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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 34 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 34: Under the Moonlight

The emotion that swept me up when I began the contract with the Sea Spirit was nervousness. The fear that I would make another mistake. That the magic I was trying to take hold of for Argo’s sake would harm him once more. That I wasn’t worthy of it….

But then I felt its soothing touch on my mind and was taken back to that moment so long ago in the kitchen. The touch of my mother upon my father and the smile she wore. The unbroken gaze that said that everything would be fine.

And all my fears vanished as I was swept up in the soothing embrace of the sea.”

Elio’s Lessons in Magic VII: The Second Spell

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Darkness fell over the camp.

The dense wooded land untouched by the blight spreading from its core seemed to bask in the absence of light. The worshippers of the Goddess of the Moon who’d taken to these lands and founded the temple within its heart were long gone. In their place silence and shade had laid claim to the vast stretch of viridian until very recently, unconquered and unchallenged.

Yet now flames across the campsite roared to life in challenge of the night itself. Laying in slumber during the day, their fiery tongues reached high to the sky as they hungrily devouring the kindling offered to them in tribute by the denizens that had come to these woods. The light spread throughout the perimeter and pressed back against the encroaching darkness to offer comfort to those within its bosom.

Warmth and chill mingled beneath the beige canopy of the Mess Tent. Scattered magic-stone lanterns of a multitude of colors were shining brightly in place of the twinkling stars for those gathering beneath them. Voices chatted animatedly, recounting events of the past, wagers over cards boxed in by plates, laughter, and the clanking of cups half-filled in a celebratory manner that may or may not have been premature.

Bell was reminded of the Hostess of Fertility as he sat at one of the tables. The atmosphere felt similar after ten days in the wilderness with only themselves and a small flame. He supposed it was a testament to how accustomed he had gotten to life in Orario that he found himself feeling nostalgic for the lively atmosphere after a such a short time.

He was flanked by Primo on one side and Lili on the other. The neophyte Elven Mage had been relieved of her duty in helping to prepare the meal and was subsequently rewarded with her plate first, being the growing youth that she was. Bell was pretty sure she was the youngest there aside from maybe a Pallum Mage that was sitting close to a large figure at another table who sported a unique-looking cover over his head with horns sticking out of the side.  An idle part of his mind wondered if the two would get along during their stay if that was the case, given how it’d be nice to have a peer her own age who shared a similar trait.

Lili, on the other hand, was instead tapping her finger against the table as she sat there with her eyes closed and her hood up. He could make out movement beneath it, no doubt a pair of ears atop her bushy brown hair bending and twitching every now and again. She was likely listening in to the various conversations to get a better feel for the situation here, given the oddities that she had noticed and her own suspicions.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a new voice chimed in, directed towards them. It was Welf, accompanied by Mikoto as the two carried plates and bowls in both their hands. The two had insisted that Bell sit and let them get in the forming line to get food for them to eat since he was still recovering, though he’d said otherwise prior to Primo and Lili also insisting and grabbing his arms as they sat him between them. “Hope you don’t mind, but I thought you might want something to really get your energy back after spending all day bedridden.”

He set down a bowl of stew that had a familiar smell to it. Bell took one taste and his face illuminated. “Masalanut… It’s been a long time since I’ve had this. I didn’t know the fruit grew this far out.”

“There is apparently an abundance that grow not far from the campsite on the other side of the mountain,” Mikoto explained as set Lili’s food in front of her. “Since they’ve spent so much time here, they learned how to get the most out of them to conserve resources. I look forward to having the chance to prepare it myself back in Orario for Lord Takemikazuchi and the others.”

With the other two taking their seats next to Lili and Primo respectively, the small Familia settled down into their meal. There was comfort in it, Bell realized as he watched from the corner of his eyes as Welf teased Lili and received a barbed reply in return, while Mikoto and Primo discussed lightly some of the ingredients they saw while helping with the meal preparation. All that was missing was Lady Hestia sitting across from them and watching with a smile and it’d be like they were right back at home…

“Do you mind if we join you?”

He was pulled out of his reverie at the request to find that standing opposite of them were a collection of four Human girls, three of whom he had seen around the camp. The fourth was a somewhat petite while being clad in a green tunic and skirt with thigh-high boots. Her shoulder-length brown hair was somewhat disheveled but kept out of her eyes by a hairband that looked to be carved from wood, embellishments worked into it set against her forehead. Around her waist was a satchel that also had some gloves hanging out of it and she had a pair of glasses that caught the lights above, the glare of which nearly obscured her brown eyes.

“Not at all. Please do.” He caught sight of the Familia Emblem upon the hairband of the fourth girl. “You must be members of the Astraea Familia.”

“That’s right,” spoke the green-clad young woman as she brought one hand to her slender chest. “I’m like you… umm, that is to say I am the Captain of the Astraea Familia—Cecil.”

“And I am the Vice-Captain of our Familia, Oriana Drake,” said the woman with long honey-golden hair with a band in the back and blue eyes, though she didn’t have her spear at the moment. She sported a white tunic and blue skirt that had gold around the band and hem, her figure somewhat more athletic than the others with her height rivaling Welf’s.

“I am Karen Morris,” said the young woman with black hair and eyes, adored in a purple tunic and blouse. She held herself in a dignified manner that gave off the air of nobility if Bell had to put it into words. “May I say it is a pleasure to meet you all in person. I never thought we have the chance to encounter your Familia before we arrived in Orario.”

Bell was surprised at that. “You’ve heard of us all the way here?”

“Our Goddess and Lord Hermes allowed us to spectate the War Game with the use of their Divine Mirrors, whereupon we bore witness to your gallantry. Laying siege to a castle with only a handful of individuals is no small feat, though I suppose such can be expected of Orario Adventurers.”

“Yeah, it was really impressive—at least the parts we could see before you went really fast,” chimed in the fourth and final member of the Goddess of Justice’s Familia. Clad in pink fabric that contrasted that of her companion, she gave off a more casual impression that reminded Bell of his village. “I’m Emma. Nice to meet you all.”

“It’s nice to meet all of you as well.” The admiration within their voices was palpable to the degree that Bell felt a little embarrassed to be honest. “As for the War Game, it was more thanks to everyone else that it was even possible to get that far. I honestly felt a little bad about showing up after everyone else did the hard work.”

“Says the guy who beat their Level Three Captain one-on-one,” Welf said, voice thick with humor as the girls began to take a seat. “Honestly, Bell. You gotta give yourself more credit.”

“His modesty is an admirable trait,” Oriana stated in contrast. “He’d make a fine knight were we in my homeland of Nineveh during my grandfather’s time.”

Welf perked up at that. “Nineveh? I’ve heard that land was renowned for its ore and metals being rare. Even getting it imported into Orario costs an arm and leg. I’m guessing that your Goddess visited there at one point and recruited you?”

She shook her head. “No, it has been… quite some time since I have been there. Instead, I happened to meet Cecil and Lady Astraea while I was on a journey of self-discovery, and we have been companions since then as a Wandering Familia of three, until Karen and Emma joined us relatively recently.”

“So, it’s just the four of you then?” Lili’s question came out blunt as her eyes fixed themselves onto the girls. “A Goddess like Lady Astraea would naturally draw in followers, so she would have little issue recruiting more members to her Familia. Does she have some sort of requirement or preference?”

“Uhm…. If there is one then I haven’t noticed,” Cecil answered with her hands fidgeting before holding the bottom of her bowl in what looked like almost an attempt to soothe her nerves. “I mean, even though Lady Astraea can gather a lot of followers, it feels fine like this. We don’t really have any conflicts or anything, so maybe it was meant to be that way.”

“And what about Miss Ryuu?” Bell asked. “She’s been here for a while, hasn’t she? Are you getting along well with her?”

The Captain of the Astraea Familia’s lips twitched and turned down for a moment. “She… I don’t think she likes us very much. In fact, I’m sure she avoids us as best she can.”

He knew she could be a little quiet and give off an air of indifference, but she was a kind individual. “What makes you say that?”

“Despite our overtures, she remains reluctant to have anything to do with us,” Oriana answered in her Captain’s place. “She scarcely even looks at us or remains within our proximity more than necessary, and I cannot fathom a reason why or if we had done something to offend her.”

“I know she doesn’t tend to speak often, but I don’t think she’s avoiding you,” Bell said.  “I’m sure once the situation has calmed down, she’ll be willing to talk to you about herself. You’re all part of the same Familia after all.”

“She may not think the same.” Karin’s response was leveled and measured. “While we may bear the same Falna, I suspect that she may not see us as worthy compared to our predecessors. More so considering the sheer discrepancy within our capabilities compared to a Level Five such as herself.”

Bell straightened up. “She Leveled Up? When?”

“…As soon as she arrived,” muttered Cecil. “Before she took part in any of the fighting, she just showed up and the moment she had her Status updated she was a Level Five.”

A low noise bubbled up in Lili’s throat before she shrugged. “That makes sense. The whole reason that fiasco on the Eighteenth Floor didn’t end worse was because she basically dealt with the brunt of fighting until Master Bell finished things. And she was one of the Adventurers who helped end the Darkest Days, so it should be expected.”

All eyes turned to her in curiosity as Cecil asked, “Darkest Days?”

“Did Lady Astraea not tell you of that?” Lili took in the inquisitive looks from around the table and realized that she hadn’t apparently. She then sighed and looked over to Welf and Mikoto. “Master Bell and Mistress Primo are new to Orario, so I expect them to not know. But do Master Welf and Mistress Mikoto recall a day of silence that takes place every year a few weeks after Grand Day?”

They looked to each other before Mikoto spoke. “I believe I noticed that Orario seemed quieter on a certain day, but since it did not disrupt my activities and our Familia was settling in, I paid it no mind.”

“And I was in probably in the forge at the time, so I wouldn’t have noticed.”

She took those answers for what they were and explained. “Lili won’t go into too many details, but seven years ago, Orario was under siege by Evilus for seven days. In that time, thousands of people died by the end of it—adventurers, civilians, children. They attacked everyone, with even the Freya and Loki Familia’s strongest being beaten back. All most of us could do was huddle up and pray that Orario was still standing by the end.”

It sounded almost like a tall tale that the city that had been founded at the start of the Age of the Gods could have been brought so low. Yet, as he looked into her eyes, Bell could see that she was being sincere. There were no falsehoods even as she described a nightmare.

“…I heard that Orario held enormous military potential due to their Adventurers being so powerful and their Familia being rather large,” Oriana said even as she took that information in. “Even I have heard that the Loki Familia and Freya Familia are considered the strongest factions in the Lower World. So how could such a thing have occurred?”

“Part of that was because Evilus used some really underhanded tactics that Lili doesn’t want to recall, but the other reason was because there were Level Sevens among Evilus’ ranks.” She paused before looking down at her fork in silence, as if weighing the next words that would come out. “Specifically, two survivors of the Zeus and Hera Familia that were responsible for killing Behemoth and Leviathan respectively.”

It was as if a bitter cold had seized their throats. The heroes who had completed two of the three Great Quests. Thousands dead. Bell opened his mouth to try to find words but all he could force out was a small, “…why?

“I don’t know.” Lili slowly reached up and scratched the back of her head. “Maybe they had a grudge because of how the Freya and Loki Familia kicked them out after they failed the final Grand Quest. It isn’t an uncommon tale, not unlike how Lady Hestia had the Apollo Familia dissolved. But they came in and helped Evilus until the final day, when Ottar defeated the Zeus Familia member outside of Babel, while the members of the Astraea Familia defeated the Hera Familia member within the Dungeon.”

Silence followed afterwards. For the Hestia Familia it was due to the fact that something so terrifying had taken place before the majority had arrived, the very streets they walked through without a second thought having once been baked in flames and covered in blood. For the Astraea Familia, the knowledge that their predecessors played a part in preventing that as well was…

“…To best a Level Seven and bring an end to a nightmare such as that even when the difference must have been astounding,” Oriana said slowly, breaking the silence with a tense expression. “If she went through such an experience with her comrades then to her, we must certainly appear unfit to bear the same emblem as such fine warriors.”

“I can’t say I know if she feels that way or not,” Lili answered back. “But if you intend to head to Orario with Lady Astraea’s Blessing on your backs then you need to know many will compare you to your predecessors. Perhaps your Goddess chose not to tell you so that you wouldn’t be burdened by the fact that no matter what you do you’ll probably never be able to live up to it in their eyes.”

Welf gave her a sharp look. “Hey, that’s going a bit far, isn’t it?”

Lili shot right back with a glare of her own. “Would you prefer that no one told them, and they walked in with their heads held high, only to be surprised when people whisper behind their backs? If they can’t handle knowing that much, they can get out now before people laugh at them for being unable to live up to those standards.”

Would it have been crueler to let these young women walk into Orario with the legacy of their predecessors unknown so they wouldn’t be burdened with it? Or was it better to rip the bandages off now and let them know just what they would have to live up to. Bell supposed he had also been lucky in a way since he and Hestia were one another’s first. But did that mean he was leaving such a high standard for whoever was going to replace him when he eventually had to step down as Captain?

“…Don’t look down on me.” The quiet but firm voice of Cecil spoke up. Bell turned to see her expression was unflinching and resolved. “I didn’t follow Lady Astraea because I cared what others think. I might not be on par with my predecessors or even that Elf, but I’ll still carry on with my head high if I can follow the same path as her.”

“That’s right,” Oriana followed up. “Lady Astraea herself told me that I can only walk my own path to the destination I seek. Not that of my parents, my grandfather, or even the path she walks. But right now our paths are crossing and I intend to walk it along it regardless of what others might think.”

Karin crossed her arms and held her head high. “I was inspired to become an Adventurer because I once saved by one. Lady Astraea has granted me the opportunity to do so. If I was afraid of living up to expectations others forced upon me then I would have remained back home.”

“Then do you intend to return to Orario when this matter is settled?” Mikoto asked.

Emma was the one who answered this time, her expression turning slightly downcast. “We were actually heading that way when the current situation occurred. Since then, we’ve been here dealing with the Black Scorpions….”

Trailing off as she bit her lower lip for a moment in thought, she then reached below the table and pulled out a photograph. “By any chance, would you have seen this person there?”

As the others shook their heads, Bell looked at the photo that showed her, albeit maybe a few years younger, standing alongside a slightly older woman with purple eyes and long, flowing hair the same hue. She wore a plain blouse that fell to a pair of pants and was embracing the younger Emma in an affectionate hug while smiling.

He recognized her as a memory flashed in his mind at that moment. “I saw this woman not too long ago. Who is she?”

“She’s my older sister, Sophia,” Emma explained. “She was my only family in the village and went to Orario a year ago to support us. But we lost contact with one another. Where did you see her, if I can ask?”

“On the Seventh Floor of the Dungeon.” He looked to the others in his Familia. “Remember that I mentioned seeing a woman when we heard the screaming, and she was gone when I went back to get their equipment?”

“The one who had the good sense to run from a Monster Parade in the making,” Lili confirmed. ”Did you spot her Familia Emblem? If you can describe it, then I might be able to recognize it.”

“I didn’t since I was in a rush to make sure the others were okay.” He then turned back to Emma. “I don’t know which Familia she belongs to, but it was only about ten days ago since then. I’m sure she’s still fine, and if I see her again, I’ll tell her you’re still looking for her.”

Emma breathed out a heavy breath she had been holding in without realizing it as she pressed the photo to her chest. Karen’s hand settled on her shoulder, which drew her pink eyes over to that of her Familia. They were smiling on her behalf as something unspoken passed between them.

Dinner continued afterwards until they had finished. The women of the Astraea Familia had taken the girls to join them in the bath along with the other women of the Hermes Familia. That left Welf to say that he was going to go back to finish at the forge, leaving Bell on his own to wander around the camp once more. He didn’t have a destination in mind, but he did want to find and speak with Artemis since he hadn’t seen her since he’d awoken…

UWAGH!” “GAH!” “BUGBH!

The sound of pained cries being cut short drew Bell’s attention towards one of the camp’s exits, whereupon he found scores of bodies laid out belonging to members of the Hermes Familia. They were strewn about before the Elven Warrior as Miss Ryuu stood there with her arms crossed. Her piercing eyes then turned upwards towards him. “Mister Cranel. I trust you were not part of the machinations of these deviants?”

“I was just on a walk looking for Lady Artemis when I heard noise.” His eyes skimmed over the unconscious bodies of the gathered Adventurers. They didn’t look hurt exactly, so it wasn’t a struggle—or at least not much of one. “What happened?”

“I caught them planning to spy on the women in the bathing area while I was on patrol.” Her eyes turned towards one body that Bell recognized was Lord Hermes by his inhumanely handsome facial features that remained spotless even while he was unconscious.

His mind immediately flashed back to the Eighteenth Floor, whereupon he had been roped into something similar. Then he found himself feeling numb towards seeing that particular divinity lying face-down in the dirt. “Lady Artemis isn’t bathing with the others, is she?”

Ryuu lightly shook her head and gestured off in a direction with her hand. “There is another campsite not far from here. You will find her there.”

“Thank you.” Bell made towards that direction before he paused in his step. “Miss Ryuu… the other members of the Astraea Familia think that you’re avoiding them because you dislike them. That isn’t true, is it?”

“…I am avoiding them, though it is not out of malice or disdain,” she admitted after a pregnant pause that was followed by her shifting her gaze down to her own hands. “It would not do for a blacklisted Adventurer to associate with those girls who will embody the ideals of justice. What would they think if they knew that a violent criminal bore the same blessing as them on their backs?”

The bloodstained legacy left behind by the Gale was that of a murderous rampage against not only the remnants of Evilus, but anyone she thought had been associated with them by her own admission back at the grave markers on the Eighteenth Floor. She had begged her Goddess for days to leave so she wouldn’t see the monster she had become in seeking to take revenge. She had even earned a bounty on her head for her actions back then, so how would this new generation of those who would follow the same ideals of justice that she once idealized react to such a person if they knew the truth?

“I don’t know how they’d feel about who you used to be, but…” Bell licked his lips as he said what came to his mind. “I think that they want you to see them as companions who are worthy of being members of the same Familia. The person you are right now…  who helped me time and again without asking for anything… who helped that girl back in the Grand Casino… and then came when they needed you the most without a second thought, is someone they see as being worthy of respect.”

Her sky-blue eyes turned to the ground as her hand came to her chest. “…I will keep that in mind, Mister Cranel.”

And with that the conversation ended as she walked off, going back on her patrol while leaving the scores of Hermes Familia members on the ground. Bell couldn’t say whether they would get closer by the end of things, but for Bell Familia meant being family. Even if not bound by blood then by ideals, and while he knew what she had done in the past he didn’t know that Ryuu—only the one in front of him who still carried a sense of justice within her heart.

That done, Bell made his way out of the campsite in the direction that she indicated. The woodlands were rather dark considering the firelights stopped at the perimeter of the encampment, but his perception had gotten a lot better since he had become an Adventurer. He could make out of the scurrying of nocturnal wildlife even as he intruded upon the domain, a visitor in these unclaimed woodlands which the crescent moon itself shone down upon.

Hmmm. Hmmm. Hn. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hn.

Eventually, his ears caught the humming of a heavenly voice that undeniably belonged to Lady Artemis. He followed it through the woods, heading through the brush until he finally came across signs of a well-traveled path that had been slowly reclaimed by nature. He jumped over a brook from which water came trickling through with the argent rays of the moon reflected off the surface as they carried on their way downstream without pause.

And finally, his trek came to an end as he broke past an opening in the tree line to a clearing that was bathed in the moonlight. The shadows of the dense canopy refused to tread past the reach of the branches as a tree within the center of what had once served as a small base camp had been broken in half from something massive crashing into the upper half from the look of how it had been snapped. The trunk was riddled with holes from where it had been shot by arrows, with there still having one nestled within it with fletches from local bird feathers.

The Goddess of the Moon sat at the foot of it. The Divine Spear was perched next to her, resting in a slouch against the tree as it caught the sheen of the moonlight upon it. And in her lap was the Blade of the Hearth, which she slowly stroked her fingers across the flat of while humming to herself. At least until she turned her emerald gaze in his direction. “Orion.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting you, Lady Artemis,” Bell said as he approached her. “I wanted to make sure that you were okay after what happened.”

“I was unharmed thanks to your efforts,” she said. “But you were left in quite a bad state. Are you well enough to be walking on your own?”

“Aside from being a little sore, I’m just fine,” he assured her. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

A light hum bubbled up in her throat. “You know… she said that you would act like that. That you would put on a smile and say not to worry about you, even after experiencing all that pain and suffering for someone else’s sake.”

“You mean Lady Hestia?” He tilted his head in curiosity as the Goddess merely shook her head. Then she held out the onyx knife. Divine script flickered across the broad side of it momentarily, as if in greeting.

“To think that Hestia would prepare a weapon similar to myself.” The smile that came across her face seemed so sad. “It seemed that even without realizing it we shared many of the same thoughts.”

Bell’s breathing hitched for a moment as his rubellite eyes locked onto the bequeathed blade and her words clicked into place. “You mean it’s a divine weapon?”

“Or something similar to one,” Artemis explained. “I can’t imagine how she had such a thing crafted within the rules that bind the divine into place in the Lower World, but it doesn’t change the fact that I could feel a kinship within it. Since then, I’ve been listening to her tell me of the various trials you’ve overcome… she’s quite proud of you.”

He scratched his cheek at that, not quite sure how to process the information he had just been given. He had known the Blade of the Hearth was special, but he didn’t know it was a Divine Weapon. It couldn’t have been cheap either, leaving him to wonder if she had taken on a massive debt for his sake. He gingerly took it back when offered and then watched as she rose to her feet and turned her attention to the arrow lodged into the tree.

“Callisto always did have a bad habit of not gathering all of her arrows up…” The Goddess of the Moon gently brushed her hand over the shaft before plucking it out. “I would tell her so many times not to leave them around, but she’d always insist that even if she ran out of arrows, she’d just beat the monsters to death with her bare fists because she was an Amazon.”

Bell recalled the name as being one of her children that the Goddess had mentioned in passing until then. “Do you want to tell me about her?”

“She’s a bit of an odd one as far as Amazons go,” she said, looking up at the moon above while turning the arrow in her grasp. “We first met when she had gotten herself in over her head against a monster when I was out hunting away from my children. Before I could even ask if she was okay, she swore herself into my service and from then on, she would often bump heads with Rethusa. A lot of them thought that she would eventually leave, but she never did.”

“Was it because she was an Amazon?” Bell guessed. Amazons were biologically and culturally among those who were driven to seek out strong partners to have children with. Bell had heard many tales about how warriors who earned their eyes would be chased after by them relentlessly, though his own interactions with Miss Tiona were mostly friendly and the moments between sparring they’d spent talking about different heroic tales they knew.

Artemis nodded. “As a Goddess who presided over chastity and would have anyone who sought a relationship leave the Familia, it’s natural to assume that an Amazon would part ways. But she never showed an interest in any of the men we came across. She even joked that Lante thought more about romance than she did.”

Lante was her Vice-Captain from what Bell knew, a Half-Elf like his sister. From the previous stories she had talked about featuring her Familia, it seemed that she wasn’t as magically inclined as Lefiya. Instead, she fought with a straight sword and bow for either supporting the others from the backline as an archer or a frontline fighter depending on which was needed.

“She got along well with Phigenia,” Artemis continued. “Since she was the only Healer in our group, Phigenia was always worrying herself anytime Callisto got injured. She’d always tell her that it’d take a lot more than a few scrapes to put her down, only to be lectured she shouldn’t be getting any scrapes if possible. Despite being the younger of the two, it was almost like an older sister fretting over her younger one for being reckless.”

“I can see that somehow,” Bell said, even as he suddenly pictured Miss Eina and his own sister lecturing him whenever he got into a little trouble over the last month. He knew they meant well, so he always listened to them and hated that he got them upset enough to lecture him in the first place. But, at the same time, he felt there was an undercurrent in her tone that held a familiar weight to them.

An air of loneliness.

“…It’s strange,” Artemis’ voice pulled his attention back to her. “Up above, I was an unchanging Goddess of Chastity who shunned relationships. Yet, in the short time I spent down here, among you children that live so ephemerally, I feel as though I’ve changed so much just watching all of you live your lives to the fullest. That a pillar of the heavens could be changed even a bit by spending time with you all…. truly, the Lower World is filled with unknown possibilities.”

I think a short amount of time might be a matter of differing perspective between the two of us, Bell thought to himself. After all, for a mortal, what was a significant portion of their lifetime could easily be seen a slight blink of the eye to the immortal. But the fact that something eternal could be influenced by something so ephemeral was part of what Bell feared the most. More so considering he was starting to piece together the facts. “Lady Artemis?”

Her emerald gaze shifted over to him from the moon. “Yes, Orion?”

“Your children…they’re still waiting for you to get back to them, aren’t they?”

Her eyes closed before she turned to face the ground. Then a small smile came across her face before she scooted over enough to where their bodies were touching and then leaned her head on his shoulder. “That’s right. All my children are waiting for me to return to them even now. But we’ll be together once more soon enough.”

The unsettling feeling that Bell felt found root. The fondness in her tone as if reminiscing of times that had long gone and would never return. The absence of them within the camp. Her Familia were most likely already dead.

He could only imagine the pain she must have been in. The children she had taken on as her family, that she watched lived their lives to their fullest and committed their every word and acts to memory, were no longer among them. And from her tone alone he could easily infer she intended to head back to Heaven to join them once the threat had been dealt with.

Orion… would you give me a final memory to treasure?” she asked in a soft, honeyed voice that made his heart skip a beat all of a sudden.

“If it’s something I can do…” He tensed up slightly as her arms came down and wrapped around his own, embracing him as they held the limb firmly between her bosom. “L-Lady Artemis?”

Treat me like a woman,” she asked, leaning more of her body against him. “I want to experience how wonderful love feels.

Bell’s throat felt dry at how warm and soft to the touch as she pressed up against him, lips pursing for a kiss. He still had his reservations about having one the divine holding affection towards in such a manner to be honest. But he recalled Hestia’s words on the night of the Holy Moon Festival, that he had to at least refute her not because she was a goddess but because he wasn’t sure if he felt that way about her—

BOOM!

— but before he could tell her otherwise the night sky was overwritten with an expanse of lights that began to dot the firmament. It was as if someone had pulled the stars from the Heavens close to earth where they could be seen unobstructed and in all their radiant glory. Yet the sight only filled Bell with a single sensation.

Dread.

“…We’re out of time,” Artemis said as she shifted her focus to the presence of those looming stars, hanging above their heads like the Sword of Damocles and waiting to fall at any single moment. She released him and rose to her feet, grabbing the Divine Spear. “Orion, get us back to the campsite as soon as possible.”

Her declaration had given Bell something to direct his attention from the overhanging dread. He scooped her into his arms and booked it back to the campsite as quickly as possible, which was to say at an impressive gait, arriving to see that the other Adventurers were already gearing up for conflict as they moved with purpose and indistinct chatter while being directed by the God of Travel as the Goddess of Justice and Hearth stood close by the exit with their few children.

“Hestia! Astraea!” Artemis called out as they came to a stop, the wind following behind them in a gale that rolled through the grass and left it shivering as the firelight danced fiercely for a moment before settling back down. “Antares is on the move.”

“The scouts stated that a new swarm of its spawn are currently leaving ahead of their spawn schedule,” Astraea said softly. “Moreover, rather than drifting out everywhere they’re heading towards our campsite.”

“It’s strange though,” Artemis said. “It shouldn’t have enough control yet to unleash it across the entirety of the Lower World.”

“Because it doesn’t need to stretch across the entirety of the world,” Hermes chimed in. “I just received a message that the monsters in the Dungeon have suddenly begun pushing up towards the surface from the lower floors.”

“But that wouldn’t do anything on its own, right?” Hestia asked. “Ouranos’ prayers are keeping the lid sealed shut to prevent them from emerging in hordes like that. And the other Adventurers are there to stop those that do try to come out.”

“Yes, but its expanding—” Hermes gestured up to the sky that was being lined with shining stars. “We were too hopeful in thinking it would try to hold out until it could blanket the entire Lower World. All it needs to do is stretch it across the continent so that it can reach Orario and then unleash them all at once.”

Bell, who had been listening to the divinities, tensed up as he recognized the threat from both the destruction that had befallen the land they’d flown over and the pain he’d experienced. “It would return to how it was before the Age of the Gods then. That’s what you mean, right?”

He nodded. “The strongest of Adventurers and most of the Gods and Goddesses in the Lower World are here in Orario, or on the main continent. It might spare those in distant lands, but once the lid on the Dungeon is unsealed replacing it won’t be easy. And that’s not even counting the sheer loss of life.”

“Had things gone to plan we could have cleared it like we would the Dungeon with the children,” Astraea noted. “But with most of those forces aiming towards this camp, I suspect that the amount remaining within the Temple will be minimal. If that’s the case, we can use that chance to have a small force proceed inside and kill Antares before it can go through with it.”

“Not ideal, but it’ll have to do.” Hermes looked over to the Hestia and Astraea Familia. “Bell and Welf, I’ll need you two to accompany me into the Temple with Asfi. Astraea, we’ll also need to borrow Miss Gale.”

The Goddess turned her attention the Elven Warrior. “Ryuu, I’ll trust you to keep them safe. But keep in mind Emma will need to have her Skill active.”

“I understand, Goddess,” Ryuu answered before turning back to the other members of her Familia. “I’ll… be counting on you to look after Lady Astraea. Please.”

Whether it was the fact that she was admitting to placing her faith in them or that she spoke towards them without prompt, the girls quickly got over their shock as Cecil reaffirmed their resolve aloud. “Of course! We won’t let anything happen to our Goddess!”

“What about us?” Mikoto asked.  “We can’t just leave the most perilous task to these two alone.”

“My children can form a defensive net and focus down the strongest of the monsters, preventing them from doubling back, but chances are the smaller ones will slip through the net,” Hermes said. “Those will have to be confronted by you children. And, if the worst happens and Hestia should be sent back up, the Divine Spear and a Crozzo Magic sword don’t necessitate the user having a Falna to work while I’ll also be on hand to immediately convert their blessing if needed.”

The answer wasn’t met with glowing excitement. Lili began to argue why she should be brought along. Primo looked terrified at the sudden weight being thrust on her shoulders. And he could tell Mikoto didn’t also relish the thought of leaving them to venture into such a dangerous unknown either.

But they didn’t have time for that. “Lili, I need you here.”

The Pallum turned her attention back to him. “But Master Bell—”

“With so much going on, they’ll need to be able to coordinate what’s happening while the battle is waging. And we’ve never worked with the Astraea Familia before, so we need someone adaptable. There’s no one better suited for that role than you.”

She looked as though she wanted to say something until she saw his eyes pleading her to be here for his sake. He couldn’t deal with the current threat if he was worried about his goddess all the time. “… If that’s what Master Bell desires, then fine.”

“Thank you.” He then turned his attention to Mikoto. “Your Skill can track these monsters too, right?”

“Once I’ve laid eyes on one, I’ll be able to,” she confirmed.

“Then I’ll leave it to you to make sure that none of them will be able to sneak up on Lady Hestia or Lady Astraea.” He then turned his attention back to the Elven Mage, clutching onto her Oaken Staff nervously. “Primo, I know it’s a lot to ask all of a sudden, but I’ll be trusting you to protect Lady Hestia.”

“But I can only use my Magic three times,” she admitted. “And what if it isn’t strong enough? What if I make a mistake, or…”

“It’s okay,” Bell told her. “Remember what Lefiya said that day in the Guild Room. You need to become a Mage that can surpass even Lady Riveria. And the first step is to have confidence in yourself and the ability of your Magic to protect our Familia. Okay?”

“…Okay.” She nodded to herself. “I will protect Lady Hestia, Captain.”

He gave her a smile before turning to Hestia, who had gone over to Artemis and was embracing her in a crushing hug. If he had the right of it, Artemis intended to return to Heaven when this was over, so it would likely be the last time they spoke to one another for a long time.

I wish I could have spent more time with you, Hestia,” Artemis told her dearest friend. “I didn’t want this to be the last time we spoke with each other. That you’d be the one seeing me off like this…

It’ll be okay,” Hestia said in a bittersweet voice even as she seemed to fight back tears. “We’ll meet again someday and pick up right where we left off, like we never split apart. You’ll see.

“…You’re right.” She pulled away slowly and forced herself to smile. “Until them.”

Hestia nodded before turning her attention to Bell. “Bell…”

“Yes, Goddess?”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “No matter what happens… No matter how hard it is, I want you to remember that you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re doing what you have to save everything that Artemis and I want to protect. Remember that, okay?”

He didn’t understand it fully. If he did, he would have known just why the Goddess of Justice and God of Travel averted their eyes at that moment. But he understood that she was trying to reassure him that he was doing the right thing.

And that was enough for the moment. “I’ll remember that, Goddess.”

“…Then arm yourself let’s go,” Hermes said as he adjusted the brim of his hat over his eyes. “The time has come to slay the Black Scorpion.”


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 33 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 33: The Dead Forest

Elio took his time instilling in me the basics of medicine. How the body worked. How it ailed. How it mended. The physical difference between Human and Elf. The reason he gave was that knowing the body was essential to tend to injuries more efficiently since healing magic rushed what nature could do naturally, so it had too many ways it could go wrong and end the life it was meant to save.

 

Naturally, I was almost afraid to forge a contract with the Sea Spirit that lingered in his care by the time the lessons were done.”

Elio’s Lessons in Magic VI: Harmful Healing

[-|-|-|-]

The next three days of travel were a somber affair.

Now that the Hestia Familia had a full scope of their assigned task the levity of the journey had vanished. It had been replaced with silent tension, borne from the collective doubt, fear, and uncertainty of the knowledge they’d received. It wasn’t every day that you learned that failure would mean letting one of the greatest evils known to history back out into the world—a black monster that had been in existence since before the Age of the Gods.

Not helped was how Bell felt something about Lady Hestia had been off since she came back with Lady Artemis. She said everything was fine, but Bell couldn’t shake the feeling that something was… different. But what that was he just didn’t know as they continued to travel with Miss Andromeda until they finally flew past the peak of the last mountain that stood between them and their destination.

The verdant greenery that encapsulated the mountaintop, the lush canopy with broad leaves that reached towards the sun permeating the sky, gracefully curved downwards into a forest that stretched as far as the eye could see. Yet, midway through it, the hue began to shift along the Munsell scale from green to yellow to red to a deep shade of purple before finally being stripped entirely as the leaves crumbled into the ground. The brown and rich bark itself had started to become shades of deepening black, their trunks themselves seeming to grow thinner and starved as if the very life was being wrung from them. Even the skies themselves seemed to turn gray as the clouds were tainted by whatever force permeated this land.

This feels wrong,” Primo muttered as the group flew at a slower pace and close enough together that her words could reach their ears over the psithurism of the wind. The neophyte Elven Mage’s breathing came out shakingly while nestled between the arms of Mikoto as her eyes scanned the forest from above. For one who spent the majority of their life on the outskirts of one and was taught to revere the wood, it was a profane sight. “It feels really bad here.”

“This is Antares’ doing,” Lady Artemis said in response from her own perch between Bell’s arms. “The seal that was placed upon it long ago used the connection to nature that the spirits sacrificed to entomb it held to siphon off its strength, purify it, and then flush it out to the surrounding forest. Now that the seal is coming undone the purification aspect is breaking down and the trickle of its malice still flowing throughout the land is driving it to ruin.”

She then pointed further ahead towards the edge of their vision, where they could see what looked like a war-torn crater that was scorched and blackened. What were once tall and towering trees were toppled, trampled into battered splinters, and burned to cinders from what looked to have been a localized inferno. And there, nestled in the heart of it, was a temple.

“There’s a lock on the temple that can only be accessed by that which possesses my divine authority.” She looked over her shoulder towards Bell, whose rubellite eyes fell back onto her emerald gaze. “Orion, that’s where we’ll go to confront Antares. In the catacombs beneath the surface. That’s where I’ll need you to use the spear and end it all.”

Bell felt his throat tighten up. How could it not when he was to confront one of the unkillable Black Monsters that not even the primordial flames from his favorite tale could touch? The kind that took the might of both the Zeus and Hera Familia to overcome in recent history?

Ba-thump.

…And then he felt that boundless malevolence he’d experienced three days ago washed over him once more. The baleful and murderous gaze was fixed on him with even more intensity than before. So much so that it felt like time had come to a stop and color had faded from the very world itself until the pained scream of a woman drew his attention from the malevolent gaze and towards Artemis.

Ah-Ahhh…!” The Goddess of the Moon clutched her chest and nearly fell over the side of the dragon had Bell not stiffened his arms on either side of her at that very moment while handling the reins. She instead collapsed into his breastplate with her beautiful face contorted in pain.

Bell finally breathed again. “Lady Artemis! What’s wrong?”

…It’s… It’s coming!” Her voice was strained and weak. “Above…!

Bell looked up as an argent streak shot from the temple into the air above them. Space itself rippled as the gray curtains and dour skies above were turned into a replica of the night sky glinting with what looked to be hundreds of stars that were dragged down from the heavens. Then cold sweat beaded his face as he realized that they weren’t stars.

After all, the stars didn’t leave his instincts screaming that this was where they died.

These were arrows. Countless arrows that would shoot them out of the sky. The others and even the dragons seemed to instinctively understand the situation when faced with the looming death from above.

Orion… the… spear…” Lady Artemis’ words were faint over the thundering of his heart as she seemed to fight desperately to get them out. But they reached him all the same.

He hastily brandished the spear above and placed his faith in it. The gemstone began to shine at that moment and a gossamer thin cradle of moonlight swirled out from the spear, wrapping the space around them. Serene silence enveloped them as if they were sealed off from the world beyond the looking glass.

Then the stars fell.

Arrows of light came crashing down from the firmament. They seemed to pass through the barrier and the party as if they weren’t there, leaving them to drizzle below like tears from the sky. Yet the moment they touched the world beneath them everything was torn asunder.

Wood was shredded into splinters. Earth was upheaved into dust. All signs of foliage, healthy and dying alike were equally ripped away as the light brought unequivocal destruction to everything it touched. The rain continued to fall in a downpour of silent destruction wrought by shooting stars from the moon reflected off the water’s surface. It was a surreal experience, but also horrifying.

CRACK.

At least until the sound of metal splintering broke the silence that enveloped those who had forgotten to breath. All eyes turned towards the spear that had been brandished. The immaculate divine wrought steel had begun to crack from the pressure being exerted upon it.

And Artemis herself writhed in pain as the moonlight the weapon shed grew dimmer. “Agh!

Artemis, you have to hold on!” Hestia called out from her perch against the God of Travel’s arm, her voice panicked. It was easy to see why as Artemis’ expression contorted from the strain and the barrier began to fracture as the cracks continued their ascension from where Bell held it upwards.

It’s waning,” Hermes added. “Just bear with it a little longer!

It’s… too …” Artemis struggled to finish as the fissure reached the neck of the spear. “Orion… Hestia… I….

The crack finally reached the gemstone that was affixed to the center of the head. Then the Goddess of the Moon collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. The cradle of the moon that served as their looking glass shattered.

The last of the raindrops came crashing down.

Bell’s body moved to cover Artemis as one was coming right for them. Not randomly. It was directed towards them as he saw it shifting its path thanks to his enhanced perception as a Level Three. It would be impossible to avoid it entirely, but he could make it a grazing blow at the very least by jerking the reins to divert the dragon as it passed.

I’ll protect her, Bell told himself as he did so. He couldn’t sense the inevitable death from it as he had in the beginning. Whatever that had been was weakened enough that he was sure that his body would serve as a shield for the Goddess of the Moon in her helpless state. He clung to that thought desperately as the moondrop reached him.

And then Bell felt the worst pain he’d ever experienced in his life as the world went white.

[-Several Hours Later-]

Beige canvas greeted Bell as he slowly opened his eyes.

He felt the swaddle of a cloth draped over his prone body and realized that he was in a tent as his vision sharpened. His mind slowly cleared as the last thing he recalled was shielding Lady Artemis when he’d been stricken by that white light. Then… he only knew pain.

“That’s right, Lady Artemis—ngh!” There was lingering pain as he sat upright. Not to the degree of being crippling but to the point where he felt it. He leaned over and braced his forehead as he took deep breaths to try and focus push past the pain and get onto his feet.

“So, you’ve awakened then, Mister Cranel?”

His mind sharpened as he recognized that voice and he forced his eyes towards the opening in the tent. “Miss Ryuu?”

The Elven Warrior stood there clad in a darker green cloak that seemed to barely be a few shades from being black, with a white scarf woven around it. Her tunic was a lighter shade as it fell to her upper thighs, barring a dark strip going down the center with buttons running down the length of it. Around her waist were two belts, with one housing sheathes for the pair of eastern-made short swords on the right, and her long wooden sword on the left.

She was wearing thigh-high brown boots, with the barest slip of her thighs visible before coming up to fur-hemmed shorts that met with the remainder of her tunic. Her hands and arms were covered by gloves that hid her skin all the way up to her elbows. And her sky-blue eyes seemed… relieved if Bell had to place it into words as she came next to him and crouched down. “How are you feeling?”

“Just a little sore,” he admitted. “Where are my Familia? And Lady Artemis and the others?”

“Unlike yourself, they didn’t suffer any severe injuries by that rain of light.” She paused as he breathed out a sigh of relief. “I must admit I am surprised you managed to wake before nightfall, all things considered.”

“Nightfall?” His gaze turned back to the slip within the canvas and the amber light caught his attention thoroughly. It had been morning when they crossed the mountainside. “I’ve been unconscious for that long?”

“Given the state of your injuries, it’s a miracle that you woke as soon as you had,” Ryuu pointed out as Bell struggled to get to his feet, though there was a slight stagger in his step. “If you need more time to rest then—”

“No, I’m fine,” Bell insisted. “I can’t lay down and rest while the others are worried. The longer we delay reaching the ruins, the harder things will be. And I need to check on the others.”

“…Very well.” Ryuu rose and loaned him her shoulder to steady himself. “I’ll escort you to Lady Hestia for the time being. She can let you know about the current plans.”

“Thank you.” As embarrassing as it was to admit it, he was sore and likely needed a few hours before he was fit enough to get back in fighting form.

They left the tent and Bell found himself within a clearing that was somewhat expansive as it was surrounded by greenery compared to the dying woodlands they had been flying over. Wooden posts to serve as a boundary ringed the perimeter from what he could view, and several canvas tents were also positioned around the area. The one he had been in was one of two that were rather large-sized, so he could only assume they were meant to be infirmaries.

Ahead of them were several other people of different races, moving about in a vast and open space. Many in the center were practicing with weapons taken from a nearby rack or working out. Among their ranks Bell could spot what looked to be a young woman with long black hair and matching eyes dressed in a purple tunic and skirt, wielding a thin sword in a sort of dignified stance he didn’t often see. She was thrusting it furiously towards another young woman with pink hair and eyes, her clothes a matching hue as she used two shortswords with one in a normal grip and the other in a reverse grip.

It reminded him of his training with Miss Aiz the way they were going at one another, with the one in the purple being the superior combatant. Or rather to say it was clear she had a more refined fighting style compared to her opponent, who was blocking them as they came but still struggling to close the distance to get within reach. Even her closest attempt by parrying the rapier with the sword in her left before darting in and sweeping with the one in a reverse grip failed as the black-haired girl took a step back and twisted to bring her parried blade back around from behind to intercept it and then fell back into a proper stance.

Miss Aiz would have just kicked him in the face there for showing an opening that large. In fact, a Cat Person dressed in a… relatively low-cut top came over with a whip in hand and told her she should have done that very thing. The younger girl only shook her head and stated it wasn’t befitting of her to do so.

Ryuu guided Bell to the north, past a growing number of people that were largely pooled around a giant tent from which he could smell the sweet scent of a meal being cooked. It must have been the mess hall and, judging by the hour, it was likely that dinner was in the process of being cooked. Eventually, they came to another large tent that had an emblem he had only seen once before on the 18th Floor.

“Pardon the intrusion,” Ryuu said as she brushed aside the flap of the tent and helped him inside. “Mister Cranel has awoken and requested and audience with Lady Hestia.”

The inside of the tent was modest yet accommodating considering that it housed a large table in the center with four chairs surrounding it and a map strewn on top of it with writing implements. The floor had carpeting and there was a wooden bench on one end that had cushions on it, with a smaller side table upon which rested a silver tray and tea set. It was there that he saw his Goddess (who’d switched back to her old clothes) along with another person of such immaculate beauty, dressed in white and purple with accents of gold, that she could only be another of the divine.

She had long, walnut-brown hair that swayed as she turned in their direction and had an unearthly luster to it that seemed to catch the light of the nearby magic-stone lanterns that lit the interior. Her soft eyes were the color of the night sky that was illuminated with stars, an indigo hue that one could get lost in as they fell upon the pair. And her lips pulled back into a very maternal yet pleasant smile.

“Bell, you’re up now!” Hestia said as she came over to his side and wrapped her arms around him before pulling him into a hug. “Are you hurt? Are you in pain of any kind?”

Bell shook his head before bringing his arms around her to return the gesture. “I’m just a little sore, but that’s all.”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” the other goddess chimed in as she slowly rose from her seat. “Hestia and the others were all so anxious that they haven’t been able to relax even after finally making it this far. Even Ryuu has been more tense than usual since she brought you back to camp, so knowing you’re doing well and awake will remove a heavy burden off their shoulders.”

The Elven Warrior pointedly looked away from them at that. “Goddess, please do not misinterpret my mannerisms in such a way that they may be misconstrued.”

The Goddess only continued to smile warmly. “It’s all right. There’s no shame in being concerned about dear friends.”

Bell watched the exchange before saying, “You must be Miss Ryuu’s goddess then. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Astraea.”

“You as well,” the Goddess of Justice answered. “It was a long time since I had seen her until recently, but I was happy to hear about how well she was doing thanks to the friends she made and yourself. I only wished that we could have met under better circumstances.”

“Right, the situation with Antares.” Bell’s expression grew dour as he recalled the rain of light and the state of the Divine Spear. He then looked down at the divinity nestled against him and asked, “Goddess, what happened to Lady Artemis and the Divine Spear after that attack? She seemed like she had been in pain when it cracked and then she passed out.”

Hestia slowly pulled away from her child and crossed her arms with a soft sigh. “Artemis woke up a little while ago. After stopping by your tent, she asked to be left alone with the spear and went off. As for why she passed out back then…”

“Divine weapons such as that spear are not something that can be carelessly summoned to the Lower World without consequence given how much trouble they caused in the past,” spoke the Goddess of Justice in her place. “As the one who summoned it forth, Artemis has bound herself to it in a manner of speaking. The strain placed upon it thus weighed upon her and when she reached her limit, she fell unconscious.”

Bell’s thoughts turned to how much pain she had been in and then he lowered his head. “I… see…

As if reading his mind, Hestia gently cupped his cheeks and raised his gaze to herself. “Bell, Artemis knew what would happen and told you to do it. If you hadn’t then none of us would be here at the moment. So don’t blame yourself.”

“That’s right,” Astraea added. “Though I can only speak as one who loves you children as much as Artemis and Hestia, we wish for you to flourish within this world. You are our pride and joy, and so we are willing to make whatever sacrifice is needed so that you can find your own path to follow. No matter what happens, you bear no sin for our actions.”

Bell recognized they were trying to reassure him. And that put his heart to ease somewhat as he nodded his head that was still within his Goddess’ grasp. “All right.”

That seemed to be what Hestia wanted to hear as she smiled and then released him. “Now then. Astraea and I have to get Hermes back here so we can talk about the upcoming operation now that we know you’re up and moving. How about you go see the others since they were worried about you?”

Ryuu parted ways with Bell as Astraea sent her off to retrieve Hermes, while Hestia directed him to where she had seen each of their Familia members after she had sent them off from fretting over his unconscious body. Mikoto had decided to help with cooking dinner for the camp with Primo assisting her. Lili had gone off to feed the Dragons at the makeshift stables. And Welf was working with the other smiths to repair and mend the equipment they had.

The Mess Hall was a massive tent in the center of the camp with the canvas lining easily matching the size of some buildings. It was supported by several wooden beams that were affixed to stone blocks that were buried in the ground. Magic stone lanterns of different colors were strung up between them to offer additional illumination to the fading golden hue of the amber rays slipping in.

There were several people already inside the large tent, taking their places among the many different tables that were set about. Some were playing games of chance with dice and cards, while others were discussing matters with themselves. On the northern end was a long counter behind which was the makeshift kitchen, where he spotted the two members of his Familia hard at work. “Mikoto. Primo.”

Mikoto was carefully cutting up vegetables on a cutting board with her raven hair tied back when she heard him. “Sir Bell, you’ve awoken?”

On the other hand, Primo (who had also tied her golden hair back) turned from the potatoes that she was in the process of peeling and proceeded to dart around the counter toward him. The small Elf embraced him with as much strength as she could while burying her face into his stomach, completely forgetting the sort of etiquette that her race was expected to live up to. “Captain, you’re finally awake! I was so worried!

“Sorry to have worried you all,” Bell said as he gently brushed her hair. “But it’s fine now, I’m all better.”

“Are you really?” There was a hitch in her voice as she looked up from below his chest and he spotted her eyes glistening. “You were really hurt when we landed. Even after using all the Potions we had and that nice Elven lady healing you before rushing you here, I was worried you wouldn’t… hick…”

Bell tensed at that. He didn’t remember anything aside from the pain after he’d used his body to shield Lady Artemis. He looked over to Mikoto and asked, “Was it really that bad?”

“Whatever that light was that struck you, it had badly burned your body,” Mikoto admitted as she came over next. “The Potions we used and her magic helped stabilize you, but upon arrival it required Elixirs to finish mending your injuries.”

“Miss Lili and Mister Welf got really mad at Lord Hermes,” Primo added. “I… couldn’t do anything but sit there and… hick…”

“It’s okay,” Bell assured her. “I’ll go see Welf and Lili next to let them know that I’m all better, so just keep helping Mikoto. Okay?”

She wiped away tears that had been forming before nodding.  Then she pulled back and recalled her etiquette before bowing her head. “Forgive me for my outburst, Captain.”

That done and with assurances that he’d be back later, Bell decided to make a beeline to where Lili was first. He left the Mess Hall and went further to the north and eastward where the Dragons chewing on feed were to see that Lili was being given a small bottle from Miss Andromeda, with her voice barely reaching his ears as he caught the tail end of her saying, “—s a last resort. Understand?

Lili only nodded as her hands clenched the bottle while the Captain of the Hermes Familia walked off, leaving her to her thoughts.

It was then Bell called out to her. “Lili…”

Her head snapped in his direction before she hastily put the bottle away into a pouch on her waist before coming over to him. “Master Bell, are you well enough to be walking around?”

“Just a bit sore, but fine otherwise,” he told her. “Is everything okay? You had a serious look on your face just now with Miss Andromeda and she handed you something?”

The Pallum shook her head. “This is just compensation for the fact that her god lied to us about the scope of the threat again. I said this was the kind of job that would be more suited for a larger Familia and look what happened. Considering the state Master Bell ended up in, it hardly makes up for it.”

“No one could have predicted what would happen. And I’m still in one piece. So, try not to hold it against them.”

His effort to appeal to her only seemed to make her shake in frustration. “Master Bell, you’re too kind for your own good. This whole Mission has been sketchy from the start and even now they’re hiding stuff from us.”

“What do you mean?”

“I haven’t seen one member of the Artemis Familia even though they’re supposed to be here as well,” she explained. “And when I try asking about it, everyone gives me different excuses. Something about it isn’t right. How can we trust them if they keep lying to us and you keep ending up getting hurt?”

That is strange, Bell silently noted. He was sure that they would be here considering how fondly Artemis talked of them during their discussions. “I’ll ask Lady Artemis about it when I see her again. But for now, just try not to be too upset. They’ve been here working to deal with the problem even longer than us, and I’m sure they have their own reasons for keeping things quiet.”

A grumble bubbled up in her throat before she pressed her forehead against his chest. “If that’s what you want Master Bell. But please be careful. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.

“…Yeah. I will,” he promised.

That done, Lili ushered him off towards the east where he could see smoke rising from portable furnaces along with the din of hammers striking steel. There was a Human girl with light brown hair with a large box strapped to her back that had weapons within it walking alongside another woman who had long golden hair and blue eyes with a spear strapped to her back. He followed them and found they were heading to one of the several smiths at their portable forges.

It was there he spotted Welf speaking with the pink-haired girl he’d seen sparring earlier. She was holding the two shortswords from before, which now had cracks running along them. The girl then apologetically bowed her head while he stood there scratching his head as she ran off.

Then he spotted Bell and put on a smile as he set aside the damaged weapons. “Hey, you’re up now.”

“Yeah.”  Bell nodded before looking back to the girl running off. “What was that about?”

“Apparently that girl has some quirk that results in her constantly breaking her weapons. Other smiths are kind of frustrated about it since they’re lacking in spares due to all the fighting over the time they spent here, so I’m handling the reforging of it. But never mind that, how are you holding up? That hit you took was pretty bad.”

“So I’ve been told,” Bell sighed. “I’m fine, but I’m a little concerned about how all of you are doing after that. I spoke with the others already about it, but what about you?”

“Hmm…” He brushed his hand through his hair as he gathered his thoughts. “Frustrated, I guess. I hate to say it, but I’ve been pretty much useless here so far as your personal smith. Healing isn’t my forte and I could only sit by and watch when everything was said and done. I thought I’d at least be able to do something about your equipment considering it saved your life, but…”

He trailed off before reaching behind his forge and pulling out a box that had the battle clothes he’d worn on his way here. The jacket itself had new cloth stitched to it in an adorning pattern along the back that seemed fuller than before. “You modified them?”

“As best I could to fix the damage,” Welf admitted. “Like I said when you first got them, this was above my ability. I didn’t have suitable materials to patch them properly, so I had to take measures I’m not happy with.”

“How so?”

“That attack that hit you was Light-aspected,” he explained. “The clothes turned out to be woven from fibers blessed by a Light Spirit, making it Spirit Cloth that resists that element. That helped mitigate a great deal of the damage you’d received, but that attack was still strong enough that burned away several layers and reduced its effectiveness. Since most of the battle clothes we received had similar materials mixed in, I had to use one of them to patch it up so that it could still serve well enough to take another hit.”

“Whose clothes did you use for materials?”

“Lady Hestia’s.” He grimaced when he caught how Bell stiffed up at that. “She insisted that it wasn’t feasible to take the materials from anyone else’s battle clothes. Instead, she’d stay in the camp with Lady Astraea to support us from here once the operation was underway.”

That explained why she was in her old clothes rather than the ones that Lord Hermes gave us, Bell realized. His Goddess never once put herself before them, so even if those clothes would have offered her more protection than anything considering they were better than some armor, she didn’t hesitate to sacrifice it for his sake.

“The thing is,” Welf continued, “Clothes like these aren’t just given to you randomly. The materials have to be custom ordered, and he had them ready in a matter of hours once he had our sizes. The fact that it was so resistant to the attack that hit you means that he knew that we’d be facing something like that—and he didn’t tell us. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

The fact that both he and Lili held the same line of thinking gave it some level of credibility. And it wasn’t the first time that Lord Hermes had done something similar. The God of Travel seemed to tread the line between being helpful, like the War Game, and a hindrance, like when he’d given Mord the Invisibility Helm.

“…For now, we’ll just have to go along with it,” Bell decided. “Whatever his reasons for hiding that information, we still have to deal with the monster.”

Even Bell didn’t fully understand the God of Travel. But he had faith in Lady Hestia and knew that Lady Artemis was sincere in her desire to put an end to the threat. So he would go along with it for the time being for their sakes.

[-Hestia-]

“…We’ve done a cruel thing to that child,” Hestia said the moment that Bell and Ryuu had left the tent. It was soundproof once the flaps were closed due to enchantments on it, so no one heard her outside of the sole resident in the tent beside her. Nor did they see the smile she wore melt away as she went over to the couch and practically collapsed.

Astraea came over to her side, briefly running her fingers against Hestia’s bare shoulders in a show of support before turning her attention to the tea set. She poured steaming liquid into a cup that was set on a saucer and offered it to her. “He’s a nice and earnest child. I really do wish there was some other way.”

Her words did little to comfort Hestia as she took the offered cup. The last three days had been… trying as she had to come to terms with everything she’d learned about the situation from Artemis… or what was left of her. And her own complicity in the suffering she was going to put her first child through.

So naturally, she was not in a happy mood when Hermes finally arrived with a smile on his face and his tone cheerful after finishing his “other” business. “I’ve heard that Bell is back on his feet. That’s wonderful news. Now we can resolve this matter come morning and put all this business behind us.”

“You mean aside from the fact that you’ve condemned Bell to a fate worse than death?” Hestia’s voice was devoid of emotion as they sucked the warmth that had been in the tent right out in a manner that made it perfectly clear there was no room for false levity. Not when the topic they were discussing involved her first child and best friend being placed in such a cruel situation. Not when she’d spent three days stewing in it and forced to hold her tongue to avoid the children overhearing them.

The God of Travel raised his arms above his head and tried to appease her. “Now, I understand you might be upset—”

Upset?” The click of the porcelain as it was placed on a saucer seemed to echo as the diminutive goddess set it down. “In the last three days, I have learned that one of my best friends has been consumed by a monster. That she had to watch her children die in front of her. And in a last-ditch effort to prevent an apocalypse, she shunted her lingering consciousness into a weapon that you’ve shoehorned Bell into using to kill her…”

She slowly rose from her seat and turned to face him. There were many ways to describe how Hestia’s eyes normally were on most days. Lively yet gentle. Inviting and kind. Excitable and joyous. However, her eyes here and now were no longer the same.

They were a stark and dull, teal hue that lacked warmth. Her expression portrayed no emotion, a blank mask donned over her bubbly or maternal visage. “Upset, is an understatement, Hermes.

Hermes lowered his head while bracing his hat to where the brim covered his own gaze. “With all due respect, it wasn’t my intention to have Bell be the one to draw the Divine Spear. However, considering the situation I couldn’t pass up any potential candidate. You’ve seen for yourself that Antares is becoming capable of using Artemis’ Arcanum. Not just Clairvoyance but being able to call down the stars themselves. The Lower World will not remain intact should it use both to even a fraction of their full capabilities.”

Bell had mentioned feeling as though he’d been watched after the first time three days ago. There was no doubt in their minds that it was unrestricted Arcanum usage. Not just the limited Divine Mirrors that required permission, but the capability to circumvent the restrictions enforced upon them all.

The attack earlier had only been a small-scale sample of what her Arcanum could unleash and there was nothing that they could do to stop it. It didn’t need her Arcanum under its full control to do that across the globe, only enough to stretch it out over the firmament. Then Antares would be able to wipe out all life in the Lower World.

“And so, you’d have a child that reveres us become a sinner to fix the mistake of one of our own?”

To sin was mortal. But there was no greater sin than killing one of the divine. Not merely breaking their mortal shells and forcing them back into the realm above, but truly killing and sending them into the cycle of reincarnation once more—effectively destroying a pillar essential to Heaven for thousands of years.

The means of doing so were few and far available to the children. But they had basically handed Bell something meant to do just that. And they wanted him to use it on a goddess they had been pushing him to get closer to.

Hermes’ response was only to shake his head. “Bell isn’t killing her. He’s saving her from a situation she has no other means of escaping. It’s the only solution since we’re forbidden to use our Arcanum.”

The Goddess of the Eternal Flame remained unmoved by his semantics. “There is a reason we take responsibility for our own mistakes. It is too heavy a burden for mortals to bear. Do you really think his heart will be able to remain intact after killing Artemis with his own hands?”

They were not flawless. Though many of the children may have been disheartened when they first descended to let them know as much, the parents who looked over them from above were still capable of flaws. Whether through malice or well-meaning, many tragedies were wrought by their hands and only added to their suffering.

That was why they had to be the ones who corrected those mistakes.

Not the children.

“Hestia.” A soft hand settled itself on her shoulder again to draw her attention from the God of Travel. “Artemis told you, didn’t she?”

The answer Astraea received was that of silence as those stark and cold eyes fixed onto her.

The Goddess of Justice only continued. “Right now, she’s trapped and powerless. She could only watch as her children were slain. And if not stopped, the only path left for the Lower World will be destruction by her own divinity. Knowing that, she cast her hope into the heavens and called down an arrow that could bring about salvation for what her mistake had wrought. Perhaps there were other means to resolve this, but this was the method that Artemis chose. That your child happened to be the one most suitable must seem cruel, but that child is Artemis’ hope itself.”

“…Artemis’ hope.” Her cold voice betrayed a note of emotion as she clenched her eyes shut. And when they opened again, they were once more a vibrant yet sorrowful hue as the Goddess of the Hearth resurfaced. “I suppose that Artemis chose Bell to be her hope is something I should be proud of as her friend and his goddess. But I can’t help but grieve over what’s to come for both of them…”

Especially since I don’t know how long I’ll be here to ease that burden for him.


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

Chapter 32: The Seventh Day

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

Never again.

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

Elio’s Lessons in Magic V: Mending

[-|-|-|-]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Th-thump.

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

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

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

No. Not them. Just her.

Lady Artemis.

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

Images of her fate flashed vividly in his mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[-Several minutes later-]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[-Hestia-]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 31 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 31: The First Night

I watched in horror as Argo’s body was sent flying, caught in the wake of my spell. I had just wanted to show him that I learned magic. That I was a step closer to being able to help him. But it slipped from my control the moment my focus lapsed, and Argo paid the price for it.

‘What a wonderful spell! I knew you were talented my dear little sister.’

Argo bounced back up, pretending as if nothing was wrong. But I could see the blood where he’d been hurt because of me stemming from the back of his head. A crushing sense of guilt pressed down in my chest as I applied a tourniquet and apologized repeatedly. I even wanted to go fetch Elio to heal him, even if I was punished for disobeying him.

But Argo only gently patted me on the head and told me he’d be good as new tomorrow, so I should go back to my training. And sure enough, there was no trace of the wound the next day. Looking back, I suspect that Elio knew what I did and went to heal my brother sometime after I had cried myself to sleep.

But the reason for that isn’t something I know even to this day.

—Consequences

[-|-|-|-]

It looks like we’re finishing up for the day.

That thought, confined within Bell Cranel’s mind, surfaced as he noticed that Lord Hermes was making a gesture up ahead. It had been maybe around twelve hours since they had taken flight from the walls of Orario. They had long since lost the ability to see the tower that reached from the ground to the heavens above, the Labyrinth City long gone with only stretches of land without large settlements around. And it had only been the first day of what would be ten in flight.

The God of Travel had taken to leading them since he was aware of their destination across the continent and was more familiar with flight via their draconic mounts. Because of the sound of the air rushing past their ears and the distance between them, it was more reliable to rely on visual cues to signal rather than trying to speak out loud. Even if he could pick up their voices despite the wind because of his Level, the others might not be able to.

Bell carefully maneuvered one of his arms, tucked close against the soft, slender frame of the slumbering divinity nestled against him, free after ensuring he had a firm grip on the reins with his other hand. Then he raised it to make a similar motion to show he saw the signal. He saw out of the corner of his eyes that Welf and Mikoto were doing the same.

With everyone aware of their intentions, the descent began. The airborne dragons slowly dropped down from the golden expanse of the evening sky towards the grasslands below that seemed almost as endless as the sky above over the last few hours, only broken up by a nearby forest with stalwart trees standing sentry at the entrance.

Despite his best effort, the jostling motion made as the dragon touched down on the ground caused the Goddess of the Moon who had been asleep to rouse awake. “Mmm… Orion…?

“Sorry for waking you, Lady Artemis,” Bell apologized. “If possible, I would have let you rest longer. But we’ve landed for the night.”

The emerald eyes of the divinity softened as she brought her hands over to his chest and laid her head against it again. “No, it’s my fault. I didn’t expect the trip to be so exhausting, and you’re very comfortable, Orion.”

He was not sure how to respond to that, so he just gave a nervous laugh while the dragon beneath them shook its wings and then folded them in before lowering itself to the ground. He then dismounted, feeling a slight stretch in his muscles that had gone slightly stiff from riding so long. But he ignored the discomfort to extend a hand up to help her down, which she took and lowered herself to the ground.

“Well, we’ve made good progress today,” Lord Hermes said as he rolled his shoulders while striding towards them. “We’ll make it on schedule if we keep it up at this rate without any problems.”

“I don’t think I can manage to handle riding so long for nine more days…” Lady Hestia softly whined while slumped down next to the dragon that regarded her with a slight quirk of the head. “Everything is sore for me and watching the landscape nearly puts me to sleep.”

“That’s because you’re not used to it,” said the Goddess of the Moon. “Unlike our children whose blessing can mitigate the strain of traveling so long, our bodies need more time to acclimate to doing things we aren’t used to. Even I had to get used to riding a horse again after coming down.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to ride a horse,” Welf said as he braced his neck with one hand and rolled it. Bell could hear cracking from it. “Much less an actual dragon of all things. I’m still scratching my head figuring out why they’re so… docile.”

Bell found himself agreeing as he turned back to one of the dragons prodding Primo with its head playfully in an attempt for attention. At least until she responded by nervously patting it on the head while Mikoto watched on, which caused it to somehow purr and growl at the same. It was… odd to see in every sense of the word.

“You can thank years of collaborative efforts between myself and Ganesha for that,” Lord Hermes said proudly. “You see, monsters outside of the Dungeon are much weaker than those within it. So, he and I had a discussion over drinks on taming practices and one thing led to another. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved venturing to the outskirts of the Dragon Valley to fetch a lot of unhatched eggs for them to work on taming from birth.”

The Dragon Valley was one of the remaining unexplored regions of the world, since… well, Dragons were there. Dragons were among the strongest of the monsters and even those who were born of the surface were still capable of causing a vast amount of destruction when one found their way beyond those mountainous lands. The fact that he actively ventured into the even the outskirts to get the eggs was daunting in that respect.

“Lili doesn’t think it’s really that simple,” said the Pallum of their group with her large bag nestled on her back. She must have unloaded it off the dragon in order to get the campsite set up for the night. “Monsters hate mortals instinctively, hatched from eggs or the Dungeon.”

“I did say it took years,” he answered. “In fact, I’ve lost count of the monster eggs we’ve had to fetch only for the attempt to end in failure after failure. Even I’m not fully sure how he managed to tame these four the way he did, but he’s quite proud of it as in his eyes it’s a step forward towards his goal.”

That seemed to catch Hestia by surprise. “Ganesha has a long-term goal in mind?”

Lord Hermes nodded. “To make a place in this world for Monsters, in the hopes of ending the cycle of the children and them dying in a constant war with no end.”

There was a moment of silence that lingered as he casually spoke of something that was… absurd by every standard. Peace with monsters was something that just didn’t happen. Monsters hated mortals and killed them on sight, forcing them to respond in kind of their own safety. Even taming involved breaking their wills so that they were loyal only to one individual because of the sheer difference in power, leaving them to attack everyone else. That wasn’t co-existence like how he was framing it.

“That’s nothing more than a careless whim of his,” Lady Artemis said, crossing her arms beneath her chest and her tone firm. “Monsters have since the dawn of the world hunted down mortals and threatened the world. It is for that reason we bestowed our blessings upon them in the first place. Even now monsters still roam these lands and prey on the defenseless, as my children and I have seen too many times to count.”

“True,” he conceded. “But the fact that we just spent hours flying on four monsters of one of the most fearsome species without fearing for our lives is also an immutable fact. I’m personally of the mind that these four are simply Irregulars that he came across after thousands of attempts, given that he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then and the fact that it’s clear that they’re too docile to remotely survive on their own in a place as harsh as the Dragon Valley. But it doesn’t change the fact that it opens the door to the potential. After all, the Lower World is full of untapped possibilities.”

The expression of the Goddess of the Moon made it clear she didn’t share the same sentiment, which Bell could understand all too well. He had lost his grandfather to goblins after all. Throughout history, there haven’t been any such cases where monsters and men have lived along with one another in the way Lord Hermes was speaking, so it really did seem like a whim more than anything.

But the topic lingered in his mind even as the discussion itself came to an end as they needed to divide the duties to set up for the night. Welf and Hermes set out into the nearby woodlands in order to gather firewood for the night since they would be camping there before heading out once morning came around to continue their trip. Mikoto and Hestia were preparing the food for the evening, while Lili and Primo were in the process of feeding the dragons they flew on. That left Bell and Artemis to set up the campsite.

Bell was diligently in the process of hammering in the stake to keep the tent that Lady Hestia and Artemis would be sharing when he felt a presence behind him. He turned to see the Goddess of the Moon there. “Yes, Lady Artemis?”

“…Orion, you’ve been quiet for a while now. Is there something on your mind?”

“Oh, I was just thinking about what Lord Hermes mentioned,” he admitted. “It’s still hard to get over the fact that we managed to fly this far on top of dragons of all things. To be honest, I was a bit nervous I would have made a mistake the entire time. Especially since the only riding animal I’ve been on before now was a donkey.”

Artemis quirked her head at that. “A donkey?”

“The mountain village I grew up in was small and out of the way,” he explained. “The farm Grandpa and I had was next to a nice lady with a donkey that she let me ride when I was younger. It’s not very interesting to talk about.”

“No, I want to hear more about your past,” Artemis told him with a small smile. “If you want, we can exchange tales while we have time.”

Bell decided there was no harm in doing so and indulged her. “The farm itself was small, nestled high up in the mountains. There weren’t too many of us, so we had to rely on one another, and next to our farm was a woman named Eda. She looked after me while Grandpa had to work on the farm and helped him out when I was too young to really do anything. Sometimes when listening to grandpa’s stories I would imagine I was a hero riding on a mighty steed, and she’d indulge me by letting me on her donkey.”

The goddess closed her eyes and tilted her head back, a soft rumble in her throat as she remained deep in thought. Then a small smile came across her face. “I can almost picture a smaller version of you doing that, Orion. You must have really liked heroes.”

“Well, Grandpa did tell me a lot of the stories that he knew,” he said with a nervous chuckle as a spot of crimson from embarrassment appeared. “When he wasn’t on the farm, he would often pen them. The way he always told them made it seem like he had captured every little detail to the point where I could also feel that I was practically there, watching their struggles and overcoming odds. I came to really admire heroes like Epimetheus and Argonaut, and I wanted to be like them.”

“Is that why you came to Orario then?” she asked. “To be a hero?”

“Ah…” His expression softened. “Partly. I had other reasons too, but things were a lot harder than I expected. I was lucky to find Lady Hestia and make it this far thanks to her kindness, so I’m grateful to her. As for being a hero, it still feels like I’m over my head with just being an Adventurer at times. I’m honestly still nervous about this whole thing, but I’ll do my best to help you as well, Lady Artemis.”

“I’m certain you will, Orion,” Artemis said. “Now, I promised to exchange a tale. Would you like to hear the one about how Hestia and I became friends back in Heaven?”

[-Twilit Manor-]

Lefiya Viridis hummed softly to herself as she combed her hair in front of a mirror within the dressing room adjoined to the shower room on the floor. Her skin was a rosy hue beneath her nightgown, still saturated with warmth from the shower she’d taken to cleanse herself after running around for most of the day. She intended to retire early for the night to make up for the lack of sleep given how hectic things had been thanks to her brother’s propensity to get into trouble.

I still need to figure out how to complete his Quest though. Her thoughts shifted to the request made by the Gnome who had been acquainted with Bell’s little friend. It was a simple request to retrieve a few things from the Dungeon. Nothing that was illicit or would require her to go into the Deep Floors, but she would need to go to the Middle Floors.

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem given that she was on the verge of Level Four and a skilled Level Two could head as far down as the entrance to the Water Capital. But since part of what she needed was an ore that would likely need to be mined, she would have to dedicate some time to the endeavor. The Dungeon was rarely content to simply leave an Adventurer to do so without at least throwing several monsters against them. And since she was a Mage, it wasn’t recommended that she travel that deeply on her own without a Vanguard.

However, since the request was made to her personally and it was a private matter, Lefiya felt it wouldn’t be right to ask any of her Familia members to help her when she couldn’t explain it. That would be taking advantage of them when she was already technically hiding things from them. If her brother were here, he’d be an option since she could also take the time to explain things about how those floors worked. But he would be absent for the next month, which was probably for the best since it would give everyone time to forget about the thing with Lady Artemis as something else caught their attention.

I guess I’ll ask Filvis then. A smile blossomed onto her face at the thought of her beloved. Once she had finished handing out the letters, she had paid a visit to Lord Dionysus Familia to apologize for cutting their date short once more to tend to the matter with Bell and showing her the darker side of her personality when she got a little too hot under the collar.

Filvis understood thankfully. She might not have known Bell, but she knew that he helped save her from the new species that had swallowed them both and so that was why they were on friendlier terms. And she had even said that knowing that Lefiya cared about her feelings so much to get upset over the thought of her misunderstanding was appealing in its own way. The Half-Elf probably would have tried kissing her then and there for being such an understanding partner if not for the need to conduct herself properly in someone else’s domain.

Anyway, she would need to find a time when the two of them would be free to ask for her help in heading down to the Middle Floors. And while she would need to behave herself while they were in the Dungeon, they could spend their time together doing something fun if they finished early. It’d be nice to take her somewhere pleasant or get her a gift, but Lefiya needed to consider what would be practical for her on top of being fashionable…

Her attention was pulled from that line of thought as the door to the room opened. In came the familiar face of Leene Arshe, the kind-hearted Healer holding a change of clothes for the evening. She must have intended to take a shower but stopped to greet the Half-Elf when she spotted her. “Good evening. I hadn’t realized you returned since you weren’t at dinner.”

“I had a lot of things to do so I ate while I was out,” she explained before recalling the events of last night when she spotted her. “By the way, you did a nice job on your makeup last night. You looked very cute with Mister Bete.”

A sudden jolt ran up the girl. “Wh-What do you mean? I was just studying here last night.”

Holding her chin up with an amused smile even as she continued to brush her hair, Lefiya let out a slight hum. “Hmmm. So that girl with long hair and brown eyes who was cheering on Mister Bete was another admirer then? I never thought he was so popular with women. I’ll have to ask him her name some time.”

Leene fretted about as steam poured from her ears as she looked around before eventually just bowing her head. “P…Please don’t… He’ll get mad.”

“Relax, I don’t intend to tell anyone,” Lefiya promised. “It was just that I was surprised that you two of all people were on a date and I was curious, but there are only a handful of places that are completely soundproof.”

A Level Three could hear through ordinary walls with ease, so for a Familia with even higher-ranked Adventurers than that there needed to be areas where privacy was guaranteed. The dressing rooms and bathrooms were among them for obvious reasons. That allowed the girls to talk without being overheard, which was one of the reasons she chose to have the discussion here while they were alone.

“It wasn’t a date,” Leene insisted softly before reaching up to her hair and fiddling with loose strands. “He was just paying me back for the favor he asked that day I healed you.”

The Half-Elf craned her head in question at that before Leene explained the situation in earnest. Since Bete dragged her to Leene before the meeting where she had been reprimanded for getting involved with the War Game chase, when she asked him if he didn’t have plans for the Holy Night Festival, it seemed he regarded it as paying her back to make them even. He wouldn’t be seen with her as a date or anything, but if she wanted to follow him around while he went to get drunk without being seen he’d tolerate it.

“…And you were okay with that?” Lefiya asked cautiously. To be honest, she was partly offended that he would ask her to just follow him around and ignore her while he went around drinking. If he was going to do that much, rejecting her would have been better.

Leene only nodded with a slight smile. “…It wasn’t a date, but something I felt like I forced onto him. But even so, he didn’t drink anything. And I actually had fun.”

The girl went on to tell her about how Bete seemed to go to places he figured she would be interested in. It wasn’t exactly the case, but it wasn’t anything she outright hated. He apparently even caught her eyeing a prize from one of the stalls and then complained how there wasn’t anything really worth winning before picking that one out, only to toss it back towards her without saying a word when they were alone.

From listening to her, the Half-Elf was starting to picture him trying to be considerate of her but not quite sure how to do so because he didn’t know enough about her. Even so, just hearing her describe him in a positive light and how her body shifted as she embraced her clothing a little tighter while playing the memory out in her mind… there was no doubt in Lefiya’s mind about her feelings. “You’re really in love with him, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The admission came without shame or hesitation or doubt. It was something she had thought of, questioned, and came to terms with on her own. Something that made her happy as it brought a blush to her face. “I am in love with Bete Loga.”

There were a number of questions Lefiya had at that moment. Why? When? How? But those became secondary when she recalled the number of advances that he had made towards Miss Aiz. If she felt this fervently about him, she could only imagine how it must have felt for her to watch time and time again. “…Does he know how you feel?”

The expression Leene wore turned… melancholic. Longing and loving at the same time. And rather than giving denying or confirming it, she simply answered with, “…As I am now, just being able to help him as much as possible will be good enough for me. I don’t want to cause him any more pain.”

It was clear that Leene knew something about him that she didn’t. And since it was something that Lefiya couldn’t imagine that Bete would tell others easily, it was something he either entrusted to her solely or something she learned on her own. But one thing she did know was the bittersweet feeling to love someone and not have a chance for that feeling to be returned through no fault of your own.

So the Half-Elf rose to her feet and then embraced her in a tender hug. “I’m sorry if I crossed a line, Leene.

“…No, I’m happy to be able to tell someone,” Leene replied. “And it’s not like I’ve given up. I’m sure that one day, I’ll be able to walk alongside him. I just need to keep doing my best.”

That said, Lefiya finished with her hair and went back to her room. She bid her roommate, who had a reference book on magic, goodnight before closing her eyes. Sleep took her quite easily.

[-??????-]

She was dreaming again.

How long had it been since she had dreamed of sitting beneath the warm rays of the shining sun? Since she felt the gentle breeze washing over the fields and leaving her long and flowing golden hair to sway with the petals of flowers in bloom. Since she saw that smile as a calloused but tender hand reached out to stroke her face…

And yet, before that hand could reach her it turned to ash and scattered before her eyes.

The sun faded. The breeze died. The flowers wilted.

A child’s voice called her name.

A banshee shrieked.

Sitting upright in a jerking motion, an Elven woman shuddered nearly uncontrollably as she breathed out heavy and pained breath that filled the dark enclosure. Sweat lined the sleeping bag she had been resting on, a foul scent rising from her body that filled the stone chamber of the sick bay. Leaning her back against the cool stone, her mind raced as she tried to remember what transpired.

The last thing she remembered was that she had been visiting the Twenty-Seventh Floor. That barren place was where she and their squadron had been on a mission. On the way back they had been swarmed by monsters and ran into a cluster of Dark Fungus. She had been caught within the spore clouds and poisoned.

Her dull green eyes, their luster lost to the cruelty of reality and ringed by dark circles skimmed the room illuminated by two Magic Stone Lanterns. There were two other bodies in the room. But they weren’t moving, and she couldn’t pick up the sound of breathing. She closed her eyes and offered them a moment of silence when she heard sounds coming from the door at the end of the room.

Then it opened and light from lanterns accompanying a tall figure cast a deep shadow that stretched across the ground. The tenebrous darkness was bathed in a divine presence as she fixed her eyes on the God draped in black and gray robes. Eyes that were a deep purple hue skimmed the room before they settled onto her with a gaze that seemed to peer beyond her flesh and down to her soul.

She leaned forward and immediately kneeled. “Lord Thanatos. You grace me with your presence.”

“Ah, it’s good to see you up and about, my dear.” He stepped into the room while flanked by two of their comrades, all children who shared his Grace upon their backs. “I had felt the blessing of the others vanish and had some concern you would be joining them soon. Would we have had the antidotes to spare in time, but alas…”

“It was only because I had Abnormal Resistance,” she responded. “I can only apologize for their deaths. I should have identified the Dark Fungus ahead of time.”

The blame lay with her. Her thoughts had been back on the Twenty-Seventh Floor. Her grief. Her desire for revenge. They had distracted her until it was too late and so they had carelessly ran into the cluster of Dark Fungus that had disguised themselves while dealing with other threats the Dungeon presented them. The fact that their squad’s leader had still managed to get them back here in any form was fortunate.

The God of Death slowly rapped his knuckle against his cheek as if in thought while staring down at the corpses. “Yes. A deep purple hue, stained with a vibrant shade of crimson. And crimson with ribbons of jade threading it like a mourning band. Though their souls are no longer tied to my earthly form through the Falna, I’ve memorized the color of their souls. Once I return to Heaven, I’ll see that their sacrifice not be in vain.”

As one of the divine presiding over death and rebirth, Thanatos could perceive the Soul even while being trapped within his avatar here on the Lower World. Once he ascended to Heaven once more, he would no longer be bound to merely perceiving their hue and the connections of those bound to them on this plane. And through that, untethered and unrestricted, he would fulfill their dearest wishes.

They would be together again—all three of them.

“You have our eternal gratitude, Lord Thanatos.” She bowed her head deeply as warmth in her chest grew. “…Though, it is rare to have the honor of speaking with you directly. Should I presume you had need of me?”

He turned his gaze back to her. “That’s right. I have a few of your kin among my children, but I believe that only you and Dear Milia spoke fluently in the more archaic Elven Tongue. And she perished a short time ago.”

Milia had been a fellow Elf and Tamer, just like her. She had been kin, heralding from a distant forest who came to Orario. She had also lost one she treasured, robbed of them by this cruel and uncaring world. She had been overseeing not only Violas but also Venenthes, all of which had been killed by the Loki Familia and had forced them to readjust the operations on the floor and shift their plans.

“I believe at present I am the only one that remains within the Familia that speaks the Eld Tongue, Lord Thanatos.”

“Then I would have you act as an interpreter and guide for a time,” he explained. “An individual reached out through one of our contacts and enlisted our services to smuggle some associates of theirs into Orario. I would have you see to their needs.”

Her mind pieced together the request. The fact that she needed to act as an interpreter meant that it was an Elven contingent. The fact that they spoke in the Eld Tongue would mean they were highborn as well, but High Elves weren’t the type to leave the inner domains of the Forests so easily. That meant it must be others capable of those acting in their place. “I will assist in whatever way I can, but do you know what their wish is?”

“Something or other about Rakia. I’ll leave you to learn the particulars and help them with the planning once you’re back on your feet and on the surface so do your best, Dear Sharan.”


Rabbit of the Moon: Chapter 11 [DanMachi/Bloodborne]

Chapter 11: Banquet of the Gods

Bell Cranel was on the move the next afternoon, on his way down the Main Street to the tower of Babel at a somewhat sluggish pace.  Last night he’d had some trouble sleeping after taking a shower. And he had spent an hour beforehand settling potential issues over what happened in the Hostess of Fertility before heading to the Guild.

Keeping with his promise, he first went to apologize to Syr over the mishap that happened last night. He made it clear that his departure was because he had been uncomfortable with the Loki Familia due to an embarrassing event in the Dungeon. She didn’t really press him on the finer details, which was something that he was grateful for given that he didn’t want to lie to her, though she did manage to worm him into having brunch there.

The menu changed during the day, though the food remained very good. It was also more accommodating to his wallet, probably because it was catered to a more casual customer base then. Adventurers were the primary source of income in Orario, so they had the highest earning margins next to the ones who ran larger Familias and exported magic stones. He would have to take Hestia there some time.

After that was the matter of visiting Miss Eina at the Guild to ask about any places where he could buy armor today. When he brought up what his budget was like now that he had paid off his Guild-loaned equipment yesterday, Eina told him of a reasonably priced shop that was on the upper floors of Babel. She’d even given him written instructions to make sure he didn’t get lost by accident.

Going straight down West Main soon brought him into the Central Park, where Adventurers were coming and going. It was a nice day that was the same as usual for Orario as far as he could tell in the time he had been there, such a tight yet bustling feeling. The sensation of life and open movement all around him was a strong contrast to the coffin and blood-encrusted streets of Yharnam at night, where only the beasts that stalked the shadows lurked.

The memory of the Hunt stilled his feet as it briefly floated to the surface of his mind. But he shook his head vigorously, slapping his cheeks and letting the sting bury the memories once more. He wasn’t going back there.

I’m going to continue on my life as an Adventurer, not a Hunter. Resolve in mind, he was about to take another step forward—

“Move it you lousy Supporter! We’re running late!”

—when he heard someone commanding someone else to move just barely above the rabble of the Adventurers around him. He turned to the source of the sound to see a male adventurer, one in a party of four, complaining about being late to enter the Dungeon to a small figure that was dressed in a plain robe that looked ragged at the edges.

He couldn’t make out the person’s face to determine their race or gender, but they looked so tiny that they could’ve been a child. Yet, the backpack they were carrying looked to be the size of a person, thrice their height. It must’ve weighed a lot for them, even if it was empty. But their party was telling them to move faster as they forced their way past the other Adventurers into Babel.

Since their destination was the same, Bell could only follow in their footsteps into Babel until they mixed into the crowd that was heading down to the basement floor. That would take them to the spiraling staircase leading into the gaping maw of the abyss below. Into the Dungeon.

He went the other way, towards the wide lobby that was past one of the many arches that surrounded it. The blue-and-white, expansive floor never failed to impress him as he entered it, and it was there he found what he was looking for as a rough looking man stepped onto a circular pedestal and pressed a button on what looked to be a console. Glass rose up to wall him off from the rest of the lobby and he ascended on the elevator that Eina had mentioned in her instructions.

Bell approached one of the pedestals himself, intrigued as he tried to work out how it could function. He wasn’t all that accustomed to the conveniences of Orario compared to his village, but given it was the source of a good deal of the magic stones in the world he could reason out they had more chances to develop devices like this. Bell pushed the button to activate it and felt gravity being defied beneath his feet as he ascended the heights of Babel for the first time.

This is pretty cool, he mused silently as he pushed open the glass of the elevator when he found himself on the Eight Floor. It had a good number of Adventurers roaming around, weaving in and out of the various stores that had displays of weaponry and armor for those who would brave the Dungeon. Bell was naturally drawn to the various shops but had to stop himself from wandering off and went into the one on Eina’s instructions.

The inside of the shop that was that of stone and wood, lined with steel in the form of weapons and armor that had been forged in fire and tempered by the hands of the blacksmiths working under the name of the Hephaestus Familia. On the walls were weapons and shields, alternating as they decorated the solid stone, price tags placed in view at prices that weren’t drastically above what he had on him at the moment. Short shelves that the walls were used to support the smaller arms or unique pieces that drew in more than a few curious eyes.

Maybe it was just because he was still relatively new to Orario, but it still amazed Bell as he looked at all of it. Even with the fact that Hestia had told him before of how she and the Goddess of the Forge were old friends, and that her Familia was one of the best when it came to blacksmiths. It really highlighted the differences in their Familia that Bell couldn’t even properly grasp the perspective or the amount of valis it would take to rent out all these floors for their blacksmiths.

Bell figured that he could spend hours just window shopping if he didn’t already know what he’d come in for. It was lightweight armor to replace the breastplate he’d lost setting foot into Yharnam. Something stronger than the one he’d gotten from the Guild, given that a sickly beast in Iosefka’s clinic had torn into it, while the claws of the Cleric Beast ripped it apart completely and took a pound of flesh with it.

Lacking any armor when he’d gone into the Dungeon and met the War Shadows could have been a death sentence. It would have been if not for the fact that blood still healed him since he’d gone in without any potions either. He couldn’t skimp on the armor from here on out.

So, Bell ventured towards the back of the store where the armor was placed on mannequins. From the look of it, the more expensive and extravagant items were closer to the front of the store, where more people would be inclined to buy them. That meant the more practical pieces would be further back.

The backside of the store had larger shelves that rose up above his head, sorting into aisles that had different items. More of the customers were looking through them, paying little mind of Bell as they inspected the different pieces. There were also barrels at the ends of some of them, containing larger weapons like spears.

Bell went past them, moving further back to where the lightweight equipment was. Most of them didn’t have mannequins but were instead housed in boxes of equipment pieces. Each one had a different style of handwriting on the tags, so if he had to guess the ones who made the armor were the ones who stocked it.

He went past the different pieces until he found one that drew him in. The polished metal that was pure white like the moon glinted in his ruby-toned eyes with an almost enthralling allure. Bell pulled out the main piece and just stared down at the breastplate meant to shield the vitals of the chest, including his heart.

It felt light. Even lighter than the one that he’d gotten from the Guild when he joined. Yet, he got the feeling that it was harder despite that. It was probably made from a different kind of metal than the standard one used for Guild-issued armor. But would they bother putting something like that in a box not even worth displaying?

They probably might in a shop run by this Familia, he figured before looking at the rest of it. There were guards for the joints, knees, and forearms along with plates for the lower back, shoulders, and hips. Additional bits and pieces that didn’t have the same grade of protection that full armor would give, but more than necessary for simple lightweight armor. And all of that at only 9,900 valis.

Flipping it over, he spotted the signature beneath a stamp that had a rabbit silhouette. The name “Welf Crozzo” didn’t ring a bell to him, but he hadn’t been there for very long. And if he was famous then there’s no way they would have put it back here. He must’ve been a novice blacksmith then.

Well, if this works out then I’ll keep that name in mind. Decision made, he took the box with him to the counter and paid for his new armor before heading back to show it off to his Goddess.

[R-M]

Once night fell, it was Hestia’s turn to venture out from the small but homely comfort that was her room beneath the Church.

Her destination was the home base of the Ganesha Familia, which had been established within a massive statue surrounded by a stone wall, with the entrance being the statue’s crotch. The various Gods and Goddesses had gathered for the celebration being hosted, a cacophony of communion between the different deities that made their home here in Orario. That made it the best place to gather information on Achelois’ whereabouts.

Hestia started her search at the buffet table, where she spotted Hermes and Takemikazuchi. The latter was being egged on by the former on in trying to finish a large plate of meat, dressed in his formal montsuki kimono adorned with his Familia’s emblem. The Goddess of the Hearth looked down to her own ordinary clothes and fought down the slight feeling of inferiority that she felt upon seeing how well he’d dressed when she didn’t even have celebratory clothes.

But Hestia shook her head to drive away those thoughts before touching the ribbon that had been elegantly tied into a bow around her neck. She wasn’t here for her own reasons, but for Bell’s sake. That thought allowed her to approach them both with a somewhat cheerful, “Take! Hermes!”

Takemikazuchi forcefully swallowed his meal upon noticing her and then cleared his throat so he could speak. “Hestia, I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Hestia’s response was a good-natured retort. “The same could be said with you. Don’t you have a bunch of children waiting for you at home?”

“My children actually insisted that I come, citing that I should mingle with the others instead of working tirelessly for them.”

“What considerate children you have.” She then turned to Hermes. “And Hermes, I was looking for you too. I don’t think that we’ve seen each other in a long time.”

“Well, my Familia does travel a lot so I’m usually out running message and errands.” He snapped his finger as if something came to mind.  “Though, I’ve heard you have a child in your Familia now. Mind if I ask who?”

“His name is Bell and he’s a very sweet boy. He’s only been at it for a short time, but he’s hard-working and even managed to get down to the Sixth Floor on his own.” She puffed out her chest in pride as she boasted of how special her child was, even though she was frustrated that he’d gone deeper than that on his own. It was a complicated feeling, to be honest.

That was partly why she had come. She didn’t have much to her name and she had few friends. But if she could at least have them help her keep him safe, then that would be something she could do as his Goddess.

Hermes only smiled in a mischievous manner. “He sounds like an adventurous one. You’ll have to introduce me some time.”

Then I’d be worried you would rub off on him, Hestia thought to herself before moving onto her first question now that the pleasantries had been done. “Anyway, I was wondering if either of you had seen Achelois? I’ve been looking for her, but I can’t seem to find any trace of her.”

“Achelois?” Takemichizuki put his hand on his chin and looked up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her at all since I arrived in Orario two years ago.”

“Miach said the same thing, so I thought that she might be outside of Orario. So, if anyone of us would know, it’d be Hermes.”

Hermes held his hands out and shrugged. “Well, I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but I’m afraid that I don’t know where she is either. The last time I heard from her she was still searching for someone to join her Familia with little luck. As I’m sure you know, it’s fairly difficult to start a successful Familia these days if you don’t have much to offer.”

Yes, Hestia knew that very well. The more established Familia within Orario were the ones everyone wanted to join. And if you didn’t have much to your name to start with then few would take the gamble to help. “That’s true, but I can’t imagine that she went back above. So, she has to be somewhere.”

“Well, I could try sending some feelers out when I leave again. But why exactly are you looking for her?” he asked.

Ah… that’s… a bit private, actually…” It wasn’t like she could just say what was going on with Bell to them. Especially not in such a crowded event. “Let’s just say we need to have a Goddess-to-Goddess talk.”

“Aww, yer worried she’s gonna poach yer child?” Hestia tensed, a shiver running up from the base of her spine to the top of her head. That voice was the last one she’d wanted to hear tonight.

Loki.” The Goddess of the Hearth practically hissed that name as she turned to find said Goddess right behind her, grinning in her sleek, black dress. “What do you want?”

“Just saw the crowd and came to say hello,” she claimed. “Well, that and I heard ya talkin’ about your child. That’s the one that ran into a minotaur a while back, wasn’t it?”

“And I think we both know who’s responsible for that,” Hestia said. “Bell could have died!”

“That’s the risk of goin’ in the Dungeon.” Loki’s small shoulders rose and fell before she took a sip of the drink she held in her left hand. “Besides, kid made it out fine under his own power, despite being a Level 1. Makes a lotta sense that ya’d hafta worry about him falling into the arms of another Goddess when a shrimp like ya can’t even afford a decent dress.”

Hestia’s temper flared. She rose on the tips of her toes to get right in Loki’s face and struck her weakness. “This coming from one who can’t even grow a decent pair to fit in a dress!”

Then Loki’s temper flared. She scowled, baring her teeth. “Them’s fightin’ words!”

“Bring it on!” she answered in response, but before either of them could act on the animosity, the guys stepped in. It wouldn’t do to have the two come to blows after all. Takemichizuki put his hands onto Hestia’s shoulders and gently pulled her away as Hermes did the same for Loki, albeit with a lot more effort.

“Easy, Hestia,” he told her. “Your child would be disappointed if he learned about you getting into a needless fight.”

Hmph.” Hestia folded her arms and looked away. “She’s the one who started it.”

“Sparks still fly like fireworks whenever you two meet each other, huh?” a third voice spoke, their tone lacking in surprise while drawing their attention. There stood the Goddess of the Forge, Hephaestus. “Goodness, the others were starting to take bets.”

Hestia’s frown was replaced with a brighter smile. “Hephaestus! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while now.”

“If it’s for a loan, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not giving you one,” she said, setting one hand on her hip.

“No, not that,” Hestia insisted. “Since you and Take are both here, I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, like if you have any children who might want to join in a party with mine?”

[R-M]

What’s so great about just having two lumps of meat hanging off your chest,” Loki muttered indignantly as she grabbed another drink from a passing member of Ganesha Familia and leaned against a wall, watching bitterly as Hestia tried to arrange a playdate for her child.

Then the sound of high-heels clicking against the floor drew her eyes up to the approaching beauty. With skin as white as ivory and smooth as silk, her dress hugged her body sinfully tight and showed off her mature shape. It was the Goddess of Beauty in the flesh.

“Having a bad night, Loki?” Freya said with a soft, naturally-seductive smile.

“Whaddya want?” Loki demanded, pointedly looking away from the cleavage on display in front of her.

“I overheard your discussion with Hestia and something you said caught my interest. Mind telling me more about it over a drink of Soma?”

[R-M]

In stark contrast to the clamor of the Gods and Goddesses in Orario, there was only a single conversation that permeated the absolute, serene silence of the Hunter’s Dream.

The Plain Doll, her pale and porcelain body dressed in clothing that were finely-crafted and exuding a benign warmth that had been woven into the stitch, sat among the luminous flowers that rested on a hill by the phantasmal headstone. Her head was bowed before it as her soft voice rang out ephemerally in prayer.

Oh, Good Hunter. I pray your suffering spirit has found comfort in your fleeting respite. I pray your tender heart has been soothed. But the Dream beckons thee to bring the long night an end. And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…