Huntsman’s Copse

The Hollow Skin is a peculiar chest item to find at Brume Tower. This mask has been made to resemble a Hollow’s face with startling accuracy, even providing resistance to the Hollowing curse and the ability to see advice from other worlds. Thankfully, the description confirms that this unsettling replica is a fake by all appearances — and smells. However, it also claims that such a mask couldn’t have been made this well if the maker didn’t sincerely pray for the victims of hollowing, which implies sympathy for Undead. Be that as it may, the attention to detail plus effect also suggests that the owner had a fixation on the curse, maybe even a fear of it. Based on the location, it is the most likely a product of the Old Iron King, someone who had both the coin and artistic sensibilities to commission such a faithful replica. And the man was certainly concerned with undeath at the time.

The King dispatched forces to the forest on the remote edges of his newly-conquered territory to conduct Undead hunts. The location and reasons for these hunts is easy enough to surmise. Mankind’s standard practice has been to banish those who die but come back before they go mad and threaten anyone, and where else to exile them except a hinterland where no one lives? However, this policy is extremely short-sighted. Left alone, these Undead will swell in number as generations pass, creating a larger and larger horde just wandering the wilds near your border. Forget the danger of seeking to expand into that area at some point, what happens when those Hollows inevitably begin to wander back into your towns and villages once they have exhausted that space? The King was wise to deal with the issue directly before it potentially got out of hand. Less wise was his choice of personnel to execute his royal decree.

The Skeleton Lords were originally subordinates of the Iron King tasked with leading these Undead hunts, commanding soldiers if the countless armored skeletons piled up in their boss room and walking around the vicinity are any indication. Two are pyromancers, and sorcery-casting necromancers lurk around the rest of the region, so spellcasters made up a significant portion of the hunting party’s commanders. And considering sorcerers’ penchant to investigate and experiment, their king should have kept his subordinates on a tighter leash. But he never personally led them like the English text of the Bone Crown erroneously claims. Instead, he left them to their own devices, where they more than happily protracted their mission for personal interests. Undead were rounded up in newly constructed jailhouses, big and small, and eventually transferred to a larger facility. This Undead Purgatory, or “Undead Execution Ground” (不死刑場) to put less poetically, seems like an efficient means to safely dispose of the kingdom’s dregs — until you sees its agents.

The executioners lurking in the forest wield spiked halberds or bloodied whips, the latter used for a “disgusting objective” — though not one necessarily forbidden by the gods as its English description purports. Nonetheless, it is clear that these executioners aren’t actually interested in putting down the Undead so much as extending their suffering for as long as possible. This is reinforced by the morning star found off a corpse in one of the smaller jailhouses, a notably “barbaric” weapon from DS1 designed to draw blood and thereby often preferred for inflicting pain. Such needless cruelty extends even to their actual execution. The Bound Wooden Shield takes its plain counterpart and wraps it in chains and crude metal spikes, the description acknowledging that this dispossesses the shield of its primary function in favor of maximizing the target’s pain. Nothing better illustrates the perversion of these hunts, and it all culminated with the creation of the Executioner’s Chariot.

Whip smeared in blood. It was probably a thing used for a disgusting objective.

Its might is enhanced by the protrusion at the tip. Its efficacy against hard armor and the like is still weak.

Strange-looking shield. Found at the Undead Execution Ground. The coiled chains and spikes cause bleeding but likewise take away its function as a shield.

The excessive work which erases its original nature isn’t simply for defeating targets. It was probably aimed at giving them pain.

The chariot is the product of necromancy as evidenced by both its rider and the two-headed steed pulling it being skeletons. Considering the entire facility is run by skeletons raised by necromancers acting from the sidelines, this seems to have been a policy of the Undead hunt since fairly early on. The chariot’s actual function is simple: circle around the stone circuit and run over any Undead in the way. Even accounting for the scythe blades mounted on the wheels of each side, this method of execution is hardly efficient. Most Undead might get partially crushed or dismembered the first time, but it would likely take several more circuits before the chariot finally killed them — and that is assuming they would die for good. Any Undead subjected to this would spend their last minutes in repeated agony without any hope of stopping it. But that was the goal according to descriptions of weapons derived from its boss soul. The necromancers supervising this process do it for their own sadism, which reflects in their work.

The executioner riding the chariot wears spiky armor to intimidate his victims and has apparently slaughtered countless Undead with glee, but he is ultimately just a figurehead along for the ride. The one truly deciding the chariot’s path is the two-headed horse — a “life” created solely for tormenting Undead in the form of a hideous pair of horse skeletons. And although there is nothing peculiar about the actual soul, the fact that these skeletal steeds are frothing at the mouth with Dark power — which they can spit out like fire — indicates that the necromancers dabbled with their own humanity to create it. Indeed, the soul’s description suggests its form as a mad horse focused solely on torturing Undead embodies the will of its owner; the manifestation may have even consumed said creator. The text asserts the chariot to be ruler of the execution ground, reducing the now Hollow necromancers themselves to cogs in their own machine.

Personal armor of the executioner of the Undead Execution Ground. Has thorns for daunting.

The executioner continuously slaughtered countless Undead, but in truth was no more than a mere puppet paraded about by the chariot.

Soul of the Executioner’s Chariot that rules the Undead Execution Ground.

The life that was created only to torment Undead turned into an ugly mad horse as if it gave shape to the heart of the owner.

The special soul this chariot possesses is used to acquire a vast amount of souls or create a great power.

Ironic as that is, the fact that such sadism came to dominate the Undead hunts demonstrates the systematic issues with its architects. Even when they were not torturing Undead for the sake of mindless cruelty, they were still abusing their freedom away from the royal court. According to the Dark Souls II Collector’s Edition Strategy Guide, the armored skeletons encountered at the Huntsman’s Copse are former soldiers of the Old Iron King. And although many had likely died combating the Undead, the guide indicates that a fair number may have been deserters. This cowardice is not that surprising when faced with what look like rotting corpses that refuse to die. But the fact that they are now among the dead implies the necromancers killed and reanimated these runaways to force them into playing their part. There is making an example of a renegade soldier, and then there is disregarding dignity for fellow man and enslaving him after death.

However, the sorcerers reserved most of their savagery for the Undead. The Undead hunters are a Frankenstein patchwork of different Undead parts stitched together into one hulking monster with immense strength. We can only assume that sorcerers were curious about undeath, specifically to what extent parts of Undead could revive. Nevertheless, these experiments in creating superhuman immortals are the opposite of the Iron King’s intentions, as the Guide notes. Even ignoring that, it is no less inhumane to dismember an Undead and stitch him back together with parts from his likewise butchered fellows just to see if he will still revive with full function of his new body. But without any oversight from home, they were free to do as they wished. And with that, brutality in the name of science proves to have been just another expression of their sadism.

One facility has cages that lower Undead into a pit where the “poison butterflies” (毒蝶) and a giant basilisk have settled, clearly food for the hunters’ trapped “pet”. We find a large pile of bodies burning in a huge pyre, with a chest in a nearby jailhouse storing Sublime Bone Dust. Evidently, the hunters decided to burn some of their captives to ash and then keep the souvenirs, without a care for those who might need to burn several times over before it took. And their wicked deeds even led them to fill jars with cursed material, perhaps the resentful flesh of the subject they tortured that they hoped to make use of. All these horrific efforts were done under the command of the sorcerers, given various sorcery-linked items can be looted off the local corpses — including Soul Spear, Aromatic Ooze, and a magically-infused mace. However, every single one of these “experiments” is Mengelian research at best.

It certainly didn’t stop them from justifying their barbarism as the will of God. On the top floor of the Undead Purgatory, we find statues of Nahr Alma, implying that the hunters had dedicated their killings to the God of Blood. In fact, praying to these statues as part of the Brotherhood of Blood warps us to an arena somewhere in these forest ruins so we can endlessly duel fellow covenant members. Worship of Nahr Alma may also explain the unique usage of Dark magic in the creation of the Executioner’s Chariot. That being the case, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the god wasn’t the motivation behind their ghastly ritual killings so much as an excuse for them, with any additional powers he or his disciples provided being welcomed with open arms. And if they had the blessing of God, then all they needed was the blessing of their neighbors.

In order to access the Harvest Valley and beyond, we need to cross an iron bridge from one of the hunter facilities. This bridge needs to be lowered with a mechanism we can pull the nearby lever to beforehand, suggesting that it was intentionally built to keep the Huntsman’s Copse segregated — it would seem the Old Iron King was always cognizant of the possibility that these hunts would fail and need safeguards. In that case, it is odd to find Undead hunters among the enemies of the valley. By all indications, they are working as diggers or enforcers for Queen Mytha, implying that she knew what was going on at the nearby forest and turned a blind eye in exchange for some of their experiments. She is a sorcerer too, after all, and no stranger to unethical experiments herself. Both parties could have definitely come to an understanding about their independent activities away from their King’s gaze. And with the Queen cover for them, the torturers had free reign to continue their sadistic play.

All that said, their fun and games eventually came to an end. Various item descriptions reaffirm that they were eventually swallowed by the curse they hunted, with many including the three leaders ending up as Hollows themselves before they even realized it. The Roaring Halberd wielded by one of the Skeleton Lords and derived from his soul elaborates on this irony. The halberd’s description highlights the ominous “screaming” skull decorating it. The Japanese text is vague on whether it depicts the final moments of the skull’s owner or its creator, but the notion that these sadists spent their final moments wailing as the Undead overwhelmed them is certainly fitting — considering the Iron King’s company, these sorcerers may have never been that competent to begin with, explaining the apparent ease and severity of their failure.

Soul of a Skeleton King who sit in the depths of the Hunter’s Forest.

The Old Iron King ordered his subordinates to hunt the dead, but they were eventually swallowed by the curse.

The special soul this skeleton king possesses is used to acquire a vast amount of souls or create a great power.

Halberd born from the soul of a Skeleton King. Endowed with the power of Dark.

Halberd born from a king of bones has an ominous skull that seems to be resembling the appearance of its final moments.

As to their killers, we find many Hollow thieves armed with daggers or short bows with poison arrows and armored in metal and leather throughout the area. The sheer number of criminals executed in medieval societies would lead to a disproportionate amount of bandits and highwaymen turning Undead and getting exiled. That they are the Hollows who have survived this long lurking in the forest, including one of the hunters’ facilities, implicates them as the prey chiefly responsible for overwhelming their predators. But more importantly, they prove that the hunters weren’t just slaughtering a horde of half-naked Hollows — indeed, some of their Frankenstein creations drop the bandit set. There were always risks to residing in a remote forest surrounded by countless violent madmen wandering around, so them being eventually overrun might have been inevitable. And whether slowly losing ground piece by piece or suddenly come down upon all at once, the hunters became the hunted.

If dying to their prey wasn’t bad enough, the hunts’ three architects had to deal with the unfortunate reality that they didn’t stay dead. They could no longer return home and expect mercy from the Iron King. This left them with two options: subject themselves to the same barbaric torture they inflicted upon their victims, or wait out eternity until they inevitably lost heart and went stark raving mad. Neither had to be very appealing. And it wasn’t as if they could somehow turn the situation around anyway. With the massacre of the hunters, the entire chain of command collapsed. Even if most of the leaders happened to turn Undead, they would all inevitably lose the faculties needed to continue performing their original duties. This is the very reason the description for the Undead Lockaway Key states that there is no longer any difference between the oppressor and the oppressed. The entire system fell into chaos and became a free-for-all for Hollows, with many of the Undead prisoners now loitering about the forest as if they had never been imprisoned in the first place.

Key to the cave cell in the Hunter’s Forest.

In the age of the Iron King, jailhouses for the Undead are left in the forest where Undead hunts were conducted. But now there is no difference between the oppressor and the oppressed.

But as luck would have it, the necromancers serving them presented a third option: the three Hollow leaders could be put down and then reanimated. They would have the same immortality as undeath without the downside of hollowing. And with that, they could establish a new kingdom in the forest to rule, a kingdom of bones. The necromancers may have had already lost reason by that point, since they had all the leverage to be the real ones in charge. But whatever the case, they ultimately cooperated with this plan to turn their bosses into the “skeleton kings”. And it worked, albeit imperfectly. The Bone Crown’s description indicates that they have long lost all memory of their orders from the Iron King. Perhaps the reanimation process didn’t preserve all their memories as the localization suggests, or perhaps they were memories the Hollows were already missing before their souls were freed of the curse. Either way, it didn’t thwart their plan in the slightest.

Robe of a Skeleton King. Possesses high dark defense power.

Those that were entrusted with the mission to hunt the Undead changed into Hollows themselves before they knew it and built a kingdom of bone.

Crown of a Skeleton King. Possesses high dark defense power.

Those that were selected by the Old Iron King commanded those who hunt the Undead, but that memory is already long gone.

When we enter their boss room, we discover that they have amassed a huge amount of bones from hunters and hunted alike in the facility they have converted to a palace — the kings crafting from some thrones to sit upon until our arrival. And because felling any of the three results in the reanimation of a fair number of skeletons, they may have learned how to perform necromancy themselves. That said, the fact that their dying bodies radiate a red power that later explodes into pieces that rain down all around the chamber may instead mean that their souls are animating these skeletons. The hordes still being considered to be part of the boss’ health pool lends credence to this idea. Dying grudges reanimating the dead as a form of curse aren’t unprecedented, and the Dark power imbued in their weapons and equipment may play a role in their postmortem mass reanimation. It is unclear if these kings of bone also command the executioners and necromancers at Undead Purgatory, but we can at least conclude that their kingdom is a major “faction” in the chaotic mess of this forest.