Full Synopsis: 'Not strong enough.' It was the story of my life. I wasn't strong enough to protect Orario, and as a result the city crumbled and died, vanishing in a sea of flames, everyone I'd ever loved following soon after. I did gain the necessary strength eventually though, but by then it was far too late. So when an opportunity to go back and do it all again presented itself, of course I was going to take it, and this time, strength would not be an issue.
Chapter 1 – All Over Again
Posted: 24 April - 2018
Last updated: 16 May - 2018
It was a day like any other; or at least it was supposed to have been, because it was the first time around, but this time – the second time – something changed. The alteration wasn't small either. No, it was massive, because while largely unnoticed by the populace as a whole, the change spanned across such immense spaces that no mortal would be able to even comprehend the astronomical distances involved.
Everything changed, not just the people but the gods to, all except him; or at least that's how things came across from his perspective. If you were to ask the rest of the world instead, however, he was the one who changed.
The boy didn't look any different. He was the same in every way, or at least he was on the surface, but inside something fundamental changed; something tied to the very base of his soul. Not that anyone knew him well enough at this point to tell in what way though, and perhaps that was for the best. The boy had great things to accomplish, after all, and for that he needed to remain mostly incognito.
The first thing I saw was a strong, white light that penetrated my retinas. A second later I opened my eyes, staring numbly at the sunlight entering the room through the open window. I looked down at my hands which were much smaller than I remembered, before moving them up to my face, touching the skin which were much too soft if taking into account the countless months I had spent in the deep floors of the Dungeon, as well as the scars I'd received while holding back hordes upon hordes of monsters.
2 years. That's how long I had been fighting, and against all odds, I continued to survive. Wave after wave I tackled, obtaining wounds that should have rightfully killed me, but for some reason the life inside my body persisted. Many others weren't as lucky. Brave men and women fighting impossible odds, dying by the thousands.
The ordinary monsters weren't the real threat though. No, that honor belonged to the Celestials. Humongous beasts possessing divine power – the champions of the Dungeon if you will – retaining within them the kind of raw strength to chatter entire communities with a single swing of whatever constituted as their limbs. They were monsters without equal, and as time went on they only grew bigger and stronger. The last one I fought must have been at the very least level 11, and as I had just recently reached level 9, there had been quite the gap between us. I still couldn't believe I'd survived that encounter, but then again that was mostly because of all the people who had sacrificed themselves for me, so that I could deliver the final blow. Bete had been one of the last to fall, unyielding and loyal until the very end.
I stretched in the soft bed – absentmindedly noting that I could barely remember the last time I had slept in one – before sitting up. I twisted, planting both feet on the wooden floor and standing up. The room was small, cubical and mostly made out of hard wood, with cracks and splinters in the ceiling. It was the kind of room I might have considered claustrophobic once upon a time; before sleeping on the floor of a rocky dungeon became the norm.
I tried taking a step forward, and promptly realized something was wrong. Not with the surroundings but with my body. First of all it took actual effort to push myself forward, the movement draining far more power from my body than it had any right to. Secondly, my body felt sluggish, rigid and just horribly slow. I thrust my fist against the closest wall, expecting the weak structure to give way immediately, but instead the wall remained stubbornly sturdy while pain raised up my arm. Yes, pain. I felt pain after hitting wood. Wood!
'Oh…' Honestly, I'm embarrassed it took so long for the revelation to hit me. 'I'm ridiculously weak.' Of course I would be, since this body didn't have a falna, but the realization still left me feeling uncomfortable and strangely unsure of myself. When you were used to being able to shatter rocks – no scratch that; able to shatter adamantite and obliterate rocks – with a single strike, the knowledge that a single light blow to the head could potentially kill you would put anyone on edge.
Oh well. At this point in my life I hadn't made much in the way of enemies, so for now I would most likely be safe; couldn't get attacked by enemies you hadn't made yet.
Walking up to a nearby mirror I stared at the reflection, and the reflection – that was much too young – stared back. I'd done it! I'd actually done it.
Time travel. It was such a ridiculous concept, yet, as I stared into a reflection that belonged to a much younger version of myself, I had undeniable proof that it was not only possible, but that I'd achieved it. I had travel back in time, fleeing a world that was all but dead; everyone I loved long gone. I was still occupying my body, only eight years younger.
I started getting dressed, putting on the baggy but none the less comfortable clothes. Checking my pockets I retrieved a small pouch, which I promptly emptied on the nearby table. I creased my eyebrows in slight disappointment. One thousand and five hundred valis. That was barely enough to get by, and it certainly wouldn't last more than a few days. The first time I traveled to Orario I could remember that I had used up almost all my savings by the time I reached the large city, but it was still startling to realize just how quickly I had drained the money grandpa gave me. I had bet everything when I left for Orario, and honestly, had Hestia not accepted me I would have most likely ended up a homeless beggar on the street. Well, there was always Ganesh, who accepted pretty much any adventurer who wanted to join. Hermes would have most likely accepted me as well; after he realized who I was, and then there was Freya, who would have accepted me with open arms… and wasn't that a scary thought.
Half an hour later I had exited the run down hotel I was staying at, and was making my way around the town. It was called Mirfield and was located approximately two days from Orario by horse carriage. The town wasn't exactly large, and like the hotel I had been staying at; mostly run down. The only part of the town that could be considered even remotely undamaged was the main building where the Mayor lived. It was a common story really. Out of the way towns like this one generally didn't fare well when it came to things like riches, and whatever small amounts of money the town's populace managed to collect, the people in power generally horded for themselves.
I sighed. The money I had left wouldn't be enough to stay in this town for very long, but it would be enough to hire a driver that could take me to Orario. The ride wouldn't be comfortable though, not that that was a problem.
I looked up towards the sun to determine the time. By my estimation I had travel back in time by approximately eight years. Probably a little more than that since this younger version of myself had yet to reach Orario. God, it had only been eight years, yet it felt like an eternity. So much had happened, so many lives had been taken. It was almost strange how quickly things had started going downhill after the first Celestial was released. I had been too weak at the time to provide anything substantial to the battle force sent to stop the powerful behemoth; the Loki Familia doing most of the work. I wouldn't be as helpless this time however. By the time the Dungeon decided to start throwing its weight around, I would make sure I was metaphorically heavy enough to crush it beneath me.
A barren land. No trees, no water or grass. Only sand, stretching as far as the eye could see. The vegetation would pick up again I knew, about 6 kilometers from Orario, but it was still startling to realize just how quickly the scenery could change in just a few hours.
I was sitting in the back of a horse carriage, absentmindedly studying the scenery while the brown spotted horse at the front continued pulling us forward at a slow pace.
When I say us, I'm referring to me and the driver; a kind-looking man with wrinkles on his elderly face. His name was Concord, which in his home tongue meant something along the lines of, 'quietness' or 'stillness'. I knew this because he'd told me, along with a few other tidbits of information such as what his favorite tea was, as well as why he insisted on never wearing a hat.
He was the kind of happy go lucky person who liked to talk about absolutely everything, and who expected everyone else to be just as outgoing and chatty. I'd tried commenting on the irony of his personality compared to the meaning of his name, but I don't think he understood my meaning. I didn't manage to get my point across.
"…so, enough about me," the old man laughed before he continued. "Why are you traveling to Orario? Want to become an adventurer?" I was about to answer but before I could he decided to add something. "No. You are an adventurer. You've got the soul and will of one, I can tell. Second time in Orario then?"
He could tell? That surprised me to a degree, because while I supposed it was possible to notice a change in the way I carried myself and acted, at this point in time I certainly didn't look like much of a fighter. My body had next to no muscle, skin fair without a single scar anywhere. This body did not belong to an experienced adventurer, which made it quite impressive that the old man could tell I was one. Or maybe it was just a wild guess, considering the talkative and almost hyper nature of Concord that was definitely a possibility. I decided to answer with the truth; leaving out the parts about time travel of course. "Ah… yes, this is the second time I visit Orario."
"What made you leave?"
That was quite the personal question. But to be fair Concord couldn't exactly know that. "I… lost a lot of people once. Decided I needed a fresh start."
"Oh… I'm sorry to hear that. Then why are you returning now?"
I sighed slightly before righting myself in the carriage. "No offence, but I'd rather not talk about it. The memories might not be fresh but they're still not exactly pleasant."
The old man widened his eyes as if he'd just come to a startling realization after which he raised his arms in a disarming gesture. "My apologies. People have told me before that I have a tendency of asking too personal questions of the people I meet. I did not mean to reopen old wounds…"
"It's okay." I said and meant it. I could tell the elderly man didn't have any bad intentions. He was just the curious type. "I know you didn't mean anything by it."
He smiled, wrinkled face lighting up. "You are too kind. Though I must say it really hurts to see someone so young with such fresh scars. For what it's worth I truly am sorry, and hope you find what you are looking for."
I nodded and smiled, not because I was particularly happy but simply because I wanted to assure him I was fine.
We continued along the rocky, barren road, exchanging small talk along the way. Well, to be honest Concord was the one who did most of the talking, while I mostly just nodded and added small opinions of my own when I felt it necessary. The time I had spent in the Dungeon had left me somewhat socially impaired and out of touch with the world. Honestly this was the longest conversation I'd had with someone for over seven years. Frankly, it was a novel experience, if somewhat forced.
"It's started to get dark. It's time we set up shop for the night."
I turned towards the sun which had just recently disappeared over the horizon. I would have probably continued a little longer had I been traveling by myself; but then again, I didn't have night vision anymore so maybe it was a good idea to stop before it got too dark. "Yes. Let's."
Falling asleep, turns out, was easier said than done. Sleep in the Dungeon had never been easy. Under no circumstances could you be sure an area in the Dungeon would be completely safe, as monsters literally spawned from the walls themselves. It helped when adventurers took shifts staying awake to keep guard, but still the very real possibility of getting your face bitten of in your sleep remained. You never truly slept. Especially after the Celestials started spawning, sleep was really more of a rare commodity you could only afford a few times every week, and you never slept more than a few hours. Obviously one never slept soundly either – always with one eye open. It wasn't exactly strange I had been conditioned to wake at the slightest sound, and as it turns out I woke just as easily now outside the deathtrap.
The thing is; you could more or less expect any sound originating from within the Dungeon to belong to a recently spawned monster, so waking at the slightest sound made sense. This was not the case out here, in the open, however. I had woken up a half a dozen times to the sound of sticks breaking, sands shifting, and even by the wind itself, and every time I woke it took hours to fall asleep again. It was ironic that I had an easier time sleeping in the deathtrap that was the Dungeon, then I had sleeping outside, beneath the blue sky.
By my estimations I had just barely managed to secure myself four hours of sleep, which normally wouldn't have been very bad by the standards of my old body. This body, however, did not have the blessings of a falna, and therefore needed far more rest than I was used to, which was something that became evident when the sun started to rise on the horizon and Concord told me it was time to start moving again. My eyes were heavy, I had a light headache, and when I tried to stand my body felt like it was moving through quicksand. I had always known the falna effected the amount of rest the body needed, but I'd never realized it was to such a degree.
"Are you okay, young man?" Concord must have noticed my tired state as he studied me with concerned eyes. "We don't need to start moving immediately. Do you need another hour of sleep?"
"No, no, let us keep moving." I most likely wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. Plus, I wanted to reach Orario as soon as possible.
A few hours later I parted ways with Concord as Orario wasn't actually his end goal but simply a place on the way to his destination, and as I didn't want him to go too far out of his way, I decided I could walk the rest of the way. I needed the workout anyway.
I trekked slowly forward, because if I didn't I quickly ran out of breath, which was a unique, not to mention strange experience. Running out of breath from quick walking; this body was ridiculously untrained, which was something I would remedy as soon as I got the chance.
I was surrounded by green in all directions, the sand dunes having been replaced by grass and trees of various sizes. In the distance I could just barely hint the large, cylindrical structure that was Orario's majestic outer wall. I was actually surprised at its size for a moment, which would normally have been strange considering I had spent quite a lot of time inside the city. When taking into account the damage it had suffered over the years, however, my confusion was understandable. The last time I'd seen the wall – during my previous timeline – it had looked less like a massive wall and more like a circular pile of rubble. Guess I'd forgotten what the city actually looked like since it'd never been rebuilt after its destruction.
I sighed. Entering the city would most likely take a while.
Turns out I was wrong. Entering the city was revealed to be way easier than I had originally anticipated. No tricky forms to sign or unnecessarily complex steps to take. Only, "who are you?" and, "Business or pleasure?" after which I was granted access into the large city. I wasn't sure what I expected. I could remember one time I had wanted to leave Orario, after Hestia's death, and I could also remember how difficult the Guild had made the process for me. It made sense, I supposed. Back then (in the future?), I had been one of the most powerful adventurers in the city – in the world really – so it did stand to reason that the Guild would want me to remain behind city walls. If taking this into account it made a certain amount of sense that entering the city would be much easier then exiting.
Orario was the center of the world, home to some of the most powerful Familias. These Familias in turn were one of the Guild's foremost sources of income as well as the city's main battle force. The difficulty of exiting Orario would most likely increase dramatically if the adventurer who wanted to leave was high-leveled or belonged to a powerful Familia.
The same logic could be applied to gods in charge of powerful Familias. Hermes was probably the only one who was allowed to come and go as he pleased, and that was only because the Guild literally couldn't stop him even if they wanted to.
In short, the Guild didn't mind people entering but was much more carful regarding who was allowed to leave, and while this restriction was slightly irritating, it honestly wasn't particularly relevant in the end. I had no intention of leaving any time soon.
Walking through the town square, it was mostly how I remembered it. Colorful stalls of all sizes, selling everything from simple food to potions to building materials. The town center was bustling with people and activity, the throng being pushed in all directions.
I was walking through the square, now and again turning my head in various directions. To a stranger I most likely looked like a lost tourist, confused trying to find a well-known landmark. That wasn't to say I didn't have a destination in mind. I was, however, having some trouble locating the run down church where Hestia lived.
What? The church had burned down during the early days when I was still only level 2. Was it really that strange I was having trouble finding a house I hadn't seen in over 7 years?
'Hm, I'm sure it was in this directi…' I stopped in my tracks when the aroma washed over me, and immediately I was hit by a sense of nostalgia. I remained rooted to the spot for a few seconds, the gears in my brain turning as it tried to place the smell, as well as the memories attached to the nostalgic fragrance. Soon I was walking again, allowing my nose to guide me as I moved forward at a brisk pace. I zigzagged in between buildings and alleyways, the sweet smell only getting stronger and therefore completely sure I was moving in the right direction.
I continued through a particularly narrow alleyway, past a few smaller buildings before emerging on the other side… and there she was, handing a pastry over to an elderly woman, large smile attached to her rosy lips. The nostalgic fragrance obviously belonged to the many cakes and pastries – the Jagamarukun possessing the most prominent smell – covering the young woman, one of the pastry carts taller than the saleswoman in question.
In that moment a multitude of emotions assaulted me at once; joy and protectiveness amongst the most prominent, but the emotion occupying the most space must have been guilt. I knew she would never have blamed me, but that didn't change the fact I'd failed to protect her when she really needed me. Failed her like I had so many others. She was the goddess that had taken me in; the one who had protected me with her blessing and – in the end – given her life so that I could live. I was the one who was supposed to have protected her, not the other way around.
I felt as something hot and ugly started boiling in the pit of my stomach and suddenly the guilt was replaced by purpose and determination. Life had given me a second try and this time I wasn't going to screw it up. I wouldn't fail her this time. I would make sure they all survived.
I walked up to the small number of customers, who were all waiting patiently in line, and placed myself at the tail end. No reason to cut in line.
Hestia – the goddess of domesticity, family and home – had decided to visit the lower world approximately half a year ago. Without money or a place over her head she'd asked her old friend Hephaestus to provide a place to stay. The goddess of the forge had allowed it for a time, but as Hestia continued to – to use Hephaestus' own words – sponge of her generosity, Hestia was eventually kicked out on the street again. Hephaestus had been kind enough to provide Hestia with a small home – a church to be precise – but she still needed money for food, which was why she was now running this small pastry stand.
I waited patiently for my turn but when the person in front of me accepted a steaming Jagamarukun before ruffling my goddess's hair like one might a child I couldn't help but chuckle. She turned to me with what she most likely assumed to be an angry scowl but which looked more like a slight pout; about as intimidating as an angry kitten.
Blush in place, she growled. "W-what's so funny?"
I couldn't help it; I laughed even harder, while at the same time a wave of fondness washed over me, and suddenly I was overcome by a strange and irrational will to envelop her in a hug. I managed to hold back the impulse however, because while Hestia had certainly been… affectionate back when we lived together, I still somehow doubted she would appreciate being given a bear hug out of nowhere by a complete stranger.
"Sorry." I said, smile still in place. "It just looked so out of place seeing a goddess patted on the head."
"Yeah… I don't know why people keeps treating me like a kid..."
It most likely had something to do with her height. She was more than one head shorter than me, making her one of the smallest goddesses in Orario. This in turn had granted her the nickname 'Loli Goddess', or as some of the gods had so elegantly decided to name her, 'the Oppai Loli Goddess'; she was bigger in… um… other areas, but that was beside the point.
I knew Hestia was a little insecure about her height however, so I didn't comment on it.
"So… what type of pastry are you after?" Hestia asked, the glum aura around her disappearing without a trace.
"A Jagamarukun please." I said without giving it much thought. I did want to taste the sweet pastry again after so long but at the same time I wasn't exactly here for the cakes.
"Coming right up." Hestia answered. "So… you're new to Orario right? Haven't seen you before." She paused, hesitating with an unsure expression on her face. "I was just wondering…"
I heard sighing all around the stall, as people shook their heads with amused expressions. Apparently this was a recurring theme. I had an inkling as to what Hestia wanted to ask of course. Before meeting me she'd had quite the difficulty recruiting adventurers into her Familia. As a new goddess not many mortals knew of her, and because she had nothing to her name and nothing to offer – like the protection of a powerful Familia like Ganesh's, or merely access to simple potions like a member of Miach's Familia – adventurers weren't exactly jumping on the chance to join her. Before meeting me she'd tried recruiting adventurers for the last few months without much luck, and quite understandably, she'd started getting desperate.
I turned to Hestia whose cheeks had turned a light shade of red; most likely because of the many disapproving looks she received from the people around her, not to mention that it must have been quite humiliating to constantly get turned down by every adventurer she asked. "Would you like to join my Familia!?" She blurted out.
I didn't hesitate. "Okay."
"I know you probably don't know about me but I am still a goddess, and although I might not be very well known I'm still…" She paused in her rambling, eyes going wide with her mouth forming a perfect 'O'. She looked absolutely flabbergasted.
The rush of satisfaction I felt had nothing to do with her expression… or it did, but not like that. It wasn't Schadenfreude, mind you. She looked like a kitten that had just gotten a rug pulled out from under it, that is to say; she looked absolutely adorable.
Hestia managed to pull herself out of her stupor. "W-what did you just say?"
"I said okay. I'd like to join your Familia."
I almost rolled my eyes but managed to hold back the impulse. "Wasn't that why you asked? Do you not want me to?"
Hestia still seemed slightly shell-shocked but she recovered quickly enough. "No, no, no! Of course I do. I didn't expect you to say yes. I-I was just surprised" She then widened her eyes. "I don't even know your name! I-I'm Hestia."
"I'm Bell Cranel." I said, offering her my hand. "Please take care of me, Hestia-sama."
Hestia looked surprised down at my hand – of course it wasn't a rule but most mortals greeted gods and goddesses by bowing – before taking it in hers. "Please take care of me as well. And welcome to my newly founded Familia."
Her smile was radiant.