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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.

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