Chapter 27: Holy Moon Festival – Afternoon
“Elio taught of the old rituals meant to be used to form a connection with the Spirits, to hold communion with the agents of the gods to who words held no meaning. These rituals were passed down in the forests, guarded and sacred as any treasure would be to a Dwarf. But when he asked me why that was, I told him the answer that was told to me Mother. The rituals and rites were all fervent prayers from those who came before us for the strength to protect those we loved and would be carried into the future long after even the oldest of us passed on.
The expression he made that day lingers in my mind even now after years have passed. A look of longing and lament for something precious that was long lost, a feeling I know too well now. Perhaps that was the real reason he had truly desired to take me in that day?”
—Elio’s Lessons in Magic II: Communion
“Sorry if I kept you waiting,” Lefiya said upon arriving in one of the more expansive rooms on the Ninth Floor of the Dungeon.
Though they were on the Upper Floors, beyond the Seventh Floor the rooms tended to have far greater width and space, with the light from above being akin to soft sunlight while short grass was beneath their feet. Going down further would place them in misty terrain, which wouldn’t really bother either of them given their Levels, but others might not be so lucky. It wouldn’t do if they accidentally got someone else caught in the crossfire.
The Magic Swordswoman who bore the alias of Elleaf regarded her with a warm smile from her seat on a mound amidst the grass, one leg outstretched while the other was tucked close to her chest. “You’re actually earlier than I expected. You didn’t rush through your breakfast or exercises, did you?”
Lefiya was quick to assure her otherwise. “No, but it’s been so long since we’ve had a chance to practice together.”
Normally Lefiya trained with Lady Riveria since she was her direct apprentice, and it would be impractical for the Nine Hells to manage every Mage within the Familia. Alicia, being the second-in-command of the Fairy Force, managed the other girls who were members of the unit. But Lefiya had come to consider Alicia something of an older sister when she was first introduced into the Familia.
Which only made the whole incident even more embarrassing…
“I think the last time was earlier this year before all the craziness with the expedition, wasn’t it?” Alicia rose to her feet, slender hands running along her battle skirt to wipe away any stray blades of grass that clung to the curves of her hips before she loosened her scabbard from her belt. “I want to see for myself how far you’ve come with the basics. You’re ready to become a Level Four, so I won’t be holding back as much.”
In other words, the practice would be composed of attacking and defending, moving and evasion, as well as chanting—effectively the groundwork for Concurrent Casting that was the basics of the Fairy Force. Back when she had just joined, Lefiya could only barely keep up moving while chanting. That had been fine since, as part of the unit, Lady Riveria would provide them with protection to ward off enemy attacks as they bombarded them. However, since it was just the two of them now, if she hadn’t shown any major improvement then she would be quickly overwhelmed.
I’ve come a long way since then though, the Half-Elf thought to herself. The training from Aiz, Filvis, and everything else had carried her far ahead of how she had been even a few months ago. “I’m ready to begin when you are, Miss Alicia.”
“All right then…” She took three steps forward and then there was only a pink blur as Lefiya’s peripheral vision, far more perceptive than a Human due to both her heritage and her Level, only caught fleeting movement to her right as Alicia closed the distance between them with the speed afforded to a Level Four. Taking away the advantage of distance that only benefited the Fairy Sniper, the gentleness in the smile she still wore contrasted the sheathed blade chambered for a swing at the younger girl. “Begin.”
Lefiya pivoted hastily along the direction of the attack, but her wrist that held the staff twisted as it came up in a wide arc. The staff made of, thankfully, durable materials met with the sheathe and knocked it away from its course towards the back of her head as she finished putting strength in her grounded leg. Then she bound back as far as she could manage as a Level Three, which was quite far, and immediately tightened the grasp on her staff with both hands far apart to prepare another hasty defense.
It proved to be the right call as Alicia was in front of her, wide hips turning to generate power for a graceful swing. It took all the little Strength she had as a Level Three to brace her staff and it still reverberated on impact hard enough that she felt it in her limbs. But there was no time to dwell on it as, without a moment’s hesitation, Lefiya thrust the staff forward like the lance of a spear.
The golden point came close to the beautiful Elf’s chest before she pivoted so that it passed her by, even as her sword came down at an angle that would cleave the Half-Elf from shoulder to hip. The Thousand Elf crouched and dropped her body low, so the swing passed over her head, rather than block a second time. Then she threw herself back into a roll, tucking her staff close to her chest to escape the follow-up as Alicia had swapped her grasp on the blade and then swung low the moment the second swing missed.
Bounding back onto her feet, Lefiya began to sing. “Unleashed beam of light—”
Alicia lunged forward, reaching out to grab the staff only for the Half-Elf to pull the hand holding it backwards, drawing it close to her body. Then the sword came around and narrowly missed Lefiya by the slimmest of margins due to a half-step before the Level Four allowed her momentum to carry through as she spun on the ball of her feet to bring her sheathed weapon around a second time. This time Lefiya received the hit unprotected and ended up staggering a few steps back, but her song continued uninterrupted.
There was pain, but it was mild compared to what she had gone through before. Hyacinthus had been a lot more aggressive than she was and hit harder despite being only a Level Three. But that was because he was a jerk and his fighting style was the opposite of Alicia’s fighting style.
Elves tended to have a better sense of perception, coordination, and grace compared to Humans. But because of their low birthrates engaging in close combat was a last resort, especially when their race had dominion over Magic and mastered the bow. It was normally ideal to use long-distance combat to minimize the chance of casualties by striking enemies from further away.
However, close combat was an inevitability whether the opponent be man or monster. And before the Falna granted even their slender limbs the strength to crush stone with little physical effort, they had to rely on their natural gifts. Thus, most Elven Combat Styles relied on being able to read movements and then respond with great dexterity or agility, whether to maneuver out of the way or to slash at an unexpected angle.
Alicia’s style was something of a more defensive-oriented one, closer to specializing in dueling. Her movements were like how a leaf would sway out of the way as you tried to catch it, only to twist around and brush against the back of your hand. If she was put against an opponent she would parry and counterattack by using her finely honed senses and dexterity, making up for a lack of raw Strength by using her hips in her swings when she could to generate momentum. But that also meant being on the attack and ruthlessly pressuring the opponent was not something she excelled in.
Similarly, Lefiya’s staff techniques were meant to take advantage of the fact that Elven spell casting mediums were long and durable. Keeping the weapon firmly in her grasp, taking advantage of the entire length and her body, the focus was more on keeping hold of it and striking with momentum to create distance. Her Level supplied raw Strength if needed to defend herself, but she was first and foremost a Mage, so her goal was to fend off her attacker and be able to cast a spell.
In contrast to both of them, a more aggressive style would be something similar to what Miss Ryuu practiced. Her movements were fast, like a harsh wind that washed over you before you knew it was coming. Taking advantage of her Agility, she focused on delivering the first blow with as much power as she could to debilitate or take out her opponent before they could fight back.
Readying her magic power as she entered the final verse of her song, Lefiya threw herself backwards and leveled the staff towards the Level Four. “—Pierce, arrow of accuracy! Arcs Ray!”
The reaction was instant as Alicia’s snapped out of the line of fire as the spell emerged, intent on attacking from her left side at a closer distance. It was pointless to run from Arcs Ray since it could track an opponent and the more distance there was the easier it was for her to chase them down. So, the smart thing to do was avoid the initial shot and then strike her down before she could bend it.
However, it wasn’t as though Lefiya was ignorant to that fact as Alicia discovered when the aureate glow of the spell illuminated her face as it emerged from behind the Half-Elf’s rear. Changing the trajectory of her loosed shot was something only the Fairy Sniper could do, and so she bent the beam right from the start so that it curved sharply around her back from the right. That meant her evasive maneuver had put her right into the path of the shot.
Alicia immediately began bounding backwards great distances, pivoting with graceful motions in the process. It was almost reminiscent of a nymph skipping off the surface of a lake. But there was no escape as the beam of light constantly chased after her.
“Come, freezing chains of winter—” Now it was her turn to put her Concurrent Casting to practice as she sang her own song while an azure magic circle appeared at her feet and a wand found its way into her hand. The glimmering azure motes of magical energy that spawned from her magic circle wove themselves into a quintet of ice comets that loitered over Alicia’s head and shoulders as she pointed in Lefiya’s direction before she called out the trigger phrase to launch them. “—Sagittarius Grace!”
Sagittarius Grace was a short chant that allowed Alicia to launch arrows of condensed cold. They streaked forward and left behind a frost-laden trail until they slammed into their target and erupted with encasing ice. Though it wasn’t nearly as potent as Lady Riveria’s spell, she could increase the number of arrows she could summon as well as their individual trajectories due to her Mage DA.
Lefiya broke off her own spell, leaving the onrushing light to fade away as she moved to dodge the ice comets as they fired forth. Each one slammed into the ground hard enough to throw up a spout of sod that was sealed within an icy coffin, five eruptions total buffering the area she was in to throw her off. She took a breath and started running as the numbness from the post-magic rigor began to wane, knowing the real assault was coming.
Like she told Primo, the longer the cast the longer the post-magic rigor because of the amount of magical energy that ended up coursing through the body. Practice and familiarity shortened it, but not only was Alicia’s cast far shorter than hers but she was far more comfortable getting close to an enemy. That meant she wouldn’t hesitate to keep casting.
“—rius Grace!” Sure enough, Lefiya felt the tingle in the air of discharged magical energy and heard through her sharpened hearing the sound of a second volley being loosed upon her, this time with the amount of magical energy composing them far denser along with their velocities and trajectories individually dictated. The result was that each one had a different flight path and would hit at a different time and location, forcing her to mentally run the calculations through her head as she moved.
She bound backwards to avoid the first and then had to immediately roll as the second had been one of the two targeted to where she could have potentially moved, based on what Alicia knew of her. People built habits in their movements over time and while she had sharpened her skills, they were still baseline. That had been how she fared so poorly against Hyacinthus the second time they fought—he may not have recognized her under her disguise, but he’d figured out how she moved too easily.
However, Lefiya had learned as well and so after the fourth and fifth impact resulted in small ice spires the size of trees blooming around her, she focused her hearing over the crackle of the ice hardening to make out the sound of footfalls and then wheeled around in time as Alicia appeared to her left, opposite of the spell that had been loosed. Taking advantage of her focus on the spell and where the magical energy was discharged, the more experienced of the two managed to move with a level of silence and speed that afforded her the opportunity to ambush the Half-Elf.
The tip of the sheathed blade was thrust forward like a rapier towards her chest, only to skim off the shaft of the staff as Lefiya tucked it close and shifted her footing so that she could twist her body and avoid it. She used the line of attack to crank her staff upwards, using the rear to knock the blade upwards and it created an opening, which she immediately took advantage. Stepping back while rotating her upper body, she brought the head of the staff around for a clean hit…
Only for the Elleaf to gracefully arch backwards into a handspring that not only allowed the attack to pass over her head but was followed by an elegant motion that ended up with her behind Lefiya. She grabbed the shaft of her staff and then pulled it inwards, pinning it against the Half-Elf’s chest while using her slender arm with the Strength of a Level Four to brace it into place. Then she pressed the point of the blade against her throat.
“What now?” Alicia asked softly of the girl whose neck was exposed and her sheathed blade at the ready. If they had been in a real battle, it would be the point at which she would have had her throat slit.
Yet, embraced as they were, Lefiya could feel the older girl’s bosom pressed against her back and feel the gentle brush of her hair against her skin. There was also a lovely evergreen scent coming from her as well. Only the fact that the scabbard started poking against her neck kept her mind from drifting to places it shouldn’t. “…I yield.”
The admission of surrender signaled the end of the first engagement, so Alicia lowered her weapon. But, rather than release her, she instead brought her now empty hand up and gently brushed the Half-Elf atop her head.
“You’ve really improved a lot in such a short time,” Alicia said while wearing a soft smile. “To be honest, I expected to knock you out with the first hit like the last time we practiced. Then we would have to spend several minutes waiting for you to snap back awake.”
The fact that Alicia said that with such complete sincerity took a sledgehammer to the Half-Elf’s pride as she pursed her lips before asking, “Do you have any advice for me?”
“Mmm… you’ve progressed well enough that I’m actually a little worried about giving instructions that go against what your new friend has been teaching you,” Alicia told her before quirking her head ever so slightly. “Or would romantic partner be more accurate, at this point?”
Lefiya’s spine went rigid as she felt heat rushing up from her chest to her head, leaving them a reddish hue that managed to reach the soft curve of her ears that marked her as a child of two races. “H-How did you know?”
“You sent Elfy of all people to ask for my facial cream a little bit ago rather than asking me personally before tonight, and you’ve been awfully cheerful,” Alicia explained in a somewhat teasing and amused tone. “Being virtuous doesn’t mean I don’t take notice when one of my juniors has her heart set on another.”
As it turned out, in contrast to a lot of the girls within the Familia, Alicia Forestlight was notably similar to Miss Aiz in that she rebuked anyone who sought to make advances towards her. That was because she had dedicated her heart and soul to the service of Lady Riveria, having aspired since she was younger than Primo to become a Vanguard to the greatest Mage of their people. So great was her devotion that Loki had joked that she was the Garden of Chastity upon which Lady Riveria could tread without the worry of any lustful intentions, which she took as a compliment.
Mind you, Lefiya had only been informed of this after the incident. “W-Well, it would have been awkward if I went and had to explain myself, so…”
The embarrassment in her tone only elicited a slight giggle from the older Elf. “Well, I’m honestly happy that you were able to move on. I know how embarrassing it must have been, and I was worried it might have left you emotionally scarred for a decade or so.”
It certainly felt that way, Lefiya would admit to herself. There were no words for how embarrassing that was to where she wanted to lock herself in her room and not come out. Thankfully everyone was mostly understanding and so they pretended it never happened. But it still was traumatizing for a girl her age. “It’s my own fault for not reading the cues, and I think of you like an older sister.”
Alicia’s disposition meant that a lot of the younger girls saw her in that light. But for Lefiya who had only been slightly older than Primo and was raised with Elven sensibilities, it was doubly so. She emulated a similar disposition when she was with Primo because it left such a huge impact on her, though she would ensure that her mistakes weren’t repeated.
“And you’re like a younger sister to me. So don’t be afraid to come to me more often, okay?” That said, she released the Fairy Sniper. “Now, on the topic of your Concurrent Casting, from what I can see that style you practice now is something you would only develop if you had to spend time without expecting anyone else to support you on the frontlines but could guarantee a kill with your Magic. I can only imagine how difficult of a time your friend must’ve had mastering it.”
Lefiya could imagine it very vividly herself. Filvis had been known as Banshee due to the fact she constantly survived incidents that killed other parties she was a part of after surviving the Nightmare on the Twenty-Seventh Floor. It was entirely possible she spent weeks or months all alone refining her Concurrent Chanting so that she could functionally fight on her own and didn’t need to drag others with her and endanger them—a lonely but effective method.
In contrast, the Fairy Force operated in a group and could be protected by Lady Riveria’s magic. So their focus was on Moving and Chanting. But, in the case of Alicia, Chanting wasn’t as large of an issue because both of her spells were Super-Short Chants. The possession of the Mage DA made it so that a Magic Swordswoman could increase the potency of their spell, but a spell with a short chant would rarely beat out one as long as Lefiya’s unless there was a significant Level gap.
If the Fairy Sniper managed to get her spell off then she could most likely kill anything attacking her that wasn’t above a certain threshold, so outside of the bare minimum of self-defense she didn’t need to worry about attacking or defending. “To that end, if you keep focusing on your observational skills during a battle, you’ll be able to better avoid attacks. You already showed as much when you managed to see through my sneak attack well enough to try countering me. However, I do believe the biggest hurdle is improving your chanting speed next.”
Outside of Lady Riveria, one couldn’t change the chant of their spell. However, the speed of the chant was also a factor that could influence the course of a battle. Against the Demi-Spirit, it had managed to go through an Ultra-Long Chant in a ridiculously short amount of time and it was only by the skin of their teeth they were able to hold on despite their efforts to cut it short.
“Since you have the basics down, we’ll spend the rest of practice working on reducing the time it takes for you to consistently cast Arcs Ray and avoiding getting hit for as long as possible,” Alicia decided. “I’ll be going a little faster to give you more of a challenge, so try to keep up.”
And, with that, the Fairy Sniper continued her dance with the Elleaf on the grassy field nestled beneath the earth.
[-The Seventh Floor-]
“Uwaah…” A soft, tired whine escaped from the small lips of a young Elf slouched down on the Seventh Floor of the Dungeon. Primo Liberia was clutching her Oaken Staff in order to stay upright as her legs lost their strength, her body twitching as her muscles contracted and expanded while a pulsing numbness spread throughout with every beat of her heart.
The Neophyte Elven Mage was currently at her limit of using her third spell without rest and the post-magic rigor was taking its toll as she had exerted what magical force she could muster to handle the objective for today—clearing out the Seventh Floor Pantry. Pantries were a place within the Dungeon where a large quartz crystal would secrete food for monsters, thus leaving it often filled with them. That made it the best place on the Upper Floors for them to practice for numerous reasons.
The first was that for someone with a spell that fell into the category of Wide Area Bombardment, they really shined when clearing out swathes of enemies in a single area. Or against a singular but large target. Yet the floors prior to the Sixth Floor were much narrower and thus not quite the easiest to fire within considering Primo had yet to be able to manipulate the various aspects of the spell and lacked finer understandings of trajectories.
For a larger Familia like the Loki Familia, such small pickings weren’t worth the space they would take up on an expedition nor the effort to harvest them. So clearing them out was no problem. But, for a small Familia like theirs, it meant they had to also take that into consideration and was likely one of the other reasons that Lefiya had suggested Primo take up the bow as an alternative method of contributing.
The Seventh Floor was something of a compromise as the Killer Ants often attacked in swarms and they had enough space to where she could clear them out. That would earn her more excelia towards using her Magic with minimal assistance. Then, while she recovered, they could handle dealing with the monsters that held more valuable drop items, allowing them to hopefully make up for their expenses in a shorter amount of time—or so Lili said in her role as the Familia’s treasurer.
They had considered the Tenth Floor would probably be a decent alternative, as that was where larger Level One category monsters spawned. But they had to take into account the fact that the low visibility of the fog would hamper someone like Primo, who was just starting out as a Mage. She would be on edge at not being able to see, afraid of anything that could jump out at her in the fog and disrupt her concentration.
However, it seemed that by chance a larger variant of the Killer Ant emerged. It was called a Crystal Ant, larger than any monster on the top part of the Upper Floors and a rare spawn. Primo had been tasked with dispatching it, something that was still rattling her.
“Make sure she didn’t accidentally destroy the drop item from it,” Lili called out to Welf who had been keeping the monster at bay until she finished her cast. “A Crystal Block is worth a small fortune, and between the Blue Papillon Wings being worth 1,800 valis each and the Purple Moth Wings being worth 300 each, that should be enough to account for a fifth of what it cost to outfit Mistress Primo.”
The Blacksmith sighed before holstering his nameless sword on his back and then checking through the large deposit of ash within the smoldering crater left behind. That left Lili to use her Supporter Gloves to carefully harvest the wings into different glass containers given that they were both delicate and they shed powder that was valuable in itself. Mikoto, on the other hand, came over and gave the child a waterskin to drink from. “Here you go.”
“Thank you,” Primo told her gratefully before indulging with small sips.
“You did well,” Bell said in a gentle tone as he crouched down and gently patted her on the head. In truth, he probably should have been the one to handle it, but Lili had pointed out that he would be better suited to taking out the second wave of monsters that had filed in when it did, given his Level, as the excelia for besting the rarer spawn would benefit her the most.
Mikoto then turned to him. “Sir Bell, perhaps after we are done we should head back to the surface to rest before this night festivities?”
“That would probably be—” His words cut off when the sound of a shrill cry reached his ears and he stood up abruptly. “Did you hear that?”
The kunoichi shook her head. “I didn’t hear anything, but our Levels are lower than yours.”
“It sounded like a girl screaming,” Bell said, legs tensing. “I’m going to check it out for myself. Stay here for now.”
Then like a coiled spring being let loose, he took off towards the direction of the scream that he’d heard. Since reaching Level Three, Bell had become fast enough that traversing the Dungeon’s Upper Floors in a very short amount of time wasn’t an issue. The problem was finding the origin of the voices he heard within the expansive floor before it was too late, the reverberations carried out by the cavernous walls themselves as he reached a crossroads and focused on listening—
“Miss Kaede, watch out!”
There! He pivoted towards the northern path and focused his eyes, catching a glimpse of a purple-haired woman who looked a few years his senior in the distance. For a moment he thought it was her that he had heard, but the chittering of Killer Ants and another scream told him otherwise. So he rushed past her as the air stirred like a gale before his superhuman perception registered the sight before him.
Lining the walls, skittering around the cavernous ground, threading the battered and slashed remains of their fallen brethren, a horde of Killer Ants were descending upon a group of three adventurers—all young women.
The first was a Hume Bunny, dressed in a shortened lavender kosode emblazoned with a maple leaf. It was torn in several places to expose a white sarashi around her chest. Her skin was dyed red from exertion and glistening with sweat, breaks in the flesh from which deep crimson ran and spilled out. Even so, she held onto a similar sword to Mikoto in a tight grip while her yellow eyes were furrowed in determination.
Next to her was a Pallum dressed in a jacket and shorts that were in warm tones but had golden hemming. She had the standard guild-issued breastplate and a Warhammer, both covered in purple goo, that shook in her grip as her blue eyes beneath her short, curly hair took in how surrounded they were by their enemies. Her injuries were relatively lighter by contrast, but the way she struggled to remain upright showed that she wasn’t exactly in fighting form.
Last was a girl with long, flowing dark hair adorned with a decorative maple leaf hairpin that rose up to a pair of fox ears and a tail—a Renard, from what he knew based on her appearance. It was the first time he had seen one and, judging from how her outfit resembled a stylized version of a priestess outfit that he heard the Far Eastern Gods and Goddesses had an affinity for, he suspected she was some kind of Mage. Of the three she was the only one who wasn’t injured as the two others seemed to be acting as her Vanguards, but her breathing was heavy and her golden eyes seemed to be dulled along with traces of purple powder covering her clothes.
The Killer Ants had surrounded them from all angles at this point, leaving them with their backs against the wall. The sheer numbers reminded him of what happened with Lili. Had they failed to kill some and then ended up getting swarmed due to the pheromones calling out for more to surround them?
…It didn’t matter. There were girls in front of him who were in danger. He could save the questions for later. “GET DOWN!”
His voice, ringing loud and firm within the cavern, reached them. Their eyes—yellow, blue, and golden—turned in his direction. There was a momentarily flash of recognition even though he didn’t recognize them, and then the Hume Bunny grabbed them both and pulled their heads down as she covered them with her body.
Bell held out his hand and let loose his spell. “FIREBOLT!”
Three blazing rays shot forward. His increase in both his Magic and his Level had made them far thicker and destructive compared to a short time ago. And because of his practice with his sister in preparation for the War Game he could now let loose three at once—a rapid Firebolt volley.
They detonated within the hordes of the Killer Ants. The bolts came loose, unbound as the force of the explosion tore apart those close by and the flames lashed out, consuming those within its reach and cooking them within their chitinous exoskeletons. Just like that, a path was opened for him to reach them. “Are you okay!?”
“Cottontail!” said the Hume Bunny in an accent that was somewhat rougher than he expected. “Ya gotta get Shino and Coco outta here! They breathed in too much of that powder before I could kill ‘em!”
That explained it. Their backline must have been poisoned by Purple Moths from above while their focus had been on dealing with the Killer Ants surrounding them, a risk when you were being attacked in all directions like in the Dungeon. Hearing that, Bell crouched down and then grabbed the two beneath his arms before he turned his back to the Hume Bunny. “Climb on!”
She did so, clinging to his back and wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist as he rose to his full height. Then Bell ran as fast as he could back to the Pantry, leaving their equipment behind. He had already memorized the pathway so there was no hesitation as his motions became a blur that dragged the wind behind him, drowning out all sound and thought until he emerged through the mouth of the entry way.
The moment he breached the opening, he called out for his Familia as he set them down. “Lili, these three need Antidotes and Potions! Mikoto, I need your help to make sure that a horde of Killer Ants in one of the passages nearby gets cleared out. Welf keep them and Primo safe!”
Even though she did not fully understand what was happening, the Absolute Shadow understood from Bell’s tone he was speaking as the Captain of the Hestia Familia. So Mikoto followed him out, reasoning that her part was due to her skills, which allowed her to track any monster she had encountered before. She could ensure that none were missed and left to secrete pheromones that could risk another horde descending upon the corridor as they killed the remaining ones.
The two of them moved ahead with Mikoto triggering her skill along the path where her senses registered the congregation of dozens of them to the spot he had been previously. The Killer Ants that hadn’t died swiftly to his Magic had released more pheromones and so the chittering had become loud enough that it bounced off the walls. Left unchecked they could cause a small-scale Monster Parade, an outbreak where a massive number of monsters surged through a floor.
With his blood pounding in his ears, Bell called forth his Magic and loosed his flaming lances one after another. “Firebolt! Firebolt! Firebolt!”
The thunderous roar of rupturing stone. Intense flames scorching the air. The acrid scent of melting chitin and shrieks from inhuman maws. His senses congested with slaughter as he devoted himself to the eradication of the horde, the Caerbannog Cottontail bared his with his black and red fangs as he went into a Rabbit Rush.
Kinetic vision heightened to the point where they were moving as slow as molasses made it so that his knives could find their necks. Deceptively powerful legs crushed through exoskeletons as hard as armor with every step. Flashing violet and streaking crimson cut through chitin with the ease of slicing through bread. Flowing from one to the next with fluid motions as his momentum carried him through their ranks, the corridor was left awash in the shower of ichor as the blood pumped through the veins escaped loosely into the air while their severed heads were left behind in his wake.
Some escaped his fangs as he prioritized taking down as many as possible in a single passing. His ears caught the faint sound of the air being parted by the edge of Mikoto’s sword as she followed behind him to deal with the stragglers. The survivors had to be killed before their pheromones could compound and spread further, and with her skill she could pick out the dying from the dead with greater ease, ensuring they were swiftly eradicated.
Bell lost track of time as his blades flashed. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but it felt longer with his drawn-out perception of time that came from his heightened Level when in combat mode. It was only when Mikoto called out that there were no more he looked to see what was left in his wake.
The chamber and corridors were littered with enough corpses to resemble a mausoleum. The light-green walls were splattered with purple ichor without rhyme or reason, abstract to the point it seemed that someone had haphazardly thrown buckets of paint throughout the area. The discarded and half-empty containers left slowly growing puddles on the ground that filled in the cracks and crevices as a haunting silence was all that was left in their wake where before it was loud and cacophonic.
Finally, Bell breathed deep from his chest and looked around for their equipment. The Adventurer’s Backpack that one of them had been carrying was still intact, though torn in several places by the mandibles that had likely been attempting to gouge out flesh instead. The Warhammer that had been left behind was splashed in purple, droplets rolling off the metal and joining the growing puddle beneath it.
He picked them both up and returned to the Pantry along with Mikoto. When they arrived, they found the three of them being treated. The Hume Bunny was simply dousing herself overhead with three Potion without care while Welf looked on with a half-puzzled, half-amused gaze, while Primo was near the Pallum whose hands were shaking as she held a waterskin offered to her by the Elf. The Renard was lying on the ground, catching her breath with a bundled-up cloak being used as a pillow after her top had been stripped off with her upper body covered by Primo’s jacket, but her eyes had regained some of their luster.
“Are they going to be okay?” Bell asked Lili as he set their things down, given that out of all of them she had the best understanding of First Aid due to needing to look after herself.
“None of their injuries are crippling so the Potions can mend their wounds, but one had succumbed to poisoning to the point that even with the Antidote she will be fatigued and ill for a little while. We removed her clothes that were covered in the poison dust and had the other two split an Antidote just in case, but all of them will recover.”
“That’s good,” Bell said with a soft sigh before looking over to the Hume Bunny whose ears were folded downwards like she was exhausted. “Was it just the three of you? When I originally was heading that way I saw someone else, but I didn’t see them on the way back…”
Her head tilted at that. “Dunno bout that. Wasn’t anyone but us who came from the Familia.”
“Most likely it was just a random Adventurer who heard the commotion and went to see the situation,” Lili stated. “If you heard their screaming all the way here due to your Level then it must have been loud enough that Adventurers close by would have heard it too. In that case, it would not surprise me if they figured out what was happening and simply ran to the Fifth Floor since Killer Ants are one of the few species on the Upper Floors that can actually cause a Monster Parade to occur on their own.”
“Woulda been good to know beforehand.” She brought her hands to her hair and ran her fingers between her ears frustratedly. “Bastards never said anythin’ bout them or those flyin’ pests when they told us about this floor being a good one to farm.”
That earned a furrowed brow from Lili as Bell spoke. “Ah, right. Maybe we should introduce ourselves considering everything. We’re—”
“The Hestia Familia,” the Hume Bunny said before he could finish. “Saw most of ya’ll on the mirrors when we got here. Ya especially caught my eye, Cottontail.”
“…in what regard?” Lili asked in a tone that was a fair bit more serious than before.
“His title!” she exclaimed. “I wanna beat him and take it for myself!”
“That’s… not how that works here,” Mikoto said after briefly clearing her throat before elaborating to the rest of them. “In my homeland, sometimes warriors would challenge others of renown to best them and raise their own standing. Titles, weapons, and the like could be wagered, though it isn’t practiced as often that close to the capital from what I am told.”
“Forgive her…” A soft voice came from the Renard. Her accent was similar to her companion’s, but it felt slightly more refined and formal. “That one speaks without thinkin’ too much… and gets on over her head if no one keeps an eye on her. In this case… we were misled and are kindly grateful for your aid.”
Mikoto’s gaze softened. “Pardon if I am being presumptuous, but from your accent and explanations, it sounds as though you two are relatively new to Orario?”
“Uhmm… all three of us arrived around the same time as the War Game, which is how we recognized Mister Cottontail,” the Pallum said, having regained a level of composure as she reached into her pouch and pulled out a Familia Emblem. One with a crescent moon and wine glass. “My name is Coco, and these two are Kaede and Momiji. We’re new members of the Soma Familia.”
The moment the senior members of the Familia spotted the emblem, their eyes inadvertently were drawn back to Liliruca whose lips pursed thin. They had gone to rescue her from the Soma Familia’s compound after they had been attacked by them days before the War Game. But the fact that the girl openly admitted it and looked confused by the shift in tone made it clear she knew nothing.
For her part, Lili merely sighed before holding up a hand. “I think I understand what happened. Let me guess, some of the older members of the Familia gave you a map and told you it’d be easy to get down here to earn a lot of Valis quickly?”
“That’s right,” Coco continued before she pulled a roughly drawn map out next and laid it down for them to see. There was a spot circled. “They said here would be best.”
Bell’s blood ran cold. It was a sentiment shared by Mikoto and Welf as a scowl appeared on the latter’s face while the former’s eyes folded in. Primo simply looked puzzled, but that was because she hadn’t memorized the maps of the Upper Floors. She didn’t understand the implications.
And neither did Coco. “Is there something wrong?”
“That’s the Pantry we’re in now,” Bell stated. “The fact that they told you to come here without even telling you about how Killer Ants can draw others to them means…”
“Don’t sugarcoat it, Master Bell,” Lili said rather coldly. “It’s no different than what the others did to get rid of Mister Ged and tried to do to get rid of me. They sent them here to die.”
The atmosphere within the Pantry grew tense as that registered to the three. Coco’s expression was one of disbelief, while Momiji’ eyes closed in thought. Opposite them, Kaede’s grip on her sword became much tighter, to the point it shook in anger. “Yer kiddin’, right?”
She was not. “The Seventh Floor is arguably the most dangerous for new Adventurers because it introduces a wider variety of monsters. When Zanis was displeased with a new member of the Familia or the others wanted to avoid competition for Lord Soma’s Wine, they would often ‘suggest’ that they come to the Seventh Floor or give them a map marked with a spot that would be a good place to earn Valis. I have seen many people who only joined the Familia never come back.”
War Shadows on the Sixth Floor were dangerous because they were a singular spike in the difficulty when it came to monsters compared to Goblins and Kobolds. They were smarter and their claws were capable of cutting through armor easily. But Killer Ants had hard enough bodies that getting through their defenses to kill them so they couldn’t call for help was exceedingly difficult for new Adventurers. And without Abnormal Resistance or Antidotes, they could easily end up getting poisoned by the Purple Moths.
Ignorant of that, sending them down here alone was a death sentence.
“However, one thing doesn’t make sense,” Lili stated as she looked over their equipment. “Killer Ant bodies are durable enough that without high enough Strength none of you would even be able to get through their armor with these weapons. That should have stopped you from going deeper or wounding enough to draw too many in. And your wounds are light considering how Killer Ants can easily cut apart new Adventurers.”
She was right when Bell considered it. Miss Coco was using Guild-issued armor and weapons at the very least, and the other two didn’t seem to have any special equipment. Their clothes didn’t seem to be very durable considering the rips and tears, meaning that the wounds they had likely should have been deeper unless they had higher Endurance parameters.
“Renards are often known as Sorceresses and Sorcerers in our homeland for possessing the ability to use unique Magics even before the Gods descended,” Mikoto explained. Her violet eyes once more gazing upon the young woman holding her wand that was decorated by paper streamers. “However, judging from your accessory and Nusa, should I assume you were previously a priestess in the service a shrine and thus had a Falna?”
Momiji nodded her head. “The shrine my village had was under the care of Lady Tatsuta far in the countryside, an’ so my kin served her for generations. But after Tsukino went an’ got herself into trouble and had to leave, I begged the lady for her blessin’ to come to Orario with her in exchange for sendin’ back offerings to the shrine. We arrived a little bit ago an’ got wind of the Soma Familia lookin’ for new members.”
In other words, her Goddess unlocked her Falna so she could do a conversion to another Familia when she arrived in Orario. Considering the city made it extremely difficult for Adventurers to leave the walls without going through a lot of paperwork, and with her home being so far away, she likely sacrificed any chance of going back. And while having a Falna and Magic might have made her more valuable, there was no guarantee whatever deity took her in would do the same for her friend or a Pallum.
That alone with how the Hume Bunny begged him to save the other two first made it clear they were rather tight-knit, unlike the rest of the Familia they had just joined. But they hadn’t known that and expected it to be the same. It would have gotten them killed if Bell hadn’t been nearby.
“In other words, you got careless because of it,” Lili said bluntly. “Whatever Magic you have might have allowed you to get down here sooner than you were supposed to, but because of that you didn’t have a full understanding of what awaited you. If you had realized early on that you couldn’t go any further, then you would not have gotten in deeply enough to be swarmed and risk a Monster Parade.”
Welf gave her a stern glance. “Hey now. That’s not on them.”
“If those bastards hadn’t lied ta us then we woulda never came this deep,” Kaede added.
“The fault is our own,” Momiji said softly in contrast to those who were arguing in her defense. “We believed in them too easily an’ still mistook the threat we faced until it was too late because of it. Lesson learned for the future.”
That seemed to be what Lili wanted to hear as she nodded her head. “Not everyone will give you bad advice but don’t believe everything you are told just because you are Familia. New Adventurers are easy prey, so at least verify things that put your life in danger.”
“I don’t understand though,” Coco said somberly. It was like the wind had been knocked out of her. “Lord Soma seemed so nice when he took us in. He told me that he was trying to take his Familia in a new direction and wanted us to help him. So why would they…”
“Most of Lord Soma’s current members are loyal to his wine, not him,” Lili pointed out. “Even if Zanis got put away and Lord Soma changed his policy, it doesn’t change the fact that the others have gotten used to the way things work. It would not surprise me if they intended to use your deaths as an excuse for why they should be given Soma to better guide newcomers, or perhaps they were trying to kill Miss Coco by proxy since they don’t dare come after me now that I’m under Master Bell’s protection.”
That said, she turned to her captain. “Master Bell. Forgive me for this selfish request, but may we head to the Soma Familia after leaving the Dungeon with these three?”
“I don’t mind, but would you really be comfortable with that?” Bell asked. He knew that place had a lot of bad memories for her.
“If Lord Soma sincerely wants to change his Familia for the better, he needs to be aware that it won’t be enough to simply change who is calling the shots and recruiting new members,” Lili told him. “He has to completely root out all traces of the old practices, otherwise his efforts will fail. And I have to be the one to convey that to him personally or else it won’t be clear, and his own children will sabotage him without him realizing it until it’s too late.”
Even if Lili hated her time in his Familia, it was clear she still had some degree of respect for her former God. These three were the signs he was making the first steps to change things sincerely rather than leaving them as they were. And whether it was by pure luck or fate she had borne witness to it and the Familia that took her in had stopped his efforts from being wasted.
“Okay,” Bell said. “We’ll go see Lord Soma. If anyone goes and tries to get in your way this time, I’ll step in.”
“In that case, I would like to contribute as well by introducing you both to Lord Takemikazuchi at some point, Madam Kaede and Momiji,” Mikoto said, looking to the pair. “He could at least explain some of the cultural differences, so you will not be so easily taken advantage of again. I can also show you where to find familiar foods and comforts.”
“…Why?” Kaede asked after a pause. “Not that it wouldn’t be appreciated, but ya just said not to trust everythin’ we hear.”
It was Primo who spoke on her new Familia’s behalf. “It’s because they’re all nice people. Lady Hestia and the others took me in when I had just arrived around the same time as you, and they’ve done so much for me without asking for anything in return. That’s why I want to pay it all back by becoming the best Mage I can be for them, even if it’s scary at times. It’s the same for you, right?”
Her question was addressed specifically to the Pallum who had spoken well of Lord Soma. Coco responded with a slight nod of her head. “He seemed really sincere, and he didn’t reject me for just being a Pallum either.”
“As for me, what guy would just sit back and let scum get away with sending three cute girls off to die because they’re petty over some wine?” Welf said while sporting a grin to Kaede. “They need their priorities checked, and since we’re heading that way there’s no harm in it, right?”
“…Who ya callin’ cute?” murmured the Hume Bunny as her yellow eyes looked away. There seemed to be a spot of crimson color surfacing on her cheeks, but it seemed to go unnoticed. “Gonna kill those bastards.”
“In my case, as my original Familia hails from the Far East, we know of the struggles when it comes to acclimating ourselves to this place,” Mikoto added with her eyes on Momiji. “It would not do for your first experience in Orario to be one completely negative as this one. And, as we have walked the same path, it’s only natural we help those who come after, no?”
“That would be much appreciated,” the Renard Priestess said. “I would be lyin’ if I said I don’t miss a meal from home about now.”
That decided, the Hestia Familia brought the three to the surface and made their way to the Soma Familia. After some mild obstructions, including pulling Kaede off of the one who gave them the map in particular before she bruised her fists on their skull, a discussion was had between the God and his Captain, his old Familia member, and his new ones on the full extent of his Familia’s problems. It took a few hours before a decision was made that would leave the Soma Familia’s numbers drastically reduced by the week’s end in the hopes that they could start again.
Thus, the Hestia Familia headed back to their home where their Goddess of the Hearth awaited. They would put off going to the Exchange for the day so they could get ready for the festivities that were about to begin. After all, the sun was setting…
And the Holy Moon Festival was about to begin.