Chapter 7: The Spirit Festival
“I watched as Mother weaved a spell in front of my eyes and spoke words lovingly on her lips while her fingers hovered over Father’s hand, injured and bleeding. The light enclosed the wound and knitted it shut as the two never broke their gaze. It was at that moment that I felt my blood stir and wanted to perform Magic, asking Mother to teach me.
One day, she promised. One day, when we can head to a place where Spirits rest. But until then I will teach you the pledge of our kin—passed down from parent to child.”
— 7th Month of Year XXXX
“I didn’t expect monsters to be here, of all places.”
When they were told it would be an escort mission to what was supposedly a fairy tale village, Lefiya had not expected that they would be forced to put down monsters. While it was true that monsters could be found nearly everywhere in the world from ancient times, before Babel had been created to serve as a lid on the Dungeon, somehow the notion of them being here hadn’t crossed her mind. It somewhat ruined the immersion.
“Do you not have to constantly deal with the creatures in the Abyss?” asked a voice that was more youthful than it had any right to be. “Their presence should be second nature to you whelps by now.”
It also turned out the Elder was a child. Or at least had the appearance of one to where you might believe her to be a Half-Elf, Half-Pallum. Not that such a thing was possible.
She had sandy blonde hair that was crowned with a wreath of the local flora. Her teal eyes were seemingly fixed into a flat stare. Her white robe was hemmed in green hues and the staff she bore was partially wrought wood that held within it what was presumed to be a natural gemstone.
And even more seemingly impossible was her clear disdain for Lady Riveria, going so far as to refer to her as a tomboy and a rapscallion.
It was so disrespectful that it caught Lefiya and the others by surprise. But Riveria seemed to not mind. If anything, she seemed to respond to her with greater comfort than accepting the supplications of the other High Elves even as they pressured the Elder into allowing her to participate due to her magical prowess.
Hence why they were killing monsters. Since no one could object to Lady Riveria’s magical ability, she had decided to put them to work instead to earn their right to participate. And that involved removing monsters that had somehow wandered into the forest.
“Though they were weak, they came out in such large numbers,” Miss Ryuu pointed out. Monsters on the surface multiplied by duplicating their magic stones and so they also divided their strength—quantity over quality. For Adventurers of the group’s collective Levels it was easy to deal with them, but they were still more than capable of being a threat to ordinary folks.
Lady Riveria agreed as she addressed the Elder. “Do they normally appear in such numbers?”
“Occasionally the foul creatures do slip by the wards of the forest, but this is the first time I’ve seen this many in all my time living here,” admitted the Elder Elf. “Even so, we are capable of using Magic to defend ourselves against monsters of this caliber. If not for your arrival I would have finished removing them, but since you are all such capable adventurers there is no need for me to do so. They will serve as your contribution to earn your right to participate in the Spirit Festival.”
She’s not even attempting to hide the sarcasm in her voice, Lefiya thought while a nervous chuckle escaped her lips. Even the other High Elves wouldn’t dare hold such a tone to her, but the Half-Elf could only assume that with age one had less need to feign fealty within their own forest. Lady Lilo must be more than a few centuries old. I’m kind of envious she still looks so young.
“We are grateful for the opportunity,” Riveria responded without missing a beat, her tone humble. “I am aware that our abrupt presence may have caused problems. If contributing in this manner eases your burden and ensures the festivities go well, it is the least we can do.”
“…Tch. Well, at least some manners were drilled into you.” She pouted like a child before she spun on her sandals and began to walk away. “Come. If you really want to ease my duties, then you can help elsewhere.”
Lefiya followed after her mentor along with the rest of the retinue when she felt a presence loitering just over her shoulder. She turned her head and found a floating wisp, a gathering of light and magic the hue of the wind—pale green. She sensed no hostility as it drifted over her with what felt like pure curiosity, similar to how a dog would sniff someone upon meeting them.
Her slender fingers reached out, only for it to drift further out of her reach hurriedly. It lingered there once she retracted her hand, keeping pace but ready to flee. It’s kind of adorable in its own way.
“That one is simply curious about your presence, but it is also skittish,” Lady Lilo said, looking over her shoulder. “Leave it be. Even weak spirits with no real sentience like it can injure a whelp like you before I can pacify them if you frighten or rile them.”
“Forgive me, Lady Lilo,” Lefiya said hurriedly. “I meant no disrespect to the Spirit.”
“You seem to have a firm understanding of its nature,” Riveria said as she followed behind her. “Is that the wisdom of your age?”
“Anyone could do so if they lived around them for long enough,” she said before raising her staff into the air towards it. The jewel within its core glimmered and the Spirit hurriedly drifted over to her. “They gather in the forest all times of the year, but during the Spirit Festival, their numbers swell as the Holy Tree bears its fruit. Some of the stronger ones with their own will and personalities show up as well, so to live here one needs to receive training on how to handle them.”
The little green light danced around her for a moment as she made motions with the staff. It was as if she was playing with it. Then she flicked her staff out and the glimmer within it went deeper into the forest like a shooting star.
The Spirit followed it eagerly, chasing after it.
“That’s amazing, Lady Lilo,” Lefiya said earnestly. “You really do know what placates them.”
The Elder bore a small smile before quickly flattening her expression and then turning back ahead. “Save your praise, whelp. There are still more monsters to attend to.”
As she said, there were. Enough that they found it more efficient to split up to deal with them. The moment one received a Falna their baseline abilities effectively became well above their kin. And as their Levels went up and they grew closer to the divine, that difference in ability would only grow further.
Lefiya sighed as she watched a monster in front of her turn to dust that scattered in the wind. There was no need to collect the magic stones so she had purposefully targeted them to avoid leaving the corpses in this serene and beautiful forest. Then she took a moment to just look around for any remnants and found there were none to be had.
“I suppose I should head back now to report I’m done…” She trailed off as the flicker of the green caught the corner of her eyes. She turned her azure gaze towards the hue and found the curious little spirit there, fluttering around her once more. “Ah, you’re back?”
The Wind Spirit, as she guessed, bobbed around her back and forth. It circled her as if taking in her shape and figure, though it lacked eyes as far as she could tell. Such things were not necessary, and yet it responded to her motions with caution.
“It was little ones like you that the ancient mages drew their blessings from, wasn’t it?”
There were greater Spirits, like Aria according to the tales. Those that fought alongside and aided heroes of the past. If she had to guess, the little one here only possessed a fragment of such power. The easiest comparison would be how one of the monsters here had magic stones compared to an Apex like the Goliath.
But her ancestors drew their wisdom from the smaller ones. Though they lacked in what one would consider sapience, their words could reach them. Their pleas for their knowledge, a pledge of friendship for the wisdom. And… if even a Half-Elf like Fina could gain Magic from them back then…
Couldn’t she do the same?
Licking her lips as she considered that prospect, Lefiya took a deep breath before placing her hand on her chest and fixating her attention on the curious little Wind Spirit flittering around her. Her mouth moved and from her throat emerged the Elven tongue of eld as she allowed magical energy to leak from her body. “<I beseech, o kin born of nature. By thy breath the world moves, its wisdom and grace instilled—>”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The voice stifled her own as Lefiya jumped in place. The motion started the Wind Spirit into flittering away as she spun around to see the diminutive Elder Elf standing there. “Lady Lilo!”
She bit down on her thumb lightly as she mumbled, “To think that arrogant rapscallion would go so far as to teach a whelp the ancient pledge. Just how much further will she trample on our traditions!”
This is bad. Even full-blooded Elves of her standing weren’t supposed to be aware of that pledge. Let alone a Half-Elf like her. The natural conclusion was that, as Lady Riveria’s successor, she had been given it willingly. It may have even made it seem like the purpose of them coming here was for that reason.
“Forgive me, Lady Lilo!” Taking a pose of supplication, Lefiya begged for her forgiveness as she at least tried to absolve her mentor of accountability. “Even if I may sound unbelievable, I discover the pledge along with the rites on my own and acted out of my own initiative and curiosity. I will accept any punishment you deem fit, but please do not lay the blame on Lady Riviera. She really does only want the Spirit Festival to go undisturbed.”
She could feel the weight of the Elder’s gaze on her even as she kept her head low.
“Even if I believe that you speak the truth, the fact that you managed to do so without her knowledge is a failure on her part,” she said. “It would have been more acceptable if she had taught you that merely chanting the words will not reach the Spirits. The fact that she didn’t leaves me only to question her qualifications as a mentor and claim of you to be our future.”
It was a barb at Lady Riveria, even when she had taken the blame. Any other Elf would have gladly settled for her being responsible, a Half-Elf taking advantage of the situation to get ahead. There were those who she knew already considered her as such, even citing her ability to use the Magic of other Elves as theft that went beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable. That was why she only used the spells she had been given permission for and been personally taught.
Yet the Elder seemed so determined to fixate on the Royal Elf as being responsible for everything. It just didn’t make sense as Lefiya raised her head and spoke. “…I will take full responsibility for my actions. However, if I may ask, Lady Lilo…. why it is that you dislike Lady Riveria so?”
The diminutive Elder Elf gave her a flat stare for a very pregnant pause. Then she asked a simple question. “How old are you, child?”
“Fifteen as of this year, Elder.”
Her expression soured. “That’s barely out of the crib. Even the others are no different than toddlers from my point of view. So can you imagine what it feels like to hear about whelps your age throwing themselves into the Abyss that gives birth to calamities needlessly? All because a slightly older brat of royal blood forgot her role and decided she wished to venture forth into danger?”
“But if we don’t cull the monsters then they’ll eventually come out to the surface,” Lefiya began. “Orario was made for that purpose, to avoid those dark times from resurfacing when horrible monsters ran free and uncontrolled.”
The Elder Elf’s rebuttal was instant. “Are there not others who do not have the blood of our dying race to do so? Are there not the Gods who watch as you lose your lives for amusement? Why must our numbers that are already so thin be diminished further when they walk the same earth as us?”
Lefiya was taken aback by how sharp her voice had become. The glare of her teal eyes had become a lot firmer. “Ah… that’s—”
“Our kind’s birthrate has always been low,” Lady Lilo continued before she could say anything else. “Monsters reduced those further until we were on the brink. If not for the Spirits, we would not have had the means of defending ourselves until the Age of the Gods. Even then, after more than a thousand years, our numbers are nowhere near what they were before. Yet we persevered so far by staying in our forests even as the world around us changed.”
The Age of the Heroes had ended when the Age of the Gods had begun. They descended to the Lower World and established Familia, which gave the races of the time the ability to fight back without relying on Spirits. Then the divine placed a seal on upon the entrance to the Dungeon and bottled it up.
“But now, once more our numbers have begun to dwindle faster than we can be born. Rakia, burning our homes down with those damnable magic swords—turning the blessings of the Spirits against us. Royalty fleeing her forest to put herself headfirst into danger, encouraging so many of our own to do the same without regard for how their spirits would be broken if she perished from her rebellious phase. Worse, more of our numbers sought to emulate her and died before they even made it to their first century and passed on our bloodline.”
She slammed the butt of her staff into the ground. “You, our future?” You aren’t even a quarter of her age and yet you also willingly dive into that Abyss so often and take such foolish risks as attempting to obtain our Magic without the full understanding. How long before death claims you too? Then who will be our future? The next whelp she manages to keep alive for a few years?”
The expression of anger startled the Half-Elf. But only for a moment. Because she recognized the source of that anger in how she had been with her brother and his foolishness. That chastisement of one’s action for endangering herself. “…I understand now, Lady Lilo.”
“What are you on about?” demanded the Elder Elf.
Lefiya found it in herself to smile softly. “Your anger for Lady Riveria is because you grieve for all those Elves who have died before their time. Those who die before they can bear witness to our traditions and inherit the knowledge of our ancestors. Even those like myself are no exception, are they?”
“Half-Man. Half-Elf. Those things do not matter to the Spirits and so they do not matter to me,” the Elder Elf said. “What does matter is that you are an Elven child—a stupid child playing with things they do not comprehend and risking their lives needlessly, but an Elven child all the same that at least speaks the eld tongue when some of the whelps I call kin do not.”
For one who has lived long enough to be considered an Elder of their race, she had seen more deaths of her kin than one could count. Though those dark ages of the past had long ended, the scars remained to this day. The devastation was especially impactful for them, whose longevity was mitigated by the effort it took to conceive a child.
Despite Miss Ryuu and Filvis being a few years older than Lefiya herself, they were simply really powerful children to someone like her. Children who hadn’t even truly lived long enough to experience the Spirit Festival or any other traditions that would be upheld with more than a decade or two in-between. Anything that endangered children brought into this world would be something that would naturally offend someone who constantly worried about the future of their race—such as becoming an Adventurer.
“…You really are kind, Lady Lilo.”
The diminutive Elder’s face turned red, her lower lip scrunching up while her cheeks bulged. Then turned away and slammed the butt of her staff onto the ground. “Silence, whelp. Follow me back to the others without a word and I will overlook what you were doing here once and only once.”
[-Later That Evening-]
Night fell upon the forest and with it raised the curtain of the Spirit Festival.
The sun’s bright rays were replaced by the slivers of moonlight that peeked through the openings in the dark canopy. The silvery rays were padded out by dozens upon dozens of little lights that filled the center of the village. The High Elves mingled with the Spirits, dancing with them while sounds of laughter and cheer rang out.
The Royal Elf only sighed at the sight. “How ironic that most Elves hold disdain for the Gods after their descent for not being in the image that they imagined, yet they love the children most favored by those same Gods.”
Lefiya tilted her head at that. “What do you mean, Lady Riveria?”
Jade hair shifted as the Nine Hells shook her head. “Just a memory. For the moment, you should all enjoy the festival.”
“I will remain vigilant and check the outskirts of the plaza, Lady Riveria,” Miss Ryuu said with her wooden sword sheathed on the side of her belt. “The number of monsters that were in the forest has left me feeling uneasy. If something were to happen now…”
She regarded her with a single opened eye before speaking from her experience as an Adventurer. “You may have a point. I’ll go speak with the Elder while the others are busy entertaining themselves.”
Filvis stood at attention next to Lefiya at that. “If that’s the case, then we will—”
“No,” the Royal Elf insisted. “Escorting me was your duty, but now the two of us are acting out of what may very well be paranoia. You should both take the time to enjoy the festivities and unwind.”
That said, the two split apart at a casual pace. Lefiya could only assume it was done to avoid tipping anyone else off that something might be amiss. It really might be nothing in the end, so there was no sense in riling everyone else up.
“Is there a reason that Elf keeps looking towards you, Viridis?” Filvis asked her after a minute of nervous silence while Lefiya attempted to act natural.
She glanced around at that. “You mean the Elder? I kind of made her mad earlier, so she might be keeping an eye on me.”
The Elven Magic Swordsman’s brows furrowed at her. “Not her, but what exactly did you do to earn her ire if that were the case?”
She waved it off with a nervous laugh. “It’s nothing, really. And why have you stopped calling me by my name, Filvis? We’re alone.”
“I… don’t think that I should anymore,” she muttered. “Forgive me.”
Lefiya frowned softly. “Is this about the Unicorns?”
After she had been escorted back to the others, Lady Lilo had wanted to extend the duties that she put Lady Riveria through by gathering up Unicorns for the Spirit Festival. They came to her as if they were drawn in by her mere presence, a sight right out of a fairy tale. But when Filvis attempted to approach one it fled from her.
It appeared that weighed on her mind even now.
Lefiya regarded her dear companion’s melancholy with a heavy heart. She hated seeing her like this. Especially when she knew a smile suited her so much more. Even the memory of the first time that she smiled back in the Dungeon still moved the Half-Elf’s heart and brought warmth to her face.
“Right then…” Her decision made, Lefiya grasped Filvis by the hand with a smile on her face. “Let’s dance as well.”
“Eh… ah…” It was cute how she could face down monsters so readily in the Dungeon as a vanguard but grew flustered when the Half-Elf was close. Her cheeks were painted a rosy hue and her eyes were wide. “N-No, I shouldn’t. I’m not pure—”
“If we’re in a place like a fairy tale then we should act the part.” Her second hand reached for Filvis’s own and entwined those lithe fingers before pulling her close. Lefiya took the lead in the dance as they grew closer to the Spirits. The air itself seemed to be filled with a refreshing aura about it as the colors swayed in mesmerizing motions, the light from them reflecting in their gaze as azure eyes remained fixed onto crimson.
“You’re really good at dancing,” Lefiya said in the midst of their motions. The atmosphere was so serene and enchanting that she felt herself being swept up, her inhibitions lowering just for a moment. “And these clothes really suit you. I’m happy I had the chance to see you in them.”
“Ah…” Filvis remained flustered with her cheeks rosy while matching her partner’s steps, a slight hitch in her throat as she swallowed. “I… I feel the same… Lefiya.”
Hearing her name brought a smile to the Half-Elf’s lips. Then she noticed how those beautiful eyes fell just a slight bit lower towards them and she felt her pulse began to through their connected hands. She tightened her grasp just enough to feel it even more as she moved her face just a little closer to where she could feel the older girl’s breath delicately washing against her skin.
Then, in a voice as soft and smooth as velvet, she spoke asked. “Do you really?”
The bright red in Filvis cheeks spread to every inch of her face. Her lips parted inadvertently while a heavy, staggered breath escaped. Tremors ran throughout her body as her fingers grew tenser around Lefiya’s slender digits. “I-I…”
Then a green light was cast over them. It drew Lefiya’s eyes to the side where she spotted the little Wind Spirit from before. It was once more fluttering around her, closer than the last few times. Was it due to how the others were around the other Elves?
“Haaaaahhh…” The sound of a held breath escaping from Filvis’ mouth drew azure eyes back to the other girl. She had her head turned to the side, panting as though she needed to catch her breath. Her fingers escaped from Lefiya’s and she brought them to her chest before she turned away. “Forgive me. I-I need a moment.”
“Of course…” Lefiya masked her conflicting feelings of disappointment and satisfaction as her partner began to walk off. The green dancing light seemed rather eager to take her place, rotating about in the same motions they had been. “You really are a curious little one, aren’t you?”.
She humored it for a moment until the presence of Magic stirred on her senses. Familiar Magic at that. Her senses immediately sharpened towards the source, Lady Riveria, and her ears caught the spell on her lips even before the magic circle finished spreading out. “—Alf! Via Shilheim!”
Pale green light wove an ethereal barrier around the dancing Elves, a glimmering dome that overcast them as black darts slammed against it a moment later. Danger-sharpened eyes pegged them for what they were, arrows fired to pepper the dancers before they knew what happened. Forest’s Teardrop was immediately in Lefiya’s hand with a practiced motion as the sound of shouts and footfalls reached her ears just beneath the unsheathing of Filvis’ short sword.
They were under attack.