It wasn't supposed to be like this!
All he wanted was to become strong and find a cute girl.
He knew there was the risk of danger when becoming an adventurer. Everyone knew that much. His goddess and his sponsor had told him various things. He knew about the dangers from the stories his grandfather had told him and by all the books he had read. The traveling adventurers passing through his farm had their fair share of stories as well.
He had been knocked around plenty of times by the monsters of the dungeon. But he made sure to keep a level head and stay in a comfortable floor until he felt he was strong enough to try some of the lower levels. It had gone this way for months and he was ready for the fifth level.
The monsters were definitely stronger here, that was for sure. He had been pushed but not broken. He fought hard and gained more experience and prizes.
…And then the minotaur showed up.
The minotaur was supposed to be something way out of his league. It was a monster found in the deeper reaches of the dungeon. It was fast, powerful, and his blade couldn't cut through its thick hide. And the cleaver it used broke down the walls and made the ground quake with every swing. It was more of a hammer than a blade.
He tried to run from it. But the creature was fast and pursued him endlessly. It was only through sheer dumb luck he had managed to avoid its strikes.
Eventually his luck ran out. He came across a dead end.
Panting from exhaustion and shaking with fear, he could only press his back to the wall and lift his dagger in defiance at the beast.
In another time, someone would have come to save him. This minotaur had fled from a higher-ranking party of adventurers. One of them would have followed after it, would have killed it, and he would have been saved.
But his salvation was a few minutes behind. She was coming. But she wouldn't make it in time.
The minotaur swung. He didn't even get the chance to scream as it cleaved him in two.
Ah. You've found yourself… a Hunter.
"Ah ha… You must be the new Hunter…"
Bell didn't know if he was tripping out or if he really was dead. He remembered… pain. Something deep tearing his chest in two. But he couldn't remember what it was. There was a thick fog clouding his memory. His feet had carried him to this garden until the haze cleared and he began to make sense of his surroundings.
The garden led to a slope of stairs. Little Ones— he decided to call them such because he didn't know what else to describe them— lured him into the house at the top of the hill. It was… a workshop. Books lined the shelves with most of them scattered in large piles everywhere on the floor. Desks and tables ran up the walls with various tools sprawled across them. Cabinets held vials and glasses and other assortments he didn't know what was what. And at the far end was an altar.
Sitting at the center of it all was an old man in a wheelchair. This old man looked up at Bell with appraising eyes.
"Where am I?" Bell asked. He didn't know whether to be afraid of this place or not. He didn't know where he was or how he got here. None of this felt real. It seemed so… chaotic. And yet… so peaceful.
The old man smiled, his fingers adjusting on the top of his cane. "Welcome to the Hunter's Dream. This will be your home… for now."
Bell looked around once more. Yes. He could feel it. All of this was a dream. None of this was real. It explained why he was so calm despite there being every reason for him to panic. Since when did dreams ever make sense? When had he ever been in control over it? And in dreams was he always at peace.
"I am Gehrman," the old man introduced himself. He shuffled around in his chair with a look of doubt in his eyes. He looked… unsure on how to proceed. Shy? Timid? Frightened? "Hmm, friend to you Hunters. You're sure to be in a fine haze about all this. But don't think too hard about it. Just go out there and kill a few beasts. It's for your own good. Y'know, it's just what Hunters do."
Bell could only nod at this. It didn't make sense. And yet it made perfect sense.
"You'll get used to it," Gehrman shrugged. He looked around while continuing to ramble. "This was once a safe haven for Hunters. A workshop where Hunters used blood to enhance their weapons. And flesh. We don't have as many tools as once we did; but, you're welcome to use whatever you find…"
He leaned forward and wagged his finger at Bell, urging him to draw closer. Bell did so.
And the old man whispered his secrets, "Even the Doll. If it pleases you."
Bell only nodded. With his dagger and his spare still strapped to his bindings, he walked out of the workshop to begin the hunt.
This town is cursed. Whatever your reasons may be… you should plan a swift exit. Whatever there is to gain from this place will only do more harm than good…
"Hello, Good Hunter," she said.
The Doll. He was fascinated by her. She was so pretty. It hurt to find something so beautiful was a lifeless doll. But upon returning to the Dream after his confrontation with a beast unlike any other at the bridge… she was standing before him. Talking.
"I am a doll here in this Dream to look after you," she continued to speak in a sweet voice. But no emotion. She couldn't have any emotion. Such was a concept that couldn't exist within her. Still… he couldn't help but flush and advert his gaze when someone so pretty was addressing him.
"H-Hello!" he ended up shouting with his eyes closed. "I am Bell Cranell! It's nice to meet you."
The doll stared at him for a long time. Her head tilted as if the slight angle change in her vision of him would bring a new set of enlightenment in understanding him. Apparently it did.
…Because after a while of staring at him she began to clap her hands.
It made him want to curl up into a ball and bury himself in the flowerbeds.
"Honorable Hunter, pursue the echoes of blood…" she went on. "And I will channel them into your strength. You will hunt beasts. And I will be here for you to embolden your sickly spirit."
She lifted her hand with her large eyes gazing down at his own. He complied and brought his hand into hers. There was… warm in her touch.
Oh how he wished his palms weren't so sweaty from nerves.
"Very well," the Doll said. A strange light began to glow from her mechanical hands. "Now shut your eyes."
This was all very familiar to him. Not in the same familiarity he had whenever he returned to this Dream. Not this alien and yet welcoming feeling. He felt like he had done this before but could not recall when or how.
All of the blood he had spilt from hunting the monsters and deranged villagers resurfaced as memories. All of their lives and experiences flashed through him. But he could not make sense of it. They weren't his lives so there was no point in trying to sympathize with something he couldn't understand. As quickly as these things came… they went. The memories soaked into his flesh.
And he felt himself become a little bit stronger out of it.
"Farewell, Good Hunter," the Doll let go of his hand. He wished she could have held on to it a little bit longer. But he was also ashamed his hand was so sweaty. "May you find your worth in the Waking World."
Beasts all over the shop… You'll be one of them, sooner or later.
"Oh hello there," Eileen greeted him as he approached.
She had been a marvelous help to him. And a nice change of pace to this nightmare of blood and monsters. She was one of the firsts outside of the dweller of the church ward to talk to. He had panicked earlier, had run around in circles as were-beasts hounded him. And Eileen had swooped in to save him. Though… she scolded him pretty harshly afterwards and gave him what she called Hunter Marks for him to flee.
He didn't use them. He chose to continue fighting.
She had shaken her head at the time… but offered sound advice that had saved his life plenty before.
"Perfect timing," she went on. "I must warn you not to go near the tomb below Oedon Chapel below the Cathedral Ward. Henryk, and old Hunter, has gone mad. And he's my mark."
She did not hunt beasts like Bell. She was once a part of the Dream just like how he was now. Eileen was a Hunter of Hunters. She preyed upon those who gave in to the frenzy of the blood and put them down before they could become something worse than the beasts that plagued Yarnham.
He knew better than to interfere with her work. He was still young an inexperienced. He had much to learn and Eileen had survived the Hunter's Dream on another night long ago. He'd probably get in her way if he followed her.
But… she had saved his life once. And the feeling in his gut told him he wouldn't get the chance to pay her back if she walked in there alone.
Against his better judgment, and against her cold words, he followed her down into the graveyard where he had put down Father Gascoigne.
He had been right all along to have followed her.
The Hunter garbed in gold had overpowered her. While Eileen was swift and precise with her twin daggers, Henryk was stronger and just as cunning. He kept her at bay and managed to land his own series of crippling blows against her. She was bleeding with a bad gash on her leg hindering her movements. Now Henryk was faster than her.
He stepped in. Henryk was deranged and so focused on Eileen he hadn't been able to see Bell coming. A stab right at his waist was more than enough to cause the golden Hunter to stagger.
Eileen delivered the finishing blow.
"…That wasn't necessary of you… but you have my thanks," she said while panting. Henryk's body had yet to go cold. "We made it with our lives. You must have killed Gascoigne, then? He was falling apart— I'm sure it had to be done. But try to keep your hands clean. A Hunter should hunt beasts. Leave the hunting of Hunters to me."
She gave a chuckle while tucking her weapons away and gracing her hand on his arm.
There's nothing more horrific than the Hunt. In case you haven't realized… the things you hunt, they're not beasts. They're people. One day you will see.
This no longer began to feel like a Dream. This was a Nightmare. Hunters like him plagued the streets of this perverted world. They hunted the beasts when the beasts wanted nothing to do with them. A hoard of them ran past Bell, ignoring him completely. It was a Hunter who had chased them down.
He found himself fighting against the Hunters who had been driven mad. He was saving beasts.
The deeper he traveled… the more he wanted to wake up from the Nightmare. Many times he returned to the Dream and conversed with the Doll and Gehrman. The Doll said very little. And Gehrman either chuckled or offered no words at all.
Bell was forced to trek this land alone.
The deeper he went… the worst things got.
He had heard stories about the Healing Church. He had heard they were the ones who introduced blood ministration. The blood Bell used whenever he was wounded. It healed all with the exception of poisons.
He didn't think to question the origins of their miracle elixir until he met the Church's First Hunter, Ludwig.
…or the monster that was once Ludwig.
"Good Hunter," and all remained of Ludwig after their fight was his head. "Have you seen the thread of life? Just a hair. A fleeting thing! Yet I clung to it, steeped as I was in the stench of blood and beasts. I never wanted to know what it really was. Really, I didn't…"
Bell had nothing to say. He was too tired and the battle had worn out his spirit. He thought what he was doing was for a noble cause. He thought the Church had been a saving grace of all that was good. He had heard legends of Ludwig the Holy Blade. To find a hero he looked up to had become a beast brought Bell down.
He listened to Ludwig's ramblings. And that's all they really were. Ramblings.
Ludwig wasn't talking to Bell. He never was.
Proof he never was came immediately after. Ludwig's words became incoherent ramblings as he drifted off in his speech. Eventually it stopped being words only Ludwig could understand and became maddened screams and howling laughter.
Bell couldn't put him out of his misery. His dagger was raised, ready to plunge deep into his hero's brain. But he couldn't do it. Ludwig deserved so much better.
Bell couldn't stop crying when Simon came in and performed the deed for him. The Hunter of the Nightmare offered sound wisdom and words of prayer and sympathy for Ludwig. But Bell couldn't hear any of it.
Why was he here? What was he fighting for? What was the purpose of the Hunt?
A corpse should be left well alone. Oh I know very well how the secrets beckon so sweetly. Only an honest death will cure you now— liberate you from your wild curiosity.
He thought he had seen everything. He thought he could no longer be surprised. He thought he had started to understand this Dream/Nightmare.
…Until a giant multi-limbed thing with a caged skull grabbed him and devoured him.
He found himself in a place of chaotic familiarity liken to the Hunter's Dream. It was a building of similar architecture to the Hunter's Workshop, to Bergynwerth… and the research facility Lady Maria protected. But this was no place of beasts or of eldritch creatures. This was a place of learning.
The students roaming around with scrolls tucked under their… arm(?) ignored him as they carried on with their business. They were neither humor nor beasts. They were some sort of slime construct wearing black caps and matching uniforms. Some looked at him quizzically. Some even spat slime at him. But if he kept his distance they left him alone.
Much like the Hunter's Workshop, the building was filled with books and scrolls. Unfortunately most of them were faded. This was another Dream. Whoever was dreaming had either forgotten what knowledge remained in the books or had never read them in the first place.
But Bell did find a few things of note. Such as the words carved onto the side of an office desk.
We must kill the Old Ones.
"Oh. A Hunter of beasts are you?"
Bell spun around, only to shriek in terror and raise his dagger in alarm.
What eyed him was a spider as large as his torso. But instead of a multi-eyed head stared a pair of eyes belonging to the head of a bald man. He was a pale man with the body of a spider.
He crawled along the wall, around Bell, and stood on top of the desk he had been examining. "Glory be, you know not the value you possess. But…" it shrugged, as if it still possessed human shoulders. "More's the pity."
Bell could only keep his dagger pointed with his back pressed against a bookshelf. He gulped. He had been wrong to believe nothing could surprise him after that… thing took him into the Nightmare.
It cackled while it watched him squirm. "Now wait just a moment. Do you think ill of me? Me?!"
"N-N-N-No!" Bell shook his head with everything he had.
"Hmph," it smiled, unconvinced but willing to humor him. "I should think not! I shared with a thing of you most secret. Now, you've witnessed a miracle. And all the stronger for it. You should appreciate it, if you have a grain of gratitude for it. Hmm, hmm, hmm, yes, hmm, hmm, hmm appreciate it…"
It cackled some more to some joke only it could understand.
"No matter," it abruptly stopped, though the sickening smile was still plastered on its face. "Such details are trifling. We're fast friends now. Let this express what words cannot. Doubt me not, good sir, what is friendship but a chance encounter?"
It laughed some more.
"I'm willing to do you a kindness. Step lightly around to the right of the cathedral… and seek an ancient shrouded church. The gift of the godhead will grant you strength. Yes… I'm unquestioningly certain…"
It laughed some more.
Bell nodded, promising he would do such.
But he had already come across the thing lingering around the church. It was how he got here in the first place.
Now I'm waking up! I'll forget everything!
His blood ran cold at the sight of her.
"Oh… is that you again?" Eileen looked up at him. Her body was slouched against the stone steps leading to the Grand Cathedral. Her hand was pressed against her side as fresh blood dripped down. He could see it flow down the steps.
"I'm afraid I made a bit of a blunder," she shook her head with an ironic laugh. "I'm just going to have a short rest. Though… don't worry. I've taken blood. Enough to save an old woman… No more Dreams for me… This is my last chance."
She was panting. Her voice was losing the deep roar of determination he praised. Never before had he seen her so weakened. Eileen always became stronger after every Hunter she faced. He marveled at her work.
She may have taken blood to heal… but even he knew she wouldn't recover from this.
"What a fool I am. I'll have to trek carefully. But that thing still lies in wait."
He looked at the trail of blood that led to the Cathedral. Was it another Hunter's blood or was it Eileen's? Either way, whatever she had been tracking was still within.
"Turn back," she put some of her fire into her words. She knew what he was about to do. "This is my score to settle. My prey lies in wait this way. Turn back."
He didn't listen. He knelt down and patted her knee, giving it a firm squeeze. And then he picked up her trick weapon, the Blades of Mercy, to finish what she started.
He owed Eileen more than his life. He'd have been lost in blood and madness in the Hunt if it hadn't been for her.
He returned to her soaked in the blood from his wounds… but more from the wounds of his enemy. It had been another Hunter. A Vileblood or one who had followed their practices. He was beyond salvation and used his own blood as a weapon. Bell used up the blood vials he could carry from the Hunter's Dream as well as his antidotes.
He had none left to save Eileen. But… she had already been beyond salvation herself.
"Don't you ever listen to your elders?" she spat at him… but a tinge of warmth was felt beneath her icy tone. "No matter… You did save my life. I don't seem to be apt for this life no more. My glory days were… long ago now."
He knelt down beside her. Their hands met. He gave it a firm squeeze as he knew this would be their last time they could meet like this. He brought her trick weapon around to return to its rightful master.
But Eileen put her other hand up. She cupped her weapons and pressed them against his chest.
"Here, for you," she said in a low voice. "This too is Hunter's work. But it bears no honor. The burden you may choose to carry… the decision is yours alone."
Her body shivered. She groaned. "Hoh… my eyes grow heavy… Let me rest awhile. I'll be fine. Just… wait…"
He did wait. He waited at her side, holding her hand the entire time. He listened to her breathing. At how it became irregular, became light… and eventually stopped.
When her body sagged, he let the tears fall down.
We are born of the Blood. Mad men by the Blood. Undone by the Blood. Our eyes are yet to open. Fear the Old Blood.
"Why is the house on fire?!" Bell shrieked as soon as he returned to the Dream.
The Hunter's Workshop was on fire. Wood crackled and splintered by the heat. All of his hard work recovering lost artifacts, chalices for the dungeons, and the lost instruments of the Workshop was going up in smoke.
His inventory was stored in the chest within!
"Ah, Good Hunter, you have come," and yet the Doll stood unbothered that her home was falling apart. Then again… getting a reaction out of her was impossible. She only reacted like an actual human girl when he gifted her the hair ornament… and when he killed Lady Maria.
"W-Water!" Bell scrambled around the compound looking for a well or something. "Help me put it out!"
The Doll only tilted her head, unable to understand his panic. "Dawn will soon break. This night and this Dream will soon end. Gehrman awaits you at the foot of the great tree."
She pointed to the garden that had been barred to him. An iron fence had closed it off and Gehrman had forbade him from trying to enter.
Had it been anything but a Dream, Bell would have ignored her words and tried to put out the fire. But all rationality was lost when a dream was involved. He found himself moving. He walked down the path, pushed open the gates, and strolled into the large hill that housed hundreds of flowers. And there, just as she had said, Gehrman had sat under the ancient tree.
"Good Hunter… you've done well," greeted the First Hunter with a proud smile. "The night is near its end. Now, I will show you mercy. You will die, forget the dream, and awake under the morning sun. You will be freed from this terrible Hunter's Dream."
The Dream will end. Bell will finally awaken. It was what he wanted. What he would wake up to… he couldn't recall. The dream world and the waking world were two different things. He was unable to determine what was out there just as he wouldn't be able to remember this dream once he woke up.
His hands clenched tight around the Blades of Mercy. He was never the first Hunter to go through this Dream… nor would he be the last.
"No," he shook his head. "I don't want anyone else to go through this. What was the point of the Hunt?!"
Gehrman looked at him sadly. The old man sighed…
And stood up.
"Dear, oh dear," the ancient hunter shook his head as he reached for his trick weapon that hadn't been there before. It simply appeared.
This was never Bell's Dream. This was always Gehrman's Nightmare.
"What was it? The Hunt? The blood? Or the horrible Dream?" Gehrman paced forward, holding a curved blade that could transform into a scythe and back again. He meant to kill Bell and end this Dream by any means at all.
Bell drew out Eileen's Blades of Mercy. Tonight… he will become the last Hunter of Hunters. He will end the Hunt. He will stop any other Hunter from entering the Dream.
"It doesn't matter," Gehrman adjusted the grip on his weapon. "It always comes down to the Hunter's helper to clean up after these… sort of messes. Tonight… Gehrman joins the Hunt!"
He moved faster than any beast or Hunter Bell had ever come across.
But Bell did not flinch. He charged forward, a battle cry escaping his lips as he took on the old man. The Blades of Mercy danced against Gehrman's Burial Blade
Farewell, Good Hunter. May you find your worth in the Waking World.
Bell jolted awake.
Did he seriously fall asleep in the dungeon?! Even for a newbie like him he knew better than to do something like that! Monsters could have gotten to him or another adventurer to rob him.
…Just in case he made sure to check his inventory. Nope, everything was accounted for and no thief came by to pick his pockets while he was out cold.
What time was it? How long had he been asleep? It was difficult to tell since the dungeon didn't shine any outside light. He could have been in here for a full day. But… that couldn't be. Monsters spawn out of the walls themselves. He would have surely been mobbed by a few of them if he had rested longer than a few minutes.
Oh, that's right, he was eating his lunch. He must have fallen asleep shortly after.
He couldn't let his goddess or his sponsor hear about this. They'd give him an earful.
Bell stood, patted himself clean of crumbs from the sandwich and the dirt (and the drool), and performed a few stretches. His body was stiff after having slept on the hard floor and it'd be terrible getting a cramp once he begun to fight monsters. A nimble body was best since he was smaller than the average adventurer.
Gathering his things, he hefted his back over his shoulder and trekked back up the walkway of the dungeon in search of more monsters.
Hmm… his bag was a lot lighter than he remembered. Nothing was stolen… but he could have sworn he had more materials from today's expedition.
And hadn't he been this way already? Well, yeah, he always came this way whenever he went into a dungeon. But he was sure he had come across this way today.
A sense of déjà vu swam through him. He remembered this eerie silence, the murky scent in the air, and the echoing of his boots against the dungeon's floor. He even remembered eating his lunch awhile ago.
He felt like he had seen that minotaur before…
Wait. A minotaur?!
That was a monster found on the seventh floor! And Bell had barely begun scouting out the fifth floor! Scouting! He wasn't ready to take on some of the stronger creatures! He wasn't even sure if he completed the fourth floor!
The monster spotted him. Its eyes glowed red with rage as it hefted its cleaver over its head and began to charge at him.
…Yet, why did it seem so slow to him?
He did not run from this creature. He found himself drawn towards it. His feet took him a few steps forward. A form with his stance and his hands was made. He drew out his short sword. A sword, not the dagger he got on loan by the Guild. With a flick of his wrist did sparks light up around its hilt. With another tug did it split in two, forming two daggers instead of one.
He sped past the hallway, swerving under the first swing of the cleaver. The minotaur didn't see him zip by. But Bell spun and crossed both his blades against the hide.
The Blades of Mercy danced yet again on this Hunt.