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Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 21 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]

Chapter 21: Weaving The Threads of Tragedy

The workshop within the backroom of the Blue Pharmacy was filled with a spicy-sweet scent.

The aroma laced the wafting steam rising from the bubbling cauldron. Slow-burning flames stationed within a brick furnace that was anchored against the stonewall had brought the contents nestled within it to the boiling point. The water inside was evaporating and in doing so condensing down the residual powder that would serve as part of the mixture for a medicinal ointment.

The faucet attached to the sink dripped unhurriedly. Freshly washed measuring cups were drying out next to a metal stirrer that laid on over the rim. A jar containing herbs soaking in distilled water rested nearby with condensation trailing down the side.

Scribbling could be heard from the table resting against the wall in a corner of the room. It was nestled by a shelf upon which rows of reference books could be seen. Its topics ranged from toxicology, biology, and herbology to almanacs that touched on the weather, seasonal patterns, and monster manuals.

Sitting down on a stool from which the fluffy brown tail that marked her as a Chienthrope swayed off to one side was Naaza Erisuis.

She was dressed in a long skirt with a tunic that was asymmetrical, the left sleeve being short enough to expose her bare arm while the right one hid it from view completely. Her purple eyes half-hidden behind messy locks of brown hair were fixed onto a set of six vials that were all filled with the base fluids for a work in progress. It was the new potion she had been working on for such a long time.

Countless hours of studying various texts. Experiments with the different materials to create an optimal solution. Deriving the mixing patterns to ensure effectiveness had been a nightmare. But all together they brought her to this moment as she slowly added individual reagents one-by-one to the set of rows and see how they reacted.

The first vial’s color turned a shade of purple. Her nose, which was her sharpest sense, detected the faint hint of a rotting fruit scent that had resulted. The medicine had become a poison due to the chemical reaction from the extract, exacerbating the wrong properties. She capped it to stop the smell from spreading and chalked it up as the first failure.

The second vial’s color slowly turned into a light red hue. Light bubbling from the vial showed the chemical reaction was a lot more violent than intended. She couldn’t detect the previous scent when it had finished, indicating that it had removed part of the compound and the intended use of the finished result. Another failure.

The third and fourth vials didn’t fare much better. And considering she had diluted the materials in spring water from the Middle Floor of the Dungeon that had revitalizing properties, that meant it had cost them quite a bit. More so since the fountain tended to dry up depending on the timing and how long it would take to well up again.

Once she set down the second-to-last vial, another failure, the despair that has slowly been swelling in her chest returned. She was so sure that one of them would work. That was why she had spent so much time researching every possible combination. Not to mention the costs of gathering the reagent components and how dire their financial situation was. If this didn’t work…

It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Her left fingers instinctively reached for her right shoulder, where flesh gave way to smooth metal inlaid at the joints with gemstones beneath the cloth. The artificial limb there was a masterwork that could only be wrought by the hands of one who had reached the pinnacle of skill with their craft. Not merely some prosthetic that was shoddy and would render her unable to work, but possessing tactile feedback for unwavering precision and additional sensory input.

It was the embodiment of Lord Miach’s generosity.

And the embodiment of her sin in dragging such a wonderous god into poverty.

They had once been a Pharmaceutical Familia that was among the most prominent within Orario. Great enough to rival the Dian Cecht Familia that now sat as the best within the Labyrinth City, frequented by Adventurers of all ranks. A rivalry between the two divines started in the Heavens above and carried on when they descended below, recruiting children to their cause and bequeathing them with their knowledge.

The competition was fierce but friendly. In challenging one another it forced their skills to improve, and with it, the quality of medical assistance provided to the citizens of Orario rose as well. It was once joked that between their Familia there would come a day when they would be able to cure even death itself.

And then all it took was a single mistake for her to break that cycle to pieces.

There was no more friendly but fierce competition. Lord Miach was cast down into the depths of poverty and forced to bow his head before Dian Cecht. And he loved to stand above and lord it over them every time he personally came to collect upon the loan owed and take in the extent of their fall.

Their Familia had dwindled to only the two of them. The others left them behind despite everything Lord Miach had done for them. The worst of them joined the very one who put them into that state. And their debt was so massive that no one would join such a poor Familia and inherit the burden of paying for it.

It was only because of sleepless nights and the fact that she had the Synthesize Development Ability prior to then that they were barely hanging on. She had the knowledge and could work with what they had. Everything he had taught her had been able to keep them afloat until now.

But only just that.

They had been relegated to a small store nestled so far away from the main street that customers were scarce. The name of their Familia no longer reached the ears of the upper ranks of Adventurers, but instead the poor and desperate. They had no hope of ever climbing out of poverty within her lifetime when the very debt itself had been taken in her name. And yet…

He cried tears of joy when he saw her arm work for the first time. He thanked her for working so hard for his sake. He never blamed her for their fall into ruin. He smiled every time he saw her to this day.

He still loved a woman like her who had dragged him down into poverty and shame.

…It was an innocent but unforgivable sin to drag a man like Lord Miach so low. Her mistake had cost him everything. His status, his Familia, and even his pride as one of the divine. Yet he asked for so little in return.

She had to atone. And the only way to do so was to undo her mistake. To raise him up even higher than before. If it was for his sake, then she’d do whatever it took. She would sacrifice anything for the sake of it.

…The shift in the scent had been subtle. It had been something that had almost eluded even her keen senses. But it hadn’t. The moment she caught wind of it her eyes drifted from the embodiment of her sin to the embodiment of her hopes—the final vial.

The smell was rich. The hue was now a deep, dark blue. Her breathing hitched as she gently grasped it in her artificial arm and her lips trembled as the fear of failure waged against the fleeting hope. Her unflinching arm brought it to her lips and she took a sip…

The results were immediate. The weariness from hours of study and preparation of the various concoctions melted. Her mind that had been mired in doubts sharpened with newfound clarity. The restoration of physical stamina and mental energy.

Hope blossomed in the form of hot tears slipping from the corners of her eyes. Her atonement. Their salvation. It was literally in her very grasp.

She set it down and went over the notes she had accrued for that specific formula. It had been the accumulation of thousands of hours and hundreds of experimentation using nearly every material that she could get her hands on. Some of it was through legitimate means but others less so, Adventurers who possessed damaged goods that wouldn’t be able to fetch a decent price at the Guild or were willing to run an unofficial Quest for the sake of tax-free valis.

The secret component until now was something actually common, but getting her hands on them had been a gamble considering it could be constituted as contraband depending on how it was obtained. If it was listed for medicinal purposes and a fee was paid, then she could have gotten it through legitimate means since they were a Pharmaceutical Familia. But given the costs and how she had to keep quiet on what she was doing to avoid Dian Cect and Amid taking away her only chance, she had elected disreputable means.

Monster eggs were the final thing that had been missing. They were something that existed only outside of the Dungeon. Monsters born within the womb of that hellish place possessed unparalleled strength because their magic stones came straight from the source. But it was a different story for monsters outside of it.

The Ancient Era had long passed and with the Age of the Gods came their decline. Their strength wavered and the ones that were above had to resort to instinctually breeding and reproducing via laying eggs. Without a direct connection to the Dungeon the magic stones that crystallized within their eggs and gave them life diminished in size and the power they provided. As a result, their individual strength wavered over hundreds of generations even as their numbers remained high.

Such small magic stones weren’t even fit for most of the technology used today, which was why Orario being able to export them from the Dungeon made it a global power. Drop items were also rarer because they were so weak that the magic wouldn’t be able to concentrate within individual parts as easily. That’s why no Adventurer would think to look outside the Dungeon for something of value from the monsters.

Her desperation had led to her taking the gamble and it paid off. In order to support the growing lives inside of them the eggs had to have special nutrients within the yolk that the embryos could sustain themselves off until they hatched and were ready to survive on their own. Isolating and refining it to take out the most essential components had given her the key to the stimulation of Mind production.

That being said the result she had now was so minuscule that it wouldn’t be enough to just resort to collecting the eggs of Goblins. If she took into account that larger monsters would require more proportionally potent nutrients to sustain them as they grew, then she would need something from the Large category and ideally more ravenous. Something that needed a high intake to survive out of the egg would need more nutrients inside of it.

She reached for a bestiary that was a remnant of her days as an Adventurer. Her eyes skimmed over the pages until they settled on Bloodsaurus, a Level Three Monster due to where it was located and the strength it possessed. It was a species normally only found on the Thirtieth floor within an area known as the Dense Forest Ravine, a heavily forested area that was high in humidity and semi-tropical temperatures. The nature of the floor meant even crops spawned there though most Agricultural Familia lacked anyone capable of heading that deep to retrieve them personally.

That in mind she pulled out a map of the surroundings and searched for all the forested areas around the Labyrinth City, even past the Fianna’s Causeway. Then reached for a listing of travel routes in and out of Orario meant for merchants. They contained warnings for them along with sightings of monsters that were used to determine the price of hiring an escort.

Her organic hand settled on one place in particular—The Deep Seoro Forest. It was located at the base of the Alm Mountains located east of Orario. It boasted the closest terrain to that of their native environment and there were sightings, so she knew that she could get them there. The problem was how to do so discreetly.

The formula would only be valuable as a bargaining tool for her debt if it was unknown until she finished. Dian Cect would notice if she put out a Quest for someone to retrieve the eggs and then it would lose its value. And even if the Bloodsaurus weren’t nearly as much of a threat as if they were born in the Dungeon, the costs of clearing them out to retrieve the eggs from their nests would be… not inconsequential.

…Focus on the problem in front of you. She shelved that for the moment since if she couldn’t cross the immediate problem then she wouldn’t get anywhere. Namely the Blue PapillionPapillion Wings being one of the key components.

It was one of the few monsters that could actively heal others. The regenerative and restorative properties of one of the rarest monsters on the Upper Floors were very much desired for any Medical Familia. So much so that most of the experiments leading up to this one consisted of it.

It was also expensive due to those reasons. Not only was the monster in question rare, but the floor was one where Killer Ants spawned. Since they could cause a Monster Parade on their own and had such hard shells, requesting someone retrieve the amount she needed would be something she couldn’t afford.

It would be a different story if she could still go there herself, but…

Her thick drooping ears rose as the slightly tarnished brass bell affixed to the front door jingled. It was too soon for Dian Cect to be arriving. She rose to her feet and made for the door that would lead from the workshop to the storefront, cracking it open to see who had stepped into their little shop.

It turned out to be Bell Cranel who passed through the entrance. He was closing the door gently, shutting out the amber rays of the evening sun and leaving only the artificial light of the magic-stone lanterns to illuminate the interior around them. His red eyes seemed nearly as tired as hers while they skimmed the wooden shelves that lined the walls and rose to his chest.

The rows contained containers and bottles that housed different sundries suitable for the daily living of residents that one would expect from a pharmacy. She had made them for non-Adventurers to expand their clientele by providing shampoo and soaps for cleanliness, containers of small pills or bottles of remedies meant for simple ailments, and salves that could be applied to bruises and injuries to numb the pain and stem the flow of blood. None of which Adventurers really needed but civilians found them useful.

Lord Miach had introduced them. He was a nice but gullible boy, courteous enough that he even looked down at his boots to make sure he wasn’t bringing in too much excessive dirt into the store before he stepped off the welcoming mat. She appreciated that.

The grating of hinges drew his vision towards the back of a long, wooden counter that had a small pile of books stacked over on the left side with a hefty pouch tied atop it. She stepped out of the iron-banded wooden door nestled behind two cabinet shelves that had glass doors covering them and greeted him in a soft voice. “Have you come to buy something, Bell?”

He gave a slight nod of his head before he approached the counter. “I’ve come to buy Antidotes and Potions. Two of each for now.”

“Antidotes?” Her head tilted for a moment before she looked over to the left shelf where there were vials stationed that had a variety of different colors. Those were the ones that dealt with things outside of plain damage—mental exhaustion and status ailments. The ones on the right were those meant for restoring one’s health but were mostly plain colored. “Have you already made it all the way down to the Seventh Floor already?”

“That’s right,” Bell answered. “I found myself into a party with two others thanks to Lady Hestia and we’re heading down to that floor soon. But since there are monsters that can inflict poison, it was decided that we should get supplies ready.”

“I suppose someone who could kill a Silverback wouldn’t have any trouble getting that far so soon.” There was a slight hum in her throat as she turned back towards the door she had entered through for a moment and considered his usefulness beyond a sweet but easy mark. Her ears then twitched before she turned back to him. “…Bell, would you be willing to do me a little favor?”

His moon-toned hair shifted as he tilted his head. “I don’t mind if it’s something I can do.”

“I was going to post this as a Quest with the Guild originally,” she lied as easily as she breathed while pulling a notepad from beneath the counter along with a quill. “But since you’ll be going to the Seventh Floor where they can be found, I’ll give it to you directly. If possible, could you collect about five of the drop items from a monster known as a Blue Papillion? As for a reward…”

Her purple eyes rose from the notepad over towards the right cabinet, where behind the looking glass were vials of Potions. They were the ones that were available for around 500 valis that Bell came to purchase, being suitable for most normal injuries. “Since you’re in a group now, I would be willing to grant you two dozen Potions as a reward—a value of 12,000 valis.”

Bell looked up in surprise at that offer. “Is it okay to give that much?”

She nodded her head slowly. “It would be a big help since those wings are useful when it comes to making Potions. They are considered rare monsters, but if you happen to come across them while you’re on that floor keep me in mind.”

“All right.” He rolled up the quest notice and set it into his pocket before pulling out the payment for the Potions and Antidotes he needed now. “I’ll look into finding them.”

“Just bring them straight to me when you obtain them.” And with that, the exchange was made for the goods. She saw the boy off with a slight wave that fell once he passed through it, leaving her to sigh softly as she looked back to the cabinet.

It wouldn’t take much for him to figure out the value of what she was asking if he searched, so she needed to sweeten the pot. But to give him that many would also mean she couldn’t afford other things she needed. Her dour expression then fell to her sleeved arm as she considered a way to remedy that… one she had gotten all too used to by now.

Naaza braced the silver arm for a moment in absolute silence as she remembered her goal.

She had sworn to raise Lord Miach up high once more no matter what. The solution had literally been in her grasp mere minutes ago. The longer she took the less time she had to act upon it. Nothing was off the table, no matter what she had to sacrifice.

Not even if it meant betraying the Hippocratic Oaths she’d sworn.

Or that earnestly gullible boy.


The morning sun beat down over the expanse that was Central Park.

Babel—the white spire that was erected as a monument to the divine after their descent to the Lower World. It stretched to the very firmament from the heart of Orario. Its length cast a shadow that ran long like the hand of a clock that slowly made its way around as time moved forward.

Liliruca kept to herself on a bench in the park. It was set at the base of one of the trees that had been planted within the forest of stone. The little sections of greenery served to drink in the heat from the sunbaked streets while adding to the decorum of the park along with the fountains.

She was alone at the moment, with the bushes ringing the tree keeping her oversized bag out of view. The boy who was to serve as her shield against retribution had yet to arrive. But despite the threat that Ged still represented she wasn’t worried about herself right now.

Because at the moment she was not Liliruca Arde. She was not a Supporter of the Soma Familia. She was simply a curious Chienthrope child watching as the brave Adventurers set off into the great hole that rested beneath the tower that rose to the sky.

Cinder Ella—that was the name of her magic. She had heard once upon a time that the magic granted by the Falna was the manifestation of their deepest desire. It had been a long time since she had been told that. So long she couldn’t remember the name of the person who it was that had told her in the first place.

But for Liliruca it was an absolute truth. Because the essence of her magic was that it gave her the one thing that she desperately wanted above all else. The thing she had only a brief glimmer of when she first ran away from the Soma Familia.

It gave her the chance to live another life where she could be happy.

Like something out of a fairy tale, she could stop being herself and instead become someone else with the muttering of three lines. She could become a member of the most beautiful and graceful race as an Elf. She could become a coy yet cheerful Cat Person. She could become a brawny Dwarf that strode down the stone streets with confidence in every step.

The only limitation was that her size didn’t change. But over time she had become more and more proficient. The transformations gradually became more expansive and defined, going from merely changing her clothes to even taking on the traits of other races. There was a very real chance that even her size could become malleable with enough time and practice.

But it was still a lie in the end.

No matter how exquisite the life she could live beneath the glamour of it. No matter how real it seemed. Liliruca would always be reminded that it was just a dream once the spell was broken. Everything would be as it was before at the stroke of the midnight bell.

And she would just be herself. A Pallum who had to eat scraps tossed to her. A Supporter who had to beg for the brave Adventurers to take her with them into the Dungeon because she was little and weak to become one. A Thief who did what it took to survive.

That was her reality. Her magic offered her a chance to escape reality by letting her dream of the life she could have lived the way she had when she had found a family to take her in. But she would be right back where she started once the dream ended, just like how that brief moment of happiness ended as quickly as it began.

It was so tempting to completely drown herself in becoming someone else entirely and getting lost in the dream. But every time she came across the members of the Familia whose emblem was emblazoned on her back, she was reminded of what awaited her should she allow herself to become dependent on the escape from her life it offered. And if there was one thing she desperately refused to be it was like the addicts that had their souls stolen by Soma’s brew.

Liliruca was a liar. She was a thief. She was a manipulator. That had become her reality for a long time now when her first attempt to leave behind the Soma Familia had failed. Her magic only came into existence once she swore revenge on Adventurers and their ilk, as if bubbling up from the desire for revenge itself.

But at the very least she could claim that she was the master of her own soul.

He’s here. Her senses enhanced by her magic picked up Bell’s scent as he approached. She didn’t smell Ged anywhere nearby, so she could only assume he hadn’t arrived. It would just be another workday.

She slipped into the bushes and undid her transformation out of view before pulling her way out with her bag and going up to him. No need for magic. Just the face she put on for work to survive. “Morning, Master Bell. Are you ready to go back down into the Dungeon with Lili and collect lots of magic stones?”

“Yes, but…” His brows scrunched up for a moment in thought. “Lili, would you know a place on the Seventh Floor where Blue Papillions spawn frequently?”

The Pallum looked up at the inquiry. “…Lili has some idea where to look. but is there a reason Master Bell asked? Last time he mentioned not going to the next floor without his Party.”

A hum briefly escaped his throat in confirmation before he pulled out a sheet of parchment and handed it to her. It looked like a Quest, but not quite touched up to the extent that it would be posted on the board. “A friend who owns a Pharmaceutical Familia asked me to retrieve five in exchange for a dozen Potions. You said that I’m capable of going down deeper before and it wouldn’t just be because I want to do it—”

“No need to explain to Lili. Master Bell wanted to procure them ahead of time for his other Party, yes?”

He nodded. “I figured it would be the best way I can contribute to the group and not weigh them down by going entirely blind. What we have now will more than make up the cost for the Antidotes that were going to me, so getting just a little ahead couldn’t hurt.”

She bobbed her head along with his justification, regardless of how flimsy it sounded to her knowing the need to contribute to his Party because he felt the least experienced based on what she could gather from their discussion. It was a common sentiment in fresh adventurers who hadn’t yet cut their teeth on the life. That also made it a very common tactic for members of the Soma Familia to prey on newbies like him by feeding into that.

And when they were done, the Seventh Floor was the perfect place to get rid of them.

Accidents happen after all. For people who don’t know better the spike in difficulty really catches them by surprise. Bell probably bought Antidotes expecting the Purple Moths, but really there were far greater threats for the unaware.

Not that she particularly cared if it didn’t involve her, but she still needed him to be around if she was going to deal with Ged. Knowing he was going to run off on his own the moment she turned her back, it was smarter for her to help him now rather than letting him try to do it on his own as he planned. “However, the fact that Master Bell asked Lili if she knew where to look rather than ask her to show him means he probably intended to go alone, yes?”

It was a natural assumption. She had seen his type before and he was mostly easy to read. The overprotectiveness towards her from projecting someone else onto her meant he’d want to exclude her from something too dangerous. But he was also overconfident to think he could handle such a thing alone with only whatever scraps of knowledge others gave him and his current preparations.

Hence why she told him in as saccharine a manner as possible the immediate flaws in his plans. “Master Bell doesn’t have a map or knowledge of the floor structure, so it would be easy to get lost on his own. In addition, unlike magic stones, Papillion Wings are delicate. They need to be carefully harvested or else their value will drop. More so considering how rare they are and how Master Bell has not encountered such a monster before. If the Quest giver needed them in pristine condition, then it would require an experienced hand in gathering fragile materials.”

Blue Papillion and Purple Moths were soft-bodied and didn’t require a lot of force to kill. Their advantage for survival was to take to the sky and rain from above, using other monsters as shields or distractions. Damaging the wings was dreadfully easy even if the monster itself was gone and left them behind as a Drop Item, with the oils of the hands being more than capable of eroding them—let alone how being anything more than delicate would result in tearing them.

She turned her head downwards enough and put on a small frown that one would expect from a child as she finished her lecture with a soft, “Or does Master Bell not need Lili anymore to do that?”

The way he grimaced showed she hit the mark. The implication hadn’t been present in how he presented it, but it was easy to interpret it that way. And while she hadn’t really done so, he didn’t know that. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that…”

“Lili knows that Master Bell does not want to put her in potential danger he cannot be sure to protect her from,” she filled in. “However, Lili is best suited for aiding Master Bell in this endeavor if he intends to go on his own without his Party, as she can guide him best to avoid unnecessary danger. And has Lili not proven she can avoid troubling Master Bell to this point?”

“…You’re right.” His tone was one of resignation as those facts registered. She was more suited for harvesting than him and they both knew it. If he still didn’t take her, he would be implying that she wasn’t good enough even after all she had done and that she was causing him trouble when prior he said that she hadn’t been. “I didn’t mean to belittle your experience, but I didn’t want to put you at risk.”

“Lili did not take it personally. She knows that Master Bell only has the best intentions.” She rocked on her feet as played on his naivety. There were some benefits that she could see from helping him here aside from Ged. “Hunting rare monsters in this way will require preparation. If Master Bell will follow Lili, we can get started while it is early.”

The first stop was at a notice board where Lili checked some of the listings posted by the guild. One of them was something called a Sweeping Schedule. She explained that Dungeon Floors on the Upper Floors were occasionally swept up by Adventurers off the beaten path to avoid the risk of a Monster Parade—an incident where several monsters would swarm in great numbers.

It was a Quest offered by the Guild regularly and reported as general information that was provided by the Guild. And it was often taken by middling Familia to grind up some of their lower members or to help in acquiring the Hunter Developmental Ability. The Seventh Floor had been swept not too long ago by the Apollo Familia, which was fortunate since it meant that it would be safer to do what she had in mind.

The next was equipment procurement. Bell followed her to a shop that specialized in adventuring gear for exploration and paid for everything that Lili said they would need if they were going to do this. That included a camouflage cloak, some monster lures, repellants, and some additional ammunition for her wrist-mounted crossbow since his ranged weapon would cause so much noise.

By the time they were done, the morning rush had gone through the Upper Floors and so they had no issue making it down to the Seventh Floor. They were there until the evening, but her plan proved successful in the end. He was so happy he didn’t even consider that the equipment he bought for her factored into her payment and gave her half of the magic stones that they had collected on the way up.

Lili couldn’t help but think that he was too naïve for his own good. That served her purposes for now, but she genuinely hoped he would learn to grow a little more skeptical for his own sake when it was all over. Otherwise, people would take advantage of him until they ran him into an early grave.

That included her.



An angry shout was punctuated by the sole of a boot slamming against the bottom rail of a large, cast-iron swing gate that stood between two men with the emblem of a goblet nestled within the cradle of a crescent moon worked into its design. It didn’t remotely grab the attention of the nearly immaculately dressed swordsman with gray hair who continued to walk further into the compound without looking back while disheveled-looking men and women were watching with sneering grins nearby.

Their gazes only served to further infuriate Ged Raish as he picked himself up from the ground. The left side of his face stung as he spat onto the emblem itself with a glob of spit consisting of blood mixed with saliva in an act of disrespect to the Soma Familia itself. Then he stormed away past the towering wall and down an alleyway before he slammed the bottom of his fist against the wall.

He had been searching for the Pallum since he’d been denied his chance to exact justice against the thieving Supporter. But the slippery rat had been difficult to track down to this point. So he came to demand reparations for what was stolen or else he’d take it to the Guild.

It was foolish to expect the Familia of the Pallum would be better than her. They were the same kind of scum at the end of the day. Thieving and conniving addicts. He damned them all and made to leave when the sound of boots on concrete reached his ears.

Ged drew the long sword off his back and pointed in the direction of the alley mouth. “Show yourself!”

That was when a stocky Raccoon turned the corner. The man had his hands up in the air. “Now, now. Don’t want any trouble. I just heard you were lookin’ into a Supporter that’s been going around besmirchin’ the name of our Familia. Me and a few fellows have also been lookin’ to take care this little problem for a while now…”

The Raccoon put on a smile that honestly sickened him.

“How about we talk out an… arrangement?

The Stray Smith: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – Forging Ahead


Night passed and morning came.

Since he had a habit of waking right as the sun was on the cusp of rising to get the forges up and running, Welf had been the first to rise. The ingrained habit led him down the stairs to the main forge area where he went through the motions since, even if the workload had dropped and the majority of the Journeymen were no longer here, a few would come in to use them for other work. Once that was taken care of, he decided to go ahead and make breakfast since the schedule for who among the Journeymen normally would make it was no longer relevant.

Bron woke up when he was in the middle of cooking, having also woken up early since he needed to handle Silver Guild business such as deliveries and the like. He looked at the meal that was being made and, once it was clear there was enough being prepared for all the apprentices, nodded approvingly. Then he left out to handle the deliveries to the local shops he had a contract with for business.

Welf had finished making the morning meal when the first to come down was Sanary. She was dressed in a set of sleeping shorts and a long nightshirt with her neck-length hair left unbound, in contrast to her normal appearance. She had clearly just woken up and regarded him for a moment before asking, “Where’s Master Bron?”

“He had to deal with the guild duties, so I’m in charge of breakfast this morning,” he explained. “It might be a bit meatier than you’re used to though. Master Bron tends to want those who live in the guild itself to eat pretty heartly, so they have the strength to work hard.”

Her response was to frown as if he had offended her. “I’m not some princess who tries to go on a diet while being a Craftknight. You need protein to put on muscle unless you plan to just let your Guardian Beast do all the work.”

You needed stamina more than strength when it came to forging but using a longsword meant she needed stronger arms to use it effectively. Looking at them now that they weren’t covered by her normal tunic, he could see they were slender but honed to a greater degree than the others. Then again he had an inkling that Sanary was around his age, which made the two of them the oldest of the apprentices and so they likely had more to work with.

“Then there’s no problem,” Welf said. “If you take a seat, I can have a plate ready for you since I was just getting ready to make my own.”

She let out a slight hum before shrugging her shoulders and taking a seat at the table that was rather long since it was meant to have everyone eating together. She crossed her leg and rested one arm on the table, eyeing him the entire time until he was done. Content that he had not done anything to her food, she gave him a rather flat, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” he answered in turn without regard for her attempt at being as distant as possible. He could tell from how quickly that argument sparked last night that she was among the most competitive in the guild so she was trying not to let her guard down around him. “So, I assume you’ll be heading straight to the Labyrinth once we receive our passes?”

She paused from eating to address him. “Of course. There’s going to be a scramble to get materials for better weapons by every other person in the tournament. That’s part of why you’re up early, right?”

“Not in particular,” Welf admitted. “I’m used to waking early. But rather than hurry through since I haven’t been there before, I intended to make preparations and finalize the technique for the weapon I plan to use in the tournament. That way I won’t have to butt heads with everyone else hurrying in the morning.”

Red eyes scrutinized his answer for a moment before she shut them. “Suit yourself.”

The small talk ended there as both of them finished their meal. Sanary gave him the courtesy of complimenting it before she headed up to one of the two bathrooms to get herself ready for the day. Welf stayed below to clean up after himself.

That was when Bron returned with a bit of news that the shop was selling Iron Ore at a steep discount, which was pretty good considering how it neatly broke down into three sets of elemental ores due to its composition. Since Welf was already awake he gave him some boam and told him to go and purchase some for whatever he had planned before the news spread around and they sold out in a hurry.

Welf set out since he had intended to go shopping for the Labyrinth exploration either way. He already had an idea of how to get the elemental ore he needed without using Iron Ore, so he didn’t feel the need to buy as much as he could. Instead, he wanted to make sure he had enough supplies for the trip—Amulets that warded away Stray Summons, Silturn Water in case his mana reserves dropped, etc.

By the time he returned the other apprentices, barring Pratty, were already eating and getting ready for the day. The Central Tower official who oversaw the issuing of Labyrinth passes had come by while he was out and handed Bron theirs. The Silver Master passed them along before Welf returned to his room and took a seat at the nearby desk.

The stray smith then set aside the ores he bought and started with the design of the blade. He needed the details of its structure before he could work out the ratio of elemental ores and how they would be implemented. He was using his current sword as a model, but he wanted there to be room for some flexibility and change.

That was another reason he planned to visit the Labyrinth later. He wanted to get a better scope of the sorts of creatures he would be using it against, along with the tournament. That way he could make something reliable enough to last in battle without neglecting the offensive capabilities.

It was when he was midway through the designing that Urus roused from what passed as slumber. Even though the Summonite Gem allowed her to return to her home realm and be called forth again at will, she seemed to prefer to stay closer to him. But since she was still unused to her new form and he didn’t want to risk waking to find that she had lit his room on fire while in a dream, they had settled on her sleeping in the forge.

She drifted closer until her flame-woven arms rested over his shoulders. It felt like nestling against a softly burning hearth, warm but not unpleasantly so. Then he spotted her incandescent eyes falling onto what he was working on and felt her gentle brush of a question against his mind.

“We’ll spend time practicing with some simple materials to get used to the process before moving on to Iron Ore tomorrow,” he answered in turn. The Iron Ore had set amounts of the elemental ores but she wasn’t experienced in pulling all three. Better to start one at a time with lesser materials and work their way up. “I’ll go ask Bron if he has any advice on the ratio distribution now since he’ll likely be busy with the others.”

Urus hung herself over his shoulders in what he presumed was a comfortable position as he made his way toward the stairs. But, before he could get down them, bickering came in from the base of it below. The voices belonged to Sanary and Pratty.

“I’m not asking for you to give it to me for free,” Pratty said with her voice unusually forceful compared to normal. She was leaning forward with Kutty on the top of her head, trying to stack up to Sanary’s height. “Just sell me one so I can make my weapon!”

Sanary merely looked down upon her, arms crossed and annoyed. “I said no. It’s your own fault for being so slow.”

“What are you two arguing about?” Welf asked as he began to make his way down the stairwell. Urus was leaning over his shoulder far enough that if she needed a center of balance she certainly would have tipped over.

Pratty’s blue eyes looked up towards him for support as she pointed an accusative finger toward Sanary. “Welf, get this! She bought up the last of the Iron Ore that Master told us was on sale. Even when I’m offering to pay for it, she won’t sell me any so I can’t make the technique that he gave me—and without a weapon, I can’t go into the Labyrinth either. It’s sabotage.”

The red-haired swordswoman bristled. “It’s not! I just so happen to buy what was left after that guy in green bought up the rest. The fact that everyone else got theirs before you is because you were so slow waking up. You’ve no one to blame but yourself.”

Welf sighed as he got the gist of the situation. Everyone else had gotten news of the sale within the Silver Guild and went out to buy it after breakfast. But because Pratty had a habit of sleeping so long she was late to get hers. No materials meant she couldn’t forge whatever weapon it was that Bron had given her, and with no weapon going into a place filled with hostile creatures was a death wish.

Add that with the fact that by their own tenets Craftknights only wielded weapons that they themselves made, Pratty was stuck unless she gathered up various items to turn into materials. But she didn’t have a good scope of what was needed since that came with time and experience. All which she lacked as an apprentice that never forged a weapon.

“Pratty, Sanary does have the right of it. You’re rivals with one another and every Iron Ore she gives you is one less she can use in her own forging.” The look of betrayal she gave him contrasted with the expression that came across the older girl’s face at the acknowledgment. “That being said, I can afford to part with a single Iron Ore for whatever price you were offering to pay her. Just leave the boam on my desk and take your time since you likely won’t have the materials to spare, and I can’t justify more than that for my own project.”

Pratty accepted that with an energetic jump that caused her Guardian Beast to settle for floating in the air rather than being tossed around. She then ran past Sanary and hugged him. “Thanks, Welf! I’ll show you my weapon when I’m done!”

She was in and out of his workshop within five seconds before she locked herself into her workshop.

Sanary only shook her head but said nothing else. She just continued down the stairs without looking back. Considering that she had her battle clothes and her sword on her back, he could only assume that she was getting ready to go to the Labyrinth.

Welf hoped that things between her and Pratty improved. They were all members of the same guild in the end. Just because they were rivals didn’t mean they needed to be enemies.


Pratty shut the door to her workshop once her Guardian Beast floated in behind her. “Thanks to Welf being reasonable, we can get started on our first weapon. Isn’t it exciting, Kutty?”

She unfurled the technique given to her by the Silver Master and laid it out on the table. It was called the [Novice Knife] and was meant for beginning Journeymen to craft once they had their Guardian Beast due to the lack of complexities. It was just a multi-purpose knife that was well-balanced and cost-efficient when it came to materials to make a Sword-Type weapon—the kind of weapon her father used the most.

It only required ten elemental ores—five Fire Ores and Wind Ores. The fire ones would be turned into the blade and the tang. The wind ones would be turned into the hilt and pommel. It was a pretty plain weapon, but Master Bron had assured her it would be fine for her to get a feel for using a weapon.

The magical beast only regarded the design for a moment before letting out an unimpressed, “Ku.

Pratty puffed out her cheeks at the response. She couldn’t tell if his dismissive attitude was towards the weapon itself being simplistic, since he had probably worked on more impressive things with her father, or if he just wasn’t interested at all. She was still having trouble getting a read on his behavior at times.

“Anyway, Master Bron said that it was simple enough to us make and use,” Pratty continued as she went over to the forge and lit it. “You might be rusty since you were out of practice for three years, but I’ll be counting on your help.”

That done she waited until the forge was hot before she added the pink crystals that contained the blessings of Parista within them to one of the chambers that made up the forge. The red-hot flames in it began to turn a more vibrant hue as the crystals broke down and became kindling to imbue the fire with the ability to burn away the material essence. Then she slid the Iron Ore into that section of the forge and closed it shut, watching through the pane as the transformation happened.

The materials lapped by the flames began to glow as the heat sank in. There was a mixture of colors swimming around loosely that she could make out as they bled to the surface—red, green, and blue that represented the elements housed within it. The colors grew more vivid as the ore itself began to shed motes of light that showed the process was nearing completion until it completely evaporated and the forge was filled with the rampant colors dancing among the flames as they were now free of physical constraints.

“Kutty!” She called out to the magical beast that had gone over to her bed and decided to drift off while waiting for the forge to do its work. He roused with a slight yawn before poking his eyes up from beneath his cap. “The ore’s been broken down. Your turn.”

He floated over towards the forge and peered through the opening before extending both of his gloved hands. The adorable features of his face became focused as he began to radiate light from gathering his mana and then reaching out to the turbulent colors floating around in the chamber. They stirred like they were in a twister, the process separating them neatly into different hues of glowing balls before he made a noise and gestured at the handle.

Pratty interpreted that as the signal to open the forge, so she did. The heat from the flames blasted her with their warmth before the assorted balls of color emerged and then floated over to the nearby tray. Then there was a flash of light as they crystalized into three sets of five colored blocks stacked onto one another.

“Wow, they’re all neat and everything.” She couldn’t help but be impressed. Pratty had seen elemental ores before, but usually, they were rough in shape rather than so neat and defined. If she had to guess it was because he had two decades of experience in the process compared to a new Guardian Beast. “Good job, Kutty!”

The floating bundle of fur somehow managed to make a rather smug smile as he crossed his arms and nodded his head. It was as if he was saying that was to be expected of him. “Ku. Ku. Ku.

“Don’t get a big head just yet, Mister,” Pratty said as she pushed aside the water ones. Those could be saved for later. “We need to put the red ones back into the forge while the flames still have Parista’s blessing so you can recombine them into the base of the knife. Then do the same for the green ones for the handle and pommel before the blessing wears off.”

It didn’t take nearly as long as it did before for them to break down once they were back inside the chamber specifically for processing the elemental ores. In their pure state, they easily turned into their formless state and the Guardian Beast could force them together into a shape closer to that of a weapon. In this case, Kutty would be making the shape into the blade and tang of the knife using the fire ones based on the proper measurements that Master Bron had written down. Then they could heat them in the main section of the forge like ordinary steel where regular flames would make them more physically malleable so that they could start working on the rest of the profiling and beveling.

Kutty gave her an annoyed chuff at having to do so, but never once did he stray or lose focus in the process. It was clear that the time spent with Shintetsu had passed on a lot of lessons going from a Journeymen to a Craftlord. Not only did he speed up certain parts of the forging, but he even corrected the mistakes she was getting ready to make, like when she nearly pinched the bevel instead of compressing it by angling the blade wrong before hammering it.

Then there was filing those bevels down on both sides before curving them to their edges. She had to do that before she put it back into the forge at low heat for the heat treatment and then quench it to harden the structure of the blade so that it could hold a sharp edge. Then they would temper the metal to make it less brittle by putting it through two cycles of keeping it heated and then allowing it to cool at room temperature so that its durability was solid enough that it wouldn’t break too quickly.

While waiting for the tempering to finish they got started on the handle and pommel. Kutty put the wind blocks through the same process of breaking them down and then reconstituting them into two individual pieces. The ratio skewed the majority towards the pommel that would be peened to the tang since that was the counterbalance for the weight, allowing it to offset it to a greater degree despite being so light itself thanks to the fact that it was composed of the wind elemental ores.

After that, she eyed it to make sure that the blade was straight before she took it to the grindstone to refine the bevels. Normally, it was a slower process to make sure that not too much material was taken off. But Kutty used his wind to somehow smooth out the process and they could do the same to the handle and pommel, polishing them up before sharpening the blade.

She stood up after that and thrust the completed weapon into the air. “Woohoo, we’re done!

Her Guardian Beast lacked the same enthusiasm, instead letting out a yawn as he rubbed his eyes and then drifted down towards her bed. “Ku, kuuu…

You’re hard to please at times, aren’t you?” Even so, Pratty couldn’t bring herself to be upset considering he had done most of the harder work that she would have struggled with and made it so that they didn’t have to work out any mistakes. She imagined if he hadn’t been trained it would have been a lot harder and taken longer.

She rose to her feet, resolved to show off their work with pride to the Silver Master. But before that, she went over and ran her hand along her partner’s frame which was rising and falling with a steady rhythm of slumber. “Good night, Kutty.”


Welf made for the Central Tower sometime after midday while Pratty had been in the middle of making her first weapon.

He went beyond the guards that were stationed on the outside and passed by a few of the other apprentices who had already done their round of exploring. Some carried themselves straight and sported expressions that told they had made a grand discovery or met with success on their weapon testing. Others were despondent and making their way back to the surface without eye contact, lacking a weapon and evidence of having fled from battle with only their lives.

The moment he set foot below ground he felt in the atmosphere how different it was from the surface.

The air was damp and cool against his skin, contrasting the warmth of the salt-sweet breeze that washed throughout the City of Swords. Metal pipes threaded the steel ceiling, while a long bridge served as the sole path leading beyond the waterway that marked the boundary between above and below. The residencies of the people who came before the current era were now abandoned dwellings, stacked on top of one another with rusted ladders slouching over in surrender from the passage of time and steep stairs that were glistening from moisture that promised to send any fool that trod upon them carelessly tumbling below.

This was the smallest floor of what was once a towering city locked within steel to serve as a haven during the era of war. Each floor grew more expansive the further one made it down until they reached what had been the base of a tower that pierced the heavens. The sunken city upon which Wystern had been built now turned into a den of dangers—the Labyrinth.

Brighter than I expected, Welf mused. The light that filled it stemmed from two sources as a whole: the soft glow of the crystals that had formed over the various surfaces that made up the area and the luminous water itself that seemed to have swallowed up sunken portions of the floor.

The crystals themselves were condensed mana formed from the dissipation of the summon creatures that had met their end within the walls of the Labyrinth sealed off from the world outside. Summoners of eld loyal to Parista called forth other beings from other realms to protect the Holy Spirit of Swords that lay within the shrine below. The stray summons that existed today were descendants made by asexual reproduction, a process possible due to the physical forms they were given through the ritual that brought them into the world, and their deaths released that mana back out into the world barring particularly resilient or concentrated portions retaining their composition after their death. That which did not crystallize upon a solid surface instead clung to the water, the constant shifting of which by the ancient structure kept it from becoming solidified.

Welf’s attention was pulled over to the side by a large pad that was several paces to his left from the entranceway that thrummed with a constant din. He had been reminded before he set out that there were two conveniences that he should take advantage of within the Labyrinth, ancient devices that were still maintained within the abandoned confines by the Craftknights. This was the one known as a Teleporter.

How it worked eluded him—something or other about repurposed principles from Loreilal summon creatures that attuned to the signature of one’s mana before displacing them. What mattered was that by attuning and registering to each one he would gain easy passage between the floors. No need to run up multiple floors when there were stations positioned every few ones or so.

Once that was out of the way he made along what could arguably be called the main path. Since it had been frequently traversed before his arrival there weren’t any real threats lurking about, having no doubt been eradicated by the wandering Craftknights as they searched for materials or the hidden caches left by the Craftlords to gain an advantage over the competition. He was actually grateful since he wanted to avoid combat as much as possible for the moment—he intended to get a feel of the threats he would face but didn’t want to risk his weapon before the Second Floor.

The greatsword that he had wasn’t made through the same processes as other weapons made by Craftknights, so if he used it carelessly it would break. That would leave him defenseless barring the hammer that he kept on him. He had packed two Amulets to be safe as well, to make a cleaner retreat back to the surface.

Progressing along the pathway eventually led him to a raised platform that gave way to a window where there were only steel walls, a singular massive pane that offered an unobstructed view of the world beyond the looking glass. There fish of all colors and shapes swam freely amidst the depths that seemed to stretch on forever.

There was already a familiar figure standing there, admiring the view with a look of quiet contemplation. Her ruby gaze briefly flickered over in his direction upon hearing his footfalls crossing the bridge that connected what must have been the residential area of this floor over towards here. “Oh, it’s you. Are you only arriving now?”

“Yeah.” Welf took that as an invitation to climb up the stairs and join her. “Figured now would be the best time since by now those who found what they were looking for would be gone and the number of stray summons would be at its lowest. That would make it easier to get a gauge of the First and Second Floors without being overwhelming… I’m not interrupting you, am I?”

“Not really.” Her gaze turned back to the view spread out in front of her. “I was just taking a moment to wind down since I finished exploring the Third Floor.”

He could see that she had a bag slung over her shoulder beneath the sheath on her back, with her compact water scooter crossed over the other side. It looked like it was swollen with various shapes inside. “Sounds like you went through a lot going that far.”

“The monsters barely posed a challenge for someone on my skill level. I didn’t even have to rely on my Guardian Beast to deal with them.” The confidence in her voice brokered no falsehoods. For her, it was a simple fact. “Unfortunately, no matter how many I killed I couldn’t find the creature I was looking for. I’ll have to come back tomorrow and try again, but by then the surviving summon creatures will get their numbers back up.”

That was no doubt only possible because the concentration of mana present in the tower meant the summon creatures were never lacking. “And what are you looking for in particular?”

“Not telling.” She crossed her arms as her gaze shifted to the side towards him. “Like you told that kid earlier, the same guild or not we’re still rivals. Telling you would be taking away an advantage of mine.”

“Fair enough.” Welf simply shrugged his shoulders. There was no point in pressing her for the details and it was clear she could handle herself. Instead, he turned his attention back to the ocean view. “Can’t say I expected to see a sight like this underwater. Even if it’s reinforced, the only thing standing between the entirety of the ocean and you is a pretty thin sheet of glass.”

Her response was the opposite of his own. “It’s pretty calming for me. I came here once a few years ago and since then it’s been on my mind. Just being here makes me feel closer to my goal.”

A mild look of surprise came across the stray smith’s face. “Oh. You managed to get in before the tournament?”

“My sister snuck me here once as a reward when I was younger,” Sanary admitted, watching his reaction. When there was none of note, no awe or envy but a mere acceptance of the fact, she pressed on. “She told me that back when the tower sat high in the sky this was meant to be an observatory so that you could see into the stars above without the clouds obstructing them from view. Now it just gives you a look at the sea floor, but the sight sets me at ease. I’m happy that I can finally make it here under my own power now rather than going through a few more years as an apprentice.”

He noticed that not only her voice but her atmosphere did seem a lot less charged than when she was at the workshop. Then again, he supposed that she was treating them all like rivals she would have to step over to get to the top. It was natural she would be on edge as things began and likely would be until it was all over. “That’s a good feeling to hold onto.”

Sanary’s expression shifted once more as she quietly weighed his words. Eventually, that became too much of a hassle before she just sighed and shifted track. “Anyway, since we’re alone I’ll speak my mind. I don’t know what kind of relationship the two of you have but you should stop babying the kid back at the workshop. You might mean well, but if you hold her hand the entire time she’ll only be weaker for it in the future.”

“I’m not babying Pratty,” Welf said. “I’m just helping her while she’s starting out. Someone who never made a weapon before in their lives is going to be fighting an uphill battle the entire way, so having a smooth start can make the difference. One Iron Ore is a small price to pay to the alternative of her coming here without a means of defending herself.”

“It was only an Iron Ore this time, but what if it’s something more next?” Sanary asked, her tone indifferent as she pressed him to realize the folly of that single act. “The fact that she’s in the tournament and Master Bron is helping her should be enough, but if she’s reliant on a guy who should be competition helping her then she’s got bigger problems. Not to mention you’re a bit of a slowpoke in how you operate as well, and helping someone else will only push you further back. At least get your own affairs in order first, otherwise you won’t make it past the preliminaries.”

There was no malice in her voice. It was simply her opinion after the observations she made throughout the day and taking into account what she had seen of their relationship and behavior so far. Someone who moved at a snail’s pace in her eyes having to drag someone else along would only end up with them both falling behind the curve.

Silence lingered as Welf considered her words. Then the stray smith merely smiled and said, “Pratty isn’t slowing me down. If anything, she gave me a push needed to put more effort into it. There are only some things we can only reach for when we have someone else showing us how to get there first. It was the same for you, right?”

The gesture he made to the view they shared emphasized the point. Sanary had been shown the view before her by the sister who brought her here. So that she didn’t need to rely on someone else she became strong enough to make it that far. The path was one she walked on her own, but someone showed it to her before then and she was happier for it.

She gave him dumbfounded look at turning her own words against her before just deciding to let go. “Whatever. I’ll be heading back now. If you decide to go any lower, I’d advise you not to push to the Third Floor. Only a handful of us made it that far down and the monsters tend to start operating in groups to swarm you from all sides.”

That said, she spun on the heel of her boots and made her way out towards the bridge that Welf had come from. He watched her leave for a while before turning his gaze down towards the Summonite Gem that hung around his neck. He had taken the time to wrap it with some cording that he wove into netting, making a necklace so that he didn’t risk losing it. “Urus, you awake?”

Flames gently swaddled him from the gemstone before the half-humanoid frame of the fire spirit greeted him.

“I don’t intend to go very far below since the place is still unknown to us, but chances are we’ll be attacked. I’ll be counting on you to watch my back.”

She met his statement with an affirmative nod and the resolution to do so touched his mind.

Then they made their way to the Second Floor.

The scent of the water was far richer along with the blue tinge of light coming from it. The various canals that carried water throughout the floor had overflowed from the banks and sank some of the lower sections of the buildings. The result was that only the taller structures that made up the floor provided footing like scattered islands in a small sea.

If he had to guess, it was because on this floor in particular the system that kept the water moving and draining had become clogged to a larger degree. The lack of stagnant water was likely because of the mana permeating it. But, considering he could make out the slight protrusion of an eye peering up from the water, it was probably a smarter decision to use a water scooter to get around instead of trying to swim.

He crossed the aquatic boundary that separated him from the safety of retreating to the First Floor. The sloping walkway of what would be the base of a plaza built-in service to a purpose that no longer mattered when life spread beyond its chrome walls was his destination. It was there that was when he encountered his first stray summon.

He had to stop to do a double-take when he saw what was hopping his way. “A… pumpkin…?”

A hollow snarl clawed its way out of a non-existent throat. Its carved maw pulled back and its empty sockets narrowed. There was even the flicker of red within the shadows that filled the space where guts and seeds would before. The stray summon had undoubtedly been offended at being called a mere fruit as it slowly bound towards him like an overly rotund and orange hare.

For he who was unaware, the Pumpkeeno was a creature called forth from the realm of Silturn where mythical creatures roamed and Yokai were birthed from objects, living beings, and the forces of nature themselves. The label stretched far and wide to anything not of human descent, including that which could be called a Jack-o-Lantern in the Nameless World.

An object made to serve as a ward against Evil Spirits, it was nothing more than a hollowed-out husk carved into a fearsome visage with sharp teeth and fierce eyes before a candle was lit inside of it. Life eventually filled the vessel, and it served the purpose of a guardian that would devour spirits and turn them into fuel for its flame. To that end, it was no surprise that it was summoned during the era of the great war to fend off spiritual entities from Sapureth, though with such little mind and power, it served as little more than an attack dog—one whose masters were long gone, and it had become feral.

Welf drew his greatsword from his back. The mana inside of his body soaked outwards to form the protective aura meant to shield him from harm. He stood ready in a stance that felt familiar…

And at that moment an image flashed in his mind. Abandoned buildings became cavernous walls that shone with a pale green light. Against him for the first time was a creature that radiated hostility with eyes that shone like ominous stars.

The vestiges of memory no doubt.

It vanished as quickly as it came in the face of danger as the threat closed in.

In a single lunge, the pumpkin had crossed three meters. Its round body swelled up to more than twice its prior size. Its maw that had been carved into place warped and dislocated, lengthening as engorged fangs hung open—a living bear trap closing in on his head with the intention of replacing everything above his shoulders.

Almost on reflex, Welf took two actions.

He kicked off his hindleg to get off-line from the straight shot it had towards his head. And he swung the sword horizontally into the gaping maw. The net result was the point where the upper and lower half of its mouth clamped down on the sword as the edge bit into where they connected, sparks flashing as the instinctive aura protecting it was shaved off.

The Pumpkeeno snarled viciously like a dog with a stick in its mouth. Pale orange slobber ran over the blade as it tried to gnaw its way past the steel to get toward the flesh. But the blade was thick and heavy and hard enough that it wouldn’t snap so easily. Even so…

That jaw strength is no joke!

He could hear the groan of bladesteel straining beneath the clamped fangs. He could only imagine what that sort of pressure would do to flesh. It might look like an ornament, but the creature was a real threat.

“My sword is… not a chew toy!” Welf stomped the ground as he reoriented the blade into an overhead chop and brought it down. The ground served as a cutting board for an oversized knife. Wedged between them, the thin veil covering the creature’s body strained against the inevitable for only a moment more. Then it suffered the fate of any other pumpkin and was carved wide open.

His grey-blue eyes watched as its form dissipated into mana before he let out an exhalation. Then he looked at his sword. He could see indents in the metal from where those carved fangs had dug into.

Danger from behind.

There was no time to be concerned about the long-term implications of that as Urus’ voice touched his mind. He whirled around with his blade in a defensive stance and felt a heavy but shifting weight splashing against both the blade and his hands. Then the prickling heat gnawed against his exposed fingers. He sucked in a sharp breath as he looked at the source.

It was a Slime—an amorphous mass of undulating jelly with blue skin that was firm from a thickened outer layer. Blobby spheres that mimicked eyes floated freely on what could be generously considered the top of it. A dripping split maw exposed frothing bubbles from where it had congealed enough of its caustic insides to send a lob of acid flying toward him.

Normally, they were passive. But only in the sense that they did not actively hunt larger prey that could fight back or easily escape their movement, which was akin to molasses. It would be more accurate to say they were opportunistic. If there were enough of them to surround hapless prey, then they would come from all sides and melt away their defenses. Otherwise, they were scavengers and only followed in the wake of a stronger stray summon to clean up after them, taking in the remains and dissolving them for nourishment.

Welf closed the distance and swung the edge of the blade down into it. Its skin molded briefly underneath the blade, presenting a thicker resistance than one would expect of a living mass of caustic water. That was no doubt its rudimentary defenses at work, but it was far weaker than the previous foe. It only took a single swing of the heavy steel for the gelatinous blob to deflate and end up splattered against the ground.

“Thanks for the warning, Urus.” He shook his hands that had been covered with the acidic goop clean, knowing it could have been worse if he had relaxed his defenses. “You really can’t drop your guard here, huh?”

The body quickly evaporated into motes of mana that went on to saturate the air. However, one of the eyes that had been upturned by the force of the blade remained behind. The white sclera compressed as it dried up until the point that it was a solid mass, but the pupil itself melted away and spilled out below to reveal a hollow chamber that went from one end to the other. What was left behind resembled a bottomless cup.

He collected it and pressed on a little more carefully. Along the way, he encountered more Slimes and a few more Pumpkeeno. The former was easy enough to deal with as long as they were alone, but considering how aggressive the latter was it tended to be hard to focus on the acid-throwing globs when something was trying to eat your head.

And then there was the Gremlin, which was easily the most dangerous thing on the floor. Not because it was particularly menacing. It was a small, single-horned Oni the size of his head with mostly round bodies that floated in the air and wore what appeared to be straw ropes that had paper streamers around them. It was the fact that it could breathe out gouts of fire that were thankfully short-lived but still not something you wanted to be blasted in the face with.

Urus had taken the first blast for him since she was practically made of fire itself. But even then, it took more than a few swings to down the creature and it was liberal enough with its horn once he got close. He had used the flat of his blade to block the piercing stabs, but the impact was deceptively heavy. By the end of the battle, he had to take a break to inspect the total damage sustained by his weapon.

It had bite marks and scrapes from the jaws of the living fruits with attitude. The acid from the bags of ooze had started to gnaw away at the outer surface. And now dents and warps from the flame and horn of a small Oni—all while being only a short way into the Second Floor.

Bron had told him that the weapons of Wystern Craftknights could repair themselves as if they were living and breathing things. Something to do with the elemental ores and the abundance of mana. So long as they were not overused in battle, they could restore themselves to prime condition with enough time. Welf realized now that it had been a necessity if they were going to navigate places as harsh as these.

The monsters might not have had menacing appearances but each one of them wrought havoc on equipment and could prove lethal if you were careless. And they only got stronger and came in greater numbers from here on out. If your crafting wasn’t sufficient and your skill with the weapons you carried was subpar then you wouldn’t make it any further than this.

“Urus, we’re heading back.” He called out to the fire spirit that had become taken by the enclosing rope and streamers that had been left behind by the Gremlin after it died. The fact that it didn’t burn even as the thing spat fire likely meant that there was no problem with her wearing it like an accessory around her wrist. “Going any further than this would be beyond reckless.”

Urus gave an affirmative nod as she drifted closer to take her favorite place for the journey back… only to stiffen into place.

“Urus…?” He noticed how the flames that made up her body threatened to return to fleeting embers. How her incandescent eyes shrank and grew distant. “What’s—”


His words choked and he had to force down a sudden bout of bile that threatened to escape his throat instead as a repulsive sensation washed over the stray smith. This feeling is…

It could only be described as a vile hatred so thick that it threatened to drown his spirit. Malice so cold that the blackened chill sank past his flesh and scraped against his very bones. Promised death that ran up his spine stiffened in place and sent sweat racing down his brow.

Not like the territorial aggression directed towards him from the other stray summons that had gambled their lives and lost. It was something primal and pure that went beyond concepts like territory and predation. Something far more potent and directed.

It’s stronger, but I’m sure this feeling is the same as before.

His stiffened muscles creaked. His body had locked up under fear. But he forcibly turned his head towards the source of unfiltered killing intent to confirm his suspicion…

And saw Death aiming to gouge out his heart.

It took the form of a black blade wreathed in purple malice. Or rather what were the shards of shattered blades having been forced back into an approximation of a sword. The shards were all chipped and battered and misshapen to the point it was unmistakable that each one came from a different source, only held together by the violet vapor seething out of it like steam.


He screamed as the cursed blade struck him in the chest. It was a true killing blow. The only reason it hadn’t pierced the skin, broken through the bone, and skewered his heart was that he had learned not to drop his defenses for even a moment. Even so, the impact had still been enough to rival a sledgehammer and sent him off his feet.

Welf hit the ground more than three meters away. He breathed out pain itself as his entire body pulsated. The response to physical trauma great enough that it caused the body to instinctively use as much mana as possible to harden the aura as an escape from death.

It only bought him seconds before it came for him again.

The black blade whirled. It cut through the air like a sawblade, intent on slicing him right down the middle where he stood. Fortunately, he rolled to the side to escape as it sliced into the surface where he had been laying up to the hilt.

Welf got back up to his feet and put his sword forward in a guard pose. His mind raced as he finished processing exactly what was trying to kill him. There was no doubt in his mind that what was before him was no stray summon that descended from the progenitor summon creatures. This thing is where Mystic Ore comes from? 

Bron had mentioned that Mystic Ore was all that was left behind when they could no longer seek to take out their hatred. But this was their true form that could only be found down here in the Labyrinth where thousands of years of discarded and broken weapons festered long enough to be reanimated by their grudges. The vengeful ghost born of weapons that had life breathed into them by the Craftknights only to be tossed aside when they failed to live up to their purpose.

Now they hunted down the warrior smiths that wandered their halls.

The black blade wrenched itself free of the ground. It howled despite having no mouth to vent its frustration at being denied its vengeance by every second of his prolonged survival. Then it came flying towards Welf once more with a piercing thrust.

“I’m not going to just lay down and die!” He had finished composing himself after unraveling its identity and his body no longer froze in place. Death passed by as he slid his foot to the side and pivoted on it, leaving it to cut through empty space instead. Then he whirled around with his blade using the momentum and delivered the edge against its face.

And a grim realization set in as the weapon nearly wrenched itself out of his grasp. It’s as hard as Mystic Ore itself?

It should not have been a surprise. The grudge was born from weapons that had shattered into shards and been discarded. Or course once it reanimated itself it would be so that it never returned to that state.

He didn’t have time to dwell on that fact as the blade righted itself after rebuking the attempt to shatter it anew. Then it swung using its grip as a pivot point for what would be an overhead slash that came towards his skull. He put the flat of the greatsword between the two as a shield only for the bladesteel to screech as it was sheared into.

The attacks came in earnest. Once. Twice. Thrice. Each stroke of the black blade left a violet arch in the air as it tore into his own until the final one that finished what the stray summons until this point had started. With a horrible sound of snapping steel, the cursed blade had shattered the massive blade into shards, leaving only his grip and a little above the guard remaining.

Then the naked edge of the cursed weapon came around in an attempt to cut him in half once more.

Welf gritted his teeth to hold in the scream as he felt its sharp bite trying to penetrate the field shrouding his body. Mana flared up once more to reinforce it as part of it was shaved off, leaving him whole even as the impact sent him skirting back. But he remained standing since going prone a second time would likely be fatal.

Not that he would survive the next exchange at this rate. The bleed-through of pain still stung where he’d nearly been bisected. And his head was starting to feel light from encroaching mana deprivation. Welf knew that the next hit would be the last.

The black blade howled. Whether angered by seeing another broken weapon laying before it or sensing that the source of its rage was now vulnerable, it let loose its fury audibly. Then it shot towards him once more to finish the job.

Run, Welf!

Fire erupted between the living and dead with an explosive force that threw off the killing thrust. The fire spirit that had nearly been smothered by the presence of the black blade had remembered its duty as a Guardian Beast. Now her flames were rekindled once more as she stood between them to allow him to escape.

Death in the form of a blade moved to snuff out the meager flame standing between it and the smith.

Urus…” Welf clenched the Summonite Gem dyed her color and writ with her name as it closed in upon her. He had been told that these were more than mere trinkets that acted as a gateway between the world using the Bonding Pact. He willed the stone to shine brighter as he turned the mana stored within into fuel so that she could burn even hotter.

The flames encompassing her body swelled. The black blade that had come spearing forward slammed into the inferno and came to a stop as the fire itself grappled it and held it in place while the hue turned from bright red to deep orange. Then it burned even hotter and became an all-encompassing dazzling white. Even the toy ring made of rope and streamers that refused to burn under ordinary flame evaporated into a formless red mist that seemed to spread itself thin before vanishing.

Cursed steel shrieked. The violet vapor seeping from it was swallowed by the flames as they writhed their way inside out. Her fury began to heat it beyond the critical point and left the shards themselves to grow luminous to the point where they threatened to liquefy.

But it wouldn’t be enough. He could tell from how she was struggling to keep it in place and the metal itself refused to yield that it wouldn’t be enough. Her flames wouldn’t be enough as they were now and the Summonite Gem serving as a battery would eventually run out its charge. He needed to help her, but his weapon was no longer able to serve that purpose…

No. That wasn’t right. There was one weapon he still possessed. His hand drifted down to his side where the hammer he had forged lay. Even after his blade had been broken it remained the one tool a blacksmith could rely on.

He drew it and then charged into the inferno as the flames began to abate while pouring out his will into the Summonite Gem. “URUS!

The Guardian Beast turned her incandescent gaze toward her partner as he ran forward instead of retreating. Confusion blossomed into understanding as he raised the hammer. Her arm extended towards it and flames leaped from the Summonite Gem to wreathe the smithing tool, turning it burning red as it was enchanted with her flames.

Welf roared as he slammed it upon the black blade. “RRRRRRRRAAAAHHHH!!!

The sound of metal shrieking rang out along with a spray of molten shards being cast away like sparks. The cursed weapon felt the strike of the hammer and forge and the sensation of being wrought was driven in once more by its refined kin given new purpose. Murderous rage gave way to fear and it made to escape lest it be broken once more.

The fire spirit wouldn’t let it escape after it had threatened her master.

Her flames. Her hands. She used them all to grab hold of the cursed weapon so that it couldn’t fly away to attack them another day. Then she used everything she had to drive it into the ground and keep it in place.

Metal shrieked as more shards flew away as the smith brought the burning hammer down once more. The cracks threading the living grudge widened and exposed the deep-grey and violet ore that pulsated with life in the core of the blade. It grew more and more frantic as shards were blasted away like scale with the following strike and left it completely exposed.

Welf brought the hammer down a final time and struck the core with all his might. The flames bloomed and erupted outwards as its properties rebuked the force. And in doing so it completely scattered the remaining shards that constituted its frame.

Leaving behind a single ore that cried out as it could no longer seek its revenge.

Welf grunted as he exhaled to catch his breath while the flames died out. Then he reached into the bag he brought with him. The ore was dropped inside while he pulled out a bottle of Silturn Water and an Amulet in turn.

He took the latter and drove his mana into it, causing it to ignite with a cleansing flame that was meant to drive away stray summons until it burned itself out. Then he drank the former to replenish some of his mana to get his defenses back up to par. Just in case they ran into something else despite that.

“How you holding up, Urus?” he asked the fire spirit, only to receive the impression of a dwindling flame against his mind. The inferno that had encompassed her body was now little more than a barely smoldering ember. She had exhausted everything. “Yeah… we’re done for today…”

Forget practicing with the materials. Forget finishing the design of his weapon. Forget even thinking about any of that. Both wanted nothing more than to rest as they forced their bodies to keep moving before the Amulet burned itself out.

They made their way back to the surface after night had fallen.


Dinner had been an agonizing event for Pratty.

Not because it wasn’t good. It was okay. Not to her mother’s standards by any stretch, but still fine.

It was because she had finished her first weapon and wanted to show Welf that she had properly used the Iron Ore that he had given her. Master Bron had even complimented the craftmanship for someone who had never made a weapon before. Though he also pointed out that Kutty clearly did most of the work, she was just happy to have finished it and been given a sheath by him to fit it.

She had been the first to finish too among the apprentices. Trish was still finishing up her spear and Caizo was still working on his axe. Razzy had apparently finished mapping out a set of knuckles and was going to start forging the metal strips meant to enclose and protect their fist and wrists as they punched things.

The twins and Sanary didn’t count since they already had weapons when they came.

“He’s late,” Pratty voiced as she swept the floor of the main forge room for the evening. Since the usual people who would do so weren’t here, the Silver Master decided to put them to work. “Master, should we go look for him?”

“Of all people, yer the last ta talk about bein’ late,” Bron pointed out from the cabinet where the rarer materials were stocked. He had set a curfew for the apprentices to be indoors by, but that time had not arrived yet and he saw no need to send someone searching for the stray smith. “The lad ain’ fool enough ta go deeper than he ought to. Sanary, ya mentioned runnin’ into ‘em on the way back, right?”

The red-head who had swapped out of her battle-clothes for causal ones looked up from the forge she had been assigned to clean in the main room. “He only said that he was going to the Second Floor. Not that he’ll find anything of value since by now it would have been picked clean but, given how much of a slowpoke he is, he’s probably just dragging his feet on the way back.”

Pratty felt a surge of passing annoyance towards the older girl. “He’s not a slowpoke. He just likes being thorough to not make any mistakes.”

Sanary just gave her an unimpressed shrug. “If you’re so worried about him then rather than waiting for him to come and hold your hand again, how about you actually go look for him on your own?”

Pratty bristled at the insinuation. “I’m not a child!”

“No bickerin’!” Bron snapped at the two. “Razzy’s more mature than both of ya.”

The two girls glared at one another but didn’t rekindle the argument before the door to the Silver Guild opened at that moment. Any question of who it was that had entered faded when it was followed by a familiar voice. “Master Bron, are you here?”

Her anger was shelved as she set the broom aside and went towards the entrance to greet him. “Welf, we’re in here. I finished—”

Her words died as he stepped through the door to the forge room and she saw how ragged he looked. In one hand was what was left of his once great sword. The blade itself had clearly been broken to where nothing above the hole meant to make holstering it on his back easier remained. His clothes looked cut in two places while dust was thick in patches and she could smell the scent of burnt metal coming from him.

And she could feel that same sensation coming from him that night the ore had been set in front of them months ago.

Bron noticed the state Welf was in, and his face scrunched up. “I thought ya were only headin’ to the Second Floor. But… I take it ya ran into one of ‘em?”

“Calling it a grudge was an understatement.” He reached into his bag and pulled out the source of her discomfort. It was a dark-grey and purple and it practically oozed malice. “It probably wasn’t even a minute or two and in that time it nearly killed me twice, broke my weapon, and exhausted both Urus and myself before I beat it with the hammer.”

Pratty’s dumbfounded expression spoke of how much she understood the situation.

In contrast, Sanary ran over and eyed it in absolute shock. “You found a Spell Sword on the Second Floor? I spent all day trying to find one!”

Welf looked at her like she had grown a second head. “You were trying to find one of those?”

“Of course I was!” Her tone carried her frustration at having clearly lost out on the opportunity despite all her efforts. Not that she would dare ask for it considering her own pride as a Craftknight. “They’re so rare to find on the Upper Floors, but you can forge a strong weapon with them as part of the core.”

Welf only shook his head. “Not with this one. Not now anyway. I can tell from how much it tried to kill me that it working it into a new form would be more than either Urus or myself could handle at the moment. Master Bron, may I store it somewhere it can simmer down until later?”

“Yea, probably for the best.” The Silver Master took it and grimaced before returning to the steel cabinet and unlocking the bottom drawer. He then set it inside and locked it back up. “Didn’ think ya’d run into one of those so quickly… musta been hell feelin’ the full force of it the first time, right?”

The expression he made said everything he wouldn’t put into words for Pratty.

“Go sleep it off,” Bron told him. It was rough but his tone wasn’t unkind as far as he went. “Yer weapon’s gone and makin’ a new one will be time consumin’. I trust ya got enough materials ta work with?”

Welf looked down at his broken sword. “I should have enough. I also collected all the shards I could. Not sure if they’ll have a lot of value as materials or if they could become another grudge since it was an ordinary weapon, but after seeing that I wasn’t eager to be on the receiving end of one of my own creations one day. I’ll float the design changes I had in mind to you tomorrow morning to avoid something like this happening again.”

That said, Pratty watched him walk off with an expression she had never seen before.

The knife she made felt heavy on her belt.

The Stray Smith: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – The Summoning


A few months passed.

Time had not slowed its halt for the sake of a stray smith that found a home in the Silver Guild. But fortunately, it was within the realm of people to quickly learn to adjust to their surroundings. And so many things that may have been out of place for one lacking most of the knowledge that would be ingrained throughout a lifetime within the City of Swords soon became the norm.

Life in the Silver Guild was one of those things. His days would start with him waking early in the morning to do manual labor, such as performing an inventory of the materials on hand, ensuring that the tools and equipment that would be used were in proper shape, sweeping up the floors, cleaning out the forges now that the lingering heat was absent, and the finally igniting them in preparation for the working day.

He would then be called to move about and retrieve things so that the smiths at work would not have to take their attention off their work. Usually, that meant fetching some materials from the stock room. Sometimes that meant heading to a shop across town for trinkets and heatsinks. Other times he had to make multiple trips to a curry shop since that had been gaining popularity as of late and they all would be working late.

It all had a purpose. Tool preparation had to be an ingrained response for any smith. Keeping the workshop clean avoided any chance of mishaps. The constant travel made him more familiar with the layout of the city and helped make him a familiar face to what he had learned were regulars of the Silver Guild.

Even the hours spent sorting the materials gave him a better understanding of what kinds of elemental ores they could retrieve from them. And that was important considering the term ‘materials’ was fairly loose. He could be called to sort anything that ranged from a barrel filled with bottomless cups, broken fans, discarded matchboxes, and stripped bolts to massive furballs and horns left behind after whatever once held them met the business end of a blade. He had once watched a man throw a pair of shoes into a forge only to respond he needed it to finish work.

He felt that he should have been more surprised when the finished product was a massive axe.

But perhaps it was because he understood the underlying lessons that he never once had a complaint. Even if his circumstances weren’t unique, he felt that it all made sense. So, he was obedient and did as he was told, taking in the lessons being offered while he worked until the sun hung low and the workday ended.

Sometimes the others would take him to a local tavern or out to eat. Other times he would just eat whatever was in the kitchen that Bron hadn’t threatened to kick him out if he touched. Then were the chances he got to go with Pratty back to her house since Amariss would invite him to dinner.

He enjoyed the latter quite a bit. Not only for the fact that her food was quite delicious, or the fact that he was forever grateful for them doing so much for him. It was just the fact that Welf just found her nature rather… not quite motherly, but familial to an extent.

Then he would return to the Silver Guild before Bron locked up for the day and headed to his bedroom on the Second Floor. Or rather the workshop that was being made into his bedroom. It was complicated due to his situation since normally the apprentices weren’t allowed onto the Second Floor at all.

That was because it was mostly meant as a workshop for Journeymen who had more experience under their belts. The ones who had graduated past apprenticeship and were paid by the Silver Guild for their work as employees but weren’t yet considered capable of selling their products to stores or becoming self-employed Craftknights. That was only allowed for those who were considered Master Craftknights—and in the Silver Guild, you wouldn’t be considered a master until you submitted a work worthy enough in the eyes of the Silver Master.

Bron had the final say on if a weapon one of his employees crafted was worthy enough to be sold. It was for quality control as anything beneath his standards would harm the reputation of their guild. Only when you were good enough for him to give it a pass could a member of the Silver Guild strike out on their own.

Some started their own guilds. Some remained independent. Some were good enough to work as part of the Central Tower and gain access to all the resources they needed without the need for a middleman. Others even went to other countries to open a workshop, although, without easy access to the flames of the Holy Spirit (which could be crystalized and taken from the Shrine to be added to their forges), they had to purchase elemental ores from Wystern.

But his circumstances meant that he needed a living space since it would be inappropriate for him to continue to stay with a widowed woman and her daughter, in Bron’s words. Amariss had joked about how he thought she might have amorous intentions towards a young man just a few years older than Pratty. But then she stated it was a good thing that he completed the ‘graduation’ test from apprenticeship by forging his hammer since that had always been the condition for Bron to recognize someone as being worthy of using a workshop on the Second Floor.

Welf also noted that neither of them had brought up the question of him doing something to her. Not that he would, of course. But he got the impression it wasn’t just because he had been on his best behavior.

He decided not to question it.

Anyway, at the end of the day, Welf would head upstairs and go to bed. Wake up early the next morning. The cycle would then repeat itself with some variation of the tasks he would have to do, such as assisting with maintenance or running a task.

He noticed things started changing at the start of the month. Bron was called out more often to the Central Tower for some meeting of the local guild masters. Then some of the Journeymen began moving out of the workshops on the Second Floor and the workload within the Silver Guild seemed to drop pretty sharply.

Welf had thought it was a bit odd, but Bron had noted off-handedly that this wasn’t the only building under the Silver Guild’s ownership. He had several other assets under his name from boats to other workshops where they could work from. And it wasn’t like he needed to constantly keep an eye on them since they were graduates after all.

There were also more tremors popping up every now and again but that was unrelated to anything.

It was only around last week he heard from Pratty that there would be a tournament upcoming to be the next Craftlord. The applicants were all apprentices under the age of eighteen, which struck the stray smith as being a little suspicious given the title and duties that would entail. Craftlords were a pretty big deal and apprentices were literally at the bottom of the list of qualified candidates.

In hindsight, Welf should probably have guessed he would be among those also participating before Bron tossed the Entrance Ticket his way last night.

Bron had said he was expecting Welf to ask any day about if he was entering, but he never did. Then the man actually complained about his lack of initiative even after Welf defended himself with the fact that he thought it would have stricter prerequisites and he had been prioritizing trying to regain his memories. The Silver Master only told him that it was done and to pick Pratty up in the morning to go to the Central Tower since she had a bad habit of always being late.

Now Welf stood outside of the residence he had visited often enough that it was a second home, gently knocking with the full knowledge that Amariss would likely be awake and in the kitchen at the moment. The door opened and he was greeted with a welcoming smile in very short order. “Oh, Welf. How are you this morning?”

“Fine, Ma’am. I came to pick up Pratty to go to the Central Tower.”

“I’ve tried to wake her up seven times already, but you know how heavy a sleeper that girl is.” She let out a sigh before stepping aside and gesturing for him to come inside. He did so and she shut the door behind him. “Are you excited since you’ll be entering too?”

“Honestly, I’m more surprised that I would be offered the chance,” he admitted. “I mean, all things considered, it feels a bit strange that someone like me would be eligible. And the fact that none of the Journeymen or Masters were being selected as potential Craftlords. Apprentices still have a lot to learn.”

“Hmm… I suppose it might seem that way,” Amariss conceded. “But I trust the others have something in mind with the tournament. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will go wake up the sleepyhead before she makes you both late for your big day. Watch the kitchen for me?”

He did so to make sure that the meal she was preparing didn’t get burned. The loud crash of a teenage girl falling out of her bed mildly pulled his attention away, along with her shouting about the time and asking where her Entrance Ticket was. Then there were the frantic scrambling footfalls of her desperately getting herself ready to not be late and making her way towards the stairs—


—before there was a loud yelp that snatched his attention towards the base of the stairs where he spotted Pratty laying upside-down while softly groaning. Fortunately, there was a flicker of light coming off her skin. She had gotten her defenses up in time.

Since they were trained to go into combat, Craftknights learned to manifest their mana into a sort of protective veil. It was normally invisible but upon encountering something that caused physical trauma it would harden to prevent actual damage. But there was a limit to the abuse one could take since it was dependent on one’s mana reserves. Once they could no longer maintain it there was a very real chance that they could get hurt.

And it wasn’t limited to just them either. He had been told Summon Creatures and Stray Summons were inherently capable of doing the same on an instinctive level. The stronger the creature, the more hits it took to bring their defenses down and get rid of them.

“Hey, are you okay?” Welf asked as he helped her back onto her feet. “That looked bad from where I was standing.”

The teenage girl did not meet his gaze out of embarrassment. “Nnn… who put those stairs there in the first place?”

“I would imagine it was the carpenters who made the house,” Amariss said while following down the stairs properly and then gently grabbing hold of her daughter’s cheeks to look her in the eyes. “You didn’t hit your head, did you?”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Pratty insisted before freeing herself and huffing as she turned to Welf. “Anyway, we don’t have time to waste. We need to get to the Central Tower for the Entrance Ceremony.”

“The foot traffic was pretty heavy and we’ll have to head to the central part of Wystern, so it’ll probably be faster if we use the Water Scooters to ride the canals than if we go on foot,” Welf suggested while tilting a head to the foldable Water Scooter hanging from his shoulder. It was an older model, passed down from a Journeymen who had recently bought a new one. Since it was still functional the man had decided not to turn it into materials and passed it along to Welf.

A hum of acknowledgment bubbled up in Pratty’s throat as she pattered herself down and then pulled out what looked to be an old charm of some kind. It seemed like she wanted to make sure she hadn’t lost or damaged it in the fall. Then she ran over to get her own Water Scooter and bolted for the door. “See you later, Mother.”

“…Well, I better go pack her things for when Bron comes by,” Amariss said once her daughter was out of earshot before turning back to Welf with a playful smile. He got the distinct impression that Pratty had not been informed of her new living arrangements for the duration of the Craftlord Tournament. “Look after her for me while she’s staying at the Silver Guild?”

He gave her his word before heading out the door and then getting his scooter in the water to chase after Pratty.


The Central Tower was easily the largest structure that Welf had been inside in his life.

Or so he would like to say. He got the vague impression that he had been to some place similar within the depths of his murky memories. But it was still a very impressive place regardless given that it was the heart of Wystern itself.

Piercing the sky like a steel lance, the Second Floor shaped like a ring left the surrounding buildings beneath it in a state of perpetual shade that only wavered during the rising and falling of the sun. The entire structure was ringed by a moat that separated it from the rest of the city around it, upon which only authorized water vehicles could pass through. That meant the only way to enter it was a bridge of steel and stone that arched over the water—the Grand Bridge.

Welf and Pratty disembarked from the canal they had ridden in after navigating through the maze of small boats that had docked there. They were loaded with goods from weapons to materials that would be sent out across the city. Then they traversed on foot over the Grand Bridge towards their destination until they finally made it to the entrance where Craftknights that served as guards stood on either side of the doorway upon which the emblem of Wystern was emblazed.

The inside was brightly illuminated by lights that were fixed above and throngs of people dressed in the green-and-blue uniform that denoted them as a member of the Central Tower staff could be seen moving about. One such person took notice of the two relatively younger individuals who passed through and asked them if they were in attendance for the Opening Ceremony and to present their Entrance Tickets. Upon doing so they were guided up to the Second Floor and towards the Ceremony Hall.

The room was filled with young men and women that ranged from being taller than Welf to barely up to his stomach. They were sitting around in various groups, dressed in an assortment of clothes that stood out compared to the uniforms of the employees that filled the tower. Some still had their leather bibs that were blackened from the flames of the forge and looked as though they had to be pulled away to attend the ceremony, while others were dressed in more ceremonial clothes that denoted the event to be important.

There was palpable tension running throughout the entirety of the chamber. The ceremony hadn’t begun but everyone inside the room knew that they would be competing with one another for the title of Craftlord at some point. So it was natural that Welf and Pratty would be scrutinized by every single person as they searched for a place to station themselves out of the walkway, eventually finding a place in the upper left section behind a red-haired young woman who gave them a once-over before turning her attention back to the stage.

As they waited next to one another, Welf took a glance over to his side at Pratty. It was an understatement to say that the younger girl looked quite tense as her eyes carefully roamed around the room to take stock of the others while avoiding their gazes in turn. He leaned close and whispered, “Nervous?

Her eyes shifted towards him. There was a moment of silence as she weighed her words. Then she exhaled slightly through her nose before giving a small nod. “A bit. What about you?

Not really.” He noticed the incredulous look that she gave him when he admitted as much and shrugged before tapping his temple. “Bigger priorities.

She rolled her eyes but understood where he was coming from given how often they talked. It had been months and only a scant few of his memories returned. There were feelings associated with certain things and actions, but the lack of memories meant that he had no context. If there was neither of those things attached to the role of being a Craftlord then he wouldn’t be nervous.

It’s natural to be nervous,” Welf assured her. “Everyone else is in the same boat here. Some are just better at hiding it than others. Don’t focus on them and instead focus on making sure you memorize what you learn from the meeting.

Pratty bowed her head in understanding and her blue eyes fixed themselves to the front of the stage.

It was a few minutes later that one of the staff came onto the stage and said, “We will now begin the opening ceremony of the Craftlord Tournament. Can all participants please remain silent until the end?”

The noise settled down appropriately as all eyes were affixed to the stage. Aside from the Central Tower officer, there were now three individuals who could be seen starting to emerge from a rear door nestled in the corner of the stage. “Thank you. We will begin by introducing the Craftlord of Amber, Master Lubert—”

Said man looked to be the oldest of the three on the stage and likely in his mid-thirties by all accounts. His body was tall and lean enough that the sleeves of his amber-colored robes seemed to hang off his frame. He had dark brown hair that was slicked back and upwards as though it was always windblown and had a thin but long whisker mustache. His nose was slightly pointed as was his jaw, but he wore a confident grin.

“—the Craftlord of Jade, Master Ureksa—”

The second was a younger man who looked to only be a few years Welf’s senior and sported neck-length hair that was blonde at the tips and crept its way up halfway before abruptly becoming darker. His youth was evident in how slender his body was as he sported the color of his title on a coat and pants that were half-zipped, allowing his sleeves to hang off his arms. A white scarf that was probably twice the length of his body hung around his neck and shoulders.

“—and the Craftlord of Sapphire, Master Sakuro.”

The final Craftlord was firmly wedged between the other two in terms of his age and appearance. He stood straight with his arms crossed and most of his light brown hair set into a ponytail with the bangs left free to frame his face along with his glasses. His tunic and trousers were a solid blue, while his long-sleeved undershirt and knee-length boots were black with white highlights, and he had thick smith gloves on his hands. On his belt hung a sword on one side and several pouches on the other.

“These three Craftlords will be providing you with the information regarding the tournament. You would do well to listen to their words of wisdom.”

His piece done, the officer in charge of the announcement made himself scarce. The three who reigned supreme and could call the massive tower their castle took their rightful place in the center of the stage, their presence naturally commanding all of the attention.

It was then Lubert deigned to address them. “Welcome, apprentices of the City of Sword. Though it may be a bit premature, we have judged that as the future defenders of Wystern you will be presented with a unique opportunity not many could boast—the chance to join our ranks as a Craftlord.”

Indeed, one could call it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given that no one in the room had reached the point where they could reasonably be considered above the rank of Master. At best, some would be Journeymen in all but rank, having not yet completed their graduation task set by their masters. But at worse, some had far less experience, meaning they were at a distinct disadvantage.

Sakuro addressed them next. “It was roughly three years ago that we lost Shintetsu, the most respected and strongest Craftlord of our generation. So great were his accomplishments and heroism that we allowed his seat to remain unfilled due to his legacy. But since the recent disappearance of the Craftlord of Crystal, Tyram, we’ve deemed it time to fill it once more and have chosen to draw from the apprentices that will be the herald of the next generation.”

Slight murmurs began to fill the room. It seemed that a Craftlord going missing was a big deal, which made sense given the role they had to play. Though Welf could tell that Pratty’s attention was focused more on the mention of her father and he could only imagine her own feelings of someone else holding the title he once did.

Ureksa cleared his throat to grab their attention. “I understand that most of you might be confused as to why it is that apprentices within your age range were selected from other viable candidates. That is because we’ve determined that while your skills may be underdeveloped at the moment, the gift of youth brings with it the potential for exponential growth. Rather than overlook that potential, we wish to see it blossom over the tournament over the next several weeks that will put the skills that you have learned as apprentices to the ultimate test and push you past your limits.”

It was a trial by fire. Pitting the apprentices against one another would sort them out and force them to keep improving, lest they be the next to fall. By the end, only the one who excelled would have what it took to become a Craftlord.

The Jade Craftlord continued. “To that end, the rules of the tournament are as follows: First, you are only allowed to fight with one weapon that you have crafted yourself. I understand that some of you have not been allowed to craft your own weapons yet, so we have decided to allow your masters to assist you with the planning stages of the process. But know that it must be forged by your own hands.”

The Sapphire Craftlord picked up from there. “Second, the battle is won when your opponent yields, their mana reserves are depleted and can no longer sustain their protective veil, or their weapon breaks. Though you may be fighting seriously to defeat your opponent, you are not fighting to kill. If we deem that you have resorted to excessive force when not necessary, such as attacking someone when their defenses have been broken, you will be punished and removed from the tournament for your lack of self-control—if not stripped of your apprenticeship entirely.”

And the Amber Craftlord finished it up. “Third, you will be allowed to receive assistance in the battle by your Guardian Beast. Permission has been given for Summoners to enter the city to assist in procuring them for those who have none, though it is your masters who hold the reins in that area. However, their assistance does not serve as a substitute for your participation. If you attempt to leave all the fighting to them then we will deem you lacking in ability and judge you as such. You are the ones being tested as Craftknights, not them.”

Welf chewed on that information. It seemed like they had considered the gap in experience when it came to the different apprentices. There was a huge level of discrepancy considering some of them had not likely ever fought before and others had not earned the right to a Guardian Beast at all—he and Pratty didn’t have one. But they were at least providing ways to make up for that and he suspected that was part of the reason Bron wanted them back at the Silver Guild the moment this was over.

Once everyone had a moment to process the information with varying levels of excitement or trepidation, Sakuro continued. “Starting tomorrow, all you of begin receiving a clearance pass to enter the Labyrinth up to the 12th Floor to gather materials and fortify yourself for combat. You should know that we have not done anything to lessen or remove the dangers of the Labyrinth and the threat they present. However, to reward exploration, we have set treasure chests filled with items or materials that may be beneficial to you. Weigh the risk and rewards accordingly—if you cannot defend yourself, you are not worthy of being a Craftlord. But we do not wish for your lives to be forfeited in a fool’s pursuit.”

By not removing the challenges they were effectively telling them to break through them under their own strength. As they fought against the creatures in the Labyrinth their own abilities would increase, and by pushing themselves to their limits they would be forced to grow. He couldn’t shake the sensation that such a notion was familiar, but the memory annoyingly continued to elude the stray smith.

“The preliminary matches will begin at the start of next week with you receiving notices,” Lubert said. “You will not know who your opponent will be until the day of the match. After those of you who lacked the skills to go further beyond are removed from the pool, individual matches will be scheduled in accordance with the decision of the Craftlords. For these, you will usually receive notification of your next match a week in advance to give you time to prepare yourself accordingly.”

So you would have to defeat your first opponent while not knowing what to expect, to see if you could overcome an unknown challenge. Then, after you had a taste for battle and went in blind, you would receive advance notice. That gave you time to learn all you could to gain a decisive edge over them, but they could do the same to you. Either you surpassed yourself as you were before, or you risked being outmatched because you couldn’t.

“Finally, techniques for the weapon used in the tournament will need to be submitted in the standard format before each match to the Central Tower,” Ureksa added. “This is because not only will we be appraising your skill in crafting based on it, but also since a copy of it will be provided to your opponent should they be victorious as part of their prize.”

Now that got some feedback. Weapons were the lifeblood of Craftknights, and they often sought to make their own unique pieces as they developed in skill. More so considering they had to submit an original piece to their Master to graduate into the rank themselves. Handing them over upon defeat so someone else could take their secrets and methods would naturally leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Lubert only sneered at their reaction. “To be frank, if you fail then either your technique was insufficient, or you lacked the capability to bring out its true potential. In which case, the opponent claiming your technique matters not. But if you wish to hamstring yourself by using subpar weapons out of fear that your precious secrets will be stolen, then by all means drop out of the tournament now. We have no need for cowards or those who are so insecure that they think they would fail in the first place.”

The Amber Craftlord’s words were barbed and cruel. Especially considering how so many of them were young. But neither Sapphire nor Jade spoke up against his words, which was tactically giving their agreement on the matter. The noise quelled slowly in understanding as that set in.

Sakuro deigned to close out the ceremony. “Remember the tenets of the Craftknights: A sword is not strength. A sword is not skill. A sword is not fellowship. I sincerely believe that one of you will become our equal despite the short timeframe if you follow the code wholeheartedly, and I look forward to welcoming you as such. Dismissed.”


Once the ceremony was over Welf and Pratty used their Water Scooters to bypass the long foot trek back to the Silver Guild. Pratty almost immediately jumped through the entrance and called out for Bron, eager to have the chance to obtain a Guardian Beast. But he only told her to settle down and wait for everyone to arrive before discussing any of that.

And by everyone, he meant the other apprentices that they had never really met before.

The first to arrive after them was the same red-haired girl who had been close to them. She wore her red hair that resembled Welf’s and Amariss in a high ponytail with a pink ribbon, leaving her proud and confident face uncovered for all to see. Her tunic was pink with white hemming and stripes while she had a matching combat skirt and boots that had the opposite color scheme. And on her back was a longsword that looked to be just a foot shy of her actual height.

She glanced over at the two of them once more before she turned her back to them.

“I’M HERE, UNC—MASTER BRON!” And in complete contrast to her was a rather young kid who was likely barely over the age of ten, earning a second glance from Welf. They were dressed in a yellow shirt that was oversized enough that it fell to their upper thighs, followed by black shorts, and had to be secured with what looked to be a belt the size of their stomach. A yellow bandana covered their head to match the color of their tunic, and they wore thick brown boots and gloves.

“How loud can one person be?” chimed in a third person, who turned out to be a girl with a ribbon-rimmed blue hat covering her brown hair. She had round-framed glasses but wore a confident expression as she strode into the room.

And then what may as well have been her clone followed, only instead of blue she had a green color scheme, and her expression was slightly more neutral. “It can’t be helped when they are so young.”

Those two were followed by another young woman who introduced herself as Trish. She had deep purple hair in pigtails and immediately came over towards Pratty to chat with her like an old friend, though considering they were fellow apprentices it was likely that they were. And last was a blue-haired young man who called himself the Great Caizo, moving with a swagger in his step and oozing confidence.

“Good, yer all here now,” Bron began as he stood before them with his lumbering frame easily towering over them. His eyes briefly settled on each of them before he straightened them out. “I’ll only ask this once: Do ya have the skills an’ confidence to win and become a Craftlord?”

“Naturally,” answered the red-haired girl as she stood straight. “I’ve been training for this even before they announced the tournament. I’ll become the next Craftlord easily.”

“Nu-uh! It’s gonna be me!” said the shortest of the group with the sort of energy and optimism you would expect from a child. “I got this in the bag!”

“Confidence with no basis in reality,” the blue-colored twin said while shrugging her shoulders. “It must be nice to be so young. Right, Mariel?”

“Now, now, Ariel,” responded the green-colored one. “There’s a chance they can scrape by the first round if they get lucky on the draw. And I suppose if someone of Sanary’s standing can’t cut it, it’d be embarrassing.”

Sanary, the red-haired one, glowered at them. “I see your attitudes haven’t changed for a couple of bookworms. The kid could probably run laps around the both of you.”

“I’m not a kid!” said kid snapped with a frown. “My name is Razzy! Remember that because I’m going send you flying when we get on stage.”

“Ladies, ladies, there’s no need to fight amongst yourselves,” Caizo said, brazenly stepping into the middle of what was starting to look like a premature four-way match. “After all, we are all members of the same guild. I am certain that we are all capable of passing the challenge ahead with dignity and grace.”

Meanwhile, Trish simply looked over to Pratty and with a smile said, “Let’s do our best!”

Pratty’s response was a bit more subdued, given she had mostly been preoccupied with the others getting ready to tear one another’s heads off. “Y-Yeah….”

Welf stayed silent until Bron finished pinching his nose and shaking his head at the display before fixing his gaze on the stray smith. “I’ll do my best, but I honestly can’t say whether or not I’ll be able to stack up yet.”

It earned him some looks from the others, but he only shrugged in response. It would be a lie to say that he had the skills to win in the tournament given that he was still in a state where he didn’t know the full scope of what he was capable of. They had the luxury of recalling all their lessons as an apprentice whereas he was still drudging through what he knew and what he didn’t.

He would give it his all but he knew where he stood.

Bron only grunted. “Ya could do with some more determination, but I’ll hold ya to the standard set then. And to be honest, none of ya got the skills to win as ya are. Yer all too green, pickin’ at each other and chompin’ at the bits. But at the very least, I wanna see ya do better than I have so far. Startin’ with less bickerin’!”

They took the warning to heart and at the very least settled to glaring at one another instead of threatening open violence.

“Right then, first thing for the unaware. Startin’ tonight yer living here on the Second Floor for the duration of the tournament. Yer parents have sent yer belongings and I’ve shoved ‘em into the rooms of upstairs—and no, ya don’t get ta pick.”

Pratty had the expected response. “Wait, what? When did I agree to that?”

“When ye became an apprentice! Now clam it until I’m done talkin’!” She promptly hushed up. “Second, since all of ya are my apprentices, I ain’t playin’ favorites. I don’t care if I’ve known ya since yer were in diapers, yer prodigies in the making, ye call a Craftlord kin, or yer a decent stray off the streets. You’ll all be gettin’ the same treatment from me.”

It was only briefly, but Welf caught several of them shifting at that part of his speech. Pratty was obvious, given her father, but it seemed like the others fit those criteria. He could guess from their attitudes that the twins were likely the aforementioned prodigies and he had heard Razzy’s slight slip of the tongue along with the fact that they were dressed like a younger version of the man himself.

“Third: take advantage of this opportunity while ya can,” Bron continued with a slight smile. “Normally, I wouldn’ think of handin’ some of ya a weapon for a couple more years, but now ya get the chance to ask me for a technique fittin’ for ya and the chance to learn ahead of schedule. Livin’ here means ya get access to the forges in yer workshops at all times, and the Labyrinth can give ya all the materials can carry. Until the end of the tournament, all of that is yers—whether ya win or not.”

As the Guild Master of one of the two largest guilds in Wystern, Bron was normally busy with so many things that he couldn’t afford to dedicate the majority of his time to aiding his apprentices. But now he could and that meant they had a chance to get ahead of the curve with resources and opportunities they wouldn’t get for years. Their squabbling over who would win the tournament took a backseat as they realized the scope of freedom they had while no longer constrained by ordinary restrictions.

“We have been working on that new drill design for a while,” Ariel began with a very pleased smile. “With the proper material and knowledge, we could move our timetable up by quite a bit, couldn’t we, Mariel?”

The younger twin set a hand on her chin as the light from above glinted off her spectacles. “Unlimited access to fully functional forges with no restrictions certainly would make our progress smoother. We even have the opportunity to stress test them.”

“…I can visit that place any time I want now on my own,” Sanary muttered softly and in a contemplative tone. Then a smile came onto her face as whatever the implications of that clearly pleased her.

“Ooh, then can I have you help me finish working on an idea I came up with?” Razzy asked with the sort of enthusiasm you would expect from a child being told they could get whatever they wanted. “I wanted to try earlier, but Mom said I had to wait until I was old enough to be a Craftknight and get a Guardian Beast like yours.”

The Silver Master nodded. “In due time. So, hurry up an’ get settled in upstairs. I’ll send word for those of ya without a Guardian Beast when the Summoner gets here so it can be handled privately. And remember that yer rivals, but not enemies. Push each other to new heights, but don’t go sabotagin’ one another!”


The moment that Bron had given them the cue to do their own thing for a while, Welf returned to his room on the Second Floor. The others were busy enough settling into their own rooms with their grand plans for what the tournament held for them. Bron had proven himself their master by knowing exactly what would incentivize them enough to focus on the whole of what they could accomplish since in the end only one of them can be the next Craftlord.

He opted to instead lay on his bed and focus on gathering his own thoughts and his own desires. He still recalled what was born from the first time he swung a hammer. The origin point that gave rise to his desire to be a smith and the joy of creating something new.

For him, he supposed that the tournament would give him the opportunity to create new weapons to test and improve upon. But he wasn’t blind to what that meant. He would have to face Pratty at some point or other if they both made it past the first round.

Pratty was the daughter of Shintetsu. The child of the Craftlord of Iron. The empty throne was now set to be filled and she was in a position to do it, filling in where her father no longer could and taking up his place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so, and Welf had no doubt she was going to give it her all for that reason.

What right did he have to stand in the way of that and risk crushing her dream when his own was far simpler?

Knock. Knock.

Before he could get lost in his thoughts on her normally cheerful face being contorted in tears at him potentially crushing her, there was a knock on the door. And it was followed by a familiar voice. “Welf, open up!

“Pratty?” He rose from the bed and made his way over to the door. The moment he opened it, he was greeted with the sight of green fur as something was shoved into his face hard enough that it knocked him over. “Bwagh!?”

“Look, look!” Pratty said as she stepped into the room while holding a green and furry creature that resembled a stuffed animal more than anything. But alive. “I’ve got a Guardian Beast now!”

“…I can see that,” he muttered as he rose to his feet and took a good look at said Guardian Beast. Its legs were chambered, and it had a pair of long and floppy ears that were the length of its body. A red collar adorned its neck, with a matching red cap on the top of its head. And… were those spiked gloves it wore? “So, who’s this little… guy?”

“His name is Kutty,” Pratty said, even as the creature wriggled its way out of her grasp and then began to float in the air without wings of any kind. “Get this, Master Bron said he was the same Guardian Beast my father summoned twenty years ago! He thinks that the bond between them was so strong he sensed who I was and answered.”

“You don’t say.” He brought his hand to his chin in thought when he considered the adorable little floating creature was older than the both of them. He reached out to pat it on the head. “Nice to meet you, Kutty.”

The response he got was the Guardian Beast letting out a cry of its name before promptly dropping lower in the air until he was chest-height with Welf. Then he lashed out with his fist. “Kutty!”

Welf staggered back. Not so much in pain but in surprise. It actually packed a bit of a punch despite its small size. “Why’d he hit me?”

“Not sure,” Pratty told him. “He licked me. Then punched me. Then he laughed. I’m still working out whether that means he likes me or finds me amusing. But that can wait until later. Master Bron told me to come get you so that you can get your own partner—and he said to bring your sword since that’s all you had to your name when you got here.”

“Right, I need to get my own Guardian Beast to properly participate, won’t I?”

He hesitated as he looked over the flying green punching creature that regarded him with eyes that were dark and judgmental. It was the very same Guardian Beast that had helped Pratty’s father, called forth when she was in the running to succeed him. It seemed almost like fate, so did he really…

“You’re not thinking something silly like ‘you don’t want to compete because we might be going against each other’, are you?” He jolted as he turned back to see Pratty pouting at him after practically reading his mind. “Master Bron said you might be thinking something like that before he sent me up, but I didn’t think he was serious!”

He sighed while silently cursing the man who was more perceptive than he gave him credit for. “…I told you before that I have other priorities, right?”

“That’s no excuse!” Pratty chided him. “You think I want to be a Craftlord if I’m not good enough that someone has to throw a match for my sake?”

“That’s not what I was saying.”

“It sounded that way,” she pointed out. “I want to become a Craftlord like Father, but there’s no point in succeeding him if I can’t win honestly against one of my friends. How do you think Master Bron and Mother would feel knowing you threw in the towel for my sake?”

They would be upset with him. He knew that much from the time he had spent with them. Because not only did it mean that he wasn’t actually giving it his all, but he was dragging Pratty down in the process by not serving as a proper obstacle that she needed to overcome.

He huffed. “Okay, let’s say that I do give it my all and I win. What will you do then?”

The girl had no hesitation. “Train harder so that I can earn the title the way that Father did, through his own efforts and merits. I want people to acknowledge me because I earned it. And if you beat me and then go on to win, at least then I can say one of my friends managed to make it that far because I pushed them to it by making them give it their all! Right, Kutty?”

“Kutty!” The Guardian Beast nodded in agreement before flying over and landing on her head. It then made punching motions toward Welf, as if to say it would welcome the challenge.

“…Pfffttt. Hahahaha!” He broke out laughing as he realized the point that she was making. So what if one path for her was closed off? She would find another while taking advantage of the fact that she was getting a head start thanks to the tournament. It was no different than the promise he had made to himself when he forged the hammer and vowed to succeed regardless of whether or not he got admission to the Silver Guild.

“You got me there, both of you.” Rising to his feet, the stray smith made his way over to the wall where the greatsword that had been with him since he woke laid against and picked it up. He then hefted it forward towards the pair in a challenge. The stance and motion felt engraved into his body with familiarity. “Fine then, if we meet opposite one another then I’ll give it my all.”

“You better!” She stuck her chest out with pride at having gotten what she wanted from the older of the two of them with her words. “Now hurry up and get to Master Bron.”

He went down the stairs and into the private room where Bron was awaiting him with the Summoner. “Sorry, I’m late. Pratty gave me an earful.”

“And whatever she said goes double for me,” Bron added on principle. The Silver Master probably knew everything she was going to say the moment he told her what was likely on Welf’s mind. He then looked to the Summoner. “Yer up!”

Right…” The man cleared his throat. “Now, I’ve been told of your situation from Master Bron. You’ve lost your memories and so the normal process of questioning that I would give to help with finding a compatible partner from one of the four other realms won’t work since you have less experience to draw from.”

Welf had been told that Summon Creatures tended to come from one of the four realms that ringed this one. There was Loreilal, which was a technologically advanced world that had more mechanical beings. There was Maetropa, where magical beasts typically lived (he was assuming Kutty came from there). There was Sapureth, where more spiritual beings like angels and devils called home. And last there was Silturn, the world where Oni and beings born from beliefs and objects manifested.

“Fortunately, we might be able to manage to find you a compatible partner by instead focusing on the embodiment of the passions that drive you now. That which stirs within you strong emotions along with something that embodies it will act as a focus by reaching out across the boundaries set in place and call forth a likeminded Summon Creature.”

It clicked. “So that’s why you wanted me to bring my sword with me?”

“S’ right,” Bron nodded. “It’s clear as day that forgin’ and smithin’ has been drilled into ya so thoroughly that what yer mind can’t recall, yer body does. That blade of yers ain’t a masterpiece by any stretch and won’t hold up in the tournament, but it’s clear a lotta thought and feelin’ went into it. There ain’t a more appropriate catalyst for ya.”

He couldn’t remember shaping the metal to forge the blade, but he could tell what every part of it was shaped for. It was practical in its design and thus had a purpose. That was done with consideration and planning before being worked into existence. “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

Welf exchanged the sword with the man who gave him a colorless gemstone in return. Just touching it he could feel that it was rich in mana. The man explained that it was called a Summonite Gem, which would be used to provide the basis of the contract for the Bonding Pact—a catalyst to throw wide the gates and open the way for his partner to reach him.

“Right, I’ll begin the chant now,” the Summoner said. “Focus your thoughts, your breath, your very soul of a smith that you hold pride onto the stone. As you do so, wish with all your heart for a Guardian Beast to aid you in both your craft and battle. In doing so, it should resonate with a compatible Summon Creature, and you will hear a name. Call it out when you do to seal the contract.”

The soul of a smith.

He closed his eyes and slowly began taking deep breaths as he searched for that which could be called his soul. He already remembered what it was that night months ago, sitting in the dark and working himself to the bone. He only needed to return and grasp it once more, so he fell deep into himself….


The welcoming darkness. The ring of a hammer striking steel. He traced his way to them once more expecting to arrive at the scene of the forge where the shrouded silhouette awaited him from ages lost.

But this time was different. The din of the hammer instead led him someplace else. Someplace that was beyond even that enclosed space. Someplace further than the boundaries of the darkness itself that seemed endless.

And there he saw a guiding flame.

It was such a small and feeble thing. So weak that it looked as though a slight breeze would put it out. Yet it was so warm as he approached the beacon in the dark that seemed to quiver in curiosity as he felt its attention fall onto him instead of the din of steel being struck that lured it here.

It was just a newly kindled flame that had flickered into life. Too weak to become a roaring blaze or light a forge. It might just quietly fade out without accomplishing anything if left on its own. Yet something in his very blood seemed to be reaching out that young flame.

And it reached out to his blood in turn, cautiously. Like a newborn, the flame crawled closer and closer until it could finally reach out to brush it. The flicker of its touch was gentle and probing with inquisitive curiosity. But his blood itself seemed to be more than willing to embrace it in response, gently bringing it into its grasp.

Curiosity bloomed into an acknowledgment of the kinship between them. Then he felt something inside of him shift. It could only be described as the echoes of his blood stirring to life and flowing into that weak and meager flame. It slowly burned brighter and hotter, practically thrumming with definition and life until it was steady and strong.

A sensation of relief and fulfillment washed over him. The feeling that came with the entrustment of something beloved. So precious and sentimental that it could persist even in a place that one only reached after the end of one journey and before the beginning of a new one.

Welf looked at the invigorated flame that now danced in his formless palms. It eagerly brushed against him with a newfound zeal. Clinging to him as the din of steel fell silent there was a single prevalent desire that had filled the flame.

You want to help me, huh? He could feel the desire. The yearning to seek out that which could only be found in the song of steel being worked and the warmth of the forge. That works for me. But I need to know your name.  

It flickered for a moment as in thought. Then he felt what could only be called the ghost of a smile gracing that which had no mouth. It answered back with…



Fire bloomed in his palm.

No sooner than the name was declared did the hand that grasped the colorless gemstone erupt into flames that swallowed it whole. They lapped over every inch of his arm as they crawled along the limb to his upper body. Then he felt its embrace rolling over him from head to waist entirely.

Yet it didn’t burn.

The flames that came from the gemstone were gentle and soothing as they caressed him. Feeling him inside and out. Taking something from the very blood within him. Then it slowly pulled itself away and he saw that the rampant flame now had what could pass as a humanoid shape, albeit with decidedly more feminine features as its glowing eyes that housed within it an ardent flame stared straight into his own.


That name touched his mind with an ethereal yet dulcet tone. It was her voice. She was speaking to him despite having no mouth to speak with.

And that name. He didn’t know why, but that name seemed to draw out a wellspring of anger from deep inside of him. Something about it filled him with nothing but disdain to the point he never wanted to hear it again. “My name is Welf. Not whoever Crozzo is.”

The embodiment of flame quirked its head.

Welf… Crozzo…? 

“Not Crozzo,” he insisted. Even though the name sounded familiar he found it distasteful. Besides, from what he had been told the only people who had last names were those who were Summoners or descended from them. “I’m just Welf, Urus.”

There was an impression of… sadness? Confusion? Understanding? He wasn’t certain if she felt that way entirely or if he was having trouble interpreting the impressions that she was giving him. It was all too new to really tell.


The sharp yell of an angry blacksmith drew their attention back to Bron. The Silver Master was frowning rather fiercely given that part of his shirt and some of his facial hair was smoldering from what Welf could only assume was being too close when Urus had erupted into existence. He winced. “Sorry, Master Bron.”

The man’s nostrils flared out as he settled himself. “Ya took ages ta wake up. Thought somethin’ went wrong with the process an’ when I got close, all of a sudden ya went up in flames!”

The Summoner himself looked winded. But thankfully not burnt. “Yes, the process was admittedly longer than normal. But it’s done now. You should be able to see the name of your Guardian Beast within the Summonite Gem to signal the completion of the process.”

He opened his palm to see what had once been a colorless gemstone was now a scarlet red one. The name that had been given to him was emblazoned deep inside of it as if burned into place from the inside out to be forever preserved—the Bonding Pact.

The Summoner composed himself and then gave his analysis. “Given its clearly spiritual nature and how you seem to be able to commune while we don’t hear a verbal response, I have to assume that it came from the Spirit Realm of Sapureth. You should be aware that they possess different senses of perception and understanding, given that before the Summoning Ritual they typically lack a physical form. It may take time to get accustomed to its new form, so don’t be surprised if it starts probing you and gradually learning customs. And now I believe I will take my leave and get some Tomato Juice at the local inn. That was exhausting…

The departure of the man was followed by Bron stating that the Fire Spirit would likely need to be guided once they started forging anything since they had no previous experience. But at the very least they were pretty sure that there wouldn’t be a compatibility problem. More so considering how she kept clinging to him and muttering his name over and over as if to reaffirm who he was.

Hopefully, she would pick up on things quickly enough since there was only a week before the preliminaries.

The Stray Smith: Prologue

The Stray Smith – Prologue

Summary: “A sword is not Strength. A sword is not Skill. A sword is not Fellowship.” These were the tenets of the Craftknight. And for the amnesiac Welf, they became a truth upon his time spent in the City of Swords as part of a story involving eight apprentices, four swords, and what lay at the bottom of the Labyrinth of Wystern.


He was falling….

No. He was being pulled.

He was being pulled beyond the veiled boundary that defined the Lower World and Heavens above by flames.

Raging flames, fueled by a hatred so deep as to smother him by its very presence, pulled him by the very blood in his body into the space between worlds. Those same flames burned though the very laws themselves that denied the existence of the physical form and defied the will of the First Monarch. Yet so intense was the grip of the raging flames that they threatened to burn away everything that he was as it pulled on what laid within his blood to rip it free.

Yet before it could claim everything ardent fire swaddled him. The gentle blaze came from deep within, kindled from the fire sparks of the blood memory deep within as a rejection to the otherworldly flames. It was as comforting as a hearth yet intense as a furnace as it swelled and burned free of the grip of the raging inferno.

And so he fell into a new land while embraced in the comforting and protective arms of the gentle blaze.


Blue eyes fixed onto a star that seemed to shine brighter than all the others in the night sky.

They belonged to a young girl was fourteen years of age and dressed in a pink tunic and shorts. She sat on the edge of the wooden-layered steel platform that supported her home, the salt-sweet breeze from the ocean gently brushing through her neck-length white hair. Left with only the faint light from the windows behind her, she had been stargazing while rocking her feet back and forth with the canal directly below her.

It had been a habit that she came out to the back of their home to look at the stars. One ingrained since she was a little girl. She would come outside to sit upon the lap of her father as they spent their time regaling one another of the events of the day beneath the curtain of the night.

Of course, it had been three years since he had passed away. It had been painful back then to come out and see the spot he had always sat in being empty. But, at least now when she came out to look at the stars, it allowed her one way to cling to the memories of who her father was that she could still recall…

That was when the world itself seemed to shake.

The water in the canal churned. The metal platform groaned as if under stress. The glass window behind her rattled.

It was as if the island itself was trying to move. Thus, she clutched the railing with a white-knuckle grip until the tremors stopped entirely. It was then that she turned her attention back to the sky and her brows furrowed upon noticing the star seemed to grow larger.

Much larger.

She rose from her perch on the platform and stood up as she realized that what was growing closer was no distant star. It seemed to be a ball of flames that was coming towards her home at the speed of a falling meteor. Its orange glow illuminating her face as reflected off the water—


—and then the star crashed into the canal violently enough that she felt the water reach feet. Their home, like most others on the water, were placed on raised platforms held in place by steel poles to keep them from being flooded when the water level rose due to heavy rainfall. But the force of the impact had been so great that it had caused the excess water to spill over the pathways that connected it to others nearby, all while white steam hissed and snapped violently.

She took deep breaths to try to calm her rampaging heart. Between the ground shaking and the sky falling, she wasn’t sure if it was the end of the world. She was so unnerved that a loud snapping noise from behind nearly made her jump into the canal by mistake until she turned to see that it was just the window opening abruptly.

Red hair and concerned eyes stuck out beyond the frame. “Pratty, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mother—but something just fell from the sky!” She turned back to where the burning object slammed into the water over by the walkway as the hissing quieted and the steam vanished. That was when she noticed the rocking waters sloshing over the pathway connecting their home had deposited something just over the edge. Or rather someone. “It’s a person!”

Specifically, it was a young man. He was tall if she had to guess by the greatsword on his back that was half-submerged in the water. He had black clothes on that were now soaking wet and red hair that reminded her of the furnaces that she had been coming more accustomed to as of late.

“A person?” Her mother leaned further out of the kitchen window and held her hand against her cheek when she caught sight of him. “…Oh my. Pratty, you better pull him out quickly before he slides off. With that weapon on his back, he’ll sink right to the bottom.”

The water passages of Wystern were a byproduct of the nature of the City of Swords. Their island-sized city-state was actually the top of what was once a tower was said to stretch to the sky only to begin sinking down into the depths of the sea. And it constantly sank bit-by-bit every year into the ocean, until the point where the Lower Level they lived on now had once been the Third Level during the oldest living generation’s time.

If he was a particularly skilled Craftknight he could possibly swim to the surface with a sword that large no problem. But even the best couldn’t do that while unconscious. “Oh, right! I’ll help you!”

She hurried over to the side and grabbed him by the arms as she tried to leverage him out. The best she could really do was to just keep him from going further into the water with her slender arms until her mother came out, still dressed in her apron. She bent down and supported his unconscious body on her shoulder, raising him up blade and all.

Just like that they carried the strange boy who fell from the sky into their home.

[-Summon Night: Swordcraft Story-]


[-Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon?-]

His name was Welf.

Or at least that was what he thought he heard himself being called once before. It could be true or false for all he knew. It was just the name he gave almost on instinct upon being asked who he was when he woke up in the unfamiliar room with his head still veiled in a haze of heat and mystery.

To be honest he still was trying to comprehend the situation.

He had apparently fallen from the sky. While on fire. Or at least that was what the teenage girl with snow-white hair said when he had woken up a short while ago—she had introduced herself as Pratty and seemed nice.

It was apparently her home that he was in, shared with only her mother who had red hair that felt oddly… comforting? Almost familial if he had to give it a word. He had thought they might be related but, when he asked, she had only laughed and said she was pretty sure she didn’t have a brother his presumed age of maybe a few years older than her daughter.

She had then introduced herself as Amariss.

The very short series of questions that followed had left them both to look worrying, leading to the current situation whereupon he was sitting upright in a bed while a doctor examined him beneath the watchful gazes of the two women.

“It might only be temporary memory loss,” the doctor said in a voice that didn’t give him hope that it was. “His mana had not been depleted before he hit the water, and there doesn’t appear to have been any brain damage. However, considering his short-term memory including what caused his fall may not have been retained, we can’t rule out that some things might not come back.”

“Oh dear.” She inclined her head to the side slightly, one hand on her cheek, as she gave him a sympathetic gaze. “Is there any way to help him?”

The doctor sighed. “He’ll need time at the very least. Remote or deeply ingrained memories might have been spared, so exposure to familiar faces and places and tasks might help speed up the process. Did you find any identification on him when you pulled him out of the water?”

Pratty shook her head. “His clothes aside, all he had was a greatsword on his back.”

“Ah.” No sooner than she mentioned his weapon did the doctor turn his attention his hands. They were large and calloused. “Craftknights being launched from failed smithing aren’t anything new, but this place is a quite distance from the rim of the Second Level.”

“…What’s a Craftknight?”

The unfamiliar word had coaxed a question from his lips. But the reaction to it was the doctor wincing and the mother’s brows furling in clear concern. He got the impression that they were wordlessly re-evaluating the severity of the prognosis.

Fortunately, Pratty was more than willing to give him an answer rather than add to his existing worry over the loss of what appeared to be common or vital information. “Craftknights forge metal into weapons and act as the protectors of Wystern. I’m one of the apprentices of a well-respected Craftknight and you must be one too considering you had a greatsword on you.”

His eyes turned over to said greatsword that was now resting against the wall close to what appeared to be a metal cabinet. It was a large steel blade that was probably three-fourths the length of his body and tapered gradually into a stouter edge bevel that was sharpened and polished with the secondary bevel angled. The handle wasn’t attached to a tang but instead seemed to have been inserted into a collar at the base that was heavy enough to act as a counterweight given there was no pommel. There was also a notable chunk just past the base missing, but it had clearly been taken into account for by the design and probably reduced the weight to a degree without affecting its stability.

Or so he felt like after glancing at it.

The doctor cleared his throat as he stood straight. “I can put in a request for someone to go through the registry to see if anyone recognizes his name. But it might take a while given things at Central Tower are hectic as of late from what I’ve heard. That earthquake hadn’t helped things either.”

“Oh, no need to worry about that,” Amariss said with a chipper smile. “I can get access to the registry easily, so that won’t be a problem.”

The doctor did not question how a seemingly ordinary housewife could get access to the registry that kept the name, addresses, and other vital information about Craftknights and apprentices with such confidence. He decided that it would be better not to. “Then for the moment he’ll need rest until his mana naturally replenishes. Best not to force it along, but Silturn Water is recommended. We’ll set up an appointment, but if his condition worsens before then contact me.”

That done, the doctor bid them farewell and Pratty took it upon herself to show him out of the house.

That left the young man with the mother who was apparently a stranger but had gone out of her way to accommodate him after he had literally landed on her doorstep. Or in the water next to it anyway. He could only apologize for the inconvenience his presence was no doubt causing. “Sorry about all of this. If I can make it up to you somehow then I will.”

Amariss only smiled sweetly. “Just focus on resting while I finish dinner. It’s been sometime since I’ve needed to cook for three people, but some good food will help. We can leave worrying about everything else for another day.”


Did yer brains fall out of yer head or somethin’ to seriously ask me that question?”

Pratty couldn’t tell if the question was sincere or sarcastic. It could be one or the other. Or both. She had been on the receiving end of both given she had, admittedly, made her share of mistakes and asked some questions that seemed silly in retrospect.

She could understand why her master would think this would be one of those times.

An apprentice asking their master to take on another apprentice was a fairly odd thing to ask. They were scarcely in a position to ask favors, especially when said master was one of the most well-respected Craftknights in a city full of them. And when competition for becoming a Craftknight was fierce considering the role they played in the Wystern.

And especially when their master was a man as large and imposing as the Silver Master—Bron.

He was an older man that wore thick gloves that had to be buckled onto his hands, thick trousers that were buckled around his ankles, and kept a tool holster that was held in place by not only a belt, but also overall straps. Anything less probably would have caused it them to fall down given that they supported the hammer and other smithing tools that were about the size of his forearms—which were as thick as steel beams.

He also stood almost two heads higher than her, was about double her size in terms of width, and had muscles so swollen that the white T-Shirt he wore had ripped sleeves from where his biceps had to pass through while she could see the outline of his abs. Not to mention his face, which was chiseled beneath the forest of hair that made up his beard, sideburns, and eyebrows, gave off the impression of a stern figure—which he was most of the time when it came to his work.

Either way, Pratty clasped her hands together and pleaded with him to listen. “Welf is a nice guy! And it could help him get his memories back faster!”

Two weeks had passed since they had taken the young man who had fallen from the sky into their home. Physically, he had recovered to the point where he could move around now without any complications. And in contrast to what the doctor had said, Welf really didn’t have trouble retaining new information once he had it explained to him.

He even picked up on it faster than Pratty did… though her mother did playfully tease her that she wasn’t sure if that said more about her than him.  Considering his sword and that he mentioned he felt like he had made it, it was possible some part of his mind recognized the information and so the knowledge effectively fit right where it belonged. That made them more hopeful that if he was allowed to forge something, they might start floating to the surface.

The problem was that they couldn’t find out anything about him.

Her mother said she checked the registry and even called in some friends to help her search for anything about him, but so far there was nothing. No missing reports of a young man fitting his description either. He really did seem to have fallen from the sky out of nowhere.

It was suspicious for him to be there with no information. And because the Craftknights themselves were charged with protecting Parista, they couldn’t just let someone with no citizenship remain freely. Let alone visit and work in a forge.

Even Welf himself acknowledged it. He was even prepared for them to send him off whether or not he got his memories back so that he didn’t cause trouble for them. He only thought of himself as being sixteen, two years older than her, but he was mature to just accept that he would likely be sent off to Vance Cape and left to wander the world without his memories.

Now, now. There is no way I’m letting a nice young man end up as a vagabond.” That had been her mother’s response while wearing her usual smile as she gentle pressed a finger to his forehead. “Don’t underestimate a housewife. I’ll take care of it.

Welf had full citizenship with all the paperwork involved a day later.

Pratty didn’t question her mother’s methods.

She was just happy they worked.

“I’ve already got my hands full as is,” Bron continued. “Ye think I can make time to take on a stray smith that can’t remember anythin’ all of a sudden? How daft can ye be girl?”

Pratty popped one eye open and slightly smiled behind her clasped hands. “Actually… it’s a request from Mother.”

The man’s demeanor instantly changed. “…Amariss is askin’ me to do this?

“Yep!” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a letter that she presented to him. “Mother told me to give this to you.”

YA SHOULDA LED WITH THAT!” He grabbed it gingerly and unfolded it. His eyes quickly skimmed over the contents before settling on one part in particular for a very long time. Long enough that she was starting to wonder if she should try to sneak a peek. But then he folded it back up and shoved it into his pocket before standing up. “Right then. Let me get a look at ‘em.”

As the head of the Silver Guild, Bron naturally had private quarters within the thick walls that connected with three other rooms. To the left was the main workshop. To the rear was the Kitchen, which was currently empty though the faint scent of curry could be smelled lingering in the air. And to the front was the Entrance Hall where Welf stood just past the door.

Pratty caught sight through the door as he stood straighter the moment it swung open and Bron approached him with his trademark stern face. It spoke well of his character that he didn’t flinch or interpret it as a hostile act. More so when the burly man came to a stop in front of him and looked him up and down with a furrowed brow and grimace.

“…I’ll be honest with ya,” the Silver Master began without any segue or introduction after his silent assessment. “Yer circumstances are suspicious—memory loss or no, it seems like yer not from around these parts. Even if ya are, the fact that no master has come to claim ya means that ya were unwanted by ‘em. And I don’t deal with second-rate smiths, let alone strays tossed out.”

Ouch. His statement was so blunt Pratty couldn’t help but wince. More so considering the last thing she had told Welf was to wait here while she would explain the situation to her master. She was partially worried it might have come off as her being the one who called him second-rate or stray. “Master!”

Bron ignored her, keeping his eyes fixed on Welf’s. Then he crossed his arms and drew up himself. “Even so, Amariss is the one askin’ that I give ya a shot. So, I’ll give ya one—and only one. Understand?”

The red-haired smith only gave an appreciative smile. “That’s fine. I don’t remember much, but I understand you can’t put your reputation at risk for someone who isn’t up to par. All I can do is give you my best, so that even if that isn’t up to your standards, I won’t waste the kindness Miss Amariss has shown me.”

His nostrils flared as he exhaled before clearing his throat. “Then follow me to the forges. Yer test starts here and now.”

Welf did so without complaint as they followed the carpet strip covering the steel floor and then took the passage into the main workshop. Most of the forging was done here on the first floor, in the largest room that contained all the essentials for their work. There were four regular forges meant to handle standard orders and arms, with an extra-large one in the back meant to be used for complex or large jobs.

Bron moved straight to the one in the back and began to fire it up. He didn’t spare either of them a look in the process while asking, “Tell me, what do ye know of how we Craftknights smith?”

Welf glanced in her direction for a moment before he answered, “In Wystern, you use the flames of the Holy Spirit of Swords, which at a high enough temperature will break down any physical object into intangible elements, which are then condensed into Elemental Ores with the aid of a Guardian Beast that has been trained in the process. Those ores are then proportioned into ratios, smelted together with a normal flame, and then worked into the shape of the craft with the Guardian Beast using their power to aid in the process to keep it together until it finishes being heat-treated and the form is locked into its shape permanently.”

“Guessin’ Amariss told you that,” he grunted while using a fire starter to ignite tinder within it. “Parista’s flames makes it so we aren’t limited to what materials we have on hand to craft. Even junk can be turned into something valuable by using the proper ratios of the elemental ores to affect the blade itself. But that also means it requires more thinkin’ and plannin’ to forge anything of value, including taking account for the loss during the material breakdown and so on. Ya can’t half-make anythin’ before its heat-treated else it’ll all be lost.”

Being that she was still an apprentice herself, Pratty didn’t really grasp the full scope of the ratio balances yet. Sure, she helped her master with his own weapons, but that was more of the physical work with the compound ore during the shaping. She had no “technique” of her own to speak of since she didn’t have a Guardian Beast—a creature summoned to this world from another dimension to assist them in the process.

Bron continued his explanation even as he went over to a cabinet that was normally kept locked since it was filled with rare materials that Pratty had never seen. “Since the forges can use the Holy Flame, any fuel or excess material that isn’t turned into elements becomes raw mana that enters the atmosphere rather than ashes or waste. It even saturates the water, which is partially why we got water passages and canals all over the place. But that doesn’t mean it can be wasted, so only the best will do.”

It was also why drinking concentrated amounts, known as Silturn Water by the locals, was enriching and could help restore your mana. Her mother had made Welf drink plenty of it so that he could recover, and his first reaction was to note it had a strong flavor that he wasn’t used to. Even Pratty struggled to get it down when she was younger.


The apprentice nearly jumped when Bron loudly set down a large hunk of what looked to be some kind of ore on an anvil in front of the forge, with a set of standard blacksmithing tools joining it. It wasn’t like any ore she had seen either. It felt… off.

And it wasn’t just her imagination either. She could tell from the way Welf’s expression shifted the moment it was placed in front of him that he could feel something about it was weird. Really weird.

“This here is something only found in Labyrinth,” Bron began as he lumbered towards the red-headed youth. “I won’t give ya the details, but its hella tough to work if ya  don’t know what yer doin’.

He pulled his massive hammer off his tool apron and held it out. “Yer test is to use the tools and forge and turn it into a hammer like this without any outside assistance by morin’. That’ my standard here. Understand?”

She looked over at the forge. Pratty might not have seen that ore before but if it was something only used by Craftknights and found in the Labyrinth then that meant it must have required the use of Parista’s flames to reduce it to elements and a Guardian Beast to condense it into something manageable. But the forge didn’t carry the same presence it did when the Holy Flame was in use, and he had no Guardian Beast.  “Master, that’s—”

“Quiet!” He didn’t even look at her. But his tone alone instilled in a single word that he would not tolerate the breaking of the respect to be shown by the apprentice to the master. “Ya haven’t even earned yer own hammer yet. Ya don’t have the authority to speak up here.”

Her body quivered under the blunt statement. An apprentice who had not even forged her own weapon had no right to criticize the teaching of her master. That was the underlying message and true to the point that she couldn’t bring herself to speak up again—not even in the defense of her new friend.

He handed the hammer to Welf and said, “Ya better start now if ya wanna make it in time. These tools and the forge locked at its current temperature should be all ya need if yer a real smith. I’ll check on ya in the mornin’.”

Welf looked down at the hammer. Then the tools. Then the ore. There were no words as he made his way over to where everything was stationed before he set the hammer itself down and began to appraise it.

Bron wrinkled his nose before he pointed to Pratty and gestured for her to follow him. She obediently followed, only taking one last look at Welf before the door to the forge was shut closed. Then he led her to the front entrance and said, “Go home, Pratty.”

“But… are you really not going to explain anything else to help him?” Her voice came out even meeker than she expected. She was expecting him to speak harshly to her again and her body was responding as such given that he rarely used that tone. “The forge wasn’t using Parista’s flame, so isn’t he…”

…being set up to fail, is what she wanted to say but couldn’t.

Bron crossed his massive arms and furled his brow. It was as if he had read her mind and found it offensive. “In the Silver Guild, it’s a graduation practice for apprentices to forge their own smithin’ hammers out of that ore without the Holy Flame as a sort ‘o test of their skills. If yer completely reliant on it then ya aren’t worthy of claimin’ the title of Craftknight, and I ain’t got time to teach ‘em from scratch. If he can figure out the trick, he’ll manage whether or not he has his memories.”

At the very least it sounded like he had a chance. Not a high one. But a chance anyway. “But if he can’t, then what?”

“Recite what the duty of the Craftknight is.”

The tone of his voice wasn’t as harsh as before. But it was clear he expected her to answer properly as demanded by the Silver Master. She did so obediently. “To protect the city and the Holy Spirit of Swords.”

“And takin’ him in as an apprentice means he’ll be obligated to fulfill that role to the best of his ability, not fillin’ the role of a simple smith. That means riskin’ the life he nearly lost from what ya told me, in which case what was the point of savin’ em in the first place? Of all people ya should know that even the best might not make it out in the end.”

Her blue eyes fell at that. She knew it could be dangerous. Her father had been a Craftlord, ones who oversee all of the other Craftknights, and three years ago he had died down in the Labyrinth. There were no guarantees in the end.

“If he ain’t cut out to be a Craftknight then not only did someone else lose out on their chance to be one of my apprentices and eventually fill that role, but we put him in danger when there are other paths in life he coulda taken. That’s why Amariss… yer mother wrote for me to give ‘em that test in particular.”

…There were no words to describe the feeling that drove itself into her chest. Her mother wanted him to take such an unfair test, despite knowing he most likely wouldn’t pass it as he was? That didn’t make sense given all she had done for him. “…Did Mother really want you to do that?”

“Go home and ask her yer self,” Bron insisted. “She won’t lie to ya. Not about this.”

Pratty ran out to do just that.

And Amariss did not lie.


Welf’s face was fixed into a stern grimace as he struck at the ore with hammer only for it to nearly fly out of his hand.

Over the last two week his memories hadn’t returned. The information that Pratty and Amariss gave him felt foreign but, on some level, he could understand them easily enough. But it was a different story when Pratty had shown him her own Smith’s Tools as an apprentice.

He recognized each one of them. It was as if they were old friends whose absence had been out of place once he laid eyes on them. That was why he knew he could forge a hammer easily with them. They were not the problem.

The problem was the ore.

The moment the man pulled it out something about it felt wrong. Its hue was a swirl of dark-grey and purple. It looked more like stone, yet it clearly had a metallic element. If that was the case, then it should be possible to shape it if got heated up just right.

He had thought that might have been the trick.

So the moment that the forge bloomed with a roaring flame and the heat stroked his face with an instantly familiar caress, he set to work. He grabbed the blue bandana he kept tied around his neck, unfurled it around his forehead to keep sweat from getting into his eyes, and proceeded to place it into the forge so that the heating process began. Then, when the ore was a molten hue that meant it was pliable for shaping, he pulled it from the blazing maw and took the hammer to it.

His first few blows out of the flame had been met with failure. But he had not stopped trying as he hammered at it until the heat began to waver. It went back into the forge once he had deemed it too cool to be shaped and he kept trying to figure out if there was something amiss.

He tried again once it was red-hot once more.  He put more effort into shaping it. He put more strength into his blows. But his frustration only grew as he seemed to be doing worse as his strokes seemed to be rebuked even harder.

Back into the forge it went and he was left running his hands through his hair and wondering if he was trying to do it wrong. Maybe he was hitting too hard and so it was pushing back even harder. The possibility was there so he decided to try a softer hand at working the ore.

The effort naturally failed. The soft blows could not even temper bronze or copper. Let alone iron or steel. The ore itself cooled even quicker since the friction wasn’t there to keep it hot. He shoved it back into the forge and left it to heat even longer this time.

Nothing he did worked as the clock on the rear wall ticked and tocked and the minutes turned to hours while the night dragged on. Too hot. Too cold. Hard blows. Soft blows. None of it changed what the stone was.

If anything, every failure seemed to only make it more difficult. Every hit was met a rebuttal as the hammer bounced in his hand like had struck rubber. And the metal within it seemed to mock him as the tenor of its ring became increasingly grating. It was only now that it had nearly come out of his grasp and the mocking reverberation resounded in the room that he came to one conclusion:

The ore refused to be shaped.

Not that it couldn’t. The conditions to shape it were there. It was hot enough to be malleable. His strikes were hard enough to mold its form. Every bit of instinct as a smith, amnesiac or not, told him that it should be able to be shaped into something else under any other circumstance.

The ore itself was refusing to be shaped by his hands.

The matter was not a question of how hard it was. It was not a matter of how hot it was. It was not a matter of what tool he used. None of that mattered because the ore itself was actively refusing and mocking his attempts, as if denying that he was worthy to be the one who shaped it.

By the time the clock passed midnight his frustration reached its peak. He decided he needed to take a break and set the hammer down. The ringing of the ore continued well after he had done so, as if basking in the fact that the smith had broken before the stone. He shoved into the forge and let the roar of the flames drown it out.

“Damn it all…” He sat with his back against one of the nearby forges that was inactive and covered his face in shame. The heat from the forge and sweat from exertion left him feeling somewhat grimy, but it was not an unfamiliar sensation.

It was so frustrating. The entire situation was almost unbearably frustrating despite the face he put on to the two who had taken him in. He knew it in his bones that he was a smith and meant to be one. The question was if he had been a good one.

Stray. Second-rate. Unwanted. Those words said by the smith began to bubble up in his mind as he sat there. If he had been a resident of the city, then someone should have come for him if he had been missed. Someone had to teach him how to smith as well. So where were they?

He had said he would do his best so that Amariss’ efforts weren’t squandered. So he had no intention of quitting now. As soon as the ore finished heating again he would give it another shot and keep doing so until he ran out of time, no matter how frustrating it was. But he couldn’t help but wonder… what he would do if he failed in the end?

Wystern was the City of Swords. They were not lacking in smiths of any kind. Many started young and could be molded into an ideal smith by their masters. He couldn’t bear the thought of taking advantage of the housewife’s kindness any more than he had so far, so if he couldn’t manage this he would have to seek out work in another field.

He hated the thought of doing so from the bottom of his heart. But what chance did a stranger who didn’t have their memories have at proving themselves a reliable smith in a place like this? He couldn’t even remember why he wanted to be a smith, so why cling to it? Was it the vague hopes of regaining the memories he lost? Were they even worth recovering?

Was there a reason I even started forging in the first place…?

He wanted to believe there was. There had to be some reason worth it that he so stubbornly desired to be a smith. He shut his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts together before his mind spiraled downwards into the welcoming darkness…


He heard it.

The sound of metal striking metal. The din of steel being shaped. Of a smith at work.

He heard it and followed it like a moth to a flame.

It was so far away that it was only in due to the emptiness that pervaded the darkness that it carried so far. Yet there was no direction within the darkness. He could only rely on following the sound of a hammer striking steel.

The imagery that came to mind was that of a child half-asleep wandering towards a noise that only his ears could hear thanks to youth. It took so long that it could have been an eternity. But he followed it all the way back until he spotted in the distance a glow that cast a silhouette into view.

The figure was moving what had to be their arm. The shadow of a hammer rose high above. Then it came down and sparks bloomed, ephemeral flashes that captivated his eyes along with the wonderous sound of steel resonating.

He stood there simply watching as the figure obscured with shadows continued to strike the steel. There were heavy strokes that bent the metal and removed the imperfections. There were soft strokes for precision that adjusted it. Each one was given in response to the sound the steel prior.

Then the hammering stopped.

The figure obscured by shadows turned towards him. The face could barely be recognized as that of an older man. There were no details but it was more from the shape of it that stood out even through the obscurity.

Shouldn’t you be sleeping, Welf?

It was a voice that was wizened yet soft. Familiar. One he felt an obligation to respect. Was the man a relative? Was he a mentor? Was he the master who had cast him aside?

He didn’t know as he opened his mouth to respond. Yet no words came out. It was as if the shadows had laid claim to everything that could be said. Or perhaps there was no need for him to speak what had already been spoken?

Even so the obscured figure responded as he did, stroking what must have been facial hair for a moment in curiosity.

…Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to let you give it a try. I was younger than you when I first picked up a hammer.

The world moved until he found himself hovering over an anvil. There was a piece of red-hot steel in front of him. Even though it had been stricken so many times he could feel the heat caressing his supple cheeks with a teasing grace, as if beckoning him to strike with the weight that was suddenly in his hand. The older man was now taller than him as he pressed down on his shoulders and whispered:

Listen to the metal’s word. Lend your ears to its echoes as you pour your heart into your hammer. Never forget that as you bring it down. Understand?

The hammer came down.

And in the depths of that darkness rang out the most beautiful sound like the chiming of a bell.


…The world once more came into view for the stray smith.

He had drifted off it seemed. But in the depths of unconsciousness, he remembered something that laid buried in the darkness. The guiding fire that was the start of it all for him.

The feeling that could only come from the first time. The experience of the first time he had raised a hammer. The din of metal striking metal and the resonance of it on his ear while the gentle reverberations carried up his arms.

The reason he wanted to be a smith.

“I’m a damn fool.” He chided himself as he rose to his feet. The frustration in his voice was directed at himself this time rather than the situation. “The hell would be the point in picking up the hammer if I didn’t have the resolve to give it my all?”

He had intended to continue to attempt at forging the hammer. But he had already given up in his despair at the seemingly impossible task. His heart wouldn’t have been in it, so in continuing he would have insulted not only the owner of this forge but every single person who picked up a hammer—including himself.

He drew in a deep breath and vowed to properly apologize to the woman who got him this far, the man who gave him the challenge, the girl who had saved him in the first place, and whoever that silhouetted figure had been. Then turned his attention back to the forge. The ore was still basking in the flames and had become red-hot.

Without a word he approached the forge and liberated it from the inside, setting it down with tongs. Then he wrapped his fingers firmly around the handle of the hammer and hovered it over the ore. Taking a final breath from the diaphragm to center himself, Welf then closed his eyes and let the hammer fall to strike it once.

Only this time he listened.

His listened to the sound that came from it rebuking his hammer once more. He listened past its mocking tenor that seemed to be giddy at the chance to continue to mock his failure. He listened to the nearly imperceptible tone that laid hidden beneath the baleful delight being sent his way at his mounting frustration.

And he heard it.

“…So that’s it.” His voice came out soft as he opened his eyes and stared down at the ore that continued to ring so that his failure would linger for as long as possible throughout the enclosed room. It would have likely been far more embarrassing if other smiths had been there, but as long as even one person could hear it then that was undeniable proof. “You were rejected too, weren’t you?”

Then ring of mockery petered out as if taken off guard.

“I can’t say I understand what you were, but just now I heard it in the echoes,” Welf continued, raising the hammer again. “You’re scrap ore that had been discarded when your value was used up. Tossed aside not for some glorious purpose befitting of what you were once made for, but instead because you were a failure that had not lived up to the expectations placed upon you by the ones who shaped you before. And you’re afraid of that happening again, so you refuse to be shaped, right?”

He brought it down and listened as the hammer struck home.

The ore rang shrilly in response. Denying his claims of understanding. Denying he knew the pain of rejection and no longer being able to serve its purpose. Denying it knew of its rage and fear. In a single shrill it yelled out its frustration to the smith and demanded he not say another word.

He understood why. Words could be misinterpreted. Or they could be pretty little lies dressed up to try and sway the unyielding ore into making itself vulnerable once more. Then the sting of betrayal would be even worse and give birth an even greater despair that composed it.

Even so, Welf poured his heart into his arm as he struck once more. The feeling he had as he considered being a stray smith. The feeling he had at the thought of being a failure when he had been given one chance to prove himself. The thought of being unwanted by one who had taught him his craft and their face he could no longer remember. The thought of giving up rather than pressing on with all his might

He poured all those feelings that weighed heavy on his soul into his next stroke of the hammer to show there was no lie in his words.

The ore only responded with dull noise.

It now had no words of its own.

Become a hammer,” Welf said softly. “That way you’ll never be abandoned. Rather than a tool, you’ll be a partner with someone that will never cast you aside or forsake you. You’ll work day in and day out giving form to that which needs it to best fit their purpose and learn the joy of creating things anew. Don’t you think that’s a better way to spend your time than being stubborn?

He struck the ore again.

He listened again.

There was no mocking tenor that rebuked his efforts or skill. No shrill denial that was meant to drown out his words. Instead, there was a simple and short-lived ring that carried the faintest of fleeting hope whereas previously it had been forlorn instead:


He grinned. “You have my word as a smith. So quit being so stubborn and let me help shape you into a form befitting your new role, yeah?”

He raised the hammer up once more and brought it down.

The ore indented.

It wasn’t by much. Just a barely perceptible shift as the surface yield beneath the stroke. But it was enough to show that the message carried.

The only sounds that permeated the workshop from then on were the crackling of the forge and metal striking metal. The smith listened as it made a different ring from before with each stroke and reacted by shifting where his hammer came down in response. Nothing else was needed to carry on the dialogue between stone and smith.

Welf didn’t look up at the clock. His eyes remained captivated by the red-hot steel as he struck. Perhaps he had more than enough time. Or perhaps no matter how fast he rushed he would never make the deadline. He set aside the challenge itself to instead prioritize the vow he made to the that which desired a new purpose in life.

And the ore itself extolled happiness and gratitude in every single stroke as he worked away.

The ore became a billet and took on a more uniform shape as he struck it while focusing on the image of the hand-hammer firmly in place. It didn’t need that much force after all, so long as the ore wished to change. He used a handle punch to work in the hole, the metal bulging outwards as it got deeper while he turned every few blows to keep it in center.

Then he turned it over and did the same on the other side. Strike. Turn. Strike. Turn. He dedicated the entirety of his focus on perfection and listened with each strike as the ring advised him until the hole was made.

Then came the drift to smooth it out and widen it on the inside so that an appropriate handle could be slotted in. Of course he had to turn it over time and again to flatten out the cheeks with the round side of the hammer that Bron had given him. It seemed to know where to strike and avoided the cheeks sinking below the billet, as if it would accept nothing less than perfection for what would be its kin—which was fine as Welf had no intentions to do anything less.

The steel. The hammer. The smith. The three worked in tandem until the process was done and the hammer head was complete. On reflex he looked for something to mark it with his signature as an ingrained response, but stopped himself on account of the fact that it had not been his hammer or tools responsible.

Instead, he took a breath as he set the hammer down and brushed his hands against his black clothes. Another reflexive response, though he supposed that was why the clothes looked so worn. Then he addressed the figure looming in the doorway behind him. “So, by how long did I fail you task?”

Bron did not answer him. He merely came over and peered down at the hammer head that had been shaped into an admittedly smaller counterpart to the one that Welf had been using. His expression scrunched up for a moment as he passed judgement on the work and then back to the one who had shaped it. “Ya figured it out then?”

Welf caught the unmentioned context. “…Stray. Second-rate. Unwanted. All those are associated with feelings of rejection. You chose your words intentionally so that I could recognize it within that ore if I listened, right?”

“Merely spoke my mind. If ya heard otherwise, then good on ya.” The Silver Master’s expression softened as he looked down at the hammer head. “We put our souls into our work and in doin’ so breathe life into the weapons. They become extensions of ourselves and our Guardian Beasts. That becomes their purpose, and they want nothin’ more, so what happens when they break and get left behind?”

It festers. It rots the spirit within the weapon. It becomes a grudge that pulls in others like it. And then it comes to life once more as a shadow of itself to take its revenge on the ones that abandoned it. The ore itself was merely what was left behind when even its vengeance was snuffed out and it could only regret that even its new purpose was stricken from it.

“We don’t need second-rate smiths who’ll only make more grudges by bein’ careless and then tossin’ em away ‘cause they’re no longer useful.” He picked up the hammer head and weighed it in his hands. “But if a smith can resonate with that… if they can breathe life into ‘em again with the promise of a future where they can fulfill their purpose as a tool with pride… then they’ll bring out the full potential of their new form itself.”

“And what better tool to bring life into the world for a smith than a hammer,” the red-haired smith finished.

“A Hammer doesn’t just forge a weapon. It forges the smith who wields it.” There was a silent note of respect in his voice as he set the hammer head down and turned to face Welf. “In this case, it forged a man.”

“See, Pratty. I told you they would get along,” chimed in a third voice from the doorway. Both men turned back to see that Amariss was there along with her daughter. She was wearing her usual smile as she looked between them. “You left the front door open, so we helped ourselves inside. I take it Welf passed?”

Bron gruffly cleared his throat. “Fortunately for ‘em, I lost track of the time.”

She seemed pleased with that as she turned her attention to Welf. “And did you remember anything about your past?”

He told them what he recalled vaguely of the silhouette and the words that had been uttered. It had not been much. But it had been more than he had before and reminded him of why he took on the craft in the first place.

“It seems ya had the right of it, Amariss,” Bron said. “His memories might come back if he works in a forge long enough after all.”

“So you’ll let him stay on as an apprentice?” Pratty asked, hopeful.

He let out a grunt and his nostrils flared out as he turned back to Welf. “It’s a favor to Amariss that I gave ye shot, but for an apprentice whose body remembers all o’ that to lose it all ‘cause he doesn’t keep practicin’ would leave a sour taste in my mouth as a smith. Ye’ll get a room on the second floor to stay while yer an apprentice, but ya start slack in the slightest and I’ll boot ye out. B’cause I don’t work with second-rate smiths, ya hear?”

Despite the warning, Welf smiled. “It feels like I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Then it all worked out for the best,” Amariss said sweetly. “Thank you, Bron. I know that I was asking a lot from you. But I knew I could count on you to take care of him for me. Treat him well.”

“Anythin’ for ya, Amariss! Anythin’ at all!”

Welf found the sight of the grown man smiling practically giddily as he rubbed the back of head such a foreign sight that he looked over towards Pratty to make sure the lack of sleep wasn’t making him see things.

She only gave a knowing shrug with an expression that he interpreted as, ‘Obviously. Not that he has a shot.

Regardless, it seemed for a while he would be serving as an apprentice Craftknight for the Silver Guild.

Fanfic Recommendation 120

My Fanfics

Calling Card 25

Summary: Shinji Matou had been looking to redeem himself after the Holy Grail War, but wasn’t certain how to. Then he learned about a crimson calling card labeled Psyren. Saving the future would be a good starting point. A pseudo-crossover using elements of Psyren, it will contain characters from several Nasuverse works, including Tsukihime. Based on a Challenge by FateOnline.

Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.

Summary: Liliruca Arde died in the Dungeon. Then she woke up with a burning in her chest and the world was red. She didn’t know what she had become, but anything was better than her old, weak self.

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Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.

Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.

Summary: Liliruca Arde died in the Dungeon. Then she woke up with a burning in her chest and only able to see red. She didn’t know what she had become, but anything was better than her old, weak self.


The quivering of her lips.

The straining of her throat.

The ear-stabbing reverberation.

The scream of the curled figure within the dark chasm was akin to a newborn coming into the world.

A set of chestnut eyes wrenched themselves open the moment there was no more air left to escape the confines of her crinkled lungs. That which greeted her gaze was distant shadows. It was practically bright in contrast to the stygian black that had made up the world a moment prior.

Her lungs burned as she drew in her first breath. The scent of musk and iron assailed her nose. The tang of salt and metal slid along her tongue. It all scraped down her throat like the rusty tip of a knife until her lungs were ready to burst. Then she exhaled and what came out this time was a raspy and shuddering cry laced with tremors and pain.

Pain was her world in the darkness. Her body existed of nothing but different forms of pain.

The constant pressure of unworked stone slowly biting into half of her flesh. The burning of her throat and cracks in her lips. The roiling agony of an empty stomach devouring itself from the inside out. The dull pulsation that accompanied every beat of her heart.

The electrified haze inside of her skull was the worst. Her thoughts. Her memories. They were hidden beneath its obscuring veil. No matter how long or hard she tried to reel them from beneath the fog it refused to yield them to her.

Even her own name was mired somewhere in the mist.

Her breathing slowed as the shadows slowly began to bleed into detail. She could make out the stone womb that she was in. Faint traces of light came from the direction of her feet. Instinctively chasing it left the muscles in her body to throb as they fought off the numbing pain that had taken root. Slowly rousing from what felt like an ancient slumber, her feet slid across the ground until they came to a stop at something hard.

Her head tilted down and her eyes focused. The light was coming through a smaller opening in the stone chamber. Fleeting thoughts managed to breach her mired mind. Walls. Growing. Sealing. Time. Escape.

It took a moment before she managed to put the pieces together. Her stone womb was a wound and now the walls were slowly closing in to mend it. It would become her tomb if she couldn’t get out.

She sucked in a sharp breath as every nerve suddenly came to life in response to her need to survive.  There was a rush of heat coming from a molten core in her chest. It flooded her body as her foot lashed out and breached the opening, allowing her to escape the coffin of bedrock on her arms and knees.

Her bones creaked as she stood up on her two legs. She was a meder-and-a-half at full height, her limbs thin and stiff. The cloth that covered her body was old and shorn with fabric thinner in some places. Moist air tickled her bare skin as it crept through a rough gash that threaded the cloth diagonally between her breasts.

She made out her surroundings as she brushed the hair clinging to her forehead out of the way. Space had opened up but still felt claustrophobic as stalagmites and stalactites jutted all over the place and branching paths in the darkness beyond her vision went off into the unknown. The dim light that had guided her free of the small tunnel at the base of a wall seemed to have come from the small crystals that were woven into them without rhyme or reason with the ceiling itself a dark umbrella at its deepest.

It was about then the sound of a soft and inquiring squeal came from the edge of her vision.

Her eyes homed in toward the source of the sound where she found a small mass of white fur peeking around one of the naturally forming columns that linked the floor to the ceiling. The long ears on its head, perched to either side of a horn, sprang from half-slouching to erect as pale-red eyes began to shine with bright malice as it fixated on her.

Emerging from its cover to reveal itself in full to be around her size in height as it stood on its hind legs, she watched as it slowly moved to the side while almost meekly keeping an eye on her. It was approaching what seemed to be a non-descript jutting of stone to seemingly hide behind. Except that she could feel deep within her that wasn’t the case.

Some part of her instinctively recognized that there was something within the stone just waiting there. Then the creature chambered one of its legs and stomped against the stone. The impact had shattered the solid rock with a similar spray as she had done to break free of her confines, only it had instead freed a dense piece of stone that held the shape of a handle. The creature gripped the handle with its forepaws that bent and revealed opposable thumbs that allowed it to wrench free the head that was a wedge with a cutting edge.

Then it let loose a high-pitched shriek before it bounded towards her with the stone-axe in hand.

The distance between them must have been at least thirty meders. It was a distance that would require more than a hundred steps to cross for someone their size at a walking pace. Yet in three bounds of its hindlegs it cleared that distance in three seconds.

By the time her hazy mind registered that she was under attack, the scent of fresh blood spilling into the air reached her right along with the sound of bone buckling beneath the stone wedge. Then she felt sharp, burning pain where her neck and shoulder met—where the creature’s axe had buried itself into her and split her open like firewood.

Ah… ahh….” Her voice croaked as the shock left her unable to scream. She could only stare wide-eyed into the pale red orbs that seemed like ominous stars up close. The lips of the creature whose white fur was speckled red from her blood pulled back into what could only be described as a smile of revelrous glee.

It squealed in delight upon seeing the anguish on her face. The pain it brought upon her seemed to excite it. Even now she could see from its eyes that it yearned to split her open and butcher her into slabs of meat.

It wrought out more fragments of her lost memories. The same smiles at her pain. The laughs at her anguish. The looks of those who wanted nothing more than to be rid of her.

Remembering that. Feeling the pain. Not wanting to return to the darkness. It all left her vision to turn red as the molten core in her chest seemed to burn even hotter. Every emotion seemed to drain out of her and leave only anger as she lashed out at the creature with a snarl, driving her right fist into its head with all her might.

The creature that was almost her height ended up floored as its entire body slammed into the ground next to her. It trembled as its mind seemed to register that its prey had fought back despite what should have been a fatal blow. A pained cry drew its head back towards her, only for it to find itself staring at an upraised blade that was covered in crimson.

There was another scream before the blade descended. The wet and crunchy sound of brain and skull being carved into filled the chamber. Then it happened again. And then again. And again.

The act of butchery continued to resound for time untold. The squelch of flesh being split open. The crack and crunch of bone being wrenched apart. The splashing of blood painting the drab walls and dry gravel beneath them a vivid shade of crimson.

By the time the red had cleared from her vision, there was no creature left in front of her. Instead, it was only a mass of battered meat and red fur. Bits of white bone and purple veins could be made out amidst the viscera pile that glistened faintly under the dim light with a faint sheen.


Whimpers slipped out her mouth and were followed by the stone axe clattering to the ground as pain re-asserted itself. The hand that wielded it instead came over to where she had been split open and then wrenched free the very tool used to do it. She felt a burning heat there that seemed to intensify with every beat of her heart.

Her eyes turned towards the gaping wound to see the broken bones had snapped themselves back into place and welded themselves back together. The snapped and torn muscles stretched themselves and then reconnected with a searing heat like flames were melting them together. The blood stopped flowing as her arteries and veins wormed and writhed until they reconnected. Then finally the skin knitted itself closed.

But no sooner than she was made whole did she feel a spreading and numbing cold seep throughout her body. It was as if the molten core that had been roaring hot a moment prior had been reduced to only a smoldering husk that was on the verge of burning itself out. Then there would only be emptiness in its place.

A shuddering breath escaped her as she recognized the threat of the gnawing emptiness for what it was. She needed something to quench it. Something to fill in that numbing emptiness before it spread and hollowed her out. Something to fuel the flame between her breasts that was keeping her warm before she went completely cold and still.

And she knew what she what that was the moment she spotted it peeking out of the pile of bone, fur, and meat that lay before her. The gem hidden within the viscera of the creature that had attacked her. The small prismatic stone that could fit in the palm of her hand.

She wrenched it free of the meat and blood vessels that were clinging to it desperately to hold onto their physical form. The creature that had once been alive turned into nothing but ash the moment she plucked it free. The only signs of its existence that remained were the blood that painted the walls as a testimony to the fact that it once lived and the very stone that had kept it tethered to life.

There was no hesitation before she swallowed even that. No real thought behind it. Perhaps it was instinct?

The reason behind the act ultimately didn’t matter so much as the fact that the moment she swallowed the stone the effect was instant.

The numbing cold was driven off as heat and life returned to her flesh. The fog dissipated from her mind as if it evaporated at the same time. With it gone came clarity and all the memories that had been lost before came rushing back to her all at once.

She remembered that her name was Liliruca Arde.

She remembered that she died.


The story began on the Twelfth Floor.

The room was a savanna consisting of bone-white grass. Fog blanketed the entirety of the floor and left it laced with a chill that stiffened one’s cheeks. Dead trees sprouted from the earth with dense trunks that grew thinner as they tried to stretch themselves to the faint light from above.

The trotting of boots stirred the white veil. Steel glinted as they came into view. Drawn blades caked in fresh blood and fat held at the ready. Three men in total were accounted for.

The first was a blonde with a lean body and narrow eyes. His cheap breastplate bore new scratches and the protectors on his arm looked like they had been chewed on, while his broad sword was leveled out as he made his way over toward one of the corners of the room where the fog was at its thickest. He lowered the blade when he spotted what awaited him there. “Guys, over here!”

Footfalls crushed the grass as the remaining two made it over. Of them, the first to arrive was a middle-aged man with slightly tanned skin and a pair of daggers in his hands. His black jacket was ripped in places and around one of his wrists was a cloth that had been stained red and tied tight.

“You found ‘em?” he called as he darted over, blades in a reverse grip as If ready to be plunged into flesh. They quickly went slack when he arrived. “Or what’s left of ‘em, anyway.”

It became clear what he meant when the party leader arrived. He was slightly shorter than his compatriots but had a bulkier build. A helmet covered his light brown hair while a large pauldron was affixed to his right shoulder, beneath which one could make out the muscular arms he had. “Hmph.”

All three stared down at the scene that had been hidden beneath the blanket of obscuring white mist that loitered above the ground. The bleached grass had been slathered in crimson. Bits of meat and purple entrails were left around four sets of bags that had begun to soak in it.

“You think one of the Orcs got to ‘em?” asked the swordsman as he sheathed it on his back. “Not like they would have trouble fitting him in their mouths as a snack, being messy eaters and all.”

The dagger-user drew back, wedging his blades into their sheathes before reaching down and pulling away his own bag. His lips pulled back into a grimace, and he covered his nose at the putrid scent of the fluid dripping over it. “A fittin’ end for the thieving piece of shit. Stole from us after all the good we did for ‘em.”

In contrast, the party leader’s face scrunched up and a grunt bubbled up in his throat as his eyes spanned the area. “…If that’s the case then where’s his backpack?”

“Maybe it got thrown somewhere?” suggested the swordsman as he scrubbed his bag across the grass and dirt to try and wipe away some of it.

“If it got tossed aside that’d be one thing. But…”  He looked down at the grass itself before reaching down to run his hand over the surface. “The grass and earth ain’t flattened like one of the pigs lumbering around would have done either.”

Then he grabbed his own bag and opened it without concern over the smell or the sight. His expression darkened and his gaze turned murderous as he flung the bag to the side. “My dagger’s gone! Check the rest of ‘em.”

Liliruca held her hands over her mouth to avoid the swirl of her breath giving away her position as the other two realized their bags had been deprived of the most valuable belongings. The Supporter hailing from the Soma Familia had been forced to retreat down from the Eleventh Floor to avoid retribution from the Adventurers with whom she had terminated her contract on the previous Floor. Her severance payment was a very nice magic dagger that the party leader had been quietly holding on to, much to the ignorance of his companions.

It had been by pure chance that she caught a passing glance of the crimson blade with a notable gloss. Her eyes, which were naturally more perceptive than that of other races, immediately caught sight of it when he was handling his bag and knew it was something that would fetch a high price. More money meant more of a chance at finally obtaining freedom—from Soma, his wine, and his Familia.

She had been unable to resist the chance to obtain it. Especially considering how he had short-changed her several trips now and told her if she didn’t like it, ‘he’ could always quit. She knew where the money went, so there was nothing wrong as far as she was concerned in taking what she was owed.

But it seemed he really wanted it back. “It’d be suicidal going down further on their own, so the conniving bastard is still here somewhere! Spread out and look!

Tension threaded her body. Her small frame was tucked deep into the grass she used a large cloth that resembled the hue of the nearby walls to cover herself and her backpack. It gave the impression due to the size and shape of being little more than a stone outcropping within the fog. Monsters would overlook it simply enough but a thorough search by adventurers meant she was on a clock.

Normally, Liliruca would have been more thorough in setting up the deception after coming down this far. But they had caught on too fast. Or perhaps she had gotten too ambitious by taking the magic dagger?

If she had left it in the bag, then he probably would have just moved on and taken them with him. Adventurers only looked after themselves even when they were in a group, and he was the strongest so what he said went. Even if they had complained about something being missing, he would have blamed it on them since he got what was important to him.

However, hindsight was something she didn’t have time to worry about at the moment. Escape. Survival. That was what she needed to focus on now.

Her chestnut eyes narrowed as she counted that only three of them were here. The fourth was still nowhere to be seen. Given the situation, she was willing to bet that meant the fourth was watching the only way up and she couldn’t force her way through him. Like it or not she was small and weak enough that any one of them wouldn’t have any trouble catching up and killing her if she was caught.

Her mind raced.

A solution that came to her mind was disguising herself as someone else. She had masqueraded herself as a male her entire time with them, so it could work. But her means of doing so didn’t work on anything bigger than herself and meant she would have to ditch her backpack and come back for it later.

It would have to be tomorrow morning. That was when there would be an influx of adventurers making their way down. They would trim the number of monsters along the way, harvesting their magic stones to sell. That would also be a benefit to her given the ones on the Eighth Floor and lower were too much for her to handle.

There was a risk of her losing everything in it if she left it there. But her life was more important. She would leave the sheet covering the backpack over it, hoping it wouldn’t be discovered or bothered before she could come back for it. If was missing then she would have to resort to her savings to replace everything.

She needed to get away from the three in front of her right now, of course.

But she knew that was about to be taken care of the moment she felt the earth beneath her start to tremor. It came from the lumbering of passing footfalls that mercifully passed her by and moved towards the assembled men.  It had been a mistake for them to stay there to look for her even after they found their bags.

Few things drew in monsters like the scent of blood being carried on the mist. She always kept a few bottles of it on her just in case she needed a distraction, tucked into her bag and sealed tight. It was already too late for them to run the moment the apex predator lurching through the fog spotted them.

The monster’s red eyes focused not on spanning the world for the scent that allured it, but instead on the ones that sparked the instinctive hatred that lurked within the very core of its being. Its muscles hidden beneath its fur began to bulge until the veins could be seen as it stood taller than any of them by more than twice over. Then it beat at its chest with a roar.


Liliruca tucked the magic dagger into her robes and started making her way to safety as the fog was kicked up the moment their fight for survival began. Silverbacks weren’t known to roam in packs like Orcs, and they were territorial when there weren’t mortals around to draw their ire. And she was an expert at avoiding monsters by necessity, so she would make her escape back to the surface while under another guise to live another day….

Or at least that had been the plan before the floor had fallen from beneath her.

Had it been eaten away from below by Dungeon Worms?

Had the bedrock broken open to birth some monstrosities and had yet to mend itself, leaving it to become a pitfall for any unlucky soul to stumble across?

Had the Dungeon, the living and breathing thing that it was, taken notice of the mistake that was her hubris and opened its maw to devour what seemed to be easy prey deeper into its stomach?

It really didn’t matter in the end what the reason for it was.

What mattered was that she fell into the darkness.


The fall hadn’t killed her on impact.

It would have been more merciful if it had.

Liliruca’s vision slowly came into focus as she stared up at the far-off hole that she had plummeted through. It looked to be in the center of whatever chamber she had fallen into, meaning there were no handholds that she could use to climb her way out. And considering how the Dungeon walls mended themselves it would only be a matter of time before it sealed itself shut.

The shock of the fall itself faded and the horror set in that she was stuck there. On instinct she almost shouted out for someone to help her before the wall sealed itself shut. But her rational mind lunged from the depths of her forming headache and brought with it the knowledge that the only ones who would hear her would be the adventurers above or the monsters on the floor she found herself on.

Both were a death sentence for her.

Her throat tightened shut.

Cold sweat began to form on her forehead from the gravity of the situation. But she knew that panicking would do no good. She had to find her way back up to the surface. And to do that she needed to start moving.

Her body ached as she sat up straight. Her head pounded. She wanted to lay back down and close her eyes, hoping that the pain would pass. But that would be the same as laying down to die considering that she was out of her depths, so she tried to compose herself by thinking what did she have on her at the moment to help her survive?

Her handheld crossbow?

A breath of relief escaped as she found it had survived the fall. Good. Between that and the magic dagger, which thankfully remained where it had been tucked prior, she wasn’t entirely unarmed. The number of bolts she had was limited though.

There was also her necklace holding the key to her storage and the golden pocket watch that she had gotten from one of the marks. Unfortunately, the watch had broken from the impact so she couldn’t tell the time as it was. But it was still gold so she could probably get something for it on the surface or get it fixed. She tucked it into her robes.

What about healing items?

A grimace spread as she picked up the pouch that she had placed them within and heard glass scratching against itself. Pulling open the top revealed that the vials had shattered on impact. She rummaged through her pocket for a cloth, placing it into the pouch and leaving it to soak up as much as the cloth could hold before she put it into her mouth to suckle it down. Hopefully it would be enough to numb the pain she was in so she could start moving.

But to where?

She had memorized the maps up to the Eleventh Floor. The only reason she had gone down to the Twelfth was that she couldn’t take the exit upwards because they had caught on to her original diversion, split themselves up along the paths that would have led upwards, and thus funneled her below. And now she was entirely new territory that someone with her Status had no business being, dropped from a hole with no idea where the entrance was.

To escape she needed to either figure out a way up or find another group of adventurers to barter with for safe passage.

The pain numbed somewhat by the time the light from the hole began to shrivel up from the opening starting to seal shut. That made it painfully clear how much darker the floor was in comparison to the above, distantly only illuminated by scattered crystalline formations that budded from the rock formations. She imagined that it would only be bright enough to make out her own silhouette, leaving the world around her reduced to half.

Even so, she had to move forward. Not blindly. But with some direction. She turned to her trump card. “Your scars are mine. My scars are mine. Stroke of midnight’s bell.

Argent light swaddled her body before pooling over her head and lower back. Her normal ears vanished as a set of Chienthrope ears formed on the top of her hair, while a furry tail took shape behind her. She flexed them as the light vanished and confirmed they functioned.

This was her magic—Cinder Ella. It allowed her to transform either part of herself or entirely into other creatures and races. It used to only work on her body but because she used it so much her Magic had increased enough to where it allowed her to change her clothes, though unlike her body the effect dissipated if she was hit. And while she was restricted to things her size or smaller, she gained racial features and physical attributes of the other races.

Since she couldn’t rely on her eyes to see incoming threats in the dim light, she had to rely on her other senses. Chienthropes had sharper hearing and smell than Pallums. And while it cost quite a bit of Mind to activate depending on the nature of the transformation, keeping it active didn’t have as much upkeep so she could keep it active for most of the day if needed.

It didn’t, however, make her any stronger. That was why she couldn’t risk fighting with a monster from this floor if she could help it. Her only tools were the crossbow and the magic dagger, both of which had limited uses.

Transformed, she stuck to the center of the tunnel as she made her way into the unknown. If she clung to either side of the wall, then there was the chance a sudden birth could leave her right in the jaws of a monster. But if she lingered for too long, she could be pincered and then pinned—so Liliruca moved quietly but quickly.

Every step she took across the gravel sounded like the pounding of a war drum in her head. No matter how quietly she knew that she was moved, part of her couldn’t help but think it was announcing to everything on the floor that she was there. That fresh prey had been dropped right into their laps.

It left her mouth dry to think about what could happen if they did discover her. Her knowledge of monsters below the Eleventh Floor was limited compared to her knowledge above it. But given the terrain, she could guess that monsters like the Silverbacks and Orcs would be absent.

But the Dungeon was a threat on every level, and she was certain something was gestating within the womb of the cavernous walls that would be the end of her. Not knowing what that was, but knowing that it would eventually come, kept her tension running high. The handheld crossbow trembled in her grasp as she gripped it so tight her knuckles were turning white.

She pressed on until the tunnel running from the small chamber she had fallen into split off into three directions. Three options to choose from. She stuck her head into the air and took a deep breath to take in the scent wafting from each of them.

One scent was that of what smelled like burned fruit and the earth after rain. She recalled catching the scent once before on the Tenth Floor. Bad Bats were down the west path, and quite a few of them judging by the smell.

Two options. The air in the one to the northwest smelled fresher than the one to the east. That meant it potentially was getting airflow from above or was more spacious so that it could be better circulated. She took that path.

At the mouth of the tunnel she came to a large chamber that appeared to be the lowest rung of a set of smooth walls that were built upon each other until they reached a ceiling with the guiding specks of dim light coming from the crystals lacing the walls intermittently. There were several tunnels along the path and each of them was pitch black beyond the threshold as a testament to how deeply they went.

Another decision to make and not a lot of time to make it. She had to move while there were no monsters around. She followed her nose and went up the rocky path that was nearby on the hunch that she wanted to ascend to get to the surface.

That was when the Dungeon made its move.

Ashen-toned rock split wide open from the section of stone in front of her and out plopped a large mass amidst the fragmented stone. The gleam of pale-golden carapace stretched over a muscular frame that was big enough to take up the walkway caught the dim light. And it only grew bigger as it unfurled while bits of the pebble clinging to a furry mane were shaken loose, flexing long black claws meant to tunnel through earth and stone.

Hard Armored—that was the name of the monster that Liliruca found herself staring nearly eye-level with. Next to the Silverbacks that possessed the highest offense of monsters on the Eleventh and Twelfth Floor, they were known to possess the strongest defense due to their hard carapaces. Lower-quality blades would break often enough that fighting one hand-to-hand for a Level One Adventurer was considered foolhardy.

And its crimson eyes were fixed solely on her.

…She jumped. It was only natural given that the handheld crossbow in her grip wouldn’t be able to kill this thing. The magic dagger she had could, but in the time she could draw it the monster would have killed her. So she flung herself over the side of the rising walkway and fell down to the floor below since that was the only way to survive.

It was the right call. The shadow of death had grazed her head not a half-second before she fell, leaving the ground where she had been gouged out by the black claws of the monster. Whether it was a testament to their sharpness or the power of the muscles behind them, Liliruca wasn’t eager to find out by being on the business end of them.

She ducked into the nearest tunnel where she could sense the airflow splitting. Even though it would take her away from the ascending path and descend her further into the depths, she had no choice. Hard Armoreds could cover a vast amount of distance if they were on even ground and a newborn fresh out of the Dungeon’s womb would chase its first prey until it caught up to her.

The ground tremored as it jumped after her. Gravel began to crunch at a constant pace from its charging attack, seeking to barrel her over. With her small frame, it would be an instant kill. Her bones would be crushed beneath the rolling mass and hard carapace, the pulped organs spilling out from the skin that split open like squashed fruit.

Her legs burned as she ran towards a diverging path. At the same time the rumbling from the approaching Hard Armored had grown louder to spell out her impending death. She flung herself into it and felt the harsh wind as it narrowly passed her by, its momentum carrying it several meders beyond her.

It realized its mistake and bounced into the air, unfurling as it did so. Its claws dug into the ground as it slid to a stop, letting out a frustrated growl. Then it turned its crimson gaze back into her direction—


—only to be met with the searing hot ball of fire that ruptured into an explosion upon slamming into its unprotected head courtesy of the magic dagger. The crimson bloom of flames swallowed its body, including the soft underbelly that it so preciously protected by hiding within its shell and remaining low to the ground. The monster collapsed where it was with smoke wafting off of it.

Liliruca breathed out a heavy breath as the arm holding out the magic dagger went limp. Her entire body was shaking. She had managed to kill it by chance and her body responded to that with elation at the having seized another moment of life.

It would have proven fatal had her Chienthrope ears not picked up the sound of shifting stone from above. Her attention snapped upwards right before the ceiling burst open and wet, glistening flesh lined with pointed teeth greeted her from above. Its maw was centered perfectly to engulf her, the outer row of teeth spread wide like a bear trap waiting to snap shut before the inner ones ripped her apart along the way down its long tubular body.

Ironically, her small body was all that gave her a chance at survival. Her short stature was low enough from the ceiling it had to extend further down to reach her. So, between that and her hearing, there was just enough space so that her legs could snap her backward and avoid instant death—


—and all it cost her was having her flesh split open as one of the long fangs on the outer row of the teeth grazed along her chest. The tip of it ripped into her robe and between her chest, leaving her world to burn in agony as blood poured from the wound.

Noisy chittering kept her eyes on the Dungeon Worm as it curled around and bared its gaping maw toward her once more. Crimson painted the fang that had torn her open. It angled itself and prepared to lunge once more and devour her.

With a shout, Liliruca unloaded everything the magic dagger had left into its open maw. Flames bloomed not once, but twice as two blasts struck home. The first blew apart the upper right section of its body, while the second struck deeper. It must have stuck the magic stone within its elongated body because it turned to ash right afterward.

Nnn…” The handheld crossbow clattered to the ground as the pain left Liliruca to curl into herself, forcing her eyes down to where she saw a spreading crimson puddle beneath her legs. Her blood was running freely, and she had to stem it. But first, she needed somewhere safe to tend to the injury.

That was when the world around her shook violently for a moment and the rumble of stone could be heard. She feared another monster’s birth was happening, but it was so violent that whatever it was would have been massive. Fortunately, the shaking stopped, and nothing lunged from the darkness to finish her off.

She took in her surroundings to see it had opened into a section with naturally forming columns. She hobbled her way further inside, away from where the smoking corpse of the Hard Armored would likely draw in other monsters. It was deeper within she found a small hole to crawl inside to try and stop the bleeding.

As she tried to pull her robe off to use it as a makeshift tourniquet, her limbs began to go numb. Her eyes felt heavy, and her vision blurred. Her breath grew to shudder as the fear of death closing in gnawed at her heart.

She couldn’t let herself die like this. Not now. Not after everything she had gone through up to this point. Everything she had put up with on the surface just to survive. Not to some scratch.

The Pallum put every ounce of strength she had into trying to move her limbs. But instead, lethargy left her to collapse onto her side, and a bitter cold set in. Stinging tears were the only source of heat left as she thought to herself what was it all for in the end?

Why had she been born into this world? Why had she been born into the clutches of an uncaring God and his Familia? Why did she have to die here because of them?

All of this was because of them. If they had just let her be free to live a new life back then, with those nice people. She could have been… happy

But that wasn’t how reality worked, was it?

Only the strong had that right. The Adventurers who were so proud of themselves, happily lording their power over the weak and helpless. They didn’t know what it was like to struggle and survive. Only to use others and throw them away.

At the very least it was all over now. Her suffering would be over. She would die and then be reborn to live a new life. The only regret she had was that the Adventurers who looked down on her and the Soma Familia who ruined her life would move on as though nothing happened.

With her final breath, Liliruca cursed them.

Then she breathed no more.


Falling onto her knees, Liliruca clutched her head as the memories finished resurfacing. Her body trembled as she looked down at the gravel-laden ground that had been her tomb. She remembered she had died so vividly that it was undeniable.

She remembered her body going cold and her breath stalling. She remembered the darkness pulling her in. She remembered the emptiness.

She remembered death.

There were no miracles in the world that brought the dead back to life. The bodies were left to rot and the souls were sent up above to be reborn once more. That was the fate of mortals, and everyone knew it.

She had died. After a life of suffering, she died. That meant she should have been reborn. So why was she still her weak, miserable self? A Pallum that lacked the strength to find even a sliver of happiness?

Was it some kind of cruel joke? Had some God or Goddess in charge of reincarnation decided to amuse themselves by shoving her back into her weak self? Did they think it would be hilarious to leave her trapped in the Dungeon?

The same Dungeon that wouldn’t even give her time to come to terms with things as the sound of the walls breaking open reached her ears. Bundles of fur as white as the snow plopped onto the gravel with bits of fragmented stones nestled within them. The pebbles fell loose as they shook and bristled before the four-legged frames became bipedal and thus rivaled her height.

Crimson eyes and malicious squeaks followed as a horde of Almiraj faced her down.

She could tell that there were landform weapons nearby. There were six of them alone by where they were born. The monsters would grab new axes and then use them to butcher her limb from limb until she resembled the pile of meat like the one who’d attacked her before.

It would be a cruel and painful death.

And yet…

Liliruca wasn’t afraid. Even though she had tasted death itself and the blackness that awaited, she couldn’t bring herself to fear it. Or rather to say that while she would feel fear under normal circumstances, right now she didn’t.

Instead, she only felt anger.

Anger at the fact that she had died once. Anger at the fact that she had been denied a chance to be born as someone else. Anger at the fact that the Dungeon itself didn’t seem content with taking her life already. It stirred up a deep, red-hot anger inside of Liliruca as she reached for the landform axe next to her.

Then a shout emerged from her throat and her world turned red.

The red swallowed all as it buried her into a haze that persisted until she found herself huddled over in pain. She drew in a sharp breath of air that was laced with the scent of iron and viscera, noticing the sea of blood, broken stone, and piles of flesh around her. She saw the corpses of not only the Almiraj, but even Hard Armoreds and what looked to be the split corpse of more than one Dungeon Worm.

Pain was once more her world. She could feel where her body had been broken open by landform weapons. Where her bones had been crushed and pulverized. She could even see what looked to be her own hand separate from her body.

Yet when she raised the one that was in the most pain, she saw the missing limb was no longer bleeding. Instead, there was a stump. More than that, it was growing bit-by-bit—regenerating until she was whole and hale.

It was something that should have been impossible. Almost as impossible as coming back from the dead. Yet it was unfurling before her very eyes as an undeniable sight.

And the reason became clear as she looked down at her chest.

It had been split open once more sometime when the world was a haze of red. She suspected it had been one of the Almiraj getting lucky with its dying strike, judging by the landform weapon resting beneath her along with the corpse that had its head crushed beneath her foot. But nestled firmly between her breasts and slowly being encased in a fresh layer of smoldering skin…

Laid a richly, vibrantly colored magic stone.

It was a different hue from the ones of the monsters nearby. But there was no denying what it was. Or what its purpose was. Just as the magic stones gave life to the monsters of the Dungeon, so too did it keep her body moving and even fueled the fury that somehow gave her the strength to be the one still standing within the pile of corpses that lay in the chamber.

…She should be horrified. There was something in her chest that marked her as being an enemy of mortals. The very creatures that had been at war with their kind since history began. Yet a twisted smile formed on her face instead as she looked over the dead creatures in the room.

For so long she had been weak. So weak that she was only able to survive on literal scraps. She had to bow her head to the Adventurers who thought themselves better than her because she was so small and weak. She could only vent her rage through schemes and thievery to survive, and look where that had gotten her.

It had gotten her killed down here in the Dungeon.

As her arm finished regrowing, Liliruca felt the cold and emptiness starting to settle in once more. It was the same sensation that she recognized as being death reaching out to claim her a second time. Fortunately, all around her were magic stones from the monsters that had tried to kill her right after she had been reborn.

She would consume them all to fuel the new flames of life that burned within her.

Then she would claw her way out of the Dungeon and make it to the surface.

Not as her pathetic old self that died miserably.

But reborn as something else entirely.


Liliruca Arde (Level 0)

Former member of the Soma Familia. Supporter. The reincarnation of Fianna whose soul once held the Bloodfury Spear, she was born into a Familia whose souls were slaves to Soma’s divine wine. When her attempts at escaping that life by becoming a civilian were ruined, she turned to conning and thieving for survival. She died from her injuries sustained in the Dungeon but strangely awoke a short time later as something neither mortal nor monster.

Strength: I-0 | Endurance: I-0 | Dexterity: I-0 | Agility: I-0 | Magic: I-0


Cinder Ella: Twelve-verse Chant, Transform-Type Magic. Enables her to take on the aspects of or transform into other creatures, including monsters. While undergoing the transformation she is limited by her own capabilities but gains the natural abilities of the creatures. The mutation by Monstrum Union replicates innate spellcasting effects provided the form and user is capable of such.

Chant: Your scars are mine. My scars are mine. Stroke of midnight’s bell.


Artel Assist: Assist Skill that compensates for small stature. Grants virtual Strength and Endurance in proportion to the weight being carried.

Monstrum Union: Signifier of union between mortal and monster, causing a bug in Status and erosion of the Anima (lifeforce). Ties the animating essence of her body and magic to the Heartstone (magic stone) embedded within.

Bloodfury: Fury of mortal and monster crystalized as one within blood-red eyes. Heavily increases Status at the expense of depleting Heartstone at an accelerated rate. Active trigger.


Landform Tomahawk: One of the naturally forming weapons created by the Dungeon itself to arm the monsters that roam around inside of it, the design allows it to be wielded one-handed with ease by Almiraj and similar sized creatures (Pallums). It can also be thrown as well for a ranged attack.

Supporter Robe: A cloak for Supporters that offer little in terms of defense but are easy to clean. Hers is notably in tatters from her time in the Dungeon.

Handheld Crossbow: A crossbow meant to be used for smaller races.

Broken Watch: A golden pocket watch that belonged to one of the adventurers swindled by Liliruca.

Calling Card (Psyren x FSN -Nasuverse): Arc 5 – Chapter 25

Chapter 25

“Not ten minutes and we run across a scouting party.”

Makidera and I take stock of the enemy as we hide downwind of the steel breeze blowing through the husk of civilization. There are eight total.

Five of them are Homunculi. Two magecraft-users. Two halberd-vanguards. And a rearguard with a bow.

The other three are the abominations they love to keep around them. Two Hounds. And a hulking Snatcher.

It’s a composition that specializes in tracking and capturing, acting as one node of the net that had been cast over the remnants of the city. Their hivemind will alert them when one team finds a target. The nearby units will divert some of their numbers to close the net from more than one side to make escape nearly impossible.

A basic strategy, but effective for the dolls’ capabilities. It takes advantage of their numbers and inherent communication for maximum efficiency. And with the Taboo in the skies intercepting enemy communications, it guarantees a high success rate.

For the incompetent, anyway.

A simple network of Mind Jacks provides real-time communication that they can’t intercept. Their ignorance of that means they have no way of guessing we can coordinate just as effectively. That makes them little more than puppets waiting for someone to pull their strings.

I’ll oblige them.

Saegusa, tell Mitsuzuri to shoot down the airborne targets after firing at the largest cluster ahead of us. If she asks why then the reason is that we want them to believe it’s going to be an escape route and they’ll spread themselves thin enough to cover it so we can’t escape through it. It’ll also serve to alert the person we’re here to find of our presence.

Her mental voice is gentle as always when she responds. ‘Mitsuzuri-san says that she will do that before providing cover fire starting clockwise until we can reposition. Will that be okay for you and Maki-chan?

In other words, she’ll clear out those that are closer to Gotou and Himuro first and then make her way back around to us. The ruins around us will hinder her aim compared to those two, so protecting them is a priority to avoid their capture. We just need to move more carefully until she can relocate later to get a better vantage point in our direction.

That’s fine. As long as Makidera doesn’t do something that gets her in over her head, there shouldn’t be any problems.

Hesitation carries through from the other end of the line for a moment. ‘…Please, keep an eye on her. Despite the front she puts up, Maki-chan is forcing herself to keep up with everything.

Looking at her, I can see Makidera’s gaze on the Hounds and Snatcher at this very moment. Those same ones had caught her before. Her pride might stop her from admitting she’s terrified of a repeat of that scenario, but how tense her body is gives it away.

I’ll babysit her and keep her out of trouble.

‘Please be safe yourself, Matou-kun.’

The connection remains intact but goes inert. Only a matter of time before Ayako starts her assault. Once that happens there’ll be no time for hesitation and doubt.

I need Makidera alive to play her part in things, so better to prod the exposed nerve now. “Is the Black Panther of Homura really that terrified of a couple of dogs?”

Her short, black hair whips around before her dark eyes meet my own. The withering glare she gives me is mildly impressive. “That’s not funny.”

I shake my head and shrug. “Listen, I’ll shut the dogs up when we start. But I want to prioritize those dolls since they’re the bigger threat. If you don’t think you can handle those monsters and want to cower here, then tell me now. That way I can plan ahead rather than misplace my trust in you to protect yourself.”

She starts to look uncomfortable and even she crosses her arms over her stomach as the steel wind whistles past us. It almost seems like the cold stole the very fire from her eyes. “…You’re really planning to kill them without blinking an eye. It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?”

I take a moment to measure my response. “If it makes you feel slightly less uncomfortable, I don’t see them as human. They’re just dolls that dress the part—mass-produced and flawless replicas that lack the blemishes and imperfections. I won’t feel bad about breaking a doll that’s trying to kill me, regardless of how it makes me look.”

She grimaces and turns her gaze to the ground. “…I won’t say that it doesn’t bother me. But I know I don’t have the right to sit here and judge you for it. Especially not when the only reason the three of us are still alive is because of it.”

Nice to see she has some level of awareness. It makes things easier. “Killing or being killed isn’t something normal people have to deal with, but that isn’t an option for any of us anymore. Nemesis Q robbed us of that luxury. I won’t tell you to get over it right away, but eventually, you’ll have to get your hands dirty. We won’t be able to shelter you forever.”

“I…” She clenches the hem of her coat as her lips pull back into a frown. “I know that. That’s why… I wanted to… ugh, this feels so weird to say all things considered…”

She fidgets in a way that starts reminding me of Saegusa. Minus the mousy demeanor that makes the latter more appealing. It feels uncanny, to be honest. “Is it really that hard for you to thank someone?”

Her eyes narrow as she spots the grin on my face. Just like that the vulnerability evaporates. “It’s you. Let’s be real here, you’re the last kind of person I’d want to spend time with or even speak to. And I can tell that you’re not the biggest fan of the rest of us as well.”

I don’t bother denying the accusation. “Well, the situation demands we shelve things like that if we want to live. I can make nice under those circumstances.”

She scoffs and crosses her arms. “Nice to know it takes the threat of death to make you into a decent person. I really don’t see what Yukicchi sees in you.”

I get ready to tell her she’s misinterpreting Saegusa’s actions when a warning flows down my connection with her. Seems like Ayako’s first shot is almost done being primed. No more time for small talk.

“It’s time,” I warn her. “Focus on the big one and then the dogs. I’ll deal with the dolls.”

Makidera’s expression twists uncomfortably as reality sets in. Then she closes her eyes and exhales before falling into a sprinter’s crouch. The moment her eyes open the change is clear, an unwavering gaze set straight ahead to the goal.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Ayako making that same face. It’s the mindset of the competitive, cultivated by their roles as the heads of their respective clubs. A state of mind that focuses on allowing them to shelve all unnecessary thoughts to achieve their objective—not unlike self-hypnosis in a way. If she’s repurposed that state of mind to the task at hand, then she’ll cross the threshold without hesitation.

As for what comes after that… who knows?

I ready my tools as well. The lengths of the weighted chain occupy my left hand, filling my palm with the sting of cold metal. Three camping stakes occupy my right, their girth nestled between my fingers. I prepare them all while I can as my pulse slowly quickens in anticipation…

Then light spears across the steel-grey firmament.

Ayako’s opening shot resembles a shooting star falling to earth—a fleeting flash that splits the sky, burns gloriously for an ephemeral moment, and then blossoms in the distance with the radiance of a miniature white sun. The overbearing glare illuminates the skeletal remains of the city as the rumble of destruction resounds throughout the battlefield and marks first blood.

Time slows.

No sooner than my perception of time dilates does Makidera vanish from my side. It seems that a single trip was all it took for her to live up to her self-proclaimed moniker as the Black Panther and devour the distance between herself and her prey. Electricity surges through my mind as I leave my tools to execute their programming and join in the hunt.

Time normalizes.

In the three seconds after the daystar comes into existence for Makidera to reach the enemy, three corpses hit the ground. The magecraft-users and rearguard collapse like puppets with their strings cut courtesy of the metal stakes driven through their skulls. But she remains ignorant of everything aside from the hulking mass of muscles saddled between the two muzzled mutts as the final step of her sprint turns into a pendulum-like kick, aimed at its massive torso.

The Black Panther ends up crossing the finish line under a shower of viscera, crystalline bones, and blood that turns to ash as the core shatters.

The number of enemies has dropped to less than half in five seconds. The dolls’ hivemind must be experiencing a flood of information from the sudden assault on multiple fronts. Something like this won’t work a second time now since they’ll know we’re here.

A pair of stakes cut through the air like silver bullets as I launch my assault on the remaining two Homunculi. The first one dies cleanly as the stake punches a neat hole in its skull. The second one’s death isn’t so clean since they moved in response to Makidera, leaving the stake to get clipped by the halberd.

The act reoriented the stake, but not enough to kill the forward momentum. So rather than a straight line, it forced its way through at an awkward angle right as Makidera’s attention focused on the nearest Hound. Ignorant of the gruesome sight due to pivoting on her grounded leg and bringing her raised one down like a guillotine onto it, I witness the aftermath in slow motion.

The right eye ends up being smashed as the stake slams into the socket at an angle. It keeps going and breaks partway through the stark-white bone hidden behind the snow-white skin. Fragments bury themselves into glistening pink brain matter that ends up scrambled as the stake tears through before catching midway. Eventually, it goes flying out at an awkward angle, dragging with it a long optical nerve somewhere amidst the rubble.

It’s a bit of a captivating sight. A morbid artistry. But I don’t have the luxury of dwelling on it as Makidera overshoots her next kick.

Her foot came down upon the black core nestled on top of the Hound’s sealed maw, destroying it. But she’d put too much power into it, so her foot continued and broke through the asphalt beneath it. With the remaining Hound behind her getting ready to lunge, her instincts take hold as she leans forward and places one hand on the ground while bringing her other foot up to kick it away.

A sloppy kick, but it serves its purpose by punting the abomination away and slamming it into a piece of concrete rubble. It became a rag doll after the audible snap of its spine being broken in two, but the unsightly thing still wasn’t dead. It kept flailing its forelimbs pitifully while its hindlegs remain inert and the chain kept it muzzled until I put it out of its misery.

…That’s when the sound of vomiting pulls my attention back to Makidera.

The self-proclaimed Black Panther is huddled over the side, bracing against rubble jutting from the ground for support as she spills the contents of her stomach. Not an unexpected reaction, but not one we have time for.

I run a Mind Jack between the two of us. ‘Hurry up. We can’t sit around for long.

… shut… up… ugh…’ She exhales a rasping breath as she finishes and wipes her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. Her eyes are partly unfocused but come into clarity as they fix themselves onto my own. Then she scowls. ‘How can you smile after all of that?

…I reach up to the corner of my lips. The curve of them pulled back in a grin feels foreign before I flatten it. But there’s no time to linger as light blossoms in the sky from Ayako’s second shot not even thirty seconds after the first. ‘You won’t have time to do that again, so get it all out of your system while you can.

Makidera spits off to the side before taking deep, patterned breaths. Likely some kind of breathing technique she learned from the Track Team to get her nerves under control. It had better work considering the timetable we’ve been put on now that Ayako’s shot has become a beacon for all to see.


Countless reports began filing in one after another, breaking the monotony mere seconds prior within the Command Tower.

Homunculi that were acting as the support within the Communications room were receiving a massive influx of information. The hivemind of their counterparts in the field flowed into the deformed wetware within the tanks. Bubbles frothed as the chemicals within the fluids were adjusted to handle the strain. Cerebral matter that composed their flesh pulsated as that information was relayed to those manning their station as the organic interface allowed them to filter through it.

“Units seven and eight have been cut off from the network—”

“Unit two has been eliminated in a hostile engagement! Cross-referencing with the database matches—”

“—teen has begun engagement with a member of the Resistance, splitting off members from Units ten and fourteen for support—”

“—three has ceased transmitting their signal. It was sniped from ground-level based on the triangulated trajectory, believed to be the same Wide-Scale Destructive Burst User that destroyed the Terraformer.”

The voices overlapped until the head of the Tower entered the room from his private chambers and pointed to a monitor. “Show me.”

The monitor shifted to the view of one homunculus as they watched a bloom of light coming into existence further in the distance from the ground. Its vision abruptly end as the ‘camera’ suddenly jerked to the side and cut off. It then switched to the perspective of a nearby one that was standing over the bodies of three of the fallen in surprise as the massive Catcher between exploded from a kick as another member of the Resistance suddenly appeared. Their retaliation had been cut short as they both suddenly died.

Then it showed another pair in combat from the viewpoint of a rearguard. One of them was a male that he’d recalled seeing the last time one of their numbers had contacted the Homunculi. He clearly boasted a leaning in Rise considering he was ramming his entire arm through the body of a Snatcher with little trouble despite the muscle density to shatter its core, which he then picked before it could turn to dust and chucked at a vanguard with a halberd.

The homunculus didn’t hesitate to bat away the disintegrating corpse with the flat of the blade as the rearguard lined up a shot. But then there was a spray of blood as the vanguard’s head was pierced from the side. The body collapsed on the ground as the view of the Homunculus shifted back to trace the line of fire and subsequently caught sight of the young woman with her arm outstretched, a cluster of crystalline constructs revolving around her wrist before the vision cut with its death.

After staring at the frozen vision paused on the screen, the Head of the Tower crossed his arms and scowled. “It hasn’t been that long since those Rebels were last spotted. Had they demonstrated that level of ability prior?”

“We do not believe so,” answered one of them. “Based on the shared records and similar experiences, we believe that they must somehow have a method of artificially enhancing powers along with some method of knowledge transference. However, any efforts to deduce the truth so far usually results in them killing selves.”

“No doubt a failsafe to keep their secrets…” His fingers clutched at his sleeves as he dove into thought. He could count more than a handful of times when his forces had captured survivors to bring them to the Tower or interrogate them. Yet they would convulse and perish before their bodies dissipated, denying them any sort of information. Thanks to that discovering the hideouts and numbers was always difficult.

If he allowed the Vampire to slip through his fingers again then there was no telling when he would be able to retrieve her again. And after the last failure, he could not afford to fail again. Fortunately, the final adjustments had been finished recently on his pet project.

“…Ready transport vessels for all our remaining forces but launch the one for the project ahead. The chase ends now.”


“Isn’t that the place from the vision?”

Makidera points out the obvious as she rounds a corner ahead of me to scout. We’ve been traveling carefully while receiving updates from Saegusa on how it’s going on their end. At the moment Himuro and Gai are both receiving covering fire from Ayako and they’re reuniting with no success on their end.

Meanwhile, the Mind Jack I’ve been using as a Dowsing Rod has led us into view of the bleached building from the vision. It took time to get here while ensuring that no one was on our trail, so I’ll admit I was concerned about her moving. But it seems Atlasia hasn’t left yet based on my improvised dowsing technique.

I feign ignorance to keep her unaware of that fact. “If she’s still inside then good for us. That way we can get the information and fulfill the mission so we can get out of here. Running around in these winter clothes makes me sweat more than I like.”

She glances my way back and scoffs at that. Then she straightens her back up and crosses her arms. Even her expression turns somewhat contemplative, as if she’s putting thought into something.

I allow it as I ensure the protective layer that I have around my body is still intact. So far it hasn’t been disturbed by any attempts at manipulating my mind via Trance or direct control like the last time. However, there’s some minor erosion from the atmosphere itself that I tend to while I can.

“…Hey, we’ll be sent right back once we’re done, right?” she asks after a pause.

My response is instant in comparison. “The requirement was to retrieve the information. No mention of reaching a checkpoint or anything else. So unless Nemesis Q decides to move the goalposts, we’ll basically be sent back the moment we get everything she has to offer.”

She turns her head to the side and her attention goes back to the building in question. “But those monsters are still looking for her, right? She looked like she had been running for a while in that vision, so if we leave right after we get the information—”

I didn’t have to read her mind to see where she was going. So I cut it off then and there with a question of my own. “Is saving her worth the lives of the others?”

The words she was going to say died in her throat. New ones take their place just as quickly though. “…What do you mean?”

“This is a future that we’re meant to change by dragging the knowledge we gain into the past. Once we do that, this particular future won’t be ours anymore. Even if we jump back again, it’ll be either a new branch in time created from our actions, or the entire thing will be overwritten.”

To be frank, I have no idea which option it’ll be. Or if something else will happen. I am not an expert on the quantum mechanics of time travel, given its True Magic that I cannot obtain. But I learned what the Old Worm knew of how time operated from research into the Grail War given that access to the Throne meant gaining access to Servants across from time—which is more than she knows.

“Every second we spend here longer than we need to is another second we put ourselves at risk to the various dangers. And if the future changes then the person you save won’t be the same even if you meet again. In fact, depending on how far into the future this is, she might not even be born. Knowing that, are you willing to sacrifice the others who’ll follow us back into the past for the sake of someone who may as well vanish the moment we leave?”

She wants to argue. Her expression makes that clear enough. But my words aren’t something that she can dismiss when it’ll involve others. “Even so, it doesn’t sit right with me to leave someone else to be dragged off to who knows where… Not after it almost happened to me.”

I spot weakness the moment she breaks eye contact. The vulnerability in her voice is edged. It’s a sight I’m too familiar with.

But it doesn’t change anything as the lie comes out smoothly. “…Fine, I’ll kick it up the chain for Mitsuzuri to decide. Knowing her, you’ll probably get your wish. But first, we need to establish that she’s here and hasn’t run off.”

Her expression shifts into surprise as I mentally communicate our location to Saegusa along with the fact that we located the last place seen in the vision. She expected a fight given our desires are polar opposites at a surface glance. Myself championing logic that preserves our lives against her emotional desire to reach out to someone else to wash away the shame of her own helplessness.

Either way, she wisely doesn’t give me a reason to change my mind as she somehow manages to smile like an idiot. “Right, let’s get going!”

I let her take the lead and watch her from behind. For a fleeting moment, stray thoughts pass through my mind while I go over my plan a final time. Perhaps she believes that I’m going along with her suggestion to save time. Or maybe she believes that I’m more sympathetic than I really am.

Well, I do feel some pity for her so the latter might be true. But the outcome doesn’t really change regardless now that I already put the pieces on the board my opponent set. All I can do is follow the sacrificial pawn and take advantage of it to lure Atlasia out.

There’s no turning back now.

I wonder how you will respond, my hated opponent.

Fanfic Recommendation 119

My Fanfics

Sniper’s Duel: A Heroic Myth Omake

Summary: Lefiya vs Archer in a magical sniping duel across two castles. Not canon and mostly written to get me back into writing. Written with permission from the author.

Take A Breath: Part 2

Summary: Bell Cranel should have died on the Sixth Floor. But the one who came to the rescue of the neophyte adventurer was none other than a Monster on a floor she shouldn’t be on. And like that the Hestia Familia had become a Family of three. (Demon Slayer Alt Power/AU)

Fanfics that I have found interesting and have recently been updated

A RWBY Fanfic

Summary: Jaune applied to Beacon with his fake transcripts – his rejection was all but guaranteed. What wasn’t expected was that a single ticked box put down on a secondary school choice might change his life forever. Beacon may have rejected him, but there is more than one academy on Remnant and more than one way to become a hero. Atlas Academy, and it’s quasi-military structure, await.

Intrepid 22-11 Taylor

A Worm Fanfiction

Summary:Summary: In the wake of the Locker Incident, Taylor goes comatose. Wracked with guilt, Emma and Madison trigger. Things spiral from there as they quickly go different routes, both seeking redemption in a different way.

A MAR SI Fanfic

Summary: Three guys get teleported into the world of MAR Heaven and take the fight to Chess.

A Mobuseka SI Fanfic

Summary: Three guys get teleported into the world of Mobuseka in place of Leon and have to survive in a world where women look down on men, they may be in their own future, and Luxion has ties to the UN that desperately struggled against the oncoming New Humans. .

A MHA Fanfic

Summary: When Midoriya Izuku was 4 his quirk finally manifested. The doctor named it psychokinesis, but his friend Bakugou Katsuki called it worthless and weak. For the next 10 years, Izuku would grow up bullied and isolated, convinced his quirk was good for nothing, but still holding onto the distant dream of becoming a hero. Then, when a new student named Uraraka Ochako, who shares his same dream, transfers into his class the last year of jr high, everything changes.

Take a Breath – Part 2 (Danmachi AU)

Death loitered amidst corpses in the misty grey light.

The Twelfth Floor of the Dungeon was wreathed in a blanket of perpetual fog. Light from the walls was pale and filtered through the veil that seemed endless. The grass was bleached bone-white and the few trees that managed to grow despite being starved for light were thin and sickly.

Stark silence permeated an isolated room on the massive floor. It was off the well-traversed paths that would be writ upon the maps, far enough that there was no purpose in scouring them for most Adventurers. Dungeon Sweepers or the bold few that felt explorative would perhaps stumble upon the locale once every few weeks, but such territory was meant to be the dominion of the beasts that lurked within the mists.

Yet the grass was strewn with the bodies of the inhabitants that had called this place their home.

Hard Armors lay still, their shells dappled with dew as the faint warmth lingering was stanched away by the cloying fog. Orcs were toppled over while blood ran from their bloated frames to paint the white canvas beneath them. The centerpiece of the room itself was the slouching frame of what had at one point been a towering mass of corded muscle bound in a hide of white fur with a silver mane known as a Silverback.

Death kept vigil in the center of its work.

The misty veil caressed the dark frame of the hooded figure, gently slipping past the outer cloak and pressing against the matching robes beneath. The red greaves and gauntlets of elegant yet nightmarish make were bathed in a fresh layer of lifeblood. Streamlets of it cascaded down from the simple dagger wrapped within their gloved hand as they remained motionless with their impassive mask, upon which the colors of life and death swirled, looked upwards.

The gaze beyond the mask peered beyond the stone and crystal that loitered overhead. Beyond the worked stone and mortar that served as the lid atop the Great Hole. They looked to the vast stretch of land that extended beyond the boundaries of the earth. The endless expanse beneath the firmament in which glittered countless diamonds beyond the reach of hands.

Unrelenting yearning gnawed between their breasts.

Their vigil was broken as the wet sound of writhing organs began to echo throughout the room. The mask shifted from the unseen sky to the remains of what had been pawns that had outlived their usefulness. Two Humans and a Racoon that had been too eager to overstep their bounds before their Soma-addled minds broke beneath the pain.

The two Humans began to undulate as long, thick bulges formed just beneath the surface of their skin. It was the foreign blood vessels and arteries squirming as they connected with the existing ones and then expanded to germinate the seedlings planted inside of them. Fabric tore as their clothes ripped themselves apart while the skin stretched itself out trying to contain what was growing within them…

Then there was a wet piercing sound as the flesh burst open.

Moist hissing noises filled the air as glistening green flesh escaped the openings like uncooked sausage being squeezed from its casing. The living mass expanded out and filled the air with a putrid scent as they consumed the bodies for nourishment to continue growing beyond the bounds of what could be contained. But the pulsating green flesh quickly began to turn fetid and started to decay amidst their consumption and expansion to stave off death.

It seemed they weren’t even good enough to serve as seedbeds for seedlings in the end.

But it was different for the Raccoon. The stocky body jerked and convulsed, writhing and squirming as the innards were consumed and replaced by the growth within. There were moments when the skin bloated up to the point where it should have popped open, the fabric ripping itself apart in the process. But the expansion came to a halt and compressed itself back down into a thick leathery hide covered in the tattered remains of what had been his clothes.

Then a grisly scream echoed throughout the misty chamber. It was loud and high-pitched. Like a squeal forced out from a throat that was dry and hoarse as the lungs regained their function. The body snapped upright in an unsettling motion and eyes that had lost their luster slowly turned yellow once more while taking in the world.

A dead man returned to the realm of the living.

Death rolled the hilt of the dagger in their grasp as they approached with casual footsteps towards the man that had somehow beaten the odds. The Raccoon clutched his head in a daze as he noticed the reaper approaching. But there was no sign of animosity or fear towards his killer within his eyes, only a murky confusion of a mind still half gone.

A fluke rather than a success.

Steel hissed. The robed figure sheathed the dagger within a holster on the left gauntlets. Then they tossed out a magic stone on the white grass in front of the dazed Raccoon before walking towards the sole pathway out of the room.

Yellow eyes fixated on the palm-sized stone. Then saliva ran thick from his tongue as it lolled out of his mouth. His hands snapped down and grabbed hold of it, tearing loose the grass and dirt as he shoved them into his mouth and bit down on the magic stone to get it into his throat.

A sound that was part grunt and part satiation slipped out as he swallowed it down, leaving his mouth caked in dirt and grass. He raised his nose into the air and lunged towards the corpse of the Silverback, toppling the slouching body over. His fingers dug into the flesh and he pawed at the corded muscle with his nails. tearing away the fur in desperation until he finally reached the bones guarding the magic stone that was within its core.

Grunting as he slammed his fists over and over, the bone eventually snapped loose enough that he could shove his hand inside and rip it from the massive corpse. Flesh turned to ash as he shoved the stone into his mouth and bit down as hard as he could. The crunching of bone and crystal could be heard as his jaw and every bit of muscle he could muster were exerted to break it off and get it down his throat.

Then he moved on to the next corpse for its magic stone as words returned to his lips. “…Hun…gry…

He consumed more and more to try to sate the intense craving that wracked him since his rebirth. Every stone he took in trickled into that gap, but it wasn’t enough to truly placate the hunger he felt. Had he a strong enough sense of self to cling to his humanity then perhaps he would be able to regain control of himself.

But an addict was not the master of his own soul. Their resolve had been bartered away long ago, traded for an ephemeral pleasure to whoever could provide it. And thus, he had no way of resisting the tug of the leash that was a voice whispering from the core that served as his new heart.

What was left of Conoe Belway began his slow ascension towards the surface of the Dungeon by the time night fell.



Wooden swords crashing. Frantic feet pounding. Heavy haggard panting. These familiar sounds melded together into background noise within the training hall that Bell Cranel found himself in that afternoon.

The heavy wooden blade was clenched tight as he went on the offense. A diagonal stroke from shoulder to hip. A chest-height horizontal swing to follow. And an overhead downward slash to finish.

Yet they failed to meet with divine flesh.

The diagonal slash cut through empty space as the divinity slid his angled foot outward and pivoted, slipping to Bell’s unprotected right side. The horizontal swipe as Bell spun on his forward leg to try and catch him instead scraped off the opposing blade held firm to intercept. And the overhead blow towards the God of War’s head only hit empty space as he pivoted to the side.

Then Bell was forced onto the defensive as Takemikazuchi responded.

The master’s blade sang. The sharp whistle that told of the cut being true reached Bell’s ears as the blade held in a resting grip at his side flowed in a casual upwards arch towards the boy’s neck. He felt the tip graze it as he only avoided it by reflexively and clumsily pushing himself backward.

It cost him his footing, forcing him to take three steps to right himself into a proper form. By then Takemikazuchi had taken two steps forward and twisted his wrist so that it was even with Bell’s neck once more. He raised his sword hastily upwards—


—and the blade in his grasp jerked as it deflected the incoming stroke by angling it upwards, even at the cost of nearly coming out of his hands. It took him a second to re-adjust his grip, at which point the divinity had already two-handed his blade, chambered it, and came in to cut him from shoulder to hip in a mirror of how Bell had attempted to do so to him.

I can respond to this one! The novice set his stance firm as he made an arching movement with his arms as if tracing the path of a rainbow. The wood quivered as he caught the edge of the opposing blade with the collar above the handguard, guided it around so that it went to the side as he pivoted, and then flicked his wrist to angle it before he lashed out in a rising diagonal aimed to score across the God of War’s chest—

“Too exposed.”

—the blade shot overhead as the divinity slid his dominant leg backward, raising the flat of his own blade up in the process and guiding Bell’s off-course. Then the god’s wrist twisted before his arm came down. A sharp sting of pain followed as wood slapped against flesh and stung at Bell’s collarbone. “Ow!”

“Don’t leave yourself open just because you managed to parry their attack,” instructed the ageless warrior as leveled his wooden sword in lieu of a measuring stick the moment Bell took another reflexive step back. “Remember, mortals are smarter than monsters and can read movements. Defense into offense can easily be turned against you.”

The God of War then proceeded to lower his blade before making a sheathing motion to show that he had no intention of striking again, bringing the sparring section to a close. “That being said, had you not angled that diagonal properly you never would have been able to capitalize on that opening. And it was only because you didn’t change your center of gravity to your hind leg and then slid back into a retreat that you were stricken.”

Bell mimicked his sheathing motion before bowing his head. “Thank you for the instruction. I’ll practice at it from now on.”

A hum bubbled up in the divinity’s throat before he stroked his chin. “Diligence is a virtue. Especially while in a state of Shoshin. If you keep working hard, I’m certain you’ll have your foundation solid in no time.”

The novice’s head quirked to the side. “Shoshin?”

“It’s a principle of our native land,” he elaborated. “One that describes how one who knows nothing starting out is free of preconceptions and expectations. Most Adventurers develop their own styles as they become more familiar with the Dungeon and the life they live, and in doing so they inadvertently become set into their ways and thus narrow the potential they have to that field alone while shutting out other avenues. But you haven’t reached that point as you still have the mindset of a beginner and are thus filled with curiosity while being open to a world of possibilities.”

Bell’s brows furrowed as he grasped at what he believed to be the underlying point. “So you’re saying that I should keep learning what I can and practice with an open mind?”

The far eastern divinity nodded sagely. “As you are now you can absorb all that is taught and explore it without preconceptions, which combined with the growth spurt for new Adventurers shortly after receiving their Falna will lay strong foundations for the future. Developmental Abilities are representative of such. That is why you must never forget your beginner’s mindset.”

“I understand.”

“Now, I believe we’ve kept you long.” He made a bowing gesture as he dismissed Bell from his practice for the day. “Give Hestia my regards.”

“I will.” Bell copied the motion before placing the weapon back on the practice rack and then made his way over to get his bag before heading home. It was still early evening and amber rays of the setting sun washed over Orario as he traveled from the estate of the Takemikazuchi Familia to the dilapidated church nestled snuggly within a cul-de-sac that consisted of half-toppled buildings and overgrowth.

Along the way, Bell took his time to consider the God of War’s words while continuing the breathing practices that he had seen Chigusa perform. It had been some time since he had started the practice, but he wasn’t sure if he had made any real progress. Or at least Bell didn’t think he did, since the only measure he had to judge was what she had done by becoming able to move faster than his eyes could track.

He noted that his body tended to grow hotter when doing breathing exercises. If he had to put it into words, it was like his entire being felt as if it was being warmed by a lone flame within the darkness. But that flame was small and feeble, embers that were liable to be snuffed out the moment his focus trailed off even when he breathed. It wasn’t anything like his body becoming stronger or his mind becoming sharper as she had explained it though.

There had to be something that was missing. Some last piece that he guessed she had kept to herself or, more likely, had to be grasped through constant practice until it clicked into place. It would have to be something that he would find out on his own since he couldn’t ask the Takemikazuchi Familia themselves.

In the end, Bell could only muse on what it was he was missing as he made his way to the doors of the church that served as his home. He opened it—


—and as soon as he did so he was greeted by a blue blur slamming into his chest while lithe but insanely strong arms and legs braced him from behind. He nearly staggered back before he anchored a leg and brought his own arms around to support the bundle of warmth that was a child of dragons nuzzling at his chest.

“Wiene missed Bell,” she said while holding firm to him, clothed in a simple dress. Her long hair had been bound into two ponytails by Hestia with little red ribbons meant to keep it from going everywhere.

“I missed you too.” Bell gently brushed her head even as he shut the door behind him with his foot. Thankfully she had gotten better at not crushing his spine with her strength by accident. Even so, he didn’t think it was proper for her to embrace him like this while his training outfit had been drenched in dried sweat at this point. “I don’t mind the hug, but maybe you should wait until I take a shower first?”

Her response was to only look up at him with a smile and cheerfully state, “Bell smells like Bell.”

“Wiene, give Bell some time to clean himself up,” Hestia chided gently as she finished climbing the stairs from the hidden room below that they shared. She took a moment at the top to observe her first child making his way over with the dragon child attached to him and couldn’t help but wear an amused smile. “It’s nice that you like your big brother no matter how he smells but consider how he must feel when he knows how sharp your sense of smell is.”

Wiene relented. Not because she agreed, given she didn’t mind the smell of sweat coming from him. But because both members of her family wanted her to and she would still get the chance to spend time clinging to him later.

“Good girl.” Hestia brushed her head at the top, which she responded to by leaning into it. She was fond of physical contact so both of them had gotten used to her curling up to them whenever they were there. The Goddess of the Hearth and Home turned to Bell and asked, “How did it go with Take?”

 “He told me to give you his regards,” Bell said. “As for practice, I’m learning a lot and I can manage to see his strikes coming now, so I was able to last longer when we sparred. Still couldn’t land a hit on him even though he took it easy on me though.”

“Just keep doing your best in training and you’ll get better at it. If there’s one thing Take knows it’s the art of combat, given he loved watching children hone their talents in the Far East… on another note, do you still plan to go out with Wiene tonight, right?”

Bell nodded. Now that they had established that Wiene could drink the liquid from the Pantry, Bell often brought several containers worth back every few nights they went, so she could stay fed. She ate other foods with them, but they didn’t know if she was deriving as much nutrition from it as she should given that she was a monster—and a growing girl, as Hestia claimed. “Since the weekend starts tomorrow, it’s the perfect time since even most of the nighthawks won’t be there. Wiene will be able to stretch her legs more that way.”

She still couldn’t leave the church most of the time she was on the surface, and they knew she was curious about a lot of what the city had to offer. Bell himself was the same. But since she couldn’t explore without the risk of being caught, there wasn’t much they could do about that.

Hestia did take some time to try to teach her new things and help her develop some hobbies to pass the time. But Bell still wanted to give her as much freedom as he could when they were in the Dungeon so she wouldn’t feel so cooped up. It was the least he could do for her since he couldn’t let her go freely elsewhere.

A slight hum of understanding bubbled up in the goddess’ throat before she stepped out of the way of the stairs. “Then hurry along and take your shower so we can have dinner together. Then I’ll update your Status before you head out.”

Bell slinked into the bathroom to do just that. Heat seeped into his skin from the running water beating against the surface and slowly working out the strains and aches that had accumulated in his muscles during his practice. Then he slipped into a black shirt and pants after he dried himself off and joined the two for a simple meal.

It was after that Hestia had him lie supine on the bed. Then she mounted his back and pricked her finger. Wiene watched on from next to them with genuine intrigue as the moment a drop of her blood landed on his back the entire surface began to ripple before the hieroglyphs writ upon his back began to bubble from the surface into the air.

She had seen it plenty of times by now but never seemed to get bored of it. Hestia had even tried to give Wiene her blessing once. She had asked since she found the sight to be beautiful and wanted to have the same Falna, as that was physical proof that they were family—Familia. But a Falna never manifested for the dragon child.

They could only speculate that it was because the Falna was developed by the Gods and Goddesses for the mortals to use to combat the threats that the monsters posed in the first place. Since they were so opposed it wouldn’t make sense for it to empower them. No different than how neither of them could ingest magic stones the way she could.

“The numbers got bigger again,” Wiene noted as she stuck a finger into the space where the numbers shifted over and over. “Bell is stronger now?”

“That’s right,” Hestia’s voice was sweet and gentle on their ears. “The fact that it goes up bit-by-bit every time we do this is proof that your big brother is working hard. And because I’m his goddess, I can see just how much his training with Take, learning from Miss Advisor, and spending those nights with you in the Dungeon are helping him grow. It’s all recorded in here as part of his legend.”

The constant trips down to the Seventh Floor and dealing with the threats there had merited modest growth for Bell from what he could tell. Above average from what most earned in such a short time. But that was probably due to Wiene being as strong as she was meant they could together dispatch the entire Pantry’s worth of monsters. And since she didn’t need to eat all of the magic stones, they could get by a bit easier.

“All done,” Hestia said as she finished updating his Status and dismounted him. “I’ll set aside something so that you can both eat when you get back since I’ll be asleep. Look after each other, okay?”

“Wiene will protect Bell,” promised the dragon child with a smile.

Bell meanwhile nodded resolutely before telling Hestia to, “Rest well, Goddess.”

Then they got dressed and set out for their overnight venture into the Dungeon.


The Takemikazuchi Estate was quiet with only the sound of faint breathing breaking up the silence.

Nestled within the meditation hall was Hitachi Chigusa. The young woman sat on a cushion in a lotus position as she breathed from the diaphragm at a steadily growing rhythm. Her gaze was fixed on a gourd made into a drinking jug that was before her.

A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead. Her delicate milky skin flushed red with every deepening breath she took. Her blood vessels expanded, protruding from her skin. She exhaled deeply to clear her lungs out before she drew in as deep of a breath as she could muster while reaching out for the jug.

Then she blew it into with all her might. She felt every inch of her body trembling. Burning as she compressed her diaphragm. Aching as her lips struggled to keep themselves wrapped around the opening of the gourd. Until finally—


—her voice came out haggard and hoarse as her lips gave out before the gourd did. The bottle clattered to the wooden floor as she huddled over, hands to her chest as her lungs fought for air. Her shoulders trembled with small whimpers followed by crystalline tears as she pressed her forehead to the floor. “Why… why can’t I do this?

Her frustration spilled out at yet another failure to further her Total Concentration Breathing.

Their Familia had been practicing the ancient art for the last two years since they came to Orario. It was the only edge they had with such small numbers in the Dungeon. Life in Orario was expensive and if they were going to send funding back to the orphanage they needed to go deeper and bring back more valuable magic stones.

Since then, they had gotten involved with things that made it a necessity for them to survive.

Everyone had managed to progress further than her at this point. Asuka and Tachibana were both further along in their training and would likely even end up reaching Level Two. Mikoto had just become a Level Two and was on the verge of mastering Perpetual Total Concentration Breathing.

And she wouldn’t be surprised if Ouka managed to become Level Three by the next year.

Total Concentration Breathing became exponentially more potent with the more oxygen one could take into their bodies. One could become so much better at manipulating how the blood flowed through the breathing technique, strengthening certain parts of the body, increasing one’s mental abilities, and more.

But here she was. Always the one lagging behind the rest of them to the point where she was struggling just to go beyond the basics. That was why she was here alone while the others had already gone to the Middle Floor Safe Point to handle another matter some time ago and wouldn’t be back for some time.

Her fingers curled on the floor as she focused on her Recovery Breathing to center herself. She didn’t want to be a burden to the others. The burden was hers to share with them, so she couldn’t keep falling behind them.

And she didn’t want him to see her as being so pathetic that she needed to be left behind for her own safety.

Her breathing steadied. The pain and fatigue melted. She exhaled and readied another attempt to shatter the gourd when there was a blur of motion in the corner of her vision. Her head turned in time to see a small owl with blue-greyish feathers swooping in through a window that had been left open towards her.

“Oh, you’re a new one,“ she noted even as she extended two of her fingers out for it to land carefully. Their… employer tended to communicate with them via messenger birds so she was used to seeing them. Though this owl was so small that it was practically palm-sized and she couldn’t help but find the way it tried to puff out its feathers and straighten itself up to be adorable.

That was when it reared back enough so that the collar along with the communication crystal could be seen on it. Then the crystal began to vibrate. “Your assistance is needed. A Demon is rising along the upper floors.

She jostled as her eye partially hidden behind her bangs widened in surprise. “…Eh?”

A Demon is currently making its way from the Eighth Floor to the Seventh,” the voice resonating through the crystal continued. “I speculate it was only recently created, but it has consumed several magic stones and is advancing upwards.

She stiffened. The sudden responsibility being fostered onto her had been unexpected. She did possess the necessary equipment and had participated in putting down a few of the Demons, as they were called, but it had always been with the others. Never alone. “What about the others?”

They are still too far below the surface to make it in time. Thus, I consulted with Lord Takemikazuchi and he advised reaching out to you to resolve the matter,” answered the voice on the other end.

Lord Takemikazuchi wants me to handle it alone? Despite her misgivings, if he thought she was the only one who could handle the matter then it was something that she had to do. “Very well. Just let me get my equipment and I’ll head out right away.”

Please hurry,” the voice chimed as the owl fluttered into the air when she stood up, before perching itself against the windowsill. “I fear time is of the essence. Something on that floor may drawn its attention.

Heroic Myth One-Shot: Sniper’s Duel

Sniper’s Duel

Author’s Note: This is a one-shot omake for the FGO x DanMachi Fanfic Heroic Myth, written with the author’s permission. It is non-canon and primarily just me trying to get back into the swing of writing.


A deep, weary sigh carried on the wind from the topmost point of Shreme Castle.

Located in plains to the southeast of Orario, the citadel was one of the four that ringed the city of Adventurers. It was the oldest of such fortifications, having been built before the Age of Heroes. They were ruins that carried the legacy of those who ventured to the Great Hole to take part in humanity’s rebellion against the fate of death.

Time had eroded most of the original stonework that had stood in silent vigilance to those events. Even with the efforts of masons and stonecutters to reconstruct it into its former glory, that history was lost to all but the very foundation that laid beneath the earth. And in its place was nothing more than walls that were only able to take part in the spectacle of faux war between Familia rather than legends in the making.

And today would be yet another spectacle due to the whims of two goddesses.

Lefiya Viridis did her best to avoid slouching over and dejectedly crying over how she got roped into this from her perch on top of the Keep. The Elven Mage of the Loki Familia stood alone within the fortress, still getting accustomed to her new equipment. She wasn’t sure how Loki had gotten Finn or the others to sign off on them to be honest.

Her normal battle clothes had been replaced for the event. The halter-dress that came down to her hips, hugging the curves of her waist all the way up to her underarms, were a teal color overall but had a black zigzagging design with golden trimming between the two colors at the side of her hips. The clothing strap that sheltered her breasts, running from the front to around the back of her neck, was a pale white color with a greyish band along the valley where three golden-hemmed emeralds were fixed.

The two articles were held together by a pair of golden clips, which bound frill-laden cloth around her upper arms. Thankfully, combined with her elbow-length fingerless gloves, they allowed her to feel a little more comfortable that not all her upper skin was exposed. Below her waist, upon which a belt securely held a little pouch, she had thigh-high stockings that were white and black with a gold streak running down the front and around the hem. They came down to a pair of greaves that were teal with the edges wrapped in elegant silver. Her hair was also bound in a ponytail via a new band that was teal with golden ends.

In her hands was a new staff. The body of it was black, roughly the length of her body short her head. The rear end of the staff had a small magic stone affixed within a golden hexagon tipped with a pointed end. The top of the staff was also golden, with a large teal magic stone cradled within a diamond-shaped head, while the neck of it had a band with an empty chamber that could be fitted with a disposable magic stone for use in casting—Loki claimed it was based off something called a cartridge system.

Under normal circumstances, Lefiya would have appreciated that Loki had gotten it for her. But she had done it for a bet, leaving the Elven Mage feeling conflicted. She didn’t even have time to really adapt to it before she had sent out to humor the divine population who sought more entertainment after the War Game.

Loki had even updated her Status to Level Four for the sake of the competition. Not that she didn’t plan to eventually do so now that she had reached S-Rank in her Magic attribute. But the fact that it was because her goddess wanted her to win a competition took the wind out of her sails.

She turned her gaze to the castle that was opposite her own, far enough away that normal siege weaponry would fail to reach. Level Four senses made the distance irrelevant as far as sight and sound went. More so considering she was an Elf and thus had a natural advantage there compared to the Human that was her opponent on the opposite Keep’s tower.

Archer—a Level One who possessed the power of some Spirit or other that allowed him to make swords and access incredible magic. To be honest, Blacksmith might be a more appropriate name under normal circumstances with how his tanned skin looked, as though it had been baked in the heat of the forges, stretched over a broad frame that came from pounding at iron and steel as he shaped it to his desire. It contrasted the snow-white hair that adorned his head and eyes that sat right between the two hues with its silver-grey tone. But considering the bow that was the color of wrought iron currently within his grasp, it seemed he was going to be living up to his moniker.

Unlike during the War Game, his visage was more… casual, she wanted to say. If there were a word for it, she would liken it to being almost wistful in the nostalgia of a time long gone that she had seen on some of the older Elves in her Forest. But he was too young to have that look… probably.

It annoyed her all the same.

Sniper’s Duel—that was a format of the War Game where two combatants would take turns attempting to target a specific object and destroy it to secure the win. However, because of their… unique skillsets, the objects they were supposed to hit were Familia Emblems affixed to their clothes. And it could only be done via long-range projectiles or spells, with neither party allowed to leave their own castle. The winner was decided when one destroyed the other’s emblem, or someone was rendered unconscious and thus unable to battle.

Loki had won the coin toss, so she would get the first shot as agreed to by the rules. That was effectively as good as a win under normal circumstances given her capabilities. There was a reason she had the moniker of Fairy Sniper before she was Thousand Elf after unlocking Elf Ring. But the slight crook in the corner of Archer’s lips revealed a hint of amusement that said he probably wouldn’t make it easy.


Lefiya stood straighter as a bell in the distance sounded to mark the start of the competition, drawing one leg back. She raised her staff forged of Seiros and gold to her chest as she aligned herself with her target. Her azure eyes fell upon the emblem pin affixed to the black vest on Archer’s chest and she began to sing.

Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree—

Light bloomed at her feet. Shimmering over the stone roof as if opening a gateway to an unseen realm that she had stepped into upon reaching Level Two, it wove itself into an intricate circular array. It was proof of her dedication to magic, only obtainable by taking the Mage Development Ability—a Magic Circle.

You are the master archer.

The Magic Circle allowed for the modification of one’s spells, even if the chant was akin to an Aria written on one’s soul itself according to Lady Riviera. Anyone fortunate enough to possess a Spell Slot could learn Spells, but only those who dedicated themselves to the path would have the right to have the Development Ability appear as a choice to be engraved into their very flesh with divine ichor. Rather than simply chanting the words and getting the same result, even if the value of one’s Magic status increased its potency, it unlocked different aspects with every rank the Development Ability gained—velocity, firing angle, output, and so on.

Loose your arrows, fairy archers.

Motes of light leaked from the array as she released magical energy to fuel the spell. The magic-conductive metal within her grasp drank it up and funneled it into the core magic stone that made up the staff’s heart. It resonated with her magical energy, focusing and melding it with the natural magic stored within the stone to increase the potency of her shot.

Pierce, arrow of accuracyArcs Ray!

Light lanced out from the tip with the completion of the incantation.

Arcs Ray—her first spell gifted to her by the Falna the moment she had received it when she entered the Education District. It was an exceedingly simple one that converted her magical energy into light and then fired it out in a self-contained beam. It was not weighed down by gravity like a physical projectile, but rather by the amount of magical energy that composed the spell that factored into the velocity of the shot.

The arrow of light woven by the branches of a holy tree and fired by the Fairy Sniper crossed the distance between the two castles within the span of a breath. She had adjusted the values so that the output of the spell would be minimal while leaving the velocity untouched. It would impact but not kill someone at Level One—a training shot used during evasion training among the Fairy Force.

Yet the shot passed by Archer unhindered.

His body posture had shifted in the time it took to exhale as she loosed her spell. It had been no more than a half-step. But that had been enough to let the shot harmlessly sail past his broad frame, its glare briefly illuminating his steel-toned eyes as it passed by, to the other side of the castle before it petered out.

And with that, it was his turn to send his own arrow flying forth.

His posture shifted into a firing stance of his own, left leg forward with that black bow that was easily his own height in his left grasp. An arrow appeared in his empty hand. Not one of his sword-turned-arrows, but an ordinary one. He nocked it against the bowstring, pulling it back as he leveled it toward her.

There were lots of drawbacks to using bows in the Dungeon as you went deeper and deeper. The material to work the bows and bowstrings into having greater drawing power so the shots could fly farther was expensive. Ammunition that wouldn’t shatter against the skin of a Middle Floor monster required harvesting and shaping the claws and fangs of monsters that would be most suited to doing so, counterbalancing the weight of the arrowheads with the shaft so that it wasn’t top-heavy. And then there was the fact that hitting the magic stone to eliminate a monster in a single shot required precise knowledge of where it was located and pinpoint accuracy.

Even in this case, someone would have to adjust their aim to fire a bow effectively against a target so far away. They would have to work out the trajectory based on sight alone and then perform the calculations in their head to ensure they would hit. And with how small of a target he needed to hit, it was almost unfair and one-sided to call this a match given how she could easily adjust the size of her own beams.

But she knew that Archer could easily skirt around all of that, so she didn’t really factor them in as he released his arrow.

It cut through the air… not quite as fast as her own shot, but faster than an arrow ought to considering he hadn’t even drawn his bowstring back to its fullest before he loosed it. But it was still slow enough that her heightened perception due to her Level made it seem like it was moving in slow motion. She simply tilted her upper body out of the way as the arrow came towards her emblem and let it arch over the edge of the Keep.

She caught the faint sound of glass breaking before readying her second shot.

Unleashed beam of light.” Her Magic Circle sprang up again as she began to adjust the spell, pushing the incantation to the back part of her mind that knew it by rote memorization. A few more motes of light than before emerged as she increased the amount of magical energy and prioritized its distribution towards increasing the velocity of her shot. “—Arcs Ray!

A warm breeze rolled past her as light lanced out at more than double the speed of the previous shot. For a Level One perceiving it would be nearly impossible simply due to the difference in their Status. The gap between Level One and Level Four was practically insurmountable. More so factoring in the fact that she had raised her Magic to S-Rank twice over now.

Yet in defiance of what should have been an absolute fact, Archer not only dodged with casual ease but drew back his bowstring in a single motion before letting an arrow fly. It was a perfect counterattack by all accounts, the arrow cutting through the air toward her far faster than the last. Even with her elongated perception, by the time she noticed it was already within range to pierce the emblem—if not her very heart over which it hung.

The Elven Mage threw herself out of the way before it could hit the mark, leaving the arrow to fly past her. She landed on the rooftop in an undignified heap, which left her flushed red in the face because she knew that all of Orario had seen her stumble over her own feet. How embarrassing….

And as for the one responsible for her embarrassment, he stood there with the same smirk on his lips. She knew that considering him a Level One was foolish. Even without the Falna, a Spirit’s power was not something to be underestimated given that heroes of old had carved themselves into legend with their aid.

Even so, she still had great pride in her abilities as a Mage. One that specialized in long-range combat, and as a member of a race that valued magic and dignity. So being made a fool so casually stung deeply.

A new resolve flared within her. Even if she was outclassed under normal circumstances, right here and now the situation was different. If all she had to do to claim victory was destroy the emblem he brandished so brazenly upon his chest, even she could manage that much.

Yes, the only way to make up for her wounded pride would be to make this Human taste defeat.

Rising back to her feet with her fighting spirit kindled, Lefiya reached into the pouch that adorned her belt. When her slender fingers withdrew from it there was a cylindrical-shaped magic stone the size of her fingernail in her grasp. She fitted it into the chamber affixed to the staff with a single motion, leveled the staff towards her opponent, and began to sing once more.

The Magic Circle sprang up at her feet once more, shining brighter than before. She would maximize the velocity of the shot and increase the width to compensate for the space available for him to move on the opposing Keep. A flurry of golden sparkles shot into the air like earthbound snow swept up by a breeze as the Elven Mage braced herself for the feedback. Then she sent a final pulse of the magical energy into the cartridge attachment, injecting the magic stone with more energy than it could fit inside.

Like a balloon filled to the point of bursting, it came undone with a blue spark and released all the magical energy that composed it into the heart of the staff. The core nestled within the golden diamond shone like a star right as she finished her incantation. “ARCS RAY!

A torrent of light barreled forth toward the Keep that Archer had been perched on and her sharpened senses caught the explosion with as much clarity as if it had been right next to her. The stonework shattered, rubble and dust scattering from above as the highest point in the opposing castle was destroyed in a single shot. Even so, Lefiya was fairly sure that despite the increased destructive force it wouldn’t have been enough to seriously hurt him…

That was when she felt his magical energy.

For a Mage as sensitive as her it was a sensation that was second nature. Her azure eyes snapped not to the lower grounds of the castle hidden by the dust, but to the air above. There she found the sniper of the Hestia Familia reaching the apex of height possible to be reached in a single bound of his legs, bow nocked with an arrow—which had its head glowing red as he poured magical energy into it—tongues of red lightning crackling up the shaft.

Lefiya immediately threw herself off the top of the Keep. Archer might not have needed an incantation, but arrows infused with his magical energy were just as dangerous as any spell she could cast. So the moment she felt the flow of energy stopping, she knew that the shot was coming.

It proved to be the right call as the red streak cut through the air toward where she had been like a small comet. And just like a comet the moment it crashed down into the top of her Keep, it utterly wiped it out. The shockwave of the impact sent her tumbling midair over the top of the closest tower, where she came to a rough stop against the edge.

Nnnn…” A grumble bubbled up in her throat as she used the wall to stand up properly. She looked down to make sure her emblem was unbroken, then back over to where her Keep had been, and then finally to the other castle where Archer landed far more gracefully than she had. The fact that he was wearing that damn smirk only served to further infuriate her. Okay, time to show what an actual Mage can do.

She reached for another magic stone and fitted it into the now-empty slot. Then she started using her other spell. “Proud warriors, marksmen of the forest. Take up your bows to face the marauders! Answer the call of your kin and nock your arrows!

Her anthem brought forth a new Magic Circle at her feet. The frills around her upper arms and hair began to dance. Magical energy surged out into the world as reddish particles rose to the air like embers from a crackling flame. “Bring forth the flame, torches of the forest. Release them, flaming arrows of the fairies!

Those ascending red embers, fire seeds that had yet to sprout, gathered as she raised her staff to the sky between the castles. They converged and clustered together, igniting as she channeled magical energy into the magic stone. Then there was an explosive flash of light and heat.

A second sun took its place in the sky between the two castles.

“Fall like rain and burn the savages to ash—” She directed her staff, its tip pointing at the roiling, pulsing mass of flames that seemed ready to burst, towards the enemy standing at the opposite tower as she declared, “FUSILLADE FALLARICA!

Fire erupted from the singular daystar. Pieces of the sun dyed the sky itself the color of burning red as they rained down from above. Hundreds of arrows of flames descended upon the enemy castle and its sole defender.

Archer began to dart from the top of the Tower as the flaming arrows came down upon it, each one blasting away at the solid stone upon contact. He was fast on his feet for someone so talented at ranged combat, but he couldn’t escape the eyes of an Elf. As long as she could see him, Lefiya could direct the subsequent volleys until the sun burned out.

I am the bone of my sword…” Her ears caught the incantation on his lips that shook the air itself as a new blade appeared in his right hand. It was a uniquely beautiful blade to even her eyes that were untrained in the ways of smithing, with the helix blade coiling around itself until it came to a golden guard and silver handle that were all embellished with a blue strip. It compressed itself within his grasp until it formed a suitable arrow as he somersaulted out of the way of her flaming volley, and red lightning crackled as he drew it back. “Caladbolg!

What flew out of his bow couldn’t really be called an arrow. No, her eyes caught how it distorted the very air as the blue swirl it became pierced through the daystar and kept going. The flames that were meant to rain down were caught in its wake and dragged out like thread pulled by a needle as it passed overhead and left a flaming arch to mark the trail where a star ascended to the heavens after being called down.

Then Lefiya felt the backlash. The heat-laden whirlwind lashed out at her like a solid wall that rivaled the intensity of a Valgang Dragon, slamming into her with enough force that she was certain that a Level One Adventurer would have their body crushed by the intensity. She ended up curling her hand over the emblem and plunging the butt of her staff into the solid stone with all the Strength she just to avoid being blown away until the gale petered out.

Spirit magic is really something, isn’t it? She found herself unconsciously swallowing in the wake of that. It hadn’t even been aimed close to her, yet the sheer strength of it was something to behold. But I’m not done yet!

I beseech the name of Wishe. Ancestors of the forest, proud brethren. Answer my call and descend upon the plains—” Her azure gaze smoldered with fiery resolve as a new Magic Circle sprang to life at the base of her feet and expanded as she pledged upon the name of her forest, her ancestors, and her home itself. It was the pride she held as an Elf woven into an Aria itself by the Falna—that which earned her the name of the Thousand Elf.

Connecting bonds, the pledge of paradise. Turn the wheel and dance.” The intricacies of the circle grew more pronounced with every word, inscriptions and symbols decorating it with each syllable. A thread of light, a strand of rainbow made solid, emerged from the tip of her staff and followed in a graceful arch as she turned with it until it connected with itself into a ring. “Please, give me strength—

Then she brought her staff down upon the circle and the light followed, connecting the above with the below as the amount of magical energy that it exuded billowed into the air as sparkles of prismatic light with the completion of the titular, “Elf Ring.

Inside her mind now stretched an endless forest of great trees. It was the foundation for her mental world, accessible only by stepping through the boundary of the Elf Ring. In doing so one connected with the repository of all the spells woven by Elvenkind since the beginning of time.

There were no guideposts in the forest. Even for her, who wielded this magic, it was beyond her to freely traverse it to whatever Great Tree that housed the spell she desired. However, one could trace their way to the roots from the leaves and branches. She only needed the incantation to guide her, as they were merely the canopy that displayed what was writ beneath the Falna and onto the very soul—the very foundation of the magic itself.

Glittering stars crossing the night sky. Hear my naïve prayer and guide these falling lights.” The aria flowed like a soft breeze, tracing along the branches until it came to a sapling within the endless forest that had just emerged from the nurturing soil. It would need tending and care and time, but it would be able to flourish to grandiose heights as daunting as even the Great Oak. And while she couldn’t reproduce the height that it would one day be reached by the neophyte upon reaching her prime, Lefiya could compensate with her own Skill and Magic to give Primo a glimpse of the future that awaited her.

Descend o starry tears!” Her body burned as her magical energy came out in a dense fog trying to reach that potential future, a magic stone in the chamber shattering and overflowing as the heartstone shone with a celestial violet light amidst the countless motes. She was using the Mage Development Ability to refine the spell itself, increasing the nodes upon which the fires of the stars themselves could rain down. “Blast away these hapless rejects!

Once she was done, she swung her arm to cast that light into the heavens with all her might, whereupon it scattered into dozens of twinkling stars that linger in the air above. “LUMINE PLEIADES!

The words called for the stars to fall like raindrops. Each star diminished little by little as they shed tears upon the castle below. But they rained down in such great numbers that she was sure at least one would manage to scour his pin and then that would be the end.

Yet Archer called to his hands a beautiful pair of twin short swords, akin to the full moon and the new moon. With them, he began deflecting the beams of light as they came raining down. The spell was reduced in potency in exchange for increasing the numbers, but it still shouldn’t be deterred by mere steel. If she had to put it into words, it almost seemed like the spell itself glided off the blades like water off an oiled surface.

It was too crude to be a dance, but the way he brought them around to protect the emblem itself was still skillful. Something only possible thanks to those blades, paired with excellent reflexes and sharpened eyes—a combination of his boons from the Spirit that possessed him and his own experiences no doubt. Blades in hand, Archer managed to do the impossible and weather the star shower without a single drop of light touching him.

Then it was his turn again. The blades dissipated into the air and his bow returned. Three nondescript black arrows appeared between his right fingers and he nocked them all at once, channeling magical energy into them as he drew back the bowstring…

Lefiya’s nerves were alight as the post-magic rigor left her body feeling the strain of her previous casting. Between amplifying the spell along with the amount of magical energy it took to simply use Elf Ring in the first, she couldn’t force another spell for at least another thirty seconds. In that time Archer accrued a scary amount of magical energy within the arrowheads, distorting the air itself around them as they burned with a reddish hue.

But rather than shoot them directly toward her, he sent them streaking into the sky as three rays of light. Then the faint light spread out across the sky into dozens of pinpricks of light. And burning stars began to rain down upon her from above.

Brick and mortar scattered upon impact as the magical energy detonated with the force of a small flare stone as she jumped from the Tower to the Wall Walk. It wasn’t even a tenth of what she felt from how much he charged each arrow, but closer to a hundredth of the original power. Even so, she kept moving as the red rain descended upon her.

One after another the crimson comets fell upon the castle, the sequence irregular to her sharpened sense of hearing. Patterned. Selective. She was fairly sure that they were somehow tracking her as she moved, some falling where she would have been if she had not caught the sound of them approaching and then redirected herself with all the Agility her cumulative Levels could muster to avoid the shelling.  Eventually, she was forced to throw herself off the side of the Wall Walk before catching the ledge of an inner window and pulling herself into the interior for shelter.

The layer of stone next to her immediately erupted into stone dust and pebbles, making it clear the castle walls wouldn’t hold up to this bombardment. She ran along the interior with the bunker-busting blasts following in her wake until she felt a cluster of magical energy converging and reflexively darted back in time as the stonework collapsed, sealing off her path ahead. Lefiya leaped out of the nearest window as that section of the Wall Walk began to collapse in on itself, dropping into the courtyard below.

Red shells continued to rain down.

The castle trembled under the blasts as she wove between them, one hand over her emblem nestled above her heart.  But mid-step her footing slipped, or to be more accurate the ground gave out beneath her. Lacking in the stonecunning of a Dwarf, she failed to notice just how fragile stonework had become from the constant damage done until one of the crimson cannonball-like impacts had finally shaken loose the stone itself beneath her.

On reflex alone she managed to stop herself from falling face down or landing on the staff she’d been bequeathed, instead falling to her side. But then she caught sight of the crimson hue eclipsing her vision and felt the final of the stars heading towards her.  With no time to escape, she curled inwards and braced for impact as she flared her own magical energy out to try and dilute the concentrated batch.

It was a rudimentary, primal Elven technique born from the time of the Age of Heroes. A waste of Mind for a lackluster defense—especially when the Magic Resistance DA passively did the same thing to a greater degree. There was a reason Mages used their foci to direct the flow of magical energy instead of their entire bodies, which she felt imminently considering her body ached on the inside now.

But if she hadn’t done it, then she would have lost as she felt the pain wash over her. Not enough to seriously wound her. But it would have been enough to end the match one way or another if she hadn’t done it.

She removed her hand from where the emblem of the Jester was pinned over her heart. It was so fragile compared to her body or even the battle clothes she’d been given, yet it carried the significance of her Familia in its presence. Had she not put forth that extra effort it would have shattered in the wake of that blast.

And to let the emblem of her Familia be shattered in defeat wasn’t a thought she could bear.

I won’t lose to him. She used her staff to help herself onto her feet as the stone dust cleared. The sound of metal clinking to the stone below could be heard as her hair band fell, wrenched loose from the pressure of the blast while the golden tips dragged it down. That left her hair to flow wildly, some of it clinging to her forehead and cheeks from the sweat of her exertion.

The Elven Mage grabbed the hairband that had fallen and tied it around her left wrist. Then she hobbled back into the interior corridor to climb back to the top with a familiar song on her breath whilst outside his view. When she finally stepped back on what remained of the Walk Wall, having been caught in the bombardment that forced her to flee below initially, she caught sight of the red-clad Archer standing on the opposite castle with his bow in hand.

Her appearance elicited no reaction from him, which was annoying in its own way considering he barely looked like he’d taken a stroll despite her best efforts. In contrast, she was covered in dirt and dust that clung to her from the sweat she’d shed to this point. Exhaustion was plain on her face. Anyone watching the match would know by now that she couldn’t hope to keep up with him, so the expected result would be that the match would end in the next exchange.

I still have a card left to play. She loaded the final magic stone into the chamber affixed to her staff and held her breath as she got into a firing stance that entrenched her into place. Then her Magic Circle sprang to life at the base of her feet and magical energy came roaring out as she issued her final challenge to her opponent in the form of a song. “Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree…

Mid-song she noticed Archer’s posture shifting. She couldn’t tell if his instincts or intuition recognized her intentions to no longer run but instead go all out. Either way, the steel-eyed Human took up his own stance that gave the impression that he had no intention of attempting to dodge her next shot—he would block it.

Even knowing that he would, Lefiya had already resolved to give it her all as she finished her spell with a spark of magical energy igniting the magic stone within the chamber. “Pierce, arrow of accuracyARCS RAY!

Golden light burst free from her staff. She had maximized the speed and destructive power, relying in the chambered magic stone and Fairy Cannon to go beyond her limits. So it looked more like an onrushing wave of light that swallowed the entirety of the ground between them as it surged towards the enemy fortification faster than the speed of sound—


—and then it met with the seven-petaled flower that bloomed from the stalk that was Archer’s bronzed arm. Its simplicity in appearance and shape belayed its defensive capabilities, the beautiful shield that seemed so fragile holding strong even as the force of the spell released a shockwave upon impact.

A bright glare robbed them of sight. The light that couldn’t push past his defenses flared up, releasing scalding heat and force that caused the air itself to howl. Even the castle Archer anchored himself to trembled as the heat sank into the mortar and loosened the bonds holding the stone itself together.

Lefiya lost count of the seconds as a fever reached her head. Her body was burning up from the inside out as a fever swept through her from channeling as much magical energy as she could into the spell to keep it going. The fields between them began to burn as the rampant heat finally ignited the grass, sending smoke billowing out as the rushing air carried it everywhere.

But the inevitable occurred sooner than later.

The rush of the magical energy slowly petered out as her Mind emptied down to the critical point. The absence left her feeling dizzy enough to be on the verge of passing out. She braced the staff to stay upright, knowing that if she fell she wouldn’t be getting back up

And as the light faded away in its entirety and the smoke slowly cleared, she could see that her assault had accomplished absolutely nothing as the petals dissipated and revealed Archer standing there unblemished.

…It was really infuriating that even at her best she couldn’t so much as burn his clothes. Then again, Lefiya knew that her spell wouldn’t be enough to overcome his defenses. His shield managed to weather the barrage of a Spirit unleashing the highest tier of magic possible, so for her it was an impenetrable shield that couldn’t be breached even if she tried her hardest.

He was getting ready to end things since she could no longer muster the strength to stand upright. All she could do as he drew back his bowstring was to extend her left hand out towards him. Then He fired a singular arrow towards her emblem to end it—


—and she unveiled her final trump card as a Magic Circle sprang to life from her wrist that was covered by the hairband.

The question of how she was going to defeat Archer had loomed in her mind since she had barely managed to protect her emblem the last time. She couldn’t use Elf Ring again. Even if she didn’t suffer from severe post-magic rigor whenever she used it, her Mind wasn’t as seemingly endless as his was.

The difference in their physical ability factored in as well. He could move a lot more freely than her, especially with her body in this state. Had he thought she could still retaliate and been light on his feet, he would likely avoid her remaining shots and would win out in a contest of endurance. Not to mention that he had his ultimate defense.

The only way she was going to win was to take advantage of the only weakness she could think of that he shared as both an archer and a mage: concentration.

Be it magic or bow, snipers devoted their all to their shots, down to their very breath. Lady Riveria had taught her that, being the foremost archer within their Familia. So, in that single moment after his shot was fired, he would be vulnerable—and thus she had a chance to win.

But she had less than the space of a second to land such a shot. While a skilled Mage could reduce the time of their chants, with Filvis being proficient enough that she could cast her Short Chant spells in less than a second, Lefiya couldn’t hope to accomplish something like that given how long her spells were. At least not without the Skill she obtained upon reaching Level Four: Double Canon.

It was a Skill that mitigated the biggest weakness she faced in how quickly her incantations were uttered by allowing her to preserve the Magic Circle and incantation, delaying the release of the spell until she used the trigger word to unleash it. That made it so that the spell itself was already loaded and formatted with the Mage Development Ability. She only needed to unleash it.

She had loaded in her first spell on her way up to the Wall Walk for the final time. Augmented to maximize the speed above all else. The only thing left was to pull the trigger with her remaining Mind. “ARCS RAY!

A golden arrow-thin ray shot from her outstretched hand before everything faded to black…


The first thing that Lefiya felt as she slowly came back to her senses was her body being cradled by the soft embrace of a bed. She forced her eyes open after a moment and sat upright, taking in her surroundings. It was her room back in the Twilight Manor.

“Finally woke up?” The voice of her Goddess pulled her attention over to a chair where the Trickster Goddess sat with a bottle of wine in hand. “You been out all day, you know?”

“All day…” She turned her attention to the nearest window and saw that night had fallen.  “What about the match?”

“Eh, it wasn’t the crushing win that I wanted, but…” Loki tossed up her own emblem with a cheeky grin. The Elven Mage grasped it gingerly as it came her way. It was scuffed, but despite everything she had managed to keep it whole. “You managed to hit shortstack’s emblem with pinpoint accuracy right as you hit the ground. So, while you didn’t win, you didn’t lose either.”

She hadn’t won. She wasn’t at the point she could compete with someone who was blessed with a Spirit’s power. She didn’t know if that day would ever come, but she would still strive for it. But she had managed to protect the symbol of her Familia despite it all.

That was more than enough for her to take pride in for now.