Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.
Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.
Summary: Liliruca Arde died in the Dungeon. Then she woke up with a burning in her chest and only able to see red. She didn’t know what she had become, but anything was better than her old, weak self.
The quivering of her lips.
The straining of her throat.
The ear-stabbing reverberation.
The scream of the curled figure within the dark chasm was akin to a newborn coming into the world.
A set of chestnut eyes wrenched themselves open the moment there was no more air left to escape the confines of her crinkled lungs. That which greeted her gaze was distant shadows. It was practically bright in contrast to the stygian black that had made up the world a moment prior.
Her lungs burned as she drew in her first breath. The scent of musk and iron assailed her nose. The tang of salt and metal slid along her tongue. It all scraped down her throat like the rusty tip of a knife until her lungs were ready to burst. Then she exhaled and what came out this time was a raspy and shuddering cry laced with tremors and pain.
Pain was her world in the darkness. Her body existed of nothing but different forms of pain.
The constant pressure of unworked stone slowly biting into half of her flesh. The burning of her throat and cracks in her lips. The roiling agony of an empty stomach devouring itself from the inside out. The dull pulsation that accompanied every beat of her heart.
The electrified haze inside of her skull was the worst. Her thoughts. Her memories. They were hidden beneath its obscuring veil. No matter how long or hard she tried to reel them from beneath the fog it refused to yield them to her.
Even her own name was mired somewhere in the mist.
Her breathing slowed as the shadows slowly began to bleed into detail. She could make out the stone womb that she was in. Faint traces of light came from the direction of her feet. Instinctively chasing it left the muscles in her body to throb as they fought off the numbing pain that had taken root. Slowly rousing from what felt like an ancient slumber, her feet slid across the ground until they came to a stop at something hard.
Her head tilted down and her eyes focused. The light was coming through a smaller opening in the stone chamber. Fleeting thoughts managed to breach her mired mind. Walls. Growing. Sealing. Time. Escape.
It took a moment before she managed to put the pieces together. Her stone womb was a wound and now the walls were slowly closing in to mend it. It would become her tomb if she couldn’t get out.
She sucked in a sharp breath as every nerve suddenly came to life in response to her need to survive. There was a rush of heat coming from a molten core in her chest. It flooded her body as her foot lashed out and breached the opening, allowing her to escape the coffin of bedrock on her arms and knees.
Her bones creaked as she stood up on her two legs. She was a meder-and-a-half at full height, her limbs thin and stiff. The cloth that covered her body was old and shorn with fabric thinner in some places. Moist air tickled her bare skin as it crept through a rough gash that threaded the cloth diagonally between her breasts.
She made out her surroundings as she brushed the hair clinging to her forehead out of the way. Space had opened up but still felt claustrophobic as stalagmites and stalactites jutted all over the place and branching paths in the darkness beyond her vision went off into the unknown. The dim light that had guided her free of the small tunnel at the base of a wall seemed to have come from the small crystals that were woven into them without rhyme or reason with the ceiling itself a dark umbrella at its deepest.
It was about then the sound of a soft and inquiring squeal came from the edge of her vision.
Her eyes homed in toward the source of the sound where she found a small mass of white fur peeking around one of the naturally forming columns that linked the floor to the ceiling. The long ears on its head, perched to either side of a horn, sprang from half-slouching to erect as pale-red eyes began to shine with bright malice as it fixated on her.
Emerging from its cover to reveal itself in full to be around her size in height as it stood on its hind legs, she watched as it slowly moved to the side while almost meekly keeping an eye on her. It was approaching what seemed to be a non-descript jutting of stone to seemingly hide behind. Except that she could feel deep within her that wasn’t the case.
Some part of her instinctively recognized that there was something within the stone just waiting there. Then the creature chambered one of its legs and stomped against the stone. The impact had shattered the solid rock with a similar spray as she had done to break free of her confines, only it had instead freed a dense piece of stone that held the shape of a handle. The creature gripped the handle with its forepaws that bent and revealed opposable thumbs that allowed it to wrench free the head that was a wedge with a cutting edge.
Then it let loose a high-pitched shriek before it bounded towards her with the stone-axe in hand.
The distance between them must have been at least thirty meders. It was a distance that would require more than a hundred steps to cross for someone their size at a walking pace. Yet in three bounds of its hindlegs it cleared that distance in three seconds.
By the time her hazy mind registered that she was under attack, the scent of fresh blood spilling into the air reached her right along with the sound of bone buckling beneath the stone wedge. Then she felt sharp, burning pain where her neck and shoulder met—where the creature’s axe had buried itself into her and split her open like firewood.
“Ah… ahh….” Her voice croaked as the shock left her unable to scream. She could only stare wide-eyed into the pale red orbs that seemed like ominous stars up close. The lips of the creature whose white fur was speckled red from her blood pulled back into what could only be described as a smile of revelrous glee.
It squealed in delight upon seeing the anguish on her face. The pain it brought upon her seemed to excite it. Even now she could see from its eyes that it yearned to split her open and butcher her into slabs of meat.
It wrought out more fragments of her lost memories. The same smiles at her pain. The laughs at her anguish. The looks of those who wanted nothing more than to be rid of her.
Remembering that. Feeling the pain. Not wanting to return to the darkness. It all left her vision to turn red as the molten core in her chest seemed to burn even hotter. Every emotion seemed to drain out of her and leave only anger as she lashed out at the creature with a snarl, driving her right fist into its head with all her might.
The creature that was almost her height ended up floored as its entire body slammed into the ground next to her. It trembled as its mind seemed to register that its prey had fought back despite what should have been a fatal blow. A pained cry drew its head back towards her, only for it to find itself staring at an upraised blade that was covered in crimson.
There was another scream before the blade descended. The wet and crunchy sound of brain and skull being carved into filled the chamber. Then it happened again. And then again. And again.
The act of butchery continued to resound for time untold. The squelch of flesh being split open. The crack and crunch of bone being wrenched apart. The splashing of blood painting the drab walls and dry gravel beneath them a vivid shade of crimson.
By the time the red had cleared from her vision, there was no creature left in front of her. Instead, it was only a mass of battered meat and red fur. Bits of white bone and purple veins could be made out amidst the viscera pile that glistened faintly under the dim light with a faint sheen.
Whimpers slipped out her mouth and were followed by the stone axe clattering to the ground as pain re-asserted itself. The hand that wielded it instead came over to where she had been split open and then wrenched free the very tool used to do it. She felt a burning heat there that seemed to intensify with every beat of her heart.
Her eyes turned towards the gaping wound to see the broken bones had snapped themselves back into place and welded themselves back together. The snapped and torn muscles stretched themselves and then reconnected with a searing heat like flames were melting them together. The blood stopped flowing as her arteries and veins wormed and writhed until they reconnected. Then finally the skin knitted itself closed.
But no sooner than she was made whole did she feel a spreading and numbing cold seep throughout her body. It was as if the molten core that had been roaring hot a moment prior had been reduced to only a smoldering husk that was on the verge of burning itself out. Then there would only be emptiness in its place.
A shuddering breath escaped her as she recognized the threat of the gnawing emptiness for what it was. She needed something to quench it. Something to fill in that numbing emptiness before it spread and hollowed her out. Something to fuel the flame between her breasts that was keeping her warm before she went completely cold and still.
And she knew what she what that was the moment she spotted it peeking out of the pile of bone, fur, and meat that lay before her. The gem hidden within the viscera of the creature that had attacked her. The small prismatic stone that could fit in the palm of her hand.
She wrenched it free of the meat and blood vessels that were clinging to it desperately to hold onto their physical form. The creature that had once been alive turned into nothing but ash the moment she plucked it free. The only signs of its existence that remained were the blood that painted the walls as a testimony to the fact that it once lived and the very stone that had kept it tethered to life.
There was no hesitation before she swallowed even that. No real thought behind it. Perhaps it was instinct?
The reason behind the act ultimately didn’t matter so much as the fact that the moment she swallowed the stone the effect was instant.
The numbing cold was driven off as heat and life returned to her flesh. The fog dissipated from her mind as if it evaporated at the same time. With it gone came clarity and all the memories that had been lost before came rushing back to her all at once.
She remembered that her name was Liliruca Arde.
She remembered that she died.
The story began on the Twelfth Floor.
The room was a savanna consisting of bone-white grass. Fog blanketed the entirety of the floor and left it laced with a chill that stiffened one’s cheeks. Dead trees sprouted from the earth with dense trunks that grew thinner as they tried to stretch themselves to the faint light from above.
The trotting of boots stirred the white veil. Steel glinted as they came into view. Drawn blades caked in fresh blood and fat held at the ready. Three men in total were accounted for.
The first was a blonde with a lean body and narrow eyes. His cheap breastplate bore new scratches and the protectors on his arm looked like they had been chewed on, while his broad sword was leveled out as he made his way over toward one of the corners of the room where the fog was at its thickest. He lowered the blade when he spotted what awaited him there. “Guys, over here!”
Footfalls crushed the grass as the remaining two made it over. Of them, the first to arrive was a middle-aged man with slightly tanned skin and a pair of daggers in his hands. His black jacket was ripped in places and around one of his wrists was a cloth that had been stained red and tied tight.
“You found ‘em?” he called as he darted over, blades in a reverse grip as If ready to be plunged into flesh. They quickly went slack when he arrived. “Or what’s left of ‘em, anyway.”
It became clear what he meant when the party leader arrived. He was slightly shorter than his compatriots but had a bulkier build. A helmet covered his light brown hair while a large pauldron was affixed to his right shoulder, beneath which one could make out the muscular arms he had. “Hmph.”
All three stared down at the scene that had been hidden beneath the blanket of obscuring white mist that loitered above the ground. The bleached grass had been slathered in crimson. Bits of meat and purple entrails were left around four sets of bags that had begun to soak in it.
“You think one of the Orcs got to ‘em?” asked the swordsman as he sheathed it on his back. “Not like they would have trouble fitting him in their mouths as a snack, being messy eaters and all.”
The dagger-user drew back, wedging his blades into their sheathes before reaching down and pulling away his own bag. His lips pulled back into a grimace, and he covered his nose at the putrid scent of the fluid dripping over it. “A fittin’ end for the thieving piece of shit. Stole from us after all the good we did for ‘em.”
In contrast, the party leader’s face scrunched up and a grunt bubbled up in his throat as his eyes spanned the area. “…If that’s the case then where’s his backpack?”
“Maybe it got thrown somewhere?” suggested the swordsman as he scrubbed his bag across the grass and dirt to try and wipe away some of it.
“If it got tossed aside that’d be one thing. But…” He looked down at the grass itself before reaching down to run his hand over the surface. “The grass and earth ain’t flattened like one of the pigs lumbering around would have done either.”
Then he grabbed his own bag and opened it without concern over the smell or the sight. His expression darkened and his gaze turned murderous as he flung the bag to the side. “My dagger’s gone! Check the rest of ‘em.”
Liliruca held her hands over her mouth to avoid the swirl of her breath giving away her position as the other two realized their bags had been deprived of the most valuable belongings. The Supporter hailing from the Soma Familia had been forced to retreat down from the Eleventh Floor to avoid retribution from the Adventurers with whom she had terminated her contract on the previous Floor. Her severance payment was a very nice magic dagger that the party leader had been quietly holding on to, much to the ignorance of his companions.
It had been by pure chance that she caught a passing glance of the crimson blade with a notable gloss. Her eyes, which were naturally more perceptive than that of other races, immediately caught sight of it when he was handling his bag and knew it was something that would fetch a high price. More money meant more of a chance at finally obtaining freedom—from Soma, his wine, and his Familia.
She had been unable to resist the chance to obtain it. Especially considering how he had short-changed her several trips now and told her if she didn’t like it, ‘he’ could always quit. She knew where the money went, so there was nothing wrong as far as she was concerned in taking what she was owed.
But it seemed he really wanted it back. “It’d be suicidal going down further on their own, so the conniving bastard is still here somewhere! Spread out and look!”
Tension threaded her body. Her small frame was tucked deep into the grass she used a large cloth that resembled the hue of the nearby walls to cover herself and her backpack. It gave the impression due to the size and shape of being little more than a stone outcropping within the fog. Monsters would overlook it simply enough but a thorough search by adventurers meant she was on a clock.
Normally, Liliruca would have been more thorough in setting up the deception after coming down this far. But they had caught on too fast. Or perhaps she had gotten too ambitious by taking the magic dagger?
If she had left it in the bag, then he probably would have just moved on and taken them with him. Adventurers only looked after themselves even when they were in a group, and he was the strongest so what he said went. Even if they had complained about something being missing, he would have blamed it on them since he got what was important to him.
However, hindsight was something she didn’t have time to worry about at the moment. Escape. Survival. That was what she needed to focus on now.
Her chestnut eyes narrowed as she counted that only three of them were here. The fourth was still nowhere to be seen. Given the situation, she was willing to bet that meant the fourth was watching the only way up and she couldn’t force her way through him. Like it or not she was small and weak enough that any one of them wouldn’t have any trouble catching up and killing her if she was caught.
Her mind raced.
A solution that came to her mind was disguising herself as someone else. She had masqueraded herself as a male her entire time with them, so it could work. But her means of doing so didn’t work on anything bigger than herself and meant she would have to ditch her backpack and come back for it later.
It would have to be tomorrow morning. That was when there would be an influx of adventurers making their way down. They would trim the number of monsters along the way, harvesting their magic stones to sell. That would also be a benefit to her given the ones on the Eighth Floor and lower were too much for her to handle.
There was a risk of her losing everything in it if she left it there. But her life was more important. She would leave the sheet covering the backpack over it, hoping it wouldn’t be discovered or bothered before she could come back for it. If was missing then she would have to resort to her savings to replace everything.
She needed to get away from the three in front of her right now, of course.
But she knew that was about to be taken care of the moment she felt the earth beneath her start to tremor. It came from the lumbering of passing footfalls that mercifully passed her by and moved towards the assembled men. It had been a mistake for them to stay there to look for her even after they found their bags.
Few things drew in monsters like the scent of blood being carried on the mist. She always kept a few bottles of it on her just in case she needed a distraction, tucked into her bag and sealed tight. It was already too late for them to run the moment the apex predator lurching through the fog spotted them.
The monster’s red eyes focused not on spanning the world for the scent that allured it, but instead on the ones that sparked the instinctive hatred that lurked within the very core of its being. Its muscles hidden beneath its fur began to bulge until the veins could be seen as it stood taller than any of them by more than twice over. Then it beat at its chest with a roar.
Liliruca tucked the magic dagger into her robes and started making her way to safety as the fog was kicked up the moment their fight for survival began. Silverbacks weren’t known to roam in packs like Orcs, and they were territorial when there weren’t mortals around to draw their ire. And she was an expert at avoiding monsters by necessity, so she would make her escape back to the surface while under another guise to live another day….
Or at least that had been the plan before the floor had fallen from beneath her.
Had it been eaten away from below by Dungeon Worms?
Had the bedrock broken open to birth some monstrosities and had yet to mend itself, leaving it to become a pitfall for any unlucky soul to stumble across?
Had the Dungeon, the living and breathing thing that it was, taken notice of the mistake that was her hubris and opened its maw to devour what seemed to be easy prey deeper into its stomach?
It really didn’t matter in the end what the reason for it was.
What mattered was that she fell into the darkness.
The fall hadn’t killed her on impact.
It would have been more merciful if it had.
Liliruca’s vision slowly came into focus as she stared up at the far-off hole that she had plummeted through. It looked to be in the center of whatever chamber she had fallen into, meaning there were no handholds that she could use to climb her way out. And considering how the Dungeon walls mended themselves it would only be a matter of time before it sealed itself shut.
The shock of the fall itself faded and the horror set in that she was stuck there. On instinct she almost shouted out for someone to help her before the wall sealed itself shut. But her rational mind lunged from the depths of her forming headache and brought with it the knowledge that the only ones who would hear her would be the adventurers above or the monsters on the floor she found herself on.
Both were a death sentence for her.
Her throat tightened shut.
Cold sweat began to form on her forehead from the gravity of the situation. But she knew that panicking would do no good. She had to find her way back up to the surface. And to do that she needed to start moving.
Her body ached as she sat up straight. Her head pounded. She wanted to lay back down and close her eyes, hoping that the pain would pass. But that would be the same as laying down to die considering that she was out of her depths, so she tried to compose herself by thinking what did she have on her at the moment to help her survive?
Her handheld crossbow?
A breath of relief escaped as she found it had survived the fall. Good. Between that and the magic dagger, which thankfully remained where it had been tucked prior, she wasn’t entirely unarmed. The number of bolts she had was limited though.
There was also her necklace holding the key to her storage and the golden pocket watch that she had gotten from one of the marks. Unfortunately, the watch had broken from the impact so she couldn’t tell the time as it was. But it was still gold so she could probably get something for it on the surface or get it fixed. She tucked it into her robes.
What about healing items?
A grimace spread as she picked up the pouch that she had placed them within and heard glass scratching against itself. Pulling open the top revealed that the vials had shattered on impact. She rummaged through her pocket for a cloth, placing it into the pouch and leaving it to soak up as much as the cloth could hold before she put it into her mouth to suckle it down. Hopefully it would be enough to numb the pain she was in so she could start moving.
But to where?
She had memorized the maps up to the Eleventh Floor. The only reason she had gone down to the Twelfth was that she couldn’t take the exit upwards because they had caught on to her original diversion, split themselves up along the paths that would have led upwards, and thus funneled her below. And now she was entirely new territory that someone with her Status had no business being, dropped from a hole with no idea where the entrance was.
To escape she needed to either figure out a way up or find another group of adventurers to barter with for safe passage.
The pain numbed somewhat by the time the light from the hole began to shrivel up from the opening starting to seal shut. That made it painfully clear how much darker the floor was in comparison to the above, distantly only illuminated by scattered crystalline formations that budded from the rock formations. She imagined that it would only be bright enough to make out her own silhouette, leaving the world around her reduced to half.
Even so, she had to move forward. Not blindly. But with some direction. She turned to her trump card. “Your scars are mine. My scars are mine. Stroke of midnight’s bell.”
Argent light swaddled her body before pooling over her head and lower back. Her normal ears vanished as a set of Chienthrope ears formed on the top of her hair, while a furry tail took shape behind her. She flexed them as the light vanished and confirmed they functioned.
This was her magic—Cinder Ella. It allowed her to transform either part of herself or entirely into other creatures and races. It used to only work on her body but because she used it so much her Magic had increased enough to where it allowed her to change her clothes, though unlike her body the effect dissipated if she was hit. And while she was restricted to things her size or smaller, she gained racial features and physical attributes of the other races.
Since she couldn’t rely on her eyes to see incoming threats in the dim light, she had to rely on her other senses. Chienthropes had sharper hearing and smell than Pallums. And while it cost quite a bit of Mind to activate depending on the nature of the transformation, keeping it active didn’t have as much upkeep so she could keep it active for most of the day if needed.
It didn’t, however, make her any stronger. That was why she couldn’t risk fighting with a monster from this floor if she could help it. Her only tools were the crossbow and the magic dagger, both of which had limited uses.
Transformed, she stuck to the center of the tunnel as she made her way into the unknown. If she clung to either side of the wall, then there was the chance a sudden birth could leave her right in the jaws of a monster. But if she lingered for too long, she could be pincered and then pinned—so Liliruca moved quietly but quickly.
Every step she took across the gravel sounded like the pounding of a war drum in her head. No matter how quietly she knew that she was moved, part of her couldn’t help but think it was announcing to everything on the floor that she was there. That fresh prey had been dropped right into their laps.
It left her mouth dry to think about what could happen if they did discover her. Her knowledge of monsters below the Eleventh Floor was limited compared to her knowledge above it. But given the terrain, she could guess that monsters like the Silverbacks and Orcs would be absent.
But the Dungeon was a threat on every level, and she was certain something was gestating within the womb of the cavernous walls that would be the end of her. Not knowing what that was, but knowing that it would eventually come, kept her tension running high. The handheld crossbow trembled in her grasp as she gripped it so tight her knuckles were turning white.
She pressed on until the tunnel running from the small chamber she had fallen into split off into three directions. Three options to choose from. She stuck her head into the air and took a deep breath to take in the scent wafting from each of them.
One scent was that of what smelled like burned fruit and the earth after rain. She recalled catching the scent once before on the Tenth Floor. Bad Bats were down the west path, and quite a few of them judging by the smell.
Two options. The air in the one to the northwest smelled fresher than the one to the east. That meant it potentially was getting airflow from above or was more spacious so that it could be better circulated. She took that path.
At the mouth of the tunnel she came to a large chamber that appeared to be the lowest rung of a set of smooth walls that were built upon each other until they reached a ceiling with the guiding specks of dim light coming from the crystals lacing the walls intermittently. There were several tunnels along the path and each of them was pitch black beyond the threshold as a testament to how deeply they went.
Another decision to make and not a lot of time to make it. She had to move while there were no monsters around. She followed her nose and went up the rocky path that was nearby on the hunch that she wanted to ascend to get to the surface.
That was when the Dungeon made its move.
Ashen-toned rock split wide open from the section of stone in front of her and out plopped a large mass amidst the fragmented stone. The gleam of pale-golden carapace stretched over a muscular frame that was big enough to take up the walkway caught the dim light. And it only grew bigger as it unfurled while bits of the pebble clinging to a furry mane were shaken loose, flexing long black claws meant to tunnel through earth and stone.
Hard Armored—that was the name of the monster that Liliruca found herself staring nearly eye-level with. Next to the Silverbacks that possessed the highest offense of monsters on the Eleventh and Twelfth Floor, they were known to possess the strongest defense due to their hard carapaces. Lower-quality blades would break often enough that fighting one hand-to-hand for a Level One Adventurer was considered foolhardy.
And its crimson eyes were fixed solely on her.
…She jumped. It was only natural given that the handheld crossbow in her grip wouldn’t be able to kill this thing. The magic dagger she had could, but in the time she could draw it the monster would have killed her. So she flung herself over the side of the rising walkway and fell down to the floor below since that was the only way to survive.
It was the right call. The shadow of death had grazed her head not a half-second before she fell, leaving the ground where she had been gouged out by the black claws of the monster. Whether it was a testament to their sharpness or the power of the muscles behind them, Liliruca wasn’t eager to find out by being on the business end of them.
She ducked into the nearest tunnel where she could sense the airflow splitting. Even though it would take her away from the ascending path and descend her further into the depths, she had no choice. Hard Armoreds could cover a vast amount of distance if they were on even ground and a newborn fresh out of the Dungeon’s womb would chase its first prey until it caught up to her.
The ground tremored as it jumped after her. Gravel began to crunch at a constant pace from its charging attack, seeking to barrel her over. With her small frame, it would be an instant kill. Her bones would be crushed beneath the rolling mass and hard carapace, the pulped organs spilling out from the skin that split open like squashed fruit.
Her legs burned as she ran towards a diverging path. At the same time the rumbling from the approaching Hard Armored had grown louder to spell out her impending death. She flung herself into it and felt the harsh wind as it narrowly passed her by, its momentum carrying it several meders beyond her.
It realized its mistake and bounced into the air, unfurling as it did so. Its claws dug into the ground as it slid to a stop, letting out a frustrated growl. Then it turned its crimson gaze back into her direction—
—only to be met with the searing hot ball of fire that ruptured into an explosion upon slamming into its unprotected head courtesy of the magic dagger. The crimson bloom of flames swallowed its body, including the soft underbelly that it so preciously protected by hiding within its shell and remaining low to the ground. The monster collapsed where it was with smoke wafting off of it.
Liliruca breathed out a heavy breath as the arm holding out the magic dagger went limp. Her entire body was shaking. She had managed to kill it by chance and her body responded to that with elation at the having seized another moment of life.
It would have proven fatal had her Chienthrope ears not picked up the sound of shifting stone from above. Her attention snapped upwards right before the ceiling burst open and wet, glistening flesh lined with pointed teeth greeted her from above. Its maw was centered perfectly to engulf her, the outer row of teeth spread wide like a bear trap waiting to snap shut before the inner ones ripped her apart along the way down its long tubular body.
Ironically, her small body was all that gave her a chance at survival. Her short stature was low enough from the ceiling it had to extend further down to reach her. So, between that and her hearing, there was just enough space so that her legs could snap her backward and avoid instant death—
—and all it cost her was having her flesh split open as one of the long fangs on the outer row of the teeth grazed along her chest. The tip of it ripped into her robe and between her chest, leaving her world to burn in agony as blood poured from the wound.
Noisy chittering kept her eyes on the Dungeon Worm as it curled around and bared its gaping maw toward her once more. Crimson painted the fang that had torn her open. It angled itself and prepared to lunge once more and devour her.
With a shout, Liliruca unloaded everything the magic dagger had left into its open maw. Flames bloomed not once, but twice as two blasts struck home. The first blew apart the upper right section of its body, while the second struck deeper. It must have stuck the magic stone within its elongated body because it turned to ash right afterward.
“Nnn…” The handheld crossbow clattered to the ground as the pain left Liliruca to curl into herself, forcing her eyes down to where she saw a spreading crimson puddle beneath her legs. Her blood was running freely, and she had to stem it. But first, she needed somewhere safe to tend to the injury.
That was when the world around her shook violently for a moment and the rumble of stone could be heard. She feared another monster’s birth was happening, but it was so violent that whatever it was would have been massive. Fortunately, the shaking stopped, and nothing lunged from the darkness to finish her off.
She took in her surroundings to see it had opened into a section with naturally forming columns. She hobbled her way further inside, away from where the smoking corpse of the Hard Armored would likely draw in other monsters. It was deeper within she found a small hole to crawl inside to try and stop the bleeding.
As she tried to pull her robe off to use it as a makeshift tourniquet, her limbs began to go numb. Her eyes felt heavy, and her vision blurred. Her breath grew to shudder as the fear of death closing in gnawed at her heart.
She couldn’t let herself die like this. Not now. Not after everything she had gone through up to this point. Everything she had put up with on the surface just to survive. Not to some scratch.
The Pallum put every ounce of strength she had into trying to move her limbs. But instead, lethargy left her to collapse onto her side, and a bitter cold set in. Stinging tears were the only source of heat left as she thought to herself what was it all for in the end?
Why had she been born into this world? Why had she been born into the clutches of an uncaring God and his Familia? Why did she have to die here because of them?
All of this was because of them. If they had just let her be free to live a new life back then, with those nice people. She could have been… happy…
But that wasn’t how reality worked, was it?
Only the strong had that right. The Adventurers who were so proud of themselves, happily lording their power over the weak and helpless. They didn’t know what it was like to struggle and survive. Only to use others and throw them away.
At the very least it was all over now. Her suffering would be over. She would die and then be reborn to live a new life. The only regret she had was that the Adventurers who looked down on her and the Soma Familia who ruined her life would move on as though nothing happened.
With her final breath, Liliruca cursed them.
Then she breathed no more.
Falling onto her knees, Liliruca clutched her head as the memories finished resurfacing. Her body trembled as she looked down at the gravel-laden ground that had been her tomb. She remembered she had died so vividly that it was undeniable.
She remembered her body going cold and her breath stalling. She remembered the darkness pulling her in. She remembered the emptiness.
She remembered death.
There were no miracles in the world that brought the dead back to life. The bodies were left to rot and the souls were sent up above to be reborn once more. That was the fate of mortals, and everyone knew it.
She had died. After a life of suffering, she died. That meant she should have been reborn. So why was she still her weak, miserable self? A Pallum that lacked the strength to find even a sliver of happiness?
Was it some kind of cruel joke? Had some God or Goddess in charge of reincarnation decided to amuse themselves by shoving her back into her weak self? Did they think it would be hilarious to leave her trapped in the Dungeon?
The same Dungeon that wouldn’t even give her time to come to terms with things as the sound of the walls breaking open reached her ears. Bundles of fur as white as the snow plopped onto the gravel with bits of fragmented stones nestled within them. The pebbles fell loose as they shook and bristled before the four-legged frames became bipedal and thus rivaled her height.
Crimson eyes and malicious squeaks followed as a horde of Almiraj faced her down.
She could tell that there were landform weapons nearby. There were six of them alone by where they were born. The monsters would grab new axes and then use them to butcher her limb from limb until she resembled the pile of meat like the one who’d attacked her before.
It would be a cruel and painful death.
Liliruca wasn’t afraid. Even though she had tasted death itself and the blackness that awaited, she couldn’t bring herself to fear it. Or rather to say that while she would feel fear under normal circumstances, right now she didn’t.
Instead, she only felt anger.
Anger at the fact that she had died once. Anger at the fact that she had been denied a chance to be born as someone else. Anger at the fact that the Dungeon itself didn’t seem content with taking her life already. It stirred up a deep, red-hot anger inside of Liliruca as she reached for the landform axe next to her.
Then a shout emerged from her throat and her world turned red.
The red swallowed all as it buried her into a haze that persisted until she found herself huddled over in pain. She drew in a sharp breath of air that was laced with the scent of iron and viscera, noticing the sea of blood, broken stone, and piles of flesh around her. She saw the corpses of not only the Almiraj, but even Hard Armoreds and what looked to be the split corpse of more than one Dungeon Worm.
Pain was once more her world. She could feel where her body had been broken open by landform weapons. Where her bones had been crushed and pulverized. She could even see what looked to be her own hand separate from her body.
Yet when she raised the one that was in the most pain, she saw the missing limb was no longer bleeding. Instead, there was a stump. More than that, it was growing bit-by-bit—regenerating until she was whole and hale.
It was something that should have been impossible. Almost as impossible as coming back from the dead. Yet it was unfurling before her very eyes as an undeniable sight.
And the reason became clear as she looked down at her chest.
It had been split open once more sometime when the world was a haze of red. She suspected it had been one of the Almiraj getting lucky with its dying strike, judging by the landform weapon resting beneath her along with the corpse that had its head crushed beneath her foot. But nestled firmly between her breasts and slowly being encased in a fresh layer of smoldering skin…
Laid a richly, vibrantly colored magic stone.
It was a different hue from the ones of the monsters nearby. But there was no denying what it was. Or what its purpose was. Just as the magic stones gave life to the monsters of the Dungeon, so too did it keep her body moving and even fueled the fury that somehow gave her the strength to be the one still standing within the pile of corpses that lay in the chamber.
…She should be horrified. There was something in her chest that marked her as being an enemy of mortals. The very creatures that had been at war with their kind since history began. Yet a twisted smile formed on her face instead as she looked over the dead creatures in the room.
For so long she had been weak. So weak that she was only able to survive on literal scraps. She had to bow her head to the Adventurers who thought themselves better than her because she was so small and weak. She could only vent her rage through schemes and thievery to survive, and look where that had gotten her.
It had gotten her killed down here in the Dungeon.
As her arm finished regrowing, Liliruca felt the cold and emptiness starting to settle in once more. It was the same sensation that she recognized as being death reaching out to claim her a second time. Fortunately, all around her were magic stones from the monsters that had tried to kill her right after she had been reborn.
She would consume them all to fuel the new flames of life that burned within her.
Then she would claw her way out of the Dungeon and make it to the surface.
Not as her pathetic old self that died miserably.
But reborn as something else entirely.
Liliruca Arde (Level 0)
Former member of the Soma Familia. Supporter. The reincarnation of Fianna whose soul once held the Bloodfury Spear, she was born into a Familia whose souls were slaves to Soma’s divine wine. When her attempts at escaping that life by becoming a civilian were ruined, she turned to conning and thieving for survival. She died from her injuries sustained in the Dungeon but strangely awoke a short time later as something neither mortal nor monster.
Strength: I-0 | Endurance: I-0 | Dexterity: I-0 | Agility: I-0 | Magic: I-0
Cinder Ella: Twelve-verse Chant, Transform-Type Magic. Enables her to take on the aspects of or transform into other creatures, including monsters. While undergoing the transformation she is limited by her own capabilities but gains the natural abilities of the creatures. The mutation by Monstrum Union replicates innate spellcasting effects provided the form and user is capable of such.
Chant: “Your scars are mine. My scars are mine. Stroke of midnight’s bell.”
Artel Assist: Assist Skill that compensates for small stature. Grants virtual Strength and Endurance in proportion to the weight being carried.
Monstrum Union: Signifier of union between mortal and monster, causing a bug in Status and erosion of the Anima (lifeforce). Ties the animating essence of her body and magic to the Heartstone (magic stone) embedded within.
Bloodfury: Fury of mortal and monster crystalized as one within blood-red eyes. Heavily increases Status at the expense of depleting Heartstone at an accelerated rate. Active trigger.
Landform Tomahawk: One of the naturally forming weapons created by the Dungeon itself to arm the monsters that roam around inside of it, the design allows it to be wielded one-handed with ease by Almiraj and similar sized creatures (Pallums). It can also be thrown as well for a ranged attack.
Supporter Robe: A cloak for Supporters that offer little in terms of defense but are easy to clean. Hers is notably in tatters from her time in the Dungeon.
Handheld Crossbow: A crossbow meant to be used for smaller races.
Broken Watch: A golden pocket watch that belonged to one of the adventurers swindled by Liliruca.
Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 20 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]
Chapter 20: The Supporter’s Scheme
Lili had learned from a very young age that you couldn’t rely on anyone else to reach out and save you.
If you want to be saved, it had to be by your own hands. That was why she had embraced the fact that if she wanted to be free of the chains binding her to the Soma Familia, she had to do so by whatever means was necessary. That was what brought Lili to seek out the white-haired boy known as the Hero of the Streets.
She had been worried he would have brushed her off and she would have had to pry him into talking to her further by making a scene. But he had almost immediately brought her to the cafeteria on the second floor of Babel after she had greeted him out by the fountain. There were only a few adventurers around given that the early rush into the Dungeon had begun.
The Dungeon could spawn endless monsters, but not all at once. The walls had to regenerate and the magic stones forming their bodies had to crystallize, so there was actually a hard limit called a spawn time for the Upper Floors. And since most of the Exploration Familia adventurers in Orario were Level One, the early morning was a rush to kill as many as possible to harvest their magic stones before the main routes of the Upper Floors were picked clean.
It was also unlikely that Ged would come after them in public if he happened to stumble upon them at present. The last thing he should want to do was cause a commotion here on the surface where it would get him blacklisted. So it made for the perfect place to have a relatively innocent discussion between them once they were sure he wasn’t there.
“I’m glad you managed to get away from that guy safely,” said the boy with a soft sigh. His pure white hair was a strong contrast to the lustrous black of the coat he wore, and the light of the magic stone lamps above gleamed off his polished breastplate. “I had been worried that he might have gone after you, but I had no way of checking… how is your wound?”
“It’s all better thanks to Mister Hero,” she said in a saccharinely sweet voice as she showed him where the tear had been in her robes, now roughly stitched shut. There was a deep, red stain there from where her blood had trailed out. “Lili won’t even have a scar thanks to the Potion.”
Supporter clothes were made to be easy to clean, given they were supposed to be used while harvesting magic stones. It tended to be bloody work as you carved open the monster to get its magic stone, and often there were a number of different fluids depending on how long the body had been left to rot. The fact that the bloodstain was still there was because she had chosen not to wash it as a reminder of what occurred while he stood there and watched the man getting ready to kill her.
She wanted him to feel guilty about it after she had been hurt. And the fact that his gaze turned away from the sight showed it worked. “I’m so sorry about that. I should have been quicker.”
“Lili doesn’t blame Mister Hero,” she lied with a smile on her face. “In fact, Lili wants to ask Mister Hero for his help. Lili wants him to protect her from Mister Raish. She fears that he will come after her again, but if he sees Mister Hero with her enough he will surely give up.”
“I see…” His brows furrowed in thought for a moment before those red eyes that reminded her of rubies returned to her. “Not that I’m refusing, but why didn’t you report him? He tried to kill you.”
“Because it will cause problems with Lili’s Familia,” she explained. “The Soma Familia sees Lili, who is small and weak, as someone who is a burden since her parents died in the Dungeon. She can only make a living as a lowly Supporter, so if she reports it then they will find out. Then Lili will have no Familia and no way of working, so she will starve.”
“Are there really Familia who would do that?” he muttered under his breath for a moment in what she believed was disbelief as his hand on the table balled into a fist. He must have been from one of those Familia that preached they were all family to each other. Those who swear themselves to the divine now shared the same ichor upon their back, so they were as good as brothers and sisters.
Empty words considering she’d seen how the members of her Familia were all too willing to stab one another in the back for a valis if it meant getting even a drop of Soma. “Ah, but Lili won’t ask for Mister Hero to protect her for free. She will become his Supporter in exchange for protection. With her bag and help any magic stones and drop items that Mister Hero had to leave behind before can be gathered and turned in at the Exchange. That valis can serve as Lili’s protection money. Lili will also not need any food or supplies and promises not to get in the way, so Mister Hero can focus entirely on fighting in the Dungeon.”
It would be a loss. But bringing more attention to the Soma Familia meant bringing herself to the attention of Zanis before she could earn enough to buy her freedom. And getting caught by Ged meant she would be dead.
That was why she was willing to sweeten the pot. He was supposedly the hero who protected the people of Daedalus Street. She would fatten him with praise, approach him as a maiden in distress, and even offer to work for free as a reward befitting a hero. He literally had to do nothing but let her be near him.
It would be the perfect bait to lure Ged to them.
He was a vengeful bastard so he wouldn’t let either of them go. The problem was that he only had a few opportunities to do so since Lili could hide herself well enough in the city between her Magic and having walked the dirtiest streets in order to survive since she was old enough to be put to work. He only got the drop on her because she had gotten caught faster than usual due to being too careless.
The hero here was also the talk of the town right now. Attempting something like before could draw the eyes of the Ganesha Familia, and they would take the words of the one who cleaned up their mess with the Silverback over some nobody adventurer. So his only option would be to try to get them both at the same time in the Dungeon, where accidents happen all the time.
Then it would all be over. Even if Ged managed to kill him while trying to get to her, it wouldn’t be without him taking a few injuries in the process. And even if Lili was weak, the Magic Sword she had on her was more than capable of killing a wounded Level One adventurer without any problem.
“I can’t ask you to work for free,” he said. “Even leaving aside what my Goddess would say, it just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“It’s fine.” She reached her small hands across the table, setting them on top of his as her chestnut eyes peered into his while folding softly. “Lili is sure she can get by with what little she has as long as Mister Hero can keep her safe. So please… please don’t leave Lili alone…”
He bit his lower lip as emotions ran through his rubellite eyes that looked down on her like a small child. It became too much as her stare remained unwavering and he turned away. “I don’t mind protecting you, but… please stop calling me Mister Hero. That’s not something I deserve to be called. My name is Bell. Bell Cranel.”
She smiled brightly. “Lili has made it as far as the Tenth Floor and has also memorized the maps of the Guild, so she promises not to hold Master Bell back!”
“On certain days I won’t be available without contacting the party I’m working alongside,” the boy said. “We’ll need to talk it over with them—”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary, Master Bell!” she hurriedly insisted. Too many people knowing meant too many complications. That might either get Ged to reconsider or word about her may reach others and they could tell him. “Lili does not want to impede in Master Bell’s life. Instead, Lili will work whenever he is available.”
“Nmm…” The white-haired boy replaced his hat onto his head and pulled the brim of it down to cover his eyes from view. “I was planning on heading down to the Sixth Floor today. Let’s see how things work out between us before we talk about the future. It’ll be all for nothing if I can’t even keep you safe down in the Dungeon.”
Bell had reservations about Lili’s claim about having delved down to the Tenth Floor. The Dungeon was a dangerous place after all. So he was always keeping an eye on her as they ventured from one floor to the next with the expectation of needing to keep monsters off of her most of the time.
But with each floor that they dove down those reservations lessened bit-by-bit. She may not have been capable of fighting on her own. But she proved that she knew how to perform her job with absolute competency.
There were logistics involved with dealing with monsters that Bell had never really had the time to consider. He would kill whatever appeared in front of him until the Dungeon decided to stop spawning monsters. Then he would go around and pluck the magic stones that made up their cores from the corpses, along with any drop items that might have been left behind. The moment his bag ran out of space, he would head back up to the Exchange and the day would end.
Since he had to prioritize killing the monsters before they could kill him, he left the dead where they lay. That had the consequence of making extra obstacles when he was fighting. And then there was always the risk of blood pooling on the surface and making it more slippery.
Lili effectively took care of those problems. She was fleet of foot as she dragged the corpses out of the way, placing them in corners while staying out of the line of sight of other monsters trying to kill him. He could only presume it was due to her career necessitating stealth if she had been a Supporter for as long as she had claimed.
Her expertise with harvesting really shined as she quickly cut into the bodies of the monsters to harvest the magic stone. Different monsters had different anatomies, so the magic stones tended to vary in position and depth. It was possible to end up damaging it if one was careless, but the way she did so was efficient and smooth. Her small body benefited her as a simple incision allowed her petite digits to pluck it from within and place it in a pouch that would later be stored in her bag.
The large backpack itself was invaluable as well since the different pouches accommodated different kinds of drop items. The small round side pockets were best suited for things like Goblin Nails. The longer and rectangular pockets were perfect for things like War Shadow Nails. There were also holsters for Potions and canisters of the more common medicinal ointment, compartments for rations, straps for sleeping bags and weapons, and more.
It made his dinky little bag feel inadequate.
“Lili apologizes for not being as useful as she would be normally,” said the Pallum Supporter as they sat close to the entryway of the Seventh Floor. “Master Bell’s Magic is more suitable than her for his belongings.”
He was quick to reassure her otherwise. “No, you’re a lot more helpful than that. You know more about the Dungeon and the monsters than I do.”
It was true that Bell’s access to the Dream largely rendered her services for carrying his things a non-issue when it was just him. Anything he needed could be called up by the Messengers fairly quickly and from any surface, especially weapons. He effectively had his own personal portable armory.
But that had the benefit of leaving more space for what they collected. If there were drop items from the monsters he killed then she carefully counted them, collected them in a set number of bundles, and then placed them inside of one of the different pockets of the large bag. That would make estimating the earnings much easier and speed up things at the Exchange.
And her knowledge was proving invaluable. Bell hadn’t bought any of the maps at the Guild since they were poor, having resigned himself to make maps on his own. But Lili’s memorization allowed them to travel off the main routes where she suspected monsters would gather and so they managed to make up for missing the morning rush by picking off those that weren’t likely to be take out until the Guild had a Dungeon Sweeper pass through.
“Master Bell is really kind,” she said while smiling at him from atop a stone, still smaller than her comically oversized bag that she pulled out a container from with bread and a salad. Her chestnut eyes looked over towards the entrance for a pause. “Will we be heading further down after Lunch?”
“I haven’t gone down further than this and promised my Goddess not to rush ahead without my party,” he explained while handling his lunch that was composed of what Syr had made him. He didn’t know if it was just because his exposure to Yharnam Blood had changed his taste palette, but every now and again the flavor varied.
He still ate it, of course. It was made in good faith and his grandfather taught him never to let food go to waste. “We’re supposed to be meeting up after making enough preparations to deal with the monsters on that floor.”
“Lili is surprised that Master Bell has not gone further than this.” She broke off a piece of the bread and brought it to her mouth to chew slowly as she continued. “The Silverback is a monster that spawns close to the Middle Floors. How long have you been exploring the Dungeon?”
“…About a month or so since I became an Adventurer,” he said after some thought. “I only arrived in Orario shortly before then and was taken in by Lady Hestia after a week of searching for one of the Gods or Goddesses to take me in. She found me right when I had run out of everything and was considering heading back home.”
That had been a sobering experience for Bell. When he’d arrived, Bell had thought he could find someone to take him in without any problems. As long as he was willing to put in the work, he was sure that he could eventually become a great adventurer.
But he had been turned away by nearly everyone. Some hadn’t even given him the time of day before they rejected him. That was part of why he took the seriousness of Lili’s claim that if she brought her assault up to her Familia she might have been kicked out and left on her own.
Being alone was painful in ways few really understood.
“From what Lili has seen Master Bell is a capable adventurer already despite such a short time,” she said between breaking off another piece of bread. “Did your hometown train to fight monsters before coming to Orario?”
He supposed from her perspective that made the most sense. From the stories his grandfather told him different places took up different ways to fight against monsters over the ages. Since he didn’t have the Falna before coming to Orario and she didn’t know about the Blood Echoes or the Plain Doll, it was only natural that he had trained to fight beforehand and simply carried the muscle memory over when he arrived.
“It wasn’t my hometown exactly, but I suppose it is where I had to learn to fight.” He looked over to Gascoigne’s Axe that was perched against the wall next to him. The pale light from the ceiling caught the aged steel, revealing years of battles from the little nicks and scratches that were embedded into its very frame. “There weren’t any Gods to bestow the Falna, so ordinary people had to take up weapons to protect their families by taking part in what they called the Hunt. But eventually, they all…”
He trailed off as a bead of dripping monster ichor caught his ruby eyes. The pearlescent reflection brought to his mind flashes of violence that had no doubt become commonplace to the men whose echoes had become his strength. The scent of pungent blood, the snarls and howls of beasts, the wavering flames of torches and the gleam of steel in its glow.
The imagery flickered in his mind for a moment with such vividness that he shuddered and nearly dropped his lunch that was steadily losing its appeal to his stomach. Then he noticed the inquisitive gaze upon him from the Supporter and gathered himself. “You could say the lives and memories of the fallen were passed down along with their weapons to the ones who took them up and I ended up being one of them. It’s thanks to those that I managed to get this far in such a short time. But it isn’t something that I earned or can even be proud of.”
His strength came from the Blood Echoes of two Hunters that had spent years killing the Beasts of Yharnam to protect their home and family. Their lives, their memories, their weapons, their strength. He’d taken them all into himself by robbing a little girl of her family and leaving her alone…
Syr’s food lost its taste entirely as he forced himself to finish eating.
After that, since he wouldn’t go any further down, they decided to explore some of the side routes before heading back up. Though Lili steered him away from what was known as a Pantry since she thought there might have been more monsters there than they could reasonably handle. It was probably a smart call since he didn’t want to put her at risk.
Then they headed back up to the Exchange while there weren’t many people around and got the valis for everything they’d collected. It was a process made much smoother thanks to Lili’s efforts in properly dividing them. That was when he gave her approximately half of that day’s earnings. “Here.”
Her chestnut eyes fell onto the bag, the glint of gold reflecting off the light that caught it. Then she looked back up to him. “But Lili said that Master Bell didn’t have to pay her.”
“And I can’t exploit someone who came to me looking for help like that,” he said. “Even if you don’t feel obligated to be paid, I wouldn’t be able to look at my Goddess if I did that. And at least with enough valis you should be able to look after yourself those days I can’t be there.”
Her tiny hands gripped the bag reluctantly before she put it away. “Master Bell?”
“Lili thinks that Master Bell is wrong when he said he doesn’t deserve to be called a hero,” she told him. “He saved Lili without even knowing her. And even when she’s asking for protection, he still pays her. Even if Master Bell doesn’t think he is one… he is Lili’s hero.”
Bell opened his mouth to speak. But the words refused to come out to refute her claim. So his only response was to bring the brim of his hat down to cover his eyes as she got up to leave.
“That worked out better than I expected,” Lili murmured to herself proudly as she walked down the backstreets of Orario after parting ways with Bell in a hurry after that last bit of praise. She had changed her appearance to that of an Elven child to disguise herself and kept the valis she received tucked away with plans for it later.
Lili had a lot of experience reading people. It was a necessity in order for her to live. And after spending a few hours with Bell she had gotten a better read on him than she could from watching at a distance or through the rumors. That made him so much easier to exploit.
He clearly had a protective instinct towards little girls. That was why she had played up her behavior, even if she hated speaking like someone half her actual age. And he wouldn’t be inclined to look too deeply into it by asking any of her Familia since she fed him that story about how complaining to them would end up getting her kicked out.
Still, she hadn’t expected the amount of self-depreciation and self-flagellation in his tone. It almost sounded like he was punishing himself for something and every praise she gave him only seemed to push further into that. It left a bitter taste in her mouth considering he didn’t even realize how easy it was to see, but…
She had already decided to make use of whatever she could to get free of the Soma Familia with her own hands. She had lied, cheated, stolen, all to survive in this cruel world where simply being born in the wrong Familia led to a lifetime of misery. So if she had to use him as a tool to deal with Ged then she would without a second thought.
Besides, Ged would have come in to attack him anyway after what happened, she reasoned. He should have expected it when he got involved. If he survived, then he’d learn from it. If he didn’t, well…
Lili refused to think about it further.
Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 19 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]
Chapter 19: The Sixth Floor Redux
Silver flashed, gleaming amidst the pale-viridian light of the Sixth Floor. It was the glint of swift steel. A slender blade with a single edge drew a vicious arch and painted the nearest wall with a streak of purple ichor.
The lifeblood erupted from an ebony humanoid that no longer drew breath. Its upraised claw with points as sharp as daggers descended limply to its sides. Its body followed the momentum and crumpled onto the floor, vital fluids seeping into the cracks of the ground from the mortal wound. The tip of the blade then plunged into its oval-shaped head to ensure the kill, as she had the corpses of its kin strewn along the floor that had already fallen to her blade.
Mikoto withdrew the sword as she panned her surroundings for any more the creeping War Shadows. The Sixth Floor had not been shy about greeting the three who’d treaded onto its grounds with monsters borne from its cavernous womb, and these in particular were ambushers that hugged the shadows while the unaware peered around or were distracted by other monsters. Then, once they found an opening, they would descend to claim their lives.
That was what made them so dangerous, she thought to herself before she crouched while sweeping the sharp end of her blade around. The cold steel found the ebony body of one of the War Shadows that had been looking to ambush her and tore through it, exiting from the opposite end. The upper half of its body slid down the slope before landing on the ground with a wet thump. She made sure to stab in the head to ensure the kill. But they aren’t the only threat.
Her attention turned back to Welf as the thick blade he swung tore through the body of a Frog Shooter after he had closed the distance. He was powerful, or at least in terms of raw strength, he could definitely go through the monsters on these floors. And he had enough awareness of his surroundings that he remained on the ball enough to avoid the follow-up attack as a Kobold attempted to ambush him from his rear and slay it.
Numbers were a luxury of the monsters as, even though he cut down another, others were making their way into existence to take its place. He wasn’t yet at the level where sheer numbers wouldn’t be sufficient. The walls were only so fruitful, and their bounty would dry up eventually, but if there were enough of them, they could swarm him—and with the Frog Shooters providing cover for them, they could get lucky even before then.
At least he wasn’t alone as blood sprayed in an arch, the iron-rich smell painting the walls as a shriek borne from an inhuman throat rang out. The death throes of a Kobold that had its heart carved out by steel fangs were glossed over as, pushing past the collapsing corpse, the black-clad youth with his weapon more befitting of a butcher rushed in. Not close enough to be right up on the back of the vanguard, his boots crunched the stone floor as he viciously unfurled the blade while swinging it into the pack of foes.
Coarse fur was sheared. Muscle was torn into. Arteries were ripped apart. In a single swing, strength unbefitting of his slender limbs allowed him to rip through more than one body as he drew a bloody swathe from right to left with one swing. Then, with a twist of the wrist, he swung the opposite way and cut down another pair as their blood filled the air and patterned on his long-sleeved coat.
But it was too shallow in the case of one of the Kobolds as it attempted to reach out with its remaining claws and gouge out his eyes with a feral swipe. The nails narrowly missed as he backstepped, sliding his hindleg back while bringing his weapon overhead. The cleaver broke open the skull and pink brain matter joined the blood as he ripped it out hard enough that the legs of the monster buckled forward and left the corpse to collapse on its own.
Then, with a snap of the wrist, the weapon folded in on itself before he whipped it and his head around upon hearing the slightest sound. The weapon’s jagged teeth found the tongue of a Frog Shooter, tearing into it and splitting it ragged before leaving it to flop on the ground. He raised his other arm holding his secondary weapon and—
— pulled the trigger, resulting in a small plume of smoke leaving the barrel of his ‘gun’ as he had called it. The cyclopean eye of Frog Shooter that had lost its tongue burst open like an egg before its body went slack. Yet that was only a distraction for another Kobold that had opted to approach the boy with others coming from different angles as well.
He went to meet them while bearing his own fangs that were drenched in blood.
Aggressive. That was the mildest way she could put it as he threw himself towards his enemies with the ruthless weapon in his hand. Avoiding the claws that could tear his flesh that had yet to reach the point of being as tough as steel by the thinnest of margins, he sank his fangs deep into its body and then tore out its blood and flesh alike while seeking the next warm body he could bury them into.
It didn’t seem to suit the boy who on the surface seemed so placid. He seemed so aggressive that it was like he was a black wolf with iron fangs that sought to tear out the throat of anything that got close to him, leaving him covered in blood that caught the sheen of the light above. And yet, despite how it seemed to be unsuited for him, he was almost at home using such a reckless method of fighting…
But there was no time for the questions that danced on the edge of her mind. They were in battle. Everything that wasn’t necessary had to be shoved away to focus on what needed to be done and what she could do. That was why she took off running, her ponytail whipping in the wind as she crossed the distance with her blade in hand.
Silver streaked as she slashed through the dog-headed monsters along her path as she made for the more troublesome of the enemies on this floor. The Kobolds were easy enough for the two of them to deal with, but more troublesome enemies that could attack from a distance and ambush them were a different story—Frog Shooters and the War Shadows.
The former could provide a distraction or score a decisive blow that would change the tide, and the latter could score a kill with devastating ease. She had been prioritizing the latter until now, due to them being a bigger threat. But, now that there were no more that she could see, Mikoto would turn her attention to the remaining cluster of Frog Shooters bounding around.
Her approach didn’t go unnoticed by her targets. Their cyclopean gaze fixed onto her as one, and her hostile charge was met with lashing appendages. They fired their black tongues towards her like fleshy spears, each one capable of slamming into the frail human body hard enough to shatter bones. That much she could say from personal experience.
Back then they had been cautious. But she had been confident. Careless to underestimate them by appearance alone. And the price for that carelessness had been a broken arm from the bludgeoning lash striking her exposed limb. The pain she couldn’t remember after all this time—much less when she’d had worse since then.
But she could remember the faces. The looks of fear from her brothers and sisters in arms as it could have been worse given that losing her blade meant a War Shadow’s claws could find purchase much easier. The guilt gracing the handsome face of their god at sending them off into the dungeon, even though it was their choice. The sympathetic gaze of Miach as he provided healing without asking for compensation.
Those memories—as well as the memories that came before—compounded into experience. They shaped her and the others. And it showed as, even though she hadn’t reached Level 2 as of yet, she could weave between the lashing tongues while flicking her sword in passing to sever them. Leaving the useless fleshy lumps slopping onto the ground, she rushed in and—
—silver once more parted the air as her blade drew an arch that neatly sliced through a pair of the Frog Shooters as they prepared to bound backwards to retreat. The third one managed to escape in a single bound that carried it far out of her blade’s range as the viscera of its counterparts painted the floor with a wet splat and purple ichor. However, no sooner than it landed, did the sharpened tip of three throwing needles pierce it and its body turned to dust.
I must’ve hit the core by mistake, Mikoto chastised herself softly. Though they were largely just small fragments no larger than a finger at this level, every one of them counted for a Familia like theirs. Her thoughts didn’t linger on it as the dying whelp of a Kobold brought her attention back to the others and found that there were no foes left standing.
The blacksmith was even going around and driving his sword into their heads. It was to make sure none were feigning death. Not many of the simpler monsters would intentionally do that. But a killing blow falling just short enough to leave them on the verge of death was enough to stab an unsuspecting Adventurer in the chest when they came to harvest their stones.
Though considering how much blood now pooled beneath the corpses she doubted any that had met with the jagged teeth of Hestia’s child were among the living. Unlike swords that were meant to cut through the flesh and sever the vital organs or parts of the body, his weapon of choice for these six floors had been that one. It wasn’t designed to go through cleanly, but rather bite into the flesh and break through the bone before tearing its way out with everything it could drag in the process.
Like she had thought earlier it didn’t seem to suit him at all—yet there were a few things about him that seemed out of place as she observed him, to grasp just how much experience he had. It was more than she expected for someone who had not ventured into the Dungeon for more than a month.
She could not claim to be an expert martial artist, but she could recognize things about the body that happened as one gained experience. Muscle memory built up as you familiarized yourself with a weapon. Such as how you brace for impact, posture yourself to react against an opponent, adjust after a swing for the next one—and so on.
Roughly a month of practice will allow one to use a weapon on a basic level. The more complex the weapon, the longer it would take. True mastery was the work of years, if not a lifetime, as different encounters and experiences tempered your capabilities. Adventurers with the Falna could make that experience manifest from what she heard via certain skills such as Spearman or Swordsman, as it represented their single-minded focus on attempting to achieve mastery and take it as a commitment to continue along that path.
That weapon was irregular compared to a knife or other simple weapons. It was made so he could adjust the length and thus change the amount of force one could put behind it, even shifting the engagement range or which vital parts it targeted. That would require a lot of experience to wield as effectively as he had so far.
Then there were the stories going around of his battle with the Silverback. The heavy hammer he wielded to crush its limbs and could also become a silver sword to stab through its heart. The more weapons one used with any level of proficiency meant the more time one had to spend practicing with them, which brought the question of when he obtained the training to fight on par with one of the higher-tier 1st level Monsters like it.
He didn’t have a martial background from what she knew. His goddess had said he had no experience prior to Orario. But his body and prowess spoke where words said otherwise as he had without a doubt proven he was capable of handling the first six floors of the Dungeon without any problems in terms of combat. He simply lacked experience with dealing with them, not the capability to fight against them.
Even so, she found it a bit concerning as she watched him stand there while staring down at the growing puddle of blood. That which painted the floor would eventually be swallowed by the cavernous maw as readily as it regenerated its walls—the Dungeon took life as readily as it gave birth to it.
There was a small, almost nostalgic smile on his face. It was similar to the expression Lord Takemikazuchi would have while ruminating on times in the past he found to be happy. Then the blacksmith came over and tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to jerk his head slightly and turn to face him. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said hastily. “Just… gathering my thoughts after all of that. There were a lot more monsters this time compared to the last time. But they were a bit easier to deal with.”
“That’s why parties are valued,” Welf told him before looking to her. “Leader, are there any more monsters here?”
Mikoto took a deep breath before she closed her eyes. Then she spread her awareness out in the form of black, illusionary feathers. They scattered unseen to all but her as they blanketed the area in search of her foes.
Yatanokurogarasu—the Eight-Span Black Crow whose feathers could span the eight cardinal directions. It was one of two skills that were born from her experiences in the Dungeon, divination techniques that tied her awareness to the world around her. It was akin to a third eye that manifested in her mind as black feathers that would reach out and brush the limits of her range, clinging to any monsters that she was made aware of so long as she had encountered them before.
Her senses picked up nothing. There were no foes hidden in wait for them to pass by and ambush. The Dungeon could possibly spawn more given it required an active trigger and effort on her part to activate, but for the moment they were in the clear.
“…There are none within my range,” Mikoto finally said. “We should be able to focus on gathering our spoils and heading back to the surface. There we can discuss how we are going to progress the next time.”
“We’re heading back already?” Bell asked. “There’s still time in the day.”
She shook her head and spoke firmly. “The time spent in the Dungeon differs in groups, but this expedition was only to gauge our capabilities. And while you have proven your competency with the Sixth Floor and above, the Seventh is where things change. To go there ill-prepared and before we can practice synergizing ourselves a little more could spell death even for someone who has ventured as far as the Tenth Floor.”
The blacksmith agreed. “She’s right. The variety of monsters change and so do how they start acting in tandem with one another. You noticed that part of why the Sixth Floor happens to be so deadly is because the War Shadows typically attempt ambushes when you least expect it, right?”
Hestia’s child nodded slowly. “In some cases, even the walls they spawn from tend to be far enough away that you don’t hear them breaking. One of them even managed to trick me into stabbing into a wall when I had thought I backed it into a corner with a dagger and nearly took my arm off before another two surrounded me from the walls.”
Welf’s eyebrows rose at that. “How’d you get out of that one?”
“I waited until one made the first move and then slammed into it with all my strength so that we tumbled over, breaking the circle and springing up at the same time so I could run away long enough to summon a new weapon.”
That was another thing they had learned on the way down. He apparently had some kind of Skill that allowed him to effectively store away certain belongings that were exclusive to him. It shouldn’t be unusual since Skills could appear at any time upon gaining a Falna, based on one’s experiences or heritage or any other factor. However, it only compounded the mystery of who he was…
No. I do not need to think further on it, she decided in the end as she flicked her sword with a practiced grace before using a cloth to rid it of most of the excess blood and fat from cutting through the bodies of the monsters. It would need to be properly cleaned later, but she didn’t know if they would need to make use of it for the rest of the day. My Lord trusts the word of his goddess and he has proven he is capable. His secrets and how he obtained them does not matter.
That decided she proceeded to help them with the extraction of the Magic Stones. None of the monsters on this level had particularity caustic or harmful bodily fluids, so extracting them wasn’t much of an issue. The lull in activity, however, did open up the opportunity for her to gather up her thoughts on the formation of their little group. “Crozzo. I believe you would be best suited for the role of the vanguard in our three-man cell.”
He looked over to her from the dissipating corpse of a Kobold. “Me?”
“Your strength is notable, and you are experienced with these Upper Floors,” she explained. “You can adjust to dealing with threats upfront based on your judgment. That would also allow for more flexibility for the rest of us in dealing with the lesser threats, so they do not overcrowd you.”
He nodded to her assessment. “I can do that.”
“Then what about me?” Bell asked.
“I would prefer you to be the skirmisher of the formation,” she said. “Your fighting style is quick and aggressive, best suited for bringing down enemies quickly. It would also provide you with a chance to gain experience with unfamiliar monsters by seeing how they are engaged by the Vanguard and then adapting to them.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” he said in compliance. “So does that mean you’ll be the support then?”
“It would seem so,” she admitted. “My talents lean more towards dexterity and agility rather than raw strength and endurance. In addition, while I prefer the blade I have for engaging enemies, I can use most ranged weapons—which will be essential on the next floor considering what we will be encountering.”
Welf chimed in. “The Moths, you mean?”
“Yes,” she answered. “The Purple Moths are capable of spreading poisonous powder with their wings and are fond of using it while adventurers are engaged with the other threats. They are priority targets that need to be eliminated and I have some proficiency with the Shortbow. But fixing your eyes on them while the Needle Rabbits are present will end up getting you killed. Then there are the Killer Ants, which need to be ideally killed in a single blow, and the regular monsters like Goblins and Kobolds that will be stronger and smarter than before.”
Not only did the enemy variety increase but so did their numbers and tactics. That was why venturing any lower alone or without preparation was such a hazard. It was very easy to become cornered and killed if you were careless or simply unlucky.
“With your skill, you would be able to pick them off while remaining aware of your surroundings enough that you could keep us from running into trouble or being caught off-guard…” Welf looked down intently at the body of a War Shadow before asking, “If you guys don’t mind, can I take some of the drop items to make some weapons to help out?”
“We’ll have to set some kind of rule in place in the future about how we split those in the future, but I have no qualms if you intend to use them for our expeditions,” she said offhand. Drop Items had more value than the magic stone fragments at these levels. They could compensate for the potential losses from not going with their normal partners, so it might cause conflict in the future. “What about you, Cranel?”
He was the one who would benefit the most, being the only one who hadn’t gone further and the only one with a single member of his Familia. Yet he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure.”
“Thanks. Since our numbers are fewer, we’ll need to make up with better experience, abilities, and equipment. I can only provide a little of the former and both of your skills beat out mine, but the latter I can do something about. The War Shadow Finger Blades can be shaped into daggers and throwing knives that will cut deeper than their regular counterparts with less strength. And the Kobold Nails can be fitted onto arrows that have a little more penetrating power.”
“That would be beneficial, but would that not be taking advantage of your services?” Mikoto remembered that it was his role as a smith that had caused issues prior. She didn’t want this to be the cause of problems in his current group.
“This is simple and benefits all of us,” he reasoned. Then he tilted his head towards Cranel. “Plus, it’ll give me a chance to show off my talents to a potential Contract. I’d like to be able to study his weapons since they’re a rather unique concept, but before I go asking I need to pull my own weight. We will need Antidotes and Potions though—ideally at least two for each person.”
“I can get those,” Bell offered. “I had been meaning to visit the Blue Pharmacy anyway, so I can go after asking Miss Eina more about the Seventh Floor. That way you two could focus on the other stuff.”
“If you two are offering to obtain the equipment and supplies, I would be willing to handle keeping the finances secured,” Mikoto said. “We can take the Magic Stone fragments and any of the drops we collect to the exchange and create a budget for what will be split and what will be left for the group’s supplies. We won’t need them right away, as I would like at least two more trips through the Dungeon to improve our teamwork before we set foot on the Seventh Floor, and we can save up until then.”
Neither found seemed to find issues with that.
“That’s fine by me,” Welf said before extending one fist out to them both. “I’m looking forward to working with you both.”
Mikoto looked to it for a moment before extending her own fist as Bell did the same, solidifying their partnership.
Bell was in a fairly good mood by the time he left the Guild. He was a little tired mentally, given it was late evening. Eina had decided she was going to grill him on the monsters inhabiting the Seventh Floor every day before he stepped foot there—starting today. But he had been in a good mood as he approached the usual side-street on West Main that would lead him back home.
Then the smell hit him.
It was the all-too-familiar scent of blood. It was faint, barely above the hint of the iron aroma that niggled the back of his throat. But its sudden introduction into the clean air of Orario still reached his nose with such sharpness that he couldn’t help but take notice before the pained cry reached his ears as he turned the corner…
And found himself on the streets of Yharnam once more.
The familiar old street was now darkened with gloom. Its architecture turned imposing and enclosed as caskets that were sealed shut with chains lined the walls. The shadows themselves seemed to move with an eerie foreboding as they seemed eager to lap at the blood dripping onto the ground from…
It was the Little Girl. The Daughter of Gascoigne. She was there, laying on the ground with her back against the wall and clutching her right arm as vibrant crimson seeped from her fingers. Her eyes were filled with fear, helpless as she stared down at the bloodied Saw Cleaver from which tantalizing ruby beads dripped down.
Then its wielder looked to him. The tall figure dressed Hunter’s clothing that was a dingy and washed out yellow. A man who was dead risen from the grave looked to him and his mouth moved, but what came out were guttural sounds and growls—animal noise that didn’t register with Bell as he stood there for a moment in frozen silence.
Not until Henryk looked back to his granddaughter and raised the weapon while she looked back to him with a pleading look in her eyes that said she didn’t want to die.
Then it was like the trigger had been pulled. “STOP!”
He rocketed forth as fast as his legs could carry while reaching out to the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind to call out to the Little Ones. They answered his call, producing from the wall to the right along his path the handle of his Saw Cleaver. In a single motion and without a pause in his sprint he grabbed it and swung it forward as the Old Hunter turned to him and did the same—
—and the scraping of steel-on-steel caused the world to revert. No longer was he on the streets of Yharnam but the familiar road leading him back home. The one facing him wasn’t the aged Hunter, but a man who looked a few years his senior and was wielding a longsword.
And by his side was not the Little Girl he knew, but a female pallum that had short, chestnut hair that was messy and untamed. The beige cloak she had on looked frayed and worn, the tear in the sleeve from which blood ran anew to adorn the stitched ones. She looked a mix of surprised and confused at the scenario in front of her.
“The hell you think yer doing, brat!?” the man demanded, drawing Bell’s attention back to him. “I thought I told you to stay outta this!”
“I’m not going to let you kill a little girl in front of me!” Bell shouted right back as he jerked his arm, leaving the teeth of his saw to scrape against the edge of the blade and leave sparks in their eyes before thrusting his foot forward to plant his boot into the man’s chest. The flat of his blade intercepted it but he let the momentum carry him so that they were disengaged.
It may not have been Gascoigne’s Daughter. He may not have been on those streets that had gloom seeped into the very stone. But that did not change the fact that he wasn’t just going to let someone get murdered right in front of him.
He took a protective stance in front of her, never letting his gaze leave the man with his weapon in one hand and the other reaching for a potion stashed in his pouch. He then tossed it back to her and said, “Use that and run!”
The nameless pallum grabbed it with her good hand before she promptly scurried to her feet and took off running. The sound of the bottle being uncorked and splashing over the wound reached his ears as her footsteps hastened. But he didn’t have time to focus on that anymore as the man’s face grew angrier than before.
“So you were workin’ with that scum all along!” If Bell had to express his visage in words it would be the picture of a hellhound on two legs, ready to breathe out a wave of fire. The intent to kill was palpable. “Fine, I’ll carve you to pieces and then drag ‘em to her!”
Then he went on the attack. His blade swung through the air, a streak lingering as the setting sun caught its descent angled towards Bell’s neck for what was meant to be a fatal blow as he raised the Saw Cleaver in a guard to defend himself—
—and then the sword clattered onto the ground, steel scraping the stonework mingling with the surprised and pained cry of the assailant as he huddled over with his right hand clutching his left hand. The fingers of the latter were bent out of shape, broken bits of bone jutting out and piercing the bruised skin.
And at the base of his feet was a small stone that was bloodied.
“Leave,” a soft but firm voice spoke. It was commanding and drew Bell’s attention to an entrance of the alleyway where he spotted Ryuu standing there with her arm outstretched and eyes narrowed. “Now.”
The Adventurer’s baleful gaze fixed onto her. Then onto the stone at his feet. And lastly, at Bell, his eyes lingering for what felt like a lifetime before he sucked in a sharp breath, grabbed his blade with his good hand, and exited without another word.
Despite his absence the tension in the alleyway seemingly lingered as Bell lowered his Saw Cleaver and looked down at the bloodied stone. It was an ordinary stone that you could find anywhere on the streets. That man had been an Adventurer who was at least more experienced than him. He could put the pieces together well enough.
Even so, he turned to thank his savior. “Thank you for that. I hadn’t seen you when I was at the Hostess of Fertility.”
She only shook her head. “I was running errands when I overheard what was happening. However, it would seem I only bought you a reprieve. He will most likely attempt to come after you again.”
That information took a second to process. Then Bell felt a weight in the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean?”
“Just now he was memorizing your features,” she pointed out as she slowly walked towards him. “Your exchange was brief, but it became clear the two of you would not have resolved that fight without one dead. You recognized that as well, did you not?”
…His grip on the Saw Cleaver tightened and his stomach twisted into a knot because Bell did know. Yharnam had not been kind to him, but because of it he recognized from both the intent and the motions that man fully intended to kill him. There was no doubt in his mind. “…I couldn’t let him kill that girl. But I didn’t want to kill him.”
“I am not criticizing you for your decision,” Ryuu told him. “Merely stating that you should be prepared to defend yourself adequately next time rather than simply intending to fend such a person off without harming them. Even passivity can have consequences, Mister Cranel.”
The message carried. “I’ll keep my guard up.”
“Then I wish you a good evening,” Ryuu said before making her way out of the alleyway. He wondered just how strong of an Adventurer she was to do that kind of damage. But it wasn’t his place to ask—not when she had done it to protect him.
Once she was gone, Bell looked back to the wall where that girl had been. The cut had been deep from the blood there despite her clutching the wound. The potion was one of Miach’s so it should work, but…
He could still see Gascoigne’s Daughter in that moment. “I didn’t really save you, did I?”
The alleyway remained silent as he made his way back home.
But an answer came to him the next day as he was outside of Babel once more, in Central Park. Hestia said to leave the details of scheduling more parties with the other two Familias to her since they all had different schedules to keep and obligations on their own ends. It was just him today, strapped up in his new armor and his weapons a mere thought away.
It was then he felt a tug on his sleeve from behind. He turned his head around to see that they belonged to a tiny set of hands gingerly holding him. Then he had to crane down to meet with the beige hood obstructing the bed of disheveled, chestnut hair. But it was only when his eyes trailed down until they met a set of eyes that matched her hair, nestled over a saccharine smile, that recognition dawned.
And, in a small voice that tickled his ear, she said five little words he hadn’t expected to hear:
“I’ve found you, Mister Hero!”