Chapter 23: Story of Growth – Part 1
“Elio called the forest we sat at the entrance of his current home, the sole resident along with a host of Minor Spirits that followed him around. Apparently, he belonged to a clan of Elves that worked to commune with many, but their home had fallen to the monsters, and he was the only one left. It was not an uncommon tale by any stretch of the imagination.
The Spirits stirred at my presence, it seemed. Like little animals sniffing at something curious they found on the ground, he likened. Something he said that he had not seen in a long time, which I could only presume was more than a hundred years given his maturity.
So, he made me an offer: he would teach me the magic of our kind. Even if I were Half-Man, he felt that preserving what remained of their race, the teachings and culture and magic, was more important. So long as I had Elven blood inside of me.
However, it came with a condition.
I had to part ways with Argo.”
The Fairy Sniper loosed her shot in a harsh whisper as her Elven eyes spotted their marks far off into the sky. Mind was converted into magical power and focused into the magic stones at the head of her staff before launching the magical arrow in the form of a golden beam of light. It speared from beneath the canopy of a coniferous forest and shot towards the ceiling that shed light as though it were a facsimile of the sky and sun on the surface, born of the Dungeon’s memory from before the gods descended and placed a lid upon it.
The marks were a pair of Pterosaurs that had been circling around for some time now. Even as far away as they were, they could easily swoop down and ensnare prey they spotted in the time it would take to count to three. That was part of what made them so dangerous.
Her golden arrow cut through the air and reduced the distance to zero as it pierced through the first’s body using searing heat and force as she condensed the beam into a narrow shot. But the second shifted its wings, carrying it off the original path it had been on. Had it spotted the glimmer of light that heralded the liminal speed at which it flew? Or had it simply shifted itself on a whim and thus managed to escape the beam of light by chance?
It didn’t matter as the backdraft of the near-miss left it to corkscrew in the air before righting itself. By then the arrow had curved around, swiveling faster than the normal eye could blink. The beam connected and ruptured, the explosion finishing it off as the magic stone within it was blown to pieces.
Her task done, Lefiya let out a soft sigh and then took a moment to catch her breath in the nook between the limb and trunk she was on within the massive tree that she was perched in. Her body was running hot and she needed a moment to wind down given she had been shooting down the fliers for a bit of time now. But she was the best suited for the job given her Spells and specialty.
“Lefy!” Her ears picked up her name being called from below and she looked down to see her roommate there, holding up a waterskin. She didn’t have her cloak, only her white tunic with her shawl arm sleeves clear as she waved up at her. “You can come down now!”
The Half-Elf descended the tree at that, bounding down between the branches before landing next to Elfy. Her fellow Mage offered her the waterskin to drink from, and she became aware of how thirsty she had been. It had been a few hours since she had gone up in the tree in order to turn it into her sniper’s nest. “Has everyone finished setting up camp?”
“Mm-hmm.” Her green eyes fixed onto Lefiya as she watched her take a sip before continuing. “Everyone is accounted for, so you guys acting as the advance party can all head back to camp.”
It was roughly the day or so after she had finished instructing Primo. She and several other members of the Loki Familia were on the 28th Floor, just beneath the Water Capital. It was one of the Safe Floors of the Dungeon, present after the floors where the Monster Rexes often spawned, and so the number of monsters present was rather minimal.
However, just because the Dungeon did not spawn monsters didn’t mean they couldn’t wander from above. Or, in the case of the Pterosaurs, from below. Flying monsters could cover a massive amount of distance on their own and she couldn’t risk any of them spotting the small band busy setting up a light camp for what was turning out to be a Quest within a Quest.
Of course, the Quest that Lefiya was supposed to undertake was different from the others. But her skillset made her getting down and helping to clear the area ahead of them imperative, along with some of the others. They didn’t want another Poison Vermis incident that resulted in so many of them being laid up on the 18th Floor the last time.
Lefiya passed back the waterskin and gave her a grateful nod before heading back, with the Human Mage accompanying her. She could only assume that they would have one of the Beast Humans take her place on the lookout. They made small talk along the way. “I’m surprised so many people volunteered to come along for the quest issued by the Dian Cecht Familia.”
The Dian Cecht Familia had placed a request for a cornucopia of Bloodsaurus Eggs for one reason or another. The region below was a vast stretch of verdant jungle. The vegetation often grew in layers, from dense bushes to rising shrubs to towering trees, all of which competed with one another for the light shed from above. Numerous fruits and resources foreign to Orario could be found there, but the primordial landscape was difficult to navigate even when you didn’t include the fact that dinosaur-like monsters considered the layer their home.
Since they were familiar with the terrain, and the last expedition had put the Familia within the red, the Captain had taken up the quest. To that end, the original intention was to send out a select few to handle it. But, to the surprise of many, when the call for volunteers Level Three and higher went out, there were a lot more who answered than expected to where they were—treating it as a sort of mini-expedition.
“Well, most of them are the guys who don’t want to be shown up by Cottontail,” Elfy said, shrugging her shoulders. “Not only did he pop up asking to see Aiz after you got involved, but then he went ahead and beat the War Game on top of achieving Level Three.”
Lefiya didn’t know whether to giggle at the fact that her little brother had managed to incur the jealousy of so many of her Familia’s members or sympathize with them because she knew exactly where they were coming from. Bell having a skill that accelerated his growth meant that, realistically, he would be able to surpass all of them in a relatively short amount of time in terms of raw numbers—even if he was lacking in actual skill or experience.
“We’re all Adventurers in the end,” Lefiya said, settling on the middle path. “We can only do our best.”
“I can’t say that I’m too sure on how to feel about him myself considering the peeping thing,” Elfy admitted, looking at her with an accusatory yet playful glance. “And you’ve been awfully close to him despite the fact that you were the one who wanted to chase him off the most back then. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he caught your eye.”
“Let’s just say that I realized I overreacted when we got into real trouble,” the Half-Elf responded, not rising to the bait. Elfy did, in fact, know better. “He means well, but he just gets in over his head at times.”
“I’d call ‘getting an entire Familia breathing down his neck’ a little more than over his head, but if you say so.” She folded her hands behind her head as she looked up towards the ceiling. There was a prolonged silence before she spoke again with a smile on her face. “Still, I guess at least I don’t have to worry about him stealing you away from the sound of it.”
Lefiya blinked in confusion. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing~” Skipping ahead to her own playful tune, Elfy bound into the camp while Lefiya followed until they spotted Bete Loga.
The Werewolf had a perpetual frown on his face as per usual, but the moment his gaze faced in her direction he pointed back towards the bigger tent. “The Old Hag wants to see you. Get going.”
That said he continued along his way, leaving the Half-Elf to follow instructions after bidding Elfy farewell for now. Inside of the largest tent she found Lady Riveria sitting in front of a table that held on it maps of the floors lower than this one, her staff set aside while she held her chin in thought. Next to her was Gareth, who was stroking his beard while similarly in contemplation. She held her silence to avoid breaking their concentration, though she did take a seat on one of the cushions when the Royal Elf gestured for her to do so.
It only became apparent that they were waiting for one other person to enter when the flaps opened and Aiz entered. Her golden eyes shifted over to Lefiya and she gave a small nod in greeting before turning her attention to her superiors. “Bete said you wanted to see me?”
“The Guild approached us with an extermination request for an Irregular Monster,” the Royal Elf began. “It is a variation of an Obsidian Soldier, located on the 37th Floor, and with so few Familia capable of traversing so deeply into the Dungeon they felt we were their best option. Gareth and I were chosen to handle it, but we’ve decided to give you two a chance to deal with it in our place.”
The two younger women stiffened slightly at that. Irregular Monsters were capable of being born under two circumstances that were known. The first was that the Dungeon spawned them, though those were much rarer circumstances. The second and most common was that a monster had devoured the magic stone of another monster. It only took five or so for a monster to display a notable increase in strength, and in the Deep Floors that bode poorly.
“If you succeed, your debts will be wiped clean,” Lady Riveria continued. “However, I will add that it is optional. We suggested and cleared it with Finn that we believe you both are more than capable of handling it on your own. However, if you feel incapable, we would only ask that you keep watch over the camp while we go to handle it.”
Lefiya was silent as she considered the request. She was uncertain of whether or not she was capable of handling the situation if it was an irregular version of an Obsidian Soldier. Their bodies were highly resistant to Magic and her primary contributing factor in expeditions was exactly that, meaning that she would likely be dead weight…
Yet, Lady Riveria had specifically chosen her for some reason. She had never been shy about her expectations when it came to Lefiya as her successor. And, recalling what she had told Primo and how Bete had told her the same, she shouldn’t settle for simply living up to her expectations.
She should focus on surpassing her mentor, not living in her shadow. And the first step to doing that should be to find a way to deal with the problem in front of her. The fact that Lady Riveria suggested her meant that there was one, even if she couldn’t see it right now. “I’m willing to try.”
“Me too.” Aiz added. “Can you tell us more about this irregular?”
The question earned a look between the two elites of the Familia, a wordless message passing between them.
Then Lady Riveria answered her. “It’s far larger than normal of its kind, probably around six meders tall according to the reports. And rather than being black, it has a more crystalline and reflective color. It has also demonstrated a rudimentary ability to use a long-ranged magical attack in the form of a howl that creates a sonic boom. I believe the tentative name is a ‘Reflection Soldier’ for this particular irregular breed.”
The Half-Elf’s brows furrowed as she considered the information. Large as a Monster Rex and no doubt powerful in terms of strength, but if it was on part with a Floor Boss then they wouldn’t be sending the two of them alone to deal with it. She didn’t doubt that they could deal with the raw strength by just avoiding it in the case of the Vanguard and staying out of range for her.
The Magic is the biggest problem, she settled on. Considering that its howl was to be considered a magical attack it most likely operated somewhat like her Gale Blast in that it compressed air and then launched it—only using its throat as a cannon instead of a wand. If I had taken my Level Up then I would have Magic Resistance like Lady Riveria and soften the effect…
Her thoughts froze. Memories flashed. The pendant Bell received. The final clash of spells. The Obsidian Soldiers. She rose to her feet and asked, “How long do we have to complete the Quest?”
“Three days,” Gareth answered. “That should be long enough for the others to complete the request with the Bloodsaurus Eggs. It looks like ye got somethin’ in mind?”
“Um, I have an idea on how we can maximize our chances of success,” she said before turning to Aiz. “I believe that there are gemstones that can confer limited Magic Resistance to the wearers found in that region of the Dungeon, in the White Palace. If we can find at least one before we challenge it, then we’ll have a better chance of standing up to it. Can we spend one—no, at least two days searching for it?”
“Ah… that’s a good ideal, Lefiya,” Aiz agreed before turning to Riveria. “May we postpone challenging it for the first two days. If we don’t find it after that then we’ll return to rest before we challenge it on the third.”
The request received a nod of approval from the Dwarf. “Smart, use all your options before goin’ ahead. Fortunately, since Udaeus won’t show up any time soon, access to the 38th Floor and below is possible. My instinct as a miner tells me you’ll have a better chance finding them there, and ye can set up your own camp on the 39th Floor and search for ‘em. We’ll come to pay a visit around then.”
“What will we tell the others about our absence?”
“Gareth and I will tell them that you both are handling a separate request for us and aren’t to be bothered,” Lady Riveria answered. “There’s no need to worry them about what we’ve asked.”
“We won’t let you down,” Aiz told her. “Let’s go, Lefiya.”
The Sword Princess and Thousand Elf departed from the tent, intent on preparing what they would need for the trip. As soon as they were out of earshot, Gareth let out a slight laugh. “Looks like you were worried for nothin’.”
“Who said that I was worried about them?” replied the Royal Elf in her normally unflappable tone.
“If they had chosen to rush into it without askin’ then you would have had them go to the 38th Floor to find those stones beforehand. And if they had chosen not to do it, ya gave ‘em a way out without shame by keepin’ it a secret. No wonder Loki always refers to ya as ‘mother’ around ‘em.”
“…Hush you,” she responded before sighing. It was true that she had some misgivings about the pair and their recent behavior. But this and that were two completely different things. “They might have shown they’ve taken a step in the right direction, but they still have to beat it. As they currently are it’ll be difficult if they rely on a brute force approach. That will be the real test.”
“That’s true,” he agreed. “Still, I think I’ll go check up on ‘em later in. Neither one has swung a pickaxe in their lives. No cunning with stone between the lasses.”
“Nnnn… why is it so hard to find them…”
The whine slipped out of Lefiya’s dejected mouth as she leaned on the pickaxe that she had borrowed when they had gathered supplies in order to set out to the 38th Floor. It had been a day since they had broken from the other group and come further down, setting up on the Safe Floor beneath the White Palace. Though, to call it a camp was overdoing it since there were just the two of them, but it was nice in its own way.
Since they needed to collect gemstones that conferred the limited Magic Resistance they had two options to get it.
The first was to simply kill the Obsidian Soldiers and hoped that they dropped them. They were rare drops, of course. The material component of their bodies were effective as normal drop materials, but the gemstones were rare and far more potent. Add into the fact that they resisted Magic due to their body composition, Lefiya would have had to expend far more Mind to overpower it.
The second was to mine the walls around the floor. Since the Obsidian Soldiers were made of minerals composing the walls, occasionally they formed within the walls. If they got lucky they could find a decent chunk or two and that would hopefully be enough. But there was no guarantee.
So they had settled on a compromise of sorts. Aiz would kill the Obsidian Soldiers around the Floor, given she was Level Six and thus more than capable of dealing with them, while she would mine the wall where they spawned from consistently enough that they likely had the gemstones within them. If they were lucky they would obtain at least one that could be used to help the Sword Princess, given Lefiya most likely wouldn’t be able to do anything against the irregular.
I can’t let her do all the work, Lefiya thought to herself as she rose to her full height and took up the pickaxe once more. Even if the chances of her finding something were low, the thought of doing nothing when Aiz was going around and killing monsters because she couldn’t was something she couldn’t stomach.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Hammering away at the stoneface, Lefiya chipped away at the stone in search of the precious jewels nestled deep within.
Tink. Tink. Tink. The mining in itself was not only tedious but boring to the extent she was amazed that anyone would make a career out of it. But, because of that, she could allow her thoughts to drift onto other topics.
Tink. Tink. Tink. For her date with Filvis she needed to consider what it was that they would do. The Holy Moon Festival had several key events for people to enjoy themselves, dating back to ancient times. The dance that went on in Amor Square was more inclined towards couples, and she wanted to dance there with her if they had the chance.
Tink. Tink. Tink. But she knew the gorgeous Elf had a lot of boundary issues, even more than others of their kind. She considered herself filthy to the extent of not letting herself touch others with her bare hands. Lefiya had been making progress with her, but she wanted to see if she could get her over that hurdle without scaring her away—like at the Spirit Festival when she had tried tempting her into a kiss.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Holding hands would be a good place. If she could just get her to hold hands with her, no gloves or cloth between them, then she would consider it a success. Anything more than that would be too greedy, no matter how she occasionally thought about her beautiful pale skin or her soft lips and how she wanted to—
“That’s no good.”
The Half-Elf Mage jumped at the sudden voice, whipping her head around so fast that her hair could have counted as a potentially lethal weapon. There she spotted Sir Gareth, the Dwarven Warrior having arrived at some point. He was standing next to her while inspecting the rockface she had been working at with an appraising gaze.
“Lass, ya can’t just go at the stone with no thought in mind or else you’ll never find a thing. Each stroke needs to have purpose. Don’t go daydreamin’ in the middle of work.”
Hearing the Dwarf’s admonishment caused the Half-Elf to feel a surge of embarrassment. She quickly bowed her head and apologized. “I’m sorry. My thoughts just… drifted a bit. Mining isn’t really my forte.”
“Youngster’s these days…” He let out a gruff sigh. “I suppose at least ye didn’t get started usin’ your spells to try to solve the problem.”
“That wouldn’t exactly be efficient,” she admitted. Since the gemstones repelled Magic she could in theory simply blast the walls and the stone in question should be fine so long as she didn’t go overboard. But compared to the expenditure of Mind and the area, it just wasn’t worth it.
“Then ye got a better head on your shoulders than Riveria had startin’ out,” he said in an elderly tone. “One time we ran across a place on the surface where gems could be found an’ Loki was lookin’ for quick valis. She got so impatient that she let loose her spell and didn’t consider the fact that thermal shock would shatter the gems an’ bring the whole thing down.”
“I… I… see…” Or so she said. In truth, the undignified image of her mentor unleashing her full might on a rockface after having to sling a pickaxe for Lady Loki’s whims was so foreign her mind refused to process it. “But so far I haven’t had any luck finding them this way. At this rate, I’m worried that the time we took out to prepare will be wasted.”
“It would help if ya mined in the proper place,” Gareth told her as he looked at the ground around them that was covered with broken stone fragments from when she had been hitting away without rhyme or reason. “In this case, consider the nature o’ the Dungeon itself.”
“No matter how many times it spawns the monsters, and they break through the walls, they always grow back, right?”
“An’ those monsters sometimes drop the gemstones after they have their magic stones removed, meanin’ that it was concentrated within ‘em. And gemstones themselves are born when the earth has been placed under enough pressure. What connects all three of ‘em?”
Her brows furrowed as she considered it. Drop items resulted from the concentration of magical energy within that specific part of the monster being coalesced and made dense enough to survive the extraction. By the fact that the surface from which Obsidian Soldiers were born also housed them meant that it had to come about as a result of the properties of the stone and the formation of the monster’s body. If the monsters kept respawning from the walls and breaking off then…
It clicked. “I should try working from the origin point where they consistently spawn and break off?”
Even if the wall broke it would just regrow itself to how it was before. Then another monster would form in it, acting as an incubator that would constantly be pushed aside by the growing fetus. But as long as it was connected to a point in the wall, like an umbilical cord until the magic stone was fully formed, it would constantly be a focal point for the magical energy.
“New stone would put pressure at the base of where it met the old stone an’ was compressed by the Obsidian Soldier as it grows into formation. The body bein’ constantly supplied with magical energy from the walls would be mixed into the base. Smashed all together long enough and it’ll crystallize.”
Her azure eyes looked down at the stone fragments around her and then towards the walls that had given birth to the Obsidian Soldiers that Miss Aiz had dealt with before. The Dungeon had already begun repairing the deepest parts, and it might have only been an educated guess on her end. “The stones that were older would look different from the ones that were newly regenerated because of that, right?”
He nodded. “Well, it’ll still be up to chance if ya find one. I’ll go an’ check on Aiz now before I head back up. Try not to daydream again, else Riveria will hear of it.”
She bowed her head in gratitude at the Dwarf. “I won’t. Thank you very much.”
Taking his advice to heart, she reconsidered her approach when it came to mining. Pulling out steel pitons and using the Strength of a Level Three, she drove into the wall at the spots that were regenerating since they would be the best points to start at one at a time. Then she proceeded to get to work at mining in earnest.
Tink. Tink. Tink. The first hole she dug into bore no crystallized fruit, but she could see the beginnings of where the stone’s hue turned a deeper shade and the texture shifted notably to the touch. She didn’t have a good baseline to work off of, but she gained a better understanding.
Tink. Tink. Tink. Nothing on the seventh hole either. She had to take a moment to actively break the wall where she had driven the pitons in earlier to make sure the Dungeon didn’t try to close them up. A check of the pocket watch she kept showed she had been at it for quite some time now. But she had hope.
Tink. Tink. Tink. She counted at least the thirteenth hole when she spotted glittering silt among the stone. It caught the light coming off the magic stone lantern she had as she peered into the darkness, faint sparkles of light. A push of her own magical energy into it and she felt the slightest of resistance.
A smile came across her face. Now she only had to widen the area she was in. Tink-tink-tink. Tink-tink. Scrape. Shuffle.
“Lefiya?” The soft, bell-like voice of an angel pulled the Half-Elf from the constant echoing of the pick against the stone. She pulled herself from her work and poked her head out of the hole that she dug to see that Aiz had returned. “Are you okay?”
“Miss Aiz, I found these!” She excitedly presented her prize. It was a few modest-sized, unpolished, rough gemstones. “I think these will work, won’t they?”
“Yes,” the Sword Princess acknowledged. “But it has gotten late. You were supposed to return an hour ago.”
“I was?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the silver pocket watch that had Elven embellishments upon it. It had been hours since the last time she checked. “I hadn’t realized that much time had passed.”
The loss of time weighed upon her as she considered that Aiz must have been worried to come seek her out. But, at the same time, she was happy that she managed to find a few of the gemstones they needed. She climbed out of her hole, only to realize just how covered in stone dust she was when some of it billowed out upon landing. Thank goodness no other Elf was around to see her looking so disheveled after being invested in mining, of all things.
“I suppose I should go wash up first,” she mentioned with some embarrassment as soon as they returned to the Safe Floor considering her state. The camping site they had chosen was a modest distance away from the entrance and had a stream of flowing water that served multiple purposes—including bathing.
To her surprise, Aiz decided to do the same. “I will join you.”
Lefiya’s mouth opened and closed as she tried to voice her thoughts. But no words came out as Aiz went downstream and began to strip down. Several emotions surged through the Half-Elf, even as she intentionally averted her eyes from the privilege. It wouldn’t be right to enjoy the sight when it was right in front of her when she was both looking for a committed relationship and perfectly aware Miss Aiz shouldn’t be leered at lecherously by anyone.
The last thing she wanted to turn into was Lady Loki.
So she kept her attention elsewhere even as she followed suit, sinking herself up to her neck within the water. Their weapons were nearby if a monster that wandered from above or below came close by. But, between the two of them, there was mostly silence as they let the water wash away the dirt, dust, and grime of the day.
It was the Sword Princess who eventually broke the silence. “You were working hard, weren’t you?”
“Y-Yes.” She cleared her throat. “I wanted to make sure that I could at least do something while you were out killing the monsters. Did you have any luck?”
“Only a few small ones from the hundreds I killed,” she claimed. Considering the drop rates were low for them, it was probably the best they could do between them. The question now was how they would approach the irregular itself. “Do you think that he’s doing well now too?”
“That boy,” she explained. “Bell Cranel.”
“Oh, him.” Lefiya shifted her eyes over towards the Sword Princess tentatively to see that her gaze was looking upwards. Not towards the ceiling itself, but further. To the surface. “For the most part. He’s had a lot of things to adjust to since the War Game. They also have a new member—an Elven child who wants to become a Mage. I gave them advice on how to train her and took her to get her supplies the day before we set out.”
Golden eyes turned back to her. Then her lips pulled back into a small smile. “Did you have fun?”
“I did,” she admitted. Then she recalled another matter she needed to address while they were alone. “Miss Aiz, I also owe you an apology.”
“For how I used the fact that you were helping Bell to train as an excuse to help me train as well,” she confessed. Back then she had not liked the two of them together, especially because she did not want him around anything to do with her Familia. And in doing so she had used that knowledge to essentially blackmail Aiz into spending time with her. “My reasons were selfish, and I didn’t consider your own feelings on the matter. For that, I owe you an apology.”
“Oh.” The Sword Princess’ expression turned pensive for a moment. The weight of her gaze seemed heavier on Lefiya as well, though that very well could have just been her imagination considering her smile returned. “It’s okay. My own reasons weren’t entirely honest as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I… wanted to understand how he got so strong,” she confessed. It was not an easy thing to do either, considering how she looked away. “So that I could see if I could do the same. That was why I originally agreed.”
Lefiya found that difficult to believe, in a sense. She was already so strong. So beautiful. Graced with a wind that belonged only to her, the Half-Elf coveted that same thing at times. But, from that perspective, she supposed she could understand in a certain way. In the end, it had many forms.
It could be ugly at times, stirring up jealousy, hatred, and envy. It could be a beacon, instilling admiration that one looked. It could serve as a goal post, a marker for one to reach for. Or a benchmark for one to surpass.
“But I had fun helping him,” Aiz continued, her voice gradually lightening in tone. “I wanted to see him get stronger as well. And something about him sets me at ease, in a certain way. I think he’ll have a bright future ahead.”
Lefiya sincerely hoped so as well before the silence resumed.
The calm was welcomed.
Chapter 22: Lumine Pleiades
“Floating. Bobbing. Dancing. The answer to my question came one night when I saw the little wisps of light that had gathered around us as we slowly drifted off to sleep. Close enough to be felt but fleeting to the touch, the lights hovered around us as we took shelter in the edge of a small forest of no note.
A slender figure emerged from the shadows. Tall, with sandy blonde hair and piercing green eyes, the Elf regarded me for a moment with an impassionate gaze when he spotted my ears. But as the Spirits flittered about with sounds that I couldn’t comprehend, resolution set upon his features.
His name was Elio. And he was the one who taught me the Magic of our people.”
—My Magic Teacher
“The colors of the walls changed…”
Those were the words of the Neophyte Elven Mage as she gazed upon the Fifth Floor of the Abyss that spawned the bane of mortals upon the land, sealed off by the divine and races all collaborating in what became known as the start of the Age of Gods.
The First Floor of the Dungeon was stone with a light blue texture that caught the light, a vast hallway with several Adventurers flowing through it. But the monsters were in short supply given how recently broken the walls were. Their numbers had no doubt been trimmed by the flow of early morning Adventurers. Now, here on the Fifth Floor, she noted how the walls had taken on a slightly greenish hue and the design of the pathways was beginning to shift and become more complex compared to before.
“We’ll be heading to one of the rooms off the main route,” Lefiya told the younger Elf. Since they took a straight route and the morning rush had come through, a lot of the monsters had been dealt with. But as she knew from sweeping the floors as her punishment that traveling off the beaten path meant they would encounter danger. “Bell and I will be listening for danger but keep your senses sharp.”
“Yes, Miss Lefiya,” Primo answered dutifully as she traveled between the pair. Bell had taken to the front and Lefiya had taken to the rear, as the center was the safest location for the lower Level and less durable members of the group since the Dungeon could spawn monsters from its walls in any direction.
Her pointed ears flickered around nervously as they traversed a corridor of stone that was dimly lit. Her steps grew heavy with tension and slender fingers clutched the Oaken Staff in her grasp. Every sense was primed out of nervousness and fear…
That was when she heard it. The sound of a stone womb splitting open, wet and rough and dry at once as life emerged—a shadow born from the wall itself with claws meant to rend flesh from bone with an impassioned mirror-like orb. And not just one either.
Fear ran up her spine as more of them came into existence from behind and in front of them. It was primal fear. Born from the instinct to survive, driven into the surface races since before the descent of the divine. The living shadows fixed their gazes upon the Elf and she froze in place, unable to move or breathe.
Then one took a step forward as it flexed its claws… only to be reduced to ash. The shifting of the air was followed by gleaming of steel, a violet streak left against the ebon bodies that caused them to erupt into ichor and collapse into boneless heaps. And when her hair settled from the sudden wind, Bell had found his way next to her with his onyx blade held out in a reverse grip while his ruby gaze spanned the corridor.
“I’m going ahead to clear out the path,” Bell said. “Keep her safe.”
Then he darted off, leaving her behind. It was only when Primo felt a gentle brush on her shoulder that she regained motion—albeit with a startled jump.
“Breathe, Primo,” Lefiya told her, looming over her from behind with both hands resting on her shoulders. “Just breathe. It’ll be fine. I’m here.”
“Ah…” Her lungs began to work at that and with the air tainted by the smell of monster ichor came a variety of emotions. Uncertainty. Shame. Relief. “Umm… sorry.”
“You’re supposed to be afraid of monsters,” Lefiya told her. “That’s a survival instinct. Especially considering you just received a Falna and this is your first time being down here. The transition from being an ordinary person to an Adventurer is learning how to act in spite of that fear. So, what do you think you should have done?”
She took a deep breath before answering. “I should have cast my spell?”
To her surprise, Lefiya shook her head. “First, you should assess whether or not we were aware of the danger. Bell and I are both Level Three and so we heard the Dungeon getting ready to spawn them, but not the entire party may not have been aware. This is especially important in larger parties when one side can be ambushed before another is aware or while dealing with a different threat. And after that…?”
Having been corrected once before, she took a prolonged moment to consider it. “To see if a spell needs to be cast at all?”
“That’s right,” she answered. “It’s really easy to fall into the mindset that when you have Magic you should use it as soon as possible. But not all Magic is equal, and some are more circumstantial than others. Offensive spells tend not to distinguish friend from foe and, considering a large number of your party will be close-ranged fighters, you have to be aware of friendly fire.”
Arcs Ray had a homing property, and she could control the size and output, so she had some leeway in using it to pick off priority targets like the Irregular Wyvern King. But her other spell covered a wide area even if she condensed it down as much as possible and so her party had to get out of the way, or else they were at risk as well. It meant that she had to be careful when she unleashed it.
“Not to mention you still need to get a feel for how many times you can cast a spell before exhausting your Mind,” Lefiya added. “Once you know that you can determine how best to work with your party. There’s also learning the basics of self-defense because at some point you’ll end up in a situation where you can’t use your spells.”
Her tiny brows folded in as she took that information in. “You mean like the War Game with that other Elf?”
“That was more of an exception to the norm. If I hadn’t been at a higher Level, then I wouldn’t have tried that and would have kept my distance at all times. Only Magic Swordsmen like Miss Alicia or Filvis are comfortable with using spells in the middle of a skirmish like that.”
Primo’s brows rose in confusion. It was then Lefiya realized they had never told her about how she was the one who had participated with Bell. Likely because she was new, and it was a topic that was still under wraps by large.
“I borrowed a magical tool that let me disguise myself like Bell’s Supporter so I could help him without my Familia being aware,” Lefiya clarified. “I couldn’t use my normal spells then since everyone would recognize them, so I had to rely on the spells I learned from the Spirits and the staff drills Lady Riveria taught me. It’s a secret between myself and your Familia, so you can’t tell anyone. Okay?”
She nodded. That’s when Bell reappeared and told them he’d cleared the path ahead. Lefiya counted at least twenty monsters, but she couldn’t be sure how many had been spawned from the walls as soon as he entered and how many had already been there. They were going to have to remove the magic stones to get rid of the bodies when they were done but, for now, they had the room to work with.
“Right then,” the Half-Elf began, having finished dragging a corpse into the center of the room while her brother and temporary charge were at the entrance. Then she left it there lifelessly before hopping away and landing next to them. “First, we need to see what your spell can do. Primo, aim for that corpse and focus on your chanting. You’ll feel a little hot and uncomfortable but that’s normal the first time.”
Purple eyes narrowed on the corpse as she held out the staff with both hands. Then she began to sing for the first time in her life. “O dazzling stars crossing the jet-black sky. Hear my immature prayers and let them guide your streaking flash…”
The air was tinged with the sensation of magical power being focused through the staff as she continued her song, purple eyes folding with uncertainty from the power building up within her. It was a foreign yet familiar for the neophyte. But she swallowed and finished her song as she aimed at the corpse. “Rain down, shine of tears, and purge the squalor below—Lumine Pleiades!”
Seven glimmering stars formed above the center of the room. Their brilliance connected by lustrous strings intensified as though twinkling in the dim light as it passed from one star to the next. Then, all at once, their brightness grew dazzling as the constellation sent silvery beams down from each one that bathed the locale with the corpse at the center.
“Ah!?” The child squealed in mild surprise as stone dust billowed out, lingering in the air to form a somewhat dusty veil. But when it thinned her eyes went wide in surprise as she found the corpse had been obliterated as there were a few indents in the ground. “I… I did it?”
Bell was naturally quick to cheer her on. “Yeah. That was great!”
She bounced up on her feet as she looked upon the destruction that she had rained down. “Miss Lefiya did you see it?”
“Yes, I did,” she answered, her azure eyes taking in the sight as she tapped her chin. Filling in the role of her mentor for the time being she gave her initial impression of the spell. It was a simultaneous barrage of seven beams of light, roughly a meder across each, upon a designated target at a glance. But there were still unknown variables to take into account.
Was it specifically due to the fact she was focused on a single target that made them converge? Or would it work on multiple targets within an effective radius? What was the maximum range?
As she finished listing these off, Bell turned his attention back to Primo and asked, “Can you do it again to find out?”
“I’m not sure,” Primo admitted. “I feel funny.”
“She’s suffering from post-magic rigor at the moment,” Lefiya interjected, her eyes turning to the Elf to see the shivers running through her body. “Forcing a spell will only hurt her if it doesn’t backfire or fail.”
“Is that so?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve experienced that before.”
“The more Mind and magic power flowing through your body, the greater the rigor it causes,” she explained. “I mean, it’s not like Miss Mikoto can cast her spell back-to-back after she sustains it for a while, right? She needs time between casts to gather herself, unlike you or Mister Welf, whose spells come out so quickly but are either circumstantial or normally weak. Typically, the longer the chant the longer the rigor lasts.”
That was part of what made the Demi-Spirit so terrifying when they had faced it on the 59th Floor. It could not only use Ultra-Long Incantation spells, but it could also cast them back-to-back with next to lapse between them. By all accounts, that thing was a monster in might and magic alike.
Lefiya addressed her charge next. “Take a seat and take deep breaths to try to relax. Keep counting how long it takes for your body to normalize in your head so we’ll have a measure for how long you can go between casts. It’ll shorten as you get used to it and the Mage Development Ability will help… oh, and can I have permission to borrow your spell?”
Primo quirked her head in confusion. “Huh?”
“My title of Thousand Elf comes from the fact that I can use the spell of other Elves,” Lefiya clarified. “Specifically, my Elf Ring spell allows me to use any spell cast by an Elf so long as I know the chant and understand the effect. I’m asking permission more out of courtesy.”
Elf Ring was a one-of-a-kind spell that laid bare every spell of Elven kind, which meant she had access to every spell from the Elves within her Familia as well as any she came across if the requirements were met. The fact that this was known would naturally cause some level of friction with others, as what should have been something exclusive to them was just another option for her to pick and choose at her leisure. To be jealous was mortal, but Familia had to be able to work together, so to ease any potential tensions she placed a self-imposed rule that she would only borrow a spell if she had explicit consent—such as when Filvis gave her permission to use Dio Grail.
It also cut down on decision paralysis, as having too many options could be a detriment. If she needed to use an offensive spell her own came at much less of a cost. The only exceptions were when she needed to hit far above her weight or a specific scenario, in which case the best possible choices usually came from Lady Riveria’s spell list—offense, defense, and healing.
But it also gave her a rare opportunity to showcase just what Primo’s spell could do in the hands of someone with more experience and how to best instruct her. “So, may I use it?”
Primo bobbed her head. “Please do.”
“Thank you.” Turning her attention to the center of the room, Lefiya began her own song before her audience of two. “I beseech the name of Wishe! Ancestors of the forest, proud brethren. Answer my call and descend upon the plains. Connecting bonds, the pledge of paradise. Turn the wheel and dance. Come, ring of fairies. Please, give me strength—Elf Ring.”
The magic circle the hue of her soul, aureate in color, formed a stage around her feet. It shed mote of light into the air, which tingled from magical energy. The Summon Burst connected, the ring of faeries encircling her, and at that moment the gateway to her kin was thrust open as the cost was paid.
Glimmering purple eyes. A hitched breath. Ignorant of how the child was captivated by the sight, Lefiya continued to sing. “O dazzling stars crossing the jet-black sky. Hear my immature prayers and let them guide your streaking flash. Rain down, shine of tears, and purge the squalor below—Lumine Pleiades!”
Her chant summoned the constellation once more, seven stars loitering in the air. However, unlike when Primo did so, the daystars were far brighter. Then, when those stars fell to earth, they did so within a row of luminous rays the size of columns, a soft hum birthing a roaring crash as the light seared the earth where it landed.
Lefiya exhaled while looking over her own handiwork. She took in the size of the area that had been blasted along with what she presumed was the cost to her Mind in the aftermath, slowly weaving together her thoughts on it—
“THAT WAS AMAZING!”
—when the Half-Elf Mage was ripped from her inner contemplation as Primo jumped up with a cheer. The girl who had only cast a spell that should have belonged to her and only her for the first time in her life responded to the near-instant appropriation and upstaging of said spell not with envy or infuriation. But, instead, she held youthful awe and jubilation in her glimmering eyes.
“You really can use the spells of others!” she continued. “You have Lady Riveria’s spells too, right? All nine of them? Can you show me them as well? Pleasepleaseplease!”
“Maybe later,” Lefiya conceded, mildly surprised at her elation at the spectacle. It was… novel, but not unwelcomed. “But, before that, did you remember to keep count of how long until your post-magic rigor wears off?”
Her pretty face scrunched up as she realized she had lost count. “Ah… oops….”
“It’s fine this time,” Lefiya assured her. “Your spell is wonderful and has a lot of potential. Depending on how you use it you’ll be able to adjust depending on whether or not you’re dealing with a single target or multiple ones since you can aim each star before the trigger. And the higher your Magic, the more powerful it’ll be.”
“So I should try to get my Magic Rank to above S-rank then?” Primo asked.
“Just getting it to be high enough to reach the D-rank should be fine since after that you’ll only need an accomplishment to Level up and can go deeper into the Dungeon to avoid diminishing returns. Any higher than that will be incredibly difficult on the Upper Floors… besides, it takes years to reach the S-rank, and I’ve never heard of anyone getting higher than that.”
“But the Captain had Double S-ranks on most of his Status when he passed Level One and Level Two,” Primo pointed out without a shred of mockery or doubt. “Lady Hestia showed me his old Status sheets and I saw them.”
Lefiya… blinked at that. It was the sheer casual way she mentioned that which dumbfounded the Thousand Elf, who had seen much in her tenure as an adventurer. Then she turned towards Bell with her brow raised, the unasked question carried in her gaze.
“I’ll explain later,” Bell said from his position further back. There was a small collection of monster corpses that weren’t there before. He had been busy dealing with them attempting to sneak in whether drawn from the spellfire or recently born from the walls.
It wasn’t a denial.
“Right…” Lefiya took a moment to process that tidbit before focusing on the impressionable young Elf in front of her. “Even if you can get above S-rank, Bell is an exception to common sense. It’s fine if you want to grind up your Magic, but it should be after you get the Mage Development Ability. Understand?”
“Yes, Miss Lefiya,” she answered dutifully. Then they continued to practice, one after another, as Bell began dragging corpses into the room to be used for target practice and dealing with clearing out their way back. It was after her fourth volley that the expected happen as Primo began to sway on her feet. “Did you see me that timeeee….”
“Looks like three times is Primo’s safe limit for the moment,” Lefiya said as she caught her before she could fall over. The girl was out cold, so she turned to address her younger brother. “Don’t let her fire off a fourth volley unless you absolutely need to do so, and keep in mind that doing that will pretty much leave her unable to cast a spell for the rest of the day even when she regains consciousness—her limit will increase with her Level and the Mage Development ability but, at that point, if she strains herself too much it’ll take more than a day to recover.”
If post-magic rigor prevented back-to-back spell casting until one became familiarized with the strain of it, then Mind exhaustion was what prevented one from overreaching when you were a Mage. Even with a Magic Potion to help replenish one’s reserves, the strain of it weighed heavy on the body and mind—a reminder she had from when Argonaut had pushed her Arcs Ray beyond her limit and left her with a headache for quite some time.
“Teaching her archery is also an option since that’ll help her with learning trajectories and you don’t have a lot of long-ranged options outside of your little friend and Firebolt. She needs to be able to do more than just cast spells to make it as a Mage, otherwise, she’ll be useless when she hits her limit.”
“That’s a lot to take in at once,” Bell said as he came over with a Magic Potion and carefully raised her chin so he could tip it into her mouth slowly. Primo swallowed on reflex. “Still, I really can’t thank you enough for all of this.”
“I’m just paying forward what I was taught and learned,” she told him before making sure that Primo was unconscious and they were alone. Then she asked the obvious question. “Now, about your Status going above S-rank?”
She had thought it to be a joke that Lady Hestia may have played on the girl as they laid her down to rest. Motivation to give her a number to aim for like how Lefiya admired Lady Riveria. But apparently it was not.
“It’s true,” he began. “Both times I’ve gone from one Level to the next all my Status have been S-rank or above. That’s part of the reason Lady Hestia also hurried with raising my Level and learned how to lock my Status after the Minotaur incident. The Loki Familia members who were there likely saw I had all S-Rank before the final update I had for Level One.”
“Nnn…” Everything in her body wanted to believe he was joking. She knew he probably had a Rare Skill, but… to that extent was still hard to swallow. But it explained why everyone was so on edge before they went further into the Dungeon to deal with the Demi-Spirit. They knew all along but kept it a secret because they weren’t supposed to know. “SS-rank exists?”
He nodded. “It goes one rank higher too.”
Her slender fingers ran through her hair at that. The maximum had always been thought to be S-rank because going past that was so difficult. And, realistically, there should be no situation where you ended up gaining that much Excelia and not rising to the next Level…
Except, she was grinding up to get S-rank herself and holding off on going to Level Four. Every point counted, as Lady Loki told her. And then there were Bete’s words about surpassing Riveria. Why could they see beyond a limit that she couldn’t?
“Well, at least that explains why you were on par with Hyacinthus during the War Game,” Lefiya conceded. “And for you to get your points that high after a week of training… your Skill gives you accelerated growth by a ludicrous amount, doesn’t it?”
Her brother admitted to it. “It’s called Realis Freese. The description stated it was the ‘crystallization of an ancient pledge rekindled upon meeting one bound by fate’ and it gives me immunity to Charm as well.”
She had never heard of such a Skill, meaning it must have indeed been a rare one. But what caught her attention more so was the wording and how similar a part of it sounded. “Vow of Elcos… I obtained that after what happened in the Under Resort. The description reads ‘the birth of an everlasting bond. Raises attributes and allows for synchronization while working in tandem with those bound by fate to the Clown March’.”
Bell’s brows folded in at that. Recognition. “The Clown March… I’ve heard that before. Grandpa once referred to it as another name for the tale of Argonaut.”
“Which is the same name as your other Skill and the name of Fina’s brother, who shared the same homeland of Elcos,” Lefiya added. “They really are connected somehow. I figured that might be the case when Argonaut was passed onto me, but even the wording is similar—bound by fate.”
There really were too many coincidences at this point. She was still working her way through the memoirs at the moment, but she did have time to speak with Tiona about some of her versions of Argonaut that she had read. None of them referenced the homeland or the Clown March, so the fact that Bell’s Grandfather apparently knew a different version of more common stories held weight in itself.
She still refused to acknowledge that one on the High Elf Queen Celdia as anything short of blasphemous though. “This is starting to give me a headache at this point.”
“It does seem to be a bit complicated,” Bell admitted. “Lady Hestia felt it was important to keep the information a secret outside of our Familia. You’re the exception since we’re already in this deep and you’ve got a key to the place. But we still don’t want it to get out.”
“We’ve got at least two or three secrets between us that would cause problems if it got out, so what’s one more at this point…” The Half-Elf trailed off as she recalled something pertaining to said secrets and reached into her bag. “Speaking of which, Mother sent something for me to give you.”
Bell’s ruby eyes were half-folded in confusion as he grabbed the letter and heard the soft clink of metal within it. Then he opened it carefully with the non-bloodied knife he carried and from within he pulled out what looked to be a small pendant on a golden chain. There, embossed on the pendant, was an emblem that appeared to be a two-pronged spear with three lightning bolts to the left and right of it. “This is…”
“The emblem of the Zeus Familia,” Lefiya murmured as the familiar sight brought memories to her mind. Times when her mother would sit her on her lap and regale her with stories she heard from their father. “But why did she send it?”
Azure and rubellite eyes shifted their attention to the letter where her mother had written in exquisite cursive to address her brother.
Words cannot express the joy that I felt when I received my daughter’s letter that told me the two of you had reunited as brother and sister. I had always been worried about how you were fairing since that day we met and parted ways. Though I may not have been your mother, you were the child of the love of my life, and with his passing, you have become one of the few treasures that he left in this world.
It also makes me happy to hear you are following in your father’s footsteps. If your heart is as brave as his, I’m certain you’ll be a great Adventurer just as he was.
As Lefiya has told me you did not possess any memento of your father, I have included a pendant that he gifted me before parting ways. Though I am loathed to leave it, he has already gifted me something far more precious—my daughter.
So please treasure it. And should you find the opportunity, please write to me. I would love to hear how you were raised into being such a wonderful young man.
Also, from what my daughter has told me, you’ve become quite dashing as well. If you were anything near as charming as your father, I imagine you already have many suitors willing to take your hand. But should you find yourself looking for one such person, your sister should know plenty of Elven women who may catch your fancy.
I would love to see my grandchildren within the next few years.
“G-Grandchildren…” The words clawed their way from Bell’s throat as he whipped his head around to find that his sister was blushing as she covered her eyes in embarrassment. “What does she mean by that!?”
“Well, we’re siblings because we share the same blood through our father,” Lefiya began, rubbing her ears that had turned as red as his eyes. “It doesn’t matter if she’s not your birth mother, you’re as good as her own child since you’re the child of the man she loved enough to have me with. We’re family, so your children would be her grandchildren and a way for her to remain connected to Father even as the centuries go on.”
And to be honest that was probably the best outcome considering how they were blood-tied and how their father was no longer around. Her mother having her and learning about Bell meant that his legacy lived on through them, from her half-Human features to his eyes. So she treated him more maternally, something that she would have loved to have done when he was younger if not for Lefiya’s insistence when she was younger and the guilt about her living circumstances.
But it would not be unheard of for an Elf who had lost a loved one to fall to their grief and become desperate to find some way to fill in that void. That included pursuing the child or sibling of said person if there was enough of a resemblance and they were at sexual maturity. There were Elven novels here in Orario that were best sellers with that premise for a reason—a taboo tale of a heroine falling in love with a hero only to find they were unattainable, so they shifted their attention toward a descendant.
“As for me playing matchmaker,” she continued. “I suspect that’s because of my own preferences when it comes to partners. Considering all Mother went through to give birth to me, it’d be hypocritical for her to tell me to find a male to have a child with if I wasn’t in love with them. But she still wants grandchildren and you being Human means that any children you have with another Elf will have Elven blood, and thus have a lifespan measured in centuries that she can dote on.”
“Grandpa always said Elves had a different perspective but hearing that from you is another thing entirely….” Bell paused for a moment as a thought crossed his mind. “Wait, your mother was over a century old already when I met her that time?”
“Remember, the culture inside and outside of forests vary due to how long we live,” Lefiya said as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. “By those standards, around a century is the prime age to get married and start working towards having children since our race has such low birthrates that it can take a decade of effort to conceive. Her being pregnant with me so soon was because Father was Human, and she probably expects it to be the same for you… actually, how friendly are you with Miss Ryuu and that Guild Advisor of yours.”
Bell sputtered to form words as his face grew luminous. “Miss Ryuu is just a friend, and Miss Eina treats me like a little brother—Miss Flott even calls me as much. There’s no way they’d be interested in a guy like me.”
“It’d be more believable if you said that without blushing, but I’m not going to press you on it…” That being said she wasn’t sure how to feel about another Half-Elf stepping into her sororal duties. “Just avoid the Pleasure District. I can tell you right now that being kidnapped by Amazons is not fun.”
“How would you… nevermind…” Her brother groused before looking down at the pendant that once belonged to their father. His expression softened. “The Zeus Familia…. Grandpa told me they were destroyed by the Black Dragon.”
“That’s the story I’ve heard,” she answered, her own expression softening. “They were one of the first Familia ever formed and among the most powerful. Grand Day celebrates their defeat of Behemoth and Leviathan fell to Hera. But that monster managed to kill both of them off, and then Zeus and Hera were both ran out of Orario by the Loki and Freya Familia.”
The Black Dragon—a monster that has existed since ancient times. One of the eldest and most powerful in existence, birthed from the Dungeon before the lid was placed upon it. It succeeded where its counterparts that covered the Land and Sea failed.
Her brother’s expression turned to surprise as he faced her. He didn’t know about that last part it seemed. “What do you mean?”
“Even though they failed, they reigned supreme in Orario for a thousand years,” she answered honestly. “They could rebuild in a few years if they had access to the Dungeon. So, the Loki Famila and Freya Familia exiled them to prevent that. It’s too hard to raise one’s Level outside of Orario that high barring very specific circumstances—let alone enough to compete with current status quo.”
Bell swallowed a held breath at that, while several expressions flashed on his face. For one who had been raised on stories of heroes, it probably seemed rather cruel that the reward for their heroism was to be beaten down when they were at their lowest and chased away so they couldn’t stand back up.
“It’s not like Lady Loki or the members of my Familia are bad people,” Lefiya said, knowing how her joining Loki’s Familia could be perceived as an act of betrayal in light of that. But the simple fact was that her father was dead by then, and she had no reason to be attached to a Familia that couldn’t keep him safe.
“I never said you were,” Bell told her, brushing his hair in the process. “Miss Aiz, Miss Tiona, you—all of you have helped me even when you didn’t have to. People call you heroes like the Braver. But I still don’t understand why they’d do that in the first place. Aren’t we all working towards making the world a place where everyone can smile?”
“That was fifteen years ago, so maybe things were different?” It was the only answer she could give him as she reached out and traced the emblem embossed on the pendant. There were times after learning what she did that she wanted to ask Lady Riveria why they would have done so. It was underhanded in a way that didn’t suit her or the others. “At least, that’s what I want to believe.”
She wanted to believe that they had a good reason for doing so. She wanted to believe that the people who had been supporting and protecting her, even at the risk of their lives, had a reason for that. That it was for the betterment of everyone else.
“Anyway, we should head back to the surface,” Lefiya said, rising to her feet and scooping up the still sleeping Neophyte Elven Mage. “We’ll let Primo rest for a bit while we head to the Great Gnome Library. She can use some of the books there for a reference with her Magic studies.”
Bell kept his gaze on the pendant for a moment longer. Then he tucked it and the letter in his pouch before joining them. He was the vanguard and so he had to clear the path of the monsters that were waiting for them to emerge after all.
Still, the thoughts that came to his mind would linger for a time as they said goodbye.
It would be a few days before they saw one another again.
Chapter 21: Shopping Trip
“The rest of the journey only grew more difficult. Argo had no talent for fighting monsters, but he still fought them only to get hurt more and more. If it were just him alone, he could probably run away, but I was not as fast as him and would be left behind. That was why he fought.
More and more it felt like I should have remained behind in the safety of the village, but I could never bring myself to tell that to him. Not when he was forcing himself to smile so much. Not when he brought me along and took on wounds for me.
There had to be something I could do for him. But what was it? What could I do to help my brother?”
—What Could I Do For Him
“Hmm… it suited the forest but the festival is…”
Peering at herself in the mirror, she who bore the title of Thousand Elf creased her lips into a soft frown as she gazed at her reflection.
It was early morning of the day after meeting Primo Libera, the Elven Child with grand aspirations. All that was left was to head over to Bell’s home since she had already eaten a light breakfast ahead of the others, having made her intentions of going out for the rest of the day known to her Familia. That was to say she intended to do some training and studying after retrieving Forest’s Teardrop.
But before that, she wanted to take into consideration her choice of garments for her date with Filvis. It was the outfit that she had worn to the Spirit Forest, provided by Lady Riveria herself to protect her purity as per tradition when venturing to the sacred location filled with Unicorns and Spirits. It was more elegant than anything she owned and so she thought it would be perfect for the occasion, showing just enough skin while being tasteful enough to not offend Elven sensibilities.
Plus, she already knew that Filvis appreciated the sight.
A soft whistle rang out as she did a twirl. She looked over to see that her roommate was there, having opened the door at some point. The fact that she didn’t hear her meant she was deeper in thought than she expected.
Elfy’s green eyes were raised in mild surprise as she took in the normally conservative Half-Elf’s appearance. “When did you get that outfit?”
“Lady Riveria gave it to me for a special occasion,” Lefiya explained. The situation in the Spirit Forest was a secret, so it was the best she could give. “I was planning on wearing it for my date at the Holy Moon Festival.”
Elfy’s lips quirked slightly at that. “So that Elf from the Dionysus Familia asked you out?”
“Mm-hmm~” And Filvis had done so completely out of her own desire rather than being led into it. That fact still left Lefiya’s chest to flutter. “She asked me yesterday evening, right in front of the fountain outside of Babel and everything. It was so romantic when I think back on it.”
Granted, Filvis ran away right afterward. It must have been hard for her to admit as much, given her past and the association with the name of Banshee. Lefiya had been working hard to get her away from that mindset. Even if her feelings had been rejected, she would have put aside her broken heart for the sake of remaining her friend so that she could continue to smile.
Or so she told herself.
“I’m happy for you, but won’t that complicate things in the long run?” There was a note of caution in Elfy’s voice as she said that. “I mean, being friendly with a member of another Familia is one thing. But a romance is…”
“Lady Loki already gave me her blessing to pursue the relationship since she and Lord Dionysus are on such good terms,” Lefiya mentioned while holding out the sides of the dress, offering her a better view. “Mind giving me a second opinion?”
“Sure.” The Human Mage made a twirling motion with her finger and watched as Lefiya did so slowly, eyes drawn to the way the materials elegantly flowed with the motion. “You look… gorgeous just how you are. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
“Thanks,” Lefiya said with a grateful smile before heading over to a privacy screen, her normal clothes hanging on top of it. She made light conversation while changing behind the diving screen. “If it isn’t a bother, would you mind asking Alicia if I could borrow her Elven Cream?”
“Ah… the burning stuff, you mean?” There was a noticeable disdain in her voice. The Secret Elven Cream shared between them was great at clearing one’s complexion, but it was quite… unpleasant as it did its work. “I’m guessing you don’t want to ask her yourself because it’d be awkward to do so to get ready for a date given the whole incident.”
Lefiya recoiled as if struck before peeking her head around the divider, blushing. “We all agreed never to bring that up again!”
The infamous Alicia Incident—born of what she interpreted were mixed messages from the forestborn, inebriation, and budding sexuality. Alicia did embody all of the physical traits she liked in a partner, so it was natural she held some attraction. But attempting to clumsily seduce her was purely because she had not been in her right mind.
It was embarrassing for all parties involved and was the reason she swore off both drinking and dating within the Familia ever again.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, lightly waving her hand with an expression that said otherwise. Then she held up a letter. “This is for you. It was in the morning mail.”
“That must be from Mother…” She finished changing before receiving the letter. Sure enough, it was set to address her in their native script, but it felt heftier than normal. Taking it over to her desk, she used a letter opener to slit it and pulled out not only the letter inside but a second smaller envelope.
It was addressed to her brother in the common script and there was something inside of it.
Lefiya quickly shuffled it into her bag before reading her own letter to grasp the context. Her mother was responding to her previous letter about the Spirit Forest and taking after looking over her brother. She asked that Lefiya give it to him, which made sense.
But then she noticed something about the contents didn’t make sense. Wait, I didn’t write to Mother about the Dragon we fought in the Spirit Forest.
“Is something up?” Elfy asked before she could linger on it.
“Nothing,” Lefiya said before shuffling the letter into the desk drawer, next to Fina’s Memoirs. “Do you have any plans for the festival?”
“Me, Rakta, and a few of the others were just going to go in a group,” she said casually while playing with the stuffed animal Lefiya kept nearby. Even though she didn’t need to sleep with it anymore, she still thought it was cute and so she left it out. “I think Leene does have someone else in mind given how she reacted when Aki mentioned it, but she was being all quiet about it.”
That grabbed Lefiya’s interest given the kind-hearted Healer was rather subdued. She could only imagine what man had managed to capture her interest enough to warrant her making such a bold move. If she’s keeping it a secret then she has her reasons, I’m sure.
Ruminating on romantic partners aside, Lefiya finished getting ready and made for the door. “I’ll be going now. Oh, and thanks for letting me borrow your Vanishment Rod. I’ll pay you back some time.”
Elfy just waved goodbye as she closed the door and went about her way.
If the Half-Elf had been a second slower to shut the door, she would notice her roommate looking enviously at the dress while brushing the curve of her ears.
[-Outside of Hearthstone Manor-]
“I really didn’t think it’d be this bad…”
Lefiya admitted as she watched with muted horror at the throng of bodies outside of what had once been the stronghold for the Apollo Familia. Now that the renovations had been done, the newly christened Hearthstone Manor had become the publicly known chief location of the Hestia Familia. And thus, it had also garnered a lot of attention.
There was a myriad of people—men, women, big, small, Dwarves, Humans, Cat People, Elves, and even more outside of the gate. There were enough people to where she couldn’t see past them unless she got to a higher elevation from the alleyway a modest distance away. Thankfully she didn’t need to do so.
“Me neither,” said her brother, having appeared mere moments ago with Lady Hestia in his arms and Primo hanging off his back. He was stupidly fast for a Level Two, so at Level Three not a single person beneath that Level would be able to see him if he really moved. Taking advantage of that, he managed to slip out faster than any of the crowd had noticed with his goddess and charge.
“They’re annoying, but there isn’t much we can do about it right now,” Lady Hestia said in a bitter tone that did not suit the Goddess of the Hearth as her child let her down. Such was her annoyance at her current predicament as she straightened out her white apron that stood out against the red beneath it. But there really wasn’t much they could do about the situation so long as none of them stepped over the boundary of the gates uninvited.
At that point, they were trespassers and could be dealt with accordingly. But until then their solicitations were entirely legal—annoying, but legal.
Still, Level Three senses on top of Elven hearing afforded Lefiya a lot of leeway in making out what the crowd was saying and thus gathering the type it was. None of them were of any importance as any merchant or official representative of a respectable establishment or organization would forward them mail or schedule a meeting. They would not crowd around like a pack of Hellhounds waiting for the chance to feast.
There were three camps right now—those there to join, those there for Bell, and those for Welf.
A good majority of them were trying to join the Familia, knowing that it was the prime time to do so since they had risen in rank and thus a higher tax bracket. The fact that Hestia took him in without a Falna meant she was open to just about everyone, which was a great prospect for all of them. The fact that Primo had just been registered probably did not make things better on that front—and they weren’t going to broadcast her circumstances.
Bell’s solicitations were… generally expected of him being the Record Holder. Some were prospective recruits for other Familia from the sound of it, wanting to pull him into their net since he was on the rise. They had about a snowballs’ chance in the Dragon’s Urn, but they were still going to try for the sake of saying they did.
But the worst by far were the Amazons among their numbers, whose intentions were seduction. They weren’t lovestruck like Tione but they knew they were attractive and Bell was a young man, so an invitation to the Pleasure District was not off the table. The problem was they were not shy about voicing it among themselves either.
She had never even heard of some of the things they were suggesting, leaving her red in the face. And a glance at her brother, covering Primo’s ears while nursing a brighter blush, told her that he heard them loud and clear as well. Level Three hearing had its downsides.
Those for Welf were divided into two groups as well. The first were those who wanted to make a deal for one of his Magic Swords, muttering about how low of a price they could get or how high they could go, either for use or resell. Most likely the latter given how infamous they were meant that having an authentic Crozzo Magic Sword would go for enough that a small country would need to clear its treasury for it.
The second were those who hated him for them. The latter spoke in low, hushed whispers or Elvish—she was used to mocking whispers due to her heritage, but it had never been outright malicious like she could hear. And she suspected the only reason it didn’t escalate beyond muted threats was because it would be picking a fight with their entire Familia, which they had gone through great pains to demonstrate why that was a bad idea.
Most buildings were a lot less sturdy than a castle that fell in less than an hour and a lot more flammable.
Still… he really put himself into the fire for Bell’s sake, didn’t he? Lefiya felt obliged to do something for him, but there was nothing she could really do. Unless Lady Riveria herself told them to leave him be, they would likely continue to just quietly harass him, and throwing her name around wasn’t something she liked to do unless absolutely necessary.
“Miss Lefiya, are we going to get my staff now?” Primo asked innocently, bringing the Thousand Elf’s attention back to why she was there in the first place.
Lefiya nodded and put on a smile just for her. “That’s right. We’re not far from where my own has finished being repaired, so we’ll pick them up together. Then we’ll take you to get your battle clothes before we head into the Dungeon.”
The child smiled brightly in response, eager and excited to take her first steps in becoming a Mage. It reminded Lefiya of her younger self back in the Educational District. And that same smile elicited one from her goddess and Captain.
Guiding them northwest and away from the mansion, Lefiya led them to a shop located off the side street that branched from the Northwest Main Street. The streets twisted, almost like a maze, to where shadows cast from the buildings surrounding it dimmed the light until they found a staircase heading further downwards. The child momentarily faltered from the unfamiliar air of the location, but Bell squeezed her shoulder ever so lightly as if to say that it would be all right when they finally came to a stop in front of a wooden door that was slightly warped and looked as though it were carved into the trunk of a tree.
“Good morning, Miss Leona!” greeted the Half-Elf Mage as she opened the door with a slight groan of the hinges, and strange yet poignant scents washed over them as they were cast in the dim light of magic stone lanterns designed to resemble fireballs hanging overhead. Shelves lined with magical reagents, drop items from monsters, and expensive concoctions filled in empty space to give it a slightly confined feeling.
In the back, opposite the store entrance, was a figure clad in dark robes, with a pointed hat that slouched over haggardly adorned their head. Her white hair was long and frayed, her nose long and slightly hooked, and around her neck were dozens of crystals strung into necklaces.
Her head craned upwards, and her leathery lips pulled back into a smile. “I was expecting you to come alone, but I see you have company—an infamous one at that.”
Bell realized he was the latter when her eyes fell onto him. “Me?”
“Many eyes are on you child,” she said ominously. “The ability to augment one’s spells or another’s is not something that goes unnoticed to us who practice the Art. And then there is the Mage Bane as they call him, inflicting an Ignis Faatus on that poor girl. Dreadful.”
Lefiya sighed at her teasing. “Miss Leona, you’re not going to tell me Alterna is coming after them next are you?”
“I imagine they would not be the first on that list,” she brushed off before reaching behind the counter and pulling out Lefiya’s beloved staff. “All of the magic stones have been replaced. Though I have to question how you managed to break so many at once—mirroring your master a little too much now?”
“The situation was complicated,” Lefiya said as she strode over and gingerly took her precious staff in hand once more. The cool touch of the Seiros and dazzling hue of the Forest’s Tear in the center, surrounded by the azure magic crystals, were a sight for sore eyes.
“And who do we have here?” Leona inquired, staring towards the child whose nervousness was palpable.
“Her name is Primo,” Lefiya said. “She was anointed by Lady Hestia and received a Magic Slot, so I brought her here in order to receive her first staff since she’ll have to grow into it. Please be patient with her for the time being.”
She then turned to the child. “And Primo, Miss Leona is a very talented Mage. But unlike us, she specializes in the creation of magical implements and other items. It’s a different path but it all comes from the same basis, and only others who study the Art of Magic can create such things. That’s why you need to study hard. Understand?”
“Yes, Miss Lefiya,” the Neophyte Elven Mage said while nodding in understanding. “And it’s nice to meet, Miss Leona. I’ll be in your care.”
“A polite child. I wonder if you’ll turn out to be as monstrous as your mentor here.” She then extended her clawed hand towards the wall that was lined with staves. “You’ll find the beginner staves at the far end. I’m sure Little Miss Thousand can help you pick out an appropriate one.”
Primo’s eyes turned to them before scurrying over as Lefiya followed afterward. That left Bell and Hestia to take in their surroundings. Unlike the other two, they were more familiar with rows of weapons and armor from their jobs, so it was a novel experience.
That was when Bell’s gaze fell onto a leather-bound book that had embellishments upon it in gold and was tucked behind a glass case on a high shelf—visible and meant to be an item of importance. “Is that a Grimoire?”
Miss Leona’s eyes perked up at that. “Oh, you recognize one?”
“Well, I may have seen one from a distance before…” He scratched his cheek even as his eyes fell onto the price tag. The current rate was around 99,575,000 Valis, and it was clear the price had been marked down a number of times, which was honestly even more terrifying. “Goddess, you weren’t kidding when you said they were expensive.”
“Hephaestus mentioned that creating something like that required an extremely gifted Mage,” Hestia mused as she stared at their surroundings in part curiosity and part fascination. “You must be fairly talented, Young Lady.”
“You humor me, goddess,” said the elderly Human with a chuckle. Only those whose lifespans could be measured beyond centuries would refer to her as young. “My talent is modest compared to those who have much longer to refine their talent. An acquaintance merely gifted it to me, but should your little Mage ever need the push to develop a new spell…”
It was a valid option. Gaining a single spell upon receiving the Falna was fortunate and the circumstances where they appeared were also completely random. It was entirely possible she would not gain a second spell throughout her long life. And considering how much Bell had benefited from the Grimoire he had seen from a distance and did not read… it would be a lie to say that it was not worth the price.
“As for the boy, though we typically cater to Mages, we do provide some things for individuals such as yourself.” She gestured towards a collection of magic crystals that were on display in a myriad of scintillating colors. “A magic crystal of the corresponding element affixed to your gauntlet can enhance the power of your offensive spell and creating dual ones are within my ability. But, considering how you can increase the output of your spell on a whim, I’ve no doubt they would suffer the same fate as the crystals I just had to replace.”
In other words, the magic crystal would just break after a single boost while used under Argonaut. And considering how much those cost it was an expensive one-shot use. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Miss Leona, we’ve picked out one,” Lefiya called, drawing their attention to the one that Primo had gotten. It was an Oaken Staff but the wrapping around it was a slight lavender hue. “Can you pre-treat it, so it’ll be more durable in case she needs to use it as an emergency weapon and blood won’t soak into it?”
“Taking inspiration from that Elf from the War Game, are you?” The wizened witch humored before applying some kind of solution to it and then ran a cloth over it, giving it a sheen that wasn’t present before. “The treatment would normally be another three thousand valis, but since I’m gaining a loyal customer, I will do so for free this time.”
“Thank you very much,” Primo said cheerfully as her eyes glimmered while cradling her new staff. She brought it to her cheek and smiled. “I’ll take good care of it.”
That done, they left the Witch’s Secret House and ventured towards the clothier to arrange for Primo to have some clothing to wear into the Dungeon. There was one she was familiar with from before she joined the Loki Familia—and had originally designed her current outfit.
Guiding them to a clothier boutique that had mannequins on display with garments and accessories that catered to multiple races rather than exclusive ones found on most of the clothing shops. That was because it was showcasing that they provided the same designs to accompany many different races, rather than conforming to a specific sensibility. They even had signs written in the different native written languages listing the materials that they were made out of and pricing for the different sizes.
A chime rang as the door opened. “Hello. Lucia, are you in?”
In the back of the shop, a flower shifted from just behind what looked to be a loom in the process of being worked to create a patterned design in some delicate-looking cloth. Then the flower was revealed to be nestled in a bed of luxurious, honey-brown hair. It framed the visage of a girl whose eyes held the same hue as the locks that flowed down her back, a warm smile coming into bloom on her face.
“Lefiya, back so soon?” she asked, rising up to come around and greet her guest. Her eyes fell onto Bell and recognition dawned. “Oooohhh~”
“Just. Rumors.” Lefiya preempted her, knowing full well what those glimmers dancing in her eyes were representative of. The fact that her regular battle clothes needed repair after the initial chase with the Apollo Familia meant she brought them here and naturally the rumors had spread by then. Then she set a hand on Primo’s head. “We’re here to pick up some battle clothes for her. She just joined Lady Hestia’s Familia and I decided to walk them around as a favor.”
“Ahh, how drab.” She could have sounded less disappointed before she came closer and took in the sight of the Elven Child holding a staff preciously. Then she leaned over and gave her a gentle smile as she extended her hand. “Hello, I’m Lucia Ramirez—I provide adorable girls like you clothes for inside the Dungeon and out. And you are?”
“Primo Libera,” she answered reaching out and shaking it. “Nice to meet you, Miss Ramirez.”
“Just Lucia is fine, Sweetie.” She then looked to Bell and Hestia. “Did you have any specific needs for her, such as if she’ll be heading further down into the Middle Floors? Or a particular design in mind for her Familia Uniform?”
“No, she’s just received her Falna so I don’t think we’ll take her below the 10th Floor anytime soon,“ Bell answered. “And we don’t have a uniform.”
“I would suggest letting Primo decide on what she wants,” Lefiya offered. “She uses her forest as a communal name so she might not be aware of any designs that have cultural significance, so keeping it simple is better. Then once we know that much, we can give our opinion on if anything needs to be added.”
Lucia nodded in compliance before gently taking Primo’s hand. “Let’s take a look at the designs that have light fabrics without hindering your movements. Almiraj fur tends to work pretty well for the inner lining, so you’ll feel comfortable while casting.”
As Primo followed her, Lefiya decided to look around to see if there were any new designs that she herself was fond of. Not that she planned on buying any new clothing, but she did window shop occasionally and there might be something else that she found to accompany her date outfit. Eventually, she came across a dress that was nestled in the back and on display.
It was a gorgeous dress with the torso being a soft teal color and shoulder-less, open sleeves tethered with crystalline bands that had golden chains adorned by gemstones. The skirt rose and fell, gossamer frills that allowed the pure-white stockings to be displayed, and the floral patterns having blue and white roses. There was also a bonnet to go along with it, adding to the cute aesthetic.
“You really like frilly stuff, don’t you?” The Half-Elf was pulled from her gaze upon the gorgeous work on display by the Goddess of the Hearth. The divinity and her brother had come over to see what had grabbed her attention. “Is that what Elves consider fashionable?”
“It’s my personal preference,” she explained. “Typically, Elves prefer just enough lace and frills to accompany a simpler design that covers the skin to project modesty while also emphasizes the existing features. For women, that would be things that make us appear cuter, while men’s clothing would make them handsome. Something with this many frills and designs would be considered an excessive and it’s not practical to wear in the Dungeon, so I would only be able to wear it on special occasions like the one coming up.”
“There’s an occasion like that coming up?” Hestia asked.
“You only recently descended, and Bell only arrived a little while ago, so I suppose you wouldn’t know,” Lefiya realized. “The Holy Moon Festival is a pretty well-known celebration that has been around since before the descent of the divine. It’s often considered a romantic event as well—Amor Square typically turns into a dancing floor for couples, for example. I’m actually looking forward to attending it this time.”
“That sounds fun,” Hestia mused wistfully before turning to her first child. “Bell, take me that day, will you?”
His reaction was to be shocked, crimson spreading along his cheeks. “Eh?”
“What are you blushing for?” Hestia teased. “You’re just going to take the Goddess your revere so much to have a dance. That’s all.”
“Well, I’m still not much of a dancer but I guess I can try…” Feeling awkward, his rubellite eyes turned elsewhere and fell onto the changing room where Lucia and Primo were in. “What will we do if Primo wants to wear something like this to wear into the Dungeon though?”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” Lefiya said. “Lucia an Adventurer, so she knows to consider the practical needs of others on the Upper Floors at the very least. She would never let her wear something that could let her get hurt.”
Bell seemed astonished at that. “She is?”
“Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say she’s a part-time one,” Lefiya clarified. “Unlike us, she isn’t a dedicated Adventurer so she doesn’t spend all her time in it and works primarily as a stylist and clothier. She’s probably closer to Mister Welf in that she has a lot of technical knowledge on the different materials in the Dungeon and how they are used to make fabrics and cloths for her profession. I think she’s still a Level One.”
“Which Familia does she belong to?” Hestia asked.
“The Dia Familia,” she answered. “It’s a small Familia, but they’ve been longer established than yours and most of the members have jobs outside of being Adventurers. They don’t have a high rank so they won’t be forced to go on expeditions or anything, but they have a single Level Two Captain who is more a researcher or chemist.”
“So that’s how Dia handles things down here, huh…” Hestia tapped her chin at that bit of information. Then the changing room curtains parted and out came her newest child. “All done?”
“Yes, Goddess,” Primo said as she revealed her outfit. It was a light purple dress with matching cuffs and a collar with a red gemstone adorning it. Around her left leg was a pair of holsters for small items and potions, while a small pouch that clamped onto her from the back accompanied it. “How do I look?”
“You look very pretty,” Bell told her gently. “Don’t you think so, Goddess?”
“It feels like something is missing…” Hestia rubbed his chin in thought before going over to a small stand and grabbing two hair ties before walking over. Then she tied her long, blonde hair into a set of twin-tails, not unlike the Goddess of the Hearth. “There we go.”
She brushed the hair ties with her gloves before smiling. “Thank you, Lady Hestia!”
“I would also like to commission a jacket for her similar to mine, but in her own colors,” Lefiya added. “It’s not good to leave too much skin exposed in the Dungeon after all. You can put it on my tab.”
“I can do that, but the materials to make it and the final design won’t be ready for a few days,” Lucia stated.
“I’ll be in the Dungeon at the time, so Bell will have to come to get it then.” She looked to her brother. “Is that okay?”
Bell nodded as Hestia placed Primo’s lavender robes on over her new battle clothes. “I’ll pay you back for it. For all of it.”
“Then come back in about three days,” Lucia told them. “And if there are any adjustments or you want any other clothes tailored, please don’t hesitate to come back.”
That done and their farewells bid to the clothier, they made their way towards Babel. Hestia bid them goodbye and to have a nice day in the Dungeon as she ascended the Elevator to Hephaestus’ storefront. Her children and Lefiya ventured down below the winding staircase and into the depths below.
Soon enough Primo took her first steps into the Upper Floor of the Dungeon.
Chapter 20: The Cost of a Mage
“The first major obstacle in our journey came when we had our first encounter with a monster in years. The village had somehow been spared from trouble for the time we had been there, so a part of us forgot just how terrifying even a Goblin could be. But we were reminded when two of them attacked us along the way.
Argo managed to take out one with his sword. But the other managed to knock him down with a stick that it considered a club of some kind. I saw his blood and the next thing I knew I had picked up his sword and had stabbed it deeply to where it collapsed on the ground. I pulled back with my fingers trembling as I couldn’t let the sword go until Argo gently set his hands on mine and soothed me with kind words.
‘Being covered in blood is unsuitable for a flower like you. Leave that to your big brother from now on, okay?’
I started crying in his arms then and there.”
—A Random Encounter
The cavernous, intertwining maze that was the 14th Floor of the Dungeon was filled with hunting noises.
The expansive network of tunnels naturally carved of bedrock held many rooms away from the beaten and well-trodden paths taken by those that normally trespassed upon their dominion. Thus, it provided a quiet den for monsters that had been born to rest until their trek brought them to where they could hunt. Yet their den was in an uproar as a fairy had somehow wandered right into their nest.
A pink-clad sylph had somehow gotten lost from the forests. Now it flew through the dimly lit halls illuminated by the moss that crawled along the wall and ceilings. Its chestnut hair fluttered as it bound away, delving deeper into their lair as slithering serpentine women gave chase with snarls and screeches to let others know that the game was afoot and the hunt was on.
At the same time, in the distance, another fairy was being herded by their kin. A white-clad nymph with long and luxurious black hair. On its heels were a herd of bunnies brandishing landform blades, hopping as they gave chase.
The walls buckled and crumbled as more were born to fill in their ranks. Hounds from the bowels of Hell, huffing heated embers, fell free from the bedrock. Landing on the heel of the fleeing fairies, they rushed ahead of hunting parties to pincer them both.
With their retreat blocked, the fairies ran towards the only path available. It was a corridor to the side that ran deep but led to a decisive end. For shame, it seemed their chase had come to an end and, when the monsters rounded the corners, they would no doubt find the two fairies embracing one another as they awaited the end.
Perhaps they would slaughter one before the other. Their lovely voices keening would ring throughout the halls as a fine accompaniment to the feast that would take place. It would be a monster party consisting of roasted nymph meat to be washed down by sylph blood tea—prepared by all the participants.
The Lamia Mormos would rip free their wings so they could longer escape and pierce their flesh so that blood colored the cold décor of bedrock. The Almiraj would bound forth and bury their axes within their bodies, butchering them so they could be served up on plates. And the Hellhounds would cook the meat succulent and supple until it fell from their bones.
However, the Hellhounds could not wait. Newborns had no concept of patience, only the unyielding yearning to devour. And so, they hurried to the entrance of the corridor faster than any of their other kin and huffed their heated breaths, bellowing out a sea of flames that ran down the enclosed corridor to turn it into an oven rather than waiting for the others to prepare the meat.
The roar of the flames drowned out all sound as the monster party came to a halt at the mouth of the corridor until the fire abated. The bedrock itself, which was uneven as though the surfaces had been broken or carved into, glowed a bright orange color that crackled softly as smoke rose up. They had overdone it, as such merciless heat would certainly leave only fairy dust behind without a scrap of meat or cup of blood.
“Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree. You are the master archer…”
That was when they heard it, loud and clear.
From behind the curtain of dark smoke, they heard the voice of the fairy. But it was not a voice twisted from the agony of searing heat charring the flesh and setting every nerve alight. Instead, it was a lilt that had no place being sung within the hellish flames.
It riled their anger to new heights and inflamed their inherent bloodlust to its peak. Not only was their prey still alive, but at least one was well enough to sing joyously when cornered and entrapped. It offended their very nature as the bane of living mortals, such a grievous offense that they could not stand it.
Ignoring the prickling from the still heated stones, they rushed through the smoke with the murderous desire to turn the sylph’s melody into a dirge—
—and met a wall of light obscuring their path. It was a white mirror that kept away all that stood against it, a stalwart shield brought out by the nymph who was in truth a fairy knight.
And behind that knight was not a defenseless sylph waiting to have her wings plucked, but a fairy sniper whose bow was a staff, and her arrow was being nocked by the golden magic circle spinning beneath her. “Loose your arrows, fairy archers. Pierce, arrow of accuracy!”
Hearing the song entering its final verse, the white-clad fairy knight fell behind her charge and dropped the shield that kept them at bay.
And the pink-clad fairy sniper loosed her nocked arrow. “Arcs Ray!”
Golden light washed away everything.
“I didn’t expect Hellhounds of all the things to spawn.”
A soft sigh echoed over the soft cracking of stone as the wall opposite of the corridor laid blown out. Bits of stone fell onto the ash-laden ground beneath it. There were some modest-sized magic stones strewn about, though most had been eradicated by the magical attack.
Bringing her slender fingers to the back of her pale neck, Lefiya Viridis rubbed the spot tenderly as she stood alongside Filvis Challia within the corridor and inspected her work. Their senses were on full alert, listening for the sound of distant footfalls or cracking stone. But it appeared that there were no more threats incoming and so she allowed her guard to fall just a touch as she considered how things had turned out that way.
They had scouted out the rooms stealthily enough that they had a good guess as to the number of monsters and the species. It would have taken them more Mind and time to deal with all of them individually, which was why they had decided to funnel them down the narrow corridor where she could finish them off in a single blast. To that end, they had made the effort to break the walls on all sides and the ceiling itself to create a safe zone before luring them in.
Only death awaited those who would follow a fairy sniper into a narrow corridor.
But no plan survived first contact untested it seemed.
The Hellhounds were not expected since none had been present. They had a ranged magical attack that could have potentially altered the plan. It was only due to being constantly driven to attack mortals by their instinct as monsters and their undeveloped minds compared to the ones that roamed the Deep Floors that they fell into the trap so readily.
“…This strategy has merit but depending on the circumstances there are risks involved that can turn it into a death trap,” Filvis said after consideration. “Had we not thought to break the walls of this corridor ahead of time we very well could have been trapped on both sides. And while we most likely would have prevailed, there was a chance I may not have been able to protect you from getting hurt.”
Being surrounded by all sides was not uncommon for adventurers who delved deeper into the Dungeon. For if there was one thing that was never in short supply, it was monsters who would use their numerical superiority to bring down their foes. Even using a narrow corridor to funnel them was a valid strategy provided you had the means to eliminate them en masse.
The cleansing chalice that offered protection from magical and physical attacks was perfectly suited for keeping them at bay long enough for the fairy sniper to nock and loose an arrow of unyielding accuracy to wipe them out. But there was always a chance for something to go astray. Her shield could break or something else could go awry and the one meant to be protected would be vulnerable, a thought that clearly unsettled the one meant to do the protecting. Such was the ever-present fear of the fairy knight…
“You would have.”
There was no hesitation or uncertainty in the fairy sniper’s voice at the declaration, said with a beautiful smile unfitting of the Dungeon. Such was the depths of Lefiya’s faith in the one who bore the title of Maenads. A faith proven time and again on both the 24th Floor and in the Spirit Forest.
So long as the Elven Magic Swordswoman had breath in her body, she would uphold her duty to protect the Half-Elf Mage. “And I would have protected you as well, of course.”
Deep red eyes shifted away from the beaming smile, as if unworthy to gaze upon it. “I see… still, is it normal to have to take on this kind of Quest as a punishment?”
The Quest in question was that of a Dungeon Sweeper—a person who would travel to paths off the usual routes of the Dungeon to exterminate the monsters there. The floors grew massively in size the deeper you went, and the paths became expansive to the point where exploring every inch of a single floor was time and resource-consuming. The most expedient thing to do was to use a mapped travel route to get straight through.
But monsters born from the Dungeon walls could survive and thrive and build up their numbers. If their numbers were allowed to build up too much then, under the wrong circumstances, they could all at once start a Monster Parade—an irregular outbreak that would create a situation where a lot of adventurers could die. It would be a naturally reoccurring situation like the Nightmare on the 27th Floor.
That was why the Guild regularly called for adventurers to cull their numbers off the beaten paths. If the situation was desperate enough then sometimes it was mandatory for one of the higher-ranked Familia to deal with it, as they had the manpower and strength to traverse deep enough. But this was only on the Middle Floors, and it was more or less selected to be a humbling experience for her on Lady Riveria’s orders.
“Well, even if it was on the Upper Floors, it was still a careless thing for me to do,” Lefiya noted, unable to reveal the exact reason her staff had broken and her Mind had been drained to the point of collapsing. “Making me do this as part of my punishment is only fair, and she did tell me that I could bring someone I trusted along to help instead of having one of the others babysit me. Plus, I can use the magic stones that are leftover to help pay off the loan I took out to get Forest’s Teardrop repaired.”
In her hands was a borrowed staff, an older one from her roommate that was considered a spare. It had not really been tailored for her personal use, so she had to be careful to keep the magical energy funneled through it at a level manageable to avoid breaking it. Though it may not have been expensive compared to her own, it would not do to damage something she borrowed from a friend.
And while Filvis had been her first choice, the number of other vanguards she could have called were limited. Since the results of the War Game and announcement of Bell’s ascension to Level Three, many of the members of her Familia had entered something of a training spree. Such was the depths of their envy that he had gotten to the point where many of them had struggled to reach even after going on an expedition some time ago.
Even she was a little envious of how fast he could grow, but her primary concern was how detrimental his exceptional growth was to what he knew of the Dungeon and the city itself. She had been in Orario for nearly half her life now since entering the Educational District. Bell had been there for two or three months—the Dungeon or the city itself could very well eat him alive if he got over his head.
If Filvis had been busy I suppose I could have asked him, but if news got back to the others then it would have probably caused an uproar, Lefiya thought to herself before turning her attention back to the matter at hand. “Anyway, since this was the last Floor for today we can head back up to the Exchange once I collect the magic stones and drop items. Then we can split it before I report to the Guild.”
“I’ll help you,” insisted the fairy knight, chivalrous before her charge.
The gallantry was welcomed as they took what they could and packed it away in her backpack before finally ascending from the bedrock to the Upper Floors. Though there were a few random encounters along the way they effectively posed no challenge before the pair and by the time evening arrived, they had finished their climb and stood in Central Park. The rays of the setting sun painted the city a glorious golden hue as it washed over the ivory and marble.
It was only once the obvious threat that the Dungeon posed was no longer a factor that the demeanor of a fairy knight faded, and the Maenads revealed herself to be flustered as she came to a stop at the fountain where the clean water glimmered. “L-Lefiya…”
Azure eyes fell onto her at that, their owner pausing mid-step and regarding her body language with an inquisitive tilt of the head. “Is something wrong, Filvis?”
A light shade of red crept up from her cheeks to her ears as she meekly looked away, bringing one of her gloved hands to her heart while the other covered her mouth. Then, in elvish words so soft that the recipient almost couldn’t hear it, she asked, “W…Would accompany me to the Holy Moon Festival?”
…Lefiya’s mind froze for a prolonged pause as her mind processed what she heard.
The Holy Moon Festival was also one of the first festivities to mark the coming autumn, a celebration dating back to the Ancient Times. Grand Day would follow some time afterwards. And then there were the winter holidays that were always cold but festive in their own ways.
But the key factor here was that Filvis was asking her on a date.
Though Lefiya had been awaiting a response to the confession and sharing of the Spirit Nut, she had also been content to wait until Filvis was comfortable enough to broach the topic given how guarded she was. And there was the fact that she was competing against Lord Dionysus on whether Filvis’ affections would be returned. That could be interpreted in a number of ways—exclusivity was complex when one of the divine was involved, given what receiving their benediction entailed.
And while she probably should have asked the result of that, Lefiya’s reaction to seeing the meek way her gallant partner was flustered coaxed the warmth from her chest to her head and forced out a response faster than she could think. “Yes! Yesyesyes!”
“Th-Then…ummm…farewell!” Just giving a response seemed to have left her even more flustered as she sprinted away with the speed afforded to a Level Three with clearly higher parameters in Agility than Lefiya. Not quite as fast as her brother by any stretch, but she still managed to clear the park and vanished down the Main Street.
It was only then Lefiya remembered the weight on her back. “Ah… the… Exchange…”
She would have to go alone, it seemed. But she had a notable skip in her step as she did so, crimson stickers plastered on her cheeks as she considered that she had made a breakthrough in reaching the target of her affection. Her gamble in making her feelings clear had been at least rewarded in some measure.
That was almost enough to send her over the moon as she arrived in the Guild Hall and reported the completion of the Dungeon Sweeper Quest to Miss Flot.
That done, she was prepared to head to the Exchange that would be crowded at this time of day as many other adventurers prepared to turn in their goods. While she could wait until morning, she still wanted to see to it the Familia Treasurer applied the portion she earned to her loan before she kept the rest to return to Filvis the next time she saw her.
Do I even have any clothes that are good enough for a date? That question haunted her when she realized how limited her wardrobe happened to be. Dating had been one of her least concerns after the Alicia incident and living up to Lady Riveria’s expectations, so a round of shopping might be in order. Wait, I still have the dress from the Spirit Festival.
That was when she heard a voice that she recognized calling her from the lobby. She turned to see that her brother in casual clothes, standing in front of an older Half-Elf member of the Guild she thought she might have recognized, wearing a tense but tired expression on her face. And next to him was a young-looking Elf with blonde hair, standing around fifteen celches shorter than him and clad in a traveling cloak.
She approached him. “Bell, I thought you were going to take things easier for a while?”
“Ah… well, things got a little complicated…” He looked over to the child who clenched the hem of his shirt as she looked between them. “Do you have some time to speak with us in a private room?”
[-Private Guild Room-]
“I have… so many questions that I don’t know where to start,” Lefiya began after they had relocated to one of the private rooms within the Guild, guided by the Half-Elf that Bell referred to as Miss Eina. “Starting with why your Guild Advisor was looking so upset?”
“Ah that’s because a lot of things happened last night at the Grand Casino and I ended up getting banned,” he explained, slightly withering beneath her raised brow. “It was for a good reason—to help Miss Syr and Miss Ryuu.”
She remembered the silver-haired Human and the Elven Warrior. The two waitresses that served at the Hostess of Fertility did not strike her as the sort to go to a gambling establishment, but it was not as though she knew them that well. “Why were you even there in the first place?”
“Some of the people who won big by betting on us during the War Game decided to treat me and I ran into them there,” he began. “Then things got complicated and… well, I did owe them both. Plus, we helped people if that nice lady who came by to leave Miss Ryuu flowers and a note was any indication. It’s a shame she apparently left the city before morning.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Lefiya decided before turning her attention to the child sitting off to the side, eating a small treat rapturously. The girl was above average for what Lefiya presumed her age was as an Elf, but her features made it clear she was on the younger side of puberty. Then again, Lady Lilo had to be probably three or four times Lady Riveria’s age, so there were exceptions. “And who is she?”
He scratched his cheek as the girl’s purple eyes suddenly looked up. “This is Primo Libera. She came to Orario last week and just joined our Familia this morning, so I came to have her registered at the Guild.”
Lefiya blinked. “She can’t be older than nine, Bell.”
“How rude,” said child’s ears twitched expressively. “I’m ten!”
“My apologies,” Lefiya said. “It’s just that the last time I spoke with Lady Hestia she stated she did not intend to do a recruitment drive given the complex situation of their Familia. Between this and Bell being banned from the Grand Casino, I am simply trying to sort things out.”
“Why do you even know about that much?” she demanded. Lefiya believed it was not out of anger but concern towards her newfound Familia. “Who are you and what Familia are you from?”
“Now, now,” Bell said gently. “You don’t need to be suspicious. Her name is Lefiya Viridis and she’s a good friend of mine. She’s also known as ‘Thousand Elf’, making her the student of Lady Riveria,”
The dark misgivings were instantly replaced by sparkles akin to starlight as those purple eyes fell back onto her. “Really!?”
“That’s right,” Lefiya answered, extending her hand to the child. “Again, I apologize if we got off on the wrong foot. Let’s start over. I am Lefiya Viridis of the Wishe Forest.”
The child had no hesitation in shaking it vigorously. “Nice to meet you, Miss Viridis of Wishe! My name is Primo of the Libera Forest!”
No clan name and she isn’t hand-shy either. Not to mention she isn’t being overly formal. Her mind ran through the implications as she continued. “Just Lefiya is fine. It’s nice to meet you, Primo Libera.”
“Then you can call me Primo… umhmm…” She shifted in place for a moment, looking nervous as she gathered her courage to ask the question that Lefiya knew was coming. “What is Lady Riveria like in person!?”
She would have sighed at that if she hadn’t gotten used to it. Just about every one of them, whether half-blooded, full-blooded, or high-blooded, held the Royal Elf in reverence. Still, it was better than the envious looks that came from those who felt she had no business as her student or that they could do better.
Lefiya was about to give her some breadcrumbs to go off of when there was a knock on the door.
“It’s fine to enter, Miss Eina,” Bell called out.
Sure enough, it was the Half-Elf Advisor. “We’ll need Miss Libera for a few final parts of the registration. It’ll only be a minute and then she’ll be registered.”
Bell nodded before turning to the child. “Go ahead. Miss Eina is kind, so she’ll make sure everything is fine.”
“Oh… okay.” The Elven child obediently followed as the advisor gave her a gentle smile before taking her hand. The door shut closed.
Once they were out of earshot, Lefiya broached a question that had formed in her mind. “Bell, is she an orphan?”
His expression flattened for a moment. Then it softened and he nodded. “How did you know?”
“Given how low the birthrates are for full-blooded and high-blooded members of our race, a child of ten years would not be allowed to venture from the boundaries of her homelands to become an adventurer if there were even a single relative to take her in, no matter how distant. She isn’t hand-shy despite being new to Orario or have the same decorum as a Forestborn or raised, meaning they weren’t instilled or assimilated. The fact that she doesn’t have a clan name but uses her homeland as a communal name also has implications.”
Most likely her parents had lost their right to use their clan name somehow. There was also the chance that they willingly surrendered it in order to relocate to a different Forest, for one reason or another. After Rakia burned down a number of them that supposedly happened to several Elves from what she heard secondhand, and the act of surrendering their clan name to become a part of the community was the first step in being assimilated into that particular one—eventually they would be tied into existing clans.
“Before I left out and ended up at the casino, there were a number of different people outside of the gates of our home,” Bell began. “She was one of them, apparently. By the time I made it back late at night, she was the only one there and falling over asleep. I couldn’t leave a child out there, so I brought her in and listened to her story with Lady Hestia.”
The child had apparently arrived with the expectation of becoming a great mage like Lady Riveria. Not uncommon among their race by a stretch. But she had no money, no Magic, and no Falna, meaning she was just an ordinary ten-year-old child to be taken care of.
Even for Elves, receiving Magic upon receiving benediction was not promised. And they could not control what spell appeared if it did. Not to mention the upkeep for a solid Mage was expensive. Since the moment their Falna was on her back and she would be their responsibility, it was simply out of the question for most smaller Familia and not worth the hassle for the larger ones—more so since it was another mouth to feed and one you would be taxed on.
“Lady Hestia would not turn away a child in need of a home when she is right outside of the gate,” Lefiya figured. “Especially not one whose story was so similar to yours. I wouldn’t be surprised if she picked your Familia after what you said if she was rejected time and again, and since you can’t lie to the divine, she would have meant every word.”
“Lady Hestia figured that, even if she did not develop Magic, then we could find something for her to do and still have a home…” Bell rubbed the back of his head. “It isn’t like we were all that comfortable with letting her go into the Dungeon so soon. But she had an Offensive-Type spell right away, and now she wants to become a Mage like Lady Riveria. I was actually planning to ask you for advice on that if possible.”
The Half-Elf crossed one of her legs over the other at that as she drummed her fingers against the table. “Well, I don’t mind explaining things and helping you when I have the time. But there’s a lot involved, so I would prefer to explain it to both of you in a single go and let you relay that back to your goddess.”
Her brother smiled in gratitude. “Thank you, Sister.”
“I did say that I was willing to help in any way I could to Lady Hestia, so this is only contributing to that.”
That said, silence loomed until the door opened once more and the child came back inside with a paper in hands, marking it as her copy of their records. “I’m done, Captain.”
“That’s good,” he said, giving a slight nod to the Guild Advisor that she returned with a small smile and wave before she closed the door. Bell then tapped the seat next to him. “Primo, have a seat here. Lefiya is going to tell us something important, so be sure to listen.”
She hurried over and excitedly plopped in her seat, sitting rigidly with her hands on her knees.
It was safe to say that Lefiya had her attention. “So, Bell tells me you want to be a Mage. Is that true?”
Her blonde hair rose and fell in waves as she bobbed her head up and down. “Yes! Just like Lady Riveria.”
“It’s a lot of hard work,” the Half-Elf Mage began. “Not only do you not know what kind of spells you’ll develop, but you have to start studying a ton of topics starting today in order to earn your Mage Development Ability. That’s what gives us our magic circles and makes us Mages compared to someone like Bell, who would be someone who just uses Magic.”
“Like magic stuff?” she asked.
Lefiya shook her head. “Not just magical knowledge, though that is mandatory starting out. For example, in my case, I had to learn things like estimating distances by sight, planning trajectories, and other fields of study in order to properly make the most out of my first spell even before I had the Mage Development Ability. Once I had it the number of topics increased to handle the flexibility it provides with manipulating your existing spells—expanding the distance, increasing the radius, manipulating the output, and so on. In contrast, Bell probably learned to recognize the distance his spell can go by sight but putting numbers to it beyond him.”
“You don’t have to put it like that,” Bell mumbled. “Not that you’re wrong. I can tell how far out of range something is depending on how well I can perceive it. After a while you start to recognize whether something is too far or not.”
“And that’s fine for you because you’re not a dedicated Mage,” Lefiya said, before turning back to Primo. “But not for us. The decrease in Mind cost and efficiency are more bonuses compared to the flexibility that the Mage Development Ability gives us, and I went through the Educational District for three years so that I reached Level Two and unlocked it when I was a year older than you are now. You aren’t just someone who uses Magic, but an intellectual who knows it inside and out.”
From how her expression shifted she hadn’t considered that. Magic was mesmerizing when you saw it at work. But the real majesty laid in the underlying complexities of it, of how it worked. That was a gateway you could only peer into with study and certain Development Abilities such as Mystery or Mage.
“And then there are the costs involved,” she continued. “An Oaken Staff, which is a commercial beginner’s staff, costs around 10,000 Valis without any modifications. The quality is low, and it is really only good to act as a conduit so you can practice focusing on learning the basics. Then constantly pushing spells through them will wear them down and they are expensive enough to repair because only a Mage can craft them, which means that you’d be better off replacing them, which isn’t cheap for a small Familia.”
In contrast, the Guild-issued Dagger that Bell started with cost around 3,500 Valis. It could be easily repaired or replaced, but it still required a loan for a new adventurer to obtain. Staves were nearly three times that and were far less durable than steel. Hitting something with it was the last thing you should want to do unless it was specially treated, so it was effectively only good as a rudimentary focus to help you as you began.
“Once you have the basics, you move on to a proper Mage’s Staff, which costs 20,000 Valis and only slightly increase the magical power output. But that increases the strain and damage it takes if you use it roughly. After that, there’s the Grim and Harmony series depending on if you have offensive or healing spells, and not only are they the last commercially available models but they cost 50,000 Valis. Everything after that, even the typical Vanishment Rod, starts at 100,000 Valis without any modifications tailored to the type of magic, and then you have to factor in the cost of labor, materials, and other things.”
She tapped the staff she had borrowed from Elfy, which was a variation of the Vanishment Rod. It was cheaper than her current one, but it was still tailored to better handle Offensive-Type Fire spells. That alone had bumped up the price to close to 300,000 Valis.
“My regular staff, Forest’s Teardrop, cost me a total of 37,800.800 Valis. Due to a mistake, it suffered a great deal of damage and the repairs have totaled up to 20,300,000 Valis. I had to get a loan from my Familia to get it fixed because it’s essential to me, and the longer it takes the more interest will build.”
Primo’s eyes were boggled at the costs. She probably had never even heard of such a cost for what looked to be a very nice-looking blasting stick. But it was crucial and thus warranted her having it repaired as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, her brother that neglected to inform her about Argonaut’s little side-effect looked as though he was about to have a heart attack. “Urk…”
“But, in a larger Familia or with stronger members, it’s entirely possible to make that back in a relatively short amount of time,” she said before either of them could dwell on it. “For example, Miss Aiz and I could easily make around 10,000,000 Valis in a week if we went deep enough into the Dungeon for rare Drop Items and then pawned them off on the 18th Floor at higher prices since they would be resold anyway. But she is a Level Six, and I am capable of shooting above my Level because I specialize in Offensive-Type spells.”
Her role during expeditions was that of artillery or a sniper. The moment she was pointed at an enemy, she would loose a rain of flaming arrows or a shot that never missed. Concurrent Casting had only made her more mobile in the process and Elf Ring gave her additional options when the primary person capable of casting the spell was not there or she needed to fill in an auxiliary role.
“And that’s only the basics. There’s additional studying materials, magic stones, accessories and other things that can augment your abilities or provide protection, a Grimoire if you want to have a little control over what your next spell might manifest as or when you get it, and keep in mind that your Familia have other members with their own expenses as well and the Middle Floors are the deepest your Familia can go—with Bell realistically being the only one capable of doing so comfortably, and even then a mistake can cost him his life.”
The Elven child withered at the thought, signs of budding tears welling up. It was so easy to say that you wanted to be the next Lady Riveria, but it was a different story when you knew the costs associated with it. Not just Valis, but the cost in blood, sweat, and tears. Many had learned too late.
She got up from her seat and then crouched down in front of the sitting girl, setting her hands gently on her shoulders as she met her gaze with a soft one of her own. “I’m not telling you this to scare you. I’m telling you this so that you know that the fact that they have taken you in to become their Mage means they have invested a lot in you, Primo. They have that much faith you’ll become invaluable to them, so you can never take that for granted. Understand?”
Slender fingers wiped away the tears as she bobbed her head slowly. “Y-Yes…”
“Then study hard to become the Mage they need,” Lefiya told her. “Don’t settle for being like Lady Riveria. Try to surpass her for the sake of this small Familia who have taken you in as a member of their family.”
She needed to understand that Bell and Lady Hestia were not a means to an end. They were not just a way to get her Falna via the benediction of the Goddess of the Hearth’s Grace. They were giving her everything they could to make her a member of their family, so she should devote herself to them from now because once she gained her Mage DA she would become valuable, and thus there were those who would attempt to poach her from them.
And Bell needed to understand the costs involved and that he would need to treat her as such. He needed to understand she would be under a lot of pressure to become the best she could be. Lady Hestia was kind but she would have to make sure that the child did not stray once she set on that path and, as the Captain of his Familia, he needed to think how to best make use of her.
“I will,” she said, continuing to wipe away the tears. Her dream had been formed out of hope but hearing the costs of it meant that if she still wanted to pursue it then she would dedicate her everything to that goal. “I promise, Miss Lefiya. Captain… I swear….”
The urge to nurture the crying child apparently ran through both their veins since they brought her in for a hug. The mesh of bodies lasted probably longer than it should have, but the child seemed to be happy to receive it. She almost seemed upset when Lefiya pulled away to stand properly.
“After tomorrow I’m going to be away for a while,” she told the pair. “I’d like to get her started with what she needs tomorrow. Are you free to bring her with me?”
Bell nodded. “After I help Goddess get to work, we can go together.”
“Good.” Lefiya smiled before clapping her hands together. “In the meantime, you should go take her to go buy a nice and big stuffed animal once you leave here. She probably needs one.”
Primo was quick to say otherwise as she finished wiping the tear trails. It was unbecoming of an Elf to look so improper after all. “I don’t need one!’”
“You say, but I’m guessing you had trouble sleeping when they brought you in last night until one of them slept with you?”
“She stayed with Lady Hestia,” Bell confirmed, oblivious to the child’s shock. “Why?”
“Both culturally and instinctively, Elves tend to nurture strong ties and a need for companionship. That tends to be why we have tighter relationships with family and friends if we know them long enough, and part of why outside of those with more exposure to the outside world we don’t take well to others touching us. Otherwise staying secluded in a Forest for the better part of a century would drive us up the wall, and it’s why being kicked out of a Forest can be difficult to handle without a support system.”
There was a reason Elven Friendships were considered to be as close to lovers as one could get without any sexual attraction. It was a form of affection that skirted the line to other races. By that same metric, losing someone dear to them tended to end… poorly.
Longevity and grief did not mix well.
“If that’s the case then Primo probably slept better than she has in a long time since she was with Lady Hestia,” Bell realized before turning to her. “Is that right?”
A crimson blush painted her cheeks at that as she looked away. It was not a denial.
“There’s no shame in it,” Lefiya assured her. it was natural to sleep with parents or siblings until puberty kicked in. “I used to sleep with Mother since it was just the two of us until I left to study in the Educational District and had to make do with a large stuffed animal to cope. I adapted by the time I joined the Loki Familia.”
Said stuffed animal was still in her room, and she still slept with it until she hit Level Three at the age of twelve, one year after she hit Level Two and graduated. Then Dungeon crawling and puberty happened, which shifted her concerns to survival and the feminine form.
Since Primo lacked any familial bonds she would likely try to compensate instinctively. But it would not be proper for her to wander into her Goddess’ or companion’s bedside all the time. A stuffed animal would help her until she adapted, which probably would not take too long to be honest.
Orario had a way of forcing you to mature quickly compared to other places—especially some of the Forests from what she heard from others.
“We’ll go pick up one on the way home,” Bell promised, even as Primo grew redder in the face. “I’ll still need to speak with Welf, Lili, and Mikoto too. They’re still at their old places until the renovations are done.”
“Then we’ll meet tomorrow to test Primo’s spell in the Dungeon after we shop for clothes and your basic supplies… oh, right.” She cleared her throat and then, in eld tongue, she asked, “Do you speak Old Elvish?”
The way Primo’s brows folded in as she tried to process the words made it clear she did not.
“I should probably also teach you Old Elvish if I get a chance, if only because some of the older text requires it…” The Elder Elf would probably have her head if she discovered she didn’t if they met in thirty or so years. The language itself was not commonly taught among their race, and so teaching Primo while she was young would be a way to contribute. “Having a student might be fun.”
Chapter 19: Aftermath of the War Game
“It worked out somehow.”
Relief flooded Hestia as she stared into the Divine Mirror as the bell sounded, signaling the end of the War Game and victory for their Familia. She had gone through a myriad of different emotions as she watched the battle progress and bore witness to the resolve of her children.
She certainly hadn’t expected Bell to go so wild. Even looking at him now, it was clear he was struggling just to stay standing. Thankfully, before he could fall over onto his face right after claiming victory, his sister came over next to him…
And promptly shoved a Potion down his throat while lecturing him about focusing on himself before his enemy. “You should have drunk the one you had instead of splashing it over that jerk. Why are you trying to look cool now, huh?”
Loki laughed at the sight. “Slappin’ one minute, frettin’ the next—classic Tsundere.”
They had not heard what was muttered between the two of them after she’d slapped him earlier to snap him out of… whatever that was. Hestia would have words with Bell about it later. But it looked… incriminating when coupled with her reaction to the accusation of them flirting.
Hestia gave the girl a silent apology considering more of her peers joined in the guessing game about how Bell had somehow seduced one of Astraea’s children in less than a week.
As for her other children, Welf and Mikoto were leaning against the Inner Ward’s walls as they caught their breaths. Lili was ferreting between them and looking over their injuries. She apparently knew a little First Aid since she had to take care of herself until recently and Potions were expensive normally. Though Bell’s sister had tended to them it was clear they would be sore for quite a while.
Hestia could see from the look on Takemikazuchi and Hephaestus’ faces that they were warring between the pride they felt in their accomplishment and concern over the fact that they had taken quite a beating to claim the win. Miach had his personal Divine Mirror zoomed in on them as he assured them that there would be no lasting damage. He would see to it.
It was a clean victory in that aspect. They had met the challenge set before them with flying colors and fought long and hard. She truly was blessed with wonderful friends and gifted children.
There was just one thing left to do now. “…Oh, A-po-llo~? Going somewhere ~?”
“Geh?!” A yelp came from the God of the Sun who had been trying to sneak out while everyone else’s attention was diverted in discussing Bell’s current predicament. Naturally, no sooner than he was called out, did the others swarm him to prevent his escape before he paid what he owed. That was the reason all of this began, and part of their entertainment as well.
She slowly walked up to him, the muscular hands of Ganesha on his shoulders to keep him in place. “I believe your terms were that I could have whatever I wanted, weren’t they?”
“H-Hestia, let’s be reasonable here,” Apollo pleaded. “We’re all civilized beings. I offered to share—”
“Whatever. I. Wanted.” Hestia placed punctuation on each point. “Right?”
“Those were the terms I heard,” Hephaestus agreed, while Takemikazuchi and Miach nodded quietly. “I guess it’s time to pay up what you owe.”
“M-Mercy,” he begged. “I’m sure you understand how this city can make you get a little carried away. Have mercy. Please.”
Hestia would have considered his words… if not for the fact that she had seen Bell broken, bloody, and beaten just for him to have a shiny new toy. And after today she was sure several others would get the same idea. An example had to be made.
Thus, she had no mercy to give. “Since you took away my child’s home, I’m taking everything you own. On top of that you’re going to disband your Familia so those children you forced into it can go free. And since you’re right about the city not helping your case, how about you go into exile too and learn what it’s like outside of Orario—FOREVER!”
A scream bellowed as Divine Judgement was passed. The God of the Sun was dragged off to be forced into compliance. His fate would be a testament to the woe that would befall one who took the home from the Goddess of the Hearth.
And thus, one issue was resolved…
Only for another to begin.
“So,” began the Trickster Goddess, addressing the room. “Since we have today and another two whole days set aside… why don’t we discuss what Shortstack’s Little Rabbit’s going to be named?”
Hestia’s head whipped around so fast her twin ponytails could have been classified as a deadly weapon. “Loki, what are you doing!?”
“Even if he hasn’t hit Level Three before now, I’m pretty sure he’s met the requirements for it,” Loki said with a grin that pulled her lips back to her ears. “And since your child is soooo exceptional, so why not make an exception to the rules? After all, we have two more days to get everyone else’s opinion and most of us have already set aside the time for it.”
Hestia winced as though she had been punched in the gut. The requirement for raising one’s Level was a minimum of a D-rank in one attribute and a feat that was worthy of the Gods. Bell had a minimum of S-rank stats across the board when she updated his Status. And her Familia had just toppled a castle with not even a fifth of the same numbers.
They may have had Welf’s swords and outside help, but that had just trimmed the numbers down. It had been Bell who had chosen to enter a duel with the Captain of the Apollo Familia. Someone who had bested him twice before, without help from anyone else—and he’d won.
The only way he wouldn’t hit Level Three is if she withheld it.
And who would be more bitter about that fact than the one who had the title of Record Holder stolen from them twice over? The one who had tried to get her to reveal what made Bell such a Rare Gem in the first place. The one who was still bitter over having her precious Sword Princess dance with him at Apollo’s little trap.
The jealousy of a goddess was not to be underestimated. “W-Wait, we need still need a Denatus and it’s only been a month since the last one—”
Loki shouted into the air like a spoiled child before she could finish. “HEY, OLD GEEZER! LET US HAVE AN EMERGENCY DENATUS WITH THE MIRRORS SINCE WE ALREADY HAVE THEM OUT!”
The response that came sounded like that of an exasperated parent giving in rather than dealing with them throwing a tantrum later on. “…I will allow it.”
No sooner than he uttered those words did more Divine Mirrors pop up, revealing Gods and Goddesses who had chosen to stay at home to watch. If she tried to hide it the Guild would likely be on her tail after this, especially given the Calamity on the 18th Floor. She wouldn’t be surprised if that was why Ouranos allowed it in the first place since she only had to pay a small amount compared to Hermes.
Hopeful of some way to avert what was happening, she looked over to the peers of her group. The ones who had supported her until now. Surely, they could talk some reason into them…
All of them slowly shook their heads apologetically in perfect unison.
Slowly, like the cogs of a gear, Hestia turned her head back to the gathering where everyone else had assembled. Those she had ignored. Those whose requests she had denied. Those who had gambled and lost. Those who just wanted to keep the entertainment going.
She had only one word for them. “…M-Mercy…”
Much like with Apollo, there was none to be had.
“I, GANESHA, SUGGEST WE GO WITH VORPAL RABBIT!”
“Of course you’d choose to name him after the monster!”
“…He does kind of look like an Almiraj. Cute but deadly—Lightning Almiraj.”
“Dia, you traitor! And you why are you nodding, Demeter!?”
“There was madness within his earlier motions, and he was quite nimble—the Mad Rabbit, March Hare.”
Outside of the tower of Babel, the rising spire of unblemished ivory that ascended to the heavens from below within the heart of Orario, there was an innumerable number of spectators as the series of Divine Mirrors finished broadcasting the War Game.
The final bell had sounded. In less than thirty minutes after the starting bell, victory had been declared for the unexpected underdog. A Familia that now consisted of four beneath a goddess of no note and two outsiders had somehow done the impossible and bested a force consisting of over a hundred numbers strong, toppling an ancient castle in the process before engaging in a duel with the enemy general.
Movements faster than the eyes could see.
Shocking sparks and shrieking steel.
A climatic clash of casting.
It felt like a scene ripped straight out of an epic tale that they had the chance to bear witness to right in front of them. And now that the battle had come to an end laughter, cheers, and general mirth abound as those same countless eyes that had been glued to the mirrors watched the victor rising back to his feet and apologizing to the Elf lecturing him. The comedy that came after the epic.
However, amidst the crowd, there was a small figure who stood on the rim of the fountain to get a better view of the match.
Her slender figure was obscured by a lavender traveling cloak that managed to just fall short of her ankles due to her height that was just above average for her age. Her sun-kissed blonde hair fell into the collar of the cloak and half-covered a set of pointed ears. Her expressive purple eyes glimmered with the faint sparkles as her mind played back the words that had proceeded the devastating display of violence.
‘A Goddess who had so little, and still accepted me even when every other Familia rejected me… the home we shared as a family…’
Acceptance. Home. Family.
Those words kindled a feeling that she feared had been buried by the crushing weight of reality as her week in this city had been met with rejection time and again. If the leporine Human boy who was only a few years older than her had faced the same and turned out to have been a rare gem, then she should shine even greater as an Elf that hailed from the outskirts of the forest of Libera after all. She simply needed a patron who would be willing to bless her with their grace and one day she could become known as a genius mage on par with the revered Royal Elf with the alias of Nine Hells.
Clapping her round cheeks, the young Elf made her decision.
I’m going to join the Hestia Familia.
“Poor Hestia. They must be having a field day with her about now.”
“You could at least look apologetic if you really mean that.”
Banter took place between two of the divines that were far away from the Labyrinth City.
One was a handsome man whose features were hidden behind a feathered hat. He sat with his arms perched behind him on the crest rail of a wooden bench, leaning back with one leg crossed over the other. Relaxed and comfortable, his orange eyes were dancing with amusement, and he sported a smile as he stared at the events unfolding on his Divine Mirror.
The other was an immaculate goddess sitting next to him, carrying herself with a graceful poise unbefitting of such modest surroundings that a large tent provided. The nature of the divine left her skin and clothes flawless, but it was her character that gave the shoulder-less kirtle and long skirt she wore the regality they possessed. With long, brown hair and indigo eyes that held warmth in them as her own mirror observed the final combatant standing on the Outer Curtain Wall and watching the display between the two below.
The God of Travel—Hermes.
The Goddess of Justice—Astraea.
Flanking them were their respective Captains—Asfi and Cecil.
These four were nestled within a forest that was located on the other end of the continent, sitting in a large tent that had been erected for them. Separated from the numerous children who sat beneath the canopy outside where other mirrors had been willed into existence, the unfiltered arcanum that provided clairvoyance permitted a view even on the opposite side of the continent. And Hermes himself had obtained permission before he had set out to fulfill this Quest for Ouranos, so there was no violation of the rules to keep the “game” fair.
“Crozzo’s handiwork is something to be noted,” Asfi said while observing the Half-Elf she knew to be Bell Cranel’s sister under the disguise of her workmanship. Her patron had not sought to keep that a secret from her when she inquired as to why she had to work for hours straight recreating a form of magic that one of his companions possessed. He had been certain that he could enlist her aid and that of the Gale, and so she had labored. “Even that dagger was terrifying from what I could tell.”
Though she did not have the Blacksmithing Development Ability, Asfi was well-versed in different crafting methods. The fact that she possessed multiple Development Abilities related to crafting spoke of all the excelia she had accumulated in those relevant crafts and so she had an appraising eye for magical implements and equipment. That knife she was certain he crafted had most definitely given Cranel a level of Strength he did not possess before, but it came at the cost of his ability to reason.
Strength gained by being swallowed up by their anger. Throwing caution to the wind in order to kill your enemy, tearing apart your own body in the process. It reminded her of a little too much of how her Cithara worked.
“That certainly won’t be something Ares will ignore once the news of the War Game spreads,” Astraea stated. “Conquest through unbridled power is something he always lauded. Worse, I fear others may take matters into their own hands to prevent that power from falling into his hands once more.”
“You can only move an army by making a lot of noise and Orario won’t be willing to give up such a prize so easily,” Hermes stated calmly. “Though I suppose some others might try something desperate now that he isn’t visibly under Hephaestus protection.”
“I will admit that I haven’t seen something like that being so casually swung around in all the time I have been with Lady Astraea…” Cecil seemed somewhat conflicted as she looked down, face slightly scrunched in thought. “But was it really okay to allow them to use our emblem?”
“That child would not allow another to use it so wantonly,” Astraea assured her while looking to Ryuu as she deigned to join the others below and shook hands with the young boy. In truth, they had only learned of Hermes schemes after he had arrived at their location. Her girls took pride in their association to her name and what the wings of justice represented, so it being used for deception was an affront. “Of course, I trust that you will honor the promises you made as compensation for your actions, Hermes?”
The God of Travel removed his hat and placed it over his chest as he sat properly. “Of course. I had Asfi already see to it that the letters have been sent out. Lulune should deliver the one to Lyon as soon as she gets back to Orario. And my puppy and kitten should be wandering around searching for your child’s missing sister. Miss Flores, wasn’t it?”
Hermes had not brought the entirety of his Familia with him as it would mean losing a means of staying aware of what was happening within Orario. Among them were a Cat Person and Chienthrope that served as their ears on the ground. Both had different means of obtaining information and they were both useful in their own ways.
“I will be taking my leave now that the War Game is over, so I should be able to bring back some good news after the Holy Moon Festival,” Hermes finished before looking over his shoulder to where there was a carefully prepared weapon case. Inside of it was what looked to be an argent spear of a simple but elegant make, with the head flaring out into two wings while in the center was a blue moonstone.
But to the two divine beings sitting in that tent, they knew it was something different.
It was… an arrow.
He heard it.
It should have been impossible given how deep within the Dungeon he was. Surrounded by bovines of which he was one of many, born from the same womb moments ago, that sound should never have reached him. But it had.
A thunderous roar that kindled a fleeting memory and the feelings it wrought deep from the spirit within him. A moment in time where he experienced what it truly meant to live and die with his heart pounding and thunder rumbling in his ears. An unbridled glee as he lost himself in battle, rejoicing as their steel clashed amidst a raging inferno and chaotic lighting.
A white-haired blur smiling while clad in lightning and flames.
His one and only enemy.
His spirit roused at hearing that roar that should not exist.
It was a sign. It was a sign that his dream was within reach. His dream was awaiting him on the surface.
His massive, corded muscles buried beneath a hide of black and bristle fur gained strength. His grip on the Landform Ax tightened. And his lips pulled back to make an expression that was foreign to the kin around him—a smile.
And then he roared. “URRRROOOOOOOOOAAAAHHHHH!!”
He let out a thunderous roar in reverence to the promised duel. He roared with every ounce of resolve he had to relive that memory here and now. He roared from the bottom of his heart with the desire to see it come about.
It shook the very core of those around him. Their wills wavered in the face of that roar. And in doing so they had proven themselves unworthy as anything more than nourishment to prepare him for that day, and so they would be mowed down.
And, just like that, the raging black bull entered the backstage of the Last Epic.
[-The Former Apollo Manor-]
Three days passed after the end of the War Game.
The moment that victory had been claimed and Lefiya had seen to it her brother would not collapse because he was too busy acting cooler than he had any right to be, she and Miss Ryuu returned to Orario. It was not their moment of victory and so they had to step off the stage, so to speak. Not that she was really in a condition to remain standing.
She had healed the worst of her wounds, but the entire endeavor had been more exhausting than she expected. Her Mind had been drained by quite a bit and her stamina just as much. She had no business fighting as she had, and if not for the fact that she knew she was capable of handling a few Level Two adventurers by raw Status alone she never would have attempted it.
Thankfully, Miss Ryuu had allowed her to rest in her arms as they flew back to Orario on the dragon that they borrowed. Her supple body was surprisingly comfortable, and it would be lying to say she hadn’t enjoyed it. Mild and probably unrequited sexual attraction aside, her heart was set on Filvis and she had spent the rest of the day with her.
It was nice.
Now she found herself within what was once the home of the Apollo Familia. Lady Hestia had claimed it as her prize and the residents had been escorted out with their belongings. It would serve as the new home of the Hestia Familia once the renovations were complete, but it was not officially known as of yet since the results of the War Game wager had yet to make their rounds.
They wanted to tie it in with the other big news. “So, you’re a Level Three now?”
Her brother was sitting next to her. He and Lady Hestia had retired to a private room that was presumably a study once upon a time, with Lady Hestia opposite them behind a marble desk. She was in her Feena guise since it would look strange if the Thousand Elf went into the same house alone with Bell after everything else until now.
She was not helping those rumors along.
He smiled in a way that befitted his adorable, rabbit features. “Yes. Lady Hestia updated my Status, and we plan to take it to the Guild in an hour or so to have it be formally announced.”
“If I don’t then they’d probably accuse me of withholding information given Bell’s performance,” the Goddess of the Hearth said with a frown as she cradled her head with one hand, elbow perched on the desk. There were bags under her eyes as she had only recently returned from the sudden Denatus that was announced due to the results. “If not for the fact that you kids can’t lie to us, and Bell said he hadn’t reached Level Three, it might have happened anyway.”
“Sorry for the trouble, Goddess,” Bell said before turning to Lefiya. “But we’re the same Level now.”
“Only because I’m still holding off on reaching Level Four,” she reminded him, but her tone was a lot less certain. Bell really had no right to be as strong as he was or rising as quickly as he had been. But, as she said, they could not tell a direct lie to the divine. And even if he possessed some Rare Skill, no one could force him to disclose it.
He was just a rare gem—highly sought after and valuable.
She supposed that made him like Miss Aiz. Or Mister Welf considering how monstrous the things he could create were at Level Two alone. But at least those two had the explanation of having a Spirit’s blood flowing through them.
Bell was just… Bell.
Considering everything, I should at least have an A-Rank in Magic by now, Lefiya thought to herself. She had not had a chance to update her Status because she was waiting for a group update session, as Lady Loki would have less time to pry her with questions or grope her still-developing breasts. Once I hit S-Rank I’ll be ready to push ahead, though I would like more options for my Development Abilities than what was offered last I checked…
Thoughts of somehow obtaining Spirit Healing aside given it would mean she practically never had to worry about running out of Mind again, she turned her attention back to the topic at hand. “Did they decide on a new Title for Bell?”
Lady Hestia let out an unladylike groan. “They decided on… [Caerbannog Cottontail] for him. As soon as I submit the proof of his Level they will announce it to officially cap off the War Game.”
“That’s… a clever Title,” Lefiya muttered as she rolled that title over in her head. “No wonder it took them three days to decide on it.”
“It is?” Bell asked, oblivious as his Goddess acted as though her words had been a punch directed towards her.
She nodded. “Based on the Elvish etymology, ‘Caer-’ refers to a castle or stronghold, ‘-bannog’ means important, prominent, or high, and a Cottontail is naturally a kind of rabbit. They’re basically immortalizing the fact that you took down a castle despite looking so much like a bunny, and I can only assume they used two elvish words because a pair of elves helped you. Your Goddess must have really worked to get you that name.”
Having it broken down to him made Bell smile even more. “Thank you, Lady Hestia! I’ll wear it with pride!”
“Don’t blame me for this,” Hestia whimpered as she held her head down, attempting to hold back what they presumed to be tears of joy. “Loki was the one leading the charge. It’s all her fault.”
Lefiya tilted her head in mild surprise at that. “I suppose she could have learned from Lady Riviera about the Elvish tongue since she’s known her for so long, but I didn’t expect she would have come up with something that clever for someone else’s Familia. You must have really impressed her, Bell.”
“That’s only because of everyone else,” Bell claimed. “I’ll have to find some way to thank all of you now that this is over, especially since your Familia has really been helping me in a lot of ways.”
With a final sigh of resignation, Hestia reached into the pouch of her apron from her work clothes and pulled out a pair of keys. “Speaking of which, these are for you two.”
Lefiya blinked. “Me as well?”
“Well, this is Bell’s home as much as it is mine,” said the Goddess of the Hearth before straightening up. “We have more rooms than we could need in a lifetime, and any family of his has the right to come and go as they please. That means one of them is yours.”
A jolt of surprise ran through Lefiya as she caught the implication. Then she turned to Bell, a look of betrayal on her face. “You told!”
“Bell did not tell me about you,” Hestia said as Bell shook his head, just as surprised. She then followed by explaining her reasoning behind deducing their relationship. Bell had only once told her that he had family in the city and kept her name out of it. The Goddess of the Hearth had only figured it out by how she reacted during the chase and Lefiya asked for her promise of silence.
The Half-Elf’s notable ears fell as though deflated while she held her head, a cloud of gloom hanging over her head. “I didn’t think I was that obvious, but so many things were happening at the time.”
Hestia only smiled gently. “Just like a rabbit, Bell is sociable and cute, so people are naturally drawn to him. And considering the circumstances and my relationship with Loki, it’s completely understandable why you would want to keep it a secret. I just had more information to work with, so I put it together.”
“Sorry, Sister,” Bell apologized. “If I had been a little stronger then I wouldn’t have needed your help back then.”
“Not your fault,” Lefiya told him, feeling worse she jumped to blaming him immediately. “Honestly, as mortals, we can’t really control when we catch the eyes of those above. And honestly, more people will take notice now. Lady Hestia crushing the Apollo Familia so thoroughly should at least discourage them from another brute force approach.”
Hestia nodded. “Just so you know, I have no intention of using that information to get back at Loki or anything. I just felt I should at least let you both know that I was aware so you wouldn’t have to keep pretending when we’re alone. It must already be difficult to explain things away all the time, so having at least one other person in the know will make things easier.”
“Oh, Goddess, it has been,” Lefiya agreed softly, feeling somewhat lighter that some of the pressure taken off her shoulders. She could vent a little now. “Even if I strung up Raul a hundred times those rumors are never going to go away after that day. And then Lady Riveria still expects me to take on Quests as punishment for breaking my staff on top of additional training.”
Her winnings had only been enough to pay half the cost of the loan she took out, which spoke a lot about the odds against Bell considering how little she had to place on the match. She had gambled and won but Lady Riveria had been quick to remind her that she was not done drilling the basics into her since she so clearly forgot them. She would be sore once those staff drills were done, and her brain would be pudding by the time she finished reviewing her study materials and practicing her Magic.
Even so, she rose to her feet before tapping the necklace to remove her disguise and present herself as she truly was. Then she bent her knees outward, placed one foot behind her, held out her skirt, and finally gave a bow to express her heartfelt thanks. “Let me thank you formally for taking in my beloved little brother. If you had not been there to pick him up when I failed him, he wouldn’t be where he is now. For that, you have my gratitude for as long as I live, and I swear on my name of Viridis and as his sister, I will repay that kindness in whatever way I can.”
Hestia regarded her with a warm smile befitting of a hearth. “You really are too sweet of a child for Loki. I was simply fulfilling my role of providing a home for those in need of one. And I consider myself blessed to have found such a wonderful child to call my family.”
“And I am happy to call both of you my family as well,” Bell added. “I’ll keep getting stronger, so one day we won’t need to hide things and I can take that burden off both of your shoulders.”
Lefiya would have rolled her eyes if she was not in the presence of a goddess. “If you want to do that then maybe you should slow down for both of our sakes. You haven’t even been below the 18th Floor and you’ve already gotten to the point where you would be capable of going to the Lower Floors. You need more experience in how things work, or else you’re going to run into a situation above your head…again.”
“And you are officially the Captain of our Familia now,” Hestia added. “You’re going to have more responsibilities to grow into, Bell.”
He nodded in acceptance that his next story would be one of growth.
[-Arc 3 End-]
Bell Cranel (Level 3)
Captain of the Hestia Familia. Half-brother of Lefiya Viridis. Two-Time Record Holder. The reincarnation of Argonaut and bound by fate to those who became a part of his legend, Bell Cranel has always held an admiration for heroes that was instilled in him by Zeus. Now, after 1000 years since the first Heroic Comedy, a new tale is being written.
Strength: I-0 | Endurance: I-0 | Dexterity: I-0 | Agility: I-0 | Magic: I-0
Luck: I | Abnormal Resistance: I
- Firebolt: No Chant, Offensive-Type Fire spell that releases blazing bolts of electric flames. Scales with user’s Magic Stat. Argonaut increases all attributes at an increased cost to Stamina and Mind.
- Jupiter: Super-Short Chant, Enhancement-Type Lightning spell that causes electricity to rampage within the user to increase physical attributes for a duration of (10) seconds at a great cost to the self. Increase scales with user’s Magic Stat, self-inflicted damage offset by user’s Endurance Stat. Repeated or extended use can cause lasting damage. Argonaut increases the duration.
- Activation Trigger: “Shine!”
- Realis Freese: Crystallization of an ancient pledge rekindled upon meeting one bound by fate. Provides Accelerated growth. Immunity to Charm.
- Argonaut: Heroic desire made manifest. Provides the ability to “charge” actions. Maximum charge time of (3) minutes.
- Pyonkichi MK-IV: The latest of Welf Crozzo’s light armor series that takes into consideration Bell’s fighting style. Decent quality and capable of withstanding a decent amount of abuse, it was sufficient for the War Game combined with the Salamander Wool innerwear and cloak.
- Ushiwakamaru-Nishiki (Ushi-Nishi): A crimson dagger forged from the second half of the Minotaur’s Horn, vestiges of an ancient memory that resided in it were brought to the surface by a combination of the Crozzo Blood and Blacksmith DA during the forging process to enhance the destructive potential. Provides an increase in Strength and Agility by pushing the body beyond its limits in proportion to bloodlust unless one represses its nature. After the War Game Bell resolves to only use it when necessary and instead uses Ushiwakamaru (Ushi-Waka) along with the Hestia Knife.
Chapter 18: The Sun Sets
“Leaving the village with no destination in mind, I felt a little afraid. It had become like the home that I shared before with Mother and Father, four walls that made up my world. It honestly felt like I was that little girl who was still terrified of everything two years ago.
And perhaps that was true, given that I came because I was terrified of losing Argo. But because he was with me. Because he was not just the boy who rescued me, but my beloved brother, tears were nowhere to be found as he took my hand once more. We weren’t two children running to escape monsters as our home burned.
We were siblings who were off on an adventure where the wind would take us. Even though it sounded silly at the time, I was happy that we weren’t going to be separated. I wanted us to be together for as long as we could.
I still feel that same way to this day, Argo.”
—To Adventure, Hand-in-Hand
“Take it and heal yourself.”
Those were Bell’s first words to Lefiya as he held her close, staring at the gash in her abdomen. His fingers that were shining softly with the light of Argonaut hovered over it. The deep crimson hue of her wound had seeped out enough that it clung to his glove settled on her corset.
Lefiya shook her head at that. According to the plan he had spent a minute charging that at the very least. It was the key to his victory, so for him to give it up now was to basically surrender the match. “It’s not that deep, and you need that to—”
“Please,” Bell insisted. His ruby eyes had softened to the point of almost begging her. The tone of his voice was laden with guilt and desperation, so poignant that she felt it through their connection. It was the same feeling she had when she called out to him upon seeing him fall that day on the 18th Floor.
That was why her hands moved over his almost reflexively in response to his wish.
The light transferred.
“I thought I would need to take hostages to lure you out of your rabbit hole but to think you were foolish enough to take to the field yourself.”
The hushed whispers between them came to an end when Hyacinthus landed at the base of the Western Outer Curtain Wall. He took the time to flick the blade that still had Lefiya’s blood on it, leaving the loose scarlet to spatter over the stone as Welf Crozzo came into view with the disguised Pallum. Lefiya could tell from his eyes he was assessing what to do next.
An injured Level Three Mage. Three Level Twos, one of whom was still injured. And a presumed Level One with Luan, whom his eyes lingered on for a moment longer as they assisted the forementioned Mikoto.
“Hyacinthus Clio…” Bell called as he handed Lefiya off to Welf, whose arms were nowhere near as comfortable. Then he stepped forward and drew his adamantite daggers. “As the Captain of the Hestia Familia, I challenge you, as the Captain of the Apollo Famila, to a duel.”
“…Is your pride so damaged that you’ll risk everything to salve it?” his opponent asked in an insultingly exasperated manner that kindled a spark of anger in Lefiya’s chest. “Sabotage. Crozzo Magic Swords. Adventurers at least on par with a Mid-tier Level Three. You’ve been handed every advantage possible to have a chance to obtain victory, and yet you are choosing to throw all of that away by trying to face against me on your own?”
“…I’d be lying if I said that part of it wasn’t for the sake of my pride,” Bell admitted to the accusation. It was natural. He had been trampled and humiliated, beaten down not once but twice by the man in front of him. “But… it was you… wasn’t it?”
Lefiya watched as Bell leaned forward at that, putting his weight into his forward leg. Then in a single moment where she had blinked… it happened.
The ringing of metal scraping metal.
The crushing of stone underfoot.
The bloom of sparks.
In the single moment where her concentration lapsed Bell had devoured the distance between himself and his opponent. The longer of his two knives, forged from the horn of the Minotaur that was the manifestation of his ascendance to Level Two, was pressed against the flat of the Sun’s Flamberge. Battle-honed reflexes were the only thing that stopped the razor-sharp blade from completing its arc and biting into his breastplate as Hyacinthus braced the blade with the forearm-guard of his off hand.
The handsome visage of the Captain of the Apollo Familia had warped into a certain expression. Lefiya recognized it. How could she not when she wore the same one?
It was a mesh of surprise and confusion, born of witnessing what should have been impossible right in front of them.
Bell displayed his speed before them both in the most desperate of times. He had been left thoroughly and utterly beaten before both of their eyes. It had been only a little more than a week since then and even knowing he must have been in training…
He had moved at a speed that shattered their expectations entirely.
“You were the one who ordered the home of a Goddess who had so little, and still accepted me even when every other Familia rejected me… the home we shared as a family, burned to the ground just to take me from her, weren’t you?” They could hear it in his tone the driving factor and determination for standing here and now, his reason for fighting. “That’s why I have to be the one to defeat you.”
The moment of shock passed. Hyacinthus exerted his Strength into his sword and knocked aside Bell’s weapon. Then, in less than the span of a blink, the sword came back around. A scarlet streak cleaved through the space where the Little Rookie had been only to slice through empty air.
Bell had already exited his threat range and was now several meders away.
Lefiya’s head went blank in confusion as the ping coming from the dancing lights in her hand chimed. She had acclimatized herself to his base speed while helping him train. Yet if she had not been focusing her undivided attention onto him at that moment, something she only did when facing against a fellow Second-Class adventurer or above, she would have lost track of him entirely.
The only explanation was…
“Record Holder,” Hyacinthus uttered, his grasp on his blade tightening as he asked the question that entered the minds of every single adventurer and divine alike that was watching through the Divine Mirrors. “Have you Leveled up again?”
That was the only thing that Lefiya could think to be true. Bell had somehow done the impossible and claimed that title once over. He had to have ascended to the same Level as they had to move that quickly.
Bell’s answer was straightforward. “I haven’t.”
If it had been anyone else, it would have been impossible to believe such a blatant lie. But to the Gods and Goddesses watching, to whom the children could not lie… to those who knew him and how straightforward and sincere he was…
It was the truth.
Her brother had only recently reached Level Two. So logically it should be impossible for him to ascend to the next one so quickly unless he accumulated enough excelia and performed a feat so grand that it merited his ascension to Level Three. At least not in the week and few days between their last encounters.
But there were only three more alternatives to explain the shift in his speed.
The first was that Magic was used to raise his Agility. Lefiya knew for a fact that Bell possessed such a spell and the plan had been to use it to overwhelm Hyacinthus and defeat him by combining it with Argonaut. But he had uttered no such chant and none of their senses that could detect magical energy went off.
The second was that he possessed a Skill that raised his Agility under circumstances. Such things did exist, even if not commonplace. Hyacinthus knew for a fact that Daphne possessed one such Skill herself, so it was natural he would make that estimation.
The third was nearly as absurd as if he had Leveled once more. For him to have been moving that fast with neither a Skill nor Magic, he would have had to accumulate enough ability points as a Level One and Level Two in his Agility to rival that of at least a Level Three adventurer. That would mean he had to have at least hit S-rank once and possibly B-rank in the other—minimum.
And that was impossible in the short time he had been in Orario.
“…I see,” Hyacinthus said, eyes narrowed upon the white-haired boy in a fighting stance. “Fine. I accept your terms.”
That was when Daphne regained her voice. “But what about the—”
“Deal with the others,” he ordered without allowing his gaze to leave his opponent. It was a judgment call made considering new information, which spoke of the disparity in their abilities at this point. He leveled the sword towards Bell. “Come then, Little Rabbit.”
Then there were no more words.
Only the sounds of weapons crashing.
The Captains of the two Familia entered a world of their own.
[-Top Floor of Babel-]
“Shoot, was he that kid one of my guys told me about?”
“Well, if I had known he was going to turn out this way I would have said yes!”
“I can’t even see the fight at this point!”
Within the theatron a ripple of envy surged throughout the ranks of the various deities watching through their Divine Mirrors at Bell’s declaration. Those who descend for amusement naturally sought what was not within their possession. The fact that a rare gem had been tossed away like a common pebble naturally caused them to comb over their recollection to figure out if he had been one of the many hopeful kids who tried to join an established Familia only to be turned away by them.
Joining and starting a Familia in Orario was a nightmare, as both Hestia and Bell had the opportunity to discover.
For Hestia, there were simply too many already here that could bestow their blessing and the children wanted to join an established Familia for fortune, fame, safety, and security. Like Loki had told her when she had first descended, the easiest solution would have been to start a Familia outside of the city and then relocate within it. Outside of Orario more children were looking for a Falna so they could obtain the strength to defend their homes, rather than anything else.
For Bell, there were too many people who could take his place and were more qualified. He lived in a mountain village in the countryside tending to a farm, meaning that his only skill would be there. And while Demeter would love to have him no doubt, that was not the path Bell wanted to walk. He had been chasing the dream of being a hero and reuniting with his family but had nothing to offer other than a sincere desire to work towards it—which meant next to nothing to most of the deities present.
Even now her peers attempting to recall whether Bell had been someone their Familia turned away was not because they cared about his circumstances. Most of them did not even bother to reject him in person but let their children do so. It was because they sincerely hoped they weren’t the ones who risked losing a child who had gained such a reputation.
If they had only seen the eyes of that lonely boy who she had watched be rejected time and again…
His hopes of obtaining the strength to have a chance at accomplishing his dream…
His desire to have a family by both blood and bond…
Then they would never attempt to split them apart like Apollo. They would never revel at the thought of a War Game meant to split a family. They may have come to the Lower World for a vacation, but that didn’t mean they should have forgotten their role in guiding the children.
It’s this city, Hestia couldn’t help but think to herself. She understood why they were so eager to enjoy its wonders, given she had fallen prey to that same desire and wasted so much of her time after descending to the pleasant distractions. Even knowing that her time was limited.
She owed so much to Hephaestus. If the Goddess of the Forge hadn’t asked her if she really wanted to spend the time she had left lazing around, rather than experiencing what it really meant to start a Familia, then she would be no different. And the boy who would have become her first child would…
Hestia didn’t want to think about it.
“So he found the place he could shine after all,” a wizened voice said over the chittering of the others, lacking the envy but instead containing rough sincerity. Hestia looked over to see the God of Smithing, Goibnui.
“You turned Bell away as well?” she asked.
“I did after hearing him out,” he answered bluntly and without shame in comparison to the others. “I informed him that he needed a Familia that would bring out the best in him and that mine was not for him. He would never be where he is now if I had simply accepted him when he was looking for anyone.”
There was no hesitation or uncertainty in his words. He had not rejected Bell because he had more smiths than possible, but because accepting him would deny him the chance to find a suitable place and not benefit either of them. But he had remembered his role as a God and guided him before parting ways with words of wisdom.
Those words stuck with him.
“…Your Familia also does renovations, doesn’t it?” Hestia asked him after some thought, to which he nodded. “I may have a job for you after this is over.”
The Hearth and Home were one and the same after all.
And her Familia would have one after this.
“Nn…” A strained grunt slipped out from Hephaestus, drawing Hestia’s gaze back towards her Divine Mirror. The moment the Captains of the two Familia began their match, the remaining commander had opted to cast a spell upon herself and follow orders. As Welf was the only one in prime fighting condition, he stepped in to confront her with his greatsword in hand.
The most she could see were flashes of silver.
Daphne’s Agility had clearly been boosted by her spell. That, combined with her greater parameters than Welf, meant that he was on the defensive against her onslaught of attacks. As a result, he was using a half-swording technique to better control the flat of the blade to hold off the worst of the assault, spots of crimson spilling from the black clothes he wore.
That was when Hestia noticed the secondary reason he was on the defensive, as Loki’s child made her way over to where Mikoto was along with Lili. Her wound hadn’t been healed, even though Bell had given her the light of Argonaut to do so. Instead, she crouched down and held that shining hand over Mikoto before the lilt of foreign words escaped from her mouth.
That same shimmering veil that had treated Bell’s wounds enough to where Potions could get him back up to fighting fitness encapsulated her in its entirely. The bruises and injuries she suffered melted away in their entirety and, as if she was filled with vitality, her eyes snapped open and she got back onto her feet.
The moment Lili handed her a blade she shot forward. Using Welf’s broad body as a blind spot to slip into the fray, she delivered a rising diagonal slash that ran from the commander’s hip-to-shoulder. It was only stopped from drawing blood by the fact that her shroud seemed to cushion the slash.
“Why you—” Daphne’s weapon came around as a silver streak, the sharpened edge threatening to catch her if Mikoto hadn’t rolled to get around to her back. But the moment she turned her head, Welf’s sword descended. A blade meant to use its weight to carry it through with the strength of a Level Two adventurer came crashing down hard enough that it bit into the stone floor of the Inner Ward as Daphne hastily avoided it by pivoting on her heel at the last moment.
“I’m not done yet!” Welf claimed as he angled the blade and twisted his hips to follow through, a cleave meant to cut through at the hip. Even with that shroud of hers, it would at least bite deep into her abdomen from the amount of muscle he was putting into it and the weight of the blade.
Daphne prepared to bound backward to escape it while bringing her own blade around. Evasion and a riposte all in one. However, that was cut short as Mikoto’s leg extended outwards and she hooked Daphne’s foot with her own. That which was meant to be the lead-in for an escape was turned into a stumble as the dark steel drew a gray arch and found her center of mass.
The result was that she was sent flying, her body cutting through the air until she slammed into a column and bounced off it. Her battle clothes sported a new gash and bruised flesh could be seen beneath it. She winced before swiftly twisting her body and using it for cover to escape as a flash of steel from Mikoto’s blade cleaved into the stone surface.
“That’s the way,” Takemikazuchi muttered. “Read their movements. Anticipate their next action. Create an opening if there isn’t one for your allies.”
Mikoto might be a fresher Level Two along with Welf, but she had the training of a War God under her belt since she was a child. If she and Welf worked together then, even if the opponent was somewhat stronger and faster, they could attack from both directions. And that would provide an opening avenue for one another to exploit.
Hestia then turned her mirror back to the other girls. Lili had taken to using her wrist-crossbow to pin down Cassandra, leaving her huddled behind a column on the other side of the Inner Ward. Loki’s child had focused on healing herself now.
Loki is never going to let this go if she figures out, the Goddess of the Hearth couldn’t help but think. Neither Bell nor his sister had told her, but she had figured it out due to Bell’s words to her about having family within the city. The way she had looked to him as she healed him that day when he normally shies away from other women had been enough for her to piece things together.
Even now most of the disguised Elf’s attention was on the Outer Ward, watching her brother’s fight. She would love to talk to the girl when everything was said and done. But until then she would have to silently cheer her and the other children along. Do your best, everyone.
The ringing of steel rang out once more in the lounge of the Loki Familia’s high-ranked members as they observed the clash between the two Captains.
Their fight was as close to a deadly battle as possible without skirting the line as the white rabbit rushed forward in a blur of motion. With Agility unbecoming of a Level Two, his crimson daggers caught the light of the sun and left streaks in the air like twin tails. Then all at once they came around and drew a bloody cross as they converged on the Beloved of the Sun to carve through his chest from above and below to the center of his back—
—and the crimson cross was shattered by a scarlet streak as the flamberge came around. Lashing out at the point where the blades would have intersected and backed by a proportional level of Strength, the blade broke through the convergence and should have cut through the white rabbit.
Yet amidst the shower of orange sparks that blossomed from the clashing of high-quality steel there were only strands of white hair. By the narrowest of margins, the white rabbit avoided losing its head as it narrowly slipped past. But no sooner than one had managed to slip past the other did both figures spin around like whirlwinds.
Crimson and scarlet flashed in arcs as they came around from the left and right. Another ear-splitting ring resounded. A profusion of furious sparks was born as the two Captains clashed their blades once more. The air itself shook from the impact of their blows to where their capes billowed madly as they tried to free themselves from their hosts.
But then the Little Rookie rode the wind while Phoebus Apollo remained firmly rooted as he swung his weapon around, disengaging until there was a vast distance between them. One of his daggers, the shorter of the pair, was wedged between his thumb and forefinger of the same hand that held the longer one’s handle with its three other digits. That left his left-hand extended outwards with fingers splayed towards his opponent.
And, with a shout, the bud of colorless magical energy that formed in front of his open palm turned into a blazing sphere that lanced out as three scorching rays. Flames woven into beams rocketed across the empty space between them in the time it would take for a Level Two to blink, and the face of the target was illuminated as they converged.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The air quivered. A wave of heat billowed. The scorching rays erupted and swallowed the Hyacinthus’ form beneath the fierce flames that seemed to devour him whole, leaving only acrid and stygian smoke in its wake.
However, the smoke parted as the warrior emerged from the smoke with the speed afforded to a Level Three. His silver light armor was lightly scorched and blackened from the flames, but his body showed no signs of burns. The members of the Loki Familia could only assume it was a combination of the materials being magic resistant and the cape he donned being similarly resistant to fire as he crossed the distance and then delivered a slash that left sparks to bloom as it scored across the breastplate Bell wore.
Undeterred, the crimson blades came around from the left and right. The smaller of the knives would break through the collarbone and then flesh. The larger of the two would carve open his abdomen beneath his breastplate. Both were valid felling targets that would kill a lesser man and so would force him onto the defensive—protect one at the expense of the other.
Sure enough, the larger of the blades met with the steel of the long sword, the edge of the blade screeching as the dagger bit into it instead of flesh. However, the shorter was caught by the protective armguards that Hyacinthus had donned as he brought his arm up to protect his neck. It sported a visible gouge that spoke of the danger it presented, but the materials still held and no blood was spilled.
Then came the surprise attack as Hyacinthus’ foot shot out like a lance before Bell could retreat. A blow that could shatter stone with a single kick aimed to cave in his breastplate and then shatter his ribs from the impact. Only by crossing his arms, relying on his armguards, Endurance, and Strength, did the warhammer-like blow fail to break through the defensive maneuver as it was driven into Bell’s shorter frame.
Gareth stroked his beard as he watched the impact drive the younger lad into the Eastern Outer Curtain Wall. The stone broke and buckled under his body at the site of the impact, a cratered impression with dozens of fissures from which stone dust belched out and grains of sand fell of his figure. Yet even then he managed to kick off the wall and roll away as the follow-up thrust pierced through where his shoulder and arm would have met. “His Endurance has reached at least A-Rank to still be able to move after that blow.”
“He has probably reached S-rank in his physical parameters once more to fight on par with a Level Three,” Finn acknowledged as Bell recovered and delivered a series of slashes that forced his opponent to retreat and then attempt a counterattack when he tried to compensate for the elongated distance by stepping in. “Given that he has only been an adventurer for such a short time, it’s most likely a unique Skill.”
“Even so, his inexperience is showing,” the Royal Elf noted while craning her head slightly in observation. In contrast to his approach against the Minotaur he was most definitely at a point where brute force would work against a monster. But he was fighting an opponent who had intelligence and could recognize an attack pattern. “His anger is working against him.”
“If he was a woman he’d be about as rabid as Amazon out for blood,” Bete agreed. Amazons were known for their brutality and strength. Often shrugging off armor for the sake of bare flesh, throwing themselves headfirst against their opponent, the only weapons they needed were their fists. However, they compensated for technique through instincts honed by a lifetime of battles since they could crawl—something he did not have.
The uncertainty that Aiz felt in her chest grew as she watched him grow even more aggressive. The fight was turning into more of a match between an adventurer going against a monster, rather than another adventurer. Like he was turning into a beast as he continued to lash out with a relentless display of speed and strength.
His crimson daggers were beginning to resemble claws as he swung them around to tear into his opponent. Built for Agility rather than Strength, he was pushing himself to the point where his breathing was becoming labored. He had to leave his mouth open to take in as much air as possible as his number of swings increased drastically.
The sound of scraping steel increased as Hyacinthus was forced onto the defensive. The impacts that were blocked began to eat into his well-forged blade that was starting to chip as the force of the strikes traveled up from the base to rattle his bones. The ones that found his armor began to carve gouges out of it, long trails where the metal had been parted by the hardness native to adamantite focused into a sharpened edge.
Bell was throwing himself into a frenzy where his intentions devolved into a rampage. He was hyper-focusing solely on defeating his opponent without care for defense. He was losing track of the notion of strategy for the sake of raw fury—a Rabid Rabbit Rush.
Back when she had been a child, Riveria had once told her that according to Elven teachings a battle between warriors could be seen as more of a dialogue. One would make an argument to be met with a counterargument in response, an exchange between the two until one submitted in defeat. Finn had put it in less flowery terms that it meant one needed to reconsider their strategy if it isn’t working and read their opponent to counter them until they ran out of options.
Bell, that hard-working and earnest boy she had been training until now in secret, was simply shouting with every move he made. It was like a rabbit howling as it rushed the opponent, screaming one thing over and over: ‘I want to hurt you!’
In contrast, his opponent had switched to a completely defensive approach. Instead of peppering counterattacks as he created distance between them, he was focused completely on evasion and observation. He was recognizing his attack patterns, gradually getting a read on his opponent that thrashed wildly.
That was when she heard it.
“Ah…?” She heard a cry that echoed deep in her soul as their blades clashed in a shower of sparks. A sound that should not exist on the surface or in the room they were in. A sound that shook her like an ancient memory. It can’t be…
Her sense of time elongated while she focused her senses. She focused on that sound and the feeling it elicited as Bell’s relentless assault culminated in him finally howling as he swung the larger blade with murderous intent as his opponent brought the flamberge up to guard vertically and reinforced it with the forearm protector.
And then she recognized it. She recognized it the moment the dagger shattered the Sun’s Flamberge above the neck with unrelenting strength. She heard it overlapping his voice from the very blade that was in his hand, the source of his relentless anger and bloodlust that she had felt uneasy about before.
It was the thunderous roar of a Minotaur.
But she didn’t have time to do anything with that knowledge as Hyacinthus slammed his foot into the ground as hard as he could. The Strength of a Level Three was more than enough to break the ground around his foot into pieces of stone. He kicked that up with his leg as he disengaged, forcing Bell to shield his eyes as he leaped back as far as he could while pulling his cape over his right side as he drew his shortsword behind the curtain.
Then he stood ready as Bell’s legs tensed to launch him towards his opponent in fury. The moment he charged in for his assault it would be over. The shortsword would plunge itself into him as he cut through the cape to get to his opponent whose foot was already angled to pivot out of the way of the charge. His rage would cost him everything as she feared.
…For just a moment she saw herself in him. She saw her younger self, driven by that black flame within her. Driven into a frenzy no different than the monsters she killed for strength. She would have been dead if the others hadn’t been there to pull her back before she could go over the edge.
But no one could pull him back at this moment.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, YOU IDIOT!?”
That was when foreign words were followed by a shout as a gale came unbound in the center of the battlefield between them. It hit the empty ground and the harsh winds threw up a cloud of dust even as the force of it caused both Captains to brace themselves as the Elven Mage rushed towards Bell….
Bell’s world was dyed crimson as an insidious poison swallowed him inside out as he continued to swing his arms.
It was a stinging, searing heat that ate away at his chest as the vision of his sister bleeding in his arms flashed in his mind. The cold gaze of the one who’d done so staring down at her once more. Just like before she had been brought low by his blade that ran red with her blood.
The small abode he shared with the Goddess of the Hearth, who had accepted him when all others had refused, put to the flame. The place where the two of them just sat together eating potato snacks and eggs after a great run in the Dungeon, talking about their day, buried beneath a hail of spell-fire. The chapel where dappled sunlight from the morning warmed them blotted by the scent of smoke and the embers flittering in the air while the statue of the false goddess crumbled beneath the ceiling that toppled over.
The tiny figure whose heart eclipsed her size, trembling in his arms as they ran. The sorrowful tears in her eyes, staring down at his battered and beaten form. The undaunting way she tried to stand in front of him, ready to sacrifice herself for his sake.
The poison was rage.
A rage so potent it swallowed him whole as it seeped into his pores, a molten heat that caused pain so intense that his mind began to melt. He wanted to scream but his throat had long since been burned away by the heat. The only thing he could do was swing knives at the figure in front of him that had distorted to losing all details amidst the sparks that continued to bloom.
Faster—he needed to swing the blades faster. Throwing away any semblance of strategy as the blistering heat swelled his head, uncaring if he overstretched his muscles to the point where they tore themselves apart, he worked his arms even faster. The sound of steel clashing intensified as the number of swings grew.
Stronger—he needed to swing his blades harder. The flesh of his fingertips melted over the handle of the knives until they had become an extension of his arms. The lean muscles within his arms turned into corded steel and made it so that every stroke of the blades rattled the bones in his arms and his opponent.
Fiercer—he needed to throw away any other thought besides tearing the thing in front of him apart. Its body would be torn apart, the entrails and organs splayed out with the bright colors standing out against the gray stone. The vivid imagery was enough to fill him with a searing excitement that burned away even more of his sanity.
A mad howl of excitement bellowed from his mouth as steel shattered in front of him and caused the blood within him to boil. A crazed roar that set every inch of his body alight with flames from the inside out. A bovine shout that had been engraved in the back of his mind and etched so deeply that it was instantly recognizable to his fleeting intellect.
Only then did he realize he was melting away. He was becoming one with the all-consuming molten heat that was insatiable. His sanity was being eaten away by the sea of bloodlust and would soon be smothered in it.
But… so what?
So what if he could kill the one who hurt his sister twice over? So what if he could kill the one who stole his home from him? So what if he could kill the one who threatened his Goddess? If becoming one with the inferno of rage was enough to give him the strength to take revenge, then why shouldn’t he sink into it?
Even now his prey fled as his sanity waned, bounding backward to escape as he loomed over it. It was the most natural thing in the world to charge down a fleeing enemy, taking advantage of his strength and speed that eclipsed the human. He would run him down, plunge his horns into his chest before ripping them out and tearing him in half, reveling in the act.
His legs tensed as he prepared to lunge—
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, YOU IDIOT!?”
— when a familiar voice stalled his legs before he could take the final step over the edge. It was followed by the quavering of Magic at the last moment, as a constrained ball of wind slammed into the middle of the battlefield between them and forced the two of them to remain apart. That was when she entered his view with an arm chambered…
It was as if what struck him was a bolt of lightning, delivered via an open palm slap. One that was loud enough that it drowned out the roar of discontent as his vision flashed. Then he spotted the expression his sister was making as she grabbed him by the cowl and pulled his head to hers until they butted.
“Synchronization, remember?” Her eyes glimmered for a moment with tears that almost seemed born of rage as she spoke in a harsh whisper. “How could I not feel what you were planning when my back is practically burning up!?”
Lefiya had mentioned that her Skill allowed her to feel more in-tune with him back when they were on the 18th Floor, which was why they were so in sync with one another at the time. It was why she felt calm and certain of his next action, even before it had fully manifested. That meant the murderous intention had seeped out of him and into her, burning her from the inside out.
“What would everyone think seeing you like that?” she continued, her voice softer. “Your Goddess? Your friends? All of us who helped you?”
His thoughts froze at that as their faces flashed in his mind. His friends who joined his Familia and were still fighting, willing to sacrifice their Grace to give him a chance to win. Lord Miach, Miss Naaza, Lord Takemikazuchi, and his Familia, all of whom had come to aid him when he was being chased and even now. Miss Ryuu, Syr, and all the ladies at the Hostess of Fertility, all of whom gave him what support they could on the battlefield and off it.
Lady Hestia, who had given him a home when he had none and her everlasting Grace. Miss Tiona, who said she would cheer him on no matter what. And Miss Aiz…
“Ah…” A delicate memory flashed in his mind, a transient moment where a soft smile graced her lips. For others, it was something common and natural to her. But for him, it was something that stole away his breath away and enraptured his heart.
Just the memory of it quelled his boiling blood. It drowned out the roar bellowing from within his knife. It cleared his mind and allowed him to envision once more what he wanted and fought for.
Sensing that he had calmed down, Lefiya quickly released him and cleared her throat as she took a step back. “Make sure you apologize properly to everyone once this is over.”
“I will,” he promised while sporting a slight, adorable smile. “Thank you, Miss Feena.”
His heartfelt gratitude was followed by both of their expressions and eyes shifting as their senses registered the enclosing threat. Without a word, Lefiya darted back as far as she could while Bell brought both of his blades up and formed a cross. The resonance of steel rang out as they caught the silver blade that came in to strike him down overhead.
It was Hyacinthus, who could not look more offended at the moment. “Flirting in the middle of our battle. Really?”
“Miss Feena is simply a dear friend who helped me cool my head,” Bell said over a bellow of pure rage that followed from his sister at that for some reason before kicking off the ground as he spotted the second weapon in his opponent’s off-hand come around. He put a large swathe of distance between them as it narrowly avoided cutting into his Salamander Wool shirt. “I’ll owe her and the others who helped me get this far an apology after this. You as well.”
“Is that right?” Hyacinthus inquired as used his eyes to measure the distance between them while flipping his grip on the broken blade to a reverse grip. There were only about six inches of blade left from the guard itself, but that was still enough to use as an improvised dagger.
“I was so angry that I denied you a proper fight as the Captain of my Familia,” Bell clarified. “This is supposed to be a duel, and yet I almost forgot that and only saw you as an obstacle to be torn apart like a rampaging bull. I still have much to learn as an Adventurer it seems.”
“…You really are a fool,” his opponent said bluntly. “We’re in the middle of a battle. Using whatever means to win should be sufficient to bring eternal glory to your patron and their name.”
“Would you really be okay with that?” Bell asked. “Would you have been happy that the deity you worship earned their eternal glory in a one-sided match against a Familia that you forced to accept, just to split them apart?”
His lips moved to respond. But no words came out even as his throat strained. Instead, his fingers wrapped around the hilt of his blades tightened to the point of them shaking. Then, as quickly as it came, it vanished as he let out a heavy sigh. “…I have heard enough of your howling, Little Rabbit.”
Then he took a stance. His right leg was facing forward while his left leg was facing the side from behind. The whole blade of Intimacy was held vertically towards his opponent, and the broken remnants of the Sun’s Flamberge was held horizontally to guard.
“Come, Bell Cranel!” declared the Captain of the Apollo Familia.
The Captain of the Hestia Familia responded in kind. “Keep up, Hyacinthus Clio!”
Then two men shouted as they charged one another.
Why am I fighting so hard?
That thought lingered in the back of Daphne Lauros’ mind as her blade flashed. It met with a slender, Far Eastern sword, and a series of blue sparks emerged as the edges scraped each other hard enough that the steel trembled. The cold expression of the girl who owned the opposite blade tensed as it shook her bones from the force of the impact.
Daphne couldn’t even feel that much. Her fingers had already gone numb from the impact of her blade crashing against those of her opponents more times than she could count. Her muscles were overstretched to the point that she could feel them tearing. Her Mind was being eaten away by her own protective spell that bolstered her Endurance and Agility.
Everything was starting to ache as she swung her arm the other way and slammed the pommel of her guard into the side of the girl’s face hard enough that her body followed it and twisted off to the side. Then she felt solid steel starting to cut into her and pivoted on her foot as the thick slab of heavy metal that the redhead called a sword only tore through her battle clothes and drew a slight line of blood instead of splitting her in half. As it bit into the ground next to her foot instead she used the momentum to bring her rear leg around. “Go down already!”
“Guh!” His expression turned into a grimace as her heel slammed into the upper arm that had been raised to protect his head. The metal of the armguard used was impacted while his softer underarm slammed into his skull. The force left him to stagger as her weapon came around to cut into his dark robes, but the thick slab of metal he used as a blade came up and intercepted with its broadside before it could cut in deep.
At the same time, two snakes entwined her. One wrapped around her sword-arm that had been outstretched. The other found its way behind her neck as she barely managed to shove her wrist inside before it constricted her in a stranglehold as another braced it. They were the limbs of Mikoto, placing Daphne in a martial arts grapple that locked her arm while strangling the life out of her.
Why am I doing all of this for a God I hate?
That question surfaced as her legs tensed like springs and she threw herself with all of her might against the solid wall nearby. She felt the impact of the stone breaking under the girl who’d gotten on her back and heard her cry out in pain. But even that was only just enough to loosen her legs constricting her arm so she could use her greater Strength to forcibly free the limb and then switch her grip on the blade to aim for the slender body clinging to her.
That was when Mikoto twisted her body so that the arm around her neck was used to twist and drag Daphne down. Using her own body as a lever, she threw them both to the ground. But then Daphne released her sword and gripped Mikoto by the back of the skull to slam her head into the solid stone next to them.
That was finally enough to get her to release her chokehold as her head bounced back. “AHH!”
Taking a desperate gasp of air as whatever monstrous instinct drove the warrior into rolling back and away while she was prone, Daphne barely had time to retrieve her sword and roll out of the way as the greatsword came down to crush her. The ground beneath her cracked into dozens of small fissures as it wedged itself into place while she got onto her feet and took a fighting stance as her vision swam…
Then she heard her name being called by a voice she had known for too long. Her vision cleared and she knew the answer to the question that kept nagging at her.
That was right. It was all for Cassandra.
The two of them had known each other for so many years now. The girl was so airheaded, lost in her dreams, and in need of a caretaker since they were children. The girl whom she swore to look after and protect when that God’s eyes turned to them.
There was a saying that some people would pray that those above would not notice them. To most that sounded like insanity when the divine were the reason that the dark ages came to an end. But she remembered vividly why it was such an earnest prayer when she recalled how they ended up in this situation.
The daughter of lower nobles. One who hated formality and a ditz whose head was lost in the clouds and always spoke of fanciful dreams. Two opposites who seemed to get along for one reason or another.
Daphne never believed the dreams that Cassandra had. Not even when she desperately begged for her to believe them. Not even when, in some way or form, those dreams seemed to come to pass.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. Daphne really did want to believe what Cassandra was saying at times. It was just that she… couldn’t.
Not until it was too late.
That was why she hadn’t listened to her that day she told them not to go out shopping, or else the sun would swallow them both whole. If she had listened that day, then the God of the Sun would have never laid his eyes on them while traveling. He never would have exchanged a promise of favors and gifts and valis for them to be welcomed into his Familia.
‘There were no better suitors for them than a wealthy God.’
That was what both of their fathers had told them since they had reached the age where they were eligible to transition into adulthood by being married. Finding men to marry them had already been difficult because of their personalities and quirks as it was. The benefits that Apollo could provide were better than anything that a mortal husband could provide even without the claim of it being marriage—after all, a marriage entailed children and the divine could not sire with mortals.
They had been as good as sold for the prestige of being in a Familia and they both knew it.
She hated it. She hated that her future was taken from her at the whims of a God who had only laid eyes on her. She hated that it was the same for Cassandra. So, the night before he came to claim them, Daphne did the only thing she could.
She ran away and took Cassandra with her.
They ran. And ran. And ran. And ran.
Until she couldn’t run anymore.
Resigned to her fate, hating that she lacked the strength to protect either of them, she accepted that this was their new life. The best they could do was make the most out of it—never wanting food or shelter or anything else. It was a life better than they had even lived before.
But she never forgot that she had been too weak to protect Cassandra or herself. That they were in a gilded cage. That was why she fought to get stronger, pushed herself to reach Level Two, and then go further.
And now here she was fighting to the point of her body breaking down…
All to do the same to someone else.
What a joke… She would have laughed if she had the breath for it. The sight of that rabbit fleeing his cage with his Goddess reminded her so much of how she had been before with Cassandra. Now she was the one attempting to place him in that same gilded cage, telling herself it was inevitable and for his own good.
Throwing herself over the edge to avoid her own hypocrisy, she lashed out at the two in front of her who dared to take to the field. The clothes they wore sported dozens of gashes and blood dyed them a deep shade of crimson, yet they still kept charging her. She clenched her teeth at their foolish resilience before striking out with Fencer Laureate to bring them down before her body gave out….
“Heavenly light, once rebuked. Merciful arms that embrace my foolish self…”
She recognized Cassandra’s chant. Not by voice but by the weight that it carried and how it resonated in her ears. It was a plea from the heart reaching out to her as the tinge of Magic that was colored her soul began to brush the edges of Daphne’s senses.
Cassandra was in the middle of casting, dedicating everything to focusing her Mind into the staff for as strong of a heal as she could manage, leaving the orb atop it to glow vibrantly. It would soothe her aching muscles, melt away her pain, and restore strength to her limbs. But with her eyes closed as she concentrated there was no way she could defend herself if one of them attacked her, so why now?
The moment the Blacksmith turned towards Cassandra and extended his hand, Daphne found the energy to keep moving and darted to stab him in the back before he could do anything. “Don’t touch her!”
And yet her thin blade buried itself through the shoulder blade of the Shadow, who had thrown herself between them. Her eyes narrowed in pain before resolve surfaced. And then she performed some kind of technique that drove Daphne down to the ground once more. “Nnngghh!”
“Reach out where my words cannot, and give salvation to these miserable souls—”
“Burn out, illegal work—Will-o-Wisp!”
Silvery mist shot like tendrils from the palm of his hand and into Cassandra before she could finish casting the final verse of her spell. All at once, her visible eye widened as that mist slinked its way into her staff where her magical energy had been focused until crackles formed as the staff that she had bought and treasured was turned into a bomb.
It was a forced Ignis Faatus with Cassandra on the receiving end. Her slender body was thrown back by the explosion and hit the solid stone wall, leaving her to collapse into a heap on the ground while the remnants of her staff clattered on the ground. She was unmoving.
Rage took Daphne. She twisted the sword wedged into the other girl’s arm and the pain forced loose her grapple before Daphne kicked her aside and then lunged for the Blacksmith with a shout. “DAMN YOU…!”
A flurry of stabs that cared nothing for defense. Throwing away strategy or anything resembling fear, she lashed out at the Blacksmith with a volley of slashes that forced him onto the defensive, even as she felt pricks of bolts attempting to bury themselves into her back through her protective spell that drained away the vestiges of her Mind, she attacked with a relentless rush until he leaped away from her—
“War God’s Strike—Futsu no Mitama!”
—right as a pillar of light descended upon her and was followed by the world itself pushing down on her like she was being crushed beneath the palm of a giant. It was subjugating her through sheer might, making her grovel in supplication as the stone beneath her began to crack and shatter from the pressure that refused to relent.
Daphne could barely force her head to turn and see the girl holding her hands outstretched with her at the center. There was a violet ball of magical energy compressed as though she held the weight of the world in her trembling hands. Sweat poured down her brow and blood seeped from her wounds, but her face was the picture of concentration as she shouted.
“Now, Sir Welf!”
“Uwwwooooooo!!!” The battle cry drew her eyes up where she saw that the Level Two High Smith had climbed partway up the stairs leading to the wall walk of the Inner Curtain Walls and then jumped right towards the barrier with the flat of the blade being swung. The moment he hit the field of intensified gravity, he and the blade were dragged down right towards her.
She knew that the moment they came crashing down on her backside it would be over. Her spell would give out beneath the force of the blow and the ground beneath her would be cratered. Everything that had been building up until now would come flooding out as an unrelenting pain that would finally rob her of her consciousness.
And there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
Pinned down by the weight of the world being thrust upon her, she only had time to lay eyes upon Cassandra one final time before her vision whited.
There was nothing wrong with what I did.
Hyacinthus swung Intimacy with all the force he could manage towards the boy while moving his broken blade to fend off the incoming attack from his left. But the silver sword and parried by the white rabbit’s longer dagger, right as the shorter one was blocked by the rouge blade, both giving rise to a parade of sparks and a song of clashing steel.
Frustration clawed its way out of his clenched teeth as his arms trembled from the impact jostling its way from his grip up through his arms. The earlier blows had been ludicrously strong, but they had come at the compromise of the boy’s ability to reason. He thought it to be a Skill of some kind that increased one’s Strength and Agility the angrier one became, but even now that he had regained his ability to use reason the impacts still sent shocks up his forearm.
Unable to allow himself to succumb by remaining on the defensive, Hyacinthus went on the offense. Diagonal, horizontal, and straight thrust—slashing away with Intimacy to force the boy on the defensive with the first two strokes, he thrust the broken blade forward to pierce him with the jagged tip. It was a three-hit combination executed with all the speed he could muster as a Level Three.
And yet… each and every one missed.
The Little Rabbit weaved to the side to avoid the first. Bobbed low to avoid the second. Brought his short dagger up to parry the third. And then the longer crimson blade came around to launch a counterattack, the crimson arch angled to cut through his breastplate and into his chest—
—Intimacy rose to greet it and parried the assault. The sheering sound of the shortsword weapon being cut into by the adamantite strained his ears as yet another gouge adorned the metal. But then Hyacinthus barely caught the way he shifted his posture, leaning back and pivoting as he brought his leg around for a kick that could shatter stone.
He used his arms to protect his head. Between the forearm-guard backed by the Strength he had as a Level Three, nestled within the C-rank, the boy couldn’t break through his guard. But the fact that he still felt the impact said what did not make any sense from every logical standpoint since only a little over a week had passed since their first clash.
A mere boy was matching him.
A youth who hadn’t even been in a Familia for more than two months.
A whelp who hadn’t even spent a year as an adventurer or delving into the Dungeon.
He, who bore the alias of Phoebus Apollo. He, who had spent years working towards the goal of making the Apollo Familia great. He, who faced the Goliath on the 17th Floor and dragged them up to the D-Rank when before they had barely been above the rank-and-file. He, who had painstaking crawled his way up to Level Three to stand as the Captain of his Familia.
All to prove his devotion to Lord Apollo.
He was driven by love for his God. Whereas the other children lived to serve the one who blessed them with their Grace, he existed to bring glory to His name. That was how he showed his love to the God who enraptured his heart and set his soul aflame.
So why can’t I shake his words?
Cranel’s words had wormed their way into his head. Because he knew deep down, before they had become so large and powerful, things had been different. When it was just himself, Lissos, Marpessa, and the few others who had taken his Falna.
Apollo had been different. He desired many things, but he gave as much as he took and never by force—persistent but not by force. Back then that which he could hold in his hands had been so little, and they wanted to gift him with so much more. Hyacinthus had wanted to see him happy and was willing to do anything.
‘Do not fall in love with the immortal, for your love will only end in tragedy.’
His throat tightened as he recalled her words once more. He had thought it to be a warning of unrequited love. But had there been another meaning after all?
He lashed out with his blade in a fury to drown out the thoughts of someone who had left the Familia behind, right as they had risen to prominence because of him. She had always been holding them back, while he had been the one pushing ahead. That was why he had replaced her!
But his barrage of attacks was dodged flawlessly as the rabbit wove between them. Unlike before he never once allowed their blades to lock. It was a terrifying thought because it meant one thing.
Bell Cranel was adapting.
He was learning to read his movements. Knowing that he lacked the raw Strength Hyacinthus had, he was putting his Agility that somehow exceeded a mid-tier Level Three to work. Even in a battle where each blow could shatter bones or severe a limb, he was fixating on reading his attacks and adjusting to them.
But it would end soon.
His breathing was growing haggard. His rampage from before had worn him down. His stamina was less than someone who was a Level higher than him, even if he was faster. That meant even if he kept dodging, he would eventually slow down.
Then, once his sole advantage was gone, it would end.
The War Game would be brought to a swift end.
Confident in that assessment, Hyacinthus kept to maintaining the engagement distance that he had with Intimacy. Taking advantage of the longer reach of his weapon and focusing his footwork on keep it so, as long as he remained out of the reach of the boy’s daggers he would not have to worry about them. And if he closed in that distance his broken blade would serve as a deterrent.
…That was when he felt the release of Magic coming from the Inner Ward. A violet dome erupted and the air itself seemed to quake from that spot. Then there was a shout, a battle cry, and then a crashing sound that was followed by silence as the dome and the magical energy holding it in place collapsed.
Then the Elven Mage standing at the edge and looking over into the Inner Ward spoke. “Bell, the others have dealt with the last two. We’ll get to healing them, so finish up!”
So, even Cassandra and Daphne are down now? Those two had been a handful, but he at least acknowledged their potential. Between them, a couple of Level Twos should have been no issue. Perhaps he should have taken the others out first… but no matter.
The only ones who mattered in this fight were the Captains of the Familia at this point. That in mind, his silver sword flashed as he spotted the Little Rabbit moving to enter his engagement range…
Yet, then he did the opposite and hopped away right as he readied the attack.
It was not an evasive maneuver as he bound backwards three hops, purposely putting a massive distance between them. The only thing he had for ranged attacks was his Super-Short Chant spell, which his equipment could ward off as demonstrated before. The boy should have known that, so why retreat so far?
Muted confusion crossed Hyacinthus’ features as he tried to grasp his opponent’s intentions until he shouted, “Shine, Jupiter!”
Magical energy exploded out from his body that became wreathed in a shroud of lightning. Wild streamers danced over his slender frame, boring into his body and illuminating his white hair and red eyes. The sound of thunder could be heard rumbling from within the boy’s body as if a thunderstorm was rampaging within him as he crouched down into a sprinter’s stance.
…A chill ran down Hyacinthus’ spine. He readied a stance and prepared for a charge, never once taking his eyes off of the boy in front of him. That was when he twisted his head behind him on a hunch, born from the current surprises he bore witness until now.
If he had not had his expectations subverted until now, then he would have kept his eyes forward. He would have been expecting a straight charge and been blindsided as the boy was already behind him. He was at an angle that suggested he had touched ground at least three times to circle around to his back with his blade upraised.
Hyacinthus pivoted on his foot and swung Intimacy around in a full circle that left a silver halo in the air as it came around… and nearly had his sword-arm torn from the socket from the hasty defense. The silver steel met with a crimson streak, creating a shower of blue sparks as the white rabbit brought down his shorter dagger that was stronger than it had any right to be.
It was an Enchantment-type spell. There was no doubt about that given how much his Strength had increased from that blow alone. Even so, he stomped his foot into the ground hard enough to embed it as he stopped himself from staggering as the weight of the blow passed. Then he lashed out in response almost reflexively with the rouge blade only to cut through empty space as the boy had vanished once more—
—as a warhammer slammed into him from the side, the impact of which was so hard that he felt the bones in his upper arm fracture as they were all that stood between his ribs being shattered. And that was before the momentum caught up and sent him skirting off the ground and into one of the Outer Curtain Walls hard enough that the broken bits of the wall exploded out from around him.
Fear crept into his chest as he let his instincts take over to remove himself from the wall immediately, falling to the ground and then pushing off with all his strength as the rest of the wall erupted in a cloud of stone dust and sand as the white missile slammed into it like a cannonball.
Getting back onto his feet, Hyacinthus dedicated everything he had to mount a solid defense. In that single moment, he knew that counterattacking was no longer an option. Bell had gotten so fast that he would be stricken down the moment he attempted to retaliate, so he wired himself to guard only as his senses as a Level Three kicked into high alert.
That and his instinct were all that saved him as the white comet slammed into his sword that he braced with his forearm-guard as the crimson dagger came around once more. It struck like a mace rather than a blade, breaking the shortsword just from the impact alone as the protector he used to brace it visibly cracked. Then he jumped back as the second crimson streak cut into his breastplate and left a visible rend in it, the bottom half only hanging on by a fourth of its form.
And even that fell off as the hammer blow from a fist clenched around the handle of the crimson dagger slammed into his breastplate before he could set a foot down. His scream of pain was lost as steel shattered, the metal mixed in with Obsidian Soldier matter broken to pieces as it absorbed the force of a momentum-backed punch. Even then he felt a jolt running through the countless fractures lining his ribs before the wind rushing past him came to an end as he hit the ground some distance away.
Lying on the ground, struggling to cope with the pain, he had no choice but to admit that he had been thoroughly won over in a battle against the Level Two in front of him—Bell Cranel.
Tactics. Strategy. Technique. Even though he had spent years accumulating them to reach his current Level, all of those meant nothing at that moment. A spell that increased his Status that had somehow already broken even with a mid-tier Level Three just made it an absolute rather than advantageous.
He hated it. Clenching his fists as he laid on the ground with his body aching, there were no words to describe the feeling within his chest. It was unbearable, knowing that his Lord was watching him from above as he was beaten down by a mere boy.
Stand! He screamed in his head for his body to stand. He wasn’t done. Not yet. Not yet! He still had a trump card to play. STAND DAMN YOU!
His body responded. Slowly. Agonizingly. He rose to his knees with a desperate gasp of air, half-surprised that his opponent hadn’t taken the chance to simply finish him off while he was downed. But the reason for that had not been mercy, which he realized as he peered across from the Outer Ward to see that his beating had at least one silver lining.
The boy was also on one knee, an eye wincing and lips slightly contorted in pain. Tremors ran through his body, small convulsions that ate away at him. That power came at a price, it seemed. Maybe his Endurance couldn’t handle the backlash at his Level.
Good. Then he still had a chance to play his final card.
Invigorated by the opportunity, Phoebus Apollo rose to his full height and got into a stance. His opponent seemed to realize the match was not over and rose up as well. His muscles were still slightly convulsing, a damper for someone who fought with Dexterity and Agility. Then his only option would be to use his own ranged Spell then.
And that was the one thing Hyacinthus knew he had an overwhelming advantage in.
He drew in a deep breath and began to chant. “My name is love, child of light. Glorious sun, I offer you my body!”
The boy bristled as his right hand clenched into a fist upon realizing what was happening. Then blue-and-white motes of light began dancing over it. Had he a final card to play as well?
No matter. He had faith in this Magic and its majesty. “My name is sin, jealousy of the wind. This body calls forth your gust!”
Hyacinthus knew a single spell, born of the love for his Lord.
It was the same as his devotion to Apollo, all-consuming in its entirety. His Mind would be expended from the strain, but that was fine. It would serve as the embodiment of his purpose—to bring glory to His name.
“Come forth, ring of fire on westerly winds!”
Magical energy flowed upwards as he raised his left arm that still moved toward the sun. Though he should be prepared to throw it like a discus, that was merely a formality. The moment the spell was complete the disc would home in and hit its target so long as his concentration remained unbroken.
His hand turned as burning red as the overbearing rays that he basked in turned into a solar flare. The searing gale that blew from the west wove it into a spiraling ring. Bound together as one, a blazing disc that embodied the passionate worth of Phoebus Apollo was born. He threw the discus forward with all the energy he had left in his body as he said the trigger words for the spell.
Searing the air as it cut the space between them, his magical energy concentrated within the spell, the discus was unleashed at a blistering speed. Even if he somehow dodged it then it would follow due to the homing properties within the makeup of the spell. Even if he somehow put an obstacle between them or someone tried to throw themselves on it, he could detonate it to expand the area of effect. There was no escape…
“—twenty-second charge.” That was when he heard the boy’s voice beneath the howling wind as he raised that glowing hand towards the incoming burning disc. Planting his foot to the ground, he extended his right arm and braced it with the left as he uttered his spell. “FIREBOLT!”
What burst from his hand was not a simple flaming bolt like before. It was electricity and flame woven together by a white radiance. The white bolt that was close to plasma split the air between them as it sped straight ahead.
The two met midway. The burning ring that was the height of a small child slammed into the javelin of electricity and flames. The lesser of the two Magic should have been consumed utterly and the greater should have pushed on to secure victory for their caster…
Aro Zephyros shattered. The empowered Firebolt pierced deep within the shell of the burning ring, the magical energy constraining it breaking open as it bore through and then sped forth to slam into the Outer Curtain Wall behind Hyacinthus where it blew through a massive section of the wall.
Time seemed to move slow as his world vanished once the wrath of the sun was unleashed upon the Outer Ward, no longer bound. He no longer had the strength to move or evade. It was his defeat at the very blaze gifted to him by his God’s grace and born of his passion.
Only then did he finally grasp the meaning of Marpessa’s final words. It was not a warning that his love would be unrequited. It was a warning that his unconditional love would bring ruin to everything that had been built up. For when his God’s passions ran wild, it should have been he who quelled them rather than inflame them by giving him what he desired no matter what it took.
It was only fitting then that he be consumed by them utterly…
Everything hurt as Bell forced himself to walk forward.
Pain consumed his muscles from the inside out. He could tell that they were overstretched and torn. Using his Enchantment spell normally caused some strain but that was manageable. The problem was that he had lost control before then.
The blade that Welf had forged for him housed the bloodlust of the Minotaur within it. He had given into that destructive power it brought out because of his anger. A minor lapse in control had pushed his body beyond its limits for that strength and the spell only worsened it.
But that was fine.
The blame laid with him. He would accept the pain as his punishment for forgetting who he was and what he was fighting for. It was a lesson learned.
Still, it was the right choice to wear Salamander Wool. The flames that had washed over him were hot enough to bake the stone to where steam wafted off of them, but he only felt mildly warm. Then again, it might also be because of the gift that Syr had given him. The stone was cracked beyond repair now as it dangled from his neck from beneath his cowl.
He would owe her an apology and a replacement.
Bearing that in mind, he took pained steps forward until he came to a stop in front of the supine figure of Hyacinthus. His skin had been charred and his clothes were smoldering rags. But the Level Three Captain of the Apollo Familia was still alive, of course.
He exhaled in a rasp as his heavy eyes cracked open halfway. “It seems you… are more of a Vorpal Rabbit… than an Almiraj…”
Bell did not know what that was, but he didn’t have the will to argue against him. “It’s my win.”
It was not a question. But a fact. One was still standing and the other was on the verge of unconsciousness and unable to move. It was mostly formality at this point as the overseers of the match were waiting to see if he would pull something else out of his hat at the last minute or if Bell would finish the job.
Even Hyacinthus could not argue the point as he exhaled a rasped, crooked breath. “…Your home was my call…do as you wish.”
“…Fine then.” Bell reached for his holster as the defeated Captain closed his charred eyelids and awaited the finishing blow. Then he pulled out an unbroken vial and popped the cap before splashing the Potion over his fallen foe. The medicine began to eat away at the charred skin and replaced it with healthy flesh, just enough to make sure that he didn’t die by chance from his own injuries.
“I still… hate you…” His final, spiteful words uttered at being shown mercy by his sworn foe, the Captain of the Apollo Familia finally lost consciousness.
And the final bell rang.
Chapter 17: The Castle Siege – Part 2
“To this day I still recall just how much I loved that small village that welcomed my brother and me when we were desperate. That kindness saved us, even if things were a little rough in the beginning. It was tough to say goodbye to the place we stayed with for two years of our lives, building friendships and memories with the people there that would last a lifetime.
As parting gifts, Argo was given a short sword that he could use to keep us safe and a diary he could use to record his story. He boasted that his newfound Hero Diary would one day be the manuscript of the hero, Argonaut. The others said they would love to hear the story sometime when he returned.
Sadly, the village would one day share the same fate as many smaller pockets of civilization while monsters continued to spread throughout the land…”
—Parting Gifts for Argonaut
“Ah, so Gryne ended up getting beaten after all.”
An expectant but somewhat disappointed voice broke the silence of the afternoon doldrum within the room modeled in a Far Eastern aesthetic. It belonged to a woman with tanned skin, nestled on a futon that laid on a tatami-styled floor. She was sitting upright, her body a sleek masterwork figure of smooth muscle and shapely curves hidden beneath the gossamer-thin lavender cloth. Her long, luxurious raven-colored hair ran down the right side of her face before falling behind her back as she stared at the looking glass hovering in the air in front of her.
“She was the one who was redeemed by Lord Apollo for her talent, was she not?”
A soft, polite inquiry followed from the figure next to her, sitting on her knees. A young woman dressed in a flowing red kimono, accentuated by golden hair that mirrored the fur-laden vulpine features serving to enhance her beauty. Her emerald eyes also gazed softly at the floating disc that revealed the siege of the castle.
“He enjoyed her hobby as much as her body,” the Amazon explained. Gryne had been redeemed by Apollo specifically because she was talented with a Harp, which was a rarity among the Amazons who preferred more physical means of recreation, and he had something of an appreciation for the musical and visual art. The sex and fighting ability she possessed were bonuses more than anything. “Don’t get your hopes up, Haruhime.”
The warning was only met with a soft shake of her head. “I understand even doing this much for me may be more than I deserve from you, Lady Aisha. I will not cause you any more trouble.”
Her vow, spoken with an air of solemn defeat, only served to tease out a frown from the Amazon as what went unsaid lingered between them.
Aisha and Haruhime—an Amazonian Warrior and Renart Kamuro were sitting side-by-side within the room deep within the Pleasure Quarters. It was afternoon to the outside world, meaning it was effectively dawn to those within it and so their meeting was as clandestine as it could be while others slept. Not that there was anything illicit happening now, but rather it would be tedious to explain the presence of the Arcanum at work.
More so when it was not the work of Ishtar.
Gods frequented the Pleasure Quarters during the night. It was not hard for a woman of Aisha’s various talents to find one who’d be willing to set up a private little Divine Mirror this afternoon in exchange for pleasure the night prior. Her sisters might have questioned her choice of whom she hunted, but it ensured that she did not have to share so her request went unheard to all.
Aisha’s left arm rose and gently reached around Haruhime’s shoulders. There was a moment where she felt a slight tension running through the girl’s body and considered pulling away. But soon the Renart leaned over and allowed herself to be embraced, and Aisha stroked her hair with the fragility of glasswork. “It was no trouble at all for you.”
The two stayed like that until Haruhime’s ears shot up upon seeing a figure clad in dark clothes creep through the Northern Outer Curtain Walls that had been devastated by the first assault and abandoned. Her face was briefly visible as she bound from the crevice that had cooled from the harrowing winds, revealing features common to Far Eastern females. The maiden then slipped into the shadows as the sound of voices rushing about could be heard from the Apollo Familia who remained within the layer between the outer and inner curtain walls.
“…Is she the one?” Aisha asked.
The Renart slowly nodded. “It has been five years but, without a doubt, it really is Lady Mikoto.”
Then it wasn’t a waste, the Amazon thought to herself while staring up at the mirror as the girl pulled out a magic sword as she slinked through the shadows until she could spot another unit of Apollo Familia attempting to mobilize themselves to deal with the Elven Mage that had landed atop the Western Outer Curtain Wall. They were emerging from the castle storage rooms, arming themselves to deal with the threat.
The Absolute Shadow emerged from the darkness and swung the blade. Lightning blossomed, a crackle that split the air as voltage shot forward and consumed everything within its path. Screams rang out as electricity bore into them like carnivorous worms, leaving burn marks as they ripped and tore at the muscles beneath their skin. Their bodies convulsed in an attempt to fight off the effect, but the potency of the magic sword overpowered them until they collapsed onto the ground.
The shouts grabbed the attention of others who had been circling the Wall Walks to get to the Elf, meaning those above could see the magic sword in her grasp. Fear set in. They switched priorities, arrows raining down from above as the shouts of others led to them starting to seal in the area between the outer and inner curtain wall from above.
“She moves well,” Aisha acknowledged. In her eyes, it was clear that she was an actual Level Two and not one with exceedingly high attributes in her Agility, which made sense given she had only recently received her alias.
She could not dodge all the arrows coming from the walls above at different angles. But in her off-hand was a small, Far Eastern blade that she used to deflect the arrows that were likely to hit someplace vital or crippling, accepting the gashes and cuts that managed to slice her skin in grazing as they buried themselves into the stone ground. Then she would swing the lightning-imbued blade around and lash out with a serpentine bolt that caught one archer, a massive animal person, square in the chest.
“Urgh!” He grunted as the bolt speared through him and electricity wormed its way throughout his body and left him collapsing over the side. He hit the ground next to her before she grabbed hold of him and then flipped him over herself to be used as a meat shield. They promptly stopped firing lest they hit one of their own.
Then there was a howl of the wind, born from the spell from the Elven Mage as it slammed into the Inner Curtain Wall. Its hurricane-like force reduced to merely being fearsome winds still sent those archers toppling over the edge and into the narrowed space. Perfect for her to swing her electrified blade once more as she emerged from cover, sending an arc of lightning down the pathway that branched out like the roots of a tree and left them writhing on the ground helplessly.
She then broke from cover and proceeded south, leaving the narrow enclosure to skirt around the entrance to the Inner Curtain Walls that led to the Inner Ward before the Keep. It was there that the seemingly last line of defense that awaited her—a red-haired young woman dressed in white-and-orange hues standing at the ground-level entrance of the Keep. She stood in front of the door like a sentry, weapon at the ready to make a valiant last stand.
Measuring the distance with her gaze, it was clear that Mikoto would need to move through the opening in the Inner Curtain Walls to place her in range. So she stepped forward with purpose, her magic sword in one hand and Far Eastern blade in the other. The other young woman tensed.
That was when Aisha spotted the five Apollo Familia members waiting in the shadows and above, a viewpoint granted only by the Divine Mirror. The sleeping members of the Familia were all tucked away in the building behind the commander, so taking the fight into there would only serve to make the situation far more chaotic if she was allowed to breach those defenses. The outside afforded more room to maneuver as well, so if they covered her from multiple angles then they should be able to either overpower her, due to being a confirmed Level Two, or at the very least disarm her.
That was when four ceramic looking containers were flung by one of the ambushers, a Pallum. The containers didn’t head towards the Absolute Shadow, but instead the other Apollo Familia who had been in hiding. And when the containers hit the solid surfaces, they shattered while scattering a green cloud of something.
Screams broke out as the ambushers gave away their positions, breaking from their cover while holding their noses and violently coughing. The animal person who had been among their ambushers had outright begun rubbing their noses against the nearest wall in a desperate attempt to get the scent out of it. That was when the Pallum broke for cover and ran past the Absolute Shadow with no sign of animosity or that she would cut him down.
The pieces lined up as the commander shouted, “Traitor!”
Their ambush failed and with tears in their eyes from whatever was in those containers, the animal person produced a ball-and-chain weapon that they wheeled around before throwing it towards the Pallum’s fleeting form. From the angle of the throw, which may as well have been in slow motion to Aisha, it appeared like it would strike the Pallum from behind until Mikoto stepped in.
With the shorter weapon, she deflected the sphere by putting her body into it enough to guide it off to the path it was on, so it slammed into the wall hard enough to crack it. Then her magic weapon was swung, sending a line of lightning rushing forward. It slammed him in the chest and his agonized cry served as the signal to remind everyone who the real threat was as she charged into the Inner Ward to finish what she started while Pallum ran off towards the south gate.
Haruhime went rigid as she watched her dearest friend deflected what appeared to her eyes to be three glints of steel from the front, throwing knives aimed high as the red-haired woman fell back towards one with long, black hair that was on the ground coughing. Then she spun on her heel and ducked to avoid a halberd being swung by one of her assailants, the broadhead catching the end of her ponytail. She brought her leg up and kicked him off to the side before using the magic sword to disable him.
Then another dagger grazed her shoulder and with it came a new crimson line as blood began to pour out before she raised her blade to deflect the follow up as a Human with a pair of short swords emerged from the sickening cloud. He pressed in on her while a woman with a spear joined in, at the same time narrowly avoiding a bolt fired from a Hume Bunny perched behind cover with a crossbow.
Undeterred, the Mikoto swapped her grip on both her blades and went back on the assault. Using the reverse grip to rest the flat of the Far Eastern blade against her underarm she deflected the slashes of the short swords, the grey steel catching the light of the sun and leaving sparks where it scraped against her blade. Then she brought her opposite fist forward and slammed it into his face to stagger him back.
It was just long enough for her to pivot her foot and drop down while driving the shorter of the blade into the stone to catch the spear coming to sweep her legs. The resonance of steel-on-steel rang as she reached up with her now empty hand and grabbed the woman’s collar before jerking it down while bringing her head up. Aisha could hear the bone break even before the woman dropped her spear, leaving it to clatter on the ground as she spun around and did a shoulder throw to toss the spearwoman into the swordsman.
Then the magic sword came around again. The bolt of lightning lanced forward and plowed through the pair as streamers of electricity burst free and ran over their bodies. They collapsed onto the ground as the blur of a crossbow bolt slammed into the Absolute Shadow’s shoulder holding the magic sword causing the blade to fall free of her grasp.
But before it could hit the ground, ignoring her pain and mounting injuries, her other hand caught it and then swung the blade to send yet another lightning bolt snaking towards Hume Bunny in the process of reloading. The hue of their eyes was illuminated as the lightning did its work, a direct hit that left them screaming in agony. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, Mikoto let loose another slash towards the commander helping the black-haired young woman onto her feet.
It was on a reflex that the red-haired woman pushed her companion out of the way. Hard enough that she was sent a few meders away, falling onto her side with her staff clattering from her hand. Thus, she was spared as the lightning bolt caught only one of them instead of both. “AGGHHH!!!”
“Daphne!” She watched the enemy commander fall to the ground, her body convulsing in place as the electricity savaged her muscles without mercy. But when she rose to her feet and looked like she was getting ready to reach out to her, a steel blur cut through the air and slammed into the wall between them. The scattering of stone dust and shrapnel left her to yelp and fall backward as the spear that belonged to one of her companions had narrowly missed her outstretched hand, thrown by the Hestia’s Familia’s invader.
Covered in injuries that stained her black outfit red, with cold eyes that were half-lidded, Mikoto removed the bolt wedged in her shoulder with only a strained grunt and left the bloodied bolt to drop onto the ground along with the glasswork that was once the magic sword. It must have exerted its magic at that point, which was the only reason that she had not used it to finish the job. Even so, with the sword she had stabbed into the ground now back in her hand, she would have no trouble finishing the job.
“…I like her,” Aisha said, brushing her hair over her shoulder slightly at the coordinated display of violence. It was clear she had nowhere near the raw power of the others they had seen so far acting on behalf of the Hestia Familia. But she was well-trained and showed no hesitation in moving to disable the helpless girl scrambling to get back onto her feet—
“I am starting to see why Lissos hates those swords so much.”
— and then the Absolute Shadow was suddenly sent flying, her slender figure blown back towards the entrance of the Inner Ward as her sprint was intercepted. Her body hit the ground and fell into a rough tumble before got her feet under her and lifted her head. Crimson escaped between her split lips while the signs of a bruise appearing on her cheek were becoming vivid.
“H-Hyacinthus…” whimpered the dark-haired woman as she looked up with nervous eyes at the figure with gleaming light armor and a cape draped across his back that softly drifted down behind him. The Captain of the Apollo Familia that deigned to finally appear before them slowly retracted his outstretched fist before reaching into the holster on his hip and then tossed an Elixir into her lap.
“Use that on Daphne,” he ordered. “The rest of the supplies in storage were contaminated and, at this point, she’s the most useful one of you left. I’ll deal this one and then take care of the traitor and that fairy dancing around the castle like she owns it.”
As there was no one he could trust fully without being aware of the traitor, he had gone to fetch the medical supplies himself. It was then he discovered that the traitor in their ranks had managed to contaminate them, likely around the time that Breakfast had been at work. Among those who had been missing at that point had been Luan, who had complained about needing to continue running his tasks since he arrived so late last night.
As the girl moved to get onto her feet, Aisha spotted as he drew what looked to be a short sword and brought it around. There was a soft phink that could be heard as a throwing spike that had been aimed at the bottle within the girl’s hands was deflected by the blade now within Hyacinthus’ grasp. It was a third-tier quality blade only known as Intimacy.
He stepped forward with the short sword in hand as the Absolute Shadow got back onto her feet, wakizashi in one hand as she drew a knife tucked into her outfit to dual wield it. No sooner than she had in her grasp was he on top of her. Wearing a placid expression and attacking with what as may as well have been practice swings, his short sword came down and met with Mikoto’s longer blade—
—and the shattering of metal rang out with a bloom of sparks reflecting in shards of steel. The swing was causal from Aisha’s perspective as a Level Three. But it was still enough that the Absolute Shadow’s arm was knocked aside from the sheer might of the Captain whose Level was above her own, disarming her by destroying her lower quality weapon.
It was probably only by the virtue of her training that she saw the next incoming slash that flowed from the first one. The horizontal slash would have cut her across the chest if she had not brought the knife up in time to intercept the second slash while leaping back, the impact of the steel enough that it was akin to being hit by a Warhammer. She was forced backward as the knife snapped under the force of the blow, sending her into a roll until she got back onto her feet near the discarded weapon of one of the still twitching bodies left in the wake of her magic sword.
Mikoto picked up the battle-ax and then rushed right back in to confront him with a battle cry to embolden her spirit. “Haaaah!!”
It was sad to watch if Aisha had to put it into words. The girl was trying her best with a decent level of proficiency with the weapon that was different from her usual, but the difference in power was so severe that he casually avoided the first three swings before catching her wrist on the fourth. Her valiant efforts were only rewarded by pain when he thrust his foot forward like a spear and she was sent flying once more.
But this time there was no roll. It had been faster than she could have prepared for it or anticipated, completely overwhelming her to where she hit the ground, bounced off it once, and then landed prone. Her entire body trembled as she curled over onto her side while huddled over the point of impact, violently coughing as a spattering of blood came out along with gastric fluids. “Urr…ghh…”
“Lady Mikoto…” Crystalline tears slipped from Haruhime’s emerald eyes. Her slender fingers curled on her lap into fists and her shoulders trembled as she watched someone she had known since her childhood was being beaten bloodied and broken as her assailant approached. A memory that likely overlapped with one that was too fresh, all things considered.
Hyacinthus gave her an uninterested glance. Then, deeming her no longer able to fight, he turned his attention towards the Pallum in the distance and his eyes narrowed. He proceeded to walk past her…
“N-Not… yet…” Somehow, Mikoto managed to unfurl her arms and clung to his leg. She held it in as tight of a grasp as possible, even though she couldn’t even catch her breath in a desperate attempt to stop him.
His only response was to lash out with that very same leg, knocking her into the wall with the same effort as one who was kicking aside a pebble in the road. Then, in that very same moment, he spun on his heels and turned his attention to the Outer Western Curtain Wall above. He must have sensed the building magic as the Elven Mage stood there with her staff trained on him and the foreign words on her lips.
Then the spell was fired, her staff bucking as the constrained wind curled into a ball rocketed forth.
Hyacinthus leaped back as it hit the ground where he had been. The winds came unbound and then a wall of air slammed into everything within its radius, carrying along with it the convulsing bodies of the Apollo Familia who had ended up at the mercy of the magic sword in the process. Hyacinthus himself was swept up until he flipped himself midair and used his legs to absorb the shock as he hit the Eastern Outer Curtain Walls.
Then his feet touched the ground and, to the eyes of a Level One or below, they simply lost track of the man.
Only those on the higher end of Level Two would have been able to catch the blur of motion that a Level Three was capable of. And the fact that his Agility had a modest investment of ability points was evident as in the space of a breath he covered the length of the Outer Ward, bounced between the inner and outer curtain walls, and then ended up on the Wall Walk along with the Elven Mage who only noticed his presence when he was already moving to strike her down.
The hollow ring of eleven wood and silver steel resonated as the charge and swing of the short sword carried enough momentum that the Elven Mage was left staggering backward. But before she could even regain her footing the Captain of the Apollo Familia had already sheathed his short sword and drew his rouge flamberge instead. Then he was on her once more, swinging his sword diagonally in a vicious arc that would cut her from shoulder to hip.
The Elf narrowly managed to step back to avoid the attempt only to have to bring the staff around to deflect the follow-up. And then she was forced to bring the opposite end around to parry his attempt to punch her in the throat with his unarmed fist, which left her abdomen open as he spun on his hind leg and swept the blade around, leaving a silver streak that met with her unprotected abdomen.
“Aghh!!” A pained sound slipped out of the mage’s mouth as she staggered back a few more steps, one eye wincing as scarlet began to dye her overbust corset. Blood was coming from where the blade had found her abdomen through her battle clothes. But she didn’t have time to dwell on it as he charged her again with a thrust that would have gone through her shoulder if she hadn’t narrowly avoided by pivoting on her feet, leaving it tearing into the flowing sleeve of her outfit and parting the flesh instead of piercing it.
After that, it was a flurry of attacks that followed one after another. Red streaks of light lingered in the air as he put his all into a relentless assault that forced her on the defensive. Or rather being defensive was the only option left to the Elven Mage as she frantically tried to survive while blood began to stain the stone.
The sight left the Renart to bring her hands to her mouth and mutter, “How horrible.”
“Those cuts are mostly shallow,” Aisha said to alleviate her fears, slightly craning her head around at the sight as she caught the motions with a level of clarity that her companion couldn’t. If the Amazonian Warrior had to guess, her Status must be higher than average for a dedicated mage since if there was a huge gap in their ability points then he would already have ended things. But there was still enough of a difference that she was being won over as the number of cuts in her battle clothes piled on and fresh blood gradually died the whites and bright colors their shade.
It was just a matter of seconds now.
[-The Hostess of Fertility-]
“That bastard! Doesn’t he know cute girls should be treasured!”
The declaration from one angry patron of the restaurant was met with a resounding roar from a numerable portion of the restaurant’s male customer base. It was a packed afternoon in the Hostess of Fertility. They had the luxury of being one of the few establishments that had access to a set of Divine Mirrors even though no Gods or Goddesses were present, which meant that the audience had both a meal and a show.
“Nyaah… they’re getting so worked up,” Anya muttered while watching them get into a rage as the Elf dressed in somewhat frilly clothes was being attacked so relentlessly.
“It doesn’t look like she’s doing all that well compared to before,” Syr mentioned while observing the match. She was not an adventurer, so the other waitresses supposed that from her perspective all she could see was the Elven Mage being covered in blood as her clothes began to stick to her flesh from the wounds she had accumulated.
“It’s a bad match-up,” Chloe chimed in. “Until now she was going against adventurers who were a lower Level that her own, so she could walk over them. Now the best she can do is fending off the worst of it.”
They watched as more of her flesh was parting. From the expression that the Elf was making red hot stinging pain flooded the wounds as she was subjected to death by a thousand cuts. Her attempts at raw evasion and bare basic defense were less than effective as well, almost as if….
“He must have encountered another Mage who fought like this one in close range,” Lunoire said after a moment. “There’s a gap in their Status, but the way he’s adjusting to her means he can read her movements a lot easier so he can be more aggressive.”
Her words were accurate, an assessment born of experience. There was a reason that having to face a fellow adventurer was far more dangerous than facing a monster. They learned from their previous encounter and applied that the next time they faced a similar foe, making overcoming them that much easier.
Even if he did not recognize the Half-Elf under her guise, he recognized her movements from the last time they had encountered one another. Under his period of convalescence, he had time to think them over and analyze them in his mind. The advantage compounded until—
—sympathetic cries rang throughout the crowd as without a shred of mercy or hesitation he baited her staff into diverting a slash and instead drove his fist into her stomach. He had targeted the area where he had first injured her and thus would be the most effective. She was forced to lean on her staff to remain standing as she brought one of her arms to the wound involuntarily, which was when his rouge blade came around in a horizontal that offered no chance to avoid and no chance to parry as she desperately brought the staff up only for it to slam into her like Warhammer and send her flying over the edge of the Wall Walk.
“Bastard!” “How dare you!?” “Didn’t anyone teach you how to treat a woman!” Various enraged shouts and cries bellowed out from the audience as they watched as the sylph plummeted from the sky to the cold and hard embrace of the stone that awaited her…
Then silence replaced the outrage as white and red rushed into the Outer Ward and leaped into the air.
Polished steel glinted from the afternoon sun against black clothes that drank the light. A scarlet cape billowed as the wind held it aloft while descending with the feminine figure nestled safely within a pair of firm arms that held her close. The soft ping of chimes lightly rang as one of the gloved hands that held onto her glowed softly with white-and-blue sprites.
The falling fairy had been caught by the white rabbit.
The Captain of the Hestia Familia had arrived.
The climax of the siege was underway.
Chapter 16: The Castle Siege – Part 1
“After another year, Argo told me of his plans to leave the village behind. Now that he knew I was safe and comfortable in the village, he intended to keep traveling. When I asked him where he would go, he would only answer where the wind would take him. When I asked him what he would do, he answered to fill a diary that he intended to make into a comedy one day to be spread around the world as a hero.
My brother was a fool. He could barely take care of himself, and for all that he was able to make people laugh, he was still bothersome to others. He was weak and would probably end up getting in over his head if he went out there alone. That was why I always had to look after him.
Or at least that was what I told myself at the time.
But the truth was that I was afraid. I was afraid of the thought of him leaving me alone. I was afraid that my beloved brother would go off and I would never see him again.
So I begged him not to leave me behind.”
—Don’t Leave Me Behind
“Your child did good work, Miach.”
The praise from the Goddess of the Forge brought a smile to the handsome visage of Miach as he sat next to her within theatron of Babel. The massive Divine Mirror that Ganesha had created was showcasing the castle and how a very decent number of the inhabitants had been rendered a non-threat due to the soporific that his child had created.
As a God of Medicine, he was naturally capable of creating potions that had a strong effect on the mortal body even without his arcanum. But this had been the work of his student, who made up for her lack of Status with her knowledge of what laid above and within the Dungeon. That together had allowed her to create a sleeping solution that would place those under the influence into a deep slumber that was not easily lifted.
“I imagine she would be happy to hear that if she were here,” he said. No children had been allowed to attend the grand gathering, but once permission had been given, he wrought a Divine Mirror within his domain where she was currently watching over the member of the Apollo Familia that they had… detained for the last few days.
They had needed someone to be replaced within the specifications of one of Hestia’s newly adopted children and he fit the bill. He had spent most of his time sedated and cared for, without any real inkling as to what has happened to him. It was best for all parties involved and, once the match was over, he would be delivered back safe and sound—if confused about the last few days.
“They won’t be roused anytime soon without either Magic or an Elixir,” he continued. “Both of those aren’t likely something they have an ample supply of at present. And any attempt to do so will be made much harder with the enemy knocking on their door.”
Their gaze turned to Hephaestus’ Divine Mirror where she was in the process of observing the magic sword at work as its wielder swung the blade horizontally from a modest distance away from the northern outer curtain wall. Fire ran along the path, drawing an arch until it slammed into the stone hard enough that it was a tangible force and turned it burning red.
Fissures ran along the path where the flames touched, leaving the rows of stones to split apart. Then molten slag burst from within and set the grass beneath it ablaze before the wall began to collapse outward. The ground was left laden with a mixture of stone and slag as a sizable portion of the wall was now absent, exposing the interior of the castle to the outside world.
And that was only the second swing.
“…He was careful with it,” the Goddess of the Forge said after observing the damage done with an appraising eye. “I can’t say castle fortifications are my specialty, but the heat was enough that the moment it connected it created thermal cracks in the stone and seeped into the filling between the layers—probably bits of crushed stone and sand. That superheated to the point of becoming molten and poured out of cracks causing further damage and destabilization to where it collapses on itself from thermal expansion. He must have spent days before War Game instilling the element into it and then refined the purpose of it while he was shaping the steel.”
For it to work like that the flame would need to be focused to remain so potent. But if it had been too hot and intense then those flames would have punched straight through the wall and into the castle. Those children wouldn’t survive that at only Level Two without a lot of mitigation like Salamander Wool and accessories to ward off heat—and, even then, the flames would have seared them down to the bone on direct contact.
“He’ll only continue to grow from here,” she said while wearing a rare, soft smile. Her subdued but evident pride now that he had broken free of his self-imposed limitation was clear to the gathering around the Goddess of the Hearth.
However, the other Gods were… not so willing to allow her the moment to bask in his growth.
“What’s the deal, Hephaestus!?” Ogma shouted. “You charged me an arm and a leg for a top-of-the-line magic sword and it’s not even a fraction as good as that one!!”
“Yeah, my children could have really used that level of quality on the expedition!” Loki joined in. “Why does shortstack get them!?”
Hephaestus rolled her eye as whines and complaints from some of the other Gods and Goddesses of the began to ring out. Accusations of favoritism since the Goddess of the Forge and Hearth were often seen side-by-side. She turned to face the group. “Do you see my brand anywhere on that sword?”
Divine Mirrors began flickering to get a closer view of the weapon as the Elf dodged a flurry of arrows with contemptuous ease before swinging the blade once more. Flames devastated the curtain wall to the extent that one of the towers looked as though it was on the verge of collapsing. There was no mark to be found.
“Then it isn’t one of mine,” she continued when none of them claimed otherwise. “That child made that magic sword of his own accord, without my input or any obligation to be sold under my brand. Deal with it.”
“Okay, I will!” Ogma said before turning to Hestia. “Name your price! You could use a little extra valis, can’t you?”
Hestia didn’t even bother to look at him. Welf had made it clear when he joined that he did not want to be forced to sell his blades. He was willing to make them for their sake because of the comradery he had built up with the others. But he was not willing to just let anyone else use them since whatever purpose they were used for would be his responsibility.
Hestia would not betray the child that Hephaestus placed in her care just for profit. “I’m not selling that child’s weapons. End of story.”
Tuning any future offers out, Hestia observed as the castle defenders were beginning to respond to the crisis. The walls of the castle were abandoned as those responsible for preventing any breach gave up on the northern section, heading towards the inner curtain walls and getting to higher ground as the swordsman moved eastward to get started bringing that one down. Others were moving about, taking the unconscious beyond those walls and into the inner section of the castle.
“They’re well-trained,” Takemikazuchi said as he observed the issuing commanders bellowing out orders. “In a set of swings, one of the walls has all but fallen and their first volley was avoided with ease. That establishes the threat being one too dangerous to ignore and the inner curtain walls give a higher vantage point so they can send out suppressing fire to keep them moving or expend the sword’s charge while they gather up the remaining people capable of Magic on the southern curtain walls to bombard them.”
“Why not let the walls fall and devote the rest of their forces to dealing with the immediate threat?” Miach asked. War was not his expertise after all.
“It’s true that overwhelming numbers could be used to eliminate a single target, but even with the non-lethal rules of engagement that magic sword is too dangerous to approach up close,” the God of War explained. “Not to mention they don’t know who was the one that drugged them, so they have to be cautious to ensure that none of them are taken hostage by placing some of their most trusted on the inside to keep watch over the unconscious. The best thing to do is simply keep their distance and send out a small, but elite unit to deal with them by pinching them once the sword breaks or they retreat.”
To their credit, they were trying. The arrows descended like rain that saturated the area where the cloaked warrior dwelled, but unlike before they swung the sword upwards and let loose a flaming arch. It proved to be the right call as the arrows detonated and lit up the sky with a riotous chorus of explosions—the arrowheads had been tipped with a fragment of flare stone meant for siegecraft, like trebuchets, battering rams, or belfries.
A Crozzo Magic Sword so big of a threat that no one questioned the use of it as Lissos, one of the commanders, raised his arm to signal for them to prepare the second volley from the crenellation of the inner curtain wall. At the same time, on the ground-level of the inner part of the Keep, the Captain of the Apollo Familia was ushering the others carrying the unconscious and injured inwards before directing an Amazoness with a unit under her command towards the southern gate.
“It looks like you were right, Take,” Hestia admitted, before shifting her Divine Mirror to the outskirts of the western wall. “But the children seem to have it covered.”
Within the Twilight Manor that housed the members of the Loki Familia, numerous Divine Mirrors had been set up within it. All so that the Trickster Goddess’ children could observe the War Game from the comfort of their own home. Among the gathered, within their own lounge, were the executives and higher-ranked members of the Familia—Aiz, Tiona, Tione, Bete, Gareth, Finn, and Riveria.
“I have to say I wasn’t expecting to see a Crozzo Magic Sword at work right before my eyes,” Gareth stated. “To think that Level Two adventurer we saw a little while ago on the 18th Floor was capable of making something like that in such a short time. I suppose it speaks about how well-acquainted Goddess Hestia and Hephaestus are that the former would allow a young one with that kind of talent out of her care.”
“He certainly won’t have an easy time after the War Game,” Riveria added, jade eyes observing the intensity of the flames. Though she held nothing against him for his blood, she knew she could not speak for the rest of her kin. “Though it was known that there was a Crozzo in the city, it was commonly accepted that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t make magic swords. The fact that we can see that is no longer the case will draw a lot of attention, both good and ill.”
“Ooh, look to the west one!” Tiona said, pointing a slender finger as a purple-cloaked figure dashed towards the castle. The staff on their back was what gave the identity of the individual away more than anything else, a wooden staff that had two focal magic stones. “It looks like they managed to get a Mage too.”
“So it was a distraction after all,” Finn stated as the new adventurer moved closer towards the castle, effectively opposite of where the majority that would be manning the outer curtain walls had relocated to deal with the current threat.
As powerful as that magic sword had been, it could not take down a castle alone. At least not at its current output. And all magic swords broke eventually, so it was unreliable for prolonged usage. They were meant to be either circumstantial or a trump card, rather than the opening fire of a three-day siege.
Of course, there were exceptions. The first was if they could be mass-produced, which would allow them to be used at will and just overwhelm the opposition through sheer firepower with no chance of fighting back. Rakia had enjoyed that until their conquest deprived the lineage of that capability, and Finn could just imagine how someone as ambitious as Ares would react the moment he learned otherwise.
The second was as a distraction. A flashy, destructive distraction meant to draw the attention and gaze of everyone towards the smoke and flames. The magical energy unleashed by the swords would serve well to mask the accumulation of magical power from a spellcaster, not unlike how Riveria and Lefiya had both done against the monster on the 18th Floor.
However, the Apollo Familia had not allowed themselves to be caught off-guard so easily. Not only had their archers moved to the curtain walls, but they had spotters that were looking out to the other directions between preparing their destructive arrows. The moment one of them spotted the approaching mage, they sent out the word and a group of five archers shifted to the approaching side of the inner curtain walls and proceeded to fire those same explosive arrows with an angle meant to bombard them before they could get in range to cast a Super Long Chant capable of damaging the structure further.
Riveria slightly inclined her head when she noticed the mage advancing regardless of the incoming arrows meant to blow them away. Instead, they darted back and forth with a steady pace. Even as the projectiles hit the ground and ruptured while throwing spouts of dirt and dust into the air, they continued to advance at a somewhat slower pace.
“Answer my call, winds of the forest—”
“She’s concurrent chanting in Old Elvish tongue,” Riveria declared as her ears could pick up a soft voice amidst the explosions even before one tossed back the hood of their cloak and revealed their features, marking them as a full-blooded Elf. To those with keen enough sight, they could see her lips moving. “But the spell in question is one of the Ancient Magic obtained from Spirits. It would never be able to breach the castle walls on its own, let alone reach it unless she gets much closer.”
“—tear apart our foes!” The Elven Mage skidded to a stop and held out her left hand, revealing it to be aglow with blue-and-white lights that were dancing along with it. They flittered around the digits like curious little fireflies as the wind around her churned violently enough that her skirt and clothes billowed as the swirling gale gathered in front of her outstretched hand while she braced it with her right hand and finished the spell. “GALE BLAST!”
Then her arms recoiled upwards as the spiraling swirl of compressed wind shot forward like a trebuchet projectile. If not for the perception available to higher-level adventurers, none of them would have been able to really make out the projectile that had been launched.
The swirling sphere colored the hues of soft azure and gleaming argent sailed straight into the base of the western outer curtain walls. The translucent hammer smashed into solid stone that cried out and cracked from strain as it attempted to breach the ashlar like a battering ram. But it was only air bound by a shell of magic rather than a dense stone or steel sphere, and so it was natural that it would shatter before the walls.
And what came out was nothing short of a raging tempest.
An unforgiving squall that swelled like a flower coming into bloom to invade the stone and mortar through sheer force. A violent windstorm that drowned out all sound beneath its howling of chaotic winds that attempted conquest of the castle. Liberated from its container, a whirlwind was unleashed that swept through the castle with such force that wooden carts were overturned, banners were torn to shreds, and steel was wrenched from the desperate men and women who were thrown astray by the wall of wind that swept anything not braced against unyielding stone even as the wall of wind tried to crush them as it passed by.
The unfortunate souls who had been firing from upon high were now sailing through the air beyond the eastern curtain walls, the grasslands their only cushion as the more battle-hardened managed to tuck and roll to minimize the damage of the fall. Some would consider it fortunate for them that even a poor fall from that height would not break the body of a Level Two adventurer. Others would recognize it was only by the virtue of the Elf’s intention that they had survived.
That spell had been aimed at the base of the outer curtain walls. Most of the initial blast had been focused there and so even as the pressure wave that resulted from the wall of air coming undone still lost energy passing through it, the filling, and the inner curtain wall. That was evidenced by the impact zone where the ashlar had been blown out from the initial fissures being invaded by the subsequent winds, and then pushed through as the gale curved around to continue its expansion and lapped them with the fringes.
Silence lingered in the room as the eyes of the Loki Familia fell onto the girl whose body had been knocked back despite her ample distance from the wall. She was sitting on her knees with one arm holding the other. One eye winced in pain as the limb convulsed in place.
It was Tiona who broke the silence. “…Okay, I know magic isn’t really my thing. But that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that it should be able to do on its own with such a short chant, even if I didn’t understand a word of it.”
With the hush ruined and sound slowly trickling back in, the Royal Elf began to speculate. “There was no magic circle, so the Mage Developmental Ability was not responsible. Or rather it could not be responsible, given I know personally that spells not bequeathed from the Falna don’t affect it barring maybe one or two circumstantial situations I can fathom. However, that light that had gathered into her hand before she used it to launch the spell passed onto it, so that might explain the increase in its range and potency.”
“Hmm… an active trigger that increases the power of the spell based on a conditional?” Finn mused. Such Skills were uncommon, but they did exist. And the more conditional it was, the more effective it tended to be when that situation came about.
The Dwarven Warrior stroked his beard as he threw his own opinion in. “That might explain why she ignored her staff. Though considering her current state, it would be safe to assume that she can’t do that again.”
“Using her limb as a focus on such an unwieldy spell like that would have left nothing behind if she had suffered an Ignis Faatus considering the output,” Riveria noted as the girl used her other arm to reach for the pouch attached to her hip and pull out a potion to deal with the pain. “At least using a staff or something else as a focus means that if one suffered magical power going out of control the focus would bear the brunt of it and their Endurance could allow them to better withstand that resulting backlash. A broken staff is much easier to replace than a missing limb or worse.”
Before they could ruminate on that grim prospect any further, fire blossomed from the eastern wall.
Their eyes turned back to the Divine Mirror focused on that area. The winds had not only delivered a bounty of the Apollo Familia beyond the safety of the castle walls, but it had even knocked loose the hood of the warrior wielding the magic sword to reveal their identity. It was a male Elf with deep green hair and eyes that graced the standard features bequeathed to one of the races known for their beauty, and longer hair bound with a ponytail confined to the inside of the cloak.
A line of fire was drawn to separate them from the walls with the magic sword rather than continue to bring down the walls. It stretched from one end from the other and the flames and smoke formed a curtain to separate those within the castle from those outside of it, robbing them of visibility. Then, without any preamble or hesitation, the swordsman subtly shattered the weapon by clenching the handle so hard the metal shattered.
“Why’d he do that?” Tione uttered in shock watching the sword crumble to dust as the one responsible for its destruction put their hood back on. “It still had some use!”
“No… it served its purpose,” Finn said, his analytical gaze focused on the Level Two adventurers as they rose to their feet and drew their sidearms that consisted mostly of shortswords and daggers. “Leaving it around would only incentivize one of them to attempt to grab it or run to get away rather than standing and fighting against him now that the enemy has lost his greatest weapon while seemingly surrounded.”
“Those weaklings think they got lucky that the blade just shattered from overuse when they’ve just been thrown into a trap,” Bete put it more bluntly as the ground-bound members of the Apollo Familia charged. “That guy is a battle-hardened Level Three at the very least to have the guts to do that. I wonder how many of ‘em will be eating dirt by the time they realize it.”
At the same time, the southern gates began to rise. It was in the center section of the southern outer curtain wall, meaning the Elven Mage should not have been able to see it. But the ears of their race were sharp even without the blessing, so she could hear the strike unit that had been assembled coming to run her down. Thus, she pulled the staff from her back—
—only to immediately bound backward as the spot she was in exploded in a spout of dirt and grass. There was now a spear embedded deep in the ground. It had been a long-ranged throw backed by the strength of what must have been a high-tier Level Two adventurer, which was made more evident when a group of Apollo Familia members came rushing in her direction.
“That must be their strike unit,” Finn said as he watched them bound across the distance with decent speed for Level Two adventurers. Among their numbers was an Amazoness with uniform distinguished from the standard affair of the rank-and-file by being white and red, meaning she was likely the commander. “And it’s headed by the Sol Ankal, Embraced by the Sun—Gryne.”
The Amazon and her unit were likely dispatched to quickly take down the spellcaster. It was a simple act in principle by not giving her a moment’s reprieve, interrupting her before she could start casting her spell with long-ranged attacks. The glint of steel in the sunlight was evident even to those without enhanced senses as throwing knives embedded themselves in the ground as the elf was forced to keep moving lest her body be pierced by debilitating injuries that crippled her ability to focus and thus cast. While doing so, the unit split to cover her from multiple angles, so that if she did manage a spell, she wouldn’t get all of them.
Surround, enclose, eliminate—given that most who cast destructive spells on the level she had rarely raised their Endurance due to being firmly on the rear, it would take them no effort to disable her once they closed the distance. That was why vanguards existed …
“Oooooh, that looked like it hurt!” Tiona muttered as she watched one of the Apollo Familia, a Cat Person, go flying with a single swing of the Elf’s staff. Rather than retreating so that she could be boxed in, she promptly rushed towards one of them who hadn’t expected it and delivered a ruthless swing with the neck of the staff across the torso. Bone snapped and crunched as the arm bent from the impact before they were sent skirting along the ground, left to huddle over the broken limb.
The sight caught many by surprise as she proceeded to charge to the next one who was closest to her. The Hume Bunny chosen as her next target hesitated for a moment when he realized that he was about to suffer the same fate as his comrade, but his daggers were already drawn and ready to be used. He bounced upwards while launching himself forward and swung them down overhead towards her in an arch.
She raised her staff with a firm grip in both hands. The daggers looked to be of decent quality, but staves and weapons made of elven wood were often treated with a special solution that made them more than capable of withstanding that level of damage. That was how some of their kin could use wooden swords with the same efficiency of steel blades, meaning it would take something of a far higher quality to cut through it. After blocking the attempt, she twisted her body and brought the rear of the staff around.
And sent him sailing through the air. The second one down, the Elven Mage proceeded to keep running in a straight line to put distance between them now that she had prevented the net from closing in on her with a burst of speed that pretty much indicated her being a Level above the others. Then, and only then, did she start singing her spell once more.
“At the very least it seems whoever trained her taught her the basics of what to do when they’re being run down,” Rivera said in approval as she watched the girl spin on the ball of her feet, avoiding whatever was being sent her way as she focused on her spell as though in a dance that moved to a rhythm that only she could hear, singing a song only her kin could understand—evasion and chanting was all she needed to focus on now that she had enough space without needing to put any effort into attacking or defending herself.
Mages who excelled in artillery remained in the rear when they could afford to. But the enemy would not always be content to remain at a safe distance, and all the magic in the world was meaningless if you were cornered. Facing down an enemy in close quarters combat was inevitable so self-defense was mandatory for all adventurers, even those who specialized in magic or healing.
Fight—never sit there waiting for someone to save you. If you were being boxed in from all sides, pick one side and breakthrough with all of your might. If an enemy closed the distance, steel your resolve and advance until an opening presented itself. Then put distance between you and them until you were able to cast your spells once again.
The moment her short song entered its final verse, she took to the air with a spring in her step. It was just in time as the golden spear of Gryne cut through the space between them and once more pulverized the ground in an attempt to silence her. There the wind danced around her, playfully ruffling her full sleeves and skirt as if to give the impression she was a sylph that was loved by the breeze itself as she aimed her staff and let loose its fury once more.
The swirling sphere of constrained wind sailed from the tip. Unlike before when it was large enough to fit in a siege weapon, this time it was a near-invisible cannonball that rocketed towards a convergence of the pursuers chasing after her. The moment it hit the ground and the wind came unbound, the pressure sent them abruptly rocketing off into the distance.
The sylph herself rode the wind to land further out, closer to the castle walls where one of the women who had been thrown about had fallen. Her Endurance must have been higher than the others because she sprung up despite the wall of pressure having plowed through her body and rendered her allies all unconscious on sheer force of will. She lunged forward and wound up grabbing the staff with both hands as the Elf stepped back to avoid having her arms caught instead.
“That was a mistake,” Finn noted immediately.
And was proven correct when rather than pull her staff away, she thrust the body of the shaft between her grip upwards and right into the woman’s throat. The moment she reared back from gagging, and her own grip loosened, the Elven Mage promptly twisted her upper body and arms to bring the end of the staff around. It met her skull and down she went.
Then her eyes shifted to the left and then bound away on the ball of her feet, moving as though reading the wind. That allowed her to avoid as a strip of crimson that sliced through the air past her, only for it to lash out towards the sylph as though it were a serpent, ensnaring her wrist cuffs and going taut before bursting into a cord of flames that bound the two.
“Go a bit further and the flames will burn that pretty skin of yours something fierce,” warned the commander with a satisfied smile. There was a reason her moniker was to be embraced by the sun. “Can’t have you flying away little fairy. Though I have to say that the way you sing and dance in the air makes me want to put you in a cage and keep me all to myself.”
“…If this is your Familia’s ideal way of courting someone, it leaves much to be desired,” spoke the girl in the common tongue as she looked down at the chain. She didn’t seem bothered by the flames even at that distance. “And, considering the circumstances leading to the War Game, I will decline.”
She chuckled. “Ah, is it the bunny you’re in—”
The sound of hardwood and steel chimed like a bell. The Amazon had managed to bring her spear up horizontally the moment her chain went slack as the Elf closed the distance to deliver a blow that was meant to come down on her head. And the green eyes of the girl had lost their definition and turned to empty mirrors.
The woman’s smile was a little forced. “Did I hit a nerve?”
Pulling her attention away from the display as the lithe fairy began to attack the Amazon with a fervor more akin to an… well, Amazon, the Sword Princess looked for any sign of the aforementioned bunny within the mirrors. But there was no sign of him, meaning he had yet to make his move. There was a hint of uncertainty within her chest at that.
It did not go unnoticed by Tiona, who was sitting next to her. “You worried about little Argonaut?”
“…A little,” she admitted. “That new knife he has bothers me.”
During their training with Bell, they had noticed when he was using his longer knife, made from the same Minotaur that he had slain, he wavered between being more aggressive in his assault and reluctant. The way he explained it was that he felt like the spirit and ferocity of the Minotaur was within the blade, taking his concentration to tamper down on it when he was in a fight.
None of them knew the reason, but the one who made it was the Crozzo who had the blood of spirits within him and made the blade after he reached Level Two. The Blacksmith Development Ability allowed smiths to instill different properties within their craft, and he had apparently put everything he could into creating the weapon. It was probably some combination of that and his blood that resulted in such an outcome.
Aiz told him to be wary of it. Her reason was that she knew very well what it was like to have something that bequeathed you great power by giving in to your rage and anger. It was all-consuming, a force that could very well cost you everything if you were unable to rein it in.
Within her breasts burned an insidious dark flame, its weight heavy on her heart. Anger manifested and hatred fueling it, that flame yearned for power to take revenge and pushed her to seek strength. Even when Riveria calmed it within her after her fight against Revis, it still influenced her in subtle ways.
She had yearned to find the secret of his growth. He was diligent, but his growth was abnormal. The Falna gifted one with a great many things, and if he possessed a Skill that could do the same then she coveted it. Had Riveria not stopped her when he was defenseless, she would have wiped away the blood and dirt and cloth to find the secret he kept hidden on his back.
That boy had been blessed to be able to receive such great power without housing inside of him some kind of distortion like the rest of them that would dye his white hair and ruby eyes with the hue of rage and insanity. More than that, his presence… soothed her deep within. It gently enveloped the flame burning her from the inside and slowly enclosed upon it, silently coaxing it to fade away without consuming any more of herself.
He made her want to smile without even realizing it. As if recalling an ancient memory of fleeting joy.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Tiona said, voicing her own opinion as one born into a warrior culture. “Holding back against an opponent like that will only drag him down. He just needs to not be too wild with it.”
They knew he managed to break the S-rank on all of his attributes when he defeated the Minotaur. But it had only been a short time since then and there was another Level between himself and his opponent. Just looking at the events unfolding outside of the castle for the War Game, showed as much given that what had to be a pair of at least Level Three adventurers were easily manhandling numerous Level Twos.
Even now the western curtain wall shook as the sylph drifted aloft in the air, sailing through the sky on the backlash of her own wind spell. Their fight had brought them closer to the defensive structure and she had maneuvered herself into jumping in the air before firing down in the space between her and Gryne. It split them apart, the chain going taut and flames erupting from it before shattering as the Amazon crashed into the wall and lost consciousness.
Landing on top of the wall, the Elven Mage shuddered before looking down at her hand. The flesh had been burned but not severely to the extent of going beyond a superficial second-degree burn. No, the real damage was likely due to simply being near her own spell going off and the resulting pressure wave. And even that was short-lived as she opened her mouth and sang a new song that swaddled her in rejuvenating light.
“How reckless,” Riveria noted as the girl sat there mending her own self-inflicted injuries. “She made such a brash decision because she was confident that she could heal herself and the difference in their Levels and equipment. She’s practically skirting with having an Ignis Faatus doing that, and I don’t think Lady Astraea would encourage such a practice.”
The Amazon probably did not have a high rank in her Magic, given her more physical attributes such as Strength. But considering the battle clothes of the Elf were not even singed or torn by the flames and wind, it was safe to assume it was made of spirit cloth that mitigated the flames. That combined with a fairly solid Endurance rank and a Level Three Falna meant those intense flames gave her nothing more than minor burns at best.
“While she has a staff and knows at least basic self-defense, she’s clearly more talented in using magic to know how to concurrently cast,” Finn pointed out. “For someone outside of Orario to have that level of talent and be a Level Three seems a bit odd. There’s little chance she doesn’t have a spell through the Falna all things considered, so the fact that she hasn’t used it or won’t means either it isn’t suitable to the War Game or she’s hiding it for one reason or another.”
In other words, they most likely weren’t members of the Astraea Familia. It was not as though Lord Hermes was above rigging the game in his favor. He was already known for concealing the Levels of his own Familia and the impression Finn and the others got when he arrived on the 18th Floor gave them enough of a read on him to know that he was perfectly capable of manipulating with words and had an interest in Bell Cranel.
“Who cares,” Bete so eloquently voiced. “The Apollo Familia started it with the intention of dogpilin’ em, so I ain’t gonna complain about the weaklings evenin’ the odds as long as they don’t do everything for them.”
Gareth agreed. “Considering the look in his eyes when he arrived that day, the boy probably intends to challenge the Captain of the Apollo Familia himself. The others are just clearing a path for him to do it.”
Then, as if to confirm his sagely prediction, there was the crackle of lightning from the northern section as the first actual member of the Hestia Familia made their appearance with a magic sword in hand…
Chapter 15: Let The Games Begin
“Days turned to weeks. Weeks became months. And by the time I realized it, we had been at the village for a year. The nights had become a little less lonely and the fears of the world outside of four walls had lessened for me. I owed it all to Argo, whom I considered an older brother by then.
He remained rather bumbling during the day when there was a need for hard work. But he was one of the few who knew how to read and write, so he made himself useful in other ways when he thought that I was not watching. I even saw him practicing with a stick as a makeshift sword, hopelessly swinging it away, even though he did not have any real talent with it even then.
But I knew so little about who he had been before we met. He was too well-spoken, and he had been dressed rather well when we first met, even if those clothes were sold so that we would have necessities when we first arrived. Yet he never seemed to bring up who he was before the Kingdom fell.
He had to have been a noble once upon a time. And I was sure if he wished it, he could have been so much more than an orphan like myself. Then again, it may have been that the person whom he had been once also died in the fall of Elcos.
He was simply a clown named Argonaut from then on—nothing more.”
—Who Were You, Argo?
“Sorry if I’m late!”
Those were the first words out of Lefiya Viridis’ mouth as she emerged into the canvas tent that served as the base of the Hestia Familia outside of the town of Argis. The others had arrived yesterday, but she had only arrived mere moments ago thanks to one of the flying dragons that she recognized from their trip to the Spirit Forest. She did not question how Lulune got her hands on it but was grateful all the same.
“We were worried you wouldn’t be able to get away from your Familia in time,” said her little brother, clad in his lightweight armor that was meant to protect his vitals. His underclothes were the same Salamander Wool that he had when they were on the 18th Floor, and an additional piece added to serve as a cowl and cape. And, for the first time this week, he looked well-rested instead of running himself ragged training. “It’s a relief that you made it.”
“I had to have Tiona and a friend cover for me today,” the Half-Elf explained vaguely. Their current location was a day’s trip via horse-drawn carriage, but that was thankfully far shorter when you had access to flight. Even so, she had to leave first thing in the morning and asked for Tiona to explain her absence after breakfast.
Her excuse was that she had plans with Filvis for the day since no one would be going into the Dungeon when the War Game was going on. It was not a lie, mind you. She fully intended to spend the evening with the Elven beauty and had told her as much.
That was why they were going to settle things now rather than over the course of the three days allowed. Even if it meant she had to pull Hyacinthus off his throne herself. “Is everything on your little friends’ side of things ready?”
“Yeah,” answered the Crozzo Blacksmith. Similar to Bell, he also had on a layer of Salamander Wool as a full cloak. And in front of him were two bundles wrapped in cloth. “If all goes according to plan, Little Lili will have reduced the number of the Apollo Familia right after things begin. Nice outfit, by the way.”
“This was after we compromised on the design after four hours,” the Half-Elf complained as she looked over herself. She had gone ahead and tied her hair in a way to shorten it so that when she used the pendant that hung around her neck she could make it appear naturally shorter to help sell the image of her being a different, full-blooded Elf as well. “I wanted a more antique look that isn’t commonplace in Orario, to help sell the image of me being an Elf from one of the more remote forests, but the influences of the designer stand out.”
The upper half was a white blouse with long sleeves that were fuller at the bottom, using golden cuffs at the end and matching sleeve garters to keep the excess fabric in check while the collar was hemmed in red and gold. That was overlapped by an overbust corset that had cloth sewn into it to match the bright colors in the design and ribbon tails coming down to her knees. To finish off the outfit she had an orange skirt with black hemming to go with white stockings and a pair of black shoes. The materials of the clothing were also Spirit Cloth, meaning they should be able to handle just about anything the War Game could throw at her.
“I think it looks nice on you,” her brother innocently commented, blissfully ignorant of her trials and tribulations to obtain said clothing for the sake of helping him.
It turned out that that tailor that Hermes had sent her to visit was a Sheep Person who had a specialty boutique that catered to certain… occupations only found in the Pleasure Quarters. And the “deal” the God of Travel had struck with the woman involved her modeling lingerie to get her outfit free of charge. She had been struggling to find Elven Models because no self-respecting Elf would wear them—and, considering what some of those strips of gossamer-thin cloth that passed as clothing were, none ever would.
She could still recall the guilt-laden words of the tanned-skinned Chienthrope as Lefiya gave her a withering gaze for knowing exactly what awaited her ahead of time. “Yeah, there’s a reason most of us in the Familia refuse to come here. You should see what the Captain did to Lord Hermes when they made her model the swimsuit line and he suggested they call it Andromeda’s Secret.”
“And your new staff looks cool too,” Bell added, bringing attention to the said staff. It was a composite that had been crafted by another Elven Mage who had a fondness for ancient aesthetics and so it was made of a heavy wood along with wood from an Elven Forest within its core. That meant it was heavier and more durable if she needed to make use of the staff drills that Lady Riveria had instilled into her, while the core served as a conduit that led to the two emerald magic stones—a larger one affixed to the top of the staff to serve as the main focal point and one on the rear as a secondary.
The magic stones would increase the power of Wind-based Magic, which was a necessity considering it was her only offensive spell at the moment. She and Bell had experimented on using her Gale Blast after she finished recovering from exhausting her Mind prior and figured out the range and effectiveness of the spell. It worked by using her magic power to generate and compress air before shooting it out like a cannonball until it ruptured, whereupon it unleashed all that compressed air.
It could tear apart higher-tier Level One monsters like a Silverback with relative ease, but Level Two monsters needed a direct hit when she put forth as much effort as she could manage. Any monster higher than that was something that the spell was not capable of dealing with, at the most blowing them away if they were not too heavy or firmly grounded, which made sense considering a Minor Spirit bequeathed it to her…
At least under normal circumstances.
“For the time being, we should review the plan to make sure everyone knows their part in things,” Ryuu suggested. The Elven Warrior was donning a beige cloak that contrasted the purple one that the Thousand Elf had worn over her combat outfit for the match. She brought their focus onto a map that displayed the area and had notes written upon it. “I believe that I will still be initiating the hostilities using one of Mister Crozzo’s swords to draw their attention and then focus it to the Eastern Wall.”
The Crozzo Blacksmith took that as his cue to unwrap one of the two bundled cloths. Inside was what looked to be an ornate sword, the blade made of a scarlet metal with the guard having trimmings of gold. But, having been around enough Magic Swords from the Loki Familia’s use of them, Lefiya could tell it was one.
Magic had been infused within it. So thoroughly instilled within it that the very metal had been warped and changed into existing as nothing more than a conduit to express that power. It would probably be more accurate to say it was like a magic stone in the shape of a sword, rather than a sword that had Magic within it.
“The element is Fire, and it will bring down those walls,” he continued. “It probably won’t be taken well that an Elf is using something like this, but you’re the most capable of us. And I feel I can trust that you would be the most cautious to avoid a mistake happening right now.”
Fire was inherently among the most destructive of the elements a Magic Sword could have. And anything capable of bringing down a castle wall would be more than enough to kill a lower-end Level Two Adventurer on a direct hit. Being a Level Four Adventurer, she alone was more than enough to clear out the castle as it was and they all knew it, so he would rather she use it to avoid unnecessary casualties.
“I will ensure that none of them suffer any fatal injuries, let alone one by a Magic Sword of your making,” the Elven Warrior told him as she carefully slipped the blade into a hoop attached to her belt beneath the cloak. “You have my word.”
Feeling the weight of eyes shift to her next, the Thousand Elf recited her role. “After Miss Ryuu draws the attention of the ranged casters and marksmen, I’ll attack the Western Wall and that will push us into the second stage and force them to divert their faster, more capable close-quarter combatants to my location.”
She would establish herself as another threat they could not ignore but also as a Mage. Since most dedicated spellcasters were weak at close range, they would attempt to subdue her as quickly as possible by closing the distance. However, the Level difference would make that a much more difficult endeavor than they were expecting.
Ryuu nodded in agreement. “Based on the information we have, that does seem to be the most likely path they will take. That will split at least half of their total forces and open up a path for Miss Yamoto to make her entrance from the Northern Wall.”
The Kunoichi who hailed from the Takemikazuchi Familia straightened up, bringing attention to her garb. It was made of darker colors and form-fitting, suitable for slipping into the shadows, while her cloak was a palette better suited to the tall grasslands. “My duty will be to infiltrate from the north and subjugate or distract the remaining forces within while leaving the Southern Gate unguarded so that Sir Bell and Sir Welf can enter. I will stake my life on seeing it done successfully.”
“You can try sounding a little less intense,” Welf said as he unfurled the next cloth. The sword this time was violet and had a curved blade more akin to an eastern sword. “This one has a Lightning element to it with a focus on the Paralysis Effect. Even if they have Abnormal Resistance, anything lower than an ‘H’ ranking will feel the effect unless they have gear designed to prevent it.”
If the first sword was designed to bring the walls down akin to a siege weapon, then this was meant to subjugate their army. The trade-off for that was to decrease the offensive power of the element for the status condition it could inflict as a secondary effect. Paralysis was crippling enough in the Dungeon that Lefiya specifically had an accessory to prevent it, but a strong enough charge could overpower it.
“That’s when we’ll go to the final phase,” Bell chimed in. “If everything works out, we’ll end it in less than an hour. That should allow you two to head back to Orario before you get into trouble.”
Lefiya’s expression soured somewhat when she considered that, but she said nothing until the strategy meeting was over and the others left the tent to get ready since the hour of the battle was soon to be upon them. Once she was alone with her little brother, the Half-Elf made her feelings clear. “I’m still against you going against Hyacinthus alone.”
White hair bobbed slightly as he acknowledged as much. “I know, but… I have to do this, Sister.”
Over the last week, they had all discussed what they wanted out of the War Game and Lefiya felt they needed to crush the Apollo Familia in its entirety so that no one got the idea to pull something like this on Bell again. Between herself, Ryuu, and having Crozzo Magic Swords, that was more than possible. The match was all but won if Bell remained at the base since his defeat was the condition for them to lose.
However, Bell refused to do that. In fact, he wanted to minimize the number of people who got hurt severely since he understood that they were only following their God’s orders like good children should. That was why that Pharmacist and Pallum had concocted their current plan rather than just giving Lefiya one of the Magic Swords and letting her unload it on him.
She would admit that was not necessarily a bad thing. Her own emotions were clouding her judgment. The affront to her brother’s wellbeing did not afford her as much leniency considering the circumstances. He was simply more forgiving than her.
However, the fact that he wanted to face Hyacinthus alone was something she really did not like. Even with the training he got there was still a full difference of a Level between them. It would basically be handing Bell over to him on a silver platter and she had made it clear what a horrible plan that was.
But she had been the only one against it. The other members of his Familia and even Ryuu stated that Bell had to be the one who did it. The rest of them could only help him to that point and would then leave everything to him.
Lefiya did not agree with that.
Not because she did not understand why they felt that way as fellow Adventurers. She understood perfectly well what he went through. Bell had been humiliated.
He had been beaten and forced to kneel in front of someone he stood no chance against. He had been too weak to protect himself, let alone anyone else, and had to be saved by someone stronger than him. His pride had been trampled on as an Adventurer.
He deserved the chance to prove what he was capable of to everyone—including himself.
She understood that because she had been in his place before and knew how bitter that was. That was why she worked to learn Concurrent Chanting with Filvis. That was why she put everything she had into becoming someone capable of at least taking a step to walk alongside the other members of her Familia like Bete and Aiz.
However, Lefiya was also his older sister.
One who had spent years repressing her sororal instincts, only to see him nearly die because she abandoned him when he needed guidance. The moment it all came flooding out of her like a broken dam there was no turning back. That was why she was willing to do so much for his sake.
Mutual respect was due. That was why she was willing to give him a chance as a fellow Adventurer. But if she saw him getting beaten bloody a second time, nothing would stop her from intervening as his older sister—even if he hated her for it.
Even so, the sheer magnitude of what they were doing and the consequences, if she was caught, left her wanting to complain while she still could. “Seriously, Bell. Between this and the 18th Floor, my hair will probably end up turning as white as yours from the stress. Try not to worry your big sister too much after this, okay?”
The response she got was a small laugh and apology. “Sorry.”
“I’d believe that more if you weren’t smiling so much,” she said with a small pout. It felt like he was making fun of her.
Her little brother only sheepishly scratched his cheek. “It’s just… when I was younger, I always hoped we could be closer, so hearing you call yourself that makes me kind of happy.”
His answer sobered her. The innocent reminder made it clear just how much time they had lost together because of her brashness as a child. Then there was the fact that for a Human time was much more precious considering how short-lived they were compared to even Half-Elves—without factoring in the occupational hazard that was the Dungeon.
She dropped the pout and then came over to embrace him, the act of which flustered him. Even so, she held fast she brought her forehead to his and whispered a small apology of her own. “I really am sorry for being a bad older sister until now, Bell.”
“…No, I’m sorry for being such a troublesome little brother,” he said after a prolonged pause before she felt his arms come up to embrace her in return. “Thank you for helping me, Sister.”
The hug lingered until Bell suddenly turned his head around, eyes spanning the empty space. Almost as if he were searching for someone watching them. That was when her Elven eyes noticed the amulet hanging around his neck, a golden teardrop with a jewel just beneath the cowl of Salamander Wool. “…Bell, what’s this?”
“It was supposed to be a gift for good luck,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
Her slender fingers reached out and ran along the surface of the jewel. For a moment she thought it might have been a magic stone, but there was something about it that bothered her. So, she took a moment to just allow for some of her magical energy to come out and focused it into the gemstone… only to feel it be rebuked. “I think this is a jewel that gives the holder a limited form of Magic Resistance.”
His expression went from confused to surprised. “Really?”
Lefiya brought her hand to her chin. “Lady Riveria told me that they’re a rare item found in the Dungeon after my first run-in with an Obsidian Soldier. When someone with a Developmental Ability refines and processes them, even a small gemstone fixed onto an accessory like this one can mitigate a decent amount of magical damage.”
He reached down and stared at the jewel in the center that seemed to reflect his rubellite eyes. “I thought it might do something, but I didn’t know it could do that. I’ll have to see it returned to Miss Syr once everything is said and done.”
That waitress had something like this? She could not help but wonder if that woman really knew what she had given her little brother considering it was one expensive good luck charm. But she did not have the luxury to dwell on it as she pulled out her silver pocket watch with Elvish embellishments and noted the time.
Then she tapped the pendant to change her appearance into that of a Full Elf with emerald eyes and shorter hair. “Remember to call me Miss Feena when I look like this from now on. The Gods and Goddesses will be watching us, so a slip of the tongue will pretty much invalidate the match and make it all for nothing. Got it?”
“Understood, Miss Feena,” he said a little too playfully for her tastes before he followed her out of the tent.
Neither took notice as the Elven Warrior’s ears shifted beneath the hood of her cloak from a fair distance away.
At the top level of Babel Tower, many Gods and Goddesses had gathered. The spacious theatron served as the perfect stadium for all those whose who wished to observe the War Game as a social event rather than the confines of their own homes. As well as the outcome considering the heads of the two Familia involved were in attendance as well.
It was then that Apollo approached Hestia. The Goddess of the Hearth sat in a small group along with Hephaestus, Takemikazuchi, and Miach, all gathered in what was a show of solidarity amongst them. Lacking in fear and brimming with confidence in his impending success, he approached his opponents before all of the Gods and Goddesses in attendance and beyond who listened for the pre-game banter.
“Let there be no hard feelings, my dear Holy Flame,” he began, bringing his arms around as if to embrace himself. “Though I understand how such a wondrous child enraptured your heart whereas I could not, know that I do not seek to deprive you of him out of envy. In fact, I would be more than willing to host you as a treasured guest within my manor while we hold a symposium to discuss how you have managed to raise such a fine boy.”
Hestia fought not to rise out of her seat and slap him at the implications that did not elude her of a tryst between the three. “If you really cared then you would have considered our feelings and wouldn’t have driven us to this point. You still haven’t learned to rein in your passions, Apollo.”
The God of the Sun did not even attempt to deny it. “Surely you know that as the sun my flames of cannot be extinguished. Even I cannot help but succumb when the passion within me becomes inflamed.”
“And that same passion has led to Artemis putting an arrow in you how many times now?” Hephaestus inquired, eliciting a repressed giggle from the spectators. “You may want to reconsider given that her doing so on the Lower World will result in you getting sent back up the next time she visits Orario.”
“Need you mention that classless Goddess?” he complained, followed by a sigh. Then his tone dropped the theatrics for a moment to address only her. “Hestia… do consider my offer to at least be treated as an honored guest within my care. I really would rather you spent the remainder of your time here on the Lower World in luxury considering Prometheus’ folly.”
…There was a shift in the immediate area as the group there all took in the implication of his words. The reason she had been allowed to descend so soon. It earned the ire of all those around the Goddess of the Hearth as they fixed their gaze onto him that he crossed a line that should not have been crossed.
“Leave.” Hephaestus spoke for them in a repressed, burning tone that was as searing hot as the very forges she commanded. It was a promise of pain if not obeyed within. “Now.”
“…My apologies, if I offended you,” he said before giving a bow and then departing further into the seats.
It did little to quell the Goddess of the Forge until Hestia set a hand on her arm and gave a slight shake of her head. “You know how he is without someone to keep him in check. Just let it go.”
That had always been the problem with some of the divine. In general, their love was colored by their nature, and the two mixed in ways that could be to the detriment of the others around them. The sun was passionate and unrelenting, which manifested as his desire to lay claim to that which stoked his inner fire—whether it be a virginal goddess or her adorable child who had yet to truly be able to stand on his own two feet.
The worst part of everything he just said was the fact that not a single word of that was insincere or meant to be offensive, she knew. It was just his nature, but that did not mean she could allow that to go unchecked when Bell was his target.
He had to be taught a lesson in a way that would make it stick. I guess I will take a page out of Artemis’ book to deal with him when this is over.
“I, GANESHA, REQUEST THE USE OF OUR ARCANUM!” announced said God in his usual tone once there was only a minute left before the event, which was to say loud enough that everyone in Babel could probably hear it. Including Ouranos.
The response came a moment later, a deep and powerful tone that lacked in volume but could be heard throughout Orario. “Granted.”
With a snap of the finger, Divine Mirrors sprang into existence all over Orario. The looking glass that permitted a view of the stage even though they were far away, one of the few uses of their Arcanum allowed on the Lower World. It was the unofficial signal for everyone that the War Game was about to begin.
As those around her called up their own mirrors to focus on their children participating, Hestia’s thoughts shifted to that of the Goddess of the Moon. It had been months since the last time they had seen one another when she first descended, and the meeting had been bittersweet but warm all the same. She could only hope they would meet again soon so that she could show her what a wonderful child she found… before it was too late.
Then she felt Miach’s tender hand on her shoulder and saw his handsome yet gentle smile. It brought her back to the present as she opened her own personal mirror, naturally focused on showing Bell. He was standing next to Loki’s child in disguise on the outskirts of the castle, their hands held together as light danced between them.
The sight brought relief to her heart. At least I kept that promise to you, Bell.
Shreme Castle was one of many that had been built on the grasslands that had been surrounding Orario, constructed during the Ancient Era to serve as one of the gates to stop the encroachment of monsters from the Abyss in check until the lid could be placed on top of it. Though they tried many times to do so, it was only when the first of the Gods, Ouranos, descended that every race working together had managed to truly seal it shut.
With their purpose served, the castles had been neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair. The ancient walls had succumbed to nature over the course of centuries, and it was only by the virtue of this one being the staging point of a failed invasion of Orario once upon a time that it remained relatively solid enough to be put back in working order for the War Game.
The curtain walls that had been long abandoned had been reinforced. The exterior that was ten meders tall had fresh mortar applied where it had been coming apart, ashlar stones were slotted into place where the old stones had succumbed in the past, and the filling beneath the wall walk and interior walls had been further reinforced leading to the towers of the castle. They had even ensured that the bedrock was solid if one tried to undermine them and slip in from below over the course of the three days.
Standing at a window in the main tower with his arms behind his back as the bell that served to signal the start of the War Game chimed, Hyacinthus looked down at the members of the Familia moving about now. There was a sense of anxiousness in his chest as he awaited the conclusion of the event, even though he knew that would not happen soon. The conditions for victory were in his favor, but the time period of three days made it so that for the next seventy-two hours they would need to be on full alert.
…It was ridiculous. He knew it even as it went unsaid by the others that setting up patrols and rotating the guard so that every avenue of attack was accounted for was excessive when there were only six members of the opposition. But he did not want to take chances when there were unknowns and had sent Luan to investigate all of the Hestia Familia participants while the others focused on the matters of getting their defenses up to par.
Welf Crozzo, a former member of the Hephaestus Familia. He was reputed to be a member of the Crozzo family that would not produce Magic Swords, that which had made them infamous throughout the world as they had earned the ire of Elves far and wide by subjecting their sacred forests to flames during Rakia’s conquest. It was one of the few things that actually earned some measure of emotion from the Lissos—namely, rage.
They had supposedly lost the ability to produce Magic Swords and thus Rakia’s expansionism came to a crashing halt. To that end, he was effectively a worthless treasure among the Familia, having the name but none of the capability. His transference was of no consequence.
Then there was Liliruca Arde, a former member of the Soma Familia. She was literally a nonfactor considering that not only had she been a Supporter, but she had been a member of that disorderly and disheveled mess of a Familia. However, he still made an attempt to glean more information about her considering the fact that the Soma Familia had an agreement with them not even four days before the Conversion.
Yet his attempt had been scuttled as his previous contact with the Familia was… indisposed, as he was told.
Last was Yamato Mikoto, a former member of the Takemikazuchi Familia. With the alias of Absolute Shadow, she had above average combat capability as demonstrated by her contributions during the chase in putting a number of his Familia out of commission. In terms of pure Status, she probably had the best given she reached Level Two before the Little Rabbit or the Crozzo, and thus had time to accumulate excelia. And her martial ability was not to be underestimated despite being from such a small Familia.
But she was still just a Level Two, which was the average of their Familia. Realistically, one of their Commanders could likely beat her in raw ability and training. She alone would not be able to turn the tide and they all knew it.
The real issue was the two outliers that Hermes had added to their ranks, both belonging to the Astraea Familia. It was a Familia that had been in Orario in the past, well-known and well-beloved according to what he could gleam. But the Familia had been supposedly wiped out and the Goddess in question had chosen to depart Orario rather than remain with no one having contact with her.
Given that the God of Travel could freely leave Orario and carry messages along with deliveries, it was plausible that they knew of one another well enough that she would lend her children to face off against them. But the problem was there was no information available other than their names and races—a pair of Elves, a female named Feena, and a male Ryulu.
Nothing about their Levels. Nothing about their capabilities. They were complete unknowns. That meant they had to be prepared for anything.
That was also why the moment he heard steel clattering to the floor the Beloved of the Sun went into combat mode. His senses sharpened. Time dilated. Hand on his weapon and his flamberge half-drawn, he turned on his heel to find…
One of his men literally sleeping on the job.
It was one of the Mages. He was lying there on the ground as the others looked at him with either disapproval or fear as one of the others tried to stir him awake. He came over and the others backed away as he roughly jostled him with a foot. “You dare fall asleep as the game begins! Wake up!”
There was no response.
A nagging feeling in his chest arose at that moment as his ears, senses still alert, heard sounds coming from the sky bridge. He went to the door and opened it to see that Daphne, one of his Commanders, was steadily trying to awaken Cassandra. He crossed the distance and loomed over the pair before demanding, “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Daphne said. “She was complaining about feeling sleepy and then the next thing I know she fell asleep and won’t wake up. And it’s not just her either.”
His ears picked up noise from around them and caught sight of movement around the castle. Some among their ranks were falling asleep and refusing to awake. It had to be an attack against them, a notion that deepened his scowl as he considered what could do this. “Give her your Elixir, now!”
An Elixir was an expensive type of Potion that could cure nearly any kind of Status Condition. He had ensured that each of the Commanders possessed one, along with a High Potion. The rest of their ranks had a Potion to be used if fighting had broken out.
The results spoke for themselves as Daphne immediately reached into her Potion Holster, popped the cork, and then brought it to Cassandra’s lips. She swallowed it almost reflexively before her eyes slowly drifted open and she looked round with her usual dour gaze. “Mmm… what happened to the storm from the dancing fairy?”
He ignored the nonsense and focused on the fact that she was awake again. “It’s enforced, meaning it’s a status condition. That means that the only ones who weren’t affected were those with Abnormal Resistance.”
It was a Developmental Ability that one could gain upon reaching Level Two, a common one at that due to exposure to the Purple Moths on the Upper Floors. So common in fact that it was traditional for those who had rarer or more role-specific Developmental Abilities to bypass it for things like Mage, Treatment, or Hunter if available. That effectively rendered their Mages, Healers, and specialists, along with the few Level Ones they had, out of the combat.
“If it was a spell then we would have felt it being cast over this large of an area,” Daphne pointed out as she helped Cassandra back onto her feet. “And people have been complaining about being sleepy since… breakfast…”
The realization dawned on them both at that moment. “Someone drugged the food.”
“We inspected everything we brought in,” Daphne stated. “If they had laced it with something then we would have found out.”
“…Unless it was added before everyone ate breakfast this morning.” His fists tightened as a searing heat prickled in his chest. There was one possibility that he had not considered. “There’s a traitor among us.”
One of the Familia that had assisted the Hestia Familia during the chase was a Medicinal Familia, and all it would take was someone with the Mixing Development Ability and the right ingredients such as powder from the wings of a Hypno Butterfly on the 13th Floor to create something capable of putting anyone without Abnormal Resistance to sleep. The right mixture of spices and flavoring would make the taste untraceable, and with enough medical knowledge it would be possible to tailor the effect to gradually take hold a set number of hours later.
Something that would be made much easier to plan out if someone leaked their schedule.
Daphne avoided his gaze, but she did not refute it. “Even so, there’s no time to figure out who’s responsible. We need to get as many people as we can back up before—”
Her words died when the curtain walls erupted with a riotous explosion. The stone shook while heat and smoke wafted in the air. Shouts of uncertainty rang out not more than a minute after the starting bell, accompanying a signal fire that was clear to all watching that there would be no delay now that the games had begun.
The castle siege was underway.
Chapter 11: Declaration of War
“Despite his body being so thin and his clothes fine, the Human boy with white hair and eyes the color of rubies strained and struggled with a pole to lift the rubble off of me. It was just enough that I could crawl out from below, away from where my mother and father’s bodies remained. He told me not to look at them as we ran away.
In the end, we managed to escape. But I had lost everything. I was angry, confused, and sad, crying on my knees as I asked him why we saved a Half-Man like me while touching my ears. They were proof that I didn’t belong to either race, a pitiful half-breed.
He only smiled as she leaned down and touched them tenderly and said, ‘I like your ears. They remind me of butterflies atop a sunflower.’
His words that day saved me.
He became my hero.
—The Boy with White Hair and Red Eyes
Bell’s ears rattled as a battle cry shook the air as the Captain of the Takemikazuchi Familia fearlessly rushed ahead into the vanguard position with a battleax in his grasp.
Throwing himself towards two Adventurers that had been rushing towards them, he reared the large steel weapon backward before stomping down and pivoting. The battleax came around, a silver streak running from right-to-left with the sound of wrenching steel ringing out as it met with the first—a man with a shield in one hand and sword in the other.
Overpowered. The massive ax bit into the bulwark of steel and tore it apart before biting into the breastplate of the Human and sending sparks into the air as the body behind it was thrown alongside the momentum of it. The body hit the stonewall and crumpled in on itself.
Then it came around again, from left-to-right. This time it on the opposing side was a burlier Dwarf, who had dared to oppose him with a Warhammer. The sound of steel ringing against steel sounded out as the two met, but with a flex of his muscles, he pushed through before spinning around and then swinging the ax anew and tearing a bloody gash across the Dwarf’s chest as the man barreled away with his chainmail’s rings scattered as two more were ready to take their place, advancing towards their vanguard with a dagger and longsword.
Purple rushed in from their side.
It was Mikoto with a spear in her grasp as she sped past Ouka and met them before they could breach the frontline. She thrust the spear forward, driving the sharp point into the shoulder blade of her assailant to the point where the tip could be seen, and a scream rang out along with the sound of clattering steel as his longsword fell onto the ground before she jerked the point out and then tucked the haft under her arm as she brought the rear-end of the polearm around. It met with the side of his face and his body followed it to the ground.
Then she pivoted around on her front leg to avoid the point of a dagger heading to her face, snatching the outstretched arm. With a fluid motion, she raised her knee while jerking the arm out and downward. The scream that followed a sickening crunch was even louder than the one prior as the assailant fell to his knees, clutching the broken arm before her foot came up and silenced him.
Further back was a trio of marksmen. A least one was a Pallum with a wrist-crossbow, alongside a Hume Bunny and Human armed with crossbows. They were using boxes and signs for half-cover as they took aim at the group.
“Firebolt!” Bell shouted. They were within the range of his spell and the building they were hiding near was made of brick, which meant it didn’t have as much of a chance of catching aflame. A searing bolt sailed from his outstretched hand, shooting towards the obstruction while searing the air along the way.
The Pallum rolled from his cover before the spell connected, erupting into flames that hungrily swallowed the box and sign while lapping at the two who remained in place and were now screaming as they fell to the ground and rolled around to extinguish the flames. Getting up, the Pallum pulled back and readied to loose the bolt when an arrow caught his shoulder and pierced through with enough force that it pinned him to the wall—his Status was low apparently.
“Nice shot, Chigusa!” Ouka called out, sparing a glance back towards the girl with her eyes obstructed by her bangs with only a slight parting in the curtain to reveal the dark-green hue.
She was running alongside another member of their Familia who carried with them a large shield that would require two hands to use, meant to protect Miach and Hestia from any stray shots as Bell and the Half-Elf Mage ran just slightly ahead of them. There was a bow in her hands, an arrow already nocked as she called out to him. “Ahead!”
He looked up to see that there were even more on the way, a wave of men with disheveled or disorderly appearances rather than any set uniform. There were at least ten of them, some smarter than others in that they had shields out with the intention of blocking any arrows heading their way. They were going to try to use their numbers to overrun them.
“—arrow of accuracy! Arcs Ray!” Lefiya finished casting, magic circle beneath her shedding light as her staff was held out and gave birth to a beam of gold. The aurous flash shot out and sped towards the onrushing men whose faces were illuminated by its radiance before the beam curved downwards slightly and hit the ground, rupturing. Smoke obscured the pathway for a moment as broken bits of stone rained down, pattering against the walls and rooftops while the bodies that had been thrown astray by the blast were either scattered over the street, slouched against the wall, or half-buried into the boxes that caught them as the force sent them out of the way.
They ran right past them.
“These aren’t the same men who were chasing you,” his sister said, looking towards him as they continued to move. “They’re weaker.”
“I think there’s another Familia with them!” Bell said. “I saw a Wine Glass and Crescent Moon on one of them a while back!”
Recognition flashed on Miach’s face at that. “That would be the emblem of the Soma Familia. I didn’t think he would be the kind to get involved in this sort of affair, given the trouble it would bring.”
Bell didn’t know much about the God in question, but he had already had a run- in with the Soma Familia. They had attempted to kill one of their own down in the Dungeon, a death by feeding her to monsters after robbing her blind. To her, it had been preferable for them to think she had been dead rather than going back afterward.
He gritted his teeth when he realized that must’ve been what he had seen the night of the dance when he spotted Hyacinthus beforehand. They had been making arrangements to capture him from even before she had refused the War Game. Now they were in the opposite direction of the Guild, pushed closer to the western edge of the city, as the others had told him and Hestia once they regrouped.
If not for the others coming to their aid they would have been caught by now.
But now that they had time, they had options. The first was that they made it to the Guild. The guard would be heaviest along the way, but they wouldn’t dare attack them once they were close enough. It was the best scenario.
Another alternative was simply to keep moving until the Ganesha Familia got involved. They were the acting peacekeepers and had the largest number of Familia members. Apollo couldn’t match that, and considering they were disturbing the public they would all be brought in for it—they’d likely get into some trouble, but Apollo couldn’t touch them while they were in custody.
“Some more people are coming!” Lefiya called out. Her perception was already higher than his from her race, even before the fact that she was at a Higher Level. “Upcoming right turn. But it sounds like they’re fighting amongst themselves!”
They readied themselves for an ambush only for a larger man to come flying out of the alleyway and into the wall opposite of it. Then another figure emerged, a familiar one dressed in black and with hair as red as flames. “Welf!”
His head whipped around as he saw the advancing party, right before Lili emerged from where he had been and flung out a pouch into the alley and shouted, “Morbol, out!”
“Breathe through your mouth!” Miach warned before she used her Little Ballista to fire a bolt afterwards. Then a plume of sickly-looking green powder billowed up and a foul smell promptly filled the alleyway, washing over them. The screams coming from the alleyway were plentiful.
They kept advancing as the other two joined the group, with Lili taking another one of the pouches out. This one she tossed behind them, ensuring the path they’d taken was obstructed by the same powder. Anyone going through there would be overtaken by the smell, especially anyone with a heightened sense of smell.
His sister included. “I…I think I’m going to be sick…”
“Weren’t you with the Loki Familia?” Welf asked, a brow raised as he combed his memory. She was among those who had been in the tent when his heritage had been discussed.
“Less talk, more running please!” she insisted, one hand covering her mouth and nose. Then her ears twitched. “I hear clamoring over the rooftops!”
“Nahza must have run out of arrows then,” Miach said, which was the optimistic explanation. Because she was acting as a sniper, the rooftops had largely been off-limits unless they wanted to get an arrow. That forced them to use the streets and architecture, funneling them to where they could manage either via Magic or force due to how weak the Soma Familia had been. “That means at least a hundred-and-fifty or more.”
“If they get archers and casters over the rooftops we’ll be boxed into a losing battle!” Ouka shouted, reaching into his belt and pulling out two eastern-made daggers, sheathes and all. He then tossed them behind himself. “Mikoto, take care of our left!”
“Understood.” She stabbed the spear into the ground, leaving it for them to collect as she caught the pair. Then she crouched before springing up high into the air, the leg strength of a Level Two carrying her onto the rooftops composing the left side. Her hand briefly came to her waist where there were throwing spikes before she flung them forward and screaming could be heard.
“Look after Goddess, please!” Bell said as he drew his adamantite dagger in his offhand and copied the motion to jump onto the right rooftops to go ahead. He heard his sister tell him to stay where she could see him as he spotted the approaching enemies. These were dressed in the outfit of the Apollo Familia, in contrast to the ones before, meaning Level Two was the norm.
He kicked off the rooftop towards the first of them, an Elven Archer, with his knives. A violet streak tore through the air in a diagonal as he brought the Hestia Knife around to cut through the body of a recurve bow made of some kind of darkwood. Then he allowed the momentum to carry him through so that he could drive his elbow into the face of the Elf hard enough that he could feel the bone crunch beneath the blow even before his head shot backwards until it hit the rooftop—ripping his consciousness away from him.
That one down, Bell advanced on what looked to be a caster with a wand. There was the tingle of Magic in the air, but the difference in speed was enough that he managed to close the distance before they could finish the trigger and then drive his knuckles, wrapped around the handle of the knife, into their face. They went towards the edge of the roof and then over.
He then turned to the right where he spotted more of them on a stone rooftop, meaning nothing was stopping him from using his flames. He had to be conservative since they were in a residential area where wood was among the most common building material. They were already causing enough problems as it was. “Firebolt!”
Blazing fire ran like a lightning bolt as it lanced towards the three. The thick beam swept them up within the flames. They screamed as the fire washed over them, much as those before, curling up and trying to extinguish the burning.
There were others. But they immediately abandoned the rooftop the moment his eyes fell onto him. They dropped below, not wanting to end up on the wrong end of the spell or maybe they were attempting to bait him into following—which he wouldn’t take.
His surroundings immediately cleared, he looked over to see Mikoto at work. She was like liquid as she moved forward, the two blades in her grasp drawing silver arcs in the air as they parted wood, cloth, and flesh. Blood had stained her purple outfit but she didn’t seem to mind as she cut into limbs, targeting tendons where she could or settling for a target that would make it impossible for them to chase until they received medical attention.
Takemikazuchi was a God of War and it showed in his children when one particularly large Weretiger approached her with a sword in his hand, already in motion. She stepped into the assault, raising her left arm and keeping it forward so that the attacking limb was outside of her body while the sharp end of her tanto buried itself into the shoulder of the man attacking her. Then she twisted her body and brought the crook of her right arm around while her foot hooked his.
He was thrown headfirst into the rooftop and Bell could see he had broken through the ceiling from above with no sign he was still conscious as she pressed ahead without pause. An arrow came her way, but she deflected it with a swipe and then moved in serpentine motions. The archer cried out as one found his wrist tendon and the other found his bow, both severed.
…Bell hated all of this as he saw the injured and bleeding bodies that were being left behind. He didn’t like hurting people. He had wanted to be a hero. Not someone fighting a desperate struggle to keep his Goddess out of the hands of a God that lusted after him with such zeal that he would throw an entire section of the Labyrinth City into chaos.
The Magic he received when he envisioned it as something meant to slay monsters and turn the tide of a battle was instead being used to harm others listening to that God, obeying the rule that a child could not disobey the one they swore allegiances to.
He had gotten lucky after all that Hestia had been the one to find him.
Then there was the fact that they were disrupting the lives of the people living here with the fighting. Those able to run would have evacuated by now, hoping that their homes would still be whole when everything was said and done. Those unable to get away were likely holed up in their homes and praying that the fighting would pass without harm.
The loss of a home was something he could very much relate to at the moment.
“…Ahh…” Then a breath escaped him as he realized something at that moment. Where was Hyacinthus?
The Captain of the Apollo Familia should be getting involved about now. They hadn’t taken out Cassandra, which meant she could heal his wounds and get him back into the fight. Even if her Mind was stretched to the point of nearing collapse, they would prioritize him because he was the most powerful asset they had.
Bell wasn’t a threat to him. That display from before had been meant to demonstrate that. Hyacinthus wanted him to know he could take him out at any time due to the discrepancy in their Levels, and everyone watching knew it as well. No Level Two present here would match him in raw Status, even if the Takemikazuchi Familia were skilled in combat.
So he would go after the target who presented the biggest threat. The one that the other Level Twos couldn’t manage and thus they couldn’t use their numbers or tactics. The Level Three among them that had damaged his pride and stood in his way—his sister.
Lefiya was the highest Level among them. Even holding back, she could clear out swathes of the Level Ones and Level Twos without any problems so long as they didn’t surround her. If not for the fact that they were in a populated city, he suspected even that wouldn’t be a problem with a wide area of effect spell.
That made her the biggest factor in how the battle party progressed. Removing her first would be the highest priority, even if she hadn’t been the one who had injured him and forced him to retreat. Her falling meant that numbers could simply overrun them before the Ganesha Familia intervened.
That realization sent Bell into higher alert as he spanned the roadway below in search of him. If he went by rooftop then they would see him coming, but if he took the alleyways then he could get the drop on them. An ambush would guarantee that he could remove her.
Where is he? Back and forth his eyes ran until he spotted red. Hyacinthus had just emerged from around a corner with his blade drawn, gaze fixed onto Lefiya. Bell voice rang out. “Behind you!”
The next thing he knew his sister was pivoting while her face contorted in pain. Blood spilled onto the brick-laden road as her sleeve sported a wide gash in it around her upper arm. Whether it had been the warning, or she had heard it coming, if she hadn’t turned when she did that would have carved across her back from neck-to-hip.
But there was no time for rest.
Hyacinthus immediately began to follow through with the attack, angling the outstretched blade and then swinging it back the way it came in a single motion to run the sharp point across her chest. It only cut through the outer section of her coat as she bound backward on the leg that had supported her weight, putting distance between them. He stepped forward to close that distance with raw fury in his eyes.
Bell was already in the process of moving when he felt something on his back. Instinct screamed. He brought his Hestia Knife around in time for the ringing of steel to echo and sparks to scrape where it met with a blade that had been aiming for his tendons. “Miss Daphne!?”
The woman who had been commanding a portion of Apollo’s forces had come to face him herself. There was a shroud of some kind wreathing her in what he could only assume was some kind of enchantment spell. “You’ve caused enough problems! Just surrender!”
He didn’t have time for this. Bell pushed his strength into his Goddess bequeathed knife to parry the blade and then brought the other dagger around only for it to be intercepted by her own steel. Then she brushed it off and slammed the pommel towards his face. He barely managed to get his wrist up to deflect her underarm before stepping backwards.
She crossed the distance just as quickly and thrust the point of her sword towards him. Crimson sang as the adamantite dagger managed to parry it as he pivoted on his forward leg. Then he carried through the motion and attempted to deliver a kick with his hind leg only for her to skirt backward enough to avoid. Did her Agility increase?
“You’re making it worse for everyone!” Daphne continued, thrusting her blade and scoring grazing cuts between every five or six thrusts that tore into his shirt and flesh. “Cassandra and I tried running! We tried asking for help! Everywhere we ran he found us! Everyone we asked for help suffered for it! What do you think will happen to those people down there even if you get away!?”
He didn’t want to think about it as a whistle rang out. He couldn’t think about it as amidst the sparks he had to focus on that blade. But, at the moment that he thought he parried the blade and found an opening to strike back, a violet arch cut through where she had been before he felt his legs being taken from him. She had ducked down and swept his legs from beneath, leaving him on his back on the rooftop. “Ghhh!!”
She pressed her foot down on his chest and held the blade in his face before he could get up. “He’ll burn their homes down just as he did yours. He’ll take them captive whether here or the Dungeon and use them to get to you. You’re going to join us one way or another, so just… stop.”
There was an almost pleading tone in her voice as she glared down at him, his chest rising and falling even though her heel was pressing down into his chest hard enough to keep him pinned there. There was sincerity in her tone. To fight was meaningless. To struggle was to hurt everyone around them.
Then he heard the pained cry of his sister and his eyes gazed towards her.
She was holding her arm that was bleeding. Her clothes sported new tears from which her Elven blood ran. Her face was bruised, lip split, and blood trailing down from the corner of her mouth. Even so, her lips moved as she tried to keep singing. “You are the master—”
Hyacinthus moved to cut her down with a vicious slash that she avoided with footwork. Bell couldn’t quite explain how, but it seemed like her movements had shifted just a little bit. He didn’t know her Status, but it seemed that she could avoid his blade as long as she focused on evasion. “—archer. Loose your arrows—urk!”
Her lovely singing voice was silenced when his foot came up, a thrust like a lance that drove his heel into her stomach to interrupt her chant. She could avoid his sword if she focused on it alone, but that left her open to his other avenues of attack. Because if she didn’t focus solely on the blade then it could get her killed, which he recognized as her eyes never left his sword as she barely managed to avoid the next swing.
But then her legs gave out. She fell onto her knees and a breath escaped, carrying with it bile and blood. “Cough! Cough!”
Welf was holding off another group of Soma Familia members. Ouka was the same with some members of the Apollo Familia. Chigusa and Asuka were keeping guard of the two divines, their backs to the wall and the shield keeping them safe. Lili was standing on a box, talking with the same silver-haired man from the party with a look of hopelessness in her eyes.
No one would help her. No one could help her.
Thunder rumbled in his chest.
He gave into it as he twisted his body, accepting the point of Daphne’s blade carving a blood trail on his cheek as he raised the Hestia Knife up. The writing of the gods once more turned an angry hue of red as he shouted, “FIREBOLT!”
The scarlet slash of flames birthed an explosion that rattled the rooftop as it swallowed the woman, sending her flying from the force of it. Freed of her grasp, he got to his feet and shot himself at Hyacinthus without a moment’s hesitation. “RAAAHHHHHH!!”
Hyacinthus barely gave him a side-glance. Then there was a crimson streak as the blade with the providence of the sun found his flesh once more. Bell hit the ground in a tumble, sporting a new gash across his chest, his voice spilling out pathetically as he heard others calling out to him.
The Captain of the Apollo Familia then turned his gaze back on Lefiya and leveled the sword to her head. Her azure eyes glared at the man with the look of murder in them. He scowled at the sight. “Another unsightly face.”
He moved to thrust the sword—
“You look like shit.”
—and then he froze. Not by choice. But because his wrist was within the grasp of a newcomer that appeared on the field, an unyielding steel grip that offered no movement.
None of them saw him coming. None of them saw when he arrived. One moment the sword was getting ready to put an end to things. The next he was between them, his back to the Captain of the Apollo Familia while looking down on the Half-Elven Mage.
“Mist..er…Be…te…” Bell heard her say from his position on the ground as Hestia hurried over with a potion in hand. “…W-Wh…”
The Werewolf cast his gaze downwards as though he was looking down on something filthy lying on the road. “Pathetic. You came to help out this weakling and ended up in this state. I can only imagine the look that girlfriend of yours would have if she saw you like this.”
His cold words were followed by a loud, audible crunch as he tightened his grasp on Hyacinthus’ wrist. A scream followed. Steel clattered to the ground. He let go of the man before using that same hand to grab her by the shoulder and pick her up onto her feet.
“Captain ordered me to bring you back to face punishment for getting us involved in this mess.”
He didn’t offer her a chance to refuse. Bell didn’t even see his other hand move, but all of a sudden his sister’s eyes rolled to the back of her head and she slouched in his grasp. Her staff fell from her grip and into that hand before he tucked her under his other shoulder.
Then he began to walk away.
Bell managed to find the ability to speak. “W-Wait!”
He stopped. Then the air turned hostile. It was a heavy atmosphere, like being trapped in a cage with a vicious wolf ready to rip and tear the next person who moved apart. No one dared to.
Hatred threaded his words. “If you’d just have grown some damn fangs and tore out their throats when they issued that challenge then I wouldn’t have to do shit like this. Don’t let me see you again, you damn rabbit.”
Bell couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. Not until the man disappeared as readily as he arrived. Only then could he gnash his teeth together so hard he thought they would break.
His sister was gone.
Then there was a light that rose into the air and then erupted with a shower of colors. It was a Flare Gun. Movement happened as the members of the Soma Familia began to disengage and run.
“Lili!” Welf called out. Bell turned to see that she was going with the silver-haired man from before. There were tears in her eyes as she looked back towards him.
Then she was gone as well.
“Hyacinthus!” Miss Daphne called out next as the confusion that had settled over the battlefield began to wane. “The Ganesha Familia is on the way!”
“Bastard took the distraction with him!” Hyacinthus exclaimed. Then it made sense why the Ganesha Familia hadn’t been there despite the commotion causing problems for the public. They had numbers and used it to cause distractions elsewhere—even if they were caught and fined, the Apollo Familia could pay it.
Then, with his handsome face contorted in pain and beads of sweat lining his brow, his gaze fell onto Hestia and Bell. “Capture them!”
The remaining members of the Apollo Familia began to move in when the smoke erupted around them, a thick and colored plume that obstructed their vision. Bell fell something grab him and heard his Goddess squeak in surprise as the wind suddenly howled in their ears.
They were flying. “My apologies for the delay.”
Bell recognized her. “Miss Asfi… why are you…”
“Lord Hermes saw the commotion and sent me to retrieve you,” she said bluntly by way of an explanation. “He told me to drop you off wherever you wanted, whether it be in the city or outside of it.”
In other words, it was a chance to go wherever they wanted. If they wanted shelter, they could be dropped off at the Guild. If they wanted to leave Orario and run away, they could be dropped off past the gates. The wings of Perseus would carry them to wherever their hearts desired.
The look of his Goddess as she stared down at his defeated form. The vision of his sister’s battered form being carried away. The look in Lili’s eyes as she departed. The faces of his friends who had come to his aid without a moment’s hesitation when he was in trouble.
Shame. Hatred. Misery. These emotions roiled in his chest along with the thunder and became a violent storm that raged within him as everything was taken from him. His home. His friends. His family.
No more running.
“I understand, Bell.” Three words, spoken instantly with the softest and caring tone his Goddess had spoken in some time as her eyes met his. An unspoken message carried between them. Then she looked up to their savior and gave her instructions. “Take us to Apollo’s Manor.”
It was time to declare war.
Lefiya Viridis emerged from the office with her head hung low now that she had returned to the Twilight Manor.
She had been reprimanded for her actions by the Captain, due to getting involved in a scuffle between two Familia (or three considering the Soma Familia present as well). As a member of the Loki Familia, and the student of the Nine Hells, her actions represented them as a whole. Taking a side would basically be stating that whatever actions they took were endorsed by the Loki Familia as a whole, which was something that wasn’t acceptable—especially not at the moment.
They knew she knew that as well, so she had been asked why she still got involved despite that.
For the second time, she weighed the option of whether to just tell them the truth. That he was her brother, and she was defending him. It would not have been a full justification or even a solid excuse from the perspective of a Familia, but it would have justified her actions on a personal level better than anything else.
All it would cost was Bell’s attachment to his current Familia.
Like she had told him before, it was a conflict of interest having family in different Familia within Orario. Her actions today had all but proven that when she came to his defense. He could be used against them and so the only available options would be to either completely cut ties with him or bring him into the fold.
Lefiya had already tried the former. And she realized how bitter the taste of regret was the moment that she watched him nearly die because of her. She refused to ever do that again.
And the latter would involve a Conversion between the Hestia Familia and the Loki Familia. He wasn’t lacking in terms of Level, but the knowledge and experience that could be provided given he had been in the city for at best two months. She knew that some of the stronger members liked him, so he would probably be welcomed a bit warmly by them as well.
But she recalled the expression that he made when she propositioned him the first time. She recalled his words when she offered a chance for them to be family openly and without worry. He had all but said it then:
“Lady Hestia has become family to me as well. I can’t abandon her.”
Bell wouldn’t abandon her. Not when he had lost the home they shared. Not when someone else tried to take them from one another. Losing her first and only child would disband her Familia and leave her with absolutely nothing.
And Lefiya didn’t want to do that to either of them. Not to her brother who found someone else he could call family when she wouldn’t. Not when that Goddess had shown him nothing but concern even when it would have been easier to give him up.
But if she told the others then the decision would be taken out of their hands because he was that big of a liability. The Loki Familia was a lot more of a threat than the Apollo Familia ever could be. If they really wanted Bell to close a security risk, they would get him on the Captain’s orders—and she would be the perfect justification for doing that.
Their relationship being anonymous was the only reason things could be the way they were now. But that also meant that she could only protect him with her own strength instead of that of her Familia. And her strength had been found… lacking.
That man had been faster than her. They might have been the same Level, but she was a dedicated Mage from the time she gained her Falna and had focused on that since then. Her Status was catered to that end and the invisible base that made it up was focused on what made her a powerful caster.
The moment she entered into the melee range of someone on the same Level and had been focused on growing as a frontline fighter, she was in trouble.
She noticed a presence in the hallway and looked up. Her lips pulled back into a frown as she met the gaze of Bete. He was leaning against a wall casually with his hands behind his head.
“Don’t give me that look,” he said before straightening himself up. “You were too weak and ended up on your knees in front of an enemy because you were trying to protect that rabbit. You’re lucky that you only got off with a warning because you were a good girl before you got involved with him. Don’t push your luck.”
His warning given, Bete began to walk off.
Her fingers curled around her skirt. She gritted her teeth as she struggled to form words. But what could she say when he wasn’t wrong?
As much as she hated it, he wasn’t wrong.
Time and again the others had defended her whenever he called her a weakling. Whether it was when she botched the spell or when he compared her to Filvis being able to fight on the frontlines as a vanguard. Those words had comforted her, but he wasn’t wrong.
And she knew that. It was the reason she had practiced hard to learn Concurrent Chanting with Filvis. It was the reason she pushed herself to try to get a step closer to people on his Level. Yet, no sooner than she thought she was making progress, it had been proven to herself that it hadn’t been enough.
The moment she tried to protect her brother on her own she had failed.
She had been forced to kneel. She had been forced to watch as her brother once more got injured trying to protect her. She had been forced to watch as he laid on the ground bleeding in front of her, unable to move or speak.
There were no words to encompass what she felt at that moment.
That was when another person approached her after he turned the corner and vanished from view. It was a girl with long, black hair that was braided into a tail and crowned with a headband. She had hazel eyes that were partially obscured by the glare of the light reflected in the lenses as she approached with a staff in her hands.
“Umm… don’t take what Mister Bete said the wrong way,” said the girl softly. “I think that’s just his way of saying he cares.”
“Could have fooled me, Leene.”
Leene Arshe was a Level Two who doubled roles as a Supporter and Healer in the Dungeon. Apparently, Bete had brought Lefiya straight to Leene and told her to make the Half-Elf look presentable before she was brought before the others. Though she was a Level Two, she possessed the Treatment Development Ability on top of some potent healing magic. She was able to deal with the worst of the wounds before Lefiya had been brought to Lady Riveria and the others, though she still felt a little sore.
The apparently part was because she had only regained consciousness later.
“Still, it’s amazing you were able to keep up with the Captain of the Apollo Familia and take so few injuries,” Leene said, trying to salve her wounded pride. “I heard he led the Quest against the Goliath that earned them their D-Rank with the Guild.”
It only damaged it further because the only reason she hadn’t been cut down after that first slash was due to what happened. Despite the situation and the pain, a sense of calm had washed over her as something that felt like a flame burned in the lower back of her Status. Then, all of a sudden, his motions became more manageable… just enough for her to keep up with his sword if she focused on it, even while Concurrent Casting.
She could only guess that it was due to her Skill: Vow of Elcos.
It was a situational Skill that raised her attributes when working in tandem with certain individuals. She thought it had something to do with her Familia, but the name of Elcos belonged to a kingdom that had vanished long before the Age of the Gods. Fina had lived there with her family before fleeing the kingdom as it fell to the monsters with another boy.
His name was Argonaut.
But what did that have to do with Bell? She ruminated on silently until Tiona came running into the hallway. She knew the Amazonian called him by that same name, but she hadn’t really been focusing on that at the time. Her biggest concern had been the fact that her brother had been fighting a Minotaur when he was Level One.
And then she learned he went and picked a fight with an entire Familia when Tiona shouted, “Little Argonaut went and declared a War Game against the Apollo Familia!”
Chapter 10: The Opening of the Second Act
“I can still recall the screams. I can still recall the roars. I can still recall the smoke, the flames, and the terror the night that the Kingdom of Elcos fell. Monsters had been building in numbers over the years. But that night they overran the city’s defenses before anyone knew what happened. The castle that had welcomed refugees from all races warmly was decimated in the blink of an eye and the city around it was left to burn.
My parents were torn to pieces protecting me and so I survived. But I was trapped beneath the rubble, half-buried as flames crawled over the city. As others ran to escape the monsters all I could do was cry out. But the others could only hear the voices of their own kind, and the only two people who would hear the voice of a half-breed like myself were no longer there.
As I cried out until my voice was hoarse, I almost gave up and was ready to join my parents in the next life. That was when I heard the words that I never thought I would hear. They were…
‘Don’t worry. I will save you.’”
—The Night Elcos Fell
Being kidnapped had been a novel experience for Lefiya.
Her trip to Melen had been a lot more… violent than she had expected. They had gone to investigate the Violas and it turned out Amazons from Tiona and Tione’s homeland had arrived as well. Then she had gotten tricked by their Goddess, Kali, to be used as bait to lure them into a battle to the death.
Her Familia had managed to resolve the situation. But once more it reminded her of her own limitations. She hated that feeling of being helpless and weak. And while none of them would blame her, she still felt it weigh on her heart.
That was why she had decided to go into the Dungeon today on her own to train. But, before that, she wanted to give her brother his treat before she forgot… except she realized that she didn’t know where he lived. His Familia was rather obscure in contrast to the Loki Familia, meaning that she would need help finding it.
However, she recalled that they shared a mutual acquaintance in Miss Ryuu. The Elven Warrior worked within the Hostess of Fertility that the Loki Familia frequented often as a waitress. She hoped that the Elf would be able to tell her where she could find him.
The restaurant was both rustic and modern for Orario, made of stone but covered in timber framing with an artistic depiction on the central pillar. It towered at least two-and-a-half stories tall and was connected to a nearby building that she presumed served as lodging for the women who worked in it or storage. Outside of it was one of the waitresses, the silver-haired young woman who was slightly older than her.
“Hello,” she said upon recognizing her. “It’s unusual to see members of your Familia here this time of the day. Did you want to try the morning menu?”
The Hostess of Fertility changed its menu depending on the day or evening. The menu in the day catered to civilians as they were the ones who were the most prominent while Adventurers were heading to the Dungeon for the morning rush. It was in the evening, after they had visited the Exchange and gained valis for their work, that they would change the menu to cater to the Adventurers.
“Actually, I was hoping to speak to Miss Ryuu?” she asked.
“Oh?” The Human looked her over with a curious glance before giving her a nod. “Sure, let me go get her.”
It was only fifteen seconds or so before Miss Ryuu emerged from the entrance. The cool demeanor she possessed was far more placid to Lefiya, although that might be because she had seen her when she was operating as an Adventurer. If not for that she wouldn’t be able to put the dots together.
“You wished to speak to me, Miss Viridis?”
She nodded. “Forgive me if I pulled you away from your work, but I wanted to ask if you knew where Bell’s Familia was located?”
The question was met with a moment of silence. “…If I may ask, why do you wish to know?”
“Since I had a spare Spirit Nut, I—” That was as far as she got before the Elven Waitress’ expression shifted from placid to mildly surprised, which was notable for her. Then two Catfolk peered out of the doorway, ears twitching as though they had heard something that caught their attention. Even the Human waitress seemed to have been frozen in place for a moment with an uncanny smile upon her face.
“I was not aware you held that kind of interest in Mister Cranel,” Miss Ryuu said. That was right around the time Lefiya caught onto the implication. The Elven Warrior was aware of what giving a Spirit Nut to someone would entail and she had seen them together on the 18th Floor. Unaware of their blood ties, it must have seemed like she was seeking to express her interest in him romantically—not helped by those rumors.
Raul was still a dead man.
“It’s not like that!” She insisted, fighting down the bile in her stomach at the notion. “Remember, he helped me back then on the 18th Floor, so I’m paying him back—not many Humans get a chance to taste something like that, right?”
“Ah-ha, that is true…” said the Silver-Haired Waitress abruptly. “They were really something special.”
Lefiya tilted her head at that until she recalled the Elven Warrior’s plans for her own. “Oh, she shared it with you.”
“And Chloe and Anya,” she said, her smile still somewhat unnerving. “Bell comes by here every morning around this time. If you wait until then, you can give it to him in person. Meanwhile, why don’t you tell us more about how you and Bell know each other—”
The sound of an explosion ringing out was familiar to Adventurers. So was the natural response of immediately preparing for combat as she reached for her staff reflexively while her senses began to heighten in alarm. That was when she felt the familiar tang in the air of Magic coming from where a thick, dark smoke rose into the air.
It was possible to tell when one was casting Magic due to the accumulation of magical power. It set the senses alight even before the spell took form outside of the body, or in the case of someone with the Mage Development Ability became visible as the magic circle amplified the effects. And in the aftermath of the spells performing their work the discharge of the magic left behind enough magical energy that the air was saturated enough to quaver in her eyes.
There were two options. The first was that a Mage was at work and had unleashed a rather destructive spell in the middle of broad daylight. But she doubted that was the case because that kind of power was unnecessary here. Not to mention it would be a large expenditure of Mind so early in the morning when most were heading to the Dungeon.
The second was that there were multiple casters at work, discharging their spells around the same time. That was more familiar to Lefiya, given one the Loki Familia’s methods of dealing with waves of monsters that were thrown at them in the Dungeon involved coordinated bombardment with their spells. The end results left so much ambient magic energy present that for a Mage it was palpable, not unlike this situation.
That should also be unnecessary, but conflicts between Familia were a lot more common than one would expect. The Ganesha Familia would act as the peacekeepers, but the time it took to mobilize them would usually leave them to arrive only after things had gotten to a certain level of trouble. The Guild would then be in charge of levying fees against the responsible Familia involved—especially if civilians were hurt in the crossfire.
Self-preservation kicked in for those without the blessing as they began to seek shelter and safety while a plume of dark smoke rose into the air. Fire damage judging from experience and the sound of the second salvo of spell fire. But Lefiya was still uncertain which Familia would be causing that kind of trouble in the same sector as the Guild.
Then Anya spoke. “Nyaa… isn’t that around where white-hair comes from?”
That was all she needed to hear for Forest’s Teardrop to find its way into her grasp.
As he struggled for breath while lying on the stone-laden ground, Bell heard the sound of his Goddess calling out for him. Her voice was faint over the blood pounding in his ears, each racing beat of his heart leaving him to experience the sharp, pulsing pain from where the tip of the Solar Flamberge had cut into his body after parting his breastplate that had been battered and beaten by the Goliath.
He had been thoroughly won over in the battle against the Level Three in front of him—Hyacinthus Clio.
They had been ambushed the moment he stepped out of the Church they called home. Their casters and archers had set their home to flames and left both him and his Goddess covered in soot and ash as they fled through the back. The first place he could truly call home since leaving his mountain village after the death of his grandfather, the place where he slept, ate, and lived with his Goddess over the last two months since becoming a Familia—becoming family—gone in mere seconds.
Every turn he took he was accosted by members of the Apollo Familia. Their intention was made clear from Miss Daphne and Miss Cassandra. They were forcing him into joining their Familia, with those two making it clear that even if he ran, he would be hunted down until they finally brought him back.
Even so, surrender wasn’t an option. Getting caught wasn’t an option either. Neither was acceptable because of what would happen. Not to him, but Hestia—his family.
Apollo had lusted after her once. He had the nickname of the ‘Phallus the Passionate’ amongst the divine. Here on the lower world, where her divine powers were sealed, Bell didn’t want to think about what he would do to her if he got his hands on her—either she would be kept captive to force his surrender and likely remain that way or she would be killed and sent back up to Heaven.
His only option was to fight. He could hold his own against other Level Two adventurers, even if there were a lot of them. The addition of what he thought were members of another Familia was a setback, but he thought that he would at least be able to get Hestia somewhere they couldn’t get to her.
Then Hyacinthus showed up and decided to initiate him into their Familia by force.
Bell had fought his hardest—he had used his fastest speed and both weapons in hand. Putting everything he could into a relentless rush, pounding at the pavement with enough leg strength to crack it as he kicked off the ground, starving himself for air as he exhaled with a battle cry, Bell lashed out with a flurry of attacks meant to overwhelm via speed what he lacked in strength.
It still wasn’t enough. Hyacinthus avoided them all. Even when he began shifting his footwork to change angles without a moment’s pause, his reward for his relentless rush was a song of steel and shower of sparks as his bequeathed knife from his Goddess never found flesh, and the knife born from surpassing his prior limits was rebuked by the sword that glowed with the radiance of sun and flame. Each interception sent vibrations up his arm, either from the shape of the blade or the strength behind it, driving pain into his limbs.
Bell was not slow. His speed was his best attribute. His Agility was the one thing he was confident in. But the difference in a single level had been enough to make all of that meaningless as the Captain of the Apollo Familia intercepted his efforts with contemptuous ease—grinning in the process as if to mock his efforts.
That was the difference between Level Two and Level Three.
That was why he was dragging things out. That was why he was using a single hand on a two-handed longsword, which would only benefit from his Strength. He wanted to make it clear the difference in power.
On some level, Bell knew that as well. But he couldn’t stop. Not when Hestia was on the line. Not when his family was on the line. So he pushed past his limits as much as he could, ignoring the pain that he felt deep within his bones and looking for so much as the smallest opening to end things even as he screamed out with the strength of his will—
“Are you done howling, Little Rabbit?”
—and then it was over.
Clink. Clink. Splat. Three sounds accompanied the blur of steel, a single fluid motion that defanged the rabid rabbit.
The first two were the scraping of steel-on-steel. His sword flowed to the left to redirect the knife made of adamantite from the Minotaur he’d slain to become a Level Two. Then in the same motion it flowed to the upper-right to rebuke the knife given to him by his Goddess, leaving his chest unguarded. The last was a diagonal slash accompanied by a sickening, wet sound that rang out over the sound of parting steel.
A hot flash of pain coursed through Bell’s body and a pained cry crawled from his throat. “AGGHHHH!”.
His weapon had to be a Superior weapon of some kind because Bell could feel flames within it. Though there were no burns that could be seen, no scent of charred flesh or burning fat, wildfire consumed him as it cut through his flesh, muscle, and into the bone itself. It was probably only by the orders of their God that it stopped there and hadn’t gone to the vital organs.
Hyacinthus wasn’t done. He stepped in, bringing his empty arm’s elbow into Bell’s throat. It cut off his air and would have crushed his throat if it had been just a little harder. Then he slammed his fist into his sternum to drive it further into his solar plexus, hoping to rip his consciousness away from him—fortunately, it only knocked the wind out of him.
But that still left him on the ground, helpless. He couldn’t breathe with his diaphragm was spasming. He couldn’t speak and thus couldn’t cast a spell with his throat bruised. He had gone from the Rabbit Rush to being rendered completely docile in a single moment.
That was the difference of experience between them—one who had only been fighting against monsters for two months versus one who had been fighting against monsters and other people for years. That increased Status only made it absolute rather than advantageous.
There were no words to express the shame that washed over Bell at that moment as he laid there, tears streaming down his face in a slowly growing pool of his own blood as several sets of eyes were peering down on his defeated form.
There were eyes of concern from his Goddess who was calling out to him. Even after having their home burned down and everything they owned turned to ashes, it was the sight of him injured and bleeding on the ground that pulled the strongest reaction from her. He could hear her footfalls as she stumbled her way towards him while he was unable to shout for her to run, lest she be captured.
There were eyes of pity from Miss Cassandra as she stood on a nearby rooftop with a staff in hand. She must have been there to make sure he didn’t die from his wounds given her healing magic. He’d managed to fire off three shots of Firebolt with a single call of the spell and leave three of their Familia burned and injured, and she had managed to get them back up in seconds.
There were eyes of sympathy but conviction from Miss Daphne as she looked at him from the corner of her eyes, not making direct contact with him. Those eyes were instead fixed onto Hestia. There was no doubt they had Bell captive now, but it would only take her to grab the defenseless Goddess.
Then there were the eyes of jealousy and resignation from Hyacinthus as he approached with his blade in hand. “Even if you aren’t worthy of his love, I will fulfill my Lord’s will. You will become part of our Familia.”
Stand up! That thought permeated every fiber of his being. He had to stand before Hestia was taken. He couldn’t lose his family. Stand up! Stand up! Stand up! STAND UP!
Thunder rumbled in his chest. Blood escaped from his mouth as he forced himself to breathe and found the strength to get his arms beneath him. His fingers curled around his daggers as he raised his head, the lower half of his mouth covered in blood, and fixed his crimson eyes onto Hyacinthus.
The man stopped in his tracks for a moment. His lips curled into a scowl. “Such an unsightly face.”
Then he lashed out to kick him and Bell felt something break. Probably a rib or two as the impact sent him tumbling down the street further. Hestia said something but it was drowned out by another cough of blood.
“Your arms. Your legs. I’ll severe the tendons in each of them before having Cassandra close your chest wound so you don’t bleed out. Then… I will make sure to thoroughly carve into you that making such a face in front of our Lord is simply inexcusable. You will be domesticated before we present you to him, Little Rabbit.”
As he approached with the intention of doing so, Hestia moved to get in front of Bell with her arms held outwards. Bell also felt a familiar sensation beginning to leak from her that he did on the 18th Floor, the last time she bore witness to him being attacked. He also spotted Miss Daphne getting ready to ensure she didn’t go through with it.
The thunder in his chest intensified further.
That was when they heard the explosion nearby, muffled within it screams and shouts. It stopped Hyacinthus. It stopped Hestia. It stopped Miss Daphne. It drew every set of eyes to the entrance western section of the intersection as his senses began tingling from the presence of Magic like before.
Then his sister emerged with the final words of her song reaching his ears. “—Pierce, arrow of accuracy!”
Her azure gaze fell onto them. There was a haunting chill within them as she spotted him. Then she immediately tilted her staff towards the one whose blade was stained with his blood.
Two words preceded a golden beam of light that shot out of the tip of her staff, howling as it rushed towards its target. It cut through the air, a beam roughly the width of a human torso sailing past Bell’s prone body and over Hestia’s short body, and straight towards his assailant.
Bell lost track as the Captain of the Apollo Familia vanished, but the beam apparently didn’t because it curved in zagging patterns like it was jumping between the walls, each pass scoring the surface until in the middle of the air there was a glint. Then he saw the man for a brief moment on the rooftop, down on one knee and swinging his sword towards the onrushing light.
It ruptured and a luminous explosion swallowed him on the rooftop.
“Hyacinthus!!” Miss Daphne called out, stunned by the development.
Then the smoke cleared as he swung his sword to reveal his immaculate white cape and uniform were charred and smoldering with entire sections missing. His unblemished skin was burned, and blood leaked from parts of his flesh where the force of the explosion had torn into him. There was an arrow in his Achilles Heel. “C-Cassandra!”
“Coming!” Miss Cassandra stepped forward with her staff in hand.
His sister reacted. He presumed it was because she felt the Magic more acutely or could hear her chanting more acutely than him, but she immediately aimed her staff at the woman while advancing towards him. She had every intention of silencing her before she could fix his injuries.
It was only because Miss Daphne immediately pulled her out of view that she didn’t, tossing her over to the opposite side of the rooftop. At the same time, an arrow buried itself into her shoulder with enough force that she was knocked onto the rooftop—her voice crying out as she clutched the wound. Hyacinthus gritted his teeth before kicking her over the opposite side where Cassandra had been pushed off, swinging his sword once to deflect a set of arrows aimed for him, and then joining them in escaping the marksman’s line of sight.
“Come on!” Lefiya’s hand grabbed Bell roughly and she pulled him onto her back. Then she grabbed his Goddess’s hand and ran them down the street until she spotted an alcove that could shelter them from view.
It wouldn’t far enough. He forced out the words. “There…others—”
“There were.” She emphasized that past tense as she dragged them over. “That’s how I heard they planned to box you in. Then I made sure they couldn’t and let the ones who were still conscious retreat with the ones who weren’t when I started casting for that shot.”
That explained the explosion earlier.
Once she made sure they were out of view, she crouched down and looked him over. Then she frowned in a way that didn’t suit her. “I thought he was an upper-tier Level Two, but if he’s a Level Three then I shouldn’t have held back so much. That sniper catching him in the leg was the only reason I caught him at that output… I won’t make that mistake again.”
It wasn’t an idle threat.
She had the Mage Development Ability, which meant she could actively increase the output and range of her spells and thus the damage she could inflict would scale exponentially. He had seen that firsthand back on the 18th Floor. That shot she fired before was a love tap compared to that because she hadn’t been intending to kill him if he had only been a Level Two—as anything she fired that was capable of catching up to and downing a Level Three would likely cripple or kill someone of a lower level.
As for the sniper, he could only assume it was Naaza.
“Can’t you go day a without getting to trouble?” She murmured low enough for only him to hear as she grabbed the sides of his face and wiped away the tears that had come out. Then she began to sing. “Answer my call, deity of the sea. Obey my will and heal the wounds—Light Healing.”
It was a soothing song. One that bathed him in light the color of the glittering sea, a blue veil decorated with glimmering stars. They sank into his flesh, and he could feel the wounds numbing. It was healing Magic. “You can—”
“Not a word of this leaves this alley or I’ll take back everything I said on the 18th Floor,” she warned, her azure eyes narrowed as the light continued to wash over them. “Do you understand me, Bell?”
“I’d ask the same of you, Lady Hestia,” she said, without looking up at the Goddess. “I’m probably already in enough trouble getting in the middle of a conflict between Familia as is.”
“…Just heal Bell,” Hestia said softly. Her tone was a mixture of sadness and gratitude as she looked over them while dressed in her outfit to work for Lady Hephaestus. It had been covered in dust, dirt, ash, and blood. “Check his leg holster for potions as well.”
“We need to get you both somewhere safe, now,” Lefiya said as she did so once her spell ended, running her fingers along the holster until she found the potion and then splashed it upon him. “If that woman was a dedicated Healer with the Treatment Development Ability, he’ll be back on his feet soon. And now that they know someone capable of doing that to a Level Three will be with you, they’ll start attacking in more numbers and before the Ganesha Familia intervenes.”
He had heard they were supposed to be the peacekeeping force in Orario. Adventurers causing damage to the city would naturally draw them to the location soon enough. They had been planning to force his hand before that happened.
Lefiya’s ears perked up at that moment and she rose to her feet, her lips moving to begin another chant—
—he stopped her as he recognized the voice. “Wait, that’s not an enemy!”
She stopped as Lord Miach emerged from the backstreets. His sister stepped aside as the God of Medicine crouched down to look at him and see the empty bottle she had before nodding and then pulling out a second pair to splash over him as well. Made with the Mixing Development Ability, they were capable of healing on contact, and he felt the deep-seated injuries from the hunt vanish while Lord Takemikazuchi’s Familia joined up with them.
They had come to save him. Then when questioned on who Lefiya was, his sister simply said an acquaintance from the Loki Familia who saw him in trouble. They were all on the 18th Floor at one point or another, so no one questioned it. Then she suggested they left before they could be encircled, and no one complained as they started moving.
None of them were aware of the invisible observers that had been watching. Not the God of Travel and his Captain who possessed a myriad of magical tools. Nor the Goddess whose eyes could perceive the soul from a distance.
At the home of the Loki Familia, news of the attack on the Little Rookie had already reached them courtesy of Tiona. The Amazonian had gone out into the streets to get information about what was transpiring and had reported that the Apollo Familia was basically trying to hunt him down.
The news wasn’t as surprising as it should have been. Aiz had been to the dance and Loki had told them about the War Game itself being proposed and shot down. But Apollo wasn’t the type to give up apparently. Finn had already told Aiz not to intervene.
That was when the door opened and another member of the Familia entered the room, one with a rather nervous demeanor and huffing as though he had just run a great distance. “Pardon the intrusion, but I need to make a report about the current incident. It seems like there was a Mage attacking the Apollo Familia as well, and from the description of her appearance, spell, and magic circle… it sounded like Lefiya Viridis!”
Riveria looked up at that, her lips pursing as she put together the information. “She said that she was heading to the Dungeon this morning. If she happened to be around when the attack happened and knew he was the target, she likely intervened based on allowing them into the camp on the 18th Floor.”
Finn leaned back in his chair with a sigh before rubbing the bridge between his eyes. “…Bete, go bring her back. Now.”
Aiz rose to her feet for a second time at that. “But I can go instead.”
“We cannot afford to openly take a side and Loki told us not to interfere before she wandered off,” Finn stated before looking square at the Werewolf. If he had sent Aiz then she would have gone out of her way to help him and then bring her back. “Make it clear this is her acting on her own and bring her back—quickly.”
“Why do I always have to babysit the weaklings…” The Werewolf scoffed as he rose to his feet, scratching his head before he made sure his boots were on properly. Then made his way to the window and pushed it open, allowing the morning breeze to enter.
He leapt out of it and took off running.
Interlude 2: The Growing Insight of Three
For a second time Aiz felt like she’d run straight into a brick wall. She’d been tasked with dealing with the last monster that had escaped—a Silverback—when a pungent scent met her head on. The aroma dug into her mind and clouded her thoughts for only a moment, but that still brought her sprint to an abrupt halt.
“Huh…” The sound of interest came from her Goddess next to her. “You can smell it too?”
“Yes.” Her eyes spanned the street, searching for the source of the scent she knew to be the boy that had killed the Minotaur. Her senses, augmented by her Level, attuned to the noise of the street until she heard a single set of running footfall and heavy pants, along with the moonscent—as Loki had told her—tinged with blood.
Then, once more, Bell Cranel came into view as he burst out of a side alley that was nearby. The young boy was covered in battle-ravaged leather that had been sheared and scraped to the point where bare skin and battered metal were on display. Sweat from exertion dotted his brow where strands of his white hair clung desperately.
Aiz let out a small groan and held a slender hand to her head that began to pound with his approach. She didn’t know what it was about him that she was feeling. She couldn’t know how to register it. All she could do was wait for him to pass by her without a word as he continued to flee, the pulsing sensation lessening somewhat as his footfalls continued past her.
“Ugh…” Loki was holding her nostrils closed, so her voice came out a bit childish as she said, “It’s pretty thick compared to at the tavern, huh?”
Aiz nodded as they turned and watched him continue to run until a girl emerged from a side-street and grabbed his hand, eliciting a brief look of shock on the boy’s face before recognition set in. Then words were exchanged, an offer to ‘help him escape from sight’ from what Aiz could hear, before she pulled him into the alley. The footfalls that she could hear belonging to them took them away from the Main Street.
“It’s strange,” Aiz settled on after a moment of thought. “But something about it… makes me nervous…”
“Hmm…” Loki crossed her arms and hummed lightly in thought. “Call it a hunch, but I feel it my bones that sumthin’ about its off too…”
As she contemplated that to herself, Aiz picked up on the activity on the street and how it seemed to have blossomed. People were excitedly talking about an adventurer dressed in leather who fought and slew a monster right in the plaza. She had her suspicions that it was the boy they were talking about, so she approached a pair of children that were in the middle of playing.
“Ah, excuse me?” she said, crouching down towards one of the children. “Could you tell me about what happened just now with a monster?”
The child didn’t hesitate. “It was amazing! This big monster went ‘RAAAHHH’ and tried to squish this white-haired mister with its big arms! But he was so fast, and he had this hammer that had a sword in it! He went ‘swish’ and blood flew everywhere, and the monster went ‘GAAHHH’ and then—”
Aiz listened on as he continued on in an excited manner until an adult called for him and he said goodbye. Then she turned back to her Goddess, who was conversing with an elderly woman. When the woman parted way, Loki cradled one arm while holding a hand to her chin.
“Suspicious…” Loki mused. “That young lady was kind enough to tell me a bit about what just happened. It seemed that boy killed the Silverback with a weapon that could go between a hammer and a sword, or something that he could call back to him even when separated. I’d say it’d be an enchanted weapon, but Cow Tits can’t afford sumthin’ like that. Could it possibly be some form of magic?”
It wasn’t unheard of that someone who was just given a Falna would have access to magic. Outside of a Grimoire it was something that seemed to happen sporadically, with some species being more likely to manifest it or exceptions like Aiz, who had Aerial since she received Loki’s blessing. For all they knew it was something the boy was capable of since he became an adventurer—he did kill a Monster that Level 2s would struggle against the first time she’d seen him, so a Silverback wouldn’t be that much of a threat.
But from the colorful way the boy had described the fight, it sounded like it had dragged out for a bit. That was strange, considering that someone who could kill a Minotaur should be able to kill a Silverback within mere seconds at worse. But, at the same time, she didn’t think it sounded like he was making a show of it when there was a chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
He didn’t seem all that polished when it came to fighting from what she’d seen the last time either. He wasn’t quite helpless and seemed to know enough not to wound himself with the butcher’s weapon he had, but he didn’t seem anywhere near expertise in terms of skill wielding it or when facing off against the Minotaur considering how sloppy his movements were. He’d barely avoided most of the hits and the ones he tried to block had broken through his guard utterly.
That was expected for the Upper Floors—in fact, it was almost what she’d expect from a new adventurer who hadn’t refined their combat skills out of the Dungeon like some of the former soldiers or hunters she’d seen. But against Silverbacks that lived close to the Middle Floors and the Minotaurs that came from the floors below it, that was another story. Simply surviving to the point that you could venture down there would require countless battles, during which you’d build up experience with fighting subconsciously.
So how did he manage to kill the Minotaur then? Her head began to ache as she thought back to it. He seemed almost confused that he’d managed to prevail, or the fact that he had the magic stone. Could it have been that he wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d done it?
Aiz thought back then when their eyes met. She didn’t quite grasp what she heard with the whispers that seemed to give her a headache, but before then she recalled thinking that his weapon was his fangs and his hands were his claws. The primal way he’d cried out as he ripped out its magic stone had been almost…bestial.
It didn’t really suit him at all from how timid and small he looked when not cloaked in tattered clothes, fresh blood, and broken steel. But somehow that was part of what caused her to feel on edge. Not completely, but the sensation that she was staring down a predator for that moment does seem close to how she could best describe it.
“Well, either way, the Silverback was taken care of and no civilians got hurt from the sound of it,” Loki said abruptly, changing the topic and pulling Aiz from her thoughts as the Goddess grasped her arm and pulled it against her smaller body. “Let’s go back to the others, Aizuu.”
“Ah… sure…” She nodded before turning on her heel and following after her Goddess. Bell Cranel was a mystery to Aiz now more than ever, but there were other mysteries she needed to focus on. Other things she needed to do and other people waiting for her.
She’d put the mystery of the Moon-scented Boy to the back of her mind for now.
Freya moaned softly as she cradled her head from the throbbing pressure that nestled itself right behind her eyes, a crystal ball situated on the table next to her. The cloak she normally wore out to avoid drawing the gaze of men and women by the virtue of her sheer beauty laid on her lap, unneeded. She’d rented out the entire restaurant for the moment in order to ensure her privacy while she observed her ploy at work.
It hadn’t been something she’d explicitly planned out. But rather a spontaneous opportunity that crossed her mind the moment that she noticed that Bell and Hestia were out for the festival and in possession of Syr’s Purse. The wheels in her mind began to whirl and she foresaw an opportunity to potentially lure out the one who stole her prize away from her.
After all, many of the Gods and Goddesses were out and about during the Monsterphilia. She was sure that the one who’d tainted his soul with that infuriating color would be too. If they’d come to Bell’s aid when he faced off against a monster within the Dungeon via some unknown means, then she was sure they’d do the same here.
She set the plan into motion within an hour. Her Familia had a collection of many talented individuals, all of whom had captured her eye to some extent. Pickpockets and swift runners among them were perfectly capable of pulling him away from Hestia and the Guild member, baiting him to a suitable stage that would be far enough from any meddling adventurer and freeing the others to act as a distraction—not that she intended for them to harm anyone intentionally.
She’d slipped into where they’d kept the monster and used her Charm to enthrall them after leaving the members of the Familia watching over them senseless. Men. Women. Monsters—the way her beauty ensorcelled them was simply overwhelming and she’d been careful not to be seen while having the monsters act as puppets, keeping the other Familia who would be out and about busy while the Silverback she’d chosen to be her instrument slipped away.
Her headache had begun shortly after that, before he’d engaged the Silverback while donning a coat and wielding a hammer that didn’t seem to suit him at all. For a brief moment, she had a flicker of a scene where he laid broken on the ground and bleeding as his own weapon was left lodged in his chest. It had been faint and fleeting, leaving her to assume it was her imagination of a possible outcome that awaited him.
Really, it would have been expected considering how short his tenure as an Adventurer had been so far. But it wasn’t that she wanted to kill him. After all, it had been so long since she’d felt such a strong attachment to someone at first sight. She should’ve snatched him right up rather than allowing him to pass her by, but she wanted to see him grow from a distance.
Alas, where there was love there was envy and jealousy. For someone to take what she claimed for herself was simply unacceptable. And so, as punishment, the boy would now become the bait by which Freya would find the one that dyed the unblemished color of his soul and laid claim to the one she’d seen first.
She’d use him to find them. Then she would break them. Take everything that was theirs and destroy them for daring to take what she’d claimed for herself while reveling in the carnage—she was a Goddess of Love and War in equal parts after all.
Loki had said that she smelled the scent of the moon on him when they talked the night of the banquet. There were few who descended and held dominion over the moon, thus few who could grace him with their presence—likely being either Artemis or Achelois.
She had her doubts that it was Artemis, even if she knew that the goddess was on friendly terms with Hestia. Not only was she the head of a Hunting Familia that was far beyond the walls of Orario, which Hermes confirmed once she coaxed him into talking, but her Familia’s policies were well-known in regards to men and love. Men were never allowed to join, and those seeking to start a relationship had to leave the Familia behind. The thought that she would somehow bless Bell shortly after his arrival in Orario was too farfetched.
That only left Achelois. She was a minor goddess who had seemingly all but vanished some time ago. Freya hadn’t paid the disappearance any thought until now, given that the woman was struggling to simply find followers and simply wasn’t of interest to her. But considering the circumstances…
Well, perhaps she should put some effort into finding out just where she’d vanished to?
Either way, as her headache began upon dismissing that vivid imagery, Bell revealed he possessed a magic that she had been unaware of. A method by which he could call his arms and items to him. There were magical items that could do so, but she had the distinct feeling that it was magic.
More than that, there as something unique about it. When he called for his weapon, she could have sworn she’d something there. Thin, translucent things anxiously and eagerly groping the weapons from where space seemed to ripple around him.
Her head shuddered thinking about it. And the pressure behind her eyes felt like it was a living thing, squirming softly. She needed a moment of peace and quiet to get herself together and wait for it to pass.
A few hours to settle her head…
Hestia had her suspicions that something was amiss when that silver-haired woman approached both her and Eina by the coliseum.
Not because she was suspicious in herself. But because of the faint trace of a familiar moon-scented fragrance that was on her. It set off warning bells and a sense of dread gnawed at Hestia’s stomach.
Then the young woman pulled out her purse. It was the one that had been stolen from them, only now it was steeped in the scent of the moon. Hestia had realized in that instant that he’d died again, and only learned how once the young woman showed them the a magic stone that had been cleaved in half and explained that Bell had slain the Silverback.
He’d died again. He’d been sent back to that place again. He’d died and returned again.
And she’d failed to notice again until it was too late.
The moment she realized that, Hestia felt her legs lose strength and collapsed onto her knees. Eina had asked if she was okay, but Hestia only wanted to know where her child was. The moment the young woman said that she helped him slip away from the crowd so that he could go back home, Hestia made her way back there without a second thought.
It was there she found Bell.
Light spilled down from the windows to illuminate his white hair that was pattered with dull red from blood. Next to him on the pew was discarded leather clothing and battered armor that looked to be in horrendous condition, silently telling an adventurer’s tale of trials and tribulations. He sat with his face buried in his hands, quietly muttering between labored breaths and sobbing to himself.
She treaded carefully, feeling her heart breaking when she recalled how happy he looked the day he first set out to the Dungeon. There had been a smile on his face that could melt the coldest of hearts not even two weeks ago, sweetly complimenting the young boy eager to answer the call of adventure and become a hero. The moment she came to a stop in front of him and laid her hands onto shoulders, Bell’s arms snaked around her slender figure and he buried his face against her.
“Goddess… forgive me…” his voice came out hoarse and worn. His body shuddered as he wept. “Forgive me.”
Feeling the stinging tears in her eyes now, Hestia didn’t allow herself to cry. Not when he needed her to be strong. She wiped away her own forming tears and then forced a smile as she gently brushed his hair to console him. “It’ll be okay, Bell.”
After that Bell took a shower before he confessed what had happened in the confines of their room. He confessed to her of the Little Girl and her request; his attempt to fulfill the wish of a child who was left all alone. He confessed of Gascoigne and Viola; a husband and wife torn apart by the curse of Beasthood. He confessed of the Dweller and Henryk; an attempt to do good leaving a child with no family left in the world.
She’d listened to it all before peering into his Falna as he laid prone in bed, unraveling what he lacked the heart or mind to tell her outright. The foreign words hammered into her mind of a tragic tale writ with blood and regret, images that left the scenes to come to mind with a vividness as if she was there at some point. It hurt enough that she felt pulsing pain in her skull, but it was nothing compared to what Bell had undergone.
She owed it to her child to accept his story and his pain. It was the least she could do for him. For that reason, Hestia bore with the sensation writhing over her brain, all so that she could learn and could gain the wisdom needed to help Bell.
Taking in his sorrow and grief, his tribulations and triumphs, she immersed herself in his tale. She took in the details that may have escaped his mind, grabbing hold of whatever knowledge he’d taken it and committing it to her own memory. It was only when she’d read his tale from that faithful Minotaur attack until before they’d reunited above that she pulled herself free of the engrossing tragedy…
Only to find that Bell had fallen asleep beneath her.
She looked towards the clock. It was nearing midnight. The entire day had been lost to her, and the moment she realized that the exhaustion caught up to her all at once.
Her mind was weary from the knowledge. Her body sore from sitting in place for hours on end, hunched over Bell’s backside and head angled down to read his story. The allure of sleep was too strong to resist for her as well, another downside to being relegated to a physical form.
Limited as she was to her mortal body, Hestia could only do so little for Bell. How she yearned to unleash her Arcanum and free him from the shackles that bound him to that nightmarish world. But after peering so deeply she understood that doing so would rob him of the solace that her presence would bring him.
Steeped as he was in loneliness and regret, Bell clung to her as family and found meaning in the life they now shared together. He would never forgive himself if she gave up her life here to liberate him from that nightmare. And she would never forgive herself for leaving him in such a state.
There has to be another way to free you and remain together, Hestia thought to herself as she laid next to Bell on the bed and gently brushed his cheeks. I promise I’ll find it for you, Bell. No matter what.
Strength: F-392 > C-601
Defense: F-373 > D-592
Dexterity: I-96 > F-321
Agility: E-487 > A-903
Blessing of Flora
Chapter 12: Return to the Dream
And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…
Bell found himself staring up at the moon as those words whispered in his ears on the wind, unable to move. Unable to think.
A scent that he couldn’t comprehend permeated the air. Celestial in nature. Thickening to the point of suffocating as the luminous white orb hanging in the night sky seemed so close that the glimmering moonlight reflected in his unwavering gaze.
The alluring face of the moon eclipsed his vision until he couldn’t see where it began and ended, and he was unable to look away even if he wanted to. The ivory rays themselves were like countless, tender hands grasping his head. Refusing to let him turn away, refusing to let him ignore the orb of night that seemed to swallow up the distance between Heaven and Earth just for him—
—only to vanish as the night sky was replaced with solid stone. The moonlight that had been radiating down, leaving him awash in its silvery rays, turned to artificial magic-stone lights. The irrefutable presence that loomed over him now took the form of a round face, sapphire eyes gazing into his own with a concerned frown.
Hestia. His Goddess. Entrancing in a different way than… what exactly?
Bell sat up, rising on the couch and turning so that his feet touched the ground. Blinking. His head felt misty and tired. Adrift somehow. “Was I sleeping?”
Hestia took a seat next to him on the couch. “I thought you were, but your eyes were open and distant.” Fingers soft as silk reached up to brush his forehead. “Were you having a nightmare?”
“I…” He tried to find words. But the memory had already slipped from his mind. Gone like mist that evaporated in the morning light. He brought his hands to his eyes and rubbed them. “I’m not sure. I don’t even remember when I fell asleep.”
The way her frown deepened showed that answer didn’t please her at all. “Just in case, we’ll see Miach about getting you some sleeping medicine. I know he makes some that can bring about a dreamless sleep.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just need to get up and move around today. That’s all.”
Hestia’s expression softened upon hearing that. “Just wait a little longer for my sake, Bell. Hephaestus told me that she would have one of her children available soon to form a party with you. Then you can go back in the Dungeon without worrying me so much.”
It had been a few days now since the Banquet of the Gods. Her proposal wasn’t exactly rejected by the two. But there were complications involved.
In the case of Take’s children, they operated as a group and had tactics, so introducing Bell into their cohesion might complicate things. And his children had to work hard given that they were also poor, on top of supporting an orphanage back in their home country. So, while he stated he could see if he could arrange something, Hestia had to admit that it would likely interfere with his own Familia’s survival unless Bell took up a role like a Supporter.
Hestia didn’t think Bell would settle for that. He wanted to be an Adventurer after all. And, while she could beg him to do so, she would be trampling on his dream more than she already had. Besides, having him be a Supporter meant that Bell would receive less valis than he would earn on his own and hamstring Take’s income as well.
It was different in the case of Hephaestus. She had several children who wanted to travel further down in the Dungeon, in order to reach Level 2. That way they could gain the Blacksmithing Developmental Ability.
But Bell had only been doing this for around two weeks, so naturally most people wouldn’t think he had that kind of ability. Hephaestus wouldn’t just order one of them to put up with Bell for Hestia’s sake, so she had to find children willing to work with someone who didn’t have nearly as much time or experience as them. That was easier said than done without exerting more pressure than she was comfortable with.
In both cases, it was a matter of Bell not appearing experienced enough. Hestia’s words that he could pull his own weight weren’t enough. While Bell could prove that he was more than capable enough, it would take time to reach that point. So, in a worst-case scenario, Hestia really might have to let him go back into the Dungeon on his own.
Still, I should find something for him to do… Oh, right! Her pigtails shot up in excitement as an idea came to mind when she remembered what today was. “You know, I have today off work and there’s a festival going on, meaning there’s a lot of food vendors and game booths out.”
Bell was naturally surprised, since he hadn’t been in the city long. “There are?”
“Yep!” Hestia hopped up onto her feet and extended her hand for him to take. “Since you need to get out, how about you and I spend the entire day together?”
A festival with just the two of us, huh? Between both of their jobs, they rarely spent time together outside of this homely little room. So how could he refuse the offer to spend time together as a Familia? “Of course.”
“Then let’s go have a lot of fun,” Hestia said before her expression bloomed into a radiant smile while their fingers intertwined. It carried a warm affection within it.
It was almost enough to make the lethargy in his mind melt away until Bell abruptly felt like he was being watched again, leaving him snap his head around for the source. Then he remembered it was just the two of them there and was left wondering if the lack of sleep really was getting to him. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it before getting dressed for their adventure outside.
In order to get to the Monster Feria, also known as the Monsterphilia, they needed to head down the road so that they got back onto the Main Street. From there, they could head straight to the far east side of the city. That was where the festival was being held, at the colosseum, but since it was going to be busy they would likely have to forgo a Tax cart and instead go on foot.
“White-hair! Over here, meow!”
It just so happened that, while on the West Main, Hestia stopped them when she heard someone calling for him. “Bell, I think that girl is calling you.”
“Huh?” He looked over to see that there was a catgirl in one of the waitress uniforms for the Hostess of Fertility, waving for him to come over with her ears pointed up. Since it would have been rude to ignore her, he hurried over. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you!”
“Mya, it’s no good if kids don’t go to bed on time,” she told him after looking him over. Then she turned to Hestia and gave her a polite bow, as was etiquette Bell suspected. “Oh, you must be his Goddess. It’s nice to meet you, meow.”
“Good morning,” Hestia said, approaching her. “How do you know Bell?”
“This is the place I told you about,” Bell answered in her place. “The place with the really good food.”
“Myama will be glad to hear it.” She then produced a coin purse and handed it over to Bell. “Syr needs this. Can you give it to her, meow?”
Bell eyed it for a moment. It was a purse that definitely suited a girl, and he could picture her holding it. But he wasn’t exactly sure where to find her in the first place. “Uh…”
“Arnya, if you’re going to make a request you should at least make it as clear as possible,” said a new waitress as she appeared from behind the catgirl. It was the elfess who had chased Bell down that night to return his belongings. “Good morning, Mister Cranel and Miss Goddess. My apologies for her calling you out so early.”
“It’s not a problem, but what’s this about Syr?” he asked. “Is she not here?”
“She has the day off and went to the Monster Feria for the opening event, but she left her purse here. The rest of us are preparing to open up for the day so, if it isn’t too much trouble, could you return it to her if you see her?”
“We were heading in that direction, but the festival itself is pretty active from what I’ve heard,” Hestia said. “Will we be able to find her?”
“She just left, so I’m sure white-hair can find her.” Arnya flashed Bell a smile. “Right, meow?”
If they have that much faith in me then I’ll try. Besides, Bell knew what it was like to be walking around in a big city like this with practically no money to your name. It had been like that when he had first arrived, and there was no point in making her walk back to get it if necessary.
He turned back to Hestia and said, “Sorry, but I really should give this back to her.”
Black twin-tails swayed as Hestia shook her head. She liked the fact that he was a good boy. “I don’t mind since we have the entire day. Besides, if this Syr person is a friend of yours, we should help if we can.”
Eina was one of several other members of the Guild currently outside of the colosseum for the sake of the festival, acting as informants to the citizens as well as assisting the Ganesha Familia in whatever way possible to make it a success.
By far, the biggest and most important event was the monster taming that was already underway beyond the massive stone walls that rose to towering heights. As things stood, it was a unique experience that came once a year for the citizens of Orario, who likely had scant few encounters with monsters in their lives. Because, even though the Dungeon was located within the labyrinth, the average person would never set foot into it and thus had far less exposure to monsters than those who made a living out of it.
Eina was not a fan of the idea that monsters were brought out of the Dungeon for taming during the festival. Monsters, especially Dungeon-born ones, were terrifying beings who existed to kill without regard for anything but their baser instincts. She’d filed enough reports on dead adventurers to know that having even one aboveground and unchecked would spell a huge problem.
But it was not her call to make. Instead, it was that of her superiors. They were the ones who decided the Monsterphilia was necessary for the citizens, because it gave them a chance to view adventurers in a more romanticized light.
Not all adventurers were friendly. Not all people were friendly. It was the way things were in general, that the experiences and personalities of the individual determined how they acted with others. The problem was that supermortals with strength above that of the norm naturally went by their own rules, so long as it didn’t fringe on the rules of their Familia.
Maybe they decide they don’t want to pay a tab, or maybe tempers flare and a fight breaks out. The difference in strength between an ordinary citizen and an adventurer meant they couldn’t raise a hand to them and needed someone to complain to. They needed someone to deal with problems that arose, which was what the Guild existed for. So they had to manage both the frustrations of the citizens and the adventurers, trying to placate both.
That was what the festival was for. Citizens would see these highly publicized adventurers putting on a show for their amusement and think to themselves that maybe these were the norm and the ones that caused them problems were the outliers. At least until enough time passed and the next year came around, where they would do it again.
Even now, a skilled Tamer was elegantly in the process of taming one of the monsters in a show of charisma and skill. It painted the scene as a mortal dominating a monster, making it submit without seriously raising a hand or slaughtering it for its magic stone, as was ordinary. An extravagant way of undercutting the actual dangers of the profession, setting a standard for the unaware that adventurers had class and dignity.
Eina didn’t exactly blame the Ganesha Familia for giving people the wrong impression of just how dangerous both monsters and the job were. They were merely doing it at the request of the Guild in the first place, who approved and managed it. But it would have consequences later on, when those who saw them tried to replicate their feats and have their dreams, and possibly their lives, dashed.
She took a deep breath, not at all satisfied that the reservations she had about the festival, until she spotted a familiar bed of white hair and ruby eyes scouring the crowd. She hadn’t seen him in days, so a part of her had been worried that something happened to him. Seeing him in the distance, still alive, was enough for now to put on a smile on her face as she called out on him. “Bell!”
His name being called attracted the eyes of not him but the smaller girl at his side. The divine aura that was leaking out, naturally present to all the Gods and Goddesses, made it clear what she was. The relatively smaller goddess tugged on his sleeve to grab his attention and pointed to her.
Bell then spotted her, his mouth moving in a familiar enough way that Eina could make out that he was referring to her as his Advisor, and then walked over. “Miss Eina, I didn’t know you’d be out here.”
“The Guild has set aside a good deal of staff for the festival, so I’m currently acting as someone who helps guest find their way inside of the stadium,” she explained, taking in his appearance. He looked tired. Slight bags around his eyes that wouldn’t be out of place for someone four times his age. “Are you not sleeping well, Bell?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sorry I haven’t been by lately. My goddess wants me to start working with others and forming a party before I start going deeper into the Dungeon.”
That bit of news actually made her somewhat happy. Rather than risking himself, if he worked with others his chances of survival increased drastically. “That’s excellent. Would you like for me to a make a posting for it through the Guild? I can’t guarantee when you’ll meet someone, but I’m sure eventually someone will apply.”
“I’ve already gone out of my way to arrange for that,” Hestia said, approaching them. “But, if you’re acting as an usher, then can we ask if you’ve seen a specific person?”
“There have been a lot of people who have come and gone, so I’ll need you to be specific.”
Bell recalled Syr’s appearance. “She’s a human girl with hair and matching eyes that are sort of ash-colored. She left her wallet behind at her workplace, but we were told she came this way not too long ago.”
Eina placed a hand on her chin in thought. There had been a lot of people, but the hair and eye color on a human were rare enough that if she had seen her then she would have remembered. Not to mention that if she had lost her wallet then she either would have doubled back and ran into them or she would have went elsewhere, since there was an admission fee to the main event.
“I can’t say that I have seen her, I’m afraid—” She was cut off when someone violently pushed past Bell, splitting him and his Goddess apart while knocking them onto the ground. She crouched down to help the two up while turning back to the figure. “Hey, apologize to them this instance!”
The figure, wearing a black cloak of all things at this time of day, turned around and smirked. Then he held up what looked to be a woman’s pouch. He tossed it up and down in his hand twice before running off to the southwest.
Bell’s eyes widened with realization before he rose to his feet. “That’s Syr’s!”
“Bell, wait!” His Goddess tried to grab him before he could give chase, but he moved faster than Eina thought would be possible for an adventurer who only started out a short time ago. Despite that, the thief moved just as quickly, and both cleared the plaza of the stadium in short order.
“Are you alright ma’am?” Eina asked, helping Hestia to her feet. She couldn’t believe that someone would so blatantly steal in front of her, wearing something so conspicuous. “I’ll have someone go after them right away.”
She didn’t have the chance before shouts of monsters being on the loose reached her ears less than a minute later.
Bell may have been tired, but the spike of adrenaline that coursed through his system as he gave chase after the cloaked thief helped offset that. It was enough to keep his mind focused on the present. That was the only reason he didn’t lose track of the thief, as whoever it was had to at least have been a high-end Level 1 as he ditched the Main Street for the alleyways. It was an intricate network full of twists and turns, where it would be so easy for Bell to lose track of them if he didn’t stay on top of them.
He didn’t know why the thief had chosen to take Syr’s wallet, but he knew he had to get it back. He would have probably left it to someone else if it had just been his money that was taken. But that had been entrusted to him by the others at the Hostess of Fertility, who put their faith in him to get it to her.
So he continued giving chase after the thief until they eventually left the web of alleyways and came into a plaza that was surrounded by rising buildings that seemed to be piled on top of one another. Bell hadn’t been in the city for long, but even he knew of this place. A maze within the city in itself, a manmade labyrinth that touched the city wall—Daedalus Street.
If he lost them here, he’d never find the thief again. But the thief didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing their chase at this point. They instead opted to drop the wallet onto the ground in the center of the district’s plaza and then, with a flourish of their cloak, disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving Bell there alone and confused until he felt that sensation again, like he was being watched.
Bell looked around once again for the source but didn’t find a single person in the plaza. It was starting to make him feel paranoid. So, he picked up Syr’s belongings, intent on getting out of there right away—
—only for something massive to come leaping down from over the perimeter of the buildings. It landed onto the ground in front of Bell with a thunderous crash that cratered the stone beneath them. The force alone had been enough to blow him off his feet, and Bell bounced backwards while slamming his head into the ground before coming to a stop several feet away.
“Ngh…” Bell’s head was pounding now as he forced himself to look up, whereupon he spotted pure muscle wrapped up in a cloak of white fur and a silver mane of hair falling down its back that glinted in the light. Thick arms and legs tensed with rage as they pounded at a steel plate that was fixed over its chest. Metal knuckles and manacles with chains clanked and rattled as it glared down at him with red eyes hidden behind a visor.
Miss Eina had told Bell of some of the monsters on the lower floors, as a warning for him not to venture deeper. This was one from the deeper floors, around the Eleventh Floor. A Silverback that had somehow gotten all the way to the surface was in front of him, murderous and animalistic intention fixed on him.
How had no one noticed this thing running around? That question loitered in his mind until he saw the massive primate rushing for him with a primal gait that was faster than it had any right to be. He barely had time to roll out of the way as it closed the distance with upraised arms and then brought both its massive fists down with the intention of crushing him.
The ground shook. Stone was upturned. Jagged bits of displaced rock were sent flying outwards to pelt Bell as he got back to his feet and considered his options.
The first was that he could run. He didn’t know where the monster came from, but he was unarmed and unarmored. In the city filled with more adventurers than any other in the world, chances were he’d run into someone capable of dealing with it.
But if he fled while it was attacking him then someone innocent could be hurt. More so if it chased him while the festival was going on. He could possibly get away, but only if he were willing to sacrifice people he didn’t know. And, while he may have had his dreams of being a hero tested, battered by the time he spent in that nightmare, that was something he just couldn’t do.
I have to kill it. Bell envisioned the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind and called forth the Little Ones across the boundaries of this world and the Hunter’s Dream. “Please, bring me my weapons!”
“GYRAAH!” His declaration carried the intention to fight, and so the Silverback responded with a roar in acceptance of his challenge. What drove it was unknown to the young adventurer, but whatever it was that keyed him onto Bell now took firm root. It would not stop until he was crushed, and with another quick gait it moved to do so.
This time, on his feet, Bell sidestepped the initial slam of the monster’s fist as it brought the right one down. But there was no time to remain stationary as it then swung the arm outwards to knock him back. Bell leapt back while bringing his own arms up to shield his chest and head, whereupon the chains that were still attached to its manacles caught him in glancing.
The thick steel that was meant to keep it bound was dense enough that he could feel the lashing it gave his forearms and felt its sting. But fortunately, his arms didn’t break from such a passing strike, even if they throbbed and he could tell it was likely to bruise. He could still fight then.
Bell’s ears then caught the unintelligible voices of the Little Ones answering his plea as a ripple in space formed just behind him. They emerged from the nearest building, sticking out of it horizontally with the Saw Cleaver and Hunter’s Pistol in hand. In a conjoined effort, the grouping of Messengers tossed them towards Bell with as much strength as their emaciated arms could muster.
Well-worn wood wrapped in fresh bandages for a grip met one hand while the curved grip shaped to fit comfortably filled the other. Both set of fingers wrapped around them tight before Bell rolled once more out of the way as the Silverback attacked with another punch that blew open the wall with a spray of stone dust.
Screams bellowed out from within. Someone’s home had just been broken into. Collateral damage in its attempt to kill Bell.
I have to lure it the center! He turned his back to the monster, presenting an opening despite his fear. Then he ran towards the center of the plaza and lure it that way, bringing the fight into safer territory.
The Silverback took the bait. Corded muscles in its lower legs released like a coiled spring and sent it forward. It lunged for Bell with its hand outstretched, intent on wrapping those stout fingers around his body to crush him like ripe fruit.
The young adventurer threw himself to the side, getting away with only his leg being clipped in escaping the fingers as they closed into a fist. The Silverback’s momentum carried it forward a little further, into the center of the plaza. It’s back was to Bell, so he rushed in with the Saw Cleaver to hack away at it.
The last he checked his Strength had just made it to E-rank after the War Shadows, even higher than before he fought the Minotaur with the Doll’s update. It had been just enough for his saw’s teeth to tear rents into its flesh deep enough for him to get its magic stone free somehow. Yet, now he couldn’t even manage to dig it past the hide beneath the silver fur before he gripped it with both hands and tensed his own muscles that seemed heavy with exhaustion to rip the metal out through the side.
The Silverback snarled as crimson ran free from a tear in its flesh, blood vessels above its thick muscles torn open so that they could start dotting that white fur with its blood. Retaliation followed. It began to move forward, pounding its strong fists down over and over again.
Bell raised the pistol loaded with a Quicksilver Bullet and fired, hoping the stopping power would be enough to halt it. The sound of caged thunder was drowned by the shattering of earth, the faint pinging of the bullet hitting metal that either guarded its eyes or chest barely reaching his ears. Then Silverback finished its rampage with a double-hammer strike that hit the ground hard enough that it blew Bell off his feet before he could get out of range.
“Ah…ahh…” Bell struggled for breath as haze of pain permeated his body, blood pounding beneath his skull as he got back onto his feet. Then he made out the glint of metal from the knuckles on the Silverback’s fist as it readied to strike. He moved to dodge, but he couldn’t.
His legs felt like they had gone to liquid. His insides felt like they were shaking from the previous hit without it even touching him directly. He couldn’t dodge like this, so he brought the Saw Cleaver’s flat around to act as a shield and braced it with his other hand to withstand the impact—
CRUNCH!! KRIK!! The sound of splintering wood and fracturing iron followed. Then came pain, a sharp and jagged thing that dug into his flesh along with a heavy weight that carried him further until Bell hit the ground a final time. Agony took on a tangible form as he struggled to breathe, only to feel something sharp tearing him apart.
With his vision blurred he looked down to see that the Saw Cleaver had been broken. The butcher’s weapon was embedded within his chest diagonally with the broken handle a little distance away. His pistol was nowhere to be found, lost on impact as something hot and wet bubbled up in his throat while crimson seeped out of his flesh around the wound and soaked his shirt.
The blood, with its scent thick, glossed over his mind as the Silverback approached slowly, as if giving him time to realize that he’d been won over before it came to deliver the killing blow. His weapons hadn’t been enough. They had broken, and his body had followed suit.
He struggled to move but couldn’t as the strength had left his body. He couldn’t even speak as blood bubbling up in his throat drowned any words that could have slipped from the orifice. With tears stinging his eyes while his vision dimmed on the sight of the Silverback raising up its fist once again, Bell realized he was going to die again and could only apologize to Hestia silently. Goddess… I’m sorry…
Then, for a second time, a fist descended. For a second time, there was a moment of pain amidst the spreading numbness, followed by the absence of every other sensation. For a second time, he woke to find himself laying amidst the moonlit flowers in bloom that were strewn over the hillside.
There, he was greeted by a sincere and serene voice that said, “Welcome Home, Good Hunter.”
Chapter 11: Banquet of the Gods
Bell Cranel was on the move the next afternoon, on his way down the Main Street to the tower of Babel at a somewhat sluggish pace. Last night he’d had some trouble sleeping after taking a shower. And he had spent an hour beforehand settling potential issues over what happened in the Hostess of Fertility before heading to the Guild.
Keeping with his promise, he first went to apologize to Syr over the mishap that happened last night. He made it clear that his departure was because he had been uncomfortable with the Loki Familia due to an embarrassing event in the Dungeon. She didn’t really press him on the finer details, which was something that he was grateful for given that he didn’t want to lie to her, though she did manage to worm him into having brunch there.
The menu changed during the day, though the food remained very good. It was also more accommodating to his wallet, probably because it was catered to a more casual customer base then. Adventurers were the primary source of income in Orario, so they had the highest earning margins next to the ones who ran larger Familias and exported magic stones. He would have to take Hestia there some time.
After that was the matter of visiting Miss Eina at the Guild to ask about any places where he could buy armor today. When he brought up what his budget was like now that he had paid off his Guild-loaned equipment yesterday, Eina told him of a reasonably priced shop that was on the upper floors of Babel. She’d even given him written instructions to make sure he didn’t get lost by accident.
Going straight down West Main soon brought him into the Central Park, where Adventurers were coming and going. It was a nice day that was the same as usual for Orario as far as he could tell in the time he had been there, such a tight yet bustling feeling. The sensation of life and open movement all around him was a strong contrast to the coffin and blood-encrusted streets of Yharnam at night, where only the beasts that stalked the shadows lurked.
The memory of the Hunt stilled his feet as it briefly floated to the surface of his mind. But he shook his head vigorously, slapping his cheeks and letting the sting bury the memories once more. He wasn’t going back there.
I’m going to continue on my life as an Adventurer, not a Hunter. Resolve in mind, he was about to take another step forward—
“Move it you lousy Supporter! We’re running late!”
—when he heard someone commanding someone else to move just barely above the rabble of the Adventurers around him. He turned to the source of the sound to see a male adventurer, one in a party of four, complaining about being late to enter the Dungeon to a small figure that was dressed in a plain robe that looked ragged at the edges.
He couldn’t make out the person’s face to determine their race or gender, but they looked so tiny that they could’ve been a child. Yet, the backpack they were carrying looked to be the size of a person, thrice their height. It must’ve weighed a lot for them, even if it was empty. But their party was telling them to move faster as they forced their way past the other Adventurers into Babel.
Since their destination was the same, Bell could only follow in their footsteps into Babel until they mixed into the crowd that was heading down to the basement floor. That would take them to the spiraling staircase leading into the gaping maw of the abyss below. Into the Dungeon.
He went the other way, towards the wide lobby that was past one of the many arches that surrounded it. The blue-and-white, expansive floor never failed to impress him as he entered it, and it was there he found what he was looking for as a rough looking man stepped onto a circular pedestal and pressed a button on what looked to be a console. Glass rose up to wall him off from the rest of the lobby and he ascended on the elevator that Eina had mentioned in her instructions.
Bell approached one of the pedestals himself, intrigued as he tried to work out how it could function. He wasn’t all that accustomed to the conveniences of Orario compared to his village, but given it was the source of a good deal of the magic stones in the world he could reason out they had more chances to develop devices like this. Bell pushed the button to activate it and felt gravity being defied beneath his feet as he ascended the heights of Babel for the first time.
This is pretty cool, he mused silently as he pushed open the glass of the elevator when he found himself on the Eight Floor. It had a good number of Adventurers roaming around, weaving in and out of the various stores that had displays of weaponry and armor for those who would brave the Dungeon. Bell was naturally drawn to the various shops but had to stop himself from wandering off and went into the one on Eina’s instructions.
The inside of the shop that was that of stone and wood, lined with steel in the form of weapons and armor that had been forged in fire and tempered by the hands of the blacksmiths working under the name of the Hephaestus Familia. On the walls were weapons and shields, alternating as they decorated the solid stone, price tags placed in view at prices that weren’t drastically above what he had on him at the moment. Short shelves that the walls were used to support the smaller arms or unique pieces that drew in more than a few curious eyes.
Maybe it was just because he was still relatively new to Orario, but it still amazed Bell as he looked at all of it. Even with the fact that Hestia had told him before of how she and the Goddess of the Forge were old friends, and that her Familia was one of the best when it came to blacksmiths. It really highlighted the differences in their Familia that Bell couldn’t even properly grasp the perspective or the amount of valis it would take to rent out all these floors for their blacksmiths.
Bell figured that he could spend hours just window shopping if he didn’t already know what he’d come in for. It was lightweight armor to replace the breastplate he’d lost setting foot into Yharnam. Something stronger than the one he’d gotten from the Guild, given that a sickly beast in Iosefka’s clinic had torn into it, while the claws of the Cleric Beast ripped it apart completely and took a pound of flesh with it.
Lacking any armor when he’d gone into the Dungeon and met the War Shadows could have been a death sentence. It would have been if not for the fact that blood still healed him since he’d gone in without any potions either. He couldn’t skimp on the armor from here on out.
So, Bell ventured towards the back of the store where the armor was placed on mannequins. From the look of it, the more expensive and extravagant items were closer to the front of the store, where more people would be inclined to buy them. That meant the more practical pieces would be further back.
The backside of the store had larger shelves that rose up above his head, sorting into aisles that had different items. More of the customers were looking through them, paying little mind of Bell as they inspected the different pieces. There were also barrels at the ends of some of them, containing larger weapons like spears.
Bell went past them, moving further back to where the lightweight equipment was. Most of them didn’t have mannequins but were instead housed in boxes of equipment pieces. Each one had a different style of handwriting on the tags, so if he had to guess the ones who made the armor were the ones who stocked it.
He went past the different pieces until he found one that drew him in. The polished metal that was pure white like the moon glinted in his ruby-toned eyes with an almost enthralling allure. Bell pulled out the main piece and just stared down at the breastplate meant to shield the vitals of the chest, including his heart.
It felt light. Even lighter than the one that he’d gotten from the Guild when he joined. Yet, he got the feeling that it was harder despite that. It was probably made from a different kind of metal than the standard one used for Guild-issued armor. But would they bother putting something like that in a box not even worth displaying?
They probably might in a shop run by this Familia, he figured before looking at the rest of it. There were guards for the joints, knees, and forearms along with plates for the lower back, shoulders, and hips. Additional bits and pieces that didn’t have the same grade of protection that full armor would give, but more than necessary for simple lightweight armor. And all of that at only 9,900 valis.
Flipping it over, he spotted the signature beneath a stamp that had a rabbit silhouette. The name “Welf Crozzo” didn’t ring a bell to him, but he hadn’t been there for very long. And if he was famous then there’s no way they would have put it back here. He must’ve been a novice blacksmith then.
Well, if this works out then I’ll keep that name in mind. Decision made, he took the box with him to the counter and paid for his new armor before heading back to show it off to his Goddess.
Once night fell, it was Hestia’s turn to venture out from the small but homely comfort that was her room beneath the Church.
Her destination was the home base of the Ganesha Familia, which had been established within a massive statue surrounded by a stone wall, with the entrance being the statue’s crotch. The various Gods and Goddesses had gathered for the celebration being hosted, a cacophony of communion between the different deities that made their home here in Orario. That made it the best place to gather information on Achelois’ whereabouts.
Hestia started her search at the buffet table, where she spotted Hermes and Takemikazuchi. The latter was being egged on by the former on in trying to finish a large plate of meat, dressed in his formal montsuki kimono adorned with his Familia’s emblem. The Goddess of the Hearth looked down to her own ordinary clothes and fought down the slight feeling of inferiority that she felt upon seeing how well he’d dressed when she didn’t even have celebratory clothes.
But Hestia shook her head to drive away those thoughts before touching the ribbon that had been elegantly tied into a bow around her neck. She wasn’t here for her own reasons, but for Bell’s sake. That thought allowed her to approach them both with a somewhat cheerful, “Take! Hermes!”
Takemikazuchi forcefully swallowed his meal upon noticing her and then cleared his throat so he could speak. “Hestia, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Hestia’s response was a good-natured retort. “The same could be said with you. Don’t you have a bunch of children waiting for you at home?”
“My children actually insisted that I come, citing that I should mingle with the others instead of working tirelessly for them.”
“What considerate children you have.” She then turned to Hermes. “And Hermes, I was looking for you too. I don’t think that we’ve seen each other in a long time.”
“Well, my Familia does travel a lot so I’m usually out running message and errands.” He snapped his finger as if something came to mind. “Though, I’ve heard you have a child in your Familia now. Mind if I ask who?”
“His name is Bell and he’s a very sweet boy. He’s only been at it for a short time, but he’s hard-working and even managed to get down to the Sixth Floor on his own.” She puffed out her chest in pride as she boasted of how special her child was, even though she was frustrated that he’d gone deeper than that on his own. It was a complicated feeling, to be honest.
That was partly why she had come. She didn’t have much to her name and she had few friends. But if she could at least have them help her keep him safe, then that would be something she could do as his Goddess.
Hermes only smiled in a mischievous manner. “He sounds like an adventurous one. You’ll have to introduce me some time.”
Then I’d be worried you would rub off on him, Hestia thought to herself before moving onto her first question now that the pleasantries had been done. “Anyway, I was wondering if either of you had seen Achelois? I’ve been looking for her, but I can’t seem to find any trace of her.”
“Achelois?” Takemichizuki put his hand on his chin and looked up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her at all since I arrived in Orario two years ago.”
“Miach said the same thing, so I thought that she might be outside of Orario. So, if anyone of us would know, it’d be Hermes.”
Hermes held his hands out and shrugged. “Well, I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but I’m afraid that I don’t know where she is either. The last time I heard from her she was still searching for someone to join her Familia with little luck. As I’m sure you know, it’s fairly difficult to start a successful Familia these days if you don’t have much to offer.”
Yes, Hestia knew that very well. The more established Familia within Orario were the ones everyone wanted to join. And if you didn’t have much to your name to start with then few would take the gamble to help. “That’s true, but I can’t imagine that she went back above. So, she has to be somewhere.”
“Well, I could try sending some feelers out when I leave again. But why exactly are you looking for her?” he asked.
“Ah… that’s… a bit private, actually…” It wasn’t like she could just say what was going on with Bell to them. Especially not in such a crowded event. “Let’s just say we need to have a Goddess-to-Goddess talk.”
“Aww, yer worried she’s gonna poach yer child?” Hestia tensed, a shiver running up from the base of her spine to the top of her head. That voice was the last one she’d wanted to hear tonight.
“Loki.” The Goddess of the Hearth practically hissed that name as she turned to find said Goddess right behind her, grinning in her sleek, black dress. “What do you want?”
“Just saw the crowd and came to say hello,” she claimed. “Well, that and I heard ya talkin’ about your child. That’s the one that ran into a minotaur a while back, wasn’t it?”
“And I think we both know who’s responsible for that,” Hestia said. “Bell could have died!”
“That’s the risk of goin’ in the Dungeon.” Loki’s small shoulders rose and fell before she took a sip of the drink she held in her left hand. “Besides, kid made it out fine under his own power, despite being a Level 1. Makes a lotta sense that ya’d hafta worry about him falling into the arms of another Goddess when a shrimp like ya can’t even afford a decent dress.”
Hestia’s temper flared. She rose on the tips of her toes to get right in Loki’s face and struck her weakness. “This coming from one who can’t even grow a decent pair to fit in a dress!”
Then Loki’s temper flared. She scowled, baring her teeth. “Them’s fightin’ words!”
“Bring it on!” she answered in response, but before either of them could act on the animosity, the guys stepped in. It wouldn’t do to have the two come to blows after all. Takemichizuki put his hands onto Hestia’s shoulders and gently pulled her away as Hermes did the same for Loki, albeit with a lot more effort.
“Easy, Hestia,” he told her. “Your child would be disappointed if he learned about you getting into a needless fight.”
“Hmph.” Hestia folded her arms and looked away. “She’s the one who started it.”
“Sparks still fly like fireworks whenever you two meet each other, huh?” a third voice spoke, their tone lacking in surprise while drawing their attention. There stood the Goddess of the Forge, Hephaestus. “Goodness, the others were starting to take bets.”
Hestia’s frown was replaced with a brighter smile. “Hephaestus! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while now.”
“If it’s for a loan, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not giving you one,” she said, setting one hand on her hip.
“No, not that,” Hestia insisted. “Since you and Take are both here, I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, like if you have any children who might want to join in a party with mine?”
“What’s so great about just having two lumps of meat hanging off your chest,” Loki muttered indignantly as she grabbed another drink from a passing member of Ganesha Familia and leaned against a wall, watching bitterly as Hestia tried to arrange a playdate for her child.
Then the sound of high-heels clicking against the floor drew her eyes up to the approaching beauty. With skin as white as ivory and smooth as silk, her dress hugged her body sinfully tight and showed off her mature shape. It was the Goddess of Beauty in the flesh.
“Having a bad night, Loki?” Freya said with a soft, naturally-seductive smile.
“Whaddya want?” Loki demanded, pointedly looking away from the cleavage on display in front of her.
“I overheard your discussion with Hestia and something you said caught my interest. Mind telling me more about it over a drink of Soma?”
In stark contrast to the clamor of the Gods and Goddesses in Orario, there was only a single conversation that permeated the absolute, serene silence of the Hunter’s Dream.
The Plain Doll, her pale and porcelain body dressed in clothing that were finely-crafted and exuding a benign warmth that had been woven into the stitch, sat among the luminous flowers that rested on a hill by the phantasmal headstone. Her head was bowed before it as her soft voice rang out ephemerally in prayer.
“Oh, Good Hunter. I pray your suffering spirit has found comfort in your fleeting respite. I pray your tender heart has been soothed. But the Dream beckons thee to bring the long night an end. And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…”
Chapter 10: Concerns of a Goddess and Child 2
“Oh, it looks like the Loki Familia is here tonight,” Syr mused, watching as the famous group went past them and to a reserved table. The multi-racial band drew several whispers, their expedition having come to an end and their return sudden, though not unwelcomed.
Before the waitress turned back in his direction, Bell dove behind the bar to use as cover to shield himself from their eyes. He didn’t want to be seen. Not by Aiz Wallenstein.
“Bell?” Syr’s voice drew his eyes to her. She was looking at him with a mixture of surprise and concern over the abrupt, panicked reaction. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are they here?” he asked, peeping over the top of the bar for an instant before ducking back down when he noticed that Aiz was staring in their direction, head tilted slightly.
“They’re regulars here,” Syr explained. “Their Goddess, Loki, likes to eat here.”
Bell’s memory of what happened during the Minotaur fight after he’d hit his head was a little hazy. But he recalled how he had been covered in blood and was terrifying enough that a Level 5 had warily drawn her blade against him. What kind of terror from Yharnam had he brought with him when he returned to have elicited that reaction?
…He probably should apologize to her for that, now that he thought about it. But that would invite questions, especially when she was surrounded by her comrades. Not to mention that if their Goddess was with them, she could probably pick up on the same scent that his Goddess did. It would draw attention, which would go against Hestia’s urgings for him to avoid doing so after yesterday.
Better to get out before that happens, Bell decided as he reached through his pocket for the necessary valis and handed them over to Syr. “Listen, I have to leave. I know you’re on break, but can you place that order to go for me? I’ll wait outside for it.”
“Sure… give me a minute,” she said, looking confused at the sudden shift in the mood before leaving to carry out his order. He imagined it looked pretty suspicious from her point of view. They were just chatting happily moments ago and finding common ground. Then he ducked behind the bar and decided to leave.
So much for whatever good impression I was making before. Bell couldn’t help but sigh. He still didn’t have many friends after two weeks here, so her company was surprisingly welcomed. Still, if the Loki Familia are regulars here then it would probably be better if I don’t come very often. It’s a shame since the food was decent and Syr seemed like an interesting person to know, but—
“What’cha thinkin’ about back here?”
“Gah!” He ended up shouting in surprise as he turned his head to find that there was now a woman above him, leaning over the counter with her head inches from his face. Without a doubt, in a glance, he could feel that this was a Goddess.
The Goddess Loki, to be exact.
“Ya don’ hafta shout.” She dug a finger into her ear to emphasize the point. “Anyway, I heard from some of my children ya had a nasty run-in with a Minotaur. Figured I’d extend an apology on their end and invite ya over to drink on us.”
“T-That’s alright,” Bell insisted. “Really, I’m heading home now and shouldn’t stumble back drunk. My Goddess might be upset if I did.”
“Oh, and which Goddess is that?”
“Uh… Hestia.” He noticed her expression shifted upon hearing that name. Mild surprise.
“Huh… when did she manage to get a Level 2 to join her little Familia.”
“I’m Level 1,” Bell corrected.
“Oh?” She leaned forward, the corners of her lips tugging into a less than innocent smile as her eyes opened halfway to reveal a shade of red that reminded Bell too much of blood. “Ya know, Minotaurs tend to be more than anyone below an experienced Level 2 Adventurer can handle on their own. So how’d ya beat one?”
Bell winced as he stabbed himself in the foot with that. He didn’t want to lie to her. After all, she would see through it in an instant and that would just make her more curious. So… half-truth?
“…I just fought desperately because I didn’t want to die,” he said slowly. “Moving on instinct at the end, I managed to reach into its chest where there was a cut and pulled out its magic stone. That’s all.”
It was all true, to an extent. He didn’t want to die and return to Yharnam, so he fought desperately. He was running on instinct and he did pull the stone out of the monster’s chest.
“Mmm… well, ya’re not lyin’ from what I can tell, so I’ll buy that a Level 1 got lucky…” She trailed off as she sniffed him. “But that still doesn’t explain why I can smell the moon clinging to ya. Where’d a ya pick that scent up?”
Bell stiffened like a steel rod had been shoved into his spine. That he couldn’t give a half-truth about. And he couldn’t answer without drawing any attention to him given the circumstances. It would cause more problems for him—and, more importantly, Hestia. So, he did the only reasonable thing he could do.
Loki blinked as she pushed off the top of the bar counter and looked off in the direction of the doors that were still slow to shut. The boy that smelled of the moon had bounded over the counter and burst through the doors like a scurrying rabbit, fleet of foot with his white hair fluttering. She was genuinely surprised at the overreaction.
She sighed as she turned and took a seat in his still warm stool, the attention in the bar torn between the exit and her. Not that she minded. She’d only wanted answers so that she could put Aiz’s mind at ease and so her attention would go back to her. From how Aiz had risen up to give chase, only to stop as Riveria tapped her arm and gave a small shake of the head, it seemed she’d failed.
“Ah, he left before we could give him his food,” said the waitress he’d been talking to before. She then looked at the bags now next to Loki. “And he left his belongings…”
“I’ll take them to him,” said another server, an elven woman with green hair.
Loki paid them little mind before she threw her hands behind her head and walked back over.
“Godness, how was that an apology?” Riveria asked in a reproaching tone, one eye closed and the other fixed on her. “You managed to both scare him off and inconvenience the staff.”
“I just asked him question about that smell clinging to him,” Loki said defensively as she returned to her seat and leaned back. “I didn’t think he’d take off like a frightened rabbit, or else I woulda sent Bete to chase him down so we could put Aizuu’s mind at ease.”
“I still didn’t smell anything unusual,” Bete said, looking mildly displeased at the implication he was meant to be a hunting dog as she took a drink from her cup. But, given how sharp his nose was, it was obviously something that bothered him to be overlooking. “Besides, I don’t see what’s so interesting about a rookie that Aiz scared off.”
Aiz ignored him to ask Loki, “Did you figure—”
Loki held her finger to Aiz’s lips to silence her before she could finish. “Hee-hee… that can wait until we’re back home. For now, let’s just celebrate!”
Her lips pursed as she pushed Loki’s hand aside, but she didn’t contest it. Which was good since explaining it now ran the risk of being overheard and more questions being asked. After all, if ordinary folks weren’t able to smell it, then how was Aiz able to?
Bell panted as he leaned over, legs bent and back against a lamp that used a magic stone for illumination while he struggled to catch his breath. He’d ran far without considering what direction he wanted to go, simply running to get away from a threat. Much like he’d done in Yharnam.
“And I forgot the food and my gifts,” he noted after catching his breath, his voice exasperated as he brought his hands to his face and groaned. He had to go back to get those, but after that fiasco it would be both embarrassing and shameful. He entertained the thought of just camping out close and waiting for them to leave—
—when the abrupt sound coming from next to him caused him to shoot forward in surprise, turning as he reached for a weapon that wasn’t in his grasp. He then noticed that it was one of the women working in the bar, judging from her outfit. She stood there with a subdued expression as she held the things he’d left behind in her outstretched arms.
“Syr wished for you to have these,” she said, unbothered by the motion. “You forgot them.”
He exhaled, the tension leaving his body and being filled in with more embarrassment that felt heavy in his stomach. He rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped forward to accept them and then gave her an apology as well. “Thanks for this, and I’m sorry. I couldn’t answer that Goddess’ questions, but I didn’t want lie, so….”
“Every Adventurer has their secrets, as well as the right to keep them,” she said plainly. “If you still feel the need to apologize, then it should be done to Syr and in person.”
He consented with a nod. “You’re right. I’ll tell her tomorrow.”
That said, she then proceeded to walk away and left Bell to his own thoughts. Since Hestia didn’t want him going in the Dungeon for a little while, he supposed it was only proper that he apologize to Syr in person tomorrow. But for now, he proceeded to walk back towards his home beneath the church.
He found her in the main section of the church, looking at the weapons that he’d brought and left behind with an appraising eye. Weapons weren’t her dominion, but he supposed that since she was friendly with Hephaestus she would have some knowledge of common weapons. However, given that Bell hadn’t seen anything like them in Orario, they were no doubt something she didn’t fully grasp.
All the same, Hestia wasn’t exactly pleased that Bell had drawn Loki’s eyes when he explained what happened in the Dungeon and then the pub. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was worried more than anything as she ate the food he’d brought while sitting next to him on one of the intact pews. He decided to save giving her the book and ribbon until afterwards, if only to add some levity after the impending conversation.
The fork sticking out of the corner of her lips shifted before Hestia removed the utensil and frowned. “Your judgement wasn’t wrong when you met Loki. I’ll try to tell her to back off at the Banquet, but the fact that she caught that scent means you’ve drawn her attention and that’s the last thing we want given the circumstances.”
“I know,” Bell said, nodding in agreement. “I didn’t want to cause you trouble.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Hestia assured him. “She and I haven’t been on the best terms, so the moment she found out you were my Familia she would have pestered you anyway. Still, while we can pass off you killing that Minotaur as simply being lucky, that scent is another story. It should have thinned, but when I compared it coming off you to that new weapon, and then against the old ones, its stronger.”
“That’s probably because the Messengers brought it straight from the Dream,” Bell said.
“If that’s the case then these ‘Messengers’ must be connected to everything, including this ‘Hunter’s Dream’ you mentioned.” She huffed as she set the fork down onto the plate. “Can you call them up?”
“I think so. If I concentrate.” He focused on the rune burned into the back of his mind once more, mentally pleading with them to appear as he stared at the weapons laying beneath the statue of the false goddess. He wordlessly, fervently begged them to appear there.
Silence lingered in the church abandoned by all but the two of them. Then they appeared, emerging seamlessly from the ground, the space around the weapons rippling. The emaciated, bandaged humanoids appeared.
Bell swallowed as he turned his gaze to Hestia, unsure of how she would react to their appearance. Given how shocked he’d been when he first saw them, it was startling if you didn’t get to see how harmless they were. But Hestia only leaned forward with her nose twitching.
“I can smell that the scent of the moon is stronger now,” she said as she jumped to her feet and walked over to where his weapons were. “Are they coming now?”
“They’re here,” he said as he looked between the waving Messengers and how her eyes were narrowed. But when she moved her hand, her slender fingers passed straight through without making contact. There was no reaction. “You just touched them.”
She blinked. “I did?”
Bell got up and came over to the front of the statue, extending his hand before them. Like before, the Little Ones clamored over one another to touch him with their thin, wiry fingers. “They’re touching me just fine.”
“Could it be that I can’t see or interact with them?” Hestia wondered as she brought her one hand to her chin while observing Bell. “Can you have them take the weapons back then?”
He nodded and then turned to the Little Ones. “Can you take these weapons back to the Hunter’s Dream for me?”
They did so eagerly, grasping the Hunter’s Pistol, Saw Spear, and Saw Cleaver by their handles. They didn’t bother trying to lift them, but rather the ground rippled further like a pond. The weapons sank into them along with the Messengers, dragging them into the depths beyond sight until they vanished entirely.
He then turned back to Hestia to see her frowning as she rubbed her temples gingerly and asked, “Goddess, are you okay?”
“I just got a bit of a headache watching that,” she said as she walked back over to the pew and took a seat. A sigh followed. “From the looks of it, only you can see or interact with these Messengers. But, at the same time, they can interact with this world, so they have to be corporeal. There has to be something I’m missing… maybe it’s because of one of your skills?”
Bell sat back down next to her and joined in thinking as well. The only three references he had in regard to this were the Plain Doll, Gehrman, and Eileen the Crow. “Gehrman mentioned something about signing a contract to enter the Hunter’s Dream for a purpose, while Eileen told me that she ‘no longer dreamed’ and couldn’t access it anymore.”
“A contract?” Hestia lowered her hands and gave a nod after a moment of thought. “It may be possible to do something like that, along with everything else, for a God or Goddess using our Arcanum. But anyone who uses their power would be immediately kicked back up to Deusdia, where our influence is limited on this plane, so…”
She trailed off, diving deeper in thought for a prolonged period with Bell not daring to break her concentration. However, eventually, she just huffed in a frustrated manner as her pigtails wavered as though they were alive from the strain. “If possible, I wanted to speak to this Doll who tampered with your Falna myself to get to the bottom of this. But it doesn’t look like that’s possible if we’re not the one ‘dreaming,’ as you put it. I could probably try to use my Arcanum, but—”
“You can’t!” Bell said abruptly, setting his hands on her shoulders. “If you do that then you’ll have to go away. I don’t want you to give up everything on this world for me.”
“…But does a Goddess who can’t do anything for her child really have a reason to be here in the first place?” Hestia asked, her cerulean eyes looking into his ruby pair before drifting down to her lap. “If I had done a better job to prepare you for going down there, then you wouldn’t have gone through all of that. So, if you could at least continue adventuring under a new Familia, then going back would be worth it.”
“Just being here is enough,” he told her softly, reciting what he’d told Syr earlier in the day. “You accepted me when no one else would. You gave me a family and home when I had none before. If you sacrifice everything for me, then you might free me, but it’d be no different than if I died as far as I’m concerned.”
“Bell…” His words made her shoulders tremble for a moment. Then her hands came up, lithe fingers overlaying his. “You’re a really good child… I’m lucky to have found you.”
Bell, with his heart thundering at how smooth her touch felt and the warmth that dwelled in them, was left momentarily speechless. The atmosphere had shifted abruptly into something tenser than ever before to him. Suffocating almost. He needed an out.
Then he recalled his gifts. He pulled his hands away and handed her them before excusing himself to go down and take another shower, citing that all the running from before had left him in need of one and he wanted to wash as much of the moon scent away as he could. He didn’t see the gentle smile she wore as she looked upon the ribbon and book.
Nor hear the promise she made in her heart afterwards.
Chapter 9: Concerns of a Goddess and Child
“I thought you might know her, given your Familia is a medicinal-type and that’s part of her dominion,” Hestia said, noting that the smell of medicines being brewed was somewhat poignant as it clung to the back of her throat.
Unaware of her child’s venture into the Dungeon, Hestia had gone to visit her friend Miach’s shop the moment she got off work. Miach once had one of the most prominent Medical Familias in all of Orario. A rival to the famed Dian Cecht Familia in its prime.
Miach’s Familia had fallen on hard times due to the fact that one of his children, Naaza, had sustained an injury that cost her an arm and left her with a crippling fear of the Dungeon. The price of replacing the arm, which was no doubt raised to unreasonable amounts by Dian Cecht to be rid of his competition, had left the Familia with a huge debt. Now, much like Hestia, he had only a single child as well.
Whereas some other Gods and Goddesses would abandon a child who was no longer able or willing to go into the Dungeon, he’d taken it upon himself to ensure the best possible treatment for his own. There was no ill will when he allowed his other children to leave the Familia so they wouldn’t be burdened. Instead, he sheltered it on his own shoulders without complaint.
Hestia actually admired him for that.
“Hmm…” Miach brought his hand to his chin in thought at Hestia’s question. “Well, it’s been some time since I’ve even heard her name. She had quite a bit of trouble establishing a Familia with myself and Dian Cecht around, and I haven’t seen her in Orario for years now at any of the functions we attend. So it’s possible that she left for greener pastures elsewhere.”
“That makes things a bit difficult then,” Hestia said, followed by a sigh. It was extremely difficult for an established Familia and Adventurers to leave the city, due to the amount of paperwork involved. Even with only one child to her name, it would take time to get clearance. “I don’t know where to begin to look for her if she’s left, but I need to find her.”
“Well, Hermes would probably be aware of her location,” Miach suggested. “I can’t be certain whether he will attend or not, but the Banquet of the Gods is tomorrow night. I hadn’t planned on attending myself, but you could go and try asking the others there if they’ve heard from her as well.”
Hestia’s lips formed into a small frown at the thought. She wasn’t really in the mood to attend the celebration either. And she knew that Loki would be there. Being the Goddess of one of the larger Familias in Orario had given her a big ego, especially when Hestia only had one child in her care…
But it was the best place to go for information. And Hephaestus would be there, which would allow Hestia to talk to her without having to wait for her schedule to be cleared. So, she supposed she had to go.
Thanking Miach for the advice, Hestia departed back for the abandoned church that she called home. It belonged to Hephaestus, but she was allowed to use it for both herself and her child. Some distance away she could see Bell opening the door to the church, peeking in through a crack as though to spy on what was inside. She opened her mouth to call out to him on reflex until she noticed… well, everything.
Bell’s clothes were in a horrible condition. The fabric of his shirt was torn, reduced to red-tinged scraps that hung off his frame and exposed his skin in patches—though his Falna was thankfully covered up. His pants had tears in them too, claws or fangs having dug into them at one point and pulled free flesh judging from the bloodstains on them.
In his hand was a long weapon wrapped in a cloth stained a disturbingly dark shade of crimson to hide the blade. It looked like the one he’d shown her yesterday from that nightmarish place that he’d went after he… after he died.
Did he die again without me knowing? Her blood ran cold at the thought until Bell opened the door further and began to enter. She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat and called out to him. “Bell!”
He went from a foot in the door to ramrod straight, slowly turning his head towards her with a mechanical stiffness. The expression on his face wasn’t that of the one he’d shown her yesterday when he first got back to her side, ruby-toned eyes lacking the horror they’d held before. It was just a look of shame, or guilt perhaps?
“Goddess, I….” He swallowed, and then threw himself on the ground to bow his head. “Forgive me! I went to the Dungeon today!”
…It was like a child who had been caught doing something that he wasn’t supposed to apologizing to his mother. The moment she realized that, the tension lessened. Hestia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in relief. Then the scolding started.
“I told you to take it easy after that happened yesterday,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “Why did you go back to the Dungeon?”
He raised his head until he was sitting his knees, hands resting on his thighs. “I didn’t want you to have to work to support me when I was still capable of going into the Dungeon. It wouldn’t have been fair to you.”
“Going in after what you just went through isn’t any better,” Hestia pointed out, crouching down to look over his body. There wasn’t a scratch on him from what she could tell, despite some of the blood on his clothes definitely being his. The other hues were from monsters, if she had to guess. “Explain what happened to your clothes.”
“A lot of monsters came out to attack me,” he started. “The Kobolds weren’t much of a threat though. In fact, the usual ones didn’t really manage to touch me. I think it was because of the increase in my Falna. Most of the tears were from the War Shadows when they worked with the Frog Shooters, but—”
“Wait, War Shadows!?” Fear crept up her spine as she recognized the name of that kind of monster that lurked in the Dungeon. They weren’t found on the upper floors, where rookie Adventurers worked out of. She grabbed his shoulders and demanded, “Bell… how far down did you go?”
He fixed his eyes to the ground in shame before he mumbled the answer she didn’t want to hear. “The Sixth Floor.”
Her fear turned into anger born from worry. He had just died on the Fifth Floor not even a day ago. He’d died, gone to a nightmarish place of blood and beasts, and fought desperately to return to her side. And he went even lower into the Dungeon after that? “Why?”
“…because all I can do is go into the Dungeon,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t plan on going past the Fifth Floor at first, but it was too easy. The Goblins and Kobolds didn’t pose a threat, and the Minotaur was an irregularity. I was just going to go a floor or two deeper to familiarize myself with the monsters there for when I eventually did go deeper.”
Hestia wanted to say that he shouldn’t have gone there at all. That he shouldn’t force himself to do that. That she was afraid of losing him without even realizing it again. But he was an Adventurer and, as much as she wanted to keep him safe, he did have to go lower at some point.
There was no telling how long it would take for her to find Hermes or Achelois, and the number of people she could trust to tell about Bell’s ordeal could be counted on a single hand if she wanted to make sure it didn’t spread around. Even so, until they knew what was going on, she didn’t want him to put himself at risk like that. There were too many things they didn’t know about his condition: the tampering with his Falna by the Doll, the Blessing of Flora and Beasthood skills that he’d gotten, and everything else. She needed to find answers for that first so that she could help him.
“Bell,” she said softly. His eyes rose to meet hers and she had a pleading look in her eyes. “Promise me that you won’t go into the Dungeon until I at least get back from the Banquet of the Gods. Okay?”
He nodded obediently. “I promise I won’t go into the Dungeon until you get back and tell me too.”
She could tell he wasn’t lying, so she placed her trust in him once more as she stood back up. Then she noticed the bag on his back and how it had a visible weight to it. “You didn’t exchange the magic stones yet, did you?”
“I was planning on going to the Guild after I got changed since I didn’t want to freak out Miss Eina again,” he said as he rose up to his feet, scratching the back of his head. “She… kind of told me not to go that deep as well just yesterday.”
The Goddess of Home and Hearth huffed. He should have listened to that advice. “Then get changed and go trade in everything you got at the Guild. You can use that money to buy yourself new clothes, pay off the loans you have, and whatever else you need.”
Her sapphire eyes then turned to the weapon he had in his hand. It was definitely different from the one she’d seen before. Taller, with the wrapping even more smeared with blood and filth. “And when you get back, you’re going to tell me how you got this one too.”
I hope this’ll do as an apology to her, Bell thought to himself as he looked down to the bag he was carrying in his hands, containing not only a change of clothes to replace that he lost today in the Dungeon but gifts from a book store and accessory shop that were close to Babel. He passed by them every day but rarely gave them a glance normally, since they didn’t interest him very much. Today though, he wanted to appease Hestia after he’d disobeyed her by going that deeply into the Dungeon, so he’d spent time finding something he thought she would like.
It was getting dark now, partly due to the fact that it had taken so long to exchange his magic stones and monster drops at the Guild a little while ago. It was busier than usual, or at least by his normal standards since he only hung out in the Upper Floors and could get back to the surface relatively quickly since he didn’t often have much to carry. He supposed for people who went deeper, it was natural they’d surface later.
The valis he’d earned from the monster drops, rather than the magic stone shards. were more than enough for him to pay off the cost of the equipment and knife he’d been given by the Guild starting out. That was a testament to how ferociously the Dungeon had tried to get rid of him, since only places where the magic was extremely dense in their bodies persisted after the stones were removed from them. He would need to buy some lightweight armor before he went that deep into the Dungeon again after Hestia finished going to the banquet tomorrow.
Still, I wonder if it’ll be enough to please her? I know she likes books, but not specifically which ones would interest her the most. And while the ribbon is the same color as her normal one, it’s a bit thicker—
His head snapped up as he felt eyes, heavy and hard peering down on him from somewhere. It was like the weight of an ocean pushing down on him, a whirlpool spiraling to pull him in. He looked around to see that there were others on the street, some humans, other demi-humans, none that were focused on him.
He started walking again, gaze peering over his shoulder as he tried to see if there was anyone fixated on him. Am I imagining things or maybe—
Bell’s train of thought was broken when he bumped into someone by mistake, a soft and feminine voice slipping out in surprise. He looked down to see he had toppled a girl who looked slightly older than him, dressed in a pale green skirt and white blouse. Her hair was a shade of grey that was closer to blue, matching her eyes as she looked up at him with a surprised expression.
“I’m so sorry!” Bell said hastily, extending a hand for her to take. Her slender fingers found their way into his and he pulled her onto her feet. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit startled, but nothing broken,” she said as she dusted herself off and took in his appearance. “You wouldn’t be an Adventurer, would you?”
He nodded his head. “I haven’t been one for long, but I am.”
That bit of news seemed to make her day as her inquisitive look transitioned into a smile and she clasped her hands together. “That’s lucky. I was actually coming out to look for one.”
“Mm-hm.” She gestured to the building made of stone, standing two stories tall with a terrace in the middle. It could honestly pass as an Inn at a glance, and there was an abundance of sounds coming through the double doors, indicating that it was lively within. “Our bar, the Hostess of Fertility, is having a special right now for new Adventurers. You’ll be able to eat one meal for free, whatever you want.”
“…I’ll have to pass,” he told her, reluctantly. The thought of eating free food appealed to him greatly, but he didn’t want to spend more valis than necessary given their living situation. However, he’d feel guilty if only he got to eat a delicious meal when she didn’t after working.
However, the girl with eyes and hair that caught a slight sheen in the encroaching moonlight bit her lower lip and gave him a pleading look. “If not you then I’ll have to wait out here in the dark until someone else comes by or Mama Mia will be upset with me.”
“I just wouldn’t feel right that I got to eat something great when my Goddess hasn’t,” Bell said, looking away and thinking about how unfair it was she was plying him with that sort of shy, cute look. “We’re not that well-off as a Familia.”
She immediately turned it around on him. “We allow you to carry out as well. You can try something and then bring another one back to her as a gift. That way we’ll both get what we want and she’ll be happy you were thinking about her.”
It… couldn’t hurt, could it? Bell opened his mouth to give her a response when the din of the Main Street in the early night was broken by the sound of his stomach rumbling, much to his embarrassment. In his defense, the last thing he’d really eaten were the snacks Hestia had gotten him as breakfast.
“Should I take that as a ‘yes,’ Mr. Adventurer?” she asked, a playful smile on her face.
He could only scratch his head and respond with a sheepish, “I guess one meal couldn’t hurt… Miss…”
“My name’s Syr Flover,” she said, introducing herself. “You can just call me Syr. And you?”
“Bell Cranel,” he answered. “Just Bell is fine.”
“Then follow me inside, Bell.” She grasped his hand with both of hers and led him inside. A warm glow was spreading throughout the wooden interior due to the lanterns burning above, giving off a contemporary atmosphere that would lift the spirits of anyone. The staff were all women, interracial ranging from Elven to Cat People, smiling as they moved with purpose between the different tables housing other Adventurers that were all sitting and reveling in their drinks and food as they chatted with one another.
It was a nice place, if Bell had to admit. One that made the dangers of the Dungeon far off and forgotten. But that feeling of being watched was still there, the pressure lessened but not completely gone. His eyes spanned the place once more, but he still couldn’t make out who was observing him. Was he just paranoid after all?
“Mama, here’s a new Adventurer for you,” Syr said as she brought him to a seat at the counter, where the Dwarfess that he presumed to be the owner was waiting. “This one’s special, so treat him well, okay?”
Then Syr was gone and Bell was alone at the counter seat. Mia’s dark eyes sized him up and Bell felt relatively small compared to her. However, she then smiled and spoke in a manner and broke the image had been forming of her in his head. “How long have you been an Adventurer?”
“Ah, a little over two weeks now,” he replied politely as he sat the bag he carried down on the floor. “I just arrived in Orario around then and joined a Familia, so I haven’t been in a bar before now.”
“Then you’re in luck. The Hostess of Fertility is one of the finest establishments in all of Orario! We serve the people during the day, and Adventurers here at night.” She passed him a menu along. “Eat to your heart’s content!”
He took it, or rather had it forced into his hands, and looked through the choices he had. The menu was rather diverse, so he placed an order to see if it was something Hestia would enjoy. It had barely been in front of him for a minute before Syr returned, dragging a stool next to him and taking a seat in it.
“So, how do you like our bar and food so far?” she asked.
“They’re both great,” he told her with a slight smile, though he’d only take a bite out of it so far. “I don’t think I’ve had food this good since I got here, and it feels nice to be somewhere with people who are just unwinding without having to watch out for the next thing trying to leap out of the shadows to kill you. I’d like to bring my Goddess here someday too.”
“Which Goddess do you serve under?”
“Hestia,” he said, to which she looked a bit unfamiliar with. Not surprising. “You probably haven’t heard of her since our Familia only started about two weeks ago and it’s just the two of us. We’re pretty poor, so I have to go into the Dungeon everyday so that we can make a living.”
“It must be hard doing all of that alone.”
“I stumbled around at first because I didn’t have someone to teach me, but I’m managing now.” Ignoring what happened yesterday, he thought privately to himself. “Besides, I’m not alone since my Goddess is there when I get back. That counts more than anything else.”
She tilted her head slightly at that, a rather playful smile forming on her face again as he took a bite of the meat next. “It sounds like you’re in love with her when you say it like that.”
Bell nearly choked at the accusation, a spot of crimson painting his cheeks. He forced down the meat and gasped before stating. “No, it’s not like that!”
“What is it like then?” Syr asked as she looked at him expectantly.
“When I came to the city, I tried to join some of the bigger Familias,” he explained. “Every single one rejected me, since I was a farm kid without any sort of experience, and I didn’t have any family since my Gramps died a year ago. If she didn’t take me in, I wouldn’t have anything at all. Since then it’s been like having a family again, even if it’s just the two of us. She’s supporting my dreams and helping me in whatever way she can, despite having so little herself. I’m really grateful to her, so I want to make her happy and repay her no matter what. Is that wrong?”
“…No, it’s not,” Syr said in a softer tone. “You’d be surprised at how many people feel that way.”
Bell thought he caught a deep meaning with the way she said that, but then she perked right back up and changed the topic to tell him a little more about the Hostess of Fertility. It turned out that Mama Mia was a former Adventurer herself and that she hired girls or women from different background. Since she liked meeting new people and learning new things, the job was one that Syr found enjoyment in as well since she’d never really get bored.
“I know the feeling,” Bell said. “It was overwhelming when I first got here. It still is, really. But you learn something new every day and there’s still a bunch left to learn as you go on. That’s what makes Orario special.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Syr agreed with a smile that seemed to brighten the room a touch more.
Bell found himself staring for a moment at the sight, before the doors opened and a group of ten or so Adventurers entered. His heart stilled as he noticed the golden-haired figure among them, one who had seen him that day on the Fifth Floor. Ais Wallenstein had arrived with other members of the Loki Familia in tow, bringing his moment of peace to an end.
Interlude 1: Orario
Hestia listened with increasing worry as her child recounted his journey into the Dungeon today. In the few hours that he had been gone, he had apparently been beset by a Minotaur on the Fifth Floor and killed before landing in a strange world where he hunted Beasts. There he died thrice, once by crushing, once by falling, and once by being devoured, before prevailing over the towering Beast responsible for those deaths. Then he returned to the Fifth Floor, where he’d first died, and slew the Minotaur responsible for it all in the first place before he left the Dungeon.
If she had to be honest, Hestia would have normally thought Bell was just exaggerating things. From what she’d been told most young Adventurers did, and if he’d died she would’ve felt her blessing vanish and know it happened. But… there were too many things that stopped her from brushing what he was saying off as an exaggeration.
To begin with, mortals couldn’t lie to Gods and Goddesses. It was an inherent ability they possessed, being able to discern a mortal’s truths from their lies. Not that it would be unforgivable if he was lying to her. Bell was the first (and only) person who joined her and he was such a sweet boy. So even if he did lie to her, she would forgive him.
But Bell had been honest with her since they had first met one another and became Familia. With how vividly he recalled the details, it was clearly something that he didn’t just come up with on the spur of the moment either. From what she could tell, he sincerely believed that all of that happened to him as an absolute truth.
And there was the scent wafting off him thickly. The lunar scent of the moon was clinging to his flesh like perfume that was rubbed off a Goddess who either held dominion or some power over it. Given that magic related to the moon tended to be based around illusions, she entertained the belief that he had been caught in one before entering the Dungeon and it took effect while he was there.
But there were only a handful of moon-based Goddesses that came down to this plane of existence. She didn’t think that Artemis was involved, and she was more known for her hunting prowess over illusions in the first place. And the only ones she could remember right off the top of her head were Metztli and Achelois. The latter was a lunar Goddess that did technically exchange blood for healing, so the very nauseous notion that he could drink or bathe in blood to heal himself certainly fit her domain. But Hestia didn’t know where she was since she came down a long time ago.
I’ll ask Hephaestus and Miach later, she decided. For now, she was more concerned about how Bell referred to that living doll possibly messing with his Falna and the effect it had on him. “Bell, I need you to strip.”
“Eh?” Bell went rigid, stunned from his position next to her on the couch and looking dumbfounded.
“Your shirt.” She reached for the hem of it with her slender fingers. “I want to look at your Falna.”
“Oh… okay.” He stripped out of his shirt to expose his torso and then laid prone on the bed they shared.
Strength: I-77 > F-392
Defense: I-13 > F-373
Dexterity: I-93 > I-96
Agility: H-148 > E-487
Blessing of Flora
Hestia bit her lower lip at the unbelievable increase in his various stats. Sure, new adventurers had a heightened growth rate from what she had been told. But to jump up by several hundred points in multiple categories was unprecedented. And they lined up with what he told her happened with that Doll, who could somehow affect the Falna to change his stats even without her blood.
It didn’t make sense. Only another God or Goddess could do so and they needed her permission first. So how was this possible?
And she’d never heard of either of these inherent skills, which was also worrying. In fact, she couldn’t even read the descriptions because they were in another language that she didn’t recognize instead of the standard of Orario or hieroglyphs.
Hestia needed to know more, meaning she needed to check his excelia itself. Normally she would never invade his privacy like that since it would be like reading the events of his life itself. However, there was too much going on for her to hesitate if some other Goddess was harassing her child. She silently vowed to make it up to him somehow before mounting his back and pricking her finger, allowing a drop of her ichor—divine blood—to drop down.
The moment it came into contact with his flesh, Bell shot up. His back arched like a bow and he let out a surprised cry. “Ah!?”
“Wah!” Hestia shouted as she tumbled backwards at the sudden motion, landing on the floor with a loud thump. She groaned softly, one eye closed as she rubbed her bottom tenderly. “Ow…”
“Goddess, I’m so sorry!” Bell climbed over the edge of the bed and crouched down in front of her, sincere regret in his eyes as he extended a hand to help her up. “The moment your blood touched me I felt a really strong jolt run through my body and couldn’t control it. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She accepted his hand and rose up to her full height. This time she sat next to him as he lay on the bed, to avoid being tossed off again. His excelia flowed upwards and into her view, becoming like pages in a book for her to read through.
There was an immediate discrepancy to be found if she interpreted it like words on the pages of a book, with the paragraphs being the means by which the events of his life were told. Whereas the words that represented his tales were normally written in the language of the gods and possessing a white hue, it came to an abrupt stop where it read of his… of his death, at the end of the paragraph.
Then another paragraph started. The script became red as blood and was written in words that were even more foreign to her than those on his skills. In fact, just looking at them made… made her brain tremble as pictures and meanings flickered and gave her a headache.
She blinked a few times and shook her head to drive them off. Then she changed her focus to what the excelia stated afterwards. Beyond the red paragraphs that made up a third of the page so far, the script turned white again and was written in hieroglyphs. It outlined what he said happened on the Fifth Floor of the Dungeon, battling and prevailing against the Minotaur that killed him.
Hestia felt that there had to be some mistake, but the excelia didn’t lie. Or at least it shouldn’t be able to. The whole situation was strange. It stated he died and then there’s… some kind of illegible text that she couldn’t make out and got a headache just looking at. But the parts she could make out state that he really did die…
Her child, her first child, had died in terror. He died begging for someone to save him. And she, his Goddess, didn’t know. She didn’t hear his prayer and come to his aid.
Her eyes stung at the very thought, crystalline tears swelling and flowing down her cheeks to softly land on his unprotected back. She’d lost her only Familia and didn’t even know. What sort of Goddess was she?
Bell turned his head upon feeling the warm drop touch his skin. “Goddess, what’s wrong?”
“I’m so sorry, Bell.” She sniffled as she struggled to wipe away the tears. “I’m sorry I put you in danger and you had to experience dying like that…”
Bell sat up slowly and set his hands on her shoulders in a comforting manner. “I made that mistake. I shouldn’t have gone that deeply for a silly reason. I should have played it safe.”
“But I sent you there first alone!” She threw herself forward, burying her head into his chest, and held him in her lithe arms as her emotions spilled out. He was her responsibility, yet she had to make him work by himself to provide for them and it got him killed horribly.
“…Goddess, I only got through it because of you,” Bell told her in a gentle, sincere voice as he took her into his grasp fully with a hug. “I just wanted to get back to be your side. And I did, so its fine.”
Her voice was muffled as she trembled, her heated breath washing against his topless and pale torso. “But… but you died because you went there to help earn money for us and look what happened….”
“That doesn’t matter.” He held her tight, as if hoping that it would stop the tremors that ran through her body. “You took someone talentless and from the country like me in without caring that I had nothing to offer, and you gave me a home and a family. That’s why I was willing to go through it all—so I didn’t leave you alone like that.”
Hestia continued to cry until she couldn’t cry anymore. She didn’t know if she should be grateful that it was because of this Dream and Doll that he had a chance to come back to her, or angry that in order for him to do so they put him through Hell when he should be in Heaven rightly. But one thing she loathed was that she had been ignorant of it all and failed to help him when he need it.
Yes, she had failed him once. But she wouldn’t do so again. Whatever happened from now on, she would do her best to help him get through it. And she’d start by figuring out just who this scent belonged to and how they were able to screw around with her Blessing.
Grateful or not, no one would toy with her child and put him through all of that again…
As the rays of the sun graced her skin after her Familia finally emerged from the Dungeon to the streets of Orario again, many members of Ais’ group stretched and let out sighs of relief. The expedition only carried them as far as they’d been before but it took a long time to get down there and back, so many had yearned to see the sun again and rejoiced in it.
However, her thoughts were still back in the Dungeon, on the Fifth Floor, as she continued to stare at her hand in mild confusion. She couldn’t get over her encounter with the white-haired boy and the mystifying scent that filled the floor once things had settled down. It lingered even after he ran up the floors to the surface, but to her surprise none of the others could pick it up. Even Bete, who had one of the sharpest noses among their Familia, could only pick up the scent of blood and steel.
Now that she was on the surface the scent was thinning. The fresh air diffused it far more quickly than the stale Dungeon floors, and now it was faint enough that it would vanish entirely soon. If she left it to do so without chasing after it, then would she run into him again?
“Is there something still bothering you, Ais?” Riveria asked. Her name reached Bete’s ears and he turned his attention to her as well.
“That scent is here too,” she said.
Bete’s nose shifted as he tried to pick it up to no avail. “I still don’t smell anything out of the ordinary.”
“It’s leading that way,” she said, looking off in the direction that was the thickest. “I think… it’s going to the Guild.”
“Well, if that boy you mentioned was an Adventurer then he’d likely have to go there to turn in any magic stones that he earned at the Exchange,” Riveria said. “You and I can stop by if it’s bothering you that much.”
“…Sorry for the burden,” Ais said.
“It’s fine.” Riveria set a hand on her shoulder and walked off with her towards that direction until they arrived. There they found it somewhat crowded as people went back and forth, with the various employees keeping busy with the exception of one that they approached.
She straightened up when she recognized them. There were few who didn’t know the Nine Hells or Sword Princess when it came to adventuring. “Miss Wallenstein, Miss Ljos Alf, how can I be of help to you?”
“Has an Adventurer come by?” Ais asked. “He’s a boy that has white-hair. And red eyes.”
“Oh, that sounds like Eina’s Adventurer,” the woman said. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Riveria’s expression shifted as the Guild employee retrieved the other employee, going from her normally respectful demeanor to somewhat motherly as the woman approached with hurried steps and then stood proper.
“It’s good to see you’re doing well,” Riveria told her. “You’ve grown beautifully since last we met, Eina.”
“Thank you for the high praise, Lady Riveria.” She gave a small bow of her head. “It has been a long time, but I was told you were looking for an Adventurer that I may be advising?”
“Yes, Ais here ran into a young man who has white hair and red eyes on the Fifth Floor, where one of the Minotaur’s scared by our Familia went up to. She wanted to make sure that he made it out of the Dungeon without being harmed.”
“He did a few hours ago,” Eina said. “You have my thanks for saving him.”
Ais tilted her head slightly in confusion at that. “Saving him…?”
“When he came in covered in blood I nearly had a fit,” she said before leaning in closer and speaking in a hushed whisper. “I shouldn’t reveal any personal information, but he had only been going to the Dungeon for two weeks now and shouldn’t have been on the Fifth Floor yet. It would have been terrible if you didn’t arrive and even let him keep the Minotaur’s magic stone.”
That wasn’t what happened, Ais thought to herself. He killed the Minotaur himself. And he’d only be an Adventurer for two weeks? That didn’t make sense.
She looked to Riveria who have her a subtle shake of the head and then spoke in her place. “It’s good that he made it back safely. I know you can’t reveal personal information and you’re busy, but could we at least have his name before we leave?”
“It’s Bell Cranel.”
That name didn’t ring any bells to Ais, so he must not have been an elite or high-ranking Adventurer. But… two weeks and he was able to kill a Minotaur? Was he really a new Adventurer?
“Ais, you said that he killed the Minotaur on his own, correct?” Riveria asked as they departed the Guild, to not take up any more of Eina’s time. Ais nodded in response. “Strange. I’ve known Eina since she was born and she wasn’t lying.”
Then he must’ve lied to his advisor about what happened? Ais quietly thought, even though she couldn’t imagine why anyone would hide what they were capable of? In the end, she had more questions than answers. But at least she knew his name now.
She could work towards finding and asking him herself, along with what that strange scent she couldn’t place was…
Fury, hot and passionate, bubbled within Freya. The colorless soul that she had been observing had become dyed scant few hours ago in the Dungeon. She was watching Bell as he descended down to the Fifth Floor and then something happened as he stood there.
She couldn’t properly explain it, but she gained a massive headache while watching as his soul was colored luminous and pale, tinted with the faintest of reds. It felt like something was writhing in her skull and she was forced to look away until it settled down. The pain was unwelcomed and far from pleasant, but what truly aggravated her was that someone had taken something of hers right under her nose.
That she couldn’t let go unanswered. The question was who the target of her fury would be. The shade of his soul was still unique in that she hadn’t seen that particular color before, but she dared not observe his soul in such a manner as that for some time. But there were other ways to lure out whoever was responsible for it.
And then she’d make them pay.
Chapter 7: Home and Hearth
Bell was in a daze as he walked the streets of Orario again, now outside of the dungeon that sank beneath the earth for an untold number of floors. His body was moving on its own accord down the path it walked the last two weeks. But his mind was still at the scene where he saw that beautiful blond-hair girl ready her sword against him.
He remembered fighting the Minotaur until it managed to launch him and he hit his head on the ground. Then everything was something of a blur, and when he snapped out of it he found its magic stone in his hand. Only then did the sensation of shoving his hand into the torrid, soft, moist flesh come to mind and the scent of its innards and blood touch upon his nose.
Bell shuddered. He’d ripped the magic stone straight from its chest without realizing it, running on instinct. And that scared him on a primal level for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to him.
I’ll just take the stone to Miss Eina and go home, he told himself. That was what needed to be done right here and now. That was why he fought so hard in those blood and filth-encrusted streets, to return to the one who soothed his loneliness and accepted him into her Familia after arriving to the city.
With luck, he spotted Miss Eina the moment he neared the doors to the guild with a book in her hand at the desk. While her uniform was standard for the employees, her pointed ears and emerald eyes were unmistakable as they skimmed over the pages. He entered the door and opened his mouth to greet her.
Then she screamed and he realized that he was still covered in the Minotaur’s blood. “Ah… can I use the upstairs shower?”
“I told you not to go that deep into the Dungeon! Were you even listening to me, Bell?” Miss Eina demanded as she sat across from him at the table, the large magic stone between them. She had hurried Bell up the stairs and into the shower, expecting a full explanation when he was decent.
“I’m sorry,” Bell said after giving her an abridged version, hanging his head in shame to where his moon-toned hair obscured his crimson eyes. “I was careless.”
She huffed audibly. “And you were saved by a female adventurer?”
“…Yeah, that’s it. She had golden hair and matching eyes, a thin frame covered in a blue raiment and breastplate covering her bulging bre—er, chest, with an emblem on it.”
“From the sounds of it, you encountered Ais Wallenstein,” Miss Eina said. “She’s a level 5 member of the Loki Familia, who should be returning from an expedition soon. I’m guessing she let you keep the magic stone afterwards?”
He nodded, going along with letting her make her own conclusions. He couldn’t tell her that he’d killed it to get the magic stone. Not without giving her the whole truth. “Yeah, that’s what happened.”
“You were lucky,” she said. “Be sure to thank her if you see her again and remember: Adventurers shouldn’t go on adventures. Stay in the upper floors until you earn more experience. I’ll be very upset if something happens to you.”
That hurt. She had been doing nothing but helping him and he hated to upset her by ignoring her advice in his search for a girl on the lower-floor. The thought of how she would have reacted if they’d reported they found corpse to her made his heart sink into his stomach. “I’m so sorry.”
She relaxed her features and changed her tone from scolding to something gentler as she set her hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m happy you’re okay. Let’s go get your pay for the day.”
Miss Eina escorted him from there to the Exchange and had Bell trade in his magic stone fragments he had gathered, along with the stone from the Minotaur. The amount was more than he normally earned, enough to where he’d be more than happy under other circumstances, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile as he left the guild to head back home.
“I had to lie to her,” Bell said to himself as he walked down the streets of the Labyrinth City, Orario. “She would’ve thought I’d gone insane if I tried to explain everything that happened. Besides, was being saved by a Level 5 really that bad?”
No sooner than the words left his lips he couldn’t help but wonder what his Grandpa would think of that—rather than being a hero who rescued a princess from danger by slaying monsters, he was in turned saved by a girl who was among the strongest in Orario. Or at least that was how he let it be known to Miss Eina to not worry her further with the fact that he actually did die because he went against her words.
Then there was the fact that the truth wasn’t all that clear. His mind was in a haze after he’d crashed headfirst into the ground. He was just desperate and running on instinct at best and that ended with him having a magic stone in his hand and his arm warm from the fresh blood. Thoughts of what Gascoigne did came to mind on the way back up to the surface, but he imagined how that looked from Aiz’ viewpoint and how terrifying it must’ve been to witness.
“No wonder she raised her sword at me…” How long until he ended up as battle-crazed as that shade of the old hunter who attacked the Cleric Beast relentlessly in a thirst for blood? The question left him shuddering in fear.
He walked with those thoughts haunting him down the streets that steadily grew more abandoned. Soon he reached a dead-end in the Labyrinth City, the cul-de-sac where the dilapidated church that he called home stood. For a place of worship to be abandoned by all, falling into ruins, in a city where most of the Gods dwelled, felt somber. But compared to the grim sights of Yharnam, it was paradise.
The doors groaned as Bell entered, the hinges greeting one of the two guests that graced its domain in years untold. He gently shut the door and walked through the aisle that was nestled between the remains of pews (broken and unbroken) with light from the sun spearing through the holes in the ceiling and nurturing the weeds that sought to break through the broken tiles to reclaim what once belonged to nature. His feet stalled at the altar at the back of the church, near the secret entrance to the basement where his Goddess dwelled.
His eyes then fell onto the Saw Cleaver, wrapped in cloth as he had no sheathe to hold it. The scent of blood was still on it, faint but persistent, and would likely remain until he washed the weapon clean and replaced the wrapping around the handle. He set it down there along with the backpack he still owned, which held the rest of his supplies, and entered the alcove where the secret entrance to the basement was.
Hestia was halfway up the stairway when he opened it. There was a perplexed expression on her otherwise youthful face. But her sapphire eyes relaxed as she recognized him.
“Welcome Home, Bell,” Hestia said. “I wasn’t expecting you this early, but then I caught a scent and was wondering where it came from.”
Bell sniffed himself. “I was sure I’d scrubbed hard enough to get the scent of blood off of me.”
“No, it’s not blood.” She straightened her back, bobbing her black pigtails and pushing her chest out in a way that made the fabric of her clothes cling tight around that area more so than usual. Stepping closer, she braced her lithe hands against his body and pressed her own closer to sniff him. “Rather, it’s like the scent of the moon clinging to you like perfume that rubbed off some woman.”
The scent of the moon—Eileen had mentioned it, but Bell hadn’t been able to smell it. It was a sign of the Dream and its Hunter. He quivered in horror as the vivid memories of Yharnam flashed in his mind and he recalled the Cleric Beast and the Hunt.
Hestia took notice. She pulled back and looked into her child’s eyes. “Bell, what’s wrong?”
Bell couldn’t lie to Hestia. It impossible for a mortal to lie to a divine being, even with their powers sealed while on the lower world. More than that, he didn’t want to lie to the person who relieved him of his loneliness when he arrived at this city from the countryside.
So he told her the full truth—of his death. Of the Dream. Of the Doll.
Of the Hunt.