Chapter 31: The First Night
“I watched in horror as Argo’s body was sent flying, caught in the wake of my spell. I had just wanted to show him that I learned magic. That I was a step closer to being able to help him. But it slipped from my control the moment my focus lapsed, and Argo paid the price for it.
‘What a wonderful spell! I knew you were talented my dear little sister.’
Argo bounced back up, pretending as if nothing was wrong. But I could see the blood where he’d been hurt because of me stemming from the back of his head. A crushing sense of guilt pressed down in my chest as I applied a tourniquet and apologized repeatedly. I even wanted to go fetch Elio to heal him, even if I was punished for disobeying him.
But Argo only gently patted me on the head and told me he’d be good as new tomorrow, so I should go back to my training. And sure enough, there was no trace of the wound the next day. Looking back, I suspect that Elio knew what I did and went to heal my brother sometime after I had cried myself to sleep.
But the reason for that isn’t something I know even to this day.”
It looks like we’re finishing up for the day.
That thought, confined within Bell Cranel’s mind, surfaced as he noticed that Lord Hermes was making a gesture up ahead. It had been maybe around twelve hours since they had taken flight from the walls of Orario. They had long since lost the ability to see the tower that reached from the ground to the heavens above, the Labyrinth City long gone with only stretches of land without large settlements around. And it had only been the first day of what would be ten in flight.
The God of Travel had taken to leading them since he was aware of their destination across the continent and was more familiar with flight via their draconic mounts. Because of the sound of the air rushing past their ears and the distance between them, it was more reliable to rely on visual cues to signal rather than trying to speak out loud. Even if he could pick up their voices despite the wind because of his Level, the others might not be able to.
Bell carefully maneuvered one of his arms, tucked close against the soft, slender frame of the slumbering divinity nestled against him, free after ensuring he had a firm grip on the reins with his other hand. Then he raised it to make a similar motion to show he saw the signal. He saw out of the corner of his eyes that Welf and Mikoto were doing the same.
With everyone aware of their intentions, the descent began. The airborne dragons slowly dropped down from the golden expanse of the evening sky towards the grasslands below that seemed almost as endless as the sky above over the last few hours, only broken up by a nearby forest with stalwart trees standing sentry at the entrance.
Despite his best effort, the jostling motion made as the dragon touched down on the ground caused the Goddess of the Moon who had been asleep to rouse awake. “Mmm… Orion…?”
“Sorry for waking you, Lady Artemis,” Bell apologized. “If possible, I would have let you rest longer. But we’ve landed for the night.”
The emerald eyes of the divinity softened as she brought her hands over to his chest and laid her head against it again. “No, it’s my fault. I didn’t expect the trip to be so exhausting, and you’re very comfortable, Orion.”
He was not sure how to respond to that, so he just gave a nervous laugh while the dragon beneath them shook its wings and then folded them in before lowering itself to the ground. He then dismounted, feeling a slight stretch in his muscles that had gone slightly stiff from riding so long. But he ignored the discomfort to extend a hand up to help her down, which she took and lowered herself to the ground.
“Well, we’ve made good progress today,” Lord Hermes said as he rolled his shoulders while striding towards them. “We’ll make it on schedule if we keep it up at this rate without any problems.”
“I don’t think I can manage to handle riding so long for nine more days…” Lady Hestia softly whined while slumped down next to the dragon that regarded her with a slight quirk of the head. “Everything is sore for me and watching the landscape nearly puts me to sleep.”
“That’s because you’re not used to it,” said the Goddess of the Moon. “Unlike our children whose blessing can mitigate the strain of traveling so long, our bodies need more time to acclimate to doing things we aren’t used to. Even I had to get used to riding a horse again after coming down.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to ride a horse,” Welf said as he braced his neck with one hand and rolled it. Bell could hear cracking from it. “Much less an actual dragon of all things. I’m still scratching my head figuring out why they’re so… docile.”
Bell found himself agreeing as he turned back to one of the dragons prodding Primo with its head playfully in an attempt for attention. At least until she responded by nervously patting it on the head while Mikoto watched on, which caused it to somehow purr and growl at the same. It was… odd to see in every sense of the word.
“You can thank years of collaborative efforts between myself and Ganesha for that,” Lord Hermes said proudly. “You see, monsters outside of the Dungeon are much weaker than those within it. So, he and I had a discussion over drinks on taming practices and one thing led to another. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved venturing to the outskirts of the Dragon Valley to fetch a lot of unhatched eggs for them to work on taming from birth.”
The Dragon Valley was one of the remaining unexplored regions of the world, since… well, Dragons were there. Dragons were among the strongest of the monsters and even those who were born of the surface were still capable of causing a vast amount of destruction when one found their way beyond those mountainous lands. The fact that he actively ventured into the even the outskirts to get the eggs was daunting in that respect.
“Lili doesn’t think it’s really that simple,” said the Pallum of their group with her large bag nestled on her back. She must have unloaded it off the dragon in order to get the campsite set up for the night. “Monsters hate mortals instinctively, hatched from eggs or the Dungeon.”
“I did say it took years,” he answered. “In fact, I’ve lost count of the monster eggs we’ve had to fetch only for the attempt to end in failure after failure. Even I’m not fully sure how he managed to tame these four the way he did, but he’s quite proud of it as in his eyes it’s a step forward towards his goal.”
That seemed to catch Hestia by surprise. “Ganesha has a long-term goal in mind?”
Lord Hermes nodded. “To make a place in this world for Monsters, in the hopes of ending the cycle of the children and them dying in a constant war with no end.”
There was a moment of silence that lingered as he casually spoke of something that was… absurd by every standard. Peace with monsters was something that just didn’t happen. Monsters hated mortals and killed them on sight, forcing them to respond in kind of their own safety. Even taming involved breaking their wills so that they were loyal only to one individual because of the sheer difference in power, leaving them to attack everyone else. That wasn’t co-existence like how he was framing it.
“That’s nothing more than a careless whim of his,” Lady Artemis said, crossing her arms beneath her chest and her tone firm. “Monsters have since the dawn of the world hunted down mortals and threatened the world. It is for that reason we bestowed our blessings upon them in the first place. Even now monsters still roam these lands and prey on the defenseless, as my children and I have seen too many times to count.”
“True,” he conceded. “But the fact that we just spent hours flying on four monsters of one of the most fearsome species without fearing for our lives is also an immutable fact. I’m personally of the mind that these four are simply Irregulars that he came across after thousands of attempts, given that he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then and the fact that it’s clear that they’re too docile to remotely survive on their own in a place as harsh as the Dragon Valley. But it doesn’t change the fact that it opens the door to the potential. After all, the Lower World is full of untapped possibilities.”
The expression of the Goddess of the Moon made it clear she didn’t share the same sentiment, which Bell could understand all too well. He had lost his grandfather to goblins after all. Throughout history, there haven’t been any such cases where monsters and men have lived along with one another in the way Lord Hermes was speaking, so it really did seem like a whim more than anything.
But the topic lingered in his mind even as the discussion itself came to an end as they needed to divide the duties to set up for the night. Welf and Hermes set out into the nearby woodlands in order to gather firewood for the night since they would be camping there before heading out once morning came around to continue their trip. Mikoto and Hestia were preparing the food for the evening, while Lili and Primo were in the process of feeding the dragons they flew on. That left Bell and Artemis to set up the campsite.
Bell was diligently in the process of hammering in the stake to keep the tent that Lady Hestia and Artemis would be sharing when he felt a presence behind him. He turned to see the Goddess of the Moon there. “Yes, Lady Artemis?”
“…Orion, you’ve been quiet for a while now. Is there something on your mind?”
“Oh, I was just thinking about what Lord Hermes mentioned,” he admitted. “It’s still hard to get over the fact that we managed to fly this far on top of dragons of all things. To be honest, I was a bit nervous I would have made a mistake the entire time. Especially since the only riding animal I’ve been on before now was a donkey.”
Artemis quirked her head at that. “A donkey?”
“The mountain village I grew up in was small and out of the way,” he explained. “The farm Grandpa and I had was next to a nice lady with a donkey that she let me ride when I was younger. It’s not very interesting to talk about.”
“No, I want to hear more about your past,” Artemis told him with a small smile. “If you want, we can exchange tales while we have time.”
Bell decided there was no harm in doing so and indulged her. “The farm itself was small, nestled high up in the mountains. There weren’t too many of us, so we had to rely on one another, and next to our farm was a woman named Eda. She looked after me while Grandpa had to work on the farm and helped him out when I was too young to really do anything. Sometimes when listening to grandpa’s stories I would imagine I was a hero riding on a mighty steed, and she’d indulge me by letting me on her donkey.”
The goddess closed her eyes and tilted her head back, a soft rumble in her throat as she remained deep in thought. Then a small smile came across her face. “I can almost picture a smaller version of you doing that, Orion. You must have really liked heroes.”
“Well, Grandpa did tell me a lot of the stories that he knew,” he said with a nervous chuckle as a spot of crimson from embarrassment appeared. “When he wasn’t on the farm, he would often pen them. The way he always told them made it seem like he had captured every little detail to the point where I could also feel that I was practically there, watching their struggles and overcoming odds. I came to really admire heroes like Epimetheus and Argonaut, and I wanted to be like them.”
“Is that why you came to Orario then?” she asked. “To be a hero?”
“Ah…” His expression softened. “Partly. I had other reasons too, but things were a lot harder than I expected. I was lucky to find Lady Hestia and make it this far thanks to her kindness, so I’m grateful to her. As for being a hero, it still feels like I’m over my head with just being an Adventurer at times. I’m honestly still nervous about this whole thing, but I’ll do my best to help you as well, Lady Artemis.”
“I’m certain you will, Orion,” Artemis said. “Now, I promised to exchange a tale. Would you like to hear the one about how Hestia and I became friends back in Heaven?”
Lefiya Viridis hummed softly to herself as she combed her hair in front of a mirror within the dressing room adjoined to the shower room on the floor. Her skin was a rosy hue beneath her nightgown, still saturated with warmth from the shower she’d taken to cleanse herself after running around for most of the day. She intended to retire early for the night to make up for the lack of sleep given how hectic things had been thanks to her brother’s propensity to get into trouble.
I still need to figure out how to complete his Quest though. Her thoughts shifted to the request made by the Gnome who had been acquainted with Bell’s little friend. It was a simple request to retrieve a few things from the Dungeon. Nothing that was illicit or would require her to go into the Deep Floors, but she would need to go to the Middle Floors.
That wasn’t an insurmountable problem given that she was on the verge of Level Four and a skilled Level Two could head as far down as the entrance to the Water Capital. But since part of what she needed was an ore that would likely need to be mined, she would have to dedicate some time to the endeavor. The Dungeon was rarely content to simply leave an Adventurer to do so without at least throwing several monsters against them. And since she was a Mage, it wasn’t recommended that she travel that deeply on her own without a Vanguard.
However, since the request was made to her personally and it was a private matter, Lefiya felt it wouldn’t be right to ask any of her Familia members to help her when she couldn’t explain it. That would be taking advantage of them when she was already technically hiding things from them. If her brother were here, he’d be an option since she could also take the time to explain things about how those floors worked. But he would be absent for the next month, which was probably for the best since it would give everyone time to forget about the thing with Lady Artemis as something else caught their attention.
I guess I’ll ask Filvis then. A smile blossomed onto her face at the thought of her beloved. Once she had finished handing out the letters, she had paid a visit to Lord Dionysus Familia to apologize for cutting their date short once more to tend to the matter with Bell and showing her the darker side of her personality when she got a little too hot under the collar.
Filvis understood thankfully. She might not have known Bell, but she knew that he helped save her from the new species that had swallowed them both and so that was why they were on friendlier terms. And she had even said that knowing that Lefiya cared about her feelings so much to get upset over the thought of her misunderstanding was appealing in its own way. The Half-Elf probably would have tried kissing her then and there for being such an understanding partner if not for the need to conduct herself properly in someone else’s domain.
Anyway, she would need to find a time when the two of them would be free to ask for her help in heading down to the Middle Floors. And while she would need to behave herself while they were in the Dungeon, they could spend their time together doing something fun if they finished early. It’d be nice to take her somewhere pleasant or get her a gift, but Lefiya needed to consider what would be practical for her on top of being fashionable…
Her attention was pulled from that line of thought as the door to the room opened. In came the familiar face of Leene Arshe, the kind-hearted Healer holding a change of clothes for the evening. She must have intended to take a shower but stopped to greet the Half-Elf when she spotted her. “Good evening. I hadn’t realized you returned since you weren’t at dinner.”
“I had a lot of things to do so I ate while I was out,” she explained before recalling the events of last night when she spotted her. “By the way, you did a nice job on your makeup last night. You looked very cute with Mister Bete.”
A sudden jolt ran up the girl. “Wh-What do you mean? I was just studying here last night.”
Holding her chin up with an amused smile even as she continued to brush her hair, Lefiya let out a slight hum. “Hmmm. So that girl with long hair and brown eyes who was cheering on Mister Bete was another admirer then? I never thought he was so popular with women. I’ll have to ask him her name some time.”
Leene fretted about as steam poured from her ears as she looked around before eventually just bowing her head. “P…Please don’t… He’ll get mad.”
“Relax, I don’t intend to tell anyone,” Lefiya promised. “It was just that I was surprised that you two of all people were on a date and I was curious, but there are only a handful of places that are completely soundproof.”
A Level Three could hear through ordinary walls with ease, so for a Familia with even higher-ranked Adventurers than that there needed to be areas where privacy was guaranteed. The dressing rooms and bathrooms were among them for obvious reasons. That allowed the girls to talk without being overheard, which was one of the reasons she chose to have the discussion here while they were alone.
“It wasn’t a date,” Leene insisted softly before reaching up to her hair and fiddling with loose strands. “He was just paying me back for the favor he asked that day I healed you.”
The Half-Elf craned her head in question at that before Leene explained the situation in earnest. Since Bete dragged her to Leene before the meeting where she had been reprimanded for getting involved with the War Game chase, when she asked him if he didn’t have plans for the Holy Night Festival, it seemed he regarded it as paying her back to make them even. He wouldn’t be seen with her as a date or anything, but if she wanted to follow him around while he went to get drunk without being seen he’d tolerate it.
“…And you were okay with that?” Lefiya asked cautiously. To be honest, she was partly offended that he would ask her to just follow him around and ignore her while he went around drinking. If he was going to do that much, rejecting her would have been better.
Leene only nodded with a slight smile. “…It wasn’t a date, but something I felt like I forced onto him. But even so, he didn’t drink anything. And I actually had fun.”
The girl went on to tell her about how Bete seemed to go to places he figured she would be interested in. It wasn’t exactly the case, but it wasn’t anything she outright hated. He apparently even caught her eyeing a prize from one of the stalls and then complained how there wasn’t anything really worth winning before picking that one out, only to toss it back towards her without saying a word when they were alone.
From listening to her, the Half-Elf was starting to picture him trying to be considerate of her but not quite sure how to do so because he didn’t know enough about her. Even so, just hearing her describe him in a positive light and how her body shifted as she embraced her clothing a little tighter while playing the memory out in her mind… there was no doubt in Lefiya’s mind about her feelings. “You’re really in love with him, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” The admission came without shame or hesitation or doubt. It was something she had thought of, questioned, and came to terms with on her own. Something that made her happy as it brought a blush to her face. “I am in love with Bete Loga.”
There were a number of questions Lefiya had at that moment. Why? When? How? But those became secondary when she recalled the number of advances that he had made towards Miss Aiz. If she felt this fervently about him, she could only imagine how it must have felt for her to watch time and time again. “…Does he know how you feel?”
The expression Leene wore turned… melancholic. Longing and loving at the same time. And rather than giving denying or confirming it, she simply answered with, “…As I am now, just being able to help him as much as possible will be good enough for me. I don’t want to cause him any more pain.”
It was clear that Leene knew something about him that she didn’t. And since it was something that Lefiya couldn’t imagine that Bete would tell others easily, it was something he either entrusted to her solely or something she learned on her own. But one thing she did know was the bittersweet feeling to love someone and not have a chance for that feeling to be returned through no fault of your own.
So the Half-Elf rose to her feet and then embraced her in a tender hug. “I’m sorry if I crossed a line, Leene.”
“…No, I’m happy to be able to tell someone,” Leene replied. “And it’s not like I’ve given up. I’m sure that one day, I’ll be able to walk alongside him. I just need to keep doing my best.”
That said, Lefiya finished with her hair and went back to her room. She bid her roommate, who had a reference book on magic, goodnight before closing her eyes. Sleep took her quite easily.
She was dreaming again.
How long had it been since she had dreamed of sitting beneath the warm rays of the shining sun? Since she felt the gentle breeze washing over the fields and leaving her long and flowing golden hair to sway with the petals of flowers in bloom. Since she saw that smile as a calloused but tender hand reached out to stroke her face…
And yet, before that hand could reach her it turned to ash and scattered before her eyes.
The sun faded. The breeze died. The flowers wilted.
A child’s voice called her name.
A banshee shrieked.
Sitting upright in a jerking motion, an Elven woman shuddered nearly uncontrollably as she breathed out heavy and pained breath that filled the dark enclosure. Sweat lined the sleeping bag she had been resting on, a foul scent rising from her body that filled the stone chamber of the sick bay. Leaning her back against the cool stone, her mind raced as she tried to remember what transpired.
The last thing she remembered was that she had been visiting the Twenty-Seventh Floor. That barren place was where she and their squadron had been on a mission. On the way back they had been swarmed by monsters and ran into a cluster of Dark Fungus. She had been caught within the spore clouds and poisoned.
Her dull green eyes, their luster lost to the cruelty of reality and ringed by dark circles skimmed the room illuminated by two Magic Stone Lanterns. There were two other bodies in the room. But they weren’t moving, and she couldn’t pick up the sound of breathing. She closed her eyes and offered them a moment of silence when she heard sounds coming from the door at the end of the room.
Then it opened and light from lanterns accompanying a tall figure cast a deep shadow that stretched across the ground. The tenebrous darkness was bathed in a divine presence as she fixed her eyes on the God draped in black and gray robes. Eyes that were a deep purple hue skimmed the room before they settled onto her with a gaze that seemed to peer beyond her flesh and down to her soul.
She leaned forward and immediately kneeled. “Lord Thanatos. You grace me with your presence.”
“Ah, it’s good to see you up and about, my dear.” He stepped into the room while flanked by two of their comrades, all children who shared his Grace upon their backs. “I had felt the blessing of the others vanish and had some concern you would be joining them soon. Would we have had the antidotes to spare in time, but alas…”
“It was only because I had Abnormal Resistance,” she responded. “I can only apologize for their deaths. I should have identified the Dark Fungus ahead of time.”
The blame lay with her. Her thoughts had been back on the Twenty-Seventh Floor. Her grief. Her desire for revenge. They had distracted her until it was too late and so they had carelessly ran into the cluster of Dark Fungus that had disguised themselves while dealing with other threats the Dungeon presented them. The fact that their squad’s leader had still managed to get them back here in any form was fortunate.
The God of Death slowly rapped his knuckle against his cheek as if in thought while staring down at the corpses. “Yes. A deep purple hue, stained with a vibrant shade of crimson. And crimson with ribbons of jade threading it like a mourning band. Though their souls are no longer tied to my earthly form through the Falna, I’ve memorized the color of their souls. Once I return to Heaven, I’ll see that their sacrifice not be in vain.”
As one of the divine presiding over death and rebirth, Thanatos could perceive the Soul even while being trapped within his avatar here on the Lower World. Once he ascended to Heaven once more, he would no longer be bound to merely perceiving their hue and the connections of those bound to them on this plane. And through that, untethered and unrestricted, he would fulfill their dearest wishes.
They would be together again—all three of them.
“You have our eternal gratitude, Lord Thanatos.” She bowed her head deeply as warmth in her chest grew. “…Though, it is rare to have the honor of speaking with you directly. Should I presume you had need of me?”
He turned his gaze back to her. “That’s right. I have a few of your kin among my children, but I believe that only you and Dear Milia spoke fluently in the more archaic Elven Tongue. And she perished a short time ago.”
Milia had been a fellow Elf and Tamer, just like her. She had been kin, heralding from a distant forest who came to Orario. She had also lost one she treasured, robbed of them by this cruel and uncaring world. She had been overseeing not only Violas but also Venenthes, all of which had been killed by the Loki Familia and had forced them to readjust the operations on the floor and shift their plans.
“I believe at present I am the only one that remains within the Familia that speaks the Eld Tongue, Lord Thanatos.”
“Then I would have you act as an interpreter and guide for a time,” he explained. “An individual reached out through one of our contacts and enlisted our services to smuggle some associates of theirs into Orario. I would have you see to their needs.”
Her mind pieced together the request. The fact that she needed to act as an interpreter meant that it was an Elven contingent. The fact that they spoke in the Eld Tongue would mean they were highborn as well, but High Elves weren’t the type to leave the inner domains of the Forests so easily. That meant it must be others capable of those acting in their place. “I will assist in whatever way I can, but do you know what their wish is?”
“Something or other about Rakia. I’ll leave you to learn the particulars and help them with the planning once you’re back on your feet and on the surface so do your best, Dear Sharan.”
Chapter 30: The Opening of the Third Act
“Elation. Joy. Those were the emotions that welled up inside of me as I cast my first spell, sending the wind called forth by the words bequeathed to me into the sky. Enraptured as I was recalling the feeling I had when I saw Mother first cast a spell for Father’s sake, I knew that this was what this Magic existed for—to protect my precious family and become the wind beneath his wings.
I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to show Argo. I had the power to protect him now. His dream wouldn’t be far off. So, the moment we were alone, I attempted to do so…
Only for him to be injured by the very same Magic meant to protect him.”
—The Cost of Hubris
“Hurry uppppp. I wanna catch another man before it’s too lateee.”
“I’m afraid the sun has already begun to rise, Lady Lena,” Haruhime said apologetically while applying medicinal ointment onto the bruised, coppery cheek of one of the youngest Amazons within the Berabera. “The district has closed for the day.”
Lena Tally let out a dejected whine before wincing as doing so exaggerated the pain of her bruised ribs. Amazons were adept at fighting through their injuries, adrenaline and excitement pushing the pain to the back of their minds. But she had just woken up from the beating she’d gotten hours ago, so she was still feeling it. “That Toad is horrible!”
The two of them were in one of the rooms within Belit Babili, the residence of the Berabera that served as the elite fighting force of the Ishtar Familia. Haruhime had been at work all night in her duties as a Kamuro, tending to the women’s needs as a larger than normal surge of men flooded the Pleasure District. Though they occasional prowled in a pack, during nights like these the vivacious Amazons would go after their own individual prey and bring them back here when they had finished working—the men they brought back here were for pleasure rather than profit.
However, Lena had the misfortune of bringing her prized catch around when Phryne had been active. The Captain of the Ishtar Familia had a habit of taking men who caught her eye even if one of the other women had claimed them. And while Lena tried to prevent her prize from being stolen, the difference in their Levels made it clear that simply wasn’t happening.
Violence between the Berabera was somewhat commonplace, being Amazons and such. But they rarely inflicted severe enough injuries to permanently harm one another. The typical response was to throw the defeated woman into a room to let her sleep off the injuries while the victor enjoyed the spoils, but Phryne couldn’t be bothered to do that much and Haruhime ended up moving her into the room while resolving to deal with the aftermath later on.
Thick indents around Lena’s lower leg showed where she had been grabbed, likely from an attempt at a kick that failed. The large, bruised section of her torso where the tawny skin darkened to a blackish-purple hue, was from being slammed against a nearby pillar. The discoloration on her stomach came from a follow-up punch that probably forced her to empty the contents of her meal considering the dried vomit Haruhime wiped away earlier.
Then there was how her cheek was swollen. It wasn’t enough of an impression for a punch, but instead a back-handed slap. But considering the Level difference that was still enough to send her sprawling into the furniture hard enough to shatter the frame—which the Renard plucked her out of before bringing her here.
The Kamuro could only imagine how terrifying it must have been for Lena’s partner to watch it happen before he was dragged away. She knew that Phryne had her own personal… lair, for lack of a better term. She would keep him there until she was done with him…
“Haruhime,” a familiar voice softly passed through the door to the room before it creaked open. The morning sunlight spilling through the hall window outlined Aisha’s body as she stood there with her hands on her hips. “I spotted the damage out front. Was it Phryne?”
The Renard Kamuro turned and nodded. “It was a minor altercation between Lady Phryne and Lady Tally over a man. I’m tending to her injuries now with medicinal cream, but may I be permitted to use potions given the nature of her injuries?”
Potions and other expensive medical supplies were regulated on Ishtar’s orders. Part of the reason the Goddess of Love didn’t want them used so casually was that such fights were common enough occurrences that it would become costly, even with the ease they could make up the expenses. But it was also because she was anticipating the arrival of the final thing needed to wage war on the Freya Familia, and she didn’t want any sudden expenditures alerting the opposition before then.
Aisha’s purple eyes took in the scope of Lena’s injuries before she sighed. “Lena, take a few from the stock and use them in the shower.”
The young Amazon perked up. “But Lady Ishtar won’t like that, will she?”
“A few going missing won’t be noticed since the Toad is going to take a bunch to keep the poor sap she stole from dying given how sloppy she is,” Aisha justified, knowing how Phryne often left the men she captured. She’d put them through hell to get off, but she wouldn’t let them die since if they went missing after entering the district it would cause problems. Once she had her fun and made sure they wouldn’t talk, she’d dump them into Daedalus Street. “Besides, as busy as it was last night, I don’t think Ishtar would care much.”
“It was busier than normal around this time, wasn’t it?” Lena inquired towards Haruhime, who nodded once in agreement. “Did something happen at the Holy Moon Festival?”
It wasn’t unusual for more customers to come into the district during the Holy Moon Festival. Specifically, individuals who tended to be single and were looking to relieve the stress they felt upon viewing couples during the holiday. Most of the Pleasure District increased their prices in anticipation of that as well, so a larger flood of customers at the time was a boon from a purely financial standpoint.
“Apparently, Cottontail won some kind of contest and caught the eye of some foreign Virgin Goddess,” Aisha explained, her gaze shifting slightly at the sight of vulpine ears snapping upwards. “From there it seems to have turned into enough of a mess that his place is being guarded by the Ganesha Familia now. Anyway, hurry up and go take care of yourself, Lena.”
Lena got to her feet and made to do just that, leaving the two of them alone. But, as Haruhime finished putting the medical supplies away and prepared to follow her out, the Amazon shut the door. Confused, her ears inquisitively tilted as Aisha’s expression tightened. “Is something wrong, Lady Aisha?”
“…Hermes was present at the festival,” she began after a moment. “He departed after Cranel won, but from what I could tell Phryne paid a visit to his manor on Ishtar’s orders. She left both empty-handed and in a foul mood, so it doesn’t appear as though he had the Killing Stone this time.”
“I suppose that explains why she went that far with Lady Lena,” Haruhime said softly, guilt lacing her tone. “If the issue of the missing potions comes up, I will take full responsibility for it.”
Aisha’s lips pursed tightly before it turned into a dejected huff at the fact that the Renard showed remorse that someone else suffered for the fact that she had a reprieve from her fated end. “Go get some rest. You’ve been just as busy as the rest of us tonight.”
“But I still have to clean—” Her words were cut off when Aisha tenderly placed a finger onto her lips to silence her.
“I’ll have it taken care of,” Aisha insisted softly before she turned the door and nodded in that direction. “Head back to your room and go to sleep. I’ll come to see you later with breakfast.”
“…Have a good night then, Lady Aisha.” Haruhime bowed her head before shuffling her way out of the room. If she noticed the gaze upon her back from the Amazonian Warrior, she showed no sign as she navigated through the maze of hallways as she did nearly every night.
Never knowing when it would be the last time.
Elfy Colette became aware of a familiar soft sensation beneath her as the bliss of unconsciousness slowly melted away. It was the comfort of a bed cradling her body. But her addled mind couldn’t recall how she ended up there.
That last thing I remember was… Her mind snapped back into full awareness as the memories of what had to be last night came back into the forefront of her consciousness. Lefiya and that Elf kissing. Aki holding her as she cried before slipping her back into the manor through the window.
Her eyelids snapped open as she shot upright to find that she was in her bedroom. She lifted the sheets and found that she was in her clothes from last night. Then she leaned over the edge of her top bunk and peered down to the bed below to find that it was empty…
Pulling herself back up onto her bed, Elfy realized that it wasn’t just a dream. Lefiya kissing that other Elf. Humiliating herself in front of Aki. All of that happened.
There were no words to describe the depths of shame she felt when she remembered how she had blurted out everything that she had been holding onto until then. Secrets she hoped would never see the light of day had all been spilled out to one of her seniors. Just the very thought of it made her stomach churn to the point she felt she was going to be sick.
Elfy climbed out of bed and made for the door to head to the bathroom before she could vomit. But as soon as she opened the door, a familiar face appeared from further down the hallway. It was Anakitty Autumn.
The Cat Person smiled upon seeing her and raised her hand in greeting. “El—”
The door shut before the words could finish crossing the distance. Elfy found herself pressing her back against it before her mind caught up with what she had done. She whimpered softly, knowing that she was going too far but being unable to help herself.
Knock. Knock. Knock. That was when there was a knock on the door that was followed by a compassionate voice. “Elfy…. do you want to talk?”
She didn’t. What she wanted was to just forget any of it happened and was tempted to remain quiet in the hopes that her Level Four senior would just go away. But Anakitty didn’t deserve that after spending last night comforting the younger girl. So the mage fought against her urges and opened the door, keeping her eyes to the ground as she apologized. “I’m sorry, Aki. I-I just…”
“It’s okay.” Anakitty’s voice was gentle as she responded with that same patient tone from before. “I just want to know how you are feeling. Can I come in?”
“I’m okay, but a little nauseous,” Elfy admitted before opening the door wider to allow her to enter. Once she did, the mage shut the door and then leaned against it while still looking down at the carpeted floor. She couldn’t bring herself to look the older girl in the eyes. “About last night, you didn’t…”
Feline ears twitched slightly before she craned her head in understanding. “Don’t worry. I haven’t told anyone. Last night stays between us.”
The assurance of privacy was enough to quell the rampant nausea in her stomach. Even so, she still felt a great weight upon her heart considering how much she had revealed. And then there was the question of just how much her senior had known. “What you said last night about holding it in all this time… has it been obvious how I felt about Lefy?”
Crossing her arms at the waist, the Level Four’s tail flicked before she inclined her head forward slightly. “Not in the way you think. Rather, it’s… the little things that added up over time. Sometimes when she enters the cafeteria while you’re there, your posture straightens up as if you want her to notice you. Or when the two of you are just talking, your eyes will linger on hers. And occasionally you’ll wear a small smile in a way that brightens up your face. Alone they don’t really stand out, but together they paint a picture of a girl in love.”
Elfy’s hand rose to brush the corners of her lips as she tried to recall those moments. The way she always felt then. Spikes of joy, fluttering moments of excitement, a sense of delight at spending time with her. She could feel her lips slowly folding upwards with the tips of her fingers. “She didn’t notice though.”
“It’s easier to notice all the signs piling up from a distance,” her senior explained. “Even so, it wasn’t like I could say anything since it wasn’t my place. It could have caused more problems in the end. The best I could do was be there for you when you headed off, given the fact that Lefiya hasn’t exactly been subtle either. She’s been acting a bit different as well.”
Just like that the memories of that kiss between the friend she loved and what she could never be bubbled back to the surface of Elfy’s mind. The small joy fled along with the budding smile. “It was stupid of me to feel this way even knowing that she would never look at me that way.”
Anakitty was careful as she gently peeled back her insecurities. “Because you don’t feel like you’re special?”
Tension and shame threaded the mage’s body and left her in a state of discomfort. “It’s not that I’m not grateful to others for everything they’ve done. I know how hard they’ve worked and how much they struggled to get there. But it feels like they’re so far ahead of me that there’s a gap I can’t ever cross.”
To say it was a gap was an understatement. It was more of a canyon, a gaping maw leading to an abyss where hopes and dreams were swallowed by the darkness. She was on one side that consisted of the path traveled and places known, where there were comforts and security. The special ones stood on the other side, heading off to the unknown with the sun ahead of them.
“And you were fine with that because that was what separated heroes from ordinary people…” Aki’s voice was quiet as she spoke. “Something about them allows them to cross that gap fearlessly and puts them on an entirely different level. Whereas you couldn’t even if you wanted to because your legs would stiffen knowing what awaits you when you fail. Is that it?”
It was as though she was reading Elfy’s mind. “Yeah. For me to even be part of the same Familia as them is something I can take pride in, even if there was no way I can hope to be more than a normal mage. But it’s different for someone like Lefy.”
Even if the two of them were stuck on the same side, opposite of those heroes, they weren’t the same. Elfy could only watch from a distance no matter how hard she tried. But for Lefiya there was a small bridge that only she could cross, left behind by Lady Riveria. It was narrow, and if she took one wrong step she could slip off and fall. But even knowing that she still moved across it at her own pace until she could cross the gap and stand next to them.
“I know she’s struggled so hard to get where she has,” Elfy continued, sinking down onto the ground and curling up once more. “She’s nice and sweet and works so hard that I can’t help but want to cheer her on. But, at the same time, I… envy her because she has the talent to make it that far.”
“It’s not just talent that allowed them to get that far,” Anakitty said, rising to her feet and coming over to her junior. “They have something that we don’t that’ll let them become heroes of legend one day. Something pushing them forward even though they don’t know what’s awaiting them. For the Captain, it’s wanting to become a beacon to his race. For Lefiya, I think it’s because she wants to live up to the expectations placed upon her. Even for them, it’s wanting to see the hero they admire so much in front of them despite everything. Everyone has something like that to push them forward…”
Peering past her knees as the Level Four crouched down so they were on the same eye level, Elfy found herself asking, “What about you then?”
Anakitty’s eyes closed as her ears flickered in thought. “I suppose it’s because I want to see the same thing that the person whom I respect the most does. Even if I can’t follow behind them, I can ease their burden along with the others by making the Familia as comfortable as possible for others around us. How about you?”
“I…” She trailed off as her mind flashed back to her earliest desire. The desire to become a Mage of great renown. It was a dream that was never meant to be when she was in the same Familia as people such as Lady Riveria and Lefiya. No matter how hard she chased after them she would never be on par with them.
But that desire was still there. To, at the very least go as far as she could, even if she couldn’t stand next to them. The path that her best friend walked wasn’t the same one that she could follow, so she would have to find another. “I want to improve my Magic, so I guess I’ll focus on my studies and work on raising my Status for the moment.”
“Let me know anytime you want to go into the Dungeon for practice then,” Anakitty said while gently brushing her head. “I’ll make time to come with you. Okay?”
“If it won’t be too much of a bother for you…” A small smile found its way on her lips despite the turmoil still within her chest. “…Aki, thank you for being there for me.”
“It should be around here,” Lefiya Viridis murmured to herself as walked along paved roads of the Labyrinth City that were neglected compared to the Main Street, her gaze fixed on a hand-drawn map. The Half-Elf, no longer under her guise as Feena but having the illusion mask her clothing to not draw attention, was traveling along narrow side streets that were smothered by tall buildings that seemed to jealously steal the light of the morning sun hanging high in the air. That left it bathed in the newly arrived autumn chill nipping at the exposed flesh beneath her illusionary clothing.
Her brother and his Familia had departed from hours ago, and since then she had taken it upon herself to act as a messenger. Specifically, she was delivering letters that would explain their abrupt absence to their friends and acquaintances. It was taking her around the city considering the different walks of life they all had, giving her an idea of their social circles and their lives outside of the Dungeon.
The first, and probably most disheartening thing she noticed was that Primo had no one to deliver a letter to. The Hestia Familia was essentially her family at this point, and she hadn’t made any friends outside of them yet given she had just arrived at the city shortly ago. Hopefully, she would get the chance to socialize with others around her own age at some point, because while Lefiya did enjoy her company she knew that the young Elf needed people around her who would treat her as a friend rather than a younger sister or student.
Then there was Welf Crozzo. His letter had been addressed to his former Goddess, along with one from Lady Hestia. Those she had to deliver to the Goddess of the Forge, who had apparently been expecting to hear from Lady Hestia since she had a part-time job there and was thus one of the easiest to get in contact with on the list of deliveries the Half-Elf had to make. Upon receiving the notice, she had sighed before stating that it couldn’t be helped if it was a request from the Guild and Artemis.
The Guild had been next on her list after that. Bell had written a letter to his Guild Advisor, the Half-Elf that worked there named Eina Tulle. When Lefiya arrived, she had spotted her in the middle of mediating between the Elf and Dwarf from last night. The two of them were inquiring into her relationship with Bell, which she maintained was purely professional.
At that point Lefiya felt the need to step in, so she asked if Miss Tulle could speak with her about an important manner in private and stressed the urgency. It had given the older Half-Elf the perfect excuse to shoo the pair off by reminding them that the Guild was a place of business and not for unfounded rumors before guiding her off to one of the soundproof rooms. Once there, Lefiya explained the situation with the letter from Bell and apologized for making it sound more urgent than it was but thought it would be best.
Those two had apparently been Adventurers who, much like Bell, had been under her guidance in their earlier days and had also reached Level Three at present. The fiasco and rumors from last night had driven them to ‘reaffirm’ that they didn’t believe those rumors about her and Bell, because there’s no way a woman as dignified as her would enter a relationship with a boy like him. It was both condescending to Bell and presumptuous given that it was clear they considered themselves more suitable candidates.
Lefiya committed their names to memory for later before explaining that Bell would likely be absent for the next month. Considering how often Adventurers disappeared and Bell had been regularly attending her lessons, which had been helping to shore up his lack of experience, it was natural to worry that he probably didn’t survive if he went missing for a month without warning. While Lefiya still didn’t know how to feel about another Half-Elf taking on her sororal duties, it was only proper to let Eina know so she didn’t worry about his sudden disappearance before handing over the letter and setting off to her next destination.
That had been the Hostess of Fertility. Bell had written a letter to the silver-haired Human Waitress there, who didn’t seem too surprised that he wouldn’t be coming by after what happened last night. Out of curiosity, Lefiya had inquired if Miss Ryuu had returned, but it seemed that she was still missing as well.
After that, Miss Mikoto’s delivery had taken her to the Takemikazuchi Familia, to whom Lady Hestia had also written a letter for. Lefiya’s appearance at their home had been unexpected, but the God of War had already been accommodating a Renard and Hume Bunny from the Soma Familia that morning, so it wasn’t an intrusion. He mentioned that he would work out the details with Lord Miach, whom she was searching for now.
The area that Lefiya was in now was rather dilapidated compared to the Main Street, a backstreet formed of buildings clustered that normally wouldn’t be traversed by a non-resident of the western blocks. It was virtually abandoned in terms of foot traffic, which she presumed was because most of the residents were likely at work, though she could spot a group of individuals with weapons leaving one smaller building that had an emblem with the outline of a human body—it was the Blue Pharmacy.
The Half-Elf made her way to the double wooden doors and stepped through it with a greeting on her lips. “Pardon me for the—”
Her words died as she entered the shop and spied at the end of the maze of shelves stocked with medicinal supplies a pair of women she hadn’t seen since the War Game. Specifically, the last two members of the Apollo Familia they had to deal with along with Hyacinthus. The Healer had a different staff than before but the fact that they were both armed and here led her to immediately reach for her spare wand.
“Easy there,” the red-haired girl said, stepping in front of the dark-haired one before reaching for her sleeve and showing the emblem affixed to it. The fact that her other hand made for the hilt of her sword didn’t elude the Half-Elf. “I don’t know what’s going through your head, but we’re part of this Familia now.”
As Lefiya considered the validity of her claim, the door beyond the counter opened. The Chienthrope with half-lidded eyes emerged from within along with her God. “Ah, what’s going on here?”
“These two are claiming they’re members of your Familia now,” Lefiya said, wand still in her grasp. “Is that true?”
“Though I hadn’t had a chance to inform Hestia or the others, these two children have formally joined my Familia,” Lord Miach stated as he came around the corner and interposed himself between the two sides. “You don’t have to be worried for our sakes.”
“They’ve actually been a big help,” Nahza added. “We’ve been getting a lot more customers since the War Game and having them being able to go into the Dungeon has made it easier to procure the Drop Items we need directly.”
Lefiya slowly put away her wand even as she bit down on the question that she wanted to ask. Namely, if they were trustworthy. “Lord Miach, may I speak with you in private? I have a delivery to make on behalf of Lady Hestia.”
He gestured towards the room he and his Captain had just been inside of. “I understand things had been a little chaotic since last night and had been wanting to ask Hestia about the details myself.”
She followed him behind with a silent tension running along her spine from the presence of the two young women until he shut the door. Then she breathed out a sigh and apologized. “My apologies for any disturbance I may have caused you. I had thought they may have been here to cause problems considering your involvement in the War Game.”
It wasn’t a stretch to say that the Chienthrope and her patron deity were as responsible as Bell was for the fall of the Apollo Familia. It was their contributions that allowed them to disable a good deal of the larger Familia with contemptuous ease. But unlike Lady Hestia’s Familia, they were much more vulnerable to harassment from former members if they were looking for revenge.
“There is no need to worry about such things,” he assured her. “As per the wager made with Hestia, many of those who were pressed into the Apollo Familia had their Falna unlocked and open for Conversion. I understand you may have some reservations about them considering you were previously fighting one another, please do not blame them for following the orders of their God. They had no choice in the matter.”
Logically, Lefiya understood that. Once you joined a Familia you were bound to the whims of the one whose Falna you bore on your back. Whether they wanted to attack Bell or not, they had no say in the matter since being a good member of a Familia meant being loyal above all else. It was harder to trust someone who openly betrayed their Familia like that Pallum whom Bell’s little friend imitated, so the fact that they obeyed to the best of their abilities despite wanting out enough to leave when given the chance only served to prove that they would be loyal to whichever Familia they joined.
But, at the same time, she still remembered her younger brother laying broken and bleeding that day thanks to the two of them, along with their Captain. That made her… slightly less sympathetic than she would be under normal circumstances. And a lot more suspicious.
“Please forgive me if this sounds offensive,” Lefiya began, “But it still seems odd that they willingly chose to join your Familia with their prospects. My own grievances aside, I could imagine many would have sought them out.”
Daphne had fought with two Level Twos with a decent level of competency considering the odds against her. And she demonstrated her willingness to protect an ally at the expense of her own health. Not to mention being one of the Commanders of the Apollo Familia, who had also participated in the defeat of a Monster Rex.
Cassandra possessed the Treatment Development Ability. That required medical knowledge in the same way someone who had the Mage Development Ability needed extensive knowledge of the arcane. And Healers were somewhat rarer than even Mages, so a Medical Familia would naturally seek her out.
Lefiya could imagine they had a lot of offers, so why did they respond to his? Though his appearance as befitting of one of the divinity was noble and immaculate, one could easily see from his clothing that he was not as financially well-off as many middle-ranked Familia. Much less on par with Apollo himself, who had extremely high standards considering the state of his mansion when Lady Hestia allowed her inside with Bell.
The blue-haired God of Medicine only smiled in response to her question. “I will admit that I hadn’t expected them to join my Familia when I made an offer given how high their prospects were likely to be and the situation our Familia was in. But despite that, they both agreed to join for their own personal reasons and have been very helpful. I had intended to speak with Hestia about it, but it has been rather busier than normal considering the War Game.”
“Then I won’t call into question their loyalty again,” Lefiya said before bowing her head. “Forgive me if it may have seemed as though I was overstepping my bounds considering my own involvement with events I really shouldn’t have been involved with.”
The Takemikazuchi and Miach Familia were aware of the extent she went to support Bell, including disguising herself. But as far as they knew it was merely because of a bond of comradery rather than familial ties. Even so, them knowing that much when not even her own Familia was aware left her with little high ground even compared to those two from the Apollo Familia.
“No offense taken,” he said. “Now, what was the message from Hestia that you wanted to share with me?”
She pulled the letter from her bag and summarized the situation about Bell departing with the others. He stated he would work out an arrangement with Lord Takemikazuchi since he couldn’t leave the shop unattended, and she offered to help in whatever way she could when she had the time. Then he gave her a Double Potion and saw her out.
With that, she only had a final delivery to make. The letter to the owner of a pawnshop that was also within another set of complex backstreets that Lefiya would probably have gotten lost in if not for the directions written down. They brought her to a one-story wooden building that had a rustic feeling despite being tucked between a few other stone buildings. Yet the moment she arrived at the door her senses felt a slight presence that somewhat reminded her of the Spirit Forest.
The reason for that was revealed when she entered through the door that was rather tight on its frame and locked eyes with a white-bearded individual beyond the counter of a somewhat messy showroom. No, not an individual. It might have been because of her exposure to the multitude of the Minor Spirits within the Spirit Forest, but though it was faint her senses were telling her this was a Spirit.
For his part, the Spirit crinkled his nose as he hummed to himself. “Well, this was unexpected. To what do I owe the pleasure a visit from one clad in such fine garments as yourself?”
“I’m here to deliver a letter to a Bom Cornwall, but…” the Half-Elf trailed off as she looked down to see that she was still disguised when his words registered. Her memory of what Lady Riveria had said when she had given her them for the trip surfaced and realization dawned. “You can see through the illusion, can’t you?”
“My senses aren’t the same as mortals,” he conveyed. “I’d appreciate you keepin’ that a secret from Lili, mind you.”
Lefiya realized that Bell’s little friend must not have known either that he could perceive through the illusion. Chances were no one would since the number of Spirits who had a level of sapience that allowed them to interact with the physical world and mortals in a day-to-day manner in this age were slim. “Of course, but if I could ask the same about…”
He managed to pick up where she was trailing off as she gestured to herself and the disguise. “My lips are sealed considerin’ I won a bit of a wager myself during the War Game. Anyway, you got somethin’ for me?”
She approached the counter and pulled out the letter before explaining that Liliruca would be absent for the next month. But as he perused the contents of the letter a question cropped up in her mind and her curiosity eventually overflowed. “Forgive me for asking this, but why is a venerated spirit such yourself present in a place like this?”
Her inquiry was met with a slight chuckle as he set the letter down. “Venerated, you say. You’re mistaken, I’m afraid. Even for those of us who’ve the minds to speak without a contract, we’ve no power on par with those in the Ancient Times to warrant being venerated. As for what leaves a Gnome like myself in a humble place like this… tell me, what kind of people do you believe would come here?”
Looking around at the storefront that was far more disheveled than most of the stores along the area she normally shopped, there was a great deal of variety in what was on display. From armor that looked as though it had seen many battles to little trinkets that held little value other than novelty, the only things that stood out extensively were the most expensive goods—jewelry, a staff, and a magic sword among them.
“I can’t say that there’s a specific group in particular,” was her response. “It doesn’t seem as though you cater to only adventurers or any race. The prices also have a large enough gap that, outside of things that are expensive for obvious reasons, I wouldn’t be able to tell at a glance.”
“Exactly,” he answered. “Mortals that walk through that door have different values and that can be reflected in what they take and what they leave behind. Trinkets that have little value to others may become treasures to others. Reminders of painful memories or broken dreams that can one day become the seedbed for another’s journey. From behind the counter of this little shop, I’ve been given a chance to learn a great deal about people I couldn’t otherwise.”
Spirits that existed in the world these days were merely shadows of those who existed during the Ancient Era and the Age of Heroes. That was because in that age those who could be seen as heroes were far and fewer between and, with no Falna to put mortals on par with the greater threats, the Spirits who aided them at the beckoning of the Gods needed to be capable of bequeathing them that power. But it was likely that the only Spirits that remained and were on par with those of ancient times were those who had fallen in the Dungeon. So what was a Spirit that had taken on a corporeal form to do in a world that no longer required their existence?
For the Gnome that defined himself as Bom Cromwell, it had been to own and operate a pawnshop. The customers revealed their values and what they held dear as the exchange was made. Whether it be desperation to keep going on by giving up something precious or putting all their hopes into buying something to chase a dream, their emotions were laid bare before him in the process and collected in the items he surrounded himself with.
“Though, I’ve found myself curious why someone of such standin’ as yourself went out of your way to enter a contract with two Minor Spirits,” he said after she took a moment to process his response. “I can feel their touch upon you, which is a rarity in this age. Surely what you gained from them is less than what your blessin’ gives you, Thousand Elf?”
Lefiya took a moment to close her eyes and ruminate on the question before she took Lady Lilo’s advice to heart and laid bare her true emotions as she spoke. “…I sought them out so I would have the ability to protect the people I care about. It’s undeniable that the two spells I received from the Wind Spirit and Sea Spirit aren’t as powerful or versatile as the three I gained through my Falna. But it’s thanks to their gifts that I didn’t have to sit back and watch as someone I cared about had their freedom taken away. And….”
She trailed off for a moment as she remembered Lady Lilo and Lady Riveria’s desires. Their concerns over the state of their race led them in opposite directions, one hoping to cling to isolation to preserve their numbers and knowledge, while the other would travel far to build bonds with the other races. Yet both of them wanted her to carry their Magic and culture into the future.
And Lefiya’s own desires were to live up to those expectations, becoming a vessel to carry their knowledge and traditions into the unknown dawn. “From our ancestors who struggled during those dark times to this very moment, our people owe much to you and your kin. The fact that I can preserve something precious to my race and bring it with me into the future is an honor. That makes the Magic bequeathed to me by your kin invaluable, even if to others they don’t seem like much.”
“Is that so?” His gaze lingered on her azure eyes as they met his unflinchingly and without any hints of dishonesty. Then they shifted back to the letter, and he stroked his beard contemplatively in thought before asking a simple question. “In that case… how would like to strike a deal with me?”
Chapter 28: Holy Moon Festival – Night
“Elio meticulously drilled more knowledge into me as more time passed. At least three seasons by my count. Every spirit had preferences and quirks, but because they couldn’t communicate with words the one responsible for recognizing the signs was the other party.
I understood that his lessons were important. But as a child who noticed her brother’s hair getting longer, that he was aging right before her eyes, I began to feel anxious that… that he really did trade his future for mine. So, I begged Elio to at least let me prove I knew what I was doing, hoping to show that I was ready to be able to use Magic.
To my surprise, he agreed.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic III: Preparations
Lefiya found it difficult to sit still as she stared at the rising moon.
Stars lined the night sky, glittering diamonds strewn across the dark curtain of the boundless expanse. The luminous pale-blue moon that was revered since before the descent of the divine was larger than usual, close enough that from a distance it seemed to almost be touching the tower that rose to the heavens. Its silvery-blue rays were cast down strongly upon the Labyrinth City, leaving the streets and buildings awash in the gentle hue.
She should be here soon. The Half-Elf felt impatient despite the calming babbling of the water fountain just behind her drowning out the ambient noise of the other people loitering about in various states of excitement and nervousness within the Central Square. Because the Tower of Babel was at the heart of Orario, the plaza around it served as a common gathering place during events like these where individuals from different lots in life would meet before heading off to be with one another.
Lefiya’s appearance drew the gaze of others as a natural consequence of the measures she took in preparation for the occasion after she finished her training session with Alicia. Her hair, lustrous thanks in part to a conditioner, was set in a flowing ponytail and kept bound by a silver hairband. It matched the choker around her neck and armbands just beneath her shoulders, each one of them emblazoned with ivy and floral designs that caught the light from the moon and the magic-stone lamps nearby. Just beneath it was the pendant that Lord Hermes gifted her, which she took advantage of to disguise her clothing as to not draw attention from her Familia on the way out.
Her skin, pristine with a healthy glow from the use of the cream Alicia lent her, was adorned in a pale-green corset dress with a longer skirt in lieu of her usual pink one. Her blouse and skirt were a matching cream-colored pair, and her shoes were a dainty green set that fit comfortably over somewhat more revealing stockings than her normal pair. Altogether her appearance emphasized the elegance and beauty of the Elven race to the eyes of many there.
There were more lustful looks from younger men whose dates would be very displeased with them. But none of them dared approach her carelessly since if a woman was dressed in such a manner here it meant she was awaiting someone. Plus, she had her spare wand in her lap as a silent deterrent from anyone getting funny ideas.
A general rule of thumb in Orario was to pay attention to anything that looked like it could also be used as a weapon when you planned to approach someone. That was one of the key methods of seeing if they were an Adventurer since even a child could be a threat with the Falna. What seemed to be a hairpin keeping one’s hair up could easily double as a stiletto, and metal bands could double as knuckledusters. There was an entire part of the fashion industry in Orario that catered to female Adventurers that catered to combat accessories, after all.
Step. Step… Step… Step. Step…
Soft, uncertain footfalls reached Lefiya’s ears as she continued to wait while staring up at the moon above. They were a notable contrast to the playful steps, excited jaunts, and eager shuffling off in the distance as couples and friends gathered to head off and enjoy the festivities. And as they came closer, she finally turned her head towards the sound and registered her date had arrived.
The Elf with the moniker of Maenads stood at the edge of the fountain, a few meders of distance between them that may as well have been a world away with how reluctant she seemed. Her very posture exuded an air of nervousness that seemed almost foreign for one who had braved the depths of the Dungeon as she had. More so from the slight tremors rolling through her figure as she clasped the hem of what was an entirely different garment than her usual set, or even the one she wore in the Spirit Forest.
“Cute…” The words slipped out without conscious thought on the Half-Elf’s part as she rose to her feet. And the way they made her date fidget as crimson blushed upon her alabaster cheeks only accentuated how cute she was. “You’re so cute, Filvis!”
“My Lord… gave it to me…” she muttered so softly that Lefiya strained to catch her voice. “I was going to wear the clothing I had from the Spirit Festival, but he said that they were more suited to his colors. And I should dress to match my partner, so…”
It wouldn’t surprise Lefiya if Lady Riveria had that in mind when she had the outfits prepared, should she choose to continue to wear them outside of the festival. It was practical for Dungeon wear as well, being made of very durable materials. But given that Filvis confessed to Lord Dionysus, and he seemingly rejected her, it would probably have been perceived as a slight to present herself to Lefiya while in them.
So, he arranged for her to get an outfit that came closer to Lefiya’s preferences, as she had once told Lady Hestia. That was to say it was a layered dress suitable for nobility. And lots of frills.
Her outermost layer was a purple cowl in the same color as the ribbon Lefiya normally wore, with a large pink bow nestled over it. It had long sleeves that came down to a decorative white hem with long gloves of the same color preventing her bare skin from exposure. Resting on top of the dark lustrous strands of her raven black hair was a hairband of plain design that was also purple, like the rest of the first layer of the dress.
The second layer was a thinner, pink fabric with a white horizontal line near the edges that fed into frills beneath it. That design complimented the next layer, which inverted the colors to have mostly white fabric with a pink vertical line before coming to yet another set of frills that were purple like the outermost layer. The white stockings and purple shoes rounded out her outfit, making it perfect for a romantic evening like this.
“It doesn’t suit me, does it?” asked the Cute Elf, her scintillating crimson eyes averting from the dazzling azure pair fixated on her.
“That’s not true,” Lefiya said without hesitation as she closed the gap between them and grasped her hands. “You look so gorgeous that I can’t help but feel my heart jump in my chest when I see you like this.”
Her words only served to deepen the red on Maenads’ cheeks. It spread out to encompass her face and steam poured out of her ears. “H-How can you admit that with a straight face!?”
The Elegant Half-Elf simply giggled. “Ehehe… since you’re here tonight I don’t have to hide how I feel, right?”
Those words seemed to have the opposite effect than intended, as rather than loosen her up, her expression soured ever so slightly. “That’s right… I owe you an explanation, don’t I?”
Lefiya’s head tilted slightly at the sudden change as her partner looked around for someplace quiet and then pulled her along. “Filvis, what’s wrong?”
It was only once they were alone that she took a breath and explained things. “Lefiya, you… must understand even before what happened to me in the past, I never really considered the notion of falling in love. Not with Lord Dionysius. Not with you. Not with anyone. It was… something I just never considered as a priority.”
That was understandable. There were plenty of reasons to become an Adventurer, whether it was for riches or fame or companionship. While she didn’t know Filivis’ reason for leaving her home forest to come to Orario, it had to be a reason great enough that she gave up the freedom to leave when she joined a Familia and gave her consent to the God who took her in.
Filvis’ gloved hands reached up to her upper arms and grasped them tightly, as if to hold herself as she diverted her gaze to the ground. “And after the Nightmare… I gave up on the notion entirely and put a wall around my heart. Unable to protect the Familia members I led into that trap, or even die with them, I was not worthy of anyone. I still don’t feel like I am, to be honest.”
Hearing her confession on her survivor’s guilt hurt to listen to. Lefiya reached up to touch her, but before her fingers could reach the Maenads shook her head. “Filvis…”
“Please, let me finish,” she begged. “If you console me now, I won’t be able to go on and I need you to hear this.”
She reluctantly agreed to do so. “Okay.”.
Filvis swallowed a lump in her throat and kept going. “Even today I am reminded by the empty rooms in our home of the Familia members I led that day to their deaths. Many other parties I worked with all perished while relying on me. Banshee is an appropriate title for me, in that regard.”
It hurt listening to her say that again. So much so that Lefiya had to bite down on her lower lip to avoid telling her she was wrong. But she had to keep her promise and let her get it off her chest.
“But, in spite of that, Lord Dionysus never abandoned me,” Filvis continued. “He accepted me, an empty shell of a ruined being that was impure beyond belief. He never stripped me of my position or blamed me. He was grateful that I came back, and he accepted that I was part of his Familia. That was when I fell for him, even though I knew those feelings likely wouldn’t be returned—his love for me was not the same as mine for him.”
Lost in grief with death surrounding her, yet he still extended his hands and embraced her with open arms. It was natural she would fall in love with him. Lefiya knew that and didn’t blame her for it, since she could imagine doing the same thing if the circumstances were the same.
The Maenads bought her hands to her chest. “But even though having him accept me gave me purpose and made living like this bearable, I had forgotten many things. How to smile. How to laugh. How to feel joy. I lost them all and felt like I didn’t deserve them in the first place, so I was fine with that. Then…”
Her voice cracked, leaving her to trail off for a moment to catch her breath. Her crimson eyes then met with Lefiya’s and bore into them. She was trying to convey the depths of her emotions in the event that her words failed her.
“Then… even knowing I was responsible for so much death… you took my hand. You opened your heart to me, put your trust in me, and continued to stay by my side no matter how much I tried to push you away. You accepted me and…for the first time in a long time… I felt happy and warm inside.”
The Half-Elf’s memories flashed back to that day on the Eighteenth Floor. It seemed distant for only being a short time ago, but the memory was still vivid. She recalled how Filvis had turned her back to her, telling her not to associate with her because she was tainted and would lead to her death as well.
Lefiya had struggled to find words. Any words that could help her. Any words that would stop her for her own sake, so that she didn’t continue to suffer. Anything to help her. So, when her mind failed her, she listened to her heart and let it speak where her mind couldn’t.
“You’re not sullied. You are the most beautiful person in the world.”
The words had no reason behind them. They had only met a short time ago and barely knew each other. But despite that those words came from her heart and continued to flow out. If she didn’t know much about her then she would find out more about her from that day.
And there, after an awkward and painful silence where she believed that she had humiliated herself, she saw it for the first time. She saw Filvis’ smile and knew that she was right. There had been nothing more beautiful to her.
“We’ve gone through so much since then and my feelings have only grown,” Filvis stated. “The darker part of me was always waiting for you to say you didn’t mean it that way or anything that would let me think it was just my heart playing tricks. But after the Spirit Festival, I couldn’t ignore the truth that it wasn’t just a friendship between brethren when you tried to… kiss me…”
Lefiya really had lost her self-control then. It could have turned out so much worse if she had read Filvis wrong. And in front of a bunch of other Elves when she was representing Lady Riveria. It would have been the Alicia incident all over, only this time she really would have felt like dying.
“I was torn between the two of you because I owe you both so much and you’re the only two who have coaxed these feelings from deep inside of me. However, I had no desire to be so greedy as to want both of you when I didn’t really feel worthy of either of you to begin with. You both deserve someone you can dedicate your hearts to in full, and while I still had reservations, I wanted to at least ensure I could do that much for at least one of you.”
The fact that Filvis was in front of her made it clear how that had gone. So Lefiya wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to remain silent. Rejection was hard, especially when it came to the heart. Even being here was no doubt difficult for her.
“Lord Dionysus told me that he loved me as Familia,” she confessed. “He loves us all in his own way, though it may not seem like it at times. To him, we are all important in our own way, and so long as he remained on the Lower World it would be wrong to accept my love jealously and steal my future from me when his life was eternal whereas mine was not.”
Elves lived a long time. Far longer than most other races on the Lower World. But the Gods and Goddesses lived for eternity. The gap between the lifespans was as vast as that of a Human and a Pure-Blooded Elf, but that didn’t mean such a gap couldn’t be breached—after all, Lefiya wouldn’t have been born if that was the case.
But it did mean that they would have to part ways, and one would have to live without the other until the end of their days. For Elves, grief and longevity did not mix well, but they would eventually die and be reborn. For an immortal being, that end would never come, and they would have only two options in the end.
The first was to put up with the pain of the loss for the rest of their existence, which would be agonizing considering how painful loss could be. The second was to decide to return to Heaven with them to keep their soul by their side, giving up on their place here below and the rest of the children they left behind. Knowing that, any single child wishing for their love to be returned would be seen as selfish when the deities were so much more than them.
Even so, many children did yearn for their deity’s affection. To have their love be truly returned in earnest. It was beautiful in its own way—painful and bittersweet, but beautiful.
“I had given up on thoughts of a future outside of serving Lord Dionysus, who accepted me despite my failings. But I want to see how a future would be with you,” Filvis finished. “I am sorry if it sounds like I’m clinging to you to feel something again, and if you wish to part ways with me for being so self—”
Unable to hold her tongue anymore, Lefiya finally slipped up and let her voice out. “Don’t finish saying that. Otherwise, I really will get mad at you.”
Her sudden warning caught the Maenads off-guard. “L-Lefiya?”
Even so, the Half-Elf let out her thoughts. “It’s only natural to feel the way you do after all you’ve gone through. To cling to someone who accepted you and give you even the little things that make life worth living. And it’s not like I don’t know what it feels like to have survived when others have died in your place. You were there too.”
She hadn’t even known the members of the Hermes Familia very well. Yet when she asked them to protect her, they did so without hesitation. As she stood there, unable to move due to the accumulation of magical energy while finishing her spell, she should have died when the attack came towards her.
Yet she lived because Miss Elilly threw herself in front of the attack. Covered in the woman’s blood and forced to watch the life fade from her eyes as she continued to sing, Lefiya still wished she had been better so that never needed to happen. And if she didn’t continue getting stronger, someday that scene could play out again… only for it be her brother or Filvis or someone else she cared about instead.
“…Filvis, it’s natural to cling to whatever you can to feel happy,” Lefiya said after a deep breath to rein in her emotions. “So don’t apologize for that ever again. If not for your own sake, then for those who aren’t there anymore. And for those who care about you, like me.”
Shame and guilt clouded Filvis’ beautiful face. It didn’t suit her, and Lefiya hated she had been the cause. But if she said nothing then it would have been the same as allowing her to keep thinking it was wrong to be happy. And that was wrong.
“To be happy, we cling to what we must. No matter what that might be… or the price of it.” It seemed like she was taking a moment to truly take the Half-Elf’s words to heart as she muttered softly. Then she finally looked Lefiya in the eyes again and asked, “And being with me makes you happy too?”
“Or course,” she said with a small pout at how obvious that should have been. Her mood had been somewhat soured by the discussion. “It’s natural to be happy with the people you treasure, right?”
The Cute Elf’s lips pulled back into a smile that truly suited her. “Then I suppose I’m the happiest person in the world right now. You truly are my dearest treasure…”
Lefiya felt her heart start racing at that. “Then shall we go enjoy the festival together?”
“Just a moment,” Filvis said, extending her left hand out and spreading her fingers wide. Then with her right forefinger and thumb, she reached over and did the one thing Lefiya didn’t expect her to do willing or without coaxing. She pulled free her glove to expose her pale, slender hand for her to see, one after the other.
Then those very same bare hands were extended for her to take. “Shall we pick up where we left off at the Spirit Festival, my dearest treasure?”
“Wow, that’s so cute…”
Elfy couldn’t help but be drawn to one of the stalls that had been set up in the market area located on the west side of Orario. She was one of ten young women who could all proudly claim to be part of one of the most prestigious Familia within the Labyrinth City, each of them an Adventurer who had braved the depths of the Dungeon. Those same fearless explorers of the depths where monsters awaited around every corner were currently mystified at the display set up in front of them.
It was an accessory shop, set up for the Holy Moon Festival. Such stalls weren’t uncommon given that the festivities were a prime time for artisans to ply their trade and market their goods at lucrative prices. But it was a chance for many different artisans to create masterpieces based around a theme, giving them a chance to express their creativity for the sake of making them unique at the same time.
From the top hung pendants that were strung up on cords, crystalline ovals in which were pressed silver flowers that shone lovely. Transparent bangles likewise were set on displays, petals from Ajura trees that carefully formed a wreath inside and somehow maintaining their sky-blue color that shone dimly in the night. Hairbands modeled after a crescent moon that glowed with a luminous, soft hue were present as well.
“I haven’t seen designs quite like this before,” said Anakitty Autumn, or Aki to her friends. She was heading the small band of girls, consisting of herself, Elfy, Claire, Sharon, Lisa, Remilia, Koko, Ruuni, Rhakta, and Shifon. “These flowers come from the Great Tree Labyrinth, don’t they?”
“That’s right,” answered a gentle yet buxom bovine beauty, sporting cow horns, ears, and a tail that was the same color as her long, brown hair. She wore a sleeveless sweater and arm warmers given the autumn chill. “All of the jewelry here was crafted using materials from the Middle Floors of the Dungeon with the help of our Captain and members.”
This stall in particular was manned by members of the Dia Familia, a relatively small Familia that operated within Orario. Though their members were Adventurers, they weren’t dedicated explorers who ventured into the depths and braved the frontiers. Rather they had their own professions and treated it more like a part-time career.
“It’s quite elegant work,” Shifon chimed in. As an Elf she was naturally drawn to the refined craftsmanship and more than a few would complement her silver hair. “And, if I’m not mistaken, the fragrance of the flowers comes through as well?”
Koko, Rahkta, and Ruuni brought their heads closer and took in the scent before confirming as such. “Mixed into the mold used, maybe?”
“But each one has the scent of the different flowers inside.”
“So they would have to use a lot of different ones, right?”
The inquiry was only met with a mischievous wink from the girl sporting her own handiwork in her hair. “That’s a trade secret. All I can say is that many sacrifices were made to get Daisy motivated, and Lady Dia was quite proud of the pieces we made. Especially the matching sets for couples.”
Rather than the mirth of excitement such a proclamation would make amongst buyers, the group instead largely withered with despondent looks amongst themselves. For you see, among the gathered none were in an active relationship due to the demands of the Familia between the Expeditions and various tasks that came with being part of one of the largest Familia within Orario. If they were in a relationship, they wouldn’t have gone together in a group like this.
“I planned on remaining virtuous for at last another five or six decades,” Shifon said, which was actually a pretty standard response for Elves considering their lifespans and birthrates. Adventuring being what it was meant that it was usually best to date another Adventurer if you were going to date at all. And since childrearing was time-consuming that was typically best left after retirement, given the complexities involved and the ever-present risk of leaving a child behind with no parents should the worst happen.
“Well, I was thinking about kids and grandkids someday, but right now there are pretty slim pickings…” Remilia trailed off when she considered her prospects largely within the Loki Familia. And while there were obvious prime candidates like Finn or Gareth, they were untouchable for a myriad of reasons. The rest of the guys were people she considered comrades-in-arms but settling down with them was more daunting than she liked.
“There’s only one among us who could make the most out of a matched pair,” Lisa whispered. Then, in unison, their eyes all fell onto the senior member of their group at Level Four. A certain Cat Person whose ears flapped back and forth in slight annoyance as she placed her hands on her hips.
“Oh, don’t start with that again,” Anakitty said, rolling her eyes in the process. She and Raul had heard it often enough that they didn’t even bother to refute the claims, being perfectly willing to let them believe what they wanted. But it was a different story when someone outside of the Familia could hear, like the young woman running said stall and her eyes were glimmering to the point where Aki could see the rumor starting to spread all over Orario.
Needling aside, some of the young women purchased accessories to keep among themselves. They wouldn’t wear them in the Dungeon, but for casual wear it would complement their outfits nicely. Then they spent some more time visiting the various other shopping booths before they decided that they should try out the festival-exclusive snacks.
“Wasn’t the Hostess of Fertility having a special menu for tonight?” Lisa suggested. It was a restaurant that several of the Familia frequented on occasion, though they all had their own preferential places like Hibachitei. “I remember last year the drinks were pretty nice.”
“Oh yeah, when one of the guys got a little too drunk and booted out, only to have to return the next day and beg for forgiveness,” Sharon said with her eyes closed as she recalled the memory vividly. Of the Demi-Human races, some were more… susceptible to alcohol than others and thus got hammered really quickly. “We probably won’t be able to get a table, but it couldn’t hurt to see what they have to-go before visiting the stalls along the way.”
With their destination set, the group made their way northeast. Their path would eventually lead them to the Main Street that the restaurant was located on, which allowed for a straight path to Babel and was likely brimming with festival-goers who were in a celebratory mood and thus plenty of food stalls that managed to get permits to set up along the roadside.
But as they traveled, Elfy found herself stalling for a moment as her gaze was drawn eastward. Her mind strayed as a nagging curiosity began to swell within her. The idle thoughts she had pushed down since her roommate had left without saying a word and her closet was missing a particular garment.
“Elfy.” Her eyes were drawn back to Anakitty upon hearing her name being called. “It’s this way. Let’s go.”
“…You guys go ahead,” she said after some thought, taking a few steps back. “I think I saw some cute crystal slippers back there that I wanted to reconsider getting before they end up getting sold. I’ll catch up in a bit.”
Aki’s brows folded in slightly and her mouth opened as if she wanted to say something. But then she reconsidered and sighed. “Just don’t take too long, okay?”
“I’ll be back before you know it,” promised the Cheerful Mage before she ran back the way she came. Not all the way. Just far enough to where she could double back eastward while they continued northeast. Those shoes she spotted were cute but there was something more pressing occupying her thoughts and there was a compulsion to just… see it for herself.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know what she was going to see. But not knowing and leaving it to her imagination would be worse. All she needed to do was take a quick peek to ease her mind and then she could return to the others and have fun without those thoughts taking up the back of her mind.
That desire, to rest her curiosity so she could have fun with the rest of her friends, was what led Elfy Colette to Amour Square. The square had long been known as a meeting place for those passionate encounters, where couples could gather to express their love. There was even history behind it, said to be the very site where one mortal child, in the early days of Orario, spotted a Goddess whose very presence stole his breath away. It was not an uncommon tale by any stretch, but his efforts to earn her affection were a different story.
He delved into the Dungeon, back before those who ventured within were known as Adventurers. He fought and scraped and earned his riches there, even as his body gradually succumbed to the dangers nestled deep within the gaping hole. And with his hard-earned wealth, he finally commissioned the Square and the statue in the center of it be built in her honor and asked for her hand in marriage. It was said the Goddess was so moved that when he succumbed to his injuries and perished, she followed him up to Heaven and the square was left behind as a testament to their romance.
Or so the legends say anyway. Whether or not it was true was beyond the knowledge of someone as young as Elfy, and likely any of the living mortals within the city. She had found the tale interesting, so she preferred to think that it was true.
The square was paved with brightly colored stones in a rather lovely pattern that all drew attention to the massive statue within the center. It was bordered by one of the more vibrant gardens within Orario, with flowers from both the surface and the Dungeon blooming along with the rose bushes and trees. The sweet fragrance that wafted throughout combined with the soft light from the magic-stone lamps around the square, which were made more vivid by the cords that ran between them with lanterns further illuminating the square.
There were dozens of couples there, dancing hand-in-hand to a slow melody from a band of well-dressed Pallums that had placed themselves at the base of the statue. Many were dressed with romance in mind, but some looked as though they had wandered by chance. Smiles could be seen on the various couples of various races.
Elfy’s green eyes scanned the sea of bodies drifting amidst the tempo for one in particular. She had burned the image of that dress into her memories and so she was confident she would be able to pick out one person from the horde so long as it crossed her gaze. And though it took some time, she eventually found her roommate sporting that gorgeous outfit.
Lefiya was there with the Elf from the Dionysus Familia, who was also dressed stunningly. Even though they had people around them it seemed like the two of them were off in a world of their own. Their bodies were close together to share warmth between them, with the Half-Elf resting her head on her dance partner’s shoulders while their fingers were entwined as they moved gracefully and without a single misstep.
Her lips were nestled in a content smile while the pink hue coloring her cheeks was visible even at that distance. It was clear at a glance that she was so…happy….
The sound of glasswork splintering. That sound rang out deep within the Mage as the thought crossed her mind.
Her breathing became shallow as she watched her roommate’s lips pull in for a moment, only to come back out ever so slightly glistening beneath the ambient light. Her pulse began to race as she raised her head from its comfortable perch, azure eyes fixed on the crimson pair that regarded her warmly. Then she saw her lean forward on the top of her toes….
Their lips pressed together.
The glass shattered.
A gnawing sensation attacked her green eyes, like a thousand small insects chewing on them. Then a sharp pain found its way into her chest like someone had plunged a poisoned dagger into her heart. Yet, when she reached up to wrench it free, her fingers only dug into her flesh and crystalline tears rolled down her cheeks in glistening streamlets when she tried to blink away the vermin.
The pain became more intense. It seemed to worsen with every beat of her quickening pulse that drummed louder in her ears while watching the two Elves, smiling while holding one another close. The pain grew so agonizing in mere moments that she almost dug her nails into her chest to rip out her own heart to stop it.
She would do anything to escape this pain she was in.
The world blurred until she couldn’t see the two of them anymore. Her legs shivered as strength bled out of them. Her stomach felt like it was about to turn inside out. Her lungs failed to expand, and she struggled for breath.
The Mage felt like she was about to pass out. She would almost welcome unconsciousness. At least then she wouldn’t feel the pain. But that would draw a crowd as people noticed her lying there.
Lefy will know I was here.
The same compulsion that brought her there moved her legs in the opposite direction. She didn’t want to be seen. She didn’t want Lefiya to know that she had seen her there.
It was then she understood the source of her pain. The stinging, unrelenting pain came from her heart breaking into pieces. Not all at once, which would mercifully kill her instantly. But slowly enough that the shards could stab into the beating remains and make her suffer.
Elfy didn’t have a destination in mind. She just knew she had to run as far away from the square as possible before the strength to stand fled her. Thus, the once Cheerful Mage ran desperately and clumsily, her vision wavering between clarity and obscurity.
There were voices as she bumped into things and people. But she kept running. And running. And running.
She ran until someone finally grabbed her firmly. They pulled her close and when she threw her hand out to push them away, they caught it. Even mustering her remaining strength, she couldn’t get away.
“Elfy, it’s me!” said a familiar voice. “Aki!”
She stopped struggling when she recognized Anakitty’s voice. But then the pain seeped into her lungs and stalled her from taking more than a shallow breath. It burned like poison that was slowly spreading from her punctured heart. “…Aki, I… I can’t breathe…”
A gentle reassurance reached her ears. “I’m going to take you somewhere you can catch your breath. It’ll be just the two of us. Just hold on, okay?”
The next thing Elfy knew, her legs were no longer under her. Her head was nestled against Aki’s chest, her knees and back supported by the Level Four’s arms. The air was rushing past them so fast that even if her vision hadn’t gone completely blurry her eyes probably would have been crushed.
Then, as quickly as they started, they came to a stop. The sounds of the crowd and other people were distant. Her legs were gently allowed to lay on a soft surface that felt like grass, but her head was allowed to remain pressed against the soft bosom of her senior among the Second-Tier Adventurers as the arm supporting her back remained in place.
Anakitty’s voice came out quiet and soothing. “You need to breathe, Elfy.”
“I-I can’t,” she cried. “I can’t!”
“Yes, you can.” The arm wrapped around her back shifted into a slow, circular motion. “It’ll be painful, but you need to breathe so it can all come out. It won’t go away otherwise.”
The Level Three Mage struggled. Her throat and chest strained to expand. But, eventually, she managed to take a deep, haggard breath that forced the slightly chilled air down into her lungs. Then she exhaled and what came out was a painful, mournful cry.
“That’s it,” the Level Four whispered in an encouraging tone. “You did well holding it in all this time, but don’t need to hold back anymore. Let it all out.”
Her voice came haggard as she sucked in a heavy breath. “… I… t-thought I could han-handle it, but… it h-h-hurts so muchhhh…”
Elfy knew that Lefiya would be there from the start. She knew that she would be happy at having the chance to finally go on a date with the other Elf after how often she talked about her in their room. But she didn’t think that she would be wearing a smile like that or that she would have kissed her.
She didn’t think that it would hurt so much seeing her with someone else. “I hate Lefy… I hate her! She’s horrible!”
“You don’t hate her,” the Level Four told her, voice remaining calm as the hand gently rubbing her back started patting it instead. “You’re just in pain from having your heart broken. No one likes seeing the person they love with someone else.”
No sooner than those words were uttered did the pain bubble back up inside of her. It felt like it would never end. She reached around behind Anakitty’s back and pulled as hard as she could, desperate for a shoulder to cry on as she continued to pour out her feelings. “I wa-wanted to… to tell her… B-but I knew she wouldn’t even lo…ok my…w-way!”
“Why do you think she wouldn’t?” Anakitty asked. It was important to keep her talking so that she could get everything in her chest out. “You’re best friends, aren’t you?”
People often thought it was easy to tell someone how they felt. But that was never the case. The fear of rejection was an ever-present entity looming over them like a colossal shadow, whispering of how things would never be the same once those words came out. That was why she tried to signal her interest. That was why she always smiled for her. Always tried to be close to her side.
But she realized that no matter how hard she tried there was an impassable gap between them. “I’m… not an Elf like her! Or special like her! I’m just…just… a normal Human.”
Elfy Colette was just an ordinary Human.
Her mother had given her that ironic name because she hoped she would be beautiful as an Elf. But she didn’t have a drop of Elven blood in her veins, meaning she could never hope for such a thing. She had already finished puberty and would be lucky if she got a few celches of growth into her figure before she grew older and then died.
Everyone knew Elves were good-looking, talented with Magic, and graceful without fault. If you weren’t born an Elf then there was nothing you could do but accept that. It was just the way of the world, and she thought she had come to terms with that when she decided that she would be one of the best Human Mages she could be.
That was why she was excited to have been able to join the Loki Familia. She could take pride in being part of one of the most powerful Familia in Orario. It meant they recognized she at least had the potential to be a great Mage.
Then she met Lefiya and realized reality just wasn’t so kind. Just being Half-Elf put her in an entirely different class, even though she was Half-Human. She was still growing, still becoming beautiful, and by the time Elfy was dead and gone, she would still look like she was around her early twenties.
On top of that, her Magic was powerful. She had not only unlocked her third spell slot in such a short time, but the spell was one-of-a-kind. It allowed her to access as many spells as there were Elves, meaning the number of spells she had was more than even Lady Riveria herself.
There was no denying it that among either race she was a special person, and they treated her as much. Lefiya got to hang around with the Executives as often as she liked. She got to receive special training from the most powerful Mage in Orario. She got beautiful clothes gifted to her that were more valuable than probably their weight in gold.
She was already a Level Four but was actively holding off just to squeeze in a little extra excelia. As if it was no big deal. Normal people like Elfy had to claw and scrape to reach that far. But it was different for special people who stood above them.
Even among Humans she wasn’t anything special. Not compared to Aiz Wallenstein, the Sword Princess whose Wind allowed her to be so powerful. Or Welf Crozzo, who had an ancestor gain the favor of a Spirit and could make Magic Swords stronger than any spell the majority of the world could cast. Or the Record Holder that managed to already reach Level Three in mere months—Bell Cranel.
That boy not only impressed the Executives, but he even managed to get Lefiya on his side when she was ready to tear his head off the night before. She would constantly tell Elfy bad things about him, to the point where she seemed to hate him. Yet she suddenly changed after the Eighteenth Floor, to the point where she was even willing to fight the Captain of another Familia for him when she hated him mere hours before then.
Was it because he was special? He had to be given how he was the two-time Record Holder. That was probably why she was willing to defend him—because he was special like her.
The worst part was that Elfy couldn’t even be mad at her because Lefiya was her best friend. They were roommates and shared their secrets, so she knew how hard Lefiya had struggled to get where she was. She knew how many Elves loathed her for her position while being Half-Human. Yet she put up with it all and tried her best to live up to the expectations placed on her with a smile.
“If I was an Elf… if I was special… it would have been me dancing with her and making her happy…” She took a moment to catch her breath as she confessed the root of her issues. “But I’m not. And I can’t ever be.”
She wasn’t lucky enough to be born with an Elven parent. She wasn’t lucky enough to be born special. That meant she couldn’t be the kind of person Lefiya was attracted to. The most she could do was be her best friend, no matter how much she wanted to be seen otherwise.
“I know… how it feels to not be special,” Anakitty told the younger girl with her voice wavering slightly as her ears flattened down. “To be surrounded by amazing people and heroes, but not be able to be just like them. But… I can do things like being there for one of my juniors when they need a shoulder to cry on, and that’s enough, isn’t it?”
Considering she was the one weeping in the older girl’s arms, Elfy wasn’t exactly able to refute that. Moreover, if she wasn’t allowed release or some way to let out the pain she was in, it would tear her apart until she wanted to die.
“Just please… please don’t tell anyone,” Elfy begged her while pressing her head deeper into the welcoming bosom. “I don’t want to lose her. Lefy is my best friend…”
“I won’t tell a soul,” Anakitty promised. “Now go ahead and can cry as much as you like.”
She did just that.
“I think I recognized that crying girl who ran off just now.”
Bell Cranel looked off into the distance where a young woman had fled after bumping into him. He and Lady Hestia had only recently arrived at Amour Square, even though it was closer to their current home than their previous one. He hadn’t minded the fact that she bumped into him but the fact that he had seen her somewhere naturally left him wondering if he should give chase.
“I knew you had a thing about saving girls, but I didn’t think you’d leave your date here all alone to do it.” The Goddess of the Hearth’s teasing tone and the soft sensation as she pressed her voluptuous chest against his arm snapped Bell’s attention back to her. “What will you do if some stranger comes and takes me away, hm?”
“I wasn’t going to leave you.” He had given her his word that he would dance with her and would keep it. That being said, the outfit she had chosen made her divinity all the clearer and so he felt out of place next to her dressed in his ordinary clothes. And the suit he had been loaned for the Banquet ended up not surviving the destruction of their home. “I just thought I should see if there was something I can do, Goddess.”
“I know. I know.” Hestia looked up towards his face and smiled as she offered him guidance as one of the divinities that walked the Lower World. “It’s good that you want to help but, considering where we are, it’s very likely she just had her heart broken if she ran off in tears. If you don’t know the right things to say to a crying woman, you’ll only make it worse. Their hearts are fragile, after all.”
“I suppose so.” His grandfather had taught him to be cautious when approaching a woman whose heart had been broken. He even regaled him with stories of heroes who faced even more turmoil because they had incited the wrath of a woman inadvertently, so there was merit to her wisdom. Even so, he still felt that sympathy for that girl. “I hope she’ll be okay.”
“I’m sure she will,” Hestia told him. “You children are resilient in heart and soul, even compared to us. After all, we’ve seen how you all manage to bounce back even through the darkest of times. That’s part of why we love you all so much.”
That said, they entered the square properly and Bell found himself feeling even more at risk than in the Dungeon itself. So many couples, a mix of different races and people in a proper romance as they looked one another in the eyes and clasped hands. And none of them were clumsy like he would be, given he wasn’t a dancer.
At the banquet, he had managed somehow because of the advice the others had given him. But the fact that Miss Aiz had been an Adventurer and they had trained helped a lot, since it made it possible for them to read one another’s movements. They could convey words without speaking, but he wasn’t sure he could do the same for his Goddess. The thought of embarrassing himself and Hestia made Bell want dart of there like a fleeing rabbit, but then he really would be abandoning her
“Good, it’s a slow song.” Hestia’s slender fingers wrapped around his wrist as she pulled him forward and into the throng of bodies where there was an open space for the two to join in. Then she turned to face him before cupping his shoulder blade with her right hand and grabbing his hand with her left. “I’ll take the lead, so just do what I do and say, okay?”
She seemed so assertive that Bell could only swallow his nerves and do so. Lift his right elbow. Roll his shoulders back. Stand straight and tuck his stomach in. All of that made for a solid frame to maintain the connection between them.
Then she began to take her first steps. They were decisive, initiated from her core rather than her arms. It made it easier to see where she was going, so Bell could follow after her to match her pace. “Like this?”
“That’s right,” she said while continuing to lead. He followed up nicely. “If you’re in the lead then listen to the beat of the music and think before you take the first step. Don’t hesitate after you make that decision. If you’re following, then trust their motions and follow without second-guessing it. You don’t need your grip too hard since the only time you lead with your hands is when you want to spin your partner.”
Bell took the advice and found himself matching her soon enough. “Goddess, did you always know how to dance?”
“Not quite like this,” Hestia told him. “After your dance with Loki’s child, I wanted to do the same. But since I didn’t think I would be able to move the same way, I asked for some advice from Take and Miach after Miss Thousand told us about this one. I’m happy it’s working out well.”
She really was looking forward to it. Bell felt even worse for not giving it the same consideration as she smiled with childish happiness. He knew he needed to work on his dancing, but the new duties he had as the Captain of their Familia had been pressing.
Her blue eyes scanned her surroundings for a moment, likely to ensure she was matching the rhythm of others. Then they widened slightly before she leaned her head in and whispered in his ears. “Bell, look over there…”
He followed her gaze and did a double-take when he realized that his sister was there as well. She wasn’t paying him any attention or bothering to look around her. Her attention was solely on her date, another Elf with glossy black hair and deep red eyes. The longer he stared at them, the more of an impression he got that something romantic might happen, so he wisely looked away lest things become awkward.
“Bell,” Hestia muttered. “Do you wish that was you?”
Her question grabbed his full attention. “Huh?”
“That you were dancing with someone you liked in that same way,” Hestia clarified, pulling her head away. “Rather than me, you’d prefer it was Loki’s child again, right?”
“Ah, that’s… different,” Bell said, a blaze painting his cheeks the color of his eyes. Hestia made it possible for him to get this far but to even have remotely romantic thoughts of his patron deity, a virginal goddess at that, was borderline blasphemous. “I’m happy to do this with you because I revere you.”
Her cerulean eyes closed at that, and a smile came across her face. Not the same childish happy one or the motherly one she would often give him. It felt somewhat… melancholic. “Bell, I know I teased you about revering me. But remember that what I said about a girl’s heart being fragile applies to Goddesses as well.”
“W-w-what does that mean?” Bell stuttered as his mind refused to piece together what she was getting at.
“We might be different in some ways to you children and driven by our natures a bit, but we still want you to validate us rather than revere us,” she continued in the same tone as a mother lecturing her child patiently. “It’s one thing to reject us if you don’t feel the same way, but to not even acknowledge or understand why we feel the way we do because you think we’re above you can hurt more than anything else.”
Her words resonated within his chest. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“It’s fine,” she told him. “Losing someone is hard, but for those of us who live forever that pain will never leave. That’s why the thought of inflicting that onto a Goddess is one of the worst things you can imagine, right?”
…She wasn’t wrong. The loss of family stuck with him, but everyone above and below knew all mortals would eventually die and reincarnate. It was a part of the cycle of life, a mere step that you had to acknowledge. Nothing could stop it, so you made the most out of the time you had with the people you cared about.
Lovers were a deeper relationship than family. He knew that much. And remembering how painful it was losing his grandfather, he was terrified of inflicting something even worse onto someone else. Let alone the divine, whose lives would never end. They had to suffer that pain forever, all for what amounted to a mere moment of happiness.
What right did he have to inflict that on one of the Goddesses?
“You’re a good boy, Bell,” she whispered while reaching up and pulling his head down onto her shoulders. “I’m really happy that my first child was someone like you. That alone eases my heart going ahead. But remember that if we wanted to remain separated from you to be revered, we never would have come down in the first place. We might be Familia because of my blessing, but we’re family because we love and care for each other—and that bond transcends death and divinity. So love us as you would you any other, otherwise, you’re going to make some poor Goddess cry someday.”
As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t make that promise. The best he could do was acknowledge that he would try. “I’ll do my best, Goddess.”
And that was good enough for her to release him as a new song began to play. Her smile returned to its cheerfulness. “Okay, now that we’ve gotten that gloomy topic out of the way, why don’t you try to take the lead this time?”
As the various dances wound down so that the band could take a break, the various couples split off from the square. Some would return in an hour once they began playing anew, while others would go off to enjoy the other activities. But, in general, all those who had been in attendance were in a great mood.
Lefiya especially as she and her date decided to rest their legs and get something to slake their thirsts. Fortunately, since she was a little more familiar with the area due to it being so close to Bell’s home, the Half-Elf knew a place they could go. It was called Café Wishe.
It was a small but apparently popular café that was frequented by young couples due to being relatively close to Amour Square. It had a more modernistic aesthetic rather than the rustic or sylvan that Elves preferred, but the irony of the name did not escape Filvis. “Was this place named after your home?”
Lefiya licked her lips to savor the stray droplets of the drink she had been served before she answered. “The owner of the café lived there on the outskirts for a time after their home was burned down and used it as their communal name. Some time ago she moved to Orario and chose to get married, taking her spouse’s name and naming the café in honor of that instead. Her husband is Human.”
She had found it after receiving her key to the Hearth Manor and learned the owner was actually the Elven hostess who had welcomed her in. Her husband was the one who handled the drink preparations, and the pair seemed friendly enough to her. But she could guess why that was considering any children they had would be effectively no different than her. Their employees were of different races as well and the last time she was her the server had been a Cow Person, but it seemed that she was absent today.
“I see…” Filvis looked down in her own drink and stared into her reflection. She had placed her gloves back on now that the dance was over. Even if she had willingly laid her hands bare for Lefiya, she still refused to interact with other things without them.
But that was fine with Lefiya since it meant she was special enough to her to do so. That was all she wanted from tonight. The kiss was just a very, very welcomed extra. “There are a lot of small, out-of-the-way places that you never would notice if things were different.”
The Half-Elf tilted her head at that. “Hm?”
“I was just thinking of an out of the way bar that I discovered some time ago,” she explained. “My Lord was in search of a certain kind of wine, and I had to scour Orario to find it. Eventually, I discovered a place where they made it from grapes taken from the Great Tree Labyrinth. It wasn’t really to my tastes, but he was pleased… even if Aura wasn’t.”
“I suppose you taste a lot of wine because of your God, huh?” Lefiya mused. She would abstain from drinking if she could help it, given her low tolerance and other things that happened. But maybe she should consider if Filvis had a favorite kind to gift her some time. “But who is Aura?”
“She is my… Vice-Captain,” Filvis explained. “She an Elf like me, and we started around the same time. We were on fairly decent terms until the Nightmare happened, and now we’re pretty much the surviving senior members. She took over the duties of handling operations with the Familia while I handle Lord Dionysus’ personal needs and protection, so in a way, she would be the proper Captain if she wasn’t only Level Two—her devotion is no less than mine to him, after all.”
Ah, so that’s probably another reason she was rejected by him, Lefiya realized. If she loved their God to the same extent as Filvis, and she no doubt had strong feelings of animosity due to losing so many of their comrades while Filvis survived, returning her affections would have probably fractured them further. Perhaps Filvis even felt that the Vice-Captain was more worthy of his love than her from the way she spoke…
Reaching out to touch her hands cradling her drink, the Half-Elf gave her a reassuring smile that conveyed her feelings. I’m here for you now and will continue to be. Your past doesn’t change that in the slightest.
Filvis found it in herself to smile back.
Then they finished their drinks and departed from the café. The side-streets were somewhat winding but they managed to navigate it easily enough to get back to one of the main roads that would lead back to Babel. It was then they noticed that a crowd was building further ahead. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not certain,” Filvis answered. “Should we go take a look?”
The Half-Elf nodded and the two ventured into the growing crowd until they spotted what looked to be a stage that had been set up. On it was what looked to be a crystalline substance not unlike the Quartz in the Dungeon with a rather beautiful spear lodged inside of it. And Lord Hermes was there too while flanked by members of the Ganesha Familia—including their Captain—as he gave a speech.
“I CALL TO YOU, ADVENTURERS OF ORARIO. WHO AMONGST YOU CAN PULL THIS SPEAR FROM ITS CONFINES AND BE THE CHOSEN ONE TO RECEIVE THE BLESSING OF THE GODDESS OF CHASTITY, ALONG WITH AN ALL-EXPENSES-PAID TRIP AROUND THE WORLD?”
Murmurs went out at that. An all-expenses-paid trip around the world was a big deal considering how most were confined to the city once they received a Falna. It seemed a little too good to be true but, looking at the text on the document he held up, it was pre-authorized by the Guild and thus legitimate.
“Step aside!” “Me first!” “Shove off!” Mild chaos broke out as several of the Adventurers began to tussle among themselves for the right to go first. The Captain of the Ganesha Familia sighed softly, as if she had expected as much, before motioning for her men to establish an order to things.
“If it’s simply a competition of raw physical strength, then it’ll be over the moment a First-Class Adventurer steps up,” Filvis pointed out. It was a logical assessment, and why the fighting was on the verge of breaking out. If the Ganesha Familia didn’t make them take turns, then there was nothing stopping a Level Six from coming up and putting an end to things first of all.
“An all-expenses-paid trip does sound nice though,” Lefiya mused while considering whether or not she should attempt it herself. She wanted to visit her mother since it had been quite some time, and if she could bring Filvis or Bell that would be all the better. But then there was a shout as a person she recognized lost their patience and promptly kicked down a group of five. “Mister Bete?”
The Werewolf snarled in annoyance. “Guy can’t even get to where he’s going with all your weaklings around. Clear a path, goddamn it!”
“He’s as crass as always, I see,” Filvis noted. Most of the people wisely got away from him, considering his reputation. Though, strangely enough, Lefiya could spot there was a girl not too far behind him that seemed more apologetic than anything. She had long black hair and brown eyes, and while her clothes didn’t really stand out Lefiya could see makeup had been applied carefully to accentuate her features rather than overdo it.
The sight brought a smile to the God of Travel’s face as he stopped Shakti from telling him off. “IF IT ISN’T ONE OF THE LOKI FAMILIA’S EXECUTIVES. CARE TO TRY YOUR HAND TO SEE IF YOU’RE THE CHOSEN ONE?”
He scoffed. “Tch. As if I’m interested in proving anything to these chumps for a trip out of town. Keep me out of your scams, swindler.”
Lord Hermes took the insult in stride. “OH, I THINK YOU’LL FIND IT MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN THAT. AFTER ALL, IF ONE OF THE STRONGEST ADVENTURERS IN ORARIO CAN’T MOVE IT, THEN IT SHOULD BE CLEAR ONLY THE CHOSEN ONE CAN AND ORGANIZE THEMSELVES SINCE LEVEL ISN’T THE DETERMINING FACTOR. AND IF YOU DO MANAGE IT, THE CROWD WILL DISPERSE. WIN-WIN EITHER WAY, RIGHT EVERYONE?”
The crowd did not agree. Loudly.
Much to the Werewolf’s annoyance, which Lefiya suspected was Lord Hermes’ aim. Bete would be inclined to try and shut them up, and since he couldn’t kick everyone here without getting in trouble the easiest solution would be to assert his dominance by grabbing the spear anyway. So, he jumped onto the stage and grabbed hold of it, intent on jerking it out in one swift motion.
The spear didn’t budge.
Hermes bore a wide smile and muttered. “Not so easy, is it?”
“Rrrrr….” His lips pulled back and a snarl slipped out. The eyes of even the unblessed could see his arm was visibly straining, meaning he was actively pulling away at it in earnest.
But the spear refused to budge.
The crowd, who had been intimidated before, began drawing amusement from the sight of the Werewolf’s impotent efforts to move the weapon from its foundation. And considering his race and Level, he could hear every word. It only served as kindling that stoked his desire to prove them wrong, but considering his temper…
“You can do it, Mister Bete!” Then Lefiya heard something she never expected. It was the sound of someone cheering for him amidst the crowd. And it came from that same girl she had seen before. “I believe in you!”
It can’t be… Lefiya recognized her voice. Giving her full attention to the girl who cheered the Werewolf on, the Half-Elf’s mind pictured her hair tied in a braid, glasses framing her face, and the lack of blush from the makeup on her. It was a perfect match to Leene. Oh dear Loki, Elfy was right…
“THE STAGE IS MADE OF ADAMANTITE, BY THE WAY,” Hermes said somewhat whimsically but loud enough for everyone to hear. “GO ALL OUT IF YOU WANT! THERE’S A FULL MOON OUT TONIGHT TOO, SO—”
“With all due respect, Lord Hermes, please stop provoking him!” Shakti said as the sound of metal groaning began in earnest. He had braced his legs against the ground and had the shaft in an iron-grip with both his hands, fully intent on putting all of his strength into pulling the spear out. That same strength was not to be underestimated.
The thing still didn’t budge.
“What are they made of?” Filvis muttered in curiosity. “The spear itself hasn’t broken, nor the crystal. Only the stage is straining, which means that it would have to be even stronger than that. On par with Orichalcum.”
And Orichalcum was the strongest substance available on the Lower World, its origins and crafting dating back to before the descent of the Gods. There was no stronger substance to be found or made by mortal hands. Yet they were looking at it, and Lefiya wouldn’t be surprised if every artisan and blacksmith in the crowd wasn’t wondering the same thing when all was said and done.
But not the Adventurers. No, they started heckling Bete even louder, as if they forgot he was literally one of the strongest people in the entire city. “NOT SO TOUGH NOW!” “ALL BARK AND NO BITE!” “SOME LEVEL SIX YOU ARE!”
His amber eyes narrowed, and violent intention filled them. “SAY THAT AGAIN! I DARE YOU!”
“Vanargand, you’re better than this,” Shakti said when she noticed he was about to lose his cool. She was obligated to try to stop him if he did go out of control, but after so many years within Orario she clearly expected he would have enough common sense not to attack them. “Don’t give into their provocation. Just walk away.”
To his credit, Bete refused to let the words of the weak get to him. So, after kicking the crystal hard enough that it should have been launched to the top of Babel itself only for it to remain in place, thus leaving every single craftsman and smith no doubt even more interested, he scoffed and then jumped off the stage. “…some bullshit…”
“Is something wrong, Lefiya?” her date asked, crimson eyes following her gaze towards where Bete departed.
“I’m just a little… shocked,” she explained.
Filvis nodded in understanding. “Yes, the fact that an Adventurer of Bete Loga’s physical prowess was unable to remove the spear is difficult to believe. Either it would take the Conqueror, or there are some other criteria we are not aware of… if it isn’t some kind of scam, that is.”
That wasn’t quite what Lefiya meant. But she decided against saying anything as she watched Leene heading off in the direction Bete had gone. The Half-Elf had so many questions that they occupied her thoughts as people lined up to try their hand where a Level Six failed. She combed through her memories for any signs that Leene had a thing for him. She did speak well of him when she was healing me from the chase and he brought me right to her, so maybe…
“OH, IF IT ISN’T THE RECORD HOLDER—” Her ears perked up as Lord Hermes announced the arrival of the current person to hold that prestige. She looked back to the stage where her brother had arrived, nervously rubbing the back of his head.
“You can do it, Captain!” said a small voice at the top of tiny lungs from further to the side of the crowd. It was Primo, sitting on top of Welf’s shoulders with the rest of the Hestia Familia around them. It was adorable. “Good luck!”
Of course, Bell pulled it out. He succeeded where a Level Six failed, the spear coming free and the crystal shards scattering. The sororal part of Lefiya’s mind was proud of him, of course. But the cynical part of her mind noted that it was the sort of thing that would cause him problems when he should still be laying low.
And, sure enough, she was proven correct when the sponsor of the contest arrived, who turned out to be the Goddess of the Moon, Artemis… who promptly rushed the stage and threw herself into his arms while he stood there with a dumbfounded look. And then declared him her Orion and kissed him on the cheek in front of the crowd for everyone to see…
Well, the peace was nice while it lasted. That fleeting thought crossed Lefiya’s mind as cries for blood began to go out from the less romantically fortunate amongst the crowd. She had the distinct feeling that her date would be coming to an end in very short order, if only because she was probably going to have to help the Ganesha Familia deal with the mob of jealous men likely to be coming for her brother’s head over the next few days.
…Only you could go from having a literal War Game fought over you by a God of the Sun to being declared the lover of a Goddess of the Moon in less than a month, Bell.
Chapter 27: Holy Moon Festival – Afternoon
“Elio taught of the old rituals meant to be used to form a connection with the Spirits, to hold communion with the agents of the gods to who words held no meaning. These rituals were passed down in the forests, guarded and sacred as any treasure would be to a Dwarf. But when he asked me why that was, I told him the answer that was told to me Mother. The rituals and rites were all fervent prayers from those who came before us for the strength to protect those we loved and would be carried into the future long after even the oldest of us passed on.
The expression he made that day lingers in my mind even now after years have passed. A look of longing and lament for something precious that was long lost, a feeling I know too well now. Perhaps that was the real reason he had truly desired to take me in that day?”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic II: Communion
“Sorry if I kept you waiting,” Lefiya said upon arriving in one of the more expansive rooms on the Ninth Floor of the Dungeon.
Though they were on the Upper Floors, beyond the Seventh Floor the rooms tended to have far greater width and space, with the light from above being akin to soft sunlight while short grass was beneath their feet. Going down further would place them in misty terrain, which wouldn’t really bother either of them given their Levels, but others might not be so lucky. It wouldn’t do if they accidentally got someone else caught in the crossfire.
The Magic Swordswoman who bore the alias of Elleaf regarded her with a warm smile from her seat on a mound amidst the grass, one leg outstretched while the other was tucked close to her chest. “You’re actually earlier than I expected. You didn’t rush through your breakfast or exercises, did you?”
Lefiya was quick to assure her otherwise. “No, but it’s been so long since we’ve had a chance to practice together.”
Normally Lefiya trained with Lady Riveria since she was her direct apprentice, and it would be impractical for the Nine Hells to manage every Mage within the Familia. Alicia, being the second-in-command of the Fairy Force, managed the other girls who were members of the unit. But Lefiya had come to consider Alicia something of an older sister when she was first introduced into the Familia.
Which only made the whole incident even more embarrassing…
“I think the last time was earlier this year before all the craziness with the expedition, wasn’t it?” Alicia rose to her feet, slender hands running along her battle skirt to wipe away any stray blades of grass that clung to the curves of her hips before she loosened her scabbard from her belt. “I want to see for myself how far you’ve come with the basics. You’re ready to become a Level Four, so I won’t be holding back as much.”
In other words, the practice would be composed of attacking and defending, moving and evasion, as well as chanting—effectively the groundwork for Concurrent Casting that was the basics of the Fairy Force. Back when she had just joined, Lefiya could only barely keep up moving while chanting. That had been fine since, as part of the unit, Lady Riveria would provide them with protection to ward off enemy attacks as they bombarded them. However, since it was just the two of them now, if she hadn’t shown any major improvement then she would be quickly overwhelmed.
I’ve come a long way since then though, the Half-Elf thought to herself. The training from Aiz, Filvis, and everything else had carried her far ahead of how she had been even a few months ago. “I’m ready to begin when you are, Miss Alicia.”
“All right then…” She took three steps forward and then there was only a pink blur as Lefiya’s peripheral vision, far more perceptive than a Human due to both her heritage and her Level, only caught fleeting movement to her right as Alicia closed the distance between them with the speed afforded to a Level Four. Taking away the advantage of distance that only benefited the Fairy Sniper, the gentleness in the smile she still wore contrasted the sheathed blade chambered for a swing at the younger girl. “Begin.”
Lefiya pivoted hastily along the direction of the attack, but her wrist that held the staff twisted as it came up in a wide arc. The staff made of, thankfully, durable materials met with the sheathe and knocked it away from its course towards the back of her head as she finished putting strength in her grounded leg. Then she bound back as far as she could manage as a Level Three, which was quite far, and immediately tightened the grasp on her staff with both hands far apart to prepare another hasty defense.
It proved to be the right call as Alicia was in front of her, wide hips turning to generate power for a graceful swing. It took all the little Strength she had as a Level Three to brace her staff and it still reverberated on impact hard enough that she felt it in her limbs. But there was no time to dwell on it as, without a moment’s hesitation, Lefiya thrust the staff forward like the lance of a spear.
The golden point came close to the beautiful Elf’s chest before she pivoted so that it passed her by, even as her sword came down at an angle that would cleave the Half-Elf from shoulder to hip. The Thousand Elf crouched and dropped her body low, so the swing passed over her head, rather than block a second time. Then she threw herself back into a roll, tucking her staff close to her chest to escape the follow-up as Alicia had swapped her grasp on the blade and then swung low the moment the second swing missed.
Bounding back onto her feet, Lefiya began to sing. “Unleashed beam of light—”
Alicia lunged forward, reaching out to grab the staff only for the Half-Elf to pull the hand holding it backwards, drawing it close to her body. Then the sword came around and narrowly missed Lefiya by the slimmest of margins due to a half-step before the Level Four allowed her momentum to carry through as she spun on the ball of her feet to bring her sheathed weapon around a second time. This time Lefiya received the hit unprotected and ended up staggering a few steps back, but her song continued uninterrupted.
There was pain, but it was mild compared to what she had gone through before. Hyacinthus had been a lot more aggressive than she was and hit harder despite being only a Level Three. But that was because he was a jerk and his fighting style was the opposite of Alicia’s fighting style.
Elves tended to have a better sense of perception, coordination, and grace compared to Humans. But because of their low birthrates engaging in close combat was a last resort, especially when their race had dominion over Magic and mastered the bow. It was normally ideal to use long-distance combat to minimize the chance of casualties by striking enemies from further away.
However, close combat was an inevitability whether the opponent be man or monster. And before the Falna granted even their slender limbs the strength to crush stone with little physical effort, they had to rely on their natural gifts. Thus, most Elven Combat Styles relied on being able to read movements and then respond with great dexterity or agility, whether to maneuver out of the way or to slash at an unexpected angle.
Alicia’s style was something of a more defensive-oriented one, closer to specializing in dueling. Her movements were like how a leaf would sway out of the way as you tried to catch it, only to twist around and brush against the back of your hand. If she was put against an opponent she would parry and counterattack by using her finely honed senses and dexterity, making up for a lack of raw Strength by using her hips in her swings when she could to generate momentum. But that also meant being on the attack and ruthlessly pressuring the opponent was not something she excelled in.
Similarly, Lefiya’s staff techniques were meant to take advantage of the fact that Elven spell casting mediums were long and durable. Keeping the weapon firmly in her grasp, taking advantage of the entire length and her body, the focus was more on keeping hold of it and striking with momentum to create distance. Her Level supplied raw Strength if needed to defend herself, but she was first and foremost a Mage, so her goal was to fend off her attacker and be able to cast a spell.
In contrast to both of them, a more aggressive style would be something similar to what Miss Ryuu practiced. Her movements were fast, like a harsh wind that washed over you before you knew it was coming. Taking advantage of her Agility, she focused on delivering the first blow with as much power as she could to debilitate or take out her opponent before they could fight back.
Readying her magic power as she entered the final verse of her song, Lefiya threw herself backwards and leveled the staff towards the Level Four. “—Pierce, arrow of accuracy! Arcs Ray!”
The reaction was instant as Alicia’s snapped out of the line of fire as the spell emerged, intent on attacking from her left side at a closer distance. It was pointless to run from Arcs Ray since it could track an opponent and the more distance there was the easier it was for her to chase them down. So, the smart thing to do was avoid the initial shot and then strike her down before she could bend it.
However, it wasn’t as though Lefiya was ignorant to that fact as Alicia discovered when the aureate glow of the spell illuminated her face as it emerged from behind the Half-Elf’s rear. Changing the trajectory of her loosed shot was something only the Fairy Sniper could do, and so she bent the beam right from the start so that it curved sharply around her back from the right. That meant her evasive maneuver had put her right into the path of the shot.
Alicia immediately began bounding backwards great distances, pivoting with graceful motions in the process. It was almost reminiscent of a nymph skipping off the surface of a lake. But there was no escape as the beam of light constantly chased after her.
“Come, freezing chains of winter—” Now it was her turn to put her Concurrent Casting to practice as she sang her own song while an azure magic circle appeared at her feet and a wand found its way into her hand. The glimmering azure motes of magical energy that spawned from her magic circle wove themselves into a quintet of ice comets that loitered over Alicia’s head and shoulders as she pointed in Lefiya’s direction before she called out the trigger phrase to launch them. “—Sagittarius Grace!”
Sagittarius Grace was a short chant that allowed Alicia to launch arrows of condensed cold. They streaked forward and left behind a frost-laden trail until they slammed into their target and erupted with encasing ice. Though it wasn’t nearly as potent as Lady Riveria’s spell, she could increase the number of arrows she could summon as well as their individual trajectories due to her Mage DA.
Lefiya broke off her own spell, leaving the onrushing light to fade away as she moved to dodge the ice comets as they fired forth. Each one slammed into the ground hard enough to throw up a spout of sod that was sealed within an icy coffin, five eruptions total buffering the area she was in to throw her off. She took a breath and started running as the numbness from the post-magic rigor began to wane, knowing the real assault was coming.
Like she told Primo, the longer the cast the longer the post-magic rigor because of the amount of magical energy that ended up coursing through the body. Practice and familiarity shortened it, but not only was Alicia’s cast far shorter than hers but she was far more comfortable getting close to an enemy. That meant she wouldn’t hesitate to keep casting.
“—rius Grace!” Sure enough, Lefiya felt the tingle in the air of discharged magical energy and heard through her sharpened hearing the sound of a second volley being loosed upon her, this time with the amount of magical energy composing them far denser along with their velocities and trajectories individually dictated. The result was that each one had a different flight path and would hit at a different time and location, forcing her to mentally run the calculations through her head as she moved.
She bound backwards to avoid the first and then had to immediately roll as the second had been one of the two targeted to where she could have potentially moved, based on what Alicia knew of her. People built habits in their movements over time and while she had sharpened her skills, they were still baseline. That had been how she fared so poorly against Hyacinthus the second time they fought—he may not have recognized her under her disguise, but he’d figured out how she moved too easily.
However, Lefiya had learned as well and so after the fourth and fifth impact resulted in small ice spires the size of trees blooming around her, she focused her hearing over the crackle of the ice hardening to make out the sound of footfalls and then wheeled around in time as Alicia appeared to her left, opposite of the spell that had been loosed. Taking advantage of her focus on the spell and where the magical energy was discharged, the more experienced of the two managed to move with a level of silence and speed that afforded her the opportunity to ambush the Half-Elf.
The tip of the sheathed blade was thrust forward like a rapier towards her chest, only to skim off the shaft of the staff as Lefiya tucked it close and shifted her footing so that she could twist her body and avoid it. She used the line of attack to crank her staff upwards, using the rear to knock the blade upwards and it created an opening, which she immediately took advantage. Stepping back while rotating her upper body, she brought the head of the staff around for a clean hit…
Only for the Elleaf to gracefully arch backwards into a handspring that not only allowed the attack to pass over her head but was followed by an elegant motion that ended up with her behind Lefiya. She grabbed the shaft of her staff and then pulled it inwards, pinning it against the Half-Elf’s chest while using her slender arm with the Strength of a Level Four to brace it into place. Then she pressed the point of the blade against her throat.
“What now?” Alicia asked softly of the girl whose neck was exposed and her sheathed blade at the ready. If they had been in a real battle, it would be the point at which she would have had her throat slit.
Yet, embraced as they were, Lefiya could feel the older girl’s bosom pressed against her back and feel the gentle brush of her hair against her skin. There was also a lovely evergreen scent coming from her as well. Only the fact that the scabbard started poking against her neck kept her mind from drifting to places it shouldn’t. “…I yield.”
The admission of surrender signaled the end of the first engagement, so Alicia lowered her weapon. But, rather than release her, she instead brought her now empty hand up and gently brushed the Half-Elf atop her head.
“You’ve really improved a lot in such a short time,” Alicia said while wearing a soft smile. “To be honest, I expected to knock you out with the first hit like the last time we practiced. Then we would have to spend several minutes waiting for you to snap back awake.”
The fact that Alicia said that with such complete sincerity took a sledgehammer to the Half-Elf’s pride as she pursed her lips before asking, “Do you have any advice for me?”
“Mmm… you’ve progressed well enough that I’m actually a little worried about giving instructions that go against what your new friend has been teaching you,” Alicia told her before quirking her head ever so slightly. “Or would romantic partner be more accurate, at this point?”
Lefiya’s spine went rigid as she felt heat rushing up from her chest to her head, leaving them a reddish hue that managed to reach the soft curve of her ears that marked her as a child of two races. “H-How did you know?”
“You sent Elfy of all people to ask for my facial cream a little bit ago rather than asking me personally before tonight, and you’ve been awfully cheerful,” Alicia explained in a somewhat teasing and amused tone. “Being virtuous doesn’t mean I don’t take notice when one of my juniors has her heart set on another.”
As it turned out, in contrast to a lot of the girls within the Familia, Alicia Forestlight was notably similar to Miss Aiz in that she rebuked anyone who sought to make advances towards her. That was because she had dedicated her heart and soul to the service of Lady Riveria, having aspired since she was younger than Primo to become a Vanguard to the greatest Mage of their people. So great was her devotion that Loki had joked that she was the Garden of Chastity upon which Lady Riveria could tread without the worry of any lustful intentions, which she took as a compliment.
Mind you, Lefiya had only been informed of this after the incident. “W-Well, it would have been awkward if I went and had to explain myself, so…”
The embarrassment in her tone only elicited a slight giggle from the older Elf. “Well, I’m honestly happy that you were able to move on. I know how embarrassing it must have been, and I was worried it might have left you emotionally scarred for a decade or so.”
It certainly felt that way, Lefiya would admit to herself. There were no words for how embarrassing that was to where she wanted to lock herself in her room and not come out. Thankfully everyone was mostly understanding and so they pretended it never happened. But it still was traumatizing for a girl her age. “It’s my own fault for not reading the cues, and I think of you like an older sister.”
Alicia’s disposition meant that a lot of the younger girls saw her in that light. But for Lefiya who had only been slightly older than Primo and was raised with Elven sensibilities, it was doubly so. She emulated a similar disposition when she was with Primo because it left such a huge impact on her, though she would ensure that her mistakes weren’t repeated.
“And you’re like a younger sister to me. So don’t be afraid to come to me more often, okay?” That said, she released the Fairy Sniper. “Now, on the topic of your Concurrent Casting, from what I can see that style you practice now is something you would only develop if you had to spend time without expecting anyone else to support you on the frontlines but could guarantee a kill with your Magic. I can only imagine how difficult of a time your friend must’ve had mastering it.”
Lefiya could imagine it very vividly herself. Filvis had been known as Banshee due to the fact she constantly survived incidents that killed other parties she was a part of after surviving the Nightmare on the Twenty-Seventh Floor. It was entirely possible she spent weeks or months all alone refining her Concurrent Chanting so that she could functionally fight on her own and didn’t need to drag others with her and endanger them—a lonely but effective method.
In contrast, the Fairy Force operated in a group and could be protected by Lady Riveria’s magic. So their focus was on Moving and Chanting. But, in the case of Alicia, Chanting wasn’t as large of an issue because both of her spells were Super-Short Chants. The possession of the Mage DA made it so that a Magic Swordswoman could increase the potency of their spell, but a spell with a short chant would rarely beat out one as long as Lefiya’s unless there was a significant Level gap.
If the Fairy Sniper managed to get her spell off then she could most likely kill anything attacking her that wasn’t above a certain threshold, so outside of the bare minimum of self-defense she didn’t need to worry about attacking or defending. “To that end, if you keep focusing on your observational skills during a battle, you’ll be able to better avoid attacks. You already showed as much when you managed to see through my sneak attack well enough to try countering me. However, I do believe the biggest hurdle is improving your chanting speed next.”
Outside of Lady Riveria, one couldn’t change the chant of their spell. However, the speed of the chant was also a factor that could influence the course of a battle. Against the Demi-Spirit, it had managed to go through an Ultra-Long Chant in a ridiculously short amount of time and it was only by the skin of their teeth they were able to hold on despite their efforts to cut it short.
“Since you have the basics down, we’ll spend the rest of practice working on reducing the time it takes for you to consistently cast Arcs Ray and avoiding getting hit for as long as possible,” Alicia decided. “I’ll be going a little faster to give you more of a challenge, so try to keep up.”
And, with that, the Fairy Sniper continued her dance with the Elleaf on the grassy field nestled beneath the earth.
[-The Seventh Floor-]
“Uwaah…” A soft, tired whine escaped from the small lips of a young Elf slouched down on the Seventh Floor of the Dungeon. Primo Liberia was clutching her Oaken Staff in order to stay upright as her legs lost their strength, her body twitching as her muscles contracted and expanded while a pulsing numbness spread throughout with every beat of her heart.
The Neophyte Elven Mage was currently at her limit of using her third spell without rest and the post-magic rigor was taking its toll as she had exerted what magical force she could muster to handle the objective for today—clearing out the Seventh Floor Pantry. Pantries were a place within the Dungeon where a large quartz crystal would secrete food for monsters, thus leaving it often filled with them. That made it the best place on the Upper Floors for them to practice for numerous reasons.
The first was that for someone with a spell that fell into the category of Wide Area Bombardment, they really shined when clearing out swathes of enemies in a single area. Or against a singular but large target. Yet the floors prior to the Sixth Floor were much narrower and thus not quite the easiest to fire within considering Primo had yet to be able to manipulate the various aspects of the spell and lacked finer understandings of trajectories.
For a larger Familia like the Loki Familia, such small pickings weren’t worth the space they would take up on an expedition nor the effort to harvest them. So clearing them out was no problem. But, for a small Familia like theirs, it meant they had to also take that into consideration and was likely one of the other reasons that Lefiya had suggested Primo take up the bow as an alternative method of contributing.
The Seventh Floor was something of a compromise as the Killer Ants often attacked in swarms and they had enough space to where she could clear them out. That would earn her more excelia towards using her Magic with minimal assistance. Then, while she recovered, they could handle dealing with the monsters that held more valuable drop items, allowing them to hopefully make up for their expenses in a shorter amount of time—or so Lili said in her role as the Familia’s treasurer.
They had considered the Tenth Floor would probably be a decent alternative, as that was where larger Level One category monsters spawned. But they had to take into account the fact that the low visibility of the fog would hamper someone like Primo, who was just starting out as a Mage. She would be on edge at not being able to see, afraid of anything that could jump out at her in the fog and disrupt her concentration.
However, it seemed that by chance a larger variant of the Killer Ant emerged. It was called a Crystal Ant, larger than any monster on the top part of the Upper Floors and a rare spawn. Primo had been tasked with dispatching it, something that was still rattling her.
“Make sure she didn’t accidentally destroy the drop item from it,” Lili called out to Welf who had been keeping the monster at bay until she finished her cast. “A Crystal Block is worth a small fortune, and between the Blue Papillon Wings being worth 1,800 valis each and the Purple Moth Wings being worth 300 each, that should be enough to account for a fifth of what it cost to outfit Mistress Primo.”
The Blacksmith sighed before holstering his nameless sword on his back and then checking through the large deposit of ash within the smoldering crater left behind. That left Lili to use her Supporter Gloves to carefully harvest the wings into different glass containers given that they were both delicate and they shed powder that was valuable in itself. Mikoto, on the other hand, came over and gave the child a waterskin to drink from. “Here you go.”
“Thank you,” Primo told her gratefully before indulging with small sips.
“You did well,” Bell said in a gentle tone as he crouched down and gently patted her on the head. In truth, he probably should have been the one to handle it, but Lili had pointed out that he would be better suited to taking out the second wave of monsters that had filed in when it did, given his Level, as the excelia for besting the rarer spawn would benefit her the most.
Mikoto then turned to him. “Sir Bell, perhaps after we are done we should head back to the surface to rest before this night festivities?”
“That would probably be—” His words cut off when the sound of a shrill cry reached his ears and he stood up abruptly. “Did you hear that?”
The kunoichi shook her head. “I didn’t hear anything, but our Levels are lower than yours.”
“It sounded like a girl screaming,” Bell said, legs tensing. “I’m going to check it out for myself. Stay here for now.”
Then like a coiled spring being let loose, he took off towards the direction of the scream that he’d heard. Since reaching Level Three, Bell had become fast enough that traversing the Dungeon’s Upper Floors in a very short amount of time wasn’t an issue. The problem was finding the origin of the voices he heard within the expansive floor before it was too late, the reverberations carried out by the cavernous walls themselves as he reached a crossroads and focused on listening—
“Miss Kaede, watch out!”
There! He pivoted towards the northern path and focused his eyes, catching a glimpse of a purple-haired woman who looked a few years his senior in the distance. For a moment he thought it was her that he had heard, but the chittering of Killer Ants and another scream told him otherwise. So he rushed past her as the air stirred like a gale before his superhuman perception registered the sight before him.
Lining the walls, skittering around the cavernous ground, threading the battered and slashed remains of their fallen brethren, a horde of Killer Ants were descending upon a group of three adventurers—all young women.
The first was a Hume Bunny, dressed in a shortened lavender kosode emblazoned with a maple leaf. It was torn in several places to expose a white sarashi around her chest. Her skin was dyed red from exertion and glistening with sweat, breaks in the flesh from which deep crimson ran and spilled out. Even so, she held onto a similar sword to Mikoto in a tight grip while her yellow eyes were furrowed in determination.
Next to her was a Pallum dressed in a jacket and shorts that were in warm tones but had golden hemming. She had the standard guild-issued breastplate and a Warhammer, both covered in purple goo, that shook in her grip as her blue eyes beneath her short, curly hair took in how surrounded they were by their enemies. Her injuries were relatively lighter by contrast, but the way she struggled to remain upright showed that she wasn’t exactly in fighting form.
Last was a girl with long, flowing dark hair adorned with a decorative maple leaf hairpin that rose up to a pair of fox ears and a tail—a Renard, from what he knew based on her appearance. It was the first time he had seen one and, judging from how her outfit resembled a stylized version of a priestess outfit that he heard the Far Eastern Gods and Goddesses had an affinity for, he suspected she was some kind of Mage. Of the three she was the only one who wasn’t injured as the two others seemed to be acting as her Vanguards, but her breathing was heavy and her golden eyes seemed to be dulled along with traces of purple powder covering her clothes.
The Killer Ants had surrounded them from all angles at this point, leaving them with their backs against the wall. The sheer numbers reminded him of what happened with Lili. Had they failed to kill some and then ended up getting swarmed due to the pheromones calling out for more to surround them?
…It didn’t matter. There were girls in front of him who were in danger. He could save the questions for later. “GET DOWN!”
His voice, ringing loud and firm within the cavern, reached them. Their eyes—yellow, blue, and golden—turned in his direction. There was a momentarily flash of recognition even though he didn’t recognize them, and then the Hume Bunny grabbed them both and pulled their heads down as she covered them with her body.
Bell held out his hand and let loose his spell. “FIREBOLT!”
Three blazing rays shot forward. His increase in both his Magic and his Level had made them far thicker and destructive compared to a short time ago. And because of his practice with his sister in preparation for the War Game he could now let loose three at once—a rapid Firebolt volley.
They detonated within the hordes of the Killer Ants. The bolts came loose, unbound as the force of the explosion tore apart those close by and the flames lashed out, consuming those within its reach and cooking them within their chitinous exoskeletons. Just like that, a path was opened for him to reach them. “Are you okay!?”
“Cottontail!” said the Hume Bunny in an accent that was somewhat rougher than he expected. “Ya gotta get Shino and Coco outta here! They breathed in too much of that powder before I could kill ‘em!”
That explained it. Their backline must have been poisoned by Purple Moths from above while their focus had been on dealing with the Killer Ants surrounding them, a risk when you were being attacked in all directions like in the Dungeon. Hearing that, Bell crouched down and then grabbed the two beneath his arms before he turned his back to the Hume Bunny. “Climb on!”
She did so, clinging to his back and wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist as he rose to his full height. Then Bell ran as fast as he could back to the Pantry, leaving their equipment behind. He had already memorized the pathway so there was no hesitation as his motions became a blur that dragged the wind behind him, drowning out all sound and thought until he emerged through the mouth of the entry way.
The moment he breached the opening, he called out for his Familia as he set them down. “Lili, these three need Antidotes and Potions! Mikoto, I need your help to make sure that a horde of Killer Ants in one of the passages nearby gets cleared out. Welf keep them and Primo safe!”
Even though she did not fully understand what was happening, the Absolute Shadow understood from Bell’s tone he was speaking as the Captain of the Hestia Familia. So Mikoto followed him out, reasoning that her part was due to her skills, which allowed her to track any monster she had encountered before. She could ensure that none were missed and left to secrete pheromones that could risk another horde descending upon the corridor as they killed the remaining ones.
The two of them moved ahead with Mikoto triggering her skill along the path where her senses registered the congregation of dozens of them to the spot he had been previously. The Killer Ants that hadn’t died swiftly to his Magic had released more pheromones and so the chittering had become loud enough that it bounced off the walls. Left unchecked they could cause a small-scale Monster Parade, an outbreak where a massive number of monsters surged through a floor.
With his blood pounding in his ears, Bell called forth his Magic and loosed his flaming lances one after another. “Firebolt! Firebolt! Firebolt!”
The thunderous roar of rupturing stone. Intense flames scorching the air. The acrid scent of melting chitin and shrieks from inhuman maws. His senses congested with slaughter as he devoted himself to the eradication of the horde, the Caerbannog Cottontail bared his with his black and red fangs as he went into a Rabbit Rush.
Kinetic vision heightened to the point where they were moving as slow as molasses made it so that his knives could find their necks. Deceptively powerful legs crushed through exoskeletons as hard as armor with every step. Flashing violet and streaking crimson cut through chitin with the ease of slicing through bread. Flowing from one to the next with fluid motions as his momentum carried him through their ranks, the corridor was left awash in the shower of ichor as the blood pumped through the veins escaped loosely into the air while their severed heads were left behind in his wake.
Some escaped his fangs as he prioritized taking down as many as possible in a single passing. His ears caught the faint sound of the air being parted by the edge of Mikoto’s sword as she followed behind him to deal with the stragglers. The survivors had to be killed before their pheromones could compound and spread further, and with her skill she could pick out the dying from the dead with greater ease, ensuring they were swiftly eradicated.
Bell lost track of time as his blades flashed. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but it felt longer with his drawn-out perception of time that came from his heightened Level when in combat mode. It was only when Mikoto called out that there were no more he looked to see what was left in his wake.
The chamber and corridors were littered with enough corpses to resemble a mausoleum. The light-green walls were splattered with purple ichor without rhyme or reason, abstract to the point it seemed that someone had haphazardly thrown buckets of paint throughout the area. The discarded and half-empty containers left slowly growing puddles on the ground that filled in the cracks and crevices as a haunting silence was all that was left in their wake where before it was loud and cacophonic.
Finally, Bell breathed deep from his chest and looked around for their equipment. The Adventurer’s Backpack that one of them had been carrying was still intact, though torn in several places by the mandibles that had likely been attempting to gouge out flesh instead. The Warhammer that had been left behind was splashed in purple, droplets rolling off the metal and joining the growing puddle beneath it.
He picked them both up and returned to the Pantry along with Mikoto. When they arrived, they found the three of them being treated. The Hume Bunny was simply dousing herself overhead with three Potion without care while Welf looked on with a half-puzzled, half-amused gaze, while Primo was near the Pallum whose hands were shaking as she held a waterskin offered to her by the Elf. The Renard was lying on the ground, catching her breath with a bundled-up cloak being used as a pillow after her top had been stripped off with her upper body covered by Primo’s jacket, but her eyes had regained some of their luster.
“Are they going to be okay?” Bell asked Lili as he set their things down, given that out of all of them she had the best understanding of First Aid due to needing to look after herself.
“None of their injuries are crippling so the Potions can mend their wounds, but one had succumbed to poisoning to the point that even with the Antidote she will be fatigued and ill for a little while. We removed her clothes that were covered in the poison dust and had the other two split an Antidote just in case, but all of them will recover.”
“That’s good,” Bell said with a soft sigh before looking over to the Hume Bunny whose ears were folded downwards like she was exhausted. “Was it just the three of you? When I originally was heading that way I saw someone else, but I didn’t see them on the way back…”
Her head tilted at that. “Dunno bout that. Wasn’t anyone but us who came from the Familia.”
“Most likely it was just a random Adventurer who heard the commotion and went to see the situation,” Lili stated. “If you heard their screaming all the way here due to your Level then it must have been loud enough that Adventurers close by would have heard it too. In that case, it would not surprise me if they figured out what was happening and simply ran to the Fifth Floor since Killer Ants are one of the few species on the Upper Floors that can actually cause a Monster Parade to occur on their own.”
“Woulda been good to know beforehand.” She brought her hands to her hair and ran her fingers between her ears frustratedly. “Bastards never said anythin’ bout them or those flyin’ pests when they told us about this floor being a good one to farm.”
That earned a furrowed brow from Lili as Bell spoke. “Ah, right. Maybe we should introduce ourselves considering everything. We’re—”
“The Hestia Familia,” the Hume Bunny said before he could finish. “Saw most of ya’ll on the mirrors when we got here. Ya especially caught my eye, Cottontail.”
“…in what regard?” Lili asked in a tone that was a fair bit more serious than before.
“His title!” she exclaimed. “I wanna beat him and take it for myself!”
“That’s… not how that works here,” Mikoto said after briefly clearing her throat before elaborating to the rest of them. “In my homeland, sometimes warriors would challenge others of renown to best them and raise their own standing. Titles, weapons, and the like could be wagered, though it isn’t practiced as often that close to the capital from what I am told.”
“Forgive her…” A soft voice came from the Renard. Her accent was similar to her companion’s, but it felt slightly more refined and formal. “That one speaks without thinkin’ too much… and gets on over her head if no one keeps an eye on her. In this case… we were misled and are kindly grateful for your aid.”
Mikoto’s gaze softened. “Pardon if I am being presumptuous, but from your accent and explanations, it sounds as though you two are relatively new to Orario?”
“Uhmm… all three of us arrived around the same time as the War Game, which is how we recognized Mister Cottontail,” the Pallum said, having regained a level of composure as she reached into her pouch and pulled out a Familia Emblem. One with a crescent moon and wine glass. “My name is Coco, and these two are Kaede and Momiji. We’re new members of the Soma Familia.”
The moment the senior members of the Familia spotted the emblem, their eyes inadvertently were drawn back to Liliruca whose lips pursed thin. They had gone to rescue her from the Soma Familia’s compound after they had been attacked by them days before the War Game. But the fact that the girl openly admitted it and looked confused by the shift in tone made it clear she knew nothing.
For her part, Lili merely sighed before holding up a hand. “I think I understand what happened. Let me guess, some of the older members of the Familia gave you a map and told you it’d be easy to get down here to earn a lot of Valis quickly?”
“That’s right,” Coco continued before she pulled a roughly drawn map out next and laid it down for them to see. There was a spot circled. “They said here would be best.”
Bell’s blood ran cold. It was a sentiment shared by Mikoto and Welf as a scowl appeared on the latter’s face while the former’s eyes folded in. Primo simply looked puzzled, but that was because she hadn’t memorized the maps of the Upper Floors. She didn’t understand the implications.
And neither did Coco. “Is there something wrong?”
“That’s the Pantry we’re in now,” Bell stated. “The fact that they told you to come here without even telling you about how Killer Ants can draw others to them means…”
“Don’t sugarcoat it, Master Bell,” Lili said rather coldly. “It’s no different than what the others did to get rid of Mister Ged and tried to do to get rid of me. They sent them here to die.”
The atmosphere within the Pantry grew tense as that registered to the three. Coco’s expression was one of disbelief, while Momiji’ eyes closed in thought. Opposite them, Kaede’s grip on her sword became much tighter, to the point it shook in anger. “Yer kiddin’, right?”
She was not. “The Seventh Floor is arguably the most dangerous for new Adventurers because it introduces a wider variety of monsters. When Zanis was displeased with a new member of the Familia or the others wanted to avoid competition for Lord Soma’s Wine, they would often ‘suggest’ that they come to the Seventh Floor or give them a map marked with a spot that would be a good place to earn Valis. I have seen many people who only joined the Familia never come back.”
War Shadows on the Sixth Floor were dangerous because they were a singular spike in the difficulty when it came to monsters compared to Goblins and Kobolds. They were smarter and their claws were capable of cutting through armor easily. But Killer Ants had hard enough bodies that getting through their defenses to kill them so they couldn’t call for help was exceedingly difficult for new Adventurers. And without Abnormal Resistance or Antidotes, they could easily end up getting poisoned by the Purple Moths.
Ignorant of that, sending them down here alone was a death sentence.
“However, one thing doesn’t make sense,” Lili stated as she looked over their equipment. “Killer Ant bodies are durable enough that without high enough Strength none of you would even be able to get through their armor with these weapons. That should have stopped you from going deeper or wounding enough to draw too many in. And your wounds are light considering how Killer Ants can easily cut apart new Adventurers.”
She was right when Bell considered it. Miss Coco was using Guild-issued armor and weapons at the very least, and the other two didn’t seem to have any special equipment. Their clothes didn’t seem to be very durable considering the rips and tears, meaning that the wounds they had likely should have been deeper unless they had higher Endurance parameters.
“Renards are often known as Sorceresses and Sorcerers in our homeland for possessing the ability to use unique Magics even before the Gods descended,” Mikoto explained. Her violet eyes once more gazing upon the young woman holding her wand that was decorated by paper streamers. “However, judging from your accessory and Nusa, should I assume you were previously a priestess in the service a shrine and thus had a Falna?”
Momiji nodded her head. “The shrine my village had was under the care of Lady Tatsuta far in the countryside, an’ so my kin served her for generations. But after Tsukino went an’ got herself into trouble and had to leave, I begged the lady for her blessin’ to come to Orario with her in exchange for sendin’ back offerings to the shrine. We arrived a little bit ago an’ got wind of the Soma Familia lookin’ for new members.”
In other words, her Goddess unlocked her Falna so she could do a conversion to another Familia when she arrived in Orario. Considering the city made it extremely difficult for Adventurers to leave the walls without going through a lot of paperwork, and with her home being so far away, she likely sacrificed any chance of going back. And while having a Falna and Magic might have made her more valuable, there was no guarantee whatever deity took her in would do the same for her friend or a Pallum.
That alone with how the Hume Bunny begged him to save the other two first made it clear they were rather tight-knit, unlike the rest of the Familia they had just joined. But they hadn’t known that and expected it to be the same. It would have gotten them killed if Bell hadn’t been nearby.
“In other words, you got careless because of it,” Lili said bluntly. “Whatever Magic you have might have allowed you to get down here sooner than you were supposed to, but because of that you didn’t have a full understanding of what awaited you. If you had realized early on that you couldn’t go any further, then you would not have gotten in deeply enough to be swarmed and risk a Monster Parade.”
Welf gave her a stern glance. “Hey now. That’s not on them.”
“If those bastards hadn’t lied ta us then we woulda never came this deep,” Kaede added.
“The fault is our own,” Momiji said softly in contrast to those who were arguing in her defense. “We believed in them too easily an’ still mistook the threat we faced until it was too late because of it. Lesson learned for the future.”
That seemed to be what Lili wanted to hear as she nodded her head. “Not everyone will give you bad advice but don’t believe everything you are told just because you are Familia. New Adventurers are easy prey, so at least verify things that put your life in danger.”
“I don’t understand though,” Coco said somberly. It was like the wind had been knocked out of her. “Lord Soma seemed so nice when he took us in. He told me that he was trying to take his Familia in a new direction and wanted us to help him. So why would they…”
“Most of Lord Soma’s current members are loyal to his wine, not him,” Lili pointed out. “Even if Zanis got put away and Lord Soma changed his policy, it doesn’t change the fact that the others have gotten used to the way things work. It would not surprise me if they intended to use your deaths as an excuse for why they should be given Soma to better guide newcomers, or perhaps they were trying to kill Miss Coco by proxy since they don’t dare come after me now that I’m under Master Bell’s protection.”
That said, she turned to her captain. “Master Bell. Forgive me for this selfish request, but may we head to the Soma Familia after leaving the Dungeon with these three?”
“I don’t mind, but would you really be comfortable with that?” Bell asked. He knew that place had a lot of bad memories for her.
“If Lord Soma sincerely wants to change his Familia for the better, he needs to be aware that it won’t be enough to simply change who is calling the shots and recruiting new members,” Lili told him. “He has to completely root out all traces of the old practices, otherwise his efforts will fail. And I have to be the one to convey that to him personally or else it won’t be clear, and his own children will sabotage him without him realizing it until it’s too late.”
Even if Lili hated her time in his Familia, it was clear she still had some degree of respect for her former God. These three were the signs he was making the first steps to change things sincerely rather than leaving them as they were. And whether it was by pure luck or fate she had borne witness to it and the Familia that took her in had stopped his efforts from being wasted.
“Okay,” Bell said. “We’ll go see Lord Soma. If anyone goes and tries to get in your way this time, I’ll step in.”
“In that case, I would like to contribute as well by introducing you both to Lord Takemikazuchi at some point, Madam Kaede and Momiji,” Mikoto said, looking to the pair. “He could at least explain some of the cultural differences, so you will not be so easily taken advantage of again. I can also show you where to find familiar foods and comforts.”
“…Why?” Kaede asked after a pause. “Not that it wouldn’t be appreciated, but ya just said not to trust everythin’ we hear.”
It was Primo who spoke on her new Familia’s behalf. “It’s because they’re all nice people. Lady Hestia and the others took me in when I had just arrived around the same time as you, and they’ve done so much for me without asking for anything in return. That’s why I want to pay it all back by becoming the best Mage I can be for them, even if it’s scary at times. It’s the same for you, right?”
Her question was addressed specifically to the Pallum who had spoken well of Lord Soma. Coco responded with a slight nod of her head. “He seemed really sincere, and he didn’t reject me for just being a Pallum either.”
“As for me, what guy would just sit back and let scum get away with sending three cute girls off to die because they’re petty over some wine?” Welf said while sporting a grin to Kaede. “They need their priorities checked, and since we’re heading that way there’s no harm in it, right?”
“…Who ya callin’ cute?” murmured the Hume Bunny as her yellow eyes looked away. There seemed to be a spot of crimson color surfacing on her cheeks, but it seemed to go unnoticed. “Gonna kill those bastards.”
“In my case, as my original Familia hails from the Far East, we know of the struggles when it comes to acclimating ourselves to this place,” Mikoto added with her eyes on Momiji. “It would not do for your first experience in Orario to be one completely negative as this one. And, as we have walked the same path, it’s only natural we help those who come after, no?”
“That would be much appreciated,” the Renard Priestess said. “I would be lyin’ if I said I don’t miss a meal from home about now.”
That decided, the Hestia Familia brought the three to the surface and made their way to the Soma Familia. After some mild obstructions, including pulling Kaede off of the one who gave them the map in particular before she bruised her fists on their skull, a discussion was had between the God and his Captain, his old Familia member, and his new ones on the full extent of his Familia’s problems. It took a few hours before a decision was made that would leave the Soma Familia’s numbers drastically reduced by the week’s end in the hopes that they could start again.
Thus, the Hestia Familia headed back to their home where their Goddess of the Hearth awaited. They would put off going to the Exchange for the day so they could get ready for the festivities that were about to begin. After all, the sun was setting…
And the Holy Moon Festival was about to begin.
Chapter 26: Holy Moon Festival – Morning
“I began studying Magic with the forest we were guided to by the Spirits as our home for the time being. The first lesson was naturally the nature of the Spirits themselves. Understanding them were the key to cooperation and thus the wisdom they could bestow after all.
Spirits existed within the world, embodiments of nature given life by the Gods and said to be those closest to the divinities on the Lower World, as they could hear their voices and respond. The fact that we Elves could enter into a contract with them directly meant that we were a race favored by the Gods, unlike the other mortal races who should only be so lucky if the Gods deigned to turn their attention upon them. Or so Elio claimed.
I had reservations (naturally) but stilled my tongue. Argo placed his faith in me, relegating himself to sleeping on the outskirts of the forest and effectively doing all the manual labor for us so that the Elf could teach me without any distractions. If he could bear with that much for my sake, then I should be able to do the same for him.
I had to if I was going to be able to protect him.”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic I: Spirits
Bell Cranel stirred awake as early as usual on the day of the Holy Moon Festival.
He had always been early to rise from the time he lived on the mountain and worked the farm along with his grandfather. Daylight was precious and tending to crops happened to be more time-consuming than one would expect. In Orario that translated to reaching the Dungeon relatively early enough to beat the morning rush…
At least that had been back when it had been only Bell and his Goddess as members of the Familia.
He exited his modest room set on the east side of the Hearth Manor’s third floor. The spacious estate had become their home, constructed of stone, wood, and glass, covered an expansive amount of space to where they had more room than they knew what to do with it. Cleaning it all alone would likely become a nightmare, to the point where Lady Hestia was considering hiring help to deal with it once everything settled down.
Bell made his way from his room out into an expansive corridor where the light from the sun poured in through the windows. At the end of the corridor was one of the larger bathrooms that he could use to get himself ready for the day. He took his time to wash himself clean, leaving out refreshed and invigorated as he stretched his limbs that had been loosened by the heated water.
Then he got dressed and proceeded a few doors down towards Welf’s room. Since it would be time for breakfast soon he figured he would wake him just in case he had stayed up too late at the forge. He knocked on the door a few times but there was no answer. “Welf, are you there?”
After listening for a response and hearing none with his Level Three perception, he tested the handle and found that it opened. Welf was nowhere to be found inside. Bell let out a sigh as he realized Welf had spent the night outside again.
Since Lady Hestia had the manor remodeled to suit their needs, she gave Welf his own personal forge since he lost access to the one he would have had with his original goddess when he transferred over. However, there have been cases where he would stay up late to practice his forging to an extent that bordered on obsession in Lili’s words. The fact that he slept in the forge didn’t exactly refute her claims, even if he stated he was just trying not to get rusty.
I’d better get him before Lady Hestia finds out, Bell reasoned. The Goddess of the Hearth treated them as they were her own children and, while she wouldn’t scold them, she could find a way to make them feel guilty for not listening at the expense of their own health. It never felt great to be on the receiving end.
He made his way towards the main foyer where the pair of winding staircases would lead him down to the first floor. However, on his way down, he spotted the other early riser within the Hestia Familia. “Good morning, Miss Mikoto.”
The kunoichi paused in midstride from the floor below and turned her head in his direction, giving him a glimpse of her eyes that looked rather satisfied. Her normally lovely white skin was flushed a red shade from residual heat from the morning bathing she did with one of the baths that had been converted to be more suitable to the Far East style on the lower floor so that all of them had access to it. It was divided into two rooms, of course.
She brushed a stray lock of her raven hair that hung delicately in front of her face and gave him an amicable smile. “Good morning, Sir Bell. I was about to begin working on breakfast after waking the others up.”
“I can do that since I’m already up here,” Bell said, looking over to his left where the other set of stairs would lead him to the women’s wing. They had divided the third floor between the two sides to give both genders a level of privacy, though there was no real hard rule that prevented one side from visiting the other. And Lady Hestia’s room was actually located in the center as it was the largest, being what he presumed was the Master bedroom with a view of the courtyard.
“You have my thanks,” Mikoto stated. “I’ll have breakfast ready for everyone by the time they are all woken and have cleaned themselves up for the day.”
With that, the kunoichi headed towards the kitchen while Bell ascended to the opposite side. Mikoto’s room was the very first room by the stairway but, given that she was already awake, he skipped over it and went for Lili’s door. “Lili, are you up?”
There was the sound of wood scuffing the floor from what he presumed was a chair as smaller footfalls crossed the space. The door opened to reveal Lili dressed in a nightshirt and pants. “Master Bell, did you need something from me?”
“No, I was just coming to wake you up,” he said. “But it seemed like you were already up.”
“I woke a little while ago and thought I should look over the lesson plan for the day after we go to the Dungeon,” she explained. It turned out that due to her… circumstances, Lili had a pretty solid grasp of math compared to the rest of them. So not only was she the Familia Treasurer who kept track of their finances, but she was also helping Primo with the arithmetic portion of her studies.
Bell felt a little embarrassed that he couldn’t do much in that regard. He was literate and knew basic mathematics, but the rest was beyond him. So when she revealed that she could help he had asked her to without a second thought, but he didn’t expect it would interfere with her sleep schedule.
That done, he proceeded down the corridor to the next occupied room to wake up Primo. In contrast to the immediacy of Lili’s response to his knocking and call, he could hear the soft sounds on the other side of the door of the child slowly rising from her bed. Her steps were heavy as she staggered forward and fumbled with the handle. When the door opened it revealed the prepubescent Elf with her eyes still closed, hair disheveled, and her nightgown wrinkled as she and swayed on her feet.
“Ish… redi… Cap’n…” Primo mumbled while still half-asleep, taking a step forward and bumping into Bell before reflexively bringing her arms around his waist to cling to him. Out of all of them, Primo was not used to waking up early. It was likely due to the fact that she was new to the lifestyle of an Adventurer in combination with her young age, so she was a little slower to rise than the others. “Mmnnn…zzz…”
“Hey, don’t use Master Bell as a pillow!” Lili called out as she emerged from her room and pried the Elf off of him while Bell just laughed awkwardly. “I thought you Elves were supposed to be prim and proper.”
Only once she was pulled from Bell and back into her own room did Primo’s consciousness seem to spark awake fully. Her eyes snapped open and, seeing those ruby eyes upon her as Bell waved, she promptly shut the door before calling out, “I-I’m not decent, Captain! Please give me a moment!”
“You don’t need to rush,” Bell told her over the sound of shuffling and light chastisement from Lili on the other side of the door. She almost sounded like an older sister in the way she was telling her she needed to be more aware of what she was doing when getting up. “We’ll have breakfast ready within an hour, so both of you can take your time.”
With those two up, Bell turned his attention to Hestia’s room located behind where the stairwells met. He knocked on the door and called out to her. “Goddess, are you awake?”
“Bell, come inside. I want to show you something,” she responded through the door. Her dutiful child did so, opening the door and entering the room that was far larger than any of theirs. His ruby eyes spanned the room only to for his breath to hitch as he took in her appearance as she did a twirl with the morning sun coming from the balcony window behind her.
Hestia’s long and flowing black hair seemed glossy in the morning light while beneath a deep blue veil with gold trimmings. Elegant white fabric formed a collar around her neck to a sapphire pendant, which allowed the excess cloth to flow around her upper arms like ribbons. It was only because they were attached to golden shoulder bands that they didn’t fly freely, but left arches of flowing fabric that trailed after her.
Her voluptuous bust was cradled by more of the virgin white fabric with bands of gold acting as a pseudo-corset. They matched the ones circling around her hips to hug her waist, holding up the long skirt that was split into two sections, with the center being a long strip of blue rimmed with gold while the rest was white. The wind carried it up enough that he could see up to her knees as she spun around elegantly for him.
“What do you think?” she asked, coming to a stop with the flowing fabric following gently after her. “Isn’t it cute?”
Heat brimmed from his chest to his head. “Goddess, when did you get that?”
“I found it in in the closet when we moved in,” she explained. “It’s a perfect recreation of one of the outfits that I wore back in Heaven, so I can only assume that Apollo had gotten it made during the time he declared the War Game. He must have forgotten it when we took his home.”
Goddess, I’m pretty sure he didn’t forget it so much as he left it on purpose, Bell thought to himself with a bitter grimace. The fact that it was a perfect recreation of one of her outfits in Heaven and fit her so well spoke of the man’s obsession with her. Even so, he couldn’t deny it suited her somewhat in being more regal yet divine compared to her normal outfit. “You look beautiful, Goddess.”
She smiled at his praise. “The last time I wore it was when Artemis and I were up above. Aphrodite had come by to bug us as per usual. Since it’s been so long since I’ve seen her and the Holy Moon Festival was tonight, I felt nostalgic and thought I’d want to wear it for the dance.”
An unsettling sensation fell into his stomach. He had promised her that he would dance with her, even though he wasn’t any good at dancing. The last time he danced with Aiz it was more like they managed to avoid stepping on each other’s toes since they had practiced enough to read one another’s rhythm. Not to mention the fact that it was supposed to be a mostly couples affair…
His ruminations of the impending horror that was a moonlit dance amidst strangers and him embarrassing himself were cut short when he noticed Hestia beginning to remove the bangles, indicating she was getting ready to get undressed. He promptly turned away. “Anyway, I should go and finish waking up Welf. I’ll see you at breakfast!”
Bidding her farewell for the moment, Bell vacated the Master Bedroom and made his way down the stairs to head out to the forge. But before he did so, he peered out through one of the foyer windows towards the gates to see if there were any people were out there, beyond the fountain. They usually only appeared after breakfast and the numbers had been dropping as of late thankfully, but there were still more than he liked. It seemed that with the festival being today none were too eager to try to grab their attention, so the gate was clear for the moment.
Hopefully, it would stay that way.
He made his way out back, the morning air carrying with it a slight autumn chill. But it wasn’t cold enough to see his breath yet as he went close to the edge of the backyard where the trees and gates formed a perimeter. There a forge had been built for Welf’s sole use.
“Welf,” Bell called out as he opened the door. “Are you in here?”
A rough grunt was his answer as he reached over towards a magic stone lantern and turned it on to find the Blacksmith lying down on his workbench, turning from the light as if it was the bane of his existence. But then he forced himself up and ran his calloused hands through his hair before yawning. “Is it morning already?”
“The others are already getting up,” Bell answered. “If you don’t hurry, Lady Hestia will find out you spent the night here and be upset.”
“Don’t want that to happen,” he said, standing up before looking over to a hammer. “Hephaestus will hear of it too, and it’d just make me look like I still need to be looked after despite everything I said then. But the second one was so close that I just had to finish it.”
Bell’s ruby eyes traced his gaze over to the wall where he spotted a great sword. The steel was black, waves running along it in a way that made it seem like flames that were rimmed by fiery red hue. It was most likely a Fire Element weapon.
“In my dreams I see a sword of flames and lightning,” Welf explained as he reached over and picked up what looked to be a stiletto. It had a brass-toned handle, but the blade was a golden color. “I’ve been trying to get closer to that by experimenting with different types of blades and blacksmithing techniques, but none of them have come close to that yet. There’s something I’m missing.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out what it is eventually,” Bell assured him. “And even if these ones are fragile, they’ll serve to keep our Familia safe. That’s what matters, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” He rose to his full height and stretched before moving to the door. As he passed by, he set a hand on Bell’s shoulder. “Sorry to make you go out of your way for me. It’ll be the last time.”
And with that, the rest of Hestia’s Familia were inside of the mansion they called home. The hour came and went, with their breakfast being a serving of eggs that were made in a Far East style that Mikoto called a rolled omelet accompanied by slices of ham and toast with fruit slices. They discussed their plans for the day over it.
“So, how deep will we be going today?” Welf asked from his seat on the right side of the table, positioned between Mikoto and Lili. Unlike the others, he was placing them between slices of toast and ham to make a sandwich while Mikoto was skillfully using a pair of chopsticks and Lili was using a fork and knife.
Bell finished chewing his slice of an egg before answering. “We’ll stick with the Upper Floors since we can handle the monsters and have a chance to work out our group dynamics with Primo. Besides, Goddess is expecting us to come home earlier today.”
“That’s right,” Hestia said. “The Holy Moon Festival is tonight, and we should all have a chance to celebrate and relax while things are finally winding down from the War Game. It’s the first time for myself, Bell, and Primo, so we should enjoy it together.”
The Elven Mage, who was happily eating her peach slices, perked up at hearing that. “Does that mean I can take a break from studying tonight?”
Lili rebuked that notion quickly. “Don’t be silly. We’ll simply study earlier and fit in time after your archery practice in the courtyard. You still can barely hit the target as is.”
Primo’s pointed ears comically deflated at that. “Uwaahh…”
“A little break is fine, Miss Supporter,” Hestia said before brushing the child’s hair. “That goes for her and you. It’s nice you’re pushing yourself to meet Bell’s expectations since he’s relying on you, but it’s important to rest every now and again. Right, Bell?”
Bell was quick to agree with a beaming smile. “That’s right. You’ve earned as much of a break as anyone, Lili.”
Her chestnut eyes turned away from him as she sported a hint of crimson in her cheeks. “If Master Bell insists, we can take a break today…”
The news that she would be let off for the day from her relatively hard schooling brightened Primo’s smile. “If we’re all going, does that mean Miss Lefiya will be there too?”
“We might see her there, but I think she has a date tonight,” Bell said, recalling his sister’s plans. It had come up during one of their talks considering the whole ‘I want grandkids’ message from her mother. “I don’t think she’d appreciate it if we interrupted her. At the very least it would get awkward between us again…”
Primo tilted her head quizzically at that. “Awkward?”
“Well… ah…” Bell decidedly chose his words carefully given that he didn’t want to bring up the whole matter on the 18th Floor that involved women in various states of undress and then the groping incident. “Let’s just say things between us weren’t always as friendly and I don’t want things to go back to that way.”
He had been on the receiving end of her wrath before. And, from his limited experience with women, he had a strong feeling that they would dislike interference with their romance. Thus, he felt it best if he stayed far away from her tonight if he could help it.
In the heart of a forest, nestled deep in the verdant green, laid a Great Tree.
The stalwart tree that stood as a sentinel was unshakable. It withstood the passing of ages and every obstacle that nature birthed. Its dark, thick, furrowed bark withstood pounding rains, frigid snow, torrential storms, and harsh heat, unmoved even as the world itself changed around it.
Should those rains turn into a fierce flood its roots would brace against the surging waves. Should the snow become a raging blizzard it would ward off the invasive frost. Should the storm become a hurricane it would be an unmoving bastion. And should the heat become a raging flame from the scorched bark would sprout life anew.
It was a foundation within her as a Mage.
Its resilience was her resilience.
Its fortitude was her fortitude.
Lefiya envisioned within the confines of her mind being the Unshakable Great Oak as she went through her meditation exercise for the morning. The imagery was vivid as she reinforced it with the memory of the Spirit Tree of legend. Even when the flames of a Dragon scorched it, the tree managed to cling to life and rejuvenate itself with a little help.
Such was the majesty of both the Royal Elf and a primordial Great Tree.
Truthfully, she never thought she would have the chance to lay her eyes on a Great Tree given her birth. Living with her mother on the outskirts of the Wishe Forest, the heart of the forest was beyond her wildest dreams of visit. She thought she would only have her mother’s tale of how during the tree’s flowering it would sport a crown of light with such majesty that it seemed almost like a halo ascending to the heavens. Seeing the Spirit Tree for herself was a luxury that she never could have imagined and would remain forever entrenched within her.
Recalling the sight as the spirits danced around it, Lefiya’s mind then shifted back to the memory of Filvis as they danced. Her soft breath washing against her skin, leaving it prickling with temptation. Her lovely eyes that she could just get lost in. Her tender, soft-looking lips that she came so close to finally…
“Ah, that’s not good!” Lefiya pulled herself from her mental world as she felt heat sweltering in her head, leaving her to shake it. “I can’t get distracted just because of tonight.”
Her date with Filvis would be later this evening, during the Holy Moon Festival. The moon would be amongst its brightest and largest, shining overhead for all to see. It would set a romantic and festive atmosphere, not unlike the Spirit Festival. But unlike then it would be a real date this time.
That meant she had to control herself and avoid the temptation to repeat her prior actions. She didn’t need to rush to get her feelings across now that she knew they would be returned. The last thing she wanted was to drive her off because she came onto her like some kind of Elven Fetishist.
Taking a breath to re-center herself a light chime that signaled the passing of an hour reached her ears. She opened her eyes to see her room bathed in the morning light and rose from her meditative position to get dressed in her battle clothes. Specifically, her regular ones rather than the ones that Lady Riveria had given her.
Those clothes were something she would reserve when acting as Lady Riveria’s successor rather than casual wear. After all, they would be very expensive to repair if damaged considering the materials used. And it would have more impact if she only wore them when she needed to act as the second to the Nine Hells.
Once she was dressed, Lefiya made her way down to the cafeteria to eat a light meal before she had to head out. There was an open seat for her with many of the other girls within the Familia who were up now—Elfy, Leene, and Anakitty specifically.
“Finished your mediation exercises?” Elfy asked as she scooted over to give her roommate just a little more room next to her.
“Mm-hmm,” Lefiya hummed softly, not mentioning the distraction that she had around the end. The various scents that filled the table from everyone’s choice of a meal tempted her to expand on her choice of food, but she tamped down on it as she settled in to eat. “What about you?”
“I’ll do it later,” said the Human Mage as her green eyes skimmed over the light breakfast consisting of a bowl of oatmeal, fruit, and orange juice on the Half-Elf’s plate. In contrast, she had scrambled eggs and was using a butter knife to apply fruit jam across her slice of toast. “I wouldn’t be able to sit still for an hour on an empty stomach.”
“I suppose I should do the same,” said the soft-spoken Nurse, Leene. The quiet girl sat opposite the two of them, her morning meal consisting of cereal that had slices of fruit added into it. “By the way, was the book I loaned you helpful?”
Lefiya gave a short nod of her head. “I’m able to grasp the basics somewhat, but there are a lot more complexities than I expected so I’ll be needing it for a while.”
Healers, or specifically dedicated spellcasters who had the Treatment Development Ability, tended to be far rare than Mages. There was no guarantee over what kind of spell one obtained, if they ever obtained one. And even then, the study to earn the Treatment DA was practically the same to become a doctor or pharmacist.
As the Half-Elf was still learning and studying under Riveria and only had access to healing spells Elf Ring, it was largely impractical for her to even make the attempt. But since Lefiya did have access to a healing spell that she could use now with a relatively lower cost to Mind, she thought it would be best to make the most out of it. It would never be as good as Leene or Lady Riveria since the potency of the healing relied on the Magic attribute and Ancient Magic spells didn’t benefit from it, but it was still an option that she had wished for in the past and shouldn’t squander.
That was why she had asked Leene if she had any beginner materials she could study, which she allowed her to borrow. The basics operated on the principle that the user would not have the Treatment DA, so it taught the importance of diagnosing the nature of injuries beyond the level of basic first aid they were all taught and how to prioritize treating them. That gave her a better understanding of how to direct the flow of magic towards said areas rather than her usual method of simply letting the spell run on its own as that would be cost-inefficient—unless Argonaut was involved.
Then it effectively was an instant full heal and stamina booster considering how it worked during the War Game.
“I knew you had your head in a book most of the time you were home, but I didn’t think that you were taking up an entirely different branch of magic on top of all of your training with Lady Riveria,” Elfy said with a flat look. “You’re gonna burn out if you do all that.”
Anakitty agreed with a soft, yet worried expression. “She’s right. You should probably take it easy. At least for today. Do you want to come with us to the festival?”
“Sorry, but I’m heading out in a little bit to go train in the Dungeon and, as for this evening, I have other plans…”
It wasn’t as though she broadcasted her relationship with Filvis, nor the sudden change in their status from friendship to courtship. Elfy knew because they were roommates and best friends, but the others didn’t need to know that. There was nothing she could do if they spotted her by chance at the festival, but the last thing she wanted this morning was anyone to give her expectations or try to squeeze her for information.
“Oh, that reminds me, Elfy are you still using that primer of Elvish terms from the library?” Leene asked innocently. “It’s been out for a while, and your name was on the logbook last…”
Lefiya turned to her, head tilted inquisitively as the human winced. “I didn’t know you were learning Elvish. If you’d asked, I would have taught you.”
“Lefy, we just covered the fact that you were not only studying harder but spent most of your days buried in a book or otherwise busy,” Elfy pointed out. “Besides, it was just something I was doing in my free time so could learn enough to read some of the books in your language for when I eventually bump up my Mage DA. The Fairy Force has the best stuff on Magic outside of the books printed from Alterna, where they’re always written like a thesis and never get to the point. It’s enough to put a girl to sleep.”
The Fairy Force was the Elven Mage detachment for Lady Riveria consisting of a total of eleven female Elves who were Level Three or higher and possessed the Mage DA. The Royal Elf possessed the skill Alf Regina, or Seal of the Fairy Queen, which strengthened the effect of spells cast within her magic circle if they were cast by Elves. It also converted the expended magical energy back into Mind, effectively making it so that they could keep casting—minus the post-magic rigor and mental fatigue. Combined with the use of Concurrent Chanting, they were a mobile magical artillery force that specialized in hit-and-run.
Mind you, Lady Riveria hated the name in itself and Loki had come up with it. But most of the Elves were fond of it because they typically had skills related to Faeries and it was an honor to be part of it. Lefiya was the newest member of the Force, due to her not being exceptionally good at using Concurrent Casting—it was only recently she had become proficient with it due to her time training with Filvis.
Lefiya had to admit that it was a good idea on her friend’s behalf considering Elves had the most pronounced use of Magic throughout history until the Age of the God. The reference books from their race tended to have a fairly solid grasp on different aspects of the Art because of that, but there were also clear biases in the text towards Elves. She really didn’t appreciate how they referred to half of her parentage, so she couldn’t imagine that Elfy would have an easier time putting up with it.
“Anyway, Lefy’s not the only one with plans though, is she?” Elfy’s green eyes turned to their resident Healer teasingly and the bespectacled girl went rigid the moment she felt the collective eyes of the others fall upon her.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about…” Leene said softly while fidgeting in place. Her face gained a splotch of crimson while she angled her head so that the sheen of the morning light hid her eyes. “I’m just going to be doing some independent studying myself. That’s all. Really.”
“Reaaalllly~” Elfy practically purred as she leaned forward with one elbow on the table as she propped up her head. “So, you’re going to spend the night of the festival just studying instead of going out with the rest of us on a girl’s night? That’s all? Nothing about makeup advice floating around or anythingggg~”
Lefiya could almost swear that steam was coming out of the poor girl’s ears as she shrank in her chair. She felt compelled to do something about it, so she nudged her friend with her elbow and told her to stop. “Elfy, knock it off. You know full well rumors are just that. I still haven’t forgotten that one you guys bought into about me after the 18th Floor.”
“Yeah… sorry about that,” Anakitty said with her ears shifting. “I’ve told Raul time and again to think about what he says around others to avoid things like that happening, so we should stop it from going any further.”
“Just having a little fun,” the Human Mage said as she leaned back in her chair and shrugged. “But you have to admit it’d be interesting if either of those rumors panned out to be true. Just imagine if Cottontail actually managed to snag the heart of the Thousand Elf, or what kind of guy could make Lokolite swoon?”
“I disagree,” Lefiya noted flatly.
It was a sentiment Leene shared as she shifted her glasses by the frame with her hands. “So do I.”
Thankfully, the conversation drifted into other topics as she finished her breakfast in peace.
Then it was off to the Dungeon.