Chapter 11: Banquet of the Gods
Bell Cranel was on the move the next afternoon, on his way down the Main Street to the tower of Babel at a somewhat sluggish pace. Last night he’d had some trouble sleeping after taking a shower. And he had spent an hour beforehand settling potential issues over what happened in the Hostess of Fertility before heading to the Guild.
Keeping with his promise, he first went to apologize to Syr over the mishap that happened last night. He made it clear that his departure was because he had been uncomfortable with the Loki Familia due to an embarrassing event in the Dungeon. She didn’t really press him on the finer details, which was something that he was grateful for given that he didn’t want to lie to her, though she did manage to worm him into having brunch there.
The menu changed during the day, though the food remained very good. It was also more accommodating to his wallet, probably because it was catered to a more casual customer base then. Adventurers were the primary source of income in Orario, so they had the highest earning margins next to the ones who ran larger Familias and exported magic stones. He would have to take Hestia there some time.
After that was the matter of visiting Miss Eina at the Guild to ask about any places where he could buy armor today. When he brought up what his budget was like now that he had paid off his Guild-loaned equipment yesterday, Eina told him of a reasonably priced shop that was on the upper floors of Babel. She’d even given him written instructions to make sure he didn’t get lost by accident.
Going straight down West Main soon brought him into the Central Park, where Adventurers were coming and going. It was a nice day that was the same as usual for Orario as far as he could tell in the time he had been there, such a tight yet bustling feeling. The sensation of life and open movement all around him was a strong contrast to the coffin and blood-encrusted streets of Yharnam at night, where only the beasts that stalked the shadows lurked.
The memory of the Hunt stilled his feet as it briefly floated to the surface of his mind. But he shook his head vigorously, slapping his cheeks and letting the sting bury the memories once more. He wasn’t going back there.
I’m going to continue on my life as an Adventurer, not a Hunter. Resolve in mind, he was about to take another step forward—
“Move it you lousy Supporter! We’re running late!”
—when he heard someone commanding someone else to move just barely above the rabble of the Adventurers around him. He turned to the source of the sound to see a male adventurer, one in a party of four, complaining about being late to enter the Dungeon to a small figure that was dressed in a plain robe that looked ragged at the edges.
He couldn’t make out the person’s face to determine their race or gender, but they looked so tiny that they could’ve been a child. Yet, the backpack they were carrying looked to be the size of a person, thrice their height. It must’ve weighed a lot for them, even if it was empty. But their party was telling them to move faster as they forced their way past the other Adventurers into Babel.
Since their destination was the same, Bell could only follow in their footsteps into Babel until they mixed into the crowd that was heading down to the basement floor. That would take them to the spiraling staircase leading into the gaping maw of the abyss below. Into the Dungeon.
He went the other way, towards the wide lobby that was past one of the many arches that surrounded it. The blue-and-white, expansive floor never failed to impress him as he entered it, and it was there he found what he was looking for as a rough looking man stepped onto a circular pedestal and pressed a button on what looked to be a console. Glass rose up to wall him off from the rest of the lobby and he ascended on the elevator that Eina had mentioned in her instructions.
Bell approached one of the pedestals himself, intrigued as he tried to work out how it could function. He wasn’t all that accustomed to the conveniences of Orario compared to his village, but given it was the source of a good deal of the magic stones in the world he could reason out they had more chances to develop devices like this. Bell pushed the button to activate it and felt gravity being defied beneath his feet as he ascended the heights of Babel for the first time.
This is pretty cool, he mused silently as he pushed open the glass of the elevator when he found himself on the Eight Floor. It had a good number of Adventurers roaming around, weaving in and out of the various stores that had displays of weaponry and armor for those who would brave the Dungeon. Bell was naturally drawn to the various shops but had to stop himself from wandering off and went into the one on Eina’s instructions.
The inside of the shop that was that of stone and wood, lined with steel in the form of weapons and armor that had been forged in fire and tempered by the hands of the blacksmiths working under the name of the Hephaestus Familia. On the walls were weapons and shields, alternating as they decorated the solid stone, price tags placed in view at prices that weren’t drastically above what he had on him at the moment. Short shelves that the walls were used to support the smaller arms or unique pieces that drew in more than a few curious eyes.
Maybe it was just because he was still relatively new to Orario, but it still amazed Bell as he looked at all of it. Even with the fact that Hestia had told him before of how she and the Goddess of the Forge were old friends, and that her Familia was one of the best when it came to blacksmiths. It really highlighted the differences in their Familia that Bell couldn’t even properly grasp the perspective or the amount of valis it would take to rent out all these floors for their blacksmiths.
Bell figured that he could spend hours just window shopping if he didn’t already know what he’d come in for. It was lightweight armor to replace the breastplate he’d lost setting foot into Yharnam. Something stronger than the one he’d gotten from the Guild, given that a sickly beast in Iosefka’s clinic had torn into it, while the claws of the Cleric Beast ripped it apart completely and took a pound of flesh with it.
Lacking any armor when he’d gone into the Dungeon and met the War Shadows could have been a death sentence. It would have been if not for the fact that blood still healed him since he’d gone in without any potions either. He couldn’t skimp on the armor from here on out.
So, Bell ventured towards the back of the store where the armor was placed on mannequins. From the look of it, the more expensive and extravagant items were closer to the front of the store, where more people would be inclined to buy them. That meant the more practical pieces would be further back.
The backside of the store had larger shelves that rose up above his head, sorting into aisles that had different items. More of the customers were looking through them, paying little mind of Bell as they inspected the different pieces. There were also barrels at the ends of some of them, containing larger weapons like spears.
Bell went past them, moving further back to where the lightweight equipment was. Most of them didn’t have mannequins but were instead housed in boxes of equipment pieces. Each one had a different style of handwriting on the tags, so if he had to guess the ones who made the armor were the ones who stocked it.
He went past the different pieces until he found one that drew him in. The polished metal that was pure white like the moon glinted in his ruby-toned eyes with an almost enthralling allure. Bell pulled out the main piece and just stared down at the breastplate meant to shield the vitals of the chest, including his heart.
It felt light. Even lighter than the one that he’d gotten from the Guild when he joined. Yet, he got the feeling that it was harder despite that. It was probably made from a different kind of metal than the standard one used for Guild-issued armor. But would they bother putting something like that in a box not even worth displaying?
They probably might in a shop run by this Familia, he figured before looking at the rest of it. There were guards for the joints, knees, and forearms along with plates for the lower back, shoulders, and hips. Additional bits and pieces that didn’t have the same grade of protection that full armor would give, but more than necessary for simple lightweight armor. And all of that at only 9,900 valis.
Flipping it over, he spotted the signature beneath a stamp that had a rabbit silhouette. The name “Welf Crozzo” didn’t ring a bell to him, but he hadn’t been there for very long. And if he was famous then there’s no way they would have put it back here. He must’ve been a novice blacksmith then.
Well, if this works out then I’ll keep that name in mind. Decision made, he took the box with him to the counter and paid for his new armor before heading back to show it off to his Goddess.
Once night fell, it was Hestia’s turn to venture out from the small but homely comfort that was her room beneath the Church.
Her destination was the home base of the Ganesha Familia, which had been established within a massive statue surrounded by a stone wall, with the entrance being the statue’s crotch. The various Gods and Goddesses had gathered for the celebration being hosted, a cacophony of communion between the different deities that made their home here in Orario. That made it the best place to gather information on Achelois’ whereabouts.
Hestia started her search at the buffet table, where she spotted Hermes and Takemikazuchi. The latter was being egged on by the former on in trying to finish a large plate of meat, dressed in his formal montsuki kimono adorned with his Familia’s emblem. The Goddess of the Hearth looked down to her own ordinary clothes and fought down the slight feeling of inferiority that she felt upon seeing how well he’d dressed when she didn’t even have celebratory clothes.
But Hestia shook her head to drive away those thoughts before touching the ribbon that had been elegantly tied into a bow around her neck. She wasn’t here for her own reasons, but for Bell’s sake. That thought allowed her to approach them both with a somewhat cheerful, “Take! Hermes!”
Takemikazuchi forcefully swallowed his meal upon noticing her and then cleared his throat so he could speak. “Hestia, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Hestia’s response was a good-natured retort. “The same could be said with you. Don’t you have a bunch of children waiting for you at home?”
“My children actually insisted that I come, citing that I should mingle with the others instead of working tirelessly for them.”
“What considerate children you have.” She then turned to Hermes. “And Hermes, I was looking for you too. I don’t think that we’ve seen each other in a long time.”
“Well, my Familia does travel a lot so I’m usually out running message and errands.” He snapped his finger as if something came to mind. “Though, I’ve heard you have a child in your Familia now. Mind if I ask who?”
“His name is Bell and he’s a very sweet boy. He’s only been at it for a short time, but he’s hard-working and even managed to get down to the Sixth Floor on his own.” She puffed out her chest in pride as she boasted of how special her child was, even though she was frustrated that he’d gone deeper than that on his own. It was a complicated feeling, to be honest.
That was partly why she had come. She didn’t have much to her name and she had few friends. But if she could at least have them help her keep him safe, then that would be something she could do as his Goddess.
Hermes only smiled in a mischievous manner. “He sounds like an adventurous one. You’ll have to introduce me some time.”
Then I’d be worried you would rub off on him, Hestia thought to herself before moving onto her first question now that the pleasantries had been done. “Anyway, I was wondering if either of you had seen Achelois? I’ve been looking for her, but I can’t seem to find any trace of her.”
“Achelois?” Takemichizuki put his hand on his chin and looked up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her at all since I arrived in Orario two years ago.”
“Miach said the same thing, so I thought that she might be outside of Orario. So, if anyone of us would know, it’d be Hermes.”
Hermes held his hands out and shrugged. “Well, I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but I’m afraid that I don’t know where she is either. The last time I heard from her she was still searching for someone to join her Familia with little luck. As I’m sure you know, it’s fairly difficult to start a successful Familia these days if you don’t have much to offer.”
Yes, Hestia knew that very well. The more established Familia within Orario were the ones everyone wanted to join. And if you didn’t have much to your name to start with then few would take the gamble to help. “That’s true, but I can’t imagine that she went back above. So, she has to be somewhere.”
“Well, I could try sending some feelers out when I leave again. But why exactly are you looking for her?” he asked.
“Ah… that’s… a bit private, actually…” It wasn’t like she could just say what was going on with Bell to them. Especially not in such a crowded event. “Let’s just say we need to have a Goddess-to-Goddess talk.”
“Aww, yer worried she’s gonna poach yer child?” Hestia tensed, a shiver running up from the base of her spine to the top of her head. That voice was the last one she’d wanted to hear tonight.
“Loki.” The Goddess of the Hearth practically hissed that name as she turned to find said Goddess right behind her, grinning in her sleek, black dress. “What do you want?”
“Just saw the crowd and came to say hello,” she claimed. “Well, that and I heard ya talkin’ about your child. That’s the one that ran into a minotaur a while back, wasn’t it?”
“And I think we both know who’s responsible for that,” Hestia said. “Bell could have died!”
“That’s the risk of goin’ in the Dungeon.” Loki’s small shoulders rose and fell before she took a sip of the drink she held in her left hand. “Besides, kid made it out fine under his own power, despite being a Level 1. Makes a lotta sense that ya’d hafta worry about him falling into the arms of another Goddess when a shrimp like ya can’t even afford a decent dress.”
Hestia’s temper flared. She rose on the tips of her toes to get right in Loki’s face and struck her weakness. “This coming from one who can’t even grow a decent pair to fit in a dress!”
Then Loki’s temper flared. She scowled, baring her teeth. “Them’s fightin’ words!”
“Bring it on!” she answered in response, but before either of them could act on the animosity, the guys stepped in. It wouldn’t do to have the two come to blows after all. Takemichizuki put his hands onto Hestia’s shoulders and gently pulled her away as Hermes did the same for Loki, albeit with a lot more effort.
“Easy, Hestia,” he told her. “Your child would be disappointed if he learned about you getting into a needless fight.”
“Hmph.” Hestia folded her arms and looked away. “She’s the one who started it.”
“Sparks still fly like fireworks whenever you two meet each other, huh?” a third voice spoke, their tone lacking in surprise while drawing their attention. There stood the Goddess of the Forge, Hephaestus. “Goodness, the others were starting to take bets.”
Hestia’s frown was replaced with a brighter smile. “Hephaestus! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while now.”
“If it’s for a loan, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not giving you one,” she said, setting one hand on her hip.
“No, not that,” Hestia insisted. “Since you and Take are both here, I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, like if you have any children who might want to join in a party with mine?”
“What’s so great about just having two lumps of meat hanging off your chest,” Loki muttered indignantly as she grabbed another drink from a passing member of Ganesha Familia and leaned against a wall, watching bitterly as Hestia tried to arrange a playdate for her child.
Then the sound of high-heels clicking against the floor drew her eyes up to the approaching beauty. With skin as white as ivory and smooth as silk, her dress hugged her body sinfully tight and showed off her mature shape. It was the Goddess of Beauty in the flesh.
“Having a bad night, Loki?” Freya said with a soft, naturally-seductive smile.
“Whaddya want?” Loki demanded, pointedly looking away from the cleavage on display in front of her.
“I overheard your discussion with Hestia and something you said caught my interest. Mind telling me more about it over a drink of Soma?”
In stark contrast to the clamor of the Gods and Goddesses in Orario, there was only a single conversation that permeated the absolute, serene silence of the Hunter’s Dream.
The Plain Doll, her pale and porcelain body dressed in clothing that were finely-crafted and exuding a benign warmth that had been woven into the stitch, sat among the luminous flowers that rested on a hill by the phantasmal headstone. Her head was bowed before it as her soft voice rang out ephemerally in prayer.
“Oh, Good Hunter. I pray your suffering spirit has found comfort in your fleeting respite. I pray your tender heart has been soothed. But the Dream beckons thee to bring the long night an end. And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…”
Chapter 10: Concerns of a Goddess and Child 2
“Oh, it looks like the Loki Familia is here tonight,” Syr mused, watching as the famous group went past them and to a reserved table. The multi-racial band drew several whispers, their expedition having come to an end and their return sudden, though not unwelcomed.
Before the waitress turned back in his direction, Bell dove behind the bar to use as cover to shield himself from their eyes. He didn’t want to be seen. Not by Aiz Wallenstein.
“Bell?” Syr’s voice drew his eyes to her. She was looking at him with a mixture of surprise and concern over the abrupt, panicked reaction. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are they here?” he asked, peeping over the top of the bar for an instant before ducking back down when he noticed that Aiz was staring in their direction, head tilted slightly.
“They’re regulars here,” Syr explained. “Their Goddess, Loki, likes to eat here.”
Bell’s memory of what happened during the Minotaur fight after he’d hit his head was a little hazy. But he recalled how he had been covered in blood and was terrifying enough that a Level 5 had warily drawn her blade against him. What kind of terror from Yharnam had he brought with him when he returned to have elicited that reaction?
…He probably should apologize to her for that, now that he thought about it. But that would invite questions, especially when she was surrounded by her comrades. Not to mention that if their Goddess was with them, she could probably pick up on the same scent that his Goddess did. It would draw attention, which would go against Hestia’s urgings for him to avoid doing so after yesterday.
Better to get out before that happens, Bell decided as he reached through his pocket for the necessary valis and handed them over to Syr. “Listen, I have to leave. I know you’re on break, but can you place that order to go for me? I’ll wait outside for it.”
“Sure… give me a minute,” she said, looking confused at the sudden shift in the mood before leaving to carry out his order. He imagined it looked pretty suspicious from her point of view. They were just chatting happily moments ago and finding common ground. Then he ducked behind the bar and decided to leave.
So much for whatever good impression I was making before. Bell couldn’t help but sigh. He still didn’t have many friends after two weeks here, so her company was surprisingly welcomed. Still, if the Loki Familia are regulars here then it would probably be better if I don’t come very often. It’s a shame since the food was decent and Syr seemed like an interesting person to know, but—
“What’cha thinkin’ about back here?”
“Gah!” He ended up shouting in surprise as he turned his head to find that there was now a woman above him, leaning over the counter with her head inches from his face. Without a doubt, in a glance, he could feel that this was a Goddess.
The Goddess Loki, to be exact.
“Ya don’ hafta shout.” She dug a finger into her ear to emphasize the point. “Anyway, I heard from some of my children ya had a nasty run-in with a Minotaur. Figured I’d extend an apology on their end and invite ya over to drink on us.”
“T-That’s alright,” Bell insisted. “Really, I’m heading home now and shouldn’t stumble back drunk. My Goddess might be upset if I did.”
“Oh, and which Goddess is that?”
“Uh… Hestia.” He noticed her expression shifted upon hearing that name. Mild surprise.
“Huh… when did she manage to get a Level 2 to join her little Familia.”
“I’m Level 1,” Bell corrected.
“Oh?” She leaned forward, the corners of her lips tugging into a less than innocent smile as her eyes opened halfway to reveal a shade of red that reminded Bell too much of blood. “Ya know, Minotaurs tend to be more than anyone below an experienced Level 2 Adventurer can handle on their own. So how’d ya beat one?”
Bell winced as he stabbed himself in the foot with that. He didn’t want to lie to her. After all, she would see through it in an instant and that would just make her more curious. So… half-truth?
“…I just fought desperately because I didn’t want to die,” he said slowly. “Moving on instinct at the end, I managed to reach into its chest where there was a cut and pulled out its magic stone. That’s all.”
It was all true, to an extent. He didn’t want to die and return to Yharnam, so he fought desperately. He was running on instinct and he did pull the stone out of the monster’s chest.
“Mmm… well, ya’re not lyin’ from what I can tell, so I’ll buy that a Level 1 got lucky…” She trailed off as she sniffed him. “But that still doesn’t explain why I can smell the moon clinging to ya. Where’d a ya pick that scent up?”
Bell stiffened like a steel rod had been shoved into his spine. That he couldn’t give a half-truth about. And he couldn’t answer without drawing any attention to him given the circumstances. It would cause more problems for him—and, more importantly, Hestia. So, he did the only reasonable thing he could do.
Loki blinked as she pushed off the top of the bar counter and looked off in the direction of the doors that were still slow to shut. The boy that smelled of the moon had bounded over the counter and burst through the doors like a scurrying rabbit, fleet of foot with his white hair fluttering. She was genuinely surprised at the overreaction.
She sighed as she turned and took a seat in his still warm stool, the attention in the bar torn between the exit and her. Not that she minded. She’d only wanted answers so that she could put Aiz’s mind at ease and so her attention would go back to her. From how Aiz had risen up to give chase, only to stop as Riveria tapped her arm and gave a small shake of the head, it seemed she’d failed.
“Ah, he left before we could give him his food,” said the waitress he’d been talking to before. She then looked at the bags now next to Loki. “And he left his belongings…”
“I’ll take them to him,” said another server, an elven woman with green hair.
Loki paid them little mind before she threw her hands behind her head and walked back over.
“Godness, how was that an apology?” Riveria asked in a reproaching tone, one eye closed and the other fixed on her. “You managed to both scare him off and inconvenience the staff.”
“I just asked him question about that smell clinging to him,” Loki said defensively as she returned to her seat and leaned back. “I didn’t think he’d take off like a frightened rabbit, or else I woulda sent Bete to chase him down so we could put Aizuu’s mind at ease.”
“I still didn’t smell anything unusual,” Bete said, looking mildly displeased at the implication he was meant to be a hunting dog as she took a drink from her cup. But, given how sharp his nose was, it was obviously something that bothered him to be overlooking. “Besides, I don’t see what’s so interesting about a rookie that Aiz scared off.”
Aiz ignored him to ask Loki, “Did you figure—”
Loki held her finger to Aiz’s lips to silence her before she could finish. “Hee-hee… that can wait until we’re back home. For now, let’s just celebrate!”
Her lips pursed as she pushed Loki’s hand aside, but she didn’t contest it. Which was good since explaining it now ran the risk of being overheard and more questions being asked. After all, if ordinary folks weren’t able to smell it, then how was Aiz able to?
Bell panted as he leaned over, legs bent and back against a lamp that used a magic stone for illumination while he struggled to catch his breath. He’d ran far without considering what direction he wanted to go, simply running to get away from a threat. Much like he’d done in Yharnam.
“And I forgot the food and my gifts,” he noted after catching his breath, his voice exasperated as he brought his hands to his face and groaned. He had to go back to get those, but after that fiasco it would be both embarrassing and shameful. He entertained the thought of just camping out close and waiting for them to leave—
—when the abrupt sound coming from next to him caused him to shoot forward in surprise, turning as he reached for a weapon that wasn’t in his grasp. He then noticed that it was one of the women working in the bar, judging from her outfit. She stood there with a subdued expression as she held the things he’d left behind in her outstretched arms.
“Syr wished for you to have these,” she said, unbothered by the motion. “You forgot them.”
He exhaled, the tension leaving his body and being filled in with more embarrassment that felt heavy in his stomach. He rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped forward to accept them and then gave her an apology as well. “Thanks for this, and I’m sorry. I couldn’t answer that Goddess’ questions, but I didn’t want lie, so….”
“Every Adventurer has their secrets, as well as the right to keep them,” she said plainly. “If you still feel the need to apologize, then it should be done to Syr and in person.”
He consented with a nod. “You’re right. I’ll tell her tomorrow.”
That said, she then proceeded to walk away and left Bell to his own thoughts. Since Hestia didn’t want him going in the Dungeon for a little while, he supposed it was only proper that he apologize to Syr in person tomorrow. But for now, he proceeded to walk back towards his home beneath the church.
He found her in the main section of the church, looking at the weapons that he’d brought and left behind with an appraising eye. Weapons weren’t her dominion, but he supposed that since she was friendly with Hephaestus she would have some knowledge of common weapons. However, given that Bell hadn’t seen anything like them in Orario, they were no doubt something she didn’t fully grasp.
All the same, Hestia wasn’t exactly pleased that Bell had drawn Loki’s eyes when he explained what happened in the Dungeon and then the pub. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was worried more than anything as she ate the food he’d brought while sitting next to him on one of the intact pews. He decided to save giving her the book and ribbon until afterwards, if only to add some levity after the impending conversation.
The fork sticking out of the corner of her lips shifted before Hestia removed the utensil and frowned. “Your judgement wasn’t wrong when you met Loki. I’ll try to tell her to back off at the Banquet, but the fact that she caught that scent means you’ve drawn her attention and that’s the last thing we want given the circumstances.”
“I know,” Bell said, nodding in agreement. “I didn’t want to cause you trouble.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Hestia assured him. “She and I haven’t been on the best terms, so the moment she found out you were my Familia she would have pestered you anyway. Still, while we can pass off you killing that Minotaur as simply being lucky, that scent is another story. It should have thinned, but when I compared it coming off you to that new weapon, and then against the old ones, its stronger.”
“That’s probably because the Messengers brought it straight from the Dream,” Bell said.
“If that’s the case then these ‘Messengers’ must be connected to everything, including this ‘Hunter’s Dream’ you mentioned.” She huffed as she set the fork down onto the plate. “Can you call them up?”
“I think so. If I concentrate.” He focused on the rune burned into the back of his mind once more, mentally pleading with them to appear as he stared at the weapons laying beneath the statue of the false goddess. He wordlessly, fervently begged them to appear there.
Silence lingered in the church abandoned by all but the two of them. Then they appeared, emerging seamlessly from the ground, the space around the weapons rippling. The emaciated, bandaged humanoids appeared.
Bell swallowed as he turned his gaze to Hestia, unsure of how she would react to their appearance. Given how shocked he’d been when he first saw them, it was startling if you didn’t get to see how harmless they were. But Hestia only leaned forward with her nose twitching.
“I can smell that the scent of the moon is stronger now,” she said as she jumped to her feet and walked over to where his weapons were. “Are they coming now?”
“They’re here,” he said as he looked between the waving Messengers and how her eyes were narrowed. But when she moved her hand, her slender fingers passed straight through without making contact. There was no reaction. “You just touched them.”
She blinked. “I did?”
Bell got up and came over to the front of the statue, extending his hand before them. Like before, the Little Ones clamored over one another to touch him with their thin, wiry fingers. “They’re touching me just fine.”
“Could it be that I can’t see or interact with them?” Hestia wondered as she brought her one hand to her chin while observing Bell. “Can you have them take the weapons back then?”
He nodded and then turned to the Little Ones. “Can you take these weapons back to the Hunter’s Dream for me?”
They did so eagerly, grasping the Hunter’s Pistol, Saw Spear, and Saw Cleaver by their handles. They didn’t bother trying to lift them, but rather the ground rippled further like a pond. The weapons sank into them along with the Messengers, dragging them into the depths beyond sight until they vanished entirely.
He then turned back to Hestia to see her frowning as she rubbed her temples gingerly and asked, “Goddess, are you okay?”
“I just got a bit of a headache watching that,” she said as she walked back over to the pew and took a seat. A sigh followed. “From the looks of it, only you can see or interact with these Messengers. But, at the same time, they can interact with this world, so they have to be corporeal. There has to be something I’m missing… maybe it’s because of one of your skills?”
Bell sat back down next to her and joined in thinking as well. The only three references he had in regard to this were the Plain Doll, Gehrman, and Eileen the Crow. “Gehrman mentioned something about signing a contract to enter the Hunter’s Dream for a purpose, while Eileen told me that she ‘no longer dreamed’ and couldn’t access it anymore.”
“A contract?” Hestia lowered her hands and gave a nod after a moment of thought. “It may be possible to do something like that, along with everything else, for a God or Goddess using our Arcanum. But anyone who uses their power would be immediately kicked back up to Deusdia, where our influence is limited on this plane, so…”
She trailed off, diving deeper in thought for a prolonged period with Bell not daring to break her concentration. However, eventually, she just huffed in a frustrated manner as her pigtails wavered as though they were alive from the strain. “If possible, I wanted to speak to this Doll who tampered with your Falna myself to get to the bottom of this. But it doesn’t look like that’s possible if we’re not the one ‘dreaming,’ as you put it. I could probably try to use my Arcanum, but—”
“You can’t!” Bell said abruptly, setting his hands on her shoulders. “If you do that then you’ll have to go away. I don’t want you to give up everything on this world for me.”
“…But does a Goddess who can’t do anything for her child really have a reason to be here in the first place?” Hestia asked, her cerulean eyes looking into his ruby pair before drifting down to her lap. “If I had done a better job to prepare you for going down there, then you wouldn’t have gone through all of that. So, if you could at least continue adventuring under a new Familia, then going back would be worth it.”
“Just being here is enough,” he told her softly, reciting what he’d told Syr earlier in the day. “You accepted me when no one else would. You gave me a family and home when I had none before. If you sacrifice everything for me, then you might free me, but it’d be no different than if I died as far as I’m concerned.”
“Bell…” His words made her shoulders tremble for a moment. Then her hands came up, lithe fingers overlaying his. “You’re a really good child… I’m lucky to have found you.”
Bell, with his heart thundering at how smooth her touch felt and the warmth that dwelled in them, was left momentarily speechless. The atmosphere had shifted abruptly into something tenser than ever before to him. Suffocating almost. He needed an out.
Then he recalled his gifts. He pulled his hands away and handed her them before excusing himself to go down and take another shower, citing that all the running from before had left him in need of one and he wanted to wash as much of the moon scent away as he could. He didn’t see the gentle smile she wore as she looked upon the ribbon and book.
Nor hear the promise she made in her heart afterwards.
Chapter 9: Concerns of a Goddess and Child
“I thought you might know her, given your Familia is a medicinal-type and that’s part of her dominion,” Hestia said, noting that the smell of medicines being brewed was somewhat poignant as it clung to the back of her throat.
Unaware of her child’s venture into the Dungeon, Hestia had gone to visit her friend Miach’s shop the moment she got off work. Miach once had one of the most prominent Medical Familias in all of Orario. A rival to the famed Dian Cecht Familia in its prime.
Miach’s Familia had fallen on hard times due to the fact that one of his children, Naaza, had sustained an injury that cost her an arm and left her with a crippling fear of the Dungeon. The price of replacing the arm, which was no doubt raised to unreasonable amounts by Dian Cecht to be rid of his competition, had left the Familia with a huge debt. Now, much like Hestia, he had only a single child as well.
Whereas some other Gods and Goddesses would abandon a child who was no longer able or willing to go into the Dungeon, he’d taken it upon himself to ensure the best possible treatment for his own. There was no ill will when he allowed his other children to leave the Familia so they wouldn’t be burdened. Instead, he sheltered it on his own shoulders without complaint.
Hestia actually admired him for that.
“Hmm…” Miach brought his hand to his chin in thought at Hestia’s question. “Well, it’s been some time since I’ve even heard her name. She had quite a bit of trouble establishing a Familia with myself and Dian Cecht around, and I haven’t seen her in Orario for years now at any of the functions we attend. So it’s possible that she left for greener pastures elsewhere.”
“That makes things a bit difficult then,” Hestia said, followed by a sigh. It was extremely difficult for an established Familia and Adventurers to leave the city, due to the amount of paperwork involved. Even with only one child to her name, it would take time to get clearance. “I don’t know where to begin to look for her if she’s left, but I need to find her.”
“Well, Hermes would probably be aware of her location,” Miach suggested. “I can’t be certain whether he will attend or not, but the Banquet of the Gods is tomorrow night. I hadn’t planned on attending myself, but you could go and try asking the others there if they’ve heard from her as well.”
Hestia’s lips formed into a small frown at the thought. She wasn’t really in the mood to attend the celebration either. And she knew that Loki would be there. Being the Goddess of one of the larger Familias in Orario had given her a big ego, especially when Hestia only had one child in her care…
But it was the best place to go for information. And Hephaestus would be there, which would allow Hestia to talk to her without having to wait for her schedule to be cleared. So, she supposed she had to go.
Thanking Miach for the advice, Hestia departed back for the abandoned church that she called home. It belonged to Hephaestus, but she was allowed to use it for both herself and her child. Some distance away she could see Bell opening the door to the church, peeking in through a crack as though to spy on what was inside. She opened her mouth to call out to him on reflex until she noticed… well, everything.
Bell’s clothes were in a horrible condition. The fabric of his shirt was torn, reduced to red-tinged scraps that hung off his frame and exposed his skin in patches—though his Falna was thankfully covered up. His pants had tears in them too, claws or fangs having dug into them at one point and pulled free flesh judging from the bloodstains on them.
In his hand was a long weapon wrapped in a cloth stained a disturbingly dark shade of crimson to hide the blade. It looked like the one he’d shown her yesterday from that nightmarish place that he’d went after he… after he died.
Did he die again without me knowing? Her blood ran cold at the thought until Bell opened the door further and began to enter. She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat and called out to him. “Bell!”
He went from a foot in the door to ramrod straight, slowly turning his head towards her with a mechanical stiffness. The expression on his face wasn’t that of the one he’d shown her yesterday when he first got back to her side, ruby-toned eyes lacking the horror they’d held before. It was just a look of shame, or guilt perhaps?
“Goddess, I….” He swallowed, and then threw himself on the ground to bow his head. “Forgive me! I went to the Dungeon today!”
…It was like a child who had been caught doing something that he wasn’t supposed to apologizing to his mother. The moment she realized that, the tension lessened. Hestia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in relief. Then the scolding started.
“I told you to take it easy after that happened yesterday,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “Why did you go back to the Dungeon?”
He raised his head until he was sitting his knees, hands resting on his thighs. “I didn’t want you to have to work to support me when I was still capable of going into the Dungeon. It wouldn’t have been fair to you.”
“Going in after what you just went through isn’t any better,” Hestia pointed out, crouching down to look over his body. There wasn’t a scratch on him from what she could tell, despite some of the blood on his clothes definitely being his. The other hues were from monsters, if she had to guess. “Explain what happened to your clothes.”
“A lot of monsters came out to attack me,” he started. “The Kobolds weren’t much of a threat though. In fact, the usual ones didn’t really manage to touch me. I think it was because of the increase in my Falna. Most of the tears were from the War Shadows when they worked with the Frog Shooters, but—”
“Wait, War Shadows!?” Fear crept up her spine as she recognized the name of that kind of monster that lurked in the Dungeon. They weren’t found on the upper floors, where rookie Adventurers worked out of. She grabbed his shoulders and demanded, “Bell… how far down did you go?”
He fixed his eyes to the ground in shame before he mumbled the answer she didn’t want to hear. “The Sixth Floor.”
Her fear turned into anger born from worry. He had just died on the Fifth Floor not even a day ago. He’d died, gone to a nightmarish place of blood and beasts, and fought desperately to return to her side. And he went even lower into the Dungeon after that? “Why?”
“…because all I can do is go into the Dungeon,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t plan on going past the Fifth Floor at first, but it was too easy. The Goblins and Kobolds didn’t pose a threat, and the Minotaur was an irregularity. I was just going to go a floor or two deeper to familiarize myself with the monsters there for when I eventually did go deeper.”
Hestia wanted to say that he shouldn’t have gone there at all. That he shouldn’t force himself to do that. That she was afraid of losing him without even realizing it again. But he was an Adventurer and, as much as she wanted to keep him safe, he did have to go lower at some point.
There was no telling how long it would take for her to find Hermes or Achelois, and the number of people she could trust to tell about Bell’s ordeal could be counted on a single hand if she wanted to make sure it didn’t spread around. Even so, until they knew what was going on, she didn’t want him to put himself at risk like that. There were too many things they didn’t know about his condition: the tampering with his Falna by the Doll, the Blessing of Flora and Beasthood skills that he’d gotten, and everything else. She needed to find answers for that first so that she could help him.
“Bell,” she said softly. His eyes rose to meet hers and she had a pleading look in her eyes. “Promise me that you won’t go into the Dungeon until I at least get back from the Banquet of the Gods. Okay?”
He nodded obediently. “I promise I won’t go into the Dungeon until you get back and tell me too.”
She could tell he wasn’t lying, so she placed her trust in him once more as she stood back up. Then she noticed the bag on his back and how it had a visible weight to it. “You didn’t exchange the magic stones yet, did you?”
“I was planning on going to the Guild after I got changed since I didn’t want to freak out Miss Eina again,” he said as he rose up to his feet, scratching the back of his head. “She… kind of told me not to go that deep as well just yesterday.”
The Goddess of Home and Hearth huffed. He should have listened to that advice. “Then get changed and go trade in everything you got at the Guild. You can use that money to buy yourself new clothes, pay off the loans you have, and whatever else you need.”
Her sapphire eyes then turned to the weapon he had in his hand. It was definitely different from the one she’d seen before. Taller, with the wrapping even more smeared with blood and filth. “And when you get back, you’re going to tell me how you got this one too.”
I hope this’ll do as an apology to her, Bell thought to himself as he looked down to the bag he was carrying in his hands, containing not only a change of clothes to replace that he lost today in the Dungeon but gifts from a book store and accessory shop that were close to Babel. He passed by them every day but rarely gave them a glance normally, since they didn’t interest him very much. Today though, he wanted to appease Hestia after he’d disobeyed her by going that deeply into the Dungeon, so he’d spent time finding something he thought she would like.
It was getting dark now, partly due to the fact that it had taken so long to exchange his magic stones and monster drops at the Guild a little while ago. It was busier than usual, or at least by his normal standards since he only hung out in the Upper Floors and could get back to the surface relatively quickly since he didn’t often have much to carry. He supposed for people who went deeper, it was natural they’d surface later.
The valis he’d earned from the monster drops, rather than the magic stone shards. were more than enough for him to pay off the cost of the equipment and knife he’d been given by the Guild starting out. That was a testament to how ferociously the Dungeon had tried to get rid of him, since only places where the magic was extremely dense in their bodies persisted after the stones were removed from them. He would need to buy some lightweight armor before he went that deep into the Dungeon again after Hestia finished going to the banquet tomorrow.
Still, I wonder if it’ll be enough to please her? I know she likes books, but not specifically which ones would interest her the most. And while the ribbon is the same color as her normal one, it’s a bit thicker—
His head snapped up as he felt eyes, heavy and hard peering down on him from somewhere. It was like the weight of an ocean pushing down on him, a whirlpool spiraling to pull him in. He looked around to see that there were others on the street, some humans, other demi-humans, none that were focused on him.
He started walking again, gaze peering over his shoulder as he tried to see if there was anyone fixated on him. Am I imagining things or maybe—
Bell’s train of thought was broken when he bumped into someone by mistake, a soft and feminine voice slipping out in surprise. He looked down to see he had toppled a girl who looked slightly older than him, dressed in a pale green skirt and white blouse. Her hair was a shade of grey that was closer to blue, matching her eyes as she looked up at him with a surprised expression.
“I’m so sorry!” Bell said hastily, extending a hand for her to take. Her slender fingers found their way into his and he pulled her onto her feet. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit startled, but nothing broken,” she said as she dusted herself off and took in his appearance. “You wouldn’t be an Adventurer, would you?”
He nodded his head. “I haven’t been one for long, but I am.”
That bit of news seemed to make her day as her inquisitive look transitioned into a smile and she clasped her hands together. “That’s lucky. I was actually coming out to look for one.”
“Mm-hm.” She gestured to the building made of stone, standing two stories tall with a terrace in the middle. It could honestly pass as an Inn at a glance, and there was an abundance of sounds coming through the double doors, indicating that it was lively within. “Our bar, the Hostess of Fertility, is having a special right now for new Adventurers. You’ll be able to eat one meal for free, whatever you want.”
“…I’ll have to pass,” he told her, reluctantly. The thought of eating free food appealed to him greatly, but he didn’t want to spend more valis than necessary given their living situation. However, he’d feel guilty if only he got to eat a delicious meal when she didn’t after working.
However, the girl with eyes and hair that caught a slight sheen in the encroaching moonlight bit her lower lip and gave him a pleading look. “If not you then I’ll have to wait out here in the dark until someone else comes by or Mama Mia will be upset with me.”
“I just wouldn’t feel right that I got to eat something great when my Goddess hasn’t,” Bell said, looking away and thinking about how unfair it was she was plying him with that sort of shy, cute look. “We’re not that well-off as a Familia.”
She immediately turned it around on him. “We allow you to carry out as well. You can try something and then bring another one back to her as a gift. That way we’ll both get what we want and she’ll be happy you were thinking about her.”
It… couldn’t hurt, could it? Bell opened his mouth to give her a response when the din of the Main Street in the early night was broken by the sound of his stomach rumbling, much to his embarrassment. In his defense, the last thing he’d really eaten were the snacks Hestia had gotten him as breakfast.
“Should I take that as a ‘yes,’ Mr. Adventurer?” she asked, a playful smile on her face.
He could only scratch his head and respond with a sheepish, “I guess one meal couldn’t hurt… Miss…”
“My name’s Syr Flover,” she said, introducing herself. “You can just call me Syr. And you?”
“Bell Cranel,” he answered. “Just Bell is fine.”
“Then follow me inside, Bell.” She grasped his hand with both of hers and led him inside. A warm glow was spreading throughout the wooden interior due to the lanterns burning above, giving off a contemporary atmosphere that would lift the spirits of anyone. The staff were all women, interracial ranging from Elven to Cat People, smiling as they moved with purpose between the different tables housing other Adventurers that were all sitting and reveling in their drinks and food as they chatted with one another.
It was a nice place, if Bell had to admit. One that made the dangers of the Dungeon far off and forgotten. But that feeling of being watched was still there, the pressure lessened but not completely gone. His eyes spanned the place once more, but he still couldn’t make out who was observing him. Was he just paranoid after all?
“Mama, here’s a new Adventurer for you,” Syr said as she brought him to a seat at the counter, where the Dwarfess that he presumed to be the owner was waiting. “This one’s special, so treat him well, okay?”
Then Syr was gone and Bell was alone at the counter seat. Mia’s dark eyes sized him up and Bell felt relatively small compared to her. However, she then smiled and spoke in a manner and broke the image had been forming of her in his head. “How long have you been an Adventurer?”
“Ah, a little over two weeks now,” he replied politely as he sat the bag he carried down on the floor. “I just arrived in Orario around then and joined a Familia, so I haven’t been in a bar before now.”
“Then you’re in luck. The Hostess of Fertility is one of the finest establishments in all of Orario! We serve the people during the day, and Adventurers here at night.” She passed him a menu along. “Eat to your heart’s content!”
He took it, or rather had it forced into his hands, and looked through the choices he had. The menu was rather diverse, so he placed an order to see if it was something Hestia would enjoy. It had barely been in front of him for a minute before Syr returned, dragging a stool next to him and taking a seat in it.
“So, how do you like our bar and food so far?” she asked.
“They’re both great,” he told her with a slight smile, though he’d only take a bite out of it so far. “I don’t think I’ve had food this good since I got here, and it feels nice to be somewhere with people who are just unwinding without having to watch out for the next thing trying to leap out of the shadows to kill you. I’d like to bring my Goddess here someday too.”
“Which Goddess do you serve under?”
“Hestia,” he said, to which she looked a bit unfamiliar with. Not surprising. “You probably haven’t heard of her since our Familia only started about two weeks ago and it’s just the two of us. We’re pretty poor, so I have to go into the Dungeon everyday so that we can make a living.”
“It must be hard doing all of that alone.”
“I stumbled around at first because I didn’t have someone to teach me, but I’m managing now.” Ignoring what happened yesterday, he thought privately to himself. “Besides, I’m not alone since my Goddess is there when I get back. That counts more than anything else.”
She tilted her head slightly at that, a rather playful smile forming on her face again as he took a bite of the meat next. “It sounds like you’re in love with her when you say it like that.”
Bell nearly choked at the accusation, a spot of crimson painting his cheeks. He forced down the meat and gasped before stating. “No, it’s not like that!”
“What is it like then?” Syr asked as she looked at him expectantly.
“When I came to the city, I tried to join some of the bigger Familias,” he explained. “Every single one rejected me, since I was a farm kid without any sort of experience, and I didn’t have any family since my Gramps died a year ago. If she didn’t take me in, I wouldn’t have anything at all. Since then it’s been like having a family again, even if it’s just the two of us. She’s supporting my dreams and helping me in whatever way she can, despite having so little herself. I’m really grateful to her, so I want to make her happy and repay her no matter what. Is that wrong?”
“…No, it’s not,” Syr said in a softer tone. “You’d be surprised at how many people feel that way.”
Bell thought he caught a deep meaning with the way she said that, but then she perked right back up and changed the topic to tell him a little more about the Hostess of Fertility. It turned out that Mama Mia was a former Adventurer herself and that she hired girls or women from different background. Since she liked meeting new people and learning new things, the job was one that Syr found enjoyment in as well since she’d never really get bored.
“I know the feeling,” Bell said. “It was overwhelming when I first got here. It still is, really. But you learn something new every day and there’s still a bunch left to learn as you go on. That’s what makes Orario special.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Syr agreed with a smile that seemed to brighten the room a touch more.
Bell found himself staring for a moment at the sight, before the doors opened and a group of ten or so Adventurers entered. His heart stilled as he noticed the golden-haired figure among them, one who had seen him that day on the Fifth Floor. Ais Wallenstein had arrived with other members of the Loki Familia in tow, bringing his moment of peace to an end.
Chapter 8: Outside of the Dream
“Nmm….” Bell Cranel groaned as he woke up on his sofa, opposite of Hestia’s. He didn’t recall when he’d fallen asleep, but there was a sheet draped over his body and his goddess was missing. Rubbing his eyes, he peered through the darkness towards the clock and found it was Noon, meaning she’d left for work already.
“I don’t think I’ve slept this late in years,” he said to himself, rising to his feet. As he had been raised in the countryside, tending to a farm with his grandfather, he was used to rising at the crack of dawn. For him to wake up so late was abnormal…
Then again, nothing had been normal for Bell since yesterday. He’d delved deeper into the Dungeon than he did before and ran into a Minotaur, of all things. He’d… he’d died too. It wasn’t a dream either, even if he did wake in the Hunter’s Dream. He could still recall the brief moment of pain before his first death and the more drawn out deaths that followed.
As tempting as it was to brush off, he had to accept that it was something that happened. He had traversed the streets of Yharnam, channeled the Blood Echoes through the Doll, received the guidance of Gehrman, and had been encouraged by Eileen to get through the Hunt as quickly as possible. He’d hunted beasts for a time, before slaying a great Beast with the shade of an Old Hunter, Gascoigne.
Then he came back. Back to the moment of his first death. A second chance to do things right and survive. So he fought and prevailed over the Minotaur, fighting with everything he had gained over the brief time he’d spent in Yharnam. While he wasn’t fully lucid when he’d done it, he’d definitely ripped the magic stone out of the monster before noticing that Adventurer—Ais Wallenstein—had seen him and reacted in fear.
That bothered him the most. Seeing her raise her blade at him out of fear had been the same as when he’d done so to Eileen, after being lost and confused. Had he brought some part of Yharnam with him when he’d returned? The viciousness that the Hunt required of him to survive… had it bled over into him without Bell even realizing it?
He shuddered at the thought. Things left in Yharnam should remain there, while he remained here. He wanted nothing to do with that… that nightmare. That place wasn’t meant for him. He would gain nothing from going back there, while here he could remain by Hestia’s side.
Reassuring himself of that fact, Bell stood up and stretched his limbs to start a new day. Then he felt a slight parch in his throat and rumble in his stomach. He looked over to the table where he found a plate of potato snacks and a letter for him, the former of which he devoured as he inspected the contents of the latter.
It seemed that Hestia had left for work and would be back later than usual. She also wrote that he didn’t have to go to the Dungeon today and could just rest. It was probably because of everything that’d happened to him prior.
Bell frowned at thought. He came to Orario to be an Adventurer—to be a Hero like those his grandfather told him tales about, which meant he had to make a living that way. Even with the extra money from the Minotaur he slew, it wouldn’t be enough for them to last for long since Hestia still had to pay taxes, as he was still registered with the Guild, and he had to pay off the loans he’d taken on his starting gear. He couldn’t afford to just leave her to shelter the burden of everything because he was lazy or afraid after she’d taken him in despite the costs to herself.
So he gobbled down the potato snacks, grabbed a glass of water to quench his thirst, and then dressed himself in a set of clothes that hadn’t been tainted by the scent of the moon, as Hestia called it. He couldn’t smell anything, but it apparently clung to him and the belongings he’d brought with him through the Dream. Then he went up the stairs and into the main part of the church to get ready to go back into the Dungeon, just long enough to earn his keep.
It was there he found the Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol that he’d brought back with him from Yharnam. The scent of dried blood still niggled at the back of his throat when he looked at the Saw Cleaver, leaving him feeling uncomfortable when he recalled the weapons’ purpose—hunting down beasts. He made a mental note to wash the blade and change the wrapping before he stashed it away somewhere else, opting to stick with his knife as he walked out of the door.
Returning to the Dungeon only served to further prove that his stats had drastically improved in such a little time, actions speaking louder than words written on paper. Bell had entered with the intention of remaining on the Upper Floors, Levels One and Two specifically, in order to earn enough to at least pay off on the chest-piece he’d lost against the Beast on the bridge. Then he ran into a group of Kobolds.
There were eight of them that were birthed from the walls after he’d made it around the middle point of the path he normally took down to the lower floors. It was odd behavior, given that they normally hunted alone or in pairs. And according to the lessons Eina had driven into him beforehand, he should never face a group alone or he’d risk getting surrounded.
Yet… they were slower. They were much slower than they had been a day before. Slower than even some of the beasts he’d hunted in the streets of Yharnam, which he had to be more aggressive to deal with.
He could have easily escaped them, or at least he felt that he could if he wanted to. But he needed money and the fingernail-sized magic stone shards they had were still worth something, so he fought. While the twenty-celch long dagger had a shorter reach than the Saw Cleaver, meaning he’d had to get closer, he’d found it easier to slay them.
Most of the monsters on the first five floors proved to be little challenge after that. The Goblins were more like pests than anything else. Hard to believe that he was nearly killed by one in the past compared to the ease at which they died now. Either way, he pressed on until he stood at the entrance leading down to the Sixth Floor.
He contemplated long and hard if he wanted to press on further. The Minotaur was an irregularity, but there were still monsters he hadn’t seen before further in. The risk was that he’d find something down there strong enough to actually pose a serious threat.
But, his job was being an Adventurer and that meant delving further into the Dungeon to earn money. True, he’d managed to gain a plethora of magic stones shards, but compared to the worth of the Minotaur’s they weren’t even close to enough. And he was strong enough that the Kobolds and Goblins weren’t as much of a threat, so it was natural to progress from here, right?
Just a little further, he told himself. A vow that he wouldn’t go past the floor, and that he wouldn’t go in too deep. Just deep enough to where he’d find one or two new monsters to familiarize himself with. So he ventured down the staircase and into the corridors of the unfamiliar floor.
The first thing he noticed was that the floor looked different than before, slightly wider and the color of the walls now a greenish hue. But it was surprisingly barren as far as monsters went. The walls looked somewhat broken, indicating there were others born from them earlier.
Maybe they were slain by others who’d came into the Dungeon and then moved deeper? Bell concluded. He had woken up late and it was a city filled with Adventurers. First come, first serve.
On one hand, it meant he’d have to go slightly deeper inside to find a monster to test himself against. Just to see where he stood in terms of strength. On the other, it meant the way back would be clear and easy to get through.
So Bell walked until he heard a cracking sound. His feet stopped moving and he turned his head to where it was coming from, off to one side and down a narrower path. The cracking continued until the pieces of the wall clattered onto the floor. Then there was a crunching sound as something landed on the shards, out-of-sight.
His fingers tightened around the handle of his knife as he waited for whatever the monster was to emerge from around the corner. Anticipation built up in his chest, quickening his heart as the seconds passed. Then Bell saw a black claw grasp the wall before the monster peeked around the corner.
It stood tall, a humanoid shadow that stood on two legs and had a silver orb as an eye. Its head came to a point that branched out to both sides, reminding Bell of a trident he had seen in a weapon’s store not too long ago. Its shoulders were laxed and the limbs attached to it hung low, the forearms lengthened until they came to three long claws that were like the blades of a knife.
A War Shadow, Bell knew. Not because he’d seen it before, but because Miss Eina had listed it as a reason for why he shouldn’t have gone down so far before. They started spawning on the Sixth Floor and were known as Newbie Killers, butchers of the inexperienced.
It emerged from the behind wall and stared at him with its silver orb for an eye, knees bent and arms hanging down from its shoulders. Then its silver eye turned crimson and gone was the idleness it had been projecting. The bent legs sprung forward with deceptive grace and silence befitting a shadow-turned monster, and its left arm was thrust forward with its knife-like digits closed in to form the point of a spear.
Bell tilted his head to the side. The spear brushed past where it was, shaving a few strands off of his hair that were slow to follow his movements. Then he brought his rear leg forward and pushed off it to advance with knife in hand.
Its right arm moved to stop his advance silently. With the claws spread wide like sickles that Bell had used to cut grain on the farm, the War Shadow’s arm swooped around to meet him. It had every intention of using it to reap his head from his shoulders.
Bell fell forward and into a roll, allowing for the arm to sweep over his head. Then he came up into a crouch before the living shadow and swung the knife affixed in a reverse-grip around in a rising arc. The blade should have cut it from hip to opposite underarm, opening it up.
But the War Shadow bound backwards, avoiding the worst of it. A line was drawn by the knife’s point to mark the path it had traveled, and black blood tricked from the wound to tinge the air with its scent. The monster landed as silently as the night near the mouth of the corridor it’d spawned from, having escaped death.
Too shallow. If the knife had been longer, it could have cut deeper or even severed it in half. Bell regretted that he’d only now considered the fact, since the other monsters had been slower to the point where it didn’t matter. Yet the War Shadow was much faster than they were. And it proved so by thrusting its left arm out again to go for his head as he stood up.
In a single motion, Bell rolled the handle in his grasp, so that the sharpened edge of knife was facing him, and moved his right arm outwards so that it met the monster’s wrist, stopping that set of claws from taking off his head. It wasn’t stronger than him in terms of pure strength with the increase in his status, at least. That established, Bell then jerked his hand down and backwards, twisting his hips and forward leg behind him in the process.
The clawed hand was severed as a result, flopping onto the ground. The monster pulled back a stump while Bell had lined up with it to make it easier to avoid another attack. That proved to be correct as it attacked with even more vigor, lunging and swiping at his head horizontally with a primal sort of vigor, only to dart to the side as Bell retaliated with a stabbing lunge for its head.
I can do this. It was maybe on par with the beasts he’d seen on the bridge before the large one, and its nails were no doubt sharp enough to do some damage. But Bell felt he could definitely match it with little trouble as their exchange continued…
At least, that was what it allowed him to think for a time. Eina had said that these things were Newbie Killers, but that wasn’t based on strength alone. The War Shadow wasn’t stupid or as simple-minded as the Kobolds.
Its cunning was revealed as it led him into the thrust when its back was against the wall, before twisting its body so that the blade of the knife met with the wall itself and was wedged deep within. Bell was quick to kick it as hard as he could before it could swing down its remaining claws with the force of axes and cleave off the limb. But that was when the wall in front of him burst open and something black shot out.
Bell abandoned his knife to hop back as a second War Shadow twisted its arm around to scythe his head from his shoulders. That was when his mind registered the cracking sound and the brief break in the constant light coming off the wall behind him as something to react to. Instinct drove him to fall to the side, making it into a full roll to carry himself further out. Not a breath later did a third War Shadow descend like a guillotine meant to execute him where he would have landed, if he hadn’t chosen to roll to the side instead of further back.
The one-armed War Shadow swiped at his knife still wedged deep into the wall. It snapped under the force, permanently depriving Bell of his weapon in exchange for the hand that Bell had lopped off. The other two took positions to the rear and side, forming a triangle to surround him.
Which one? Time seemingly stood still as a bead of sweat rolled down from Bell’s forehead to his cheek. His eyes see-sawed between them to determine which one would make the first move. If he could determine that much then he could break through the triangle. Which one?
The answer came with a blur of motion from his left side. The War Shadow leapt with claws extended to pin him down. That would allow for the other two to take him to pieces, turning him into a pile of shredded meat whose blood would soak the Dungeon’s floor—as many before him had.
Bell saw it as an opening and took it. He lunged towards the ebon monster with all the might he could muster and rammed into it, ignoring the stinging sensation of the claws scrapping against his shoulders and arms to bowl it over. They toppled over, but Bell was prepared for it and rolled off the monster before it could do anything.
Breaking through the triangle, he took off without looking back. He was heading back towards the entrance of the Dungeon’s floor without slowing down, lest the War Shadows would catch up to him. The only reason he broke his gait was because the sound of something tearing through the air reached his ears and his instincts told him to act to survive.
He slid to a stop and pulled his head back in time to watch as a black appendage speared through where it had been. The sinuous thing then snapped back as he ducked down when a second one tried to punch his skull in from behind. That one he traced back to some kind of frog monster emerging from the wall, just in time to see the one-armed War Shadow on his back.
Maybe it was faster than the others with only one arm missing. Or maybe it was more motivated. Either way, it was ahead of the others and lunging for him in mid-air.
Jerking his head to one side and twisting his body to avoid its swipe, Bell barely got off with only the sting of a nail slicing into his cheek as the monster passed by and tumbled onto the floor. A Frog Shooter lashed out to ensnare him before the ebon monster rose back up and the others made their move, spearing its tongue towards him again. Bell grabbed the appendage with his gloved hands and jerked it forward, pulling the bulb-eyed monster towards him. He then grabbed it by the head and tossed it towards the one-armed War Shadow’s single eye.
A wet sound was followed by black blood splashing out as the War Shadow cut through the lesser monster in an effort to catch Bell in the attack. But he had already ducked, fingers chambered as the rain of oozing black liquid covered his hair and bordered his red eyes. He shot his arm out like a bullet for its core and his bolstered strength allowed for him to pierce past its smooth, black surface to the innards, breaking through everything its path until it found something solid: the magic stone.
“Rrrrgaaahhh!” He shouted as he coiled his fingers around it and pulled back as hard as he could. The wound burst open in a glamorous spray as he pulled the magic stone free, followed by dust as the body disintegrated where it stood. But there was no time to hesitate as the second pointed tongue speared out for him from the other Frog Shooter.
Bell threw himself to the side while flinging the magic stone towards it as hard as he could. His effort was rewarded by the tongue going limp before it could spring back as the single-eye of the frog was punctured and it went limp. One-shot, one-kill.
Exhaling a breath he hadn’t even realized that he’d been holding in, Bell then turned towards where the other War Shadows were closing in faster. He took a step back, gritting his teeth and clenching his fist as he heard the sound of the walls cracking further in the direction he was going. If he tried to run again, he’d have enemies waiting and his back would be exposed to the more dangerous of them.
A weapon. I need a weapon. That thought occupied his mind more than anything. He would be able to fend them all off if he had a weapon. It didn’t matter what kind. As long as he had something to deal with their reach and range. Without one, he’d be overwhelmed and he’d…
He’d die. He’d die again, having made the same mistake. He’d die again and return to the Dream. To the Hunt. The Hunter’s Mark, the rune burned into the back of his skull, came to mind at the thought.
An ideal followed. Bell focused on it, trying to pass on a message to the Little Ones who pulled him to and from the Dream. They’d taken the weapon from Yharnam to the Dream, didn’t they?
“Bring it to me,” he asked. Pleaded. Begged as the two War Shadows closed in to the point he could make out the points of their nails targeting him. “Please, bring me the weapon you took to the Hunter’s Dream!”
His fervent desire for his weapon reached as the sound of the Little Ones voices graced his ears. He looked up to see a pair of Little Ones emerging seamlessly from a portal of some kind in the ceiling above, Saw Spear in their frail-looking hands. One waved to him as though craving his acknowledgement, and the weapon fell from the other’s grip as it was too heavy to hold any longer.
“Thanks!” Bell’s reached up with his dominant hand. His fingers wrapped around the grip tight. It was just in time for him to bring it around to intercept the broad swipe of the War Shadow’s claws and stop it from taking off his head.
That was when he noticed that a shadow was being cast from above him. The War Shadow following the one in front of him had leapt over it and was now at his unprotected back. It promptly tried to gouge out his heart in a precision strike.
Bell pushed hard so that his blade rebuked the first War Shadow’s claw and sent it back a few steps, while pivoting around so that he avoided the killing thrust. It was still a close call. Instead of having his heart pierced, there was only a sharp pain as his clothes and flesh were sliced into by the nails as they raked across his unprotected back.
He gritted his teeth, a guttural growl slipping out brought his Saw Spear around with both hands. The thick metal cut through its torso diagonally from the hip to the opposite shoulder—sawing through the bone in the process through strength rather than the sharpness of the blade. Monster blood gushed out, but Bell paid it no mind as he then spun back around on that same foot in the opposite direction.
Rather than risk the Saw Spear being too slow to intercept the coming attack, he brought other foot around in an arc and the sole of his boot caught the second one in the head. The War Shadow was sent smashing against a wall with a sickening crunch before flopping down onto the floor. The Saw Spear descended and split its skull open afterwards, ensuring the kill.
The immediate threats dead, but more being born ahead, Bell exhaled and removed his glove to feel for how deep the cut had gotten on his back. His finger brushed through the tear in his shirt beneath it, but only found unblemished flesh.
He then looked back to the back-attacking War Shadow to find it lying in a pool of its own blood, tracing the patterns and location of the drops to see how far it had sprayed. There was no doubt about it. Its blood had healed the cut it made, meaning that it wasn’t just blood from Yharnam that could heal wounds and mend flesh.
A part of him felt it shouldn’t have been a surprise. His body’s reaction to having a drop of Hestia’s blood wash against him was sharp enough to give him a boost of energy that far outclassed any blood he’d been in contact with. While the War Shadow’s didn’t have much of a feeling to it, it did heal the minor wound.
That being said, he wasn’t all that eager to try tasting either one to see if drinking it was the same as Yharnam blood. Partly because he wanted nothing to do with it. The other part was because he was afraid that he’d end up associating his goddess as a source of blood, turning her into what amounted to a resource… or prey.
But it did bring a question to his mind on if the different kinds of blood had different effects. Was the blood of an average mortal different from an Adventurer? Was the blood of a monster affected by the magic stone’s size and quality? That line of thinking led him back to Blood Echoes and his increased Status, leaving him wondering on how they transitioned from what had been done to him by the Doll in the Hunter’s Dream.
Normally, an Adventurer gained excelia based on their actions and that led to an increase in certain attributes. But all he had to do was ask the Doll what he wanted to be strengthened and it was embolden by a substantial amount. Was she pulling certain excelia from the Blood Echoes, binding their memories related to those attributes into his Falna? Or was there something else involved?
He didn’t have the answer. And he wouldn’t return to the Dream to find them. Really, was there even a point in pondering these things when he had no intention of returning to Yharnam and the Hunt at all? The price of that power was just too steep for him.
Pushing it aside when he caught the sound of shuffling feet, Bell turned toward the direction of the exit. The resident monsters of the Sixth Floor were coming to greet him. The Dungeon’s welcome for an overambitious Adventurer’s first visit to the floor.
Bell tightened his grasp on the Saw Spear and charged in.
Interlude 1: Orario
Hestia listened with increasing worry as her child recounted his journey into the Dungeon today. In the few hours that he had been gone, he had apparently been beset by a Minotaur on the Fifth Floor and killed before landing in a strange world where he hunted Beasts. There he died thrice, once by crushing, once by falling, and once by being devoured, before prevailing over the towering Beast responsible for those deaths. Then he returned to the Fifth Floor, where he’d first died, and slew the Minotaur responsible for it all in the first place before he left the Dungeon.
If she had to be honest, Hestia would have normally thought Bell was just exaggerating things. From what she’d been told most young Adventurers did, and if he’d died she would’ve felt her blessing vanish and know it happened. But… there were too many things that stopped her from brushing what he was saying off as an exaggeration.
To begin with, mortals couldn’t lie to Gods and Goddesses. It was an inherent ability they possessed, being able to discern a mortal’s truths from their lies. Not that it would be unforgivable if he was lying to her. Bell was the first (and only) person who joined her and he was such a sweet boy. So even if he did lie to her, she would forgive him.
But Bell had been honest with her since they had first met one another and became Familia. With how vividly he recalled the details, it was clearly something that he didn’t just come up with on the spur of the moment either. From what she could tell, he sincerely believed that all of that happened to him as an absolute truth.
And there was the scent wafting off him thickly. The lunar scent of the moon was clinging to his flesh like perfume that was rubbed off a Goddess who either held dominion or some power over it. Given that magic related to the moon tended to be based around illusions, she entertained the belief that he had been caught in one before entering the Dungeon and it took effect while he was there.
But there were only a handful of moon-based Goddesses that came down to this plane of existence. She didn’t think that Artemis was involved, and she was more known for her hunting prowess over illusions in the first place. And the only ones she could remember right off the top of her head were Metztli and Achelois. The latter was a lunar Goddess that did technically exchange blood for healing, so the very nauseous notion that he could drink or bathe in blood to heal himself certainly fit her domain. But Hestia didn’t know where she was since she came down a long time ago.
I’ll ask Hephaestus and Miach later, she decided. For now, she was more concerned about how Bell referred to that living doll possibly messing with his Falna and the effect it had on him. “Bell, I need you to strip.”
“Eh?” Bell went rigid, stunned from his position next to her on the couch and looking dumbfounded.
“Your shirt.” She reached for the hem of it with her slender fingers. “I want to look at your Falna.”
“Oh… okay.” He stripped out of his shirt to expose his torso and then laid prone on the bed they shared.
Strength: I-77 > F-392
Defense: I-13 > F-373
Dexterity: I-93 > I-96
Agility: H-148 > E-487
Blessing of Flora
Hestia bit her lower lip at the unbelievable increase in his various stats. Sure, new adventurers had a heightened growth rate from what she had been told. But to jump up by several hundred points in multiple categories was unprecedented. And they lined up with what he told her happened with that Doll, who could somehow affect the Falna to change his stats even without her blood.
It didn’t make sense. Only another God or Goddess could do so and they needed her permission first. So how was this possible?
And she’d never heard of either of these inherent skills, which was also worrying. In fact, she couldn’t even read the descriptions because they were in another language that she didn’t recognize instead of the standard of Orario or hieroglyphs.
Hestia needed to know more, meaning she needed to check his excelia itself. Normally she would never invade his privacy like that since it would be like reading the events of his life itself. However, there was too much going on for her to hesitate if some other Goddess was harassing her child. She silently vowed to make it up to him somehow before mounting his back and pricking her finger, allowing a drop of her ichor—divine blood—to drop down.
The moment it came into contact with his flesh, Bell shot up. His back arched like a bow and he let out a surprised cry. “Ah!?”
“Wah!” Hestia shouted as she tumbled backwards at the sudden motion, landing on the floor with a loud thump. She groaned softly, one eye closed as she rubbed her bottom tenderly. “Ow…”
“Goddess, I’m so sorry!” Bell climbed over the edge of the bed and crouched down in front of her, sincere regret in his eyes as he extended a hand to help her up. “The moment your blood touched me I felt a really strong jolt run through my body and couldn’t control it. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She accepted his hand and rose up to her full height. This time she sat next to him as he lay on the bed, to avoid being tossed off again. His excelia flowed upwards and into her view, becoming like pages in a book for her to read through.
There was an immediate discrepancy to be found if she interpreted it like words on the pages of a book, with the paragraphs being the means by which the events of his life were told. Whereas the words that represented his tales were normally written in the language of the gods and possessing a white hue, it came to an abrupt stop where it read of his… of his death, at the end of the paragraph.
Then another paragraph started. The script became red as blood and was written in words that were even more foreign to her than those on his skills. In fact, just looking at them made… made her brain tremble as pictures and meanings flickered and gave her a headache.
She blinked a few times and shook her head to drive them off. Then she changed her focus to what the excelia stated afterwards. Beyond the red paragraphs that made up a third of the page so far, the script turned white again and was written in hieroglyphs. It outlined what he said happened on the Fifth Floor of the Dungeon, battling and prevailing against the Minotaur that killed him.
Hestia felt that there had to be some mistake, but the excelia didn’t lie. Or at least it shouldn’t be able to. The whole situation was strange. It stated he died and then there’s… some kind of illegible text that she couldn’t make out and got a headache just looking at. But the parts she could make out state that he really did die…
Her child, her first child, had died in terror. He died begging for someone to save him. And she, his Goddess, didn’t know. She didn’t hear his prayer and come to his aid.
Her eyes stung at the very thought, crystalline tears swelling and flowing down her cheeks to softly land on his unprotected back. She’d lost her only Familia and didn’t even know. What sort of Goddess was she?
Bell turned his head upon feeling the warm drop touch his skin. “Goddess, what’s wrong?”
“I’m so sorry, Bell.” She sniffled as she struggled to wipe away the tears. “I’m sorry I put you in danger and you had to experience dying like that…”
Bell sat up slowly and set his hands on her shoulders in a comforting manner. “I made that mistake. I shouldn’t have gone that deeply for a silly reason. I should have played it safe.”
“But I sent you there first alone!” She threw herself forward, burying her head into his chest, and held him in her lithe arms as her emotions spilled out. He was her responsibility, yet she had to make him work by himself to provide for them and it got him killed horribly.
“…Goddess, I only got through it because of you,” Bell told her in a gentle, sincere voice as he took her into his grasp fully with a hug. “I just wanted to get back to be your side. And I did, so its fine.”
Her voice was muffled as she trembled, her heated breath washing against his topless and pale torso. “But… but you died because you went there to help earn money for us and look what happened….”
“That doesn’t matter.” He held her tight, as if hoping that it would stop the tremors that ran through her body. “You took someone talentless and from the country like me in without caring that I had nothing to offer, and you gave me a home and a family. That’s why I was willing to go through it all—so I didn’t leave you alone like that.”
Hestia continued to cry until she couldn’t cry anymore. She didn’t know if she should be grateful that it was because of this Dream and Doll that he had a chance to come back to her, or angry that in order for him to do so they put him through Hell when he should be in Heaven rightly. But one thing she loathed was that she had been ignorant of it all and failed to help him when he need it.
Yes, she had failed him once. But she wouldn’t do so again. Whatever happened from now on, she would do her best to help him get through it. And she’d start by figuring out just who this scent belonged to and how they were able to screw around with her Blessing.
Grateful or not, no one would toy with her child and put him through all of that again…
As the rays of the sun graced her skin after her Familia finally emerged from the Dungeon to the streets of Orario again, many members of Ais’ group stretched and let out sighs of relief. The expedition only carried them as far as they’d been before but it took a long time to get down there and back, so many had yearned to see the sun again and rejoiced in it.
However, her thoughts were still back in the Dungeon, on the Fifth Floor, as she continued to stare at her hand in mild confusion. She couldn’t get over her encounter with the white-haired boy and the mystifying scent that filled the floor once things had settled down. It lingered even after he ran up the floors to the surface, but to her surprise none of the others could pick it up. Even Bete, who had one of the sharpest noses among their Familia, could only pick up the scent of blood and steel.
Now that she was on the surface the scent was thinning. The fresh air diffused it far more quickly than the stale Dungeon floors, and now it was faint enough that it would vanish entirely soon. If she left it to do so without chasing after it, then would she run into him again?
“Is there something still bothering you, Ais?” Riveria asked. Her name reached Bete’s ears and he turned his attention to her as well.
“That scent is here too,” she said.
Bete’s nose shifted as he tried to pick it up to no avail. “I still don’t smell anything out of the ordinary.”
“It’s leading that way,” she said, looking off in the direction that was the thickest. “I think… it’s going to the Guild.”
“Well, if that boy you mentioned was an Adventurer then he’d likely have to go there to turn in any magic stones that he earned at the Exchange,” Riveria said. “You and I can stop by if it’s bothering you that much.”
“…Sorry for the burden,” Ais said.
“It’s fine.” Riveria set a hand on her shoulder and walked off with her towards that direction until they arrived. There they found it somewhat crowded as people went back and forth, with the various employees keeping busy with the exception of one that they approached.
She straightened up when she recognized them. There were few who didn’t know the Nine Hells or Sword Princess when it came to adventuring. “Miss Wallenstein, Miss Ljos Alf, how can I be of help to you?”
“Has an Adventurer come by?” Ais asked. “He’s a boy that has white-hair. And red eyes.”
“Oh, that sounds like Eina’s Adventurer,” the woman said. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Riveria’s expression shifted as the Guild employee retrieved the other employee, going from her normally respectful demeanor to somewhat motherly as the woman approached with hurried steps and then stood proper.
“It’s good to see you’re doing well,” Riveria told her. “You’ve grown beautifully since last we met, Eina.”
“Thank you for the high praise, Lady Riveria.” She gave a small bow of her head. “It has been a long time, but I was told you were looking for an Adventurer that I may be advising?”
“Yes, Ais here ran into a young man who has white hair and red eyes on the Fifth Floor, where one of the Minotaur’s scared by our Familia went up to. She wanted to make sure that he made it out of the Dungeon without being harmed.”
“He did a few hours ago,” Eina said. “You have my thanks for saving him.”
Ais tilted her head slightly in confusion at that. “Saving him…?”
“When he came in covered in blood I nearly had a fit,” she said before leaning in closer and speaking in a hushed whisper. “I shouldn’t reveal any personal information, but he had only been going to the Dungeon for two weeks now and shouldn’t have been on the Fifth Floor yet. It would have been terrible if you didn’t arrive and even let him keep the Minotaur’s magic stone.”
That wasn’t what happened, Ais thought to herself. He killed the Minotaur himself. And he’d only be an Adventurer for two weeks? That didn’t make sense.
She looked to Riveria who have her a subtle shake of the head and then spoke in her place. “It’s good that he made it back safely. I know you can’t reveal personal information and you’re busy, but could we at least have his name before we leave?”
“It’s Bell Cranel.”
That name didn’t ring any bells to Ais, so he must not have been an elite or high-ranking Adventurer. But… two weeks and he was able to kill a Minotaur? Was he really a new Adventurer?
“Ais, you said that he killed the Minotaur on his own, correct?” Riveria asked as they departed the Guild, to not take up any more of Eina’s time. Ais nodded in response. “Strange. I’ve known Eina since she was born and she wasn’t lying.”
Then he must’ve lied to his advisor about what happened? Ais quietly thought, even though she couldn’t imagine why anyone would hide what they were capable of? In the end, she had more questions than answers. But at least she knew his name now.
She could work towards finding and asking him herself, along with what that strange scent she couldn’t place was…
Fury, hot and passionate, bubbled within Freya. The colorless soul that she had been observing had become dyed scant few hours ago in the Dungeon. She was watching Bell as he descended down to the Fifth Floor and then something happened as he stood there.
She couldn’t properly explain it, but she gained a massive headache while watching as his soul was colored luminous and pale, tinted with the faintest of reds. It felt like something was writhing in her skull and she was forced to look away until it settled down. The pain was unwelcomed and far from pleasant, but what truly aggravated her was that someone had taken something of hers right under her nose.
That she couldn’t let go unanswered. The question was who the target of her fury would be. The shade of his soul was still unique in that she hadn’t seen that particular color before, but she dared not observe his soul in such a manner as that for some time. But there were other ways to lure out whoever was responsible for it.
And then she’d make them pay.
Chapter 7: Home and Hearth
Bell was in a daze as he walked the streets of Orario again, now outside of the dungeon that sank beneath the earth for an untold number of floors. His body was moving on its own accord down the path it walked the last two weeks. But his mind was still at the scene where he saw that beautiful blond-hair girl ready her sword against him.
He remembered fighting the Minotaur until it managed to launch him and he hit his head on the ground. Then everything was something of a blur, and when he snapped out of it he found its magic stone in his hand. Only then did the sensation of shoving his hand into the torrid, soft, moist flesh come to mind and the scent of its innards and blood touch upon his nose.
Bell shuddered. He’d ripped the magic stone straight from its chest without realizing it, running on instinct. And that scared him on a primal level for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to him.
I’ll just take the stone to Miss Eina and go home, he told himself. That was what needed to be done right here and now. That was why he fought so hard in those blood and filth-encrusted streets, to return to the one who soothed his loneliness and accepted him into her Familia after arriving to the city.
With luck, he spotted Miss Eina the moment he neared the doors to the guild with a book in her hand at the desk. While her uniform was standard for the employees, her pointed ears and emerald eyes were unmistakable as they skimmed over the pages. He entered the door and opened his mouth to greet her.
Then she screamed and he realized that he was still covered in the Minotaur’s blood. “Ah… can I use the upstairs shower?”
“I told you not to go that deep into the Dungeon! Were you even listening to me, Bell?” Miss Eina demanded as she sat across from him at the table, the large magic stone between them. She had hurried Bell up the stairs and into the shower, expecting a full explanation when he was decent.
“I’m sorry,” Bell said after giving her an abridged version, hanging his head in shame to where his moon-toned hair obscured his crimson eyes. “I was careless.”
She huffed audibly. “And you were saved by a female adventurer?”
“…Yeah, that’s it. She had golden hair and matching eyes, a thin frame covered in a blue raiment and breastplate covering her bulging bre—er, chest, with an emblem on it.”
“From the sounds of it, you encountered Ais Wallenstein,” Miss Eina said. “She’s a level 5 member of the Loki Familia, who should be returning from an expedition soon. I’m guessing she let you keep the magic stone afterwards?”
He nodded, going along with letting her make her own conclusions. He couldn’t tell her that he’d killed it to get the magic stone. Not without giving her the whole truth. “Yeah, that’s what happened.”
“You were lucky,” she said. “Be sure to thank her if you see her again and remember: Adventurers shouldn’t go on adventures. Stay in the upper floors until you earn more experience. I’ll be very upset if something happens to you.”
That hurt. She had been doing nothing but helping him and he hated to upset her by ignoring her advice in his search for a girl on the lower-floor. The thought of how she would have reacted if they’d reported they found corpse to her made his heart sink into his stomach. “I’m so sorry.”
She relaxed her features and changed her tone from scolding to something gentler as she set her hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m happy you’re okay. Let’s go get your pay for the day.”
Miss Eina escorted him from there to the Exchange and had Bell trade in his magic stone fragments he had gathered, along with the stone from the Minotaur. The amount was more than he normally earned, enough to where he’d be more than happy under other circumstances, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile as he left the guild to head back home.
“I had to lie to her,” Bell said to himself as he walked down the streets of the Labyrinth City, Orario. “She would’ve thought I’d gone insane if I tried to explain everything that happened. Besides, was being saved by a Level 5 really that bad?”
No sooner than the words left his lips he couldn’t help but wonder what his Grandpa would think of that—rather than being a hero who rescued a princess from danger by slaying monsters, he was in turned saved by a girl who was among the strongest in Orario. Or at least that was how he let it be known to Miss Eina to not worry her further with the fact that he actually did die because he went against her words.
Then there was the fact that the truth wasn’t all that clear. His mind was in a haze after he’d crashed headfirst into the ground. He was just desperate and running on instinct at best and that ended with him having a magic stone in his hand and his arm warm from the fresh blood. Thoughts of what Gascoigne did came to mind on the way back up to the surface, but he imagined how that looked from Aiz’ viewpoint and how terrifying it must’ve been to witness.
“No wonder she raised her sword at me…” How long until he ended up as battle-crazed as that shade of the old hunter who attacked the Cleric Beast relentlessly in a thirst for blood? The question left him shuddering in fear.
He walked with those thoughts haunting him down the streets that steadily grew more abandoned. Soon he reached a dead-end in the Labyrinth City, the cul-de-sac where the dilapidated church that he called home stood. For a place of worship to be abandoned by all, falling into ruins, in a city where most of the Gods dwelled, felt somber. But compared to the grim sights of Yharnam, it was paradise.
The doors groaned as Bell entered, the hinges greeting one of the two guests that graced its domain in years untold. He gently shut the door and walked through the aisle that was nestled between the remains of pews (broken and unbroken) with light from the sun spearing through the holes in the ceiling and nurturing the weeds that sought to break through the broken tiles to reclaim what once belonged to nature. His feet stalled at the altar at the back of the church, near the secret entrance to the basement where his Goddess dwelled.
His eyes then fell onto the Saw Cleaver, wrapped in cloth as he had no sheathe to hold it. The scent of blood was still on it, faint but persistent, and would likely remain until he washed the weapon clean and replaced the wrapping around the handle. He set it down there along with the backpack he still owned, which held the rest of his supplies, and entered the alcove where the secret entrance to the basement was.
Hestia was halfway up the stairway when he opened it. There was a perplexed expression on her otherwise youthful face. But her sapphire eyes relaxed as she recognized him.
“Welcome Home, Bell,” Hestia said. “I wasn’t expecting you this early, but then I caught a scent and was wondering where it came from.”
Bell sniffed himself. “I was sure I’d scrubbed hard enough to get the scent of blood off of me.”
“No, it’s not blood.” She straightened her back, bobbing her black pigtails and pushing her chest out in a way that made the fabric of her clothes cling tight around that area more so than usual. Stepping closer, she braced her lithe hands against his body and pressed her own closer to sniff him. “Rather, it’s like the scent of the moon clinging to you like perfume that rubbed off some woman.”
The scent of the moon—Eileen had mentioned it, but Bell hadn’t been able to smell it. It was a sign of the Dream and its Hunter. He quivered in horror as the vivid memories of Yharnam flashed in his mind and he recalled the Cleric Beast and the Hunt.
Hestia took notice. She pulled back and looked into her child’s eyes. “Bell, what’s wrong?”
Bell couldn’t lie to Hestia. It impossible for a mortal to lie to a divine being, even with their powers sealed while on the lower world. More than that, he didn’t want to lie to the person who relieved him of his loneliness when he arrived at this city from the countryside.
So he told her the full truth—of his death. Of the Dream. Of the Doll.
Of the Hunt.
Chapter 6: Return to the Fifth Floor
Bell’s first sight upon returning to the Hunter’s Dream was once more the Plain Doll, who stood at the base of the stairway that led to the flower-strewn field. The soft, unblemished features of her porcelain face contrasted the downtrodden and bloodstained visage that Bell wore. Exhaustion and hopelessness were all that composed him beneath the blood that covered him from the Cleric Beast as his Saw Cleaver hacked through its skin.
“Welcome Home, Good Hunter,” she said in greeting. “The Little Ones have been making quite a stir recently. It would seem that something has caught their attention within the field.”
Bell looked over to the field from his perch to see there, in the middle of the moonlit flowers, stood a new headstone. It was a phantasm, much like the lanterns, and shrouded in pale flames that danced beneath the gaze of the moon that watched over the Hunter’s Dream. His sorrow and exhaustion were forgotten as it enthralled him, drawing his feet closer to it of their own accord.
Where Bell went, the Doll followed. She tilted her head as she observed the new fixture that was before them. “…How strange. I have never seen this particular headstone, nor do I recognize the words.”
“I recognize them,” Bell said as the Messengers parted so that he could kneel in front of it. “It’s the language of my home. The top reads my name, so I think it’s mine? The words beneath it… ‘A Hunter’s Respite’ from the look of it.”
The moment he brushed his fingers over the words, a vision flashed into his head. It showed him the moment when the Minotaur first accosted him on the Fifth Floor. He jerked his hand back and the vision faded.
Was… was that the moment of his death, in the Dungeon? If the headstones were the method by which he could leave the Dream, did that mean it was his way home too? The thought left his hands trembling, with the very idea of returning to his Goddess’ side threatening to spill crystalline tears from his eyes.
“Is there something that ails you, Good Hunter?” the Doll asked as she kneeled beside him.
“N-No…” He wiped his eyes with his forearm as he stood up. If he really was returning home, at the point where he died, then that Minotaur would be there, just like with the Beast when he died there and returned to the Dream. He needed to be ready for it. “Can you channel the Blood Echoes I gained from the Beast?”
“Of course.” She reached for his hand and tenderly took it into her grasp. The warm, all encompassing sensation of the echoes thrumming to life spread across his body. “What do you wish to be emboldened?”
His thoughts shifted to the Minotaur and how it had ran him down. Compared to the Cleric Beast, it was slower. But it was still capable of overtaking him if he wasn’t faster. And he needed to be stronger, so that his body didn’t break under the weight of its fist a second time. The need called to the roused echoes and they rushed to fulfill that desire, leaving him feeling more than he was before.
“I’m going back home,” he told her after she’d finished.
She nodded. “I will be here when you return from your respite, to continue the Hunt.”
Bell didn’t exactly intend to return to the Dream or Yharnam at all if he could help it. He wanted out of the Hunt. So once he crossed that threshold, he wouldn’t come back. But all the same, he was grateful to her and the Little Ones. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“There is no need to thank me, Good Hunter,” she said humbly. “I exist to aid you.”
Bell pressed his hand against the headstone and then focused on the vision that came to his mind. Diving into it, Bell felt like he was falling and the world melted. Then he opened his eyes again with a heavy gasp to find he was back in the Dungeon.
It was the wide-square room where he’d met his end before, after being chased on the Fifth Floor by the Minotaur. He’d run through hall after hall, screaming for help and doing his best to survive. And it had all been for naught.
He wanted to think it had all been a nightmare, a hallucination bought on by the stress. That made the most sense. He’d simply passed out and had a bad dream… except, he could feel the weight of the Saw Cleaver in his hand.
He brought it closer to his face. The scent of the blood from the giant Beast was still lingering on it, wafting off it with a poignant scent that prickled his tongue for what he decided was an inexplicable reason. He shut his eyes, exhaling a staggering breath.
The sound of a deep, bovine roar snapped his eyes opened. The Minotaur stood off ahead of him, a bull-headed creature composed of corded muscle that towered over him by almost twice his height. It bore the same crimson eyes of rage that shone like devilish stars as it peered down upon him, took the same heaving breaths that made its chest rise and fall, and frothed at the mouth from a long chase.
It was the moment of his death, beneath its mighty fist. His head had been utterly crushed, the pain brief but memorable. That was when the Hunt began for Bell for the first time, a fate from which he had just escaped.
Would dying here a second time send him once more into those filthy and beast-laden streets? Would he once more have to face abominations like the Beast? He could still recall the three deaths he suffered at the hands of the creature that towered over him even more than the Minotaur—death by crushing, death by falling, and death by devouring.
His fingers trembled in his grasp at the thought of returning to the Hunt. Then fear turned to anger as the monster responsible lumbered forward. It sought to send him back that place he’d just escaped.
“URROOAARRR!!!” roared the Minotaur before charging him once more.
“RRRRAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!” Bell roared right back, determination and fury threading his vocal cords and muscles as he met its charge with one of his own. He wouldn’t die a second time. He wouldn’t go back there!
Ais’ legs carried her through the Sixth Floor with haste towards the exit, where one of the Minotaurs that fled from the lower floors had gone. A number of them had ran from her Familia on their way back from an expedition, and now the race was on to stop them before they ended up killing some unfortunate upper-floor adventurers,
Waiting for her along the way were Wall Shadows, numerous and right in her path. The Dungeon had been spawning monsters left and right as though to stall her, fodder they may have been. They’d cost her seconds already on the way up, and every one counted from this point on.
“Blow Through!”Churning winds veiled her in armor as she pressed ahead, tearing apart the claws of solidified shadows as they tried to strike her down. Rocketing forward through the halls and up the stairs, the wind wrapping Ais dispersed as she came to an abrupt stop.
An overwhelming scent slammed into her like a brick wall. It was one she’d never encountered before, powerful enough to leave her ears deaf and her vision blurred, all while her brain throbbed. Was it some kind of magic?
She held a hand to her head as the sensation lessened, even though the scent was still lingering in the air. Her ears caught the sound of a hide being torn into, a roar of indignation, and a fevered shout. The sounds of battle—someone had met with one of the Minotaurs. Ais forced herself towards it, vaulting through the halls until she came across the battle being waged in slow-motion at her level.
The Minotaur was there. Its massive frame was dotted with red lines, crimson streamlets flowing freely in the air as it swung its massive arm with all the strength its corded muscles could afford to unleash. The fist came within a hair’s breadth of smashing in the smaller figure that rolled out of the way, allowing it to hit the wall of the Dungeon and leave a crater in its wake.
The adventurer, a boy, rose to his feet from the roll and brought his butcher’s weapon around. The teeth of the slab of metal were like fangs that forced themselves into the thick hide of the monster, biting into it on impact. With a roar, he pulled it out the side and the fangs tore themselves free with a spray of crimson that painted his white-hair with splotches of red.
Pain and fury and spittle left the Minotaur’s throat as it kicked back with its hoof. The boy brought the weapon around to intercept it with the flat of the blade, only for it to carry him along and send him flying through the air. He cried out as he hit the ground, curling up to vomit a mixture of blood and stomach fluids. The monster leapt for his downed form, both arms chambered to crush him on impact.
Ais’ legs tensed to move and cut it down mid-flight. The only reason she stalled was because she saw the boy falling back into a roll that would carry him out of the way of the crushing attack. There were unwritten rules against kill-stealing between adventurers, or at least those that sought to honor them, so she wouldn’t intervene unless he needed it.
Sure enough he escaped in time from the attack, getting back to his feet as the monster realized it missed. It then charged for him with the intention of goring him on its horns. He wavered for a moment, wincing in pain from the hoof, and then he leaned forward onto the balls of his feet and jumped over its charge.
His empty hand came up and grasped a horn, allowing him to remain on its back. The other slid up the weapon to flick a switch on the handle, unfurling it with a click. Bracing himself, he brought the backside down on the opening between the Minotaur’s neck and shoulder.
The sound of bone breaking reached Ais’ ears before the roar of the Minotaur. It flailed its arms in retaliation, trying to knock him free. The boy ducked under the first grasp, but was forced to bring his arm up to shield his head as the other fist came around and knocked him loose.
He fell onto the hard ground headfirst; blood seeping from the gash where his skin was ripped open before his skull. It sounded like he was crying as he rose up again, struggling onto his feet as the Minotaur pulled the weapon out of its body and then threw at him. He narrowly avoided being split open as it sawed past his head and clattered onto the ground behind him.
Huffing, the Minotaur readied for another charge at the boy as he reached another object tucked away on his person and raised it up to meet the incoming threat. With the sound of caged thunder, a piece of metal left the opening of the weapon with a burst of smoke. The Minotaur’s right eye burst open on contact as it crossed the distance between them. It roared in agony, bloody fingers coming up to cradle the wound as it dropped to its knees, its charge halted for the moment.
The boy rushed in. Deprived of his fangs, he used his claws. Shoving his hand into the furrow he carved into the thick hide of the Minotaur, widening the wound to where it’s very life cascaded over him, he grasped something deep within the monster. Then he pulled, mouth gaping wide as a scream forced itself out with the blood-soaked arm to reveal the Minotaur’s magic stone within his clinched fingers as its body turned into dust.
Haggard, heavy breaths left his mouth like that of a ragged beast. His body remained tensed, ready to spring into action as his eyes scanned the room for anymore signs of danger. Then they settled onto her.
The moment those red eyes peered at Ais, a shiver crawled up her spine. Her mind flickered as his figure turned into something that she couldn’t register, something so alien that the whisper of an inhuman threat came to mind. She brandished her blade on instinct; shifting one foot back and lining herself up so that she could easily kick off the ground and launch herself into a thrust.
The whisper faded when she blinked, only to see the figure was a boy again, staring at her in confusion. He looked down at the weapon in her hand, pointed at him, and then to his blood-drenched arm and the magic stone in it. Horror painted his face in that instant as he took a few steps back, only for his foot to brush the discarded weapon and tripped him onto the ground.
The sight of disarmed her entirely. Ais let loose a breath she didn’t know she had been holding as the ominous feeling that riled her on an instinctive level vanished. She lowered her sword and opened her mouth to ask if he was alright, but the words didn’t come out before he snatched his weapon up and ran towards the floor exit.
There was a knot of guilt in her chest at scaring him off. She didn’t mean to react like that. Whatever that abnormal scent clinging to him was must’ve done something to her. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t properly place it. In fact, just thinking about it too much made her head ache.
Ais shook her head once and then brushed it off. She had to make sure that no other Minotaurs were left. That abnormal scent and an apology could come later on.
Chapter 5: The Cleric Beast
Bell had found the unlit Molotovs easily enough by scavenging off corpses. He wasn’t proud of it, but the dead didn’t need them and he did want to get things over with as quickly as possible. But oil was somewhat scarcer and eventually he decided to take his chances against the Beast with what he had.
He quickly learned that was a mistake as he suffered his second death at the hands of a monster bigger than him. Though in this case it was due to him underestimating just how fast the misshapen creature while trying to ignite the Molotov’s rag. The moment his eyes left the creature, glancing down at the rag hanging out of the bottle, the Beast leapt towards him rather than lumber like he expected for something that looked so top-heavy.
It managed to cross the distance fast enough that he was almost caught underfoot. He’d wager that it was only because of channeling blood echoes that he managed to spot it in time not to be utterly crushed. However, the earth-shaking impact knocked him onto his back, shattering the bottle as it fell from his hand, and the Beast brought down its mighty fist to give him his first unglamorous death by caving his head in.
Fortunately, through some trick he didn’t understand, upon his death Bell seemed to return to a moment before the engagement began. It was as thought the minutes were erased entirely or something like that. So the Beast was always waiting on the bridge for the next encounter, a second chance for him to succeed or fail.
After taking a moment to come to terms with that, he tried again at a different approach and lit the Molotov before it took notice of him. That time he managed to fling it further than he ever thought possible before, no doubt due to his increased physical strength. But the Beast agilely avoided it, leaving the bottle to shatter and the flames to harmlessly lick the cold stone as it once more came towards him.
He dodged this time, avoiding death by crushing. However, the Beast then swept its other hand out. The thinner arm proved more powerful than it looked as the impact had been enough that it backhanded him over the side of the Great Bridge. His screams as he fell to his death could be heard all over Yharnam.
The third time was another failure, and possibly the worst. The Beast managed to grab him and then opened its maw wide. Bell was battered with its putrid breath, foul enough to make him want to vomit, before it bit down. He spent a few moments in the Dream shuddering until he could force the memory into the back of his mind.
So, as he stood near the point where the bridge led to his last few deaths, Bell decided to search for help and find a place where the Old Hunter’s Bell would chime within his mind. He figured he had two options: explore more of Yharnam or find someone who would have experience with that, meaning Eileen.
He picked the latter option, but she wasn’t where they’d been before. So the choice really didn’t matter in the end since he had to press further ahead. Of course, he regretted it when he ended up on top of the waterway, where he had the delight of meeting the giant rats that decided they wanted fresh meat over the corpse of another hunter they’d already taken to pieces.
The fight was ugly, but in the end he prevailed and then searched the fallen hunter’s corpse for anything that could help him survive his own hunt. But the rats or the fall had shattered the vials of blood that they carried, leaving the only thing salvageable being the weapon. It was similar to his Saw Cleaver, but longer and unfolded into a spear.
He wanted to take it with him. Never knew when you would need a new weapon after all. But he only had two hands and, though the backpack he was carrying may have been enchanted to hold more objects inside of it, it was already nearly full. He decided to return to the Hunter’s Dream and store it there, envisioning the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind.
To his mild surprise, Messengers popped up around him. They must’ve been the ones that pulled him to and from the Hunter’s Dream when he visualized the rune. Given how eagerly they seemed to help him, Bell decided to ask if they could take the weapon back instead so that he could progress with his hands free for his pistol and cleaver. They happily did so, grasping it and then pulling it down into the void from which they appeared while he continued on.
He eventually reached a point where he had a choice between going up the ladder or going down further into the sewers. The sight of the rotting corpses below guided his hands and feet into going the opposite direction, where shrieking crows threatened to deafen him and the giant with a brick tried to bash his skull in. But his search for oil proved successful in the end, courtesy of another poor soul.
He climbed the ladder up further and opened a gate there that led back to plaza before the bridge. Standing in the empty plaza, Bell felt exhausted that his efforts hadn’t yielded any results so far in finding someone to help—not to mention all the twists and turns in the place. If the Doll had been right about other hunters going to and from the Hunter’s Dream, then surely one of them had a map that he could use somewhere too, right?
After spending some time going through the notes and other resources in the workshop, Bell lucked into finding an old map that he copied down into a notebook that the Messengers gave to him. Through that he managed to get a better grasp of the city’s structure and eventually found a place where the Old Hunter’s Bell chimed softly in his mind.
The tall hunter called Gascoigne was a man of few words. Then again, he was but a shade of the actual hunter that the bell managed to give life to. Even so, he supposedly mimicked the real one and because of that Bell could only conclude that he was utterly fearless as, the moment he saw the massive Beast standing there on the bridge, the shade of the old hunter ran towards it with a battle-cry rather than waiting to formulate a plan.
The Beast responded in kind, shrieking as it vaulted towards the shade. The deceptively quick creature attempted to crush him underfoot. But he was light on his feet as he avoided the lunge with a well-timed roll and a pivot that brought the axe he carried around. The heavy and thick metal that had rust encroaching on it met the hide of the Beast, and for the first time that night it bled.
The Beast bled and the dark crimson spattered over both the aged and well-walked bridge and the weathered cloth that covered the old hunter. The smell of it reached Bell’s nose even halfway across the bridge, poignant like the first rain of the season but pungent enough that the scent managed to cling to the back of his throat.
Bell swallowed and then spat it out before the bark of the pistol Gascoigne carried resounded alongside a shrill shriek that were prelude the earth-shattering pounding of the Beast’s balled up claws. The sound drew Bell’s attention back to the unfolding battle, where the shade swooped amidst the dust and broken stones that were patterned with sprays of blood. It was a chaotic hunt between hunter and beast, a role that the former refused to cow from.
Eventually, the Beast bound backwards, revealing new rends torn in its flesh that gleamed in the moonlight like a beacon. Gascoigne pursued, axe raised and ready to carve open new paths that would free the thick blood that it housed within it. The cornered creature fought back, revealing cunning as it flipped the carriage that was against the edge of the bridge, near the massive gate to the Cathedral Ward, forward with its engorged arm.
It crashed into Gascoigne, who only took a few staggering steps backwards. That was when the misshapen hand came down, the outstretched palm moving to crush down on the remnant of the carriage and the old hunter that had been distracted by it. However, the veteran rolled backwards before it could land and then got back onto his feet in time to avoid the follow-up swipe that left the statue in the path of that arm to take the full brunt, shattering in the wake of the Beast’s fevered attempt to turn the table on the hunter.
We can do this, Bell realized. If things worked out like this, they could prevail. He could get one step closer to getting home. The notion of hope blossomed in his chest and snapped him out of his hesitation.
Bell ran with his pistol in hand. He took aim at the back of the Beast as it desperately tried to crush the veteran hunter’s shade that viciously hacked away with his axe with every opening shown, steadily growing more aggressive. Then he pulled the trigger.
The bullet molded of blood and quicksilver sped forward. With a wet sound, it punched into the Beast’s shoulder and caused it to lurch for a moment. Bell prepared to reload for another shot when the creature shrieked and lunged for him instead. This time he knew how to respond.
He rolled forward to escape the thunderous crash before getting to his feet and capitalizing on second he had before it got over the shock of landing by changing his weapon to its cleaver form. Grasping the handle with both hands, digging his heels in as he spun into the swing, Bell brought the cleaver’s inner-blade upon the rear tendon of the Beast’s closest leg only to feel it give away under the force of the blow more than the sharpness of the aged hunter’s tool.
It cried out with a pained overtone, jerking away the damaged leg, and then proceeded to wheel around with its claws.
Bell didn’t make it out of range in time. The jagged points managed to tear the chest-piece that he’d worn into the dungeon off as well as gouge out a pound of flesh, leaving him hitting the ground in pain. The wound on his chest stung enough that it would bring him to tears if not for fear and adrenaline driving him to get back onto his feet as the Beast tried to grab him with that large left arm.
Gascoigne let loose a snarl as he hit it from behind with a powerful blow, the axe now extended into a halberd. Bell could hear the tendon in its leg be severed in half and the bone snapped. It fell forward, crippled no doubt, and made a futile attempt to twist around on its good leg to kill the one that had done so.
The old hunter promptly abandoned his weapon for some strange reason, tossing it down and chambering his hand. That hand then warped into a claw for a brief moment as he roared, plunging it into the Beast’s ribcage that had a thin layer of flesh over it. Bone snapped as it broke through, and Gascoigne pulled out everything he could grab in a bloody gout.
As it reeled back, Bell hastily downed a vial of blood. The burning in his chest cooled, flesh mending. Refreshed, filled with strength again, he pulled out the ceramic urn housing the oil and flung it as hard as he could. The urn shattered against the antlered abomination’s broad back and coated it with the flammable fluid.
The Beast paid it no mind. It was focused on stopping Gascoigne from catching it with his unfurled axe. However, the man’s attacks were growing increasingly aggressive as more and more blood covered him. It culminated in the Beast backing off only for him to try leaping after it and then bringing the halberd down, burying it into the massive thing’s shoulder before it grabbed him with its engorged hand and then proceeded to bite him in half.
Bell was horrified at the sight, a reminder of his third death. But part of his mind noticed that there was no spray of organs or viscera. The Old Hunter’s Bell only called for the man’s lingering thoughts of the hunt and gave it form, so the real one was still around and he hadn’t led someone else to their death for the sake of his desire to return to home and hearth.
He really hoped that was the case, but couldn’t pay it any mind as the Beast began to heal. The blood that had been spilled over the course of the battle was turning into mist and swaddling it. The efforts made by them would be undone if he didn’t do something.
He grabbed the Molotov and lit the rag. The sight of the flames seemed to enrage the Beast, as it stopped mending its wounds and then rushed over to him with a powerful bound of its mended legs. Bell put all the strength he could into throwing it as death closed in, and the bottle broke against its oiled torso as it landed.
The Beast burned as Bell was knocked away by the slam, hitting his head against the cold ground and seeing stars. It burned with an echoing shriek that tore through the night as it flailed about in an effort to extinguish the wild hairs became a curtain of fire. The frenzied flailing had made it more dangerous than before as it flung itself towards Bell on instinct.
He fell into a roll to avoid it, springing to his feet just past its hind legs. The acrid fumes from the burning hair choked his lungs as he swung unfurled Saw Cleaver like a man possessed. The pounding in his skull left only one thought clear: he had to kill it before it could get back up.
So he swung his weapon hard enough to chop through the wiry, tough muscles and rip open the veins beneath it. Blood painted him and his weapon, to the point of soaking into the bandages wrapped around the handle. At some point, the pain in his head stopped after the blood managed to soak his hair and face before the Beast let loose a final, desperate cry and reached out for him with its lean arm.
Bell brought the cleaver around and managed to sever the limb with a sickening crunch and wet sound. The low rumble in the Beast’s throat that followed petered out into silence as it fell limp afterwards. It laid dead, body broken and burned as the flames continued hungrily eat away at it.
Bell stood back and watched, weapon held at the ready while panting. If there was even the slightest twitch to mark that it wasn’t dead, he would resort to chopping it pieces. Not even the sensation of the blood echoes flowing into him was enough to assure him that it was over before a solid minute passed.
A long, heavy breath escaped his mouth. The adrenaline slowly bled out of his body with every heartbeat that deepened and slowed. He turned around and went to the gate, only to find that it was lock.
“Is someone there?” he called out as he pounded at the gate. “I need to ask you how to end the night of the Hunt!”
There was no answer to be found. No matter how long he pounded at the gate, no one opened it. No matter how hard, only silence met his pleas to tell him how to end the night so that he could get back home—where he belonged. When the remaining energy left his body, he ended up leaning back against the unyielding gate and sliding down.
All of that effort, all of that pain, all those deaths—it was all for nothing in the end.
Bell sat there. He sat there with despair weighing down on him like a mountain, crushing the blossom of hope he’d felt earlier. He just wanted to get back to his world, to the goddess that became his family after the death of his grandfather…
As if responding to the silent plea, a pale glow suddenly shone in front of him. He raised head to see that one of those ghostly lanterns now stood in the middle of the road, mere steps away. The feeling that washed over him, the feeling of calm that would be found in the Dream, beckoned him towards it.
He yearned for the Dream at this point, tired and wanting to rest. He just wanted to leave Yharnam and the beasts and the horrors behind. As he moved his arms to get back up, his hands brushed something and a scraping noise came from it grinding against the stone at the movement.
He looked down to see that it was some kind of silver badge shaped like the hilt of the sword. It was more on a whim than anything he took it with him as he crawled over to the phantom lantern and brushed his hand against it. The touch ignited a pale flame inside of it that called forth Messengers around it.
“Take me back,” he all but begged.
They complied. Grasping him and holding as tightly as they could with their bony fingers, the Messengers pulled the weary Moon-Haired Hunter back into the Dream….
Chapter 4: The Doll and Little Ones
“—ahhh!” Bell abruptly screamed as he stood in a half-crouch, one hand over his head as though to shield him from harm and the other clutching the paper that housed the sigil of the rune buried in the back of his mind. When death didn’t come for him and the horrendous screech that served as a hunting-cry was no longer tearing at his ears, Bell opened his eyes to find he was back in the Hunter’s Dream.
Even though he’d joined the Hunt, he hadn’t been expecting something like that. He hadn’t expected that which lurked on the great bridge, past the beasts and giant and birds towards the Cathedral Ward. He had been so close when a great Beast unlike anything he’d ever seen bound over the walls to confront him—an antlered titan with one misshapen arm covered in wild hair that seemed to writhe on its own.
It made his brain tremble at the mere sight.
Taking a deep breath, he wiped the sweat from his brow until he felt a tugging at his feet. When he looked down, he found that there were little… creatures there. They were humanoid in shape, but withered as if starved and desiccated. He jerked his feet away on reflex and then held his Saw Cleaver in front of him as though to defend himself.
A serene voice calmed him the moment it reached his ears. “Be not afraid, Good Hunter. The Little Ones mean you no harm.”
He looked up towards the source to see that the doll that had lain lifeless against the stones when he left before now stood there. “What… who are you?”
“I am a doll. I am here in this dream to look after you.” She gracefully extended her hand towards the little creatures that were seemingly sullen at witnessing his reaction. “As for the Little Ones, the hunters also call them the Messengers. They are born of a nightmare, given strength through the echoes of life, and given wisdom through knowledge of the kin. They worship the Hunter of the Dream and seek only to aid you during the Hunt.”
“Oh…” Staring at the grouping of despairing little creatures, Bell felt like he had done something wrong. He crouched down, extending his hand while he apologized. “I’m sorry. You just caught me by surprise. My name’s Bell.”
They immediately seemed to perk up at the apology and reached out with their thin arms and bony hands to touch his. The mere act seemed to placate them greatly as they touched him in awe. Bell couldn’t help but wonder if people felt the same way when the gods and goddesses descended from Deusdia a millennia ago. He looked up as the Doll continued to move with grace until she was next to him.
“Do you know where Gehrman is?” Bell asked as he rose to his full height, which was still beneath hers. “There’s something I need his advice on.”
“Gehrman is asleep at the moment and not easily roused.” She stepped around the Little Ones to be by his side. “But please, tell me what troubles you. I may not know of the Hunt personally, but I have heard what others have said as they traversed the dream.”
He told her of the Beast that stood in his way and how he was hoping that Gehrman could provide a solution or knew anything that could help him. The Doll told him of how fire had been the bane of beasts since the dawn of the Hunt and that he would likely be able to find urns that would ensure that the flames caught upon it. He did recall some of the crazed villagers throwing bottles that burst into flames when they broke, and there had to be oil somewhere.
“Thank you,” he said. “I guess I’d better get to looking.”
“A moment, Good Hunter.” Gingerly, carefully, the Doll grasped his hand. Though her porcelain skin held no warmth, her embrace was gentle. “I sense echoes of blood slumbering within you. I can channel them and turn them into a source of strength for your sickly spirit.”
He gave her a confused glance. “Blood… echoes?”
She clarified for him. “The echoes of blood are the memories of the fallen, which flow to you upon the being freed from the shackles of life. You may use them to become strong enough to hunt the beasts without fear of their claws and fangs. Or fortify the blood and power that sleeps within you.”
He assumed that were those mists that rose from the blood of those he slew on the way towards the bridge. Did… did that mean he was absorbing their excelia to use as his own? Fighting down the implications of that, he asked, “So it’s like updating your status with the Falna?”
She returned the confused glance he gave her, only more subdued.
“Eh, Nevermind…” He rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Still, if it’ll help then I’ll take whatever you can give me.”
“Then close your eyes,” she beckoned him softly. When he did so, he felt the mystifying feeling within him ripple through his body the same way that the blood of his goddess did when she applied it to his Falna to update his status. “Now, picture what you seek to be emboldened and the echoes will become your strength.”
If I’m going against something of that size, I need to be stronger to start with. The moment he settled onto that, the mystifying feeling solidified somewhat. It echoed, rippling through him and threading his muscles with an almost euphoric sensation that left him feeling… more.
“Echoes remain within you. What do you wish to embolden next?” Enlivened by the sensation, he continued until there were no more left. The Doll rose and asked, “How do you feel?”
“Better than ever,” he said. Then he noticed the Messengers nearby, holding a bell of some kind. He crouched down as they pushed upwards, as though they wanted him to take it. “What’s this?”
“It is a gift they want you to have,” the Doll said in their place. “The bell will chime softly in your mind when it crosses a place where one who yearns for the hunt felt strongly enough to leave a mark. Use it to call Old Hunters that would join you in your own hunt.”
“Uh… Thanks,” Bell told them as he picked it up. Then he turned to the headstone which marked the path back to Yharnam. Hesitation stilled his feet as he recalled the sight of what stood in the way. But when he looked back, he found the Doll and Little Ones there staring at him with a look of expectation. “I guess I should get back there, huh?”
“May you find your worth in the waking world,” the Doll said sweetly, with the Little Ones waving at him. “I will be here for you when you return.”
“Right…” He imagined that Hestia and Miss Eina were waiting for him to return to. When he thought of that, resolve moved his feet towards the headstone. He had to get back to them.
“A hunter must hunt. Do what needs to be done to get home and then put it all behind you like a bad dream.” Parroting the kindly woman who gave him advice the first time in, he prayed for a return to the Hunt and clutched his Saw Cleaver tightly.
Chapter 3: A Hunter Must Hunt
“A shame you chose tonight to begin your first hunt. It looks to be a long one.”
Those were the words of the strangely dressed woman with a beaked mask that called herself Eileen the Crow. They were sitting in front of a hand lantern that she tossed incense into in order to give him a reprieve from the beasts that lurked about. Bell was grateful for that much tonight as he regaled her of how he shamefully stumbled across her.
His tale started simple enough. He told her of how he ended up in the Dream, met the friend of hunters called Gehrman, took his advice to pray to the gravestone, and was taken to what looked to be a medical room of some kind, albeit it disheveled and partially ransacked.
Confusion and the sense of unease that came from being in an unfamiliar place lingered until he heard the tearing of flesh and the wet sound of meat being chew coming from ahead. The sound was sickening, sending a chill up his spine and tightening his grasp on the handle of his cleaver. Yet it drew him towards it out of a morbid sense of curiosity.
That was when he saw his first beast. It was large enough to rival Bell while huddled down, a broad frame wrapped in torn cloth and mangy, untamed and coarse hair. And it was in the midst of feasting on one poor soul, tearing chunks of bloodied meat out of the corpse.
He couldn’t help but back away for a pause in revulsion at the sight that was before him so suddenly, but the floorboards splinted under his weight. He fell backwards with a loud thump and the beast’s head snapped up to lay eyes on him. He got back onto his feet just in time for it to lunge for fresh meat with claws that were longer than his fingers and yellowed fangs dyed the color of blood.
It was sluggish though, looking somewhat ill or sickly. He managed to elude it and swung his weapon around like he had been taught. The fangs of his saw bit into the thin flesh and then tore it asunder, releasing a spray of crimson that painted the aged wood beneath them and caused the beast to step back.
But it was undeterred from trying again. The beast snarled as it circled around and then swiped at what looked to be a table meant to lay a person. When he backed into the room he came from to let the frame of the door catch it, the beast closed the distance and swiped at him with more success this time.
The claws slid down the chest-piece and opened a gash in the cloth beneath it that felt like a hot brand, earning a pained sound. Blood cascaded down his stomach and stained his shirt. The pain forced a reaction and Bell swung his cleaver in a panic before it could do so again.
Back and forth, uncaring of where he cut so long as it did, blood sprayed from the beast. It painted Bell’s front as he cut and cut and cut until the beast let loose a pained shriek. That gave way to a dying breath as it collapsed in front of him and went still.
Panting, Bell stepped away from the corpse and the remaining blood that slowly flowed in streamlets from it. A hazy crimson mist wafted off of the growing puddle and slithered in the air until it sank into his body. The creeping sensation of it slipping through his pores and trickling into a void within him that he never knew existed was terrifying, with a hint of jubilation in the back of his mind.
He shuddered at it before looking around and seeing movement behind the glass of a door at the top of the stairs. The fighting had been noisy enough to draw attention from the doctor there, enough for her to inquire what he was doing. She wouldn’t let him in since it was the night of the hunt, but she was kind of enough to give him a vial of her blood.
Outside of the clinic was little better. Three crazed men with elongated arms forced him to climb a ladder to escape, and even then they gave chase until they were partway up the ladder and suddenly raised their heads, as if sniffing the air. Whatever scent they caught drove them to go back down, but he couldn’t go back that way.
Moving away from the ledge, Bell spotted an uncanny lamp that seemed out of place in the middle of the road. It gave off a strange vibe, similar to that of the Dream, and when he pressed his hand against it a pale flame suddenly sprung to life within it. Already on edge after the crazed men, Bell ended up let out a startled sound of surprise.
It caught the attention of a man resting behind a nearby window that was thick with the pungent scent of burning incense nearby. The sickly man, Gilbert, had never heard of the Dream. But he was kind of enough to tell him that his best chance to learn how to end the scourge of beasts would be to talk to the Healing Church across the great bridge, as they were the ones that led the charge against beasts and handled ministrations of blood.
With nowhere else to go, desperate to find an escape, he made his way towards it and met more of the same. More crazed people that wouldn’t talk and yelled accusations of beasthood as they stood around a pyre with a crucified beast. More feral dogs that were rabid and gave chase as he leapt down an opening in a fence to escape what looked to be a small giant. And more beasts that chased him with a ravenous thirst that made escaping hard.
It was too different from the dungeon. A different sort of madness that couldn’t be found in the heroic tales his grandpa told him of. He couldn’t stand it.
So he ran as far as he could, until somehow he stumbled upon Eileen. The woman had been alarmed when he came rushing out, stumbling as he tried to put as much distance from the others that gave chase a while ago. Her blades were ready to go until he stopped and held up his marginally clean cleaver in defense and just stood there, panting and afraid.
The scent of the moon that apparently wafted freshly off him broke the tension, leading to her asking if he was a Hunter and the subsequent talk.
“Even though you’re scared enough to tremble in your boots, you have no other choice,” she told him with a sigh. “A hunter must hunt, even one so young.”
“But these aren’t monsters or beasts I’m hunting. They’re people.” He could rationalize killing monsters; it was the job of an adventurer after all. But people were a different story.
She shook her head and laid a hand on his shoulder. “No child, those that wander the streets during the night of the hunt are no more than flesh-hungry beasts. The people are like that sickly fellow you mentioned, locked away inside and burning incense to ward them away, waiting for the night to end. And that is the duty of the Hunter connected to the Hunter’s Dream, else the night will go on and the innocent will slowly be devoured until none remain.”
Which meant it was up to him to end it. That meant going up the bridge to the Cathedral Ward to see if they knew anything about ending the scourge of the beasts, cutting through everything trying to kill him. There was no way around it… and that thought depressed him more than anything.
“Take a look here.” Eileen presented an aged parchment that had a drawing written on it in faded ink. “Do you see something in the back of your mind becoming clearer as you stare at it?”
He nodded. “What is it?”
“That is the Hunter’s Mark, a rune that shows you are dreaming, proof of the contract.” She pressed it into his hand. “By wishing to return to the dream with it in mind, you can be pulled back to it from wherever you are. For one who still dreams, having a reminder of it to look at keeps it clear in the mind. Take it to use when you need to—from one hunter to another.”
“But don’t you need it?”
“I haven’t had any use for it now for quite some time.” She looked up into the distance for a spell. “No more dreams for me now. Better you use it when you need to.”
“You needn’t mention it.” She rose to her feet and shook off the bottom of her crow-feather cape. “Well then, I must be off. I have my own hunt to attend to, but you’ll be safe here as long as the incense burns.”
“What about your lantern?”
“I’ve got a spare, so you keep it.” She turned to leave. “And take this old woman’s advice: do what needs to be done to get home and then put it all behind you like a bad dream. But don’t let the blood get to you. It’s all too easy for the hunter to become the hunted.”
His hand rose as if to bade her to stop, but fell. Even if he wanted to avoid being alone in this place, he didn’t have the right to ask her when she had something to be done. Left behind with only the flame and lingering scent of the burning incense, Bell simply gathered his thoughts.
This place was a nightmare in itself, ripped out of the pages from a horror story. It was riddled with corpses and madness and coffins strewn about, a far cry from Orario and the life he’d live before it as a country boy. It only served to make him more determined to get back to Orario.
But that likely meant killing people that were slowly turning to beasts. While Bell had reconciled that he couldn’t be like the heroes in the tales his Grandfather told him some time ago, he never imagined that he would have to do that. Yet, to get back home, he had to find a way to end the scourge of the beasts and that meant getting past them.
He didn’t want to hurt anyone, but if he didn’t go back then what would happen? Would someone find his corpse? What about his goddess and Miss Eina? How would they react to his death?
When he thought about them, he didn’t really have a choice in the end. He had to get back to where he belonged. He had to do what he had to get through it as quickly as possible, so he could pass it all off one day as a bad dream. He had to be a hunter.
And a hunter had to hunt.