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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 8 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 8: The Pride of Elves

“Mother told me of why the Elves danced and sing. Even when others would fear for their lives in this land where the monsters roamed, the Elves would sing and dance within their forests. Not because they felt safe or protected. But because the Spirits were there and felt what we felt. No matter how great our fear and sorrow, what reached them must not be that which we wished to run from—it needed to be that we wished to be passed on.

For they will live beyond even the oldest of Elves and carry our prayers to the future.”

[-|-|-|-]

The defensive spell woven by the melody of Lady Riviera was all that saved the majority of the High Elves that were mingling amidst the Spirits, so lost in merry and mirth that it was only once the dome went up that they realized that something was amiss.

That was when at least ten Humans burst through the trees that ringed the plaza where the little lights from before that had been dancing now bobbed in erratic motions that highlighted their confusion. Armed with weapons and shouting of plunder and murder, they moved with motions that were beyond the norm for their race as they rushed towards the barrier. There was no doubt in Lefiya’s mind—they all had Falna.

That was when the wind billowed as a gale ran past each one, a blur of motion almost difficult for even the eyes of a Level Three to keep track of. The vicious, brutal sound of broken bones and shattered skulls reached her ears. The corpses fell one after another, legs going limp midstride as if they were puppets that had their strings cut with glistening blood leaving their mouths and the gashes where the skull had been split open.

Then came the confused, terrified screams as the Elves spotted the corpses while the one responsible stood outside of the barrier with a wooden sword in hand.

The Elder Elf looked absolutely aggrieved at the presence of the bloodshed and death before demanding, “What’s going on?”

“We had thought something was amiss with the number of monsters, but this was more than I expected,” Lady Riveria said before addressing Miss Ryuu. “Lyon, what’s the situation?”

“From the looks of it a criminal Familia intends to launch an assault upon the village,” the Elven Warrior stated factually. “Wave tactics with forces composed of what seem to be rearguards of Level Ones while the Vanguards are at least Level Two. I eliminated the first group that launched the initial assault, but I picked up on more along with the sound of Wyvern snarls deeper in the forest.”

Tamers as well,” Lady Riviera muttered. “That’s less of an assault and more of an invasion.”

That would explain where the rest of the monsters came from, Lefiya mused as she awaited instructions. The joy from before was replaced with anxious tension. Not for merely herself but for the Elves around them. Someone who just received a Falna inherently gained better attributes, such as higher perception and baseline strength. Level Twos would tear through this village with absolutely no problem.

“Ah, the spirits are perturbed!” Lady Lilo noted as the dancing lights from before were moving agitatedly now. The air around them was far more oppressive and dangerous, like a terrified animal ready to lash out at the nearest thing in self-defense. If they started attacking then it’d force them to fight on multiple fronts.

“Elder, please keep the Spirits calm as best you can to avoid them becoming hostile,” the Nine Hells spoke in the authoritative tone befitting one of the commanders of the Loki Familia. “Everyone else, gather around the Holy Tree so I can shrink down the area I need to protect you all. The expenditure of Mind to keep it up over such a large area is inefficient even with my ability. As for the enemy, I’ll leave it to you girls to eliminate them.”

Lady Lilo’s eyes narrowed at that, even as her staff danced with radiant light as she tried to calm the Spirits that were around the tree while the High Elves hurried towards it to the point of nearly tripping over themselves. “You’re sending the whelps out to fight alone!?”

“I have no other choice because none of you can defend yourselves,” Lady Riviera said bluntly. The politeness from before was shelved for the sake of expediency. “With Magic it would be possible to fend off the monsters and even Level Two Adventurers with proper tactics. However, from how every one of you reacted, not one of you has even the basics of Elven Combat Training, do you?”

Her inquiry was met with silence. Those gathered there were from higher society among the Elves. They had no need for protecting themselves because someone else would be protecting them, as the Royal Knights would protect her. They had been relying on the secrecy of the Spirit Forest and the wards that should have been in place to keep them safe.

The fact that they managed to get past them without even setting one off means that there’s another problem as well, the Royal Elf thought to herself before continuing. “That makes every last one of you liabilities in this situation. And, as royalty, allowing you to die here or losing the Spirit’s favor will deal such a severe blow to our race that we may never truly recover. So yes, I’m sending these girls out to fight in your place to avoid that happening.”

The Elder’s response was to chide her right back. “Now you pretend to care about us? How many of our children have spilled their blood inside of the Abyss when the lid had already been shut? They leave their homes, unable to come back after binding themselves to those fickle Gods that dictate how they live! Even if they don’t die in that meat-grinder they never return to their forests to defend them!”

It wasn’t as though Lefiya didn’t understand her emotions, nor could she say that the Elder Elf was incorrect. When you became an Adventurer, you became bound to your God or Goddess. They bequeathed their blessing, and they can just as easily take it away by sealing one’s Falna. You were literally placing your freedom in the hands of whatever deity you swore yourself to, which was why she had been worried when she heard Bell had gone to such an obscure Familia.

He had been lucky, all things considered. Many weren’t.

Then, once you became an Adventurer in Orario it became a lot more difficult to leave the City unless you jumped through several legal loopholes or were on missions for the Guild. Lady Riveria managed to get them permission to leave because of her status, but that was only four of them. Lady Loki also intended to arrange for a trip to Melen and even she mentioned she would have to leave half of them behind to avoid the city losing too many of its higher-tier Adventurers.

In addition, all the children born to a member of a Familia become members of said Familia to avoid complications like conflicting loyalties—as she mentioned to Bell. Had the Zeus Familia not been wiped out then Bell and she would likely both be made members of the Familia because of their father. The forests of their ancestors did not matter as they would likely never see them—not even the outskirts for a half-blooded Elf such as her.

Even they didn’t die to the Dungeon, their numbers would inevitably shrink and so too would those who followed Elven culture. For one who had lived for centuries and could see the pattern from above, it was as if she was watching the end of her people. And there was nothing she could do about it.

Lady Riveria responded to the accusation with a calm voice. “…Elder, you are not the first to chastise me for leaving my forest. Nor what it has wrought for our race. I know full well many have chased after me and perished for the attempt. However, much as how a comrade of mine has taken it upon himself to bear the mantle of hope for his race after they lost their faith, for both the good and ill that it brings, I too have chosen to do the same. I can’t claim to be aiming for something so ambitious, but at the very least I hope to break the isolation that binds our people.”

Lady Lilo went silent even as her teal eyes glared at her. She wanted to hear it. She wanted to hear her justification for abandoning what should have been her duty to stay within her forests rather than enter into the outside world and encouraging so many others to do so.

“We may stay safe in our forests, but by staying isolated we also suffer. We never make allies who would aid us in our darkest hours. We remain stagnant and so we leave ourselves blind to our flaws and weaknesses. We cling to beliefs and prejudices of other races that are wrong because nothing is there to challenge them, such as one’s blood being inferior due to mixed heritage.”

The Half-Elf felt the gazes on her but said nothing as she awaited her instruction. She already knew that. She already knew from the day that Lady Riviera had taken her as her apprentice what she intended. Why her mentor had ensured her title would be that of ‘Thousand Elf’ when she reached Level Three.

Lefiya wanted to live up to those expectations.

“I’ll deal with the majority of the enemy combatants,” Miss Ryuu said. “If the other two focus on the Wyverns, we should be able to deal with them without any reaching the plaza or the Holy Tree.”

“Sorry to put the burden upon you girls,” Lady Riveria said to the three. “Now go.”

[-Deep Forest-]

The vicious, barely constrained snarls stood out to the Half-Elf’s ears as she ran through the darkness.

Her senses were already sharpened by the danger. The famed perception of the Elves and her own enhanced senses due to her Level was more than capable of allowing her to navigate the dark forest where the dense canopy obscured the natural light. The familiarity with the monster native to the Deep Floors of the Dungeon made it was easier for her to track her target as well, giving her an idea of the distance and direction.

She spun on her heels and then darted towards the right where the sound emerged from, a chant gracing her lips as the magic circle with its golden hue springing up beneath her feet and glided along with her pace. “Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree. You are the master archer…

Filvis hastened her own steps, darting out in front of her. Her Agility was higher than Lefiya’s, likely because she often acted as a vanguard, so being able to dash and disengage was essential. That additional speed allowed her to rush forward with her short sword in hand as the sound of Human voices accompanied the source of the snarl.

Loose your arrows, fairy archers. Pierce, arrow of accuracy—” The monster came within view within moments, behind one-third quarters cover of a thick tree with its bark gouged from the sharp talons that were attached to a bluish-purple draconic creature with scales that glistened in the light of magic-stone lanterns as two Humans attempted to uncover a muzzle on its mouth.

She came to a stop and finished the formation of the spell along with the chant. “Arcs Ray!

Light burst forth from the magic stone within her staff, Forest’s Teardrop. The golden beam shot forward, its radiant glow briefly illuminating Filvis’ fleeting form as she followed to keep pace with it. There was enough time to see the Wyvern rear back at the light reflecting in its red eyes and spread its forelimb wings before her spell connected, the beam rupturing and tearing the monster asunder.

The surprised sounds of the Humans were cut short as Filvis’ blade flowed in two silver arcs, each one leaving splashes of crimson hanging in the air as the throats of the men were cut instantly. The blood splashed over the blue and gold hues of her outfit that matched her God rather well, some droplets even decorating her cheeks. Her eyes then turned back to Lefiya before she turned away.

She pulled out a handkerchief for her to use. “Here.”

Filvis shook her head. “I am used to the blood. And right now we need to keep up. That woman volunteered to deal with the criminals, but I cannot allow her to do everything.”

Lefiya’s ears picked up short, hard sounds and recognized what she meant. Wood against flesh and bone, followed by bodies collapsing. Even the sound of scales shattering from the blunt force of the impact. The sound then came from the northwest and then the west, the direction shifting after each set of three-to-four impacts.

She must be Level Four, minimum,” she heard Filvis say beneath her breath. And Lefiya found herself agreeing with her assessment as Miss Ryuu took out more of the Tamers and their monsters in that direction. She was fast—faster than either of them by a very wide margin that could only be the equivalent to both a Level and the compounded Agility that made up the invisible base.

The Half-Elf had known the woman was talented the moment she had seen her attack the Violas. But it was kind of terrifying how efficient she was in dispatching the brigands who had come to despoil the forest and the monsters accompanying them. Not to mention she was a master of Concurrent Chanting, capable of driving off multiple attackers and fending for herself despite being attacked from every possible angle while calling forth immense magical power that could match an upper-tier Mage without a magic circle from what Lefiya recalled on the 18th Floor.

She was clearly one of the best Elven Adventurers in Orario. Yet, before a little while ago, she had never known that, despite realizing that she was the very same Elf who worked in the Hostess of Fertility now that she had plenty of time to see her face uncovered and hear her voice. What were the circumstances that left her to settle for such a life?

Lefiya wanted to know. There had to be a reason that she lived a life in obscurity. But to bring that up was most likely crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. Still, I wonder why Bell knows her well enough that she came to save him with the rescue party?

“Lefiya,” Filvis called out to her, drawing her azure eyes to her crimson ones. “I can hear wings beating from above.”

The Half-Elf diverted her senses upwards and could do the same. Multiple wings beating at a frantic pace and snarls as the air hissed. So far they had managed to take them out before they could get airborne, but it seemed some were ready to fly towards the plaza to unleash their hailstones of flame. She had to intercept them. “I’ll take care of the ones above—”

“And I’ll take care of the ones below,” the Elven Magic Swordsman finished with a nod. Then she moved, delving into the dark forest to take care of the rest. They had managed to cover the majority of the forest now, so these should be the few that remained between them.

Lefiya pulled out a magic potion to replenish the expended magical energy as she ran to get ahead of the wings flying above. Her mind that had been gradually growing heavier from the continuous spell casting cleared. Then she began a new song, her melodic voice ringing out in the dark. “Proud warriors, marksmen of the forest. Take up your bows to face the marauders…

There was a tree ahead of her that was moderately larger than the surrounding ones. Its upper limbs reached beyond the blanket of leaves. It would serve as a foothold as she darted up it while continuing her chant. “Answer the call of your kin and nock your arrows. Bring forth the flame, torches of the forest—

As she reached the upmost limb, she steadied herself as she held out Forest’s Teardrop. Her enemies were in sight, flying closer to the plaza. Her magic circle pulsed as particles of reddish Magic drifted upwards with golden light as she built up her magical energy until her body thrummed, the spell primed for release. “Release them, flaming arrows of the fairies. Fall like rain, burn the savages to ash—Fusillade Fallarica!

The particles of flames ignited as they gathered together, weaving into flaming stars that streaked forward towards the airborne units while leaving a gleaming trail behind. Though they were kin to them, wyverns lacked the same ability to simply absorb the flames that Valgang Dragons had on the 58th Floor. And because they were surface-born they were even weaker than those counterparts she had already faced off against—let alone the Wyvern King, which had forced her to use a maximum output Arcs Ray as the two did battle in freefall.

The flaming arrows burst into scarlet explosions. Her Magic immolated the wyverns without mercy, leaving only dust mingled with ash as the mediocre-sized magic stones that gave them life were obliterated in the process. It fell like snow over the expanse, a light coating added to the dark-green hues that would be swept away by the morning wind.

Resting her hand against the narrowed trunk of the tree crowning the immediate surrounding canopy, Lefiya strained her eyes and ears for any more signs of foes to be dealt with. But none were within her senses. She let out a sigh and allowed the tension to bleed out of her body…

ROOOOOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRRRR!!!

Then the night shook as a roar birthed from the maw of something truly menacing rang out. Her balance was nearly compromised, and she was forced to cling to her perch with her free arm as she peered out towards the source of the familiar sound. It was one she had heard on the 58th Floor too many times to count. “I-It can’t be…”

Her fears were unfortunately well-founded as a pair of pinons burst from beyond the edge of the trees into the air, wings unfurling into the sky. A single beat of them rattled the leaves at the edge before the massive body made of corded muscle and covered in red scales brought the monster into view. It was easily ten meters in height, but with its wings spread it cast a deepening shadow as it took flight over the canopy.

Worse, she felt that something about it was wrong. The closest feeling that she could relate it to was an Irregular of some kind. Something above average even for its kin was lurking here on the surface world, drawing closer as an ominous glow slipping from between the rows of fanged teeth. Her heart froze when she realized what was going to happen.

Then fire leapt from its maw in a stream so hot that the air screamed as it came rushing in her direction. Not for her personally, but because she was between the dragon and its target—the Holy Tree. Swallowing her vision, the flames would have consumed her if she hadn’t let go and allowed for gravity to drop her to the floor of the forest even as the flames turned the sky into an image of Hell.

The landing was rough. Not enough to actually harm her, but the discomfort was notable. It was still better than being turned to ash considering her Endurance was nowhere near that of other members of her Familia and so she couldn’t take a hit of that nature head-on and remain whole. “Nhh….”

“Lefiya!” came from some distance away, drawing her eyes to the approaching figure of Filvis. The Elf came to a stop by her side, hovering over her with a hand extended to get her on her feet. “Are you okay?”

“Ah… ah, yes.” Her voice trembled a little as she accepted her hand and rose back up. Then she noticed the smoke filling the air and the burning leaves falling from the sky. The beautiful forest around them was burning down.

There was a rush of air as the Elven Warrior appeared by the both of them. “Are you unharmed, Miss Viridis? Miss Challia?”

“Yes, somehow,” she said. “But where did that Dragon come from?”

“My apologies. I failed to deal with the leader of this band before he unleashed that monster. Apparently, it’s an irregular that they fed other monsters to while keeping it sedated, all so they could unleash it. Then once it got loose it consumed him and took flight.”

Consuming others of its kind for their magic stones, compounding its own power, that Dragon was easily on par with those on the Deep Floors. It should be of a caliber that Lady Riveria could handle on her own, but not while she needed to protect the others. “We need to hurry and get back!”

[-Spirit Village Plaza-]

The village was burning.

Flames were lapping at the wooden homes lovingly carved to endure the ages. The smoke filled the air with its acrid fumes and the crackling of the blaze padded out the despondent cries of the Elves. To those who knew of the burning of their lands by Rakia, what laid before them now was nothing more than history repeating itself.

Riveria could only frown as her barrier flickered. The moment the flames had met with it, she felt it strain and threaten to buckle under the weight of what she could only assume was a Flare Breath. That and the roar from before gave her an idea of what had transpired from her own experiences. It was manageable…

However, the sound of the Spirits screaming foretold of a different problem. Though they may be weak compared to the Great Spirits, their fear, panic, sorrow, anger could manifest in the form of primordial displays of Magic. If the Demi-Spirit, which had enough sapience to weave Magic into spells through song, was directing its power towards a fixated target, then this was simply lashing out at everything around them.

It wasn’t something she could deal with on her own. Eliminating them would be the same thing as if she allowed the flames or the monsters to do so. The only one who could do something would be…

Clack…

A staff clattered to the ground as the Elder Elf observed her home being put to the torch. Its baleful light reflected in her eyes ravenously consumed the hope within as the cries of the Spirits rang out. The rampant flames would consume everything at this rate. “It’s over now… it’s all over now…

“You need to stand, Elder,” the Royal Elf said. “You’re the only one who can quell the Spirits right now. If you don’t then it really will be over.”

The ground shook as the Dragon descended at the edge of the plaza, looking over the rest of the Elves trapped within the protective circle where the ground was scorched black. Its gaze fixed beyond the barrier and onto her. And in recognition of her strength as one who had raised their Level and gotten five steps closer to the divine, it began to step forward.

Having been born on the surface it had no doubt thought it was among the strongest, a fledgling that had grown fat in its secluded dwelling and yet to run into anything that it felt could match it. It wanted to pit itself against that strength to prove itself superior. Everything else was secondary and could be left to its flames as fire pooled in its mouth to unleash another blaze upon them.

High Elves screamed. Many would have likely fled if the flames offered them an avenue to do so. The rampant Spirits calling forth elements would soon be a threat as well.

“…This is what we deserve,” Lady Lilo muttered, defeated with her voice like broken glass. “Those children were in that direction, weren’t they? We sent them off in to defend us without a second word. Instead of having them run away, we sent them off to their deaths. We sacrificed our future for just a few more seconds of life, and now…

Even as the monster took another step forward and the flames began to slip through its opening maw with the intention of incinerating them all, the Nine Hells could only respond with a voice like steel. “…Aren’t you underestimating those girls?”

That was when a shard of the stars fell from the heavens.

Coming down like a hammer of the Gods, a blue comet with a green tail fell from the sky above into the Dragon’s mouth hard enough that its maw that prepared to unleash its flare breath was clamped shut as it was driven to the ground. Intense jets of flames slipped through the gaps in its maw to blacken the earth and leave scorched sand. But they failed to so much as singe a single Elven hair.

It was the Gale. Her wooden blade, carved from a branch of the sacred tree of her home forest that had been smuggled in by Evilus and then reclaimed, was wreathed in a cerulean hue as she held it out. Then she vanished as her form left a streak upon meeting with the Dragon’s head once more, this time knocking it aside before its gaze could shift back to Royal Blood.

“—Arcs Ray!!

—Dios Thyrsos!

And from its rear two voices rang out above the crackling of the flames, heralding a golden beam and lance of lighting. They slammed into the hind of the Dragon, eliciting a roar from the beast that was wracked with pain. And though those scales might have warded off flames, they gave way to the Magic of the Half-Elf Mage and Elven Magic Swordsman.

“Sorry for the delay, Lady Riveria!” Lefiya called as she emerged from the trees with Maenads. “We can handle the Dragon! Please use your Magic to put out the flames in the forest!”

The children…” The Elder Elf’s eyes regained a spark of hope until she saw they had earned the Dragon’s ire. Its claws that could tear down through stone due to its muscle went straight towards the Elven Warrior, while its massive tail lashed out towards the casters who would lack the defense to bear with it. “Hurry and run!”

None of them did. The Elven Warrior moved like the breeze, slipping through its grasp as she retaliated with an upwards strike that forced its sinuous neck to bend. Yellowed, blood-stained fragments of its fangs scattered among the dirt in the process.

The Elven Magic Swordsman placed herself in front of the Half-Elf Mage while the lyrics of a chant escaped both of their lips in harmony. In the darkness gleamed a white mirror, a shield that was erected against the incoming tail that threatened to crush them both. The bulwark rebuked it as the white magic circle was overlapped by a ring of gold before a ray of brilliance was fired once more from the staff at the point where its tail was connected to its body with such speed and force that it penetrated the base before rupturing, tearing it apart from the inside out.

“Despite those children leaving their forests behind and swearing their fealty to different Gods and Goddess while calling Orario their home, they’re still fighting in order to protect this place,” Lady Riveria continued from where she left off as the Dragon staggered, its blood flowing from the missing appendage. “That’s because they still have their pride.”

The words caught her by surprise. “Huh?”

“None of those girls call this forest their home. Yet they are still defending it because they refuse to allow a part of our people to perish because they sat there and did nothing.  Even if I hadn’t given the order to do so, they would have run out to fight because they see our culture as our pride and won’t surrender them—not to the flames, monsters, or the Gods themselves.”

Her words were conjoined with the screech of the Dragon as the Gale continued her relentless assault, going faster and faster. Moving faster than the eyes of a non-Adventurer could track, she unleashed a flurry of strikes with her weapon that slammed into the scales of the Dragon and shattered them. At the same time, rays of light and lightning lanced out towards the pinons of the monster, shredding its wings and denying it the right to flee after treading upon their sacred lands—affording it not even a moment’s rest or opportunity to unleash another sea of flames.

“You lack the strength to face that monster whereas they do not. But you have the knowledge and ability that they lack at this moment. We must all do our part. I will do mine and quench the flames that are consuming our homelands, but if the Holy Tree is incinerated and the Spirits aren’t quelled all will still be lost. What will you do, Elder?”

It was the first and only barb from the Nine Hells directed to the one who held the title of Elder of the Spirit Village. This venerated place held as much weight as royal blood amongst the Elves of the world, where the Spirits congregated. She who had vented her frustration and sorrow about the circumstances of their people could only give one response.

“…Tch, as if I need a royal rapscallion telling me what to do.” Her tiny hands found their way around her staff as she rose back onto her feet and turned the rest of the High Elves. “I will calm the Spirits! All of you, douse the flames around the Holy Tree! Call the earth and sky and rain and ice—prove to the Spirits on this, the night where our bonds are reaffirmed, that by our ancient vow we will not let the lands we share be lost again!”

That’s right. Though there are many parts of our culture I find in need of change, there are those we should take pride in and protect. Holding that thought to her chest, she called out to her apprentice. “Lefiya, I’m beginning. Protect yourselves!”

As the songs of Elves rang out in a choir amidst the flames and the howls of the Dragon, a jade-toned magic circle encompassed them. The workings of the Elven arcane expanded as if by royal decree, conjured wind and ice and water and earth intensified to battle the flames that threatened to consume their home. Such was the effect of her Skill: Alf Regina.

And leading the choir was the song of four Adventurers.

Distant sky above the forest. Limitless stars set into an eternal night. Listen to my feeble voice and grant the protection of starlight—” With Alvs Lumina in her grasp serving as both her sword and wand, the Elven Warrior began her chant to the stars and the wind even as she continued her relentless assault. One could feel the magical power being focused within her weapon with every second and every verse. As she leapt into the air above the Dragon, the light of the stars and kiss of the wind gathered before her upraised sword. “Light of stardust, tear my enemies asunder—Luminous Wind!

An emerald storm fell from above. Sheering wind and searing light weaved together to shower the scaled beast. Relentless and without mercy it carved bloody gouts into the hide of the dragon, ripping through flesh and muscles without mercy as it could do nothing but howl.

Filvis then joined in the performance, her magic circle the color of pure snow her stage as she pointed her wand at that Dragon. “Purge, cleansing lighting! Dio Thyrsos!

From the tip of her wand that served as the focus of her Magic, lightning was unleashed. The bolt pierced through its battered hide, blood and flesh bursting as it exited through its hind and tore apart its legs. Crippled, it collapsed with a crash upon the battered ground, and its blood filled in the divots torn out as well.

And no sooner than the beast had been crippled did the Half-Elf Mage finish connecting the ring of elves and her golden circle matched the hue of royalty. “Materialize, mighty barrier of forest’s light, and lend us your protection—in my name of Alf! Via Shilheim!

The same shimmering barrier that kept the High Elves sheltered was bequeathed to those not of noble birth. Though her power couldn’t match that of the Nine Hells due to both her Level and her Mage Development Ability lacking compared to the original, it was still the strongest defense she could muster. It would be a bulwark as the winter that preluded the end of the world fell upon the forest from its heart.

All from the euphonious song of the Nine Hells’ lips. “Harbinger of the end, white snow. Gust before the twilight. Fading light, freezing land. Blow with the power of the third harsh winter—in my name of Alf! Wynn Fimbulvetr!!

Ice ran from the magic circle at the decree. An unyielding, merciless frost that spread with even greater ferocity than wildfire swallowed the land, snuffed the flames, and blanketed the charred and verdant alike. Even the Dragon that presumed it surpassed their pride and bonds with the Spirits until the very moment it had been brought low was shrouded in the unforgiving rime from the inside out.

Winter’s chill robbed all sound and motion until there was nothing but the cold.

Phew…” Letting out a sigh that birthed a plume of fog from the drop in the temperature, Riveria called out to a dome opposite the corpse of the Dragon. “Are you girls all right?”

We’re safe, Lady Riveria,” was the muted reply of her student before the front of the ice dome exploded outwards from a swing of the Gale’s weapon. The soft crunching of ice rang out as the girls emerged one-by-one, taking in the scope of it. “Ahh… you managed to spread it all the way throughout the forest?”

“I kept the base power to its minimum but expanded the range to encompass the Spirit Forest,” she said. That was one of the perks of her Mage Developmental Ability, allowing for both passive and active increase in the spell’s range provided one had the Mind to compensate for the difference and experience to make the adjustment so precisely. “By morning it’ll begin to thaw.”

“And the Spirits?” asked Maenads.

She turned to see the diminutive Elder at work, her staff aglow as she focused her magical energy to weave not spells but words and soothe their fears. Their motions had become docile compared to before. “They seemed to have calmed down. Now all that’s left is the Holy Tree.”

They had prevented it from being turned into cinders, but the damage was extensive. Its former glory was a thing of the past, a charred husk of what it once was. The tree that represented their bond to the Spirits, the pride of their village would be forever marred… that is, if it were an ordinary tree.

“What are you whelps waiting for!?” Lady Lilo called out as she guided the other High Elves into a ring around the tree. “We need to supply the Holy Tree with magic power! Nine Hells, this is the reason you came here so you can supply the Mind for it!”

“As you wish, Elder,” Riveria said, walking over to join the circle that had formed. With her apprentice on one end and the small grasp of the Elder Elf in the other, she allowed her Magic to flow. The ring accumulated it all as in an ancient prayer they called for a miracle.

And the Spirits stirred from their docile nature to join in with a dance. For what they responded to in the age’s past were their earnest emotions and desire to live and see their traditions passed on. Those were the first origins of Magic for the Elves.

It was why their chants were songs.

The tree mended itself as the songs of the Elves resonated with the dance of the Spirits. The charred bark was replaced with a healthy covering, greenery sprouting where it had been blackened and burned away. The magic power overflowed as every branch of the tree bustled with ripe, red fruits.

“A bounty of Spirit Nuts,” one of the High Elves said. “More than in the last 90 years!”

As the cheers rang out, the Royal Elf parted from the circle to allow them their pleasure. Her mind was slightly ringing between maintaining the barrier, the expansive spell, and then helping to restore the tree to glory. So enraptured by the sight, even her most enthusiastic supplicants had forgotten her along with the terror from moments before.

“You have my thanks, Your Highness,” Lady Lilo said as she approached with staff in hand, taking a position next to her. She calmly looked over the reborn tree as she continued to speak. “No amount of pride would have saved us from a creature like that. However, no mere bandit or brigands would bring such a thing to attack a place they intended to pillage.”

“No,” Riveria agreed. There would be no need to bring something like that if they intended to simply pillage the Spirit Forest. Someone had attempted to just kill every High Elf and burn down the Spirit Forest by unleashing a creature like this. “And considering the location of this forest has been concealed for centuries without being found before, there’s only one conclusion I can draw…”

One of our own betrayed us,” the Elder Elf finished in a small, bitter voice as her throat went taut. One could almost hear how it pained her to admit so. “Surrendering one of our most sacred secrets to exterminate us and the anger the Spirits at the same time. We would never recover from that.”

“Were there any of the families that normally attended absent this year?”

“The numbers had been going down every thirty years for various reasons, but there were a few who couldn’t make it and sent the message ahead of time…” Her teal-eyes closed as her grip on her staff tightened. “Stay the night so the others will feel safer that way. I’ll investigate which one of them did this after we see everyone home tomorrow and see justice done.”

They had salvaged their home for the night. But now that the secrecy of the Spirit Forest was compromised, they would have to steel themselves from now on. And she couldn’t provide them with protection as her duties as a member of the Loki Familia would scarcely bring her back here. “…My apologies for placing another burden on your shoulders.”

“This place is a treasure of the Elves, so no one should complain if we pull from every forest and defend it ourselves.” Her eyes opened once more and settled onto the Half-Elf Mage staring up at the tree now bursting with crystallization of the Spirit’s blessing. “Your Highness… if you meant a single word that you said earlier, do not let those children die in that Abyss.”

“I have no intention of letting that happen, Elder,” the Royal Elf stated with sincerity. “They are our future, after all.”

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.

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