Chapter 12: Return to the Dream
And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…
Bell found himself staring up at the moon as those words whispered in his ears on the wind, unable to move. Unable to think.
A scent that he couldn’t comprehend permeated the air. Celestial in nature. Thickening to the point of suffocating as the luminous white orb hanging in the night sky seemed so close that the glimmering moonlight reflected in his unwavering gaze.
The alluring face of the moon eclipsed his vision until he couldn’t see where it began and ended, and he was unable to look away even if he wanted to. The ivory rays themselves were like countless, tender hands grasping his head. Refusing to let him turn away, refusing to let him ignore the orb of night that seemed to swallow up the distance between Heaven and Earth just for him—
—only to vanish as the night sky was replaced with solid stone. The moonlight that had been radiating down, leaving him awash in its silvery rays, turned to artificial magic-stone lights. The irrefutable presence that loomed over him now took the form of a round face, sapphire eyes gazing into his own with a concerned frown.
Hestia. His Goddess. Entrancing in a different way than… what exactly?
Bell sat up, rising on the couch and turning so that his feet touched the ground. Blinking. His head felt misty and tired. Adrift somehow. “Was I sleeping?”
Hestia took a seat next to him on the couch. “I thought you were, but your eyes were open and distant.” Fingers soft as silk reached up to brush his forehead. “Were you having a nightmare?”
“I…” He tried to find words. But the memory had already slipped from his mind. Gone like mist that evaporated in the morning light. He brought his hands to his eyes and rubbed them. “I’m not sure. I don’t even remember when I fell asleep.”
The way her frown deepened showed that answer didn’t please her at all. “Just in case, we’ll see Miach about getting you some sleeping medicine. I know he makes some that can bring about a dreamless sleep.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just need to get up and move around today. That’s all.”
Hestia’s expression softened upon hearing that. “Just wait a little longer for my sake, Bell. Hephaestus told me that she would have one of her children available soon to form a party with you. Then you can go back in the Dungeon without worrying me so much.”
It had been a few days now since the Banquet of the Gods. Her proposal wasn’t exactly rejected by the two. But there were complications involved.
In the case of Take’s children, they operated as a group and had tactics, so introducing Bell into their cohesion might complicate things. And his children had to work hard given that they were also poor, on top of supporting an orphanage back in their home country. So, while he stated he could see if he could arrange something, Hestia had to admit that it would likely interfere with his own Familia’s survival unless Bell took up a role like a Supporter.
Hestia didn’t think Bell would settle for that. He wanted to be an Adventurer after all. And, while she could beg him to do so, she would be trampling on his dream more than she already had. Besides, having him be a Supporter meant that Bell would receive less valis than he would earn on his own and hamstring Take’s income as well.
It was different in the case of Hephaestus. She had several children who wanted to travel further down in the Dungeon, in order to reach Level 2. That way they could gain the Blacksmithing Developmental Ability.
But Bell had only been doing this for around two weeks, so naturally most people wouldn’t think he had that kind of ability. Hephaestus wouldn’t just order one of them to put up with Bell for Hestia’s sake, so she had to find children willing to work with someone who didn’t have nearly as much time or experience as them. That was easier said than done without exerting more pressure than she was comfortable with.
In both cases, it was a matter of Bell not appearing experienced enough. Hestia’s words that he could pull his own weight weren’t enough. While Bell could prove that he was more than capable enough, it would take time to reach that point. So, in a worst-case scenario, Hestia really might have to let him go back into the Dungeon on his own.
Still, I should find something for him to do… Oh, right! Her pigtails shot up in excitement as an idea came to mind when she remembered what today was. “You know, I have today off work and there’s a festival going on, meaning there’s a lot of food vendors and game booths out.”
Bell was naturally surprised, since he hadn’t been in the city long. “There are?”
“Yep!” Hestia hopped up onto her feet and extended her hand for him to take. “Since you need to get out, how about you and I spend the entire day together?”
A festival with just the two of us, huh? Between both of their jobs, they rarely spent time together outside of this homely little room. So how could he refuse the offer to spend time together as a Familia? “Of course.”
“Then let’s go have a lot of fun,” Hestia said before her expression bloomed into a radiant smile while their fingers intertwined. It carried a warm affection within it.
It was almost enough to make the lethargy in his mind melt away until Bell abruptly felt like he was being watched again, leaving him snap his head around for the source. Then he remembered it was just the two of them there and was left wondering if the lack of sleep really was getting to him. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it before getting dressed for their adventure outside.
In order to get to the Monster Feria, also known as the Monsterphilia, they needed to head down the road so that they got back onto the Main Street. From there, they could head straight to the far east side of the city. That was where the festival was being held, at the colosseum, but since it was going to be busy they would likely have to forgo a Tax cart and instead go on foot.
“White-hair! Over here, meow!”
It just so happened that, while on the West Main, Hestia stopped them when she heard someone calling for him. “Bell, I think that girl is calling you.”
“Huh?” He looked over to see that there was a catgirl in one of the waitress uniforms for the Hostess of Fertility, waving for him to come over with her ears pointed up. Since it would have been rude to ignore her, he hurried over. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you!”
“Mya, it’s no good if kids don’t go to bed on time,” she told him after looking him over. Then she turned to Hestia and gave her a polite bow, as was etiquette Bell suspected. “Oh, you must be his Goddess. It’s nice to meet you, meow.”
“Good morning,” Hestia said, approaching her. “How do you know Bell?”
“This is the place I told you about,” Bell answered in her place. “The place with the really good food.”
“Myama will be glad to hear it.” She then produced a coin purse and handed it over to Bell. “Syr needs this. Can you give it to her, meow?”
Bell eyed it for a moment. It was a purse that definitely suited a girl, and he could picture her holding it. But he wasn’t exactly sure where to find her in the first place. “Uh…”
“Arnya, if you’re going to make a request you should at least make it as clear as possible,” said a new waitress as she appeared from behind the catgirl. It was the elfess who had chased Bell down that night to return his belongings. “Good morning, Mister Cranel and Miss Goddess. My apologies for her calling you out so early.”
“It’s not a problem, but what’s this about Syr?” he asked. “Is she not here?”
“She has the day off and went to the Monster Feria for the opening event, but she left her purse here. The rest of us are preparing to open up for the day so, if it isn’t too much trouble, could you return it to her if you see her?”
“We were heading in that direction, but the festival itself is pretty active from what I’ve heard,” Hestia said. “Will we be able to find her?”
“She just left, so I’m sure white-hair can find her.” Arnya flashed Bell a smile. “Right, meow?”
If they have that much faith in me then I’ll try. Besides, Bell knew what it was like to be walking around in a big city like this with practically no money to your name. It had been like that when he had first arrived, and there was no point in making her walk back to get it if necessary.
He turned back to Hestia and said, “Sorry, but I really should give this back to her.”
Black twin-tails swayed as Hestia shook her head. She liked the fact that he was a good boy. “I don’t mind since we have the entire day. Besides, if this Syr person is a friend of yours, we should help if we can.”
Eina was one of several other members of the Guild currently outside of the colosseum for the sake of the festival, acting as informants to the citizens as well as assisting the Ganesha Familia in whatever way possible to make it a success.
By far, the biggest and most important event was the monster taming that was already underway beyond the massive stone walls that rose to towering heights. As things stood, it was a unique experience that came once a year for the citizens of Orario, who likely had scant few encounters with monsters in their lives. Because, even though the Dungeon was located within the labyrinth, the average person would never set foot into it and thus had far less exposure to monsters than those who made a living out of it.
Eina was not a fan of the idea that monsters were brought out of the Dungeon for taming during the festival. Monsters, especially Dungeon-born ones, were terrifying beings who existed to kill without regard for anything but their baser instincts. She’d filed enough reports on dead adventurers to know that having even one aboveground and unchecked would spell a huge problem.
But it was not her call to make. Instead, it was that of her superiors. They were the ones who decided the Monsterphilia was necessary for the citizens, because it gave them a chance to view adventurers in a more romanticized light.
Not all adventurers were friendly. Not all people were friendly. It was the way things were in general, that the experiences and personalities of the individual determined how they acted with others. The problem was that supermortals with strength above that of the norm naturally went by their own rules, so long as it didn’t fringe on the rules of their Familia.
Maybe they decide they don’t want to pay a tab, or maybe tempers flare and a fight breaks out. The difference in strength between an ordinary citizen and an adventurer meant they couldn’t raise a hand to them and needed someone to complain to. They needed someone to deal with problems that arose, which was what the Guild existed for. So they had to manage both the frustrations of the citizens and the adventurers, trying to placate both.
That was what the festival was for. Citizens would see these highly publicized adventurers putting on a show for their amusement and think to themselves that maybe these were the norm and the ones that caused them problems were the outliers. At least until enough time passed and the next year came around, where they would do it again.
Even now, a skilled Tamer was elegantly in the process of taming one of the monsters in a show of charisma and skill. It painted the scene as a mortal dominating a monster, making it submit without seriously raising a hand or slaughtering it for its magic stone, as was ordinary. An extravagant way of undercutting the actual dangers of the profession, setting a standard for the unaware that adventurers had class and dignity.
Eina didn’t exactly blame the Ganesha Familia for giving people the wrong impression of just how dangerous both monsters and the job were. They were merely doing it at the request of the Guild in the first place, who approved and managed it. But it would have consequences later on, when those who saw them tried to replicate their feats and have their dreams, and possibly their lives, dashed.
She took a deep breath, not at all satisfied that the reservations she had about the festival, until she spotted a familiar bed of white hair and ruby eyes scouring the crowd. She hadn’t seen him in days, so a part of her had been worried that something happened to him. Seeing him in the distance, still alive, was enough for now to put on a smile on her face as she called out on him. “Bell!”
His name being called attracted the eyes of not him but the smaller girl at his side. The divine aura that was leaking out, naturally present to all the Gods and Goddesses, made it clear what she was. The relatively smaller goddess tugged on his sleeve to grab his attention and pointed to her.
Bell then spotted her, his mouth moving in a familiar enough way that Eina could make out that he was referring to her as his Advisor, and then walked over. “Miss Eina, I didn’t know you’d be out here.”
“The Guild has set aside a good deal of staff for the festival, so I’m currently acting as someone who helps guest find their way inside of the stadium,” she explained, taking in his appearance. He looked tired. Slight bags around his eyes that wouldn’t be out of place for someone four times his age. “Are you not sleeping well, Bell?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been by lately. My goddess wants me to start working with others and forming a party before I start going deeper into the Dungeon.”
That bit of news actually made her somewhat happy. Rather than risking himself, if he worked with others his chances of survival increased drastically. “That’s excellent. Would you like for me to a make a posting for it through the Guild? I can’t guarantee when you’ll meet someone, but I’m sure eventually someone will apply.”
“I’ve already gone out of my way to arrange for that,” Hestia said, approaching them. “But, if you’re acting as an usher, then can we ask if you’ve seen a specific person?”
“There have been a lot of people who have come and gone, so I’ll need you to be specific.”
Bell recalled Syr’s appearance. “She’s a human girl with hair and matching eyes that are sort of ash-colored. She left her wallet behind at her workplace, but we were told she came this way not too long ago.”
Eina placed a hand on her chin in thought. There had been a lot of people, but the hair and eye color on a human were rare enough that if she had seen her then she would have remembered. Not to mention that if she had lost her wallet then she either would have doubled back and ran into them or she would have went elsewhere, since there was an admission fee to the main event.
“I can’t say that I have seen her, I’m afraid—” She was cut off when someone violently pushed past Bell, splitting him and his Goddess apart while knocking them onto the ground. She crouched down to help the two up while turning back to the figure. “Hey, apologize to them this instance!”
The figure, wearing a black cloak of all things at this time of day, turned around and smirked. Then he held up what looked to be a woman’s pouch. He tossed it up and down in his hand twice before running off to the southwest.
Bell’s eyes widened with realization before he rose to his feet. “That’s Syr’s!”
“Bell, wait!” His Goddess tried to grab him before he could give chase, but he moved faster than Eina thought would be possible for an adventurer who only started out a short time ago. Despite that, the thief moved just as quickly, and both cleared the plaza of the stadium in short order.
“Are you alright ma’am?” Eina asked, helping Hestia to her feet. She couldn’t believe that someone would so blatantly steal in front of her, wearing something so conspicuous. “I’ll have someone go after them right away.”
She didn’t have the chance before shouts of monsters being on the loose reached her ears less than a minute later.
Bell may have been tired, but the spike of adrenaline that coursed through his system as he gave chase after the cloaked thief helped offset that. It was enough to keep his mind focused on the present. That was the only reason he didn’t lose track of the thief, as whoever it was had to at least have been a high-end Level 1 as he ditched the Main Street for the alleyways. It was an intricate network full of twists and turns, where it would be so easy for Bell to lose track of them if he didn’t stay on top of them.
He didn’t know why the thief had chosen to take Syr’s wallet, but he knew he had to get it back. He would have probably left it to someone else if it had just been his money that was taken. But that had been entrusted to him by the others at the Hostess of Fertility, who put their faith in him to get it to her.
So he continued giving chase after the thief until they eventually left the web of alleyways and came into a plaza that was surrounded by rising buildings that seemed to be piled on top of one another. Bell hadn’t been in the city for long, but even he knew of this place. A maze within the city in itself, a manmade labyrinth that touched the city wall—Daedalus Street.
If he lost them here, he’d never find the thief again. But the thief didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing their chase at this point. They instead opted to drop the wallet onto the ground in the center of the district’s plaza and then, with a flourish of their cloak, disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving Bell there alone and confused until he felt that sensation again, like he was being watched.
Bell looked around once again for the source but didn’t find a single person in the plaza. It was starting to make him feel paranoid. So, he picked up Syr’s belongings, intent on getting out of there right away—
—only for something massive to come leaping down from over the perimeter of the buildings. It landed onto the ground in front of Bell with a thunderous crash that cratered the stone beneath them. The force alone had been enough to blow him off his feet, and Bell bounced backwards while slamming his head into the ground before coming to a stop several feet away.
“Ngh…” Bell’s head was pounding now as he forced himself to look up, whereupon he spotted pure muscle wrapped up in a cloak of white fur and a silver mane of hair falling down its back that glinted in the light. Thick arms and legs tensed with rage as they pounded at a steel plate that was fixed over its chest. Metal knuckles and manacles with chains clanked and rattled as it glared down at him with red eyes hidden behind a visor.
Miss Eina had told Bell of some of the monsters on the lower floors, as a warning for him not to venture deeper. This was one from the deeper floors, around the Eleventh Floor. A Silverback that had somehow gotten all the way to the surface was in front of him, murderous and animalistic intention fixed on him.
How had no one noticed this thing running around? That question loitered in his mind until he saw the massive primate rushing for him with a primal gait that was faster than it had any right to be. He barely had time to roll out of the way as it closed the distance with upraised arms and then brought both its massive fists down with the intention of crushing him.
The ground shook. Stone was upturned. Jagged bits of displaced rock were sent flying outwards to pelt Bell as he got back to his feet and considered his options.
The first was that he could run. He didn’t know where the monster came from, but he was unarmed and unarmored. In the city filled with more adventurers than any other in the world, chances were he’d run into someone capable of dealing with it.
But if he fled while it was attacking him then someone innocent could be hurt. More so if it chased him while the festival was going on. He could possibly get away, but only if he were willing to sacrifice people he didn’t know. And, while he may have had his dreams of being a hero tested, battered by the time he spent in that nightmare, that was something he just couldn’t do.
I have to kill it. Bell envisioned the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind and called forth the Little Ones across the boundaries of this world and the Hunter’s Dream. “Please, bring me my weapons!”
“GYRAAH!” His declaration carried the intention to fight, and so the Silverback responded with a roar in acceptance of his challenge. What drove it was unknown to the young adventurer, but whatever it was that keyed him onto Bell now took firm root. It would not stop until he was crushed, and with another quick gait it moved to do so.
This time, on his feet, Bell sidestepped the initial slam of the monster’s fist as it brought the right one down. But there was no time to remain stationary as it then swung the arm outwards to knock him back. Bell leapt back while bringing his own arms up to shield his chest and head, whereupon the chains that were still attached to its manacles caught him in glancing.
The thick steel that was meant to keep it bound was dense enough that he could feel the lashing it gave his forearms and felt its sting. But fortunately, his arms didn’t break from such a passing strike, even if they throbbed and he could tell it was likely to bruise. He could still fight then.
Bell’s ears then caught the unintelligible voices of the Little Ones answering his plea as a ripple in space formed just behind him. They emerged from the nearest building, sticking out of it horizontally with the Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol in hand. In a conjoined effort, the grouping of Messengers tossed them towards Bell with as much strength as their emaciated arms could muster.
Well-worn wood wrapped in fresh bandages for a grip met one hand while the curved grip shaped to fit comfortably filled the other. Both set of fingers wrapped around them tight before Bell rolled once more out of the way as the Silverback attacked with another punch that blew open the wall with a spray of stone dust.
Screams bellowed out from within. Someone’s home had just been broken into. Collateral damage in its attempt to kill Bell.
I have to lure it the center! He turned his back to the monster, presenting an opening despite his fear. Then he ran towards the center of the plaza and lure it that way, bringing the fight into safer territory.
The Silverback took the bait. Corded muscles in its lower legs released like a coiled spring and sent it forward. It lunged for Bell with its hand outstretched, intent on wrapping those stout fingers around his body to crush him like ripe fruit.
The young adventurer threw himself to the side, getting away with only his leg being clipped in escaping the fingers as they closed into a fist. The Silverback’s momentum carried it forward a little further, into the center of the plaza. It’s back was to Bell, so he rushed in with the Saw Cleaver to hack away at it.
The last he checked his Strength had just made it to E-rank after the War Shadows, even higher than before he fought the Minotaur with the Doll’s update. It had been just enough for his saw’s teeth to tear rents into its flesh deep enough for him to get its magic stone free somehow. Yet, now he couldn’t even manage to dig it past the hide beneath the silver fur before he gripped it with both hands and tensed his own muscles that seemed heavy with exhaustion to rip the metal out through the side.
The Silverback snarled as crimson ran free from a tear in its flesh, blood vessels above its thick muscles torn open so that they could start dotting that white fur with its blood. Retaliation followed. It began to move forward, pounding its strong fists down over and over again.
Bell raised the pistol loaded with a Quicksilver Bullet and fired, hoping the stopping power would be enough to halt it. The sound of caged thunder was drowned by the shattering of earth, the faint pinging of the bullet hitting metal that either guarded its eyes or chest barely reaching his ears. Then Silverback finished its rampage with a double-hammer strike that hit the ground hard enough that it blew Bell off his feet before he could get out of range.
“Ah…ahh…” Bell struggled for breath as haze of pain permeated his body, blood pounding beneath his skull as he got back onto his feet. Then he made out the glint of metal from the knuckles on the Silverback’s fist as it readied to strike. He moved to dodge, but he couldn’t.
His legs felt like they had gone to liquid. His insides felt like they were shaking from the previous hit without it even touching him directly. He couldn’t dodge like this, so he brought the Saw Cleaver’s flat around to act as a shield and braced it with his other hand to withstand the impact—
CRUNCH!! KRIK!! The sound of splintering wood and fracturing iron followed. Then came pain, a sharp and jagged thing that dug into his flesh along with a heavy weight that carried him further until Bell hit the ground a final time. Agony took on a tangible form as he struggled to breathe, only to feel something sharp tearing him apart.
With his vision blurred he looked down to see that the Saw Cleaver had been broken. The butcher’s weapon was embedded within his chest diagonally with the broken handle a little distance away. His pistol was nowhere to be found, lost on impact as something hot and wet bubbled up in his throat while crimson seeped out of his flesh around the wound and soaked his shirt.
The blood, with its scent thick, glossed over his mind as the Silverback approached slowly, as if giving him time to realize that he’d been won over before it came to deliver the killing blow. His weapons hadn’t been enough. They had broken, and his body had followed suit.
He struggled to move but couldn’t as the strength had left his body. He couldn’t even speak as blood bubbling up in his throat drowned any words that could have slipped from the orifice. With tears stinging his eyes while his vision dimmed on the sight of the Silverback raising up its fist once again, Bell realized he was going to die again and could only apologize to Hestia silently. Goddess… I’m sorry…
Then, for a second time, a fist descended. For a second time, there was a moment of pain amidst the spreading numbness, followed by the absence of every other sensation. For a second time, he woke to find himself laying amidst the moonlit flowers in bloom that were strewn over the hillside.
There, he was greeted by a sincere and serene voice that said, “Welcome Home, Good Hunter.”