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Archive for August, 2022

Life is Tough for a Minos: Chapter 3 [Mobuseka x Gunvolt AU]

Chapter 3: The Enrollment

“So, what’s this surprise you had for me?” Leon asked as he arrived on the deck of the Smilodon where the Combat Support Pod awaited him. He noticed her P-Bits were locked in a new formation. “I’m guessing it’s something to do with the EX-Weapon System?”

The ship was a relatively large vessel that he was currently sailing towards the Capital of the Holfort Kingdom, having received clearance ahead of schedule for space at the docks. The handling of the ship was currently being done on the autopilot system, with the only organic lifeforms aboard the ship being Jenna, Nicks, and Leon himself. Since the trip from their territory was to take the standard traveling time, as Leon wasn’t in a hurry nor willing to hasten things, Lola had what were to be the living quarters made comfortable via the same method she had used with the Hanging Gardens since the ship contained a cache of pix set aside for accommodations. Incidentally, she also outfitted the exterior of the ship with a more fitting appearance for the sake of remaining inconspicuous via the same method.

Leon couldn’t help but think that pix were really convenient to have access to use.

Yep!” Her ‘eyes’ blinked before more pods showed up from a chute that opened in the ship, boasting a darker coloration. Unlike the vessel she was currently using, she called them utility pods. They took her place as she hovered over towards him with her P-Bits. “So, you remember how I brought up in the past my primary function was to manage the EX System for my creator, right?

He did. “Yeah, before the Tower was built. Why?”

I know you aren’t expecting too much combat, but since you do plan on going into a Dungeon it’d be best to give you a little more variety in options. And, since I had time and was around your family so much, I had a chance to harvest and analyze their septimsome and observe how they use it to create a new subroutine for the system.

He raised a brow. “When you say harvest…”

Non-intrusive methods only, like saliva samples from their dishes,” she elaborated. “That’s why it took so long. It’d be one thing if they had something that already isolated their septimsome like a Glaive or if I could collect some of the Septima Factors from their bodies directly, but I didn’t want to overstep boundaries.

Leon nodded. “Not that I think that you’d want to harm them or anything, but just wanted to be sure.”

It’s fine. I know how important family is.” She turned her head off to the side for a moment in thought before redirecting her focus. “Anyway, I’ve named the new subroutine Aqua Bind. Let me show it off.

Her optics flashed. The utility pods responded by being covered in a coat of pix that expanded and then took on the form of the smaller insectoid monsters that they had to deal with not too long ago. Out of habit Leon nearly reached for his firearm, kept tucked in a shoulder holster.

That done, Lola’s body itself shifted next to take on a light blue hue as a pair of fins replaced the flaps on the side of her body. Her P-Bits similarly matched the hue as they entered a formation that divided them into a pentagon with the remainder inside. Water formed around the inner array in a spherical shape.

Firing!” At her command they shot the spheres out like cannon balls, slamming into the faux monsters and leaving them entrapped within the aquatic spheres that remained relatively intact despite being in contact with the deck of the ship as the creatures struggled within them. “If you tag something, it can create and sustain a water prison for larger objects. Neat, huh?

“I was kind of expecting it to go everywhere after it hit something,” Leon admitted, which was understandable considering how his family’s Septima usually worked.

I don’t just replicate the abilities 100%,” Lola explained. “In the first place, that’s impossible with some of them like the Azure Striker. Even after studying it as long as we have, we only managed to reverse engineer the electrical generation, Prevasion, and Flashshield. However, I can optimize them thanks to how flexible the system is and, in this case, its optimized for capture and suppression, making it usable even in tight areas or when you can’t use Stellar Spark.

“Like in the dungeon,” he realized. Since the dungeon beneath the capital was underground and the classes tended to have students travel in a group, friendly fire or damaging the surroundings to the point of a potential cave-in was a possibility. “It’s amazing you thought that far ahead, Lola.”

I’m great, right?” Her appearance shifted back to its standard state as the faux monsters dissipated, and the utility pods floated back towards the chutes they emerged from. “The number of airships within range of my sensors have been increasing by a bit. It’ll be an hour or so before we’re at the first checkpoint.

“Yeah, then they’ll funnel us through the air lanes towards the main continent. Depending on the traffic we’ll probably be stuck until there’s a place that we can dock. I’ll go wake the others up.”

[—Two Hours Later—]

“This has been the smoothest trip I’ve been on in my life,” Nicks said as he sat across from Leon in the dining area, having finished his morning meal. “No need to transfer a bunch of times. Clean beds. Quiet atmosphere. Decent food. Honestly, I kind of want to just stay on the ship for the rest of the year and relax.”

“No dice,” Leon said. “As soon as we’re off the ship I’m sending it back home. Those fees to leave it docked for longer than a day were insane.”

Most children of the noble families with territories outside of the capital could call upon at least one airship for transport, but they didn’t keep them stationed at the docks for prolonged periods. Those same docks had to be used for importing, exporting, and so on after all. Private docks did exist for families who were Lower Fourth Rank and above, but for the rest they had to use the air lanes and go through a bunch of different clearance processes to get into the Kingdom.

Leon had no intention of paying for extended docking. So, once they were off the ship, he was going to have Lola send it back to their father’s island since he didn’t think he would need to use it again until their break. He would have the Sabertooth parked beneath the Death Zone since he wanted to have access to it in the event, he needed to leave the continent for any reason, easily accessible with Lola’s aid given its capabilities and speed.

“Well, it must be nice that things are so cushy for you two.” The sarcastic tone left little doubt on Jenna’s feelings on the subject matter as she set down a teacup on the saucer in front of her. “Leon is just a charity case so he doesn’t need to bother looking for a wife, but you should be taking things seriously since it’s your last year to marry up as well, Nicks.”

Since Leon was only Ninth Rank and a Minos, he honestly didn’t expect to find a spouse in the Royal Academy. Nor did he have any interest in doing so. He was perfectly content to enjoy his single life at the moment.

And while Nicks should be searching for a wife, realistically speaking, he wasn’t blind to the fact that his prospects were little better than his brother. Spare heir to a poor barony and illegitimate at that. Chances were that he wouldn’t find a nice woman with a family well-off enough that he could build a meaningful connection to eclipse Zola’s. In fact, his father had told him that if he intended to do so it should be with someone that he genuinely had a meaningful connection with and solely for his own happiness.

He’d told the same to Jenna, considering Merce was the oldest daughter. But she clearly had her own intentions and was aiming high. “Speaking of which, things here are different than they are at home. People won’t hesitate to remind you of your place if you catch their eye or throw you under the airbus. Keep your head down while you’re here, Leon.”

That said, she got up and left the pair in the dining area alone. The brothers sighed to themselves as they leaned back in their chairs, staring at the doors as they closed shut. It was ultimately Leon who voiced his concern first. “She’s going to become a second Zola if she follows in her footsteps.”

“To be fair, I think that she was trying to give you solid advice in her own way.” Nicks shook his head and shrugged before turning his attention to the forward-facing window. “Looks like we’re about there now. You can see it from here.”

Beyond the glass they spied the gradually expanding landmass that drifted above the lowest level of clouds. The sprawling continent was massive as mountain ranges covered in rich greenery ringed a wall that encircled an enormous castle city of stone, wood, and steel. Tall, white spires could be spotted ascending high into the air above at various parts of the entirety of the continent, rising above the smaller floating islands that loitered beneath them all. He was sure some floated below as well, hidden by the cloud bank beneath the surface, and all were capped with turbines that continuously spun and gave the image of the continent itself being held aloft by them and would sink if they ceased rotating.

“It’s almost like a different world compared to our place out in the boonies, isn’t it?” Nicks mused with a sigh. “No monster attacks. Never have to worry about power conservation or water. I can almost see why people want to live there.”

“It’s not home though,” Leon pointed out. For all its advancements, it lacked the appeal that came from living on the smaller islands of their barony. They might have been more rustic, but he had a family that cared about him and it felt more spacious than the city back when he lived in Japan. He also had a chance to find a sort of simple joy in the agricultural life and how it taught you to be self-reliant compared to back then.

“No, it isn’t,” Nicks agreed before stretching and then getting out of his chair. “Since we’re in range, I’m going to get ready and write a letter to send back home.”

Leon watched as his brother left him behind and waited for the doors to close before he turned his attention back to the continent gradually growing closer. “Those turbines aren’t really supporting that place, is it?”

Of course not,” came from the nearby walls as an opening appeared and her pod entered. “Those turbines are doing double duty as both a source of electricity and water, with the spinning generating power while also pulling moisture from the air and then cooling it so that they condensate and fill the water tanks non-stop. If not for that they wouldn’t be able to support so many people in such a tight space for long.”

“That explained why air traffic is so heavily regulated,” he figured. They had to take air lanes compared to the other places they went while traveling back home, where they had a lot more freedom. Smaller islands or territories close to where monsters frequented would struggle to build and maintain them. The kingdom couldn’t risk ships crashing into them, accidentally or intentionally.

It’ll probably be one of the last places to sink once my work is done,” Lola mused. “After all, places like this are the ones where the Lifewave managed to remain intact compared to how the rest erupted out and is floating around. That reservoir allows it to remain adrift rather than sink into the Death Zone, where it’ll likely be torn apart and broken down—sort of like how an ice cube floats in water.

“And on that note, how’s your data gathering coming along?” He recalled part of the reason that she wanted to leave the Tower was to check things out for herself, including monitoring the mana levels. “Learn anything positive since then?”

Umm… well, the concentration of it in the atmosphere is much lower than I expected. In fact, my work will be finished a lot sooner than I predicted. Granted, we’re talking in terms of thousands of years, but I can see an ending. So there’s that.

“You don’t sound happy about it,” Leon pointed out. “What’s wrong?”

The thing is, I’m not sure how it’s happening or where its going,” she answered. “I’ve ran the calculations in my electronic brain thousands of times, but my Tower alone couldn’t be responsible based on the logs. That means something else is affecting it and I don’t know what. I’m a bit scared that it might be escaping the pull of gravity or leaving the planet itself.

And since it is effectively the spiritual lifeblood of the world, it couldn’t be terraformed without that and really would leave the world as a dead husk. For her that would be absolute confirmation that her creator’s dream was unobtainable, and everything had been for nothing since humans wouldn’t have a world left for them.

“Don’t assume something bad has happened yet,” Leon told her. “Monsters are born from the same stuff bunched up together, right? Maybe it all became a big monster that needs to be killed to release it all at once. I know for a fact that an Adept can do something similar, so whose to say it isn’t there?”

Her pod turned towards him and tilted, as if she was giving him a quizzical look. “Giant monsters tend not to be a good thing.”

“Yeah, but the point is that it’s still within the atmosphere and can be dealt with.” He then made a gesture with his hand towards the kingdom. “Or maybe some country that found some Lost Item that came around while you were stuck down there that’s doing something similar to the Tower? Your Master wasn’t the only one trying to save the world, right?”

Probably not,” she admitted. “I mean, I don’t think there’s something on par with the Tower and we don’t know what technology has been created and lost throughout several millennia. But… with the number of Adepts being around, maybe that’s also influencing the concentration since their powers don’t just make something from nothing.

He nodded. Leon couldn’t travel freely because he was stuck in the Academy, at least in the capital they could pick up information from other places. Merchants, news, gossip, technology—they could use the fact that people from all different walks of life and places came there to figure it out. “We can spend time on the weekends going out and gathering info. That way, if there was an explanation, we’ll find it.”

“…You really know how to cheer a girl up, don’t you?” There was a notably more positive vibe in her tone as she lightly bumped into his shoulder. “Thanks, Partner.

“I’m just keeping my end of our deal,” Leon insisted.

If he really understood women, then his life would be a lot simpler.

[—Academy—]

She still felt like she was dreaming.

How could it be anything but a dream as she sat down in a luxurious room within the fabled halls of the Royal Academy. Light came in through the windows that offered her a view of the front of the campus, watching as students walked along the paved roads in uniforms made from the highest of quality. Girls laughing with one another, boys greeting each other as if they had been apart for a long time, there were so many people that it was easily more than the largest villages she had visited.

And there were Demi-Humans and Elves too. She could even see a well-dressed elven boy accompanying a short girl with blond hair that fell down her back. They must have been around her age, but they both looked so young.

Still, it’s a bit livelier than I expected. It was a far cry from the humble parish where she had been raised, on a small territory that was rather far away from the Capital. It wasn’t particularly large or well-renowned, being a relatively simple place with some ruins that had long been explored and emptied out of anything valuable. She had gotten used to the quiet of that place, so being around so many people with so much noise was still something of a shock.

Not in a bad way, but in the sense that it was a new experience.

The door opened across the carpeted floor that was trimmed in rich colors, with the sagely gentleman who had been her mentor entering the room. He wore a smile beneath his moustache as he gave her a polite incline of the head, tea-set in hand. “My apologies for leaving so abruptly, but it seems Esquire Bartfort has arrived and will be here shortly. While we wait, I will get started on making tea.”

She made to stand and help him, but he held up a hand and shook his head. “Now, now. There’s no need for that. Allow this old man to play his role with pride now that I’ve returned.”

It was a habit from back home to help where she could, paying back the kindness she received in whatever way she could. That was something he was familiar with given how long they had known each other, enough to predict her even before she could offer. But, in comparison, he still felt as much of a mystery to her as he did when he first came to the island.

It was years ago that he came to the parish. The way he spoke and his whole air gave the impression that he was a noble, but he seemed to be on good terms with the head nun. History between them that went unspoken in earshot of the children. He was offered shelter in exchange for him helping around the parish and teaching the children since he was well-educated, which was how they first met.

She found out he was both a Royal Knight and a professor here very recently.

“I know you must feel somewhat nervous in your new surroundings,” he said whilst preparing the kettle on a portable stove and setting out a tray of snacks for her. “But I am truly grateful that you accepted the Queen’s proposal. You’re such a bright young woman that it would have been criminal to not present the opportunity to you when it arose.”

She shook her head before tapping her chest twice and bowing her head. Rather it was her who should be grateful to him, considering that he kept her in mind. She only hoped that she could keep up with the lessons and not embarrass him or the Queen.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

There was light and polite rapping on the door that drew their attention away from the table. It seemed that their guest had arrived. As he moved to open the door, the young woman started to feel somewhat anxious at the thought of the other scholarship student. Unlike her, who was lucky to know her mentor, he was someone who managed to clear an unknown dungeon and earn his place despite apparently being a Minos like herself.

She wanted to make a good first impression and realized she should also greet him when he entered. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her pad and pen and hastily wrote as fast as she could. It wasn’t her best handwriting, but she managed finish and stood up as her mentor opened the door, holding up the writing pad in front of her with the eleven little words she could get down in time:

It’s a pleasure to meet you, Esq. Bartfort.

My name is Olivia.

[—An Hour Later—]

You’re going to burn a hole into the floor if you keep pacing,” Lola chimed in her mechanical voice as she hovered in the air, watching as Leon circled aimlessly in a quiet panic. He had just finished conversing with Olivia and Professor Lucas over tea, which Lola had also attended while being camouflaged. As for the reason for his panicking, well…

The Muse happened to be a mute Minos.

He managed to hide his shock well enough during the conversation as the older gentleman outlined how the Academy would work for the both of them. He would effectively act as sort of their guidance counselor and keep an eye on them since it was such a large change in scenery for the both of them—the young woman more than Leon for obvious reason. And, while there were some classes that the Queen wanted them to take, they still could pick the courses they wanted and were asked what they had in mind for their futures.

Leon stated he had an interest in Powered Armor and Exosuits, explaining away that back at his home they were short mechanics for them and since they lacked combat-focused Adepts it was vital to make up for that. Olivia, surprisingly enough, was interested in Engineering since she felt it would be her way of being able to solve problems back at the island where she lived. Both of them would need to take Mechatronics to get an understanding of the technology used within the kingdom, so it would be a shared course.

Conveniently enough, Lola could also use it to get a peek at the technology level of the kingdom as well. Sure, she could go around scanning things. But there were factors to consider like the methods and ideology behind technological development. Data gathering meant taking it all the data she could after all.

It was after the conversation petered out and the meeting was over that Leon hurried back to his room and started pacing around. The room itself wasn’t as large or luxurious as most of the others within the campus. Since this place was pretty much the primary learning institution for the nobility, it was expected to have a certain level of opulence—carpeted floors, silk sheets, windows that offered a view of the campus, etc. It only grew more extravagant depending on one’s rank within the gentry.

The room Leon had was slightly smaller than the others and lacked a window, given that it happened to be a storage room at the end of the male dormitory. It had been made habitable rather hastily, with the bed looking as though it was pulled from the servant quarters meant to house help that either served the students or in general around the campus. For the nobility it would be an insult considering the tuition costs.

On the one hand, one could argue that it was short notice and they had to make do. The room wasn’t exactly bad since it was like the manor at his home. Granted, his family was a poor barony and so that was still below the capital standards.

On the other hand, they both knew there were rooms available on the other wings that weren’t being used. Even if they didn’t want the scholarship students to be placed in the most expensive ones, all they had to do was reshuffle it a little bit so they could have had him in a basic room and bumped up one of the students whose families were right on the cusp of reaching the next rank the better one. Everyone would win that way, rather than a room remaining unused despite still needing to be kept clean and tidy on principal.

Leon himself didn’t care because he didn’t bring much with him or have high expectations. He pretty much stored anything important on the Sabertooth since it was just a call away. And that ship was meant as a personal transport vessel with comforts for extended travel in mind, so it could double as a room if needed.

Seriously, you’re going to burn a hole in the floor if you keep it up,” Lola reiterated. She had been idly keeping track of how many rotations he’d done, and it was closing into four hundred by then. “Rather than frying our circuits panicking, how about we follow your earlier advice and not assume the worst. Take a breath and just talk to me so I can help.

Leon finally stopped pacing and sighed. “…I don’t understand what went wrong, but without the Muse we’ll be in trouble.”

Because of the war that’s supposed to be coming in three years?

“Fanoss wanted to kill off the entirety of Holfort.” He made sure to emphasize that point. “And they have the means to do it too with the Mirror Septima and the Grimoire empowering the Adept behind it. The Muse was necessary to deal with that. Olivia isn’t supposed to be…”

A Minos like you,” Lola finished for him. “I performed a cursory scan of her, but I detected no signs of septimal waves. If she’s an Adept, then her septima factor is dormant and won’t register without a more thorough scan like I did for you. Are you sure she wasn’t always a Minos?

Leon shook his head. “She couldn’t be since she could use the Muse.”

But from what you told me, she only displayed it after she got her hands on the first artifact from the Dungeon. Did she use it or even mention it before then?

“No, but why would that matter when either you’re born with a Septima or you’re not…”  His words drifted as he tried to think of an exception, but he didn’t have a clue. Though, if anyone might know, he suspected it would be her. “Is there something you know that I don’t?”

…Well, there are exceptions to that rule of being born with it or not…” Her electronic tone seemed to carry a note of hesitancy as she shifted her ‘face’ slightly to the side, away from him. “Those are rare, but they do exist.

His brows quirked upwards. “Meaning…?”

It’s just a theory, and one I’m not comfortable with bringing up without enough evidence,” she insisted. “Let’s at least try to figure out if it’s really relevant first. Did the game ever give you the backstory on her?

It was evident she was hiding something. But Leon didn’t want to press her on it unless he had to since it was the first time that she’d really seemed uncomfortable talking to him. Yet, at the same time, he felt that it might be important. “…Will you tell me if it’s even remotely related?”

She drifted there in silence for a pregnant pause. “…I really hope it’s not the case, but if there’s a possibility its related then I will. I promise.

“…Okay then.” He took a seat on the bed and began answering her question. “The game doesn’t explicitly tell her about her past. I assumed that it was because they wanted the players to self-insert themselves into the characters, so they tend not to be well developed in terms of story. They didn’t even explain why she was the scholarship student, only that she was. I figured she couldn’t be the heroine if she wasn’t special because of the class difference.”

That was why he believed she always had the Muse Septima. The way the Love Interests all seemed drawn to her even before it, to the point they chased after her when she got tricked into heading deeper into the Dungeon and finding the Muse Artifact right before running into a monster stronger than any of them. It should have taken all of them out when suddenly she felt the urge to sing and let her voice give them strength, manifesting the Muse.

But from how the professor and Olivia interacted with one another, they clearly have some history,” Lola noted. “He was so well-versed in communicating with her to the point where she hardly needed her writing pad to get across what she wanted to him.

“Yeah, I noticed that too.” Leon drummed his fingers against his knee in thought as he recalled the conversation and introduction. “Chances are he’s known her since she was young. But considering she’s a Commoner and from someplace far away, while he’s teaching in Royal Academy, I can’t picture when they would have had an opportunity to meet. But since he never gave us a family name, maybe we should assume that he wasn’t always a member of the nobility. He might have been a Commoner who rose to his station.”

Lacking a family name was commonplace among those of Commoner status. Taking that into consideration along with his position here, it may be that he rose to Knighthood via merit and earned the Queen’s eye. And it just so happened she wanted to do something similar and sought him out, who happened to know Olivia and thus picked her.

The pod bobbed up and down. “And he introduced her as a candidate since that scholarship was meant specifically for Minos. That’s why I’m considering that there’s a solid argument that she could have always been a Minos.

Leon couldn’t argue against that thought process as he lined the pieces of the puzzle up. “You’d think that if he was so important that would have come up in the game though. Then again, they glossed over the boring parts of what would be the school period since it had to cover three years.”

Well, you complained about the bad game design so why should the story be any better? I mean, those Love Interests you mentioned were all engaged to begin with, and it wasn’t a secret. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t paint the heroine in a good light when you frame it that way.”

“They’re engaged, but they make sure to have the guys admit they aren’t happy with the arrangement,” Leon pointed out. “And only two of them are even given names since they’re villainesses that get bested by the Love Interest, and then executed and exiled respectively. They frame it as less cheating and more saving the handsome but troubled guy from a relationship he hates. It’s okay because they’ll make one another happy.”

But considering they’re all from families that hold major positions based on what you told me, I can only imagine there would be some heavy backlash.

“Not necessarily. It would only cause problems if they wanted to be the legal wife since polygamy is a thing here. For someone who was a Commoner, even becoming their lover would benefit them without risk to the actual heir or legitimacy. Her being the Muse simply made it so that she was a high enough station so that she didn’t have to play second fiddle to someone else or could go into the Reverse Harem route. There’s logic to it, even if it’s not exactly the best.”

I guess you have a point. But there’s still the fact that she didn’t mention having a Septima at all before then, right?” Lola asked once more for clarification.  “After she obtained it, did anything change in her character?

He shifted on the bed and leaned forward, resting his chin on the back of his hands. “…Yeah, actually. Before she obtained it, she was a wallflower in terms of personality. After she got the artifacts, she became more… confident? Assertive?”

In the beginning of the game, Olivia would rarely say anything bad or defend herself at the accusations that she didn’t belong with one of the five because she was just a Commoner. One of the other Love Interests would come to defend their relationship and tell her it was fine. But after she obtained the second one, she toughened up enough that she was willing to tell the Queen herself that she wasn’t going to give up her relationship with the Crown Prince if you were on that route, or with all of the boys if you’d triggered the Reverse Harem Route. After she obtained the third one, she was willing to face down the final boss and their monster with no fear at all.

Sounds like a personality shift due to obtaining excess power observed in some past records to me,” Lola mused. “And you also mentioned that a Sky Pirate uses one of the artifacts he plucked from a church to boost his own Septima, right?

“Wasn’t exactly sure how that worked to be honest,” Leon admitted. “There had been three known Muses in the history of the game. Each of them was said to have treasured an item and left their power behind within them for a future Muse to use in a time of crisis. Thus, only a Muse should be able to use those artifacts, but the Pirate Captain was managing to keep up with the Love Interest until his shirt was torn open in the battle and revealed he was wearing a fancy necklace that Olivia said she sensed a similar power coming from it. The guy did a villain rant that he stole it from some cathedral it was entrusted to by a previous Muse since she was born there.”

After the fight was done and they took it from his dead body, they questioned how he was able to gain the power. But the topic was dropped when Love Interest stated it doesn’t matter, so long as it was now in the right hands before passing it over to Olivia. That unlocked the second upgrade to her Muse Septima, and thus raising the power level of the Anthem.

Lola was silent for a pregnant pause as her electronic brain processed that. Then she drifted closer to him and renewed her inquiry. “And for the last one, I believe you mentioned it was kept at the temple located here on the continent?  The one that belonged to the first Muse and would be used to test candidates who made a claim to be the current Muse, and if they were found lacking there would be a violent rejection?

“The Basilica, specifically,” Leon clarified. There was usually only one cathedral within a parish for every territory that was a Barony or higher, but smaller churches and temples were scattered within villages and the like. The Basilica was noted to be the most important and grandiose of them all since it was where the first Muse was laid to rest with her staff remaining there. “But yeah, that’s about right.”

“…Shoot. It’s relevant then.” She sincerely sounded frustrated at that before facing him. “So, based on all of that, I’m thinking those Muse Artifacts you mentioned might basically be Proto-Glaives.

Receiving that tidbit left him a bit shocked. “But they don’t look like the ones you had and those are considered lost technology. The Muse’s Artifacts just look like accessories at best.”

The origin of the Glaives were items that were used to regulate the flow of the Lifewave and were rooted in the spiritual practices of Japan. Some of the first ones were made with pieces of what were considered legendary treasures of mythology and require a secret smithing technique. Making ones like those in my care should be impossible in this age, but its’ entirely likely that they managed to loop back around to creating rudimentary ones within those artifacts, allowing them to act like a Septima Inducer.

And by that logic, it was entirely possible that Olivia wasn’t the Muse because she was born with the Septima. Rather she got her hands on the artifacts and happened to be a compatible match by chance.  “Hold on though. You told me that the Glaives would be useless if you didn’t have the matching Septima. Now you’re saying that you can use them without it at all?”

The Combat Pod turned upwards towards the ceiling, where the light came from. “…In the past there were attempts to turn Humans into Adepts by implanting Septima Inducers and Septima Factors in an unethical procedure, making them Artificial Adepts. Master considered it blasphemous to begin with because his own father predicted that Adepts would eventually become a threat to the world. And, sure enough the Azure Striker we fought against that caused that very catastrophe was an Artificial Adept.”

“That’s why you looked confused when I brought them up then?” Leon guessed. “It wasn’t just that I knew of them, because for all you knew at the time, I could have been sent to the Tower intentionally and just crashed by chance. It was that you were worried that was why I had come in the first place. That I wanted to become one.”

The A.I. didn’t deny it. “I wanted to help you since you were the first visitor I had in ages, but I can’t be responsible for creating another potential threat to the world I’m already in the process of fixing. Those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Even then the process I have on record has an absurdly high fatality rate with only four successful cases out of… far too many. I’ve reviewed those logs and footage in the past and let’s just say I really hate having perfect memory banks.

He didn’t think a robot could showcase disgust without a proper face, but the way she tilted down and her flaps drooped gave that impression. “Well, not like I have the right to comment on that since you’ve already done more than enough for me. But is there anything else you hid about Glaives I might need to know?”

Hmm, I guess I probably should have mentioned that I sort of hacked the Glaives after I gave you admin rights. Specifically, after you told me about how some Adepts were supposed to storm my tower, steal one of them, and then jack my ship, I made some… adjustments.

“Like what?” he asked cautiously. The Royal Family had the Azure Striker-compatible one and they’d left the majority back in the Tower, but he still had one aboard the Sabertooth since Lola felt it could be used to derive some improvements.

Nothing too major. I just have remote control over their use because I installed a verification system into them. When someone tries to use the Glaives they basically request an authorization code from me, and I give it the go ahead. And, if that power should go to their heads or they become a threat to the world, I can always reverse the process and absorb the septimsome of the Adepts using it to effectively seal their Septima away, provided they survived such a forceful extraction.

It was then, as she casually revealed she put a literal kill switch into them, that Leon was reminded that she had openly admitted to hunting down Adepts before she was sequestered into the Tower. You’d never think it considering how young and innocent she looked back when they first met. But she clearly had little problem resorting to lethal force if need be.

But back to the topic at hand. Assuming that Olivia is a Minos or possibly carries dormant Septima Factors for the Muse, that would mean that those artifacts are what gave her the powers she had. So that means the Muse isn’t gone, she just doesn’t access to it right now.

“Okay, but why is she mute?”

That, I don’t know. You’ll have to probably figure it out by asking her if something happened to her in the past that caused it. But we can’t assume there’s a direct correlation between that and the Muse without more information. Besides, it shouldn’t be a problem since we have a few years before the war, right?

“Except, it was her singing that got the attention of the Crown Prince in the first place,” Leon pointed out before looking at a watch to get a read on the time. “That event should have triggered by now, but obviously it can’t since Olivia can’t speak. That first flag was crucial since the others were only curious about her because she caught his eye, and those connections are what empower the Muse.”

Factoring into the game’s whole message about the power of love overcoming stations and barriers, the closer that Olivia grew to her chosen person the more of the Muses’ power she could use. But if a romance never developed then, even if she somehow regained her Septima, it wouldn’t be strong enough. Then it was game over.

There’s nothing we can do about raising flags now. Besides, if it truly does become an issue, we still have two options for handling it ourselves.

“We do?”

Lola bobbed up and down. “The first is that, if the Muse Artifacts are Proto-Glaives, I can harvest the septimosome from them and cultivate them to see if my EX System can convert it into a subroutine. The harvesting method might destroy the artifacts depending on how shoddy they are, and I can’t replicate complex Septima 100%, but it’s an option and the sooner we get them the more time I can devote to it.

Leon was wary on doing that. Leaving aside destroying the artifacts in the process, which would likely get the Church on their tails with their own private military force, his major reason for wanting Olivia to handle it was because it would be the safest way for everyone. More so if it relied on compassion and love to use, since he wasn’t that nice of a person.

Holfort might have been where he was born in this life, but he had no affection to a place that forced his family to suffer just to remain together. “And the second option?”

If this Mirror Adept really is going to do what you predicted, and you’re going to get involved, then the easiest way to protect you is to remove the threat before they can put you in danger.

Leon had absolutely no doubt in his mind what she meant by that considering she had been straightforward with her primary objective. She wanted to protect him as her Partner would kill to do it. Considering what was likely a very bloody history of war against Adepts prior to the end of the world, she’d likely do it without a second thought—especially since Fanoss intended a war of genocide.

But just because she was willing to didn’t mean it sat right with him to make her kill in his name. “…Let’s shelve that option. I honestly don’t like it even knowing what’s at stake.”

I’m not thrilled about it either, but I need more data to try brainstorm more alternatives. Did you notice anything else off about Olivia when you met her compared to how she was in the beginning of the game? Even if it seems inconsequential?

“We’d need to get my journal to check all the details, but…” His tongue roamed around the inside of his mouth as he combed through his memories of the playing the game. Olivia looked just as she had on the screen and, despite her lack of a voice, she had been pretty much how he expected. But there was one change he did notice after some thought, a small detail that didn’t seem to be that important in the grand scheme of things.

But he brought it up all the same. “Her necklace was missing.”

[—Academy Rear Grounds—]

I have to remember to thank Jilk for covering my escape.

Letting out a heavy sigh that expelled the tension in his body to a degree, a handsome man pulled back the hood of his cloak as he sat beneath a gazebo nestled within the carefully tended gardens basked in the silence. It was the first time he had been granted the chance to be by himself since he had set foot on the academy grounds. From the moment he had left his family’s private airship, there had been nothing but chatter and incessant braying for his attention from every woman on the school grounds.

And because of that, the woman who he’d been forced into an engagement with had approached him despite his insistence multiple times at the court that he didn’t want anything to do with royal affairs while attending the academy. Even if the engagement can be a useful shield for keeping the other vultures away, the way she insists on dictating how I should live my life is just as annoying. Am I really unable to get away from all of that even here?

His name was Julius Rapha Holfort—Crown Prince of the Holfort Kingdom. He was the heir to a throne he had no desire to inherit, along with all the obligations that entailed. A life constantly under scrutiny and without privacy, of putting the whole before himself and his own happiness.

Frustration only built within his chest as he leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling of the gazebo with dull eyes. Everything had been laid out for him to follow, and because of that he had felt shackled. Going to the Academy was supposed to be the one point in his life where he was given some slack from the chains that fate had collared him with. That he could just be Julius, without being the crown prince.

But his fiancée was right there to yank it taut and remind him that it was still there.

Julius wished that he could just absolve himself of it all. That he could just hand the throne off to his brother Jake and be done with it. But even when he brought that up to his mother, she had gone out of her way to explain that it had to be him who inherited the throne since too many factions were aligned behind him. More arrangements made without his consent before he was old enough to walk.

I shouldn’t have listened to Erica and gotten my hopes up after all,” he murmured to himself. He had already resigned himself to the fact that he had no say in what his future would be even before he was born. But his sister had said that she had a feeling that he would find happiness in the future awaiting him this year.

Erica had always been a lot more mature than her age would give the impression of at times. Honestly, there were times when she could seem to read his mind and piece together what he was thinking. He still questioned how it was she figured out he liked meat skewers or how she snuck them into the castle, but whenever he’d been feeling in a particularly foul mood she would give him some to cheer him up.

Because she always seemed to know how to read him, Julius had decided to have a little faith that maybe things would be different. That maybe he could legitimately be happy like she predicted. But he was already starting to regret even clinging to that faint hope…

I watch as you drift further away.

So near, yet so far away.

I want nothing more than to reach out,

And keep you by my side, dear child.

Yet, every time I try,

The memories of ‘him’ come to mind.

And my hand freezes in place,

But perhaps its better this way.

So I’ll keep watching you from afar, dear child

Silently cherishing your fleeting face.

And hope that you’ll find all the happiness

That I let slip away.

That was when a delicate sensation reverberated his ears. It was a song… no. Calling it was song didn’t do it justice.

It was a heartfelt serenade that seemed to lightly brush over his very heart with a warm embrace. He felt for a moment what could only be a genuine desire for happiness. Tinged with a tear-filled yearning and bitter regret that melted away his frustration.

Julius rose to his feet and strained his ears to catch the soft lyrics that seemed so near yet distant. He felt his heart starting to race while being pulled in by the sweet words and their longing for something they could never achieve that reminded him of his own wishes that would never come to pass. His legs carried him towards the source of the melody, hidden ever further back in the gardens.

There, beneath the mottled rays of the sun that broke through the canopy, sat an angel. Lithe and slender, a delicate figure sat at the base of a tree with her bag beneath her to avoid staining her skirt while denying the grass her touch. White stockings hid the bareness of her legs, except for the slightest slip where the curvature parted the skirt to reveal pale flesh. Long hair rolled down her back like a golden waterfall, the sheen of which caught the light perfectly.

And cradled tenderly between her hands was what looked to be a pale blue, phantasmal butterfly that she lovingly gazed at while continuing her song.

So keep walking forward, dear child.

Know that I will love you for all time

Live your life without regrets,

I only wish for you to shine.

Even if I can’t be by your side

I still hold onto those precious days.

Of when I held you in my arms, dear child

And all my worries fade away.

Julius was speechless as he stood there, hidden behind a tree and watching the angel that fell to earth breathe life into each word and painted it with the color of her soul. A melody that celebrated an unbridled moment of happiness that soothed a lifetime of misery, even if it was to be fleeting and would leave them yearning for more. The dulcet tones swaddled him so tenderly that they seemed to pluck from the recesses of infantile amnesia a memory of his mother cradling him as a baby, sweetly welcoming him into the world in a comforting embrace.

Who was she? What was the meaning behind those lyrics? Why did they move him so much that he felt himself oversurging with emotions?

Her song, sadly, came to an end. The butterfly faded away as she suddenly snapped her blue eyes in his direction. It was only then he realized that he had broken from cover and was just staring at her blanky. He couldn’t blame her when she shot to her feet, grabbed her bag, and began to run away.

Yet, the thought of her vanishing without so much as knowing her name terrified him. He was worried that if she escaped his view that she would never appear again, and his body suddenly thrummed as electricity flowed through his limbs. The next thing he knew there was a faint scent of ozone, the delicate touch of flesh in his palm as he held her wrist in his grasp, and her blue eyes wide in surprise.

Julius stared down at his own hand holding her firm and wondered if had gone mad. Then he hastily released her and fell to his knees, forgetting that as the future king he should kneel to no one. Surely if they had been in public, it would have been a scandal.

“I beg your forgiveness,” he said in as sincere a voice as he could. “I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

No, you just… surprised me.” The angel rubbed her wrist softly before settling both of her hands over her chest where the outline of a necklace could be seen beneath it. Then she lightly cleared her throat and continued, “I thought I was alone here. Singing always helped me calm down when I’m nervous, but I’m not very good at it so having someone overhear it is a bit embarrassing.”

“I question the sanity of anyone who told you that your singing wasn’t very good,” he said. “I had been lost in my own worries until I heard your song, and they all seemed to melt away. But please, allow me to offer my apologies for both eavesdropping and my actions just now. I vow to make amends however I can.”

“You don’t need to go that far,” she said with a soft smile. “Just hearing that my song eased your burden is enough to make me happy…. Umm, may I ask for your name? Mine is Marie Fou Lafan.”

I’ve never heard of the Lafans. The middle name indicated that she was Sixth Rank or higher, but they must not have been one of the major families. It was possible that she was probably a second or third daughter. “Do you really… not know who I am?”

“I’m a viscount’s second daughter, but I haven’t really come to the Capital. And I lived a rather isolated life since I was… not very healthy until recently, so…” A sudden realization seemed to dawn on her. “Ah, if you’re someone important then I suppose I should act better mannered.”

“No, no, please don’t stand on formalities!” He practically begged her. He had no doubt that if she didn’t know who he was she would learn by the opening ceremony. But until then he wanted to just have a chance to be someone other than the Crown Prince. “I’m… Julian. Just Julian.”

“That’s a nice name,” she said, smiling sweetly while extending her hand out for him to shake. “It’s nice to meet you, Julian.”

“And it’s nice to meet you, Lady Lafan.” He felt guilty about lying, especially knowing the truth would come out. But before that happened, he wanted to spend more time with this angel that had fallen into his sight by chance. “Would you mind spending some time talking with me about your song?”

“You can just call me Marie,” she said. “And I don’t mind, but I am slightly hungry. I think there were food stalls not too far from the Academy that we passed by on the airbus. You don’t mind if we get some meat skewers, do you?”

…I will never doubt you again, Erica.


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 32 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 32: The Seventh Day

My brother might have been healed, but I still carried the weight of guilt in my heart over the fact that it was my magic that hurt Argo. I was terrified that I might lose control again. That I might be the one that snuffed out Argo’s life.

Never again.

I trained without rest, constantly keeping the magic I commanded on a leash. Every second I was awake had to be dedicated to that cause. Even Elio seemed surprise at the speed at which I progressed before he declared it was time to move onto the next subject: healing.”

Elio’s Lessons in Magic V: Mending

[-|-|-|-]

The Hestia Familia had been away from the Labyrinth City for a week now, having left behind the bustling city to cross the mainland through the skies above and fulfill the wishes of the Goddess of the Moon. Their journey had given Bell an overhead view of just how vast the continent was.

On the second day they had crossed over plainlands that stretched out beyond the horizon, eventually giving way to a valley strewn with rocky hills and a white-stone laden pathway. The winding river that snaked through the valley had left the lands fertile enough that it housed the first village they had seen since leaving Orario, a small settlement just slightly larger than Bell’s home village nestled within mountains.

On the third night they landed in a forest that seemed untouched by mankind. Monsters accosted them immediately; no doubt driven by the instinctive urge to kill mortals within all but the irregular dragons they flew upon. However, monsters outside the Dungeon were so weak that dispatching them was no trouble at all. The Goddess of the Moon had also demonstrated her own tracking skills as she found the den where the majority were within an hour, allowing Bell to clear it out before scouting the rest of the forest for stragglers and then returning to enjoy a meal made by Welf since it was still his turn to cook—eggs and bacon that they’d kept preserved fixed between thick loaves of bread.

On the fourth day the forested lands gave way to small mountains, rising peaks of stones covered in greenery. There was a brief rain shower that left them to take a break in a cavern nestled by a waterfall, where Artemis and Mikoto managed to secure fresh fish that they roasted over a flame as Hermes shared stories of some of his travels. The rain ceased and they were greeted with a rainbow forming over the waterfall before they took flight again with the grey skies now blue with scatterings of white clouds.

On the fifth evening they ran into one of the largest lakes that Bell had seen in his life, ringed by several rising mountains. It was expansive enough that he could have mistaken it for the ocean, especially when a large serpentine monster leapt out from below. Its size dwarfed even the Black Goliath as it drew an arch in the air before landing back down with a splash, a reminder that even in the most pristine of domains there were still dangers to be wary of in places were mortals barely ventured.

On the sixth evening, Primo had gone to Artemis for advice on archery once they had settled into a clearing within a deep forest that Goddess of the Moon’s Familia had previously stayed within for some time before they accepted the mission to the ruins. Her instructions were befitting of someone who often hunted monsters with her bow. She had even considered Primo’s natural inclinations since she had personally trained someone who had Elven blood within them.

It was on the seventh day that things took a turn while they were in midflight. Having lived in the area for roughly a year to slay Wyverns that had come from the Dragon Valley with her Familia, Artemis had been in the middle of explaining to Bell about the different villages that were around the area. They had been pulling up the rear while leaving the edge of the forest when Bell’s hearing caught the faint sound.

He thought it might have been a woman’s scream. “Did you hear a scream just now, Lady Artemis?”

The Goddess of the Moon, who had been taking the reins this time while he held onto her from behind, shifted her focus at that. “A scream?”

Her attention grabbed, they both peered back towards the trees that were steadily growing distant when they spotted two people who were rushing into the grasslands. It seemed to be a mother and child, both of whom were dressed in simple tunic and pants. The mother had her daughter in her hands and was desperately fleeing as the child cried, the fear and desperation in her voice reaching his ears beyond the rush of the air moving past them only because of his elevated senses as a Level Three Adventurer.

That was when monsters skittered from the cover of the canopy.

Their bodies were stygian black with the gleam coming from the sunlight indicating it was a shell or exoskeleton. Eight thin legs moved in sync to propel them forward, with a pair of serrated pincer claws and a segmented tail with a barbed tip. And there were pulsing red lines emanating from a center point visible on their elongated bodies, threading down to the limbs, tail, and what he assumed to be their eyes.

Bell’s instincts told him something about these monsters were… off. He didn’t know why but his mind flashed back to the Black Goliath for some reason. Perhaps it was the coloration of their bodies, or the glow that resembled the eyes of the monstrosity that had been spawned from the Dungeon in response to the presence of the Divine.

It can’t be…” muttered the Goddess with her emerald eyes widening in horror as the mother tripped, likely from exhaustion depending on how long she had been running. She gripped the reins and pulled to direct their mount back around. “Orion—”

Bell was already on his feet in a crouch even before she had finished the turn. Extending his hand behind him, he aimed in the direction of the others flying ahead before he let loose a blazing streak that passed by them with a wide margin before fizzling out. It had been a signal to let the others know something was amiss. Even if the roar of the air would drown out their voices, Welf and Mikoto could sense the magic in the air while the others would spot the flames.

Not that Bell could pay any mind to that since he’d already thrown himself off the dragon.

There was a good amount of distance between the dragon and the mother and child. By the time it took for them to reach the pair on dragonback, the monsters would be on top of them. But Bell knew he was faster than the dragon on foot when Jupiter was active. “Shine, Jupiter!

Lightning wreathed his body. Stimulated his muscles. Sharpened his senses. The moment he touched down on the grass, he left Lady Artemis and the dragon behind as the world between himself and the two villagers shrank until he stood between them and the threat with his hands extended. “FIREBOLT!

Riotous explosions resounded as the flaming missiles slammed into the horde. Searing heat kept together by wires of electricity came unbound. The air became thick with scatterings of brown dust, black smoke, and stygian ash as he fired shot after shot among the horde to scatter them about while the mother and child behind him shielded their eyes as confusion mired their mind.

That was when Bell felt the atmosphere around them shift. The unmistakable presence of the divine pulled the eyes of mortals to the Goddess of the Moon as she landed behind them. Draped in a silvery azure veil that was akin to moonlight itself, she extended her hand towards the pair and issued a command with divine authority, “Get on, now!”

A transcendent entity radiating a celestial presence that marked them as one from above. Those who appeared in times of need to be bestow salvation. For the mother and child whose deaths were imminent in that moment, what could it but divine intervention?

Even Bell could only think as much despite knowing otherwise. The presence that emanated from her felt gentle, yet cold. Stark yet soft rays of moonlight seemed to wash over him despite it being daytime.

Th-thump.

And then Bell’s breath caught in his throat as he felt something was there. A towering presence that loomed over his meager frame. Cyclopean malevolence incarnate that barreled down upon him. Encroaching darkness that felt as though it would swallow him whole.

Every cell in his body trembled as he felt something was watching him. It wasn’t like the gaze he felt in Orario. It was something else that was so menacing that it threatened to crush him if he so much as breathed. If his heart so much as beat, he would be squashed like an ant.

As he stood there frozen in fear the monsters that were scattered about had all shifted their attention towards them. Through the rising smoke and heat waves that came from the burning earth those ominous red gazes fixed onto them…

No. Not them. Just her.

Lady Artemis.

Their stiffened bodies began to surge towards the Goddess of the Moon faster than before. The child was in Lady Artemis’ right arm while she offered her left to help the woman on top. She might have been one of the divine, but with her divinity sealed away she was only as strong as a normal woman. If the swarm surging over the land towards them like a black tidal wave reached her then…

Images of her fate flashed vividly in his mind.

His resolve flared and he dared to breathe again even under that baleful and murderous glare. He couldn’t let her or anyone else die like that. No matter what it was that had driven fear so deep into his body that his heart stopped, he couldn’t bear sitting still and doing nothing. He didn’t know how he was going to do it, but he had to stop them all here and now…

The answer came from the spear that was on his back. It suddenly came to life, pulsing as if it were alive and beating in time with his racing heart. He pulled it off his back as divine script began to scrawl itself over the shaft and took aim at the onrushing horde.

The spear left a brilliant tail as it cut through the air before erupting into a pillar of divine light. The column swept across the grasslands and forest as it expanded, its radiance so blinding that Bell was forced to shield his eyes as it swallowed the monsters and even the ominous presence that loomed over him. And by the time it faded away, Bell found himself standing alone with the grassland and forest untouched without a trace of the monsters remaining.

This is a divine weapon’s power… Bell thought to himself as he approached where the spear had been wedged into the ground from the throw. He pulled it out and ran his eyes over the length of the shaft only for his eyes to narrow when they finally fell onto the head of the spear. It was there he noticed that the immaculate jewel on the head of the spear now had a crack running through it.

“It was you?” He looked up upon hearing the tired but familiar voice and spotted the Captain of the Hermes Familia. She was aloft in the air on her winged boots, staring down at him with eyes that had heavy bags beneath them.

“Miss Andromeda?” Bell took a step back as she landed next to him. It was a sloppy landing unbefitting for one of her experiences as her legs nearly buckled under her own weight. He couldn’t help but be concerned. “Are you okay? I thought you and the rest of your Familia were with Lady Artemis’ Familia?”

Her brows folded inwards at that. “Huh? The Artemis Familia are—”

ASFI!” Lord Hermes said loudly as his dragon landed next to them. “You and the others should have been at the Dead Forest, preventing any of those monsters from getting this far out. What happened?”

She forced herself to stand upright before apologizing. “Forgive me, Lord Hermes. There’s been some complications.”

[-Several minutes later-]

YOU DIDN’T TELL US THE SITUATION WAS THAT DIRE!

Everyone winced as Lili shouted at the God of Travel at the top of her lungs. The group had collectively gathered in the aftermath of the sudden attack. Lady Hestia and Lady Artemis had mounted two of the dragons to get the mother and child to safety now that they had been appraised of the situation, leaving them with Hermes and Asfi to get the full scope of everything.

To say them learning how the monster parade they had just encountered was directly tied to the Mission they had received left them a little more than unnerved. However, Bell’s concern laid with the fact that he had heard of such creatures once before. As well as the monster itself. “Lord Hermes, is this monster spawning them the same one from the Heroic Tale of Epimetheus?”

That caught Welf’s attention. “You’ve heard of them before?”

“In the tale of Epimetheus, the great hero of Olympia fought against three Black Monsters of the time. They didn’t have the names they do now, but the Ruler of the Land was later known as Behemoth, and the King of the Sea was Leviathan. The third wasn’t the Black Dragon since it hadn’t appeared yet, but the Scorpion of the Secluded Lands that I’m assuming that this Antares might be it. Even the horde we killed matched the description of those that inhabited the land that his army had to wade through.”

Hermes’ response to that was to tip the brim of his hat over his eyes as a wry smile slipped across his lips. “You’re really well informed, Bell. As you suspect, Antares is the very same monster of legend.”

That was not what Lili wanted to hear as she grabbed the God by the lapels and shook him. “You expect us to kill one of the Black Monsters of Legend!? The last two took the entirety of the two strongest Familia and even they fell against the third! We’re only a small Familia with only a Level Three Captain!

“Now, now, there’s no need to yell. Can’t you see poor Asfi is already barely able to keep her eyes open?” Hermes said while holding his hands up in a manner to pacify the angry Pallum as Welf pried her off the man. True to word, the Level Four was laying with her back against a tree and holding the bridge of her nose. Just from looking at dark circles under her eyes it was clear she hadn’t slept for a long time. “You used the stimulant, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t have a choice if I was going to catch up with all of the monsters,” she said. “The reproduction rate increased beyond what we expected. Only a handful of us could cover ground fast enough after we cleared out the forest of the stronger variants while the weaker ones scattered in all directions.”

Lili’s eyes narrowed at worse news. “What does she mean by that?”

“When we first received the request for assistance, part of that reason was the scorpions that came out where the equivalent of High-Tier Level One monsters from the Dungeon,” Hermes explained. “The fact that so many were coming out at a consistent level naturally warranted concern since incidents like what happened earlier could become more common, especially being so far from Orario.”

“Most monsters on the surface are weaker than mid-tier Level One monsters in the Dungeon,” Mikoto voiced their concern regarding that. “Since they reproduce by splitting their magic stones, they become weaker than their counterparts in the Dungeon. With so few Adventurers being above Level One outside of Orario, I can’t think of a force large enough to corral them if they came out in large enough numbers.”

“…Rakia would probably the closest alternative,” Welf reluctantly admitted with a bitterness in his tone. “I learned something of their military tactics considering they have to defend the territories they claim against monsters. Hordes like these would be thinned out with long-range bombardment before their phalanxes would hold the line. The cavalry would then scatter them so that they could be picked off. But that’s something that only works because of the numbers they have, and even then, most of their forces are Level Ones that were levied.”

“If they only stayed at Level One, it would have been manageable,” Asfi pointed out. “But we noticed among the hordes were larger ones like those you just encountered, with their exoskeletons being hard enough that a Level One Adventurer has next to no chance of penetrating it under their own power unless their Status is extremely high, placing them on par with Level Two Monsters. Then more and more of them began to appear amongst the horde, and now there are even larger ones capable of regenerate damage they sustain. Those are on par with Level Three Monsters and dealing with them had been our priority, which meant we had to allow the weaker ones to scatter before the faster members of my Familia and the Gale gave chase.”

Bell perked up at that. “By Gale, do you mean Miss Ryuu?”

“That’s right,” Hermes answered on his Captain’s behalf. “Since she’s one of Astraea’s children, I was asked to deliver a letter to her requesting her assistance after the War Game. It’s thanks to her being there that they’ve managed so far, but if the reproduction rate increases or hastens, it’ll become a crisis unlike that which has been seen since the dawn of the Age of Heroes.”

“Even if we can keep them at bay, our enemy is still a Black Monster!” Lili reiterated to get across the unfairness of the situation. Since it was a Mission from the Guild they had to see it through, but from her standpoint it was cruel not get at least a stronger Familia to assist them.

“If it were in its former condition, that would most likely be the case,” the God of Travel agreed. “However, the reason that it was lost to history is because much of its power has waned since it was initially stopped when Artemis took favor with a group of huntresses who had took it upon themselves to challenge the Black Scorpion. She granted them a divine revelation to create a temple upon which would become the Scorpion’s tomb and lure it inside, where Great Spirits would be sacrificed to become a seal upon.”

The sole Elf within their group sported such an appalled look upon hearing that.  “Spirits… were… sacrificed?”

“Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for that to happen in the older legends,” Bell said softly as Mikoto gently brushed her head to comfort her. “A great deal of them lost their lives in the Dungeon during the Age of Heroes before the Gods descended. The Six Spirit Seal that allowed them to initially seal the Dungeon away being the biggest example.”

Mikoto craned her head at that, looking up from Primo towards Bell. “I’d never heard of such a thing.”

“My grandfather told me that the Six Spirit Seal was a technique where six Great Spirits create a grand seal and sacrifice themselves to unleash a divine torrent that would wash away everything within. It’s only been used twice in history—once against a dragon that preluded the Age of Heroes known as Nidhogg, and once right on top of the Great Hole to damage it to such an extent that they were able to finally place the lid upon it and keep it there thanks to the descent of the divine.”

“I’m surprised he knew of such an obscure thing,” Hermes stated before elaborating further with a question. “Have any of you children seen the pillar of light that appears when one of us descending or returning to Heaven?”

The majority shook their heads. It was to naturally be expected given that the descent of the divine was often done away from those who could be harmed by it. And one returning above was a rarity, only wrought by tragedy or machinations. But there were two exceptions among them.

The first was the Blacksmith, who stared off to the side and into a far-off memory nestled upon a hill overlooking the gates of Rakia. The pillar of light born from his freedom at the expense of the goddess who wanted to break him from the shackles that would have bound him. The second was the Supporter, for whom the ascending deities heralded the Darkest Days that beset the City of Adventurers.

Regardless, Hermes continued. “The Door of Heaven, as it’s known above, is effectively a weaponized version of that phenomenon, connecting the two realms that were never meant to touch. It creates a gateway through which that divine energy comes pouring down uncontrollably until the seal breaks and the door is slammed shut. The seal placed upon the temple where Antares was ultimately entombed lacked the destructive power of the Six Spirit Seal, but it was potent enough that Antares is nowhere near on par with Behemoth or Leviathan.”

He then pointed over to towards Bell’s spear. “And on top of that Bell possesses the Divine Spear, which houses within it an even greater power than that of a Spirit—a concept that makes it effective against monsters of its ilk. All he must do is reach where Antares is and unleash its full power, and it’ll all be over. However, that power is limited, so try not to overdo it before then.”

The weight of their eyes fell onto Bell as he grasped the spear on his lap tighter. “Right… I got it.”

[-Hestia-]

“We’re going down. Hold tight now.” Hestia said gently to the child nestled against her as she carefully maneuvered the dragon into a gentle descent in a similar manner to Artemis. The two goddesses had decided to bring the mother and child back to their home—or rather what was left of it.

Along the way Hestia had been making small talk with the child to take her mind off the fear of flying that many would have. The skies were unexplored territory for the children, something only dreamed of and experienced by the few in this age. She asked the child of what her home was like as they took to the air.

She had said it was a nice place, where everyone was friendly. A modest settlement within a clearing, most of the homes consisting of one or two large rooms with sheds for the craftsmen and barns for those who tended to animals. Every morning she would run through the village’s square, passing along and waving to her neighbors while taking in the sweet smell of bread from the nearby bakery, playing with the other children until it was time to help her mother with her chores.

Now the walls that ringed it, the fences meant to keep the monsters at bay, were toppled and shattered from where those scorpions from before had bashed their way through. The wooden cottages were collapsed into themselves, support pillars knocked down as the dwellings were invaded and trampled. Some had been left to smolder as the hearth flames spread to leave only the blackened husks of what was once their lives.

They slowly lowered down in the remnants of the village square, where stones that had been erected into a monument had been scattered. Residents there took to the arrival of the dragons with notable panic, no doubt still alert due to their village having just been attacked. Such frightful gazes were truly heartbreaking for the Goddess of the Hearth to feel upon her.

Then she felt Artemis let her divine presence wash over the area. Not a flood, but rather just a leak. Enough for them to know upon a glance that they were divine and meant them no harm before they could fully panic.

The fear in the children’s eyes faded, some of whom were clenching hunting spears and lower quality weapons or even stones to be thrown dropping them as they recognized the divine. The dragons touched down and shifted as they maneuvered their feet around the scattered stones to clear enough space to lower their bodies. Not even a moment later the voice of man called out towards them.

“Papa!” said the child nestled against Hestia, her gaze fixed on a man dressed in a tunic with pants that were stained crimson and a cloth was wrapped around his leg. He was being supported by another man dressed in what looked to be priestly robes, helping him to come over. Hestia helped the child down and escorted her over to avoid her stumbling over some loose stone until she arrived at the man’s waiting embrace.

“Thank the Gods!” he said, his voice on the verge of breaking as he held her close. “I was so worried about you both!”

“Mommy had tripped, and I was so scared!” said the child as the mother joined her daughter in an embrace. “But then there was this fire and loud noises, and we saw a boy was there between us and them. He protected us while the Goddess saved us. Then he pulled out this thing and a bright light made all the monsters go away.”

Seeing them together was a heartwarming sight that kindled a flame within Hestia’s chest as the Goddess of the Moon addressed the priest.

“We came across these two being chased by monsters while on our journey and are returning them,” Artemis said while unslinging a small bag she brought with her. “We also brought some of our Potions to help with any injuries. They should be able to tend to the worse of your injured at the very least, but for broken bones make sure they’re set beforehand. It isn’t much, but it’s all we can spare given we’re on a Quest now. I can also perform a quick rite for the departed if needed.”

All knew the souls of the children would return to the heavens to be sent back down anew, starting a new life. The gods themselves didn’t need to do so, and the rite itself was more to set the minds of those left behind at ease. Despite that the priest shook his head as he accepted the bag from them with a gracious bow.

“Thanks to one of your messengers there are none who need to be seen off,” he said. “And for us to be graced by the presence of two goddesses in the aftermath of this trial with our lost ones. Truly, the Heavens smile upon us today.”

Several of them began to bow in a manner that Hestia wasn’t exactly comfortable with, but she understood why. “What do you mean one of our messengers?”

He elaborated. “A short while before the black creatures fell upon us, a young woman with wings descended from above with our friend here. He had been out hunting when he had been attacked and she managed to bring him back, telling us that we should flee to the north to escape as they passed. Once we realized that the only ones of us unaccounted for was the two who had been venturing outwards towards neighboring village, she then flew off to find them.”

Hestia realized he must have meant Hermes’ child. She must have flown ahead to warn the village once she realized they were along the path. If not for that it was likely they would have stumbled across so many bodies and weeping survivors.

“So, casualties were averted then.” There were few words to describe the look of relief on Artemis’ face before she drew in on herself into the stern, authoritative expression she wore normally. “Our children are heading to deal with the source of those monsters, but there’s a very real chance that within the next week another wave will pass through before we can deal with them. Is it possible for you to relocate for a short while until then?”

He nodded. “Fortunately, we’re on friendly terms with a neighboring village further out. And we have supplies buried for emergencies such as this. We’ll depart come morning for a time until we can rebuild once more.”

Hestia spotted a group of men who were standing near the rubble of a barn, where they had been unearthing what seemed to be sealed jars kept buried there. Occasions such as this weren’t uncommon for them then. Not when they were so far from a city where they could rely on Adventurers.

“Then we’ll take our leave,” Artemis declared, turning towards her own dragon when she felt a slight tug on her wrist. She turned to see the man holding it.

“Thank you for saving my family, Lady Goddess,” the man said. “They meant the world to me. I didn’t know what I would do when I heard they were still out there.”

For a moment Hestia was worried the man might have erred by grabbing hold of her as such. Artemis was somewhat prickly when it came to being touched by men due to the Gods being… well, them. It wasn’t to say that she hated men, but she really didn’t appreciate being touched by them.

But to her surprise, Artemis instead set her hand on top of his and shook her head. “Hold them close to you and never let them go. Family is a very precious thing after all.”

He nodded his head and released her, allowing her to continue back towards her mount. Hestia did the same, spying Artemis wearing an expression that she rarely saw when they were back above. “So, it’s not just Bell that’s changed you, Artemis. The old you would have smacked his hand away at the very least.”

“…You can blame that on Zeus and the shameless perverts following him when we were above,” she claimed. “Besides, he had a family and only wanted to see them saved. I’ve learned how precious it is to have a family… and what it means to want to be with them no matter what.”

There was something in her tone that Hestia could pick up that felt… all too familiar. A finality to it. “Artemis, there’s more to what’s happening, isn’t there?”

“…I’ll explain everything as we fly,” Artemis promised. “About what happened… and the burden that I have to ask your child to bear.”


Life is Tough for a Minos: Chapter 2 [Mobuseka x Gunvolt AU]

Chapter 2: The Return

Gunshots filled the air along with shrieks born from the maws of vicious monsters.

The skies above the eastern part of the Bartfort barony were filled with slithering and undulating bodies as nightmares flitted about. Insectoids whose wings fluttered at such a rapid pace that they were almost invisible, barring the prismatic hue of the light reflecting off them, scoured the floating islands along their migration path for the sake of food. They would consume whatever was available before pushing on, leaving naught behind.

Gunfire sailed up to meet the encroaching horde from the land below. Some civilian men who’d taken up rifles, sheltered by half-cover provided by buildings, let fly bullets that tore through the sky and smashed into the chitinous shells. Viscous fluids burst from the holes punched into the bodies of those that were unable to avoid the shots.

The horde paid no mind to their ranks that fell, instead focusing on the presence of fresh meat that their mandibles could pry off the bones. They would have descended upon the militia had it not been for the soldiers of the barony, each equipped with an outdated but reliable set of powered armor that offered them superior protection along with assault rifles. Few as they were, those assembled focused on eliminating those that descended.

Then an Apex came crashing down, one that was on the larger end and standing almost two stories tall. Six thin legs supported its massive, elongated frame as its mandibles pulled apart to reveal rows of needle-like teeth. Sparks dances around it as bullets bounced off its harder exoskeleton as its hooked forelimbs unfurled and lashed out.

Metal screamed as the armored men caught in the attack were thrown about, bodies sent into a spiral and scattered. It was only thanks to the durability of their equipment that none of them had been split in half. But more than a few of their exosuits were sparking and twitching. Some of them were also groaning and slow to get back to their feet compared to others—injured no doubt.

“Fall back!” One of the armored men shouted with the crest of the Bartfort house emblazoned on the pauldrons of his exosuit, signifying he was one of their knights, as he extended his hand back towards a large boulder. A deep, dark violet swaddled his body and his veins bulged from beneath his skin as that same hue wrapped around the massive stone. Then he roared at the top of his lungs as he motioned forward, using his Telekinetic Septima to throw the boulder forward. “RRRAAAAAHHHH!!

It smacked the creature in its upper body and there was an audible crunch as it twisted and staggered from the blow. Its legs moved in jittering motions as the exoskeleton around its chest and head were cracked, glimmering fluids seeping out. But it was still capable of fighting back, which it did by lunging for the Adept that had struck it, now panting in a half-crouch from the exertion of his power.

His suit’s propulsion system kicked in as he kicked off the ground, taking to hovering in the air. Limited flight was within the capabilities of the model but, compared to more modern ones, it could only be done for short bursts. So, while he still had time aloft, he fired down with his assault rifle upon the creature from above as the bullets pelted the cracked exoskeleton and left fissures to spread as they chipped away at the sensitive bits beneath the shell.

The monster grew aggravated by his presence and then used its wings to gain air before swatting him down. The sound of wrenching metal as his exosuit bore the brunt of the impact at the expense of its durability rang out over his scream of pain. Scraps of steel flew in every direction as delicate equipment beneath the protective covering was damaged, breaking the armor’s power-frame and leaving it heavy on his body. The knight barely managed to get upright as the towering insectoid closed in with its serrated arms ready to tear him apart.

That was when a red-and-silver blur slammed into the monster like a ballista bolt, throwing it off balance and sending it to the ground where it scuttled around to get upright. At the same time, the projectile slid to a stop next to the barely standing knight.  It was then he saw it was a young man donning a sleeker model of powered armor that was white around the torso and pauldrons, while the gauntlets and grieves were red, and a metallic sphere floated around him.

Then suddenly more metal spheres soared from the backside beneath what looked to be wings. They rocketed towards the larger monster as it was getting on its feet, but rather than crash into it they surrounded it in a sort of rigid pattern and light ran between them. Abruptly, the ones closest to the creature began shooting tongues of electricity into it.

An ear-splitting screech rang out as the insectoid writhed beneath the invasive bolts that shot into it, moving around erratically as it tried to escape. But the orbs remained constant with it, a set rotation that never changed even as it matched its movements. On the ground, in the air, they stayed locked on long enough for its body to collapse before bursting into particles of mana before they floated around the armored warrior, who glanced back at him as the visor covering his face then split apart to reveal it to be the son of his Lord.

“Master Leon?” The aged knight struggled to stand properly. “When did you get back!?”

“Nicks and Father are on the way!” Keeping his eyes on the remaining monsters, he aimed a sidearm towards the distant ones and pulled the trigger. Bolts of light cut through the air, piercing their bodies with ease and scattering them into motes. “I’ll clean up here, so fall back with the others and get your injuries tended to!”

“To leave the battlefield to you would be—”

Leon cut him off. “That suit’s power-frame isn’t working because of that fall so you can barely move in that thing as is! At the very least take cover and fire from a distance until Father gets here. I’ll cull their numbers until then!”

And what that, the jet wings on his suit flared outwards and the visor closed over his helmet once more. Leon shot into the air and left the eldest knight serving his family behind without waiting for a response. Normally, he would be more respectful considering all the man had done for him over the last few years, but as he told his father and brother before he left them behind, they didn’t have time with the situation being this urgent.

It was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Wow, this is the largest wave of monsters I’ve seen since we left the Tower.” The A.I. known as Lola noted through the earpiece Leon wore as she floated next to him. Her artificial consciousness was currently occupying an Automated Combat Support Pod, with her processors currently alternating between controlling the P-Bits while also powering the exosuit he was using. “Is it always this bad, or is it one of those ‘game events’ you mentioned?

“The first wave of the migration is always rough,” Leon responded as he fired shots from the sidearm that she had reproduced for him to use based on research from one of the Glaives. It was a photon emitter that fired out laser bolts that weren’t particularly strong or intense, but they were an endless source of ammunition and were effective enough against the current threat. “And don’t think I didn’t hear those air quotes!”

It had been roughly two or so months since they had departed the Tower and made their way back to the territory that belonged to Leon’s father. During that time, Lola had been gathering data thanks in part to her advanced capabilities. It seemed that since the time of the war a lot of the advanced technology that had been present in her era had been lost.

Part of it was no doubt due to the sheer number of deaths caused by the calamity, with fewer of those who had the technical skills surviving. But the shifting of the environment had caused a great deal of loss as well. Not that it was completely backward, as some of the development and adaptation of certain technologies were fairly advanced all things considered, but the Tower easily eclipsed even the most advanced technology she had seen so far.

On the other hand, Leon claimed it was thanks to bad world-building since the setting was originally that of a video game that was a mix between a visual novel and platformer. He claimed to have been reborn in this world after dying in his previous life in Japan, which based on the cross-references that she made, seemed to have been set some time in the past before the first known Adepts. She was tempted to consider him delusional to a degree, though the scans she had done showed he hadn’t suffered brain damage or a chemical imbalance that would warrant it.

Besides, some of his information was scarily accurate in ways it shouldn’t be without some form of foreknowledge. And it wasn’t like there weren’t individuals with precognition in the past given that espers and mediums were recorded throughout history as being attuned to some of the upper layers of the Lifewave that granted them their extrasensory abilities. Granted, Leon himself wasn’t attuned to any of those layers so he shouldn’t have access to any of those capabilities.

It was something of a mystery she had a passing interest in solving, but she wasn’t exactly in a rush. Besides, even if he was slightly cuckoo, he was nice enough while they were traveling, and her directive was still to help Humans like him.

Plus, it was still better than being stuck in the Tower with no one to talk to.

My bad,” she apologized as Leon landed on the ground hard, allowing the shock absorbers within that part of the suit to store the kinetic energy and convert it into additional electrical energy within the spare battery packs that her Master developed in the past called ‘Bullits’. “Anyway, the White Tiger is in tip-top shape, so we can go all out.

The suit that Leon had found in the ruins had belonged to her Master, and because it was both ill-suited for the current environment and something she wanted to preserve, Lola had offered to instead make him a new one that was more suitable based on the information she gathered during their visit to the more civilized parts of the kingdom when he went to sell off the Glaive and register his findings with the Guild.

Of course, Lola wasn’t willing to risk the Tower being found by Adepts that might decide to scavenge it for loot. So, they had to mask the information to a degree by claiming a small island that they had found with the sensors in the Smilodon was the original location. Leon didn’t particularly care about what happened to it afterwards since neither he nor his family had the funds to upkeep or develop an island, so offering it up basically stopped him from getting taxed on it. He was sure that once the Royal Family scoured it for any other traces of lost technology, they would just give it to some noble as a vacation home.

But with the time between the offer and getting the Azure Glaive through the proper channels, Lola had managed to scan the more recent models of the powered armor used by the nobility to fight more efficiently. She used them as a template for his new suit—albeit much better designed and integrated with her own technology to compensate for his lack of Septima, including those devised from research done on two of the Glaives she had brought along the way.

She had called it the White Tiger, which Leon noticed seemed to be a theme when it comes to her naming convention. Or maybe something she picked up from her original creator. He didn’t exactly mind, so long as it worked. “Can we target multiple enemies this time?”

Just line ‘em up and I’ll zap ‘em good!

There was an attachment to his suit that could use his brainwaves to operate the P-Bits. But Leon hadn’t had enough training to do that while also operating the suit’s flight system. That was why she was filling in her former role as a Combat Support Pod by configuring them into the subroutine that could reproduce the effects of the Azure Striker Septima by using the pix stored within them, which the P-Bits managed by arranging themselves into different formations. In this case, half were used to create an inner layer that generated the electrical field, while the outer layer condensed them into bolts that could be directed outwards.

Leon took to the air, expending one of the charges within the storage packs to increase the output of the jets and took flight. The Bullit Dash’s sudden acceleration was more than he was used to, but the suit was accommodating enough that it didn’t overwhelm him. He lined up behind the swarm that tried to go further inland. “Do it!”

Lances of lightning shot forward, the constrained current piercing through the exoskeletons of the insectoids as the electricity shocked them from the inside out. The violent discharge dispersed those caught in the swarm. And with their deaths their bodies broke apart into motes that dissipated into the invisible mana permeating the atmosphere as they passed though until none were left. “This EX-Weapon is really effective on ‘em, huh?

“It’s convenient,” Leon admitted, hovering in the air as the discharge ceased and taking stock of situation as the EX-Weapon began to recharge. Lola had tried to explain how it worked to him, but the most he could understand was that due to her A.S. Drive it would eventually replenish itself. “Still, they shouldn’t have gotten this close. I’d bet this is Zola’s idea on getting even.”

You think she had something to do with the monsters?

“No, but she knows when her family are supposed to have their men here since any sign of instability scares away merchants needed to support the island. All she would have to do was pass on a message and tell them to arrive a bit later than usual due to some complication. That way any deaths or injuries or damages were just unfortunate rather than her breaking the terms of the marriage contract, allowing her to be a spiteful pain in the ass and get away with it.”

The Bartfort Household were a Barony, but they were a poor one that only had this singular floating island since they had by chance met the requirements when it came to military power, wealth, and political influence that some auditor on behalf of the Kingdom decided that was good enough. The wealth came from the fact that they owned land that was capable of generating some measure of income and a population to match, the political influence came from the fact that they were previously a Baronet family until their grandfather’s generation and thus had enough generations of effort to merit it, and the military power came because of the knight families they had under their banner.

Higher ranks meant more obligations, and with it more problems. They owned land and because of that they could generate wealth. But land on the frontier was notorious for being either the sites of conflicts with neighboring regions, routinely pillaged by pirates, or close enough to the migratory paths of monsters that they were routinely attacked.

In the past, they could afford to simply let the monsters munch down whatever was on this side of the mountains and kill the strays that lingered afterwards. That was because they didn’t need the extra land to be used to generate income before becoming a Barony. But because they owed more to the Crown after receiving an increase in their rank, they had to develop and make use of that section of land, which meant they had to actively deal with the swarms and had to increase their military power—weapons, airships, exosuits, and Adepts capable of dealing with these things.

Weapons had to be bought since they lacked the means to manufacture them on the island. Airships grew progressively more expensive depending on the construction and capabilities. And powered armor required constant maintenance and upkeeping. Those were a pain to constantly deal with, but they weren’t the most expensive asset.

It was the Adepts themselves who were the most valuable resource when it came to military power and the rarest. Anyone who had a reasonably powerful Septima could easily get themselves into a Knight position anywhere, even if they were an unranked Commoner. And if your power was useful, you could even get adopted into the Sixth Rank or above. Since that was the case, why waste your talent here in the outskirts where you’d have to risk your life against monsters for whatever a poor Baron could give you?

Most of the people who lived on their territory weren’t gifted with powerful Septima. The knights in their service weren’t above the norm either save for a few. And there were fewer of them now than in their grandfather’s time. So, whether they liked it or not, they needed at least a few more combat-capable Adepts among their ranks.

That was why Balcus agreed to marry Zola even though he had been courting Luce at the time. It had been a bad year and they lost a lot of good people, including Luce’s father and brothers, making her the last of the Roheisa line who had been serving their family even before their grandfather’s time. Scum or not, Zola’s Household were a Fifth Rank Viscount Household and provided knights and soldiers of their own when the swarms came every year as part of their contractual military service. And being tied to them meant that the Bartforts had enough status that they could take out a large enough loan to afford the equipment their people needed to survive.

So, when she made the offer from on-high, what choice did their father have but to accept? Leon didn’t blame him for it. No one could when he did it for their people. It was his duty as a noble after all, and it proved that he truly cared for the people under his rule.

“Zola’s the type who enjoys having power over others because she’s in a higher rank,” Leon continued. “Father put up with all her demands except when it came to me, and she used that opportunity to make our family suffer in poverty. She probably couldn’t wait to see him broken from having paid so much and still had to throw me out, only I came back with a pending ennoblement from higher up to shove in her face.”

Zola could ‘tolerate’ her husband having illegitimate children with a mistress. But having a Minos share the same family name was something she didn’t have to put up with because of the way things worked here. That was why once he was officially recognized as a Minos due to lacking a septima by the average age and not a late bloomer, she demanded a tribute from them that wasn’t counted towards the loan he had to take out with their family, which already had a predatory high interest rate attached. Add that in with the taxes that had to be paid to the Crown, and they were dirt poor while still having obligations that came with their rank.

Leon recalled days when his father starved himself, so his children remained fed. The shame on his mother’s face as she had to explain why Jenna couldn’t have even a single dress like the ones Merce always wore when she visited. He couldn’t even hate Jenna when she finally asked why the rest of them had to suffer because he had to be born broken, nor how Finley never spoke to him more than necessary afterwards.

It was undeniable that they had suffered. Not just because he had been born a Minos. But because despite that they still acknowledged him as one of their family.  They were suffering for the price for being decent human beings.

That was why Leon had to pay them all back.

Leon, I’m picking up a big one closing in,” Lola chimed in, which grabbed his attention. His visor received a visual feed of an even larger monstrosity than the one they’d killed a bit ago, traveling in the center of the main swarm. It resembled more of a dragonfly with a massive head and compound eyes that size of small airships, four transparent wings that fluttered so quickly that the rest of its smaller counterparts kept their distance around it lest they be blown away.  “How do you want to deal with it?

“We’ll get rid of it before it can cause any damage ourselves,” Leon declared before darted towards the ground and landing with a stomp next to one of their knights. After informing him of the impending attack and that he would deal with it, he shot off before they could say otherwise or attempt to follow him.

The jets accelerated at full speed as one of the Bullits was expended in order to rocket the duo towards the incoming swarm while they were still in the distance above the forests outside of the village. The tracks of land were left as both a windbreak that shielded the farms and buildings from the cold winds during the winter and provided breeding grounds so that the wildlife population wouldn’t decline, since that was one of their primary means of feeding themselves. It was the best place to confront them.

The design of the suit prevented it from breaking under the strain of the g-forces, allowing it to achieve acceleration surpassing the existing models of armors. However, the battery packs themselves only had a limited charge, so the initial acceleration would peter out after a few seconds. But with plenty of surfaces to bounce off, like the upper branches of a hearty tree, he could refill the expended cartridge before he accelerated once more. Using a string of consecutive Bullit Dashes allowed them to get within range of the swarm well before they could advance closer to the village. “Take care of the bits, Lola!”

OK!” The P-Bits arranged themselves into formation and lightning began to pool before being woven through the bits and launched forward. Streaking bolts lanced into the horde ahead of him, ripping through their ranks and creating an opening for him to approach the Swarm Leader. Unlike the small fries who were instantly killed by the voltage as it devoured them from the inside out, its glossy exoskeleton was far more durable as the electric streamers wormed over its body.

Its compound eyes reflected the red and silver glint of their armor as they closed in and it chittered aggressively.

We got its attention now!” Lola chimed in as the bits ceased their discharge while it darted forward, attempting to follow its predatory instincts to snap up the fast-moving prey approaching its mouth with its mandibles. Leon twisted his body for snap-roll that shot them just beneath its underside as the jaws clamped shut. As he passed beneath it, he slammed the barrel of the gun against its thorax so that the light emitter marked it with a luminous ‘X’ before burning a charge to Bullit Dash as he pulled away to the right, avoiding the lash of its tail as he reoriented himself. “That was awesome!

“It’s not over yet,” Leon pointed out as he opened fire with his blaster. Leaving aside how well the suit controlled thanks to the neural readers beneath the helmet, pulling that off that snap-roll would have put far more of a strain on his body than he could handle without her suit compensating. Even now he began flying backward as he held down the trigger, sending a constant barrage of laser shots that homed in on the Swarm Leader as it gave chase, waiting for the EX-Weapon to recharge so he could do more than chip damage.

The monstrous insectoid chittered violently as it tried to dodge. But no matter how it moved, it was pelted by the superheated bolts that scoured its exoskeleton where it had been marked with every hit. It might not have been doing a lot of damage, but enough of the shots would eventually melt through its chitinous hide. Not that the monster was content to sit there and take it as it shrieked and then cracked its abdomen like a whip in their direction.

I’m putting up the Flashshield!” Lola said as the motion released what looked to be spines from the terminal end of its abdomen. They cut through the air like spears, covering a wider area to skewer him out of the sky, only to be rebuffed as the bits began circling him and wove together an electrified field. The protective shell lasted until the bombardment ceased before flying to the marked target and entering the lightning-generation formation once more. “Now for the counterattack! Stellar Spark!

With the P-Bits locked on the Swarm Leader was bombarded by lightning. Trapped as the outer bits served to funnel the electricity inwards while the inner bits directed the concentrated charge into its body. It jerked around in unsettling motions as it tried to escape only for the bits to match its movements until the weapon energy was drained and the mark itself faded.

I don’t think it’s got a lot of fight left in it,” Lola said as the bits returned, her A.S. Drive funneling into the energy partition dedicated to the EX-Weapon system to begin recharging it. “A little more time and I’ll have something strong enough to finish it ready to go!

Leon was about to ask what she had in mind when he noticed those massive compound eyes locked onto them were starting to glow with an unearthly light. Then the insectoid released an ear-splitting screech that rippled out with such force the sound waves rattled the very trees. Its translucent wings began to beat even faster, no longer merely being used for flight but to generate harsh winds.

Is it trying to knock us away? Leon thought as the wind buffered the pair to the point where the normal propulsion was barely able to keep them from being blown away. Then he noticed that its tail appendage was aimed towards them and decided to burn a Bullit to have the jets propel him to the side.

It proved to be the right call as one of the spines from before speared through where they had been at speeds that were far faster than before. More followed afterwards, spine after spine fired towards them at speeds that would punch through a normal exosuit with ease, reminding him of just how much he hated bullet hell segments. “Lola!”

The P-Bits encircled him and deflected the incoming spines that he couldn’t avoid with the Flashshield, each one entering the radius of the protective field charred by the electrical nature as they were repulsed. It wasn’t ideal since it wore down the energy partitioned to the EX-Weapon, so Leon focused on avoiding them as much as he could while chipping away at its exoskeleton by free-aiming his gun. The bombardment was then followed up by the Swarm Leader rocketing itself forward as a last-ditch attempt when it became clear that the spines weren’t sufficient.

It shot forward like a missile with its mandibles opened wide. The Flashshield couldn’t tank that kind of hit with that kind of mass behind it and would have split Leon in half if he didn’t avoid it. He burned another Bullit and rocketed upwards at the last minute, leaving it to pass beneath them as its wings finally ceased to glow once its desperation attack failed.

Now was the time to finish it. “End it, Lola!”

Shred Storm!” The P-Bits surrounding them began to glow as they quickened their rotation before suddenly sweeping out with the same speed that was normally reserved for the Bullit Dash. In a flash, the Swarm Leader was torn asunder by what appeared to be glowing comets that left behind a red tail in their wake like blood from the claws of a tiger that ripped through the air itself. It chittered weakly as its wings abruptly ceased their beating and it plummeted down to the trees below.

And as soon as it hit the ground, its corporeal form burst into countless motes of light that slowly winked out to mark its death.

Aw, yeah! A perfect finish!” Lola cheered excitedly as they hovered in the air.

“Closer than I’d like at a few moments, but we make a good team,” Leon admitted freely before turning back in the direction of the village. “Let’s head back and clean up.”

Sure thing, Partner!

[—Evening—]

It was evening before the things were settled and the first wave was culled.

Leon himself sat on a tree stump closer to the outskirts of the village where most of the soldiers and knights were stationed. A wet cloth was hanging over his head and covering his eyes to block out the amber light of the setting sun as he cooled down, his helmet retracted with only the headset affixed to his dark hair remaining. Lola was slotted into a compartment in the suit with the rest of the P-Bits and running diagnostics and reviewing the combat log for future improvements.

He sat there and listened to the various men that voiced relief that the initial wave had been culled, anguish from the injuries sustained, or concern at the lack of support they’d received this time. That was when a deluge of water smacked him abruptly, drenching him to the point where he ended up tasting the salt in it. He coughed as he tore off the rag now clinging to his face and spat out the excess saltwater. “Was that necessary, Nicks?!”

His older brother, Nicks, stood ahead of him in a similar model of exosuit that the knights wore. Their family coat of arms was emblazoned on the back and larger than the others normally on the shoulders to indicate he was a member of the household and thus a higher rank. And next to him were two spheres of water that undulated as they hovered in the air.

Nicks, Jenna, Colin, and Finley all had control over generating liquids within their family as their Septima. Nicks generated saltwater, which was pretty bad for farming and hitting monsters in the face with them didn’t exactly do much in terms of damage. Colin’s was inconsistent since he was so young, and his attempts seemed to add some kind of impurity into the water that they weren’t sure of. Jenna could produce freshwater, which made her useful when it came to keeping the farmland healthy even if she hated it. Finley… well, she kept to herself mostly but seemed to be in the same boat as Jenna, though he noted that the water she produced tended to be colder.

Nicks gave Leon a stern glare before they shot forward and smacked him twice more for good measure. “You flew off ahead of us and then went off on your own to deal with the swarm. Just because you got back after playing Adventurer for a few months doesn’t mean you can do that. The only reason I’m not doing worse is because you didn’t get yourself injured.”

“If I hadn’t then someone could have died because Zola decided to be more of a bitch than usual,” Leon said, justifying breaking ahead to deal with the threats as he shook his head to get the water out. “Speaking of which, let me guess—engine trouble, right?”

Nicks’ frown at Leon turned into a glower. Not directed at his brother, but to the topic at hand. “Yeah, ‘engine trouble’ they said while claiming they would be another week late. Bastards.”

The first wave was always the worst, but smaller waves tended to follow the migration pattern. It was a problem that they had to put up with since the species of monsters themselves came from further out beyond a more turbulent area. Those tended to be more manageable since they didn’t have a Swarm Leader guiding them, but every injured or dead man made life harder. That week was likely meant to give them time to stew in the aftermath of what they probably expected to be a far more devastating encounter, arriving before the second wave so they were reminded of just how invaluable Zola’s grace was.

“It could have been much worse,” Nicks continued, eyes rolling over the White Tiger suit as water rolled down it. “And no one else can use that suit, right?”

“You’ve heard how Lost Items tend to be at times,” Leon said. “I’m lucky it didn’t require a specific Septima to operate, but the moment I put it on it registered me as the user and won’t let anyone else use it.”

“Probably for the best then,” his brother settled on with a shrug. “At least we can have your old armor issued to someone else since you’ve got that one now. Just try not to break it. If that armor really is a Lost Item along with that ship, then chances are once it breaks it can’t be easily fixed.”

Leon was a bit upset about having to lie, but that was simply how it had to be for now. Lola could repair or even make another suit with resources and time. But while she might accept that Adepts were the majority without wanting to genocide them en masse, that didn’t mean she was eager to pump them out wholesale. Besides, she was the one powering the suit with her personal A.S. Drive, which was responsible for most of its capabilities. Trying to power two of them at once could overheat the engine.

“Anyway, once I’ve officially gotten my ennoblement title, I’ll be able to handle things here while you’re at the Academy,” Leon told him. He already had the letter explaining that he was guaranteed Ninth Rank—Knighthood within the hierarchy of nobility in the Kingdom.

There were twelve ranks in the Holfort Kingdom, three of which were impossible to attain unless you were royalty. The lowest two at Eighth and Ninth Rank were both classified as being Knights, but there was an unspoken distinction between them. The Ninth Rank could be given out as a Title by even regional lords like their father, but while it conferred recognition for merit it could also be considered an Honorary Title since the person it was bestowed upon didn’t have to carry out duties seriously and even non-combatants could obtain it so they could be called a member of the nobility.

Eighth Rank were Royal Knights that had real authority and were expected to behave as such. The Royal Family recognized them with a ceremony and even paid them higher compensation and a pension along with several other benefits. However, to be recognized could take a decade of service or more and the title wasn’t inheritable.

Only Seventh Rank, a Baronet or Baroness, and above were inheritable. Just getting to that rank typically required a lifetime of service, or a decent chunk of land in their name. Most of the nobles never actually went further to receive the rank of a Baron because of the wealth disparity and lack of land available. Not that the Crown couldn’t point at a baronetcy with a high enough population and say that was good enough if they needed to place a higher tax on someone.

“Not really looking forward to going back there,” Nicks admitted. “The classes Dad wants me to take are boring and the things are so expensive that I have to spend my free time in Dungeon or working part-time. He keeps telling me I should try to make decent connections as well, but that’s easier said than done considering all things.”

“Sucks for you,” Leon told him with a grin. He honestly didn’t want to go to the Royal Academy, knowing the mess that the next three years would bring. Only the firstborn sons and girls from Sixth Rank and higher were required to go, and they all got shunted into Special Education courses separate from those below. For the men, it was because they were set to inherit land holdings and needed the education, while women were expected to be able to handle the duties of their spouses if they were away during a conflict or died—which was disturbingly more common than ideal.

Nicks was the second son of the Bartfort Household, but he was the illegitimate son since Zola was the legal wife of their father and had her son ahead of him. He was a spare heir, so he had to go to gain a general education. But Rutart was first in line to inherit the title of Baron once their father passed it along.

Mind you if something ‘happened’ to Rutart then Nicks would be the one to obtain everything. But considering Zola kept him at her family estate and oversaw his rearing, that wasn’t likely to happen. The fact that their father’s demesne would fall into the hands of someone who never lifted a finger to defend their home didn’t sit well with them, but nothing could be done about it.

Their father had at least ensured that Nicks would be kept on as a vassal knight. He would inherit the land that their mother’s family owned since she was the last surviving member and passed it on to him. Since most of the other knight families and soldiers recognized him as their father’s child, they wouldn’t cause problems and would remain loyal so he could deal with the affairs on the island while Rutart stayed on the continent.

The same couldn’t be said for Leon, who Zola wanted to have banished and failed to recognize. That was the reason Leon had to jump through hoops to get the Ninth Rank, since having the title bestowed upon him by his father could be challenged by Zola’s family. Being from a Viscount Family that was married to the Bartforts and a higher rank, they could easily revoke it or use it as leverage against them. So being an independent, if honorary, Knight that was bestowed the title by the Crown was sufficient since no one barring a Duke or Duchess would even question or challenge it.

Since their barony was originally founded by accepting independent knights, they could easily set him up as a household knight. He wouldn’t have land, but he would still live with his family and do everything he already was. He would set out with Lola to help her gather data as promised, but for someone who didn’t have grand ambitions, things were good enough for him.

So naturally, things didn’t go that smoothly when the messenger arrived a few days later with an offer from the Crown he couldn’t refuse.

[—Several Days Later—]

“The Royal Family wants me to attend the Academy as a Scholarship Student!?”

Leon had been out and getting in some target practice when his younger brother had come to tell him that they had a guest for him from the Capital. He had expected it to be a courier to deliver the ennoblement of Ninth Rank, marking him as a Knight. He hadn’t expected the courier to deliver a missive from the Queen herself.

“In light of your accomplishments at such a young age as an Adventurer, the Royal Family has decided to offer the chance to attend the Academy’s Special Education courses under a scholarship,” explained the courier, who was an aged man well into his older years with a butler mustache and monocle. “Should you manage to graduate, there is also a guarantee of being elevated to Eighth Rank.”

Leon did his best to mask the sheer disbelief at that statement as he glanced out of the corner of his eyes toward his father. The man was doing a better job of hiding whatever skepticism he felt as he ran over the paperwork detailing the offer in full. But he at least gave a slight inclination of his head to acknowledge that something was off about it as well.

Leaving aside the fact he knew that there were no Minos among the Eighth Rank, the offer was a little too good. Go to school and get a guaranteed paycheck for the rest of your life? That sounded like the kind of sales pitch military recruiters gave to get commoners to sign themselves up to be sent to the meatgrinder, which was exactly what he wanted to avoid.

Leon was certain there was some kind of catch to it, even if he couldn’t quite peg it yet. There was also the factor that he wasn’t supposed to be the Scholarship Student attending the Academy. Had he somehow shifted events by giving them the Glaive ahead of time that made him take her slot? If that were the case, then it could cause problems later on if he accepted.

Besides, he didn’t care about being elevated to Eighth Rank. He only needed Ninth Rank to get what he wanted. “Not to be ungrateful—”

“Leon accepts the offer from the Crown graciously,” his mother said while setting her hand on his shoulder in a show of parental support. Or so it appeared.  The fact that her fingers were digging into his flesh and the saccharine smile she wore while facing him sent a chill down his spine made it less of support and more of a warning. “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”

He swallowed. “R-Right. Forgive my hesitation, I’m more than happy to accept the Crown’s offer wholeheartedly. It’s just that I never imagined that the Royal Family would go out of the way to bestow a scholarship to someone like me. Are you sure you have the right—”

Her nails dug into his shoulders.

“—I mean am I the only Scholarship Student attending?” Leon finished while trying to maintain a straight face. “I’ve never heard of a scholarship being given out, so I’m just curious if there are others as part of the program?”

If the man noticed any oddities in the fact that his voice rose a pitch, he hid it well. “Ah, I suppose the uncertainty is understandable given that this is a new initiative being pushed by the Queen. There were two slots in the Academy set aside for a male and female candidate, and your accomplishment as an Adventurer merited the slot for the male candidate. I will be shortly visiting the female candidate to inform her as well.”

Leon was still skeptical for a number of reasons. But considering his mother would likely start drawing blood if he voiced another word to reject it, he wisely kept his mouth shut as his father finished going over the paperwork. They hammered out the finer details and suddenly found himself enrolled in the Royal Academy.

His silence lasted until the very moment the man departed. “Mom, that was—

“—too good to be true,” Luce finished for him as she gently peeled back his collar to see if she’d actually hurt him. “An offer that gives you a chance at an education that costs so much for free? A prestigious rank that has ties to the Crown itself and guarantees financial stability for the rest of your life? All on the Royal Family’s coffers?”

She slowly shook her head as she outlined those facts. His mother might not have attended the Academy or lived in the Capital, but she knew something that was too good at a glance. “No, sweetheart. More than likely whatever you sold them simply put you in their minds and they decided to use you for some political purpose.”

“Then why are you forcing me to go?”

Because it’s an offer that gives you a chance at an education you normally wouldn’t have, financial stability you wouldn’t have, and a rank that you wouldn’t have. There’s something off about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was too good for you to pass up. Most others in your… situation wouldn’t get that chance.”

The way she hesitated to say that final sentence got the implication across well enough without her having to say another Minos wouldn’t be so lucky with how the Kingdom was structured. To be honest, they were lucky to have two children attending as impoverished as they were. It was pure pragmatism that both Jenna and Nicks were attending.

In Nicks’ case, it was because he was the spare heir. Even then he still had only general education and had to work part-time to pay for his needs outside of the base finances for tuition. His grades weren’t exactly stellar, but realistically that didn’t matter so long as he graduated.

It was different in Jenna’s case. His parents covered everything because it offered her a chance of marrying up in life because of the number of bachelors from different islands. If she managed to find a suitor to get engaged to, it could possibly secure them capital or resources that could improve their barony if the dowry was large enough. And unlike Nicks, she didn’t have to work part-time by justifying that she needed to at least appear wealthy enough to attract a suitor who didn’t think she was dirt poor.

Sending Leon was never in the cards. He was a third son and a Minos. There was too little to be gained for too much cost when the best he could hope for was being a household knight. His little brother also would likely not be able to attend when he came of age if their fortunes didn’t improve from here on.

“I wish that I could have done so much more for you, Leon,” Luce continued softly with a hitch in her voice. “You’ve always been a clever boy, and you picked up on learning so easily. That’s why, even knowing something else is going on, I want you to take advantage of it while you can. So that you can have a future and a chance at a life that your father and I can’t give you.”

And, having said that, she gave him a kiss on the cheek before heading to get started on dinner.

That Leon alone in the room as he scratched his head in frustration. He hated it. Not the fact that he had to go to the Royal Academy, but the fact that his mother felt that way to begin with. That he was the cause of it. Another thing he couldn’t pay back.

That was when the Combat Support Pod unveiled herself as the pix she had been using to camouflage herself was retracted. She had naturally been listening in. “Your mom is really proud of you, huh?

“She’s always felt guilty that I was born as a Minos,” he said in Japanese on the off chance that someone overheard them. Since he didn’t live by himself, he used his native tongue and script when he couldn’t guarantee privacy or for sensitive topics since there wasn’t anyone else who could understand before he met Lola. It was one of his ties to his past life he could keep with him. “It just happens that I got my memories back at an earlier age, and so she wants to think I’m a prodigy to compensate for that.”

Leon hadn’t been a bad student by any stretch, even though he opted not to go to university so he could help support his family in his past. The fact that Holfort lacked a public education system meant that the educational standards for most of the population were fairly low in the border regions, with the only alternative being homeschooling or the Church. Even then, specialized knowledge to act as a mechanic for the exosuits or engineers for airships were relegated to private institutions like the Academy, which required having a sponsor for lower ranked individuals.

From their perspective, his behavior after he regained his memories seemed like he had suddenly become a prodigy given that he acted more mature and understanding than most kids his age would. Since he was an adult in mind and acted the part, he was often seen as more independent and that was part of why his father agreed to give him what he needed to find Lola. And Leon had rewarded that faith by coming back, which would only feed into their preconceptions and thus the image he had to uphold to them.

Leon scratched his head before turning to her. “Lola, I need a favor. Could you catch up to the ship before it gets too far out of our territory and figure out if the second person is a young woman named Olivia?”

That’s the one who’s supposed to be the ‘Heroine’ isn’t it?

“Yeah. I want to make sure that she’s the female student since it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The scholarship was supposed to be the excuse plot for the heroine to enter the Academy despite not being part of the gentry. But a slot for a male student wasn’t mentioned. I need to see if that’s changed too.”

It might have been a background detail that didn’t need to be elaborated. Or just to fill in how the world worked. If that was the case, then he supposed the slot was to be filled in by some mob who wasn’t suited to be a Love Interest to a special snowflake like the Heroine. But if by some chance obtaining the Glaive early screwed up her recruitment, it could cause real problems considering there was going to be a war in three years.

The neighboring Principality of Fanoss, ruled by a princess masquerading as a prince, would use a device called a Grimoire that enhanced her Mirror Septima to a great degree. She could use it to create countless copies of monsters, or even spawn a titanic monster into existence even though it cost her very life in the game. The Heroine’s power was needed so that the Love Interest could deal with all of that.

The pod bobbed up and down. “Sure thing! I’ll head out and try to dig something up for ya.

And with that said she floated out of the nearby window and camouflaged herself.

Leon sighed before laying back on the couch with his arms behind his head as his mind ran over all the things that he needed to do to compensate for leaving for the Academy. He had hoped to help around his family’s territory, but he couldn’t do that from the Capital. Then again, he’d have access to the Dungeon and could use the money he gained from diving there to send back to his family while staying in practice.

The sound of small footfalls along the wooden floor drew his eyes towards the door before it flew open. Entering the room was a little boy with dark hair, dressed in a simple tunic and trousers. It was his little brother, Colin. “Big brother, it’s not true! You’re not leaving us!”

“Colin, you know you’re not supposed to run in the house,” Leon said as he sat upright as his brother came over and jumped onto his lap, looking close to tears. “Calm down and explain what’s got you so upset.”

“Finley said that you were going to go away again for even longer than before,” Colin explained.

That was when Leon caught the slightest bit of movement at the door and noticed the brown-haired young girl with golden eyes peeking over with a flat expression. His younger sister, Finley. He looked straight at her as he gently patted his brother on the head. “Did she now?”

Finley only turned away and said plainly, “He misunderstood when I tried to explain you were going to the Academy.”

Finley was always the hardest of his sisters to read. When she was younger, they didn’t really have much of a problem and spoke normally. But now she very rarely spoke barring short sentences and never seemed to make casual conversation, almost as if she were trying to avoid him or hide something. She didn’t act malicious, at least not overtly, but she tended to be blunt and pointed when it came to her responses to her brothers. Then there was the fact that she didn’t seem to like being in the same room as him anymore after Jenna’s outburst back then.

Not that he blamed her considering their circumstances. He suspected she was just as angry as Jenna but wasn’t as loud about it. He was wondering if he should count that as a blessing since he knew outbursts like that hurt his parents’ feelings more than his at this point, but as an older brother he did worry about what her relationship with the others would be like if she didn’t open up some or kept causing misunderstandings.

“I’m not going away for good,” Leon clarified to Colin while brushing his head, if only to clear up any misconceptions. “I’m going to the Academy just like Jenna and Nicks, so I won’t be around as often. I’ll be back for the semester breaks when they come back.”

“But I don’t want you to go again,” Colin said. “It gets boring when you’re not here. Mother and Father are always too busy, and Finley is mean.”

“I’m not thrilled about it either, but I don’t have a choice now. And Mom pointed out it’s probably the best chance I’ll get to learn something I wouldn’t otherwise.”

Holfort was rustic over in borderlands, but the Capital was further ahead since preserving the knowledge of the flying ships, air bikes, and powered armors that their ancestors originally used were essential to their military power. But in exchange for that, they were far behind in other fields that could make life easier for everyone else, and because of the limited access to education, there were few chances for it to be applied elsewhere.

Leon wasn’t exactly the most tech-savvy back in his previous life but spending time with Lola did make him curious. And learning more about how these things worked would possibly make him more capable rather than relying solely on the A.I. He was already taking advantage of her generosity more than he was comfortable with, and he wasn’t sure what he could do for her either to make up for all the help she gave him.

As for his brother, Leon decided to put him at ease by lifting him up as he stood. “Anyway, since I have some time, how about I show you a little trick I can do with the new suit that allows me to fly with other people?”

His soured expression vanished and was replaced with a bright smile. The natural reaction considering he was too young to fly around in an exosuit on his own. “That sounds awesome! Let’s go!”

Leon noticed that Finley was half-turned in their direction and frowning slightly before she walked off.

He really didn’t understand her much at all.

[—Finley Fou Bartfort—]

Finley really hadn’t been trying to hurt Colin when she told him that Leon would be leaving.

When their mother had told her that Leon had gotten a scholarship to attend the Academy, she knew that meant he would be gone as long as Jenna and Nicks were. She also knew that Colin would be devastated, so she had been trying to explain that Leon wouldn’t be there to baby him like he always did. The boys of the family were rather close with each other, and she knew that Leon tended to dote on Colin since he was little, so the boy didn’t take him being gone for long periods of time well.

He used to try to dote on her as well, but Finley didn’t like being treated like a child. Not only because she had a sense of quiet pride, but she didn’t think it was appropriate to be treated as a child anymore. Not while the rest of her family was struggling.

She felt shameful when she learned just how bad their circumstances were, being an ignorant child at the time.  So blissfully ignorant of all the times their parents had grumbling stomachs and why they spent so much time patching their clothes rather than buying new ones. To understand why her brother always seemed to have that same sad look as their parents that made him look so much older compared to how young he looked when he was with her like he was with Colin.

It was hard for her to face him after that or tell any of them about her own problems, so she kept to herself most of the time to avoid adding to their burdens. These were the chains she shackled herself with in the same manner the rest of her family did in their own way. The only one without bindings were Colin himself, still ignorantly blissful. She felt both happy for him but also prickly that he got to remain that way when she couldn’t.

“—can’t be serious! Why now?” Her ears perked up as she made her way to the garden out in the back. She peeped around the corner where her older sister was having a… heated discussion with her mother as a sphere of undulating water that had been drizzling over the plants came crashing down and soaking the ground. Her control tended to waver when she got upset. “Leon doesn’t belong there!

“Your brother did something amazing,” her mother pointed out. “One of the first scholarship students in history. Can’t you at least be a little happy for him?”

“He’s a Minos!” Jenna said pointedly. “He isn’t going to be welcomed there, Crown-sponsored or not! And then, if word that he’s related to me gets around, I won’t be able to find a good husband! That’s why he should stay here!”

Her mother couldn’t look more disappointed in her if she tried. “You know, as your mother, I don’t blame you for wanting to marry someone and move to the Capital since most of the girls your age want that more than anything else. But at the very least try not to do it at the expense of your brother. At the end of the day, you’re still family no matter what.”

And with that she began to walk off in the other direction to tend to the laundry that had been left to air dry, leaving behind her eldest daughter without looking back.

Had she done so she would have seen that her fingers curled inwards and dug into her palms so hard that her shoulders were left trembling. Jenna turned to her attention to the air and water began to pool into a ball as she clenched her teeth, all while muttering under her breath, “Who do you think I’m doing this for in the first place…?

That was when Finley decided to show herself, acting as though she hadn’t been spying on the argument. “Is something wrong?”

Jenna sighed and vented her frustration to her younger sister, whom she had the best relationship within the household. “Leon finally gets back and he’s already ruining my plans! It was bad enough he disappeared for three months and they all blamed me for it, and now this! Why can’t he ever just keep himself out of trouble!?”

She was referring to how awkward things had gotten in the household after Leon went on his adventure. While becoming an Adventurer was seen as something that was respected, it was also dangerous and part of the reason having a strong Septima was lauded. Leon had none of that and didn’t tell anyone other than their father anything about his intentions or where he was going until before he departed.

The first week Jenna was sure he would have come back after realizing how hard it was and just settle down. Then a month passed with no word from him, and they started to worry. Then two months passed and the thought that he was dead hung heavy in their minds and hearts even if no one said anything aloud. But because no one said anything aloud, Jenna had become paranoid that everyone blamed her for his absence—especially their mother.

Finley had more than once caught her sister staring at the door to his room while he was gone.

“All the effort I spent last year will be wasted,” she continued. “The time spent learning about the various circles, making nice, and getting a read on who I could marry for us to not have to rely on that witch… it’ll be pointless if people think I’ll be like Mom and give birth to a Minos.”

Noble families often hid their shame, especially when it came to something like having a child without Septima. A woman who could give birth to a Minos like Leon was a woman who had lower value to people their station and above in this society. And Jenna was aiming for a viscount or higher so that they could sever ties with Zola’s family, so it was something she desperately wanted to hide.

“…Is it really that bad when he’s going to be a Royal Knight by the end?” Finley asked.

Jenna huffed. “Girls talk in the Academy, and some mentioned before we left the Academy that Minos uprisings and Sky Pirates were becoming more frequent even though their parents try to keep it quiet. That doesn’t happen in our territory since everyone loves Dad and knows how he treats Leon, so it doesn’t cause us many problems. But the Crown has no doubt heard of it and so they need someone they can point at and say ‘he’s a Minos but look at how high ranked he is because he did something to help us, so rather than rebel try to do that instead’.”

Hearing that caused her frown to deepen. “Then Leon is—”

“Nothing more than a prop for the Crown to quell the Minos before they become violent,” Jenna said with a nod. “Leon’s accomplishments don’t mean a thing. He was just lucky enough they picked him as their tool, nothing more. Everyone at the Academy will know it too since that’s how this world works after—use or be used. Remember that.”

She would. For better or worse.