It bounced off the skin coated stone and landed right between the two branching paths.

Goblin Slayer readied himself to strike as yet another arm flew up towards them from the path leading left. The party flinched next to him as it sped up towards them. Its dark claws were visible by torchlight for only an instant before passing through the darkness and up towards the party. It's writhing arm stretched further from the corridor it had exited, adding to its length as it sped towards them.

He then heard the same whizzing noise as earlier, and Goblin Slayer slashed at the source of the oncoming noise. The preemptive attack cleaved off three of the things fingers before it could grip Warrior's face. The thumb and index finger were the only digits spared, and the limb recoiled for only an instant before attempting to grab at the young man again. Warrior dodged back from the attack as Fighter chopped the arm with her hand. The blow connected with the things wrist, and much to Goblin Slayer's surprise, he heard the snapping of bone. There seemed to be bones in the hand and wrist of the tendril, but that was it. Wizard began to cant something as Warrior brought up his sword for another blow on the arm. Fighter backpedaled as to not be caught in the attack. Blood spattered the young man's face from the fingerless flailing of the arm, and he struck down with an overhanded blow.

The strike only just missed a hanging flesh-covered stalactite by a few hairs. Had the blade connected with that skin coated rock, it would have disrupted the strike. However, the broken sword proved it's worth as Warrior cleaved through the hand. The strike split the hand down the middle all the way to the boneless tendril. As the arm began retreated down below, Wizard shouted:

"Fire!"

A bright orange bolt of flame connected with the limb, and unlike the moist skin underfoot; it caught flame. Fire spread all the way down the length of the arm as it wriggled, illuminating the entire passage. It retreated in eerie silence as it slunk back into wherever it had came from, the passageway mostly returning to darkness; save for the torch still burning below.

Goblin Slayer turned, and picked up the other torch on the ground, handing it to Warrior who took it with a shaking hand.

"This is your last chance to turn back." He said to them.

They all hesitated, but all agreed that they would follow him down. Before they descended, however, Warrior asked him:

"How are you so calm about this? This place is so wrong..."

He turned back to the darkness broken by only a single torch and uttered:

"I have to kill the goblins."

...

...

...

Morg swung the Kirkhammer in wild swaths, the air parting for the powerful strikes. Hunter dodged and weaved between the blows, though not without difficulty. The goblin may have been large, but it was fast with its swings, and their wild nature made them difficult to predict. They both splashed about in the white liquid with each movement, Morg trying to land a blow on the still too fast Hunter.

He darted in and out of Morg's guard, striking out with fists, chops, and clawed strikes. This did seemingly nothing to break the flesh of the giant goblin, and Hunter was starting to realize that he'd need more than his hands to bring down this beast. His belt knife likely wouldn't be that much help either. He needed a weapon meant for tearing through beast flesh... something that could crush and slice. Morgs many eyes glared at him with hatred, their yellow hue corrupted by red bloodshot veins.

Morg growled as he raised the Kirkhammer overhead, bringing it down where Hunter had been only a split second before. The blow splashed white liquid everywhere, spattering Hunter's outfit with even more of the stuff. The liquid hit Morgs eyes, and they seemed unaffected by the irritation it might have caused. What was this stuff anyhow?

The thought was interrupted by a sweeping fist that caught Hunter on his left side. Blood instantly shot up Hunter's throat as he coughed, and he was sent flying through the air. He landed with a splash in the darkness. He attempted to draw in a breath, and the sharp pain that accompanied the action stopped him in his tracks. Morg had likely just cracked each and every rib in Hunter's left side, with but a single punch.

The overhead strike was just a bluff to get him to leap away, with the white liquid as a way to help obscure the oncoming blow. Hunter grit in his teeth as he tasted blood on his tongue, and quickly shot up from the white water. Morg was on him in an instant, closing the distance that had been made by his strike. Hunter dodged another overhand blow, and the second strike from Morg's oversized fist.

Hunter would not fall for the same attack twice. The ache in his side was miserable, but that was nothing compared to the other emotion coursing through him. Hunter gave a mad tooth-filled grin as he looked up at the goblin.

The thrill was coming in force. It wiped away all of his fear, all other thoughts. The only thing he knew in that moment was how to enjoy the fight. It coursed through his veins and made his chest burn with excitement. He saw a new way to hurt this beast. Really, it was odd that he did not try this earlier. Morg was covered in the things after all.

Hunter darted under a horizontal swing of the Kirkhammer, and snatched a yellow eyeball out of the large beasts kneecap as Hunter passed by. Morg gave a scream of pain, clutching the knee cap that Hunter had injured with a huge freehand. Hunter looked down at the eye, and then back up at Morg as he crushed it in his fist.

"You want to tussle you vile thing!? Well, come on!" He shouted, dashing forwards once again.

The liquid did little to slow Hunter down, and under the influence of the thrill, he barely noticed it. He tore out another eye, and another, then another. Hunter repeated this, every dodge and weave removing one of Morg's many eyes. The red glow was brighter now, lighting up the entire cavern and revealing its secrets. It was bigger than he had initially suspected... and his instincts seemed to screech at him to investigate.

Hunter ignored them, opting to instead follow his thrill. He swiped and tore out another eye from Morgs elbow. He crushed each eye in his grip, and each one he destroyed seemed to make the crimson glow brighten. There was no longer darkness, but a red light as bright as daylight all around the two combatants. Hunter believed that he had torn out most of Morgs eyes by this point, and began cackling madly as he dodged a clumsy strike. Morg was getting slower and slower with each eye removed, and the ache in Hunter's side was all but gone now.

Hunter stood across from Morg, his hands bloodied with yellowish gore. The goblins now empty eye sockets now lay closed and twitching, but the remaining eyes still glared at him. Hunter took a step forward, and Morg flinched. Seeing his chance, Hunter darted towards the giant. It would be child's play to kill this thing off now, just a few more eyes and-

Morg shot forward with a straight kick, the blow colliding with Hunter's chest. Hunter coughed up what felt like an entire cup of blood as he flew backward. He landed with his back on the cool stone, and the mysterious white liquid flowed over him. It smothered him, flowing through the small opening of his collar and flooding his nostrils. It tasted of salt and the sharp flavor of... flavor of...

Fuzz

Hunter sputtered as he struggled to rise, the pain in his chest feeling like a dozen needles piercing his lungs.

It felt as if every single rib Hunter had was shattered, and the thrill vanished. Clarity returned with the pain, drawing him out of the intoxication of competition. Hunter looked around, seeing Morg walking towards him slowly, confidently. The goblin likely thought that it had already won. With Hunter's injuries, Morg may be right.

He saw that, indeed, the glow had erased the darkness. On the far end of the room, he could see a massive bright multicolored eye staring at him. The thing was at least as big as Morg, and the round black pupil shrunk as it sighted him. The red tendrils writhing overhead connected to the eye from the ceiling. They led down the wall and ran over the white of the eye like vertical bloodshot veins. That was the First Eye, and Hunter hated it. He hated the way it seemed to recognize him, focusing on Hunter's each and every movement. Maroon colored fleshy walls stretched out on either side of the First Eye, and it was spotted with round white dots. He was too far away to see what they were up close, but Hunter suspected that they were other smaller eyeballs.

Perhaps they were the removed eyes of the faces he had seen? Hunter reached into his satchel, gripping a glass oblong vial in his hand. Red fluid like that of blood swished within its container, and Hunter popped the cork. It was shameful to have to heal himself like this mid-battle. It was not honorable, but Hunter couldn't afford to lose here. Plus, he didn't feel too ashamed. Morg has been altered by outside sources to be stronger, Hunter was certain.

His brow furrowed at the thought. Why did he feel like a hypocrite?

He undid the laces of his collar, shoving the thought from his mind. He tended to get distracted at the oddest times. He was about to chug the liquid down when a massive wave of the white liquid washed over him. Morg stood over him now, having sprinted up to Hunter upon sighting the vial in his hands. The wave had knocked the potion from his grasp, and it was lost in the pale fluid. Hunter tried to roll away, but his intense pain slowed him. Morg grabbed Hunter's right forearm in a crushing grip and yanked him up in a sudden jerk.

Pain exploded from his arm as Morgs sudden motion shattered the bone. Hunter screamed, blood exploding from his mouth and spattering Morgs face. Hunter was now being held in Morg's open hand, just over the goblins face as Morg peered into Hunter's face. Morg growled, and Hunter summoned strength he didn't know he still possessed. He reared his leg back and kicked Morg in his normal left eye.

He felt his foot push the organ far back within Morgs skull, and the goblin screamed. The bellow threatened to burst Hunter's eardrums, and the goblin threw Hunter in the direction of the first eye. Hunter was in excruciating pain as he landed in the pool of white water. Morg still shouted, but Hunter could not see him despite how bright the glow was. His motion continued until his back collided with one of the flesh walls, knocking whatever breath he had left out of him in a wheeze. He felt something crunch with the impact on the wall, though it didn't sound like bone.

Hunter's vision tunneled and grew dim. Morg still screamed; though the sound was dampened somewhat by what Hunter believed was a concussion. He didn't think this would be how he died honestly. It felt as if his lungs had been pierced by his broken ribs, for each breath cost him in pain and blood. His eyes widened somewhat when he remembered the satchel.

He slowly reached into the bag, feeling several shattered bits of glass through the white liquid that had seeped in. Not a vial survived Morgs throw. Hunter's head slapped back against the flesh wall, and he grit his teeth in frustration. He'd at least try to kill Morg before he himself died. Hopefully, the rest either got out or saved Priestess. His vision tunneled further, but he noticed Morg, now approaching him even slower than before. Likely the goblin wanted to take no more risk in finishing Hunter off. Morg's left eye was a gory paste, and Hunter grinned at that.

He attempted to stand, but his legs failed him, and he remained sitting.

Hunter wouldn't allow himself to perish sitting down. He would die standing on his own two feet, like a man. He was about to attempt rising once more when he heard a light jingle; right over his head. Like that of metal rings.

"H...Heal..." A small, rasping voice said.

A light appeared overhead, and Hunter felt his bones reknit themselves. He coughed up what felt like an entire bathtub of blood as his lungs seemed to empty themselves, and his ribs fell back into place. The sundered flesh of his ankle sealed itself, the long-forgotten pain of the wound disappearing. Hunter took a huge breath and shot to his feet. Priestess was here!? How was that possible? Hunter turned with a smile on his face, only for that smile to twist down in horror.

He put a hand to his mouth to suppress a scream.

"No... No..." He muttered.

"It..." She said, taking a breath. "It hurts so much... everything hurts..."

Priestess was integrated within the flesh. Her once pale skin was now a pinkish hue as it melded with the darker meat around it. Her clothes had been stripped at some point, but her lower body was now almost indistinguishable from the rest of the dark red flesh around it. Her once bright blonde hair was stained red with the same vicious stuff in the face room, and it hung down in matted clumps. She held the head of her staff in hand, gripping it with whatever strength she had left. The shaft had been broken away at some point, but somehow she was able to keep a hold of the head of her staff. Did the goblins let her keep it? Why?

Hunter took a shaky breath as he noticed the several eyes surrounding the poor girls head, all of different colors as they stared at him. He could see a pleading in their gaze as their tears of pure white poured down the flesh wall. It flowed into the liquid that Hunter had been splashing about in during his battle with Morg. Then Priestess opened her eyes... her blue, innocent eyes, and wept tears of white.

Hunter vomited into the white tears at his feet. The red puke contrasted with the pale liquid as it floated atop it. It left a sour taste in his mouth.

"It hurts..." Priestess said again.

Hunter's head shot up as he heard Morg approaching from behind. He turned to face the beast, but his head was not in the fight. He had never felt so hopeless in his life, at least what he could bloody well remember about it. He had failed in the worst way possible. He wanted to drown himself in the tears and let himself die for his failure, but going against those wishes, he kept on his feet.

"It's... it's everywhere... Hunter... The Eyes are everywhere... Please... kill me..." Priestess rasped. "I feel... Everything it feels..."

Hunter slowly and shakily turned his head back to Priestess, and her eyes held the same pleading as the ones surrounding her. The eyes of people that had been forced into this fleshy thing. This offensive, evil creature. Morg walked slower, glancing at the First Eye with every step. It was as if he were scared of the thing. Hunter drew his belt knife with a shaky hand and placed it against Priestess's throat. Clear tears flowed down his own cheeks as he slit the girl's throat. She gasped as crimson flowed down with the pale tears of her face. The blood overtook the milky tears; contrasting against the fluid as it blossomed out past Hunter's calves.

Priestess's eyes dulled and grew lifeless. Her face did not take on any form of serenity upon death. It instead looked pained and miserable. Hunter shut her eyes with a swipe of his thumb as she dropped her staff head to the tears with a small splash. He leaned down and gripped the metal in his hands. The rings jingled as he placed it in his satchel.

He bared his teeth, lips drawing back like that of a wolf as he turned back to Morg, red hot hate in his vision.

Hunter snapped.

He charged towards Morg madly, his fingers curled like claws. The goblin flinched at this and actually took a step back. Morg then kicked his foot forward in an attempt to catch Hunter in the chest again. He dodged it easily and swiped a clawed hand at the heel of Morgs large foot.

Hunter tore off the entire heel without a problem. He cast it into the water like worthless trash as Morg howled. The goblin backpedaled, favoring his right leg now that his left was missing a heel. Blood mixed in with the white tears, swirling in patterns. Hunter ran forward, and swiped again, this time ripping out an entire lower rib. Morg howled and grabbed his new wound while Hunter slid next to the goblins good leg. Still gripping the bone in hand, he rammed the rib point first into Morgs kneecap.

He felt it easily punch through the giant's leg and exit the other side. Blood now was beginning to overtake the tears below, streaks of white being broken apart by the thicker fluid. Morg collapsed to his left knee, dropping the Kirkhammer with a wet splash in blood and tears as the goblin gripped the injured limb.

Morg backpedaled in the water as Hunter picked up his Kirkhammer, the weight of it felt familiar and very welcome in his grasp. The goblin continued to back away on both hands, it's legs all but useless to it now. Morg's remaining eyes darted about the cavern, looking for any way to escape the beast coming for him. Hunter braced the hammer on his shoulder, and jumped forward, swinging the hammer down with all of his might. Morg brought up a wide hand to block the blow.

Hunter's hammer struck Morgs palm and bent the hand backward with a crack. The Kirkhammer continued with its momentum and cracked Morgs forearm back as well. The limb now hung useless in the now almost completely reddened liquid. Hunter sheathed the hammer at his back and drew the silvery blade from its stone sheath. The sound of steel sliding from stone was a welcome sound to his ears. The hammer head remained attached to his back somehow, and the weight would have likely made a normal man collapse.

It didn't bother Hunter in the slightest as he ran forward again, raising his blade for a horizontal swing aimed at Morgs throat. The goblin raised its good hand up to block this blow, and the sword cleaved off all of Morgs fingers and sliced through the goblin's throat. The individual digits fell to the now completely reddened tears with small splashes, and Morg fell beneath the red ponds now gently rolling waves. Hunter had not merely sliced the throat, he had cut through half of Morgs bull neck, knicking the spine.

"Prey Slaughtered." Hunter said, turning his gaze back to the eye at the back of the small cavern.

The eye began to dart from side to side as Hunter approached it, his rage reddening his vision. He noticed that trails of red light were now flowing from his eyes, making the red glow of the cave seem dull in comparison. He trudged through the bloody tears, snarling like a beast. He approached the multicolored eye, which now was focusing on him. Its black pupil lay directly in front of him now, and Hunter stabbed his blade through its middle.

He drove the blade forward, using his rage to fuel his strength. He screamed as the red tendrils detached themselves from the eye and began to whip at him in a frenzy. The blows did little to stop him. He felt his flesh and leather both split from the lashings, and the pain that exploded from his back urged for his attention. Hunter would give it none; this pain was nothing compared to his burning hate. He twisted the blade violently and began tearing out chunks of the eye with his free hand. The eye reddened, and the tendrils slowed their barrage as Hunter continued his assault. Hunter then drew the blade and began hacking at the eye in huge bloody swathes.

The red glow dimmed, and even the micro motions of the flesh wall ceased. Soon, he was completely absorbed by darkness, and still, he hacked at the eye.

The ringing of yet another bell sounded in his ears, but Hunter ignored it and the voices accompanying it. They had nothing important to say right now. He hacked and slashed for what felt like an eternity. Time ceased to exist, only the constant slicing of flesh could do anything to calm him. Eventually, he felt himself surrounded by fog. The bright white illuminated what it did not obscure, and this is what brought him out of his blood rage.

He looked down at his blade, now drenched in spots of gore and painted with blood. No hint of color could be seen underneath that shade of angry red. The pain in his back had completely disappeared, though he knew not why that was. Hunter felt numb. Maybe that was why? He took a deep breath and sheathed the blade back within the Kirkhammer. He turned around and began walking. He swayed through the red bloody pond towards where the fog gate had been and stopped when he noticed a figure approaching him though the wispy rolling fog.

Old and hunched over, Unseen appeared before him. He didn't appear bothered by the lake of blood that reached over his calves. His blind eyes still covered by bloody bandages, Unseen still seemed to look directly at him. The old man looked troubled.

"One for three..." Unseen said, looking back towards the remains of the eye.

Hunter paused.

"Are you saying that... if it wasn't her..." Hunter said silently.

Unseen nodded, turning his eyeless gaze to the ground.

"I am sorry." Unseen said.

Hunter bared his teeth.

"You're sorry!?" He shouted. "Why didn't you warn me!? Why didn't you warn her!? I know now that you are far more than you seem!"

Hunter's vision reddened again, the wispy trails of red light brightening the fog. Unseen shook his head.

"I didn't know if it would even happen... the sight you did leave me with is fickle..." Unseen told him.

The sight Hunter left him with?

"Who are you?" Hunter asked, biting every word off with anger.

"You don't... you really don't remember Unseen do you? But that makes sense." Unseen rasped, his voice conveying something akin to... anger? Hunter coulnd't believe that Unseen was even capable of such an emotion. "I am sorry... but the fog is close to finding me now. We must go.

Without another word, Unseen reached a hand forward with blinding speed, gripping Hunter by the shoulder.

And just like that, they were gone.

...

...

...

Goblin Slayer could find no way to continue down into the depths of the cave. The two branching forks narrowed far too much for even a single person to traverse safely. He would have had to slide down on his back or belly to fit through. He was able to see what lay beyond that point, and that was what had made him stop. It appeared that the two arms had dragged the two party members into a mound of sticky moistened flesh. Upon Goblin Slayers noticing of it, the flesh parted to reveal a dark shaft leading into undulating muscle.

There were no goblins here.

There may have been at some point, but whatever this cavernous flesh creature was, it had killed them. The only thing left to do was set this entire cave on fire. He didn't have enough oil to burn the cave, and Wizard was hesitant to use her last spell. She had said that it wouldn't have spread a flame anyhow, for the torches did not do such whatsoever. Goblin Slayer was about to lob a lit torch into one of the undulating flesh shafts but was urged by the porcelains to stay his hand.

The party wanted to wait until Hunter and Priestess returned. If they even could return. They waited outside of the mouth of the cave, looking at the single shattered tooth with anticipation. The entrance Goblin Slayer had made was not perfect. He had shattered most of the bone, but a jagged knee-high section still jutted up from the ground. They all had to step over it carefully, lest they accidentally tear something.

Everyone, Goblin Slayer included, jumped backward when the teeth suddenly retracted back into their sockets. The points of the teeth were layered over with a small slab of stone. This grey stone was indistinguishable from that of the rest of the cave, fitting in place as if they were always meant to be there. Curious, the flesh cave likely didn't do that on its own... The arms didn't seem to reach that far up. Maybe goblins were living within the cave after all.

Perhaps it was a sort of symbiosis between the creatures. He would need to make sure to be on the lookout for more flesh caves if he found any. They had gathered the fallen torches on the trip back up and extinguished them upon exit. Warrior had put them away in his satchel and was facing the now open cave mouth with his broken sword drawn. The younger man looked determined now that he was out of the cave, but his expression looked guilt-ridden.

It was much the same for Fighter and Wizard, the two of them looking crestfallen.

Likely the three of them blamed themselves for what had happened to Hunter and Priestess. Goblin Slayer continued to wait with them like that for an hour. He was about to speak up, and tell them that it was likely that Hunter and Priestess were dead when he heard the crunch of footsteps coming from the mouth of the cave. Each footfall was followed by a consistent scrape of something along stone. It sounded like stone on stone... yet that couldn't be, the skin of the cave should have silenced that noise. Goblin Slayer drew his blade, and Wizard began canting something.

Whatever she was saying died in her throat when a tall leather-clad man stepped out of the cave. The man was dragging a huge stone hammer behind him, leaving a trail behind him as he stepped into the light. He was covered in dark red blood and gore, and white liquid dripped from his clothing where red did not. His face was completely painted over with blood, concealing the color of his skin but not concealing his age. He looked to be a man of twenty-five years, with a bold nose and wide square face. A big bloody beard concealed his jaw, and a frown split that beard. His dark eyes were wide and fogged over.

This man had seen hell.

"Hunter!" Wizard shouted, running forward.

Hunter's eyes widened as he turned to regard the much smaller woman, seeming to just now notice where he was. Hunter looked about at the blue sky, the sun still shining down upon them. The light reflecting off of his bloody form. Warrior and Fighter approached as well, albeit a bit slower than Wizard did. Hunter spotted them too and then turned his gaze on Goblin Slayer. The two locked gazes a moment before Hunter's attention was drawn away by Wizard.

"Are you hurt?" She said, looking him over.

Hunter grunted in response. Goblin Slayer looked him up and down noticing now that his clothing was torn in several places, exposing the skin beneath. It looked as if something had lashed his back at some point, for several long vertical tears were visible as he continued to turn about for Wizard to inspect. Goblin Slayer noted that none of the tears in Hunter's clothing revealed open wounds. It was as if he had been healed by magic. If that were the case, where was Priestess?

Goblin Slayer didn't need to think on it long. The girl was surely dead.

"Where's Priestess?" Warrior asked him, peering behind him into the cave.

"I..." Hunter said, trailing off.

The large man's gaze again found Goblin Slayer. Hunter's eyes narrowed at him, as if trying to figure something out.

Goblin Slayer's eyes widened with a sudden, and unignorable urge. He then approached the four of them. He drew his blade for what he needed to do, but making sure to look non-threatening in his approach. He needed to kill this thing before it could kill anyone else.

...

...

...

Hunter's eyelids felt heavy, and he barely could hear whatever it was that his surviving party members were saying. Their words were murky and difficult to make out, as if he were trying to hear them speak with his head submerged in water. All he could really think about was his failure to protect Priestess. She had died because of him. It was because he couldn't stop the arm, he wasn't strong enough to stop it. The guilt ate at his core and threatened to consume him. He had promised that he would keep all of them safe, and he had broken his promise. He should have paid more attention to the party at the mouth of the cave. He should have had them stand closer to him.

Should of, should of, should of.

Hunter noticed another person approaching the four of them, a shortsword drawn and poised towards Hunter's throat. His eyes widened when he finally recognized the steel-clad man. It was the person he had passed that one day back in town... the one that had startled him. Hunter didn't move, for he knew what the man was doing.

Hunter had noticed it too.

It needed to be done.

A goblin wearing a bone mask leapt out of the darkness. It ran for the woods in a hopeless attempt to escape. The armored man closed the distance effortlessly, tackling the goblin and shoving his sword into it's back. He twisted his blade and ripped the blade free as the goblin gurgled belly down on the hard earth. The bone mask had shattered against the dirt from the force of the tackle, exposing the twisted face beneath.

Many yellow eyes stared lifelessly at nothing. There were eight of them and were arranged like that of an arachnid. The armored man stood but continued to stare at the goblin. Hunter couldn't tell, but the man seemed... bothered by the sight. He certainly hadn't seen a goblin-like this before, that was certain. The man leaned down to inspect the corpse further as Hunter turned back to the mouth of the cave.

The party had been standing behind him, and his sudden turn got their attention back on him. They had been looking at the mouth of the cave, readying spell and weapon to kill any more escaping goblins. Hunter held out a hand.

"Torch."

They hesitated.

"Torch!" Hunter shouted.

Warrior scrambled to reach into his satchel, pulling out a once used torch. Hunter took the thing gently and approached the lip of the cave. The party trailed behind him as he went. The skin of the cave had dried and cracked underfoot like dried autumn leaves. It would surely catch fire now. Hunter sheathed the Kirkhammer at his back, the weapon drawing the gazes of the three other adventurers. He ignored them, grabbing flint and steel as he lit the tool. The flame caught slowly, but soon it engulfed the head of the torch once more. Hunter reared back his arm and threw it to the bottom of the accursed cave.

The torch impacted on the dead flesh, and the flame spread easily. Soon it shot up to the mouth of the cave, and Hunter backed away as the flames engulfed the entire entrance. It looked as if the cave was ready to breathe fire upon them, and based on everything that happened today, Hunter wouldn't be surprised if it did just that. He stared into the rolling flames, his expression flat and eyes dull.

As he continued to peer into the fire, ignoring the party's questions, the memories he had suppressed during his battle with Morg surfaced.

...

...

...

"Didja hear?" Ringle asked in his heavily accented voice.

The man was definitely from backwater Chuden. The low brow and splayed ears were a giveaway, but not nearly as much as the smaller man's voice.

Hunter shook his head.

"Those are just rumors Ringle," Hunter said, his voice notably deeper than that of the last memory he had experienced. "You can't honestly believe them."

The barracks were cold this night. Winter had crept in on them before they even had time to notice it, and the thin blankets drawn up over their heads did little to stave off the biting cold. Ringle was laying on the bunk atop of his, the springy mattress likely not doing wonders for his back. Hunter's own bed wasn't any better, but Hunter preferred the lower bunk. If he rolled off he wouldn't have that far of a drop.

The barracks were depressingly empty of troops. Everyone else was stationed out in the trenches while Hunter and Ringle had to take some mandatory rest. It had been almost three days since either of them slept, the

Fuzz

Were constantly pushing on the line, and every inch given advanced the fog further into their lands. It was worse in other places of course. The nation of Beked reported that the fog simply rolled right on past their forces without stopping, slowly but surely engulfing their lands.

"I think it's true," Ringle said off handidly. "Think about it, don't it seem weird?"

Hunter rolled his eyes and shifted on his side.

"The fog isn't trying to get to Yharnam," Hunter said. "The fog is the fog, it brings the

Fuzz

At random. There isn't a pattern to it, it just is. It's a force of nature, you can't really predict it Ringle, you can only deal with it when it comes."

He thought he could feel Ringle shrug above him.

"It's takin' it's time tryin' to eat us," Ringle argued. "Like it's bein' careful. Yharnam's near the center of Chuden right?"

"I mean... yeah I guess. Yharnam's not really a part of Chuden though. They scorn our church and keep to themselves. More of a city-state if you ask me." Hunter responded. "I just don't know why someone would think the fog'd want Yharnam, it's just full of backwater hicks like you."

"I've been to Yharnam once before ya know?" Ringle said. "Ain't no proper hicks that I could see, but man those fella's sure did hate outsiders. Couldn't stay for long without all o' them peerin' in on my business fer bein' there. They're hidin' somethin' I tell ya."

Hunter shook his head, but he knew Ringle wouldn't see the motion.

"They're just assholes Rings. They can't be that important."

Ringle shifted again.

"Yeah, we'll see." Ringle responded in his country drawl.

Hunter rolled his eyes again.

"Just get some sleep Rings, Sumen will have our ass if we're still tired by time we gotta guard."

He shifted to his other side, peering out of a closed barred window and into the single bright full moon. Its silver glow was beautiful.

...

...

...

Ringle was one of his war buddies, that was right. A good friend as Hunter remembered. Yharnam however, drew his attention a thousandfold more than his old friends. That name resonated with him in a way that Hunter could not quite understand. Thinking of anything past the name brought the fog in terrible force to cloud his thoughts. The same fog he had spoken to Ringle about. It was here in this world.

Hunter dropped his head at the thought. He could no longer believe that he was from this place. His world had only one large moon, shining a brilliant white in the sky. He would look at a map to confirm, but he was confident in his assessment. He was in another world. That was why everyone still used medieval weaponry, and why two moons shone in the sky at night.

And in one form or another, the fog had followed him here.

He felt as if this were far more dangerous than anything he had to deal with in the flesh cave. Hunter would have to find a way to disperse it completely, lest it devour this world. That was why he felt as if he were still at war...

It was because he was.

The fog tried it's best to occlude his thoughts of Yharnam, but that revealed a certain truth to Hunter.

Yharnam had been important, and the fog really was trying to get to it.

Hunter was tired, and his half-lidded gaze turned back to the armored man. He still stood, examining the goblin. Warrior, Fighter, and Wizard were all looking him over for injury. Their gazes were drawn to the writing engraved on the sides of the massive stone block of a weapon. Wizard had taken a keen interest in the dialect, but still gave Hunter the same amount of attention.

Hunter had stepped away from the burning cave mouth a few moments after the fire caught. He didn't want to look at it anymore. He was so tired, and the sun was only now passing into the afternoon hours. How long had he been down there? It felt like forever, but it looked as little more than an hour had passed. Maybe an hour and a half at most.

"Hunter... where's Priestess?" Warrior asked him.

Hunter looked into Warrior's eyes, and shook his head slowly. The young man's shoulders slumped. They had other questions for him, but Hunter couldn't bring himself to answer any more. He continued to ignore the questions from his party members, instead hanging his head low as he sat down.

He crossed his legs and placed the palms of his hands on his thighs with elbows up in the air. Hunter noticed then, that the questioning had ceased. Likely they realized that bothering Hunter after his ordeal with the cave wasn't exactly helping him. He spotted the armored man out of the corner of his eye; leaning down over the goblin as he severed its head. That was odd, the creature was surely dead. Why the extra precaution?

Hunter shook his head.

Anything coming out of that flesh cave shouldn't just be decapitated, it should be burned as well. The armored man likely thought the same, though he did not throw the head into the flame. He instead began cauterizing the bloody stump of the neck with a torch. Could it be that he was wanting to take it back with him to be examined? It was possible.

More time passed, and eventually, he felt arms under him, urging him to move. Hunter complied, coming slowly to his feet. Then they were moving. The party had completed the damned quest, and they were finally going back to town. It wasn't long before they found the trail once more. Hunter heard the armored man 'Goblin Slayer' speak of another goblin cave nearby. Goblin Slayer had said that he would take care of it and that they should all go home. Hunter was too deep in his thoughts to really put up any argument.

So they parted, with the party heading north and Goblin Slayer south along the trail. They walked for a time, but Hunter didn't think on it's passing. The only thing that was at the forefront of his mind was his failure to protect Priestess. She had suffered the worst fate possible, and it was because he was too slow to reach her in time. Had he gotten through the cave faster, he may have been able to save her.

The guilt ate at him like a colony of red ants nesting in his heart. Soon, night had come. Hunter only noticed this because his party members had stopped his dead walk. They directed him towards their old campsite from the night before, the one with the stream, and began to set up camp. Hunter merely stood there, staring into nothing as two moons shined overhead.

Eventually, Wizard had come to speak with him, but her words couldn't be understood by Hunter at that moment. He was still in to deep within his mind. She urged him towards the stream with a gentle shove, and Hunter moved. Soon he was behind the bushes, alone. Hunter looked down into the clear water, seeing no reflection staring back at him. Hunter didn't bother stripping off his gear, he merely submerged himself in the water, and sat there like that.

And for the first time during this trip, he felt truly exhausted.

Chapter Text

The trip back into town was uneventful. At least when compared to when they had first set out. Goblin Slayer had actually caught up with them on the second day. He had claimed that the second goblin cave had been taken care of. The silent man didn't say anything else of note; which meant that this second goblin cave was completely ordinary. At least that was what Hunter thought. He wasn't certain as to how ordinary goblin caves looked. Goblin Slayer indeed had taken the many-eyed goblin head with him. The armored man claimed that he was going to take it to a local beast registry to have it cataloged as a new type of goblin.

They had passed the place where the madmen had all died, only to find the trail empty. Indeed it was as Hunter had suspected, their attackers had been taken by someone... or something. Hunter wasn't sure which. The bound man was gone as well, and no signs of blood could be seen trailing off into the woods. That meant that no beast dragged them off. Likely then, it was a 'someone' after all. Goblin Slayer oddly had paused in place to gaze at the surroundings, unprompted. When questioned on why he had halted, Goblin Slayer had outright refused to answer anything. Could he have come across the bodies on his way to them? Whatever it was, Goblin Slayer did not budge. He did answer a few other questions upon prompting however.

Goblin Slayer seemed to only talk when he was asked a question. These were usually put forward by Fighter or Warrior. Hunter withheld most questions except for one. It had to do with the nature of the second cave; to which Goblin Slayer confirmed that it wasn't out of the ordinary for goblin caves. Was the flesh cave really just an isolated creature? Hunter did not know, but if there were any more of the wretched things; they needed to be destroyed.

Much like his tattered attire. He doubted that he could afford to have a seamstress sew all the tears back together. It may be cheaper to simply purchase a new get-up, but Hunter was reluctant to do that. He liked his outfit very much. Hunter had cleaned his leathers completely, but the tears weren't going away until they were sewn back together. Upon noticing Hunter's prodding at the various holes in his gear; Wizard claimed that others of her kind were capable of a simple spell called 'mend' which could fix mundane items like his clothing. Magic casters apparently didn't use mend that often, choosing instead to be able to cast something called 'prestidigitation' whatever that was. Wizard had not chosen that as a spell either. She had taken a spell called 'spark' a simple spell that could light a nearby flammable object on fire without flint and steel. She claimed to know of a man in town that could fix his gear for a minimal price. A man named Artificer.

Hunter was interested in the workings of magic on this world, but found it hard to hold a conversation. His thoughts still were absorbed by the events of the flesh cave. The horrors he had seen would stick with him for a long time, but Hunter knew that he would overcome them eventually. The only thing that really continued to disturb him was the death of Priestess.

She had been so young, unready for death... and Hunter had failed her. Hunter had promised to keep them all safe and then failed in saving Priestess. The guilt was what still ate at him the most. The horror of the amorphous thing was minimal and petty in comparison to his burning failure. Hunter still carried with him the head of her staff. He intended to bring it back to her church. Something for them to bury at least. He hadn't removed it from his satchel since he left. He merely pressed a hand against the bag to make sure that the staff head was still there. He hoped that this would be sufficient as proof for them... she didn't even have her tags on her. They would have to settle on the staff. Hunter would need to go inform the guild of her passing as well. After that, he wasn't too sure. Hunter definitely intended to have some words with Guild Girl. He wouldn't shout at her, but he would tell her of the horrors of the flesh cave. At least an abridged version of it. Hunter was not certain they could handle the details well. Or worse... they could think him mad.

He wouldn't be harsh on anyone in the guild hall really. They couldn't have known about the true nature of the cave. Goblin Slayer was even surprised at the new type of goblin based on the way he carried the many-eyed head. It was concealed in a canvas sack now, obscuring its vision so it didn't glare at them with its disgusting dead eyes. When they all passed under the open gates of the town, the sun was almost setting. The sight made Hunter wilt. He did not want the night to come.

The guild hall was still open currently, but he really just wanted to go to an inn and just relax for a little while. Maybe get drunk. Hunter scratched his cheek.

Definitely get drunk. He wouldn't go overboard, but he needed to drown the horrific images in his mind. Sleep would not be able to help him escape the terrors bouncing around in his head, for he was still unable to find rest. Hunter had been tired after leaving the flesh cave and he thought that sleep would have come easily upon collapsing in his tent that night.

Sleep did not come however and Hunter had been left tossing and turning in frustration while everyone else took watch.

There were plenty of inns in town for him to drown those terrors. Goblin Slayer quickly departed without a single word of goodbye, but Hunter did not take offense. He seemed a silent man by nature, and Hunter would not hold the lack of manners against him. That and Hunter merely didn't want to go through the effort of giving a lecture. He was too mentally drained to do much else but relax. He sighted the nearest tavern and made way for it.

The wooden sign hanging from the archway read 'Deadened Senses'. Truly the place to be for his particular need. His steps echoed off of the cobbled stone of the mostly empty street as he drew closer to the inn. With night drawing near most people were either shut in their homes or were getting drunk. Or both. He noticed that the three party members had begun following after him, and Hunter stopped in place. They stopped as well. After a moment, Hunter reared on them.

"I um... The quest is complete. I was just going to drink a gallon or two to help cope... You're free to join me of course, but I plan to stay overnight." Hunter told them with a yawn.

Warrior cocked his head.

"Dontcha wanna turn in the quest first? Just to get it out of the way you know?" The young man said, fingering the hilt of his broken sword. Fighter nodded at his words.

"Yeah, I kinda just want to go get it done." Fighter said, clasping her hands loosely at her back.

Wizard remained silent but seemed to shoot a question at Hunter with a glance. Hunter just shrugged.

"Do we all need to go to turn in the quest? Does it have something to do with the reward? Honestly, I trust you lot to give me my cut." Hunter told them. "Just meet me here when you're done and I'll buy you lot a drink with my portion of the reward."

The trio remained silent.

"We were actually wondering if..." Fighter said, trailing off. "We were wondering if you'd come with us and tell them what happened down there. The reward should be a lot more for what we had to deal with."

Warrior nodded at this, and Wizard's gaze shot to the ground. Hunter sighed.

"I'd... rather not talk about it." Hunter told them. "Not right now anyway. Besides... I have no proof of what we had to deal with."

Hunter wasn't sure how the guild handled rewards when it came to situations such as this. He felt as if they would try to hold out on paying more than what was needed. The only way Hunter could think of to prove what had happened involved returning to the cave. It had been a blazing inferno when he left. Perhaps the soot would be good enough proof for the guild? It didn't seem likely. Perhaps Morgs bones still remained down below. How did one traverse that cave now that all of its flesh had been burned away? Was it merely a pit now? Hunter realized that it was likely there would be more than just Morg's bones. The cavern seemed to have been absorbing living matter. It had to do something with the bones surely. Warrior was about to speak up when Wizard cut him off, her eyes alight with realization.

"We do have proof!" She shouted. "Erm... Second-hand proof I suppose you could say." She continued a bit more meekly. "Goblin Slayer took the head of that many-eyed shaman. You both could find him and borrow the head for your proof."

Hunter was surprised that he did not think of it himself.

Fighter and Warrior looked to each other with confusion plain on their faces.

"Us both? You're not coming with us?" Fighter asked her, tilting her head.

Wizard paused and then shook her head.

"I want to stay with Hunter. I have a few questions I would like to have answered."

Hunter was about to speak before he was cut off.

"I guess we can do it ourselves..." Warrior said, giving a short huff. "Make sure to buy me a big ol' drink when I get back Hunter."

Hunter nodded slowly at the words, and then frowned.

"Make sure to notify the guild of Priestess' passing. She is surely dead." Hunter told him.

Warrior's head dropped at that, and Fighter shifted on her feet. Wizard gave a small frown, cast her gaze to her left towards the ground. Hunter took a deep breath. He hadn't confirmed the death to them by words. He had merely shook his head at their questions about her. Hunter speaking it aloud merely cemented the truth in not only his heart, but likely all three of his party members. A moment of silence passed between them all.

Hunter's half-lidded gaze then turned down to Wizard.

"I'd really just like to relax Wizard... I am in no mood for questions this night. Join me for a drink in the tavern, but please do not ask of me what transpired in that accursed place... I will tell you all eventually." He told her, drawing close and placing a hand on her shoulder. That had been along the lines of what he was about to say before Warrior had cut him off. "But not tonight." He said, his voice low. Not threatening in the least, simply tired.

Wizard opened her mouth as if to say something, but instead drew her lips to a fine line. She shot a glance to the ground as soon as he removed his hand from her shoulder. He turned again to head towards the tavern but stopped when he felt something tugging on his sleeve from behind. Hunter turned his head to see Wizards hand gripping the leather. She looked up at him with determination ablaze in her eyes. Hunter internally groaned, preparing himself to parry any questions jabbed his way by the woman.

"I will drink with you then." She said simply. As if it were only a small inconvenience.

Hunter almost choked on the words he had been forming in his throat. Wizard released her grip on his sleeve and he turned to face her. He looked over her pointy hat and saw that Warrior and Fighter were nowhere within sight. They had likely already left to go find Goblin Slayer. Hunter was glad that his trip to the guild hall had been postponed. At least for now. Silent footsteps those two had... They didn't even say goodbye. Perhaps hearing him say it out in the open soured their moods. Hunter did not blame them in the least.

"Very well then. But no questions." Hunter told her with a pointed finger.

Wizard put up a hand palm forward.

"Swear it on a grave." She said cooly.

Hunter cocked a brow at the odd statement.

"A grave?" Hunter asked her. "Any grave in particular?"

Wizard shook her head.

"Not at all. Just a grave will do."

"Why?" Hunter asked.

"In case I break my swear. That way I'll offend a random spirit instead of one I knew." She told him with a small smile.

Hunter nodded slowly.

"Well, I'm glad you've got this figured out." Hunter told her, the ghost of a laugh trailing his words. "Now, let's go get trashed."

Wizard gulped at his words. Had this girl ever gotten drunk before? He'd need to go light on the booze tonight in case she was a belligerent drunk. No one liked belligerent drunks. Thankfully, Hunter was a happy drunk. At least he was pretty sure he was. It was a feeling. Remembering his drunken tendencies exactly was

Fuzz

Exactly. He'd have to go with his gut instinct again. Hunter approached the open wood door of the Deadened Senses, and stepped into the warm orange glow of firelight. The bar was actually sparse of customers, though a few did sit at the counter atop stools as a fat mustached man served drinks. The innkeeper wore an apron that may have been white at some point in its past, but was now stained almost brown from various spilled liquids. A large beefy man with thick hairy arms he was, and his shoulders were as broad as a blacksmiths. The innkeepers healthy gut cast a wide shadow over the tabletop. His mustache was twirled upwards on both ends, almost curling in on themselves. The rest of his face was as bare as his bald head.

Hunter smelled the scent of ale and the sour smell of old sweat. Normally this would have fouled the mood, but the smell of ale called to him. Hunter noticed that a single large unoccupied chair of red leather sat in front of a bright burning fireplace. It looked well worn in, and certain parts of the chair were slightly ripped. One of the few occupants stumbled over to the red leather-bound seat, and the beefy innkeeper shot a glare at the drunkard.

The drunk man looked into the much larger innkeepers eyes, and soon wilted. The drunkard stumbled back to a table with a few bare wooden chairs and all but collapsed atop of one. The innkeeper scowled and began cleaning a mug with a dirty rag. Hunter took a step towards the bar, hearing the floorboards creak beneath his weight. The fat man then looked towards Hunter, likely being alerted to his presence from his footsteps.

The man's eyes conveyed boredom and mild annoyance as he focused on Hunter. He took another step, and the innkeeper scowled at him. Hunter stopped. Why was the innkeeper so upset? Hunter had never seen the man in his life! He looked down at his tattered outfit in realization. Good lord... He looked like a leather-bound homeless bum. No wonder the innkeeper wanted him out. Hunter took a step back, bumping into Wizard who gave a small gasp at the sudden contact.

Hunter quickly turned, grabbed Wizard by both of her shoulders, and ushered her out of the Deadened Senses with a quick motion. As Hunter was out of the man's sight, he heard a rumbling shout of surprise. Such a noise could only have come from the large innkeeper. What had made him shout like that? Hunter peeked his head back in to check on him, and saw that the innkeeper was glancing all around himself, looking for something. Something was trying to click in his mind... Hunter could feel it. There was a connection that was begging to be made, but the fog obscured it.

"What are you doing exactly?" Wizard asked him skeptically.

"I look like a bum." Hunter told her. "I can't go in there like this."

Wizard looked him up and down.

"Yes." She said.

That was it?

Hunter shook his head and realized he still kept a hold on Wizard. He released the grip with a muttered apology. Wizard frowned.

"Well, you're not going to find a tailors shop open now. No new clothes for you." Wizard told him. "Let's go see Artificer. He's not far from here."

Hunter was not opposed to getting his clothing repaired, yet he didn't know why Artificers shop would still be open at this hour. The sun had almost completely set now, and night was fast approaching. Apparently Hunter wore his doubt on his face, and Wizard added:

"He's a friend of my father. They went to the academy together. He's like my rude grumpy uncle." She explained to him, gripping his sleeve again as she began walking. "He'll let us in simply because I am who I am."

Hunter allowed himself to be tugged along. He knew not where to go, and he certainly wasn't a native to this town... or this world even. What Hunter didn't point out was how Wizard simply did not release his sleeve for the entirety of the short journey. She led him through twisting and ever-narrowing streets, passing several random townspeople that would gasp in surprise when out of eyesight. Much like the innkeeper had... how curious. Hunter didn't have much time to think on it however; for they now stood before Artificers shop.

It was a humble little place. It was in one of the worst possible places for business however. The shop was situated at the end of a narrow alleyway. Several doors remained shut on either side of the alley, light seeping out from beneath them and illuminating the path forward in the night. It had taken a good fifteen minutes to find this shop, and the sun had set completely now. The twin moons were nowhere in sight overhead, and Hunter was glad for it. The night had just begun, the moons wouldn't be up until later.

Wizard pulled him forward again, drawing him out of his musings as she knocked on the door. Only then did she release the sleeve. A grumpy uncle type eh? Hunter believed that he could get along with this man. The door itself was made of steel plated wood. Several dents and scratches marred the metal, as if a horde of rats had been trying desperately to dig their way through into the home. Before Hunter could inspect the damage further, a single metal slot slid open from the upper portion of the door and a wide bloodshot blue eye peered out at them. The eye focused on Hunter first, and then narrowed with suspicion. Hunter remained still as the gaze shifted to Wizard, the suspicion vanishing with recognition.

"Ah... Binky!" A deep scratchy voice said. "What are you doing here!?"

The visor shut before Wizard could respond. The sound of metal clanking and sliding against metal sounded from behind the door, and then stopped suddenly.

"That fucking bell again!" Artificer shouted. "Goddamn fucking thing!"

Hunter was taken aback by the foul language. So much so that he almost forgot what Artificer had called Wizard. Almost. Binky. There was no way that was her real name. Likely it was a nickname, and Hunter found it hilarious. It was nice to finally feel something other than the dread that had been following him up to that point. He didn't think that it was going to be a silly nickname that did it.

The sound of metal against metal continued, and he shot a glance at Wizard. She looked into his eyes as well, a silent conversation being held in their shared gaze.

"Binky." He said simply.

Wizard scowled and drove a playful elbow into his side, driving a small amount of breath out of him. The expulsion of air was from a chuckle. Hunter then looked to the door again as Wizard pouted. There was another connection here... Complaints about a bell... People being surprised after he was out of sight...

Before he could finish the connection, the door swung open, the sound of metal scraping against metal as a spindly form pulled the door open. Artificer was an older fellow, looking in his early fifties. His bald head reflected a blue light that shone down just above his head. Likely the source of the light was affixed to the top of the doorframe. Artificer wore a tailored suit pinstriped purple and black. The suit was ruined by spots of soot which also spotted his hairless face. He wasn't a tall man, but he couldn't be called short. His face was long and pocked with several small dark round scars that contrasted against Artificers unnaturally pale white skin. Black bags hung under his bloodshot eyes, indicating an unhealthy lack of sleep.

"It's nice to see you Binky..." Artificer stated, trailing off as his eyes found Hunter. "Who the fuck is this joker? Looks like one of those pervs that tie people up..." Artificers eyes narrowed. "You aren't going to tie me up perv!" He suddenly shouted. "Get gone leather boy!"

Hunter took a step back from the odd man.

"What!? I'm not good nuff for ya!? Go fuck yerself ya overgrown bufoon!" Artificer shouted again, a smile touching the older mans lips.

Wizard pinched the bridge of her nose as she shut her eyes.

"Please stop it Artificer..." Wizard groaned.

The old man then looked to Wizard with a mischievous glint in his eye.

"You damned southers..." Artificer groaned. "You can call me by my real name Binky! Us northerners don't share your stupid customs."

That caught Hunter's attention, and he took a step forward again.

"Back up perv." Artificer said. "I'm trying to make my niece miserable."

A frustrated grunt bubbled up from Wizard. That sound seemed to satisfy Artificer, and the older man crossed his thin arms over his chest.

"Whatcha want Binky? This old man's finally going to get some sleep." Artificer said.

Wizard took a deep calming breath, the embarrassed blush on her face now clear for Hunter to see. She pointed to Hunter.

"His clothes were ruined in a quest. Can you fix them please?" Wizard asked, reaching for her coin purse.

Artificer lifted a hand to forestall the action. Wizard halted, and tilted her head at Artificer.

"Who is this weirdo?" Artificer asked.

"I am Hunter. It is a pleasure to-"

"Wasn't asking you leather boy." Artificer said, swiftly cutting him off.

Hunter frowned. How rude. And he was certainly no 'boy'.

"He's a party member." Wizard said quickly. "Hunter is a porcelain-like me."

Artificer whistled as he looked between the two of them.

"Finally snagged a man have you?" Artificer asked. "Your daddy will be pleased. We both know that brother of yours is probably a daisy."

Wizard pulled her hat down over her head to hide what Hunter presumed to be a furious blush. Hunter shrugged and split his face with a grin.

"Well I don't know how it happened," Hunter said. "She just kinda swept me off my feet."

Artificer let out a hearty laugh at that, his eyes finding Hunter's own. Wizard seemed to sink further into the depths of her hat, almost squealing with embarrassment. Hunter understood now. Artificer wasn't actually the grumpy uncle type, he was more the malicious teasing uncle. Hunter would be lying to himself if he denied being entertained by Wizard's embarrassment. He felt a little guilty perhaps, but not much. Hunter laughed with Artificer for a moment before the laughter trailed off. They both looked to Wizard, who was still buried in her hat.

"Alright. I'm done ribbin' ya." Artificer said, casting a glance at his short nails.

Wizard pulled up her hat slowly, a scowl on her face. The frown did nothing to hide the red on her face however. Hunter did have to admit, it was adorable.

"Mend." She hissed through clenched teeth.

Artificer snorted and lifted a hand to Hunter. A glowing gray light enveloped Hunter's form, and his leathers were completely sealed once more. Hunter felt at his back to be sure, and indeed the tears had repaired. Hunter then gave a low bow to Artificer.

"I thank you for your kindness," Hunter told the older man. "And I thank you for telling me her nickname. I will make good use of this information."

It was hard not to smile while saying that. Artificer laughed again as Wizard began stomping off back down the ally. Artificer cupped two hands over his mouth as he shouted.

"Have a nice honeymoon Binky! I'll write your daddy and tell him about your new husband!"

At that, Wizard began walking faster. Hunter hurried after her, giving another short bow to Artificer as he went. Hunter would have to find his way back here again if he could. He had a few questions for Artificer. The old man just confirmed to Hunter that titles weren't these peoples true names. Why wouldn't they just go by their real names? He likely could just ask Wizard about it. Would that be weird in this culture?

Hunter quickly caught up to her with his long legs, keeping pace with minimal effort. They walked like that in silence for a time before Hunter spoke up.

"You didn't give him a hug goodbye at least?" Hunter asked her. "I thought he was like an uncle."

Wizard scoffed.

"A wretched uncle." She replied curtly. "And you joined in with him."

Hunter laughed at that, the sound echoing down the alley. They continued their way through the twisting streets until they found themselves back at the entrance of the Deadened Senses. The door was still wide open, for indeed the night was still warm. Hunter brushed off his attire as he made way for the entrance once more. Wizard followed closely behind him, and then they both crossed the threshold.

All of the same occupants were there, including the poor drunk man who was denied the comfy chair. His forehead still remained glued to the top of the table. The innkeeper was polishing another wider mug behind the counter, and he eyed Hunter as he passed through the open doorway. The innkeeper then looked around himself again instead of maintaining a glare this time, as if looking for something that had been there once before. As Hunter drew nearer, the innkeeper grumbled and set the mug on the countertop. Hunter took a seat on the nearest stool to him, feeling the wood creak beneath his weight.

Hunter placed both hands atop the counter as Wizard took a seat next to him, leaning her staff against the countertop between them. The burly man seemed to take in Hunter's uniform again, this time with a furrowed brow. Hunter wondered if the man was confused or if he knew of Artificer. The innkeeper then turned his eyes onto Wizard, and raised a single eyebrow.

"We only have strong drink little missy." The man said, his voice like a bucket of gravel being spilled on wood. "No baby drinks."

Wizard frowned, and leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms beneath her breasts.

"I can handle anything you could possibly serve up," Wizard told him with condescension lacing her voice. "Give me the strongest you have, and you'll see."

The innkeeper actually chuckled at that, turning his gaze back to Hunter.

"Same for you then weirdo?"

Why did everyone keep calling him that?

"Yes... Your actual strongest drink however." Hunter told him. "Not just some water with a shot of wine."

The innkeeper smiled at that as well, and Wizard muttered something under her breath.

"Coming right up then." The burly man said, passing through an open doorway behind his counter.

Not much time passed before the innkeeper returned with two large mugs of clear ale. Hunter almost believed that it was water for a moment before taking a whiff of the stuff. His nose recoiled at the smell. It was like liquid sulfur. Hunter gulped. Perhaps he could handle at least a few swigs of this vile concoction, but he had his doubts for Wizard. It might very well eat through the poor girls stomach before she could even get drunk. The innkeeper crossed his arms over his chest and smirked.

"It's free if you can sip that without sputtering missy. Think ya can handle it?"

Wizard sniffed the ale; if that was what it truly was, and then began chugging the liquid. Hunter's jaw dropped at the site as Wizard's gullet chugged down the entire mug. The innkeeper watched with wide eyes as Wizard slammed the cup down on the table. Hunter shook his head with disbelief. The innkeep truly must have given her water... Hunter was hesitant to drink this vile thing, and he was certain he had gotten drunk before.

Wizard cleared her throat to get the innkeepers attention.

"I said your strongest." She said simply.

The innkeep put up both hands defensively.

"That was the same stuff I gave to your man there... I use it to strip paint sometimes... by the gods woman!"

Hunter realized then, that he was faced with a dire dilemma. He now had to drink this entire concoction in the same fashion. True, he could go at it like a normal drink, but Wizard had set a bar. Hunter could not stop himself from attempting to set that bar even higher. He gripped the handle of his mug and resigned himself to fate. He guzzled the acid down in a few gulps, the liquid burning his throat like he'd swallowed live fire ants. Hunter thankfully did not sputter, and he slammed the mug down next to Wizards.

The burn persisted however, and he swallowed his own spit in a hollow attempt to quell the pain. It was like pouring a cup of water onto a blazing inferno. Thankfully his voice naturally already sounded like it had been put through a shredder, so hopefully the two of them wouldn't notice his suffering.

"Another." He barely managed to get out.

Wizard narrowed her gaze at him and actually smirked. The innkeeper took the two mugs with a sigh, and returned with them filled again with that clear liquid death. Again Hunter and Wizard drank, not missing a beat as they set both mugs down at the same time. Hunter was way bigger than Wizard was... so the alcohol would surely hit her much harder than it would him. Hopefully. Another mug, then another, and another. Soon Hunter found his head dizzy and lolling to and fro. He looked up from his daze to see the innkeeper pinching his brow and wincing.

"No more for either of ya. Won't have no one die on my property. Just don't cause trouble and you can stay as long as you want."

"Fnuhh..." Hunter replied tactfully.

The innkeep looked up at Hunter.

"Good gods man. You are well and truly gone!" He shouted.

Hunter slapped a open palm like a dead fish on the countertop.

"Fnuuuhhhh!" Hunter replied a bit more forcefully.

"Fneeerrr..." Wizard muttered beside him, her head planted on the countertop. Her hat had been placed next to her mug.

Hunter nodded his head knowingly.

"Fnuh." He told her as he fell backward out of his seat.

The back of his head bounced off of the wooden floor yet Hunter felt no pain. Instead he began giggling like a child. His head felt like a whirlpool of molasses as he attempted to rise to his feet. All he managed to do was flip over onto his belly. A good start he thought. Hunter braced himself, and pushed upward to a kneeling position. The contents of his stomach sloshed with each and every movement, and Hunter knew that he had to be careful; lest he hork the contents onto this nice floor.

Wizard lifted her head slowly from the counter, and turned a half-lidded gaze to Hunter. The girl pointed a finger at him, and began laughing. A healthy red hue colored her cheeks as she continued her ridiculing laugh. It was a hearty loud laugh that seemed more to fit the innkeeper than it did a small woman such as herself. Hunter grunted as he rose on shaky feet. Wizard still laughed at him, and Hunter turned to see that the mugs of ale were long gone. The innkeeper kept a wary eye on the both of them, seeming ready to either lay a pillow under a head or to throw them out into the cold night. Hunter approached the still laughing Wizard, and pinched the girl's sides with both hands. Wizard squealed like a pig as Hunter tickled her, laughing like a moron.

"Hunter? Wizard?" He heard a voice say from behind him.

Hunter released Wizard, and craned his head to see Warrior looking at him with a raised brow.

"Buddeh!" Hunter shouted.

Warrior winced at the sound of the shout and Fighter stepped through the doorway behind the young man.

"We uh... we found Goblin Slayer. We got it done. The guild still wants to talk to you tomorrow... Do you want to or...?" Fighter asked him, as if asking herself rather than Hunter.

Hunter blinked at the two of them and turned a slack-jawed gaze back to the innkeeper. Hunter pointed a finger at the two party members and proclaimed.

"Fnuuuuhhhh!" He shouted mightily.

The innkeeper winced.

"They gotta pay for themselves bucko." The burly man replied.

Hunter's head drooped.

"Fnuuuhhh..." He said in a low pitch.

Fighter and Warrior both looked at each other as Wizard giggled. Hunter smiled at the ground, but furrowed his brow as he felt himself... drifting. He wasn't certain if it was the booze or...

Was it... the insight...? That he gained from the First Eye? Thoughts left long ignored bubbled up to the surface, refusing to be obscured by the fog.

...

...

...

"You wanted to see me commander?" Hunter asked, clasping his hands behind his back.

Sumen's office was little more than a tent with a bare dirt floor. The red canvas blew inward under the force of a strong wind. The weather was so hectic outside that Hunter feared that every tent in camp would be blown away. Assuming the fog didn't get to them first.

Sumen faced away from him behind a table, his broad arms crossed over his chest. His uniform was practically in tatters now... as was Hunters. Wear and tear that no man of Chuden's military could fix. There was simply no time in the day. There was too much else to do... too much to fight off. Sumen let out a deep breath.

"Listen boy." Sumen said.

Hunter stiffened at that. He was certainly not a boy any longer. The battles he had fought with his brothers in arms had hardened him past his young years. Hunter respected Sumen too much to say as much out loud. That and the fact that Sumen was his superior. The haggard man turned back, his tan face marred by new white scars received over the last few months. Sumen leaned down on his simple wood desk.

"We are in deep shit." Sumen told him simply.

Hunter nodded.

"Fried fractured and fucked sir." Hunter replied.

Sumen nodded simply to this.

"The Soulborne have taken Anglut."

Hunter stiffened at the name, and his jaw dropped at the news. The capital had fallen. It took all Hunter had to not simply collapse to his knees right there. They had lost the war. It was all over now. It was just this little pocket of resistance now... there was nothing left. Despair washed over him, threatening to buckle him under its weight. Hunter stood despite the dread he felt. He would not succumb in front of his hero. Sumen nodded at Hunter's reaction.

"I was just informed an hour ago." Sumen said. "The messenger is sworn to silence. We can't afford to be routed now."

That made sense. The men couldn't hear of this, it would drive them to the army fell now, there was truly no hope for the world. Truthfully Hunter shouldn't hold on to any hope. Chuden's military only had a fraction of the numbers they once had. The largest force on the planet reduced to a mere thousand men... The despair came back in force, and Hunter's head fell against his wishes. His family was already dead, the army was his family now. If he lost that...

"You are my best." Sumen told him.

Hunter's head shot up.

"I have received other news as well... what do you know about Yharnam?"

"Not much sir." Hunter said honestly.

"I've heard of something from there... something called Paleblood."

Hunter sniffed.

"Children's tales sir. Nothing more."

Sumen seemed to look into nothing; staring past Hunter with unfocused eyes.

"Maybe," Sumen replied. "But the Soulborne were just children's tales too... and look at what we fight against."

Hunter had no reply to that. It was a good point.

"Go to Yharnam." Sumen told him. "Go there, and find the Paleblood."

Chapter Text

"Find... Palebleh..." Hunter muttered, sitting up slowly in his bed.

Sumen... he was surely dead by now. Stranded on another world there was no way Hunter could save him. Assuming that memory wasn't years ago. Had he found the Paleblood? Did finding it bring him here somehow? For some reason, he thought of Unseen, and the fog smothered whatever memories of the old fellow he had. He ignored it, he was dealing with another painful truth. His country was gone, destroyed by the 'Soulborne' whatever those were. The sadness crushed him under its weight, yet he did not weep. Chuden looked down upon men who wept for losses in war. Not blocked by the fog, Hunter realized that was one memory of his country that was free to be remembered. It was surely a tough nation. One he could be proud of being part of.

Slowly he shrugged off the crushing melancholy and sat up straight. He had things to do today, he would not allow himself sadness for the loss of his comrades. It wasn't the Chuden way. Though he had wept for Priestess and her horrific fate, but that was not war, it was an 'adventure.' He could allow himself tears for the poor child.

Hunter shook his head. Right then, up and at em'

Hunter's head ached. It was a horrid pain accompanied by a pained belch. He certainly hadn't slept at all during his drunken bender, but it was still an effort to remember last night's events. He knew that he had eventually ended up laying down in a tavern bed in an attempt to sleep. That had been what got him sober eventually. From what he could recall, he and Wizard had gone throughout the night visiting different taverns and drinking what they could before moving on.

Eventually, they had given up and ended up staying here at this inn. He couldn't remember the name of the place, but that wasn't what was important. He needed to go and explain to the guild what had happened on that quest and return the head of the staff to the church. He winced after rising and pulling thick woolen curtains open to reveal a blazing sun. Truly it felt as if it were attempting to toast out his eyes.

He belched again.

Hunter didn't care for manners when there was no one around to be appropriate to, so he felt no shame. He noticed that his attire was still on him completely, not a stitch missing... save for one thing. His hat.

He looked around the cramped little room for any sign of the tricorn hat, upturning pillows and blankets in a small frustrated fury. He liked that hat, and he wasn't going to leave it to disappear into the ether. Where could it have gone? It didn't take him long to finish his search of the room due to its small size. More of a closet with a bed than a proper room. He groaned softly as he realized that Wizard had stolen it last night at some point as a joke. Hunter hadn't bothered to retrieve it then, he was quite drunk. Now, however, a small anxiety nipped at his mind.

What if she had lost it?

He left the room and entered into the wide hallway, looking down both ends for Wizards door. What was her room again? Before he could make a decision, the door at the far end of the hall opened up, the rising sun silhouetting Wizards slumping form. The girl was right to be slumping, Hunter felt as if a nail had been pounded into each of his temples. It was all he could do not to lay back down.

She yawned, and shut the door behind her, staring pointedly at Hunter. Now that she wasn't being shadowed by sunlight, he could see that she appeared perfectly healthy, not a single bag under her big green eyes. She was already dressed in her normal attire as he was, though it didn't appear ruffled like Hunter's currently was. Hunter nearly jumped when he realized that his sun blocking spectacles were not currently worn. Where were they? How many essential items had he lost in that drunken crusade across town?

He felt at his pockets as Wizard approached him with a smug smile on her face. He saw as she reached into her bag and pulled out not just his spectacles, but his precious hat.

"I couldn't trust you to not lose the hat... and you probably would have shattered your glasses in your sleep. So I... appropriated them for the night." She told him, presenting them to him. "My staff and your hammer are in the lobby, we couldn't bring them in the rooms with us."

Hunter nodded, he did remember that... slightly. A large bulging fat man nearly soiling himself upon gazing at Hunter. Apparently that was always the first impression he made on someone, Wizard had told him so last night upon his questioning on the subject. At least what he could remember. He put on his glasses and hat, thanking the God of Dark Lenses for providing him with this light dimming sight. Sure, that god didn't exist, but Hunter was not opposed to building a religion around darkened lenses. They were stylish.

He cleared his throat to speak.

"You look great today." Hunter told her, pointing out her clear health.

Her eyes widened before shooting to the floor, red tinting her cheeks. Hunter nearly palmed his face. He had forgotten about her little crush on him. No point in mentioning how he meant her well being and not her looks. Not that she was bad looking of course, but pursuing skirts was not his current interest. Maybe he would partake in The Great Chase after he had discovered his past completely and dealt with the fog.

"Right then, off to the guild we go, I want to get this done with." Hunter told her. "Is Warrior and Fighter here?" He asked her.

Wizard looked up at him then, and her expression flattened. Why did she look so cold all of the sudden?

"They won't be accompanying us." She said curtly. "They have broken this party, so its just you and me right now."

Hunter almost gave a start at the words. Broken the party? Why was that? There was something to this.

"Why did they break party? Did I offend in some manner?" He asked her, scratching his ear.

Wizard then huffed, and lightly shouldered past him. Hunter followed down the hallway and into the lobby, seeing his hammer and her staff sitting behind the counter of the barkeep. The fat man was nowhere in sight. In fact, no one was in the... well, inn at all it seemed. It was dead quiet. Before he could think on it further, Wizard spoke up, cutting off his thoughts.

"They wanted to form a party with that Goblin Slayer fellow." Wizard told him in a tone that belied frustration. "I told them I didn't want to do such. We already had a decent party size, and that man unsettles me. They then told me they were breaking party with me. It is within their right to break party, but it isn't right to simply do it after just one quest. I exchanged... less than pleasant words about their actions, which only made them leave faster. I don't think they much care for me now."

Hunter shrugged. He didn't understand the decision completely but Fighter and Warrior had their right to privacy. He wouldn't pry into their reasonings. Goblin Slayer seemed a capable enough fellow, perhaps he could keep them from harm.

"What of me?" Hunter asked. "Did they ask about me at all?"

Wizard nodded.

"They said they would like you to come along with their new party if you would like." She said, staring at him with a flat expression.

Those eyes seemed to bore holes through him. Hunter needed to be careful, lest he earn the ire of this woman.

"I see... now, I'm guessing if I did you wouldn't come along with me because of your disagreement yes?" Hunter asked.

Wizard opened her mouth to answer but hesitated before saying.

"No I would not." She said.

Hunter nodded in response.

"Then I will just keep party with you then. They have Goblin Slayer, they should be fine." Hunter told her with a grin.

Wizard then smiled satisfactorily, as if she had just achieved a huge victory. With her crush in mind, she may very well have. There was also the fact that Hunter would feel guilty if he simply left her on her own to form a new party, Fighter and Warrior would be just fine without him.

After gathering up their weapons and leaving a tip on the counter, they entered into the heat of summer. Already sweat began to cake his brow, and Hunter was thankful for the glasses. If he hadn't had them on when stepping into this blazing inferno, his head may have very well popped. After asking directions to the nearest church, Hunter and Wizard quickly found it. A large building with banners of blue inlaid with gold and white marble pillars, it was the most expensive building in town. At least that was what Hunter believed. Marble was not a cheap material.

Hunter made to approach the wide-open double doors of the cathedral when he suddenly stopped. The head of the staff felt far heavier all of the sudden, and Hunter was compelled to take a step back. Wizard cast a glance at him and tilted her head slightly.

"Is there something wrong?" She asked him, genuine concern in her voice.

Hunter shook his head.

"It's nothing. Just an ache in my calf." Hunter lied. "Just need to take another step."

Hunter did just that, and the weight in his bag grew. The staff head seemed to be trying to pull him backward, and he felt compelled to follow along with it. Hunters hackles rose. What was happening?

"Hunter?" Wizard asked, placing a hand on his arm.

"I am fine... We will do this at another time I suppose." He told her. "Churches make me uncomfortable. Past experiences you see... another time." He lied again.

It was all he could do to not pull out the head of the staff right then and there. Something was off about it. Could it have been cursed in some way? Infused with the evil of the First Eye? Is that why he could not carry it on holy ground? Hunter would not be surprised if that were the case. The evils in that place were enough to taint the soul forever, why not magical items?

He would need to see if there was a way to purge the filth from the thing. Another thing to do later. Hunter briefly considered asking Wizard about just that until he remembered that he had just lied to her. Twice in fact. He wondered if she knew the first lie was a lie in truth based on his second. Though if she did she gave no sign of it, simply allowing concern to show through her gaze.

The trip to the guild was easy, Wizard knew the town well enough for them to find their way. Weary townsfolk and wandering adventurers all stared at Hunter as he passed, hearing shocked yelps after he passed from their sight. How odd. He tried not to pay it any mind, though it was hard when folks began shrieking in fright at his leaving. This repeated as they passed through the town, every time they turned a corner in fact. Sometimes he and Wizard turned around to see what the commotion was, only to see those townspeople glancing all around looking for something.

They moved on until they reached the guild, Wizard looking troubled by something. She looked as if she wanted to ask him something, but withheld for some reason. Perhaps it had something to do with the townsfolk. As they passed through the doorway, Hunter made a connection. The townsfolk, the innkeeps, and everyone who first met him seemed shocked as he disappeared... could he be what was causing their shock? Could it be that he was granting them...

Fuzz

No!

Fuzz

He grit his teeth as he pushed through the door of the guild hall, a bit more forcefully than he had meant too. The door slammed into the wall and seemed to shake the building. Several faces turned to inspect the ruckus he had caused, spotting him standing there in the doorway. Hunter suppressed a sigh, he knew how this might look. Fresh faced adventurers looked startled and a little angry, while the older more stony-faced ones merely looked annoyed.

Hunter was sure these had seen him before, so whatever effects his first impression had on them had already taken place. There may be a few unfamiliar faces in the crowd, he was not sure. He did not know the adventurers well enough to claim familiarity upon a glance. The guild hall was crammed that one day he came in for his second-technically fourth quest, counting the three rat quests he did.

Were these the same people on that day? Or did different crowds of adventurers stop in whenever? He stepped forward with Wizard trailing behind him, approaching the counter. Of course he could not simply approach it at this hour, several people were in line. Hunter was against cutting, and he was a patient man or so he thought. He took his place at the back of the line, Wizard standing just behind him.

The people in front of him spared him suffering glances a moment before turning back ahead. That produced sharp intakes of air and arcing glances to the corners of the ceiling. So a few hadn't seen him yet. A good many people were shifting on their feet. Some people would turn away from him only to only gasp and repeat what the others had done.

"I hear that bell everyone's talking about!" A man exclaimed.

A tall fellow, not so tall as Hunter himself of course. Hunter seemed to dwarf everyone he met. This decent height for the Spearman-for that was what Hunter thought of him as- complimented the long spear in the crook of his arm. The polished steel head of the spear looked to resemble an oversized arrowhead, and his plated armor was of a bluish tint and trimmed with golden paint. Round orange earrings complimented his orange eyes and long orange hair. At least he kept his hair in a tail, but those earings were dreadful. It was not proper for a man to wear... earrings. Indeed even Chuden women disdained such frivolity as well as the men.

Fuzz

Fuzz

Fuzz

Hunter grinned, he had caught the fog off guard once again. Perhaps it was just best to let his thoughts wander. The Spearman leaned his elbows against a round table across from a very provocatively dressed woman with purple hair.

A black coat trimmed with gold was worn around her arms as opposed to her shoulders, which lay bare. A low cut white shirt complimented the lewd dress, and indeed Hunter had to struggle to keep his eyes away from the crevice below. What Hunter had thought was a coat revealed itself to be a dress with a skirt that was far too short for decency. Purple stockings covered what the dress did not, which was much.

Briefly, Hunter and the woman met eyes. Her deep purple eyes seemed to suggest things to him, and indeed she winked. Hunter cleared his throat and looked away. He had no time for the great chase right now, and even if he did partake, it wouldn't be to chase a harlot! Come to think of it, had he ever chased before?

Fuzz

Ah yes. That's right.

Wizard then gripped his sleeve, and stared daggers at the other woman. The purple-haired woman put on a pointy hat, not too much unlike Wizards, and winked at Hunter again. Was she a Wizard as well? He supposed that a warrior would not go into combat wearing skirts and certainly less than adequate 'armor'. Wizard stiffened at that, and Hunter saw the dangling silver adventurers tag nestled between the woman's breasts.

He had tried not to look, but Hunter was not a block of wood. So this... Witch? He supposed that was as likely to be her title as any. So she was a high ranking adventurer... and so was the Spearman, based on the tag around his own neck. Big dogs around here? They held the same rank as Goblin Slayer. Perhaps they were friends?

He faced forward again, not intending to look back to the duo. Wizard still seemed to be boring holes in that direction, but eventually, she lightened up, and released her grip on his sleeve, facing forward. They did not speak of it. Wizard's crush may be getting a little out of hand, the way she was acting was not proper. She seemed to bristle like a cat. Hunter would not speak to her of it however, it was not proper for a man to lecture a woman on how they should play at The Great Chase.

He heard as others began speaking of the bell as well with an odd fervor. Several claimed that it was close, and those same people spoke of a reward. Reward? He supposed that news of his effects on people traveled quickly. Though none seemed to have made the connection to Hunter yet. They'd have to try hard for that bell money.

A short time of standing in line later, and Hunter stood before Guild Girl, the woman's often cheery manner somewhat diminishing upon seeing him. Had he made her upset?

"I heard about what happened Hunter... I'm so sorry." She said, a genuine frown playing at her lips. "From what I gather, it was more than just a goblin quest."

Hunter frowned and nodded.

"Well... we're ready to send an expedition of silver ranks to investigate this cave, but we were hoping you could tell us what was in the depths."

Hunter groaned inwardly. He knew he'd have to do this, but he was reticent to speak of the horrors he had seen.

"Very well... could I speak somewhere a bit more private?" Hunter asked. "The things I have seen should not be heard of by soft stomachs."

Guild Girl visibly gulped and nodded. She then directed him to a room a level up from the lobby. There he met other Guild Girls that asked him of the terrors he encountered. Apparently he was going to have this be a private discussion even if he didn't ask. Hunter told them everything, though he did not linger on anything for long. He told them of the giant eye down at the bottom and the giant many-eyed goblin. He didn't name it the First Eye, for that would bring up questions that Hunter himself could not answer.

Then he got to the hardest part of all.

"She died in there, fused to flesh and bone. I killed her. Put her out of her misery. She asked me to." He had said.

He received condolences and understanding nods. Their faces had changed all throughout his retelling, shifting from curious awe to fear and disgust. Now their faces were downcast and solemn. The retelling did not take much time, though speaking of it made it feel twice as long as it really was. They thanked him for his time, and dismissed him, telling him that his current reward was down with Guild Girl. Hunter had no idea how they told each other apart when it came to names.

He did not feel like asking however, he was in a foul mood. He descended the stairs slowly, the wood creaking beneath his weight. Wizard approached him as soon as he entered the lobby. She looked concerned with that furrowed brow of hers. Others spared him a glance as well, but quickly looked away. None talked of a bell.

"Are you alright?" Wizard asked him.

Hunter nodded as he relaced his collar to hide his face. He did not want to wear his sadness in front of a dozen strangers, colleagues or no.

"I am not, though I can still function. We have our reward waiting for us apparently. Let's get back in line."

And so they did. The line had shortened considerably since he had gone up, and he noticed that people made a point of not looking his way. Hunter did not care. Soon they both found themselves before Guild Girl again, and the woman brought up a healthy bulging brown sack.

"For the difficulties of this quest and the unforeseen dangers you've survived, we're rewarding you with thirty gold." She said.

Wizard sputtered with astonishment.

"Thirty gold!?" She shouted.

Many eyes turned toward her then, many narrowing considerably. Hunter shot a glare towards the considering glances, and many broke the gaze. Some however, did not. He'd have to keep an eye out for those ones. He was not sure how much thirty gold could purchase in this world, but based on the items he had bought for the quest to the cave, he thought it was a fair bit.

Wizards cheeks then tinted a furious red as she covered her face with her hat. Truly that was an adorable little quirk of hers, it nearly made him laugh out loud. Hunter then furrowed his brow as he lifted the sack from the counter. Hadn't Warrior and Fighter gotten their cut? Or was it they were supposed to bring Wizard and Hunter's cut to them? He could not remember, but they did deserve some of the reward if they had not gotten it.

"Did my previous party members get a reward as well?" Hunter asked, bouncing the bag on his palm.

Guild Girl nodded as Wizard pulled up her hat to stare at him.

"Yes... we have a policy on that. We don't give out the whole reward if only some of the party members show up to collect. We've had too many incidents where a single member would run off with the party loot to never be seen again. So we gave them the other half of that." She told them matter of factly.

Wizard balked at that, and gripped the brim of her hat.

"We could have had sixty gold between all of us?" She hissed silently.

Hunter could practically feel the heat of rage emanating from the woman. He winced at the setting of her jaw and quickly wrapped his arm around hers. Hunter needed to stoop somewhat to reach properly, but soon he was leading her out, with several eyes watching them as he thanked Guild Girl. Wizard seemed to have gone completely silent, a small smile now playing at her lips.

Upon exiting into the blistering sunlight, Hunter released her arm. She frowned at that, and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. Hunter then realized that he had no idea what to do for the rest of the day. At some point he would try and return the head of the staff to the church, but he was aching for something to eat.

It was simple to find good eating. Wizard had led him into a wide market where every nook and cranny seemed to have a food stall. Peddlers shouted their wares and the quality of such wares. He heard one man quite literally proclaiming the use of snake oil, and Hunter nearly laughed at that. Several men and women spoke of the bell everyone in town had been talking about the past few days, and Hunter caught conversations of folk in town gone missing, never to be seen again.

Anything else to be gleaned from those words was lost in the cacophony of voices. The rest of the day was spent perusing the various wonders of the marketplace. After eating Hunter had seen a man selling what he claimed to be owlbear eggs. Hunter had no idea what an owlbear was, but Wizard had scoffed at the man and told him off for speaking such gurry.

Hunter had asked about the eggs, to which Wizard smiled and explained that the man was just selling large stones. The difference between an owlbear egg and a stone was imperceivable to an untrained eye. Wizard in her studies had also researched various monsters and their life cycles, claiming it was important to know of what you could run into.

Hunter had enjoyed this little shopping excursion with Wizard, and they both had spent five gold on good food and a few neat little baubles. Hunter himself had bought a small collapsible telescope which was now nestled in one of his many pockets. Wizard had purchased some small purple crystal orb, the smooth surface reflecting the light. Wizard claimed that the peddler knew not what he was selling. She had been very excited upon seeing it, though she did not tell the peddler what he truly had in his possession. Hunter got the idea that Wizard could have been a shrewd merchant as well as a wizard.

"What is that thing exactly?" Hunter asked her.

"I can store spells in this stone for use later. I don't know how many spells it can hold, but either way, something like this normally would have been sold for hundreds of gold pieces. I may sell it later on if I reach a high enough level." She told him, gripping the palm wide orb in her right hand. "Then again, this will be useful no matter what level I am. I can't believe I found something like this!"

Hunter scratched his forehead. How could she tell? Hunter certainly could not. A gleam shone in Wizards' eye upon his asking, and she beamed up at him as they left the market.

"My research on the subject certainly helped, but my connection to magic is what really told me its true nature." She told him as they strode down an alleyway.

They weren't walking anywhere in particular, as Hunter had been putting off returning to the church. Something in him screamed that he shouldn't do that, but he was not sure as to why that was. The sun was beginning to descend on the horizon, though it did not shine in their eyes.

"See, an Ioun stone could have several different properties, but upon activation, it will begin floating around you like a little moon. This is universal for Ioun stones, but I know that this one is spell storing. You can tell from its hue you see." She said with mirth.

She then went off on a tangent on Ioun stones that Hunter somewhat understood-it was hard to follow along with the woman's quick speaking- but indeed these did sound like powerful items.

"A damaged stone however will grant you a dimmed effect, and maybe even a detriment. A cracked Ioun stone that grants great strength may make you slower and so on."

Hunter then spotted three men standing at the head of the alley, slowly approaching them. Simple town wanderers or cutpurses he could not tell. They were all tall lean men with noses that had been broken several times and the sunken knuckles of brawlers. Drawing closer Hunter could see the steel tags dangling from their necks. The men wore a look of grim determination on their faces. Wizard's excited tone slowed and eventually ceased upon sighting the three men.

The Kirkhammer could smash all three aside with ease, but Hunter did not thirst for blood this night. Or dusk he supposed he should say, the sun still shone on the horizon. Hunter sighed inwardly as the men stopped ten paces from Hunter and Wizard. The two of them stopped at that distance as well. The man in the middle horked and spat at the ground.

"All roight you lot." The man said with a deeply accented voice. " We've eard that you got yerself some noice shoiners for completin' that quest. A bit too 'eavy for porcelains ya know? So me and the boys thought it'd be a nicety to take the weight off yer 'ands." He finished, proffering an open hand.

Hunter stepped in front of Wizard, and the motion caused the three men to flinch.

"He walks like a damned board!" Said the man to the leads left. "Roight creepy that is."

"Yeah, let's just stomp him and get a move on- don't worry little missy we just want yer coin, not yer lives." The man in the middle said, shooting Wizard a glance. He then chuckled abruptly. "Not yer cave either ha! I'm a married man."

Wizard huffed indignantly.

"Leave." Hunter said simply.

The three men didn't seem to hear him, and they looked to each other, and then back to the other end of the alley likely to make sure it was clear of any who may interfere. The three then jumped as they began looking all around themselves to find the source of what Hunter knew must be the bell ringing in their ears.

"I said," Hunter growled again. "Leave."

The three then glared daggers at him.

"Stompin' time boys. Make sure to leave the lass be or I'll string ya up by yer tongues." The middle man said, cracking his knuckles as he approached Hunter.

The three men didn't even have time to react to the blur of motion that landed them flat on their rear ends. To them, it was as if Hunter had teleported right in front of them before promptly slapping them across the face with a firm open palm. He had moved from one to another easily before delivering the satisfying blows. In Chuden, the common way to deal with common vagabonds as a soldier was to slap the man silly-

Fuzz

Fuzz

Fuzz

Hunter grinned. It was getting easier and easier to remember little tidbits of his past.

"Oi Brawler that git smacked me roight good like me mum used to do!" One man said, laughing.

Surprisingly, the other two men laughed as well.

"Roight he did boys. Well, you slapped us right good mate, we'll leave yaz alone." The man called Brawler said, his bald head reflecting what little light remained in the day.

The three men rose slowly, and limped away into the coming night, laughing like children. Hunter shook his head in confusion. That was not how he thought that was going to go at all. Wizard seemed to think so as well, based on her furrowed brow. They looked to each other, shrugged, and moved on. They had spoken of the encounter for the rest of their walk, and Wizard claimed that it was common for those of higher rank to bully quest money out of porcelains.

Certainly not all higher ranks did so, but it wasn't an uncommon occurrence. Hunter thought it was despicable. It may have been honorable to leave Wizard out of the fight, but it was dishonorable to pick on those of lower rank simply because you thought they were weaker than you. They found themselves back at the Deadened Senses, and drank a fair amount before renting a room for the night.

Innkeep had frowned at seeing them again, and claimed to charge full price for all drinks, claiming he'd not make the same mistake with the two of them again. Hunter had laughed at that, and Wizard giggled. The night passed, and Hunter feigned fatigue, and retired to a mid-sized room. Even if he could not sleep he could still relax under the blankets. This was of course after he had laid Wizard down to sleep in her own room, the woman could barely stand at the time.

Innkeep had allowed them to keep their weapons with them, claiming that he did not feel like babysitting 'adventurers toys.' Hunter felt that a fair statement. He lay there until dawn of the next day, letting his mind wander. Hunter would have to pick a new adventure at some point, for that likely would lead him to reveal his past. At least that was all he could think of to accomplish that goal. He'd do it tomorrow, and he'd try again to return the staff head, if he could.

Chapter Text

Artificer ran a hand over his sweaty bald head. The heat within his little alley workshop had become near unbearable despite the cool night air outside. His home had no windows to vent the heat, so each summer night was one filled with the stink of sour sweat. Some beaded at his forehead, rolling down his leathery skin and dripping onto the pages spread out before him. Diagrams for several different kinds of invention were spread from end to end of the table on yellowed parchment, with even more pinned to the walls of this cramped workshop. He gave a drawn-out yawn.

He could feel the weight of the bags beneath his eyes, threatening to drag him down into an impromptu workshop slumber. The fear of what would come helped keep him conscious.

He could not, would not, allow himself even a moment of rest. For if he did so, he feared what awaited him in his restless dreams. More like nightmares. Images of feral creatures and men with the countenance of beasts flashed through his mind, causing him to wince. He knew the bell had something to do with his horrid nightly visions.

The ringing of the bell brought him insight and allowed him to perceive his surroundings differently. He saw things no one else seemed to notice; things that should have made them run in fear... yet they did not. The townsfolk would simply stride right by the horrors. They were blissfully ignorant of the monstrosities that gazed upon them with their many eyes and undulating flesh. It was because of the creatures he witnessed that he installed more locks on his door, fear driving him to action.

After he first viewed one of the unspeakable, It took Artificer some time before he worked up the courage to go outside once more for basic necessities. He'd take shady back streets in an attempt to avoid the warped fiends that gazed upon him. The demons seemed to follow him wherever he went, gnashing teeth and slime coated eyes glaring at him. They never attacked or drew too close, and Artificer was not about to go anywhere near them. It grew worse every time he acquired insight, with new twisted forms revealing themselves in all their horrid majesty.

He knew not how he kept acquiring insight, but the bell rang almost every day now. He felt his dreams may play a part in the constant ringing of the bell, though he knew not why. Somewhere in the cacophony of madness that was his nightmares he had heard the term 'insight' and had been using it in a sad attempt to rationalize his growing madness. The bell rang in his nightmares almost as frequently as it did when the scratching at his door came.

As soon as he thought of it, the scratching came. The noise made the wispy hairs on his neck stand straighter than the most disciplined of soldiers. It sounded of bone grinding on iron, and he could hear the padlocks shake from the creature's efforts. It constantly was seeking entrance to his sanctum of invention. Artificer had always been a paranoid man, even before this madness set in, and always locked every door within his home and reinforced the entry door with new locks he crafted every single day. When the bell rang first, he paid it little attention. No one else had reacted to the bell but him when first it occurred.

Artificer had been leaving the alleyway of his home that day, pushing his way past the vagrants and other undesirables that cluttered the alley during the early hours of the morning. They had learned well not to trifle with Artificer after he turned one man's head into solid metal. At least it had appeared that way to any onlookers. He had merely coated the thugs head with a thin sheet of metal with a wave of his hands. Artificer had made sure to leave a couple of holes for the thug's nostrils, he didn't want the young man to die after all.

The brute had wailed and cried to a satisfactory degree, running off while tearing at his face in horror. Artificer had been certain that he had shown the youngin that youth and big muscles didn't hold a candle to the magic of a grumpy old fart. After all, when you get old and decrepit, you lose your muscles. Magic was the gift that kept on giving, no matter how old one became. Hell, most of the time it got better with age. Kids these days should be picking up spellbooks, not clubs.

The alley had emptied out after that, but people still cluttered the narrow alley sometimes, usually those who did not know of that little incident. Artificer normally would look back on such a day as humorous... if not for what happened next.

There was one person who did not run that day.

A broad man of middling height had stood staring at him. Plate armor covered him from the neck down, but it was impossible to distinguish any kind of facial features, for a bright luminescent light seemed to emanate from the stranger's head. Artificer could not bring himself to tear his gaze from the armored man, despite his eye burning radiance. The light of the sun seemed dim in comparison to this strangers bright countenance. After a moment, Artificer finally brought himself to look away from what he presumed to be an adventurer. After the knight was out of sight, the bell rang in his head for the first time. Upon looking back, the adventurer was gone, likely having disappeared into the winding streets of the city.

That had been a month ago.

The ringing had begun with that man, Artificer was certain.

The scratching suddenly ceased at his door, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

The bell rang once more in his ear, the sound near deafening as Artificer attempted to close out the noise with his hands clasped firmly over his ears.

That was when the squealing began. It was like an entire pen of pigs that had their snouts split down the middle by a heated blade. A gurgling laugh accompanied the squealing, followed by a disgusting phlegm fueled cackle. The sound was so impossibly loud that his covered ears did seemingly nothing to dampen it. Artificer stood from his chair, knocking it to the floor with a wooden thud. The scratching renewed, this time accompanied by the meaty pounding of what sounded to be a massive fist. He opened the door of his sanctum a crack and peaked out at the main door. The chains and bolts held fast as the pounding struck harder and harder, all while that squeal threatened to finally push Artificers sanity to the brink. The bell rang again, harder than it had before; harder than it ever had.

Artificer crept back into his room quietly, and huddled beneath his desk, praying to the gods that thing didn't break through tonight. Hours passed before the pounding ceased, and Artificer wept silently. He slowly crept up to the door leading out into the hallway, opening it just enough to be able to see his metal front door.

The light of the sun was leaking through beneath his iron entry door, the locks and chains having survived the creature's assault. Artificer breathed a sigh of relief, happy to see that he had made it another night. He was not sure how much more of this madness he could withstand. The thick rope in his closet looked more and more appealing after each nightly assault. He could end the stress so easily... all he needed to do was tie the rope to the rafters, put a chair under him and-

Artificer quickly banished the thought. He was no coward, he'd not take his own life no matter what happened. It was not a Northman's way. He approached the door and placed an ear against it. A fruitless endeavor he knew, but he felt comforted by the silence of the cold metal. Perhaps he should go to one of the churches? He was not a religious man, he did not worship any god, but only a fool would deny the existence of such entities. Perhaps by praying a little bit, he could delay his madness? Artificer shook his head, he was much too tired for any coherent thought. He needed a dreamless sleep, and that could be provided for by an alchemist, not a priest.

A strong potion brewed to leave him comatose with no dreams for a day or two would be wonderful. He knew not if such a thing truly existed, but the only way to find out for sure would be to stop by an alchemist's shop. The days plan decided, he began to undo the dozens of locks and chains holding his door shut.

He opened his door to feel the sun upon his face, the visor would not suffice, he needed his whole being engulfed by the warm radiance of the sun. Artificer's eyes widened in horror upon seeing that the sky was still dark, the twin moons shining down upon a glowing armored figure standing right in front of him. The bell rang harder than ever before as Artificer met the man's glowing silver eyes.

...

...

...

Hunter stretched and let out a healthy yawn. The sun shone down brightly overhead, scorching the earth and causing his brow to sweat with the accompanying heat. A thin forest trail leading northwest away from town led them towards their goal. Two days had passed since his drunken binge, and he and Wizard had finally been able to set out on a new adventure. They hadn't taken any new quests for that while, instead opting to take some time off to relax. Hunter did appreciate the time to clear his head.

A clear head also led to new memories of his past. None of them seemed as important as the first few memories he retrieved, but each new memory re-lived was a victory. The fog was growing weaker and weaker with each and every day that passed it seemed. A welcome thought indeed. An unwelcome thought was Priestess's staff head, which still lay nestled in his bag.

He had not been able to return it as he intended to yesterday. It was some kind of compulsion that kept him away from the church, and Hunter knew that the fog was responsible. It wanted him to keep the staff head for some reason. Hunter did not like the thought of it. For what reason would the fog need for him to keep the staff head? He'd also tried leaving it in a safe box, but found that he could not bring himself to shut and lock it. Hunter was compelled to bring it with him, and that brought up another speculation.

Why was it that the fog only compelled him to hold onto this item? Why not compel him in his entirety to do its bidding? Perhaps it was not strong enough to overpower his will and control him completely, but it was strong enough to make him do this one thing. It could also be that the effort of suppressing Hunter's memory weakened it. That made little sense to Hunter, for if the fog was strong enough to simply control him, it would not need to suppress his memories. His thoughts turned back to Priestess's staff, and he grit his teeth the more he put his mind to its purpose.

It filled him with a sense of dread, for he did not know what function the staff head would accomplish for his enemy. After thinking on it a while, and coming up with nothing but speculation, Hunter's thoughts drifted back on the promotion he and Wizard had received.

They had been promoted to obsidian since the investigation of the flesh cave proved his claims to be true. The guild had sent men on horseback to find the cave based on Hunter's directions, and they had returned the day after. These men confirmed that there were massive structures of bone left amid the copious piles of ash in the cavern, including the skeleton of Morg. Hunter believed these bone structures helped hold up the flesh, though he did not know that for certain.

The guild was impressed that most of the party survived considering what they had to face off with. Apparently such a task would have been left to silver ranks if the guild had known what was really down there. The upgrade in status gifted both Wizard and Hunter with new tags that were nearly invisible against his black leather attire.

This in turn allowed them to take on more high ranking quests. They snatched up a job which required at least a few days of travel but promised a high reward. A somewhat large village was reporting on several disappearances over the course of a month. Hunter and Wizard were to investigate the source of why the people were vanishing and stop it if possible. He would have been more excited about his new adventure if they had more party members with them.

He and Wizard's attempts to find new party members had been fruitless. Not one person wanted to take this quest, either because Hunter was involved or because it sounded boring to the higher ranking adventurers.

Hunter knew why his colleagues didn't want to accompany him. His first impression and unfortunate luck seemed to have painted him in a negative light to the other adventurers. He did not resent them for this, but Hunter would be lying to himself if it didn't leave him utterly frustrated. Protecting Wizard was going to be all the harder if they got themselves ambushed. Unfortunately the guild did not make anyone join a party. It was purely an adventurer's choice on who they partied up with. Hunter was fairly sure that this job could be completed with just him and Wizard, but he would have felt more confident if he had at least two other people with them. Even though Hunter and Wizard had accepted the quest, he felt it was unnecessary that adventurers should be sent out for it. This job seemed more tailored for those who upheld law and order.

Hunter had been surprised that the guild would send adventurers to do a guardsman's job, but Guild Girl had told him that guardsmen were stretched thin and had their hands full dealing with the sudden rise of madmen across the nation.

Hunter had a feeling these madmen were linked to the fog in some way. If they were anything like the madmen he had fought before entering the flesh cave, then they most certainly were. That, and the fact that these lunatics would often be seen tearing out their own eyes or trying to claw odd glyphs into other people's flesh. Hunter had not had a chance to see these markings, for there were fewer madmen in what he now referred to as 'his town'.

He knew not why that was, allegedly they were more often seen in the more cramped cities. The one Hunter resided in was certainly somewhat cramped. Another bloody mystery to solve later. His journey bag jingled heavily with all of his unspent coins. He had decided to save up most of his earnings; having twenty gold left over from his and Wizard's shopping excursion. Perhaps one day he could spend his savings on a very expensive magical item? Perhaps he could spend some spare coin on Artificer's services, but Hunter hadn't been able to see him. The old man hadn't answered his door whenever Hunter had come to speak with him.

Hunter supposed that Artificer was a busy man. Wizard even said as much while blowing her coin on a helping of spoodles. Hunter didn't know what the odd pasta tasted like, but he didn't want to know. Pasta with purple sauce could not be trusted. Plus it was horribly expensive, costing five gold coins! Five gold had bought them both plenty of fine meals and trinkets the day before, so Hunter found the price outrageous. Wizard's eyes had shone with a hunger that he would have thought belonged to a hefty innkeeper, and she had spent the coin as easy as scratching her nose. Wizard had consumed the whole plate in less than five minutes.

Wizard was the complete opposite of Hunter when it came to finances. The girl had spent nearly every coin eating out and buying blank books. She claimed that the books would be useful for recording her notes. The blank pages left over could also be used later on for spell storage, assuming she could get the pages enchanted. Spellbooks all started as normal everyday books, but spells scrawled into them carried no meaning until the pages were infused with raw magical energy. It was an expensive process, and Wizard's spending habits ensured that no such service would be available for a while yet.

His thoughts turned back to Artificer, and Hunter frowned. Should he be worried about the old man?

"Artificer hasn't answered his door for me," Hunter told Wizard. "I've been to his workshop a few times the last couple of days, and he hasn't answered once. Should I be worried?"

She smirked.

"He's probably caught up in his work." She told him, a small skip noticeable in her step.

Hunter shrugged. He had been showing up in the morning and afternoon, but maybe that was when Artificer did most of his work. Hunter asked this of Wizard, and she confirmed this thought.

"Yeah, he hates what he calls 'walk-ins.'" She told him, quoting the air with her index and middle finger. "Usually you have to leave him a note. He has a safe box at the guild where he receives messages. You have to leave one there if you want to speak to the geezer anytime within this year. That's where I left that ioun stone, I want to make sure it has no flaws before I use it."

Hunter frowned, and Wizard rose a brow at his expression.

"Why use the guild? They aren't a mail delivery service." Hunter told her.

Wizard waved a hand and said "Who do you think approaches him for work the most? It's adventurers you lout." She said in a demeaning tone.

"You're a lout." Hunter deadpanned.

They then traded juvenile insults before moving back to casual conversation, with occasional good-natured ribbing here and there. Talking with Wizard was a good way to pass the time of the journey. Hunter found that she was a very interesting woman to speak with. Her theories on magic and its dozens of potential applications intrigued him to no end.

The two gradually began walking closer to one another as they conversed, practically shoulder to shoulder as they went along. Out of the corner of his eye, Hunter could see Wizard occasionally move a hand toward his arm. This always ended with her tensing up and dropping her hand back at her side. Truly she was persistent when it came to the chase, she simply had to overcome her nerves. Hunter likely wouldn't reciprocate. He needed to know who he was first before having any real interest in the chase. Of course, Wizard did not know of his dilemma, so she would continue her pursuit.

They trudged on like that for hours; the chatting helping to distract from the intense heat and length of the journey. As the sun was beginning to set beneath the horizon, Hunter noticed the shapes of two large men walking on the path ahead of them. Hunter could not distinguish any features on the pair, but they were walking with a slow easygoing gait. Wizard and Hunter would overtake them soon with their somewhat brisk pace.

Perhaps they could be amiable? Long journeys such as this were better with company. Hunter also didn't feel like they were linked in any way to the fog, not like the madmen who ambushed him before. However... They could still be a threat even if they weren't related to the fog in any way. Wizard eyed them suspiciously and Hunter and she fell silent. The two men did not look back. It wasn't long before Hunter and Wizard caught up with the two large men, trailing behind them silently.

Maybe calling them men wasn't quite appropriate.

A light green hue touched their mostly bare flesh, the only cloth covering them being fur loincloths and firm leather boots that reached up past their ankles and halfway up their calves. Not proper clothing for being out in public, but it must do wonders in this heat. Hunter almost drew his weapon, that green hue made him think of Morg back in those fleshy depths, but the two were still walking forward, and chatting quite loudly.

Hunter and Wizard were only about a hundred paces or so from the two loud figures.

"Legs!" Shouted one.

"Arms!" Shouted the other.

They both then laughed and began punching and kicking one another with considerable force. It was a sight to see, as neither of them ceased their pace as they delivered and received blows that would incapacitate the average man. Hunter could see that the one on the left carried a massive battle-axe in a free hand. The double-edged blade caught what little light remained and gleamed. It was given obvious care, though the axe had certainly seen its fair share of use. Small chips in the blade and the worn-out handle were clear indicators of this. The other man stood a few fingers taller than his companion but carried no weapon.

Wizard tugged on his sleeve, and Hunter slowed his pace to hear Wizards whisper.

"Orcs." She told him. "At least half-orcs to be certain, stay on guard. I'll get their attention, just be ready to fight if this turns sour."

Hunter furrowed his brow. An orc? He hadn't the faintest idea what an orc was, let alone a half-orc, but he would be on guard for now. Wizard was the expert here, considering she knew what an orc was. Wizard took a deep breath and shouted.

"Hold there!"

The two orcs stopped in their tracks, and they turned around. Hunter was close enough now that he could make out their features clearly. The slightly taller orc matched Hunters own height, but was nearly twice as wide, with large arms but even larger legs. Two small tusks jutted up from a slightly protruding jaw, coming just short of overtopping his upper lip. Bright yellow eyes narrowed at him beneath a low brow, and the orcs bald head shone with sweat.

The other orc stood slightly shorter but was just as wide, but with larger arms than legs. Besides the shaggy black hair falling down his back, the shorter orc looked a carbon copy of the taller one. Perhaps they had some blood relation? The two pairs of travelers stared at one another in uncomfortable silence. What should he say now? Hunter was surprised at his lack of words. How did one speak to an orc anyhow?

The shorter one grabbed the taller's slightly pointed ear and yanked it downward with a sharp tug. The taller gave a small shout of protest and broke eye contact with Hunter. The shorter whispered into the taller's ear but whatever they might have been planning was cut off when the two of them gave a yelp and began looking around themselves.

Hunter's eyes widened with surprise. He almost forgot about his 'first impressions'.

He had not regained any new memories this past week, but he began to notice that first time exposure to Hunter always rang that bell for others. Thankfully no one else had made the connection yet, but he had the sinking feeling that it was only a matter of time before he was found out. When it was discovered that he was the source of the bell, what then? Likely he'd be under scrutiny and experimented on by several magic users. If Wizard was any indication for a mage's thirst for knowledge, he'd never have privacy again. Hunter would become a victim of academia if he wasn't simply burnt at the stake. Hunter would not let that happen.

"Big bell!" The taller one shouted, swinging his fists at the air over his head.

The shorter one punched the taller in the gut, expelling the air from the bigger orcs lungs. However, instead of collapsing, the larger of the two gave a quick headbutt to the smaller's forehead, causing him to stumble. The two then engaged in a furious brawl of beating fists and crunching headbutts as the smaller orc cast his axe to the dirt.

So they didn't want to kill each other, but they certainly wanted to beat on each other. Wizard scoffed as the two green giants fell to the ground grappling.

"Savages the lot of them. All they know is violence. Let us leave these hogs to their little spout." Wizard huffed, walking forward.

It seemed as though Wizard had intended a wide berth from the rolling green fighters, but Hunter was standing still. She only walked a few paces ahead before she noticed his frozen frame. She walked back to him with a quirked brow. She could not see the mad grin playing beneath his upturned collar. That was a good thing.

The fight was entertaining to say the least, the two were neck and neck, flinging one another about like dolls. That, however, was not what made him fond of the two green men. The two were laughing with each other, lost in the fight, seemingly forgetting the two strangers who had called out to them. They surely felt the thrill as he did when it took him.

He almost had to stop himself from dogpiling into the fray and throwing a few of his own punches. Chudenite soldiers would often engage in such roughhousing on their days off.

Fuzz

Fuzz

Fuzz

Hunter smiled. The fog did seem to grow weaker with each new memory he regained after all. Hunter cleared his throat and simply walked straight towards the two grappling orcs. He removed his gloves with casual ease, stuffing them into his journey bag and handing it to Wizard without a word. The woman frowned at him, and Hunter then said the magic word.

"Please?"

This seemed to work, as she snatched the bag from his grasp with a small growl. Hunter took a deep breath as he strode mere feet from the billowing dust cloud that surrounded the two fighters.

"Excuse me, gentlemen?" Hunter asked.

His words were ignored and almost inaudible over the two rolling shouting green forms. Hunter almost chuckled at himself... he really called these orcs 'gentlemen'? Hunter repeated himself in a louder, angrier tone, without the 'gentlemen' of course. That got the two to cease rolling for a moment, and they looked up at Hunter with narrowed yellow eyes. The taller orc had the shorter by one of his jutting tusks, and the shorter was pinching the taller's nose with an iron grip. Both orcs were on their knees, a billowing dust cloud flowing up past them.

"How do you do?" Hunter asked them simply.

The two released one another and stood up from the dirt, brushing themselves off.

"What mean how to do?" Said the taller orc. "You just hit real hard, it ain't compofcated."

Hunter blinked, both at the misuse of the word and the orcs misunderstanding of what had been asked. The shorter orc then elbowed the taller and snickered.

"You stupidest stupid. He askin' us how we is not hows to foight."

Both of them spoke in a very similar rough tone and accent. Their voices seemed to indicate that they were intoxicated, but maybe orcs were just... not articulate. The taller orc then let out a long-lasting "Oh" and stuck his hand out to Hunter. Hunter gripped the orc's hand firmly, and the two shook. The orc had a powerful grip, that was a good sign.

"We is good. Had a good scrapping. I'm Berlo Leg-Huge!" The taller shouted. "And this git is my lil' bruva!"

"Brunko Arm-Big!" The shorter shouted.

Berlo broke off the shake with Hunter and the two orcs bellowed "Yeaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!" simultaneously before giving each other a truly impressive high five.

They both then looked to Hunter, their faces expectant as the orcs then turned their palms towards him, holding them up high. Hunter's two hands snapped up with realization, palms facing the two orcs.

"I am Hunter." He said simply.

The orcs grinned stupidly then repeated "Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!" The sound of their bellowing voices echoing throughout the forest before Berlo and Brunko gave a vicious slap to both of Hunter's ungloved hands. The stinging pain was immediate though not unbearable and Hunter gave a short chuckle. Why was Wizard made uneasy by these funny green doofs? Perhaps it had to do with their rough and tumble nature? Or maybe orcs had a bad reputation in general. He would need to prune her for answers later tonight.

The two orcs then fell quiet once more, staring at Hunter expectantly once more. Hunter put down his hands and asked the two why they had suddenly become silent. Berlo answered with a shrug, and Brunko responded with "I dunno."

Hunter almost let out a sigh of relief. For a moment there he thought they were going to share some maddening esoteric knowledge with him. As it turned out it was good old plain awkward silence. Hunter needed to remind himself that the world was bigger than him and his dilemma with the fog. Everything did not in fact revolve around him, and he'd have to deal with things that had nothing to do with the fog. This situation was one of them.

"So uh..." Berlo started. "Where ya goin'?"

Hunter waved Wizard forward, and she approached tentatively, taking up a position almost directly behind Hunter. She peaked out from behind his arm at the two orcs, her eyes still narrowed with suspicion. If the orcs took any offense to her behavior, they did not show it. Hunter didn't feel like the orcs were an immediate danger, and he doubted that they were plotting anything against him and Wizard.

"We're going to Groudrey." Hunter told them. "We're on a quest."

The two orcs then got wide-eyed, and looked at each other. They then huddled together, whispering loudly into one another's ears. If they expected not to be heard, then they were dead wrong. Their 'whispering' was more like quiet yelling.

"This could be our chancies!" Said Brunko, clearly excited.

"I knows, but ya gots to let me do da talkin'." Berlo responded. "You're real stupidly."

Hunter knew not what this 'chancies' could be, but he glanced at Wizard, who was furrowing her brow at the two hunched over orcs. She cupped a hand over her mouth and whispered silently up at him.

"I wasn't expecting this." She said, indicating toward the orcs with her eyes. "They're savage and incredibly foolish, but I was also led to believe that they were inherently violent creatures."

Hunter eyed the two orcs and whispered back "Led to believe that how exactly?"

Whatever Wizard was about to say was cut off when the two orcs gave another powerful drawn out 'Yeah' before high fiving each other. They then both looked to Hunter, eagerness and excitement playing across their rough features.

"Cans we come too!?" Brunko shouted. "We can smash up gits real good we promise!"

Berlo nodded enthusiastically.

"Ya, da venturin' build doesn't wanna enroll us cause they don't like green." Berlo said in a downtrodden yet still loud voice.

"Absolutely not!" Wizard shouted at them suddenly.

The orcs then seemed to take notice of Wizard for the first time, and they both frowned, their shoulders slumped.

"She's got the pointiest hat... dat means she's in charge." Berlo told Hunter, shaking his head as he began to turn away. "Da pointier the hat the smarterer they is."

Brunko kicked the dirt in frustration as he too began to turn away. Wizard breathed a sigh of relief as they took a few steps away from them. Hunter had only a moment to come to a decision. Wizard did seem distrustful of orcs, and clearly did not want to be in their company for any longer than was necessary... however, they were in need of party members; registered by the guild or not. Wizard even seemed surprised by the two orcs deciding not to attack them outright, so it was obvious that her opinion on the two could not be counted on. Hunter needed to rely on his own judgment of their character.

They seemed good-natured and friendly despite their admittedly threatening appearance. Could that be a clever ruse? Hunter dismissed that thought. The orcs did not seem to have the capacity for such trickery. Hunter believed that they were being genuine in their offer to join them on this adventure, and he would feel safer knowing that he had two strong physical fighters at his back. With their party made up of only two members, keeping Wizard safe would surely be difficult. If he and Wizard were to get ambushed again, Hunter wouldn't be able to rely on Fighter and Warrior to defend Wizard for him.

Hunter was fast, but he couldn't be everywhere at once. He needed someone to protect Wizard from any combatants targeting her. The thought of knowing that Wizard was safe in combat would allow him to fight more aggressively, which Hunter knew, was what he was best at.

Another thought occurred to him, if Wizard felt the way she did of orcs, what was to say that the village ahead wouldn't take up arms at the sight of the two jolly green goofs? That was something Hunter dreaded thinking about, for if he took the orcs into his party, his honor would compel him to defend the orcs if they were attacked. He did not want to fight scared people who only fought to defend their homes from what they perceived as savage beasts...

He pondered this for only another moment before making his decision.

...

...

...

Artificer knew now.

It was all so clear to him now that it had been explained.

He did not fear the nightmares any longer.

He loved and embraced them knowing the glorious truth of their origin.

Coming from a being so pure and perfect meant that they were holy visions.

His new god; for that was surely what his master was, demanded a task completed for him.

And Artificer...

Would build him his Doll.

Chapter Text

Wizard had been keeping her distance from him since Hunter had decided to bring the two half-orcs along with them to Groudrey. She had vehemently argued against the idea of questing with 'half-breed monsters'. Hunter had shut her down by presenting his counter-argument in a polite and quiet tone.

Arguing should only rarely be done by shouting, it disgraced both participants. His calm tone as he explained the benefits of added protection the orcs provided seemed to catch her off guard… perhaps she was used to the louder version of arguing? Hunter would not. Shouting was terribly hard on the throat.

She had agreed with reluctance, and since they all began traveling further, she had remained quiet. Hunter had not tried conversation after the first attempt, not wanting to play this petty game. She had lost the argument fair and square, she could at least act like an adult and move on. This seemed to annoy her more than it did smooth things over, but again, Hunter would not beg forgiveness from Wizard for arguing against her. He was right, and that was that. She'd get over it.

The two orcs, on the other hand, were completely affable fellows. Hunter had found out from the both of them that half-orcs were allowed in cities, but they were often persecuted for their beastly bloodline. Shops wouldn't sell to them, no one would hire them for anything but mercenary work and even that was rare, and the adventurers guild wouldn't register them.

Apparently, it was possible for half-orcs to be registered, but that was nearly impossible to accomplish. The guild thought of them as untrustworthy, and registered adventurers tended to think the same.

The only way for them both to join the guild was for an adventurer of high rank to vouch for them, silver rank at least. If Hunter had been silver ranked he'd have vouched for the two green goofs- assuming they were indeed trustworthy- but he was nowhere close to giving his full trust yet. If they did good enough on this mission then perhaps he could ask Goblin Slayer for his endorsement? Sure, they were green, but they weren't goblins. From his impressions of the man, if it wasn't a goblin, then he didn't care much for its existence.

Hunter could be wrong, but the title of 'Goblin Slayer' sort of said it all. Did he ever do any other quests besides killing goblins? He shook his head, turning his attention back to Berlo, who had been telling Hunter about the time he had accidentally 'retarded' his uncle in a headbutting contest.

"Den Ma bashed me wit a rock an' called me stupit." Berlo said, rubbing the back of his head as he spoke.

Brunko chuckled "Yeah dats cause you is the dumblyest."

Berlo growled, flexing his massive legs as if to prepare to charge his younger sibling.

"You ams the stupidliest stupid. Ma bashed you good when you tried ta wrestle grandpops." Berlo growled, glaring under his low brow. "He was ate e!"

"So?" Brunko asked, shrugging his massive shoulders.

Berlo sputtered "He was a humie! Dey be frail and softly, you'd a killed grandpops!"

Hunter turned back to the trail ahead as the two brothers argued back and forth on the ethics of wrestling the elderly, and took in a deep breath of the cool morning air. It had been two days since they had set out for Groudrey, and so far it had been a pleasant trip.

Besides Wizards moping of course. Large pine trees had begun appearing the farther up this trail went. Would it lead all the way up to the mountains? This was the most direct route to Groudrey, he wondered if it would be up in the mountains or at the base of one. He glanced backward, checking on Wizard who was walking behind the group by a few dozen paces. They briefly made eye contact, and she quickly glanced away.

Yes, she was certainly still sour. He turned back ahead, ignoring the orcs constant arguing. He didn't pay direct attention to them, but he found himself oddly comforted by their voices. It made good background noise. Others may have thought that would be distracting, but not to him.

Eventually they reached a point where the land flattened out from its steady incline upwards. That'd be good for the legs recovery, but Berlo didn't seem to care for the convenient flattening of land. Well, Hunter supposed that when your legs were thicker than tree trunks that such petty obstacles were trivial to overcome. Yes, indeed, it seemed that-

Smoke, on the horizon ahead.

There was a steady billowing black pillar smoke rising high above the trees. What on earth? Was there an attack? Perhaps it was benign? It may be a bonfire. They all agreed -even Wizard- that they'd pick up the pace to reach it quickly. Speed walking was something that was very fast if one had long legs like Hunter or Berlo and Brunko, Wizard, however, was being quickly left in the dust, and she had to jog lightly to keep up.

She didn't complain or ask for help, which was good. A little exercise was good for the body. They finally reached their destination only after around half an hour of walking, and Wizard was huffing and puffing. As they drew near, they found what had been causing the smoke. It was the burning husk of a large overturned cart wagon.

It lay in the center of the trail, a large group of ragged-looking men picking through several different chests and barrels as indistinguishable corpses burnt on the pyre that was the wagon. The containers had been placed parallel to the wide trail, some tipped over with their contents strewn about the dirt. Most of the items were tools, things you would find in many different craftsmen workshops.

Hunter grit his teeth, and it was only then that the men noticed them, scampering to surround his party quickly. They all wore what looked to be military uniforms, tailor-fit and made of stout cloth. The clothing was worn down, tattered, and covered in filth, likely from roughing it in the forest. A torn piece of cloth on the shoulders of the men's uniforms indicated to Hunter that they must be deserters. The tear looked deliberate and was in the shape of a shield

Hunter readied his blade, as the men completed their circle, enclosing the party. Berlo and Brunko had taken up positions on either side of Wizard, facing opposite ends of one another. Wizard held her staff aimed at the man closest to her. The bandit took notice of this and took a few steps backward. Not a fool that one. Brunko held his axe ready to cleave, the weapon and his sheer size intimidating the men that faced him. Berlo cracked knuckles as he faced down a pair of men with a hammer and a blade. All in all, there were ten men surrounding them, all wielding an assortment of weapons from bludgeons to blades.

A tall bearded man with an eyepatch pointed his blade at Hunter.

"Lay down yer valuables son. We won't rough you up too badly if ya do."

Hunter glared at the man but didn't speak. The leader sighed as he waved his hand for the men to attack. Hunter darted forward, silvery blade swiftly chopping into the leader's neck and dropping the man to the dirt with a massive spray of blood, coating his leathers from head to toe in bright red spatters.

Another man with an axe swung at him, but Hunter sidestepped the attack, cleaving through the bandits ribcage with his counterstroke. The deserter stumbled a few steps away before collapsing on his face, blood pooling around his body as Hunter glanced back at his companions.

Brunko had charged at the three men while giving an ear-piercing battle cry, swinging down at a man who raised his hammer to stop the blow. The axe connected, cleaving clean through the metal and halfway down the man's shoulder. He dropped to his knees, and Berlo kicked his chest hard, knocking the bandit onto his back and freeing his axe for another swing. One man ran away as soon as Brunko began his terrifying charge, but the other one, a lean man with a broadsword, lunged for Arm-Big.

Brunko would have lost his head if he hadn't ducked it back in time, but he suffered a deep gash across his cheek that also cleaved off the top of his left tusk. Brunko screamed in anger as he swung a powerful blow at the man, who dodged backward, narrowly avoiding being bisected. As Brunko and his opponent continued their battle, Berlo Leg-Huge had also charged his enemies with a yell, massive fists raised. The man with the hammer swung, but the attack was too slow, and Berlo easily dodged it with a sidestep. The orc moved very fast for a man of his size, and quickly entered the hammer man's guard.

The bandit raised his weapon to block a blow from Berlo fists, and indeed it seemed the orc made to strike the bandit's face. Berlo stopped the blow however before it collided, and instead kicked with his massive right leg, his shin colliding with the mans ribs. The hammer man drew a sharp intake of air and collapsed to the dirt, dropping the hammer and clutching his side as Brunko dodged the other deserters blade, countering with an uppercut that knocked the man flat on his rear.

Wizard had cast a bolt of fire at the first man to charge her, setting the poor fellow ablaze much like his victims bodies. The raging inferno that was once a man collapsed and violently thrashed, screaming for help as he was torched. Two more men fled back the way the party had come, kicking up clouds of dust as they fled, shouting curses as they went. Wizard stared at the flailing form, mouth slightly agape as he burned.

Hunter turned back to the three men remaining, who had backed away toward the burning cart, weapons held to ward off Hunter. They stayed close to one another clearly aware of the danger Hunter presented. He slid his blade into the kirkhammer, and brought the massive slab of stone to bear. The men's eyes widened, clearly shocked. Taking advantage of their lapse, Hunter sprinted up to them quickly, and swung hard with the kirkhammer, colliding with the three men as he swung the hammer in a wide horizontal arc.

All three men were sent flying backward into the roaring flames of the cart with a spray of broken bones and brain matter, but none of them screamed as they were set aflame. They had all died on impact.

Hunter turned back, seeing that Brunko Arm-Big had gained the upper hand on his faster opponent, taking advantage of his greater reach to keep him at bay. Every time the man tried to enter Brunko's guard, he would swing with his massive axe, forcing him to step back and wait. Berlo on the other hand had knocked his other opponent unconscious after the uppercut and ran to help his brother.

The man did not notice Leg-Huge quickly close the distance, and soon, it was too late for the unlucky man. Berlo tackled him to the ground from behind, kicking up clouds of dust as they both struck the dirt, rolling. The wrestling match that ensued was brief, as the orcs strength greatly outclassed the much smaller human. Soon both the man's arms were pinned beneath Berlo's legs, and he thrashed about violently, trying to get out from under the orc's weight.

Berlo didn't even shift from the bandit's attempts. As Hunter was walking over to meet the two half-orcs they began taunting their captured opponent.

"Ha!" Berlo laughed "You so weakly and dumbest!"

Brunko cheered in agreement, following up with a snot rocket to the man's forehead. Hunter briefly wondered if he should intervene, but a few insults and boogers was the least this wretch deserved for his crimes. Hunter took notice of the man who Berlo had kicked earlier, seeing that he was spitting up gobbets of blood onto the dirt. He lay on his side, breathing ragged. His broken ribs likely pierced a lung. He wouldn't be surviving that kick.

Hunter then sighted Wizard, who was staring at the now still burning corpse on the ground. He moved to talk with her, remembering the previous time she had to kill a man.

"You so small!" Brunko laughed jovially "Maybe if you lifted heavy things morerer you wont'nt be such a pansy!"

The two orcs then shouted "YEAH!" in unison, nearly bursting Hunter's eardrums and causing Wizard to wince. He passed them, standing next to Wizard silently as the criminal burned. It all would have been a very contemplative moment for her, if not for the orcs loud jeering in the background. She chose to ignore it, instead tilting her head up to look at Hunter.

"It… It's not easier, but it isn't as shocking I guess." She said, in near monotone.

Hunter nodded. Perhaps this would get the two of them talking again.

"It never really does get easier, you just get over it faster every time." Hunter told her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Eventually, you get over it so quickly that it almost seems like you don't feel anything. I suppose you could say that makes it easier. What do you think?"

Wizard remained silent for a moment before answering "Don't you think that's a bit… I don't know, bleak?" She asked him "The shock and the guilt afterwards never going away I mean." She looked back to the burning body, and her eyes took on a dark cast "I'd prefer to just not feel anything for the lives I take."

Hunter removed his hand, shaking his head.

"If you were to not feel anything for the lives you took, you'd be no different than a beast."

The fog hit him hard at the word as fresh memories bubbled to the surface, smothering them before they could reveal their secrets to Hunter completely. He did get a few images though... Running through winding dilapidated streets, fighting horrid monsters and twisted men, finding the desiccated long-rotted corpse of an old man on a hillside covered by white flowers in full bloom, and a lone dark humanoid figure atop of that same hill… glaring down at Hunter with glowing red eyes.

Hunter kept his composure but felt cold sweat on his brow. He fought the urge to cover his eyes with his hands. He took a deep breath and continued.

"Only a beast kills without guilt." Hunter said "Keep your humanity, feel the guilt. It will remind you that you're still a person."

With that, he turned to the orcs, striding up to them as another snot rocket was blown upon the man's forehead, smearing it with green slime. Hunter stared at the two orcs, who had taken notice of him.

"Be quiet for a bit. I want to ask this man some questions." Hunter told them.

Berlo and Brunko didn't complain, but Berlo Leg-Huge did not rise from his position atop the deserter. Hunter squatted down next to the man's head and breathed out slowly.

"Why did you do this?" Hunter asked, gesturing to the burning cart.

"Piss off you southron dog!" The man spat in a strikingly familiar accent.

Hunter frowned, though the man wouldn't be able to see it through Hunter's laced up collar.

"Where are you from?"

"I'll not tell you a damn thing bastard! If you're gonna end me, just get it over with!"

That was the same accent Artificer spoke with. Hunter was certain of it. Did that mean that he was from the same nation as Artificer? Hunter stood up. He wasn't going to waste any more time on this scum. He'd told Hunter outright that he wasn't going to say anything, so Hunter wasn't going to bother. He opened his pack, and began rummaging through it for some rope to hogtie the bandit.

"W-wait!" The man shouted, sounding panicked "I'm from Notan! My name is Jerale! We just wanted some food, there ain't any in the forest anymore, the Beast scared all the animals away." He spoke quickly.

Hunter almost cocked his head. Why was he spilling the beans now? He looked down at his hands, which were still deep inside his pack. Oh… Jerale thought that Hunter was going to torture him. Hunter wouldn't be party to such an atrocity, despite Jerale's crimes, but the threat of torture wasn't really that bad, was it? Not when applied to men like this.

"Tell me more, or I'll get out my oils and clippers!" Hunter shouted, Jerale's eyes widening with honest terror.

"I deserted! Me and these didn't wanna keep fighting the Soulborne!" Jerale shouted as Hunter pretended to rifle for those tools.

Hunter's teeth clenched at the word, his anger flaring to a level he didn't think possible. The Soulborne! The fog worked very hard to suppress this memory, but it wasn't easy for it. That name again... what was it!? What were the Soulborne!? He hated, HATED that word so very much. He nearly cracked his teeth from the force of clenching.

Fuzz

They took everything from him!

Fuzz

The vanguard of the fog!

FUZZ

Hunter fell still, anger vanishing in an instant. Were these the same Soulborne that Sumen had told him about in that previous memory? It had to be; the odds of this being a coincidence were too low. This was important. He needed to question Jerale further, he'd beat the information out of the bastard, he'd-

Hunter took a deep breath, calming his again rising rage. He wouldn't torture, it was a profane act.

"Who are the Soulborne?" Hunter asked, tone low and threatening.

"They haven't stretched down here yet then?" Jerale asked, head hitting the dirt "They just keep coming… we keep putting them down and they just keep coming back. Again and again, and they get stronger the longer they exist. Our leaders didn't know what to do, so we fled. We couldn't fight them anymore.'"

"You are a craven." Hunter told him simply "You abandoned your posts and your people. You preyed on those that could not defend themselves. You are scum."

Jerale sneered at him "Like you'd understand, you've never faced a foe like them. There's no hope. You may not like it, but we did these folk a favor by killin' them quick!"

Berlo and Brunko looked to each other, brows furrowed. Wizard had walked up behind Hunter, glancing at him nervously as he rummaged through his bag. He found his rope, and measured out the appropriate length, slicing the pieces off with his belt knife. He handed the pieces to Berlo, who took the rope hesitantly.

"Bind him." Hunter told him, tone flat.

Berlo nodded slowly, shifting his weight atop Jerale as he tied the man up easily with his greater strength. With Jerale's wrists and ankles bound tightly, Berlo stood from the ground, dusting off his bare chest and stepping away, still remaining quiet.

Hunter sat the man up, and glared into his eyes.

"Where did they come from?"

"Why do you care?"

"Answer me. My patience runs thin." Hunter almost growled out the words.

It must have had the intended effect, for Jerale's eyes widened and his jaw dropped slightly.

"I don't know much," Jerale started with a stutter. "The fog, they came with their monsters and the fog."

Hunter stiffened at the words.

"Atop Cragantor, it descended onto our towns, our cities… The Soulborne were its vanguard."

Hunter looked to the orcs and nodded to the unconscious man who Berlo had knocked out earlier, handing them another length of rope. They moved quickly, shooting one another a brief glance before turning back to the task ahead. Hunter breathed in deeply and exhaled.

"When was it that this started?" He asked Jerale, voice firm.

"A couple of weeks ago…" Jerale started "Just came out of nowhere in the middle of the night, descending from atop Cragantor."

Hunter's eyes widened. That was around the same time he had first arrived in this new land… were his and the fog's appearance connected in some way?

Hunter nodded at his answer "Where is the mountain and is there a way to get to the top?"

Jerale shook his head "Just look at a bloody map, I've never been there and never cared too. I don't know where it is exactly… I just know it's the biggest rock we got in the northlands. As for reaching the top… Impossible." He said with a shake of his head "Cragontor I've heard it's more a pillar all the way up, purely smooth. There ain't no scaling it, so no point in trying to figure out the fog." Jerale said, laying back down with his head resting on its side.

The deserter's eyes were indeed empty. As if his very soul had been stripped from him-

Fuzz

Hunter bit back a curse at the obstruction of his memories. He took another deep breath and asked his final question.

"You mentioned something about a beast in these woods? Tell me of that."

Jerale shook his head "I ain't seen it myself. I've heard it described though, thirty feet tall with eyes on fire and a fur coat made of steel wires."

Hunter furrowed his brow at that.

"It came just after the fog did, and it's a hungry devil." Jerale explained, "It's been eating all the game and leaving nothing for anything else. It tears up crops and crushes barns after eating whatever lived on that land."

That sounded more like some tall tale rather than an actual creature, but Hunter didn't actually feel that such a description was outlandish. It made him wonder what creatures he'd seen in his past that'd make a thirty-foot tall steel wired fire-eyed monster plausible… Then again, a creature such as the flesh cave should no have ever existed. If the flesh cave could exist, then pretty much any other monster could as well.

He stood up and grabbed Jerale's ankles, who then promptly began spitting and cursing at the treatment. He dragged Jerale to the center of the road and looked up to see the unconscious man being dragged to the center by Brunko Arm-Big, who glanced nervously at Hunter as he lay the deserter next to Jerale. Hunter briefly considered waiting for the man to awaken but quickly decided against it. It was unlikely he would know more than Jerale, and Hunter didn't want to waste time.

He knew what he had to do now… at least for the most part. Hunter would finish his current quest; investigating Groudrey, and then he would find a way to reach the top of this Cragontor. Surely there must be some kind of way to teleport to the top right? Maybe Wizard would know of such a spell? Hunter nodded to himself.

The party left quickly after that, leaving a note tied to an upright stick in the ground. The stick was placed just behind the two surviving deserters, leaving the note elevated above their heads. Hunter doubted that the other bandits would return to save their allies. Such cowards cared not for their countrymen. The note detailed their crimes, written by Wizard's hand.

As the group went on their way, Wizard quickly strode up next to him.

"You weren't really going to torture him I'm guessing?" She asked him.

Hunter shook his head.

"No, I can't let myself fall to such a vice. They were scoundrels and deserve what they get, but I cannot bring myself to do something so heinous." Hunter said "It affects you as much as the person you're tormenting, twisting you into a vile creature."

Wizard nodded then, seemingly relieved. The two half-orcs hung back a bit, whispering to one another, this time however they weren't clearly audible. They both did seem concerned about something, however, based on those frowns.

Gradually they moved closer as time passed. Hunter wondered how he'd clean off his outfit tonight. If they couldn't find a stream then-

Berlo cleared his throat behind Hunter, who turned to look at him.

"So uhh, whats were ya gonna do's with the oil and clappers?" Berlo asked quietly.

Hunter frowned.

"Why do you have your voice lowered? Are you alright? You didn't take a blow to the head did you?"

Berlo shook his head, and Brunko blurted out "You ams scary like when you askin's questions boss."

Berlo and Brunko were unsettled by Hunter's tone? Maybe it was the empty threats he made to Jerale that unnerved them? Hunter waved a hand.

"Do not feel nervous my friends, I needed to find out what that sludge knew, but I wasn't really going to hurt him." He explained "But having him think that I might served to aid me. Now we know to look out for the Beast."

Wizard cocked her head at Hunter's answer. She gave him a look that seemed to say 'we'll talk about this more later' and sighed.

"So yoos weren't gonna oil im' up or nuffing?" Brunko asked "Or clip off his softly bits?"

Hunter gave a small chuckle "Of course not, I just let his imagination do the work. Apparently, it did its job."

Berlo and Brunko looked at one another grinning stupidly. That certainly was a shift from their earlier attitude.

"YEAH!" They both shouted in unison, slapping their hands together.

Hunter winced at the noise. If the Beast Jerale spoke of was anywhere nearby it would come for them. Two unruly half-orcs would make a fantastic dinner bell. Indeed Wizard fixed them with an angry glare, which caused their laughter to die down at their noticing of it. They moved further up the trail, the weather dropping slightly but not so much that the party was concerned. If anything it was a boon compared to the burning sun they had been traveling under.

They kept going until the sun began setting and began looking for a campsite off of the trail. It didn't take long for them to find a somewhat flat patch of land along the steady incline upward, and they set up their camp. Hunter told the orcs to 'be quietly' which they seemed to understand well. They still spoke, however, their voices loud whispers. Hunter built the fire as Wizard got the tents set up, and after the large tepee of firewood the orcs had gathered was assembled, Wizard set it aflame with the spark spell.

The flame roared to life quickly, illuminating the dimming surroundings of their camp. Hunter was worried that the Beast would be able to spot them easily if it was prowling about, but he wasn't too concerned about that happening. With him not needing to sleep, he would stay awake all night to listen and watch for any signs of the creature. Hunter didn't think that he was blind, so he was pretty confident he could spot a thirty-foot tall monster with flaming eyes, even in the dark.

The two orcs plopped down on either side of him, leaning back on their palms and looking to the blanket of stars above with wondrous looks in their eyes. They looked almost childlike in their glee, their love for the 'pretty twinklies' made obvious not only by their claims that it was so. They stared the same way at the two large moons above, their green and pinkish hues casting further light down upon them all.

Wizard sat opposite of all three men, plopping down with a sturdy leather book by the firelight. She turned to a page she had marked with a black ribbon and began reading studiously. If she still wanted to talk tonight, she wanted to wait until the orcs were in bed. Hunter had thought that packing a spare tent would be a wise purchase, so the brothers were sharing that one. Hunter cleared his throat, removing his glasses and undoing the laces of his upturned collar.

He breathed in raw unfiltered air through his nostrils, smelling the fresh pine all around him. He took in the smell gratefully, happy that the wind did not blow too hard this night. The last thing he wanted was a faceful of smoke. He gently nudged Berlo, who shot him a surprised glance, eyes wide and jaw slightly agape.

"So," Hunter began "Where are you from?"

He hoped he wasn't intruding too far on the orcs privacy, but Hunter was genuinely curious as to where the half-orcs came from.

"We ams from further down south, cross da big rivva Daliwo."

Wizard looked up sharply from her reading to stare at Berlo, looking slightly shocked.

"You pronounced that correctly." She said, regaining her composure so quickly that Hunter was almost convinced she hadn't been surprised "Past the river Daliwo is where the Orclands reside."

Berlo and Brunko both nodded, grinning at Wizard happily.

"We come from da tribe-fort Tanalom!" Brunko announced, hand on his chest proudly "Bestest fort town anywheres." He finished with a confident nod, which Berlo flashed a thumbs up to.

Wizard nodded to herself, seeming to accept that answer. Tanalom huh? He'd never heard it mentioned, but considering that Hunter was… new around here, that wasn't surprising.

"How big is Tanalom?" Hunter asked.

Brunko then stretched both hands high in the air from his sitting position, grinning as he said "Thiiiiiissss big!"

Hunter stared.

Wizard stared.

Berlo laughed.

"Humies and orcs both live dere togetha," Berlo explained "A lots of humies and orcses, bigger den most cities we been to."

"Lotsa half-orcs too!" Brunko said, nodding eagerly "No one was means to us there! Well, least nots until- I means... Er, anyways if they was means..." He continued, trailing off "Well den we gave em a smash and laughed abouts it layta!" He finished, picking back up his jovial tone.

Berlo looked to his brother wide-eyed with surprise. He then furrowed his brow and scanned Hunter's face, seeming to look for some kind of reaction. Had Brunko just lied to him? The orc had trailed off when talking about dealing with people that had been mean to them… had they done something to be exiled? They claimed to be seeking registry with the adventurers guild… but was that the whole story? Hunter decided to latch on to this until he discovered the truth. Hunter didn't like the thought, a part of him wanting the orcs to keep their privacy should they want it. Yet… something was off. It was more important that he found out what they were hiding. It may be crucial information.

Hunter was not sure how that could be, but he felt it was necessary to know who exactly he traveled with. What do they have to hide? Berlo and Brunko seemed like honest fellows by nature, so just a little bit of prying should loosen their tongues.

"Are you lying to me?" Hunter asked Brunko, staring right into the big orcs yellow eyes.

Those yellow orbs shifted uncomfortably, looking anywhere but Hunter's eyes, seeking escape. Sweat broke out on Berlo's forehead as he watched quietly. Wizard closed her book loudly, which caused the two brothers to jump in unison.

"Are you lying to us?" Wizard asked, tone firm as she glared into Berlo's eyes.

The orc shied away from that gaze, instead opting to stare at the ground. Hunter did feel a bit bad about this, but if they were lying to them about some kind of crime they committed… well, Hunter needed to find out.

Brunko gulped loudly, and spoke in a ragged voice.

"We… we ams exiled… We smashed a git too hards in a fight an killed im'" Brunko looked to the dirt, ashamed.

Berlo's head sunk as well and spoke with clear anguish in his voice.

"We didn't means to do it!" He sobbed through clenched teeth "He was smashin' ups granpops shop… we ad' to do somethin'!"

Berlo and Brunko then began both speaking their story, but they both spoke quickly and over one another. It also seemed like they were jumping from place to place in their story. Hunter put his hand up, causing the brothers to stop their rapid-fire babbling.

"Calm down," Hunter said "Take a breath, then start from the beginning. I won't say anything until you're done talking, but you need to slow it down. Only one of you speak."

Berlo and Brunko looked at each other, and looked back to Hunter, nodding slowly.

They then began their story, Berlo and Brunko slowing the pace, which Hunter was grateful for. They were both born to an orcish father and a human mother, they both insisted that their mother was by far the tougher one. They led a normal life in Talalom, as normal as life could be in a tribe-fort anyhow. The humans and orcs that lived within its strong walls maintained peace between one another quite easily, for the humans they lived with were a tribe of nomadic peoples native to the Orclands. As such, they shared similar views when it came to governance.

That being whoever could smash the hardest or could get smashed and remain standing should be in charge. This 'Tribe-Lord' could be either human or orc, and their rule lasted until death. The man Berlo and Brunko had killed accidentally in defense of their human grandfather's weapons shop was the Tribe-Lord's only son. He had been a purebred orc that went by the name of Groba Thick-Toes. Despite the ridiculous name, the Tribe-Lord's son held a lot of sway within Tanalom.

Sway that Groba would abuse regularly. Often walking into shops and grabbing whatever… and apparently whomever he wanted. This continued without consequence, until the day Groba chose their shop to ransack.

As Berlo and Brunko returned from their daily tasks, they found Groba, standing in the center of their grandfather's ruined shop. Splintered wood and scattered weaponry had been strewn about the floor as if a miniature storm had torn its way through the shop.

Groba had been holding their elderly grandfather aloft with one massive hand, slowly crushing the old human's throat. The two half-orcs hadn't hesitated and beat Groba to death.

The two brothers had not meant to take it that far, but they had both panicked, and by time their work was done... there had been almost no way to tell who Groba was.

The thick toes had been a dead give away however, and not wanting their family to be punished for their 'crime' they had both admitted to it.

Oddly enough, the Tribe-Lord wasn't too upset by this development. He had been saddened by the loss of his son, but apparently, Groba had been more a thorn in his father's side since he reached adulthood.

Berlo explained that Groba had been deeply involved with a powerful gang in Tanalom. This was where Groba's casual abuse of power came from, knowing that none; not even his father, would dare lay a hand on him.

The gang was known as 'Iron Toofs' and from what Hunter could gather from Berlo's explanation, they were the real power within Tanalom, using their muscle to rule the streets. Groba had been their mouthpiece to the Tribe-Lord, threatening to upend his rule if he didn't overlook their crimes.

These threats had worked apparently, considering all the things Berlo had told him of Groba's behavior. Hunter found himself furious at Groba and his bullies, and the Tribe-Lord's lack of action against these cretins. If all-out war in the streets was what was needed to cull these villains then that was what needed to be done! Better to die fighting to live free, rather than be subject to slavery in all but name.

His anger came to a near boil when Brunko finished the story, his tone somber. The cowardly Tribe-Lord had named them 'Hated' and cast them from the fort, never to return. As hated, they had the backs of their necks branded, so other Orclander's would know what they were if encountered out in the wilds. They both turned their necks to reveal the brands. Both were dead center on the nape of their necks, the white scarred flesh shaped like a triangle with a small circle in its center. Being one of the hated was considered a fate worse than death, for any Orclander who saw it knew to cause the brand's bearer as much suffering as possible.

On their long journey to escape the Orclands, they had been cursed at, stoned, whipped with razor cord, and all manner of other horrors. Hunter hadn't seen any scars from whipping, and he pointed that out to the two.

As it turned out, orc flesh was incredibly hard to scar permanently unless one used fire or in their case, a heated brand. Hunter was interested by this, but he'd prune them about it another time. Hunter wondered why they hadn't been outright killed for their status as 'hated'.

Berlo explained that, as hated, they were not to be killed. The purpose of the brand was to cause the bearer as much misery as possible. Death was a release from being hated, and no relief was to be provided to creatures so low.

Hunter understood why the Tribe-Lord branded them as hated. Hunter didn't like it, but he felt like he understood the Tribe-Lord's reasoning. This was about saving face and appeasing the Iron Toofs. Berlo and Brunko didn't say it, but Hunter felt that was the reason. It was worse than death after all.

He found himself clenching his jaw, and the half-orcs took notice of this, and hung their heads in shame.

"We eard dat past da river, the hated aren't known for wot dey is..." Berlo said, trailing off.

Brunko then sniffled, an odd sound from the large man "But they hates us down ere' too... don't even hafta see da brand first..."

Berlo nodded grimly at his younger brother's words and put a hand on his shoulder. Brunko then shadowed his brow with his hands, but Hunter could still see the tears falling, reflected by fire light.

"We eard of da venturin build, and we thoughts dat... we thoughts that da humies wouldn't hate us if we became heroly like. But dey don't wants us."

Brunko sobbed "Nobody does..."

Berlo nodded again, face softening as he looked back to Hunter "Now dat you knows we ams hated, we'll gets goin'"

Berlo moved to stand, and Hunter opened his mouth to halt them. Surprisingly, Wizard cut him off.

"Now you sit back down right now!" She ordered, eyes glaring.

Berlo froze under that gaze, but quickly shook it off, sitting back down hard. Brunko wiped away tears and looked up to Wizard, his yellow eyes glistening. Wizard took a deep breath, and let out a long sigh, sounding slightly frustrated.

"We've hired you as help..." She said "You can't just up and leave whenever you feel like it." She pointed at them, wagging her finger "You're going to stay with us, and I won't hear any arguments. You are under contract after all." Hunter did not remember any such contract, but he did not interrupt her.

She let her finger drop "I intend to have you stay with us... at least until you get officially registered by the guild. Don't go thinking you can quit whenever you want." Her eyes shifted to Hunter, and he smiled at her, a knowing smile.

The glare she gave him could have scared away a bear. Berlo and Brunko both looked to each other, then back at Wizard.

"You gots it boss!" Brunko proclaimed, standing while rubbing at his eyes "We'll smash up anyfing you want!"

Berlo nodded eagerly, a goofy smile stretching from ear to ear "Dats right boss! We ams yers to demand!"

Hunter smiled again. What happened to him being the boss? Wizard averted her gaze from the two happy orcs. The rest of the conversation went on, the dreary mood lifted. Though most of it was one-sided, as the orcs kept speaking to Wizard, Hunter almost completely forgotten.

 

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