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 9: Concerns of a Goddess and Child
“I thought you might know her, given your Familia is a medicinal-type and that’s part of her dominion,” Hestia said, noting that the smell of medicines being brewed was somewhat poignant as it clung to the back of her throat.
Unaware of her child’s venture into the Dungeon, Hestia had gone to visit her friend Miach’s shop the moment she got off work. Miach once had one of the most prominent Medical Familias in all of Orario. A rival to the famed Dian Cecht Familia in its prime.
Miach’s Familia had fallen on hard times due to the fact that one of his children, Naaza, had sustained an injury that cost her an arm and left her with a crippling fear of the Dungeon. The price of replacing the arm, which was no doubt raised to unreasonable amounts by Dian Cecht to be rid of his competition, had left the Familia with a huge debt. Now, much like Hestia, he had only a single child as well.
Whereas some other Gods and Goddesses would abandon a child who was no longer able or willing to go into the Dungeon, he’d taken it upon himself to ensure the best possible treatment for his own. There was no ill will when he allowed his other children to leave the Familia so they wouldn’t be burdened. Instead, he sheltered it on his own shoulders without complaint.
Hestia actually admired him for that.
“Hmm…” Miach brought his hand to his chin in thought at Hestia’s question. “Well, it’s been some time since I’ve even heard her name. She had quite a bit of trouble establishing a Familia with myself and Dian Cecht around, and I haven’t seen her in Orario for years now at any of the functions we attend. So it’s possible that she left for greener pastures elsewhere.”
“That makes things a bit difficult then,” Hestia said, followed by a sigh. It was extremely difficult for an established Familia and Adventurers to leave the city, due to the amount of paperwork involved. Even with only one child to her name, it would take time to get clearance. “I don’t know where to begin to look for her if she’s left, but I need to find her.”
“Well, Hermes would probably be aware of her location,” Miach suggested. “I can’t be certain whether he will attend or not, but the Banquet of the Gods is tomorrow night. I hadn’t planned on attending myself, but you could go and try asking the others there if they’ve heard from her as well.”
Hestia’s lips formed into a small frown at the thought. She wasn’t really in the mood to attend the celebration either. And she knew that Loki would be there. Being the Goddess of one of the larger Familias in Orario had given her a big ego, especially when Hestia only had one child in her care…
But it was the best place to go for information. And Hephaestus would be there, which would allow Hestia to talk to her without having to wait for her schedule to be cleared. So, she supposed she had to go.
Thanking Miach for the advice, Hestia departed back for the abandoned church that she called home. It belonged to Hephaestus, but she was allowed to use it for both herself and her child. Some distance away she could see Bell opening the door to the church, peeking in through a crack as though to spy on what was inside. She opened her mouth to call out to him on reflex until she noticed… well, everything.
Bell’s clothes were in a horrible condition. The fabric of his shirt was torn, reduced to red-tinged scraps that hung off his frame and exposed his skin in patches—though his Falna was thankfully covered up. His pants had tears in them too, claws or fangs having dug into them at one point and pulled free flesh judging from the bloodstains on them.
In his hand was a long weapon wrapped in a cloth stained a disturbingly dark shade of crimson to hide the blade. It looked like the one he’d shown her yesterday from that nightmarish place that he’d went after he… after he died.
Did he die again without me knowing? Her blood ran cold at the thought until Bell opened the door further and began to enter. She swallowed the lump that formed in her throat and called out to him. “Bell!”
He went from a foot in the door to ramrod straight, slowly turning his head towards her with a mechanical stiffness. The expression on his face wasn’t that of the one he’d shown her yesterday when he first got back to her side, ruby-toned eyes lacking the horror they’d held before. It was just a look of shame, or guilt perhaps?
“Goddess, I….” He swallowed, and then threw himself on the ground to bow his head. “Forgive me! I went to the Dungeon today!”
…It was like a child who had been caught doing something that he wasn’t supposed to apologizing to his mother. The moment she realized that, the tension lessened. Hestia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in relief. Then the scolding started.
“I told you to take it easy after that happened yesterday,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “Why did you go back to the Dungeon?”
He raised his head until he was sitting his knees, hands resting on his thighs. “I didn’t want you to have to work to support me when I was still capable of going into the Dungeon. It wouldn’t have been fair to you.”
“Going in after what you just went through isn’t any better,” Hestia pointed out, crouching down to look over his body. There wasn’t a scratch on him from what she could tell, despite some of the blood on his clothes definitely being his. The other hues were from monsters, if she had to guess. “Explain what happened to your clothes.”
“A lot of monsters came out to attack me,” he started. “The Kobolds weren’t much of a threat though. In fact, the usual ones didn’t really manage to touch me. I think it was because of the increase in my Falna. Most of the tears were from the War Shadows when they worked with the Frog Shooters, but—”
“Wait, War Shadows!?” Fear crept up her spine as she recognized the name of that kind of monster that lurked in the Dungeon. They weren’t found on the upper floors, where rookie Adventurers worked out of. She grabbed his shoulders and demanded, “Bell… how far down did you go?”
He fixed his eyes to the ground in shame before he mumbled the answer she didn’t want to hear. “The Sixth Floor.”
Her fear turned into anger born from worry. He had just died on the Fifth Floor not even a day ago. He’d died, gone to a nightmarish place of blood and beasts, and fought desperately to return to her side. And he went even lower into the Dungeon after that? “Why?”
“…because all I can do is go into the Dungeon,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t plan on going past the Fifth Floor at first, but it was too easy. The Goblins and Kobolds didn’t pose a threat, and the Minotaur was an irregularity. I was just going to go a floor or two deeper to familiarize myself with the monsters there for when I eventually did go deeper.”
Hestia wanted to say that he shouldn’t have gone there at all. That he shouldn’t force himself to do that. That she was afraid of losing him without even realizing it again. But he was an Adventurer and, as much as she wanted to keep him safe, he did have to go lower at some point.
There was no telling how long it would take for her to find Hermes or Achelois, and the number of people she could trust to tell about Bell’s ordeal could be counted on a single hand if she wanted to make sure it didn’t spread around. Even so, until they knew what was going on, she didn’t want him to put himself at risk like that. There were too many things they didn’t know about his condition: the tampering with his Falna by the Doll, the Blessing of Flora and Beasthood skills that he’d gotten, and everything else. She needed to find answers for that first so that she could help him.
“Bell,” she said softly. His eyes rose to meet hers and she had a pleading look in her eyes. “Promise me that you won’t go into the Dungeon until I at least get back from the Banquet of the Gods. Okay?”
He nodded obediently. “I promise I won’t go into the Dungeon until you get back and tell me too.”
She could tell he wasn’t lying, so she placed her trust in him once more as she stood back up. Then she noticed the bag on his back and how it had a visible weight to it. “You didn’t exchange the magic stones yet, did you?”
“I was planning on going to the Guild after I got changed since I didn’t want to freak out Miss Eina again,” he said as he rose up to his feet, scratching the back of his head. “She… kind of told me not to go that deep as well just yesterday.”
The Goddess of Home and Hearth huffed. He should have listened to that advice. “Then get changed and go trade in everything you got at the Guild. You can use that money to buy yourself new clothes, pay off the loans you have, and whatever else you need.”
Her sapphire eyes then turned to the weapon he had in his hand. It was definitely different from the one she’d seen before. Taller, with the wrapping even more smeared with blood and filth. “And when you get back, you’re going to tell me how you got this one too.”
I hope this’ll do as an apology to her, Bell thought to himself as he looked down to the bag he was carrying in his hands, containing not only a change of clothes to replace that he lost today in the Dungeon but gifts from a book store and accessory shop that were close to Babel. He passed by them every day but rarely gave them a glance normally, since they didn’t interest him very much. Today though, he wanted to appease Hestia after he’d disobeyed her by going that deeply into the Dungeon, so he’d spent time finding something he thought she would like.
It was getting dark now, partly due to the fact that it had taken so long to exchange his magic stones and monster drops at the Guild a little while ago. It was busier than usual, or at least by his normal standards since he only hung out in the Upper Floors and could get back to the surface relatively quickly since he didn’t often have much to carry. He supposed for people who went deeper, it was natural they’d surface later.
The valis he’d earned from the monster drops, rather than the magic stone shards. were more than enough for him to pay off the cost of the equipment and knife he’d been given by the Guild starting out. That was a testament to how ferociously the Dungeon had tried to get rid of him, since only places where the magic was extremely dense in their bodies persisted after the stones were removed from them. He would need to buy some lightweight armor before he went that deep into the Dungeon again after Hestia finished going to the banquet tomorrow.
Still, I wonder if it’ll be enough to please her? I know she likes books, but not specifically which ones would interest her the most. And while the ribbon is the same color as her normal one, it’s a bit thicker—
His head snapped up as he felt eyes, heavy and hard peering down on him from somewhere. It was like the weight of an ocean pushing down on him, a whirlpool spiraling to pull him in. He looked around to see that there were others on the street, some humans, other demi-humans, none that were focused on him.
He started walking again, gaze peering over his shoulder as he tried to see if there was anyone fixated on him. Am I imagining things or maybe—
Bell’s train of thought was broken when he bumped into someone by mistake, a soft and feminine voice slipping out in surprise. He looked down to see he had toppled a girl who looked slightly older than him, dressed in a pale green skirt and white blouse. Her hair was a shade of grey that was closer to blue, matching her eyes as she looked up at him with a surprised expression.
“I’m so sorry!” Bell said hastily, extending a hand for her to take. Her slender fingers found their way into his and he pulled her onto her feet. “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit startled, but nothing broken,” she said as she dusted herself off and took in his appearance. “You wouldn’t be an Adventurer, would you?”
He nodded his head. “I haven’t been one for long, but I am.”
That bit of news seemed to make her day as her inquisitive look transitioned into a smile and she clasped her hands together. “That’s lucky. I was actually coming out to look for one.”
“Mm-hm.” She gestured to the building made of stone, standing two stories tall with a terrace in the middle. It could honestly pass as an Inn at a glance, and there was an abundance of sounds coming through the double doors, indicating that it was lively within. “Our bar, the Hostess of Fertility, is having a special right now for new Adventurers. You’ll be able to eat one meal for free, whatever you want.”
“…I’ll have to pass,” he told her, reluctantly. The thought of eating free food appealed to him greatly, but he didn’t want to spend more valis than necessary given their living situation. However, he’d feel guilty if only he got to eat a delicious meal when she didn’t after working.
However, the girl with eyes and hair that caught a slight sheen in the encroaching moonlight bit her lower lip and gave him a pleading look. “If not you then I’ll have to wait out here in the dark until someone else comes by or Mama Mia will be upset with me.”
“I just wouldn’t feel right that I got to eat something great when my Goddess hasn’t,” Bell said, looking away and thinking about how unfair it was she was plying him with that sort of shy, cute look. “We’re not that well-off as a Familia.”
She immediately turned it around on him. “We allow you to carry out as well. You can try something and then bring another one back to her as a gift. That way we’ll both get what we want and she’ll be happy you were thinking about her.”
It… couldn’t hurt, could it? Bell opened his mouth to give her a response when the din of the Main Street in the early night was broken by the sound of his stomach rumbling, much to his embarrassment. In his defense, the last thing he’d really eaten were the snacks Hestia had gotten him as breakfast.
“Should I take that as a ‘yes,’ Mr. Adventurer?” she asked, a playful smile on her face.
He could only scratch his head and respond with a sheepish, “I guess one meal couldn’t hurt… Miss…”
“My name’s Syr Flover,” she said, introducing herself. “You can just call me Syr. And you?”
“Bell Cranel,” he answered. “Just Bell is fine.”
“Then follow me inside, Bell.” She grasped his hand with both of hers and led him inside. A warm glow was spreading throughout the wooden interior due to the lanterns burning above, giving off a contemporary atmosphere that would lift the spirits of anyone. The staff were all women, interracial ranging from Elven to Cat People, smiling as they moved with purpose between the different tables housing other Adventurers that were all sitting and reveling in their drinks and food as they chatted with one another.
It was a nice place, if Bell had to admit. One that made the dangers of the Dungeon far off and forgotten. But that feeling of being watched was still there, the pressure lessened but not completely gone. His eyes spanned the place once more, but he still couldn’t make out who was observing him. Was he just paranoid after all?
“Mama, here’s a new Adventurer for you,” Syr said as she brought him to a seat at the counter, where the Dwarfess that he presumed to be the owner was waiting. “This one’s special, so treat him well, okay?”
Then Syr was gone and Bell was alone at the counter seat. Mia’s dark eyes sized him up and Bell felt relatively small compared to her. However, she then smiled and spoke in a manner and broke the image had been forming of her in his head. “How long have you been an Adventurer?”
“Ah, a little over two weeks now,” he replied politely as he sat the bag he carried down on the floor. “I just arrived in Orario around then and joined a Familia, so I haven’t been in a bar before now.”
“Then you’re in luck. The Hostess of Fertility is one of the finest establishments in all of Orario! We serve the people during the day, and Adventurers here at night.” She passed him a menu along. “Eat to your heart’s content!”
He took it, or rather had it forced into his hands, and looked through the choices he had. The menu was rather diverse, so he placed an order to see if it was something Hestia would enjoy. It had barely been in front of him for a minute before Syr returned, dragging a stool next to him and taking a seat in it.
“So, how do you like our bar and food so far?” she asked.
“They’re both great,” he told her with a slight smile, though he’d only take a bite out of it so far. “I don’t think I’ve had food this good since I got here, and it feels nice to be somewhere with people who are just unwinding without having to watch out for the next thing trying to leap out of the shadows to kill you. I’d like to bring my Goddess here someday too.”
“Which Goddess do you serve under?”
“Hestia,” he said, to which she looked a bit unfamiliar with. Not surprising. “You probably haven’t heard of her since our Familia only started about two weeks ago and it’s just the two of us. We’re pretty poor, so I have to go into the Dungeon everyday so that we can make a living.”
“It must be hard doing all of that alone.”
“I stumbled around at first because I didn’t have someone to teach me, but I’m managing now.” Ignoring what happened yesterday, he thought privately to himself. “Besides, I’m not alone since my Goddess is there when I get back. That counts more than anything else.”
She tilted her head slightly at that, a rather playful smile forming on her face again as he took a bite of the meat next. “It sounds like you’re in love with her when you say it like that.”
Bell nearly choked at the accusation, a spot of crimson painting his cheeks. He forced down the meat and gasped before stating. “No, it’s not like that!”
“What is it like then?” Syr asked as she looked at him expectantly.
“When I came to the city, I tried to join some of the bigger Familias,” he explained. “Every single one rejected me, since I was a farm kid without any sort of experience, and I didn’t have any family since my Gramps died a year ago. If she didn’t take me in, I wouldn’t have anything at all. Since then it’s been like having a family again, even if it’s just the two of us. She’s supporting my dreams and helping me in whatever way she can, despite having so little herself. I’m really grateful to her, so I want to make her happy and repay her no matter what. Is that wrong?”
“…No, it’s not,” Syr said in a softer tone. “You’d be surprised at how many people feel that way.”
Bell thought he caught a deep meaning with the way she said that, but then she perked right back up and changed the topic to tell him a little more about the Hostess of Fertility. It turned out that Mama Mia was a former Adventurer herself and that she hired girls or women from different background. Since she liked meeting new people and learning new things, the job was one that Syr found enjoyment in as well since she’d never really get bored.
“I know the feeling,” Bell said. “It was overwhelming when I first got here. It still is, really. But you learn something new every day and there’s still a bunch left to learn as you go on. That’s what makes Orario special.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Syr agreed with a smile that seemed to brighten the room a touch more.
Bell found himself staring for a moment at the sight, before the doors opened and a group of ten or so Adventurers entered. His heart stilled as he noticed the golden-haired figure among them, one who had seen him that day on the Fifth Floor. Ais Wallenstein had arrived with other members of the Loki Familia in tow, bringing his moment of peace to an end.