Management: A little 6,000+ word fanfic something that I was inspired to write playing Dark Souls and watching Re: Zero on the same day. I remembered getting angry at something the game made me do. I also remembered thinking about how high fantasy escapist narratives usually treat the concept of heroism. And then the story idea about a romance between a hero and a spider girl hit me.
The air felt heavy to the Hero as he made his way down the descending tunnel. The swamps of Blighttown were their own kind of heaviness, a dampness and muckiness that was nauseating to the Hero when he first ventured into them, the decomposing sludge of civilization’s discardings and unravelings, human excrement and hollow remains. Yet even as he left those swamps behind him, the new sights that he encountered made his stomach churn. Rather than dead and decomposed, his environs were alive with precious life. Precious and pulsating.
The walls were webbed in a white and thick cake. Only once did the Hero brush past them. They were soft to touch, and they beat back. Like the chambers of a heart, the tunnel walls pulsed to a regular rhythm. Adjoining these walls were mutants of men, barely distinguishable people crawling on the ground like lame arachnids sucking spilt meal. They treasured on their backs sacs, equally precious and pulsating. Whatever these men were preoccupied with, whether it be their sacs or their feed, they paid no attention to the Hero as he ran walked past them, his arms raised in anxiety as his mind imagined him in them.
The Hero thought of killing them. They might attack him once he got distracted. But then again, the walls could very well burst open, enveloping him in a skin-crawling embrace of whatever made their surfaces and crevices their abodes. They may as well lean over and swallow him whole before breaking him down into food. Or maybe the ceiling would spew digestive fluids, dissolving him where he stood for the men with sacs to lick clean. It made no difference. The Hero looked up. Sure enough, there was cake above…
…and cake below, cake conveying such an unnerving sensation that the Hero impulsively jumped back. He lost his footing on the spider eggs he landed onto. He tumbled down into a clearing, and at its foot, there lay a spider. So large was this spider’s body that it could straddle three adults. This monstrous spider made do with the Hero, towering over him with its manifold eyes and hair-studded torso of sharply bristling blacks, yellows, and reds. It approached. Its white fangs bared a clear mixture of drool or venom, lifting as though to feed or poison.
And then a voice, that of which could only belonged to a girl so sickly, cried out. The voice was scratchy, stammering, and slight. Whatever sounds the voice might have conveyed sounded foreign, either due to distance or language. Nevertheless, they distracted him from the uncomfortable moment before him. They were sounds of pain.
The fangs hesitated before sheathing beneath what could have been massive lips. The monstrous spider’s body slumped over his, breaking him from his trance as it cracked his ribs. Fire instead of fangs slashed at the Hero’s throat, and as he tried, in vain, to clutch the searingly and vacuously black, gaping hole that should have been his windpipe, he saw something not quite as monstrous. He saw another girl, clutching in her silk-like smooth hand the black misshapen sprite of his Humanity.
The sound of fire crackled over the Hero as he sat, gazing at the flames that he awoke next to. He reimagined in the crackling embers what he saw before his soul left and wandered back to the nearest bonfire. His memory gradually provided corroboration. Flowing streams of silky black were mounted on her scalp like fountains of decadence flowing over her shoulders. Her hair obscured a third of her right eye and a half a nipple from her right breast. Where the streams of hair parted, her face and body was clear for the Hero to see. Her forehead was large and prominent, and the protrusions of her collar bone appeared symmetrically carved into her slightly tanned skin. She was naked from the waist up, but every naked feature looked very human. Most human-like of all was the expression her face wore. It conveyed neither archea nor malice, the combination of looks that all demons seem to have plastered on their heads before attacking every person around them. Instead, it expressed a sad resolve.
Questions crashed into his mind like heavy sabers clanging together. Why did she look like that? Was she born that way? The possibility of a siren’s call came to the Hero’s mind, but he quickly discarded the thought. She killed no time trying to charm him. Neither was she anything like the idiomatic black widow. She didn’t seem to especially revel in the sight of his seared open throat. Or perhaps that emotion he noticed on her face was in response to that cry from before, pathetic and pained. Was her desire for his Humanity a desire to look as human as possible? But if she was as concerned by that cry as she seemed to be, then it would have been rather selfish of her to take as much time as she did to kill him, much less strip him of something. Would human logic even apply here? The spider part of her body didn’t finish him off though.
What did it all mean to the Hero anyway? For the longest time, he’s wanted answers to why he was here. All the leads he had to go on were vague, and all of them led to violent ends. But with every instance of death, he revived just as many times beside a bonfire. The heat that washed over him from these fires felt intense at first, the first time he awoke. But for each successive death, the fires felt less warm, less caressing. Sparks spat out from the bonfire’s cinders like whips, red of flame and black of shadow, thick and bold. They coiled into the air like an impassioned warrior darting forward. But then the warrior keels over, disappearing from sight. The passion is out, the heat is gone, all suggestion of glory and freedom, turned to cold ash.
The mantle of Hero appealed to him at the beginning. The appeal faded after enough bleak landscapes and traumatic demises. Whatever he felt on the matter, people would continue to insist. It soon became too much trouble for him to correct it every time for everyone. He was labeled Hero by the crestfallen and prophetic, with respective sarcasm and all seriousness. He’s been called it enough times that it might as well have been his given name. Even his dreams echoed the words: Hero…
But more than just desiring answers to his situation, he was overwhelmed with a desire to know more about the spider lady. It was an odd curiosity, he confessed to himself. It was also a simple one. In a world as dangerous and exhausting as the one he had to brave and endure, the desire for things simple tended to sharpen overtime. In fact, he would give a lot for a shot of whiskey, if only to relive that nostalgic burn, even if it was second-rate to returning back to his previous home. Even if he died in an attempt or few to meet her, he would be revived all the same. He’d lose a Humanity, but all the good it did was provide third-rate nostalgia.
He took one from his stock, crushing it in his palm. It was a habit of his.
Down the slightly throbbing tunnel and disfigured sac men, the Hero attempted to retrace his steps to the spot where he fell. He was less perturbed by his surroundings than earlier. Why could that be, he wondered? Nothing in that tunnel attacked him the last time he traveled down it. That didn’t guarantee he wouldn’t be attacked this time. Deep down though, he felt it was unlikely. He couldn’t exactly describe why. Maybe he was just used to the place now? He became used to the swamps, but the swamps never relented on reminding him how dangerous they were. In contrast, everything around him seemed fragile. The walls and ceiling beat weakly, and the men with sacs limped along.
He was reminded of that pitiful cry. Maybe his curiosity was making him less guarded and more reckless. But perhaps not everything in this world sought to kill heroes such as himself. Maybe the world was trying to protect itself from heroes like him. What was heroism then? Truth be told, the swamp bred a kind of life naturally suited to that damp and mucky part of the world, and life there would have gone on living and dying even if he never disturbed it.
The Hero arrived at the spot. The spider eggs he stepped on earlier were sturdier than he thought. They looked only mildly indented. Perhaps their membranes were designed to be elastic or self-repairing. He never did get a good look at them before he tumbled down into the clearing below. He looked around, and sure enough, a path sloping downward into where he fell below laid close. He must have tumbled down quite a distance. He continued forward, careful not to trip, careful not to draw his sword. Step-by-step, staring ahead, he thought of what words he would say to the spider lady when they finally met. Could he reason with her? He had a feeling that he could if he got the chance. But what if they couldn’t understand each other? Would gestures work?
But before he could think of anything further, fire in place of where his heart should have been erupted from a smoking cavity. The air tinged with a special kind of dark as Humanity escaped from him like thick vapor. His sight soon turned dark. Before he could fully process what happened, he was back at a bonfire, staring at cinders. He never even got the chance.
But neither did the Hero feel overly discouraged. Nothing changed because he wasn’t able to talk to her. If he said his piece and she still killed him, maybe that would have been that. But the opportunity never arose, so the possibilities might as well have been endless. That’s right, right? He thought of how strange this rationalization sounded, and wondered whether or not he was crazy for agreeing with it. He was unable to be fully slain, that much was truth. He might have read at one time, the musings of some author or philosopher, that people who were unable to die developed hearts of stone. And yet his heart’s desire remained as molten as before. He wanted his curiosity sated. He wanted to talk to this girl.
“I’m curious, you know?”
The Hero was greeted by an unfamiliar voice while seeking to revisit a familiar beating sight. He stopped in his tracks to look around. There seemed to be no one there.
“I’m curious, you know?” the voice repeated with a lilt. Deeply pitched and slowly-paced, the voice reverberated powerfully in the dank sewer cavity where the bonfire lay.
It was nothing like the cry the Hero heard earlier.
“You come there a second time. You did not unsheath your sword. You didn’t even raise your shield. You were jittery all the same though. The way I see it, you were trying to play a trick that didn’t work. You’re a new type of hollow that can somehow retrace his steps. You’re an idiot. Or you’re after something else, something other than Bell of Awakening way out back in her domain. Were one of those guesses right?”
The Hero struggled with what to say. He wasn’t expecting a random voice down here, or at least a voice that didn’t sound feminine. He did assume that “her” referred to the spider lady though.
“No matter,” the voice said before the Hero could come up with a coherent response. “I see you’re confused. There’s no need to for you to say anything right now. After all, actions speak louder the words, and, more than your words at the moment, I’m dying to know what your next actions will tell me.”
The Hero stayed in place for some time, waiting for any more words or even actions the man behind the voice might say or do. True to what he implied, he fell silent. Was he still watching him? Was he gone? Was he waiting for him in the clearing? The Hero wasn’t sure either way. The Hero called out to the voice, but it didn’t answer him.
The Hero reflected on what the voice said. The man behind the voice had been observing him the two times he’s ventured down into the tunnel and into the clearing. He watched him die those two times, and he received no help from him in either case. Does this person know the spider lady? Is he allies with her? Or was he just some third-party, watching people die for entertainment or waiting for people to prevail before swooping down and swiping all the battle’s spoils? Maybe he can’t get past the spider lady himself, and he’s just waiting for some sucker to kill her so he could proceed?
He did mention the Bell of Awakening. It sounded like he knew it was there. Perhaps he was trying to get to the Bell? But how would he know the Bell was there in the first place? The Bell was rumored to be in Blighttown, but the rumors never pointed out where in those swamps it was located. Had he been to the Bell before? Or was he just assuming it was there after surveying everywhere else in that God-forsaken place?
The Hero started on the path back into the clearing. If the man behind this voice were just trying to use him get past the spider lady, he’d be disappointed again. But then again, if that was all he was trying to do, he wouldn’t have spoken to him in the first place, let alone ask him all those questions. It would have probably been better for him not to talk to the Hero at all. There would have been less of a chance for the Hero to back out of his original quest that way. The Hero would have felt less used. The Hero would have distracted the spider lady like those times before, and the man behind the voice could have made a safer run for it.
Lost in his thoughts, the Hero failed to realize he arrived at his destination. By the time he became self-aware of where he was at, fire burst from behind through his chest.
A familiar, yet unfamiliar warmth bathed over his chest as he awoke next to a bonfire. It was warm, yet cooler than previously. Out of habit, he reached to his pouch for a Humanity before a voice made him reach for his sword.
“I’m still quite curious, you know?” said the voice with a playful air.
“W-Who are you?” called the Hero shakily, still uneasy from the surprise and his latest death.
“You don’t seem to be playing tricks, and you don’t seem to be a hollow,” the voice said, somewhat playfully and unfazed by the Hero’s startled movements. “So you’re either an idiot or after something else. If you’re indeed after something else, I hope you don’t mind disclosing to me what. I might be able to help you.”
“You’re not going to kill me, are you?”
“My dear Hero, if I wanted to kill you, I would have done it in that tunnel. All I want are answers.”
“Go figure, I want answers too,” said the Hero. “So answer me this.” Fiery emotion impregnated his mouth. “Why do people keep calling me a hero? What have I done to be called it? Why do I have to live up to it? I never expected or wanted it. I’m stuck in a world I never grew up in and never belonged to. I have an actual name-”
“What do you want?” said the voice, sounding suddenly stern.
“I…” began the Hero, his jaw heavy. “I want to know more about her.”
Without breaking stride, he followed his previous question with another. “Why do you want to know?”
“She and I have something in common. Something important. That’s what ended up feeling”
An uncomfortable silence followed, followed by another question. As he asked it, the man behind the voice seemed unconcerned by how freakish or even fetishistic the contents of his confession sounded. “What did you choose as your starting item?”
Startled by what he was asked, the Hero answered before he could stop himself: “Twin Humanities.”
There was another long pause. The Hero imagined the man behind the voice twisting his mouth into a grin as he continued.
“I have a proposition,” the voice said. “I have a spare ring that will allow you to talk to her. I’ll give it to you if you give me your Twin Humanities. How does that sound?”
The Hero gave it moment of deep thought, having better adjusted his mental bearings. “It’s not much of a fair trade.”
“How so?” the voice asked with a shade more frost. The man behind it put deliberate effort into making himself like that. To the Hero, it almost felt like he was testing him.
“How do I know that your ‘spare’ ring will work?”
The Hero could imagine the man’s crooked smile break apart into a distorted-looking laugh. “I see. I see!” he boomed. “That’s true. That’s very true. I see that you’re no fool, Hero, though you have exercised more discretion when I asked you what you owned. That’s right. There’s no way to guarantee right here that the ring I’d give you wouldn’t be junk. In fact, I could have swiped you Twin Humanities the moment you produced it and be off on my merry way. You have no reason to trust me-”
“I don’t completely trust you, but the fact you’re taking time to talk to me instead of mugging me means you’re after something else too, right? Here’s something I believe.” The Hero then reached into his pouch to produce two black misshapen sprites. “We’re kindred spirits as well, you and I. We come from the same place. So I’m willing to take a chance out of infinity. My Humanity’s never really meant much to me anyway. It’s only ever been something third-rate. I’d rather have picked a beer if it was an option, or maybe even the pendant because it was one. And my name isn’t Hero. It’s-”
“Put that thing away,” the voice said sharply. The man behind it sounded a little agitated.
Out of the darkness, a light flashed. It traveled closer before hitting his head and falling into his palms. It was an ancient-looking ring.
“That should be enough for you to not doubt my intentions,” he said with a shade of fire. “If we’re kindred spirits, then either way, it doesn’t matter who holds those Humanities for now. I’ll be waiting.”
And with that, the man with that voice left. Or he seemed to have left, what with his tone of finality. Sliding the ring into one of his fingers, he put his Twin Humanities away. He took out a normal Humanity, and with a prayer, crushed it and set off. The Hero was an atheist in his previous life, but he continued praying as a habit, even if it was to no one in particular.
The Hero walked down the beating tunnel with its white cake and sac men, taking care this time not to think too deeply. He reached the landmark of spider eggs he stepped on earlier. They were only slightly indented now, as though they were righting themselves. They could have very well had that ability all along. He continued forward.
The clearing was in sight. As soon as he stepped into it. The Hero looked up. His twice neglect of the ceiling was likely why he was dispatched so quickly in the first place. No one was there, however, and it didn’t appear its white cake hid anyone either. Nothing within those spider webs attacked him before, and as unsettling as the spider eggs’ rhythmic pulsing continued to appear, he didn’t expect them to attack now. Despite that, he kept the ceiling in peripheral view as a precaution.
The effort ended up being pointless. Directly in front of him lay the spider lady, scurrying without warning or hesitation to pin him down. Having resolved never to fight back, the Hero stretched out his arms in surrender. He might have well just jumped into lava. She knocked him down and got on top of him like before. She raised her fiery sword and aimed it at his throat.
“Another failure,” the Hero thought.
The sword missed. It smoldered the ground to the right of him. It singed some hair strands, but harm was otherwise averted. The pressure on the Hero’s chest became lighter as spider lady heaved to the side and then hopped out of the way of spikes. Or were they thorns? For the person who stood beside him, emerging from a signet’s glint and dissipating fog, was a knight bedecked from head to toe with thorns protruding from every surface of his armor. He carried a hundred-thorned sword and a thousand-thorned shield, and spoke with a tone not unlike his aesthetic. The voice, however, sounded familiar.
“Quelaag!” the man behind the voice called. “How is it that killing this man is your reaction to him coming unarmed four times?”
But the spider lady named Quelaag looked like she would have none of it. The flames dancing over her blade seemed to swell the angrier she got. “Traitor! Traitor! How dare you betray me, Knight of Thorns-”
“My name is Kirk, you fucking bitch!” the knight called Kirk roared as he balled his torso for a charge. The thorns on his helmet and shoulder pads looked sharper and deadlier the more enraged the man became.
However, with a swish of her free hand, a fiery whip sprouted from her hand. Kirk attempted to dodge, but another stream of fire followed, raking him with flame and causing him to keel over. Shock flashed Quelaag’s eyes before fire burned within them at the sight of a bright red gleam from Kirk’s left ring finger. “You dare wear that against me, you traitorous excuse for my sister’s knight-”
“Don’t you dare call me that-”
“I am her sister! I fucking dare!”
“Quelaag!” screamed the Hero.
She momentarily paused and turned her gaze slightly towards his.
Whatever that ring he wore was, it saved Kirk from the full brunt of her pyromancy, but just barely. The way he was curled up, it seemed at least part of the flesh underneath his armor had cooked. Another direct sweep of those flames would likely end him. He had to say something to get her undivided attention. Additionally, there was something else about this whole situation that he wanted to address.
“I know why you prey here! It’s because of the Bell, isn’t it?”
Quelaag turned around completely to face the Hero. They stared into each other’s eyes, eating each other’s gazes.
“You prey here,” the Hero continued, “because you know that heroes will have to pass here in order to ring the Bell. You ambush them here, isn’t that right?”
Quelaag slowly approached. Her sight appeared as fiery and piercing as the sword she used to impale the man she was staring down, twice. “That’s right, human,” she said menacingly. “That’s right, Hero,” she said mockingly. “All of you get baited here like moths and flies, but I know what you’re doing Hero. Buying time so that I’ll kill that traitor later rather than sooner. I congratulate you. You’ve accomplished your goal. But that’s not going to save his life or yours-”
“Do you know how dangerous that is?”
Quelaag stopped, confused by a response she wasn’t expecting.
“Suppose someone more serious and stubborn came through here for the Bell? You know how the revival mechanic works in this world.”
“What is your point?” she barked, flustered over the fact she stopped to begin with.
“Suppose if they decent dodging reflexes,” the Hero continued, ignoring the impatience in her tone.
“I have more-than-decent dodging skills.”
“You have a large profile.”
“You dare call me large-”
“Half your body’s a giant spider! It’s just a fact of this life!” the Hero yelled, impatience getting the better of him. His right hand ended up obscuring his sight of her. “Just suppose they memorize your every move. Heroes like me have all the time in the world to learn how to fight you, and as long we’re determined enough to get past you, it’s only a matter of time until you get slain. Unlike us heroes, you won’t revive. There’s no way to reset everything to how it used to be. This isn’t a game anymore.”
The Hero dropped his hand to his waist, reaching in his pouch for his Twin Humanities. The sight of black misshapen sprites floating in his palm caused the intensity of her gaze on him to waver. “I know you have a sister. I know how much she means to you. I heard it when you were fighting Kirk. I saw it right before you killed me the first time. You don’t have to put yourself in danger anymore. I can help you. Let me help you.” He knelt down like he always did when he prayed. “P-Please let me help you.”
Hollowing. That’s what the subsequent silence felt like to the Hero. For every second it remained unbroken, despair rose an inch, suffocatingly, like icy water threatening to engulf the last recesses of breathing room in a glass tank. He couldn’t continue living like this. He couldn’t take being a hero. He couldn’t help grasping for warmth, gasping for air.
The Hero looked up. Quelaag’s hands were folded together, her eyes turned away from his. “I’ll show you to my sister.”
* * *
“My Lady,” Kirk said, bowing deeply. “A word Eingyi,” he said, gesturing the sac man watching everyone from the back.
“Are you sure we should leave The Fair Lady alone with him?”
The fact that one of these sac men could talk surprised the Hero, though he tried to keep that surprise from showing on his face. He imagined their vocal cords would have been crushed by the bulbous load they bore.
“I trust him with Mistress Quelaag’s life. Naturally, my life and our Lady’s come as part of the package.”
Bobbing his head in an apparent nod, Einghi followed Kirk on his fours out of the passageway, leaving the Hero and The Fair Lady behind.
The Fair Lady looked just as pained as she sounded. Her hair was a wispy white, and her skin was a sickly visage of pale blue. Her stark bleached spider abdomen churned slowly in waves of chronic pain. Her spider legs looked like they could hardly stand, and they’d no doubt give within moments if not for the silk threads that propped her upright against the back and sides of a large cavity in the wall. The charring on the cavity’s sides suggested that Quelaag was responsible for creating it in the first place. The eyes that dotted them, orange-red, were half-open or fully shut. The eyes on the human part of her body were a cloudy white. She seemed blind. But in spite of all this visible and audible ugliness and suffering, her face possessed a gentleness and kindness that reminded him of a worried Quelaag. They were sisters, after all.
“T-Thank you,” The Fair Lady said weakly. The strain in her voice seemed to indicate she felt pain talking. “A-And I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” the Hero asked.
“I-I have a favor to ask. I-It hurts to speak, s-so I’ll try to be short.”
She paused to swallow, breathe, and think. Even the strain of thinking seemed to cause her pain.
“I-I love my dear sister very much. S-She looked after me the most, e-ever since we were young. M-Mother was consumed by her fire, a-and our home was destroyed. W-We were turned into what you see. W-We couldn’t go back, so w-we made a new home here.”
“Another world,” the Hero muttered.
“B-But ever since then. I-I’ve only caused my dear sister more grief. I-I’ve become terribly ill. S-She’s done everything she can to care for me, b-but I can’t comfort her when she wants it.
She paused, weighing whether or not to admit something. She made her mind up after several seconds. Her face expressed a sad resolve not unlike her sister’s.
“I-I know what she does when she’s not here. S-She hunts people who pass by to help me. S-She refuses to travel too far away. S-She thinks it’s the only way to protect me. E-Even if it’s awful. E-Even if it’s less safe. E-Even if she has to play the horrible demons everyone from my homeland has become. I-I am too frail stop her. I-I can’t bear to ask her to stop. P-Please don’t blame her because of me. I-I love her s-so much.”
She stopped herself once more, a grimace indicating that she’s close to her limit.
S-She’s kind and strong, b-but she cries sometimes. A-And when that happens, I-I can’t hold her, l-like I used to. S-She can’t hold me, l-like she used to. S-She’s too heavy. I-It hurts too much.”
Milky tears streamed down her face as she held herself tightly around her chest.
“I-I can’t imagine how s-sad she feels when s-she’s alone, a-and this is the first time s-she’s b-brought someone here.”
The Hero thought about how Kirk and she met, but he felt it would be more appropriate to ask him about it another time.
She closed her milk-cloud eyes, her hands clasping themselves in prayer as she brought them to her milk-teary face. “P-Please let her hold you. P-P-Please make her happy.”
* * *
Having a lot to process mentally, the Hero began making his way out. He glimpsed more and more of the room that lay beyond the closer he came to it. Amidst thick cakes of more spider eggs and spider webs was a hole cut round through the floor up above. Dangling above that hole was a massive bell. Presumably this was the Bell of Awakening countless heroes died horrible deaths attempting to find. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a decent share of those deaths involving fire. It also wasn’t hard to think about how inane the whole quest to ring it happened to be.
Finally stepping into the room, he found a rough fourth of the room occupied by Quelaag. She leaned on the wall next to the passageway leading to her sister.
“You’ve seen how bad she’s become,” she said.
“You see that I have no choice,” she followed up.
“That’s not how she sees it.”
“Is that supposed to be a joke?” she intoned hostilely.
“I wasn’t,” the Hero answered, her sister’s eye condition coming to mind. “But your sister would certainly appreciate you smiling more. I think that she’d be overjoyed if she could hear you laugh.”
She ignored what he said. “I had no choice.”
“She’s not happy-”
“I had no choice!” she yelled. “I’ve never had any choice since our home was destroyed, since we were transformed, since she got sick. Or would you have me abandon my sister? That would make me more of a monster than I already am.”
“You have more choices than-”
“What’s it to you?” she snapped. “You, a hero who can ring that stupid Bell and just walk out as you please-”
“You think that I like being called this?” he cut in angrily. “Do you think I like being called a Hero? The Bell is the only way to progress the quest line in this world. I’ve died many times trying to this location. Many others have died more times than me, and still others have become completely hollow in their attempts. Hollowing haunts me. I have been feeling colder and emptier every time I’ve had to re-do my life. You know…” he intoned lowly before shouting “…I never wanted to be here in the first place! I’ve been trying to find a way to escape this world from the moment I was trapped here! I’ve searched and searched and searched!”
He took a deep breath to compose himself.
“Until I stopped searching. Until I decided it wasn’t worth it all to ring that stupid thing. I was afraid of pushing myself too far.”
He reached for her hands. She drew them away. The Hero finished his thought.
“Your sister doesn’t want you pushing yourself like that. I don’t want that either.”
Both of them stood there staring at each other, gazing at each other with glares as seemingly intense as during their last bout in the clearing. Quelaag’s fists were clenched shut. Then her fists began trembling. Her glare gradually lost sharpness, becoming unfocused and watery. Finally, her hands loosened. They met her face to rub her eyes. It was her turn to calm herself. After some minutes of silence, in a defeated voice, she spoke.
“What do I do? Neither I or the Knight of Thorns can gather enough humanity to keep her healthy for long. I… I can’t leave her here to find more. I-I just can’t lose her. What other options-”
“You have me,” the Hero interrupted. He then suddenly realized how forward he sounded. “I-I can go rat hunting,” the Hero flustered, scrambling through scattered thoughts to explain himself. “They feed on the corpses of hollows that make their way down here, and they swallow the Humanity absorbed in those corpses in the process. That’s another source of the stuff that I can bring to your-”
“Thank you for those Twin Humanities. They… they helped my sister a lot.”
Quelaag had turned her head away from the Hero again, her hands folded over her chest.
The Hero scratched his head, still a little embarrassed. And then, as if to conveniently lighten the mood, a joke struck him. “No, thank you,” he said, swishing his hand while bowing his head.
“For saying that I could walk out of here alive.”
Her back suddenly bent over shaking as she rushed to cover her mouth with her hands. For the briefest moment, he caught her smiling.
“Hey Darling,” said Quelaag.
“What’s that?” said the Hero.
Nestled beside Quelaag’s bosom, the Hero felt her fingers playing with his hair. They glided through the tufts of his coarse hair strands like silk.
“Do you like spiders?” she asked.
“I can’t say that I really like or hate them. Spiders always managed to catch my attention though. If I spotted them jittering around, and if there wasn’t any place I hurrying towards, I’d spend a couple of minutes watching them. That being said, I couldn’t help but do the same for squirrels.”
“What do you like more, then: squirrels or spiders?”
“W-What?” she blurted out, genuinely tensing up.
Her long nails dug deeply enough into his scalp to cause him to wince. Glancing up to her worried face, he stroked her hair as reassurance that he was fine. He brought its silky blackness close to his nose before taking in its smoky scent.
Quelaag wrapped her arms around the Hero’s back. Her embrace was warmer than any bonfire he’s waken besides. She pressed his nose to his head, taking in its musky smell, recalling the time she first saw his face. “I like it when you smell human.”
The “human” part sounded odd to the Hero, but before he could comment on that, she squeezed him suddenly, desperately, tightly. “Promise me you won’t leave.”
“The rats aren’t going to kill themselves at your doorstep.”
“You know what I mean,” she said more cheerfully, still hugging him firmly. She kissed his forehead, her lips forming a small smile.
“I know,” he sighed back. He closed his eyes, imagining it wider and less sad.
They stayed together like this for a while, searching for the beat of each other’s rhythms. And then a thought occurred to her, a thought of how much he loathed being called a hero. She realized he didn’t quite agree with his assessment of himself.
“No matter what you say Darling,” she whispered sweetly, “you’ll always by my hero.”