Chapter 6: The Spirit Village
“My dearest brother has finally departed the stage and gone beyond the curtain of the heavens to have his play for their rulers judged. I am certain that it will be met with applause and that he be crowned with a wreath of ivy for his performance. Yet, as our comrades spread his comedy around the land to inspire hope for heroes to come, I wish to preserve his performance as one who viewed it from the skene.
Thus, I pen this memoir of my life from birth to the final moments I spent watching over my beloved brother, Argo.”
—Fina of Elcos
“Is this the Spirit Forest?”
That question broached the silence that had until then been padded out with the whistle of the wind that billowed against the ears of the Half-Elven Mage until just a moment ago. It was a bright and clear day, unblemished barring the scant white clouds that were haphazardly scattered across the endless canvas that was the sky. They had just finished soaring in that endless road and come to a gentle landing on the outskirts of a forest, whose trees seemed to stand as ever-vigilant sentinels as they marked a border between the outside world and all that lay within.
“That right,” said the one leading the group of four as she lowered her aerial mount, one of the tamed monsters of the Ganesha Familia that they had borrowed for the journey. “The village is deep within, so we’ll be going on foot the rest of the way.”
With regal jade hair that flowed down her back and crowned by a tiara of unblemished silver adorned with a precious gem, the High Elf of Royal Blood deigned to dismount her airborne steed as she graced the grasslands with presence. And as if the grasslands were rejoicing the wind blew and the long blades shuddered in applause. The very earth seemed to rejoice as she stood there and cried out:
Here stands upon us non-other than she who bore the title of Nine Hells.
Here stands the strongest of the Elven Adventurers alive.
Here stands she of regal, royal blood.
Here stands Riveria Ljos Alf.
Even Lefiya seemed taken by her beauty as she tenderly caressed said beast on its snout. No Elf wouldn’t. Such was the magnificence of her lineage that the eyes were drawn to her regardless of one’s gender or station. Even some Goddesses could never compare to her.
“You can go ahead,” she said to it in a gentle tone. “I’ll call for you when we’re done.”
Said monster took flight at her beckoning, to be joined by the other three as the rest of the group dismounted. They possessed heightened hearing and were trained to respond to the sound of a whistle produced by the goldsmiths of the Ganesha Familia, which daintily hung around each of their necks. Once they were done with the Spirit Festival they would fly them back to Orario.
“She truly is amazing,” said a hushed whisper that barely reached the Half-Elf Mage’s ears. She turned to see her dear companion Filvis standing in awe of Lady Riveria, a respectful distance away from both the High Elf and Lefiya herself. “I am unworthy to be in her presence.”
Filvis had forgone her pure-white outfit that had its edges marked by light-blue boundaries for one more suitable as a retainer of the royal family. The half-cloak and cuffs had deep-blue hues with gold edges while the torso framed them in a white short skirt. Her arms and legs were clad in dark fabric and gloves, and her raven-black hair was adorned with a golden headband that had a single feather bound to it while her blade was nestled on the back of her waist, partially obscured by her waist-length hair.
The Elven Magic Swordsman looked absolutely lovely. But it hadn’t escaped Lefiya’s notice that even when they would be in the presence of other Elves, she still wore gloves to ensure her fingers would not touch their skin. And she refused to come much closer to either of them unless necessary.
She spun on her heels and marched towards her to correct that, clasping her hands so abruptly that Filvis seemed shocked. “Eh… Viridis…?”
Lefiya remained silent as she folded her lips into a frown and just stared into her deep red eyes. Unlike her brother’s eyes that had a lighter hue, hers were deep and dark. But they were beautiful all the same as she kept her gaze firm to drive the unspoken message into her mind.
You are not sullied. You are one of us. Don’t run away from us.
Don’t run from me.
The message carried as the Elven Magic Swordsman relented after a moment and whispered under her breath. “I understand, Lefiya…”
That coaxed a smile out of her. “Then go ahead with Lady Riviera. You and Miss Ryu are going to be our vanguards, right?”
“R-Right…” She held her gloved hand preciously once Lefiya released her before slowly making her way towards the royalty they were supposed to be protecting. The crimson blush across her cheeks complimented her eyes nicely.
“The incident that scarred her heart must have been truly grievous to have left her in such a state,” came from next to Lefiya before she realized it. She twisted her head around so quickly it might have snapped if she had gone any faster to see the Elven Warrior from the 18th Floor standing there. It was only last night that they had been somewhat formally introduced. “She is lucky to have a friend such as you.”
I didn’t even hear her move, Lefiya noted before taking a step back and recalling her manners. “We were in such a rush before to get here that I never got a chance to thank you for everything you did.”
She faced the woman with her knees bent outward and one foot behind her, fingers delicately holding out the skirt of her clothing that had been provided for her by her mentor. Then she gave a slight bow of her head as she expressed her heartfelt thanks. “You have my sincere gratitude for saving that boy and I two nights ago. I know that most of our kind would not have gone so far that night for those such as ourselves, and I swear on my name of Viridis that I will repay that kindness someday, Miss Ryuu.”
Ryuu observed the gesture in silence for a moment. Then her expression shifted into a soft smile. “I see why Lady Riveria covets you so dearly. It makes me happy to know that I saved an Elf like you.”
Lefiya’s head rose from its bow. “What do you mean?”
“Though you possess the pride of our race in everything from your clothes to your behavior, you carried that boy on your back and put yourself in front of those monsters to protect him without hesitation. And when I chastised him for his injuries as he laid unconscious, you took the blame without a second thought. Even in Orario and amongst other Adventurers, there are few of our kind who have recontextualized that which has been so thoroughly ingrained within our race into something that covers all of them.”
Elves were prideful—even those who were only half as such. Everyone understood that. Everyone accepted that because it was something that had been instilled in their race since the dawn of history. The wise race that remained sequestered in their forest to be pure and unsullied, remaining as such even as seasons changed and centuries passed.
To be unsullied ran so deeply as a custom that every aspect of their life was dictated by it. Everything in the world outside of their homes was impure and thus they often donned gloves and clad their skin from head-to-toe to avoid having it blemished by their surroundings. They would never even allow one who was not of their race to touch their bare skin without their consent.
That was why Elves were rare in a Familia. To devote oneself to their patron deity was to give consent, which was part of why she tolerated Lady Loki’s advances—as long as they didn’t go too far. But it gave partial consent to other members of the Familia as well, which not every Elf was capable of doing unless they were willing to be touched by different members of what many considered inferior races.
The fact that she let Bell touch her when they were not of the same race or Familia was significant for that reason. The fact that she bore him upon her bare back as her clothes melted away was significant to someone who didn’t know that they were family. As far as everyone else knew she had basically forgiven him for accidentally groping her and then all but gave her consent before running off together with him in the morning.
That was why those rumors took a bit of time to put down, even for the people who knew she was much more tolerant of others touching her because of her upbringing.
Raul is still a dead man when I get back, she set firmly into the back of her mind as Ryuu walked ahead to join Filvis in the front. Lefiya would remain behind her mentor in order to obstinately protect the rear, though it was largely only out of formality that they were bothering with the escort. There was no one present more powerful than Lady Riveria, who was the pinnacle of Elven Mages alive.
“…Goodness, this is already tiresome,” spoke the Nine Hells as they began venturing towards the woodlands. Magic tinged the air even before they reached the first of the trees, an enchantment of some kind woven into them. “Being forced to walk in the center like I’m some princess that needs to be coddled at my age.”
A slight giggle slipped from Lefiya’s lips. “I know you dislike such treatment, but please bear with it for our sake, Lady Riveria.”
The Elven Mage gave her apprentice a side-glance. “You’re enjoying this far too much.”
“Well, I can’t really help but be a little excited. I grew up on Elven fairy tales like ‘The Greedy Girl and The Holy Tree.‘ Anyone my age would be happy to know that there was truth to the stories and want to see it for themselves.”
Her mother had often read her fairy tales related to their heritage. Among them was this story, a story about a girl who was so greedy that she wanted to pluck the stars from the heavens themselves. It was a cautionary tale, but also a romantic tale. She practically had the entire thing memorized at this point.
“I am honestly more surprised that such a tree and village exists,” Filvis stated as she trod the path ahead, eyes in front and alert for any danger. She would unsheathe her sword and stand ready to protect her charge at the first sign of trouble.
“That was the point.” The High Elf crossed her arms as she explained. “For those as long-lived as our race, things that we wish to hide from the outside world but remain unforgotten could easily be concealed within stories. For the members of the higher ranks of our society, knowledge of the village itself is known. After all, the Spirit Festival is an important celebration and has happened every thirty years for hundreds of years.”
“…Using the tale to hide the truth provides secrecy while ensuring that the knowledge remains to those who can discern the truth,” Ryuu said after a moment of silence to contemplate that. “Other races would have no reason to pursue an Elven tale and thus no reason to look for it. Children of lower standing would see it as a lesson to be remembered but nothing more, while those aware would remember to pay respect when the time of the Spirit Festival arrives. It accomplishes everything one could want in a single motion.”
“It also prevents any chance of an incident whereupon the Spirits could be so greatly offended that they take back their knowledge. It is only because our ancestors forged a friendship with them that our race was capable of using magic in the time before the Age of the Gods.”
“…You mean because of the rites that bestowed magic upon those who curry favor with the Spirits?” Lefiya asked cautiously.
She received a mild look from her mentor. “I’m surprised that you know of those.”
“I read about them in an old book,” was her answer.
It had been true as well, given that it was from the tome that Lord Hermes had gifted her. She had only gone through a handful of the pages in the time she had between getting back to their home, getting her Status updated, and then using her free day to go spend time with Filvis. They happened to stumble upon the request written in the old Elvish script during that time and ended up accompanying Lady Riveria and Miss Ryuu afterward.
But the pages she had gone through started with the youth of the Ancient Mage, Fina. It turned out that she was a Half-Elf, a rarity considering the customs and divide between the races as each struggled for survival. Her mother had apparently been an Elven Mage who had fallen in love with a Human but had to give up living in the forests that she called home once Fina had been conceived.
Lefiya felt… sad realizing the parallels between then and now. Even though more than a thousand years had passed, their union was still looked down upon. She could understand the feelings of that Ancient Mage, which was probably why she ended up developing her new Skill upon having her Status updated—Vow of Elcos.
It was apparently a Skill that Lady Loki had never heard of, meaning it was a Rare Skill. She hadn’t even heard of the name of Elcos, as it was a kingdom that Fina had lived in before the Age of the Gods. The rulers of the heavens only turned their attention fully to the lower plane sometime after it was destroyed by monsters—one of many forgotten kingdoms of no importance during those dark times.
Her brother, whom she penned her memoirs about, hadn’t been born yet from what Lefiya could tell. But considering how she described her parents’ relationship he was probably well on the way soon enough. It was a shame that there weren’t any tales of Half-Elven heroes among the fairy tales she was told by her mother, but their kind would never want to spread such stories since it encouraged the intermingling of races.
As for the Clown March, she could only speculate that it had something to do with her Familia. The Trickster could also be considered a Jester or Clown, and she was the Trickster Goddess. Since it didn’t have an Active Trigger, that meant it would be passive until the situation turned up and Loki wanted to experiment with it when they had a chance to see if it operated similar to how some of the others had Skills that boosted their attributes temporarily.
“Spirits of old were the ones who bestowed Magic upon our ancestors as a token of friendship,” Riveria began, as though starting an educational lecture. “At the dawn of the world, when monsters from the Dungeon spilled out freely, our ancestors beseeched their wisdom through certain rites and thus became capable of calling upon Magic that could fend them off. To this day it remains one of the few methods to obtain Magic without the Falna—often only taught to the nobility of our race and the Royal Family in lieu of receiving the Grace of the divine.”
“I was unaware of that,” Filvis said with a hint of shame in her tone. Considering how she prided her Elven heritage it was something that she probably felt she should have known.
“There are a few reasons for that. The first being that Ancient Magic is largely inferior to either Acquired Magic or Congenital Magic manifested by the Falna and thus outdated. Since the Falna essentially tailors the Magic one receives through it for them, it reduces the risk of an Ignis Fatuus. And because the Magic comes about due to the Falna it can benefit from the Mage Developmental Ability.”
The Mage Developmental Ability was basically what determined whether or not one was simply using Magic or one was considered a Mage. It increased the efficiency of the spell cost, improved its range, and several other things that improved with its ranking. If one had to provide a comparison, Filvis was a Magic Swordsman because she possessed the Mage Developmental Ability, while Miss Ryuu was an Elven Warrior that simply knew Magic.
“Then you have to consider that one has to beseech the Spirit and earns its favor to gain the knowledge, much like only select few weavers receive the aid of Spirits to make Spirit Fabric. To this day only those such as members of the Royal Family, the Royal Knights, and those of high standing are graced with this knowledge and many do so by either calling upon a Spirit within their forest or such a gathering as the Spirit Festival. Others are not permitted to know, hence why I have not bothered teaching you them if you were curious. Your attention would be better spent elsewhere.”
I suppose Lord Hermes was unaware of that when he gave it to me. She was not of high standing and a Half-Elf at that. That knowledge would never be known to her under normal circumstances. She could only assume that he couldn’t read the language when he handed it to her given that those memoirs held some of that knowledge, taught from mother to her young daughter.
…Still, when her thoughts turned to those ancient mages, she imagined how difficult it must have been for them. Singing until their voices were hoarse and scraping together whatever they could in a bid to survive that harsh time. And she felt a kinship with them when she considered her own circumstances. “…Is it similar to receiving a Spirit’s Blood like Mister Crozzo?”
She had been surprised to learn there were people with the blood of Spirits within them. On the 18th Floor, not only had she learned that Miss Aiz was one such individual but one of Bell’s party members as well. That same blood made him capable of creating magic swords that had been used to devastating effect, apparently. It hadn’t affected her homeland so she had been ignorant of it.
The High Elf shook her head. “No. Spirits would offer their power to heroes of eld in different manners, via contracts. But doing so involved placing such a burden on the body that, for that power, they would pay with their life. Many great heroes from that age have perished at the end of their stories because of that. It is their descendants that inherit that blood and thus a mere portion of the original’s power.”
That made sense then. He had mentioned that his ability was simply a byproduct of having a direct connection with a Spirit. It was most likely the same for Miss Aiz as well. Yet, even after centuries, it was still enough that it made them both capable of so much—inherited gifts from great ancestors.
“…Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but I suggest you not bring up that name again, Miss Viridis,” Miss Ryuu said in a serious tone. “That boy has not done anything to warrant the grudge Elvenkind has against his family, but it will still be weighed against him. Should others of high standing learn that he still possesses the power to make the same weapons that fueled the destruction of so many forests that both Elves and Spirits called home, he will most likely be targeted to prevent the bloodline from being rekindled.”
Her blood froze. “You… you don’t mean they would…”
“Assassinate him,” Riveria agreed without any hesitation. “I do not know why the ability was manifested within him when his predecessors had lost it for their actions, but it is by the protection of his Familia, Orario itself, and the fact that many believe that the blood has been purged from their lineage that he likely hasn’t been targeted yet. Speak carelessly of it in the presence of my kin and his blood will be on your hands.”
Her chest felt heavy. Her curiosity had nearly signed the death of one of her brother’s friends without even realizing it. “I’m sorry. I truly am.”
“It would be best if we all kept silent from now on,” her mentor suggested. “We don’t want to offend the Spirits by accident. I’ll give instructions so we don’t get lost, but other than that keep the discussion to a minimum until we reach the village.”
The suggestion was taken as an order, given the topic prior was so heavy that it killed the conversation. The moment they stepped past the trees the magic threading the entire area was palpable. She could only assume it was the presence of the Spirits that had been mentioned, so great in number that it could be felt.
And when they arrived their breaths were stolen.
Dappled sunlight peeked through the breaks in the canopy woven of verdant green leaves, rays of light bathing the village that seemed sewn into the trees themselves. Crystalline, pure water flowed through a babbling brook that fed into the center of the village. And it was there that laid a massive, majestic tree that seemed to brim with magical power.
Elves quickly took notice of them. They looked different from others of their race that Lefiya had encountered, which she learned was because they were of the High Elf lineage. They were essentially next to the Royal Family in terms of pedigree, each from different forests that remained.
Unfortunately, they weren’t so different from others once their gazes drifted from Lady Riveria onto her retainers. “Forgive me, Lady Riveria. But why have you only been accompanied by barbarous adventurers and a Half-Man to our village?”
“Yes. One of such radiance as yourself should be in the company of the Royal Knights. Surely they would have come in force had they known of your attendance?”
I suppose some things never change, Lefiya thought to herself bitterly as she kept her expression neutral. She had expected it the moment that she saw that look in the Guild Leader’s eyes when his gaze fell onto her ears and said he supposed it would be fine that she went as Riveria’s apprentice. He had been saying that if the alternative was no Elf, then half of one was the best he could manage.
That being said, at least he had the decency to not voice it aloud. Even others in Orario attempted to speak in hushed whispers when they thought she couldn’t hear them, which grew increasingly difficult as the more you leveled the more your senses sharpened. She could only assume it was because they dwelled within the heart of their forests and were so unused to Adventurers that they didn’t know any better.
Miss Ryuu herself seemed unbothered by it visibly, although the air around her felt different. Then she saw Filvis trembling slightly in place. Her beautiful red eyes were narrowed and cold in a way that didn’t suit her, and her gloved hands were balled into fists.
Lefiya clandestinely reached over and brushed her fingers over her dear friend’s knuckles, drawing her gaze as she slightly shook her head. They were here as part of Lady Riveria’s retinue. They had to mind their manners and words as they were representative of her as well. Even if their anger was justified, and they were more than capable of silencing them, they had to keep it to themselves as to not reflect badly upon royalty.
“…Speak that way again of my retinue and you will have offended me in ways that are unforgivable, Elf.” In a voice that was as cold and quiet as falling snow amidst the moonlight, Lady Riveria spoke. It was not her usual tone, but it held within it the tenor of authority that dared one to speak against it. “Have you forgotten that I am also one of those barbarous adventurers?”
Though her expression was masked in neutrality, one could feel that the air had shifted. Whereas before Lady Riveria had tolerated their supplication, despite not having any desire to be treated in such a manner, it was clear now that she had deemed their words offensive enough to merit her intervention. And when royalty was offended there would be consequences.
“Not only are they my comrade in arms, but the Elf that you referred to as Half-Man happens to be my successor. A child of Wishe graced with the title of ‘Thousand Elf’ for her ability to command the Magic of Elvenkind through the same Grace that I have received and by her own efforts and merits. In her, I see the embodiment of the magical heritage of our dying race and the one that will carry it into the future along with our traditions and culture. So for you to deem her as lesser than one of our own is unacceptable. Do you understand me?”
“M-My apologies, Lady Riviera!” quickly begged the High Elf. “I spoke only out of concern for your safety. If they were chosen by you then each must have the worth of a dozen Royal Knights!”
Another joined him. “Forgive us for not considering the talent found in the Elven blood flowing through her. Only one such as yourself would have the foresight and wisdom to take notice of it at first glance. Truly, you are as the rumors say!”
They were all meaningless words. Mere platitudes being offered up to royalty to avoid incurring her ire. Backhanded apologies that dismissed half of her heritage while praising the part they only acknowledged to appease the Nine Hells.
Lady Riveria didn’t even pretend to entertain them before she turned away from them and spoke to the party. “Let us find the one responsible for the Spirit Festival before my patience runs thin…”
Likewise, Lefiya failed to notice one High Elf in particular took interest in her as she followed her mentor in silence.