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Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 34 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 34: Under the Moonlight

The emotion that swept me up when I began the contract with the Sea Spirit was nervousness. The fear that I would make another mistake. That the magic I was trying to take hold of for Argo’s sake would harm him once more. That I wasn’t worthy of it….

But then I felt its soothing touch on my mind and was taken back to that moment so long ago in the kitchen. The touch of my mother upon my father and the smile she wore. The unbroken gaze that said that everything would be fine.

And all my fears vanished as I was swept up in the soothing embrace of the sea.”

Elio’s Lessons in Magic VII: The Second Spell

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Darkness fell over the camp.

The dense wooded land untouched by the blight spreading from its core seemed to bask in the absence of light. The worshippers of the Goddess of the Moon who’d taken to these lands and founded the temple within its heart were long gone. In their place silence and shade had laid claim to the vast stretch of viridian until very recently, unconquered and unchallenged.

Yet now flames across the campsite roared to life in challenge of the night itself. Laying in slumber during the day, their fiery tongues reached high to the sky as they hungrily devouring the kindling offered to them in tribute by the denizens that had come to these woods. The light spread throughout the perimeter and pressed back against the encroaching darkness to offer comfort to those within its bosom.

Warmth and chill mingled beneath the beige canopy of the Mess Tent. Scattered magic-stone lanterns of a multitude of colors were shining brightly in place of the twinkling stars for those gathering beneath them. Voices chatted animatedly, recounting events of the past, wagers over cards boxed in by plates, laughter, and the clanking of cups half-filled in a celebratory manner that may or may not have been premature.

Bell was reminded of the Hostess of Fertility as he sat at one of the tables. The atmosphere felt similar after ten days in the wilderness with only themselves and a small flame. He supposed it was a testament to how accustomed he had gotten to life in Orario that he found himself feeling nostalgic for the lively atmosphere after a such a short time.

He was flanked by Primo on one side and Lili on the other. The neophyte Elven Mage had been relieved of her duty in helping to prepare the meal and was subsequently rewarded with her plate first, being the growing youth that she was. Bell was pretty sure she was the youngest there aside from maybe a Pallum Mage that was sitting close to a large figure at another table who sported a unique-looking cover over his head with horns sticking out of the side.  An idle part of his mind wondered if the two would get along during their stay if that was the case, given how it’d be nice to have a peer her own age who shared a similar trait.

Lili, on the other hand, was instead tapping her finger against the table as she sat there with her eyes closed and her hood up. He could make out movement beneath it, no doubt a pair of ears atop her bushy brown hair bending and twitching every now and again. She was likely listening in to the various conversations to get a better feel for the situation here, given the oddities that she had noticed and her own suspicions.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a new voice chimed in, directed towards them. It was Welf, accompanied by Mikoto as the two carried plates and bowls in both their hands. The two had insisted that Bell sit and let them get in the forming line to get food for them to eat since he was still recovering, though he’d said otherwise prior to Primo and Lili also insisting and grabbing his arms as they sat him between them. “Hope you don’t mind, but I thought you might want something to really get your energy back after spending all day bedridden.”

He set down a bowl of stew that had a familiar smell to it. Bell took one taste and his face illuminated. “Masalanut… It’s been a long time since I’ve had this. I didn’t know the fruit grew this far out.”

“There is apparently an abundance that grow not far from the campsite on the other side of the mountain,” Mikoto explained as set Lili’s food in front of her. “Since they’ve spent so much time here, they learned how to get the most out of them to conserve resources. I look forward to having the chance to prepare it myself back in Orario for Lord Takemikazuchi and the others.”

With the other two taking their seats next to Lili and Primo respectively, the small Familia settled down into their meal. There was comfort in it, Bell realized as he watched from the corner of his eyes as Welf teased Lili and received a barbed reply in return, while Mikoto and Primo discussed lightly some of the ingredients they saw while helping with the meal preparation. All that was missing was Lady Hestia sitting across from them and watching with a smile and it’d be like they were right back at home…

“Do you mind if we join you?”

He was pulled out of his reverie at the request to find that standing opposite of them were a collection of four Human girls, three of whom he had seen around the camp. The fourth was a somewhat petite while being clad in a green tunic and skirt with thigh-high boots. Her shoulder-length brown hair was somewhat disheveled but kept out of her eyes by a hairband that looked to be carved from wood, embellishments worked into it set against her forehead. Around her waist was a satchel that also had some gloves hanging out of it and she had a pair of glasses that caught the lights above, the glare of which nearly obscured her brown eyes.

“Not at all. Please do.” He caught sight of the Familia Emblem upon the hairband of the fourth girl. “You must be members of the Astraea Familia.”

“That’s right,” spoke the green-clad young woman as she brought one hand to her slender chest. “I’m like you… umm, that is to say I am the Captain of the Astraea Familia—Cecil.”

“And I am the Vice-Captain of our Familia, Oriana Drake,” said the woman with long honey-golden hair with a band in the back and blue eyes, though she didn’t have her spear at the moment. She sported a white tunic and blue skirt that had gold around the band and hem, her figure somewhat more athletic than the others with her height rivaling Welf’s.

“I am Karen Morris,” said the young woman with black hair and eyes, adored in a purple tunic and blouse. She held herself in a dignified manner that gave off the air of nobility if Bell had to put it into words. “May I say it is a pleasure to meet you all in person. I never thought we have the chance to encounter your Familia before we arrived in Orario.”

Bell was surprised at that. “You’ve heard of us all the way here?”

“Our Goddess and Lord Hermes allowed us to spectate the War Game with the use of their Divine Mirrors, whereupon we bore witness to your gallantry. Laying siege to a castle with only a handful of individuals is no small feat, though I suppose such can be expected of Orario Adventurers.”

“Yeah, it was really impressive—at least the parts we could see before you went really fast,” chimed in the fourth and final member of the Goddess of Justice’s Familia. Clad in pink fabric that contrasted that of her companion, she gave off a more casual impression that reminded Bell of his village. “I’m Emma. Nice to meet you all.”

“It’s nice to meet all of you as well.” The admiration within their voices was palpable to the degree that Bell felt a little embarrassed to be honest. “As for the War Game, it was more thanks to everyone else that it was even possible to get that far. I honestly felt a little bad about showing up after everyone else did the hard work.”

“Says the guy who beat their Level Three Captain one-on-one,” Welf said, voice thick with humor as the girls began to take a seat. “Honestly, Bell. You gotta give yourself more credit.”

“His modesty is an admirable trait,” Oriana stated in contrast. “He’d make a fine knight were we in my homeland of Nineveh during my grandfather’s time.”

Welf perked up at that. “Nineveh? I’ve heard that land was renowned for its ore and metals being rare. Even getting it imported into Orario costs an arm and leg. I’m guessing that your Goddess visited there at one point and recruited you?”

She shook her head. “No, it has been… quite some time since I have been there. Instead, I happened to meet Cecil and Lady Astraea while I was on a journey of self-discovery, and we have been companions since then as a Wandering Familia of three, until Karen and Emma joined us relatively recently.”

“So, it’s just the four of you then?” Lili’s question came out blunt as her eyes fixed themselves onto the girls. “A Goddess like Lady Astraea would naturally draw in followers, so she would have little issue recruiting more members to her Familia. Does she have some sort of requirement or preference?”

“Uhm…. If there is one then I haven’t noticed,” Cecil answered with her hands fidgeting before holding the bottom of her bowl in what looked like almost an attempt to soothe her nerves. “I mean, even though Lady Astraea can gather a lot of followers, it feels fine like this. We don’t really have any conflicts or anything, so maybe it was meant to be that way.”

“And what about Miss Ryuu?” Bell asked. “She’s been here for a while, hasn’t she? Are you getting along well with her?”

The Captain of the Astraea Familia’s lips twitched and turned down for a moment. “She… I don’t think she likes us very much. In fact, I’m sure she avoids us as best she can.”

He knew she could be a little quiet and give off an air of indifference, but she was a kind individual. “What makes you say that?”

“Despite our overtures, she remains reluctant to have anything to do with us,” Oriana answered in her Captain’s place. “She scarcely even looks at us or remains within our proximity more than necessary, and I cannot fathom a reason why or if we had done something to offend her.”

“I know she doesn’t tend to speak often, but I don’t think she’s avoiding you,” Bell said.  “I’m sure once the situation has calmed down, she’ll be willing to talk to you about herself. You’re all part of the same Familia after all.”

“She may not think the same.” Karin’s response was leveled and measured. “While we may bear the same Falna, I suspect that she may not see us as worthy compared to our predecessors. More so considering the sheer discrepancy within our capabilities compared to a Level Five such as herself.”

Bell straightened up. “She Leveled Up? When?”

“…As soon as she arrived,” muttered Cecil. “Before she took part in any of the fighting, she just showed up and the moment she had her Status updated she was a Level Five.”

A low noise bubbled up in Lili’s throat before she shrugged. “That makes sense. The whole reason that fiasco on the Eighteenth Floor didn’t end worse was because she basically dealt with the brunt of fighting until Master Bell finished things. And she was one of the Adventurers who helped end the Darkest Days, so it should be expected.”

All eyes turned to her in curiosity as Cecil asked, “Darkest Days?”

“Did Lady Astraea not tell you of that?” Lili took in the inquisitive looks from around the table and realized that she hadn’t apparently. She then sighed and looked over to Welf and Mikoto. “Master Bell and Mistress Primo are new to Orario, so I expect them to not know. But do Master Welf and Mistress Mikoto recall a day of silence that takes place every year a few weeks after Grand Day?”

They looked to each other before Mikoto spoke. “I believe I noticed that Orario seemed quieter on a certain day, but since it did not disrupt my activities and our Familia was settling in, I paid it no mind.”

“And I was in probably in the forge at the time, so I wouldn’t have noticed.”

She took those answers for what they were and explained. “Lili won’t go into too many details, but seven years ago, Orario was under siege by Evilus for seven days. In that time, thousands of people died by the end of it—adventurers, civilians, children. They attacked everyone, with even the Freya and Loki Familia’s strongest being beaten back. All most of us could do was huddle up and pray that Orario was still standing by the end.”

It sounded almost like a tall tale that the city that had been founded at the start of the Age of the Gods could have been brought so low. Yet, as he looked into her eyes, Bell could see that she was being sincere. There were no falsehoods even as she described a nightmare.

“…I heard that Orario held enormous military potential due to their Adventurers being so powerful and their Familia being rather large,” Oriana said even as she took that information in. “Even I have heard that the Loki Familia and Freya Familia are considered the strongest factions in the Lower World. So how could such a thing have occurred?”

“Part of that was because Evilus used some really underhanded tactics that Lili doesn’t want to recall, but the other reason was because there were Level Sevens among Evilus’ ranks.” She paused before looking down at her fork in silence, as if weighing the next words that would come out. “Specifically, two survivors of the Zeus and Hera Familia that were responsible for killing Behemoth and Leviathan respectively.”

It was as if a bitter cold had seized their throats. The heroes who had completed two of the three Great Quests. Thousands dead. Bell opened his mouth to try to find words but all he could force out was a small, “…why?

“I don’t know.” Lili slowly reached up and scratched the back of her head. “Maybe they had a grudge because of how the Freya and Loki Familia kicked them out after they failed the final Grand Quest. It isn’t an uncommon tale, not unlike how Lady Hestia had the Apollo Familia dissolved. But they came in and helped Evilus until the final day, when Ottar defeated the Zeus Familia member outside of Babel, while the members of the Astraea Familia defeated the Hera Familia member within the Dungeon.”

Silence followed afterwards. For the Hestia Familia it was due to the fact that something so terrifying had taken place before the majority had arrived, the very streets they walked through without a second thought having once been baked in flames and covered in blood. For the Astraea Familia, the knowledge that their predecessors played a part in preventing that as well was…

“…To best a Level Seven and bring an end to a nightmare such as that even when the difference must have been astounding,” Oriana said slowly, breaking the silence with a tense expression. “If she went through such an experience with her comrades then to her, we must certainly appear unfit to bear the same emblem as such fine warriors.”

“I can’t say I know if she feels that way or not,” Lili answered back. “But if you intend to head to Orario with Lady Astraea’s Blessing on your backs then you need to know many will compare you to your predecessors. Perhaps your Goddess chose not to tell you so that you wouldn’t be burdened by the fact that no matter what you do you’ll probably never be able to live up to it in their eyes.”

Welf gave her a sharp look. “Hey, that’s going a bit far, isn’t it?”

Lili shot right back with a glare of her own. “Would you prefer that no one told them, and they walked in with their heads held high, only to be surprised when people whisper behind their backs? If they can’t handle knowing that much, they can get out now before people laugh at them for being unable to live up to those standards.”

Would it have been crueler to let these young women walk into Orario with the legacy of their predecessors unknown so they wouldn’t be burdened with it? Or was it better to rip the bandages off now and let them know just what they would have to live up to. Bell supposed he had also been lucky in a way since he and Hestia were one another’s first. But did that mean he was leaving such a high standard for whoever was going to replace him when he eventually had to step down as Captain?

“…Don’t look down on me.” The quiet but firm voice of Cecil spoke up. Bell turned to see her expression was unflinching and resolved. “I didn’t follow Lady Astraea because I cared what others think. I might not be on par with my predecessors or even that Elf, but I’ll still carry on with my head high if I can follow the same path as her.”

“That’s right,” Oriana followed up. “Lady Astraea herself told me that I can only walk my own path to the destination I seek. Not that of my parents, my grandfather, or even the path she walks. But right now our paths are crossing and I intend to walk it along it regardless of what others might think.”

Karin crossed her arms and held her head high. “I was inspired to become an Adventurer because I once saved by one. Lady Astraea has granted me the opportunity to do so. If I was afraid of living up to expectations others forced upon me then I would have remained back home.”

“Then do you intend to return to Orario when this matter is settled?” Mikoto asked.

Emma was the one who answered this time, her expression turning slightly downcast. “We were actually heading that way when the current situation occurred. Since then, we’ve been here dealing with the Black Scorpions….”

Trailing off as she bit her lower lip for a moment in thought, she then reached below the table and pulled out a photograph. “By any chance, would you have seen this person there?”

As the others shook their heads, Bell looked at the photo that showed her, albeit maybe a few years younger, standing alongside a slightly older woman with purple eyes and long, flowing hair the same hue. She wore a plain blouse that fell to a pair of pants and was embracing the younger Emma in an affectionate hug while smiling.

He recognized her as a memory flashed in his mind at that moment. “I saw this woman not too long ago. Who is she?”

“She’s my older sister, Sophia,” Emma explained. “She was my only family in the village and went to Orario a year ago to support us. But we lost contact with one another. Where did you see her, if I can ask?”

“On the Seventh Floor of the Dungeon.” He looked to the others in his Familia. “Remember that I mentioned seeing a woman when we heard the screaming, and she was gone when I went back to get their equipment?”

“The one who had the good sense to run from a Monster Parade in the making,” Lili confirmed. ”Did you spot her Familia Emblem? If you can describe it, then I might be able to recognize it.”

“I didn’t since I was in a rush to make sure the others were okay.” He then turned back to Emma. “I don’t know which Familia she belongs to, but it was only about ten days ago since then. I’m sure she’s still fine, and if I see her again, I’ll tell her you’re still looking for her.”

Emma breathed out a heavy breath she had been holding in without realizing it as she pressed the photo to her chest. Karen’s hand settled on her shoulder, which drew her pink eyes over to that of her Familia. They were smiling on her behalf as something unspoken passed between them.

Dinner continued afterwards until they had finished. The women of the Astraea Familia had taken the girls to join them in the bath along with the other women of the Hermes Familia. That left Welf to say that he was going to go back to finish at the forge, leaving Bell on his own to wander around the camp once more. He didn’t have a destination in mind, but he did want to find and speak with Artemis since he hadn’t seen her since he’d awoken…

UWAGH!” “GAH!” “BUGBH!

The sound of pained cries being cut short drew Bell’s attention towards one of the camp’s exits, whereupon he found scores of bodies laid out belonging to members of the Hermes Familia. They were strewn about before the Elven Warrior as Miss Ryuu stood there with her arms crossed. Her piercing eyes then turned upwards towards him. “Mister Cranel. I trust you were not part of the machinations of these deviants?”

“I was just on a walk looking for Lady Artemis when I heard noise.” His eyes skimmed over the unconscious bodies of the gathered Adventurers. They didn’t look hurt exactly, so it wasn’t a struggle—or at least not much of one. “What happened?”

“I caught them planning to spy on the women in the bathing area while I was on patrol.” Her eyes turned towards one body that Bell recognized was Lord Hermes by his inhumanely handsome facial features that remained spotless even while he was unconscious.

His mind immediately flashed back to the Eighteenth Floor, whereupon he had been roped into something similar. Then he found himself feeling numb towards seeing that particular divinity lying face-down in the dirt. “Lady Artemis isn’t bathing with the others, is she?”

Ryuu lightly shook her head and gestured off in a direction with her hand. “There is another campsite not far from here. You will find her there.”

“Thank you.” Bell made towards that direction before he paused in his step. “Miss Ryuu… the other members of the Astraea Familia think that you’re avoiding them because you dislike them. That isn’t true, is it?”

“…I am avoiding them, though it is not out of malice or disdain,” she admitted after a pregnant pause that was followed by her shifting her gaze down to her own hands. “It would not do for a blacklisted Adventurer to associate with those girls who will embody the ideals of justice. What would they think if they knew that a violent criminal bore the same blessing as them on their backs?”

The bloodstained legacy left behind by the Gale was that of a murderous rampage against not only the remnants of Evilus, but anyone she thought had been associated with them by her own admission back at the grave markers on the Eighteenth Floor. She had begged her Goddess for days to leave so she wouldn’t see the monster she had become in seeking to take revenge. She had even earned a bounty on her head for her actions back then, so how would this new generation of those who would follow the same ideals of justice that she once idealized react to such a person if they knew the truth?

“I don’t know how they’d feel about who you used to be, but…” Bell licked his lips as he said what came to his mind. “I think that they want you to see them as companions who are worthy of being members of the same Familia. The person you are right now…  who helped me time and again without asking for anything… who helped that girl back in the Grand Casino… and then came when they needed you the most without a second thought, is someone they see as being worthy of respect.”

Her sky-blue eyes turned to the ground as her hand came to her chest. “…I will keep that in mind, Mister Cranel.”

And with that the conversation ended as she walked off, going back on her patrol while leaving the scores of Hermes Familia members on the ground. Bell couldn’t say whether they would get closer by the end of things, but for Bell Familia meant being family. Even if not bound by blood then by ideals, and while he knew what she had done in the past he didn’t know that Ryuu—only the one in front of him who still carried a sense of justice within her heart.

That done, Bell made his way out of the campsite in the direction that she indicated. The woodlands were rather dark considering the firelights stopped at the perimeter of the encampment, but his perception had gotten a lot better since he had become an Adventurer. He could make out of the scurrying of nocturnal wildlife even as he intruded upon the domain, a visitor in these unclaimed woodlands which the crescent moon itself shone down upon.

Hmmm. Hmmm. Hn. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hn.

Eventually, his ears caught the humming of a heavenly voice that undeniably belonged to Lady Artemis. He followed it through the woods, heading through the brush until he finally came across signs of a well-traveled path that had been slowly reclaimed by nature. He jumped over a brook from which water came trickling through with the argent rays of the moon reflected off the surface as they carried on their way downstream without pause.

And finally, his trek came to an end as he broke past an opening in the tree line to a clearing that was bathed in the moonlight. The shadows of the dense canopy refused to tread past the reach of the branches as a tree within the center of what had once served as a small base camp had been broken in half from something massive crashing into the upper half from the look of how it had been snapped. The trunk was riddled with holes from where it had been shot by arrows, with there still having one nestled within it with fletches from local bird feathers.

The Goddess of the Moon sat at the foot of it. The Divine Spear was perched next to her, resting in a slouch against the tree as it caught the sheen of the moonlight upon it. And in her lap was the Blade of the Hearth, which she slowly stroked her fingers across the flat of while humming to herself. At least until she turned her emerald gaze in his direction. “Orion.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting you, Lady Artemis,” Bell said as he approached her. “I wanted to make sure that you were okay after what happened.”

“I was unharmed thanks to your efforts,” she said. “But you were left in quite a bad state. Are you well enough to be walking on your own?”

“Aside from being a little sore, I’m just fine,” he assured her. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

A light hum bubbled up in her throat. “You know… she said that you would act like that. That you would put on a smile and say not to worry about you, even after experiencing all that pain and suffering for someone else’s sake.”

“You mean Lady Hestia?” He tilted his head in curiosity as the Goddess merely shook her head. Then she held out the onyx knife. Divine script flickered across the broad side of it momentarily, as if in greeting.

“To think that Hestia would prepare a weapon similar to myself.” The smile that came across her face seemed so sad. “It seemed that even without realizing it we shared many of the same thoughts.”

Bell’s breathing hitched for a moment as his rubellite eyes locked onto the bequeathed blade and her words clicked into place. “You mean it’s a divine weapon?”

“Or something similar to one,” Artemis explained. “I can’t imagine how she had such a thing crafted within the rules that bind the divine into place in the Lower World, but it doesn’t change the fact that I could feel a kinship within it. Since then, I’ve been listening to her tell me of the various trials you’ve overcome… she’s quite proud of you.”

He scratched his cheek at that, not quite sure how to process the information he had just been given. He had known the Blade of the Hearth was special, but he didn’t know it was a Divine Weapon. It couldn’t have been cheap either, leaving him to wonder if she had taken on a massive debt for his sake. He gingerly took it back when offered and then watched as she rose to her feet and turned her attention to the arrow lodged into the tree.

“Callisto always did have a bad habit of not gathering all of her arrows up…” The Goddess of the Moon gently brushed her hand over the shaft before plucking it out. “I would tell her so many times not to leave them around, but she’d always insist that even if she ran out of arrows, she’d just beat the monsters to death with her bare fists because she was an Amazon.”

Bell recalled the name as being one of her children that the Goddess had mentioned in passing until then. “Do you want to tell me about her?”

“She’s a bit of an odd one as far as Amazons go,” she said, looking up at the moon above while turning the arrow in her grasp. “We first met when she had gotten herself in over her head against a monster when I was out hunting away from my children. Before I could even ask if she was okay, she swore herself into my service and from then on, she would often bump heads with Rethusa. A lot of them thought that she would eventually leave, but she never did.”

“Was it because she was an Amazon?” Bell guessed. Amazons were biologically and culturally among those who were driven to seek out strong partners to have children with. Bell had heard many tales about how warriors who earned their eyes would be chased after by them relentlessly, though his own interactions with Miss Tiona were mostly friendly and the moments between sparring they’d spent talking about different heroic tales they knew.

Artemis nodded. “As a Goddess who presided over chastity and would have anyone who sought a relationship leave the Familia, it’s natural to assume that an Amazon would part ways. But she never showed an interest in any of the men we came across. She even joked that Lante thought more about romance than she did.”

Lante was her Vice-Captain from what Bell knew, a Half-Elf like his sister. From the previous stories she had talked about featuring her Familia, it seemed that she wasn’t as magically inclined as Lefiya. Instead, she fought with a straight sword and bow for either supporting the others from the backline as an archer or a frontline fighter depending on which was needed.

“She got along well with Phigenia,” Artemis continued. “Since she was the only Healer in our group, Phigenia was always worrying herself anytime Callisto got injured. She’d always tell her that it’d take a lot more than a few scrapes to put her down, only to be lectured she shouldn’t be getting any scrapes if possible. Despite being the younger of the two, it was almost like an older sister fretting over her younger one for being reckless.”

“I can see that somehow,” Bell said, even as he suddenly pictured Miss Eina and his own sister lecturing him whenever he got into a little trouble over the last month. He knew they meant well, so he always listened to them and hated that he got them upset enough to lecture him in the first place. But, at the same time, he felt there was an undercurrent in her tone that held a familiar weight to them.

An air of loneliness.

“…It’s strange,” Artemis’ voice pulled his attention back to her. “Up above, I was an unchanging Goddess of Chastity who shunned relationships. Yet, in the short time I spent down here, among you children that live so ephemerally, I feel as though I’ve changed so much just watching all of you live your lives to the fullest. That a pillar of the heavens could be changed even a bit by spending time with you all…. truly, the Lower World is filled with unknown possibilities.”

I think a short amount of time might be a matter of differing perspective between the two of us, Bell thought to himself. After all, for a mortal, what was a significant portion of their lifetime could easily be seen a slight blink of the eye to the immortal. But the fact that something eternal could be influenced by something so ephemeral was part of what Bell feared the most. More so considering he was starting to piece together the facts. “Lady Artemis?”

Her emerald gaze shifted over to him from the moon. “Yes, Orion?”

“Your children…they’re still waiting for you to get back to them, aren’t they?”

Her eyes closed before she turned to face the ground. Then a small smile came across her face before she scooted over enough to where their bodies were touching and then leaned her head on his shoulder. “That’s right. All my children are waiting for me to return to them even now. But we’ll be together once more soon enough.”

The unsettling feeling that Bell felt found root. The fondness in her tone as if reminiscing of times that had long gone and would never return. The absence of them within the camp. Her Familia were most likely already dead.

He could only imagine the pain she must have been in. The children she had taken on as her family, that she watched lived their lives to their fullest and committed their every word and acts to memory, were no longer among them. And from her tone alone he could easily infer she intended to head back to Heaven to join them once the threat had been dealt with.

Orion… would you give me a final memory to treasure?” she asked in a soft, honeyed voice that made his heart skip a beat all of a sudden.

“If it’s something I can do…” He tensed up slightly as her arms came down and wrapped around his own, embracing him as they held the limb firmly between her bosom. “L-Lady Artemis?”

Treat me like a woman,” she asked, leaning more of her body against him. “I want to experience how wonderful love feels.

Bell’s throat felt dry at how warm and soft to the touch as she pressed up against him, lips pursing for a kiss. He still had his reservations about having one the divine holding affection towards in such a manner to be honest. But he recalled Hestia’s words on the night of the Holy Moon Festival, that he had to at least refute her not because she was a goddess but because he wasn’t sure if he felt that way about her—

BOOM!

— but before he could tell her otherwise the night sky was overwritten with an expanse of lights that began to dot the firmament. It was as if someone had pulled the stars from the Heavens close to earth where they could be seen unobstructed and in all their radiant glory. Yet the sight only filled Bell with a single sensation.

Dread.

“…We’re out of time,” Artemis said as she shifted her focus to the presence of those looming stars, hanging above their heads like the Sword of Damocles and waiting to fall at any single moment. She released him and rose to her feet, grabbing the Divine Spear. “Orion, get us back to the campsite as soon as possible.”

Her declaration had given Bell something to direct his attention from the overhanging dread. He scooped her into his arms and booked it back to the campsite as quickly as possible, which was to say at an impressive gait, arriving to see that the other Adventurers were already gearing up for conflict as they moved with purpose and indistinct chatter while being directed by the God of Travel as the Goddess of Justice and Hearth stood close by the exit with their few children.

“Hestia! Astraea!” Artemis called out as they came to a stop, the wind following behind them in a gale that rolled through the grass and left it shivering as the firelight danced fiercely for a moment before settling back down. “Antares is on the move.”

“The scouts stated that a new swarm of its spawn are currently leaving ahead of their spawn schedule,” Astraea said softly. “Moreover, rather than drifting out everywhere they’re heading towards our campsite.”

“It’s strange though,” Artemis said. “It shouldn’t have enough control yet to unleash it across the entirety of the Lower World.”

“Because it doesn’t need to stretch across the entirety of the world,” Hermes chimed in. “I just received a message that the monsters in the Dungeon have suddenly begun pushing up towards the surface from the lower floors.”

“But that wouldn’t do anything on its own, right?” Hestia asked. “Ouranos’ prayers are keeping the lid sealed shut to prevent them from emerging in hordes like that. And the other Adventurers are there to stop those that do try to come out.”

“Yes, but its expanding—” Hermes gestured up to the sky that was being lined with shining stars. “We were too hopeful in thinking it would try to hold out until it could blanket the entire Lower World. All it needs to do is stretch it across the continent so that it can reach Orario and then unleash them all at once.”

Bell, who had been listening to the divinities, tensed up as he recognized the threat from both the destruction that had befallen the land they’d flown over and the pain he’d experienced. “It would return to how it was before the Age of the Gods then. That’s what you mean, right?”

He nodded. “The strongest of Adventurers and most of the Gods and Goddesses in the Lower World are here in Orario, or on the main continent. It might spare those in distant lands, but once the lid on the Dungeon is unsealed replacing it won’t be easy. And that’s not even counting the sheer loss of life.”

“Had things gone to plan we could have cleared it like we would the Dungeon with the children,” Astraea noted. “But with most of those forces aiming towards this camp, I suspect that the amount remaining within the Temple will be minimal. If that’s the case, we can use that chance to have a small force proceed inside and kill Antares before it can go through with it.”

“Not ideal, but it’ll have to do.” Hermes looked over to the Hestia and Astraea Familia. “Bell and Welf, I’ll need you two to accompany me into the Temple with Asfi. Astraea, we’ll also need to borrow Miss Gale.”

The Goddess turned her attention the Elven Warrior. “Ryuu, I’ll trust you to keep them safe. But keep in mind Emma will need to have her Skill active.”

“I understand, Goddess,” Ryuu answered before turning back to the other members of her Familia. “I’ll… be counting on you to look after Lady Astraea. Please.”

Whether it was the fact that she was admitting to placing her faith in them or that she spoke towards them without prompt, the girls quickly got over their shock as Cecil reaffirmed their resolve aloud. “Of course! We won’t let anything happen to our Goddess!”

“What about us?” Mikoto asked.  “We can’t just leave the most perilous task to these two alone.”

“My children can form a defensive net and focus down the strongest of the monsters, preventing them from doubling back, but chances are the smaller ones will slip through the net,” Hermes said. “Those will have to be confronted by you children. And, if the worst happens and Hestia should be sent back up, the Divine Spear and a Crozzo Magic sword don’t necessitate the user having a Falna to work while I’ll also be on hand to immediately convert their blessing if needed.”

The answer wasn’t met with glowing excitement. Lili began to argue why she should be brought along. Primo looked terrified at the sudden weight being thrust on her shoulders. And he could tell Mikoto didn’t also relish the thought of leaving them to venture into such a dangerous unknown either.

But they didn’t have time for that. “Lili, I need you here.”

The Pallum turned her attention back to him. “But Master Bell—”

“With so much going on, they’ll need to be able to coordinate what’s happening while the battle is waging. And we’ve never worked with the Astraea Familia before, so we need someone adaptable. There’s no one better suited for that role than you.”

She looked as though she wanted to say something until she saw his eyes pleading her to be here for his sake. He couldn’t deal with the current threat if he was worried about his goddess all the time. “… If that’s what Master Bell desires, then fine.”

“Thank you.” He then turned his attention to Mikoto. “Your Skill can track these monsters too, right?”

“Once I’ve laid eyes on one, I’ll be able to,” she confirmed.

“Then I’ll leave it to you to make sure that none of them will be able to sneak up on Lady Hestia or Lady Astraea.” He then turned his attention back to the Elven Mage, clutching onto her Oaken Staff nervously. “Primo, I know it’s a lot to ask all of a sudden, but I’ll be trusting you to protect Lady Hestia.”

“But I can only use my Magic three times,” she admitted. “And what if it isn’t strong enough? What if I make a mistake, or…”

“It’s okay,” Bell told her. “Remember what Lefiya said that day in the Guild Room. You need to become a Mage that can surpass even Lady Riveria. And the first step is to have confidence in yourself and the ability of your Magic to protect our Familia. Okay?”

“…Okay.” She nodded to herself. “I will protect Lady Hestia, Captain.”

He gave her a smile before turning to Hestia, who had gone over to Artemis and was embracing her in a crushing hug. If he had the right of it, Artemis intended to return to Heaven when this was over, so it would likely be the last time they spoke to one another for a long time.

I wish I could have spent more time with you, Hestia,” Artemis told her dearest friend. “I didn’t want this to be the last time we spoke with each other. That you’d be the one seeing me off like this…

It’ll be okay,” Hestia said in a bittersweet voice even as she seemed to fight back tears. “We’ll meet again someday and pick up right where we left off, like we never split apart. You’ll see.

“…You’re right.” She pulled away slowly and forced herself to smile. “Until them.”

Hestia nodded before turning her attention to Bell. “Bell…”

“Yes, Goddess?”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “No matter what happens… No matter how hard it is, I want you to remember that you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re doing what you have to save everything that Artemis and I want to protect. Remember that, okay?”

He didn’t understand it fully. If he did, he would have known just why the Goddess of Justice and God of Travel averted their eyes at that moment. But he understood that she was trying to reassure him that he was doing the right thing.

And that was enough for the moment. “I’ll remember that, Goddess.”

“…Then arm yourself let’s go,” Hermes said as he adjusted the brim of his hat over his eyes. “The time has come to slay the Black Scorpion.”


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 33 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 33: The Dead Forest

Elio took his time instilling in me the basics of medicine. How the body worked. How it ailed. How it mended. The physical difference between Human and Elf. The reason he gave was that knowing the body was essential to tend to injuries more efficiently since healing magic rushed what nature could do naturally, so it had too many ways it could go wrong and end the life it was meant to save.

 

Naturally, I was almost afraid to forge a contract with the Sea Spirit that lingered in his care by the time the lessons were done.”

Elio’s Lessons in Magic VI: Harmful Healing

[-|-|-|-]

The next three days of travel were a somber affair.

Now that the Hestia Familia had a full scope of their assigned task the levity of the journey had vanished. It had been replaced with silent tension, borne from the collective doubt, fear, and uncertainty of the knowledge they’d received. It wasn’t every day that you learned that failure would mean letting one of the greatest evils known to history back out into the world—a black monster that had been in existence since before the Age of the Gods.

Not helped was how Bell felt something about Lady Hestia had been off since she came back with Lady Artemis. She said everything was fine, but Bell couldn’t shake the feeling that something was… different. But what that was he just didn’t know as they continued to travel with Miss Andromeda until they finally flew past the peak of the last mountain that stood between them and their destination.

The verdant greenery that encapsulated the mountaintop, the lush canopy with broad leaves that reached towards the sun permeating the sky, gracefully curved downwards into a forest that stretched as far as the eye could see. Yet, midway through it, the hue began to shift along the Munsell scale from green to yellow to red to a deep shade of purple before finally being stripped entirely as the leaves crumbled into the ground. The brown and rich bark itself had started to become shades of deepening black, their trunks themselves seeming to grow thinner and starved as if the very life was being wrung from them. Even the skies themselves seemed to turn gray as the clouds were tainted by whatever force permeated this land.

This feels wrong,” Primo muttered as the group flew at a slower pace and close enough together that her words could reach their ears over the psithurism of the wind. The neophyte Elven Mage’s breathing came out shakingly while nestled between the arms of Mikoto as her eyes scanned the forest from above. For one who spent the majority of their life on the outskirts of one and was taught to revere the wood, it was a profane sight. “It feels really bad here.”

“This is Antares’ doing,” Lady Artemis said in response from her own perch between Bell’s arms. “The seal that was placed upon it long ago used the connection to nature that the spirits sacrificed to entomb it held to siphon off its strength, purify it, and then flush it out to the surrounding forest. Now that the seal is coming undone the purification aspect is breaking down and the trickle of its malice still flowing throughout the land is driving it to ruin.”

She then pointed further ahead towards the edge of their vision, where they could see what looked like a war-torn crater that was scorched and blackened. What were once tall and towering trees were toppled, trampled into battered splinters, and burned to cinders from what looked to have been a localized inferno. And there, nestled in the heart of it, was a temple.

“There’s a lock on the temple that can only be accessed by that which possesses my divine authority.” She looked over her shoulder towards Bell, whose rubellite eyes fell back onto her emerald gaze. “Orion, that’s where we’ll go to confront Antares. In the catacombs beneath the surface. That’s where I’ll need you to use the spear and end it all.”

Bell felt his throat tighten up. How could it not when he was to confront one of the unkillable Black Monsters that not even the primordial flames from his favorite tale could touch? The kind that took the might of both the Zeus and Hera Familia to overcome in recent history?

Ba-thump.

…And then he felt that boundless malevolence he’d experienced three days ago washed over him once more. The baleful and murderous gaze was fixed on him with even more intensity than before. So much so that it felt like time had come to a stop and color had faded from the very world itself until the pained scream of a woman drew his attention from the malevolent gaze and towards Artemis.

Ah-Ahhh…!” The Goddess of the Moon clutched her chest and nearly fell over the side of the dragon had Bell not stiffened his arms on either side of her at that very moment while handling the reins. She instead collapsed into his breastplate with her beautiful face contorted in pain.

Bell finally breathed again. “Lady Artemis! What’s wrong?”

…It’s… It’s coming!” Her voice was strained and weak. “Above…!

Bell looked up as an argent streak shot from the temple into the air above them. Space itself rippled as the gray curtains and dour skies above were turned into a replica of the night sky glinting with what looked to be hundreds of stars that were dragged down from the heavens. Then cold sweat beaded his face as he realized that they weren’t stars.

After all, the stars didn’t leave his instincts screaming that this was where they died.

These were arrows. Countless arrows that would shoot them out of the sky. The others and even the dragons seemed to instinctively understand the situation when faced with the looming death from above.

Orion… the… spear…” Lady Artemis’ words were faint over the thundering of his heart as she seemed to fight desperately to get them out. But they reached him all the same.

He hastily brandished the spear above and placed his faith in it. The gemstone began to shine at that moment and a gossamer thin cradle of moonlight swirled out from the spear, wrapping the space around them. Serene silence enveloped them as if they were sealed off from the world beyond the looking glass.

Then the stars fell.

Arrows of light came crashing down from the firmament. They seemed to pass through the barrier and the party as if they weren’t there, leaving them to drizzle below like tears from the sky. Yet the moment they touched the world beneath them everything was torn asunder.

Wood was shredded into splinters. Earth was upheaved into dust. All signs of foliage, healthy and dying alike were equally ripped away as the light brought unequivocal destruction to everything it touched. The rain continued to fall in a downpour of silent destruction wrought by shooting stars from the moon reflected off the water’s surface. It was a surreal experience, but also horrifying.

CRACK.

At least until the sound of metal splintering broke the silence that enveloped those who had forgotten to breath. All eyes turned towards the spear that had been brandished. The immaculate divine wrought steel had begun to crack from the pressure being exerted upon it.

And Artemis herself writhed in pain as the moonlight the weapon shed grew dimmer. “Agh!

Artemis, you have to hold on!” Hestia called out from her perch against the God of Travel’s arm, her voice panicked. It was easy to see why as Artemis’ expression contorted from the strain and the barrier began to fracture as the cracks continued their ascension from where Bell held it upwards.

It’s waning,” Hermes added. “Just bear with it a little longer!

It’s… too …” Artemis struggled to finish as the fissure reached the neck of the spear. “Orion… Hestia… I….

The crack finally reached the gemstone that was affixed to the center of the head. Then the Goddess of the Moon collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. The cradle of the moon that served as their looking glass shattered.

The last of the raindrops came crashing down.

Bell’s body moved to cover Artemis as one was coming right for them. Not randomly. It was directed towards them as he saw it shifting its path thanks to his enhanced perception as a Level Three. It would be impossible to avoid it entirely, but he could make it a grazing blow at the very least by jerking the reins to divert the dragon as it passed.

I’ll protect her, Bell told himself as he did so. He couldn’t sense the inevitable death from it as he had in the beginning. Whatever that had been was weakened enough that he was sure that his body would serve as a shield for the Goddess of the Moon in her helpless state. He clung to that thought desperately as the moondrop reached him.

And then Bell felt the worst pain he’d ever experienced in his life as the world went white.

[-Several Hours Later-]

Beige canvas greeted Bell as he slowly opened his eyes.

He felt the swaddle of a cloth draped over his prone body and realized that he was in a tent as his vision sharpened. His mind slowly cleared as the last thing he recalled was shielding Lady Artemis when he’d been stricken by that white light. Then… he only knew pain.

“That’s right, Lady Artemis—ngh!” There was lingering pain as he sat upright. Not to the degree of being crippling but to the point where he felt it. He leaned over and braced his forehead as he took deep breaths to try and focus push past the pain and get onto his feet.

“So, you’ve awakened then, Mister Cranel?”

His mind sharpened as he recognized that voice and he forced his eyes towards the opening in the tent. “Miss Ryuu?”

The Elven Warrior stood there clad in a darker green cloak that seemed to barely be a few shades from being black, with a white scarf woven around it. Her tunic was a lighter shade as it fell to her upper thighs, barring a dark strip going down the center with buttons running down the length of it. Around her waist were two belts, with one housing sheathes for the pair of eastern-made short swords on the right, and her long wooden sword on the left.

She was wearing thigh-high brown boots, with the barest slip of her thighs visible before coming up to fur-hemmed shorts that met with the remainder of her tunic. Her hands and arms were covered by gloves that hid her skin all the way up to her elbows. And her sky-blue eyes seemed… relieved if Bell had to place it into words as she came next to him and crouched down. “How are you feeling?”

“Just a little sore,” he admitted. “Where are my Familia? And Lady Artemis and the others?”

“Unlike yourself, they didn’t suffer any severe injuries by that rain of light.” She paused as he breathed out a sigh of relief. “I must admit I am surprised you managed to wake before nightfall, all things considered.”

“Nightfall?” His gaze turned back to the slip within the canvas and the amber light caught his attention thoroughly. It had been morning when they crossed the mountainside. “I’ve been unconscious for that long?”

“Given the state of your injuries, it’s a miracle that you woke as soon as you had,” Ryuu pointed out as Bell struggled to get to his feet, though there was a slight stagger in his step. “If you need more time to rest then—”

“No, I’m fine,” Bell insisted. “I can’t lay down and rest while the others are worried. The longer we delay reaching the ruins, the harder things will be. And I need to check on the others.”

“…Very well.” Ryuu rose and loaned him her shoulder to steady himself. “I’ll escort you to Lady Hestia for the time being. She can let you know about the current plans.”

“Thank you.” As embarrassing as it was to admit it, he was sore and likely needed a few hours before he was fit enough to get back in fighting form.

They left the tent and Bell found himself within a clearing that was somewhat expansive as it was surrounded by greenery compared to the dying woodlands they had been flying over. Wooden posts to serve as a boundary ringed the perimeter from what he could view, and several canvas tents were also positioned around the area. The one he had been in was one of two that were rather large-sized, so he could only assume they were meant to be infirmaries.

Ahead of them were several other people of different races, moving about in a vast and open space. Many in the center were practicing with weapons taken from a nearby rack or working out. Among their ranks Bell could spot what looked to be a young woman with long black hair and matching eyes dressed in a purple tunic and skirt, wielding a thin sword in a sort of dignified stance he didn’t often see. She was thrusting it furiously towards another young woman with pink hair and eyes, her clothes a matching hue as she used two shortswords with one in a normal grip and the other in a reverse grip.

It reminded him of his training with Miss Aiz the way they were going at one another, with the one in the purple being the superior combatant. Or rather to say it was clear she had a more refined fighting style compared to her opponent, who was blocking them as they came but still struggling to close the distance to get within reach. Even her closest attempt by parrying the rapier with the sword in her left before darting in and sweeping with the one in a reverse grip failed as the black-haired girl took a step back and twisted to bring her parried blade back around from behind to intercept it and then fell back into a proper stance.

Miss Aiz would have just kicked him in the face there for showing an opening that large. In fact, a Cat Person dressed in a… relatively low-cut top came over with a whip in hand and told her she should have done that very thing. The younger girl only shook her head and stated it wasn’t befitting of her to do so.

Ryuu guided Bell to the north, past a growing number of people that were largely pooled around a giant tent from which he could smell the sweet scent of a meal being cooked. It must have been the mess hall and, judging by the hour, it was likely that dinner was in the process of being cooked. Eventually, they came to another large tent that had an emblem he had only seen once before on the 18th Floor.

“Pardon the intrusion,” Ryuu said as she brushed aside the flap of the tent and helped him inside. “Mister Cranel has awoken and requested and audience with Lady Hestia.”

The inside of the tent was modest yet accommodating considering that it housed a large table in the center with four chairs surrounding it and a map strewn on top of it with writing implements. The floor had carpeting and there was a wooden bench on one end that had cushions on it, with a smaller side table upon which rested a silver tray and tea set. It was there that he saw his Goddess (who’d switched back to her old clothes) along with another person of such immaculate beauty, dressed in white and purple with accents of gold, that she could only be another of the divine.

She had long, walnut-brown hair that swayed as she turned in their direction and had an unearthly luster to it that seemed to catch the light of the nearby magic-stone lanterns that lit the interior. Her soft eyes were the color of the night sky that was illuminated with stars, an indigo hue that one could get lost in as they fell upon the pair. And her lips pulled back into a very maternal yet pleasant smile.

“Bell, you’re up now!” Hestia said as she came over to his side and wrapped her arms around him before pulling him into a hug. “Are you hurt? Are you in pain of any kind?”

Bell shook his head before bringing his arms around her to return the gesture. “I’m just a little sore, but that’s all.”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” the other goddess chimed in as she slowly rose from her seat. “Hestia and the others were all so anxious that they haven’t been able to relax even after finally making it this far. Even Ryuu has been more tense than usual since she brought you back to camp, so knowing you’re doing well and awake will remove a heavy burden off their shoulders.”

The Elven Warrior pointedly looked away from them at that. “Goddess, please do not misinterpret my mannerisms in such a way that they may be misconstrued.”

The Goddess only continued to smile warmly. “It’s all right. There’s no shame in being concerned about dear friends.”

Bell watched the exchange before saying, “You must be Miss Ryuu’s goddess then. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Astraea.”

“You as well,” the Goddess of Justice answered. “It was a long time since I had seen her until recently, but I was happy to hear about how well she was doing thanks to the friends she made and yourself. I only wished that we could have met under better circumstances.”

“Right, the situation with Antares.” Bell’s expression grew dour as he recalled the rain of light and the state of the Divine Spear. He then looked down at the divinity nestled against him and asked, “Goddess, what happened to Lady Artemis and the Divine Spear after that attack? She seemed like she had been in pain when it cracked and then she passed out.”

Hestia slowly pulled away from her child and crossed her arms with a soft sigh. “Artemis woke up a little while ago. After stopping by your tent, she asked to be left alone with the spear and went off. As for why she passed out back then…”

“Divine weapons such as that spear are not something that can be carelessly summoned to the Lower World without consequence given how much trouble they caused in the past,” spoke the Goddess of Justice in her place. “As the one who summoned it forth, Artemis has bound herself to it in a manner of speaking. The strain placed upon it thus weighed upon her and when she reached her limit, she fell unconscious.”

Bell’s thoughts turned to how much pain she had been in and then he lowered his head. “I… see…

As if reading his mind, Hestia gently cupped his cheeks and raised his gaze to herself. “Bell, Artemis knew what would happen and told you to do it. If you hadn’t then none of us would be here at the moment. So don’t blame yourself.”

“That’s right,” Astraea added. “Though I can only speak as one who loves you children as much as Artemis and Hestia, we wish for you to flourish within this world. You are our pride and joy, and so we are willing to make whatever sacrifice is needed so that you can find your own path to follow. No matter what happens, you bear no sin for our actions.”

Bell recognized they were trying to reassure him. And that put his heart to ease somewhat as he nodded his head that was still within his Goddess’ grasp. “All right.”

That seemed to be what Hestia wanted to hear as she smiled and then released him. “Now then. Astraea and I have to get Hermes back here so we can talk about the upcoming operation now that we know you’re up and moving. How about you go see the others since they were worried about you?”

Ryuu parted ways with Bell as Astraea sent her off to retrieve Hermes, while Hestia directed him to where she had seen each of their Familia members after she had sent them off from fretting over his unconscious body. Mikoto had decided to help with cooking dinner for the camp with Primo assisting her. Lili had gone off to feed the Dragons at the makeshift stables. And Welf was working with the other smiths to repair and mend the equipment they had.

The Mess Hall was a massive tent in the center of the camp with the canvas lining easily matching the size of some buildings. It was supported by several wooden beams that were affixed to stone blocks that were buried in the ground. Magic stone lanterns of different colors were strung up between them to offer additional illumination to the fading golden hue of the amber rays slipping in.

There were several people already inside the large tent, taking their places among the many different tables that were set about. Some were playing games of chance with dice and cards, while others were discussing matters with themselves. On the northern end was a long counter behind which was the makeshift kitchen, where he spotted the two members of his Familia hard at work. “Mikoto. Primo.”

Mikoto was carefully cutting up vegetables on a cutting board with her raven hair tied back when she heard him. “Sir Bell, you’ve awoken?”

On the other hand, Primo (who had also tied her golden hair back) turned from the potatoes that she was in the process of peeling and proceeded to dart around the counter toward him. The small Elf embraced him with as much strength as she could while burying her face into his stomach, completely forgetting the sort of etiquette that her race was expected to live up to. “Captain, you’re finally awake! I was so worried!

“Sorry to have worried you all,” Bell said as he gently brushed her hair. “But it’s fine now, I’m all better.”

“Are you really?” There was a hitch in her voice as she looked up from below his chest and he spotted her eyes glistening. “You were really hurt when we landed. Even after using all the Potions we had and that nice Elven lady healing you before rushing you here, I was worried you wouldn’t… hick…”

Bell tensed at that. He didn’t remember anything aside from the pain after he’d used his body to shield Lady Artemis. He looked over to Mikoto and asked, “Was it really that bad?”

“Whatever that light was that struck you, it had badly burned your body,” Mikoto admitted as she came over next. “The Potions we used and her magic helped stabilize you, but upon arrival it required Elixirs to finish mending your injuries.”

“Miss Lili and Mister Welf got really mad at Lord Hermes,” Primo added. “I… couldn’t do anything but sit there and… hick…”

“It’s okay,” Bell assured her. “I’ll go see Welf and Lili next to let them know that I’m all better, so just keep helping Mikoto. Okay?”

She wiped away tears that had been forming before nodding.  Then she pulled back and recalled her etiquette before bowing her head. “Forgive me for my outburst, Captain.”

That done and with assurances that he’d be back later, Bell decided to make a beeline to where Lili was first. He left the Mess Hall and went further to the north and eastward where the Dragons chewing on feed were to see that Lili was being given a small bottle from Miss Andromeda, with her voice barely reaching his ears as he caught the tail end of her saying, “—s a last resort. Understand?

Lili only nodded as her hands clenched the bottle while the Captain of the Hermes Familia walked off, leaving her to her thoughts.

It was then Bell called out to her. “Lili…”

Her head snapped in his direction before she hastily put the bottle away into a pouch on her waist before coming over to him. “Master Bell, are you well enough to be walking around?”

“Just a bit sore, but fine otherwise,” he told her. “Is everything okay? You had a serious look on your face just now with Miss Andromeda and she handed you something?”

The Pallum shook her head. “This is just compensation for the fact that her god lied to us about the scope of the threat again. I said this was the kind of job that would be more suited for a larger Familia and look what happened. Considering the state Master Bell ended up in, it hardly makes up for it.”

“No one could have predicted what would happen. And I’m still in one piece. So, try not to hold it against them.”

His effort to appeal to her only seemed to make her shake in frustration. “Master Bell, you’re too kind for your own good. This whole Mission has been sketchy from the start and even now they’re hiding stuff from us.”

“What do you mean?”

“I haven’t seen one member of the Artemis Familia even though they’re supposed to be here as well,” she explained. “And when I try asking about it, everyone gives me different excuses. Something about it isn’t right. How can we trust them if they keep lying to us and you keep ending up getting hurt?”

That is strange, Bell silently noted. He was sure that they would be here considering how fondly Artemis talked of them during their discussions. “I’ll ask Lady Artemis about it when I see her again. But for now, just try not to be too upset. They’ve been here working to deal with the problem even longer than us, and I’m sure they have their own reasons for keeping things quiet.”

A grumble bubbled up in her throat before she pressed her forehead against his chest. “If that’s what you want Master Bell. But please be careful. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.

“…Yeah. I will,” he promised.

That done, Lili ushered him off towards the east where he could see smoke rising from portable furnaces along with the din of hammers striking steel. There was a Human girl with light brown hair with a large box strapped to her back that had weapons within it walking alongside another woman who had long golden hair and blue eyes with a spear strapped to her back. He followed them and found they were heading to one of the several smiths at their portable forges.

It was there he spotted Welf speaking with the pink-haired girl he’d seen sparring earlier. She was holding the two shortswords from before, which now had cracks running along them. The girl then apologetically bowed her head while he stood there scratching his head as she ran off.

Then he spotted Bell and put on a smile as he set aside the damaged weapons. “Hey, you’re up now.”

“Yeah.”  Bell nodded before looking back to the girl running off. “What was that about?”

“Apparently that girl has some quirk that results in her constantly breaking her weapons. Other smiths are kind of frustrated about it since they’re lacking in spares due to all the fighting over the time they spent here, so I’m handling the reforging of it. But never mind that, how are you holding up? That hit you took was pretty bad.”

“So I’ve been told,” Bell sighed. “I’m fine, but I’m a little concerned about how all of you are doing after that. I spoke with the others already about it, but what about you?”

“Hmm…” He brushed his hand through his hair as he gathered his thoughts. “Frustrated, I guess. I hate to say it, but I’ve been pretty much useless here so far as your personal smith. Healing isn’t my forte and I could only sit by and watch when everything was said and done. I thought I’d at least be able to do something about your equipment considering it saved your life, but…”

He trailed off before reaching behind his forge and pulling out a box that had the battle clothes he’d worn on his way here. The jacket itself had new cloth stitched to it in an adorning pattern along the back that seemed fuller than before. “You modified them?”

“As best I could to fix the damage,” Welf admitted. “Like I said when you first got them, this was above my ability. I didn’t have suitable materials to patch them properly, so I had to take measures I’m not happy with.”

“How so?”

“That attack that hit you was Light-aspected,” he explained. “The clothes turned out to be woven from fibers blessed by a Light Spirit, making it Spirit Cloth that resists that element. That helped mitigate a great deal of the damage you’d received, but that attack was still strong enough that burned away several layers and reduced its effectiveness. Since most of the battle clothes we received had similar materials mixed in, I had to use one of them to patch it up so that it could still serve well enough to take another hit.”

“Whose clothes did you use for materials?”

“Lady Hestia’s.” He grimaced when he caught how Bell stiffed up at that. “She insisted that it wasn’t feasible to take the materials from anyone else’s battle clothes. Instead, she’d stay in the camp with Lady Astraea to support us from here once the operation was underway.”

That explained why she was in her old clothes rather than the ones that Lord Hermes gave us, Bell realized. His Goddess never once put herself before them, so even if those clothes would have offered her more protection than anything considering they were better than some armor, she didn’t hesitate to sacrifice it for his sake.

“The thing is,” Welf continued, “Clothes like these aren’t just given to you randomly. The materials have to be custom ordered, and he had them ready in a matter of hours once he had our sizes. The fact that it was so resistant to the attack that hit you means that he knew that we’d be facing something like that—and he didn’t tell us. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

The fact that both he and Lili held the same line of thinking gave it some level of credibility. And it wasn’t the first time that Lord Hermes had done something similar. The God of Travel seemed to tread the line between being helpful, like the War Game, and a hindrance, like when he’d given Mord the Invisibility Helm.

“…For now, we’ll just have to go along with it,” Bell decided. “Whatever his reasons for hiding that information, we still have to deal with the monster.”

Even Bell didn’t fully understand the God of Travel. But he had faith in Lady Hestia and knew that Lady Artemis was sincere in her desire to put an end to the threat. So he would go along with it for the time being for their sakes.

[-Hestia-]

“…We’ve done a cruel thing to that child,” Hestia said the moment that Bell and Ryuu had left the tent. It was soundproof once the flaps were closed due to enchantments on it, so no one heard her outside of the sole resident in the tent beside her. Nor did they see the smile she wore melt away as she went over to the couch and practically collapsed.

Astraea came over to her side, briefly running her fingers against Hestia’s bare shoulders in a show of support before turning her attention to the tea set. She poured steaming liquid into a cup that was set on a saucer and offered it to her. “He’s a nice and earnest child. I really do wish there was some other way.”

Her words did little to comfort Hestia as she took the offered cup. The last three days had been… trying as she had to come to terms with everything she’d learned about the situation from Artemis… or what was left of her. And her own complicity in the suffering she was going to put her first child through.

So naturally, she was not in a happy mood when Hermes finally arrived with a smile on his face and his tone cheerful after finishing his “other” business. “I’ve heard that Bell is back on his feet. That’s wonderful news. Now we can resolve this matter come morning and put all this business behind us.”

“You mean aside from the fact that you’ve condemned Bell to a fate worse than death?” Hestia’s voice was devoid of emotion as they sucked the warmth that had been in the tent right out in a manner that made it perfectly clear there was no room for false levity. Not when the topic they were discussing involved her first child and best friend being placed in such a cruel situation. Not when she’d spent three days stewing in it and forced to hold her tongue to avoid the children overhearing them.

The God of Travel raised his arms above his head and tried to appease her. “Now, I understand you might be upset—”

Upset?” The click of the porcelain as it was placed on a saucer seemed to echo as the diminutive goddess set it down. “In the last three days, I have learned that one of my best friends has been consumed by a monster. That she had to watch her children die in front of her. And in a last-ditch effort to prevent an apocalypse, she shunted her lingering consciousness into a weapon that you’ve shoehorned Bell into using to kill her…”

She slowly rose from her seat and turned to face him. There were many ways to describe how Hestia’s eyes normally were on most days. Lively yet gentle. Inviting and kind. Excitable and joyous. However, her eyes here and now were no longer the same.

They were a stark and dull, teal hue that lacked warmth. Her expression portrayed no emotion, a blank mask donned over her bubbly or maternal visage. “Upset, is an understatement, Hermes.

Hermes lowered his head while bracing his hat to where the brim covered his own gaze. “With all due respect, it wasn’t my intention to have Bell be the one to draw the Divine Spear. However, considering the situation I couldn’t pass up any potential candidate. You’ve seen for yourself that Antares is becoming capable of using Artemis’ Arcanum. Not just Clairvoyance but being able to call down the stars themselves. The Lower World will not remain intact should it use both to even a fraction of their full capabilities.”

Bell had mentioned feeling as though he’d been watched after the first time three days ago. There was no doubt in their minds that it was unrestricted Arcanum usage. Not just the limited Divine Mirrors that required permission, but the capability to circumvent the restrictions enforced upon them all.

The attack earlier had only been a small-scale sample of what her Arcanum could unleash and there was nothing that they could do to stop it. It didn’t need her Arcanum under its full control to do that across the globe, only enough to stretch it out over the firmament. Then Antares would be able to wipe out all life in the Lower World.

“And so, you’d have a child that reveres us become a sinner to fix the mistake of one of our own?”

To sin was mortal. But there was no greater sin than killing one of the divine. Not merely breaking their mortal shells and forcing them back into the realm above, but truly killing and sending them into the cycle of reincarnation once more—effectively destroying a pillar essential to Heaven for thousands of years.

The means of doing so were few and far available to the children. But they had basically handed Bell something meant to do just that. And they wanted him to use it on a goddess they had been pushing him to get closer to.

Hermes’ response was only to shake his head. “Bell isn’t killing her. He’s saving her from a situation she has no other means of escaping. It’s the only solution since we’re forbidden to use our Arcanum.”

The Goddess of the Eternal Flame remained unmoved by his semantics. “There is a reason we take responsibility for our own mistakes. It is too heavy a burden for mortals to bear. Do you really think his heart will be able to remain intact after killing Artemis with his own hands?”

They were not flawless. Though many of the children may have been disheartened when they first descended to let them know as much, the parents who looked over them from above were still capable of flaws. Whether through malice or well-meaning, many tragedies were wrought by their hands and only added to their suffering.

That was why they had to be the ones who corrected those mistakes.

Not the children.

“Hestia.” A soft hand settled itself on her shoulder again to draw her attention from the God of Travel. “Artemis told you, didn’t she?”

The answer Astraea received was that of silence as those stark and cold eyes fixed onto her.

The Goddess of Justice only continued. “Right now, she’s trapped and powerless. She could only watch as her children were slain. And if not stopped, the only path left for the Lower World will be destruction by her own divinity. Knowing that, she cast her hope into the heavens and called down an arrow that could bring about salvation for what her mistake had wrought. Perhaps there were other means to resolve this, but this was the method that Artemis chose. That your child happened to be the one most suitable must seem cruel, but that child is Artemis’ hope itself.”

“…Artemis’ hope.” Her cold voice betrayed a note of emotion as she clenched her eyes shut. And when they opened again, they were once more a vibrant yet sorrowful hue as the Goddess of the Hearth resurfaced. “I suppose that Artemis chose Bell to be her hope is something I should be proud of as her friend and his goddess. But I can’t help but grieve over what’s to come for both of them…”

Especially since I don’t know how long I’ll be here to ease that burden for him.


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 16 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 16: The Castle Siege – Part 1

“After another year, Argo told me of his plans to leave the village behind. Now that he knew I was safe and comfortable in the village, he intended to keep traveling. When I asked him where he would go, he would only answer where the wind would take him. When I asked him what he would do, he answered to fill a diary that he intended to make into a comedy one day to be spread around the world as a hero.

My brother was a fool. He could barely take care of himself, and for all that he was able to make people laugh, he was still bothersome to others. He was weak and would probably end up getting in over his head if he went out there alone. That was why I always had to look after him.

Or at least that was what I told myself at the time.

But the truth was that I was afraid. I was afraid of the thought of him leaving me alone. I was afraid that my beloved brother would go off and I would never see him again.

So I begged him not to leave me behind.”

—Don’t Leave Me Behind

[-|-|-|-]

“Your child did good work, Miach.”

The praise from the Goddess of the Forge brought a smile to the handsome visage of Miach as he sat next to her within theatron of Babel. The massive Divine Mirror that Ganesha had created was showcasing the castle and how a very decent number of the inhabitants had been rendered a non-threat due to the soporific that his child had created.

As a God of Medicine, he was naturally capable of creating potions that had a strong effect on the mortal body even without his arcanum. But this had been the work of his student, who made up for her lack of Status with her knowledge of what laid above and within the Dungeon. That together had allowed her to create a sleeping solution that would place those under the influence into a deep slumber that was not easily lifted.

“I imagine she would be happy to hear that if she were here,” he said. No children had been allowed to attend the grand gathering, but once permission had been given, he wrought a Divine Mirror within his domain where she was currently watching over the member of the Apollo Familia that they had… detained for the last few days.

They had needed someone to be replaced within the specifications of one of Hestia’s newly adopted children and he fit the bill. He had spent most of his time sedated and cared for, without any real inkling as to what has happened to him. It was best for all parties involved and, once the match was over, he would be delivered back safe and sound—if confused about the last few days.

“They won’t be roused anytime soon without either Magic or an Elixir,” he continued. “Both of those aren’t likely something they have an ample supply of at present. And any attempt to do so will be made much harder with the enemy knocking on their door.”

Their gaze turned to Hephaestus’ Divine Mirror where she was in the process of observing the magic sword at work as its wielder swung the blade horizontally from a modest distance away from the northern outer curtain wall. Fire ran along the path, drawing an arch until it slammed into the stone hard enough that it was a tangible force and turned it burning red.

Fissures ran along the path where the flames touched, leaving the rows of stones to split apart. Then molten slag burst from within and set the grass beneath it ablaze before the wall began to collapse outward. The ground was left laden with a mixture of stone and slag as a sizable portion of the wall was now absent, exposing the interior of the castle to the outside world.

And that was only the second swing.

“…He was careful with it,” the Goddess of the Forge said after observing the damage done with an appraising eye. “I can’t say castle fortifications are my specialty, but the heat was enough that the moment it connected it created thermal cracks in the stone and seeped into the filling between the layers—probably bits of crushed stone and sand. That superheated to the point of becoming molten and poured out of cracks causing further damage and destabilization to where it collapses on itself from thermal expansion. He must have spent days before War Game instilling the element into it and then refined the purpose of it while he was shaping the steel.”

For it to work like that the flame would need to be focused to remain so potent. But if it had been too hot and intense then those flames would have punched straight through the wall and into the castle. Those children wouldn’t survive that at only Level Two without a lot of mitigation like Salamander Wool and accessories to ward off heat—and, even then, the flames would have seared them down to the bone on direct contact.

“He’ll only continue to grow from here,” she said while wearing a rare, soft smile. Her subdued but evident pride now that he had broken free of his self-imposed limitation was clear to the gathering around the Goddess of the Hearth.

However, the other Gods were… not so willing to allow her the moment to bask in his growth.

“What’s the deal, Hephaestus!?” Ogma shouted. “You charged me an arm and a leg for a top-of-the-line magic sword and it’s not even a fraction as good as that one!!”

“Yeah, my children could have really used that level of quality on the expedition!” Loki joined in. “Why does shortstack get them!?”

Hephaestus rolled her eye as whines and complaints from some of the other Gods and Goddesses of the began to ring out. Accusations of favoritism since the Goddess of the Forge and Hearth were often seen side-by-side. She turned to face the group. “Do you see my brand anywhere on that sword?”

Divine Mirrors began flickering to get a closer view of the weapon as the Elf dodged a flurry of arrows with contemptuous ease before swinging the blade once more. Flames devastated the curtain wall to the extent that one of the towers looked as though it was on the verge of collapsing. There was no mark to be found.

“Then it isn’t one of mine,” she continued when none of them claimed otherwise. “That child made that magic sword of his own accord, without my input or any obligation to be sold under my brand. Deal with it.”

“Okay, I will!” Ogma said before turning to Hestia. “Name your price! You could use a little extra valis, can’t you?”

Hestia didn’t even bother to look at him. Welf had made it clear when he joined that he did not want to be forced to sell his blades. He was willing to make them for their sake because of the comradery he had built up with the others. But he was not willing to just let anyone else use them since whatever purpose they were used for would be his responsibility.

Hestia would not betray the child that Hephaestus placed in her care just for profit. “I’m not selling that child’s weapons. End of story.”

Tuning any future offers out, Hestia observed as the castle defenders were beginning to respond to the crisis. The walls of the castle were abandoned as those responsible for preventing any breach gave up on the northern section, heading towards the inner curtain walls and getting to higher ground as the swordsman moved eastward to get started bringing that one down. Others were moving about, taking the unconscious beyond those walls and into the inner section of the castle.

“They’re well-trained,” Takemikazuchi said as he observed the issuing commanders bellowing out orders. “In a set of swings, one of the walls has all but fallen and their first volley was avoided with ease. That establishes the threat being one too dangerous to ignore and the inner curtain walls give a higher vantage point so they can send out suppressing fire to keep them moving or expend the sword’s charge while they gather up the remaining people capable of Magic on the southern curtain walls to bombard them.”

“Why not let the walls fall and devote the rest of their forces to dealing with the immediate threat?” Miach asked. War was not his expertise after all.

“It’s true that overwhelming numbers could be used to eliminate a single target, but even with the non-lethal rules of engagement that magic sword is too dangerous to approach up close,” the God of War explained. “Not to mention they don’t know who was the one that drugged them, so they have to be cautious to ensure that none of them are taken hostage by placing some of their most trusted on the inside to keep watch over the unconscious. The best thing to do is simply keep their distance and send out a small, but elite unit to deal with them by pinching them once the sword breaks or they retreat.”

To their credit, they were trying. The arrows descended like rain that saturated the area where the cloaked warrior dwelled, but unlike before they swung the sword upwards and let loose a flaming arch. It proved to be the right call as the arrows detonated and lit up the sky with a riotous chorus of explosions—the arrowheads had been tipped with a fragment of flare stone meant for siegecraft, like trebuchets, battering rams, or belfries.

A Crozzo Magic Sword so big of a threat that no one questioned the use of it as Lissos, one of the commanders, raised his arm to signal for them to prepare the second volley from the crenellation of the inner curtain wall. At the same time, on the ground-level of the inner part of the Keep, the Captain of the Apollo Familia was ushering the others carrying the unconscious and injured inwards before directing an Amazoness with a unit under her command towards the southern gate.

“It looks like you were right, Take,” Hestia admitted, before shifting her Divine Mirror to the outskirts of the western wall. “But the children seem to have it covered.”

[-Twilight Manor-]

Within the Twilight Manor that housed the members of the Loki Familia, numerous Divine Mirrors had been set up within it. All so that the Trickster Goddess’ children could observe the War Game from the comfort of their own home. Among the gathered, within their own lounge, were the executives and higher-ranked members of the Familia—Aiz, Tiona, Tione, Bete, Gareth, Finn, and Riveria.

“I have to say I wasn’t expecting to see a Crozzo Magic Sword at work right before my eyes,” Gareth stated. “To think that Level Two adventurer we saw a little while ago on the 18th Floor was capable of making something like that in such a short time. I suppose it speaks about how well-acquainted Goddess Hestia and Hephaestus are that the former would allow a young one with that kind of talent out of her care.”

“He certainly won’t have an easy time after the War Game,” Riveria added, jade eyes observing the intensity of the flames. Though she held nothing against him for his blood, she knew she could not speak for the rest of her kin. “Though it was known that there was a Crozzo in the city, it was commonly accepted that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t make magic swords. The fact that we can see that is no longer the case will draw a lot of attention, both good and ill.”

“Ooh, look to the west one!” Tiona said, pointing a slender finger as a purple-cloaked figure dashed towards the castle. The staff on their back was what gave the identity of the individual away more than anything else, a wooden staff that had two focal magic stones. “It looks like they managed to get a Mage too.”

“So it was a distraction after all,” Finn stated as the new adventurer moved closer towards the castle, effectively opposite of where the majority that would be manning the outer curtain walls had relocated to deal with the current threat.

As powerful as that magic sword had been, it could not take down a castle alone. At least not at its current output. And all magic swords broke eventually, so it was unreliable for prolonged usage. They were meant to be either circumstantial or a trump card, rather than the opening fire of a three-day siege.

Of course, there were exceptions. The first was if they could be mass-produced, which would allow them to be used at will and just overwhelm the opposition through sheer firepower with no chance of fighting back. Rakia had enjoyed that until their conquest deprived the lineage of that capability, and Finn could just imagine how someone as ambitious as Ares would react the moment he learned otherwise.

The second was as a distraction. A flashy, destructive distraction meant to draw the attention and gaze of everyone towards the smoke and flames. The magical energy unleashed by the swords would serve well to mask the accumulation of magical power from a spellcaster, not unlike how Riveria and Lefiya had both done against the monster on the 18th Floor.

However, the Apollo Familia had not allowed themselves to be caught off-guard so easily. Not only had their archers moved to the curtain walls, but they had spotters that were looking out to the other directions between preparing their destructive arrows. The moment one of them spotted the approaching mage, they sent out the word and a group of five archers shifted to the approaching side of the inner curtain walls and proceeded to fire those same explosive arrows with an angle meant to bombard them before they could get in range to cast a Super Long Chant capable of damaging the structure further.

Riveria slightly inclined her head when she noticed the mage advancing regardless of the incoming arrows meant to blow them away. Instead, they darted back and forth with a steady pace. Even as the projectiles hit the ground and ruptured while throwing spouts of dirt and dust into the air, they continued to advance at a somewhat slower pace.

Answer my call, winds of the forest—

“She’s concurrent chanting in Old Elvish tongue,” Riveria declared as her ears could pick up a soft voice amidst the explosions even before one tossed back the hood of their cloak and revealed their features, marking them as a full-blooded Elf. To those with keen enough sight, they could see her lips moving. “But the spell in question is one of the Ancient Magic obtained from Spirits. It would never be able to breach the castle walls on its own, let alone reach it unless she gets much closer.”

“—tear apart our foes!” The Elven Mage skidded to a stop and held out her left hand, revealing it to be aglow with blue-and-white lights that were dancing along with it. They flittered around the digits like curious little fireflies as the wind around her churned violently enough that her skirt and clothes billowed as the swirling gale gathered in front of her outstretched hand while she braced it with her right hand and finished the spell. “GALE BLAST!

Then her arms recoiled upwards as the spiraling swirl of compressed wind shot forward like a trebuchet projectile. If not for the perception available to higher-level adventurers, none of them would have been able to really make out the projectile that had been launched.

The swirling sphere colored the hues of soft azure and gleaming argent sailed straight into the base of the western outer curtain walls. The translucent hammer smashed into solid stone that cried out and cracked from strain as it attempted to breach the ashlar like a battering ram. But it was only air bound by a shell of magic rather than a dense stone or steel sphere, and so it was natural that it would shatter before the walls.

And what came out was nothing short of a raging tempest.

An unforgiving squall that swelled like a flower coming into bloom to invade the stone and mortar through sheer force. A violent windstorm that drowned out all sound beneath its howling of chaotic winds that attempted conquest of the castle. Liberated from its container, a whirlwind was unleashed that swept through the castle with such force that wooden carts were overturned, banners were torn to shreds, and steel was wrenched from the desperate men and women who were thrown astray by the wall of wind that swept anything not braced against unyielding stone even as the wall of wind tried to crush them as it passed by.

The unfortunate souls who had been firing from upon high were now sailing through the air beyond the eastern curtain walls, the grasslands their only cushion as the more battle-hardened managed to tuck and roll to minimize the damage of the fall. Some would consider it fortunate for them that even a poor fall from that height would not break the body of a Level Two adventurer. Others would recognize it was only by the virtue of the Elf’s intention that they had survived.

That spell had been aimed at the base of the outer curtain walls. Most of the initial blast had been focused there and so even as the pressure wave that resulted from the wall of air coming undone still lost energy passing through it, the filling, and the inner curtain wall. That was evidenced by the impact zone where the ashlar had been blown out from the initial fissures being invaded by the subsequent winds, and then pushed through as the gale curved around to continue its expansion and lapped them with the fringes.

Silence lingered in the room as the eyes of the Loki Familia fell onto the girl whose body had been knocked back despite her ample distance from the wall. She was sitting on her knees with one arm holding the other. One eye winced in pain as the limb convulsed in place.

It was Tiona who broke the silence. “…Okay, I know magic isn’t really my thing. But that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that it should be able to do on its own with such a short chant, even if I didn’t understand a word of it.”

With the hush ruined and sound slowly trickling back in, the Royal Elf began to speculate. “There was no magic circle, so the Mage Developmental Ability was not responsible. Or rather it could not be responsible, given I know personally that spells not bequeathed from the Falna don’t affect it barring maybe one or two circumstantial situations I can fathom. However, that light that had gathered into her hand before she used it to launch the spell passed onto it, so that might explain the increase in its range and potency.”

“Hmm… an active trigger that increases the power of the spell based on a conditional?” Finn mused. Such Skills were uncommon, but they did exist. And the more conditional it was, the more effective it tended to be when that situation came about.

The Dwarven Warrior stroked his beard as he threw his own opinion in. “That might explain why she ignored her staff. Though considering her current state, it would be safe to assume that she can’t do that again.”

“Using her limb as a focus on such an unwieldy spell like that would have left nothing behind if she had suffered an Ignis Faatus considering the output,” Riveria noted as the girl used her other arm to reach for the pouch attached to her hip and pull out a potion to deal with the pain. “At least using a staff or something else as a focus means that if one suffered magical power going out of control the focus would bear the brunt of it and their Endurance could allow them to better withstand that resulting backlash. A broken staff is much easier to replace than a missing limb or worse.”

Before they could ruminate on that grim prospect any further, fire blossomed from the eastern wall.

Their eyes turned back to the Divine Mirror focused on that area. The winds had not only delivered a bounty of the Apollo Familia beyond the safety of the castle walls, but it had even knocked loose the hood of the warrior wielding the magic sword to reveal their identity. It was a male Elf with deep green hair and eyes that graced the standard features bequeathed to one of the races known for their beauty, and longer hair bound with a ponytail confined to the inside of the cloak.

A line of fire was drawn to separate them from the walls with the magic sword rather than continue to bring down the walls. It stretched from one end from the other and the flames and smoke formed a curtain to separate those within the castle from those outside of it, robbing them of visibility. Then, without any preamble or hesitation, the swordsman subtly shattered the weapon by clenching the handle so hard the metal shattered.

“Why’d he do that?” Tione uttered in shock watching the sword crumble to dust as the one responsible for its destruction put their hood back on. “It still had some use!”

“No… it served its purpose,” Finn said, his analytical gaze focused on the Level Two adventurers as they rose to their feet and drew their sidearms that consisted mostly of shortswords and daggers. “Leaving it around would only incentivize one of them to attempt to grab it or run to get away rather than standing and fighting against him now that the enemy has lost his greatest weapon while seemingly surrounded.”

“Those weaklings think they got lucky that the blade just shattered from overuse when they’ve just been thrown into a trap,” Bete put it more bluntly as the ground-bound members of the Apollo Familia charged. “That guy is a battle-hardened Level Three at the very least to have the guts to do that. I wonder how many of ‘em will be eating dirt by the time they realize it.”

At the same time, the southern gates began to rise. It was in the center section of the southern outer curtain wall, meaning the Elven Mage should not have been able to see it. But the ears of their race were sharp even without the blessing, so she could hear the strike unit that had been assembled coming to run her down. Thus, she pulled the staff from her back—

BOOM!

—only to immediately bound backward as the spot she was in exploded in a spout of dirt and grass. There was now a spear embedded deep in the ground. It had been a long-ranged throw backed by the strength of what must have been a high-tier Level Two adventurer, which was made more evident when a group of Apollo Familia members came rushing in her direction.

“That must be their strike unit,” Finn said as he watched them bound across the distance with decent speed for Level Two adventurers. Among their numbers was an Amazoness with uniform distinguished from the standard affair of the rank-and-file by being white and red, meaning she was likely the commander. “And it’s headed by the Sol Ankal, Embraced by the Sun—Gryne.”

The Amazon and her unit were likely dispatched to quickly take down the spellcaster. It was a simple act in principle by not giving her a moment’s reprieve, interrupting her before she could start casting her spell with long-ranged attacks. The glint of steel in the sunlight was evident even to those without enhanced senses as throwing knives embedded themselves in the ground as the elf was forced to keep moving lest her body be pierced by debilitating injuries that crippled her ability to focus and thus cast. While doing so, the unit split to cover her from multiple angles, so that if she did manage a spell, she wouldn’t get all of them.

Surround, enclose, eliminate—given that most who cast destructive spells on the level she had rarely raised their Endurance due to being firmly on the rear, it would take them no effort to disable her once they closed the distance. That was why vanguards existed …

CRACK!

Oooooh, that looked like it hurt!” Tiona muttered as she watched one of the Apollo Familia, a Cat Person, go flying with a single swing of the Elf’s staff. Rather than retreating so that she could be boxed in, she promptly rushed towards one of them who hadn’t expected it and delivered a ruthless swing with the neck of the staff across the torso. Bone snapped and crunched as the arm bent from the impact before they were sent skirting along the ground, left to huddle over the broken limb.

The sight caught many by surprise as she proceeded to charge to the next one who was closest to her. The Hume Bunny chosen as her next target hesitated for a moment when he realized that he was about to suffer the same fate as his comrade, but his daggers were already drawn and ready to be used. He bounced upwards while launching himself forward and swung them down overhead towards her in an arch.

She raised her staff with a firm grip in both hands. The daggers looked to be of decent quality, but staves and weapons made of elven wood were often treated with a special solution that made them more than capable of withstanding that level of damage. That was how some of their kin could use wooden swords with the same efficiency of steel blades, meaning it would take something of a far higher quality to cut through it. After blocking the attempt, she twisted her body and brought the rear of the staff around.

THWACK!

And sent him sailing through the air. The second one down, the Elven Mage proceeded to keep running in a straight line to put distance between them now that she had prevented the net from closing in on her with a burst of speed that pretty much indicated her being a Level above the others. Then, and only then, did she start singing her spell once more.

“At the very least it seems whoever trained her taught her the basics of what to do when they’re being run down,” Rivera said in approval as she watched the girl spin on the ball of her feet, avoiding whatever was being sent her way as she focused on her spell as though in a dance that moved to a rhythm that only she could hear, singing a song only her kin could understand—evasion and chanting was all she needed to focus on now that she had enough space without needing to put any effort into attacking or defending herself.

Mages who excelled in artillery remained in the rear when they could afford to. But the enemy would not always be content to remain at a safe distance, and all the magic in the world was meaningless if you were cornered. Facing down an enemy in close quarters combat was inevitable so self-defense was mandatory for all adventurers, even those who specialized in magic or healing.

Fight—never sit there waiting for someone to save you. If you were being boxed in from all sides, pick one side and breakthrough with all of your might. If an enemy closed the distance, steel your resolve and advance until an opening presented itself. Then put distance between you and them until you were able to cast your spells once again.

The moment her short song entered its final verse, she took to the air with a spring in her step. It was just in time as the golden spear of Gryne cut through the space between them and once more pulverized the ground in an attempt to silence her. There the wind danced around her, playfully ruffling her full sleeves and skirt as if to give the impression she was a sylph that was loved by the breeze itself as she aimed her staff and let loose its fury once more.

The swirling sphere of constrained wind sailed from the tip. Unlike before when it was large enough to fit in a siege weapon, this time it was a near-invisible cannonball that rocketed towards a convergence of the pursuers chasing after her. The moment it hit the ground and the wind came unbound, the pressure sent them abruptly rocketing off into the distance.

The sylph herself rode the wind to land further out, closer to the castle walls where one of the women who had been thrown about had fallen. Her Endurance must have been higher than the others because she sprung up despite the wall of pressure having plowed through her body and rendered her allies all unconscious on sheer force of will. She lunged forward and wound up grabbing the staff with both hands as the Elf stepped back to avoid having her arms caught instead.

“That was a mistake,” Finn noted immediately.

And was proven correct when rather than pull her staff away, she thrust the body of the shaft between her grip upwards and right into the woman’s throat. The moment she reared back from gagging, and her own grip loosened, the Elven Mage promptly twisted her upper body and arms to bring the end of the staff around. It met her skull and down she went.

Then her eyes shifted to the left and then bound away on the ball of her feet, moving as though reading the wind. That allowed her to avoid as a strip of crimson that sliced through the air past her, only for it to lash out towards the sylph as though it were a serpent, ensnaring her wrist cuffs and going taut before bursting into a cord of flames that bound the two.

“Go a bit further and the flames will burn that pretty skin of yours something fierce,” warned the commander with a satisfied smile. There was a reason her moniker was to be embraced by the sun. “Can’t have you flying away little fairy. Though I have to say that the way you sing and dance in the air makes me want to put you in a cage and keep me all to myself.”

“…If this is your Familia’s ideal way of courting someone, it leaves much to be desired,” spoke the girl in the common tongue as she looked down at the chain. She didn’t seem bothered by the flames even at that distance. “And, considering the circumstances leading to the War Game, I will decline.”

She chuckled. “Ah, is it the bunny you’re in—”

CHING.

The sound of hardwood and steel chimed like a bell. The Amazon had managed to bring her spear up horizontally the moment her chain went slack as the Elf closed the distance to deliver a blow that was meant to come down on her head.  And the green eyes of the girl had lost their definition and turned to empty mirrors.

The woman’s smile was a little forced. “Did I hit a nerve?”

Pulling her attention away from the display as the lithe fairy began to attack the Amazon with a fervor more akin to an… well, Amazon, the Sword Princess looked for any sign of the aforementioned bunny within the mirrors. But there was no sign of him, meaning he had yet to make his move. There was a hint of uncertainty within her chest at that.

It did not go unnoticed by Tiona, who was sitting next to her. “You worried about little Argonaut?”

“…A little,” she admitted. “That new knife he has bothers me.”

During their training with Bell, they had noticed when he was using his longer knife, made from the same Minotaur that he had slain, he wavered between being more aggressive in his assault and reluctant. The way he explained it was that he felt like the spirit and ferocity of the Minotaur was within the blade, taking his concentration to tamper down on it when he was in a fight.

None of them knew the reason, but the one who made it was the Crozzo who had the blood of spirits within him and made the blade after he reached Level Two. The Blacksmith Development Ability allowed smiths to instill different properties within their craft, and he had apparently put everything he could into creating the weapon. It was probably some combination of that and his blood that resulted in such an outcome.

Aiz told him to be wary of it. Her reason was that she knew very well what it was like to have something that bequeathed you great power by giving in to your rage and anger. It was all-consuming, a force that could very well cost you everything if you were unable to rein it in.

Within her breasts burned an insidious dark flame, its weight heavy on her heart. Anger manifested and hatred fueling it, that flame yearned for power to take revenge and pushed her to seek strength. Even when Riveria calmed it within her after her fight against Revis, it still influenced her in subtle ways.

She had yearned to find the secret of his growth. He was diligent, but his growth was abnormal. The Falna gifted one with a great many things, and if he possessed a Skill that could do the same then she coveted it. Had Riveria not stopped her when he was defenseless, she would have wiped away the blood and dirt and cloth to find the secret he kept hidden on his back.

That boy had been blessed to be able to receive such great power without housing inside of him some kind of distortion like the rest of them that would dye his white hair and ruby eyes with the hue of rage and insanity. More than that, his presence… soothed her deep within. It gently enveloped the flame burning her from the inside and slowly enclosed upon it, silently coaxing it to fade away without consuming any more of herself.

He made her want to smile without even realizing it. As if recalling an ancient memory of fleeting joy.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Tiona said, voicing her own opinion as one born into a warrior culture. “Holding back against an opponent like that will only drag him down. He just needs to not be too wild with it.”

They knew he managed to break the S-rank on all of his attributes when he defeated the Minotaur. But it had only been a short time since then and there was another Level between himself and his opponent. Just looking at the events unfolding outside of the castle for the War Game, showed as much given that what had to be a pair of at least Level Three adventurers were easily manhandling numerous Level Twos.

Even now the western curtain wall shook as the sylph drifted aloft in the air, sailing through the sky on the backlash of her own wind spell. Their fight had brought them closer to the defensive structure and she had maneuvered herself into jumping in the air before firing down in the space between her and Gryne. It split them apart, the chain going taut and flames erupting from it before shattering as the Amazon crashed into the wall and lost consciousness.

Landing on top of the wall, the Elven Mage shuddered before looking down at her hand. The flesh had been burned but not severely to the extent of going beyond a superficial second-degree burn. No, the real damage was likely due to simply being near her own spell going off and the resulting pressure wave. And even that was short-lived as she opened her mouth and sang a new song that swaddled her in rejuvenating light.

“How reckless,” Riveria noted as the girl sat there mending her own self-inflicted injuries. “She made such a brash decision because she was confident that she could heal herself and the difference in their Levels and equipment. She’s practically skirting with having an Ignis Faatus doing that, and I don’t think Lady Astraea would encourage such a practice.”

The Amazon probably did not have a high rank in her Magic, given her more physical attributes such as Strength. But considering the battle clothes of the Elf were not even singed or torn by the flames and wind, it was safe to assume it was made of spirit cloth that mitigated the flames. That combined with a fairly solid Endurance rank and a Level Three Falna meant those intense flames gave her nothing more than minor burns at best.

“While she has a staff and knows at least basic self-defense, she’s clearly more talented in using magic to know how to concurrently cast,” Finn pointed out. “For someone outside of Orario to have that level of talent and be a Level Three seems a bit odd. There’s little chance she doesn’t have a spell through the Falna all things considered, so the fact that she hasn’t used it or won’t means either it isn’t suitable to the War Game or she’s hiding it for one reason or another.”

In other words, they most likely weren’t members of the Astraea Familia. It was not as though Lord Hermes was above rigging the game in his favor. He was already known for concealing the Levels of his own Familia and the impression Finn and the others got when he arrived on the 18th Floor gave them enough of a read on him to know that he was perfectly capable of manipulating with words and had an interest in Bell Cranel.

“Who cares,” Bete so eloquently voiced. “The Apollo Familia started it with the intention of dogpilin’ em, so I ain’t gonna complain about the weaklings evenin’ the odds as long as they don’t do everything for them.”

Gareth agreed. “Considering the look in his eyes when he arrived that day, the boy probably intends to challenge the Captain of the Apollo Familia himself. The others are just clearing a path for him to do it.”

Then, as if to confirm his sagely prediction, there was the crackle of lightning from the northern section as the first actual member of the Hestia Familia made their appearance with a magic sword in hand…


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 10 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 10: The Opening of the Second Act

I can still recall the screams. I can still recall the roars. I can still recall the smoke, the flames, and the terror the night that the Kingdom of Elcos fell. Monsters had been building in numbers over the years. But that night they overran the city’s defenses before anyone knew what happened. The castle that had welcomed refugees from all races warmly was decimated in the blink of an eye and the city around it was left to burn.

My parents were torn to pieces protecting me and so I survived. But I was trapped beneath the rubble, half-buried as flames crawled over the city. As others ran to escape the monsters all I could do was cry out. But the others could only hear the voices of their own kind, and the only two people who would hear the voice of a half-breed like myself were no longer there.

As I cried out until my voice was hoarse, I almost gave up and was ready to join my parents in the next life. That was when I heard the words that I never thought I would hear. They were…

‘Don’t worry. I will save you.’

—The Night Elcos Fell

[-|-|-|-]

Being kidnapped had been a novel experience for Lefiya.

Her trip to Melen had been a lot more… violent than she had expected. They had gone to investigate the Violas and it turned out Amazons from Tiona and Tione’s homeland had arrived as well. Then she had gotten tricked by their Goddess, Kali, to be used as bait to lure them into a battle to the death.

Her Familia had managed to resolve the situation. But once more it reminded her of her own limitations. She hated that feeling of being helpless and weak. And while none of them would blame her, she still felt it weigh on her heart.

That was why she had decided to go into the Dungeon today on her own to train. But, before that, she wanted to give her brother his treat before she forgot… except she realized that she didn’t know where he lived. His Familia was rather obscure in contrast to the Loki Familia, meaning that she would need help finding it.

However, she recalled that they shared a mutual acquaintance in Miss Ryuu. The Elven Warrior worked within the Hostess of Fertility that the Loki Familia frequented often as a waitress. She hoped that the Elf would be able to tell her where she could find him.

The restaurant was both rustic and modern for Orario, made of stone but covered in timber framing with an artistic depiction on the central pillar. It towered at least two-and-a-half stories tall and was connected to a nearby building that she presumed served as lodging for the women who worked in it or storage. Outside of it was one of the waitresses, the silver-haired young woman who was slightly older than her.

“Hello,” she said upon recognizing her. “It’s unusual to see members of your Familia here this time of the day. Did you want to try the morning menu?”

The Hostess of Fertility changed its menu depending on the day or evening. The menu in the day catered to civilians as they were the ones who were the most prominent while Adventurers were heading to the Dungeon for the morning rush. It was in the evening, after they had visited the Exchange and gained valis for their work, that they would change the menu to cater to the Adventurers.

“Actually, I was hoping to speak to Miss Ryuu?” she asked.

“Oh?” The Human looked her over with a curious glance before giving her a nod. “Sure, let me go get her.”

It was only fifteen seconds or so before Miss Ryuu emerged from the entrance. The cool demeanor she possessed was far more placid to Lefiya, although that might be because she had seen her when she was operating as an Adventurer. If not for that she wouldn’t be able to put the dots together.

“You wished to speak to me, Miss Viridis?”

She nodded. “Forgive me if I pulled you away from your work, but I wanted to ask if you knew where Bell’s Familia was located?”

The question was met with a moment of silence. “…If I may ask, why do you wish to know?”

“Since I had a spare Spirit Nut, I—” That was as far as she got before the Elven Waitress’ expression shifted from placid to mildly surprised, which was notable for her. Then two Catfolk peered out of the doorway, ears twitching as though they had heard something that caught their attention. Even the Human waitress seemed to have been frozen in place for a moment with an uncanny smile upon her face.

“I was not aware you held that kind of interest in Mister Cranel,” Miss Ryuu said. That was right around the time Lefiya caught onto the implication. The Elven Warrior was aware of what giving a Spirit Nut to someone would entail and she had seen them together on the 18th Floor. Unaware of their blood ties, it must have seemed like she was seeking to express her interest in him romantically—not helped by those rumors.

Raul was still a dead man.

“It’s not like that!” She insisted, fighting down the bile in her stomach at the notion. “Remember, he helped me back then on the 18th Floor, so I’m paying him back—not many Humans get a chance to taste something like that, right?”

“Ah-ha, that is true…” said the Silver-Haired Waitress abruptly. “They were really something special.”

Lefiya tilted her head at that until she recalled the Elven Warrior’s plans for her own. “Oh, she shared it with you.”

“And Chloe and Anya,” she said, her smile still somewhat unnerving. “Bell comes by here every morning around this time. If you wait until then, you can give it to him in person. Meanwhile, why don’t you tell us more about how you and Bell know each other—”

BOOM!

The sound of an explosion ringing out was familiar to Adventurers. So was the natural response of immediately preparing for combat as she reached for her staff reflexively while her senses began to heighten in alarm. That was when she felt the familiar tang in the air of Magic coming from where a thick, dark smoke rose into the air.

It was possible to tell when one was casting Magic due to the accumulation of magical power. It set the senses alight even before the spell took form outside of the body, or in the case of someone with the Mage Development Ability became visible as the magic circle amplified the effects. And in the aftermath of the spells performing their work the discharge of the magic left behind enough magical energy that the air was saturated enough to quaver in her eyes.

There were two options. The first was that a Mage was at work and had unleashed a rather destructive spell in the middle of broad daylight. But she doubted that was the case because that kind of power was unnecessary here. Not to mention it would be a large expenditure of Mind so early in the morning when most were heading to the Dungeon.

The second was that there were multiple casters at work, discharging their spells around the same time. That was more familiar to Lefiya, given one the Loki Familia’s methods of dealing with waves of monsters that were thrown at them in the Dungeon involved coordinated bombardment with their spells. The end results left so much ambient magic energy present that for a Mage it was palpable, not unlike this situation.

That should also be unnecessary, but conflicts between Familia were a lot more common than one would expect. The Ganesha Familia would act as the peacekeepers, but the time it took to mobilize them would usually leave them to arrive only after things had gotten to a certain level of trouble. The Guild would then be in charge of levying fees against the responsible Familia involved—especially if civilians were hurt in the crossfire.

Self-preservation kicked in for those without the blessing as they began to seek shelter and safety while a plume of dark smoke rose into the air. Fire damage judging from experience and the sound of the second salvo of spell fire. But Lefiya was still uncertain which Familia would be causing that kind of trouble in the same sector as the Guild.

Then Anya spoke. “Nyaa… isn’t that around where white-hair comes from?”

That was all she needed to hear for Forest’s Teardrop to find its way into her grasp.

[-Bell Cranel-]

Bell! Bell!

As he struggled for breath while lying on the stone-laden ground, Bell heard the sound of his Goddess calling out for him. Her voice was faint over the blood pounding in his ears, each racing beat of his heart leaving him to experience the sharp, pulsing pain from where the tip of the Solar Flamberge had cut into his body after parting his breastplate that had been battered and beaten by the Goliath.

Won over.

He had been thoroughly won over in the battle against the Level Three in front of him—Hyacinthus Clio.

They had been ambushed the moment he stepped out of the Church they called home. Their casters and archers had set their home to flames and left both him and his Goddess covered in soot and ash as they fled through the back. The first place he could truly call home since leaving his mountain village after the death of his grandfather, the place where he slept, ate, and lived with his Goddess over the last two months since becoming a Familia—becoming family—gone in mere seconds.

Every turn he took he was accosted by members of the Apollo Familia. Their intention was made clear from Miss Daphne and Miss Cassandra. They were forcing him into joining their Familia, with those two making it clear that even if he ran, he would be hunted down until they finally brought him back.

Even so, surrender wasn’t an option. Getting caught wasn’t an option either. Neither was acceptable because of what would happen. Not to him, but Hestia—his family.

Apollo had lusted after her once. He had the nickname of the ‘Phallus the Passionate’ amongst the divine. Here on the lower world, where her divine powers were sealed, Bell didn’t want to think about what he would do to her if he got his hands on her—either she would be kept captive to force his surrender and likely remain that way or she would be killed and sent back up to Heaven.

His only option was to fight. He could hold his own against other Level Two adventurers, even if there were a lot of them. The addition of what he thought were members of another Familia was a setback, but he thought that he would at least be able to get Hestia somewhere they couldn’t get to her.

Then Hyacinthus showed up and decided to initiate him into their Familia by force.

Bell had fought his hardest—he had used his fastest speed and both weapons in hand. Putting everything he could into a relentless rush, pounding at the pavement with enough leg strength to crack it as he kicked off the ground, starving himself for air as he exhaled with a battle cry, Bell lashed out with a flurry of attacks meant to overwhelm via speed what he lacked in strength.

It still wasn’t enough. Hyacinthus avoided them all. Even when he began shifting his footwork to change angles without a moment’s pause, his reward for his relentless rush was a song of steel and shower of sparks as his bequeathed knife from his Goddess never found flesh, and the knife born from surpassing his prior limits was rebuked by the sword that glowed with the radiance of sun and flame. Each interception sent vibrations up his arm, either from the shape of the blade or the strength behind it, driving pain into his limbs.

Bell was not slow. His speed was his best attribute. His Agility was the one thing he was confident in. But the difference in a single level had been enough to make all of that meaningless as the Captain of the Apollo Familia intercepted his efforts with contemptuous ease—grinning in the process as if to mock his efforts.

That was the difference between Level Two and Level Three.

That was why he was dragging things out. That was why he was using a single hand on a two-handed longsword, which would only benefit from his Strength. He wanted to make it clear the difference in power.

On some level, Bell knew that as well. But he couldn’t stop. Not when Hestia was on the line. Not when his family was on the line. So he pushed past his limits as much as he could, ignoring the pain that he felt deep within his bones and looking for so much as the smallest opening to end things even as he screamed out with the strength of his will—

“Are you done howling, Little Rabbit?”

—and then it was over.

Clink. Clink. Splat. Three sounds accompanied the blur of steel, a single fluid motion that defanged the rabid rabbit.

The first two were the scraping of steel-on-steel. His sword flowed to the left to redirect the knife made of adamantite from the Minotaur he’d slain to become a Level Two. Then in the same motion it flowed to the upper-right to rebuke the knife given to him by his Goddess, leaving his chest unguarded. The last was a diagonal slash accompanied by a sickening, wet sound that rang out over the sound of parting steel.

A hot flash of pain coursed through Bell’s body and a pained cry crawled from his throat. “AGGHHHH!”.

His weapon had to be a Superior weapon of some kind because Bell could feel flames within it. Though there were no burns that could be seen, no scent of charred flesh or burning fat, wildfire consumed him as it cut through his flesh, muscle, and into the bone itself. It was probably only by the orders of their God that it stopped there and hadn’t gone to the vital organs.

Hyacinthus wasn’t done. He stepped in, bringing his empty arm’s elbow into Bell’s throat. It cut off his air and would have crushed his throat if it had been just a little harder. Then he slammed his fist into his sternum to drive  it further into his solar plexus, hoping to rip his consciousness away from him—fortunately, it only knocked the wind out of him.

But that still left him on the ground, helpless. He couldn’t breathe with his diaphragm was spasming. He couldn’t speak and thus couldn’t cast a spell with his throat bruised. He had gone from the Rabbit Rush to being rendered completely docile in a single moment.

That was the difference of experience between them—one who had only been fighting against monsters for two months versus one who had been fighting against monsters and other people for years. That increased Status only made it absolute rather than advantageous.

There were no words to express the shame that washed over Bell at that moment as he laid there, tears streaming down his face in a slowly growing pool of his own blood as several sets of eyes were peering down on his defeated form.

There were eyes of concern from his Goddess who was calling out to him. Even after having their home burned down and everything they owned turned to ashes, it was the sight of him injured and bleeding on the ground that pulled the strongest reaction from her. He could hear her footfalls as she stumbled her way towards him while he was unable to shout for her to run, lest she be captured.

There were eyes of pity from Miss Cassandra as she stood on a nearby rooftop with a staff in hand. She must have been there to make sure he didn’t die from his wounds given her healing magic. He’d managed to fire off three shots of Firebolt with a single call of the spell and leave three of their Familia burned and injured, and she had managed to get them back up in seconds.

There were eyes of sympathy but conviction from Miss Daphne as she looked at him from the corner of her eyes, not making direct contact with him. Those eyes were instead fixed onto Hestia. There was no doubt they had Bell captive now, but it would only take her to grab the defenseless Goddess.

Then there were the eyes of jealousy and resignation from Hyacinthus as he approached with his blade in hand. “Even if you aren’t worthy of his love, I will fulfill my Lord’s will. You will become part of our Familia.”

Stand up! That thought permeated every fiber of his being. He had to stand before Hestia was taken. He couldn’t lose his family. Stand up! Stand up! Stand up! STAND UP!

Thunder rumbled in his chest. Blood escaped from his mouth as he forced himself to breathe and found the strength to get his arms beneath him. His fingers curled around his daggers as he raised his head, the lower half of his mouth covered in blood, and fixed his crimson eyes onto Hyacinthus.

The man stopped in his tracks for a moment. His lips curled into a scowl. “Such an unsightly face.”

Then he lashed out to kick him and Bell felt something break. Probably a rib or two as the impact sent him tumbling down the street further. Hestia said something but it was drowned out by another cough of blood.

“Your arms. Your legs. I’ll severe the tendons in each of them before having Cassandra close your chest wound so you don’t bleed out. Then… I will make sure to thoroughly carve into you that making such a face in front of our Lord is simply inexcusable. You will be domesticated before we present you to him, Little Rabbit.”

As he approached with the intention of doing so, Hestia moved to get in front of Bell with her arms held outwards. Bell also felt a familiar sensation beginning to leak from her that he did on the 18th Floor, the last time she bore witness to him being attacked. He also spotted Miss Daphne getting ready to ensure she didn’t go through with it.

The thunder in his chest intensified further.

BOOM!

That was when they heard the explosion nearby, muffled within it screams and shouts. It stopped Hyacinthus. It stopped Hestia. It stopped Miss Daphne. It drew every set of eyes to the entrance western section of the intersection as his senses began tingling from the presence of Magic like before.

Then his sister emerged with the final words of her song reaching his ears. “—Pierce, arrow of accuracy!

Her azure gaze fell onto them. There was a haunting chill within them as she spotted him. Then she immediately tilted her staff towards the one whose blade was stained with his blood.

Arcs. Ray.

Two words preceded a golden beam of light that shot out of the tip of her staff, howling as it rushed towards its target. It cut through the air, a beam roughly the width of a human torso sailing past Bell’s prone body and over Hestia’s short body, and straight towards his assailant.

Bell lost track as the Captain of the Apollo Familia vanished, but the beam apparently didn’t because it curved in zagging patterns like it was jumping between the walls, each pass scoring the surface until in the middle of the air there was a glint. Then he saw the man for a brief moment on the rooftop, down on one knee and swinging his sword towards the onrushing light.

It ruptured and a luminous explosion swallowed him on the rooftop.

“Hyacinthus!!” Miss Daphne called out, stunned by the development.

Then the smoke cleared as he swung his sword to reveal his immaculate white cape and uniform were charred and smoldering with entire sections missing. His unblemished skin was burned, and blood leaked from parts of his flesh where the force of the explosion had torn into him. There was an arrow in his Achilles Heel. “C-Cassandra!”

“Coming!” Miss Cassandra stepped forward with her staff in hand.

His sister reacted. He presumed it was because she felt the Magic more acutely or could hear her chanting more acutely than him, but she immediately aimed her staff at the woman while advancing towards him. She had every intention of silencing her before she could fix his injuries.

It was only because Miss Daphne immediately pulled her out of view that she didn’t, tossing her over to the opposite side of the rooftop. At the same time, an arrow buried itself into her shoulder with enough force that she was knocked onto the rooftop—her voice crying out as she clutched the wound. Hyacinthus gritted his teeth before kicking her over the opposite side where Cassandra had been pushed off, swinging his sword once to deflect a set of arrows aimed for him, and then joining them in escaping the marksman’s line of sight.

“Come on!” Lefiya’s hand grabbed Bell roughly and she pulled him onto her back. Then she grabbed his Goddess’s hand and ran them down the street until she spotted an alcove that could shelter them from view.

It wouldn’t far enough. He forced out the words. “There…others—”

“There were.” She emphasized that past tense as she dragged them over. “That’s how I heard they planned to box you in. Then I made sure they couldn’t and let the ones who were still conscious retreat with the ones who weren’t when I started casting for that shot.”

That explained the explosion earlier.

Once she made sure they were out of view, she crouched down and looked him over. Then she frowned in a way that didn’t suit her. “I thought he was an upper-tier Level Two, but if he’s a Level Three then I shouldn’t have held back so much. That sniper catching him in the leg was the only reason I caught him at that output… I won’t make that mistake again.”

It wasn’t an idle threat.

She had the Mage Development Ability, which meant she could actively increase the output and range of her spells and thus the damage she could inflict would scale exponentially. He had seen that firsthand back on the 18th Floor. That shot she fired before was a love tap compared to that because she hadn’t been intending to kill him if he had only been a Level Two—as anything she fired that was capable of catching up to and downing a Level Three would likely cripple or kill someone of a lower level.

As for the sniper, he could only assume it was Naaza.

Can’t you go day a without getting to trouble?” She murmured low enough for only him to hear as she grabbed the sides of his face and wiped away the tears that had come out. Then she began to sing. “Answer my call, deity of the sea. Obey my will and heal the wounds—Light Healing.”

It was a soothing song. One that bathed him in light the color of the glittering sea, a blue veil decorated with glimmering stars. They sank into his flesh, and he could feel the wounds numbing. It was healing Magic. “You can—

“Not a word of this leaves this alley or I’ll take back everything I said on the 18th Floor,” she warned, her azure eyes narrowed as the light continued to wash over them. “Do you understand me, Bell?”

“Y-Yes…”

“I’d ask the same of you, Lady Hestia,” she said, without looking up at the Goddess. “I’m probably already in enough trouble getting in the middle of a conflict between Familia as is.”

“…Just heal Bell,” Hestia said softly. Her tone was a mixture of sadness and gratitude as she looked over them while dressed in her outfit to work for Lady Hephaestus. It had been covered in dust, dirt, ash, and blood. “Check his leg holster for potions as well.”

“We need to get you both somewhere safe, now,” Lefiya said as she did so once her spell ended, running her fingers along the holster until she found the potion and then splashed it upon him. “If that woman was a dedicated Healer with the Treatment Development Ability, he’ll be back on his feet soon. And now that they know someone capable of doing that to a Level Three will be with you, they’ll start attacking in more numbers and before the Ganesha Familia intervenes.”

He had heard they were supposed to be the peacekeeping force in Orario. Adventurers causing damage to the city would naturally draw them to the location soon enough. They had been planning to force his hand before that happened.

Lefiya’s ears perked up at that moment and she rose to her feet, her lips moving to begin another chant—

“Hestia! Bell!”

—he stopped her as he recognized the voice. “Wait, that’s not an enemy!”

She stopped as Lord Miach emerged from the backstreets. His sister stepped aside as the God of Medicine crouched down to look at him and see the empty bottle she had before nodding and then pulling out a second pair to splash over him as well. Made with the Mixing Development Ability, they were capable of healing on contact, and he felt the deep-seated injuries from the hunt vanish while Lord Takemikazuchi’s Familia joined up with them.

They had come to save him. Then when questioned on who Lefiya was, his sister simply said an acquaintance from the Loki Familia who saw him in trouble. They were all on the 18th Floor at one point or another, so no one questioned it. Then she suggested they left before they could be encircled, and no one complained as they started moving.

None of them were aware of the invisible observers that had been watching. Not the God of Travel and his Captain who possessed a myriad of magical tools. Nor the Goddess whose eyes could perceive the soul from a distance.

[-Twilight Manor-]

At the home of the Loki Familia, news of the attack on the Little Rookie had already reached them courtesy of Tiona. The Amazonian had gone out into the streets to get information about what was transpiring and had reported that the Apollo Familia was basically trying to hunt him down.

The news wasn’t as surprising as it should have been. Aiz had been to the dance and Loki had told them about the War Game itself being proposed and shot down. But Apollo wasn’t the type to give up apparently. Finn had already told Aiz not to intervene.

That was when the door opened and another member of the Familia entered the room, one with a rather nervous demeanor and huffing as though he had just run a great distance. “Pardon the intrusion, but I need to make a report about the current incident. It seems like there was a Mage attacking the Apollo Familia as well, and from the description of her appearance, spell, and magic circle… it sounded like Lefiya Viridis!”

Riveria looked up at that, her lips pursing as she put together the information. “She said that she was heading to the Dungeon this morning. If she happened to be around when the attack happened and knew he was the target, she likely intervened based on allowing them into the camp on the 18th Floor.”

Finn leaned back in his chair with a sigh before rubbing the bridge between his eyes. “…Bete, go bring her back. Now.”

Aiz rose to her feet for a second time at that. “But I can go instead.”

“We cannot afford to openly take a side and Loki told us not to interfere before she wandered off,” Finn stated before looking square at the Werewolf. If he had sent Aiz then she would have gone out of her way to help him and then bring her back. “Make it clear this is her acting on her own and bring her back—quickly.”

Why do I always have to babysit the weaklings…” The Werewolf scoffed as he rose to his feet, scratching his head before he made sure his boots were on properly. Then made his way to the window and pushed it open, allowing the morning breeze to enter.

He leapt out of it and took off running.


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 9 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 9: Return to Orario

“Gentle. Wild. Tender. Chaotic. Magic is beautiful as we sing songs to weave spells. But we must never forget that Magic is dangerous. The Spirits bequeath to us what we desire, but never for a moment take it for granted—lest that boon becomes a bane.

I only understood what Mother meant by that when I first picked up a wand, sometime after our home fell. Though my brother picked himself up and smiled, I never forgot the blood that spilled from a wound born of my carelessness. And I swore to never let it happen again.”

[-|-|-|-]

The long night gave birth to a new dawn.

As Lefiya stepped out of the shelter provided by the Elder for Lady Riveria and her retinue, the morning rays reflected off the lingering ice to create beautiful refractions throughout the forest. There were still Spirits lingering about as well within the winter-land, basking in the unfamiliar chill.

“You’ve finally awakened?” She turned to see the sandy-toned hair with a wreath upon it. It was the diminutive Elf who reigned over the Spirit Forest. “The rest have already set out.”

“Good morning, Lady Lilo,” said the Half-Elf as she gave her a polite bow. “Do you know where the others have gone?”

“The one with the wooden sword has gone off with the rapscallion to see if they can figure out more about the ones who attacked us last night. As for the other, I have her asking questions to the other High Elves since they’ll likely be more receptive to her.”

She supposed that made sense. One good act scarcely changed deep-rooted perceptions. At best her actions last night only painted her as competent due to being the student of Lady Riveria. However, it was still progress, so she couldn’t complain. “Is there anything you would like me to do?”

The Elder Elf nodded. “Follow me.”

The Half-Elf did so and was led beyond the plaza and deeper into the forest, away from prying eyes. Their destination was a clearing within the brush, the short blades of grass crunching beneath their feet while surrounded by white-capped bushes. The nearby pond had a break in it that allowed for birds that didn’t mind the frost to perch themselves on the edge and then drink from the source.

“Now, then. You wished to learn of our Magic, did you not?” She raised her staff that glimmered with light, which beckoned forth one of the Spirits. This one had a bluish-white hue. “I will personally instruct you on the method.”

Her surprise was… palpable. “I-Is that alright? I know that only High Elves or those of specific families are taught.”

“In the past, when every life counted and every day was not promised, your standing did not matter so long as you were an Elf attempting to survive this harsh world and protect your kin. And given what happened last night we will have to return to that line of thinking to ensure the Spirit Forest remains protected. Besides, you know the ancient language, have the ambition to attempt to learn, and have performed deeds worthy of any Elf to perpetuate the bonds we share with the Spirits. You have at least earned the right to attempt to learn by my blessing.”

And considering the Spirit Forest was sacred lands and the one overseeing it was the equivalent of royalty, which was partially why she could speak to Lady Riveria the way she had without fear of reproach or consequence, it was the equivalent of stating that one of the highest authorities deemed her worthy. Not too dissimilar by the Nine Hells choosing her as her student. “Then please teach me well, Elder.”

“The first thing to understand is that words are meaningless to Spirits, especially these little ones with faint traces of sapience. It is simply noise to them in the same way the barking of a dog is to us. That is why I said the last time it would not be enough for you to merely recite an ancient pledge. It would not have worked, and you would have gotten frustrated, which the Spirit would sense being directed at it and responded to in ways that could be quite unpleasant to you and lethal to someone else.”

It would have been a worse repeat of last night, essentially. The Spirits had been agitated not because terrifying emotions had been directed towards them, but because they were in the general vicinity, and they didn’t know better. If they felt an Elf directly hostile towards them it would become a lot more focused, and while having a Falna meant that an outburst of their primordial Magic probably wouldn’t kill her outright, it would still strain the bonds of friendship between her kind and theirs.

“Then it isn’t the words, but the emotions tied to them?” guessed the Half-Elf as she recalled the moment they gathered under the Holy Tree. “The pledge is the verbal manifestation of the emotions we should approach them with and that tells them what we desire?”

She nodded. “Exactly. You have to sincerely mean it from the depths of your heart so that it can reach the Spirit. Even then it is not a guarantee since they can be fickle or non-responsive, hence why there are rituals to appease them beforehand. I am simply expediting the process while you have their favor and this applies mostly to Minor Spirits. Greater Spirits or those with enough sapience can understand words and be bartered with, though should you upset one of them…”

You’d likely be dead, Falna or not. She could guess that much considering the last time they had run into a Demi-Spirit it had made it clear just what kind of power one of those possessed. That might have been on the higher-end of things as far as the power-scale went for Spirits, but the general rule of not angering them was a solid one.

“The next thing to consider is the nature of the Spirit itself when you beseech them,” Lady Lilo continued. “Minor Spirits only understand simple concepts so they will often try to relate them to whatever they feel you desire of their wisdom. If you desire to attack something with a Spirit of Flames, you learn how to cast Burning Flare or Flare Burn or whatever variation of it the different forests use. The spells are themselves are limited but potent on their own as long as you don’t expect anything absurd like being able to summon a blizzard like that Elven Warrior they tell fairy tales about—he likely obtained that knowledge from a Greater Spirit.”

“I won’t,” she promised as the glimmer from the Elder Elf’s staff flew towards Lefiya and hovered there. The Spirit naturally followed it, more interested in it than her. But at least it didn’t float away when she shifted her head towards it.

“This little one is a child of water,” Lady Lilo began. “Water cleanses and nurtures all life. Thus, often we see it as the embodiment of medicine and spells that can be used to mend wounds. Release your magical power like last night but focus your mind on the child. Envision a moment where you wished that you possess it and hold in your breasts the desire for that Magic as you recite the words.

A moment when I wished to possess healing magic? That thought ran through her mind as she closed her eyes and held out Forest’s Teardrop, allowing her magical power to leak out. In her mind what surfaced in the void as she cleared her thoughts was… the memory of Miss Ryuu and how she possessed magic to mend as well as maim.

Unlike Lefiya, who could only destroy with her spells. If there was an obstacle she could blow it away, and if there was someone she needed to protect, she could only do so by obliterating the threat. But if they were injured and dying she could only rely on others, whether someone else being present or borrowing it through Elf Ring with a penalty of greater cost of Mind and extension of the incantation to the point where they may as well have been an Ultra-Long Chant.

Even then the Half-Elf Mage could do so little for her brother who fought to protect her while covered in blood. It was her duty to take care of her idiot brother if he got in over his head, not the other way around. To mend his wounds and ease his pains—so that he can one day stand on his own.

She fixated on that feeling of wanting to support and soothe her brother while she made her ancient pledge. “I beseech thee, o kin born of nature. By thy breath the world moves, its wisdom and grace instilled. I beseech thee to sow the seed of thy essence within.

As the words flowed from her mouth like running water, Lefiya felt… strange. She opened her eyes to see the world around her was filled with rising tears that caught the sparkles of light as they drifted into the air.

It was the magic energy she was letting slip out. It was being changed in a way that felt foreign compared to the Magic granted by her Falna as the Spirit undulated in strange motions around her head. She reached out to it as she finished the pledge. “Let it be nurtured by the bonds we share. And bear the fruit of knowledge within me—so that bond can bloom for eternity.

Water and light gathered in front of her in the form of a small star, bright and radiant. She felt an impulse and gently cradled that light before bringing it to her chest. Then the words formed in her mind, and she found herself repeating them aloud.

Answer my call, deity of the sea. Obey my will and heal the wounds—Light Healing.

That light encompassed her as it seeped into her body from head to toe. It felt cool like water washing over her from the inside, filling in every crease and crevice. Gentle and kind enough that it coaxed tears from her eyes as the light faded away. “Ahh…

“Take a deep breath,” said the Elder Elf as she gestured with her staff and wrangled the Spirit’s attention. “How do you feel?”

“I feel… strange, but touched,” Lefiya said, placing a hand on her heart. “It’s different from when I normally use Magic.”

“That’s because the Magic granted from your Falna suits you due to being born from your excelia, the experiences that shape you,” Lady Lilo explained. “The trigger for it is already within you and, as soon as it appears, all you have to do is recite the chant. Thus, it feels as natural as breathing. Everything else afterwards is learned.”

Magic that appeared with the Falna was benefited by the Falna. That was why it grew as one’s Magic Status increased, the effects and attributes strengthening it. The Mage Development Ability augmented it in different ways, expanding its capabilities even further.

“In the case of this Magic, it stems from something that you don’t fully understand,” she continued. “That’s why it feels foreign to you at the moment, whether that feeling is comforting or intense. That’s also why it’s a lot more difficult to manage than your normal spells. You’re giving up a lot of control and taking a bigger risk, but it can never be taken away from you even should your blessing be lost.”

She took a moment to process that information when a green light filled her vision once more. Shifting her azure eyes to the left revealed the curious Wind Spirit had come to her once more. It had come closer than yesterday, lingering so closely that she could feel the air around her shift when it passed by.

“If you’re up for it, why don’t you try to beseech that little one next?” suggested the Elder Elf.

“But I learned one spell already. Is that really okay?”

“Minor Spirits do not concern themselves with the concept of sharing and that Spirit personally danced with you, did it not?” Lefiya nodded to the inquiry. “That was because it felt the emotions that you were giving off at the time, similar to how the other Elves being cheerful drew the others to them.”

The Half-Elf Mage recalled she had been dancing with Filvis, holding her close and staring into her eyes. Her cheeks grew red when she considered the intimacy of the moment and her own intentions. Then she noticed the Wind Spirit bobbed closer to her and puffed out her cheeks. I am not sure how I feel about that.

“Since it is already fond of you, it will likely be receptive enough that I won’t need to coax it. Others will not be so easy. Take advantage while you can.”

Sensing that the childish-looking Elder Elf was correct, Lefiya repeated what she had done before in releasing her magical power while envisioning the wind. When one normally thought of wind, they thought of the fair breeze that caressed the skin and whispered in your ear. But, in her mind, it was something else entirely—wild, yet beautiful.

Miss Ryuu was so elegant like the gale, slipping through the grasp of whatever tried to tie her down, able to ascend to the sky without wings as if it were a second home or sweep away her foes. Miss Aiz was a gorgeous tempest, her wind a shield and a sword, capable of sweeping away anything that stood in her path.

Lefiya coveted that wind, holding it tightly as she recited the ancient pledge once more. Then she felt it. She felt the wind envelop her body, a light breeze that gently caressed her at first before gradually becoming a gale that shook the frost-laden foliage around her and steadily grew more and more intense that she almost feared it would take her into the sky.

“Don’t let it run wild, whelp!” she heard beyond the gale. “It’s your Magic. Contain it and send it upwards!”

It was easier said than done. How did one contain the wind? Something so inherently free that it slipped through any crease or crevice? The answer was…with itself.

That’s right. The wind was not only gentle but harsh. It could be a light breeze or a gale that swept away all else. Ever shifting in form and intensity, the only thing that could contain it was itself. I need to twist it tight!

She gathered the wind. Not with her hands but her will itself, guiding her magic power that the Wind Spirit stirred to encircle itself. She couldn’t let it run wild, so she bound the wind tighter and tighter, listening to its howl intensifying as it struggled to break free.

And in those howls were birthed words that came to her lips as she seized control.

Answer my call, winds of the forest. Obey my will and tear apart our foes— She forced the wind to twist itself tighter and tighter until she could unleash it into the sky.Gale Blast!

Constrained wind sailed into the air before coming undone. The magical power that had been turned into raging winds came unbound into empty space and then scattered. The result was a fierce gale that shook every nearby tree free of its ice and frost, stripping more than a few of their leaves that were helplessly caught in its wake and now drifted down.

Haa… ha…” She was left panting as she collapsed onto her knees, staring up into the sky. She felt far more exhausted than she should. More so considering the little Wind Spirit circled her with what seemed to be excitement, a stark contrast if there ever was one.

“Magic with the intention of doing harm is a lot more unstable and requires your focus to bring under control than one meant to heal,” lectured the Elder Elf as she slowly came over. “One little slip and an Ignis Fatuus is almost inevitable… well, had you taken a moment longer I would have wrested the Wind Spirit from you to prevent that, but a little fear isn’t a bad thing to instill in youngsters so they know better than to take it for granted.”

She’s about as merciless as Lady Riveria when it comes to Magic, isn’t she? Lefiya belatedly realized. She may look like a child, but beneath that innocent veneer was someone to be feared. If Lady Loki called the Nine Hells a strict mother, then Lefiya imagined that she would be a stern grandmother.

But she couldn’t deny the lesson would stick. She knew the wind could be devastating in how the others used it, but they had control and that wind had never been directed at her. Magic that was wild and untamed from even before the Age of Heroes, meant to slay monsters that spawned from the Dungeon without the Falna.

Her respect for those ancient mages grew even more.

“Thousand Elf,” Lady Lilo said firmly and proud, addressing her by the title bequeathed to her. “I recognize both Her Highness’ words and your determination. So, with my blessing, take our culture, our Magic, and our history with you. And never forget that so long as a drop of our blood flows in your veins and you bear our pride, you are an Elf.”

She felt a swelling in her chest at that and responded with a cheerful, “Yes, ma’am!

After a few minutes to compose herself, Lefiya made her way back to the plaza. The other High Elves were about and making arrangements to return to their homes, distant forests that dotted the land. The events that transpired here would linger on their lips and from what she could perceive the Elder Elf was giving them instructions to carry out when they arrived.

However, to her surprise, one of those High Elves approached her. It was a woman who looked relatively… well she would like to say older. But considering how their races aged differently and the differences from an ordinary Elf like her mother, she couldn’t particularly say how old. Older than Lady Riveria, but younger than the Elder that looked like a child.

“May I help you, my lady?” Lefiya responded with mild caution mixed with politeness out of respect for her presumed station.

To her surprise, the High Elf bent her knees outward while placing one foot behind her. Her fingers held out her dress and she inclined her head as she spoke. “Allow me to express gratitude for your actions last night, child of our forest. I greet you humbly, as one who hails from the heart of Wishe.”

A momentary shock ran through the Half-Elf at the realization that she must have been one of the High Elves that hailed from the forests of her homeland. She hadn’t really considered that one of them would be in attendance given her own preoccupation, but Wishe itself was renowned for producing Elves who possessed high levels of magical power even without the Falna. As Magic could only be obtained from the Spirits without the grace of the divine, of course they would be in attendance at the Spirit Festival.

In haste, she replied with the same courtesy. “Forgive me for not recognizing one of my own. I am honored to be in your presence and apologize for any discomfort the events of last night might have caused you or the others of our forest in attendance.”

The high-born Elf graced her with a smile. “You have nothing to apologize for, my dear. I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to bear witness to not only Lady Riveria’s presence, but also the knowledge that one of our own serves as her apprentice. It will make for a delightful tale to regale those who were unable to attend the festival this time.”

So she was the only one who came from Wishe this time, Lefiya realized while keeping her head bowed. “Will you be departing now?”

“Yes, my escort awaits me at the entrance of the Spirit Forest, but…” The woman brought her hands to the Half-Elf’s face and gently raised it so that she could look her in the eyes. Her eyes were a familiar shade of magenta. “Should ever find the time to return to Wishe, please do. I am certain your mother would love to hear of how talented you have become.”

Unsure of how to respond as the High Elf turned and departed, Lefiya considered her words. Then she realized that she had never told anyone here that her mother was the source of her Elven heritage. Then again it might just have been due to the preconception of beauty among their races.

Elvish beauty was considered the closest to the Gods and Goddesses on the lower world. Even then some would argue they were able to match them, such as Lady Riveria. Elven women were often sought after by other races for this reason and, while Humans could bear children with any of the other races to result in one that inherited traits from both, it was often the fathers who sowed the seed—so to speak.

However, it did remind her she should send a letter to her mother to let her know how she was doing and that she had reconnected with her little brother. Though the woman had only met him for a few hours at best, she saw in him their father’s eyes and there were moments where Lefiya knew that she still regretted not taking him in. His life wouldn’t have been easy being a human on the outskirts and Lefiya believed that he was happier living with his grandfather, but it had been a choice she took from both of them because of her petulance at that age.

Though she would leave out the situation on the 18th Floor—obviously.

[-Orario-]

It took roughly the same time to get back to Orario as it did to get to the Spirit Forest when they were finally done.

The trip back was thankfully uneventful, but silent as Lefiya mused on her new Magics and what she should do with that knowledge. Lady Riveria had abstained from teaching her them due to some very solid reasons considering she still had much to learn and would likely not want her practicing them before she perfected her own spells through the Falna and maximizing their potential with the Mage Development Ability.

But, at the same time, she couldn’t just sit on what she had just obtained. Even if it couldn’t benefit from the Mage Development Ability and thus would never be as capable in terms of raw output, it was still Elvish Magic. I should treat it like a hobby for now and practice it during my free time then.

“I’ll need to head to Loki to report our return,” Lady Riveria stated once they all finished turning over their mounts to the Ganesha Familia. “However, it would leave me feeling rather upset if I didn’t see you girls receive a proper reward for what you’ve done. And since Royman can’t be bothered to do so… take these.”

She presented them each with Spirit Nuts. They were fruit borne of the Spirit Tree, an event that occurred once every 30 years, making them among the rarest of delicacies. One only known to their people at that.

“Is this really okay, Lady Riveria?” Lefiya asked. “Aren’t there people who you wanted to give them to?”

“I only needed two to start with but some of the other Elves were insistent,” she said. “Since they can be used as a panacea for illnesses, I wanted to give one to a dear friend of mine to get better. As for the other, I believe I will give it to her daughter to do with as she pleases. She wanted to come with me, but circumstances wouldn’t be so kind to her. The rest will just be wasted for me, so take two of them each.”

“I have no personal use for them, but a dear friend of mine may like to have the chance to try them,” Miss Ryu said as she took the offering of royalty. “Thank you, Lady Riveria.”

As Lefiya and Filvis did the same before taking a moment to relax at a café on the Main Street, the pair silently pondered what it was they were to do with the two they each possessed.

Lefiya figured she would give one of hers to Bell, much in the same way Miss Ryuu and Lady Riveria would their friends. It was so he would have the chance to experience one of the pleasures known only to their people. It would be one of the little things she could do for him as an older sister—affection in the form of storge.

Her other choice would not be so innocent. “Filvis, would you like to split this one with me?”

The Elf who bore the title of Maenads nearly spilled her tea in an undignified manner as she registered the words of the Thousand Elf. “L-Lefiya… aren’t those also supposed to increase the feelings of affection between the two who eat them?”

In the fairy tale story based around the Holy Tree, the greedy girl who reformed shared a red nut that grew on the tree with a boy from the village. It made their love even stronger, and they were married by the end. It was the sort of thing that gave the story an ending befitting of a fairy tale.

Lefiya was certain she was in love with Filvis. But she also knew that those feelings may not be returned. At the very least she wanted it to be known, rather than leading her on.

“I know,” confessed the Half-Elf, a crimson blush spreading on her cheeks as continued. “After the dance, I… wanted to make my feelings clear that I’ve started seeing you as more than just a friend. Even if you don’t share that sam—”

“No, I…” The raven-haired Elf trailed off while looking away from the pair of azure eyes. “I’m sullied, inside and out to the point I’m used to being covered in blood. I don’t want to dirty you in that way, Lefiya.”

“You’re the most beautiful person I know, inside and out,” Lefiya told her. Whether it was covered in blood or standing valiantly in her defense, her affection for the woman in front of her did not change. “There is nothing you can do to sully me because you aren’t sullied at all.”

“…Lefiya…” Her breath caught in her throat as she looked down at the offering for the confession. “I intend to share one of mine with Lord Dionysus. But the other I want to share with you, both to acknowledge your feelings for me and… mine for you.”

She recognized the implication. Filvis returned her affection, but she also loved the one who graced her with his blessing dearly as well, despite knowing that it would likely be unrequited due to their natures. The divine often loved their children, a form of agape that could not be fully understood because of their nature. It was impossible to truly judge their affection by the standards of those of the lower world.

“Even so, how I feel won’t change,” Lefiya said in response. “If your feelings for him are returned, I’ll cheer for you. If they aren’t, I’ll cry with you. Even if I don’t hold that sole place in your heart, I still treasure you dearly, Filvis.”

Then…” She took the offered fruit from Lefiya and gave her one of her fruits in response. It was an exchange of affection in the form of eros, an affirmation of their feelings for one another. They cemented it upon partaking of the fruits that were the crystallization of the Spirits’ bond with their people.

And, at that moment, Lefiya couldn’t be happier. Her feelings were at least acknowledged. She hoped they would be reciprocated in full someday but, for now, it felt like she was floating on air.

[-Bell Cranel-]

Around the same time, Bell Cranel emerged from the depths of the Dungeon. It couldn’t have been a week, and yet he felt as though he was seeing the sun for the first time in a month or longer since he had seen the sun or felt the breeze of the wind on his skin. They had done it.

They had finally returned from the 18th Floor…

He knew they would need a few days to recover. But, hopefully, after that everything would go back to normal. He hoped they could all laugh and cheer at their fortune, and maybe even celebrate somewhere nice.

…Needless to say, he never expected they’d be going to war.

[-Arc 2 End-]


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 8 [DanMachi AU]

Chapter 8: The Pride of Elves

“Mother told me of why the Elves danced and sing. Even when others would fear for their lives in this land where the monsters roamed, the Elves would sing and dance within their forests. Not because they felt safe or protected. But because the Spirits were there and felt what we felt. No matter how great our fear and sorrow, what reached them must not be that which we wished to run from—it needed to be that we wished to be passed on.

For they will live beyond even the oldest of Elves and carry our prayers to the future.”

[-|-|-|-]

The defensive spell woven by the melody of Lady Riviera was all that saved the majority of the High Elves that were mingling amidst the Spirits, so lost in merry and mirth that it was only once the dome went up that they realized that something was amiss.

That was when at least ten Humans burst through the trees that ringed the plaza where the little lights from before that had been dancing now bobbed in erratic motions that highlighted their confusion. Armed with weapons and shouting of plunder and murder, they moved with motions that were beyond the norm for their race as they rushed towards the barrier. There was no doubt in Lefiya’s mind—they all had Falna.

That was when the wind billowed as a gale ran past each one, a blur of motion almost difficult for even the eyes of a Level Three to keep track of. The vicious, brutal sound of broken bones and shattered skulls reached her ears. The corpses fell one after another, legs going limp midstride as if they were puppets that had their strings cut with glistening blood leaving their mouths and the gashes where the skull had been split open.

Then came the confused, terrified screams as the Elves spotted the corpses while the one responsible stood outside of the barrier with a wooden sword in hand.

The Elder Elf looked absolutely aggrieved at the presence of the bloodshed and death before demanding, “What’s going on?”

“We had thought something was amiss with the number of monsters, but this was more than I expected,” Lady Riveria said before addressing Miss Ryuu. “Lyon, what’s the situation?”

“From the looks of it a criminal Familia intends to launch an assault upon the village,” the Elven Warrior stated factually. “Wave tactics with forces composed of what seem to be rearguards of Level Ones while the Vanguards are at least Level Two. I eliminated the first group that launched the initial assault, but I picked up on more along with the sound of Wyvern snarls deeper in the forest.”

Tamers as well,” Lady Riviera muttered. “That’s less of an assault and more of an invasion.”

That would explain where the rest of the monsters came from, Lefiya mused as she awaited instructions. The joy from before was replaced with anxious tension. Not for merely herself but for the Elves around them. Someone who just received a Falna inherently gained better attributes, such as higher perception and baseline strength. Level Twos would tear through this village with absolutely no problem.

“Ah, the spirits are perturbed!” Lady Lilo noted as the dancing lights from before were moving agitatedly now. The air around them was far more oppressive and dangerous, like a terrified animal ready to lash out at the nearest thing in self-defense. If they started attacking then it’d force them to fight on multiple fronts.

“Elder, please keep the Spirits calm as best you can to avoid them becoming hostile,” the Nine Hells spoke in the authoritative tone befitting one of the commanders of the Loki Familia. “Everyone else, gather around the Holy Tree so I can shrink down the area I need to protect you all. The expenditure of Mind to keep it up over such a large area is inefficient even with my ability. As for the enemy, I’ll leave it to you girls to eliminate them.”

Lady Lilo’s eyes narrowed at that, even as her staff danced with radiant light as she tried to calm the Spirits that were around the tree while the High Elves hurried towards it to the point of nearly tripping over themselves. “You’re sending the whelps out to fight alone!?”

“I have no other choice because none of you can defend yourselves,” Lady Riviera said bluntly. The politeness from before was shelved for the sake of expediency. “With Magic it would be possible to fend off the monsters and even Level Two Adventurers with proper tactics. However, from how every one of you reacted, not one of you has even the basics of Elven Combat Training, do you?”

Her inquiry was met with silence. Those gathered there were from higher society among the Elves. They had no need for protecting themselves because someone else would be protecting them, as the Royal Knights would protect her. They had been relying on the secrecy of the Spirit Forest and the wards that should have been in place to keep them safe.

The fact that they managed to get past them without even setting one off means that there’s another problem as well, the Royal Elf thought to herself before continuing. “That makes every last one of you liabilities in this situation. And, as royalty, allowing you to die here or losing the Spirit’s favor will deal such a severe blow to our race that we may never truly recover. So yes, I’m sending these girls out to fight in your place to avoid that happening.”

The Elder’s response was to chide her right back. “Now you pretend to care about us? How many of our children have spilled their blood inside of the Abyss when the lid had already been shut? They leave their homes, unable to come back after binding themselves to those fickle Gods that dictate how they live! Even if they don’t die in that meat-grinder they never return to their forests to defend them!”

It wasn’t as though Lefiya didn’t understand her emotions, nor could she say that the Elder Elf was incorrect. When you became an Adventurer, you became bound to your God or Goddess. They bequeathed their blessing, and they can just as easily take it away by sealing one’s Falna. You were literally placing your freedom in the hands of whatever deity you swore yourself to, which was why she had been worried when she heard Bell had gone to such an obscure Familia.

He had been lucky, all things considered. Many weren’t.

Then, once you became an Adventurer in Orario it became a lot more difficult to leave the City unless you jumped through several legal loopholes or were on missions for the Guild. Lady Riveria managed to get them permission to leave because of her status, but that was only four of them. Lady Loki also intended to arrange for a trip to Melen and even she mentioned she would have to leave half of them behind to avoid the city losing too many of its higher-tier Adventurers.

In addition, all the children born to a member of a Familia become members of said Familia to avoid complications like conflicting loyalties—as she mentioned to Bell. Had the Zeus Familia not been wiped out then Bell and she would likely both be made members of the Familia because of their father. The forests of their ancestors did not matter as they would likely never see them—not even the outskirts for a half-blooded Elf such as her.

Even they didn’t die to the Dungeon, their numbers would inevitably shrink and so too would those who followed Elven culture. For one who had lived for centuries and could see the pattern from above, it was as if she was watching the end of her people. And there was nothing she could do about it.

Lady Riveria responded to the accusation with a calm voice. “…Elder, you are not the first to chastise me for leaving my forest. Nor what it has wrought for our race. I know full well many have chased after me and perished for the attempt. However, much as how a comrade of mine has taken it upon himself to bear the mantle of hope for his race after they lost their faith, for both the good and ill that it brings, I too have chosen to do the same. I can’t claim to be aiming for something so ambitious, but at the very least I hope to break the isolation that binds our people.”

Lady Lilo went silent even as her teal eyes glared at her. She wanted to hear it. She wanted to hear her justification for abandoning what should have been her duty to stay within her forests rather than enter into the outside world and encouraging so many others to do so.

“We may stay safe in our forests, but by staying isolated we also suffer. We never make allies who would aid us in our darkest hours. We remain stagnant and so we leave ourselves blind to our flaws and weaknesses. We cling to beliefs and prejudices of other races that are wrong because nothing is there to challenge them, such as one’s blood being inferior due to mixed heritage.”

The Half-Elf felt the gazes on her but said nothing as she awaited her instruction. She already knew that. She already knew from the day that Lady Riviera had taken her as her apprentice what she intended. Why her mentor had ensured her title would be that of ‘Thousand Elf’ when she reached Level Three.

Lefiya wanted to live up to those expectations.

“I’ll deal with the majority of the enemy combatants,” Miss Ryuu said. “If the other two focus on the Wyverns, we should be able to deal with them without any reaching the plaza or the Holy Tree.”

“Sorry to put the burden upon you girls,” Lady Riveria said to the three. “Now go.”

[-Deep Forest-]

The vicious, barely constrained snarls stood out to the Half-Elf’s ears as she ran through the darkness.

Her senses were already sharpened by the danger. The famed perception of the Elves and her own enhanced senses due to her Level was more than capable of allowing her to navigate the dark forest where the dense canopy obscured the natural light. The familiarity with the monster native to the Deep Floors of the Dungeon made it was easier for her to track her target as well, giving her an idea of the distance and direction.

She spun on her heels and then darted towards the right where the sound emerged from, a chant gracing her lips as the magic circle with its golden hue springing up beneath her feet and glided along with her pace. “Unleashed beam of light, limbs of the holy tree. You are the master archer…

Filvis hastened her own steps, darting out in front of her. Her Agility was higher than Lefiya’s, likely because she often acted as a vanguard, so being able to dash and disengage was essential. That additional speed allowed her to rush forward with her short sword in hand as the sound of Human voices accompanied the source of the snarl.

Loose your arrows, fairy archers. Pierce, arrow of accuracy—” The monster came within view within moments, behind one-third quarters cover of a thick tree with its bark gouged from the sharp talons that were attached to a bluish-purple draconic creature with scales that glistened in the light of magic-stone lanterns as two Humans attempted to uncover a muzzle on its mouth.

She came to a stop and finished the formation of the spell along with the chant. “Arcs Ray!

Light burst forth from the magic stone within her staff, Forest’s Teardrop. The golden beam shot forward, its radiant glow briefly illuminating Filvis’ fleeting form as she followed to keep pace with it. There was enough time to see the Wyvern rear back at the light reflecting in its red eyes and spread its forelimb wings before her spell connected, the beam rupturing and tearing the monster asunder.

The surprised sounds of the Humans were cut short as Filvis’ blade flowed in two silver arcs, each one leaving splashes of crimson hanging in the air as the throats of the men were cut instantly. The blood splashed over the blue and gold hues of her outfit that matched her God rather well, some droplets even decorating her cheeks. Her eyes then turned back to Lefiya before she turned away.

She pulled out a handkerchief for her to use. “Here.”

Filvis shook her head. “I am used to the blood. And right now we need to keep up. That woman volunteered to deal with the criminals, but I cannot allow her to do everything.”

Lefiya’s ears picked up short, hard sounds and recognized what she meant. Wood against flesh and bone, followed by bodies collapsing. Even the sound of scales shattering from the blunt force of the impact. The sound then came from the northwest and then the west, the direction shifting after each set of three-to-four impacts.

She must be Level Four, minimum,” she heard Filvis say beneath her breath. And Lefiya found herself agreeing with her assessment as Miss Ryuu took out more of the Tamers and their monsters in that direction. She was fast—faster than either of them by a very wide margin that could only be the equivalent to both a Level and the compounded Agility that made up the invisible base.

The Half-Elf had known the woman was talented the moment she had seen her attack the Violas. But it was kind of terrifying how efficient she was in dispatching the brigands who had come to despoil the forest and the monsters accompanying them. Not to mention she was a master of Concurrent Chanting, capable of driving off multiple attackers and fending for herself despite being attacked from every possible angle while calling forth immense magical power that could match an upper-tier Mage without a magic circle from what Lefiya recalled on the 18th Floor.

She was clearly one of the best Elven Adventurers in Orario. Yet, before a little while ago, she had never known that, despite realizing that she was the very same Elf who worked in the Hostess of Fertility now that she had plenty of time to see her face uncovered and hear her voice. What were the circumstances that left her to settle for such a life?

Lefiya wanted to know. There had to be a reason that she lived a life in obscurity. But to bring that up was most likely crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. Still, I wonder why Bell knows her well enough that she came to save him with the rescue party?

“Lefiya,” Filvis called out to her, drawing her azure eyes to her crimson ones. “I can hear wings beating from above.”

The Half-Elf diverted her senses upwards and could do the same. Multiple wings beating at a frantic pace and snarls as the air hissed. So far they had managed to take them out before they could get airborne, but it seemed some were ready to fly towards the plaza to unleash their hailstones of flame. She had to intercept them. “I’ll take care of the ones above—”

“And I’ll take care of the ones below,” the Elven Magic Swordsman finished with a nod. Then she moved, delving into the dark forest to take care of the rest. They had managed to cover the majority of the forest now, so these should be the few that remained between them.

Lefiya pulled out a magic potion to replenish the expended magical energy as she ran to get ahead of the wings flying above. Her mind that had been gradually growing heavier from the continuous spell casting cleared. Then she began a new song, her melodic voice ringing out in the dark. “Proud warriors, marksmen of the forest. Take up your bows to face the marauders…

There was a tree ahead of her that was moderately larger than the surrounding ones. Its upper limbs reached beyond the blanket of leaves. It would serve as a foothold as she darted up it while continuing her chant. “Answer the call of your kin and nock your arrows. Bring forth the flame, torches of the forest—

As she reached the upmost limb, she steadied herself as she held out Forest’s Teardrop. Her enemies were in sight, flying closer to the plaza. Her magic circle pulsed as particles of reddish Magic drifted upwards with golden light as she built up her magical energy until her body thrummed, the spell primed for release. “Release them, flaming arrows of the fairies. Fall like rain, burn the savages to ash—Fusillade Fallarica!

The particles of flames ignited as they gathered together, weaving into flaming stars that streaked forward towards the airborne units while leaving a gleaming trail behind. Though they were kin to them, wyverns lacked the same ability to simply absorb the flames that Valgang Dragons had on the 58th Floor. And because they were surface-born they were even weaker than those counterparts she had already faced off against—let alone the Wyvern King, which had forced her to use a maximum output Arcs Ray as the two did battle in freefall.

The flaming arrows burst into scarlet explosions. Her Magic immolated the wyverns without mercy, leaving only dust mingled with ash as the mediocre-sized magic stones that gave them life were obliterated in the process. It fell like snow over the expanse, a light coating added to the dark-green hues that would be swept away by the morning wind.

Resting her hand against the narrowed trunk of the tree crowning the immediate surrounding canopy, Lefiya strained her eyes and ears for any more signs of foes to be dealt with. But none were within her senses. She let out a sigh and allowed the tension to bleed out of her body…

ROOOOOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRRRR!!!

Then the night shook as a roar birthed from the maw of something truly menacing rang out. Her balance was nearly compromised, and she was forced to cling to her perch with her free arm as she peered out towards the source of the familiar sound. It was one she had heard on the 58th Floor too many times to count. “I-It can’t be…”

Her fears were unfortunately well-founded as a pair of pinons burst from beyond the edge of the trees into the air, wings unfurling into the sky. A single beat of them rattled the leaves at the edge before the massive body made of corded muscle and covered in red scales brought the monster into view. It was easily ten meters in height, but with its wings spread it cast a deepening shadow as it took flight over the canopy.

Worse, she felt that something about it was wrong. The closest feeling that she could relate it to was an Irregular of some kind. Something above average even for its kin was lurking here on the surface world, drawing closer as an ominous glow slipping from between the rows of fanged teeth. Her heart froze when she realized what was going to happen.

Then fire leapt from its maw in a stream so hot that the air screamed as it came rushing in her direction. Not for her personally, but because she was between the dragon and its target—the Holy Tree. Swallowing her vision, the flames would have consumed her if she hadn’t let go and allowed for gravity to drop her to the floor of the forest even as the flames turned the sky into an image of Hell.

The landing was rough. Not enough to actually harm her, but the discomfort was notable. It was still better than being turned to ash considering her Endurance was nowhere near that of other members of her Familia and so she couldn’t take a hit of that nature head-on and remain whole. “Nhh….”

“Lefiya!” came from some distance away, drawing her eyes to the approaching figure of Filvis. The Elf came to a stop by her side, hovering over her with a hand extended to get her on her feet. “Are you okay?”

“Ah… ah, yes.” Her voice trembled a little as she accepted her hand and rose back up. Then she noticed the smoke filling the air and the burning leaves falling from the sky. The beautiful forest around them was burning down.

There was a rush of air as the Elven Warrior appeared by the both of them. “Are you unharmed, Miss Viridis? Miss Challia?”

“Yes, somehow,” she said. “But where did that Dragon come from?”

“My apologies. I failed to deal with the leader of this band before he unleashed that monster. Apparently, it’s an irregular that they fed other monsters to while keeping it sedated, all so they could unleash it. Then once it got loose it consumed him and took flight.”

Consuming others of its kind for their magic stones, compounding its own power, that Dragon was easily on par with those on the Deep Floors. It should be of a caliber that Lady Riveria could handle on her own, but not while she needed to protect the others. “We need to hurry and get back!”

[-Spirit Village Plaza-]

The village was burning.

Flames were lapping at the wooden homes lovingly carved to endure the ages. The smoke filled the air with its acrid fumes and the crackling of the blaze padded out the despondent cries of the Elves. To those who knew of the burning of their lands by Rakia, what laid before them now was nothing more than history repeating itself.

Riveria could only frown as her barrier flickered. The moment the flames had met with it, she felt it strain and threaten to buckle under the weight of what she could only assume was a Flare Breath. That and the roar from before gave her an idea of what had transpired from her own experiences. It was manageable…

However, the sound of the Spirits screaming foretold of a different problem. Though they may be weak compared to the Great Spirits, their fear, panic, sorrow, anger could manifest in the form of primordial displays of Magic. If the Demi-Spirit, which had enough sapience to weave Magic into spells through song, was directing its power towards a fixated target, then this was simply lashing out at everything around them.

It wasn’t something she could deal with on her own. Eliminating them would be the same thing as if she allowed the flames or the monsters to do so. The only one who could do something would be…

Clack…

A staff clattered to the ground as the Elder Elf observed her home being put to the torch. Its baleful light reflected in her eyes ravenously consumed the hope within as the cries of the Spirits rang out. The rampant flames would consume everything at this rate. “It’s over now… it’s all over now…

“You need to stand, Elder,” the Royal Elf said. “You’re the only one who can quell the Spirits right now. If you don’t then it really will be over.”

The ground shook as the Dragon descended at the edge of the plaza, looking over the rest of the Elves trapped within the protective circle where the ground was scorched black. Its gaze fixed beyond the barrier and onto her. And in recognition of her strength as one who had raised their Level and gotten five steps closer to the divine, it began to step forward.

Having been born on the surface it had no doubt thought it was among the strongest, a fledgling that had grown fat in its secluded dwelling and yet to run into anything that it felt could match it. It wanted to pit itself against that strength to prove itself superior. Everything else was secondary and could be left to its flames as fire pooled in its mouth to unleash another blaze upon them.

High Elves screamed. Many would have likely fled if the flames offered them an avenue to do so. The rampant Spirits calling forth elements would soon be a threat as well.

“…This is what we deserve,” Lady Lilo muttered, defeated with her voice like broken glass. “Those children were in that direction, weren’t they? We sent them off in to defend us without a second word. Instead of having them run away, we sent them off to their deaths. We sacrificed our future for just a few more seconds of life, and now…

Even as the monster took another step forward and the flames began to slip through its opening maw with the intention of incinerating them all, the Nine Hells could only respond with a voice like steel. “…Aren’t you underestimating those girls?”

That was when a shard of the stars fell from the heavens.

Coming down like a hammer of the Gods, a blue comet with a green tail fell from the sky above into the Dragon’s mouth hard enough that its maw that prepared to unleash its flare breath was clamped shut as it was driven to the ground. Intense jets of flames slipped through the gaps in its maw to blacken the earth and leave scorched sand. But they failed to so much as singe a single Elven hair.

It was the Gale. Her wooden blade, carved from a branch of the sacred tree of her home forest that had been smuggled in by Evilus and then reclaimed, was wreathed in a cerulean hue as she held it out. Then she vanished as her form left a streak upon meeting with the Dragon’s head once more, this time knocking it aside before its gaze could shift back to Royal Blood.

“—Arcs Ray!!

—Dios Thyrsos!

And from its rear two voices rang out above the crackling of the flames, heralding a golden beam and lance of lighting. They slammed into the hind of the Dragon, eliciting a roar from the beast that was wracked with pain. And though those scales might have warded off flames, they gave way to the Magic of the Half-Elf Mage and Elven Magic Swordsman.

“Sorry for the delay, Lady Riveria!” Lefiya called as she emerged from the trees with Maenads. “We can handle the Dragon! Please use your Magic to put out the flames in the forest!”

The children…” The Elder Elf’s eyes regained a spark of hope until she saw they had earned the Dragon’s ire. Its claws that could tear down through stone due to its muscle went straight towards the Elven Warrior, while its massive tail lashed out towards the casters who would lack the defense to bear with it. “Hurry and run!”

None of them did. The Elven Warrior moved like the breeze, slipping through its grasp as she retaliated with an upwards strike that forced its sinuous neck to bend. Yellowed, blood-stained fragments of its fangs scattered among the dirt in the process.

The Elven Magic Swordsman placed herself in front of the Half-Elf Mage while the lyrics of a chant escaped both of their lips in harmony. In the darkness gleamed a white mirror, a shield that was erected against the incoming tail that threatened to crush them both. The bulwark rebuked it as the white magic circle was overlapped by a ring of gold before a ray of brilliance was fired once more from the staff at the point where its tail was connected to its body with such speed and force that it penetrated the base before rupturing, tearing it apart from the inside out.

“Despite those children leaving their forests behind and swearing their fealty to different Gods and Goddess while calling Orario their home, they’re still fighting in order to protect this place,” Lady Riveria continued from where she left off as the Dragon staggered, its blood flowing from the missing appendage. “That’s because they still have their pride.”

The words caught her by surprise. “Huh?”

“None of those girls call this forest their home. Yet they are still defending it because they refuse to allow a part of our people to perish because they sat there and did nothing.  Even if I hadn’t given the order to do so, they would have run out to fight because they see our culture as our pride and won’t surrender them—not to the flames, monsters, or the Gods themselves.”

Her words were conjoined with the screech of the Dragon as the Gale continued her relentless assault, going faster and faster. Moving faster than the eyes of a non-Adventurer could track, she unleashed a flurry of strikes with her weapon that slammed into the scales of the Dragon and shattered them. At the same time, rays of light and lightning lanced out towards the pinons of the monster, shredding its wings and denying it the right to flee after treading upon their sacred lands—affording it not even a moment’s rest or opportunity to unleash another sea of flames.

“You lack the strength to face that monster whereas they do not. But you have the knowledge and ability that they lack at this moment. We must all do our part. I will do mine and quench the flames that are consuming our homelands, but if the Holy Tree is incinerated and the Spirits aren’t quelled all will still be lost. What will you do, Elder?”

It was the first and only barb from the Nine Hells directed to the one who held the title of Elder of the Spirit Village. This venerated place held as much weight as royal blood amongst the Elves of the world, where the Spirits congregated. She who had vented her frustration and sorrow about the circumstances of their people could only give one response.

“…Tch, as if I need a royal rapscallion telling me what to do.” Her tiny hands found their way around her staff as she rose back onto her feet and turned the rest of the High Elves. “I will calm the Spirits! All of you, douse the flames around the Holy Tree! Call the earth and sky and rain and ice—prove to the Spirits on this, the night where our bonds are reaffirmed, that by our ancient vow we will not let the lands we share be lost again!”

That’s right. Though there are many parts of our culture I find in need of change, there are those we should take pride in and protect. Holding that thought to her chest, she called out to her apprentice. “Lefiya, I’m beginning. Protect yourselves!”

As the songs of Elves rang out in a choir amidst the flames and the howls of the Dragon, a jade-toned magic circle encompassed them. The workings of the Elven arcane expanded as if by royal decree, conjured wind and ice and water and earth intensified to battle the flames that threatened to consume their home. Such was the effect of her Skill: Alf Regina.

And leading the choir was the song of four Adventurers.

Distant sky above the forest. Limitless stars set into an eternal night. Listen to my feeble voice and grant the protection of starlight—” With Alvs Lumina in her grasp serving as both her sword and wand, the Elven Warrior began her chant to the stars and the wind even as she continued her relentless assault. One could feel the magical power being focused within her weapon with every second and every verse. As she leapt into the air above the Dragon, the light of the stars and kiss of the wind gathered before her upraised sword. “Light of stardust, tear my enemies asunder—Luminous Wind!

An emerald storm fell from above. Sheering wind and searing light weaved together to shower the scaled beast. Relentless and without mercy it carved bloody gouts into the hide of the dragon, ripping through flesh and muscles without mercy as it could do nothing but howl.

Filvis then joined in the performance, her magic circle the color of pure snow her stage as she pointed her wand at that Dragon. “Purge, cleansing lighting! Dio Thyrsos!

From the tip of her wand that served as the focus of her Magic, lightning was unleashed. The bolt pierced through its battered hide, blood and flesh bursting as it exited through its hind and tore apart its legs. Crippled, it collapsed with a crash upon the battered ground, and its blood filled in the divots torn out as well.

And no sooner than the beast had been crippled did the Half-Elf Mage finish connecting the ring of elves and her golden circle matched the hue of royalty. “Materialize, mighty barrier of forest’s light, and lend us your protection—in my name of Alf! Via Shilheim!

The same shimmering barrier that kept the High Elves sheltered was bequeathed to those not of noble birth. Though her power couldn’t match that of the Nine Hells due to both her Level and her Mage Development Ability lacking compared to the original, it was still the strongest defense she could muster. It would be a bulwark as the winter that preluded the end of the world fell upon the forest from its heart.

All from the euphonious song of the Nine Hells’ lips. “Harbinger of the end, white snow. Gust before the twilight. Fading light, freezing land. Blow with the power of the third harsh winter—in my name of Alf! Wynn Fimbulvetr!!

Ice ran from the magic circle at the decree. An unyielding, merciless frost that spread with even greater ferocity than wildfire swallowed the land, snuffed the flames, and blanketed the charred and verdant alike. Even the Dragon that presumed it surpassed their pride and bonds with the Spirits until the very moment it had been brought low was shrouded in the unforgiving rime from the inside out.

Winter’s chill robbed all sound and motion until there was nothing but the cold.

Phew…” Letting out a sigh that birthed a plume of fog from the drop in the temperature, Riveria called out to a dome opposite the corpse of the Dragon. “Are you girls all right?”

We’re safe, Lady Riveria,” was the muted reply of her student before the front of the ice dome exploded outwards from a swing of the Gale’s weapon. The soft crunching of ice rang out as the girls emerged one-by-one, taking in the scope of it. “Ahh… you managed to spread it all the way throughout the forest?”

“I kept the base power to its minimum but expanded the range to encompass the Spirit Forest,” she said. That was one of the perks of her Mage Developmental Ability, allowing for both passive and active increase in the spell’s range provided one had the Mind to compensate for the difference and experience to make the adjustment so precisely. “By morning it’ll begin to thaw.”

“And the Spirits?” asked Maenads.

She turned to see the diminutive Elder at work, her staff aglow as she focused her magical energy to weave not spells but words and soothe their fears. Their motions had become docile compared to before. “They seemed to have calmed down. Now all that’s left is the Holy Tree.”

They had prevented it from being turned into cinders, but the damage was extensive. Its former glory was a thing of the past, a charred husk of what it once was. The tree that represented their bond to the Spirits, the pride of their village would be forever marred… that is, if it were an ordinary tree.

“What are you whelps waiting for!?” Lady Lilo called out as she guided the other High Elves into a ring around the tree. “We need to supply the Holy Tree with magic power! Nine Hells, this is the reason you came here so you can supply the Mind for it!”

“As you wish, Elder,” Riveria said, walking over to join the circle that had formed. With her apprentice on one end and the small grasp of the Elder Elf in the other, she allowed her Magic to flow. The ring accumulated it all as in an ancient prayer they called for a miracle.

And the Spirits stirred from their docile nature to join in with a dance. For what they responded to in the age’s past were their earnest emotions and desire to live and see their traditions passed on. Those were the first origins of Magic for the Elves.

It was why their chants were songs.

The tree mended itself as the songs of the Elves resonated with the dance of the Spirits. The charred bark was replaced with a healthy covering, greenery sprouting where it had been blackened and burned away. The magic power overflowed as every branch of the tree bustled with ripe, red fruits.

“A bounty of Spirit Nuts,” one of the High Elves said. “More than in the last 90 years!”

As the cheers rang out, the Royal Elf parted from the circle to allow them their pleasure. Her mind was slightly ringing between maintaining the barrier, the expansive spell, and then helping to restore the tree to glory. So enraptured by the sight, even her most enthusiastic supplicants had forgotten her along with the terror from moments before.

“You have my thanks, Your Highness,” Lady Lilo said as she approached with staff in hand, taking a position next to her. She calmly looked over the reborn tree as she continued to speak. “No amount of pride would have saved us from a creature like that. However, no mere bandit or brigands would bring such a thing to attack a place they intended to pillage.”

“No,” Riveria agreed. There would be no need to bring something like that if they intended to simply pillage the Spirit Forest. Someone had attempted to just kill every High Elf and burn down the Spirit Forest by unleashing a creature like this. “And considering the location of this forest has been concealed for centuries without being found before, there’s only one conclusion I can draw…”

One of our own betrayed us,” the Elder Elf finished in a small, bitter voice as her throat went taut. One could almost hear how it pained her to admit so. “Surrendering one of our most sacred secrets to exterminate us and the anger the Spirits at the same time. We would never recover from that.”

“Were there any of the families that normally attended absent this year?”

“The numbers had been going down every thirty years for various reasons, but there were a few who couldn’t make it and sent the message ahead of time…” Her teal-eyes closed as her grip on her staff tightened. “Stay the night so the others will feel safer that way. I’ll investigate which one of them did this after we see everyone home tomorrow and see justice done.”

They had salvaged their home for the night. But now that the secrecy of the Spirit Forest was compromised, they would have to steel themselves from now on. And she couldn’t provide them with protection as her duties as a member of the Loki Familia would scarcely bring her back here. “…My apologies for placing another burden on your shoulders.”

“This place is a treasure of the Elves, so no one should complain if we pull from every forest and defend it ourselves.” Her eyes opened once more and settled onto the Half-Elf Mage staring up at the tree now bursting with crystallization of the Spirit’s blessing. “Your Highness… if you meant a single word that you said earlier, do not let those children die in that Abyss.”

“I have no intention of letting that happen, Elder,” the Royal Elf stated with sincerity. “They are our future, after all.”

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.


Is It Wrong To Worry About My Brother?: Chapter 7 [DanMachi AU]

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.