Chapter 26: Holy Moon Festival – Morning
“I began studying Magic with the forest we were guided to by the Spirits as our home for the time being. The first lesson was naturally the nature of the Spirits themselves. Understanding them were the key to cooperation and thus the wisdom they could bestow after all.
Spirits existed within the world, embodiments of nature given life by the Gods and said to be those closest to the divinities on the Lower World, as they could hear their voices and respond. The fact that we Elves could enter into a contract with them directly meant that we were a race favored by the Gods, unlike the other mortal races who should only be so lucky if the Gods deigned to turn their attention upon them. Or so Elio claimed.
I had reservations (naturally) but stilled my tongue. Argo placed his faith in me, relegating himself to sleeping on the outskirts of the forest and effectively doing all the manual labor for us so that the Elf could teach me without any distractions. If he could bear with that much for my sake, then I should be able to do the same for him.
I had to if I was going to be able to protect him.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic I: Spirits
Bell Cranel stirred awake as early as usual on the day of the Holy Moon Festival.
He had always been early to rise from the time he lived on the mountain and worked the farm along with his grandfather. Daylight was precious and tending to crops happened to be more time-consuming than one would expect. In Orario that translated to reaching the Dungeon relatively early enough to beat the morning rush…
At least that had been back when it had been only Bell and his Goddess as members of the Familia.
He exited his modest room set on the east side of the Hearth Manor’s third floor. The spacious estate had become their home, constructed of stone, wood, and glass, covered an expansive amount of space to where they had more room than they knew what to do with it. Cleaning it all alone would likely become a nightmare, to the point where Lady Hestia was considering hiring help to deal with it once everything settled down.
Bell made his way from his room out into an expansive corridor where the light from the sun poured in through the windows. At the end of the corridor was one of the larger bathrooms that he could use to get himself ready for the day. He took his time to wash himself clean, leaving out refreshed and invigorated as he stretched his limbs that had been loosened by the heated water.
Then he got dressed and proceeded a few doors down towards Welf’s room. Since it would be time for breakfast soon he figured he would wake him just in case he had stayed up too late at the forge. He knocked on the door a few times but there was no answer. “Welf, are you there?”
After listening for a response and hearing none with his Level Three perception, he tested the handle and found that it opened. Welf was nowhere to be found inside. Bell let out a sigh as he realized Welf had spent the night outside again.
Since Lady Hestia had the manor remodeled to suit their needs, she gave Welf his own personal forge since he lost access to the one he would have had with his original goddess when he transferred over. However, there have been cases where he would stay up late to practice his forging to an extent that bordered on obsession in Lili’s words. The fact that he slept in the forge didn’t exactly refute her claims, even if he stated he was just trying not to get rusty.
I’d better get him before Lady Hestia finds out, Bell reasoned. The Goddess of the Hearth treated them as they were her own children and, while she wouldn’t scold them, she could find a way to make them feel guilty for not listening at the expense of their own health. It never felt great to be on the receiving end.
He made his way towards the main foyer where the pair of winding staircases would lead him down to the first floor. However, on his way down, he spotted the other early riser within the Hestia Familia. “Good morning, Miss Mikoto.”
The kunoichi paused in midstride from the floor below and turned her head in his direction, giving him a glimpse of her eyes that looked rather satisfied. Her normally lovely white skin was flushed a red shade from residual heat from the morning bathing she did with one of the baths that had been converted to be more suitable to the Far East style on the lower floor so that all of them had access to it. It was divided into two rooms, of course.
She brushed a stray lock of her raven hair that hung delicately in front of her face and gave him an amicable smile. “Good morning, Sir Bell. I was about to begin working on breakfast after waking the others up.”
“I can do that since I’m already up here,” Bell said, looking over to his left where the other set of stairs would lead him to the women’s wing. They had divided the third floor between the two sides to give both genders a level of privacy, though there was no real hard rule that prevented one side from visiting the other. And Lady Hestia’s room was actually located in the center as it was the largest, being what he presumed was the Master bedroom with a view of the courtyard.
“You have my thanks,” Mikoto stated. “I’ll have breakfast ready for everyone by the time they are all woken and have cleaned themselves up for the day.”
With that, the kunoichi headed towards the kitchen while Bell ascended to the opposite side. Mikoto’s room was the very first room by the stairway but, given that she was already awake, he skipped over it and went for Lili’s door. “Lili, are you up?”
There was the sound of wood scuffing the floor from what he presumed was a chair as smaller footfalls crossed the space. The door opened to reveal Lili dressed in a nightshirt and pants. “Master Bell, did you need something from me?”
“No, I was just coming to wake you up,” he said. “But it seemed like you were already up.”
“I woke a little while ago and thought I should look over the lesson plan for the day after we go to the Dungeon,” she explained. It turned out that due to her… circumstances, Lili had a pretty solid grasp of math compared to the rest of them. So not only was she the Familia Treasurer who kept track of their finances, but she was also helping Primo with the arithmetic portion of her studies.
Bell felt a little embarrassed that he couldn’t do much in that regard. He was literate and knew basic mathematics, but the rest was beyond him. So when she revealed that she could help he had asked her to without a second thought, but he didn’t expect it would interfere with her sleep schedule.
That done, he proceeded down the corridor to the next occupied room to wake up Primo. In contrast to the immediacy of Lili’s response to his knocking and call, he could hear the soft sounds on the other side of the door of the child slowly rising from her bed. Her steps were heavy as she staggered forward and fumbled with the handle. When the door opened it revealed the prepubescent Elf with her eyes still closed, hair disheveled, and her nightgown wrinkled as she and swayed on her feet.
“Ish… redi… Cap’n…” Primo mumbled while still half-asleep, taking a step forward and bumping into Bell before reflexively bringing her arms around his waist to cling to him. Out of all of them, Primo was not used to waking up early. It was likely due to the fact that she was new to the lifestyle of an Adventurer in combination with her young age, so she was a little slower to rise than the others. “Mmnnn…zzz…”
“Hey, don’t use Master Bell as a pillow!” Lili called out as she emerged from her room and pried the Elf off of him while Bell just laughed awkwardly. “I thought you Elves were supposed to be prim and proper.”
Only once she was pulled from Bell and back into her own room did Primo’s consciousness seem to spark awake fully. Her eyes snapped open and, seeing those ruby eyes upon her as Bell waved, she promptly shut the door before calling out, “I-I’m not decent, Captain! Please give me a moment!”
“You don’t need to rush,” Bell told her over the sound of shuffling and light chastisement from Lili on the other side of the door. She almost sounded like an older sister in the way she was telling her she needed to be more aware of what she was doing when getting up. “We’ll have breakfast ready within an hour, so both of you can take your time.”
With those two up, Bell turned his attention to Hestia’s room located behind where the stairwells met. He knocked on the door and called out to her. “Goddess, are you awake?”
“Bell, come inside. I want to show you something,” she responded through the door. Her dutiful child did so, opening the door and entering the room that was far larger than any of theirs. His ruby eyes spanned the room only to for his breath to hitch as he took in her appearance as she did a twirl with the morning sun coming from the balcony window behind her.
Hestia’s long and flowing black hair seemed glossy in the morning light while beneath a deep blue veil with gold trimmings. Elegant white fabric formed a collar around her neck to a sapphire pendant, which allowed the excess cloth to flow around her upper arms like ribbons. It was only because they were attached to golden shoulder bands that they didn’t fly freely, but left arches of flowing fabric that trailed after her.
Her voluptuous bust was cradled by more of the virgin white fabric with bands of gold acting as a pseudo-corset. They matched the ones circling around her hips to hug her waist, holding up the long skirt that was split into two sections, with the center being a long strip of blue rimmed with gold while the rest was white. The wind carried it up enough that he could see up to her knees as she spun around elegantly for him.
“What do you think?” she asked, coming to a stop with the flowing fabric following gently after her. “Isn’t it cute?”
Heat brimmed from his chest to his head. “Goddess, when did you get that?”
“I found it in in the closet when we moved in,” she explained. “It’s a perfect recreation of one of the outfits that I wore back in Heaven, so I can only assume that Apollo had gotten it made during the time he declared the War Game. He must have forgotten it when we took his home.”
Goddess, I’m pretty sure he didn’t forget it so much as he left it on purpose, Bell thought to himself with a bitter grimace. The fact that it was a perfect recreation of one of her outfits in Heaven and fit her so well spoke of the man’s obsession with her. Even so, he couldn’t deny it suited her somewhat in being more regal yet divine compared to her normal outfit. “You look beautiful, Goddess.”
She smiled at his praise. “The last time I wore it was when Artemis and I were up above. Aphrodite had come by to bug us as per usual. Since it’s been so long since I’ve seen her and the Holy Moon Festival was tonight, I felt nostalgic and thought I’d want to wear it for the dance.”
An unsettling sensation fell into his stomach. He had promised her that he would dance with her, even though he wasn’t any good at dancing. The last time he danced with Aiz it was more like they managed to avoid stepping on each other’s toes since they had practiced enough to read one another’s rhythm. Not to mention the fact that it was supposed to be a mostly couples affair…
His ruminations of the impending horror that was a moonlit dance amidst strangers and him embarrassing himself were cut short when he noticed Hestia beginning to remove the bangles, indicating she was getting ready to get undressed. He promptly turned away. “Anyway, I should go and finish waking up Welf. I’ll see you at breakfast!”
Bidding her farewell for the moment, Bell vacated the Master Bedroom and made his way down the stairs to head out to the forge. But before he did so, he peered out through one of the foyer windows towards the gates to see if there were any people were out there, beyond the fountain. They usually only appeared after breakfast and the numbers had been dropping as of late thankfully, but there were still more than he liked. It seemed that with the festival being today none were too eager to try to grab their attention, so the gate was clear for the moment.
Hopefully, it would stay that way.
He made his way out back, the morning air carrying with it a slight autumn chill. But it wasn’t cold enough to see his breath yet as he went close to the edge of the backyard where the trees and gates formed a perimeter. There a forge had been built for Welf’s sole use.
“Welf,” Bell called out as he opened the door. “Are you in here?”
A rough grunt was his answer as he reached over towards a magic stone lantern and turned it on to find the Blacksmith lying down on his workbench, turning from the light as if it was the bane of his existence. But then he forced himself up and ran his calloused hands through his hair before yawning. “Is it morning already?”
“The others are already getting up,” Bell answered. “If you don’t hurry, Lady Hestia will find out you spent the night here and be upset.”
“Don’t want that to happen,” he said, standing up before looking over to a hammer. “Hephaestus will hear of it too, and it’d just make me look like I still need to be looked after despite everything I said then. But the second one was so close that I just had to finish it.”
Bell’s ruby eyes traced his gaze over to the wall where he spotted a great sword. The steel was black, waves running along it in a way that made it seem like flames that were rimmed by fiery red hue. It was most likely a Fire Element weapon.
“In my dreams I see a sword of flames and lightning,” Welf explained as he reached over and picked up what looked to be a stiletto. It had a brass-toned handle, but the blade was a golden color. “I’ve been trying to get closer to that by experimenting with different types of blades and blacksmithing techniques, but none of them have come close to that yet. There’s something I’m missing.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out what it is eventually,” Bell assured him. “And even if these ones are fragile, they’ll serve to keep our Familia safe. That’s what matters, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” He rose to his full height and stretched before moving to the door. As he passed by, he set a hand on Bell’s shoulder. “Sorry to make you go out of your way for me. It’ll be the last time.”
And with that, the rest of Hestia’s Familia were inside of the mansion they called home. The hour came and went, with their breakfast being a serving of eggs that were made in a Far East style that Mikoto called a rolled omelet accompanied by slices of ham and toast with fruit slices. They discussed their plans for the day over it.
“So, how deep will we be going today?” Welf asked from his seat on the right side of the table, positioned between Mikoto and Lili. Unlike the others, he was placing them between slices of toast and ham to make a sandwich while Mikoto was skillfully using a pair of chopsticks and Lili was using a fork and knife.
Bell finished chewing his slice of an egg before answering. “We’ll stick with the Upper Floors since we can handle the monsters and have a chance to work out our group dynamics with Primo. Besides, Goddess is expecting us to come home earlier today.”
“That’s right,” Hestia said. “The Holy Moon Festival is tonight, and we should all have a chance to celebrate and relax while things are finally winding down from the War Game. It’s the first time for myself, Bell, and Primo, so we should enjoy it together.”
The Elven Mage, who was happily eating her peach slices, perked up at hearing that. “Does that mean I can take a break from studying tonight?”
Lili rebuked that notion quickly. “Don’t be silly. We’ll simply study earlier and fit in time after your archery practice in the courtyard. You still can barely hit the target as is.”
Primo’s pointed ears comically deflated at that. “Uwaahh…”
“A little break is fine, Miss Supporter,” Hestia said before brushing the child’s hair. “That goes for her and you. It’s nice you’re pushing yourself to meet Bell’s expectations since he’s relying on you, but it’s important to rest every now and again. Right, Bell?”
Bell was quick to agree with a beaming smile. “That’s right. You’ve earned as much of a break as anyone, Lili.”
Her chestnut eyes turned away from him as she sported a hint of crimson in her cheeks. “If Master Bell insists, we can take a break today…”
The news that she would be let off for the day from her relatively hard schooling brightened Primo’s smile. “If we’re all going, does that mean Miss Lefiya will be there too?”
“We might see her there, but I think she has a date tonight,” Bell said, recalling his sister’s plans. It had come up during one of their talks considering the whole ‘I want grandkids’ message from her mother. “I don’t think she’d appreciate it if we interrupted her. At the very least it would get awkward between us again…”
Primo tilted her head quizzically at that. “Awkward?”
“Well… ah…” Bell decidedly chose his words carefully given that he didn’t want to bring up the whole matter on the 18th Floor that involved women in various states of undress and then the groping incident. “Let’s just say things between us weren’t always as friendly and I don’t want things to go back to that way.”
He had been on the receiving end of her wrath before. And, from his limited experience with women, he had a strong feeling that they would dislike interference with their romance. Thus, he felt it best if he stayed far away from her tonight if he could help it.
In the heart of a forest, nestled deep in the verdant green, laid a Great Tree.
The stalwart tree that stood as a sentinel was unshakable. It withstood the passing of ages and every obstacle that nature birthed. Its dark, thick, furrowed bark withstood pounding rains, frigid snow, torrential storms, and harsh heat, unmoved even as the world itself changed around it.
Should those rains turn into a fierce flood its roots would brace against the surging waves. Should the snow become a raging blizzard it would ward off the invasive frost. Should the storm become a hurricane it would be an unmoving bastion. And should the heat become a raging flame from the scorched bark would sprout life anew.
It was a foundation within her as a Mage.
Its resilience was her resilience.
Its fortitude was her fortitude.
Lefiya envisioned within the confines of her mind being the Unshakable Great Oak as she went through her meditation exercise for the morning. The imagery was vivid as she reinforced it with the memory of the Spirit Tree of legend. Even when the flames of a Dragon scorched it, the tree managed to cling to life and rejuvenate itself with a little help.
Such was the majesty of both the Royal Elf and a primordial Great Tree.
Truthfully, she never thought she would have the chance to lay her eyes on a Great Tree given her birth. Living with her mother on the outskirts of the Wishe Forest, the heart of the forest was beyond her wildest dreams of visit. She thought she would only have her mother’s tale of how during the tree’s flowering it would sport a crown of light with such majesty that it seemed almost like a halo ascending to the heavens. Seeing the Spirit Tree for herself was a luxury that she never could have imagined and would remain forever entrenched within her.
Recalling the sight as the spirits danced around it, Lefiya’s mind then shifted back to the memory of Filvis as they danced. Her soft breath washing against her skin, leaving it prickling with temptation. Her lovely eyes that she could just get lost in. Her tender, soft-looking lips that she came so close to finally…
“Ah, that’s not good!” Lefiya pulled herself from her mental world as she felt heat sweltering in her head, leaving her to shake it. “I can’t get distracted just because of tonight.”
Her date with Filvis would be later this evening, during the Holy Moon Festival. The moon would be amongst its brightest and largest, shining overhead for all to see. It would set a romantic and festive atmosphere, not unlike the Spirit Festival. But unlike then it would be a real date this time.
That meant she had to control herself and avoid the temptation to repeat her prior actions. She didn’t need to rush to get her feelings across now that she knew they would be returned. The last thing she wanted was to drive her off because she came onto her like some kind of Elven Fetishist.
Taking a breath to re-center herself a light chime that signaled the passing of an hour reached her ears. She opened her eyes to see her room bathed in the morning light and rose from her meditative position to get dressed in her battle clothes. Specifically, her regular ones rather than the ones that Lady Riveria had given her.
Those clothes were something she would reserve when acting as Lady Riveria’s successor rather than casual wear. After all, they would be very expensive to repair if damaged considering the materials used. And it would have more impact if she only wore them when she needed to act as the second to the Nine Hells.
Once she was dressed, Lefiya made her way down to the cafeteria to eat a light meal before she had to head out. There was an open seat for her with many of the other girls within the Familia who were up now—Elfy, Leene, and Anakitty specifically.
“Finished your mediation exercises?” Elfy asked as she scooted over to give her roommate just a little more room next to her.
“Mm-hmm,” Lefiya hummed softly, not mentioning the distraction that she had around the end. The various scents that filled the table from everyone’s choice of a meal tempted her to expand on her choice of food, but she tamped down on it as she settled in to eat. “What about you?”
“I’ll do it later,” said the Human Mage as her green eyes skimmed over the light breakfast consisting of a bowl of oatmeal, fruit, and orange juice on the Half-Elf’s plate. In contrast, she had scrambled eggs and was using a butter knife to apply fruit jam across her slice of toast. “I wouldn’t be able to sit still for an hour on an empty stomach.”
“I suppose I should do the same,” said the soft-spoken Nurse, Leene. The quiet girl sat opposite the two of them, her morning meal consisting of cereal that had slices of fruit added into it. “By the way, was the book I loaned you helpful?”
Lefiya gave a short nod of her head. “I’m able to grasp the basics somewhat, but there are a lot more complexities than I expected so I’ll be needing it for a while.”
Healers, or specifically dedicated spellcasters who had the Treatment Development Ability, tended to be far rare than Mages. There was no guarantee over what kind of spell one obtained, if they ever obtained one. And even then, the study to earn the Treatment DA was practically the same to become a doctor or pharmacist.
As the Half-Elf was still learning and studying under Riveria and only had access to healing spells Elf Ring, it was largely impractical for her to even make the attempt. But since Lefiya did have access to a healing spell that she could use now with a relatively lower cost to Mind, she thought it would be best to make the most out of it. It would never be as good as Leene or Lady Riveria since the potency of the healing relied on the Magic attribute and Ancient Magic spells didn’t benefit from it, but it was still an option that she had wished for in the past and shouldn’t squander.
That was why she had asked Leene if she had any beginner materials she could study, which she allowed her to borrow. The basics operated on the principle that the user would not have the Treatment DA, so it taught the importance of diagnosing the nature of injuries beyond the level of basic first aid they were all taught and how to prioritize treating them. That gave her a better understanding of how to direct the flow of magic towards said areas rather than her usual method of simply letting the spell run on its own as that would be cost-inefficient—unless Argonaut was involved.
Then it effectively was an instant full heal and stamina booster considering how it worked during the War Game.
“I knew you had your head in a book most of the time you were home, but I didn’t think that you were taking up an entirely different branch of magic on top of all of your training with Lady Riveria,” Elfy said with a flat look. “You’re gonna burn out if you do all that.”
Anakitty agreed with a soft, yet worried expression. “She’s right. You should probably take it easy. At least for today. Do you want to come with us to the festival?”
“Sorry, but I’m heading out in a little bit to go train in the Dungeon and, as for this evening, I have other plans…”
It wasn’t as though she broadcasted her relationship with Filvis, nor the sudden change in their status from friendship to courtship. Elfy knew because they were roommates and best friends, but the others didn’t need to know that. There was nothing she could do if they spotted her by chance at the festival, but the last thing she wanted this morning was anyone to give her expectations or try to squeeze her for information.
“Oh, that reminds me, Elfy are you still using that primer of Elvish terms from the library?” Leene asked innocently. “It’s been out for a while, and your name was on the logbook last…”
Lefiya turned to her, head tilted inquisitively as the human winced. “I didn’t know you were learning Elvish. If you’d asked, I would have taught you.”
“Lefy, we just covered the fact that you were not only studying harder but spent most of your days buried in a book or otherwise busy,” Elfy pointed out. “Besides, it was just something I was doing in my free time so could learn enough to read some of the books in your language for when I eventually bump up my Mage DA. The Fairy Force has the best stuff on Magic outside of the books printed from Alterna, where they’re always written like a thesis and never get to the point. It’s enough to put a girl to sleep.”
The Fairy Force was the Elven Mage detachment for Lady Riveria consisting of a total of eleven female Elves who were Level Three or higher and possessed the Mage DA. The Royal Elf possessed the skill Alf Regina, or Seal of the Fairy Queen, which strengthened the effect of spells cast within her magic circle if they were cast by Elves. It also converted the expended magical energy back into Mind, effectively making it so that they could keep casting—minus the post-magic rigor and mental fatigue. Combined with the use of Concurrent Chanting, they were a mobile magical artillery force that specialized in hit-and-run.
Mind you, Lady Riveria hated the name in itself and Loki had come up with it. But most of the Elves were fond of it because they typically had skills related to Faeries and it was an honor to be part of it. Lefiya was the newest member of the Force, due to her not being exceptionally good at using Concurrent Casting—it was only recently she had become proficient with it due to her time training with Filvis.
Lefiya had to admit that it was a good idea on her friend’s behalf considering Elves had the most pronounced use of Magic throughout history until the Age of the God. The reference books from their race tended to have a fairly solid grasp on different aspects of the Art because of that, but there were also clear biases in the text towards Elves. She really didn’t appreciate how they referred to half of her parentage, so she couldn’t imagine that Elfy would have an easier time putting up with it.
“Anyway, Lefy’s not the only one with plans though, is she?” Elfy’s green eyes turned to their resident Healer teasingly and the bespectacled girl went rigid the moment she felt the collective eyes of the others fall upon her.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about…” Leene said softly while fidgeting in place. Her face gained a splotch of crimson while she angled her head so that the sheen of the morning light hid her eyes. “I’m just going to be doing some independent studying myself. That’s all. Really.”
“Reaaalllly~” Elfy practically purred as she leaned forward with one elbow on the table as she propped up her head. “So, you’re going to spend the night of the festival just studying instead of going out with the rest of us on a girl’s night? That’s all? Nothing about makeup advice floating around or anythingggg~”
Lefiya could almost swear that steam was coming out of the poor girl’s ears as she shrank in her chair. She felt compelled to do something about it, so she nudged her friend with her elbow and told her to stop. “Elfy, knock it off. You know full well rumors are just that. I still haven’t forgotten that one you guys bought into about me after the 18th Floor.”
“Yeah… sorry about that,” Anakitty said with her ears shifting. “I’ve told Raul time and again to think about what he says around others to avoid things like that happening, so we should stop it from going any further.”
“Just having a little fun,” the Human Mage said as she leaned back in her chair and shrugged. “But you have to admit it’d be interesting if either of those rumors panned out to be true. Just imagine if Cottontail actually managed to snag the heart of the Thousand Elf, or what kind of guy could make Lokolite swoon?”
“I disagree,” Lefiya noted flatly.
It was a sentiment Leene shared as she shifted her glasses by the frame with her hands. “So do I.”
Thankfully, the conversation drifted into other topics as she finished her breakfast in peace.
Then it was off to the Dungeon.
Chapter 20: The Supporter’s Scheme
Lili had learned from a very young age that you couldn’t rely on anyone else to reach out and save you.
If you want to be saved, it had to be by your own hands. That was why she had embraced the fact that if she wanted to be free of the chains binding her to the Soma Familia, she had to do so by whatever means was necessary. That was what brought Lili to seek out the white-haired boy known as the Hero of the Streets.
She had been worried he would have brushed her off and she would have had to pry him into talking to her further by making a scene. But he had almost immediately brought her to the cafeteria on the second floor of Babel after she had greeted him out by the fountain. There were only a few adventurers around given that the early rush into the Dungeon had begun.
The Dungeon could spawn endless monsters, but not all at once. The walls had to regenerate and the magic stones forming their bodies had to crystallize, so there was actually a hard limit called a spawn time for the Upper Floors. And since most of the Exploration Familia adventurers in Orario were Level One, the early morning was a rush to kill as many as possible to harvest their magic stones before the main routes of the Upper Floors were picked clean.
It was also unlikely that Ged would come after them in public if he happened to stumble upon them at present. The last thing he should want to do was cause a commotion here on the surface where it would get him blacklisted. So it made for the perfect place to have a relatively innocent discussion between them once they were sure he wasn’t there.
“I’m glad you managed to get away from that guy safely,” said the boy with a soft sigh. His pure white hair was a strong contrast to the lustrous black of the coat he wore, and the light of the magic stone lamps above gleamed off his polished breastplate. “I had been worried that he might have gone after you, but I had no way of checking… how is your wound?”
“It’s all better thanks to Mister Hero,” she said in a saccharinely sweet voice as she showed him where the tear had been in her robes, now roughly stitched shut. There was a deep, red stain there from where her blood had trailed out. “Lili won’t even have a scar thanks to the Potion.”
Supporter clothes were made to be easy to clean, given they were supposed to be used while harvesting magic stones. It tended to be bloody work as you carved open the monster to get its magic stone, and often there were a number of different fluids depending on how long the body had been left to rot. The fact that the bloodstain was still there was because she had chosen not to wash it as a reminder of what occurred while he stood there and watched the man getting ready to kill her.
She wanted him to feel guilty about it after she had been hurt. And the fact that his gaze turned away from the sight showed it worked. “I’m so sorry about that. I should have been quicker.”
“Lili doesn’t blame Mister Hero,” she lied with a smile on her face. “In fact, Lili wants to ask Mister Hero for his help. Lili wants him to protect her from Mister Raish. She fears that he will come after her again, but if he sees Mister Hero with her enough he will surely give up.”
“I see…” His brows furrowed in thought for a moment before those red eyes that reminded her of rubies returned to her. “Not that I’m refusing, but why didn’t you report him? He tried to kill you.”
“Because it will cause problems with Lili’s Familia,” she explained. “The Soma Familia sees Lili, who is small and weak, as someone who is a burden since her parents died in the Dungeon. She can only make a living as a lowly Supporter, so if she reports it then they will find out. Then Lili will have no Familia and no way of working, so she will starve.”
“Are there really Familia who would do that?” he muttered under his breath for a moment in what she believed was disbelief as his hand on the table balled into a fist. He must have been from one of those Familia that preached they were all family to each other. Those who swear themselves to the divine now shared the same ichor upon their back, so they were as good as brothers and sisters.
Empty words considering she’d seen how the members of her Familia were all too willing to stab one another in the back for a valis if it meant getting even a drop of Soma. “Ah, but Lili won’t ask for Mister Hero to protect her for free. She will become his Supporter in exchange for protection. With her bag and help any magic stones and drop items that Mister Hero had to leave behind before can be gathered and turned in at the Exchange. That valis can serve as Lili’s protection money. Lili will also not need any food or supplies and promises not to get in the way, so Mister Hero can focus entirely on fighting in the Dungeon.”
It would be a loss. But bringing more attention to the Soma Familia meant bringing herself to the attention of Zanis before she could earn enough to buy her freedom. And getting caught by Ged meant she would be dead.
That was why she was willing to sweeten the pot. He was supposedly the hero who protected the people of Daedalus Street. She would fatten him with praise, approach him as a maiden in distress, and even offer to work for free as a reward befitting a hero. He literally had to do nothing but let her be near him.
It would be the perfect bait to lure Ged to them.
He was a vengeful bastard so he wouldn’t let either of them go. The problem was that he only had a few opportunities to do so since Lili could hide herself well enough in the city between her Magic and having walked the dirtiest streets in order to survive since she was old enough to be put to work. He only got the drop on her because she had gotten caught faster than usual due to being too careless.
The hero here was also the talk of the town right now. Attempting something like before could draw the eyes of the Ganesha Familia, and they would take the words of the one who cleaned up their mess with the Silverback over some nobody adventurer. So his only option would be to try to get them both at the same time in the Dungeon, where accidents happen all the time.
Then it would all be over. Even if Ged managed to kill him while trying to get to her, it wouldn’t be without him taking a few injuries in the process. And even if Lili was weak, the Magic Sword she had on her was more than capable of killing a wounded Level One adventurer without any problem.
“I can’t ask you to work for free,” he said. “Even leaving aside what my Goddess would say, it just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“It’s fine.” She reached her small hands across the table, setting them on top of his as her chestnut eyes peered into his while folding softly. “Lili is sure she can get by with what little she has as long as Mister Hero can keep her safe. So please… please don’t leave Lili alone…”
He bit his lower lip as emotions ran through his rubellite eyes that looked down on her like a small child. It became too much as her stare remained unwavering and he turned away. “I don’t mind protecting you, but… please stop calling me Mister Hero. That’s not something I deserve to be called. My name is Bell. Bell Cranel.”
She smiled brightly. “Lili has made it as far as the Tenth Floor and has also memorized the maps of the Guild, so she promises not to hold Master Bell back!”
“On certain days I won’t be available without contacting the party I’m working alongside,” the boy said. “We’ll need to talk it over with them—”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary, Master Bell!” she hurriedly insisted. Too many people knowing meant too many complications. That might either get Ged to reconsider or word about her may reach others and they could tell him. “Lili does not want to impede in Master Bell’s life. Instead, Lili will work whenever he is available.”
“Nmm…” The white-haired boy replaced his hat onto his head and pulled the brim of it down to cover his eyes from view. “I was planning on heading down to the Sixth Floor today. Let’s see how things work out between us before we talk about the future. It’ll be all for nothing if I can’t even keep you safe down in the Dungeon.”
Bell had reservations about Lili’s claim about having delved down to the Tenth Floor. The Dungeon was a dangerous place after all. So he was always keeping an eye on her as they ventured from one floor to the next with the expectation of needing to keep monsters off of her most of the time.
But with each floor that they dove down those reservations lessened bit-by-bit. She may not have been capable of fighting on her own. But she proved that she knew how to perform her job with absolute competency.
There were logistics involved with dealing with monsters that Bell had never really had the time to consider. He would kill whatever appeared in front of him until the Dungeon decided to stop spawning monsters. Then he would go around and pluck the magic stones that made up their cores from the corpses, along with any drop items that might have been left behind. The moment his bag ran out of space, he would head back up to the Exchange and the day would end.
Since he had to prioritize killing the monsters before they could kill him, he left the dead where they lay. That had the consequence of making extra obstacles when he was fighting. And then there was always the risk of blood pooling on the surface and making it more slippery.
Lili effectively took care of those problems. She was fleet of foot as she dragged the corpses out of the way, placing them in corners while staying out of the line of sight of other monsters trying to kill him. He could only presume it was due to her career necessitating stealth if she had been a Supporter for as long as she had claimed.
Her expertise with harvesting really shined as she quickly cut into the bodies of the monsters to harvest the magic stone. Different monsters had different anatomies, so the magic stones tended to vary in position and depth. It was possible to end up damaging it if one was careless, but the way she did so was efficient and smooth. Her small body benefited her as a simple incision allowed her petite digits to pluck it from within and place it in a pouch that would later be stored in her bag.
The large backpack itself was invaluable as well since the different pouches accommodated different kinds of drop items. The small round side pockets were best suited for things like Goblin Nails. The longer and rectangular pockets were perfect for things like War Shadow Nails. There were also holsters for Potions and canisters of the more common medicinal ointment, compartments for rations, straps for sleeping bags and weapons, and more.
It made his dinky little bag feel inadequate.
“Lili apologizes for not being as useful as she would be normally,” said the Pallum Supporter as they sat close to the entryway of the Seventh Floor. “Master Bell’s Magic is more suitable than her for his belongings.”
He was quick to reassure her otherwise. “No, you’re a lot more helpful than that. You know more about the Dungeon and the monsters than I do.”
It was true that Bell’s access to the Dream largely rendered her services for carrying his things a non-issue when it was just him. Anything he needed could be called up by the Messengers fairly quickly and from any surface, especially weapons. He effectively had his own personal portable armory.
But that had the benefit of leaving more space for what they collected. If there were drop items from the monsters he killed then she carefully counted them, collected them in a set number of bundles, and then placed them inside of one of the different pockets of the large bag. That would make estimating the earnings much easier and speed up things at the Exchange.
And her knowledge was proving invaluable. Bell hadn’t bought any of the maps at the Guild since they were poor, having resigned himself to make maps on his own. But Lili’s memorization allowed them to travel off the main routes where she suspected monsters would gather and so they managed to make up for missing the morning rush by picking off those that weren’t likely to be take out until the Guild had a Dungeon Sweeper pass through.
“Master Bell is really kind,” she said while smiling at him from atop a stone, still smaller than her comically oversized bag that she pulled out a container from with bread and a salad. Her chestnut eyes looked over towards the entrance for a pause. “Will we be heading further down after Lunch?”
“I haven’t gone down further than this and promised my Goddess not to rush ahead without my party,” he explained while handling his lunch that was composed of what Syr had made him. He didn’t know if it was just because his exposure to Yharnam Blood had changed his taste palette, but every now and again the flavor varied.
He still ate it, of course. It was made in good faith and his grandfather taught him never to let food go to waste. “We’re supposed to be meeting up after making enough preparations to deal with the monsters on that floor.”
“Lili is surprised that Master Bell has not gone further than this.” She broke off a piece of the bread and brought it to her mouth to chew slowly as she continued. “The Silverback is a monster that spawns close to the Middle Floors. How long have you been exploring the Dungeon?”
“…About a month or so since I became an Adventurer,” he said after some thought. “I only arrived in Orario shortly before then and was taken in by Lady Hestia after a week of searching for one of the Gods or Goddesses to take me in. She found me right when I had run out of everything and was considering heading back home.”
That had been a sobering experience for Bell. When he’d arrived, Bell had thought he could find someone to take him in without any problems. As long as he was willing to put in the work, he was sure that he could eventually become a great adventurer.
But he had been turned away by nearly everyone. Some hadn’t even given him the time of day before they rejected him. That was part of why he took the seriousness of Lili’s claim that if she brought her assault up to her Familia she might have been kicked out and left on her own.
Being alone was painful in ways few really understood.
“From what Lili has seen Master Bell is a capable adventurer already despite such a short time,” she said between breaking off another piece of bread. “Did your hometown train to fight monsters before coming to Orario?”
He supposed from her perspective that made the most sense. From the stories his grandfather told him different places took up different ways to fight against monsters over the ages. Since he didn’t have the Falna before coming to Orario and she didn’t know about the Blood Echoes or the Plain Doll, it was only natural that he had trained to fight beforehand and simply carried the muscle memory over when he arrived.
“It wasn’t my hometown exactly, but I suppose it is where I had to learn to fight.” He looked over to Gascoigne’s Axe that was perched against the wall next to him. The pale light from the ceiling caught the aged steel, revealing years of battles from the little nicks and scratches that were embedded into its very frame. “There weren’t any Gods to bestow the Falna, so ordinary people had to take up weapons to protect their families by taking part in what they called the Hunt. But eventually, they all…”
He trailed off as a bead of dripping monster ichor caught his ruby eyes. The pearlescent reflection brought to his mind flashes of violence that had no doubt become commonplace to the men whose echoes had become his strength. The scent of pungent blood, the snarls and howls of beasts, the wavering flames of torches and the gleam of steel in its glow.
The imagery flickered in his mind for a moment with such vividness that he shuddered and nearly dropped his lunch that was steadily losing its appeal to his stomach. Then he noticed the inquisitive gaze upon him from the Supporter and gathered himself. “You could say the lives and memories of the fallen were passed down along with their weapons to the ones who took them up and I ended up being one of them. It’s thanks to those that I managed to get this far in such a short time. But it isn’t something that I earned or can even be proud of.”
His strength came from the Blood Echoes of two Hunters that had spent years killing the Beasts of Yharnam to protect their home and family. Their lives, their memories, their weapons, their strength. He’d taken them all into himself by robbing a little girl of her family and leaving her alone…
Syr’s food lost its taste entirely as he forced himself to finish eating.
After that, since he wouldn’t go any further down, they decided to explore some of the side routes before heading back up. Though Lili steered him away from what was known as a Pantry since she thought there might have been more monsters there than they could reasonably handle. It was probably a smart call since he didn’t want to put her at risk.
Then they headed back up to the Exchange while there weren’t many people around and got the valis for everything they’d collected. It was a process made much smoother thanks to Lili’s efforts in properly dividing them. That was when he gave her approximately half of that day’s earnings. “Here.”
Her chestnut eyes fell onto the bag, the glint of gold reflecting off the light that caught it. Then she looked back up to him. “But Lili said that Master Bell didn’t have to pay her.”
“And I can’t exploit someone who came to me looking for help like that,” he said. “Even if you don’t feel obligated to be paid, I wouldn’t be able to look at my Goddess if I did that. And at least with enough valis you should be able to look after yourself those days I can’t be there.”
Her tiny hands gripped the bag reluctantly before she put it away. “Master Bell?”
“Lili thinks that Master Bell is wrong when he said he doesn’t deserve to be called a hero,” she told him. “He saved Lili without even knowing her. And even when she’s asking for protection, he still pays her. Even if Master Bell doesn’t think he is one… he is Lili’s hero.”
Bell opened his mouth to speak. But the words refused to come out to refute her claim. So his only response was to bring the brim of his hat down to cover his eyes as she got up to leave.
“That worked out better than I expected,” Lili murmured to herself proudly as she walked down the backstreets of Orario after parting ways with Bell in a hurry after that last bit of praise. She had changed her appearance to that of an Elven child to disguise herself and kept the valis she received tucked away with plans for it later.
Lili had a lot of experience reading people. It was a necessity in order for her to live. And after spending a few hours with Bell she had gotten a better read on him than she could from watching at a distance or through the rumors. That made him so much easier to exploit.
He clearly had a protective instinct towards little girls. That was why she had played up her behavior, even if she hated speaking like someone half her actual age. And he wouldn’t be inclined to look too deeply into it by asking any of her Familia since she fed him that story about how complaining to them would end up getting her kicked out.
Still, she hadn’t expected the amount of self-depreciation and self-flagellation in his tone. It almost sounded like he was punishing himself for something and every praise she gave him only seemed to push further into that. It left a bitter taste in her mouth considering he didn’t even realize how easy it was to see, but…
She had already decided to make use of whatever she could to get free of the Soma Familia with her own hands. She had lied, cheated, stolen, all to survive in this cruel world where simply being born in the wrong Familia led to a lifetime of misery. So if she had to use him as a tool to deal with Ged then she would without a second thought.
Besides, Ged would have come in to attack him anyway after what happened, she reasoned. He should have expected it when he got involved. If he survived, then he’d learn from it. If he didn’t, well…
Lili refused to think about it further.