Chapter 33: The Dead Forest
“Elio took his time instilling in me the basics of medicine. How the body worked. How it ailed. How it mended. The physical difference between Human and Elf. The reason he gave was that knowing the body was essential to tend to injuries more efficiently since healing magic rushed what nature could do naturally, so it had too many ways it could go wrong and end the life it was meant to save.
Naturally, I was almost afraid to forge a contract with the Sea Spirit that lingered in his care by the time the lessons were done.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic VI: Harmful Healing
The next three days of travel were a somber affair.
Now that the Hestia Familia had a full scope of their assigned task the levity of the journey had vanished. It had been replaced with silent tension, borne from the collective doubt, fear, and uncertainty of the knowledge they’d received. It wasn’t every day that you learned that failure would mean letting one of the greatest evils known to history back out into the world—a black monster that had been in existence since before the Age of the Gods.
Not helped was how Bell felt something about Lady Hestia had been off since she came back with Lady Artemis. She said everything was fine, but Bell couldn’t shake the feeling that something was… different. But what that was he just didn’t know as they continued to travel with Miss Andromeda until they finally flew past the peak of the last mountain that stood between them and their destination.
The verdant greenery that encapsulated the mountaintop, the lush canopy with broad leaves that reached towards the sun permeating the sky, gracefully curved downwards into a forest that stretched as far as the eye could see. Yet, midway through it, the hue began to shift along the Munsell scale from green to yellow to red to a deep shade of purple before finally being stripped entirely as the leaves crumbled into the ground. The brown and rich bark itself had started to become shades of deepening black, their trunks themselves seeming to grow thinner and starved as if the very life was being wrung from them. Even the skies themselves seemed to turn gray as the clouds were tainted by whatever force permeated this land.
“This feels wrong,” Primo muttered as the group flew at a slower pace and close enough together that her words could reach their ears over the psithurism of the wind. The neophyte Elven Mage’s breathing came out shakingly while nestled between the arms of Mikoto as her eyes scanned the forest from above. For one who spent the majority of their life on the outskirts of one and was taught to revere the wood, it was a profane sight. “It feels really bad here.”
“This is Antares’ doing,” Lady Artemis said in response from her own perch between Bell’s arms. “The seal that was placed upon it long ago used the connection to nature that the spirits sacrificed to entomb it held to siphon off its strength, purify it, and then flush it out to the surrounding forest. Now that the seal is coming undone the purification aspect is breaking down and the trickle of its malice still flowing throughout the land is driving it to ruin.”
She then pointed further ahead towards the edge of their vision, where they could see what looked like a war-torn crater that was scorched and blackened. What were once tall and towering trees were toppled, trampled into battered splinters, and burned to cinders from what looked to have been a localized inferno. And there, nestled in the heart of it, was a temple.
“There’s a lock on the temple that can only be accessed by that which possesses my divine authority.” She looked over her shoulder towards Bell, whose rubellite eyes fell back onto her emerald gaze. “Orion, that’s where we’ll go to confront Antares. In the catacombs beneath the surface. That’s where I’ll need you to use the spear and end it all.”
Bell felt his throat tighten up. How could it not when he was to confront one of the unkillable Black Monsters that not even the primordial flames from his favorite tale could touch? The kind that took the might of both the Zeus and Hera Familia to overcome in recent history?
…And then he felt that boundless malevolence he’d experienced three days ago washed over him once more. The baleful and murderous gaze was fixed on him with even more intensity than before. So much so that it felt like time had come to a stop and color had faded from the very world itself until the pained scream of a woman drew his attention from the malevolent gaze and towards Artemis.
“Ah-Ahhh…!” The Goddess of the Moon clutched her chest and nearly fell over the side of the dragon had Bell not stiffened his arms on either side of her at that very moment while handling the reins. She instead collapsed into his breastplate with her beautiful face contorted in pain.
Bell finally breathed again. “Lady Artemis! What’s wrong?”
“…It’s… It’s coming!” Her voice was strained and weak. “Above…!”
Bell looked up as an argent streak shot from the temple into the air above them. Space itself rippled as the gray curtains and dour skies above were turned into a replica of the night sky glinting with what looked to be hundreds of stars that were dragged down from the heavens. Then cold sweat beaded his face as he realized that they weren’t stars.
After all, the stars didn’t leave his instincts screaming that this was where they died.
These were arrows. Countless arrows that would shoot them out of the sky. The others and even the dragons seemed to instinctively understand the situation when faced with the looming death from above.
“Orion… the… spear…” Lady Artemis’ words were faint over the thundering of his heart as she seemed to fight desperately to get them out. But they reached him all the same.
He hastily brandished the spear above and placed his faith in it. The gemstone began to shine at that moment and a gossamer thin cradle of moonlight swirled out from the spear, wrapping the space around them. Serene silence enveloped them as if they were sealed off from the world beyond the looking glass.
Then the stars fell.
Arrows of light came crashing down from the firmament. They seemed to pass through the barrier and the party as if they weren’t there, leaving them to drizzle below like tears from the sky. Yet the moment they touched the world beneath them everything was torn asunder.
Wood was shredded into splinters. Earth was upheaved into dust. All signs of foliage, healthy and dying alike were equally ripped away as the light brought unequivocal destruction to everything it touched. The rain continued to fall in a downpour of silent destruction wrought by shooting stars from the moon reflected off the water’s surface. It was a surreal experience, but also horrifying.
At least until the sound of metal splintering broke the silence that enveloped those who had forgotten to breath. All eyes turned towards the spear that had been brandished. The immaculate divine wrought steel had begun to crack from the pressure being exerted upon it.
And Artemis herself writhed in pain as the moonlight the weapon shed grew dimmer. “Agh!”
“Artemis, you have to hold on!” Hestia called out from her perch against the God of Travel’s arm, her voice panicked. It was easy to see why as Artemis’ expression contorted from the strain and the barrier began to fracture as the cracks continued their ascension from where Bell held it upwards.
“It’s waning,” Hermes added. “Just bear with it a little longer!”
“It’s… too …” Artemis struggled to finish as the fissure reached the neck of the spear. “Orion… Hestia… I….”
The crack finally reached the gemstone that was affixed to the center of the head. Then the Goddess of the Moon collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. The cradle of the moon that served as their looking glass shattered.
The last of the raindrops came crashing down.
Bell’s body moved to cover Artemis as one was coming right for them. Not randomly. It was directed towards them as he saw it shifting its path thanks to his enhanced perception as a Level Three. It would be impossible to avoid it entirely, but he could make it a grazing blow at the very least by jerking the reins to divert the dragon as it passed.
I’ll protect her, Bell told himself as he did so. He couldn’t sense the inevitable death from it as he had in the beginning. Whatever that had been was weakened enough that he was sure that his body would serve as a shield for the Goddess of the Moon in her helpless state. He clung to that thought desperately as the moondrop reached him.
And then Bell felt the worst pain he’d ever experienced in his life as the world went white.
[-Several Hours Later-]
Beige canvas greeted Bell as he slowly opened his eyes.
He felt the swaddle of a cloth draped over his prone body and realized that he was in a tent as his vision sharpened. His mind slowly cleared as the last thing he recalled was shielding Lady Artemis when he’d been stricken by that white light. Then… he only knew pain.
“That’s right, Lady Artemis—ngh!” There was lingering pain as he sat upright. Not to the degree of being crippling but to the point where he felt it. He leaned over and braced his forehead as he took deep breaths to try and focus push past the pain and get onto his feet.
“So, you’ve awakened then, Mister Cranel?”
His mind sharpened as he recognized that voice and he forced his eyes towards the opening in the tent. “Miss Ryuu?”
The Elven Warrior stood there clad in a darker green cloak that seemed to barely be a few shades from being black, with a white scarf woven around it. Her tunic was a lighter shade as it fell to her upper thighs, barring a dark strip going down the center with buttons running down the length of it. Around her waist were two belts, with one housing sheathes for the pair of eastern-made short swords on the right, and her long wooden sword on the left.
She was wearing thigh-high brown boots, with the barest slip of her thighs visible before coming up to fur-hemmed shorts that met with the remainder of her tunic. Her hands and arms were covered by gloves that hid her skin all the way up to her elbows. And her sky-blue eyes seemed… relieved if Bell had to place it into words as she came next to him and crouched down. “How are you feeling?”
“Just a little sore,” he admitted. “Where are my Familia? And Lady Artemis and the others?”
“Unlike yourself, they didn’t suffer any severe injuries by that rain of light.” She paused as he breathed out a sigh of relief. “I must admit I am surprised you managed to wake before nightfall, all things considered.”
“Nightfall?” His gaze turned back to the slip within the canvas and the amber light caught his attention thoroughly. It had been morning when they crossed the mountainside. “I’ve been unconscious for that long?”
“Given the state of your injuries, it’s a miracle that you woke as soon as you had,” Ryuu pointed out as Bell struggled to get to his feet, though there was a slight stagger in his step. “If you need more time to rest then—”
“No, I’m fine,” Bell insisted. “I can’t lay down and rest while the others are worried. The longer we delay reaching the ruins, the harder things will be. And I need to check on the others.”
“…Very well.” Ryuu rose and loaned him her shoulder to steady himself. “I’ll escort you to Lady Hestia for the time being. She can let you know about the current plans.”
“Thank you.” As embarrassing as it was to admit it, he was sore and likely needed a few hours before he was fit enough to get back in fighting form.
They left the tent and Bell found himself within a clearing that was somewhat expansive as it was surrounded by greenery compared to the dying woodlands they had been flying over. Wooden posts to serve as a boundary ringed the perimeter from what he could view, and several canvas tents were also positioned around the area. The one he had been in was one of two that were rather large-sized, so he could only assume they were meant to be infirmaries.
Ahead of them were several other people of different races, moving about in a vast and open space. Many in the center were practicing with weapons taken from a nearby rack or working out. Among their ranks Bell could spot what looked to be a young woman with long black hair and matching eyes dressed in a purple tunic and skirt, wielding a thin sword in a sort of dignified stance he didn’t often see. She was thrusting it furiously towards another young woman with pink hair and eyes, her clothes a matching hue as she used two shortswords with one in a normal grip and the other in a reverse grip.
It reminded him of his training with Miss Aiz the way they were going at one another, with the one in the purple being the superior combatant. Or rather to say it was clear she had a more refined fighting style compared to her opponent, who was blocking them as they came but still struggling to close the distance to get within reach. Even her closest attempt by parrying the rapier with the sword in her left before darting in and sweeping with the one in a reverse grip failed as the black-haired girl took a step back and twisted to bring her parried blade back around from behind to intercept it and then fell back into a proper stance.
Miss Aiz would have just kicked him in the face there for showing an opening that large. In fact, a Cat Person dressed in a… relatively low-cut top came over with a whip in hand and told her she should have done that very thing. The younger girl only shook her head and stated it wasn’t befitting of her to do so.
Ryuu guided Bell to the north, past a growing number of people that were largely pooled around a giant tent from which he could smell the sweet scent of a meal being cooked. It must have been the mess hall and, judging by the hour, it was likely that dinner was in the process of being cooked. Eventually, they came to another large tent that had an emblem he had only seen once before on the 18th Floor.
“Pardon the intrusion,” Ryuu said as she brushed aside the flap of the tent and helped him inside. “Mister Cranel has awoken and requested and audience with Lady Hestia.”
The inside of the tent was modest yet accommodating considering that it housed a large table in the center with four chairs surrounding it and a map strewn on top of it with writing implements. The floor had carpeting and there was a wooden bench on one end that had cushions on it, with a smaller side table upon which rested a silver tray and tea set. It was there that he saw his Goddess (who’d switched back to her old clothes) along with another person of such immaculate beauty, dressed in white and purple with accents of gold, that she could only be another of the divine.
She had long, walnut-brown hair that swayed as she turned in their direction and had an unearthly luster to it that seemed to catch the light of the nearby magic-stone lanterns that lit the interior. Her soft eyes were the color of the night sky that was illuminated with stars, an indigo hue that one could get lost in as they fell upon the pair. And her lips pulled back into a very maternal yet pleasant smile.
“Bell, you’re up now!” Hestia said as she came over to his side and wrapped her arms around him before pulling him into a hug. “Are you hurt? Are you in pain of any kind?”
Bell shook his head before bringing his arms around her to return the gesture. “I’m just a little sore, but that’s all.”
“I’m pleased to hear that,” the other goddess chimed in as she slowly rose from her seat. “Hestia and the others were all so anxious that they haven’t been able to relax even after finally making it this far. Even Ryuu has been more tense than usual since she brought you back to camp, so knowing you’re doing well and awake will remove a heavy burden off their shoulders.”
The Elven Warrior pointedly looked away from them at that. “Goddess, please do not misinterpret my mannerisms in such a way that they may be misconstrued.”
The Goddess only continued to smile warmly. “It’s all right. There’s no shame in being concerned about dear friends.”
Bell watched the exchange before saying, “You must be Miss Ryuu’s goddess then. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Astraea.”
“You as well,” the Goddess of Justice answered. “It was a long time since I had seen her until recently, but I was happy to hear about how well she was doing thanks to the friends she made and yourself. I only wished that we could have met under better circumstances.”
“Right, the situation with Antares.” Bell’s expression grew dour as he recalled the rain of light and the state of the Divine Spear. He then looked down at the divinity nestled against him and asked, “Goddess, what happened to Lady Artemis and the Divine Spear after that attack? She seemed like she had been in pain when it cracked and then she passed out.”
Hestia slowly pulled away from her child and crossed her arms with a soft sigh. “Artemis woke up a little while ago. After stopping by your tent, she asked to be left alone with the spear and went off. As for why she passed out back then…”
“Divine weapons such as that spear are not something that can be carelessly summoned to the Lower World without consequence given how much trouble they caused in the past,” spoke the Goddess of Justice in her place. “As the one who summoned it forth, Artemis has bound herself to it in a manner of speaking. The strain placed upon it thus weighed upon her and when she reached her limit, she fell unconscious.”
Bell’s thoughts turned to how much pain she had been in and then he lowered his head. “I… see…”
As if reading his mind, Hestia gently cupped his cheeks and raised his gaze to herself. “Bell, Artemis knew what would happen and told you to do it. If you hadn’t then none of us would be here at the moment. So don’t blame yourself.”
“That’s right,” Astraea added. “Though I can only speak as one who loves you children as much as Artemis and Hestia, we wish for you to flourish within this world. You are our pride and joy, and so we are willing to make whatever sacrifice is needed so that you can find your own path to follow. No matter what happens, you bear no sin for our actions.”
Bell recognized they were trying to reassure him. And that put his heart to ease somewhat as he nodded his head that was still within his Goddess’ grasp. “All right.”
That seemed to be what Hestia wanted to hear as she smiled and then released him. “Now then. Astraea and I have to get Hermes back here so we can talk about the upcoming operation now that we know you’re up and moving. How about you go see the others since they were worried about you?”
Ryuu parted ways with Bell as Astraea sent her off to retrieve Hermes, while Hestia directed him to where she had seen each of their Familia members after she had sent them off from fretting over his unconscious body. Mikoto had decided to help with cooking dinner for the camp with Primo assisting her. Lili had gone off to feed the Dragons at the makeshift stables. And Welf was working with the other smiths to repair and mend the equipment they had.
The Mess Hall was a massive tent in the center of the camp with the canvas lining easily matching the size of some buildings. It was supported by several wooden beams that were affixed to stone blocks that were buried in the ground. Magic stone lanterns of different colors were strung up between them to offer additional illumination to the fading golden hue of the amber rays slipping in.
There were several people already inside the large tent, taking their places among the many different tables that were set about. Some were playing games of chance with dice and cards, while others were discussing matters with themselves. On the northern end was a long counter behind which was the makeshift kitchen, where he spotted the two members of his Familia hard at work. “Mikoto. Primo.”
Mikoto was carefully cutting up vegetables on a cutting board with her raven hair tied back when she heard him. “Sir Bell, you’ve awoken?”
On the other hand, Primo (who had also tied her golden hair back) turned from the potatoes that she was in the process of peeling and proceeded to dart around the counter toward him. The small Elf embraced him with as much strength as she could while burying her face into his stomach, completely forgetting the sort of etiquette that her race was expected to live up to. “Captain, you’re finally awake! I was so worried!”
“Sorry to have worried you all,” Bell said as he gently brushed her hair. “But it’s fine now, I’m all better.”
“Are you really?” There was a hitch in her voice as she looked up from below his chest and he spotted her eyes glistening. “You were really hurt when we landed. Even after using all the Potions we had and that nice Elven lady healing you before rushing you here, I was worried you wouldn’t… hick…”
Bell tensed at that. He didn’t remember anything aside from the pain after he’d used his body to shield Lady Artemis. He looked over to Mikoto and asked, “Was it really that bad?”
“Whatever that light was that struck you, it had badly burned your body,” Mikoto admitted as she came over next. “The Potions we used and her magic helped stabilize you, but upon arrival it required Elixirs to finish mending your injuries.”
“Miss Lili and Mister Welf got really mad at Lord Hermes,” Primo added. “I… couldn’t do anything but sit there and… hick…”
“It’s okay,” Bell assured her. “I’ll go see Welf and Lili next to let them know that I’m all better, so just keep helping Mikoto. Okay?”
She wiped away tears that had been forming before nodding. Then she pulled back and recalled her etiquette before bowing her head. “Forgive me for my outburst, Captain.”
That done and with assurances that he’d be back later, Bell decided to make a beeline to where Lili was first. He left the Mess Hall and went further to the north and eastward where the Dragons chewing on feed were to see that Lili was being given a small bottle from Miss Andromeda, with her voice barely reaching his ears as he caught the tail end of her saying, “—s a last resort. Understand?”
Lili only nodded as her hands clenched the bottle while the Captain of the Hermes Familia walked off, leaving her to her thoughts.
It was then Bell called out to her. “Lili…”
Her head snapped in his direction before she hastily put the bottle away into a pouch on her waist before coming over to him. “Master Bell, are you well enough to be walking around?”
“Just a bit sore, but fine otherwise,” he told her. “Is everything okay? You had a serious look on your face just now with Miss Andromeda and she handed you something?”
The Pallum shook her head. “This is just compensation for the fact that her god lied to us about the scope of the threat again. I said this was the kind of job that would be more suited for a larger Familia and look what happened. Considering the state Master Bell ended up in, it hardly makes up for it.”
“No one could have predicted what would happen. And I’m still in one piece. So, try not to hold it against them.”
His effort to appeal to her only seemed to make her shake in frustration. “Master Bell, you’re too kind for your own good. This whole Mission has been sketchy from the start and even now they’re hiding stuff from us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I haven’t seen one member of the Artemis Familia even though they’re supposed to be here as well,” she explained. “And when I try asking about it, everyone gives me different excuses. Something about it isn’t right. How can we trust them if they keep lying to us and you keep ending up getting hurt?”
That is strange, Bell silently noted. He was sure that they would be here considering how fondly Artemis talked of them during their discussions. “I’ll ask Lady Artemis about it when I see her again. But for now, just try not to be too upset. They’ve been here working to deal with the problem even longer than us, and I’m sure they have their own reasons for keeping things quiet.”
A grumble bubbled up in her throat before she pressed her forehead against his chest. “If that’s what you want Master Bell. But please be careful. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”
“…Yeah. I will,” he promised.
That done, Lili ushered him off towards the east where he could see smoke rising from portable furnaces along with the din of hammers striking steel. There was a Human girl with light brown hair with a large box strapped to her back that had weapons within it walking alongside another woman who had long golden hair and blue eyes with a spear strapped to her back. He followed them and found they were heading to one of the several smiths at their portable forges.
It was there he spotted Welf speaking with the pink-haired girl he’d seen sparring earlier. She was holding the two shortswords from before, which now had cracks running along them. The girl then apologetically bowed her head while he stood there scratching his head as she ran off.
Then he spotted Bell and put on a smile as he set aside the damaged weapons. “Hey, you’re up now.”
“Yeah.” Bell nodded before looking back to the girl running off. “What was that about?”
“Apparently that girl has some quirk that results in her constantly breaking her weapons. Other smiths are kind of frustrated about it since they’re lacking in spares due to all the fighting over the time they spent here, so I’m handling the reforging of it. But never mind that, how are you holding up? That hit you took was pretty bad.”
“So I’ve been told,” Bell sighed. “I’m fine, but I’m a little concerned about how all of you are doing after that. I spoke with the others already about it, but what about you?”
“Hmm…” He brushed his hand through his hair as he gathered his thoughts. “Frustrated, I guess. I hate to say it, but I’ve been pretty much useless here so far as your personal smith. Healing isn’t my forte and I could only sit by and watch when everything was said and done. I thought I’d at least be able to do something about your equipment considering it saved your life, but…”
He trailed off before reaching behind his forge and pulling out a box that had the battle clothes he’d worn on his way here. The jacket itself had new cloth stitched to it in an adorning pattern along the back that seemed fuller than before. “You modified them?”
“As best I could to fix the damage,” Welf admitted. “Like I said when you first got them, this was above my ability. I didn’t have suitable materials to patch them properly, so I had to take measures I’m not happy with.”
“That attack that hit you was Light-aspected,” he explained. “The clothes turned out to be woven from fibers blessed by a Light Spirit, making it Spirit Cloth that resists that element. That helped mitigate a great deal of the damage you’d received, but that attack was still strong enough that burned away several layers and reduced its effectiveness. Since most of the battle clothes we received had similar materials mixed in, I had to use one of them to patch it up so that it could still serve well enough to take another hit.”
“Whose clothes did you use for materials?”
“Lady Hestia’s.” He grimaced when he caught how Bell stiffed up at that. “She insisted that it wasn’t feasible to take the materials from anyone else’s battle clothes. Instead, she’d stay in the camp with Lady Astraea to support us from here once the operation was underway.”
That explained why she was in her old clothes rather than the ones that Lord Hermes gave us, Bell realized. His Goddess never once put herself before them, so even if those clothes would have offered her more protection than anything considering they were better than some armor, she didn’t hesitate to sacrifice it for his sake.
“The thing is,” Welf continued, “Clothes like these aren’t just given to you randomly. The materials have to be custom ordered, and he had them ready in a matter of hours once he had our sizes. The fact that it was so resistant to the attack that hit you means that he knew that we’d be facing something like that—and he didn’t tell us. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
The fact that both he and Lili held the same line of thinking gave it some level of credibility. And it wasn’t the first time that Lord Hermes had done something similar. The God of Travel seemed to tread the line between being helpful, like the War Game, and a hindrance, like when he’d given Mord the Invisibility Helm.
“…For now, we’ll just have to go along with it,” Bell decided. “Whatever his reasons for hiding that information, we still have to deal with the monster.”
Even Bell didn’t fully understand the God of Travel. But he had faith in Lady Hestia and knew that Lady Artemis was sincere in her desire to put an end to the threat. So he would go along with it for the time being for their sakes.
“…We’ve done a cruel thing to that child,” Hestia said the moment that Bell and Ryuu had left the tent. It was soundproof once the flaps were closed due to enchantments on it, so no one heard her outside of the sole resident in the tent beside her. Nor did they see the smile she wore melt away as she went over to the couch and practically collapsed.
Astraea came over to her side, briefly running her fingers against Hestia’s bare shoulders in a show of support before turning her attention to the tea set. She poured steaming liquid into a cup that was set on a saucer and offered it to her. “He’s a nice and earnest child. I really do wish there was some other way.”
Her words did little to comfort Hestia as she took the offered cup. The last three days had been… trying as she had to come to terms with everything she’d learned about the situation from Artemis… or what was left of her. And her own complicity in the suffering she was going to put her first child through.
So naturally, she was not in a happy mood when Hermes finally arrived with a smile on his face and his tone cheerful after finishing his “other” business. “I’ve heard that Bell is back on his feet. That’s wonderful news. Now we can resolve this matter come morning and put all this business behind us.”
“You mean aside from the fact that you’ve condemned Bell to a fate worse than death?” Hestia’s voice was devoid of emotion as they sucked the warmth that had been in the tent right out in a manner that made it perfectly clear there was no room for false levity. Not when the topic they were discussing involved her first child and best friend being placed in such a cruel situation. Not when she’d spent three days stewing in it and forced to hold her tongue to avoid the children overhearing them.
The God of Travel raised his arms above his head and tried to appease her. “Now, I understand you might be upset—”
“Upset?” The click of the porcelain as it was placed on a saucer seemed to echo as the diminutive goddess set it down. “In the last three days, I have learned that one of my best friends has been consumed by a monster. That she had to watch her children die in front of her. And in a last-ditch effort to prevent an apocalypse, she shunted her lingering consciousness into a weapon that you’ve shoehorned Bell into using to kill her…”
She slowly rose from her seat and turned to face him. There were many ways to describe how Hestia’s eyes normally were on most days. Lively yet gentle. Inviting and kind. Excitable and joyous. However, her eyes here and now were no longer the same.
They were a stark and dull, teal hue that lacked warmth. Her expression portrayed no emotion, a blank mask donned over her bubbly or maternal visage. “Upset, is an understatement, Hermes.”
Hermes lowered his head while bracing his hat to where the brim covered his own gaze. “With all due respect, it wasn’t my intention to have Bell be the one to draw the Divine Spear. However, considering the situation I couldn’t pass up any potential candidate. You’ve seen for yourself that Antares is becoming capable of using Artemis’ Arcanum. Not just Clairvoyance but being able to call down the stars themselves. The Lower World will not remain intact should it use both to even a fraction of their full capabilities.”
Bell had mentioned feeling as though he’d been watched after the first time three days ago. There was no doubt in their minds that it was unrestricted Arcanum usage. Not just the limited Divine Mirrors that required permission, but the capability to circumvent the restrictions enforced upon them all.
The attack earlier had only been a small-scale sample of what her Arcanum could unleash and there was nothing that they could do to stop it. It didn’t need her Arcanum under its full control to do that across the globe, only enough to stretch it out over the firmament. Then Antares would be able to wipe out all life in the Lower World.
“And so, you’d have a child that reveres us become a sinner to fix the mistake of one of our own?”
To sin was mortal. But there was no greater sin than killing one of the divine. Not merely breaking their mortal shells and forcing them back into the realm above, but truly killing and sending them into the cycle of reincarnation once more—effectively destroying a pillar essential to Heaven for thousands of years.
The means of doing so were few and far available to the children. But they had basically handed Bell something meant to do just that. And they wanted him to use it on a goddess they had been pushing him to get closer to.
Hermes’ response was only to shake his head. “Bell isn’t killing her. He’s saving her from a situation she has no other means of escaping. It’s the only solution since we’re forbidden to use our Arcanum.”
The Goddess of the Eternal Flame remained unmoved by his semantics. “There is a reason we take responsibility for our own mistakes. It is too heavy a burden for mortals to bear. Do you really think his heart will be able to remain intact after killing Artemis with his own hands?”
They were not flawless. Though many of the children may have been disheartened when they first descended to let them know as much, the parents who looked over them from above were still capable of flaws. Whether through malice or well-meaning, many tragedies were wrought by their hands and only added to their suffering.
That was why they had to be the ones who corrected those mistakes.
Not the children.
“Hestia.” A soft hand settled itself on her shoulder again to draw her attention from the God of Travel. “Artemis told you, didn’t she?”
The answer Astraea received was that of silence as those stark and cold eyes fixed onto her.
The Goddess of Justice only continued. “Right now, she’s trapped and powerless. She could only watch as her children were slain. And if not stopped, the only path left for the Lower World will be destruction by her own divinity. Knowing that, she cast her hope into the heavens and called down an arrow that could bring about salvation for what her mistake had wrought. Perhaps there were other means to resolve this, but this was the method that Artemis chose. That your child happened to be the one most suitable must seem cruel, but that child is Artemis’ hope itself.”
“…Artemis’ hope.” Her cold voice betrayed a note of emotion as she clenched her eyes shut. And when they opened again, they were once more a vibrant yet sorrowful hue as the Goddess of the Hearth resurfaced. “I suppose that Artemis chose Bell to be her hope is something I should be proud of as her friend and his goddess. But I can’t help but grieve over what’s to come for both of them…”
Especially since I don’t know how long I’ll be here to ease that burden for him.