Chapter 7: The Spirit Festival
“I watched as Mother weaved a spell in front of my eyes and spoke words lovingly on her lips while her fingers hovered over Father’s hand, injured and bleeding. The light enclosed the wound and knitted it shut as the two never broke their gaze. It was at that moment that I felt my blood stir and wanted to perform Magic, asking Mother to teach me.
One day, she promised. One day, when we can head to a place where Spirits rest. But until then I will teach you the pledge of our kin—passed down from parent to child.”
— 7th Month of Year XXXX
“I didn’t expect monsters to be here, of all places.”
When they were told it would be an escort mission to what was supposedly a fairy tale village, Lefiya had not expected that they would be forced to put down monsters. While it was true that monsters could be found nearly everywhere in the world from ancient times, before Babel had been created to serve as a lid on the Dungeon, somehow the notion of them being here hadn’t crossed her mind. It somewhat ruined the immersion.
“Do you not have to constantly deal with the creatures in the Abyss?” asked a voice that was more youthful than it had any right to be. “Their presence should be second nature to you whelps by now.”
It also turned out the Elder was a child. Or at least had the appearance of one to where you might believe her to be a Half-Elf, Half-Pallum. Not that such a thing was possible.
She had sandy blonde hair that was crowned with a wreath of the local flora. Her teal eyes were seemingly fixed into a flat stare. Her white robe was hemmed in green hues and the staff she bore was partially wrought wood that held within it what was presumed to be a natural gemstone.
And even more seemingly impossible was her clear disdain for Lady Riveria, going so far as to refer to her as a tomboy and a rapscallion.
It was so disrespectful that it caught Lefiya and the others by surprise. But Riveria seemed to not mind. If anything, she seemed to respond to her with greater comfort than accepting the supplications of the other High Elves even as they pressured the Elder into allowing her to participate due to her magical prowess.
Hence why they were killing monsters. Since no one could object to Lady Riveria’s magical ability, she had decided to put them to work instead to earn their right to participate. And that involved removing monsters that had somehow wandered into the forest.
“Though they were weak, they came out in such large numbers,” Miss Ryuu pointed out. Monsters on the surface multiplied by duplicating their magic stones and so they also divided their strength—quantity over quality. For Adventurers of the group’s collective Levels it was easy to deal with them, but they were still more than capable of being a threat to ordinary folks.
Lady Riveria agreed as she addressed the Elder. “Do they normally appear in such numbers?”
“Occasionally the foul creatures do slip by the wards of the forest, but this is the first time I’ve seen this many in all my time living here,” admitted the Elder Elf. “Even so, we are capable of using Magic to defend ourselves against monsters of this caliber. If not for your arrival I would have finished removing them, but since you are all such capable adventurers there is no need for me to do so. They will serve as your contribution to earn your right to participate in the Spirit Festival.”
She’s not even attempting to hide the sarcasm in her voice, Lefiya thought while a nervous chuckle escaped her lips. Even the other High Elves wouldn’t dare hold such a tone to her, but the Half-Elf could only assume that with age one had less need to feign fealty within their own forest. Lady Lilo must be more than a few centuries old. I’m kind of envious she still looks so young.
“We are grateful for the opportunity,” Riveria responded without missing a beat, her tone humble. “I am aware that our abrupt presence may have caused problems. If contributing in this manner eases your burden and ensures the festivities go well, it is the least we can do.”
“…Tch. Well, at least some manners were drilled into you.” She pouted like a child before she spun on her sandals and began to walk away. “Come. If you really want to ease my duties, then you can help elsewhere.”
Lefiya followed after her mentor along with the rest of the retinue when she felt a presence loitering just over her shoulder. She turned her head and found a floating wisp, a gathering of light and magic the hue of the wind—pale green. She sensed no hostility as it drifted over her with what felt like pure curiosity, similar to how a dog would sniff someone upon meeting them.
Her slender fingers reached out, only for it to drift further out of her reach hurriedly. It lingered there once she retracted her hand, keeping pace but ready to flee. It’s kind of adorable in its own way.
“That one is simply curious about your presence, but it is also skittish,” Lady Lilo said, looking over her shoulder. “Leave it be. Even weak spirits with no real sentience like it can injure a whelp like you before I can pacify them if you frighten or rile them.”
“Forgive me, Lady Lilo,” Lefiya said hurriedly. “I meant no disrespect to the Spirit.”
“You seem to have a firm understanding of its nature,” Riveria said as she followed behind her. “Is that the wisdom of your age?”
“Anyone could do so if they lived around them for long enough,” she said before raising her staff into the air towards it. The jewel within its core glimmered and the Spirit hurriedly drifted over to her. “They gather in the forest all times of the year, but during the Spirit Festival, their numbers swell as the Holy Tree bears its fruit. Some of the stronger ones with their own will and personalities show up as well, so to live here one needs to receive training on how to handle them.”
The little green light danced around her for a moment as she made motions with the staff. It was as if she was playing with it. Then she flicked her staff out and the glimmer within it went deeper into the forest like a shooting star.
The Spirit followed it eagerly, chasing after it.
“That’s amazing, Lady Lilo,” Lefiya said earnestly. “You really do know what placates them.”
The Elder bore a small smile before quickly flattening her expression and then turning back ahead. “Save your praise, whelp. There are still more monsters to attend to.”
As she said, there were. Enough that they found it more efficient to split up to deal with them. The moment one received a Falna their baseline abilities effectively became well above their kin. And as their Levels went up and they grew closer to the divine, that difference in ability would only grow further.
Lefiya sighed as she watched a monster in front of her turn to dust that scattered in the wind. There was no need to collect the magic stones so she had purposefully targeted them to avoid leaving the corpses in this serene and beautiful forest. Then she took a moment to just look around for any remnants and found there were none to be had.
“I suppose I should head back now to report I’m done…” She trailed off as the flicker of the green caught the corner of her eyes. She turned her azure gaze towards the hue and found the curious little spirit there, fluttering around her once more. “Ah, you’re back?”
The Wind Spirit, as she guessed, bobbed around her back and forth. It circled her as if taking in her shape and figure, though it lacked eyes as far as she could tell. Such things were not necessary, and yet it responded to her motions with caution.
“It was little ones like you that the ancient mages drew their blessings from, wasn’t it?”
There were greater Spirits, like Aria according to the tales. Those that fought alongside and aided heroes of the past. If she had to guess, the little one here only possessed a fragment of such power. The easiest comparison would be how one of the monsters here had magic stones compared to an Apex like the Goliath.
But her ancestors drew their wisdom from the smaller ones. Though they lacked in what one would consider sapience, their words could reach them. Their pleas for their knowledge, a pledge of friendship for the wisdom. And… if even a Half-Elf like Fina could gain Magic from them back then…
Couldn’t she do the same?
Licking her lips as she considered that prospect, Lefiya took a deep breath before placing her hand on her chest and fixating her attention on the curious little Wind Spirit flittering around her. Her mouth moved and from her throat emerged the Elven tongue of eld as she allowed magical energy to leak from her body. “<I beseech, o kin born of nature. By thy breath the world moves, its wisdom and grace instilled—>”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The voice stifled her own as Lefiya jumped in place. The motion started the Wind Spirit into flittering away as she spun around to see the diminutive Elder Elf standing there. “Lady Lilo!”
She bit down on her thumb lightly as she mumbled, “To think that arrogant rapscallion would go so far as to teach a whelp the ancient pledge. Just how much further will she trample on our traditions!”
This is bad. Even full-blooded Elves of her standing weren’t supposed to be aware of that pledge. Let alone a Half-Elf like her. The natural conclusion was that, as Lady Riveria’s successor, she had been given it willingly. It may have even made it seem like the purpose of them coming here was for that reason.
“Forgive me, Lady Lilo!” Taking a pose of supplication, Lefiya begged for her forgiveness as she at least tried to absolve her mentor of accountability. “Even if I may sound unbelievable, I discover the pledge along with the rites on my own and acted out of my own initiative and curiosity. I will accept any punishment you deem fit, but please do not lay the blame on Lady Riviera. She really does only want the Spirit Festival to go undisturbed.”
She could feel the weight of the Elder’s gaze on her even as she kept her head low.
“Even if I believe that you speak the truth, the fact that you managed to do so without her knowledge is a failure on her part,” she said. “It would have been more acceptable if she had taught you that merely chanting the words will not reach the Spirits. The fact that she didn’t leaves me only to question her qualifications as a mentor and claim of you to be our future.”
It was a barb at Lady Riveria, even when she had taken the blame. Any other Elf would have gladly settled for her being responsible, a Half-Elf taking advantage of the situation to get ahead. There were those who she knew already considered her as such, even citing her ability to use the Magic of other Elves as theft that went beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable. That was why she only used the spells she had been given permission for and been personally taught.
Yet the Elder seemed so determined to fixate on the Royal Elf as being responsible for everything. It just didn’t make sense as Lefiya raised her head and spoke. “…I will take full responsibility for my actions. However, if I may ask, Lady Lilo…. why it is that you dislike Lady Riveria so?”
The diminutive Elder Elf gave her a flat stare for a very pregnant pause. Then she asked a simple question. “How old are you, child?”
“Fifteen as of this year, Elder.”
Her expression soured. “That’s barely out of the crib. Even the others are no different than toddlers from my point of view. So can you imagine what it feels like to hear about whelps your age throwing themselves into the Abyss that gives birth to calamities needlessly? All because a slightly older brat of royal blood forgot her role and decided she wished to venture forth into danger?”
“But if we don’t cull the monsters then they’ll eventually come out to the surface,” Lefiya began. “Orario was made for that purpose, to avoid those dark times from resurfacing when horrible monsters ran free and uncontrolled.”
The Elder Elf’s rebuttal was instant. “Are there not others who do not have the blood of our dying race to do so? Are there not the Gods who watch as you lose your lives for amusement? Why must our numbers that are already so thin be diminished further when they walk the same earth as us?”
Lefiya was taken aback by how sharp her voice had become. The glare of her teal eyes had become a lot firmer. “Ah… that’s—”
“Our kind’s birthrate has always been low,” Lady Lilo continued before she could say anything else. “Monsters reduced those further until we were on the brink. If not for the Spirits, we would not have had the means of defending ourselves until the Age of the Gods. Even then, after more than a thousand years, our numbers are nowhere near what they were before. Yet we persevered so far by staying in our forests even as the world around us changed.”
The Age of the Heroes had ended when the Age of the Gods had begun. They descended to the Lower World and established Familia, which gave the races of the time the ability to fight back without relying on Spirits. Then the divine placed a seal on upon the entrance to the Dungeon and bottled it up.
“But now, once more our numbers have begun to dwindle faster than we can be born. Rakia, burning our homes down with those damnable magic swords—turning the blessings of the Spirits against us. Royalty fleeing her forest to put herself headfirst into danger, encouraging so many of our own to do the same without regard for how their spirits would be broken if she perished from her rebellious phase. Worse, more of our numbers sought to emulate her and died before they even made it to their first century and passed on our bloodline.”
She slammed the butt of her staff into the ground. “You, our future?” You aren’t even a quarter of her age and yet you also willingly dive into that Abyss so often and take such foolish risks as attempting to obtain our Magic without the full understanding. How long before death claims you too? Then who will be our future? The next whelp she manages to keep alive for a few years?”
The expression of anger startled the Half-Elf. But only for a moment. Because she recognized the source of that anger in how she had been with her brother and his foolishness. That chastisement of one’s action for endangering herself. “…I understand now, Lady Lilo.”
“What are you on about?” demanded the Elder Elf.
Lefiya found it in herself to smile softly. “Your anger for Lady Riveria is because you grieve for all those Elves who have died before their time. Those who die before they can bear witness to our traditions and inherit the knowledge of our ancestors. Even those like myself are no exception, are they?”
“Half-Man. Half-Elf. Those things do not matter to the Spirits and so they do not matter to me,” the Elder Elf said. “What does matter is that you are an Elven child—a stupid child playing with things they do not comprehend and risking their lives needlessly, but an Elven child all the same that at least speaks the eld tongue when some of the whelps I call kin do not.”
For one who has lived long enough to be considered an Elder of their race, she had seen more deaths of her kin than one could count. Though those dark ages of the past had long ended, the scars remained to this day. The devastation was especially impactful for them, whose longevity was mitigated by the effort it took to conceive a child.
Despite Miss Ryuu and Filvis being a few years older than Lefiya herself, they were simply really powerful children to someone like her. Children who hadn’t even truly lived long enough to experience the Spirit Festival or any other traditions that would be upheld with more than a decade or two in-between. Anything that endangered children brought into this world would be something that would naturally offend someone who constantly worried about the future of their race—such as becoming an Adventurer.
“…You really are kind, Lady Lilo.”
The diminutive Elder’s face turned red, her lower lip scrunching up while her cheeks bulged. Then turned away and slammed the butt of her staff onto the ground. “Silence, whelp. Follow me back to the others without a word and I will overlook what you were doing here once and only once.”
[-Later That Evening-]
Night fell upon the forest and with it raised the curtain of the Spirit Festival.
The sun’s bright rays were replaced by the slivers of moonlight that peeked through the openings in the dark canopy. The silvery rays were padded out by dozens upon dozens of little lights that filled the center of the village. The High Elves mingled with the Spirits, dancing with them while sounds of laughter and cheer rang out.
The Royal Elf only sighed at the sight. “How ironic that most Elves hold disdain for the Gods after their descent for not being in the image that they imagined, yet they love the children most favored by those same Gods.”
Lefiya tilted her head at that. “What do you mean, Lady Riveria?”
Jade hair shifted as the Nine Hells shook her head. “Just a memory. For the moment, you should all enjoy the festival.”
“I will remain vigilant and check the outskirts of the plaza, Lady Riveria,” Miss Ryuu said with her wooden sword sheathed on the side of her belt. “The number of monsters that were in the forest has left me feeling uneasy. If something were to happen now…”
She regarded her with a single opened eye before speaking from her experience as an Adventurer. “You may have a point. I’ll go speak with the Elder while the others are busy entertaining themselves.”
Filvis stood at attention next to Lefiya at that. “If that’s the case, then we will—”
“No,” the Royal Elf insisted. “Escorting me was your duty, but now the two of us are acting out of what may very well be paranoia. You should both take the time to enjoy the festivities and unwind.”
That said, the two split apart at a casual pace. Lefiya could only assume it was done to avoid tipping anyone else off that something might be amiss. It really might be nothing in the end, so there was no sense in riling everyone else up.
“Is there a reason that Elf keeps looking towards you, Viridis?” Filvis asked her after a minute of nervous silence while Lefiya attempted to act natural.
She glanced around at that. “You mean the Elder? I kind of made her mad earlier, so she might be keeping an eye on me.”
The Elven Magic Swordsman’s brows furrowed at her. “Not her, but what exactly did you do to earn her ire if that were the case?”
She waved it off with a nervous laugh. “It’s nothing, really. And why have you stopped calling me by my name, Filvis? We’re alone.”
“I… don’t think that I should anymore,” she muttered. “Forgive me.”
Lefiya frowned softly. “Is this about the Unicorns?”
After she had been escorted back to the others, Lady Lilo had wanted to extend the duties that she put Lady Riveria through by gathering up Unicorns for the Spirit Festival. They came to her as if they were drawn in by her mere presence, a sight right out of a fairy tale. But when Filvis attempted to approach one it fled from her.
It appeared that weighed on her mind even now.
Lefiya regarded her dear companion’s melancholy with a heavy heart. She hated seeing her like this. Especially when she knew a smile suited her so much more. Even the memory of the first time that she smiled back in the Dungeon still moved the Half-Elf’s heart and brought warmth to her face.
“Right then…” Her decision made, Lefiya grasped Filvis by the hand with a smile on her face. “Let’s dance as well.”
“Eh… ah…” It was cute how she could face down monsters so readily in the Dungeon as a vanguard but grew flustered when the Half-Elf was close. Her cheeks were painted a rosy hue and her eyes were wide. “N-No, I shouldn’t. I’m not pure—”
“If we’re in a place like a fairy tale then we should act the part.” Her second hand reached for Filvis’s own and entwined those lithe fingers before pulling her close. Lefiya took the lead in the dance as they grew closer to the Spirits. The air itself seemed to be filled with a refreshing aura about it as the colors swayed in mesmerizing motions, the light from them reflecting in their gaze as azure eyes remained fixed onto crimson.
“You’re really good at dancing,” Lefiya said in the midst of their motions. The atmosphere was so serene and enchanting that she felt herself being swept up, her inhibitions lowering just for a moment. “And these clothes really suit you. I’m happy I had the chance to see you in them.”
“Ah…” Filvis remained flustered with her cheeks rosy while matching her partner’s steps, a slight hitch in her throat as she swallowed. “I… I feel the same… Lefiya.”
Hearing her name brought a smile to the Half-Elf’s lips. Then she noticed how those beautiful eyes fell just a slight bit lower towards them and she felt her pulse began to through their connected hands. She tightened her grasp just enough to feel it even more as she moved her face just a little closer to where she could feel the older girl’s breath delicately washing against her skin.
Then, in a voice as soft and smooth as velvet, she spoke asked. “Do you really?”
The bright red in Filvis cheeks spread to every inch of her face. Her lips parted inadvertently while a heavy, staggered breath escaped. Tremors ran throughout her body as her fingers grew tenser around Lefiya’s slender digits. “I-I…”
Then a green light was cast over them. It drew Lefiya’s eyes to the side where she spotted the little Wind Spirit from before. It was once more fluttering around her, closer than the last few times. Was it due to how the others were around the other Elves?
“Haaaaahhh…” The sound of a held breath escaping from Filvis’ mouth drew azure eyes back to the other girl. She had her head turned to the side, panting as though she needed to catch her breath. Her fingers escaped from Lefiya’s and she brought them to her chest before she turned away. “Forgive me. I-I need a moment.”
“Of course…” Lefiya masked her conflicting feelings of disappointment and satisfaction as her partner began to walk off. The green dancing light seemed rather eager to take her place, rotating about in the same motions they had been. “You really are a curious little one, aren’t you?”.
She humored it for a moment until the presence of Magic stirred on her senses. Familiar Magic at that. Her senses immediately sharpened towards the source, Lady Riveria, and her ears caught the spell on her lips even before the magic circle finished spreading out. “—Alf! Via Shilheim!”
Pale green light wove an ethereal barrier around the dancing Elves, a glimmering dome that overcast them as black darts slammed against it a moment later. Danger-sharpened eyes pegged them for what they were, arrows fired to pepper the dancers before they knew what happened. Forest’s Teardrop was immediately in Lefiya’s hand with a practiced motion as the sound of shouts and footfalls reached her ears just beneath the unsheathing of Filvis’ short sword.
They were under attack.
Chapter 6: The Spirit Village
“My dearest brother has finally departed the stage and gone beyond the curtain of the heavens to have his play for their rulers judged. I am certain that it will be met with applause and that he be crowned with a wreath of ivy for his performance. Yet, as our comrades spread his comedy around the land to inspire hope for heroes to come, I wish to preserve his performance as one who viewed it from the skene.
Thus, I pen this memoir of my life from birth to the final moments I spent watching over my beloved brother, Argo.”
—Fina of Elcos
“Is this the Spirit Forest?”
That question broached the silence that had until then been padded out with the whistle of the wind that billowed against the ears of the Half-Elven Mage until just a moment ago. It was a bright and clear day, unblemished barring the scant white clouds that were haphazardly scattered across the endless canvas that was the sky. They had just finished soaring in that endless road and come to a gentle landing on the outskirts of a forest, whose trees seemed to stand as ever-vigilant sentinels as they marked a border between the outside world and all that lay within.
“That right,” said the one leading the group of four as she lowered her aerial mount, one of the tamed monsters of the Ganesha Familia that they had borrowed for the journey. “The village is deep within, so we’ll be going on foot the rest of the way.”
With regal jade hair that flowed down her back and crowned by a tiara of unblemished silver adorned with a precious gem, the High Elf of Royal Blood deigned to dismount her airborne steed as she graced the grasslands with presence. And as if the grasslands were rejoicing the wind blew and the long blades shuddered in applause. The very earth seemed to rejoice as she stood there and cried out:
Here stands upon us non-other than she who bore the title of Nine Hells.
Here stands the strongest of the Elven Adventurers alive.
Here stands she of regal, royal blood.
Here stands Riveria Ljos Alf.
Even Lefiya seemed taken by her beauty as she tenderly caressed said beast on its snout. No Elf wouldn’t. Such was the magnificence of her lineage that the eyes were drawn to her regardless of one’s gender or station. Even some Goddesses could never compare to her.
“You can go ahead,” she said to it in a gentle tone. “I’ll call for you when we’re done.”
Said monster took flight at her beckoning, to be joined by the other three as the rest of the group dismounted. They possessed heightened hearing and were trained to respond to the sound of a whistle produced by the goldsmiths of the Ganesha Familia, which daintily hung around each of their necks. Once they were done with the Spirit Festival they would fly them back to Orario.
“She truly is amazing,” said a hushed whisper that barely reached the Half-Elf Mage’s ears. She turned to see her dear companion Filvis standing in awe of Lady Riveria, a respectful distance away from both the High Elf and Lefiya herself. “I am unworthy to be in her presence.”
Filvis had forgone her pure-white outfit that had its edges marked by light-blue boundaries for one more suitable as a retainer of the royal family. The half-cloak and cuffs had deep-blue hues with gold edges while the torso framed them in a white short skirt. Her arms and legs were clad in dark fabric and gloves, and her raven-black hair was adorned with a golden headband that had a single feather bound to it while her blade was nestled on the back of her waist, partially obscured by her waist-length hair.
The Elven Magic Swordsman looked absolutely lovely. But it hadn’t escaped Lefiya’s notice that even when they would be in the presence of other Elves, she still wore gloves to ensure her fingers would not touch their skin. And she refused to come much closer to either of them unless necessary.
She spun on her heels and marched towards her to correct that, clasping her hands so abruptly that Filvis seemed shocked. “Eh… Viridis…?”
Lefiya remained silent as she folded her lips into a frown and just stared into her deep red eyes. Unlike her brother’s eyes that had a lighter hue, hers were deep and dark. But they were beautiful all the same as she kept her gaze firm to drive the unspoken message into her mind.
You are not sullied. You are one of us. Don’t run away from us.
Don’t run from me.
The message carried as the Elven Magic Swordsman relented after a moment and whispered under her breath. “I understand, Lefiya…”
That coaxed a smile out of her. “Then go ahead with Lady Riviera. You and Miss Ryu are going to be our vanguards, right?”
“R-Right…” She held her gloved hand preciously once Lefiya released her before slowly making her way towards the royalty they were supposed to be protecting. The crimson blush across her cheeks complimented her eyes nicely.
“The incident that scarred her heart must have been truly grievous to have left her in such a state,” came from next to Lefiya before she realized it. She twisted her head around so quickly it might have snapped if she had gone any faster to see the Elven Warrior from the 18th Floor standing there. It was only last night that they had been somewhat formally introduced. “She is lucky to have a friend such as you.”
I didn’t even hear her move, Lefiya noted before taking a step back and recalling her manners. “We were in such a rush before to get here that I never got a chance to thank you for everything you did.”
She faced the woman with her knees bent outward and one foot behind her, fingers delicately holding out the skirt of her clothing that had been provided for her by her mentor. Then she gave a slight bow of her head as she expressed her heartfelt thanks. “You have my sincere gratitude for saving that boy and I two nights ago. I know that most of our kind would not have gone so far that night for those such as ourselves, and I swear on my name of Viridis that I will repay that kindness someday, Miss Ryuu.”
Ryuu observed the gesture in silence for a moment. Then her expression shifted into a soft smile. “I see why Lady Riveria covets you so dearly. It makes me happy to know that I saved an Elf like you.”
Lefiya’s head rose from its bow. “What do you mean?”
“Though you possess the pride of our race in everything from your clothes to your behavior, you carried that boy on your back and put yourself in front of those monsters to protect him without hesitation. And when I chastised him for his injuries as he laid unconscious, you took the blame without a second thought. Even in Orario and amongst other Adventurers, there are few of our kind who have recontextualized that which has been so thoroughly ingrained within our race into something that covers all of them.”
Elves were prideful—even those who were only half as such. Everyone understood that. Everyone accepted that because it was something that had been instilled in their race since the dawn of history. The wise race that remained sequestered in their forest to be pure and unsullied, remaining as such even as seasons changed and centuries passed.
To be unsullied ran so deeply as a custom that every aspect of their life was dictated by it. Everything in the world outside of their homes was impure and thus they often donned gloves and clad their skin from head-to-toe to avoid having it blemished by their surroundings. They would never even allow one who was not of their race to touch their bare skin without their consent.
That was why Elves were rare in a Familia. To devote oneself to their patron deity was to give consent, which was part of why she tolerated Lady Loki’s advances—as long as they didn’t go too far. But it gave partial consent to other members of the Familia as well, which not every Elf was capable of doing unless they were willing to be touched by different members of what many considered inferior races.
The fact that she let Bell touch her when they were not of the same race or Familia was significant for that reason. The fact that she bore him upon her bare back as her clothes melted away was significant to someone who didn’t know that they were family. As far as everyone else knew she had basically forgiven him for accidentally groping her and then all but gave her consent before running off together with him in the morning.
That was why those rumors took a bit of time to put down, even for the people who knew she was much more tolerant of others touching her because of her upbringing.
Raul is still a dead man when I get back, she set firmly into the back of her mind as Ryuu walked ahead to join Filvis in the front. Lefiya would remain behind her mentor in order to obstinately protect the rear, though it was largely only out of formality that they were bothering with the escort. There was no one present more powerful than Lady Riveria, who was the pinnacle of Elven Mages alive.
“…Goodness, this is already tiresome,” spoke the Nine Hells as they began venturing towards the woodlands. Magic tinged the air even before they reached the first of the trees, an enchantment of some kind woven into them. “Being forced to walk in the center like I’m some princess that needs to be coddled at my age.”
A slight giggle slipped from Lefiya’s lips. “I know you dislike such treatment, but please bear with it for our sake, Lady Riveria.”
The Elven Mage gave her apprentice a side-glance. “You’re enjoying this far too much.”
“Well, I can’t really help but be a little excited. I grew up on Elven fairy tales like ‘The Greedy Girl and The Holy Tree.‘ Anyone my age would be happy to know that there was truth to the stories and want to see it for themselves.”
Her mother had often read her fairy tales related to their heritage. Among them was this story, a story about a girl who was so greedy that she wanted to pluck the stars from the heavens themselves. It was a cautionary tale, but also a romantic tale. She practically had the entire thing memorized at this point.
“I am honestly more surprised that such a tree and village exists,” Filvis stated as she trod the path ahead, eyes in front and alert for any danger. She would unsheathe her sword and stand ready to protect her charge at the first sign of trouble.
“That was the point.” The High Elf crossed her arms as she explained. “For those as long-lived as our race, things that we wish to hide from the outside world but remain unforgotten could easily be concealed within stories. For the members of the higher ranks of our society, knowledge of the village itself is known. After all, the Spirit Festival is an important celebration and has happened every thirty years for hundreds of years.”
“…Using the tale to hide the truth provides secrecy while ensuring that the knowledge remains to those who can discern the truth,” Ryuu said after a moment of silence to contemplate that. “Other races would have no reason to pursue an Elven tale and thus no reason to look for it. Children of lower standing would see it as a lesson to be remembered but nothing more, while those aware would remember to pay respect when the time of the Spirit Festival arrives. It accomplishes everything one could want in a single motion.”
“It also prevents any chance of an incident whereupon the Spirits could be so greatly offended that they take back their knowledge. It is only because our ancestors forged a friendship with them that our race was capable of using magic in the time before the Age of the Gods.”
“…You mean because of the rites that bestowed magic upon those who curry favor with the Spirits?” Lefiya asked cautiously.
She received a mild look from her mentor. “I’m surprised that you know of those.”
“I read about them in an old book,” was her answer.
It had been true as well, given that it was from the tome that Lord Hermes had gifted her. She had only gone through a handful of the pages in the time she had between getting back to their home, getting her Status updated, and then using her free day to go spend time with Filvis. They happened to stumble upon the request written in the old Elvish script during that time and ended up accompanying Lady Riveria and Miss Ryuu afterward.
But the pages she had gone through started with the youth of the Ancient Mage, Fina. It turned out that she was a Half-Elf, a rarity considering the customs and divide between the races as each struggled for survival. Her mother had apparently been an Elven Mage who had fallen in love with a Human but had to give up living in the forests that she called home once Fina had been conceived.
Lefiya felt… sad realizing the parallels between then and now. Even though more than a thousand years had passed, their union was still looked down upon. She could understand the feelings of that Ancient Mage, which was probably why she ended up developing her new Skill upon having her Status updated—Vow of Elcos.
It was apparently a Skill that Lady Loki had never heard of, meaning it was a Rare Skill. She hadn’t even heard of the name of Elcos, as it was a kingdom that Fina had lived in before the Age of the Gods. The rulers of the heavens only turned their attention fully to the lower plane sometime after it was destroyed by monsters—one of many forgotten kingdoms of no importance during those dark times.
Her brother, whom she penned her memoirs about, hadn’t been born yet from what Lefiya could tell. But considering how she described her parents’ relationship he was probably well on the way soon enough. It was a shame that there weren’t any tales of Half-Elven heroes among the fairy tales she was told by her mother, but their kind would never want to spread such stories since it encouraged the intermingling of races.
As for the Clown March, she could only speculate that it had something to do with her Familia. The Trickster could also be considered a Jester or Clown, and she was the Trickster Goddess. Since it didn’t have an Active Trigger, that meant it would be passive until the situation turned up and Loki wanted to experiment with it when they had a chance to see if it operated similar to how some of the others had Skills that boosted their attributes temporarily.
“Spirits of old were the ones who bestowed Magic upon our ancestors as a token of friendship,” Riveria began, as though starting an educational lecture. “At the dawn of the world, when monsters from the Dungeon spilled out freely, our ancestors beseeched their wisdom through certain rites and thus became capable of calling upon Magic that could fend them off. To this day it remains one of the few methods to obtain Magic without the Falna—often only taught to the nobility of our race and the Royal Family in lieu of receiving the Grace of the divine.”
“I was unaware of that,” Filvis said with a hint of shame in her tone. Considering how she prided her Elven heritage it was something that she probably felt she should have known.
“There are a few reasons for that. The first being that Ancient Magic is largely inferior to either Acquired Magic or Congenital Magic manifested by the Falna and thus outdated. Since the Falna essentially tailors the Magic one receives through it for them, it reduces the risk of an Ignis Fatuus. And because the Magic comes about due to the Falna it can benefit from the Mage Developmental Ability.”
The Mage Developmental Ability was basically what determined whether or not one was simply using Magic or one was considered a Mage. It increased the efficiency of the spell cost, improved its range, and several other things that improved with its ranking. If one had to provide a comparison, Filvis was a Magic Swordsman because she possessed the Mage Developmental Ability, while Miss Ryuu was an Elven Warrior that simply knew Magic.
“Then you have to consider that one has to beseech the Spirit and earns its favor to gain the knowledge, much like only select few weavers receive the aid of Spirits to make Spirit Fabric. To this day only those such as members of the Royal Family, the Royal Knights, and those of high standing are graced with this knowledge and many do so by either calling upon a Spirit within their forest or such a gathering as the Spirit Festival. Others are not permitted to know, hence why I have not bothered teaching you them if you were curious. Your attention would be better spent elsewhere.”
I suppose Lord Hermes was unaware of that when he gave it to me. She was not of high standing and a Half-Elf at that. That knowledge would never be known to her under normal circumstances. She could only assume that he couldn’t read the language when he handed it to her given that those memoirs held some of that knowledge, taught from mother to her young daughter.
…Still, when her thoughts turned to those ancient mages, she imagined how difficult it must have been for them. Singing until their voices were hoarse and scraping together whatever they could in a bid to survive that harsh time. And she felt a kinship with them when she considered her own circumstances. “…Is it similar to receiving a Spirit’s Blood like Mister Crozzo?”
She had been surprised to learn there were people with the blood of Spirits within them. On the 18th Floor, not only had she learned that Miss Aiz was one such individual but one of Bell’s party members as well. That same blood made him capable of creating magic swords that had been used to devastating effect, apparently. It hadn’t affected her homeland so she had been ignorant of it.
The High Elf shook her head. “No. Spirits would offer their power to heroes of eld in different manners, via contracts. But doing so involved placing such a burden on the body that, for that power, they would pay with their life. Many great heroes from that age have perished at the end of their stories because of that. It is their descendants that inherit that blood and thus a mere portion of the original’s power.”
That made sense then. He had mentioned that his ability was simply a byproduct of having a direct connection with a Spirit. It was most likely the same for Miss Aiz as well. Yet, even after centuries, it was still enough that it made them both capable of so much—inherited gifts from great ancestors.
“…Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but I suggest you not bring up that name again, Miss Viridis,” Miss Ryuu said in a serious tone. “That boy has not done anything to warrant the grudge Elvenkind has against his family, but it will still be weighed against him. Should others of high standing learn that he still possesses the power to make the same weapons that fueled the destruction of so many forests that both Elves and Spirits called home, he will most likely be targeted to prevent the bloodline from being rekindled.”
Her blood froze. “You… you don’t mean they would…”
“Assassinate him,” Riveria agreed without any hesitation. “I do not know why the ability was manifested within him when his predecessors had lost it for their actions, but it is by the protection of his Familia, Orario itself, and the fact that many believe that the blood has been purged from their lineage that he likely hasn’t been targeted yet. Speak carelessly of it in the presence of my kin and his blood will be on your hands.”
Her chest felt heavy. Her curiosity had nearly signed the death of one of her brother’s friends without even realizing it. “I’m sorry. I truly am.”
“It would be best if we all kept silent from now on,” her mentor suggested. “We don’t want to offend the Spirits by accident. I’ll give instructions so we don’t get lost, but other than that keep the discussion to a minimum until we reach the village.”
The suggestion was taken as an order, given the topic prior was so heavy that it killed the conversation. The moment they stepped past the trees the magic threading the entire area was palpable. She could only assume it was the presence of the Spirits that had been mentioned, so great in number that it could be felt.
And when they arrived their breaths were stolen.
Dappled sunlight peeked through the breaks in the canopy woven of verdant green leaves, rays of light bathing the village that seemed sewn into the trees themselves. Crystalline, pure water flowed through a babbling brook that fed into the center of the village. And it was there that laid a massive, majestic tree that seemed to brim with magical power.
Elves quickly took notice of them. They looked different from others of their race that Lefiya had encountered, which she learned was because they were of the High Elf lineage. They were essentially next to the Royal Family in terms of pedigree, each from different forests that remained.
Unfortunately, they weren’t so different from others once their gazes drifted from Lady Riveria onto her retainers. “Forgive me, Lady Riveria. But why have you only been accompanied by barbarous adventurers and a Half-Man to our village?”
“Yes. One of such radiance as yourself should be in the company of the Royal Knights. Surely they would have come in force had they known of your attendance?”
I suppose some things never change, Lefiya thought to herself bitterly as she kept her expression neutral. She had expected it the moment that she saw that look in the Guild Leader’s eyes when his gaze fell onto her ears and said he supposed it would be fine that she went as Riveria’s apprentice. He had been saying that if the alternative was no Elf, then half of one was the best he could manage.
That being said, at least he had the decency to not voice it aloud. Even others in Orario attempted to speak in hushed whispers when they thought she couldn’t hear them, which grew increasingly difficult as the more you leveled the more your senses sharpened. She could only assume it was because they dwelled within the heart of their forests and were so unused to Adventurers that they didn’t know any better.
Miss Ryuu herself seemed unbothered by it visibly, although the air around her felt different. Then she saw Filvis trembling slightly in place. Her beautiful red eyes were narrowed and cold in a way that didn’t suit her, and her gloved hands were balled into fists.
Lefiya clandestinely reached over and brushed her fingers over her dear friend’s knuckles, drawing her gaze as she slightly shook her head. They were here as part of Lady Riveria’s retinue. They had to mind their manners and words as they were representative of her as well. Even if their anger was justified, and they were more than capable of silencing them, they had to keep it to themselves as to not reflect badly upon royalty.
“…Speak that way again of my retinue and you will have offended me in ways that are unforgivable, Elf.” In a voice that was as cold and quiet as falling snow amidst the moonlight, Lady Riveria spoke. It was not her usual tone, but it held within it the tenor of authority that dared one to speak against it. “Have you forgotten that I am also one of those barbarous adventurers?”
Though her expression was masked in neutrality, one could feel that the air had shifted. Whereas before Lady Riveria had tolerated their supplication, despite not having any desire to be treated in such a manner, it was clear now that she had deemed their words offensive enough to merit her intervention. And when royalty was offended there would be consequences.
“Not only are they my comrade in arms, but the Elf that you referred to as Half-Man happens to be my successor. A child of Wishe graced with the title of ‘Thousand Elf’ for her ability to command the Magic of Elvenkind through the same Grace that I have received and by her own efforts and merits. In her, I see the embodiment of the magical heritage of our dying race and the one that will carry it into the future along with our traditions and culture. So for you to deem her as lesser than one of our own is unacceptable. Do you understand me?”
“M-My apologies, Lady Riviera!” quickly begged the High Elf. “I spoke only out of concern for your safety. If they were chosen by you then each must have the worth of a dozen Royal Knights!”
Another joined him. “Forgive us for not considering the talent found in the Elven blood flowing through her. Only one such as yourself would have the foresight and wisdom to take notice of it at first glance. Truly, you are as the rumors say!”
They were all meaningless words. Mere platitudes being offered up to royalty to avoid incurring her ire. Backhanded apologies that dismissed half of her heritage while praising the part they only acknowledged to appease the Nine Hells.
Lady Riveria didn’t even pretend to entertain them before she turned away from them and spoke to the party. “Let us find the one responsible for the Spirit Festival before my patience runs thin…”
Likewise, Lefiya failed to notice one High Elf in particular took interest in her as she followed her mentor in silence.
Chapter 5: The End of the Opening Act
“Mmm…last night was so hectic,” Lefiya said in a soft, somewhat sleepy tone as she proceeded through the line of trees within the 18th Floor. The next day had come and they had some time before they began their ascent back to the surface, so she was in the process of heading to Rivira to find some new boots for her brother. “The Captain scolded me, you know?”
“Hehe… sorry about that,” Bell said apologetically as he walked alongside her. “If I was awake back then, I would have I would have been able to explain things more clearly.”
After they had blown through the very earth to get back to the surface, she had carried Bell back up after he lost consciousness from his injuries. They had then been attacked by members of Evilus and a group of Violas, but thankfully a mysterious Elven Warrior showed up to fend them off and heal the pair before she departed. Considering Violas were tough enough that Level Three was the bare minimum one should fight a single one at, and she managed to take out multiple of them on her own, it spoke highly of her abilities.
Lefiya could only see her as the epitome of beauty in frontline combat as she danced gracefully between the monsters that had assaulted them without fail—might, magic, and majesty all bundled into one. She could have fallen in love with the masked warrior if she didn’t have her heart set on someone else and thought she had a chance. “You’re lucky to know an Elf like that lady, Bell.”
“She’s a friend that’s been looking out for me for a while now,” Bell claimed. “It was her advice that allowed me to get this far. I owe her a lot.”
“Make sure you properly thank her next time you see her,” Lefiya told him. “Most pure-blooded Elves wouldn’t put themselves out there for someone from such an obscure Familia like yours. You need to make sure to treasure that friendship.”
“I will,” he promised. “Still, to think you guys fight monsters like that all the time. Your Familia is really amazing.”
“That’s another thing we need to talk about….” She paused in her steps at that. It was as good of a time as any for what she had decided after everything that transpired. “Bell?”
He stopped ahead of her and turned back. “Is something wrong?”
She took a deep breath before she broached a question that should have been a long time coming. “…Would you be willing to join me in the Loki Familia?”
His crimson eyes, the opposite of her azure pair, rose up in surprise at her offer. “Eh?”
“You might have only a month or so of experience, but you are a Level Two and no one can deny that you would be a good candidate after last night. You also get along pretty well with some of us from what I can tell, so with me vouching for you…”
She should have offered him that much the day he came to her. He might have been new but when she looked back on how far he had come in such a short time, it felt like she had cost them a valuable comrade. And he would be relatively safer considering how they operated. There hadn’t been a single casualty in the Familia since she had joined, which was due to how things were structured. He would be safe and she could watch over him easier with the others helping her.
He closed his eyes, his placid brow furrowed in thought. Then his features became apologetic as he opened them again and gave his answer. “Lady Hestia has become family to me as well. I can’t abandon her.”
The Half-Elf could only sigh. She honestly expected it. “Then, no matter what, you can’t tell anyone about us. Neither of us can.”
His expression dampened like a rabbit with its ears folded over. “Why?”
“The Loki Familia is one of the most powerful Familia and can more than defend itself, but we still have enemies. If they find out about you, they’ll use you to get to me and the Familia. I see my Familia as family, just like you—and I don’t want to be forced to choose between either one.”
Evilus was one such force. Their remnants were still causing problems and had almost claimed his life as collateral damage. The secret being kept between them was the only reason someone else hadn’t taken interest in him aside from the fact that he was the current Record Holder.
Then there was the fact that certain secrets were supposed to be kept among Familia members. Things like tactics, strategies, and other things that shouldn’t be told to outsiders. Having a family member outside of the Familia—especially in a rival Familia—would make her a liability. It may have already done so.
“It seems I’ve caused problems for you again,” Bell said. “Sorry.”
She shook her head. “No, it’s my fault. I should have brought you to Lady Loki the moment you showed up on our doorstep. But I was a bad older sister, and now both of us are paying the price for that. That’s something I’ll have to deal with eventually.”
“…One day I’ll become stronger.” He looked deep into her azure eyes. To the extent that she could see the gleam of resolve reflected within his own crimson pair. “Strong enough that you won’t have to keep it a secret to protect me. I swear.”
“…Idiot, you would need to be a least Level Six to do that.” Not that she didn’t believe it was possible he would reach that point. But she would prefer that he had a different reason to seek that strength than for her. “Until then, when we’re alone, you can call me your sister without any problem. That’s fine, right?”
His expression brightened in a way that reminded her of when he first saw her, back when they were kids. “Yes, sister.”
“You don’t have to look so happy about it,” she said in a dismissive tone as she looked away, a slight crimson hue painting her cheeks. It was a crime he looked as adorable as he did every now and again, despite his age. “What a troublesome little brother you are. Come on, let’s get you some new boots.”
Visiting the town, she found him a relatively decent pair of boots to replace the set that had gotten lost in the acid. Then she had to leave him behind because she needed to head back to her camp. They were packing to go back up the surface now that everything was said and done, meaning that they would be splitting up for a bit.
However, on the way back she ran into the source of her previous problems in the form of a handsome being with a feathered hat. The God of Travel leaning against a tree with a book tucked under his slender arm waved her over just outside of the camp. It was because of him her brother had gotten handsy and she wasn’t exactly happy about that, but even though she could feel annoyed at him she couldn’t exactly ignore him. “Did you need something, Lord Hermes?”
“I just wanted to offer my apologies for whatever trouble you got into last night,” he said, straightening himself up. Then he presented the book he had to her. “I understand you’re something of a scholar when it comes to magic. You can read this, right?”
It was a book that looked aged, yet she could feel the workings of Magic upon it—likely to preserve it. There were words on the surface written in Old Elvish, a type of script that wasn’t taught publicly anymore to most of the Elvish population except for the more learned like scholars or the upper echelons of society. Even then the only reason she could read it was because her mother had taught her, though it certainly had impressed Lady Riveria to know when she had joined.
“It looks like it’s the memoirs of someone named ‘Fina’ from what I can tell,” she explained. “Is there something special about it?”
“My children found it some ancient ruins before we came back to Orario,” he began. “Due to some of the other things there, we thought it might belong to an ancient Elven Mage from the beginning of the age of heroes, before the descent of the Gods to the lower planes. As far as I am aware it might very well be the only copy. Do what you wish with it.”
She frowned as she considered that. Though Elves were long-lived, many had lost their homes when Rakia had burned their forests down. And, because they were so secular, that meant the knowledge they held onto from ancient times had been lost as well. Something from that age would be invaluable, even if it were only the memoirs. “I can’t accept something that valuable.”
“I insist,” he said. “Even if not because of this incident then as a thank you for what happened on the 24th Floor. It was because of you that any of my children returned. It is only proper that I reward you personally.”
A weight pressed down on her heart when she noticed his gaze seemed distant recalling that day. So many of his Familia had died there. Many of them to protect her. She could only assume that he was trying to state they would want her to have it. “Then I graciously accept your gift, Lord Hermes.”
He took off his cap before bowing towards her. “You have my thanks. They will be able to rest a little easier now.”
I’ll keep it for them, she thought to herself. Even if it was invaluable and could be sold for a lot, it would be wrong to do so in the memories of those who died that day. Besides, it’s not like I don’t read in my free time. And, if it really was from ancient times, I could learn something new.
“By the way,” Hermes began as he placed his cap back on. “I must say, I didn’t expect you two to get along so well considering what happened.”
Lefiya wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. “Huh?”
“Well, when I asked around where you might have been a couple of people said they saw you sneak off with Hestia’s child in the middle of the morning. Last I heard there were whispers going around that the two of you might have had the sparks of romance enkindled after a dangerous encounter of some kind.”
Oh Goddess no! She felt her stomach churn at that the very thought that rumors about her being in a relationship with her brother were floating around the camp. Leaving aside the already present issues of their blood-tie, what if Miss Aiz heard them? What if it got back to Filvis somehow?
She had to stomp them out. Now! “ForgivemebutImustbeonmyway—BYE!”
It would take her the entire day’s journey back to the surface to quell those rumors. Even after she personally blew the head off the Goliath on the 17th Floor after the others had knocked it down. But she wouldn’t have any time to rest as the next day she would set off on a new journey.
To sacred lands known only to Elves.
[-Arc 1 End-]
Lefiya Viridis (Level 3)
- Strength: I86
- Endurance: H184
- Dexterity: G210
- Agility: G271
- Magic: B797
- Mage: H
- Abnormal Resistance: I
- Fairy Cannon: Increases the effects of Magic. The effect doubles when used with attack Magic.
- Vow of Elcos: The birth of an everlasting bond. Raises attributes and allows for synchronization while working in tandem with those bound by fate to the Clown March.
Chapter 4: The Last Epic
The stage was set—the belly of a monster that had consumed many adventurers, their tales were forever written into fate as tragedies that were the old staples of the Gods and Goddesses’ entertainment.
The thespians were assembled—the younger brother who would act as the shield for the sister that could bring about the destruction of the beast as the comedy of eld had once upon a time did.
Now was the prologue—that which would determine whether the tale would be a tragedy, a comedy, or something entirely different written upon the canvas of fate. And the curtains rose on the opening performance as the smoke cleared.
The cyclopean eye cast its baleful gaze down upon the pair within its body, a monster that was potentially Level Four in terms of threat against a Level Three Mage and Level Two Vanguard. Its superiority should have been absolute, yet the proof of their defiance was forever etched into its body as its tendrils that had been cut and burned flailed above menacingly where those who came before never managed to do so. In fury, it renewed its assault by bringing the tendrils down towards them both once more.
The pair kicked off the ground. One to the left. One to the right. The whips came crashing down in the center with a splash that acted as a wall between them, obscuring their vision and splitting them apart.
Yet Lefiya felt calm compared to the last time and her mind felt clearer. She knew her role and his. Bell would be her vanguard and would protect her without fail.
However, as he was now, he would be unable to fulfill that role. His injuries had begun taking their toll. His blood was spilling out uncontested and making him light-headed. His legs were being eroded by the constant contact with the acid. So her first order of business should be to ensure her brother could do his job.
“I’ll act as a decoy until I finish the first spell to buff your defense! You look around for something that can help protect me by the end of my chant!”
“Got it!” The white rabbit darted through the acid as if his feet were on fire once the whips began focusing on him. It was most likely because his Magic as the last one used, following its species tendency to fixate on it.
She began a song just for him. “I beseech the name of Wishe! Ancestors of the forest, proud brethren. Answer my call and descend upon the plains.”
The melodic voice drew the eye of the monster towards her as it gave birth to a ring beneath her feet, golden in hue as it illuminated the dank chasm. Those whips that had been pursuing her brother then came towards her, readying to strike her down—
—but as soon as its gaze left him behind, her brother let loose his electrical spear of flames that slammed against it once more and filled its vision with scarlet and smoke. The lack of sight provided her an escape as her lowered reaction was compensated for while she kept up her chant and her magic circle expanded with the accumulation of magical power.
“Connecting bonds, the pledge of paradise. Turn the wheel and dance.”
The hunger for Magic like a ravenous animal left it to lash out towards her as the magical energy within her body seemed to course madly with every pulse of her heart. Denied its eye for exact targeting by the obscuring smoke, it relied on wild sweeps. But those she could avoid by the narrowest of margins as she kept up her chant.
“Come, ring of fairies. Please, give me strength—Elf Ring.”
And with that the Summon Burst was complete. The gateway to a realm where the spells of all of Elvenkind were stored opened, a vast and expansive repository that had no guide and offered no guidance. Those who stepped into the realm could only bring with them the knowledge they accumulated on their own to reach in pluck at the weave of magic.
Among the spells stored within the infinite corridor of the Elves of the past and future, there was one she knew to compensate for her brother’s condition. If the flesh was weak, steel it. If injuries were present, mend them. She used that knowledge to pull from that collection a spell belonging to only the noblest of blood among their long-lived yet dying race.
And in reflection of that, the magic circle the hue of her soul turned a magnificent shade of jade.
The smoke cleared as Lefiya stopped moving. Her Magic had reached its crescendo and the cost was heavy on her in terms of Mind and focus alike. The entry fee of accessing her kin’s archives of knowledge was steep for one of mixed-blood. No longer running, magical energy densely surrounding her to the extent of rising into the air as glimmering motes, the whips immediately came rushing towards her to claim it even as they stirred the acid so that her vision of the world outside of her immediate area was narrowed.
She ignored the death closing in on her in favor of the sensation in her chest—of expectation and anticipation backed by the faintest sound of rapid splashes that grew closer. She could feel him coming towards her.
“Gather, breath of the earth—in my name of Alf.” Extending her arms out as if expecting a loving embrace, she finished her song as it went from a solo performance to a duet once her mentor’s voice overlapped her own. “Veil Breath!”
The magic took shape and leaped from her body as the curtain of acid was broken by a bulwark of silver, backed by a dark shadow. Jade light swaddled her brother’s body as he came rushing past her with a shield in hand, having reclaimed it. He raised it, intercepting the incoming whips with all his might, and a gong-like sound rang out as the shield buckled beneath the intense force even as it rebuffed the tendrils.
Then Bell tossed the shield away and bound into the air while bringing his onyx knife overhead at the tendrils and roaring the name of his spell once more. “FIREBOLT!”
Flames erupted along the line of the swing. The explosion shook the air as the appendages recoiled from his assault as Lefiya knew it would. It really was amazing that he had such a Magic given his limited time in Orario. She wondered how far he would grow with enough time if he survived for all his recklessness…
No, she would make sure he survived. As long as he was in front of her, she would protect him without fail. She would dedicate her Magic and her soul to make sure that he could become all that he could be.
So she began her song anew, a hymn of destruction for the one who would rob him of his future.
“Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree…”
Bell felt thunder rumbling in his chest.
It had been there since he had lost consciousness from that last hit, the moment the back of his head hit the wall. He had descended into a dark place, the depths of which held the memory of when he first saw his sister. She had been pretty, her ears reminding him of a butterfly resting against the flower in bloom that was her face.
He was happy to learn that she was someone he could call family. Then she looked at him with hateful eyes and said that she never wanted to see him again. He had cried back then so much that he thought the tears would never stop.
But his grandfather had told him that it would be okay. She had a rough life because not everyone saw her the same as he had been. The blood that bound the two of them had also separated her from others.
He wanted to protect her like the heroes in the stories his grandfather told him would the girls around them.
Except that when he arrived in Orario his sister was already far ahead of him. Not only was she a member of the Loki Familia, one of the strongest Familia at present, but she was a Level Three. She didn’t need someone as weak as him to protect her. She wouldn’t even acknowledge him unless he caught up to someone who he had only heard whispers about when he tried to figure out where his sister was.
Then he had met Aiz in the Dungeon and understood why that was.
Her hair. Her eyes. Her figure. Her power. Everything about them seemed so transcendent that he felt something deep within him stir. He wanted her to acknowledge him too. He wanted to protect her too. For some reason, he wanted to…
He wanted to see her smile with his own eyes.
It could only be love.
But he was faced with the truth of the matter soon enough. Regardless of his own desires, he could never make them come true as he was. He couldn’t gain the acknowledgment of his sister, nor hope to do the same as someone like Aiz as he was. He was weak and needed to be protected by the very girls he wanted to protect.
It was no wonder his sister refused to acknowledge him.
That was why he threw himself into the Dungeon. He delved into the same depths that his sister and Aiz had in the hopes of catching up to them. He went on an adventure to seek the strength to make them recognize him as an equal and acknowledge him.
Then he had lost consciousness and, in those dark depths, he realized that he had still been too weak. He was still being protected by his sister. Even though she was in just as much danger as he was, she had been constantly protecting him while he couldn’t do anything.
“For this moment I have earned the power that I do not deserve!”
It was then he heard a voice. He heard a voice that sounded like his own. It sounded a little older and dramatic, but it felt like his own words being spoken as a golden radiance slowly revealed itself nestled within the depths. It seemed ancient and yet everlasting, drawing his eyes even as the air became charged.
“You and I are united for eternity.”
At that moment he understood it was power. Perhaps more power than he deserved as a failure who couldn’t even protect his sister on his own. In the end, every bit of power he had so far was all power that was bequeathed to him in the end.
His knife was bequeathed to him by his Goddess rather than something he forged on his own. His Magic was something he was bequeathed by a Grimoire he took for his own rather than something he earned as others do. Even now, before him was more power that he hadn’t done anything to deserve. But…
I’ll get stronger and stronger. Until one day I can protect my sister on my own. Until one day I can protect everyone with my own power. I swear it! But for now, I will borrow this strength for the sake of everyone else!
The moment he reached for that spark a jolt of electricity snapped his awareness back into consciousness. He saw his sister being swept up into the air and her death assured. He saw the axe nearby and he moved to protect her as the thunder rumbled in his chest.
Even now it continued to rumble within his chest as he stood in the defense of his sister so she could sing her next song, the lilt in her voice a melody that resonated in his heart as the whips closed in to silence her.
He cried out from the depths of his lungs as he gave his all to protect her. He slashed his blade of bequeathed power from his Goddess with all the force he could muster, offering the blade the flames of the bequeathed Magic he possessed from a Grimoire whose owner was unknown, while swaddled in the comfort and shelter of the protective veil bequeathed from his sister. “FIREBOLT!”
The explosion rattled the air as sections of the tendrils were blown away, the wafting smoke and scattering embers of the appendages leaving a trail as it retracted them. Yet, it hadn’t learned to fear his blade or flame. It continued to seek out his sister as she wove her spell with intimate words, her lips illuminated by the golden hue of her Magic. “You are the master archer…”
The whips lashed at his protected body as he fended the attacks off. Even then the blows that had been softened by the enchantment stung as they ripped away at the Salamander Wool. The pain tore deep even with the veil intact.
But with a roar he bore with the pain and reached out to his spell, wielding a flaming sword even as he felt the onset of Mind Collapse from expending so much power. He continued to protect her without fail until he heard the final verse of her song. “—Pierce, arrow of accuracy!”
Golden radiance filled the monster’s belly with its brilliance as her magic circle became all-encompassing as she let loose her nocked arrow woven of Mind and Magic. The monster that Bell had never encountered before, its sinuous vines and humanoid torso, seemed to sense the impending death and braced for it. “ARCS RAY!!!!”
The air howled. The acid quivered and fled in endless ripples. The golden pillar ascended towards the roof of their prison, towards their captor who watched from above, and slammed into it like the divine returning to the heavens in the picture of what Bell imagined the Magic of Heroes to be through his dazzled vision—light that shunted away the darkness with absolute might.
There was an inhuman screech as the monster cried out while meeting the light head-on. It refused to bow to that light, even as it seemed to be pressed against its lid and was slowly being eaten away. It held strong even as the walls around them trembled and began to close in from every side, trying to crush them.
“Nnnngghhh…” Bell could hear his sister’s strained voice as she continued to unleash everything that she had built up, her gaze unyielding and unshakable even as she gazed deep into the light. She raised her staff higher and gave it her all and more to open up a path for them.
You‘re really amazing, sister. Bell couldn’t help but feel that from the depths of his heart as he once more saw how far he had to go to catch up to her. And she could still go further if the idol they shared was still far ahead of them. He couldn’t let it end here for her.
His right hand began to shed white-and-blue sparkles of light that glistened as he raised it to the sky along with her staff. His sister’s eyes met his as seconds passed and a wordless message carried between them as the lights dancing around his palm and small chimes intensified. She nodded to him before directing her gaze up towards the monster once more put everything she could afford to into her own spell as he let loose his own.
All while both shared a single thought. “I won’t let you die here!”
Light burst from his hand, a white radiance that wrapped around the lightning flame towards their enemy. But, along the way, the spell bent and twisted as it wove itself around the golden pillar until it was a beacon of white-and-gold that shone with the light of the sun.
That transcendent swallowed the monster and the world around them whole…
As the pillar of radiance illuminated the night of the Under Resort, the God of Travel found it in himself to smile as the crystalline ceiling of the Dungeon reflected the light and gave the appearance of diamonds strewn upon a dark sky.
There was once a tale that Zeus had told him back before the Gods and Goddesses had descended. The comedy of a jester that would become known as the hero of the dawn. The first performance that had captivated the gods.
Zeus had on a whim observed the jester who was meant to be nothing more than a fool to be tossed away by the machinations of a king driven mad. Another victim of a long-standing tragedy in the making. Yet that jester ventured forth to the Spirit Shrine for the chance to turn the tragedy into a comedy.
So he beckoned a great spirit to form a contract with the jester to see what would come about.
And it had been his greatest joy to watch that grand performance.
The truth known only to the eldest of gods.
The dawn of the era of heroes.
The first heroic tale.
Hermes had missed the first performance. The heroic comedy that reached the gods and enraptured them so much that they turned their gaze to the lower planes wholly and eventually descended to give rise to heroes of their own—to be a part of their tales rather than mere observers. To miss that had been one of his greatest regrets.
That was why this time Hermes would be the choragus. He would see all the thespians assembled. He would see the finest theatron, Orario itself, be their stage. All for the sake of a new tale—not a comedy or a tragedy.
But a heroic epic that transcends all else.
The Last Epic.
Chapter 3: Lost Siblings – Part 2
Things had started simple enough once the two of them had caught their breath. They needed to make their way back to the campsite since it was too dangerous to linger about. Despite the 18th Floor not inherently spawning monsters, some did wander in from above and below. Monsters of that caliber were something she could deal with, but not a fresh Level Two like her brother.
For all Lefiya knew another Minotaur would show up and, after two encounters with them that should have been fatal, she didn’t want to risk the third time being when his luck ran out.
There was always the option of using her Magic to send up a signal. But she considered that the last resort. Leaving aside how shameful it would have been to go calling for help after she had chased him this far out, Bell had already caused enough problems. No sense in making things worse there.
The basics of survival in the Dungeon had been drilled into her by the Loki Familia since she had joined, to compensate for what wasn’t taught in the Educational District. Not every scholar there went on to join an Exploration Familia. The Dungeon was dangerous after all and there was no point in spending years learning for a single mistake to claim your life.
Lefiya took the lead with his Magic Stone Lantern to illuminate the path. The smaller crystals could be broken into pieces even with her mediocre strength. After all, as a Level Three she could easily punch cracks in the very floor of the Dungeon should she wish. She had him scatter them behind to leave a trail, so they didn’t walk in circles.
Bell himself supplemented that by marking certain trees as they passed with his odd knife that had the writing of the gods upon it, though such markings were only temporary given the trees could mend themselves rather quickly—but if they were still lost by then, she would accept they couldn’t get back and send up a signal flare. Still, it seemed he knew his way around mountainous terrain pretty well for a farm boy.
“I used to play on them when I was younger,” he told her, when she made the mistake of bringing that up. It gave him leeway to tell her more about his childhood and he naturally seemed eager to, despite the situation. She considered telling him to shelve it for now, but…
Well, he didn’t even know much about their father or her. And she didn’t know much about him, all things considered. She still didn’t even know why had come here besides chasing after her or even about the Familia he ran off to join.
Then he told her and she felt her anger rising again. “Oh my Goddess… you joined up with the first Familia that offered you a spot? Without knowing anything about them?”
After being turned away by her, it seemed her brother had gone from one Familia to another only to be rejected by them all until one goddess picked him up off the street like an abandoned kitten. She then took him to a bookstore of all places to place her grace upon his back and claim him as her own. Then they moved into an abandoned Church and lived in the same bedroom!
He scratched the back of his head when he saw the look she was giving him. “Well, Lady Hestia is kind and she was willing to accept someone like me. And I don’t mind our living circumstances, so I’m quite happy.”
She found it in her to start grinding her teeth when she considered the small goddess. It was clear she actually did care considering she risked entering the Dungeon for him once he had gone missing. But it could have gone so much worse considering how he was a know-nothing country mouse with such a babyface that someone could have taken advantage of him—in a lot of ways she didn’t want to think about considering their blood-tie.
“What about you, Sister?” Bell asked.
“I said not to call me that,” she reminded him before huffing. “And I spent some time scouting which Familia I wanted to join after my graduation. It just so happens that my first choice accepted my qualifications.”
She had left home and entered the Education District at the age of eight. Her mother had felt that she should be in the city where her father had lived. Perhaps it was so that she could escape the not-so-hushed whispers of the neighbors and the other children of her sullied blood.
Orario was a melting pot. People of all different races and careers gathered, so maybe she thought that it would allow her to escape those prejudices. The whispers still followed her—not every Elf was like that, but there were enough of them that she still heard the whispers.
Nevertheless, she studied hard to drown them out. To prove to herself that she was more than what they claimed. She had spent hours studying in the district and just as many in the Dungeon’s upper floors, where there were places where spellcasters could practice without the fear of damaging the city or having their chants overheard.
And once she had graduated, she had gone out of her way to scout and get a feel for the Loki Familia before she joined them. Her knowledge of the principles of magic was fairly solid and mages were something of a hot commodity, even if her original skill made it so that she was better suited to destructive spells by passively amplifying them. She had options, but… well, the Loki Familia had Lady Riveria.
Lady Riveria—a legend among Elves. For some, it was her royal birth. For others, it was her status as one of the strongest Adventurers in Orario. There were few far and between that didn’t revere her, even a Half-Elf like Lefiya.
And that was before she chose her to become her successor—regardless of her heritage.
“The Loki Familia has a lot of amazing people, huh?” Bell mused. “You managed to make it all the way to the 59th Floor. You’re just like the heroes of those stories that braved the unknown.”
“…Don’t let those stories mislead you,” she warned him. “The Dungeon is dangerous. Everything that you’ve experienced up until now can’t compare to what lays below this floor. You should quit being an Adventurer and find some other work to support yourself and your Goddess.”
Bell looked rather somber as he said, “But if I do that, I won’t be able to catch up to any of you. Even now, I’m still so far behind you all that I’m worried I’ll never be able to keep up.”
“…You’re such an idiot,” she muttered as the weight of those words lingered on her mind. It was stupid. Even though she told him he didn’t need to, he was still going to try chasing after them. All the way to an early grave at the rate he was going.
The two stayed silent after that as they continued until they found a tree that towered above all else. It was suitable to serve as a landmark, so she climbed to the top of it and was able to figure out a path back to the camp. But then she managed to spy something that made her blood run cold—members of Evilus.
Her obligation to her Familia demanded she follow them. It was an opportunity to get information that they lacked to prevent things like what happened before from happening again. They had already attacked this floor once before, so anything to prevent them from doing it again was the right course of action.
But there was the matter of her brother. Even if she wanted to return to their camp and gave directions, she couldn’t guarantee that Bell would make it back there on his own. The monsters they had crossed paths with and hid from until now to conserve their strength could still tear him apart considering he only had his Salamander Wool clothes and a knife. Or worse, he could run into Evilus along the way, and they would…
Her stomach twisted at the thought.
No, I have to protect him. That thought cemented in her mind. If we follow at a distance to discover their meeting place, we can then sneak back to camp and inform the Captain and the others. Two birds, one stone.
And so, they followed until they were close to the Crystal Grove and deeper into the forest. They only came to a stop when they were closer to the wall of the Dungeon. The entire time Lefiya was nervous as they followed along the way, her brother cluelessly but wordlessly following her despite the barest of explanations due to the fact that she said it was necessary.
Then the most terrifying moment in her life occurred.
The ground beneath her parted. The sensation of weightlessness and helplessness assailed her. The world around her returned to the Dragon’s Crucible on the 52nd Floor—the gateway of Hell.
Within that chamber where the heat sweltered from below as it rushed to escape the vents that were blasted in the floor, she fell. Without warning or prompt, from six floors below and on the border of the unexplored region, Valgang Dragons spread their leathery pinions to take flight. Ascending from the base of the crucible where the very earth jutted up like the fangs of an open maw waiting to snap close and from its vents belched acrid smoke and embers, they eyed her with flames slipping from their bared maws and ready to incinerate her.
It had been then that she had taken her first steps to catch up to the others. To stop being protected and instead to walk alongside them. She had managed to conquer her fear for those scant few moments, in order to rouse her magic to fend off her attackers then.
Yet that fear before was nothing compared to now…
Because this time her brother was falling into Hell with her.
Hearing his surprised scream had been like flipping a switch inside of her head. She reached out, caught his wrist, and pulled him into her before they could be split apart by the fall. The only thing that stopped her from rousing what strength she could to toss him back up was the fact that the opening closed up on its own.
Her gaze instantly shifted downwards and saw that there was a pool of something they were rushing towards. She couldn’t cushion the fall, but she could angle it so that they didn’t land flat in it. It was thanks to that both landed on their feet as the liquid splashed up around them.
The liquid was a sickly purple color that rose up to their waist. The vapors rising from it had a poignant and acrid smell that irritated the nostrils as they breathed it in. The foul fumes were nauseating enough on their own that they might have been poison.
Then it started to burn.
The liquid sizzled where their bodies touched it, bubbling and frothing as the caustic fluid began to nip away at their flesh with ravenous glee. The lantern that had fallen with them was already being corroded by the fluid, the stone inside of it already dimming. Her thoughts turned to acid as she found half-dissolved bone and corroded metal belonging to other Adventurers around them, and then she looked around to see the fleshy texture that made up the wall.
Then realized dawned that it was not a hole they fell into.
It had been a maw of a monster.
They were in its stomach.
She had killed them.
Her eyes shot up at her brother’s words and she spotted what looked to be a humanoid torso that had bright, rich colors of red and yellowish-green that were often found in monsters and animals that indicated they were poisonous. The creature had a single eye that peered around from the long stalk that served as its neck, crowned by thin bristles, with two elongated tendrils that shifted in erratic motions as though alive.
It was a monster that reminded her of the Corrupted Spirit on the 59th Floor. It didn’t exude the sheer menace that one did, but it had similar enough traits to the same monsters that had been eating others to feed it the magic stones. It had to have been planted there as a security measure to eliminate witnesses or guard whatever they had near here.
And then its cyclopean eye finished skimming its surroundings before settling on them.
Time seemed to dilate as the senses of a Level Three Adventurer kicked into overdrive in the face of danger. And even that was barely enough for her to react to the incoming attack as instinct kicked in and her hand reached out to pull her brother away. She managed to leap back with him in her tow as far as her legs could carry her in a single bound as the pair of sinuous, massive whips came crashing down.
The entire chamber rumbled as the acid splashed up to nearly three-fourths the height of the chamber, scattering broken bones and abandoned armaments. She felt the acid splash against her hair and the sleeves of her combat clothes, the latter meant to serve as a moderate defense against the hazards of the Dungeon. She then turned to her brother behind her as he snapped up from having fallen backwards, only stopped from a full plunge by one of his hands that was now suffering from mild caustic burns.
He was lucky, considering he was only a fresh Level Two. If the acid had anywhere near the same potency as the ones on the lower floors, there wouldn’t have even been flesh left on the limb.
She tore the half-cloak of her outfit off and passed it to him. “Wrap it up!”
“Look out!” Bell shouted abruptly.
Lefiya whipped her head around to see that the whips were coming around once more. Her body moved, leaping away from the crash site as the wall of acid rose up in response. She quickly covered her face with her sleeve and felt the acid assail the durable fabric before lowering her arm to find her brother. “Bell!”
“I’m fine!” He was on the opposite side of the melting chamber, his legs moving with his injured arm wrapped up tight by the cloak and his other brandishing the onyx dagger that he had in a reverse grip. It seemed uncorroded despite the acid dripping from it. “What is this thing!?”
“Just focus on avoiding it for now!” The singular eye shifted between them before the whips began to stir once more and her grip on Forest’s Teardrop became iron clad. “I’ll come up with something!”
Then talk became a secondary concern to resolving the situation. The monster may have been an unknown, but she had seen similar kinds and had studied under the Loki Familia. They had to be prepared to deal with the unknown as they existed to explore the undelved depths of the Dungeon, so encountering new foes was expected and how to adapt to them.
She felt her thoughts racing as she tried to focus on those teachings. But she couldn’t help but have her thoughts drift back to her younger brother. He hadn’t trained for this—he wasn’t prepared to be an Adventurer. He was a farm boy who lived a simple, happy life in a safe place until a little over a month ago!
Even now he was darting around in a panic—a wild, white rabbit darting back and forth and only able to narrowly avoid the whips when they came towards him. If he wasn’t so fleet-of-foot then he probably wouldn’t have made it that long, but she didn’t know how long that would last before the acid ate away at his legs. The durability of a Level Two was nowhere near sufficient for this kind of environment.
Much less a boy who reached Level Two in less than a month.
It took her three years to reach Level Two. It was at eleven years old, after the examination where they had to put their Magic into practical use in the Dungeon. Students in the Education District who planned to pursue a career in Adventuring, or even to simply obtain access to Magic, received a Falna from one of the Gods who preside over the district. They acted as their instructors until they graduated before leaving the Falna open for them to transfer to a new Familia.
It took her two years after that to reach Level Three, just a year after joining Lady Loki’s Familia. Her growth would be considered rather good considering how far of a gap most others had to cross just to pass the threshold. She would probably reach Level Four soon enough, given how high-quality the excelia was from diving so deeply into the Dungeon and going against its threats.
But his growth was just absurd.
No other members of the Familia to support him. No education on what to expect. Just whatever he could scrounge together and pick up along the way. That carried a crippling weakness that killed new Adventurers often enough—the lack of experience on how to adapt to new situations.
Observation. Analyzation. Application. Those were beyond him as he was never taught. And that was because she hadn’t brought him with her. She hadn’t even asked her Goddess or told anyone about him, driving him away in the attempt to keep him out of her life.
Now she had dragged him into this as ill-prepared as possible.
She had as good as killed him herself.
Focus! She bit down on her lower lip as she forced her gaze back to it. There had to be some kind of tell, some kind of action that served as recognition to figure out what it was capable of before she went on the offense. What is it?
It was fortunate that she inherited the eyes of her mother’s race. Those eyes may not have been on par with a Pallum’s in such dim light, but they were perceptive enough that she could pick up the details. That was what allowed her to see how it always shifted its eye to its current target before it attacked.
“Watch its eye!” Lefiya called out. “It needs to look to fix our position before it sends the signals for its whips to land! There’s enough of a delay to get out of the way!”
“Got it!” Bell responded as he fixed his gaze into its own and found the inhuman gaze staring right back. It served as the trigger for him to move with purpose rather than floundering around and reacting. The next swing that came in like a crushing pendulum missed by more than enough space.
“Stay aware of its tendrils!” she continued, feeling a weight off her shoulders as her analysis was complete. As long as they could predict its movements, he could focus on dodging with those legs of his while she could go on the offense—his little knife wouldn’t cut it since he could get close to the eye to cut into it, and they didn’t know where the magic stone was to hit. “I’ll look for an opening and start casting a spell!”
Sensing the change in how its prey operated, their floundering and narrow misses becoming far more focused and evasive, it became far more aggressive in its assault. Rather than simply crashing down to crush them into the acid and hasten their deaths, it lashed out in erratic methods such as curving its appendage, so it swept horizontal and skirted the acid along with the armaments. With that, the two lethal weapons had effectively multiplied.
Bell was momentarily cornered with a fleshy wall to his left and the tendril came up around to smash through his legs, breaking them to leave him to drown. But he bounced up as he twisted one foot facing it and then threw his outside shoulder towards the tendril. The twist carried him over the tendril and leaving it to sweep into the fleshy wall behind him as he took off running anew.
…He really is nimble, Lefiya acknowledged even as she contended with the fact that she felt the acid eating away at her boots. Considering hers were of better quality than what he could afford, his feet must’ve been burning. If she didn’t do something soon, he would slow down and that would be the end.
But the question was… what could she do?
Her Concurrent Chanting required focus enough that her reaction and reflexes dropped as well. Enough that her Speed, which wasn’t her best attribute by far, would drop enough that she was effectively a sitting duck. And that was before the fact that others like this creature usually fixated on magical energy.
She needed a vanguard to be able to cast. But that required a level of coordination that had to be worked out in advance, something she and Bell lacked given they had only seen each other a scant few times. And even then the vanguard often…
She shuddered when she recalled the deaths back on the 24th Floor. The Hermes Familia had sacrificed everything to buy her enough time to cast. Even that massive Dwarven woman, Elilly, had used her very body once her shields had broken so she could finish her cast.
Bell was Level Two. He was her brother. She couldn’t do that to him.
Why couldn’t I have met you sooner, Filvis? If she met the graceful beauty years ago, she would have done everything in her power to walk that same path. They were the same Level, but she was someone who could manage both roles without needing someone to protect her.
Maybe then she would have learned spells that were more suited for that. Her spells were powerful, but their casting times were longer and the amount of magical energy that needed to be gathered made it extra difficult. Even if she borrowed Filvis’ super-short chant it would be extended due to how her Elf Ring worked.
And she couldn’t learn any new spells through her Falna because her slots were all taken up.
I can only do my best, she told herself as she remembered her training with Filvis. There was no need to accumulate the entirety of the magical energy from the beginning. She could start the chant and then rapidly gather it together in the latter half of her chant, leaving her mobile at the start and then planted in the end to fire.
However, before she could begin her chant the chaotic barrage of attacks… ceased entirely.
The two stopped moving as the crown around the monster’s eye grew luminous with a blue hue that indicated it was doing something new. Something had changed. Her mind raced when she considered what would come about—
—that was when a high-frequency soundwave resounded in the sealed chamber. It was a natural mechanism to deal with prey that had become too difficult to catch and it was expending too much energy to quell it. Using high-frequency soundwaves to assail the inner ear that helped keep one balanced, even the swiftest of animals would be forced to stall and reorientate themselves if they remained conscious.
Lefiya’s head felt like it was splitting open as she collapsed to her knees and clutched her pointed ears that had a rounded curve. They were the reason that anyone who had seen an Elf before could recognize her for who she was. That she was a half-breed.
…Half-Elf. Half-Man. Which half depended on whom it was that referenced her lineage.
The Humans would call her a Half-Elf, as if to elevate her heritage of being a member of the skillful, elite, graceful Elven race by how pointed her ears were despite the soft curve in them that was rigid in the pure linage. And in doing so it would be to the detriment of her other heritage. She was simply the product of a Human who managed to have a tryst with an Elf.
The Elves of her homeland called her Half-Man, as if to denounce that her blood was impure because of that. Humans were among the weakest of the races, after all. They had no special magic or attributes like an Elf’s longevity, a Dwarf’s strength, a Pallum’s eyesight, or a Beastfolk’s senses. The only thing that separated them from others was the fact that they could sire children with other races, with said offspring being barely above the Human but inferior to the other race.
Mother had called her a blessing of the gods.
She believed that what made Humans special was that they could cross the borders that divided the other races. They were the ones capable of tying an everlasting friendship between races. Lefiya and her ears were proof of that.
However, her brother was Human.
He lacked any inherent ability suitable for this life. Even now his Level was lower and he younger than her. So, if she was rattled by the assault, he was—
Her head snapped up towards the eye above as the screeching stopped. Expending whatever energy it kept partitioned away in reserve to unleash that attack, it would go back on the offense with its primary weapons. It would target whomever its gaze was fixed on.
And that gaze wasn’t on her.
She screamed at the top of her lungs even before her eyes naturally traced the gaze. “LOOK OUT!”
Her brother’s attention snapped up at the warning in time to see the attack coming. The two lashing whips were coming from above and across. One would rip off his legs and the other would cave his skull into his chest and smear the remains into the acid to be dissolved away into nothing but shattered bones.
He could maybe dodge one. But not both. Not from that angle.
In a split-second decision, he leaped to the side with a twist while dragging something within the acid up with him, scalding his hands as the tendril that threatened to crush him slammed down below him. And as he raised his arms to defend himself from being slammed from the side, she could see that it was a shield. It must’ve been at least Silver or Mythril quality considering it was still solid despite the acid.
But, without purchase on the ground, nothing was bracing him from the hit.
She watched as the shield was sent flying into the air while her brother went rocketing into the fleshy wall hard enough that the entire chamber shook. She watched as his body, which by some miracle hadn’t broken open like fruit and spilled his innards, trembled against the wall as he gasped for breath. Then she watched him slide down into the acid that frothed vigorously to consume his quivering body as blood spilled from the back of his head.
“BELLLLLLLLL!!!” She called out his name with a deafening cry, hoping for a response. It was okay if he called her name. it was okay if he called her his sister. As long as he responded, whatever he called her was fine.
He didn’t answer.
Then the creature’s appendages reared back as though to finish the job.
“UNLEASHED STREAK OF LIGHT, BOW LIMBS OF THE HOLY TREE—”
Never in her life had she chanted faster. The accumulation of magic was shoddy and erratic, ill befitting of a Mage of any caliber. Her voice was hoarse and disordered rather than the lilt that normally caressed her lips as she wove her spell. She was sure if any other caster saw her, they would look upon her in disgust.
But Lefiya didn’t care about any of that.
She just needed the spell to form to grab that monster’s attention from killing her little brother.
And it worked. The moment the golden magic circle formed its eye and focus turned from finishing off dying prey to that which had tantalizing magic that it yearned to consume. She became its only thought, its only desire, its only prey as those tendrils came for her.
She stopped the chant now that she had its attention, the magical energy dispersing around her rather than being woven into the spell. It was fortunate that the spells brought forth by the Falna were so appropriate for the caster that there was less of a risk of an Ignis Fatuus. Not because she cared about the backlash, but because the moment she went down her brother would follow.
But she knew she had to finish her next cast. She had to finish and kill it. She had to before he drew his last breath and his flesh melted from the bone.
“Unleashed streak of Light—” She began her song anew, willing to throw away any notion of defense for that purpose. Her magic was geared towards the destruction of her enemies. It would have to serve as the salvation for her brother now that he could no longer move. “Bow limbs of the Holy Tree. You are an expert of the Bow.”
But, in the end, it wasn’t enough. “Shoot, Sniper of the Faeries—aah!?”
Her song faltered as one of the tendrils managed to snake around her leg now that her evasion had diminished. It ripped away the ground from beneath her, hauling her into the air and upside down. She could no longer run away.
And the other tendril was reared back, ready to be unleashed.
—Ah… I’m going to die.
It would swing as hard as it could. Hard enough that it would tear her in half, or at least take off her leg. Even if her Falna and Status wouldn’t let her die so easily from that, it would have no trouble finishing her off. It was over.
Sorry, Bell. I was a horrible older sister. Now we’re both going to die and return to Heaven.
She knew of the fate of all that lived. Death would return their souls to the heavens above. Then they would someday be born anew, but only after they had faded from the living memory of mortals. Such was the way of the world.
I hope that when we’re reborn, it’ll be as siblings again. Lefiya prayed, so deeply that she hoped it would be etched into her soul. So thoroughly entrenched that it would persevere beyond the ages. I swear I’ll be there for you the next time. I’ll dedicate my soul to you, and I’ll always be by your side. That’s the only way for me to atone for robbing you of everything.
Then death closed in as the whip was unleashed—
—and a dull silver saw streaked past her so fast that her hair thrashed madly. The enclosing death was severed as it whirled past, the narrow part of the whip meant to tear through by placing an absurd amount of momentum into such a thin area torn clean off and left to fly away as a shadow leapt up from behind her.
It was Bell.
His immaculate white hair was blotched crimson as rivulets of blood trailed down his face. His lips were peeled back, and his mouth was wrenched open as he shouted at the top of his lungs while brandishing that onyx knife. It was a vicious expression that didn’t suit the placid visage he wore every other time she had seen him as he swung the knife that had the luminous blue writing of the gods upon it turn a vibrant shade of red—
—and scarlet flames bloomed riotously as he brought it against the tendril holding her upside down. She could feel the heat and force of the explosion as the appendage keeping her aloft jerked before its grip went slack. She began to fall as the smoldering, cauterized section of the tendril retracted, leaving her to right herself almost on reflex as she descended while the portion that had kept her aloft splashed down into the acid.
Bell landed ahead of her and raised his right hand to the heavens, his left arm chambered beneath it as though to brace it while he called out that name again. “FIREBOLT!!”
Fire erupted from his palm this time. It snaked like a lightning bolt right towards the cyclopean eye that seemed to reel back in pain or surprise. And where it connected the flames ran wild as they came unbound, savagely attempting to incinerate. She had thought for a fleeting moment the knife had been a magic sword with a fire spell bound into it, but…
“FIREBOLT! FIREBOLT! FIREBOLT!”
She realized that wasn’t the case at all as he shouted over, and over, and over again with a hoarse, powerful voice and the fire leapt to his call each and every time from his bare hand. It was magic—his own personal magic.
Not a short chant spell. Not even a super-short chant spell. There was no chant at all that proceeded the accumulation of the magical power.
Her brother had Magic that was instant.
“Sorry that I passed out for a moment!” Bell said as he panted while his blood continued to drip down into acid below with every hard breath he took, the smoke and embers from his instant flames obscuring the eye that had been glaring down on them as it whipped its tendrils above to try and clear its vision. “We need your Magic!”
“Mine won’t be enough,” he said, taking an offensive stance as the smoke thinned. “Cast your spells! I’ll protect you this time! I swear!”
It was ludicrous to her. Even she could tell he was barely standing and could barely protect himself. She couldn’t put him at risk as the vanguard in that condition. Not as his older sister who needed to protect her younger brother…
Or so she thought until she noticed something as she stared at his back which seemed so much broader than she expected. Covered in blood, his flesh and clothes sizzling from the acid, he was no different from her. In that moment they were the same.
Younger brother or not, he was still someone who had faced danger to come this far. Even if he saw her as his older sister, he also saw her as an Adventurer. And between Adventurers there was something each should have that surpassed anything else:
They had respect for one another because they were the same. They were the ones who braved the depths of the Dungeon in the hopes of conquering it. They were the ones who explored the unknown and defeated the monsters, risking life and limb to do so.
He respected her as an Adventurer, even if he saw her as his sister. Specifically, he respected her as a Mage in need of a Vanguard. But she hadn’t done the same for him—a Vanguard in need of a Mage capable of ending the battle.
She needed to respond to his respect with her own.
She needed to put her life in his hands.
“It’ll be drawn to my Magic, and I’ll be slower to respond,” she began to explain why she needed him to play the role that would thrust him into danger. “It’ll take time for me to accumulate the magical power to make sure I can kill it, but if you can keep it blind and distract it for me until I’m ready I swear I’ll get it done!”
It was a duty unbefitting of an older sister to assign her younger brother that needed to be protected. But for an Adventurer who was someone to be fought alongside as equals… there was no more fitting role.
“Protect me and I’ll sing for you, Bell!!“
Chapter 2: Lost Siblings – Part 1
Two words filled in the darkness threading the greenery of the forest around them. The crystals that lined the ceiling of the 18th Floor of the Dungeon had long since petered out. ‘Night’ had fallen for the floor and so those who were still milling about could be counted on one’s fingers.
Or just two in the case of the forest where they were at the moment.
“I swear it was an accident!” Bell cried out as he looked back only for the cold sweat beading his brow to thicken as saw his older sister smoldering with anger to the extent her body seemed ablaze. Pure, unadulterated rage that had been a long time coming. “Lord Hermes made a weird face all of a sudden and I tripped!”
For starters, Lefiya already had enough to worry about after the expedition to the 59th Floor. Things were already hectic enough between that and the red-haired monstrous woman who attacked them last time on this very floor. And then there was the fact that Aiz had the blood of Spirits within her and somehow that drew other creatures like that to her.
Her mood had gotten better once Filvis had come to visit her. It was unannounced and unexpected, but it brightened her day so much that she had forgotten all about how mad she was. That was the effect she had.
Filvis was so beautiful to Lefiya. It felt like every moment around her was warm and bright. Even now she could feel the lingering warmth of her touch. And she would have been content to just bask in it until they were back on the surface…
If not for the fact that fool who dared call himself her brother had the audacity to actually peep on herself and the others in the bath. Even if Lord Hermes had been the one who instigated him into it, he should have known better. To think she was related to someone like that.
When she had heard he was going around camp to make apologies, she had decided to wait until he was done and they were alone before getting on him about all the trouble he was causing. He should go back to living a life outside of the Orario or join a Farming Familia or something else that kept him out of the Dungeon and out of her life. But then he had groped her!
Her—of every other possible person!
“I’M SORRY!!!” Bell promptly ran faster as the flames of rage seemed to intensify. But she was Level Three and fueled by a rage born from many different things at the moment, which left her more than capable of keeping up even with his absurd speed.
For once the chaser and the chased had swapped places, with her pursuing him to the limits of her ability and him running from her as fast as he could. They ended up deep in the Under Resort, a vast forest that sprouted crystals that were fed from the light above and shed it during the night to leave the pristine vegetation a majestic tint of blue. The maze of trees, its hearty foliage serving as blinders and dividers, swiftly punished the two for doing so as they both realized once they had reached the limits of their stamina.
Namely, they both got lost. The pair ended up leaning against separate trees, the hearty trunks supporting their weight as they caught their breaths. They were both sweaty and red-faced from the exertion.
“This… is all… your fault…” Her breath came out heated as she stood across from him. The spirit was still enflamed. But the flesh was aching. She could run no more.
“I’m sorry, sister…” Bell said once more, his throat hoarse from the apologies. “I really didn’t mean to touch you like that.”
“It’s only because it was an accident you’re still breathing!” she snapped at him. She might have been more… liberal-minded than most elves who heralded from their homelands, partly because of her circumstances and her stay in the Educational District, but there were limits. “And you’d better not have told anyone else about us!”
The fact that they were related was a secret that only a handful of people alive were aware of—specifically, herself, her mother, and him. And she wanted to keep it that way to the extent that she never wanted him speaking of their connection.
Bell shook his head. “I haven’t.”
Lefiya huffed. “Good. It’s bad enough you decided to intrude on my life here. But then you have to get involved with my Familia and Miss Aiz! The fact that she saved you was already a miracle alone for a First-Tier Adventurer like her, but to have the nerve to ask her for training afterwards—as if you haven’t caused enough problems!”
Bell rubbed the back of his head as he looked away and muttered. “Well, you said that if I caught up to her then you’d acknowledge me, so… who better to learn from than her?”
And with that the flames in her chest were rekindled. “For something so stupid, you…. went after a Minotaur of all things!? You nearly got killed by one and then you decide to reject her help so you can go fighting a second one!”
It had really ticked her off to know he had done something so incredibly stupid intentionally, refusing the help of the others so he could fight it one-on-one! Of all the suicidal things he could have done! Even for Adventurers who had reached Level Two it was ill-advised.
And for good reason. They were among the Apex of monsters on the floors above the 18th for Level Twos. Speed, strength, stamina—they excelled at those attributes and could tear through Level One Adventurers like tissue. Especially one who hadn’t even been there for more than two months!
“I had to wait until Level Three before I fought one on my own!” Bell was left cowering as his year-older sister now hovered over him with her eyes burning red, flames coming from her mouth as though she were a furious hellhound. “And even then, it was with my Familia supporting me! You do not fight a Minotaur on your own!”
The flames inside of her roiled madly like a wildfire. Everything that had been building up became kindling that was burning her from the inside out. She had to let it out before she exploded.
“When are you going to realize this isn’t a game, Bell!? Four times! Four times since you’ve been here, you’ve been lucky to not die fighting things that should have killed someone else your level! What do you think will happen when your luck runs out!? Did you consider what’ll happen then to the rest of us? Your Goddess? Your Friends? My Mom!?”
The thoughts of his gravestone resurfaced. There laid a fool who died entering the Dungeon, the most dangerous place in the world, just so that she would call him her brother. Just so that he would acknowledge that blood tie they had.
She could see it. That small Goddess who loved her child enough to chase him down to the 18th Floor, violating so many rules and facing so many dangers because of him, crying on her hands and knees in front of his gravestone. That Supporter, who had begged the others to help them against the Minotaur, weeping next to her. That Blacksmith with Spirit’s blood, who’d followed him all the way down here, his expression struggling not to break apart.
Her mother, whom she knew still regretted not taking him in that day, crying when she had to break the news that she lost one of the treasures left behind by the only man she had loved—her younger brother.
And it would be her fault because she said those words the first time they met as children.
Words that she couldn’t take back.
That imagery coerced stinging, hot tears from the corner of her eyes. “You have so many people who would miss you if you died. And yet you keep risking it all for something… so stupid…”
It hadn’t been his fault. The bullying. The discrimination. None of it had been his fault. But she saw in him that day everything she went through and piled it onto him. And since that day she saw those eyes of his and how they watered when he was rejected by her.
Even now she looked away, not wanting to see them again as the flames within her began to finally burn out. Everything she held back having finally been turned to ash and left to peter out. “You… don’t need someone as selfish as me as your sister…”
A haunting silence loomed as she finished her tirade against the boy. She had said everything she had to say, where no one could hear them. She wasn’t happy to have said it, but she felt like if she hadn’t then she wouldn’t be able to keep it bottled up anymore. Maybe now he would get the message?
“… I… don’t know anything about our father,” Bell said after a moment, breaking the silence.
Lefiya’s mind froze for a moment as she processed what she heard. “Huh?”
“I don’t know what he looks like,” Bell continued. “Or his personality. Or anything. Nothing.”
It was absurd. So absurd that she couldn’t believe it. “Didn’t… didn’t your Grandfather tell you about him?”
He shook his head. “I only asked Grandpa about him once. Before we met. And… he told me that it shouldn’t be him telling me about him. That it should be my sister, since coming from her it would have more meaning. Because we’re family and it’s a bond that we share, regardless of circumstances.”
“…Unbelievable,” she muttered under her breath in simmering anger. She had never thought his grandfather would have kept information about their father from him. Then again, he was from Bell’s mother’s side of the family so he might not have known much about him to begin with. So he shunted it off onto her.
And… she didn’t even know her own grandparents. Albeit that was because it was forbidden. Her birth had made it so.
Still… had Bell spent his entire life waiting to hear about their father from her, because of what that old man had said? Had he spent nights and days, just wondering about his father? If she never said anything, who else was he going to ask now that his grandfather was gone?
Looking into those red eyes that seemed as innocent as the day they first met, she remembered his first words to her. How they were among the first kind words she had directed to her by someone other than her mother. How she had responded afterwards. It dropped a weight from her chest into her stomach as she clenched her teeth. He… deserves to know that much.
“I didn’t know him personally either,” she began, taking a seat next to him with the magic-stone lantern between them. “But Mom told me about him. About every little thing she knew about him and the time they spent together. It’d take too long to get into a lot of the details, but… I can tell you a little of what I know while we catch our breaths.”
His ears stood up in attention, almost like a rabbit. She’d say it was cute if not for the fact that it was… him.
“To start with, our father was like us,” Lefiya said. “He was also a member of an Exploration Familia. One that used to be here in Orario but frequented outside of the city often for quests. It was the Zeus Familia.”
He perked up at that. “Then, he was an Adventurer?”
She shook her head. “He was a Supporter. Nowhere near as glamorous or whatever ideal you’ve got in your head about him. In fact, Mom said the rumors from the other members of the Familia who stayed at the outpost when she was visiting at the time painted him as a coward who would run away at the first sign of trouble… and even then he’d still try to look cool in front of women.”
It was like watching a balloon deflate as whatever image he was forming in his head crumbled. Most people don’t think Supporter after all when they think of someone being part of a Familia. It carried a stigma even beyond Orario, and she could almost imagine that same look on her face when her mother told her the story of how they met.
“Still… he had saved Mom when it counted,” she continued before his image was ruined entirely. “Despite being a coward, he put himself in danger to save her from a monster that had come close to the forest. Despite there being others capable of dealing with it, he was there when they weren’t and ended up getting hurt for her sake.”
Her mother had described how terrified she was that she was going to die. How relieved she felt when he rushed in and put himself between her and it, only to be replaced with horror as the scent of blood and her vision turned red from the wound he sustained. It seemed like it would have almost been a mutual kill—the short sword he had plunged into the monster whereas the claws had torn into him, but he had only asked if she was okay.
“Mom said it was like a whirlwind of emotions had swept her up since then. She felt bad that he ended up being left behind, but he assured her they could get by even with a coward like him not being there since the only good thing about him was his running speed. She felt angry he talked about himself that way even as she ended up tending to his injuries while the rest of the Familia went on to finish their quest over the course of the month. But, by the end, she said it was the happiest month she had known—and well one thing led to another.”
That tryst had complicated things. A lot.
“…Grandpa told me a little about Elves,” Bell said. “He explained that she had a rough time because of it. And that might be why it would have been better if I stayed with him after we left. It must’ve been hard for you too.”
He wasn’t wrong. Being impregnated by a human, not even a strong Adventurer but a Supporter at that, had left a certain stigma with her mother. More so since she was unwedded. It left her sullied—and unable to return to the heart of the forest where she first hailed from. Working and living at the outpost was the only way she could remain even close to the forest.
Even so, her mother had loved her. And even though she never saw her father, her mother made sure that she knew he loved her. He had been the one who also provided part of her name—named after the leaves that danced in the air after being swept up in a whirlwind, just like how her mother had felt.
“…Anyway, that’ll have to do for now,” she said, bringing that to a close for the moment. “We’ve caught our breath. We should focus on getting back to the camp—”
For a moment she thought she heard the growl of a monster lurking nearby. But then she heard it again and noted it came from next to her. Specifically, the stomach of her younger brother who had a crimson hue painting his cheeks.
She gave him a flat stare. “You’re hungry at a time like this? Really?”
“Well, you chased me right before dinner time and I spent most of the day running around apologizing to everyone before that, so…”
“…You are unbelievable,” she said with a sigh before looking around. No food she could spot with limited visibility. She scrounged around the pockets of her combat outfit until she came across the Crystal Drops that she found the day prior. She had thought to share them with Filvis, but desperate times. “Eat this one, it’ll at least tide you over until we can get back to camp.”
He beamed at the treat. “Really!”
It ranked her. “Only because we’re lost. Those are worth a lot on the surface, so make sure you savor it slowly!”
“Yes, sis—” He caught her glare. “–er, ma’am.”
“Hmph…” She gave him a side-glance before taking the other one into her mouth and doing the same as she began to wrack her brain on how to get back to their group. As much as she hated to admit it, this was partly her fault rather than his.
She needed to see him back safely to his own Familia, at the very least. There were rumors that Adventurers who explored this part of the floor had gone missing, on top of monsters from other floors coming in, so it wasn’t safe for him to be here. Not when he was a fresh Level Two Adventurer.
It was her responsibility to see him to safety.
So she would.
Chapter 1: The Start of a New Tale
Few knew the “true” tale of Argonaut. For the one who was heralded as the “hero of the dawn” was a jester who wished for his tale to be a foolish comedy without tragedy. But, as his next great adventure took his life, there was one who stood by his side and made a solemn pledge:
To my dearest and beloved brother, Argonaut, I make to you this pledge.
Even though we part in this life, I will await you in the next.
May we be reborn as true siblings, so I can remain by your side.
And I vow as your sister to see the next chapter of your story be written…
As a heroic tale without a tragic end.
—Fina, Beloved Sister of a True Hero.
As the fate wove a tapestry to tell of a new hero for the age, so would the ancient vow be kept. Born of a human father and elven mother a year before the hero himself was a child in the Forest of Wishe. Though she would not bear the memories of her past, her heartfelt plea would transcend the ages. And through hardships and the Falna manifest, a new tale would be written in Orario…
Of brother and sister.
Bell and Lefiya.
[-The Start of a New Tale-]
There were two things that Lefiya Viridis hoped would remain buried in her past.
The first was that she was born sullied. She was dirty by the distinction of her blood not being of two that heralded from the Wishe Forest. It was a rich paradise of greenery, where magic was woven into the very roots as rites and rituals from before the age of the gods were recorded and preserved. But beneath the veneer of its glamour laid an undeniable truth that was abundant to her from the first day she had been old enough to recognize the look that others cast upon her was one of scorn.
She, as a half-elf, was not welcomed. Born to a society that represented elegance and grace, one born between a non-elven father and an elven mother was not seen as an equal. That was something she had to live with as long as she called that forest her home.
There was little wonder why she set out for Orario and never looked back.
The second, however, chased her all the way there.
His name was Bell Cranel.
And he was her younger brother.
She hadn’t known about him until she was around four years old. It was only because she lived on the outskirts of the forest that such a meeting was even possible—that her birth was possible, for that matter. Their home claimed not to be as restrictive of visitors as that of the Alf’s Royal Forest, but few who were not of pure elven linage could claim to have laid eyes on the heart of the forest.
Travelers never made it past the edge of the forest. The outpost was where her mother worked, and it was through there she had met her father. It was a union that never should have happened, but it did and she had been born to an unwed mother.
That day there had been an old man waiting for them. Her mother recognized him. They talked alone for some time in a room as she sat outside with a little boy that looked like a small rabbit. He had a bed of white hair that looked soft like a cloud and spotless eyes that were as beautiful as rubies—and, with two little words, he made her heart flutter.
It was the first time someone had told her that. Not that she was sullied. Not that she was different. She was left with her cheeks flushed the color of a rose as she couldn’t meet his innocent gaze.
But then her mother came outside and told her. She told him that his name was Bell Cranel. She told him that his father was her father.
That he was her younger brother.
Then… she didn’t see him as the little boy that looked like an innocent rabbit, his round eyes widening with joy at having a sibling. She saw him as the sum of every problem she had. Her absentee father had left her mother alone, only to have a son with someone else. It stoked in her anger that she never knew she had as the man wanted her to take him in so that he would have a family.
“I never want to see you again.”
Those words came out on their own before she ran off and hid until he and the older man were gone. The sight of his eyes watering lingered in the back of her mind for years to come afterward.
She threw herself into her studies as she got older. Every second put forth to excel. To prove her worth. But even when she demonstrated talent befitting one of the Wishe Forest, it was seen as being despite her heritage. The lineage of her elven ancestors compensated for her human flaws, from her appearance to her magic.
Then she left the home and came to Orario. She managed to join one of the most prestigious Familia there. She managed to become the student of Elven Royalty, where others who were pure could only dream.
That was when she met Bell again.
He had come to Orario now that his grandfather had died and he was alone again. He wanted to join her Familia to be with her, because they were family, despite never seeing one another since that day. But once more words came out of her mouth before she could stop herself.
“You aren’t good enough to join this Familia. So go back to your farm.”
It was cold. But it was true. She had studied to get this far and went through hardships he hadn’t. Countless others wanted to join as well, so why should she use the fact that they shared a father to give him an easy ride?
“Then, if I get strong enough will you accept me?”
“If you can get as high of a Level as Miss Aiz, maybe I will.”
It was nothing more than to humor him. The Sword Princess had become Level 6. It would be impossible for him to reach that level, so he should just go back to where he belonged.
But that was when the rumors started. Each one telling stories of the boy with white hair and red eyes. Each one telling how he was risking his life in ways that should have killed him over and over again.
And each one stirred different emotions within her.
The first threaded her chest with tension due to a Minotaur appearing on the upper floors, followed by relief when the white-haired boy had been saved by Aiz. She hoped he’d take it as a lesson and quit going into the Dungeon, to go back and live a safe life somewhere else. But she felt more grateful to Aiz than usual since that day.
Then was the fear and doubt upon hearing of the boy who fought the Silverback on Daedelus Street having silver hair and red eyes. That couldn’t possibly be him given that was a monster that upper-tier 1st Level Adventurers struggled with and he hadn’t been there for more than a few weeks.
It must’ve been someone else. But she felt that maybe she should make sure he isn’t getting in over his head before brushing it off. It wasn’t her fault if he did something stupid in the end.
Then bewilderment upon hearing that he was the one who beat Aiz’s record as the fastest to reach Level 2. It was insane. She struggled so hard to reach Level 2 and clawed her way up to Level 3. Yet here he was already and suddenly his words resonated in her chest.
The third time they saw each other was on the 18th Floor. She had heard the commotion and came out to learn that a party had come down from the 17th Floor, having been attacked by the Goliath. And one of those was a boy with white hair and red eyes who had no right being there.
There were no words to describe the feeling of pain in her chest when she opened the tent to see him lying there. She volunteered to watch over him until he woke up. No sooner did the flaps of the tent close did she curl into a ball as her mind flashed back to every time they had seen each other before then.
“I never want to see you again.”
“You aren’t good enough to join this familia.”
“Then, if I get strong enough will you accept me?”
“If you can get as high of a Level as Miss Aiz, maybe I will.”
Now, as she looked over his sleeping face, she pictured what their fourth time meeting would be. It would be her standing there and looking over a gravestone with his name on it. All because he was getting himself into so much trouble trying to catch up to her. All because he was putting himself in danger just for her approval.
It was so stupid. So suicidal. So why…
Why couldn’t she stop herself from crying when she thought about that?
Chapter 19: The Sixth Floor Redux
Silver flashed, gleaming amidst the pale-viridian light of the Sixth Floor. It was the glint of swift steel. A slender blade with a single edge drew a vicious arch and painted the nearest wall with a streak of purple ichor.
The lifeblood erupted from an ebony humanoid that no longer drew breath. Its upraised claw with points as sharp as daggers descended limply to its sides. Its body followed the momentum and crumpled onto the floor, vital fluids seeping into the cracks of the ground from the mortal wound. The tip of the blade then plunged into its oval-shaped head to ensure the kill, as she had the corpses of its kin strewn along the floor that had already fallen to her blade.
Mikoto withdrew the sword as she panned her surroundings for any more the creeping War Shadows. The Sixth Floor had not been shy about greeting the three who’d treaded onto its grounds with monsters borne from its cavernous womb, and these in particular were ambushers that hugged the shadows while the unaware peered around or were distracted by other monsters. Then, once they found an opening, they would descend to claim their lives.
That was what made them so dangerous, she thought to herself before she crouched while sweeping the sharp end of her blade around. The cold steel found the ebony body of one of the War Shadows that had been looking to ambush her and tore through it, exiting from the opposite end. The upper half of its body slid down the slope before landing on the ground with a wet thump. She made sure to stab in the head to ensure the kill. But they aren’t the only threat.
Her attention turned back to Welf as the thick blade he swung tore through the body of a Frog Shooter after he had closed the distance. He was powerful, or at least in terms of raw strength, he could definitely go through the monsters on these floors. And he had enough awareness of his surroundings that he remained on the ball enough to avoid the follow-up attack as a Kobold attempted to ambush him from his rear and slay it.
Numbers were a luxury of the monsters as, even though he cut down another, others were making their way into existence to take its place. He wasn’t yet at the level where sheer numbers wouldn’t be sufficient. The walls were only so fruitful, and their bounty would dry up eventually, but if there were enough of them, they could swarm him—and with the Frog Shooters providing cover for them, they could get lucky even before then.
At least he wasn’t alone as blood sprayed in an arch, the iron-rich smell painting the walls as a shriek borne from an inhuman throat rang out. The death throes of a Kobold that had its heart carved out by steel fangs were glossed over as, pushing past the collapsing corpse, the black-clad youth with his weapon more befitting of a butcher rushed in. Not close enough to be right up on the back of the vanguard, his boots crunched the stone floor as he viciously unfurled the blade while swinging it into the pack of foes.
Coarse fur was sheared. Muscle was torn into. Arteries were ripped apart. In a single swing, strength unbefitting of his slender limbs allowed him to rip through more than one body as he drew a bloody swathe from right to left with one swing. Then, with a twist of the wrist, he swung the opposite way and cut down another pair as their blood filled the air and patterned on his long-sleeved coat.
But it was too shallow in the case of one of the Kobolds as it attempted to reach out with its remaining claws and gouge out his eyes with a feral swipe. The nails narrowly missed as he backstepped, sliding his hindleg back while bringing his weapon overhead. The cleaver broke open the skull and pink brain matter joined the blood as he ripped it out hard enough that the legs of the monster buckled forward and left the corpse to collapse on its own.
Then, with a snap of the wrist, the weapon folded in on itself before he whipped it and his head around upon hearing the slightest sound. The weapon’s jagged teeth found the tongue of a Frog Shooter, tearing into it and splitting it ragged before leaving it to flop on the ground. He raised his other arm holding his secondary weapon and—
— pulled the trigger, resulting in a small plume of smoke leaving the barrel of his ‘gun’ as he had called it. The cyclopean eye of Frog Shooter that had lost its tongue burst open like an egg before its body went slack. Yet that was only a distraction for another Kobold that had opted to approach the boy with others coming from different angles as well.
He went to meet them while bearing his own fangs that were drenched in blood.
Aggressive. That was the mildest way she could put it as he threw himself towards his enemies with the ruthless weapon in his hand. Avoiding the claws that could tear his flesh that had yet to reach the point of being as tough as steel by the thinnest of margins, he sank his fangs deep into its body and then tore out its blood and flesh alike while seeking the next warm body he could bury them into.
It didn’t seem to suit the boy who on the surface seemed so placid. He seemed so aggressive that it was like he was a black wolf with iron fangs that sought to tear out the throat of anything that got close to him, leaving him covered in blood that caught the sheen of the light above. And yet, despite how it seemed to be unsuited for him, he was almost at home using such a reckless method of fighting…
But there was no time for the questions that danced on the edge of her mind. They were in battle. Everything that wasn’t necessary had to be shoved away to focus on what needed to be done and what she could do. That was why she took off running, her ponytail whipping in the wind as she crossed the distance with her blade in hand.
Silver streaked as she slashed through the dog-headed monsters along her path as she made for the more troublesome of the enemies on this floor. The Kobolds were easy enough for the two of them to deal with, but more troublesome enemies that could attack from a distance and ambush them were a different story—Frog Shooters and the War Shadows.
The former could provide a distraction or score a decisive blow that would change the tide, and the latter could score a kill with devastating ease. She had been prioritizing the latter until now, due to them being a bigger threat. But, now that there were no more that she could see, Mikoto would turn her attention to the remaining cluster of Frog Shooters bounding around.
Her approach didn’t go unnoticed by her targets. Their cyclopean gaze fixed onto her as one, and her hostile charge was met with lashing appendages. They fired their black tongues towards her like fleshy spears, each one capable of slamming into the frail human body hard enough to shatter bones. That much she could say from personal experience.
Back then they had been cautious. But she had been confident. Careless to underestimate them by appearance alone. And the price for that carelessness had been a broken arm from the bludgeoning lash striking her exposed limb. The pain she couldn’t remember after all this time—much less when she’d had worse since then.
But she could remember the faces. The looks of fear from her brothers and sisters in arms as it could have been worse given that losing her blade meant a War Shadow’s claws could find purchase much easier. The guilt gracing the handsome face of their god at sending them off into the dungeon, even though it was their choice. The sympathetic gaze of Miach as he provided healing without asking for compensation.
Those memories—as well as the memories that came before—compounded into experience. They shaped her and the others. And it showed as, even though she hadn’t reached Level 2 as of yet, she could weave between the lashing tongues while flicking her sword in passing to sever them. Leaving the useless fleshy lumps slopping onto the ground, she rushed in and—
—silver once more parted the air as her blade drew an arch that neatly sliced through a pair of the Frog Shooters as they prepared to bound backwards to retreat. The third one managed to escape in a single bound that carried it far out of her blade’s range as the viscera of its counterparts painted the floor with a wet splat and purple ichor. However, no sooner than it landed, did the sharpened tip of three throwing needles pierce it and its body turned to dust.
I must’ve hit the core by mistake, Mikoto chastised herself softly. Though they were largely just small fragments no larger than a finger at this level, every one of them counted for a Familia like theirs. Her thoughts didn’t linger on it as the dying whelp of a Kobold brought her attention back to the others and found that there were no foes left standing.
The blacksmith was even going around and driving his sword into their heads. It was to make sure none were feigning death. Not many of the simpler monsters would intentionally do that. But a killing blow falling just short enough to leave them on the verge of death was enough to stab an unsuspecting Adventurer in the chest when they came to harvest their stones.
Though considering how much blood now pooled beneath the corpses she doubted any that had met with the jagged teeth of Hestia’s child were among the living. Unlike swords that were meant to cut through the flesh and sever the vital organs or parts of the body, his weapon of choice for these six floors had been that one. It wasn’t designed to go through cleanly, but rather bite into the flesh and break through the bone before tearing its way out with everything it could drag in the process.
Like she had thought earlier it didn’t seem to suit him at all—yet there were a few things about him that seemed out of place as she observed him, to grasp just how much experience he had. It was more than she expected for someone who had not ventured into the Dungeon for more than a month.
She could not claim to be an expert martial artist, but she could recognize things about the body that happened as one gained experience. Muscle memory built up as you familiarized yourself with a weapon. Such as how you brace for impact, posture yourself to react against an opponent, adjust after a swing for the next one—and so on.
Roughly a month of practice will allow one to use a weapon on a basic level. The more complex the weapon, the longer it would take. True mastery was the work of years, if not a lifetime, as different encounters and experiences tempered your capabilities. Adventurers with the Falna could make that experience manifest from what she heard via certain skills such as Spearman or Swordsman, as it represented their single-minded focus on attempting to achieve mastery and take it as a commitment to continue along that path.
That weapon was irregular compared to a knife or other simple weapons. It was made so he could adjust the length and thus change the amount of force one could put behind it, even shifting the engagement range or which vital parts it targeted. That would require a lot of experience to wield as effectively as he had so far.
Then there were the stories going around of his battle with the Silverback. The heavy hammer he wielded to crush its limbs and could also become a silver sword to stab through its heart. The more weapons one used with any level of proficiency meant the more time one had to spend practicing with them, which brought the question of when he obtained the training to fight on par with one of the higher-tier 1st level Monsters like it.
He didn’t have a martial background from what she knew. His goddess had said he had no experience prior to Orario. But his body and prowess spoke where words said otherwise as he had without a doubt proven he was capable of handling the first six floors of the Dungeon without any problems in terms of combat. He simply lacked experience with dealing with them, not the capability to fight against them.
Even so, she found it a bit concerning as she watched him stand there while staring down at the growing puddle of blood. That which painted the floor would eventually be swallowed by the cavernous maw as readily as it regenerated its walls—the Dungeon took life as readily as it gave birth to it.
There was a small, almost nostalgic smile on his face. It was similar to the expression Lord Takemikazuchi would have while ruminating on times in the past he found to be happy. Then the blacksmith came over and tapped him on the shoulder, causing him to jerk his head slightly and turn to face him. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said hastily. “Just… gathering my thoughts after all of that. There were a lot more monsters this time compared to the last time. But they were a bit easier to deal with.”
“That’s why parties are valued,” Welf told him before looking to her. “Leader, are there any more monsters here?”
Mikoto took a deep breath before she closed her eyes. Then she spread her awareness out in the form of black, illusionary feathers. They scattered unseen to all but her as they blanketed the area in search of her foes.
Yatanokurogarasu—the Eight-Span Black Crow whose feathers could span the eight cardinal directions. It was one of two skills that were born from her experiences in the Dungeon, divination techniques that tied her awareness to the world around her. It was akin to a third eye that manifested in her mind as black feathers that would reach out and brush the limits of her range, clinging to any monsters that she was made aware of so long as she had encountered them before.
Her senses picked up nothing. There were no foes hidden in wait for them to pass by and ambush. The Dungeon could possibly spawn more given it required an active trigger and effort on her part to activate, but for the moment they were in the clear.
“…There are none within my range,” Mikoto finally said. “We should be able to focus on gathering our spoils and heading back to the surface. There we can discuss how we are going to progress the next time.”
“We’re heading back already?” Bell asked. “There’s still time in the day.”
She shook her head and spoke firmly. “The time spent in the Dungeon differs in groups, but this expedition was only to gauge our capabilities. And while you have proven your competency with the Sixth Floor and above, the Seventh is where things change. To go there ill-prepared and before we can practice synergizing ourselves a little more could spell death even for someone who has ventured as far as the Tenth Floor.”
The blacksmith agreed. “She’s right. The variety of monsters change and so do how they start acting in tandem with one another. You noticed that part of why the Sixth Floor happens to be so deadly is because the War Shadows typically attempt ambushes when you least expect it, right?”
Hestia’s child nodded slowly. “In some cases, even the walls they spawn from tend to be far enough away that you don’t hear them breaking. One of them even managed to trick me into stabbing into a wall when I had thought I backed it into a corner with a dagger and nearly took my arm off before another two surrounded me from the walls.”
Welf’s eyebrows rose at that. “How’d you get out of that one?”
“I waited until one made the first move and then slammed into it with all my strength so that we tumbled over, breaking the circle and springing up at the same time so I could run away long enough to summon a new weapon.”
That was another thing they had learned on the way down. He apparently had some kind of Skill that allowed him to effectively store away certain belongings that were exclusive to him. It shouldn’t be unusual since Skills could appear at any time upon gaining a Falna, based on one’s experiences or heritage or any other factor. However, it only compounded the mystery of who he was…
No. I do not need to think further on it, she decided in the end as she flicked her sword with a practiced grace before using a cloth to rid it of most of the excess blood and fat from cutting through the bodies of the monsters. It would need to be properly cleaned later, but she didn’t know if they would need to make use of it for the rest of the day. My Lord trusts the word of his goddess and he has proven he is capable. His secrets and how he obtained them does not matter.
That decided she proceeded to help them with the extraction of the Magic Stones. None of the monsters on this level had particularity caustic or harmful bodily fluids, so extracting them wasn’t much of an issue. The lull in activity, however, did open up the opportunity for her to gather up her thoughts on the formation of their little group. “Crozzo. I believe you would be best suited for the role of the vanguard in our three-man cell.”
He looked over to her from the dissipating corpse of a Kobold. “Me?”
“Your strength is notable, and you are experienced with these Upper Floors,” she explained. “You can adjust to dealing with threats upfront based on your judgment. That would also allow for more flexibility for the rest of us in dealing with the lesser threats, so they do not overcrowd you.”
He nodded to her assessment. “I can do that.”
“Then what about me?” Bell asked.
“I would prefer you to be the skirmisher of the formation,” she said. “Your fighting style is quick and aggressive, best suited for bringing down enemies quickly. It would also provide you with a chance to gain experience with unfamiliar monsters by seeing how they are engaged by the Vanguard and then adapting to them.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” he said in compliance. “So does that mean you’ll be the support then?”
“It would seem so,” she admitted. “My talents lean more towards dexterity and agility rather than raw strength and endurance. In addition, while I prefer the blade I have for engaging enemies, I can use most ranged weapons—which will be essential on the next floor considering what we will be encountering.”
Welf chimed in. “The Moths, you mean?”
“Yes,” she answered. “The Purple Moths are capable of spreading poisonous powder with their wings and are fond of using it while adventurers are engaged with the other threats. They are priority targets that need to be eliminated and I have some proficiency with the Shortbow. But fixing your eyes on them while the Needle Rabbits are present will end up getting you killed. Then there are the Killer Ants, which need to be ideally killed in a single blow, and the regular monsters like Goblins and Kobolds that will be stronger and smarter than before.”
Not only did the enemy variety increase but so did their numbers and tactics. That was why venturing any lower alone or without preparation was such a hazard. It was very easy to become cornered and killed if you were careless or simply unlucky.
“With your skill, you would be able to pick them off while remaining aware of your surroundings enough that you could keep us from running into trouble or being caught off-guard…” Welf looked down intently at the body of a War Shadow before asking, “If you guys don’t mind, can I take some of the drop items to make some weapons to help out?”
“We’ll have to set some kind of rule in place in the future about how we split those in the future, but I have no qualms if you intend to use them for our expeditions,” she said offhand. Drop Items had more value than the magic stone fragments at these levels. They could compensate for the potential losses from not going with their normal partners, so it might cause conflict in the future. “What about you, Cranel?”
He was the one who would benefit the most, being the only one who hadn’t gone further and the only one with a single member of his Familia. Yet he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure.”
“Thanks. Since our numbers are fewer, we’ll need to make up with better experience, abilities, and equipment. I can only provide a little of the former and both of your skills beat out mine, but the latter I can do something about. The War Shadow Finger Blades can be shaped into daggers and throwing knives that will cut deeper than their regular counterparts with less strength. And the Kobold Nails can be fitted onto arrows that have a little more penetrating power.”
“That would be beneficial, but would that not be taking advantage of your services?” Mikoto remembered that it was his role as a smith that had caused issues prior. She didn’t want this to be the cause of problems in his current group.
“This is simple and benefits all of us,” he reasoned. Then he tilted his head towards Cranel. “Plus, it’ll give me a chance to show off my talents to a potential Contract. I’d like to be able to study his weapons since they’re a rather unique concept, but before I go asking I need to pull my own weight. We will need Antidotes and Potions though—ideally at least two for each person.”
“I can get those,” Bell offered. “I had been meaning to visit the Blue Pharmacy anyway, so I can go after asking Miss Eina more about the Seventh Floor. That way you two could focus on the other stuff.”
“If you two are offering to obtain the equipment and supplies, I would be willing to handle keeping the finances secured,” Mikoto said. “We can take the Magic Stone fragments and any of the drops we collect to the exchange and create a budget for what will be split and what will be left for the group’s supplies. We won’t need them right away, as I would like at least two more trips through the Dungeon to improve our teamwork before we set foot on the Seventh Floor, and we can save up until then.”
Neither found seemed to find issues with that.
“That’s fine by me,” Welf said before extending one fist out to them both. “I’m looking forward to working with you both.”
Mikoto looked to it for a moment before extending her own fist as Bell did the same, solidifying their partnership.
Bell was in a fairly good mood by the time he left the Guild. He was a little tired mentally, given it was late evening. Eina had decided she was going to grill him on the monsters inhabiting the Seventh Floor every day before he stepped foot there—starting today. But he had been in a good mood as he approached the usual side-street on West Main that would lead him back home.
Then the smell hit him.
It was the all-too-familiar scent of blood. It was faint, barely above the hint of the iron aroma that niggled the back of his throat. But its sudden introduction into the clean air of Orario still reached his nose with such sharpness that he couldn’t help but take notice before the pained cry reached his ears as he turned the corner…
And found himself on the streets of Yharnam once more.
The familiar old street was now darkened with gloom. Its architecture turned imposing and enclosed as caskets that were sealed shut with chains lined the walls. The shadows themselves seemed to move with an eerie foreboding as they seemed eager to lap at the blood dripping onto the ground from…
It was the Little Girl. The Daughter of Gascoigne. She was there, laying on the ground with her back against the wall and clutching her right arm as vibrant crimson seeped from her fingers. Her eyes were filled with fear, helpless as she stared down at the bloodied Saw Cleaver from which tantalizing ruby beads dripped down.
Then its wielder looked to him. The tall figure dressed Hunter’s clothing that was a dingy and washed out yellow. A man who was dead risen from the grave looked to him and his mouth moved, but what came out were guttural sounds and growls—animal noise that didn’t register with Bell as he stood there for a moment in frozen silence.
Not until Henryk looked back to his granddaughter and raised the weapon while she looked back to him with a pleading look in her eyes that said she didn’t want to die.
Then it was like the trigger had been pulled. “STOP!”
He rocketed forth as fast as his legs could carry while reaching out to the Hunter’s Mark in the back of his mind to call out to the Little Ones. They answered his call, producing from the wall to the right along his path the handle of his Saw Cleaver. In a single motion and without a pause in his sprint he grabbed it and swung it forward as the Old Hunter turned to him and did the same—
—and the scraping of steel-on-steel caused the world to revert. No longer was he on the streets of Yharnam but the familiar road leading him back home. The one facing him wasn’t the aged Hunter, but a man who looked a few years his senior and was wielding a longsword.
And by his side was not the Little Girl he knew, but a female pallum that had short, chestnut hair that was messy and untamed. The beige cloak she had on looked frayed and worn, the tear in the sleeve from which blood ran anew to adorn the stitched ones. She looked a mix of surprised and confused at the scenario in front of her.
“The hell you think yer doing, brat!?” the man demanded, drawing Bell’s attention back to him. “I thought I told you to stay outta this!”
“I’m not going to let you kill a little girl in front of me!” Bell shouted right back as he jerked his arm, leaving the teeth of his saw to scrape against the edge of the blade and leave sparks in their eyes before thrusting his foot forward to plant his boot into the man’s chest. The flat of his blade intercepted it but he let the momentum carry him so that they were disengaged.
It may not have been Gascoigne’s Daughter. He may not have been on those streets that had gloom seeped into the very stone. But that did not change the fact that he wasn’t just going to let someone get murdered right in front of him.
He took a protective stance in front of her, never letting his gaze leave the man with his weapon in one hand and the other reaching for a potion stashed in his pouch. He then tossed it back to her and said, “Use that and run!”
The nameless pallum grabbed it with her good hand before she promptly scurried to her feet and took off running. The sound of the bottle being uncorked and splashing over the wound reached his ears as her footsteps hastened. But he didn’t have time to focus on that anymore as the man’s face grew angrier than before.
“So you were workin’ with that scum all along!” If Bell had to express his visage in words it would be the picture of a hellhound on two legs, ready to breathe out a wave of fire. The intent to kill was palpable. “Fine, I’ll carve you to pieces and then drag ‘em to her!”
Then he went on the attack. His blade swung through the air, a streak lingering as the setting sun caught its descent angled towards Bell’s neck for what was meant to be a fatal blow as he raised the Saw Cleaver in a guard to defend himself—
—and then the sword clattered onto the ground, steel scraping the stonework mingling with the surprised and pained cry of the assailant as he huddled over with his right hand clutching his left hand. The fingers of the latter were bent out of shape, broken bits of bone jutting out and piercing the bruised skin.
And at the base of his feet was a small stone that was bloodied.
“Leave,” a soft but firm voice spoke. It was commanding and drew Bell’s attention to an entrance of the alleyway where he spotted Ryuu standing there with her arm outstretched and eyes narrowed. “Now.”
The Adventurer’s baleful gaze fixed onto her. Then onto the stone at his feet. And lastly, at Bell, his eyes lingering for what felt like a lifetime before he sucked in a sharp breath, grabbed his blade with his good hand, and exited without another word.
Despite his absence the tension in the alleyway seemingly lingered as Bell lowered his Saw Cleaver and looked down at the bloodied stone. It was an ordinary stone that you could find anywhere on the streets. That man had been an Adventurer who was at least more experienced than him. He could put the pieces together well enough.
Even so, he turned to thank his savior. “Thank you for that. I hadn’t seen you when I was at the Hostess of Fertility.”
She only shook her head. “I was running errands when I overheard what was happening. However, it would seem I only bought you a reprieve. He will most likely attempt to come after you again.”
That information took a second to process. Then Bell felt a weight in the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean?”
“Just now he was memorizing your features,” she pointed out as she slowly walked towards him. “Your exchange was brief, but it became clear the two of you would not have resolved that fight without one dead. You recognized that as well, did you not?”
…His grip on the Saw Cleaver tightened and his stomach twisted into a knot because Bell did know. Yharnam had not been kind to him, but because of it he recognized from both the intent and the motions that man fully intended to kill him. There was no doubt in his mind. “…I couldn’t let him kill that girl. But I didn’t want to kill him.”
“I am not criticizing you for your decision,” Ryuu told him. “Merely stating that you should be prepared to defend yourself adequately next time rather than simply intending to fend such a person off without harming them. Even passivity can have consequences, Mister Cranel.”
The message carried. “I’ll keep my guard up.”
“Then I wish you a good evening,” Ryuu said before making her way out of the alleyway. He wondered just how strong of an Adventurer she was to do that kind of damage. But it wasn’t his place to ask—not when she had done it to protect him.
Once she was gone, Bell looked back to the wall where that girl had been. The cut had been deep from the blood there despite her clutching the wound. The potion was one of Miach’s so it should work, but…
He could still see Gascoigne’s Daughter in that moment. “I didn’t really save you, did I?”
The alleyway remained silent as he made his way back home.
But an answer came to him the next day as he was outside of Babel once more, in Central Park. Hestia said to leave the details of scheduling more parties with the other two Familias to her since they all had different schedules to keep and obligations on their own ends. It was just him today, strapped up in his new armor and his weapons a mere thought away.
It was then he felt a tug on his sleeve from behind. He turned his head around to see that they belonged to a tiny set of hands gingerly holding him. Then he had to crane down to meet with the beige hood obstructing the bed of disheveled, chestnut hair. But it was only when his eyes trailed down until they met a set of eyes that matched her hair, nestled over a saccharine smile, that recognition dawned.
And, in a small voice that tickled his ear, she said five little words he hadn’t expected to hear:
“I’ve found you, Mister Hero!”
Chapter 18: The Blacksmith and the Swordswoman
The sun was setting over the horizon of a grassy field.
The green carpet was only split by a dirt path, carved out by countless feet tracking over the same path until it became a road. The evening breeze was cool and refreshing as it gently caressed the cheeks of a young boy with hair as white as the moon in full and eyes as crimson as blood.
Bell Cranel was just a boy. He was short, adorned by a plain shirt and baggy pants that hung off his frame. His tiny fingers that weren’t even large enough to grip a hoe instead clung to the pants of the tall figure next to him, his only family in the world.
“I hope today wasn’t too hard on you, Bell,” said his Grandfather, tone wrapped in a gentle voice. “I know you aren’t used to working on the land just yet.”
The tiny boy shook his head. “It was fun helping you, Grandpa.”
The aged face bore a smile before the thick fingers came down and rustled his hair affectionately. “That’s good. How about I tell you another story tonight?”
The smile that came across his face was like the blooming of a flower under the sun. “Can you tell me about the Argonaut again?”
“You really like that one, don’t you?” When Bell nodded his head like an excited puppy, his grandfather only chuckled a bit more before hoisting him onto his shoulders. “Let’s hurry home then.”
As Bell clung to his grandfather’s head, he looked back towards the setting sun. The light suddenly grew brighter. It swelled with radiance until it became so bright that it devoured the world…
And then the light dulled to become the glow of a magic stone lamp. Bell Cranel woke from his dream to find himself once more in the confines of the space beneath the Church. The place the Hestia Familia called home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Grandpa lately, Bell realized as he sat up, causing the sheets clinging to him to slide down and pool around his waist as he looked down at his hands. The imagery of blood painting them flickered in his mind for a moment before the pale hue reasserted itself.
It had been a few days since he’d returned from Yharnam and fought the Silverback. Since then he’d been laying low, so to speak. He’d been so focused on the fight that he’d been ignorant of his surroundings and a large crowd had borne witness to his battle when he really didn’t want the attention right now.
Eina had visited to apologize for the incident after the first day and offered compensation on behalf of the Ganesha Familia for destroying the monster before it could cause more collateral damage and kill civilians. They were apparently taking responsibility for the incident and were working on reparations and repairs to the damage caused by the monsters, including Daedalus Street. They weren’t sure how all the monsters got loose, or why that one in specific had managed to slip away unnoticed until it attacked him, or even the identity of the thief who’d led him to that place. But they were still grateful he went above and beyond what was expected for an adventurer of his Level.
The goddess residing there called Penia also asked that her thanks be extended to the ‘Hero of the Street’ as they were apparently calling him. Bell wasn’t aware of that goddess, but Hestia seemed to know her from the reaction she gave. The moniker made his stomach turn and it took all the effort he could not frown when the two of them were watching him at the time.
After all, how could anyone at all call someone like me a Hero?
He hadn’t been thinking of the people around him when he fought the Silverback the second time. He was only thinking about how it stood between him and returning to his Hestia’s side. Not to mention how he’d left that Little Girl in Yharnam with no one else in the world to call family after plundering the echoes of her grandfather just so he could return to his family.
Maybe the dreams were meant to be a punishment for that. To have the memories of simple times when he had been at his happiest with his Grandpa, only to wake with the knowledge that those times were now gone forever. To never forget the pain his absence brought and be reminded of what he could never regain.
It’s probably what I deserve. He brought a hand to his head and let out a soft sigh as he gathered his thoughts. Then he looked at the clock, pulled aside the sheets, and stood up to stretch his body.
Even with the sins on his back weighing him down, Bell couldn’t keep hiding away in the Church. Even with the generous consideration of the Ganesha Familia, their finances were still tight. He had work to do and today was going to be a busy day given everything that he needed to do.
He had to go thank Syr for helping him get away that time. Then there was a meeting with the members of the Hephaestus and Takemikazuchi Familia that Hestia arranged to see if they had good enough compatibility. The news about the Silverback had likely given both a little more consideration of his talents, which would probably be the only good thing that came out of it.
Once he was limbered up and dressed, Bell left the confined comforts of the Church behind with his broken armor in his bag. The sun’s rays touched down and heated the stone streets while its radiance lit up the sky. The air was crisp as it whistled through the buildings that made up the cul-de-sac. Not a bad morning all things considered.
Yet, as he walked the path there was a slight sense of wariness in his stride. He found himself feeling more alert than before. The streets of Orario should be safe, yet that had been proven not to be the case.
The sense of unease he felt made him realize just how much he’d taken for granted the sense of safety he felt during the days prior to the Monster Feria. He wondered if this was how the people of Yharnam felt every day and night. Never knowing when a beast or giant rodent would pop out of the shadows to end their lives even before the night of the Hunt.
Calm down. He took a deep breath to try and rid himself of the tension he felt. That incident with the Silverback was probably just due to some unusual circumstances at the time. Even if it wasn’t, Bell wasn’t unarmed even if he didn’t carry his weapons with him at the moment.
The Messengers could retrieve his Hunter’s Pistol, Saw Cleaver, Saw Spear, Kirkhammer, or Gascoigne’s Axe from the Dream with a thought—no matter where he was. It was undeniably a convenience that he couldn’t exactly ignore.
But it did little to comfort him as he finally reached the Hostess of Fertility and walked through the doors, whereupon the ladies greeted him on sight.
“Bell, it’s been a few days,” Syr said, wearing her uniform that was a pale-green skirt and white blouse. There was an empty tray in her hand from delivering a plate of what looked to be sausages to a dwarf. “I was starting to worry I scared you off.”
“I was just laying low for a bit until things settled down,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for helping me get back home.”
Syr shook her head. “It was the least I could do since you only got caught up in it doing me a favor.”
“Mya, but who would have thought little white-hair could make a mess like that,” Arnya spoke up, leaning over his shoulder with a cheshire smile on her face as she gently poked his cheek. “You know they’re still talking about how brutal you were even now, meow~?”
Bell flinched slightly at that. “I… didn’t really have a choice at the time.”
“No one is questioning your actions, Mister Cranel,” Ryuu assured him as she walked past, having finished busing a table. “How you won doesn’t change the fact that you adapted to an unforeseen circumstance and prevailed against an opponent that was stronger than you, all while keeping those around you safe. It was admirable considering your short time as an Adventurer.”
Mama Mia nodded in agreement. “You fought. You won. Hold your head up with pride.”
“…Thank you,” he said, feeling a weight somewhat lifting off his shoulders.
“So, Bell, what are you up to today?” Syr asked. “Are you heading back to the Dungeon?”
“I plan to after handling some other things like getting my armor repaired,” he said. “I’ve been gone from it for a while now, so I don’t think I’ll go that deep inside. But I’ll probably be there until nightfall.”
“In that case, how about I give you a lunch to eat later on?” she offered. “Just give me a moment and I’ll get it from the back.”
Before he could say anything, she was already gone and came back with a basket that she held out for him with a soft smile on her face. He couldn’t find it in him to exactly refuse, while either willfully or blissfully ignorant of the pitying look that briefly crossed some of the girls’ faces as he accepted it. “Thanks. I’ll bring it back later tonight.”
That done, they bid him farewell and he set back out towards Babel from West Main.
Eventually, Bell made it to Central Park just outside of the white tower that rose to the sky. The cultivated greenery of the park, along with the numerous fountains that were constantly spouting crystalline water, made for a refreshing spot to take moment to relax. The westernmost fountain would serve as the meeting place.
Hestia had told him that Hephaestus mentioned one of her children would meet Bell here, but it’d be up to whoever it was if they wanted to form a party. Same with Takemikazuchi. It hadn’t been long since he’d arrived in Orario and, despite all of the horrible things that happened after the Minotaur, he was grateful for the chance to meet so many new people and interested in seeing just what it’d be like to fight alongside others.
Still, Bell honestly had some reservations about working with others due to the secrets he and his goddess shared about his status. He could pass off being able to retrieve his weapons and items from the Dream as a form of magic. It was rare for those who only recently obtained a Falna to have access to magic, but not unheard of.
But he’d need to avoid letting them know about the fact that blood was something that could mend his wounds or revitalize him if he could help it. No matter how he thought about it, there was just nothing good about how it looked. Besides, he shouldn’t take on any wounds if he could help it.
I’ll probably have to be careful with the Quicksilver and Blood Bullets too, he thought to himself with a sigh. The Hunter’s Pistol allowed him some range when it came to dealing with more annoying monsters that hovered out of his range. But… what if he shot a monster and didn’t kill it?
In the end, his blood was the same as that of the Hunters. There was a Beast dwelling deep inside of him as well, just like Gascoigne and Henryk. If he was careless and let someone else consume or come into contact with it, was there a chance that it’d turn whatever it flowed through into a Beast as well?
A shudder ran through his body when he thought back to the Minotaur that had killed him once before. If it had ran back into the depths after he’d shot out its eye, would it have become an even more terrifying blood-slathering monster? An Abnormal?
Deep in thought, Bell only realized that someone was closing in on him when their shadow offered shade from the sun. He looked up to see what looked to be a young man, at least a few years older than himself, with hair that was red like flames while being dressed in black. There was also a small box under one of his arms.
“You wouldn’t happen to be from the Hestia Familia, would you?” he asked. “I mean, Hephaestus mentioned I’d recognize you from your hair and eyes. But…”
“Y-Yes—” Bell stood up and nodded. “I’m Bell Cranel, part of the Hestia Familia. Are you, um, here to form a party with me?”
“Well, I’m hoping that’ll be the case,” he said. “When my goddess mentioned someone with white hair and red eyes killed that Silverback, I kind of pictured someone a little older. But it’s not like age matters much to Adventurers, right?”
He had a point. The Falna was the great equalizer. Even a child with one could, in theory, kill monsters five times their height with ease if their stats were high enough. Then he extended his unoccupied arm and held out his hand. “I’m Welf Crozzo.”
“Welf… Crozzo?” Bell froze for a moment. Then his voice picked up a notch. “Welf Crozzo, the blacksmith?”
Welf let out a sigh. “…Yeah. That one.”
“I can’t believe my luck!” the white-haired boy said with a smile as he slung off his bag. “I’ve wanted to meet you if I could!”
Hearing how ecstatic Bell sounded, Welf couldn’t help but feel a sense of apprehensiveness building up in his chest that was tinged by expectation. He had some hope that, with Bell supposedly being new to the city, he wouldn’t have heard of the Crozzo name. That cursed name that had more than once drew ire and expectation towards him that he hoped wouldn’t rear its ugly head once more.
Yet, it seemed that he wasn’t so lucky. The next thing he would do would be to ask for a magic sword no doubt. Better to get it over with now than drag it out. “Look, I’ll tell you right now I’m not making any Mag—”
The blacksmith’s words were cut short when Bell set the bag down on the edge of the fountain. The sound of rattling betrayed the contents that glimmered with dull-toned steel and battered metal. He recognized it, because what blacksmith couldn’t recognize their own work, and a lump formed in his throat as he swallowed the rest of his previous words and hesitantly asked, “Is that…my armor?”
White hair shifted as the younger boy nodded. “I wanted to see if I could get it repaired or replaced by more of your work later today, because of how beat-up it got during the fight against the Silverback. It helped me out a lot before that too.”
Welf set down the box he was holding on the edge of the fountain before slowly reaching into the bag next to it. He pulled out the chest-piece of the armor set and found that it had been put through no small amount of damage. It had only been a few days since the armor had been sold but it had seen more use in that time than some armors had seen in years.
“…This was literally the second armor that I sold,” Welf began, running his thumbs over the ragged and battered chest-piece. “I made it out of Metal Rabbit Hair, so it would be both durable and light. It was as high-quality as I could make it, but the price was set so that a beginner could afford it while covering the costs of manufacturing it. To see it like this is…”
Since the armor was sold through the storefront no names were exchanged, so he wasn’t privy to any information about the customer. He couldn’t ask them what they thought about it, or if any adjustments could have been made to make it more comfortable, or any special considerations.
The fact that it hadn’t been immediately returned had given him something of a sense of elation, but also sparked his curiosity as he’d wondered who it was that bought his armor and why they’d done it. Was it by chance or after some serious consideration? Was it because the quality was just right for the price range or the aesthetic of it?
It had to be Fate that the one who bought it was standing here in front of him to answer those questions. “Sorry I ruined it so soon. I…”
Bell trailed off when he noticed Welf slowly shaking his head.
“You used it in the battles you fought and came back alive,” he said. There was always a single question every blacksmith dreaded thinking about as they worked the forge: would this fulfill its purpose and keep the one who bought it alive? “That’s all that matters.”
Welf couldn’t guess that the chest-piece had saved Bell’s heart from being gouged out by a spear backed by inhuman strength. Or the fact that it caught some of the explosive fragments of fast-flying quicksilver that scoured the pristine surface. Or how it’d stopped him from being opened up from shoulder-to-hip by the fangs of a Saw Cleaver.
Likewise, Welf couldn’t even fathom how the forearm-guards had warded away claws that had shredded away half of the young adventurer’s innocent-looking face prior. Or how they kept him from losing his head to the axe of a Beast clad in the flesh of a man. Or even the fact that they’d held out against the steel teeth of a maddened Old Hunter.
The only thing he could tell was that the armor he’d crafted had saved the life of this adventurer more than once. It had held up as best it could until he was in a position to get back with his life intact. And it still hadn’t crumbled to dust despite all of that—a fact that brought a soft smile to his face.
The boy looked as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders before asking, “So, you think it’s possible to get it fixed?”
“Honestly, with it being in this condition, it’d be easier to just replace it,” Welf said after assessing the cumulative damage. Then he set the chest-piece down and reached over towards the box he’d brought with him. “I guess you really are in luck considering I was just going to put my latest version in the armor series on sale after the meetup was done.”
He removed the lid to show off his latest work. Since the armor Bell had bought was the first one that wasn’t returned right away, he’d decided to make a similar model one to it. The Pyonkichi Mk III was a little more durable than the first due to the composition of its materials making it thicker, with a few embellishments on it to make it somewhat more aesthetically pleasing.
Bell picked up the armor pieces and turned them in his arms. He seemed drawn to the pieces, pulled into the silvery glint of the morning sun being reflected off the polished surface of it. The blood-hued rubies on the wrist guards matched his eyes upon looking into them, almost like staring into a mirror.
“How much?” he asked, looking up to Welf with eager eyes.
The blacksmith struck a deal. “You can have them for free, if you’re willing to make a Direct Contract with me.”
Upon seeing the boy’s head tilt quizzically, he remembered that Bell had only been doing this for such a short time he likely wouldn’t know. So Welf explained the notion to him that in a direct contract the drops and loot from the Dungeon would be brought back to Welf, who would then use them to make things for Bell at a reduced cost. For adventurers at a low-level, the reduced price made armor and weapons more affordable so they could go deeper into the Dungeon, where they had a better chance to Level Up.
“Oh, that’s convenient,” Bell said. “But would it really be okay to make a contract with me? I haven’t gone that deep into the Dungeon, so the items I can bring back aren’t really that good.”
“And I’ve only gone down to the Tenth Floor and haven’t even unlocked my Blacksmith Developmental Ability yet,” Welf told him. “You’ve been down to the Fifth Floor at the very least, despite having been here only a little while, so from my perspective you’re moving pretty fast even though we’re both low-level Adventurers. Even so, we still have room grow and I think that’s part of why our Goddesses agreed to let us meet like that.”
Part of that was due to the fact that he wasn’t a dedicated adventurer. He was first and foremost a blacksmith, so his time was mostly spent in the forge rather than the depths of the Dungeon. But he had trouble joining parties because of his name and had reached the limits of what he could do alone, which was why when his goddess told him about the offer instead of the others in her Familia he’d jumped on the chance.
And he was rewarded by meeting the very person who bought his armor and used it to its fullest. More than anything Welf wanted this battle party to work out. “By the way, do you know who the third person we’ll be partying with will be?”
Bell looked up from the armor pieces that he was fitting onto himself. “It’s a member of the Takemikazuchi Familia. Their god is on good terms with Goddess, even though they both work for different potato puff stands. I think they’ll be here soon too.”
Welf hadn’t heard of the Familia before, so it was likely a small one. More so if their god worked in such a place. Even so, the prospect of being able to form a three-man cell was something he was looking forward to, so he tried to spot their potential ally when he saw a pair of eyes staring back at them.
It was a young woman approaching them. She had raven-black hair tied into a ponytail that contrasted her milk-white skin, the front of which draped and parted over eyes that were a shade of blue and purple. Her choice of clothing and weaponry reminded Welf of a little of Tsubaki’s, only with it being somewhat more modest and painted a shade lavender with a red shoulder-guard that had the emblem of a sword planted in the ground.
Her eyes settled onto Bell’s hair and she hesitated for a single step before walking towards them. Then she came to a stop in front of them and asked, “Are you Bell Cranel of the Hestia Familia and the member of the Hephaestus Familia?”
“That’s us,” Welf said. “And you must be our last party member?”
She nodded and gave a slight bow. “My name is Yamato Mikoto. I am of Lord Takemikazuchi’s Familia.”
Mikoto came at the agreed upon meeting place at the appointed time with her back straight as she took in the appearance of the two adventurers in front of her. It was at the behest of her Lord that she agreed to at least see if the formation of this party would be to the benefit of them all.
“It’s nice to meet you, Miss Mikoto,” said Hestia’s child as he looked up to her with a smile. The formality of his speech, the curvature of his face, and the brightness in his eyes gave her the impression of him being far less…imposing than the recent stories floating around would tell.
“I’m Welf Crozzo,” said the other adventurer. He flashed her a grin as he extended his hand. “Pleasure to meet you too.”
As she shook it, she felt how calloused and rough they were. Not surprising given he was part of a Crafting Familia. It was a clear sign of his dedication to his craft at the very least, but she didn’t believe it was a perfect reflection one’s capabilities as an adventurer.
Even without forming a party, relationships between adventurers were fickle things at the best of times. But there was a reason mixed parties were complex things to form even in the short-term after all. You had to factor in the relationship between the gods and goddesses. Then there was the imbalance in experience. Last was the dispositions of their Familia members.
In the case of their deities, Lord Takemikazuchi held a friendship with the Goddess Hestia despite the fact that their potato snack stands were rivals. He did not seem particularly close to the Goddess Hephaestus, but there was no animosity. Hestia was seemingly close to her if the story about her staying with the former for a time after her arrival was true, and all three ultimately consented—so there wasn’t a problem there at present.
Next was the question of experience and disposition that Mikoto herself had to address as she broached the topic. “Forgive me for asking this abruptly but, since we are not familiar with one another very well, may we discuss matters like how long we have been exploring the Dungeon, the deepest floor we’ve explored, and our previous experience with parties?”
It was somewhat blunt outright asking them. But she felt it would be the best way to judge them. Since she’d arrived in Orario she had seen many kinds of adventurers. Those that boast of their strength and accomplishments, those that embellished their abilities, and so on. Letting them speak before she made judgement was paramount.
Hestia’s child spoke up first. “Ah, well… I’ve been an Adventurer for less a month now since I arrived in Orario. Since then I’ve only made it as far as the Sixth Floor. And this will be my first party.”
“You’re really selling yourself short,” Welf said. “Most people don’t make it that far down in months, let alone weeks.”
Bell only shook his head at the compliment and his tone of voice shift slightly to a somber one. “I think I was mostly just lucky. Both my advisor and Goddess warned me, but I didn’t really understand until a little while ago how reckless and dangerous it was doing that alone.”
…Neither were wrong. Most adventurers, or at least the ones who tended to live longer, paced themselves. Exploring the Dungeon was a gradual thing and so it was best to acclimate yourself towards becoming familiar to its habits while gaining experience during the earlier period, when the growth was accelerated.
That being said, going that deep after a few days was indeed reckless. More so when you were alone. Especially if he had no combat experience prior to arriving in Orario, as his goddess mentioned. Luck might have played a part in that, but the fact that he was still alive and whole after going that deep said something of skill and dedication as well.
The blacksmith scratched the back of his head. “Well, in my case, I’ve been here for seven years but I’ve only made it as far as the Tenth Floor. I’d like say that’s because I spent most of my time working in the forge since my Goddess only allows for us to put the best of our things on sale, but part of that’s due to an issue with forming a party.”
“Why’s that?” Bell asked. “From what I heard, most of the larger Familias form a party with other members, right?”
“That might be the case in Exploration-Type Familias, but with us it’s different…” He went silent as he closed his eyes and grabbed his chin in thought. “You probably don’t know, but we lower-level blacksmiths tend to have our work cut out for us in getting customers. It’s no lie when I say that sometimes we have to steal and undercut each other because there are so many of us and so few customers. Because of that forming a party between members of our Familia can be difficult at times, so we have to group up with people outside of it…”
After a moment, he opened them and looked to Bell. “I’ve been with a lot of different parties, but none of them has ended well. They would ask me to do something that I wasn’t comfortable doing. And when I refused, they’d try to leverage my status as a member of their party to get it. Because of that we would break apart on bad terms, but I honestly want this to work out for us.”
In other words, he was a serial party-jumper. It wasn’t strange for one person to move between them occasionally, to see if there was good compatibility. But doing so consistently and leaving on bad terms often meant that there was some kind of problem with the individual.
“Will whatever it is that caused the animosity between yourself and the others interfere with us while venturing into the Dungeon?” Mikoto asked.
He shook his head as he faced her. “It was centered around my role as a smith, not an Adventurer. I can pull my weight in the Dungeon.”
Were they perchance trying to get him to make them free equipment? Mikoto silently wondered. Equipment cost was a heavy expense for a smaller Familia and larger ones would have their own dedicated smiths to maintain their gear.
Regardless, he looked frank and firm in his gaze. The implication of what he told them was clear enough and he had to know how it sounded. Yet, the fact that he was openly admitting it when he didn’t have to meant he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
“I cannot judge your relationship with other groups in the past,” she said, crossing her arms. “I have no right to comment or pry into what happened with them either. Instead, I will look to contributions in the Dungeon.”
Bell agreed. “You don’t seem like a bad person and I doubt our goddesses would let us meet up like this if that was the case.”
“Thank you,” he said with a look of relief on his face. “Both of you. I won’t let you down.”
Next, it was Mikoto’s turn. “As for myself, I have been exploring the Dungeon since my Familia relocated to Orario two years ago. We are small with only six members, so we often partied with one another. But one of our members has achieved Level 2 and so we were able to go as deep as the Thirteenth Floor consistently.”
“That’s incredible,” Welf said earnestly while staring at her. “I’ve known Familias that never make it that deep despite being more than twice the size. Honestly, you can live relatively comfortably at that point without going much deeper as a smaller group.”
Mikoto only shook her head. Perhaps they could, if they simply kept the valis they earned for themselves. But it wasn’t just themselves they were supporting. “Leaving aside our financial circumstances, we have our own reasons for going as deeply as we do. ”
Perhaps out of respect for them not pressing him for further details, the blacksmith didn’t press further either. He merely nodded. “Either way, you’re probably the most experienced of us from the sounds of it. Are you going to be the party’s leader then?”
“So it would seem,” she settled on. If it was based purely on experience, Welf had the greatest in terms of years. However, he admitted that he was more dedicated to his craft and he often left parties because of incompatibility. Plus, he didn’t seem to want to call the shots so much as he simply wanted to be part of a party.
Likewise, Bell had less than a month’s worth of experience diving into the Dungeon and had only gone as far as the Sixth Floor. Plus, he had no experience with fighting in a group. That lack of experience was something that couldn’t be overlooked.
“Bell Cranel, I have heard that you managed to slay a Silverback,” she said. “But if we are to commit to this battle party we need to know the measure of your abilities personally, as well as demonstrate our own. Are you aware of what a three-man cell formation is?”
Bell shook his head.
“It’s a standard formation where one acts as the vanguard, the other covers them, and the last one provides rear support,” Welf explained. “The Vanguard would deal the initial offense, drawing the enemy aggression while their support prevents counterattacks and look for the opportunity to end the enemy as quickly as possible. The rear support usually brings up the rear using long-range weapons, preventing surprise attacks and holding onto healing items, but they need to be able to defend themselves and contribute.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Bell said. “So which role are we all going to be?”
“We will determine that by the end of the day,” Mikoto declared while looking over to Babel. “For now, prepare yourselves. Before we take a risk that would dishonor my Lord, we’ll go down to the last floor that you ventured to so that we may see what you are capable of—the Sixth Floor.”
Interlude 2: The Growing Insight of Three
For a second time Aiz felt like she’d run straight into a brick wall. She’d been tasked with dealing with the last monster that had escaped—a Silverback—when a pungent scent met her head on. The aroma dug into her mind and clouded her thoughts for only a moment, but that still brought her sprint to an abrupt halt.
“Huh…” The sound of interest came from her Goddess next to her. “You can smell it too?”
“Yes.” Her eyes spanned the street, searching for the source of the scent she knew to be the boy that had killed the Minotaur. Her senses, augmented by her Level, attuned to the noise of the street until she heard a single set of running footfall and heavy pants, along with the moonscent—as Loki had told her—tinged with blood.
Then, once more, Bell Cranel came into view as he burst out of a side alley that was nearby. The young boy was covered in battle-ravaged leather that had been sheared and scraped to the point where bare skin and battered metal were on display. Sweat from exertion dotted his brow where strands of his white hair clung desperately.
Aiz let out a small groan and held a slender hand to her head that began to pound with his approach. She didn’t know what it was about him that she was feeling. She couldn’t know how to register it. All she could do was wait for him to pass by her without a word as he continued to flee, the pulsing sensation lessening somewhat as his footfalls continued past her.
“Ugh…” Loki was holding her nostrils closed, so her voice came out a bit childish as she said, “It’s pretty thick compared to at the tavern, huh?”
Aiz nodded as they turned and watched him continue to run until a girl emerged from a side-street and grabbed his hand, eliciting a brief look of shock on the boy’s face before recognition set in. Then words were exchanged, an offer to ‘help him escape from sight’ from what Aiz could hear, before she pulled him into the alley. The footfalls that she could hear belonging to them took them away from the Main Street.
“It’s strange,” Aiz settled on after a moment of thought. “But something about it… makes me nervous…”
“Hmm…” Loki crossed her arms and hummed lightly in thought. “Call it a hunch, but I feel it my bones that sumthin’ about its off too…”
As she contemplated that to herself, Aiz picked up on the activity on the street and how it seemed to have blossomed. People were excitedly talking about an adventurer dressed in leather who fought and slew a monster right in the plaza. She had her suspicions that it was the boy they were talking about, so she approached a pair of children that were in the middle of playing.
“Ah, excuse me?” she said, crouching down towards one of the children. “Could you tell me about what happened just now with a monster?”
The child didn’t hesitate. “It was amazing! This big monster went ‘RAAAHHH’ and tried to squish this white-haired mister with its big arms! But he was so fast, and he had this hammer that had a sword in it! He went ‘swish’ and blood flew everywhere, and the monster went ‘GAAHHH’ and then—”
Aiz listened on as he continued on in an excited manner until an adult called for him and he said goodbye. Then she turned back to her Goddess, who was conversing with an elderly woman. When the woman parted way, Loki cradled one arm while holding a hand to her chin.
“Suspicious…” Loki mused. “That young lady was kind enough to tell me a bit about what just happened. It seemed that boy killed the Silverback with a weapon that could go between a hammer and a sword, or something that he could call back to him even when separated. I’d say it’d be an enchanted weapon, but Cow Tits can’t afford sumthin’ like that. Could it possibly be some form of magic?”
It wasn’t unheard of that someone who was just given a Falna would have access to magic. Outside of a Grimoire it was something that seemed to happen sporadically, with some species being more likely to manifest it or exceptions like Aiz, who had Aerial since she received Loki’s blessing. For all they knew it was something the boy was capable of since he became an adventurer—he did kill a Monster that Level 2s would struggle against the first time she’d seen him, so a Silverback wouldn’t be that much of a threat.
But from the colorful way the boy had described the fight, it sounded like it had dragged out for a bit. That was strange, considering that someone who could kill a Minotaur should be able to kill a Silverback within mere seconds at worse. But, at the same time, she didn’t think it sounded like he was making a show of it when there was a chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
He didn’t seem all that polished when it came to fighting from what she’d seen the last time either. He wasn’t quite helpless and seemed to know enough not to wound himself with the butcher’s weapon he had, but he didn’t seem anywhere near expertise in terms of skill wielding it or when facing off against the Minotaur considering how sloppy his movements were. He’d barely avoided most of the hits and the ones he tried to block had broken through his guard utterly.
That was expected for the Upper Floors—in fact, it was almost what she’d expect from a new adventurer who hadn’t refined their combat skills out of the Dungeon like some of the former soldiers or hunters she’d seen. But against Silverbacks that lived close to the Middle Floors and the Minotaurs that came from the floors below it, that was another story. Simply surviving to the point that you could venture down there would require countless battles, during which you’d build up experience with fighting subconsciously.
So how did he manage to kill the Minotaur then? Her head began to ache as she thought back to it. He seemed almost confused that he’d managed to prevail, or the fact that he had the magic stone. Could it have been that he wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d done it?
Aiz thought back then when their eyes met. She didn’t quite grasp what she heard with the whispers that seemed to give her a headache, but before then she recalled thinking that his weapon was his fangs and his hands were his claws. The primal way he’d cried out as he ripped out its magic stone had been almost…bestial.
It didn’t really suit him at all from how timid and small he looked when not cloaked in tattered clothes, fresh blood, and broken steel. But somehow that was part of what caused her to feel on edge. Not completely, but the sensation that she was staring down a predator for that moment does seem close to how she could best describe it.
“Well, either way, the Silverback was taken care of and no civilians got hurt from the sound of it,” Loki said abruptly, changing the topic and pulling Aiz from her thoughts as the Goddess grasped her arm and pulled it against her smaller body. “Let’s go back to the others, Aizuu.”
“Ah… sure…” She nodded before turning on her heel and following after her Goddess. Bell Cranel was a mystery to Aiz now more than ever, but there were other mysteries she needed to focus on. Other things she needed to do and other people waiting for her.
She’d put the mystery of the Moon-scented Boy to the back of her mind for now.
Freya moaned softly as she cradled her head from the throbbing pressure that nestled itself right behind her eyes, a crystal ball situated on the table next to her. The cloak she normally wore out to avoid drawing the gaze of men and women by the virtue of her sheer beauty laid on her lap, unneeded. She’d rented out the entire restaurant for the moment in order to ensure her privacy while she observed her ploy at work.
It hadn’t been something she’d explicitly planned out. But rather a spontaneous opportunity that crossed her mind the moment that she noticed that Bell and Hestia were out for the festival and in possession of Syr’s Purse. The wheels in her mind began to whirl and she foresaw an opportunity to potentially lure out the one who stole her prize away from her.
After all, many of the Gods and Goddesses were out and about during the Monsterphilia. She was sure that the one who’d tainted his soul with that infuriating color would be too. If they’d come to Bell’s aid when he faced off against a monster within the Dungeon via some unknown means, then she was sure they’d do the same here.
She set the plan into motion within an hour. Her Familia had a collection of many talented individuals, all of whom had captured her eye to some extent. Pickpockets and swift runners among them were perfectly capable of pulling him away from Hestia and the Guild member, baiting him to a suitable stage that would be far enough from any meddling adventurer and freeing the others to act as a distraction—not that she intended for them to harm anyone intentionally.
She’d slipped into where they’d kept the monster and used her Charm to enthrall them after leaving the members of the Familia watching over them senseless. Men. Women. Monsters—the way her beauty ensorcelled them was simply overwhelming and she’d been careful not to be seen while having the monsters act as puppets, keeping the other Familia who would be out and about busy while the Silverback she’d chosen to be her instrument slipped away.
Her headache had begun shortly after that, before he’d engaged the Silverback while donning a coat and wielding a hammer that didn’t seem to suit him at all. For a brief moment, she had a flicker of a scene where he laid broken on the ground and bleeding as his own weapon was left lodged in his chest. It had been faint and fleeting, leaving her to assume it was her imagination of a possible outcome that awaited him.
Really, it would have been expected considering how short his tenure as an Adventurer had been so far. But it wasn’t that she wanted to kill him. After all, it had been so long since she’d felt such a strong attachment to someone at first sight. She should’ve snatched him right up rather than allowing him to pass her by, but she wanted to see him grow from a distance.
Alas, where there was love there was envy and jealousy. For someone to take what she claimed for herself was simply unacceptable. And so, as punishment, the boy would now become the bait by which Freya would find the one that dyed the unblemished color of his soul and laid claim to the one she’d seen first.
She’d use him to find them. Then she would break them. Take everything that was theirs and destroy them for daring to take what she’d claimed for herself while reveling in the carnage—she was a Goddess of Love and War in equal parts after all.
Loki had said that she smelled the scent of the moon on him when they talked the night of the banquet. There were few who descended and held dominion over the moon, thus few who could grace him with their presence—likely being either Artemis or Achelois.
She had her doubts that it was Artemis, even if she knew that the goddess was on friendly terms with Hestia. Not only was she the head of a Hunting Familia that was far beyond the walls of Orario, which Hermes confirmed once she coaxed him into talking, but her Familia’s policies were well-known in regards to men and love. Men were never allowed to join, and those seeking to start a relationship had to leave the Familia behind. The thought that she would somehow bless Bell shortly after his arrival in Orario was too farfetched.
That only left Achelois. She was a minor goddess who had seemingly all but vanished some time ago. Freya hadn’t paid the disappearance any thought until now, given that the woman was struggling to simply find followers and simply wasn’t of interest to her. But considering the circumstances…
Well, perhaps she should put some effort into finding out just where she’d vanished to?
Either way, as her headache began upon dismissing that vivid imagery, Bell revealed he possessed a magic that she had been unaware of. A method by which he could call his arms and items to him. There were magical items that could do so, but she had the distinct feeling that it was magic.
More than that, there as something unique about it. When he called for his weapon, she could have sworn she’d something there. Thin, translucent things anxiously and eagerly groping the weapons from where space seemed to ripple around him.
Her head shuddered thinking about it. And the pressure behind her eyes felt like it was a living thing, squirming softly. She needed a moment of peace and quiet to get herself together and wait for it to pass.
A few hours to settle her head…
Hestia had her suspicions that something was amiss when that silver-haired woman approached both her and Eina by the coliseum.
Not because she was suspicious in herself. But because of the faint trace of a familiar moon-scented fragrance that was on her. It set off warning bells and a sense of dread gnawed at Hestia’s stomach.
Then the young woman pulled out her purse. It was the one that had been stolen from them, only now it was steeped in the scent of the moon. Hestia had realized in that instant that he’d died again, and only learned how once the young woman showed them the a magic stone that had been cleaved in half and explained that Bell had slain the Silverback.
He’d died again. He’d been sent back to that place again. He’d died and returned again.
And she’d failed to notice again until it was too late.
The moment she realized that, Hestia felt her legs lose strength and collapsed onto her knees. Eina had asked if she was okay, but Hestia only wanted to know where her child was. The moment the young woman said that she helped him slip away from the crowd so that he could go back home, Hestia made her way back there without a second thought.
It was there she found Bell.
Light spilled down from the windows to illuminate his white hair that was pattered with dull red from blood. Next to him on the pew was discarded leather clothing and battered armor that looked to be in horrendous condition, silently telling an adventurer’s tale of trials and tribulations. He sat with his face buried in his hands, quietly muttering between labored breaths and sobbing to himself.
She treaded carefully, feeling her heart breaking when she recalled how happy he looked the day he first set out to the Dungeon. There had been a smile on his face that could melt the coldest of hearts not even two weeks ago, sweetly complimenting the young boy eager to answer the call of adventure and become a hero. The moment she came to a stop in front of him and laid her hands onto shoulders, Bell’s arms snaked around her slender figure and he buried his face against her.
“Goddess… forgive me…” his voice came out hoarse and worn. His body shuddered as he wept. “Forgive me.”
Feeling the stinging tears in her eyes now, Hestia didn’t allow herself to cry. Not when he needed her to be strong. She wiped away her own forming tears and then forced a smile as she gently brushed his hair to console him. “It’ll be okay, Bell.”
After that Bell took a shower before he confessed what had happened in the confines of their room. He confessed to her of the Little Girl and her request; his attempt to fulfill the wish of a child who was left all alone. He confessed of Gascoigne and Viola; a husband and wife torn apart by the curse of Beasthood. He confessed of the Dweller and Henryk; an attempt to do good leaving a child with no family left in the world.
She’d listened to it all before peering into his Falna as he laid prone in bed, unraveling what he lacked the heart or mind to tell her outright. The foreign words hammered into her mind of a tragic tale writ with blood and regret, images that left the scenes to come to mind with a vividness as if she was there at some point. It hurt enough that she felt pulsing pain in her skull, but it was nothing compared to what Bell had undergone.
She owed it to her child to accept his story and his pain. It was the least she could do for him. For that reason, Hestia bore with the sensation writhing over her brain, all so that she could learn and could gain the wisdom needed to help Bell.
Taking in his sorrow and grief, his tribulations and triumphs, she immersed herself in his tale. She took in the details that may have escaped his mind, grabbing hold of whatever knowledge he’d taken it and committing it to her own memory. It was only when she’d read his tale from that faithful Minotaur attack until before they’d reunited above that she pulled herself free of the engrossing tragedy…
Only to find that Bell had fallen asleep beneath her.
She looked towards the clock. It was nearing midnight. The entire day had been lost to her, and the moment she realized that the exhaustion caught up to her all at once.
Her mind was weary from the knowledge. Her body sore from sitting in place for hours on end, hunched over Bell’s backside and head angled down to read his story. The allure of sleep was too strong to resist for her as well, another downside to being relegated to a physical form.
Limited as she was to her mortal body, Hestia could only do so little for Bell. How she yearned to unleash her Arcanum and free him from the shackles that bound him to that nightmarish world. But after peering so deeply she understood that doing so would rob him of the solace that her presence would bring him.
Steeped as he was in loneliness and regret, Bell clung to her as family and found meaning in the life they now shared together. He would never forgive himself if she gave up her life here to liberate him from that nightmare. And she would never forgive herself for leaving him in such a state.
There has to be another way to free you and remain together, Hestia thought to herself as she laid next to Bell on the bed and gently brushed his cheeks. I promise I’ll find it for you, Bell. No matter what.
Strength: F-392 > C-601
Defense: F-373 > D-592
Dexterity: I-96 > F-321
Agility: E-487 > A-903
Blessing of Flora
Chapter 17: The Silverback
Henryk was dead.
Bell had no doubts about that as he felt the man’s echoes filling in a void that he’d never knew existed prior to the Hunt. Only this time it had a strange sensation affixed to it. Like something was oozing into the back of his mind, a pulsing throb that left him to shake his head as he fell to his knees.
He didn’t want this. He didn’t want the man dead. He was that child’s last living relative, the only family she had left now that her mother and father were gone. Yet now he joined them in death in this graveyard that seemed eager to drink the growing pool of warm, dark blood.
As he stared at it, Bell felt the burning sting of tears forming in his eyes as he found himself longing for a simpler time while gazing into the moonlight reflected on the blood. Of a time when he and his grandpa were together. It was only the ragged breathing now coming from Eileen that pulled him out of the fleeting, wistful moment.
He looked up to see the Hunter of Hunters panting through her mask, leaning with her back against a gravestone. The feather cowl painted with shades of deep crimson shifted up and down as she struggled to catch her breath after the fighting, blades still held within her grip. It had clearly been an exhausting endeavor for her.
“You hesitated,” she said. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
“He was the only family she had left,” Bell said. Not really in defense of himself, but as a fact. “Her mother was dead when I got here. And her father was…”
He couldn’t bring himself to finish as he slowly turned his head. His eyes found the corpse of the Beast that laid where it had breathed its last breath. Still staring in the direction of where Viola’s body laid. The graveyard had drunken deep the blood of that child’s family this night.
“It was you who killed Gascoigne then?” she guessed as Bell let out a pained sound. Not quite a cry or whimper, but somewhere in-between. It served as an admission of guilt. “He was falling apart well before now. The fact that he’d turned simply meant the leash snapped now rather than later.”
“We could have still probably reached this one though,” Bell said softly. “There was a chance he could have snapped out of it. That he could have made it through the night without it ending like this.”
“And if he’d survived tonight, I’d wager he would’ve become a Beast worse than any you’d faced so far,” she said bitterly. “You’ve seen how the people here prowl the streets half-turned already. They’re the ones who give in quickly, the weak-willed and unaware. The beast comes right out before it has time to really grow or become a more suitable predator.”
She then gestured with her dagger towards the corpse of Gascoigne. “But the more the person resists giving in, the fiercer the beast becomes. The more blood they take in, the more they hunt, the stronger it becomes until either they embrace it, or it overtakes them utterly. Henryk was one of the Old Hunters and he’d lost too much this night to be able to keep himself together any longer than he had. Believe me when I say we’ve done both a mercy tonight—nothing worse for a Hunter than to become what they once hunted and endanger those they wanted to protect.”
Part of Bell recognized the truth behind her words, as he had with Gehrman. The Little Girl had said her father had become a Hunter once more to protect her. The same was true for her grandfather no doubt, yet he’d tried to kill her all the same.
“Even so, I still took that child’s family away from her tonight,” Bell admitted in a hoarse voice as he stared down at his hands. They were dirty, meshed with grave soil, sweat, and blood. “I can’t forgive myself for that.”
“And that’s why you should keep your hands clean from now on and leave the hunting of hunters to me,” Eileen said firmly. “Beasts who’ve devoured the men and women from the inside out are nothing more than that. Hunters that go blood-craving mad are only a step away. What I do is not out of malice, but to stop folks like you from tearing yourselves apart over the necessity of it.”
Is that really better? Bell had to wonder to himself. The killing would still be happening. Parents and children separated by the morning’s light as those who went out to hunt instead became the hunted. The only difference was that he’d be turning his back on it and pretending that his hands weren’t the ones stained in blood.
But… what else could he do?
“Head back to the Dream,” Eileen said after she sighed wearily, looking past the slouching statue that towered over them and towards the Oedon Chapel. The Little Girl was in there no doubt, weeping over her losses tonight. “You’re in no condition to talk with the girl, and you’ll only rattle yourself further. Take a rest and spend some time getting your feet back on the ground.”
Bell didn’t contest it. The Little Girl would be safe in the chapel, at least for a little while. Long enough for him to get away from the blood and beasts. Long enough for him to go back to Hestia. To that end he closed his eyes as tears stung the corners and let the Little Ones embrace him…
Then the calm serenity that haunted the garden of gravestones washed over Bell.
Refreshingly clean air lathed his lungs with every inhalation. The dirt and grime and sweat and blood of Yharnam no longer blanketed him. It felt like he was being scrubbed clean both inside and out as he was pulled between here and there.
Breathing deep the scent that the luminous blossoms in the field nearby seemed to give off, Bell opened his eyes to see that he was one more in the tranquil, yet somber haven that seemed to be a world of its own. He supposed it was similar to what the Oedon Chapel was meant to be for other hunters—a place to escape the Hunt. At least for a short time.
“Welcome back, Good Hunter,” the Doll greeted him once more. Her serene, yet inhuman demeanor was a comfort after the throngs of beastmen with snarling visages Bell had faced tonight. Yet the uncanniness of it denied him something vital that he desperately needed at the moment.
“Has that gravestone appeared again?” Bell asked, hopeful yet wary. “The one that leads back to Orario?”
“Yes,” she answered, gesturing with her porcelain hand towards the direction of the misty flower field and the great tree. “Will you be taking another respite?”
If Bell had any say in things it’d be a permanent respite from this nightmare. He hadn’t planned on coming back in the first place. But the Silverback had taken him by surprise and his weapon had been broken before his body.
Now that I think about it, I do need a weapon more suitable for that thing, Bell thought to himself as he looked down at his hands. Echoes still reverberated deep within him. The memories and life of two hunters among them. As shameful as it was to use it for his own ends, he needed their strength now more than ever.
Going over to the fountain where he’d left the badges taken earlier, he peered into the depths of the crystalline waters and found several of them beneath the surface this time. But he only had eyes for the hammer with the hilt of a sword. He reached down into the fountain once more and felt his arm sink into the depths as the echoes within him formed a bridge until he wrapped his fingers around the handle and pulled.
The hammer came out without any problems at first. Despite its size, the water only rippled as it was pulled free, with even the massive head slipping out of the imaginary depths. Neither his arm nor the steel that the stone was actually made of were wet, leading Bell to presume that the water actually acted as some sort of portal.
It was only once the weapon had fully breached into the same plane of existence did it suddenly become heavy. As befitting of such a massive implement, Bell found himself struggling to swing it around with any measure of success. After merely two test swings he had to let the head hit the ground with a dull thump as he rubbed his arms.
“Even for those who partake in blood, the Kirkhammer has always been a rather unwieldy weapon.” Bell’s head twisted towards the top of the stairs at that and found Gherman looking down at him from his perch, aged eyes taking his measure. “I would suggest allowing the Doll to strengthen your muscles, raise your stamina, and draw from the skill of the echoes you have to spare. She’s seen enough use to do so efficiently for you, given you’re unfamiliar with such arms.”
Bell’s gaze turned to see that the Plain Doll had already take her place by his side, patiently waiting for him to allow her to fulfill her purpose. The ethereal echoes within him stirred and began to thread his muscles once more for the sake of granting him greater strength as the euphoric feeling spread over him. The moment she released her grasp and took a few steps back, Bell took up the hammer again and swung it from shoulder to hip with both hands thrice before rearing back to deliver a harder blow onto the ground that sent tremors through his legs.
“It’s somewhat easier to use,” he admitted as he let out a breath and set it back down with the hilt sticking up. He couldn’t swing the thing around a lot, and personally he didn’t think it suited him. But he could use it back home against the Silverback and that was enough for now. “Still, against something fast I don’t think I’d be able to hit them with it.”
Gherman nodded in agreement. “As the Hunter of the Church began to run afoul of larger beasts, they resorted to larger arms rather than refining their skill. But that limitation was evident from the start. Hence why I would suggest pressing the latch you’d find between the grip and the guard to deal with more nimble prey.”
Latch? He looked down at the hilt and traced the design with his fingers up to where he found a rounded section. As soon as he put some pressure into it he felt it shift, just a slight amount. Catching onto the gimmick, he then put all the strength he could into squeezing it and heard a mechanical click.
Then he took the hilt into his hand and pulled the sword from the stone.
Holding it up, the light of the moon gleamed off the silver of the blade. It revealed the elaborate intricacies and flourishes on the guard. Compared to the other weapons he’d seen in his time as a Hunter, there was a marked difference in the design.
He swung it around a few times to test it. The blade much lighter and faster to use, though how much of that was due to his increased strength wasn’t something he could be sure. And while he hadn’t used a sword before he felt somewhat more proficient with it than he suspected he would be otherwise—though nowhere near good enough to be remotely confused with a swordsman.
This should be enough, Bell thought to himself as he sheathed the sword and hefted the Kirkhammer over his shoulder. It didn’t really hinder him while moving, another boon from the echoes it seemed. He also felt like he could fight a touch longer as well without getting as exhausted,
With this he was certain he would prevail, so redonned his Hunter’s Grab once more. They been mended by whatever magic permeated the Dream while the armor that he’d worn remained rather battered but would still serve. Last he moved to reclaim Syr’s purse only for his gaze to settle on the Tiny Music Box. The weight in his chest sunk into his stomach as he left it behind.
Now that he was ready for battle once more, he bid the two residents of the Dream goodbye. Then he made off to the phantasmal gravestone that led him back to Orario. He’d kill the Silverback and return to his Goddess’ side to confess his sins.
Perhaps she could forgive him for what he’d done.
Because he wouldn’t forgive himself.
The roar of the Silverback was the first sensation that Bell was exposed to as he reappeared within the plaza of winding labyrinth of buildings that made up Daedalus Street. The simian monster that towered over him was as it was before his death, thick and powerful limbs wrapped in unmarred white fur. It bared its teeth as it glared down at him from behind the visor placed over its head and then exploded into motion.
But this time Bell expected it as he unslung the Kirkhammer from its perch on his shoulder and reared back. It may have looked as if he was readying to take a massive, overhead swing but he shifted his grip so that his fingers were pressing on the latch keeping the sword sheathed. Then he swung it with a roar of his own as he squeezed down and the lock keeping it tethered was undone. “RAAHHHH!!”
The momentum sent the head of the hammer rocketing towards the Silverback, which had been so devoted to its frantic gait that it couldn’t dodge it entirely. The hammer caught it between the shoulder and chest with an audible pop before being thrown askew on the impact. It went sailing behind the Silverback, which staggered back into the center of the plaza while clutching its shoulder.
The black coat billowed as Bell rushed in with his silver sword in a two-handed grip. He’d learned the last time it’d killed him that fighting defensively would drag things out, until he made a mistake or risked getting others involved. Since he already had the measure of his opponent, he would be aggressive and finish things as quickly as possible.
Seeing the silver blade and the Adventurer rushing towards it, the Silverback drew back its uninjured left arm and slammed it down in an attempt to turn him into a smear on the ground. The stone fractured as it broke beneath the force of the earth-shaking blow, stone-dust obscuring his figure from view until he jumped from within the dusty veil and swung towards the monster’s head. The silver steel scraped against the metal visor as the primate moved its head and reflexively avoided it.
Bell fell into a roll the moment his feet touched back down on the ground, narrowly avoiding the swing he’d expected after the last time. The chain affixed to the manacle rattled as it threw up stone fragments upon smashing the ground where he’d been. Coming out of the roll, he spun on the soles of his feet as he spotted the monstrous gorilla bringing its other fist around to slam into him and then rocketed at an angle while he swung with all his might.
The blade buckled in his grasp, nearly jostling out of his grip from the momentum as he narrowly avoided the metal knuckles. But in exchange he’d traced a path along the top of its thick, powerful arm. The white fur that had been unblemished before was steadily being dyed crimson as ichor flowed from the wound, and the Silverback howled from the red, hot sensation of corded muscle being split in twain.
“I’m not done yet!” Bell rushed towards its unprotected flank as the beast naturally recoiled from the pain. He had just enough time to get in a quick swing, so he pushed his left-hand inwards to angle the blade before he used his right to swing it back around as he went past it. The bloodstained silver managed to part only a sliver of flesh between its arm and waist, leaving a streamlet running down. It was the best he could do and still throw himself into a handspring to get out of range before the Silverback rolled over in an attempt crush him with its massive frame.
Coming out of the exchange with his heart racing and blood pounding at his ears, Bell quickly turned to see the Silverback rip the visor affixed to its face off and throw the thing with the force of a cannonball. Too late to dodge, he tried to block it and the sound of metal scraping metal rang out with a bloom of sparks as it broke through his guard. The sheer might of the blow knocked Bell for a loop, sending him tumbling backwards and leaving his battered armor and leather coat to scrape against the loose stone until he came to a stop.
Releasing a shuddering breath and strained groan, Bell stood back up as the clatter of steel rang out at feet. One of his leg guards had come off, strap torn from the impact against the ground. His Hunter Garb’s were torn into as well, covered in stone-dust with bits of it meshed into a slurry from mixing with the blood splashed around from the beasts’ injured arm. But he was still standing and still armed, unlike the last time—he could keep fighting.
“GRRGAAHHHHH!” The Silverback roared with unbridled fury at him, slamming its massive fists into the ground before beating at its chestplate hard enough to dent the steel. It sought blood for blood.
Bell swept the blade so that the monster’s ichor spattered over the ground. The world had shrunken down, everything drowned out by the beating of his heart. He held the longsword at the ready as he locked gazes with the monster.
Then both hunter and beast charged with intent to kill.
Syr struggled to get through the crowd that was forming at the entrances to the Plaza of Daedalus Street. At first it was idle curiosity that drew her towards it along the way back from the orphanage. Then she heard the roar and a shout went out that apparently a monster and adventurer were fighting it out in the plaza.
Daedalus Street was a destitute neighborhood. Constructed into a winding maze that was inconvenient to navigate unless you were intimately familiar with it, there were few reasons to visit unless you had business there. And, situated far away from the Main Streets where vendors would sell their wares at prices more suitable for those with heavy coin purses to wide-eyed visitors, the people there lived more difficult lives.
Many of them would have loved to visit the Monsterphilia that was being undertaken at the coliseum, but the price was more than they could afford. After all, if they were living here then they were barely scraping by as it was. So, the fact that something akin to it was happening naturally drew the eyes of the people there.
Not enough to get in harm’s way, of course. They wouldn’t risk the monster coming after them or helping the adventurer in question if he was in danger. Especially not when the people here didn’t have the luxury of being adventurers themselves. Leaving aside that there were people who came from all over to Orario for the sake of being in a Familia meant most were filled to capacity, the risk of being injured and losing the little coin they could work for would be stripped away.
But they were curious enough to look from safer places that were just out of view. Peering around of the shadows and corners, peeking over the sills of the windows of their homes, onlookers kept their tongues from wagging as they watched. Even Syr wasn’t an exception when she finally arrived and recognized the adventurer in question.
When Bell had caught her eyes, he seemed like a somewhat meek and young boy. The fact that he was an adventurer wasn’t much of a shock. Even though she herself wasn’t an adventurer, in this city even the smallest child could be stronger than a grown man. That was why so many flocked to Orario in the first place—for the power or the glory.
Now he was wearing a stained, black leather coat that had been covered in dirt and dust and bloody grime, scraped and torn apart. Half-missing armor that had seen many battles judging from the cuts and tears in it could be spotted through the tears from where she stood, a part of it broken off near his foot. And in his grasp was a sword, leveled in front of him as he stared down a monster that was more than twice his height and at least several hundred times his weight.
The moment the Silverback roared so loudly that she could feel the soundwaves rattling her bones and charged Bell down, vision of the boy being flattened into the ground played out in her mind. Death wasn’t unexpected for adventurers. Several of the patrons at the Hostess of Fertility had often left out with promises to return only to never grace their doors again. Even so, she felt herself about to shout for him to run despite knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. “Be—”
But then black boots pushed off the ground. The tail of the coat he’d donned billowed as Bell charged forward. The bloodstained silver sword in his grasp caught the light as he courted death itself in a display that she could hardly keep track of.
Someone had armed the monster with metal knuckles of all things. The heavy steel was joined to manacles that had torn chains at the ends. She didn’t know if it was trained intentionally or not, but upon seeing Bell charge it reeled one arm back before sweeping out with the chains like a whip to lash at him.
He parried it with the sword, a bloom of sparks cascading over his face fixed in a half-strained expression while he angled the blade. The length of the chain scraped against the steel on its way past him, before the tip snapped as it hit the ground and tore out a chunk while Bell leapt forward and swung for its body. A silver streak followed by a crimson tail tore through its side, ripping through the white fur and adding to the color that was staining it already from previous close calls.
Bristling from pain, the monster spun around with its arms extended. Bell managed to dart back from the massive fists, but the chains lengthened its reach and he was forced to put the sword between himself and the length. The end snapped as it battered the silver steel and knocked him off balance, sending him staggering back as the Silverback jumped forward with a metal-knuckled fist chambered.
Syr winced as he brought the flat of the sword in front of himself to intercept it and the ear-ringing sound of metal hitting metal was followed by his smaller body being sent skirting back until he hit the fountain. He then darted out of the way as the monster leapt, crashing into the fountain and sending a spray of water and rubble over the battlefield before coming to a stop as something that looked akin to stone hammer appeared out of the ground next to him like magic.
The boy then slammed the blade into the handle, wrapped both hands around the grip, and threw himself back towards the Silverback as it did the same to him with a metal-backed fist chambered. Both swung for one another with the intention of killing one another, and Syr’s expectations were decidedly in the monster’s favor. Even though she knew that the Falna was the great equalizer when it came to men and monsters, the rational part of her mind expected he would meet his end here.
Yet, the white-haired adventurer won out the moment they clashed. The metal knuckle shattered with an audible crunch and she watched as the bones and flesh behind them crumpled as blood stained the head of the hammer. The Silverback cried out with a bestial shout as it pulled back its mashed appendage and the pain eclipsed all of its other senses. “GRRAHHHHAHGH?!!?”
Bell ignored it as he spun on his heel and stepped forward, swinging the hammer around once more. This time it found the monster’s knee and there was a sickening crunch as bone shattered like glasswork under the pressure, jagged bits piercing through the sack of reddening fur as the limb was knocked out from beneath the simian and left it prone. Then he chambered the hammer and prepared to crush its skull with an overhead swing in a gruesome execution.
Perhaps sensing the impending death, the Silverback lashed out a final time. It still had one good arm and good leg. It flailed its massive fist towards him, swinging with enough force to break stone as it backhanded him and managed to stagger him before he could execute it. Then it pushed off the ground with its remaining leg and lunged, hand outstretched to grab him between its stout fingers and wring the life out of him—
—and made no difference as Bell pivoted off to the side, twisting on his heel as he swung the hammer around in a downwards arch. It connected with another crunch that sent a shiver down her spine. And the offending limb was now nothing more than flattened, pulped meat that seeped into the cratered and broken earth.
“RRRHAHHHGHHGHGH!!!!” The Silverback raged in a desperate fury, trying to pull back its arm that was trapped beneath the weight of the hammer. Eventually it managed to wrench out a blooded stump with bits of white bone mixed into the mesh of vivid color that painted the fur clinging to what was left of its forearm.
The sight of it only served to send the monster into its death throes as it writhed around in pain, rolling and beating its stump against the ground. Its remaining leg tried to pick it up but failed, collapsing and unable to sustain its own weight. All it did was open up the wounds it had sustained further, letting blood escape and spatter out with every motion to paint the plaza further than the expanding boundary of the growing pool beneath it.
It was hard to look at. Not just for Syr. But for Bell as well, who she noticed had an almost shameful look on his face as he looked away. But then he closed his eyes and reached down for the point where his hilt and hammer met. The sword came out with a quick pull and a moment later he jumped onto the flailing monster’s back and drove the sword into its chest.
The pained sounds that filled the air were instead replaced with a deathly silence. The Silverback went still as its body slumped down with its final breath. Then it crumbled to dust and all traces of its massive corpse vanished as Bell’s blade was wedged between two halves of the magic stone.
He had won.
The cheering started about then now that the danger passed. The violence of the battle hadn’t been a deterrent for the people who lived there. It had been a thing of beauty for those who were unfamiliar with the depths of the dungeon and the dangers beyond a passing note, a clash where a monster and man fought tooth and nail against one another.
But there were no traces of happiness on Bell’s face as the crowd cheered at his performance. He simply averted his eyes from the crowd as he grabbed his weapon and then ran off down an alleyway. It seemed like he wanted to get away from it all—away from the crowd, and away from the moment itself. But that would be impossible given how quickly the rumor mill spread around here.
I suppose I could give him a little help in getting away, Syr decided upon realizing he’d be hounded all along the way the Main Street at this rate. She knew the streets well enough that she could intercept him, given that he didn’t know where he was going. And helping him slip away somewhere quiet until things died down later in the day was the least she could do after watching him make that expression…