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Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 19 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]

Chapter 19: The Sixth Floor Redux

Silver flashed, gleaming amidst the pale-viridian light of the Sixth Floor. It was the glint of swift steel. A slender blade with a single edge drew a vicious arch and painted the nearest wall with a streak of purple ichor.

The lifeblood erupted from an ebony humanoid that no longer drew breath. Its upraised claw with points as sharp as daggers descended limply to its sides. Its body followed the momentum and crumpled onto the floor, vital fluids seeping into the cracks of the ground from the mortal wound. The tip of the blade then plunged into its oval-shaped head to ensure the kill, as she had the corpses of its kin strewn along the floor that had already fallen to her blade.

Mikoto withdrew the sword as she panned her surroundings for any more the creeping War Shadows. The Sixth Floor had not been shy about greeting the three who’d treaded onto its grounds with monsters borne from its cavernous womb, and these in particular were ambushers that hugged the shadows while the unaware peered around or were distracted by other monsters. Then, once they found an opening, they would descend to claim their lives.

That was what made them so dangerous, she thought to herself before she crouched while sweeping the sharp end of her blade around. The cold steel found the ebony body of one of the War Shadows that had been looking to ambush her and tore through it, exiting from the opposite end. The upper half of its body slid down the slope before landing on the ground with a wet thump. She made sure to stab in the head to ensure the kill. But they aren’t the only threat.

Her attention turned back to Welf as the thick blade he swung tore through the body of a Frog Shooter after he had closed the distance. He was powerful, or at least in terms of raw strength, he could definitely go through the monsters on these floors. And he had enough awareness of his surroundings that he remained on the ball enough to avoid the follow-up attack as a Kobold attempted to ambush him from his rear and slay it.

Numbers were a luxury of the monsters as, even though he cut down another, others were making their way into existence to take its place. He wasn’t yet at the level where sheer numbers wouldn’t be sufficient. The walls were only so fruitful, and their bounty would dry up eventually, but if there were enough of them, they could swarm him—and with the Frog Shooters providing cover for them, they could get lucky even before then.

At least he wasn’t alone as blood sprayed in an arch, the iron-rich smell painting the walls as a shriek borne from an inhuman throat rang out. The death throes of a Kobold that had its heart carved out by steel fangs were glossed over as, pushing past the collapsing corpse, the black-clad youth with his weapon more befitting of a butcher rushed in. Not close enough to be right up on the back of the vanguard, his boots crunched the stone floor as he viciously unfurled the blade while swinging it into the pack of foes.

Coarse fur was sheared. Muscle was torn into. Arteries were ripped apart. In a single swing, strength unbefitting of his slender limbs allowed him to rip through more than one body as he drew a bloody swathe from right to left with one swing. Then, with a twist of the wrist, he swung the opposite way and cut down another pair as their blood filled the air and patterned on his long-sleeved coat.

But it was too shallow in the case of one of the Kobolds as it attempted to reach out with its remaining claws and gouge out his eyes with a feral swipe. The nails narrowly missed as he backstepped, sliding his hindleg back while bringing his weapon overhead. The cleaver broke open the skull and pink brain matter joined the blood as he ripped it out hard enough that the legs of the monster buckled forward and left the corpse to collapse on its own.

Then, with a snap of the wrist, the weapon folded in on itself before he whipped it and his head around upon hearing the slightest sound. The weapon’s jagged teeth found the tongue of a Frog Shooter, tearing into it and splitting it ragged before leaving it to flop on the ground. He raised his other arm holding his secondary weapon and—

BANG!

— pulled the trigger, resulting in a small plume of smoke leaving the barrel of his ‘gun’ as he had called it. The cyclopean eye of Frog Shooter that had lost its tongue burst open like an egg before its body went slack. Yet that was only a distraction for another Kobold that had opted to approach the boy with others coming from different angles as well.

He went to meet them while bearing his own fangs that were drenched in blood.

Aggressive. That was the mildest way she could put it as he threw himself towards his enemies with the ruthless weapon in his hand. Avoiding the claws that could tear his flesh that had yet to reach the point of being as tough as steel by the thinnest of margins, he sank his fangs deep into its body and then tore out its blood and flesh alike while seeking the next warm body he could bury them into.

It didn’t seem to suit the boy who on the surface seemed so placid. He seemed so aggressive that it was like he was a black wolf with iron fangs that sought to tear out the throat of anything that got close to him, leaving him covered in blood that caught the sheen of the light above. And yet, despite how it seemed to be unsuited for him, he was almost at home using such a reckless method of fighting…

But there was no time for the questions that danced on the edge of her mind. They were in battle. Everything that wasn’t necessary had to be shoved away to focus on what needed to be done and what she could do. That was why she took off running, her ponytail whipping in the wind as she crossed the distance with her blade in hand.

Silver streaked as she slashed through the dog-headed monsters along her path as she made for the more troublesome of the enemies on this floor. The Kobolds were easy enough for the two of them to deal with, but more troublesome enemies that could attack from a distance and ambush them were a different story—Frog Shooters and the War Shadows.

The former could provide a distraction or score a decisive blow that would change the tide, and the latter could score a kill with devastating ease. She had been prioritizing the latter until now, due to them being a bigger threat. But, now that there were no more that she could see, Mikoto would turn her attention to the remaining cluster of Frog Shooters bounding around.

Her approach didn’t go unnoticed by her targets. Their cyclopean gaze fixed onto her as one, and her hostile charge was met with lashing appendages. They fired their black tongues towards her like fleshy spears, each one capable of slamming into the frail human body hard enough to shatter bones. That much she could say from personal experience.

Back then they had been cautious. But she had been confident. Careless to underestimate them by appearance alone. And the price for that carelessness had been a broken arm from the bludgeoning lash striking her exposed limb. The pain she couldn’t remember after all this time—much less when she’d had worse since then.

But she could remember the faces. The looks of fear from her brothers and sisters in arms as it could have been worse given that losing her blade meant a War Shadow’s claws could find purchase much easier. The guilt gracing the handsome face of their god at sending them off into the dungeon, even though it was their choice. The sympathetic gaze of Miach as he provided healing without asking for compensation.

Those memories—as well as the memories that came before—compounded into experience. They shaped her and the others. And it showed as, even though she hadn’t reached Level 2 as of yet, she could weave between the lashing tongues while flicking her sword in passing to sever them. Leaving the useless fleshy lumps slopping onto the ground, she rushed in and—

“Haah!”

—silver once more parted the air as her blade drew an arch that neatly sliced through a pair of the Frog Shooters as they prepared to bound backwards to retreat. The third one managed to escape in a single bound that carried it far out of her blade’s range as the viscera of its counterparts painted the floor with a wet splat and purple ichor. However, no sooner than it landed, did the sharpened tip of three throwing needles pierce it and its body turned to dust.

I must’ve hit the core by mistake, Mikoto chastised herself softly. Though they were largely just small fragments no larger than a finger at this level, every one of them counted for a Familia like theirs. Her thoughts didn’t linger on it as the dying whelp of a Kobold brought her attention back to the others and found that there were no foes left standing.

The blacksmith was even going around and driving his sword into their heads. It was to make sure none were feigning death. Not many of the simpler monsters would intentionally do that. But a killing blow falling just short enough to leave them on the verge of death was enough to stab an unsuspecting Adventurer in the chest when they came to harvest their stones.

Though considering how much blood now pooled beneath the corpses she doubted any that had met with the jagged teeth of Hestia’s child were among the living. Unlike swords that were meant to cut through the flesh and sever the vital organs or parts of the body, his weapon of choice for these six floors had been that one. It wasn’t designed to go through cleanly, but rather bite into the flesh and break through the bone before tearing its way out with everything it could drag in the process.

Like she had thought earlier it didn’t seem to suit him at all—yet there were a few things about him that seemed out of place as she observed him, to grasp just how much experience he had. It was more than she expected for someone who had not ventured into the Dungeon for more than a month.

She could not claim to be an expert martial artist, but she could recognize things about the body that happened as one gained experience. Muscle memory built up as you familiarized yourself with a weapon. Such as how you brace for impact, posture yourself to react against an opponent, adjust after a swing for the next one—and so on.

Roughly a month of practice will allow one to use a weapon on a basic level. The more complex the weapon, the longer it would take. True mastery was the work of years, if not a lifetime, as different encounters and experiences tempered your capabilities. Adventurers with the Falna could make that experience manifest from what she heard via certain skills such as Spearman or Swordsman, as it represented their single-minded focus on attempting to achieve mastery and take it as a commitment to continue along that path.

That weapon was irregular compared to a knife or other simple weapons. It was made so he could adjust the length and thus change the amount of force one could put behind it, even shifting the engagement range or which vital parts it targeted. That would require a lot of experience to wield as effectively as he had so far.

Then there were the stories going around of his battle with the Silverback. The heavy hammer he wielded to crush its limbs and could also become a silver sword to stab through its heart. The more weapons one used with any level of proficiency meant the more time one had to spend practicing with them, which brought the question of when he obtained the training to fight on par with one of the higher-tier 1st level Monsters like it.

He didn’t have a martial background from what she knew. His goddess had said he had no experience prior to Orario. But his body and prowess spoke where words said otherwise as he had without a doubt proven he was capable of handling the first six floors of the Dungeon without any problems in terms of combat. He simply lacked experience with dealing with them, not the capability to fight against them.

Even so, she found it a bit concerning as she watched him stand there while staring down at the growing puddle of blood. That which painted the floor would eventually be swallowed by the cavernous maw as readily as it regenerated its walls—the Dungeon took life as readily as it gave birth to it.

There was a small, almost nostalgic smile on his face. It was similar to the expression Lord Takemikazuchi would have while ruminating on times in the past he found to be happy. Then the blacksmith came over and tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to jerk his head slightly and turn to face him. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” he said hastily. “Just… gathering my thoughts after all of that. There were a lot more monsters this time compared to the last time. But they were a bit easier to deal with.”

“That’s why parties are valued,” Welf told him before looking to her. “Leader, are there any more monsters here?”

Mikoto took a deep breath before she closed her eyes. Then she spread her awareness out in the form of black, illusionary feathers. They scattered unseen to all but her as they blanketed the area in search of her foes.

Yatanokurogarasu—the Eight-Span Black Crow whose feathers could span the eight cardinal directions. It was one of two skills that were born from her experiences in the Dungeon, divination techniques that tied her awareness to the world around her. It was akin to a third eye that manifested in her mind as black feathers that would reach out and brush the limits of her range, clinging to any monsters that she was made aware of so long as she had encountered them before.

Her senses picked up nothing. There were no foes hidden in wait for them to pass by and ambush. The Dungeon could possibly spawn more given it required an active trigger and effort on her part to activate, but for the moment they were in the clear.

“…There are none within my range,” Mikoto finally said. “We should be able to focus on gathering our spoils and heading back to the surface. There we can discuss how we are going to progress the next time.”

“We’re heading back already?” Bell asked. “There’s still time in the day.”

She shook her head and spoke firmly. “The time spent in the Dungeon differs in groups, but this expedition was only to gauge our capabilities. And while you have proven your competency with the Sixth Floor and above, the Seventh is where things change. To go there ill-prepared and before we can practice synergizing ourselves a little more could spell death even for someone who has ventured as far as the Tenth Floor.”

The blacksmith agreed. “She’s right. The variety of monsters change and so do how they start acting in tandem with one another. You noticed that part of why the Sixth Floor happens to be so deadly is because the War Shadows typically attempt ambushes when you least expect it, right?”

Hestia’s child nodded slowly. “In some cases, even the walls they spawn from tend to be far enough away that you don’t hear them breaking. One of them even managed to trick me into stabbing into a wall when I had thought I backed it into a corner with a dagger and nearly took my arm off before another two surrounded me from the walls.”

Welf’s eyebrows rose at that. “How’d you get out of that one?”

“I waited until one made the first move and then slammed into it with all my strength so that we tumbled over, breaking the circle and springing up at the same time so I could run away long enough to summon a new weapon.”

That was another thing they had learned on the way down. He apparently had some kind of Skill that allowed him to effectively store away certain belongings that were exclusive to him. It shouldn’t be unusual since Skills could appear at any time upon gaining a Falna, based on one’s experiences or heritage or any other factor. However, it only compounded the mystery of who he was…

No. I do not need to think further on it, she decided in the end as she flicked her sword with a practiced grace before using a cloth to rid it of most of the excess blood and fat from cutting through the bodies of the monsters. It would need to be properly cleaned later, but she didn’t know if they would need to make use of it for the rest of the day. My Lord trusts the word of his goddess and he has proven he is capable. His secrets and how he obtained them does not matter.

That decided she proceeded to help them with the extraction of the Magic Stones. None of the monsters on this level had particularity caustic or harmful bodily fluids, so extracting them wasn’t much of an issue. The lull in activity, however, did open up the opportunity for her to gather up her thoughts on the formation of their little group. “Crozzo. I believe you would be best suited for the role of the vanguard in our three-man cell.”

He looked over to her from the dissipating corpse of a Kobold. “Me?”

“Your strength is notable, and you are experienced with these Upper Floors,” she explained. “You can adjust to dealing with threats upfront based on your judgment. That would also allow for more flexibility for the rest of us in dealing with the lesser threats, so they do not overcrowd you.”

He nodded to her assessment. “I can do that.”

“Then what about me?” Bell asked.

“I would prefer you to be the skirmisher of the formation,” she said. “Your fighting style is quick and aggressive, best suited for bringing down enemies quickly. It would also provide you with a chance to gain experience with unfamiliar monsters by seeing how they are engaged by the Vanguard and then adapting to them.”

“Okay, that makes sense,” he said in compliance.  “So does that mean you’ll be the support then?”

“It would seem so,” she admitted. “My talents lean more towards dexterity and agility rather than raw strength and endurance. In addition, while I prefer the blade I have for engaging enemies, I can use most ranged weapons—which will be essential on the next floor considering what we will be encountering.”

Welf chimed in. “The Moths, you mean?”

“Yes,” she answered. “The Purple Moths are capable of spreading poisonous powder with their wings and are fond of using it while adventurers are engaged with the other threats. They are priority targets that need to be eliminated and I have some proficiency with the Shortbow. But fixing your eyes on them while the Needle Rabbits are present will end up getting you killed. Then there are the Killer Ants, which need to be ideally killed in a single blow, and the regular monsters like Goblins and Kobolds that will be stronger and smarter than before.”

Not only did the enemy variety increase but so did their numbers and tactics. That was why venturing any lower alone or without preparation was such a hazard. It was very easy to become cornered and killed if you were careless or simply unlucky.

“With your skill, you would be able to pick them off while remaining aware of your surroundings enough that you could keep us from running into trouble or being caught off-guard…” Welf looked down intently at the body of a War Shadow before asking, “If you guys don’t mind, can I take some of the drop items to make some weapons to help out?”

“We’ll have to set some kind of rule in place in the future about how we split those in the future, but I have no qualms if you intend to use them for our expeditions,” she said offhand. Drop Items had more value than the magic stone fragments at these levels. They could compensate for the potential losses from not going with their normal partners, so it might cause conflict in the future. “What about you, Cranel?”

He was the one who would benefit the most, being the only one who hadn’t gone further and the only one with a single member of his Familia. Yet he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure.”

“Thanks. Since our numbers are fewer, we’ll need to make up with better experience, abilities, and equipment. I can only provide a little of the former and both of your skills beat out mine, but the latter I can do something about. The War Shadow Finger Blades can be shaped into daggers and throwing knives that will cut deeper than their regular counterparts with less strength. And the Kobold Nails can be fitted onto arrows that have a little more penetrating power.”

“That would be beneficial, but would that not be taking advantage of your services?” Mikoto remembered that it was his role as a smith that had caused issues prior. She didn’t want this to be the cause of problems in his current group.

“This is simple and benefits all of us,” he reasoned. Then he tilted his head towards Cranel. “Plus, it’ll give me a chance to show off my talents to a potential Contract. I’d like to be able to study his weapons since they’re a rather unique concept, but before I go asking I need to pull my own weight. We will need Antidotes and Potions though—ideally at least two for each person.”

“I can get those,” Bell offered. “I had been meaning to visit the Blue Pharmacy anyway, so I can go after asking Miss Eina more about the Seventh Floor.  That way you two could focus on the other stuff.”

“If you two are offering to obtain the equipment and supplies, I would be willing to handle keeping the finances secured,” Mikoto said. “We can take the Magic Stone fragments and any of the drops we collect to the exchange and create a budget for what will be split and what will be left for the group’s supplies. We won’t need them right away, as I would like at least two more trips through the Dungeon to improve our teamwork before we set foot on the Seventh Floor, and we can save up until then.”

Neither found seemed to find issues with that.

“That’s fine by me,” Welf said before extending one fist out to them both. “I’m looking forward to working with you both.”

Mikoto looked to it for a moment before extending her own fist as Bell did the same, solidifying their partnership.

[R-M]

Bell was in a fairly good mood by the time he left the Guild. He was a little tired mentally, given it was late evening. Eina had decided she was going to grill him on the monsters inhabiting the Seventh Floor every day before he stepped foot there—starting today. But he had been in a good mood as he approached the usual side-street on West Main that would lead him back home.

Then the smell hit him.

It was the all-too-familiar scent of blood. It was faint, barely above the hint of the iron aroma that niggled the back of his throat. But its sudden introduction into the clean air of Orario still reached his nose with such sharpness that he couldn’t help but take notice before the pained cry reached his ears as he turned the corner…

And found himself on the streets of Yharnam once more.

The familiar old street was now darkened with gloom. Its architecture turned imposing and enclosed as caskets that were sealed shut with chains lined the walls. The shadows themselves seemed to move with an eerie foreboding as they seemed eager to lap at the blood dripping onto the ground from…

It was the Little Girl. The Daughter of Gascoigne. She was there, laying on the ground with her back against the wall and clutching her right arm as vibrant crimson seeped from her fingers. Her eyes were filled with fear, helpless as she stared down at the bloodied Saw Cleaver from which tantalizing ruby beads dripped down.

Then its wielder looked to him. The tall figure dressed Hunter’s clothing that was a dingy and washed out yellow. A man who was dead risen from the grave looked to him and his mouth moved, but what came out were guttural sounds and growls—animal noise that didn’t register with Bell as he stood there for a moment in frozen silence.

Not until Henryk looked back to his granddaughter and raised the weapon while she looked back to him with a pleading look in her eyes that said she didn’t want to die.

Then it was like the trigger had been pulled. “STOP!

He rocketed forth as fast as his legs could carry while reaching out to the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind to call out to the Little Ones. They answered his call, producing from the wall to the right along his path the handle of his Saw Cleaver. In a single motion and without a pause in his sprint he grabbed it and swung it forward as the Old Hunter turned to him and did the same—

CLANG!!

—and the scraping of steel-on-steel caused the world to revert. No longer was he on the streets of Yharnam but the familiar road leading him back home. The one facing him wasn’t the aged Hunter, but a man who looked a few years his senior and was wielding a longsword.

And by his side was not the Little Girl he knew, but a female pallum that had short, chestnut hair that was messy and untamed. The beige cloak she had on looked frayed and worn, the tear in the sleeve from which blood ran anew to adorn the stitched ones. She looked a mix of surprised and confused at the scenario in front of her.

“The hell you think yer doing, brat!?” the man demanded, drawing Bell’s attention back to him. “I thought I told you to stay outta this!”

“I’m not going to let you kill a little girl in front of me!” Bell shouted right back as he jerked his arm, leaving the teeth of his saw to scrape against the edge of the blade and leave sparks in their eyes before thrusting his foot forward to plant his boot into the man’s chest. The flat of his blade intercepted it but he let the momentum carry him so that they were disengaged.

It may not have been Gascoigne’s Daughter. He may not have been on those streets that had gloom seeped into the very stone. But that did not change the fact that he wasn’t just going to let someone get murdered right in front of him.

He took a protective stance in front of her, never letting his gaze leave the man with his weapon in one hand and the other reaching for a potion stashed in his pouch. He then tossed it back to her and said, “Use that and run!”

The nameless pallum grabbed it with her good hand before she promptly scurried to her feet and took off running. The sound of the bottle being uncorked and splashing over the wound reached his ears as her footsteps hastened. But he didn’t have time to focus on that anymore as the man’s face grew angrier than before.

“So you were workin’ with that scum all along!” If Bell had to express his visage in words it would be the picture of a hellhound on two legs, ready to breathe out a wave of fire. The intent to kill was palpable. “Fine, I’ll carve you to pieces and then drag ‘em to her!”

Then he went on the attack. His blade swung through the air, a streak lingering as the setting sun caught its descent angled towards Bell’s neck for what was meant to be a fatal blow as he raised the Saw Cleaver in a guard to defend himself—

ARRGGGHHH!!

—and then the sword clattered onto the ground, steel scraping the stonework mingling with the surprised and pained cry of the assailant as he huddled over with his right hand clutching his left hand. The fingers of the latter were bent out of shape, broken bits of bone jutting out and piercing the bruised skin.

And at the base of his feet was a small stone that was bloodied.

“Leave,” a soft but firm voice spoke. It was commanding and drew Bell’s attention to an entrance of the alleyway where he spotted Ryuu standing there with her arm outstretched and eyes narrowed. “Now.”

The Adventurer’s baleful gaze fixed onto her. Then onto the stone at his feet. And lastly, at Bell, his eyes lingering for what felt like a lifetime before he sucked in a sharp breath, grabbed his blade with his good hand, and exited without another word.

Despite his absence the tension in the alleyway seemingly lingered as Bell lowered his Saw Cleaver and looked down at the bloodied stone. It was an ordinary stone that you could find anywhere on the streets. That man had been an Adventurer who was at least more experienced than him. He could put the pieces together well enough.

Even so, he turned to thank his savior. “Thank you for that. I hadn’t seen you when I was at the Hostess of Fertility.”

She only shook her head. “I was running errands when I overheard what was happening. However, it would seem I only bought you a reprieve. He will most likely attempt to come after you again.”

That information took a second to process. Then Bell felt a weight in the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean?”

“Just now he was memorizing your features,” she pointed out as she slowly walked towards him. “Your exchange was brief, but it became clear the two of you would not have resolved that fight without one dead. You recognized that as well, did you not?”

…His grip on the Saw Cleaver tightened and his stomach twisted into a knot because Bell did know. Yharnam had not been kind to him, but because of it he recognized from both the intent and the motions that man fully intended to kill him. There was no doubt in his mind. “…I couldn’t let him kill that girl. But I didn’t want to kill him.”

“I am not criticizing you for your decision,” Ryuu told him. “Merely stating that you should be prepared to defend yourself adequately next time rather than simply intending to fend such a person off without harming them. Even passivity can have consequences, Mister Cranel.”

The message carried. “I’ll keep my guard up.”

“Then I wish you a good evening,” Ryuu said before making her way out of the alleyway. He wondered just how strong of an Adventurer she was to do that kind of damage. But it wasn’t his place to ask—not when she had done it to protect him.

Once she was gone, Bell looked back to the wall where that girl had been. The cut had been deep from the blood there despite her clutching the wound. The potion was one of Miach’s so it should work, but…

He could still see Gascoigne’s Daughter in that moment. “I didn’t really save you, did I?”

The alleyway remained silent as he made his way back home.

But an answer came to him the next day as he was outside of Babel once more, in Central Park. Hestia said to leave the details of scheduling more parties with the other two Familias to her since they all had different schedules to keep and obligations on their own ends. It was just him today, strapped up in his new armor and his weapons a mere thought away.

It was then he felt a tug on his sleeve from behind. He turned his head around to see that they belonged to a tiny set of hands gingerly holding him. Then he had to crane down to meet with the beige hood obstructing the bed of disheveled, chestnut hair. But it was only when his eyes trailed down until they met a set of eyes that matched her hair, nestled over a saccharine smile, that recognition dawned.

And, in a small voice that tickled his ear, she said five little words he hadn’t expected to hear:

“I’ve found you, Mister Hero!”


Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 18 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]

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.”

[R-M]

“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.”

[R-M]

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.”