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!”
Chapter 18: The Blacksmith and the Swordswoman
The sun was setting over the horizon of a grassy field.
The green carpet was only split by a dirt path, carved out by countless feet tracking over the same path until it became a road. The evening breeze was cool and refreshing as it gently caressed the cheeks of a young boy with hair as white as the moon in full and eyes as crimson as blood.
Bell Cranel was just a boy. He was short, adorned by a plain shirt and baggy pants that hung off his frame. His tiny fingers that weren’t even large enough to grip a hoe instead clung to the pants of the tall figure next to him, his only family in the world.
“I hope today wasn’t too hard on you, Bell,” said his Grandfather, tone wrapped in a gentle voice. “I know you aren’t used to working on the land just yet.”
The tiny boy shook his head. “It was fun helping you, Grandpa.”
The aged face bore a smile before the thick fingers came down and rustled his hair affectionately. “That’s good. How about I tell you another story tonight?”
The smile that came across his face was like the blooming of a flower under the sun. “Can you tell me about the Argonaut again?”
“You really like that one, don’t you?” When Bell nodded his head like an excited puppy, his grandfather only chuckled a bit more before hoisting him onto his shoulders. “Let’s hurry home then.”
As Bell clung to his grandfather’s head, he looked back towards the setting sun. The light suddenly grew brighter. It swelled with radiance until it became so bright that it devoured the world…
And then the light dulled to become the glow of a magic stone lamp. Bell Cranel woke from his dream to find himself once more in the confines of the space beneath the Church. The place the Hestia Familia called home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Grandpa lately, Bell realized as he sat up, causing the sheets clinging to him to slide down and pool around his waist as he looked down at his hands. The imagery of blood painting them flickered in his mind for a moment before the pale hue reasserted itself.
It had been a few days since he’d returned from Yharnam and fought the Silverback. Since then he’d been laying low, so to speak. He’d been so focused on the fight that he’d been ignorant of his surroundings and a large crowd had borne witness to his battle when he really didn’t want the attention right now.
Eina had visited to apologize for the incident after the first day and offered compensation on behalf of the Ganesha Familia for destroying the monster before it could cause more collateral damage and kill civilians. They were apparently taking responsibility for the incident and were working on reparations and repairs to the damage caused by the monsters, including Daedalus Street. They weren’t sure how all the monsters got loose, or why that one in specific had managed to slip away unnoticed until it attacked him, or even the identity of the thief who’d led him to that place. But they were still grateful he went above and beyond what was expected for an adventurer of his Level.
The goddess residing there called Penia also asked that her thanks be extended to the ‘Hero of the Street’ as they were apparently calling him. Bell wasn’t aware of that goddess, but Hestia seemed to know her from the reaction she gave. The moniker made his stomach turn and it took all the effort he could not frown when the two of them were watching him at the time.
After all, how could anyone at all call someone like me a Hero?
He hadn’t been thinking of the people around him when he fought the Silverback the second time. He was only thinking about how it stood between him and returning to his Hestia’s side. Not to mention how he’d left that Little Girl in Yharnam with no one else in the world to call family after plundering the echoes of her grandfather just so he could return to his family.
Maybe the dreams were meant to be a punishment for that. To have the memories of simple times when he had been at his happiest with his Grandpa, only to wake with the knowledge that those times were now gone forever. To never forget the pain his absence brought and be reminded of what he could never regain.
It’s probably what I deserve. He brought a hand to his head and let out a soft sigh as he gathered his thoughts. Then he looked at the clock, pulled aside the sheets, and stood up to stretch his body.
Even with the sins on his back weighing him down, Bell couldn’t keep hiding away in the Church. Even with the generous consideration of the Ganesha Familia, their finances were still tight. He had work to do and today was going to be a busy day given everything that he needed to do.
He had to go thank Syr for helping him get away that time. Then there was a meeting with the members of the Hephaestus and Takemikazuchi Familia that Hestia arranged to see if they had good enough compatibility. The news about the Silverback had likely given both a little more consideration of his talents, which would probably be the only good thing that came out of it.
Once he was limbered up and dressed, Bell left the confined comforts of the Church behind with his broken armor in his bag. The sun’s rays touched down and heated the stone streets while its radiance lit up the sky. The air was crisp as it whistled through the buildings that made up the cul-de-sac. Not a bad morning all things considered.
Yet, as he walked the path there was a slight sense of wariness in his stride. He found himself feeling more alert than before. The streets of Orario should be safe, yet that had been proven not to be the case.
The sense of unease he felt made him realize just how much he’d taken for granted the sense of safety he felt during the days prior to the Monster Feria. He wondered if this was how the people of Yharnam felt every day and night. Never knowing when a beast or giant rodent would pop out of the shadows to end their lives even before the night of the Hunt.
Calm down. He took a deep breath to try and rid himself of the tension he felt. That incident with the Silverback was probably just due to some unusual circumstances at the time. Even if it wasn’t, Bell wasn’t unarmed even if he didn’t carry his weapons with him at the moment.
The Messengers could retrieve his Hunter’s Pistol, Saw Cleaver, Saw Spear, Kirkhammer, or Gascoigne’s Axe from the Dream with a thought—no matter where he was. It was undeniably a convenience that he couldn’t exactly ignore.
But it did little to comfort him as he finally reached the Hostess of Fertility and walked through the doors, whereupon the ladies greeted him on sight.
“Bell, it’s been a few days,” Syr said, wearing her uniform that was a pale-green skirt and white blouse. There was an empty tray in her hand from delivering a plate of what looked to be sausages to a dwarf. “I was starting to worry I scared you off.”
“I was just laying low for a bit until things settled down,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for helping me get back home.”
Syr shook her head. “It was the least I could do since you only got caught up in it doing me a favor.”
“Mya, but who would have thought little white-hair could make a mess like that,” Arnya spoke up, leaning over his shoulder with a cheshire smile on her face as she gently poked his cheek. “You know they’re still talking about how brutal you were even now, meow~?”
Bell flinched slightly at that. “I… didn’t really have a choice at the time.”
“No one is questioning your actions, Mister Cranel,” Ryuu assured him as she walked past, having finished busing a table. “How you won doesn’t change the fact that you adapted to an unforeseen circumstance and prevailed against an opponent that was stronger than you, all while keeping those around you safe. It was admirable considering your short time as an Adventurer.”
Mama Mia nodded in agreement. “You fought. You won. Hold your head up with pride.”
“…Thank you,” he said, feeling a weight somewhat lifting off his shoulders.
“So, Bell, what are you up to today?” Syr asked. “Are you heading back to the Dungeon?”
“I plan to after handling some other things like getting my armor repaired,” he said. “I’ve been gone from it for a while now, so I don’t think I’ll go that deep inside. But I’ll probably be there until nightfall.”
“In that case, how about I give you a lunch to eat later on?” she offered. “Just give me a moment and I’ll get it from the back.”
Before he could say anything, she was already gone and came back with a basket that she held out for him with a soft smile on her face. He couldn’t find it in him to exactly refuse, while either willfully or blissfully ignorant of the pitying look that briefly crossed some of the girls’ faces as he accepted it. “Thanks. I’ll bring it back later tonight.”
That done, they bid him farewell and he set back out towards Babel from West Main.
Eventually, Bell made it to Central Park just outside of the white tower that rose to the sky. The cultivated greenery of the park, along with the numerous fountains that were constantly spouting crystalline water, made for a refreshing spot to take moment to relax. The westernmost fountain would serve as the meeting place.
Hestia had told him that Hephaestus mentioned one of her children would meet Bell here, but it’d be up to whoever it was if they wanted to form a party. Same with Takemikazuchi. It hadn’t been long since he’d arrived in Orario and, despite all of the horrible things that happened after the Minotaur, he was grateful for the chance to meet so many new people and interested in seeing just what it’d be like to fight alongside others.
Still, Bell honestly had some reservations about working with others due to the secrets he and his goddess shared about his status. He could pass off being able to retrieve his weapons and items from the Dream as a form of magic. It was rare for those who only recently obtained a Falna to have access to magic, but not unheard of.
But he’d need to avoid letting them know about the fact that blood was something that could mend his wounds or revitalize him if he could help it. No matter how he thought about it, there was just nothing good about how it looked. Besides, he shouldn’t take on any wounds if he could help it.
I’ll probably have to be careful with the Quicksilver and Blood Bullets too, he thought to himself with a sigh. The Hunter’s Pistol allowed him some range when it came to dealing with more annoying monsters that hovered out of his range. But… what if he shot a monster and didn’t kill it?
In the end, his blood was the same as that of the Hunters. There was a Beast dwelling deep inside of him as well, just like Gascoigne and Henryk. If he was careless and let someone else consume or come into contact with it, was there a chance that it’d turn whatever it flowed through into a Beast as well?
A shudder ran through his body when he thought back to the Minotaur that had killed him once before. If it had ran back into the depths after he’d shot out its eye, would it have become an even more terrifying blood-slathering monster? An Abnormal?
Deep in thought, Bell only realized that someone was closing in on him when their shadow offered shade from the sun. He looked up to see what looked to be a young man, at least a few years older than himself, with hair that was red like flames while being dressed in black. There was also a small box under one of his arms.
“You wouldn’t happen to be from the Hestia Familia, would you?” he asked. “I mean, Hephaestus mentioned I’d recognize you from your hair and eyes. But…”
“Y-Yes—” Bell stood up and nodded. “I’m Bell Cranel, part of the Hestia Familia. Are you, um, here to form a party with me?”
“Well, I’m hoping that’ll be the case,” he said. “When my goddess mentioned someone with white hair and red eyes killed that Silverback, I kind of pictured someone a little older. But it’s not like age matters much to Adventurers, right?”
He had a point. The Falna was the great equalizer. Even a child with one could, in theory, kill monsters five times their height with ease if their stats were high enough. Then he extended his unoccupied arm and held out his hand. “I’m Welf Crozzo.”
“Welf… Crozzo?” Bell froze for a moment. Then his voice picked up a notch. “Welf Crozzo, the blacksmith?”
Welf let out a sigh. “…Yeah. That one.”
“I can’t believe my luck!” the white-haired boy said with a smile as he slung off his bag. “I’ve wanted to meet you if I could!”
Hearing how ecstatic Bell sounded, Welf couldn’t help but feel a sense of apprehensiveness building up in his chest that was tinged by expectation. He had some hope that, with Bell supposedly being new to the city, he wouldn’t have heard of the Crozzo name. That cursed name that had more than once drew ire and expectation towards him that he hoped wouldn’t rear its ugly head once more.
Yet, it seemed that he wasn’t so lucky. The next thing he would do would be to ask for a magic sword no doubt. Better to get it over with now than drag it out. “Look, I’ll tell you right now I’m not making any Mag—”
The blacksmith’s words were cut short when Bell set the bag down on the edge of the fountain. The sound of rattling betrayed the contents that glimmered with dull-toned steel and battered metal. He recognized it, because what blacksmith couldn’t recognize their own work, and a lump formed in his throat as he swallowed the rest of his previous words and hesitantly asked, “Is that…my armor?”
White hair shifted as the younger boy nodded. “I wanted to see if I could get it repaired or replaced by more of your work later today, because of how beat-up it got during the fight against the Silverback. It helped me out a lot before that too.”
Welf set down the box he was holding on the edge of the fountain before slowly reaching into the bag next to it. He pulled out the chest-piece of the armor set and found that it had been put through no small amount of damage. It had only been a few days since the armor had been sold but it had seen more use in that time than some armors had seen in years.
“…This was literally the second armor that I sold,” Welf began, running his thumbs over the ragged and battered chest-piece. “I made it out of Metal Rabbit Hair, so it would be both durable and light. It was as high-quality as I could make it, but the price was set so that a beginner could afford it while covering the costs of manufacturing it. To see it like this is…”
Since the armor was sold through the storefront no names were exchanged, so he wasn’t privy to any information about the customer. He couldn’t ask them what they thought about it, or if any adjustments could have been made to make it more comfortable, or any special considerations.
The fact that it hadn’t been immediately returned had given him something of a sense of elation, but also sparked his curiosity as he’d wondered who it was that bought his armor and why they’d done it. Was it by chance or after some serious consideration? Was it because the quality was just right for the price range or the aesthetic of it?
It had to be Fate that the one who bought it was standing here in front of him to answer those questions. “Sorry I ruined it so soon. I…”
Bell trailed off when he noticed Welf slowly shaking his head.
“You used it in the battles you fought and came back alive,” he said. There was always a single question every blacksmith dreaded thinking about as they worked the forge: would this fulfill its purpose and keep the one who bought it alive? “That’s all that matters.”
Welf couldn’t guess that the chest-piece had saved Bell’s heart from being gouged out by a spear backed by inhuman strength. Or the fact that it caught some of the explosive fragments of fast-flying quicksilver that scoured the pristine surface. Or how it’d stopped him from being opened up from shoulder-to-hip by the fangs of a Saw Cleaver.
Likewise, Welf couldn’t even fathom how the forearm-guards had warded away claws that had shredded away half of the young adventurer’s innocent-looking face prior. Or how they kept him from losing his head to the axe of a Beast clad in the flesh of a man. Or even the fact that they’d held out against the steel teeth of a maddened Old Hunter.
The only thing he could tell was that the armor he’d crafted had saved the life of this adventurer more than once. It had held up as best it could until he was in a position to get back with his life intact. And it still hadn’t crumbled to dust despite all of that—a fact that brought a soft smile to his face.
The boy looked as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders before asking, “So, you think it’s possible to get it fixed?”
“Honestly, with it being in this condition, it’d be easier to just replace it,” Welf said after assessing the cumulative damage. Then he set the chest-piece down and reached over towards the box he’d brought with him. “I guess you really are in luck considering I was just going to put my latest version in the armor series on sale after the meetup was done.”
He removed the lid to show off his latest work. Since the armor Bell had bought was the first one that wasn’t returned right away, he’d decided to make a similar model one to it. The Pyonkichi Mk III was a little more durable than the first due to the composition of its materials making it thicker, with a few embellishments on it to make it somewhat more aesthetically pleasing.
Bell picked up the armor pieces and turned them in his arms. He seemed drawn to the pieces, pulled into the silvery glint of the morning sun being reflected off the polished surface of it. The blood-hued rubies on the wrist guards matched his eyes upon looking into them, almost like staring into a mirror.
“How much?” he asked, looking up to Welf with eager eyes.
The blacksmith struck a deal. “You can have them for free, if you’re willing to make a Direct Contract with me.”
Upon seeing the boy’s head tilt quizzically, he remembered that Bell had only been doing this for such a short time he likely wouldn’t know. So Welf explained the notion to him that in a direct contract the drops and loot from the Dungeon would be brought back to Welf, who would then use them to make things for Bell at a reduced cost. For adventurers at a low-level, the reduced price made armor and weapons more affordable so they could go deeper into the Dungeon, where they had a better chance to Level Up.
“Oh, that’s convenient,” Bell said. “But would it really be okay to make a contract with me? I haven’t gone that deep into the Dungeon, so the items I can bring back aren’t really that good.”
“And I’ve only gone down to the Tenth Floor and haven’t even unlocked my Blacksmith Developmental Ability yet,” Welf told him. “You’ve been down to the Fifth Floor at the very least, despite having been here only a little while, so from my perspective you’re moving pretty fast even though we’re both low-level Adventurers. Even so, we still have room grow and I think that’s part of why our Goddesses agreed to let us meet like that.”
Part of that was due to the fact that he wasn’t a dedicated adventurer. He was first and foremost a blacksmith, so his time was mostly spent in the forge rather than the depths of the Dungeon. But he had trouble joining parties because of his name and had reached the limits of what he could do alone, which was why when his goddess told him about the offer instead of the others in her Familia he’d jumped on the chance.
And he was rewarded by meeting the very person who bought his armor and used it to its fullest. More than anything Welf wanted this battle party to work out. “By the way, do you know who the third person we’ll be partying with will be?”
Bell looked up from the armor pieces that he was fitting onto himself. “It’s a member of the Takemikazuchi Familia. Their god is on good terms with Goddess, even though they both work for different potato puff stands. I think they’ll be here soon too.”
Welf hadn’t heard of the Familia before, so it was likely a small one. More so if their god worked in such a place. Even so, the prospect of being able to form a three-man cell was something he was looking forward to, so he tried to spot their potential ally when he saw a pair of eyes staring back at them.
It was a young woman approaching them. She had raven-black hair tied into a ponytail that contrasted her milk-white skin, the front of which draped and parted over eyes that were a shade of blue and purple. Her choice of clothing and weaponry reminded Welf of a little of Tsubaki’s, only with it being somewhat more modest and painted a shade lavender with a red shoulder-guard that had the emblem of a sword planted in the ground.
Her eyes settled onto Bell’s hair and she hesitated for a single step before walking towards them. Then she came to a stop in front of them and asked, “Are you Bell Cranel of the Hestia Familia and the member of the Hephaestus Familia?”
“That’s us,” Welf said. “And you must be our last party member?”
She nodded and gave a slight bow. “My name is Yamato Mikoto. I am of Lord Takemikazuchi’s Familia.”
Mikoto came at the agreed upon meeting place at the appointed time with her back straight as she took in the appearance of the two adventurers in front of her. It was at the behest of her Lord that she agreed to at least see if the formation of this party would be to the benefit of them all.
“It’s nice to meet you, Miss Mikoto,” said Hestia’s child as he looked up to her with a smile. The formality of his speech, the curvature of his face, and the brightness in his eyes gave her the impression of him being far less…imposing than the recent stories floating around would tell.
“I’m Welf Crozzo,” said the other adventurer. He flashed her a grin as he extended his hand. “Pleasure to meet you too.”
As she shook it, she felt how calloused and rough they were. Not surprising given he was part of a Crafting Familia. It was a clear sign of his dedication to his craft at the very least, but she didn’t believe it was a perfect reflection one’s capabilities as an adventurer.
Even without forming a party, relationships between adventurers were fickle things at the best of times. But there was a reason mixed parties were complex things to form even in the short-term after all. You had to factor in the relationship between the gods and goddesses. Then there was the imbalance in experience. Last was the dispositions of their Familia members.
In the case of their deities, Lord Takemikazuchi held a friendship with the Goddess Hestia despite the fact that their potato snack stands were rivals. He did not seem particularly close to the Goddess Hephaestus, but there was no animosity. Hestia was seemingly close to her if the story about her staying with the former for a time after her arrival was true, and all three ultimately consented—so there wasn’t a problem there at present.
Next was the question of experience and disposition that Mikoto herself had to address as she broached the topic. “Forgive me for asking this abruptly but, since we are not familiar with one another very well, may we discuss matters like how long we have been exploring the Dungeon, the deepest floor we’ve explored, and our previous experience with parties?”
It was somewhat blunt outright asking them. But she felt it would be the best way to judge them. Since she’d arrived in Orario she had seen many kinds of adventurers. Those that boast of their strength and accomplishments, those that embellished their abilities, and so on. Letting them speak before she made judgement was paramount.
Hestia’s child spoke up first. “Ah, well… I’ve been an Adventurer for less a month now since I arrived in Orario. Since then I’ve only made it as far as the Sixth Floor. And this will be my first party.”
“You’re really selling yourself short,” Welf said. “Most people don’t make it that far down in months, let alone weeks.”
Bell only shook his head at the compliment and his tone of voice shift slightly to a somber one. “I think I was mostly just lucky. Both my advisor and Goddess warned me, but I didn’t really understand until a little while ago how reckless and dangerous it was doing that alone.”
…Neither were wrong. Most adventurers, or at least the ones who tended to live longer, paced themselves. Exploring the Dungeon was a gradual thing and so it was best to acclimate yourself towards becoming familiar to its habits while gaining experience during the earlier period, when the growth was accelerated.
That being said, going that deep after a few days was indeed reckless. More so when you were alone. Especially if he had no combat experience prior to arriving in Orario, as his goddess mentioned. Luck might have played a part in that, but the fact that he was still alive and whole after going that deep said something of skill and dedication as well.
The blacksmith scratched the back of his head. “Well, in my case, I’ve been here for seven years but I’ve only made it as far as the Tenth Floor. I’d like say that’s because I spent most of my time working in the forge since my Goddess only allows for us to put the best of our things on sale, but part of that’s due to an issue with forming a party.”
“Why’s that?” Bell asked. “From what I heard, most of the larger Familias form a party with other members, right?”
“That might be the case in Exploration-Type Familias, but with us it’s different…” He went silent as he closed his eyes and grabbed his chin in thought. “You probably don’t know, but we lower-level blacksmiths tend to have our work cut out for us in getting customers. It’s no lie when I say that sometimes we have to steal and undercut each other because there are so many of us and so few customers. Because of that forming a party between members of our Familia can be difficult at times, so we have to group up with people outside of it…”
After a moment, he opened them and looked to Bell. “I’ve been with a lot of different parties, but none of them has ended well. They would ask me to do something that I wasn’t comfortable doing. And when I refused, they’d try to leverage my status as a member of their party to get it. Because of that we would break apart on bad terms, but I honestly want this to work out for us.”
In other words, he was a serial party-jumper. It wasn’t strange for one person to move between them occasionally, to see if there was good compatibility. But doing so consistently and leaving on bad terms often meant that there was some kind of problem with the individual.
“Will whatever it is that caused the animosity between yourself and the others interfere with us while venturing into the Dungeon?” Mikoto asked.
He shook his head as he faced her. “It was centered around my role as a smith, not an Adventurer. I can pull my weight in the Dungeon.”
Were they perchance trying to get him to make them free equipment? Mikoto silently wondered. Equipment cost was a heavy expense for a smaller Familia and larger ones would have their own dedicated smiths to maintain their gear.
Regardless, he looked frank and firm in his gaze. The implication of what he told them was clear enough and he had to know how it sounded. Yet, the fact that he was openly admitting it when he didn’t have to meant he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
“I cannot judge your relationship with other groups in the past,” she said, crossing her arms. “I have no right to comment or pry into what happened with them either. Instead, I will look to contributions in the Dungeon.”
Bell agreed. “You don’t seem like a bad person and I doubt our goddesses would let us meet up like this if that was the case.”
“Thank you,” he said with a look of relief on his face. “Both of you. I won’t let you down.”
Next, it was Mikoto’s turn. “As for myself, I have been exploring the Dungeon since my Familia relocated to Orario two years ago. We are small with only six members, so we often partied with one another. But one of our members has achieved Level 2 and so we were able to go as deep as the Thirteenth Floor consistently.”
“That’s incredible,” Welf said earnestly while staring at her. “I’ve known Familias that never make it that deep despite being more than twice the size. Honestly, you can live relatively comfortably at that point without going much deeper as a smaller group.”
Mikoto only shook her head. Perhaps they could, if they simply kept the valis they earned for themselves. But it wasn’t just themselves they were supporting. “Leaving aside our financial circumstances, we have our own reasons for going as deeply as we do. ”
Perhaps out of respect for them not pressing him for further details, the blacksmith didn’t press further either. He merely nodded. “Either way, you’re probably the most experienced of us from the sounds of it. Are you going to be the party’s leader then?”
“So it would seem,” she settled on. If it was based purely on experience, Welf had the greatest in terms of years. However, he admitted that he was more dedicated to his craft and he often left parties because of incompatibility. Plus, he didn’t seem to want to call the shots so much as he simply wanted to be part of a party.
Likewise, Bell had less than a month’s worth of experience diving into the Dungeon and had only gone as far as the Sixth Floor. Plus, he had no experience with fighting in a group. That lack of experience was something that couldn’t be overlooked.
“Bell Cranel, I have heard that you managed to slay a Silverback,” she said. “But if we are to commit to this battle party we need to know the measure of your abilities personally, as well as demonstrate our own. Are you aware of what a three-man cell formation is?”
Bell shook his head.
“It’s a standard formation where one acts as the vanguard, the other covers them, and the last one provides rear support,” Welf explained. “The Vanguard would deal the initial offense, drawing the enemy aggression while their support prevents counterattacks and look for the opportunity to end the enemy as quickly as possible. The rear support usually brings up the rear using long-range weapons, preventing surprise attacks and holding onto healing items, but they need to be able to defend themselves and contribute.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Bell said. “So which role are we all going to be?”
“We will determine that by the end of the day,” Mikoto declared while looking over to Babel. “For now, prepare yourselves. Before we take a risk that would dishonor my Lord, we’ll go down to the last floor that you ventured to so that we may see what you are capable of—the Sixth Floor.”
Interlude 2: The Growing Insight of Three
For a second time Aiz felt like she’d run straight into a brick wall. She’d been tasked with dealing with the last monster that had escaped—a Silverback—when a pungent scent met her head on. The aroma dug into her mind and clouded her thoughts for only a moment, but that still brought her sprint to an abrupt halt.
“Huh…” The sound of interest came from her Goddess next to her. “You can smell it too?”
“Yes.” Her eyes spanned the street, searching for the source of the scent she knew to be the boy that had killed the Minotaur. Her senses, augmented by her Level, attuned to the noise of the street until she heard a single set of running footfall and heavy pants, along with the moonscent—as Loki had told her—tinged with blood.
Then, once more, Bell Cranel came into view as he burst out of a side alley that was nearby. The young boy was covered in battle-ravaged leather that had been sheared and scraped to the point where bare skin and battered metal were on display. Sweat from exertion dotted his brow where strands of his white hair clung desperately.
Aiz let out a small groan and held a slender hand to her head that began to pound with his approach. She didn’t know what it was about him that she was feeling. She couldn’t know how to register it. All she could do was wait for him to pass by her without a word as he continued to flee, the pulsing sensation lessening somewhat as his footfalls continued past her.
“Ugh…” Loki was holding her nostrils closed, so her voice came out a bit childish as she said, “It’s pretty thick compared to at the tavern, huh?”
Aiz nodded as they turned and watched him continue to run until a girl emerged from a side-street and grabbed his hand, eliciting a brief look of shock on the boy’s face before recognition set in. Then words were exchanged, an offer to ‘help him escape from sight’ from what Aiz could hear, before she pulled him into the alley. The footfalls that she could hear belonging to them took them away from the Main Street.
“It’s strange,” Aiz settled on after a moment of thought. “But something about it… makes me nervous…”
“Hmm…” Loki crossed her arms and hummed lightly in thought. “Call it a hunch, but I feel it my bones that sumthin’ about its off too…”
As she contemplated that to herself, Aiz picked up on the activity on the street and how it seemed to have blossomed. People were excitedly talking about an adventurer dressed in leather who fought and slew a monster right in the plaza. She had her suspicions that it was the boy they were talking about, so she approached a pair of children that were in the middle of playing.
“Ah, excuse me?” she said, crouching down towards one of the children. “Could you tell me about what happened just now with a monster?”
The child didn’t hesitate. “It was amazing! This big monster went ‘RAAAHHH’ and tried to squish this white-haired mister with its big arms! But he was so fast, and he had this hammer that had a sword in it! He went ‘swish’ and blood flew everywhere, and the monster went ‘GAAHHH’ and then—”
Aiz listened on as he continued on in an excited manner until an adult called for him and he said goodbye. Then she turned back to her Goddess, who was conversing with an elderly woman. When the woman parted way, Loki cradled one arm while holding a hand to her chin.
“Suspicious…” Loki mused. “That young lady was kind enough to tell me a bit about what just happened. It seemed that boy killed the Silverback with a weapon that could go between a hammer and a sword, or something that he could call back to him even when separated. I’d say it’d be an enchanted weapon, but Cow Tits can’t afford sumthin’ like that. Could it possibly be some form of magic?”
It wasn’t unheard of that someone who was just given a Falna would have access to magic. Outside of a Grimoire it was something that seemed to happen sporadically, with some species being more likely to manifest it or exceptions like Aiz, who had Aerial since she received Loki’s blessing. For all they knew it was something the boy was capable of since he became an adventurer—he did kill a Monster that Level 2s would struggle against the first time she’d seen him, so a Silverback wouldn’t be that much of a threat.
But from the colorful way the boy had described the fight, it sounded like it had dragged out for a bit. That was strange, considering that someone who could kill a Minotaur should be able to kill a Silverback within mere seconds at worse. But, at the same time, she didn’t think it sounded like he was making a show of it when there was a chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
He didn’t seem all that polished when it came to fighting from what she’d seen the last time either. He wasn’t quite helpless and seemed to know enough not to wound himself with the butcher’s weapon he had, but he didn’t seem anywhere near expertise in terms of skill wielding it or when facing off against the Minotaur considering how sloppy his movements were. He’d barely avoided most of the hits and the ones he tried to block had broken through his guard utterly.
That was expected for the Upper Floors—in fact, it was almost what she’d expect from a new adventurer who hadn’t refined their combat skills out of the Dungeon like some of the former soldiers or hunters she’d seen. But against Silverbacks that lived close to the Middle Floors and the Minotaurs that came from the floors below it, that was another story. Simply surviving to the point that you could venture down there would require countless battles, during which you’d build up experience with fighting subconsciously.
So how did he manage to kill the Minotaur then? Her head began to ache as she thought back to it. He seemed almost confused that he’d managed to prevail, or the fact that he had the magic stone. Could it have been that he wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d done it?
Aiz thought back then when their eyes met. She didn’t quite grasp what she heard with the whispers that seemed to give her a headache, but before then she recalled thinking that his weapon was his fangs and his hands were his claws. The primal way he’d cried out as he ripped out its magic stone had been almost…bestial.
It didn’t really suit him at all from how timid and small he looked when not cloaked in tattered clothes, fresh blood, and broken steel. But somehow that was part of what caused her to feel on edge. Not completely, but the sensation that she was staring down a predator for that moment does seem close to how she could best describe it.
“Well, either way, the Silverback was taken care of and no civilians got hurt from the sound of it,” Loki said abruptly, changing the topic and pulling Aiz from her thoughts as the Goddess grasped her arm and pulled it against her smaller body. “Let’s go back to the others, Aizuu.”
“Ah… sure…” She nodded before turning on her heel and following after her Goddess. Bell Cranel was a mystery to Aiz now more than ever, but there were other mysteries she needed to focus on. Other things she needed to do and other people waiting for her.
She’d put the mystery of the Moon-scented Boy to the back of her mind for now.
Freya moaned softly as she cradled her head from the throbbing pressure that nestled itself right behind her eyes, a crystal ball situated on the table next to her. The cloak she normally wore out to avoid drawing the gaze of men and women by the virtue of her sheer beauty laid on her lap, unneeded. She’d rented out the entire restaurant for the moment in order to ensure her privacy while she observed her ploy at work.
It hadn’t been something she’d explicitly planned out. But rather a spontaneous opportunity that crossed her mind the moment that she noticed that Bell and Hestia were out for the festival and in possession of Syr’s Purse. The wheels in her mind began to whirl and she foresaw an opportunity to potentially lure out the one who stole her prize away from her.
After all, many of the Gods and Goddesses were out and about during the Monsterphilia. She was sure that the one who’d tainted his soul with that infuriating color would be too. If they’d come to Bell’s aid when he faced off against a monster within the Dungeon via some unknown means, then she was sure they’d do the same here.
She set the plan into motion within an hour. Her Familia had a collection of many talented individuals, all of whom had captured her eye to some extent. Pickpockets and swift runners among them were perfectly capable of pulling him away from Hestia and the Guild member, baiting him to a suitable stage that would be far enough from any meddling adventurer and freeing the others to act as a distraction—not that she intended for them to harm anyone intentionally.
She’d slipped into where they’d kept the monster and used her Charm to enthrall them after leaving the members of the Familia watching over them senseless. Men. Women. Monsters—the way her beauty ensorcelled them was simply overwhelming and she’d been careful not to be seen while having the monsters act as puppets, keeping the other Familia who would be out and about busy while the Silverback she’d chosen to be her instrument slipped away.
Her headache had begun shortly after that, before he’d engaged the Silverback while donning a coat and wielding a hammer that didn’t seem to suit him at all. For a brief moment, she had a flicker of a scene where he laid broken on the ground and bleeding as his own weapon was left lodged in his chest. It had been faint and fleeting, leaving her to assume it was her imagination of a possible outcome that awaited him.
Really, it would have been expected considering how short his tenure as an Adventurer had been so far. But it wasn’t that she wanted to kill him. After all, it had been so long since she’d felt such a strong attachment to someone at first sight. She should’ve snatched him right up rather than allowing him to pass her by, but she wanted to see him grow from a distance.
Alas, where there was love there was envy and jealousy. For someone to take what she claimed for herself was simply unacceptable. And so, as punishment, the boy would now become the bait by which Freya would find the one that dyed the unblemished color of his soul and laid claim to the one she’d seen first.
She’d use him to find them. Then she would break them. Take everything that was theirs and destroy them for daring to take what she’d claimed for herself while reveling in the carnage—she was a Goddess of Love and War in equal parts after all.
Loki had said that she smelled the scent of the moon on him when they talked the night of the banquet. There were few who descended and held dominion over the moon, thus few who could grace him with their presence—likely being either Artemis or Achelois.
She had her doubts that it was Artemis, even if she knew that the goddess was on friendly terms with Hestia. Not only was she the head of a Hunting Familia that was far beyond the walls of Orario, which Hermes confirmed once she coaxed him into talking, but her Familia’s policies were well-known in regards to men and love. Men were never allowed to join, and those seeking to start a relationship had to leave the Familia behind. The thought that she would somehow bless Bell shortly after his arrival in Orario was too farfetched.
That only left Achelois. She was a minor goddess who had seemingly all but vanished some time ago. Freya hadn’t paid the disappearance any thought until now, given that the woman was struggling to simply find followers and simply wasn’t of interest to her. But considering the circumstances…
Well, perhaps she should put some effort into finding out just where she’d vanished to?
Either way, as her headache began upon dismissing that vivid imagery, Bell revealed he possessed a magic that she had been unaware of. A method by which he could call his arms and items to him. There were magical items that could do so, but she had the distinct feeling that it was magic.
More than that, there as something unique about it. When he called for his weapon, she could have sworn she’d something there. Thin, translucent things anxiously and eagerly groping the weapons from where space seemed to ripple around him.
Her head shuddered thinking about it. And the pressure behind her eyes felt like it was a living thing, squirming softly. She needed a moment of peace and quiet to get herself together and wait for it to pass.
A few hours to settle her head…
Hestia had her suspicions that something was amiss when that silver-haired woman approached both her and Eina by the coliseum.
Not because she was suspicious in herself. But because of the faint trace of a familiar moon-scented fragrance that was on her. It set off warning bells and a sense of dread gnawed at Hestia’s stomach.
Then the young woman pulled out her purse. It was the one that had been stolen from them, only now it was steeped in the scent of the moon. Hestia had realized in that instant that he’d died again, and only learned how once the young woman showed them the a magic stone that had been cleaved in half and explained that Bell had slain the Silverback.
He’d died again. He’d been sent back to that place again. He’d died and returned again.
And she’d failed to notice again until it was too late.
The moment she realized that, Hestia felt her legs lose strength and collapsed onto her knees. Eina had asked if she was okay, but Hestia only wanted to know where her child was. The moment the young woman said that she helped him slip away from the crowd so that he could go back home, Hestia made her way back there without a second thought.
It was there she found Bell.
Light spilled down from the windows to illuminate his white hair that was pattered with dull red from blood. Next to him on the pew was discarded leather clothing and battered armor that looked to be in horrendous condition, silently telling an adventurer’s tale of trials and tribulations. He sat with his face buried in his hands, quietly muttering between labored breaths and sobbing to himself.
She treaded carefully, feeling her heart breaking when she recalled how happy he looked the day he first set out to the Dungeon. There had been a smile on his face that could melt the coldest of hearts not even two weeks ago, sweetly complimenting the young boy eager to answer the call of adventure and become a hero. The moment she came to a stop in front of him and laid her hands onto shoulders, Bell’s arms snaked around her slender figure and he buried his face against her.
“Goddess… forgive me…” his voice came out hoarse and worn. His body shuddered as he wept. “Forgive me.”
Feeling the stinging tears in her eyes now, Hestia didn’t allow herself to cry. Not when he needed her to be strong. She wiped away her own forming tears and then forced a smile as she gently brushed his hair to console him. “It’ll be okay, Bell.”
After that Bell took a shower before he confessed what had happened in the confines of their room. He confessed to her of the Little Girl and her request; his attempt to fulfill the wish of a child who was left all alone. He confessed of Gascoigne and Viola; a husband and wife torn apart by the curse of Beasthood. He confessed of the Dweller and Henryk; an attempt to do good leaving a child with no family left in the world.
She’d listened to it all before peering into his Falna as he laid prone in bed, unraveling what he lacked the heart or mind to tell her outright. The foreign words hammered into her mind of a tragic tale writ with blood and regret, images that left the scenes to come to mind with a vividness as if she was there at some point. It hurt enough that she felt pulsing pain in her skull, but it was nothing compared to what Bell had undergone.
She owed it to her child to accept his story and his pain. It was the least she could do for him. For that reason, Hestia bore with the sensation writhing over her brain, all so that she could learn and could gain the wisdom needed to help Bell.
Taking in his sorrow and grief, his tribulations and triumphs, she immersed herself in his tale. She took in the details that may have escaped his mind, grabbing hold of whatever knowledge he’d taken it and committing it to her own memory. It was only when she’d read his tale from that faithful Minotaur attack until before they’d reunited above that she pulled herself free of the engrossing tragedy…
Only to find that Bell had fallen asleep beneath her.
She looked towards the clock. It was nearing midnight. The entire day had been lost to her, and the moment she realized that the exhaustion caught up to her all at once.
Her mind was weary from the knowledge. Her body sore from sitting in place for hours on end, hunched over Bell’s backside and head angled down to read his story. The allure of sleep was too strong to resist for her as well, another downside to being relegated to a physical form.
Limited as she was to her mortal body, Hestia could only do so little for Bell. How she yearned to unleash her Arcanum and free him from the shackles that bound him to that nightmarish world. But after peering so deeply she understood that doing so would rob him of the solace that her presence would bring him.
Steeped as he was in loneliness and regret, Bell clung to her as family and found meaning in the life they now shared together. He would never forgive himself if she gave up her life here to liberate him from that nightmare. And she would never forgive herself for leaving him in such a state.
There has to be another way to free you and remain together, Hestia thought to herself as she laid next to Bell on the bed and gently brushed his cheeks. I promise I’ll find it for you, Bell. No matter what.
Strength: F-392 > C-601
Defense: F-373 > D-592
Dexterity: I-96 > F-321
Agility: E-487 > A-903
Blessing of Flora
Chapter 17: The Silverback
Henryk was dead.
Bell had no doubts about that as he felt the man’s echoes filling in a void that he’d never knew existed prior to the Hunt. Only this time it had a strange sensation affixed to it. Like something was oozing into the back of his mind, a pulsing throb that left him to shake his head as he fell to his knees.
He didn’t want this. He didn’t want the man dead. He was that child’s last living relative, the only family she had left now that her mother and father were gone. Yet now he joined them in death in this graveyard that seemed eager to drink the growing pool of warm, dark blood.
As he stared at it, Bell felt the burning sting of tears forming in his eyes as he found himself longing for a simpler time while gazing into the moonlight reflected on the blood. Of a time when he and his grandpa were together. It was only the ragged breathing now coming from Eileen that pulled him out of the fleeting, wistful moment.
He looked up to see the Hunter of Hunters panting through her mask, leaning with her back against a gravestone. The feather cowl painted with shades of deep crimson shifted up and down as she struggled to catch her breath after the fighting, blades still held within her grip. It had clearly been an exhausting endeavor for her.
“You hesitated,” she said. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
“He was the only family she had left,” Bell said. Not really in defense of himself, but as a fact. “Her mother was dead when I got here. And her father was…”
He couldn’t bring himself to finish as he slowly turned his head. His eyes found the corpse of the Beast that laid where it had breathed its last breath. Still staring in the direction of where Viola’s body laid. The graveyard had drunken deep the blood of that child’s family this night.
“It was you who killed Gascoigne then?” she guessed as Bell let out a pained sound. Not quite a cry or whimper, but somewhere in-between. It served as an admission of guilt. “He was falling apart well before now. The fact that he’d turned simply meant the leash snapped now rather than later.”
“We could have still probably reached this one though,” Bell said softly. “There was a chance he could have snapped out of it. That he could have made it through the night without it ending like this.”
“And if he’d survived tonight, I’d wager he would’ve become a Beast worse than any you’d faced so far,” she said bitterly. “You’ve seen how the people here prowl the streets half-turned already. They’re the ones who give in quickly, the weak-willed and unaware. The beast comes right out before it has time to really grow or become a more suitable predator.”
She then gestured with her dagger towards the corpse of Gascoigne. “But the more the person resists giving in, the fiercer the beast becomes. The more blood they take in, the more they hunt, the stronger it becomes until either they embrace it, or it overtakes them utterly. Henryk was one of the Old Hunters and he’d lost too much this night to be able to keep himself together any longer than he had. Believe me when I say we’ve done both a mercy tonight—nothing worse for a Hunter than to become what they once hunted and endanger those they wanted to protect.”
Part of Bell recognized the truth behind her words, as he had with Gehrman. The Little Girl had said her father had become a Hunter once more to protect her. The same was true for her grandfather no doubt, yet he’d tried to kill her all the same.
“Even so, I still took that child’s family away from her tonight,” Bell admitted in a hoarse voice as he stared down at his hands. They were dirty, meshed with grave soil, sweat, and blood. “I can’t forgive myself for that.”
“And that’s why you should keep your hands clean from now on and leave the hunting of hunters to me,” Eileen said firmly. “Beasts who’ve devoured the men and women from the inside out are nothing more than that. Hunters that go blood-craving mad are only a step away. What I do is not out of malice, but to stop folks like you from tearing yourselves apart over the necessity of it.”
Is that really better? Bell had to wonder to himself. The killing would still be happening. Parents and children separated by the morning’s light as those who went out to hunt instead became the hunted. The only difference was that he’d be turning his back on it and pretending that his hands weren’t the ones stained in blood.
But… what else could he do?
“Head back to the Dream,” Eileen said after she sighed wearily, looking past the slouching statue that towered over them and towards the Oedon Chapel. The Little Girl was in there no doubt, weeping over her losses tonight. “You’re in no condition to talk with the girl, and you’ll only rattle yourself further. Take a rest and spend some time getting your feet back on the ground.”
Bell didn’t contest it. The Little Girl would be safe in the chapel, at least for a little while. Long enough for him to get away from the blood and beasts. Long enough for him to go back to Hestia. To that end he closed his eyes as tears stung the corners and let the Little Ones embrace him…
Then the calm serenity that haunted the garden of gravestones washed over Bell.
Refreshingly clean air lathed his lungs with every inhalation. The dirt and grime and sweat and blood of Yharnam no longer blanketed him. It felt like he was being scrubbed clean both inside and out as he was pulled between here and there.
Breathing deep the scent that the luminous blossoms in the field nearby seemed to give off, Bell opened his eyes to see that he was one more in the tranquil, yet somber haven that seemed to be a world of its own. He supposed it was similar to what the Oedon Chapel was meant to be for other hunters—a place to escape the Hunt. At least for a short time.
“Welcome back, Good Hunter,” the Doll greeted him once more. Her serene, yet inhuman demeanor was a comfort after the throngs of beastmen with snarling visages Bell had faced tonight. Yet the uncanniness of it denied him something vital that he desperately needed at the moment.
“Has that gravestone appeared again?” Bell asked, hopeful yet wary. “The one that leads back to Orario?”
“Yes,” she answered, gesturing with her porcelain hand towards the direction of the misty flower field and the great tree. “Will you be taking another respite?”
If Bell had any say in things it’d be a permanent respite from this nightmare. He hadn’t planned on coming back in the first place. But the Silverback had taken him by surprise and his weapon had been broken before his body.
Now that I think about it, I do need a weapon more suitable for that thing, Bell thought to himself as he looked down at his hands. Echoes still reverberated deep within him. The memories and life of two hunters among them. As shameful as it was to use it for his own ends, he needed their strength now more than ever.
Going over to the fountain where he’d left the badges taken earlier, he peered into the depths of the crystalline waters and found several of them beneath the surface this time. But he only had eyes for the hammer with the hilt of a sword. He reached down into the fountain once more and felt his arm sink into the depths as the echoes within him formed a bridge until he wrapped his fingers around the handle and pulled.
The hammer came out without any problems at first. Despite its size, the water only rippled as it was pulled free, with even the massive head slipping out of the imaginary depths. Neither his arm nor the steel that the stone was actually made of were wet, leading Bell to presume that the water actually acted as some sort of portal.
It was only once the weapon had fully breached into the same plane of existence did it suddenly become heavy. As befitting of such a massive implement, Bell found himself struggling to swing it around with any measure of success. After merely two test swings he had to let the head hit the ground with a dull thump as he rubbed his arms.
“Even for those who partake in blood, the Kirkhammer has always been a rather unwieldy weapon.” Bell’s head twisted towards the top of the stairs at that and found Gherman looking down at him from his perch, aged eyes taking his measure. “I would suggest allowing the Doll to strengthen your muscles, raise your stamina, and draw from the skill of the echoes you have to spare. She’s seen enough use to do so efficiently for you, given you’re unfamiliar with such arms.”
Bell’s gaze turned to see that the Plain Doll had already take her place by his side, patiently waiting for him to allow her to fulfill her purpose. The ethereal echoes within him stirred and began to thread his muscles once more for the sake of granting him greater strength as the euphoric feeling spread over him. The moment she released her grasp and took a few steps back, Bell took up the hammer again and swung it from shoulder to hip with both hands thrice before rearing back to deliver a harder blow onto the ground that sent tremors through his legs.
“It’s somewhat easier to use,” he admitted as he let out a breath and set it back down with the hilt sticking up. He couldn’t swing the thing around a lot, and personally he didn’t think it suited him. But he could use it back home against the Silverback and that was enough for now. “Still, against something fast I don’t think I’d be able to hit them with it.”
Gherman nodded in agreement. “As the Hunter of the Church began to run afoul of larger beasts, they resorted to larger arms rather than refining their skill. But that limitation was evident from the start. Hence why I would suggest pressing the latch you’d find between the grip and the guard to deal with more nimble prey.”
Latch? He looked down at the hilt and traced the design with his fingers up to where he found a rounded section. As soon as he put some pressure into it he felt it shift, just a slight amount. Catching onto the gimmick, he then put all the strength he could into squeezing it and heard a mechanical click.
Then he took the hilt into his hand and pulled the sword from the stone.
Holding it up, the light of the moon gleamed off the silver of the blade. It revealed the elaborate intricacies and flourishes on the guard. Compared to the other weapons he’d seen in his time as a Hunter, there was a marked difference in the design.
He swung it around a few times to test it. The blade much lighter and faster to use, though how much of that was due to his increased strength wasn’t something he could be sure. And while he hadn’t used a sword before he felt somewhat more proficient with it than he suspected he would be otherwise—though nowhere near good enough to be remotely confused with a swordsman.
This should be enough, Bell thought to himself as he sheathed the sword and hefted the Kirkhammer over his shoulder. It didn’t really hinder him while moving, another boon from the echoes it seemed. He also felt like he could fight a touch longer as well without getting as exhausted,
With this he was certain he would prevail, so redonned his Hunter’s Grab once more. They been mended by whatever magic permeated the Dream while the armor that he’d worn remained rather battered but would still serve. Last he moved to reclaim Syr’s purse only for his gaze to settle on the Tiny Music Box. The weight in his chest sunk into his stomach as he left it behind.
Now that he was ready for battle once more, he bid the two residents of the Dream goodbye. Then he made off to the phantasmal gravestone that led him back to Orario. He’d kill the Silverback and return to his Goddess’ side to confess his sins.
Perhaps she could forgive him for what he’d done.
Because he wouldn’t forgive himself.
The roar of the Silverback was the first sensation that Bell was exposed to as he reappeared within the plaza of winding labyrinth of buildings that made up Daedalus Street. The simian monster that towered over him was as it was before his death, thick and powerful limbs wrapped in unmarred white fur. It bared its teeth as it glared down at him from behind the visor placed over its head and then exploded into motion.
But this time Bell expected it as he unslung the Kirkhammer from its perch on his shoulder and reared back. It may have looked as if he was readying to take a massive, overhead swing but he shifted his grip so that his fingers were pressing on the latch keeping the sword sheathed. Then he swung it with a roar of his own as he squeezed down and the lock keeping it tethered was undone. “RAAHHHH!!”
The momentum sent the head of the hammer rocketing towards the Silverback, which had been so devoted to its frantic gait that it couldn’t dodge it entirely. The hammer caught it between the shoulder and chest with an audible pop before being thrown askew on the impact. It went sailing behind the Silverback, which staggered back into the center of the plaza while clutching its shoulder.
The black coat billowed as Bell rushed in with his silver sword in a two-handed grip. He’d learned the last time it’d killed him that fighting defensively would drag things out, until he made a mistake or risked getting others involved. Since he already had the measure of his opponent, he would be aggressive and finish things as quickly as possible.
Seeing the silver blade and the Adventurer rushing towards it, the Silverback drew back its uninjured left arm and slammed it down in an attempt to turn him into a smear on the ground. The stone fractured as it broke beneath the force of the earth-shaking blow, stone-dust obscuring his figure from view until he jumped from within the dusty veil and swung towards the monster’s head. The silver steel scraped against the metal visor as the primate moved its head and reflexively avoided it.
Bell fell into a roll the moment his feet touched back down on the ground, narrowly avoiding the swing he’d expected after the last time. The chain affixed to the manacle rattled as it threw up stone fragments upon smashing the ground where he’d been. Coming out of the roll, he spun on the soles of his feet as he spotted the monstrous gorilla bringing its other fist around to slam into him and then rocketed at an angle while he swung with all his might.
The blade buckled in his grasp, nearly jostling out of his grip from the momentum as he narrowly avoided the metal knuckles. But in exchange he’d traced a path along the top of its thick, powerful arm. The white fur that had been unblemished before was steadily being dyed crimson as ichor flowed from the wound, and the Silverback howled from the red, hot sensation of corded muscle being split in twain.
“I’m not done yet!” Bell rushed towards its unprotected flank as the beast naturally recoiled from the pain. He had just enough time to get in a quick swing, so he pushed his left-hand inwards to angle the blade before he used his right to swing it back around as he went past it. The bloodstained silver managed to part only a sliver of flesh between its arm and waist, leaving a streamlet running down. It was the best he could do and still throw himself into a handspring to get out of range before the Silverback rolled over in an attempt crush him with its massive frame.
Coming out of the exchange with his heart racing and blood pounding at his ears, Bell quickly turned to see the Silverback rip the visor affixed to its face off and throw the thing with the force of a cannonball. Too late to dodge, he tried to block it and the sound of metal scraping metal rang out with a bloom of sparks as it broke through his guard. The sheer might of the blow knocked Bell for a loop, sending him tumbling backwards and leaving his battered armor and leather coat to scrape against the loose stone until he came to a stop.
Releasing a shuddering breath and strained groan, Bell stood back up as the clatter of steel rang out at feet. One of his leg guards had come off, strap torn from the impact against the ground. His Hunter Garb’s were torn into as well, covered in stone-dust with bits of it meshed into a slurry from mixing with the blood splashed around from the beasts’ injured arm. But he was still standing and still armed, unlike the last time—he could keep fighting.
“GRRGAAHHHHH!” The Silverback roared with unbridled fury at him, slamming its massive fists into the ground before beating at its chestplate hard enough to dent the steel. It sought blood for blood.
Bell swept the blade so that the monster’s ichor spattered over the ground. The world had shrunken down, everything drowned out by the beating of his heart. He held the longsword at the ready as he locked gazes with the monster.
Then both hunter and beast charged with intent to kill.
Syr struggled to get through the crowd that was forming at the entrances to the Plaza of Daedalus Street. At first it was idle curiosity that drew her towards it along the way back from the orphanage. Then she heard the roar and a shout went out that apparently a monster and adventurer were fighting it out in the plaza.
Daedalus Street was a destitute neighborhood. Constructed into a winding maze that was inconvenient to navigate unless you were intimately familiar with it, there were few reasons to visit unless you had business there. And, situated far away from the Main Streets where vendors would sell their wares at prices more suitable for those with heavy coin purses to wide-eyed visitors, the people there lived more difficult lives.
Many of them would have loved to visit the Monsterphilia that was being undertaken at the coliseum, but the price was more than they could afford. After all, if they were living here then they were barely scraping by as it was. So, the fact that something akin to it was happening naturally drew the eyes of the people there.
Not enough to get in harm’s way, of course. They wouldn’t risk the monster coming after them or helping the adventurer in question if he was in danger. Especially not when the people here didn’t have the luxury of being adventurers themselves. Leaving aside that there were people who came from all over to Orario for the sake of being in a Familia meant most were filled to capacity, the risk of being injured and losing the little coin they could work for would be stripped away.
But they were curious enough to look from safer places that were just out of view. Peering around of the shadows and corners, peeking over the sills of the windows of their homes, onlookers kept their tongues from wagging as they watched. Even Syr wasn’t an exception when she finally arrived and recognized the adventurer in question.
When Bell had caught her eyes, he seemed like a somewhat meek and young boy. The fact that he was an adventurer wasn’t much of a shock. Even though she herself wasn’t an adventurer, in this city even the smallest child could be stronger than a grown man. That was why so many flocked to Orario in the first place—for the power or the glory.
Now he was wearing a stained, black leather coat that had been covered in dirt and dust and bloody grime, scraped and torn apart. Half-missing armor that had seen many battles judging from the cuts and tears in it could be spotted through the tears from where she stood, a part of it broken off near his foot. And in his grasp was a sword, leveled in front of him as he stared down a monster that was more than twice his height and at least several hundred times his weight.
The moment the Silverback roared so loudly that she could feel the soundwaves rattling her bones and charged Bell down, vision of the boy being flattened into the ground played out in her mind. Death wasn’t unexpected for adventurers. Several of the patrons at the Hostess of Fertility had often left out with promises to return only to never grace their doors again. Even so, she felt herself about to shout for him to run despite knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. “Be—”
But then black boots pushed off the ground. The tail of the coat he’d donned billowed as Bell charged forward. The bloodstained silver sword in his grasp caught the light as he courted death itself in a display that she could hardly keep track of.
Someone had armed the monster with metal knuckles of all things. The heavy steel was joined to manacles that had torn chains at the ends. She didn’t know if it was trained intentionally or not, but upon seeing Bell charge it reeled one arm back before sweeping out with the chains like a whip to lash at him.
He parried it with the sword, a bloom of sparks cascading over his face fixed in a half-strained expression while he angled the blade. The length of the chain scraped against the steel on its way past him, before the tip snapped as it hit the ground and tore out a chunk while Bell leapt forward and swung for its body. A silver streak followed by a crimson tail tore through its side, ripping through the white fur and adding to the color that was staining it already from previous close calls.
Bristling from pain, the monster spun around with its arms extended. Bell managed to dart back from the massive fists, but the chains lengthened its reach and he was forced to put the sword between himself and the length. The end snapped as it battered the silver steel and knocked him off balance, sending him staggering back as the Silverback jumped forward with a metal-knuckled fist chambered.
Syr winced as he brought the flat of the sword in front of himself to intercept it and the ear-ringing sound of metal hitting metal was followed by his smaller body being sent skirting back until he hit the fountain. He then darted out of the way as the monster leapt, crashing into the fountain and sending a spray of water and rubble over the battlefield before coming to a stop as something that looked akin to stone hammer appeared out of the ground next to him like magic.
The boy then slammed the blade into the handle, wrapped both hands around the grip, and threw himself back towards the Silverback as it did the same to him with a metal-backed fist chambered. Both swung for one another with the intention of killing one another, and Syr’s expectations were decidedly in the monster’s favor. Even though she knew that the Falna was the great equalizer when it came to men and monsters, the rational part of her mind expected he would meet his end here.
Yet, the white-haired adventurer won out the moment they clashed. The metal knuckle shattered with an audible crunch and she watched as the bones and flesh behind them crumpled as blood stained the head of the hammer. The Silverback cried out with a bestial shout as it pulled back its mashed appendage and the pain eclipsed all of its other senses. “GRRAHHHHAHGH?!!?”
Bell ignored it as he spun on his heel and stepped forward, swinging the hammer around once more. This time it found the monster’s knee and there was a sickening crunch as bone shattered like glasswork under the pressure, jagged bits piercing through the sack of reddening fur as the limb was knocked out from beneath the simian and left it prone. Then he chambered the hammer and prepared to crush its skull with an overhead swing in a gruesome execution.
Perhaps sensing the impending death, the Silverback lashed out a final time. It still had one good arm and good leg. It flailed its massive fist towards him, swinging with enough force to break stone as it backhanded him and managed to stagger him before he could execute it. Then it pushed off the ground with its remaining leg and lunged, hand outstretched to grab him between its stout fingers and wring the life out of him—
—and made no difference as Bell pivoted off to the side, twisting on his heel as he swung the hammer around in a downwards arch. It connected with another crunch that sent a shiver down her spine. And the offending limb was now nothing more than flattened, pulped meat that seeped into the cratered and broken earth.
“RRRHAHHHGHHGHGH!!!!” The Silverback raged in a desperate fury, trying to pull back its arm that was trapped beneath the weight of the hammer. Eventually it managed to wrench out a blooded stump with bits of white bone mixed into the mesh of vivid color that painted the fur clinging to what was left of its forearm.
The sight of it only served to send the monster into its death throes as it writhed around in pain, rolling and beating its stump against the ground. Its remaining leg tried to pick it up but failed, collapsing and unable to sustain its own weight. All it did was open up the wounds it had sustained further, letting blood escape and spatter out with every motion to paint the plaza further than the expanding boundary of the growing pool beneath it.
It was hard to look at. Not just for Syr. But for Bell as well, who she noticed had an almost shameful look on his face as he looked away. But then he closed his eyes and reached down for the point where his hilt and hammer met. The sword came out with a quick pull and a moment later he jumped onto the flailing monster’s back and drove the sword into its chest.
The pained sounds that filled the air were instead replaced with a deathly silence. The Silverback went still as its body slumped down with its final breath. Then it crumbled to dust and all traces of its massive corpse vanished as Bell’s blade was wedged between two halves of the magic stone.
He had won.
The cheering started about then now that the danger passed. The violence of the battle hadn’t been a deterrent for the people who lived there. It had been a thing of beauty for those who were unfamiliar with the depths of the dungeon and the dangers beyond a passing note, a clash where a monster and man fought tooth and nail against one another.
But there were no traces of happiness on Bell’s face as the crowd cheered at his performance. He simply averted his eyes from the crowd as he grabbed his weapon and then ran off down an alleyway. It seemed like he wanted to get away from it all—away from the crowd, and away from the moment itself. But that would be impossible given how quickly the rumor mill spread around here.
I suppose I could give him a little help in getting away, Syr decided upon realizing he’d be hounded all along the way the Main Street at this rate. She knew the streets well enough that she could intercept him, given that he didn’t know where he was going. And helping him slip away somewhere quiet until things died down later in the day was the least she could do after watching him make that expression…
Chapter 16: Tragedy of a Little Girl
“That wasn’t him,” Bell muttered to himself, breath coming out hot and heavy as he stared down at the corpse of Gascoigne where it laid. A great flow was rushing into his body, slipping into the void that shouldn’t be there. Blood echoes of the fallen. He repeated himself to stay sane. “That wasn’t Mister Gascoigne.”
That was right. He didn’t kill the father of the little girl who requested that he return the music box to her parents. He killed the thing that devoured the man from the inside out and wore his skin as he slaughtered the other hunters that were once here. He wasn’t the one who made her an orphan like he was after his Grandfather died…
The clamoring of the Little Ones was followed by a soft, pale glow washing over the darkened portion of the graveyard. There, where the oil lantern had been blown out, was a brand-new ethereal lamp. Just like when he’d killed the Cleric Beast. Did that mean he could go back now?
It was tempting. Even with the Silverback waiting for him, the thought of returning to his own world and getting back to his Goddess’ side was tempting enough that he reached out for the lamp without thinking until he saw the flames dancing within it. For the comfort her presence brought it would be worth the danger…
Except what would he tell her when he returned if he left that little girl waiting for her parents?
That thought made Bell retract his hand. Now that her father was gone, she only had her mother left in the world. He didn’t want to deny her even that and curse her with the agony of being alone.
So he turned his attention back to the corpse. The key that hung around its neck like a collar was likely the one to open the gate. He didn’t spot the little girl’s mother on his way here, meaning that she was likely on the other side of those gates. Hopefully safe inside the sanctity of hallowed grounds.
Bell’s boots made a wet, squelching noise as the stepped into the growing pool of blood that mixed with the grave soil and broken bits of cobblestone. He cut the rope and pulled the key free before shoving it into his pocket. Then he retrieved his hat and Hunter’s Saw, leaving the Messengers to take Gascoigne’s Axe.
Gherman mentioned that it was natural that the tools of the fallen be put to use. But he would see about having it cleaned up and repaired before anything else. Whether he decided to use it or hand it back to the girl’s mother, leaving it as it was would be an insult to the fallen hunter.
That done, he began his ascension of the stairs that ran along the side of the graveyard until he reached the top, past another row of chained coffins perched against the wall. The gates stood before him, broad and a little over twice his height. He was about to open it up with the key he’d taken when Bell spotted a gleaming patch of blood off to the side.
It could have passed as any other bloodstain. It was an unremarkable sight in this place, as he had the misfortune of learning. Some of the streets he had crossed were literally bathed in blood that refused to properly dry and seemed to quiver on occasion, despite the lack of wind. Under normal circumstances he would have continued on without a second glance—
Viola… forgive… me…
—but when he recalled the animal noise that could pass as speech in the Beast’s final moments, and the way it motioned towards the building that it led to in that direction, he felt a stirring in the very echoes he taken into himself. A rippling tinged with the bitter taste of regret. Unable to ignore it, Bell swallowed a lump in his throat and slowly walked down the side path.
The bloodstain was in fact a trail, one that was hard to notice with the oil lantern between the gate and the one that he could spot distantly at the end having been blown out. The space between each few steps had been marked by a small patter of the rich crimson that flowed like wine so easily within the city. He slowly followed the trail until he reached the last oil lantern where the small spatter had abruptly become a puddle of crimson pooled in a divot, where the stonework had been uprooted and a section of the fence meant to prevent any misfortunate tumbling down into the graveyard was conspicuously missing.
Bell found his heart beating heavily in his chest as he neared the edge. A single step would allow him to peer over to the rooftop of the building that had been fostered off to the side of the graveyard. Gathering his courage, he took the leap off the edge and landed onto the tiled roof.
And what was his reward for doing so?
It was to be greeted with the answer that he feared the most. A woman’s corpse laid pale and sprawled near the edge of the rooftop, her eyes that were already clouded over were fixed in the direction of where the Beast’s corpse laid. The color and warmth of her skin dyed the rooftop a vibrant shade that gleamed off the light of the oil lantern above.
“…please no…” he whimpered as he stepped over to the corpse, hoping for the absence of the only thing that would mark the woman as more than an unfortunate stranger. But that hope was crushed the moment he spotted the big, red jeweled brooch that hung off her chest. He reached down to pick it up and found an engraved name on the back: Viola.
Bell clutched the woman’s brooch to his chest as stinging heat prickled behind his eyes. Was it by the Beast’s hand that she laid dead? Or was it her death that ultimately served to let Gascoigne be devoured by the inside out by the creature?
He didn’t know. But what he did know was that he had to tell the child that her mother was dead, so he slipped the brooch into his pocket. Yet, when he prepared to hop down from the roof and return the way he came, he found that his legs refused to work.
Bell knew he had to tell the girl that her parents were gone. But the thought of explaining that the two people she loved the most in the world would no longer be there to greet her when the dawn came… the thought of seeing her face as he presented the brooch and explained where he found it… they became invisible fetters of fear that stopped him from going back.
It was wrong. Everything in his body was telling him to go back to that child when he thought of the loneliness that the she was experiencing. The uncertainty that gnawed away at her on the inside to the extent that she entrusted a precious gift to a stranger in the hopes delivering to her parents. But when he thought about telling her of their fate and his role in how it played out, he just…
He just couldn’t help but run in the hopes of losing himself for a moment.
Since his legs refused to carry him one way, Bell let them carry him through the gates of Oedon Chapel without looking back. He fled through the flooded basement and up the metal ladder until he emerged in what looked to be a reading room of some kind. Shelves of books ran along the sides of the room, with papers and the odd stacks to be found scattered about in a disheveled manner, while strange devices were on the tables were largely covered in dust.
He went past all of it and ran up the winding stairs at a frantic pace until his foot caught a rung near the top. He tripped and was sent barreling through the double doors that were nestled at the end. And what greeted him after the loud, riotous creak of the doors?
It was a grand hall bathed in fading light of the evening sun that had yet to be wrung out by the stark and uncaring moon, padding out the feeble candlelight within the vast structure of stone and steel. Dusty, decorative cloths hung from the pooled shadows that blotted out the ceiling, with dozens of statues reaching towards them or praying as they gazed towards the sky. And woven between those were a wafting, grey veil that was so pungent and rich that it clawed at Bell’s nose and throat on its way down to his racing lungs, forcing out a heavy cough.
“That was—” Bell jumped at the voice that was right across from him, pushing off the ground and clumsily reaching for his pistol while his heart pounded in his chest. It was already half-raised by the time he set his eyes on the source. “—quite a scare.”
It was… a man, Bell believed. Not a beast. He was covered in dirt and dust-crusted rags of deep red, pooling deeply around his thin and emaciated frame. His fingers were uncannily long and tipped with blackened nails that held a pebble, while his skin was gaunt, greyish, and sallow.
“For a second, I thought a beast had barreled in despite the incense. Worried me a good bit, it did,” he continued, rolling the pebble in his palm nervously. “The incense burns so thick that it masked your scent, but I can smell traces of moonscent now.”
He’s blind, Bell realized. At least to some degree, given his eyes were milky to the point the pupils couldn’t even be seen. Though, given how many things Bell had seen running around with little problem even though they were blindfolded or missing their eyes, it probably didn’t make him less capable. Someone had to light all the candles here. “…Do you… live here?”
“You could say that,” the…Dweller, he assumed the man to be, answered. “This here Oedon Chapel has been forgotten by most, but some of the hunters use it to get ready for the Hunt. Everyone else is all locked up inside and waiting for it to end, so they’d come here when they needed to get away from the stench of blood and snarl of beasts.”
The scent of the incense was quite thick, as he mentioned. And the atmosphere was quiet. If a pinch of incense in a lantern could ward away beasts, then this much would be a bane to any blood-addled thing looking for prey.
Bell lowered the pistol. Though he would admit the man’s appearance was somewhat startling, it was honestly not the strangest thing he’d seen in the last few hours. Especially not when he’d seen the rotting corpses in the canals that still moved at the presence of fresh blood. “I’m sorry for barging in.”
“No worries here about that,” the man said. “Since I heard the side door open, I take it you’re a new member of Gascoigne’s hunters?”
Bell’s throat went tight. “You… knew Mister Gascoigne?”
The emaciated man nodded. “His family’s been good to me. His wife is an especially kind one. She’d often bring me something to eat on her way back to her home and say a prayer for the hunt to be a safe one. Haven’t heard her come by as usual though. Did you see her on the way in?”
The words twisted in his chest like a knife to his chest. This man knew them all. He was waiting for them to come and they wouldn’t. “…dead…”
“They’re all dead,” Bell repeated, his voice cracking. “I was… was sent find Mister Gascoigne and Miss Viola by their daughter. She was worried about them and her incense were running low. So she asked me to find them, but when I went to the Graveyard… I found the hunters dead.”
“O…Oh…” The man’s voice became labored, its pitch a notch higher as if he was straining to breathe. “That can’t be. All of them dead? How?”
“It was… it was a Beast,” Bell told him, if only so that he could continue speaking. Gascoigne had died even before Bell had killed the monster wearing his body, so it may as well have been the truth. Or so the young hunter thought to himself as he took a staggered breath before he continued. “A big one. Took them to pieces. I found the key after I killed it.”
The man lowered his head to the ground, brought his hands together and mumbled under his breath before looking towards Bell with his blank eyes. “And what of his wife? Tell me she made it.”
Bell shook his head before he pulled out the brooch and stared down at it. The name on it said it all. “She didn’t.”
“Even her…” The man’s breathing was shaken as he took in the information and began to mourn the deaths. “All of them… savaged by a beast. Gods, why?”
“I don’t know what I supposed to tell their daughter,” Bell confessed, unable to stomach listening to the man cry without tears coming out his own eyes. “She’s alone and scared, waiting for them to come back. But they won’t.”
The Chapel Dweller drew in a breath and collected himself before he asked, “Di…Did you by chance come across Henryk’s body?”
“I don’t know who that is,” Bell said, wiping at his eyes. “I’d need to know what they looked like before I could say.”
“I… I don’t see much these days, but I heard that he wears an old, yellow hunter’s outfit,” the man explained. “It had a scent about it, though I can’t put it into proper words. His daughter, Viola, always said that no matter how often she washed it, it always stuck. Something about it being from a run in with a beast that gives off blue sparks.”
“I didn’t see anyone in that sort of outfit,” Bell said as he recalled the visceral scene he’d stumbled onto. The dead hunters, taken to pieces by the time he had arrived. Not one of them had worn such an outfit. None of the bodies he’d ran across so far had. “But if he’s the father of Viola, then… he’d be that little girl’s grandfather?”
The Chapel Dweller nodded his head, the rags covering him shifting with a sluggish flow. “The old man don’t like me much, but I can’t imagine from how the others spoke when they came in after a hunt that he’d have gone down without a fight. It’s possible he was running late and didn’t make it in time.”
Bell felt his heart stir with a fleeting hope. The little girl still had family then. If her grandfather was still around, then she wouldn’t be alone in the world. They still had each other, even after losing the other two. It would be hard, but…
“Kind hunter,” the Chapel Dweller called as hope began to flicker in Bell’s chest. “Could you bring her here? The little girl?”
“You want me to bring her here?”
“That’s right,” he said. “This night looks to be a long one and I bet it won’t end nicely. The least I can do for her folks is give her a safe place to wait out the Hunt until it ends. This here Oedon Chapel can be a safe haven for anyone who needs it tonight, so long as they have their wits about them.”
Bell sniffled as he considered the man’s proposition. She needed someplace safe to stay with her incense running low and asking someone else to give theirs up would be sentencing them to death. Though the pungent scent was almost rugged as it caressed his lungs inside and out, it would keep any beasts at bay.
More to the point, there was a faint sense of familiarity here that reminded Bell of the church that he and Hestia stayed at. Both forgotten little places of worship that was provided an escape from the trials and tribulations outside their walls. The warmth of the hearth and home was here, even if it lacked the presence of his Goddess.
“I’ll bring her,” Bell decided. “And if I find anyone else, I’ll bring them here too.”
“Oh, bless you, kind hunter.” There was notable elation in the man’s voice as he clasped his hands together and raised them towards Bell. “I know it’s asking quite a bit of you and I can’t offer much aid, but I think the other hunters have some sort of tool that you can use stored away in the trunk down the stairs. Take it with you if it’ll ease your troubles.”
Bell made his way back to the where the child’s home was and found the window still illuminated by the dull glow within it, casting the silhouette of the small figure on the inside. She was still there, waiting for the good news. Waiting for her parents to return.
He felt the urge to turn away before he came into her line of view. But it was his responsibility to see her to safety, and that meant he had to tell her the truth. So Bell presented himself to her, standing at the waist-high gate that served as a boundary between them along with barred window that was raised just enough for her voice to come through clearly.
“Mister Hunter, you’re back,” she said. “Did you find my mum?”
He took a deep breath as a lump formed in his throat, threatening to choke him with his own guilt. But he promised to get her to safety, which meant he had no other choice. Bell forced the lump in his throat down as he took out the brooch. “This is hers, right?”
Tiny hands reached out through the opening and gently grasped the brooch like the precious thing it was. She clearly recognized it, even before she turned to where the inscription was, as if she’d seen it countless times. “Where did you find it?”
Bell… lied again. He told that he went to the graveyard to see a Beast had finished killing several others, with her mother was among them. Her father’s axe was the only thing of his that he found next to a pool of blood with the key, giving the impression that he’d been devoured utterly.
He lowered his head once he finished reciting the lie and said, “I’m so sorry.”
A choking, heavy sob came from the other side of the window. The Little Girl’s mother and father were no longer among the living. In a meek, mournful voice she cried out, “Mummy… daddy… don’t leave me alone…”
Bell listened to her mourning for the mother and father that she lost, and pain stung at his eyes as he recalled the death of his own grandfather. His absence was felt with every moment Bell spent in their home alone afterwards. The memories of his grandpa reading him stories about heroes and holding his hand as they walked along the path to and from the farm now being all he had left.
Losing someone during the Hunt was probably a tale that was commonplace in this city where coffins lined the streets and blood painted the stones. But it didn’t ease the weight on Bell’s shoulders as he slouched with his back against the gate and looked down at his gloved hands that still had blood on them. These very same hands had been the ones to cut down whatever was left of her father, and now he was supposed to extend them to her in order to take her to the chapel?
“…Mister Hunter…” Bell looked over his shoulders to see that the child had lifted the window, revealing her appearance. She was such a small figure, perhaps half his height but with blonde hair that came down to her neck in waves. Her nightgown matched the white ribbon in her hair, tied in a bow. “Is… is it my fault Mummy and Daddy are dead?”
“Why do you think it’s your fault?” he asked.
“I still remember when one night I was scared by the scream of a beast,” she began. “Mummy told me it would be okay because it couldn’t get us inside while the incense was burning, and the Church would send hunters to make it go away. But it kept howling and prowling, and I was so scared.”
He could see the guilt wringing the tears out of her eyes for the sin of being scared of the Hunt. But to him it seemed only natural that she’d be terrified. He was terrified of the Hunt, and he was expected to go through the entire thing when he literally wasn’t allowed to die.
“Daddy… he-he grabbed his axe and said that it’d be quiet soon,” she continued. “Mummy begged him not to and said that he left the Church because he promised he’d be there for us. But he said he had to go because the Church wasn’t how it used to be. Then he left out and Mummy covered my ears until it was over. After that night, Daddy started going out more often with other men from the neighborhood, and Mummy would go with him and the music box.”
Seeing his daughter scared and frightened drove Gascoigne to take part in the Hunt. He wanted to make it so that she could sleep easier and, since the Church wasn’t doing that, he decided to take it into his own hands. Bell couldn’t say much about how the Church’s hunters operated since he hadn’t met any, but they certainly didn’t come out to help when he’d fought the Cleric Beast outside of the gates to their ward. Weren’t they supposed to be protecting these people?
“If… if I hadn’t been scared, then none of this would have happened.” The words came out ragged as she began to cry again. “Mummy… Daddy…”
“It’s not your fault,” Bell told her softly. “I think they wanted what was best for you, so they did what they could. I doubt they regretted that.”
His words offered little comfort as she continued to cry. But they were the best he could give her at the moment as he stared towards the moon that was rising now that the evening light was fading into a stark, cold luminescence. The scent of incense around her home was almost thin to the point of being absent too. If the Hunt would only get worse as the night dragged on, he had to hurry and get her somewhere safe.
“I’ll take you to Oedon Chapel,” he declared. “The Chapel Dweller said it was a safe place to wait out the Hunt, and it’s filled with incense to keep the Beasts away. Your grandfather will be there soon too, so you won’t be alone.”
“You… you don’t have to,” she said between cries. “I can make it on my own. You… you’ve got to finish the Hunt, don’t you?”
“I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t get you there myself,” he told her, rising to his full height. “It’s still dangerous out here, and I owe it to your parents to see you there safely.”
She wiped at the tears on her face as she stared at him for a long moment. It was then he realized that even though he tried to appear as nonthreatening as possible, no doubt the Hunter’s Garb covered in the blood, dust, and graveyard dirt gave off a bad impression. At the very least it served to make her hesitate at his offer.
Bell took off the coat, gloves, and hat to reveal himself. The armor he’d worn was slightly battered from the battles he’d fought since arriving and donning it to brave the streets. But it was still less ominous looking than covering himself up fully as he extended his hand towards her. “Please, let me do that much for you.”
She slowly nodded her head and reached out for his hand, gently laying it in his grasp through the bars. “Okay, Mister Hunter. I’ll come with you to see Granddad.”
His offer accepted, she closed the window and turned off the light before she came out of her door about two minutes after the Messengers took his discarded garments back to the Dream. Given the hurried pace she moved at, he was mildly surprised she had time to slip on clothes more suitable for venturing outside along with her mother’s brooch. Bell crouched down to allow her to climb on his back. “You might want to close your eyes. It’s not a pleasant sight along the way to the Chapel.”
“It’s okay,” she told him. “I’ve seen how it looks when Hunts end before.”
“Have the Hunts been going on long?” he asked, looking around while keeping one hand on his weapon. While he had been very thorough in making sure there was nothing that would possibly kill them along the route he took to get to the chapel, there was a chance that more beasts would show up in search of easy prey. “I’m not really from here, so I’m not really sure about the history of it or anything.”
“You mean you’re like auntie Eileen?” she asked, clinging to Bell as he began climb down the ladder at a careful pace. Her grip got tighter as she spared a glance to the giant thing that had been armed with a statue, now slouching against the wall. Its throat had been carved open. “You don’t speak the same way as her, but you both do have the same scent.”
“We came from different places,” Bell said. “The place I live in is far away and has its own monsters. I was being chased by one of them and things happened that led to me coming here.”
“Oh, you mean like the constables?”
He wasn’t familiar with the term. “The what now?”
“It’s a story Granddad would tell me about a group of men who chased a beast all the way here. He would tell me a lot of different ones when he came by—like about the League Hunters, who came from different places and became hunters to get rid of beasts.”
“My Grandpa would always tell me stories too,” Bell said. “I grew up in a village and worked on a farm with him, so he’d always tell me all sorts of stories of old heroes while I lived with him. I loved them.”
“Can you tell me one while we walk?”
He consented and began to regale her with stories of heroes as they trekked towards Oedon Chapel, his voice kept low and his senses at full alert for any sort of threat that could meet them along the way as early night settled into place. A sense of dread crept up onto him when they approached the entrance of the tomb where her parents had met their end. Finally, his footsteps came to a stop after entering the graveyard when he noticed a figure standing next to the corpse of the Beast—staring down at the remaining puddle of blood it laid in.
“That’s Granddad!” Her voice came out louder than Bell liked and drew the hunter’s attention. But the glow of the phantasmal lantern gave Bell the glimpse of his hunter outfit that consisted of a dingy, washed-out yellowish hue. Just like the Chapel Dweller said, he must’ve been late arriving and missed meeting the same fate as the others. “Granddad, it’s me!”
Bell knew how relieved she was to see family again, but he couldn’t shake the tension he felt as the man took a slow and tentative step forward. The fact that the night’s chill had left his breath visibly coming out at a quickening pace and the grip on his weapons tightened sent even more warning bells off. It was for that reason he stopped her from sliding off his back to rush over to her last family.
“Hold on, let me talk to him fir—” It happened before he could even finish the sentence. The Hunter’s Pistol was raised towards them and the tension within Bell’s body snapped at the memory of a scant hour ago when Gascoigne had done the same.
BANG!! The bark of quicksilver igniting and rocketing through the air was followed by a spray of stone dust and a child’s scream. Henryk had fired upon them with the intention of killing them.
The shot had only narrowly missed by the virtue of Bell springing into motion, ducking behind the gravestones that had already been riddled with the broken quicksilver of her father’s gun. Crouched and with little time to spare, he then dumped her from his back behind the headstone to stay safe. Then he rocketed himself out from cover and towards the old hunter, a series of shots that tore open the quiet of the night resounding until Bell got into range for him to use his other weapon.
Henryk’s Saw Cleaver came for his head with deceptive speed, a diagonal sweeping motion meant to kill. Bell narrowly managed to raise his arm and let the forearm-guards catch it at an angle, the scraping of metal and bloom of sparks accompanied by a painful jolt it was deflected over his head as he slid past Henryk. The Old Hunter naturally tried to swing wide to catch him, but Bell pivoted around and gripped his Saw Cleaver with both hands to catch the teeth of the opposite set and lock them into place.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing!?” Bell demanded, blood pumping and heart racing as he struggled keep their weapons locked together. He had turned the man’s attention away from the direction of the little girl. Now he had to keep it that way. “That was your granddaughter you just shot at!”
“RAAAHH!!” was the response Henryk gave, still human but primal in its fury. He then followed with a jerk of his arm that showed that he was far stronger than the younger hunter when it tore Bell’s weapon from his grasp and sent him stumbling back. It was immediately followed-up with the pistol being raised towards his head.
Bell hastily brought his arms up as the trigger was pulled. The impact of the quicksilver bursting against his armguards left his world shaken as his own arms smashed into his forehead, knocking him over. The backplate of his armor scraped against the pebbles and shattered bits of headstones as the momentum backwards carried him into a roll that allowed him to escape the follow-up shot as he took cover behind the statue. He drew his Hunter’s Pistol from his belt and silently beckoned the Messengers when the Little Girl stuck her head out from cover.
Bearing witness to her grandfather trying to kill Bell, the last person she could call family trying to murder the boy who’d braved the night to get her to safety, wasn’t something she could sit by and let it happen. So she called out for him in a desperate plea that only served to put her in his sights. “Granddad, stop!”
Bell broke from cover to try and stop Henryk as he took aim at his own granddaughter. But before he could do anything the bark of the Old Hunter’s gun rang out. The Little Girl’s legs collapsed under her in fear as a chunk of the headstone next to her was blown apart.
He’d narrowly missed killing her. But it wasn’t through his own doing. No, the reason was because of the throwing knife that had been buried up to the hilt right into Henryk’s extended arm with pinpoint accuracy right as he’d pulled the trigger.
Snarling, Henryk whipped his head around to the side from whence it came as the raven of death descended, its wings spread wide and wicked talons that gleamed ominously in the moonlight bared. As if by instinct, he abandoned his firearm to grip his Saw Cleaver with both hands and brought it up. It was probably all that saved him as the gleaming blades going for his throat from both sides with the intention of tearing it out screeched, blooming sparks born from the scraping of metal-on-metal.
The rest of the avian’s body descended, crashing down and forcing him to the ground, before rolling off him before the retaliatory swing could tear into its flesh. Then the bundle of feathers gave way to human legs that darted towards the child. Scooping her up in a single motion, it then made for the stairs and called out, “Hold him off, boy!”
Bell recognized it was Eileen’s voice and his fear-addled mind put the pieces together. She’d thrown herself into a killing plunge in an effort to end the Old Hunter in a single stroke. When that failed, she put the rest of her weight into her legs to drive him to the ground and buy enough time for her to get the child out of harm’s way.
Time that she needed more of as Henryk ripped the throwing knife out of his arm and readied to shoot her in the back with his Hunter’s Pistol.
“Stop it!” Bell aimed to disarm him, bullet smashing into the opposing firearm and sending it toppling from his reach. It grabbed the man’s attention, a roar clawing its way out of the aged throat and past the high collar. Bell barely had time to grab the handle of the weapon the Little Ones brought with them before the man was rushing him down, Saw Cleaver already swinging for him.
The smell of half-dried blood assailed his nose as Bell pulled back, strands of his moon-white hair severed as the blade came centimeters of cutting open his face. But his retreating step was cut short as Henryk’s Saw Cleaver unfurled at the end of the swing and scooped low, the sharpened hook catching the back of his lower leg. A pained scream came out of Bell’s mouth as it tore into the muscle and tendon and forced him to the ground before the tip was swung down once more to break open his skull.
A horrendous screech bellowed out as it deflected against the head of Bell’s weapon, braced by his off-hand and angled so that it wedged itself into the dirt. Then he curled his abdomen and chambered his legs to kick upwards, ignoring the burning agony in his leg from where the butcher’s weapon had torn through the fabric and leather of his boots and pants. The sudden attempt at kicking in the older man’s face came up short but served its purpose as Henryk put three steps between them.
Bell got onto his knees, holding his weapon out in defense with one hand while the other plunged a syringe-loaded Blood Vial into his thigh to patch up the wounded leg as Henryk just stared for a moment. Not at Bell, but the weapon in his hand. It was Gascoigne’s axe.
Given that the two were partners for so long, Bell hoped that drawing it would at least drudge of some part of the man’s rationale. That it would allow the man to come back from the same insanity he’d seen too many times wandering the streets. So that he didn’t have to rob that child of her last remaining family as well.
“Please… Don’t make me do this…” Bell begged the man as he stood up. Her father was gone. Her mother was gone. Her grandfather was the only family she had left. “Your granddaughter needs you. Don’t leave her all alone.”
For a moment, the young hunter thought he saw the Saw Cleaver waver. For a moment, he thought he saw the aged eyes of a man on the verge of tears behind the hat and collar. For a moment, he had hope that for once things would end well tonight—
—but then Henryk roared at the top of his lungs in a manner that reminded Bell all too much of Gascoigne moments before his transformation. Casting aside any hopes of reclaiming his sanity, he charged Bell down with renewed vigor and the butcher’s weapon unfurled.
Bell braced the axe for impact, but the swings that followed were vicious enough to drive him back against the sloughing base of the leaning statue. And when he tried to swing the axe in retaliation to force him back, Henryk dodged the attempt and followed up with a short slash in the wake of his own that was aimed straight for the throat. It was a killing stroke, the crescent of the cleaver positioned to where it would tear off his neck before he could bring the weapon back to mount a defense.
His own reflexes saved him as he turned into the swing, twisting his body and raising his other arm up. It spared him an instant death as the forearm guard caught the bulk of the steel, with the impact instead slamming the rigid arm into his own head hard enough that his vision flashed as it staggered him to the side. He only regained his vision in time to see the overhead swing that came down when it was too late to dodge it fully.
“AHHH!!” The sound of bone and flesh rending under the heavy steel was drowned out by a scream of pain as the Saw Cleaver tore a gash from his chest to his stomach, ripping his chest-guard off in the process by tearing it free of the straps. Bell huddled over in agony, clutching at his wound with his right arm even as his blood began to pool beneath him and the axe.
Am… am I going to die again? Bell wondered as thick, rich crimson burbled up from his throat and slipped out of mouth to join the growing puddle. If I die and return to the Dream, what will happen to the others if I don’t stop Mister Henryk here?
It was the same thing with Gascoigne. If Henryk had truly gone mad, then the man would keep slaughtering his way through Yharnam. Yet, the thought of having to personally steal what was left of someone’s family hurt more than the wounds and broken bones, even as he laid on the verge of death.
The sound of footfalls nearing drew Bell’s eyes upwards, where he spotted Henryk had come to a stop in front of him, Saw Cleaver half-raised for the killing stroke. He was staring down at the blood as if in a trance, as if there was something there that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. But whatever held his attention for that moment vanished when Bell coughed and wheezed, trying to form words and beg him to snap out of it, leaving his executioner to bring the Saw Cleaver overhead…
Then a bell-like sound rang out and Henryk let loose a pained sound as he jumped back with his arm torn open by a streak of light, dark blood pouring down it. His former place in front of Bell was now filled by a dark figure with a dagger marred by fresh blood in one hand and a Blood Vial Injector in the other. The Hunter of Hunters had arrived.
Bell wheezed. Still bleeding out. Still dying when her arm swung backwards and stabbed the injector into his exposed chest. The moment she pushed down on the back of it, fresh blood shot into him. Just enough to pull him off of death’s door as she left it wedged inside of him before pulling on the dagger.
One blade became two as she advanced on Henryk. The wicked talons that were her weapons of choice seemed to be glint ominously in the cold and stark moonlight. She kicked her rear foot off the ground and dashed forward, blades leaving an almost ethereal cross in the air as they sped towards the mad hunter’s neck.
Henryk retreated, at the same time flicking his wrist out and returning the Saw Cleaver to its shortened form as she flowed from one strike to the next faster than Bell’s eyes could track. A diagonal sweep that ran from shoulder to hip with the right hand was narrowly avoided by twisting his body thanks to battle instinct inherited from the nightly hunts of untold years. They also moved his arm and brought up the furled weapon’s teeth in time to block a wide sweep towards the throat with the left dagger.
But she continued with her deft strokes, bringing her right hand to sweep from hip to shoulder and score a gash across his chest. He reached for and threw a knife straight for her head in retaliation, but Eileen darted out of the way and pivoted before launching herself into a stabbing thrust with both of the daggers. The blades barely found purchase before he swept his arm around, tearing them out before they could break through the rib cage and rip through the vital organs.
Still it was another wound, blood flowing out and onto the grave dirt. How many more could he take before there was simply no more blood left within him to continue the fight? How long until she claimed the decisive stroke to finish him off?
Bell wasn’t sure as he fumbled for a second Blood Vial of his own. He drank a bottle of it and felt his pain diminish. It wasn’t enough to be rid of it entirely, but it was still a soothing balm that seemed to melt into him with every last drop. Coughing as he tossed the bottle aside, he tried to fix his gaze on the sounds of battle past the gravestones to see that it was almost over already.
Henryk was bleeding from several more gashes, Eileen’s feather cowl draped in his blood as she avoided his instinctive and feral swipes that were enough to shear into the headstones while striking her blades against one another to make a riotous bloom of white sparks. The light hurt Bell’s eyes and only seemed to further irritate Henryk into becoming more aggressive. He continued to chase her down, despite every motion and quickened beat of his heart pushing him an inch closer to death as he began to fight for breath.
But then the unthinkable happened. Eileen seemed to stumble on her way back, falling to a knee as she sparked her blades together once more. It was an opening, one that no desperate predator would allow to pass unexploited and a death sentence as he pounced with an overhead swing, only for Eileen to extend one dagger above her head as if to block and then swept it back.
The killing stroke that had been directed towards her skull seemed to move with the blade, as if drawn in by some invisible force. It pulled Henryk forward and off-balance, opening him up at last. She abruptly stood and pivoted while bringing her other hand around towards his neck without hesitation or mercy, bringing the conflict to a decisive end.
And leaving a young child with no one to call family again.
Chapter 15: Father Gascoigne
Bell crouched before the entrance to the graveyard after following in the footsteps he had prior to his death.
Time spun backwards due to whatever strange magic kept him tethered to the Dream, and so the slain returned to life once more. Hence, he had to once again carve through the Maneater Boar in the sewers and those who stood in his way to get to this point. Yet, the Little Girl remembered him and the promise he made to give the Tiny Music Box back to her mother. There had to be some kind of checkpoint or condition he wasn’t aware of, but he couldn’t be bothered to think on it knowing that Gascoigne was on the other side of the entrance and waiting for him…
Without thinking, he brought his hands up to where the axe had found his neck. The sensation of the blade that had been caked in blood and fat and stone dust and dirt cutting through it had been brief. But the phantom pain lingered even now, and a tremor ran through his arm that held the reinforced Saw Cleaver.
Even now he could hear Gascoigne just beyond the corner. Pounding away at that same corpse from before. The moment Bell stepped past the threshold he would be attacked again. Overpowered. Killed.
Calm down. He pulled down the bandana and took a soft, deep breath. Then he forced his arm to stop trembling long enough to set the weapon behind his back and pulled out the Tiny Music Box instead. The Little Girl had told Bell that when he forgot his family, they used it to remind him of them.
Bell was certain that if he reminded him of his wife and child, he would return to normal. He wanted to believe that desperately. Because the only other option was to kill the man, since he was in the way.
Taking another deep breath, he gathered his courage and stepped into the graveyard. No sooner than his boots hit the ground and he spotted his Blood Echoes where his life had ended prior was Gascoigne alerted to his presence. The tall, aged hunter wheeled around and pulled out his modified pistol, firing without hesitation.
Bell darted to the side as fragments of stonework peppered his hat, tensing as he spotted the man closing in with his axe in hand. Resisting the urge to draw his weapon from his back, Bell instead tried to reason with him. “Gascoigne! Your daughter sent me!”
A snarl was the only thing that answered him as the axe came in from below. Sparks blossomed in the dark as the steel found the worn and weathered stone that was once part of a path for the living to walk without trampling over the dead resting below, carrying with the arch a spray of dirt and pebbles. They patterned down over Bell as the blade narrowly missed thanks to his rough and hasty steps to the side.
Please let this work! The young hunter flipped the lid on the Tiny Music Box as the veteran readied to charge in with his Hunter’s Axe. The cylinder within it began to spin and scrape against the comb, giving rise to a soft lullaby that played out between them and tickled the ears.
The melody took hold of Gascoigne, stalling his legs mid-step so that his murderous gait turned into a stumble. The hand that gripped his axe released the bloodied steel and came up to his head that tremored. Murmurs left his haggard lips.
“Remember who you are, Gascoigne,” Bell said, swallowing the lump in his throat. It was working. He was remembering. “You have a family. A daughter, waiting for you at home.”
“Nnngh… the blood…” His head rolled, body buckling as though he was waging a war within. “The voice… calls me…”
“Fight it!” Bell begged, taking a step closer. “Your daughter is waiting for you and your wife to come back!”
“Vv…vii…vii…!!” The shaking grew worse as the man’s head started jerking. His body hunched over, and pained sound clawed its way out of his clenched jaw, teeth gnashing together. “Vi…violaaahhhh!!”
All at once, Gascoigne lashed out with his arm. The axe that had been dropped was absent, but the Hunt had made the aged hunter strong. Strong enough that his flailing backhand felt like a sledge-hammer as it cracked against the side of Bell’s head.
The world flashed with pain as Bell’s vision whited for a moment. Then something hard, a gravestone, met his lower back and cost him his balance. He fell over to the ground where the impact forced the air out of him lungs. “Huhhh…”
Ignoring the pulsing sting of the forming bruise, Bell heard the stomping of boots and then scrabbled to get off to the side in time to avoid the overhead swing of the axe that came down with the intent of butchering him. His Hunter’s Hat, left behind in the fall, was torn in two.
Rising to his feet, his eyes frantically began to search for the music box that had fallen from his grasp only for him start running for cover. No sooner than he’d gotten behind a monument that held the two burning oil lamps over his head and spotted it did Gascoigne open fire. Quicksilver scattershot sparked and ruptured as they bit into the stone and shattered the lamps, leaving embers, shard, and stone dust to fall onto Bell’s exposed, moon-white hair as he started to run again.
The man’s longer legs gave him a faster gait, even without whatever benefits the blood coursing through his body added to him. He was on Bell’s back in a matter of seconds and pounced while bringing the axe down. The ground ruptured in a loose cloud of grave dirt as the young hunter rolled out of the way at the last minute, right next to where the rippling phantasm of blood echoes marked his previous grave.
Bell reclaimed what he had lost, echoes once more filling the gap that had been left behind, only to suck in a sharp breath as he felt a pained sting below the waist. The axe had grazed his leg before he got out the way entirely, trousers torn and exposing pale and parted flesh with a crimson glint. Painful, but not crippling and soon to be numb from the adrenaline as Gascoigne pulled his axe free of the ground.
The young hunter now realized that he would never be able to get back to the music box and wind it up to play again without being caught and killed. So, he reached out for help through the Hunter’s Mark branded in the back of his mind. Space rippled beneath the Tiny Music Box as the Messengers arrived at his beckoning.
As the Little Ones inquisitively pondered and touched the device, Bell shouted for them to wind it up as the earthen and copper scent of the axe invaded his nose. A horizontal swing going for his head that came too close for comfort as white tufts of hair were left behind. The message carried as they gripped the handle with emaciated fingers and began to wind it up.
“Mister Gascoigne, stop!” Bell said, finally reaching behind his back and drawing his Saw Cleaver. He gripped the reinforced weapon with both hands and used the saw teeth to parry the incoming stroke of the axe, only for the bones themselves to feel the weight of the impact as the axe’s head grated against his saw with a horrendous screech of metal-on-metal.
With a strained grunt, he diverted the axe into the ground next to him hard enough to knock up the dust. Then Bell shot backwards with quick steps, intent on luring the larger man towards the music box as the Little Ones waved for him to come. He didn’t see the scattershot coming through the dirty veil until the bark of the modified pistol spat out the broken Quicksilver and he felt a sharp, piercing pain in his gut as fragments struck where his armor wasn’t present.
“Ngh!” He stumbled over and fell, clutching the spot as it felt like boiling lava was coursing through where the rounds spread the taint of the quicksilver and veteran hunter’s blood inside of him. Only the fact that he could hear the stomping of boots gave him the shot of adrenaline needed to whirl around and block the crescent blade of the axe that was getting ready to carve open his head with the flat-side, braced by his forearm guard to stop it.
His good leg then came up with as much force as he could muster to kick Gascoigne in the stomach. It was like hitting a stone wall, barely enough to push him a step back. All the same, it gave Bell room to roll away from the follow-up swipe and land near the Messengers. “Play it!”
The music box played its lullaby a second time, the melody stopping Gascoigne in his tracks from unloading another round of scattershot into Bell’s crouched form. He shoved the blood vial injector into his abdomen and let the contents push out the acrid mixture while regrowing the damaged tissue and intestinal walls. Then he got back to his feet and tried to reach out to the man again.
“Your wife is somewhere out here, looking for you,” he said, stepping forward with his arms outstretched. “I’ll help you find her! You can go home with her! Be together with your daughter! She’s waiting for you both!”
“V-V-Viola,” he mumbled, head shuddered. “For…forgive… AaaaaaahhhhHHHHHHH!!”
Gascoigne raised his pistol towards Bell for another shot, but he quick-stepped by pushing off his rear leg while his front was angled so he was offline from the shot. Then, pivoting his body on his front leg, he swung the Saw Cleaver down with the additional momentum in order to slam it into the firearm with all the strength he could muster. The barrel of the gun buckled as it was wrenched free of the older man’s grasp, rendering it useless. “Stop it! I just want to help you!”
“RAGH!” Gascoigne’s response was to backhand the young hunter with his now empty fist, hard enough that an arch of blood left his mouth as he stumbled back. Then he grabbed the neck of the axe and held it in place as he jerked the bottom, wrenching loose the telescopic handle to extend the weapon into a halberd and swinging it around.
Bell barely caught the glimmer of the dust-encrusted blade in time to bring his reinforced Saw Cleaver around to shield him from the blow. The fact that it was reinforced was probably the only reason that Bell didn’t lose his head by having the weapon shatter from the sheer force. Instead, he nearly felt his arms jerk out of their sockets as he was knocked along the path of the blade and bumped against another slouching grave.
“Wind it again!!” he urged the Little Ones while leaping behind the grave to put distance himself and the polearm as it came scything around for his head again. That last hit had made it clear that blocking wasn’t possible from how his shoulders ached. He just wasn’t strong enough, so he had to avoid instead.
Which was just as well, given Gascoigne’s attacks were coming in more aggressively. Every swing packed enough punch that it could carve a human in two with each hit. The force and speed of his halberd was enough that if he didn’t use the terrain to his advantage he would be swept up unless he fought back.
“You need to remember why you hunt!” Moving between one section of slouching and worn gravestones to another, Bell continued to try and reach the veteran hunter. “It’s for your family, isn’t it!?”
The sound of crashing stone was the only answer he received as the telescopic axe knocked over the grave in an attempt to silence the rabbit darting behind cover with every move, trying and failing to reach him. Gascoigne grew more aggressive whereas Bell grew fatigued, the former’s swings growing more violent as time progressed while the latter’s legs burned from the exertion. Soon the number of places where he could take cover dwindled until there were none left between them by the time the Little Ones finished winding the music box.
Breathing heavily, Bell’s fingers quickly found their way around the Hunter’s Pistol as Gascoigne advanced on him before he could reach the music box. He opened fire, letting the firearm bark as the Quicksilver bullet flew towards his leg to slow him down. It did nothing as Gascoigne leapt instead, roaring as he brought the axe down with an executioner’s swing, forcing Bell to get out of the way as it shattered the cobblestone beneath where he stood.
Lethargy caught up with him then. Before he could even get back onto his feet, Bell saw the horizontal sweep of the transformed axe coming in to kill him. He brought not his weapon but his forearms to shield himself with the forearm guards again as he leapt back, instead using the force to launch himself towards the music box.
It came at the expense of the impact knocking his own weapons from the grasp, leaving him to tumble over the earth with a jarring sound as the pieces of light armor scraped it. But he came to a stop near the Tiny Music Box and flipped the lid, letting the melody play for a third time. The heavy boots that had trampled across the hardpacked earth and worn stones stopped for a third time.
Only this time, Gascoigne fell to his knees and dropped his weapon to clutch at his ears with both hands. As if trying to drown it out. Trying to resist.
“Please… stop…” Bell begged the man, tired as he stood back up. “I don’t… I don’t want that little girl to lose someone like I did. I don’t want to be responsible for that. Please.”
Bell had never felt as alone in his life as he did when his grandfather died. The man who had raised him and saved him when he was in trouble, only to leave an emptiness within him when he disappeared from his life. He didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way.
“Viola…” Gascoigne muttered as he fell over, his head hitting the ground and the hat revealing aged and disheveled hair. For the third time, the hunter clashed with the beast within him. Only this time the man lost, and an ear-splitting screech tore open the night sky as his flesh was ripped apart with such violence that the air itself expanded. “Forgive MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!”
Clothing were stretched and torn as they tried to strangle the beast within that emerged. Lengthened claws tore through leather gloves and footwear, warped and corded muscles split skin and long hair bristled. The lips were torn off by the emergence of razor-sharp fangs coated in the blood, and the wrap that kept his eyes hidden was now woven into the wild mane.
The newborn Beast lunged into the air and dropped down on top of the younger boy, paralyzed by exhaustion and defeat upon bearing witness to the transformation. Death followed as the Beast wasted no time in tearing him apart with such savagery that when he awoke in the Hunter’s Dream, it was weeping and screaming at the memory of having his eyes torn out and flesh flayed until his throat was finally ripped out. And, as the Doll came over and offered him comfort, Bell recalled the words of Eileen, Gehrman, and even Gascoigne.
That is the duty of the Hunter connected to the Hunter’s Dream, else the night will go on and the innocent will slowly be devoured until none remain.
Show him mercy as only a Hunter can and free him from the shackles of his own making.
Forgive me, Viola.
Even if Bell allowed Gascoigne to escape, even if he stole the key to the gate and progressed on, the fact that he’d transformed meant that he would do so again. Maybe even around his wife or daughter if they found him. No one would want to be responsible for ending the lives of their own family.
“Hestia, forgive me,” Bell said, tears streaking from his eyes. Not for himself, but for what he would have to do next. Whether those tears were for that little girl who was waiting with hope in her heart for her father to return, her mother that was still out there somewhere after spending nights working to keep the beast within her husband at bay, or for the hunter who spent years fighting against the beastly plague only to succumb before the night even began, went unspoken.
He gathered his thoughts as the Messengers finished returning his belongings that had been left by the place that marked where he was slain. He recalled the two encounters that had vividly ended his life. The way Gascoigne…no, the Beast wearing his flesh moved and hunted him down. Then he donned his hat that was knitted together through the magics of the Dream, armed himself once more, and set out to resume the Hunt.
This time… he left the Tiny Music Box behind.
The first time Bell stepped through the archway that marked the Tomb of Oedon, he was caught by surprise. The battering of flesh and the sickening aroma of pungent blood in the air had been enough to stall his feet and clamp a vice around his heart. The resting place of the dead had been turned into a butcher’s shop for the citizens who had gathered there, other hunters from what he could guess based on Gehrman’s explanation of them going through it on the night of the Hunt.
The second time Bell stepped through the archway that led into the graveyard it had been with the intention to reason with Gascoigne within the tomb. He stayed his hand, held off on attacking for the sake of trying to reach the man whose daughter he promised to deliver the music box. His reward for the grueling effort was bearing witness to the Beast shedding its human visage, revealing the man had died sometime before they had ever met.
It was entirely possible that one of those men the Beast killed while wearing his flesh was the little girl’s grandfather. They were meeting up here according to her. But he hadn’t spied a woman among the corpses that could still be made out, so she would still have family once the Beast was slain. She wouldn’t be alone.
That thought gave Bell a small thread of hope to cling to. That he wouldn’t leave a child with no one else in the world as he had been when his grandfather died. He held onto it with an iron grip as he stepped through the archway a third time, Saw Cleaver in one hand and Hunter’s Pistol loaded with a Quicksilver bullet in the other.
The Beast noticed him. Still wearing the flesh of the man like a mask after devouring him from the inside out, it turned to him as the scent of a hunter reached its nose. Bearing teeth as if enticed by the prospect of fresh prey, the Beast charged forward with its stolen legs in a gait and raised the modified pistol to fire.
Bell darted to the side and allowed the scattershot that was meant to wound and cripple prey break and combust against the stone. Then he raised his own firearm and had it spit out a bullet in turn. The Beast dodged the shot, bounding to the side abruptly and continuing its charge over the graveyard dirt and broken cobblestone as Bell did the same.
Then it lunged, axe still covered in viscera and blood from the battered corpse it had been taking to pieces for the third time tonight. The crimson covered blade reflected in the light of the oil lamps as it came down with an executioner’s swing. But, instead of fresh blood and broken bone, only dirt and bits of stone spouted as it missed its target.
Coming out of his roll behind what was once a man, Bell immediately swung the Saw Cleaver before the Beast could heft the weapon from its perch in the ground. Across the back. Shoulder to opposite waist. He swung twice and felt the teeth of his weapon bite into the body from behind, ripping through leather and flesh before tearing its way out.
The Beast snarled with a guttural sound in its throat as first blood was drawn. Sweeping the axe around as it spun on its feet, a trail of stone dust marked the blade’s path. It brushed against the leather of Bell’s garbs as he escaped and kept his weapon that gleamed with fresh blood between them.
The attacks kept coming. Sparks patterned out the dirt and dust as the Beast swung the axe upwards, biting into the ground to give chase as Bell rolled out of the way of another decapitating swing. On his feet once more, he pivoted on his foot and swung the Saw Cleaver down in a diagonal slash that bit into front flesh, drawing more blood.
The Beast didn’t flinch despite the cut, instead bringing the axe around from the side. He couldn’t dodge it, so Bell raised his arm with the pistol and guarded his head at an angle. The axe coming in from his left met with the slanted forearm protector and sparks blossom as the steel was guided over his head while Bell counterattacked with his opposite hand.
The Saw Cleaver came around twice. Once to the left to rip open a new tear in fabric and flesh at the stomach. Then, with a twist of the wrist, he pulled his arm back and brought the teeth diagonally from waist to shoulder, ripping through the chest and cape of the ulster coat.
Pain and blood ran like a waterfall to soak the front of the stolen flesh. The wounded Beast flailed by swinging the axe down from above to drive Bell away from its front, succeeding as he bounced back off his leading foot. Panting as it slouched forward, the scent of its own blood reached its nose.
“Oh… what’s smell?” it mumbled. “The sweet blood, oh it sings to me. It’s enough to make a man sick.”
Bell ignored the words as he ducked down behind a grave for cover in order to reload his Hunter’s Pistol. The effort was made more difficult from his arm shaking from the impact of the axe and his gloves covered in the dark blood that made the quicksilver slippery to fit inside. He barely managed to get it in and close the chamber when he heard the clank of the axe being turned into a halberd. Then he broke cover to run the opposite way in time to avoid the heavy swing that was enough to topple over the gravestone.
Turning around to avoid keeping his back to the enemy, Bell’s reward was only to not have a sharpened tip pierce his heart from behind. Gascoigne used the extra length and point for a thrust, with the chest guard glancing the tip into instead sinking into the unprotected region between it and his shoulder guards. Baring teeth at having caught its prey, the Beast then pushed it further in.
“Auaahh!” Something broke within his body as the tip punched through the back and elicited a louder cry. It then twisted its hips and swung the weapon around to jerk the young hunter off his feet and fling him off to the side. His hair was exposed to the night air as his hat was knocked loose on impact.
It hurt. It hurt to try and even move his left arm. But Bell bit down on the pain to focus as the Beast came in for the execution and turned along his spine, narrowly avoiding the downward cleave that cut into the ground as he got back to his knees. Then he barred his right forearm beneath the left to raise it and pulled the trigger of the pistol before the Beast could pull its weapon up.
The Beast staggered back a step before falling to its knees as the mixture of the bullet gnawed at the inside of its chest, its own blood fighting back. Long enough for Bell to press the clasp of the Saw Cleaver and unfurl the butcher’s weapon. He chambered it back behind him as he stood, tensing the muscles in his right arm to the point it felt like the tendons would snap, and swung it down.
The cleaver end of the weapon broke through the Beast’s collarbone as it came down before it could recover, knocking it to the ground as Bell put all his strength into the swing. The Hunter’s Axe clattered to the side as it struggled to get back up when he wrenched the cleaver free. But before it could, the weapon came down again with the saw-teeth first and buried themselves into the Beast’s back that arched as it cried out.
Bell brought his left boot up and stomped down on the broken shoulder in order to jerk the Saw Cleaver free, opening out a spout of blood to join the rest pooling on the ground. Stumbling back several steps, his body tremored from the pain as he collapsed onto his knees by a tree and jammed the vial injector near the wound. Fresh blood flowed into his body and was used to repair broken bone, mend torn muscle, and regenerate damaged blood vessels.
That was when the Beast shed its human guise. Flesh and fabric tore open as it took on its true form once more. Standing tall once again, it stretched its elongated limbs while howling into the night as a key hung from a rope around its neck.
Bell stood, his breath and body still shaking. This was it. The Beast had come out in full once more. Now he would lay it to rest.
Snarling, the Beast whipped its head around towards Bell and bared its teeth. Then it lunged forward, a mass of fur and muscle shooting towards him with an arm chambered for a swipe. The ebony claws tore out chunks of the twisted bark of the tree as Bell ran behind it.
With something put between them, he reached into his pouch for another bullet and reloaded as he moved before the Beast darted around to try and get him. Then he lined up barrel for another shot the moment he was done and pulled the trigger when he had a clear line to hit. The Quicksilver bullet smacked it in the shoulder, jerking the limb back for a breath before it snarled and then lunged for Bell again.
The young hunter sidestepped mass of fur and rage, pivoting on his foot to keep it in sight. As it landed, he swung the unfurled Saw Cleaver and carved into the leather that clung tight to its hide twice. The weapon didn’t go very deep from what he could feel, its muscles even thicker than before, and was knocked from his grasp into a mound of gravestone as Beast whirled around and swept out with its claws.
Rearing back, the Beast roared at Bell before bringing both its arms down to crush him. Dust and stone spouted from the ground as the young hunter avoided the attack, making for his weapon in the mound. But it pounced into the air and dove to catch him, forcing him to abandon the attempt or be killed.
Unable to get his Saw Cleaver back as it now laid buried beneath a broken heap of gravestones, Bell gritted his teeth. The Hunter’s Pistol needed reloading as well, which would take time. Time the Beast wouldn’t give him as it rose to its hind legs and came after him with a storm of swipes and slashes.
Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t dodge the flurry entirely and had to use his armguards to shield his head since if he took a hit there, he wouldn’t be getting back up. His armor was torn into by the points and his legs staggered, nearly buckling upon being struck twice before the Beast put as much effort as it could in the final swipe. Bell ended up being forced to block with his arms crossed as it sent him airborne until he tumbled on the ground some distance away.
“Ugh…” Getting back onto his feet, Bell shook his head and tried to gather his thoughts when he took a step back and felt something there. He glanced down and saw Gascoigne’s extended Hunter’s Axe, now laying forgotten. He reached down, grabbed it with both hands, and slammed the bottom against the ground to return it to a short weapon before he rolled out of the way of the Beast as it dove down from the air to try and crush him once more.
Armed again, he abandoned his firearm and whirled around on his knees to draw crescent with the axe using both arms. Imitating the shade of the hunter the Beast had eaten from the inside out, the heavy head and momentum buried the blade just above the ankle and snapped the rear tendon. Then Bell stood while pulling the axe with all his might to topple it over.
The Beast howled upon falling onto its back, one leg useless and in pain. But before Bell could retreat to strike again, it twisted around to the source of its pain and its claws found the soft flesh of his cheek. It managed to tear it away, along with the bandana, blood painting its claws as he stumbled back.
The boy cried out, tears stinging his eyes from the hot pain just beneath his right eye. But it didn’t stop him from extending the axe once more as he got into a stance, left leg forward and right foot back as it was angled to the side. He swung the axe back and gripped the shaft with both hands, chambering it for powerful swing.
“SCREEE!!” With a frenzied, feral snarl, the Beast dug its right claw into the ground for purchase as it pushed off the ground with its left leg. A desperate, primal attempt to take off the young hunter’s head with its left claw this time.
“YYYYAAAHH!!” But it amounted to nothing as Bell shouted at the top of his lungs and swung the halberd down with all his might. The weapon severed the limb at the shoulder with enough force that the Beast’s entire body was hammered into the ground as its remaining arm gave out.
It made pathetic animal noises as it rolled around in agony while Bell reared back for another swing and buried the axe into the Beast’s back. This time it hit the spine at an odd angle and you could hear the vertebrae snap, leaving it truly crippled from the waist down. Desperate to escape the pain, it pushed off the ground with its arm violently and twisted onto its back to get the axe out.
But that was the last of the strength it could muster as dark, crimson blood pooled around it from the missing limbs. The heart within its chest that pumped frantically to fuel its rage and bloodlust had little left within the body to spare as it escaped the wounds. Panting, chest heaving, all that was left now was to put it out of its misery.
Bell raised the axe to do so, his breath coming out wet and haggard with the taste of copper in his mouth as the Beast limply reached out a final time. Not to him, but to the building that was next to the slouching statue that towered over the graveyard. His mind that was flooded with the scent of blood and adrenaline even hallucinated its mouth moving, as if to mutter a final set of words.
But then none of it mattered as the Hunter’s Axe came down a final time.
The Beast didn’t get back up again.
Chapter 14: A Little Girl’s Request
Run-off waters sloshed underfoot as the next leg of Bell’s journey took him into a damp corridor that stretched into darkness beneath Central Yharnam, transitioning from the aqueducts to sewers.
He was sheltered from the cold by the garbs he’d taken to wear. The material repelled not only the red of the crows and yellow of the corpses that continued persist through rotten blood, but the water pattering down from the roof and splashing beneath his boots.
The lantern that dangled from his belt only provided a little illumination that gleamed off the wet, slime-slickened stone walls. Even so he could see the silhouette of something that lurked behind the veil of mist further ahead. His grip on his Saw Spear tightened as he slowly pressed forward, wondering what beast he would have to kill this time to advance into the Tomb of Oedon….
And then a wet, shrill shriek nearly deafened him as it echoed off the walls, rattling his bones down to the core and making the filthy water beneath his boots shudder. Ears pounding as he clutched his head with his off-hand. He knew that sound, or at least he could match it to the pigs that lived on the farm he worked with his Grandpa on before he came to Orario only a little while ago
So, when the ringing in his ears gave way to the hooves thundered through the water towards him and the growing silhouette, Bell promptly started running the opposite way to avoid being trampled. He didn’t look back as the presence of something massive closed in, instead working his legs as fast as he could to bring him to the mouth of the tunnel. The moment he breached the entrance, then threw himself to the side.
The rushing mass of unshapely, bloated flesh that was the Maneater Boar charged right by. Larger than any man and even most of the monsters he’d faced in the Upper Floors of the Dungeon so far. How something this large had gotten into the city unnoticed was a mystery, but a voracious squeal revealed bloodstained, yellowed teeth with scraps of cloth wedged between them as it swung its head around to face the young hunter—
—and was met with the bark of a Quicksilver bullet bursting on impact as it struck the bulbous part of its head. It stumbled back a step, squealing as it shook off the shot. Then it charged for Bell once again.
Bell stepped out of the way of its charge, water splashing against his trousers as the boar hit the stone bridge hard enough that dust and bits of stone by the ladder were wrenched loose. He got around to the side, tensed the muscles in his arm holding the furled Saw Spear until it felt like they were going to snap, and swung downwards at an angle with all his might. “RAAAGH!!”
The broad side of the swine was torn into by the serrated teeth. Ripping through the hide and letting a loose spray of crimson that buried the fluids already present on the blade and gloves, the impact struck bone and buckled the boar’s knees. It collapsed, shrieking.
Bell unfurled the Saw Spear as he reared back for a thrust with the sharpened tip. He’d seen how to slaughter hogs before; a stun to the head and then cutting open the arteries to bleed it out. But there was no way he was going to be able to roll it over, so he instead tried to stab through its throat by brute force.
The Maneater Boar belched before he could, spitting out a cloud of noxious fumes. It was like acid had been splashed into his eyes. Stinging and gnawing away at them to extent that he couldn’t bear the pain, his thrust was thrown off and resulted in a grazing cut through the back of its neck.
Bell blindly ran out, crying hot tears until he hit a wall and added to the pain. He braced it while hoping to blink away the pain even as it gnawed on the inside of his eyelids. Then he spun so that his back was to the wall and forced his eyes open to see the blurred mass charging him again.
Gritting his teeth, Bell pushed off the wall into a charge of his own. Abandoning the pistol in his off hand, he grabbed the Saw Spear with both hands and dragged it behind him. Though blurred and anguished vision, he saw the saggy, grey flesh closing in and then quickstepped out of the way while swinging the unfurled length of jagged teeth with as much force as he could.
His arms nearly buckled and broke as his weapon found its flesh. Between the strength of its wielder and momentum of its prey, the weapon sheared through the hide, fat, and muscle. The metal teeth cut it from cheek to leg bone before Bell finished the swing with his own power, ripping it forward to take the hind leg out as well.
Death throes followed as Bell then stumbled away from the boar, leaving it to bleed out as he found another wall to put his back against. Only when he felt the echoes flowing into him did he drop the Saw Spear into the water and pull off his backpack, where he kept a cloth inside along with a canteen. Necessities for an adventurer, Eina had told him.
They provided relief as he poured the clean water over his eyes to wash out the acrid particles and dried his face. Then he picked back up his Saw Spear, reloaded his Hunter’s Pistol, and gave the massive boar a final glance before he pressed on into the tunnels that had apparently been its lair. It was there he saw just what it had been fattening itself up on—corpses of other people, including another hunter.
“Grandpa always said pigs would eat anything, but still…” Bell searched the gnawed corpse and came across another badge. It looked like a saw. He put it away and then moved onto the other one, where his gloved hands brushed over something beneath the half-bloated body.
It gave him a similar feeling to when echoes were flowing into him, only concentrated at the point where he touched rather than being taken into his body. He lifted the torn cloth and found a droplet that refused to fully harden or dry out, making it somewhat gelatinous and malleable. Was this what Gehrman mentioned before? He decided to ask the veteran later as he stored it away.
Then he moved on.
Bell was greeted with a slaughter when he finally reached the Tomb of Oedon.
It was a graveyard of barren dirt and mangled trees, a chill permeating the air starved of light as the oil lampposts were dimly-lit and the towering buildings that laid beyond the outer gates cast an eerie shadow over the enclosure that hid the evening sun. Headstones were placed without regard for order or respect, erected in seemingly random ways that left them cluttered as they leaned in exhaustion like the stone monument that was in the center of the graveyard, worn down by its timeless vigil over the amassed dead that laid beneath the surface.
The scent of blood hung richly in the air, stemming from the bodies of the recently dead. Men who were once among the living joined the long-time residents in pieces, butchered with their limbs strewn in random directions and their blood bringing vibrant splashes of color to the worn stones, parched dirt, and thirsty bark.
“Hah. Haaaah. Hhhaaah.” The wet, sticky sound of meat being pounded was padded out by the sound of heavy, hard breathing that made Bell’s stomach churn as he spotted bloodied steel being raised and then slammed down. A hunter with his back facing the novice to the Hunt finished striking at a corpse once he’d severed the head, a final splash of the lifeblood to decorate the half-cape he wore.
Then he stood straight, the scarf around his neck caked in dirt and blood swaying its frayed and torn ends as he spoke. “…Beasts all over the shop… You’ll be one of them, sooner or later…”
The blood within Bell’s body froze in place and his heart stalled as the man with gray hair slowly turned his head, the light of the oil lamp catching the white of the bandages over his eyes and beneath his hat. The knot in his gut tightened as the man let out a half-snarl while he baring his teeth, his raspy and haggard breath coming out as a plume. Recognition moved the young hunter’s lips as he muttered, “Mister Gascoigne?”
He found himself frozen like a deer in the headlights until the veteran hunter raised his pistol. Then he threw himself to the side as the trigger was pulled. What should have been a single Quicksilver bullet was broken into a wide-spread that patterned the stone arch by where he stood, bursting on impact.
Bell scrambled to get back up as he noticed the man now closing the distance, axe in hand. He tried to call out to him from beneath the bandana covering his mouth. “Wait, I’m not a beast! I’m a hunter like you!”
The man’s response to that was to bring his bloodied axe around for Bell’s neck. It caught the steel of the Saw Spear as Bell raised it in defense, being all that saved him from losing his head. Even so, the impact of the blow shot through his arms and made them buckle as he was sent staggering to the left and off-balance.
Bell barely had time to get the Saw Spear and his balance back up as the axe came around again. The blow was even heavier this time, resulting in blooming sparks and jolting pain. His arms were nearly jerked from their sockets while his weapon was sent flying from his grasp.
He could hear it land somewhere to the left, but he didn’t have time to look as Gascoigne chambered the axe for a follow-up. The primal fear of death drove his feet and threw him backwards. That was all that saved him as the cleaving swing that would have split him right down the middle to hit the ground hard enough to throw dirt askew.
“Please, stop!” Bell half-cried as he got back on his feet and stepped back only to feel hard bark against his back. “I came here because your daughter—AHH!”
His words turned into a frantic cry as he spun on his foot and got behind the tree. The gnarled, dense wood twice as thick as Bell shook as it caught the blade, albeit only after it managed to bury itself all the way to the back. The fact that he managed that with a single swing of the arm said everything that needed to be said.
Before Gascoigne could jerk it free, Bell broke into a sprint towards where he heard his weapon fall. It was somewhere between the haphazardly placed headstones and the monument slouched over in the ground like a weary sentinel. He made it halfway there when the sound of the tree cracking and collapsing behind him left him to glance back and then shout as he twisted around and brought his arms up in time to intercept the Hunter’s Axe.
“AAHH—” His brief scream was drowned out by the headstones shattering as his shoulder-guard plowed through it, leaving him to tumble forward and land face-down. Glass shattered as he hit the ground hard enough to bounce before he came to a stop at the foot of the monument. Everything hurt, the broken fragments from the hand lantern buried into his waist and the world bending and swaying as groaned softly.
Bell’s fingers twitched, revealing his hands were still attached. The forearm guards stopped him from losing his arms, but that only meant that instead of being cleaved in two he was sent flying instead. He poured whatever strength he could into them as death closed in with weapon raised to fire the Hunter’s Pistol he somehow managed to keep a grip on and the Quicksilver bullet caught the veteran hunter in the chest, leaving him to stagger.
The young hunter took the chance to liberate his vial injector from its holster and then drove the needle straight into his body to let the blood vial do its work. His vision cleared to the dark hues of the world around him and enough strength returned so that he could get back on his feet and run as Gascoigne threw himself forward with the axe to try and split him in two again, cutting down into the base of the monument. He nearly stumbled over his feet to get to the Saw Spear, taking its metal shaft into his grip and holding it out with shaking hands as the man jerked his axe free and slowly rose back up to his full height.
“Please, stop! I don’t want to fight! I—”
“RAAH!!” The words were drowned out by the roar of the man as he went back on the attack, whipping around his pistol and pulling the trigger. Quicksilver barked out of its mouth and the metal sprayed out.
“Ugh!” Bell lurched, forced to his knees as it caught and ruptured inside his thigh and abdomen. He only saw the axe, stained with blood that was meshed with stone dust, splinters, and dirt, as it came around in a blur.
Then there was pain as it found his unprotected neck at last.
Bell awoke with a jerking motion, instinctively clutching his neck. When his fingers found it was still attached, he let out a sigh and then fell to his knees as he took in his surroundings. He was in the Hunter’s Dream once more, having suffered the first death of the night.
He’d been killed by the person that he’d been asked to find—a man much stronger than him, relentless and brutal. No matter how much he’d begged, his words just wouldn’t reach him. Then that only left one alternative and the very thought left him frozen when he considered what that would mean for the Little Girl.
The Plain Doll naturally inquired into his silent dismay from her perch by the stairs. “Are thou not well, Good Hunter?”
“I… I’m fine,” he lied, rising to his feet. He needed to see Gehrman before he could do anything else. Maybe he would have a solution.
He began to ascend the stairs when the mewlings of the Little Ones reached his ears and he remembered the badge he’d found. He fished it out and then gently tossed it to them, only for the emaciated limbs to snatch it and then dunk it into their bath. A light haze wafted up from the surface but he passed up the chance to peruse the new weapons and instead made his way up to the Workshop.
The aged hunter stared up at a weapon that hung high on the wall until he noticed Bell. His seasoned eyes took in Bell’s appearance and a sound bubbled up in his throat. “Ah, I see you’ve found yourself proper Yharnam Hunter attire. It was made for new recruits who joined in the Hunt under Ludwig’s banner. Freedom of movement while keeping the blood away.”
“The person they belonged to had died and I needed something to wear since my own were soaked.” His throat felt tight, so he took a moment to swallow after admitting his theft and looked down to see the garments were cleaned of the grime and filth, holes from where the bullets had punched through patched. His armor was still battered though, untouched by whatever magic of the Dream had mended them.
“You’ve no need to feel shame. In taking up the Hunter’s task, it’s natural that the tools of the fallen be put to use,” the elderly hunter assured him. “Did fortune favor your search for bloodstone?”
“I think so.” Bell moved over to the table and set his backpack down onto it. Then he fished out what he’d found and set them down next to his broken weapon. The sole exception was the Tiny Music Box, forgotten in his desperate attempt to survive. She said they used this to remind him, didn’t she?
“Yes. These are Bloodstone Shards,” Gehrman said as he wheeled himself over and peered at the white and red stones with a helix in the center of each. Then he touched the droplet that Bell had pocketed. “And a Coldblood Dew. We can repair your weapons with these if you crush the droplet to take the echoes into yourself.”
Bell took the droplet between his gloved fingers and then put strength into it. The droplet broke open and then the light, misty feeling of echoes flowing into him followed. It was a piddling amount compared to that which was left behind at the site of his death, but it was better than nothing. “What now?”
“Now you fortify it.” Gehrman placed three of the shards he’d gathered onto the broken Saw Cleaver. “Here. Extend your hand over them and will them into it. The Dream will do the rest for you using the echoes you’ve taken in.”
Bell did as told and held his hands over the broken steel that had snapped. The weapon had carried him throughout his first attempt and helped him prevail against the Minotaur that had killed him. It was his carelessness that left it in this state, so he silently willed for it to be made whole. Willed for the shards to be one with the weapon. For it to be stronger.
The echoes within him began to bleed out like a crimson mist that circled around the weapon and shards in response. Bloodstone shattered into dust that mixed in with the haze and both sank into the Saw Cleaver. It snapped back into its original state as if by magic, the only visible alteration being a slot that had formed at the base of the steel.
“There we are.” Gehrman lifted it up and tapped the handle against the workbench. Rather than the sound of wood-on-wood, it sounded more like metal striking wood. “The moment bloodstone gets introduced into the material, all of it becomes harder. Sharper and more suitable for the Hunt.”
“Is that normally how that works?” Bell asked. He’d never seen a blacksmith at work, but he had the distinct impression that it wasn’t like this.
“The true method takes much longer,” the aged hunter explained. “In the early days of the Hunt it was much rarer to find these materials and hunters had to make do with what they had—wood and steel with some exceptions. This Saw Cleaver is a relic from that time, an older model rather than the more recent one. But the first hunters knew how to refine the technique they had and learned to be agile since those who never took a claw never needed blood to heal. Then, and only then, did it become a matter of making sure that the weapon could keep up with them.”
There was almost nostalgic look on the veteran hunter’s face as he spoke. But as quickly as it came, it vanished. He turned the weapon in his hand and held it out to Bell. “That should serve you well enough for now, but larger beasts will no doubt prove difficult should they arise. Remember to keep your steel sharpened and seek out larger shards and chunks.”
“I’ll try…” Bell took the weapon into his grasp with some hesitation. If his weapon was repaired then he had no excuse not to set out again, following the same path he did until he returned the place where he’d met his demise. He would try to reach the hunter again, this time with the music box.
But… what would he do if it didn’t work? Gascoigne didn’t seem like he would just let Bell walk past him to get into the Cathedral Ward through the Tomb of Oedon. And leaving him alone if he was truly blood-drunk meant more people would be in danger. But what was he supposed then? Kill him?
If I did that, what will I tell his daughter or wife? Bell felt sick to his stomach at the thought. What would I tell Hestia?
“Is there something that still troubles you?” Gehrman asked.
“…There’s a Hunter who’s blocking the way to the Cathedral Ward,” Bell confessed. “He has a wife. And a daughter who’s waiting for him to come back. I don’t want to kill him if I can help it.”
“I fear your kindness is misguided if he has gone mad, young hunter,” he said. “No Hunter desires to become that which he once hunted. But as the years go on some succumb and become beasts. And beast must be hunted.”
Bells lips pressed thin. He already knew that some people became beasts when drunk with blood. He knew that. But Gascoigne couldn’t have been that far gone if it had only been hours since his daughter last saw her parents. “I think he can still be reasoned with.”
“You are free to try,” Gehrman said. “That is a luxury that you have that others do not. But should you find that words will not reach him, then show him mercy as only a Hunter can and free him from the shackles of his own making.”
Chapter 13: The Hunt Resumes
“Nonononono!” Bell stood up, spinning on his boots and stirring the dirt underfoot as he searched for the headstone that had led him home before. It was nowhere to be found on the hill of flowering moonlight, where Bell and the Doll stood alone. He was trapped in the Hunter’s Dream again. The moment he realized that, he collapsed onto his knees. “Not again.”
The Plain Doll regarded his misery with a passive expression as she crouched down, joining him there. “Why do you despair, Good Hunter? Was your respite not pleasant?”
“Why am I back here?” Bell asked. He knew that died for a second time in his world. Killed by the Silverback after he chased a cloaked thief. It was an inelegant death, brought about by his blade breaking under the weight of the metal-backed fist and finished by crushing for a second time. But why did he have to be here again?
“This night, this dream will not end unless you hunt, as the countless hunters who came before you have, Good Hunter,” she told him. It could have been reproaching, but her tone made it seem as though she were trying to gently encourage him to pursue the task.
Bell still shook head at the thought of having to go through the Hunt again and again, until he heard the Little Ones clamoring. Arriving in a group, they bore his weapons that had been left behind upon his death. His broken Saw Cleaver still stained with his own blood and the Hunter’s Pistol that had been lost. They were it. They were his ticket out of this nightmare.
“Take me back!” he begged them, falling over to the point of bowing. “Please!”
The Messengers, in contrast to their usual behavior, only seemed to be able to regretfully shake their heads and make noises that were indecipherable to Bell.
“The Dream holds firmly to you with shackles they cannot break,” the Doll told him. “Should it not will your return, they cannot contest it. For they draw nourishment from the Dream itself, of the echoes that ripple throughout it and the wisdom that becomes a part of it with each hunter’s passing. They are bound to its will as well.”
She spoke as though this place had a will of its own. Bell couldn’t find it in him to doubt it, because he didn’t know anything about it. He didn’t know how he originally got here, or why he constantly returned when he died, tethered to it. He didn’t know anything, except that it was expecting him to continue to search for a way to end the scourge of the beasts.
But he’d tried that. He’d followed those words of advice from Eileen, using them as a guideline as he slew the beasts he crossed, seeking it to bring an end to the night. He tried learning from the Healing Church, who hosted prior hunts according to Gilbert, only for the gates to Cathedral Ward to remain closed and silent to his pleas. He’d suffered three additional deaths in the process of doing so, the memory still engrained within his mind.
“I can’t go through all of that again.” His voice came out hoarse as he admitted his weakness. His last hunt, the pain and suffering, had been for nothing. Now she was telling him to do it again. The very thought drove his fingers planted in the dirt to dig in as they clenched into fists. “I just can’t do all of that again.”
“But you must, Good Hunter.” Her serene voice was backed by cool, artificial fingers that brushed the tears that began streaming down his cheeks. “For only once the night has come to an end, will you truly awaken in the waking world. And then this dream will be nothing more than a distant memory that will fade one day.”
The choice was ultimately out of his hands. Either he hunted and found his way back to Hestia, or he stayed here in this moonlit haven meant for hunters. It was the same thing he’d been told time and time again: A hunter must hunt.
“Come now,” she said, rising to her feet. Her hand extended outwards to the workshop resting at the top of the hill. “Gehrman has awakened. I am sure he will be able to guide you.”
Reluctantly gazing up at the Doll, with the moon hanging high behind him and casting its celestial light down on the hillside of flowers, Bell grasped his broken Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol in hand. Crying about how unfair it was wouldn’t get him any closer to returning to his world and leaving this nightmare behind. So, he rose up and made his way up the flowered slope to the workshop.
It was there he found the wheelchair-bound old hunter, awake. “You’ve returned.”
“I went home,” Bell said. “I went home after killing a large Beast unlike any other I’d seen, and I tried to leave it all behind. But I died again and ended up here again.”
Gehrman only chuckled softly. “I cannot fault you for doing so. Many would have liked to do the same. But there is no escape, and even a reprieve is but for a fleeting moment, unless you finish the Hunt.”
“…I need to know how to get into Cathedral Ward then,” he said. “I tried going through the main gates, but it was locked.”
“That gate remains locked during the time of the Hunt, I’m afraid…” Aged eyes looked up to the map that Bell copied it into the notebook he’d left behind. “Your best bet is to try and reach it through Oedon Chapel, if the main gate is blocked. There’s a lock, but hunters come and go through it enough that it may be opened, or they’ll at least have a key.”
It was as close to a plan as he had, so Bell would see if the Messengers could retrieve his notebook and the other things he’d left behind that were suited for this world. Like the lighter, the blood vial injector, and the hand lantern. Maybe even his armor that had been newly bought.
“Your weapon seems to have broken,” the older man said, wheeling closer to take a look at it. “It was an older piece, and those can only last so long during the hunt, I’ll admit. But rarely have I seen the metal break so badly.”
“The monsters I fought back in my world have pretty tough hides,” Bell said. Minotaurs and Silverbacks were both Level 2 category monsters. He’d mostly relied on brute strength to force the teeth in, so he probably had been pushing his luck all things considered. “The fact that it had held up as long as had was more of a miracle than anything.”
“Ah, I suppose so considering you never repaired it, did you?” White-hair shifted as he shook his head at the question. “Well, fortunately for you, in this Dream one’s weapons are never truly broken if you have the echoes to repair it. Though I suspect if these beasts of your homeland are hardy enough to wear it down to this extent, you’ll need better armaments or to fortify them into being stronger. You’ll have to make use of materials taken from beasts to do so.”
“What kind?” Bell asked. If it was anything like the drops he normally got, then he could grasp the concept well enough.
“The blood of beasts and those taken by the scourge is an interesting thing,” Gehrman explained as he gestured for him to place the broken weapon on the workshop table. “Echoes sometime course through droplets that have yet to dry, but sometimes you’ll find when they die their blood solidifies into a shard called a Bloodstone, or a crystal called a Blood Gem. Hunters use these to make their weapons stronger to slay greater beasts.”
“Why do they form in the blood?” The monsters in his world at least had the excuse of the magic from the magic stones concentrated into the body parts left behind, which was why they remained upon the removal of the magic stone.
The veteran of the Hunt only shrugged. “I was only a mere hunter, not one who deals with blood ministration or a scholar, so I cannot answer why. I can say that they’ll look like either white bits of bone with a weaving pattern, or oddly shaped crystals. Just bring whatever you find to me and I’ll identify which ones we can use to fortify your weapons, so that they can handle the strain of whatever beast you face. Also, keep an eye out for a tool that’s used to embed the gems into an imprint that forms on the weapon as well.”
Bell grimaced. If they formed on the bodies of the beasts he slew and the dead, that meant he’d have to go back and scavenge the corpses that he’d left behind. If they were still there. More than likely, he would have to kill them again unless time had decided to progress, rather than rewind…
He really didn’t want to have to kill the Cleric Beast he’d killed before again. Not when he was lacking a weapon meant to fight something that size. He looked to see his Saw Spear on the storage box. It had a longer reach than the Saw Cleaver, but he got the feeling it wasn’t meant for something that size either, whether a beast or monsters like the Silverback.
“What about a weapon meant to kill something larger?” Bell asked, picking up the elongated serrated weapon. Heavy, solid steel meant for thrusting would be better, a sword or something more like it that could pierce through to the magic stone or heart to kill it.
“Those who came before you took what was left when they did,” Gehrman said. “If you need something else, scavenge any ones that can still be used off dead hunters or through the Messengers. Being the odd things that they are, metal badges seem to stir up memories within them that they can then seek out for echoes. However, you don’t look like you have much experience in wielding such a thing.”
“I don’t,” he admitted. He’d always considered it before becoming an adventurer, on the path to be a hero. But he’d never held a sword before, let alone used one.
“Worry not, young hunter, for that is what the Doll is for,” he said. “The echoes of the fallen can grant you finesse of the hands and deftness in foot, making you more skillful for the sake of the Hunt. Likewise, they can increase the tinge of your blood so that the bullets they dye can do further harm. And, if you ever run out, you can also make more by solidifying your own fresh blood in an act of will once it leaves your body.”
“They can improve dexterity too, huh?” That was his lowest status next to Magic, last he checked. And that one he couldn’t improve until he got an actual spell, if Bell remembered right. “Is there anything else I need to know?”
“I’m sure the rest will come with the night, as you hunt the beasts and their ilk. If you find something that has to do with the Hunt but do not know what it is, you can also bring it to me. But, aside from that…” The veteran rubbed his chin in thought a bit more before he continued. “There’s also the runes, but that tool has been lost for some time and I doubt you’ll easily come by the strange symbols. Few do.”
“Okay.” Bell looked down to the teeth of his Saw Spear. He’d worked on cleaning it, but it still had the faint scent blood it. Soon it’d be rich in the color to match, a thought that left him more bothered than anything since it would be covered with squalid blood once again through his hands.
That in mind, he bid Gehrman farewell for the moment and then stepped outside to see the Doll standing at the base of the stairs. Left of her, the Little Ones had taken to a birdbath that was filled with a shaded liquid of some kind. He approached them to ask if they could bring him his backpack and armor from his world, so he could hunt the beasts.
They did so, and soon he was clad in the purchased armor that seemed like solidified moonlight. It wouldn’t hamper him during the hunt, being light. And if it withstood even a single swipe of a claw then it had done its job.
His belt and pouch were next, containing the blood vials and quicksilver bullets. He attached the hand lantern attached to the left side of the belt, and syringe injector holster to the right. The latter hadn’t seen use, as he wasn’t a fan of jabbing it into his thigh when he could drink the blood straight, but if the need came up the option was there.
After a moment of deciding between whether to use Iosefka’s vial or a standard one, he loaded a standard vial into it. Hers was special, considering that she was a doctor, and not easily replaced. It would be best to save it for a real emergency, like one would a High Potion.
His backpack for collecting the materials was last, from which he pulled out the badge he’d gotten on the Great Bridge. He didn’t know if it fell off the Cleric Beast at some point, or if it had been left behind. But what he’d taken on a whim would now serve to stir up the memories of the Little Ones, whatever that meant.
He presented it to the ones in the bath. “You can use this, right?”
They clamored over it, thin and emaciated fingers embracing it tight. The shiny bobble held more meaning to them than one would think possible as they dunked it into the bottom of the bath. Then the waters rippled, a light haze steaming up, and Bell could make out items within it.
There were two weapons beneath of the surface—one that looked to a massive hammer with the hilt of a sword, and the other a different kind of firearm. But when he reached down to take them and disturbed the water, the images vanished. His fingers only brushed the badge at the bottom of the fountain.
“I don’t suppose I have enough of these echoes within me to claim them either?” Bell asked as he pulled back his hand, whereupon the memories of two weapons housed within it returned. It had to be due to how they could just move between worlds somehow, even if he didn’t know why.
They shook their heads and hands. A regretful ‘No’ again. There was only one solution for all his problems, it seemed. He sighed through flared nostrils before turning to the headstone that would lead him back to Yharnam.
Back to the Hunt.
The moment he finished praying at the headstone, Bell resurfaced at the Central Yharnam lamp. He could have went to the one where the Cleric Beast had been, admittedly. But since he had to find materials to upgrade his weapon, along finding a potential new one, he figured it would be easier to retrace his footsteps from here.
Find the weird things that could useful first. Then find his way to Cathedral Ward. That was the plan.
Along the way he met with Gilbert again. The sickly man told Bell that he should go through the aqueducts to reach the place where Gehrman had directed him. Bell knew of the place, as it was where he had gotten his Saw Spear. However, Gilbert gave Bell a warning that there were two entrances, so he would have to check them both.
He went to the aqueducts through the alley entrance first, climbing down the ladder until wood creaked beneath his feet. It was aged. Some of the boards were broken, and there was nothing that would prevent a straight drop off the ledge to the bottom of the canal below. He spotted some men who had already begun their transformation into beasts that walked on two legs, wielding torches and weapons as they patrolled the stone walkways next to it.
Bell killed them the moment he dropped down onto the walkways. Not because he was eager, or because he needed the Blood Echoes. But because there was no other choice. The moment they spotted him, their weapons tried to find his way into their flesh with the same ease as the Saw Spear found theirs.
Blood painted his shirt and armor as the corpse of the last one dropped down to feed the giant rats that festered in the water. The sound of flesh being torn into, the squelches of their bodies being devoured with a ravenous zeal, was more than he could stand. He let them clamor around the corpse before he did a plunging attack that impaled one through the head for a clean kill and then focused on the rest.
The last one put up more of a fight, lunging for Bell with chipped teeth that forced him to back off to near the edge of a deeper drop to the canals below. Water splashed as his boots kicked the grimy fluid around until he saw an opening as it lunged for him again. He brought the serrated teeth around in a wide arc and caught its underbelly, tearing it open and adding visceral fluid into the slurry they were wading in.
The fact that the water was being audibly displaced behind him was what saved Bell from getting killed by another beastman that was sneaking up on him with a spear raised. The spearhead clanged as it hit his chest-plate, backed by inhuman strength that left Bell staggering. It had been going for his heart, which would have been a killing blow had he not been wearing the armor. Reflex then kicked in as the head of the spear shot out again for his forehead, leaving him to pivot on his foot and twist his body as he whipped his Saw Spear around in a diagonal stroke.
Dark blood was left behind to mix with the tainted fluids below as the beastman was opened up with a thin gash from hip to shoulder. It was shallow though, leaving it capable of maneuvering around. It now warily made a half-circle with the spear facing him, waiting for an opening as it splashed the water around noisily—
—then came the pain, a searing, jagged thing that dug into his tendon and nearly brought him to his knees as he lashed out at the source of pain with the Saw Spear in hand. The sharpened tip and bloodied teeth tore through the spine of the last rat that had yet to die, despite its belly being opened up, truly killing it.
That was when the beastman went for the kill with his spear again, a thrust for the head once more. Unable to pull his leg free without tearing through the tendon entirely, it forced Bell to bring the serrated teeth around again in defense. The moment the iron shaft of the spear met the serrated teeth, the beastman parried away the Saw Spear and brought its other claw around.
“AGGHH!!” There was a flash of searing, hot pain as crimson eclipsed the left side of Bell’s face. It forced a wet shout out of his mouth as blood clogged his nose and throat. He would have doubled over in agony and fell down rolling if not for spotting the beastman pouncing forward with his remaining eye, invigorated by the scent of fresh blood—
—and letting out a single shot that barked from the wide mouth of his Hunter’s Pistol, quicksilver bullet mixed with blood giving it enough stopping power to drop the beastman to its knees. The riposte that followed had Bell thrusting his hand out, bones breaking open as it was buried in wet heat, forced through the rib cage and wedged inside just above the heart.
A normal man would have gone into shock, but the beastman was still functional. Beasthood made it resilient and vicious enough to still try to fight back. It brought its bloodied claws for his throat, trying to tear it out before its heart could be taken.
But Bell was ready for it this time. The protector on his left forearm met the claws, backed by adrenaline to hold it off as his embedded hand wrapped around its heart in a crushing grip. Then he pulled and tore it right out with all the strength he could muster.
The beastman wailed a final death throe as it was thrown back. Blood flowed as the thick arteries around the heart were severed, pouring out of the deep furrow while bone stuck out past the hide and hair. It fell over the edge of the drop into the canals, landing among a group of drowned and rotting corpse with their elongated bodies covered in glistening, gangrenous flesh. They promptly woke and clamored over the fresh beast corpse that had just been delivered, proving that his intuition the last time had been wise.
Injured, panting, and hand wrapped around what felt like pulped fruit until it dropped from his grasp, Bell limped over to where a corpse was strewn out. Then he collapsed with his back against the wall next to it, whimpering as stinging agony encompassed his leg and sticky blood flowed down the side of his face to soak his shirt beneath it. His head was going light, vision swimming. Ne…ed…vial…
Fumbling fingers reached for the blood vial injector to be safe. The needle plunged into the thigh of his wounded leg, and a press of the thumb forced sweet relief into the limb. Tainted fluid was expelled before the severed muscles and blood vessels knitted shut. A second vial hastily followed, taken through the lips and ingested to restore his face and bring vision back into his left eye.
Coughing as the healing blood finished going down his throat, Bell set the empty vials on the ground and tried to start wiping the rest off his face, only for him to notice that the sleeve he intended to use was already covered in beast’s blood. He let his head fall back, venting the frustration with a deep exhale as he undid his forearm protector on the other arm so that he could use the clean fabric beneath it. When he was done, he looked over to the corpse next to him to see if it had any more vials to replace the two he’d used.
There were none to be found on the dead hunter, only broken glass nearby that was suspiciously empty. His weapon was nowhere to be found either, likely knocked over the edge and into the waters below. As for his death, it seemed to be from a single puncture wound to the head, likely from the spear-using beastman Bell just killed.
If I hadn’t turned around then, would I have been killed the same way? Bell couldn’t help but wonder as his fingers ran over the material of the dead hunter’s garb. They didn’t retain blood like his current clothes. And they were largely intact, likely due to the fact that the kill had been done efficiently. They were salvageable.
…It took him a while to convince himself. He added facts in, like walking around while soaked in blood, in a city that had countless things that seemed to be out for him because of it, bode ill for his chances of survival otherwise. That if he was going to be a hunter he should look the part.
But, in the end, it still didn’t sit well with him about stealing the clothes off a dead man’s body before retrieving his weapons.
“Oh, are you a hunter?” The four words stalled Bell before he could pass through a set of iron gates that were now opened.
He had changed his clothes, putting on the dead man’s coat and boots and gloves and hat. They were worn and in need of a wash, but they were warm and did well in repelling the yellowish-fluid that made up the rotted corpses’ blood as he continued his journey through the waters and to the ladder leading out of that side of the canal. He didn’t dare go through the other side of the canals again, near where he’d found the Saw Spear, until he had more Molotovs considering how much of a pain to kill the ones on this side had been.
Bell thought he was hallucinating again. Like when he’d ran into another corpse below, just past the bridge. It had been guarded by Carrion Crows, slouching against an iron fence next to a row of coffins.
After killing the loud, vicious birds, a near-silent cracking sound came from the head of the corpse and a silvery mist leaked out of it. The gas seemed almost alive as it writhed outwards, practically crawling out in the form of… well, he wanted to call it a slug, but it was more of a wisp or an outline, ethereal in presence and form.
Allured and intrigued by the sight of it, he moved to pick it up. But the moment he touched it, the misty phantasm vanished. Disappeared in the blink of an eye as a gentle wiggling sensation in his skull left him scratching his head until it settled down, and Bell went along his way.
“You’re a hunter, aren’t you?” asked the young, feminine voice again from the nearby window, where a lit lamp burned incense. He could make out a small outline from behind the iron bars that covered the windows, tinted to hide the person behind it. “I know that smell from auntie Eileen.”
“You know Eileen?” Bell asked, his voice was half-muffled by the bandana covering his mouth.
The silhouette shifted. “Yes. I-I see her every now and again when she comes to talk to daddy and granddad. It doesn’t smell nearly as strong on her, but she said it was the scent of a hunter.”
Bell figured he shouldn’t be surprised that people who lived here had met others who smelled the scent that only Hestia and a few others could smell in his own world. Eileen said that she had been like him at some point in the past. Likewise, the Doll said countless hunters passed through as well. He lowered the bandana covering his face and removed the cap so that he could properly addressed the young-sounding girl. “Yeah, I’m a hunter.”
“Then, will you look for my mum?” she asked. “Daddy’s a hunter, like you, but he didn’t come home when he was supposed to. Mum went to find him before he met with granddad, but she hasn’t come back either. Now I’m alone and scared, and the incense are running low…”
Bell felt a heavy weight fall into his stomach. He’d seen so many corpses scattered already. What if they’d been among the dead? For all he knew, he was wearing her father’s clothes as of now.
He was horrified to even entertain the thought. But, at the same time, he knew what it was to be alone, waiting in an empty home for someone who wouldn’t come back. So, he had to at least check to see so that he could tell her.
“I’ll look for her,” Bell said. “What does she look like? And what’s her name?”
“Thank you!” Her silhouette jumped up. “My mum’s name is Viola. She’s wearing a pretty black dress and has blonde hair. Oh, and a big and beautiful brooch with a red gem inside of it that Daddy got for her. They’re the same shade as your eyes, actually.”
A small, fleeting sense of relief came over him. He hadn’t seen any corpses like that. There was a chance that she was still safe. “What about your father? If she went looking for him, I’m guessing there was somewhere she’d check?”
“Yes. Daddy’s name is Gascoigne, and he would meet up with granddad in a place called the Tomb of Oedon. It’s near an old chapel, a different one than the church daddy used to work with until I was born. She may have gone there in search of him.”
“I’m heading that way now, so I’ll go look for them both,” he told her, again feeling some relief as he recalled the shade who’d helped him slay the Cleric Beast. Even if it had been a dead-end, he wouldn’t have beaten it without the help. The least he could do is help reunite their family. “Just stay here until I get back.”
“Wait,” the young girl called out as he moved to leave. She raised the window halfway, giving Bell a view of her white nightdress as she then managed to slip a tiny box through the gap in the bars for him to take. “If you find my mum, give her this music box. It plays one of daddy’s favorite songs, to help him remember when he forgets us.”
Bell removed the glove on his right hand, so he didn’t get any grime on it. The metal box fit in it, but it had a bit of weight to it. Flipping open the lid revealed there was aged paper fixed to the underside, but he couldn’t make out any of the words in the native script. So, he closed it and then slipped it into his backpack. “I’ll be sure to get it to her, so sit tight and keep your window shut and locked to be safe.”
“I will,” she told him. “You be careful out there too, mister hunter.”
Chapter 12: Return to the Dream
And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…
Bell found himself staring up at the moon as those words whispered in his ears on the wind, unable to move. Unable to think.
A scent that he couldn’t comprehend permeated the air. Celestial in nature. Thickening to the point of suffocating as the luminous white orb hanging in the night sky seemed so close that the glimmering moonlight reflected in his unwavering gaze.
The alluring face of the moon eclipsed his vision until he couldn’t see where it began and ended, and he was unable to look away even if he wanted to. The ivory rays themselves were like countless, tender hands grasping his head. Refusing to let him turn away, refusing to let him ignore the orb of night that seemed to swallow up the distance between Heaven and Earth just for him—
—only to vanish as the night sky was replaced with solid stone. The moonlight that had been radiating down, leaving him awash in its silvery rays, turned to artificial magic-stone lights. The irrefutable presence that loomed over him now took the form of a round face, sapphire eyes gazing into his own with a concerned frown.
Hestia. His Goddess. Entrancing in a different way than… what exactly?
Bell sat up, rising on the couch and turning so that his feet touched the ground. Blinking. His head felt misty and tired. Adrift somehow. “Was I sleeping?”
Hestia took a seat next to him on the couch. “I thought you were, but your eyes were open and distant.” Fingers soft as silk reached up to brush his forehead. “Were you having a nightmare?”
“I…” He tried to find words. But the memory had already slipped from his mind. Gone like mist that evaporated in the morning light. He brought his hands to his eyes and rubbed them. “I’m not sure. I don’t even remember when I fell asleep.”
The way her frown deepened showed that answer didn’t please her at all. “Just in case, we’ll see Miach about getting you some sleeping medicine. I know he makes some that can bring about a dreamless sleep.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just need to get up and move around today. That’s all.”
Hestia’s expression softened upon hearing that. “Just wait a little longer for my sake, Bell. Hephaestus told me that she would have one of her children available soon to form a party with you. Then you can go back in the Dungeon without worrying me so much.”
It had been a few days now since the Banquet of the Gods. Her proposal wasn’t exactly rejected by the two. But there were complications involved.
In the case of Take’s children, they operated as a group and had tactics, so introducing Bell into their cohesion might complicate things. And his children had to work hard given that they were also poor, on top of supporting an orphanage back in their home country. So, while he stated he could see if he could arrange something, Hestia had to admit that it would likely interfere with his own Familia’s survival unless Bell took up a role like a Supporter.
Hestia didn’t think Bell would settle for that. He wanted to be an Adventurer after all. And, while she could beg him to do so, she would be trampling on his dream more than she already had. Besides, having him be a Supporter meant that Bell would receive less valis than he would earn on his own and hamstring Take’s income as well.
It was different in the case of Hephaestus. She had several children who wanted to travel further down in the Dungeon, in order to reach Level 2. That way they could gain the Blacksmithing Developmental Ability.
But Bell had only been doing this for around two weeks, so naturally most people wouldn’t think he had that kind of ability. Hephaestus wouldn’t just order one of them to put up with Bell for Hestia’s sake, so she had to find children willing to work with someone who didn’t have nearly as much time or experience as them. That was easier said than done without exerting more pressure than she was comfortable with.
In both cases, it was a matter of Bell not appearing experienced enough. Hestia’s words that he could pull his own weight weren’t enough. While Bell could prove that he was more than capable enough, it would take time to reach that point. So, in a worst-case scenario, Hestia really might have to let him go back into the Dungeon on his own.
Still, I should find something for him to do… Oh, right! Her pigtails shot up in excitement as an idea came to mind when she remembered what today was. “You know, I have today off work and there’s a festival going on, meaning there’s a lot of food vendors and game booths out.”
Bell was naturally surprised, since he hadn’t been in the city long. “There are?”
“Yep!” Hestia hopped up onto her feet and extended her hand for him to take. “Since you need to get out, how about you and I spend the entire day together?”
A festival with just the two of us, huh? Between both of their jobs, they rarely spent time together outside of this homely little room. So how could he refuse the offer to spend time together as a Familia? “Of course.”
“Then let’s go have a lot of fun,” Hestia said before her expression bloomed into a radiant smile while their fingers intertwined. It carried a warm affection within it.
It was almost enough to make the lethargy in his mind melt away until Bell abruptly felt like he was being watched again, leaving him snap his head around for the source. Then he remembered it was just the two of them there and was left wondering if the lack of sleep really was getting to him. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it before getting dressed for their adventure outside.
In order to get to the Monster Feria, also known as the Monsterphilia, they needed to head down the road so that they got back onto the Main Street. From there, they could head straight to the far east side of the city. That was where the festival was being held, at the colosseum, but since it was going to be busy they would likely have to forgo a Tax cart and instead go on foot.
“White-hair! Over here, meow!”
It just so happened that, while on the West Main, Hestia stopped them when she heard someone calling for him. “Bell, I think that girl is calling you.”
“Huh?” He looked over to see that there was a catgirl in one of the waitress uniforms for the Hostess of Fertility, waving for him to come over with her ears pointed up. Since it would have been rude to ignore her, he hurried over. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you!”
“Mya, it’s no good if kids don’t go to bed on time,” she told him after looking him over. Then she turned to Hestia and gave her a polite bow, as was etiquette Bell suspected. “Oh, you must be his Goddess. It’s nice to meet you, meow.”
“Good morning,” Hestia said, approaching her. “How do you know Bell?”
“This is the place I told you about,” Bell answered in her place. “The place with the really good food.”
“Myama will be glad to hear it.” She then produced a coin purse and handed it over to Bell. “Syr needs this. Can you give it to her, meow?”
Bell eyed it for a moment. It was a purse that definitely suited a girl, and he could picture her holding it. But he wasn’t exactly sure where to find her in the first place. “Uh…”
“Arnya, if you’re going to make a request you should at least make it as clear as possible,” said a new waitress as she appeared from behind the catgirl. It was the elfess who had chased Bell down that night to return his belongings. “Good morning, Mister Cranel and Miss Goddess. My apologies for her calling you out so early.”
“It’s not a problem, but what’s this about Syr?” he asked. “Is she not here?”
“She has the day off and went to the Monster Feria for the opening event, but she left her purse here. The rest of us are preparing to open up for the day so, if it isn’t too much trouble, could you return it to her if you see her?”
“We were heading in that direction, but the festival itself is pretty active from what I’ve heard,” Hestia said. “Will we be able to find her?”
“She just left, so I’m sure white-hair can find her.” Arnya flashed Bell a smile. “Right, meow?”
If they have that much faith in me then I’ll try. Besides, Bell knew what it was like to be walking around in a big city like this with practically no money to your name. It had been like that when he had first arrived, and there was no point in making her walk back to get it if necessary.
He turned back to Hestia and said, “Sorry, but I really should give this back to her.”
Black twin-tails swayed as Hestia shook her head. She liked the fact that he was a good boy. “I don’t mind since we have the entire day. Besides, if this Syr person is a friend of yours, we should help if we can.”
Eina was one of several other members of the Guild currently outside of the colosseum for the sake of the festival, acting as informants to the citizens as well as assisting the Ganesha Familia in whatever way possible to make it a success.
By far, the biggest and most important event was the monster taming that was already underway beyond the massive stone walls that rose to towering heights. As things stood, it was a unique experience that came once a year for the citizens of Orario, who likely had scant few encounters with monsters in their lives. Because, even though the Dungeon was located within the labyrinth, the average person would never set foot into it and thus had far less exposure to monsters than those who made a living out of it.
Eina was not a fan of the idea that monsters were brought out of the Dungeon for taming during the festival. Monsters, especially Dungeon-born ones, were terrifying beings who existed to kill without regard for anything but their baser instincts. She’d filed enough reports on dead adventurers to know that having even one aboveground and unchecked would spell a huge problem.
But it was not her call to make. Instead, it was that of her superiors. They were the ones who decided the Monsterphilia was necessary for the citizens, because it gave them a chance to view adventurers in a more romanticized light.
Not all adventurers were friendly. Not all people were friendly. It was the way things were in general, that the experiences and personalities of the individual determined how they acted with others. The problem was that supermortals with strength above that of the norm naturally went by their own rules, so long as it didn’t fringe on the rules of their Familia.
Maybe they decide they don’t want to pay a tab, or maybe tempers flare and a fight breaks out. The difference in strength between an ordinary citizen and an adventurer meant they couldn’t raise a hand to them and needed someone to complain to. They needed someone to deal with problems that arose, which was what the Guild existed for. So they had to manage both the frustrations of the citizens and the adventurers, trying to placate both.
That was what the festival was for. Citizens would see these highly publicized adventurers putting on a show for their amusement and think to themselves that maybe these were the norm and the ones that caused them problems were the outliers. At least until enough time passed and the next year came around, where they would do it again.
Even now, a skilled Tamer was elegantly in the process of taming one of the monsters in a show of charisma and skill. It painted the scene as a mortal dominating a monster, making it submit without seriously raising a hand or slaughtering it for its magic stone, as was ordinary. An extravagant way of undercutting the actual dangers of the profession, setting a standard for the unaware that adventurers had class and dignity.
Eina didn’t exactly blame the Ganesha Familia for giving people the wrong impression of just how dangerous both monsters and the job were. They were merely doing it at the request of the Guild in the first place, who approved and managed it. But it would have consequences later on, when those who saw them tried to replicate their feats and have their dreams, and possibly their lives, dashed.
She took a deep breath, not at all satisfied that the reservations she had about the festival, until she spotted a familiar bed of white hair and ruby eyes scouring the crowd. She hadn’t seen him in days, so a part of her had been worried that something happened to him. Seeing him in the distance, still alive, was enough for now to put on a smile on her face as she called out on him. “Bell!”
His name being called attracted the eyes of not him but the smaller girl at his side. The divine aura that was leaking out, naturally present to all the Gods and Goddesses, made it clear what she was. The relatively smaller goddess tugged on his sleeve to grab his attention and pointed to her.
Bell then spotted her, his mouth moving in a familiar enough way that Eina could make out that he was referring to her as his Advisor, and then walked over. “Miss Eina, I didn’t know you’d be out here.”
“The Guild has set aside a good deal of staff for the festival, so I’m currently acting as someone who helps guest find their way inside of the stadium,” she explained, taking in his appearance. He looked tired. Slight bags around his eyes that wouldn’t be out of place for someone four times his age. “Are you not sleeping well, Bell?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been by lately. My goddess wants me to start working with others and forming a party before I start going deeper into the Dungeon.”
That bit of news actually made her somewhat happy. Rather than risking himself, if he worked with others his chances of survival increased drastically. “That’s excellent. Would you like for me to a make a posting for it through the Guild? I can’t guarantee when you’ll meet someone, but I’m sure eventually someone will apply.”
“I’ve already gone out of my way to arrange for that,” Hestia said, approaching them. “But, if you’re acting as an usher, then can we ask if you’ve seen a specific person?”
“There have been a lot of people who have come and gone, so I’ll need you to be specific.”
Bell recalled Syr’s appearance. “She’s a human girl with hair and matching eyes that are sort of ash-colored. She left her wallet behind at her workplace, but we were told she came this way not too long ago.”
Eina placed a hand on her chin in thought. There had been a lot of people, but the hair and eye color on a human were rare enough that if she had seen her then she would have remembered. Not to mention that if she had lost her wallet then she either would have doubled back and ran into them or she would have went elsewhere, since there was an admission fee to the main event.
“I can’t say that I have seen her, I’m afraid—” She was cut off when someone violently pushed past Bell, splitting him and his Goddess apart while knocking them onto the ground. She crouched down to help the two up while turning back to the figure. “Hey, apologize to them this instance!”
The figure, wearing a black cloak of all things at this time of day, turned around and smirked. Then he held up what looked to be a woman’s pouch. He tossed it up and down in his hand twice before running off to the southwest.
Bell’s eyes widened with realization before he rose to his feet. “That’s Syr’s!”
“Bell, wait!” His Goddess tried to grab him before he could give chase, but he moved faster than Eina thought would be possible for an adventurer who only started out a short time ago. Despite that, the thief moved just as quickly, and both cleared the plaza of the stadium in short order.
“Are you alright ma’am?” Eina asked, helping Hestia to her feet. She couldn’t believe that someone would so blatantly steal in front of her, wearing something so conspicuous. “I’ll have someone go after them right away.”
She didn’t have the chance before shouts of monsters being on the loose reached her ears less than a minute later.
Bell may have been tired, but the spike of adrenaline that coursed through his system as he gave chase after the cloaked thief helped offset that. It was enough to keep his mind focused on the present. That was the only reason he didn’t lose track of the thief, as whoever it was had to at least have been a high-end Level 1 as he ditched the Main Street for the alleyways. It was an intricate network full of twists and turns, where it would be so easy for Bell to lose track of them if he didn’t stay on top of them.
He didn’t know why the thief had chosen to take Syr’s wallet, but he knew he had to get it back. He would have probably left it to someone else if it had just been his money that was taken. But that had been entrusted to him by the others at the Hostess of Fertility, who put their faith in him to get it to her.
So he continued giving chase after the thief until they eventually left the web of alleyways and came into a plaza that was surrounded by rising buildings that seemed to be piled on top of one another. Bell hadn’t been in the city for long, but even he knew of this place. A maze within the city in itself, a manmade labyrinth that touched the city wall—Daedalus Street.
If he lost them here, he’d never find the thief again. But the thief didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing their chase at this point. They instead opted to drop the wallet onto the ground in the center of the district’s plaza and then, with a flourish of their cloak, disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving Bell there alone and confused until he felt that sensation again, like he was being watched.
Bell looked around once again for the source but didn’t find a single person in the plaza. It was starting to make him feel paranoid. So, he picked up Syr’s belongings, intent on getting out of there right away—
—only for something massive to come leaping down from over the perimeter of the buildings. It landed onto the ground in front of Bell with a thunderous crash that cratered the stone beneath them. The force alone had been enough to blow him off his feet, and Bell bounced backwards while slamming his head into the ground before coming to a stop several feet away.
“Ngh…” Bell’s head was pounding now as he forced himself to look up, whereupon he spotted pure muscle wrapped up in a cloak of white fur and a silver mane of hair falling down its back that glinted in the light. Thick arms and legs tensed with rage as they pounded at a steel plate that was fixed over its chest. Metal knuckles and manacles with chains clanked and rattled as it glared down at him with red eyes hidden behind a visor.
Miss Eina had told Bell of some of the monsters on the lower floors, as a warning for him not to venture deeper. This was one from the deeper floors, around the Eleventh Floor. A Silverback that had somehow gotten all the way to the surface was in front of him, murderous and animalistic intention fixed on him.
How had no one noticed this thing running around? That question loitered in his mind until he saw the massive primate rushing for him with a primal gait that was faster than it had any right to be. He barely had time to roll out of the way as it closed the distance with upraised arms and then brought both its massive fists down with the intention of crushing him.
The ground shook. Stone was upturned. Jagged bits of displaced rock were sent flying outwards to pelt Bell as he got back to his feet and considered his options.
The first was that he could run. He didn’t know where the monster came from, but he was unarmed and unarmored. In the city filled with more adventurers than any other in the world, chances were he’d run into someone capable of dealing with it.
But if he fled while it was attacking him then someone innocent could be hurt. More so if it chased him while the festival was going on. He could possibly get away, but only if he were willing to sacrifice people he didn’t know. And, while he may have had his dreams of being a hero tested, battered by the time he spent in that nightmare, that was something he just couldn’t do.
I have to kill it. Bell envisioned the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind and called forth the Little Ones across the boundaries of this world and the Hunter’s Dream. “Please, bring me my weapons!”
“GYRAAH!” His declaration carried the intention to fight, and so the Silverback responded with a roar in acceptance of his challenge. What drove it was unknown to the young adventurer, but whatever it was that keyed him onto Bell now took firm root. It would not stop until he was crushed, and with another quick gait it moved to do so.
This time, on his feet, Bell sidestepped the initial slam of the monster’s fist as it brought the right one down. But there was no time to remain stationary as it then swung the arm outwards to knock him back. Bell leapt back while bringing his own arms up to shield his chest and head, whereupon the chains that were still attached to its manacles caught him in glancing.
The thick steel that was meant to keep it bound was dense enough that he could feel the lashing it gave his forearms and felt its sting. But fortunately, his arms didn’t break from such a passing strike, even if they throbbed and he could tell it was likely to bruise. He could still fight then.
Bell’s ears then caught the unintelligible voices of the Little Ones answering his plea as a ripple in space formed just behind him. They emerged from the nearest building, sticking out of it horizontally with the Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol in hand. In a conjoined effort, the grouping of Messengers tossed them towards Bell with as much strength as their emaciated arms could muster.
Well-worn wood wrapped in fresh bandages for a grip met one hand while the curved grip shaped to fit comfortably filled the other. Both set of fingers wrapped around them tight before Bell rolled once more out of the way as the Silverback attacked with another punch that blew open the wall with a spray of stone dust.
Screams bellowed out from within. Someone’s home had just been broken into. Collateral damage in its attempt to kill Bell.
I have to lure it the center! He turned his back to the monster, presenting an opening despite his fear. Then he ran towards the center of the plaza and lure it that way, bringing the fight into safer territory.
The Silverback took the bait. Corded muscles in its lower legs released like a coiled spring and sent it forward. It lunged for Bell with its hand outstretched, intent on wrapping those stout fingers around his body to crush him like ripe fruit.
The young adventurer threw himself to the side, getting away with only his leg being clipped in escaping the fingers as they closed into a fist. The Silverback’s momentum carried it forward a little further, into the center of the plaza. It’s back was to Bell, so he rushed in with the Saw Cleaver to hack away at it.
The last he checked his Strength had just made it to E-rank after the War Shadows, even higher than before he fought the Minotaur with the Doll’s update. It had been just enough for his saw’s teeth to tear rents into its flesh deep enough for him to get its magic stone free somehow. Yet, now he couldn’t even manage to dig it past the hide beneath the silver fur before he gripped it with both hands and tensed his own muscles that seemed heavy with exhaustion to rip the metal out through the side.
The Silverback snarled as crimson ran free from a tear in its flesh, blood vessels above its thick muscles torn open so that they could start dotting that white fur with its blood. Retaliation followed. It began to move forward, pounding its strong fists down over and over again.
Bell raised the pistol loaded with a Quicksilver Bullet and fired, hoping the stopping power would be enough to halt it. The sound of caged thunder was drowned by the shattering of earth, the faint pinging of the bullet hitting metal that either guarded its eyes or chest barely reaching his ears. Then Silverback finished its rampage with a double-hammer strike that hit the ground hard enough that it blew Bell off his feet before he could get out of range.
“Ah…ahh…” Bell struggled for breath as haze of pain permeated his body, blood pounding beneath his skull as he got back onto his feet. Then he made out the glint of metal from the knuckles on the Silverback’s fist as it readied to strike. He moved to dodge, but he couldn’t.
His legs felt like they had gone to liquid. His insides felt like they were shaking from the previous hit without it even touching him directly. He couldn’t dodge like this, so he brought the Saw Cleaver’s flat around to act as a shield and braced it with his other hand to withstand the impact—
CRUNCH!! KRIK!! The sound of splintering wood and fracturing iron followed. Then came pain, a sharp and jagged thing that dug into his flesh along with a heavy weight that carried him further until Bell hit the ground a final time. Agony took on a tangible form as he struggled to breathe, only to feel something sharp tearing him apart.
With his vision blurred he looked down to see that the Saw Cleaver had been broken. The butcher’s weapon was embedded within his chest diagonally with the broken handle a little distance away. His pistol was nowhere to be found, lost on impact as something hot and wet bubbled up in his throat while crimson seeped out of his flesh around the wound and soaked his shirt.
The blood, with its scent thick, glossed over his mind as the Silverback approached slowly, as if giving him time to realize that he’d been won over before it came to deliver the killing blow. His weapons hadn’t been enough. They had broken, and his body had followed suit.
He struggled to move but couldn’t as the strength had left his body. He couldn’t even speak as blood bubbling up in his throat drowned any words that could have slipped from the orifice. With tears stinging his eyes while his vision dimmed on the sight of the Silverback raising up its fist once again, Bell realized he was going to die again and could only apologize to Hestia silently. Goddess… I’m sorry…
Then, for a second time, a fist descended. For a second time, there was a moment of pain amidst the spreading numbness, followed by the absence of every other sensation. For a second time, he woke to find himself laying amidst the moonlit flowers in bloom that were strewn over the hillside.
There, he was greeted by a sincere and serene voice that said, “Welcome Home, Good Hunter.”
Chapter 11: Banquet of the Gods
Bell Cranel was on the move the next afternoon, on his way down the Main Street to the tower of Babel at a somewhat sluggish pace. Last night he’d had some trouble sleeping after taking a shower. And he had spent an hour beforehand settling potential issues over what happened in the Hostess of Fertility before heading to the Guild.
Keeping with his promise, he first went to apologize to Syr over the mishap that happened last night. He made it clear that his departure was because he had been uncomfortable with the Loki Familia due to an embarrassing event in the Dungeon. She didn’t really press him on the finer details, which was something that he was grateful for given that he didn’t want to lie to her, though she did manage to worm him into having brunch there.
The menu changed during the day, though the food remained very good. It was also more accommodating to his wallet, probably because it was catered to a more casual customer base then. Adventurers were the primary source of income in Orario, so they had the highest earning margins next to the ones who ran larger Familias and exported magic stones. He would have to take Hestia there some time.
After that was the matter of visiting Miss Eina at the Guild to ask about any places where he could buy armor today. When he brought up what his budget was like now that he had paid off his Guild-loaned equipment yesterday, Eina told him of a reasonably priced shop that was on the upper floors of Babel. She’d even given him written instructions to make sure he didn’t get lost by accident.
Going straight down West Main soon brought him into the Central Park, where Adventurers were coming and going. It was a nice day that was the same as usual for Orario as far as he could tell in the time he had been there, such a tight yet bustling feeling. The sensation of life and open movement all around him was a strong contrast to the coffin and blood-encrusted streets of Yharnam at night, where only the beasts that stalked the shadows lurked.
The memory of the Hunt stilled his feet as it briefly floated to the surface of his mind. But he shook his head vigorously, slapping his cheeks and letting the sting bury the memories once more. He wasn’t going back there.
I’m going to continue on my life as an Adventurer, not a Hunter. Resolve in mind, he was about to take another step forward—
“Move it you lousy Supporter! We’re running late!”
—when he heard someone commanding someone else to move just barely above the rabble of the Adventurers around him. He turned to the source of the sound to see a male adventurer, one in a party of four, complaining about being late to enter the Dungeon to a small figure that was dressed in a plain robe that looked ragged at the edges.
He couldn’t make out the person’s face to determine their race or gender, but they looked so tiny that they could’ve been a child. Yet, the backpack they were carrying looked to be the size of a person, thrice their height. It must’ve weighed a lot for them, even if it was empty. But their party was telling them to move faster as they forced their way past the other Adventurers into Babel.
Since their destination was the same, Bell could only follow in their footsteps into Babel until they mixed into the crowd that was heading down to the basement floor. That would take them to the spiraling staircase leading into the gaping maw of the abyss below. Into the Dungeon.
He went the other way, towards the wide lobby that was past one of the many arches that surrounded it. The blue-and-white, expansive floor never failed to impress him as he entered it, and it was there he found what he was looking for as a rough looking man stepped onto a circular pedestal and pressed a button on what looked to be a console. Glass rose up to wall him off from the rest of the lobby and he ascended on the elevator that Eina had mentioned in her instructions.
Bell approached one of the pedestals himself, intrigued as he tried to work out how it could function. He wasn’t all that accustomed to the conveniences of Orario compared to his village, but given it was the source of a good deal of the magic stones in the world he could reason out they had more chances to develop devices like this. Bell pushed the button to activate it and felt gravity being defied beneath his feet as he ascended the heights of Babel for the first time.
This is pretty cool, he mused silently as he pushed open the glass of the elevator when he found himself on the Eight Floor. It had a good number of Adventurers roaming around, weaving in and out of the various stores that had displays of weaponry and armor for those who would brave the Dungeon. Bell was naturally drawn to the various shops but had to stop himself from wandering off and went into the one on Eina’s instructions.
The inside of the shop that was that of stone and wood, lined with steel in the form of weapons and armor that had been forged in fire and tempered by the hands of the blacksmiths working under the name of the Hephaestus Familia. On the walls were weapons and shields, alternating as they decorated the solid stone, price tags placed in view at prices that weren’t drastically above what he had on him at the moment. Short shelves that the walls were used to support the smaller arms or unique pieces that drew in more than a few curious eyes.
Maybe it was just because he was still relatively new to Orario, but it still amazed Bell as he looked at all of it. Even with the fact that Hestia had told him before of how she and the Goddess of the Forge were old friends, and that her Familia was one of the best when it came to blacksmiths. It really highlighted the differences in their Familia that Bell couldn’t even properly grasp the perspective or the amount of valis it would take to rent out all these floors for their blacksmiths.
Bell figured that he could spend hours just window shopping if he didn’t already know what he’d come in for. It was lightweight armor to replace the breastplate he’d lost setting foot into Yharnam. Something stronger than the one he’d gotten from the Guild, given that a sickly beast in Iosefka’s clinic had torn into it, while the claws of the Cleric Beast ripped it apart completely and took a pound of flesh with it.
Lacking any armor when he’d gone into the Dungeon and met the War Shadows could have been a death sentence. It would have been if not for the fact that blood still healed him since he’d gone in without any potions either. He couldn’t skimp on the armor from here on out.
So, Bell ventured towards the back of the store where the armor was placed on mannequins. From the look of it, the more expensive and extravagant items were closer to the front of the store, where more people would be inclined to buy them. That meant the more practical pieces would be further back.
The backside of the store had larger shelves that rose up above his head, sorting into aisles that had different items. More of the customers were looking through them, paying little mind of Bell as they inspected the different pieces. There were also barrels at the ends of some of them, containing larger weapons like spears.
Bell went past them, moving further back to where the lightweight equipment was. Most of them didn’t have mannequins but were instead housed in boxes of equipment pieces. Each one had a different style of handwriting on the tags, so if he had to guess the ones who made the armor were the ones who stocked it.
He went past the different pieces until he found one that drew him in. The polished metal that was pure white like the moon glinted in his ruby-toned eyes with an almost enthralling allure. Bell pulled out the main piece and just stared down at the breastplate meant to shield the vitals of the chest, including his heart.
It felt light. Even lighter than the one that he’d gotten from the Guild when he joined. Yet, he got the feeling that it was harder despite that. It was probably made from a different kind of metal than the standard one used for Guild-issued armor. But would they bother putting something like that in a box not even worth displaying?
They probably might in a shop run by this Familia, he figured before looking at the rest of it. There were guards for the joints, knees, and forearms along with plates for the lower back, shoulders, and hips. Additional bits and pieces that didn’t have the same grade of protection that full armor would give, but more than necessary for simple lightweight armor. And all of that at only 9,900 valis.
Flipping it over, he spotted the signature beneath a stamp that had a rabbit silhouette. The name “Welf Crozzo” didn’t ring a bell to him, but he hadn’t been there for very long. And if he was famous then there’s no way they would have put it back here. He must’ve been a novice blacksmith then.
Well, if this works out then I’ll keep that name in mind. Decision made, he took the box with him to the counter and paid for his new armor before heading back to show it off to his Goddess.
Once night fell, it was Hestia’s turn to venture out from the small but homely comfort that was her room beneath the Church.
Her destination was the home base of the Ganesha Familia, which had been established within a massive statue surrounded by a stone wall, with the entrance being the statue’s crotch. The various Gods and Goddesses had gathered for the celebration being hosted, a cacophony of communion between the different deities that made their home here in Orario. That made it the best place to gather information on Achelois’ whereabouts.
Hestia started her search at the buffet table, where she spotted Hermes and Takemikazuchi. The latter was being egged on by the former on in trying to finish a large plate of meat, dressed in his formal montsuki kimono adorned with his Familia’s emblem. The Goddess of the Hearth looked down to her own ordinary clothes and fought down the slight feeling of inferiority that she felt upon seeing how well he’d dressed when she didn’t even have celebratory clothes.
But Hestia shook her head to drive away those thoughts before touching the ribbon that had been elegantly tied into a bow around her neck. She wasn’t here for her own reasons, but for Bell’s sake. That thought allowed her to approach them both with a somewhat cheerful, “Take! Hermes!”
Takemikazuchi forcefully swallowed his meal upon noticing her and then cleared his throat so he could speak. “Hestia, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Hestia’s response was a good-natured retort. “The same could be said with you. Don’t you have a bunch of children waiting for you at home?”
“My children actually insisted that I come, citing that I should mingle with the others instead of working tirelessly for them.”
“What considerate children you have.” She then turned to Hermes. “And Hermes, I was looking for you too. I don’t think that we’ve seen each other in a long time.”
“Well, my Familia does travel a lot so I’m usually out running message and errands.” He snapped his finger as if something came to mind. “Though, I’ve heard you have a child in your Familia now. Mind if I ask who?”
“His name is Bell and he’s a very sweet boy. He’s only been at it for a short time, but he’s hard-working and even managed to get down to the Sixth Floor on his own.” She puffed out her chest in pride as she boasted of how special her child was, even though she was frustrated that he’d gone deeper than that on his own. It was a complicated feeling, to be honest.
That was partly why she had come. She didn’t have much to her name and she had few friends. But if she could at least have them help her keep him safe, then that would be something she could do as his Goddess.
Hermes only smiled in a mischievous manner. “He sounds like an adventurous one. You’ll have to introduce me some time.”
Then I’d be worried you would rub off on him, Hestia thought to herself before moving onto her first question now that the pleasantries had been done. “Anyway, I was wondering if either of you had seen Achelois? I’ve been looking for her, but I can’t seem to find any trace of her.”
“Achelois?” Takemichizuki put his hand on his chin and looked up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her at all since I arrived in Orario two years ago.”
“Miach said the same thing, so I thought that she might be outside of Orario. So, if anyone of us would know, it’d be Hermes.”
Hermes held his hands out and shrugged. “Well, I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but I’m afraid that I don’t know where she is either. The last time I heard from her she was still searching for someone to join her Familia with little luck. As I’m sure you know, it’s fairly difficult to start a successful Familia these days if you don’t have much to offer.”
Yes, Hestia knew that very well. The more established Familia within Orario were the ones everyone wanted to join. And if you didn’t have much to your name to start with then few would take the gamble to help. “That’s true, but I can’t imagine that she went back above. So, she has to be somewhere.”
“Well, I could try sending some feelers out when I leave again. But why exactly are you looking for her?” he asked.
“Ah… that’s… a bit private, actually…” It wasn’t like she could just say what was going on with Bell to them. Especially not in such a crowded event. “Let’s just say we need to have a Goddess-to-Goddess talk.”
“Aww, yer worried she’s gonna poach yer child?” Hestia tensed, a shiver running up from the base of her spine to the top of her head. That voice was the last one she’d wanted to hear tonight.
“Loki.” The Goddess of the Hearth practically hissed that name as she turned to find said Goddess right behind her, grinning in her sleek, black dress. “What do you want?”
“Just saw the crowd and came to say hello,” she claimed. “Well, that and I heard ya talkin’ about your child. That’s the one that ran into a minotaur a while back, wasn’t it?”
“And I think we both know who’s responsible for that,” Hestia said. “Bell could have died!”
“That’s the risk of goin’ in the Dungeon.” Loki’s small shoulders rose and fell before she took a sip of the drink she held in her left hand. “Besides, kid made it out fine under his own power, despite being a Level 1. Makes a lotta sense that ya’d hafta worry about him falling into the arms of another Goddess when a shrimp like ya can’t even afford a decent dress.”
Hestia’s temper flared. She rose on the tips of her toes to get right in Loki’s face and struck her weakness. “This coming from one who can’t even grow a decent pair to fit in a dress!”
Then Loki’s temper flared. She scowled, baring her teeth. “Them’s fightin’ words!”
“Bring it on!” she answered in response, but before either of them could act on the animosity, the guys stepped in. It wouldn’t do to have the two come to blows after all. Takemichizuki put his hands onto Hestia’s shoulders and gently pulled her away as Hermes did the same for Loki, albeit with a lot more effort.
“Easy, Hestia,” he told her. “Your child would be disappointed if he learned about you getting into a needless fight.”
“Hmph.” Hestia folded her arms and looked away. “She’s the one who started it.”
“Sparks still fly like fireworks whenever you two meet each other, huh?” a third voice spoke, their tone lacking in surprise while drawing their attention. There stood the Goddess of the Forge, Hephaestus. “Goodness, the others were starting to take bets.”
Hestia’s frown was replaced with a brighter smile. “Hephaestus! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while now.”
“If it’s for a loan, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not giving you one,” she said, setting one hand on her hip.
“No, not that,” Hestia insisted. “Since you and Take are both here, I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, like if you have any children who might want to join in a party with mine?”
“What’s so great about just having two lumps of meat hanging off your chest,” Loki muttered indignantly as she grabbed another drink from a passing member of Ganesha Familia and leaned against a wall, watching bitterly as Hestia tried to arrange a playdate for her child.
Then the sound of high-heels clicking against the floor drew her eyes up to the approaching beauty. With skin as white as ivory and smooth as silk, her dress hugged her body sinfully tight and showed off her mature shape. It was the Goddess of Beauty in the flesh.
“Having a bad night, Loki?” Freya said with a soft, naturally-seductive smile.
“Whaddya want?” Loki demanded, pointedly looking away from the cleavage on display in front of her.
“I overheard your discussion with Hestia and something you said caught my interest. Mind telling me more about it over a drink of Soma?”
In stark contrast to the clamor of the Gods and Goddesses in Orario, there was only a single conversation that permeated the absolute, serene silence of the Hunter’s Dream.
The Plain Doll, her pale and porcelain body dressed in clothing that were finely-crafted and exuding a benign warmth that had been woven into the stitch, sat among the luminous flowers that rested on a hill by the phantasmal headstone. Her head was bowed before it as her soft voice rang out ephemerally in prayer.
“Oh, Good Hunter. I pray your suffering spirit has found comfort in your fleeting respite. I pray your tender heart has been soothed. But the Dream beckons thee to bring the long night an end. And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…”
Chapter 10: Concerns of a Goddess and Child 2
“Oh, it looks like the Loki Familia is here tonight,” Syr mused, watching as the famous group went past them and to a reserved table. The multi-racial band drew several whispers, their expedition having come to an end and their return sudden, though not unwelcomed.
Before the waitress turned back in his direction, Bell dove behind the bar to use as cover to shield himself from their eyes. He didn’t want to be seen. Not by Aiz Wallenstein.
“Bell?” Syr’s voice drew his eyes to her. She was looking at him with a mixture of surprise and concern over the abrupt, panicked reaction. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are they here?” he asked, peeping over the top of the bar for an instant before ducking back down when he noticed that Aiz was staring in their direction, head tilted slightly.
“They’re regulars here,” Syr explained. “Their Goddess, Loki, likes to eat here.”
Bell’s memory of what happened during the Minotaur fight after he’d hit his head was a little hazy. But he recalled how he had been covered in blood and was terrifying enough that a Level 5 had warily drawn her blade against him. What kind of terror from Yharnam had he brought with him when he returned to have elicited that reaction?
…He probably should apologize to her for that, now that he thought about it. But that would invite questions, especially when she was surrounded by her comrades. Not to mention that if their Goddess was with them, she could probably pick up on the same scent that his Goddess did. It would draw attention, which would go against Hestia’s urgings for him to avoid doing so after yesterday.
Better to get out before that happens, Bell decided as he reached through his pocket for the necessary valis and handed them over to Syr. “Listen, I have to leave. I know you’re on break, but can you place that order to go for me? I’ll wait outside for it.”
“Sure… give me a minute,” she said, looking confused at the sudden shift in the mood before leaving to carry out his order. He imagined it looked pretty suspicious from her point of view. They were just chatting happily moments ago and finding common ground. Then he ducked behind the bar and decided to leave.
So much for whatever good impression I was making before. Bell couldn’t help but sigh. He still didn’t have many friends after two weeks here, so her company was surprisingly welcomed. Still, if the Loki Familia are regulars here then it would probably be better if I don’t come very often. It’s a shame since the food was decent and Syr seemed like an interesting person to know, but—
“What’cha thinkin’ about back here?”
“Gah!” He ended up shouting in surprise as he turned his head to find that there was now a woman above him, leaning over the counter with her head inches from his face. Without a doubt, in a glance, he could feel that this was a Goddess.
The Goddess Loki, to be exact.
“Ya don’ hafta shout.” She dug a finger into her ear to emphasize the point. “Anyway, I heard from some of my children ya had a nasty run-in with a Minotaur. Figured I’d extend an apology on their end and invite ya over to drink on us.”
“T-That’s alright,” Bell insisted. “Really, I’m heading home now and shouldn’t stumble back drunk. My Goddess might be upset if I did.”
“Oh, and which Goddess is that?”
“Uh… Hestia.” He noticed her expression shifted upon hearing that name. Mild surprise.
“Huh… when did she manage to get a Level 2 to join her little Familia.”
“I’m Level 1,” Bell corrected.
“Oh?” She leaned forward, the corners of her lips tugging into a less than innocent smile as her eyes opened halfway to reveal a shade of red that reminded Bell too much of blood. “Ya know, Minotaurs tend to be more than anyone below an experienced Level 2 Adventurer can handle on their own. So how’d ya beat one?”
Bell winced as he stabbed himself in the foot with that. He didn’t want to lie to her. After all, she would see through it in an instant and that would just make her more curious. So… half-truth?
“…I just fought desperately because I didn’t want to die,” he said slowly. “Moving on instinct at the end, I managed to reach into its chest where there was a cut and pulled out its magic stone. That’s all.”
It was all true, to an extent. He didn’t want to die and return to Yharnam, so he fought desperately. He was running on instinct and he did pull the stone out of the monster’s chest.
“Mmm… well, ya’re not lyin’ from what I can tell, so I’ll buy that a Level 1 got lucky…” She trailed off as she sniffed him. “But that still doesn’t explain why I can smell the moon clinging to ya. Where’d a ya pick that scent up?”
Bell stiffened like a steel rod had been shoved into his spine. That he couldn’t give a half-truth about. And he couldn’t answer without drawing any attention to him given the circumstances. It would cause more problems for him—and, more importantly, Hestia. So, he did the only reasonable thing he could do.
Loki blinked as she pushed off the top of the bar counter and looked off in the direction of the doors that were still slow to shut. The boy that smelled of the moon had bounded over the counter and burst through the doors like a scurrying rabbit, fleet of foot with his white hair fluttering. She was genuinely surprised at the overreaction.
She sighed as she turned and took a seat in his still warm stool, the attention in the bar torn between the exit and her. Not that she minded. She’d only wanted answers so that she could put Aiz’s mind at ease and so her attention would go back to her. From how Aiz had risen up to give chase, only to stop as Riveria tapped her arm and gave a small shake of the head, it seemed she’d failed.
“Ah, he left before we could give him his food,” said the waitress he’d been talking to before. She then looked at the bags now next to Loki. “And he left his belongings…”
“I’ll take them to him,” said another server, an elven woman with green hair.
Loki paid them little mind before she threw her hands behind her head and walked back over.
“Godness, how was that an apology?” Riveria asked in a reproaching tone, one eye closed and the other fixed on her. “You managed to both scare him off and inconvenience the staff.”
“I just asked him question about that smell clinging to him,” Loki said defensively as she returned to her seat and leaned back. “I didn’t think he’d take off like a frightened rabbit, or else I woulda sent Bete to chase him down so we could put Aizuu’s mind at ease.”
“I still didn’t smell anything unusual,” Bete said, looking mildly displeased at the implication he was meant to be a hunting dog as she took a drink from her cup. But, given how sharp his nose was, it was obviously something that bothered him to be overlooking. “Besides, I don’t see what’s so interesting about a rookie that Aiz scared off.”
Aiz ignored him to ask Loki, “Did you figure—”
Loki held her finger to Aiz’s lips to silence her before she could finish. “Hee-hee… that can wait until we’re back home. For now, let’s just celebrate!”
Her lips pursed as she pushed Loki’s hand aside, but she didn’t contest it. Which was good since explaining it now ran the risk of being overheard and more questions being asked. After all, if ordinary folks weren’t able to smell it, then how was Aiz able to?
Bell panted as he leaned over, legs bent and back against a lamp that used a magic stone for illumination while he struggled to catch his breath. He’d ran far without considering what direction he wanted to go, simply running to get away from a threat. Much like he’d done in Yharnam.
“And I forgot the food and my gifts,” he noted after catching his breath, his voice exasperated as he brought his hands to his face and groaned. He had to go back to get those, but after that fiasco it would be both embarrassing and shameful. He entertained the thought of just camping out close and waiting for them to leave—
—when the abrupt sound coming from next to him caused him to shoot forward in surprise, turning as he reached for a weapon that wasn’t in his grasp. He then noticed that it was one of the women working in the bar, judging from her outfit. She stood there with a subdued expression as she held the things he’d left behind in her outstretched arms.
“Syr wished for you to have these,” she said, unbothered by the motion. “You forgot them.”
He exhaled, the tension leaving his body and being filled in with more embarrassment that felt heavy in his stomach. He rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped forward to accept them and then gave her an apology as well. “Thanks for this, and I’m sorry. I couldn’t answer that Goddess’ questions, but I didn’t want lie, so….”
“Every Adventurer has their secrets, as well as the right to keep them,” she said plainly. “If you still feel the need to apologize, then it should be done to Syr and in person.”
He consented with a nod. “You’re right. I’ll tell her tomorrow.”
That said, she then proceeded to walk away and left Bell to his own thoughts. Since Hestia didn’t want him going in the Dungeon for a little while, he supposed it was only proper that he apologize to Syr in person tomorrow. But for now, he proceeded to walk back towards his home beneath the church.
He found her in the main section of the church, looking at the weapons that he’d brought and left behind with an appraising eye. Weapons weren’t her dominion, but he supposed that since she was friendly with Hephaestus she would have some knowledge of common weapons. However, given that Bell hadn’t seen anything like them in Orario, they were no doubt something she didn’t fully grasp.
All the same, Hestia wasn’t exactly pleased that Bell had drawn Loki’s eyes when he explained what happened in the Dungeon and then the pub. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was worried more than anything as she ate the food he’d brought while sitting next to him on one of the intact pews. He decided to save giving her the book and ribbon until afterwards, if only to add some levity after the impending conversation.
The fork sticking out of the corner of her lips shifted before Hestia removed the utensil and frowned. “Your judgement wasn’t wrong when you met Loki. I’ll try to tell her to back off at the Banquet, but the fact that she caught that scent means you’ve drawn her attention and that’s the last thing we want given the circumstances.”
“I know,” Bell said, nodding in agreement. “I didn’t want to cause you trouble.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Hestia assured him. “She and I haven’t been on the best terms, so the moment she found out you were my Familia she would have pestered you anyway. Still, while we can pass off you killing that Minotaur as simply being lucky, that scent is another story. It should have thinned, but when I compared it coming off you to that new weapon, and then against the old ones, its stronger.”
“That’s probably because the Messengers brought it straight from the Dream,” Bell said.
“If that’s the case then these ‘Messengers’ must be connected to everything, including this ‘Hunter’s Dream’ you mentioned.” She huffed as she set the fork down onto the plate. “Can you call them up?”
“I think so. If I concentrate.” He focused on the rune burned into the back of his mind once more, mentally pleading with them to appear as he stared at the weapons laying beneath the statue of the false goddess. He wordlessly, fervently begged them to appear there.
Silence lingered in the church abandoned by all but the two of them. Then they appeared, emerging seamlessly from the ground, the space around the weapons rippling. The emaciated, bandaged humanoids appeared.
Bell swallowed as he turned his gaze to Hestia, unsure of how she would react to their appearance. Given how shocked he’d been when he first saw them, it was startling if you didn’t get to see how harmless they were. But Hestia only leaned forward with her nose twitching.
“I can smell that the scent of the moon is stronger now,” she said as she jumped to her feet and walked over to where his weapons were. “Are they coming now?”
“They’re here,” he said as he looked between the waving Messengers and how her eyes were narrowed. But when she moved her hand, her slender fingers passed straight through without making contact. There was no reaction. “You just touched them.”
She blinked. “I did?”
Bell got up and came over to the front of the statue, extending his hand before them. Like before, the Little Ones clamored over one another to touch him with their thin, wiry fingers. “They’re touching me just fine.”
“Could it be that I can’t see or interact with them?” Hestia wondered as she brought her one hand to her chin while observing Bell. “Can you have them take the weapons back then?”
He nodded and then turned to the Little Ones. “Can you take these weapons back to the Hunter’s Dream for me?”
They did so eagerly, grasping the Hunter’s Pistol, Saw Spear, and Saw Cleaver by their handles. They didn’t bother trying to lift them, but rather the ground rippled further like a pond. The weapons sank into them along with the Messengers, dragging them into the depths beyond sight until they vanished entirely.
He then turned back to Hestia to see her frowning as she rubbed her temples gingerly and asked, “Goddess, are you okay?”
“I just got a bit of a headache watching that,” she said as she walked back over to the pew and took a seat. A sigh followed. “From the looks of it, only you can see or interact with these Messengers. But, at the same time, they can interact with this world, so they have to be corporeal. There has to be something I’m missing… maybe it’s because of one of your skills?”
Bell sat back down next to her and joined in thinking as well. The only three references he had in regard to this were the Plain Doll, Gehrman, and Eileen the Crow. “Gehrman mentioned something about signing a contract to enter the Hunter’s Dream for a purpose, while Eileen told me that she ‘no longer dreamed’ and couldn’t access it anymore.”
“A contract?” Hestia lowered her hands and gave a nod after a moment of thought. “It may be possible to do something like that, along with everything else, for a God or Goddess using our Arcanum. But anyone who uses their power would be immediately kicked back up to Deusdia, where our influence is limited on this plane, so…”
She trailed off, diving deeper in thought for a prolonged period with Bell not daring to break her concentration. However, eventually, she just huffed in a frustrated manner as her pigtails wavered as though they were alive from the strain. “If possible, I wanted to speak to this Doll who tampered with your Falna myself to get to the bottom of this. But it doesn’t look like that’s possible if we’re not the one ‘dreaming,’ as you put it. I could probably try to use my Arcanum, but—”
“You can’t!” Bell said abruptly, setting his hands on her shoulders. “If you do that then you’ll have to go away. I don’t want you to give up everything on this world for me.”
“…But does a Goddess who can’t do anything for her child really have a reason to be here in the first place?” Hestia asked, her cerulean eyes looking into his ruby pair before drifting down to her lap. “If I had done a better job to prepare you for going down there, then you wouldn’t have gone through all of that. So, if you could at least continue adventuring under a new Familia, then going back would be worth it.”
“Just being here is enough,” he told her softly, reciting what he’d told Syr earlier in the day. “You accepted me when no one else would. You gave me a family and home when I had none before. If you sacrifice everything for me, then you might free me, but it’d be no different than if I died as far as I’m concerned.”
“Bell…” His words made her shoulders tremble for a moment. Then her hands came up, lithe fingers overlaying his. “You’re a really good child… I’m lucky to have found you.”
Bell, with his heart thundering at how smooth her touch felt and the warmth that dwelled in them, was left momentarily speechless. The atmosphere had shifted abruptly into something tenser than ever before to him. Suffocating almost. He needed an out.
Then he recalled his gifts. He pulled his hands away and handed her them before excusing himself to go down and take another shower, citing that all the running from before had left him in need of one and he wanted to wash as much of the moon scent away as he could. He didn’t see the gentle smile she wore as she looked upon the ribbon and book.
Nor hear the promise she made in her heart afterwards.
Chapter 9: Concerns of a Goddess and Child
“I thought you might know her, given your Familia is a medicinal-type and that’s part of her dominion,” Hestia said, noting that the smell of medicines being brewed was somewhat poignant as it clung to the back of her throat.
Unaware of her child’s venture into the Dungeon, Hestia had gone to visit her friend Miach’s shop the moment she got off work. Miach once had one of the most prominent Medical Familias in all of Orario. A rival to the famed Dian Cecht Familia in its prime.
Miach’s Familia had fallen on hard times due to the fact that one of his children, Naaza, had sustained an injury that cost her an arm and left her with a crippling fear of the Dungeon. The price of replacing the arm, which was no doubt raised to unreasonable amounts by Dian Cecht to be rid of his competition, had left the Familia with a huge debt. Now, much like Hestia, he had only a single child as well.
Whereas some other Gods and Goddesses would abandon a child who was no longer able or willing to go into the Dungeon, he’d taken it upon himself to ensure the best possible treatment for his own. There was no ill will when he allowed his other children to leave the Familia so they wouldn’t be burdened. Instead, he sheltered it on his own shoulders without complaint.
Hestia actually admired him for that.
“Hmm…” Miach brought his hand to his chin in thought at Hestia’s question. “Well, it’s been some time since I’ve even heard her name. She had quite a bit of trouble establishing a Familia with myself and Dian Cecht around, and I haven’t seen her in Orario for years now at any of the functions we attend. So it’s possible that she left for greener pastures elsewhere.”
“That makes things a bit difficult then,” Hestia said, followed by a sigh. It was extremely difficult for an established Familia and Adventurers to leave the city, due to the amount of paperwork involved. Even with only one child to her name, it would take time to get clearance. “I don’t know where to begin to look for her if she’s left, but I need to find her.”
“Well, Hermes would probably be aware of her location,” Miach suggested. “I can’t be certain whether he will attend or not, but the Banquet of the Gods is tomorrow night. I hadn’t planned on attending myself, but you could go and try asking the others there if they’ve heard from her as well.”
Hestia’s lips formed into a small frown at the thought. She wasn’t really in the mood to attend the celebration either. And she knew that Loki would be there. Being the Goddess of one of the larger Familias in Orario had given her a big ego, especially when Hestia only had one child in her care…
But it was the best place to go for information. And Hephaestus would be there, which would allow Hestia to talk to her without having to wait for her schedule to be cleared. So, she supposed she had to go.
Thanking Miach for the advice, Hestia departed back for the abandoned church that she called home. It belonged to Hephaestus, but she was allowed to use it for both herself and her child. Some distance away she could see Bell opening the door to the church, peeking in through a crack as though to spy on what was inside. She opened her mouth to call out to him on reflex until she noticed… well, everything.
Bell’s clothes were in a horrible condition. The fabric of his shirt was torn, reduced to red-tinged scraps that hung off his frame and exposed his skin in patches—though his Falna was thankfully covered up. His pants had tears in them too, claws or fangs having dug into them at one point and pulled free flesh judging from the bloodstains on them.
In his hand was a long weapon wrapped in a cloth stained a disturbingly dark shade of crimson to hide the blade. It looked like the one he’d shown her yesterday from that nightmarish place that he’d went after he… after he died.
Did he die again without me knowing? Her blood ran cold at the thought until Bell opened the door further and began to enter. She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat and called out to him. “Bell!”
He went from a foot in the door to ramrod straight, slowly turning his head towards her with a mechanical stiffness. The expression on his face wasn’t that of the one he’d shown her yesterday when he first got back to her side, ruby-toned eyes lacking the horror they’d held before. It was just a look of shame, or guilt perhaps?
“Goddess, I….” He swallowed, and then threw himself on the ground to bow his head. “Forgive me! I went to the Dungeon today!”
…It was like a child who had been caught doing something that he wasn’t supposed to apologizing to his mother. The moment she realized that, the tension lessened. Hestia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in relief. Then the scolding started.
“I told you to take it easy after that happened yesterday,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “Why did you go back to the Dungeon?”
He raised his head until he was sitting his knees, hands resting on his thighs. “I didn’t want you to have to work to support me when I was still capable of going into the Dungeon. It wouldn’t have been fair to you.”
“Going in after what you just went through isn’t any better,” Hestia pointed out, crouching down to look over his body. There wasn’t a scratch on him from what she could tell, despite some of the blood on his clothes definitely being his. The other hues were from monsters, if she had to guess. “Explain what happened to your clothes.”
“A lot of monsters came out to attack me,” he started. “The Kobolds weren’t much of a threat though. In fact, the usual ones didn’t really manage to touch me. I think it was because of the increase in my Falna. Most of the tears were from the War Shadows when they worked with the Frog Shooters, but—”
“Wait, War Shadows!?” Fear crept up her spine as she recognized the name of that kind of monster that lurked in the Dungeon. They weren’t found on the upper floors, where rookie Adventurers worked out of. She grabbed his shoulders and demanded, “Bell… how far down did you go?”
He fixed his eyes to the ground in shame before he mumbled the answer she didn’t want to hear. “The Sixth Floor.”
Her fear turned into anger born from worry. He had just died on the Fifth Floor not even a day ago. He’d died, gone to a nightmarish place of blood and beasts, and fought desperately to return to her side. And he went even lower into the Dungeon after that? “Why?”
“…because all I can do is go into the Dungeon,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t plan on going past the Fifth Floor at first, but it was too easy. The Goblins and Kobolds didn’t pose a threat, and the Minotaur was an irregularity. I was just going to go a floor or two deeper to familiarize myself with the monsters there for when I eventually did go deeper.”
Hestia wanted to say that he shouldn’t have gone there at all. That he shouldn’t force himself to do that. That she was afraid of losing him without even realizing it again. But he was an Adventurer and, as much as she wanted to keep him safe, he did have to go lower at some point.
There was no telling how long it would take for her to find Hermes or Achelois, and the number of people she could trust to tell about Bell’s ordeal could be counted on a single hand if she wanted to make sure it didn’t spread around. Even so, until they knew what was going on, she didn’t want him to put himself at risk like that. There were too many things they didn’t know about his condition: the tampering with his Falna by the Doll, the Blessing of Flora and Beasthood skills that he’d gotten, and everything else. She needed to find answers for that first so that she could help him.
“Bell,” she said softly. His eyes rose to meet hers and she had a pleading look in her eyes. “Promise me that you won’t go into the Dungeon until I at least get back from the Banquet of the Gods. Okay?”
He nodded obediently. “I promise I won’t go into the Dungeon until you get back and tell me too.”
She could tell he wasn’t lying, so she placed her trust in him once more as she stood back up. Then she noticed the bag on his back and how it had a visible weight to it. “You didn’t exchange the magic stones yet, did you?”
“I was planning on going to the Guild after I got changed since I didn’t want to freak out Miss Eina again,” he said as he rose up to his feet, scratching the back of his head. “She… kind of told me not to go that deep as well just yesterday.”
The Goddess of Home and Hearth huffed. He should have listened to that advice. “Then get changed and go trade in everything you got at the Guild. You can use that money to buy yourself new clothes, pay off the loans you have, and whatever else you need.”
Her sapphire eyes then turned to the weapon he had in his hand. It was definitely different from the one she’d seen before. Taller, with the wrapping even more smeared with blood and filth. “And when you get back, you’re going to tell me how you got this one too.”
I hope this’ll do as an apology to her, Bell thought to himself as he looked down to the bag he was carrying in his hands, containing not only a change of clothes to replace that he lost today in the Dungeon but gifts from a book store and accessory shop that were close to Babel. He passed by them every day but rarely gave them a glance normally, since they didn’t interest him very much. Today though, he wanted to appease Hestia after he’d disobeyed her by going that deeply into the Dungeon, so he’d spent time finding something he thought she would like.
It was getting dark now, partly due to the fact that it had taken so long to exchange his magic stones and monster drops at the Guild a little while ago. It was busier than usual, or at least by his normal standards since he only hung out in the Upper Floors and could get back to the surface relatively quickly since he didn’t often have much to carry. He supposed for people who went deeper, it was natural they’d surface later.
The valis he’d earned from the monster drops, rather than the magic stone shards. were more than enough for him to pay off the cost of the equipment and knife he’d been given by the Guild starting out. That was a testament to how ferociously the Dungeon had tried to get rid of him, since only places where the magic was extremely dense in their bodies persisted after the stones were removed from them. He would need to buy some lightweight armor before he went that deep into the Dungeon again after Hestia finished going to the banquet tomorrow.
Still, I wonder if it’ll be enough to please her? I know she likes books, but not specifically which ones would interest her the most. And while the ribbon is the same color as her normal one, it’s a bit thicker—
His head snapped up as he felt eyes, heavy and hard peering down on him from somewhere. It was like the weight of an ocean pushing down on him, a whirlpool spiraling to pull him in. He looked around to see that there were others on the street, some humans, other demi-humans, none that were focused on him.
He started walking again, gaze peering over his shoulder as he tried to see if there was anyone fixated on him. Am I imagining things or maybe—
Bell’s train of thought was broken when he bumped into someone by mistake, a soft and feminine voice slipping out in surprise. He looked down to see he had toppled a girl who looked slightly older than him, dressed in a pale green skirt and white blouse. Her hair was a shade of grey that was closer to blue, matching her eyes as she looked up at him with a surprised expression.
“I’m so sorry!” Bell said hastily, extending a hand for her to take. Her slender fingers found their way into his and he pulled her onto her feet. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit startled, but nothing broken,” she said as she dusted herself off and took in his appearance. “You wouldn’t be an Adventurer, would you?”
He nodded his head. “I haven’t been one for long, but I am.”
That bit of news seemed to make her day as her inquisitive look transitioned into a smile and she clasped her hands together. “That’s lucky. I was actually coming out to look for one.”
“Mm-hm.” She gestured to the building made of stone, standing two stories tall with a terrace in the middle. It could honestly pass as an Inn at a glance, and there was an abundance of sounds coming through the double doors, indicating that it was lively within. “Our bar, the Hostess of Fertility, is having a special right now for new Adventurers. You’ll be able to eat one meal for free, whatever you want.”
“…I’ll have to pass,” he told her, reluctantly. The thought of eating free food appealed to him greatly, but he didn’t want to spend more valis than necessary given their living situation. However, he’d feel guilty if only he got to eat a delicious meal when she didn’t after working.
However, the girl with eyes and hair that caught a slight sheen in the encroaching moonlight bit her lower lip and gave him a pleading look. “If not you then I’ll have to wait out here in the dark until someone else comes by or Mama Mia will be upset with me.”
“I just wouldn’t feel right that I got to eat something great when my Goddess hasn’t,” Bell said, looking away and thinking about how unfair it was she was plying him with that sort of shy, cute look. “We’re not that well-off as a Familia.”
She immediately turned it around on him. “We allow you to carry out as well. You can try something and then bring another one back to her as a gift. That way we’ll both get what we want and she’ll be happy you were thinking about her.”
It… couldn’t hurt, could it? Bell opened his mouth to give her a response when the din of the Main Street in the early night was broken by the sound of his stomach rumbling, much to his embarrassment. In his defense, the last thing he’d really eaten were the snacks Hestia had gotten him as breakfast.
“Should I take that as a ‘yes,’ Mr. Adventurer?” she asked, a playful smile on her face.
He could only scratch his head and respond with a sheepish, “I guess one meal couldn’t hurt… Miss…”
“My name’s Syr Flover,” she said, introducing herself. “You can just call me Syr. And you?”
“Bell Cranel,” he answered. “Just Bell is fine.”
“Then follow me inside, Bell.” She grasped his hand with both of hers and led him inside. A warm glow was spreading throughout the wooden interior due to the lanterns burning above, giving off a contemporary atmosphere that would lift the spirits of anyone. The staff were all women, interracial ranging from Elven to Cat People, smiling as they moved with purpose between the different tables housing other Adventurers that were all sitting and reveling in their drinks and food as they chatted with one another.
It was a nice place, if Bell had to admit. One that made the dangers of the Dungeon far off and forgotten. But that feeling of being watched was still there, the pressure lessened but not completely gone. His eyes spanned the place once more, but he still couldn’t make out who was observing him. Was he just paranoid after all?
“Mama, here’s a new Adventurer for you,” Syr said as she brought him to a seat at the counter, where the Dwarfess that he presumed to be the owner was waiting. “This one’s special, so treat him well, okay?”
Then Syr was gone and Bell was alone at the counter seat. Mia’s dark eyes sized him up and Bell felt relatively small compared to her. However, she then smiled and spoke in a manner and broke the image had been forming of her in his head. “How long have you been an Adventurer?”
“Ah, a little over two weeks now,” he replied politely as he sat the bag he carried down on the floor. “I just arrived in Orario around then and joined a Familia, so I haven’t been in a bar before now.”
“Then you’re in luck. The Hostess of Fertility is one of the finest establishments in all of Orario! We serve the people during the day, and Adventurers here at night.” She passed him a menu along. “Eat to your heart’s content!”
He took it, or rather had it forced into his hands, and looked through the choices he had. The menu was rather diverse, so he placed an order to see if it was something Hestia would enjoy. It had barely been in front of him for a minute before Syr returned, dragging a stool next to him and taking a seat in it.
“So, how do you like our bar and food so far?” she asked.
“They’re both great,” he told her with a slight smile, though he’d only take a bite out of it so far. “I don’t think I’ve had food this good since I got here, and it feels nice to be somewhere with people who are just unwinding without having to watch out for the next thing trying to leap out of the shadows to kill you. I’d like to bring my Goddess here someday too.”
“Which Goddess do you serve under?”
“Hestia,” he said, to which she looked a bit unfamiliar with. Not surprising. “You probably haven’t heard of her since our Familia only started about two weeks ago and it’s just the two of us. We’re pretty poor, so I have to go into the Dungeon everyday so that we can make a living.”
“It must be hard doing all of that alone.”
“I stumbled around at first because I didn’t have someone to teach me, but I’m managing now.” Ignoring what happened yesterday, he thought privately to himself. “Besides, I’m not alone since my Goddess is there when I get back. That counts more than anything else.”
She tilted her head slightly at that, a rather playful smile forming on her face again as he took a bite of the meat next. “It sounds like you’re in love with her when you say it like that.”
Bell nearly choked at the accusation, a spot of crimson painting his cheeks. He forced down the meat and gasped before stating. “No, it’s not like that!”
“What is it like then?” Syr asked as she looked at him expectantly.
“When I came to the city, I tried to join some of the bigger Familias,” he explained. “Every single one rejected me, since I was a farm kid without any sort of experience, and I didn’t have any family since my Gramps died a year ago. If she didn’t take me in, I wouldn’t have anything at all. Since then it’s been like having a family again, even if it’s just the two of us. She’s supporting my dreams and helping me in whatever way she can, despite having so little herself. I’m really grateful to her, so I want to make her happy and repay her no matter what. Is that wrong?”
“…No, it’s not,” Syr said in a softer tone. “You’d be surprised at how many people feel that way.”
Bell thought he caught a deep meaning with the way she said that, but then she perked right back up and changed the topic to tell him a little more about the Hostess of Fertility. It turned out that Mama Mia was a former Adventurer herself and that she hired girls or women from different background. Since she liked meeting new people and learning new things, the job was one that Syr found enjoyment in as well since she’d never really get bored.
“I know the feeling,” Bell said. “It was overwhelming when I first got here. It still is, really. But you learn something new every day and there’s still a bunch left to learn as you go on. That’s what makes Orario special.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Syr agreed with a smile that seemed to brighten the room a touch more.
Bell found himself staring for a moment at the sight, before the doors opened and a group of ten or so Adventurers entered. His heart stilled as he noticed the golden-haired figure among them, one who had seen him that day on the Fifth Floor. Ais Wallenstein had arrived with other members of the Loki Familia in tow, bringing his moment of peace to an end.
Chapter 8: Outside of the Dream
“Nmm….” Bell Cranel groaned as he woke up on his sofa, opposite of Hestia’s. He didn’t recall when he’d fallen asleep, but there was a sheet draped over his body and his goddess was missing. Rubbing his eyes, he peered through the darkness towards the clock and found it was Noon, meaning she’d left for work already.
“I don’t think I’ve slept this late in years,” he said to himself, rising to his feet. As he had been raised in the countryside, tending to a farm with his grandfather, he was used to rising at the crack of dawn. For him to wake up so late was abnormal…
Then again, nothing had been normal for Bell since yesterday. He’d delved deeper into the Dungeon than he did before and ran into a Minotaur, of all things. He’d… he’d died too. It wasn’t a dream either, even if he did wake in the Hunter’s Dream. He could still recall the brief moment of pain before his first death and the more drawn out deaths that followed.
As tempting as it was to brush off, he had to accept that it was something that happened. He had traversed the streets of Yharnam, channeled the Blood Echoes through the Doll, received the guidance of Gehrman, and had been encouraged by Eileen to get through the Hunt as quickly as possible. He’d hunted beasts for a time, before slaying a great Beast with the shade of an Old Hunter, Gascoigne.
Then he came back. Back to the moment of his first death. A second chance to do things right and survive. So he fought and prevailed over the Minotaur, fighting with everything he had gained over the brief time he’d spent in Yharnam. While he wasn’t fully lucid when he’d done it, he’d definitely ripped the magic stone out of the monster before noticing that Adventurer—Ais Wallenstein—had seen him and reacted in fear.
That bothered him the most. Seeing her raise her blade at him out of fear had been the same as when he’d done so to Eileen, after being lost and confused. Had he brought some part of Yharnam with him when he’d returned? The viciousness that the Hunt required of him to survive… had it bled over into him without Bell even realizing it?
He shuddered at the thought. Things left in Yharnam should remain there, while he remained here. He wanted nothing to do with that… that nightmare. That place wasn’t meant for him. He would gain nothing from going back there, while here he could remain by Hestia’s side.
Reassuring himself of that fact, Bell stood up and stretched his limbs to start a new day. Then he felt a slight parch in his throat and rumble in his stomach. He looked over to the table where he found a plate of potato snacks and a letter for him, the former of which he devoured as he inspected the contents of the latter.
It seemed that Hestia had left for work and would be back later than usual. She also wrote that he didn’t have to go to the Dungeon today and could just rest. It was probably because of everything that’d happened to him prior.
Bell frowned at thought. He came to Orario to be an Adventurer—to be a Hero like those his grandfather told him tales about, which meant he had to make a living that way. Even with the extra money from the Minotaur he slew, it wouldn’t be enough for them to last for long since Hestia still had to pay taxes, as he was still registered with the Guild, and he had to pay off the loans he’d taken on his starting gear. He couldn’t afford to just leave her to shelter the burden of everything because he was lazy or afraid after she’d taken him in despite the costs to herself.
So he gobbled down the potato snacks, grabbed a glass of water to quench his thirst, and then dressed himself in a set of clothes that hadn’t been tainted by the scent of the moon, as Hestia called it. He couldn’t smell anything, but it apparently clung to him and the belongings he’d brought with him through the Dream. Then he went up the stairs and into the main part of the church to get ready to go back into the Dungeon, just long enough to earn his keep.
It was there he found the Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol that he’d brought back with him from Yharnam. The scent of dried blood still niggled at the back of his throat when he looked at the Saw Cleaver, leaving him feeling uncomfortable when he recalled the weapons’ purpose—hunting down beasts. He made a mental note to wash the blade and change the wrapping before he stashed it away somewhere else, opting to stick with his knife as he walked out of the door.
Returning to the Dungeon only served to further prove that his stats had drastically improved in such a little time, actions speaking louder than words written on paper. Bell had entered with the intention of remaining on the Upper Floors, Levels One and Two specifically, in order to earn enough to at least pay off on the chest-piece he’d lost against the Beast on the bridge. Then he ran into a group of Kobolds.
There were eight of them that were birthed from the walls after he’d made it around the middle point of the path he normally took down to the lower floors. It was odd behavior, given that they normally hunted alone or in pairs. And according to the lessons Eina had driven into him beforehand, he should never face a group alone or he’d risk getting surrounded.
Yet… they were slower. They were much slower than they had been a day before. Slower than even some of the beasts he’d hunted in the streets of Yharnam, which he had to be more aggressive to deal with.
He could have easily escaped them, or at least he felt that he could if he wanted to. But he needed money and the fingernail-sized magic stone shards they had were still worth something, so he fought. While the twenty-celch long dagger had a shorter reach than the Saw Cleaver, meaning he’d had to get closer, he’d found it easier to slay them.
Most of the monsters on the first five floors proved to be little challenge after that. The Goblins were more like pests than anything else. Hard to believe that he was nearly killed by one in the past compared to the ease at which they died now. Either way, he pressed on until he stood at the entrance leading down to the Sixth Floor.
He contemplated long and hard if he wanted to press on further. The Minotaur was an irregularity, but there were still monsters he hadn’t seen before further in. The risk was that he’d find something down there strong enough to actually pose a serious threat.
But, his job was being an Adventurer and that meant delving further into the Dungeon to earn money. True, he’d managed to gain a plethora of magic stones shards, but compared to the worth of the Minotaur’s they weren’t even close to enough. And he was strong enough that the Kobolds and Goblins weren’t as much of a threat, so it was natural to progress from here, right?
Just a little further, he told himself. A vow that he wouldn’t go past the floor, and that he wouldn’t go in too deep. Just deep enough to where he’d find one or two new monsters to familiarize himself with. So he ventured down the staircase and into the corridors of the unfamiliar floor.
The first thing he noticed was that the floor looked different than before, slightly wider and the color of the walls now a greenish hue. But it was surprisingly barren as far as monsters went. The walls looked somewhat broken, indicating there were others born from them earlier.
Maybe they were slain by others who’d came into the Dungeon and then moved deeper? Bell concluded. He had woken up late and it was a city filled with Adventurers. First come, first serve.
On one hand, it meant he’d have to go slightly deeper inside to find a monster to test himself against. Just to see where he stood in terms of strength. On the other, it meant the way back would be clear and easy to get through.
So Bell walked until he heard a cracking sound. His feet stopped moving and he turned his head to where it was coming from, off to one side and down a narrower path. The cracking continued until the pieces of the wall clattered onto the floor. Then there was a crunching sound as something landed on the shards, out-of-sight.
His fingers tightened around the handle of his knife as he waited for whatever the monster was to emerge from around the corner. Anticipation built up in his chest, quickening his heart as the seconds passed. Then Bell saw a black claw grasp the wall before the monster peeked around the corner.
It stood tall, a humanoid shadow that stood on two legs and had a silver orb as an eye. Its head came to a point that branched out to both sides, reminding Bell of a trident he had seen in a weapon’s store not too long ago. Its shoulders were laxed and the limbs attached to it hung low, the forearms lengthened until they came to three long claws that were like the blades of a knife.
A War Shadow, Bell knew. Not because he’d seen it before, but because Miss Eina had listed it as a reason for why he shouldn’t have gone down so far before. They started spawning on the Sixth Floor and were known as Newbie Killers, butchers of the inexperienced.
It emerged from the behind wall and stared at him with its silver orb for an eye, knees bent and arms hanging down from its shoulders. Then its silver eye turned crimson and gone was the idleness it had been projecting. The bent legs sprung forward with deceptive grace and silence befitting a shadow-turned monster, and its left arm was thrust forward with its knife-like digits closed in to form the point of a spear.
Bell tilted his head to the side. The spear brushed past where it was, shaving a few strands off of his hair that were slow to follow his movements. Then he brought his rear leg forward and pushed off it to advance with knife in hand.
Its right arm moved to stop his advance silently. With the claws spread wide like sickles that Bell had used to cut grain on the farm, the War Shadow’s arm swooped around to meet him. It had every intention of using it to reap his head from his shoulders.
Bell fell forward and into a roll, allowing for the arm to sweep over his head. Then he came up into a crouch before the living shadow and swung the knife affixed in a reverse-grip around in a rising arc. The blade should have cut it from hip to opposite underarm, opening it up.
But the War Shadow bound backwards, avoiding the worst of it. A line was drawn by the knife’s point to mark the path it had traveled, and black blood tricked from the wound to tinge the air with its scent. The monster landed as silently as the night near the mouth of the corridor it’d spawned from, having escaped death.
Too shallow. If the knife had been longer, it could have cut deeper or even severed it in half. Bell regretted that he’d only now considered the fact, since the other monsters had been slower to the point where it didn’t matter. Yet the War Shadow was much faster than they were. And it proved so by thrusting its left arm out again to go for his head as he stood up.
In a single motion, Bell rolled the handle in his grasp, so that the sharpened edge of knife was facing him, and moved his right arm outwards so that it met the monster’s wrist, stopping that set of claws from taking off his head. It wasn’t stronger than him in terms of pure strength with the increase in his status, at least. That established, Bell then jerked his hand down and backwards, twisting his hips and forward leg behind him in the process.
The clawed hand was severed as a result, flopping onto the ground. The monster pulled back a stump while Bell had lined up with it to make it easier to avoid another attack. That proved to be correct as it attacked with even more vigor, lunging and swiping at his head horizontally with a primal sort of vigor, only to dart to the side as Bell retaliated with a stabbing lunge for its head.
I can do this. It was maybe on par with the beasts he’d seen on the bridge before the large one, and its nails were no doubt sharp enough to do some damage. But Bell felt he could definitely match it with little trouble as their exchange continued…
At least, that was what it allowed him to think for a time. Eina had said that these things were Newbie Killers, but that wasn’t based on strength alone. The War Shadow wasn’t stupid or as simple-minded as the Kobolds.
Its cunning was revealed as it led him into the thrust when its back was against the wall, before twisting its body so that the blade of the knife met with the wall itself and was wedged deep within. Bell was quick to kick it as hard as he could before it could swing down its remaining claws with the force of axes and cleave off the limb. But that was when the wall in front of him burst open and something black shot out.
Bell abandoned his knife to hop back as a second War Shadow twisted its arm around to scythe his head from his shoulders. That was when his mind registered the cracking sound and the brief break in the constant light coming off the wall behind him as something to react to. Instinct drove him to fall to the side, making it into a full roll to carry himself further out. Not a breath later did a third War Shadow descend like a guillotine meant to execute him where he would have landed, if he hadn’t chosen to roll to the side instead of further back.
The one-armed War Shadow swiped at his knife still wedged deep into the wall. It snapped under the force, permanently depriving Bell of his weapon in exchange for the hand that Bell had lopped off. The other two took positions to the rear and side, forming a triangle to surround him.
Which one? Time seemingly stood still as a bead of sweat rolled down from Bell’s forehead to his cheek. His eyes see-sawed between them to determine which one would make the first move. If he could determine that much then he could break through the triangle. Which one?
The answer came with a blur of motion from his left side. The War Shadow leapt with claws extended to pin him down. That would allow for the other two to take him to pieces, turning him into a pile of shredded meat whose blood would soak the Dungeon’s floor—as many before him had.
Bell saw it as an opening and took it. He lunged towards the ebon monster with all the might he could muster and rammed into it, ignoring the stinging sensation of the claws scrapping against his shoulders and arms to bowl it over. They toppled over, but Bell was prepared for it and rolled off the monster before it could do anything.
Breaking through the triangle, he took off without looking back. He was heading back towards the entrance of the Dungeon’s floor without slowing down, lest the War Shadows would catch up to him. The only reason he broke his gait was because the sound of something tearing through the air reached his ears and his instincts told him to act to survive.
He slid to a stop and pulled his head back in time to watch as a black appendage speared through where it had been. The sinuous thing then snapped back as he ducked down when a second one tried to punch his skull in from behind. That one he traced back to some kind of frog monster emerging from the wall, just in time to see the one-armed War Shadow on his back.
Maybe it was faster than the others with only one arm missing. Or maybe it was more motivated. Either way, it was ahead of the others and lunging for him in mid-air.
Jerking his head to one side and twisting his body to avoid its swipe, Bell barely got off with only the sting of a nail slicing into his cheek as the monster passed by and tumbled onto the floor. A Frog Shooter lashed out to ensnare him before the ebon monster rose back up and the others made their move, spearing its tongue towards him again. Bell grabbed the appendage with his gloved hands and jerked it forward, pulling the bulb-eyed monster towards him. He then grabbed it by the head and tossed it towards the one-armed War Shadow’s single eye.
A wet sound was followed by black blood splashing out as the War Shadow cut through the lesser monster in an effort to catch Bell in the attack. But he had already ducked, fingers chambered as the rain of oozing black liquid covered his hair and bordered his red eyes. He shot his arm out like a bullet for its core and his bolstered strength allowed for him to pierce past its smooth, black surface to the innards, breaking through everything its path until it found something solid: the magic stone.
“Rrrrgaaahhh!” He shouted as he coiled his fingers around it and pulled back as hard as he could. The wound burst open in a glamorous spray as he pulled the magic stone free, followed by dust as the body disintegrated where it stood. But there was no time to hesitate as the second pointed tongue speared out for him from the other Frog Shooter.
Bell threw himself to the side while flinging the magic stone towards it as hard as he could. His effort was rewarded by the tongue going limp before it could spring back as the single-eye of the frog was punctured and it went limp. One-shot, one-kill.
Exhaling a breath he hadn’t even realized that he’d been holding in, Bell then turned towards where the other War Shadows were closing in faster. He took a step back, gritting his teeth and clenching his fist as he heard the sound of the walls cracking further in the direction he was going. If he tried to run again, he’d have enemies waiting and his back would be exposed to the more dangerous of them.
A weapon. I need a weapon. That thought occupied his mind more than anything. He would be able to fend them all off if he had a weapon. It didn’t matter what kind. As long as he had something to deal with their reach and range. Without one, he’d be overwhelmed and he’d…
He’d die. He’d die again, having made the same mistake. He’d die again and return to the Dream. To the Hunt. The Hunter’s Mark, the rune burned into the back of his skull, came to mind at the thought.
An ideal followed. Bell focused on it, trying to pass on a message to the Little Ones who pulled him to and from the Dream. They’d taken the weapon from Yharnam to the Dream, didn’t they?
“Bring it to me,” he asked. Pleaded. Begged as the two War Shadows closed in to the point he could make out the points of their nails targeting him. “Please, bring me the weapon you took to the Hunter’s Dream!”
His fervent desire for his weapon reached as the sound of the Little Ones voices graced his ears. He looked up to see a pair of Little Ones emerging seamlessly from a portal of some kind in the ceiling above, Saw Spear in their frail-looking hands. One waved to him as though craving his acknowledgement, and the weapon fell from the other’s grip as it was too heavy to hold any longer.
“Thanks!” Bell’s reached up with his dominant hand. His fingers wrapped around the grip tight. It was just in time for him to bring it around to intercept the broad swipe of the War Shadow’s claws and stop it from taking off his head.
That was when he noticed that a shadow was being cast from above him. The War Shadow following the one in front of him had leapt over it and was now at his unprotected back. It promptly tried to gouge out his heart in a precision strike.
Bell pushed hard so that his blade rebuked the first War Shadow’s claw and sent it back a few steps, while pivoting around so that he avoided the killing thrust. It was still a close call. Instead of having his heart pierced, there was only a sharp pain as his clothes and flesh were sliced into by the nails as they raked across his unprotected back.
He gritted his teeth, a guttural growl slipping out brought his Saw Spear around with both hands. The thick metal cut through its torso diagonally from the hip to the opposite shoulder—sawing through the bone in the process through strength rather than the sharpness of the blade. Monster blood gushed out, but Bell paid it no mind as he then spun back around on that same foot in the opposite direction.
Rather than risk the Saw Spear being too slow to intercept the coming attack, he brought other foot around in an arc and the sole of his boot caught the second one in the head. The War Shadow was sent smashing against a wall with a sickening crunch before flopping down onto the floor. The Saw Spear descended and split its skull open afterwards, ensuring the kill.
The immediate threats dead, but more being born ahead, Bell exhaled and removed his glove to feel for how deep the cut had gotten on his back. His finger brushed through the tear in his shirt beneath it, but only found unblemished flesh.
He then looked back to the back-attacking War Shadow to find it lying in a pool of its own blood, tracing the patterns and location of the drops to see how far it had sprayed. There was no doubt about it. Its blood had healed the cut it made, meaning that it wasn’t just blood from Yharnam that could heal wounds and mend flesh.
A part of him felt it shouldn’t have been a surprise. His body’s reaction to having a drop of Hestia’s blood wash against him was sharp enough to give him a boost of energy that far outclassed any blood he’d been in contact with. While the War Shadow’s didn’t have much of a feeling to it, it did heal the minor wound.
That being said, he wasn’t all that eager to try tasting either one to see if drinking it was the same as Yharnam blood. Partly because he wanted nothing to do with it. The other part was because he was afraid that he’d end up associating his goddess as a source of blood, turning her into what amounted to a resource… or prey.
But it did bring a question to his mind on if the different kinds of blood had different effects. Was the blood of an average mortal different from an Adventurer? Was the blood of a monster affected by the magic stone’s size and quality? That line of thinking led him back to Blood Echoes and his increased Status, leaving him wondering on how they transitioned from what had been done to him by the Doll in the Hunter’s Dream.
Normally, an Adventurer gained excelia based on their actions and that led to an increase in certain attributes. But all he had to do was ask the Doll what he wanted to be strengthened and it was embolden by a substantial amount. Was she pulling certain excelia from the Blood Echoes, binding their memories related to those attributes into his Falna? Or was there something else involved?
He didn’t have the answer. And he wouldn’t return to the Dream to find them. Really, was there even a point in pondering these things when he had no intention of returning to Yharnam and the Hunt at all? The price of that power was just too steep for him.
Pushing it aside when he caught the sound of shuffling feet, Bell turned toward the direction of the exit. The resident monsters of the Sixth Floor were coming to greet him. The Dungeon’s welcome for an overambitious Adventurer’s first visit to the floor.
Bell tightened his grasp on the Saw Spear and charged in.
Interlude 1: Orario
Hestia listened with increasing worry as her child recounted his journey into the Dungeon today. In the few hours that he had been gone, he had apparently been beset by a Minotaur on the Fifth Floor and killed before landing in a strange world where he hunted Beasts. There he died thrice, once by crushing, once by falling, and once by being devoured, before prevailing over the towering Beast responsible for those deaths. Then he returned to the Fifth Floor, where he’d first died, and slew the Minotaur responsible for it all in the first place before he left the Dungeon.
If she had to be honest, Hestia would have normally thought Bell was just exaggerating things. From what she’d been told most young Adventurers did, and if he’d died she would’ve felt her blessing vanish and know it happened. But… there were too many things that stopped her from brushing what he was saying off as an exaggeration.
To begin with, mortals couldn’t lie to Gods and Goddesses. It was an inherent ability they possessed, being able to discern a mortal’s truths from their lies. Not that it would be unforgivable if he was lying to her. Bell was the first (and only) person who joined her and he was such a sweet boy. So even if he did lie to her, she would forgive him.
But Bell had been honest with her since they had first met one another and became Familia. With how vividly he recalled the details, it was clearly something that he didn’t just come up with on the spur of the moment either. From what she could tell, he sincerely believed that all of that happened to him as an absolute truth.
And there was the scent wafting off him thickly. The lunar scent of the moon was clinging to his flesh like perfume that was rubbed off a Goddess who either held dominion or some power over it. Given that magic related to the moon tended to be based around illusions, she entertained the belief that he had been caught in one before entering the Dungeon and it took effect while he was there.
But there were only a handful of moon-based Goddesses that came down to this plane of existence. She didn’t think that Artemis was involved, and she was more known for her hunting prowess over illusions in the first place. And the only ones she could remember right off the top of her head were Metztli and Achelois. The latter was a lunar Goddess that did technically exchange blood for healing, so the very nauseous notion that he could drink or bathe in blood to heal himself certainly fit her domain. But Hestia didn’t know where she was since she came down a long time ago.
I’ll ask Hephaestus and Miach later, she decided. For now, she was more concerned about how Bell referred to that living doll possibly messing with his Falna and the effect it had on him. “Bell, I need you to strip.”
“Eh?” Bell went rigid, stunned from his position next to her on the couch and looking dumbfounded.
“Your shirt.” She reached for the hem of it with her slender fingers. “I want to look at your Falna.”
“Oh… okay.” He stripped out of his shirt to expose his torso and then laid prone on the bed they shared.
Strength: I-77 > F-392
Defense: I-13 > F-373
Dexterity: I-93 > I-96
Agility: H-148 > E-487
Blessing of Flora
Hestia bit her lower lip at the unbelievable increase in his various stats. Sure, new adventurers had a heightened growth rate from what she had been told. But to jump up by several hundred points in multiple categories was unprecedented. And they lined up with what he told her happened with that Doll, who could somehow affect the Falna to change his stats even without her blood.
It didn’t make sense. Only another God or Goddess could do so and they needed her permission first. So how was this possible?
And she’d never heard of either of these inherent skills, which was also worrying. In fact, she couldn’t even read the descriptions because they were in another language that she didn’t recognize instead of the standard of Orario or hieroglyphs.
Hestia needed to know more, meaning she needed to check his excelia itself. Normally she would never invade his privacy like that since it would be like reading the events of his life itself. However, there was too much going on for her to hesitate if some other Goddess was harassing her child. She silently vowed to make it up to him somehow before mounting his back and pricking her finger, allowing a drop of her ichor—divine blood—to drop down.
The moment it came into contact with his flesh, Bell shot up. His back arched like a bow and he let out a surprised cry. “Ah!?”
“Wah!” Hestia shouted as she tumbled backwards at the sudden motion, landing on the floor with a loud thump. She groaned softly, one eye closed as she rubbed her bottom tenderly. “Ow…”
“Goddess, I’m so sorry!” Bell climbed over the edge of the bed and crouched down in front of her, sincere regret in his eyes as he extended a hand to help her up. “The moment your blood touched me I felt a really strong jolt run through my body and couldn’t control it. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She accepted his hand and rose up to her full height. This time she sat next to him as he lay on the bed, to avoid being tossed off again. His excelia flowed upwards and into her view, becoming like pages in a book for her to read through.
There was an immediate discrepancy to be found if she interpreted it like words on the pages of a book, with the paragraphs being the means by which the events of his life were told. Whereas the words that represented his tales were normally written in the language of the gods and possessing a white hue, it came to an abrupt stop where it read of his… of his death, at the end of the paragraph.
Then another paragraph started. The script became red as blood and was written in words that were even more foreign to her than those on his skills. In fact, just looking at them made… made her brain tremble as pictures and meanings flickered and gave her a headache.
She blinked a few times and shook her head to drive them off. Then she changed her focus to what the excelia stated afterwards. Beyond the red paragraphs that made up a third of the page so far, the script turned white again and was written in hieroglyphs. It outlined what he said happened on the Fifth Floor of the Dungeon, battling and prevailing against the Minotaur that killed him.
Hestia felt that there had to be some mistake, but the excelia didn’t lie. Or at least it shouldn’t be able to. The whole situation was strange. It stated he died and then there’s… some kind of illegible text that she couldn’t make out and got a headache just looking at. But the parts she could make out state that he really did die…
Her child, her first child, had died in terror. He died begging for someone to save him. And she, his Goddess, didn’t know. She didn’t hear his prayer and come to his aid.
Her eyes stung at the very thought, crystalline tears swelling and flowing down her cheeks to softly land on his unprotected back. She’d lost her only Familia and didn’t even know. What sort of Goddess was she?
Bell turned his head upon feeling the warm drop touch his skin. “Goddess, what’s wrong?”
“I’m so sorry, Bell.” She sniffled as she struggled to wipe away the tears. “I’m sorry I put you in danger and you had to experience dying like that…”
Bell sat up slowly and set his hands on her shoulders in a comforting manner. “I made that mistake. I shouldn’t have gone that deeply for a silly reason. I should have played it safe.”
“But I sent you there first alone!” She threw herself forward, burying her head into his chest, and held him in her lithe arms as her emotions spilled out. He was her responsibility, yet she had to make him work by himself to provide for them and it got him killed horribly.
“…Goddess, I only got through it because of you,” Bell told her in a gentle, sincere voice as he took her into his grasp fully with a hug. “I just wanted to get back to be your side. And I did, so its fine.”
Her voice was muffled as she trembled, her heated breath washing against his topless and pale torso. “But… but you died because you went there to help earn money for us and look what happened….”
“That doesn’t matter.” He held her tight, as if hoping that it would stop the tremors that ran through her body. “You took someone talentless and from the country like me in without caring that I had nothing to offer, and you gave me a home and a family. That’s why I was willing to go through it all—so I didn’t leave you alone like that.”
Hestia continued to cry until she couldn’t cry anymore. She didn’t know if she should be grateful that it was because of this Dream and Doll that he had a chance to come back to her, or angry that in order for him to do so they put him through Hell when he should be in Heaven rightly. But one thing she loathed was that she had been ignorant of it all and failed to help him when he need it.
Yes, she had failed him once. But she wouldn’t do so again. Whatever happened from now on, she would do her best to help him get through it. And she’d start by figuring out just who this scent belonged to and how they were able to screw around with her Blessing.
Grateful or not, no one would toy with her child and put him through all of that again…
As the rays of the sun graced her skin after her Familia finally emerged from the Dungeon to the streets of Orario again, many members of Ais’ group stretched and let out sighs of relief. The expedition only carried them as far as they’d been before but it took a long time to get down there and back, so many had yearned to see the sun again and rejoiced in it.
However, her thoughts were still back in the Dungeon, on the Fifth Floor, as she continued to stare at her hand in mild confusion. She couldn’t get over her encounter with the white-haired boy and the mystifying scent that filled the floor once things had settled down. It lingered even after he ran up the floors to the surface, but to her surprise none of the others could pick it up. Even Bete, who had one of the sharpest noses among their Familia, could only pick up the scent of blood and steel.
Now that she was on the surface the scent was thinning. The fresh air diffused it far more quickly than the stale Dungeon floors, and now it was faint enough that it would vanish entirely soon. If she left it to do so without chasing after it, then would she run into him again?
“Is there something still bothering you, Ais?” Riveria asked. Her name reached Bete’s ears and he turned his attention to her as well.
“That scent is here too,” she said.
Bete’s nose shifted as he tried to pick it up to no avail. “I still don’t smell anything out of the ordinary.”
“It’s leading that way,” she said, looking off in the direction that was the thickest. “I think… it’s going to the Guild.”
“Well, if that boy you mentioned was an Adventurer then he’d likely have to go there to turn in any magic stones that he earned at the Exchange,” Riveria said. “You and I can stop by if it’s bothering you that much.”
“…Sorry for the burden,” Ais said.
“It’s fine.” Riveria set a hand on her shoulder and walked off with her towards that direction until they arrived. There they found it somewhat crowded as people went back and forth, with the various employees keeping busy with the exception of one that they approached.
She straightened up when she recognized them. There were few who didn’t know the Nine Hells or Sword Princess when it came to adventuring. “Miss Wallenstein, Miss Ljos Alf, how can I be of help to you?”
“Has an Adventurer come by?” Ais asked. “He’s a boy that has white-hair. And red eyes.”
“Oh, that sounds like Eina’s Adventurer,” the woman said. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Riveria’s expression shifted as the Guild employee retrieved the other employee, going from her normally respectful demeanor to somewhat motherly as the woman approached with hurried steps and then stood proper.
“It’s good to see you’re doing well,” Riveria told her. “You’ve grown beautifully since last we met, Eina.”
“Thank you for the high praise, Lady Riveria.” She gave a small bow of her head. “It has been a long time, but I was told you were looking for an Adventurer that I may be advising?”
“Yes, Ais here ran into a young man who has white hair and red eyes on the Fifth Floor, where one of the Minotaur’s scared by our Familia went up to. She wanted to make sure that he made it out of the Dungeon without being harmed.”
“He did a few hours ago,” Eina said. “You have my thanks for saving him.”
Ais tilted her head slightly in confusion at that. “Saving him…?”
“When he came in covered in blood I nearly had a fit,” she said before leaning in closer and speaking in a hushed whisper. “I shouldn’t reveal any personal information, but he had only been going to the Dungeon for two weeks now and shouldn’t have been on the Fifth Floor yet. It would have been terrible if you didn’t arrive and even let him keep the Minotaur’s magic stone.”
That wasn’t what happened, Ais thought to herself. He killed the Minotaur himself. And he’d only be an Adventurer for two weeks? That didn’t make sense.
She looked to Riveria who have her a subtle shake of the head and then spoke in her place. “It’s good that he made it back safely. I know you can’t reveal personal information and you’re busy, but could we at least have his name before we leave?”
“It’s Bell Cranel.”
That name didn’t ring any bells to Ais, so he must not have been an elite or high-ranking Adventurer. But… two weeks and he was able to kill a Minotaur? Was he really a new Adventurer?
“Ais, you said that he killed the Minotaur on his own, correct?” Riveria asked as they departed the Guild, to not take up any more of Eina’s time. Ais nodded in response. “Strange. I’ve known Eina since she was born and she wasn’t lying.”
Then he must’ve lied to his advisor about what happened? Ais quietly thought, even though she couldn’t imagine why anyone would hide what they were capable of? In the end, she had more questions than answers. But at least she knew his name now.
She could work towards finding and asking him herself, along with what that strange scent she couldn’t place was…
Fury, hot and passionate, bubbled within Freya. The colorless soul that she had been observing had become dyed scant few hours ago in the Dungeon. She was watching Bell as he descended down to the Fifth Floor and then something happened as he stood there.
She couldn’t properly explain it, but she gained a massive headache while watching as his soul was colored luminous and pale, tinted with the faintest of reds. It felt like something was writhing in her skull and she was forced to look away until it settled down. The pain was unwelcomed and far from pleasant, but what truly aggravated her was that someone had taken something of hers right under her nose.
That she couldn’t let go unanswered. The question was who the target of her fury would be. The shade of his soul was still unique in that she hadn’t seen that particular color before, but she dared not observe his soul in such a manner as that for some time. But there were other ways to lure out whoever was responsible for it.
And then she’d make them pay.
Chapter 7: Home and Hearth
Bell was in a daze as he walked the streets of Orario again, now outside of the dungeon that sank beneath the earth for an untold number of floors. His body was moving on its own accord down the path it walked the last two weeks. But his mind was still at the scene where he saw that beautiful blond-hair girl ready her sword against him.
He remembered fighting the Minotaur until it managed to launch him and he hit his head on the ground. Then everything was something of a blur, and when he snapped out of it he found its magic stone in his hand. Only then did the sensation of shoving his hand into the torrid, soft, moist flesh come to mind and the scent of its innards and blood touch upon his nose.
Bell shuddered. He’d ripped the magic stone straight from its chest without realizing it, running on instinct. And that scared him on a primal level for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to him.
I’ll just take the stone to Miss Eina and go home, he told himself. That was what needed to be done right here and now. That was why he fought so hard in those blood and filth-encrusted streets, to return to the one who soothed his loneliness and accepted him into her Familia after arriving to the city.
With luck, he spotted Miss Eina the moment he neared the doors to the guild with a book in her hand at the desk. While her uniform was standard for the employees, her pointed ears and emerald eyes were unmistakable as they skimmed over the pages. He entered the door and opened his mouth to greet her.
Then she screamed and he realized that he was still covered in the Minotaur’s blood. “Ah… can I use the upstairs shower?”
“I told you not to go that deep into the Dungeon! Were you even listening to me, Bell?” Miss Eina demanded as she sat across from him at the table, the large magic stone between them. She had hurried Bell up the stairs and into the shower, expecting a full explanation when he was decent.
“I’m sorry,” Bell said after giving her an abridged version, hanging his head in shame to where his moon-toned hair obscured his crimson eyes. “I was careless.”
She huffed audibly. “And you were saved by a female adventurer?”
“…Yeah, that’s it. She had golden hair and matching eyes, a thin frame covered in a blue raiment and breastplate covering her bulging bre—er, chest, with an emblem on it.”
“From the sounds of it, you encountered Ais Wallenstein,” Miss Eina said. “She’s a level 5 member of the Loki Familia, who should be returning from an expedition soon. I’m guessing she let you keep the magic stone afterwards?”
He nodded, going along with letting her make her own conclusions. He couldn’t tell her that he’d killed it to get the magic stone. Not without giving her the whole truth. “Yeah, that’s what happened.”
“You were lucky,” she said. “Be sure to thank her if you see her again and remember: Adventurers shouldn’t go on adventures. Stay in the upper floors until you earn more experience. I’ll be very upset if something happens to you.”
That hurt. She had been doing nothing but helping him and he hated to upset her by ignoring her advice in his search for a girl on the lower-floor. The thought of how she would have reacted if they’d reported they found corpse to her made his heart sink into his stomach. “I’m so sorry.”
She relaxed her features and changed her tone from scolding to something gentler as she set her hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m happy you’re okay. Let’s go get your pay for the day.”
Miss Eina escorted him from there to the Exchange and had Bell trade in his magic stone fragments he had gathered, along with the stone from the Minotaur. The amount was more than he normally earned, enough to where he’d be more than happy under other circumstances, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile as he left the guild to head back home.
“I had to lie to her,” Bell said to himself as he walked down the streets of the Labyrinth City, Orario. “She would’ve thought I’d gone insane if I tried to explain everything that happened. Besides, was being saved by a Level 5 really that bad?”
No sooner than the words left his lips he couldn’t help but wonder what his Grandpa would think of that—rather than being a hero who rescued a princess from danger by slaying monsters, he was in turned saved by a girl who was among the strongest in Orario. Or at least that was how he let it be known to Miss Eina to not worry her further with the fact that he actually did die because he went against her words.
Then there was the fact that the truth wasn’t all that clear. His mind was in a haze after he’d crashed headfirst into the ground. He was just desperate and running on instinct at best and that ended with him having a magic stone in his hand and his arm warm from the fresh blood. Thoughts of what Gascoigne did came to mind on the way back up to the surface, but he imagined how that looked from Aiz’ viewpoint and how terrifying it must’ve been to witness.
“No wonder she raised her sword at me…” How long until he ended up as battle-crazed as that shade of the old hunter who attacked the Cleric Beast relentlessly in a thirst for blood? The question left him shuddering in fear.
He walked with those thoughts haunting him down the streets that steadily grew more abandoned. Soon he reached a dead-end in the Labyrinth City, the cul-de-sac where the dilapidated church that he called home stood. For a place of worship to be abandoned by all, falling into ruins, in a city where most of the Gods dwelled, felt somber. But compared to the grim sights of Yharnam, it was paradise.
The doors groaned as Bell entered, the hinges greeting one of the two guests that graced its domain in years untold. He gently shut the door and walked through the aisle that was nestled between the remains of pews (broken and unbroken) with light from the sun spearing through the holes in the ceiling and nurturing the weeds that sought to break through the broken tiles to reclaim what once belonged to nature. His feet stalled at the altar at the back of the church, near the secret entrance to the basement where his Goddess dwelled.
His eyes then fell onto the Saw Cleaver, wrapped in cloth as he had no sheathe to hold it. The scent of blood was still on it, faint but persistent, and would likely remain until he washed the weapon clean and replaced the wrapping around the handle. He set it down there along with the backpack he still owned, which held the rest of his supplies, and entered the alcove where the secret entrance to the basement was.
Hestia was halfway up the stairway when he opened it. There was a perplexed expression on her otherwise youthful face. But her sapphire eyes relaxed as she recognized him.
“Welcome Home, Bell,” Hestia said. “I wasn’t expecting you this early, but then I caught a scent and was wondering where it came from.”
Bell sniffed himself. “I was sure I’d scrubbed hard enough to get the scent of blood off of me.”
“No, it’s not blood.” She straightened her back, bobbing her black pigtails and pushing her chest out in a way that made the fabric of her clothes cling tight around that area more so than usual. Stepping closer, she braced her lithe hands against his body and pressed her own closer to sniff him. “Rather, it’s like the scent of the moon clinging to you like perfume that rubbed off some woman.”
The scent of the moon—Eileen had mentioned it, but Bell hadn’t been able to smell it. It was a sign of the Dream and its Hunter. He quivered in horror as the vivid memories of Yharnam flashed in his mind and he recalled the Cleric Beast and the Hunt.
Hestia took notice. She pulled back and looked into her child’s eyes. “Bell, what’s wrong?”
Bell couldn’t lie to Hestia. It impossible for a mortal to lie to a divine being, even with their powers sealed while on the lower world. More than that, he didn’t want to lie to the person who relieved him of his loneliness when he arrived at this city from the countryside.
So he told her the full truth—of his death. Of the Dream. Of the Doll.
Of the Hunt.
Chapter 6: Return to the Fifth Floor
Bell’s first sight upon returning to the Hunter’s Dream was once more the Plain Doll, who stood at the base of the stairway that led to the flower-strewn field. The soft, unblemished features of her porcelain face contrasted the downtrodden and bloodstained visage that Bell wore. Exhaustion and hopelessness were all that composed him beneath the blood that covered him from the Cleric Beast as his Saw Cleaver hacked through its skin.
“Welcome Home, Good Hunter,” she said in greeting. “The Little Ones have been making quite a stir recently. It would seem that something has caught their attention within the field.”
Bell looked over to the field from his perch to see there, in the middle of the moonlit flowers, stood a new headstone. It was a phantasm, much like the lanterns, and shrouded in pale flames that danced beneath the gaze of the moon that watched over the Hunter’s Dream. His sorrow and exhaustion were forgotten as it enthralled him, drawing his feet closer to it of their own accord.
Where Bell went, the Doll followed. She tilted her head as she observed the new fixture that was before them. “…How strange. I have never seen this particular headstone, nor do I recognize the words.”
“I recognize them,” Bell said as the Messengers parted so that he could kneel in front of it. “It’s the language of my home. The top reads my name, so I think it’s mine? The words beneath it… ‘A Hunter’s Respite’ from the look of it.”
The moment he brushed his fingers over the words, a vision flashed into his head. It showed him the moment when the Minotaur first accosted him on the Fifth Floor. He jerked his hand back and the vision faded.
Was… was that the moment of his death, in the Dungeon? If the headstones were the method by which he could leave the Dream, did that mean it was his way home too? The thought left his hands trembling, with the very idea of returning to his Goddess’ side threatening to spill crystalline tears from his eyes.
“Is there something that ails you, Good Hunter?” the Doll asked as she kneeled beside him.
“N-No…” He wiped his eyes with his forearm as he stood up. If he really was returning home, at the point where he died, then that Minotaur would be there, just like with the Beast when he died there and returned to the Dream. He needed to be ready for it. “Can you channel the Blood Echoes I gained from the Beast?”
“Of course.” She reached for his hand and tenderly took it into her grasp. The warm, all encompassing sensation of the echoes thrumming to life spread across his body. “What do you wish to be emboldened?”
His thoughts shifted to the Minotaur and how it had ran him down. Compared to the Cleric Beast, it was slower. But it was still capable of overtaking him if he wasn’t faster. And he needed to be stronger, so that his body didn’t break under the weight of its fist a second time. The need called to the roused echoes and they rushed to fulfill that desire, leaving him feeling more than he was before.
“I’m going back home,” he told her after she’d finished.
She nodded. “I will be here when you return from your respite, to continue the Hunt.”
Bell didn’t exactly intend to return to the Dream or Yharnam at all if he could help it. He wanted out of the Hunt. So once he crossed that threshold, he wouldn’t come back. But all the same, he was grateful to her and the Little Ones. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“There is no need to thank me, Good Hunter,” she said humbly. “I exist to aid you.”
Bell pressed his hand against the headstone and then focused on the vision that came to his mind. Diving into it, Bell felt like he was falling and the world melted. Then he opened his eyes again with a heavy gasp to find he was back in the Dungeon.
It was the wide-square room where he’d met his end before, after being chased on the Fifth Floor by the Minotaur. He’d run through hall after hall, screaming for help and doing his best to survive. And it had all been for naught.
He wanted to think it had all been a nightmare, a hallucination bought on by the stress. That made the most sense. He’d simply passed out and had a bad dream… except, he could feel the weight of the Saw Cleaver in his hand.
He brought it closer to his face. The scent of the blood from the giant Beast was still lingering on it, wafting off it with a poignant scent that prickled his tongue for what he decided was an inexplicable reason. He shut his eyes, exhaling a staggering breath.
The sound of a deep, bovine roar snapped his eyes opened. The Minotaur stood off ahead of him, a bull-headed creature composed of corded muscle that towered over him by almost twice his height. It bore the same crimson eyes of rage that shone like devilish stars as it peered down upon him, took the same heaving breaths that made its chest rise and fall, and frothed at the mouth from a long chase.
It was the moment of his death, beneath its mighty fist. His head had been utterly crushed, the pain brief but memorable. That was when the Hunt began for Bell for the first time, a fate from which he had just escaped.
Would dying here a second time send him once more into those filthy and beast-laden streets? Would he once more have to face abominations like the Beast? He could still recall the three deaths he suffered at the hands of the creature that towered over him even more than the Minotaur—death by crushing, death by falling, and death by devouring.
His fingers trembled in his grasp at the thought of returning to the Hunt. Then fear turned to anger as the monster responsible lumbered forward. It sought to send him back that place he’d just escaped.
“URROOAARRR!!!” roared the Minotaur before charging him once more.
“RRRRAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!” Bell roared right back, determination and fury threading his vocal cords and muscles as he met its charge with one of his own. He wouldn’t die a second time. He wouldn’t go back there!
Ais’ legs carried her through the Sixth Floor with haste towards the exit, where one of the Minotaurs that fled from the lower floors had gone. A number of them had ran from her Familia on their way back from an expedition, and now the race was on to stop them before they ended up killing some unfortunate upper-floor adventurers,
Waiting for her along the way were Wall Shadows, numerous and right in her path. The Dungeon had been spawning monsters left and right as though to stall her, fodder they may have been. They’d cost her seconds already on the way up, and every one counted from this point on.
“Blow Through!”Churning winds veiled her in armor as she pressed ahead, tearing apart the claws of solidified shadows as they tried to strike her down. Rocketing forward through the halls and up the stairs, the wind wrapping Ais dispersed as she came to an abrupt stop.
An overwhelming scent slammed into her like a brick wall. It was one she’d never encountered before, powerful enough to leave her ears deaf and her vision blurred, all while her brain throbbed. Was it some kind of magic?
She held a hand to her head as the sensation lessened, even though the scent was still lingering in the air. Her ears caught the sound of a hide being torn into, a roar of indignation, and a fevered shout. The sounds of battle—someone had met with one of the Minotaurs. Ais forced herself towards it, vaulting through the halls until she came across the battle being waged in slow-motion at her level.
The Minotaur was there. Its massive frame was dotted with red lines, crimson streamlets flowing freely in the air as it swung its massive arm with all the strength its corded muscles could afford to unleash. The fist came within a hair’s breadth of smashing in the smaller figure that rolled out of the way, allowing it to hit the wall of the Dungeon and leave a crater in its wake.
The adventurer, a boy, rose to his feet from the roll and brought his butcher’s weapon around. The teeth of the slab of metal were like fangs that forced themselves into the thick hide of the monster, biting into it on impact. With a roar, he pulled it out the side and the fangs tore themselves free with a spray of crimson that painted his white-hair with splotches of red.
Pain and fury and spittle left the Minotaur’s throat as it kicked back with its hoof. The boy brought the weapon around to intercept it with the flat of the blade, only for it to carry him along and send him flying through the air. He cried out as he hit the ground, curling up to vomit a mixture of blood and stomach fluids. The monster leapt for his downed form, both arms chambered to crush him on impact.
Ais’ legs tensed to move and cut it down mid-flight. The only reason she stalled was because she saw the boy falling back into a roll that would carry him out of the way of the crushing attack. There were unwritten rules against kill-stealing between adventurers, or at least those that sought to honor them, so she wouldn’t intervene unless he needed it.
Sure enough he escaped in time from the attack, getting back to his feet as the monster realized it missed. It then charged for him with the intention of goring him on its horns. He wavered for a moment, wincing in pain from the hoof, and then he leaned forward onto the balls of his feet and jumped over its charge.
His empty hand came up and grasped a horn, allowing him to remain on its back. The other slid up the weapon to flick a switch on the handle, unfurling it with a click. Bracing himself, he brought the backside down on the opening between the Minotaur’s neck and shoulder.
The sound of bone breaking reached Ais’ ears before the roar of the Minotaur. It flailed its arms in retaliation, trying to knock him free. The boy ducked under the first grasp, but was forced to bring his arm up to shield his head as the other fist came around and knocked him loose.
He fell onto the hard ground headfirst; blood seeping from the gash where his skin was ripped open before his skull. It sounded like he was crying as he rose up again, struggling onto his feet as the Minotaur pulled the weapon out of its body and then threw at him. He narrowly avoided being split open as it sawed past his head and clattered onto the ground behind him.
Huffing, the Minotaur readied for another charge at the boy as he reached another object tucked away on his person and raised it up to meet the incoming threat. With the sound of caged thunder, a piece of metal left the opening of the weapon with a burst of smoke. The Minotaur’s right eye burst open on contact as it crossed the distance between them. It roared in agony, bloody fingers coming up to cradle the wound as it dropped to its knees, its charge halted for the moment.
The boy rushed in. Deprived of his fangs, he used his claws. Shoving his hand into the furrow he carved into the thick hide of the Minotaur, widening the wound to where it’s very life cascaded over him, he grasped something deep within the monster. Then he pulled, mouth gaping wide as a scream forced itself out with the blood-soaked arm to reveal the Minotaur’s magic stone within his clinched fingers as its body turned into dust.
Haggard, heavy breaths left his mouth like that of a ragged beast. His body remained tensed, ready to spring into action as his eyes scanned the room for anymore signs of danger. Then they settled onto her.
The moment those red eyes peered at Ais, a shiver crawled up her spine. Her mind flickered as his figure turned into something that she couldn’t register, something so alien that the whisper of an inhuman threat came to mind. She brandished her blade on instinct; shifting one foot back and lining herself up so that she could easily kick off the ground and launch herself into a thrust.
The whisper faded when she blinked, only to see the figure was a boy again, staring at her in confusion. He looked down at the weapon in her hand, pointed at him, and then to his blood-drenched arm and the magic stone in it. Horror painted his face in that instant as he took a few steps back, only for his foot to brush the discarded weapon and tripped him onto the ground.
The sight of disarmed her entirely. Ais let loose a breath she didn’t know she had been holding as the ominous feeling that riled her on an instinctive level vanished. She lowered her sword and opened her mouth to ask if he was alright, but the words didn’t come out before he snatched his weapon up and ran towards the floor exit.
There was a knot of guilt in her chest at scaring him off. She didn’t mean to react like that. Whatever that abnormal scent clinging to him was must’ve done something to her. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t properly place it. In fact, just thinking about it too much made her head ache.
Ais shook her head once and then brushed it off. She had to make sure that no other Minotaurs were left. That abnormal scent and an apology could come later on.
Chapter 5: The Cleric Beast
Bell had found the unlit Molotovs easily enough by scavenging off corpses. He wasn’t proud of it, but the dead didn’t need them and he did want to get things over with as quickly as possible. But oil was somewhat scarcer and eventually he decided to take his chances against the Beast with what he had.
He quickly learned that was a mistake as he suffered his second death at the hands of a monster bigger than him. Though in this case it was due to him underestimating just how fast the misshapen creature while trying to ignite the Molotov’s rag. The moment his eyes left the creature, glancing down at the rag hanging out of the bottle, the Beast leapt towards him rather than lumber like he expected for something that looked so top-heavy.
It managed to cross the distance fast enough that he was almost caught underfoot. He’d wager that it was only because of channeling blood echoes that he managed to spot it in time not to be utterly crushed. However, the earth-shaking impact knocked him onto his back, shattering the bottle as it fell from his hand, and the Beast brought down its mighty fist to give him his first unglamorous death by caving his head in.
Fortunately, through some trick he didn’t understand, upon his death Bell seemed to return to a moment before the engagement began. It was as thought the minutes were erased entirely or something like that. So the Beast was always waiting on the bridge for the next encounter, a second chance for him to succeed or fail.
After taking a moment to come to terms with that, he tried again at a different approach and lit the Molotov before it took notice of him. That time he managed to fling it further than he ever thought possible before, no doubt due to his increased physical strength. But the Beast agilely avoided it, leaving the bottle to shatter and the flames to harmlessly lick the cold stone as it once more came towards him.
He dodged this time, avoiding death by crushing. However, the Beast then swept its other hand out. The thinner arm proved more powerful than it looked as the impact had been enough that it backhanded him over the side of the Great Bridge. His screams as he fell to his death could be heard all over Yharnam.
The third time was another failure, and possibly the worst. The Beast managed to grab him and then opened its maw wide. Bell was battered with its putrid breath, foul enough to make him want to vomit, before it bit down. He spent a few moments in the Dream shuddering until he could force the memory into the back of his mind.
So, as he stood near the point where the bridge led to his last few deaths, Bell decided to search for help and find a place where the Old Hunter’s Bell would chime within his mind. He figured he had two options: explore more of Yharnam or find someone who would have experience with that, meaning Eileen.
He picked the latter option, but she wasn’t where they’d been before. So the choice really didn’t matter in the end since he had to press further ahead. Of course, he regretted it when he ended up on top of the waterway, where he had the delight of meeting the giant rats that decided they wanted fresh meat over the corpse of another hunter they’d already taken to pieces.
The fight was ugly, but in the end he prevailed and then searched the fallen hunter’s corpse for anything that could help him survive his own hunt. But the rats or the fall had shattered the vials of blood that they carried, leaving the only thing salvageable being the weapon. It was similar to his Saw Cleaver, but longer and unfolded into a spear.
He wanted to take it with him. Never knew when you would need a new weapon after all. But he only had two hands and, though the backpack he was carrying may have been enchanted to hold more objects inside of it, it was already nearly full. He decided to return to the Hunter’s Dream and store it there, envisioning the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind.
To his mild surprise, Messengers popped up around him. They must’ve been the ones that pulled him to and from the Hunter’s Dream when he visualized the rune. Given how eagerly they seemed to help him, Bell decided to ask if they could take the weapon back instead so that he could progress with his hands free for his pistol and cleaver. They happily did so, grasping it and then pulling it down into the void from which they appeared while he continued on.
He eventually reached a point where he had a choice between going up the ladder or going down further into the sewers. The sight of the rotting corpses below guided his hands and feet into going the opposite direction, where shrieking crows threatened to deafen him and the giant with a brick tried to bash his skull in. But his search for oil proved successful in the end, courtesy of another poor soul.
He climbed the ladder up further and opened a gate there that led back to plaza before the bridge. Standing in the empty plaza, Bell felt exhausted that his efforts hadn’t yielded any results so far in finding someone to help—not to mention all the twists and turns in the place. If the Doll had been right about other hunters going to and from the Hunter’s Dream, then surely one of them had a map that he could use somewhere too, right?
After spending some time going through the notes and other resources in the workshop, Bell lucked into finding an old map that he copied down into a notebook that the Messengers gave to him. Through that he managed to get a better grasp of the city’s structure and eventually found a place where the Old Hunter’s Bell chimed softly in his mind.
The tall hunter called Gascoigne was a man of few words. Then again, he was but a shade of the actual hunter that the bell managed to give life to. Even so, he supposedly mimicked the real one and because of that Bell could only conclude that he was utterly fearless as, the moment he saw the massive Beast standing there on the bridge, the shade of the old hunter ran towards it with a battle-cry rather than waiting to formulate a plan.
The Beast responded in kind, shrieking as it vaulted towards the shade. The deceptively quick creature attempted to crush him underfoot. But he was light on his feet as he avoided the lunge with a well-timed roll and a pivot that brought the axe he carried around. The heavy and thick metal that had rust encroaching on it met the hide of the Beast, and for the first time that night it bled.
The Beast bled and the dark crimson spattered over both the aged and well-walked bridge and the weathered cloth that covered the old hunter. The smell of it reached Bell’s nose even halfway across the bridge, poignant like the first rain of the season but pungent enough that the scent managed to cling to the back of his throat.
Bell swallowed and then spat it out before the bark of the pistol Gascoigne carried resounded alongside a shrill shriek that were prelude the earth-shattering pounding of the Beast’s balled up claws. The sound drew Bell’s attention back to the unfolding battle, where the shade swooped amidst the dust and broken stones that were patterned with sprays of blood. It was a chaotic hunt between hunter and beast, a role that the former refused to cow from.
Eventually, the Beast bound backwards, revealing new rends torn in its flesh that gleamed in the moonlight like a beacon. Gascoigne pursued, axe raised and ready to carve open new paths that would free the thick blood that it housed within it. The cornered creature fought back, revealing cunning as it flipped the carriage that was against the edge of the bridge, near the massive gate to the Cathedral Ward, forward with its engorged arm.
It crashed into Gascoigne, who only took a few staggering steps backwards. That was when the misshapen hand came down, the outstretched palm moving to crush down on the remnant of the carriage and the old hunter that had been distracted by it. However, the veteran rolled backwards before it could land and then got back onto his feet in time to avoid the follow-up swipe that left the statue in the path of that arm to take the full brunt, shattering in the wake of the Beast’s fevered attempt to turn the table on the hunter.
We can do this, Bell realized. If things worked out like this, they could prevail. He could get one step closer to getting home. The notion of hope blossomed in his chest and snapped him out of his hesitation.
Bell ran with his pistol in hand. He took aim at the back of the Beast as it desperately tried to crush the veteran hunter’s shade that viciously hacked away with his axe with every opening shown, steadily growing more aggressive. Then he pulled the trigger.
The bullet molded of blood and quicksilver sped forward. With a wet sound, it punched into the Beast’s shoulder and caused it to lurch for a moment. Bell prepared to reload for another shot when the creature shrieked and lunged for him instead. This time he knew how to respond.
He rolled forward to escape the thunderous crash before getting to his feet and capitalizing on second he had before it got over the shock of landing by changing his weapon to its cleaver form. Grasping the handle with both hands, digging his heels in as he spun into the swing, Bell brought the cleaver’s inner-blade upon the rear tendon of the Beast’s closest leg only to feel it give away under the force of the blow more than the sharpness of the aged hunter’s tool.
It cried out with a pained overtone, jerking away the damaged leg, and then proceeded to wheel around with its claws.
Bell didn’t make it out of range in time. The jagged points managed to tear the chest-piece that he’d worn into the dungeon off as well as gouge out a pound of flesh, leaving him hitting the ground in pain. The wound on his chest stung enough that it would bring him to tears if not for fear and adrenaline driving him to get back onto his feet as the Beast tried to grab him with that large left arm.
Gascoigne let loose a snarl as he hit it from behind with a powerful blow, the axe now extended into a halberd. Bell could hear the tendon in its leg be severed in half and the bone snapped. It fell forward, crippled no doubt, and made a futile attempt to twist around on its good leg to kill the one that had done so.
The old hunter promptly abandoned his weapon for some strange reason, tossing it down and chambering his hand. That hand then warped into a claw for a brief moment as he roared, plunging it into the Beast’s ribcage that had a thin layer of flesh over it. Bone snapped as it broke through, and Gascoigne pulled out everything he could grab in a bloody gout.
As it reeled back, Bell hastily downed a vial of blood. The burning in his chest cooled, flesh mending. Refreshed, filled with strength again, he pulled out the ceramic urn housing the oil and flung it as hard as he could. The urn shattered against the antlered abomination’s broad back and coated it with the flammable fluid.
The Beast paid it no mind. It was focused on stopping Gascoigne from catching it with his unfurled axe. However, the man’s attacks were growing increasingly aggressive as more and more blood covered him. It culminated in the Beast backing off only for him to try leaping after it and then bringing the halberd down, burying it into the massive thing’s shoulder before it grabbed him with its engorged hand and then proceeded to bite him in half.
Bell was horrified at the sight, a reminder of his third death. But part of his mind noticed that there was no spray of organs or viscera. The Old Hunter’s Bell only called for the man’s lingering thoughts of the hunt and gave it form, so the real one was still around and he hadn’t led someone else to their death for the sake of his desire to return to home and hearth.
He really hoped that was the case, but couldn’t pay it any mind as the Beast began to heal. The blood that had been spilled over the course of the battle was turning into mist and swaddling it. The efforts made by them would be undone if he didn’t do something.
He grabbed the Molotov and lit the rag. The sight of the flames seemed to enrage the Beast, as it stopped mending its wounds and then rushed over to him with a powerful bound of its mended legs. Bell put all the strength he could into throwing it as death closed in, and the bottle broke against its oiled torso as it landed.
The Beast burned as Bell was knocked away by the slam, hitting his head against the cold ground and seeing stars. It burned with an echoing shriek that tore through the night as it flailed about in an effort to extinguish the wild hairs became a curtain of fire. The frenzied flailing had made it more dangerous than before as it flung itself towards Bell on instinct.
He fell into a roll to avoid it, springing to his feet just past its hind legs. The acrid fumes from the burning hair choked his lungs as he swung unfurled Saw Cleaver like a man possessed. The pounding in his skull left only one thought clear: he had to kill it before it could get back up.
So he swung his weapon hard enough to chop through the wiry, tough muscles and rip open the veins beneath it. Blood painted him and his weapon, to the point of soaking into the bandages wrapped around the handle. At some point, the pain in his head stopped after the blood managed to soak his hair and face before the Beast let loose a final, desperate cry and reached out for him with its lean arm.
Bell brought the cleaver around and managed to sever the limb with a sickening crunch and wet sound. The low rumble in the Beast’s throat that followed petered out into silence as it fell limp afterwards. It laid dead, body broken and burned as the flames continued hungrily eat away at it.
Bell stood back and watched, weapon held at the ready while panting. If there was even the slightest twitch to mark that it wasn’t dead, he would resort to chopping it pieces. Not even the sensation of the blood echoes flowing into him was enough to assure him that it was over before a solid minute passed.
A long, heavy breath escaped his mouth. The adrenaline slowly bled out of his body with every heartbeat that deepened and slowed. He turned around and went to the gate, only to find that it was lock.
“Is someone there?” he called out as he pounded at the gate. “I need to ask you how to end the night of the Hunt!”
There was no answer to be found. No matter how long he pounded at the gate, no one opened it. No matter how hard, only silence met his pleas to tell him how to end the night so that he could get back home—where he belonged. When the remaining energy left his body, he ended up leaning back against the unyielding gate and sliding down.
All of that effort, all of that pain, all those deaths—it was all for nothing in the end.
Bell sat there. He sat there with despair weighing down on him like a mountain, crushing the blossom of hope he’d felt earlier. He just wanted to get back to his world, to the goddess that became his family after the death of his grandfather…
As if responding to the silent plea, a pale glow suddenly shone in front of him. He raised head to see that one of those ghostly lanterns now stood in the middle of the road, mere steps away. The feeling that washed over him, the feeling of calm that would be found in the Dream, beckoned him towards it.
He yearned for the Dream at this point, tired and wanting to rest. He just wanted to leave Yharnam and the beasts and the horrors behind. As he moved his arms to get back up, his hands brushed something and a scraping noise came from it grinding against the stone at the movement.
He looked down to see that it was some kind of silver badge shaped like the hilt of the sword. It was more on a whim than anything he took it with him as he crawled over to the phantom lantern and brushed his hand against it. The touch ignited a pale flame inside of it that called forth Messengers around it.
“Take me back,” he all but begged.
They complied. Grasping him and holding as tightly as they could with their bony fingers, the Messengers pulled the weary Moon-Haired Hunter back into the Dream….
Chapter 4: The Doll and Little Ones
“—ahhh!” Bell abruptly screamed as he stood in a half-crouch, one hand over his head as though to shield him from harm and the other clutching the paper that housed the sigil of the rune buried in the back of his mind. When death didn’t come for him and the horrendous screech that served as a hunting-cry was no longer tearing at his ears, Bell opened his eyes to find he was back in the Hunter’s Dream.
Even though he’d joined the Hunt, he hadn’t been expecting something like that. He hadn’t expected that which lurked on the great bridge, past the beasts and giant and birds towards the Cathedral Ward. He had been so close when a great Beast unlike anything he’d ever seen bound over the walls to confront him—an antlered titan with one misshapen arm covered in wild hair that seemed to writhe on its own.
It made his brain tremble at the mere sight.
Taking a deep breath, he wiped the sweat from his brow until he felt a tugging at his feet. When he looked down, he found that there were little… creatures there. They were humanoid in shape, but withered as if starved and desiccated. He jerked his feet away on reflex and then held his Saw Cleaver in front of him as though to defend himself.
A serene voice calmed him the moment it reached his ears. “Be not afraid, Good Hunter. The Little Ones mean you no harm.”
He looked up towards the source to see that the doll that had lain lifeless against the stones when he left before now stood there. “What… who are you?”
“I am a doll. I am here in this dream to look after you.” She gracefully extended her hand towards the little creatures that were seemingly sullen at witnessing his reaction. “As for the Little Ones, the hunters also call them the Messengers. They are born of a nightmare, given strength through the echoes of life, and given wisdom through knowledge of the kin. They worship the Hunter of the Dream and seek only to aid you during the Hunt.”
“Oh…” Staring at the grouping of despairing little creatures, Bell felt like he had done something wrong. He crouched down, extending his hand while he apologized. “I’m sorry. You just caught me by surprise. My name’s Bell.”
They immediately seemed to perk up at the apology and reached out with their thin arms and bony hands to touch his. The mere act seemed to placate them greatly as they touched him in awe. Bell couldn’t help but wonder if people felt the same way when the gods and goddesses descended from Deusdia a millennia ago. He looked up as the Doll continued to move with grace until she was next to him.
“Do you know where Gehrman is?” Bell asked as he rose to his full height, which was still beneath hers. “There’s something I need his advice on.”
“Gehrman is asleep at the moment and not easily roused.” She stepped around the Little Ones to be by his side. “But please, tell me what troubles you. I may not know of the Hunt personally, but I have heard what others have said as they traversed the dream.”
He told her of the Beast that stood in his way and how he was hoping that Gehrman could provide a solution or knew anything that could help him. The Doll told him of how fire had been the bane of beasts since the dawn of the Hunt and that he would likely be able to find urns that would ensure that the flames caught upon it. He did recall some of the crazed villagers throwing bottles that burst into flames when they broke, and there had to be oil somewhere.
“Thank you,” he said. “I guess I’d better get to looking.”
“A moment, Good Hunter.” Gingerly, carefully, the Doll grasped his hand. Though her porcelain skin held no warmth, her embrace was gentle. “I sense echoes of blood slumbering within you. I can channel them and turn them into a source of strength for your sickly spirit.”
He gave her a confused glance. “Blood… echoes?”
She clarified for him. “The echoes of blood are the memories of the fallen, which flow to you upon the being freed from the shackles of life. You may use them to become strong enough to hunt the beasts without fear of their claws and fangs. Or fortify the blood and power that sleeps within you.”
He assumed that were those mists that rose from the blood of those he slew on the way towards the bridge. Did… did that mean he was absorbing their excelia to use as his own? Fighting down the implications of that, he asked, “So it’s like updating your status with the Falna?”
She returned the confused glance he gave her, only more subdued.
“Eh, Nevermind…” He rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Still, if it’ll help then I’ll take whatever you can give me.”
“Then close your eyes,” she beckoned him softly. When he did so, he felt the mystifying feeling within him ripple through his body the same way that the blood of his goddess did when she applied it to his Falna to update his status. “Now, picture what you seek to be emboldened and the echoes will become your strength.”
If I’m going against something of that size, I need to be stronger to start with. The moment he settled onto that, the mystifying feeling solidified somewhat. It echoed, rippling through him and threading his muscles with an almost euphoric sensation that left him feeling… more.
“Echoes remain within you. What do you wish to embolden next?” Enlivened by the sensation, he continued until there were no more left. The Doll rose and asked, “How do you feel?”
“Better than ever,” he said. Then he noticed the Messengers nearby, holding a bell of some kind. He crouched down as they pushed upwards, as though they wanted him to take it. “What’s this?”
“It is a gift they want you to have,” the Doll said in their place. “The bell will chime softly in your mind when it crosses a place where one who yearns for the hunt felt strongly enough to leave a mark. Use it to call Old Hunters that would join you in your own hunt.”
“Uh… Thanks,” Bell told them as he picked it up. Then he turned to the headstone which marked the path back to Yharnam. Hesitation stilled his feet as he recalled the sight of what stood in the way. But when he looked back, he found the Doll and Little Ones there staring at him with a look of expectation. “I guess I should get back there, huh?”
“May you find your worth in the waking world,” the Doll said sweetly, with the Little Ones waving at him. “I will be here for you when you return.”
“Right…” He imagined that Hestia and Miss Eina were waiting for him to return to. When he thought of that, resolve moved his feet towards the headstone. He had to get back to them.
“A hunter must hunt. Do what needs to be done to get home and then put it all behind you like a bad dream.” Parroting the kindly woman who gave him advice the first time in, he prayed for a return to the Hunt and clutched his Saw Cleaver tightly.
Chapter 3: A Hunter Must Hunt
“A shame you chose tonight to begin your first hunt. It looks to be a long one.”
Those were the words of the strangely dressed woman with a beaked mask that called herself Eileen the Crow. They were sitting in front of a hand lantern that she tossed incense into in order to give him a reprieve from the beasts that lurked about. Bell was grateful for that much tonight as he regaled her of how he shamefully stumbled across her.
His tale started simple enough. He told her of how he ended up in the Dream, met the friend of hunters called Gehrman, took his advice to pray to the gravestone, and was taken to what looked to be a medical room of some kind, albeit it disheveled and partially ransacked.
Confusion and the sense of unease that came from being in an unfamiliar place lingered until he heard the tearing of flesh and the wet sound of meat being chew coming from ahead. The sound was sickening, sending a chill up his spine and tightening his grasp on the handle of his cleaver. Yet it drew him towards it out of a morbid sense of curiosity.
That was when he saw his first beast. It was large enough to rival Bell while huddled down, a broad frame wrapped in torn cloth and mangy, untamed and coarse hair. And it was in the midst of feasting on one poor soul, tearing chunks of bloodied meat out of the corpse.
He couldn’t help but back away for a pause in revulsion at the sight that was before him so suddenly, but the floorboards splinted under his weight. He fell backwards with a loud thump and the beast’s head snapped up to lay eyes on him. He got back onto his feet just in time for it to lunge for fresh meat with claws that were longer than his fingers and yellowed fangs dyed the color of blood.
It was sluggish though, looking somewhat ill or sickly. He managed to elude it and swung his weapon around like he had been taught. The fangs of his saw bit into the thin flesh and then tore it asunder, releasing a spray of crimson that painted the aged wood beneath them and caused the beast to step back.
But it was undeterred from trying again. The beast snarled as it circled around and then swiped at what looked to be a table meant to lay a person. When he backed into the room he came from to let the frame of the door catch it, the beast closed the distance and swiped at him with more success this time.
The claws slid down the chest-piece and opened a gash in the cloth beneath it that felt like a hot brand, earning a pained sound. Blood cascaded down his stomach and stained his shirt. The pain forced a reaction and Bell swung his cleaver in a panic before it could do so again.
Back and forth, uncaring of where he cut so long as it did, blood sprayed from the beast. It painted Bell’s front as he cut and cut and cut until the beast let loose a pained shriek. That gave way to a dying breath as it collapsed in front of him and went still.
Panting, Bell stepped away from the corpse and the remaining blood that slowly flowed in streamlets from it. A hazy crimson mist wafted off of the growing puddle and slithered in the air until it sank into his body. The creeping sensation of it slipping through his pores and trickling into a void within him that he never knew existed was terrifying, with a hint of jubilation in the back of his mind.
He shuddered at it before looking around and seeing movement behind the glass of a door at the top of the stairs. The fighting had been noisy enough to draw attention from the doctor there, enough for her to inquire what he was doing. She wouldn’t let him in since it was the night of the hunt, but she was kind of enough to give him a vial of her blood.
Outside of the clinic was little better. Three crazed men with elongated arms forced him to climb a ladder to escape, and even then they gave chase until they were partway up the ladder and suddenly raised their heads, as if sniffing the air. Whatever scent they caught drove them to go back down, but he couldn’t go back that way.
Moving away from the ledge, Bell spotted an uncanny lamp that seemed out of place in the middle of the road. It gave off a strange vibe, similar to that of the Dream, and when he pressed his hand against it a pale flame suddenly sprung to life within it. Already on edge after the crazed men, Bell ended up let out a startled sound of surprise.
It caught the attention of a man resting behind a nearby window that was thick with the pungent scent of burning incense nearby. The sickly man, Gilbert, had never heard of the Dream. But he was kind of enough to tell him that his best chance to learn how to end the scourge of beasts would be to talk to the Healing Church across the great bridge, as they were the ones that led the charge against beasts and handled ministrations of blood.
With nowhere else to go, desperate to find an escape, he made his way towards it and met more of the same. More crazed people that wouldn’t talk and yelled accusations of beasthood as they stood around a pyre with a crucified beast. More feral dogs that were rabid and gave chase as he leapt down an opening in a fence to escape what looked to be a small giant. And more beasts that chased him with a ravenous thirst that made escaping hard.
It was too different from the dungeon. A different sort of madness that couldn’t be found in the heroic tales his grandpa told him of. He couldn’t stand it.
So he ran as far as he could, until somehow he stumbled upon Eileen. The woman had been alarmed when he came rushing out, stumbling as he tried to put as much distance from the others that gave chase a while ago. Her blades were ready to go until he stopped and held up his marginally clean cleaver in defense and just stood there, panting and afraid.
The scent of the moon that apparently wafted freshly off him broke the tension, leading to her asking if he was a Hunter and the subsequent talk.
“Even though you’re scared enough to tremble in your boots, you have no other choice,” she told him with a sigh. “A hunter must hunt, even one so young.”
“But these aren’t monsters or beasts I’m hunting. They’re people.” He could rationalize killing monsters; it was the job of an adventurer after all. But people were a different story.
She shook her head and laid a hand on his shoulder. “No child, those that wander the streets during the night of the hunt are no more than flesh-hungry beasts. The people are like that sickly fellow you mentioned, locked away inside and burning incense to ward them away, waiting for the night to end. And that is the duty of the Hunter connected to the Hunter’s Dream, else the night will go on and the innocent will slowly be devoured until none remain.”
Which meant it was up to him to end it. That meant going up the bridge to the Cathedral Ward to see if they knew anything about ending the scourge of the beasts, cutting through everything trying to kill him. There was no way around it… and that thought depressed him more than anything.
“Take a look here.” Eileen presented an aged parchment that had a drawing written on it in faded ink. “Do you see something in the back of your mind becoming clearer as you stare at it?”
He nodded. “What is it?”
“That is the Hunter’s Mark, a rune that shows you are dreaming, proof of the contract.” She pressed it into his hand. “By wishing to return to the dream with it in mind, you can be pulled back to it from wherever you are. For one who still dreams, having a reminder of it to look at keeps it clear in the mind. Take it to use when you need to—from one hunter to another.”
“But don’t you need it?”
“I haven’t had any use for it now for quite some time.” She looked up into the distance for a spell. “No more dreams for me now. Better you use it when you need to.”
“You needn’t mention it.” She rose to her feet and shook off the bottom of her crow-feather cape. “Well then, I must be off. I have my own hunt to attend to, but you’ll be safe here as long as the incense burns.”
“What about your lantern?”
“I’ve got a spare, so you keep it.” She turned to leave. “And take this old woman’s advice: do what needs to be done to get home and then put it all behind you like a bad dream. But don’t let the blood get to you. It’s all too easy for the hunter to become the hunted.”
His hand rose as if to bade her to stop, but fell. Even if he wanted to avoid being alone in this place, he didn’t have the right to ask her when she had something to be done. Left behind with only the flame and lingering scent of the burning incense, Bell simply gathered his thoughts.
This place was a nightmare in itself, ripped out of the pages from a horror story. It was riddled with corpses and madness and coffins strewn about, a far cry from Orario and the life he’d live before it as a country boy. It only served to make him more determined to get back to Orario.
But that likely meant killing people that were slowly turning to beasts. While Bell had reconciled that he couldn’t be like the heroes in the tales his Grandfather told him some time ago, he never imagined that he would have to do that. Yet, to get back home, he had to find a way to end the scourge of the beasts and that meant getting past them.
He didn’t want to hurt anyone, but if he didn’t go back then what would happen? Would someone find his corpse? What about his goddess and Miss Eina? How would they react to his death?
When he thought about them, he didn’t really have a choice in the end. He had to get back to where he belonged. He had to do what he had to get through it as quickly as possible, so he could pass it all off one day as a bad dream. He had to be a hunter.
And a hunter had to hunt.
Chapter 2: Hunter’s Dream
Bell felt heavy as he slowly regained awareness. He was resting on the cold ground, lying in a bed of flowers that were silver and luminous, like moonlight sprouting from the earth. As he regained strength in his frail body, he lifted himself up slowly to take in the world that surrounded him—an isolated speck of land made of hillside and flowers, stones and graves worn by time, with the sole building being the one perched at the top of the slope ahead of him.
Confusion floated within Bell’s mind as he struggled to recall how he had gotten there. Then the vivid memory of the Minotaur striking him down flashed into his mind. He staggered backwards a few steps, grasping where the fist had stricken to find that the pain was gone and his head was whole.
“I… died,” he said in a soft whisper. Looking around at the tranquil surroundings that couldn’t be the Dungeon, a cold weight fell from his chest to his stomach. If he had died, was this was the afterlife that awaited him? He fell to his knees and started to silently sob amidst the flowers.
Miss Eina told him ‘Adventurers shouldn’t go on adventures’ so many times, by which she meant he shouldn’t go further than his level and without preparation. And then there was his goddess. Hestia had taken him into her Familia when others had refused and bestowed upon him her blessing, while he had vowed to support her. He took light of Miss Eina’s words and put his fantasies of meeting cute girls over supporting his goddess.
This was the end result of those less than pure thoughts, in a place where many died every day. Yet he could only regret it now, when it was too late.
“I’m sorry, Goddess. I’m sorry, Miss Eina.” Tears welled up in the corners of his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry!”
He sat there weeping for who knows how long, until the squeaking of metal wheels being pushed forward reached his ears. He lifted his head upwards towards it. There was an old man there that had seen many nights, looking down at him.
“Ah… the new Hunter, are you?” the older man said. “A bit young, I suppose, but welcome to the Hunter’s Dream. It will be your home, for now.”
“The Hunter’s Dream?” He wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve. “Then this isn’t Heaven?”
“I doubt such a dream could be called such.” He gestured for Bell to rise. “I am Gehrman, friend to you hunters. And you are?”
“Bell… Bell Cranel.”
“Well then, Bell. Do you remember how you arrived here?”
“I died… fighting a monster.” The boy could only imagine how his goddess would take his death once she felt the connection to his Falna vanish. “I died before I managed to do anything I set out to do and left someone behind. Now I can’t even apologize to her, or thank her for all she did for me.”
“…Do not give up hope so easily, young hunter.” Gehrman said with some hesitation. “There must a purpose that brought you here, a purpose that drove you to sign a contract. Many hunters have come and gone through this dreadful dream in exchange for something to be gained. Perhaps you too will gain what you seek by fulfilling your end.”
A fleeting hope welled up in his chest at that. If this wasn’t Heaven then maybe this was his second chance? He didn’t remember signing any contract, but if there was a chance to go back he’d take it. “How do I do that?”
“You must halt the scourge of beasts and end the night of the hunt, if you wish to leave this dream,” he said, turning the wheelchair around. “Come now. The night may be long, but there is much for you to learn.”
Bell followed the elderly man to the workshop at the top of the slope, past the doll that laid still. It was there that he was made to choose a longer weapon and a tool called a firearm, as the dagger he had at present was unsuitable for the prey that he was to hunt. The old hunter revealed how to unfurl the Saw Cleaver with a flick of the wrist, fire the pistol for a speedy response, and dye bullets with a Hunter’s blood to harm beasts.
Then he told him the value of blood, of how it could heal and strengthen both body and steel, and mentioned that while the blood that flowed through Bell’s veins was weak at the moment, it would become more potent a weapon in time. Then he sent him off to pray at the headstone and find some beasts to kill.
Bell didn’t think anything special of being told to go kill some beasts. In the last two weeks he’d been in the dungeon, facing off against monsters like Goblins and Kobolds. If beasts were just monsters, he didn’t think he’d have any trouble with learning how to deal with them.
He would learn that the Hunt was quite different than the Dungeon.
Chapter 1: An Answered Prayer
“Someone help!” Bell Cranel screamed as he stared death in the face. He had run as far as his legs could take him and resorted to crawling backwards, constantly moving out of desperation to escape, until his back was literally against the wall. “Help!”
His screams only served to further spur the monster chasing him. Towering over his small frame like an imposing giant, the mass of muscle and the head of a bull that was known as the Minotaur advanced slowly. What it was doing on the upper floors Bell had no idea, but it had given chase to Bell the moment it saw him and he had been running ever since.
“H-Help…” Bell said in a whimpering voice as he cowered. It was all he could do now that he was backed into a corner and unable to escape.
The bull-headed humanoid’s red eyes glowed with rage. It frothed at the mouth after having chased him for so long. Stomping forward, it let loose a bestial roar loud enough to make Bell’s bones rattle until the shadow of death it cast washed over him.
“Anyone…” he called again futilely. There would be no help. The savior that would spare him from death’s cold embrace was a minute away. The dungeon itself hindered her advance in an attempt to claim the life of a young adventurer this day and would not be denied.
“I...” Time slowed in front of Bell as the chambered fist of the monster began to rocket forward. “I don’t want to die.”
There was a flash of pain for a moment as the mighty fist of the Minotaur met his arms, raised in a desperate attempt to defend himself. Frail human bones snapped like hardy twigs. Flesh tore like paper. Last was a flash of pain as the blow connected to his head and his awareness ended…
I don’t want to die.
The next thing he knew, he was floating. His consciousness was in a daze and his body felt like it was being cradled by a gentle pressure. It was as though he was within the murky depths of the deep sea.
Someone, help me.
There was a distant light that seemed to start filtering in from above. Was it the Heavens? Was this it? Would he leave behind the goddess that took him in, the lone goddess that cared for him since he arrived? Would he disappear without accomplishing anything?
Not yet. I’m not ready to go yet.
He didn’t want that. But no matter how hard he struggled to move, he couldn’t. The strength just wasn’t there. All he could do was float there towards the inevitable end, praying silently for someone to give him a second chance.
Can anyone hear my prayer?
There was no God or Goddess that would overturn the cycle of life and death. It was an irrefutable law of nature that even they couldn’t easily interfere with. However, there was a being that was sympathetic to his plea.
It could not be defined as by the terms of the Heavens or the Earth. But rather it existed outside of them both and dwelled within the Cosmos itself. It reached for the colorless soul, cradling it tenderly against its bosom. Such a frail thing that it was… so fragile that it could likely be shattered with a hard touch. Yet, it held the potential to be tempered into an adequate Hunter that would bring the night of the Hunt to an end.
Thus it proposed a contract: An escape from death for as long as it served the will of this ‘Great One’ and a respite to the waking world for every great feat befitting a ‘Hunter’ chosen by it, until the night of the Hunt is brought to an end.
The colorless soul quivered in acceptance to escape death, yearning to return to life no matter what. So the Great One dyed the colorless soul the hue of paleblood and the contract was established, bringing the Moon-Haired Hunter to the Dream…