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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 23 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 23: Story of Growth – Part 1

Elio called the forest we sat at the entrance of his current home, the sole resident along with a host of Minor Spirits that followed him around. Apparently, he belonged to a clan of Elves that worked to commune with many, but their home had fallen to the monsters, and he was the only one left. It was not an uncommon tale by any stretch of the imagination.

The Spirits stirred at my presence, it seemed. Like little animals sniffing at something curious they found on the ground, he likened. Something he said that he had not seen in a long time, which I could only presume was more than a hundred years given his maturity.

So, he made me an offer: he would teach me the magic of our kind. Even if I were Half-Man, he felt that preserving what remained of their race, the teachings and culture and magic, was more important. So long as I had Elven blood inside of me.

However, it came with a condition.

I had to part ways with Argo.

—Elio’s Ultimatum

[-|-|-|-]

“—Arcs Ray!

The Fairy Sniper loosed her shot in a harsh whisper as her Elven eyes spotted their marks far off into the sky. Mind was converted into magical power and focused into the magic stones at the head of her staff before launching the magical arrow in the form of a golden beam of light. It speared from beneath the canopy of a coniferous forest and shot towards the ceiling that shed light as though it were a facsimile of the sky and sun on the surface, born of the Dungeon’s memory from before the gods descended and placed a lid upon it.

The marks were a pair of Pterosaurs that had been circling around for some time now. Even as far away as they were, they could easily swoop down and ensnare prey they spotted in the time it would take to count to three. That was part of what made them so dangerous.

Her golden arrow cut through the air and reduced the distance to zero as it pierced through the first’s body using searing heat and force as she condensed the beam into a narrow shot. But the second shifted its wings, carrying it off the original path it had been on. Had it spotted the glimmer of light that heralded the liminal speed at which it flew? Or had it simply shifted itself on a whim and thus managed to escape the beam of light by chance?

It didn’t matter as the backdraft of the near-miss left it to corkscrew in the air before righting itself. By then the arrow had curved around, swiveling faster than the normal eye could blink. The beam connected and ruptured, the explosion finishing it off as the magic stone within it was blown to pieces.

Her task done, Lefiya let out a soft sigh and then took a moment to catch her breath in the nook between the limb and trunk she was on within the massive tree that she was perched in. Her body was running hot and she needed a moment to wind down given she had been shooting down the fliers for a bit of time now. But she was the best suited for the job given her Spells and specialty.

“Lefy!” Her ears picked up her name being called from below and she looked down to see her roommate there, holding up a waterskin. She didn’t have her cloak, only her white tunic with her shawl arm sleeves clear as she waved up at her. “You can come down now!”

The Half-Elf descended the tree at that, bounding down between the branches before landing next to Elfy. Her fellow Mage offered her the waterskin to drink from, and she became aware of how thirsty she had been. It had been a few hours since she had gone up in the tree in order to turn it into her sniper’s nest. “Has everyone finished setting up camp?”

“Mm-hmm.”  Her green eyes fixed onto Lefiya as she watched her take a sip before continuing. “Everyone is accounted for, so you guys acting as the advance party can all head back to camp.”

It was roughly the day or so after she had finished instructing Primo. She and several other members of the Loki Familia were on the 28th Floor, just beneath the Water Capital. It was one of the Safe Floors of the Dungeon, present after the floors where the Monster Rexes often spawned, and so the number of monsters present was rather minimal.

However, just because the Dungeon did not spawn monsters didn’t mean they couldn’t wander from above. Or, in the case of the Pterosaurs, from below. Flying monsters could cover a massive amount of distance on their own and she couldn’t risk any of them spotting the small band busy setting up a light camp for what was turning out to be a Quest within a Quest.

Of course, the Quest that Lefiya was supposed to undertake was different from the others. But her skillset made her getting down and helping to clear the area ahead of them imperative, along with some of the others. They didn’t want another Poison Vermis incident that resulted in so many of them being laid up on the 18th Floor the last time.

Lefiya passed back the waterskin and gave her a grateful nod before heading back, with the Human Mage accompanying her. She could only assume that they would have one of the Beast Humans take her place on the lookout. They made small talk along the way. “I’m surprised so many people volunteered to come along for the quest issued by the Dian Cecht Familia.”

The Dian Cecht Familia had placed a request for a cornucopia of Bloodsaurus drop items for one reason or another.  The region below was a vast stretch of verdant jungle. The vegetation often grew in layers, from dense bushes to rising shrubs to towering trees, all of which competed with one another for the light shed from above. Numerous fruits and resources foreign to Orario could be found there, but the primordial landscape was difficult to navigate even when you didn’t include the fact that dinosaur-like monsters considered the layer their home.

Since they were familiar with the terrain, and the last expedition had put the Familia within the red, the Captain had taken up the quest. To that end, the original intention was to send out a select few to handle it. But, to the surprise of many, when the call for volunteers Level Three and higher went out, there were a lot more who answered than expected to where they were—treating it as a sort of mini-expedition.

“Well, most of them are the guys who don’t want to be shown up by Cottontail,” Elfy said, shrugging her shoulders. “Not only did he pop up asking to see Aiz after you got involved, but then he went ahead and beat the War Game on top of achieving Level Three.”

Lefiya didn’t know whether to giggle at the fact that her little brother had managed to incur the jealousy of so many of her Familia’s members or sympathize with them because she knew exactly where they were coming from. Bell having a skill that accelerated his growth meant that, realistically, he would be able to surpass all of them in a relatively short amount of time in terms of raw numbers—even if he was lacking in actual skill or experience.

“We’re all Adventurers in the end,” Lefiya said, settling on the middle path. “We can only do our best.”

“I can’t say that I’m too sure on how to feel about him myself considering the peeping thing,” Elfy admitted, looking at her with an accusatory yet playful glance. “And you’ve been awfully close to him despite the fact that you were the one who wanted to chase him off the most back then. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he caught your eye.”

“Let’s just say that I realized I overreacted when we got into real trouble,” the Half-Elf responded, not rising to the bait. Elfy did, in fact, know better. “He means well, but he just gets in over his head at times.”

“I’d call ‘getting an entire Familia breathing down his neck’ a little more than over his head, but if you say so.” She folded her hands behind her head as she looked up towards the ceiling. There was a prolonged silence before she spoke again with a smile on her face. “Still, I guess at least I don’t have to worry about him stealing you away from the sound of it.”

Lefiya blinked in confusion. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Nothing~” Skipping ahead to her own playful tune, Elfy bound into the camp while Lefiya followed until they spotted Bete Loga.

The Werewolf had a perpetual frown on his face as per usual, but the moment his gaze faced in her direction he pointed back towards the bigger tent. “The Old Hag wants to see you. Get going.”

That said he continued along his way, leaving the Half-Elf to follow instructions after bidding Elfy farewell for now. Inside of the largest tent she found Lady Riveria sitting in front of a table that held on it maps of the floors lower than this one, her staff set aside while she held her chin in thought. Next to her was Gareth, who was stroking his beard while similarly in contemplation. She held her silence to avoid breaking their concentration, though she did take a seat on one of the cushions when the Royal Elf gestured for her to do so.

It only became apparent that they were waiting for one other person to enter when the flaps opened and Aiz entered. Her golden eyes shifted over to Lefiya and she gave a small nod in greeting before turning her attention to her superiors. “Bete said you wanted to see me?”

“The Guild approached us with an extermination request for an Irregular Monster,” the Royal Elf began. “It is a variation of an Obsidian Soldier, located on the 37th Floor, and with so few Familia capable of traversing so deeply into the Dungeon they felt we were their best option. Gareth and I were chosen to handle it, but we’ve decided to give you two a chance to deal with it in our place.”

The two younger women stiffened slightly at that. Irregular Monsters were capable of being born under two circumstances that were known. The first was that the Dungeon spawned them, though those were much rarer circumstances. The second and most common was that a monster had devoured the magic stone of another monster. It only took five or so for a monster to display a notable increase in strength, and in the Deep Floors that bode poorly.

“If you succeed, your debts will be wiped clean,” Lady Riveria continued. “However, I will add that it is optional. We suggested and cleared it with Finn that we believe you both are more than capable of handling it on your own. However, if you feel incapable, we would only ask that you keep watch over the camp while we go to handle it.”

Lefiya was silent as she considered the request. She was uncertain of whether or not she was capable of handling the situation if it was an irregular version of an Obsidian Soldier. Their bodies were highly resistant to Magic and her primary contributing factor in expeditions was exactly that, meaning that she would likely be dead weight…

Yet, Lady Riveria had specifically chosen her for some reason. She had never been shy about her expectations when it came to Lefiya as her successor. And, recalling what she had told Primo and how Bete had told her the same, she shouldn’t settle for simply living up to her expectations.

She should focus on surpassing her mentor, not living in her shadow. And the first step to doing that should be to find a way to deal with the problem in front of her. The fact that Lady Riveria suggested her meant that there was one, even if she couldn’t see it right now. “I’m willing to try.”

“Me too.” Aiz added. “Can you tell us more about this irregular?”

The question earned a look between the two elites of the Familia, a wordless message passing between them.

Then Lady Riveria answered her. “It’s far larger than normal of its kind, probably around six meders tall according to the reports. And rather than being black, it has a more crystalline and reflective color. It has also demonstrated a rudimentary ability to use a long-ranged magical attack in the form of a howl that creates a sonic boom. I believe the tentative name is a ‘Reflection Soldier’ for this particular irregular breed.”

The Half-Elf’s brows furrowed as she considered the information. Large as a Monster Rex and no doubt powerful in terms of strength, but if it was on part with a Floor Boss then they wouldn’t be sending the two of them alone to deal with it. She didn’t doubt that they could deal with the raw strength by just avoiding it in the case of the Vanguard and staying out of range for her.

The Magic is the biggest problem, she settled on. Considering that its howl was to be considered a magical attack it most likely operated somewhat like her Gale Blast in that it compressed air and then launched it—only using its throat as a cannon instead of a wand. If I had taken my Level Up then I would have Magic Resistance like Lady Riveria and soften the effect…

Her thoughts froze. Memories flashed. The pendant Bell received. The final clash of spells. The Obsidian Soldiers. She rose to her feet and asked, “How long do we have to complete the Quest?”

“Three days,” Gareth answered. “That should be long enough for the others to complete the request with the Bloodsaurus drop items. It looks like ye got somethin’ in mind?”

“Um, I have an idea on how we can maximize our chances of success,” she said before turning to Aiz. “I believe that there are gemstones that can confer limited Magic Resistance to the wearers found in that region of the Dungeon, in the White Palace. If we can find at least one before we challenge it, then we’ll have a better chance of standing up to it. Can we spend one—no, at least two days searching for it?”

“Ah… that’s a good ideal, Lefiya,” Aiz agreed before turning to Riveria. “May we postpone challenging it for the first two days. If we don’t find it after that then we’ll return to rest before we challenge it on the third.”

The request received a nod of approval from the Dwarf. “Smart, use all your options before goin’ ahead. Fortunately, since Udaeus won’t show up any time soon, access to the 38th Floor and below is possible. My instinct as a miner tells me you’ll have a better chance finding them there, and ye can set up your own camp on the 39th Floor and search for ‘em. We’ll come to pay a visit around then.”

“What will we tell the others about our absence?”

“Gareth and I will tell them that you both are handling a separate request for us and aren’t to be bothered,” Lady Riveria answered. “There’s no need to worry them about what we’ve asked.”

“We won’t let you down,” Aiz told her. “Let’s go, Lefiya.”

The Sword Princess and Thousand Elf departed from the tent, intent on preparing what they would need for the trip. As soon as they were out of earshot, Gareth let out a slight laugh. “Looks like you were worried for nothin’.”

“Who said that I was worried about them?” replied the Royal Elf in her normally unflappable tone.

“If they had chosen to rush into it without askin’ then you would have had them go to the 38th Floor to find those stones beforehand. And if they had chosen not to do it, ya gave ‘em a way out without shame by keepin’ it a secret. No wonder Loki always refers to ya as ‘mother’ around ‘em.”

“…Hush you,” she responded before sighing. It was true that she had some misgivings about the pair and their recent behavior. But this and that were two completely different things. “They might have shown they’ve taken a step in the right direction, but they still have to beat it. As they currently are it’ll be difficult if they rely on a brute force approach. That will be the real test.”

“That’s true,” he agreed. “Still, I think I’ll go check up on ‘em later in. Neither one has swung a pickaxe in their lives. No cunning with stone between the lasses.”

[-38th Floor-]

Nnnn… why is it so hard to find them…

The whine slipped out of Lefiya’s dejected mouth as she leaned on the pickaxe that she had borrowed when they had gathered supplies in order to set out to the 38th Floor. It had been a day since they had broken from the other group and come further down, setting up on the Safe Floor beneath the White Palace. Though, to call it a camp was overdoing it since there were just the two of them, but it was nice in its own way.

Since they needed to collect gemstones that conferred the limited Magic Resistance they had two options to get it.

The first was to simply kill the Obsidian Soldiers and hoped that they dropped them. They were rare drops, of course. The material component of their bodies were effective as normal drop materials, but the gemstones were rare and far more potent. Add into the fact that they resisted Magic due to their body composition, Lefiya would have had to expend far more Mind to overpower it.

The second was to mine the walls around the floor. Since the Obsidian Soldiers were made of minerals composing the walls, occasionally they formed within the walls. If they got lucky they could find a decent chunk or two and that would hopefully be enough. But there was no guarantee.

So they had settled on a compromise of sorts. Aiz would kill the Obsidian Soldiers around the Floor, given she was Level Six and thus more than capable of dealing with them, while she would mine the wall where they spawned from consistently enough that they likely had the gemstones within them. If they were lucky they would obtain at least one that could be used to help the Sword Princess, given Lefiya most likely wouldn’t be able to do anything against the irregular.

I can’t let her do all the work, Lefiya thought to herself as she rose to her full height and took up the pickaxe once more. Even if the chances of her finding something were low, the thought of doing nothing when Aiz was going around and killing monsters because she couldn’t was something she couldn’t stomach.

Tink. Tink. Tink. Hammering away at the stoneface, Lefiya chipped away at the stone in search of the precious jewels nestled deep within.

Tink. Tink. Tink. The mining in itself was not only tedious but boring to the extent she was amazed that anyone would make a career out of it. But, because of that, she could allow her thoughts to drift onto other topics.

Tink. Tink. Tink. For her date with Filvis she needed to consider what it was that they would do. The Holy Moon Festival had several key events for people to enjoy themselves, dating back to ancient times. The dance that went on in Amor Square was more inclined towards couples, and she wanted to dance there with her if they had the chance.

Tink. Tink. Tink. But she knew the gorgeous Elf had a lot of boundary issues, even more than others of their kind. She considered herself filthy to the extent of not letting herself touch others with her bare hands. Lefiya had been making progress with her, but she wanted to see if she could get her over that hurdle without scaring her away—like at the Spirit Festival when she had tried tempting her into a kiss.

Tink. Tink. Tink. Holding hands would be a good place. If she could just get her to hold hands with her, no gloves or cloth between them, then she would consider it a success. Anything more than that would be too greedy, no matter how she occasionally thought about her beautiful pale skin or her soft lips and how she wanted to—

“That’s no good.”

The Half-Elf Mage jumped at the sudden voice, whipping her head around so fast that her hair could have counted as a potentially lethal weapon. There she spotted Sir Gareth, the Dwarven Warrior having arrived at some point. He was standing next to her while inspecting the rockface she had been working at with an appraising gaze.

“Lass, ya can’t just go at the stone with no thought in mind or else you’ll never find a thing. Each stroke needs to have purpose. Don’t go daydreamin’ in the middle of work.”

Hearing the Dwarf’s admonishment caused the Half-Elf to feel a surge of embarrassment. She quickly bowed her head and apologized. “I’m sorry. My thoughts just… drifted a bit. Mining isn’t really my forte.

“Youngster’s these days…” He let out a gruff sigh. “I suppose at least ye didn’t get started usin’ your spells to try to solve the problem.”

“That wouldn’t exactly be efficient,” she admitted. Since the gemstones repelled Magic she could in theory simply blast the walls and the stone in question should be fine so long as she didn’t go overboard. But compared to the expenditure of Mind and the area, it just wasn’t worth it.

“Then ye got a better head on your shoulders than Riveria had startin’ out,” he said in an elderly tone. “One time we ran across a place on the surface where gems could be found an’ Loki was lookin’ for quick valis. She got so impatient that she let loose her spell and didn’t consider the fact that thermal shock would shatter the gems an’ bring the whole thing down.”

I… I… see…” Or so she said. In truth, the undignified image of her mentor unleashing her full might on a rockface after having to sling a pickaxe for Lady Loki’s whims was so foreign her mind refused to process it. “But so far I haven’t had any luck finding them this way. At this rate, I’m worried that the time we took out to prepare will be wasted.”

“It would help if ya mined in the proper place,” Gareth told her as he looked at the ground around them that was covered with broken stone fragments from when she had been hitting away without rhyme or reason. “In this case, consider the nature o’ the Dungeon itself.”

“It’s nature?”

“No matter how many times it spawns the monsters, and they break through the walls, they always grow back, right?”

She nodded.

“An’ those monsters sometimes drop the gemstones after they have their magic stones removed, meanin’ that it was concentrated within ‘em. And gemstones themselves are born when the earth has been placed under enough pressure. What connects all three of ‘em?”

Her brows furrowed as she considered it. Drop items resulted from the concentration of magical energy within that specific part of the monster being coalesced and made dense enough to survive the extraction. By the fact that the surface from which Obsidian Soldiers were born also housed them meant that it had to come about as a result of the properties of the stone and the formation of the monster’s body. If the monsters kept respawning from the walls and breaking off then…

It clicked. “I should try working from the origin point where they consistently spawn and break off?”

Even if the wall broke it would just regrow itself to how it was before. Then another monster would form in it, acting as an incubator that would constantly be pushed aside by the growing fetus. But as long as it was connected to a point in the wall, like an umbilical cord until the magic stone was fully formed, it would constantly be a focal point for the magical energy.

“New stone would put pressure at the base of where it met the old stone an’ was compressed by the Obsidian Soldier as it grows into formation. The body bein’ constantly supplied with magical energy from the walls would be mixed into the base. Smashed all together long enough and it’ll crystallize.”

Her azure eyes looked down at the stone fragments around her and then towards the walls that had given birth to the Obsidian Soldiers that Miss Aiz had dealt with before. The Dungeon had already begun repairing the deepest parts, and it might have only been an educated guess on her end. “The stones that were older would look different from the ones that were newly regenerated because of that, right?”

He nodded. “Well, it’ll still be up to chance if ya find one. I’ll go an’ check on Aiz now before I head back up. Try not to daydream again, else Riveria will hear of it.”

She bowed her head in gratitude at the Dwarf. “I won’t. Thank you very much.”

Taking his advice to heart, she reconsidered her approach when it came to mining. Pulling out steel pitons and using the Strength of a Level Three, she drove into the wall at the spots that were regenerating since they would be the best points to start at one at a time. Then she proceeded to get to work at mining in earnest.

Tink. Tink. Tink. The first hole she dug into bore no crystallized fruit, but she could see the beginnings of where the stone’s hue turned a deeper shade and the texture shifted notably to the touch. She didn’t have a good baseline to work off of, but she gained a better understanding.

Tink. Tink. Tink. Nothing on the seventh hole either. She had to take a moment to actively break the wall where she had driven the pitons in earlier to make sure the Dungeon didn’t try to close them up. A check of the pocket watch she kept showed she had been at it for quite some time now. But she had hope.

Tink. Tink. Tink. She counted at least the thirteenth hole when she spotted glittering silt among the stone. It caught the light coming off the magic stone lantern she had as she peered into the darkness, faint sparkles of light. A push of her own magical energy into it and she felt the slightest of resistance.

A smile came across her face. Now she only had to widen the area she was in. Tink-tink-tink. Tink-tink. Scrape. Shuffle.

“Lefiya?” The soft, bell-like voice of an angel pulled the Half-Elf from the constant echoing of the pick against the stone. She pulled herself from her work and poked her head out of the hole that she dug to see that Aiz had returned. “Are you okay?”

“Miss Aiz, I found these!” She excitedly presented her prize. It was a few modest-sized, unpolished, rough gemstones. “I think these will work, won’t they?”

“Yes,” the Sword Princess acknowledged. “But it has gotten late. You were supposed to return an hour ago.”

“I was?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the silver pocket watch that had Elven embellishments upon it. It had been hours since the last time she checked. “I hadn’t realized that much time had passed.”

The loss of time weighed upon her as she considered that Aiz must have been worried to come seek her out. But, at the same time, she was happy that she managed to find a few of the gemstones they needed. She climbed out of her hole, only to realize just how covered in stone dust she was when some of it billowed out upon landing. Thank goodness no other Elf was around to see her looking so disheveled after being invested in mining, of all things.

“I suppose I should go wash up first,” she mentioned with some embarrassment as soon as they returned to the Safe Floor considering her state. The camping site they had chosen was a modest distance away from the entrance and had a stream of flowing water that served multiple purposes—including bathing.

To her surprise, Aiz decided to do the same. “I will join you.”

Lefiya’s mouth opened and closed as she tried to voice her thoughts. But no words came out as Aiz went downstream and began to strip down. Several emotions surged through the Half-Elf, even as she intentionally averted her eyes from the privilege. It wouldn’t be right to enjoy the sight when it was right in front of her when she was both looking for a committed relationship and perfectly aware Miss Aiz shouldn’t be leered at lecherously by anyone.

The last thing she wanted to turn into was Lady Loki.

So she kept her attention elsewhere even as she followed suit, sinking herself up to her neck within the water. Their weapons were nearby if a monster that wandered from above or below came close by. But, between the two of them, there was mostly silence as they let the water wash away the dirt, dust, and grime of the day.

It was the Sword Princess who eventually broke the silence. “You were working hard, weren’t you?”

“Y-Yes.” She cleared her throat. “I wanted to make sure that I could at least do something while you were out killing the monsters. Did you have any luck?”

“Only a few small ones from the hundreds I killed,” she claimed. Considering the drop rates were low for them, it was probably the best they could do between them. The question now was how they would approach the irregular itself. “Do you think that he’s doing well now too?”

“Who?”

“That boy,” she explained. “Bell Cranel.”

“Oh, him.” Lefiya shifted her eyes over towards the Sword Princess tentatively to see that her gaze was looking upwards. Not towards the ceiling itself, but further. To the surface. “For the most part. He’s had a lot of things to adjust to since the War Game. They also have a new member—an Elven child who wants to become a Mage. I gave them advice on how to train her and took her to get her supplies the day before we set out.”

Golden eyes turned back to her. Then her lips pulled back into a small smile. “Did you have fun?”

“I did,” she admitted. Then she recalled another matter she needed to address while they were alone. “Miss Aiz, I also owe you an apology.”

“What for?”

“For how I used the fact that you were helping Bell to train as an excuse to help me train as well,” she confessed. Back then she had not liked the two of them together, especially because she did not want him around anything to do with her Familia. And in doing so she had used that knowledge to essentially blackmail Aiz into spending time with her. “My reasons were selfish, and I didn’t consider your own feelings on the matter. For that, I owe you an apology.”

“Oh.” The Sword Princess’ expression turned pensive for a moment. The weight of her gaze seemed heavier on Lefiya as well, though that very well could have just been her imagination considering her smile returned. “It’s okay. My own reasons weren’t entirely honest as well.”

“What do you mean?”

“I… wanted to understand how he got so strong,” she confessed. It was not an easy thing to do either, considering how she looked away. “So that I could see if I could do the same. That was why I originally agreed.”

Lefiya found that difficult to believe, in a sense. She was already so strong. So beautiful. Graced with a wind that belonged only to her, the Half-Elf coveted that same thing at times. But, from that perspective, she supposed she could understand in a certain way. In the end, it had many forms.

It could be ugly at times, stirring up jealousy, hatred, and envy. It could be a beacon, instilling admiration that one looked. It could serve as a goal post, a marker for one to reach for. Or a benchmark for one to surpass.

“But I had fun helping him,” Aiz continued, her voice gradually lightening in tone. “I wanted to see him get stronger as well. And something about him sets me at ease, in a certain way. I think he’ll have a bright future ahead.”

Lefiya sincerely hoped so as well before the silence resumed.

The calm was welcomed.


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 22 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 22: Lumine Pleiades

Floating. Bobbing. Dancing. The answer to my question came one night when I saw the little wisps of light that had gathered around us as we slowly drifted off to sleep. Close enough to be felt but fleeting to the touch, the lights hovered around us as we took shelter in the edge of a small forest of no note.

A slender figure emerged from the shadows. Tall, with sandy blonde hair and piercing green eyes, the Elf regarded me for a moment with an impassionate gaze when he spotted my ears. But as the Spirits flittered about with sounds that I couldn’t comprehend, resolution set upon his features.

His name was Elio. And he was the one who taught me the Magic of our people.

—My Magic Teacher

[-|-|-|-]

“The colors of the walls changed…”

Those were the words of the Neophyte Elven Mage as she gazed upon the Fifth Floor of the Abyss that spawned the bane of mortals upon the land, sealed off by the divine and races all collaborating in what became known as the start of the Age of Gods.

The First Floor of the Dungeon was stone with a light blue texture that caught the light, a vast hallway with several Adventurers flowing through it. But the monsters were in short supply given how recently broken the walls were. Their numbers had no doubt been trimmed by the flow of early morning Adventurers. Now, here on the Fifth Floor, she noted how the walls had taken on a slightly greenish hue and the design of the pathways was beginning to shift and become more complex compared to before.

“We’ll be heading to one of the rooms off the main route,” Lefiya told the younger Elf. Since they took a straight route and the morning rush had come through, a lot of the monsters had been dealt with. But as she knew from sweeping the floors as her punishment that traveling off the beaten path meant they would encounter danger. “Bell and I will be listening for danger but keep your senses sharp.”

“Yes, Miss Lefiya,” Primo answered dutifully as she traveled between the pair. Bell had taken to the front and Lefiya had taken to the rear, as the center was the safest location for the lower Level and less durable members of the group since the Dungeon could spawn monsters from its walls in any direction.

Her pointed ears flickered around nervously as they traversed a corridor of stone that was dimly lit. Her steps grew heavy with tension and slender fingers clutched the Oaken Staff in her grasp. Every sense was primed out of nervousness and fear…

…crack…                                                                                                         

That was when she heard it. The sound of a stone womb splitting open, wet and rough and dry at once as life emerged—a shadow born from the wall itself with claws meant to rend flesh from bone with an impassioned mirror-like orb. And not just one either.

Fear ran up her spine as more of them came into existence from behind and in front of them. It was primal fear. Born from the instinct to survive, driven into the surface races since before the descent of the divine. The living shadows fixed their gazes upon the Elf and she froze in place, unable to move or breathe.

Then one took a step forward as it flexed its claws… only to be reduced to ash. The shifting of the air was followed by gleaming of steel, a violet streak left against the ebon bodies that caused them to erupt into ichor and collapse into boneless heaps. And when her hair settled from the sudden wind, Bell had found his way next to her with his onyx blade held out in a reverse grip while his ruby gaze spanned the corridor.

“I’m going ahead to clear out the path,” Bell said. “Keep her safe.”

Then he darted off, leaving her behind. It was only when Primo felt a gentle brush on her shoulder that she regained motion—albeit with a startled jump.

“Breathe, Primo,” Lefiya told her, looming over her from behind with both hands resting on her shoulders. “Just breathe. It’ll be fine. I’m here.”

Ah…” Her lungs began to work at that and with the air tainted by the smell of monster ichor came a variety of emotions. Uncertainty. Shame. Relief. “Umm… sorry.”

“You’re supposed to be afraid of monsters,” Lefiya told her. “That’s a survival instinct. Especially considering you just received a Falna and this is your first time being down here. The transition from being an ordinary person to an Adventurer is learning how to act in spite of that fear. So, what do you think you should have done?”

She took a deep breath before answering. “I should have cast my spell?”

To her surprise, Lefiya shook her head. “First, you should assess whether or not we were aware of the danger. Bell and I are both Level Three and so we heard the Dungeon getting ready to spawn them, but not the entire party may not have been aware. This is especially important in larger parties when one side can be ambushed before another is aware or while dealing with a different threat. And after that…?”

Having been corrected once before, she took a prolonged moment to consider it. “To see if a spell needs to be cast at all?”

“That’s right,” she answered. “It’s really easy to fall into the mindset that when you have Magic you should use it as soon as possible. But not all Magic is equal, and some are more circumstantial than others. Offensive spells tend not to distinguish friend from foe and, considering a large number of your party will be close-ranged fighters, you have to be aware of friendly fire.”

Arcs Ray had a homing property, and she could control the size and output, so she had some leeway in using it to pick off priority targets like the Irregular Wyvern King. But her other spell covered a wide area even if she condensed it down as much as possible and so her party had to get out of the way, or else they were at risk as well. It meant that she had to be careful when she unleashed it.

“Not to mention you still need to get a feel for how many times you can cast a spell before exhausting your Mind,” Lefiya added. “Once you know that you can determine how best to work with your party. There’s also learning the basics of self-defense because at some point you’ll end up in a situation where you can’t use your spells.”

Her tiny brows folded in as she took that information in. “You mean like the War Game with that other Elf?”

“That was more of an exception to the norm. If I hadn’t been at a higher Level, then I wouldn’t have tried that and would have kept my distance at all times. Only Magic Swordsmen like Miss Alicia or Filvis are comfortable with using spells in the middle of a skirmish like that.”

Primo’s brows rose in confusion. It was then Lefiya realized they had never told her about how she was the one who had participated with Bell. Likely because she was new, and it was a topic that was still under wraps by large.

“I borrowed a magical tool that let me disguise myself like Bell’s Supporter so I could help him without my Familia being aware,” Lefiya clarified. “I couldn’t use my normal spells then since everyone would recognize them, so I had to rely on the spells I learned from the Spirits and the staff drills Lady Riveria taught me. It’s a secret between myself and your Familia, so you can’t tell anyone. Okay?”

She nodded. That’s when Bell reappeared and told them he’d cleared the path ahead. Lefiya counted at least twenty monsters, but she couldn’t be sure how many had been spawned from the walls as soon as he entered and how many had already been there. They were going to have to remove the magic stones to get rid of the bodies when they were done but, for now, they had the room to work with.

“Right then,” the Half-Elf began, having finished dragging a corpse into the center of the room while her brother and temporary charge were at the entrance. Then she left it there lifelessly before hopping away and landing next to them. “First, we need to see what your spell can do. Primo, aim for that corpse and focus on your chanting.  You’ll feel a little hot and uncomfortable but that’s normal the first time.”

Purple eyes narrowed on the corpse as she held out the staff with both hands. Then she began to sing for the first time in her life. “O dazzling stars crossing the jet-black sky. Hear my immature prayers and let them guide your streaking flash…”

The air was tinged with the sensation of magical power being focused through the staff as she continued her song, purple eyes folding with uncertainty from the power building up within her. It was a foreign yet familiar for the neophyte. But she swallowed and finished her song as she aimed at the corpse. “Rain down, shine of tears, and purge the squalor below—Lumine Pleiades!

Seven glimmering stars formed above the center of the room. Their brilliance connected by lustrous strings intensified as though twinkling in the dim light as it passed from one star to the next. Then, all at once, their brightness grew dazzling as the constellation sent silvery beams down from each one that bathed the locale with the corpse at the center.

Ah!?” The child squealed in mild surprise as stone dust billowed out, lingering in the air to form a somewhat dusty veil. But when it thinned her eyes went wide in surprise as she found the corpse had been obliterated as there were a few indents in the ground. “I… I did it?

Bell was naturally quick to cheer her on. “Yeah. That was great!”

She bounced up on her feet as she looked upon the destruction that she had rained down. “Miss Lefiya did you see it?”

“Yes, I did,” she answered, her azure eyes taking in the sight as she tapped her chin. Filling in the role of her mentor for the time being she gave her initial impression of the spell. It was a simultaneous barrage of seven beams of light, roughly a meder across each, upon a designated target at a glance. But there were still unknown variables to take into account.

Was it specifically due to the fact she was focused on a single target that made them converge? Or would it work on multiple targets within an effective radius? What was the maximum range?

As she finished listing these off, Bell turned his attention back to Primo and asked, “Can you do it again to find out?”

“I’m not sure,” Primo admitted. “I feel funny.”

“She’s suffering from post-magic rigor at the moment,” Lefiya interjected, her eyes turning to the Elf to see the shivers running through her body. “Forcing a spell will only hurt her if it doesn’t backfire or fail.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve experienced that before.”

“The more Mind and magic power flowing through your body, the greater the rigor it causes,” she explained. “I mean, it’s not like Miss Mikoto can cast her spell back-to-back after she sustains it for a while, right? She needs time between casts to gather herself, unlike you or Mister Welf, whose spells come out so quickly but are either circumstantial or normally weak. Typically, the longer the chant the longer the rigor lasts.”

That was part of what made the Demi-Spirit so terrifying when they had faced it on the 59th Floor. It could not only use Ultra-Long Incantation spells, but it could also cast them back-to-back with next to lapse between them. By all accounts, that thing was a monster in might and magic alike.

Lefiya addressed her charge next. “Take a seat and take deep breaths to try to relax. Keep counting how long it takes for your body to normalize in your head so we’ll have a measure for how long you can go between casts. It’ll shorten as you get used to it and the Mage Development Ability will help… oh, and can I have permission to borrow your spell?”

Primo quirked her head in confusion. “Huh?”

“My title of Thousand Elf comes from the fact that I can use the spell of other Elves,” Lefiya clarified. “Specifically, my Elf Ring spell allows me to use any spell cast by an Elf so long as I know the chant and understand the effect. I’m asking permission more out of courtesy.”

Elf Ring was a one-of-a-kind spell that laid bare every spell of Elven kind, which meant she had access to every spell from the Elves within her Familia as well as any she came across if the requirements were met. The fact that this was known would naturally cause some level of friction with others, as what should have been something exclusive to them was just another option for her to pick and choose at her leisure. To be jealous was mortal, but Familia had to be able to work together, so to ease any potential tensions she placed a self-imposed rule that she would only borrow a spell if she had explicit consent—such as when Filvis gave her permission to use Dio Grail.

It also cut down on decision paralysis, as having too many options could be a detriment. If she needed to use an offensive spell her own came at much less of a cost. The only exceptions were when she needed to hit far above her weight or a specific scenario, in which case the best possible choices usually came from Lady Riveria’s spell list—offense, defense, and healing.

But it also gave her a rare opportunity to showcase just what Primo’s spell could do in the hands of someone with more experience and how to best instruct her. “So, may I use it?”

Primo bobbed her head. “Please do.”

“Thank you.” Turning her attention to the center of the room, Lefiya began her own song before her audience of two. “I beseech the name of Wishe! Ancestors of the forest, proud brethren. Answer my call and descend upon the plains. Connecting bonds, the pledge of paradise. Turn the wheel and dance. Come, ring of fairies. Please, give me strength—Elf Ring.

The magic circle the hue of her soul, aureate in color, formed a stage around her feet. It shed mote of light into the air, which tingled from magical energy. The Summon Burst connected, the ring of faeries encircling her, and at that moment the gateway to her kin was thrust open as the cost was paid.

Glimmering purple eyes. A hitched breath. Ignorant of how the child was captivated by the sight, Lefiya continued to sing. “O dazzling stars crossing the jet-black sky. Hear my immature prayers and let them guide your streaking flash. Rain down, shine of tears, and purge the squalor below—Lumine Pleiades!

Her chant summoned the constellation once more, seven stars loitering in the air. However, unlike when Primo did so, the daystars were far brighter. Then, when those stars fell to earth, they did so within a row of luminous rays the size of columns, a soft hum birthing a roaring crash as the light seared the earth where it landed.

Lefiya exhaled while looking over her own handiwork. She took in the size of the area that had been blasted along with what she presumed was the cost to her Mind in the aftermath, slowly weaving together her thoughts on it—

THAT WAS AMAZING!

—when the Half-Elf Mage was ripped from her inner contemplation as Primo jumped up with a cheer. The girl who had only cast a spell that should have belonged to her and only her for the first time in her life responded to the near-instant appropriation and upstaging of said spell not with envy or infuriation. But, instead, she held youthful awe and jubilation in her glimmering eyes.

“You really can use the spells of others!” she continued.  “You have Lady Riveria’s spells too, right? All nine of them? Can you show me them as well? Pleasepleaseplease!”

“Maybe later,” Lefiya conceded, mildly surprised at her elation at the spectacle. It was… novel, but not unwelcomed. “But, before that, did you remember to keep count of how long until your post-magic rigor wears off?”

Her pretty face scrunched up as she realized she had lost count. “Ah… oops….”

“It’s fine this time,” Lefiya assured her. “Your spell is wonderful and has a lot of potential. Depending on how you use it you’ll be able to adjust depending on whether or not you’re dealing with a single target or multiple ones since you can aim each star before the trigger. And the higher your Magic, the more powerful it’ll be.”

“So I should try to get my Magic Rank to above S-rank then?” Primo asked.

“Just getting it to be high enough to reach the D-rank should be fine since after that you’ll only need an accomplishment to Level up and can go deeper into the Dungeon to avoid diminishing returns. Any higher than that will be incredibly difficult on the Upper Floors… besides, it takes years to reach the S-rank, and I’ve never heard of anyone getting higher than that.”

“But the Captain had Double S-ranks on most of his Status when he passed Level One and Level Two,” Primo pointed out without a shred of mockery or doubt. “Lady Hestia showed me his old Status sheets and I saw them.”

Lefiya… blinked at that. It was the sheer casual way she mentioned that which dumbfounded the Thousand Elf, who had seen much in her tenure as an adventurer. Then she turned towards Bell with her brow raised, the unasked question carried in her gaze.

“I’ll explain later,” Bell said from his position further back. There was a small collection of monster corpses that weren’t there before. He had been busy dealing with them attempting to sneak in whether drawn from the spellfire or recently born from the walls.

It wasn’t a denial.

Right…” Lefiya took a moment to process that tidbit before focusing on the impressionable young Elf in front of her. “Even if you can get above S-rank, Bell is an exception to common sense. It’s fine if you want to grind up your Magic, but it should be after you get the Mage Development Ability. Understand?”

“Yes, Miss Lefiya,” she answered dutifully. Then they continued to practice, one after another, as Bell began dragging corpses into the room to be used for target practice and dealing with clearing out their way back. It was after her fourth volley that the expected happen as Primo began to sway on her feet. “Did you see me that timeeee….”

“Looks like three times is Primo’s safe limit for the moment,” Lefiya said as she caught her before she could fall over. The girl was out cold, so she turned to address her younger brother. “Don’t let her fire off a fourth volley unless you absolutely need to do so, and keep in mind that doing that will pretty much leave her unable to cast a spell for the rest of the day even when she regains consciousness—her limit will increase with her Level and the Mage Development ability but, at that point, if she strains herself too much it’ll take more than a day to recover.”

If post-magic rigor prevented back-to-back spell casting until one became familiarized with the strain of it, then Mind exhaustion was what prevented one from overreaching when you were a Mage. Even with a Magic Potion to help replenish one’s reserves, the strain of it weighed heavy on the body and mind—a reminder she had from when Argonaut had pushed her Arcs Ray beyond her limit and left her with a headache for quite some time.

“Teaching her archery is also an option since that’ll help her with learning trajectories and you don’t have a lot of long-ranged options outside of your little friend and Firebolt. She needs to be able to do more than just cast spells to make it as a Mage, otherwise, she’ll be useless when she hits her limit.”

“That’s a lot to take in at once,” Bell said as he came over with a Magic Potion and carefully raised her chin so he could tip it into her mouth slowly. Primo swallowed on reflex. “Still, I really can’t thank you enough for all of this.”

“I’m just paying forward what I was taught and learned,” she told him before making sure that Primo was unconscious and they were alone. Then she asked the obvious question. “Now, about your Status going above S-rank?”

She had thought it to be a joke that Lady Hestia may have played on the girl as they laid her down to rest. Motivation to give her a number to aim for like how Lefiya admired Lady Riveria. But apparently it was not.

“It’s true,” he began. “Both times I’ve gone from one Level to the next all my Status have been S-rank or above. That’s part of the reason Lady Hestia also hurried with raising my Level and learned how to lock my Status after the Minotaur incident. The Loki Familia members who were there likely saw I had all S-Rank before the final update I had for Level One.”

Nnn…” Everything in her body wanted to believe he was joking. She knew he probably had a Rare Skill, but… to that extent was still hard to swallow. But it explained why everyone was so on edge before they went further into the Dungeon to deal with the Demi-Spirit. They knew all along but kept it a secret because they weren’t supposed to know. “SS-rank exists?”

He nodded. “It goes one rank higher too.”

Her slender fingers ran through her hair at that. The maximum had always been thought to be S-rank because going past that was so difficult. And, realistically, there should be no situation where you ended up gaining that much Excelia and not rising to the next Level…

Except, she was grinding up to get S-rank herself and holding off on going to Level Four. Every point counted, as Lady Loki told her. And then there were Bete’s words about surpassing Riveria. Why could they see beyond a limit that she couldn’t?

“Well, at least that explains why you were on par with Hyacinthus during the War Game,” Lefiya conceded. “And for you to get your points that high after a week of training… your Skill gives you accelerated growth by a ludicrous amount, doesn’t it?”

Her brother admitted to it. “It’s called Realis Freese. The description stated it was the ‘crystallization of an ancient pledge rekindled upon meeting one bound by fate’ and it gives me immunity to Charm as well.”

She had never heard of such a Skill, meaning it must have indeed been a rare one. But what caught her attention more so was the wording and how similar a part of it sounded. “Vow of Elcos… I obtained that after what happened in the Under Resort. The description reads ‘the birth of an everlasting bond. Raises attributes and allows for synchronization while working in tandem with those bound by fate to the Clown March’.”

Bell’s brows folded in at that. Recognition. “The Clown March… I’ve heard that before. Grandpa once referred to it as another name for the tale of Argonaut.”

“Which is the same name as your other Skill and the name of Fina’s brother, who shared the same homeland of Elcos,” Lefiya added. “They really are connected somehow. I figured that might be the case when Argonaut was passed onto me, but even the wording is similar—bound by fate.”

There really were too many coincidences at this point. She was still working her way through the memoirs at the moment, but she did have time to speak with Tiona about some of her versions of Argonaut that she had read. None of them referenced the homeland or the Clown March, so the fact that Bell’s Grandfather apparently knew a different version of more common stories held weight in itself.

She still refused to acknowledge that one on the High Elf Queen Celdia as anything short of blasphemous though. “This is starting to give me a headache at this point.”

“It does seem to be a bit complicated,” Bell admitted. “Lady Hestia felt it was important to keep the information a secret outside of our Familia. You’re the exception since we’re already in this deep and you’ve got a key to the place. But we still don’t want it to get out.”

“We’ve got at least two or three secrets between us that would cause problems if it got out, so what’s one more at this point…” The Half-Elf trailed off as she recalled something pertaining to said secrets and reached into her bag. “Speaking of which, Mother sent something for me to give you.”

Bell’s ruby eyes were half-folded in confusion as he grabbed the letter and heard the soft clink of metal within it. Then he opened it carefully with the non-bloodied knife he carried and from within he pulled out what looked to be a small pendant on a golden chain. There, embossed on the pendant, was an emblem that appeared to be a two-pronged spear with three lightning bolts to the left and right of it. “This is…”

The emblem of the Zeus Familia,” Lefiya murmured as the familiar sight brought memories to her mind. Times when her mother would sit her on her lap and regale her with stories she heard from their father. “But why did she send it?”

Azure and rubellite eyes shifted their attention to the letter where her mother had written in exquisite cursive to address her brother.

Bell Cranel.

Words cannot express the joy that I felt when I received my daughter’s letter that told me the two of you had reunited as brother and sister. I had always been worried about how you were fairing since that day we met and parted ways. Though I may not have been your mother, you were the child of the love of my life, and with his passing, you have become one of the few treasures that he left in this world.

It also makes me happy to hear you are following in your father’s footsteps. If your heart is as brave as his, I’m certain you’ll be a great Adventurer just as he was.

As Lefiya has told me you did not possess any memento of your father, I have included a pendant that he gifted me before parting ways. Though I am loathed to leave it, he has already gifted me something far more precious—my daughter.

So please treasure it. And should you find the opportunity, please write to me. I would love to hear how you were raised into being such a wonderful young man.

Also, from what my daughter has told me, you’ve become quite dashing as well. If you were anything near as charming as your father, I imagine you already have many suitors willing to take your hand. But should you find yourself looking for one such person, your sister should know plenty of Elven women who may catch your fancy.

I would love to see my grandchildren within the next few years.

G-Grandchildren…” The words clawed their way from Bell’s throat as he whipped his head around to find that his sister was blushing as she covered her eyes in embarrassment. “What does she mean by that!?”

“Well, we’re siblings because we share the same blood through our father,” Lefiya began, rubbing her ears that had turned as red as his eyes. “It doesn’t matter if she’s not your birth mother, you’re as good as her own child since you’re the child of the man she loved enough to have me with. We’re family, so your children would be her grandchildren and a way for her to remain connected to Father even as the centuries go on.”

And to be honest that was probably the best outcome considering how they were blood-tied and how their father was no longer around. Her mother having her and learning about Bell meant that his legacy lived on through them, from her half-Human features to his eyes. So she treated him more maternally, something that she would have loved to have done when he was younger if not for Lefiya’s insistence when she was younger and the guilt about her living circumstances.

But it would not be unheard of for an Elf who had lost a loved one to fall to their grief and become desperate to find some way to fill in that void. That included pursuing the child or sibling of said person if there was enough of a resemblance and they were at sexual maturity. There were Elven novels here in Orario that were best sellers with that premise for a reason—a taboo tale of a heroine falling in love with a hero only to find they were unattainable, so they shifted their attention toward a descendant.

“As for me playing matchmaker,” she continued. “I suspect that’s because of my own preferences when it comes to partners. Considering all Mother went through to give birth to me, it’d be hypocritical for her to tell me to find a male to have a child with if I wasn’t in love with them. But she still wants grandchildren and you being Human means that any children you have with another Elf will have Elven blood, and thus have a lifespan measured in centuries that she can dote on.”

Grandpa always said Elves had a different perspective but hearing that from you is another thing entirely….” Bell paused for a moment as a thought crossed his mind. “Wait, your mother was over a century old already when I met her that time?”

“Remember, the culture inside and outside of forests vary due to how long we live,” Lefiya said as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. “By those standards, around a century is the prime age to get married and start working towards having children since our race has such low birthrates that it can take a decade of effort to conceive. Her being pregnant with me so soon was because Father was Human, and she probably expects it to be the same for you… actually, how friendly are you with Miss Ryuu and that Guild Advisor of yours.”

Bell sputtered to form words as his face grew luminous. “Miss Ryuu is just a friend, and Miss Eina treats me like a little brother—Miss Flott even calls me as much. There’s no way they’d be interested in a guy like me.”

“It’d be more believable if you said that without blushing, but I’m not going to press you on it…” That being said she wasn’t sure how to feel about another Half-Elf stepping into her sororal duties. “Just avoid the Pleasure District. I can tell you right now that being kidnapped by Amazons is not fun.”

How would you… nevermind…” Her brother groused before looking down at the pendant that once belonged to their father. His expression softened. “The Zeus Familia…. Grandpa told me they were destroyed by the Black Dragon.”

“That’s the story I’ve heard,” she answered, her own expression softening. “They were one of the first Familia ever formed and among the most powerful. Grand Day celebrates their defeat of Behemoth and Leviathan fell to Hera. But that monster managed to kill both of them off, and then Zeus and Hera were both ran out of Orario by the Loki and Freya Familia.”

The Black Dragon—a monster that has existed since ancient times. One of the eldest and most powerful in existence, birthed from the Dungeon before the lid was placed upon it. It succeeded where its counterparts that covered the Land and Sea failed.

Her brother’s expression turned to surprise as he faced her. He didn’t know about that last part it seemed. “What do you mean?”

“Even though they failed, they reigned supreme in Orario for a thousand years,” she answered honestly. “They could rebuild in a few years if they had access to the Dungeon. So, the Loki Famila and Freya Familia exiled them to prevent that. It’s too hard to raise one’s Level outside of Orario that high barring very specific circumstances—let alone enough to compete with current status quo.”

Bell swallowed a held breath at that, while several expressions flashed on his face. For one who had been raised on stories of heroes, it probably seemed rather cruel that the reward for their heroism was to be beaten down when they were at their lowest and chased away so they couldn’t stand back up.

“It’s not like Lady Loki or the members of my Familia are bad people,” Lefiya said, knowing how her joining Loki’s Familia could be perceived as an act of betrayal in light of that. But the simple fact was that her father was dead by then, and she had no reason to be attached to a Familia that couldn’t keep him safe.

“I never said you were,” Bell told her, brushing his hair in the process. “Miss Aiz, Miss Tiona, you—all of you have helped me even when you didn’t have to. People call you heroes like the Braver. But I still don’t understand why they’d do that in the first place. Aren’t we all working towards making the world a place where everyone can smile?”

“That was fifteen years ago, so maybe things were different?” It was the only answer she could give him as she reached out and traced the emblem embossed on the pendant.  There were times after learning what she did that she wanted to ask Lady Riveria why they would have done so. It was underhanded in a way that didn’t suit her or the others. “At least, that’s what I want to believe.”

She wanted to believe that they had a good reason for doing so. She wanted to believe that the people who had been supporting and protecting her, even at the risk of their lives, had a reason for that. That it was for the betterment of everyone else.

“Anyway, we should head back to the surface,” Lefiya said, rising to her feet and scooping up the still sleeping Neophyte Elven Mage. “We’ll let Primo rest for a bit while we head to the Great Gnome Library. She can use some of the books there for a reference with her Magic studies.”

Bell kept his gaze on the pendant for a moment longer. Then he tucked it and the letter in his pouch before joining them. He was the vanguard and so he had to clear the path of the monsters that were waiting for them to emerge after all.

Still, the thoughts that came to his mind would linger for a time as they said goodbye.

It would be a few days before they saw one another again.