Chapter 24: Story of Growth – Part 2
“The moment that Elio made his offer, I recalled the memory of how entranced I was at the thought of Magic when I first saw it. Of Mother’s words and how one day she would teach me. Of how all that was taken from me.
Now, one of Mother’s race was offering to teach me the Art of our people. Even though I had human blood flowing through my veins. Even if it was only because of his own circumstances, that didn’t change the fact that it was probably the chance of a lifetime.
…But the price of accepting that was too steep. We weren’t blood, but Argo was my family. He was the one who took my hand when the others who would had been lost to the flames and monsters. He held me at night and kept me warm when it was cold.
What good was the power I sought after if the one I would use it to protect was no longer there?”
—Too Steep A Price
These new clothes are going to take some getting used to…
The Thousand Elf found herself feeling butterflies in her stomach as she walked through the ashes left behind in the wake of the Sword Princess as they proceeded along the 37th Floor towards where the Irregular monster was last spotted. There had been monsters that were standing in their way, Spartoi and regular Obsidian Soldiers. But the latter stood no chance against a Level Six and the former she could mow down well before they got within range.
Once the time they had to search for the gemstones that conferred Magic Resistance passed, the two returned to their camp. The others had greeted them with new battle clothes to their surprise. It turned out that Lady Riveria and Sir Gareth had gone out of their way, with Captain Finn’s blessing, to procure them ahead of time.
Aiz looked absolutely dashing, befitting of one who could claim the title of Sword Princess. The clothing themselves was predominately white-rimmed with blue that depicted a sword while the emblem of the trickster was beneath it. Her arm covers and stockings were black and covered by arm and leg guards that were silver so well polished that the light of the Dungeon reflected off them, while an azure cowl fell down her back. Attached to her breastplate and her tiara were the gemstones that conferred Magic Resistance, a deep azure that drew the eyes.
Meanwhile, Lefiya didn’t think her own suited her. The colors were red and white and looked more regal than anything she owned. If anything, she thought it would better suit Lady Riveria, an actual Royal Elf. She honestly felt a little unworthy of them, considering the fact that she wouldn’t likely be able to deal with the Irregular they had to face.
I still haven’t come up with any way to really help, she lamented silently as she unfurled the map of the floor and used the landmark to identify the path that they were on. One of the others would have been better suited to deal with this kind of enemy than her, but she still didn’t want to betray the faith the others had in her. “The corridor to the left will lead us to where it was last spotted.”
“Let’s go then,” Aiz said, her voice soft and calm even though they were going to face such an intimidating foe. Lefiya wished she had the same level of confidence that the Sword Princess did, or even the confidence she had during the War Game. But that was the difference between then and now.
The enemy was specifically something that was the bane of Mages, and she was a Mage. Her confidence was tied to her ability to use her Magic to contribute to protecting those around her. At least with the Apollo Familia she knew she could technically handle them because of the Level disparity, and the rules of engagement were different…
Heightened senses detected the sound of distant footfalls from the mouth of the corridor entrance. They were deep and rough, breaking stone underfoot with slight tremors emanating from the impact. And, more to the point, they told Lefiya that she might have been underestimating just how large it was.
Combat training kicked in at that point. Aiz raised a hand to stall their advance and then sharpened her gaze further ahead to take in the scope of what would become the battlefield. Her golden gaze eventually spotted something even beyond Lefiya’s Elven perception and then extended her hand for Lefiya to take while her other hand brought a finger to her soft lips.
The Half-Elf accepted her hand and wound up being taken into her arms and carried as Aiz used her superior speed to move them along the outer rim. The Sword Princess then deposited her in a section where stone outcropping provided them a better look at the monstrosity that they would have to face. An Obsidian Soldier was by itself a rather bulky and large monster, but the Irregular took that concept and ran with it.
The Reflection Soldier, as it was dubbed looked to have been born not of the same obsidian materials as its kin, but chunks of polished metallic stone melded into a vaguely humanoid shape that was top-heavy enough that it was hunchbacked. The lower half of its body was as close to normal for a bipedal as possible, but its torso was much larger despite being hollowed out to form what looked to be a mouth as it fanned out to limbs more akin to massive gauntlets attached by the smaller arms. The place where there was a gemstone to represent its eye was instead an orb of light that burned with a malicious flame of such intensity that it strained her eyes to stare into it.
Worse, there were the shattered remains of Obsidian Soldiers around it. The thing was bringing the bodies into its mouth and crushing them to consume their magic stones, meaning that not only had it been born an Irregular monster, but it was also cannibalizing them for the sake of increasing its own power further. If it only took five or so magic stones for a normal monster to show a notable increase in strength, then it would be much stronger than that.
Tension threaded Lefiya’s body as instinct honed by experience alone told her that this thing was probably one of the worst matchups they could face. The dense shell that made up its body would provide it with a level of raw brute strength and defense beyond what either of them could output in terms of sheer capacity. Adding the fact that it was devouring other monsters as well, she was starting to wish they had let Sir Gareth take care of it.
“…We have to go.” The declaration snapped her attention from the monster and back towards the Sword Princess. “Before it can get any stronger, we have to stop it.”
Her golden eyes were fixed onto their target, but unlike the Half-Elf they lacked any hesitation or doubt. She had no uncertainties that she could prevail. Seeing her resolution reminded Lefiya of why she had fallen for her once upon a time, and why she envied her even now.
It quelled the uncertainty within her stomach and her heart as she once more decided to do what she could. “I understand. But please let me cast a protective spell before you go ahead.”
Aiz nodded her head and kneeled next to the Thousand Elf as she clutched her staff in one hand and began to sing. “I beseech the name of Wishe. Ancestors of the forest, proud brethren. Answer my call and descend upon the plains. Connecting bonds, the pledge of paradise. Turn the wheel and dance. Come, ring of fairies. Please, give me strength—Elf Ring.”
The magic circle the hue of her soul bathed the two in pale light as it encompassed them, rising motes of magical energy washing over them and leaving their hair to waver aloft as the Summon Burst was complete. The spell opened the gateway and connected her to the ancestry of Elvenkind, every spell that flowed through their history at her disposal. In spite of that, she reached out to one of the most familiar to her—one of those nestled away in a private shelf befitting of royalty.
Her magic circle turned from aureate to jade as a voice more befitting of her garments overlapped her own. “Gather, breath of the earth. In my name of Alf—Veil Breath!”
The words left them to be swaddled within a shroud that acted as a dense second skin that sheltered them within its protective embrace and would soothe any aches and pains that may result. Her Mage Development Ability limited the number of people she could cover in a single cast in comparison to Lady Riveria. But for the moment it was the best defense she could provide to one who was heading off to the battlefield as she breathed out a soft sigh at her success.
“That should at least be able to give you a little extra protection on top of your Wind and Magic Resistance,” she said, meeting the golden eyes with a smile.
Aiz nodded before she closed her eyes. Her chest rose and fell as she straightened her posture and turned towards her unaware foe. Then she jumped high into the air, as if flying towards her foe, before she called forth her wind. “Awaken, Tempest.”
Her birthright stirred. Her azure cowl billowed madly as the gale gathered around her, the swirl of the air catching her body at the apex of her height. Then, as she turned her body and focused her gaze on the monster below her, the gale turned into a violent storm that fixated around her blade and sent her rocketing forward towards the Reflection Soldier.
All sound and sight were lost to the Half-Elf after the announcement as the location where the Irregular Reflection Soldier erupted into a maelstrom of stone, dust, and sand. Opening the battle with her strongest technique to maximize the damage to her unaware foe, the Sword Princess’ raging wind unfurled. It sent everything that was nearby hurdling away at dangerous speeds that eroded the nearby landforms as it gave rise to a curtain of dust hiding everything else from view.
She really is amazing, the Thousand Elf thought to herself before there was loud reverberation, a droning sound that expanded as a shockwave billowed out and swept away the obscuring veil. The shockwave washed over Lefiya even at her distance as the stone outcropping she was behind had nearly crumbled from the sheer force. What was that?
Her unspoken question was shelved when she noticed the giant rising up from the cratered earth, unbroken by the living projectile fired at speeds that would have shattered ordinary stone or steel. It only sported webbed fissures beneath its malformed mouth that were shallow enough that it hadn’t even exposed the magic stone of the Irregular Reflection Soldier she was aiming for. The massive construct then slammed its fist down as its burning gaze fixed on something amidst the sunken ground and the room quaked as the earth erupted.
Uncertainty wormed its way into Lefiya’s mind until a white-and-blue blur emerged from the rubble. Her heart began beating again as she noticed it was the Sword Princess, cowl fluttering amidst the debris that had been sent skyward. She had been stripped of her protective veil and her wind in itself seemed unstable. At least until she caught her breath as she backflipped onto a piece of airborne rubble that was twice her height and kicked off it.
Turning herself into a missile for a second time she cleaved through the dust and earth that had been thrown about and dragged the sharpened edge of her blade along the exposed head of the Reflection Soldier. The sound of metal scraping against something akin to itself shrieked briefly in the air along with a bloom of sparks marking her passage. It was short-lived given the speed at which she moved, but flared up once more as she darted across its frame the moment after she touched the ground.
Shrieks and sparks flittered about as the giant found itself under assault from all angles. Its massive limbs attempted to crush her, but Aiz’s superior speed made such large and unwieldy attempts futile in every sense of the word. The only thing it served to do was to create more openings as she used them as a springboard to reach higher and drive her blade against its torso.
It only took Lefiya a moment to realize that she was gradually carving deeper with each pass, skillfully targeting where she had inflicted the greatest amount of damage in her first assault. Even if it was relatively shallow, each blow would gradually widen the wound as the wind riding along her sword would force itself deeper and attempt to pry it apart from the inside out, wrenching bits of its stone body loose. Eventually, she would reach its magic stone if she kept it up.
But that was impractical. Her blade was too shallow if they took into account the size and mass of the Irregular. And re-establishing her wind that was worn away from mere contact with the Reflection Soldier’s body took away from her Mind. She could effectively run dry the well that she possessed even with Spirit Healing gradually restoring it as time passed.
Aiz should know that as well. There was too little chance of success if they relied only on that approach, and the longer it took the greater the chance for something to go wrong. The Dungeon could respawn more monsters to hinder them, or the Reflection Soldier could get in a lucky blow. Not to mention its breath weapon could recharge and fire in that time. So why was she taking such an impractical approach?
…Lefiya only came to her answer when those golden eyes turned back towards her direction for a moment. Time seemed to freeze as she registered behind them was a wordless message. One that slowly clicked into place before Aiz turned her full attention back to her foe.
‘I know that your magic can penetrate it, so I’ll create an opening for you to take your best shot.’
A soft sound escaped her mouth as she felt the sensation in her lower back that signaled that Vow of Elcos was active. The two of them were connected here and now, on the same battlefield, and she felt the trust that was being placed within her by her idol. She would tear open a path for her to take a shot that would pierce its body and strike through to its magic stone.
“If you’re going to place that much faith in me then I have to do it then,” she murmured before taking a deep breath. She could only respond as a Mage by ending the battle for her. Tightening the grasp on Forest’s Teardrop, her mind began to run through the calculations to make the shot.
The amount of magical energy needed. The trajectory and optimal distance. The best position to make the shot. She confirmed them in her mind three times over to make sure that it was as accurate as possible.
And with that done, the Fairy Sniper moved towards the battlefield.
Level Six hearing picked up footfalls as Lefiya shifted her position, the steps having a sense of purpose behind them. It seemed her message carried. Good.
Aiz had thought that she noticed that her friend had some uncertainty in what way she could contribute for a while now. And she couldn’t blame her given the enemy they were facing. It was the bane of Magic-users after all.
Desperate was a First-Class weapon created by the Goibniu Familia. It had the Durandal property that made it impossible to break, even if it could dull. Even though Aiz herself did not have a focus on the development of her Strength attribute, as a Level Six she was still more than capable of easily cutting through solid steel depending on its make and composition. Her Swordsman Development Ability, the proof of her dedication to the blade, only further refined her capabilities.
And yet she couldn’t cleave through the monster in front of her even with the boons of both her blood and efforts—Ariel and her Falna. If she had the raw strength of Bete, Tiona, or Tione then she could break through its mass for certain. But as she lacked that she had to make up for it by putting her faith in Lefiya.
The Fairy Sniper could output a great deal of power within a single shot. And even with its massive size contributing to its resistance to spells, it was not flat-out immunity. If given a straight path towards the magic stone with her maximum output, Aiz was certain that she could force it through until she hit the mark and killed it.
Thus, it was Aiz’s duty to keep it in place long enough for that to happen on her own. Her awareness of Lefiya’s presence was relegated to focusing on her footfalls until they came to a stop, telling her of the girl’s chosen position to take the shot. So, she performed her duty by keeping its attention as she circled around it and maneuvered it into an optimal position to be fired upon as she felt the quivering in the air—the sensation of a spell being cast along with the song.
That was when things went… wrong.
The Irregular seemed to have sensed the presence of the spell as well, given its burning gaze turned in her direction. Then Aiz felt the wind around her take shape, likely due to her birthright. It was pulling itself towards the Reflection Soldier before becoming rigid and unyielding with a deceptive amount of quickness.
“Lefiya, wa—” Her words failed to reach as a solid, translucent wall took shape around the monster right as Lefiya finished her chant. Light burst from the top of the Thousand Elf’s staff and the golden arrow slammed into the invisible shield, creating a horrible screeching noise as the two clashed briefly with the bright intensity of a miniature sun. The dense torrent of light that was meant to bore through with pinpoint precision was met with an unexpected obstacle, an invisible canopy that threw off the precise calculations that were made by the Half-Elf to ensure the kill.
The spell smashed through the Wind Shield at the expense of its composition, unraveling the rudimentary defense with a hot gale that left Aiz’s hair to billow wildly even as she shielded her eyes from the resulting lens flare effect. But the angle of the shot was bent, hitting to the side and lower than expected. And the loss of power itself meant that, even as it attempted to push through the reflective body and left the impact zone crackling and orange from the intensity, the beam came undone and sent out golden streaks that threatened friendly fire.
One knocked Aiz backward—her own Magic Resistance and wind preventing serious injury. But it was still enough to leave Lefiya horrified as she immediately halted the spell and called out to her. “Miss Aiz, are you all right?”
In response, she shouted out a warning of her own as she got back to her feet and tried to rush towards her companion. “Move, Lefiya!”
Turning its mouth into the barrel of a cannon, the Reflection Soldier launched a compressed ball of air towards the Fairy Sniper. Though Aiz tried to intercept it, she couldn’t before the creature’s ‘Howl’ slammed into the ground as Lefiya barely managed to avoid it upon hearing her warning. But even though she missed being crushed by the sheer force of it in a direct blast, the shockwave it unleashed swept them both up.
Her vision of the Half-Elf was lost beneath a wall of force and debris. The sound of her voice was lost beneath an unrelenting droning. The expanding wall denied her approach until she drove Desperate into the ground and called forth her wind. “Tempest!”
Magic stirred the wind to form a swirling veil to brace against it, allowing it to wash over her while the stone and rubble interspersed within it were guided around her. Then she spread it out, sending the wind rushing outwards to scatter the dust obscuring her view.
The Mage she was supposed to be protecting was nowhere in sight. Her heart stalled. The blood pumping in her veins froze. Color fled from the world as she called out, her eyes rampantly searching amidst the aftermath. “Lefiya! Lefiya!”
There was no response except the distant rumble of the monster.
Ba-thump. The haunting silence began to burn in her chest, a gnawing ache that fed the dark flame within her at the absence of the girl’s voice. Biting down on her lip, the grasp on her sword tightened and her blood began to boil as that flame seared its way through her flesh.
This… this was why she hated monsters. They always took the people she cared about from her. Any bond she forged was taken. Every warm smile she recalled was lost. The bright future that awaited the Half-Elf was stolen just like that.
They all were fuel thrown into that dark flame that had nearly been smothered, feeding it to where it grew larger once more as the thundering steps of the monster’s footfalls shook the ground. She whirled around towards it and her throat tensed as she called for her wind. “Awaken, Tempest!”
Her wind rekindled from its dormancy. No longer mere armor that rolled around her, it instead became a sheering gale that ripped and tore away at the ground around her like countless blades. Bringing her birthright under her control, she billowed it forth towards the Reflection Soldier.
The vicious wind barreled forth as it tore apart the earth and swept it along, lacing the gale that slammed into the Irregular. Like countless daggers, they slashed away at its massive body. The sheer force and sharpness of the wind slowed its advance and tore gouges into its shell even as its Magic Resistance properties eroded the wind.
But that was fine. She could simply summon more. The cost was only her Mind. “RAGE, TEMPEST!”
So she called forth her wind to supplement what was lost. The chaotic wind, born anew, surged forward even more violently. So much so that the previous wave was akin to only a light gale while this was a hurricane-force blast with thousands of invisible swords. The sheer force of the impact rebuked its advance entirely and staggered the giant as the gouges within its body deepened and grew more numerous.
Hate. Hate. Hate. Her hatred was a black flame that grew hotter and hotter as it churned the wind, turning her anger into the invisible blades that would tear it apart. Those flames would grow hotter and hotter until it robbed her of all sense beyond the heat, drowned out all sound barring the crackle of relentless flames, and left the world only black-and-white…
That was when she felt it washing against her.
The soft-touch of magical energy being shed, a great deluge being gathered and pulled along. It felt… familiar. Her unblinking eyes that had become dull slowly turned to the source and spotted as a fairy fluttered past her, covered in grime and dust with her lips moving.
She was singing. Even though Aiz couldn’t hear with the howling wind and crackling flames, she could feel deep down that Lefiya was singing a song. Her eyes, the bright azure being the only color in the world as it contrasted the greyscale, now carried the wordless message that she had conveyed once before.
Then she turned her head forward and started to rush straight ahead. Straight into the path of the razor wind that Aiz had called forth. The wind as it was didn’t distinguish friend from foe. It was simply a surging torrent of invisible blades that wouldn’t hesitate to tear her apart. There would be nothing left of her but kindling for the dark flames to stir her anger, the key to break the seal on her lower back that had been chained down.
A flip switched in Aiz at that moment. She had no choice but to smothering the dark flames with her own will to avoid burning away the smile and future that she thought had been lost. She quelled the wind, stripping it of its blades and turning it into a rushing zephyr as color and sound bled back into the world, white-and-red clothes billowing amidst jade motes that swirled like fireflies as she took to the sky.
Then the final verse of the flying fairy’s song reached her. “—Wynn Fimbulvetr.”
A cone of white mist and blue frost swept through the air as the crackle of rime devouring space billowed forth. Crystallizing every surface. Leaving even the dust that lingered in the air suspended by hoarfrost that could trace a chain to the surface somehow. The spell that harbored the essence of a winter that could herald the end of the world swept forward like a tidal wave.
It turned the crater where the razor gale had buffeted the Reflection Solider into a frozen wasteland. The sentinel that had been slouching within it was encased within a frozen coffin, from where the frost-laden winter chill met with it. The light from above refracted off the surface as the mist rolled down its shell.
A breath escaped Aiz as she exhaled a plume of the fog and called out the girl’s name. “Lefiya…”
Those azure eyes faced her once more with a determined expression. “I’m going to create an opening for you, Miss Aiz. Please prepare to finish it with a single strike then!”
Lefiya had lost consciousness for a bit after being caught in the blast.
Veil Breath and the inherent Magic Resistance of her clothes had protected her. In fact, it was safe to say they had prevented her from being killed outright. But the blast had nearly been point-blank, and she had been tossed around like a rag doll until she came to a stop.
While she was unconscious it almost felt like she had been adrift until she felt it. An insidious burning in her lower back that was so painful and searing that it pulled her from her unconsciousness. Her immediate thought before she remembered what she had been doing had been that Bell had gone mad again due to that knife that Mister Welf had given him, only much worse somehow.
But then she pulled herself out of the rubble she had been entombed under and saw otherwise. There had been a windstorm brewing and the eye of that storm was Aiz. The maddening flame was coming from her, flowing through Vow of Elcos that bound her to the Sword Princess in a similar manner it had her brother.
The Half-Elf didn’t know why something like that was coming from Aiz. It felt overwhelming to the extent that she feared it would burn away something important if it was allowed to run rampant. That the person she admired would be burned away in her entirety with regret and loss being the very thing that fueled it.
“M-Miss Aiz!” she called, barely able to catch her breath before shouting at the top of her lungs. “MISS AIZ!!”
But it was clear that she couldn’t hear her. The wind that was more powerful than anything Lefiya had seen before was also deafening her to the world as the flames grew even hotter. They were smothering her words to such an extent that even if she shouted at the top of her lungs right next to her, they would never reach. And with every passing second the flames themselves seemed to grow more intense.
Yet, that was all that stopped the Irregular from having a chance to counterattack. That menacing wind that barreled down upon the massive construct was stopping it from even shielding itself, tearing apart the wind it could use to form a shield at the same time as it was having gouges torn into its body. Stopping Aiz meant it would have freedom of movement again.
Even so, allowing Aiz to burn herself away would be the worst outcome and she wouldn’t forgive herself if she let that happen. So she had to find a way to reach her and deal with the monster at the same time. She had to cast a spell that could do both, but what?
Wracking her brain as her body felt burning hot, the desire for something to quench the flames drudged up a memory from only a little while ago and a solution to do both. It’ll be a long shot, but if it stops her then I’ll do it.
Rising to her feet, Lefiya poured strength into her legs and rushed forward. Fighting the wind that seemed to push her back as a consequence of simply being on the same battlefield, she instilled within herself the unshakable will of a great tree as she called forth her Summon Burst. Her magic circle shed magical energy freely as she pushed it out, steadily accumulating what would be needed until the gateway opened and her circle turned jade.
That was when she felt Aiz’s attention on her. Even if sound wouldn’t reach her, the permeation of magical energy within the air was something that adventurers such as them became acclimated towards and she was accumulating as much as she could in order to send out a signal towards her. It was when she looked into her golden eyes that seemed to have lost their luster that she could see the toll of using that flame within her and the despair that fueled it.
That despair bred a sense of yearning for strength from what passed through their connection. It was familiar and yet foreign to Lefiya when she compared it to her own desire for strength. She yearned for strength to not only catch up to those who had constantly protected her, but to avoid losing her brother. But for Aiz, it felt like something irreplaceable had already been lost, leaving an emptiness inside of her and a yearning for the strength to avenge it.
That wasn’t something that Lefiya felt she could fill in. Not on her own. But she wanted to help see if she could, if not because they were Familia then to return every bit of kindness that she had shown her. That was why she wanted Aiz to instead give her a chance rather than relying on that flame.
‘Please have faith in me, Miss Aiz.’
She continued her song, fighting to shrink the distance between her and the monster. Since the wind itself was rushing forward she could ride it to get close enough that she could maximize the output of her spell while taking the distance out of the equation. Even though every instinct she had told her that the wind as it was would tear her apart, she knew that same wind could be gentle. So she put her silent words into action and placed her faith in Aiz to adjust it as she allowed it to sweep her up.
The fierce wind cradled her almost protectively as it swept her along, her chant unbroken until it finally petered out when she was at the edge of the mouth of the crater that had been carved into the stone floor from the ruthless wind that had tried to tear the stone asunder. The burning gaze of the Reflection Soldier fixed onto her once more now that the wind had died but she didn’t give it the chance to protect itself as she unleashed the borrowed spell. “—Wynn Fimbulvetr.”
It was the first level of Lady Riveria’s offensive spell. It was said to create cold so potent that it could freeze even time itself. Whether or not that was true, Lefiya would never be able to reach that level of power when she was so far beneath the Royal Elf in terms of ability. She normally constrained it to lines of ice to prevent sweeping up her allies along the path, regulating the intensity of the cold to being just enough to stop the living in their tracks or freezing everything inside and out if necessary.
But Lefiya knew that if she dedicated her Mind to increasing the duration and intensity, she could make it work. After all, she didn’t need to freeze time itself. She just needed to plummet the entire space in front of her into temperatures where everything solid within it was frozen, an exchange that was remorseless in its cost as it kicked aside the laws of thermodynamics to make her wish come true.
Winter’s chill stifled all life and smothered every surface with rime. Had the Irregular been a normal monster, the cold would have invaded every inch of its body inside out and killed it. But the composition of its body on top of its Magic Resistant nature meant that she had only bought a minute at best before it escaped.
Ngh…The exertion and post-magic rigor took root then, a headache already settling in. She had emptied more than half of her remaining Mind to ensure that the result she wanted. And considering what she would have to do next to make sure that this worked, Lefiya was sure that she would be chastised by Lady Riveria once she was dragged back to her afterward.
The voice of the angel reached her before she could show any sign of the toll it took though, leaving her to remain upright rather than slouching. In the face of the person that she wanted to have faith in her the most right now, showing exhaustion was inexcusable. She couldn’t allow herself and her uncertainty to be seen through a second time—not here and now.
So Lefiya only showed her resolve in the face of those golden eyes as she declared, “I’m going to create an opening for you, Miss Aiz. Please prepare to finish it with a single strike then!”
Confusion seemed to be present within her gaze. Miss Aiz wanted to question what it was that she could do. But the Thousand Elf didn’t have time to tell her. Her ears could pick up on the sound of the thick ice covering the Reflection Soldier already starting to crack as it moved to break free of its prison of ice. So she chanted anew her Summon Burst for the third and last time today, waiting until the very end to accumulate the magical energy to cope with the strain of the rigor.
Like she had told Primo and Bell, the greater the chant and power the greater the rigor. It would be painful to push through it and she knew for a fact that she was probably going to be feeling it for the next few days, but she wasn’t willing to let Miss Aiz rely on that dark flame again. She could put up with having aches, pains, and migraines for a little under a week if that was the alternative.
With that in mind, she sang a song of destruction that followed in the wake of three winters. “Soon, the inferno shall be loosed. Creeping flames of war, inevitable destruction heralded by battle horns and bloodshed that resound throughout the battlefield…”
Red, hot static shot through Lefiya’s mind as the surge of magical energy began to eat away at her. It spoke of how demanding the spell she was calling forth was, a level above that which she cast before—the second level of Lady Riveria’s attack spell, meant for wide-scale annihilation. It was so taxing that she nearly felt her own body was turning into a raging blaze as she focused on channeling it into her staff.
She would have lost herself to it, if not for her mindset to be the Great Oak that could weather such an inferno. No, even greater than that was the Spirit Tree that could weather the flames of a dragon consuming it, a testament to Elvenkind’s pride and its resilience despite all that they had lost. That same resilience dwelled within herself, so she latched onto it and finished the spell with pride in her voice.
“Come, crimson flames of the ruthless inferno. Sweep through, avatar of hellfire, and bring the battle to its end. Incinerate all before you, Sword of Surtr—in my name of Alf.”
The magic circle at the base of her feet swelled. The jade circle dictated the range of the spell, overlapping the stone and rime, and bestowed upon her the presences nestled within—of human and monster. With only one target in her mind, she pulled the trigger of the spell. “REA LAEVATEINN!!”
A deafening explosion resulted.
An eruption akin to a volcano’s awakening.
A natural disaster that would spell the destruction of all life within its boundaries.
Calling upon the full might of Lady Riveria’s spell, bathing the entirety of the 37th Floor with columns of fire, was beyond the Thousand Elf even if she expended every drop of Mind she possessed. But if she focused only on a singular enemy and a singular location, then that was different. She could focus the intensity and duration all upon the frozen Irregular Reflection Soldier.
The result was a chant that unleashed a column of hellfire that surged from beneath the frozen wastelands and high into the sky. Ravenous, merciless flames constrained to a singular pillar spouted forth and slammed into the ceiling above, turning it a golden hue as if attempting to melt through it. Permafrost from the three-fold winters that had sunken beneath surface evaporated in a flash, steam violently erupting to unleash a hellish and scalding wind as the area within it was turned into a layer of the Nine Hells.
The eruption knocked away the Half-Elf who had been closer to it. The new battle clothes were well made given that she barely felt the intense heat as it rolled over her with such ferocity that her skin was reddish, even though she was on the higher end of Level Three. She had her suspicion that Lady Riveria had taken into account her choice of spells and tailored them to account for that, so she wasn’t seared from head-to-toe from the superheated air.
But she knew that was her limit as she felt a soft, firm embrace upon her. Her Mind had been bottomed out. Mental exhaustion quickly set upon her as the world was devoured by darkness.
The rest she would leave to Miss Aiz.
Aiz managed to grab the Half-Elf as she was blown back from the sudden expansion of air, superheated from the spell that she had unleashed. Cradling her as it rolled past them, her golden eyes spanned over her prone form and realized she had mentally collapsed. Other than that she was alive and relatively unharmed.
Relief flooded her like a splash of cold water washing over her. But it was short-lived as she heard the droning cry coming from the inferno as the pillar of fire died with the consciousness of its caster. She turned her eyes back to the source and tension replaced the relief.
It was still alive.
The heat of Rea Laevateinn had melted the ground beneath its origin like wax. The Reflection Soldier had sunken within due to being more durable and heavier, submerged in the molten earth until the flames ceased. Now that the hellfire had cut off and the charred and blackened slag around them was still crackling hot, it was pulling itself out of that molten pit like it was emerging from the depths of Hell.
But Lefiya’s efforts were not in vain.
Its polished and reflective body had been burnt black while still glowing hot. Steam leaked from the countless fissures threading its form. It was still whole, but its body had been greatly weakened, and its structure was compromised—reducing its defense drastically.
That was the result of being chilled to the point of absolute zero and then suddenly superheated to molten temperatures. That hard body that resisted her strongest blow before would not be able to do so a second time. Her comrade had banked everything on that to the point of leaving her to finish up.
“I understand, Lefiya,” muttering that as she set her companion down to the ground, she stepped forward and called forth her wind while leaping into the air with all her might. The wind stirred gathered around her sword once more for a final assault.
That was when its burning gaze fixed onto her a final time. Perhaps sensing her Magic posed a threat to it once more, it wrested control of the air that was around it. Instinctive fear formed the Wind Shield meant to oppose her assault—a reflexive defense that had prevented the Mage’s killing shot prior.
But there was no problem. She would focus all of Aerial’s wind into a single point and then pierce it. Resolve solidified, Aiz shot forth towards the Reflection Soldier.
Her ultimate attack was unleashed. Her mother’s wind reinforced her unbreakable sword, rocketing her forward fast enough to split the air. She brought all of that momentum to bear on the wall in front of her—
— and shattered it before she plowed through the monster that summoned it faster than the eye could see. One moment she had been aloft in the air. The next the lance of wind had broken through its weakened body, leaving Aiz standing distantly on the ground as Aerial petered out.
Eventually, the world around her caught up. The air that should have been pulled along roared as it surged past her, leaving her blue cowl to thrash as the wind continued into the distance…
Carrying along with it the ashes of her slain foe.
Chapter 23: Story of Growth – Part 1
“Elio called the forest we sat at the entrance of his current home, the sole resident along with a host of Minor Spirits that followed him around. Apparently, he belonged to a clan of Elves that worked to commune with many, but their home had fallen to the monsters, and he was the only one left. It was not an uncommon tale by any stretch of the imagination.
The Spirits stirred at my presence, it seemed. Like little animals sniffing at something curious they found on the ground, he likened. Something he said that he had not seen in a long time, which I could only presume was more than a hundred years given his maturity.
So, he made me an offer: he would teach me the magic of our kind. Even if I were Half-Man, he felt that preserving what remained of their race, the teachings and culture and magic, was more important. So long as I had Elven blood inside of me.
However, it came with a condition.
I had to part ways with Argo.”
The Fairy Sniper loosed her shot in a harsh whisper as her Elven eyes spotted their marks far off into the sky. Mind was converted into magical power and focused into the magic stones at the head of her staff before launching the magical arrow in the form of a golden beam of light. It speared from beneath the canopy of a coniferous forest and shot towards the ceiling that shed light as though it were a facsimile of the sky and sun on the surface, born of the Dungeon’s memory from before the gods descended and placed a lid upon it.
The marks were a pair of Pterosaurs that had been circling around for some time now. Even as far away as they were, they could easily swoop down and ensnare prey they spotted in the time it would take to count to three. That was part of what made them so dangerous.
Her golden arrow cut through the air and reduced the distance to zero as it pierced through the first’s body using searing heat and force as she condensed the beam into a narrow shot. But the second shifted its wings, carrying it off the original path it had been on. Had it spotted the glimmer of light that heralded the liminal speed at which it flew? Or had it simply shifted itself on a whim and thus managed to escape the beam of light by chance?
It didn’t matter as the backdraft of the near-miss left it to corkscrew in the air before righting itself. By then the arrow had curved around, swiveling faster than the normal eye could blink. The beam connected and ruptured, the explosion finishing it off as the magic stone within it was blown to pieces.
Her task done, Lefiya let out a soft sigh and then took a moment to catch her breath in the nook between the limb and trunk she was on within the massive tree that she was perched in. Her body was running hot and she needed a moment to wind down given she had been shooting down the fliers for a bit of time now. But she was the best suited for the job given her Spells and specialty.
“Lefy!” Her ears picked up her name being called from below and she looked down to see her roommate there, holding up a waterskin. She didn’t have her cloak, only her white tunic with her shawl arm sleeves clear as she waved up at her. “You can come down now!”
The Half-Elf descended the tree at that, bounding down between the branches before landing next to Elfy. Her fellow Mage offered her the waterskin to drink from, and she became aware of how thirsty she had been. It had been a few hours since she had gone up in the tree in order to turn it into her sniper’s nest. “Has everyone finished setting up camp?”
“Mm-hmm.” Her green eyes fixed onto Lefiya as she watched her take a sip before continuing. “Everyone is accounted for, so you guys acting as the advance party can all head back to camp.”
It was roughly the day or so after she had finished instructing Primo. She and several other members of the Loki Familia were on the 28th Floor, just beneath the Water Capital. It was one of the Safe Floors of the Dungeon, present after the floors where the Monster Rexes often spawned, and so the number of monsters present was rather minimal.
However, just because the Dungeon did not spawn monsters didn’t mean they couldn’t wander from above. Or, in the case of the Pterosaurs, from below. Flying monsters could cover a massive amount of distance on their own and she couldn’t risk any of them spotting the small band busy setting up a light camp for what was turning out to be a Quest within a Quest.
Of course, the Quest that Lefiya was supposed to undertake was different from the others. But her skillset made her getting down and helping to clear the area ahead of them imperative, along with some of the others. They didn’t want another Poison Vermis incident that resulted in so many of them being laid up on the 18th Floor the last time.
Lefiya passed back the waterskin and gave her a grateful nod before heading back, with the Human Mage accompanying her. She could only assume that they would have one of the Beast Humans take her place on the lookout. They made small talk along the way. “I’m surprised so many people volunteered to come along for the quest issued by the Dian Cecht Familia.”
The Dian Cecht Familia had placed a request for a cornucopia of Bloodsaurus drop items for one reason or another. The region below was a vast stretch of verdant jungle. The vegetation often grew in layers, from dense bushes to rising shrubs to towering trees, all of which competed with one another for the light shed from above. Numerous fruits and resources foreign to Orario could be found there, but the primordial landscape was difficult to navigate even when you didn’t include the fact that dinosaur-like monsters considered the layer their home.
Since they were familiar with the terrain, and the last expedition had put the Familia within the red, the Captain had taken up the quest. To that end, the original intention was to send out a select few to handle it. But, to the surprise of many, when the call for volunteers Level Three and higher went out, there were a lot more who answered than expected to where they were—treating it as a sort of mini-expedition.
“Well, most of them are the guys who don’t want to be shown up by Cottontail,” Elfy said, shrugging her shoulders. “Not only did he pop up asking to see Aiz after you got involved, but then he went ahead and beat the War Game on top of achieving Level Three.”
Lefiya didn’t know whether to giggle at the fact that her little brother had managed to incur the jealousy of so many of her Familia’s members or sympathize with them because she knew exactly where they were coming from. Bell having a skill that accelerated his growth meant that, realistically, he would be able to surpass all of them in a relatively short amount of time in terms of raw numbers—even if he was lacking in actual skill or experience.
“We’re all Adventurers in the end,” Lefiya said, settling on the middle path. “We can only do our best.”
“I can’t say that I’m too sure on how to feel about him myself considering the peeping thing,” Elfy admitted, looking at her with an accusatory yet playful glance. “And you’ve been awfully close to him despite the fact that you were the one who wanted to chase him off the most back then. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he caught your eye.”
“Let’s just say that I realized I overreacted when we got into real trouble,” the Half-Elf responded, not rising to the bait. Elfy did, in fact, know better. “He means well, but he just gets in over his head at times.”
“I’d call ‘getting an entire Familia breathing down his neck’ a little more than over his head, but if you say so.” She folded her hands behind her head as she looked up towards the ceiling. There was a prolonged silence before she spoke again with a smile on her face. “Still, I guess at least I don’t have to worry about him stealing you away from the sound of it.”
Lefiya blinked in confusion. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing~” Skipping ahead to her own playful tune, Elfy bound into the camp while Lefiya followed until they spotted Bete Loga.
The Werewolf had a perpetual frown on his face as per usual, but the moment his gaze faced in her direction he pointed back towards the bigger tent. “The Old Hag wants to see you. Get going.”
That said he continued along his way, leaving the Half-Elf to follow instructions after bidding Elfy farewell for now. Inside of the largest tent she found Lady Riveria sitting in front of a table that held on it maps of the floors lower than this one, her staff set aside while she held her chin in thought. Next to her was Gareth, who was stroking his beard while similarly in contemplation. She held her silence to avoid breaking their concentration, though she did take a seat on one of the cushions when the Royal Elf gestured for her to do so.
It only became apparent that they were waiting for one other person to enter when the flaps opened and Aiz entered. Her golden eyes shifted over to Lefiya and she gave a small nod in greeting before turning her attention to her superiors. “Bete said you wanted to see me?”
“The Guild approached us with an extermination request for an Irregular Monster,” the Royal Elf began. “It is a variation of an Obsidian Soldier, located on the 37th Floor, and with so few Familia capable of traversing so deeply into the Dungeon they felt we were their best option. Gareth and I were chosen to handle it, but we’ve decided to give you two a chance to deal with it in our place.”
The two younger women stiffened slightly at that. Irregular Monsters were capable of being born under two circumstances that were known. The first was that the Dungeon spawned them, though those were much rarer circumstances. The second and most common was that a monster had devoured the magic stone of another monster. It only took five or so for a monster to display a notable increase in strength, and in the Deep Floors that bode poorly.
“If you succeed, your debts will be wiped clean,” Lady Riveria continued. “However, I will add that it is optional. We suggested and cleared it with Finn that we believe you both are more than capable of handling it on your own. However, if you feel incapable, we would only ask that you keep watch over the camp while we go to handle it.”
Lefiya was silent as she considered the request. She was uncertain of whether or not she was capable of handling the situation if it was an irregular version of an Obsidian Soldier. Their bodies were highly resistant to Magic and her primary contributing factor in expeditions was exactly that, meaning that she would likely be dead weight…
Yet, Lady Riveria had specifically chosen her for some reason. She had never been shy about her expectations when it came to Lefiya as her successor. And, recalling what she had told Primo and how Bete had told her the same, she shouldn’t settle for simply living up to her expectations.
She should focus on surpassing her mentor, not living in her shadow. And the first step to doing that should be to find a way to deal with the problem in front of her. The fact that Lady Riveria suggested her meant that there was one, even if she couldn’t see it right now. “I’m willing to try.”
“Me too.” Aiz added. “Can you tell us more about this irregular?”
The question earned a look between the two elites of the Familia, a wordless message passing between them.
Then Lady Riveria answered her. “It’s far larger than normal of its kind, probably around six meders tall according to the reports. And rather than being black, it has a more crystalline and reflective color. It has also demonstrated a rudimentary ability to use a long-ranged magical attack in the form of a howl that creates a sonic boom. I believe the tentative name is a ‘Reflection Soldier’ for this particular irregular breed.”
The Half-Elf’s brows furrowed as she considered the information. Large as a Monster Rex and no doubt powerful in terms of strength, but if it was on part with a Floor Boss then they wouldn’t be sending the two of them alone to deal with it. She didn’t doubt that they could deal with the raw strength by just avoiding it in the case of the Vanguard and staying out of range for her.
The Magic is the biggest problem, she settled on. Considering that its howl was to be considered a magical attack it most likely operated somewhat like her Gale Blast in that it compressed air and then launched it—only using its throat as a cannon instead of a wand. If I had taken my Level Up then I would have Magic Resistance like Lady Riveria and soften the effect…
Her thoughts froze. Memories flashed. The pendant Bell received. The final clash of spells. The Obsidian Soldiers. She rose to her feet and asked, “How long do we have to complete the Quest?”
“Three days,” Gareth answered. “That should be long enough for the others to complete the request with the Bloodsaurus drop items. It looks like ye got somethin’ in mind?”
“Um, I have an idea on how we can maximize our chances of success,” she said before turning to Aiz. “I believe that there are gemstones that can confer limited Magic Resistance to the wearers found in that region of the Dungeon, in the White Palace. If we can find at least one before we challenge it, then we’ll have a better chance of standing up to it. Can we spend one—no, at least two days searching for it?”
“Ah… that’s a good ideal, Lefiya,” Aiz agreed before turning to Riveria. “May we postpone challenging it for the first two days. If we don’t find it after that then we’ll return to rest before we challenge it on the third.”
The request received a nod of approval from the Dwarf. “Smart, use all your options before goin’ ahead. Fortunately, since Udaeus won’t show up any time soon, access to the 38th Floor and below is possible. My instinct as a miner tells me you’ll have a better chance finding them there, and ye can set up your own camp on the 39th Floor and search for ‘em. We’ll come to pay a visit around then.”
“What will we tell the others about our absence?”
“Gareth and I will tell them that you both are handling a separate request for us and aren’t to be bothered,” Lady Riveria answered. “There’s no need to worry them about what we’ve asked.”
“We won’t let you down,” Aiz told her. “Let’s go, Lefiya.”
The Sword Princess and Thousand Elf departed from the tent, intent on preparing what they would need for the trip. As soon as they were out of earshot, Gareth let out a slight laugh. “Looks like you were worried for nothin’.”
“Who said that I was worried about them?” replied the Royal Elf in her normally unflappable tone.
“If they had chosen to rush into it without askin’ then you would have had them go to the 38th Floor to find those stones beforehand. And if they had chosen not to do it, ya gave ‘em a way out without shame by keepin’ it a secret. No wonder Loki always refers to ya as ‘mother’ around ‘em.”
“…Hush you,” she responded before sighing. It was true that she had some misgivings about the pair and their recent behavior. But this and that were two completely different things. “They might have shown they’ve taken a step in the right direction, but they still have to beat it. As they currently are it’ll be difficult if they rely on a brute force approach. That will be the real test.”
“That’s true,” he agreed. “Still, I think I’ll go check up on ‘em later in. Neither one has swung a pickaxe in their lives. No cunning with stone between the lasses.”
“Nnnn… why is it so hard to find them…”
The whine slipped out of Lefiya’s dejected mouth as she leaned on the pickaxe that she had borrowed when they had gathered supplies in order to set out to the 38th Floor. It had been a day since they had broken from the other group and come further down, setting up on the Safe Floor beneath the White Palace. Though, to call it a camp was overdoing it since there were just the two of them, but it was nice in its own way.
Since they needed to collect gemstones that conferred the limited Magic Resistance they had two options to get it.
The first was to simply kill the Obsidian Soldiers and hoped that they dropped them. They were rare drops, of course. The material component of their bodies were effective as normal drop materials, but the gemstones were rare and far more potent. Add into the fact that they resisted Magic due to their body composition, Lefiya would have had to expend far more Mind to overpower it.
The second was to mine the walls around the floor. Since the Obsidian Soldiers were made of minerals composing the walls, occasionally they formed within the walls. If they got lucky they could find a decent chunk or two and that would hopefully be enough. But there was no guarantee.
So they had settled on a compromise of sorts. Aiz would kill the Obsidian Soldiers around the Floor, given she was Level Six and thus more than capable of dealing with them, while she would mine the wall where they spawned from consistently enough that they likely had the gemstones within them. If they were lucky they would obtain at least one that could be used to help the Sword Princess, given Lefiya most likely wouldn’t be able to do anything against the irregular.
I can’t let her do all the work, Lefiya thought to herself as she rose to her full height and took up the pickaxe once more. Even if the chances of her finding something were low, the thought of doing nothing when Aiz was going around and killing monsters because she couldn’t was something she couldn’t stomach.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Hammering away at the stoneface, Lefiya chipped away at the stone in search of the precious jewels nestled deep within.
Tink. Tink. Tink. The mining in itself was not only tedious but boring to the extent she was amazed that anyone would make a career out of it. But, because of that, she could allow her thoughts to drift onto other topics.
Tink. Tink. Tink. For her date with Filvis she needed to consider what it was that they would do. The Holy Moon Festival had several key events for people to enjoy themselves, dating back to ancient times. The dance that went on in Amor Square was more inclined towards couples, and she wanted to dance there with her if they had the chance.
Tink. Tink. Tink. But she knew the gorgeous Elf had a lot of boundary issues, even more than others of their kind. She considered herself filthy to the extent of not letting herself touch others with her bare hands. Lefiya had been making progress with her, but she wanted to see if she could get her over that hurdle without scaring her away—like at the Spirit Festival when she had tried tempting her into a kiss.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Holding hands would be a good place. If she could just get her to hold hands with her, no gloves or cloth between them, then she would consider it a success. Anything more than that would be too greedy, no matter how she occasionally thought about her beautiful pale skin or her soft lips and how she wanted to—
“That’s no good.”
The Half-Elf Mage jumped at the sudden voice, whipping her head around so fast that her hair could have counted as a potentially lethal weapon. There she spotted Sir Gareth, the Dwarven Warrior having arrived at some point. He was standing next to her while inspecting the rockface she had been working at with an appraising gaze.
“Lass, ya can’t just go at the stone with no thought in mind or else you’ll never find a thing. Each stroke needs to have purpose. Don’t go daydreamin’ in the middle of work.”
Hearing the Dwarf’s admonishment caused the Half-Elf to feel a surge of embarrassment. She quickly bowed her head and apologized. “I’m sorry. My thoughts just… drifted a bit. Mining isn’t really my forte.”
“Youngster’s these days…” He let out a gruff sigh. “I suppose at least ye didn’t get started usin’ your spells to try to solve the problem.”
“That wouldn’t exactly be efficient,” she admitted. Since the gemstones repelled Magic she could in theory simply blast the walls and the stone in question should be fine so long as she didn’t go overboard. But compared to the expenditure of Mind and the area, it just wasn’t worth it.
“Then ye got a better head on your shoulders than Riveria had startin’ out,” he said in an elderly tone. “One time we ran across a place on the surface where gems could be found an’ Loki was lookin’ for quick valis. She got so impatient that she let loose her spell and didn’t consider the fact that thermal shock would shatter the gems an’ bring the whole thing down.”
“I… I… see…” Or so she said. In truth, the undignified image of her mentor unleashing her full might on a rockface after having to sling a pickaxe for Lady Loki’s whims was so foreign her mind refused to process it. “But so far I haven’t had any luck finding them this way. At this rate, I’m worried that the time we took out to prepare will be wasted.”
“It would help if ya mined in the proper place,” Gareth told her as he looked at the ground around them that was covered with broken stone fragments from when she had been hitting away without rhyme or reason. “In this case, consider the nature o’ the Dungeon itself.”
“No matter how many times it spawns the monsters, and they break through the walls, they always grow back, right?”
“An’ those monsters sometimes drop the gemstones after they have their magic stones removed, meanin’ that it was concentrated within ‘em. And gemstones themselves are born when the earth has been placed under enough pressure. What connects all three of ‘em?”
Her brows furrowed as she considered it. Drop items resulted from the concentration of magical energy within that specific part of the monster being coalesced and made dense enough to survive the extraction. By the fact that the surface from which Obsidian Soldiers were born also housed them meant that it had to come about as a result of the properties of the stone and the formation of the monster’s body. If the monsters kept respawning from the walls and breaking off then…
It clicked. “I should try working from the origin point where they consistently spawn and break off?”
Even if the wall broke it would just regrow itself to how it was before. Then another monster would form in it, acting as an incubator that would constantly be pushed aside by the growing fetus. But as long as it was connected to a point in the wall, like an umbilical cord until the magic stone was fully formed, it would constantly be a focal point for the magical energy.
“New stone would put pressure at the base of where it met the old stone an’ was compressed by the Obsidian Soldier as it grows into formation. The body bein’ constantly supplied with magical energy from the walls would be mixed into the base. Smashed all together long enough and it’ll crystallize.”
Her azure eyes looked down at the stone fragments around her and then towards the walls that had given birth to the Obsidian Soldiers that Miss Aiz had dealt with before. The Dungeon had already begun repairing the deepest parts, and it might have only been an educated guess on her end. “The stones that were older would look different from the ones that were newly regenerated because of that, right?”
He nodded. “Well, it’ll still be up to chance if ya find one. I’ll go an’ check on Aiz now before I head back up. Try not to daydream again, else Riveria will hear of it.”
She bowed her head in gratitude at the Dwarf. “I won’t. Thank you very much.”
Taking his advice to heart, she reconsidered her approach when it came to mining. Pulling out steel pitons and using the Strength of a Level Three, she drove into the wall at the spots that were regenerating since they would be the best points to start at one at a time. Then she proceeded to get to work at mining in earnest.
Tink. Tink. Tink. The first hole she dug into bore no crystallized fruit, but she could see the beginnings of where the stone’s hue turned a deeper shade and the texture shifted notably to the touch. She didn’t have a good baseline to work off of, but she gained a better understanding.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Nothing on the seventh hole either. She had to take a moment to actively break the wall where she had driven the pitons in earlier to make sure the Dungeon didn’t try to close them up. A check of the pocket watch she kept showed she had been at it for quite some time now. But she had hope.
Tink. Tink. Tink. She counted at least the thirteenth hole when she spotted glittering silt among the stone. It caught the light coming off the magic stone lantern she had as she peered into the darkness, faint sparkles of light. A push of her own magical energy into it and she felt the slightest of resistance.
A smile came across her face. Now she only had to widen the area she was in. Tink-tink-tink. Tink-tink. Scrape. Shuffle.
“Lefiya?” The soft, bell-like voice of an angel pulled the Half-Elf from the constant echoing of the pick against the stone. She pulled herself from her work and poked her head out of the hole that she dug to see that Aiz had returned. “Are you okay?”
“Miss Aiz, I found these!” She excitedly presented her prize. It was a few modest-sized, unpolished, rough gemstones. “I think these will work, won’t they?”
“Yes,” the Sword Princess acknowledged. “But it has gotten late. You were supposed to return an hour ago.”
“I was?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the silver pocket watch that had Elven embellishments upon it. It had been hours since the last time she checked. “I hadn’t realized that much time had passed.”
The loss of time weighed upon her as she considered that Aiz must have been worried to come seek her out. But, at the same time, she was happy that she managed to find a few of the gemstones they needed. She climbed out of her hole, only to realize just how covered in stone dust she was when some of it billowed out upon landing. Thank goodness no other Elf was around to see her looking so disheveled after being invested in mining, of all things.
“I suppose I should go wash up first,” she mentioned with some embarrassment as soon as they returned to the Safe Floor considering her state. The camping site they had chosen was a modest distance away from the entrance and had a stream of flowing water that served multiple purposes—including bathing.
To her surprise, Aiz decided to do the same. “I will join you.”
Lefiya’s mouth opened and closed as she tried to voice her thoughts. But no words came out as Aiz went downstream and began to strip down. Several emotions surged through the Half-Elf, even as she intentionally averted her eyes from the privilege. It wouldn’t be right to enjoy the sight when it was right in front of her when she was both looking for a committed relationship and perfectly aware Miss Aiz shouldn’t be leered at lecherously by anyone.
The last thing she wanted to turn into was Lady Loki.
So she kept her attention elsewhere even as she followed suit, sinking herself up to her neck within the water. Their weapons were nearby if a monster that wandered from above or below came close by. But, between the two of them, there was mostly silence as they let the water wash away the dirt, dust, and grime of the day.
It was the Sword Princess who eventually broke the silence. “You were working hard, weren’t you?”
“Y-Yes.” She cleared her throat. “I wanted to make sure that I could at least do something while you were out killing the monsters. Did you have any luck?”
“Only a few small ones from the hundreds I killed,” she claimed. Considering the drop rates were low for them, it was probably the best they could do between them. The question now was how they would approach the irregular itself. “Do you think that he’s doing well now too?”
“That boy,” she explained. “Bell Cranel.”
“Oh, him.” Lefiya shifted her eyes over towards the Sword Princess tentatively to see that her gaze was looking upwards. Not towards the ceiling itself, but further. To the surface. “For the most part. He’s had a lot of things to adjust to since the War Game. They also have a new member—an Elven child who wants to become a Mage. I gave them advice on how to train her and took her to get her supplies the day before we set out.”
Golden eyes turned back to her. Then her lips pulled back into a small smile. “Did you have fun?”
“I did,” she admitted. Then she recalled another matter she needed to address while they were alone. “Miss Aiz, I also owe you an apology.”
“For how I used the fact that you were helping Bell to train as an excuse to help me train as well,” she confessed. Back then she had not liked the two of them together, especially because she did not want him around anything to do with her Familia. And in doing so she had used that knowledge to essentially blackmail Aiz into spending time with her. “My reasons were selfish, and I didn’t consider your own feelings on the matter. For that, I owe you an apology.”
“Oh.” The Sword Princess’ expression turned pensive for a moment. The weight of her gaze seemed heavier on Lefiya as well, though that very well could have just been her imagination considering her smile returned. “It’s okay. My own reasons weren’t entirely honest as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I… wanted to understand how he got so strong,” she confessed. It was not an easy thing to do either, considering how she looked away. “So that I could see if I could do the same. That was why I originally agreed.”
Lefiya found that difficult to believe, in a sense. She was already so strong. So beautiful. Graced with a wind that belonged only to her, the Half-Elf coveted that same thing at times. But, from that perspective, she supposed she could understand in a certain way. In the end, it had many forms.
It could be ugly at times, stirring up jealousy, hatred, and envy. It could be a beacon, instilling admiration that one looked. It could serve as a goal post, a marker for one to reach for. Or a benchmark for one to surpass.
“But I had fun helping him,” Aiz continued, her voice gradually lightening in tone. “I wanted to see him get stronger as well. And something about him sets me at ease, in a certain way. I think he’ll have a bright future ahead.”
Lefiya sincerely hoped so as well before the silence resumed.
The calm was welcomed.
Chapter 12: A Transcendent Promise – Part 1
“Once we were out of the city, we needed to get to the next village for safety. Argo said the Kingdom would dispatch their knights to protect the villages and collect taxes, so he knew how to get to them. But, on foot, the journey would be at least two days or so to the nearest one that wasn’t in the same direction that the monsters came from.
My world was the four walls I had been born and raised in. Everything in the outside world was new and terrifying for me. But he held my hand and smiled at me every step along the way. Even knowing that there was a chance the next village could be overrun, or we could be gobbled up along the way, he kept smiling.
That smile kept me calm as I walked alongside him.”
—The First Steps Into The Unknown
“Whhhyyyyy….” An unladylike groan slipped out of Lefiya’s mouth as she sat down in a wooden chair, nestled by a small table with a flower vase that held forget-me-nots within them that basked in the sunlight that came through the window. She was in a small room within the manor that served as something of a study, with a couple of bookshelves that were lined with texts of all shapes and sizes. It was normally a nice and quiet retreat for the more studious of the Familia.
“It’ll be fun, Lefiya!” Tiona said with a smile that was commonplace on the Amazonian as she leaned over the back of a sofa, her feet kicking somewhat playfully while watching as Leene finished her earlier treatment. She had been nice enough to bring her a change of clothes so she could be more comfortable as the bespectacled nurse completed what she started earlier. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a War Game.”
Lefiya preferred whining instead. “But the whole reason we were running was that he didn’t accept the War Game in the first place, because it would be unfair. What was the point of being chased by more than a hundred people if he was just going to accept it?”
A War Game was essentially a small-scale war between different Familia. The differences of Levels, the number of members, their tactics, were all pitted against one another in a format decided by the Gods and Goddesses. Once the conditions were set, all that was left was to determine who would be the winner or the loser, and the wages of the war that would be paid.
However, you could not call it a war when one side had only a single combatant. It was more of a slaughter. Unless you were absurdly more powerful than the opposition, such as the King, there was little-to-no chance of winning in any format other than maybe a Duel. And even then, Bell had only been an Adventurer for two or so months. He had been a farm boy until then, living in a small village in the mountains.
Lefiya could not see any way for him to win as he was. Hyacinthus would slaughter him. She had watched him nearly do so twice already. She could not watch it happen a third time.
Yet, despite that being an obvious fact, Tiona seemed to think otherwise. “I think Little Argonaut will win. He’s beaten the odds before.”
“I wish I could share your optimism…” Lefiya sighed as Leene finished her work. “And why do you call him Argonaut?”
“That’s a story about a boy who wanted to be a hero but kept messing up, right?” Leene asked. “Tricked and betrayed by the King and all of that? He doesn’t seem the kind to be that silly, so the name seems a little misplaced.”
The normally enthusiastic Amazonian’s expression changed for a fleeting moment. It seemed almost foreign on her, a pensive look that came as quickly as it fled. Then she spoke. “Back on Telskyura, there was… an emptiness inside of me until I saw the pages of that story one day.”
For a moment both listeners had immediately regretted prying. The story of the Hiryute sisters was not a happy one. Those living in a culture that bred strong warriors by culling their numbers was not one kind to children.
“By the time I reached Level Two, I felt nothing. Even though I liked fighting, I felt empty after the first time I had to fight someone else. Then one day I just found a mere scrap of the page, a picture of a man facing a Minotaur in words I didn’t understand.”
She brought her hands to her chest for a moment and simply held them there. “I don’t know why, but I wanted to know more about it. Something from deep within my chest told me to read it, so I asked Bache to read it for me. And then, as I listened to it, a warm feeling started filling my chest.”
Silence lingered in the wake of her words as the two considered them. In a place where one would have to throw away everything for a life of combat and to become stronger, discarding everything that wasn’t necessary was probably the only way to keep moving. Kill your heart and become a weapon—a different person than they had ever known.
“It was a small feeling at first, but it grew the more I heard, and I felt like I needed to know how the story ended. And so eventually, when I was asked if there was anything that I wanted, I told Kali I wanted to know how the story ended. And she gave me the whole book the next day.”
Lefiya could only imagine how it seemed. Asked for anything with the power of a Goddess to grant, and your only desire was to know how a story ended. Not a reprieve or anything tangible, but a bedtime story that wouldn’t change anything. It must have seemed like the vestiges of childhood innocence clinging to a warrior who would continue to fight, suffer, and kill.
“By the end, I was smiling again,” Tiona finished, sporting a smile. “After that story, I could smile and laugh again, no matter what. I felt like, despite how dark things were, there would be light at the end if I kept smiling. And, eventually, we had the chance to leave.”
…Speechless. Listening to her story, the Mage and Nurse were speechless. Because they both realized that what Tiona had been given was… hope.
She felt hope when she had no reason to because of that story. Something fleeting and intangible within how cruel her life had been since birth. Yet so radiant that it shone like a distant star that refused to be extinguished, that hope was the catalyst for her to be able to smile and laugh.
Fixating on that lone beacon kept her from being lost in the nothingness.
Forever following it allowed her to smile despite her situation being so cruel.
Then that star became the new dawn of a new day.
She turned around and leaned back on the sofa, staring up at the magic-stone chandler. “When I watched Little Argonaut fight the Minotaur, I felt the same thing that I did the first time I found that story. I want to see how his story goes from beginning to end, but I want to help make sure it’s a happy one.”
“It… almost sounds like you’re in love with him when you put it that way,” Leene said after a pause. Her tone suggested she was joking, but Lefiya thought she could hear a hint of curiosity. Then, to her mild concern, the Amazonian went quiet as her brows folded in.
She was actually thinking about it.
From what the Half-Elf knew, Amazons were the only other race besides Humans that could breed with others and produce children—even though the children would always be other Amazons. But based on what happened in Melen, and with Tione, once they fell for someone they fell hard.
Not to mention they tended to be aggressive in their pursuit at times, depending on the individual they fell for and their own personalities. If Tiona became anything like her sister with the meek rabbit that Bell was being the one in her sights, then… Loki help him.
Because Lefiya sure couldn’t.
I’m too young to be the aunt to a bunch of little Tionas and Tiones, she silently whimpered as she pictured little white-haired, tanned-skinned Amazons running about in the room, some pulling her hair and asking to see her staff while others wanted their parents to read them a fairy tale. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure she’d tear apart the Apollo Familia on her own if they tried to take Bell.
Before she could ruminate further on the horror of who would claim her brother’s presumed chastity, Tiona finally spoke. “He doesn’t give me the same feeling that the Captain does to Tione. It might be because he’s not strong enough… besides, wouldn’t Lefiya be the one in love with him since she helped him more than me?”
Then Leene said words she should not. “Y-You mean those rumors are true?”
There was the sound of glass cracking. Not from the windows in the room. Or the vase holding the flowers next to her. But rather the fragile restraint she had on her self-control when she recalled exactly how those rumors started.
“…Now that I think about it, Raul was the one who told the others it was me helping him, wasn’t he?” Lefiya said slowly, rising to her feet. “Where is he right now?”
“I think he’s in the Ca…” Tiona began until she saw Leene shaking her head vigorously and holding her arms together to form an ‘X’ sign. The message carried. “Uh, maybe he went out into town to get a grasp on the damage done in case the Guild wants us to pay them for your part in the battle?”
“Fine… I’ve got all day to wait for him,” she mumbled, making her way to the door. She could just imagine those rumors being rekindled now. Even when most of them knew her preferences, they’d probably think she was making an exception for Bell because of how delicate he looked. “Not like it can get any worse.”
No sooner than she opened the door did Tione, the eldest of the twins and decidedly more mature inform them about a certain someone at the Main Gate and wanting to speak with Miss Aiz and her. That naturally pulled them out of the room and into the hallway where they found windows facing the gate and spotted Bell there. The guards were currently trying to shoo him away to no avail as the Sword Princess went back into her previous room.
“That damn rabbit,” Bete snarled softly as he peered through the glass down at her brother. “I’ll get rid of him.”
“Wait.” A strong hand stopped him before he could. It was Gareth Landrock, one of the executives of the Familia and one of the very first Adventurers to bear the Falna of the Trickster. He looked out of the window while stroking his beard as he observed Bell. “Those aren’t the eyes of a man who has come to beg for our help. They’re the eyes of a warrior looking to sharpen their blade, wouldn’t you say?”
It took Lefiya a moment to pick up where he was going before looking towards where Aiz had gone. Her brother had gone off training with her before their expedition. She had tried to chase him to figure out why he was doing it and hadn’t really been pleased with his answer at the time.
The Sword Princess seemed to realize his intentions as well since she had already gotten her sword. “I’m going.”
“We can’t be seen taking sides,” Sir Gareth reminded her, causing her to pause in her step. Lefiya considered stating it couldn’t hurt if she went instead, given she was already involved, at least to see him off as far as everyone else was aware. But then he turned the other way and waved a hand. “But… you know what they say—out of sight, out of mind.”
Her golden hair tilted for a moment before she nodded. “We won’t be seen.”
“…Fine, if you want to help that weakling then suit yourself,” Bete said as he turned away. “But teach that rabbit to sharpen his own fangs. He can’t always be relying on others to do it for him.”
“Hey, Tione!” Tiona bounced up on her feet and then leaned on her toes to whisper something in her ears. Then the Eldest Amazonian nodded before her younger sister grabbed Lefiya’s and Aiz’s wrists. “Come on!”
“Huh?” Lefiya was pulled along, stammering for words until they reached one of the rooms in the back. There was a large window there. “What’s going on?”
“He’s here to see you two, right?” Tiona asked while opening the window and standing on the edge of the sill. “Since we can’t be seen helping him, we’ll go meet him where nobody will see us.”
“Right,” was the only answer Miss Aiz gave as the Amazonian leaped down and landed without any problems. Then she followed her with a smooth jump to the ground.
Lefiya sighed before she followed after them, scaling the walls after the other two. Tiona guided them to an alleyway that was roughly two blocks down from the Manor. No one should be looking for them. All that was left was to wait for Bell to arrive.
While she waited, Lefiya thought to herself what she was going to bring up with him when the other two were around. The War Game had been declared so there was no turning back now. Not to mention they didn’t know anything about the terms or conditions. Everything was against him.
Then he arrived and his crimson eyes widened when he spotted her. He ran over immediately. “Are you okay?”
“Better than you,” she said, consciously stamping down on her emotions as she looked him over. His wounds had been mended but his clothing was still stained in ash, dust, and the blood that had been shed earlier. The disheveled appearance made it clear he hadn’t even had time to change his clothes or anything else, meaning he probably ran straight here after going to Apollo’s place to make the declaration of war. “Explain yourself. Now.”
“…That guy, Mister Bete, was right,” Bell said, his voice carrying a hint of steel in it. “I can’t just run away from the problem. Not when it dragged you and the others into it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I just kept running knowing that. That’s why I have to meet it head-on with all I can.”
If he started running, then he would have to keep running until Apollo gave up or someone made him give up. The Gods wouldn’t intervene unless they had a reason to, which would take time even if they did. Even with the rules set into place to make travel in and out of Orario difficult for Adventurers, it was entirely possible to get around that by hiring outside help or some other method.
“But you aren’t strong enough,” Lefiya pointed out, even understanding that. “Even in a best-case scenario, if you go against that guy again the same thing is going to happen. Did you think about how they’d feel knowing that you decided to throw yourself into a mess just to try to spare their feelings?”
“I know.” There was a hint of pain in his voice as he admitted to his own weakness. “In the end, I’m not strong enough to protect anyone and everyone else had to protect me. That’s why I want to be strong enough so that never happens again. But I don’t have enough time to do so on my own, so I came here.”
His crimson eyes fell onto Miss Aiz before he bowed his head. “I know I’m asking a lot, especially after Miss Lefiya did so much for me. But please, I need you to train me so that I can face them. I’ll be in your debt and do whatever you want afterward.”
Her golden eyes softened as she brought a hand to her chest. “You don’t…. need to repay me anything. Rather, it would feel wrong to abandon you. I want to help you grow stronger.”
“And I want to help out too!” Tiona chimed in with her usual enthusiastic voice. All while sporting the same smile as she looked towards Leifya. “Don’t you?”
“Well, I’m already in enough trouble…” She rubbed her arm as she tried to figure out how she could help her idiot little brother. “How much time do you have?”
“Lady Hestia said she would try to give me a week,” he answered.
“That’s not a lot of time…” She frowned when she considered that he would not make too much progress even if he trained around the clock. Not unless they did something absurd like took him down to the Deep Floors and helped him grind monsters after they softened them up. Even then he had only hit Level Two not too long ago. What can I do…?
Before she could dwell on it, Tiona gave her a pat on the back. Considering how strong she was, that was enough to make her stagger forward. “We just need to give it our all and it’ll work out! Right, Aiz?”
Golden hair bobbed as she nodded her head. “Right.”
“I really wish I shared your enthusiasm,” she repeated with a sigh before looking her brother in the eyes. Those same eyes were those she had seen on the 18th Floor, filled with resolve in them befitting an Adventurer. Mutual Respect was due.
If he wanted to get stronger, she should help him. “I can’t help with raising your physical Status like they can, but I can help with your Magic and how to deal with other casters in the morning before you go off to train with them the rest of the day. And I can also see about getting you some clothes and supplies since you’ve lost all of yours, along with the necessities.”
It was enough for her brother to smile at her with appreciation. At all of them. “Thank you. All of you.”
“We’re all in this together,” Tiona proclaimed before grabbing his hand and Miss Aiz’s hand, bringing them together, and placing them on top of her own. Miss Aiz smiled softly. Tiona smiled cheerfully. Bell blushed vividly. “You too, Lefiya.”
“Fine…” Lefiya said gently as she joined in. There was a slight tingle in her lower back, but she brushed it off as Tiona raised her hand up, sending theirs into the air as well to give a cheer—with the Amazonian naturally being the loudest.
“I’ll go get Urga,” Tiona said before running off towards the mansion to get her overly large weapon. “We’ll try not to hurt you too badly~”
“I will go and make sure our usual place is ready,” Miss Aiz said to Bell before spinning on her heel and going off. “Don’t keep me waiting.”
Bell nodded before meeting Lefiya’s azure set of eyes and waiting for them to be out of earshot before he said, “Thank you, Sister. For everything.”
“You can thank me when this is all over,” she said exasperatedly while thinking about the logistics needed so they could train him. Sleeping bags would be more affordable than a room in an Inn, then there were food costs, clothes, weapons, equipment, and hiding it all from Loki without raising suspicion. “Is that fire spell the only one you have?”
“Ah, actually a new spell did appear on my Falna when Goddess updated it before we parted ways,” Bell said. “She had updated my Status after we made the declaration, so I would know where I stand before I left off to come here.”
“I can help you with that at the very least then,” she said before a low growl reached her ears. “You haven’t eaten anything since we did all that running around, did you?”
His stomach happily growled again in lieu of words.
She only rolled her eyes as Bell softly, nervously chuckled. Then she reached into her belt pouch to find the Spirit Nut. Since the pouch was made for exploring the Dungeon or holding potions, it was thankfully durable enough that the contents weren’t bothered by all the activity. “Here.”
“Oh, a Spirit Nut,” he said as he held it gingerly. “These taste really good.”
Her brow rose. “You’ve had one before?”
He nodded. “Miss Eina shared one with me after I got back from the 18th Floor. She said it was to help me recover.”
The Half-Elf’s mind began to run through what she knew. Miss Ryu had shared hers with her coworkers, and she was fairly sure that Filvis had given the one they hadn’t shared to her God. So that only left Lady Riveria’s second one, and whoever that was gave it to Bell. “Did this Eina tell you anything else about it?”
He tilted his head at the question. “It’s an exotic treat for Elves, right?”
“…Sure,” she said after a moment. Either she didn’t know, she did know and didn’t tell him, or she was treating it like Miss Ryuu had and giving it to him as a treat between friends. His love life came second to the current situation. “Anyway, I’ll go get started gathering what you’ll need and meet you later.”
That said she walked out of the alley as the sound of energetic footfalls reached her ears. It was only when she was out of the mouth of the alley that she realized her mistake as Tiona passed her by with a wave. Then she heard. “Time’s a-wasting—oh, that looks yummy. What is it?”
“It’s called a Spirit Nut,” Bell replied. “Do you want to share?”
She sighed once more as the image of little Amazons running around briefly entered her mind a second time. It would probably be fine. Probably.
[-Hostess of Fertility-]
Lefiya treated gathering together the basics of what her brother needed like she was getting ready for a mini-expedition into the Dungeon. The members of her Familia all learned how to pack what was necessary, and she did the same for Bell. But since they were going to remain within the city rather than dive deeply, she decided to take some liberties by getting him some decent food.
It was the least she could do at the moment considering he’d lost everything else and was focusing on a sole objective rather than worry about what would come after. He still wouldn’t have a home once the War Game was done. Not unless the damages were covered in the bet wager, which honestly hadn’t been set yet. And whatever things he owned that had sentimental value were nothing but ashes now.
Once more she couldn’t help but think that she really should have pleaded his case back when he first arrived to prevent things like this from happening. Lady Loki would have probably taken him in as a Supporter or something. Or at the very least she could have arranged it so he would have stayed out of trouble and avoided the eyes of the other divinity who had taken notice of him.
But there was nothing she could do about her own past mistakes aside from learning from them. As for the present, she could support him. The others could train his body, but she could handle the logistics of taking care of him and refine whatever knowledge of Magic he had.
When she arrived at the Hostess of Fertility, it was just some time in the afternoon. The menu had not shifted to accommodate Adventurers, but she figured there was a chance she could order a lunchbox or something for him. The silver-haired Human Waitress was on her almost instantly.
“How is Bell?” she asked. “I heard that he went to challenge the Apollo Familia after they had chased him, but nothing after that. Was he hurt?”
“He’s fine,” Lefiya told her, watching as a sense of relief spread across her features. “He’s training until the War Game, so I’m running some errands for him. He hasn’t really eaten today, so I thought I would get him whatever he normally orders?”
“I still have the lunch that I made for him this morning,” said the waitress. “I’ll be right back with it.”
Lefiya watched her head to the back of the kitchen. The woman seemed friendly enough when the Loki Familia was there, but never to this extent. Between that and this morning, she began to ponder how well acquainted she was with her brother.
“And how are you fairing, Miss Viridis?” asked the Elven Warrior. “I understand that you were taken back to your Familia and given a punishment before the declaration was made.”
So the news made it all the way here, huh? She couldn’t help but scratch her cheek at that. “Well, I was scolded and I’ll have to deal with whatever punishment Lady Loki gives me. But, other than that, I’m fine. My injuries have all been treated.”
“Glad to hear that much. It looked bad when you were carried off by that wolf guy,” another party cut in, drawing her attention to the familiar voice. It was the same Blacksmith who had been a member of Bell’s party on the 18th Floor and joined in the fight. “Yo.”
“Mister Crozzo, are you and the others doing well?” Lefiya asked. “The last thing I remember was you and the rest were still fighting.”
“Calling me Welf is fine,” he said before getting into an explanation of what transpired once she had departed. “Bell managed to get away right after you left, and the Soma and Apollo Familia scattered without any of us getting too banged up. The Ganesha Familia detained us for a bit but treated the injuries we had before letting us go in light of their God stating that the whole thing was to be tied into the War Game. All the fallout will be wrapped up between the Gods’ wager, so us children should just go back living our normal lives, essentially.”
“It’s good that no one got seriously hurt or punished then.” She went through the motions of giving him a bow as she thanked him. “But thank you for coming to help him when you did.”
“That’s my line,” he said in turn. “We were friends, so I wouldn’t have hesitated to help him. But you actually got in trouble for helping out. I hope your Goddess won’t be too harsh on you.”
Knowing Lady Loki, she doubted it would be too severe for a minor scuffle. The Captain, Sir Gareth, and Lady Riveria were the ones who were more likely to issue a stricter punishment for things like that. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Then forgive me for asking this, but I originally came here looking to see if anyone knew where he went to give him some replacement armor and weapons since I knew he was going to be training. Since you’re going to see him, could you give him these along with a message?”
He presented what looked to be a small box that had items within it wrapped up in white cloth. She could catch the scent of metal coming from them, so it was the equipment that he had mentioned. “I’ll take it to him. And what was the message that you wanted me to pass along?”
“Tell him that Lady Hestia is safe with Lady Hephaestus,” he began. “Tell him to just focus on getting stronger while leaving the rest to us. We’ll do what we can to help him, so he won’t have to bear the burden alone. Please.”
“I’ll tell him, Mister Welf,” the Half-Elf promised. “You have my word.”
He nodded in gratitude before heading off. As he left, she noticed there was a look in his eyes like a flame had been lit. Not to mention there was not a shred of doubt in his eyes that she would see the message and equipment delivered to him.
“…Mister Cranel is quite fortunate,” Miss Ryuu noted. “Such an earnest friendship is a difficult thing to acquire in such a short time. Yet, in his words, I sensed no deception or hesitation.”
Lefiya could only agree with the assessment. Though she had only seen him twice, she could tell from his tone that in the time they had known one another he had become close to her brother. A genuine comrade not unlike those she possessed, willing to stick with him through every trial he’d face.
“We’ll do our parts as well to help Bell out too,” Miss Syr said, as she arrived with her basket in tow. “Won’t we, Ryuu?”
“Should my services be required I will assist in whatever manner I can as well, Syr,” the Elven Warrior claimed. “I too wish to see how he progresses as an Adventurer.”
As she listened to her, Lefiya felt the simmer in her lower back for a brief moment once more. But as quickly as it came, it faded. Once more she was left wondering if it had something to do with her Skill, but for the moment she had to see the food and other supplies to her brother while he was training with Tiona and Miss Aiz.
“Interesting,” purred a soft, feminine voice that was liquid honey to the ears of those who could hear it. Silver eyes that stared distantly out of the highest vantage in Orario peered with more depth than any mortal could fathom. Those same eyes were now fixed on the soul that slowly made its way through the city as though following a string that marked a path to an even purer soul than any she had seen since she descended. “Another pair of threads have appeared on that child.”
Her name was Freya. The Goddess of Beauty that possessed the strongest Familia in Orario. Nestled within her room on the upper level of Babel, she was in a world of her own within that dwelling of luxury few could fathom.
“A thread, My Lady?” inquired her Captain, Ottar. He was the sole person accompanying her within her room, standing attentively and ready to enact her very will the moment they left her lips.
“That little girl who was assisted my Bell,” Lady Freya spoke. “Since then there had been a thread connecting the two of them. Then more appeared, all bound to her.”
Bell. Sword Princess. Crusher. Jormungand. Elgarm. Vanargand. Gale Wind. Crozzo.
One-by-one those threads had appeared linked to her. The threads differed in how dense they were, with the thickest being that between her own soul and Bell’s. But those threads represented something that linked them all together.
Something that bound them together from the very depths of their souls, as if by fate—a normally invisible tether crystalized by the Falna into something that could be perceived by her eyes alone.
“Should we do anything pertaining to that matter or the War Game?” Ottar asked. Should she will it, the matter could be resolved in mere moments. The Apollo Familia could be crushed and forced to disband through sheer force.
As for the girl, it was not as though Freya hadn’t attempted to issue a warning against the Sword Princess before. Sending a similar message to the young Half-Elf was not off the table. Just a warning to keep her distance from him.
“I think I will leave them for the time being,” the Goddess of Beauty decided. “This is a trial that will polish his soul further. So long as they continue to do so, I will tolerate their presence around him and allow the War Game to come to pass when it does.”
She too was looking forward to the War Game. Not merely as one who would observe him from the confines of her own room, but as one of the divinities that had come down from upon high to the lower world. Entertainment was something that they all craved and though their tastes varied, no one barring perhaps Hestia considering the circumstances would attempt to impede the games.
Once more the Gods and Goddesses were watching. Not from the heavens above, but the theatron that was Orario. Though some speculated and others deliberated on the upcoming performance, all of them were waiting with bated breath to see if the Little Rookie’s performance would be a comedy of a fool trying to fend off an army, or a heroic tale of overcoming adversity.
Either way, all awaited the tale that would be told.
Interlude 2: The Growing Insight of Three
For a second time Aiz felt like she’d run straight into a brick wall. She’d been tasked with dealing with the last monster that had escaped—a Silverback—when a pungent scent met her head on. The aroma dug into her mind and clouded her thoughts for only a moment, but that still brought her sprint to an abrupt halt.
“Huh…” The sound of interest came from her Goddess next to her. “You can smell it too?”
“Yes.” Her eyes spanned the street, searching for the source of the scent she knew to be the boy that had killed the Minotaur. Her senses, augmented by her Level, attuned to the noise of the street until she heard a single set of running footfall and heavy pants, along with the moonscent—as Loki had told her—tinged with blood.
Then, once more, Bell Cranel came into view as he burst out of a side alley that was nearby. The young boy was covered in battle-ravaged leather that had been sheared and scraped to the point where bare skin and battered metal were on display. Sweat from exertion dotted his brow where strands of his white hair clung desperately.
Aiz let out a small groan and held a slender hand to her head that began to pound with his approach. She didn’t know what it was about him that she was feeling. She couldn’t know how to register it. All she could do was wait for him to pass by her without a word as he continued to flee, the pulsing sensation lessening somewhat as his footfalls continued past her.
“Ugh…” Loki was holding her nostrils closed, so her voice came out a bit childish as she said, “It’s pretty thick compared to at the tavern, huh?”
Aiz nodded as they turned and watched him continue to run until a girl emerged from a side-street and grabbed his hand, eliciting a brief look of shock on the boy’s face before recognition set in. Then words were exchanged, an offer to ‘help him escape from sight’ from what Aiz could hear, before she pulled him into the alley. The footfalls that she could hear belonging to them took them away from the Main Street.
“It’s strange,” Aiz settled on after a moment of thought. “But something about it… makes me nervous…”
“Hmm…” Loki crossed her arms and hummed lightly in thought. “Call it a hunch, but I feel it my bones that sumthin’ about its off too…”
As she contemplated that to herself, Aiz picked up on the activity on the street and how it seemed to have blossomed. People were excitedly talking about an adventurer dressed in leather who fought and slew a monster right in the plaza. She had her suspicions that it was the boy they were talking about, so she approached a pair of children that were in the middle of playing.
“Ah, excuse me?” she said, crouching down towards one of the children. “Could you tell me about what happened just now with a monster?”
The child didn’t hesitate. “It was amazing! This big monster went ‘RAAAHHH’ and tried to squish this white-haired mister with its big arms! But he was so fast, and he had this hammer that had a sword in it! He went ‘swish’ and blood flew everywhere, and the monster went ‘GAAHHH’ and then—”
Aiz listened on as he continued on in an excited manner until an adult called for him and he said goodbye. Then she turned back to her Goddess, who was conversing with an elderly woman. When the woman parted way, Loki cradled one arm while holding a hand to her chin.
“Suspicious…” Loki mused. “That young lady was kind enough to tell me a bit about what just happened. It seemed that boy killed the Silverback with a weapon that could go between a hammer and a sword, or something that he could call back to him even when separated. I’d say it’d be an enchanted weapon, but Cow Tits can’t afford sumthin’ like that. Could it possibly be some form of magic?”
It wasn’t unheard of that someone who was just given a Falna would have access to magic. Outside of a Grimoire it was something that seemed to happen sporadically, with some species being more likely to manifest it or exceptions like Aiz, who had Aerial since she received Loki’s blessing. For all they knew it was something the boy was capable of since he became an adventurer—he did kill a Monster that Level 2s would struggle against the first time she’d seen him, so a Silverback wouldn’t be that much of a threat.
But from the colorful way the boy had described the fight, it sounded like it had dragged out for a bit. That was strange, considering that someone who could kill a Minotaur should be able to kill a Silverback within mere seconds at worse. But, at the same time, she didn’t think it sounded like he was making a show of it when there was a chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
He didn’t seem all that polished when it came to fighting from what she’d seen the last time either. He wasn’t quite helpless and seemed to know enough not to wound himself with the butcher’s weapon he had, but he didn’t seem anywhere near expertise in terms of skill wielding it or when facing off against the Minotaur considering how sloppy his movements were. He’d barely avoided most of the hits and the ones he tried to block had broken through his guard utterly.
That was expected for the Upper Floors—in fact, it was almost what she’d expect from a new adventurer who hadn’t refined their combat skills out of the Dungeon like some of the former soldiers or hunters she’d seen. But against Silverbacks that lived close to the Middle Floors and the Minotaurs that came from the floors below it, that was another story. Simply surviving to the point that you could venture down there would require countless battles, during which you’d build up experience with fighting subconsciously.
So how did he manage to kill the Minotaur then? Her head began to ache as she thought back to it. He seemed almost confused that he’d managed to prevail, or the fact that he had the magic stone. Could it have been that he wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d done it?
Aiz thought back then when their eyes met. She didn’t quite grasp what she heard with the whispers that seemed to give her a headache, but before then she recalled thinking that his weapon was his fangs and his hands were his claws. The primal way he’d cried out as he ripped out its magic stone had been almost…bestial.
It didn’t really suit him at all from how timid and small he looked when not cloaked in tattered clothes, fresh blood, and broken steel. But somehow that was part of what caused her to feel on edge. Not completely, but the sensation that she was staring down a predator for that moment does seem close to how she could best describe it.
“Well, either way, the Silverback was taken care of and no civilians got hurt from the sound of it,” Loki said abruptly, changing the topic and pulling Aiz from her thoughts as the Goddess grasped her arm and pulled it against her smaller body. “Let’s go back to the others, Aizuu.”
“Ah… sure…” She nodded before turning on her heel and following after her Goddess. Bell Cranel was a mystery to Aiz now more than ever, but there were other mysteries she needed to focus on. Other things she needed to do and other people waiting for her.
She’d put the mystery of the Moon-scented Boy to the back of her mind for now.
Freya moaned softly as she cradled her head from the throbbing pressure that nestled itself right behind her eyes, a crystal ball situated on the table next to her. The cloak she normally wore out to avoid drawing the gaze of men and women by the virtue of her sheer beauty laid on her lap, unneeded. She’d rented out the entire restaurant for the moment in order to ensure her privacy while she observed her ploy at work.
It hadn’t been something she’d explicitly planned out. But rather a spontaneous opportunity that crossed her mind the moment that she noticed that Bell and Hestia were out for the festival and in possession of Syr’s Purse. The wheels in her mind began to whirl and she foresaw an opportunity to potentially lure out the one who stole her prize away from her.
After all, many of the Gods and Goddesses were out and about during the Monsterphilia. She was sure that the one who’d tainted his soul with that infuriating color would be too. If they’d come to Bell’s aid when he faced off against a monster within the Dungeon via some unknown means, then she was sure they’d do the same here.
She set the plan into motion within an hour. Her Familia had a collection of many talented individuals, all of whom had captured her eye to some extent. Pickpockets and swift runners among them were perfectly capable of pulling him away from Hestia and the Guild member, baiting him to a suitable stage that would be far enough from any meddling adventurer and freeing the others to act as a distraction—not that she intended for them to harm anyone intentionally.
She’d slipped into where they’d kept the monster and used her Charm to enthrall them after leaving the members of the Familia watching over them senseless. Men. Women. Monsters—the way her beauty ensorcelled them was simply overwhelming and she’d been careful not to be seen while having the monsters act as puppets, keeping the other Familia who would be out and about busy while the Silverback she’d chosen to be her instrument slipped away.
Her headache had begun shortly after that, before he’d engaged the Silverback while donning a coat and wielding a hammer that didn’t seem to suit him at all. For a brief moment, she had a flicker of a scene where he laid broken on the ground and bleeding as his own weapon was left lodged in his chest. It had been faint and fleeting, leaving her to assume it was her imagination of a possible outcome that awaited him.
Really, it would have been expected considering how short his tenure as an Adventurer had been so far. But it wasn’t that she wanted to kill him. After all, it had been so long since she’d felt such a strong attachment to someone at first sight. She should’ve snatched him right up rather than allowing him to pass her by, but she wanted to see him grow from a distance.
Alas, where there was love there was envy and jealousy. For someone to take what she claimed for herself was simply unacceptable. And so, as punishment, the boy would now become the bait by which Freya would find the one that dyed the unblemished color of his soul and laid claim to the one she’d seen first.
She’d use him to find them. Then she would break them. Take everything that was theirs and destroy them for daring to take what she’d claimed for herself while reveling in the carnage—she was a Goddess of Love and War in equal parts after all.
Loki had said that she smelled the scent of the moon on him when they talked the night of the banquet. There were few who descended and held dominion over the moon, thus few who could grace him with their presence—likely being either Artemis or Achelois.
She had her doubts that it was Artemis, even if she knew that the goddess was on friendly terms with Hestia. Not only was she the head of a Hunting Familia that was far beyond the walls of Orario, which Hermes confirmed once she coaxed him into talking, but her Familia’s policies were well-known in regards to men and love. Men were never allowed to join, and those seeking to start a relationship had to leave the Familia behind. The thought that she would somehow bless Bell shortly after his arrival in Orario was too farfetched.
That only left Achelois. She was a minor goddess who had seemingly all but vanished some time ago. Freya hadn’t paid the disappearance any thought until now, given that the woman was struggling to simply find followers and simply wasn’t of interest to her. But considering the circumstances…
Well, perhaps she should put some effort into finding out just where she’d vanished to?
Either way, as her headache began upon dismissing that vivid imagery, Bell revealed he possessed a magic that she had been unaware of. A method by which he could call his arms and items to him. There were magical items that could do so, but she had the distinct feeling that it was magic.
More than that, there as something unique about it. When he called for his weapon, she could have sworn she’d something there. Thin, translucent things anxiously and eagerly groping the weapons from where space seemed to ripple around him.
Her head shuddered thinking about it. And the pressure behind her eyes felt like it was a living thing, squirming softly. She needed a moment of peace and quiet to get herself together and wait for it to pass.
A few hours to settle her head…
Hestia had her suspicions that something was amiss when that silver-haired woman approached both her and Eina by the coliseum.
Not because she was suspicious in herself. But because of the faint trace of a familiar moon-scented fragrance that was on her. It set off warning bells and a sense of dread gnawed at Hestia’s stomach.
Then the young woman pulled out her purse. It was the one that had been stolen from them, only now it was steeped in the scent of the moon. Hestia had realized in that instant that he’d died again, and only learned how once the young woman showed them the a magic stone that had been cleaved in half and explained that Bell had slain the Silverback.
He’d died again. He’d been sent back to that place again. He’d died and returned again.
And she’d failed to notice again until it was too late.
The moment she realized that, Hestia felt her legs lose strength and collapsed onto her knees. Eina had asked if she was okay, but Hestia only wanted to know where her child was. The moment the young woman said that she helped him slip away from the crowd so that he could go back home, Hestia made her way back there without a second thought.
It was there she found Bell.
Light spilled down from the windows to illuminate his white hair that was pattered with dull red from blood. Next to him on the pew was discarded leather clothing and battered armor that looked to be in horrendous condition, silently telling an adventurer’s tale of trials and tribulations. He sat with his face buried in his hands, quietly muttering between labored breaths and sobbing to himself.
She treaded carefully, feeling her heart breaking when she recalled how happy he looked the day he first set out to the Dungeon. There had been a smile on his face that could melt the coldest of hearts not even two weeks ago, sweetly complimenting the young boy eager to answer the call of adventure and become a hero. The moment she came to a stop in front of him and laid her hands onto shoulders, Bell’s arms snaked around her slender figure and he buried his face against her.
“Goddess… forgive me…” his voice came out hoarse and worn. His body shuddered as he wept. “Forgive me.”
Feeling the stinging tears in her eyes now, Hestia didn’t allow herself to cry. Not when he needed her to be strong. She wiped away her own forming tears and then forced a smile as she gently brushed his hair to console him. “It’ll be okay, Bell.”
After that Bell took a shower before he confessed what had happened in the confines of their room. He confessed to her of the Little Girl and her request; his attempt to fulfill the wish of a child who was left all alone. He confessed of Gascoigne and Viola; a husband and wife torn apart by the curse of Beasthood. He confessed of the Dweller and Henryk; an attempt to do good leaving a child with no family left in the world.
She’d listened to it all before peering into his Falna as he laid prone in bed, unraveling what he lacked the heart or mind to tell her outright. The foreign words hammered into her mind of a tragic tale writ with blood and regret, images that left the scenes to come to mind with a vividness as if she was there at some point. It hurt enough that she felt pulsing pain in her skull, but it was nothing compared to what Bell had undergone.
She owed it to her child to accept his story and his pain. It was the least she could do for him. For that reason, Hestia bore with the sensation writhing over her brain, all so that she could learn and could gain the wisdom needed to help Bell.
Taking in his sorrow and grief, his tribulations and triumphs, she immersed herself in his tale. She took in the details that may have escaped his mind, grabbing hold of whatever knowledge he’d taken it and committing it to her own memory. It was only when she’d read his tale from that faithful Minotaur attack until before they’d reunited above that she pulled herself free of the engrossing tragedy…
Only to find that Bell had fallen asleep beneath her.
She looked towards the clock. It was nearing midnight. The entire day had been lost to her, and the moment she realized that the exhaustion caught up to her all at once.
Her mind was weary from the knowledge. Her body sore from sitting in place for hours on end, hunched over Bell’s backside and head angled down to read his story. The allure of sleep was too strong to resist for her as well, another downside to being relegated to a physical form.
Limited as she was to her mortal body, Hestia could only do so little for Bell. How she yearned to unleash her Arcanum and free him from the shackles that bound him to that nightmarish world. But after peering so deeply she understood that doing so would rob him of the solace that her presence would bring him.
Steeped as he was in loneliness and regret, Bell clung to her as family and found meaning in the life they now shared together. He would never forgive himself if she gave up her life here to liberate him from that nightmare. And she would never forgive herself for leaving him in such a state.
There has to be another way to free you and remain together, Hestia thought to herself as she laid next to Bell on the bed and gently brushed his cheeks. I promise I’ll find it for you, Bell. No matter what.
Strength: F-392 > C-601
Defense: F-373 > D-592
Dexterity: I-96 > F-321
Agility: E-487 > A-903
Blessing of Flora