Haggard. Hard. Fierce pants broke the thick silence as they escaped from lips that were peeled back to reveal ivory fangs that were dyed by the violet ichor. They were accompanied by the rise and fall of a small chest, pale-blue flesh stretched over an emaciated frame that was hidden by wild clumps of silver-blue hair. The bundles of strands were glued by a glaze of dark crimson that oozed from dozens of slits, dripping down to mingle with the violet pool that formed beneath small feet that stood amongst lifeless ebon corpses.
And from behind the stringy curtain of mangy stands were a wild, wide monstrous pair of black-slitted amber irises fixed on a single, white-haired boy.
He was sitting amongst countless stone shards from broken walls, splotches of dark crimson hiding the white hair that seemed luminous in the soft, green light. His breastplate sported long rents from which blood seeped as readily as the long tears in his jacket and black shirt. Staring wide-eyed with his back pressed against the cavernous opening, the boy held out a broken dagger as his arm shook uncontrollably.
The panting softened ever so slightly from the figure as their eyes met and the rose-colored reflection sparked recognition. Sharp, long claws retracted as tiny fingers curled into small fists and childish lips rolled over the protracted fangs. The shrunken iris expanded to become wide, and the brows drooped in exhaustion.
The broken dagger lowered slowly as fear was replaced with bewilderment when the figure turned around, hiding the lithe and narrow frame behind a dense curtain of hair that fell to the floor. Then a creeping, gnawing sensation ate away at his chest as they swayed with every glacial step over the lumps of ebony meat. Gone were the fast, frenzied movements that had been accompanied by shrieks amidst blurs of blue and black that left red and violet to paint the walls.
Now there were only weak, sluggish steps. Footfalls that took such herculean effort that they caused the tiny frame to shake with every step towards the mouth of the corridor. Until finally, with a barely perceptible whimper, they slumped over onto the ground and didn’t get back up.
Then and only then did a breath escape the boy who’d held it in his chest until then as the fear bottled inside came flowing out, directed towards another instead. His legs that had gone numb from terror found the strength to stand and then moved. Hurrying over the corpses of living shadows that were torn open to the point of stumbling and having to paw the ground like a beast to keep going forward, he came to a stop next to the shivering figure lying in a slowly expanding crimson puddle.
Then he gently brushed aside the clinging strands to see the face of a little girl beneath the crimson.
There, on the Sixth Floor, a boy and monster met.
And a family was formed.
Labored, heavy breaths escaped the mouth of Bell Cranel as he tensed his thumb and middle fingers on his right hand around the handle of his blade. There was a lingering pain from the constant extension and use. He’d have thought that the Falna would make it easier to do a thousand repetitions of the basics when it came to swinging a sword, but it seemed that was a bit much for a new Adventurer.
He was currently in one of the three training halls of what was the Takemikazuchi Familia’s home, having begun taking lessons under the War God in how to properly handle a weapon on Hestia’s behalf. She hadn’t taken it well upon hearing he nearly got himself killed on the Sixth Floor, though to be fair he hadn’t expected to get cornered by War Shadows either when the first five Floors were so easy to traverse, he made it that far without any problems. He wasn’t sure how she had gotten the agreement between them, but it seemed that he would make time for him to train every few days with the man.
It was different today as Takemikazuchi had to leave unexpectedly since something came up at his job. Bell had decided that even if the lesson was canceled, he would finish going through the drills since it was largely a repetition of three motions with the blade—vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. By practicing the basic motion on both sides over a thousand times each, Bell hoped to drill the proper way to hold the sword and then cut with it into his muscles.
He had originally used a dagger because it was among one of the cheaper options available at the Guild, portable and easy to use. But since the option presented itself, he had decided to try out a sword similar to the ones Lord Takemikazuchi’s children normally used. It was proving to be a bit more difficult than he expected since the sword was sharp along the edge, but it only really cut well if you made the slicing motion correctly and the grip was proper.
By the time he had finished the evening had come, its light peeping in through the windows of the training hall he was in. “Whew…”
Catching his breath, he opened the sliding door that led out to the yard where there were several ajura trees. They were supposedly a breed of flora that only grew within the depths of the Dungeon according to Lord Takemikazuchi. The flowering blue plants had a strange luminescence and pungent yet poignant scent that seemed almost otherworldly, and he could only imagine how mesmerizing the sight would be in the dark of night…
It was then he noticed that the training hall opposite the garden had its sliding door opened. And there, on the other side, he saw a lone figure standing with her back present to the opening. Her short, black hair fell to her shoulders as she stood in place while taking long and deep breaths that seemed to move her upper body.
That’s Miss Chigusa, isn’t it? She was one of Lord Takemikazuchi’s students, though he rarely had spoken to her given she usually wasn’t very outspoken. She was just standing there and breathing while there was a line of straw-cutting poles set up ahead of her. Was she supposed to attempt to cut through them in some sort of practice? But she’s just standing there breathing….
Breathing. Breathing. Breathing. It was as if she was in the middle of meditation that he saw the others do occasionally in passing. He didn’t fully understand beyond the fact that it was just something that they carried over from their homeland and was supposed to help them clear their minds and embolden their spirits.
He figured she was preparing herself for her drills ahead of time, so Bell made to leave quietly as to not bother her. But the moment he got ready to turn back the way he came, he saw her body nearly fall forward only for her to catch herself on one leg. Or rather than that, it was that she lowered her stance by pushing one leg back as the other bent while she huddled over clutching her sword—
—then there was a sharp sound. Almost like a steel blade being drawn from its sheathe. Yet her blade was still within its scabbard, the trembling reaching his ears as her grip on the handle shook.
That was when he realized it was coming from her breathing. She had changed the way she was breathing so that it slipped in between her teeth clenched tight enough to the point where they seemed like they would break. The very act seemed to cause her pain as beneath her soft, milky skin veins began to grow thick and bulge along her legs.
“Are you okay, Miss—” Bell moved over to her, fearing she was hurting herself somehow when she was suddenly at the far end of the training hall. Then the air popped as a shockwave came from inside of the room she was in.
And every target that had been set up slid down upon itself, severed and left to fall to the ground under its own weight.
I didn’t see her move. Bell hadn’t blinked. He hadn’t shifted his attention from her for even a moment. And from what he knew, only two of Lord Takemikazuchi’s children had reached Level Two, at which point a new Level One like him would just lose track of them. So how did she move so quickly?
“Gwaaahhhhhhh….” His attention snapped back to her when he heard her voice labored as she fell onto her knees, chest rising and falling as she tried to catch her breath. “Nnnhhhh… gaahhh…”
He rushed over to check on her. “Are you okay?”
Her head snapped up, bangs parting to reveal a surprised gaze as if she had only just realized he was there. “M-Mi…Mister… Cr-ra…nel? I… thought you…went home… early?”
He didn’t see any injuries. It just seemed like she was struggling to get her breathing under control for the most part. “I was about to when I saw… whatever that was.”
She tensed up between breaths. “You… saw…?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Was I not supposed to?”
She forced herself to sit upright on her knees, leaning close to him and grabbing him by the shoulders. “Y-You can’t tell anyone! Please! Not Lord Takemikazuchi or anyone else!”
“At least tell me what just happened,” Bell said. “What was that?”
She took a moment to finally get her breathing under control before explaining. “It was my Breathing Style. I’m still working on it.”
In her homeland, before the Gods came down, monsters ran rampant. In comparison to the monsters that existed on the surface today, these monsters were far more powerful as the Dungeon had yet to have the lid placed upon it and so they came spilling out freely. For every one monster that could be killed, often it would take a dozen or more warriors down with them even if they were just what one would consider a Level One category monster these days.
During that age, there were often only two methods of fending off greater threats. The first was the existence of Renards, whose clansmen were occasionally born with powerful Sorcery that could keep them at bay. The other was when the Gods chose to empower a chosen warrior through a nature spirit or by providing them a weapon of great strength. But what was there to do for the unchosen or ungifted?
The answer some of the Human swordsmen of that era came up with was to perfect a technique that would allow them to be able to fight the monsters with mortal flesh. First by polishing their swordsmanship to perfection. Then by incorporating a special technique.
“The name of that technique is called Total Concentration Breathing,” she continued, lowering her hand and hovering it over her diaphragm. “By taking a long deep breath so oxygen flows throughout the body, the blood circulation accelerates, and the body temperature spikes. It hyper stimulates the muscles, nerves, and organs so that they can operate well above the average capabilities briefly. The arteries expand to carry more blood, the mind sharpens, and pain becomes numb so one can keep fighting. This allowed the swordsmen who lacked a blessing or sorcery to exceed their limits and keep up with monsters of that era.”
“So it wasn’t like the Flame of Heaven or the Spirit Sword, but something that Humans came up on their own?”
She nodded. “It wasn’t commonplace as the demands to carry it out were great, even if the basics were simple. And against stronger monsters, many practitioners died. After the descent of the Gods and the Falna, more perished as they fought against the greatest of threats to finally be rid of them by combining the skills and development abilities to create what would be known as Breathing Styles.”
“I had never heard of them before,” Bell said.
“It’s not that you haven’t heard of them, it’s that you simply haven’t recognized them in the tales you may have heard,” she explained. “Most tales were written by mortals who may not have comprehended what they observed and so they could only describe what they perceived. And that was fine for the ones who cultivated them as once the practice served its purpose, it would be better left forgotten outside of family lines as traditional dances rather than be used as a tool of war in the bloody history that followed. The Falna already makes it easy enough as it is for people to kill one another.”
“Were you one of those families then?”
She shook her head. “The reason we know it is because of Lord Takemikazuchi. Even though the Gods couldn’t interfere often with the Lower World back then aside from their chosen, they still watched our efforts. And Lord Takemikazuchi is a God of War, so to see children come up with a method of their own to fight back against the monsters was something he took great pride in. So much so that he committed their acts to his eternal memory and, when we became family, he passed them onto us so that we would have a better chance to survive in the Dungeon.”
“Could you teach me?”
She pressed her hands together nervously. “Well, the basics are supposed to be simple in concept, but the execution isn’t. I’m not very good at it myself and I’ve been training for two years, so someone who hasn’t even trained their lung capacity would pretty much burn themselves out fast and likely get themselves killed attempting it in the Dungeon. Even telling you this much is probably crossing a line, so…”
It clicked for Bell then. He wasn’t their family. Hestia and Lord Takemikazuchi might have been friends and him teaching Bell the basics was a favor, but at most they were acquaintances. Even her telling him this much was probably a bit much as an attempt to give him enough details so that he wouldn’t ask the others and have them learn he knew that way.
“I understand,” Bell said. “We’ll just pretend this conversation never happened.”
It was painful how hopeful her voice sounded as she perked up. “Really?”
Bell nodded. “Every family has their secrets after all. And besides, I really shouldn’t even be here this late. I’ll head back now that I know you’re okay.”
Her shoulders relaxed, as if she had been holding a great weight upon them. “Thank you.”
That done, Bell very quickly and quietly removed himself from the premises to make his way back to his own home. Along the way, he consulted his memory on what he bore witness to. Then he opened his mouth and drew in a deep breath from his belly. It was like this, right?
In. Out. In. Out. He cycled his breathing along the way back home as an imitation of what he saw, but he couldn’t notice a major change by the time he got back. If it was as simple as breathing then it wouldn’t have fallen out of practice, even if it was around a thousand years.
No sooner than he stepped inside did the hidden door leading to the space in the chapel that Bell called home open, and from it emerged a small figure with pale-blue skin, wrapped in a white short dress. With little warning she bound up towards him and he had to extend his hands to catch her as she wrapped her arms around him to pull him into a hug. “Welcome back, Bell!”
“Gentle touches. Gentle touches!” Bell said with a strained voice while gently trying to loosen the child’s grip on him. She was a lot stronger than she looked, especially compared to a Level One Adventurer like him. If she hugged too hard she’d likely snap something on accident, and that was only because they’d trimmed down her claws to be on the safe side of things.
She was, after all, a monster.
Bell had known that from the moment he saw her on the Sixth Floor, despite how human she looked. She had been covered in wounds while ripping and tearing through all of the War Shadows that had surrounded him, her claws sharp enough to tear through them with ease. Then she had turned her attention onto him and Bell thought that would be how he would die.
But then she turned to leave and collapsed. The wounds she had sustained to that point had taken their toll, injuries he suspected should have been fatal to any normal human twice over. Realistically, he should have counted his blessings and left while he could as the matter resolved itself.
Yet, something about the expression that she made when she looked down at him stuck in his head and made him feel bad about holding a weapon against her. Then when he got a good look at her and saw her crying, shedding crystalline tears in a way no monster should be able to, he couldn’t see her as just a monster. She was an injured, little girl who was bleeding out in front of him and crying.
He considered dousing her in Potions and then walking off. It probably would have tampered down on the feeling he felt, the guilt of letting her die without doing anything. But the thought of abandoning a child in the middle of the Dungeon really didn’t sit well with him. So, despite everything he knew telling him that there would be consequences, he did the unthinkable…
He brought a monster to the surface.
Fortunately, it was after dark. He had a blanket in his bag so he managed to cover her on his back without anyone noticing as he managed to get home. It was fortunate that the place they lived was just off the beaten path, a rundown chapel to a goddess that never existed.
Hestia was… confused when she came home and found the monster there. They had only become family a little while ago and instead of something like a stray dog he brought a monster home. He struggled to find the words to explain the situation while asking her to calm down, because he wasn’t even sure how to begin…
Not at least until she woke up and started crying.
The reason was obvious in hindsight. She just woke up in a strange place, without knowing where she was or who they were. Lost, confused, and frightened, she did what one would expect of a child, and she cried.
And for humans and goddesses alike, crying children were a soft spot.
So Bell had approached her slowly and tried to soothe her with kind words and telling her it was okay. Hestia was a little more reluctant but did the same. Then she did something neither of them thought was possible and uttered three little words:
“Where am I?”
Things after that got… interesting as she managed to somewhat explain her birth from the walls of the Dungeon on one of the deeper floors. She picked up grammar fairly quickly and so he could only think that maybe it was something about her in specific. But, because of that, they understood the situation.
She had been attacked by other monsters, who smelled like her apparently, and there had been other people there too who had tried to take the gemstone on her forehead. Then there was a blank spot in her memory and she woke up covered in blood. She then decided to head upwards to get away from it all while avoiding people entirely and killing monsters that attacked her.
She had made it as far as the Sixth Floor when she apparently heard Bell’s scream when he was ambushed by the War Shadows. Her first inclination had been to ignore him. But then she saw how scared he looked and remembered what it was like for her, being attacked and helpless.
So she helped him. Yet, he had been scared of her now. It was then she realized she was no different than the others that smelled like her—just something scary that hurt others. Bell and his goddess then decided that they should at least find out what they could, so while Hestia watched her Bell would look into everything he could based on what they knew.
It took some asking around based on how she described where she came from to figure out it was apparently one of the Middle Floors, in a place called the Colossal Tree Labyrinth. That was past what was known as a Safe Point, a Floor where the Dungeon wouldn’t spawn monsters. It was the first one available for most Adventurers around Level Two, so it was far beyond his capabilities to get that low anytime soon and meant she was likely a monster within that category of dangerous.
As for what kind of monster she was, he learned that when he asked about any blue monsters with a jewel on their head and some Adventurers whose outfits had a crescent moon and glass emblem started looking at him like he’d struck gold. They nearly jacked him up to try to figure out where he’d seen a Vouivre, a species of Dragon and one of the rarest monsters in the Dungeon, before he lied and said he just heard about it in passing and wanted to ask about it. They’d tossed him like garbage afterward for getting their hopes up—which told him all he needed to know what would happen if anyone else found out about her.
They’d pluck off every last one of her scales that were haphazardly covering her body as she wailed. They’d pry her claws from her fingers and toes as she screamed. And then, when her body had nothing else of value, they’d finally rip the stone from her forehead (which would drive her berserk) before putting her down.
If they returned her to the Dungeon, monsters would continue to attack her. She’d never know a moment’s rest until something eventually managed to kill her. And if some other Adventurer found her then they’d attempt to harvest her body for everything of value, drive her mad, and then finally kill her.
There was nowhere she would be safe—no hope for her.
The thought of her suffering and dying for simply being born turned his stomach as her amber eyes stared up at him while sporting a wide smile as she nuzzled against his arm giddily. “Were you a good girl and stayed inside, Wiene?”
She had no name originally. Bell had come up with one based on one of the stories his grandfather told him. Hestia shortened to be more convenient—thus, she was Wiene to the two of them.
“Mm-hmm!” Wiene said. “All day!”
“Good girl.” He gingerly brushed her hair, eliciting a pleasant sound from her throat as from the opened door emerged Hestia. “I’m home, Goddess.”
She greeted him with a bittersweet smile. “Welcome home. We need to talk about what happened with the magic stones in the lamps below.”
The lamps below ground were powered by small magic stones like most of the appliances in Orario. Since they could be found in the Dungeon relatively easily it was effectively the primary export of Orario, and how even new Adventurers like him could make a living. “Did they burn out?”
Hestia shook her head. “Wiene ate them all. I spotted her after we had finished the showering and I was cleaning it up for you to use next.”
“Wiene, is that true?” Bell asked. It wasn’t that he doubted Hestia’s words, given she was the goddess he revered and took him in. But he wanted to hear it from her.
For her part, the dragon child seemed to understand that what she had done had caused some problems. Her instinctive response was to lower her body and avert her gaze as she confessed. “Y-Yes… Sorry.”.
Hestia’s gentle eyes softened as she came over and caressed the top of her head. “It’s not that we’re upset. It’s the fact that we don’t know why you’re doing it. You can eat our food, but the fact that you’re eating magic stones means that might not be enough. And there’s realistically no way for us to figure out unless you tell us why, since we can’t exactly take you to get a check-up.”
For as small and human-looking she was, since Wiene was a monster it was entirely possible that outside of the Dungeon she just wasn’t getting enough nutrition to stay healthy or some other reason. And, whether he liked to admit it or not, monsters killed and ate people. Wiene had killed other people, by her own admission.
She wasn’t in control of herself because they tried to take her gemstone, but she did kill them. And now that he had brought her to the surface, Bell couldn’t let her do that ever again. He likely couldn’t stop her if she started to be honest, given her draconic lineage made her far stronger, dexterous, and faster than him. But he would have to do something if she started attacking people, even if it meant paying the price for that with his life.
“…I might have to take her back to the Dungeon,” Bell decided, which sparked an immediate reaction as Wiene grabbed his shoulders and pressed her fingers in hard enough Bell felt it in his bones. “Wiene, gentle touches!”
Her fingers remained tense as she pressed her face against his chest and pleaded with him. “Don’t leave me! No more stones! Promise!”
“I’m not talking about abandoning you,” he said, wincing slightly as he navigated towards the altar and sat her down. “You could smell food in the Dungeon when you were on your way up, right? Yummy stuff other than magic stones?”
She nodded. “Mm-hmm.”
“Then we’ll go get some together and then come back home,” Bell explained before turning back to his goddess, whose brow was raised at that. “We can head there at night since no one typically has a reason to enter that late since the Exchange closes down. And chances are if we stay off the main paths we won’t be spotted.”
“Hmmm… it’s not ideal, but there’s not much of a choice, is there?” Hestia sighed softly. There just weren’t any reasonable alternatives either of them could provide considering the situation as it stood. “There’s always the risk of her being spotted as you’re traveling though…”
Hestia then turned to look the child up and down. She was taking in her size, in particular. “Well, I can think of one solution from a secondhand shop I visited a few times since I came down to the Lower World, but it might be a little bit of a squeeze…”
Wiene craned her head curiously at the statement in a manner that reminded Bell of a kitten.
Bell took a deep breath as he made it as far as the Sixth Floor of the Dungeon once more.
The trip down had been more stressful than he expected given that along the way there were still a few Adventurers hanging around. They were all Level Ones, nighthawks who had the idea to take advantage of the empty corridors to farm the top five levels overnight. Then when morning came, they would turn in their magic stones while the others were pouring in. Thanks to that, however, he didn’t have to fight as much on his way down.
“Hey, calm down,” Bell said in a hushed whisper as he steadied himself from the jerking motion of the backpack strapped onto his back. It was far larger than his normal one, but it looked worn and old and beaten up. “We’re not sure if someone else is still around, Wiene.”
“People smell above,” she whispered back. “Not here. Come out please?”
Bell hesitated for a moment before considering just how accurate her sense of smell was. He knew she could pick up the scent of monsters and people to a far greater degree than any other monster he personally knew of on the Upper Floors, and the Dungeon supposedly got far larger the deeper you went. If she was from the Middle Floors and could navigate her way up without being spotted by any other humans, she could be trusted on that front. “Okay, you can come out.”
He crouched down to keep himself stable as Wiene hurriedly forced open the top before climbing over his shoulders and landing on the ground next to him. She was covered in a tanned robe with rather ragged edges, small enough that she fit them rather well. They, along with the bag, were at the secondhand shop that Hestia knew on the surface, goods that had seen use by other Adventurers and were discarded… or scavenged from the deceased.
It wasn’t ideal and the robes were dingy, but they at least covered her body. And they were made with some of the other racial features, like pointed ears, in mind. Between that and a band covering her forehead jewel, as long as no one got close enough to get a good look at her face beneath the hood when it was up, she could just pass herself off as a Supporter.
Of course, Wiene immediately pulled back the hood to reveal her amber eyes that were folded inwards while her lips pursed into a small pout. “Clothes stink. Take off?”
Bell shook his head. The dragon child didn’t like clothes in particular, though she could at least be convinced to wear the dress Hestia had given her without too many complaints. But it was a hard rule that she had to remain covered up given that the moment her identity was compromised everything would be over. Their little family would end up being torn apart.
“We’ll wash them later,” Bell promised as he brought the hood back over her head. “But for now, be a good girl and keep it on for me. Do you smell anything you can eat?”
A low, disheartened noise escaped her throat before she tipped her head back. Her small nose wrinkled as she took sniffs of the air, gradually lowering her head as she fell onto a crouch. Then she looked off further to the right. “There. Below.”
He frowned. “Below here? You mean the Seventh Floor?”
She rose back to her feet and bobbed her head. “Food. Lots of food.”
Bell weighed the options. He had only gone as far down as the Sixth Floor and didn’t have a map of that floor. Their Familia was poor and the ones at the Guild were expensive in contrast, so he had instead taken to drawing his own until the incident before. But after what happened he did take the time to learn what was on it and the rest of the Upper Floors monster-wise.
There would be new threats there with Killer Ants and Purple Moths, the latter which had a hard exoskeleton and the former which could poison you if you were covered in its scales too much. It would be risky going down there. But Wiene said there was a lot of food there she could eat. That meant that what they were feeding her really hadn’t been enough.
To not go would be to make her starve, and that wasn’t he could stomach. “Okay. We’ll go get your food. But stay close to me.”
They pressed on along the main route of the floor. Since their goal was on the floor below, he didn’t need to be concerned with exploring any of the alternative routes. The faster they went, the faster it would end.
But as they reached a crossroad guided by the direction of the smell, Wiene came to a stop and held her hand out to stop Bell as well. “Monsters.”
Bell reached for the weapon sheathed on his hip, fingers wrapping around the leather grip as from behind the corner emerged the living shadows made manifest. Standing firm on two legs, with elongated arms that gave way to claws that existed to cut through flesh and bone of Adventurers, multiple War Shadows crept from the darkness to focus their singular eye that resembled an ominous star on the pair. He whirled around at the sound of walls giving birth, the stone womb expanding to deliver another group behind them, closing the kill box.
A knot formed in his throat as he took count. At least six on one side and four on the other, leaving them surrounded in the crossroads. If they killed one set and rushed off in a single direction without knowing where they were going, they could wind up being cornered like he had been the last time.
That was when the dragon child spoke. “Wiene will protect Bell.”
She had already found her way to his backside, as if she was intended to cover his entire body with her tiny frame. The sight of such a slender young girl getting ready to throw herself into battle to shield him was enough to make him feel a bit embarrassed. Even knowing she was more than capable of doing so.
“Thank you, Wiene,” Bell told her, the hiss of Far Eastern steel leaving its sheathe cutting the haunting silence of the War Shadows shambling towards them. “But I can’t let you get hurt while I sit back and watch again. Leave this side to me. Okay?”
Then there was no more time to talk as the murderous shadows descended upon them.
Stygian claws gleamed in the light lining the corridors’ greenish walls. Wicked points were aimed to tear the pair apart. Driven by the murderous impulse that seemed rooted within the minds of all monsters, they would find flesh and stain themselves the vivid color of crimson…
“RRWARRR!” A battle cry birthed from a small throat was followed by her claws, which had been meticulously trimmed down, lengthening once more. She lashed out in a surge of aggression, leaving three severed torsos to be sent sailing in the air by the draconic claws in a single lunge.
Landing on all fours, her nails scraped through the solid stone of the ground as she turned her head towards the gazing orbs. It revealed a feral visage that consisted of amber iris, shrunken and slitted. Snarling, she pounced towards the first monster that had the malice to step forward and raked through its torso from shoulder to hip. Then, plowing through the corpse to get to the next War Shadow, the dragon child brought her other arm around to its head with such brutality it was like fruit bursting open after being smashed with a hammer, sending violet ichor splashing about as she continued her assault.
“HAAH!” A limb was severed as steel flashed with an audible ki-ai as a gray streak marked an arch. Dark clothes slipped through the opening created in the formation, allowing Bell to break through the enclosing wall of claws.
In contrast to Wiene’s wild swings that made use of her raw strength as a Level Two monster to tear them apart in a single stroke, Bell’s swings of his sword were more fluid and numerous by necessity. The razor-sharp edge of the blade was his protection and his weapon all at once, as a diagonal arch severed a claw that reached for him as he slid his front foot forward and then pivoted the handle of the sword along with his body. Defense into offense, he then lashed out with the chambered arm and drew a line through where the rib cage would be as the sharpened point cut roughly halfway through its mass before passing out the opposite end.
He had no time to pay attention to the entire body disintegrating into ash as the small magic stone that sustained it was sliced out in passing, Instead, he readjusted his footing and used the blade to catch two violet streaks that came for him. Sparks blossomed and slight tremors ran up his arm where the attacks were intercepted, but then he used his left hand at the bottom of the handle to reorient the blade and swung down while adjusting his footing to add to the motion.
The shadow split open, a diagonal parting of flesh that ran down the torso until it met where the stomach would be before he slid backward and maintained his stance as the blade came free. It proved to be the right call as the flashing of stygian claws tore through the corpse in an attempt to cut him down, the remaining War Shadow’s attempt met with a thrust of the point that pierced through the ominous orb that served as its eye. Bell then tore it free upwards, leaving it to fall while he stood ready for the next assault.
None came as Wiene finished wrenching free her tiny hand from the gaping hole she tore through one before it turned to ashes. She looked around, her ears twitching, before turning back to Bell with a childish smile being while being drenched in monster blood. “Wiene protected Bell!”
“… That’s right,” Bell told her after a slight pause as he remembered to breathe, filling his lungs not to expand his chest outwards but letting it flow into his diaphragm like he’d seen Chigusa do. He didn’t know if it would merit results as it did for her, but it couldn’t hurt. Then he reached over and used the hem of his jacket to wipe her face clean before patting her head. “There will be more ahead, so we’ll need to be careful. And if you hear any people around, let me know immediately.”
She nodded enthusiastically at the affection. “Promise!”
And with that, the two ventured deeper into the Dungeon.
“Welcome home, you two,” said a soft, slightly tired voice the moment they stepped through the entrance of the Abandoned Church they called home just before the crack of dawn. Thanks to it being located in the slums and off the main streets, they managed to avoid any prying eyes as they emerged from the Dungeon shortly ago after venturing to the Seventh Floor.
“Goddess, did you wait up for us all this time?” Bell asked, naturally concerned given the time she normally woke for work. She would have been up for nearly a full day at this point. “What about your job?”
“What mother wouldn’t wait up for her children with concern when they were going back to a place they had so much trouble in before?” Hestia said, rubbing one of her eyes. “I sent word to my boss to say I won’t make it today. Did you find food for Wiene?”
“Lots and lots,” Wiene said cheerfully as she skipped forward, clad in clothes that were awash in various hues of monster blood and purple powder. “All full now!”
“Wiene, take off your clothes first. We don’t want any of that to get on Goddess—” She was already stripping before he started the second sentence, leaving him to avert his eyes as he shifted topics as well. “There’s a place called a Pantry on the Seventh Floor that had something coming out of the crystal pillar there. I packed as much as I could in some bottles, and she drank from the pool until she was full. So we should be good for a little while.”
He neglected to mention she had also eaten Poison Moths that had been trying to cover her in the purple powder. She largely seemed to have shrugged it off and simply settled for snatching them out of the air before eating them. The texture was crunchy, according to her.
Again, he chalked it up to her being a Level Two monster from the dragon family.
“That’s great, but now you both need a bath,” Hestia said as she caught Wiene who rushed up to hug her affectionately. She had clearly missed the Goddess of the Hearth, and the feeling was reciprocated as Hestia gently brushed her head. “I’ll take her with me first and then you can come in afterward.”
“Watch your nails, Wiene,” he said as they went down to the bathroom to wash up while he took to dealing with the other tasks that needed sorting out. He needed to clean his blade, their clothes needed to be set aside so they could be washed, the food for her preserved, and the drop items from the various things that had tried to kill them sorted out to be taken to the Exchange in the afternoon.
By the time he’d finished and gotten to take his bath, Bell felt tired and wanted nothing more to get to sleep. But before he could hit the couch, Wiene grabbed his hands and pulled him into bed with them. She wanted them to sleep together.
He felt obligated to try to say it wasn’t appropriate, but his Goddess insisted that they just do it so they could all get a good night’s rest as a family. So he laid on the bed with the dragon child between them, her nails chewed down somewhat hastily by her at some point while they were bathing to prevent her from hurting them by mistake. She fell asleep rather quickly, a content smile on her face.
“It’s hard to believe she’s a monster when she’s like this, isn’t it?” Hestia whispered.
“Yeah,” Bell agreed, even as her brutality flashed in his mind. Those same tiny hands and slender arms that crushed the head of a Needle Rabbit like it was nothing were balled into her chest as she breathed softly. “Goddess, are you really okay with this?”
“Yes,” Hestia told him without reservation. They both knew the risks of what they were doing, but to her it didn’t even register as a problem anymore. “Even if it might be a little weird, I’m happy to have a family like this after being alone for so long. I think that maybe it was fate that we all found each other, don’t you?”
A Goddess rejected by child after child for not being able to provide stability with so little to her name.
A boy left without a home after arriving, unable to fulfill his dream.
A child with the world and everything in it against her.
It was a thread of loneliness that bound them together like the Red String of Fate. It connected Hestia to Bell when she took him in, a mother finding a son to treasure. It connected Bell to Wiene when she rescued him, a little sister looking for a brother in this uncaring world. And it connected Wiene to Hestia, a daughter that only a divine being whose very nature was the warmth of a hearth found in a home could accept without hesitation.
It was a thread that was thick and grew thicker with each passing day. But as it was now, something could easily sever it from the outside. And he couldn’t keep relying on her to protect him all the time, putting herself at risk.
He had to get stronger with what he could.
He had to protect his little family.