Chapter 29: The Close of the Festival
“The first spirit that I was to make a Contract with happened to be a Wind Spirit. Of the spirits that gathered around Elio, it seemed like the most amicable to me in a way. So, I went about the ritual to try and learn my first spell from it.
I was nervous. Even though I wanted Magic so badly, I still felt that I would fail and be unable to do anything. And knowing the spirit could sense that as well, it made things even harder under Elio’s watchful gaze.
My nerves would have gotten the better of me if I hadn’t thought of what my brother would say if I failed. He’d probably tell me it was okay, and I’d get it next time with a smile. That was the kind of person he was, always smiling for the sake of others.
If he wanted to go where the wind took him so that he could help others smile, then I wanted to clear the path for him. I wanted the power to blow away anything standing in the way of his dream, to repay him for the life he saved without asking for anything in return. So, I beckoned the wind to grant my wish for his sake…
And the wind stirred as words drifted into my mind.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic IV: The First Spell
“Wow, for even a Level Six to be unable to pull it out…” Bell murmured to himself as he watched the Werewolf depart the stage. He and Hestia had finished dancing and decided to meet back up with everyone when they had been drawn to the scene by Hermes’ announcement.
“Captain, can you try too?” Primo asked, pointing to the stage.
Bell jerked in surprise at being put on the spot. “Me?”
“It can’t hurt,” Hestia said. “Besides, if we got the vacation maybe we could all go somewhere fun to get away from the city for a bit?”
“If one of the Loki Familia’s executives couldn’t pull it out, what chance do I have?” Bell pointed out. “And if I did, wouldn’t that just put more attention on us while we’re still trying not to draw attention to ourselves?”
“Considering everything else, it wouldn’t surprise me if people were used to it by now,” Lili muttered. “And at least if it’s an all-paid expenses trip, we could take advantage of the absence to wait for the attention to die down.”
“It would be nice if I didn’t have to keep getting side-eye from the ones that still poke around,” Welf admitted as well. “And as far as candidates go, you’ve probably got a better shot than any of us.”
“I agree with them, Sir Bell,” Mikoto said.
And just like that Bell had been volunteered by his entire Familia. He really didn’t expect to be able to liberate the spear from its confines as he stepped onto the stage and felt a lot more eyes on him than he was comfortable with. But the moment he wrapped his hands around the shaft of the spear…
‘At last, I found you.’
The voice of a woman echoed in his mind. It resonates with the divine script that appeared over the shaft in a manner reminiscent of the Blade of the Hearth that Lady Hestia had bequeathed him. But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished.
And the spear came unbound.
“It… actually came out,” Bell muttered as he stumbled back, looking at it with a confused gaze. Then mixed sounds came from the audience. There were cheers from some, wavering between enthusiastic to polite clapping, and he could pick up some resentful scoffs from others who’d note that of course he would pull it out. Some of the resentment from the people who betted against him in the War Game he supposed.
“I can’t say it was expected, but maybe this was fate,” Lord Hermes stated, extending a hand to help Bell back onto his feet. “Now, let us introduce you to our sponsor.”
That said, the Ganesha Familia cleared a path and parted the crowd for a figure who made themselves known. It was a woman… no, that was wrong. Even from a distance, he could feel the air of divinity around her. It was a Goddess, whose hair seemed almost the same shade as the moon above them, drawn back into a braided tail. Her eyes were like emeralds that shone in the dark of night like distant stars, glimmering softly as they met his red eyes.
“I give you the Goddess of the Moon,” Hermes announced as she strode forward. “Artemis.”
Bell realized that was the name of his goddess’ friend back in Heaven. In fact, looking over to her he could see the sheer surprise on her face at the presence of her friend. But the moment his eyes returned to her, she had already closed the distance and was lunging towards him. He held the spear out to the side to avoid accidentally hurting her and freed his other arm to catch her on reflex, but he fell back in surprise while leaving her warm body and…other parts pressed against him.
“I’ve found you at last, my Orion!” she declared before leaning her head in and placing a kiss against his cheek, which was only due to the fact that he turned his head in surprise a breath before their lips connected. It was a soft kiss, and from the touch of her lips he felt a mind-numbing sweetness spread throughout his entire head. Then he felt his pulse begin to race as she embraced him and pressed even tighter against him…
“APOLOGIZE TO ALL THE MEN WHO ARE LONELY TONIGHT, COTTONTAIL!!!!”
Only for the shout of an anguished male voice from the crowd to split the air. It was so raw with passion and fury that it grabbed hold of all eyes. It was one of the male Gods, eyes running red with tears while pointing an accusative finger towards Bell.
“The Goddess of the Chastity who repelled all advances,” Jealous God A proclaimed. “The one who would bury an arrow in the eye of any man who would dare gaze upon her gorgeous figure as she bathed. The untouchable and unsociable pillar of the Virgin Goddesses… AND YOU DARE CLAIM HER LIPS FOR YOURSELF WHERE NONE OF THE OTHER GODS HAVE DARED! UNFORGIVABLE!”
“Wait, I have no idea—”
Bell’s counterargument was cut off when a Human pushed forward. “THAT’S NOT ALL! I SAW HIM GO ON A DATE WITH THAT CUTE HALF-ELF FROM THE GUILD TWO MONTHS AGO! HE PRACTICALLY HAD HIS HEAD PRESSED AGAINST HER BOSOM, LAUGHING GIDDILY THE ENTIRE TIME!”
That earned a lot of surprised noises from the crowd. The ‘flowers’ of the Guild were largely untouchable and Eina was among the most popular of those who manned the front desks. Being a Half-Elf, and fairly gorgeous, it was naturally some people would recognize her without her glasses when they met by the Bronze Statue early that morning. Bell hadn’t been very famous back then, but now that he had eyes on him that meant people would comb through their memories for both good and ill.
“THE ‘ELL YOU SAY!?” barked a Dwarf that pushed his way to the front of the crowd while the Ganesha Familia members looked… confused by the sudden change in focus. He was actually pretty tall for a Dwarf, but he was built powerfully. Oh, and he looked mad as he grabbed the Human by the collar. “GOIN’ AROUND SPOUTIN’ LIES!”
“N-No, she was even dressed in a white blouse and a short skirt as they walked along Main Street to Babel,” a Chienthrope added unhelpfully. “She was pressed against his arm and practically glowing.”
At the same time, an elegant-looking Elf confronted the Dog Person. He had long, blonde hair and a slender body. “Baseless accusation. Eina Tulle is the epitome of professionalism and refuses all suitors.”
“Hmmm…. I dunno,” said Mord Latro, rubbing his chin. Bell had seen him come up to the stage beforehand. “I remember awhile back my boys saw they spotted Cottontail with Thousand Elf together in the Under Resort. They were going around shopping together and smiling. Then there’s the whole deal with the Apollo Familia. He’s got a way with them…”
The worst part was, he sounded as if he genuinely admired Bell even as he condemned him further as the crowd began to stir. The murderous intent was actively building around them to the point here it felt like a bonfire was being lit underneath him. And he could just imagine how his sister would react hearing that….
Wait, I can actually feel her magical energy! His eyes actively tracked the sensation and found his sister standing there with her figure shrouded in a dark veil and her eyes glowing crimson. The air tinged with the magical energy as a magic circle sprung to life beneath her feet in a way that distinctly reminded him of the Eighteenth Floor and that had not been fun.
And considering the sheer amount of magical energy she was shedding along with the bloodlust, all eyes were drawn to the Half-Elf standing there and shaking in fury. Her azure eyes looked like flames as she pointed her wand towards Mord. The Level Two Adventurer flinched under her gaze that seemed ready to set him aflame with a glance.
“I! WAS! REPLACING! HIS! BOOTS!” Lefiya exclaimed, punctuating each word with an unspoken promise of pain as her date looked surprised while attempting to calm her down. “GOT IT!?”
“Y-Yes, Thousand Elf, Ma’am!” he answered wisely as the tingle of magical energy still prickled the skin, like she was looking for an excuse to start casting a spell. “Please don’t shoot me!”
“AND YOU!!” Her burning gaze then shifted onto Bell, who went ramrod straight. “GO! HOME! NOW!!”
“I do believe she is upset at the moment,” said the God of Travel calmly, as if he wasn’t in the line of fire for being responsible for the above incident, before turning to Bell. “Perhaps we should take her advice and depart? There’s a lot we need to discuss about your prize.”
Bell decided that would be a very wise course of action considering the Goddess still clinging to him. So he and his Familia very quickly relocated to their home at the Hearth Manor, where they were ushered into a room. The entire time he was traveling, and even now, Bell felt the sensation of someone watching him with an unrelenting stare once more.
“You’ve done well for yourself since that scuffle with Apollo,” Hermes said as he took a seat on one of the two couches within the Living Room on the First Floor and looked above the hearth. There laid the emblem of their Familia, a bell wreathed in gentle flames. “I’m glad to see everything worked out. You even have a new Familia member now.”
His eyes drifted over to Primo, who had taken to the couch opposite himself. She was flanked by both Lili and Bell while Mikoto was on the far end and Welf was standing behind the couch itself. She seemed rather confused about everything in general, which made sense given she had yet to have grown used to his antics.
“You could say the same,” Hestia pointed out as she gestured to the other end of the couch that she shared with him. On it was herself, Artemis, Hermes, and a young Amazon who seemed friendly enough as she accompanied them after they left the stage. “Who is this child?”
“My name’s Gina,” she introduced herself. “I’m a relatively new member of the Hermes Familia. It’s nice to meet all of you.”
“Gina here was recruited a bit before my current assignment led me out of Orario until now,” he explained. “Since she was relatively new, I’ve had her watching the Familia estate here along with some of my other children. She’s here because I’ll be having her to assist with the preparations.”
“And what preparations would that be?” Hestia asked, turning her attention to her old friend whose eyes seemed fixed on Bell. “Artemis, what’s going on?”
“Your child is my Orion,” Artemis told her. “I’ll be needing him to come with me outside of Orario.”
“Goddess or not, you can’t just come and take Master Bell off to who knows where!” Lili said while bristling in her seat. “Especially after the trouble you just caused for him! For all we know this is another Apollo situation!”
“First, let’s calm down and explain the situation clearly,” Hermes said, pulling from inside his jacket a letter and setting it on the table between them. “This is meant to be given to the contest winner—please note the seal on the front of it.”
They did. It was the official seal of the Guild, marking it as legitimate.
Bell carefully reached over and opened it before pulling out the letter inside of it and reading aloud. “To the one who has pulled out the Sacred Spear, the Guild hereby assigns you with a Mission of utmost importance—the subjugation of a Monster along with a coalition of other assembled Familia!”
Lili’s head twisted around at that as she leaned over Bell to peer at the message along with him, as did the others taking in the content of it. It was a Subjugation Mission that was to be carried out effective immediately, and as it was a Mission there was no way to refuse it. That was because unlike Quests that could be undertaken of one’s own volition, this came from the power of the Guild itself.
Hestia allowed her children to peruse the letter itself but instead turned to her old friend for confirmation. “So, you came to Orario to find someone to help you kill a monster?”
“Yes,” Artemis answered, looking over the spear nestled on the flat of the table. “My children and I had been hearing reports about monsters with an explosive breeding rate. Supposedly other Familia had been attempting to deal with them, and along the way, we met with the Astraea Familia. Together, we followed the trail, but the threat proved to be… difficult. So we turned to Orario for the one who could use the Divine Spear to assist us.”
“Even as we speak, Asfi and my other children are there along with Astraea and her children to keep the threat contained,” Hermes added. “The idea was that we would find a suitable candidate and hurry back, so arrangements have been made for said individual and a few others of their Familia to accompany us. The trip will take ten days to get there and that long to get back after the threat has been dealt with.”
Hearing that, Bell couldn’t help but feel uncertain about the weight of it. A monster powerful enough to warrant the intervention of at least three Familia to deal with didn’t sound like a job for someone who had only been an Adventurer for a little while now. “But wouldn’t a more powerful Adventurer be suitable, like Miss Aiz or the Braver?”
“Raw strength doesn’t determine who can use the Divine Spear,” Artemis told him, leaving forward and gently embracing his hands as her emerald eyes became fixed on his rubellite set. “The weapon chooses one based on their heart—one free of corruption and impurity. One who possesses a noble soul that can endure hardships and despair while retaining its purity. In its impartiality, the spear has deemed there is no other more capable than you. Thus, I can only place my hope in you, my Orion.”
Bell felt his words caught in his throat as he felt her touch on his hands and saw the look in her eyes. It was… how should he put it? As if she was lost in the dark and looking for someone to help her. And if there wasn’t someone else who could do it, then he would have to be the one who would. “I don’t know how much help I could be, but if there’s something I can do then I will, Lady Artemis.”
There was gratitude in her voice as she said, “Thank you, Orion.”
“I’m coming too!” Lili declared unprompted as their eyes lingered on one another for a prolonged period. “As Master Bell’s Supporter, I go where he does!”
“I’ll come too,” Welf said. “If there’s a monster problem that requires Bell, then it couldn’t hurt to bring along the swords I’ve been working on. They’ll make his job a little easier.”
“I can help too!” Primo said. “I’ve been working hard on my Magic!”
“If there are no objections, I will accompany Sir Bell as well,” Mikoto volunteered. “That’s fine, is it not, Lady Hestia?”
“Any request from a dear friend of mine isn’t one I would turn down, Guild-mandate or not,” Hestia said. “And an empty nest isn’t really comfortable to me, so I’ll be coming too. You can manage that much, right Hermes?”
“Fortunately, we should be able to fit everyone,” Hermes acknowledged, before turning to his child. “Gina, get their measurements and then run them by you-know-who. I’ll head over to tell Ganesha about the count for the travel arrangements.”
“Sure thing, Lord Hermes,” the Amazonian Child said before hopping to her feet. She produced a measuring tape from a pouch on her hips. “I’ll start with you, Cottontail.”
“Not that I’m not grateful,” Bell began as she used the tape to get his sizes. “But if we’re all going, doesn’t that leave the issue of who’ll watch our place while we’re gone—”
The door to their home opened before he could finish, and a rage-filled voice followed. “BELLLLLLL!”
In an instant, Bell’s body went rigid as fear found its way into his flesh like biting cold gnawing into his bones. His sister emerged wearing the visage of Feena, and she had changed her outfit’s appearance, likely to prevent her identity from being compromised when she left the crowd. But the flames shrouding her probably gave away that much.
Bell hands went up to placate her as the Amazon stepped away from him, measurements taken. “Forgive me, the situation is a little—urk!!”
She had grabbed him and started shaking him by the collar. “FILVIS WAS THERE, BELL! SHE WAS THERE! SHE HEARD IT ALL! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA—”
“Please don’t be mad at the Captain!” Primo begged her, coming over and attempting to grab on the illusionary clothes produced by her pendant. When her fingers went through them, she instead settled for grabbing onto her waist. “He only went on stage because of me, so if you want to be mad then be mad at me!”
“Primo—no, this isn’t…” His sister trailed off, rage slowly cooling as she looked to the Elven child before she turned her attention to divinities present. “Lady Hestia, can I speak with Bell somewhere in private?”
“The Office will be fine,” Hestia said without missing a beat. “Take as much time as you need.”
Her grip on his collar instead moved to his wrist as Welf liberated the child from her waist. She pulled Bell along hurriedly until they entered the office and then she shut the door. Once they were alone, the Half-Elf grabbed her head and sighed heavily. “…oh Goddess, I showed that side of myself to both Filvis and Primo tonight.”
Bell had observed that she was normally calm. But when she got mad, she got scary. Especially when it was at him. At least this time she hadn’t been aiming the spell at him…
“I’m… sorry about that, Bell,” she apologized. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper again.”
“No, I get it,” Bell said. “Tonight was special to you. And you got pulled into it because of me, so…”
“If it was just that then I could handle it,” Lefiya said, her voice lowering into a more somber tone. “But Filvis has a lot of… reservations and I finally got her to open her heart to me tonight. Then she had to hear all of that. I had to struggle to clear up the misconception as best I could by explaining we became friends after you protected me against that monster, but now I have to worry about her doubting where my heart lays right after we finally kissed. This is the worst…”
“I’d be happy to try and explain the situation when we get back,” her brother offered. It was one thing when it was causing problems for him, but it was another for his sister. And he couldn’t imagine how much trouble it might cause Miss Eina either. “Though, I’m afraid it’ll be some time from the look of it.”
She took in his words before asking, “What did you get yourself into this time?”
“Hestia, who was that girl?” Artemis asked while the two of them were alone within the Living Room. Since the mission was decided and all the measurements were taken, what was left was for the children to pack their belongings.
“I suppose you could say she’s someone important to Bell, but other than that it’s not my place to say,” Hestia gave her by way of an explanation. “But while we’re alone, what made you change your mind, Artemis?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were against romantic relationships between men and women, right?” Hestia pointed out. “Yet you didn’t hesitate to kiss Bell and declare your love for him in front of a bunch of strangers. That’s pretty out of character for you.”
Being Virgin Goddesses, both Hestia and Artemis had eschewed pursuing relationships when they were in Heaven. For Hestia, it was the fact that it was part of her dominion to focus on family and tranquility as the Goddess of the Hearth, so it wasn’t in her nature to pursue a romantic partner while above. It also didn’t help that there were guys like Apollo and Zeus around, but she never truly objected to the union of man and woman.
For Artemis, it was a different story. She openly detested relationships between men and women, to where she couldn’t stand the sight of it. And while she could still forge friendships, she did struggle for the most part and found it easier to relate to beasts, so she would often hunt with them as a result.
Part of why she was fond of Hestia was because she was empathetic enough that she could understand and reach out to others as needed. Even if the other party struggled to do the same. The hearth was calm and peaceful, even during the most troubling of times, and even if she used that as an excuse to be a recluse in her Temple for the most part.
The Goddess of the Moon closed her eyes as she mulled over the words. Then, with a small voice, she asked, “…Is it wrong to want to experience it for once?”
Hestia quirked her head at how frail her tone was in that moment, such a strong contrast to her usual demeanor compared to when they were above. “Don’t tell me that Aphrodite’s words got to you after all this time?”
Aphrodite was one of the Goddesses of Beauty that were around the same space as they were and would often pick fights with her. She had approached them one day to get on Artemis about how she was using chastity as an excuse to avoid being dirtied but was missing out on life by not allowing herself to experience what it meant to fall in love. It had apparently gotten under her skin.
“One of my children often told me that love was beautiful. She’d try to convince me, but I’d dismissed it so easily every time. Then…” She trailed off into a deep silence as she looked down at her own hands. “Is it wrong that I want to try to fall in love with someone, while I still have the chance?”
“It’s not wrong to want to experience something for the first time, but Bell won’t be able to reciprocate if you approach him one-sidedly like that,” Hestia told her. “Especially considering you’re a Goddess. To him, we’re to be revered. And while I want him to move away from that mindset, pressing him like that won’t work.”
“Then what should I do?” Artemis asked, which made sense considering she wasn’t familiar with what it meant to fall in love. Nor would she have many examples to draw from since she forbade it in her own Familia and had those who would pursue such a relationship leave.
“You should try getting to know him first and letting him get to know you,” Hestia advised. “That can help close the distance to where he’ll start seeing you as a woman rather than a goddess, though I can’t promise he’ll reciprocate.”
The Goddess of the Moon regarded her words carefully before looking to the emblem hanging above the fireplace. “I never imagined you would start a Familia. It seemed like too much work for you compared to before.”
“Well, part of that is because Hephaestus forced me to get a job after kicking me out of her place,” Hestia admitted. “My time here will be limited, and if I had remained as I was then I wouldn’t have a chance to experience half the things I could while I still can.”
Artemis’ emerald eyes softened as they returned back to the Goddess of the Hearth. “…Hestia, I understand a little better now about the decision you made coming down. The Flam—”
“Lady Hestia,” called from beyond of the room before she could finish. It was Bell’s sister, with him following behind as they entered the room. “Bell told me that you’ll have to leave Orario for almost a month for a mission. And while he couldn’t give me the details, I wanted to ask if there’s anything I can do to help like arranging for a friendly Familia to housesit to avoid anything from being taken or damaged?”
“Ah, right. We can’t just leave this place alone now,” Hestia said, rising up to her feet. Bell’s growth was abnormal because he was a Rare Gem. That meant information on him would be at a premium, and they’d probably look for anything that could explain his growth, such as the copies of his sheet that Primo brought up during their first training session.
And Welf’s forge would likely be raided, if not for his Magic Swords, then to stop him from making them. “I think I’ll ask if Take and Miach can housesit, but it’s a little late. Could I trouble you to deliver letters to them and my workplaces to explain our absences, since they’re familiar with you?”
“Sure thing,” she said, turning to Bell. “After I go speak with Primo, I’ll go make arrangements with the others so that if they have anything of importance they need to be handled, all they have to do is give me directions and a letter or something to explain the situation. You should probably think of everyone you want to let know about how long you’ll be gone too, otherwise they’ll worry about you.”
“I will,” Bell told her as she spun on her heels and went upstairs towards Primo’s room. He then turned his attention back to Hestia. “Goddess, is there anything in specific I should do as well after that?”
Hestia tapped her chin in thought before looking over towards her oldest friend and smiling. “Why don’t you keep Artemis company and show her around the place?”
The Goddess of the Moon’s head snapped up at that.
“We’re going to be traveling together so it’s good for the two of you to get to know each other,” Hestia explained as she strolled out of the room. “I’ll go get started on those letters, so feel free to take as much time as you want to talk.”
Leaving her first child and dear friend to get to know one another better, the preparations for the trip went rather smoothly as the night progressed. Hermes had returned after a bit and provided them with new clothes that were really good quality, and he had done it in only a few hours. All of them were rather lightweight but durable enough to match actual armor. So, unless they ran into something on par with the Middle or Deep Floors, they should be pretty safe.
Then dawn came with the sun rising over the horizon when they arrived at the top of one of the walls guarding the city through an entrance via the Ganesha Familia. The sun’s early rays were golden as they crept over the distant horizon that grew more vibrant with every passing moment. Hestia admired the sight when the sound of a dragon’s roar reached their ears.
It was time for her small Familia to depart and once more play their parts in what would be the next act in the Last Epic: The Slaying of the Black Scorpion.
Haggard. Hard. Fierce pants broke the thick silence as they escaped from lips that were peeled back to reveal ivory fangs that were dyed by the violet ichor. They were accompanied by the rise and fall of a small chest, pale-blue flesh stretched over an emaciated frame that was hidden by wild clumps of silver-blue hair. The bundles of strands were glued by a glaze of dark crimson that oozed from dozens of slits, dripping down to mingle with the violet pool that formed beneath small feet that stood amongst lifeless ebon corpses.
And from behind the stringy curtain of mangy stands were a wild, wide monstrous pair of black-slitted amber irises fixed on a single, white-haired boy.
He was sitting amongst countless stone shards from broken walls, splotches of dark crimson hiding the white hair that seemed luminous in the soft, green light. His breastplate sported long rents from which blood seeped as readily as the long tears in his jacket and black shirt. Staring wide-eyed with his back pressed against the cavernous opening, the boy held out a broken dagger as his arm shook uncontrollably.
The panting softened ever so slightly from the figure as their eyes met and the rose-colored reflection sparked recognition. Sharp, long claws retracted as tiny fingers curled into small fists and childish lips rolled over the protracted fangs. The shrunken iris expanded to become wide, and the brows drooped in exhaustion.
The broken dagger lowered slowly as fear was replaced with bewilderment when the figure turned around, hiding the lithe and narrow frame behind a dense curtain of hair that fell to the floor. Then a creeping, gnawing sensation ate away at his chest as they swayed with every glacial step over the lumps of ebony meat. Gone were the fast, frenzied movements that had been accompanied by shrieks amidst blurs of blue and black that left red and violet to paint the walls.
Now there were only weak, sluggish steps. Footfalls that took such herculean effort that they caused the tiny frame to shake with every step towards the mouth of the corridor. Until finally, with a barely perceptible whimper, they slumped over onto the ground and didn’t get back up.
Then and only then did a breath escape the boy who’d held it in his chest until then as the fear bottled inside came flowing out, directed towards another instead. His legs that had gone numb from terror found the strength to stand and then moved. Hurrying over the corpses of living shadows that were torn open to the point of stumbling and having to paw the ground like a beast to keep going forward, he came to a stop next to the shivering figure lying in a slowly expanding crimson puddle.
Then he gently brushed aside the clinging strands to see the face of a little girl beneath the crimson.
There, on the Sixth Floor, a boy and monster met.
And a family was formed.
Labored, heavy breaths escaped the mouth of Bell Cranel as he tensed his thumb and middle fingers on his right hand around the handle of his blade. There was a lingering pain from the constant extension and use. He’d have thought that the Falna would make it easier to do a thousand repetitions of the basics when it came to swinging a sword, but it seemed that was a bit much for a new Adventurer.
He was currently in one of the three training halls of what was the Takemikazuchi Familia’s home, having begun taking lessons under the War God in how to properly handle a weapon on Hestia’s behalf. She hadn’t taken it well upon hearing he nearly got himself killed on the Sixth Floor, though to be fair he hadn’t expected to get cornered by War Shadows either when the first five Floors were so easy to traverse, he made it that far without any problems. He wasn’t sure how she had gotten the agreement between them, but it seemed that he would make time for him to train every few days with the man.
It was different today as Takemikazuchi had to leave unexpectedly since something came up at his job. Bell had decided that even if the lesson was canceled, he would finish going through the drills since it was largely a repetition of three motions with the blade—vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. By practicing the basic motion on both sides over a thousand times each, Bell hoped to drill the proper way to hold the sword and then cut with it into his muscles.
He had originally used a dagger because it was among one of the cheaper options available at the Guild, portable and easy to use. But since the option presented itself, he had decided to try out a sword similar to the ones Lord Takemikazuchi’s children normally used. It was proving to be a bit more difficult than he expected since the sword was sharp along the edge, but it only really cut well if you made the slicing motion correctly and the grip was proper.
By the time he had finished the evening had come, its light peeping in through the windows of the training hall he was in. “Whew…”
Catching his breath, he opened the sliding door that led out to the yard where there were several ajura trees. They were supposedly a breed of flora that only grew within the depths of the Dungeon according to Lord Takemikazuchi. The flowering blue plants had a strange luminescence and pungent yet poignant scent that seemed almost otherworldly, and he could only imagine how mesmerizing the sight would be in the dark of night…
It was then he noticed that the training hall opposite the garden had its sliding door opened. And there, on the other side, he saw a lone figure standing with her back present to the opening. Her short, black hair fell to her shoulders as she stood in place while taking long and deep breaths that seemed to move her upper body.
That’s Miss Chigusa, isn’t it? She was one of Lord Takemikazuchi’s students, though he rarely had spoken to her given she usually wasn’t very outspoken. She was just standing there and breathing while there was a line of straw-cutting poles set up ahead of her. Was she supposed to attempt to cut through them in some sort of practice? But she’s just standing there breathing….
Breathing. Breathing. Breathing. It was as if she was in the middle of meditation that he saw the others do occasionally in passing. He didn’t fully understand beyond the fact that it was just something that they carried over from their homeland and was supposed to help them clear their minds and embolden their spirits.
He figured she was preparing herself for her drills ahead of time, so Bell made to leave quietly as to not bother her. But the moment he got ready to turn back the way he came, he saw her body nearly fall forward only for her to catch herself on one leg. Or rather than that, it was that she lowered her stance by pushing one leg back as the other bent while she huddled over clutching her sword—
—then there was a sharp sound. Almost like a steel blade being drawn from its sheathe. Yet her blade was still within its scabbard, the trembling reaching his ears as her grip on the handle shook.
That was when he realized it was coming from her breathing. She had changed the way she was breathing so that it slipped in between her teeth clenched tight enough to the point where they seemed like they would break. The very act seemed to cause her pain as beneath her soft, milky skin veins began to grow thick and bulge along her legs.
“Are you okay, Miss—” Bell moved over to her, fearing she was hurting herself somehow when she was suddenly at the far end of the training hall. Then the air popped as a shockwave came from inside of the room she was in.
And every target that had been set up slid down upon itself, severed and left to fall to the ground under its own weight.
I didn’t see her move. Bell hadn’t blinked. He hadn’t shifted his attention from her for even a moment. And from what he knew, only two of Lord Takemikazuchi’s children had reached Level Two, at which point a new Level One like him would just lose track of them. So how did she move so quickly?
“Gwaaahhhhhhh….” His attention snapped back to her when he heard her voice labored as she fell onto her knees, chest rising and falling as she tried to catch her breath. “Nnnhhhh… gaahhh…”
He rushed over to check on her. “Are you okay?”
Her head snapped up, bangs parting to reveal a surprised gaze as if she had only just realized he was there. “M-Mi…Mister… Cr-ra…nel? I… thought you…went home… early?”
He didn’t see any injuries. It just seemed like she was struggling to get her breathing under control for the most part. “I was about to when I saw… whatever that was.”
She tensed up between breaths. “You… saw…?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Was I not supposed to?”
She forced herself to sit upright on her knees, leaning close to him and grabbing him by the shoulders. “Y-You can’t tell anyone! Please! Not Lord Takemikazuchi or anyone else!”
“At least tell me what just happened,” Bell said. “What was that?”
She took a moment to finally get her breathing under control before explaining. “It was my Breathing Style. I’m still working on it.”
In her homeland, before the Gods came down, monsters ran rampant. In comparison to the monsters that existed on the surface today, these monsters were far more powerful as the Dungeon had yet to have the lid placed upon it and so they came spilling out freely. For every one monster that could be killed, often it would take a dozen or more warriors down with them even if they were just what one would consider a Level One category monster these days.
During that age, there were often only two methods of fending off greater threats. The first was the existence of Renards, whose clansmen were occasionally born with powerful Sorcery that could keep them at bay. The other was when the Gods chose to empower a chosen warrior through a nature spirit or by providing them a weapon of great strength. But what was there to do for the unchosen or ungifted?
The answer some of the Human swordsmen of that era came up with was to perfect a technique that would allow them to be able to fight the monsters with mortal flesh. First by polishing their swordsmanship to perfection. Then by incorporating a special technique.
“The name of that technique is called Total Concentration Breathing,” she continued, lowering her hand and hovering it over her diaphragm. “By taking a long deep breath so oxygen flows throughout the body, the blood circulation accelerates, and the body temperature spikes. It hyper stimulates the muscles, nerves, and organs so that they can operate well above the average capabilities briefly. The arteries expand to carry more blood, the mind sharpens, and pain becomes numb so one can keep fighting. This allowed the swordsmen who lacked a blessing or sorcery to exceed their limits and keep up with monsters of that era.”
“So it wasn’t like the Flame of Heaven or the Spirit Sword, but something that Humans came up on their own?”
She nodded. “It wasn’t commonplace as the demands to carry it out were great, even if the basics were simple. And against stronger monsters, many practitioners died. After the descent of the Gods and the Falna, more perished as they fought against the greatest of threats to finally be rid of them by combining the skills and development abilities to create what would be known as Breathing Styles.”
“I had never heard of them before,” Bell said.
“It’s not that you haven’t heard of them, it’s that you simply haven’t recognized them in the tales you may have heard,” she explained. “Most tales were written by mortals who may not have comprehended what they observed and so they could only describe what they perceived. And that was fine for the ones who cultivated them as once the practice served its purpose, it would be better left forgotten outside of family lines as traditional dances rather than be used as a tool of war in the bloody history that followed. The Falna already makes it easy enough as it is for people to kill one another.”
“Were you one of those families then?”
She shook her head. “The reason we know it is because of Lord Takemikazuchi. Even though the Gods couldn’t interfere often with the Lower World back then aside from their chosen, they still watched our efforts. And Lord Takemikazuchi is a God of War, so to see children come up with a method of their own to fight back against the monsters was something he took great pride in. So much so that he committed their acts to his eternal memory and, when we became family, he passed them onto us so that we would have a better chance to survive in the Dungeon.”
“Could you teach me?”
She pressed her hands together nervously. “Well, the basics are supposed to be simple in concept, but the execution isn’t. I’m not very good at it myself and I’ve been training for two years, so someone who hasn’t even trained their lung capacity would pretty much burn themselves out fast and likely get themselves killed attempting it in the Dungeon. Even telling you this much is probably crossing a line, so…”
It clicked for Bell then. He wasn’t their family. Hestia and Lord Takemikazuchi might have been friends and him teaching Bell the basics was a favor, but at most they were acquaintances. Even her telling him this much was probably a bit much as an attempt to give him enough details so that he wouldn’t ask the others and have them learn he knew that way.
“I understand,” Bell said. “We’ll just pretend this conversation never happened.”
It was painful how hopeful her voice sounded as she perked up. “Really?”
Bell nodded. “Every family has their secrets after all. And besides, I really shouldn’t even be here this late. I’ll head back now that I know you’re okay.”
Her shoulders relaxed, as if she had been holding a great weight upon them. “Thank you.”
That done, Bell very quickly and quietly removed himself from the premises to make his way back to his own home. Along the way, he consulted his memory on what he bore witness to. Then he opened his mouth and drew in a deep breath from his belly. It was like this, right?
In. Out. In. Out. He cycled his breathing along the way back home as an imitation of what he saw, but he couldn’t notice a major change by the time he got back. If it was as simple as breathing then it wouldn’t have fallen out of practice, even if it was around a thousand years.
No sooner than he stepped inside did the hidden door leading to the space in the chapel that Bell called home open, and from it emerged a small figure with pale-blue skin, wrapped in a white short dress. With little warning she bound up towards him and he had to extend his hands to catch her as she wrapped her arms around him to pull him into a hug. “Welcome back, Bell!”
“Gentle touches. Gentle touches!” Bell said with a strained voice while gently trying to loosen the child’s grip on him. She was a lot stronger than she looked, especially compared to a Level One Adventurer like him. If she hugged too hard she’d likely snap something on accident, and that was only because they’d trimmed down her claws to be on the safe side of things.
She was, after all, a monster.
Bell had known that from the moment he saw her on the Sixth Floor, despite how human she looked. She had been covered in wounds while ripping and tearing through all of the War Shadows that had surrounded him, her claws sharp enough to tear through them with ease. Then she had turned her attention onto him and Bell thought that would be how he would die.
But then she turned to leave and collapsed. The wounds she had sustained to that point had taken their toll, injuries he suspected should have been fatal to any normal human twice over. Realistically, he should have counted his blessings and left while he could as the matter resolved itself.
Yet, something about the expression that she made when she looked down at him stuck in his head and made him feel bad about holding a weapon against her. Then when he got a good look at her and saw her crying, shedding crystalline tears in a way no monster should be able to, he couldn’t see her as just a monster. She was an injured, little girl who was bleeding out in front of him and crying.
He considered dousing her in Potions and then walking off. It probably would have tampered down on the feeling he felt, the guilt of letting her die without doing anything. But the thought of abandoning a child in the middle of the Dungeon really didn’t sit well with him. So, despite everything he knew telling him that there would be consequences, he did the unthinkable…
He brought a monster to the surface.
Fortunately, it was after dark. He had a blanket in his bag so he managed to cover her on his back without anyone noticing as he managed to get home. It was fortunate that the place they lived was just off the beaten path, a rundown chapel to a goddess that never existed.
Hestia was… confused when she came home and found the monster there. They had only become family a little while ago and instead of something like a stray dog he brought a monster home. He struggled to find the words to explain the situation while asking her to calm down, because he wasn’t even sure how to begin…
Not at least until she woke up and started crying.
The reason was obvious in hindsight. She just woke up in a strange place, without knowing where she was or who they were. Lost, confused, and frightened, she did what one would expect of a child, and she cried.
And for humans and goddesses alike, crying children were a soft spot.
So Bell had approached her slowly and tried to soothe her with kind words and telling her it was okay. Hestia was a little more reluctant but did the same. Then she did something neither of them thought was possible and uttered three little words:
“Where am I?”
Things after that got… interesting as she managed to somewhat explain her birth from the walls of the Dungeon on one of the deeper floors. She picked up grammar fairly quickly and so he could only think that maybe it was something about her in specific. But, because of that, they understood the situation.
She had been attacked by other monsters, who smelled like her apparently, and there had been other people there too who had tried to take the gemstone on her forehead. Then there was a blank spot in her memory and she woke up covered in blood. She then decided to head upwards to get away from it all while avoiding people entirely and killing monsters that attacked her.
She had made it as far as the Sixth Floor when she apparently heard Bell’s scream when he was ambushed by the War Shadows. Her first inclination had been to ignore him. But then she saw how scared he looked and remembered what it was like for her, being attacked and helpless.
So she helped him. Yet, he had been scared of her now. It was then she realized she was no different than the others that smelled like her—just something scary that hurt others. Bell and his goddess then decided that they should at least find out what they could, so while Hestia watched her Bell would look into everything he could based on what they knew.
It took some asking around based on how she described where she came from to figure out it was apparently one of the Middle Floors, in a place called the Colossal Tree Labyrinth. That was past what was known as a Safe Point, a Floor where the Dungeon wouldn’t spawn monsters. It was the first one available for most Adventurers around Level Two, so it was far beyond his capabilities to get that low anytime soon and meant she was likely a monster within that category of dangerous.
As for what kind of monster she was, he learned that when he asked about any blue monsters with a jewel on their head and some Adventurers whose outfits had a crescent moon and glass emblem started looking at him like he’d struck gold. They nearly jacked him up to try to figure out where he’d seen a Vouivre, a species of Dragon and one of the rarest monsters in the Dungeon, before he lied and said he just heard about it in passing and wanted to ask about it. They’d tossed him like garbage afterward for getting their hopes up—which told him all he needed to know what would happen if anyone else found out about her.
They’d pluck off every last one of her scales that were haphazardly covering her body as she wailed. They’d pry her claws from her fingers and toes as she screamed. And then, when her body had nothing else of value, they’d finally rip the stone from her forehead (which would drive her berserk) before putting her down.
If they returned her to the Dungeon, monsters would continue to attack her. She’d never know a moment’s rest until something eventually managed to kill her. And if some other Adventurer found her then they’d attempt to harvest her body for everything of value, drive her mad, and then finally kill her.
There was nowhere she would be safe—no hope for her.
The thought of her suffering and dying for simply being born turned his stomach as her amber eyes stared up at him while sporting a wide smile as she nuzzled against his arm giddily. “Were you a good girl and stayed inside, Wiene?”
She had no name originally. Bell had come up with one based on one of the stories his grandfather told him. Hestia shortened to be more convenient—thus, she was Wiene to the two of them.
“Mm-hmm!” Wiene said. “All day!”
“Good girl.” He gingerly brushed her hair, eliciting a pleasant sound from her throat as from the opened door emerged Hestia. “I’m home, Goddess.”
She greeted him with a bittersweet smile. “Welcome home. We need to talk about what happened with the magic stones in the lamps below.”
The lamps below ground were powered by small magic stones like most of the appliances in Orario. Since they could be found in the Dungeon relatively easily it was effectively the primary export of Orario, and how even new Adventurers like him could make a living. “Did they burn out?”
Hestia shook her head. “Wiene ate them all. I spotted her after we had finished the showering and I was cleaning it up for you to use next.”
“Wiene, is that true?” Bell asked. It wasn’t that he doubted Hestia’s words, given she was the goddess he revered and took him in. But he wanted to hear it from her.
For her part, the dragon child seemed to understand that what she had done had caused some problems. Her instinctive response was to lower her body and avert her gaze as she confessed. “Y-Yes… Sorry.”.
Hestia’s gentle eyes softened as she came over and caressed the top of her head. “It’s not that we’re upset. It’s the fact that we don’t know why you’re doing it. You can eat our food, but the fact that you’re eating magic stones means that might not be enough. And there’s realistically no way for us to figure out unless you tell us why, since we can’t exactly take you to get a check-up.”
For as small and human-looking she was, since Wiene was a monster it was entirely possible that outside of the Dungeon she just wasn’t getting enough nutrition to stay healthy or some other reason. And, whether he liked to admit it or not, monsters killed and ate people. Wiene had killed other people, by her own admission.
She wasn’t in control of herself because they tried to take her gemstone, but she did kill them. And now that he had brought her to the surface, Bell couldn’t let her do that ever again. He likely couldn’t stop her if she started to be honest, given her draconic lineage made her far stronger, dexterous, and faster than him. But he would have to do something if she started attacking people, even if it meant paying the price for that with his life.
“…I might have to take her back to the Dungeon,” Bell decided, which sparked an immediate reaction as Wiene grabbed his shoulders and pressed her fingers in hard enough Bell felt it in his bones. “Wiene, gentle touches!”
Her fingers remained tense as she pressed her face against his chest and pleaded with him. “Don’t leave me! No more stones! Promise!”
“I’m not talking about abandoning you,” he said, wincing slightly as he navigated towards the altar and sat her down. “You could smell food in the Dungeon when you were on your way up, right? Yummy stuff other than magic stones?”
She nodded. “Mm-hmm.”
“Then we’ll go get some together and then come back home,” Bell explained before turning back to his goddess, whose brow was raised at that. “We can head there at night since no one typically has a reason to enter that late since the Exchange closes down. And chances are if we stay off the main paths we won’t be spotted.”
“Hmmm… it’s not ideal, but there’s not much of a choice, is there?” Hestia sighed softly. There just weren’t any reasonable alternatives either of them could provide considering the situation as it stood. “There’s always the risk of her being spotted as you’re traveling though…”
Hestia then turned to look the child up and down. She was taking in her size, in particular. “Well, I can think of one solution from a secondhand shop I visited a few times since I came down to the Lower World, but it might be a little bit of a squeeze…”
Wiene craned her head curiously at the statement in a manner that reminded Bell of a kitten.
Bell took a deep breath as he made it as far as the Sixth Floor of the Dungeon once more.
The trip down had been more stressful than he expected given that along the way there were still a few Adventurers hanging around. They were all Level Ones, nighthawks who had the idea to take advantage of the empty corridors to farm the top five levels overnight. Then when morning came, they would turn in their magic stones while the others were pouring in. Thanks to that, however, he didn’t have to fight as much on his way down.
“Hey, calm down,” Bell said in a hushed whisper as he steadied himself from the jerking motion of the backpack strapped onto his back. It was far larger than his normal one, but it looked worn and old and beaten up. “We’re not sure if someone else is still around, Wiene.”
“People smell above,” she whispered back. “Not here. Come out please?”
Bell hesitated for a moment before considering just how accurate her sense of smell was. He knew she could pick up the scent of monsters and people to a far greater degree than any other monster he personally knew of on the Upper Floors, and the Dungeon supposedly got far larger the deeper you went. If she was from the Middle Floors and could navigate her way up without being spotted by any other humans, she could be trusted on that front. “Okay, you can come out.”
He crouched down to keep himself stable as Wiene hurriedly forced open the top before climbing over his shoulders and landing on the ground next to him. She was covered in a tanned robe with rather ragged edges, small enough that she fit them rather well. They, along with the bag, were at the secondhand shop that Hestia knew on the surface, goods that had seen use by other Adventurers and were discarded… or scavenged from the deceased.
It wasn’t ideal and the robes were dingy, but they at least covered her body. And they were made with some of the other racial features, like pointed ears, in mind. Between that and a band covering her forehead jewel, as long as no one got close enough to get a good look at her face beneath the hood when it was up, she could just pass herself off as a Supporter.
Of course, Wiene immediately pulled back the hood to reveal her amber eyes that were folded inwards while her lips pursed into a small pout. “Clothes stink. Take off?”
Bell shook his head. The dragon child didn’t like clothes in particular, though she could at least be convinced to wear the dress Hestia had given her without too many complaints. But it was a hard rule that she had to remain covered up given that the moment her identity was compromised everything would be over. Their little family would end up being torn apart.
“We’ll wash them later,” Bell promised as he brought the hood back over her head. “But for now, be a good girl and keep it on for me. Do you smell anything you can eat?”
A low, disheartened noise escaped her throat before she tipped her head back. Her small nose wrinkled as she took sniffs of the air, gradually lowering her head as she fell onto a crouch. Then she looked off further to the right. “There. Below.”
He frowned. “Below here? You mean the Seventh Floor?”
She rose back to her feet and bobbed her head. “Food. Lots of food.”
Bell weighed the options. He had only gone as far down as the Sixth Floor and didn’t have a map of that floor. Their Familia was poor and the ones at the Guild were expensive in contrast, so he had instead taken to drawing his own until the incident before. But after what happened he did take the time to learn what was on it and the rest of the Upper Floors monster-wise.
There would be new threats there with Killer Ants and Purple Moths, the latter which had a hard exoskeleton and the former which could poison you if you were covered in its scales too much. It would be risky going down there. But Wiene said there was a lot of food there she could eat. That meant that what they were feeding her really hadn’t been enough.
To not go would be to make her starve, and that wasn’t he could stomach. “Okay. We’ll go get your food. But stay close to me.”
They pressed on along the main route of the floor. Since their goal was on the floor below, he didn’t need to be concerned with exploring any of the alternative routes. The faster they went, the faster it would end.
But as they reached a crossroad guided by the direction of the smell, Wiene came to a stop and held her hand out to stop Bell as well. “Monsters.”
Bell reached for the weapon sheathed on his hip, fingers wrapping around the leather grip as from behind the corner emerged the living shadows made manifest. Standing firm on two legs, with elongated arms that gave way to claws that existed to cut through flesh and bone of Adventurers, multiple War Shadows crept from the darkness to focus their singular eye that resembled an ominous star on the pair. He whirled around at the sound of walls giving birth, the stone womb expanding to deliver another group behind them, closing the kill box.
A knot formed in his throat as he took count. At least six on one side and four on the other, leaving them surrounded in the crossroads. If they killed one set and rushed off in a single direction without knowing where they were going, they could wind up being cornered like he had been the last time.
That was when the dragon child spoke. “Wiene will protect Bell.”
She had already found her way to his backside, as if she was intended to cover his entire body with her tiny frame. The sight of such a slender young girl getting ready to throw herself into battle to shield him was enough to make him feel a bit embarrassed. Even knowing she was more than capable of doing so.
“Thank you, Wiene,” Bell told her, the hiss of Far Eastern steel leaving its sheathe cutting the haunting silence of the War Shadows shambling towards them. “But I can’t let you get hurt while I sit back and watch again. Leave this side to me. Okay?”
Then there was no more time to talk as the murderous shadows descended upon them.
Stygian claws gleamed in the light lining the corridors’ greenish walls. Wicked points were aimed to tear the pair apart. Driven by the murderous impulse that seemed rooted within the minds of all monsters, they would find flesh and stain themselves the vivid color of crimson…
“RRWARRR!” A battle cry birthed from a small throat was followed by her claws, which had been meticulously trimmed down, lengthening once more. She lashed out in a surge of aggression, leaving three severed torsos to be sent sailing in the air by the draconic claws in a single lunge.
Landing on all fours, her nails scraped through the solid stone of the ground as she turned her head towards the gazing orbs. It revealed a feral visage that consisted of amber iris, shrunken and slitted. Snarling, she pounced towards the first monster that had the malice to step forward and raked through its torso from shoulder to hip. Then, plowing through the corpse to get to the next War Shadow, the dragon child brought her other arm around to its head with such brutality it was like fruit bursting open after being smashed with a hammer, sending violet ichor splashing about as she continued her assault.
“HAAH!” A limb was severed as steel flashed with an audible ki-ai as a gray streak marked an arch. Dark clothes slipped through the opening created in the formation, allowing Bell to break through the enclosing wall of claws.
In contrast to Wiene’s wild swings that made use of her raw strength as a Level Two monster to tear them apart in a single stroke, Bell’s swings of his sword were more fluid and numerous by necessity. The razor-sharp edge of the blade was his protection and his weapon all at once, as a diagonal arch severed a claw that reached for him as he slid his front foot forward and then pivoted the handle of the sword along with his body. Defense into offense, he then lashed out with the chambered arm and drew a line through where the rib cage would be as the sharpened point cut roughly halfway through its mass before passing out the opposite end.
He had no time to pay attention to the entire body disintegrating into ash as the small magic stone that sustained it was sliced out in passing, Instead, he readjusted his footing and used the blade to catch two violet streaks that came for him. Sparks blossomed and slight tremors ran up his arm where the attacks were intercepted, but then he used his left hand at the bottom of the handle to reorient the blade and swung down while adjusting his footing to add to the motion.
The shadow split open, a diagonal parting of flesh that ran down the torso until it met where the stomach would be before he slid backward and maintained his stance as the blade came free. It proved to be the right call as the flashing of stygian claws tore through the corpse in an attempt to cut him down, the remaining War Shadow’s attempt met with a thrust of the point that pierced through the ominous orb that served as its eye. Bell then tore it free upwards, leaving it to fall while he stood ready for the next assault.
None came as Wiene finished wrenching free her tiny hand from the gaping hole she tore through one before it turned to ashes. She looked around, her ears twitching, before turning back to Bell with a childish smile being while being drenched in monster blood. “Wiene protected Bell!”
“… That’s right,” Bell told her after a slight pause as he remembered to breathe, filling his lungs not to expand his chest outwards but letting it flow into his diaphragm like he’d seen Chigusa do. He didn’t know if it would merit results as it did for her, but it couldn’t hurt. Then he reached over and used the hem of his jacket to wipe her face clean before patting her head. “There will be more ahead, so we’ll need to be careful. And if you hear any people around, let me know immediately.”
She nodded enthusiastically at the affection. “Promise!”
And with that, the two ventured deeper into the Dungeon.
“Welcome home, you two,” said a soft, slightly tired voice the moment they stepped through the entrance of the Abandoned Church they called home just before the crack of dawn. Thanks to it being located in the slums and off the main streets, they managed to avoid any prying eyes as they emerged from the Dungeon shortly ago after venturing to the Seventh Floor.
“Goddess, did you wait up for us all this time?” Bell asked, naturally concerned given the time she normally woke for work. She would have been up for nearly a full day at this point. “What about your job?”
“What mother wouldn’t wait up for her children with concern when they were going back to a place they had so much trouble in before?” Hestia said, rubbing one of her eyes. “I sent word to my boss to say I won’t make it today. Did you find food for Wiene?”
“Lots and lots,” Wiene said cheerfully as she skipped forward, clad in clothes that were awash in various hues of monster blood and purple powder. “All full now!”
“Wiene, take off your clothes first. We don’t want any of that to get on Goddess—” She was already stripping before he started the second sentence, leaving him to avert his eyes as he shifted topics as well. “There’s a place called a Pantry on the Seventh Floor that had something coming out of the crystal pillar there. I packed as much as I could in some bottles, and she drank from the pool until she was full. So we should be good for a little while.”
He neglected to mention she had also eaten Poison Moths that had been trying to cover her in the purple powder. She largely seemed to have shrugged it off and simply settled for snatching them out of the air before eating them. The texture was crunchy, according to her.
Again, he chalked it up to her being a Level Two monster from the dragon family.
“That’s great, but now you both need a bath,” Hestia said as she caught Wiene who rushed up to hug her affectionately. She had clearly missed the Goddess of the Hearth, and the feeling was reciprocated as Hestia gently brushed her head. “I’ll take her with me first and then you can come in afterward.”
“Watch your nails, Wiene,” he said as they went down to the bathroom to wash up while he took to dealing with the other tasks that needed sorting out. He needed to clean his blade, their clothes needed to be set aside so they could be washed, the food for her preserved, and the drop items from the various things that had tried to kill them sorted out to be taken to the Exchange in the afternoon.
By the time he’d finished and gotten to take his bath, Bell felt tired and wanted nothing more to get to sleep. But before he could hit the couch, Wiene grabbed his hands and pulled him into bed with them. She wanted them to sleep together.
He felt obligated to try to say it wasn’t appropriate, but his Goddess insisted that they just do it so they could all get a good night’s rest as a family. So he laid on the bed with the dragon child between them, her nails chewed down somewhat hastily by her at some point while they were bathing to prevent her from hurting them by mistake. She fell asleep rather quickly, a content smile on her face.
“It’s hard to believe she’s a monster when she’s like this, isn’t it?” Hestia whispered.
“Yeah,” Bell agreed, even as her brutality flashed in his mind. Those same tiny hands and slender arms that crushed the head of a Needle Rabbit like it was nothing were balled into her chest as she breathed softly. “Goddess, are you really okay with this?”
“Yes,” Hestia told him without reservation. They both knew the risks of what they were doing, but to her it didn’t even register as a problem anymore. “Even if it might be a little weird, I’m happy to have a family like this after being alone for so long. I think that maybe it was fate that we all found each other, don’t you?”
A Goddess rejected by child after child for not being able to provide stability with so little to her name.
A boy left without a home after arriving, unable to fulfill his dream.
A child with the world and everything in it against her.
It was a thread of loneliness that bound them together like the Red String of Fate. It connected Hestia to Bell when she took him in, a mother finding a son to treasure. It connected Bell to Wiene when she rescued him, a little sister looking for a brother in this uncaring world. And it connected Wiene to Hestia, a daughter that only a divine being whose very nature was the warmth of a hearth found in a home could accept without hesitation.
It was a thread that was thick and grew thicker with each passing day. But as it was now, something could easily sever it from the outside. And he couldn’t keep relying on her to protect him all the time, putting herself at risk.
He had to get stronger with what he could.
He had to protect his little family.
Chapter 28: Holy Moon Festival – Night
“Elio meticulously drilled more knowledge into me as more time passed. At least three seasons by my count. Every spirit had preferences and quirks, but because they couldn’t communicate with words the one responsible for recognizing the signs was the other party.
I understood that his lessons were important. But as a child who noticed her brother’s hair getting longer, that he was aging right before her eyes, I began to feel anxious that… that he really did trade his future for mine. So, I begged Elio to at least let me prove I knew what I was doing, hoping to show that I was ready to be able to use Magic.
To my surprise, he agreed.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic III: Preparations
Lefiya found it difficult to sit still as she stared at the rising moon.
Stars lined the night sky, glittering diamonds strewn across the dark curtain of the boundless expanse. The luminous pale-blue moon that was revered since before the descent of the divine was larger than usual, close enough that from a distance it seemed to almost be touching the tower that rose to the heavens. Its silvery-blue rays were cast down strongly upon the Labyrinth City, leaving the streets and buildings awash in the gentle hue.
She should be here soon. The Half-Elf felt impatient despite the calming babbling of the water fountain just behind her drowning out the ambient noise of the other people loitering about in various states of excitement and nervousness within the Central Square. Because the Tower of Babel was at the heart of Orario, the plaza around it served as a common gathering place during events like these where individuals from different lots in life would meet before heading off to be with one another.
Lefiya’s appearance drew the gaze of others as a natural consequence of the measures she took in preparation for the occasion after she finished her training session with Alicia. Her hair, lustrous thanks in part to a conditioner, was set in a flowing ponytail and kept bound by a silver hairband. It matched the choker around her neck and armbands just beneath her shoulders, each one of them emblazoned with ivy and floral designs that caught the light from the moon and the magic-stone lamps nearby. Just beneath it was the pendant that Lord Hermes gifted her, which she took advantage of to disguise her clothing as to not draw attention from her Familia on the way out.
Her skin, pristine with a healthy glow from the use of the cream Alicia lent her, was adorned in a pale-green corset dress with a longer skirt in lieu of her usual pink one. Her blouse and skirt were a matching cream-colored pair, and her shoes were a dainty green set that fit comfortably over somewhat more revealing stockings than her normal pair. Altogether her appearance emphasized the elegance and beauty of the Elven race to the eyes of many there.
There were more lustful looks from younger men whose dates would be very displeased with them. But none of them dared approach her carelessly since if a woman was dressed in such a manner here it meant she was awaiting someone. Plus, she had her spare wand in her lap as a silent deterrent from anyone getting funny ideas.
A general rule of thumb in Orario was to pay attention to anything that looked like it could also be used as a weapon when you planned to approach someone. That was one of the key methods of seeing if they were an Adventurer since even a child could be a threat with the Falna. What seemed to be a hairpin keeping one’s hair up could easily double as a stiletto, and metal bands could double as knuckledusters. There was an entire part of the fashion industry in Orario that catered to female Adventurers that catered to combat accessories, after all.
Step. Step… Step… Step. Step…
Soft, uncertain footfalls reached Lefiya’s ears as she continued to wait while staring up at the moon above. They were a notable contrast to the playful steps, excited jaunts, and eager shuffling off in the distance as couples and friends gathered to head off and enjoy the festivities. And as they came closer, she finally turned her head towards the sound and registered her date had arrived.
The Elf with the moniker of Maenads stood at the edge of the fountain, a few meders of distance between them that may as well have been a world away with how reluctant she seemed. Her very posture exuded an air of nervousness that seemed almost foreign for one who had braved the depths of the Dungeon as she had. More so from the slight tremors rolling through her figure as she clasped the hem of what was an entirely different garment than her usual set, or even the one she wore in the Spirit Forest.
“Cute…” The words slipped out without conscious thought on the Half-Elf’s part as she rose to her feet. And the way they made her date fidget as crimson blushed upon her alabaster cheeks only accentuated how cute she was. “You’re so cute, Filvis!”
“My Lord… gave it to me…” she muttered so softly that Lefiya strained to catch her voice. “I was going to wear the clothing I had from the Spirit Festival, but he said that they were more suited to his colors. And I should dress to match my partner, so…”
It wouldn’t surprise Lefiya if Lady Riveria had that in mind when she had the outfits prepared, should she choose to continue to wear them outside of the festival. It was practical for Dungeon wear as well, being made of very durable materials. But given that Filvis confessed to Lord Dionysus, and he seemingly rejected her, it would probably have been perceived as a slight to present herself to Lefiya while in them.
So, he arranged for her to get an outfit that came closer to Lefiya’s preferences, as she had once told Lady Hestia. That was to say it was a layered dress suitable for nobility. And lots of frills.
Her outermost layer was a purple cowl in the same color as the ribbon Lefiya normally wore, with a large pink bow nestled over it. It had long sleeves that came down to a decorative white hem with long gloves of the same color preventing her bare skin from exposure. Resting on top of the dark lustrous strands of her raven black hair was a hairband of plain design that was also purple, like the rest of the first layer of the dress.
The second layer was a thinner, pink fabric with a white horizontal line near the edges that fed into frills beneath it. That design complimented the next layer, which inverted the colors to have mostly white fabric with a pink vertical line before coming to yet another set of frills that were purple like the outermost layer. The white stockings and purple shoes rounded out her outfit, making it perfect for a romantic evening like this.
“It doesn’t suit me, does it?” asked the Cute Elf, her scintillating crimson eyes averting from the dazzling azure pair fixated on her.
“That’s not true,” Lefiya said without hesitation as she closed the gap between them and grasped her hands. “You look so gorgeous that I can’t help but feel my heart jump in my chest when I see you like this.”
Her words only served to deepen the red on Maenads’ cheeks. It spread out to encompass her face and steam poured out of her ears. “H-How can you admit that with a straight face!?”
The Elegant Half-Elf simply giggled. “Ehehe… since you’re here tonight I don’t have to hide how I feel, right?”
Those words seemed to have the opposite effect than intended, as rather than loosen her up, her expression soured ever so slightly. “That’s right… I owe you an explanation, don’t I?”
Lefiya’s head tilted slightly at the sudden change as her partner looked around for someplace quiet and then pulled her along. “Filvis, what’s wrong?”
It was only once they were alone that she took a breath and explained things. “Lefiya, you… must understand even before what happened to me in the past, I never really considered the notion of falling in love. Not with Lord Dionysius. Not with you. Not with anyone. It was… something I just never considered as a priority.”
That was understandable. There were plenty of reasons to become an Adventurer, whether it was for riches or fame or companionship. While she didn’t know Filivis’ reason for leaving her home forest to come to Orario, it had to be a reason great enough that she gave up the freedom to leave when she joined a Familia and gave her consent to the God who took her in.
Filvis’ gloved hands reached up to her upper arms and grasped them tightly, as if to hold herself as she diverted her gaze to the ground. “And after the Nightmare… I gave up on the notion entirely and put a wall around my heart. Unable to protect the Familia members I led into that trap, or even die with them, I was not worthy of anyone. I still don’t feel like I am, to be honest.”
Hearing her confession on her survivor’s guilt hurt to listen to. Lefiya reached up to touch her, but before her fingers could reach the Maenads shook her head. “Filvis…”
“Please, let me finish,” she begged. “If you console me now, I won’t be able to go on and I need you to hear this.”
She reluctantly agreed to do so. “Okay.”.
Filvis swallowed a lump in her throat and kept going. “Even today I am reminded by the empty rooms in our home of the Familia members I led that day to their deaths. Many other parties I worked with all perished while relying on me. Banshee is an appropriate title for me, in that regard.”
It hurt listening to her say that again. So much so that Lefiya had to bite down on her lower lip to avoid telling her she was wrong. But she had to keep her promise and let her get it off her chest.
“But, in spite of that, Lord Dionysus never abandoned me,” Filvis continued. “He accepted me, an empty shell of a ruined being that was impure beyond belief. He never stripped me of my position or blamed me. He was grateful that I came back, and he accepted that I was part of his Familia. That was when I fell for him, even though I knew those feelings likely wouldn’t be returned—his love for me was not the same as mine for him.”
Lost in grief with death surrounding her, yet he still extended his hands and embraced her with open arms. It was natural she would fall in love with him. Lefiya knew that and didn’t blame her for it, since she could imagine doing the same thing if the circumstances were the same.
The Maenads bought her hands to her chest. “But even though having him accept me gave me purpose and made living like this bearable, I had forgotten many things. How to smile. How to laugh. How to feel joy. I lost them all and felt like I didn’t deserve them in the first place, so I was fine with that. Then…”
Her voice cracked, leaving her to trail off for a moment to catch her breath. Her crimson eyes then met with Lefiya’s and bore into them. She was trying to convey the depths of her emotions in the event that her words failed her.
“Then… even knowing I was responsible for so much death… you took my hand. You opened your heart to me, put your trust in me, and continued to stay by my side no matter how much I tried to push you away. You accepted me and…for the first time in a long time… I felt happy and warm inside.”
The Half-Elf’s memories flashed back to that day on the Eighteenth Floor. It seemed distant for only being a short time ago, but the memory was still vivid. She recalled how Filvis had turned her back to her, telling her not to associate with her because she was tainted and would lead to her death as well.
Lefiya had struggled to find words. Any words that could help her. Any words that would stop her for her own sake, so that she didn’t continue to suffer. Anything to help her. So, when her mind failed her, she listened to her heart and let it speak where her mind couldn’t.
“You’re not sullied. You are the most beautiful person in the world.”
The words had no reason behind them. They had only met a short time ago and barely knew each other. But despite that those words came from her heart and continued to flow out. If she didn’t know much about her then she would find out more about her from that day.
And there, after an awkward and painful silence where she believed that she had humiliated herself, she saw it for the first time. She saw Filvis’ smile and knew that she was right. There had been nothing more beautiful to her.
“We’ve gone through so much since then and my feelings have only grown,” Filvis stated. “The darker part of me was always waiting for you to say you didn’t mean it that way or anything that would let me think it was just my heart playing tricks. But after the Spirit Festival, I couldn’t ignore the truth that it wasn’t just a friendship between brethren when you tried to… kiss me…”
Lefiya really had lost her self-control then. It could have turned out so much worse if she had read Filvis wrong. And in front of a bunch of other Elves when she was representing Lady Riveria. It would have been the Alicia incident all over, only this time she really would have felt like dying.
“I was torn between the two of you because I owe you both so much and you’re the only two who have coaxed these feelings from deep inside of me. However, I had no desire to be so greedy as to want both of you when I didn’t really feel worthy of either of you to begin with. You both deserve someone you can dedicate your hearts to in full, and while I still had reservations, I wanted to at least ensure I could do that much for at least one of you.”
The fact that Filvis was in front of her made it clear how that had gone. So Lefiya wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to remain silent. Rejection was hard, especially when it came to the heart. Even being here was no doubt difficult for her.
“Lord Dionysus told me that he loved me as Familia,” she confessed. “He loves us all in his own way, though it may not seem like it at times. To him, we are all important in our own way, and so long as he remained on the Lower World it would be wrong to accept my love jealously and steal my future from me when his life was eternal whereas mine was not.”
Elves lived a long time. Far longer than most other races on the Lower World. But the Gods and Goddesses lived for eternity. The gap between the lifespans was as vast as that of a Human and a Pure-Blooded Elf, but that didn’t mean such a gap couldn’t be breached—after all, Lefiya wouldn’t have been born if that was the case.
But it did mean that they would have to part ways, and one would have to live without the other until the end of their days. For Elves, grief and longevity did not mix well, but they would eventually die and be reborn. For an immortal being, that end would never come, and they would have only two options in the end.
The first was to put up with the pain of the loss for the rest of their existence, which would be agonizing considering how painful loss could be. The second was to decide to return to Heaven with them to keep their soul by their side, giving up on their place here below and the rest of the children they left behind. Knowing that, any single child wishing for their love to be returned would be seen as selfish when the deities were so much more than them.
Even so, many children did yearn for their deity’s affection. To have their love be truly returned in earnest. It was beautiful in its own way—painful and bittersweet, but beautiful.
“I had given up on thoughts of a future outside of serving Lord Dionysus, who accepted me despite my failings. But I want to see how a future would be with you,” Filvis finished. “I am sorry if it sounds like I’m clinging to you to feel something again, and if you wish to part ways with me for being so self—”
Unable to hold her tongue anymore, Lefiya finally slipped up and let her voice out. “Don’t finish saying that. Otherwise, I really will get mad at you.”
Her sudden warning caught the Maenads off-guard. “L-Lefiya?”
Even so, the Half-Elf let out her thoughts. “It’s only natural to feel the way you do after all you’ve gone through. To cling to someone who accepted you and give you even the little things that make life worth living. And it’s not like I don’t know what it feels like to have survived when others have died in your place. You were there too.”
She hadn’t even known the members of the Hermes Familia very well. Yet when she asked them to protect her, they did so without hesitation. As she stood there, unable to move due to the accumulation of magical energy while finishing her spell, she should have died when the attack came towards her.
Yet she lived because Miss Elilly threw herself in front of the attack. Covered in the woman’s blood and forced to watch the life fade from her eyes as she continued to sing, Lefiya still wished she had been better so that never needed to happen. And if she didn’t continue getting stronger, someday that scene could play out again… only for it be her brother or Filvis or someone else she cared about instead.
“…Filvis, it’s natural to cling to whatever you can to feel happy,” Lefiya said after a deep breath to rein in her emotions. “So don’t apologize for that ever again. If not for your own sake, then for those who aren’t there anymore. And for those who care about you, like me.”
Shame and guilt clouded Filvis’ beautiful face. It didn’t suit her, and Lefiya hated she had been the cause. But if she said nothing then it would have been the same as allowing her to keep thinking it was wrong to be happy. And that was wrong.
“To be happy, we cling to what we must. No matter what that might be… or the price of it.” It seemed like she was taking a moment to truly take the Half-Elf’s words to heart as she muttered softly. Then she finally looked Lefiya in the eyes again and asked, “And being with me makes you happy too?”
“Or course,” she said with a small pout at how obvious that should have been. Her mood had been somewhat soured by the discussion. “It’s natural to be happy with the people you treasure, right?”
The Cute Elf’s lips pulled back into a smile that truly suited her. “Then I suppose I’m the happiest person in the world right now. You truly are my dearest treasure…”
Lefiya felt her heart start racing at that. “Then shall we go enjoy the festival together?”
“Just a moment,” Filvis said, extending her left hand out and spreading her fingers wide. Then with her right forefinger and thumb, she reached over and did the one thing Lefiya didn’t expect her to do willing or without coaxing. She pulled free her glove to expose her pale, slender hand for her to see, one after the other.
Then those very same bare hands were extended for her to take. “Shall we pick up where we left off at the Spirit Festival, my dearest treasure?”
“Wow, that’s so cute…”
Elfy couldn’t help but be drawn to one of the stalls that had been set up in the market area located on the west side of Orario. She was one of ten young women who could all proudly claim to be part of one of the most prestigious Familia within the Labyrinth City, each of them an Adventurer who had braved the depths of the Dungeon. Those same fearless explorers of the depths where monsters awaited around every corner were currently mystified at the display set up in front of them.
It was an accessory shop, set up for the Holy Moon Festival. Such stalls weren’t uncommon given that the festivities were a prime time for artisans to ply their trade and market their goods at lucrative prices. But it was a chance for many different artisans to create masterpieces based around a theme, giving them a chance to express their creativity for the sake of making them unique at the same time.
From the top hung pendants that were strung up on cords, crystalline ovals in which were pressed silver flowers that shone lovely. Transparent bangles likewise were set on displays, petals from Ajura trees that carefully formed a wreath inside and somehow maintaining their sky-blue color that shone dimly in the night. Hairbands modeled after a crescent moon that glowed with a luminous, soft hue were present as well.
“I haven’t seen designs quite like this before,” said Anakitty Autumn, or Aki to her friends. She was heading the small band of girls, consisting of herself, Elfy, Claire, Sharon, Lisa, Remilia, Koko, Ruuni, Rhakta, and Shifon. “These flowers come from the Great Tree Labyrinth, don’t they?”
“That’s right,” answered a gentle yet buxom bovine beauty, sporting cow horns, ears, and a tail that was the same color as her long, brown hair. She wore a sleeveless sweater and arm warmers given the autumn chill. “All of the jewelry here was crafted using materials from the Middle Floors of the Dungeon with the help of our Captain and members.”
This stall in particular was manned by members of the Dia Familia, a relatively small Familia that operated within Orario. Though their members were Adventurers, they weren’t dedicated explorers who ventured into the depths and braved the frontiers. Rather they had their own professions and treated it more like a part-time career.
“It’s quite elegant work,” Shifon chimed in. As an Elf she was naturally drawn to the refined craftsmanship and more than a few would complement her silver hair. “And, if I’m not mistaken, the fragrance of the flowers comes through as well?”
Koko, Rahkta, and Ruuni brought their heads closer and took in the scent before confirming as such. “Mixed into the mold used, maybe?”
“But each one has the scent of the different flowers inside.”
“So they would have to use a lot of different ones, right?”
The inquiry was only met with a mischievous wink from the girl sporting her own handiwork in her hair. “That’s a trade secret. All I can say is that many sacrifices were made to get Daisy motivated, and Lady Dia was quite proud of the pieces we made. Especially the matching sets for couples.”
Rather than the mirth of excitement such a proclamation would make amongst buyers, the group instead largely withered with despondent looks amongst themselves. For you see, among the gathered none were in an active relationship due to the demands of the Familia between the Expeditions and various tasks that came with being part of one of the largest Familia within Orario. If they were in a relationship, they wouldn’t have gone together in a group like this.
“I planned on remaining virtuous for at last another five or six decades,” Shifon said, which was actually a pretty standard response for Elves considering their lifespans and birthrates. Adventuring being what it was meant that it was usually best to date another Adventurer if you were going to date at all. And since childrearing was time-consuming that was typically best left after retirement, given the complexities involved and the ever-present risk of leaving a child behind with no parents should the worst happen.
“Well, I was thinking about kids and grandkids someday, but right now there are pretty slim pickings…” Remilia trailed off when she considered her prospects largely within the Loki Familia. And while there were obvious prime candidates like Finn or Gareth, they were untouchable for a myriad of reasons. The rest of the guys were people she considered comrades-in-arms but settling down with them was more daunting than she liked.
“There’s only one among us who could make the most out of a matched pair,” Lisa whispered. Then, in unison, their eyes all fell onto the senior member of their group at Level Four. A certain Cat Person whose ears flapped back and forth in slight annoyance as she placed her hands on her hips.
“Oh, don’t start with that again,” Anakitty said, rolling her eyes in the process. She and Raul had heard it often enough that they didn’t even bother to refute the claims, being perfectly willing to let them believe what they wanted. But it was a different story when someone outside of the Familia could hear, like the young woman running said stall and her eyes were glimmering to the point where Aki could see the rumor starting to spread all over Orario.
Needling aside, some of the young women purchased accessories to keep among themselves. They wouldn’t wear them in the Dungeon, but for casual wear it would complement their outfits nicely. Then they spent some more time visiting the various other shopping booths before they decided that they should try out the festival-exclusive snacks.
“Wasn’t the Hostess of Fertility having a special menu for tonight?” Lisa suggested. It was a restaurant that several of the Familia frequented on occasion, though they all had their own preferential places like Hibachitei. “I remember last year the drinks were pretty nice.”
“Oh yeah, when one of the guys got a little too drunk and booted out, only to have to return the next day and beg for forgiveness,” Sharon said with her eyes closed as she recalled the memory vividly. Of the Demi-Human races, some were more… susceptible to alcohol than others and thus got hammered really quickly. “We probably won’t be able to get a table, but it couldn’t hurt to see what they have to-go before visiting the stalls along the way.”
With their destination set, the group made their way northeast. Their path would eventually lead them to the Main Street that the restaurant was located on, which allowed for a straight path to Babel and was likely brimming with festival-goers who were in a celebratory mood and thus plenty of food stalls that managed to get permits to set up along the roadside.
But as they traveled, Elfy found herself stalling for a moment as her gaze was drawn eastward. Her mind strayed as a nagging curiosity began to swell within her. The idle thoughts she had pushed down since her roommate had left without saying a word and her closet was missing a particular garment.
“Elfy.” Her eyes were drawn back to Anakitty upon hearing her name being called. “It’s this way. Let’s go.”
“…You guys go ahead,” she said after some thought, taking a few steps back. “I think I saw some cute crystal slippers back there that I wanted to reconsider getting before they end up getting sold. I’ll catch up in a bit.”
Aki’s brows folded in slightly and her mouth opened as if she wanted to say something. But then she reconsidered and sighed. “Just don’t take too long, okay?”
“I’ll be back before you know it,” promised the Cheerful Mage before she ran back the way she came. Not all the way. Just far enough to where she could double back eastward while they continued northeast. Those shoes she spotted were cute but there was something more pressing occupying her thoughts and there was a compulsion to just… see it for herself.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know what she was going to see. But not knowing and leaving it to her imagination would be worse. All she needed to do was take a quick peek to ease her mind and then she could return to the others and have fun without those thoughts taking up the back of her mind.
That desire, to rest her curiosity so she could have fun with the rest of her friends, was what led Elfy Colette to Amour Square. The square had long been known as a meeting place for those passionate encounters, where couples could gather to express their love. There was even history behind it, said to be the very site where one mortal child, in the early days of Orario, spotted a Goddess whose very presence stole his breath away. It was not an uncommon tale by any stretch, but his efforts to earn her affection were a different story.
He delved into the Dungeon, back before those who ventured within were known as Adventurers. He fought and scraped and earned his riches there, even as his body gradually succumbed to the dangers nestled deep within the gaping hole. And with his hard-earned wealth, he finally commissioned the Square and the statue in the center of it be built in her honor and asked for her hand in marriage. It was said the Goddess was so moved that when he succumbed to his injuries and perished, she followed him up to Heaven and the square was left behind as a testament to their romance.
Or so the legends say anyway. Whether or not it was true was beyond the knowledge of someone as young as Elfy, and likely any of the living mortals within the city. She had found the tale interesting, so she preferred to think that it was true.
The square was paved with brightly colored stones in a rather lovely pattern that all drew attention to the massive statue within the center. It was bordered by one of the more vibrant gardens within Orario, with flowers from both the surface and the Dungeon blooming along with the rose bushes and trees. The sweet fragrance that wafted throughout combined with the soft light from the magic-stone lamps around the square, which were made more vivid by the cords that ran between them with lanterns further illuminating the square.
There were dozens of couples there, dancing hand-in-hand to a slow melody from a band of well-dressed Pallums that had placed themselves at the base of the statue. Many were dressed with romance in mind, but some looked as though they had wandered by chance. Smiles could be seen on the various couples of various races.
Elfy’s green eyes scanned the sea of bodies drifting amidst the tempo for one in particular. She had burned the image of that dress into her memories and so she was confident she would be able to pick out one person from the horde so long as it crossed her gaze. And though it took some time, she eventually found her roommate sporting that gorgeous outfit.
Lefiya was there with the Elf from the Dionysus Familia, who was also dressed stunningly. Even though they had people around them it seemed like the two of them were off in a world of their own. Their bodies were close together to share warmth between them, with the Half-Elf resting her head on her dance partner’s shoulders while their fingers were entwined as they moved gracefully and without a single misstep.
Her lips were nestled in a content smile while the pink hue coloring her cheeks was visible even at that distance. It was clear at a glance that she was so…happy….
The sound of glasswork splintering. That sound rang out deep within the Mage as the thought crossed her mind.
Her breathing became shallow as she watched her roommate’s lips pull in for a moment, only to come back out ever so slightly glistening beneath the ambient light. Her pulse began to race as she raised her head from its comfortable perch, azure eyes fixed on the crimson pair that regarded her warmly. Then she saw her lean forward on the top of her toes….
Their lips pressed together.
The glass shattered.
A gnawing sensation attacked her green eyes, like a thousand small insects chewing on them. Then a sharp pain found its way into her chest like someone had plunged a poisoned dagger into her heart. Yet, when she reached up to wrench it free, her fingers only dug into her flesh and crystalline tears rolled down her cheeks in glistening streamlets when she tried to blink away the vermin.
The pain became more intense. It seemed to worsen with every beat of her quickening pulse that drummed louder in her ears while watching the two Elves, smiling while holding one another close. The pain grew so agonizing in mere moments that she almost dug her nails into her chest to rip out her own heart to stop it.
She would do anything to escape this pain she was in.
The world blurred until she couldn’t see the two of them anymore. Her legs shivered as strength bled out of them. Her stomach felt like it was about to turn inside out. Her lungs failed to expand, and she struggled for breath.
The Mage felt like she was about to pass out. She would almost welcome unconsciousness. At least then she wouldn’t feel the pain. But that would draw a crowd as people noticed her lying there.
Lefy will know I was here.
The same compulsion that brought her there moved her legs in the opposite direction. She didn’t want to be seen. She didn’t want Lefiya to know that she had seen her there.
It was then she understood the source of her pain. The stinging, unrelenting pain came from her heart breaking into pieces. Not all at once, which would mercifully kill her instantly. But slowly enough that the shards could stab into the beating remains and make her suffer.
Elfy didn’t have a destination in mind. She just knew she had to run as far away from the square as possible before the strength to stand fled her. Thus, the once Cheerful Mage ran desperately and clumsily, her vision wavering between clarity and obscurity.
There were voices as she bumped into things and people. But she kept running. And running. And running.
She ran until someone finally grabbed her firmly. They pulled her close and when she threw her hand out to push them away, they caught it. Even mustering her remaining strength, she couldn’t get away.
“Elfy, it’s me!” said a familiar voice. “Aki!”
She stopped struggling when she recognized Anakitty’s voice. But then the pain seeped into her lungs and stalled her from taking more than a shallow breath. It burned like poison that was slowly spreading from her punctured heart. “…Aki, I… I can’t breathe…”
A gentle reassurance reached her ears. “I’m going to take you somewhere you can catch your breath. It’ll be just the two of us. Just hold on, okay?”
The next thing Elfy knew, her legs were no longer under her. Her head was nestled against Aki’s chest, her knees and back supported by the Level Four’s arms. The air was rushing past them so fast that even if her vision hadn’t gone completely blurry her eyes probably would have been crushed.
Then, as quickly as they started, they came to a stop. The sounds of the crowd and other people were distant. Her legs were gently allowed to lay on a soft surface that felt like grass, but her head was allowed to remain pressed against the soft bosom of her senior among the Second-Tier Adventurers as the arm supporting her back remained in place.
Anakitty’s voice came out quiet and soothing. “You need to breathe, Elfy.”
“I-I can’t,” she cried. “I can’t!”
“Yes, you can.” The arm wrapped around her back shifted into a slow, circular motion. “It’ll be painful, but you need to breathe so it can all come out. It won’t go away otherwise.”
The Level Three Mage struggled. Her throat and chest strained to expand. But, eventually, she managed to take a deep, haggard breath that forced the slightly chilled air down into her lungs. Then she exhaled and what came out was a painful, mournful cry.
“That’s it,” the Level Four whispered in an encouraging tone. “You did well holding it in all this time, but don’t need to hold back anymore. Let it all out.”
Her voice came haggard as she sucked in a heavy breath. “… I… t-thought I could han-handle it, but… it h-h-hurts so muchhhh…”
Elfy knew that Lefiya would be there from the start. She knew that she would be happy at having the chance to finally go on a date with the other Elf after how often she talked about her in their room. But she didn’t think that she would be wearing a smile like that or that she would have kissed her.
She didn’t think that it would hurt so much seeing her with someone else. “I hate Lefy… I hate her! She’s horrible!”
“You don’t hate her,” the Level Four told her, voice remaining calm as the hand gently rubbing her back started patting it instead. “You’re just in pain from having your heart broken. No one likes seeing the person they love with someone else.”
No sooner than those words were uttered did the pain bubble back up inside of her. It felt like it would never end. She reached around behind Anakitty’s back and pulled as hard as she could, desperate for a shoulder to cry on as she continued to pour out her feelings. “I wa-wanted to… to tell her… B-but I knew she wouldn’t even lo…ok my…w-way!”
“Why do you think she wouldn’t?” Anakitty asked. It was important to keep her talking so that she could get everything in her chest out. “You’re best friends, aren’t you?”
People often thought it was easy to tell someone how they felt. But that was never the case. The fear of rejection was an ever-present entity looming over them like a colossal shadow, whispering of how things would never be the same once those words came out. That was why she tried to signal her interest. That was why she always smiled for her. Always tried to be close to her side.
But she realized that no matter how hard she tried there was an impassable gap between them. “I’m… not an Elf like her! Or special like her! I’m just…just… a normal Human.”
Elfy Colette was just an ordinary Human.
Her mother had given her that ironic name because she hoped she would be beautiful as an Elf. But she didn’t have a drop of Elven blood in her veins, meaning she could never hope for such a thing. She had already finished puberty and would be lucky if she got a few celches of growth into her figure before she grew older and then died.
Everyone knew Elves were good-looking, talented with Magic, and graceful without fault. If you weren’t born an Elf then there was nothing you could do but accept that. It was just the way of the world, and she thought she had come to terms with that when she decided that she would be one of the best Human Mages she could be.
That was why she was excited to have been able to join the Loki Familia. She could take pride in being part of one of the most powerful Familia in Orario. It meant they recognized she at least had the potential to be a great Mage.
Then she met Lefiya and realized reality just wasn’t so kind. Just being Half-Elf put her in an entirely different class, even though she was Half-Human. She was still growing, still becoming beautiful, and by the time Elfy was dead and gone, she would still look like she was around her early twenties.
On top of that, her Magic was powerful. She had not only unlocked her third spell slot in such a short time, but the spell was one-of-a-kind. It allowed her to access as many spells as there were Elves, meaning the number of spells she had was more than even Lady Riveria herself.
There was no denying it that among either race she was a special person, and they treated her as much. Lefiya got to hang around with the Executives as often as she liked. She got to receive special training from the most powerful Mage in Orario. She got beautiful clothes gifted to her that were more valuable than probably their weight in gold.
She was already a Level Four but was actively holding off just to squeeze in a little extra excelia. As if it was no big deal. Normal people like Elfy had to claw and scrape to reach that far. But it was different for special people who stood above them.
Even among Humans she wasn’t anything special. Not compared to Aiz Wallenstein, the Sword Princess whose Wind allowed her to be so powerful. Or Welf Crozzo, who had an ancestor gain the favor of a Spirit and could make Magic Swords stronger than any spell the majority of the world could cast. Or the Record Holder that managed to already reach Level Three in mere months—Bell Cranel.
That boy not only impressed the Executives, but he even managed to get Lefiya on his side when she was ready to tear his head off the night before. She would constantly tell Elfy bad things about him, to the point where she seemed to hate him. Yet she suddenly changed after the Eighteenth Floor, to the point where she was even willing to fight the Captain of another Familia for him when she hated him mere hours before then.
Was it because he was special? He had to be given how he was the two-time Record Holder. That was probably why she was willing to defend him—because he was special like her.
The worst part was that Elfy couldn’t even be mad at her because Lefiya was her best friend. They were roommates and shared their secrets, so she knew how hard Lefiya had struggled to get where she was. She knew how many Elves loathed her for her position while being Half-Human. Yet she put up with it all and tried her best to live up to the expectations placed on her with a smile.
“If I was an Elf… if I was special… it would have been me dancing with her and making her happy…” She took a moment to catch her breath as she confessed the root of her issues. “But I’m not. And I can’t ever be.”
She wasn’t lucky enough to be born with an Elven parent. She wasn’t lucky enough to be born special. That meant she couldn’t be the kind of person Lefiya was attracted to. The most she could do was be her best friend, no matter how much she wanted to be seen otherwise.
“I know… how it feels to not be special,” Anakitty told the younger girl with her voice wavering slightly as her ears flattened down. “To be surrounded by amazing people and heroes, but not be able to be just like them. But… I can do things like being there for one of my juniors when they need a shoulder to cry on, and that’s enough, isn’t it?”
Considering she was the one weeping in the older girl’s arms, Elfy wasn’t exactly able to refute that. Moreover, if she wasn’t allowed release or some way to let out the pain she was in, it would tear her apart until she wanted to die.
“Just please… please don’t tell anyone,” Elfy begged her while pressing her head deeper into the welcoming bosom. “I don’t want to lose her. Lefy is my best friend…”
“I won’t tell a soul,” Anakitty promised. “Now go ahead and can cry as much as you like.”
She did just that.
“I think I recognized that crying girl who ran off just now.”
Bell Cranel looked off into the distance where a young woman had fled after bumping into him. He and Lady Hestia had only recently arrived at Amour Square, even though it was closer to their current home than their previous one. He hadn’t minded the fact that she bumped into him but the fact that he had seen her somewhere naturally left him wondering if he should give chase.
“I knew you had a thing about saving girls, but I didn’t think you’d leave your date here all alone to do it.” The Goddess of the Hearth’s teasing tone and the soft sensation as she pressed her voluptuous chest against his arm snapped Bell’s attention back to her. “What will you do if some stranger comes and takes me away, hm?”
“I wasn’t going to leave you.” He had given her his word that he would dance with her and would keep it. That being said, the outfit she had chosen made her divinity all the clearer and so he felt out of place next to her dressed in his ordinary clothes. And the suit he had been loaned for the Banquet ended up not surviving the destruction of their home. “I just thought I should see if there was something I can do, Goddess.”
“I know. I know.” Hestia looked up towards his face and smiled as she offered him guidance as one of the divinities that walked the Lower World. “It’s good that you want to help but, considering where we are, it’s very likely she just had her heart broken if she ran off in tears. If you don’t know the right things to say to a crying woman, you’ll only make it worse. Their hearts are fragile, after all.”
“I suppose so.” His grandfather had taught him to be cautious when approaching a woman whose heart had been broken. He even regaled him with stories of heroes who faced even more turmoil because they had incited the wrath of a woman inadvertently, so there was merit to her wisdom. Even so, he still felt that sympathy for that girl. “I hope she’ll be okay.”
“I’m sure she will,” Hestia told him. “You children are resilient in heart and soul, even compared to us. After all, we’ve seen how you all manage to bounce back even through the darkest of times. That’s part of why we love you all so much.”
That said, they entered the square properly and Bell found himself feeling even more at risk than in the Dungeon itself. So many couples, a mix of different races and people in a proper romance as they looked one another in the eyes and clasped hands. And none of them were clumsy like he would be, given he wasn’t a dancer.
At the banquet, he had managed somehow because of the advice the others had given him. But the fact that Miss Aiz had been an Adventurer and they had trained helped a lot, since it made it possible for them to read one another’s movements. They could convey words without speaking, but he wasn’t sure he could do the same for his Goddess. The thought of embarrassing himself and Hestia made Bell want dart of there like a fleeing rabbit, but then he really would be abandoning her
“Good, it’s a slow song.” Hestia’s slender fingers wrapped around his wrist as she pulled him forward and into the throng of bodies where there was an open space for the two to join in. Then she turned to face him before cupping his shoulder blade with her right hand and grabbing his hand with her left. “I’ll take the lead, so just do what I do and say, okay?”
She seemed so assertive that Bell could only swallow his nerves and do so. Lift his right elbow. Roll his shoulders back. Stand straight and tuck his stomach in. All of that made for a solid frame to maintain the connection between them.
Then she began to take her first steps. They were decisive, initiated from her core rather than her arms. It made it easier to see where she was going, so Bell could follow after her to match her pace. “Like this?”
“That’s right,” she said while continuing to lead. He followed up nicely. “If you’re in the lead then listen to the beat of the music and think before you take the first step. Don’t hesitate after you make that decision. If you’re following, then trust their motions and follow without second-guessing it. You don’t need your grip too hard since the only time you lead with your hands is when you want to spin your partner.”
Bell took the advice and found himself matching her soon enough. “Goddess, did you always know how to dance?”
“Not quite like this,” Hestia told him. “After your dance with Loki’s child, I wanted to do the same. But since I didn’t think I would be able to move the same way, I asked for some advice from Take and Miach after Miss Thousand told us about this one. I’m happy it’s working out well.”
She really was looking forward to it. Bell felt even worse for not giving it the same consideration as she smiled with childish happiness. He knew he needed to work on his dancing, but the new duties he had as the Captain of their Familia had been pressing.
Her blue eyes scanned her surroundings for a moment, likely to ensure she was matching the rhythm of others. Then they widened slightly before she leaned her head in and whispered in his ears. “Bell, look over there…”
He followed her gaze and did a double-take when he realized that his sister was there as well. She wasn’t paying him any attention or bothering to look around her. Her attention was solely on her date, another Elf with glossy black hair and deep red eyes. The longer he stared at them, the more of an impression he got that something romantic might happen, so he wisely looked away lest things become awkward.
“Bell,” Hestia muttered. “Do you wish that was you?”
Her question grabbed his full attention. “Huh?”
“That you were dancing with someone you liked in that same way,” Hestia clarified, pulling her head away. “Rather than me, you’d prefer it was Loki’s child again, right?”
“Ah, that’s… different,” Bell said, a blaze painting his cheeks the color of his eyes. Hestia made it possible for him to get this far but to even have remotely romantic thoughts of his patron deity, a virginal goddess at that, was borderline blasphemous. “I’m happy to do this with you because I revere you.”
Her cerulean eyes closed at that, and a smile came across her face. Not the same childish happy one or the motherly one she would often give him. It felt somewhat… melancholic. “Bell, I know I teased you about revering me. But remember that what I said about a girl’s heart being fragile applies to Goddesses as well.”
“W-w-what does that mean?” Bell stuttered as his mind refused to piece together what she was getting at.
“We might be different in some ways to you children and driven by our natures a bit, but we still want you to validate us rather than revere us,” she continued in the same tone as a mother lecturing her child patiently. “It’s one thing to reject us if you don’t feel the same way, but to not even acknowledge or understand why we feel the way we do because you think we’re above you can hurt more than anything else.”
Her words resonated within his chest. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“It’s fine,” she told him. “Losing someone is hard, but for those of us who live forever that pain will never leave. That’s why the thought of inflicting that onto a Goddess is one of the worst things you can imagine, right?”
…She wasn’t wrong. The loss of family stuck with him, but everyone above and below knew all mortals would eventually die and reincarnate. It was a part of the cycle of life, a mere step that you had to acknowledge. Nothing could stop it, so you made the most out of the time you had with the people you cared about.
Lovers were a deeper relationship than family. He knew that much. And remembering how painful it was losing his grandfather, he was terrified of inflicting something even worse onto someone else. Let alone the divine, whose lives would never end. They had to suffer that pain forever, all for what amounted to a mere moment of happiness.
What right did he have to inflict that on one of the Goddesses?
“You’re a good boy, Bell,” she whispered while reaching up and pulling his head down onto her shoulders. “I’m really happy that my first child was someone like you. That alone eases my heart going ahead. But remember that if we wanted to remain separated from you to be revered, we never would have come down in the first place. We might be Familia because of my blessing, but we’re family because we love and care for each other—and that bond transcends death and divinity. So love us as you would you any other, otherwise, you’re going to make some poor Goddess cry someday.”
As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t make that promise. The best he could do was acknowledge that he would try. “I’ll do my best, Goddess.”
And that was good enough for her to release him as a new song began to play. Her smile returned to its cheerfulness. “Okay, now that we’ve gotten that gloomy topic out of the way, why don’t you try to take the lead this time?”
As the various dances wound down so that the band could take a break, the various couples split off from the square. Some would return in an hour once they began playing anew, while others would go off to enjoy the other activities. But, in general, all those who had been in attendance were in a great mood.
Lefiya especially as she and her date decided to rest their legs and get something to slake their thirsts. Fortunately, since she was a little more familiar with the area due to it being so close to Bell’s home, the Half-Elf knew a place they could go. It was called Café Wishe.
It was a small but apparently popular café that was frequented by young couples due to being relatively close to Amour Square. It had a more modernistic aesthetic rather than the rustic or sylvan that Elves preferred, but the irony of the name did not escape Filvis. “Was this place named after your home?”
Lefiya licked her lips to savor the stray droplets of the drink she had been served before she answered. “The owner of the café lived there on the outskirts for a time after their home was burned down and used it as their communal name. Some time ago she moved to Orario and chose to get married, taking her spouse’s name and naming the café in honor of that instead. Her husband is Human.”
She had found it after receiving her key to the Hearth Manor and learned the owner was actually the Elven hostess who had welcomed her in. Her husband was the one who handled the drink preparations, and the pair seemed friendly enough to her. But she could guess why that was considering any children they had would be effectively no different than her. Their employees were of different races as well and the last time she was her the server had been a Cow Person, but it seemed that she was absent today.
“I see…” Filvis looked down in her own drink and stared into her reflection. She had placed her gloves back on now that the dance was over. Even if she had willingly laid her hands bare for Lefiya, she still refused to interact with other things without them.
But that was fine with Lefiya since it meant she was special enough to her to do so. That was all she wanted from tonight. The kiss was just a very, very welcomed extra. “There are a lot of small, out-of-the-way places that you never would notice if things were different.”
The Half-Elf tilted her head at that. “Hm?”
“I was just thinking of an out of the way bar that I discovered some time ago,” she explained. “My Lord was in search of a certain kind of wine, and I had to scour Orario to find it. Eventually, I discovered a place where they made it from grapes taken from the Great Tree Labyrinth. It wasn’t really to my tastes, but he was pleased… even if Aura wasn’t.”
“I suppose you taste a lot of wine because of your God, huh?” Lefiya mused. She would abstain from drinking if she could help it, given her low tolerance and other things that happened. But maybe she should consider if Filvis had a favorite kind to gift her some time. “But who is Aura?”
“She is my… Vice-Captain,” Filvis explained. “She an Elf like me, and we started around the same time. We were on fairly decent terms until the Nightmare happened, and now we’re pretty much the surviving senior members. She took over the duties of handling operations with the Familia while I handle Lord Dionysus’ personal needs and protection, so in a way, she would be the proper Captain if she wasn’t only Level Two—her devotion is no less than mine to him, after all.”
Ah, so that’s probably another reason she was rejected by him, Lefiya realized. If she loved their God to the same extent as Filvis, and she no doubt had strong feelings of animosity due to losing so many of their comrades while Filvis survived, returning her affections would have probably fractured them further. Perhaps Filvis even felt that the Vice-Captain was more worthy of his love than her from the way she spoke…
Reaching out to touch her hands cradling her drink, the Half-Elf gave her a reassuring smile that conveyed her feelings. I’m here for you now and will continue to be. Your past doesn’t change that in the slightest.
Filvis found it in herself to smile back.
Then they finished their drinks and departed from the café. The side-streets were somewhat winding but they managed to navigate it easily enough to get back to one of the main roads that would lead back to Babel. It was then they noticed that a crowd was building further ahead. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not certain,” Filvis answered. “Should we go take a look?”
The Half-Elf nodded and the two ventured into the growing crowd until they spotted what looked to be a stage that had been set up. On it was what looked to be a crystalline substance not unlike the Quartz in the Dungeon with a rather beautiful spear lodged inside of it. And Lord Hermes was there too while flanked by members of the Ganesha Familia—including their Captain—as he gave a speech.
“I CALL TO YOU, ADVENTURERS OF ORARIO. WHO AMONGST YOU CAN PULL THIS SPEAR FROM ITS CONFINES AND BE THE CHOSEN ONE TO RECEIVE THE BLESSING OF THE GODDESS OF CHASTITY, ALONG WITH AN ALL-EXPENSES-PAID TRIP AROUND THE WORLD?”
Murmurs went out at that. An all-expenses-paid trip around the world was a big deal considering how most were confined to the city once they received a Falna. It seemed a little too good to be true but, looking at the text on the document he held up, it was pre-authorized by the Guild and thus legitimate.
“Step aside!” “Me first!” “Shove off!” Mild chaos broke out as several of the Adventurers began to tussle among themselves for the right to go first. The Captain of the Ganesha Familia sighed softly, as if she had expected as much, before motioning for her men to establish an order to things.
“If it’s simply a competition of raw physical strength, then it’ll be over the moment a First-Class Adventurer steps up,” Filvis pointed out. It was a logical assessment, and why the fighting was on the verge of breaking out. If the Ganesha Familia didn’t make them take turns, then there was nothing stopping a Level Six from coming up and putting an end to things first of all.
“An all-expenses-paid trip does sound nice though,” Lefiya mused while considering whether or not she should attempt it herself. She wanted to visit her mother since it had been quite some time, and if she could bring Filvis or Bell that would be all the better. But then there was a shout as a person she recognized lost their patience and promptly kicked down a group of five. “Mister Bete?”
The Werewolf snarled in annoyance. “Guy can’t even get to where he’s going with all your weaklings around. Clear a path, goddamn it!”
“He’s as crass as always, I see,” Filvis noted. Most of the people wisely got away from him, considering his reputation. Though, strangely enough, Lefiya could spot there was a girl not too far behind him that seemed more apologetic than anything. She had long black hair and brown eyes, and while her clothes didn’t really stand out Lefiya could see makeup had been applied carefully to accentuate her features rather than overdo it.
The sight brought a smile to the God of Travel’s face as he stopped Shakti from telling him off. “IF IT ISN’T ONE OF THE LOKI FAMILIA’S EXECUTIVES. CARE TO TRY YOUR HAND TO SEE IF YOU’RE THE CHOSEN ONE?”
He scoffed. “Tch. As if I’m interested in proving anything to these chumps for a trip out of town. Keep me out of your scams, swindler.”
Lord Hermes took the insult in stride. “OH, I THINK YOU’LL FIND IT MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN THAT. AFTER ALL, IF ONE OF THE STRONGEST ADVENTURERS IN ORARIO CAN’T MOVE IT, THEN IT SHOULD BE CLEAR ONLY THE CHOSEN ONE CAN AND ORGANIZE THEMSELVES SINCE LEVEL ISN’T THE DETERMINING FACTOR. AND IF YOU DO MANAGE IT, THE CROWD WILL DISPERSE. WIN-WIN EITHER WAY, RIGHT EVERYONE?”
The crowd did not agree. Loudly.
Much to the Werewolf’s annoyance, which Lefiya suspected was Lord Hermes’ aim. Bete would be inclined to try and shut them up, and since he couldn’t kick everyone here without getting in trouble the easiest solution would be to assert his dominance by grabbing the spear anyway. So, he jumped onto the stage and grabbed hold of it, intent on jerking it out in one swift motion.
The spear didn’t budge.
Hermes bore a wide smile and muttered. “Not so easy, is it?”
“Rrrrr….” His lips pulled back and a snarl slipped out. The eyes of even the unblessed could see his arm was visibly straining, meaning he was actively pulling away at it in earnest.
But the spear refused to budge.
The crowd, who had been intimidated before, began drawing amusement from the sight of the Werewolf’s impotent efforts to move the weapon from its foundation. And considering his race and Level, he could hear every word. It only served as kindling that stoked his desire to prove them wrong, but considering his temper…
“You can do it, Mister Bete!” Then Lefiya heard something she never expected. It was the sound of someone cheering for him amidst the crowd. And it came from that same girl she had seen before. “I believe in you!”
It can’t be… Lefiya recognized her voice. Giving her full attention to the girl who cheered the Werewolf on, the Half-Elf’s mind pictured her hair tied in a braid, glasses framing her face, and the lack of blush from the makeup on her. It was a perfect match to Leene. Oh dear Loki, Elfy was right…
“THE STAGE IS MADE OF ADAMANTITE, BY THE WAY,” Hermes said somewhat whimsically but loud enough for everyone to hear. “GO ALL OUT IF YOU WANT! THERE’S A FULL MOON OUT TONIGHT TOO, SO—”
“With all due respect, Lord Hermes, please stop provoking him!” Shakti said as the sound of metal groaning began in earnest. He had braced his legs against the ground and had the shaft in an iron-grip with both his hands, fully intent on putting all of his strength into pulling the spear out. That same strength was not to be underestimated.
The thing still didn’t budge.
“What are they made of?” Filvis muttered in curiosity. “The spear itself hasn’t broken, nor the crystal. Only the stage is straining, which means that it would have to be even stronger than that. On par with Orichalcum.”
And Orichalcum was the strongest substance available on the Lower World, its origins and crafting dating back to before the descent of the Gods. There was no stronger substance to be found or made by mortal hands. Yet they were looking at it, and Lefiya wouldn’t be surprised if every artisan and blacksmith in the crowd wasn’t wondering the same thing when all was said and done.
But not the Adventurers. No, they started heckling Bete even louder, as if they forgot he was literally one of the strongest people in the entire city. “NOT SO TOUGH NOW!” “ALL BARK AND NO BITE!” “SOME LEVEL SIX YOU ARE!”
His amber eyes narrowed, and violent intention filled them. “SAY THAT AGAIN! I DARE YOU!”
“Vanargand, you’re better than this,” Shakti said when she noticed he was about to lose his cool. She was obligated to try to stop him if he did go out of control, but after so many years within Orario she clearly expected he would have enough common sense not to attack them. “Don’t give into their provocation. Just walk away.”
To his credit, Bete refused to let the words of the weak get to him. So, after kicking the crystal hard enough that it should have been launched to the top of Babel itself only for it to remain in place, thus leaving every single craftsman and smith no doubt even more interested, he scoffed and then jumped off the stage. “…some bullshit…”
“Is something wrong, Lefiya?” her date asked, crimson eyes following her gaze towards where Bete departed.
“I’m just a little… shocked,” she explained.
Filvis nodded in understanding. “Yes, the fact that an Adventurer of Bete Loga’s physical prowess was unable to remove the spear is difficult to believe. Either it would take the Conqueror, or there are some other criteria we are not aware of… if it isn’t some kind of scam, that is.”
That wasn’t quite what Lefiya meant. But she decided against saying anything as she watched Leene heading off in the direction Bete had gone. The Half-Elf had so many questions that they occupied her thoughts as people lined up to try their hand where a Level Six failed. She combed through her memories for any signs that Leene had a thing for him. She did speak well of him when she was healing me from the chase and he brought me right to her, so maybe…
“OH, IF IT ISN’T THE RECORD HOLDER—” Her ears perked up as Lord Hermes announced the arrival of the current person to hold that prestige. She looked back to the stage where her brother had arrived, nervously rubbing the back of his head.
“You can do it, Captain!” said a small voice at the top of tiny lungs from further to the side of the crowd. It was Primo, sitting on top of Welf’s shoulders with the rest of the Hestia Familia around them. It was adorable. “Good luck!”
Of course, Bell pulled it out. He succeeded where a Level Six failed, the spear coming free and the crystal shards scattering. The sororal part of Lefiya’s mind was proud of him, of course. But the cynical part of her mind noted that it was the sort of thing that would cause him problems when he should still be laying low.
And, sure enough, she was proven correct when the sponsor of the contest arrived, who turned out to be the Goddess of the Moon, Artemis… who promptly rushed the stage and threw herself into his arms while he stood there with a dumbfounded look. And then declared him her Orion and kissed him on the cheek in front of the crowd for everyone to see…
Well, the peace was nice while it lasted. That fleeting thought crossed Lefiya’s mind as cries for blood began to go out from the less romantically fortunate amongst the crowd. She had the distinct feeling that her date would be coming to an end in very short order, if only because she was probably going to have to help the Ganesha Familia deal with the mob of jealous men likely to be coming for her brother’s head over the next few days.
…Only you could go from having a literal War Game fought over you by a God of the Sun to being declared the lover of a Goddess of the Moon in less than a month, Bell.
Chapter 27: Holy Moon Festival – Afternoon
“Elio taught of the old rituals meant to be used to form a connection with the Spirits, to hold communion with the agents of the gods to who words held no meaning. These rituals were passed down in the forests, guarded and sacred as any treasure would be to a Dwarf. But when he asked me why that was, I told him the answer that was told to me Mother. The rituals and rites were all fervent prayers from those who came before us for the strength to protect those we loved and would be carried into the future long after even the oldest of us passed on.
The expression he made that day lingers in my mind even now after years have passed. A look of longing and lament for something precious that was long lost, a feeling I know too well now. Perhaps that was the real reason he had truly desired to take me in that day?”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic II: Communion
“Sorry if I kept you waiting,” Lefiya said upon arriving in one of the more expansive rooms on the Ninth Floor of the Dungeon.
Though they were on the Upper Floors, beyond the Seventh Floor the rooms tended to have far greater width and space, with the light from above being akin to soft sunlight while short grass was beneath their feet. Going down further would place them in misty terrain, which wouldn’t really bother either of them given their Levels, but others might not be so lucky. It wouldn’t do if they accidentally got someone else caught in the crossfire.
The Magic Swordswoman who bore the alias of Elleaf regarded her with a warm smile from her seat on a mound amidst the grass, one leg outstretched while the other was tucked close to her chest. “You’re actually earlier than I expected. You didn’t rush through your breakfast or exercises, did you?”
Lefiya was quick to assure her otherwise. “No, but it’s been so long since we’ve had a chance to practice together.”
Normally Lefiya trained with Lady Riveria since she was her direct apprentice, and it would be impractical for the Nine Hells to manage every Mage within the Familia. Alicia, being the second-in-command of the Fairy Force, managed the other girls who were members of the unit. But Lefiya had come to consider Alicia something of an older sister when she was first introduced into the Familia.
Which only made the whole incident even more embarrassing…
“I think the last time was earlier this year before all the craziness with the expedition, wasn’t it?” Alicia rose to her feet, slender hands running along her battle skirt to wipe away any stray blades of grass that clung to the curves of her hips before she loosened her scabbard from her belt. “I want to see for myself how far you’ve come with the basics. You’re ready to become a Level Four, so I won’t be holding back as much.”
In other words, the practice would be composed of attacking and defending, moving and evasion, as well as chanting—effectively the groundwork for Concurrent Casting that was the basics of the Fairy Force. Back when she had just joined, Lefiya could only barely keep up moving while chanting. That had been fine since, as part of the unit, Lady Riveria would provide them with protection to ward off enemy attacks as they bombarded them. However, since it was just the two of them now, if she hadn’t shown any major improvement then she would be quickly overwhelmed.
I’ve come a long way since then though, the Half-Elf thought to herself. The training from Aiz, Filvis, and everything else had carried her far ahead of how she had been even a few months ago. “I’m ready to begin when you are, Miss Alicia.”
“All right then…” She took three steps forward and then there was only a pink blur as Lefiya’s peripheral vision, far more perceptive than a Human due to both her heritage and her Level, only caught fleeting movement to her right as Alicia closed the distance between them with the speed afforded to a Level Four. Taking away the advantage of distance that only benefited the Fairy Sniper, the gentleness in the smile she still wore contrasted the sheathed blade chambered for a swing at the younger girl. “Begin.”
Lefiya pivoted hastily along the direction of the attack, but her wrist that held the staff twisted as it came up in a wide arc. The staff made of, thankfully, durable materials met with the sheathe and knocked it away from its course towards the back of her head as she finished putting strength in her grounded leg. Then she bound back as far as she could manage as a Level Three, which was quite far, and immediately tightened the grasp on her staff with both hands far apart to prepare another hasty defense.
It proved to be the right call as Alicia was in front of her, wide hips turning to generate power for a graceful swing. It took all the little Strength she had as a Level Three to brace her staff and it still reverberated on impact hard enough that she felt it in her limbs. But there was no time to dwell on it as, without a moment’s hesitation, Lefiya thrust the staff forward like the lance of a spear.
The golden point came close to the beautiful Elf’s chest before she pivoted so that it passed her by, even as her sword came down at an angle that would cleave the Half-Elf from shoulder to hip. The Thousand Elf crouched and dropped her body low, so the swing passed over her head, rather than block a second time. Then she threw herself back into a roll, tucking her staff close to her chest to escape the follow-up as Alicia had swapped her grasp on the blade and then swung low the moment the second swing missed.
Bounding back onto her feet, Lefiya began to sing. “Unleashed beam of light—”
Alicia lunged forward, reaching out to grab the staff only for the Half-Elf to pull the hand holding it backwards, drawing it close to her body. Then the sword came around and narrowly missed Lefiya by the slimmest of margins due to a half-step before the Level Four allowed her momentum to carry through as she spun on the ball of her feet to bring her sheathed weapon around a second time. This time Lefiya received the hit unprotected and ended up staggering a few steps back, but her song continued uninterrupted.
There was pain, but it was mild compared to what she had gone through before. Hyacinthus had been a lot more aggressive than she was and hit harder despite being only a Level Three. But that was because he was a jerk and his fighting style was the opposite of Alicia’s fighting style.
Elves tended to have a better sense of perception, coordination, and grace compared to Humans. But because of their low birthrates engaging in close combat was a last resort, especially when their race had dominion over Magic and mastered the bow. It was normally ideal to use long-distance combat to minimize the chance of casualties by striking enemies from further away.
However, close combat was an inevitability whether the opponent be man or monster. And before the Falna granted even their slender limbs the strength to crush stone with little physical effort, they had to rely on their natural gifts. Thus, most Elven Combat Styles relied on being able to read movements and then respond with great dexterity or agility, whether to maneuver out of the way or to slash at an unexpected angle.
Alicia’s style was something of a more defensive-oriented one, closer to specializing in dueling. Her movements were like how a leaf would sway out of the way as you tried to catch it, only to twist around and brush against the back of your hand. If she was put against an opponent she would parry and counterattack by using her finely honed senses and dexterity, making up for a lack of raw Strength by using her hips in her swings when she could to generate momentum. But that also meant being on the attack and ruthlessly pressuring the opponent was not something she excelled in.
Similarly, Lefiya’s staff techniques were meant to take advantage of the fact that Elven spell casting mediums were long and durable. Keeping the weapon firmly in her grasp, taking advantage of the entire length and her body, the focus was more on keeping hold of it and striking with momentum to create distance. Her Level supplied raw Strength if needed to defend herself, but she was first and foremost a Mage, so her goal was to fend off her attacker and be able to cast a spell.
In contrast to both of them, a more aggressive style would be something similar to what Miss Ryuu practiced. Her movements were fast, like a harsh wind that washed over you before you knew it was coming. Taking advantage of her Agility, she focused on delivering the first blow with as much power as she could to debilitate or take out her opponent before they could fight back.
Readying her magic power as she entered the final verse of her song, Lefiya threw herself backwards and leveled the staff towards the Level Four. “—Pierce, arrow of accuracy! Arcs Ray!”
The reaction was instant as Alicia’s snapped out of the line of fire as the spell emerged, intent on attacking from her left side at a closer distance. It was pointless to run from Arcs Ray since it could track an opponent and the more distance there was the easier it was for her to chase them down. So, the smart thing to do was avoid the initial shot and then strike her down before she could bend it.
However, it wasn’t as though Lefiya was ignorant to that fact as Alicia discovered when the aureate glow of the spell illuminated her face as it emerged from behind the Half-Elf’s rear. Changing the trajectory of her loosed shot was something only the Fairy Sniper could do, and so she bent the beam right from the start so that it curved sharply around her back from the right. That meant her evasive maneuver had put her right into the path of the shot.
Alicia immediately began bounding backwards great distances, pivoting with graceful motions in the process. It was almost reminiscent of a nymph skipping off the surface of a lake. But there was no escape as the beam of light constantly chased after her.
“Come, freezing chains of winter—” Now it was her turn to put her Concurrent Casting to practice as she sang her own song while an azure magic circle appeared at her feet and a wand found its way into her hand. The glimmering azure motes of magical energy that spawned from her magic circle wove themselves into a quintet of ice comets that loitered over Alicia’s head and shoulders as she pointed in Lefiya’s direction before she called out the trigger phrase to launch them. “—Sagittarius Grace!”
Sagittarius Grace was a short chant that allowed Alicia to launch arrows of condensed cold. They streaked forward and left behind a frost-laden trail until they slammed into their target and erupted with encasing ice. Though it wasn’t nearly as potent as Lady Riveria’s spell, she could increase the number of arrows she could summon as well as their individual trajectories due to her Mage DA.
Lefiya broke off her own spell, leaving the onrushing light to fade away as she moved to dodge the ice comets as they fired forth. Each one slammed into the ground hard enough to throw up a spout of sod that was sealed within an icy coffin, five eruptions total buffering the area she was in to throw her off. She took a breath and started running as the numbness from the post-magic rigor began to wane, knowing the real assault was coming.
Like she told Primo, the longer the cast the longer the post-magic rigor because of the amount of magical energy that ended up coursing through the body. Practice and familiarity shortened it, but not only was Alicia’s cast far shorter than hers but she was far more comfortable getting close to an enemy. That meant she wouldn’t hesitate to keep casting.
“—rius Grace!” Sure enough, Lefiya felt the tingle in the air of discharged magical energy and heard through her sharpened hearing the sound of a second volley being loosed upon her, this time with the amount of magical energy composing them far denser along with their velocities and trajectories individually dictated. The result was that each one had a different flight path and would hit at a different time and location, forcing her to mentally run the calculations through her head as she moved.
She bound backwards to avoid the first and then had to immediately roll as the second had been one of the two targeted to where she could have potentially moved, based on what Alicia knew of her. People built habits in their movements over time and while she had sharpened her skills, they were still baseline. That had been how she fared so poorly against Hyacinthus the second time they fought—he may not have recognized her under her disguise, but he’d figured out how she moved too easily.
However, Lefiya had learned as well and so after the fourth and fifth impact resulted in small ice spires the size of trees blooming around her, she focused her hearing over the crackle of the ice hardening to make out the sound of footfalls and then wheeled around in time as Alicia appeared to her left, opposite of the spell that had been loosed. Taking advantage of her focus on the spell and where the magical energy was discharged, the more experienced of the two managed to move with a level of silence and speed that afforded her the opportunity to ambush the Half-Elf.
The tip of the sheathed blade was thrust forward like a rapier towards her chest, only to skim off the shaft of the staff as Lefiya tucked it close and shifted her footing so that she could twist her body and avoid it. She used the line of attack to crank her staff upwards, using the rear to knock the blade upwards and it created an opening, which she immediately took advantage. Stepping back while rotating her upper body, she brought the head of the staff around for a clean hit…
Only for the Elleaf to gracefully arch backwards into a handspring that not only allowed the attack to pass over her head but was followed by an elegant motion that ended up with her behind Lefiya. She grabbed the shaft of her staff and then pulled it inwards, pinning it against the Half-Elf’s chest while using her slender arm with the Strength of a Level Four to brace it into place. Then she pressed the point of the blade against her throat.
“What now?” Alicia asked softly of the girl whose neck was exposed and her sheathed blade at the ready. If they had been in a real battle, it would be the point at which she would have had her throat slit.
Yet, embraced as they were, Lefiya could feel the older girl’s bosom pressed against her back and feel the gentle brush of her hair against her skin. There was also a lovely evergreen scent coming from her as well. Only the fact that the scabbard started poking against her neck kept her mind from drifting to places it shouldn’t. “…I yield.”
The admission of surrender signaled the end of the first engagement, so Alicia lowered her weapon. But, rather than release her, she instead brought her now empty hand up and gently brushed the Half-Elf atop her head.
“You’ve really improved a lot in such a short time,” Alicia said while wearing a soft smile. “To be honest, I expected to knock you out with the first hit like the last time we practiced. Then we would have to spend several minutes waiting for you to snap back awake.”
The fact that Alicia said that with such complete sincerity took a sledgehammer to the Half-Elf’s pride as she pursed her lips before asking, “Do you have any advice for me?”
“Mmm… you’ve progressed well enough that I’m actually a little worried about giving instructions that go against what your new friend has been teaching you,” Alicia told her before quirking her head ever so slightly. “Or would romantic partner be more accurate, at this point?”
Lefiya’s spine went rigid as she felt heat rushing up from her chest to her head, leaving them a reddish hue that managed to reach the soft curve of her ears that marked her as a child of two races. “H-How did you know?”
“You sent Elfy of all people to ask for my facial cream a little bit ago rather than asking me personally before tonight, and you’ve been awfully cheerful,” Alicia explained in a somewhat teasing and amused tone. “Being virtuous doesn’t mean I don’t take notice when one of my juniors has her heart set on another.”
As it turned out, in contrast to a lot of the girls within the Familia, Alicia Forestlight was notably similar to Miss Aiz in that she rebuked anyone who sought to make advances towards her. That was because she had dedicated her heart and soul to the service of Lady Riveria, having aspired since she was younger than Primo to become a Vanguard to the greatest Mage of their people. So great was her devotion that Loki had joked that she was the Garden of Chastity upon which Lady Riveria could tread without the worry of any lustful intentions, which she took as a compliment.
Mind you, Lefiya had only been informed of this after the incident. “W-Well, it would have been awkward if I went and had to explain myself, so…”
The embarrassment in her tone only elicited a slight giggle from the older Elf. “Well, I’m honestly happy that you were able to move on. I know how embarrassing it must have been, and I was worried it might have left you emotionally scarred for a decade or so.”
It certainly felt that way, Lefiya would admit to herself. There were no words for how embarrassing that was to where she wanted to lock herself in her room and not come out. Thankfully everyone was mostly understanding and so they pretended it never happened. But it still was traumatizing for a girl her age. “It’s my own fault for not reading the cues, and I think of you like an older sister.”
Alicia’s disposition meant that a lot of the younger girls saw her in that light. But for Lefiya who had only been slightly older than Primo and was raised with Elven sensibilities, it was doubly so. She emulated a similar disposition when she was with Primo because it left such a huge impact on her, though she would ensure that her mistakes weren’t repeated.
“And you’re like a younger sister to me. So don’t be afraid to come to me more often, okay?” That said, she released the Fairy Sniper. “Now, on the topic of your Concurrent Casting, from what I can see that style you practice now is something you would only develop if you had to spend time without expecting anyone else to support you on the frontlines but could guarantee a kill with your Magic. I can only imagine how difficult of a time your friend must’ve had mastering it.”
Lefiya could imagine it very vividly herself. Filvis had been known as Banshee due to the fact she constantly survived incidents that killed other parties she was a part of after surviving the Nightmare on the Twenty-Seventh Floor. It was entirely possible she spent weeks or months all alone refining her Concurrent Chanting so that she could functionally fight on her own and didn’t need to drag others with her and endanger them—a lonely but effective method.
In contrast, the Fairy Force operated in a group and could be protected by Lady Riveria’s magic. So their focus was on Moving and Chanting. But, in the case of Alicia, Chanting wasn’t as large of an issue because both of her spells were Super-Short Chants. The possession of the Mage DA made it so that a Magic Swordswoman could increase the potency of their spell, but a spell with a short chant would rarely beat out one as long as Lefiya’s unless there was a significant Level gap.
If the Fairy Sniper managed to get her spell off then she could most likely kill anything attacking her that wasn’t above a certain threshold, so outside of the bare minimum of self-defense she didn’t need to worry about attacking or defending. “To that end, if you keep focusing on your observational skills during a battle, you’ll be able to better avoid attacks. You already showed as much when you managed to see through my sneak attack well enough to try countering me. However, I do believe the biggest hurdle is improving your chanting speed next.”
Outside of Lady Riveria, one couldn’t change the chant of their spell. However, the speed of the chant was also a factor that could influence the course of a battle. Against the Demi-Spirit, it had managed to go through an Ultra-Long Chant in a ridiculously short amount of time and it was only by the skin of their teeth they were able to hold on despite their efforts to cut it short.
“Since you have the basics down, we’ll spend the rest of practice working on reducing the time it takes for you to consistently cast Arcs Ray and avoiding getting hit for as long as possible,” Alicia decided. “I’ll be going a little faster to give you more of a challenge, so try to keep up.”
And, with that, the Fairy Sniper continued her dance with the Elleaf on the grassy field nestled beneath the earth.
[-The Seventh Floor-]
“Uwaah…” A soft, tired whine escaped from the small lips of a young Elf slouched down on the Seventh Floor of the Dungeon. Primo Liberia was clutching her Oaken Staff in order to stay upright as her legs lost their strength, her body twitching as her muscles contracted and expanded while a pulsing numbness spread throughout with every beat of her heart.
The Neophyte Elven Mage was currently at her limit of using her third spell without rest and the post-magic rigor was taking its toll as she had exerted what magical force she could muster to handle the objective for today—clearing out the Seventh Floor Pantry. Pantries were a place within the Dungeon where a large quartz crystal would secrete food for monsters, thus leaving it often filled with them. That made it the best place on the Upper Floors for them to practice for numerous reasons.
The first was that for someone with a spell that fell into the category of Wide Area Bombardment, they really shined when clearing out swathes of enemies in a single area. Or against a singular but large target. Yet the floors prior to the Sixth Floor were much narrower and thus not quite the easiest to fire within considering Primo had yet to be able to manipulate the various aspects of the spell and lacked finer understandings of trajectories.
For a larger Familia like the Loki Familia, such small pickings weren’t worth the space they would take up on an expedition nor the effort to harvest them. So clearing them out was no problem. But, for a small Familia like theirs, it meant they had to also take that into consideration and was likely one of the other reasons that Lefiya had suggested Primo take up the bow as an alternative method of contributing.
The Seventh Floor was something of a compromise as the Killer Ants often attacked in swarms and they had enough space to where she could clear them out. That would earn her more excelia towards using her Magic with minimal assistance. Then, while she recovered, they could handle dealing with the monsters that held more valuable drop items, allowing them to hopefully make up for their expenses in a shorter amount of time—or so Lili said in her role as the Familia’s treasurer.
They had considered the Tenth Floor would probably be a decent alternative, as that was where larger Level One category monsters spawned. But they had to take into account the fact that the low visibility of the fog would hamper someone like Primo, who was just starting out as a Mage. She would be on edge at not being able to see, afraid of anything that could jump out at her in the fog and disrupt her concentration.
However, it seemed that by chance a larger variant of the Killer Ant emerged. It was called a Crystal Ant, larger than any monster on the top part of the Upper Floors and a rare spawn. Primo had been tasked with dispatching it, something that was still rattling her.
“Make sure she didn’t accidentally destroy the drop item from it,” Lili called out to Welf who had been keeping the monster at bay until she finished her cast. “A Crystal Block is worth a small fortune, and between the Blue Papillon Wings being worth 1,800 valis each and the Purple Moth Wings being worth 300 each, that should be enough to account for a fifth of what it cost to outfit Mistress Primo.”
The Blacksmith sighed before holstering his nameless sword on his back and then checking through the large deposit of ash within the smoldering crater left behind. That left Lili to use her Supporter Gloves to carefully harvest the wings into different glass containers given that they were both delicate and they shed powder that was valuable in itself. Mikoto, on the other hand, came over and gave the child a waterskin to drink from. “Here you go.”
“Thank you,” Primo told her gratefully before indulging with small sips.
“You did well,” Bell said in a gentle tone as he crouched down and gently patted her on the head. In truth, he probably should have been the one to handle it, but Lili had pointed out that he would be better suited to taking out the second wave of monsters that had filed in when it did, given his Level, as the excelia for besting the rarer spawn would benefit her the most.
Mikoto then turned to him. “Sir Bell, perhaps after we are done we should head back to the surface to rest before this night festivities?”
“That would probably be—” His words cut off when the sound of a shrill cry reached his ears and he stood up abruptly. “Did you hear that?”
The kunoichi shook her head. “I didn’t hear anything, but our Levels are lower than yours.”
“It sounded like a girl screaming,” Bell said, legs tensing. “I’m going to check it out for myself. Stay here for now.”
Then like a coiled spring being let loose, he took off towards the direction of the scream that he’d heard. Since reaching Level Three, Bell had become fast enough that traversing the Dungeon’s Upper Floors in a very short amount of time wasn’t an issue. The problem was finding the origin of the voices he heard within the expansive floor before it was too late, the reverberations carried out by the cavernous walls themselves as he reached a crossroads and focused on listening—
“Miss Kaede, watch out!”
There! He pivoted towards the northern path and focused his eyes, catching a glimpse of a purple-haired woman who looked a few years his senior in the distance. For a moment he thought it was her that he had heard, but the chittering of Killer Ants and another scream told him otherwise. So he rushed past her as the air stirred like a gale before his superhuman perception registered the sight before him.
Lining the walls, skittering around the cavernous ground, threading the battered and slashed remains of their fallen brethren, a horde of Killer Ants were descending upon a group of three adventurers—all young women.
The first was a Hume Bunny, dressed in a shortened lavender kosode emblazoned with a maple leaf. It was torn in several places to expose a white sarashi around her chest. Her skin was dyed red from exertion and glistening with sweat, breaks in the flesh from which deep crimson ran and spilled out. Even so, she held onto a similar sword to Mikoto in a tight grip while her yellow eyes were furrowed in determination.
Next to her was a Pallum dressed in a jacket and shorts that were in warm tones but had golden hemming. She had the standard guild-issued breastplate and a Warhammer, both covered in purple goo, that shook in her grip as her blue eyes beneath her short, curly hair took in how surrounded they were by their enemies. Her injuries were relatively lighter by contrast, but the way she struggled to remain upright showed that she wasn’t exactly in fighting form.
Last was a girl with long, flowing dark hair adorned with a decorative maple leaf hairpin that rose up to a pair of fox ears and a tail—a Renard, from what he knew based on her appearance. It was the first time he had seen one and, judging from how her outfit resembled a stylized version of a priestess outfit that he heard the Far Eastern Gods and Goddesses had an affinity for, he suspected she was some kind of Mage. Of the three she was the only one who wasn’t injured as the two others seemed to be acting as her Vanguards, but her breathing was heavy and her golden eyes seemed to be dulled along with traces of purple powder covering her clothes.
The Killer Ants had surrounded them from all angles at this point, leaving them with their backs against the wall. The sheer numbers reminded him of what happened with Lili. Had they failed to kill some and then ended up getting swarmed due to the pheromones calling out for more to surround them?
…It didn’t matter. There were girls in front of him who were in danger. He could save the questions for later. “GET DOWN!”
His voice, ringing loud and firm within the cavern, reached them. Their eyes—yellow, blue, and golden—turned in his direction. There was a momentarily flash of recognition even though he didn’t recognize them, and then the Hume Bunny grabbed them both and pulled their heads down as she covered them with her body.
Bell held out his hand and let loose his spell. “FIREBOLT!”
Three blazing rays shot forward. His increase in both his Magic and his Level had made them far thicker and destructive compared to a short time ago. And because of his practice with his sister in preparation for the War Game he could now let loose three at once—a rapid Firebolt volley.
They detonated within the hordes of the Killer Ants. The bolts came loose, unbound as the force of the explosion tore apart those close by and the flames lashed out, consuming those within its reach and cooking them within their chitinous exoskeletons. Just like that, a path was opened for him to reach them. “Are you okay!?”
“Cottontail!” said the Hume Bunny in an accent that was somewhat rougher than he expected. “Ya gotta get Shino and Coco outta here! They breathed in too much of that powder before I could kill ‘em!”
That explained it. Their backline must have been poisoned by Purple Moths from above while their focus had been on dealing with the Killer Ants surrounding them, a risk when you were being attacked in all directions like in the Dungeon. Hearing that, Bell crouched down and then grabbed the two beneath his arms before he turned his back to the Hume Bunny. “Climb on!”
She did so, clinging to his back and wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist as he rose to his full height. Then Bell ran as fast as he could back to the Pantry, leaving their equipment behind. He had already memorized the pathway so there was no hesitation as his motions became a blur that dragged the wind behind him, drowning out all sound and thought until he emerged through the mouth of the entry way.
The moment he breached the opening, he called out for his Familia as he set them down. “Lili, these three need Antidotes and Potions! Mikoto, I need your help to make sure that a horde of Killer Ants in one of the passages nearby gets cleared out. Welf keep them and Primo safe!”
Even though she did not fully understand what was happening, the Absolute Shadow understood from Bell’s tone he was speaking as the Captain of the Hestia Familia. So Mikoto followed him out, reasoning that her part was due to her skills, which allowed her to track any monster she had encountered before. She could ensure that none were missed and left to secrete pheromones that could risk another horde descending upon the corridor as they killed the remaining ones.
The two of them moved ahead with Mikoto triggering her skill along the path where her senses registered the congregation of dozens of them to the spot he had been previously. The Killer Ants that hadn’t died swiftly to his Magic had released more pheromones and so the chittering had become loud enough that it bounced off the walls. Left unchecked they could cause a small-scale Monster Parade, an outbreak where a massive number of monsters surged through a floor.
With his blood pounding in his ears, Bell called forth his Magic and loosed his flaming lances one after another. “Firebolt! Firebolt! Firebolt!”
The thunderous roar of rupturing stone. Intense flames scorching the air. The acrid scent of melting chitin and shrieks from inhuman maws. His senses congested with slaughter as he devoted himself to the eradication of the horde, the Caerbannog Cottontail bared his with his black and red fangs as he went into a Rabbit Rush.
Kinetic vision heightened to the point where they were moving as slow as molasses made it so that his knives could find their necks. Deceptively powerful legs crushed through exoskeletons as hard as armor with every step. Flashing violet and streaking crimson cut through chitin with the ease of slicing through bread. Flowing from one to the next with fluid motions as his momentum carried him through their ranks, the corridor was left awash in the shower of ichor as the blood pumped through the veins escaped loosely into the air while their severed heads were left behind in his wake.
Some escaped his fangs as he prioritized taking down as many as possible in a single passing. His ears caught the faint sound of the air being parted by the edge of Mikoto’s sword as she followed behind him to deal with the stragglers. The survivors had to be killed before their pheromones could compound and spread further, and with her skill she could pick out the dying from the dead with greater ease, ensuring they were swiftly eradicated.
Bell lost track of time as his blades flashed. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but it felt longer with his drawn-out perception of time that came from his heightened Level when in combat mode. It was only when Mikoto called out that there were no more he looked to see what was left in his wake.
The chamber and corridors were littered with enough corpses to resemble a mausoleum. The light-green walls were splattered with purple ichor without rhyme or reason, abstract to the point it seemed that someone had haphazardly thrown buckets of paint throughout the area. The discarded and half-empty containers left slowly growing puddles on the ground that filled in the cracks and crevices as a haunting silence was all that was left in their wake where before it was loud and cacophonic.
Finally, Bell breathed deep from his chest and looked around for their equipment. The Adventurer’s Backpack that one of them had been carrying was still intact, though torn in several places by the mandibles that had likely been attempting to gouge out flesh instead. The Warhammer that had been left behind was splashed in purple, droplets rolling off the metal and joining the growing puddle beneath it.
He picked them both up and returned to the Pantry along with Mikoto. When they arrived, they found the three of them being treated. The Hume Bunny was simply dousing herself overhead with three Potion without care while Welf looked on with a half-puzzled, half-amused gaze, while Primo was near the Pallum whose hands were shaking as she held a waterskin offered to her by the Elf. The Renard was lying on the ground, catching her breath with a bundled-up cloak being used as a pillow after her top had been stripped off with her upper body covered by Primo’s jacket, but her eyes had regained some of their luster.
“Are they going to be okay?” Bell asked Lili as he set their things down, given that out of all of them she had the best understanding of First Aid due to needing to look after herself.
“None of their injuries are crippling so the Potions can mend their wounds, but one had succumbed to poisoning to the point that even with the Antidote she will be fatigued and ill for a little while. We removed her clothes that were covered in the poison dust and had the other two split an Antidote just in case, but all of them will recover.”
“That’s good,” Bell said with a soft sigh before looking over to the Hume Bunny whose ears were folded downwards like she was exhausted. “Was it just the three of you? When I originally was heading that way I saw someone else, but I didn’t see them on the way back…”
Her head tilted at that. “Dunno bout that. Wasn’t anyone but us who came from the Familia.”
“Most likely it was just a random Adventurer who heard the commotion and went to see the situation,” Lili stated. “If you heard their screaming all the way here due to your Level then it must have been loud enough that Adventurers close by would have heard it too. In that case, it would not surprise me if they figured out what was happening and simply ran to the Fifth Floor since Killer Ants are one of the few species on the Upper Floors that can actually cause a Monster Parade to occur on their own.”
“Woulda been good to know beforehand.” She brought her hands to her hair and ran her fingers between her ears frustratedly. “Bastards never said anythin’ bout them or those flyin’ pests when they told us about this floor being a good one to farm.”
That earned a furrowed brow from Lili as Bell spoke. “Ah, right. Maybe we should introduce ourselves considering everything. We’re—”
“The Hestia Familia,” the Hume Bunny said before he could finish. “Saw most of ya’ll on the mirrors when we got here. Ya especially caught my eye, Cottontail.”
“…in what regard?” Lili asked in a tone that was a fair bit more serious than before.
“His title!” she exclaimed. “I wanna beat him and take it for myself!”
“That’s… not how that works here,” Mikoto said after briefly clearing her throat before elaborating to the rest of them. “In my homeland, sometimes warriors would challenge others of renown to best them and raise their own standing. Titles, weapons, and the like could be wagered, though it isn’t practiced as often that close to the capital from what I am told.”
“Forgive her…” A soft voice came from the Renard. Her accent was similar to her companion’s, but it felt slightly more refined and formal. “That one speaks without thinkin’ too much… and gets on over her head if no one keeps an eye on her. In this case… we were misled and are kindly grateful for your aid.”
Mikoto’s gaze softened. “Pardon if I am being presumptuous, but from your accent and explanations, it sounds as though you two are relatively new to Orario?”
“Uhmm… all three of us arrived around the same time as the War Game, which is how we recognized Mister Cottontail,” the Pallum said, having regained a level of composure as she reached into her pouch and pulled out a Familia Emblem. One with a crescent moon and wine glass. “My name is Coco, and these two are Kaede and Momiji. We’re new members of the Soma Familia.”
The moment the senior members of the Familia spotted the emblem, their eyes inadvertently were drawn back to Liliruca whose lips pursed thin. They had gone to rescue her from the Soma Familia’s compound after they had been attacked by them days before the War Game. But the fact that the girl openly admitted it and looked confused by the shift in tone made it clear she knew nothing.
For her part, Lili merely sighed before holding up a hand. “I think I understand what happened. Let me guess, some of the older members of the Familia gave you a map and told you it’d be easy to get down here to earn a lot of Valis quickly?”
“That’s right,” Coco continued before she pulled a roughly drawn map out next and laid it down for them to see. There was a spot circled. “They said here would be best.”
Bell’s blood ran cold. It was a sentiment shared by Mikoto and Welf as a scowl appeared on the latter’s face while the former’s eyes folded in. Primo simply looked puzzled, but that was because she hadn’t memorized the maps of the Upper Floors. She didn’t understand the implications.
And neither did Coco. “Is there something wrong?”
“That’s the Pantry we’re in now,” Bell stated. “The fact that they told you to come here without even telling you about how Killer Ants can draw others to them means…”
“Don’t sugarcoat it, Master Bell,” Lili said rather coldly. “It’s no different than what the others did to get rid of Mister Ged and tried to do to get rid of me. They sent them here to die.”
The atmosphere within the Pantry grew tense as that registered to the three. Coco’s expression was one of disbelief, while Momiji’ eyes closed in thought. Opposite them, Kaede’s grip on her sword became much tighter, to the point it shook in anger. “Yer kiddin’, right?”
She was not. “The Seventh Floor is arguably the most dangerous for new Adventurers because it introduces a wider variety of monsters. When Zanis was displeased with a new member of the Familia or the others wanted to avoid competition for Lord Soma’s Wine, they would often ‘suggest’ that they come to the Seventh Floor or give them a map marked with a spot that would be a good place to earn Valis. I have seen many people who only joined the Familia never come back.”
War Shadows on the Sixth Floor were dangerous because they were a singular spike in the difficulty when it came to monsters compared to Goblins and Kobolds. They were smarter and their claws were capable of cutting through armor easily. But Killer Ants had hard enough bodies that getting through their defenses to kill them so they couldn’t call for help was exceedingly difficult for new Adventurers. And without Abnormal Resistance or Antidotes, they could easily end up getting poisoned by the Purple Moths.
Ignorant of that, sending them down here alone was a death sentence.
“However, one thing doesn’t make sense,” Lili stated as she looked over their equipment. “Killer Ant bodies are durable enough that without high enough Strength none of you would even be able to get through their armor with these weapons. That should have stopped you from going deeper or wounding enough to draw too many in. And your wounds are light considering how Killer Ants can easily cut apart new Adventurers.”
She was right when Bell considered it. Miss Coco was using Guild-issued armor and weapons at the very least, and the other two didn’t seem to have any special equipment. Their clothes didn’t seem to be very durable considering the rips and tears, meaning that the wounds they had likely should have been deeper unless they had higher Endurance parameters.
“Renards are often known as Sorceresses and Sorcerers in our homeland for possessing the ability to use unique Magics even before the Gods descended,” Mikoto explained. Her violet eyes once more gazing upon the young woman holding her wand that was decorated by paper streamers. “However, judging from your accessory and Nusa, should I assume you were previously a priestess in the service a shrine and thus had a Falna?”
Momiji nodded her head. “The shrine my village had was under the care of Lady Tatsuta far in the countryside, an’ so my kin served her for generations. But after Tsukino went an’ got herself into trouble and had to leave, I begged the lady for her blessin’ to come to Orario with her in exchange for sendin’ back offerings to the shrine. We arrived a little bit ago an’ got wind of the Soma Familia lookin’ for new members.”
In other words, her Goddess unlocked her Falna so she could do a conversion to another Familia when she arrived in Orario. Considering the city made it extremely difficult for Adventurers to leave the walls without going through a lot of paperwork, and with her home being so far away, she likely sacrificed any chance of going back. And while having a Falna and Magic might have made her more valuable, there was no guarantee whatever deity took her in would do the same for her friend or a Pallum.
That alone with how the Hume Bunny begged him to save the other two first made it clear they were rather tight-knit, unlike the rest of the Familia they had just joined. But they hadn’t known that and expected it to be the same. It would have gotten them killed if Bell hadn’t been nearby.
“In other words, you got careless because of it,” Lili said bluntly. “Whatever Magic you have might have allowed you to get down here sooner than you were supposed to, but because of that you didn’t have a full understanding of what awaited you. If you had realized early on that you couldn’t go any further, then you would not have gotten in deeply enough to be swarmed and risk a Monster Parade.”
Welf gave her a stern glance. “Hey now. That’s not on them.”
“If those bastards hadn’t lied ta us then we woulda never came this deep,” Kaede added.
“The fault is our own,” Momiji said softly in contrast to those who were arguing in her defense. “We believed in them too easily an’ still mistook the threat we faced until it was too late because of it. Lesson learned for the future.”
That seemed to be what Lili wanted to hear as she nodded her head. “Not everyone will give you bad advice but don’t believe everything you are told just because you are Familia. New Adventurers are easy prey, so at least verify things that put your life in danger.”
“I don’t understand though,” Coco said somberly. It was like the wind had been knocked out of her. “Lord Soma seemed so nice when he took us in. He told me that he was trying to take his Familia in a new direction and wanted us to help him. So why would they…”
“Most of Lord Soma’s current members are loyal to his wine, not him,” Lili pointed out. “Even if Zanis got put away and Lord Soma changed his policy, it doesn’t change the fact that the others have gotten used to the way things work. It would not surprise me if they intended to use your deaths as an excuse for why they should be given Soma to better guide newcomers, or perhaps they were trying to kill Miss Coco by proxy since they don’t dare come after me now that I’m under Master Bell’s protection.”
That said, she turned to her captain. “Master Bell. Forgive me for this selfish request, but may we head to the Soma Familia after leaving the Dungeon with these three?”
“I don’t mind, but would you really be comfortable with that?” Bell asked. He knew that place had a lot of bad memories for her.
“If Lord Soma sincerely wants to change his Familia for the better, he needs to be aware that it won’t be enough to simply change who is calling the shots and recruiting new members,” Lili told him. “He has to completely root out all traces of the old practices, otherwise his efforts will fail. And I have to be the one to convey that to him personally or else it won’t be clear, and his own children will sabotage him without him realizing it until it’s too late.”
Even if Lili hated her time in his Familia, it was clear she still had some degree of respect for her former God. These three were the signs he was making the first steps to change things sincerely rather than leaving them as they were. And whether it was by pure luck or fate she had borne witness to it and the Familia that took her in had stopped his efforts from being wasted.
“Okay,” Bell said. “We’ll go see Lord Soma. If anyone goes and tries to get in your way this time, I’ll step in.”
“In that case, I would like to contribute as well by introducing you both to Lord Takemikazuchi at some point, Madam Kaede and Momiji,” Mikoto said, looking to the pair. “He could at least explain some of the cultural differences, so you will not be so easily taken advantage of again. I can also show you where to find familiar foods and comforts.”
“…Why?” Kaede asked after a pause. “Not that it wouldn’t be appreciated, but ya just said not to trust everythin’ we hear.”
It was Primo who spoke on her new Familia’s behalf. “It’s because they’re all nice people. Lady Hestia and the others took me in when I had just arrived around the same time as you, and they’ve done so much for me without asking for anything in return. That’s why I want to pay it all back by becoming the best Mage I can be for them, even if it’s scary at times. It’s the same for you, right?”
Her question was addressed specifically to the Pallum who had spoken well of Lord Soma. Coco responded with a slight nod of her head. “He seemed really sincere, and he didn’t reject me for just being a Pallum either.”
“As for me, what guy would just sit back and let scum get away with sending three cute girls off to die because they’re petty over some wine?” Welf said while sporting a grin to Kaede. “They need their priorities checked, and since we’re heading that way there’s no harm in it, right?”
“…Who ya callin’ cute?” murmured the Hume Bunny as her yellow eyes looked away. There seemed to be a spot of crimson color surfacing on her cheeks, but it seemed to go unnoticed. “Gonna kill those bastards.”
“In my case, as my original Familia hails from the Far East, we know of the struggles when it comes to acclimating ourselves to this place,” Mikoto added with her eyes on Momiji. “It would not do for your first experience in Orario to be one completely negative as this one. And, as we have walked the same path, it’s only natural we help those who come after, no?”
“That would be much appreciated,” the Renard Priestess said. “I would be lyin’ if I said I don’t miss a meal from home about now.”
That decided, the Hestia Familia brought the three to the surface and made their way to the Soma Familia. After some mild obstructions, including pulling Kaede off of the one who gave them the map in particular before she bruised her fists on their skull, a discussion was had between the God and his Captain, his old Familia member, and his new ones on the full extent of his Familia’s problems. It took a few hours before a decision was made that would leave the Soma Familia’s numbers drastically reduced by the week’s end in the hopes that they could start again.
Thus, the Hestia Familia headed back to their home where their Goddess of the Hearth awaited. They would put off going to the Exchange for the day so they could get ready for the festivities that were about to begin. After all, the sun was setting…
And the Holy Moon Festival was about to begin.
Chapter 26: Holy Moon Festival – Morning
“I began studying Magic with the forest we were guided to by the Spirits as our home for the time being. The first lesson was naturally the nature of the Spirits themselves. Understanding them were the key to cooperation and thus the wisdom they could bestow after all.
Spirits existed within the world, embodiments of nature given life by the Gods and said to be those closest to the divinities on the Lower World, as they could hear their voices and respond. The fact that we Elves could enter into a contract with them directly meant that we were a race favored by the Gods, unlike the other mortal races who should only be so lucky if the Gods deigned to turn their attention upon them. Or so Elio claimed.
I had reservations (naturally) but stilled my tongue. Argo placed his faith in me, relegating himself to sleeping on the outskirts of the forest and effectively doing all the manual labor for us so that the Elf could teach me without any distractions. If he could bear with that much for my sake, then I should be able to do the same for him.
I had to if I was going to be able to protect him.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic I: Spirits
Bell Cranel stirred awake as early as usual on the day of the Holy Moon Festival.
He had always been early to rise from the time he lived on the mountain and worked the farm along with his grandfather. Daylight was precious and tending to crops happened to be more time-consuming than one would expect. In Orario that translated to reaching the Dungeon relatively early enough to beat the morning rush…
At least that had been back when it had been only Bell and his Goddess as members of the Familia.
He exited his modest room set on the east side of the Hearth Manor’s third floor. The spacious estate had become their home, constructed of stone, wood, and glass, covered an expansive amount of space to where they had more room than they knew what to do with it. Cleaning it all alone would likely become a nightmare, to the point where Lady Hestia was considering hiring help to deal with it once everything settled down.
Bell made his way from his room out into an expansive corridor where the light from the sun poured in through the windows. At the end of the corridor was one of the larger bathrooms that he could use to get himself ready for the day. He took his time to wash himself clean, leaving out refreshed and invigorated as he stretched his limbs that had been loosened by the heated water.
Then he got dressed and proceeded a few doors down towards Welf’s room. Since it would be time for breakfast soon he figured he would wake him just in case he had stayed up too late at the forge. He knocked on the door a few times but there was no answer. “Welf, are you there?”
After listening for a response and hearing none with his Level Three perception, he tested the handle and found that it opened. Welf was nowhere to be found inside. Bell let out a sigh as he realized Welf had spent the night outside again.
Since Lady Hestia had the manor remodeled to suit their needs, she gave Welf his own personal forge since he lost access to the one he would have had with his original goddess when he transferred over. However, there have been cases where he would stay up late to practice his forging to an extent that bordered on obsession in Lili’s words. The fact that he slept in the forge didn’t exactly refute her claims, even if he stated he was just trying not to get rusty.
I’d better get him before Lady Hestia finds out, Bell reasoned. The Goddess of the Hearth treated them as they were her own children and, while she wouldn’t scold them, she could find a way to make them feel guilty for not listening at the expense of their own health. It never felt great to be on the receiving end.
He made his way towards the main foyer where the pair of winding staircases would lead him down to the first floor. However, on his way down, he spotted the other early riser within the Hestia Familia. “Good morning, Miss Mikoto.”
The kunoichi paused in midstride from the floor below and turned her head in his direction, giving him a glimpse of her eyes that looked rather satisfied. Her normally lovely white skin was flushed a red shade from residual heat from the morning bathing she did with one of the baths that had been converted to be more suitable to the Far East style on the lower floor so that all of them had access to it. It was divided into two rooms, of course.
She brushed a stray lock of her raven hair that hung delicately in front of her face and gave him an amicable smile. “Good morning, Sir Bell. I was about to begin working on breakfast after waking the others up.”
“I can do that since I’m already up here,” Bell said, looking over to his left where the other set of stairs would lead him to the women’s wing. They had divided the third floor between the two sides to give both genders a level of privacy, though there was no real hard rule that prevented one side from visiting the other. And Lady Hestia’s room was actually located in the center as it was the largest, being what he presumed was the Master bedroom with a view of the courtyard.
“You have my thanks,” Mikoto stated. “I’ll have breakfast ready for everyone by the time they are all woken and have cleaned themselves up for the day.”
With that, the kunoichi headed towards the kitchen while Bell ascended to the opposite side. Mikoto’s room was the very first room by the stairway but, given that she was already awake, he skipped over it and went for Lili’s door. “Lili, are you up?”
There was the sound of wood scuffing the floor from what he presumed was a chair as smaller footfalls crossed the space. The door opened to reveal Lili dressed in a nightshirt and pants. “Master Bell, did you need something from me?”
“No, I was just coming to wake you up,” he said. “But it seemed like you were already up.”
“I woke a little while ago and thought I should look over the lesson plan for the day after we go to the Dungeon,” she explained. It turned out that due to her… circumstances, Lili had a pretty solid grasp of math compared to the rest of them. So not only was she the Familia Treasurer who kept track of their finances, but she was also helping Primo with the arithmetic portion of her studies.
Bell felt a little embarrassed that he couldn’t do much in that regard. He was literate and knew basic mathematics, but the rest was beyond him. So when she revealed that she could help he had asked her to without a second thought, but he didn’t expect it would interfere with her sleep schedule.
That done, he proceeded down the corridor to the next occupied room to wake up Primo. In contrast to the immediacy of Lili’s response to his knocking and call, he could hear the soft sounds on the other side of the door of the child slowly rising from her bed. Her steps were heavy as she staggered forward and fumbled with the handle. When the door opened it revealed the prepubescent Elf with her eyes still closed, hair disheveled, and her nightgown wrinkled as she and swayed on her feet.
“Ish… redi… Cap’n…” Primo mumbled while still half-asleep, taking a step forward and bumping into Bell before reflexively bringing her arms around his waist to cling to him. Out of all of them, Primo was not used to waking up early. It was likely due to the fact that she was new to the lifestyle of an Adventurer in combination with her young age, so she was a little slower to rise than the others. “Mmnnn…zzz…”
“Hey, don’t use Master Bell as a pillow!” Lili called out as she emerged from her room and pried the Elf off of him while Bell just laughed awkwardly. “I thought you Elves were supposed to be prim and proper.”
Only once she was pulled from Bell and back into her own room did Primo’s consciousness seem to spark awake fully. Her eyes snapped open and, seeing those ruby eyes upon her as Bell waved, she promptly shut the door before calling out, “I-I’m not decent, Captain! Please give me a moment!”
“You don’t need to rush,” Bell told her over the sound of shuffling and light chastisement from Lili on the other side of the door. She almost sounded like an older sister in the way she was telling her she needed to be more aware of what she was doing when getting up. “We’ll have breakfast ready within an hour, so both of you can take your time.”
With those two up, Bell turned his attention to Hestia’s room located behind where the stairwells met. He knocked on the door and called out to her. “Goddess, are you awake?”
“Bell, come inside. I want to show you something,” she responded through the door. Her dutiful child did so, opening the door and entering the room that was far larger than any of theirs. His ruby eyes spanned the room only to for his breath to hitch as he took in her appearance as she did a twirl with the morning sun coming from the balcony window behind her.
Hestia’s long and flowing black hair seemed glossy in the morning light while beneath a deep blue veil with gold trimmings. Elegant white fabric formed a collar around her neck to a sapphire pendant, which allowed the excess cloth to flow around her upper arms like ribbons. It was only because they were attached to golden shoulder bands that they didn’t fly freely, but left arches of flowing fabric that trailed after her.
Her voluptuous bust was cradled by more of the virgin white fabric with bands of gold acting as a pseudo-corset. They matched the ones circling around her hips to hug her waist, holding up the long skirt that was split into two sections, with the center being a long strip of blue rimmed with gold while the rest was white. The wind carried it up enough that he could see up to her knees as she spun around elegantly for him.
“What do you think?” she asked, coming to a stop with the flowing fabric following gently after her. “Isn’t it cute?”
Heat brimmed from his chest to his head. “Goddess, when did you get that?”
“I found it in in the closet when we moved in,” she explained. “It’s a perfect recreation of one of the outfits that I wore back in Heaven, so I can only assume that Apollo had gotten it made during the time he declared the War Game. He must have forgotten it when we took his home.”
Goddess, I’m pretty sure he didn’t forget it so much as he left it on purpose, Bell thought to himself with a bitter grimace. The fact that it was a perfect recreation of one of her outfits in Heaven and fit her so well spoke of the man’s obsession with her. Even so, he couldn’t deny it suited her somewhat in being more regal yet divine compared to her normal outfit. “You look beautiful, Goddess.”
She smiled at his praise. “The last time I wore it was when Artemis and I were up above. Aphrodite had come by to bug us as per usual. Since it’s been so long since I’ve seen her and the Holy Moon Festival was tonight, I felt nostalgic and thought I’d want to wear it for the dance.”
An unsettling sensation fell into his stomach. He had promised her that he would dance with her, even though he wasn’t any good at dancing. The last time he danced with Aiz it was more like they managed to avoid stepping on each other’s toes since they had practiced enough to read one another’s rhythm. Not to mention the fact that it was supposed to be a mostly couples affair…
His ruminations of the impending horror that was a moonlit dance amidst strangers and him embarrassing himself were cut short when he noticed Hestia beginning to remove the bangles, indicating she was getting ready to get undressed. He promptly turned away. “Anyway, I should go and finish waking up Welf. I’ll see you at breakfast!”
Bidding her farewell for the moment, Bell vacated the Master Bedroom and made his way down the stairs to head out to the forge. But before he did so, he peered out through one of the foyer windows towards the gates to see if there were any people were out there, beyond the fountain. They usually only appeared after breakfast and the numbers had been dropping as of late thankfully, but there were still more than he liked. It seemed that with the festival being today none were too eager to try to grab their attention, so the gate was clear for the moment.
Hopefully, it would stay that way.
He made his way out back, the morning air carrying with it a slight autumn chill. But it wasn’t cold enough to see his breath yet as he went close to the edge of the backyard where the trees and gates formed a perimeter. There a forge had been built for Welf’s sole use.
“Welf,” Bell called out as he opened the door. “Are you in here?”
A rough grunt was his answer as he reached over towards a magic stone lantern and turned it on to find the Blacksmith lying down on his workbench, turning from the light as if it was the bane of his existence. But then he forced himself up and ran his calloused hands through his hair before yawning. “Is it morning already?”
“The others are already getting up,” Bell answered. “If you don’t hurry, Lady Hestia will find out you spent the night here and be upset.”
“Don’t want that to happen,” he said, standing up before looking over to a hammer. “Hephaestus will hear of it too, and it’d just make me look like I still need to be looked after despite everything I said then. But the second one was so close that I just had to finish it.”
Bell’s ruby eyes traced his gaze over to the wall where he spotted a great sword. The steel was black, waves running along it in a way that made it seem like flames that were rimmed by fiery red hue. It was most likely a Fire Element weapon.
“In my dreams I see a sword of flames and lightning,” Welf explained as he reached over and picked up what looked to be a stiletto. It had a brass-toned handle, but the blade was a golden color. “I’ve been trying to get closer to that by experimenting with different types of blades and blacksmithing techniques, but none of them have come close to that yet. There’s something I’m missing.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out what it is eventually,” Bell assured him. “And even if these ones are fragile, they’ll serve to keep our Familia safe. That’s what matters, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” He rose to his full height and stretched before moving to the door. As he passed by, he set a hand on Bell’s shoulder. “Sorry to make you go out of your way for me. It’ll be the last time.”
And with that, the rest of Hestia’s Familia were inside of the mansion they called home. The hour came and went, with their breakfast being a serving of eggs that were made in a Far East style that Mikoto called a rolled omelet accompanied by slices of ham and toast with fruit slices. They discussed their plans for the day over it.
“So, how deep will we be going today?” Welf asked from his seat on the right side of the table, positioned between Mikoto and Lili. Unlike the others, he was placing them between slices of toast and ham to make a sandwich while Mikoto was skillfully using a pair of chopsticks and Lili was using a fork and knife.
Bell finished chewing his slice of an egg before answering. “We’ll stick with the Upper Floors since we can handle the monsters and have a chance to work out our group dynamics with Primo. Besides, Goddess is expecting us to come home earlier today.”
“That’s right,” Hestia said. “The Holy Moon Festival is tonight, and we should all have a chance to celebrate and relax while things are finally winding down from the War Game. It’s the first time for myself, Bell, and Primo, so we should enjoy it together.”
The Elven Mage, who was happily eating her peach slices, perked up at hearing that. “Does that mean I can take a break from studying tonight?”
Lili rebuked that notion quickly. “Don’t be silly. We’ll simply study earlier and fit in time after your archery practice in the courtyard. You still can barely hit the target as is.”
Primo’s pointed ears comically deflated at that. “Uwaahh…”
“A little break is fine, Miss Supporter,” Hestia said before brushing the child’s hair. “That goes for her and you. It’s nice you’re pushing yourself to meet Bell’s expectations since he’s relying on you, but it’s important to rest every now and again. Right, Bell?”
Bell was quick to agree with a beaming smile. “That’s right. You’ve earned as much of a break as anyone, Lili.”
Her chestnut eyes turned away from him as she sported a hint of crimson in her cheeks. “If Master Bell insists, we can take a break today…”
The news that she would be let off for the day from her relatively hard schooling brightened Primo’s smile. “If we’re all going, does that mean Miss Lefiya will be there too?”
“We might see her there, but I think she has a date tonight,” Bell said, recalling his sister’s plans. It had come up during one of their talks considering the whole ‘I want grandkids’ message from her mother. “I don’t think she’d appreciate it if we interrupted her. At the very least it would get awkward between us again…”
Primo tilted her head quizzically at that. “Awkward?”
“Well… ah…” Bell decidedly chose his words carefully given that he didn’t want to bring up the whole matter on the 18th Floor that involved women in various states of undress and then the groping incident. “Let’s just say things between us weren’t always as friendly and I don’t want things to go back to that way.”
He had been on the receiving end of her wrath before. And, from his limited experience with women, he had a strong feeling that they would dislike interference with their romance. Thus, he felt it best if he stayed far away from her tonight if he could help it.
In the heart of a forest, nestled deep in the verdant green, laid a Great Tree.
The stalwart tree that stood as a sentinel was unshakable. It withstood the passing of ages and every obstacle that nature birthed. Its dark, thick, furrowed bark withstood pounding rains, frigid snow, torrential storms, and harsh heat, unmoved even as the world itself changed around it.
Should those rains turn into a fierce flood its roots would brace against the surging waves. Should the snow become a raging blizzard it would ward off the invasive frost. Should the storm become a hurricane it would be an unmoving bastion. And should the heat become a raging flame from the scorched bark would sprout life anew.
It was a foundation within her as a Mage.
Its resilience was her resilience.
Its fortitude was her fortitude.
Lefiya envisioned within the confines of her mind being the Unshakable Great Oak as she went through her meditation exercise for the morning. The imagery was vivid as she reinforced it with the memory of the Spirit Tree of legend. Even when the flames of a Dragon scorched it, the tree managed to cling to life and rejuvenate itself with a little help.
Such was the majesty of both the Royal Elf and a primordial Great Tree.
Truthfully, she never thought she would have the chance to lay her eyes on a Great Tree given her birth. Living with her mother on the outskirts of the Wishe Forest, the heart of the forest was beyond her wildest dreams of visit. She thought she would only have her mother’s tale of how during the tree’s flowering it would sport a crown of light with such majesty that it seemed almost like a halo ascending to the heavens. Seeing the Spirit Tree for herself was a luxury that she never could have imagined and would remain forever entrenched within her.
Recalling the sight as the spirits danced around it, Lefiya’s mind then shifted back to the memory of Filvis as they danced. Her soft breath washing against her skin, leaving it prickling with temptation. Her lovely eyes that she could just get lost in. Her tender, soft-looking lips that she came so close to finally…
“Ah, that’s not good!” Lefiya pulled herself from her mental world as she felt heat sweltering in her head, leaving her to shake it. “I can’t get distracted just because of tonight.”
Her date with Filvis would be later this evening, during the Holy Moon Festival. The moon would be amongst its brightest and largest, shining overhead for all to see. It would set a romantic and festive atmosphere, not unlike the Spirit Festival. But unlike then it would be a real date this time.
That meant she had to control herself and avoid the temptation to repeat her prior actions. She didn’t need to rush to get her feelings across now that she knew they would be returned. The last thing she wanted was to drive her off because she came onto her like some kind of Elven Fetishist.
Taking a breath to re-center herself a light chime that signaled the passing of an hour reached her ears. She opened her eyes to see her room bathed in the morning light and rose from her meditative position to get dressed in her battle clothes. Specifically, her regular ones rather than the ones that Lady Riveria had given her.
Those clothes were something she would reserve when acting as Lady Riveria’s successor rather than casual wear. After all, they would be very expensive to repair if damaged considering the materials used. And it would have more impact if she only wore them when she needed to act as the second to the Nine Hells.
Once she was dressed, Lefiya made her way down to the cafeteria to eat a light meal before she had to head out. There was an open seat for her with many of the other girls within the Familia who were up now—Elfy, Leene, and Anakitty specifically.
“Finished your mediation exercises?” Elfy asked as she scooted over to give her roommate just a little more room next to her.
“Mm-hmm,” Lefiya hummed softly, not mentioning the distraction that she had around the end. The various scents that filled the table from everyone’s choice of a meal tempted her to expand on her choice of food, but she tamped down on it as she settled in to eat. “What about you?”
“I’ll do it later,” said the Human Mage as her green eyes skimmed over the light breakfast consisting of a bowl of oatmeal, fruit, and orange juice on the Half-Elf’s plate. In contrast, she had scrambled eggs and was using a butter knife to apply fruit jam across her slice of toast. “I wouldn’t be able to sit still for an hour on an empty stomach.”
“I suppose I should do the same,” said the soft-spoken Nurse, Leene. The quiet girl sat opposite the two of them, her morning meal consisting of cereal that had slices of fruit added into it. “By the way, was the book I loaned you helpful?”
Lefiya gave a short nod of her head. “I’m able to grasp the basics somewhat, but there are a lot more complexities than I expected so I’ll be needing it for a while.”
Healers, or specifically dedicated spellcasters who had the Treatment Development Ability, tended to be far rare than Mages. There was no guarantee over what kind of spell one obtained, if they ever obtained one. And even then, the study to earn the Treatment DA was practically the same to become a doctor or pharmacist.
As the Half-Elf was still learning and studying under Riveria and only had access to healing spells Elf Ring, it was largely impractical for her to even make the attempt. But since Lefiya did have access to a healing spell that she could use now with a relatively lower cost to Mind, she thought it would be best to make the most out of it. It would never be as good as Leene or Lady Riveria since the potency of the healing relied on the Magic attribute and Ancient Magic spells didn’t benefit from it, but it was still an option that she had wished for in the past and shouldn’t squander.
That was why she had asked Leene if she had any beginner materials she could study, which she allowed her to borrow. The basics operated on the principle that the user would not have the Treatment DA, so it taught the importance of diagnosing the nature of injuries beyond the level of basic first aid they were all taught and how to prioritize treating them. That gave her a better understanding of how to direct the flow of magic towards said areas rather than her usual method of simply letting the spell run on its own as that would be cost-inefficient—unless Argonaut was involved.
Then it effectively was an instant full heal and stamina booster considering how it worked during the War Game.
“I knew you had your head in a book most of the time you were home, but I didn’t think that you were taking up an entirely different branch of magic on top of all of your training with Lady Riveria,” Elfy said with a flat look. “You’re gonna burn out if you do all that.”
Anakitty agreed with a soft, yet worried expression. “She’s right. You should probably take it easy. At least for today. Do you want to come with us to the festival?”
“Sorry, but I’m heading out in a little bit to go train in the Dungeon and, as for this evening, I have other plans…”
It wasn’t as though she broadcasted her relationship with Filvis, nor the sudden change in their status from friendship to courtship. Elfy knew because they were roommates and best friends, but the others didn’t need to know that. There was nothing she could do if they spotted her by chance at the festival, but the last thing she wanted this morning was anyone to give her expectations or try to squeeze her for information.
“Oh, that reminds me, Elfy are you still using that primer of Elvish terms from the library?” Leene asked innocently. “It’s been out for a while, and your name was on the logbook last…”
Lefiya turned to her, head tilted inquisitively as the human winced. “I didn’t know you were learning Elvish. If you’d asked, I would have taught you.”
“Lefy, we just covered the fact that you were not only studying harder but spent most of your days buried in a book or otherwise busy,” Elfy pointed out. “Besides, it was just something I was doing in my free time so could learn enough to read some of the books in your language for when I eventually bump up my Mage DA. The Fairy Force has the best stuff on Magic outside of the books printed from Alterna, where they’re always written like a thesis and never get to the point. It’s enough to put a girl to sleep.”
The Fairy Force was the Elven Mage detachment for Lady Riveria consisting of a total of eleven female Elves who were Level Three or higher and possessed the Mage DA. The Royal Elf possessed the skill Alf Regina, or Seal of the Fairy Queen, which strengthened the effect of spells cast within her magic circle if they were cast by Elves. It also converted the expended magical energy back into Mind, effectively making it so that they could keep casting—minus the post-magic rigor and mental fatigue. Combined with the use of Concurrent Chanting, they were a mobile magical artillery force that specialized in hit-and-run.
Mind you, Lady Riveria hated the name in itself and Loki had come up with it. But most of the Elves were fond of it because they typically had skills related to Faeries and it was an honor to be part of it. Lefiya was the newest member of the Force, due to her not being exceptionally good at using Concurrent Casting—it was only recently she had become proficient with it due to her time training with Filvis.
Lefiya had to admit that it was a good idea on her friend’s behalf considering Elves had the most pronounced use of Magic throughout history until the Age of the God. The reference books from their race tended to have a fairly solid grasp on different aspects of the Art because of that, but there were also clear biases in the text towards Elves. She really didn’t appreciate how they referred to half of her parentage, so she couldn’t imagine that Elfy would have an easier time putting up with it.
“Anyway, Lefy’s not the only one with plans though, is she?” Elfy’s green eyes turned to their resident Healer teasingly and the bespectacled girl went rigid the moment she felt the collective eyes of the others fall upon her.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about…” Leene said softly while fidgeting in place. Her face gained a splotch of crimson while she angled her head so that the sheen of the morning light hid her eyes. “I’m just going to be doing some independent studying myself. That’s all. Really.”
“Reaaalllly~” Elfy practically purred as she leaned forward with one elbow on the table as she propped up her head. “So, you’re going to spend the night of the festival just studying instead of going out with the rest of us on a girl’s night? That’s all? Nothing about makeup advice floating around or anythingggg~”
Lefiya could almost swear that steam was coming out of the poor girl’s ears as she shrank in her chair. She felt compelled to do something about it, so she nudged her friend with her elbow and told her to stop. “Elfy, knock it off. You know full well rumors are just that. I still haven’t forgotten that one you guys bought into about me after the 18th Floor.”
“Yeah… sorry about that,” Anakitty said with her ears shifting. “I’ve told Raul time and again to think about what he says around others to avoid things like that happening, so we should stop it from going any further.”
“Just having a little fun,” the Human Mage said as she leaned back in her chair and shrugged. “But you have to admit it’d be interesting if either of those rumors panned out to be true. Just imagine if Cottontail actually managed to snag the heart of the Thousand Elf, or what kind of guy could make Lokolite swoon?”
“I disagree,” Lefiya noted flatly.
It was a sentiment Leene shared as she shifted her glasses by the frame with her hands. “So do I.”
Thankfully, the conversation drifted into other topics as she finished her breakfast in peace.
Then it was off to the Dungeon.