Chapter 14: Last Preparation
“Argo and I were allowed to stay in the village barn provided we helped out. As I expected, he was not very good at manual labor. I ended up having to apologize for a lot of his mistakes and then spent so long fixing them so that others would not get mad. But I was never really upset since it gave me a chance to learn from the others around us.
Still, every night I watched the other children return to their families, I was reminded of everything that I had lost. It was almost enough to bring me to tears. But Argo would always be there to cheer me up, even when he had lost his own family too. We were the same, but he kept his tears hidden while wearing a smile.
I was happy, but I was also a little sad. And I could not help but wonder if that was what it was like to have an older brother looking after you. That was probably when I started calling him my beloved brother.”
—The Lonely Nights
“I want you to join the War Game to assist the Hestia Familia.”
There had been many things that Lefiya pondered when she had been asked to attend to Lord Hermes that morning. The God of Travel had sent one of his children to request her presence once she finally left the Twilight Manor and she had no reason to refuse at the time. However, the Half-Elf had to concede that she had not expected that to be his request.
She spent the last day convalescing from the worst of the backlash of Mind Collapse. Normally, it would take her around three days to fully recover the full expenditure of Mind, which spoke of just how much Argonaut took out of her due to how it interacted with her Mage Development Ability. She was functional after a day, but she still felt fatigued and suffered headaches.
Lady Riveria thought it would serve as a learning experience after Lefiya gave her an explanation of what happened. By which she had to tell a little fib that it was due to testing the full scope of her Magic while assisting Tiona on a quick dive into the Dungeon. Since Tiona had to earn a lot of valis to pay off her own loan, it was more believable that it was done with her egging Lefiya on to push past her limits and possibly coax her into learning Spirit Healing once she reached the S-Rank in Magic and finally accepted the Level Up she was holding off on.
The Spirit Healing Development Ability was only known to Miss Aiz and Lady Riveria to this date. It allowed for the regeneration of Mind, effectively removing the need for Magic Potions so long as they had enough time. It was natural to assume that it was due to the constant expenditure of Mind over their careers the Falna determined that would be best for them to have so they could keep using Magic.
Lady Riveria had rightfully scolded her for that line of thinking. It was careless and reckless, a result of the same impatience that Miss Aiz had in achieving her Level Up. So part of her punishment was not only additional lessons going forward with Lady Riveria and Alicia, but she had to also pay off the loan needed to get Forest’s Teardrop repaired.
She really would be going on a mini-expedition with the Amazonian when all of this was said and done.
With her punishment set, she had spent the rest of yesterday in the Archives looking up the story of Argonaut. There had to be some collaboration between the fact that their Skills were named after the main protagonist of the tale and their homeland. Yet, when she read through the story, she found that there were a number of differences just from what little she knew from the memoirs she was still going through.
For starters, in the common tale it seemed that Fina was treated as a full-blooded Elf rather than a Half-Elf. Though the explanation for that one Lefiya could already hazard a guess. Half-breeds were persecuted and looked down upon in the Age of Heroes even more than now, a mingling of the races that was never meant to be. Whoever penned the original story likely changed it so to align with the cultural values of the age, instead changing the sibling relationship from their youth into something of life debt—which was why the Elf put up with the fool that was Argonaut.
To get a more accurate view of the story she would likely need to finish the memoirs and compare it to other variations. Tiona had apparently collected different editions of them whenever she could, which made sense given the Amazonian had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of different fairy tales. Bell was much the same, although the blasphemy of even implying the High Elf Queen Celdia may have had a relationship with a Human was enough to get the other Elves a little hot under the collar on the 18th Floor.
Of course, they had apologized once they remembered that Lefiya had been in the room, but she understood why they had reacted that way. Royal Elves were to be revered amongst their collective races, whether they were Half-Elf or Full Elf. For her part, even Lefiya was upset—albeit her reasoning was the embarrassment of him getting the story wrong due to whatever his grandfather told him.
One day, when all of this was over, she would share with him some of the tales of her people. Tiona too since she liked those kinds of stories so much. They could probably appreciate them despite not being Elves.
The member of the Hermes Familia who had been sent to retrieve her was the Chienthrope, Lulune. She had recognized her lean but adventurously toned body and tanned skin when she stuck her arm out of an alleyway and beckoned her forward. They had exchanged enough pleasantries since they met on the 18th Floor and accompanied the remainder of her Familia back from the 24th Floor, with the Half-Elf finding her somewhat like Tiona in that she was easy to get along with.
Lulune had brought her to a small, secluded bar that was empty at this time of the day. The wooden décor was dimly lit, adding a hint of secrecy to the atmosphere as she found the God of Travel sitting at one of the tables closer to the wall. The three of them then shared the table as Lord Hermes made his request.
“Correct,” Hermes said, confirming she had not been hearing things. “I would have you take the second slot of the two freelancers that were allowed by the finalization of the terms of the War Game.”
The War Game’s format had been determined to be a Castle Siege, meaning one Familia would attempt to secure a fortified stronghold by defeating the leader of the opposing Familia within three days. However, the invading side would be defeated if their Familia’s Captain was captured, or they didn’t succeed before the time elapsed. Bell, being the only member of the Hestia Familia, was by default the Captain—meaning it was essentially him going against everyone else in the Apollo Familia.
The words ‘one-sided’ did not even begin to describe the sheer unfairness of it.
The only way that Bell remotely had a chance on his own would be if he somehow snuck past every member of the Apollo Familia and engaged Hyacinthus in a duel. Something which they had no reason to allow for considering their whole purpose was to capture him. Even if they did, it had only been a few days since the beating he had gotten—her brother stood next to no chance of winning on his own and everyone knew it.
Lefiya assumed that was why Hermes wanted her involved. Magic was one of the few methods of being able to turn the tide of a completely one-sided fight. And in particular, her spells were well-suited for raining down destruction. Three days would be more than enough for her to turn that castle into rubble, and everyone aware of the fact that she had helped Bell before would have factored that in.
“But no members of other Familia within Orario are allowed to participate,” Lefiya pointed out. It was meant to be a means of hamstringing Bell’s side since most Familia outside of Orario rarely had members above Level Two—barring exceptions like the Kali Familia. That way he couldn’t bring in any help strong enough to completely decimate the Apollo Familia.
“I originally wanted a total of ten at the very least, but even with Freya being surprisingly helpful we could only get two people,” Hermes admitted. “Even getting a second freelancer was a challenge to make things just a little fairer…unless you’re willing to undergo a Conversion?”
Lefiya shook her head. That was not an option.
“Then that just leaves a slight bend in the rules,” he settled on before looking over to Lulune. The Chienthrope pulled out a small box from the pocket of her short jacket. “Are you familiar with a certain Elven Waitress named Ryuu Lyon?”
The Half-Elf quirked her head at that before she caught on. “She’s the other freelancer?”
“It took some convincing, but she has agreed to assist Bell provided her identity be concealed from the general public. That’s why I had Asfi make this little trinket.” Said trinket was a pendant with some kind of gemstone that seemed to refract the light into kaleidoscopic hues when gazed into. The moment Lord Hermes touched the surface of the pendant his appearance shifted into that of a different person she did not recognize.
“Asfi was inspired by one of Bell’s little friends and created a pair of these,” he continued, in a voice that wasn’t his own. “They won’t hold up under physical inspection, but visually no one will be able to tell if you were to disguise yourself with it. Add to that the fact that your Falna is locked, no one would be the wiser if you claimed to be otherwise with some forged documents.”
She was more interested in the magical tool from a purely academic standpoint, even as she asked, “If that’s the case, why not use that with one of your own Familia members then?”
“I would have, but it seems that we’ve received a Quest that needs to be addressed immediately,” admitted the God of Travel shamelessly. The fact that it would be the equivalent of cheating did not elude her. However, even though it may have just been her sense of obligation as Bell’s sister, Apollo’s children had attacked her brother unfairly to pressure him into joining them.
They would be getting exactly what they deserved. “The trip, even with some additional measures to speed things up, will take us out of Orario until at least the Holy Moon Festival. Therefore, most of my Familia will be out of the city and I am pressed for time enough that I can’t sort out who I can trust since Apollo’s pockets run rather deep.”
In other words, he needed someone who would not be bribed or removed by the Apollo Familia ahead of time to sabotage Bell. It would not be necessary considering the sheer manpower they had at their disposal, but there was no reason to not exploit it as well to prevent any unexpected assistance since the participants would be known ahead of time. The best choice was someone who would be loyal to Bell personally and could stay hidden until then—essentially her.
Even so, there was still one problem that needed to be addressed. “My spells are well known enough that anyone who heard or saw them would identify me, disguised or not. It would invalidate the War Game.”
“I suppose it’s a good thing you have more than your Falna spells to rely on, isn’t it?”
As her azure eyes stared into the seemingly innocent face of the God of Travels who said something that should be outrageous so casually, she felt his smile sending ice crawling along her back. He had phrased it as a question, but it was a fact that he knew. And there was only a handful of ways that he could know about that.
“The moment I heard the commotion, I had Asfi search for Bell and Hestia while staying hidden under one of her artifacts to get them to safety if possible,” Hermes began, as if reading her mind. “However, you arrived before she did and so she decided to remain hidden until she deemed it was necessary to get involved. She also overheard your request that it be kept a secret to Hestia and Bell, if that was your concern.”
It had to have been after she rescued Bell. She had thought she had checked to make sure none of the Apollo Familia had been around. But someone had seen her and now that had been turned against her.
“I’m certain you have your reasons for keeping it hidden from your Familia,” he continued, with words that were as sweetly venomous as honey harvested from poisonous flowers. “Whether you refuse or not, you have my word that your secret will be safe with us. After all, it’s understandable you’d want to keep your relationship a secret considering how Loki and Hestia—”
“I do not like Bell in that way!” The Half-Elf ended up slamming her hands on the table at that rumor resurfacing yet again. Since mortals could not lie to Gods, she wanted to make it perfectly clear that her relationship with him was not romantic. “Not now! Not ever!”
“All right, all right,” he said with his features becoming apologetic before he smoothly transitioned into his question. “But we really are pressed for time, and we can make it worth your while once we get back.”
She sighed, letting all the tension leave her body before bringing her hand to the little crystal trinket and running her finger over it. Hermes already knew about her Spirit Magic and the odds were against Bell as things stood. At least, if she was using an alias, then she could help Bell now and explain it away to her Familia as having been inspired by the match or something similar later. “…What do you have in mind for this alias, exactly?”
“We can say that you’re an Elf belonging to the Astraea Familia, having come to the city to petition my Familia for assistance and are aiding Bell on my behalf,” he said. “You can confirm the details with Miss Lyon, and I’ve already arranged for a tailor and a crafter to take both your specifications for any equipment you might need to hide your identity—all of which will be yours to keep. Is there a particular name to use on the documentation?”
Lefiya thought about it before deciding if she was going to play the part of an Elf using Ancient Magic she may as well go all in. “Feena. F-e-e-n-a.”
His smile was felt sickeningly sweet. “Very well. I will submit the documentation and Lulune will take you to get everything you might need now. She will also facilitate getting you to the location of the War Game when the time come and anything else in-between.”
“Thanks for helping us,” Lulune said as she rose to her feet while her tail wagged. “The truth is we also kind of have a wager on him for the War Game. We just need a little help tipping the scales, and we figured you wouldn’t mind since the two of you are—”
Azure eyes narrowed, as if daring her to finish that statement.
She quickly held up her arms in surrender. “Good friends?”
“And nothing more,” Lefiya insisted as she followed her out, pendant in hand. There were so many ways that things could go wrong with all of this between the hiding and the deception. But the one thing the Half-Elf could not do was nothing.
She had sworn she would never abandon Bell again and meant every word of it.
The Apollo Manor was astir as the members of the Familia bustled around in preparation for the upcoming War Game. More than one hundred men and women of different races moved around like worker bees, buzzing through the hallways of the manor like it was a hive. They had known about their Lord’s intention and thus had prepared for the number of different formats the War Game could have taken and so they had already begun to prepare for the Castle Siege.
However, none were being more prudent in their duty than the Captain of the Apollo Familia itself—Hyacinthus. “There are only four Castles within the vicinity of Orario that could serve for the purposes of the War Game. Have Phia contact the stonemasons and have them send men to survey the conditions of each of them for assessments on the foundations and any potential breaches that will need to be reinforced. Have Alto check our armory and ensure that anything that needs to be repaired or replaced is accounted for so we can have the blacksmiths begin work now. Ensure that Iapyx prepares enough Potions and Magic Potions. Have Gryne, Lissos, and Daphne put their divisions through combat drills again—take into account potential Tamers and Mages that specialize in wide area suppression.”
“Is all of this really necessary?” asked Luan as he memorized the orders and which parties they would have to be relegated to. Phia handled their contacts with vendors that normally handled things such as repairs to the manor, while Alto would be the one who frequently kept track of the inventory due to the studious nature of Elves. Gryne was an Amazon and thus preferred combat due to her culture and nature, while Lissos was the leader of their Mage Division, and Daphne’s unit specialized in skirmishes. Iapyx was their in-house Medic with the Mixing Development Ability, though Cassandra was easily their most accomplished Healer due to her spell covering such a wide area—even if she was a little loopy in the head.
Blue eyes shifted from the documentation nestled upon the marble desk towards the small stature of the Pallum in front of him. “We will not be taking any chances after the fiasco that had happened before, even if it’s to capture a single rabbit. In addition, any supplies we do not use can be saved for our next planned expedition into the Dungeon while repairing the castle fortifications provides the stonemasons with additional income, restores landmarks that hold some cultural significance to Orario, and should the need to use the castle for another War Game arise then they would benefit from our efforts, which should earn back some of the goodwill expended due to the damage sustained by the chase.”
Apollo had considered the task a success in that it encouraged the War Game to be undertaken. His reasoning for believing so was that due to the nature of the divinities they sought amusement, and so by providing it he could earn their favor more easily. Favors such as that were among why their Familia could flourish as much as they had considering their state.
But Hyacinthus considered it a failure. Had they captured the Goddess and the Rabbit then the damages could have been kept to a minimum. The destruction of that ruined church was planned to both demonstrate that an offense against their Familia such as the Bar would not be overlooked and to rob the two of places to return, cornering them into surrendering. It was meant to send a message as well as obtain what Apollo desired, with the Soma Familia being a precaution as well to divert some of the attention away from them—their reputation was already in the trash.
Yet, the Little Rabbit refused to submit. Not only had they needed to chase their quarry for far longer than reasonable, which expanded the damages and forced them to have some of the Soma Familia close the net, but they were met with opposition from not only Familia so small that they were obscure but even the Loki Familia. They were being mocked from up high and down low, it seemed.
That he could not overlook. “Go, Luan.”
“Sir!” The response was met with confirmation and then departure as the Pallum went about relaying his orders.
Once the door clicked shut, Hyacinthus breathed out a soft sigh as he leaned back in his chair and stared up at the magic-stone chandelier that hung on the ceiling of his room. The ticking of a clock lingered in the air as he peered up at the crystalline display, its light refracting against the surface. “I thought that I had always prepared myself for the possibility of it happening… and yet I am already being replaced…”
‘Do not fall in love with the immortal, for your love will only end in tragedy.’
Those were words he had been told by his predecessor, the former Captain of the Apollo Familia, Marpessa. The warning had been issued shortly before she departed from the Familia, upon his taking of her position. Though he had never been particularly close to her, her warning had been not out of ill-reception but because she recognized the depths of his passion for their God.
Hyacinthus Clio alias was Phoebus Apollo, as the one who was the beloved by the sun. That title had been bequeathed upon him for being the shining ray of the Familia, a title that Apollo had swayed into officially being bestowed upon him. It was in recognition that his efforts had been what allowed them to ascend to the D-Rank that many other Familia could never hope to breech.
As an Exploration-Type Familia, the Apollo Familia was one of those who frequented the Dungeon. They did not have the prestige of the Loki Familia, nor the sheer strength of their members. To achieve such a level was nigh impossible due to the particular tastes of their God, as those whose appearances would sate his appetite were scarcely the most competent.
Luan was the primary example of that. He was among the newest within their ranks and the least capable of their members due to the fact that before he had been brought in, he had been nothing. Apollo spied him one day and extended to him his generous hand, despite his lack of any meaningful talent. And then he told Hyacinthus to find a place for him within their Familia.
The captain naturally obeyed, though that was by no means easy. He was a coward, fearing for his safety yet clinging to the lavish lifestyle afforded by their patron. Thus, he was more suited to the role of a messenger or whatever other odd jobs that Hyacinthus determined best suited him.
There were exceptions, of course. For all her resistance, Daphne Lauros had proven herself a capable Commander given she had fought them every step of the way. Her induction had been the most arduous prior to the Little Rabbit, and yet for all of her resistance when presented with a better lifestyle than she and her companion had prior she had still fallen in line and proved her worth.
Cassandra was grating. Her mind was simply not there at times. But he would never once call into question her talent for Healing Magic. Both had proven to be valuable assets that allowed them to bring down the Goliath that aided in their ascension to their current rank.
He suspected that the Little Rabbit would be the same. His Lord always was interested in the current trends and new Record Holder who also possessed such an innocent appearance would naturally catch his eye. The moment he laid eyes on the boy from a photo he wanted him to the extent that nothing world stop him.
Such was Apollo’s love that it was akin to the sun. It could be overbearing as it bore down on you, relentlessly chasing you down as its rays touched every speck of land beneath it. But its warmth left one to flourish as once they basked in it and the true talent one possessed could be brought into the light.
And it would be Hyacinthus’ job to determine his use once he was in the Familia.
The boy was attractive with his innocent features, reminding him of an Almiraj. Befittingly, raw speed was clearly his forte rather than tactics. His Magic was not powerful, but it was fast and accurate enough that it was suitable for the role of someone in a skirmisher position not unlike Daphne.
Of course, he needed to be humbled. He needed to be broken down and shown that for all his abnormal growth and ability, he still lacked for many things. He needed to be put into his place and domesticated until he came to realize that a gilded cage was still better than the squalor he had been living in before.
And yet, the look in Apollo’s eyes when he cast his gaze upon the Little Rabbit had been smoldering with the flames of passion. A wild and uncontrolled flame that Hyacinthus had not seen in such a long time. The beloved of the sun could not help but to believe as though he was being asked to bring in his replacement.
Had his Lord started to grow tired of him? Was it his age? Was he not spending enough time with him? Was it something he lacked?
His questions would have no answers if he did not bring them to light. And yet he, who had faced off against the Goliath, was too afraid to ask. Because the truth that was more painful to consider was perhaps Apollo no longer bore for him the same passion that he held.
“I suppose I was selfish for thinking otherwise,” the Captain of the Apollo Familia mused to himself while touching his lips, recalling a memory that kindled a warmth in his heart. To devote one’s loyalty to their God in exchange for their grace was the norm for a Familia. Was he hoping that dedicating his heart and soul along with it would ensure that he would be the one those flames of passion enveloped?
…It did not matter. He had his orders. The Little Rabbit would be brought in, and any opposition would be crushed. Such was the will of their God, and it was his duty to carry it out. To love was to wish for one’s happiness.
Even if that did not include him.
That in mind, he shelved his own personal feelings aside to keep to his role. He would be the keystone of the War Game. Even if the castle crumbled and the others fell, so long as he stood it would be their victory. To that end he needed to have his sword refined and his battle armor tailored for the War Game.
The Little Rabbit on his own would not be a threat. But Hyacinthus would not underestimate him or the others that could be brought to bear against them. He would not be covered in the shame of failure a second time.
Not when Lord Apollo would be among all the Gods watching.