Chapter 34: Under the Moonlight
“The emotion that swept me up when I began the contract with the Sea Spirit was nervousness. The fear that I would make another mistake. That the magic I was trying to take hold of for Argo’s sake would harm him once more. That I wasn’t worthy of it….
But then I felt its soothing touch on my mind and was taken back to that moment so long ago in the kitchen. The touch of my mother upon my father and the smile she wore. The unbroken gaze that said that everything would be fine.
And all my fears vanished as I was swept up in the soothing embrace of the sea.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic VII: The Second Spell
Darkness fell over the camp.
The dense wooded land untouched by the blight spreading from its core seemed to bask in the absence of light. The worshippers of the Goddess of the Moon who’d taken to these lands and founded the temple within its heart were long gone. In their place silence and shade had laid claim to the vast stretch of viridian until very recently, unconquered and unchallenged.
Yet now flames across the campsite roared to life in challenge of the night itself. Laying in slumber during the day, their fiery tongues reached high to the sky as they hungrily devouring the kindling offered to them in tribute by the denizens that had come to these woods. The light spread throughout the perimeter and pressed back against the encroaching darkness to offer comfort to those within its bosom.
Warmth and chill mingled beneath the beige canopy of the Mess Tent. Scattered magic-stone lanterns of a multitude of colors were shining brightly in place of the twinkling stars for those gathering beneath them. Voices chatted animatedly, recounting events of the past, wagers over cards boxed in by plates, laughter, and the clanking of cups half-filled in a celebratory manner that may or may not have been premature.
Bell was reminded of the Hostess of Fertility as he sat at one of the tables. The atmosphere felt similar after ten days in the wilderness with only themselves and a small flame. He supposed it was a testament to how accustomed he had gotten to life in Orario that he found himself feeling nostalgic for the lively atmosphere after a such a short time.
He was flanked by Primo on one side and Lili on the other. The neophyte Elven Mage had been relieved of her duty in helping to prepare the meal and was subsequently rewarded with her plate first, being the growing youth that she was. Bell was pretty sure she was the youngest there aside from maybe a Pallum Mage that was sitting close to a large figure at another table who sported a unique-looking cover over his head with horns sticking out of the side. An idle part of his mind wondered if the two would get along during their stay if that was the case, given how it’d be nice to have a peer her own age who shared a similar trait.
Lili, on the other hand, was instead tapping her finger against the table as she sat there with her eyes closed and her hood up. He could make out movement beneath it, no doubt a pair of ears atop her bushy brown hair bending and twitching every now and again. She was likely listening in to the various conversations to get a better feel for the situation here, given the oddities that she had noticed and her own suspicions.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a new voice chimed in, directed towards them. It was Welf, accompanied by Mikoto as the two carried plates and bowls in both their hands. The two had insisted that Bell sit and let them get in the forming line to get food for them to eat since he was still recovering, though he’d said otherwise prior to Primo and Lili also insisting and grabbing his arms as they sat him between them. “Hope you don’t mind, but I thought you might want something to really get your energy back after spending all day bedridden.”
He set down a bowl of stew that had a familiar smell to it. Bell took one taste and his face illuminated. “Masalanut… It’s been a long time since I’ve had this. I didn’t know the fruit grew this far out.”
“There is apparently an abundance that grow not far from the campsite on the other side of the mountain,” Mikoto explained as set Lili’s food in front of her. “Since they’ve spent so much time here, they learned how to get the most out of them to conserve resources. I look forward to having the chance to prepare it myself back in Orario for Lord Takemikazuchi and the others.”
With the other two taking their seats next to Lili and Primo respectively, the small Familia settled down into their meal. There was comfort in it, Bell realized as he watched from the corner of his eyes as Welf teased Lili and received a barbed reply in return, while Mikoto and Primo discussed lightly some of the ingredients they saw while helping with the meal preparation. All that was missing was Lady Hestia sitting across from them and watching with a smile and it’d be like they were right back at home…
“Do you mind if we join you?”
He was pulled out of his reverie at the request to find that standing opposite of them were a collection of four Human girls, three of whom he had seen around the camp. The fourth was a somewhat petite while being clad in a green tunic and skirt with thigh-high boots. Her shoulder-length brown hair was somewhat disheveled but kept out of her eyes by a hairband that looked to be carved from wood, embellishments worked into it set against her forehead. Around her waist was a satchel that also had some gloves hanging out of it and she had a pair of glasses that caught the lights above, the glare of which nearly obscured her brown eyes.
“Not at all. Please do.” He caught sight of the Familia Emblem upon the hairband of the fourth girl. “You must be members of the Astraea Familia.”
“That’s right,” spoke the green-clad young woman as she brought one hand to her slender chest. “I’m like you… umm, that is to say I am the Captain of the Astraea Familia—Cecil.”
“And I am the Vice-Captain of our Familia, Oriana Drake,” said the woman with long honey-golden hair with a band in the back and blue eyes, though she didn’t have her spear at the moment. She sported a white tunic and blue skirt that had gold around the band and hem, her figure somewhat more athletic than the others with her height rivaling Welf’s.
“I am Karen Morris,” said the young woman with black hair and eyes, adored in a purple tunic and blouse. She held herself in a dignified manner that gave off the air of nobility if Bell had to put it into words. “May I say it is a pleasure to meet you all in person. I never thought we have the chance to encounter your Familia before we arrived in Orario.”
Bell was surprised at that. “You’ve heard of us all the way here?”
“Our Goddess and Lord Hermes allowed us to spectate the War Game with the use of their Divine Mirrors, whereupon we bore witness to your gallantry. Laying siege to a castle with only a handful of individuals is no small feat, though I suppose such can be expected of Orario Adventurers.”
“Yeah, it was really impressive—at least the parts we could see before you went really fast,” chimed in the fourth and final member of the Goddess of Justice’s Familia. Clad in pink fabric that contrasted that of her companion, she gave off a more casual impression that reminded Bell of his village. “I’m Emma. Nice to meet you all.”
“It’s nice to meet all of you as well.” The admiration within their voices was palpable to the degree that Bell felt a little embarrassed to be honest. “As for the War Game, it was more thanks to everyone else that it was even possible to get that far. I honestly felt a little bad about showing up after everyone else did the hard work.”
“Says the guy who beat their Level Three Captain one-on-one,” Welf said, voice thick with humor as the girls began to take a seat. “Honestly, Bell. You gotta give yourself more credit.”
“His modesty is an admirable trait,” Oriana stated in contrast. “He’d make a fine knight were we in my homeland of Nineveh during my grandfather’s time.”
Welf perked up at that. “Nineveh? I’ve heard that land was renowned for its ore and metals being rare. Even getting it imported into Orario costs an arm and leg. I’m guessing that your Goddess visited there at one point and recruited you?”
She shook her head. “No, it has been… quite some time since I have been there. Instead, I happened to meet Cecil and Lady Astraea while I was on a journey of self-discovery, and we have been companions since then as a Wandering Familia of three, until Karen and Emma joined us relatively recently.”
“So, it’s just the four of you then?” Lili’s question came out blunt as her eyes fixed themselves onto the girls. “A Goddess like Lady Astraea would naturally draw in followers, so she would have little issue recruiting more members to her Familia. Does she have some sort of requirement or preference?”
“Uhm…. If there is one then I haven’t noticed,” Cecil answered with her hands fidgeting before holding the bottom of her bowl in what looked like almost an attempt to soothe her nerves. “I mean, even though Lady Astraea can gather a lot of followers, it feels fine like this. We don’t really have any conflicts or anything, so maybe it was meant to be that way.”
“And what about Miss Ryuu?” Bell asked. “She’s been here for a while, hasn’t she? Are you getting along well with her?”
The Captain of the Astraea Familia’s lips twitched and turned down for a moment. “She… I don’t think she likes us very much. In fact, I’m sure she avoids us as best she can.”
He knew she could be a little quiet and give off an air of indifference, but she was a kind individual. “What makes you say that?”
“Despite our overtures, she remains reluctant to have anything to do with us,” Oriana answered in her Captain’s place. “She scarcely even looks at us or remains within our proximity more than necessary, and I cannot fathom a reason why or if we had done something to offend her.”
“I know she doesn’t tend to speak often, but I don’t think she’s avoiding you,” Bell said. “I’m sure once the situation has calmed down, she’ll be willing to talk to you about herself. You’re all part of the same Familia after all.”
“She may not think the same.” Karin’s response was leveled and measured. “While we may bear the same Falna, I suspect that she may not see us as worthy compared to our predecessors. More so considering the sheer discrepancy within our capabilities compared to a Level Five such as herself.”
Bell straightened up. “She Leveled Up? When?”
“…As soon as she arrived,” muttered Cecil. “Before she took part in any of the fighting, she just showed up and the moment she had her Status updated she was a Level Five.”
A low noise bubbled up in Lili’s throat before she shrugged. “That makes sense. The whole reason that fiasco on the Eighteenth Floor didn’t end worse was because she basically dealt with the brunt of fighting until Master Bell finished things. And she was one of the Adventurers who helped end the Darkest Days, so it should be expected.”
All eyes turned to her in curiosity as Cecil asked, “Darkest Days?”
“Did Lady Astraea not tell you of that?” Lili took in the inquisitive looks from around the table and realized that she hadn’t apparently. She then sighed and looked over to Welf and Mikoto. “Master Bell and Mistress Primo are new to Orario, so I expect them to not know. But do Master Welf and Mistress Mikoto recall a day of silence that takes place every year a few weeks after Grand Day?”
They looked to each other before Mikoto spoke. “I believe I noticed that Orario seemed quieter on a certain day, but since it did not disrupt my activities and our Familia was settling in, I paid it no mind.”
“And I was in probably in the forge at the time, so I wouldn’t have noticed.”
She took those answers for what they were and explained. “Lili won’t go into too many details, but seven years ago, Orario was under siege by Evilus for seven days. In that time, thousands of people died by the end of it—adventurers, civilians, children. They attacked everyone, with even the Freya and Loki Familia’s strongest being beaten back. All most of us could do was huddle up and pray that Orario was still standing by the end.”
It sounded almost like a tall tale that the city that had been founded at the start of the Age of the Gods could have been brought so low. Yet, as he looked into her eyes, Bell could see that she was being sincere. There were no falsehoods even as she described a nightmare.
“…I heard that Orario held enormous military potential due to their Adventurers being so powerful and their Familia being rather large,” Oriana said even as she took that information in. “Even I have heard that the Loki Familia and Freya Familia are considered the strongest factions in the Lower World. So how could such a thing have occurred?”
“Part of that was because Evilus used some really underhanded tactics that Lili doesn’t want to recall, but the other reason was because there were Level Sevens among Evilus’ ranks.” She paused before looking down at her fork in silence, as if weighing the next words that would come out. “Specifically, two survivors of the Zeus and Hera Familia that were responsible for killing Behemoth and Leviathan respectively.”
It was as if a bitter cold had seized their throats. The heroes who had completed two of the three Great Quests. Thousands dead. Bell opened his mouth to try to find words but all he could force out was a small, “…why?”
“I don’t know.” Lili slowly reached up and scratched the back of her head. “Maybe they had a grudge because of how the Freya and Loki Familia kicked them out after they failed the final Grand Quest. It isn’t an uncommon tale, not unlike how Lady Hestia had the Apollo Familia dissolved. But they came in and helped Evilus until the final day, when Ottar defeated the Zeus Familia member outside of Babel, while the members of the Astraea Familia defeated the Hera Familia member within the Dungeon.”
Silence followed afterwards. For the Hestia Familia it was due to the fact that something so terrifying had taken place before the majority had arrived, the very streets they walked through without a second thought having once been baked in flames and covered in blood. For the Astraea Familia, the knowledge that their predecessors played a part in preventing that as well was…
“…To best a Level Seven and bring an end to a nightmare such as that even when the difference must have been astounding,” Oriana said slowly, breaking the silence with a tense expression. “If she went through such an experience with her comrades then to her, we must certainly appear unfit to bear the same emblem as such fine warriors.”
“I can’t say I know if she feels that way or not,” Lili answered back. “But if you intend to head to Orario with Lady Astraea’s Blessing on your backs then you need to know many will compare you to your predecessors. Perhaps your Goddess chose not to tell you so that you wouldn’t be burdened by the fact that no matter what you do you’ll probably never be able to live up to it in their eyes.”
Welf gave her a sharp look. “Hey, that’s going a bit far, isn’t it?”
Lili shot right back with a glare of her own. “Would you prefer that no one told them, and they walked in with their heads held high, only to be surprised when people whisper behind their backs? If they can’t handle knowing that much, they can get out now before people laugh at them for being unable to live up to those standards.”
Would it have been crueler to let these young women walk into Orario with the legacy of their predecessors unknown so they wouldn’t be burdened with it? Or was it better to rip the bandages off now and let them know just what they would have to live up to. Bell supposed he had also been lucky in a way since he and Hestia were one another’s first. But did that mean he was leaving such a high standard for whoever was going to replace him when he eventually had to step down as Captain?
“…Don’t look down on me.” The quiet but firm voice of Cecil spoke up. Bell turned to see her expression was unflinching and resolved. “I didn’t follow Lady Astraea because I cared what others think. I might not be on par with my predecessors or even that Elf, but I’ll still carry on with my head high if I can follow the same path as her.”
“That’s right,” Oriana followed up. “Lady Astraea herself told me that I can only walk my own path to the destination I seek. Not that of my parents, my grandfather, or even the path she walks. But right now our paths are crossing and I intend to walk it along it regardless of what others might think.”
Karin crossed her arms and held her head high. “I was inspired to become an Adventurer because I once saved by one. Lady Astraea has granted me the opportunity to do so. If I was afraid of living up to expectations others forced upon me then I would have remained back home.”
“Then do you intend to return to Orario when this matter is settled?” Mikoto asked.
Emma was the one who answered this time, her expression turning slightly downcast. “We were actually heading that way when the current situation occurred. Since then, we’ve been here dealing with the Black Scorpions….”
Trailing off as she bit her lower lip for a moment in thought, she then reached below the table and pulled out a photograph. “By any chance, would you have seen this person there?”
As the others shook their heads, Bell looked at the photo that showed her, albeit maybe a few years younger, standing alongside a slightly older woman with purple eyes and long, flowing hair the same hue. She wore a plain blouse that fell to a pair of pants and was embracing the younger Emma in an affectionate hug while smiling.
He recognized her as a memory flashed in his mind at that moment. “I saw this woman not too long ago. Who is she?”
“She’s my older sister, Sophia,” Emma explained. “She was my only family in the village and went to Orario a year ago to support us. But we lost contact with one another. Where did you see her, if I can ask?”
“On the Seventh Floor of the Dungeon.” He looked to the others in his Familia. “Remember that I mentioned seeing a woman when we heard the screaming, and she was gone when I went back to get their equipment?”
“The one who had the good sense to run from a Monster Parade in the making,” Lili confirmed. ”Did you spot her Familia Emblem? If you can describe it, then I might be able to recognize it.”
“I didn’t since I was in a rush to make sure the others were okay.” He then turned back to Emma. “I don’t know which Familia she belongs to, but it was only about ten days ago since then. I’m sure she’s still fine, and if I see her again, I’ll tell her you’re still looking for her.”
Emma breathed out a heavy breath she had been holding in without realizing it as she pressed the photo to her chest. Karen’s hand settled on her shoulder, which drew her pink eyes over to that of her Familia. They were smiling on her behalf as something unspoken passed between them.
Dinner continued afterwards until they had finished. The women of the Astraea Familia had taken the girls to join them in the bath along with the other women of the Hermes Familia. That left Welf to say that he was going to go back to finish at the forge, leaving Bell on his own to wander around the camp once more. He didn’t have a destination in mind, but he did want to find and speak with Artemis since he hadn’t seen her since he’d awoken…
“UWAGH!” “GAH!” “BUGBH!”
The sound of pained cries being cut short drew Bell’s attention towards one of the camp’s exits, whereupon he found scores of bodies laid out belonging to members of the Hermes Familia. They were strewn about before the Elven Warrior as Miss Ryuu stood there with her arms crossed. Her piercing eyes then turned upwards towards him. “Mister Cranel. I trust you were not part of the machinations of these deviants?”
“I was just on a walk looking for Lady Artemis when I heard noise.” His eyes skimmed over the unconscious bodies of the gathered Adventurers. They didn’t look hurt exactly, so it wasn’t a struggle—or at least not much of one. “What happened?”
“I caught them planning to spy on the women in the bathing area while I was on patrol.” Her eyes turned towards one body that Bell recognized was Lord Hermes by his inhumanely handsome facial features that remained spotless even while he was unconscious.
His mind immediately flashed back to the Eighteenth Floor, whereupon he had been roped into something similar. Then he found himself feeling numb towards seeing that particular divinity lying face-down in the dirt. “Lady Artemis isn’t bathing with the others, is she?”
Ryuu lightly shook her head and gestured off in a direction with her hand. “There is another campsite not far from here. You will find her there.”
“Thank you.” Bell made towards that direction before he paused in his step. “Miss Ryuu… the other members of the Astraea Familia think that you’re avoiding them because you dislike them. That isn’t true, is it?”
“…I am avoiding them, though it is not out of malice or disdain,” she admitted after a pregnant pause that was followed by her shifting her gaze down to her own hands. “It would not do for a blacklisted Adventurer to associate with those girls who will embody the ideals of justice. What would they think if they knew that a violent criminal bore the same blessing as them on their backs?”
The bloodstained legacy left behind by the Gale was that of a murderous rampage against not only the remnants of Evilus, but anyone she thought had been associated with them by her own admission back at the grave markers on the Eighteenth Floor. She had begged her Goddess for days to leave so she wouldn’t see the monster she had become in seeking to take revenge. She had even earned a bounty on her head for her actions back then, so how would this new generation of those who would follow the same ideals of justice that she once idealized react to such a person if they knew the truth?
“I don’t know how they’d feel about who you used to be, but…” Bell licked his lips as he said what came to his mind. “I think that they want you to see them as companions who are worthy of being members of the same Familia. The person you are right now… who helped me time and again without asking for anything… who helped that girl back in the Grand Casino… and then came when they needed you the most without a second thought, is someone they see as being worthy of respect.”
Her sky-blue eyes turned to the ground as her hand came to her chest. “…I will keep that in mind, Mister Cranel.”
And with that the conversation ended as she walked off, going back on her patrol while leaving the scores of Hermes Familia members on the ground. Bell couldn’t say whether they would get closer by the end of things, but for Bell Familia meant being family. Even if not bound by blood then by ideals, and while he knew what she had done in the past he didn’t know that Ryuu—only the one in front of him who still carried a sense of justice within her heart.
That done, Bell made his way out of the campsite in the direction that she indicated. The woodlands were rather dark considering the firelights stopped at the perimeter of the encampment, but his perception had gotten a lot better since he had become an Adventurer. He could make out of the scurrying of nocturnal wildlife even as he intruded upon the domain, a visitor in these unclaimed woodlands which the crescent moon itself shone down upon.
“Hmmm. Hmmm. Hn. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hn.”
Eventually, his ears caught the humming of a heavenly voice that undeniably belonged to Lady Artemis. He followed it through the woods, heading through the brush until he finally came across signs of a well-traveled path that had been slowly reclaimed by nature. He jumped over a brook from which water came trickling through with the argent rays of the moon reflected off the surface as they carried on their way downstream without pause.
And finally, his trek came to an end as he broke past an opening in the tree line to a clearing that was bathed in the moonlight. The shadows of the dense canopy refused to tread past the reach of the branches as a tree within the center of what had once served as a small base camp had been broken in half from something massive crashing into the upper half from the look of how it had been snapped. The trunk was riddled with holes from where it had been shot by arrows, with there still having one nestled within it with fletches from local bird feathers.
The Goddess of the Moon sat at the foot of it. The Divine Spear was perched next to her, resting in a slouch against the tree as it caught the sheen of the moonlight upon it. And in her lap was the Blade of the Hearth, which she slowly stroked her fingers across the flat of while humming to herself. At least until she turned her emerald gaze in his direction. “Orion.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting you, Lady Artemis,” Bell said as he approached her. “I wanted to make sure that you were okay after what happened.”
“I was unharmed thanks to your efforts,” she said. “But you were left in quite a bad state. Are you well enough to be walking on your own?”
“Aside from being a little sore, I’m just fine,” he assured her. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
A light hum bubbled up in her throat. “You know… she said that you would act like that. That you would put on a smile and say not to worry about you, even after experiencing all that pain and suffering for someone else’s sake.”
“You mean Lady Hestia?” He tilted his head in curiosity as the Goddess merely shook her head. Then she held out the onyx knife. Divine script flickered across the broad side of it momentarily, as if in greeting.
“To think that Hestia would prepare a weapon similar to myself.” The smile that came across her face seemed so sad. “It seemed that even without realizing it we shared many of the same thoughts.”
Bell’s breathing hitched for a moment as his rubellite eyes locked onto the bequeathed blade and her words clicked into place. “You mean it’s a divine weapon?”
“Or something similar to one,” Artemis explained. “I can’t imagine how she had such a thing crafted within the rules that bind the divine into place in the Lower World, but it doesn’t change the fact that I could feel a kinship within it. Since then, I’ve been listening to her tell me of the various trials you’ve overcome… she’s quite proud of you.”
He scratched his cheek at that, not quite sure how to process the information he had just been given. He had known the Blade of the Hearth was special, but he didn’t know it was a Divine Weapon. It couldn’t have been cheap either, leaving him to wonder if she had taken on a massive debt for his sake. He gingerly took it back when offered and then watched as she rose to her feet and turned her attention to the arrow lodged into the tree.
“Callisto always did have a bad habit of not gathering all of her arrows up…” The Goddess of the Moon gently brushed her hand over the shaft before plucking it out. “I would tell her so many times not to leave them around, but she’d always insist that even if she ran out of arrows, she’d just beat the monsters to death with her bare fists because she was an Amazon.”
Bell recalled the name as being one of her children that the Goddess had mentioned in passing until then. “Do you want to tell me about her?”
“She’s a bit of an odd one as far as Amazons go,” she said, looking up at the moon above while turning the arrow in her grasp. “We first met when she had gotten herself in over her head against a monster when I was out hunting away from my children. Before I could even ask if she was okay, she swore herself into my service and from then on, she would often bump heads with Rethusa. A lot of them thought that she would eventually leave, but she never did.”
“Was it because she was an Amazon?” Bell guessed. Amazons were biologically and culturally among those who were driven to seek out strong partners to have children with. Bell had heard many tales about how warriors who earned their eyes would be chased after by them relentlessly, though his own interactions with Miss Tiona were mostly friendly and the moments between sparring they’d spent talking about different heroic tales they knew.
Artemis nodded. “As a Goddess who presided over chastity and would have anyone who sought a relationship leave the Familia, it’s natural to assume that an Amazon would part ways. But she never showed an interest in any of the men we came across. She even joked that Lante thought more about romance than she did.”
Lante was her Vice-Captain from what Bell knew, a Half-Elf like his sister. From the previous stories she had talked about featuring her Familia, it seemed that she wasn’t as magically inclined as Lefiya. Instead, she fought with a straight sword and bow for either supporting the others from the backline as an archer or a frontline fighter depending on which was needed.
“She got along well with Phigenia,” Artemis continued. “Since she was the only Healer in our group, Phigenia was always worrying herself anytime Callisto got injured. She’d always tell her that it’d take a lot more than a few scrapes to put her down, only to be lectured she shouldn’t be getting any scrapes if possible. Despite being the younger of the two, it was almost like an older sister fretting over her younger one for being reckless.”
“I can see that somehow,” Bell said, even as he suddenly pictured Miss Eina and his own sister lecturing him whenever he got into a little trouble over the last month. He knew they meant well, so he always listened to them and hated that he got them upset enough to lecture him in the first place. But, at the same time, he felt there was an undercurrent in her tone that held a familiar weight to them.
An air of loneliness.
“…It’s strange,” Artemis’ voice pulled his attention back to her. “Up above, I was an unchanging Goddess of Chastity who shunned relationships. Yet, in the short time I spent down here, among you children that live so ephemerally, I feel as though I’ve changed so much just watching all of you live your lives to the fullest. That a pillar of the heavens could be changed even a bit by spending time with you all…. truly, the Lower World is filled with unknown possibilities.”
I think a short amount of time might be a matter of differing perspective between the two of us, Bell thought to himself. After all, for a mortal, what was a significant portion of their lifetime could easily be seen a slight blink of the eye to the immortal. But the fact that something eternal could be influenced by something so ephemeral was part of what Bell feared the most. More so considering he was starting to piece together the facts. “Lady Artemis?”
Her emerald gaze shifted over to him from the moon. “Yes, Orion?”
“Your children…they’re still waiting for you to get back to them, aren’t they?”
Her eyes closed before she turned to face the ground. Then a small smile came across her face before she scooted over enough to where their bodies were touching and then leaned her head on his shoulder. “That’s right. All my children are waiting for me to return to them even now. But we’ll be together once more soon enough.”
The unsettling feeling that Bell felt found root. The fondness in her tone as if reminiscing of times that had long gone and would never return. The absence of them within the camp. Her Familia were most likely already dead.
He could only imagine the pain she must have been in. The children she had taken on as her family, that she watched lived their lives to their fullest and committed their every word and acts to memory, were no longer among them. And from her tone alone he could easily infer she intended to head back to Heaven to join them once the threat had been dealt with.
“Orion… would you give me a final memory to treasure?” she asked in a soft, honeyed voice that made his heart skip a beat all of a sudden.
“If it’s something I can do…” He tensed up slightly as her arms came down and wrapped around his own, embracing him as they held the limb firmly between her bosom. “L-Lady Artemis?”
“Treat me like a woman,” she asked, leaning more of her body against him. “I want to experience how wonderful love feels.”
Bell’s throat felt dry at how warm and soft to the touch as she pressed up against him, lips pursing for a kiss. He still had his reservations about having one the divine holding affection towards in such a manner to be honest. But he recalled Hestia’s words on the night of the Holy Moon Festival, that he had to at least refute her not because she was a goddess but because he wasn’t sure if he felt that way about her—
— but before he could tell her otherwise the night sky was overwritten with an expanse of lights that began to dot the firmament. It was as if someone had pulled the stars from the Heavens close to earth where they could be seen unobstructed and in all their radiant glory. Yet the sight only filled Bell with a single sensation.
“…We’re out of time,” Artemis said as she shifted her focus to the presence of those looming stars, hanging above their heads like the Sword of Damocles and waiting to fall at any single moment. She released him and rose to her feet, grabbing the Divine Spear. “Orion, get us back to the campsite as soon as possible.”
Her declaration had given Bell something to direct his attention from the overhanging dread. He scooped her into his arms and booked it back to the campsite as quickly as possible, which was to say at an impressive gait, arriving to see that the other Adventurers were already gearing up for conflict as they moved with purpose and indistinct chatter while being directed by the God of Travel as the Goddess of Justice and Hearth stood close by the exit with their few children.
“Hestia! Astraea!” Artemis called out as they came to a stop, the wind following behind them in a gale that rolled through the grass and left it shivering as the firelight danced fiercely for a moment before settling back down. “Antares is on the move.”
“The scouts stated that a new swarm of its spawn are currently leaving ahead of their spawn schedule,” Astraea said softly. “Moreover, rather than drifting out everywhere they’re heading towards our campsite.”
“It’s strange though,” Artemis said. “It shouldn’t have enough control yet to unleash it across the entirety of the Lower World.”
“Because it doesn’t need to stretch across the entirety of the world,” Hermes chimed in. “I just received a message that the monsters in the Dungeon have suddenly begun pushing up towards the surface from the lower floors.”
“But that wouldn’t do anything on its own, right?” Hestia asked. “Ouranos’ prayers are keeping the lid sealed shut to prevent them from emerging in hordes like that. And the other Adventurers are there to stop those that do try to come out.”
“Yes, but its expanding—” Hermes gestured up to the sky that was being lined with shining stars. “We were too hopeful in thinking it would try to hold out until it could blanket the entire Lower World. All it needs to do is stretch it across the continent so that it can reach Orario and then unleash them all at once.”
Bell, who had been listening to the divinities, tensed up as he recognized the threat from both the destruction that had befallen the land they’d flown over and the pain he’d experienced. “It would return to how it was before the Age of the Gods then. That’s what you mean, right?”
He nodded. “The strongest of Adventurers and most of the Gods and Goddesses in the Lower World are here in Orario, or on the main continent. It might spare those in distant lands, but once the lid on the Dungeon is unsealed replacing it won’t be easy. And that’s not even counting the sheer loss of life.”
“Had things gone to plan we could have cleared it like we would the Dungeon with the children,” Astraea noted. “But with most of those forces aiming towards this camp, I suspect that the amount remaining within the Temple will be minimal. If that’s the case, we can use that chance to have a small force proceed inside and kill Antares before it can go through with it.”
“Not ideal, but it’ll have to do.” Hermes looked over to the Hestia and Astraea Familia. “Bell and Welf, I’ll need you two to accompany me into the Temple with Asfi. Astraea, we’ll also need to borrow Miss Gale.”
The Goddess turned her attention the Elven Warrior. “Ryuu, I’ll trust you to keep them safe. But keep in mind Emma will need to have her Skill active.”
“I understand, Goddess,” Ryuu answered before turning back to the other members of her Familia. “I’ll… be counting on you to look after Lady Astraea. Please.”
Whether it was the fact that she was admitting to placing her faith in them or that she spoke towards them without prompt, the girls quickly got over their shock as Cecil reaffirmed their resolve aloud. “Of course! We won’t let anything happen to our Goddess!”
“What about us?” Mikoto asked. “We can’t just leave the most perilous task to these two alone.”
“My children can form a defensive net and focus down the strongest of the monsters, preventing them from doubling back, but chances are the smaller ones will slip through the net,” Hermes said. “Those will have to be confronted by you children. And, if the worst happens and Hestia should be sent back up, the Divine Spear and a Crozzo Magic sword don’t necessitate the user having a Falna to work while I’ll also be on hand to immediately convert their blessing if needed.”
The answer wasn’t met with glowing excitement. Lili began to argue why she should be brought along. Primo looked terrified at the sudden weight being thrust on her shoulders. And he could tell Mikoto didn’t also relish the thought of leaving them to venture into such a dangerous unknown either.
But they didn’t have time for that. “Lili, I need you here.”
The Pallum turned her attention back to him. “But Master Bell—”
“With so much going on, they’ll need to be able to coordinate what’s happening while the battle is waging. And we’ve never worked with the Astraea Familia before, so we need someone adaptable. There’s no one better suited for that role than you.”
She looked as though she wanted to say something until she saw his eyes pleading her to be here for his sake. He couldn’t deal with the current threat if he was worried about his goddess all the time. “… If that’s what Master Bell desires, then fine.”
“Thank you.” He then turned his attention to Mikoto. “Your Skill can track these monsters too, right?”
“Once I’ve laid eyes on one, I’ll be able to,” she confirmed.
“Then I’ll leave it to you to make sure that none of them will be able to sneak up on Lady Hestia or Lady Astraea.” He then turned his attention back to the Elven Mage, clutching onto her Oaken Staff nervously. “Primo, I know it’s a lot to ask all of a sudden, but I’ll be trusting you to protect Lady Hestia.”
“But I can only use my Magic three times,” she admitted. “And what if it isn’t strong enough? What if I make a mistake, or…”
“It’s okay,” Bell told her. “Remember what Lefiya said that day in the Guild Room. You need to become a Mage that can surpass even Lady Riveria. And the first step is to have confidence in yourself and the ability of your Magic to protect our Familia. Okay?”
“…Okay.” She nodded to herself. “I will protect Lady Hestia, Captain.”
He gave her a smile before turning to Hestia, who had gone over to Artemis and was embracing her in a crushing hug. If he had the right of it, Artemis intended to return to Heaven when this was over, so it would likely be the last time they spoke to one another for a long time.
“I wish I could have spent more time with you, Hestia,” Artemis told her dearest friend. “I didn’t want this to be the last time we spoke with each other. That you’d be the one seeing me off like this…”
“It’ll be okay,” Hestia said in a bittersweet voice even as she seemed to fight back tears. “We’ll meet again someday and pick up right where we left off, like we never split apart. You’ll see.”
“…You’re right.” She pulled away slowly and forced herself to smile. “Until them.”
Hestia nodded before turning her attention to Bell. “Bell…”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “No matter what happens… No matter how hard it is, I want you to remember that you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re doing what you have to save everything that Artemis and I want to protect. Remember that, okay?”
He didn’t understand it fully. If he did, he would have known just why the Goddess of Justice and God of Travel averted their eyes at that moment. But he understood that she was trying to reassure him that he was doing the right thing.
And that was enough for the moment. “I’ll remember that, Goddess.”
“…Then arm yourself let’s go,” Hermes said as he adjusted the brim of his hat over his eyes. “The time has come to slay the Black Scorpion.”