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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 32 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 32: The Seventh Day

My brother might have been healed, but I still carried the weight of guilt in my heart over the fact that it was my magic that hurt Argo. I was terrified that I might lose control again. That I might be the one that snuffed out Argo’s life.

Never again.

I trained without rest, constantly keeping the magic I commanded on a leash. Every second I was awake had to be dedicated to that cause. Even Elio seemed surprise at the speed at which I progressed before he declared it was time to move onto the next subject: healing.”

Elio’s Lessons in Magic V: Mending

[-|-|-|-]

The Hestia Familia had been away from the Labyrinth City for a week now, having left behind the bustling city to cross the mainland through the skies above and fulfill the wishes of the Goddess of the Moon. Their journey had given Bell an overhead view of just how vast the continent was.

On the second day they had crossed over plainlands that stretched out beyond the horizon, eventually giving way to a valley strewn with rocky hills and a white-stone laden pathway. The winding river that snaked through the valley had left the lands fertile enough that it housed the first village they had seen since leaving Orario, a small settlement just slightly larger than Bell’s home village nestled within mountains.

On the third night they landed in a forest that seemed untouched by mankind. Monsters accosted them immediately; no doubt driven by the instinctive urge to kill mortals within all but the irregular dragons they flew upon. However, monsters outside the Dungeon were so weak that dispatching them was no trouble at all. The Goddess of the Moon had also demonstrated her own tracking skills as she found the den where the majority were within an hour, allowing Bell to clear it out before scouting the rest of the forest for stragglers and then returning to enjoy a meal made by Welf since it was still his turn to cook—eggs and bacon that they’d kept preserved fixed between thick loaves of bread.

On the fourth day the forested lands gave way to small mountains, rising peaks of stones covered in greenery. There was a brief rain shower that left them to take a break in a cavern nestled by a waterfall, where Artemis and Mikoto managed to secure fresh fish that they roasted over a flame as Hermes shared stories of some of his travels. The rain ceased and they were greeted with a rainbow forming over the waterfall before they took flight again with the grey skies now blue with scatterings of white clouds.

On the fifth evening they ran into one of the largest lakes that Bell had seen in his life, ringed by several rising mountains. It was expansive enough that he could have mistaken it for the ocean, especially when a large serpentine monster leapt out from below. Its size dwarfed even the Black Goliath as it drew an arch in the air before landing back down with a splash, a reminder that even in the most pristine of domains there were still dangers to be wary of in places were mortals barely ventured.

On the sixth evening, Primo had gone to Artemis for advice on archery once they had settled into a clearing within a deep forest that Goddess of the Moon’s Familia had previously stayed within for some time before they accepted the mission to the ruins. Her instructions were befitting of someone who often hunted monsters with her bow. She had even considered Primo’s natural inclinations since she had personally trained someone who had Elven blood within them.

It was on the seventh day that things took a turn while they were in midflight. Having lived in the area for roughly a year to slay Wyverns that had come from the Dragon Valley with her Familia, Artemis had been in the middle of explaining to Bell about the different villages that were around the area. They had been pulling up the rear while leaving the edge of the forest when Bell’s hearing caught the faint sound.

He thought it might have been a woman’s scream. “Did you hear a scream just now, Lady Artemis?”

The Goddess of the Moon, who had been taking the reins this time while he held onto her from behind, shifted her focus at that. “A scream?”

Her attention grabbed, they both peered back towards the trees that were steadily growing distant when they spotted two people who were rushing into the grasslands. It seemed to be a mother and child, both of whom were dressed in simple tunic and pants. The mother had her daughter in her hands and was desperately fleeing as the child cried, the fear and desperation in her voice reaching his ears beyond the rush of the air moving past them only because of his elevated senses as a Level Three Adventurer.

That was when monsters skittered from the cover of the canopy.

Their bodies were stygian black with the gleam coming from the sunlight indicating it was a shell or exoskeleton. Eight thin legs moved in sync to propel them forward, with a pair of serrated pincer claws and a segmented tail with a barbed tip. And there were pulsing red lines emanating from a center point visible on their elongated bodies, threading down to the limbs, tail, and what he assumed to be their eyes.

Bell’s instincts told him something about these monsters were… off. He didn’t know why but his mind flashed back to the Black Goliath for some reason. Perhaps it was the coloration of their bodies, or the glow that resembled the eyes of the monstrosity that had been spawned from the Dungeon in response to the presence of the Divine.

It can’t be…” muttered the Goddess with her emerald eyes widening in horror as the mother tripped, likely from exhaustion depending on how long she had been running. She gripped the reins and pulled to direct their mount back around. “Orion—”

Bell was already on his feet in a crouch even before she had finished the turn. Extending his hand behind him, he aimed in the direction of the others flying ahead before he let loose a blazing streak that passed by them with a wide margin before fizzling out. It had been a signal to let the others know something was amiss. Even if the roar of the air would drown out their voices, Welf and Mikoto could sense the magic in the air while the others would spot the flames.

Not that Bell could pay any mind to that since he’d already thrown himself off the dragon.

There was a good amount of distance between the dragon and the mother and child. By the time it took for them to reach the pair on dragonback, the monsters would be on top of them. But Bell knew he was faster than the dragon on foot when Jupiter was active. “Shine, Jupiter!

Lightning wreathed his body. Stimulated his muscles. Sharpened his senses. The moment he touched down on the grass, he left Lady Artemis and the dragon behind as the world between himself and the two villagers shrank until he stood between them and the threat with his hands extended. “FIREBOLT!

Riotous explosions resounded as the flaming missiles slammed into the horde. Searing heat kept together by wires of electricity came unbound. The air became thick with scatterings of brown dust, black smoke, and stygian ash as he fired shot after shot among the horde to scatter them about while the mother and child behind him shielded their eyes as confusion mired their mind.

That was when Bell felt the atmosphere around them shift. The unmistakable presence of the divine pulled the eyes of mortals to the Goddess of the Moon as she landed behind them. Draped in a silvery azure veil that was akin to moonlight itself, she extended her hand towards the pair and issued a command with divine authority, “Get on, now!”

A transcendent entity radiating a celestial presence that marked them as one from above. Those who appeared in times of need to be bestow salvation. For the mother and child whose deaths were imminent in that moment, what could it but divine intervention?

Even Bell could only think as much despite knowing otherwise. The presence that emanated from her felt gentle, yet cold. Stark yet soft rays of moonlight seemed to wash over him despite it being daytime.

Th-thump.

And then Bell’s breath caught in his throat as he felt something was there. A towering presence that loomed over his meager frame. Cyclopean malevolence incarnate that barreled down upon him. Encroaching darkness that felt as though it would swallow him whole.

Every cell in his body trembled as he felt something was watching him. It wasn’t like the gaze he felt in Orario. It was something else that was so menacing that it threatened to crush him if he so much as breathed. If his heart so much as beat, he would be squashed like an ant.

As he stood there frozen in fear the monsters that were scattered about had all shifted their attention towards them. Through the rising smoke and heat waves that came from the burning earth those ominous red gazes fixed onto them…

No. Not them. Just her.

Lady Artemis.

Their stiffened bodies began to surge towards the Goddess of the Moon faster than before. The child was in Lady Artemis’ right arm while she offered her left to help the woman on top. She might have been one of the divine, but with her divinity sealed away she was only as strong as a normal woman. If the swarm surging over the land towards them like a black tidal wave reached her then…

Images of her fate flashed vividly in his mind.

His resolve flared and he dared to breathe again even under that baleful and murderous glare. He couldn’t let her or anyone else die like that. No matter what it was that had driven fear so deep into his body that his heart stopped, he couldn’t bear sitting still and doing nothing. He didn’t know how he was going to do it, but he had to stop them all here and now…

The answer came from the spear that was on his back. It suddenly came to life, pulsing as if it were alive and beating in time with his racing heart. He pulled it off his back as divine script began to scrawl itself over the shaft and took aim at the onrushing horde.

The spear left a brilliant tail as it cut through the air before erupting into a pillar of divine light. The column swept across the grasslands and forest as it expanded, its radiance so blinding that Bell was forced to shield his eyes as it swallowed the monsters and even the ominous presence that loomed over him. And by the time it faded away, Bell found himself standing alone with the grassland and forest untouched without a trace of the monsters remaining.

This is a divine weapon’s power… Bell thought to himself as he approached where the spear had been wedged into the ground from the throw. He pulled it out and ran his eyes over the length of the shaft only for his eyes to narrow when they finally fell onto the head of the spear. It was there he noticed that the immaculate jewel on the head of the spear now had a crack running through it.

“It was you?” He looked up upon hearing the tired but familiar voice and spotted the Captain of the Hermes Familia. She was aloft in the air on her winged boots, staring down at him with eyes that had heavy bags beneath them.

“Miss Andromeda?” Bell took a step back as she landed next to him. It was a sloppy landing unbefitting for one of her experiences as her legs nearly buckled under her own weight. He couldn’t help but be concerned. “Are you okay? I thought you and the rest of your Familia were with Lady Artemis’ Familia?”

Her brows folded inwards at that. “Huh? The Artemis Familia are—”

ASFI!” Lord Hermes said loudly as his dragon landed next to them. “You and the others should have been at the Dead Forest, preventing any of those monsters from getting this far out. What happened?”

She forced herself to stand upright before apologizing. “Forgive me, Lord Hermes. There’s been some complications.”

[-Several minutes later-]

YOU DIDN’T TELL US THE SITUATION WAS THAT DIRE!

Everyone winced as Lili shouted at the God of Travel at the top of her lungs. The group had collectively gathered in the aftermath of the sudden attack. Lady Hestia and Lady Artemis had mounted two of the dragons to get the mother and child to safety now that they had been appraised of the situation, leaving them with Hermes and Asfi to get the full scope of everything.

To say them learning how the monster parade they had just encountered was directly tied to the Mission they had received left them a little more than unnerved. However, Bell’s concern laid with the fact that he had heard of such creatures once before. As well as the monster itself. “Lord Hermes, is this monster spawning them the same one from the Heroic Tale of Epimetheus?”

That caught Welf’s attention. “You’ve heard of them before?”

“In the tale of Epimetheus, the great hero of Olympia fought against three Black Monsters of the time. They didn’t have the names they do now, but the Ruler of the Land was later known as Behemoth, and the King of the Sea was Leviathan. The third wasn’t the Black Dragon since it hadn’t appeared yet, but the Scorpion of the Secluded Lands that I’m assuming that this Antares might be it. Even the horde we killed matched the description of those that inhabited the land that his army had to wade through.”

Hermes’ response to that was to tip the brim of his hat over his eyes as a wry smile slipped across his lips. “You’re really well informed, Bell. As you suspect, Antares is the very same monster of legend.”

That was not what Lili wanted to hear as she grabbed the God by the lapels and shook him. “You expect us to kill one of the Black Monsters of Legend!? The last two took the entirety of the two strongest Familia and even they fell against the third! We’re only a small Familia with only a Level Three Captain!

“Now, now, there’s no need to yell. Can’t you see poor Asfi is already barely able to keep her eyes open?” Hermes said while holding his hands up in a manner to pacify the angry Pallum as Welf pried her off the man. True to word, the Level Four was laying with her back against a tree and holding the bridge of her nose. Just from looking at dark circles under her eyes it was clear she hadn’t slept for a long time. “You used the stimulant, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t have a choice if I was going to catch up with all of the monsters,” she said. “The reproduction rate increased beyond what we expected. Only a handful of us could cover ground fast enough after we cleared out the forest of the stronger variants while the weaker ones scattered in all directions.”

Lili’s eyes narrowed at worse news. “What does she mean by that?”

“When we first received the request for assistance, part of that reason was the scorpions that came out where the equivalent of High-Tier Level One monsters from the Dungeon,” Hermes explained. “The fact that so many were coming out at a consistent level naturally warranted concern since incidents like what happened earlier could become more common, especially being so far from Orario.”

“Most monsters on the surface are weaker than mid-tier Level One monsters in the Dungeon,” Mikoto voiced their concern regarding that. “Since they reproduce by splitting their magic stones, they become weaker than their counterparts in the Dungeon. With so few Adventurers being above Level One outside of Orario, I can’t think of a force large enough to corral them if they came out in large enough numbers.”

“…Rakia would probably the closest alternative,” Welf reluctantly admitted with a bitterness in his tone. “I learned something of their military tactics considering they have to defend the territories they claim against monsters. Hordes like these would be thinned out with long-range bombardment before their phalanxes would hold the line. The cavalry would then scatter them so that they could be picked off. But that’s something that only works because of the numbers they have, and even then, most of their forces are Level Ones that were levied.”

“If they only stayed at Level One, it would have been manageable,” Asfi pointed out. “But we noticed among the hordes were larger ones like those you just encountered, with their exoskeletons being hard enough that a Level One Adventurer has next to no chance of penetrating it under their own power unless their Status is extremely high, placing them on par with Level Two Monsters. Then more and more of them began to appear amongst the horde, and now there are even larger ones capable of regenerate damage they sustain. Those are on par with Level Three Monsters and dealing with them had been our priority, which meant we had to allow the weaker ones to scatter before the faster members of my Familia and the Gale gave chase.”

Bell perked up at that. “By Gale, do you mean Miss Ryuu?”

“That’s right,” Hermes answered on his Captain’s behalf. “Since she’s one of Astraea’s children, I was asked to deliver a letter to her requesting her assistance after the War Game. It’s thanks to her being there that they’ve managed so far, but if the reproduction rate increases or hastens, it’ll become a crisis unlike that which has been seen since the dawn of the Age of Heroes.”

“Even if we can keep them at bay, our enemy is still a Black Monster!” Lili reiterated to get across the unfairness of the situation. Since it was a Mission from the Guild they had to see it through, but from her standpoint it was cruel not get at least a stronger Familia to assist them.

“If it were in its former condition, that would most likely be the case,” the God of Travel agreed. “However, the reason that it was lost to history is because much of its power has waned since it was initially stopped when Artemis took favor with a group of huntresses who had took it upon themselves to challenge the Black Scorpion. She granted them a divine revelation to create a temple upon which would become the Scorpion’s tomb and lure it inside, where Great Spirits would be sacrificed to become a seal upon.”

The sole Elf within their group sported such an appalled look upon hearing that.  “Spirits… were… sacrificed?”

“Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for that to happen in the older legends,” Bell said softly as Mikoto gently brushed her head to comfort her. “A great deal of them lost their lives in the Dungeon during the Age of Heroes before the Gods descended. The Six Spirit Seal that allowed them to initially seal the Dungeon away being the biggest example.”

Mikoto craned her head at that, looking up from Primo towards Bell. “I’d never heard of such a thing.”

“My grandfather told me that the Six Spirit Seal was a technique where six Great Spirits create a grand seal and sacrifice themselves to unleash a divine torrent that would wash away everything within. It’s only been used twice in history—once against a dragon that preluded the Age of Heroes known as Nidhogg, and once right on top of the Great Hole to damage it to such an extent that they were able to finally place the lid upon it and keep it there thanks to the descent of the divine.”

“I’m surprised he knew of such an obscure thing,” Hermes stated before elaborating further with a question. “Have any of you children seen the pillar of light that appears when one of us descending or returning to Heaven?”

The majority shook their heads. It was to naturally be expected given that the descent of the divine was often done away from those who could be harmed by it. And one returning above was a rarity, only wrought by tragedy or machinations. But there were two exceptions among them.

The first was the Blacksmith, who stared off to the side and into a far-off memory nestled upon a hill overlooking the gates of Rakia. The pillar of light born from his freedom at the expense of the goddess who wanted to break him from the shackles that would have bound him. The second was the Supporter, for whom the ascending deities heralded the Darkest Days that beset the City of Adventurers.

Regardless, Hermes continued. “The Door of Heaven, as it’s known above, is effectively a weaponized version of that phenomenon, connecting the two realms that were never meant to touch. It creates a gateway through which that divine energy comes pouring down uncontrollably until the seal breaks and the door is slammed shut. The seal placed upon the temple where Antares was ultimately entombed lacked the destructive power of the Six Spirit Seal, but it was potent enough that Antares is nowhere near on par with Behemoth or Leviathan.”

He then pointed over to towards Bell’s spear. “And on top of that Bell possesses the Divine Spear, which houses within it an even greater power than that of a Spirit—a concept that makes it effective against monsters of its ilk. All he must do is reach where Antares is and unleash its full power, and it’ll all be over. However, that power is limited, so try not to overdo it before then.”

The weight of their eyes fell onto Bell as he grasped the spear on his lap tighter. “Right… I got it.”

[-Hestia-]

“We’re going down. Hold tight now.” Hestia said gently to the child nestled against her as she carefully maneuvered the dragon into a gentle descent in a similar manner to Artemis. The two goddesses had decided to bring the mother and child back to their home—or rather what was left of it.

Along the way Hestia had been making small talk with the child to take her mind off the fear of flying that many would have. The skies were unexplored territory for the children, something only dreamed of and experienced by the few in this age. She asked the child of what her home was like as they took to the air.

She had said it was a nice place, where everyone was friendly. A modest settlement within a clearing, most of the homes consisting of one or two large rooms with sheds for the craftsmen and barns for those who tended to animals. Every morning she would run through the village’s square, passing along and waving to her neighbors while taking in the sweet smell of bread from the nearby bakery, playing with the other children until it was time to help her mother with her chores.

Now the walls that ringed it, the fences meant to keep the monsters at bay, were toppled and shattered from where those scorpions from before had bashed their way through. The wooden cottages were collapsed into themselves, support pillars knocked down as the dwellings were invaded and trampled. Some had been left to smolder as the hearth flames spread to leave only the blackened husks of what was once their lives.

They slowly lowered down in the remnants of the village square, where stones that had been erected into a monument had been scattered. Residents there took to the arrival of the dragons with notable panic, no doubt still alert due to their village having just been attacked. Such frightful gazes were truly heartbreaking for the Goddess of the Hearth to feel upon her.

Then she felt Artemis let her divine presence wash over the area. Not a flood, but rather just a leak. Enough for them to know upon a glance that they were divine and meant them no harm before they could fully panic.

The fear in the children’s eyes faded, some of whom were clenching hunting spears and lower quality weapons or even stones to be thrown dropping them as they recognized the divine. The dragons touched down and shifted as they maneuvered their feet around the scattered stones to clear enough space to lower their bodies. Not even a moment later the voice of man called out towards them.

“Papa!” said the child nestled against Hestia, her gaze fixed on a man dressed in a tunic with pants that were stained crimson and a cloth was wrapped around his leg. He was being supported by another man dressed in what looked to be priestly robes, helping him to come over. Hestia helped the child down and escorted her over to avoid her stumbling over some loose stone until she arrived at the man’s waiting embrace.

“Thank the Gods!” he said, his voice on the verge of breaking as he held her close. “I was so worried about you both!”

“Mommy had tripped, and I was so scared!” said the child as the mother joined her daughter in an embrace. “But then there was this fire and loud noises, and we saw a boy was there between us and them. He protected us while the Goddess saved us. Then he pulled out this thing and a bright light made all the monsters go away.”

Seeing them together was a heartwarming sight that kindled a flame within Hestia’s chest as the Goddess of the Moon addressed the priest.

“We came across these two being chased by monsters while on our journey and are returning them,” Artemis said while unslinging a small bag she brought with her. “We also brought some of our Potions to help with any injuries. They should be able to tend to the worse of your injured at the very least, but for broken bones make sure they’re set beforehand. It isn’t much, but it’s all we can spare given we’re on a Quest now. I can also perform a quick rite for the departed if needed.”

All knew the souls of the children would return to the heavens to be sent back down anew, starting a new life. The gods themselves didn’t need to do so, and the rite itself was more to set the minds of those left behind at ease. Despite that the priest shook his head as he accepted the bag from them with a gracious bow.

“Thanks to one of your messengers there are none who need to be seen off,” he said. “And for us to be graced by the presence of two goddesses in the aftermath of this trial with our lost ones. Truly, the Heavens smile upon us today.”

Several of them began to bow in a manner that Hestia wasn’t exactly comfortable with, but she understood why. “What do you mean one of our messengers?”

He elaborated. “A short while before the black creatures fell upon us, a young woman with wings descended from above with our friend here. He had been out hunting when he had been attacked and she managed to bring him back, telling us that we should flee to the north to escape as they passed. Once we realized that the only ones of us unaccounted for was the two who had been venturing outwards towards neighboring village, she then flew off to find them.”

Hestia realized he must have meant Hermes’ child. She must have flown ahead to warn the village once she realized they were along the path. If not for that it was likely they would have stumbled across so many bodies and weeping survivors.

“So, casualties were averted then.” There were few words to describe the look of relief on Artemis’ face before she drew in on herself into the stern, authoritative expression she wore normally. “Our children are heading to deal with the source of those monsters, but there’s a very real chance that within the next week another wave will pass through before we can deal with them. Is it possible for you to relocate for a short while until then?”

He nodded. “Fortunately, we’re on friendly terms with a neighboring village further out. And we have supplies buried for emergencies such as this. We’ll depart come morning for a time until we can rebuild once more.”

Hestia spotted a group of men who were standing near the rubble of a barn, where they had been unearthing what seemed to be sealed jars kept buried there. Occasions such as this weren’t uncommon for them then. Not when they were so far from a city where they could rely on Adventurers.

“Then we’ll take our leave,” Artemis declared, turning towards her own dragon when she felt a slight tug on her wrist. She turned to see the man holding it.

“Thank you for saving my family, Lady Goddess,” the man said. “They meant the world to me. I didn’t know what I would do when I heard they were still out there.”

For a moment Hestia was worried the man might have erred by grabbing hold of her as such. Artemis was somewhat prickly when it came to being touched by men due to the Gods being… well, them. It wasn’t to say that she hated men, but she really didn’t appreciate being touched by them.

But to her surprise, Artemis instead set her hand on top of his and shook her head. “Hold them close to you and never let them go. Family is a very precious thing after all.”

He nodded his head and released her, allowing her to continue back towards her mount. Hestia did the same, spying Artemis wearing an expression that she rarely saw when they were back above. “So, it’s not just Bell that’s changed you, Artemis. The old you would have smacked his hand away at the very least.”

“…You can blame that on Zeus and the shameless perverts following him when we were above,” she claimed. “Besides, he had a family and only wanted to see them saved. I’ve learned how precious it is to have a family… and what it means to want to be with them no matter what.”

There was something in her tone that Hestia could pick up that felt… all too familiar. A finality to it. “Artemis, there’s more to what’s happening, isn’t there?”

“…I’ll explain everything as we fly,” Artemis promised. “About what happened… and the burden that I have to ask your child to bear.”


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 31 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 31: The First Night

I watched in horror as Argo’s body was sent flying, caught in the wake of my spell. I had just wanted to show him that I learned magic. That I was a step closer to being able to help him. But it slipped from my control the moment my focus lapsed, and Argo paid the price for it.

‘What a wonderful spell! I knew you were talented my dear little sister.’

Argo bounced back up, pretending as if nothing was wrong. But I could see the blood where he’d been hurt because of me stemming from the back of his head. A crushing sense of guilt pressed down in my chest as I applied a tourniquet and apologized repeatedly. I even wanted to go fetch Elio to heal him, even if I was punished for disobeying him.

But Argo only gently patted me on the head and told me he’d be good as new tomorrow, so I should go back to my training. And sure enough, there was no trace of the wound the next day. Looking back, I suspect that Elio knew what I did and went to heal my brother sometime after I had cried myself to sleep.

But the reason for that isn’t something I know even to this day.

—Consequences

[-|-|-|-]

It looks like we’re finishing up for the day.

That thought, confined within Bell Cranel’s mind, surfaced as he noticed that Lord Hermes was making a gesture up ahead. It had been maybe around twelve hours since they had taken flight from the walls of Orario. They had long since lost the ability to see the tower that reached from the ground to the heavens above, the Labyrinth City long gone with only stretches of land without large settlements around. And it had only been the first day of what would be ten in flight.

The God of Travel had taken to leading them since he was aware of their destination across the continent and was more familiar with flight via their draconic mounts. Because of the sound of the air rushing past their ears and the distance between them, it was more reliable to rely on visual cues to signal rather than trying to speak out loud. Even if he could pick up their voices despite the wind because of his Level, the others might not be able to.

Bell carefully maneuvered one of his arms, tucked close against the soft, slender frame of the slumbering divinity nestled against him, free after ensuring he had a firm grip on the reins with his other hand. Then he raised it to make a similar motion to show he saw the signal. He saw out of the corner of his eyes that Welf and Mikoto were doing the same.

With everyone aware of their intentions, the descent began. The airborne dragons slowly dropped down from the golden expanse of the evening sky towards the grasslands below that seemed almost as endless as the sky above over the last few hours, only broken up by a nearby forest with stalwart trees standing sentry at the entrance.

Despite his best effort, the jostling motion made as the dragon touched down on the ground caused the Goddess of the Moon who had been asleep to rouse awake. “Mmm… Orion…?

“Sorry for waking you, Lady Artemis,” Bell apologized. “If possible, I would have let you rest longer. But we’ve landed for the night.”

The emerald eyes of the divinity softened as she brought her hands over to his chest and laid her head against it again. “No, it’s my fault. I didn’t expect the trip to be so exhausting, and you’re very comfortable, Orion.”

He was not sure how to respond to that, so he just gave a nervous laugh while the dragon beneath them shook its wings and then folded them in before lowering itself to the ground. He then dismounted, feeling a slight stretch in his muscles that had gone slightly stiff from riding so long. But he ignored the discomfort to extend a hand up to help her down, which she took and lowered herself to the ground.

“Well, we’ve made good progress today,” Lord Hermes said as he rolled his shoulders while striding towards them. “We’ll make it on schedule if we keep it up at this rate without any problems.”

“I don’t think I can manage to handle riding so long for nine more days…” Lady Hestia softly whined while slumped down next to the dragon that regarded her with a slight quirk of the head. “Everything is sore for me and watching the landscape nearly puts me to sleep.”

“That’s because you’re not used to it,” said the Goddess of the Moon. “Unlike our children whose blessing can mitigate the strain of traveling so long, our bodies need more time to acclimate to doing things we aren’t used to. Even I had to get used to riding a horse again after coming down.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to ride a horse,” Welf said as he braced his neck with one hand and rolled it. Bell could hear cracking from it. “Much less an actual dragon of all things. I’m still scratching my head figuring out why they’re so… docile.”

Bell found himself agreeing as he turned back to one of the dragons prodding Primo with its head playfully in an attempt for attention. At least until she responded by nervously patting it on the head while Mikoto watched on, which caused it to somehow purr and growl at the same. It was… odd to see in every sense of the word.

“You can thank years of collaborative efforts between myself and Ganesha for that,” Lord Hermes said proudly. “You see, monsters outside of the Dungeon are much weaker than those within it. So, he and I had a discussion over drinks on taming practices and one thing led to another. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved venturing to the outskirts of the Dragon Valley to fetch a lot of unhatched eggs for them to work on taming from birth.”

The Dragon Valley was one of the remaining unexplored regions of the world, since… well, Dragons were there. Dragons were among the strongest of the monsters and even those who were born of the surface were still capable of causing a vast amount of destruction when one found their way beyond those mountainous lands. The fact that he actively ventured into the even the outskirts to get the eggs was daunting in that respect.

“Lili doesn’t think it’s really that simple,” said the Pallum of their group with her large bag nestled on her back. She must have unloaded it off the dragon in order to get the campsite set up for the night. “Monsters hate mortals instinctively, hatched from eggs or the Dungeon.”

“I did say it took years,” he answered. “In fact, I’ve lost count of the monster eggs we’ve had to fetch only for the attempt to end in failure after failure. Even I’m not fully sure how he managed to tame these four the way he did, but he’s quite proud of it as in his eyes it’s a step forward towards his goal.”

That seemed to catch Hestia by surprise. “Ganesha has a long-term goal in mind?”

Lord Hermes nodded. “To make a place in this world for Monsters, in the hopes of ending the cycle of the children and them dying in a constant war with no end.”

There was a moment of silence that lingered as he casually spoke of something that was… absurd by every standard. Peace with monsters was something that just didn’t happen. Monsters hated mortals and killed them on sight, forcing them to respond in kind of their own safety. Even taming involved breaking their wills so that they were loyal only to one individual because of the sheer difference in power, leaving them to attack everyone else. That wasn’t co-existence like how he was framing it.

“That’s nothing more than a careless whim of his,” Lady Artemis said, crossing her arms beneath her chest and her tone firm. “Monsters have since the dawn of the world hunted down mortals and threatened the world. It is for that reason we bestowed our blessings upon them in the first place. Even now monsters still roam these lands and prey on the defenseless, as my children and I have seen too many times to count.”

“True,” he conceded. “But the fact that we just spent hours flying on four monsters of one of the most fearsome species without fearing for our lives is also an immutable fact. I’m personally of the mind that these four are simply Irregulars that he came across after thousands of attempts, given that he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then and the fact that it’s clear that they’re too docile to remotely survive on their own in a place as harsh as the Dragon Valley. But it doesn’t change the fact that it opens the door to the potential. After all, the Lower World is full of untapped possibilities.”

The expression of the Goddess of the Moon made it clear she didn’t share the same sentiment, which Bell could understand all too well. He had lost his grandfather to goblins after all. Throughout history, there haven’t been any such cases where monsters and men have lived along with one another in the way Lord Hermes was speaking, so it really did seem like a whim more than anything.

But the topic lingered in his mind even as the discussion itself came to an end as they needed to divide the duties to set up for the night. Welf and Hermes set out into the nearby woodlands in order to gather firewood for the night since they would be camping there before heading out once morning came around to continue their trip. Mikoto and Hestia were preparing the food for the evening, while Lili and Primo were in the process of feeding the dragons they flew on. That left Bell and Artemis to set up the campsite.

Bell was diligently in the process of hammering in the stake to keep the tent that Lady Hestia and Artemis would be sharing when he felt a presence behind him. He turned to see the Goddess of the Moon there. “Yes, Lady Artemis?”

“…Orion, you’ve been quiet for a while now. Is there something on your mind?”

“Oh, I was just thinking about what Lord Hermes mentioned,” he admitted. “It’s still hard to get over the fact that we managed to fly this far on top of dragons of all things. To be honest, I was a bit nervous I would have made a mistake the entire time. Especially since the only riding animal I’ve been on before now was a donkey.”

Artemis quirked her head at that. “A donkey?”

“The mountain village I grew up in was small and out of the way,” he explained. “The farm Grandpa and I had was next to a nice lady with a donkey that she let me ride when I was younger. It’s not very interesting to talk about.”

“No, I want to hear more about your past,” Artemis told him with a small smile. “If you want, we can exchange tales while we have time.”

Bell decided there was no harm in doing so and indulged her. “The farm itself was small, nestled high up in the mountains. There weren’t too many of us, so we had to rely on one another, and next to our farm was a woman named Eda. She looked after me while Grandpa had to work on the farm and helped him out when I was too young to really do anything. Sometimes when listening to grandpa’s stories I would imagine I was a hero riding on a mighty steed, and she’d indulge me by letting me on her donkey.”

The goddess closed her eyes and tilted her head back, a soft rumble in her throat as she remained deep in thought. Then a small smile came across her face. “I can almost picture a smaller version of you doing that, Orion. You must have really liked heroes.”

“Well, Grandpa did tell me a lot of the stories that he knew,” he said with a nervous chuckle as a spot of crimson from embarrassment appeared. “When he wasn’t on the farm, he would often pen them. The way he always told them made it seem like he had captured every little detail to the point where I could also feel that I was practically there, watching their struggles and overcoming odds. I came to really admire heroes like Epimetheus and Argonaut, and I wanted to be like them.”

“Is that why you came to Orario then?” she asked. “To be a hero?”

“Ah…” His expression softened. “Partly. I had other reasons too, but things were a lot harder than I expected. I was lucky to find Lady Hestia and make it this far thanks to her kindness, so I’m grateful to her. As for being a hero, it still feels like I’m over my head with just being an Adventurer at times. I’m honestly still nervous about this whole thing, but I’ll do my best to help you as well, Lady Artemis.”

“I’m certain you will, Orion,” Artemis said. “Now, I promised to exchange a tale. Would you like to hear the one about how Hestia and I became friends back in Heaven?”

[-Twilit Manor-]

Lefiya Viridis hummed softly to herself as she combed her hair in front of a mirror within the dressing room adjoined to the shower room on the floor. Her skin was a rosy hue beneath her nightgown, still saturated with warmth from the shower she’d taken to cleanse herself after running around for most of the day. She intended to retire early for the night to make up for the lack of sleep given how hectic things had been thanks to her brother’s propensity to get into trouble.

I still need to figure out how to complete his Quest though. Her thoughts shifted to the request made by the Gnome who had been acquainted with Bell’s little friend. It was a simple request to retrieve a few things from the Dungeon. Nothing that was illicit or would require her to go into the Deep Floors, but she would need to go to the Middle Floors.

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem given that she was on the verge of Level Four and a skilled Level Two could head as far down as the entrance to the Water Capital. But since part of what she needed was an ore that would likely need to be mined, she would have to dedicate some time to the endeavor. The Dungeon was rarely content to simply leave an Adventurer to do so without at least throwing several monsters against them. And since she was a Mage, it wasn’t recommended that she travel that deeply on her own without a Vanguard.

However, since the request was made to her personally and it was a private matter, Lefiya felt it wouldn’t be right to ask any of her Familia members to help her when she couldn’t explain it. That would be taking advantage of them when she was already technically hiding things from them. If her brother were here, he’d be an option since she could also take the time to explain things about how those floors worked. But he would be absent for the next month, which was probably for the best since it would give everyone time to forget about the thing with Lady Artemis as something else caught their attention.

I guess I’ll ask Filvis then. A smile blossomed onto her face at the thought of her beloved. Once she had finished handing out the letters, she had paid a visit to Lord Dionysus Familia to apologize for cutting their date short once more to tend to the matter with Bell and showing her the darker side of her personality when she got a little too hot under the collar.

Filvis understood thankfully. She might not have known Bell, but she knew that he helped save her from the new species that had swallowed them both and so that was why they were on friendlier terms. And she had even said that knowing that Lefiya cared about her feelings so much to get upset over the thought of her misunderstanding was appealing in its own way. The Half-Elf probably would have tried kissing her then and there for being such an understanding partner if not for the need to conduct herself properly in someone else’s domain.

Anyway, she would need to find a time when the two of them would be free to ask for her help in heading down to the Middle Floors. And while she would need to behave herself while they were in the Dungeon, they could spend their time together doing something fun if they finished early. It’d be nice to take her somewhere pleasant or get her a gift, but Lefiya needed to consider what would be practical for her on top of being fashionable…

Her attention was pulled from that line of thought as the door to the room opened. In came the familiar face of Leene Arshe, the kind-hearted Healer holding a change of clothes for the evening. She must have intended to take a shower but stopped to greet the Half-Elf when she spotted her. “Good evening. I hadn’t realized you returned since you weren’t at dinner.”

“I had a lot of things to do so I ate while I was out,” she explained before recalling the events of last night when she spotted her. “By the way, you did a nice job on your makeup last night. You looked very cute with Mister Bete.”

A sudden jolt ran up the girl. “Wh-What do you mean? I was just studying here last night.”

Holding her chin up with an amused smile even as she continued to brush her hair, Lefiya let out a slight hum. “Hmmm. So that girl with long hair and brown eyes who was cheering on Mister Bete was another admirer then? I never thought he was so popular with women. I’ll have to ask him her name some time.”

Leene fretted about as steam poured from her ears as she looked around before eventually just bowing her head. “P…Please don’t… He’ll get mad.”

“Relax, I don’t intend to tell anyone,” Lefiya promised. “It was just that I was surprised that you two of all people were on a date and I was curious, but there are only a handful of places that are completely soundproof.”

A Level Three could hear through ordinary walls with ease, so for a Familia with even higher-ranked Adventurers than that there needed to be areas where privacy was guaranteed. The dressing rooms and bathrooms were among them for obvious reasons. That allowed the girls to talk without being overheard, which was one of the reasons she chose to have the discussion here while they were alone.

“It wasn’t a date,” Leene insisted softly before reaching up to her hair and fiddling with loose strands. “He was just paying me back for the favor he asked that day I healed you.”

The Half-Elf craned her head in question at that before Leene explained the situation in earnest. Since Bete dragged her to Leene before the meeting where she had been reprimanded for getting involved with the War Game chase, when she asked him if he didn’t have plans for the Holy Night Festival, it seemed he regarded it as paying her back to make them even. He wouldn’t be seen with her as a date or anything, but if she wanted to follow him around while he went to get drunk without being seen he’d tolerate it.

“…And you were okay with that?” Lefiya asked cautiously. To be honest, she was partly offended that he would ask her to just follow him around and ignore her while he went around drinking. If he was going to do that much, rejecting her would have been better.

Leene only nodded with a slight smile. “…It wasn’t a date, but something I felt like I forced onto him. But even so, he didn’t drink anything. And I actually had fun.”

The girl went on to tell her about how Bete seemed to go to places he figured she would be interested in. It wasn’t exactly the case, but it wasn’t anything she outright hated. He apparently even caught her eyeing a prize from one of the stalls and then complained how there wasn’t anything really worth winning before picking that one out, only to toss it back towards her without saying a word when they were alone.

From listening to her, the Half-Elf was starting to picture him trying to be considerate of her but not quite sure how to do so because he didn’t know enough about her. Even so, just hearing her describe him in a positive light and how her body shifted as she embraced her clothing a little tighter while playing the memory out in her mind… there was no doubt in Lefiya’s mind about her feelings. “You’re really in love with him, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The admission came without shame or hesitation or doubt. It was something she had thought of, questioned, and came to terms with on her own. Something that made her happy as it brought a blush to her face. “I am in love with Bete Loga.”

There were a number of questions Lefiya had at that moment. Why? When? How? But those became secondary when she recalled the number of advances that he had made towards Miss Aiz. If she felt this fervently about him, she could only imagine how it must have felt for her to watch time and time again. “…Does he know how you feel?”

The expression Leene wore turned… melancholic. Longing and loving at the same time. And rather than giving denying or confirming it, she simply answered with, “…As I am now, just being able to help him as much as possible will be good enough for me. I don’t want to cause him any more pain.”

It was clear that Leene knew something about him that she didn’t. And since it was something that Lefiya couldn’t imagine that Bete would tell others easily, it was something he either entrusted to her solely or something she learned on her own. But one thing she did know was the bittersweet feeling to love someone and not have a chance for that feeling to be returned through no fault of your own.

So the Half-Elf rose to her feet and then embraced her in a tender hug. “I’m sorry if I crossed a line, Leene.

“…No, I’m happy to be able to tell someone,” Leene replied. “And it’s not like I’ve given up. I’m sure that one day, I’ll be able to walk alongside him. I just need to keep doing my best.”

That said, Lefiya finished with her hair and went back to her room. She bid her roommate, who had a reference book on magic, goodnight before closing her eyes. Sleep took her quite easily.

[-??????-]

She was dreaming again.

How long had it been since she had dreamed of sitting beneath the warm rays of the shining sun? Since she felt the gentle breeze washing over the fields and leaving her long and flowing golden hair to sway with the petals of flowers in bloom. Since she saw that smile as a calloused but tender hand reached out to stroke her face…

And yet, before that hand could reach her it turned to ash and scattered before her eyes.

The sun faded. The breeze died. The flowers wilted.

A child’s voice called her name.

A banshee shrieked.

Sitting upright in a jerking motion, an Elven woman shuddered nearly uncontrollably as she breathed out heavy and pained breath that filled the dark enclosure. Sweat lined the sleeping bag she had been resting on, a foul scent rising from her body that filled the stone chamber of the sick bay. Leaning her back against the cool stone, her mind raced as she tried to remember what transpired.

The last thing she remembered was that she had been visiting the Twenty-Seventh Floor. That barren place was where she and their squadron had been on a mission. On the way back they had been swarmed by monsters and ran into a cluster of Dark Fungus. She had been caught within the spore clouds and poisoned.

Her dull green eyes, their luster lost to the cruelty of reality and ringed by dark circles skimmed the room illuminated by two Magic Stone Lanterns. There were two other bodies in the room. But they weren’t moving, and she couldn’t pick up the sound of breathing. She closed her eyes and offered them a moment of silence when she heard sounds coming from the door at the end of the room.

Then it opened and light from lanterns accompanying a tall figure cast a deep shadow that stretched across the ground. The tenebrous darkness was bathed in a divine presence as she fixed her eyes on the God draped in black and gray robes. Eyes that were a deep purple hue skimmed the room before they settled onto her with a gaze that seemed to peer beyond her flesh and down to her soul.

She leaned forward and immediately kneeled. “Lord Thanatos. You grace me with your presence.”

“Ah, it’s good to see you up and about, my dear.” He stepped into the room while flanked by two of their comrades, all children who shared his Grace upon their backs. “I had felt the blessing of the others vanish and had some concern you would be joining them soon. Would we have had the antidotes to spare in time, but alas…”

“It was only because I had Abnormal Resistance,” she responded. “I can only apologize for their deaths. I should have identified the Dark Fungus ahead of time.”

The blame lay with her. Her thoughts had been back on the Twenty-Seventh Floor. Her grief. Her desire for revenge. They had distracted her until it was too late and so they had carelessly ran into the cluster of Dark Fungus that had disguised themselves while dealing with other threats the Dungeon presented them. The fact that their squad’s leader had still managed to get them back here in any form was fortunate.

The God of Death slowly rapped his knuckle against his cheek as if in thought while staring down at the corpses. “Yes. A deep purple hue, stained with a vibrant shade of crimson. And crimson with ribbons of jade threading it like a mourning band. Though their souls are no longer tied to my earthly form through the Falna, I’ve memorized the color of their souls. Once I return to Heaven, I’ll see that their sacrifice not be in vain.”

As one of the divine presiding over death and rebirth, Thanatos could perceive the Soul even while being trapped within his avatar here on the Lower World. Once he ascended to Heaven once more, he would no longer be bound to merely perceiving their hue and the connections of those bound to them on this plane. And through that, untethered and unrestricted, he would fulfill their dearest wishes.

They would be together again—all three of them.

“You have our eternal gratitude, Lord Thanatos.” She bowed her head deeply as warmth in her chest grew. “…Though, it is rare to have the honor of speaking with you directly. Should I presume you had need of me?”

He turned his gaze back to her. “That’s right. I have a few of your kin among my children, but I believe that only you and Dear Milia spoke fluently in the more archaic Elven Tongue. And she perished a short time ago.”

Milia had been a fellow Elf and Tamer, just like her. She had been kin, heralding from a distant forest who came to Orario. She had also lost one she treasured, robbed of them by this cruel and uncaring world. She had been overseeing not only Violas but also Venenthes, all of which had been killed by the Loki Familia and had forced them to readjust the operations on the floor and shift their plans.

“I believe at present I am the only one that remains within the Familia that speaks the Eld Tongue, Lord Thanatos.”

“Then I would have you act as an interpreter and guide for a time,” he explained. “An individual reached out through one of our contacts and enlisted our services to smuggle some associates of theirs into Orario. I would have you see to their needs.”

Her mind pieced together the request. The fact that she needed to act as an interpreter meant that it was an Elven contingent. The fact that they spoke in the Eld Tongue would mean they were highborn as well, but High Elves weren’t the type to leave the inner domains of the Forests so easily. That meant it must be others capable of those acting in their place. “I will assist in whatever way I can, but do you know what their wish is?”

“Something or other about Rakia. I’ll leave you to learn the particulars and help them with the planning once you’re back on your feet and on the surface so do your best, Dear Sharan.”


Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 11 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]

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.

[R-M]

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?”

[R-M]

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?”

[R-M]

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…