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.
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!”