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 12: Return to the Dream
And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…
Bell found himself staring up at the moon as those words whispered in his ears on the wind, unable to move. Unable to think.
A scent that he couldn’t comprehend permeated the air. Celestial in nature. Thickening to the point of suffocating as the luminous white orb hanging in the night sky seemed so close that the glimmering moonlight reflected in his unwavering gaze.
The alluring face of the moon eclipsed his vision until he couldn’t see where it began and ended, and he was unable to look away even if he wanted to. The ivory rays themselves were like countless, tender hands grasping his head. Refusing to let him turn away, refusing to let him ignore the orb of night that seemed to swallow up the distance between Heaven and Earth just for him—
—only to vanish as the night sky was replaced with solid stone. The moonlight that had been radiating down, leaving him awash in its silvery rays, turned to artificial magic-stone lights. The irrefutable presence that loomed over him now took the form of a round face, sapphire eyes gazing into his own with a concerned frown.
Hestia. His Goddess. Entrancing in a different way than… what exactly?
Bell sat up, rising on the couch and turning so that his feet touched the ground. Blinking. His head felt misty and tired. Adrift somehow. “Was I sleeping?”
Hestia took a seat next to him on the couch. “I thought you were, but your eyes were open and distant.” Fingers soft as silk reached up to brush his forehead. “Were you having a nightmare?”
“I…” He tried to find words. But the memory had already slipped from his mind. Gone like mist that evaporated in the morning light. He brought his hands to his eyes and rubbed them. “I’m not sure. I don’t even remember when I fell asleep.”
The way her frown deepened showed that answer didn’t please her at all. “Just in case, we’ll see Miach about getting you some sleeping medicine. I know he makes some that can bring about a dreamless sleep.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just need to get up and move around today. That’s all.”
Hestia’s expression softened upon hearing that. “Just wait a little longer for my sake, Bell. Hephaestus told me that she would have one of her children available soon to form a party with you. Then you can go back in the Dungeon without worrying me so much.”
It had been a few days now since the Banquet of the Gods. Her proposal wasn’t exactly rejected by the two. But there were complications involved.
In the case of Take’s children, they operated as a group and had tactics, so introducing Bell into their cohesion might complicate things. And his children had to work hard given that they were also poor, on top of supporting an orphanage back in their home country. So, while he stated he could see if he could arrange something, Hestia had to admit that it would likely interfere with his own Familia’s survival unless Bell took up a role like a Supporter.
Hestia didn’t think Bell would settle for that. He wanted to be an Adventurer after all. And, while she could beg him to do so, she would be trampling on his dream more than she already had. Besides, having him be a Supporter meant that Bell would receive less valis than he would earn on his own and hamstring Take’s income as well.
It was different in the case of Hephaestus. She had several children who wanted to travel further down in the Dungeon, in order to reach Level 2. That way they could gain the Blacksmithing Developmental Ability.
But Bell had only been doing this for around two weeks, so naturally most people wouldn’t think he had that kind of ability. Hephaestus wouldn’t just order one of them to put up with Bell for Hestia’s sake, so she had to find children willing to work with someone who didn’t have nearly as much time or experience as them. That was easier said than done without exerting more pressure than she was comfortable with.
In both cases, it was a matter of Bell not appearing experienced enough. Hestia’s words that he could pull his own weight weren’t enough. While Bell could prove that he was more than capable enough, it would take time to reach that point. So, in a worst-case scenario, Hestia really might have to let him go back into the Dungeon on his own.
Still, I should find something for him to do… Oh, right! Her pigtails shot up in excitement as an idea came to mind when she remembered what today was. “You know, I have today off work and there’s a festival going on, meaning there’s a lot of food vendors and game booths out.”
Bell was naturally surprised, since he hadn’t been in the city long. “There are?”
“Yep!” Hestia hopped up onto her feet and extended her hand for him to take. “Since you need to get out, how about you and I spend the entire day together?”
A festival with just the two of us, huh? Between both of their jobs, they rarely spent time together outside of this homely little room. So how could he refuse the offer to spend time together as a Familia? “Of course.”
“Then let’s go have a lot of fun,” Hestia said before her expression bloomed into a radiant smile while their fingers intertwined. It carried a warm affection within it.
It was almost enough to make the lethargy in his mind melt away until Bell abruptly felt like he was being watched again, leaving him snap his head around for the source. Then he remembered it was just the two of them there and was left wondering if the lack of sleep really was getting to him. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it before getting dressed for their adventure outside.
In order to get to the Monster Feria, also known as the Monsterphilia, they needed to head down the road so that they got back onto the Main Street. From there, they could head straight to the far east side of the city. That was where the festival was being held, at the colosseum, but since it was going to be busy they would likely have to forgo a Tax cart and instead go on foot.
“White-hair! Over here, meow!”
It just so happened that, while on the West Main, Hestia stopped them when she heard someone calling for him. “Bell, I think that girl is calling you.”
“Huh?” He looked over to see that there was a catgirl in one of the waitress uniforms for the Hostess of Fertility, waving for him to come over with her ears pointed up. Since it would have been rude to ignore her, he hurried over. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you!”
“Mya, it’s no good if kids don’t go to bed on time,” she told him after looking him over. Then she turned to Hestia and gave her a polite bow, as was etiquette Bell suspected. “Oh, you must be his Goddess. It’s nice to meet you, meow.”
“Good morning,” Hestia said, approaching her. “How do you know Bell?”
“This is the place I told you about,” Bell answered in her place. “The place with the really good food.”
“Myama will be glad to hear it.” She then produced a coin purse and handed it over to Bell. “Syr needs this. Can you give it to her, meow?”
Bell eyed it for a moment. It was a purse that definitely suited a girl, and he could picture her holding it. But he wasn’t exactly sure where to find her in the first place. “Uh…”
“Arnya, if you’re going to make a request you should at least make it as clear as possible,” said a new waitress as she appeared from behind the catgirl. It was the elfess who had chased Bell down that night to return his belongings. “Good morning, Mister Cranel and Miss Goddess. My apologies for her calling you out so early.”
“It’s not a problem, but what’s this about Syr?” he asked. “Is she not here?”
“She has the day off and went to the Monster Feria for the opening event, but she left her purse here. The rest of us are preparing to open up for the day so, if it isn’t too much trouble, could you return it to her if you see her?”
“We were heading in that direction, but the festival itself is pretty active from what I’ve heard,” Hestia said. “Will we be able to find her?”
“She just left, so I’m sure white-hair can find her.” Arnya flashed Bell a smile. “Right, meow?”
If they have that much faith in me then I’ll try. Besides, Bell knew what it was like to be walking around in a big city like this with practically no money to your name. It had been like that when he had first arrived, and there was no point in making her walk back to get it if necessary.
He turned back to Hestia and said, “Sorry, but I really should give this back to her.”
Black twin-tails swayed as Hestia shook her head. She liked the fact that he was a good boy. “I don’t mind since we have the entire day. Besides, if this Syr person is a friend of yours, we should help if we can.”
Eina was one of several other members of the Guild currently outside of the colosseum for the sake of the festival, acting as informants to the citizens as well as assisting the Ganesha Familia in whatever way possible to make it a success.
By far, the biggest and most important event was the monster taming that was already underway beyond the massive stone walls that rose to towering heights. As things stood, it was a unique experience that came once a year for the citizens of Orario, who likely had scant few encounters with monsters in their lives. Because, even though the Dungeon was located within the labyrinth, the average person would never set foot into it and thus had far less exposure to monsters than those who made a living out of it.
Eina was not a fan of the idea that monsters were brought out of the Dungeon for taming during the festival. Monsters, especially Dungeon-born ones, were terrifying beings who existed to kill without regard for anything but their baser instincts. She’d filed enough reports on dead adventurers to know that having even one aboveground and unchecked would spell a huge problem.
But it was not her call to make. Instead, it was that of her superiors. They were the ones who decided the Monsterphilia was necessary for the citizens, because it gave them a chance to view adventurers in a more romanticized light.
Not all adventurers were friendly. Not all people were friendly. It was the way things were in general, that the experiences and personalities of the individual determined how they acted with others. The problem was that supermortals with strength above that of the norm naturally went by their own rules, so long as it didn’t fringe on the rules of their Familia.
Maybe they decide they don’t want to pay a tab, or maybe tempers flare and a fight breaks out. The difference in strength between an ordinary citizen and an adventurer meant they couldn’t raise a hand to them and needed someone to complain to. They needed someone to deal with problems that arose, which was what the Guild existed for. So they had to manage both the frustrations of the citizens and the adventurers, trying to placate both.
That was what the festival was for. Citizens would see these highly publicized adventurers putting on a show for their amusement and think to themselves that maybe these were the norm and the ones that caused them problems were the outliers. At least until enough time passed and the next year came around, where they would do it again.
Even now, a skilled Tamer was elegantly in the process of taming one of the monsters in a show of charisma and skill. It painted the scene as a mortal dominating a monster, making it submit without seriously raising a hand or slaughtering it for its magic stone, as was ordinary. An extravagant way of undercutting the actual dangers of the profession, setting a standard for the unaware that adventurers had class and dignity.
Eina didn’t exactly blame the Ganesha Familia for giving people the wrong impression of just how dangerous both monsters and the job were. They were merely doing it at the request of the Guild in the first place, who approved and managed it. But it would have consequences later on, when those who saw them tried to replicate their feats and have their dreams, and possibly their lives, dashed.
She took a deep breath, not at all satisfied that the reservations she had about the festival, until she spotted a familiar bed of white hair and ruby eyes scouring the crowd. She hadn’t seen him in days, so a part of her had been worried that something happened to him. Seeing him in the distance, still alive, was enough for now to put on a smile on her face as she called out on him. “Bell!”
His name being called attracted the eyes of not him but the smaller girl at his side. The divine aura that was leaking out, naturally present to all the Gods and Goddesses, made it clear what she was. The relatively smaller goddess tugged on his sleeve to grab his attention and pointed to her.
Bell then spotted her, his mouth moving in a familiar enough way that Eina could make out that he was referring to her as his Advisor, and then walked over. “Miss Eina, I didn’t know you’d be out here.”
“The Guild has set aside a good deal of staff for the festival, so I’m currently acting as someone who helps guest find their way inside of the stadium,” she explained, taking in his appearance. He looked tired. Slight bags around his eyes that wouldn’t be out of place for someone four times his age. “Are you not sleeping well, Bell?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been by lately. My goddess wants me to start working with others and forming a party before I start going deeper into the Dungeon.”
That bit of news actually made her somewhat happy. Rather than risking himself, if he worked with others his chances of survival increased drastically. “That’s excellent. Would you like for me to a make a posting for it through the Guild? I can’t guarantee when you’ll meet someone, but I’m sure eventually someone will apply.”
“I’ve already gone out of my way to arrange for that,” Hestia said, approaching them. “But, if you’re acting as an usher, then can we ask if you’ve seen a specific person?”
“There have been a lot of people who have come and gone, so I’ll need you to be specific.”
Bell recalled Syr’s appearance. “She’s a human girl with hair and matching eyes that are sort of ash-colored. She left her wallet behind at her workplace, but we were told she came this way not too long ago.”
Eina placed a hand on her chin in thought. There had been a lot of people, but the hair and eye color on a human were rare enough that if she had seen her then she would have remembered. Not to mention that if she had lost her wallet then she either would have doubled back and ran into them or she would have went elsewhere, since there was an admission fee to the main event.
“I can’t say that I have seen her, I’m afraid—” She was cut off when someone violently pushed past Bell, splitting him and his Goddess apart while knocking them onto the ground. She crouched down to help the two up while turning back to the figure. “Hey, apologize to them this instance!”
The figure, wearing a black cloak of all things at this time of day, turned around and smirked. Then he held up what looked to be a woman’s pouch. He tossed it up and down in his hand twice before running off to the southwest.
Bell’s eyes widened with realization before he rose to his feet. “That’s Syr’s!”
“Bell, wait!” His Goddess tried to grab him before he could give chase, but he moved faster than Eina thought would be possible for an adventurer who only started out a short time ago. Despite that, the thief moved just as quickly, and both cleared the plaza of the stadium in short order.
“Are you alright ma’am?” Eina asked, helping Hestia to her feet. She couldn’t believe that someone would so blatantly steal in front of her, wearing something so conspicuous. “I’ll have someone go after them right away.”
She didn’t have the chance before shouts of monsters being on the loose reached her ears less than a minute later.
Bell may have been tired, but the spike of adrenaline that coursed through his system as he gave chase after the cloaked thief helped offset that. It was enough to keep his mind focused on the present. That was the only reason he didn’t lose track of the thief, as whoever it was had to at least have been a high-end Level 1 as he ditched the Main Street for the alleyways. It was an intricate network full of twists and turns, where it would be so easy for Bell to lose track of them if he didn’t stay on top of them.
He didn’t know why the thief had chosen to take Syr’s wallet, but he knew he had to get it back. He would have probably left it to someone else if it had just been his money that was taken. But that had been entrusted to him by the others at the Hostess of Fertility, who put their faith in him to get it to her.
So he continued giving chase after the thief until they eventually left the web of alleyways and came into a plaza that was surrounded by rising buildings that seemed to be piled on top of one another. Bell hadn’t been in the city for long, but even he knew of this place. A maze within the city in itself, a manmade labyrinth that touched the city wall—Daedalus Street.
If he lost them here, he’d never find the thief again. But the thief didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing their chase at this point. They instead opted to drop the wallet onto the ground in the center of the district’s plaza and then, with a flourish of their cloak, disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving Bell there alone and confused until he felt that sensation again, like he was being watched.
Bell looked around once again for the source but didn’t find a single person in the plaza. It was starting to make him feel paranoid. So, he picked up Syr’s belongings, intent on getting out of there right away—
—only for something massive to come leaping down from over the perimeter of the buildings. It landed onto the ground in front of Bell with a thunderous crash that cratered the stone beneath them. The force alone had been enough to blow him off his feet, and Bell bounced backwards while slamming his head into the ground before coming to a stop several feet away.
“Ngh…” Bell’s head was pounding now as he forced himself to look up, whereupon he spotted pure muscle wrapped up in a cloak of white fur and a silver mane of hair falling down its back that glinted in the light. Thick arms and legs tensed with rage as they pounded at a steel plate that was fixed over its chest. Metal knuckles and manacles with chains clanked and rattled as it glared down at him with red eyes hidden behind a visor.
Miss Eina had told Bell of some of the monsters on the lower floors, as a warning for him not to venture deeper. This was one from the deeper floors, around the Eleventh Floor. A Silverback that had somehow gotten all the way to the surface was in front of him, murderous and animalistic intention fixed on him.
How had no one noticed this thing running around? That question loitered in his mind until he saw the massive primate rushing for him with a primal gait that was faster than it had any right to be. He barely had time to roll out of the way as it closed the distance with upraised arms and then brought both its massive fists down with the intention of crushing him.
The ground shook. Stone was upturned. Jagged bits of displaced rock were sent flying outwards to pelt Bell as he got back to his feet and considered his options.
The first was that he could run. He didn’t know where the monster came from, but he was unarmed and unarmored. In the city filled with more adventurers than any other in the world, chances were he’d run into someone capable of dealing with it.
But if he fled while it was attacking him then someone innocent could be hurt. More so if it chased him while the festival was going on. He could possibly get away, but only if he were willing to sacrifice people he didn’t know. And, while he may have had his dreams of being a hero tested, battered by the time he spent in that nightmare, that was something he just couldn’t do.
I have to kill it. Bell envisioned the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind and called forth the Little Ones across the boundaries of this world and the Hunter’s Dream. “Please, bring me my weapons!”
“GYRAAH!” His declaration carried the intention to fight, and so the Silverback responded with a roar in acceptance of his challenge. What drove it was unknown to the young adventurer, but whatever it was that keyed him onto Bell now took firm root. It would not stop until he was crushed, and with another quick gait it moved to do so.
This time, on his feet, Bell sidestepped the initial slam of the monster’s fist as it brought the right one down. But there was no time to remain stationary as it then swung the arm outwards to knock him back. Bell leapt back while bringing his own arms up to shield his chest and head, whereupon the chains that were still attached to its manacles caught him in glancing.
The thick steel that was meant to keep it bound was dense enough that he could feel the lashing it gave his forearms and felt its sting. But fortunately, his arms didn’t break from such a passing strike, even if they throbbed and he could tell it was likely to bruise. He could still fight then.
Bell’s ears then caught the unintelligible voices of the Little Ones answering his plea as a ripple in space formed just behind him. They emerged from the nearest building, sticking out of it horizontally with the Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol in hand. In a conjoined effort, the grouping of Messengers tossed them towards Bell with as much strength as their emaciated arms could muster.
Well-worn wood wrapped in fresh bandages for a grip met one hand while the curved grip shaped to fit comfortably filled the other. Both set of fingers wrapped around them tight before Bell rolled once more out of the way as the Silverback attacked with another punch that blew open the wall with a spray of stone dust.
Screams bellowed out from within. Someone’s home had just been broken into. Collateral damage in its attempt to kill Bell.
I have to lure it the center! He turned his back to the monster, presenting an opening despite his fear. Then he ran towards the center of the plaza and lure it that way, bringing the fight into safer territory.
The Silverback took the bait. Corded muscles in its lower legs released like a coiled spring and sent it forward. It lunged for Bell with its hand outstretched, intent on wrapping those stout fingers around his body to crush him like ripe fruit.
The young adventurer threw himself to the side, getting away with only his leg being clipped in escaping the fingers as they closed into a fist. The Silverback’s momentum carried it forward a little further, into the center of the plaza. It’s back was to Bell, so he rushed in with the Saw Cleaver to hack away at it.
The last he checked his Strength had just made it to E-rank after the War Shadows, even higher than before he fought the Minotaur with the Doll’s update. It had been just enough for his saw’s teeth to tear rents into its flesh deep enough for him to get its magic stone free somehow. Yet, now he couldn’t even manage to dig it past the hide beneath the silver fur before he gripped it with both hands and tensed his own muscles that seemed heavy with exhaustion to rip the metal out through the side.
The Silverback snarled as crimson ran free from a tear in its flesh, blood vessels above its thick muscles torn open so that they could start dotting that white fur with its blood. Retaliation followed. It began to move forward, pounding its strong fists down over and over again.
Bell raised the pistol loaded with a Quicksilver Bullet and fired, hoping the stopping power would be enough to halt it. The sound of caged thunder was drowned by the shattering of earth, the faint pinging of the bullet hitting metal that either guarded its eyes or chest barely reaching his ears. Then Silverback finished its rampage with a double-hammer strike that hit the ground hard enough that it blew Bell off his feet before he could get out of range.
“Ah…ahh…” Bell struggled for breath as haze of pain permeated his body, blood pounding beneath his skull as he got back onto his feet. Then he made out the glint of metal from the knuckles on the Silverback’s fist as it readied to strike. He moved to dodge, but he couldn’t.
His legs felt like they had gone to liquid. His insides felt like they were shaking from the previous hit without it even touching him directly. He couldn’t dodge like this, so he brought the Saw Cleaver’s flat around to act as a shield and braced it with his other hand to withstand the impact—
CRUNCH!! KRIK!! The sound of splintering wood and fracturing iron followed. Then came pain, a sharp and jagged thing that dug into his flesh along with a heavy weight that carried him further until Bell hit the ground a final time. Agony took on a tangible form as he struggled to breathe, only to feel something sharp tearing him apart.
With his vision blurred he looked down to see that the Saw Cleaver had been broken. The butcher’s weapon was embedded within his chest diagonally with the broken handle a little distance away. His pistol was nowhere to be found, lost on impact as something hot and wet bubbled up in his throat while crimson seeped out of his flesh around the wound and soaked his shirt.
The blood, with its scent thick, glossed over his mind as the Silverback approached slowly, as if giving him time to realize that he’d been won over before it came to deliver the killing blow. His weapons hadn’t been enough. They had broken, and his body had followed suit.
He struggled to move but couldn’t as the strength had left his body. He couldn’t even speak as blood bubbling up in his throat drowned any words that could have slipped from the orifice. With tears stinging his eyes while his vision dimmed on the sight of the Silverback raising up its fist once again, Bell realized he was going to die again and could only apologize to Hestia silently. Goddess… I’m sorry…
Then, for a second time, a fist descended. For a second time, there was a moment of pain amidst the spreading numbness, followed by the absence of every other sensation. For a second time, he woke to find himself laying amidst the moonlit flowers in bloom that were strewn over the hillside.
There, he was greeted by a sincere and serene voice that said, “Welcome Home, Good Hunter.”
Chapter 11: Banquet of the Gods
Bell Cranel was on the move the next afternoon, on his way down the Main Street to the tower of Babel at a somewhat sluggish pace. Last night he’d had some trouble sleeping after taking a shower. And he had spent an hour beforehand settling potential issues over what happened in the Hostess of Fertility before heading to the Guild.
Keeping with his promise, he first went to apologize to Syr over the mishap that happened last night. He made it clear that his departure was because he had been uncomfortable with the Loki Familia due to an embarrassing event in the Dungeon. She didn’t really press him on the finer details, which was something that he was grateful for given that he didn’t want to lie to her, though she did manage to worm him into having brunch there.
The menu changed during the day, though the food remained very good. It was also more accommodating to his wallet, probably because it was catered to a more casual customer base then. Adventurers were the primary source of income in Orario, so they had the highest earning margins next to the ones who ran larger Familias and exported magic stones. He would have to take Hestia there some time.
After that was the matter of visiting Miss Eina at the Guild to ask about any places where he could buy armor today. When he brought up what his budget was like now that he had paid off his Guild-loaned equipment yesterday, Eina told him of a reasonably priced shop that was on the upper floors of Babel. She’d even given him written instructions to make sure he didn’t get lost by accident.
Going straight down West Main soon brought him into the Central Park, where Adventurers were coming and going. It was a nice day that was the same as usual for Orario as far as he could tell in the time he had been there, such a tight yet bustling feeling. The sensation of life and open movement all around him was a strong contrast to the coffin and blood-encrusted streets of Yharnam at night, where only the beasts that stalked the shadows lurked.
The memory of the Hunt stilled his feet as it briefly floated to the surface of his mind. But he shook his head vigorously, slapping his cheeks and letting the sting bury the memories once more. He wasn’t going back there.
I’m going to continue on my life as an Adventurer, not a Hunter. Resolve in mind, he was about to take another step forward—
“Move it you lousy Supporter! We’re running late!”
—when he heard someone commanding someone else to move just barely above the rabble of the Adventurers around him. He turned to the source of the sound to see a male adventurer, one in a party of four, complaining about being late to enter the Dungeon to a small figure that was dressed in a plain robe that looked ragged at the edges.
He couldn’t make out the person’s face to determine their race or gender, but they looked so tiny that they could’ve been a child. Yet, the backpack they were carrying looked to be the size of a person, thrice their height. It must’ve weighed a lot for them, even if it was empty. But their party was telling them to move faster as they forced their way past the other Adventurers into Babel.
Since their destination was the same, Bell could only follow in their footsteps into Babel until they mixed into the crowd that was heading down to the basement floor. That would take them to the spiraling staircase leading into the gaping maw of the abyss below. Into the Dungeon.
He went the other way, towards the wide lobby that was past one of the many arches that surrounded it. The blue-and-white, expansive floor never failed to impress him as he entered it, and it was there he found what he was looking for as a rough looking man stepped onto a circular pedestal and pressed a button on what looked to be a console. Glass rose up to wall him off from the rest of the lobby and he ascended on the elevator that Eina had mentioned in her instructions.
Bell approached one of the pedestals himself, intrigued as he tried to work out how it could function. He wasn’t all that accustomed to the conveniences of Orario compared to his village, but given it was the source of a good deal of the magic stones in the world he could reason out they had more chances to develop devices like this. Bell pushed the button to activate it and felt gravity being defied beneath his feet as he ascended the heights of Babel for the first time.
This is pretty cool, he mused silently as he pushed open the glass of the elevator when he found himself on the Eight Floor. It had a good number of Adventurers roaming around, weaving in and out of the various stores that had displays of weaponry and armor for those who would brave the Dungeon. Bell was naturally drawn to the various shops but had to stop himself from wandering off and went into the one on Eina’s instructions.
The inside of the shop that was that of stone and wood, lined with steel in the form of weapons and armor that had been forged in fire and tempered by the hands of the blacksmiths working under the name of the Hephaestus Familia. On the walls were weapons and shields, alternating as they decorated the solid stone, price tags placed in view at prices that weren’t drastically above what he had on him at the moment. Short shelves that the walls were used to support the smaller arms or unique pieces that drew in more than a few curious eyes.
Maybe it was just because he was still relatively new to Orario, but it still amazed Bell as he looked at all of it. Even with the fact that Hestia had told him before of how she and the Goddess of the Forge were old friends, and that her Familia was one of the best when it came to blacksmiths. It really highlighted the differences in their Familia that Bell couldn’t even properly grasp the perspective or the amount of valis it would take to rent out all these floors for their blacksmiths.
Bell figured that he could spend hours just window shopping if he didn’t already know what he’d come in for. It was lightweight armor to replace the breastplate he’d lost setting foot into Yharnam. Something stronger than the one he’d gotten from the Guild, given that a sickly beast in Iosefka’s clinic had torn into it, while the claws of the Cleric Beast ripped it apart completely and took a pound of flesh with it.
Lacking any armor when he’d gone into the Dungeon and met the War Shadows could have been a death sentence. It would have been if not for the fact that blood still healed him since he’d gone in without any potions either. He couldn’t skimp on the armor from here on out.
So, Bell ventured towards the back of the store where the armor was placed on mannequins. From the look of it, the more expensive and extravagant items were closer to the front of the store, where more people would be inclined to buy them. That meant the more practical pieces would be further back.
The backside of the store had larger shelves that rose up above his head, sorting into aisles that had different items. More of the customers were looking through them, paying little mind of Bell as they inspected the different pieces. There were also barrels at the ends of some of them, containing larger weapons like spears.
Bell went past them, moving further back to where the lightweight equipment was. Most of them didn’t have mannequins but were instead housed in boxes of equipment pieces. Each one had a different style of handwriting on the tags, so if he had to guess the ones who made the armor were the ones who stocked it.
He went past the different pieces until he found one that drew him in. The polished metal that was pure white like the moon glinted in his ruby-toned eyes with an almost enthralling allure. Bell pulled out the main piece and just stared down at the breastplate meant to shield the vitals of the chest, including his heart.
It felt light. Even lighter than the one that he’d gotten from the Guild when he joined. Yet, he got the feeling that it was harder despite that. It was probably made from a different kind of metal than the standard one used for Guild-issued armor. But would they bother putting something like that in a box not even worth displaying?
They probably might in a shop run by this Familia, he figured before looking at the rest of it. There were guards for the joints, knees, and forearms along with plates for the lower back, shoulders, and hips. Additional bits and pieces that didn’t have the same grade of protection that full armor would give, but more than necessary for simple lightweight armor. And all of that at only 9,900 valis.
Flipping it over, he spotted the signature beneath a stamp that had a rabbit silhouette. The name “Welf Crozzo” didn’t ring a bell to him, but he hadn’t been there for very long. And if he was famous then there’s no way they would have put it back here. He must’ve been a novice blacksmith then.
Well, if this works out then I’ll keep that name in mind. Decision made, he took the box with him to the counter and paid for his new armor before heading back to show it off to his Goddess.
Once night fell, it was Hestia’s turn to venture out from the small but homely comfort that was her room beneath the Church.
Her destination was the home base of the Ganesha Familia, which had been established within a massive statue surrounded by a stone wall, with the entrance being the statue’s crotch. The various Gods and Goddesses had gathered for the celebration being hosted, a cacophony of communion between the different deities that made their home here in Orario. That made it the best place to gather information on Achelois’ whereabouts.
Hestia started her search at the buffet table, where she spotted Hermes and Takemikazuchi. The latter was being egged on by the former on in trying to finish a large plate of meat, dressed in his formal montsuki kimono adorned with his Familia’s emblem. The Goddess of the Hearth looked down to her own ordinary clothes and fought down the slight feeling of inferiority that she felt upon seeing how well he’d dressed when she didn’t even have celebratory clothes.
But Hestia shook her head to drive away those thoughts before touching the ribbon that had been elegantly tied into a bow around her neck. She wasn’t here for her own reasons, but for Bell’s sake. That thought allowed her to approach them both with a somewhat cheerful, “Take! Hermes!”
Takemikazuchi forcefully swallowed his meal upon noticing her and then cleared his throat so he could speak. “Hestia, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Hestia’s response was a good-natured retort. “The same could be said with you. Don’t you have a bunch of children waiting for you at home?”
“My children actually insisted that I come, citing that I should mingle with the others instead of working tirelessly for them.”
“What considerate children you have.” She then turned to Hermes. “And Hermes, I was looking for you too. I don’t think that we’ve seen each other in a long time.”
“Well, my Familia does travel a lot so I’m usually out running message and errands.” He snapped his finger as if something came to mind. “Though, I’ve heard you have a child in your Familia now. Mind if I ask who?”
“His name is Bell and he’s a very sweet boy. He’s only been at it for a short time, but he’s hard-working and even managed to get down to the Sixth Floor on his own.” She puffed out her chest in pride as she boasted of how special her child was, even though she was frustrated that he’d gone deeper than that on his own. It was a complicated feeling, to be honest.
That was partly why she had come. She didn’t have much to her name and she had few friends. But if she could at least have them help her keep him safe, then that would be something she could do as his Goddess.
Hermes only smiled in a mischievous manner. “He sounds like an adventurous one. You’ll have to introduce me some time.”
Then I’d be worried you would rub off on him, Hestia thought to herself before moving onto her first question now that the pleasantries had been done. “Anyway, I was wondering if either of you had seen Achelois? I’ve been looking for her, but I can’t seem to find any trace of her.”
“Achelois?” Takemichizuki put his hand on his chin and looked up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her at all since I arrived in Orario two years ago.”
“Miach said the same thing, so I thought that she might be outside of Orario. So, if anyone of us would know, it’d be Hermes.”
Hermes held his hands out and shrugged. “Well, I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but I’m afraid that I don’t know where she is either. The last time I heard from her she was still searching for someone to join her Familia with little luck. As I’m sure you know, it’s fairly difficult to start a successful Familia these days if you don’t have much to offer.”
Yes, Hestia knew that very well. The more established Familia within Orario were the ones everyone wanted to join. And if you didn’t have much to your name to start with then few would take the gamble to help. “That’s true, but I can’t imagine that she went back above. So, she has to be somewhere.”
“Well, I could try sending some feelers out when I leave again. But why exactly are you looking for her?” he asked.
“Ah… that’s… a bit private, actually…” It wasn’t like she could just say what was going on with Bell to them. Especially not in such a crowded event. “Let’s just say we need to have a Goddess-to-Goddess talk.”
“Aww, yer worried she’s gonna poach yer child?” Hestia tensed, a shiver running up from the base of her spine to the top of her head. That voice was the last one she’d wanted to hear tonight.
“Loki.” The Goddess of the Hearth practically hissed that name as she turned to find said Goddess right behind her, grinning in her sleek, black dress. “What do you want?”
“Just saw the crowd and came to say hello,” she claimed. “Well, that and I heard ya talkin’ about your child. That’s the one that ran into a minotaur a while back, wasn’t it?”
“And I think we both know who’s responsible for that,” Hestia said. “Bell could have died!”
“That’s the risk of goin’ in the Dungeon.” Loki’s small shoulders rose and fell before she took a sip of the drink she held in her left hand. “Besides, kid made it out fine under his own power, despite being a Level 1. Makes a lotta sense that ya’d hafta worry about him falling into the arms of another Goddess when a shrimp like ya can’t even afford a decent dress.”
Hestia’s temper flared. She rose on the tips of her toes to get right in Loki’s face and struck her weakness. “This coming from one who can’t even grow a decent pair to fit in a dress!”
Then Loki’s temper flared. She scowled, baring her teeth. “Them’s fightin’ words!”
“Bring it on!” she answered in response, but before either of them could act on the animosity, the guys stepped in. It wouldn’t do to have the two come to blows after all. Takemichizuki put his hands onto Hestia’s shoulders and gently pulled her away as Hermes did the same for Loki, albeit with a lot more effort.
“Easy, Hestia,” he told her. “Your child would be disappointed if he learned about you getting into a needless fight.”
“Hmph.” Hestia folded her arms and looked away. “She’s the one who started it.”
“Sparks still fly like fireworks whenever you two meet each other, huh?” a third voice spoke, their tone lacking in surprise while drawing their attention. There stood the Goddess of the Forge, Hephaestus. “Goodness, the others were starting to take bets.”
Hestia’s frown was replaced with a brighter smile. “Hephaestus! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while now.”
“If it’s for a loan, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not giving you one,” she said, setting one hand on her hip.
“No, not that,” Hestia insisted. “Since you and Take are both here, I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, like if you have any children who might want to join in a party with mine?”
“What’s so great about just having two lumps of meat hanging off your chest,” Loki muttered indignantly as she grabbed another drink from a passing member of Ganesha Familia and leaned against a wall, watching bitterly as Hestia tried to arrange a playdate for her child.
Then the sound of high-heels clicking against the floor drew her eyes up to the approaching beauty. With skin as white as ivory and smooth as silk, her dress hugged her body sinfully tight and showed off her mature shape. It was the Goddess of Beauty in the flesh.
“Having a bad night, Loki?” Freya said with a soft, naturally-seductive smile.
“Whaddya want?” Loki demanded, pointedly looking away from the cleavage on display in front of her.
“I overheard your discussion with Hestia and something you said caught my interest. Mind telling me more about it over a drink of Soma?”
In stark contrast to the clamor of the Gods and Goddesses in Orario, there was only a single conversation that permeated the absolute, serene silence of the Hunter’s Dream.
The Plain Doll, her pale and porcelain body dressed in clothing that were finely-crafted and exuding a benign warmth that had been woven into the stitch, sat among the luminous flowers that rested on a hill by the phantasmal headstone. Her head was bowed before it as her soft voice rang out ephemerally in prayer.
“Oh, Good Hunter. I pray your suffering spirit has found comfort in your fleeting respite. I pray your tender heart has been soothed. But the Dream beckons thee to bring the long night an end. And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…”
Chapter 10: Concerns of a Goddess and Child 2
“Oh, it looks like the Loki Familia is here tonight,” Syr mused, watching as the famous group went past them and to a reserved table. The multi-racial band drew several whispers, their expedition having come to an end and their return sudden, though not unwelcomed.
Before the waitress turned back in his direction, Bell dove behind the bar to use as cover to shield himself from their eyes. He didn’t want to be seen. Not by Aiz Wallenstein.
“Bell?” Syr’s voice drew his eyes to her. She was looking at him with a mixture of surprise and concern over the abrupt, panicked reaction. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are they here?” he asked, peeping over the top of the bar for an instant before ducking back down when he noticed that Aiz was staring in their direction, head tilted slightly.
“They’re regulars here,” Syr explained. “Their Goddess, Loki, likes to eat here.”
Bell’s memory of what happened during the Minotaur fight after he’d hit his head was a little hazy. But he recalled how he had been covered in blood and was terrifying enough that a Level 5 had warily drawn her blade against him. What kind of terror from Yharnam had he brought with him when he returned to have elicited that reaction?
…He probably should apologize to her for that, now that he thought about it. But that would invite questions, especially when she was surrounded by her comrades. Not to mention that if their Goddess was with them, she could probably pick up on the same scent that his Goddess did. It would draw attention, which would go against Hestia’s urgings for him to avoid doing so after yesterday.
Better to get out before that happens, Bell decided as he reached through his pocket for the necessary valis and handed them over to Syr. “Listen, I have to leave. I know you’re on break, but can you place that order to go for me? I’ll wait outside for it.”
“Sure… give me a minute,” she said, looking confused at the sudden shift in the mood before leaving to carry out his order. He imagined it looked pretty suspicious from her point of view. They were just chatting happily moments ago and finding common ground. Then he ducked behind the bar and decided to leave.
So much for whatever good impression I was making before. Bell couldn’t help but sigh. He still didn’t have many friends after two weeks here, so her company was surprisingly welcomed. Still, if the Loki Familia are regulars here then it would probably be better if I don’t come very often. It’s a shame since the food was decent and Syr seemed like an interesting person to know, but—
“What’cha thinkin’ about back here?”
“Gah!” He ended up shouting in surprise as he turned his head to find that there was now a woman above him, leaning over the counter with her head inches from his face. Without a doubt, in a glance, he could feel that this was a Goddess.
The Goddess Loki, to be exact.
“Ya don’ hafta shout.” She dug a finger into her ear to emphasize the point. “Anyway, I heard from some of my children ya had a nasty run-in with a Minotaur. Figured I’d extend an apology on their end and invite ya over to drink on us.”
“T-That’s alright,” Bell insisted. “Really, I’m heading home now and shouldn’t stumble back drunk. My Goddess might be upset if I did.”
“Oh, and which Goddess is that?”
“Uh… Hestia.” He noticed her expression shifted upon hearing that name. Mild surprise.
“Huh… when did she manage to get a Level 2 to join her little Familia.”
“I’m Level 1,” Bell corrected.
“Oh?” She leaned forward, the corners of her lips tugging into a less than innocent smile as her eyes opened halfway to reveal a shade of red that reminded Bell too much of blood. “Ya know, Minotaurs tend to be more than anyone below an experienced Level 2 Adventurer can handle on their own. So how’d ya beat one?”
Bell winced as he stabbed himself in the foot with that. He didn’t want to lie to her. After all, she would see through it in an instant and that would just make her more curious. So… half-truth?
“…I just fought desperately because I didn’t want to die,” he said slowly. “Moving on instinct at the end, I managed to reach into its chest where there was a cut and pulled out its magic stone. That’s all.”
It was all true, to an extent. He didn’t want to die and return to Yharnam, so he fought desperately. He was running on instinct and he did pull the stone out of the monster’s chest.
“Mmm… well, ya’re not lyin’ from what I can tell, so I’ll buy that a Level 1 got lucky…” She trailed off as she sniffed him. “But that still doesn’t explain why I can smell the moon clinging to ya. Where’d a ya pick that scent up?”
Bell stiffened like a steel rod had been shoved into his spine. That he couldn’t give a half-truth about. And he couldn’t answer without drawing any attention to him given the circumstances. It would cause more problems for him—and, more importantly, Hestia. So, he did the only reasonable thing he could do.
Loki blinked as she pushed off the top of the bar counter and looked off in the direction of the doors that were still slow to shut. The boy that smelled of the moon had bounded over the counter and burst through the doors like a scurrying rabbit, fleet of foot with his white hair fluttering. She was genuinely surprised at the overreaction.
She sighed as she turned and took a seat in his still warm stool, the attention in the bar torn between the exit and her. Not that she minded. She’d only wanted answers so that she could put Aiz’s mind at ease and so her attention would go back to her. From how Aiz had risen up to give chase, only to stop as Riveria tapped her arm and gave a small shake of the head, it seemed she’d failed.
“Ah, he left before we could give him his food,” said the waitress he’d been talking to before. She then looked at the bags now next to Loki. “And he left his belongings…”
“I’ll take them to him,” said another server, an elven woman with green hair.
Loki paid them little mind before she threw her hands behind her head and walked back over.
“Godness, how was that an apology?” Riveria asked in a reproaching tone, one eye closed and the other fixed on her. “You managed to both scare him off and inconvenience the staff.”
“I just asked him question about that smell clinging to him,” Loki said defensively as she returned to her seat and leaned back. “I didn’t think he’d take off like a frightened rabbit, or else I woulda sent Bete to chase him down so we could put Aizuu’s mind at ease.”
“I still didn’t smell anything unusual,” Bete said, looking mildly displeased at the implication he was meant to be a hunting dog as she took a drink from her cup. But, given how sharp his nose was, it was obviously something that bothered him to be overlooking. “Besides, I don’t see what’s so interesting about a rookie that Aiz scared off.”
Aiz ignored him to ask Loki, “Did you figure—”
Loki held her finger to Aiz’s lips to silence her before she could finish. “Hee-hee… that can wait until we’re back home. For now, let’s just celebrate!”
Her lips pursed as she pushed Loki’s hand aside, but she didn’t contest it. Which was good since explaining it now ran the risk of being overheard and more questions being asked. After all, if ordinary folks weren’t able to smell it, then how was Aiz able to?
Bell panted as he leaned over, legs bent and back against a lamp that used a magic stone for illumination while he struggled to catch his breath. He’d ran far without considering what direction he wanted to go, simply running to get away from a threat. Much like he’d done in Yharnam.
“And I forgot the food and my gifts,” he noted after catching his breath, his voice exasperated as he brought his hands to his face and groaned. He had to go back to get those, but after that fiasco it would be both embarrassing and shameful. He entertained the thought of just camping out close and waiting for them to leave—
—when the abrupt sound coming from next to him caused him to shoot forward in surprise, turning as he reached for a weapon that wasn’t in his grasp. He then noticed that it was one of the women working in the bar, judging from her outfit. She stood there with a subdued expression as she held the things he’d left behind in her outstretched arms.
“Syr wished for you to have these,” she said, unbothered by the motion. “You forgot them.”
He exhaled, the tension leaving his body and being filled in with more embarrassment that felt heavy in his stomach. He rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped forward to accept them and then gave her an apology as well. “Thanks for this, and I’m sorry. I couldn’t answer that Goddess’ questions, but I didn’t want lie, so….”
“Every Adventurer has their secrets, as well as the right to keep them,” she said plainly. “If you still feel the need to apologize, then it should be done to Syr and in person.”
He consented with a nod. “You’re right. I’ll tell her tomorrow.”
That said, she then proceeded to walk away and left Bell to his own thoughts. Since Hestia didn’t want him going in the Dungeon for a little while, he supposed it was only proper that he apologize to Syr in person tomorrow. But for now, he proceeded to walk back towards his home beneath the church.
He found her in the main section of the church, looking at the weapons that he’d brought and left behind with an appraising eye. Weapons weren’t her dominion, but he supposed that since she was friendly with Hephaestus she would have some knowledge of common weapons. However, given that Bell hadn’t seen anything like them in Orario, they were no doubt something she didn’t fully grasp.
All the same, Hestia wasn’t exactly pleased that Bell had drawn Loki’s eyes when he explained what happened in the Dungeon and then the pub. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was worried more than anything as she ate the food he’d brought while sitting next to him on one of the intact pews. He decided to save giving her the book and ribbon until afterwards, if only to add some levity after the impending conversation.
The fork sticking out of the corner of her lips shifted before Hestia removed the utensil and frowned. “Your judgement wasn’t wrong when you met Loki. I’ll try to tell her to back off at the Banquet, but the fact that she caught that scent means you’ve drawn her attention and that’s the last thing we want given the circumstances.”
“I know,” Bell said, nodding in agreement. “I didn’t want to cause you trouble.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Hestia assured him. “She and I haven’t been on the best terms, so the moment she found out you were my Familia she would have pestered you anyway. Still, while we can pass off you killing that Minotaur as simply being lucky, that scent is another story. It should have thinned, but when I compared it coming off you to that new weapon, and then against the old ones, its stronger.”
“That’s probably because the Messengers brought it straight from the Dream,” Bell said.
“If that’s the case then these ‘Messengers’ must be connected to everything, including this ‘Hunter’s Dream’ you mentioned.” She huffed as she set the fork down onto the plate. “Can you call them up?”
“I think so. If I concentrate.” He focused on the rune burned into the back of his mind once more, mentally pleading with them to appear as he stared at the weapons laying beneath the statue of the false goddess. He wordlessly, fervently begged them to appear there.
Silence lingered in the church abandoned by all but the two of them. Then they appeared, emerging seamlessly from the ground, the space around the weapons rippling. The emaciated, bandaged humanoids appeared.
Bell swallowed as he turned his gaze to Hestia, unsure of how she would react to their appearance. Given how shocked he’d been when he first saw them, it was startling if you didn’t get to see how harmless they were. But Hestia only leaned forward with her nose twitching.
“I can smell that the scent of the moon is stronger now,” she said as she jumped to her feet and walked over to where his weapons were. “Are they coming now?”
“They’re here,” he said as he looked between the waving Messengers and how her eyes were narrowed. But when she moved her hand, her slender fingers passed straight through without making contact. There was no reaction. “You just touched them.”
She blinked. “I did?”
Bell got up and came over to the front of the statue, extending his hand before them. Like before, the Little Ones clamored over one another to touch him with their thin, wiry fingers. “They’re touching me just fine.”
“Could it be that I can’t see or interact with them?” Hestia wondered as she brought her one hand to her chin while observing Bell. “Can you have them take the weapons back then?”
He nodded and then turned to the Little Ones. “Can you take these weapons back to the Hunter’s Dream for me?”
They did so eagerly, grasping the Hunter’s Pistol, Saw Spear, and Saw Cleaver by their handles. They didn’t bother trying to lift them, but rather the ground rippled further like a pond. The weapons sank into them along with the Messengers, dragging them into the depths beyond sight until they vanished entirely.
He then turned back to Hestia to see her frowning as she rubbed her temples gingerly and asked, “Goddess, are you okay?”
“I just got a bit of a headache watching that,” she said as she walked back over to the pew and took a seat. A sigh followed. “From the looks of it, only you can see or interact with these Messengers. But, at the same time, they can interact with this world, so they have to be corporeal. There has to be something I’m missing… maybe it’s because of one of your skills?”
Bell sat back down next to her and joined in thinking as well. The only three references he had in regard to this were the Plain Doll, Gehrman, and Eileen the Crow. “Gehrman mentioned something about signing a contract to enter the Hunter’s Dream for a purpose, while Eileen told me that she ‘no longer dreamed’ and couldn’t access it anymore.”
“A contract?” Hestia lowered her hands and gave a nod after a moment of thought. “It may be possible to do something like that, along with everything else, for a God or Goddess using our Arcanum. But anyone who uses their power would be immediately kicked back up to Deusdia, where our influence is limited on this plane, so…”
She trailed off, diving deeper in thought for a prolonged period with Bell not daring to break her concentration. However, eventually, she just huffed in a frustrated manner as her pigtails wavered as though they were alive from the strain. “If possible, I wanted to speak to this Doll who tampered with your Falna myself to get to the bottom of this. But it doesn’t look like that’s possible if we’re not the one ‘dreaming,’ as you put it. I could probably try to use my Arcanum, but—”
“You can’t!” Bell said abruptly, setting his hands on her shoulders. “If you do that then you’ll have to go away. I don’t want you to give up everything on this world for me.”
“…But does a Goddess who can’t do anything for her child really have a reason to be here in the first place?” Hestia asked, her cerulean eyes looking into his ruby pair before drifting down to her lap. “If I had done a better job to prepare you for going down there, then you wouldn’t have gone through all of that. So, if you could at least continue adventuring under a new Familia, then going back would be worth it.”
“Just being here is enough,” he told her softly, reciting what he’d told Syr earlier in the day. “You accepted me when no one else would. You gave me a family and home when I had none before. If you sacrifice everything for me, then you might free me, but it’d be no different than if I died as far as I’m concerned.”
“Bell…” His words made her shoulders tremble for a moment. Then her hands came up, lithe fingers overlaying his. “You’re a really good child… I’m lucky to have found you.”
Bell, with his heart thundering at how smooth her touch felt and the warmth that dwelled in them, was left momentarily speechless. The atmosphere had shifted abruptly into something tenser than ever before to him. Suffocating almost. He needed an out.
Then he recalled his gifts. He pulled his hands away and handed her them before excusing himself to go down and take another shower, citing that all the running from before had left him in need of one and he wanted to wash as much of the moon scent away as he could. He didn’t see the gentle smile she wore as she looked upon the ribbon and book.
Nor hear the promise she made in her heart afterwards.
Chapter 9: Concerns of a Goddess and Child
“I thought you might know her, given your Familia is a medicinal-type and that’s part of her dominion,” Hestia said, noting that the smell of medicines being brewed was somewhat poignant as it clung to the back of her throat.
Unaware of her child’s venture into the Dungeon, Hestia had gone to visit her friend Miach’s shop the moment she got off work. Miach once had one of the most prominent Medical Familias in all of Orario. A rival to the famed Dian Cecht Familia in its prime.
Miach’s Familia had fallen on hard times due to the fact that one of his children, Naaza, had sustained an injury that cost her an arm and left her with a crippling fear of the Dungeon. The price of replacing the arm, which was no doubt raised to unreasonable amounts by Dian Cecht to be rid of his competition, had left the Familia with a huge debt. Now, much like Hestia, he had only a single child as well.
Whereas some other Gods and Goddesses would abandon a child who was no longer able or willing to go into the Dungeon, he’d taken it upon himself to ensure the best possible treatment for his own. There was no ill will when he allowed his other children to leave the Familia so they wouldn’t be burdened. Instead, he sheltered it on his own shoulders without complaint.
Hestia actually admired him for that.
“Hmm…” Miach brought his hand to his chin in thought at Hestia’s question. “Well, it’s been some time since I’ve even heard her name. She had quite a bit of trouble establishing a Familia with myself and Dian Cecht around, and I haven’t seen her in Orario for years now at any of the functions we attend. So it’s possible that she left for greener pastures elsewhere.”
“That makes things a bit difficult then,” Hestia said, followed by a sigh. It was extremely difficult for an established Familia and Adventurers to leave the city, due to the amount of paperwork involved. Even with only one child to her name, it would take time to get clearance. “I don’t know where to begin to look for her if she’s left, but I need to find her.”
“Well, Hermes would probably be aware of her location,” Miach suggested. “I can’t be certain whether he will attend or not, but the Banquet of the Gods is tomorrow night. I hadn’t planned on attending myself, but you could go and try asking the others there if they’ve heard from her as well.”
Hestia’s lips formed into a small frown at the thought. She wasn’t really in the mood to attend the celebration either. And she knew that Loki would be there. Being the Goddess of one of the larger Familias in Orario had given her a big ego, especially when Hestia only had one child in her care…
But it was the best place to go for information. And Hephaestus would be there, which would allow Hestia to talk to her without having to wait for her schedule to be cleared. So, she supposed she had to go.
Thanking Miach for the advice, Hestia departed back for the abandoned church that she called home. It belonged to Hephaestus, but she was allowed to use it for both herself and her child. Some distance away she could see Bell opening the door to the church, peeking in through a crack as though to spy on what was inside. She opened her mouth to call out to him on reflex until she noticed… well, everything.
Bell’s clothes were in a horrible condition. The fabric of his shirt was torn, reduced to red-tinged scraps that hung off his frame and exposed his skin in patches—though his Falna was thankfully covered up. His pants had tears in them too, claws or fangs having dug into them at one point and pulled free flesh judging from the bloodstains on them.
In his hand was a long weapon wrapped in a cloth stained a disturbingly dark shade of crimson to hide the blade. It looked like the one he’d shown her yesterday from that nightmarish place that he’d went after he… after he died.
Did he die again without me knowing? Her blood ran cold at the thought until Bell opened the door further and began to enter. She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat and called out to him. “Bell!”
He went from a foot in the door to ramrod straight, slowly turning his head towards her with a mechanical stiffness. The expression on his face wasn’t that of the one he’d shown her yesterday when he first got back to her side, ruby-toned eyes lacking the horror they’d held before. It was just a look of shame, or guilt perhaps?
“Goddess, I….” He swallowed, and then threw himself on the ground to bow his head. “Forgive me! I went to the Dungeon today!”
…It was like a child who had been caught doing something that he wasn’t supposed to apologizing to his mother. The moment she realized that, the tension lessened. Hestia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in relief. Then the scolding started.
“I told you to take it easy after that happened yesterday,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “Why did you go back to the Dungeon?”
He raised his head until he was sitting his knees, hands resting on his thighs. “I didn’t want you to have to work to support me when I was still capable of going into the Dungeon. It wouldn’t have been fair to you.”
“Going in after what you just went through isn’t any better,” Hestia pointed out, crouching down to look over his body. There wasn’t a scratch on him from what she could tell, despite some of the blood on his clothes definitely being his. The other hues were from monsters, if she had to guess. “Explain what happened to your clothes.”
“A lot of monsters came out to attack me,” he started. “The Kobolds weren’t much of a threat though. In fact, the usual ones didn’t really manage to touch me. I think it was because of the increase in my Falna. Most of the tears were from the War Shadows when they worked with the Frog Shooters, but—”
“Wait, War Shadows!?” Fear crept up her spine as she recognized the name of that kind of monster that lurked in the Dungeon. They weren’t found on the upper floors, where rookie Adventurers worked out of. She grabbed his shoulders and demanded, “Bell… how far down did you go?”
He fixed his eyes to the ground in shame before he mumbled the answer she didn’t want to hear. “The Sixth Floor.”
Her fear turned into anger born from worry. He had just died on the Fifth Floor not even a day ago. He’d died, gone to a nightmarish place of blood and beasts, and fought desperately to return to her side. And he went even lower into the Dungeon after that? “Why?”
“…because all I can do is go into the Dungeon,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t plan on going past the Fifth Floor at first, but it was too easy. The Goblins and Kobolds didn’t pose a threat, and the Minotaur was an irregularity. I was just going to go a floor or two deeper to familiarize myself with the monsters there for when I eventually did go deeper.”
Hestia wanted to say that he shouldn’t have gone there at all. That he shouldn’t force himself to do that. That she was afraid of losing him without even realizing it again. But he was an Adventurer and, as much as she wanted to keep him safe, he did have to go lower at some point.
There was no telling how long it would take for her to find Hermes or Achelois, and the number of people she could trust to tell about Bell’s ordeal could be counted on a single hand if she wanted to make sure it didn’t spread around. Even so, until they knew what was going on, she didn’t want him to put himself at risk like that. There were too many things they didn’t know about his condition: the tampering with his Falna by the Doll, the Blessing of Flora and Beasthood skills that he’d gotten, and everything else. She needed to find answers for that first so that she could help him.
“Bell,” she said softly. His eyes rose to meet hers and she had a pleading look in her eyes. “Promise me that you won’t go into the Dungeon until I at least get back from the Banquet of the Gods. Okay?”
He nodded obediently. “I promise I won’t go into the Dungeon until you get back and tell me too.”
She could tell he wasn’t lying, so she placed her trust in him once more as she stood back up. Then she noticed the bag on his back and how it had a visible weight to it. “You didn’t exchange the magic stones yet, did you?”
“I was planning on going to the Guild after I got changed since I didn’t want to freak out Miss Eina again,” he said as he rose up to his feet, scratching the back of his head. “She… kind of told me not to go that deep as well just yesterday.”
The Goddess of Home and Hearth huffed. He should have listened to that advice. “Then get changed and go trade in everything you got at the Guild. You can use that money to buy yourself new clothes, pay off the loans you have, and whatever else you need.”
Her sapphire eyes then turned to the weapon he had in his hand. It was definitely different from the one she’d seen before. Taller, with the wrapping even more smeared with blood and filth. “And when you get back, you’re going to tell me how you got this one too.”
I hope this’ll do as an apology to her, Bell thought to himself as he looked down to the bag he was carrying in his hands, containing not only a change of clothes to replace that he lost today in the Dungeon but gifts from a book store and accessory shop that were close to Babel. He passed by them every day but rarely gave them a glance normally, since they didn’t interest him very much. Today though, he wanted to appease Hestia after he’d disobeyed her by going that deeply into the Dungeon, so he’d spent time finding something he thought she would like.
It was getting dark now, partly due to the fact that it had taken so long to exchange his magic stones and monster drops at the Guild a little while ago. It was busier than usual, or at least by his normal standards since he only hung out in the Upper Floors and could get back to the surface relatively quickly since he didn’t often have much to carry. He supposed for people who went deeper, it was natural they’d surface later.
The valis he’d earned from the monster drops, rather than the magic stone shards. were more than enough for him to pay off the cost of the equipment and knife he’d been given by the Guild starting out. That was a testament to how ferociously the Dungeon had tried to get rid of him, since only places where the magic was extremely dense in their bodies persisted after the stones were removed from them. He would need to buy some lightweight armor before he went that deep into the Dungeon again after Hestia finished going to the banquet tomorrow.
Still, I wonder if it’ll be enough to please her? I know she likes books, but not specifically which ones would interest her the most. And while the ribbon is the same color as her normal one, it’s a bit thicker—
His head snapped up as he felt eyes, heavy and hard peering down on him from somewhere. It was like the weight of an ocean pushing down on him, a whirlpool spiraling to pull him in. He looked around to see that there were others on the street, some humans, other demi-humans, none that were focused on him.
He started walking again, gaze peering over his shoulder as he tried to see if there was anyone fixated on him. Am I imagining things or maybe—
Bell’s train of thought was broken when he bumped into someone by mistake, a soft and feminine voice slipping out in surprise. He looked down to see he had toppled a girl who looked slightly older than him, dressed in a pale green skirt and white blouse. Her hair was a shade of grey that was closer to blue, matching her eyes as she looked up at him with a surprised expression.
“I’m so sorry!” Bell said hastily, extending a hand for her to take. Her slender fingers found their way into his and he pulled her onto her feet. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit startled, but nothing broken,” she said as she dusted herself off and took in his appearance. “You wouldn’t be an Adventurer, would you?”
He nodded his head. “I haven’t been one for long, but I am.”
That bit of news seemed to make her day as her inquisitive look transitioned into a smile and she clasped her hands together. “That’s lucky. I was actually coming out to look for one.”
“Mm-hm.” She gestured to the building made of stone, standing two stories tall with a terrace in the middle. It could honestly pass as an Inn at a glance, and there was an abundance of sounds coming through the double doors, indicating that it was lively within. “Our bar, the Hostess of Fertility, is having a special right now for new Adventurers. You’ll be able to eat one meal for free, whatever you want.”
“…I’ll have to pass,” he told her, reluctantly. The thought of eating free food appealed to him greatly, but he didn’t want to spend more valis than necessary given their living situation. However, he’d feel guilty if only he got to eat a delicious meal when she didn’t after working.
However, the girl with eyes and hair that caught a slight sheen in the encroaching moonlight bit her lower lip and gave him a pleading look. “If not you then I’ll have to wait out here in the dark until someone else comes by or Mama Mia will be upset with me.”
“I just wouldn’t feel right that I got to eat something great when my Goddess hasn’t,” Bell said, looking away and thinking about how unfair it was she was plying him with that sort of shy, cute look. “We’re not that well-off as a Familia.”
She immediately turned it around on him. “We allow you to carry out as well. You can try something and then bring another one back to her as a gift. That way we’ll both get what we want and she’ll be happy you were thinking about her.”
It… couldn’t hurt, could it? Bell opened his mouth to give her a response when the din of the Main Street in the early night was broken by the sound of his stomach rumbling, much to his embarrassment. In his defense, the last thing he’d really eaten were the snacks Hestia had gotten him as breakfast.
“Should I take that as a ‘yes,’ Mr. Adventurer?” she asked, a playful smile on her face.
He could only scratch his head and respond with a sheepish, “I guess one meal couldn’t hurt… Miss…”
“My name’s Syr Flover,” she said, introducing herself. “You can just call me Syr. And you?”
“Bell Cranel,” he answered. “Just Bell is fine.”
“Then follow me inside, Bell.” She grasped his hand with both of hers and led him inside. A warm glow was spreading throughout the wooden interior due to the lanterns burning above, giving off a contemporary atmosphere that would lift the spirits of anyone. The staff were all women, interracial ranging from Elven to Cat People, smiling as they moved with purpose between the different tables housing other Adventurers that were all sitting and reveling in their drinks and food as they chatted with one another.
It was a nice place, if Bell had to admit. One that made the dangers of the Dungeon far off and forgotten. But that feeling of being watched was still there, the pressure lessened but not completely gone. His eyes spanned the place once more, but he still couldn’t make out who was observing him. Was he just paranoid after all?
“Mama, here’s a new Adventurer for you,” Syr said as she brought him to a seat at the counter, where the Dwarfess that he presumed to be the owner was waiting. “This one’s special, so treat him well, okay?”
Then Syr was gone and Bell was alone at the counter seat. Mia’s dark eyes sized him up and Bell felt relatively small compared to her. However, she then smiled and spoke in a manner and broke the image had been forming of her in his head. “How long have you been an Adventurer?”
“Ah, a little over two weeks now,” he replied politely as he sat the bag he carried down on the floor. “I just arrived in Orario around then and joined a Familia, so I haven’t been in a bar before now.”
“Then you’re in luck. The Hostess of Fertility is one of the finest establishments in all of Orario! We serve the people during the day, and Adventurers here at night.” She passed him a menu along. “Eat to your heart’s content!”
He took it, or rather had it forced into his hands, and looked through the choices he had. The menu was rather diverse, so he placed an order to see if it was something Hestia would enjoy. It had barely been in front of him for a minute before Syr returned, dragging a stool next to him and taking a seat in it.
“So, how do you like our bar and food so far?” she asked.
“They’re both great,” he told her with a slight smile, though he’d only take a bite out of it so far. “I don’t think I’ve had food this good since I got here, and it feels nice to be somewhere with people who are just unwinding without having to watch out for the next thing trying to leap out of the shadows to kill you. I’d like to bring my Goddess here someday too.”
“Which Goddess do you serve under?”
“Hestia,” he said, to which she looked a bit unfamiliar with. Not surprising. “You probably haven’t heard of her since our Familia only started about two weeks ago and it’s just the two of us. We’re pretty poor, so I have to go into the Dungeon everyday so that we can make a living.”
“It must be hard doing all of that alone.”
“I stumbled around at first because I didn’t have someone to teach me, but I’m managing now.” Ignoring what happened yesterday, he thought privately to himself. “Besides, I’m not alone since my Goddess is there when I get back. That counts more than anything else.”
She tilted her head slightly at that, a rather playful smile forming on her face again as he took a bite of the meat next. “It sounds like you’re in love with her when you say it like that.”
Bell nearly choked at the accusation, a spot of crimson painting his cheeks. He forced down the meat and gasped before stating. “No, it’s not like that!”
“What is it like then?” Syr asked as she looked at him expectantly.
“When I came to the city, I tried to join some of the bigger Familias,” he explained. “Every single one rejected me, since I was a farm kid without any sort of experience, and I didn’t have any family since my Gramps died a year ago. If she didn’t take me in, I wouldn’t have anything at all. Since then it’s been like having a family again, even if it’s just the two of us. She’s supporting my dreams and helping me in whatever way she can, despite having so little herself. I’m really grateful to her, so I want to make her happy and repay her no matter what. Is that wrong?”
“…No, it’s not,” Syr said in a softer tone. “You’d be surprised at how many people feel that way.”
Bell thought he caught a deep meaning with the way she said that, but then she perked right back up and changed the topic to tell him a little more about the Hostess of Fertility. It turned out that Mama Mia was a former Adventurer herself and that she hired girls or women from different background. Since she liked meeting new people and learning new things, the job was one that Syr found enjoyment in as well since she’d never really get bored.
“I know the feeling,” Bell said. “It was overwhelming when I first got here. It still is, really. But you learn something new every day and there’s still a bunch left to learn as you go on. That’s what makes Orario special.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Syr agreed with a smile that seemed to brighten the room a touch more.
Bell found himself staring for a moment at the sight, before the doors opened and a group of ten or so Adventurers entered. His heart stilled as he noticed the golden-haired figure among them, one who had seen him that day on the Fifth Floor. Ais Wallenstein had arrived with other members of the Loki Familia in tow, bringing his moment of peace to an end.
Interlude 1: Orario
Hestia listened with increasing worry as her child recounted his journey into the Dungeon today. In the few hours that he had been gone, he had apparently been beset by a Minotaur on the Fifth Floor and killed before landing in a strange world where he hunted Beasts. There he died thrice, once by crushing, once by falling, and once by being devoured, before prevailing over the towering Beast responsible for those deaths. Then he returned to the Fifth Floor, where he’d first died, and slew the Minotaur responsible for it all in the first place before he left the Dungeon.
If she had to be honest, Hestia would have normally thought Bell was just exaggerating things. From what she’d been told most young Adventurers did, and if he’d died she would’ve felt her blessing vanish and know it happened. But… there were too many things that stopped her from brushing what he was saying off as an exaggeration.
To begin with, mortals couldn’t lie to Gods and Goddesses. It was an inherent ability they possessed, being able to discern a mortal’s truths from their lies. Not that it would be unforgivable if he was lying to her. Bell was the first (and only) person who joined her and he was such a sweet boy. So even if he did lie to her, she would forgive him.
But Bell had been honest with her since they had first met one another and became Familia. With how vividly he recalled the details, it was clearly something that he didn’t just come up with on the spur of the moment either. From what she could tell, he sincerely believed that all of that happened to him as an absolute truth.
And there was the scent wafting off him thickly. The lunar scent of the moon was clinging to his flesh like perfume that was rubbed off a Goddess who either held dominion or some power over it. Given that magic related to the moon tended to be based around illusions, she entertained the belief that he had been caught in one before entering the Dungeon and it took effect while he was there.
But there were only a handful of moon-based Goddesses that came down to this plane of existence. She didn’t think that Artemis was involved, and she was more known for her hunting prowess over illusions in the first place. And the only ones she could remember right off the top of her head were Metztli and Achelois. The latter was a lunar Goddess that did technically exchange blood for healing, so the very nauseous notion that he could drink or bathe in blood to heal himself certainly fit her domain. But Hestia didn’t know where she was since she came down a long time ago.
I’ll ask Hephaestus and Miach later, she decided. For now, she was more concerned about how Bell referred to that living doll possibly messing with his Falna and the effect it had on him. “Bell, I need you to strip.”
“Eh?” Bell went rigid, stunned from his position next to her on the couch and looking dumbfounded.
“Your shirt.” She reached for the hem of it with her slender fingers. “I want to look at your Falna.”
“Oh… okay.” He stripped out of his shirt to expose his torso and then laid prone on the bed they shared.
Strength: I-77 > F-392
Defense: I-13 > F-373
Dexterity: I-93 > I-96
Agility: H-148 > E-487
Blessing of Flora
Hestia bit her lower lip at the unbelievable increase in his various stats. Sure, new adventurers had a heightened growth rate from what she had been told. But to jump up by several hundred points in multiple categories was unprecedented. And they lined up with what he told her happened with that Doll, who could somehow affect the Falna to change his stats even without her blood.
It didn’t make sense. Only another God or Goddess could do so and they needed her permission first. So how was this possible?
And she’d never heard of either of these inherent skills, which was also worrying. In fact, she couldn’t even read the descriptions because they were in another language that she didn’t recognize instead of the standard of Orario or hieroglyphs.
Hestia needed to know more, meaning she needed to check his excelia itself. Normally she would never invade his privacy like that since it would be like reading the events of his life itself. However, there was too much going on for her to hesitate if some other Goddess was harassing her child. She silently vowed to make it up to him somehow before mounting his back and pricking her finger, allowing a drop of her ichor—divine blood—to drop down.
The moment it came into contact with his flesh, Bell shot up. His back arched like a bow and he let out a surprised cry. “Ah!?”
“Wah!” Hestia shouted as she tumbled backwards at the sudden motion, landing on the floor with a loud thump. She groaned softly, one eye closed as she rubbed her bottom tenderly. “Ow…”
“Goddess, I’m so sorry!” Bell climbed over the edge of the bed and crouched down in front of her, sincere regret in his eyes as he extended a hand to help her up. “The moment your blood touched me I felt a really strong jolt run through my body and couldn’t control it. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She accepted his hand and rose up to her full height. This time she sat next to him as he lay on the bed, to avoid being tossed off again. His excelia flowed upwards and into her view, becoming like pages in a book for her to read through.
There was an immediate discrepancy to be found if she interpreted it like words on the pages of a book, with the paragraphs being the means by which the events of his life were told. Whereas the words that represented his tales were normally written in the language of the gods and possessing a white hue, it came to an abrupt stop where it read of his… of his death, at the end of the paragraph.
Then another paragraph started. The script became red as blood and was written in words that were even more foreign to her than those on his skills. In fact, just looking at them made… made her brain tremble as pictures and meanings flickered and gave her a headache.
She blinked a few times and shook her head to drive them off. Then she changed her focus to what the excelia stated afterwards. Beyond the red paragraphs that made up a third of the page so far, the script turned white again and was written in hieroglyphs. It outlined what he said happened on the Fifth Floor of the Dungeon, battling and prevailing against the Minotaur that killed him.
Hestia felt that there had to be some mistake, but the excelia didn’t lie. Or at least it shouldn’t be able to. The whole situation was strange. It stated he died and then there’s… some kind of illegible text that she couldn’t make out and got a headache just looking at. But the parts she could make out state that he really did die…
Her child, her first child, had died in terror. He died begging for someone to save him. And she, his Goddess, didn’t know. She didn’t hear his prayer and come to his aid.
Her eyes stung at the very thought, crystalline tears swelling and flowing down her cheeks to softly land on his unprotected back. She’d lost her only Familia and didn’t even know. What sort of Goddess was she?
Bell turned his head upon feeling the warm drop touch his skin. “Goddess, what’s wrong?”
“I’m so sorry, Bell.” She sniffled as she struggled to wipe away the tears. “I’m sorry I put you in danger and you had to experience dying like that…”
Bell sat up slowly and set his hands on her shoulders in a comforting manner. “I made that mistake. I shouldn’t have gone that deeply for a silly reason. I should have played it safe.”
“But I sent you there first alone!” She threw herself forward, burying her head into his chest, and held him in her lithe arms as her emotions spilled out. He was her responsibility, yet she had to make him work by himself to provide for them and it got him killed horribly.
“…Goddess, I only got through it because of you,” Bell told her in a gentle, sincere voice as he took her into his grasp fully with a hug. “I just wanted to get back to be your side. And I did, so its fine.”
Her voice was muffled as she trembled, her heated breath washing against his topless and pale torso. “But… but you died because you went there to help earn money for us and look what happened….”
“That doesn’t matter.” He held her tight, as if hoping that it would stop the tremors that ran through her body. “You took someone talentless and from the country like me in without caring that I had nothing to offer, and you gave me a home and a family. That’s why I was willing to go through it all—so I didn’t leave you alone like that.”
Hestia continued to cry until she couldn’t cry anymore. She didn’t know if she should be grateful that it was because of this Dream and Doll that he had a chance to come back to her, or angry that in order for him to do so they put him through Hell when he should be in Heaven rightly. But one thing she loathed was that she had been ignorant of it all and failed to help him when he need it.
Yes, she had failed him once. But she wouldn’t do so again. Whatever happened from now on, she would do her best to help him get through it. And she’d start by figuring out just who this scent belonged to and how they were able to screw around with her Blessing.
Grateful or not, no one would toy with her child and put him through all of that again…
As the rays of the sun graced her skin after her Familia finally emerged from the Dungeon to the streets of Orario again, many members of Ais’ group stretched and let out sighs of relief. The expedition only carried them as far as they’d been before but it took a long time to get down there and back, so many had yearned to see the sun again and rejoiced in it.
However, her thoughts were still back in the Dungeon, on the Fifth Floor, as she continued to stare at her hand in mild confusion. She couldn’t get over her encounter with the white-haired boy and the mystifying scent that filled the floor once things had settled down. It lingered even after he ran up the floors to the surface, but to her surprise none of the others could pick it up. Even Bete, who had one of the sharpest noses among their Familia, could only pick up the scent of blood and steel.
Now that she was on the surface the scent was thinning. The fresh air diffused it far more quickly than the stale Dungeon floors, and now it was faint enough that it would vanish entirely soon. If she left it to do so without chasing after it, then would she run into him again?
“Is there something still bothering you, Ais?” Riveria asked. Her name reached Bete’s ears and he turned his attention to her as well.
“That scent is here too,” she said.
Bete’s nose shifted as he tried to pick it up to no avail. “I still don’t smell anything out of the ordinary.”
“It’s leading that way,” she said, looking off in the direction that was the thickest. “I think… it’s going to the Guild.”
“Well, if that boy you mentioned was an Adventurer then he’d likely have to go there to turn in any magic stones that he earned at the Exchange,” Riveria said. “You and I can stop by if it’s bothering you that much.”
“…Sorry for the burden,” Ais said.
“It’s fine.” Riveria set a hand on her shoulder and walked off with her towards that direction until they arrived. There they found it somewhat crowded as people went back and forth, with the various employees keeping busy with the exception of one that they approached.
She straightened up when she recognized them. There were few who didn’t know the Nine Hells or Sword Princess when it came to adventuring. “Miss Wallenstein, Miss Ljos Alf, how can I be of help to you?”
“Has an Adventurer come by?” Ais asked. “He’s a boy that has white-hair. And red eyes.”
“Oh, that sounds like Eina’s Adventurer,” the woman said. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Riveria’s expression shifted as the Guild employee retrieved the other employee, going from her normally respectful demeanor to somewhat motherly as the woman approached with hurried steps and then stood proper.
“It’s good to see you’re doing well,” Riveria told her. “You’ve grown beautifully since last we met, Eina.”
“Thank you for the high praise, Lady Riveria.” She gave a small bow of her head. “It has been a long time, but I was told you were looking for an Adventurer that I may be advising?”
“Yes, Ais here ran into a young man who has white hair and red eyes on the Fifth Floor, where one of the Minotaur’s scared by our Familia went up to. She wanted to make sure that he made it out of the Dungeon without being harmed.”
“He did a few hours ago,” Eina said. “You have my thanks for saving him.”
Ais tilted her head slightly in confusion at that. “Saving him…?”
“When he came in covered in blood I nearly had a fit,” she said before leaning in closer and speaking in a hushed whisper. “I shouldn’t reveal any personal information, but he had only been going to the Dungeon for two weeks now and shouldn’t have been on the Fifth Floor yet. It would have been terrible if you didn’t arrive and even let him keep the Minotaur’s magic stone.”
That wasn’t what happened, Ais thought to herself. He killed the Minotaur himself. And he’d only be an Adventurer for two weeks? That didn’t make sense.
She looked to Riveria who have her a subtle shake of the head and then spoke in her place. “It’s good that he made it back safely. I know you can’t reveal personal information and you’re busy, but could we at least have his name before we leave?”
“It’s Bell Cranel.”
That name didn’t ring any bells to Ais, so he must not have been an elite or high-ranking Adventurer. But… two weeks and he was able to kill a Minotaur? Was he really a new Adventurer?
“Ais, you said that he killed the Minotaur on his own, correct?” Riveria asked as they departed the Guild, to not take up any more of Eina’s time. Ais nodded in response. “Strange. I’ve known Eina since she was born and she wasn’t lying.”
Then he must’ve lied to his advisor about what happened? Ais quietly thought, even though she couldn’t imagine why anyone would hide what they were capable of? In the end, she had more questions than answers. But at least she knew his name now.
She could work towards finding and asking him herself, along with what that strange scent she couldn’t place was…
Fury, hot and passionate, bubbled within Freya. The colorless soul that she had been observing had become dyed scant few hours ago in the Dungeon. She was watching Bell as he descended down to the Fifth Floor and then something happened as he stood there.
She couldn’t properly explain it, but she gained a massive headache while watching as his soul was colored luminous and pale, tinted with the faintest of reds. It felt like something was writhing in her skull and she was forced to look away until it settled down. The pain was unwelcomed and far from pleasant, but what truly aggravated her was that someone had taken something of hers right under her nose.
That she couldn’t let go unanswered. The question was who the target of her fury would be. The shade of his soul was still unique in that she hadn’t seen that particular color before, but she dared not observe his soul in such a manner as that for some time. But there were other ways to lure out whoever was responsible for it.
And then she’d make them pay.
Chapter 7: Home and Hearth
Bell was in a daze as he walked the streets of Orario again, now outside of the dungeon that sank beneath the earth for an untold number of floors. His body was moving on its own accord down the path it walked the last two weeks. But his mind was still at the scene where he saw that beautiful blond-hair girl ready her sword against him.
He remembered fighting the Minotaur until it managed to launch him and he hit his head on the ground. Then everything was something of a blur, and when he snapped out of it he found its magic stone in his hand. Only then did the sensation of shoving his hand into the torrid, soft, moist flesh come to mind and the scent of its innards and blood touch upon his nose.
Bell shuddered. He’d ripped the magic stone straight from its chest without realizing it, running on instinct. And that scared him on a primal level for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to him.
I’ll just take the stone to Miss Eina and go home, he told himself. That was what needed to be done right here and now. That was why he fought so hard in those blood and filth-encrusted streets, to return to the one who soothed his loneliness and accepted him into her Familia after arriving to the city.
With luck, he spotted Miss Eina the moment he neared the doors to the guild with a book in her hand at the desk. While her uniform was standard for the employees, her pointed ears and emerald eyes were unmistakable as they skimmed over the pages. He entered the door and opened his mouth to greet her.
Then she screamed and he realized that he was still covered in the Minotaur’s blood. “Ah… can I use the upstairs shower?”
“I told you not to go that deep into the Dungeon! Were you even listening to me, Bell?” Miss Eina demanded as she sat across from him at the table, the large magic stone between them. She had hurried Bell up the stairs and into the shower, expecting a full explanation when he was decent.
“I’m sorry,” Bell said after giving her an abridged version, hanging his head in shame to where his moon-toned hair obscured his crimson eyes. “I was careless.”
She huffed audibly. “And you were saved by a female adventurer?”
“…Yeah, that’s it. She had golden hair and matching eyes, a thin frame covered in a blue raiment and breastplate covering her bulging bre—er, chest, with an emblem on it.”
“From the sounds of it, you encountered Ais Wallenstein,” Miss Eina said. “She’s a level 5 member of the Loki Familia, who should be returning from an expedition soon. I’m guessing she let you keep the magic stone afterwards?”
He nodded, going along with letting her make her own conclusions. He couldn’t tell her that he’d killed it to get the magic stone. Not without giving her the whole truth. “Yeah, that’s what happened.”
“You were lucky,” she said. “Be sure to thank her if you see her again and remember: Adventurers shouldn’t go on adventures. Stay in the upper floors until you earn more experience. I’ll be very upset if something happens to you.”
That hurt. She had been doing nothing but helping him and he hated to upset her by ignoring her advice in his search for a girl on the lower-floor. The thought of how she would have reacted if they’d reported they found corpse to her made his heart sink into his stomach. “I’m so sorry.”
She relaxed her features and changed her tone from scolding to something gentler as she set her hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m happy you’re okay. Let’s go get your pay for the day.”
Miss Eina escorted him from there to the Exchange and had Bell trade in his magic stone fragments he had gathered, along with the stone from the Minotaur. The amount was more than he normally earned, enough to where he’d be more than happy under other circumstances, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile as he left the guild to head back home.
“I had to lie to her,” Bell said to himself as he walked down the streets of the Labyrinth City, Orario. “She would’ve thought I’d gone insane if I tried to explain everything that happened. Besides, was being saved by a Level 5 really that bad?”
No sooner than the words left his lips he couldn’t help but wonder what his Grandpa would think of that—rather than being a hero who rescued a princess from danger by slaying monsters, he was in turned saved by a girl who was among the strongest in Orario. Or at least that was how he let it be known to Miss Eina to not worry her further with the fact that he actually did die because he went against her words.
Then there was the fact that the truth wasn’t all that clear. His mind was in a haze after he’d crashed headfirst into the ground. He was just desperate and running on instinct at best and that ended with him having a magic stone in his hand and his arm warm from the fresh blood. Thoughts of what Gascoigne did came to mind on the way back up to the surface, but he imagined how that looked from Aiz’ viewpoint and how terrifying it must’ve been to witness.
“No wonder she raised her sword at me…” How long until he ended up as battle-crazed as that shade of the old hunter who attacked the Cleric Beast relentlessly in a thirst for blood? The question left him shuddering in fear.
He walked with those thoughts haunting him down the streets that steadily grew more abandoned. Soon he reached a dead-end in the Labyrinth City, the cul-de-sac where the dilapidated church that he called home stood. For a place of worship to be abandoned by all, falling into ruins, in a city where most of the Gods dwelled, felt somber. But compared to the grim sights of Yharnam, it was paradise.
The doors groaned as Bell entered, the hinges greeting one of the two guests that graced its domain in years untold. He gently shut the door and walked through the aisle that was nestled between the remains of pews (broken and unbroken) with light from the sun spearing through the holes in the ceiling and nurturing the weeds that sought to break through the broken tiles to reclaim what once belonged to nature. His feet stalled at the altar at the back of the church, near the secret entrance to the basement where his Goddess dwelled.
His eyes then fell onto the Saw Cleaver, wrapped in cloth as he had no sheathe to hold it. The scent of blood was still on it, faint but persistent, and would likely remain until he washed the weapon clean and replaced the wrapping around the handle. He set it down there along with the backpack he still owned, which held the rest of his supplies, and entered the alcove where the secret entrance to the basement was.
Hestia was halfway up the stairway when he opened it. There was a perplexed expression on her otherwise youthful face. But her sapphire eyes relaxed as she recognized him.
“Welcome Home, Bell,” Hestia said. “I wasn’t expecting you this early, but then I caught a scent and was wondering where it came from.”
Bell sniffed himself. “I was sure I’d scrubbed hard enough to get the scent of blood off of me.”
“No, it’s not blood.” She straightened her back, bobbing her black pigtails and pushing her chest out in a way that made the fabric of her clothes cling tight around that area more so than usual. Stepping closer, she braced her lithe hands against his body and pressed her own closer to sniff him. “Rather, it’s like the scent of the moon clinging to you like perfume that rubbed off some woman.”
The scent of the moon—Eileen had mentioned it, but Bell hadn’t been able to smell it. It was a sign of the Dream and its Hunter. He quivered in horror as the vivid memories of Yharnam flashed in his mind and he recalled the Cleric Beast and the Hunt.
Hestia took notice. She pulled back and looked into her child’s eyes. “Bell, what’s wrong?”
Bell couldn’t lie to Hestia. It impossible for a mortal to lie to a divine being, even with their powers sealed while on the lower world. More than that, he didn’t want to lie to the person who relieved him of his loneliness when he arrived at this city from the countryside.
So he told her the full truth—of his death. Of the Dream. Of the Doll.
Of the Hunt.