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Archive for August 15, 2021

Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 18 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 18: The Sun Sets

“Leaving the village with no destination in mind, I felt a little afraid. It had become like the home that I shared before with Mother and Father, four walls that made up my world. It honestly felt like I was that little girl who was still terrified of everything two years ago.

And perhaps that was true, given that I came because I was terrified of losing Argo. But because he was with me. Because he was not just the boy who rescued me, but my beloved brother, tears were nowhere to be found as he took my hand once more. We weren’t two children running to escape monsters as our home burned.

We were siblings who were off on an adventure where the wind would take us. Even though it sounded silly at the time, I was happy that we weren’t going to be separated. I wanted us to be together for as long as we could.

I still feel that same way to this day, Argo.

—To Adventure, Hand-in-Hand

[-|-|-|-]

Take it and heal yourself.

Those were Bell’s first words to Lefiya as he held her close, staring at the gash in her abdomen. His fingers that were shining softly with the light of Argonaut hovered over it. The deep crimson hue of her wound had seeped out enough that it clung to his glove settled on her corset.

Lefiya shook her head at that. According to the plan he had spent a minute charging that at the very least. It was the key to his victory, so for him to give it up now was to basically surrender the match. “It’s not that deep, and you need that to—

Please,” Bell insisted. His ruby eyes had softened to the point of almost begging her. The tone of his voice was laden with guilt and desperation, so poignant that she felt it through their connection. It was the same feeling she had when she called out to him upon seeing him fall that day on the 18th Floor.

That was why her hands moved over his almost reflexively in response to his wish.

The light transferred.

“I thought I would need to take hostages to lure you out of your rabbit hole but to think you were foolish enough to take to the field yourself.”

The hushed whispers between them came to an end when Hyacinthus landed at the base of the Western Outer Curtain Wall. He took the time to flick the blade that still had Lefiya’s blood on it, leaving the loose scarlet to spatter over the stone as Welf Crozzo came into view with the disguised Pallum. Lefiya could tell from his eyes he was assessing what to do next.

An injured Level Three Mage. Three Level Twos, one of whom was still injured. And a presumed Level One with Luan, whom his eyes lingered on for a moment longer as they assisted the forementioned Mikoto.

“Hyacinthus Clio…” Bell called as he handed Lefiya off to Welf, whose arms were nowhere near as comfortable. Then he stepped forward and drew his adamantite daggers. “As the Captain of the Hestia Familia, I challenge you, as the Captain of the Apollo Famila, to a duel.”

“…Is your pride so damaged that you’ll risk everything to salve it?” his opponent asked in an insultingly exasperated manner that kindled a spark of anger in Lefiya’s chest. “Sabotage. Crozzo Magic Swords. Adventurers at least on par with a Mid-tier Level Three. You’ve been handed every advantage possible to have a chance to obtain victory, and yet you are choosing to throw all of that away by trying to face against me on your own?”

“…I’d be lying if I said that part of it wasn’t for the sake of my pride,” Bell admitted to the accusation. It was natural. He had been trampled and humiliated, beaten down not once but twice by the man in front of him. “But… it was you… wasn’t it?”

Lefiya watched as Bell leaned forward at that, putting his weight into his forward leg. Then in a single moment where she had blinked… it happened.

The ringing of metal scraping metal.

The crushing of stone underfoot.

The bloom of sparks.

In the single moment where her concentration lapsed Bell had devoured the distance between himself and his opponent. The longer of his two knives, forged from the horn of the Minotaur that was the manifestation of his ascendance to Level Two, was pressed against the flat of the Sun’s Flamberge. Battle-honed reflexes were the only thing that stopped the razor-sharp blade from completing its arc and biting into his breastplate as Hyacinthus braced the blade with the forearm-guard of his off hand.

The handsome visage of the Captain of the Apollo Familia had warped into a certain expression. Lefiya recognized it. How could she not when she wore the same one?

It was a mesh of surprise and confusion, born of witnessing what should have been impossible right in front of them.

Bell displayed his speed before them both in the most desperate of times. He had been left thoroughly and utterly beaten before both of their eyes. It had been only a little more than a week since then and even knowing he must have been in training…

He had moved at a speed that shattered their expectations entirely.

“You were the one who ordered the home of a Goddess who had so little, and still accepted me even when every other Familia rejected me… the home we shared as a family, burned to the ground just to take me from her, weren’t you?” They could hear it in his tone the driving factor and determination for standing here and now, his reason for fighting. “That’s why I have to be the one to defeat you.”

The moment of shock passed. Hyacinthus exerted his Strength into his sword and knocked aside Bell’s weapon. Then, in less than the span of a blink, the sword came back around. A scarlet streak cleaved through the space where the Little Rookie had been only to slice through empty air.

Bell had already exited his threat range and was now several meders away.

Lefiya’s head went blank in confusion as the ping coming from the dancing lights in her hand chimed. She had acclimatized herself to his base speed while helping him train. Yet if she had not been focusing her undivided attention onto him at that moment, something she only did when facing against a fellow Second-Class adventurer or above, she would have lost track of him entirely.

The only explanation was…

Record Holder,” Hyacinthus uttered, his grasp on his blade tightening as he asked the question that entered the minds of every single adventurer and divine alike that was watching through the Divine Mirrors. “Have you Leveled up again?”

That was the only thing that Lefiya could think to be true. Bell had somehow done the impossible and claimed that title once over. He had to have ascended to the same Level as they had to move that quickly.

Bell’s answer was straightforward. “I haven’t.”

If it had been anyone else, it would have been impossible to believe such a blatant lie. But to the Gods and Goddesses watching, to whom the children could not lie… to those who knew him and how straightforward and sincere he was…

It was the truth.

Her brother had only recently reached Level Two. So logically it should be impossible for him to ascend to the next one so quickly unless he accumulated enough excelia and performed a feat so grand that it merited his ascension to Level Three. At least not in the week and few days between their last encounters.

But there were only three more alternatives to explain the shift in his speed.

The first was that Magic was used to raise his Agility. Lefiya knew for a fact that Bell possessed such a spell and the plan had been to use it to overwhelm Hyacinthus and defeat him by combining it with Argonaut. But he had uttered no such chant and none of their senses that could detect magical energy went off.

The second was that he possessed a Skill that raised his Agility under circumstances. Such things did exist, even if not commonplace. Hyacinthus knew for a fact that Daphne possessed one such Skill herself, so it was natural he would make that estimation.

The third was nearly as absurd as if he had Leveled once more. For him to have been moving that fast with neither a Skill nor Magic, he would have had to accumulate enough ability points as a Level One and Level Two in his Agility to rival that of at least a Level Three adventurer. That would mean he had to have at least hit S-rank once and possibly B-rank in the other—minimum.

And that was impossible in the short time he had been in Orario.

“…I see,” Hyacinthus said, eyes narrowed upon the white-haired boy in a fighting stance. “Fine. I accept your terms.”

That was when Daphne regained her voice. “But what about the—”

“Deal with the others,” he ordered without allowing his gaze to leave his opponent. It was a judgment call made considering new information, which spoke of the disparity in their abilities at this point. He leveled the sword towards Bell. “Come then, Little Rabbit.”

Then there were no more words.

Only the sounds of weapons crashing.

The Captains of the two Familia entered a world of their own.

[-Top Floor of Babel-]

“Shoot, was he that kid one of my guys told me about?”

“Well, if I had known he was going to turn out this way I would have said yes!”

“I can’t even see the fight at this point!”

Within the theatron a ripple of envy surged throughout the ranks of the various deities watching through their Divine Mirrors at Bell’s declaration. Those who descend for amusement naturally sought what was not within their possession. The fact that a rare gem had been tossed away like a common pebble naturally caused them to comb over their recollection to figure out if he had been one of the many hopeful kids who tried to join an established Familia only to be turned away by them.

Joining and starting a Familia in Orario was a nightmare, as both Hestia and Bell had the opportunity to discover.

For Hestia, there were simply too many already here that could bestow their blessing and the children wanted to join an established Familia for fortune, fame, safety, and security. Like Loki had told her when she had first descended, the easiest solution would have been to start a Familia outside of the city and then relocate within it. Outside of Orario more children were looking for a Falna so they could obtain the strength to defend their homes, rather than anything else.

For Bell, there were too many people who could take his place and were more qualified. He lived in a mountain village in the countryside tending to a farm, meaning that his only skill would be there. And while Demeter would love to have him no doubt, that was not the path Bell wanted to walk. He had been chasing the dream of being a hero and reuniting with his family but had nothing to offer other than a sincere desire to work towards it—which meant next to nothing to most of the deities present.

Even now her peers attempting to recall whether Bell had been someone their Familia turned away was not because they cared about his circumstances. Most of them did not even bother to reject him in person but let their children do so. It was because they sincerely hoped they weren’t the ones who risked losing a child who had gained such a reputation.

If they had only seen the eyes of that lonely boy who she had watched be rejected time and again…

His hopes of obtaining the strength to have a chance at accomplishing his dream…

His desire to have a family by both blood and bond…

Then they would never attempt to split them apart like Apollo. They would never revel at the thought of a War Game meant to split a family. They may have come to the Lower World for a vacation, but that didn’t mean they should have forgotten their role in guiding the children.

It’s this city, Hestia couldn’t help but think to herself. She understood why they were so eager to enjoy its wonders, given she had fallen prey to that same desire and wasted so much of her time after descending to the pleasant distractions. Even knowing that her time was limited.

She owed so much to Hephaestus. If the Goddess of the Forge hadn’t asked her if she really wanted to spend the time she had left lazing around, rather than experiencing what it really meant to start a Familia, then she would be no different. And the boy who would have become her first child would…

Hestia didn’t want to think about it.

“So he found the place he could shine after all,” a wizened voice said over the chittering of the others, lacking the envy but instead containing rough sincerity. Hestia looked over to see the God of Smithing, Goibnui.

“You turned Bell away as well?” she asked.

“I did after hearing him out,” he answered bluntly and without shame in comparison to the others. “I informed him that he needed a Familia that would bring out the best in him and that mine was not for him. He would never be where he is now if I had simply accepted him when he was looking for anyone.”

There was no hesitation or uncertainty in his words. He had not rejected Bell because he had more smiths than possible, but because accepting him would deny him the chance to find a suitable place and not benefit either of them. But he had remembered his role as a God and guided him before parting ways with words of wisdom.

Those words stuck with him.

“…Your Familia also does renovations, doesn’t it?” Hestia asked him after some thought, to which he nodded. “I may have a job for you after this is over.”

The Hearth and Home were one and the same after all.

And her Familia would have one after this.

Nn…” A strained grunt slipped out from Hephaestus, drawing Hestia’s gaze back towards her Divine Mirror. The moment the Captains of the two Familia began their match, the remaining commander had opted to cast a spell upon herself and follow orders. As Welf was the only one in prime fighting condition, he stepped in to confront her with his greatsword in hand.

The most she could see were flashes of silver.

Daphne’s Agility had clearly been boosted by her spell. That, combined with her greater parameters than Welf, meant that he was on the defensive against her onslaught of attacks. As a result, he was using a half-swording technique to better control the flat of the blade to hold off the worst of the assault, spots of crimson spilling from the black clothes he wore.

That was when Hestia noticed the secondary reason he was on the defensive, as Loki’s child made her way over to where Mikoto was along with Lili. Her wound hadn’t been healed, even though Bell had given her the light of Argonaut to do so. Instead, she crouched down and held that shining hand over Mikoto before the lilt of foreign words escaped from her mouth.

That same shimmering veil that had treated Bell’s wounds enough to where Potions could get him back up to fighting fitness encapsulated her in its entirely. The bruises and injuries she suffered melted away in their entirety and, as if she was filled with vitality, her eyes snapped open and she got back onto her feet.

The moment Lili handed her a blade she shot forward. Using Welf’s broad body as a blind spot to slip into the fray, she delivered a rising diagonal slash that ran from the commander’s hip-to-shoulder. It was only stopped from drawing blood by the fact that her shroud seemed to cushion the slash.

“Why you—” Daphne’s weapon came around as a silver streak, the sharpened edge threatening to catch her if Mikoto hadn’t rolled to get around to her back. But the moment she turned her head, Welf’s sword descended. A blade meant to use its weight to carry it through with the strength of a Level Two adventurer came crashing down hard enough that it bit into the stone floor of the Inner Ward as Daphne hastily avoided it by pivoting on her heel at the last moment.

“I’m not done yet!” Welf claimed as he angled the blade and twisted his hips to follow through, a cleave meant to cut through at the hip. Even with that shroud of hers, it would at least bite deep into her abdomen from the amount of muscle he was putting into it and the weight of the blade.

Daphne prepared to bound backward to escape it while bringing her own blade around. Evasion and a riposte all in one. However, that was cut short as Mikoto’s leg extended outwards and she hooked Daphne’s foot with her own. That which was meant to be the lead-in for an escape was turned into a stumble as the dark steel drew a gray arch and found her center of mass.

The result was that she was sent flying, her body cutting through the air until she slammed into a column and bounced off it. Her battle clothes sported a new gash and bruised flesh could be seen beneath it. She winced before swiftly twisting her body and using it for cover to escape as a flash of steel from Mikoto’s blade cleaved into the stone surface.

That’s the way,” Takemikazuchi muttered. “Read their movements. Anticipate their next action. Create an opening if there isn’t one for your allies.”

Mikoto might be a fresher Level Two along with Welf, but she had the training of a War God under her belt since she was a child. If she and Welf worked together then, even if the opponent was somewhat stronger and faster, they could attack from both directions. And that would provide an opening avenue for one another to exploit.

Hestia then turned her mirror back to the other girls. Lili had taken to using her wrist-crossbow to pin down Cassandra, leaving her huddled behind a column on the other side of the Inner Ward. Loki’s child had focused on healing herself now.

Loki is never going to let this go if she figures out, the Goddess of the Hearth couldn’t help but think. Neither Bell nor his sister had told her, but she had figured it out due to Bell’s words to her about having family within the city. The way she had looked to him as she healed him that day when he normally shies away from other women had been enough for her to piece things together.

Even now most of the disguised Elf’s attention was on the Outer Ward, watching her brother’s fight. She would love to talk to the girl when everything was said and done. But until then she would have to silently cheer her and the other children along. Do your best, everyone.

[-Twilight Manor-]

The ringing of steel rang out once more in the lounge of the Loki Familia’s high-ranked members as they observed the clash between the two Captains.

Their fight was as close to a deadly battle as possible without skirting the line as the white rabbit rushed forward in a blur of motion. With Agility unbecoming of a Level Two, his crimson daggers caught the light of the sun and left streaks in the air like twin tails. Then all at once they came around and drew a bloody cross as they converged on the Beloved of the Sun to carve through his chest from above and below to the center of his back—

Haah!

—and the crimson cross was shattered by a scarlet streak as the flamberge came around. Lashing out at the point where the blades would have intersected and backed by a proportional level of Strength, the blade broke through the convergence and should have cut through the white rabbit.

Yet amidst the shower of orange sparks that blossomed from the clashing of high-quality steel there were only strands of white hair. By the narrowest of margins, the white rabbit avoided losing its head as it narrowly slipped past. But no sooner than one had managed to slip past the other did both figures spin around like whirlwinds.

Crimson and scarlet flashed in arcs as they came around from the left and right. Another ear-splitting ring resounded. A profusion of furious sparks was born as the two Captains clashed their blades once more. The air itself shook from the impact of their blows to where their capes billowed madly as they tried to free themselves from their hosts.

But then the Little Rookie rode the wind while Phoebus Apollo remained firmly rooted as he swung his weapon around, disengaging until there was a vast distance between them. One of his daggers, the shorter of the pair, was wedged between his thumb and forefinger of the same hand that held the longer one’s handle with its three other digits. That left his left-hand extended outwards with fingers splayed towards his opponent.

“FIREBOLT!!”

And, with a shout, the bud of colorless magical energy that formed in front of his open palm turned into a blazing sphere that lanced out as three scorching rays. Flames woven into beams rocketed across the empty space between them in the time it would take for a Level Two to blink, and the face of the target was illuminated as they converged.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The air quivered. A wave of heat billowed. The scorching rays erupted and swallowed the Hyacinthus’ form beneath the fierce flames that seemed to devour him whole, leaving only acrid and stygian smoke in its wake.

However, the smoke parted as the warrior emerged from the smoke with the speed afforded to a Level Three. His silver light armor was lightly scorched and blackened from the flames, but his body showed no signs of burns. The members of the Loki Familia could only assume it was a combination of the materials being magic resistant and the cape he donned being similarly resistant to fire as he crossed the distance and then delivered a slash that left sparks to bloom as it scored across the breastplate Bell wore.

Undeterred, the crimson blades came around from the left and right. The smaller of the knives would break through the collarbone and then flesh. The larger of the two would carve open his abdomen beneath his breastplate. Both were valid felling targets that would kill a lesser man and so would force him onto the defensive—protect one at the expense of the other.

Sure enough, the larger of the blades met with the steel of the long sword, the edge of the blade screeching as the dagger bit into it instead of flesh. However, the shorter was caught by the protective armguards that Hyacinthus had donned as he brought his arm up to protect his neck. It sported a visible gouge that spoke of the danger it presented, but the materials still held and no blood was spilled.

Then came the surprise attack as Hyacinthus’ foot shot out like a lance before Bell could retreat. A blow that could shatter stone with a single kick aimed to cave in his breastplate and then shatter his ribs from the impact. Only by crossing his arms, relying on his armguards, Endurance, and Strength, did the warhammer-like blow fail to break through the defensive maneuver as it was driven into Bell’s shorter frame.

Gareth stroked his beard as he watched the impact drive the younger lad into the Eastern Outer Curtain Wall. The stone broke and buckled under his body at the site of the impact, a cratered impression with dozens of fissures from which stone dust belched out and grains of sand fell of his figure. Yet even then he managed to kick off the wall and roll away as the follow-up thrust pierced through where his shoulder and arm would have met. “His Endurance has reached at least A-Rank to still be able to move after that blow.”

“He has probably reached S-rank in his physical parameters once more to fight on par with a Level Three,” Finn acknowledged as Bell recovered and delivered a series of slashes that forced his opponent to retreat and then attempt a counterattack when he tried to compensate for the elongated distance by stepping in. “Given that he has only been an adventurer for such a short time, it’s most likely a unique Skill.”

“Even so, his inexperience is showing,” the Royal Elf noted while craning her head slightly in observation. In contrast to his approach against the Minotaur he was most definitely at a point where brute force would work against a monster. But he was fighting an opponent who had intelligence and could recognize an attack pattern. “His anger is working against him.”

“If he was a woman he’d be about as rabid as Amazon out for blood,” Bete agreed. Amazons were known for their brutality and strength. Often shrugging off armor for the sake of bare flesh, throwing themselves headfirst against their opponent, the only weapons they needed were their fists. However, they compensated for technique through instincts honed by a lifetime of battles since they could crawl—something he did not have.

The uncertainty that Aiz felt in her chest grew as she watched him grow even more aggressive. The fight was turning into more of a match between an adventurer going against a monster, rather than another adventurer. Like he was turning into a beast as he continued to lash out with a relentless display of speed and strength.

His crimson daggers were beginning to resemble claws as he swung them around to tear into his opponent. Built for Agility rather than Strength, he was pushing himself to the point where his breathing was becoming labored. He had to leave his mouth open to take in as much air as possible as his number of swings increased drastically.

The sound of scraping steel increased as Hyacinthus was forced onto the defensive. The impacts that were blocked began to eat into his well-forged blade that was starting to chip as the force of the strikes traveled up from the base to rattle his bones. The ones that found his armor began to carve gouges out of it, long trails where the metal had been parted by the hardness native to adamantite focused into a sharpened edge.

Bell was throwing himself into a frenzy where his intentions devolved into a rampage. He was hyper-focusing solely on defeating his opponent without care for defense. He was losing track of the notion of strategy for the sake of raw fury—a Rabid Rabbit Rush.

Back when she had been a child, Riveria had once told her that according to Elven teachings a battle between warriors could be seen as more of a dialogue. One would make an argument to be met with a counterargument in response, an exchange between the two until one submitted in defeat. Finn had put it in less flowery terms that it meant one needed to reconsider their strategy if it isn’t working and read their opponent to counter them until they ran out of options.

Bell, that hard-working and earnest boy she had been training until now in secret, was simply shouting with every move he made. It was like a rabbit howling as it rushed the opponent, screaming one thing over and over: ‘I want to hurt you!’

In contrast, his opponent had switched to a completely defensive approach. Instead of peppering counterattacks as he created distance between them, he was focused completely on evasion and observation. He was recognizing his attack patterns, gradually getting a read on his opponent that thrashed wildly.

That was when she heard it.

“Ah…?” She heard a cry that echoed deep in her soul as their blades clashed in a shower of sparks. A sound that should not exist on the surface or in the room they were in. A sound that shook her like an ancient memory. It can’t be…

Her sense of time elongated while she focused her senses. She focused on that sound and the feeling it elicited as Bell’s relentless assault culminated in him finally howling as he swung the larger blade with murderous intent as his opponent brought the flamberge up to guard vertically and reinforced it with the forearm protector.

“RRRRAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!”

And then she recognized it. She recognized it the moment the dagger shattered the Sun’s Flamberge above the neck with unrelenting strength. She heard it overlapping his voice from the very blade that was in his hand, the source of his relentless anger and bloodlust that she had felt uneasy about before.

It was the thunderous roar of a Minotaur.

But she didn’t have time to do anything with that knowledge as Hyacinthus slammed his foot into the ground as hard as he could. The Strength of a Level Three was more than enough to break the ground around his foot into pieces of stone. He kicked that up with his leg as he disengaged, forcing Bell to shield his eyes as he leaped back as far as he could while pulling his cape over his right side as he drew his shortsword behind the curtain.

Then he stood ready as Bell’s legs tensed to launch him towards his opponent in fury. The moment he charged in for his assault it would be over. The shortsword would plunge itself into him as he cut through the cape to get to his opponent whose foot was already angled to pivot out of the way of the charge. His rage would cost him everything as she feared.

Ba-thump.

…For just a moment she saw herself in him. She saw her younger self, driven by that black flame within her.  Driven into a frenzy no different than the monsters she killed for strength. She would have been dead if the others hadn’t been there to pull her back before she could go over the edge.

But no one could pull him back at this moment.

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, YOU IDIOT!?

That was when foreign words were followed by a shout as a gale came unbound in the center of the battlefield between them. It hit the empty ground and the harsh winds threw up a cloud of dust even as the force of it caused both Captains to brace themselves as the Elven Mage rushed towards Bell….

[-Bell Cranel-]

Bell’s world was dyed crimson as an insidious poison swallowed him inside out as he continued to swing his arms.

It was a stinging, searing heat that ate away at his chest as the vision of his sister bleeding in his arms flashed in his mind. The cold gaze of the one who’d done so staring down at her once more. Just like before she had been brought low by his blade that ran red with her blood.

The small abode he shared with the Goddess of the Hearth, who had accepted him when all others had refused, put to the flame. The place where the two of them just sat together eating potato snacks and eggs after a great run in the Dungeon, talking about their day, buried beneath a hail of spell-fire. The chapel where dappled sunlight from the morning warmed them blotted by the scent of smoke and the embers flittering in the air while the statue of the false goddess crumbled beneath the ceiling that toppled over.

The tiny figure whose heart eclipsed her size, trembling in his arms as they ran. The sorrowful tears in her eyes, staring down at his battered and beaten form. The undaunting way she tried to stand in front of him, ready to sacrifice herself for his sake.

The poison was rage.

A rage so potent it swallowed him whole as it seeped into his pores, a molten heat that caused pain so intense that his mind began to melt. He wanted to scream but his throat had long since been burned away by the heat. The only thing he could do was swing knives at the figure in front of him that had distorted to losing all details amidst the sparks that continued to bloom.

…il…

Faster—he needed to swing the blades faster. Throwing away any semblance of strategy as the blistering heat swelled his head, uncaring if he overstretched his muscles to the point where they tore themselves apart, he worked his arms even faster. The sound of steel clashing intensified as the number of swings grew.

…kill…

Stronger—he needed to swing his blades harder. The flesh of his fingertips melted over the handle of the knives until they had become an extension of his arms. The lean muscles within his arms turned into corded steel and made it so that every stroke of the blades rattled the bones in his arms and his opponent.

KILL!

Fiercer—he needed to throw away any other thought besides tearing the thing in front of him apart. Its body would be torn apart, the entrails and organs splayed out with the bright colors standing out against the gray stone. The vivid imagery was enough to fill him with a searing excitement that burned away even more of his sanity.

MMRRROOOOOOOOOO!

A mad howl of excitement bellowed from his mouth as steel shattered in front of him and caused the blood within him to boil. A crazed roar that set every inch of his body alight with flames from the inside out. A bovine shout that had been engraved in the back of his mind and etched so deeply that it was instantly recognizable to his fleeting intellect.

Only then did he realize he was melting away. He was becoming one with the all-consuming molten heat that was insatiable. His sanity was being eaten away by the sea of bloodlust and would soon be smothered in it.

But… so what?

So what if he could kill the one who hurt his sister twice over? So what if he could kill the one who stole his home from him? So what if he could kill the one who threatened his Goddess? If becoming one with the inferno of rage was enough to give him the strength to take revenge, then why shouldn’t he sink into it?

Even now his prey fled as his sanity waned, bounding backward to escape as he loomed over it. It was the most natural thing in the world to charge down a fleeing enemy, taking advantage of his strength and speed that eclipsed the human. He would run him down, plunge his horns into his chest before ripping them out and tearing him in half, reveling in the act.

His legs tensed as he prepared to lunge—

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, YOU IDIOT!?

— when a familiar voice stalled his legs before he could take the final step over the edge. It was followed by the quavering of Magic at the last moment, as a constrained ball of wind slammed into the middle of the battlefield between them and forced the two of them to remain apart. That was when she entered his view with an arm chambered…

SLAP!

It was as if what struck him was a bolt of lightning, delivered via an open palm slap. One that was loud enough that it drowned out the roar of discontent as his vision flashed. Then he spotted the expression his sister was making as she grabbed him by the cowl and pulled his head to hers until they butted.

Synchronization, remember?” Her eyes glimmered for a moment with tears that almost seemed born of rage as she spoke in a harsh whisper. “How could I not feel what you were planning when my back is practically burning up!?

Lefiya had mentioned that her Skill allowed her to feel more in-tune with him back when they were on the 18th Floor, which was why they were so in sync with one another at the time. It was why she felt calm and certain of his next action, even before it had fully manifested. That meant the murderous intention had seeped out of him and into her, burning her from the inside out.

What would everyone think seeing you like that?” she continued, her voice softer. “Your Goddess? Your friends? All of us who helped you?

His thoughts froze at that as their faces flashed in his mind. His friends who joined his Familia and were still fighting, willing to sacrifice their Grace to give him a chance to win. Lord Miach, Miss Naaza, Lord Takemikazuchi, and his Familia, all of whom had come to aid him when he was being chased and even now. Miss Ryuu, Syr, and all the ladies at the Hostess of Fertility, all of whom gave him what support they could on the battlefield and off it.

Lady Hestia, who had given him a home when he had none and her everlasting Grace.  Miss Tiona, who said she would cheer him on no matter what. And Miss Aiz…

Ah…” A delicate memory flashed in his mind, a transient moment where a soft smile graced her lips. For others, it was something common and natural to her. But for him, it was something that stole away his breath away and enraptured his heart.

Just the memory of it quelled his boiling blood. It drowned out the roar bellowing from within his knife. It cleared his mind and allowed him to envision once more what he wanted and fought for.

Sensing that he had calmed down, Lefiya quickly released him and cleared her throat as she took a step back. “Make sure you apologize properly to everyone once this is over.”

“I will,” he promised while sporting a slight, adorable smile. “Thank you, Miss Feena.”

His heartfelt gratitude was followed by both of their expressions and eyes shifting as their senses registered the enclosing threat. Without a word, Lefiya darted back as far as she could while Bell brought both of his blades up and formed a cross. The resonance of steel rang out as they caught the silver blade that came in to strike him down overhead.

It was Hyacinthus, who could not look more offended at the moment. “Flirting in the middle of our battle. Really?”

“Miss Feena is simply a dear friend who helped me cool my head,” Bell said over a bellow of pure rage that followed from his sister at that for some reason before kicking off the ground as he spotted the second weapon in his opponent’s off-hand come around. He put a large swathe of distance between them as it narrowly avoided cutting into his Salamander Wool shirt. “I’ll owe her and the others who helped me get this far an apology after this. You as well.”

“Is that right?” Hyacinthus inquired as used his eyes to measure the distance between them while flipping his grip on the broken blade to a reverse grip. There were only about six inches of blade left from the guard itself, but that was still enough to use as an improvised dagger.

“I was so angry that I denied you a proper fight as the Captain of my Familia,” Bell clarified. “This is supposed to be a duel, and yet I almost forgot that and only saw you as an obstacle to be torn apart like a rampaging bull. I still have much to learn as an Adventurer it seems.”

“…You really are a fool,” his opponent said bluntly. “We’re in the middle of a battle. Using whatever means to win should be sufficient to bring eternal glory to your patron and their name.”

“Would you really be okay with that?” Bell asked. “Would you have been happy that the deity you worship earned their eternal glory in a one-sided match against a Familia that you forced to accept, just to split them apart?”

His lips moved to respond. But no words came out even as his throat strained. Instead, his fingers wrapped around the hilt of his blades tightened to the point of them shaking. Then, as quickly as it came, it vanished as he let out a heavy sigh. “…I have heard enough of your howling, Little Rabbit.”

Then he took a stance. His right leg was facing forward while his left leg was facing the side from behind. The whole blade of Intimacy was held vertically towards his opponent, and the broken remnants of the Sun’s Flamberge was held horizontally to guard.

Come, Bell Cranel!” declared the Captain of the Apollo Familia.

The Captain of the Hestia Familia responded in kind. “Keep up, Hyacinthus Clio!

Then two men shouted as they charged one another.

[-Daphne Lauros-]

Why am I fighting so hard?

That thought lingered in the back of Daphne Lauros’ mind as her blade flashed. It met with a slender, Far Eastern sword, and a series of blue sparks emerged as the edges scraped each other hard enough that the steel trembled. The cold expression of the girl who owned the opposite blade tensed as it shook her bones from the force of the impact.

Daphne couldn’t even feel that much. Her fingers had already gone numb from the impact of her blade crashing against those of her opponents more times than she could count. Her muscles were overstretched to the point that she could feel them tearing. Her Mind was being eaten away by her own protective spell that bolstered her Endurance and Agility.

Everything was starting to ache as she swung her arm the other way and slammed the pommel of her guard into the side of the girl’s face hard enough that her body followed it and twisted off to the side. Then she felt solid steel starting to cut into her and pivoted on her foot as the thick slab of heavy metal that the redhead called a sword only tore through her battle clothes and drew a slight line of blood instead of splitting her in half. As it bit into the ground next to her foot instead she used the momentum to bring her rear leg around. “Go down already!”

Guh!” His expression turned into a grimace as her heel slammed into the upper arm that had been raised to protect his head. The metal of the armguard used was impacted while his softer underarm slammed into his skull. The force left him to stagger as her weapon came around to cut into his dark robes, but the thick slab of metal he used as a blade came up and intercepted with its broadside before it could cut in deep.

At the same time, two snakes entwined her. One wrapped around her sword-arm that had been outstretched. The other found its way behind her neck as she barely managed to shove her wrist inside before it constricted her in a stranglehold as another braced it. They were the limbs of Mikoto, placing Daphne in a martial arts grapple that locked her arm while strangling the life out of her.

Why am I doing all of this for a God I hate?

That question surfaced as her legs tensed like springs and she threw herself with all of her might against the solid wall nearby. She felt the impact of the stone breaking under the girl who’d gotten on her back and heard her cry out in pain. But even that was only just enough to loosen her legs constricting her arm so she could use her greater Strength to forcibly free the limb and then switch her grip on the blade to aim for the slender body clinging to her.

That was when Mikoto twisted her body so that the arm around her neck was used to twist and drag Daphne down. Using her own body as a lever, she threw them both to the ground. But then Daphne released her sword and gripped Mikoto by the back of the skull to slam her head into the solid stone next to them.

That was finally enough to get her to release her chokehold as her head bounced back. “AHH!”

Taking a desperate gasp of air as whatever monstrous instinct drove the warrior into rolling back and away while she was prone, Daphne barely had time to retrieve her sword and roll out of the way as the greatsword came down to crush her. The ground beneath her cracked into dozens of small fissures as it wedged itself into place while she got onto her feet and took a fighting stance as her vision swam…

“Daphne!”

Then she heard her name being called by a voice she had known for too long. Her vision cleared and she knew the answer to the question that kept nagging at her.

That was right. It was all for Cassandra.

The two of them had known each other for so many years now. The girl was so airheaded, lost in her dreams, and in need of a caretaker since they were children. The girl whom she swore to look after and protect when that God’s eyes turned to them.

There was a saying that some people would pray that those above would not notice them. To most that sounded like insanity when the divine were the reason that the dark ages came to an end. But she remembered vividly why it was such an earnest prayer when she recalled how they ended up in this situation.

The daughter of lower nobles. One who hated formality and a ditz whose head was lost in the clouds and always spoke of fanciful dreams. Two opposites who seemed to get along for one reason or another.

Daphne never believed the dreams that Cassandra had. Not even when she desperately begged for her to believe them. Not even when, in some way or form, those dreams seemed to come to pass.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. Daphne really did want to believe what Cassandra was saying at times. It was just that she… couldn’t.

Not until it was too late.

That was why she hadn’t listened to her that day she told them not to go out shopping, or else the sun would swallow them both whole. If she had listened that day, then the God of the Sun would have never laid his eyes on them while traveling. He never would have exchanged a promise of favors and gifts and valis for them to be welcomed into his Familia.

There were no better suitors for them than a wealthy God.

That was what both of their fathers had told them since they had reached the age where they were eligible to transition into adulthood by being married. Finding men to marry them had already been difficult because of their personalities and quirks as it was. The benefits that Apollo could provide were better than anything that a mortal husband could provide even without the claim of it being marriage—after all, a marriage entailed children and the divine could not sire with mortals.

They had been as good as sold for the prestige of being in a Familia and they both knew it.

She hated it. She hated that her future was taken from her at the whims of a God who had only laid eyes on her. She hated that it was the same for Cassandra. So, the night before he came to claim them, Daphne did the only thing she could.

She ran away and took Cassandra with her.

They ran. And ran. And ran. And ran.

Until she couldn’t run anymore.

Resigned to her fate, hating that she lacked the strength to protect either of them, she accepted that this was their new life. The best they could do was make the most out of it—never wanting food or shelter or anything else. It was a life better than they had even lived before.

But she never forgot that she had been too weak to protect Cassandra or herself. That they were in a gilded cage. That was why she fought to get stronger, pushed herself to reach Level Two, and then go further.

And now here she was fighting to the point of her body breaking down…

All to do the same to someone else.

What a joke… She would have laughed if she had the breath for it. The sight of that rabbit fleeing his cage with his Goddess reminded her so much of how she had been before with Cassandra. Now she was the one attempting to place him in that same gilded cage, telling herself it was inevitable and for his own good.

Throwing herself over the edge to avoid her own hypocrisy, she lashed out at the two in front of her who dared to take to the field. The clothes they wore sported dozens of gashes and blood dyed them a deep shade of crimson, yet they still kept charging her. She clenched her teeth at their foolish resilience before striking out with Fencer Laureate to bring them down before her body gave out….

Heavenly light, once rebuked. Merciful arms that embrace my foolish self…

She recognized Cassandra’s chant. Not by voice but by the weight that it carried and how it resonated in her ears. It was a plea from the heart reaching out to her as the tinge of Magic that was colored her soul began to brush the edges of Daphne’s senses.

Cassandra was in the middle of casting, dedicating everything to focusing her Mind into the staff for as strong of a heal as she could manage, leaving the orb atop it to glow vibrantly. It would soothe her aching muscles, melt away her pain, and restore strength to her limbs. But with her eyes closed as she concentrated there was no way she could defend herself if one of them attacked her, so why now?

The moment the Blacksmith turned towards Cassandra and extended his hand, Daphne found the energy to keep moving and darted to stab him in the back before he could do anything. “Don’t touch her!”

And yet her thin blade buried itself through the shoulder blade of the Shadow, who had thrown herself between them. Her eyes narrowed in pain before resolve surfaced. And then she performed some kind of technique that drove Daphne down to the ground once more. “Nnngghh!”

Reach out where my words cannot, and give salvation to these miserable souls—”

Burn out, illegal work—Will-o-Wisp!

Silvery mist shot like tendrils from the palm of his hand and into Cassandra before she could finish casting the final verse of her spell. All at once, her visible eye widened as that mist slinked its way into her staff where her magical energy had been focused until crackles formed as the staff that she had bought and treasured was turned into a bomb.

KA-BOOM!

It was a forced Ignis Faatus with Cassandra on the receiving end. Her slender body was thrown back by the explosion and hit the solid stone wall, leaving her to collapse into a heap on the ground while the remnants of her staff clattered on the ground. She was unmoving.

Rage took Daphne. She twisted the sword wedged into the other girl’s arm and the pain forced loose her grapple before Daphne kicked her aside and then lunged for the Blacksmith with a shout. “DAMN YOU…!

A flurry of stabs that cared nothing for defense. Throwing away strategy or anything resembling fear, she lashed out at the Blacksmith with a volley of slashes that forced him onto the defensive, even as she felt pricks of bolts attempting to bury themselves into her back through her protective spell that drained away the vestiges of her Mind, she attacked with a relentless rush until he leaped away from her—

War God’s Strike—Futsu no Mitama!

—right as a pillar of light descended upon her and was followed by the world itself pushing down on her like she was being crushed beneath the palm of a giant. It was subjugating her through sheer might, making her grovel in supplication as the stone beneath her began to crack and shatter from the pressure that refused to relent.

Daphne could barely force her head to turn and see the girl holding her hands outstretched with her at the center. There was a violet ball of magical energy compressed as though she held the weight of the world in her trembling hands. Sweat poured down her brow and blood seeped from her wounds, but her face was the picture of concentration as she shouted.

Now, Sir Welf!

“Uwwwooooooo!!!” The battle cry drew her eyes up where she saw that the Level Two High Smith had climbed partway up the stairs leading to the wall walk of the Inner Curtain Walls and then jumped right towards the barrier with the flat of the blade being swung. The moment he hit the field of intensified gravity, he and the blade were dragged down right towards her.

She knew that the moment they came crashing down on her backside it would be over. Her spell would give out beneath the force of the blow and the ground beneath her would be cratered. Everything that had been building up until now would come flooding out as an unrelenting pain that would finally rob her of her consciousness.

And there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

Pinned down by the weight of the world being thrust upon her, she only had time to lay eyes upon Cassandra one final time before her vision whited.

CRRRRAAAAAASHH!!

[-Hyacinthus Clio-]

There was nothing wrong with what I did.

Hyacinthus swung Intimacy with all the force he could manage towards the boy while moving his broken blade to fend off the incoming attack from his left. But the silver sword and parried by the white rabbit’s longer dagger, right as the shorter one was blocked by the rouge blade, both giving rise to a parade of sparks and a song of clashing steel.

Frustration clawed its way out of his clenched teeth as his arms trembled from the impact jostling its way from his grip up through his arms. The earlier blows had been ludicrously strong, but they had come at the compromise of the boy’s ability to reason. He thought it to be a Skill of some kind that increased one’s Strength and Agility the angrier one became, but even now that he had regained his ability to use reason the impacts still sent shocks up his forearm.

Unable to allow himself to succumb by remaining on the defensive, Hyacinthus went on the offense. Diagonal, horizontal, and straight thrust—slashing away with Intimacy to force the boy on the defensive with the first two strokes, he thrust the broken blade forward to pierce him with the jagged tip. It was a three-hit combination executed with all the speed he could muster as a Level Three.

And yet… each and every one missed.

The Little Rabbit weaved to the side to avoid the first. Bobbed low to avoid the second. Brought his short dagger up to parry the third. And then the longer crimson blade came around to launch a counterattack, the crimson arch angled to cut through his breastplate and into his chest—

Tch!

—Intimacy rose to greet it and parried the assault. The sheering sound of the shortsword weapon being cut into by the adamantite strained his ears as yet another gouge adorned the metal. But then Hyacinthus barely caught the way he shifted his posture, leaning back and pivoting as he brought his leg around for a kick that could shatter stone.

He used his arms to protect his head. Between the forearm-guard backed by the Strength he had as a Level Three, nestled within the C-rank, the boy couldn’t break through his guard. But the fact that he still felt the impact said what did not make any sense from every logical standpoint since only a little over a week had passed since their first clash.

A mere boy was matching him.

A youth who hadn’t even been in a Familia for more than two months.

A whelp who hadn’t even spent a year as an adventurer or delving into the Dungeon.

He, who bore the alias of Phoebus Apollo. He, who had spent years working towards the goal of making the Apollo Familia great. He, who faced the Goliath on the 17th Floor and dragged them up to the D-Rank when before they had barely been above the rank-and-file. He, who had painstaking crawled his way up to Level Three to stand as the Captain of his Familia.

All to prove his devotion to Lord Apollo.

He was driven by love for his God. Whereas the other children lived to serve the one who blessed them with their Grace, he existed to bring glory to His name. That was how he showed his love to the God who enraptured his heart and set his soul aflame.

So why can’t I shake his words?

Cranel’s words had wormed their way into his head. Because he knew deep down, before they had become so large and powerful, things had been different. When it was just himself, Lissos, Marpessa, and the few others who had taken his Falna.

Apollo had been different. He desired many things, but he gave as much as he took and never by force—persistent but not by force. Back then that which he could hold in his hands had been so little, and they wanted to gift him with so much more.  Hyacinthus had wanted to see him happy and was willing to do anything.

Do not fall in love with the immortal, for your love will only end in tragedy.

His throat tightened as he recalled her words once more. He had thought it to be a warning of unrequited love. But had there been another meaning after all?

He lashed out with his blade in a fury to drown out the thoughts of someone who had left the Familia behind, right as they had risen to prominence because of him. She had always been holding them back, while he had been the one pushing ahead. That was why he had replaced her!

But his barrage of attacks was dodged flawlessly as the rabbit wove between them. Unlike before he never once allowed their blades to lock. It was a terrifying thought because it meant one thing.

Bell Cranel was adapting.

He was learning to read his movements. Knowing that he lacked the raw Strength Hyacinthus had, he was putting his Agility that somehow exceeded a mid-tier Level Three to work. Even in a battle where each blow could shatter bones or severe a limb, he was fixating on reading his attacks and adjusting to them.

But it would end soon.

His breathing was growing haggard. His rampage from before had worn him down. His stamina was less than someone who was a Level higher than him, even if he was faster. That meant even if he kept dodging, he would eventually slow down.

Then, once his sole advantage was gone, it would end.

The War Game would be brought to a swift end.

Confident in that assessment, Hyacinthus kept to maintaining the engagement distance that he had with Intimacy. Taking advantage of the longer reach of his weapon and focusing his footwork on keep it so, as long as he remained out of the reach of the boy’s daggers he would not have to worry about them. And if he closed in that distance his broken blade would serve as a deterrent.

…That was when he felt the release of Magic coming from the Inner Ward. A violet dome erupted and the air itself seemed to quake from that spot. Then there was a shout, a battle cry, and then a crashing sound that was followed by silence as the dome and the magical energy holding it in place collapsed.

Then the Elven Mage standing at the edge and looking over into the Inner Ward spoke. “Bell, the others have dealt with the last two. We’ll get to healing them, so finish up!”

So, even Cassandra and Daphne are down now? Those two had been a handful, but he at least acknowledged their potential. Between them, a couple of Level Twos should have been no issue. Perhaps he should have taken the others out first… but no matter.

The only ones who mattered in this fight were the Captains of the Familia at this point. That in mind, his silver sword flashed as he spotted the Little Rabbit moving to enter his engagement range…

Yet, then he did the opposite and hopped away right as he readied the attack.

It was not an evasive maneuver as he bound backwards three hops, purposely putting a massive distance between them. The only thing he had for ranged attacks was his Super-Short Chant spell, which his equipment could ward off as demonstrated before. The boy should have known that, so why retreat so far?

Muted confusion crossed Hyacinthus’ features as he tried to grasp his opponent’s intentions until he shouted, “Shine, Jupiter!

Magical energy exploded out from his body that became wreathed in a shroud of lightning. Wild streamers danced over his slender frame, boring into his body and illuminating his white hair and red eyes. The sound of thunder could be heard rumbling from within the boy’s body as if a thunderstorm was rampaging within him as he crouched down into a sprinter’s stance.

…A chill ran down Hyacinthus’ spine. He readied a stance and prepared for a charge, never once taking his eyes off of the boy in front of him. That was when he twisted his head behind him on a hunch, born from the current surprises he bore witness until now.

If he had not had his expectations subverted until now, then he would have kept his eyes forward. He would have been expecting a straight charge and been blindsided as the boy was already behind him. He was at an angle that suggested he had touched ground at least three times to circle around to his back with his blade upraised.

Hyacinthus pivoted on his foot and swung Intimacy around in a full circle that left a silver halo in the air as it came around… and nearly had his sword-arm torn from the socket from the hasty defense. The silver steel met with a crimson streak, creating a shower of blue sparks as the white rabbit brought down his shorter dagger that was stronger than it had any right to be.

It was an Enchantment-type spell. There was no doubt about that given how much his Strength had increased from that blow alone. Even so, he stomped his foot into the ground hard enough to embed it as he stopped himself from staggering as the weight of the blow passed. Then he lashed out in response almost reflexively with the rouge blade only to cut through empty space as the boy had vanished once more—

Ngh!?

—as a warhammer slammed into him from the side, the impact of which was so hard that he felt the bones in his upper arm fracture as they were all that stood between his ribs being shattered. And that was before the momentum caught up and sent him skirting off the ground and into one of the Outer Curtain Walls hard enough that the broken bits of the wall exploded out from around him.

Fear crept into his chest as he let his instincts take over to remove himself from the wall immediately, falling to the ground and then pushing off with all his strength as the rest of the wall erupted in a cloud of stone dust and sand as the white missile slammed into it like a cannonball.

Getting back onto his feet, Hyacinthus dedicated everything he had to mount a solid defense. In that single moment, he knew that counterattacking was no longer an option. Bell had gotten so fast that he would be stricken down the moment he attempted to retaliate, so he wired himself to guard only as his senses as a Level Three kicked into high alert.

That and his instinct were all that saved him as the white comet slammed into his sword that he braced with his forearm-guard as the crimson dagger came around once more. It struck like a mace rather than a blade, breaking the shortsword just from the impact alone as the protector he used to brace it visibly cracked. Then he jumped back as the second crimson streak cut into his breastplate and left a visible rend in it, the bottom half only hanging on by a fourth of its form.

And even that fell off as the hammer blow from a fist clenched around the handle of the crimson dagger slammed into his breastplate before he could set a foot down. His scream of pain was lost as steel shattered, the metal mixed in with Obsidian Soldier matter broken to pieces as it absorbed the force of a momentum-backed punch. Even then he felt a jolt running through the countless fractures lining his ribs before the wind rushing past him came to an end as he hit the ground some distance away.

…Won over.

Lying on the ground, struggling to cope with the pain, he had no choice but to admit that he had been thoroughly won over in a battle against the Level Two in front of him—Bell Cranel.

Tactics. Strategy. Technique. Even though he had spent years accumulating them to reach his current Level, all of those meant nothing at that moment. A spell that increased his Status that had somehow already broken even with a mid-tier Level Three just made it an absolute rather than advantageous.

He hated it. Clenching his fists as he laid on the ground with his body aching, there were no words to describe the feeling within his chest. It was unbearable, knowing that his Lord was watching him from above as he was beaten down by a mere boy.

Stand! He screamed in his head for his body to stand. He wasn’t done. Not yet. Not yet! He still had a trump card to play. STAND DAMN YOU!

His body responded. Slowly. Agonizingly. He rose to his knees with a desperate gasp of air, half-surprised that his opponent hadn’t taken the chance to simply finish him off while he was downed. But the reason for that had not been mercy, which he realized as he peered across from the Outer Ward to see that his beating had at least one silver lining.

The boy was also on one knee, an eye wincing and lips slightly contorted in pain. Tremors ran through his body, small convulsions that ate away at him. That power came at a price, it seemed. Maybe his Endurance couldn’t handle the backlash at his Level.

Good. Then he still had a chance to play his final card.

Invigorated by the opportunity, Phoebus Apollo rose to his full height and got into a stance. His opponent seemed to realize the match was not over and rose up as well. His muscles were still slightly convulsing, a damper for someone who fought with Dexterity and Agility. Then his only option would be to use his own ranged Spell then.

And that was the one thing Hyacinthus knew he had an overwhelming advantage in.

He drew in a deep breath and began to chant. “My name is love, child of light. Glorious sun, I offer you my body!

The boy bristled as his right hand clenched into a fist upon realizing what was happening. Then blue-and-white motes of light began dancing over it. Had he a final card to play as well?

No matter. He had faith in this Magic and its majesty. “My name is sin, jealousy of the wind. This body calls forth your gust!

Hyacinthus knew a single spell, born of the love for his Lord.

It was the same as his devotion to Apollo, all-consuming in its entirety. His Mind would be expended from the strain, but that was fine. It would serve as the embodiment of his purpose—to bring glory to His name.

Come forth, ring of fire on westerly winds!

Magical energy flowed upwards as he raised his left arm that still moved toward the sun. Though he should be prepared to throw it like a discus, that was merely a formality. The moment the spell was complete the disc would home in and hit its target so long as his concentration remained unbroken.

His hand turned as burning red as the overbearing rays that he basked in turned into a solar flare. The searing gale that blew from the west wove it into a spiraling ring. Bound together as one, a blazing disc that embodied the passionate worth of Phoebus Apollo was born. He threw the discus forward with all the energy he had left in his body as he said the trigger words for the spell.

ARO ZEPHYROS!

Searing the air as it cut the space between them, his magical energy concentrated within the spell, the discus was unleashed at a blistering speed. Even if he somehow dodged it then it would follow due to the homing properties within the makeup of the spell. Even if he somehow put an obstacle between them or someone tried to throw themselves on it, he could detonate it to expand the area of effect. There was no escape…

“—twenty-second charge.” That was when he heard the boy’s voice beneath the howling wind as he raised that glowing hand towards the incoming burning disc. Planting his foot to the ground, he extended his right arm and braced it with the left as he uttered his spell. “FIREBOLT!

What burst from his hand was not a simple flaming bolt like before. It was electricity and flame woven together by a white radiance. The white bolt that was close to plasma split the air between them as it sped straight ahead.

The two met midway. The burning ring that was the height of a small child slammed into the javelin of electricity and flames. The lesser of the two Magic should have been consumed utterly and the greater should have pushed on to secure victory for their caster…

Aro Zephyros shattered. The empowered Firebolt pierced deep within the shell of the burning ring, the magical energy constraining it breaking open as it bore through and then sped forth to slam into the Outer Curtain Wall behind Hyacinthus where it blew through a massive section of the wall.

Time seemed to move slow as his world vanished once the wrath of the sun was unleashed upon the Outer Ward, no longer bound. He no longer had the strength to move or evade. It was his defeat at the very blaze gifted to him by his God’s grace and born of his passion.

Only then did he finally grasp the meaning of Marpessa’s final words. It was not a warning that his love would be unrequited. It was a warning that his unconditional love would bring ruin to everything that had been built up. For when his God’s passions ran wild, it should have been he who quelled them rather than inflame them by giving him what he desired no matter what it took.

It was only fitting then that he be consumed by them utterly…

[-Bell Cranel-]

Everything hurt as Bell forced himself to walk forward.

Pain consumed his muscles from the inside out. He could tell that they were overstretched and torn.  Using his Enchantment spell normally caused some strain but that was manageable. The problem was that he had lost control before then.

The blade that Welf had forged for him housed the bloodlust of the Minotaur within it. He had given into that destructive power it brought out because of his anger. A minor lapse in control had pushed his body beyond its limits for that strength and the spell only worsened it.

But that was fine.

The blame laid with him. He would accept the pain as his punishment for forgetting who he was and what he was fighting for. It was a lesson learned.

Still, it was the right choice to wear Salamander Wool. The flames that had washed over him were hot enough to bake the stone to where steam wafted off of them, but he only felt mildly warm. Then again, it might also be because of the gift that Syr had given him. The stone was cracked beyond repair now as it dangled from his neck from beneath his cowl.

He would owe her an apology and a replacement.

Bearing that in mind, he took pained steps forward until he came to a stop in front of the supine figure of Hyacinthus. His skin had been charred and his clothes were smoldering rags. But the Level Three Captain of the Apollo Familia was still alive, of course.

He exhaled in a rasp as his heavy eyes cracked open halfway. “It seems you… are more of a Vorpal Rabbit… than an Almiraj…

Bell did not know what that was, but he didn’t have the will to argue against him. “It’s my win.

It was not a question. But a fact. One was still standing and the other was on the verge of unconsciousness and unable to move. It was mostly formality at this point as the overseers of the match were waiting to see if he would pull something else out of his hat at the last minute or if Bell would finish the job.

Even Hyacinthus could not argue the point as he exhaled a rasped, crooked breath. “…Your home was my call…do as you wish.

“…Fine then.” Bell reached for his holster as the defeated Captain closed his charred eyelids and awaited the finishing blow. Then he pulled out an unbroken vial and popped the cap before splashing the Potion over his fallen foe. The medicine began to eat away at the charred skin and replaced it with healthy flesh, just enough to make sure that he didn’t die by chance from his own injuries.

I still… hate you…” His final, spiteful words uttered at being shown mercy by his sworn foe, the Captain of the Apollo Familia finally lost consciousness.

And the final bell rang.