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 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.