Interlude 2: The Growing Insight of Three
For a second time Aiz felt like she’d run straight into a brick wall. She’d been tasked with dealing with the last monster that had escaped—a Silverback—when a pungent scent met her head on. The aroma dug into her mind and clouded her thoughts for only a moment, but that still brought her sprint to an abrupt halt.
“Huh…” The sound of interest came from her Goddess next to her. “You can smell it too?”
“Yes.” Her eyes spanned the street, searching for the source of the scent she knew to be the boy that had killed the Minotaur. Her senses, augmented by her Level, attuned to the noise of the street until she heard a single set of running footfall and heavy pants, along with the moonscent—as Loki had told her—tinged with blood.
Then, once more, Bell Cranel came into view as he burst out of a side alley that was nearby. The young boy was covered in battle-ravaged leather that had been sheared and scraped to the point where bare skin and battered metal were on display. Sweat from exertion dotted his brow where strands of his white hair clung desperately.
Aiz let out a small groan and held a slender hand to her head that began to pound with his approach. She didn’t know what it was about him that she was feeling. She couldn’t know how to register it. All she could do was wait for him to pass by her without a word as he continued to flee, the pulsing sensation lessening somewhat as his footfalls continued past her.
“Ugh…” Loki was holding her nostrils closed, so her voice came out a bit childish as she said, “It’s pretty thick compared to at the tavern, huh?”
Aiz nodded as they turned and watched him continue to run until a girl emerged from a side-street and grabbed his hand, eliciting a brief look of shock on the boy’s face before recognition set in. Then words were exchanged, an offer to ‘help him escape from sight’ from what Aiz could hear, before she pulled him into the alley. The footfalls that she could hear belonging to them took them away from the Main Street.
“It’s strange,” Aiz settled on after a moment of thought. “But something about it… makes me nervous…”
“Hmm…” Loki crossed her arms and hummed lightly in thought. “Call it a hunch, but I feel it my bones that sumthin’ about its off too…”
As she contemplated that to herself, Aiz picked up on the activity on the street and how it seemed to have blossomed. People were excitedly talking about an adventurer dressed in leather who fought and slew a monster right in the plaza. She had her suspicions that it was the boy they were talking about, so she approached a pair of children that were in the middle of playing.
“Ah, excuse me?” she said, crouching down towards one of the children. “Could you tell me about what happened just now with a monster?”
The child didn’t hesitate. “It was amazing! This big monster went ‘RAAAHHH’ and tried to squish this white-haired mister with its big arms! But he was so fast, and he had this hammer that had a sword in it! He went ‘swish’ and blood flew everywhere, and the monster went ‘GAAHHH’ and then—”
Aiz listened on as he continued on in an excited manner until an adult called for him and he said goodbye. Then she turned back to her Goddess, who was conversing with an elderly woman. When the woman parted way, Loki cradled one arm while holding a hand to her chin.
“Suspicious…” Loki mused. “That young lady was kind enough to tell me a bit about what just happened. It seemed that boy killed the Silverback with a weapon that could go between a hammer and a sword, or something that he could call back to him even when separated. I’d say it’d be an enchanted weapon, but Cow Tits can’t afford sumthin’ like that. Could it possibly be some form of magic?”
It wasn’t unheard of that someone who was just given a Falna would have access to magic. Outside of a Grimoire it was something that seemed to happen sporadically, with some species being more likely to manifest it or exceptions like Aiz, who had Aerial since she received Loki’s blessing. For all they knew it was something the boy was capable of since he became an adventurer—he did kill a Monster that Level 2s would struggle against the first time she’d seen him, so a Silverback wouldn’t be that much of a threat.
But from the colorful way the boy had described the fight, it sounded like it had dragged out for a bit. That was strange, considering that someone who could kill a Minotaur should be able to kill a Silverback within mere seconds at worse. But, at the same time, she didn’t think it sounded like he was making a show of it when there was a chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
He didn’t seem all that polished when it came to fighting from what she’d seen the last time either. He wasn’t quite helpless and seemed to know enough not to wound himself with the butcher’s weapon he had, but he didn’t seem anywhere near expertise in terms of skill wielding it or when facing off against the Minotaur considering how sloppy his movements were. He’d barely avoided most of the hits and the ones he tried to block had broken through his guard utterly.
That was expected for the Upper Floors—in fact, it was almost what she’d expect from a new adventurer who hadn’t refined their combat skills out of the Dungeon like some of the former soldiers or hunters she’d seen. But against Silverbacks that lived close to the Middle Floors and the Minotaurs that came from the floors below it, that was another story. Simply surviving to the point that you could venture down there would require countless battles, during which you’d build up experience with fighting subconsciously.
So how did he manage to kill the Minotaur then? Her head began to ache as she thought back to it. He seemed almost confused that he’d managed to prevail, or the fact that he had the magic stone. Could it have been that he wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d done it?
Aiz thought back then when their eyes met. She didn’t quite grasp what she heard with the whispers that seemed to give her a headache, but before then she recalled thinking that his weapon was his fangs and his hands were his claws. The primal way he’d cried out as he ripped out its magic stone had been almost…bestial.
It didn’t really suit him at all from how timid and small he looked when not cloaked in tattered clothes, fresh blood, and broken steel. But somehow that was part of what caused her to feel on edge. Not completely, but the sensation that she was staring down a predator for that moment does seem close to how she could best describe it.
“Well, either way, the Silverback was taken care of and no civilians got hurt from the sound of it,” Loki said abruptly, changing the topic and pulling Aiz from her thoughts as the Goddess grasped her arm and pulled it against her smaller body. “Let’s go back to the others, Aizuu.”
“Ah… sure…” She nodded before turning on her heel and following after her Goddess. Bell Cranel was a mystery to Aiz now more than ever, but there were other mysteries she needed to focus on. Other things she needed to do and other people waiting for her.
She’d put the mystery of the Moon-scented Boy to the back of her mind for now.
Freya moaned softly as she cradled her head from the throbbing pressure that nestled itself right behind her eyes, a crystal ball situated on the table next to her. The cloak she normally wore out to avoid drawing the gaze of men and women by the virtue of her sheer beauty laid on her lap, unneeded. She’d rented out the entire restaurant for the moment in order to ensure her privacy while she observed her ploy at work.
It hadn’t been something she’d explicitly planned out. But rather a spontaneous opportunity that crossed her mind the moment that she noticed that Bell and Hestia were out for the festival and in possession of Syr’s Purse. The wheels in her mind began to whirl and she foresaw an opportunity to potentially lure out the one who stole her prize away from her.
After all, many of the Gods and Goddesses were out and about during the Monsterphilia. She was sure that the one who’d tainted his soul with that infuriating color would be too. If they’d come to Bell’s aid when he faced off against a monster within the Dungeon via some unknown means, then she was sure they’d do the same here.
She set the plan into motion within an hour. Her Familia had a collection of many talented individuals, all of whom had captured her eye to some extent. Pickpockets and swift runners among them were perfectly capable of pulling him away from Hestia and the Guild member, baiting him to a suitable stage that would be far enough from any meddling adventurer and freeing the others to act as a distraction—not that she intended for them to harm anyone intentionally.
She’d slipped into where they’d kept the monster and used her Charm to enthrall them after leaving the members of the Familia watching over them senseless. Men. Women. Monsters—the way her beauty ensorcelled them was simply overwhelming and she’d been careful not to be seen while having the monsters act as puppets, keeping the other Familia who would be out and about busy while the Silverback she’d chosen to be her instrument slipped away.
Her headache had begun shortly after that, before he’d engaged the Silverback while donning a coat and wielding a hammer that didn’t seem to suit him at all. For a brief moment, she had a flicker of a scene where he laid broken on the ground and bleeding as his own weapon was left lodged in his chest. It had been faint and fleeting, leaving her to assume it was her imagination of a possible outcome that awaited him.
Really, it would have been expected considering how short his tenure as an Adventurer had been so far. But it wasn’t that she wanted to kill him. After all, it had been so long since she’d felt such a strong attachment to someone at first sight. She should’ve snatched him right up rather than allowing him to pass her by, but she wanted to see him grow from a distance.
Alas, where there was love there was envy and jealousy. For someone to take what she claimed for herself was simply unacceptable. And so, as punishment, the boy would now become the bait by which Freya would find the one that dyed the unblemished color of his soul and laid claim to the one she’d seen first.
She’d use him to find them. Then she would break them. Take everything that was theirs and destroy them for daring to take what she’d claimed for herself while reveling in the carnage—she was a Goddess of Love and War in equal parts after all.
Loki had said that she smelled the scent of the moon on him when they talked the night of the banquet. There were few who descended and held dominion over the moon, thus few who could grace him with their presence—likely being either Artemis or Achelois.
She had her doubts that it was Artemis, even if she knew that the goddess was on friendly terms with Hestia. Not only was she the head of a Hunting Familia that was far beyond the walls of Orario, which Hermes confirmed once she coaxed him into talking, but her Familia’s policies were well-known in regards to men and love. Men were never allowed to join, and those seeking to start a relationship had to leave the Familia behind. The thought that she would somehow bless Bell shortly after his arrival in Orario was too farfetched.
That only left Achelois. She was a minor goddess who had seemingly all but vanished some time ago. Freya hadn’t paid the disappearance any thought until now, given that the woman was struggling to simply find followers and simply wasn’t of interest to her. But considering the circumstances…
Well, perhaps she should put some effort into finding out just where she’d vanished to?
Either way, as her headache began upon dismissing that vivid imagery, Bell revealed he possessed a magic that she had been unaware of. A method by which he could call his arms and items to him. There were magical items that could do so, but she had the distinct feeling that it was magic.
More than that, there as something unique about it. When he called for his weapon, she could have sworn she’d something there. Thin, translucent things anxiously and eagerly groping the weapons from where space seemed to ripple around him.
Her head shuddered thinking about it. And the pressure behind her eyes felt like it was a living thing, squirming softly. She needed a moment of peace and quiet to get herself together and wait for it to pass.
A few hours to settle her head…
Hestia had her suspicions that something was amiss when that silver-haired woman approached both her and Eina by the coliseum.
Not because she was suspicious in herself. But because of the faint trace of a familiar moon-scented fragrance that was on her. It set off warning bells and a sense of dread gnawed at Hestia’s stomach.
Then the young woman pulled out her purse. It was the one that had been stolen from them, only now it was steeped in the scent of the moon. Hestia had realized in that instant that he’d died again, and only learned how once the young woman showed them the a magic stone that had been cleaved in half and explained that Bell had slain the Silverback.
He’d died again. He’d been sent back to that place again. He’d died and returned again.
And she’d failed to notice again until it was too late.
The moment she realized that, Hestia felt her legs lose strength and collapsed onto her knees. Eina had asked if she was okay, but Hestia only wanted to know where her child was. The moment the young woman said that she helped him slip away from the crowd so that he could go back home, Hestia made her way back there without a second thought.
It was there she found Bell.
Light spilled down from the windows to illuminate his white hair that was pattered with dull red from blood. Next to him on the pew was discarded leather clothing and battered armor that looked to be in horrendous condition, silently telling an adventurer’s tale of trials and tribulations. He sat with his face buried in his hands, quietly muttering between labored breaths and sobbing to himself.
She treaded carefully, feeling her heart breaking when she recalled how happy he looked the day he first set out to the Dungeon. There had been a smile on his face that could melt the coldest of hearts not even two weeks ago, sweetly complimenting the young boy eager to answer the call of adventure and become a hero. The moment she came to a stop in front of him and laid her hands onto shoulders, Bell’s arms snaked around her slender figure and he buried his face against her.
“Goddess… forgive me…” his voice came out hoarse and worn. His body shuddered as he wept. “Forgive me.”
Feeling the stinging tears in her eyes now, Hestia didn’t allow herself to cry. Not when he needed her to be strong. She wiped away her own forming tears and then forced a smile as she gently brushed his hair to console him. “It’ll be okay, Bell.”
After that Bell took a shower before he confessed what had happened in the confines of their room. He confessed to her of the Little Girl and her request; his attempt to fulfill the wish of a child who was left all alone. He confessed of Gascoigne and Viola; a husband and wife torn apart by the curse of Beasthood. He confessed of the Dweller and Henryk; an attempt to do good leaving a child with no family left in the world.
She’d listened to it all before peering into his Falna as he laid prone in bed, unraveling what he lacked the heart or mind to tell her outright. The foreign words hammered into her mind of a tragic tale writ with blood and regret, images that left the scenes to come to mind with a vividness as if she was there at some point. It hurt enough that she felt pulsing pain in her skull, but it was nothing compared to what Bell had undergone.
She owed it to her child to accept his story and his pain. It was the least she could do for him. For that reason, Hestia bore with the sensation writhing over her brain, all so that she could learn and could gain the wisdom needed to help Bell.
Taking in his sorrow and grief, his tribulations and triumphs, she immersed herself in his tale. She took in the details that may have escaped his mind, grabbing hold of whatever knowledge he’d taken it and committing it to her own memory. It was only when she’d read his tale from that faithful Minotaur attack until before they’d reunited above that she pulled herself free of the engrossing tragedy…
Only to find that Bell had fallen asleep beneath her.
She looked towards the clock. It was nearing midnight. The entire day had been lost to her, and the moment she realized that the exhaustion caught up to her all at once.
Her mind was weary from the knowledge. Her body sore from sitting in place for hours on end, hunched over Bell’s backside and head angled down to read his story. The allure of sleep was too strong to resist for her as well, another downside to being relegated to a physical form.
Limited as she was to her mortal body, Hestia could only do so little for Bell. How she yearned to unleash her Arcanum and free him from the shackles that bound him to that nightmarish world. But after peering so deeply she understood that doing so would rob him of the solace that her presence would bring him.
Steeped as he was in loneliness and regret, Bell clung to her as family and found meaning in the life they now shared together. He would never forgive himself if she gave up her life here to liberate him from that nightmare. And she would never forgive herself for leaving him in such a state.
There has to be another way to free you and remain together, Hestia thought to herself as she laid next to Bell on the bed and gently brushed his cheeks. I promise I’ll find it for you, Bell. No matter what.
Strength: F-392 > C-601
Defense: F-373 > D-592
Dexterity: I-96 > F-321
Agility: E-487 > A-903
Blessing of Flora
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…”
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.