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Fanfic Recommendations 5-2023

My Fanfics

The Stray Smith 3 – 6

Summary: “A Sword is not Strength. A Sword is not Skill. A Sword is not Fellowship.” These were the tenets of the Craftknight. And for the amnesiac Welf, they became a truth upon his time spent in the City of Swords as part of a story involving eight apprentices, four swords, and what lay at the bottom of the Labyrinth of Wystern.

Life is Tough for a Minos 6

Summary: It was tough being born without a Septima in a world where one’s place was determined by strength or status. Since he couldn’t get the former, Leon decided to seek out the latter by visiting a certain tower at the bottom of the barren world below the clouds. He didn’t expect to find an A.I named Lola awaiting the arrival for the first Human in thousands of years. [LAiX2 AU]

Fanfics I’ve Found Interesting

The Villainess Reincarnates

A Mobuseka Fanfic

Summary: Angie, who meets her death in the original game, reincarnates into the era of the canon light novels and decides to give her lingering attachments for Prince Julius. This has repercussions.

Fate Revelation Online 80 – 84

A SAO x Fate Stay Night Fanfic

Summary: Ilya likes to play video games, and in the time she has remaining, Shirou is more than willing to play the new VR game with her. But when they are trapped inside the game, [Sword Art Online], they determine something even more distressing: Kayaba Akihiko is definitely a Magus.

The Second Choice 29 – 32

A RWBY Fanfic

Summary: Jaune applied to Beacon with his fake transcripts – his rejection was all but guaranteed. What wasn’t expected was that a single ticked box put down on a secondary school choice might change his life forever. Beacon may have rejected him, but there is more than one academy on Remnant and more than one way to become a hero. Atlas Academy, and it’s quasi-military structure, await.

Life is Tough for a Minos: Chapter 6 [Mobuseka x Gunvolt AU]

Chapter 6: The Enrollment 4

Leon sighed as he finally returned to the renovated storage space that was his room the moment he finished his electives. He left the door open for just a few seconds longer after passing through to make sure that his roommate made it inside, before closing and locking it. Then he removed his shoes, set them onto a small rug he had placed next to the door to avoid tracking dirt inside, headed over to the bed, and flopped down into it.

The Combat Support Pod de-cloaked herself as she hovered in the air over his head. “Feeling tired?”

“A bit.” He set his hands behind his head and crossed his legs while staring up at the ceiling. “My plan worked a little too well since it turns out that Beaudon has one of the same electives as me—he spent the entire time giving me the evil eye. It reminded me way too much of Zola, so I was feeling tense for a while.

Once Lunch had come around Lola reported back to him that said classmate was one Alan Beaudon, the youngest son of a Viscount. That made him Rank Five in terms of the station, above a Baron like his father. More so considering he was Upper Rank rather than Lower like Zola’s family.

According to Lola, before she reconvened with them at Lunch, he had used the time after his class to send a missive to his father in regards to ‘the presence of Minos within one of the havens of nobility’ to paraphrase the A.I. It seemed he wanted to have them pulled from the Royal Academy under some preconception that they were not supposed to be there—if you weren’t part of the Gentry you were beneath the Nobility, as the saying would go.

Really, Leon fully expected more than a few nobles to have sent letters and messages back home to complain about it. Attending the classes here was part of the privilege of being an aristocrat, so having someone who wasn’t sharing the same seats and luxuries diminished it. That was why he wasn’t really bothered by the guy complaining to his dad to do something to address the matter, since under normal circumstances a Viscount could have that done without reprisal.

But these weren’t normal circumstances.

No one short of the Queen or King or the Saintess herself could have Leon and Olivia removed from the campus as long as they stuck with the rules. And even then, as the man himself had pressed upon them, their actions were to be judged by Master Lukas should something occur despite his relatively low rank among the rest of the staff. He hadn’t come out and said it, but Lola suspected it was to avoid any minor infractions being justification for having them expelled on a technicality and thus ruining whatever the Queen had planned. That was why Leon was vaguely hopeful that once Beaudon received a response to not do anything stupid, he would stick to stewing in silent anger.

Well, I did find out why he seems to be so insistent on glaring you two down right out of the gate after doing a bit more research. Did you know he was recently made the heir of his family despite being the second son?

His brows furled at that. Considering the nature of inheritance in Holfort, the only times that the eldest son didn’t inherit everything were highly circumstantial. That included being disinherited, being found to be an illegitimate heir due to infidelity, or an early death. “Did his brother screw himself over or something and he’s letting it go to his head?”

No. His brother was killed about a month prior by someone that they call the second coming of the Black Knight.

Leon snapped up at that. “As in the Black Knight of Fanoss?”

No signs of the Magnetism Septima you mentioned, so I doubt it…” She drifted off for a moment before turning off to the side. “If I had to guess, it seems like someone’s intentionally gone out of their way to model themselves after him based on the descriptions of the combat armor being clad in black. Whoever they are, they’ve been turning up in those Minos revolts that your sister mentioned on the way here and a big one happened in the Viscount’s territory.

His lips pulled back into a grimace. That hadn’t been expected. “Okay, so if we assume that he either was close to his brother or if he feels that his death by the hands of a presumed Minos was an insult to his family…”

He’ll probably try to take it out on you since you’re the closest target.”

“At least until he gets a response from his father telling him to bear with it, he’ll likely temper himself believing he’d be responsible for getting us kicked out soon enough.” Honestly, Leon didn’t really care unless he escalated, and at that point he’d respond in kind. The bigger issue was this second so-called Black Knight being responsible for the uprisings. “We need more information on the situation, but I can’t really ask around here about it.”

One of the two Minos going around asking about the guy in armor behind said uprisings would likely either rub salt in the wounds of those who’d been hit by it or make himself seem suspicious. Or at the very least bring him more attention than he wanted. And they had no reason to be straightforward with him regarding the information.

Well, we’re still going to the Docks this weekend, right?” Lola asked. “That’ll be a good place to pick up any information on the attacks as well.

“Good point.” It was far enough away from the Academy that no one would know he was a Minos at a glance. And as long as he didn’t go around in his uniform he could pass as a Commoner, which wouldn’t draw attention or make others feel put off by being around someone at a higher station than them. “We can even hit the Guild on our way to the Dungeon and get registered early rather than waiting for classes to start.”

The Dungeon Delving classes were mandatory, but only in the first semester. And only to instill the basic etiquette and guidelines towards adventuring since it was so deeply rooted in the culture of the country. They became an Elective afterwards, but it was still expected for every student to make it down pretty deep as part of the qualifications for graduation—not a problem when you had enough money or connections to get an escort or a bullshit-tier Septima.

In the game, the Muse was always accompanied by a Love Interest when she went in. But, considering the situation as it stood, Livia would probably not have that safety net. He decided to talk with Master Lukas about the exosuits available to students without their own come morning.

Lola suddenly turned towards the door before tilting in his direction. “Leon, I’m picking up your brother’s septimal signature getting closer to the door. I think he’s coming to visit you.

Leon raised a brow before getting to his feet as Lola cloaked herself. Then there were a few knocks on the door. He opened it to find his older brother standing there, still in his uniform but without his bag.

“Mind if I drop in for a chat?” Nicks asked.

“Sure, come in.” Leon gestured towards the rug for the shoes to be placed, leaving his older brother to roll his eyes before slipping them off as he came inside.

Nicks looked around before nodding his head slowly. “Nice room.”

Leon shut the door. “For a repurposed storage room, I guess. Anyway, what brings you here?”

“Came to check up on you after your first day of class,” he claimed before he laid his eyes on the table where Leon had set the textbook for his mechatronics class down. He went over and began turning the pages to skim it. “See how you were settling in and handling your first classes… can you actually understand this?”

Leon briefly glanced down to where he’d turned the page. It was a diagram for what looked to be a circuit pattern. Lola chimed in silently about what it represented was in his ear before he responded. “I can understand enough that it’s basically how the communication systems work by vibrating a sliced quartz crystal.”

Nicks drew back with a skeptical look. “There’s no way you figured that out on your own.”

He shrugged. “I may or may not have had help from someone who knows a thing or two about electronics. She’s been very helpful.”

“She, huh?” Nicks crossed his arms. “This wouldn’t happen to be the same girl that you’ve gotten close to in your first class, is it?”

Leon inclined his head at that. “Rumors go through here faster than I thought if they reached your side of the campus already.”

“Jenna sent word to me when the rumors reached her about you within the first few hours of the day,” he explained. “Didn’t think it was true considering the fact that you honestly never gave any signs of being interested in women back home… but is it?”

“Her name is Olivia,” Leon began. “She’s the other scholarship student and a Minos. Didn’t want anyone getting any ideas once the rejections started happening and they were looking for some way to vent their frustrations. She’d be an easy target unless I put on a show to the other guys that she’s off-limits. That’s all.”

“Has there been any trouble so far?”

“Nothing yet,” he lied. “Right now, most of the guys are still optimistic that they can find a woman with Mom’s temperament in this place—”

Nicks scoffed, perhaps rightfully so.

“—which means that they’re going to be scrambling to do that and can’t afford to waste time with her. After all, if word goes around that whoever they’re going after is playing second to a lowborn Commoner, the poor bastard won’t have a chance even if half the male population vanished overnight. I also made it clear to the guys that I’m not even trying to compete with them, so we should be fine for a while as far as guys go.”

“But the natural enemy of a woman is another woman,” Nicks pieced together simple enough. “She’ll be a punching bag for the other girls just because she’s got nowhere near the same position or power. I remember Jenna going off last year about that to me since I was the only person that she could vent to without it getting around.”

Their mother’s natural enemy was Zola, who was from a higher ranking. Jenna’s natural enemy was Mercie, who was also from a higher ranking. Finley thankfully had no direct competition unless Zola decided she wanted another daughter—and for their father’s sake they hoped not.

But this being the sole place where all walks of nobility gathered meant that a lot of people getting shit on from the top would push it onto the people below them. And Olivia was basically at the bottom. They had the aegis of the Queen in theory, but in practice petty girls would be petty girls. So unless the Queen herself came and told them to knock it off the worst ones would start on her eventually given the games themselves had Olivia be the target of bullies until the Love Interests got involved.

“She’s also mute,” Leon brought up. “Other people will start seeing her as an easy target since she literally can’t say otherwise if something happens. And even then, the only ones who might believe her without being cowed due to the social rankings is myself and the Knight we both report directly to. And she strikes me as the sort who’d keep it bottled in to not cause problems for other people, so if it happens where we can’t see it then it’ll probably escalate.”

“Gee, I wonder where I’ve seen that before.” Nicks exhaled as he got the underlying message. He himself wasn’t nearly as optimistic about finding a bride in this place since, even if the General Studies classes had women who were more reasonable, he himself had very little to inherit due to being the spare to Rutart. “So, you got close to her to avoid problems from the men’s side of things once they start getting desperate. Some might be jealous eventually, but right now they’re not going to bother you.”

“That’s about it.” There was also the fact that she was supposed to be the Muse, the whole issue with Fanoss, and the matter of a second Black Knight apparently running around. But his brother didn’t need to know that. “Since you’re probably going to tell Jenna about this because she sent you here, I want you to ask her to keep an ear out for anything involving Olivia in the Women’s Dorm. She doesn’t have to run interference or even pretend to notice, but if she sees something have her tell you so that you can get word to me.”

Women could enter the Men’s dorms rather freely, even if they were the General Studies students. But the opposite wasn’t the same barring Exclusive Servants. Jenna could very easily go to see Nicks later that evening to get answers because she wouldn’t come directly to Leon to save face.

“I can do that much, but she might not bother with it,” Nicks told him. “Even last year she barely came to me for anything other than going on about her friend or the other ‘high-class bitches’ she had to put up with. She probably won’t do it.”

Leon shrugged. “Maybe so. But I can’t spy on the Women’s Dorms, so I have to ask her at the very least.”

He had very little hope that Jenna would do anything to be honest. But, at the same time, he hoped that she would at least get word if something serious was going to happen. He knew that in the game some girls conspired to get Olivia trapped in the Dungeon where she fell through a shaft and wound up far deeper than she should.

No Love Interest. No Septima. And he doubted she knew how to use Combat Armor.

She was dead if that happened. And since the game made the girls faceless mobs to save on asset costs, he couldn’t keep an eye on them prematurely.  The only two other women of importance (and thus facial portraits) in the school aside from Olivia were the bully in league with Sky Pirates and Angelica. He couldn’t rely on the knowledge from the game, so Jenna was the only one there who could help.

“She doesn’t need to interfere,” he reiterated. “She owes Olivia nothing and I don’t want her to jeopardize her chance of meeting someone. Just have her tell me so I can report it in Olivia’s place without anyone being the wiser.”

“All right, I’ll try,” Nicks promised. “Anything else I need to know about?”

“Not really,” Leon claimed. “Though I do plan on heading out this weekend to get registered at the Adventurer’s Guild so I can start going into the Dungeon. You in?”

He shook his head. “Nah. The guy I was working for last time sent word he had my position open, so I’m going back there. Probably for the best since I don’t have to waste ammo costs or get the armor repaired if it gets damaged.”

“And the risk of getting eaten,” Leon helpfully added, as though he weren’t facing that very same issue. “Good luck with your classes, Bro.”

“I’d say the same to you, but…” Nicks turned his attention back to the diagram in the book before flipping to the page it was on prior. “Honestly at this point you probably won’t even struggle with this much. Later.”

And with that his older brother slipped his shoes back on and walked out of the room.

“…Right then.” Leon stretched for a moment after shutting the door before turning his attention back to his companion, who had decloaked herself. “Back to our weekend plans…”


Life at the Academy was still something that Olivia was adjusting to by the time the weekend arrived.

Leon had told her earlier in the week he would be heading out on some business and wouldn’t be back until later. And Master currently had duties as a professor to attend to, as well as seeing about requisitioning an exosuit for her. So she had opted to instead focus on her studies after attending service.

Olivia set out somewhat later in the morning than she normally would, having shamefully overslept due to how comfortable the bed was. Her travels took her surprisingly far from the dormitories and the classrooms. Master had told her that the chapel itself was apparently located in the rear of the campus, practically set in the opposite direction of what served as the Colosseum.

Traversing the flagstone path revealed that it had long gone relatively untended to. The grass had been allowed to grow wild and free along the path, making it troublesome to walk through. Even so, she could see some of it was freshly trampled upon arriving at the alabaster chapel nestled within the wilds.

The mild fears she had that it had fallen into a state of dilapidation were largely unfounded. The building itself did show some signs of weathering from exposure, and there were certainly places where maintenance was obviously needed. The windows were in definite need of a good cleaning as well, but it was not in such a state of disrepair that the building wasn’t able to serve its purpose.

Ascending the stone stairs leading to the entrance, a set of doors that had intricate designs worked into it, Olivia managed to wrest one open and entered the vestibule. The crisp air brushed against her skin as it flowed out while the warming air from the outside slid into the small chamber until she shut the door behind her. Almost immediately her eyes were forced to adjust from the bright illumination of the sun to that of the soft amber glow of bulbs from wall lamps that hung on the side of the walls.

Soft chirping reached her ears as she brushed her feet on the rug in front of the door, not wanting to track any dirt from the outside if she could help it. It was an inquisitive sound that allured her eyes towards the left corner of the room, where she spotted a small white bird. Tiny but stout, its feathers ruffled as it craned its head in her direction while resting within a cage that it called home.

How beautiful. Olivia had not come across such a bird before and was naturally drawn to the allure of its feathers as it picked at them with its beak. It was such a beautiful hue that resembled clouds on a bright day. She couldn’t help but give it a little wave of her fingers. Hello there.

It tittered and hopped onto the flooring of its cage in response, approaching the bars while raising a wing as if to return the greeting. Then it trilled softly, as if to inquire as the nature of her visit in place of one who resided in the chapel. Olivia’s imagination left her picturing it asking in a slightly high-pitched voice about whether she had simply come merely to admire the elegance of its plumage, or did she have some come to pay tribute to the teachings of the faith?

Humoring her own imagination, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small book of scriptures. The white bird bobbed its head from side to side as it eyed the old but cared for text, seemingly in understanding. Then it hopped over towards the end of the cage before pointing a wing towards the door that loomed ahead. She had a strong suspicion that it would lead into the sanctuary.

Olivia flashed her little guide a smile before heading over towards the door and opening it up. The scent of incense greeted her in welcome as she entered the chapel hall. Her breath was stolen as she took in its majesty, from the tall ceiling to the velvet carpet that stretched over the stone floor. Stained-glass windows cast their colors throughout the room as light poured in from each wall, shining down on the rows of pews made from some dark-wood or other that she knew no name for.

The front altar that laid at the end of the velvet pathway was clearly the heart of the sanctuary. It was elevated by several steps, surrounded by altar rails at the base that opened up in the front where one could climb to the lowest part of the altar and kneel. The altarpiece itself was massive with its wings spread; the central panel flanked by one each side displaying artwork that from a distance could barely be made out.

Olivia quietly shut the door behind her and made her way down the spacious hall towards the altar to observe that which caught her eyes in the distance from up close. The carpet swallowed her footfalls, keeping the silence unbroken until she reached the steps. There she could not only make out the panels of the altarpiece, but that which laid atop the altar-cover next to the candles upon which flames danced on wicks that looked to have only recently been lit.

Olivia recognized the figures on the panels. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the chapel itself was located in a school for the nobility that such portrayals were more extravagant than the ones in the church she had been raised in. But she recognized them as the effigies of the Musicine Faith: the manifestations of the three Muses as captured by artists of times long gone.

The panel on the left was the Muse of Victory whose anthem guided their warriors during the battles of the past. She was a pale beauty with long hair that was a deep shade of black and piercing crimson eyes, her lips painted scarlet as she held to them a flute. Her wings crossed her voluptuous figure like a gown of striking red that tapered into the darkest black, and resting around throat was golden necklace with three teardrop rubies that were blood-red.

The panel on the right was the Muse of Hope whose ballad served as a balm for those who were suffering and sought succor. She was a younger-looking, almost childish figure with short white hair that came down to her neck, while atop her head was a laurel wreath whose ends stuck out like horns. Cladding her petite body was a gown that was red and white as she laid on a cloud, lovingly curled around what appeared to be a bracelet, and from her back spread wings of red and gold that resembled flames.

And in the center panel was the Muse of Origins whose song helped founded the kingdom itself. She was an elegant and refined lady, her figure the embodiment of motherhood upon which was swaddled raiment of blue and white while her hair was fanned wide like waves of gold. Her eyes were sapphires that seemed to peer into one’s heart, and her unfurled wings took a shape that resembled those of a butterfly. In her grasp was a magnificent staff whose head she cradled beneath her mouth, open in song.

The altarpiece was magnificent in its depiction. The house of faith she had been raised in was not so wealthy, but the artwork itself had always been beautiful to her eyes. But Olivia had not seen such craftsmanship prior and could only muse that it was because of the wealth of the grounds upon which this chapel lay that such a work of art could be found.

Yet it was easily outdone by that which laid in the center of the altar.

It was a magnificent crystalline sculpture of the three Muses acting in concert with one another. The colors spanned the soft hues of the rainbow. The details defined to the point of even their cloth having wrinkles.

Breathtaking was the only word for it. It almost felt as though someone had taken the very manifestations of the Muses and entrapped them in crystal. She couldn’t help but bring her fingers towards the statue, half-tempted to free them…

“It’s actually dangerous to be rather close to that right now.”

“!!!” A silent shriek of surprise slipped out of Olivia’s throat as she jumped back. The voice seemed to come out of nowhere to admonish her for the uncontrolled greed that drew her unworthy fingers towards what may have been the most precious thing within the chapel. She could only feel her heart jump in embarrassment as her eyes began spanning the room for the source.

Eventually, they fell back to a corner of the large room where the light from a stained window from above faintly touched. It was there she saw the source. And once more she found herself staring at another sight that took her breath.

On the very last pew out of the ten or so rows there was a young man reclining with his legs resting on the wood. He was slouching with one of his elbows on the armrest of the pew and supporting his head with one of his smooth hands. He must have been her peer given that he wore the uniform of the student body instead of priestly garbs…

Yet he almost seemed to be a messenger from the Muses themselves in how his beauty seemed otherworldly. Long, majestic violet hair bound in a ponytail lay draped over one of his somewhat slender shoulders. It was so well-maintained that the light seemed to refract off it like crystal itself, and the same could be said of his deep purple eyes fixed casually in her own direction.

“Get back a few more feet,” he said in an uninvested tone that had just the touch of an edge to it. “I’d rather not be responsible for blood staining these hallowed halls.”

A buzzing confusion took root inside her head until the moment the most horrible sound imaginable filled in the brief silence between his words and now. She turned back to the crystalline statuette to see that it was cracking as deep fissures spread across its surface. She backed away several steps and watched as the entire thing came undone in a slight burst that scattered prismatic shards into the air around it.

Olivia could only fall to her knees as horror and confusion reflected in her eyes. It was a natural response given that the most expensive work of art she had laid eyes on was now nothing more than shards that were scattered about. Had it been her fault somehow?

Footfalls echoed throughout the cavernous hall. By the time Olivia noticed due to her shock the young man was now standing behind her. One of his hands were outstretched towards her, their appearance smooth as silk.

She grasped it and rose to her feet. Her mind was mildly surprised at how soft his fingers were at the touch, but her manners won out. She tapped her chest twice and gave him a grateful nod. Then she turned back to the shards and gestured to them with an inquisitive yet pleading expression.

“Oh, don’t worry. The shards are sharp, but they’ll dissipate in a moment, and nothing will be left behind.”

Her silent message had been misinterpreted about the resulting mess, hence his assurance as the shards themselves were beginning to come undone. Their physical forms continued to splinter as little sparkles rose into the air before vanishing into nothingness. That still left her with even more questions.

So, Olivia instead pulled out her portable notepad and flipped to an empty page to scribble three little words to show to him: What just happened?

His uninvested gaze shifted slightly in response in curiosity. To which she responded by flipping to the first page of her pad where she always kept the most important thing to tell others.

My name is Olivia. I am mute and cannot speak.

It clicked in his eyes at that point, briefly clouding them with what passed for mild shame. “Oh, forgive me. I should have picked up on that from your gesture just now.”

She shook her head and hands in a manner that she hoped expression that she didn’t mind. Even so, he extended his hand out in a strange manner as if he were holding an invisible pencil or a similar object. Olivia thought for a moment he was asking to borrow her pen and was about to offer it, but then his eyes flickered luminously, and a crystalline flower came into his grasp.

“Though it will only last hour, please accept this as an apology.”

At his beckoning she shuffled the pad into her other hand that was holding the scripture text and gingerly took into her grasp as if it was glasswork.

His eyes lingered on the book for a moment before he continued. “As for an explanation, that statuette was something I created with my Septima at the behest of a young woman an hour ago. According to the Father here, there are so few of the pious students within the campus grounds that visits are rare. So, when she came and mentioned that the altar felt a little underwhelming for the sole place of worship for future generation of this country… I thought she had a point.”

Olivia’s gaze followed his hands as he held them out towards the altar once again. Then she saw the crystalline statuette taking form once more. It wasn’t as instantaneous as the flower but sure enough that which had been destroyed had been remade whole once more. However, this time the central figure in the center was the Muse of Hope.

“Judging from your book, I assumed that you were part of the denomination that follows the teachings of the Third?”

Olivia amended her notepad writing to respond: I was raised in a small church where it was the predominate one, but I believe there’s value in teachings of the First and Second as well.

There was a slight rumble in his throat that became a slight smile. “Marie said something similar as well, about how she found strength in all the teachings rather than one while she was convalescing. It’s refreshing to hear that since most here that were pious beyond lip service follow the teachings of the First without regard for the others.”

Though the Musicine Faith recognized the teachings of all three Muses as legitimate, some of their teachings tended to contrast with one another at points. Small differences in some cases and larger ones in others. That resulted in a schism a long time ago between those that followed the teachings of the Muse of Origins and the Muse of Victory.

The First helped established the continent. Her song bestowed her blessing upon the founding families and gave them the might to settle the land from the original monsters that lived there. She then brokered negotiations with nearby territories to eventually become Holfort, with herself becoming the first Queen and thus the mother of the kingdom.

The Second appeared during a time of strife and bestowed her blessing upon those of martial prowess rather than birthright, initially protecting those who traveled from afar to become part of their kingdom from the dangers of the world. Then they repelled invaders and quelled disputes that the crown would not, coming into power of their own. Eventually, they established their own knight order that operated separately from the Kingdom.

There was a resulting civil war which lasted for a time until the Third came forth. It was through her that unity was wrought once as the separate factions ceased hostilities among themselves from her song echoing in their hearts with boundless empathy. Their focus as the youngest denominations was on the people left in the wake of the battle rather than anything else, the poor, orphaned, and the injured. She became synonymous with charity and hope in itself.

Olivia could understand why so many nobles would hold the teachings of the First Muse sacred. It justified why they were nobility and how it was their duty to oversee those beneath them. And in turn those beneath them would offer their services in exchange for safety and security. So, to hear he thought otherwise left her curious enough to want to know his own personal thoughts…


Yet, the sound of wood slamming against the door-stop echoed throughout the vast chapel hall and shattered the ambience.  Their gazes split from the newly formed figurine towards the door instead, where they spotted another young woman. She had blond hair that was wrapped into two looped braids and wore a violet blazer that seemed meant to match the hue of the Prism Adept that was her fellow churchgoer.

She momentarily glared to Olivia… or rather the flower she was holding. Then she shifted her attention back to him and scoffed. “I dragged myself all the way out here and went out of my way to give my boys the morning off just so we could go out together, and here you are getting ready to have the nearest broad spread her legs for you in the house of faith you call sacred, Brad?”

Olivia’s mouth gaped at the insinuation, but to her surprise Brad stepped forward in her defense. “Stephanie… I understand and accept that you don’t particularly pay mind to faith, or how things work this high up in terms of the aristocracy. Misunderstandings can be corrected in time, but it’s rather unbecoming of a woman who’ll be in your position to make assumptions without facts. More so considering the consequences it can have. I am no exception, hence that flower was an apology for offending her by accident—not an attempt to court her.”

Her voice dripped with saccharine offense in response as she gave Olivia a barbed glare. “Even if that’s how you intended it, that doesn’t mean that’s how it could be interpreted. Don’t you think it’s a bit rude to me as your fiancée when we’ve just entered the Academy and so many are vying for the attention of one in your position? I’m willing to be considerate this time since the engagement has only been formalized, but maybe you should consider that before making such gestures in the future?”

The corner of Brad’s lips strained not to pull back into a scowl that didn’t suit him. “…You are right. In doing so I have caused a misunderstanding and will keep that in mind in the future.”

Olivia took that as a cue to return the flower to him. She appreciated the gesture, but she could understand that from the perspective of someone just entering how it could have been misinterpreted as a romantic act. Brad offered her an apologetic gaze as she then took three steps away from him to show she had no further intentions to his bride-to-be.

Stephanie observed her for moments longer with an expression that gave off the impression it wasn’t over, only to spin on the sole of her shoes and move to leave. “We’re wasting time here. Let’s get going. The sooner we make our way across campus together, the less we’ll need to worry about your lesser approaching you all the time.”

Olivia watched him depart with his shoulders now burdened with a weight that hadn’t been there before in the brief time they talked. It was truly a sad sight when she turned her attention back to the statuette that encapsulated his faith in physical form. She could only offer a silent prayer that he would find a balm for his troubles, as she could offer no words aloud that would soothe his heart.

[—Jenna Fou Barfort—]

“We need to talk about what happened earlier.” A saccharine and condescending tone was met with silence. “If you can’t speak that makes it simple since you can just listen while I make things perfectly clear for you that nothing is going to happen between you and Brad, no matter how much you play the innocent and mute for the guys.”

There was a nervous rustling of cloth and flesh.

“Now, I can guess that you didn’t know better at the time and personally I don’t blame you for leveraging what you can to get above your station. Since men tend to only think with their lower halves even chattel would be fine so long as they get off. Plus, you’re meant to calm the sheep down, so I’ll be generous and let you off with only a warning.”

There was a painful but muted sound. It was followed by the all-too common sound of a slap. Then there was a loud thump against the wall and the sound of books clattering to the ground.

“Spread your legs for that other Minos all you want since no one cares about animals going at it, but if I catch word of you so much as glancing at Brad again, I’ll stop being so nice and put you in your place. Got it?”


A huff followed. “Good. Let’s go. I need to pay a visit to those bitches who had the audacity to question my engagement next—not good enough for him my ass.”

Footfalls followed down the carpeted floor. One set moving off at a brisk pace that spoke of unattended business. The others followed behind at a respectful and professional pace.

Silence settled in as Jenna Fou Barfort stood behind the bend of the corridor. Her arms were crossed and her brows furled. She was deep in thought about what to do next.

Nicks had approached her two days ago. She had made time out of her search for prospects to hear him out since he knew better than to interrupt her when unnecessary. That was when he told her what Leon wanted her to do in keeping an eye on the mute girl and telling him if she was being harassed.

She had asked if Leon had hit his head for obvious reasons. He had a working brain and knew that it was better for everyone if he kept his head down and out of trouble. She even went over this on his ship just to make sure he knew it, so she could focus on searching for a suitor that could get them from under Zola’s thumb—which Leon, of all people, should appreciate.

And she had let Nicks know that he should remind Leon of that rather than playing white knight for some girl he just met.

Only for Nicks to defy her wish by bringing up one simple fact: Leon had asked them to do it.

That was significant because Leon never asked them for help on anything.

He had always been strange since he was a little boy. Even before that day when she asked why they couldn’t have nice things because of him. Sure, he got a lot quieter and avoided her more after that, and she knew now that he couldn’t help being born the way he was—Zola was the problem and she was trying to deal with that one by marrying up, unlike Nicks.

But then one day things changed. Nicks had mentioned that it was like a switch had been flipped for him. He went from clinging to his older brother in the same way Colin did for Leon to suddenly becoming… different.

He was five years old at the time. Their mother fell ill after a visit from Zola. Their father had been dragged away to deal with a threat to their lands. No knights and no servants at the time either to rely on, and they had to look after a crying baby without knowing why she was crying.

He took over looking after Finley for the week and making dinner, leaving them to do chores at his instructions. Jenna had been six at the time and panicking, but the way he phrased it and his tone gave the impression that he knew what he was doing. It was silly, but with her worrying about her mother and a crying baby, she listened until their father got back and their mother got better.

After that he just seemed to always have an air about him that gave the impression that he was older than he was. In the way he acted. The way he talked. The way he just looked at a situation. It stood out even more when you sat him next to the other boys his age and saw just how different they were—it was really weird, no matter how much he tried to say he was just copying how their father was.

Their father and mother considered him precocious. Or rather they wanted to consider him as such because they wanted to think that it was a trade-off for being born a Minos. That he got something out of being born without a Septima like the rest of them and the world wasn’t that cruel for a child who had done no wrong.

That was literally the one advantage that Nicks and Jenna could claim compared to the otherwise perfect son Leon had turned into. He was brave, smart, and even became a successful Adventurer who managed to sell something to the Royal Family valuable enough that they willingly pushed him into the gentry and then wanted him to attend the Royal Academy—at the age of fifteen. And they couldn’t even be petty about it because they knew that no matter what he did he would be a Minos.

That bitch of an Earl’s daughter proved that much in how she didn’t even consider him human: just a sheepdog meant to help heard the rest at best.

But the consistent thing that remained true to Leon was that he did as little as possible to ask for help. The only times he did ask for help were when it was necessary, and it was never done one-sidedly. It was always done in exchange for something he would later pay back unfailingly.

And even then, Leon never asked them for help of any kind. He would happily help Jenna and Nicks if asked. But he never needed anything from them in turn, and they never had anything to offer him that he couldn’t accomplish on his own.

This is probably the only chance we’ll get to act the part of the older siblings to him.” Jenna bit down on her lips as recalled that Nicks had said that to her. For him it was a matter of being an older brother to Leon, a role he had been unable to do since they were kids.

But for Jenna it was different. She couldn’t take back what she had said. And Leon never asked for anything from them before. This was probably the only way to make up for what she had said before she knew better. That being said…

I already hate her. Jenna kept that thought locked firmly in her mind even as she listened to the mute girl picking up her books from the other side of the wall.

It wasn’t an uncommon sentiment by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the girls hated one another since they were effectively competing with one another for prized men who could elevate their status. That naturally meant that they weren’t going to be more than cordial to one another unless they both had their choice locked in and secured without the risk of them being stolen.

Not that Jenna hated her for that reason. The girl just wasn’t a threat as far as status went to anyone else. Even if some guy decided to keep her for more than satisfying their lust, the most she could hope for was being someone’s bed warmer rather than a mistress this high up in the ranks.

In the end, Jenna hated her because now she couldn’t do even this small favor for Leon.

Leon might have told her just to observe the harassment and then report it to him, but Jenna was not stupid. The world was not kind to those who earned the ire of those above them and not even the instructors were exceptions to that. If she told Leon this was happening and he reported it, one of two things would happen.

The first was that instructor would get word back to the Earl’s daughter to earn her favor and she had already shown she could be vindictive to someone who literally couldn’t speak up in their own defense. The second would be that nothing would be done and Leon, who already showed he had no respect for how things were done after that cafeteria stunt, would confront her about it himself. It would become their entire family’s problem either way.

That was not a trade she was willing to make just because he pitied the girl.

He never hears about this. Jenna would not even entertain the decision between Leon’s request and her family’s safety. She would make sure that word of this never reached him so that he didn’t do something they all regretted. I’ll have to make sure she keeps quiet too… though considering how loud that slap was…

Jenna slipped from around the corner and found the mute girl suddenly looking up from below her. She had been crouching down while holding one hand to her face while her other cradled her belongings. Jenna crouched down and grabbed her by the wrist, pulling the hand away to see the skin tone already starting to shift and form a bruise. “Because of course that vindictive bitch would want to leave a mark!”

The mute girl was startled at the sudden touch as Jenna pulled out a cloth from inside of her pocket and then her eyes grew luminous as a small palm-sized sphere of water appeared next to her. It sank into the cloth, which was pressed against her face abruptly. “!?”

Jenna forced the girl’s hand back against the cloth. “That won’t take longer than two days to heal, and our skin complexion is close enough that it’s nothing concealer and makeup can’t hide until it goes away. We just need to get somewhere out of sight to apply it.”

Getting back onto her feet, Jenna then pulled her along by the upper arm in a hurry. She really didn’t want to be seen by anyone helping her, but she wasn’t going to be taking her near her room. Thankfully, the halls were empty at present.

The girl let out a startled noise, an attempt at getting Jenna to stop and explain what was happening. That failed. Then she struggled just enough that Jenna got frustrated enough to wheel around and looked her dead in the eyes.

“Do you want Leon to get himself in trouble because he sees or hears you got a bruise from getting on the bad side of an Earl and picked a fight?”

Shock briefly illuminated her face as things clicked into place. She then lowered her and softly shook it.

“Then come on,” Jenna said, followed by a huff. “The sooner we cover your face up the sooner I can tell you how avoid getting into further trouble for his sake.”

She followed without resistance.

The Stray Smith: Chapter 6

Chapter 6 – Vance Cape


C’mon, time’s a wastin’! Load ‘em up!

A loud voice cut through the noisy bustle of the docks. It was midday, with the afternoon sun hanging high in the sky and gleefully shining down on the City of Swords. People abound where steel met waves, from travelers arriving to bear witness to the matches that would see the crowning of a new Craftlord to dockworkers moving cargo that came from afar or would be sent out to the wider world.

Among the bustling workers were the Silver Guild apprentices. It was the day after the preliminaries rounds for the Silver Guild. The Silver Master had decided to make them pay for the nice meal they had eaten last night by helping to load up all the weapons that needed to be shipped off to Vance into one of the boats that were afloat in the docks.

Specifically, the one personally owned by Master Bron—a fact that he made known after Pratty had let slip that she had apparently snuck onto it at night. She was also quick to state that her Guardian Beast liked the atmosphere and wouldn’t punch her for it… which it promptly did for throwing it under the boat as an excuse to not get in trouble.

The twins had been quick to jump on her lack of control over her Guardian Beast, with it calling the shots instead of her. Pratty was quick to snap back that they were just being petty because they were still salty about having their cooking skills being called into question. Sanary couldn’t help but think they were all such children at times.

That bickering, cut short by the Silver Master, aside they had been spending the last hour getting everything loaded up on the boat. It wasn’t just the weapons he had been crafting, but also those from the journeymen who had been relocated for the duration of the tournament. They were going to be taken to Vance and then sold off to one of the merchants there, who would sell them throughout the world since it was something of a trading hub.

The fact that Wysternian weapons could mend themselves so long as they weren’t broken made them a valuable commodity. There were always dangerous stray summons and conflicts going on due to Summoners bickering, so quality weapons were always in demand with suppliers. And in exchange for certain trading privileges, the city received marked down prices on trade goods needed to keep themselves fed since there wasn’t a lot of fertile ground to grow food in a city built on top of a sunken tower of a once-great civilization.

Even so, Sanary could barely keep the scowl off her face as she watched the twins stroll past her with a loading cart that was being used to transport barrels that carried Wysternian-crafted Spears. The smug looks on their faces as they passed by, proud of not needing to do hard work, only served to make her even more riled up. They had plucked it so that she and Welf were stuck lugging a large box of what felt like axes between them.

“You can lean more of the weight on my end if you need to,” said the red-haired smith standing opposite from her. He hadn’t seen the looks the twins were giving off, so she assumed he interpreted it as her struggling.

“I can hold up my end just fine,” she told him in a clipped tone. Her anger wasn’t directed at him, but it still bled through. “We’re almost done anyway.”

They made it up the ramp and onto the deck. Wood and steel made up the boat, with slightly weathered scales coating it from the salt-sweet wind caressing it. The sound of creaking from footfalls grew louder until they made it to the lift leading to the cargo-hold and sat it down along with the rest of the boxes and barrels. Then, as the Silver Master lowered the lift down below into the compartment, the two red-heads went back down the ramp to join the others in waiting on the docks.

It was around then that her counterpart decided to broach a question to the collective. “So… is this Vance place pretty far from here?”

Pratty tapped her chin in thought for a moment before she answered him. “I only went once with Father a long time ago, but I think it’s about a half-day to get there. So, if Master leaves now, he probably won’t be back until after midnight.”

“Longer than that,” Sanary corrected her, rolling her shoulders and adjusting her sword on her back. She planned to head straight to the Central Tower after this and dive into the Labyrinth. “You have to factor in that he has to oversee the trade. And then there’s the fact that Stray Summons in the ocean are more likely to attack a boat at night. So, it’ll be a two-day trip at the very least.”

“Business talk and all takes time,” spoke the Silver Master himself as he looked down at the group from the side of the ship. “Speakin’ of which, three of ya are comin’ along with me to help with the unloadin’ and restockin’. Since I’m in a generous mood, I’ll let ya work it out amongst yerselves rather than pick an’ choose myself.”

He then left them to decide who among their number to condemn to extra hard labor. Not only that, but those two days would cover the remainder of the preliminaries and time that could be spent combing the Labyrinth for materials. It was a huge time-sink that could be used to get a leg up on the competition instead. But as apprentices they couldn’t disobey their Guild Master—so they needed to offer up three sacrifices.

“We’re still in the middle of our masterpiece, so Ariel and I can’t go,” Mariel said by way of an excuse. “And we’re more intellectuals than laborers.”

“Unlike someone who’s all muscle anyway,” Ariel added snidely while turning her eyes over towards Sanary.

“Maybe you wouldn’t be such twigs if you actually stopped shoving your work onto other people!” Sanary snapped right back, her face red. “And at least if you two go we don’t have to worry about eating that garbage you call food!”

It’s nutritious!” replied the twins in stereo.

“You shoved vegetables and fish into a blender and then baked them into a loaf so tasteless that not even a Slime would eat it! At least learn to cook something edible, you drills-for-brains!”

“Like you’re any better!” Ariel shot back. “That fish you cooked the night before was so raw it looked like it was about to come back to life! Silturnian cuisine my foot!”

Pratty, who was standing off to the side with Kutty on her head, watched the three older girls bicker before turning her attention to Welf. “I’m going since I promised to take Kutty there during one of our night walks. Do you want to come with us?”

Welf nodded his head at that. “I was planning on going anyway, since it’d give me a chance to see outside of Wystern and that might jog something loose. Besides, I’d like to see the business side of things since I might end up selling weapons one day.”

“I’ll come too!” Razzy added in. “I heard they have really good waffles from Uncle Bron when he came over to visit Mom after a trip, and it snows around this time of the year!”

Pratty perked up at that. “Wow, really? We don’t get snow here often because we’re so close to Kagaro Volcano.”

“Yeah, apparently Winter comes early and stays longer there because of the cold air from the cape and something in the past during the Great War. I heard it looks really pretty at night!”

“Let’s get going before Master gets upset because we’re taking so long.”

The red-haired smith watched as the two younger apprentices raced up the ramp in their eagerness to see a new sight before turning back to Caizo and Trish. “Try to make sure those three don’t actually fight one another while we’re gone. Or cook.”

That’s easier than done…” Caizo briefly trailed off as she saw the three of them still going off on another’s flaws. For a moment he even looked as though he was about ready to ask if he could come with them.

Then Trish grabbed his shoulder, as if to say he wasn’t leaving her to manage this on her own. “…We’ll do our best. Make sure Pratty and Razzy are on their best behavior as well.”

“Will do.” That said, Welf boarded the ship and drew up the ramp. The horn blew loudly as the ship pulled up anchor, signaling that it was departing. Soon the ship was cutting through the waves and ended up out of view.

The argument between the twins and Sanary ultimately ended with both sides splitting away from one another at the begging of their juniors for causing a fuss at the docks. Candidates to become Craftlords after passing the preliminaries had to protect their reputations. So that meant outside of the Guild they needed to avoid one another if they couldn’t act civil.

So, after the twins and her juniors had left, Sanary made her way back into the city proper from the docks with the intention of heading into the Labyrinth. She needed to work out some of her frustration on whatever stood in her way before she ventured deeper inside. The Iron Sword she had was still good enough to go a little further before she would have trouble with the Stray Summons lower down, at which point she would have to see Master Bron about an improvement.

“Pardon me,” an older man’s voice reached her as she passed by the water fountain in the market plaza of the market district. She turned to see there was a man standing there prim and properly in what looked to be a beige blazer with gold buttons and neatly pressed trousers. The light reflected off his monocle as he pressed a hand to his chest and bowed before her. “Miss Sanary, I presume?”

“I am…” Her tone was naturally wary, and her brow was raised. “Can I help you, Mister…”

“Nigelle, madam.” He straightened up. “I saw your match yesterday and would like to propose deal, if you have the time?”


Hours later, Welf was below deck of Bron’s ship as he prepared the bundle of weapons that were meant to be delivered to the vendor as a sample of the rest that made up the purchase order. The bulb hanging from above was his sole source of light in the compartment lined with steel as he inspected the shipment in the process, just for the sake of ensuring accuracy. There was always a chance, no matter how small, that one weapon went missing during the transition from the docks due to human error and it would reflect poorly on the Silver Guild.

The quality of these weapons is something for it to be standard,” he muttered while glancing down the edge of a sword with his non-dominant eye closed, inspecting the works themselves. None of the weapons were extraordinary themselves in terms of design, but they were uniform and quite functional with no warping or blemishes.

The sound of a hatch opening and excess light flooding in pulled his attention away from inspection towards the source, where he found Pratty sticking her head down into the hold. “Welf! Welf! It’s actually snowing!”

The red-haired smith could only put on a slightly amused smile from how enthusiastically happy she seemed. “We’re finally docked?”

“Yeah!” she said. “Come look!”

He set the sword back into the bundle, finished wrapping it up, and tucked it under his arm before climbing back to the second level in the ship. The narrow corridor divided the interior of the ship level, with the engine room being to his rear and the bunks forward. He shuffled through the corridor to the first level, which had the bridge from which the ship could be steered from the front and the forge to the rear.

Through the windows in the bridge, he could see why Pratty had been excited. The time now was early evening, the time of day when rays of gold and amber would be shining down over the City of Swords. But here there were thin grey clouds lined with gold, from which gentle white flurries fell like rain onto the deck.

Beyond the ship itself they could see the expansive evergreens that rimmed the land dappled with snowfall. Bodies shuffled throughout the winter scape, dressed in thick furs that came in assorted colors that stood out on the white backdrop as every breath they took left a plume of frost in its wake. And in the distance, there was a single structure that rose high into the air not unlike the Central Tower that made up their home.

Welf took in the sight for a moment before he turned his attention to the room leading to the forge. He opened the door and stuck his head inside, where he spotted the warm glow of a flame emanating from inside. “Urus, we’re here.”

The Fire Spirit emerged from the chamber of the forge she had taken to loafing inside for the duration of the trip. She made her way over towards him and took her usual perch on his broad shoulders. Her incandescent gaze traced the falling white flakes beyond the glass as Welf continued onto the deck, where he found the others waiting for him.

“Right then.” The Silver Master rolled his shoulders and let out a big puff of white fog into the air. “I’ll go an’ handle the dockin’ procedure. The three of ya go ahead an’ take that to the shop located at the edge of the market district. Razzy’s got the map, but it’s right by the Inn and has a sign with a silver sword beneath the name. Can’t miss it.”

“Sure thing, Master!” Razzy pumped their fists before running off the ship in the direction of the Cape Town beyond the docks. “C’mon, guys!”

“Will you two be okay as you are?” Welf called towards them as Pratty moved to match the pace of the younger warrior smith. He wasn’t exactly cold given that the warmth of Urus’ body naturally drove away the falling snow and lingering chill in the air. But these two weren’t really dressed for the weather. “You can get a little closer to us to warm up.”

“We’re fine,” Pratty said, jogging along as she held Kutty nestled in her arms. The Magical Beast seemed unbothered by the cold itself. “Master told us that we could just use the protective field to keep the cold at bay, just like how it does the heat. Since we aren’t fighting it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep it up until we reach the weapon shop.”

The pathway into town was wide and paved with stonework. Carts and wagons trotted along the center as throngs of merchants moved alongside them, making it such a busy network of bodies that combing through them was as difficult as going through a thicket. But on either side of the stone-laden path was snow-veiled greenery upon which they could see the youths who called the cape home played.

Children dressed in fur and warm clothing ran back and forth. Snowmen were built. Snowballs were flung. The two younger apprentices seemed to almost envy them as they watched, only to stop themselves short when Welf reminded them of the bundle that he was carrying. Rare as the sight of snow was and young as they might have been, they were apprentice Craftknights and their duty was to see it to their destination.

Their trek continued until the open field met throngs of buildings that were laid out to form a network of roads as they entered Vance itself. Unlike the steel that was the City of Swords, stone was the material of choice that made up the dwellings of the residents. Wafting tendrils of smoke escaped nearly every chimney and along them carried the scent of delicacies native and foreign, made only more tempting by the vendors who had the audacity to park hooded carts with tantalizing treats along the way for visiting merchants and shoppers to splurge on.

Kuttyyyy…” The Magical Beast nestled within Pratty’s grasp struggled for freedom as one such scent allured him with its aroma when they grouped up to comb over the map to ensure they were along the right path.

“I know, it smells so good. But we need to take care of the delivery first.” The young girl brushed her face as his red cap tossed about white powder that had been covering it due to his squirming. “Besides, I didn’t bring any Boam with me, Kutty.”

He pouted and crossed his arms upon hearing that, like a child. “Ku…

Observing the pair, Welf considered spending his own boam to purchase something for all of them to snack on. They had no idea how long they would be here and, while the evening sun was filtering through the gray clouds that brought the snowfall, night would probably fall before they were done. He opened his mouth to ask what they wanted on his coin…

“…Kutty?It was then a soft, feminine voice that was as clear as chime rang out from behind them. “Is that… really you?”

Their gazes turned towards the source of the voice, a beauty standing amidst the falling snow like a fairy. Her skin was pale enough that it seemed to even challenge the very snow itself. Long blonde hair that looked like gold woven into delicate strands framed her elegant face. Her eyes matched the hue of the dress that fell to her ankles—pink opals with a slightly faded luster.

A white shawl draped her slender shoulders, bringing out the majesty of the gold chain around her neck that housed a beautiful blue stone. On top of her head was a fur hat that matched the boots covering her feet, snowflakes steadily piling on top of it. In her arms was a basket, covered by a sheet from which a bundle of vegetables could be seen poking out.

There was an air about her that seemed to captivate the three apprentices. Even Welf couldn’t help but think that her delicate features carried an air of elegance that seemed like a Belladonna Lily that had sprouted amidst the snow and stone. A beautiful flower transplanted outside of its native environment and doomed to wither, he found himself wanting to pull her out of the cold and offer her the comfort of a hearth and blanket.

Kuuu.” The silent entrancement upon laying their eyes on her was broken when the Magical Beast snarled at her. An act of hostility so blatant and uncharacteristic of what they had seen before that it caught them all by surprise.

“K-Kutty?” Pratty’s voice, no longer lodged in her small throat, came out shakingly while her brows furled in confusion and uncertainty. “What’s wrong?”

In contrast, pale beauty’s eyes only softened upon seeing the display. And in their place was a look of… sadness dripping in nostalgia if one had to color it. “It really is you, isn’t it?”

KU!” He barked at her, making a lunging motion that was only cut short by the arms keeping him against his contractor’s chest.

Kutty, stop!” Pratty was quick to tighten her grasp on him as much as possible. Panic spread across her face as numerous eyes from the surrounding travelers took notice. “I’m sorry! I don’t know what’s gotten into him!

“No, his reaction is understandable,” the woman said, unconcerned at the hostile display as her eyes fell onto Pratty’s helmeted hair. Recognition reflected in her eyes.  “You must be Shintetsu’s daughter then?”

Pratty’s expression froze. “Did you know my father, Miss…?”

She opened her mouth to speak when the winter wind howled and stirred. It kicked up suddenly, sending the snow on the ground and in the air blowing past them harshly. Welf had to shield his eyes for a moment as the flames of Urus body met with the snow and melted it, leaving it to splash over his clothes. When he opened them again, he spotted a familiar face dressed in the color of his title—the Craftlord of Jade, Ureksa.

He was accompanied by what appeared to be a younger… non-human that wore a long green shirt that fell to their thighs that were bare. They had green hair and a set of ears that resembled that of an animal’s hanging low, wearing a red scarf that fell down their body as much as the Craftlord of Jade’s did, with a bell around their neck. Welf could only assume it was a Guardian Beast, who looked apologetic standing next to the winter fairy with golden hair in contrast to Ureksa’s frustrated expression.

“Rumari, you were supposed to stay inside,” he said, paying no mind to the others. His attention was solely on the woman before them. “Why did you leave the house?”

Her response to his frustration was only to softly sigh and put a hand on her cheek. “I needed ingredients to cook for tonight and heard from the housewives that a shipment arrived, so I thought I’d hurry to the market while they were fresh.”

“Then you could have sent Arno to get them or waited until I came back,” he said, taking the basket from her grasp and putting it into the hands of the Guardian Beast that was assumed to be Arno. He then took hold of her freed arm. “You just got over your fever this morning. You’re in no condition to be out of the house.”

There was a look of resignation on Rumari’s face that said she had no intention of resisting. However, she then turned her gaze back to Pratty, who had covered Kutty’s mouth in the interim. Her expression turned remorseful.

“Your father… I want you to know that he was my hero… and that I’m truly sorry…”

With that apology, the wind stirred once more. The Craftlord of Jade disappeared along with the golden-haired beauty and Guardian Beast once it had died. And in their wake was only confusion amidst the group.

“…What was that about with the pretty lady?” Razzy asked, breaking the silence as their attention returned to what transpired.

It reminded Pratty of Kutty’s outburst, leaving her to scowl in a manner that didn’t suit her as she glared down at her Guardian Beast. “Yeah! Kutty, what was that about!?”

He refused to answer, twisting his head to the side and puffing out his cheeks in defiance.

Welf let out a breath and held his hand to his head before suggesting they get back to what they were supposed to be doing. Razzy turned their attention back to the map and led the way while Pratty followed, her mood soured by Kutty’s behavior. He was getting ready to follow after them when he noticed that Urus’ attention remained in the direction of where the woman had departed. “Something wrong, Urus?”

I felt the touch of fire beneath her skin. Gnawing at her from the inside out.

Her curiosity was palpable enough to where he could feel it. That, in turn, stirred his own about the woman. But they had caused enough of a commotion for the time being. “We can think on that later. For now, let’s get back to work.”

The Fire Spirit bobbed her head in agreement and then wrapped her arms around him as she tended to do. Her warmth was welcomed as they pressed on ahead until they finally arrived at the Silver Sword Weapon Shop. Razzy held the door open as they filed into it.

The merchant manning the counter was a middle-aged man who took the sight of three youths, a Fire Spirit, and Kutty before stating, “You must be from Wystern.”

“That’s right,” Welf answered. “We’re here on behalf of the Silver Guild. Our Master will be here shortly, but we were sent ahead to deliver the samples and purchase order to the owner.”

“You’re looking at him!” He slapped the counter loudly to get his aide’s attention. “Bring them around back and I’ll start giving them a once over while you rest your feet.”

Welf and the others followed him into the backroom as he left his aide to man the counter. There was a small forge set up, nothing expansive like what they had to work with but enough to show he at least knew what he was doing. He took the sword and began to put it through the testing—up to and including snapping the blade in half, much to the shock of Razzy and Pratty.

He’s checking the grain,” Welf said softly before they could kick up a fuss and disturb him. “It’s complicated, but something you learn as you make it up the rank to Journeymen. That’s why the sample has weapons from each type that were made by the same person. He gets a look the inside and the outside.

They nodded. Not because they understood, but rather to acknowledge that there was a reason for it beyond destruction for the sake of it. The fact that it went over their heads was just something they accepted as a fact since they were apprentices and didn’t bother thinking further on—which was for the best at the moment.

It was around then that Bron emerged into the backroom, brushing snow off his large frame as he grunted upon witnessing the observation of the snap test. “Yer doin’ that thorough of an inspection of my work? What happen ta trust?”

The shop owner regarded him with a nod before turning his attention back to the weapons. “Nothing personal, but lately the quality of weapons coming out of Wystern has been questionable.”

“Say what now?”

The man gestured off to a worktable. “See for yourself. I bought that from another shop for comparison’s sake.”

Bron went over to the man’s workshop, boots crossing over the stone floor covered in soot with an air of familiarity. These two were clearly on good terms. The Silver Master then picked up the broken blade and held it up the light with one eye closed as he peered at it intensely. “What amateurish work is this?”

“Is… is that bad?” Pratty asked, clearly unable to tell the difference at a distance.

“The grain was allowed to become so big that the weapon wouldn’t hold up under a few strikes before it breaks!” Then he pressed against the tang with his thumb only for it to snap under pressure. “Not to mention they even went an’ hardened the tang beneath the shoulder, meanin’ it snaps instead of bends. That’s a third-rate smith’s mistake!”

The sheer offense at the weapon before him was enough that it looked like he was going to turn it into scrap with his bare hands. Understandably so, given that he refused to work with second-rate smiths, let alone third-rate ones. But after huffing so hard his nostrils flared out, he set it back down on the table. “And this was Wystern-made?”

The shop owner nodded. “Considering nine-tenths of the weapons in Vance come from the Gold Guild and you’re having that tournament, it’s not hard to guess what happened for something like that to slip through quality control.”

“That gold-grubbing Libody probably outsourced his orders since the demand would go up from Guilds who have apprentices in the tournament! He’s buyin’ from independents, probably apprentices at that, and re-selling them under the brand—dragging the name of the City of Swords through the mud in the process!”

That’d explain it, Welf mused as the older man groused. The Silver Guild had strict rules when it came to weapons to be sold because Bron took his reputation and that of his guild seriously. So, while the orders were still piling in at a higher demand and thus kept him busier, he would rather lose time than allow something of such poor quality to go onto the market.

It seemed the Gold Guild had no such restrictions—they were only attempting to meet the demand as quickly as possible. That would make them a lot of boam quickly, but weapons that were meant to last and known for their quality would shatter and break instead. And people would think that this was what was the norm for the City of Swords.

“Then do I need to worry about my knife being poorly made?” Pratty asked nervously. “I didn’t know anything about that, so…”

“Of course not!” Bron snapped. Not out of anger towards her but the situation in general. “I gave ya techniques that’ll provide perfect grain growth so long as ya follow the instructions. And in yer case, Kutty woulda snapped the blade if ya’d dare try using something subpar. Until ya get to the point yer makin’ yer own weapons, focus on just stickin’ to what ya learn.”

She nodded before turning her attention back to Kutty. The Magical Beast had drifted off to sleep at some point she had been holding him after his little temper tantrum. It looked like she wanted to bring it up but was unsure of herself or that it would get him into trouble.

Welf himself had his own questions based on what Urus said, so he opted to speak up instead. “Master, do you know a lady named Rumari by chance?”

His thick brows furled at the name. “What brought that up?”

“We came across a woman of that name by chance before she was taken away by Master Ureksa and she seemed to be familiar with Kutty. She also apologized to Pratty and brought up how her father was her hero. Urus also sensed something off about her—like she was being gnawed at by flames on the inside.”

Bron lips pursed at that, and a rumble left his throat before he spoke. “…The former Craftlord of Jade and Ureksa’s older sister—the Elegant Spear, Rumari. She came down with a fever illness that left her unable to fulfill her duties, so she retired two years ago and moved here.”

“But Kutty…” Pratty began before trailing off.

Bron took a moment to wait for her to continue before he made a guess. “…He acted up, right?”

She nodded. “I know we’ve only been together for a little while, but I never thought he’d act like that. And when I asked him, he wouldn’t explain anything. I mean, I can’t really understand him, but he can understand me and would try to make me understand. But he refused to say anything.”

Bron crossed his arms and closed his eyes. “…If he acts like that again, remind ‘em that Shintetsu wouldn’ like that. That’s all ya need to know unless ya become a Craftlord. Understand?”

It wasn’t the answer that Pratty wanted. But his tone made it clear to all of them he wasn’t going to elaborate further. So they didn’t press him on it—they had no right to do so as his apprentices.

“Anyway—” He opened his eyes towards Welf before tossing him a pouch full of boam. “—ya can leave the rest of this up ta me. Head over to the Inn and get two rooms for an overnight stay. The girls can stay together in one room and ya’ll bunk with me. Get somethin’ ta eat as well.”

Pratty stirred from her melancholy at that, turning her gaze over to Razzy. “Wait, you’re a girl?”

The bandana-wearing youth tilted her head in confusion. “Yeah, why?”

Pratty struggled for the words to explain how Razzy’s demeanor had thrown her off, given she seemed so much like her uncle. Eventually, she defaulted to hurrying over towards Welf and grabbing his arm in an eager attempt to get away from the awkward conversation of her own making. “Let’s go get those rooms and food! Lots of food since we’re both growing women!”

He sighed before letting her guide him back out into the snowscape. Better to let them eat their fill and then fall asleep, given they’d be doing all the unloading tomorrow on their own. Then they’d head right back to Wystern and get ready for the tournament to begin.

The Stray Smith: Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – Preliminaries: Part 2


Pratty took a deep breath from behind the entryway that would lead her down the stairs and into the arena. So far everyone from the Silver Guild who participated had won their matches. Sanary’s had been completely one-sided and, while Trish won because Pouso healed her, she still won fair and square. Welf’s had been cool too, though the twins had to explain how it worked—and they weren’t nice about it either.

Now it was her turn to shine.

She slapped her cheeks to banish the doubts that had been creeping in at the thought of fighting in front of an audience. She wouldn’t embarrass herself by failing where the rest of her fellow apprentices had succeeded—especially not after she made Welf promise to give it his all and he did. “Right! Let’s go, Kutty! We’ve got a match to win!”

The Magical Beast seemed to approve of her resolve as he floated over and licked her cheek. “Kutty!”

She giggled before making her way down to the left side of the arena. The damage from Welf’s battle was still there as part of the stone was scorched black from where his Guardian Beast had turned up the heat. She could make out where the big guy had smashed into the ground with his weapon too, though the larger chunks had at least been moved out of the way and the snapped portion of the massive sword had been hauled off by two Central Tower Officers.

No sooner than she had come down did her opponent do the same. It was a boy wearing a black shirt and matching pants. He had brown hair that was covered by a black bandana, and he seemed to be on the slender side. And floating next to him was some kind of cute green chick that was only half-hatched from its brown egg.

Master Sakuro waited until both took their side of the field before he said, “We will now commence the Fourth Round of the tournament. Craftknight Pratty, Craftknight Omugi, are you both ready?”

“Yes!” Pratty said, keeping her voice firm as she reached behind her back to the hilt of the knife there. It was hard to believe she hadn’t even used a weapon before last week and now it was a familiar sensation to hold it this way. She could only acknowledge that it was due to how many times she had to reach for it when she was in the Labyrinth over the last week.

Her opponent made a similar motion. “As am I.”

“Then, as Craftknights of Wystern, fight with honor and dignity.” The Craftlord of Sapphire drew his blade once more with a practiced grace and then brought it down. “Let the Fourth Round begin!”

Pratty moved forward slowly as her opponent did the same, both keeping a hand on their weapon. It was only once they approached the midway point that they stopped, eyes fixed onto one another even as they kept their arms tense. Waiting for the other to make their first move.

His knife should be the same as mine since the design of the handle is the same and the size of his sheath matches. That was the conclusion Pratty drew based on what she could see. It made her feel a little more confident since she had lots of practice with using her own weapon over the last week.

So, she drew her blade first. The sound of steel slipping from its sheath rang in her ears over her quickening pulse. She then held the blade forward and gave him time to draw his own before she approached closer.

Omugi pulled his weapon free and revealed it was the same kind of knife as hers. Same profile at the very least. However, hers did not have flames seemingly dancing within a burning red blade, tongues of fire occasionally leaping from the surface like serpents that seemed eager to lash out.

This might be harder than I expected, Pratty realized in that moment. Then there was no more time for regrets as Omugi rushed towards her with the burning blade in a reverse grip. She had only a second to realize that he was trying to disembowel her and had just enough time to take a single step back, pulling her just out of his reach as a searing arch lingered where her stomach was. That was close!

The relief that had formed at avoiding the first slash was short-lived as her opponent immediately switched the grip on his blade and took a single step forward to get back within range. The Fire Dagger came around from left this time, snapping back from whence it came at a higher angle. It was almost seamless in how smooth the transition was as it came toward her neck.

Reflex took hold. Upon catching the heated edge from the corner of her eyes, Pratty’s body responded to the danger by leaning her head further back. At the same time, her blade hand came up in a hasty arch to intercept it and sparks scattered as the Novice Knife repelled the attack.

The burning blade was still made of metal. That was why Pratty’s reflexive lashing out managed to knock it away. But in that same heartbeat, she spotted her Novice Knife was a dull-red color where it had met with the opposing steel.

The twins had told her how Welf had managed to break that larger weapon by heating it up first. Her knife wasn’t nearly that durable. Direct contact with the blade could put her own at risk.

Not that she had the chance to dwell on that fact as Omugi had slid forward and thrust his chambered blade toward her heart.

She couldn’t avoid it. Her balance was off from leaning too far back on instinct. Even with her protective mana-veil unbroken, Pratty knew she’d feel the burn once it hit the mark…

Thankfully, her Guardian Beast was still there. “Kuuu!

Kutty jumped from over Pratty’s head and landed right on his forearm before the weapon could reach, leaving the Fire Dagger to fall short of her chest. Then he lunged forward off the arm and swung a haymaker hard enough that Omugi staggered off to the side, a flash showing his mana hardening in response. The Magical Beast then took to floating between them, slamming his knuckles together.

“Thanks!” Pratty got her footing beneath her and took a more stable stance. He turned back and gave her an adorable gesture by raising his fists. Then, what could only be described as a burning egg slammed into him. “Kutty!”

Omugi’s Guardian Beast had wreathed itself in flames, drawing on the power of his own Summonite Gem like how Welf’s had done. But rather than camping out before his opponent and then raising the temperature, it had chosen instead to launch itself like a rocket. Both Guardian Beasts were sent flying off the edge of the platform.

Pratty didn’t even have the luxury of checking on him. Her opponent was already closing in to take advantage now that Kutty couldn’t help her again and the Fire Dagger was hot enough that prolonged contact with it would put her own weapon at risk. Exposure to the Gremlins had left her accustomed to how easily flames burned through her mana reserves, and that was without being on the business end of a knife… 

Right, it’s still a knife! It may have been a burning blade, but it was still the same length and shape of a Novice Knife in the end. Taking a sharp breath to steel her nerves, Pratty took a more defensive stance as she readied for the impending attack.

The Fire Dagger came for her once more.

Pratty pivoted on her right leg as the blazing stab seared the air on the way toward her chest. There was no clumsy stumbling out of the way this time. It was instead a calculated motion so that it passed beyond her by a fair margin, giving her a clear view of his right side, arm still extended outwards. It was an opening she could exploit…

No, not yet. Before she committed to a thrust at his opened flank, Pratty pictured what she would do in this instance. It was no different than if she was in the Labyrinth, having failed to stab a Gremlin by it floating to her side. She would almost certainly adjust for it by either forcing herself into a roll to escape the impending flames or spinning on her feet and dragging the knife around, deflecting the incoming horn and slashing away at its body at the same time.

The question was which option he would take.

Her eyes shifted down to his feet for a split second. His arm was overextended, and her own knife was held out, so it should have been safe for a moment. There she caught sight of his lead foot angling towards her—a pivot into a slash aimed for her head.

Pratty ducked down while raising her empty arm. It kept her head beneath his blade even as she guided his blade arm up so that his own swing went well above it. Then she lashed out with her own knife, leaving a white glow that marked where the edge cut into his veil for the briefest of moments before it sealed itself up.

First blood—sans the blood itself.

She then drew back rather than pressing the advantage. All it would take was a flick of the wrist and she could bring her knife back the way it came for another slash. But the chances of getting counterattacked were too high, so Pratty retreated by kicking off her lead foot and putting distance between them.

It proved to be the right call as a blazing arch split the air where she had been not even a half-second prior. Omugi clicked his tongue in frustration before he switched back to holding the Fire Dagger in a reverse grip. Then he shot towards her once more.

Pratty moved to slip under his arm when he came in for another horizontal slash, intending to take advantage of her smaller frame and cut into his stomach in the passing. But mid-step he reoriented the blade to being pointed downwards at an angle, rather than being held flat out. The slice to slit her throat was now a rising cut from below to slash her open from hip to shoulder. Oh no!

Pratty’s left leg dropped from beneath her as she tucked her head into her shoulder and then threw herself off in that direction at the very last moment. Burning agony ran along her thigh as it scored a grazing cut. She grimaced in pain as she got back onto her feet, only to see a flaming arch coming towards her head.


Fat sparks bloomed amidst a spout of red flames and the sound of clanging steel as Pratty deflected the cut towards her neck with an upwards swing of her blade. It was the only way to keep the merciless heat from searing across her throat. With the briefest of contacts as the edge clashed with the flat of the burning blade from below, she knocked his arm above while getting ready to put more space between them.

“No, you don’t!” Omugi stepped forward to close distance again with his unrelenting aggression, having seen through her tendency to leap back in the face of it. But then he pulled back abruptly as a glint caught the corner of his right eye. The silver streak of a sharpened tip settled for caressing his cheek instead of slicing it open from Pratty bringing her Novice Knife from below in an arch to cover her retreat.

Then an emerald light flared up from the Summonite Gem tucked into her pocket. A powerful gale stream billowed past Pratty, and a green blur slammed into Omugi hard enough that he was blown back. It was his Guardian Beast, unconscious as it lay on top of his body, while the Kutty drifted over and landed on Pratty’s head.

“Kutty, you’re okay!” She felt relieved at the fact, even though in hindsight it was obvious he would be given that he had been her father’s partner. He could probably win the match all on his own at this point. Whereas she probably wouldn’t if things went on like this for much longer.

It wasn’t as though Pratty couldn’t see his movements. He was good, but since they used the same type of weapon Pratty could at least guess how he was going to use it and react. But she couldn’t put her knife at risk. One more mistake and then it would be over.

If there was just some way to keep my blade from making direct contact… It clicked. “Kutty, lend me your wind!”

Her Guardian Beast quirked his head. “Ku?

“I could win if I just had some way to keep the heat in check on my knife,” she explained, holding out the blade where a good chunk of the edge was still a dull-red color. “Can you do like how Urus did and give me something like a sheath of wind?”

Kutty jumped off her head and made a cute cheering noise. Then he lightly hit the flat of her blade while the light coming from her Summonite Gem shone even brighter. Her weapon was shrouded in a soft teal color and the wind churned around the blade, wrapping tight until it was covered in a small viridian twister from tip to guard.

Her weapon enchanted, Pratty gripped the handle tight as her opponent got back onto his feet. Kutty, on the other hand, decided to simply observe for the remainder of the match and floated near Master Sakuro. The Craftlord of Sapphire regarded the Magical Beast for a moment with an air of familiarity but kept his eyes forward to see the match to its conclusion.

Omugi readied himself, able to sense the change in the circumstances. His sole advantage had been neutralized and, considering how hard he had been hit by Kutty, he couldn’t take another strong hit and stay standing. But Pratty didn’t think she could take another slash after that one that had cut into her before.

What would determine the outcome now would be their skill alone in the next exchange…

Pratty made the first move. She was done being the one who got attacked and playing defensively. So she rushed towards her opponent and swung the enchanted blade, leaving a luminous-teal trail to mark its path as she cleaved towards his neck with a battle cry. “YAH!!”

And in response, Omugi’s Fire Dagger seared through the air as he moved to intercept her attack with a roar of his own. “HAH!”

Elements clashed. The bound flames met the sheath of wind. A portion of the wind unraveled and pushed back against the blazing blade, fanning the fire that was unleashed. The result was that both of their knives were repelled by the sudden bloom of fire and wind, leaving the apprentices briefly taken aback before they steadied themselves to continue the fight.

Omugi attempted to stab her. It was a straight thrust for her forehead with the fiery tip. But Pratty brought her arm up from below and hammered the wind sheath into the burning blade once more, the expulsion of wind and flames obscuring his vision with its intense glow.

That was when Pratty re-oriented her arm and took a horizontal sweep. Teal light cut through where his chest had been as he hastily pulled back a single step. But in a mirror of his earlier motions, she slid forward a step while swapping her grip on the handle in a smooth motion. The knife snapped back from the opposite direction to cut him down, knowing his weapon wouldn’t make it in time to protect his chest.

So, Omugi didn’t bother trying to protect it. Instead, he fell back completely into a roll that carried him out of range. Then he snapped back onto his feet and readied to lunge with a spring in his step to drive the Fire Dagger into her heart—


—only to see the teal-shrouded blade rocketing toward him like an arrow. The moment he had fallen back into the roll, Pratty had taken a final gamble. Knowing that her opponent was the superior fighter and the only way to win was to surprise him, she waged an all-or-nothing chance and threw the dagger with all her might.

The thrown blade struck him in the chest. It didn’t pierce his protective veil, but the wind sheath unfurled the moment it connected. And as its circulation was interrupted, all that wind bound within it was unleashed in the form of a powerful gale at point-blank range.

GAH!” Omugi yelled out in pain as his body arched through the air by the shockwave-like blast. His body hit the ground hard enough to bounce before he tumbled backward a few more feet. For a moment Pratty was worried he might even go off the edge, but he came to a stop before then and let out a groan. “Urghhh…”

Pratty retrieved her knife from where it had been knocked back and watched him struggle to get back up with bated breath. The enchantment on her weapon had faded, likely expended in that final burst. She had gambled it on that last surprise.

Fortunately, his aura petered out the moment he got back onto his feet and the mana particles rolled off his body like grains of luminous sand. He clicked his tongue in frustration before he forced himself upright, sheathed his Fire Dagger, and turned to Master Sakuro. “I can no longer fight.”

The Craftlord of Sapphire acknowledged his surrender. “It was a well-fought match. But the winner is Craftknight Pratty.”

It took a moment after hearing the announcement for Pratty to register what had been declared. Then, all at once, it came. Elation. Relief. Exhaustion. As the tension of the fight melted, she let out a cheer that made her seem much younger than she appeared as she bound into the air. “YAY! KUTTY WE WON!“

Had her opponent been more of a sore loser he likely would have taken their display of joy as the Summon Creature floated over and rejoiced in their victory with bitter discontent. But instead, the apprentice of the Gold Guild chose to quietly bow before scooping up his unconscious partner and leaving the stage. It was only when he was halfway there that he heard his name being called and turned back.

“Thank you,” Pratty said after regaining her composure. “It was a good match, and I learned a lot!”

He inclined his head. “I’ll look forward to the rest of your matches.”

Then he walked away with nary another word.


The remaining preliminary rounds for the day were ultimately concluded with the apprentices of the Silver Guild finding success. Caizo’s opponent had chosen to use a polearm against him, which he managed to cut in half after only a few swings. Ariel and Mariel had both been set against guys using axes, whom they bested by destroying their weapons with their drills. And Razzy had pretty much gone untouched as their small stature didn’t stop them from punching their opponent into submission with a flurry of hits that ended in an uppercut.

Flush with victory, they returned to the Silver Guild and reported their success to the Silver Master.

“You shoulda seen it!” Razzy said energetically as they showcased their footwork while ducking and weaving before throwing out punches into the air. “I totally sent that guy flying, Uncle Bron!”

“Master,” he corrected the child sternly.

Razzy winced before placing a hand on the back of their head and then apologized. “Sorry, Master.”

He let it go with a grin. “Still, good ta see that ya managed to make it past the preliminaries. And ya managed to kick the crap outta Libody’s apprentices! I’m proud of all of ya!”

Welf’s brows furrowed at the mention of a new name. He was leaning against the wall on the right side, with Urus keeping her flames dim as she clung to him with her arms around his neck. He was happy with his victory, but as one of the oldest of the apprentices he had opted not to draw attention to himself since their victories were well-earned and he didn’t want to bring down the mood with questions.

Perhaps being of the same mind, Sanary had chosen to take a seat not far from him. It probably helped that it was physically the furthest she could get from the twins. Having been observing him in the corner of her eyes and seeing his expression, she brushed loose strands of her hair back and faced him. “That’s the name of the Master of the Gold Guild. The two have something of a rivalry since they’re the Masters of the two most prominent guilds in Wystern.”

He nodded his head in understanding and gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

Her red eyes lingered on him for a moment, carrying what was no doubt many questions like how he didn’t know that much. But she shelved them and swallowed before she softly said, “…I’m sorry.”

Welf crooked his head. “Hm?”

“For what I said earlier,” she elaborated, crossing her legs that hung over the edge of the boxes. “As much as I hate to admit it, Ariel hadn’t been wrong when she said that I was quick to judge you based on learning that Lady Amariss had helped you get into the Silver Guild. And even before then I called you out on babying that girl and that it would make her weaker. I have to apologize for that, at the very least.”

The shift in her tone was subtle. But it had been notable enough that Welf picked up on it. He shifted Urus to his furthermost shoulder while she looked on in curiosity and took a step closer so that they would not be overheard. “What changed your mind?”

His question acknowledged that she had said both. There was neither admonishment nor judgment. He was simply curious as to what had caused her opinions to shift when she felt so strongly about it.

“You both should have lost your matches,” Sanary said bluntly. Once more there was no malice in her tone, but a statement of facts based on observation. “You both got those Techniques for winning, right? That should have given you an idea of how dangerous members of the Gold Guild were.”

They had. It was their prize for victory—the Techniques of their defeated foes became their own. The others also had, but those weapons were at best on par with the Novice Weapons. It was only Chaves’ Sword and Omugi’s Fire Dagger that stood out as being a cut above the competition.

“His blade was impressive in how comparatively little Elemental Ores he needed,” Welf admitted. The monosteel blade had been massive and heavy, but it could be made from roughly the same cost as a Novice Knife. To convert so little into such a massive yet functional blade was only possible due to what had been Chaves’ own smithing technique. “I feel even worse for breaking it on its debut.”

As a blacksmith, he could only imagine how long it took to come up with that method. It was something to be proud of and likely was the product of not just a week, but several months or even a year of effort. And in the end, it had not been enough—all that effort was destroyed in under five minutes before the entire audience.

Sanary’s face briefly wrestled at the sympathy in his tone towards the destruction of his foe’s weapon. But she chalked it up to him being who he was and simply continued. “I don’t know how it was made but, from his size, he probably has thicker Silturnian blood than most. That strength and a weapon that heavy meant that an ordinary blade would have been smashed to pieces in a single blow, but…”

Welf’s blade hadn’t broken. It had endured the weight and strength of the opponent and his weapon. It had even prevailed and managed to destroy its opposite while coming out ahead.

“I kept calling you a slowpoke, but you got results.” Sanary turned her gaze over the weapon resting against the wall. It stood vigilant like a sentinel waiting to be called back into action. “And sure, it took help from your Guardian Beast. But you still won a fight that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t lived up to Master Bron’s expectations. So I overstepped my boundaries when I said what I did.”

“Well, I’m happy to get your approval,” he said somewhat jokingly. From the beginning, he had crafted that weapon to live up to his standards and it had done so. The fact that it had begrudgingly gotten her to change her opinion was more of a bonus. “And what about Pratty?”

Her gaze turned back to their junior apprentice. She was still basking in her victory as she tried to convince Master Bron they should throw a celebration. “Her opponent was using a weapon made from Mystic Ore and was competent. It’d be one thing if he was swinging it around like an idiot, but that guy knew how to use a knife probably half as well as I could a sword. It was clear between them she was the underdog.”

Her opinion of her own skill aside, even Welf hated to admit that between the two of them, Pratty had been the underdog in that fight. She had never wielded a weapon before the last week. Even though spending every day in the Labyrinth had given her an inkling of how to fight, her opponent had been more experienced.

Well, she admitted afterward that Kutty had done most of the damage to him, Welf thought to himself. Even now the Magical Beast was floating on the other side of the room while looking rather lethargic, almost as though it were ready to fall asleep. It was Kutty who had worn out his defenses, and his enchantment made it a fairer fight.

Sanary continued. “She might be new at combat, but she adapted to his movements well enough that she managed to surprise him in the end. It helped that they used the same weapon, but she still caught on fast enough that she could blindside someone if they were careless. I’ll even admit that, with enough time and battles, she might even be a decent rival for me.”

In the end, it had been both getting through the preliminaries that had caused her to re-evaluate her opinion. The two who should have failed ended up surpassing her expectations, and so she was forced to acknowledge that her previous opinions had been flawed. Recognizing them as being competent was something she owed them at the very least.

“Let’s go out for curry!” Pratty said, pitching the idea of them having a celebratory meal. “All we can eat on Master Bron’s boam!”

“Geh!” The Silver Master grimaced. “Feedin’ all of ya would leave my coffers in the red! Yer a voracious bunch as is. ‘sides, the place is closed down for renovations for a while.”

She deflated hearing that. “Boo… then that means we have to settle for the twins’ cooking tonight.”

Two sets of bespectacled brown eyes furrowed as they shifted from their private discussion toward Pratty. There was notable animosity within their gaze even from the more passive of the two. “What’s wrong with our cooking?”

Pratty averted her eyes, having realized she must have pressed a button that she didn’t want to. “…W-well, it’s… how do I put it…”

Fortunately, before she lit the powder keg that was apparently their pride in their cooking skills by mentioning that the taste left a lot to be desired (to the point where not even a stray summon would eat it if given a choice), the door to the Silver Guild opened. The apprentices knew better than to bicker in front of their clients, so their voices died down. The prodigy twins settled for glaring daggers at Pratty.

But the girl paid them no mind. Instead, she was captivated when she saw who it was that had stepped through the door. It was no surprise to her even when Kutty sped through the air and into a pair of slender arms that welcomed him.

“Mother,” Pratty called out, watching her holding the fickle Guardian Beast affectionately against her bosom in a way that would get her punched if she tried. “Why are you here?”

“Oh, I can’t visit my daughter to congratulate her on victory?” Amariss said with a playful tone towards her daughter. Then her eyes scanned the room before they settled onto the wall where Welf was. “You also fought wonderfully, Welf. And your partner suits you well.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Welf brushed the back of his head in what could pass as slight embarrassment, failing to notice how Sanary seemed to shrink in her seat the moment Amariss’ gaze shifted over in their direction.

The housewife then turned her attention toward the Silver Master. “I actually came to take Pratty and Welf back home for dinner since I’ve missed their company and wanted to celebrate them doing so well in the Preliminaries. I’ll have them back before your curfew—if that’s okay with you, of course?”

“Sure thing!” Bron said with newfound enthusiasm that had been absent before. If there was any doubt about his affection for her, it had been dispelled. “They both worked hard, so what’s a little break for ‘em?”

“Thanks.” She waved her hand over to tell the two to come along with her before turning back to Bron on her way out and adding, “Make sure you treat the rest of your apprentices to a nice meal as well, Bron. They deserve to have a reward for all their hard work, right?”

“Sure, sure!” The moment she was out the door the Silver Master looked around at the others, who were giving incredulous looks that spanned the range between pitiful and amused. “Not a word, else I’ll feed ya the twins’ cookin’ instead.”

“It’s nutritious!”


They had been given leave to enjoy the rest of their evening as they wished after dinner on the Silver Master’s boam.

Sanary had chosen to return to the Undersea Observatory, where the window that stretched wide offered her a view into the world beyond the looking glass. Structures from a hundred years ago were preserved by the ocean water like a snapshot in time. External fixtures to the tower had now been claimed by coral and reefs of bright colors that lured in fishes of all kinds.

She stood there in silence, watching as fins swirled the water and bubbles danced. Light from the window reflected off the scales of the fish. Some even bumped into the glass, drawn to the silvery flame that burned near her. That awkwardness drew her fingers to the glass as she reflected on her visage as it swam past.

Memories surfaced within the blue depths. She recalled a gentle but warm embrace lifting her so that she could do the same back then. The touch of the glass was cold from the water outside, but that just made her sister’s body feel warmer in contrast. It made for a calming memory as she reflected on the day’s challenges and accomplishments.

Clack, clack, clack.

The sound of hard soles impacting the stairwell broke the silence. They were neither hurried nor gleeful steps. Each one was calm and composed in a way that spoke of confidence rarely found within the den of monsters. Sanary’s eyes were drawn towards the entrance to the Second Floor to bear witness to the arrival.

Silky, emerald hair came into view first. It was long and glossy, two long strips of it framing the face of a demure beauty like a flower that had managed to bloom within the hive of steel that was the City of Swords. And eyes that were as elegant as crystallized flames greeted her own.

Sanary’s voice came out soft. “Sis…

Kouren, the Craftlord of Ruby—one of the two beauties in Wystern to be counted among the ranks of the Craftlords along with the Majestic Lancer. The adult woman who was draped in shades of red carried herself with a dignified air befitting her title as she stopped at the incline of the observatory platform. “Sanary, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

It had. “Are you just now coming back to the surface from looking over the shrine?”

Craftlords had a duty to make monthly visits to the shrine on the 50th Floor, where they would remain for a week or so. The public reason was that they were to make offerings to the remaining Holy Spirit of the Sword, whose blessing allowed them to work with their weapons as they do now. But the truth was… different

“Not quite.” Her slender arms, veiled by crimson sleeves held in place at the upper arm with bands, shifted. One fell around her waist while the other rose. Her finger playfully twirled one of the locks of hair framing her face. “I merely came up to speak with Sakuro and re-supply. I’ll be returning after that for another two weeks.”

“But you’ve already been down there for half a month,” Sanary pointed out. Even if it was their duty, it was usually done on a monthly rotation. And while she understood that the time below had lengthened over the last three years, more than a week was still a lot. “And you’ve been the one in charge of shrine duty for three months in a row…”

A slight shrug of the shoulders was all that Kouren gave. “It can’t be helped. Sakuro handles most of the administrative duties and Lubert deals with our international relations. Tyram’s absence means someone must take his place when it comes to the rotation, and Rumari will no doubt be fraught with her beloved missing. It’s only natural to leave Ureksa free to work with the investigators to find out what happened to him and keep her company.”

Rumari had been the previous Craftlord of Jade until two years ago. Due to her declining health, she passed the title down to her younger brother Ureska. Since he was such good friends with Tyram, he would be the most determined to find him and leave no stone unturned.

Kouren continued. “Master Rondeau has long taken leave due to his advanced age. It would be wrong to bring him out of it at this point. And… Shintetsu’s seat remains empty until the end of the tournament, so it can only be me to watch over the shrine.”

The hitch in her older sister’s voice at the mention of his name felt the point of a dagger stabbing into Sanary’s chest. Yet another sign of the person she’d become, simply hiding beneath the mask of the sister she once knew. The younger of the pair couldn’t help but look away. “I… fine, I get it. You’re too busy and there’s no one else until the tournament ends.”

A light hum escaped the Craftlord of Ruby’s throat before she changed the topic. “I believe the preliminaries for your group were today, weren’t they?”

“…Yeah.” Sanary brought her hand up to her arm and squeezed. “I actually set the record time for the fastest match so far.”

A soft smile graced the older sister’s lips. “Lovely to hear. It’ll be harder from here on but keep doing your best. And remember the three treasures of a Craftknight—forging skills, sword skills, and fellowship with your guardian beast.”

A Craftknight’s true strength can’t be judged by the quality of their weapon alone. Nor the skills to use it. Nor the capability of their Guardian Beast. Only when all three are embodied can one be considered a good Craftknight.

“I’ll remember them, Sis,” she vowed.

“Good girl.” Kouren straightened up before brushing her hair over her bare shoulder. “Now, I’d better be off. Take care of yourself.”

The older sister deviated off to the side rather than taking the path that would lead her to the Entrance. It would appear to be a dead-end, but the younger one knew there were a hidden set of stairs that would lead up to the quarters of the Craftlords themselves on the Third Floor of the Tower. It was a secret only known to them, but her sister had shown her the day that she brought her down to the Undersea Observatory.

Sanary watched her go, not knowing the next time she would see her again. But she didn’t let the words she wanted to say escape, knowing that there was no point in the end. Instead, she turned her attention back to the looking glass and reached out for it as she did once before.

It felt even colder than she remembered.

The Stray Smith: Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – Preliminaries: Part 1


Pratty was a bundle of excitement and nerves as she paced her room when the day of the preliminaries arrived. Or, specifically, their set of preliminary matches. There were enough applicants that it was going to be more than a hundred rounds to get one victor, meaning you couldn’t pack all of them into a single day.

The excitement was the chance to finally put what she had been practicing all week into action. The time spent in the Labyrinth had resulted in her getting better with her weapon, and she felt that she herself had gotten stronger. She could even kill a Slime in two stabs now, so it was the time to take her first steps in following after her father as a Craftlord.

The nerves came from the fact that she could always fail. She could always get so completely overwhelmed that she didn’t last five seconds. It would be humiliating for her not only as the daughter of the former Craftlord of Iron, but also as an apprentice of Master Bron if she failed so badly.

Would Mother be disappointed in me for not living up to Father’s legacy if I fail? Her lips furled into a frown as her feet paused at the thought. It had been a few days since she last saw her mother and she hoped she was doing well alone at the house. She wanted to visit her after the match, but the thought of doing so if she lost left her feeling sick to her stomach.


“Ow!” She brushed her cheek where her Guardian Beast punched her abruptly. Kutty punching her was nothing new since he could be a little terror when he wanted to be. But she didn’t think she did anything to warrant it this time. “What was that for!?”

The wind-hued Magical Beast drifted slightly lower to her pocket and pressed against it. “Ku…

Her bubbling emotions dwindled as she knew what was in that pocket. She pulled out the protective charm that had once been her father’s. Her mother had made it for him when they were younger, and he was never harmed when he had it according to her—it was the one day he didn’t have it on him that he died.

Kutty then snuggled into her hair like he was trying to affectionately rustle it. His fur naturally tickled, but it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. In fact, it reminded her of how her father used to do so.

Pratty remembered one time after she had fallen into the water when she was younger. She didn’t know how to swim yet so, when he had pulled her out, Pratty clung to her father for dear life and cried into his chest. But he would brush her head and tell her everything would be alright.

That was the same sort of feeling that she got from him now.

“Are you trying to get me to calm down?” The wind-toned Guardian Beast purred in acknowledgement. “You didn’t have to punch me, but I get it. Panicking now won’t do any good. I’ll just have to do my best.”

Pleased that he had gotten his message across, Kutty drifted off the top of her head as she grabbed her favorite helmet and slipped it onto her head. Then she checked on her weapon before sheathing it. Last, she tucked the charm back into her pocket and then clapped her cheeks before heading out of her workshop and down the stairs.

She discovered the rest of the apprentices were already on the First Floor. Bron had mentioned at Breakfast that he wanted them ready to depart at the same time, since that meant they would be able to get into the Tournament Hall at the same time without risking anyone being late. She pointedly chose to ignore that he was staring at her when he mentioned that.

Sanary was sitting on a box that was pushed up against the wall with her legs crossed. She had her Iron Saber in her hands and was polishing it with a cloth. Her eyes only flicked up from the blade long enough to see it was Pratty coming down before returning to the weapon.

The twins, Ariel and Mariel, were both off by the entrance to the forge. They had what appeared to be a sketch pad with what looked to be some complicated jargon written down next to the image of a drill. One of them was making gestures while pointing to it, while the other shook her head as if to state whatever it was wouldn’t work.

Caizo was nearby them and had a pensive look as he listened into their conversation. Pratty recalled that his Guardian Beast was a Mechanoid called Rygel, so he probably would be able to make a drill if they spent time on it. Even so, he still his axe slung on his back with a little hook that let you insert the handle portion and then twist it so that it wouldn’t come out without doing the reverse motion.

Trish was also in the process of talking to that Razzy kid. Her spear was slung across her shoulder with a leather sling that could switch the anchor point, so that she could shift it around to a comfortable length. She was standing there smiling and nodding her head as she listened to the child go on about something, making punching motions with their Novice Knuckles.

The only one missing was Welf.

He was missing at Breakfast too. Normally, she at least saw him at Breakfast even if he hadn’t been at Dinner the day prior. But the fact that she hadn’t seen him then meant that he was probably still working on his weapon. If that was hours ago then…

The door to Bron’s room opened before she could think on it further. The Silver Master drew their attention with a loud clap of his hands and then barked, “Alright, time’s almost upon ya now! Line up and ah’ll give ya the notices sent by the folks at the Central Tower this mornin’ about yer opponents!”

They moved to form a line in the center of the room, with Pratty standing at the rear of it behind Razzy.

Bron’s eyes skimmed over them all for a moment before he took notice of the absence. “The stray’s still not down ‘ere yet? I told ‘em not to be draggin’ his heels after skippin’ out on Breakfast!”

“I can go get him!” Pratty offered. “I’m sure he’s just—”

“I’m here,” his voice came from atop the stairs before Pratty could come up with some excuse for his absence. The red-headed smith came lumbering down the stairs still dressed in his dark clothes. Slung over his left shoulder was a blade that was about as tall he was. “Just doing some last-minute polishing so it’d be presentable.”

“You finished it!” Pratty broke from the line to inspect it up close. The dark grey steel ran the length of a rigid spine that sloped down steeply to the sharpened edge, unlike before when it had been more gradual. It had a wider bevel than she expected, and both the guard and grip were plain. He had shaped them to fulfill their function without any sort of embellishments or decorations.

“It still needs its final test,” Welf said with a slight smile before his expression flattened out. He then turned to Bron and held it out. “If you would, Master?”

The unspoken meaning was lost on her as until Bron’s expression scrunched up. The Silver Master then wordlessly drew his very large hammer and reared it back. Pratty finally caught on when she saw the twins and Sanary covering their ears and moved to do the same.


The sound of a massive mallet molded from Mystic Ore mashing mercilessly into the blade left her to nearly jump up in shock. The impact was notable as Welf, who had more than once been shown able to lug a heavy blade around with little trouble, struggled when it nearly came out of his grasp. The blade sported a spidering fissure that spread out from the impact as well.

Pratty was horrified at the sight, knowing how long he had been working on that. “Master, you almost broke his weapon!”

Welf, on the other hand, only grinned. “It didn’t though. Did it?”

“Hm.” Bron’s face scrunched up, but he returned the grin. “Didn’t even crack the core steel. Acceptable.”

She looked between the two like they had lost their minds. Then she grabbed her hair tails sticking from the horn slots in her helmet and let out a frustrated huff. “Is this some sort of macho guy thing!?”

Welf finally explained things to her. “Basically, if I had made it out of a monosteel or screwed up the forging then that would have been a fatal fracture. The entire blade would have shattered completely. But because I got everything perfectly, it only cracked the outermost layer without touching the core—bad, but not fatal for a Wysternian Craftknight’s weapon.”

The Silver Master reached into his smith’s apron and pulled out what looked to be some kind of band and a round clip meant to be placed on a shoulder belt. He then tossed them to Welf. “Yer gamblin’ paid off this time. I only held back enough ta not break yer arms.”

“But… Master, what if you had broken his weapon?” Pratty asked. “There isn’t enough time to make a new one, so it did break…”

“Then he woulda lost on a technicality,” Bron said simply. “Ah keep sayin’ it—I don’t work with second-rate smiths. If it couldn’t handle that much, it didn’t live up ta the standards we set. An’ he was the one who asked me ta test it.”

“He’s right, Pratty.” Welf finished attaching the band and then slung the blade over his shoulder to his back. It snapped into place with an audible sound. “This blade has a purpose outside of the match. It needs to be able to live up to that.”

Pratty still didn’t get it fully, but ultimately let it go and got back in line as Welf joined right beside her. Bron then handed each of them an official notice that came sometime after Breakfast and was addressed to them individually. She opened the envelope and said, “I got someone called Omugi…?”

“Someone named Chaves for me,” Welf said, face scrunched up in thought. “Never heard of him.”

“Both of those are members of the Gold Guild on the Second Floor,” Bron said. “Can’t say whether or not ya’ll win but do yer best either way. I’ll be here waitin’ for ya ta get back.”

Razzy looked up from the notice in surprise at that. “You’re not coming to watch us?”

“No time,” he answered, tilting his head back to the main forges before setting a large hand on the child’s head and brushing it. “‘sides, ya spent the week preparin’ an’ sharpenin’ yer skills outta my eyesight. Ah’m confident yer gonna come back with good news. All of ya. Now, git goin’ before ya end up late.”

The dismissal led to the apprentices filing out of the Silver Guild. They began their walk along the stone pathways that would lead them into the heart of the City of Swords. Along the way, Pratty was still eyeing the sword that Welf had made. She could see through the cracks of the dark grey steel there was a lighter colored metal beneath it.

Welf spotted her glancing at the damaged blade and gave her a reassuring look. “Don’t worry. It’ll take an hour at best, but by then it’ll be as good as new.”

Pratty mulled that over until Kutty landed on top of her head, having decided that flying the entire way wasn’t worth the effort. “The design is different compared to your original one. That had a sharper point and thinned a bit as it got to the top. And why’d you mention it wasn’t a monosteel?”

She was curious because it was different from how they forged their own weapons. At least the Novice Weapons that she, Trish, and Caizo had. She was pretty sure if her blade had taken a hit like that it would have snapped clean in two.

He pulled the weapon off his back and flipped his grip into reverse so that he could face the edge forward while holding it to the side for her to see. “After getting a feel for how hard the bodies of the pumpkins were and running into that sword trying to kill me, I figured it was pointless to try to stab anything with such a broad blade. Anything small enough could get around it and piercing points work better with thinner and narrower blades in the first place, which tend to be more prone to breaking. So, I decided to shift the profile so that it leveraged the weight to make carving through enemies more effective and expanded the bevel since that determined the cutting power.”

“And because the spine runs along the entirety of the blade up to the end where it curves down, it’s structurally sounder. You also used a laminate method… but not completely, otherwise it wouldn’t have slightly bent under that blow.”

Pratty’s gaze shifted when she heard Mariel’s comment. It was then she noticed the others had gathered around them. They were all listening in and observing the weapon.

“That’s right,” Welf admitted. “The outer layer is composed of pure Water Ore since that had the most flexibility and durability, so it can handle impacts better. The only time it’ll crack like this is if the softer metal compresses in on the harder core. But because it wraps around the spine some of that force gets transferred to the other side rather than going through the Fire Ore core.”

Ariel shifted her glasses as she took that into consideration. “And because it’s a jacket rather than a layer, that also means it’ll cushion the edge somewhat when it hits a harder surface. It won’t chip as easily since it’ll pass into the softer spine, so it won’t wear out as fast.”

Pratty’s lips pursed as she tried to follow along. “So… basically, instead of combining the ores you instead kept them separate and then put them together like a hotdog in a bun? And because of that it won’t break as easily?”

“Yeah, basically.” He gestured to the cracks that had already started to shrink ever so slightly. “To make sure it could stand up to another Spell Sword, I needed to test it against something just as hard or harder. That’s why I asked Master Bron to take a swing at it.”

It clicked when she recalled his entry test into the guild. “Oh, right! All his tools are made of Mystic Ore like your hammer is. Since that comes from them, it only makes sense for him to use one of them to see if it was able to stand up to them.”

Welf nodded as he slung the blade back over his shoulder. “With that said, I didn’t expect him to do that much damage in a single blow. Yeesh.”

“What did you expect asking Master Bron of all people to hit it?” Ariel’s tone was both mocking and inquisitive. “Even if he had been holding back, you were basically challenging someone of his abilities to test your blade personally. I thought you were basically just asking for him to withdraw you from the tournament until I saw it was still in one piece.”

It was the way she spoke that annoyed Pratty on her friend’s behalf. It was like she was saying that he had been stupid doing so. Sure, it did seem a little stupid at first. But after hearing his explanation Pratty at least knew the reason why he wanted to do it.

“That’s a bit much. Welf might have expected the hammer to do some damage, but you make it sound as though Master Bron could smash the entire thing in a single blow.”

Ariel opened her mouth for a moment to retort. But then she stopped herself as the gears in her head began to turn. Finally, she put her hands on her hips and said, “You don’t know, do you?”

Pratty pouted. “Know what?”

“Of course she doesn’t.” The blunt voice belonged to the red-haired swordswoman who was keeping pace beside them. Her arms were behind her head, and she had one eye open to peer at the other red-headed smith appraisingly. “And I’m guessing you and the kid don’t know either considering the looks on your faces?”

Razzy took being addressed as a kid openly about how you would expect. “I’m not a kid! And I know Master Bron is a great Craftknight!”

The sigh that Sanary let out and the way Ariel pressed a hand to her forehead got the point across that there was something they were missing. Pratty turned to her other friends for answers. She saw Caizo pointedly looking away from them, as if he didn’t want to be involved. “Trish, do you know what they’re mocking us about?”

Well, we thought you would know considering who your father was, so we never really thought it needed to be brought up…” Trish trailed off for a moment as she pressed her hands together. “Master Bron isn’t just a great Craftknight. He was a candidate to become a Craftlord.”

Her mouth hung open as she briefly overlayed the image of the burly man standing next to the likes of her father and the men who had been on stage a week ago. Somehow, she found that incredibly hard to believe. “Really?”

“Specifically, he was considered a candidate to become the Craftlord of Amber along with Master Lubert,” Mariel chimed in. “For some reason he chose to give up his candidacy, so which one of them was superior was never settled. But everyone recognizes his skill, hence why the Silver Master carries such weight within Wystern and other places that his weapons are shipped like Vance.”

Razzy crossed their arms and frowned. “He was always a strict master, but he never told me anything like that.”

Welf let out a low hum. “I suppose it makes sense looking at some of his completed pieces.”

“Honestly, how did you get into the Silver Guild without having a clue?” Sanary questioned them—or rather, Welf. “Master Bron’s standards for apprentices are strict because there are so many people who want the chance to study under him. His friendship with Master Shintetsu means that the clueless girl gets a pass, and the kid is obviously a relative of his. But you pretty much showed up out of nowhere.”

“Miss Amariss introduced me to him,” he answered plainly.

She recognized the name from how her expression shifted. “…In other words, you’re here because Lady Amariss asked him to take you on?”

Her accusative tone was blatant enough that Pratty could tell she was all but saying he only got in because her mother asked him to… which was also true. But that didn’t give her the right to be so mean about it. Master Bron had tested Welf with the graduation process and he passed on his own, so he was just as qualified as any of them to be there.

“That’s a bit hypocritical coming from you, isn’t it?” But before she could speak up in his defense, Ariel did so while wearing a smug expression. “Of all the people complaining about nepotism you are the last one to talk.”

The hostility shifted from Welf to the older of the twins. “…You wanna say that again?”

Ariel responded to the attention by drawing up on herself and grinning in a manner that reminded Pratty of a cat. “You act so proud and like you’re better than everyone else, but the best you can do is make an Iron Saber on your own. So naturally when someone beats you at something, you get prickly about it. Must be hard when the only reason you’re here is because your sister probably asked Master Bron to accept someone with your subpar forging skills.”

For the first time Pratty caught the older girl not merely looking annoyed. But she seemed genuinely angry. Her entire body was trembling and one of her hands had already reached for the grip of her sword. “…Take that back. Now.

At the same time, the older of the twin girls had snapped up her protective mana-veil. Her right hand was wrapped around the grip of her drill. She was leaning forward as if getting ready to lunge and strike, meeting the glare with a daring wry grin. “Make me.”

Enough,” Welf spoke in a tone that was surprisingly sharp for him as he stood between them with arms out. He then exhaled and changed his tone to one of normalcy. “We’re not enemies. Regardless of how we got here, Master Bron has clear standards and already said that he wouldn’t be given special treatment just because of any relationships past or current. There’s no reason for us to not get along outside of the competition since we’re all part of the same Familia—”

He cut himself off abruptly at the strange word. Then his brows deepened in thought as he stopped walking. It was like he had gotten lost in his own world as he looked down at the ground and covered his mouth.

Sanary stared at his pensive expression with one of confusion. Then she let out a heated breath before removing her hand from her weapon. “Whatever. I can deal with her in the arena.”

“I’d like to see you—” Ariel cut herself off when her sister set a hand on her shoulder and shook her head. She settled for stomping her foot once and then marching forward, not willing to let Sanary get ahead of her while her sister followed.

That left Razzy to look confused about the sudden hostility and its end. She muttered about talking to her uncle later before shrugging and then running ahead. It was less out of competitiveness and more not wanting to delay getting to the Central Tower.

As for Trish and Caizo, they remained behind with Pratty. She had an inkling about why he was doing it, but she wasn’t sure if it was something she should tell others since he hadn’t. So, she covered for him by saying, “He’s probably just tired from working all this time without a break. I’ll get him something sweet and then we’ll catch up at the Central Tower. You guys go ahead.”

They reluctantly left. Once they were out of earshot, Pratty motioned for Kutty to get off her head since she didn’t want him punching Welf for no reason. Then she leaned close and asked, “Did more of your memories come back?

“…Familia,” he answered. “I felt such a strong feeling towards it that I didn’t want to risk it slipping away. But I just can’t pin down why. It feels really felt important, but I still can’t grab hold of why in the end.”

“Maybe it’s another way of saying family?” Pratty reasoned.

“That’s…” He grimaced while his brows furrowed deeper. Then he let out frustrated sigh before standing straight. “Maybe. I’ll think on it more later. Sorry for keeping you here worrying about me.”

She shook her head. “It’s fine. Besides, I got the feeling that if you hadn’t stepped in just now things would have gotten bad.”

“Well, I suppose I can understand where they’re both coming from…” He crossed his arms and looked up towards the rim of the Second Level of Wystern. Since it was a bright day and the sun had yet to reach its apex, the light from it cast a shadow over the other side of the Lower Level. “Hopefully, they’ll cool their heads by the time the matches start.”


Sanary’s head had not cooled by the time she faced her opponent in the preliminaries.

The arena where the matches would take place was hosted on a circular platform that stood over the rear section of the moat surrounding the Central Tower. Spectator seats were arranged in scaling rows all around it with a massive clockwork gear spinning in the background as it powered some mechanism or other within the building. That allowed a view downward from every angle so that the audience could bear witness to the events that transpired from a safe distance.

Being unable to retaliate for Ariel’s earlier mocking had only served to stoke Sanary’s temper and she was about to boil over as the words had time to sink in further. She and the twins had never been on good terms given their awful attitudes. But that was a personal attack on her skills as a Craftknight this time.

Fortunately, she had enough self-control that she wasn’t going to blow up in front of an audience of attendees. But it did mean she was not going to pull her punches. More so considering her opponent had the misfortune of being a Drillmaster—who she decided to use as a replacement for her anger.

“Craftknight Sanary, will you be summoning your Guardian Beast?” Master Sakuro asked as he stood to the side. He was acting as the referee of the current batch of matches and her opponent had called out their own already.

“I don’t need my partner for this one,” she said, resting her hand against her sword sheathed on her back. It was a bold claim to be certain, but it was literally the first match of the preliminaries and everybody there was competition. Keeping her Guardian Beast out of the fight was one of the few ways to control the information she gave until it was necessary—and Rasho would probably complain about being called out for the preliminaries.

She was not in the mood to put up with him being cheeky.

“Very well.” The Craftlord of Sapphire drew his blade into the air and hoisted it up. “Then, as Craftknights of Wystern, fight with honor and dignity. Let the First Round of the tournament begin!”

Sanary shot forward at her top speed while drawing her blade in a single, smooth motion. She could tell that her opponent hadn’t trained in combat much from his stance alone. Better to end it as quickly as possible.

The Drillmaster’s response was a stabbing thrust with the spinning point. It was more of a conditioned reaction after spending the week diving into the Labyrinth. Since stray summons tended to attack upon sight it was better to hit as hard and quick as you could without hesitation.

That was his biggest mistake against a trained opponent.

Sanary kicked off the ground and sailed over his head, keeping the blade chambered while leaving his outstretched hand to pierce empty space. No sooner than she landed behind him did she spin on the soles of her boots and swing down the chambered sword. The result was a clean cut straight against his unprotected backside from shoulder to hip.

He stumbled forward, barely avoided falling over. The lingering white streak in his defensive veil showed she had cut a large chunk out before it sealed itself back up. By the time he righted himself and turned around to face Sanary, she was already following up.

The red-haired swordswoman finished reorienting her blade and then unleashed an upwards diagonal cut. It was a reversal of the previous slash but had enough force behind it this time that he tumbled over. The only reason she didn’t finish the three-hit combo while was laid out on his back was because his entire body flashed as his mana-veil hardened in response to the abrupt and accumulative damage.

Trying to cut through it was pointless due to how hard it was. Attempting to do so would only damage her blade. Not to mention it could be seen as a lack of self-control since piercing it would mean attempting to kill rather than subdue.

So Sanary twisted on her soles again and faced the Spirit that had been floating next to him. It was his Guardian Beast and had a body that was round like a balloon and its lips were pulled back to reveal sharp teeth. She could smell the ozone from an impending lightning strike and knew she had to deal with it.

“Get lost!” She put as much strength as she could into her arms as she brought the overhead chambered blade down upon it. Instead of cutting through it, something made a lot harder than you would expect due to being bound to a Summonite Gem, the Spirit was spiked into the platform. Her red eyes watched its body contorted as it flattened out against the solid surface of unmoving stone before springing back into the air even higher in a rolling tumble. Then she turned her attention back to the Drillmaster that had gotten back onto his feet.

Fear took hold in his eyes as he saw her rushing him down once more. He thrust right for her head, only to have his arm jerked down as she pivoted out of the way and slammed the sharpened edge of the sword onto his outstretched arm. He didn’t lose the limb, though from the pained expression he made it was easy to tell that he was feeling the bleed-through, but he did end up having his upper body jerked forward.

That gave her a clean shot at his unprotected head and Sanary took it.

“GAH!” A very short-lived cry of pain was followed by the hearty sound of a body hitting the ground again. The light shrouding his body quickly dissipated into the air like dust being scattered in the wind, showing he was tapped out of mana to keep his defenses up. Not that was conscious enough to actively try.

She exhaled before turning to Master Sakuro, stationed to the side with his sword resting against his palm and the point against the ground. The Craftlord observed her fallen foe until it was clear he was unable to battle further. Then he declared her the victor and she felt a lot better.

She walked up the stairs and off the platform as a set of Central Tower Officials came to haul her unconscious opponent away.


The match that had followed Sanary’s had been an actual battle between equal apprentices.

Trish had managed to defeat her opponent, but it was a narrow thing. The purple-haired spear-user had only won because of the reach of her weapon and the fact that her Guardian Beasts could replenish her mana, so she took a lot more effort to make yield compared to Sanary’s opponent. She essentially won a battle of attrition in the end.

Then it was Welf’s turn to take the stage for the Third Round.

The first thing he noticed when he set foot on the platform was that his opponent was a very large person. To the point where he overshadowed the stairs leading to his side of the Central Tower from Welf’s position at the opposite edge. Sure, it might have been a trick based on depth perception, but for him to probably be around the same age as Welf he was as large as Master Bron.

He was dressed in a green leather jacket and pants, flame retardant but still having black marks from sparks dancing across the surface. Steel-toed boots supported his bulk, he wore a crossed harness strap that stretched around his broad frame, a thick pair of brown gloves were around his hands, and metal plates were affixed to his shoulders. His face was also nearly completely hidden, the lower half covered by a high collar to hide his mouth and his eyes covered by a pair of steel-grey goggles, while his light brown hair stuck out with a pointed pompadour that cast a shadow.

Retaining his role as the referee, the Craftlord of Sapphire gave them both an appraising glance before he decreed, “We will now commence the Third Round of the tournament. Craftknight Welf, Craftknight Chaves, please call out your Guardian Beasts if you intend to use them.”

Welf reached for the Summonite Gem around his neck and felt the flame sleeping within it. The Fire Spirit had been tired given that she had worked late into the night so that they could finish, so he opted not to wake her from her slumber until necessary. Now was the time. “Urus.”

Red flames rolled free of the gem and then bathed his upper body before slowly pulling away. Her figure formed over his shoulders, body twisting slowly as she spanned her incandescent gaze over the backdrop of the arena—from the crowd in the seats to the clockwork gear slowly churning. She then leaned over him with her arms wrapped around his neck and turned her focus onto the enemy in front of them as Welf pulled free his greatsword.

“I don’t need a beast to handle this guy,” Chaves said, declining to summon his own Guardian Beast as he pulled from his back what was probably the largest sword that Welf had the experience of seeing. And he was factoring in what may or may not have been within his missing memories. If Welf’s blade was a large greatsword then his was a colossal sword that was more than twice the width and thickness.

In the hands of someone at an ordinary height it would be oversized to a degree of impracticality. But Chaves himself had taken advantage of his large stature to wield the large grey blade. It was almost as wide as the guy himself and nearly matched the height of his upper body.

Sharpening that must have been a nightmare, Welf couldn’t help but think as he took in its profile and width. But then he felt a question from Urus brushing his mind, concern about having to fight something that large with the blade they just made. He was quick to reassure her it would be fine. “Don’t worry, I have an idea on how to deal with it.

Seeing as Chaves had chosen not to summon his own companion and Urus had seemingly settled into place, Sakuro asked, “Are you both ready?”

“Yes,” Chaves answered.

Welf nodded. “We’re ready.”

Sakuro drew his own blade and held it aloft in the air. “Then, as Craftknights of Wystern, fight with honor and dignity. Let the Third Round of the tournament begin!”

Welf rushed straight towards the mass of muscles at the signal.

And in response Chaves’ Sword came down with the intention to split him in half. It was a standard overhead chop. Taking advantage of the mass of the blade to deliver a crushing blow, the huge but otherwise plain sword would end the match as quickly as it began.

Urus’ flames fanned wildly from her perch as the blade narrowly avoided her when Welf took a slight shift to the right with his leading foot. The impact of the steel smashing into the ground a hair’s breadth ran up their bodies and served as a testament to its weight. But with the blade down, there was an opening for them to exploit.

Welf stepped forward and readied to swing his sword at the mass of muscles in front of him. But then his eyes spotted the twist of Chaves’ wrists that shifted the blade from vertical to diagonal, putting the edge facing towards him. He changed his intentions from an overhead swing to a parry as he twisted his body while bringing it up from below.

Steel screeched. The scoop that was meant to cut from the waist to the underarm scraped its way along the rising edge. The stray smith put his back into it as he raised it up, leaving it to go over his head as Urus clung to his back.

The click of a tongue could be heard before Chaves reoriented the blade with his wrists so that it was horizontal and then swung once more. It was a decapitating strike meant to take off the head, but it sailed high the moment Welf ducked down.

There it is! Welf’s muscles tensed as he took advantage of the opening as his opponent’s arms went wide to the right due to the excess momentum. He swung his sword with all his might at the exposed underbelly and drew a streak as the edge ripped into the protective veil of his opponent, sheering away a portion of it.

The mountain of muscle was moved. Chaves took a step back reflexively in response before his rear leg braced itself to stand firm. He then repositioned the blade into a guard as the greatsword came around for a second swing that would cut him from shoulder to hip.

Steel screeched again. The broad side of the thick metal barely shifted on the impact as the thin edge carved a small groove into it in passing. Chaves then thrust it out just like that, shoving as hard as he could into the smaller frame of his opponent.

A surprised sound slipped out as Welf was sent staggering back, thrown off-balance by being bashed against the flat of the blade. He would have stumbled over if not for Urus, who slipped behind him and then pushed him forward. She acted as an anchor to keep him upright, which was what allowed him to react in time as Chaves went back on the offense.

The sharpened tip of the colossal sword shot forward to gouge out his heart. The stab went off to the side as Welf slammed his blade’s edge into it, giving him just a bit of breathing room. But it was short-lived as Chaves twisted his body and blade—batting at the stray smith from the side.

Welf braced and raised his blade from the spine, catching the edge and letting slide. It went over his head once more and left Chaves open a second time. He thrust his own blade straight between his opponent’s eyes as he called out. “Turn up the heat, Urus!

The giant stumbled back while flailing the colossal sword in the process. They were wild swings meant to give him space if Welf decided to press his advantage while he regained his footing. But they were too high if anything, as they obscured his vision enough that he only noticed the Fire Spirit drifting closer once she was just before his waist.

That was when red light shone from the Summonite Gem around Welf’s neck and Chaves only had enough time to use his blade as a shield before a pillar of fire erupted right in front of him. The Fire Spirit let her flames swell with such ferocity that the massive blade between her and him turned from dark-grey to bright-red from the heat sinking in. He chose to back off to escape the pressure and flames and that gave Welf the time he needed.

Now, Enchant Flame!” He brandished his blade into the air as the gem shone even brighter and Urus’ flames propelled the Fire Spirit back so that she could embrace it. She shared her flames, leaving the greatsword to bathe in them. The steel drank deep until its color turned a burning red hue even as she released her grasp and clung once more to her master’s back.

Chaves’ googles reflected the burning blade as Welf charged forward with the weapon chambered to swing. He opted to let loose with a diagonal slash meant to cut him down before he could get in range to meet his flesh with the flaming blade.

The colossal sword slammed into the ground instead as Welf had stopped short of the range to slash at his opponent’s massive frame, instead choosing to drive the flaming blade into the spine of his opponent’s weapon. It left a burning crescent tail to fill the space between them as Welf twisted his entire body to follow the momentum of the previous swing. That brought it around again. “I’m not done yet!”

Chaves raised his sword into a guard with the flat forward. The dense steel absorbed the hit, leaving his arms to buckle as the impact caused the magic from the enchantment to flare up. The giant could feel the fire licking at him from around the wall of metal even through his flame-retardant work clothes as Welf kept up the attack with another three hits before he tried to shove him again for some breathing room.

This time Welf saw it coming and pushed back. He braced his own blade with his forearm since he knew Urus’ flames wouldn’t harm her master after all. Their blades remained locked as the fire continued to burn between them.

BACK OFF!” Chaves’ voice came out as a growl as he shoved harder to break the lock. He had no intention of being left on the backfoot just because his opponent had set their blade ablaze. So, he decided to end it now with a merciless overhead swing. “I’LL CRUSH YOU!

Welf chose not to avoid the crushing blow meant to end the match. Instead, he braced the flaming sword and angled the edge before driving it forward. The blazing edge met with the thicker one closer to the guard—


—and the sound of metal snapping and heavy steel hitting stone seemed to cut off all other sounds as Welf, who had been staggering to the side and nearly lost his balance a second time until Urus steadied him. He let out a heavy breath as the flames wreathing his weapon died out and then said, “…Sorry, but you didn’t leave me many options.”

The apology received no answer from Chaves, who stood there with his arms held outwards at their full length. If anyone could see his eyes from behind his goggles, they would have caught sight of them staring wide and unbelieving. It wasn’t every day that one had their weapon reduced to a quarter of its original length with the remaining end slowly dulling in hue from yellow to cooler colors.

Welf had determined that trying to get through Chaves’ guard to strike him down would be too tedious in their first exchange. He could do it, but Chaves was competent enough that there was a chance they could trade hits. Welf was certain if that was the case then he would have likely been the one to come out worse due to the differences in their blades weight and size.

So, rather than dragging it out, he decided it would be simpler to break his opponent’s weapon by taking advantage of its size and construction. The coloration and lack of flexibility only confirmed his suspicions that the weapon was a monosteel alloy rather than a laminate wielded together like his own. That meant it had the same fatal flaw that he had explained to Pratty earlier—that a single fatal weakness would be enough to break it.

In this case it was having the metal softening due to being exposed to such hot temperatures while striking at it. Urus use of Burst Flare had been meant to get the metal hot enough to get started and then by constantly using his enchanted sword to keep the heat on, he struck and carved into each time while letting other parts of it cool off. That made certain parts far weaker than the others until he made his final move by positioning his still burning blade to act as a wedge beneath the point of balance, which was higher up since the blade was so large it was more top heavy.

In the end, it basically snapped beneath its own weight.

Of course, if not for the jacket to support the shock it would have snapped my own blade in half as well. He looked down to the edge to see it had cracked along the exposed area due to the hardness of it. But it didn’t go much further than that and so it would be able to repair itself in time.

“The match has been decided.” The voice of the Craftlord of Sapphire sliced through the resulting silence of the first of what would be many shattered blades in the tournament. “The victor of the Third Round is Craftknight Welf.”

“Looks like we did it, Urus.” He smiled as he brushed the top of her head, fingers weaving through the passive flames. “Your timing was excellent.”

The ghost of a smile could be felt gracing her expressionless face at the praise and affectionate gesture.


That was when a strained half-growl rang out from the massive frame of Chaves. He seemed to regain his senses now that the shock had worn off. Instead, it was replaced by anger as he gripped his broken weapon tight enough that the gloves could be heard straining as he marched towards the pair and called for neither victory nor defeat to be claimed by either of them.


“Have you forgotten the three tenets of the Craftknighthood, Craftknight Chaves?”

Chaves took a step back at the stern voice of the Craftlord of Sapphire responded to the calls for no contest with a question instead. “N-No… it’s him who relied only on his Guardian Beast to secure his victory.”

“If that were the case, I would have called the match otherwise,” Sakuro said plainly. “As it stands, you have lost this match fairly. Reflect on the tenets and you will understand why. Now, both of you please leave the stage so we may prepare for the next match.”

Chaves turned his gaze from the Craftlord of Sapphire towards Welf, carrying an unspoken message from behind the googles that this wasn’t over. Then he turned around and lumbered towards the stairs from which he had descended earlier. Welf kept his thoughts of someone being a sore loser to himself as he gestured for Urus to take her usual place before they took the opposite stairs themselves.

That left only the Craftlord himself, who brushed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses before announcing, “The Fourth Round will begin shortly. Will Craftknight Pratty and Craftknight Omugi please come to the stage?”

The Stray Smith: Chapter 3

Chapter 3 – Forging Ahead: Part 2


A silver arch was drawn in the air.

It was the swing of a dagger brought around to meet the spearpoint thrust of a blue horn belonging to flying nuisance that was known as the Gremlin. Having committed to propelling itself forward, the stray summon had attempted to drive it into the helmeted skull of the young girl that had wandered into its territory on the Second Floor of the Labyrinth. But said human had opted to bring the dagger around in a swinging motion where it scraped against the hardened point until it met the cross-guard, and the momentum of her arm sent the Gremlin drifting off to the side.

It was proceeded by Pratty spinning on her heel and then swinging the blade around to cut into its round body. But the edge sailed beneath the Oni-kin as it rose into the air, barely rustling the tassels of the paper streamers hanging around its waist. “Sit still already!”

The response it gave was to spin around and narrow its gaze towards her as embers began to appear form in front of it.

Pratty immediately threw herself back as far as she could. She had already been on the receiving end of its flames more than once and knew the signs it was coming. Even then the tongue of fire it spat at her still licked at her skin as she put two meters between them.

That was when the wind-borne Guardian Beast appeared right behind the annoyance, one arm winding up like a windmill before he slammed a hammer-blow down upon it. The flames died as it knocked down to the ground where it bounced once and flinched in shock. The Magical Beast let out a sound, as if to say to strike now. “Kutty!”

She didn’t hesitate. In a single motion she lunged forward and drove the tip of the knife into it.

There was enough force to penetrate the Gremlin’s defenses at last and leave it skewered. Then its body broke down into motes of mana. They drifted off the blade and left only the rope that it kept as an ornament around its body behind.

Pratty kept her knife out as she scanned her surroundings a final time, only to let out a huff and relax the tension in her body. She didn’t drop her aura, but she did lax her shoulders. “Nnn… those things are so annoying to deal with when you have such a short weapon.”

The blade was around six inches while the grip was four inches, giving her a weapon that was just under a foot long. That made her reach incredibly short and forced her to get a lot closer to her enemies. Not exactly an ideal weapon when said enemy was able to fly above her height.

Or breathe fire.

“Pratty, did you get it?” a voice called out from some distance away. She turned her eyes towards the source to see Trish poking her head around the corner of what she assumed to be the houses of one of the people who used to be here a long time ago.

“Yeah, I got it.” She nearly fell over when Kutty landed on her head as she bent over to pick up the Drop Item. But after shifting her helmet back from over her eyes she turned towards her fellow apprentice. “Did Caizo take care of the Pumpkeenos hanging around?”

“Yep, which means we can finally have Lunch in peace.” Trish held out her hand that had an Amulet in it, which ignited into a silvery flame that slowly burned to ward away any other stray summons that got curious. “Sorry to ask you to deal with the Gremlin for me.”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Pratty said as she sheathed the knife and fought down the gnawing in her belly at the promise of food. “We don’t have spare weapons yet, so it’ll be a pain to remake your spear before the preliminaries if it breaks.”

It had been three days since she had finished making her first weapon. Trish and Caizo had finished theirs shortly after Welf had come back from the Second Floor, which was part of the reason that Pratty and Sanary had been the ones cleaning the main forging area of the Silver Guild. Since they were relatively on the same level when it came to their skills as Craftknights, and there was the threat of them being attacked by a Spell Sword, they had opted to work together in the Labyrinth in order gather materials and gain experience with utilizing their new weapons.

They may have been rivals, but chances were they wouldn’t actually be facing one another for a while. And they were part of the same guild, so there was no reason for them not to assist one another for the time being. More so considering they were pretty much complete novices when it came to both forging and combat.

The first day they had gotten used to the First Floor. They only encountered the occasional Slime, but to their surprise even those had been a lot more resilient than they had expected. And their acid actually hurt a bit too.

The second day they had come down to the Second Floor. Not only did they have to deal with the Slimes, but Pumpkeenos proved to be a lot harder than they appeared. It took so many swings to actually take one down with her knife that she actually almost broke it. They had opted to leave when a Gremlin showed up and had to be taken care of by Kutty, leaving them to decide to head to a restaurant to eat and then come up with more of a strategy in how they explored.

Today they had come here earlier in the morning and chose to go more to the south. The northwest area had people more frequently traveling it so they could get to the Third Floor. Less people meant they could have more stray summons to face in order to refine their abilities and collect materials for the future.

Pratty climbed up the nearby stairs to where they had set up a small place to eat. Caizo was already there and sitting on his carrying case, weapon next to him. He was applying a bandage to his arm.

Trish frowned as she marched over towards him, purple pigtails bouncing with each step. “You told me that you wouldn’t have any trouble dealing with them!”

“A mere scratch is hardly something the Great Caizo considers trouble,” he said with his voice full of bravado until she came over and inspected it. Then he winced as she poked it. “The last one just latched onto my arm slightly long enough for it to bruise from the bleed-through.”

It did little to settle her. “The fact that it managed to bleed-through before your aura hardened means your mana must be low. And if that’s the case then you could have lost the whole arm if it ran out.”

Their mana provided them protection so long as they had enough to spare. At full capacity it basically took a lot for them to really suffer a major injury, though they still felt diminished pain. But the lower the capacity meant there was greater bleed-though and less pain dampening.

Trish brows furrowed before she fished from her pouch her Summonite Gem and held the jade gemstone out. “Pouso, I need you.”

At her beckoning a sphere of light appeared and the air shifted. It was a gateway that breached the barrier set into place by the king of eld, calling forth one bound to the stone. And once the light was dispelled, what appeared next to her was a cute little floating yellow spirit from the Sapureth with an adorable, pointed brim-hat. It waved its little stubby arms in greeting at its summoner. “Pou.”

“Nice to see you too,” she brought the little spirit over for a hug before turning her attention to Caizo. “Can you help restore his mana with your Healing Spell?”

Pouso produced what could only be described as a star-shaped wand and floated over towards him. Then it pressed it against his forehead as her Summonite Gem shone brighter. His entire body shone as his aura was restored to full by the time it was done.

Calling it a Healing Spell was a bit much to be honest. Creatures from Sapureth only gained physical forms due to the Summoning Ritual, so restoring their mana was the equivalent of a healing spell. It couldn’t actually heal wounds for Humans like them, but replenishing the mana within one’s body made it so that their defenses were strong enough to ward off further damage and numb what they already felt.

Caizo shot her an apologetic look of gratitude. “Sorry for making you worry so much about me when you can only use that so many times a day.”

Their Summonite Gems could be used like expendable batteries to enhance what their Guardian Beasts were capable of to a degree. But they could only do so roughly six times a day. After that it took them just as long to absorb ambient mana to replenish themselves. Add that to the fact that most of their Guardian Beasts got really tired after doing so meant that using their abilities was something that had to be done with consideration.

“Pouso can use it once more today if we need it, and if you get seriously hurt then you might lose out on the chance to compete in the preliminaries. Besides, if I hadn’t nearly broken my spear then I could have helped deal with the Gremlin and Pratty could have helped you… I wish these things weren’t so fragile.”

The Novice Weapon Series, as Master Bron called them, consisted of five weapons: Knife, Spear, Axe, Knuckle, and Drill. He gave them to those just crafting their weapon because they were easy to make and best to get a handle of the process for each individual weapon. But because they were so easy to make they were also fairly fragile.

She had complained to Master Bron about it, of course. She wanted a sword like Sanary used. It was an Iron Saber made from elemental ores rather than by working the Iron Ore directly, which meant it could repair itself and was sharper and more durable than if it had been worked by a normal smith.

But he only pointed out that the Novice Weapons weren’t meant to be amazing. They were functional and meant to teach novices how to make use of them and act as a reliable spare for when they made more advance weapons. Sanary was apparently really skilled with handling a blade already and had made her own weapon outside of the guild, while the twins were the same when it came to using drills.

And then Master Bron had stated that while the dagger was weaker and even less durable on its own compared even to the other Novice Weapons it had a lot more potential as the user got more proficient with using it—and that if she didn’t understand that fact then she didn’t understand the three tenets of a Craftknight.

That had hurt. She couldn’t help but puff out her cheeks as she turned the knife in her hands when she remembered that. Master Bron has no consideration for a woman’s feelings.

“Still, we’re not doing nearly as bad as even two days ago,” Trish said with a note of elation in her voice. “We’ve fought a more strays now with less trouble and the weapons aren’t nearly in as bad of a condition as they would have been a day ago. We’re improving.”

She wasn’t wrong.

Pratty’s blue eyes fell onto the Novice Knife as she inspected it for damage and found it already showing from just the last battle. There was a dent from where it had slammed into the hard bone of the horn when they had started, along with scratches from where the point of the horn had run against it while she was trying to divert it. Not as bad as it could have been, given it looked as though it was nearly completely corroded from the First Floor alone on her first day.

Her swings weren’t as wide as when she started out either. She was getting a better gauge of the distance and a feel for the amount of force that each one needed. Thanks to that she didn’t stress the blade as much and she was dispatching stray summons a bit faster.

It wasn’t as though she was good enough to kill a Pumpkeeno or anything with a single swipe of her knife. It just meant that instead of having to stab a Slime six times to kill it she had gotten better at putting just the right amount of force into it to get through their defenses in four. But the less she needed to use it meant the less wear and tear on it.

She could only guess that was why Master Bron wanted them to spend the rest of their time practicing in the Labyrinth rather than making a new weapon with only a few days to the preliminaries.

“But will we be fine with this alone?” Caizo soft words carried his concerns well as his gaze fell onto his Novice Axe. “If we get matched up against someone like Sanary, we probably won’t make it beyond the preliminaries.”

“…Is she really that great?” Pratty asked while unwrapping the sandwich that she had made for her lunch. There were two of them in total along with a pastry that was meant to keep her energy up. Once it was unwrapped, she held it up so that Kutty could eat—having learned from him socking her yesterday the price of not feeding him first as a reward for his efforts.

Her companions both gave her glances. For Caizo, it was a dumbfounded look that lacked the sugarcoating that Trish was prone towards. One that spoke of something that fought against common sense in terms of expectation.

She pouted. “…what?”

He sighed in resignation that an explanation would be necessary. “Pratty, where is Sanary now?”

“Probably on her way past the Third Floor,” she answered while unwrapping the sandwich she wanted to eat. The older girl had not hidden her disdain at the fact that due to what was apparently some kind of obstacle clearance going beyond the Third Floor was not an option prior to today. But from Pratty’s perspective just the first three floors alone were enough.

“And she’s been there for the last two days from sunrise to sunset with only her Iron Saber and probably a single backup weapon. If we’re struggling just to last half-a-day on the Second Floor while rotating through each of our weapons, then can you imagine how much of a monster she is compared to us to be going at it alone on a floor where there are even more of them?”


The sound of steel slicing through a hollowed out husk rang out.

The body of a Pumpkeeno split wide open with a single horizontal swipe of a blade, dissipating as a red-haired young woman pressed forward past it. Two more of the feral fruit snarled ravenously as they took the dead one’s place with the intention of taking her head off her shoulders. But twin arches smashed through each of the pumpkin’s skin and left them to dissipate with just as much ease.

“Smashing pumpkins is getting old!” Sanary’s frustration was evident as she as she continued her jaunt through the Third Floor of the Labyrinth.

Unlike the Second Floor that had more open water due to the flooding, the water channels were narrower here as they circled a central structure. She assumed it was a water elevator meant to transport large goods to and from the floor above. By funneling water from those channels upwards it would push a platform that could move several tons of materials, but at some point it had broken and that had caused the flooding above. Because of that elevator most of the Third Floor was actually akin to a loading area that went around it, with the exit on the opposite side. That meant to get the other side you went along the walls of the Central Tower, with it expanding further into the south into what could pass as a smaller storage area for the ones awaiting transport.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Now there were only overly aggressive pumpkins that had made themselves at home and, of course, Slimes—a gaggle of whom loitered ahead of her with their numbers rather padded out. She scoffed before funneling mana into her Summonite Gem without slowing down. “Rasho!

A swirl of light gave way to flames as from it burst free a member of Oni-kind that sported a singular protruding horn, long and wild red hair that framed his pointed ears, and a burning red gaze. Standing tall with his chest laid bare to reveal the muscular definition, his only protection was were the rectangular shields that went down from his shoulders to his elbows, along with his forearm and leg guards. On his back was a tiger-striped cape, and to his side was an impressive Silturn-style longsword.

“Clear a path ahead,” Sanary ordered as he floated next to her. “I’m almost to the Fourth Floor and don’t want to have to slow down waiting for my blade to mend itself because of the corrosion from cutting through so many.”

“At least give me something worthy of my blade.” In spite of the clear disappointment in his tone at having to contend with such meager foes, the Oni Prince shot forward as his fist ignited with a burning flame. He then slammed it down into the ground in the center of the horde, causing the flames to expand in an eruption that swallowed the Slimes up and burned them away.

Sanary didn’t slow down as she ran towards the exit until she noticed there was a Teleporter. She only paused in her sprint to go over to it just long enough to attune to it, giving her a way up to the First Floor and back without needing to go through the Second Floor. Then she shot towards the stairs leading down and began to bounce down them and into the Fourth Floor.

It would not be wrong to say that the half of the Fourth Floor was just a singular expanded corridor that ran across the tower. In keeping with the idea of transporting goods it was wide with crystals blooming like flowers along the walls at non-fixed intervals for light. The sound of her footfalls and panting echoed throughout the empty chamber as she ran through it, keeping her frantic pace while Rasho floated next to her.

Then he scowled. “Tin heads are coming.”

Her gaze snapped up to the air above. His vision was sharper than hers, so she didn’t doubt his words. And sure enough she could catch the gleam of the light reflecting off the three-unit group of machine lifeforms that loitered there.

Gunnerheads—a type of Mechanical Soldier from the Machine World of Loreilal with a rectangular body that resembled a floating mechanical head with two sets of rotating barrels attached for arms. They were driven by a simple AI and meant to act as mid-ranged artillery units during the Summoner Wars, though they were later repurposed for the sake of security units after the Warring Era.

The optical units that served as their eyes processed the approaching organics and ran their biometrics through their databanks, which were long out of date since they had been copied from the original progenitors. Unable to find them, it registered them as intruders to be eliminated with excessive force and began the process of converting mana into solid projectiles with a good deal of stopping power—bullets.

“If you’re careless your sword will break,” Rasho warned her. He knew that creatures from Loreilal tended to have tougher bodies due to their inorganic nature and that made them a pain to deal with when only using a sword. It was better to use an axe since they had greater cleaving power due to their weight, or a spear that had thrusting power behind them to penetrate.

“Then I’ll melt through it!” She once more triggered a charge of the Summonite Gem while gripping her sword even tighter as they neared the firing range of the Gunnerheads. “Enchant Flame!”

He snapped his fingers and generated a spark that turned into a slithering flame that coiled around the blade of her Iron Saber before sinking in. Then there were no more words. The cacophony of bullets being fired echoed throughout the corridor.

Sanary changed her approach to an angled sprint as the construct bullets smashed into the ground and scattered into mana, leaving them to trail after her. She used one of the crystal outcroppings jutting from the wall as cover before she jumped up and kicked off the wall to close the distance from the air. “YAH!”

The trail of the flames drew burning arches in the air. Blazing steel cleaved through two of the three as she landed past their disintegrating bodies, having cut through their defenses in a single swipe each in passing. The third subsequently exploded as a burning fist was slammed into it by Rasho, whose gaze kept on the young woman as she continued pressing onward to the second wave, before he continued his role as Guardian Beast and shot after her.

The flashes of searing flames. The scent of smoldering steel. The drum of gunfire. The din of shattering crystals. The padding of pained grunts and flicker of a defensive aura blunting the damage. The corridor became nothing more than a recreation of the era where bladesteel and flame clashed with the otherworldly creatures whose purpose now was only to serve as a threat to the inhabitants due to old directives.

And by the time she was finally through the straight corridor and into the room that served as the passage for Assessors Gate, Sanary was left with her shoulders rising and falling as she fought for breath.

Rasho regarded her condition for a moment before pointing over to the northern wall. “There’s a Rejuvenation Pad over there.”

The Rejuvenation Pads were a second convenience of the Labyrinth from the ancient era and kept in working condition. Much like with the Teleporters, if someone attuned to it, they would trigger and gather ambient mana from the tower and send it into the recipient to restore their own or a vessel they were carrying like the Summonite Gem, which also fed into the Guardian Beast.

However, it wasn’t an instantaneous process. It took time between charges. Time that could be spent pushing into the Labryinth to gather materials and seeking out treasures not claimed by other. Or running into a Spell Sword and finally obtaining Mystic Ore.

Sanary grimaced at the thought of slowing down for that long. But more than a few stray shots had caught her on the way. Reason won out over recklessness as she knew she wouldn’t be able to claim her prize even if she ran into it with her current state. “Fine. I’ll take a break long enough to eat and get my mana back.”

The young swordswoman made her way over to the pad and began the attunement process. The hum of the device stirring to life and beginning the charging process was lower than she liked, doing little to pad out the uncomfortable silence that followed the ringing that lingered in the back of her head. But it gave her time to work out her progress in her head and broach a question to the Guardian Beast standing away from her. “Rasho, how long did it take for my sister to make it this far?”

The Oni Prince regarded her for a moment before closing his eyes and pulling up the memory. “Maybe two weeks or so?”

So, I beat her on that front… It brought a smile to her face hearing that. In just three days she had reached as far as her sister had in two weeks when she had been starting out. That was proof enough for her that she was getting closer to her goal of becoming the best and most beautiful Craftlord in Wystern.

As if reading her mind, the Oni Prince ruthlessly pulled the rug from under her achievements without mercy. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. She started with a knife and didn’t have any experience, whereas you’ve had myself acting as a combat instructor even before she transferred over the contract. Your forging skills aren’t even close to hers, your sword skills are barely passable, and as far as your body goes, you’re about as distant as night from day.”

His words came from his observation as one who had served as the Guardian Beast for the Craftlord of Ruby, Kouren. The older sister that Sanary looked up to and the standard she had set for being a Female Craftknight with Rumari. At least that was the case once upon a time.

Sanary knew that she still wasn’t there yet. She only had to look at the sword at his waist to be reminded of what the craftsmanship of a Craftlord was truly like. It was a weapon that her older sister had made for the Guardian Beast.

When they first met, Rasho had stipulated it would be under the condition that Kouren would make him a weapon worthy of his stature as an Oni Prince that he would serve as her Guardian Beast. It was a condition she fulfilled after becoming a Craftlord. She made so splendid a weapon that he rarely drew it unless he found something or someone worthy enough to do so.

When Sanary inherited her sister’s contract with the aid of a Summoner, Rasho applied the same condition to her. He would serve as her Guardian Beast but only to the degree that he deemed her skills merited. She would only get him at his best when she herself reached the point she could craft a weapon on par with the blade her sister made.

She also knew her swordsmanship was lacking. Her sister would have gotten through that bullet hell without so much as a hair out of place, let alone being touched by a single projectile. Craftlords were on an entirely different level compared to an apprentice Craftknight like her.

But there was one thing that she couldn’t overlook as she bristled and blushed. “What does my body have to do with any of that!?”

He crossed his arms and spoke bluntly. “You’re chasing after your sister in all aspects, including appearance. She has the title of the most beautiful woman in Wystern for a reason. Really, the only thing that you have going for you is that you’re as much of a Tomboy as she was at your age.”

Her eyes twitched as she struggled to keep her temper in check. “…You’re being awfully cheeky today, Rasho.”

He opened his arms and smiled. “What can I say? Watching as you flounder around with little grasp of your own emotions is far more entertaining than you trying and failing to match the countenance that your sister projects.”

She responded as any adolsenct teenager would. “I understand my emotions perfectly!”

“Oh really? Then have you figured out why that red-headed fellow still gets under your skin?”

His face popped up in her mind and suddenly she felt her lips pulling themselves into a frown. “That slowpoke who’s barely come out of his room after his first visit to the Labyrinth?”

“I believe it was mentioned that he’s forging himself a new sword,” Rasho pointed out. “The fact that he’s devoting that much time to it will likely speak well towards its quality.”

“Or it just reinforces the fact that he works at a snail’s pace. It’s bad enough I can’t even sense much drive from that guy to start with, but if it takes him that long to make a decent weapon then I don’t see him making it past the preliminaries. He just won’t be able to keep up.”

You couldn’t just make weapons that were decent. It had to be done at an appropriate speed. Taking too long for a weapon he would have to discard for a better one wasn’t the mark of a professional, but an overly cautious amateur.

It would be a different story if he was using the Mystic Ore that he had lucked into getting. They were hard to get their hands on and hard to refine, but the weapons created from them were on a whole other level. Not only did they draw out the elemental property of the weapon, but those benefits bled back into the weapon’s user to enhance their own abilities to a greater degree.

Sanary was sure that if she had gotten it, she would have cleared more than half of the way to the Eleventh Floor by now.

“He made the right decision,” Rasho said, recalling the half-hour of complaining she had done the day prior when they had yet to find another Spell Sword. “He decided to plan things out rather than trying to burn himself playing fire. The fact that he did so is part of what’s bothering you.”

She fought down a scowl. “Enlighten me then. What about him bothers me?”

“Not even a night prior that you said, and I quote, ‘Male Craftknights are all just brutes with muscles all the way up to their brains.’”

She had. “Yeah, and?”

“You call him a slowpoke, but he’s already got Mystic Ore and thus ahead of you. If he had used it on something like a Novice Knife, then you would be complaining he’s wasted it like a brute. But the fact he’s using his brain to plan out what he intends to do immediately contradicts that. Especially when you no doubt would have done the same thing for an edge with your sword at this point. Do you understand where I’m going?”

Her brows deepened as she wracked her brain over it to no avail.

The Oni Prince sighed and gave her a hint. “Tyram.”

Tyram—the Craftlord of Crystal who had gone missing. He was also known as ‘Tyram the Calm’ to others because of his demeanor being like the calmness of the ocean without wind or waves. That also extended to his fighting style where he often carried a sense of serenity and speed that went beyond the limits of what one would think possible.

Sanary had watched a spar between him and her sister. It looked like he stood in place with the appearance of being unmoving even as he somehow fended off a variety of attacks. Her sister had explained it as the result of having no wasted movement or imperfections from the start to the end, which gave it the appearance of him not moving at all.

And he used a Crystal Sword as his weapon of choice—an incredibly sharp sword, but one of the most brittle and fragile ones possible to make. The Novice Weapons Series were even more durable than those things. Yet it barely looked scratched at the edges while facing off against a peer of his level or higher.

She acknowledged the Craftlords were talented beyond comparison. But out of all of them she had seen in action, Tyram was the one she simply couldn’t read at all. Not his movements. Not his personality. Not his thoughts. None of it.

Then it clicked for her what about the smith bothered her. “…Ah, so he throws me off because I can’t read him at all.”

“Finally,” Rasho huffed. “With the others who are competing you at least can gauge where they stand and where you stand. But with him you can’t and so you don’t know how to respond. And if you don’t know how to respond, it takes up your time thinking of ways to do so, and your usual confidence goes out the window when he does something to contradict that. That leaves only frustration.”

It was such a simple thing in the end. Every time she wanted to place a label on him things would change. She would be forced to reassess him and then it would happen again.

She tried to treat him as competition and make distance, he would respond cordially and without a hint of competitiveness. She labeled him a slowpoke, he went and got ahead of her by obtaining the one thing she knew would tip the scales. She tried to advise him to quit holding the hand of the girl latching onto him like a child, he threw back in her face the fact that she only was where she was now because her sister did the same for her when she was younger.

That smith was such an enigma for her that even now she was getting frustrated thinking about him. “Whatever. It’s a waste of brain power trying to think more about someone who probably isn’t even going to make it past the preliminaries. We need to focus on the here and now.”

There was so little time left. Three days at the most. If she couldn’t get Mystic Ore by tonight, then incorporating it into an Iron Saber and getting familiar with the new weapon would be impossible—at worst she would probably fumble over it and embarrass herself in front of the world.

Not a great start for someone seeking to succeed the Craftlord of Ruby as the best swordswoman in Wystern.


Welf let out a sigh as he set down the water bottle after downing the contents for the third time today.

The workshop had risen in temperature from the constant heat surging through the forge. Even with the surprisingly efficient ventilation he was soaked in sweat. The pungent scent was only masked by the aroma of hot metal that loitered in the air at all times.

The light in the room was kept dim. He needed to be able to eyeball the temperature of the metal he was working based on the colors, and that meant the light was an obstacle. Even Urus kept her flames rather low when not assisting to keep from hindering the project they were working on.

He huffed, wiping the sweat that dripped past the bandana out of his eyes with his blackened thumbs. His gaze fell into the yawning crimson maw of the forge as he stared at the billet formed solely of Fire Ore that had been shaped into a rectangular block as its color shifted to show the heat of the physical flames sinking in and making it more pliable. “Urus, we’re getting ready to get started with the core.”

The Fire Spirit drifted over to her perch on his shoulders. Then she leaned over, her face brushing against his sweat-slicked cheek as her incandescent gaze focused on the same sight. Her head quirked back at him as she quietly pressed for more information.

“We’ve finished the jacket so now we’re going to get to work on the heart of it,” he explained to the silent question. “It’ll be a long one, but not as long as the jacket. Then we’ll fit it inside and then forge it together. We should finish that much tonight. Then tomorrow we press on to the next part.”

The sword that they were working on to replace his broken one was one that Welf had debated on for some time the night he had come back. He knew the qualities that he wanted it to possess so that it wouldn’t be so easily broken again. But the matter of forging them into the weapon itself was one that took careful consideration.

He had opted for only two elemental ores—Fire Ore and Water Ore. Fire was known for being hard and carrying an edge exceedingly well, enhancing the cutting power to a degree that couldn’t be underestimated. Water was the opposite in that it made the blade softer and flexible, but it also made it heavier and didn’t hold an edge as well.

Welf wanted to create a sword that possessed a very high degree of cutting power but also was durable and flexible enough to not snap like the previous one had. It was fine if the blade chipped since they could mend themselves, but it had to be able to avoid completely breaking. That was fatal for the weapon and likely would follow suit for its wielder.

He had first considered making it a monosteel—using a single kind of steel for the entirety of the blade. Since the different elemental ores could be merged into one alloy using the Holy Flames, the option to combine the proper ratio into a single lump of steel and shape it was viable. He could have done that and been finished by now, but he had deemed it not suitable for what he wanted.

Urus was still new to breaking down the materials for the elements and then reconstituting them into the individual ores. They had spent the first day working that out as they took everything they gathered and then broke them down one-by-one to help her get a feel for the process. The resulting ores were rough even if they were workable, but that made it clear that having her combine multiple ones to focus the concentration into specific parts wasn’t something she could do.

If he wanted a general, all-around blade then that was fine. She might get the distribution wrong, but he could just fold the metal repeatedly to spread out the composition. It would take more time, but it would ensure that it wasn’t too hard or too soft within a specific part and make them weak points for the blade. However, that would just leave him with a general blade that didn’t excel in specific areas and there was no merit in doing that when he had a specific purpose in mind for what he wanted to create.

So, he opted for the longer and more difficult path of creating a laminated blade instead. It was a process of bladesmithing that relied on layering different kinds of metal rather than using a monosteel alloy. That allowed the individual aspects of the steels to play a part in the blade without compromising on their qualities by melding them together.

Of course, it was more complicated and time consuming in both the planning and forging. More rooms for error. And Bron had been clear on one thing in particular: once the technique was submitted to the Central Tower there was no turning back.

He was gambling the time it would take to forge the blade with the time before the preliminaries.

In the best-case scenario, it would be ready a day beforehand. In the worst-case scenario, it would be hours. Either way there would be no time to build up his technical skills by familiarize himself with it. And if there was a mistake in the forging process there would be no time to re-forge the blade or start over.

It was all or nothing.

But that was fine with the stray smith. The preliminaries were a deadline, but they weren’t his end-goal. His promise to Pratty was still in effect but something else guided his hammer as his thoughts drifted back to the Second Floor.

Urus had nearly sacrificed herself in order to buy him time to escape. Though she was a spirit from another world, her physical form had been given to her by the Summoning Ritual. That meant she could feel pain and be killed.

Her life for his was not a trade that he had been comfortable with tolerating for even a second.

And what if Pratty had been with him at the time when they were attacked? How would he defend her if his blade shattered when he needed it the most? Would her life have been the price for his instead?

Those thoughts drove him to make this blade. Not for the preliminaries, but for himself. He needed a weapon that was strong enough to protect others and durable enough to protect himself. So that the knowledge that his blade shattered when he needed it the most didn’t haunt him.

He could not compromise on that if he was going to remain true to himself.

“…It’s at a good temperature,” he said as he took in the hue it had become. Fire Ore itself tended to require a very high heat to be malleable due to its nature. “We’ll get started drawing it out enough to fit into the jacket.”

Using a pair of tongs, he grabbed hold of the heated materials and brought it over to the anvil. It came up to his upper thighs thanks to a stand, putting it in a comfortable position for the long work. No sooner than he set it down did the heat begin to sink into it.

“Same as before, Urus. Keep it at the temperature it’s at now for as long as you can.”

The Fire Spirit gave an enthusiastic nod before settling her hands onto the steel. The flames of her body grew more intense to match the heat. They then writhed and lapped at the heated ore to trickle it in as she pulled away.

Welf started hammering away to work it into shape. He couldn’t hammer it too flat right now or else the fit wouldn’t be snug enough for when they forge-welded the cores to its jacket. If that happened, it would simply slide out during the welding process and complications would emerge.

Sparks and flames billowed from the friction of the blows. Steel sang as the hammer took joy in fulfilling its promised purpose. The ghost of a smile could be felt within the orange and red mask that was the Fire Spirit’s face as she watched the scene until the shaping was done.

His human limits demanded a moment’s rest afterwards. He adjusted the temperature of the forge and then set the jacket that was already in its boat-shape into it to start heating up. He refueled with a quick snack and replenished his water supply, and then outlined the next phase for the Fire Spirit to comprehend based on Urus previous performance and the amount of metal he was working with.

Then it was back to work.

The jacket heated up enough to where it could be used, so he had her keep it steady as he slid the core into place and held the rod connecting it. Then he took up the hammer and smote the core into its jacket. Sparks bloomed and fire spat as it was wedged into place since the core had cooled enough to where it wouldn’t shape the inside and cause his efforts to need further correcting. Eventually, the residual heat from the jacket brought the core up to match.

He flipped it onto its side and began to hammer at it as hard as he could. It was so they would naturally meld together with any gaps being squeezed out so there was no air inside of it. Urus kept the heat up so that he could weld them together until they were truly made into one. Then he returned them to the forge as one completed billet and once it was up to temperature began the process of squaring it out.

It was late by the time that Welf had retreated from his workshop.

Night had long fallen by the time he finished squaring it out. Looming silence permeated the Second Floor and had done so for some time. The hands of the clock hanging from the wall was closing in on its midnight stroke.

Sweat and steel filled his nostrils. His muscles that had been stressed through the pounding of hot metal were aching. His stomach gnawed away at him from the inside, demanding compensation for staving off its pains while he worked until now like a child seeking attention.

Welf would comply. But first he slipped into the closest bathroom to cleanse himself of the proof of his hard work. No one else on the Second Floor had been awake so he didn’t need to worry about someone else taking it up. The squeak of a knob was followed by the drum of the water beating against his skin and he went through the motions while his mind comb through everything that still needed to be done.

Then he stopped the shower. Toweled himself dry. Dressed for the night. And then he made his way down to the First Floor of the Silver Guild to head towards the Kitchen.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

His footsteps paused as he caught the sound of hammer falls coming from the central forge area. He had to head that way to get through to the Kitchen, but he didn’t expect anyone else to be up now. He opened the door and was greeted by the distant silhouette shrouded in the orange glow of a forge at work, sparks blooming with each hit.

It was the Silver Master at work.

The large smith was busy working a bar of steel into shape by himself. One hand was using tongs that had a cup-shape holding the tang portion firm. The other took a smaller hammer to the end and forged the glowing tip.

He was striking beneath where the tip would be, causing the end to bulge out and become convex as he flipped between one side to the other. It was drawing out the tip the closer he got to the end and would form a fine tip. His eyes never left his work even as he suddenly spoke up. “If yer fixin’ to get somethin’ ta eat, yer gonna hafta deal with leftovers.”

“That’s fine,” Welf said. “I didn’t expect you to still be up, Master.”

“Order ta Vance needin’ to be filled,” he explained. “Iron Sabers by the dozen. Journeymen have their own orders, so it’s up ta me.”

He likely would have been finished well before now if not for the fact that he had to assist the others as well. His apprentices had a big day coming and they needed his guidance. But he couldn’t neglect his duties to patrons who came to him for quality blades. So he was spending late nights working the forge.

“How’s yer…project comin’ …so far?” Bron asked between adjustment strikes.

“We still need to draw out the blade to its full length,” Welf stated. Once that was done he would cut off the tip and save it for later use with the guard. Then forge the tip over into a slope so that the hardened edge ran along the sword from belly to spine and start the beveling for the edge. “I think we can get the profiling done within two days.”

They were cutting it dangerously close. “I wanna call ya overly ambitious for makin’ a blade with that much effort in so short time. It’d be one-thing if ya had more time or yer Guardian Beast was more accustomed, but yer handlin’ the workload yerself. No time for buildin’ technical skill with it, that blade’ll be what determines the outcome—if ya finish it.”

Welf acknowledged it. “That can’t be helped. The sword needs to be able to last not only in the preliminaries but in the Labyrinth. I don’t want regrets.”

“Hrm.” The grunt was thick and spoke of his opinion without words. “No sheathin’ a blade like that. I’ll use Magnetic Ore to create a band and holster.”

The question of how he was going to sheathe it had been on Welf’s mind. But he was content with simply carrying it until after the preliminaries. “Will you have time to do that when you have so many orders?”

“It’s the duty of a master to provide fer his apprentices,” Bron stated in a tone that said not to argue with him on it. “So just focus on gettin’ it done properly. I expect nothin’ less than the best damn blade ya could make with the materials ya have considerin’ Magnetic Ore comes Iron Giants from the Lower Floors.”

“Of course,” Welf vowed. “The duty of the smith is to make something that will last after all, and that means the best.”

There were no more words after that. The Silver Master went back to his work. The stray apprentice he had taken in ate what was left and went to back to his room to rest. Tomorrow would be another busy day.

Laying on his bed, his gaze turned over to mouth of the forge that had stopped running but still baked the room with its lingering heat. The Fire Spirit whose flame burned bright now gently flickered within the forge. Her limits had been reached for that day and in deep slumber she laid.

There was little she could do aside from providing the constant heat and occasionally act as a second set of hands. She was still too inexperienced to work as a hammering partner for something like this. But even so he was grateful she was still giving it her all to bring the blade to life.

It was because of that he had no fear of failure.

They would finish in time.

Fanfic Recommendation 121

My Fanfics

Rabbit of the Moon 21

Summary: In a different world, Bell Cranel died at the hands of the Minotaur on the Fifth Floor. The Moon Presence, searching for a new Hunter to bring the long night to an end, just so happened to stumble across his soul on the way to Heaven. Thus a contract was established.

The Stray Smith: Prologue – 2

Summary:“A Sword is not Strength. A Sword is not Skill. A Sword is not Fellowship.” These were the tenets of the Craftknight. And for the amnesiac Welf, they became a truth upon his time spent in the City of Swords as part of a story involving eight apprentices, four swords, and what lay at the bottom of the Labyrinth of Wystern.

Fanfics that I have found interesting and have recently been updated

A RWBY Fanfic

Summary: Jaune applied to Beacon with his fake transcripts – his rejection was all but guaranteed. What wasn’t expected was that a single ticked box put down on a secondary school choice might change his life forever. Beacon may have rejected him, but there is more than one academy on Remnant and more than one way to become a hero. Atlas Academy, and it’s quasi-military structure, await.

A Mobuseka SI Fanfic

Summary: Three guys get teleported into the world of Mobuseka in place of Leon and have to survive in a world where women look down on men, they may be in their own future, and Luxion has ties to the UN that desperately struggled against the oncoming New Humans.

A Xenoblade Chronicles 3 x Xenoblade Chronicles 1 & 2 Fanfic

Summary: With the restart of Origin, the worlds were supposed to be reverted to their states right before the convergence, but something goes wrong and the system is forced to go back to earlier backups, back when their original creator was still alive. This process caused errors small enough to be ignored by the system. These errors take the form of the eight members of Ouroboros, who find themselves spread across the worlds of the Bionis and Mechonis and Alrest with their abilities and, more importantly, their memories still intact, right when two adventures were about to start that would change their respective worlds forever.

A MHA Fanfic

Summary: When Midoriya Izuku was 4 his quirk finally manifested. The doctor named it psychokinesis, but his friend Bakugou Katsuki called it worthless and weak. For the next 10 years, Izuku would grow up bullied and isolated, convinced his quirk was good for nothing, but still holding onto the distant dream of becoming a hero. Then, when a new student named Uraraka Ochako, who shares his same dream, transfers into his class the last year of jr high, everything changes.

Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 21 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]

Chapter 21: Weaving The Threads of Tragedy

The workshop within the backroom of the Blue Pharmacy was filled with a spicy-sweet scent.

The aroma laced the wafting steam rising from the bubbling cauldron. Slow-burning flames stationed within a brick furnace that was anchored against the stonewall had brought the contents nestled within it to the boiling point. The water inside was evaporating and in doing so condensing down the residual powder that would serve as part of the mixture for a medicinal ointment.

The faucet attached to the sink dripped unhurriedly. Freshly washed measuring cups were drying out next to a metal stirrer that laid on over the rim. A jar containing herbs soaking in distilled water rested nearby with condensation trailing down the side.

Scribbling could be heard from the table resting against the wall in a corner of the room. It was nestled by a shelf upon which rows of reference books could be seen. Its topics ranged from toxicology, biology, and herbology to almanacs that touched on the weather, seasonal patterns, and monster manuals.

Sitting down on a stool from which the fluffy brown tail that marked her as a Chienthrope swayed off to one side was Naaza Erisuis.

She was dressed in a long skirt with a tunic that was asymmetrical, the left sleeve being short enough to expose her bare arm while the right one hid it from view completely. Her purple eyes half-hidden behind messy locks of brown hair were fixed onto a set of six vials that were all filled with the base fluids for a work in progress. It was the new potion she had been working on for such a long time.

Countless hours of studying various texts. Experiments with the different materials to create an optimal solution. Deriving the mixing patterns to ensure effectiveness had been a nightmare. But all together they brought her to this moment as she slowly added individual reagents one-by-one to the set of rows and see how they reacted.

The first vial’s color turned a shade of purple. Her nose, which was her sharpest sense, detected the faint hint of a rotting fruit scent that had resulted. The medicine had become a poison due to the chemical reaction from the extract, exacerbating the wrong properties. She capped it to stop the smell from spreading and chalked it up as the first failure.

The second vial’s color slowly turned into a light red hue. Light bubbling from the vial showed the chemical reaction was a lot more violent than intended. She couldn’t detect the previous scent when it had finished, indicating that it had removed part of the compound and the intended use of the finished result. Another failure.

The third and fourth vials didn’t fare much better. And considering she had diluted the materials in spring water from the Middle Floor of the Dungeon that had revitalizing properties, that meant it had cost them quite a bit. More so since the fountain tended to dry up depending on the timing and how long it would take to well up again.

Once she set down the second-to-last vial, another failure, the despair that has slowly been swelling in her chest returned. She was so sure that one of them would work. That was why she had spent so much time researching every possible combination. Not to mention the costs of gathering the reagent components and how dire their financial situation was. If this didn’t work…

It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Her left fingers instinctively reached for her right shoulder, where flesh gave way to smooth metal inlaid at the joints with gemstones beneath the cloth. The artificial limb there was a masterwork that could only be wrought by the hands of one who had reached the pinnacle of skill with their craft. Not merely some prosthetic that was shoddy and would render her unable to work, but possessing tactile feedback for unwavering precision and additional sensory input.

It was the embodiment of Lord Miach’s generosity.

And the embodiment of her sin in dragging such a wonderous god into poverty.

They had once been a Pharmaceutical Familia that was among the most prominent within Orario. Great enough to rival the Dian Cecht Familia that now sat as the best within the Labyrinth City, frequented by Adventurers of all ranks. A rivalry between the two divines started in the Heavens above and carried on when they descended below, recruiting children to their cause and bequeathing them with their knowledge.

The competition was fierce but friendly. In challenging one another it forced their skills to improve, and with it, the quality of medical assistance provided to the citizens of Orario rose as well. It was once joked that between their Familia there would come a day when they would be able to cure even death itself.

And then all it took was a single mistake for her to break that cycle to pieces.

There was no more friendly but fierce competition. Lord Miach was cast down into the depths of poverty and forced to bow his head before Dian Cecht. And he loved to stand above and lord it over them every time he personally came to collect upon the loan owed and take in the extent of their fall.

Their Familia had dwindled to only the two of them. The others left them behind despite everything Lord Miach had done for them. The worst of them joined the very one who put them into that state. And their debt was so massive that no one would join such a poor Familia and inherit the burden of paying for it.

It was only because of sleepless nights and the fact that she had the Synthesize Development Ability prior to then that they were barely hanging on. She had the knowledge and could work with what they had. Everything he had taught her had been able to keep them afloat until now.

But only just that.

They had been relegated to a small store nestled so far away from the main street that customers were scarce. The name of their Familia no longer reached the ears of the upper ranks of Adventurers, but instead the poor and desperate. They had no hope of ever climbing out of poverty within her lifetime when the very debt itself had been taken in her name. And yet…

He cried tears of joy when he saw her arm work for the first time. He thanked her for working so hard for his sake. He never blamed her for their fall into ruin. He smiled every time he saw her to this day.

He still loved a woman like her who had dragged him down into poverty and shame.

…It was an innocent but unforgivable sin to drag a man like Lord Miach so low. Her mistake had cost him everything. His status, his Familia, and even his pride as one of the divine. Yet he asked for so little in return.

She had to atone. And the only way to do so was to undo her mistake. To raise him up even higher than before. If it was for his sake, then she’d do whatever it took. She would sacrifice anything for the sake of it.

…The shift in the scent had been subtle. It had been something that had almost eluded even her keen senses. But it hadn’t. The moment she caught wind of it her eyes drifted from the embodiment of her sin to the embodiment of her hopes—the final vial.

The smell was rich. The hue was now a deep, dark blue. Her breathing hitched as she gently grasped it in her artificial arm and her lips trembled as the fear of failure waged against the fleeting hope. Her unflinching arm brought it to her lips and she took a sip…

The results were immediate. The weariness from hours of study and preparation of the various concoctions melted. Her mind that had been mired in doubts sharpened with newfound clarity. The restoration of physical stamina and mental energy.

Hope blossomed in the form of hot tears slipping from the corners of her eyes. Her atonement. Their salvation. It was literally in her very grasp.

She set it down and went over the notes she had accrued for that specific formula. It had been the accumulation of thousands of hours and hundreds of experimentation using nearly every material that she could get her hands on. Some of it was through legitimate means but others less so, Adventurers who possessed damaged goods that wouldn’t be able to fetch a decent price at the Guild or were willing to run an unofficial Quest for the sake of tax-free valis.

The secret component until now was something actually common, but getting her hands on them had been a gamble considering it could be constituted as contraband depending on how it was obtained. If it was listed for medicinal purposes and a fee was paid, then she could have gotten it through legitimate means since they were a Pharmaceutical Familia. But given the costs and how she had to keep quiet on what she was doing to avoid Dian Cect and Amid taking away her only chance, she had elected disreputable means.

Monster eggs were the final thing that had been missing. They were something that existed only outside of the Dungeon. Monsters born within the womb of that hellish place possessed unparalleled strength because their magic stones came straight from the source. But it was a different story for monsters outside of it.

The Ancient Era had long passed and with the Age of the Gods came their decline. Their strength wavered and the ones that were above had to resort to instinctually breeding and reproducing via laying eggs. Without a direct connection to the Dungeon the magic stones that crystallized within their eggs and gave them life diminished in size and the power they provided. As a result, their individual strength wavered over hundreds of generations even as their numbers remained high.

Such small magic stones weren’t even fit for most of the technology used today, which was why Orario being able to export them from the Dungeon made it a global power. Drop items were also rarer because they were so weak that the magic wouldn’t be able to concentrate within individual parts as easily. That’s why no Adventurer would think to look outside the Dungeon for something of value from the monsters.

Her desperation had led to her taking the gamble and it paid off. In order to support the growing lives inside of them the eggs had to have special nutrients within the yolk that the embryos could sustain themselves off until they hatched and were ready to survive on their own. Isolating and refining it to take out the most essential components had given her the key to the stimulation of Mind production.

That being said the result she had now was so minuscule that it wouldn’t be enough to just resort to collecting the eggs of Goblins. If she took into account that larger monsters would require more proportionally potent nutrients to sustain them as they grew, then she would need something from the Large category and ideally more ravenous. Something that needed a high intake to survive out of the egg would need more nutrients inside of it.

She reached for a bestiary that was a remnant of her days as an Adventurer. Her eyes skimmed over the pages until they settled on Bloodsaurus, a Level Three Monster due to where it was located and the strength it possessed. It was a species normally only found on the Thirtieth floor within an area known as the Dense Forest Ravine, a heavily forested area that was high in humidity and semi-tropical temperatures. The nature of the floor meant even crops spawned there though most Agricultural Familia lacked anyone capable of heading that deep to retrieve them personally.

That in mind she pulled out a map of the surroundings and searched for all the forested areas around the Labyrinth City, even past the Fianna’s Causeway. Then reached for a listing of travel routes in and out of Orario meant for merchants. They contained warnings for them along with sightings of monsters that were used to determine the price of hiring an escort.

Her organic hand settled on one place in particular—The Deep Seoro Forest. It was located at the base of the Alm Mountains located east of Orario. It boasted the closest terrain to that of their native environment and there were sightings, so she knew that she could get them there. The problem was how to do so discreetly.

The formula would only be valuable as a bargaining tool for her debt if it was unknown until she finished. Dian Cect would notice if she put out a Quest for someone to retrieve the eggs and then it would lose its value. And even if the Bloodsaurus weren’t nearly as much of a threat as if they were born in the Dungeon, the costs of clearing them out to retrieve the eggs from their nests would be… not inconsequential.

…Focus on the problem in front of you. She shelved that for the moment since if she couldn’t cross the immediate problem then she wouldn’t get anywhere. Namely the Blue PapillionPapillion Wings being one of the key components.

It was one of the few monsters that could actively heal others. The regenerative and restorative properties of one of the rarest monsters on the Upper Floors were very much desired for any Medical Familia. So much so that most of the experiments leading up to this one consisted of it.

It was also expensive due to those reasons. Not only was the monster in question rare, but the floor was one where Killer Ants spawned. Since they could cause a Monster Parade on their own and had such hard shells, requesting someone retrieve the amount she needed would be something she couldn’t afford.

It would be a different story if she could still go there herself, but…

Her thick drooping ears rose as the slightly tarnished brass bell affixed to the front door jingled. It was too soon for Dian Cect to be arriving. She rose to her feet and made for the door that would lead from the workshop to the storefront, cracking it open to see who had stepped into their little shop.

It turned out to be Bell Cranel who passed through the entrance. He was closing the door gently, shutting out the amber rays of the evening sun and leaving only the artificial light of the magic-stone lanterns to illuminate the interior around them. His red eyes seemed nearly as tired as hers while they skimmed the wooden shelves that lined the walls and rose to his chest.

The rows contained containers and bottles that housed different sundries suitable for the daily living of residents that one would expect from a pharmacy. She had made them for non-Adventurers to expand their clientele by providing shampoo and soaps for cleanliness, containers of small pills or bottles of remedies meant for simple ailments, and salves that could be applied to bruises and injuries to numb the pain and stem the flow of blood. None of which Adventurers really needed but civilians found them useful.

Lord Miach had introduced them. He was a nice but gullible boy, courteous enough that he even looked down at his boots to make sure he wasn’t bringing in too much excessive dirt into the store before he stepped off the welcoming mat. She appreciated that.

The grating of hinges drew his vision towards the back of a long, wooden counter that had a small pile of books stacked over on the left side with a hefty pouch tied atop it. She stepped out of the iron-banded wooden door nestled behind two cabinet shelves that had glass doors covering them and greeted him in a soft voice. “Have you come to buy something, Bell?”

He gave a slight nod of his head before he approached the counter. “I’ve come to buy Antidotes and Potions. Two of each for now.”

“Antidotes?” Her head tilted for a moment before she looked over to the left shelf where there were vials stationed that had a variety of different colors. Those were the ones that dealt with things outside of plain damage—mental exhaustion and status ailments. The ones on the right were those meant for restoring one’s health but were mostly plain colored. “Have you already made it all the way down to the Seventh Floor already?”

“That’s right,” Bell answered. “I found myself into a party with two others thanks to Lady Hestia and we’re heading down to that floor soon. But since there are monsters that can inflict poison, it was decided that we should get supplies ready.”

“I suppose someone who could kill a Silverback wouldn’t have any trouble getting that far so soon.” There was a slight hum in her throat as she turned back towards the door she had entered through for a moment and considered his usefulness beyond a sweet but easy mark. Her ears then twitched before she turned back to him. “…Bell, would you be willing to do me a little favor?”

His moon-toned hair shifted as he tilted his head. “I don’t mind if it’s something I can do.”

“I was going to post this as a Quest with the Guild originally,” she lied as easily as she breathed while pulling a notepad from beneath the counter along with a quill. “But since you’ll be going to the Seventh Floor where they can be found, I’ll give it to you directly. If possible, could you collect about five of the drop items from a monster known as a Blue Papillion? As for a reward…”

Her purple eyes rose from the notepad over towards the right cabinet, where behind the looking glass were vials of Potions. They were the ones that were available for around 500 valis that Bell came to purchase, being suitable for most normal injuries. “Since you’re in a group now, I would be willing to grant you two dozen Potions as a reward—a value of 12,000 valis.”

Bell looked up in surprise at that offer. “Is it okay to give that much?”

She nodded her head slowly. “It would be a big help since those wings are useful when it comes to making Potions. They are considered rare monsters, but if you happen to come across them while you’re on that floor keep me in mind.”

“All right.” He rolled up the quest notice and set it into his pocket before pulling out the payment for the Potions and Antidotes he needed now. “I’ll look into finding them.”

“Just bring them straight to me when you obtain them.” And with that, the exchange was made for the goods. She saw the boy off with a slight wave that fell once he passed through it, leaving her to sigh softly as she looked back to the cabinet.

It wouldn’t take much for him to figure out the value of what she was asking if he searched, so she needed to sweeten the pot. But to give him that many would also mean she couldn’t afford other things she needed. Her dour expression then fell to her sleeved arm as she considered a way to remedy that… one she had gotten all too used to by now.

Naaza braced the silver arm for a moment in absolute silence as she remembered her goal.

She had sworn to raise Lord Miach up high once more no matter what. The solution had literally been in her grasp mere minutes ago. The longer she took the less time she had to act upon it. Nothing was off the table, no matter what she had to sacrifice.

Not even if it meant betraying the Hippocratic Oaths she’d sworn.

Or that earnestly gullible boy.


The morning sun beat down over the expanse that was Central Park.

Babel—the white spire that was erected as a monument to the divine after their descent to the Lower World. It stretched to the very firmament from the heart of Orario. Its length cast a shadow that ran long like the hand of a clock that slowly made its way around as time moved forward.

Liliruca kept to herself on a bench in the park. It was set at the base of one of the trees that had been planted within the forest of stone. The little sections of greenery served to drink in the heat from the sunbaked streets while adding to the decorum of the park along with the fountains.

She was alone at the moment, with the bushes ringing the tree keeping her oversized bag out of view. The boy who was to serve as her shield against retribution had yet to arrive. But despite the threat that Ged still represented she wasn’t worried about herself right now.

Because at the moment she was not Liliruca Arde. She was not a Supporter of the Soma Familia. She was simply a curious Chienthrope child watching as the brave Adventurers set off into the great hole that rested beneath the tower that rose to the sky.

Cinder Ella—that was the name of her magic. She had heard once upon a time that the magic granted by the Falna was the manifestation of their deepest desire. It had been a long time since she had been told that. So long she couldn’t remember the name of the person who it was that had told her in the first place.

But for Liliruca it was an absolute truth. Because the essence of her magic was that it gave her the one thing that she desperately wanted above all else. The thing she had only a brief glimmer of when she first ran away from the Soma Familia.

It gave her the chance to live another life where she could be happy.

Like something out of a fairy tale, she could stop being herself and instead become someone else with the muttering of three lines. She could become a member of the most beautiful and graceful race as an Elf. She could become a coy yet cheerful Cat Person. She could become a brawny Dwarf that strode down the stone streets with confidence in every step.

The only limitation was that her size didn’t change. But over time she had become more and more proficient. The transformations gradually became more expansive and defined, going from merely changing her clothes to even taking on the traits of other races. There was a very real chance that even her size could become malleable with enough time and practice.

But it was still a lie in the end.

No matter how exquisite the life she could live beneath the glamour of it. No matter how real it seemed. Liliruca would always be reminded that it was just a dream once the spell was broken. Everything would be as it was before at the stroke of the midnight bell.

And she would just be herself. A Pallum who had to eat scraps tossed to her. A Supporter who had to beg for the brave Adventurers to take her with them into the Dungeon because she was little and weak to become one. A Thief who did what it took to survive.

That was her reality. Her magic offered her a chance to escape reality by letting her dream of the life she could have lived the way she had when she had found a family to take her in. But she would be right back where she started once the dream ended, just like how that brief moment of happiness ended as quickly as it began.

It was so tempting to completely drown herself in becoming someone else entirely and getting lost in the dream. But every time she came across the members of the Familia whose emblem was emblazoned on her back, she was reminded of what awaited her should she allow herself to become dependent on the escape from her life it offered. And if there was one thing she desperately refused to be it was like the addicts that had their souls stolen by Soma’s brew.

Liliruca was a liar. She was a thief. She was a manipulator. That had become her reality for a long time now when her first attempt to leave behind the Soma Familia had failed. Her magic only came into existence once she swore revenge on Adventurers and their ilk, as if bubbling up from the desire for revenge itself.

But at the very least she could claim that she was the master of her own soul.

He’s here. Her senses enhanced by her magic picked up Bell’s scent as he approached. She didn’t smell Ged anywhere nearby, so she could only assume he hadn’t arrived. It would just be another workday.

She slipped into the bushes and undid her transformation out of view before pulling her way out with her bag and going up to him. No need for magic. Just the face she put on for work to survive. “Morning, Master Bell. Are you ready to go back down into the Dungeon with Lili and collect lots of magic stones?”

“Yes, but…” His brows scrunched up for a moment in thought. “Lili, would you know a place on the Seventh Floor where Blue Papillions spawn frequently?”

The Pallum looked up at the inquiry. “…Lili has some idea where to look. but is there a reason Master Bell asked? Last time he mentioned not going to the next floor without his Party.”

A hum briefly escaped his throat in confirmation before he pulled out a sheet of parchment and handed it to her. It looked like a Quest, but not quite touched up to the extent that it would be posted on the board. “A friend who owns a Pharmaceutical Familia asked me to retrieve five in exchange for a dozen Potions. You said that I’m capable of going down deeper before and it wouldn’t just be because I want to do it—”

“No need to explain to Lili. Master Bell wanted to procure them ahead of time for his other Party, yes?”

He nodded. “I figured it would be the best way I can contribute to the group and not weigh them down by going entirely blind. What we have now will more than make up the cost for the Antidotes that were going to me, so getting just a little ahead couldn’t hurt.”

She bobbed her head along with his justification, regardless of how flimsy it sounded to her knowing the need to contribute to his Party because he felt the least experienced based on what she could gather from their discussion. It was a common sentiment in fresh adventurers who hadn’t yet cut their teeth on the life. That also made it a very common tactic for members of the Soma Familia to prey on newbies like him by feeding into that.

And when they were done, the Seventh Floor was the perfect place to get rid of them.

Accidents happen after all. For people who don’t know better the spike in difficulty really catches them by surprise. Bell probably bought Antidotes expecting the Purple Moths, but really there were far greater threats for the unaware.

Not that she particularly cared if it didn’t involve her, but she still needed him to be around if she was going to deal with Ged. Knowing he was going to run off on his own the moment she turned her back, it was smarter for her to help him now rather than letting him try to do it on his own as he planned. “However, the fact that Master Bell asked Lili if she knew where to look rather than ask her to show him means he probably intended to go alone, yes?”

It was a natural assumption. She had seen his type before and he was mostly easy to read. The overprotectiveness towards her from projecting someone else onto her meant he’d want to exclude her from something too dangerous. But he was also overconfident to think he could handle such a thing alone with only whatever scraps of knowledge others gave him and his current preparations.

Hence why she told him in as saccharine a manner as possible the immediate flaws in his plans. “Master Bell doesn’t have a map or knowledge of the floor structure, so it would be easy to get lost on his own. In addition, unlike magic stones, Papillion Wings are delicate. They need to be carefully harvested or else their value will drop. More so considering how rare they are and how Master Bell has not encountered such a monster before. If the Quest giver needed them in pristine condition, then it would require an experienced hand in gathering fragile materials.”

Blue Papillion and Purple Moths were soft-bodied and didn’t require a lot of force to kill. Their advantage for survival was to take to the sky and rain from above, using other monsters as shields or distractions. Damaging the wings was dreadfully easy even if the monster itself was gone and left them behind as a Drop Item, with the oils of the hands being more than capable of eroding them—let alone how being anything more than delicate would result in tearing them.

She turned her head downwards enough and put on a small frown that one would expect from a child as she finished her lecture with a soft, “Or does Master Bell not need Lili anymore to do that?”

The way he grimaced showed she hit the mark. The implication hadn’t been present in how he presented it, but it was easy to interpret it that way. And while she hadn’t really done so, he didn’t know that. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that…”

“Lili knows that Master Bell does not want to put her in potential danger he cannot be sure to protect her from,” she filled in. “However, Lili is best suited for aiding Master Bell in this endeavor if he intends to go on his own without his Party, as she can guide him best to avoid unnecessary danger. And has Lili not proven she can avoid troubling Master Bell to this point?”

“…You’re right.” His tone was one of resignation as those facts registered. She was more suited for harvesting than him and they both knew it. If he still didn’t take her, he would be implying that she wasn’t good enough even after all she had done and that she was causing him trouble when prior he said that she hadn’t been. “I didn’t mean to belittle your experience, but I didn’t want to put you at risk.”

“Lili did not take it personally. She knows that Master Bell only has the best intentions.” She rocked on her feet as played on his naivety. There were some benefits that she could see from helping him here aside from Ged. “Hunting rare monsters in this way will require preparation. If Master Bell will follow Lili, we can get started while it is early.”

The first stop was at a notice board where Lili checked some of the listings posted by the guild. One of them was something called a Sweeping Schedule. She explained that Dungeon Floors on the Upper Floors were occasionally swept up by Adventurers off the beaten path to avoid the risk of a Monster Parade—an incident where several monsters would swarm in great numbers.

It was a Quest offered by the Guild regularly and reported as general information that was provided by the Guild. And it was often taken by middling Familia to grind up some of their lower members or to help in acquiring the Hunter Developmental Ability. The Seventh Floor had been swept not too long ago by the Apollo Familia, which was fortunate since it meant that it would be safer to do what she had in mind.

The next was equipment procurement. Bell followed her to a shop that specialized in adventuring gear for exploration and paid for everything that Lili said they would need if they were going to do this. That included a camouflage cloak, some monster lures, repellants, and some additional ammunition for her wrist-mounted crossbow since his ranged weapon would cause so much noise.

By the time they were done, the morning rush had gone through the Upper Floors and so they had no issue making it down to the Seventh Floor. They were there until the evening, but her plan proved successful in the end. He was so happy he didn’t even consider that the equipment he bought for her factored into her payment and gave her half of the magic stones that they had collected on the way up.

Lili couldn’t help but think that he was too naïve for his own good. That served her purposes for now, but she genuinely hoped he would learn to grow a little more skeptical for his own sake when it was all over. Otherwise, people would take advantage of him until they ran him into an early grave.

That included her.



An angry shout was punctuated by the sole of a boot slamming against the bottom rail of a large, cast-iron swing gate that stood between two men with the emblem of a goblet nestled within the cradle of a crescent moon worked into its design. It didn’t remotely grab the attention of the nearly immaculately dressed swordsman with gray hair who continued to walk further into the compound without looking back while disheveled-looking men and women were watching with sneering grins nearby.

Their gazes only served to further infuriate Ged Raish as he picked himself up from the ground. The left side of his face stung as he spat onto the emblem itself with a glob of spit consisting of blood mixed with saliva in an act of disrespect to the Soma Familia itself. Then he stormed away past the towering wall and down an alleyway before he slammed the bottom of his fist against the wall.

He had been searching for the Pallum since he’d been denied his chance to exact justice against the thieving Supporter. But the slippery rat had been difficult to track down to this point. So he came to demand reparations for what was stolen or else he’d take it to the Guild.

It was foolish to expect the Familia of the Pallum would be better than her. They were the same kind of scum at the end of the day. Thieving and conniving addicts. He damned them all and made to leave when the sound of boots on concrete reached his ears.

Ged drew the long sword off his back and pointed in the direction of the alley mouth. “Show yourself!”

That was when a stocky Raccoon turned the corner. The man had his hands up in the air. “Now, now. Don’t want any trouble. I just heard you were lookin’ into a Supporter that’s been going around besmirchin’ the name of our Familia. Me and a few fellows have also been lookin’ to take care this little problem for a while now…”

The Raccoon put on a smile that honestly sickened him.

“How about we talk out an… arrangement?

The Stray Smith: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – Forging Ahead


Night passed and morning came.

Since he had a habit of waking right as the sun was on the cusp of rising to get the forges up and running, Welf had been the first to rise. The ingrained habit led him down the stairs to the main forge area where he went through the motions since, even if the workload had dropped and the majority of the Journeymen were no longer here, a few would come in to use them for other work. Once that was taken care of, he decided to go ahead and make breakfast since the schedule for who among the Journeymen normally would make it was no longer relevant.

Bron woke up when he was in the middle of cooking, having also woken up early since he needed to handle Silver Guild business such as deliveries and the like. He looked at the meal that was being made and, once it was clear there was enough being prepared for all the apprentices, nodded approvingly. Then he left out to handle the deliveries to the local shops he had a contract with for business.

Welf had finished making the morning meal when the first to come down was Sanary. She was dressed in a set of sleeping shorts and a long nightshirt with her neck-length hair left unbound, in contrast to her normal appearance. She had clearly just woken up and regarded him for a moment before asking, “Where’s Master Bron?”

“He had to deal with the guild duties, so I’m in charge of breakfast this morning,” he explained. “It might be a bit meatier than you’re used to though. Master Bron tends to want those who live in the guild itself to eat pretty heartly, so they have the strength to work hard.”

Her response was to frown as if he had offended her. “I’m not some princess who tries to go on a diet while being a Craftknight. You need protein to put on muscle unless you plan to just let your Guardian Beast do all the work.”

You needed stamina more than strength when it came to forging but using a longsword meant she needed stronger arms to use it effectively. Looking at them now that they weren’t covered by her normal tunic, he could see they were slender but honed to a greater degree than the others. Then again he had an inkling that Sanary was around his age, which made the two of them the oldest of the apprentices and so they likely had more to work with.

“Then there’s no problem,” Welf said. “If you take a seat, I can have a plate ready for you since I was just getting ready to make my own.”

She let out a slight hum before shrugging her shoulders and taking a seat at the table that was rather long since it was meant to have everyone eating together. She crossed her leg and rested one arm on the table, eyeing him the entire time until he was done. Content that he had not done anything to her food, she gave him a rather flat, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” he answered in turn without regard for her attempt at being as distant as possible. He could tell from how quickly that argument sparked last night that she was among the most competitive in the guild so she was trying not to let her guard down around him. “So, I assume you’ll be heading straight to the Labyrinth once we receive our passes?”

She paused from eating to address him. “Of course. There’s going to be a scramble to get materials for better weapons by every other person in the tournament. That’s part of why you’re up early, right?”

“Not in particular,” Welf admitted. “I’m used to waking early. But rather than hurry through since I haven’t been there before, I intended to make preparations and finalize the technique for the weapon I plan to use in the tournament. That way I won’t have to butt heads with everyone else hurrying in the morning.”

Red eyes scrutinized his answer for a moment before she shut them. “Suit yourself.”

The small talk ended there as both of them finished their meal. Sanary gave him the courtesy of complimenting it before she headed up to one of the two bathrooms to get herself ready for the day. Welf stayed below to clean up after himself.

That was when Bron returned with a bit of news that the shop was selling Iron Ore at a steep discount, which was pretty good considering how it neatly broke down into three sets of elemental ores due to its composition. Since Welf was already awake he gave him some boam and told him to go and purchase some for whatever he had planned before the news spread around and they sold out in a hurry.

Welf set out since he had intended to go shopping for the Labyrinth exploration either way. He already had an idea of how to get the elemental ore he needed without using Iron Ore, so he didn’t feel the need to buy as much as he could. Instead, he wanted to make sure he had enough supplies for the trip—Amulets that warded away Stray Summons, Silturn Water in case his mana reserves dropped, etc.

By the time he returned the other apprentices, barring Pratty, were already eating and getting ready for the day. The Central Tower official who oversaw the issuing of Labyrinth passes had come by while he was out and handed Bron theirs. The Silver Master passed them along before Welf returned to his room and took a seat at the nearby desk.

The stray smith then set aside the ores he bought and started with the design of the blade. He needed the details of its structure before he could work out the ratio of elemental ores and how they would be implemented. He was using his current sword as a model, but he wanted there to be room for some flexibility and change.

That was another reason he planned to visit the Labyrinth later. He wanted to get a better scope of the sorts of creatures he would be using it against, along with the tournament. That way he could make something reliable enough to last in battle without neglecting the offensive capabilities.

It was when he was midway through the designing that Urus roused from what passed as slumber. Even though the Summonite Gem allowed her to return to her home realm and be called forth again at will, she seemed to prefer to stay closer to him. But since she was still unused to her new form and he didn’t want to risk waking to find that she had lit his room on fire while in a dream, they had settled on her sleeping in the forge.

She drifted closer until her flame-woven arms rested over his shoulders. It felt like nestling against a softly burning hearth, warm but not unpleasantly so. Then he spotted her incandescent eyes falling onto what he was working on and felt her gentle brush of a question against his mind.

“We’ll spend time practicing with some simple materials to get used to the process before moving on to Iron Ore tomorrow,” he answered in turn. The Iron Ore had set amounts of the elemental ores but she wasn’t experienced in pulling all three. Better to start one at a time with lesser materials and work their way up. “I’ll go ask Bron if he has any advice on the ratio distribution now since he’ll likely be busy with the others.”

Urus hung herself over his shoulders in what he presumed was a comfortable position as he made his way toward the stairs. But, before he could get down them, bickering came in from the base of it below. The voices belonged to Sanary and Pratty.

“I’m not asking for you to give it to me for free,” Pratty said with her voice unusually forceful compared to normal. She was leaning forward with Kutty on the top of her head, trying to stack up to Sanary’s height. “Just sell me one so I can make my weapon!”

Sanary merely looked down upon her, arms crossed and annoyed. “I said no. It’s your own fault for being so slow.”

“What are you two arguing about?” Welf asked as he began to make his way down the stairwell. Urus was leaning over his shoulder far enough that if she needed a center of balance she certainly would have tipped over.

Pratty’s blue eyes looked up towards him for support as she pointed an accusative finger toward Sanary. “Welf, get this! She bought up the last of the Iron Ore that Master told us was on sale. Even when I’m offering to pay for it, she won’t sell me any so I can’t make the technique that he gave me—and without a weapon, I can’t go into the Labyrinth either. It’s sabotage.”

The red-haired swordswoman bristled. “It’s not! I just so happen to buy what was left after that guy in green bought up the rest. The fact that everyone else got theirs before you is because you were so slow waking up. You’ve no one to blame but yourself.”

Welf sighed as he got the gist of the situation. Everyone else had gotten news of the sale within the Silver Guild and went out to buy it after breakfast. But because Pratty had a habit of sleeping so long she was late to get hers. No materials meant she couldn’t forge whatever weapon it was that Bron had given her, and with no weapon going into a place filled with hostile creatures was a death wish.

Add that with the fact that by their own tenets Craftknights only wielded weapons that they themselves made, Pratty was stuck unless she gathered up various items to turn into materials. But she didn’t have a good scope of what was needed since that came with time and experience. All which she lacked as an apprentice that never forged a weapon.

“Pratty, Sanary does have the right of it. You’re rivals with one another and every Iron Ore she gives you is one less she can use in her own forging.” The look of betrayal she gave him contrasted with the expression that came across the older girl’s face at the acknowledgment. “That being said, I can afford to part with a single Iron Ore for whatever price you were offering to pay her. Just leave the boam on my desk and take your time since you likely won’t have the materials to spare, and I can’t justify more than that for my own project.”

Pratty accepted that with an energetic jump that caused her Guardian Beast to settle for floating in the air rather than being tossed around. She then ran past Sanary and hugged him. “Thanks, Welf! I’ll show you my weapon when I’m done!”

She was in and out of his workshop within five seconds before she locked herself into her workshop.

Sanary only shook her head but said nothing else. She just continued down the stairs without looking back. Considering that she had her battle clothes and her sword on her back, he could only assume that she was getting ready to go to the Labyrinth.

Welf hoped that things between her and Pratty improved. They were all members of the same guild in the end. Just because they were rivals didn’t mean they needed to be enemies.


Pratty shut the door to her workshop once her Guardian Beast floated in behind her. “Thanks to Welf being reasonable, we can get started on our first weapon. Isn’t it exciting, Kutty?”

She unfurled the technique given to her by the Silver Master and laid it out on the table. It was called the [Novice Knife] and was meant for beginning Journeymen to craft once they had their Guardian Beast due to the lack of complexities. It was just a multi-purpose knife that was well-balanced and cost-efficient when it came to materials to make a Sword-Type weapon—the kind of weapon her father used the most.

It only required ten elemental ores—five Fire Ores and Wind Ores. The fire ones would be turned into the blade and the tang. The wind ones would be turned into the hilt and pommel. It was a pretty plain weapon, but Master Bron had assured her it would be fine for her to get a feel for using a weapon.

The magical beast only regarded the design for a moment before letting out an unimpressed, “Ku.

Pratty puffed out her cheeks at the response. She couldn’t tell if his dismissive attitude was towards the weapon itself being simplistic, since he had probably worked on more impressive things with her father, or if he just wasn’t interested at all. She was still having trouble getting a read on his behavior at times.

“Anyway, Master Bron said that it was simple enough to us make and use,” Pratty continued as she went over to the forge and lit it. “You might be rusty since you were out of practice for three years, but I’ll be counting on your help.”

That done she waited until the forge was hot before she added the pink crystals that contained the blessings of Parista within them to one of the chambers that made up the forge. The red-hot flames in it began to turn a more vibrant hue as the crystals broke down and became kindling to imbue the fire with the ability to burn away the material essence. Then she slid the Iron Ore into that section of the forge and closed it shut, watching through the pane as the transformation happened.

The materials lapped by the flames began to glow as the heat sank in. There was a mixture of colors swimming around loosely that she could make out as they bled to the surface—red, green, and blue that represented the elements housed within it. The colors grew more vivid as the ore itself began to shed motes of light that showed the process was nearing completion until it completely evaporated and the forge was filled with the rampant colors dancing among the flames as they were now free of physical constraints.

“Kutty!” She called out to the magical beast that had gone over to her bed and decided to drift off while waiting for the forge to do its work. He roused with a slight yawn before poking his eyes up from beneath his cap. “The ore’s been broken down. Your turn.”

He floated over towards the forge and peered through the opening before extending both of his gloved hands. The adorable features of his face became focused as he began to radiate light from gathering his mana and then reaching out to the turbulent colors floating around in the chamber. They stirred like they were in a twister, the process separating them neatly into different hues of glowing balls before he made a noise and gestured at the handle.

Pratty interpreted that as the signal to open the forge, so she did. The heat from the flames blasted her with their warmth before the assorted balls of color emerged and then floated over to the nearby tray. Then there was a flash of light as they crystalized into three sets of five colored blocks stacked onto one another.

“Wow, they’re all neat and everything.” She couldn’t help but be impressed. Pratty had seen elemental ores before, but usually, they were rough in shape rather than so neat and defined. If she had to guess it was because he had two decades of experience in the process compared to a new Guardian Beast. “Good job, Kutty!”

The floating bundle of fur somehow managed to make a rather smug smile as he crossed his arms and nodded his head. It was as if he was saying that was to be expected of him. “Ku. Ku. Ku.

“Don’t get a big head just yet, Mister,” Pratty said as she pushed aside the water ones. Those could be saved for later. “We need to put the red ones back into the forge while the flames still have Parista’s blessing so you can recombine them into the base of the knife. Then do the same for the green ones for the handle and pommel before the blessing wears off.”

It didn’t take nearly as long as it did before for them to break down once they were back inside the chamber specifically for processing the elemental ores. In their pure state, they easily turned into their formless state and the Guardian Beast could force them together into a shape closer to that of a weapon. In this case, Kutty would be making the shape into the blade and tang of the knife using the fire ones based on the proper measurements that Master Bron had written down. Then they could heat them in the main section of the forge like ordinary steel where regular flames would make them more physically malleable so that they could start working on the rest of the profiling and beveling.

Kutty gave her an annoyed chuff at having to do so, but never once did he stray or lose focus in the process. It was clear that the time spent with Shintetsu had passed on a lot of lessons going from a Journeymen to a Craftlord. Not only did he speed up certain parts of the forging, but he even corrected the mistakes she was getting ready to make, like when she nearly pinched the bevel instead of compressing it by angling the blade wrong before hammering it.

Then there was filing those bevels down on both sides before curving them to their edges. She had to do that before she put it back into the forge at low heat for the heat treatment and then quench it to harden the structure of the blade so that it could hold a sharp edge. Then they would temper the metal to make it less brittle by putting it through two cycles of keeping it heated and then allowing it to cool at room temperature so that its durability was solid enough that it wouldn’t break too quickly.

While waiting for the tempering to finish they got started on the handle and pommel. Kutty put the wind blocks through the same process of breaking them down and then reconstituting them into two individual pieces. The ratio skewed the majority towards the pommel that would be peened to the tang since that was the counterbalance for the weight, allowing it to offset it to a greater degree despite being so light itself thanks to the fact that it was composed of the wind elemental ores.

After that, she eyed it to make sure that the blade was straight before she took it to the grindstone to refine the bevels. Normally, it was a slower process to make sure that not too much material was taken off. But Kutty used his wind to somehow smooth out the process and they could do the same to the handle and pommel, polishing them up before sharpening the blade.

She stood up after that and thrust the completed weapon into the air. “Woohoo, we’re done!

Her Guardian Beast lacked the same enthusiasm, instead letting out a yawn as he rubbed his eyes and then drifted down towards her bed. “Ku, kuuu…

You’re hard to please at times, aren’t you?” Even so, Pratty couldn’t bring herself to be upset considering he had done most of the harder work that she would have struggled with and made it so that they didn’t have to work out any mistakes. She imagined if he hadn’t been trained it would have been a lot harder and taken longer.

She rose to her feet, resolved to show off their work with pride to the Silver Master. But before that, she went over and ran her hand along her partner’s frame which was rising and falling with a steady rhythm of slumber. “Good night, Kutty.”


Welf made for the Central Tower sometime after midday while Pratty had been in the middle of making her first weapon.

He went beyond the guards that were stationed on the outside and passed by a few of the other apprentices who had already done their round of exploring. Some carried themselves straight and sported expressions that told they had made a grand discovery or met with success on their weapon testing. Others were despondent and making their way back to the surface without eye contact, lacking a weapon and evidence of having fled from battle with only their lives.

The moment he set foot below ground he felt in the atmosphere how different it was from the surface.

The air was damp and cool against his skin, contrasting the warmth of the salt-sweet breeze that washed throughout the City of Swords. Metal pipes threaded the steel ceiling, while a long bridge served as the sole path leading beyond the waterway that marked the boundary between above and below. The residencies of the people who came before the current era were now abandoned dwellings, stacked on top of one another with rusted ladders slouching over in surrender from the passage of time and steep stairs that were glistening from moisture that promised to send any fool that trod upon them carelessly tumbling below.

This was the smallest floor of what was once a towering city locked within steel to serve as a haven during the era of war. Each floor grew more expansive the further one made it down until they reached what had been the base of a tower that pierced the heavens. The sunken city upon which Wystern had been built now turned into a den of dangers—the Labyrinth.

Brighter than I expected, Welf mused. The light that filled it stemmed from two sources as a whole: the soft glow of the crystals that had formed over the various surfaces that made up the area and the luminous water itself that seemed to have swallowed up sunken portions of the floor.

The crystals themselves were condensed mana formed from the dissipation of the summon creatures that had met their end within the walls of the Labyrinth sealed off from the world outside. Summoners of eld loyal to Parista called forth other beings from other realms to protect the Holy Spirit of Swords that lay within the shrine below. The stray summons that existed today were descendants made by asexual reproduction, a process possible due to the physical forms they were given through the ritual that brought them into the world, and their deaths released that mana back out into the world barring particularly resilient or concentrated portions retaining their composition after their death. That which did not crystallize upon a solid surface instead clung to the water, the constant shifting of which by the ancient structure kept it from becoming solidified.

Welf’s attention was pulled over to the side by a large pad that was several paces to his left from the entranceway that thrummed with a constant din. He had been reminded before he set out that there were two conveniences that he should take advantage of within the Labyrinth, ancient devices that were still maintained within the abandoned confines by the Craftknights. This was the one known as a Teleporter.

How it worked eluded him—something or other about repurposed principles from Loreilal summon creatures that attuned to the signature of one’s mana before displacing them. What mattered was that by attuning and registering to each one he would gain easy passage between the floors. No need to run up multiple floors when there were stations positioned every few ones or so.

Once that was out of the way he made along what could arguably be called the main path. Since it had been frequently traversed before his arrival there weren’t any real threats lurking about, having no doubt been eradicated by the wandering Craftknights as they searched for materials or the hidden caches left by the Craftlords to gain an advantage over the competition. He was actually grateful since he wanted to avoid combat as much as possible for the moment—he intended to get a feel of the threats he would face but didn’t want to risk his weapon before the Second Floor.

The greatsword that he had wasn’t made through the same processes as other weapons made by Craftknights, so if he used it carelessly it would break. That would leave him defenseless barring the hammer that he kept on him. He had packed two Amulets to be safe as well, to make a cleaner retreat back to the surface.

Progressing along the pathway eventually led him to a raised platform that gave way to a window where there were only steel walls, a singular massive pane that offered an unobstructed view of the world beyond the looking glass. There fish of all colors and shapes swam freely amidst the depths that seemed to stretch on forever.

There was already a familiar figure standing there, admiring the view with a look of quiet contemplation. Her ruby gaze briefly flickered over in his direction upon hearing his footfalls crossing the bridge that connected what must have been the residential area of this floor over towards here. “Oh, it’s you. Are you only arriving now?”

“Yeah.” Welf took that as an invitation to climb up the stairs and join her. “Figured now would be the best time since by now those who found what they were looking for would be gone and the number of stray summons would be at its lowest. That would make it easier to get a gauge of the First and Second Floors without being overwhelming… I’m not interrupting you, am I?”

“Not really.” Her gaze turned back to the view spread out in front of her. “I was just taking a moment to wind down since I finished exploring the Third Floor.”

He could see that she had a bag slung over her shoulder beneath the sheath on her back, with her compact water scooter crossed over the other side. It looked like it was swollen with various shapes inside. “Sounds like you went through a lot going that far.”

“The monsters barely posed a challenge for someone on my skill level. I didn’t even have to rely on my Guardian Beast to deal with them.” The confidence in her voice brokered no falsehoods. For her, it was a simple fact. “Unfortunately, no matter how many I killed I couldn’t find the creature I was looking for. I’ll have to come back tomorrow and try again, but by then the surviving summon creatures will get their numbers back up.”

That was no doubt only possible because the concentration of mana present in the tower meant the summon creatures were never lacking. “And what are you looking for in particular?”

“Not telling.” She crossed her arms as her gaze shifted to the side towards him. “Like you told that kid earlier, the same guild or not we’re still rivals. Telling you would be taking away an advantage of mine.”

“Fair enough.” Welf simply shrugged his shoulders. There was no point in pressing her for the details and it was clear she could handle herself. Instead, he turned his attention back to the ocean view. “Can’t say I expected to see a sight like this underwater. Even if it’s reinforced, the only thing standing between the entirety of the ocean and you is a pretty thin sheet of glass.”

Her response was the opposite of his own. “It’s pretty calming for me. I came here once a few years ago and since then it’s been on my mind. Just being here makes me feel closer to my goal.”

A mild look of surprise came across the stray smith’s face. “Oh. You managed to get in before the tournament?”

“My sister snuck me here once as a reward when I was younger,” Sanary admitted, watching his reaction. When there was none of note, no awe or envy but a mere acceptance of the fact, she pressed on. “She told me that back when the tower sat high in the sky this was meant to be an observatory so that you could see into the stars above without the clouds obstructing them from view. Now it just gives you a look at the sea floor, but the sight sets me at ease. I’m happy that I can finally make it here under my own power now rather than going through a few more years as an apprentice.”

He noticed that not only her voice but her atmosphere did seem a lot less charged than when she was at the workshop. Then again, he supposed that she was treating them all like rivals she would have to step over to get to the top. It was natural she would be on edge as things began and likely would be until it was all over. “That’s a good feeling to hold onto.”

Sanary’s expression shifted once more as she quietly weighed his words. Eventually, that became too much of a hassle before she just sighed and shifted track. “Anyway, since we’re alone I’ll speak my mind. I don’t know what kind of relationship the two of you have but you should stop babying the kid back at the workshop. You might mean well, but if you hold her hand the entire time she’ll only be weaker for it in the future.”

“I’m not babying Pratty,” Welf said. “I’m just helping her while she’s starting out. Someone who never made a weapon before in their lives is going to be fighting an uphill battle the entire way, so having a smooth start can make the difference. One Iron Ore is a small price to pay to the alternative of her coming here without a means of defending herself.”

“It was only an Iron Ore this time, but what if it’s something more next?” Sanary asked, her tone indifferent as she pressed him to realize the folly of that single act. “The fact that she’s in the tournament and Master Bron is helping her should be enough, but if she’s reliant on a guy who should be competition helping her then she’s got bigger problems. Not to mention you’re a bit of a slowpoke in how you operate as well, and helping someone else will only push you further back. At least get your own affairs in order first, otherwise you won’t make it past the preliminaries.”

There was no malice in her voice. It was simply her opinion after the observations she made throughout the day and taking into account what she had seen of their relationship and behavior so far. Someone who moved at a snail’s pace in her eyes having to drag someone else along would only end up with them both falling behind the curve.

Silence lingered as Welf considered her words. Then the stray smith merely smiled and said, “Pratty isn’t slowing me down. If anything, she gave me a push needed to put more effort into it. There are only some things we can only reach for when we have someone else showing us how to get there first. It was the same for you, right?”

The gesture he made to the view they shared emphasized the point. Sanary had been shown the view before her by the sister who brought her here. So that she didn’t need to rely on someone else she became strong enough to make it that far. The path was one she walked on her own, but someone showed it to her before then and she was happier for it.

She gave him dumbfounded look at turning her own words against her before just deciding to let go. “Whatever. I’ll be heading back now. If you decide to go any lower, I’d advise you not to push to the Third Floor. Only a handful of us made it that far down and the monsters tend to start operating in groups to swarm you from all sides.”

That said, she spun on the heel of her boots and made her way out towards the bridge that Welf had come from. He watched her leave for a while before turning his gaze down towards the Summonite Gem that hung around his neck. He had taken the time to wrap it with some cording that he wove into netting, making a necklace so that he didn’t risk losing it. “Urus, you awake?”

Flames gently swaddled him from the gemstone before the half-humanoid frame of the fire spirit greeted him.

“I don’t intend to go very far below since the place is still unknown to us, but chances are we’ll be attacked. I’ll be counting on you to watch my back.”

She met his statement with an affirmative nod and the resolution to do so touched his mind.

Then they made their way to the Second Floor.

The scent of the water was far richer along with the blue tinge of light coming from it. The various canals that carried water throughout the floor had overflowed from the banks and sank some of the lower sections of the buildings. The result was that only the taller structures that made up the floor provided footing like scattered islands in a small sea.

If he had to guess, it was because on this floor in particular the system that kept the water moving and draining had become clogged to a larger degree. The lack of stagnant water was likely because of the mana permeating it. But, considering he could make out the slight protrusion of an eye peering up from the water, it was probably a smarter decision to use a water scooter to get around instead of trying to swim.

He crossed the aquatic boundary that separated him from the safety of retreating to the First Floor. The sloping walkway of what would be the base of a plaza built-in service to a purpose that no longer mattered when life spread beyond its chrome walls was his destination. It was there that was when he encountered his first stray summon.

He had to stop to do a double-take when he saw what was hopping his way. “A… pumpkin…?”

A hollow snarl clawed its way out of a non-existent throat. Its carved maw pulled back and its empty sockets narrowed. There was even the flicker of red within the shadows that filled the space where guts and seeds would before. The stray summon had undoubtedly been offended at being called a mere fruit as it slowly bound towards him like an overly rotund and orange hare.

For he who was unaware, the Pumpkeeno was a creature called forth from the realm of Silturn where mythical creatures roamed and Yokai were birthed from objects, living beings, and the forces of nature themselves. The label stretched far and wide to anything not of human descent, including that which could be called a Jack-o-Lantern in the Nameless World.

An object made to serve as a ward against Evil Spirits, it was nothing more than a hollowed-out husk carved into a fearsome visage with sharp teeth and fierce eyes before a candle was lit inside of it. Life eventually filled the vessel, and it served the purpose of a guardian that would devour spirits and turn them into fuel for its flame. To that end, it was no surprise that it was summoned during the era of the great war to fend off spiritual entities from Sapureth, though with such little mind and power, it served as little more than an attack dog—one whose masters were long gone, and it had become feral.

Welf drew his greatsword from his back. The mana inside of his body soaked outwards to form the protective aura meant to shield him from harm. He stood ready in a stance that felt familiar…

And at that moment an image flashed in his mind. Abandoned buildings became cavernous walls that shone with a pale green light. Against him for the first time was a creature that radiated hostility with eyes that shone like ominous stars.

The vestiges of memory no doubt.

It vanished as quickly as it came in the face of danger as the threat closed in.

In a single lunge, the pumpkin had crossed three meters. Its round body swelled up to more than twice its prior size. Its maw that had been carved into place warped and dislocated, lengthening as engorged fangs hung open—a living bear trap closing in on his head with the intention of replacing everything above his shoulders.

Almost on reflex, Welf took two actions.

He kicked off his hindleg to get off-line from the straight shot it had towards his head. And he swung the sword horizontally into the gaping maw. The net result was the point where the upper and lower half of its mouth clamped down on the sword as the edge bit into where they connected, sparks flashing as the instinctive aura protecting it was shaved off.

The Pumpkeeno snarled viciously like a dog with a stick in its mouth. Pale orange slobber ran over the blade as it tried to gnaw its way past the steel to get toward the flesh. But the blade was thick and heavy and hard enough that it wouldn’t snap so easily. Even so…

That jaw strength is no joke!

He could hear the groan of bladesteel straining beneath the clamped fangs. He could only imagine what that sort of pressure would do to flesh. It might look like an ornament, but the creature was a real threat.

“My sword is… not a chew toy!” Welf stomped the ground as he reoriented the blade into an overhead chop and brought it down. The ground served as a cutting board for an oversized knife. Wedged between them, the thin veil covering the creature’s body strained against the inevitable for only a moment more. Then it suffered the fate of any other pumpkin and was carved wide open.

His grey-blue eyes watched as its form dissipated into mana before he let out an exhalation. Then he looked at his sword. He could see indents in the metal from where those carved fangs had dug into.

Danger from behind.

There was no time to be concerned about the long-term implications of that as Urus’ voice touched his mind. He whirled around with his blade in a defensive stance and felt a heavy but shifting weight splashing against both the blade and his hands. Then the prickling heat gnawed against his exposed fingers. He sucked in a sharp breath as he looked at the source.

It was a Slime—an amorphous mass of undulating jelly with blue skin that was firm from a thickened outer layer. Blobby spheres that mimicked eyes floated freely on what could be generously considered the top of it. A dripping split maw exposed frothing bubbles from where it had congealed enough of its caustic insides to send a lob of acid flying toward him.

Normally, they were passive. But only in the sense that they did not actively hunt larger prey that could fight back or easily escape their movement, which was akin to molasses. It would be more accurate to say they were opportunistic. If there were enough of them to surround hapless prey, then they would come from all sides and melt away their defenses. Otherwise, they were scavengers and only followed in the wake of a stronger stray summon to clean up after them, taking in the remains and dissolving them for nourishment.

Welf closed the distance and swung the edge of the blade down into it. Its skin molded briefly underneath the blade, presenting a thicker resistance than one would expect of a living mass of caustic water. That was no doubt its rudimentary defenses at work, but it was far weaker than the previous foe. It only took a single swing of the heavy steel for the gelatinous blob to deflate and end up splattered against the ground.

“Thanks for the warning, Urus.” He shook his hands that had been covered with the acidic goop clean, knowing it could have been worse if he had relaxed his defenses. “You really can’t drop your guard here, huh?”

The body quickly evaporated into motes of mana that went on to saturate the air. However, one of the eyes that had been upturned by the force of the blade remained behind. The white sclera compressed as it dried up until the point that it was a solid mass, but the pupil itself melted away and spilled out below to reveal a hollow chamber that went from one end to the other. What was left behind resembled a bottomless cup.

He collected it and pressed on a little more carefully. Along the way, he encountered more Slimes and a few more Pumpkeeno. The former was easy enough to deal with as long as they were alone, but considering how aggressive the latter was it tended to be hard to focus on the acid-throwing globs when something was trying to eat your head.

And then there was the Gremlin, which was easily the most dangerous thing on the floor. Not because it was particularly menacing. It was a small, single-horned Oni the size of his head with mostly round bodies that floated in the air and wore what appeared to be straw ropes that had paper streamers around them. It was the fact that it could breathe out gouts of fire that were thankfully short-lived but still not something you wanted to be blasted in the face with.

Urus had taken the first blast for him since she was practically made of fire itself. But even then, it took more than a few swings to down the creature and it was liberal enough with its horn once he got close. He had used the flat of his blade to block the piercing stabs, but the impact was deceptively heavy. By the end of the battle, he had to take a break to inspect the total damage sustained by his weapon.

It had bite marks and scrapes from the jaws of the living fruits with attitude. The acid from the bags of ooze had started to gnaw away at the outer surface. And now dents and warps from the flame and horn of a small Oni—all while being only a short way into the Second Floor.

Bron had told him that the weapons of Wystern Craftknights could repair themselves as if they were living and breathing things. Something to do with the elemental ores and the abundance of mana. So long as they were not overused in battle, they could restore themselves to prime condition with enough time. Welf realized now that it had been a necessity if they were going to navigate places as harsh as these.

The monsters might not have had menacing appearances but each one of them wrought havoc on equipment and could prove lethal if you were careless. And they only got stronger and came in greater numbers from here on out. If your crafting wasn’t sufficient and your skill with the weapons you carried was subpar then you wouldn’t make it any further than this.

“Urus, we’re heading back.” He called out to the fire spirit that had become taken by the enclosing rope and streamers that had been left behind by the Gremlin after it died. The fact that it didn’t burn even as the thing spat fire likely meant that there was no problem with her wearing it like an accessory around her wrist. “Going any further than this would be beyond reckless.”

Urus gave an affirmative nod as she drifted closer to take her favorite place for the journey back… only to stiffen into place.

“Urus…?” He noticed how the flames that made up her body threatened to return to fleeting embers. How her incandescent eyes shrank and grew distant. “What’s—”


His words choked and he had to force down a sudden bout of bile that threatened to escape his throat instead as a repulsive sensation washed over the stray smith. This feeling is…

It could only be described as a vile hatred so thick that it threatened to drown his spirit. Malice so cold that the blackened chill sank past his flesh and scraped against his very bones. Promised death that ran up his spine stiffened in place and sent sweat racing down his brow.

Not like the territorial aggression directed towards him from the other stray summons that had gambled their lives and lost. It was something primal and pure that went beyond concepts like territory and predation. Something far more potent and directed.

It’s stronger, but I’m sure this feeling is the same as before.

His stiffened muscles creaked. His body had locked up under fear. But he forcibly turned his head towards the source of unfiltered killing intent to confirm his suspicion…

And saw Death aiming to gouge out his heart.

It took the form of a black blade wreathed in purple malice. Or rather what were the shards of shattered blades having been forced back into an approximation of a sword. The shards were all chipped and battered and misshapen to the point it was unmistakable that each one came from a different source, only held together by the violet vapor seething out of it like steam.


He screamed as the cursed blade struck him in the chest. It was a true killing blow. The only reason it hadn’t pierced the skin, broken through the bone, and skewered his heart was that he had learned not to drop his defenses for even a moment. Even so, the impact had still been enough to rival a sledgehammer and sent him off his feet.

Welf hit the ground more than three meters away. He breathed out pain itself as his entire body pulsated. The response to physical trauma great enough that it caused the body to instinctively use as much mana as possible to harden the aura as an escape from death.

It only bought him seconds before it came for him again.

The black blade whirled. It cut through the air like a sawblade, intent on slicing him right down the middle where he stood. Fortunately, he rolled to the side to escape as it sliced into the surface where he had been laying up to the hilt.

Welf got back up to his feet and put his sword forward in a guard pose. His mind raced as he finished processing exactly what was trying to kill him. There was no doubt in his mind that what was before him was no stray summon that descended from the progenitor summon creatures. This thing is where Mystic Ore comes from? 

Bron had mentioned that Mystic Ore was all that was left behind when they could no longer seek to take out their hatred. But this was their true form that could only be found down here in the Labyrinth where thousands of years of discarded and broken weapons festered long enough to be reanimated by their grudges. The vengeful ghost born of weapons that had life breathed into them by the Craftknights only to be tossed aside when they failed to live up to their purpose.

Now they hunted down the warrior smiths that wandered their halls.

The black blade wrenched itself free of the ground. It howled despite having no mouth to vent its frustration at being denied its vengeance by every second of his prolonged survival. Then it came flying towards Welf once more with a piercing thrust.

“I’m not going to just lay down and die!” He had finished composing himself after unraveling its identity and his body no longer froze in place. Death passed by as he slid his foot to the side and pivoted on it, leaving it to cut through empty space instead. Then he whirled around with his blade using the momentum and delivered the edge against its face.

And a grim realization set in as the weapon nearly wrenched itself out of his grasp. It’s as hard as Mystic Ore itself?

It should not have been a surprise. The grudge was born from weapons that had shattered into shards and been discarded. Or course once it reanimated itself it would be so that it never returned to that state.

He didn’t have time to dwell on that fact as the blade righted itself after rebuking the attempt to shatter it anew. Then it swung using its grip as a pivot point for what would be an overhead slash that came towards his skull. He put the flat of the greatsword between the two as a shield only for the bladesteel to screech as it was sheared into.

The attacks came in earnest. Once. Twice. Thrice. Each stroke of the black blade left a violet arch in the air as it tore into his own until the final one that finished what the stray summons until this point had started. With a horrible sound of snapping steel, the cursed blade had shattered the massive blade into shards, leaving only his grip and a little above the guard remaining.

Then the naked edge of the cursed weapon came around in an attempt to cut him in half once more.

Welf gritted his teeth to hold in the scream as he felt its sharp bite trying to penetrate the field shrouding his body. Mana flared up once more to reinforce it as part of it was shaved off, leaving him whole even as the impact sent him skirting back. But he remained standing since going prone a second time would likely be fatal.

Not that he would survive the next exchange at this rate. The bleed-through of pain still stung where he’d nearly been bisected. And his head was starting to feel light from encroaching mana deprivation. Welf knew that the next hit would be the last.

The black blade howled. Whether angered by seeing another broken weapon laying before it or sensing that the source of its rage was now vulnerable, it let loose its fury audibly. Then it shot towards him once more to finish the job.

Run, Welf!

Fire erupted between the living and dead with an explosive force that threw off the killing thrust. The fire spirit that had nearly been smothered by the presence of the black blade had remembered its duty as a Guardian Beast. Now her flames were rekindled once more as she stood between them to allow him to escape.

Death in the form of a blade moved to snuff out the meager flame standing between it and the smith.

Urus…” Welf clenched the Summonite Gem dyed her color and writ with her name as it closed in upon her. He had been told that these were more than mere trinkets that acted as a gateway between the world using the Bonding Pact. He willed the stone to shine brighter as he turned the mana stored within into fuel so that she could burn even hotter.

The flames encompassing her body swelled. The black blade that had come spearing forward slammed into the inferno and came to a stop as the fire itself grappled it and held it in place while the hue turned from bright red to deep orange. Then it burned even hotter and became an all-encompassing dazzling white. Even the toy ring made of rope and streamers that refused to burn under ordinary flame evaporated into a formless red mist that seemed to spread itself thin before vanishing.

Cursed steel shrieked. The violet vapor seeping from it was swallowed by the flames as they writhed their way inside out. Her fury began to heat it beyond the critical point and left the shards themselves to grow luminous to the point where they threatened to liquefy.

But it wouldn’t be enough. He could tell from how she was struggling to keep it in place and the metal itself refused to yield that it wouldn’t be enough. Her flames wouldn’t be enough as they were now and the Summonite Gem serving as a battery would eventually run out its charge. He needed to help her, but his weapon was no longer able to serve that purpose…

No. That wasn’t right. There was one weapon he still possessed. His hand drifted down to his side where the hammer he had forged lay. Even after his blade had been broken it remained the one tool a blacksmith could rely on.

He drew it and then charged into the inferno as the flames began to abate while pouring out his will into the Summonite Gem. “URUS!

The Guardian Beast turned her incandescent gaze toward her partner as he ran forward instead of retreating. Confusion blossomed into understanding as he raised the hammer. Her arm extended towards it and flames leaped from the Summonite Gem to wreathe the smithing tool, turning it burning red as it was enchanted with her flames.

Welf roared as he slammed it upon the black blade. “RRRRRRRRAAAAHHHH!!!

The sound of metal shrieking rang out along with a spray of molten shards being cast away like sparks. The cursed weapon felt the strike of the hammer and forge and the sensation of being wrought was driven in once more by its refined kin given new purpose. Murderous rage gave way to fear and it made to escape lest it be broken once more.

The fire spirit wouldn’t let it escape after it had threatened her master.

Her flames. Her hands. She used them all to grab hold of the cursed weapon so that it couldn’t fly away to attack them another day. Then she used everything she had to drive it into the ground and keep it in place.

Metal shrieked as more shards flew away as the smith brought the burning hammer down once more. The cracks threading the living grudge widened and exposed the deep-grey and violet ore that pulsated with life in the core of the blade. It grew more and more frantic as shards were blasted away like scale with the following strike and left it completely exposed.

Welf brought the hammer down a final time and struck the core with all his might. The flames bloomed and erupted outwards as its properties rebuked the force. And in doing so it completely scattered the remaining shards that constituted its frame.

Leaving behind a single ore that cried out as it could no longer seek its revenge.

Welf grunted as he exhaled to catch his breath while the flames died out. Then he reached into the bag he brought with him. The ore was dropped inside while he pulled out a bottle of Silturn Water and an Amulet in turn.

He took the latter and drove his mana into it, causing it to ignite with a cleansing flame that was meant to drive away stray summons until it burned itself out. Then he drank the former to replenish some of his mana to get his defenses back up to par. Just in case they ran into something else despite that.

“How you holding up, Urus?” he asked the fire spirit, only to receive the impression of a dwindling flame against his mind. The inferno that had encompassed her body was now little more than a barely smoldering ember. She had exhausted everything. “Yeah… we’re done for today…”

Forget practicing with the materials. Forget finishing the design of his weapon. Forget even thinking about any of that. Both wanted nothing more than to rest as they forced their bodies to keep moving before the Amulet burned itself out.

They made their way back to the surface after night had fallen.


Dinner had been an agonizing event for Pratty.

Not because it wasn’t good. It was okay. Not to her mother’s standards by any stretch, but still fine.

It was because she had finished her first weapon and wanted to show Welf that she had properly used the Iron Ore that he had given her. Master Bron had even complimented the craftmanship for someone who had never made a weapon before. Though he also pointed out that Kutty clearly did most of the work, she was just happy to have finished it and been given a sheath by him to fit it.

She had been the first to finish too among the apprentices. Trish was still finishing up her spear and Caizo was still working on his axe. Razzy had apparently finished mapping out a set of knuckles and was going to start forging the metal strips meant to enclose and protect their fist and wrists as they punched things.

The twins and Sanary didn’t count since they already had weapons when they came.

“He’s late,” Pratty voiced as she swept the floor of the main forge room for the evening. Since the usual people who would do so weren’t here, the Silver Master decided to put them to work. “Master, should we go look for him?”

“Of all people, yer the last ta talk about bein’ late,” Bron pointed out from the cabinet where the rarer materials were stocked. He had set a curfew for the apprentices to be indoors by, but that time had not arrived yet and he saw no need to send someone searching for the stray smith. “The lad ain’ fool enough ta go deeper than he ought to. Sanary, ya mentioned runnin’ into ‘em on the way back, right?”

The red-head who had swapped out of her battle-clothes for causal ones looked up from the forge she had been assigned to clean in the main room. “He only said that he was going to the Second Floor. Not that he’ll find anything of value since by now it would have been picked clean but, given how much of a slowpoke he is, he’s probably just dragging his feet on the way back.”

Pratty felt a surge of passing annoyance towards the older girl. “He’s not a slowpoke. He just likes being thorough to not make any mistakes.”

Sanary just gave her an unimpressed shrug. “If you’re so worried about him then rather than waiting for him to come and hold your hand again, how about you actually go look for him on your own?”

Pratty bristled at the insinuation. “I’m not a child!”

“No bickerin’!” Bron snapped at the two. “Razzy’s more mature than both of ya.”

The two girls glared at one another but didn’t rekindle the argument before the door to the Silver Guild opened at that moment. Any question of who it was that had entered faded when it was followed by a familiar voice. “Master Bron, are you here?”

Her anger was shelved as she set the broom aside and went towards the entrance to greet him. “Welf, we’re in here. I finished—”

Her words died as he stepped through the door to the forge room and she saw how ragged he looked. In one hand was what was left of his once great sword. The blade itself had clearly been broken to where nothing above the hole meant to make holstering it on his back easier remained. His clothes looked cut in two places while dust was thick in patches and she could smell the scent of burnt metal coming from him.

And she could feel that same sensation coming from him that night the ore had been set in front of them months ago.

Bron noticed the state Welf was in, and his face scrunched up. “I thought ya were only headin’ to the Second Floor. But… I take it ya ran into one of ‘em?”

“Calling it a grudge was an understatement.” He reached into his bag and pulled out the source of her discomfort. It was a dark-grey and purple and it practically oozed malice. “It probably wasn’t even a minute or two and in that time it nearly killed me twice, broke my weapon, and exhausted both Urus and myself before I beat it with the hammer.”

Pratty’s dumbfounded expression spoke of how much she understood the situation.

In contrast, Sanary ran over and eyed it in absolute shock. “You found a Spell Sword on the Second Floor? I spent all day trying to find one!”

Welf looked at her like she had grown a second head. “You were trying to find one of those?”

“Of course I was!” Her tone carried her frustration at having clearly lost out on the opportunity despite all her efforts. Not that she would dare ask for it considering her own pride as a Craftknight. “They’re so rare to find on the Upper Floors, but you can forge a strong weapon with them as part of the core.”

Welf only shook his head. “Not with this one. Not now anyway. I can tell from how much it tried to kill me that it working it into a new form would be more than either Urus or myself could handle at the moment. Master Bron, may I store it somewhere it can simmer down until later?”

“Yea, probably for the best.” The Silver Master took it and grimaced before returning to the steel cabinet and unlocking the bottom drawer. He then set it inside and locked it back up. “Didn’ think ya’d run into one of those so quickly… musta been hell feelin’ the full force of it the first time, right?”

The expression he made said everything he wouldn’t put into words for Pratty.

“Go sleep it off,” Bron told him. It was rough but his tone wasn’t unkind as far as he went. “Yer weapon’s gone and makin’ a new one will be time consumin’. I trust ya got enough materials ta work with?”

Welf looked down at his broken sword. “I should have enough. I also collected all the shards I could. Not sure if they’ll have a lot of value as materials or if they could become another grudge since it was an ordinary weapon, but after seeing that I wasn’t eager to be on the receiving end of one of my own creations one day. I’ll float the design changes I had in mind to you tomorrow morning to avoid something like this happening again.”

That said, Pratty watched him walk off with an expression she had never seen before.

The knife she made felt heavy on her belt.

The Stray Smith: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – The Summoning


A few months passed.

Time had not slowed its halt for the sake of a stray smith that found a home in the Silver Guild. But fortunately, it was within the realm of people to quickly learn to adjust to their surroundings. And so many things that may have been out of place for one lacking most of the knowledge that would be ingrained throughout a lifetime within the City of Swords soon became the norm.

Life in the Silver Guild was one of those things. His days would start with him waking early in the morning to do manual labor, such as performing an inventory of the materials on hand, ensuring that the tools and equipment that would be used were in proper shape, sweeping up the floors, cleaning out the forges now that the lingering heat was absent, and the finally igniting them in preparation for the working day.

He would then be called to move about and retrieve things so that the smiths at work would not have to take their attention off their work. Usually, that meant fetching some materials from the stock room. Sometimes that meant heading to a shop across town for trinkets and heatsinks. Other times he had to make multiple trips to a curry shop since that had been gaining popularity as of late and they all would be working late.

It all had a purpose. Tool preparation had to be an ingrained response for any smith. Keeping the workshop clean avoided any chance of mishaps. The constant travel made him more familiar with the layout of the city and helped make him a familiar face to what he had learned were regulars of the Silver Guild.

Even the hours spent sorting the materials gave him a better understanding of what kinds of elemental ores they could retrieve from them. And that was important considering the term ‘materials’ was fairly loose. He could be called to sort anything that ranged from a barrel filled with bottomless cups, broken fans, discarded matchboxes, and stripped bolts to massive furballs and horns left behind after whatever once held them met the business end of a blade. He had once watched a man throw a pair of shoes into a forge only to respond he needed it to finish work.

He felt that he should have been more surprised when the finished product was a massive axe.

But perhaps it was because he understood the underlying lessons that he never once had a complaint. Even if his circumstances weren’t unique, he felt that it all made sense. So, he was obedient and did as he was told, taking in the lessons being offered while he worked until the sun hung low and the workday ended.

Sometimes the others would take him to a local tavern or out to eat. Other times he would just eat whatever was in the kitchen that Bron hadn’t threatened to kick him out if he touched. Then were the chances he got to go with Pratty back to her house since Amariss would invite him to dinner.

He enjoyed the latter quite a bit. Not only for the fact that her food was quite delicious, or the fact that he was forever grateful for them doing so much for him. It was just the fact that Welf just found her nature rather… not quite motherly, but familial to an extent.

Then he would return to the Silver Guild before Bron locked up for the day and headed to his bedroom on the Second Floor. Or rather the workshop that was being made into his bedroom. It was complicated due to his situation since normally the apprentices weren’t allowed onto the Second Floor at all.

That was because it was mostly meant as a workshop for Journeymen who had more experience under their belts. The ones who had graduated past apprenticeship and were paid by the Silver Guild for their work as employees but weren’t yet considered capable of selling their products to stores or becoming self-employed Craftknights. That was only allowed for those who were considered Master Craftknights—and in the Silver Guild, you wouldn’t be considered a master until you submitted a work worthy enough in the eyes of the Silver Master.

Bron had the final say on if a weapon one of his employees crafted was worthy enough to be sold. It was for quality control as anything beneath his standards would harm the reputation of their guild. Only when you were good enough for him to give it a pass could a member of the Silver Guild strike out on their own.

Some started their own guilds. Some remained independent. Some were good enough to work as part of the Central Tower and gain access to all the resources they needed without the need for a middleman. Others even went to other countries to open a workshop, although, without easy access to the flames of the Holy Spirit (which could be crystalized and taken from the Shrine to be added to their forges), they had to purchase elemental ores from Wystern.

But his circumstances meant that he needed a living space since it would be inappropriate for him to continue to stay with a widowed woman and her daughter, in Bron’s words. Amariss had joked about how he thought she might have amorous intentions towards a young man just a few years older than Pratty. But then she stated it was a good thing that he completed the ‘graduation’ test from apprenticeship by forging his hammer since that had always been the condition for Bron to recognize someone as being worthy of using a workshop on the Second Floor.

Welf also noted that neither of them had brought up the question of him doing something to her. Not that he would, of course. But he got the impression it wasn’t just because he had been on his best behavior.

He decided not to question it.

Anyway, at the end of the day, Welf would head upstairs and go to bed. Wake up early the next morning. The cycle would then repeat itself with some variation of the tasks he would have to do, such as assisting with maintenance or running a task.

He noticed things started changing at the start of the month. Bron was called out more often to the Central Tower for some meeting of the local guild masters. Then some of the Journeymen began moving out of the workshops on the Second Floor and the workload within the Silver Guild seemed to drop pretty sharply.

Welf had thought it was a bit odd, but Bron had noted off-handedly that this wasn’t the only building under the Silver Guild’s ownership. He had several other assets under his name from boats to other workshops where they could work from. And it wasn’t like he needed to constantly keep an eye on them since they were graduates after all.

There were also more tremors popping up every now and again but that was unrelated to anything.

It was only around last week he heard from Pratty that there would be a tournament upcoming to be the next Craftlord. The applicants were all apprentices under the age of eighteen, which struck the stray smith as being a little suspicious given the title and duties that would entail. Craftlords were a pretty big deal and apprentices were literally at the bottom of the list of qualified candidates.

In hindsight, Welf should probably have guessed he would be among those also participating before Bron tossed the Entrance Ticket his way last night.

Bron had said he was expecting Welf to ask any day about if he was entering, but he never did. Then the man actually complained about his lack of initiative even after Welf defended himself with the fact that he thought it would have stricter prerequisites and he had been prioritizing trying to regain his memories. The Silver Master only told him that it was done and to pick Pratty up in the morning to go to the Central Tower since she had a bad habit of always being late.

Now Welf stood outside of the residence he had visited often enough that it was a second home, gently knocking with the full knowledge that Amariss would likely be awake and in the kitchen at the moment. The door opened and he was greeted with a welcoming smile in very short order. “Oh, Welf. How are you this morning?”

“Fine, Ma’am. I came to pick up Pratty to go to the Central Tower.”

“I’ve tried to wake her up seven times already, but you know how heavy a sleeper that girl is.” She let out a sigh before stepping aside and gesturing for him to come inside. He did so and she shut the door behind him. “Are you excited since you’ll be entering too?”

“Honestly, I’m more surprised that I would be offered the chance,” he admitted. “I mean, all things considered, it feels a bit strange that someone like me would be eligible. And the fact that none of the Journeymen or Masters were being selected as potential Craftlords. Apprentices still have a lot to learn.”

“Hmm… I suppose it might seem that way,” Amariss conceded. “But I trust the others have something in mind with the tournament. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will go wake up the sleepyhead before she makes you both late for your big day. Watch the kitchen for me?”

He did so to make sure that the meal she was preparing didn’t get burned. The loud crash of a teenage girl falling out of her bed mildly pulled his attention away, along with her shouting about the time and asking where her Entrance Ticket was. Then there were the frantic scrambling footfalls of her desperately getting herself ready to not be late and making her way towards the stairs—


—before there was a loud yelp that snatched his attention towards the base of the stairs where he spotted Pratty laying upside-down while softly groaning. Fortunately, there was a flicker of light coming off her skin. She had gotten her defenses up in time.

Since they were trained to go into combat, Craftknights learned to manifest their mana into a sort of protective veil. It was normally invisible but upon encountering something that caused physical trauma it would harden to prevent actual damage. But there was a limit to the abuse one could take since it was dependent on one’s mana reserves. Once they could no longer maintain it there was a very real chance that they could get hurt.

And it wasn’t limited to just them either. He had been told Summon Creatures and Stray Summons were inherently capable of doing the same on an instinctive level. The stronger the creature, the more hits it took to bring their defenses down and get rid of them.

“Hey, are you okay?” Welf asked as he helped her back onto her feet. “That looked bad from where I was standing.”

The teenage girl did not meet his gaze out of embarrassment. “Nnn… who put those stairs there in the first place?”

“I would imagine it was the carpenters who made the house,” Amariss said while following down the stairs properly and then gently grabbing hold of her daughter’s cheeks to look her in the eyes. “You didn’t hit your head, did you?”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Pratty insisted before freeing herself and huffing as she turned to Welf. “Anyway, we don’t have time to waste. We need to get to the Central Tower for the Entrance Ceremony.”

“The foot traffic was pretty heavy and we’ll have to head to the central part of Wystern, so it’ll probably be faster if we use the Water Scooters to ride the canals than if we go on foot,” Welf suggested while tilting a head to the foldable Water Scooter hanging from his shoulder. It was an older model, passed down from a Journeymen who had recently bought a new one. Since it was still functional the man had decided not to turn it into materials and passed it along to Welf.

A hum of acknowledgment bubbled up in Pratty’s throat as she pattered herself down and then pulled out what looked to be an old charm of some kind. It seemed like she wanted to make sure she hadn’t lost or damaged it in the fall. Then she ran over to get her own Water Scooter and bolted for the door. “See you later, Mother.”

“…Well, I better go pack her things for when Bron comes by,” Amariss said once her daughter was out of earshot before turning back to Welf with a playful smile. He got the distinct impression that Pratty had not been informed of her new living arrangements for the duration of the Craftlord Tournament. “Look after her for me while she’s staying at the Silver Guild?”

He gave her his word before heading out the door and then getting his scooter in the water to chase after Pratty.


The Central Tower was easily the largest structure that Welf had been inside in his life.

Or so he would like to say. He got the vague impression that he had been to some place similar within the depths of his murky memories. But it was still a very impressive place regardless given that it was the heart of Wystern itself.

Piercing the sky like a steel lance, the Second Floor shaped like a ring left the surrounding buildings beneath it in a state of perpetual shade that only wavered during the rising and falling of the sun. The entire structure was ringed by a moat that separated it from the rest of the city around it, upon which only authorized water vehicles could pass through. That meant the only way to enter it was a bridge of steel and stone that arched over the water—the Grand Bridge.

Welf and Pratty disembarked from the canal they had ridden in after navigating through the maze of small boats that had docked there. They were loaded with goods from weapons to materials that would be sent out across the city. Then they traversed on foot over the Grand Bridge towards their destination until they finally made it to the entrance where Craftknights that served as guards stood on either side of the doorway upon which the emblem of Wystern was emblazed.

The inside was brightly illuminated by lights that were fixed above and throngs of people dressed in the green-and-blue uniform that denoted them as a member of the Central Tower staff could be seen moving about. One such person took notice of the two relatively younger individuals who passed through and asked them if they were in attendance for the Opening Ceremony and to present their Entrance Tickets. Upon doing so they were guided up to the Second Floor and towards the Ceremony Hall.

The room was filled with young men and women that ranged from being taller than Welf to barely up to his stomach. They were sitting around in various groups, dressed in an assortment of clothes that stood out compared to the uniforms of the employees that filled the tower. Some still had their leather bibs that were blackened from the flames of the forge and looked as though they had to be pulled away to attend the ceremony, while others were dressed in more ceremonial clothes that denoted the event to be important.

There was palpable tension running throughout the entirety of the chamber. The ceremony hadn’t begun but everyone inside the room knew that they would be competing with one another for the title of Craftlord at some point. So it was natural that Welf and Pratty would be scrutinized by every single person as they searched for a place to station themselves out of the walkway, eventually finding a place in the upper left section behind a red-haired young woman who gave them a once-over before turning her attention back to the stage.

As they waited next to one another, Welf took a glance over to his side at Pratty. It was an understatement to say that the younger girl looked quite tense as her eyes carefully roamed around the room to take stock of the others while avoiding their gazes in turn. He leaned close and whispered, “Nervous?

Her eyes shifted towards him. There was a moment of silence as she weighed her words. Then she exhaled slightly through her nose before giving a small nod. “A bit. What about you?

Not really.” He noticed the incredulous look that she gave him when he admitted as much and shrugged before tapping his temple. “Bigger priorities.

She rolled her eyes but understood where he was coming from given how often they talked. It had been months and only a scant few of his memories returned. There were feelings associated with certain things and actions, but the lack of memories meant that he had no context. If there was neither of those things attached to the role of being a Craftlord then he wouldn’t be nervous.

It’s natural to be nervous,” Welf assured her. “Everyone else is in the same boat here. Some are just better at hiding it than others. Don’t focus on them and instead focus on making sure you memorize what you learn from the meeting.

Pratty bowed her head in understanding and her blue eyes fixed themselves to the front of the stage.

It was a few minutes later that one of the staff came onto the stage and said, “We will now begin the opening ceremony of the Craftlord Tournament. Can all participants please remain silent until the end?”

The noise settled down appropriately as all eyes were affixed to the stage. Aside from the Central Tower officer, there were now three individuals who could be seen starting to emerge from a rear door nestled in the corner of the stage. “Thank you. We will begin by introducing the Craftlord of Amber, Master Lubert—”

Said man looked to be the oldest of the three on the stage and likely in his mid-thirties by all accounts. His body was tall and lean enough that the sleeves of his amber-colored robes seemed to hang off his frame. He had dark brown hair that was slicked back and upwards as though it was always windblown and had a thin but long whisker mustache. His nose was slightly pointed as was his jaw, but he wore a confident grin.

“—the Craftlord of Jade, Master Ureksa—”

The second was a younger man who looked to only be a few years Welf’s senior and sported neck-length hair that was blonde at the tips and crept its way up halfway before abruptly becoming darker. His youth was evident in how slender his body was as he sported the color of his title on a coat and pants that were half-zipped, allowing his sleeves to hang off his arms. A white scarf that was probably twice the length of his body hung around his neck and shoulders.

“—and the Craftlord of Sapphire, Master Sakuro.”

The final Craftlord was firmly wedged between the other two in terms of his age and appearance. He stood straight with his arms crossed and most of his light brown hair set into a ponytail with the bangs left free to frame his face along with his glasses. His tunic and trousers were a solid blue, while his long-sleeved undershirt and knee-length boots were black with white highlights, and he had thick smith gloves on his hands. On his belt hung a sword on one side and several pouches on the other.

“These three Craftlords will be providing you with the information regarding the tournament. You would do well to listen to their words of wisdom.”

His piece done, the officer in charge of the announcement made himself scarce. The three who reigned supreme and could call the massive tower their castle took their rightful place in the center of the stage, their presence naturally commanding all of the attention.

It was then Lubert deigned to address them. “Welcome, apprentices of the City of Sword. Though it may be a bit premature, we have judged that as the future defenders of Wystern you will be presented with a unique opportunity not many could boast—the chance to join our ranks as a Craftlord.”

Indeed, one could call it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given that no one in the room had reached the point where they could reasonably be considered above the rank of Master. At best, some would be Journeymen in all but rank, having not yet completed their graduation task set by their masters. But at worse, some had far less experience, meaning they were at a distinct disadvantage.

Sakuro addressed them next. “It was roughly three years ago that we lost Shintetsu, the most respected and strongest Craftlord of our generation. So great were his accomplishments and heroism that we allowed his seat to remain unfilled due to his legacy. But since the recent disappearance of the Craftlord of Crystal, Tyram, we’ve deemed it time to fill it once more and have chosen to draw from the apprentices that will be the herald of the next generation.”

Slight murmurs began to fill the room. It seemed that a Craftlord going missing was a big deal, which made sense given the role they had to play. Though Welf could tell that Pratty’s attention was focused more on the mention of her father and he could only imagine her own feelings of someone else holding the title he once did.

Ureksa cleared his throat to grab their attention. “I understand that most of you might be confused as to why it is that apprentices within your age range were selected from other viable candidates. That is because we’ve determined that while your skills may be underdeveloped at the moment, the gift of youth brings with it the potential for exponential growth. Rather than overlook that potential, we wish to see it blossom over the tournament over the next several weeks that will put the skills that you have learned as apprentices to the ultimate test and push you past your limits.”

It was a trial by fire. Pitting the apprentices against one another would sort them out and force them to keep improving, lest they be the next to fall. By the end, only the one who excelled would have what it took to become a Craftlord.

The Jade Craftlord continued. “To that end, the rules of the tournament are as follows: First, you are only allowed to fight with one weapon that you have crafted yourself. I understand that some of you have not been allowed to craft your own weapons yet, so we have decided to allow your masters to assist you with the planning stages of the process. But know that it must be forged by your own hands.”

The Sapphire Craftlord picked up from there. “Second, the battle is won when your opponent yields, their mana reserves are depleted and can no longer sustain their protective veil, or their weapon breaks. Though you may be fighting seriously to defeat your opponent, you are not fighting to kill. If we deem that you have resorted to excessive force when not necessary, such as attacking someone when their defenses have been broken, you will be punished and removed from the tournament for your lack of self-control—if not stripped of your apprenticeship entirely.”

And the Amber Craftlord finished it up. “Third, you will be allowed to receive assistance in the battle by your Guardian Beast. Permission has been given for Summoners to enter the city to assist in procuring them for those who have none, though it is your masters who hold the reins in that area. However, their assistance does not serve as a substitute for your participation. If you attempt to leave all the fighting to them then we will deem you lacking in ability and judge you as such. You are the ones being tested as Craftknights, not them.”

Welf chewed on that information. It seemed like they had considered the gap in experience when it came to the different apprentices. There was a huge level of discrepancy considering some of them had not likely ever fought before and others had not earned the right to a Guardian Beast at all—he and Pratty didn’t have one. But they were at least providing ways to make up for that and he suspected that was part of the reason Bron wanted them back at the Silver Guild the moment this was over.

Once everyone had a moment to process the information with varying levels of excitement or trepidation, Sakuro continued. “Starting tomorrow, all you of begin receiving a clearance pass to enter the Labyrinth up to the 12th Floor to gather materials and fortify yourself for combat. You should know that we have not done anything to lessen or remove the dangers of the Labyrinth and the threat they present. However, to reward exploration, we have set treasure chests filled with items or materials that may be beneficial to you. Weigh the risk and rewards accordingly—if you cannot defend yourself, you are not worthy of being a Craftlord. But we do not wish for your lives to be forfeited in a fool’s pursuit.”

By not removing the challenges they were effectively telling them to break through them under their own strength. As they fought against the creatures in the Labyrinth their own abilities would increase, and by pushing themselves to their limits they would be forced to grow. He couldn’t shake the sensation that such a notion was familiar, but the memory annoyingly continued to elude the stray smith.

“The preliminary matches will begin at the start of next week with you receiving notices,” Lubert said. “You will not know who your opponent will be until the day of the match. After those of you who lacked the skills to go further beyond are removed from the pool, individual matches will be scheduled in accordance with the decision of the Craftlords. For these, you will usually receive notification of your next match a week in advance to give you time to prepare yourself accordingly.”

So you would have to defeat your first opponent while not knowing what to expect, to see if you could overcome an unknown challenge. Then, after you had a taste for battle and went in blind, you would receive advance notice. That gave you time to learn all you could to gain a decisive edge over them, but they could do the same to you. Either you surpassed yourself as you were before, or you risked being outmatched because you couldn’t.

“Finally, techniques for the weapon used in the tournament will need to be submitted in the standard format before each match to the Central Tower,” Ureksa added. “This is because not only will we be appraising your skill in crafting based on it, but also since a copy of it will be provided to your opponent should they be victorious as part of their prize.”

Now that got some feedback. Weapons were the lifeblood of Craftknights, and they often sought to make their own unique pieces as they developed in skill. More so considering they had to submit an original piece to their Master to graduate into the rank themselves. Handing them over upon defeat so someone else could take their secrets and methods would naturally leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Lubert only sneered at their reaction. “To be frank, if you fail then either your technique was insufficient, or you lacked the capability to bring out its true potential. In which case, the opponent claiming your technique matters not. But if you wish to hamstring yourself by using subpar weapons out of fear that your precious secrets will be stolen, then by all means drop out of the tournament now. We have no need for cowards or those who are so insecure that they think they would fail in the first place.”

The Amber Craftlord’s words were barbed and cruel. Especially considering how so many of them were young. But neither Sapphire nor Jade spoke up against his words, which was tactically giving their agreement on the matter. The noise quelled slowly in understanding as that set in.

Sakuro deigned to close out the ceremony. “Remember the tenets of the Craftknights: A sword is not strength. A sword is not skill. A sword is not fellowship. I sincerely believe that one of you will become our equal despite the short timeframe if you follow the code wholeheartedly, and I look forward to welcoming you as such. Dismissed.”


Once the ceremony was over Welf and Pratty used their Water Scooters to bypass the long foot trek back to the Silver Guild. Pratty almost immediately jumped through the entrance and called out for Bron, eager to have the chance to obtain a Guardian Beast. But he only told her to settle down and wait for everyone to arrive before discussing any of that.

And by everyone, he meant the other apprentices that they had never really met before.

The first to arrive after them was the same red-haired girl who had been close to them. She wore her red hair that resembled Welf’s and Amariss in a high ponytail with a pink ribbon, leaving her proud and confident face uncovered for all to see. Her tunic was pink with white hemming and stripes while she had a matching combat skirt and boots that had the opposite color scheme. And on her back was a longsword that looked to be just a foot shy of her actual height.

She glanced over at the two of them once more before she turned her back to them.

“I’M HERE, UNC—MASTER BRON!” And in complete contrast to her was a rather young kid who was likely barely over the age of ten, earning a second glance from Welf. They were dressed in a yellow shirt that was oversized enough that it fell to their upper thighs, followed by black shorts, and had to be secured with what looked to be a belt the size of their stomach. A yellow bandana covered their head to match the color of their tunic, and they wore thick brown boots and gloves.

“How loud can one person be?” chimed in a third person, who turned out to be a girl with a ribbon-rimmed blue hat covering her brown hair. She had round-framed glasses but wore a confident expression as she strode into the room.

And then what may as well have been her clone followed, only instead of blue she had a green color scheme, and her expression was slightly more neutral. “It can’t be helped when they are so young.”

Those two were followed by another young woman who introduced herself as Trish. She had deep purple hair in pigtails and immediately came over towards Pratty to chat with her like an old friend, though considering they were fellow apprentices it was likely that they were. And last was a blue-haired young man who called himself the Great Caizo, moving with a swagger in his step and oozing confidence.

“Good, yer all here now,” Bron began as he stood before them with his lumbering frame easily towering over them. His eyes briefly settled on each of them before he straightened them out. “I’ll only ask this once: Do ya have the skills an’ confidence to win and become a Craftlord?”

“Naturally,” answered the red-haired girl as she stood straight. “I’ve been training for this even before they announced the tournament. I’ll become the next Craftlord easily.”

“Nu-uh! It’s gonna be me!” said the shortest of the group with the sort of energy and optimism you would expect from a child. “I got this in the bag!”

“Confidence with no basis in reality,” the blue-colored twin said while shrugging her shoulders. “It must be nice to be so young. Right, Mariel?”

“Now, now, Ariel,” responded the green-colored one. “There’s a chance they can scrape by the first round if they get lucky on the draw. And I suppose if someone of Sanary’s standing can’t cut it, it’d be embarrassing.”

Sanary, the red-haired one, glowered at them. “I see your attitudes haven’t changed for a couple of bookworms. The kid could probably run laps around the both of you.”

“I’m not a kid!” said kid snapped with a frown. “My name is Razzy! Remember that because I’m going send you flying when we get on stage.”

“Ladies, ladies, there’s no need to fight amongst yourselves,” Caizo said, brazenly stepping into the middle of what was starting to look like a premature four-way match. “After all, we are all members of the same guild. I am certain that we are all capable of passing the challenge ahead with dignity and grace.”

Meanwhile, Trish simply looked over to Pratty and with a smile said, “Let’s do our best!”

Pratty’s response was a bit more subdued, given she had mostly been preoccupied with the others getting ready to tear one another’s heads off. “Y-Yeah….”

Welf stayed silent until Bron finished pinching his nose and shaking his head at the display before fixing his gaze on the stray smith. “I’ll do my best, but I honestly can’t say whether or not I’ll be able to stack up yet.”

It earned him some looks from the others, but he only shrugged in response. It would be a lie to say that he had the skills to win in the tournament given that he was still in a state where he didn’t know the full scope of what he was capable of. They had the luxury of recalling all their lessons as an apprentice whereas he was still drudging through what he knew and what he didn’t.

He would give it his all but he knew where he stood.

Bron only grunted. “Ya could do with some more determination, but I’ll hold ya to the standard set then. And to be honest, none of ya got the skills to win as ya are. Yer all too green, pickin’ at each other and chompin’ at the bits. But at the very least, I wanna see ya do better than I have so far. Startin’ with less bickerin’!”

They took the warning to heart and at the very least settled to glaring at one another instead of threatening open violence.

“Right then, first thing for the unaware. Startin’ tonight yer living here on the Second Floor for the duration of the tournament. Yer parents have sent yer belongings and I’ve shoved ‘em into the rooms of upstairs—and no, ya don’t get ta pick.”

Pratty had the expected response. “Wait, what? When did I agree to that?”

“When ye became an apprentice! Now clam it until I’m done talkin’!” She promptly hushed up. “Second, since all of ya are my apprentices, I ain’t playin’ favorites. I don’t care if I’ve known ya since yer were in diapers, yer prodigies in the making, ye call a Craftlord kin, or yer a decent stray off the streets. You’ll all be gettin’ the same treatment from me.”

It was only briefly, but Welf caught several of them shifting at that part of his speech. Pratty was obvious, given her father, but it seemed like the others fit those criteria. He could guess from their attitudes that the twins were likely the aforementioned prodigies and he had heard Razzy’s slight slip of the tongue along with the fact that they were dressed like a younger version of the man himself.

“Third: take advantage of this opportunity while ya can,” Bron continued with a slight smile. “Normally, I wouldn’ think of handin’ some of ya a weapon for a couple more years, but now ya get the chance to ask me for a technique fittin’ for ya and the chance to learn ahead of schedule. Livin’ here means ya get access to the forges in yer workshops at all times, and the Labyrinth can give ya all the materials can carry. Until the end of the tournament, all of that is yers—whether ya win or not.”

As the Guild Master of one of the two largest guilds in Wystern, Bron was normally busy with so many things that he couldn’t afford to dedicate the majority of his time to aiding his apprentices. But now he could and that meant they had a chance to get ahead of the curve with resources and opportunities they wouldn’t get for years. Their squabbling over who would win the tournament took a backseat as they realized the scope of freedom they had while no longer constrained by ordinary restrictions.

“We have been working on that new drill design for a while,” Ariel began with a very pleased smile. “With the proper material and knowledge, we could move our timetable up by quite a bit, couldn’t we, Mariel?”

The younger twin set a hand on her chin as the light from above glinted off her spectacles. “Unlimited access to fully functional forges with no restrictions certainly would make our progress smoother. We even have the opportunity to stress test them.”

“…I can visit that place any time I want now on my own,” Sanary muttered softly and in a contemplative tone. Then a smile came onto her face as whatever the implications of that clearly pleased her.

“Ooh, then can I have you help me finish working on an idea I came up with?” Razzy asked with the sort of enthusiasm you would expect from a child being told they could get whatever they wanted. “I wanted to try earlier, but Mom said I had to wait until I was old enough to be a Craftknight and get a Guardian Beast like yours.”

The Silver Master nodded. “In due time. So, hurry up an’ get settled in upstairs. I’ll send word for those of ya without a Guardian Beast when the Summoner gets here so it can be handled privately. And remember that yer rivals, but not enemies. Push each other to new heights, but don’t go sabotagin’ one another!”


The moment that Bron had given them the cue to do their own thing for a while, Welf returned to his room on the Second Floor. The others were busy enough settling into their own rooms with their grand plans for what the tournament held for them. Bron had proven himself their master by knowing exactly what would incentivize them enough to focus on the whole of what they could accomplish since in the end only one of them can be the next Craftlord.

He opted to instead lay on his bed and focus on gathering his own thoughts and his own desires. He still recalled what was born from the first time he swung a hammer. The origin point that gave rise to his desire to be a smith and the joy of creating something new.

For him, he supposed that the tournament would give him the opportunity to create new weapons to test and improve upon. But he wasn’t blind to what that meant. He would have to face Pratty at some point or other if they both made it past the first round.

Pratty was the daughter of Shintetsu. The child of the Craftlord of Iron. The empty throne was now set to be filled and she was in a position to do it, filling in where her father no longer could and taking up his place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so, and Welf had no doubt she was going to give it her all for that reason.

What right did he have to stand in the way of that and risk crushing her dream when his own was far simpler?

Knock. Knock.

Before he could get lost in his thoughts on her normally cheerful face being contorted in tears at him potentially crushing her, there was a knock on the door. And it was followed by a familiar voice. “Welf, open up!

“Pratty?” He rose from the bed and made his way over to the door. The moment he opened it, he was greeted with the sight of green fur as something was shoved into his face hard enough that it knocked him over. “Bwagh!?”

“Look, look!” Pratty said as she stepped into the room while holding a green and furry creature that resembled a stuffed animal more than anything. But alive. “I’ve got a Guardian Beast now!”

“…I can see that,” he muttered as he rose to his feet and took a good look at said Guardian Beast. Its legs were chambered, and it had a pair of long and floppy ears that were the length of its body. A red collar adorned its neck, with a matching red cap on the top of its head. And… were those spiked gloves it wore? “So, who’s this little… guy?”

“His name is Kutty,” Pratty said, even as the creature wriggled its way out of her grasp and then began to float in the air without wings of any kind. “Get this, Master Bron said he was the same Guardian Beast my father summoned twenty years ago! He thinks that the bond between them was so strong he sensed who I was and answered.”

“You don’t say.” He brought his hand to his chin in thought when he considered the adorable little floating creature was older than the both of them. He reached out to pat it on the head. “Nice to meet you, Kutty.”

The response he got was the Guardian Beast letting out a cry of its name before promptly dropping lower in the air until he was chest-height with Welf. Then he lashed out with his fist. “Kutty!”

Welf staggered back. Not so much in pain but in surprise. It actually packed a bit of a punch despite its small size. “Why’d he hit me?”

“Not sure,” Pratty told him. “He licked me. Then punched me. Then he laughed. I’m still working out whether that means he likes me or finds me amusing. But that can wait until later. Master Bron told me to come get you so that you can get your own partner—and he said to bring your sword since that’s all you had to your name when you got here.”

“Right, I need to get my own Guardian Beast to properly participate, won’t I?”

He hesitated as he looked over the flying green punching creature that regarded him with eyes that were dark and judgmental. It was the very same Guardian Beast that had helped Pratty’s father, called forth when she was in the running to succeed him. It seemed almost like fate, so did he really…

“You’re not thinking something silly like ‘you don’t want to compete because we might be going against each other’, are you?” He jolted as he turned back to see Pratty pouting at him after practically reading his mind. “Master Bron said you might be thinking something like that before he sent me up, but I didn’t think he was serious!”

He sighed while silently cursing the man who was more perceptive than he gave him credit for. “…I told you before that I have other priorities, right?”

“That’s no excuse!” Pratty chided him. “You think I want to be a Craftlord if I’m not good enough that someone has to throw a match for my sake?”

“That’s not what I was saying.”

“It sounded that way,” she pointed out. “I want to become a Craftlord like Father, but there’s no point in succeeding him if I can’t win honestly against one of my friends. How do you think Master Bron and Mother would feel knowing you threw in the towel for my sake?”

They would be upset with him. He knew that much from the time he had spent with them. Because not only did it mean that he wasn’t actually giving it his all, but he was dragging Pratty down in the process by not serving as a proper obstacle that she needed to overcome.

He huffed. “Okay, let’s say that I do give it my all and I win. What will you do then?”

The girl had no hesitation. “Train harder so that I can earn the title the way that Father did, through his own efforts and merits. I want people to acknowledge me because I earned it. And if you beat me and then go on to win, at least then I can say one of my friends managed to make it that far because I pushed them to it by making them give it their all! Right, Kutty?”

“Kutty!” The Guardian Beast nodded in agreement before flying over and landing on her head. It then made punching motions toward Welf, as if to say it would welcome the challenge.

“…Pfffttt. Hahahaha!” He broke out laughing as he realized the point that she was making. So what if one path for her was closed off? She would find another while taking advantage of the fact that she was getting a head start thanks to the tournament. It was no different than the promise he had made to himself when he forged the hammer and vowed to succeed regardless of whether or not he got admission to the Silver Guild.

“You got me there, both of you.” Rising to his feet, the stray smith made his way over to the wall where the greatsword that had been with him since he woke laid against and picked it up. He then hefted it forward towards the pair in a challenge. The stance and motion felt engraved into his body with familiarity. “Fine then, if we meet opposite one another then I’ll give it my all.”

“You better!” She stuck her chest out with pride at having gotten what she wanted from the older of the two of them with her words. “Now hurry up and get to Master Bron.”

He went down the stairs and into the private room where Bron was awaiting him with the Summoner. “Sorry, I’m late. Pratty gave me an earful.”

“And whatever she said goes double for me,” Bron added on principle. The Silver Master probably knew everything she was going to say the moment he told her what was likely on Welf’s mind. He then looked to the Summoner. “Yer up!”

Right…” The man cleared his throat. “Now, I’ve been told of your situation from Master Bron. You’ve lost your memories and so the normal process of questioning that I would give to help with finding a compatible partner from one of the four other realms won’t work since you have less experience to draw from.”

Welf had been told that Summon Creatures tended to come from one of the four realms that ringed this one. There was Loreilal, which was a technologically advanced world that had more mechanical beings. There was Maetropa, where magical beasts typically lived (he was assuming Kutty came from there). There was Sapureth, where more spiritual beings like angels and devils called home. And last there was Silturn, the world where Oni and beings born from beliefs and objects manifested.

“Fortunately, we might be able to manage to find you a compatible partner by instead focusing on the embodiment of the passions that drive you now. That which stirs within you strong emotions along with something that embodies it will act as a focus by reaching out across the boundaries set in place and call forth a likeminded Summon Creature.”

It clicked. “So that’s why you wanted me to bring my sword with me?”

“S’ right,” Bron nodded. “It’s clear as day that forgin’ and smithin’ has been drilled into ya so thoroughly that what yer mind can’t recall, yer body does. That blade of yers ain’t a masterpiece by any stretch and won’t hold up in the tournament, but it’s clear a lotta thought and feelin’ went into it. There ain’t a more appropriate catalyst for ya.”

He couldn’t remember shaping the metal to forge the blade, but he could tell what every part of it was shaped for. It was practical in its design and thus had a purpose. That was done with consideration and planning before being worked into existence. “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

Welf exchanged the sword with the man who gave him a colorless gemstone in return. Just touching it he could feel that it was rich in mana. The man explained that it was called a Summonite Gem, which would be used to provide the basis of the contract for the Bonding Pact—a catalyst to throw wide the gates and open the way for his partner to reach him.

“Right, I’ll begin the chant now,” the Summoner said. “Focus your thoughts, your breath, your very soul of a smith that you hold pride onto the stone. As you do so, wish with all your heart for a Guardian Beast to aid you in both your craft and battle. In doing so, it should resonate with a compatible Summon Creature, and you will hear a name. Call it out when you do to seal the contract.”

The soul of a smith.

He closed his eyes and slowly began taking deep breaths as he searched for that which could be called his soul. He already remembered what it was that night months ago, sitting in the dark and working himself to the bone. He only needed to return and grasp it once more, so he fell deep into himself….


The welcoming darkness. The ring of a hammer striking steel. He traced his way to them once more expecting to arrive at the scene of the forge where the shrouded silhouette awaited him from ages lost.

But this time was different. The din of the hammer instead led him someplace else. Someplace that was beyond even that enclosed space. Someplace further than the boundaries of the darkness itself that seemed endless.

And there he saw a guiding flame.

It was such a small and feeble thing. So weak that it looked as though a slight breeze would put it out. Yet it was so warm as he approached the beacon in the dark that seemed to quiver in curiosity as he felt its attention fall onto him instead of the din of steel being struck that lured it here.

It was just a newly kindled flame that had flickered into life. Too weak to become a roaring blaze or light a forge. It might just quietly fade out without accomplishing anything if left on its own. Yet something in his very blood seemed to be reaching out that young flame.

And it reached out to his blood in turn, cautiously. Like a newborn, the flame crawled closer and closer until it could finally reach out to brush it. The flicker of its touch was gentle and probing with inquisitive curiosity. But his blood itself seemed to be more than willing to embrace it in response, gently bringing it into its grasp.

Curiosity bloomed into an acknowledgment of the kinship between them. Then he felt something inside of him shift. It could only be described as the echoes of his blood stirring to life and flowing into that weak and meager flame. It slowly burned brighter and hotter, practically thrumming with definition and life until it was steady and strong.

A sensation of relief and fulfillment washed over him. The feeling that came with the entrustment of something beloved. So precious and sentimental that it could persist even in a place that one only reached after the end of one journey and before the beginning of a new one.

Welf looked at the invigorated flame that now danced in his formless palms. It eagerly brushed against him with a newfound zeal. Clinging to him as the din of steel fell silent there was a single prevalent desire that had filled the flame.

You want to help me, huh? He could feel the desire. The yearning to seek out that which could only be found in the song of steel being worked and the warmth of the forge. That works for me. But I need to know your name.  

It flickered for a moment as in thought. Then he felt what could only be called the ghost of a smile gracing that which had no mouth. It answered back with…



Fire bloomed in his palm.

No sooner than the name was declared did the hand that grasped the colorless gemstone erupt into flames that swallowed it whole. They lapped over every inch of his arm as they crawled along the limb to his upper body. Then he felt its embrace rolling over him from head to waist entirely.

Yet it didn’t burn.

The flames that came from the gemstone were gentle and soothing as they caressed him. Feeling him inside and out. Taking something from the very blood within him. Then it slowly pulled itself away and he saw that the rampant flame now had what could pass as a humanoid shape, albeit with decidedly more feminine features as its glowing eyes that housed within it an ardent flame stared straight into his own.


That name touched his mind with an ethereal yet dulcet tone. It was her voice. She was speaking to him despite having no mouth to speak with.

And that name. He didn’t know why, but that name seemed to draw out a wellspring of anger from deep inside of him. Something about it filled him with nothing but disdain to the point he never wanted to hear it again. “My name is Welf. Not whoever Crozzo is.”

The embodiment of flame quirked its head.

Welf… Crozzo…? 

“Not Crozzo,” he insisted. Even though the name sounded familiar he found it distasteful. Besides, from what he had been told the only people who had last names were those who were Summoners or descended from them. “I’m just Welf, Urus.”

There was an impression of… sadness? Confusion? Understanding? He wasn’t certain if she felt that way entirely or if he was having trouble interpreting the impressions that she was giving him. It was all too new to really tell.


The sharp yell of an angry blacksmith drew their attention back to Bron. The Silver Master was frowning rather fiercely given that part of his shirt and some of his facial hair was smoldering from what Welf could only assume was being too close when Urus had erupted into existence. He winced. “Sorry, Master Bron.”

The man’s nostrils flared out as he settled himself. “Ya took ages ta wake up. Thought somethin’ went wrong with the process an’ when I got close, all of a sudden ya went up in flames!”

The Summoner himself looked winded. But thankfully not burnt. “Yes, the process was admittedly longer than normal. But it’s done now. You should be able to see the name of your Guardian Beast within the Summonite Gem to signal the completion of the process.”

He opened his palm to see what had once been a colorless gemstone was now a scarlet red one. The name that had been given to him was emblazoned deep inside of it as if burned into place from the inside out to be forever preserved—the Bonding Pact.

The Summoner composed himself and then gave his analysis. “Given its clearly spiritual nature and how you seem to be able to commune while we don’t hear a verbal response, I have to assume that it came from the Spirit Realm of Sapureth. You should be aware that they possess different senses of perception and understanding, given that before the Summoning Ritual they typically lack a physical form. It may take time to get accustomed to its new form, so don’t be surprised if it starts probing you and gradually learning customs. And now I believe I will take my leave and get some Tomato Juice at the local inn. That was exhausting…

The departure of the man was followed by Bron stating that the Fire Spirit would likely need to be guided once they started forging anything since they had no previous experience. But at the very least they were pretty sure that there wouldn’t be a compatibility problem. More so considering how she kept clinging to him and muttering his name over and over as if to reaffirm who he was.

Hopefully, she would pick up on things quickly enough since there was only a week before the preliminaries.

The Stray Smith: Prologue

The Stray Smith – Prologue

Summary: “A sword is not Strength. A sword is not Skill. A sword is not Fellowship.” These were the tenets of the Craftknight. And for the amnesiac Welf, they became a truth upon his time spent in the City of Swords as part of a story involving eight apprentices, four swords, and what lay at the bottom of the Labyrinth of Wystern.


He was falling….

No. He was being pulled.

He was being pulled beyond the veiled boundary that defined the Lower World and Heavens above by flames.

Raging flames, fueled by a hatred so deep as to smother him by its very presence, pulled him by the very blood in his body into the space between worlds. Those same flames burned though the very laws themselves that denied the existence of the physical form and defied the will of the First Monarch. Yet so intense was the grip of the raging flames that they threatened to burn away everything that he was as it pulled on what laid within his blood to rip it free.

Yet before it could claim everything ardent fire swaddled him. The gentle blaze came from deep within, kindled from the fire sparks of the blood memory deep within as a rejection to the otherworldly flames. It was as comforting as a hearth yet intense as a furnace as it swelled and burned free of the grip of the raging inferno.

And so he fell into a new land while embraced in the comforting and protective arms of the gentle blaze.


Blue eyes fixed onto a star that seemed to shine brighter than all the others in the night sky.

They belonged to a young girl was fourteen years of age and dressed in a pink tunic and shorts. She sat on the edge of the wooden-layered steel platform that supported her home, the salt-sweet breeze from the ocean gently brushing through her neck-length white hair. Left with only the faint light from the windows behind her, she had been stargazing while rocking her feet back and forth with the canal directly below her.

It had been a habit that she came out to the back of their home to look at the stars. One ingrained since she was a little girl. She would come outside to sit upon the lap of her father as they spent their time regaling one another of the events of the day beneath the curtain of the night.

Of course, it had been three years since he had passed away. It had been painful back then to come out and see the spot he had always sat in being empty. But, at least now when she came out to look at the stars, it allowed her one way to cling to the memories of who her father was that she could still recall…

That was when the world itself seemed to shake.

The water in the canal churned. The metal platform groaned as if under stress. The glass window behind her rattled.

It was as if the island itself was trying to move. Thus, she clutched the railing with a white-knuckle grip until the tremors stopped entirely. It was then that she turned her attention back to the sky and her brows furrowed upon noticing the star seemed to grow larger.

Much larger.

She rose from her perch on the platform and stood up as she realized that what was growing closer was no distant star. It seemed to be a ball of flames that was coming towards her home at the speed of a falling meteor. Its orange glow illuminating her face as reflected off the water—


—and then the star crashed into the canal violently enough that she felt the water reach feet. Their home, like most others on the water, were placed on raised platforms held in place by steel poles to keep them from being flooded when the water level rose due to heavy rainfall. But the force of the impact had been so great that it had caused the excess water to spill over the pathways that connected it to others nearby, all while white steam hissed and snapped violently.

She took deep breaths to try to calm her rampaging heart. Between the ground shaking and the sky falling, she wasn’t sure if it was the end of the world. She was so unnerved that a loud snapping noise from behind nearly made her jump into the canal by mistake until she turned to see that it was just the window opening abruptly.

Red hair and concerned eyes stuck out beyond the frame. “Pratty, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mother—but something just fell from the sky!” She turned back to where the burning object slammed into the water over by the walkway as the hissing quieted and the steam vanished. That was when she noticed the rocking waters sloshing over the pathway connecting their home had deposited something just over the edge. Or rather someone. “It’s a person!”

Specifically, it was a young man. He was tall if she had to guess by the greatsword on his back that was half-submerged in the water. He had black clothes on that were now soaking wet and red hair that reminded her of the furnaces that she had been coming more accustomed to as of late.

“A person?” Her mother leaned further out of the kitchen window and held her hand against her cheek when she caught sight of him. “…Oh my. Pratty, you better pull him out quickly before he slides off. With that weapon on his back, he’ll sink right to the bottom.”

The water passages of Wystern were a byproduct of the nature of the City of Swords. Their island-sized city-state was actually the top of what was once a tower was said to stretch to the sky only to begin sinking down into the depths of the sea. And it constantly sank bit-by-bit every year into the ocean, until the point where the Lower Level they lived on now had once been the Third Level during the oldest living generation’s time.

If he was a particularly skilled Craftknight he could possibly swim to the surface with a sword that large no problem. But even the best couldn’t do that while unconscious. “Oh, right! I’ll help you!”

She hurried over to the side and grabbed him by the arms as she tried to leverage him out. The best she could really do was to just keep him from going further into the water with her slender arms until her mother came out, still dressed in her apron. She bent down and supported his unconscious body on her shoulder, raising him up blade and all.

Just like that they carried the strange boy who fell from the sky into their home.

[-Summon Night: Swordcraft Story-]


[-Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon?-]

His name was Welf.

Or at least that was what he thought he heard himself being called once before. It could be true or false for all he knew. It was just the name he gave almost on instinct upon being asked who he was when he woke up in the unfamiliar room with his head still veiled in a haze of heat and mystery.

To be honest he still was trying to comprehend the situation.

He had apparently fallen from the sky. While on fire. Or at least that was what the teenage girl with snow-white hair said when he had woken up a short while ago—she had introduced herself as Pratty and seemed nice.

It was apparently her home that he was in, shared with only her mother who had red hair that felt oddly… comforting? Almost familial if he had to give it a word. He had thought they might be related but, when he asked, she had only laughed and said she was pretty sure she didn’t have a brother his presumed age of maybe a few years older than her daughter.

She had then introduced herself as Amariss.

The very short series of questions that followed had left them both to look worrying, leading to the current situation whereupon he was sitting upright in a bed while a doctor examined him beneath the watchful gazes of the two women.

“It might only be temporary memory loss,” the doctor said in a voice that didn’t give him hope that it was. “His mana had not been depleted before he hit the water, and there doesn’t appear to have been any brain damage. However, considering his short-term memory including what caused his fall may not have been retained, we can’t rule out that some things might not come back.”

“Oh dear.” She inclined her head to the side slightly, one hand on her cheek, as she gave him a sympathetic gaze. “Is there any way to help him?”

The doctor sighed. “He’ll need time at the very least. Remote or deeply ingrained memories might have been spared, so exposure to familiar faces and places and tasks might help speed up the process. Did you find any identification on him when you pulled him out of the water?”

Pratty shook her head. “His clothes aside, all he had was a greatsword on his back.”

“Ah.” No sooner than she mentioned his weapon did the doctor turn his attention his hands. They were large and calloused. “Craftknights being launched from failed smithing aren’t anything new, but this place is a quite distance from the rim of the Second Level.”

“…What’s a Craftknight?”

The unfamiliar word had coaxed a question from his lips. But the reaction to it was the doctor wincing and the mother’s brows furling in clear concern. He got the impression that they were wordlessly re-evaluating the severity of the prognosis.

Fortunately, Pratty was more than willing to give him an answer rather than add to his existing worry over the loss of what appeared to be common or vital information. “Craftknights forge metal into weapons and act as the protectors of Wystern. I’m one of the apprentices of a well-respected Craftknight and you must be one too considering you had a greatsword on you.”

His eyes turned over to said greatsword that was now resting against the wall close to what appeared to be a metal cabinet. It was a large steel blade that was probably three-fourths the length of his body and tapered gradually into a stouter edge bevel that was sharpened and polished with the secondary bevel angled. The handle wasn’t attached to a tang but instead seemed to have been inserted into a collar at the base that was heavy enough to act as a counterweight given there was no pommel. There was also a notable chunk just past the base missing, but it had clearly been taken into account for by the design and probably reduced the weight to a degree without affecting its stability.

Or so he felt like after glancing at it.

The doctor cleared his throat as he stood straight. “I can put in a request for someone to go through the registry to see if anyone recognizes his name. But it might take a while given things at Central Tower are hectic as of late from what I’ve heard. That earthquake hadn’t helped things either.”

“Oh, no need to worry about that,” Amariss said with a chipper smile. “I can get access to the registry easily, so that won’t be a problem.”

The doctor did not question how a seemingly ordinary housewife could get access to the registry that kept the name, addresses, and other vital information about Craftknights and apprentices with such confidence. He decided that it would be better not to. “Then for the moment he’ll need rest until his mana naturally replenishes. Best not to force it along, but Silturn Water is recommended. We’ll set up an appointment, but if his condition worsens before then contact me.”

That done, the doctor bid them farewell and Pratty took it upon herself to show him out of the house.

That left the young man with the mother who was apparently a stranger but had gone out of her way to accommodate him after he had literally landed on her doorstep. Or in the water next to it anyway. He could only apologize for the inconvenience his presence was no doubt causing. “Sorry about all of this. If I can make it up to you somehow then I will.”

Amariss only smiled sweetly. “Just focus on resting while I finish dinner. It’s been sometime since I’ve needed to cook for three people, but some good food will help. We can leave worrying about everything else for another day.”


Did yer brains fall out of yer head or somethin’ to seriously ask me that question?”

Pratty couldn’t tell if the question was sincere or sarcastic. It could be one or the other. Or both. She had been on the receiving end of both given she had, admittedly, made her share of mistakes and asked some questions that seemed silly in retrospect.

She could understand why her master would think this would be one of those times.

An apprentice asking their master to take on another apprentice was a fairly odd thing to ask. They were scarcely in a position to ask favors, especially when said master was one of the most well-respected Craftknights in a city full of them. And when competition for becoming a Craftknight was fierce considering the role they played in the Wystern.

And especially when their master was a man as large and imposing as the Silver Master—Bron.

He was an older man that wore thick gloves that had to be buckled onto his hands, thick trousers that were buckled around his ankles, and kept a tool holster that was held in place by not only a belt, but also overall straps. Anything less probably would have caused it them to fall down given that they supported the hammer and other smithing tools that were about the size of his forearms—which were as thick as steel beams.

He also stood almost two heads higher than her, was about double her size in terms of width, and had muscles so swollen that the white T-Shirt he wore had ripped sleeves from where his biceps had to pass through while she could see the outline of his abs. Not to mention his face, which was chiseled beneath the forest of hair that made up his beard, sideburns, and eyebrows, gave off the impression of a stern figure—which he was most of the time when it came to his work.

Either way, Pratty clasped her hands together and pleaded with him to listen. “Welf is a nice guy! And it could help him get his memories back faster!”

Two weeks had passed since they had taken the young man who had fallen from the sky into their home. Physically, he had recovered to the point where he could move around now without any complications. And in contrast to what the doctor had said, Welf really didn’t have trouble retaining new information once he had it explained to him.

He even picked up on it faster than Pratty did… though her mother did playfully tease her that she wasn’t sure if that said more about her than him.  Considering his sword and that he mentioned he felt like he had made it, it was possible some part of his mind recognized the information and so the knowledge effectively fit right where it belonged. That made them more hopeful that if he was allowed to forge something, they might start floating to the surface.

The problem was that they couldn’t find out anything about him.

Her mother said she checked the registry and even called in some friends to help her search for anything about him, but so far there was nothing. No missing reports of a young man fitting his description either. He really did seem to have fallen from the sky out of nowhere.

It was suspicious for him to be there with no information. And because the Craftknights themselves were charged with protecting Parista, they couldn’t just let someone with no citizenship remain freely. Let alone visit and work in a forge.

Even Welf himself acknowledged it. He was even prepared for them to send him off whether or not he got his memories back so that he didn’t cause trouble for them. He only thought of himself as being sixteen, two years older than her, but he was mature to just accept that he would likely be sent off to Vance Cape and left to wander the world without his memories.

Now, now. There is no way I’m letting a nice young man end up as a vagabond.” That had been her mother’s response while wearing her usual smile as she gentle pressed a finger to his forehead. “Don’t underestimate a housewife. I’ll take care of it.

Welf had full citizenship with all the paperwork involved a day later.

Pratty didn’t question her mother’s methods.

She was just happy they worked.

“I’ve already got my hands full as is,” Bron continued. “Ye think I can make time to take on a stray smith that can’t remember anythin’ all of a sudden? How daft can ye be girl?”

Pratty popped one eye open and slightly smiled behind her clasped hands. “Actually… it’s a request from Mother.”

The man’s demeanor instantly changed. “…Amariss is askin’ me to do this?

“Yep!” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a letter that she presented to him. “Mother told me to give this to you.”

YA SHOULDA LED WITH THAT!” He grabbed it gingerly and unfolded it. His eyes quickly skimmed over the contents before settling on one part in particular for a very long time. Long enough that she was starting to wonder if she should try to sneak a peek. But then he folded it back up and shoved it into his pocket before standing up. “Right then. Let me get a look at ‘em.”

As the head of the Silver Guild, Bron naturally had private quarters within the thick walls that connected with three other rooms. To the left was the main workshop. To the rear was the Kitchen, which was currently empty though the faint scent of curry could be smelled lingering in the air. And to the front was the Entrance Hall where Welf stood just past the door.

Pratty caught sight through the door as he stood straighter the moment it swung open and Bron approached him with his trademark stern face. It spoke well of his character that he didn’t flinch or interpret it as a hostile act. More so when the burly man came to a stop in front of him and looked him up and down with a furrowed brow and grimace.

“…I’ll be honest with ya,” the Silver Master began without any segue or introduction after his silent assessment. “Yer circumstances are suspicious—memory loss or no, it seems like yer not from around these parts. Even if ya are, the fact that no master has come to claim ya means that ya were unwanted by ‘em. And I don’t deal with second-rate smiths, let alone strays tossed out.”

Ouch. His statement was so blunt Pratty couldn’t help but wince. More so considering the last thing she had told Welf was to wait here while she would explain the situation to her master. She was partially worried it might have come off as her being the one who called him second-rate or stray. “Master!”

Bron ignored her, keeping his eyes fixed on Welf’s. Then he crossed his arms and drew up himself. “Even so, Amariss is the one askin’ that I give ya a shot. So, I’ll give ya one—and only one. Understand?”

The red-haired smith only gave an appreciative smile. “That’s fine. I don’t remember much, but I understand you can’t put your reputation at risk for someone who isn’t up to par. All I can do is give you my best, so that even if that isn’t up to your standards, I won’t waste the kindness Miss Amariss has shown me.”

His nostrils flared as he exhaled before clearing his throat. “Then follow me to the forges. Yer test starts here and now.”

Welf did so without complaint as they followed the carpet strip covering the steel floor and then took the passage into the main workshop. Most of the forging was done here on the first floor, in the largest room that contained all the essentials for their work. There were four regular forges meant to handle standard orders and arms, with an extra-large one in the back meant to be used for complex or large jobs.

Bron moved straight to the one in the back and began to fire it up. He didn’t spare either of them a look in the process while asking, “Tell me, what do ye know of how we Craftknights smith?”

Welf glanced in her direction for a moment before he answered, “In Wystern, you use the flames of the Holy Spirit of Swords, which at a high enough temperature will break down any physical object into intangible elements, which are then condensed into Elemental Ores with the aid of a Guardian Beast that has been trained in the process. Those ores are then proportioned into ratios, smelted together with a normal flame, and then worked into the shape of the craft with the Guardian Beast using their power to aid in the process to keep it together until it finishes being heat-treated and the form is locked into its shape permanently.”

“Guessin’ Amariss told you that,” he grunted while using a fire starter to ignite tinder within it. “Parista’s flames makes it so we aren’t limited to what materials we have on hand to craft. Even junk can be turned into something valuable by using the proper ratios of the elemental ores to affect the blade itself. But that also means it requires more thinkin’ and plannin’ to forge anything of value, including taking account for the loss during the material breakdown and so on. Ya can’t half-make anythin’ before its heat-treated else it’ll all be lost.”

Being that she was still an apprentice herself, Pratty didn’t really grasp the full scope of the ratio balances yet. Sure, she helped her master with his own weapons, but that was more of the physical work with the compound ore during the shaping. She had no “technique” of her own to speak of since she didn’t have a Guardian Beast—a creature summoned to this world from another dimension to assist them in the process.

Bron continued his explanation even as he went over to a cabinet that was normally kept locked since it was filled with rare materials that Pratty had never seen. “Since the forges can use the Holy Flame, any fuel or excess material that isn’t turned into elements becomes raw mana that enters the atmosphere rather than ashes or waste. It even saturates the water, which is partially why we got water passages and canals all over the place. But that doesn’t mean it can be wasted, so only the best will do.”

It was also why drinking concentrated amounts, known as Silturn Water by the locals, was enriching and could help restore your mana. Her mother had made Welf drink plenty of it so that he could recover, and his first reaction was to note it had a strong flavor that he wasn’t used to. Even Pratty struggled to get it down when she was younger.


The apprentice nearly jumped when Bron loudly set down a large hunk of what looked to be some kind of ore on an anvil in front of the forge, with a set of standard blacksmithing tools joining it. It wasn’t like any ore she had seen either. It felt… off.

And it wasn’t just her imagination either. She could tell from the way Welf’s expression shifted the moment it was placed in front of him that he could feel something about it was weird. Really weird.

“This here is something only found in Labyrinth,” Bron began as he lumbered towards the red-headed youth. “I won’t give ya the details, but its hella tough to work if ya  don’t know what yer doin’.

He pulled his massive hammer off his tool apron and held it out. “Yer test is to use the tools and forge and turn it into a hammer like this without any outside assistance by morin’. That’ my standard here. Understand?”

She looked over at the forge. Pratty might not have seen that ore before but if it was something only used by Craftknights and found in the Labyrinth then that meant it must have required the use of Parista’s flames to reduce it to elements and a Guardian Beast to condense it into something manageable. But the forge didn’t carry the same presence it did when the Holy Flame was in use, and he had no Guardian Beast.  “Master, that’s—”

“Quiet!” He didn’t even look at her. But his tone alone instilled in a single word that he would not tolerate the breaking of the respect to be shown by the apprentice to the master. “Ya haven’t even earned yer own hammer yet. Ya don’t have the authority to speak up here.”

Her body quivered under the blunt statement. An apprentice who had not even forged her own weapon had no right to criticize the teaching of her master. That was the underlying message and true to the point that she couldn’t bring herself to speak up again—not even in the defense of her new friend.

He handed the hammer to Welf and said, “Ya better start now if ya wanna make it in time. These tools and the forge locked at its current temperature should be all ya need if yer a real smith. I’ll check on ya in the mornin’.”

Welf looked down at the hammer. Then the tools. Then the ore. There were no words as he made his way over to where everything was stationed before he set the hammer itself down and began to appraise it.

Bron wrinkled his nose before he pointed to Pratty and gestured for her to follow him. She obediently followed, only taking one last look at Welf before the door to the forge was shut closed. Then he led her to the front entrance and said, “Go home, Pratty.”

“But… are you really not going to explain anything else to help him?” Her voice came out even meeker than she expected. She was expecting him to speak harshly to her again and her body was responding as such given that he rarely used that tone. “The forge wasn’t using Parista’s flame, so isn’t he…”

…being set up to fail, is what she wanted to say but couldn’t.

Bron crossed his massive arms and furled his brow. It was as if he had read her mind and found it offensive. “In the Silver Guild, it’s a graduation practice for apprentices to forge their own smithin’ hammers out of that ore without the Holy Flame as a sort ‘o test of their skills. If yer completely reliant on it then ya aren’t worthy of claimin’ the title of Craftknight, and I ain’t got time to teach ‘em from scratch. If he can figure out the trick, he’ll manage whether or not he has his memories.”

At the very least it sounded like he had a chance. Not a high one. But a chance anyway. “But if he can’t, then what?”

“Recite what the duty of the Craftknight is.”

The tone of his voice wasn’t as harsh as before. But it was clear he expected her to answer properly as demanded by the Silver Master. She did so obediently. “To protect the city and the Holy Spirit of Swords.”

“And takin’ him in as an apprentice means he’ll be obligated to fulfill that role to the best of his ability, not fillin’ the role of a simple smith. That means riskin’ the life he nearly lost from what ya told me, in which case what was the point of savin’ em in the first place? Of all people ya should know that even the best might not make it out in the end.”

Her blue eyes fell at that. She knew it could be dangerous. Her father had been a Craftlord, ones who oversee all of the other Craftknights, and three years ago he had died down in the Labyrinth. There were no guarantees in the end.

“If he ain’t cut out to be a Craftknight then not only did someone else lose out on their chance to be one of my apprentices and eventually fill that role, but we put him in danger when there are other paths in life he coulda taken. That’s why Amariss… yer mother wrote for me to give ‘em that test in particular.”

…There were no words to describe the feeling that drove itself into her chest. Her mother wanted him to take such an unfair test, despite knowing he most likely wouldn’t pass it as he was? That didn’t make sense given all she had done for him. “…Did Mother really want you to do that?”

“Go home and ask her yer self,” Bron insisted. “She won’t lie to ya. Not about this.”

Pratty ran out to do just that.

And Amariss did not lie.


Welf’s face was fixed into a stern grimace as he struck at the ore with hammer only for it to nearly fly out of his hand.

Over the last two week his memories hadn’t returned. The information that Pratty and Amariss gave him felt foreign but, on some level, he could understand them easily enough. But it was a different story when Pratty had shown him her own Smith’s Tools as an apprentice.

He recognized each one of them. It was as if they were old friends whose absence had been out of place once he laid eyes on them. That was why he knew he could forge a hammer easily with them. They were not the problem.

The problem was the ore.

The moment the man pulled it out something about it felt wrong. Its hue was a swirl of dark-grey and purple. It looked more like stone, yet it clearly had a metallic element. If that was the case, then it should be possible to shape it if got heated up just right.

He had thought that might have been the trick.

So the moment that the forge bloomed with a roaring flame and the heat stroked his face with an instantly familiar caress, he set to work. He grabbed the blue bandana he kept tied around his neck, unfurled it around his forehead to keep sweat from getting into his eyes, and proceeded to place it into the forge so that the heating process began. Then, when the ore was a molten hue that meant it was pliable for shaping, he pulled it from the blazing maw and took the hammer to it.

His first few blows out of the flame had been met with failure. But he had not stopped trying as he hammered at it until the heat began to waver. It went back into the forge once he had deemed it too cool to be shaped and he kept trying to figure out if there was something amiss.

He tried again once it was red-hot once more.  He put more effort into shaping it. He put more strength into his blows. But his frustration only grew as he seemed to be doing worse as his strokes seemed to be rebuked even harder.

Back into the forge it went and he was left running his hands through his hair and wondering if he was trying to do it wrong. Maybe he was hitting too hard and so it was pushing back even harder. The possibility was there so he decided to try a softer hand at working the ore.

The effort naturally failed. The soft blows could not even temper bronze or copper. Let alone iron or steel. The ore itself cooled even quicker since the friction wasn’t there to keep it hot. He shoved it back into the forge and left it to heat even longer this time.

Nothing he did worked as the clock on the rear wall ticked and tocked and the minutes turned to hours while the night dragged on. Too hot. Too cold. Hard blows. Soft blows. None of it changed what the stone was.

If anything, every failure seemed to only make it more difficult. Every hit was met a rebuttal as the hammer bounced in his hand like had struck rubber. And the metal within it seemed to mock him as the tenor of its ring became increasingly grating. It was only now that it had nearly come out of his grasp and the mocking reverberation resounded in the room that he came to one conclusion:

The ore refused to be shaped.

Not that it couldn’t. The conditions to shape it were there. It was hot enough to be malleable. His strikes were hard enough to mold its form. Every bit of instinct as a smith, amnesiac or not, told him that it should be able to be shaped into something else under any other circumstance.

The ore itself was refusing to be shaped by his hands.

The matter was not a question of how hard it was. It was not a matter of how hot it was. It was not a matter of what tool he used. None of that mattered because the ore itself was actively refusing and mocking his attempts, as if denying that he was worthy to be the one who shaped it.

By the time the clock passed midnight his frustration reached its peak. He decided he needed to take a break and set the hammer down. The ringing of the ore continued well after he had done so, as if basking in the fact that the smith had broken before the stone. He shoved into the forge and let the roar of the flames drown it out.

“Damn it all…” He sat with his back against one of the nearby forges that was inactive and covered his face in shame. The heat from the forge and sweat from exertion left him feeling somewhat grimy, but it was not an unfamiliar sensation.

It was so frustrating. The entire situation was almost unbearably frustrating despite the face he put on to the two who had taken him in. He knew it in his bones that he was a smith and meant to be one. The question was if he had been a good one.

Stray. Second-rate. Unwanted. Those words said by the smith began to bubble up in his mind as he sat there. If he had been a resident of the city, then someone should have come for him if he had been missed. Someone had to teach him how to smith as well. So where were they?

He had said he would do his best so that Amariss’ efforts weren’t squandered. So he had no intention of quitting now. As soon as the ore finished heating again he would give it another shot and keep doing so until he ran out of time, no matter how frustrating it was. But he couldn’t help but wonder… what he would do if he failed in the end?

Wystern was the City of Swords. They were not lacking in smiths of any kind. Many started young and could be molded into an ideal smith by their masters. He couldn’t bear the thought of taking advantage of the housewife’s kindness any more than he had so far, so if he couldn’t manage this he would have to seek out work in another field.

He hated the thought of doing so from the bottom of his heart. But what chance did a stranger who didn’t have their memories have at proving themselves a reliable smith in a place like this? He couldn’t even remember why he wanted to be a smith, so why cling to it? Was it the vague hopes of regaining the memories he lost? Were they even worth recovering?

Was there a reason I even started forging in the first place…?

He wanted to believe there was. There had to be some reason worth it that he so stubbornly desired to be a smith. He shut his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts together before his mind spiraled downwards into the welcoming darkness…


He heard it.

The sound of metal striking metal. The din of steel being shaped. Of a smith at work.

He heard it and followed it like a moth to a flame.

It was so far away that it was only in due to the emptiness that pervaded the darkness that it carried so far. Yet there was no direction within the darkness. He could only rely on following the sound of a hammer striking steel.

The imagery that came to mind was that of a child half-asleep wandering towards a noise that only his ears could hear thanks to youth. It took so long that it could have been an eternity. But he followed it all the way back until he spotted in the distance a glow that cast a silhouette into view.

The figure was moving what had to be their arm. The shadow of a hammer rose high above. Then it came down and sparks bloomed, ephemeral flashes that captivated his eyes along with the wonderous sound of steel resonating.

He stood there simply watching as the figure obscured with shadows continued to strike the steel. There were heavy strokes that bent the metal and removed the imperfections. There were soft strokes for precision that adjusted it. Each one was given in response to the sound the steel prior.

Then the hammering stopped.

The figure obscured by shadows turned towards him. The face could barely be recognized as that of an older man. There were no details but it was more from the shape of it that stood out even through the obscurity.

Shouldn’t you be sleeping, Welf?

It was a voice that was wizened yet soft. Familiar. One he felt an obligation to respect. Was the man a relative? Was he a mentor? Was he the master who had cast him aside?

He didn’t know as he opened his mouth to respond. Yet no words came out. It was as if the shadows had laid claim to everything that could be said. Or perhaps there was no need for him to speak what had already been spoken?

Even so the obscured figure responded as he did, stroking what must have been facial hair for a moment in curiosity.

…Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to let you give it a try. I was younger than you when I first picked up a hammer.

The world moved until he found himself hovering over an anvil. There was a piece of red-hot steel in front of him. Even though it had been stricken so many times he could feel the heat caressing his supple cheeks with a teasing grace, as if beckoning him to strike with the weight that was suddenly in his hand. The older man was now taller than him as he pressed down on his shoulders and whispered:

Listen to the metal’s word. Lend your ears to its echoes as you pour your heart into your hammer. Never forget that as you bring it down. Understand?

The hammer came down.

And in the depths of that darkness rang out the most beautiful sound like the chiming of a bell.


…The world once more came into view for the stray smith.

He had drifted off it seemed. But in the depths of unconsciousness, he remembered something that laid buried in the darkness. The guiding fire that was the start of it all for him.

The feeling that could only come from the first time. The experience of the first time he had raised a hammer. The din of metal striking metal and the resonance of it on his ear while the gentle reverberations carried up his arms.

The reason he wanted to be a smith.

“I’m a damn fool.” He chided himself as he rose to his feet. The frustration in his voice was directed at himself this time rather than the situation. “The hell would be the point in picking up the hammer if I didn’t have the resolve to give it my all?”

He had intended to continue to attempt at forging the hammer. But he had already given up in his despair at the seemingly impossible task. His heart wouldn’t have been in it, so in continuing he would have insulted not only the owner of this forge but every single person who picked up a hammer—including himself.

He drew in a deep breath and vowed to properly apologize to the woman who got him this far, the man who gave him the challenge, the girl who had saved him in the first place, and whoever that silhouetted figure had been. Then turned his attention back to the forge. The ore was still basking in the flames and had become red-hot.

Without a word he approached the forge and liberated it from the inside, setting it down with tongs. Then he wrapped his fingers firmly around the handle of the hammer and hovered it over the ore. Taking a final breath from the diaphragm to center himself, Welf then closed his eyes and let the hammer fall to strike it once.

Only this time he listened.

His listened to the sound that came from it rebuking his hammer once more. He listened past its mocking tenor that seemed to be giddy at the chance to continue to mock his failure. He listened to the nearly imperceptible tone that laid hidden beneath the baleful delight being sent his way at his mounting frustration.

And he heard it.

“…So that’s it.” His voice came out soft as he opened his eyes and stared down at the ore that continued to ring so that his failure would linger for as long as possible throughout the enclosed room. It would have likely been far more embarrassing if other smiths had been there, but as long as even one person could hear it then that was undeniable proof. “You were rejected too, weren’t you?”

Then ring of mockery petered out as if taken off guard.

“I can’t say I understand what you were, but just now I heard it in the echoes,” Welf continued, raising the hammer again. “You’re scrap ore that had been discarded when your value was used up. Tossed aside not for some glorious purpose befitting of what you were once made for, but instead because you were a failure that had not lived up to the expectations placed upon you by the ones who shaped you before. And you’re afraid of that happening again, so you refuse to be shaped, right?”

He brought it down and listened as the hammer struck home.

The ore rang shrilly in response. Denying his claims of understanding. Denying he knew the pain of rejection and no longer being able to serve its purpose. Denying it knew of its rage and fear. In a single shrill it yelled out its frustration to the smith and demanded he not say another word.

He understood why. Words could be misinterpreted. Or they could be pretty little lies dressed up to try and sway the unyielding ore into making itself vulnerable once more. Then the sting of betrayal would be even worse and give birth an even greater despair that composed it.

Even so, Welf poured his heart into his arm as he struck once more. The feeling he had as he considered being a stray smith. The feeling he had at the thought of being a failure when he had been given one chance to prove himself. The thought of being unwanted by one who had taught him his craft and their face he could no longer remember. The thought of giving up rather than pressing on with all his might

He poured all those feelings that weighed heavy on his soul into his next stroke of the hammer to show there was no lie in his words.

The ore only responded with dull noise.

It now had no words of its own.

Become a hammer,” Welf said softly. “That way you’ll never be abandoned. Rather than a tool, you’ll be a partner with someone that will never cast you aside or forsake you. You’ll work day in and day out giving form to that which needs it to best fit their purpose and learn the joy of creating things anew. Don’t you think that’s a better way to spend your time than being stubborn?

He struck the ore again.

He listened again.

There was no mocking tenor that rebuked his efforts or skill. No shrill denial that was meant to drown out his words. Instead, there was a simple and short-lived ring that carried the faintest of fleeting hope whereas previously it had been forlorn instead:


He grinned. “You have my word as a smith. So quit being so stubborn and let me help shape you into a form befitting your new role, yeah?”

He raised the hammer up once more and brought it down.

The ore indented.

It wasn’t by much. Just a barely perceptible shift as the surface yield beneath the stroke. But it was enough to show that the message carried.

The only sounds that permeated the workshop from then on were the crackling of the forge and metal striking metal. The smith listened as it made a different ring from before with each stroke and reacted by shifting where his hammer came down in response. Nothing else was needed to carry on the dialogue between stone and smith.

Welf didn’t look up at the clock. His eyes remained captivated by the red-hot steel as he struck. Perhaps he had more than enough time. Or perhaps no matter how fast he rushed he would never make the deadline. He set aside the challenge itself to instead prioritize the vow he made to the that which desired a new purpose in life.

And the ore itself extolled happiness and gratitude in every single stroke as he worked away.

The ore became a billet and took on a more uniform shape as he struck it while focusing on the image of the hand-hammer firmly in place. It didn’t need that much force after all, so long as the ore wished to change. He used a handle punch to work in the hole, the metal bulging outwards as it got deeper while he turned every few blows to keep it in center.

Then he turned it over and did the same on the other side. Strike. Turn. Strike. Turn. He dedicated the entirety of his focus on perfection and listened with each strike as the ring advised him until the hole was made.

Then came the drift to smooth it out and widen it on the inside so that an appropriate handle could be slotted in. Of course he had to turn it over time and again to flatten out the cheeks with the round side of the hammer that Bron had given him. It seemed to know where to strike and avoided the cheeks sinking below the billet, as if it would accept nothing less than perfection for what would be its kin—which was fine as Welf had no intentions to do anything less.

The steel. The hammer. The smith. The three worked in tandem until the process was done and the hammer head was complete. On reflex he looked for something to mark it with his signature as an ingrained response, but stopped himself on account of the fact that it had not been his hammer or tools responsible.

Instead, he took a breath as he set the hammer down and brushed his hands against his black clothes. Another reflexive response, though he supposed that was why the clothes looked so worn. Then he addressed the figure looming in the doorway behind him. “So, by how long did I fail you task?”

Bron did not answer him. He merely came over and peered down at the hammer head that had been shaped into an admittedly smaller counterpart to the one that Welf had been using. His expression scrunched up for a moment as he passed judgement on the work and then back to the one who had shaped it. “Ya figured it out then?”

Welf caught the unmentioned context. “…Stray. Second-rate. Unwanted. All those are associated with feelings of rejection. You chose your words intentionally so that I could recognize it within that ore if I listened, right?”

“Merely spoke my mind. If ya heard otherwise, then good on ya.” The Silver Master’s expression softened as he looked down at the hammer head. “We put our souls into our work and in doin’ so breathe life into the weapons. They become extensions of ourselves and our Guardian Beasts. That becomes their purpose, and they want nothin’ more, so what happens when they break and get left behind?”

It festers. It rots the spirit within the weapon. It becomes a grudge that pulls in others like it. And then it comes to life once more as a shadow of itself to take its revenge on the ones that abandoned it. The ore itself was merely what was left behind when even its vengeance was snuffed out and it could only regret that even its new purpose was stricken from it.

“We don’t need second-rate smiths who’ll only make more grudges by bein’ careless and then tossin’ em away ‘cause they’re no longer useful.” He picked up the hammer head and weighed it in his hands. “But if a smith can resonate with that… if they can breathe life into ‘em again with the promise of a future where they can fulfill their purpose as a tool with pride… then they’ll bring out the full potential of their new form itself.”

“And what better tool to bring life into the world for a smith than a hammer,” the red-haired smith finished.

“A Hammer doesn’t just forge a weapon. It forges the smith who wields it.” There was a silent note of respect in his voice as he set the hammer head down and turned to face Welf. “In this case, it forged a man.”

“See, Pratty. I told you they would get along,” chimed in a third voice from the doorway. Both men turned back to see that Amariss was there along with her daughter. She was wearing her usual smile as she looked between them. “You left the front door open, so we helped ourselves inside. I take it Welf passed?”

Bron gruffly cleared his throat. “Fortunately for ‘em, I lost track of the time.”

She seemed pleased with that as she turned her attention to Welf. “And did you remember anything about your past?”

He told them what he recalled vaguely of the silhouette and the words that had been uttered. It had not been much. But it had been more than he had before and reminded him of why he took on the craft in the first place.

“It seems ya had the right of it, Amariss,” Bron said. “His memories might come back if he works in a forge long enough after all.”

“So you’ll let him stay on as an apprentice?” Pratty asked, hopeful.

He let out a grunt and his nostrils flared out as he turned back to Welf. “It’s a favor to Amariss that I gave ye shot, but for an apprentice whose body remembers all o’ that to lose it all ‘cause he doesn’t keep practicin’ would leave a sour taste in my mouth as a smith. Ye’ll get a room on the second floor to stay while yer an apprentice, but ya start slack in the slightest and I’ll boot ye out. B’cause I don’t work with second-rate smiths, ya hear?”

Despite the warning, Welf smiled. “It feels like I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Then it all worked out for the best,” Amariss said sweetly. “Thank you, Bron. I know that I was asking a lot from you. But I knew I could count on you to take care of him for me. Treat him well.”

“Anythin’ for ya, Amariss! Anythin’ at all!”

Welf found the sight of the grown man smiling practically giddily as he rubbed the back of head such a foreign sight that he looked over towards Pratty to make sure the lack of sleep wasn’t making him see things.

She only gave a knowing shrug with an expression that he interpreted as, ‘Obviously. Not that he has a shot.

Regardless, it seemed for a while he would be serving as an apprentice Craftknight for the Silver Guild.

Fanfic Recommendation 120

My Fanfics

Calling Card 25

Summary: Shinji Matou had been looking to redeem himself after the Holy Grail War, but wasn’t certain how to. Then he learned about a crimson calling card labeled Psyren. Saving the future would be a good starting point. A pseudo-crossover using elements of Psyren, it will contain characters from several Nasuverse works, including Tsukihime. Based on a Challenge by FateOnline.

Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.

Summary: Liliruca Arde died in the Dungeon. Then she woke up with a burning in her chest and the world was red. She didn’t know what she had become, but anything was better than her old, weak self.

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Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.

Maybe I’m A Monster. Maybe More.

Summary: Liliruca Arde died in the Dungeon. Then she woke up with a burning in her chest and only able to see red. She didn’t know what she had become, but anything was better than her old, weak self.


The quivering of her lips.

The straining of her throat.

The ear-stabbing reverberation.

The scream of the curled figure within the dark chasm was akin to a newborn coming into the world.

A set of chestnut eyes wrenched themselves open the moment there was no more air left to escape the confines of her crinkled lungs. That which greeted her gaze was distant shadows. It was practically bright in contrast to the stygian black that had made up the world a moment prior.

Her lungs burned as she drew in her first breath. The scent of musk and iron assailed her nose. The tang of salt and metal slid along her tongue. It all scraped down her throat like the rusty tip of a knife until her lungs were ready to burst. Then she exhaled and what came out this time was a raspy and shuddering cry laced with tremors and pain.

Pain was her world in the darkness. Her body existed of nothing but different forms of pain.

The constant pressure of unworked stone slowly biting into half of her flesh. The burning of her throat and cracks in her lips. The roiling agony of an empty stomach devouring itself from the inside out. The dull pulsation that accompanied every beat of her heart.

The electrified haze inside of her skull was the worst. Her thoughts. Her memories. They were hidden beneath its obscuring veil. No matter how long or hard she tried to reel them from beneath the fog it refused to yield them to her.

Even her own name was mired somewhere in the mist.

Her breathing slowed as the shadows slowly began to bleed into detail. She could make out the stone womb that she was in. Faint traces of light came from the direction of her feet. Instinctively chasing it left the muscles in her body to throb as they fought off the numbing pain that had taken root. Slowly rousing from what felt like an ancient slumber, her feet slid across the ground until they came to a stop at something hard.

Her head tilted down and her eyes focused. The light was coming through a smaller opening in the stone chamber. Fleeting thoughts managed to breach her mired mind. Walls. Growing. Sealing. Time. Escape.

It took a moment before she managed to put the pieces together. Her stone womb was a wound and now the walls were slowly closing in to mend it. It would become her tomb if she couldn’t get out.

She sucked in a sharp breath as every nerve suddenly came to life in response to her need to survive.  There was a rush of heat coming from a molten core in her chest. It flooded her body as her foot lashed out and breached the opening, allowing her to escape the coffin of bedrock on her arms and knees.

Her bones creaked as she stood up on her two legs. She was a meder-and-a-half at full height, her limbs thin and stiff. The cloth that covered her body was old and shorn with fabric thinner in some places. Moist air tickled her bare skin as it crept through a rough gash that threaded the cloth diagonally between her breasts.

She made out her surroundings as she brushed the hair clinging to her forehead out of the way. Space had opened up but still felt claustrophobic as stalagmites and stalactites jutted all over the place and branching paths in the darkness beyond her vision went off into the unknown. The dim light that had guided her free of the small tunnel at the base of a wall seemed to have come from the small crystals that were woven into them without rhyme or reason with the ceiling itself a dark umbrella at its deepest.

It was about then the sound of a soft and inquiring squeal came from the edge of her vision.

Her eyes homed in toward the source of the sound where she found a small mass of white fur peeking around one of the naturally forming columns that linked the floor to the ceiling. The long ears on its head, perched to either side of a horn, sprang from half-slouching to erect as pale-red eyes began to shine with bright malice as it fixated on her.

Emerging from its cover to reveal itself in full to be around her size in height as it stood on its hind legs, she watched as it slowly moved to the side while almost meekly keeping an eye on her. It was approaching what seemed to be a non-descript jutting of stone to seemingly hide behind. Except that she could feel deep within her that wasn’t the case.

Some part of her instinctively recognized that there was something within the stone just waiting there. Then the creature chambered one of its legs and stomped against the stone. The impact had shattered the solid rock with a similar spray as she had done to break free of her confines, only it had instead freed a dense piece of stone that held the shape of a handle. The creature gripped the handle with its forepaws that bent and revealed opposable thumbs that allowed it to wrench free the head that was a wedge with a cutting edge.

Then it let loose a high-pitched shriek before it bounded towards her with the stone-axe in hand.

The distance between them must have been at least thirty meders. It was a distance that would require more than a hundred steps to cross for someone their size at a walking pace. Yet in three bounds of its hindlegs it cleared that distance in three seconds.

By the time her hazy mind registered that she was under attack, the scent of fresh blood spilling into the air reached her right along with the sound of bone buckling beneath the stone wedge. Then she felt sharp, burning pain where her neck and shoulder met—where the creature’s axe had buried itself into her and split her open like firewood.

Ah… ahh….” Her voice croaked as the shock left her unable to scream. She could only stare wide-eyed into the pale red orbs that seemed like ominous stars up close. The lips of the creature whose white fur was speckled red from her blood pulled back into what could only be described as a smile of revelrous glee.

It squealed in delight upon seeing the anguish on her face. The pain it brought upon her seemed to excite it. Even now she could see from its eyes that it yearned to split her open and butcher her into slabs of meat.

It wrought out more fragments of her lost memories. The same smiles at her pain. The laughs at her anguish. The looks of those who wanted nothing more than to be rid of her.

Remembering that. Feeling the pain. Not wanting to return to the darkness. It all left her vision to turn red as the molten core in her chest seemed to burn even hotter. Every emotion seemed to drain out of her and leave only anger as she lashed out at the creature with a snarl, driving her right fist into its head with all her might.

The creature that was almost her height ended up floored as its entire body slammed into the ground next to her. It trembled as its mind seemed to register that its prey had fought back despite what should have been a fatal blow. A pained cry drew its head back towards her, only for it to find itself staring at an upraised blade that was covered in crimson.

There was another scream before the blade descended. The wet and crunchy sound of brain and skull being carved into filled the chamber. Then it happened again. And then again. And again.

The act of butchery continued to resound for time untold. The squelch of flesh being split open. The crack and crunch of bone being wrenched apart. The splashing of blood painting the drab walls and dry gravel beneath them a vivid shade of crimson.

By the time the red had cleared from her vision, there was no creature left in front of her. Instead, it was only a mass of battered meat and red fur. Bits of white bone and purple veins could be made out amidst the viscera pile that glistened faintly under the dim light with a faint sheen.


Whimpers slipped out her mouth and were followed by the stone axe clattering to the ground as pain re-asserted itself. The hand that wielded it instead came over to where she had been split open and then wrenched free the very tool used to do it. She felt a burning heat there that seemed to intensify with every beat of her heart.

Her eyes turned towards the gaping wound to see the broken bones had snapped themselves back into place and welded themselves back together. The snapped and torn muscles stretched themselves and then reconnected with a searing heat like flames were melting them together. The blood stopped flowing as her arteries and veins wormed and writhed until they reconnected. Then finally the skin knitted itself closed.

But no sooner than she was made whole did she feel a spreading and numbing cold seep throughout her body. It was as if the molten core that had been roaring hot a moment prior had been reduced to only a smoldering husk that was on the verge of burning itself out. Then there would only be emptiness in its place.

A shuddering breath escaped her as she recognized the threat of the gnawing emptiness for what it was. She needed something to quench it. Something to fill in that numbing emptiness before it spread and hollowed her out. Something to fuel the flame between her breasts that was keeping her warm before she went completely cold and still.

And she knew what she what that was the moment she spotted it peeking out of the pile of bone, fur, and meat that lay before her. The gem hidden within the viscera of the creature that had attacked her. The small prismatic stone that could fit in the palm of her hand.

She wrenched it free of the meat and blood vessels that were clinging to it desperately to hold onto their physical form. The creature that had once been alive turned into nothing but ash the moment she plucked it free. The only signs of its existence that remained were the blood that painted the walls as a testimony to the fact that it once lived and the very stone that had kept it tethered to life.

There was no hesitation before she swallowed even that. No real thought behind it. Perhaps it was instinct?

The reason behind the act ultimately didn’t matter so much as the fact that the moment she swallowed the stone the effect was instant.

The numbing cold was driven off as heat and life returned to her flesh. The fog dissipated from her mind as if it evaporated at the same time. With it gone came clarity and all the memories that had been lost before came rushing back to her all at once.

She remembered that her name was Liliruca Arde.

She remembered that she died.


The story began on the Twelfth Floor.

The room was a savanna consisting of bone-white grass. Fog blanketed the entirety of the floor and left it laced with a chill that stiffened one’s cheeks. Dead trees sprouted from the earth with dense trunks that grew thinner as they tried to stretch themselves to the faint light from above.

The trotting of boots stirred the white veil. Steel glinted as they came into view. Drawn blades caked in fresh blood and fat held at the ready. Three men in total were accounted for.

The first was a blonde with a lean body and narrow eyes. His cheap breastplate bore new scratches and the protectors on his arm looked like they had been chewed on, while his broad sword was leveled out as he made his way over toward one of the corners of the room where the fog was at its thickest. He lowered the blade when he spotted what awaited him there. “Guys, over here!”

Footfalls crushed the grass as the remaining two made it over. Of them, the first to arrive was a middle-aged man with slightly tanned skin and a pair of daggers in his hands. His black jacket was ripped in places and around one of his wrists was a cloth that had been stained red and tied tight.

“You found ‘em?” he called as he darted over, blades in a reverse grip as If ready to be plunged into flesh. They quickly went slack when he arrived. “Or what’s left of ‘em, anyway.”

It became clear what he meant when the party leader arrived. He was slightly shorter than his compatriots but had a bulkier build. A helmet covered his light brown hair while a large pauldron was affixed to his right shoulder, beneath which one could make out the muscular arms he had. “Hmph.”

All three stared down at the scene that had been hidden beneath the blanket of obscuring white mist that loitered above the ground. The bleached grass had been slathered in crimson. Bits of meat and purple entrails were left around four sets of bags that had begun to soak in it.

“You think one of the Orcs got to ‘em?” asked the swordsman as he sheathed it on his back. “Not like they would have trouble fitting him in their mouths as a snack, being messy eaters and all.”

The dagger-user drew back, wedging his blades into their sheathes before reaching down and pulling away his own bag. His lips pulled back into a grimace, and he covered his nose at the putrid scent of the fluid dripping over it. “A fittin’ end for the thieving piece of shit. Stole from us after all the good we did for ‘em.”

In contrast, the party leader’s face scrunched up and a grunt bubbled up in his throat as his eyes spanned the area. “…If that’s the case then where’s his backpack?”

“Maybe it got thrown somewhere?” suggested the swordsman as he scrubbed his bag across the grass and dirt to try and wipe away some of it.

“If it got tossed aside that’d be one thing. But…”  He looked down at the grass itself before reaching down to run his hand over the surface. “The grass and earth ain’t flattened like one of the pigs lumbering around would have done either.”

Then he grabbed his own bag and opened it without concern over the smell or the sight. His expression darkened and his gaze turned murderous as he flung the bag to the side. “My dagger’s gone! Check the rest of ‘em.”

Liliruca held her hands over her mouth to avoid the swirl of her breath giving away her position as the other two realized their bags had been deprived of the most valuable belongings. The Supporter hailing from the Soma Familia had been forced to retreat down from the Eleventh Floor to avoid retribution from the Adventurers with whom she had terminated her contract on the previous Floor. Her severance payment was a very nice magic dagger that the party leader had been quietly holding on to, much to the ignorance of his companions.

It had been by pure chance that she caught a passing glance of the crimson blade with a notable gloss. Her eyes, which were naturally more perceptive than that of other races, immediately caught sight of it when he was handling his bag and knew it was something that would fetch a high price. More money meant more of a chance at finally obtaining freedom—from Soma, his wine, and his Familia.

She had been unable to resist the chance to obtain it. Especially considering how he had short-changed her several trips now and told her if she didn’t like it, ‘he’ could always quit. She knew where the money went, so there was nothing wrong as far as she was concerned in taking what she was owed.

But it seemed he really wanted it back. “It’d be suicidal going down further on their own, so the conniving bastard is still here somewhere! Spread out and look!

Tension threaded her body. Her small frame was tucked deep into the grass she used a large cloth that resembled the hue of the nearby walls to cover herself and her backpack. It gave the impression due to the size and shape of being little more than a stone outcropping within the fog. Monsters would overlook it simply enough but a thorough search by adventurers meant she was on a clock.

Normally, Liliruca would have been more thorough in setting up the deception after coming down this far. But they had caught on too fast. Or perhaps she had gotten too ambitious by taking the magic dagger?

If she had left it in the bag, then he probably would have just moved on and taken them with him. Adventurers only looked after themselves even when they were in a group, and he was the strongest so what he said went. Even if they had complained about something being missing, he would have blamed it on them since he got what was important to him.

However, hindsight was something she didn’t have time to worry about at the moment. Escape. Survival. That was what she needed to focus on now.

Her chestnut eyes narrowed as she counted that only three of them were here. The fourth was still nowhere to be seen. Given the situation, she was willing to bet that meant the fourth was watching the only way up and she couldn’t force her way through him. Like it or not she was small and weak enough that any one of them wouldn’t have any trouble catching up and killing her if she was caught.

Her mind raced.

A solution that came to her mind was disguising herself as someone else. She had masqueraded herself as a male her entire time with them, so it could work. But her means of doing so didn’t work on anything bigger than herself and meant she would have to ditch her backpack and come back for it later.

It would have to be tomorrow morning. That was when there would be an influx of adventurers making their way down. They would trim the number of monsters along the way, harvesting their magic stones to sell. That would also be a benefit to her given the ones on the Eighth Floor and lower were too much for her to handle.

There was a risk of her losing everything in it if she left it there. But her life was more important. She would leave the sheet covering the backpack over it, hoping it wouldn’t be discovered or bothered before she could come back for it. If was missing then she would have to resort to her savings to replace everything.

She needed to get away from the three in front of her right now, of course.

But she knew that was about to be taken care of the moment she felt the earth beneath her start to tremor. It came from the lumbering of passing footfalls that mercifully passed her by and moved towards the assembled men.  It had been a mistake for them to stay there to look for her even after they found their bags.

Few things drew in monsters like the scent of blood being carried on the mist. She always kept a few bottles of it on her just in case she needed a distraction, tucked into her bag and sealed tight. It was already too late for them to run the moment the apex predator lurching through the fog spotted them.

The monster’s red eyes focused not on spanning the world for the scent that allured it, but instead on the ones that sparked the instinctive hatred that lurked within the very core of its being. Its muscles hidden beneath its fur began to bulge until the veins could be seen as it stood taller than any of them by more than twice over. Then it beat at its chest with a roar.


Liliruca tucked the magic dagger into her robes and started making her way to safety as the fog was kicked up the moment their fight for survival began. Silverbacks weren’t known to roam in packs like Orcs, and they were territorial when there weren’t mortals around to draw their ire. And she was an expert at avoiding monsters by necessity, so she would make her escape back to the surface while under another guise to live another day….

Or at least that had been the plan before the floor had fallen from beneath her.

Had it been eaten away from below by Dungeon Worms?

Had the bedrock broken open to birth some monstrosities and had yet to mend itself, leaving it to become a pitfall for any unlucky soul to stumble across?

Had the Dungeon, the living and breathing thing that it was, taken notice of the mistake that was her hubris and opened its maw to devour what seemed to be easy prey deeper into its stomach?

It really didn’t matter in the end what the reason for it was.

What mattered was that she fell into the darkness.


The fall hadn’t killed her on impact.

It would have been more merciful if it had.

Liliruca’s vision slowly came into focus as she stared up at the far-off hole that she had plummeted through. It looked to be in the center of whatever chamber she had fallen into, meaning there were no handholds that she could use to climb her way out. And considering how the Dungeon walls mended themselves it would only be a matter of time before it sealed itself shut.

The shock of the fall itself faded and the horror set in that she was stuck there. On instinct she almost shouted out for someone to help her before the wall sealed itself shut. But her rational mind lunged from the depths of her forming headache and brought with it the knowledge that the only ones who would hear her would be the adventurers above or the monsters on the floor she found herself on.

Both were a death sentence for her.

Her throat tightened shut.

Cold sweat began to form on her forehead from the gravity of the situation. But she knew that panicking would do no good. She had to find her way back up to the surface. And to do that she needed to start moving.

Her body ached as she sat up straight. Her head pounded. She wanted to lay back down and close her eyes, hoping that the pain would pass. But that would be the same as laying down to die considering that she was out of her depths, so she tried to compose herself by thinking what did she have on her at the moment to help her survive?

Her handheld crossbow?

A breath of relief escaped as she found it had survived the fall. Good. Between that and the magic dagger, which thankfully remained where it had been tucked prior, she wasn’t entirely unarmed. The number of bolts she had was limited though.

There was also her necklace holding the key to her storage and the golden pocket watch that she had gotten from one of the marks. Unfortunately, the watch had broken from the impact so she couldn’t tell the time as it was. But it was still gold so she could probably get something for it on the surface or get it fixed. She tucked it into her robes.

What about healing items?

A grimace spread as she picked up the pouch that she had placed them within and heard glass scratching against itself. Pulling open the top revealed that the vials had shattered on impact. She rummaged through her pocket for a cloth, placing it into the pouch and leaving it to soak up as much as the cloth could hold before she put it into her mouth to suckle it down. Hopefully it would be enough to numb the pain she was in so she could start moving.

But to where?

She had memorized the maps up to the Eleventh Floor. The only reason she had gone down to the Twelfth was that she couldn’t take the exit upwards because they had caught on to her original diversion, split themselves up along the paths that would have led upwards, and thus funneled her below. And now she was entirely new territory that someone with her Status had no business being, dropped from a hole with no idea where the entrance was.

To escape she needed to either figure out a way up or find another group of adventurers to barter with for safe passage.

The pain numbed somewhat by the time the light from the hole began to shrivel up from the opening starting to seal shut. That made it painfully clear how much darker the floor was in comparison to the above, distantly only illuminated by scattered crystalline formations that budded from the rock formations. She imagined that it would only be bright enough to make out her own silhouette, leaving the world around her reduced to half.

Even so, she had to move forward. Not blindly. But with some direction. She turned to her trump card. “Your scars are mine. My scars are mine. Stroke of midnight’s bell.

Argent light swaddled her body before pooling over her head and lower back. Her normal ears vanished as a set of Chienthrope ears formed on the top of her hair, while a furry tail took shape behind her. She flexed them as the light vanished and confirmed they functioned.

This was her magic—Cinder Ella. It allowed her to transform either part of herself or entirely into other creatures and races. It used to only work on her body but because she used it so much her Magic had increased enough to where it allowed her to change her clothes, though unlike her body the effect dissipated if she was hit. And while she was restricted to things her size or smaller, she gained racial features and physical attributes of the other races.

Since she couldn’t rely on her eyes to see incoming threats in the dim light, she had to rely on her other senses. Chienthropes had sharper hearing and smell than Pallums. And while it cost quite a bit of Mind to activate depending on the nature of the transformation, keeping it active didn’t have as much upkeep so she could keep it active for most of the day if needed.

It didn’t, however, make her any stronger. That was why she couldn’t risk fighting with a monster from this floor if she could help it. Her only tools were the crossbow and the magic dagger, both of which had limited uses.

Transformed, she stuck to the center of the tunnel as she made her way into the unknown. If she clung to either side of the wall, then there was the chance a sudden birth could leave her right in the jaws of a monster. But if she lingered for too long, she could be pincered and then pinned—so Liliruca moved quietly but quickly.

Every step she took across the gravel sounded like the pounding of a war drum in her head. No matter how quietly she knew that she was moved, part of her couldn’t help but think it was announcing to everything on the floor that she was there. That fresh prey had been dropped right into their laps.

It left her mouth dry to think about what could happen if they did discover her. Her knowledge of monsters below the Eleventh Floor was limited compared to her knowledge above it. But given the terrain, she could guess that monsters like the Silverbacks and Orcs would be absent.

But the Dungeon was a threat on every level, and she was certain something was gestating within the womb of the cavernous walls that would be the end of her. Not knowing what that was, but knowing that it would eventually come, kept her tension running high. The handheld crossbow trembled in her grasp as she gripped it so tight her knuckles were turning white.

She pressed on until the tunnel running from the small chamber she had fallen into split off into three directions. Three options to choose from. She stuck her head into the air and took a deep breath to take in the scent wafting from each of them.

One scent was that of what smelled like burned fruit and the earth after rain. She recalled catching the scent once before on the Tenth Floor. Bad Bats were down the west path, and quite a few of them judging by the smell.

Two options. The air in the one to the northwest smelled fresher than the one to the east. That meant it potentially was getting airflow from above or was more spacious so that it could be better circulated. She took that path.

At the mouth of the tunnel she came to a large chamber that appeared to be the lowest rung of a set of smooth walls that were built upon each other until they reached a ceiling with the guiding specks of dim light coming from the crystals lacing the walls intermittently. There were several tunnels along the path and each of them was pitch black beyond the threshold as a testament to how deeply they went.

Another decision to make and not a lot of time to make it. She had to move while there were no monsters around. She followed her nose and went up the rocky path that was nearby on the hunch that she wanted to ascend to get to the surface.

That was when the Dungeon made its move.

Ashen-toned rock split wide open from the section of stone in front of her and out plopped a large mass amidst the fragmented stone. The gleam of pale-golden carapace stretched over a muscular frame that was big enough to take up the walkway caught the dim light. And it only grew bigger as it unfurled while bits of the pebble clinging to a furry mane were shaken loose, flexing long black claws meant to tunnel through earth and stone.

Hard Armored—that was the name of the monster that Liliruca found herself staring nearly eye-level with. Next to the Silverbacks that possessed the highest offense of monsters on the Eleventh and Twelfth Floor, they were known to possess the strongest defense due to their hard carapaces. Lower-quality blades would break often enough that fighting one hand-to-hand for a Level One Adventurer was considered foolhardy.

And its crimson eyes were fixed solely on her.

…She jumped. It was only natural given that the handheld crossbow in her grip wouldn’t be able to kill this thing. The magic dagger she had could, but in the time she could draw it the monster would have killed her. So she flung herself over the side of the rising walkway and fell down to the floor below since that was the only way to survive.

It was the right call. The shadow of death had grazed her head not a half-second before she fell, leaving the ground where she had been gouged out by the black claws of the monster. Whether it was a testament to their sharpness or the power of the muscles behind them, Liliruca wasn’t eager to find out by being on the business end of them.

She ducked into the nearest tunnel where she could sense the airflow splitting. Even though it would take her away from the ascending path and descend her further into the depths, she had no choice. Hard Armoreds could cover a vast amount of distance if they were on even ground and a newborn fresh out of the Dungeon’s womb would chase its first prey until it caught up to her.

The ground tremored as it jumped after her. Gravel began to crunch at a constant pace from its charging attack, seeking to barrel her over. With her small frame, it would be an instant kill. Her bones would be crushed beneath the rolling mass and hard carapace, the pulped organs spilling out from the skin that split open like squashed fruit.

Her legs burned as she ran towards a diverging path. At the same time the rumbling from the approaching Hard Armored had grown louder to spell out her impending death. She flung herself into it and felt the harsh wind as it narrowly passed her by, its momentum carrying it several meders beyond her.

It realized its mistake and bounced into the air, unfurling as it did so. Its claws dug into the ground as it slid to a stop, letting out a frustrated growl. Then it turned its crimson gaze back into her direction—


—only to be met with the searing hot ball of fire that ruptured into an explosion upon slamming into its unprotected head courtesy of the magic dagger. The crimson bloom of flames swallowed its body, including the soft underbelly that it so preciously protected by hiding within its shell and remaining low to the ground. The monster collapsed where it was with smoke wafting off of it.

Liliruca breathed out a heavy breath as the arm holding out the magic dagger went limp. Her entire body was shaking. She had managed to kill it by chance and her body responded to that with elation at the having seized another moment of life.

It would have proven fatal had her Chienthrope ears not picked up the sound of shifting stone from above. Her attention snapped upwards right before the ceiling burst open and wet, glistening flesh lined with pointed teeth greeted her from above. Its maw was centered perfectly to engulf her, the outer row of teeth spread wide like a bear trap waiting to snap shut before the inner ones ripped her apart along the way down its long tubular body.

Ironically, her small body was all that gave her a chance at survival. Her short stature was low enough from the ceiling it had to extend further down to reach her. So, between that and her hearing, there was just enough space so that her legs could snap her backward and avoid instant death—


—and all it cost her was having her flesh split open as one of the long fangs on the outer row of the teeth grazed along her chest. The tip of it ripped into her robe and between her chest, leaving her world to burn in agony as blood poured from the wound.

Noisy chittering kept her eyes on the Dungeon Worm as it curled around and bared its gaping maw toward her once more. Crimson painted the fang that had torn her open. It angled itself and prepared to lunge once more and devour her.

With a shout, Liliruca unloaded everything the magic dagger had left into its open maw. Flames bloomed not once, but twice as two blasts struck home. The first blew apart the upper right section of its body, while the second struck deeper. It must have stuck the magic stone within its elongated body because it turned to ash right afterward.

Nnn…” The handheld crossbow clattered to the ground as the pain left Liliruca to curl into herself, forcing her eyes down to where she saw a spreading crimson puddle beneath her legs. Her blood was running freely, and she had to stem it. But first, she needed somewhere safe to tend to the injury.

That was when the world around her shook violently for a moment and the rumble of stone could be heard. She feared another monster’s birth was happening, but it was so violent that whatever it was would have been massive. Fortunately, the shaking stopped, and nothing lunged from the darkness to finish her off.

She took in her surroundings to see it had opened into a section with naturally forming columns. She hobbled her way further inside, away from where the smoking corpse of the Hard Armored would likely draw in other monsters. It was deeper within she found a small hole to crawl inside to try and stop the bleeding.

As she tried to pull her robe off to use it as a makeshift tourniquet, her limbs began to go numb. Her eyes felt heavy, and her vision blurred. Her breath grew to shudder as the fear of death closing in gnawed at her heart.

She couldn’t let herself die like this. Not now. Not after everything she had gone through up to this point. Everything she had put up with on the surface just to survive. Not to some scratch.

The Pallum put every ounce of strength she had into trying to move her limbs. But instead, lethargy left her to collapse onto her side, and a bitter cold set in. Stinging tears were the only source of heat left as she thought to herself what was it all for in the end?

Why had she been born into this world? Why had she been born into the clutches of an uncaring God and his Familia? Why did she have to die here because of them?

All of this was because of them. If they had just let her be free to live a new life back then, with those nice people. She could have been… happy

But that wasn’t how reality worked, was it?

Only the strong had that right. The Adventurers who were so proud of themselves, happily lording their power over the weak and helpless. They didn’t know what it was like to struggle and survive. Only to use others and throw them away.

At the very least it was all over now. Her suffering would be over. She would die and then be reborn to live a new life. The only regret she had was that the Adventurers who looked down on her and the Soma Familia who ruined her life would move on as though nothing happened.

With her final breath, Liliruca cursed them.

Then she breathed no more.


Falling onto her knees, Liliruca clutched her head as the memories finished resurfacing. Her body trembled as she looked down at the gravel-laden ground that had been her tomb. She remembered she had died so vividly that it was undeniable.

She remembered her body going cold and her breath stalling. She remembered the darkness pulling her in. She remembered the emptiness.

She remembered death.

There were no miracles in the world that brought the dead back to life. The bodies were left to rot and the souls were sent up above to be reborn once more. That was the fate of mortals, and everyone knew it.

She had died. After a life of suffering, she died. That meant she should have been reborn. So why was she still her weak, miserable self? A Pallum that lacked the strength to find even a sliver of happiness?

Was it some kind of cruel joke? Had some God or Goddess in charge of reincarnation decided to amuse themselves by shoving her back into her weak self? Did they think it would be hilarious to leave her trapped in the Dungeon?

The same Dungeon that wouldn’t even give her time to come to terms with things as the sound of the walls breaking open reached her ears. Bundles of fur as white as the snow plopped onto the gravel with bits of fragmented stones nestled within them. The pebbles fell loose as they shook and bristled before the four-legged frames became bipedal and thus rivaled her height.

Crimson eyes and malicious squeaks followed as a horde of Almiraj faced her down.

She could tell that there were landform weapons nearby. There were six of them alone by where they were born. The monsters would grab new axes and then use them to butcher her limb from limb until she resembled the pile of meat like the one who’d attacked her before.

It would be a cruel and painful death.

And yet…

Liliruca wasn’t afraid. Even though she had tasted death itself and the blackness that awaited, she couldn’t bring herself to fear it. Or rather to say that while she would feel fear under normal circumstances, right now she didn’t.

Instead, she only felt anger.

Anger at the fact that she had died once. Anger at the fact that she had been denied a chance to be born as someone else. Anger at the fact that the Dungeon itself didn’t seem content with taking her life already. It stirred up a deep, red-hot anger inside of Liliruca as she reached for the landform axe next to her.

Then a shout emerged from her throat and her world turned red.

The red swallowed all as it buried her into a haze that persisted until she found herself huddled over in pain. She drew in a sharp breath of air that was laced with the scent of iron and viscera, noticing the sea of blood, broken stone, and piles of flesh around her. She saw the corpses of not only the Almiraj, but even Hard Armoreds and what looked to be the split corpse of more than one Dungeon Worm.

Pain was once more her world. She could feel where her body had been broken open by landform weapons. Where her bones had been crushed and pulverized. She could even see what looked to be her own hand separate from her body.

Yet when she raised the one that was in the most pain, she saw the missing limb was no longer bleeding. Instead, there was a stump. More than that, it was growing bit-by-bit—regenerating until she was whole and hale.

It was something that should have been impossible. Almost as impossible as coming back from the dead. Yet it was unfurling before her very eyes as an undeniable sight.

And the reason became clear as she looked down at her chest.

It had been split open once more sometime when the world was a haze of red. She suspected it had been one of the Almiraj getting lucky with its dying strike, judging by the landform weapon resting beneath her along with the corpse that had its head crushed beneath her foot. But nestled firmly between her breasts and slowly being encased in a fresh layer of smoldering skin…

Laid a richly, vibrantly colored magic stone.

It was a different hue from the ones of the monsters nearby. But there was no denying what it was. Or what its purpose was. Just as the magic stones gave life to the monsters of the Dungeon, so too did it keep her body moving and even fueled the fury that somehow gave her the strength to be the one still standing within the pile of corpses that lay in the chamber.

…She should be horrified. There was something in her chest that marked her as being an enemy of mortals. The very creatures that had been at war with their kind since history began. Yet a twisted smile formed on her face instead as she looked over the dead creatures in the room.

For so long she had been weak. So weak that she was only able to survive on literal scraps. She had to bow her head to the Adventurers who thought themselves better than her because she was so small and weak. She could only vent her rage through schemes and thievery to survive, and look where that had gotten her.

It had gotten her killed down here in the Dungeon.

As her arm finished regrowing, Liliruca felt the cold and emptiness starting to settle in once more. It was the same sensation that she recognized as being death reaching out to claim her a second time. Fortunately, all around her were magic stones from the monsters that had tried to kill her right after she had been reborn.

She would consume them all to fuel the new flames of life that burned within her.

Then she would claw her way out of the Dungeon and make it to the surface.

Not as her pathetic old self that died miserably.

But reborn as something else entirely.


Liliruca Arde (Level 0)

Former member of the Soma Familia. Supporter. The reincarnation of Fianna whose soul once held the Bloodfury Spear, she was born into a Familia whose souls were slaves to Soma’s divine wine. When her attempts at escaping that life by becoming a civilian were ruined, she turned to conning and thieving for survival. She died from her injuries sustained in the Dungeon but strangely awoke a short time later as something neither mortal nor monster.

Strength: I-0 | Endurance: I-0 | Dexterity: I-0 | Agility: I-0 | Magic: I-0


Cinder Ella: Twelve-verse Chant, Transform-Type Magic. Enables her to take on the aspects of or transform into other creatures, including monsters. While undergoing the transformation she is limited by her own capabilities but gains the natural abilities of the creatures. The mutation by Monstrum Union replicates innate spellcasting effects provided the form and user is capable of such.

Chant: Your scars are mine. My scars are mine. Stroke of midnight’s bell.


Artel Assist: Assist Skill that compensates for small stature. Grants virtual Strength and Endurance in proportion to the weight being carried.

Monstrum Union: Signifier of union between mortal and monster, causing a bug in Status and erosion of the Anima (lifeforce). Ties the animating essence of her body and magic to the Heartstone (magic stone) embedded within.

Bloodfury: Fury of mortal and monster crystalized as one within blood-red eyes. Heavily increases Status at the expense of depleting Heartstone at an accelerated rate. Active trigger.


Landform Tomahawk: One of the naturally forming weapons created by the Dungeon itself to arm the monsters that roam around inside of it, the design allows it to be wielded one-handed with ease by Almiraj and similar sized creatures (Pallums). It can also be thrown as well for a ranged attack.

Supporter Robe: A cloak for Supporters that offer little in terms of defense but are easy to clean. Hers is notably in tatters from her time in the Dungeon.

Handheld Crossbow: A crossbow meant to be used for smaller races.

Broken Watch: A golden pocket watch that belonged to one of the adventurers swindled by Liliruca.

Calling Card (Psyren x FSN -Nasuverse): Arc 5 – Chapter 25

Chapter 25

“Not ten minutes and we run across a scouting party.”

Makidera and I take stock of the enemy as we hide downwind of the steel breeze blowing through the husk of civilization. There are eight total.

Five of them are Homunculi. Two magecraft-users. Two halberd-vanguards. And a rearguard with a bow.

The other three are the abominations they love to keep around them. Two Hounds. And a hulking Snatcher.

It’s a composition that specializes in tracking and capturing, acting as one node of the net that had been cast over the remnants of the city. Their hivemind will alert them when one team finds a target. The nearby units will divert some of their numbers to close the net from more than one side to make escape nearly impossible.

A basic strategy, but effective for the dolls’ capabilities. It takes advantage of their numbers and inherent communication for maximum efficiency. And with the Taboo in the skies intercepting enemy communications, it guarantees a high success rate.

For the incompetent, anyway.

A simple network of Mind Jacks provides real-time communication that they can’t intercept. Their ignorance of that means they have no way of guessing we can coordinate just as effectively. That makes them little more than puppets waiting for someone to pull their strings.

I’ll oblige them.

Saegusa, tell Mitsuzuri to shoot down the airborne targets after firing at the largest cluster ahead of us. If she asks why then the reason is that we want them to believe it’s going to be an escape route and they’ll spread themselves thin enough to cover it so we can’t escape through it. It’ll also serve to alert the person we’re here to find of our presence.

Her mental voice is gentle as always when she responds. ‘Mitsuzuri-san says that she will do that before providing cover fire starting clockwise until we can reposition. Will that be okay for you and Maki-chan?

In other words, she’ll clear out those that are closer to Gotou and Himuro first and then make her way back around to us. The ruins around us will hinder her aim compared to those two, so protecting them is a priority to avoid their capture. We just need to move more carefully until she can relocate later to get a better vantage point in our direction.

That’s fine. As long as Makidera doesn’t do something that gets her in over her head, there shouldn’t be any problems.

Hesitation carries through from the other end of the line for a moment. ‘…Please, keep an eye on her. Despite the front she puts up, Maki-chan is forcing herself to keep up with everything.

Looking at her, I can see Makidera’s gaze on the Hounds and Snatcher at this very moment. Those same ones had caught her before. Her pride might stop her from admitting she’s terrified of a repeat of that scenario, but how tense her body is gives it away.

I’ll babysit her and keep her out of trouble.

‘Please be safe yourself, Matou-kun.’

The connection remains intact but goes inert. Only a matter of time before Ayako starts her assault. Once that happens there’ll be no time for hesitation and doubt.

I need Makidera alive to play her part in things, so better to prod the exposed nerve now. “Is the Black Panther of Homura really that terrified of a couple of dogs?”

Her short, black hair whips around before her dark eyes meet my own. The withering glare she gives me is mildly impressive. “That’s not funny.”

I shake my head and shrug. “Listen, I’ll shut the dogs up when we start. But I want to prioritize those dolls since they’re the bigger threat. If you don’t think you can handle those monsters and want to cower here, then tell me now. That way I can plan ahead rather than misplace my trust in you to protect yourself.”

She starts to look uncomfortable and even she crosses her arms over her stomach as the steel wind whistles past us. It almost seems like the cold stole the very fire from her eyes. “…You’re really planning to kill them without blinking an eye. It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?”

I take a moment to measure my response. “If it makes you feel slightly less uncomfortable, I don’t see them as human. They’re just dolls that dress the part—mass-produced and flawless replicas that lack the blemishes and imperfections. I won’t feel bad about breaking a doll that’s trying to kill me, regardless of how it makes me look.”

She grimaces and turns her gaze to the ground. “…I won’t say that it doesn’t bother me. But I know I don’t have the right to sit here and judge you for it. Especially not when the only reason the three of us are still alive is because of it.”

Nice to see she has some level of awareness. It makes things easier. “Killing or being killed isn’t something normal people have to deal with, but that isn’t an option for any of us anymore. Nemesis Q robbed us of that luxury. I won’t tell you to get over it right away, but eventually, you’ll have to get your hands dirty. We won’t be able to shelter you forever.”

“I…” She clenches the hem of her coat as her lips pull back into a frown. “I know that. That’s why… I wanted to… ugh, this feels so weird to say all things considered…”

She fidgets in a way that starts reminding me of Saegusa. Minus the mousy demeanor that makes the latter more appealing. It feels uncanny, to be honest. “Is it really that hard for you to thank someone?”

Her eyes narrow as she spots the grin on my face. Just like that the vulnerability evaporates. “It’s you. Let’s be real here, you’re the last kind of person I’d want to spend time with or even speak to. And I can tell that you’re not the biggest fan of the rest of us as well.”

I don’t bother denying the accusation. “Well, the situation demands we shelve things like that if we want to live. I can make nice under those circumstances.”

She scoffs and crosses her arms. “Nice to know it takes the threat of death to make you into a decent person. I really don’t see what Yukicchi sees in you.”

I get ready to tell her she’s misinterpreting Saegusa’s actions when a warning flows down my connection with her. Seems like Ayako’s first shot is almost done being primed. No more time for small talk.

“It’s time,” I warn her. “Focus on the big one and then the dogs. I’ll deal with the dolls.”

Makidera’s expression twists uncomfortably as reality sets in. Then she closes her eyes and exhales before falling into a sprinter’s crouch. The moment her eyes open the change is clear, an unwavering gaze set straight ahead to the goal.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Ayako making that same face. It’s the mindset of the competitive, cultivated by their roles as the heads of their respective clubs. A state of mind that focuses on allowing them to shelve all unnecessary thoughts to achieve their objective—not unlike self-hypnosis in a way. If she’s repurposed that state of mind to the task at hand, then she’ll cross the threshold without hesitation.

As for what comes after that… who knows?

I ready my tools as well. The lengths of the weighted chain occupy my left hand, filling my palm with the sting of cold metal. Three camping stakes occupy my right, their girth nestled between my fingers. I prepare them all while I can as my pulse slowly quickens in anticipation…

Then light spears across the steel-grey firmament.

Ayako’s opening shot resembles a shooting star falling to earth—a fleeting flash that splits the sky, burns gloriously for an ephemeral moment, and then blossoms in the distance with the radiance of a miniature white sun. The overbearing glare illuminates the skeletal remains of the city as the rumble of destruction resounds throughout the battlefield and marks first blood.

Time slows.

No sooner than my perception of time dilates does Makidera vanish from my side. It seems that a single trip was all it took for her to live up to her self-proclaimed moniker as the Black Panther and devour the distance between herself and her prey. Electricity surges through my mind as I leave my tools to execute their programming and join in the hunt.

Time normalizes.

In the three seconds after the daystar comes into existence for Makidera to reach the enemy, three corpses hit the ground. The magecraft-users and rearguard collapse like puppets with their strings cut courtesy of the metal stakes driven through their skulls. But she remains ignorant of everything aside from the hulking mass of muscles saddled between the two muzzled mutts as the final step of her sprint turns into a pendulum-like kick, aimed at its massive torso.

The Black Panther ends up crossing the finish line under a shower of viscera, crystalline bones, and blood that turns to ash as the core shatters.

The number of enemies has dropped to less than half in five seconds. The dolls’ hivemind must be experiencing a flood of information from the sudden assault on multiple fronts. Something like this won’t work a second time now since they’ll know we’re here.

A pair of stakes cut through the air like silver bullets as I launch my assault on the remaining two Homunculi. The first one dies cleanly as the stake punches a neat hole in its skull. The second one’s death isn’t so clean since they moved in response to Makidera, leaving the stake to get clipped by the halberd.

The act reoriented the stake, but not enough to kill the forward momentum. So rather than a straight line, it forced its way through at an awkward angle right as Makidera’s attention focused on the nearest Hound. Ignorant of the gruesome sight due to pivoting on her grounded leg and bringing her raised one down like a guillotine onto it, I witness the aftermath in slow motion.

The right eye ends up being smashed as the stake slams into the socket at an angle. It keeps going and breaks partway through the stark-white bone hidden behind the snow-white skin. Fragments bury themselves into glistening pink brain matter that ends up scrambled as the stake tears through before catching midway. Eventually, it goes flying out at an awkward angle, dragging with it a long optical nerve somewhere amidst the rubble.

It’s a bit of a captivating sight. A morbid artistry. But I don’t have the luxury of dwelling on it as Makidera overshoots her next kick.

Her foot came down upon the black core nestled on top of the Hound’s sealed maw, destroying it. But she’d put too much power into it, so her foot continued and broke through the asphalt beneath it. With the remaining Hound behind her getting ready to lunge, her instincts take hold as she leans forward and places one hand on the ground while bringing her other foot up to kick it away.

A sloppy kick, but it serves its purpose by punting the abomination away and slamming it into a piece of concrete rubble. It became a rag doll after the audible snap of its spine being broken in two, but the unsightly thing still wasn’t dead. It kept flailing its forelimbs pitifully while its hindlegs remain inert and the chain kept it muzzled until I put it out of its misery.

…That’s when the sound of vomiting pulls my attention back to Makidera.

The self-proclaimed Black Panther is huddled over the side, bracing against rubble jutting from the ground for support as she spills the contents of her stomach. Not an unexpected reaction, but not one we have time for.

I run a Mind Jack between the two of us. ‘Hurry up. We can’t sit around for long.

… shut… up… ugh…’ She exhales a rasping breath as she finishes and wipes her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. Her eyes are partly unfocused but come into clarity as they fix themselves onto my own. Then she scowls. ‘How can you smile after all of that?

…I reach up to the corner of my lips. The curve of them pulled back in a grin feels foreign before I flatten it. But there’s no time to linger as light blossoms in the sky from Ayako’s second shot not even thirty seconds after the first. ‘You won’t have time to do that again, so get it all out of your system while you can.

Makidera spits off to the side before taking deep, patterned breaths. Likely some kind of breathing technique she learned from the Track Team to get her nerves under control. It had better work considering the timetable we’ve been put on now that Ayako’s shot has become a beacon for all to see.


Countless reports began filing in one after another, breaking the monotony mere seconds prior within the Command Tower.

Homunculi that were acting as the support within the Communications room were receiving a massive influx of information. The hivemind of their counterparts in the field flowed into the deformed wetware within the tanks. Bubbles frothed as the chemicals within the fluids were adjusted to handle the strain. Cerebral matter that composed their flesh pulsated as that information was relayed to those manning their station as the organic interface allowed them to filter through it.

“Units seven and eight have been cut off from the network—”

“Unit two has been eliminated in a hostile engagement! Cross-referencing with the database matches—”

“—teen has begun engagement with a member of the Resistance, splitting off members from Units ten and fourteen for support—”

“—three has ceased transmitting their signal. It was sniped from ground-level based on the triangulated trajectory, believed to be the same Wide-Scale Destructive Burst User that destroyed the Terraformer.”

The voices overlapped until the head of the Tower entered the room from his private chambers and pointed to a monitor. “Show me.”

The monitor shifted to the view of one homunculus as they watched a bloom of light coming into existence further in the distance from the ground. Its vision abruptly end as the ‘camera’ suddenly jerked to the side and cut off. It then switched to the perspective of a nearby one that was standing over the bodies of three of the fallen in surprise as the massive Catcher between exploded from a kick as another member of the Resistance suddenly appeared. Their retaliation had been cut short as they both suddenly died.

Then it showed another pair in combat from the viewpoint of a rearguard. One of them was a male that he’d recalled seeing the last time one of their numbers had contacted the Homunculi. He clearly boasted a leaning in Rise considering he was ramming his entire arm through the body of a Snatcher with little trouble despite the muscle density to shatter its core, which he then picked before it could turn to dust and chucked at a vanguard with a halberd.

The homunculus didn’t hesitate to bat away the disintegrating corpse with the flat of the blade as the rearguard lined up a shot. But then there was a spray of blood as the vanguard’s head was pierced from the side. The body collapsed on the ground as the view of the Homunculus shifted back to trace the line of fire and subsequently caught sight of the young woman with her arm outstretched, a cluster of crystalline constructs revolving around her wrist before the vision cut with its death.

After staring at the frozen vision paused on the screen, the Head of the Tower crossed his arms and scowled. “It hasn’t been that long since those Rebels were last spotted. Had they demonstrated that level of ability prior?”

“We do not believe so,” answered one of them. “Based on the shared records and similar experiences, we believe that they must somehow have a method of artificially enhancing powers along with some method of knowledge transference. However, any efforts to deduce the truth so far usually results in them killing selves.”

“No doubt a failsafe to keep their secrets…” His fingers clutched at his sleeves as he dove into thought. He could count more than a handful of times when his forces had captured survivors to bring them to the Tower or interrogate them. Yet they would convulse and perish before their bodies dissipated, denying them any sort of information. Thanks to that discovering the hideouts and numbers was always difficult.

If he allowed the Vampire to slip through his fingers again then there was no telling when he would be able to retrieve her again. And after the last failure, he could not afford to fail again. Fortunately, the final adjustments had been finished recently on his pet project.

“…Ready transport vessels for all our remaining forces but launch the one for the project ahead. The chase ends now.”


“Isn’t that the place from the vision?”

Makidera points out the obvious as she rounds a corner ahead of me to scout. We’ve been traveling carefully while receiving updates from Saegusa on how it’s going on their end. At the moment Himuro and Gai are both receiving covering fire from Ayako and they’re reuniting with no success on their end.

Meanwhile, the Mind Jack I’ve been using as a Dowsing Rod has led us into view of the bleached building from the vision. It took time to get here while ensuring that no one was on our trail, so I’ll admit I was concerned about her moving. But it seems Atlasia hasn’t left yet based on my improvised dowsing technique.

I feign ignorance to keep her unaware of that fact. “If she’s still inside then good for us. That way we can get the information and fulfill the mission so we can get out of here. Running around in these winter clothes makes me sweat more than I like.”

She glances my way back and scoffs at that. Then she straightens her back up and crosses her arms. Even her expression turns somewhat contemplative, as if she’s putting thought into something.

I allow it as I ensure the protective layer that I have around my body is still intact. So far it hasn’t been disturbed by any attempts at manipulating my mind via Trance or direct control like the last time. However, there’s some minor erosion from the atmosphere itself that I tend to while I can.

“…Hey, we’ll be sent right back once we’re done, right?” she asks after a pause.

My response is instant in comparison. “The requirement was to retrieve the information. No mention of reaching a checkpoint or anything else. So unless Nemesis Q decides to move the goalposts, we’ll basically be sent back the moment we get everything she has to offer.”

She turns her head to the side and her attention goes back to the building in question. “But those monsters are still looking for her, right? She looked like she had been running for a while in that vision, so if we leave right after we get the information—”

I didn’t have to read her mind to see where she was going. So I cut it off then and there with a question of my own. “Is saving her worth the lives of the others?”

The words she was going to say died in her throat. New ones take their place just as quickly though. “…What do you mean?”

“This is a future that we’re meant to change by dragging the knowledge we gain into the past. Once we do that, this particular future won’t be ours anymore. Even if we jump back again, it’ll be either a new branch in time created from our actions, or the entire thing will be overwritten.”

To be frank, I have no idea which option it’ll be. Or if something else will happen. I am not an expert on the quantum mechanics of time travel, given its True Magic that I cannot obtain. But I learned what the Old Worm knew of how time operated from research into the Grail War given that access to the Throne meant gaining access to Servants across from time—which is more than she knows.

“Every second we spend here longer than we need to is another second we put ourselves at risk to the various dangers. And if the future changes then the person you save won’t be the same even if you meet again. In fact, depending on how far into the future this is, she might not even be born. Knowing that, are you willing to sacrifice the others who’ll follow us back into the past for the sake of someone who may as well vanish the moment we leave?”

She wants to argue. Her expression makes that clear enough. But my words aren’t something that she can dismiss when it’ll involve others. “Even so, it doesn’t sit right with me to leave someone else to be dragged off to who knows where… Not after it almost happened to me.”

I spot weakness the moment she breaks eye contact. The vulnerability in her voice is edged. It’s a sight I’m too familiar with.

But it doesn’t change anything as the lie comes out smoothly. “…Fine, I’ll kick it up the chain for Mitsuzuri to decide. Knowing her, you’ll probably get your wish. But first, we need to establish that she’s here and hasn’t run off.”

Her expression shifts into surprise as I mentally communicate our location to Saegusa along with the fact that we located the last place seen in the vision. She expected a fight given our desires are polar opposites at a surface glance. Myself championing logic that preserves our lives against her emotional desire to reach out to someone else to wash away the shame of her own helplessness.

Either way, she wisely doesn’t give me a reason to change my mind as she somehow manages to smile like an idiot. “Right, let’s get going!”

I let her take the lead and watch her from behind. For a fleeting moment, stray thoughts pass through my mind while I go over my plan a final time. Perhaps she believes that I’m going along with her suggestion to save time. Or maybe she believes that I’m more sympathetic than I really am.

Well, I do feel some pity for her so the latter might be true. But the outcome doesn’t really change regardless now that I already put the pieces on the board my opponent set. All I can do is follow the sacrificial pawn and take advantage of it to lure Atlasia out.

There’s no turning back now.

I wonder how you will respond, my hated opponent.

Fanfic Recommendation 119

My Fanfics

Sniper’s Duel: A Heroic Myth Omake

Summary: Lefiya vs Archer in a magical sniping duel across two castles. Not canon and mostly written to get me back into writing. Written with permission from the author.

Take A Breath: Part 2

Summary: Bell Cranel should have died on the Sixth Floor. But the one who came to the rescue of the neophyte adventurer was none other than a Monster on a floor she shouldn’t be on. And like that the Hestia Familia had become a Family of three. (Demon Slayer Alt Power/AU)

Fanfics that I have found interesting and have recently been updated

A RWBY Fanfic

Summary: Jaune applied to Beacon with his fake transcripts – his rejection was all but guaranteed. What wasn’t expected was that a single ticked box put down on a secondary school choice might change his life forever. Beacon may have rejected him, but there is more than one academy on Remnant and more than one way to become a hero. Atlas Academy, and it’s quasi-military structure, await.

Intrepid 22-11 Taylor

A Worm Fanfiction

Summary:Summary: In the wake of the Locker Incident, Taylor goes comatose. Wracked with guilt, Emma and Madison trigger. Things spiral from there as they quickly go different routes, both seeking redemption in a different way.

A MAR SI Fanfic

Summary: Three guys get teleported into the world of MAR Heaven and take the fight to Chess.

A Mobuseka SI Fanfic

Summary: Three guys get teleported into the world of Mobuseka in place of Leon and have to survive in a world where women look down on men, they may be in their own future, and Luxion has ties to the UN that desperately struggled against the oncoming New Humans. .

A MHA Fanfic

Summary: When Midoriya Izuku was 4 his quirk finally manifested. The doctor named it psychokinesis, but his friend Bakugou Katsuki called it worthless and weak. For the next 10 years, Izuku would grow up bullied and isolated, convinced his quirk was good for nothing, but still holding onto the distant dream of becoming a hero. Then, when a new student named Uraraka Ochako, who shares his same dream, transfers into his class the last year of jr high, everything changes.

Take a Breath – Part 2 (Danmachi AU)

Death loitered amidst corpses in the misty grey light.

The Twelfth Floor of the Dungeon was wreathed in a blanket of perpetual fog. Light from the walls was pale and filtered through the veil that seemed endless. The grass was bleached bone-white and the few trees that managed to grow despite being starved for light were thin and sickly.

Stark silence permeated an isolated room on the massive floor. It was off the well-traversed paths that would be writ upon the maps, far enough that there was no purpose in scouring them for most Adventurers. Dungeon Sweepers or the bold few that felt explorative would perhaps stumble upon the locale once every few weeks, but such territory was meant to be the dominion of the beasts that lurked within the mists.

Yet the grass was strewn with the bodies of the inhabitants that had called this place their home.

Hard Armors lay still, their shells dappled with dew as the faint warmth lingering was stanched away by the cloying fog. Orcs were toppled over while blood ran from their bloated frames to paint the white canvas beneath them. The centerpiece of the room itself was the slouching frame of what had at one point been a towering mass of corded muscle bound in a hide of white fur with a silver mane known as a Silverback.

Death kept vigil in the center of its work.

The misty veil caressed the dark frame of the hooded figure, gently slipping past the outer cloak and pressing against the matching robes beneath. The red greaves and gauntlets of elegant yet nightmarish make were bathed in a fresh layer of lifeblood. Streamlets of it cascaded down from the simple dagger wrapped within their gloved hand as they remained motionless with their impassive mask, upon which the colors of life and death swirled, looked upwards.

The gaze beyond the mask peered beyond the stone and crystal that loitered overhead. Beyond the worked stone and mortar that served as the lid atop the Great Hole. They looked to the vast stretch of land that extended beyond the boundaries of the earth. The endless expanse beneath the firmament in which glittered countless diamonds beyond the reach of hands.

Unrelenting yearning gnawed between their breasts.

Their vigil was broken as the wet sound of writhing organs began to echo throughout the room. The mask shifted from the unseen sky to the remains of what had been pawns that had outlived their usefulness. Two Humans and a Racoon that had been too eager to overstep their bounds before their Soma-addled minds broke beneath the pain.

The two Humans began to undulate as long, thick bulges formed just beneath the surface of their skin. It was the foreign blood vessels and arteries squirming as they connected with the existing ones and then expanded to germinate the seedlings planted inside of them. Fabric tore as their clothes ripped themselves apart while the skin stretched itself out trying to contain what was growing within them…

Then there was a wet piercing sound as the flesh burst open.

Moist hissing noises filled the air as glistening green flesh escaped the openings like uncooked sausage being squeezed from its casing. The living mass expanded out and filled the air with a putrid scent as they consumed the bodies for nourishment to continue growing beyond the bounds of what could be contained. But the pulsating green flesh quickly began to turn fetid and started to decay amidst their consumption and expansion to stave off death.

It seemed they weren’t even good enough to serve as seedbeds for seedlings in the end.

But it was different for the Raccoon. The stocky body jerked and convulsed, writhing and squirming as the innards were consumed and replaced by the growth within. There were moments when the skin bloated up to the point where it should have popped open, the fabric ripping itself apart in the process. But the expansion came to a halt and compressed itself back down into a thick leathery hide covered in the tattered remains of what had been his clothes.

Then a grisly scream echoed throughout the misty chamber. It was loud and high-pitched. Like a squeal forced out from a throat that was dry and hoarse as the lungs regained their function. The body snapped upright in an unsettling motion and eyes that had lost their luster slowly turned yellow once more while taking in the world.

A dead man returned to the realm of the living.

Death rolled the hilt of the dagger in their grasp as they approached with casual footsteps towards the man that had somehow beaten the odds. The Raccoon clutched his head in a daze as he noticed the reaper approaching. But there was no sign of animosity or fear towards his killer within his eyes, only a murky confusion of a mind still half gone.

A fluke rather than a success.

Steel hissed. The robed figure sheathed the dagger within a holster on the left gauntlets. Then they tossed out a magic stone on the white grass in front of the dazed Raccoon before walking towards the sole pathway out of the room.

Yellow eyes fixated on the palm-sized stone. Then saliva ran thick from his tongue as it lolled out of his mouth. His hands snapped down and grabbed hold of it, tearing loose the grass and dirt as he shoved them into his mouth and bit down on the magic stone to get it into his throat.

A sound that was part grunt and part satiation slipped out as he swallowed it down, leaving his mouth caked in dirt and grass. He raised his nose into the air and lunged towards the corpse of the Silverback, toppling the slouching body over. His fingers dug into the flesh and he pawed at the corded muscle with his nails. tearing away the fur in desperation until he finally reached the bones guarding the magic stone that was within its core.

Grunting as he slammed his fists over and over, the bone eventually snapped loose enough that he could shove his hand inside and rip it from the massive corpse. Flesh turned to ash as he shoved the stone into his mouth and bit down as hard as he could. The crunching of bone and crystal could be heard as his jaw and every bit of muscle he could muster were exerted to break it off and get it down his throat.

Then he moved on to the next corpse for its magic stone as words returned to his lips. “…Hun…gry…

He consumed more and more to try to sate the intense craving that wracked him since his rebirth. Every stone he took in trickled into that gap, but it wasn’t enough to truly placate the hunger he felt. Had he a strong enough sense of self to cling to his humanity then perhaps he would be able to regain control of himself.

But an addict was not the master of his own soul. Their resolve had been bartered away long ago, traded for an ephemeral pleasure to whoever could provide it. And thus, he had no way of resisting the tug of the leash that was a voice whispering from the core that served as his new heart.

What was left of Conoe Belway began his slow ascension towards the surface of the Dungeon by the time night fell.



Wooden swords crashing. Frantic feet pounding. Heavy haggard panting. These familiar sounds melded together into background noise within the training hall that Bell Cranel found himself in that afternoon.

The heavy wooden blade was clenched tight as he went on the offense. A diagonal stroke from shoulder to hip. A chest-height horizontal swing to follow. And an overhead downward slash to finish.

Yet they failed to meet with divine flesh.

The diagonal slash cut through empty space as the divinity slid his angled foot outward and pivoted, slipping to Bell’s unprotected right side. The horizontal swipe as Bell spun on his forward leg to try and catch him instead scraped off the opposing blade held firm to intercept. And the overhead blow towards the God of War’s head only hit empty space as he pivoted to the side.

Then Bell was forced onto the defensive as Takemikazuchi responded.

The master’s blade sang. The sharp whistle that told of the cut being true reached Bell’s ears as the blade held in a resting grip at his side flowed in a casual upwards arch towards the boy’s neck. He felt the tip graze it as he only avoided it by reflexively and clumsily pushing himself backward.

It cost him his footing, forcing him to take three steps to right himself into a proper form. By then Takemikazuchi had taken two steps forward and twisted his wrist so that it was even with Bell’s neck once more. He raised his sword hastily upwards—


—and the blade in his grasp jerked as it deflected the incoming stroke by angling it upwards, even at the cost of nearly coming out of his hands. It took him a second to re-adjust his grip, at which point the divinity had already two-handed his blade, chambered it, and came in to cut him from shoulder to hip in a mirror of how Bell had attempted to do so to him.

I can respond to this one! The novice set his stance firm as he made an arching movement with his arms as if tracing the path of a rainbow. The wood quivered as he caught the edge of the opposing blade with the collar above the handguard, guided it around so that it went to the side as he pivoted, and then flicked his wrist to angle it before he lashed out in a rising diagonal aimed to score across the God of War’s chest—

“Too exposed.”

—the blade shot overhead as the divinity slid his dominant leg backward, raising the flat of his own blade up in the process and guiding Bell’s off-course. Then the god’s wrist twisted before his arm came down. A sharp sting of pain followed as wood slapped against flesh and stung at Bell’s collarbone. “Ow!”

“Don’t leave yourself open just because you managed to parry their attack,” instructed the ageless warrior as leveled his wooden sword in lieu of a measuring stick the moment Bell took another reflexive step back. “Remember, mortals are smarter than monsters and can read movements. Defense into offense can easily be turned against you.”

The God of War then proceeded to lower his blade before making a sheathing motion to show that he had no intention of striking again, bringing the sparring section to a close. “That being said, had you not angled that diagonal properly you never would have been able to capitalize on that opening. And it was only because you didn’t change your center of gravity to your hind leg and then slid back into a retreat that you were stricken.”

Bell mimicked his sheathing motion before bowing his head. “Thank you for the instruction. I’ll practice at it from now on.”

A hum bubbled up in the divinity’s throat before he stroked his chin. “Diligence is a virtue. Especially while in a state of Shoshin. If you keep working hard, I’m certain you’ll have your foundation solid in no time.”

The novice’s head quirked to the side. “Shoshin?”

“It’s a principle of our native land,” he elaborated. “One that describes how one who knows nothing starting out is free of preconceptions and expectations. Most Adventurers develop their own styles as they become more familiar with the Dungeon and the life they live, and in doing so they inadvertently become set into their ways and thus narrow the potential they have to that field alone while shutting out other avenues. But you haven’t reached that point as you still have the mindset of a beginner and are thus filled with curiosity while being open to a world of possibilities.”

Bell’s brows furrowed as he grasped at what he believed to be the underlying point. “So you’re saying that I should keep learning what I can and practice with an open mind?”

The far eastern divinity nodded sagely. “As you are now you can absorb all that is taught and explore it without preconceptions, which combined with the growth spurt for new Adventurers shortly after receiving their Falna will lay strong foundations for the future. Developmental Abilities are representative of such. That is why you must never forget your beginner’s mindset.”

“I understand.”

“Now, I believe we’ve kept you long.” He made a bowing gesture as he dismissed Bell from his practice for the day. “Give Hestia my regards.”

“I will.” Bell copied the motion before placing the weapon back on the practice rack and then made his way over to get his bag before heading home. It was still early evening and amber rays of the setting sun washed over Orario as he traveled from the estate of the Takemikazuchi Familia to the dilapidated church nestled snuggly within a cul-de-sac that consisted of half-toppled buildings and overgrowth.

Along the way, Bell took his time to consider the God of War’s words while continuing the breathing practices that he had seen Chigusa perform. It had been some time since he had started the practice, but he wasn’t sure if he had made any real progress. Or at least Bell didn’t think he did, since the only measure he had to judge was what she had done by becoming able to move faster than his eyes could track.

He noted that his body tended to grow hotter when doing breathing exercises. If he had to put it into words, it was like his entire being felt as if it was being warmed by a lone flame within the darkness. But that flame was small and feeble, embers that were liable to be snuffed out the moment his focus trailed off even when he breathed. It wasn’t anything like his body becoming stronger or his mind becoming sharper as she had explained it though.

There had to be something that was missing. Some last piece that he guessed she had kept to herself or, more likely, had to be grasped through constant practice until it clicked into place. It would have to be something that he would find out on his own since he couldn’t ask the Takemikazuchi Familia themselves.

In the end, Bell could only muse on what it was he was missing as he made his way to the doors of the church that served as his home. He opened it—


—and as soon as he did so he was greeted by a blue blur slamming into his chest while lithe but insanely strong arms and legs braced him from behind. He nearly staggered back before he anchored a leg and brought his own arms around to support the bundle of warmth that was a child of dragons nuzzling at his chest.

“Wiene missed Bell,” she said while holding firm to him, clothed in a simple dress. Her long hair had been bound into two ponytails by Hestia with little red ribbons meant to keep it from going everywhere.

“I missed you too.” Bell gently brushed her head even as he shut the door behind him with his foot. Thankfully she had gotten better at not crushing his spine with her strength by accident. Even so, he didn’t think it was proper for her to embrace him like this while his training outfit had been drenched in dried sweat at this point. “I don’t mind the hug, but maybe you should wait until I take a shower first?”

Her response was to only look up at him with a smile and cheerfully state, “Bell smells like Bell.”

“Wiene, give Bell some time to clean himself up,” Hestia chided gently as she finished climbing the stairs from the hidden room below that they shared. She took a moment at the top to observe her first child making his way over with the dragon child attached to him and couldn’t help but wear an amused smile. “It’s nice that you like your big brother no matter how he smells but consider how he must feel when he knows how sharp your sense of smell is.”

Wiene relented. Not because she agreed, given she didn’t mind the smell of sweat coming from him. But because both members of her family wanted her to and she would still get the chance to spend time clinging to him later.

“Good girl.” Hestia brushed her head at the top, which she responded to by leaning into it. She was fond of physical contact so both of them had gotten used to her curling up to them whenever they were there. The Goddess of the Hearth and Home turned to Bell and asked, “How did it go with Take?”

 “He told me to give you his regards,” Bell said. “As for practice, I’m learning a lot and I can manage to see his strikes coming now, so I was able to last longer when we sparred. Still couldn’t land a hit on him even though he took it easy on me though.”

“Just keep doing your best in training and you’ll get better at it. If there’s one thing Take knows it’s the art of combat, given he loved watching children hone their talents in the Far East… on another note, do you still plan to go out with Wiene tonight, right?”

Bell nodded. Now that they had established that Wiene could drink the liquid from the Pantry, Bell often brought several containers worth back every few nights they went, so she could stay fed. She ate other foods with them, but they didn’t know if she was deriving as much nutrition from it as she should given that she was a monster—and a growing girl, as Hestia claimed. “Since the weekend starts tomorrow, it’s the perfect time since even most of the nighthawks won’t be there. Wiene will be able to stretch her legs more that way.”

She still couldn’t leave the church most of the time she was on the surface, and they knew she was curious about a lot of what the city had to offer. Bell himself was the same. But since she couldn’t explore without the risk of being caught, there wasn’t much they could do about that.

Hestia did take some time to try to teach her new things and help her develop some hobbies to pass the time. But Bell still wanted to give her as much freedom as he could when they were in the Dungeon so she wouldn’t feel so cooped up. It was the least he could do for her since he couldn’t let her go freely elsewhere.

A slight hum of understanding bubbled up in the goddess’ throat before she stepped out of the way of the stairs. “Then hurry along and take your shower so we can have dinner together. Then I’ll update your Status before you head out.”

Bell slinked into the bathroom to do just that. Heat seeped into his skin from the running water beating against the surface and slowly working out the strains and aches that had accumulated in his muscles during his practice. Then he slipped into a black shirt and pants after he dried himself off and joined the two for a simple meal.

It was after that Hestia had him lie supine on the bed. Then she mounted his back and pricked her finger. Wiene watched on from next to them with genuine intrigue as the moment a drop of her blood landed on his back the entire surface began to ripple before the hieroglyphs writ upon his back began to bubble from the surface into the air.

She had seen it plenty of times by now but never seemed to get bored of it. Hestia had even tried to give Wiene her blessing once. She had asked since she found the sight to be beautiful and wanted to have the same Falna, as that was physical proof that they were family—Familia. But a Falna never manifested for the dragon child.

They could only speculate that it was because the Falna was developed by the Gods and Goddesses for the mortals to use to combat the threats that the monsters posed in the first place. Since they were so opposed it wouldn’t make sense for it to empower them. No different than how neither of them could ingest magic stones the way she could.

“The numbers got bigger again,” Wiene noted as she stuck a finger into the space where the numbers shifted over and over. “Bell is stronger now?”

“That’s right,” Hestia’s voice was sweet and gentle on their ears. “The fact that it goes up bit-by-bit every time we do this is proof that your big brother is working hard. And because I’m his goddess, I can see just how much his training with Take, learning from Miss Advisor, and spending those nights with you in the Dungeon are helping him grow. It’s all recorded in here as part of his legend.”

The constant trips down to the Seventh Floor and dealing with the threats there had merited modest growth for Bell from what he could tell. Above average from what most earned in such a short time. But that was probably due to Wiene being as strong as she was meant they could together dispatch the entire Pantry’s worth of monsters. And since she didn’t need to eat all of the magic stones, they could get by a bit easier.

“All done,” Hestia said as she finished updating his Status and dismounted him. “I’ll set aside something so that you can both eat when you get back since I’ll be asleep. Look after each other, okay?”

“Wiene will protect Bell,” promised the dragon child with a smile.

Bell meanwhile nodded resolutely before telling Hestia to, “Rest well, Goddess.”

Then they got dressed and set out for their overnight venture into the Dungeon.


The Takemikazuchi Estate was quiet with only the sound of faint breathing breaking up the silence.

Nestled within the meditation hall was Hitachi Chigusa. The young woman sat on a cushion in a lotus position as she breathed from the diaphragm at a steadily growing rhythm. Her gaze was fixed on a gourd made into a drinking jug that was before her.

A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead. Her delicate milky skin flushed red with every deepening breath she took. Her blood vessels expanded, protruding from her skin. She exhaled deeply to clear her lungs out before she drew in as deep of a breath as she could muster while reaching out for the jug.

Then she blew it into with all her might. She felt every inch of her body trembling. Burning as she compressed her diaphragm. Aching as her lips struggled to keep themselves wrapped around the opening of the gourd. Until finally—


—her voice came out haggard and hoarse as her lips gave out before the gourd did. The bottle clattered to the wooden floor as she huddled over, hands to her chest as her lungs fought for air. Her shoulders trembled with small whimpers followed by crystalline tears as she pressed her forehead to the floor. “Why… why can’t I do this?

Her frustration spilled out at yet another failure to further her Total Concentration Breathing.

Their Familia had been practicing the ancient art for the last two years since they came to Orario. It was the only edge they had with such small numbers in the Dungeon. Life in Orario was expensive and if they were going to send funding back to the orphanage they needed to go deeper and bring back more valuable magic stones.

Since then, they had gotten involved with things that made it a necessity for them to survive.

Everyone had managed to progress further than her at this point. Asuka and Tachibana were both further along in their training and would likely even end up reaching Level Two. Mikoto had just become a Level Two and was on the verge of mastering Perpetual Total Concentration Breathing.

And she wouldn’t be surprised if Ouka managed to become Level Three by the next year.

Total Concentration Breathing became exponentially more potent with the more oxygen one could take into their bodies. One could become so much better at manipulating how the blood flowed through the breathing technique, strengthening certain parts of the body, increasing one’s mental abilities, and more.

But here she was. Always the one lagging behind the rest of them to the point where she was struggling just to go beyond the basics. That was why she was here alone while the others had already gone to the Middle Floor Safe Point to handle another matter some time ago and wouldn’t be back for some time.

Her fingers curled on the floor as she focused on her Recovery Breathing to center herself. She didn’t want to be a burden to the others. The burden was hers to share with them, so she couldn’t keep falling behind them.

And she didn’t want him to see her as being so pathetic that she needed to be left behind for her own safety.

Her breathing steadied. The pain and fatigue melted. She exhaled and readied another attempt to shatter the gourd when there was a blur of motion in the corner of her vision. Her head turned in time to see a small owl with blue-greyish feathers swooping in through a window that had been left open towards her.

“Oh, you’re a new one,“ she noted even as she extended two of her fingers out for it to land carefully. Their… employer tended to communicate with them via messenger birds so she was used to seeing them. Though this owl was so small that it was practically palm-sized and she couldn’t help but find the way it tried to puff out its feathers and straighten itself up to be adorable.

That was when it reared back enough so that the collar along with the communication crystal could be seen on it. Then the crystal began to vibrate. “Your assistance is needed. A Demon is rising along the upper floors.

She jostled as her eye partially hidden behind her bangs widened in surprise. “…Eh?”

A Demon is currently making its way from the Eighth Floor to the Seventh,” the voice resonating through the crystal continued. “I speculate it was only recently created, but it has consumed several magic stones and is advancing upwards.

She stiffened. The sudden responsibility being fostered onto her had been unexpected. She did possess the necessary equipment and had participated in putting down a few of the Demons, as they were called, but it had always been with the others. Never alone. “What about the others?”

They are still too far below the surface to make it in time. Thus, I consulted with Lord Takemikazuchi and he advised reaching out to you to resolve the matter,” answered the voice on the other end.

Lord Takemikazuchi wants me to handle it alone? Despite her misgivings, if he thought she was the only one who could handle the matter then it was something that she had to do. “Very well. Just let me get my equipment and I’ll head out right away.”

Please hurry,” the voice chimed as the owl fluttered into the air when she stood up, before perching itself against the windowsill. “I fear time is of the essence. Something on that floor may drawn its attention.

Heroic Myth One-Shot: Sniper’s Duel

Sniper’s Duel

Author’s Note: This is a one-shot omake for the FGO x DanMachi Fanfic Heroic Myth, written with the author’s permission. It is non-canon and primarily just me trying to get back into the swing of writing.


A deep, weary sigh carried on the wind from the topmost point of Shreme Castle.

Located in plains to the southeast of Orario, the citadel was one of the four that ringed the city of Adventurers. It was the oldest of such fortifications, having been built before the Age of Heroes. They were ruins that carried the legacy of those who ventured to the Great Hole to take part in humanity’s rebellion against the fate of death.

Time had eroded most of the original stonework that had stood in silent vigilance to those events. Even with the efforts of masons and stonecutters to reconstruct it into its former glory, that history was lost to all but the very foundation that laid beneath the earth. And in its place was nothing more than walls that were only able to take part in the spectacle of faux war between Familia rather than legends in the making.

And today would be yet another spectacle due to the whims of two goddesses.

Lefiya Viridis did her best to avoid slouching over and dejectedly crying over how she got roped into this from her perch on top of the Keep. The Elven Mage of the Loki Familia stood alone within the fortress, still getting accustomed to her new equipment. She wasn’t sure how Loki had gotten Finn or the others to sign off on them to be honest.

Her normal battle clothes had been replaced for the event. The halter-dress that came down to her hips, hugging the curves of her waist all the way up to her underarms, were a teal color overall but had a black zigzagging design with golden trimming between the two colors at the side of her hips. The clothing strap that sheltered her breasts, running from the front to around the back of her neck, was a pale white color with a greyish band along the valley where three golden-hemmed emeralds were fixed.

The two articles were held together by a pair of golden clips, which bound frill-laden cloth around her upper arms. Thankfully, combined with her elbow-length fingerless gloves, they allowed her to feel a little more comfortable that not all her upper skin was exposed. Below her waist, upon which a belt securely held a little pouch, she had thigh-high stockings that were white and black with a gold streak running down the front and around the hem. They came down to a pair of greaves that were teal with the edges wrapped in elegant silver. Her hair was also bound in a ponytail via a new band that was teal with golden ends.

In her hands was a new staff. The body of it was black, roughly the length of her body short her head. The rear end of the staff had a small magic stone affixed within a golden hexagon tipped with a pointed end. The top of the staff was also golden, with a large teal magic stone cradled within a diamond-shaped head, while the neck of it had a band with an empty chamber that could be fitted with a disposable magic stone for use in casting—Loki claimed it was based off something called a cartridge system.

Under normal circumstances, Lefiya would have appreciated that Loki had gotten it for her. But she had done it for a bet, leaving the Elven Mage feeling conflicted. She didn’t even have time to really adapt to it before she had sent out to humor the divine population who sought more entertainment after the War Game.

Loki had even updated her Status to Level Four for the sake of the competition. Not that she didn’t plan to eventually do so now that she had reached S-Rank in her Magic attribute. But the fact that it was because her goddess wanted her to win a competition took the wind out of her sails.

She turned her gaze to the castle that was opposite her own, far enough away that normal siege weaponry would fail to reach. Level Four senses made the distance irrelevant as far as sight and sound went. More so considering she was an Elf and thus had a natural advantage there compared to the Human that was her opponent on the opposite Keep’s tower.

Archer—a Level One who possessed the power of some Spirit or other that allowed him to make swords and access incredible magic. To be honest, Blacksmith might be a more appropriate name under normal circumstances with how his tanned skin looked, as though it had been baked in the heat of the forges, stretched over a broad frame that came from pounding at iron and steel as he shaped it to his desire. It contrasted the snow-white hair that adorned his head and eyes that sat right between the two hues with its silver-grey tone. But considering the bow that was the color of wrought iron currently within his grasp, it seemed he was going to be living up to his moniker.

Unlike during the War Game, his visage was more… casual, she wanted to say. If there were a word for it, she would liken it to being almost wistful in the nostalgia of a time long gone that she had seen on some of the older Elves in her Forest. But he was too young to have that look… probably.

It annoyed her all the same.

Sniper’s Duel—that was a format of the War Game where two combatants would take turns attempting to target a specific object and destroy it to secure the win. However, because of their… unique skillsets, the objects they were supposed to hit were Familia Emblems affixed to their clothes. And it could only be done via long-range projectiles or spells, with neither party allowed to leave their own castle. The winner was decided when one destroyed the other’s emblem, or someone was rendered unconscious and thus unable to battle.

Loki had won the coin toss, so she would get the first shot as agreed to by the rules. That was effectively as good as a win under normal circumstances given her capabilities. There was a reason she had the moniker of Fairy Sniper before she was Thousand Elf after unlocking Elf Ring. But the slight crook in the corner of Archer’s lips revealed a hint of amusement that said he probably wouldn’t make it easy.


Lefiya stood straighter as a bell in the distance sounded to mark the start of the competition, drawing one leg back. She raised her staff forged of Seiros and gold to her chest as she aligned herself with her target. Her azure eyes fell upon the emblem pin affixed to the black vest on Archer’s chest and she began to sing.

Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree—

Light bloomed at her feet. Shimmering over the stone roof as if opening a gateway to an unseen realm that she had stepped into upon reaching Level Two, it wove itself into an intricate circular array. It was proof of her dedication to magic, only obtainable by taking the Mage Development Ability—a Magic Circle.

You are the master archer.

The Magic Circle allowed for the modification of one’s spells, even if the chant was akin to an Aria written on one’s soul itself according to Lady Riviera. Anyone fortunate enough to possess a Spell Slot could learn Spells, but only those who dedicated themselves to the path would have the right to have the Development Ability appear as a choice to be engraved into their very flesh with divine ichor. Rather than simply chanting the words and getting the same result, even if the value of one’s Magic status increased its potency, it unlocked different aspects with every rank the Development Ability gained—velocity, firing angle, output, and so on.

Loose your arrows, fairy archers.

Motes of light leaked from the array as she released magical energy to fuel the spell. The magic-conductive metal within her grasp drank it up and funneled it into the core magic stone that made up the staff’s heart. It resonated with her magical energy, focusing and melding it with the natural magic stored within the stone to increase the potency of her shot.

Pierce, arrow of accuracyArcs Ray!

Light lanced out from the tip with the completion of the incantation.

Arcs Ray—her first spell gifted to her by the Falna the moment she had received it when she entered the Education District. It was an exceedingly simple one that converted her magical energy into light and then fired it out in a self-contained beam. It was not weighed down by gravity like a physical projectile, but rather by the amount of magical energy that composed the spell that factored into the velocity of the shot.

The arrow of light woven by the branches of a holy tree and fired by the Fairy Sniper crossed the distance between the two castles within the span of a breath. She had adjusted the values so that the output of the spell would be minimal while leaving the velocity untouched. It would impact but not kill someone at Level One—a training shot used during evasion training among the Fairy Force.

Yet the shot passed by Archer unhindered.

His body posture had shifted in the time it took to exhale as she loosed her spell. It had been no more than a half-step. But that had been enough to let the shot harmlessly sail past his broad frame, its glare briefly illuminating his steel-toned eyes as it passed by, to the other side of the castle before it petered out.

And with that, it was his turn to send his own arrow flying forth.

His posture shifted into a firing stance of his own, left leg forward with that black bow that was easily his own height in his left grasp. An arrow appeared in his empty hand. Not one of his sword-turned-arrows, but an ordinary one. He nocked it against the bowstring, pulling it back as he leveled it toward her.

There were lots of drawbacks to using bows in the Dungeon as you went deeper and deeper. The material to work the bows and bowstrings into having greater drawing power so the shots could fly farther was expensive. Ammunition that wouldn’t shatter against the skin of a Middle Floor monster required harvesting and shaping the claws and fangs of monsters that would be most suited to doing so, counterbalancing the weight of the arrowheads with the shaft so that it wasn’t top-heavy. And then there was the fact that hitting the magic stone to eliminate a monster in a single shot required precise knowledge of where it was located and pinpoint accuracy.

Even in this case, someone would have to adjust their aim to fire a bow effectively against a target so far away. They would have to work out the trajectory based on sight alone and then perform the calculations in their head to ensure they would hit. And with how small of a target he needed to hit, it was almost unfair and one-sided to call this a match given how she could easily adjust the size of her own beams.

But she knew that Archer could easily skirt around all of that, so she didn’t really factor them in as he released his arrow.

It cut through the air… not quite as fast as her own shot, but faster than an arrow ought to considering he hadn’t even drawn his bowstring back to its fullest before he loosed it. But it was still slow enough that her heightened perception due to her Level made it seem like it was moving in slow motion. She simply tilted her upper body out of the way as the arrow came towards her emblem and let it arch over the edge of the Keep.

She caught the faint sound of glass breaking before readying her second shot.

Unleashed beam of light.” Her Magic Circle sprang up again as she began to adjust the spell, pushing the incantation to the back part of her mind that knew it by rote memorization. A few more motes of light than before emerged as she increased the amount of magical energy and prioritized its distribution towards increasing the velocity of her shot. “—Arcs Ray!

A warm breeze rolled past her as light lanced out at more than double the speed of the previous shot. For a Level One perceiving it would be nearly impossible simply due to the difference in their Status. The gap between Level One and Level Four was practically insurmountable. More so factoring in the fact that she had raised her Magic to S-Rank twice over now.

Yet in defiance of what should have been an absolute fact, Archer not only dodged with casual ease but drew back his bowstring in a single motion before letting an arrow fly. It was a perfect counterattack by all accounts, the arrow cutting through the air toward her far faster than the last. Even with her elongated perception, by the time she noticed it was already within range to pierce the emblem—if not her very heart over which it hung.

The Elven Mage threw herself out of the way before it could hit the mark, leaving the arrow to fly past her. She landed on the rooftop in an undignified heap, which left her flushed red in the face because she knew that all of Orario had seen her stumble over her own feet. How embarrassing….

And as for the one responsible for her embarrassment, he stood there with the same smirk on his lips. She knew that considering him a Level One was foolish. Even without the Falna, a Spirit’s power was not something to be underestimated given that heroes of old had carved themselves into legend with their aid.

Even so, she still had great pride in her abilities as a Mage. One that specialized in long-range combat, and as a member of a race that valued magic and dignity. So being made a fool so casually stung deeply.

A new resolve flared within her. Even if she was outclassed under normal circumstances, right here and now the situation was different. If all she had to do to claim victory was destroy the emblem he brandished so brazenly upon his chest, even she could manage that much.

Yes, the only way to make up for her wounded pride would be to make this Human taste defeat.

Rising back to her feet with her fighting spirit kindled, Lefiya reached into the pouch that adorned her belt. When her slender fingers withdrew from it there was a cylindrical-shaped magic stone the size of her fingernail in her grasp. She fitted it into the chamber affixed to the staff with a single motion, leveled the staff towards her opponent, and began to sing once more.

The Magic Circle sprang up at her feet once more, shining brighter than before. She would maximize the velocity of the shot and increase the width to compensate for the space available for him to move on the opposing Keep. A flurry of golden sparkles shot into the air like earthbound snow swept up by a breeze as the Elven Mage braced herself for the feedback. Then she sent a final pulse of the magical energy into the cartridge attachment, injecting the magic stone with more energy than it could fit inside.

Like a balloon filled to the point of bursting, it came undone with a blue spark and released all the magical energy that composed it into the heart of the staff. The core nestled within the golden diamond shone like a star right as she finished her incantation. “ARCS RAY!

A torrent of light barreled forth toward the Keep that Archer had been perched on and her sharpened senses caught the explosion with as much clarity as if it had been right next to her. The stonework shattered, rubble and dust scattering from above as the highest point in the opposing castle was destroyed in a single shot. Even so, Lefiya was fairly sure that despite the increased destructive force it wouldn’t have been enough to seriously hurt him…

That was when she felt his magical energy.

For a Mage as sensitive as her it was a sensation that was second nature. Her azure eyes snapped not to the lower grounds of the castle hidden by the dust, but to the air above. There she found the sniper of the Hestia Familia reaching the apex of height possible to be reached in a single bound of his legs, bow nocked with an arrow—which had its head glowing red as he poured magical energy into it—tongues of red lightning crackling up the shaft.

Lefiya immediately threw herself off the top of the Keep. Archer might not have needed an incantation, but arrows infused with his magical energy were just as dangerous as any spell she could cast. So the moment she felt the flow of energy stopping, she knew that the shot was coming.

It proved to be the right call as the red streak cut through the air toward where she had been like a small comet. And just like a comet the moment it crashed down into the top of her Keep, it utterly wiped it out. The shockwave of the impact sent her tumbling midair over the top of the closest tower, where she came to a rough stop against the edge.

Nnnn…” A grumble bubbled up in her throat as she used the wall to stand up properly. She looked down to make sure her emblem was unbroken, then back over to where her Keep had been, and then finally to the other castle where Archer landed far more gracefully than she had. The fact that he was wearing that damn smirk only served to further infuriate her. Okay, time to show what an actual Mage can do.

She reached for another magic stone and fitted it into the now-empty slot. Then she started using her other spell. “Proud warriors, marksmen of the forest. Take up your bows to face the marauders! Answer the call of your kin and nock your arrows!

Her anthem brought forth a new Magic Circle at her feet. The frills around her upper arms and hair began to dance. Magical energy surged out into the world as reddish particles rose to the air like embers from a crackling flame. “Bring forth the flame, torches of the forest. Release them, flaming arrows of the fairies!

Those ascending red embers, fire seeds that had yet to sprout, gathered as she raised her staff to the sky between the castles. They converged and clustered together, igniting as she channeled magical energy into the magic stone. Then there was an explosive flash of light and heat.

A second sun took its place in the sky between the two castles.

“Fall like rain and burn the savages to ash—” She directed her staff, its tip pointing at the roiling, pulsing mass of flames that seemed ready to burst, towards the enemy standing at the opposite tower as she declared, “FUSILLADE FALLARICA!

Fire erupted from the singular daystar. Pieces of the sun dyed the sky itself the color of burning red as they rained down from above. Hundreds of arrows of flames descended upon the enemy castle and its sole defender.

Archer began to dart from the top of the Tower as the flaming arrows came down upon it, each one blasting away at the solid stone upon contact. He was fast on his feet for someone so talented at ranged combat, but he couldn’t escape the eyes of an Elf. As long as she could see him, Lefiya could direct the subsequent volleys until the sun burned out.

I am the bone of my sword…” Her ears caught the incantation on his lips that shook the air itself as a new blade appeared in his right hand. It was a uniquely beautiful blade to even her eyes that were untrained in the ways of smithing, with the helix blade coiling around itself until it came to a golden guard and silver handle that were all embellished with a blue strip. It compressed itself within his grasp until it formed a suitable arrow as he somersaulted out of the way of her flaming volley, and red lightning crackled as he drew it back. “Caladbolg!

What flew out of his bow couldn’t really be called an arrow. No, her eyes caught how it distorted the very air as the blue swirl it became pierced through the daystar and kept going. The flames that were meant to rain down were caught in its wake and dragged out like thread pulled by a needle as it passed overhead and left a flaming arch to mark the trail where a star ascended to the heavens after being called down.

Then Lefiya felt the backlash. The heat-laden whirlwind lashed out at her like a solid wall that rivaled the intensity of a Valgang Dragon, slamming into her with enough force that she was certain that a Level One Adventurer would have their body crushed by the intensity. She ended up curling her hand over the emblem and plunging the butt of her staff into the solid stone with all the Strength she just to avoid being blown away until the gale petered out.

Spirit magic is really something, isn’t it? She found herself unconsciously swallowing in the wake of that. It hadn’t even been aimed close to her, yet the sheer strength of it was something to behold. But I’m not done yet!

I beseech the name of Wishe. Ancestors of the forest, proud brethren. Answer my call and descend upon the plains—” Her azure gaze smoldered with fiery resolve as a new Magic Circle sprang to life at the base of her feet and expanded as she pledged upon the name of her forest, her ancestors, and her home itself. It was the pride she held as an Elf woven into an Aria itself by the Falna—that which earned her the name of the Thousand Elf.

Connecting bonds, the pledge of paradise. Turn the wheel and dance.” The intricacies of the circle grew more pronounced with every word, inscriptions and symbols decorating it with each syllable. A thread of light, a strand of rainbow made solid, emerged from the tip of her staff and followed in a graceful arch as she turned with it until it connected with itself into a ring. “Please, give me strength—

Then she brought her staff down upon the circle and the light followed, connecting the above with the below as the amount of magical energy that it exuded billowed into the air as sparkles of prismatic light with the completion of the titular, “Elf Ring.

Inside her mind now stretched an endless forest of great trees. It was the foundation for her mental world, accessible only by stepping through the boundary of the Elf Ring. In doing so one connected with the repository of all the spells woven by Elvenkind since the beginning of time.

There were no guideposts in the forest. Even for her, who wielded this magic, it was beyond her to freely traverse it to whatever Great Tree that housed the spell she desired. However, one could trace their way to the roots from the leaves and branches. She only needed the incantation to guide her, as they were merely the canopy that displayed what was writ beneath the Falna and onto the very soul—the very foundation of the magic itself.

Glittering stars crossing the night sky. Hear my naïve prayer and guide these falling lights.” The aria flowed like a soft breeze, tracing along the branches until it came to a sapling within the endless forest that had just emerged from the nurturing soil. It would need tending and care and time, but it would be able to flourish to grandiose heights as daunting as even the Great Oak. And while she couldn’t reproduce the height that it would one day be reached by the neophyte upon reaching her prime, Lefiya could compensate with her own Skill and Magic to give Primo a glimpse of the future that awaited her.

Descend o starry tears!” Her body burned as her magical energy came out in a dense fog trying to reach that potential future, a magic stone in the chamber shattering and overflowing as the heartstone shone with a celestial violet light amidst the countless motes. She was using the Mage Development Ability to refine the spell itself, increasing the nodes upon which the fires of the stars themselves could rain down. “Blast away these hapless rejects!

Once she was done, she swung her arm to cast that light into the heavens with all her might, whereupon it scattered into dozens of twinkling stars that linger in the air above. “LUMINE PLEIADES!

The words called for the stars to fall like raindrops. Each star diminished little by little as they shed tears upon the castle below. But they rained down in such great numbers that she was sure at least one would manage to scour his pin and then that would be the end.

Yet Archer called to his hands a beautiful pair of twin short swords, akin to the full moon and the new moon. With them, he began deflecting the beams of light as they came raining down. The spell was reduced in potency in exchange for increasing the numbers, but it still shouldn’t be deterred by mere steel. If she had to put it into words, it almost seemed like the spell itself glided off the blades like water off an oiled surface.

It was too crude to be a dance, but the way he brought them around to protect the emblem itself was still skillful. Something only possible thanks to those blades, paired with excellent reflexes and sharpened eyes—a combination of his boons from the Spirit that possessed him and his own experiences no doubt. Blades in hand, Archer managed to do the impossible and weather the star shower without a single drop of light touching him.

Then it was his turn again. The blades dissipated into the air and his bow returned. Three nondescript black arrows appeared between his right fingers and he nocked them all at once, channeling magical energy into them as he drew back the bowstring…

Lefiya’s nerves were alight as the post-magic rigor left her body feeling the strain of her previous casting. Between amplifying the spell along with the amount of magical energy it took to simply use Elf Ring in the first, she couldn’t force another spell for at least another thirty seconds. In that time Archer accrued a scary amount of magical energy within the arrowheads, distorting the air itself around them as they burned with a reddish hue.

But rather than shoot them directly toward her, he sent them streaking into the sky as three rays of light. Then the faint light spread out across the sky into dozens of pinpricks of light. And burning stars began to rain down upon her from above.

Brick and mortar scattered upon impact as the magical energy detonated with the force of a small flare stone as she jumped from the Tower to the Wall Walk. It wasn’t even a tenth of what she felt from how much he charged each arrow, but closer to a hundredth of the original power. Even so, she kept moving as the red rain descended upon her.

One after another the crimson comets fell upon the castle, the sequence irregular to her sharpened sense of hearing. Patterned. Selective. She was fairly sure that they were somehow tracking her as she moved, some falling where she would have been if she had not caught the sound of them approaching and then redirected herself with all the Agility her cumulative Levels could muster to avoid the shelling.  Eventually, she was forced to throw herself off the side of the Wall Walk before catching the ledge of an inner window and pulling herself into the interior for shelter.

The layer of stone next to her immediately erupted into stone dust and pebbles, making it clear the castle walls wouldn’t hold up to this bombardment. She ran along the interior with the bunker-busting blasts following in her wake until she felt a cluster of magical energy converging and reflexively darted back in time as the stonework collapsed, sealing off her path ahead. Lefiya leaped out of the nearest window as that section of the Wall Walk began to collapse in on itself, dropping into the courtyard below.

Red shells continued to rain down.

The castle trembled under the blasts as she wove between them, one hand over her emblem nestled above her heart.  But mid-step her footing slipped, or to be more accurate the ground gave out beneath her. Lacking in the stonecunning of a Dwarf, she failed to notice just how fragile stonework had become from the constant damage done until one of the crimson cannonball-like impacts had finally shaken loose the stone itself beneath her.

On reflex alone she managed to stop herself from falling face down or landing on the staff she’d been bequeathed, instead falling to her side. But then she caught sight of the crimson hue eclipsing her vision and felt the final of the stars heading towards her.  With no time to escape, she curled inwards and braced for impact as she flared her own magical energy out to try and dilute the concentrated batch.

It was a rudimentary, primal Elven technique born from the time of the Age of Heroes. A waste of Mind for a lackluster defense—especially when the Magic Resistance DA passively did the same thing to a greater degree. There was a reason Mages used their foci to direct the flow of magical energy instead of their entire bodies, which she felt imminently considering her body ached on the inside now.

But if she hadn’t done it, then she would have lost as she felt the pain wash over her. Not enough to seriously wound her. But it would have been enough to end the match one way or another if she hadn’t done it.

She removed her hand from where the emblem of the Jester was pinned over her heart. It was so fragile compared to her body or even the battle clothes she’d been given, yet it carried the significance of her Familia in its presence. Had she not put forth that extra effort it would have shattered in the wake of that blast.

And to let the emblem of her Familia be shattered in defeat wasn’t a thought she could bear.

I won’t lose to him. She used her staff to help herself onto her feet as the stone dust cleared. The sound of metal clinking to the stone below could be heard as her hair band fell, wrenched loose from the pressure of the blast while the golden tips dragged it down. That left her hair to flow wildly, some of it clinging to her forehead and cheeks from the sweat of her exertion.

The Elven Mage grabbed the hairband that had fallen and tied it around her left wrist. Then she hobbled back into the interior corridor to climb back to the top with a familiar song on her breath whilst outside his view. When she finally stepped back on what remained of the Walk Wall, having been caught in the bombardment that forced her to flee below initially, she caught sight of the red-clad Archer standing on the opposite castle with his bow in hand.

Her appearance elicited no reaction from him, which was annoying in its own way considering he barely looked like he’d taken a stroll despite her best efforts. In contrast, she was covered in dirt and dust that clung to her from the sweat she’d shed to this point. Exhaustion was plain on her face. Anyone watching the match would know by now that she couldn’t hope to keep up with him, so the expected result would be that the match would end in the next exchange.

I still have a card left to play. She loaded the final magic stone into the chamber affixed to her staff and held her breath as she got into a firing stance that entrenched her into place. Then her Magic Circle sprang to life at the base of her feet and magical energy came roaring out as she issued her final challenge to her opponent in the form of a song. “Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree…

Mid-song she noticed Archer’s posture shifting. She couldn’t tell if his instincts or intuition recognized her intentions to no longer run but instead go all out. Either way, the steel-eyed Human took up his own stance that gave the impression that he had no intention of attempting to dodge her next shot—he would block it.

Even knowing that he would, Lefiya had already resolved to give it her all as she finished her spell with a spark of magical energy igniting the magic stone within the chamber. “Pierce, arrow of accuracyARCS RAY!

Golden light burst free from her staff. She had maximized the speed and destructive power, relying in the chambered magic stone and Fairy Cannon to go beyond her limits. So it looked more like an onrushing wave of light that swallowed the entirety of the ground between them as it surged towards the enemy fortification faster than the speed of sound—


—and then it met with the seven-petaled flower that bloomed from the stalk that was Archer’s bronzed arm. Its simplicity in appearance and shape belayed its defensive capabilities, the beautiful shield that seemed so fragile holding strong even as the force of the spell released a shockwave upon impact.

A bright glare robbed them of sight. The light that couldn’t push past his defenses flared up, releasing scalding heat and force that caused the air itself to howl. Even the castle Archer anchored himself to trembled as the heat sank into the mortar and loosened the bonds holding the stone itself together.

Lefiya lost count of the seconds as a fever reached her head. Her body was burning up from the inside out as a fever swept through her from channeling as much magical energy as she could into the spell to keep it going. The fields between them began to burn as the rampant heat finally ignited the grass, sending smoke billowing out as the rushing air carried it everywhere.

But the inevitable occurred sooner than later.

The rush of the magical energy slowly petered out as her Mind emptied down to the critical point. The absence left her feeling dizzy enough to be on the verge of passing out. She braced the staff to stay upright, knowing that if she fell she wouldn’t be getting back up

And as the light faded away in its entirety and the smoke slowly cleared, she could see that her assault had accomplished absolutely nothing as the petals dissipated and revealed Archer standing there unblemished.

…It was really infuriating that even at her best she couldn’t so much as burn his clothes. Then again, Lefiya knew that her spell wouldn’t be enough to overcome his defenses. His shield managed to weather the barrage of a Spirit unleashing the highest tier of magic possible, so for her it was an impenetrable shield that couldn’t be breached even if she tried her hardest.

He was getting ready to end things since she could no longer muster the strength to stand upright. All she could do as he drew back his bowstring was to extend her left hand out towards him. Then He fired a singular arrow towards her emblem to end it—


—and she unveiled her final trump card as a Magic Circle sprang to life from her wrist that was covered by the hairband.

The question of how she was going to defeat Archer had loomed in her mind since she had barely managed to protect her emblem the last time. She couldn’t use Elf Ring again. Even if she didn’t suffer from severe post-magic rigor whenever she used it, her Mind wasn’t as seemingly endless as his was.

The difference in their physical ability factored in as well. He could move a lot more freely than her, especially with her body in this state. Had he thought she could still retaliate and been light on his feet, he would likely avoid her remaining shots and would win out in a contest of endurance. Not to mention that he had his ultimate defense.

The only way she was going to win was to take advantage of the only weakness she could think of that he shared as both an archer and a mage: concentration.

Be it magic or bow, snipers devoted their all to their shots, down to their very breath. Lady Riveria had taught her that, being the foremost archer within their Familia. So, in that single moment after his shot was fired, he would be vulnerable—and thus she had a chance to win.

But she had less than the space of a second to land such a shot. While a skilled Mage could reduce the time of their chants, with Filvis being proficient enough that she could cast her Short Chant spells in less than a second, Lefiya couldn’t hope to accomplish something like that given how long her spells were. At least not without the Skill she obtained upon reaching Level Four: Double Canon.

It was a Skill that mitigated the biggest weakness she faced in how quickly her incantations were uttered by allowing her to preserve the Magic Circle and incantation, delaying the release of the spell until she used the trigger word to unleash it. That made it so that the spell itself was already loaded and formatted with the Mage Development Ability. She only needed to unleash it.

She had loaded in her first spell on her way up to the Wall Walk for the final time. Augmented to maximize the speed above all else. The only thing left was to pull the trigger with her remaining Mind. “ARCS RAY!

A golden arrow-thin ray shot from her outstretched hand before everything faded to black…


The first thing that Lefiya felt as she slowly came back to her senses was her body being cradled by the soft embrace of a bed. She forced her eyes open after a moment and sat upright, taking in her surroundings. It was her room back in the Twilight Manor.

“Finally woke up?” The voice of her Goddess pulled her attention over to a chair where the Trickster Goddess sat with a bottle of wine in hand. “You been out all day, you know?”

“All day…” She turned her attention to the nearest window and saw that night had fallen.  “What about the match?”

“Eh, it wasn’t the crushing win that I wanted, but…” Loki tossed up her own emblem with a cheeky grin. The Elven Mage grasped it gingerly as it came her way. It was scuffed, but despite everything she had managed to keep it whole. “You managed to hit shortstack’s emblem with pinpoint accuracy right as you hit the ground. So, while you didn’t win, you didn’t lose either.”

She hadn’t won. She wasn’t at the point she could compete with someone who was blessed with a Spirit’s power. She didn’t know if that day would ever come, but she would still strive for it. But she had managed to protect the symbol of her Familia despite it all.

That was more than enough for her to take pride in for now.


Fanfic Recommendation 118

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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother? 34

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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 34 [DanMachi AU]

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…


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…”

“Yes, Goddess?”

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.”

Fanfic Recommendation 117

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Life is Tough for a Minos: Chapter 5

Summary: Life was difficult for someone born without a Septima in a kingdom where they were prized above all else, so Leon ventured to the bottom of the world to retrieve the means to raise himself to nobility. He didn’t expect to find an AI waiting for him there by the name of Lola.

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Life is Tough for a Minos: Chapter 5 [Mobuseka x Gunvolt AU]

Chapter 5: The Enrollment 3

The first class that Leon had in the morning happened to be Mechatronics, one of the few that he shared with Olivia. The two entered the classroom and found that, rather than dividing the students into separate desks, there were instead long tables that stretched in rows. They rose higher in elevation the further back they were, meaning that the further back you were the harder it would be to see the blackboard.

An idle part of Leon’s mind noted it resembled the kind of lecture halls that his sister back in Japan complained about when she entered University.

Olivia naturally took a seat within the front row, given that her inability to speak meant that if she had any questions, she would have to write them down to present them to the instructor.  Leon took the seat next to her. Not only because he had decided to stick close to her to make sure she was safe while they decided what to do about the Muse Artifacts, but because he was actually somewhat interested in the class since he had never taken it.

The game offered a few courses, but this one wasn’t an option for the Protagonist. That was likely because none of the Love Interests would be in them combined with the fact that Olivia in the game never had an interest in the more scientific aspects of the game and instead focused on Septimal Studies. He could only speculate that since she lacked Septima that interest was shifted to this field instead, which was notable when the rest of the students filed in, with the instructor being the late one to come in.

He took the piece of chalk and began writing on the board in what passed for cursive two words in large letters: ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ before he set it down and then turned back to the rest of the students to make sure all eyes were on him, only to do a mild double-take when he saw Olivia. She only craned her head inquisitively in response, having not quite caught onto the fact that she was the only woman presently in the classroom. Noblewomen of the rank that would normally attend the classes tended not to want anything to do with technology. So, around this period they would be taking one of the laxer courses.

He eventually realized he was staring and turned his attention back to the board and pointed to the ‘Why?’ written there. “Welcome my young students. I am happy that you’ve decided to take my class and dive head-first into the wonders of the world of Mechatronics. We’ll begin with the reason why this class is offered at the Royal Academy. As you will learn once your History class delves into the topic, Holfort boasts the largest amount of Septimal diversity and Adepts among all the surrounding nations. It has been that way since the founding of our Kingdom, where the Muse bestowed their blessing upon the first King of Holfort and his cohorts that became the founding five families.”

That would be the first Muse, Leon noted to himself. The one whose staff was placed within the Basilica and was still there to this day. In hindsight, after having enough time to talk it over with Lola and think, he probably should have questioned why the artifacts boosted the strength of an existing Muse when things like the Glaives were considered lost technology.

“—beneficial for our country and so the development of Septimal Studies has been a fixture, other countries have been focusing on delving into the ruins of the ancients and reverse engineering the technology left behind to act as an equalizer to the natural capabilities we possess. This became more prevalent in the last clash with the Principality of Fanoss twenty-years ago, at which point His Majesty decided to set the framework to remedy this shortcoming.”

Leon briefly turned his attention to Olivia, who was already dutifully taking notes on all of this. And much faster than her usual writing. Or so it seemed until he noticed the notes were more abbreviated and clipped short than the full passages. Is she really going to get everything like that?

“As the last war showed, there is no need for us to simply allow outside nations to take advancements that should be ours as a nation founded by Adventurers. More so considering that without proper investigation and understanding people may end up repeating the mistakes of our precursors that led to the end of the world before this due to being so primitive and warlike despite being so advanced, resulting in ruining the world as it once was.”

That’s a lot of talk coming from scavengers that pick apart the creations of older civilizations because they’re too creatively bankrupt to come up with their own creations.

Leon was somewhat caught off-guard at Lola’s tone that came off in an uncharacteristically angry manner. Her temperament tended to shift between pretty cheerful and somewhat pensive, as if reflecting the age she appeared back when they’d first met and her actual age. But raw anger was rare enough that he decided to question her about it later as the professor continued, blissfully unaware that he was very likely a man marked for execution.

“That is yet another reason we must learn from the failings of our predecessor. Dungeons hold the secrets that our precursors once possessed, thus, the purpose of our course is take those technological advancements and use them as supplement to our Septima to better protect our homeland and improve the lives of those within our borders without repeating the same mistakes. Which bring us to the second reason for the existence of this course.”

He drew a large circle around the ‘HOW’ comment written on the board.  “Our course over this term will entail learning the mechanics behind electronics, not just devices you may have seen within the Capital in abundance, but rather how electricity itself flows and powers the variety of systems that use it. You’ll learn about the various paths, components, and mechanisms behind how they operate, starting with simple devices like lights and the like. Once you have that solid understanding, we’ll move on to more advanced systems. Are there any questions?”

Olivia’s hand went up.

“Yes, Miss….?” He awaited her response only to realize a pregnant pause later that he wouldn’t be receiving a verbal answer when she held up her notepad. “Oh, my apologies. You must be one of the scholarship students…”

Leon cast a glance over the room as the man adjusted his glasses and came over to see what she had written down. He could see from some of their expressions they were silently casting judgement upon her with that information now in their minds. Some remained neutral, but that was more indifference on their part than anything else. A Commoner in a class of Nobles had nothing to do with them, so they didn’t particularly care about her. More than a few wore slight frowns but lacked the furrowed brow that indicated disdain or anger. Disappointment?

Probably the ones hoping to approach her. He figured that since this was their first official class they likely didn’t know who the scholarship student was and so she just so happened to be a quiet and cute girl sitting in the front. Most likely they were planning to approach her once class ended, but the fact that she was a Minos meant there was no point now—if the fact that she was mute didn’t scare them off before that.

There were a couple who had looks of disdain. Typical of those who questioned why someone of low status was attending an academy for the elites of society. The kind who had more bark than bite. He didn’t think they would do anything so it was fine to ignore them.

But there was one exception to that rule. One set of eyes that bore down on the unaware young woman with enough unmistakable malice that there was no question that they bore nothing but contempt for her. As if she was a blight upon the world that had committed the ultimate sin by simply meeting existing within their view.

“I see. I see.” The professor’s voice snapped Leon’s attention back to the man himself. “It would be a notable concern elsewhere, but the Capital doesn’t have such restrictions on energy consumption. You see, because the Azure Striker Septima is capable of supplying a vast amount of electrical energy directly rather than deriving it from a secondary source, we can utilize it as much as needed. You need only request the necessary supplies.”

Olivia beamed him a smile as she set her hand on her chest and bobbed her head once in gratitude. It must have been the answer she was looking for.

He then turned to the rest of the class. “Are there any other questions?”

The rest of the class was rather uneventful. The professor merely continued by having them open their textbooks and go through what was to be the introductory chapter. It was about as standard as expected, going over the definitions of what electricity was, examples like how the lamps in the streets weren’t oil-based, and how electricity itself wasn’t merely the streaks but actually smaller invisible particles in motion.

For as quiet as she was, Olivia was clearly excited upon hearing that. It was as if she had just obtained some secret knowledge and she couldn’t wait to unravel it. Not just her either. More than a few of the guys in the room had been looking like they were struggling to suspend their disbelief.

But she was practically a bundle of energy as when class ended. She turned to Leon with her smaller notepad: Do you want to come with me to the Library for our study period?

Normally, their schedule would leave them to head Septimal Studies—which was basically a class that ensured that all the students had a general understanding of the basics of septima and the laws governing it—next for the first term. But considering the two of them weren’t Adepts, they were instead given that period off since it would have a cascading effect on the rest of the schedule if they arranged other classes that didn’t line up. From what Leon could gather either the Queen or their handler intended to keep them together as much as they could by fixing the shared classes to the same time period with only separate electives.

Leon let a hum bubble in his throat as he spared a glance over the shoulder to the one giving her the dirty look earlier to see him animatedly chatting in hushed whispers with one of the other classmates. That look of disdain was one he recognized it all too well now. It was the same Zola often gave him.

“That’s a good idea,” he said to Olivia in as saccharine a voice as he could while shuffling his bag’s handle into his ring and little finger on one hand before doing the same for hers with his remaining digits on the right hand. He then wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Let me show you where it is.”

There was notable confusion evident on her face as he guided her out of the room. It was once they were out of the main hall and into the stairwell leading down that he released her and apologized. “Sorry about that. I figured we’d want to beat the rush before the rest of the students crowd the passageways.”

It was a little devious considering they were only acquaintances. But while she might not be a prospective partner for one of the Five, given she was a Minos and mute, she was attractive enough that someone might decide to have a little fun with her if they thought that they could get away with it because she wasn’t involved with another man. Ideally, he really wanted the guy to reconsider targets if he had a problem with Minos in general and would likely go after another male before a woman, if not because it was likely to be more acceptable to hit another guy then because he was easier to find when necessary, on campus in the dorms.

Leon could handle himself for the most part and respond appropriately when that time came. Olivia couldn’t. In the game she had to have others do the fighting for her while she supported them with the Muse. But Olivia didn’t have the aegis of the Five Love Interests, only the vague protections gifted to them by the scholarship. And he wasn’t going to rely on that to shelter her because it didn’t stop her from getting bullied in the game when she just had a weak Septima and was a Commoner.

Naturally, the Library looked the part when they arrived. Since the Royal Academy was essentially the primary learning institution for the nobility, it was a well-financed part of the campus where knowledge could be found. Rows of books, stocked on shelves, carried the scent of leather and parchment. Silence held a solid foothold as only muted sounds from the few present within its dominion could be found. There were also seating areas and study desks for groups to review the information they gathered, one of which Leon led Olivia to in a private corner that was on the first floor.

In the game, if she was made to be the studious type for progressing certain events, Olivia would refer to it as her bastion as few bothered traversing the area and that gave it a more isolated feeling. He slid a chair from beneath the table and offered it to her. “Here you go.”

Olivia nodded her head in gratitude before she took a seat and pulled out the smaller pad she had used to record the notes earlier. Like he’d thought before it was a lot of abbreviations and shorthand that honestly looked a little intimidating. But she managed to translate it into detailed information with little problem, meaning she wouldn’t have trouble keeping up to a degree in her classes if she could focus.

So, Leon decided to leave her be for a moment as he went off to a spot that he knew would be abandoned and out of the way on the second floor around this time. It was one of the places where one of the Brad and Olivia would sit around and talk before eventually exchanging a kiss with one another to show the relationship progress. Once he was there, he called out to his invisible companion. “Lola, are clear speak for a moment here without anyone listening in?”

Yep.” The Combat Pod’s appearance bled into existence as she retracted the pix she used to camouflage herself. “What’s on your mind?

He crossed his arms. “What happened back there? It isn’t like you to have an outburst like that from the few months we’ve spent together.”

Yeahsorry about that.” She drifted lower for a moment before circling around to the window. “He probably couldn’t know better considering everything, but he pressed a lot of my buttons, and my circuits got a bit overheated.

“Then talk to me.” He leaned against the windowsill, using one arm to support his head. “I’d like to at least know why the professor went missing after today if I don’t see him tomorrow.”

I’m not going to make him disappear,” she promised. “Ignorance isn’t a crime and even if he’s wrong about the cause, he’s right that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It’s just… first off, how he called them ‘Primitive’ was akin to a slur back in my time.

That surprised him more than it should have. “It was?”

Her flaps fidgeted a few times. “It was used by the Adepts around the time of the war for the Humans, citing it as a reason for why they deserved to go extinct. I mean, you wouldn’t feel bad about killing something beneath you, right?

“Ah, so like how the term ‘Minos’ is used.” They labeled you as something less than they were, so you didn’t deserve the same rights and privileges. It made it easier to exploit or be rid of you. “That’d do it.”

She bobbed up and down. “And it happens to be especially insulting considering I’m literally the one fixing the mistakes of the Adept that caused the problem while his descendants are running this country and teaching others that the people of my time killed themselves off because they were primitive compared to the Adepts. Intellectually, I understand he couldn’t know better but…”

“It feels like he’s trampling on us without knowing a thing about how people in the past really lived,” Leon finished for her. “To be fair, it’s the kind of propaganda and mindset you’d expect from a civilization like this. It was less against non-Adepts and more that the other country doesn’t have Septima as powerful as ours and we’re so much better than them. Us vs Them and all.”

I… just wished they’d consider the reason they keep finding weapons was because everything else kept getting destroyed during the war. Stuff that would help with food production and places like hospitals were all viable soft targets that could cripple entire cities if hit. You’d naturally target those first in a war of extinction, right?

No food meant that people would starve. He couldn’t imagine it would take very long for a more modernized world that transitioned from having large agriculture to trading for goods to become hectic due to a lack of food. No treatment for injuries meant that even minor scrapes could become infected and fatal, let alone people who medical conditions that required constant healthcare.

It really isn’t that hard to figure out if you really think about it.” There was a note of resignation in her electronic voice. “It’s just that no one is interested in the reason why the world is the way it is from what they discover. They just see relics from my age as a means of obtaining power to use against one another rather than improving the lives of everyone. The professor even mentioned that the only reason the Royal Family is spearheading this project is because the other nation has been gaining military power. It’s just an arms race that’ll end up with one side wiping the other out, repeating the cycle.

“That’s the feudal-future nature of this place we’ve ended up in,” Leon responded in his own resigned voice. He had long given up on expecting much from it. “Do you want to sit out the rest of the classes, because that isn’t the only time it’ll likely come up and you don’t need put up with it.”

I can manage, but thanks for being concerned though.” She drifted closer to him and moved her flaps a bit. “But, on another topic, I noticed that during class your stress levels were elevating in response to one particular classmate. Is he going to be a problem?

“I don’t know…” Leon pursed his lips for a moment. “He was giving Olivia a look that basically made it clear he’d like nothing more than to be rid of her in a way that reminded me of Zola. Can you figure out what you can about him and see why?”

I can give it a go, but will you be okay on your own?

“Yeah. I’ll just stick around here with Olivia until Lunch. Meet me then and, based on what you find, I might request that you keep an eye on Olivia when our classes split apart for the electives.”

Okay. See you then.” That said, the Combat Support Pod bled out of existence as she had her pix once more camouflaged herself.

Leon gave it a moment before he sighed and rubbed his temples. First actual day of their classes and there was already a potential problem. “Well, nothing for it. I’ll just have to keep an eye on her with Lola for now.”


The pen scratched against the notepad as Olivia quickly scribed the notes from class while it was fresh in her mind. The primary part of the class had been focused on electronics and how electricity fueled it all, which she found to be a fascinating topic given just how vast the applications were with it. Resistors, Conductors, Capacitors—she had begun putting names all these little things packed into small bits that somehow could be used to create different devices.

And then there was the fact that she had the chance to enjoy so many little luxuries that the others didn’t have the chance to experience back home. She had a room to herself rather than needing to share, even including a carpeted floor and a bed that was soft enough that she could sink into. Then there were the delicious foods they had and how they didn’t need to share a plate half of the time.

But she wouldn’t be allured away from her goal by the luxuries here. She couldn’t since it would be unfair for the others back in the church. She was here for them too, so she could learn everything she could to help them.

“Wow, you actually managed to remember all of the details that clearly,” came from right next to her. She turned her head to see that Esquire Bartfort was there with his hand on his chin as he observed her writing. “My own notes a bit lacking in comparison.”

She waved both her hands slightly to try to get across the fact that it wasn’t anything special. Master Lucas had taught all the children how to be observant and pick up clues when they were taking notes. It made things easier for when they needed to help with the responsibilities back at their little parish church and the local communities who weren’t fortunate enough to have the time to become literate due to needing to constantly work the land.

He slid out the chair adjacent to her and took a seat, setting down a book that was markedly more advanced than the topic that they were covering. Specifically, it looked to be a reference guide on the fundamentals on Exosuit construction he mentioned wanting to learn more about, with it showing some very detailed images on the pages as he began flipping through them.

She scribbled on her smaller pad: You can already understand that?

“Oh no. I don’t understand 99% of this stuff,” he admitted cheerily. “I’m just looking at the parts that I recognize from maintenance on the powered armors back home to get a better grasp on what goes on beneath the surface.”

So you’ve done maintenance on Exosuits even before coming here? That’s impressive, Esq. Bartfort.

He shook his head. “It’s not like what you’re thinking. Since our gear is important, we do know enough to be able to do quick inspections and tell when something needs to be taken care of. Faulty equipment will get you killed if you’re not careful. But if something goes over our heads then we have the local mechanic look at it—otherwise he’d get pissed for bothering him when he had too much on his hands already.”

Her brows dropped just a bit as she took that in. Her home and the parish territory didn’t really have to deal with monsters very often. Not to the degree that some other places might have. But things weren’t that fortunate for him it would seem, and since he didn’t have Septima he would have to clad himself in armor to fight.

“You know, it’d be easier if you just put Leon instead of my title and last name,” he continued while gesturing towards what she had written. “Four letters are quicker to write than twelve and saves space.”

She only shook her head before she responded: I can’t do that. You’re a Noble after all.

Olivia knew she was a Commoner. One without blood-ties at that, an orphan of a poor little church with no worth to her name. Not even a Septima of her own to pass down to any children she might have had. She had long since accepted that fact and so she was grateful to Her Majesty and Master Lucas for this opportunity.

But he was different. Even though they both lacked a Septima, he still came from a noble lineage. And more than that he was someone who had the bravery to explore dungeons as an Adventurer and earn accolades through his own merits to enter the gentry.

“On paper, yeah,” Leon admitted. “But the formality of it all doesn’t sit well with me. I’m more used to people calling me by my first name and it makes me sound like an old man being called that by someone who’s my own age. I mean it’d be weird if our positions were reversed and I suddenly called you, Esquire Olivia, right?”

She could see how it felt almost impersonal when someone called you that way. She decided to honor his request and made one of her own: Then can you call me Livia as well? My friends back home do the same.

Livia…” He rolled her name around in his mouth for a moment as if he were sampling it before smiling. “I can see why they would. It rolls of the tongue a bit easier, Livia.”

Even though it hadn’t been long since she left home to arrive here, Olivia was surprised at how comforting it felt to hear someone say it again. She felt herself smiling for quite a while as they turned their attention back to their own assignments.

[—Marie Fou Lafan—]

Marie found herself within the Colosseum nestled on flat grounds located on the upper right corner of the territory of the academy. It was in the shape of an amphitheater that was wide enough it could fit the entirety of the student body and have seats to spare, rising more than 150 feet into the air. The outer wall was formed of limestone that were shored up with metal supports that helped reinforce it, while the inside had a tiered arrangement of seats with spectator boxes at the top that were flanked by podiums for the elite to seat themselves in.

The arena itself was around 150 feet by 300 feet with a solid floor that was made of tiled stone. It was ringed by marble walls that framed metal panels within them that generated a barrier known as a Hexapyle, hexagonal transparent walls of energy that were often used in warships to defend against gunfire and ballistics fire. They were what ensured the safety of spectators when the arena was in use for various shows and events—including duels between the nobility.

Right now the location was being used as a testing site for their Septimal Studies class.  The class covered the theoretical, practical use, and laws related to one’s Septimal ability. Since it was their first day in class all students were taking an ability assessment since there was technology that could put a numerical value based on the capacity of their Septimal Power—SP for short.

Marie watched as Julius approached the platform of the testing device to lead by example, an archway that was lined with sensors and connected to a monitor. Since Adepts gave off the energy passively there was no need to exert himself or express his power, which was necessary both because he ran the risk of burning out the sensitive components and because it would give a skewed reading. They had told them last night that they shouldn’t use their Septima before the assessment to make sure they were at full capacity.

When Adepts used their Septima it pulled from their pool, which would naturally be replenished over time to the point where unless you were seriously using your power constantly it wouldn’t factor in. However, for any ‘Skills’ with the playable cast, it drained a huge chunk to where they couldn’t use them again until enough was replenished. It was so you didn’t spam your big moves in terms of game balance, but here it was because there were limitations to the body.

Of course, the Azure Striker was special. In the game, Julius had a separate EP (Electro Power) bar that represented how his body naturally accumulated electrical energy on its own due to his Septima, absorbing static electricity from his surrounding to replenish itself or much faster if he concentrated on the process. The electricity he naturally accumulated fueled his primary abilities, so unlike other Adepts he effectively never had to use his SP to discharge his electricity or convert himself into a pseudo-electrified state.

Julius had a placid expression on his face that betrayed no emotion as a low hum resonated throughout the arena once the device started up. It was known as the princely mask among the fandom for the game, having been drilled into him from a young age by his overbearing mother to never lose his composure when faced with a crowd. It was essential since any sign of weakness would trickle down to everyone else and be exploited, as well as hiding the cracks were spreading from the weight of all that responsibility he never asked for.

And yet that was nothing new to be honest.

Even in her old life having responsibilities foisted on you that you never asked for was an everyday occurrence for her. Back when she started being a hostess she had lost count of how many young boys complained about how they had joined a black company without realizing, unable to escape without their reputations being shot and thus unable to get another job. Then when she had gotten more popular it was CEOs complaining about their subordinates and shareholders that always demanded more from them.

That was why they would often visit the hostess club to vent their frustrations to someone who would listen. Even if they were smart enough to know it was just an illusion of companionship that would vanish the moment their funds ran dry, they were willing to keep lying to themselves that it was good enough. That someday the lie would become the truth.

His gaze that rolled over the crowd fell onto her for a moment. And in that moment, she gave him the slightest smile to pass along a wordless message. It caused the tiniest upward curl in the crook of his lips before it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, a slight glimpse beneath the mask that no one else would notice.

Aside from Jilk, who was glancing her way out of the corner of his eyes as discreetly as he could. It was part of his introduction flag after all. Seeing his milk brother showing attention to a woman that wasn’t disinterest or silent disdain would cause him to begin investigating into her. If everything went to plan, he would probably confront her this weekend to give her a warning.

Jilk was the kind of guy who acted on what he believed best benefited Julius, even being willing to quietly go behind his back and subvert orders if necessary to do it. During one of the support conversations he even admitted to digging into the Heroine’s personal information from the school records and looking into her past, only to find nothing. If there was even the slightest sign of manipulation, he would have her removed from the picture either through blackmail or otherwise.

Not that he was always a spook. He had his quirks and his own cute points once you got to know him. But getting him to open up was incredibly difficult with how guarded he was, as one wrong answer and he would clam up—which made his route one of the most difficult ones.

The display eventually registered Julius’ SP capacity and the numbers entered the range for the Rank expected of one of his caliber: A-Rank. For most Adepts the lowest reached out be C-Rank, then B-Rank for middle of the road, then A-Rank for the powerful ones, with S-Rank having been the highest reached. There was technically an SS-Rank in the game, but that was only when the Muse was factored in.

“As expected of His Highness,” came from nearby, drawing her attention to the villainess—Angelica Rapha Redgrave. The daughter of Duke Redgrave stood tall with blonde hair the same hue as Marie’s but short and tied up in a bun, crimson eyes fixed on Julius as he removed himself from the stage.

Marie pursed her lips for just a moment when she considered what dealing with her would entail. In the original story, Angelica possessed the Psychokinesis Septima as was expected of her family and ended up lashing out at the Heroine in a jealous fit when no one would come forth as her champion for a duel because she was clearly in the wrong, which resulted in her exile as the Love Interest stopped them and the manifestation of the Muse’s avatar would appear in the process, signifying to those of the faith that the relationship was justified and pulling the attention of the Church onto her—who would then test her qualifications for Sainthood.

But in the Updated Edition there was an additional boss fight because—at least as far as the theory went from the fans—people weren’t satisfied that they got to beat up the other villains in the story, but she got to walk away with only her intentions of having the fame and power of being the Queen being squashed after making the Heroine’s life a nightmare. In that fight, during the second phase, it was revealed that she also possessed electrical powers like that of the Azure Striker. It was theorized to be a derivative due to the fact that the Duke’s family was closely tied to the Royal Family via ancestry and by fluke it awoke within her, so she believed the marriage with Julius was preordained.

If we push the events properly, we can make it happen at the end of this term. Marie reasoned as she once more went through her schedule to speed run the events. She had help from Kyle with optimizing the routes, so she was confident they could condense all the major school events much quicker. She would trigger the argument and then manifest the Muse just long enough to get the event going. The incident would have the Church take her to the Staff, which she would be able to use without the rejection to immediately gain recognition of being the Saint.

Then she could ‘sense’ where the other two artifacts were and retrieve them. Just a little longer and I’ll have the Muse in full. I can play the role of a naïve, love-struck little girl until then.

Fanfic Recommendation 116

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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 33 [DanMachi AU]

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.”

“How so?”

“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.

Fanfic Recommendation 115

My Fanfics

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