Chapter 30: The Opening of the Third Act
“Elation. Joy. Those were the emotions that welled up inside of me as I cast my first spell, sending the wind called forth by the words bequeathed to me into the sky. Enraptured as I was recalling the feeling I had when I saw Mother first cast a spell for Father’s sake, I knew that this was what this Magic existed for—to protect my precious family and become the wind beneath his wings.
I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to show Argo. I had the power to protect him now. His dream wouldn’t be far off. So, the moment we were alone, I attempted to do so…
Only for him to be injured by the very same Magic meant to protect him.”
—The Cost of Hubris
“Hurry uppppp. I wanna catch another man before it’s too lateee.”
“I’m afraid the sun has already begun to rise, Lady Lena,” Haruhime said apologetically while applying medicinal ointment onto the bruised, coppery cheek of one of the youngest Amazons within the Berabera. “The district has closed for the day.”
Lena Tally let out a dejected whine before wincing as doing so exaggerated the pain of her bruised ribs. Amazons were adept at fighting through their injuries, adrenaline and excitement pushing the pain to the back of their minds. But she had just woken up from the beating she’d gotten hours ago, so she was still feeling it. “That Toad is horrible!”
The two of them were in one of the rooms within Belit Babili, the residence of the Berabera that served as the elite fighting force of the Ishtar Familia. Haruhime had been at work all night in her duties as a Kamuro, tending to the women’s needs as a larger than normal surge of men flooded the Pleasure District. Though they occasional prowled in a pack, during nights like these the vivacious Amazons would go after their own individual prey and bring them back here when they had finished working—the men they brought back here were for pleasure rather than profit.
However, Lena had the misfortune of bringing her prized catch around when Phryne had been active. The Captain of the Ishtar Familia had a habit of taking men who caught her eye even if one of the other women had claimed them. And while Lena tried to prevent her prize from being stolen, the difference in their Levels made it clear that simply wasn’t happening.
Violence between the Berabera was somewhat commonplace, being Amazons and such. But they rarely inflicted severe enough injuries to permanently harm one another. The typical response was to throw the defeated woman into a room to let her sleep off the injuries while the victor enjoyed the spoils, but Phryne couldn’t be bothered to do that much and Haruhime ended up moving her into the room while resolving to deal with the aftermath later on.
Thick indents around Lena’s lower leg showed where she had been grabbed, likely from an attempt at a kick that failed. The large, bruised section of her torso where the tawny skin darkened to a blackish-purple hue, was from being slammed against a nearby pillar. The discoloration on her stomach came from a follow-up punch that probably forced her to empty the contents of her meal considering the dried vomit Haruhime wiped away earlier.
Then there was how her cheek was swollen. It wasn’t enough of an impression for a punch, but instead a back-handed slap. But considering the Level difference that was still enough to send her sprawling into the furniture hard enough to shatter the frame—which the Renard plucked her out of before bringing her here.
The Kamuro could only imagine how terrifying it must have been for Lena’s partner to watch it happen before he was dragged away. She knew that Phryne had her own personal… lair, for lack of a better term. She would keep him there until she was done with him…
“Haruhime,” a familiar voice softly passed through the door to the room before it creaked open. The morning sunlight spilling through the hall window outlined Aisha’s body as she stood there with her hands on her hips. “I spotted the damage out front. Was it Phryne?”
The Renard Kamuro turned and nodded. “It was a minor altercation between Lady Phryne and Lady Tally over a man. I’m tending to her injuries now with medicinal cream, but may I be permitted to use potions given the nature of her injuries?”
Potions and other expensive medical supplies were regulated on Ishtar’s orders. Part of the reason the Goddess of Love didn’t want them used so casually was that such fights were common enough occurrences that it would become costly, even with the ease they could make up the expenses. But it was also because she was anticipating the arrival of the final thing needed to wage war on the Freya Familia, and she didn’t want any sudden expenditures alerting the opposition before then.
Aisha’s purple eyes took in the scope of Lena’s injuries before she sighed. “Lena, take a few from the stock and use them in the shower.”
The young Amazon perked up. “But Lady Ishtar won’t like that, will she?”
“A few going missing won’t be noticed since the Toad is going to take a bunch to keep the poor sap she stole from dying given how sloppy she is,” Aisha justified, knowing how Phryne often left the men she captured. She’d put them through hell to get off, but she wouldn’t let them die since if they went missing after entering the district it would cause problems. Once she had her fun and made sure they wouldn’t talk, she’d dump them into Daedalus Street. “Besides, as busy as it was last night, I don’t think Ishtar would care much.”
“It was busier than normal around this time, wasn’t it?” Lena inquired towards Haruhime, who nodded once in agreement. “Did something happen at the Holy Moon Festival?”
It wasn’t unusual for more customers to come into the district during the Holy Moon Festival. Specifically, individuals who tended to be single and were looking to relieve the stress they felt upon viewing couples during the holiday. Most of the Pleasure District increased their prices in anticipation of that as well, so a larger flood of customers at the time was a boon from a purely financial standpoint.
“Apparently, Cottontail won some kind of contest and caught the eye of some foreign Virgin Goddess,” Aisha explained, her gaze shifting slightly at the sight of vulpine ears snapping upwards. “From there it seems to have turned into enough of a mess that his place is being guarded by the Ganesha Familia now. Anyway, hurry up and go take care of yourself, Lena.”
Lena got to her feet and made to do just that, leaving the two of them alone. But, as Haruhime finished putting the medical supplies away and prepared to follow her out, the Amazon shut the door. Confused, her ears inquisitively tilted as Aisha’s expression tightened. “Is something wrong, Lady Aisha?”
“…Hermes was present at the festival,” she began after a moment. “He departed after Cranel won, but from what I could tell Phryne paid a visit to his manor on Ishtar’s orders. She left both empty-handed and in a foul mood, so it doesn’t appear as though he had the Killing Stone this time.”
“I suppose that explains why she went that far with Lady Lena,” Haruhime said softly, guilt lacing her tone. “If the issue of the missing potions comes up, I will take full responsibility for it.”
Aisha’s lips pursed tightly before it turned into a dejected huff at the fact that the Renard showed remorse that someone else suffered for the fact that she had a reprieve from her fated end. “Go get some rest. You’ve been just as busy as the rest of us tonight.”
“But I still have to clean—” Her words were cut off when Aisha tenderly placed a finger onto her lips to silence her.
“I’ll have it taken care of,” Aisha insisted softly before she turned the door and nodded in that direction. “Head back to your room and go to sleep. I’ll come to see you later with breakfast.”
“…Have a good night then, Lady Aisha.” Haruhime bowed her head before shuffling her way out of the room. If she noticed the gaze upon her back from the Amazonian Warrior, she showed no sign as she navigated through the maze of hallways as she did nearly every night.
Never knowing when it would be the last time.
Elfy Colette became aware of a familiar soft sensation beneath her as the bliss of unconsciousness slowly melted away. It was the comfort of a bed cradling her body. But her addled mind couldn’t recall how she ended up there.
That last thing I remember was… Her mind snapped back into full awareness as the memories of what had to be last night came back into the forefront of her consciousness. Lefiya and that Elf kissing. Aki holding her as she cried before slipping her back into the manor through the window.
Her eyelids snapped open as she shot upright to find that she was in her bedroom. She lifted the sheets and found that she was in her clothes from last night. Then she leaned over the edge of her top bunk and peered down to the bed below to find that it was empty…
Pulling herself back up onto her bed, Elfy realized that it wasn’t just a dream. Lefiya kissing that other Elf. Humiliating herself in front of Aki. All of that happened.
There were no words to describe the depths of shame she felt when she remembered how she had blurted out everything that she had been holding onto until then. Secrets she hoped would never see the light of day had all been spilled out to one of her seniors. Just the very thought of it made her stomach churn to the point she felt she was going to be sick.
Elfy climbed out of bed and made for the door to head to the bathroom before she could vomit. But as soon as she opened the door, a familiar face appeared from further down the hallway. It was Anakitty Autumn.
The Cat Person smiled upon seeing her and raised her hand in greeting. “El—”
The door shut before the words could finish crossing the distance. Elfy found herself pressing her back against it before her mind caught up with what she had done. She whimpered softly, knowing that she was going too far but being unable to help herself.
Knock. Knock. Knock. That was when there was a knock on the door that was followed by a compassionate voice. “Elfy…. do you want to talk?”
She didn’t. What she wanted was to just forget any of it happened and was tempted to remain quiet in the hopes that her Level Four senior would just go away. But Anakitty didn’t deserve that after spending last night comforting the younger girl. So the mage fought against her urges and opened the door, keeping her eyes to the ground as she apologized. “I’m sorry, Aki. I-I just…”
“It’s okay.” Anakitty’s voice was gentle as she responded with that same patient tone from before. “I just want to know how you are feeling. Can I come in?”
“I’m okay, but a little nauseous,” Elfy admitted before opening the door wider to allow her to enter. Once she did, the mage shut the door and then leaned against it while still looking down at the carpeted floor. She couldn’t bring herself to look the older girl in the eyes. “About last night, you didn’t…”
Feline ears twitched slightly before she craned her head in understanding. “Don’t worry. I haven’t told anyone. Last night stays between us.”
The assurance of privacy was enough to quell the rampant nausea in her stomach. Even so, she still felt a great weight upon her heart considering how much she had revealed. And then there was the question of just how much her senior had known. “What you said last night about holding it in all this time… has it been obvious how I felt about Lefy?”
Crossing her arms at the waist, the Level Four’s tail flicked before she inclined her head forward slightly. “Not in the way you think. Rather, it’s… the little things that added up over time. Sometimes when she enters the cafeteria while you’re there, your posture straightens up as if you want her to notice you. Or when the two of you are just talking, your eyes will linger on hers. And occasionally you’ll wear a small smile in a way that brightens up your face. Alone they don’t really stand out, but together they paint a picture of a girl in love.”
Elfy’s hand rose to brush the corners of her lips as she tried to recall those moments. The way she always felt then. Spikes of joy, fluttering moments of excitement, a sense of delight at spending time with her. She could feel her lips slowly folding upwards with the tips of her fingers. “She didn’t notice though.”
“It’s easier to notice all the signs piling up from a distance,” her senior explained. “Even so, it wasn’t like I could say anything since it wasn’t my place. It could have caused more problems in the end. The best I could do was be there for you when you headed off, given the fact that Lefiya hasn’t exactly been subtle either. She’s been acting a bit different as well.”
Just like that the memories of that kiss between the friend she loved and what she could never be bubbled back to the surface of Elfy’s mind. The small joy fled along with the budding smile. “It was stupid of me to feel this way even knowing that she would never look at me that way.”
Anakitty was careful as she gently peeled back her insecurities. “Because you don’t feel like you’re special?”
Tension and shame threaded the mage’s body and left her in a state of discomfort. “It’s not that I’m not grateful to others for everything they’ve done. I know how hard they’ve worked and how much they struggled to get there. But it feels like they’re so far ahead of me that there’s a gap I can’t ever cross.”
To say it was a gap was an understatement. It was more of a canyon, a gaping maw leading to an abyss where hopes and dreams were swallowed by the darkness. She was on one side that consisted of the path traveled and places known, where there were comforts and security. The special ones stood on the other side, heading off to the unknown with the sun ahead of them.
“And you were fine with that because that was what separated heroes from ordinary people…” Aki’s voice was quiet as she spoke. “Something about them allows them to cross that gap fearlessly and puts them on an entirely different level. Whereas you couldn’t even if you wanted to because your legs would stiffen knowing what awaits you when you fail. Is that it?”
It was as though she was reading Elfy’s mind. “Yeah. For me to even be part of the same Familia as them is something I can take pride in, even if there was no way I can hope to be more than a normal mage. But it’s different for someone like Lefy.”
Even if the two of them were stuck on the same side, opposite of those heroes, they weren’t the same. Elfy could only watch from a distance no matter how hard she tried. But for Lefiya there was a small bridge that only she could cross, left behind by Lady Riveria. It was narrow, and if she took one wrong step she could slip off and fall. But even knowing that she still moved across it at her own pace until she could cross the gap and stand next to them.
“I know she’s struggled so hard to get where she has,” Elfy continued, sinking down onto the ground and curling up once more. “She’s nice and sweet and works so hard that I can’t help but want to cheer her on. But, at the same time, I… envy her because she has the talent to make it that far.”
“It’s not just talent that allowed them to get that far,” Anakitty said, rising to her feet and coming over to her junior. “They have something that we don’t that’ll let them become heroes of legend one day. Something pushing them forward even though they don’t know what’s awaiting them. For the Captain, it’s wanting to become a beacon to his race. For Lefiya, I think it’s because she wants to live up to the expectations placed upon her. Even for them, it’s wanting to see the hero they admire so much in front of them despite everything. Everyone has something like that to push them forward…”
Peering past her knees as the Level Four crouched down so they were on the same eye level, Elfy found herself asking, “What about you then?”
Anakitty’s eyes closed as her ears flickered in thought. “I suppose it’s because I want to see the same thing that the person whom I respect the most does. Even if I can’t follow behind them, I can ease their burden along with the others by making the Familia as comfortable as possible for others around us. How about you?”
“I…” She trailed off as her mind flashed back to her earliest desire. The desire to become a Mage of great renown. It was a dream that was never meant to be when she was in the same Familia as people such as Lady Riveria and Lefiya. No matter how hard she chased after them she would never be on par with them.
But that desire was still there. To, at the very least go as far as she could, even if she couldn’t stand next to them. The path that her best friend walked wasn’t the same one that she could follow, so she would have to find another. “I want to improve my Magic, so I guess I’ll focus on my studies and work on raising my Status for the moment.”
“Let me know anytime you want to go into the Dungeon for practice then,” Anakitty said while gently brushing her head. “I’ll make time to come with you. Okay?”
“If it won’t be too much of a bother for you…” A small smile found its way on her lips despite the turmoil still within her chest. “…Aki, thank you for being there for me.”
“It should be around here,” Lefiya Viridis murmured to herself as walked along paved roads of the Labyrinth City that were neglected compared to the Main Street, her gaze fixed on a hand-drawn map. The Half-Elf, no longer under her guise as Feena but having the illusion mask her clothing to not draw attention, was traveling along narrow side streets that were smothered by tall buildings that seemed to jealously steal the light of the morning sun hanging high in the air. That left it bathed in the newly arrived autumn chill nipping at the exposed flesh beneath her illusionary clothing.
Her brother and his Familia had departed from hours ago, and since then she had taken it upon herself to act as a messenger. Specifically, she was delivering letters that would explain their abrupt absence to their friends and acquaintances. It was taking her around the city considering the different walks of life they all had, giving her an idea of their social circles and their lives outside of the Dungeon.
The first, and probably most disheartening thing she noticed was that Primo had no one to deliver a letter to. The Hestia Familia was essentially her family at this point, and she hadn’t made any friends outside of them yet given she had just arrived at the city shortly ago. Hopefully, she would get the chance to socialize with others around her own age at some point, because while Lefiya did enjoy her company she knew that the young Elf needed people around her who would treat her as a friend rather than a younger sister or student.
Then there was Welf Crozzo. His letter had been addressed to his former Goddess, along with one from Lady Hestia. Those she had to deliver to the Goddess of the Forge, who had apparently been expecting to hear from Lady Hestia since she had a part-time job there and was thus one of the easiest to get in contact with on the list of deliveries the Half-Elf had to make. Upon receiving the notice, she had sighed before stating that it couldn’t be helped if it was a request from the Guild and Artemis.
The Guild had been next on her list after that. Bell had written a letter to his Guild Advisor, the Half-Elf that worked there named Eina Tulle. When Lefiya arrived, she had spotted her in the middle of mediating between the Elf and Dwarf from last night. The two of them were inquiring into her relationship with Bell, which she maintained was purely professional.
At that point Lefiya felt the need to step in, so she asked if Miss Tulle could speak with her about an important manner in private and stressed the urgency. It had given the older Half-Elf the perfect excuse to shoo the pair off by reminding them that the Guild was a place of business and not for unfounded rumors before guiding her off to one of the soundproof rooms. Once there, Lefiya explained the situation with the letter from Bell and apologized for making it sound more urgent than it was but thought it would be best.
Those two had apparently been Adventurers who, much like Bell, had been under her guidance in their earlier days and had also reached Level Three at present. The fiasco and rumors from last night had driven them to ‘reaffirm’ that they didn’t believe those rumors about her and Bell, because there’s no way a woman as dignified as her would enter a relationship with a boy like him. It was both condescending to Bell and presumptuous given that it was clear they considered themselves more suitable candidates.
Lefiya committed their names to memory for later before explaining that Bell would likely be absent for the next month. Considering how often Adventurers disappeared and Bell had been regularly attending her lessons, which had been helping to shore up his lack of experience, it was natural to worry that he probably didn’t survive if he went missing for a month without warning. While Lefiya still didn’t know how to feel about another Half-Elf taking on her sororal duties, it was only proper to let Eina know so she didn’t worry about his sudden disappearance before handing over the letter and setting off to her next destination.
That had been the Hostess of Fertility. Bell had written a letter to the silver-haired Human Waitress there, who didn’t seem too surprised that he wouldn’t be coming by after what happened last night. Out of curiosity, Lefiya had inquired if Miss Ryuu had returned, but it seemed that she was still missing as well.
After that, Miss Mikoto’s delivery had taken her to the Takemikazuchi Familia, to whom Lady Hestia had also written a letter for. Lefiya’s appearance at their home had been unexpected, but the God of War had already been accommodating a Renard and Hume Bunny from the Soma Familia that morning, so it wasn’t an intrusion. He mentioned that he would work out the details with Lord Miach, whom she was searching for now.
The area that Lefiya was in now was rather dilapidated compared to the Main Street, a backstreet formed of buildings clustered that normally wouldn’t be traversed by a non-resident of the western blocks. It was virtually abandoned in terms of foot traffic, which she presumed was because most of the residents were likely at work, though she could spot a group of individuals with weapons leaving one smaller building that had an emblem with the outline of a human body—it was the Blue Pharmacy.
The Half-Elf made her way to the double wooden doors and stepped through it with a greeting on her lips. “Pardon me for the—”
Her words died as she entered the shop and spied at the end of the maze of shelves stocked with medicinal supplies a pair of women she hadn’t seen since the War Game. Specifically, the last two members of the Apollo Familia they had to deal with along with Hyacinthus. The Healer had a different staff than before but the fact that they were both armed and here led her to immediately reach for her spare wand.
“Easy there,” the red-haired girl said, stepping in front of the dark-haired one before reaching for her sleeve and showing the emblem affixed to it. The fact that her other hand made for the hilt of her sword didn’t elude the Half-Elf. “I don’t know what’s going through your head, but we’re part of this Familia now.”
As Lefiya considered the validity of her claim, the door beyond the counter opened. The Chienthrope with half-lidded eyes emerged from within along with her God. “Ah, what’s going on here?”
“These two are claiming they’re members of your Familia now,” Lefiya said, wand still in her grasp. “Is that true?”
“Though I hadn’t had a chance to inform Hestia or the others, these two children have formally joined my Familia,” Lord Miach stated as he came around the corner and interposed himself between the two sides. “You don’t have to be worried for our sakes.”
“They’ve actually been a big help,” Nahza added. “We’ve been getting a lot more customers since the War Game and having them being able to go into the Dungeon has made it easier to procure the Drop Items we need directly.”
Lefiya slowly put away her wand even as she bit down on the question that she wanted to ask. Namely, if they were trustworthy. “Lord Miach, may I speak with you in private? I have a delivery to make on behalf of Lady Hestia.”
He gestured towards the room he and his Captain had just been inside of. “I understand things had been a little chaotic since last night and had been wanting to ask Hestia about the details myself.”
She followed him behind with a silent tension running along her spine from the presence of the two young women until he shut the door. Then she breathed out a sigh and apologized. “My apologies for any disturbance I may have caused you. I had thought they may have been here to cause problems considering your involvement in the War Game.”
It wasn’t a stretch to say that the Chienthrope and her patron deity were as responsible as Bell was for the fall of the Apollo Familia. It was their contributions that allowed them to disable a good deal of the larger Familia with contemptuous ease. But unlike Lady Hestia’s Familia, they were much more vulnerable to harassment from former members if they were looking for revenge.
“There is no need to worry about such things,” he assured her. “As per the wager made with Hestia, many of those who were pressed into the Apollo Familia had their Falna unlocked and open for Conversion. I understand you may have some reservations about them considering you were previously fighting one another, please do not blame them for following the orders of their God. They had no choice in the matter.”
Logically, Lefiya understood that. Once you joined a Familia you were bound to the whims of the one whose Falna you bore on your back. Whether they wanted to attack Bell or not, they had no say in the matter since being a good member of a Familia meant being loyal above all else. It was harder to trust someone who openly betrayed their Familia like that Pallum whom Bell’s little friend imitated, so the fact that they obeyed to the best of their abilities despite wanting out enough to leave when given the chance only served to prove that they would be loyal to whichever Familia they joined.
But, at the same time, she still remembered her younger brother laying broken and bleeding that day thanks to the two of them, along with their Captain. That made her… slightly less sympathetic than she would be under normal circumstances. And a lot more suspicious.
“Please forgive me if this sounds offensive,” Lefiya began, “But it still seems odd that they willingly chose to join your Familia with their prospects. My own grievances aside, I could imagine many would have sought them out.”
Daphne had fought with two Level Twos with a decent level of competency considering the odds against her. And she demonstrated her willingness to protect an ally at the expense of her own health. Not to mention being one of the Commanders of the Apollo Familia, who had also participated in the defeat of a Monster Rex.
Cassandra possessed the Treatment Development Ability. That required medical knowledge in the same way someone who had the Mage Development Ability needed extensive knowledge of the arcane. And Healers were somewhat rarer than even Mages, so a Medical Familia would naturally seek her out.
Lefiya could imagine they had a lot of offers, so why did they respond to his? Though his appearance as befitting of one of the divinity was noble and immaculate, one could easily see from his clothing that he was not as financially well-off as many middle-ranked Familia. Much less on par with Apollo himself, who had extremely high standards considering the state of his mansion when Lady Hestia allowed her inside with Bell.
The blue-haired God of Medicine only smiled in response to her question. “I will admit that I hadn’t expected them to join my Familia when I made an offer given how high their prospects were likely to be and the situation our Familia was in. But despite that, they both agreed to join for their own personal reasons and have been very helpful. I had intended to speak with Hestia about it, but it has been rather busier than normal considering the War Game.”
“Then I won’t call into question their loyalty again,” Lefiya said before bowing her head. “Forgive me if it may have seemed as though I was overstepping my bounds considering my own involvement with events I really shouldn’t have been involved with.”
The Takemikazuchi and Miach Familia were aware of the extent she went to support Bell, including disguising herself. But as far as they knew it was merely because of a bond of comradery rather than familial ties. Even so, them knowing that much when not even her own Familia was aware left her with little high ground even compared to those two from the Apollo Familia.
“No offense taken,” he said. “Now, what was the message from Hestia that you wanted to share with me?”
She pulled the letter from her bag and summarized the situation about Bell departing with the others. He stated he would work out an arrangement with Lord Takemikazuchi since he couldn’t leave the shop unattended, and she offered to help in whatever way she could when she had the time. Then he gave her a Double Potion and saw her out.
With that, she only had a final delivery to make. The letter to the owner of a pawnshop that was also within another set of complex backstreets that Lefiya would probably have gotten lost in if not for the directions written down. They brought her to a one-story wooden building that had a rustic feeling despite being tucked between a few other stone buildings. Yet the moment she arrived at the door her senses felt a slight presence that somewhat reminded her of the Spirit Forest.
The reason for that was revealed when she entered through the door that was rather tight on its frame and locked eyes with a white-bearded individual beyond the counter of a somewhat messy showroom. No, not an individual. It might have been because of her exposure to the multitude of the Minor Spirits within the Spirit Forest, but though it was faint her senses were telling her this was a Spirit.
For his part, the Spirit crinkled his nose as he hummed to himself. “Well, this was unexpected. To what do I owe the pleasure a visit from one clad in such fine garments as yourself?”
“I’m here to deliver a letter to a Bom Cornwall, but…” the Half-Elf trailed off as she looked down to see that she was still disguised when his words registered. Her memory of what Lady Riveria had said when she had given her them for the trip surfaced and realization dawned. “You can see through the illusion, can’t you?”
“My senses aren’t the same as mortals,” he conveyed. “I’d appreciate you keepin’ that a secret from Lili, mind you.”
Lefiya realized that Bell’s little friend must not have known either that he could perceive through the illusion. Chances were no one would since the number of Spirits who had a level of sapience that allowed them to interact with the physical world and mortals in a day-to-day manner in this age were slim. “Of course, but if I could ask the same about…”
He managed to pick up where she was trailing off as she gestured to herself and the disguise. “My lips are sealed considerin’ I won a bit of a wager myself during the War Game. Anyway, you got somethin’ for me?”
She approached the counter and pulled out the letter before explaining that Liliruca would be absent for the next month. But as he perused the contents of the letter a question cropped up in her mind and her curiosity eventually overflowed. “Forgive me for asking this, but why is a venerated spirit such yourself present in a place like this?”
Her inquiry was met with a slight chuckle as he set the letter down. “Venerated, you say. You’re mistaken, I’m afraid. Even for those of us who’ve the minds to speak without a contract, we’ve no power on par with those in the Ancient Times to warrant being venerated. As for what leaves a Gnome like myself in a humble place like this… tell me, what kind of people do you believe would come here?”
Looking around at the storefront that was far more disheveled than most of the stores along the area she normally shopped, there was a great deal of variety in what was on display. From armor that looked as though it had seen many battles to little trinkets that held little value other than novelty, the only things that stood out extensively were the most expensive goods—jewelry, a staff, and a magic sword among them.
“I can’t say that there’s a specific group in particular,” was her response. “It doesn’t seem as though you cater to only adventurers or any race. The prices also have a large enough gap that, outside of things that are expensive for obvious reasons, I wouldn’t be able to tell at a glance.”
“Exactly,” he answered. “Mortals that walk through that door have different values and that can be reflected in what they take and what they leave behind. Trinkets that have little value to others may become treasures to others. Reminders of painful memories or broken dreams that can one day become the seedbed for another’s journey. From behind the counter of this little shop, I’ve been given a chance to learn a great deal about people I couldn’t otherwise.”
Spirits that existed in the world these days were merely shadows of those who existed during the Ancient Era and the Age of Heroes. That was because in that age those who could be seen as heroes were far and fewer between and, with no Falna to put mortals on par with the greater threats, the Spirits who aided them at the beckoning of the Gods needed to be capable of bequeathing them that power. But it was likely that the only Spirits that remained and were on par with those of ancient times were those who had fallen in the Dungeon. So what was a Spirit that had taken on a corporeal form to do in a world that no longer required their existence?
For the Gnome that defined himself as Bom Cromwell, it had been to own and operate a pawnshop. The customers revealed their values and what they held dear as the exchange was made. Whether it be desperation to keep going on by giving up something precious or putting all their hopes into buying something to chase a dream, their emotions were laid bare before him in the process and collected in the items he surrounded himself with.
“Though, I’ve found myself curious why someone of such standin’ as yourself went out of your way to enter a contract with two Minor Spirits,” he said after she took a moment to process his response. “I can feel their touch upon you, which is a rarity in this age. Surely what you gained from them is less than what your blessin’ gives you, Thousand Elf?”
Lefiya took a moment to close her eyes and ruminate on the question before she took Lady Lilo’s advice to heart and laid bare her true emotions as she spoke. “…I sought them out so I would have the ability to protect the people I care about. It’s undeniable that the two spells I received from the Wind Spirit and Sea Spirit aren’t as powerful or versatile as the three I gained through my Falna. But it’s thanks to their gifts that I didn’t have to sit back and watch as someone I cared about had their freedom taken away. And….”
She trailed off for a moment as she remembered Lady Lilo and Lady Riveria’s desires. Their concerns over the state of their race led them in opposite directions, one hoping to cling to isolation to preserve their numbers and knowledge, while the other would travel far to build bonds with the other races. Yet both of them wanted her to carry their Magic and culture into the future.
And Lefiya’s own desires were to live up to those expectations, becoming a vessel to carry their knowledge and traditions into the unknown dawn. “From our ancestors who struggled during those dark times to this very moment, our people owe much to you and your kin. The fact that I can preserve something precious to my race and bring it with me into the future is an honor. That makes the Magic bequeathed to me by your kin invaluable, even if to others they don’t seem like much.”
“Is that so?” His gaze lingered on her azure eyes as they met his unflinchingly and without any hints of dishonesty. Then they shifted back to the letter, and he stroked his beard contemplatively in thought before asking a simple question. “In that case… how would like to strike a deal with me?”
Haggard. Hard. Fierce pants broke the thick silence as they escaped from lips that were peeled back to reveal ivory fangs that were dyed by the violet ichor. They were accompanied by the rise and fall of a small chest, pale-blue flesh stretched over an emaciated frame that was hidden by wild clumps of silver-blue hair. The bundles of strands were glued by a glaze of dark crimson that oozed from dozens of slits, dripping down to mingle with the violet pool that formed beneath small feet that stood amongst lifeless ebon corpses.
And from behind the stringy curtain of mangy stands were a wild, wide monstrous pair of black-slitted amber irises fixed on a single, white-haired boy.
He was sitting amongst countless stone shards from broken walls, splotches of dark crimson hiding the white hair that seemed luminous in the soft, green light. His breastplate sported long rents from which blood seeped as readily as the long tears in his jacket and black shirt. Staring wide-eyed with his back pressed against the cavernous opening, the boy held out a broken dagger as his arm shook uncontrollably.
The panting softened ever so slightly from the figure as their eyes met and the rose-colored reflection sparked recognition. Sharp, long claws retracted as tiny fingers curled into small fists and childish lips rolled over the protracted fangs. The shrunken iris expanded to become wide, and the brows drooped in exhaustion.
The broken dagger lowered slowly as fear was replaced with bewilderment when the figure turned around, hiding the lithe and narrow frame behind a dense curtain of hair that fell to the floor. Then a creeping, gnawing sensation ate away at his chest as they swayed with every glacial step over the lumps of ebony meat. Gone were the fast, frenzied movements that had been accompanied by shrieks amidst blurs of blue and black that left red and violet to paint the walls.
Now there were only weak, sluggish steps. Footfalls that took such herculean effort that they caused the tiny frame to shake with every step towards the mouth of the corridor. Until finally, with a barely perceptible whimper, they slumped over onto the ground and didn’t get back up.
Then and only then did a breath escape the boy who’d held it in his chest until then as the fear bottled inside came flowing out, directed towards another instead. His legs that had gone numb from terror found the strength to stand and then moved. Hurrying over the corpses of living shadows that were torn open to the point of stumbling and having to paw the ground like a beast to keep going forward, he came to a stop next to the shivering figure lying in a slowly expanding crimson puddle.
Then he gently brushed aside the clinging strands to see the face of a little girl beneath the crimson.
There, on the Sixth Floor, a boy and monster met.
And a family was formed.
Labored, heavy breaths escaped the mouth of Bell Cranel as he tensed his thumb and middle fingers on his right hand around the handle of his blade. There was a lingering pain from the constant extension and use. He’d have thought that the Falna would make it easier to do a thousand repetitions of the basics when it came to swinging a sword, but it seemed that was a bit much for a new Adventurer.
He was currently in one of the three training halls of what was the Takemikazuchi Familia’s home, having begun taking lessons under the War God in how to properly handle a weapon on Hestia’s behalf. She hadn’t taken it well upon hearing he nearly got himself killed on the Sixth Floor, though to be fair he hadn’t expected to get cornered by War Shadows either when the first five Floors were so easy to traverse, he made it that far without any problems. He wasn’t sure how she had gotten the agreement between them, but it seemed that he would make time for him to train every few days with the man.
It was different today as Takemikazuchi had to leave unexpectedly since something came up at his job. Bell had decided that even if the lesson was canceled, he would finish going through the drills since it was largely a repetition of three motions with the blade—vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. By practicing the basic motion on both sides over a thousand times each, Bell hoped to drill the proper way to hold the sword and then cut with it into his muscles.
He had originally used a dagger because it was among one of the cheaper options available at the Guild, portable and easy to use. But since the option presented itself, he had decided to try out a sword similar to the ones Lord Takemikazuchi’s children normally used. It was proving to be a bit more difficult than he expected since the sword was sharp along the edge, but it only really cut well if you made the slicing motion correctly and the grip was proper.
By the time he had finished the evening had come, its light peeping in through the windows of the training hall he was in. “Whew…”
Catching his breath, he opened the sliding door that led out to the yard where there were several ajura trees. They were supposedly a breed of flora that only grew within the depths of the Dungeon according to Lord Takemikazuchi. The flowering blue plants had a strange luminescence and pungent yet poignant scent that seemed almost otherworldly, and he could only imagine how mesmerizing the sight would be in the dark of night…
It was then he noticed that the training hall opposite the garden had its sliding door opened. And there, on the other side, he saw a lone figure standing with her back present to the opening. Her short, black hair fell to her shoulders as she stood in place while taking long and deep breaths that seemed to move her upper body.
That’s Miss Chigusa, isn’t it? She was one of Lord Takemikazuchi’s students, though he rarely had spoken to her given she usually wasn’t very outspoken. She was just standing there and breathing while there was a line of straw-cutting poles set up ahead of her. Was she supposed to attempt to cut through them in some sort of practice? But she’s just standing there breathing….
Breathing. Breathing. Breathing. It was as if she was in the middle of meditation that he saw the others do occasionally in passing. He didn’t fully understand beyond the fact that it was just something that they carried over from their homeland and was supposed to help them clear their minds and embolden their spirits.
He figured she was preparing herself for her drills ahead of time, so Bell made to leave quietly as to not bother her. But the moment he got ready to turn back the way he came, he saw her body nearly fall forward only for her to catch herself on one leg. Or rather than that, it was that she lowered her stance by pushing one leg back as the other bent while she huddled over clutching her sword—
—then there was a sharp sound. Almost like a steel blade being drawn from its sheathe. Yet her blade was still within its scabbard, the trembling reaching his ears as her grip on the handle shook.
That was when he realized it was coming from her breathing. She had changed the way she was breathing so that it slipped in between her teeth clenched tight enough to the point where they seemed like they would break. The very act seemed to cause her pain as beneath her soft, milky skin veins began to grow thick and bulge along her legs.
“Are you okay, Miss—” Bell moved over to her, fearing she was hurting herself somehow when she was suddenly at the far end of the training hall. Then the air popped as a shockwave came from inside of the room she was in.
And every target that had been set up slid down upon itself, severed and left to fall to the ground under its own weight.
I didn’t see her move. Bell hadn’t blinked. He hadn’t shifted his attention from her for even a moment. And from what he knew, only two of Lord Takemikazuchi’s children had reached Level Two, at which point a new Level One like him would just lose track of them. So how did she move so quickly?
“Gwaaahhhhhhh….” His attention snapped back to her when he heard her voice labored as she fell onto her knees, chest rising and falling as she tried to catch her breath. “Nnnhhhh… gaahhh…”
He rushed over to check on her. “Are you okay?”
Her head snapped up, bangs parting to reveal a surprised gaze as if she had only just realized he was there. “M-Mi…Mister… Cr-ra…nel? I… thought you…went home… early?”
He didn’t see any injuries. It just seemed like she was struggling to get her breathing under control for the most part. “I was about to when I saw… whatever that was.”
She tensed up between breaths. “You… saw…?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Was I not supposed to?”
She forced herself to sit upright on her knees, leaning close to him and grabbing him by the shoulders. “Y-You can’t tell anyone! Please! Not Lord Takemikazuchi or anyone else!”
“At least tell me what just happened,” Bell said. “What was that?”
She took a moment to finally get her breathing under control before explaining. “It was my Breathing Style. I’m still working on it.”
In her homeland, before the Gods came down, monsters ran rampant. In comparison to the monsters that existed on the surface today, these monsters were far more powerful as the Dungeon had yet to have the lid placed upon it and so they came spilling out freely. For every one monster that could be killed, often it would take a dozen or more warriors down with them even if they were just what one would consider a Level One category monster these days.
During that age, there were often only two methods of fending off greater threats. The first was the existence of Renards, whose clansmen were occasionally born with powerful Sorcery that could keep them at bay. The other was when the Gods chose to empower a chosen warrior through a nature spirit or by providing them a weapon of great strength. But what was there to do for the unchosen or ungifted?
The answer some of the Human swordsmen of that era came up with was to perfect a technique that would allow them to be able to fight the monsters with mortal flesh. First by polishing their swordsmanship to perfection. Then by incorporating a special technique.
“The name of that technique is called Total Concentration Breathing,” she continued, lowering her hand and hovering it over her diaphragm. “By taking a long deep breath so oxygen flows throughout the body, the blood circulation accelerates, and the body temperature spikes. It hyper stimulates the muscles, nerves, and organs so that they can operate well above the average capabilities briefly. The arteries expand to carry more blood, the mind sharpens, and pain becomes numb so one can keep fighting. This allowed the swordsmen who lacked a blessing or sorcery to exceed their limits and keep up with monsters of that era.”
“So it wasn’t like the Flame of Heaven or the Spirit Sword, but something that Humans came up on their own?”
She nodded. “It wasn’t commonplace as the demands to carry it out were great, even if the basics were simple. And against stronger monsters, many practitioners died. After the descent of the Gods and the Falna, more perished as they fought against the greatest of threats to finally be rid of them by combining the skills and development abilities to create what would be known as Breathing Styles.”
“I had never heard of them before,” Bell said.
“It’s not that you haven’t heard of them, it’s that you simply haven’t recognized them in the tales you may have heard,” she explained. “Most tales were written by mortals who may not have comprehended what they observed and so they could only describe what they perceived. And that was fine for the ones who cultivated them as once the practice served its purpose, it would be better left forgotten outside of family lines as traditional dances rather than be used as a tool of war in the bloody history that followed. The Falna already makes it easy enough as it is for people to kill one another.”
“Were you one of those families then?”
She shook her head. “The reason we know it is because of Lord Takemikazuchi. Even though the Gods couldn’t interfere often with the Lower World back then aside from their chosen, they still watched our efforts. And Lord Takemikazuchi is a God of War, so to see children come up with a method of their own to fight back against the monsters was something he took great pride in. So much so that he committed their acts to his eternal memory and, when we became family, he passed them onto us so that we would have a better chance to survive in the Dungeon.”
“Could you teach me?”
She pressed her hands together nervously. “Well, the basics are supposed to be simple in concept, but the execution isn’t. I’m not very good at it myself and I’ve been training for two years, so someone who hasn’t even trained their lung capacity would pretty much burn themselves out fast and likely get themselves killed attempting it in the Dungeon. Even telling you this much is probably crossing a line, so…”
It clicked for Bell then. He wasn’t their family. Hestia and Lord Takemikazuchi might have been friends and him teaching Bell the basics was a favor, but at most they were acquaintances. Even her telling him this much was probably a bit much as an attempt to give him enough details so that he wouldn’t ask the others and have them learn he knew that way.
“I understand,” Bell said. “We’ll just pretend this conversation never happened.”
It was painful how hopeful her voice sounded as she perked up. “Really?”
Bell nodded. “Every family has their secrets after all. And besides, I really shouldn’t even be here this late. I’ll head back now that I know you’re okay.”
Her shoulders relaxed, as if she had been holding a great weight upon them. “Thank you.”
That done, Bell very quickly and quietly removed himself from the premises to make his way back to his own home. Along the way, he consulted his memory on what he bore witness to. Then he opened his mouth and drew in a deep breath from his belly. It was like this, right?
In. Out. In. Out. He cycled his breathing along the way back home as an imitation of what he saw, but he couldn’t notice a major change by the time he got back. If it was as simple as breathing then it wouldn’t have fallen out of practice, even if it was around a thousand years.
No sooner than he stepped inside did the hidden door leading to the space in the chapel that Bell called home open, and from it emerged a small figure with pale-blue skin, wrapped in a white short dress. With little warning she bound up towards him and he had to extend his hands to catch her as she wrapped her arms around him to pull him into a hug. “Welcome back, Bell!”
“Gentle touches. Gentle touches!” Bell said with a strained voice while gently trying to loosen the child’s grip on him. She was a lot stronger than she looked, especially compared to a Level One Adventurer like him. If she hugged too hard she’d likely snap something on accident, and that was only because they’d trimmed down her claws to be on the safe side of things.
She was, after all, a monster.
Bell had known that from the moment he saw her on the Sixth Floor, despite how human she looked. She had been covered in wounds while ripping and tearing through all of the War Shadows that had surrounded him, her claws sharp enough to tear through them with ease. Then she had turned her attention onto him and Bell thought that would be how he would die.
But then she turned to leave and collapsed. The wounds she had sustained to that point had taken their toll, injuries he suspected should have been fatal to any normal human twice over. Realistically, he should have counted his blessings and left while he could as the matter resolved itself.
Yet, something about the expression that she made when she looked down at him stuck in his head and made him feel bad about holding a weapon against her. Then when he got a good look at her and saw her crying, shedding crystalline tears in a way no monster should be able to, he couldn’t see her as just a monster. She was an injured, little girl who was bleeding out in front of him and crying.
He considered dousing her in Potions and then walking off. It probably would have tampered down on the feeling he felt, the guilt of letting her die without doing anything. But the thought of abandoning a child in the middle of the Dungeon really didn’t sit well with him. So, despite everything he knew telling him that there would be consequences, he did the unthinkable…
He brought a monster to the surface.
Fortunately, it was after dark. He had a blanket in his bag so he managed to cover her on his back without anyone noticing as he managed to get home. It was fortunate that the place they lived was just off the beaten path, a rundown chapel to a goddess that never existed.
Hestia was… confused when she came home and found the monster there. They had only become family a little while ago and instead of something like a stray dog he brought a monster home. He struggled to find the words to explain the situation while asking her to calm down, because he wasn’t even sure how to begin…
Not at least until she woke up and started crying.
The reason was obvious in hindsight. She just woke up in a strange place, without knowing where she was or who they were. Lost, confused, and frightened, she did what one would expect of a child, and she cried.
And for humans and goddesses alike, crying children were a soft spot.
So Bell had approached her slowly and tried to soothe her with kind words and telling her it was okay. Hestia was a little more reluctant but did the same. Then she did something neither of them thought was possible and uttered three little words:
“Where am I?”
Things after that got… interesting as she managed to somewhat explain her birth from the walls of the Dungeon on one of the deeper floors. She picked up grammar fairly quickly and so he could only think that maybe it was something about her in specific. But, because of that, they understood the situation.
She had been attacked by other monsters, who smelled like her apparently, and there had been other people there too who had tried to take the gemstone on her forehead. Then there was a blank spot in her memory and she woke up covered in blood. She then decided to head upwards to get away from it all while avoiding people entirely and killing monsters that attacked her.
She had made it as far as the Sixth Floor when she apparently heard Bell’s scream when he was ambushed by the War Shadows. Her first inclination had been to ignore him. But then she saw how scared he looked and remembered what it was like for her, being attacked and helpless.
So she helped him. Yet, he had been scared of her now. It was then she realized she was no different than the others that smelled like her—just something scary that hurt others. Bell and his goddess then decided that they should at least find out what they could, so while Hestia watched her Bell would look into everything he could based on what they knew.
It took some asking around based on how she described where she came from to figure out it was apparently one of the Middle Floors, in a place called the Colossal Tree Labyrinth. That was past what was known as a Safe Point, a Floor where the Dungeon wouldn’t spawn monsters. It was the first one available for most Adventurers around Level Two, so it was far beyond his capabilities to get that low anytime soon and meant she was likely a monster within that category of dangerous.
As for what kind of monster she was, he learned that when he asked about any blue monsters with a jewel on their head and some Adventurers whose outfits had a crescent moon and glass emblem started looking at him like he’d struck gold. They nearly jacked him up to try to figure out where he’d seen a Vouivre, a species of Dragon and one of the rarest monsters in the Dungeon, before he lied and said he just heard about it in passing and wanted to ask about it. They’d tossed him like garbage afterward for getting their hopes up—which told him all he needed to know what would happen if anyone else found out about her.
They’d pluck off every last one of her scales that were haphazardly covering her body as she wailed. They’d pry her claws from her fingers and toes as she screamed. And then, when her body had nothing else of value, they’d finally rip the stone from her forehead (which would drive her berserk) before putting her down.
If they returned her to the Dungeon, monsters would continue to attack her. She’d never know a moment’s rest until something eventually managed to kill her. And if some other Adventurer found her then they’d attempt to harvest her body for everything of value, drive her mad, and then finally kill her.
There was nowhere she would be safe—no hope for her.
The thought of her suffering and dying for simply being born turned his stomach as her amber eyes stared up at him while sporting a wide smile as she nuzzled against his arm giddily. “Were you a good girl and stayed inside, Wiene?”
She had no name originally. Bell had come up with one based on one of the stories his grandfather told him. Hestia shortened to be more convenient—thus, she was Wiene to the two of them.
“Mm-hmm!” Wiene said. “All day!”
“Good girl.” He gingerly brushed her hair, eliciting a pleasant sound from her throat as from the opened door emerged Hestia. “I’m home, Goddess.”
She greeted him with a bittersweet smile. “Welcome home. We need to talk about what happened with the magic stones in the lamps below.”
The lamps below ground were powered by small magic stones like most of the appliances in Orario. Since they could be found in the Dungeon relatively easily it was effectively the primary export of Orario, and how even new Adventurers like him could make a living. “Did they burn out?”
Hestia shook her head. “Wiene ate them all. I spotted her after we had finished the showering and I was cleaning it up for you to use next.”
“Wiene, is that true?” Bell asked. It wasn’t that he doubted Hestia’s words, given she was the goddess he revered and took him in. But he wanted to hear it from her.
For her part, the dragon child seemed to understand that what she had done had caused some problems. Her instinctive response was to lower her body and avert her gaze as she confessed. “Y-Yes… Sorry.”.
Hestia’s gentle eyes softened as she came over and caressed the top of her head. “It’s not that we’re upset. It’s the fact that we don’t know why you’re doing it. You can eat our food, but the fact that you’re eating magic stones means that might not be enough. And there’s realistically no way for us to figure out unless you tell us why, since we can’t exactly take you to get a check-up.”
For as small and human-looking she was, since Wiene was a monster it was entirely possible that outside of the Dungeon she just wasn’t getting enough nutrition to stay healthy or some other reason. And, whether he liked to admit it or not, monsters killed and ate people. Wiene had killed other people, by her own admission.
She wasn’t in control of herself because they tried to take her gemstone, but she did kill them. And now that he had brought her to the surface, Bell couldn’t let her do that ever again. He likely couldn’t stop her if she started to be honest, given her draconic lineage made her far stronger, dexterous, and faster than him. But he would have to do something if she started attacking people, even if it meant paying the price for that with his life.
“…I might have to take her back to the Dungeon,” Bell decided, which sparked an immediate reaction as Wiene grabbed his shoulders and pressed her fingers in hard enough Bell felt it in his bones. “Wiene, gentle touches!”
Her fingers remained tense as she pressed her face against his chest and pleaded with him. “Don’t leave me! No more stones! Promise!”
“I’m not talking about abandoning you,” he said, wincing slightly as he navigated towards the altar and sat her down. “You could smell food in the Dungeon when you were on your way up, right? Yummy stuff other than magic stones?”
She nodded. “Mm-hmm.”
“Then we’ll go get some together and then come back home,” Bell explained before turning back to his goddess, whose brow was raised at that. “We can head there at night since no one typically has a reason to enter that late since the Exchange closes down. And chances are if we stay off the main paths we won’t be spotted.”
“Hmmm… it’s not ideal, but there’s not much of a choice, is there?” Hestia sighed softly. There just weren’t any reasonable alternatives either of them could provide considering the situation as it stood. “There’s always the risk of her being spotted as you’re traveling though…”
Hestia then turned to look the child up and down. She was taking in her size, in particular. “Well, I can think of one solution from a secondhand shop I visited a few times since I came down to the Lower World, but it might be a little bit of a squeeze…”
Wiene craned her head curiously at the statement in a manner that reminded Bell of a kitten.
Bell took a deep breath as he made it as far as the Sixth Floor of the Dungeon once more.
The trip down had been more stressful than he expected given that along the way there were still a few Adventurers hanging around. They were all Level Ones, nighthawks who had the idea to take advantage of the empty corridors to farm the top five levels overnight. Then when morning came, they would turn in their magic stones while the others were pouring in. Thanks to that, however, he didn’t have to fight as much on his way down.
“Hey, calm down,” Bell said in a hushed whisper as he steadied himself from the jerking motion of the backpack strapped onto his back. It was far larger than his normal one, but it looked worn and old and beaten up. “We’re not sure if someone else is still around, Wiene.”
“People smell above,” she whispered back. “Not here. Come out please?”
Bell hesitated for a moment before considering just how accurate her sense of smell was. He knew she could pick up the scent of monsters and people to a far greater degree than any other monster he personally knew of on the Upper Floors, and the Dungeon supposedly got far larger the deeper you went. If she was from the Middle Floors and could navigate her way up without being spotted by any other humans, she could be trusted on that front. “Okay, you can come out.”
He crouched down to keep himself stable as Wiene hurriedly forced open the top before climbing over his shoulders and landing on the ground next to him. She was covered in a tanned robe with rather ragged edges, small enough that she fit them rather well. They, along with the bag, were at the secondhand shop that Hestia knew on the surface, goods that had seen use by other Adventurers and were discarded… or scavenged from the deceased.
It wasn’t ideal and the robes were dingy, but they at least covered her body. And they were made with some of the other racial features, like pointed ears, in mind. Between that and a band covering her forehead jewel, as long as no one got close enough to get a good look at her face beneath the hood when it was up, she could just pass herself off as a Supporter.
Of course, Wiene immediately pulled back the hood to reveal her amber eyes that were folded inwards while her lips pursed into a small pout. “Clothes stink. Take off?”
Bell shook his head. The dragon child didn’t like clothes in particular, though she could at least be convinced to wear the dress Hestia had given her without too many complaints. But it was a hard rule that she had to remain covered up given that the moment her identity was compromised everything would be over. Their little family would end up being torn apart.
“We’ll wash them later,” Bell promised as he brought the hood back over her head. “But for now, be a good girl and keep it on for me. Do you smell anything you can eat?”
A low, disheartened noise escaped her throat before she tipped her head back. Her small nose wrinkled as she took sniffs of the air, gradually lowering her head as she fell onto a crouch. Then she looked off further to the right. “There. Below.”
He frowned. “Below here? You mean the Seventh Floor?”
She rose back to her feet and bobbed her head. “Food. Lots of food.”
Bell weighed the options. He had only gone as far down as the Sixth Floor and didn’t have a map of that floor. Their Familia was poor and the ones at the Guild were expensive in contrast, so he had instead taken to drawing his own until the incident before. But after what happened he did take the time to learn what was on it and the rest of the Upper Floors monster-wise.
There would be new threats there with Killer Ants and Purple Moths, the latter which had a hard exoskeleton and the former which could poison you if you were covered in its scales too much. It would be risky going down there. But Wiene said there was a lot of food there she could eat. That meant that what they were feeding her really hadn’t been enough.
To not go would be to make her starve, and that wasn’t he could stomach. “Okay. We’ll go get your food. But stay close to me.”
They pressed on along the main route of the floor. Since their goal was on the floor below, he didn’t need to be concerned with exploring any of the alternative routes. The faster they went, the faster it would end.
But as they reached a crossroad guided by the direction of the smell, Wiene came to a stop and held her hand out to stop Bell as well. “Monsters.”
Bell reached for the weapon sheathed on his hip, fingers wrapping around the leather grip as from behind the corner emerged the living shadows made manifest. Standing firm on two legs, with elongated arms that gave way to claws that existed to cut through flesh and bone of Adventurers, multiple War Shadows crept from the darkness to focus their singular eye that resembled an ominous star on the pair. He whirled around at the sound of walls giving birth, the stone womb expanding to deliver another group behind them, closing the kill box.
A knot formed in his throat as he took count. At least six on one side and four on the other, leaving them surrounded in the crossroads. If they killed one set and rushed off in a single direction without knowing where they were going, they could wind up being cornered like he had been the last time.
That was when the dragon child spoke. “Wiene will protect Bell.”
She had already found her way to his backside, as if she was intended to cover his entire body with her tiny frame. The sight of such a slender young girl getting ready to throw herself into battle to shield him was enough to make him feel a bit embarrassed. Even knowing she was more than capable of doing so.
“Thank you, Wiene,” Bell told her, the hiss of Far Eastern steel leaving its sheathe cutting the haunting silence of the War Shadows shambling towards them. “But I can’t let you get hurt while I sit back and watch again. Leave this side to me. Okay?”
Then there was no more time to talk as the murderous shadows descended upon them.
Stygian claws gleamed in the light lining the corridors’ greenish walls. Wicked points were aimed to tear the pair apart. Driven by the murderous impulse that seemed rooted within the minds of all monsters, they would find flesh and stain themselves the vivid color of crimson…
“RRWARRR!” A battle cry birthed from a small throat was followed by her claws, which had been meticulously trimmed down, lengthening once more. She lashed out in a surge of aggression, leaving three severed torsos to be sent sailing in the air by the draconic claws in a single lunge.
Landing on all fours, her nails scraped through the solid stone of the ground as she turned her head towards the gazing orbs. It revealed a feral visage that consisted of amber iris, shrunken and slitted. Snarling, she pounced towards the first monster that had the malice to step forward and raked through its torso from shoulder to hip. Then, plowing through the corpse to get to the next War Shadow, the dragon child brought her other arm around to its head with such brutality it was like fruit bursting open after being smashed with a hammer, sending violet ichor splashing about as she continued her assault.
“HAAH!” A limb was severed as steel flashed with an audible ki-ai as a gray streak marked an arch. Dark clothes slipped through the opening created in the formation, allowing Bell to break through the enclosing wall of claws.
In contrast to Wiene’s wild swings that made use of her raw strength as a Level Two monster to tear them apart in a single stroke, Bell’s swings of his sword were more fluid and numerous by necessity. The razor-sharp edge of the blade was his protection and his weapon all at once, as a diagonal arch severed a claw that reached for him as he slid his front foot forward and then pivoted the handle of the sword along with his body. Defense into offense, he then lashed out with the chambered arm and drew a line through where the rib cage would be as the sharpened point cut roughly halfway through its mass before passing out the opposite end.
He had no time to pay attention to the entire body disintegrating into ash as the small magic stone that sustained it was sliced out in passing, Instead, he readjusted his footing and used the blade to catch two violet streaks that came for him. Sparks blossomed and slight tremors ran up his arm where the attacks were intercepted, but then he used his left hand at the bottom of the handle to reorient the blade and swung down while adjusting his footing to add to the motion.
The shadow split open, a diagonal parting of flesh that ran down the torso until it met where the stomach would be before he slid backward and maintained his stance as the blade came free. It proved to be the right call as the flashing of stygian claws tore through the corpse in an attempt to cut him down, the remaining War Shadow’s attempt met with a thrust of the point that pierced through the ominous orb that served as its eye. Bell then tore it free upwards, leaving it to fall while he stood ready for the next assault.
None came as Wiene finished wrenching free her tiny hand from the gaping hole she tore through one before it turned to ashes. She looked around, her ears twitching, before turning back to Bell with a childish smile being while being drenched in monster blood. “Wiene protected Bell!”
“… That’s right,” Bell told her after a slight pause as he remembered to breathe, filling his lungs not to expand his chest outwards but letting it flow into his diaphragm like he’d seen Chigusa do. He didn’t know if it would merit results as it did for her, but it couldn’t hurt. Then he reached over and used the hem of his jacket to wipe her face clean before patting her head. “There will be more ahead, so we’ll need to be careful. And if you hear any people around, let me know immediately.”
She nodded enthusiastically at the affection. “Promise!”
And with that, the two ventured deeper into the Dungeon.
“Welcome home, you two,” said a soft, slightly tired voice the moment they stepped through the entrance of the Abandoned Church they called home just before the crack of dawn. Thanks to it being located in the slums and off the main streets, they managed to avoid any prying eyes as they emerged from the Dungeon shortly ago after venturing to the Seventh Floor.
“Goddess, did you wait up for us all this time?” Bell asked, naturally concerned given the time she normally woke for work. She would have been up for nearly a full day at this point. “What about your job?”
“What mother wouldn’t wait up for her children with concern when they were going back to a place they had so much trouble in before?” Hestia said, rubbing one of her eyes. “I sent word to my boss to say I won’t make it today. Did you find food for Wiene?”
“Lots and lots,” Wiene said cheerfully as she skipped forward, clad in clothes that were awash in various hues of monster blood and purple powder. “All full now!”
“Wiene, take off your clothes first. We don’t want any of that to get on Goddess—” She was already stripping before he started the second sentence, leaving him to avert his eyes as he shifted topics as well. “There’s a place called a Pantry on the Seventh Floor that had something coming out of the crystal pillar there. I packed as much as I could in some bottles, and she drank from the pool until she was full. So we should be good for a little while.”
He neglected to mention she had also eaten Poison Moths that had been trying to cover her in the purple powder. She largely seemed to have shrugged it off and simply settled for snatching them out of the air before eating them. The texture was crunchy, according to her.
Again, he chalked it up to her being a Level Two monster from the dragon family.
“That’s great, but now you both need a bath,” Hestia said as she caught Wiene who rushed up to hug her affectionately. She had clearly missed the Goddess of the Hearth, and the feeling was reciprocated as Hestia gently brushed her head. “I’ll take her with me first and then you can come in afterward.”
“Watch your nails, Wiene,” he said as they went down to the bathroom to wash up while he took to dealing with the other tasks that needed sorting out. He needed to clean his blade, their clothes needed to be set aside so they could be washed, the food for her preserved, and the drop items from the various things that had tried to kill them sorted out to be taken to the Exchange in the afternoon.
By the time he’d finished and gotten to take his bath, Bell felt tired and wanted nothing more to get to sleep. But before he could hit the couch, Wiene grabbed his hands and pulled him into bed with them. She wanted them to sleep together.
He felt obligated to try to say it wasn’t appropriate, but his Goddess insisted that they just do it so they could all get a good night’s rest as a family. So he laid on the bed with the dragon child between them, her nails chewed down somewhat hastily by her at some point while they were bathing to prevent her from hurting them by mistake. She fell asleep rather quickly, a content smile on her face.
“It’s hard to believe she’s a monster when she’s like this, isn’t it?” Hestia whispered.
“Yeah,” Bell agreed, even as her brutality flashed in his mind. Those same tiny hands and slender arms that crushed the head of a Needle Rabbit like it was nothing were balled into her chest as she breathed softly. “Goddess, are you really okay with this?”
“Yes,” Hestia told him without reservation. They both knew the risks of what they were doing, but to her it didn’t even register as a problem anymore. “Even if it might be a little weird, I’m happy to have a family like this after being alone for so long. I think that maybe it was fate that we all found each other, don’t you?”
A Goddess rejected by child after child for not being able to provide stability with so little to her name.
A boy left without a home after arriving, unable to fulfill his dream.
A child with the world and everything in it against her.
It was a thread of loneliness that bound them together like the Red String of Fate. It connected Hestia to Bell when she took him in, a mother finding a son to treasure. It connected Bell to Wiene when she rescued him, a little sister looking for a brother in this uncaring world. And it connected Wiene to Hestia, a daughter that only a divine being whose very nature was the warmth of a hearth found in a home could accept without hesitation.
It was a thread that was thick and grew thicker with each passing day. But as it was now, something could easily sever it from the outside. And he couldn’t keep relying on her to protect him all the time, putting herself at risk.
He had to get stronger with what he could.
He had to protect his little family.
Chapter 11: Declaration of War
“Despite his body being so thin and his clothes fine, the Human boy with white hair and eyes the color of rubies strained and struggled with a pole to lift the rubble off of me. It was just enough that I could crawl out from below, away from where my mother and father’s bodies remained. He told me not to look at them as we ran away.
In the end, we managed to escape. But I had lost everything. I was angry, confused, and sad, crying on my knees as I asked him why we saved a Half-Man like me while touching my ears. They were proof that I didn’t belong to either race, a pitiful half-breed.
He only smiled as she leaned down and touched them tenderly and said, ‘I like your ears. They remind me of butterflies atop a sunflower.’
His words that day saved me.
He became my hero.
—The Boy with White Hair and Red Eyes
Bell’s ears rattled as a battle cry shook the air as the Captain of the Takemikazuchi Familia fearlessly rushed ahead into the vanguard position with a battleax in his grasp.
Throwing himself towards two Adventurers that had been rushing towards them, he reared the large steel weapon backward before stomping down and pivoting. The battleax came around, a silver streak running from right-to-left with the sound of wrenching steel ringing out as it met with the first—a man with a shield in one hand and sword in the other.
Overpowered. The massive ax bit into the bulwark of steel and tore it apart before biting into the breastplate of the Human and sending sparks into the air as the body behind it was thrown alongside the momentum of it. The body hit the stonewall and crumpled in on itself.
Then it came around again, from left-to-right. This time it on the opposing side was a burlier Dwarf, who had dared to oppose him with a Warhammer. The sound of steel ringing against steel sounded out as the two met, but with a flex of his muscles, he pushed through before spinning around and then swinging the ax anew and tearing a bloody gash across the Dwarf’s chest as the man barreled away with his chainmail’s rings scattered as two more were ready to take their place, advancing towards their vanguard with a dagger and longsword.
Purple rushed in from their side.
It was Mikoto with a spear in her grasp as she sped past Ouka and met them before they could breach the frontline. She thrust the spear forward, driving the sharp point into the shoulder blade of her assailant to the point where the tip could be seen, and a scream rang out along with the sound of clattering steel as his longsword fell onto the ground before she jerked the point out and then tucked the haft under her arm as she brought the rear-end of the polearm around. It met with the side of his face and his body followed it to the ground.
Then she pivoted around on her front leg to avoid the point of a dagger heading to her face, snatching the outstretched arm. With a fluid motion, she raised her knee while jerking the arm out and downward. The scream that followed a sickening crunch was even louder than the one prior as the assailant fell to his knees, clutching the broken arm before her foot came up and silenced him.
Further back was a trio of marksmen. A least one was a Pallum with a wrist-crossbow, alongside a Hume Bunny and Human armed with crossbows. They were using boxes and signs for half-cover as they took aim at the group.
“Firebolt!” Bell shouted. They were within the range of his spell and the building they were hiding near was made of brick, which meant it didn’t have as much of a chance of catching aflame. A searing bolt sailed from his outstretched hand, shooting towards the obstruction while searing the air along the way.
The Pallum rolled from his cover before the spell connected, erupting into flames that hungrily swallowed the box and sign while lapping at the two who remained in place and were now screaming as they fell to the ground and rolled around to extinguish the flames. Getting up, the Pallum pulled back and readied to loose the bolt when an arrow caught his shoulder and pierced through with enough force that it pinned him to the wall—his Status was low apparently.
“Nice shot, Chigusa!” Ouka called out, sparing a glance back towards the girl with her eyes obstructed by her bangs with only a slight parting in the curtain to reveal the dark-green hue.
She was running alongside another member of their Familia who carried with them a large shield that would require two hands to use, meant to protect Miach and Hestia from any stray shots as Bell and the Half-Elf Mage ran just slightly ahead of them. There was a bow in her hands, an arrow already nocked as she called out to him. “Ahead!”
He looked up to see that there were even more on the way, a wave of men with disheveled or disorderly appearances rather than any set uniform. There were at least ten of them, some smarter than others in that they had shields out with the intention of blocking any arrows heading their way. They were going to try to use their numbers to overrun them.
“—arrow of accuracy! Arcs Ray!” Lefiya finished casting, magic circle beneath her shedding light as her staff was held out and gave birth to a beam of gold. The aurous flash shot out and sped towards the onrushing men whose faces were illuminated by its radiance before the beam curved downwards slightly and hit the ground, rupturing. Smoke obscured the pathway for a moment as broken bits of stone rained down, pattering against the walls and rooftops while the bodies that had been thrown astray by the blast were either scattered over the street, slouched against the wall, or half-buried into the boxes that caught them as the force sent them out of the way.
They ran right past them.
“These aren’t the same men who were chasing you,” his sister said, looking towards him as they continued to move. “They’re weaker.”
“I think there’s another Familia with them!” Bell said. “I saw a Wine Glass and Crescent Moon on one of them a while back!”
Recognition flashed on Miach’s face at that. “That would be the emblem of the Soma Familia. I didn’t think he would be the kind to get involved in this sort of affair, given the trouble it would bring.”
Bell didn’t know much about the God in question, but he had already had a run- in with the Soma Familia. They had attempted to kill one of their own down in the Dungeon, a death by feeding her to monsters after robbing her blind. To her, it had been preferable for them to think she had been dead rather than going back afterward.
He gritted his teeth when he realized that must’ve been what he had seen the night of the dance when he spotted Hyacinthus beforehand. They had been making arrangements to capture him from even before she had refused the War Game. Now they were in the opposite direction of the Guild, pushed closer to the western edge of the city, as the others had told him and Hestia once they regrouped.
If not for the others coming to their aid they would have been caught by now.
But now that they had time, they had options. The first was that they made it to the Guild. The guard would be heaviest along the way, but they wouldn’t dare attack them once they were close enough. It was the best scenario.
Another alternative was simply to keep moving until the Ganesha Familia got involved. They were the acting peacekeepers and had the largest number of Familia members. Apollo couldn’t match that, and considering they were disturbing the public they would all be brought in for it—they’d likely get into some trouble, but Apollo couldn’t touch them while they were in custody.
“Some more people are coming!” Lefiya called out. Her perception was already higher than his from her race, even before the fact that she was at a Higher Level. “Upcoming right turn. But it sounds like they’re fighting amongst themselves!”
They readied themselves for an ambush only for a larger man to come flying out of the alleyway and into the wall opposite of it. Then another figure emerged, a familiar one dressed in black and with hair as red as flames. “Welf!”
His head whipped around as he saw the advancing party, right before Lili emerged from where he had been and flung out a pouch into the alley and shouted, “Morbol, out!”
“Breathe through your mouth!” Miach warned before she used her Little Ballista to fire a bolt afterwards. Then a plume of sickly-looking green powder billowed up and a foul smell promptly filled the alleyway, washing over them. The screams coming from the alleyway were plentiful.
They kept advancing as the other two joined the group, with Lili taking another one of the pouches out. This one she tossed behind them, ensuring the path they’d taken was obstructed by the same powder. Anyone going through there would be overtaken by the smell, especially anyone with a heightened sense of smell.
His sister included. “I…I think I’m going to be sick…”
“Weren’t you with the Loki Familia?” Welf asked, a brow raised as he combed his memory. She was among those who had been in the tent when his heritage had been discussed.
“Less talk, more running please!” she insisted, one hand covering her mouth and nose. Then her ears twitched. “I hear clamoring over the rooftops!”
“Nahza must have run out of arrows then,” Miach said, which was the optimistic explanation. Because she was acting as a sniper, the rooftops had largely been off-limits unless they wanted to get an arrow. That forced them to use the streets and architecture, funneling them to where they could manage either via Magic or force due to how weak the Soma Familia had been. “That means at least a hundred-and-fifty or more.”
“If they get archers and casters over the rooftops we’ll be boxed into a losing battle!” Ouka shouted, reaching into his belt and pulling out two eastern-made daggers, sheathes and all. He then tossed them behind himself. “Mikoto, take care of our left!”
“Understood.” She stabbed the spear into the ground, leaving it for them to collect as she caught the pair. Then she crouched before springing up high into the air, the leg strength of a Level Two carrying her onto the rooftops composing the left side. Her hand briefly came to her waist where there were throwing spikes before she flung them forward and screaming could be heard.
“Look after Goddess, please!” Bell said as he drew his adamantite dagger in his offhand and copied the motion to jump onto the right rooftops to go ahead. He heard his sister tell him to stay where she could see him as he spotted the approaching enemies. These were dressed in the outfit of the Apollo Familia, in contrast to the ones before, meaning Level Two was the norm.
He kicked off the rooftop towards the first of them, an Elven Archer, with his knives. A violet streak tore through the air in a diagonal as he brought the Hestia Knife around to cut through the body of a recurve bow made of some kind of darkwood. Then he allowed the momentum to carry him through so that he could drive his elbow into the face of the Elf hard enough that he could feel the bone crunch beneath the blow even before his head shot backwards until it hit the rooftop—ripping his consciousness away from him.
That one down, Bell advanced on what looked to be a caster with a wand. There was the tingle of Magic in the air, but the difference in speed was enough that he managed to close the distance before they could finish the trigger and then drive his knuckles, wrapped around the handle of the knife, into their face. They went towards the edge of the roof and then over.
He then turned to the right where he spotted more of them on a stone rooftop, meaning nothing was stopping him from using his flames. He had to be conservative since they were in a residential area where wood was among the most common building material. They were already causing enough problems as it was. “Firebolt!”
Blazing fire ran like a lightning bolt as it lanced towards the three. The thick beam swept them up within the flames. They screamed as the fire washed over them, much as those before, curling up and trying to extinguish the burning.
There were others. But they immediately abandoned the rooftop the moment his eyes fell onto him. They dropped below, not wanting to end up on the wrong end of the spell or maybe they were attempting to bait him into following—which he wouldn’t take.
His surroundings immediately cleared, he looked over to see Mikoto at work. She was like liquid as she moved forward, the two blades in her grasp drawing silver arcs in the air as they parted wood, cloth, and flesh. Blood had stained her purple outfit but she didn’t seem to mind as she cut into limbs, targeting tendons where she could or settling for a target that would make it impossible for them to chase until they received medical attention.
Takemikazuchi was a God of War and it showed in his children when one particularly large Weretiger approached her with a sword in his hand, already in motion. She stepped into the assault, raising her left arm and keeping it forward so that the attacking limb was outside of her body while the sharp end of her tanto buried itself into the shoulder of the man attacking her. Then she twisted her body and brought the crook of her right arm around while her foot hooked his.
He was thrown headfirst into the rooftop and Bell could see he had broken through the ceiling from above with no sign he was still conscious as she pressed ahead without pause. An arrow came her way, but she deflected it with a swipe and then moved in serpentine motions. The archer cried out as one found his wrist tendon and the other found his bow, both severed.
…Bell hated all of this as he saw the injured and bleeding bodies that were being left behind. He didn’t like hurting people. He had wanted to be a hero. Not someone fighting a desperate struggle to keep his Goddess out of the hands of a God that lusted after him with such zeal that he would throw an entire section of the Labyrinth City into chaos.
The Magic he received when he envisioned it as something meant to slay monsters and turn the tide of a battle was instead being used to harm others listening to that God, obeying the rule that a child could not disobey the one they swore allegiances to.
He had gotten lucky after all that Hestia had been the one to find him.
Then there was the fact that they were disrupting the lives of the people living here with the fighting. Those able to run would have evacuated by now, hoping that their homes would still be whole when everything was said and done. Those unable to get away were likely holed up in their homes and praying that the fighting would pass without harm.
The loss of a home was something he could very much relate to at the moment.
“…Ahh…” Then a breath escaped him as he realized something at that moment. Where was Hyacinthus?
The Captain of the Apollo Familia should be getting involved about now. They hadn’t taken out Cassandra, which meant she could heal his wounds and get him back into the fight. Even if her Mind was stretched to the point of nearing collapse, they would prioritize him because he was the most powerful asset they had.
Bell wasn’t a threat to him. That display from before had been meant to demonstrate that. Hyacinthus wanted him to know he could take him out at any time due to the discrepancy in their Levels, and everyone watching knew it as well. No Level Two present here would match him in raw Status, even if the Takemikazuchi Familia were skilled in combat.
So he would go after the target who presented the biggest threat. The one that the other Level Twos couldn’t manage and thus they couldn’t use their numbers or tactics. The Level Three among them that had damaged his pride and stood in his way—his sister.
Lefiya was the highest Level among them. Even holding back, she could clear out swathes of the Level Ones and Level Twos without any problems so long as they didn’t surround her. If not for the fact that they were in a populated city, he suspected even that wouldn’t be a problem with a wide area of effect spell.
That made her the biggest factor in how the battle party progressed. Removing her first would be the highest priority, even if she hadn’t been the one who had injured him and forced him to retreat. Her falling meant that numbers could simply overrun them before the Ganesha Familia intervened.
That realization sent Bell into higher alert as he spanned the roadway below in search of him. If he went by rooftop then they would see him coming, but if he took the alleyways then he could get the drop on them. An ambush would guarantee that he could remove her.
Where is he? Back and forth his eyes ran until he spotted red. Hyacinthus had just emerged from around a corner with his blade drawn, gaze fixed onto Lefiya. Bell voice rang out. “Behind you!”
The next thing he knew his sister was pivoting while her face contorted in pain. Blood spilled onto the brick-laden road as her sleeve sported a wide gash in it around her upper arm. Whether it had been the warning, or she had heard it coming, if she hadn’t turned when she did that would have carved across her back from neck-to-hip.
But there was no time for rest.
Hyacinthus immediately began to follow through with the attack, angling the outstretched blade and then swinging it back the way it came in a single motion to run the sharp point across her chest. It only cut through the outer section of her coat as she bound backward on the leg that had supported her weight, putting distance between them. He stepped forward to close that distance with raw fury in his eyes.
Bell was already in the process of moving when he felt something on his back. Instinct screamed. He brought his Hestia Knife around in time for the ringing of steel to echo and sparks to scrape where it met with a blade that had been aiming for his tendons. “Miss Daphne!?”
The woman who had been commanding a portion of Apollo’s forces had come to face him herself. There was a shroud of some kind wreathing her in what he could only assume was some kind of enchantment spell. “You’ve caused enough problems! Just surrender!”
He didn’t have time for this. Bell pushed his strength into his Goddess bequeathed knife to parry the blade and then brought the other dagger around only for it to be intercepted by her own steel. Then she brushed it off and slammed the pommel towards his face. He barely managed to get his wrist up to deflect her underarm before stepping backwards.
She crossed the distance just as quickly and thrust the point of her sword towards him. Crimson sang as the adamantite dagger managed to parry it as he pivoted on his forward leg. Then he carried through the motion and attempted to deliver a kick with his hind leg only for her to skirt backward enough to avoid. Did her Agility increase?
“You’re making it worse for everyone!” Daphne continued, thrusting her blade and scoring grazing cuts between every five or six thrusts that tore into his shirt and flesh. “Cassandra and I tried running! We tried asking for help! Everywhere we ran he found us! Everyone we asked for help suffered for it! What do you think will happen to those people down there even if you get away!?”
He didn’t want to think about it as a whistle rang out. He couldn’t think about it as amidst the sparks he had to focus on that blade. But, at the moment that he thought he parried the blade and found an opening to strike back, a violet arch cut through where she had been before he felt his legs being taken from him. She had ducked down and swept his legs from beneath, leaving him on his back on the rooftop. “Ghhh!!”
She pressed her foot down on his chest and held the blade in his face before he could get up. “He’ll burn their homes down just as he did yours. He’ll take them captive whether here or the Dungeon and use them to get to you. You’re going to join us one way or another, so just… stop.”
There was an almost pleading tone in her voice as she glared down at him, his chest rising and falling even though her heel was pressing down into his chest hard enough to keep him pinned there. There was sincerity in her tone. To fight was meaningless. To struggle was to hurt everyone around them.
Then he heard the pained cry of his sister and his eyes gazed towards her.
She was holding her arm that was bleeding. Her clothes sported new tears from which her Elven blood ran. Her face was bruised, lip split, and blood trailing down from the corner of her mouth. Even so, her lips moved as she tried to keep singing. “You are the master—”
Hyacinthus moved to cut her down with a vicious slash that she avoided with footwork. Bell couldn’t quite explain how, but it seemed like her movements had shifted just a little bit. He didn’t know her Status, but it seemed that she could avoid his blade as long as she focused on evasion. “—archer. Loose your arrows—urk!”
Her lovely singing voice was silenced when his foot came up, a thrust like a lance that drove his heel into her stomach to interrupt her chant. She could avoid his sword if she focused on it alone, but that left her open to his other avenues of attack. Because if she didn’t focus solely on the blade then it could get her killed, which he recognized as her eyes never left his sword as she barely managed to avoid the next swing.
But then her legs gave out. She fell onto her knees and a breath escaped, carrying with it bile and blood. “Cough! Cough!”
Welf was holding off another group of Soma Familia members. Ouka was the same with some members of the Apollo Familia. Chigusa and Asuka were keeping guard of the two divines, their backs to the wall and the shield keeping them safe. Lili was standing on a box, talking with the same silver-haired man from the party with a look of hopelessness in her eyes.
No one would help her. No one could help her.
Thunder rumbled in his chest.
He gave into it as he twisted his body, accepting the point of Daphne’s blade carving a blood trail on his cheek as he raised the Hestia Knife up. The writing of the gods once more turned an angry hue of red as he shouted, “FIREBOLT!”
The scarlet slash of flames birthed an explosion that rattled the rooftop as it swallowed the woman, sending her flying from the force of it. Freed of her grasp, he got to his feet and shot himself at Hyacinthus without a moment’s hesitation. “RAAAHHHHHH!!”
Hyacinthus barely gave him a side-glance. Then there was a crimson streak as the blade with the providence of the sun found his flesh once more. Bell hit the ground in a tumble, sporting a new gash across his chest, his voice spilling out pathetically as he heard others calling out to him.
The Captain of the Apollo Familia then turned his gaze back on Lefiya and leveled the sword to her head. Her azure eyes glared at the man with the look of murder in them. He scowled at the sight. “Another unsightly face.”
He moved to thrust the sword—
“You look like shit.”
—and then he froze. Not by choice. But because his wrist was within the grasp of a newcomer that appeared on the field, an unyielding steel grip that offered no movement.
None of them saw him coming. None of them saw when he arrived. One moment the sword was getting ready to put an end to things. The next he was between them, his back to the Captain of the Apollo Familia while looking down on the Half-Elven Mage.
“Mist..er…Be…te…” Bell heard her say from his position on the ground as Hestia hurried over with a potion in hand. “…W-Wh…”
The Werewolf cast his gaze downwards as though he was looking down on something filthy lying on the road. “Pathetic. You came to help out this weakling and ended up in this state. I can only imagine the look that girlfriend of yours would have if she saw you like this.”
His cold words were followed by a loud, audible crunch as he tightened his grasp on Hyacinthus’ wrist. A scream followed. Steel clattered to the ground. He let go of the man before using that same hand to grab her by the shoulder and pick her up onto her feet.
“Captain ordered me to bring you back to face punishment for getting us involved in this mess.”
He didn’t offer her a chance to refuse. Bell didn’t even see his other hand move, but all of a sudden his sister’s eyes rolled to the back of her head and she slouched in his grasp. Her staff fell from her grip and into that hand before he tucked her under his other shoulder.
Then he began to walk away.
Bell managed to find the ability to speak. “W-Wait!”
He stopped. Then the air turned hostile. It was a heavy atmosphere, like being trapped in a cage with a vicious wolf ready to rip and tear the next person who moved apart. No one dared to.
Hatred threaded his words. “If you’d just have grown some damn fangs and tore out their throats when they issued that challenge then I wouldn’t have to do shit like this. Don’t let me see you again, you damn rabbit.”
Bell couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. Not until the man disappeared as readily as he arrived. Only then could he gnash his teeth together so hard he thought they would break.
His sister was gone.
Then there was a light that rose into the air and then erupted with a shower of colors. It was a Flare Gun. Movement happened as the members of the Soma Familia began to disengage and run.
“Lili!” Welf called out. Bell turned to see that she was going with the silver-haired man from before. There were tears in her eyes as she looked back towards him.
Then she was gone as well.
“Hyacinthus!” Miss Daphne called out next as the confusion that had settled over the battlefield began to wane. “The Ganesha Familia is on the way!”
“Bastard took the distraction with him!” Hyacinthus exclaimed. Then it made sense why the Ganesha Familia hadn’t been there despite the commotion causing problems for the public. They had numbers and used it to cause distractions elsewhere—even if they were caught and fined, the Apollo Familia could pay it.
Then, with his handsome face contorted in pain and beads of sweat lining his brow, his gaze fell onto Hestia and Bell. “Capture them!”
The remaining members of the Apollo Familia began to move in when the smoke erupted around them, a thick and colored plume that obstructed their vision. Bell fell something grab him and heard his Goddess squeak in surprise as the wind suddenly howled in their ears.
They were flying. “My apologies for the delay.”
Bell recognized her. “Miss Asfi… why are you…”
“Lord Hermes saw the commotion and sent me to retrieve you,” she said bluntly by way of an explanation. “He told me to drop you off wherever you wanted, whether it be in the city or outside of it.”
In other words, it was a chance to go wherever they wanted. If they wanted shelter, they could be dropped off at the Guild. If they wanted to leave Orario and run away, they could be dropped off past the gates. The wings of Perseus would carry them to wherever their hearts desired.
The look of his Goddess as she stared down at his defeated form. The vision of his sister’s battered form being carried away. The look in Lili’s eyes as she departed. The faces of his friends who had come to his aid without a moment’s hesitation when he was in trouble.
Shame. Hatred. Misery. These emotions roiled in his chest along with the thunder and became a violent storm that raged within him as everything was taken from him. His home. His friends. His family.
No more running.
“I understand, Bell.” Three words, spoken instantly with the softest and caring tone his Goddess had spoken in some time as her eyes met his. An unspoken message carried between them. Then she looked up to their savior and gave her instructions. “Take us to Apollo’s Manor.”
It was time to declare war.
Lefiya Viridis emerged from the office with her head hung low now that she had returned to the Twilight Manor.
She had been reprimanded for her actions by the Captain, due to getting involved in a scuffle between two Familia (or three considering the Soma Familia present as well). As a member of the Loki Familia, and the student of the Nine Hells, her actions represented them as a whole. Taking a side would basically be stating that whatever actions they took were endorsed by the Loki Familia as a whole, which was something that wasn’t acceptable—especially not at the moment.
They knew she knew that as well, so she had been asked why she still got involved despite that.
For the second time, she weighed the option of whether to just tell them the truth. That he was her brother, and she was defending him. It would not have been a full justification or even a solid excuse from the perspective of a Familia, but it would have justified her actions on a personal level better than anything else.
All it would cost was Bell’s attachment to his current Familia.
Like she had told him before, it was a conflict of interest having family in different Familia within Orario. Her actions today had all but proven that when she came to his defense. He could be used against them and so the only available options would be to either completely cut ties with him or bring him into the fold.
Lefiya had already tried the former. And she realized how bitter the taste of regret was the moment that she watched him nearly die because of her. She refused to ever do that again.
And the latter would involve a Conversion between the Hestia Familia and the Loki Familia. He wasn’t lacking in terms of Level, but the knowledge and experience that could be provided given he had been in the city for at best two months. She knew that some of the stronger members liked him, so he would probably be welcomed a bit warmly by them as well.
But she recalled the expression that he made when she propositioned him the first time. She recalled his words when she offered a chance for them to be family openly and without worry. He had all but said it then:
“Lady Hestia has become family to me as well. I can’t abandon her.”
Bell wouldn’t abandon her. Not when he had lost the home they shared. Not when someone else tried to take them from one another. Losing her first and only child would disband her Familia and leave her with absolutely nothing.
And Lefiya didn’t want to do that to either of them. Not to her brother who found someone else he could call family when she wouldn’t. Not when that Goddess had shown him nothing but concern even when it would have been easier to give him up.
But if she told the others then the decision would be taken out of their hands because he was that big of a liability. The Loki Familia was a lot more of a threat than the Apollo Familia ever could be. If they really wanted Bell to close a security risk, they would get him on the Captain’s orders—and she would be the perfect justification for doing that.
Their relationship being anonymous was the only reason things could be the way they were now. But that also meant that she could only protect him with her own strength instead of that of her Familia. And her strength had been found… lacking.
That man had been faster than her. They might have been the same Level, but she was a dedicated Mage from the time she gained her Falna and had focused on that since then. Her Status was catered to that end and the invisible base that made it up was focused on what made her a powerful caster.
The moment she entered into the melee range of someone on the same Level and had been focused on growing as a frontline fighter, she was in trouble.
She noticed a presence in the hallway and looked up. Her lips pulled back into a frown as she met the gaze of Bete. He was leaning against a wall casually with his hands behind his head.
“Don’t give me that look,” he said before straightening himself up. “You were too weak and ended up on your knees in front of an enemy because you were trying to protect that rabbit. You’re lucky that you only got off with a warning because you were a good girl before you got involved with him. Don’t push your luck.”
His warning given, Bete began to walk off.
Her fingers curled around her skirt. She gritted her teeth as she struggled to form words. But what could she say when he wasn’t wrong?
As much as she hated it, he wasn’t wrong.
Time and again the others had defended her whenever he called her a weakling. Whether it was when she botched the spell or when he compared her to Filvis being able to fight on the frontlines as a vanguard. Those words had comforted her, but he wasn’t wrong.
And she knew that. It was the reason she had practiced hard to learn Concurrent Chanting with Filvis. It was the reason she pushed herself to try to get a step closer to people on his Level. Yet, no sooner than she thought she was making progress, it had been proven to herself that it hadn’t been enough.
The moment she tried to protect her brother on her own she had failed.
She had been forced to kneel. She had been forced to watch as her brother once more got injured trying to protect her. She had been forced to watch as he laid on the ground bleeding in front of her, unable to move or speak.
There were no words to encompass what she felt at that moment.
That was when another person approached her after he turned the corner and vanished from view. It was a girl with long, black hair that was braided into a tail and crowned with a headband. She had hazel eyes that were partially obscured by the glare of the light reflected in the lenses as she approached with a staff in her hands.
“Umm… don’t take what Mister Bete said the wrong way,” said the girl softly. “I think that’s just his way of saying he cares.”
“Could have fooled me, Leene.”
Leene Arshe was a Level Two who doubled roles as a Supporter and Healer in the Dungeon. Apparently, Bete had brought Lefiya straight to Leene and told her to make the Half-Elf look presentable before she was brought before the others. Though she was a Level Two, she possessed the Treatment Development Ability on top of some potent healing magic. She was able to deal with the worst of the wounds before Lefiya had been brought to Lady Riveria and the others, though she still felt a little sore.
The apparently part was because she had only regained consciousness later.
“Still, it’s amazing you were able to keep up with the Captain of the Apollo Familia and take so few injuries,” Leene said, trying to salve her wounded pride. “I heard he led the Quest against the Goliath that earned them their D-Rank with the Guild.”
It only damaged it further because the only reason she hadn’t been cut down after that first slash was due to what happened. Despite the situation and the pain, a sense of calm had washed over her as something that felt like a flame burned in the lower back of her Status. Then, all of a sudden, his motions became more manageable… just enough for her to keep up with his sword if she focused on it, even while Concurrent Casting.
She could only guess that it was due to her Skill: Vow of Elcos.
It was a situational Skill that raised her attributes when working in tandem with certain individuals. She thought it had something to do with her Familia, but the name of Elcos belonged to a kingdom that had vanished long before the Age of the Gods. Fina had lived there with her family before fleeing the kingdom as it fell to the monsters with another boy.
His name was Argonaut.
But what did that have to do with Bell? She ruminated on silently until Tiona came running into the hallway. She knew the Amazonian called him by that same name, but she hadn’t really been focusing on that at the time. Her biggest concern had been the fact that her brother had been fighting a Minotaur when he was Level One.
And then she learned he went and picked a fight with an entire Familia when Tiona shouted, “Little Argonaut went and declared a War Game against the Apollo Familia!”
Chapter 11: Banquet of the Gods
Bell Cranel was on the move the next afternoon, on his way down the Main Street to the tower of Babel at a somewhat sluggish pace. Last night he’d had some trouble sleeping after taking a shower. And he had spent an hour beforehand settling potential issues over what happened in the Hostess of Fertility before heading to the Guild.
Keeping with his promise, he first went to apologize to Syr over the mishap that happened last night. He made it clear that his departure was because he had been uncomfortable with the Loki Familia due to an embarrassing event in the Dungeon. She didn’t really press him on the finer details, which was something that he was grateful for given that he didn’t want to lie to her, though she did manage to worm him into having brunch there.
The menu changed during the day, though the food remained very good. It was also more accommodating to his wallet, probably because it was catered to a more casual customer base then. Adventurers were the primary source of income in Orario, so they had the highest earning margins next to the ones who ran larger Familias and exported magic stones. He would have to take Hestia there some time.
After that was the matter of visiting Miss Eina at the Guild to ask about any places where he could buy armor today. When he brought up what his budget was like now that he had paid off his Guild-loaned equipment yesterday, Eina told him of a reasonably priced shop that was on the upper floors of Babel. She’d even given him written instructions to make sure he didn’t get lost by accident.
Going straight down West Main soon brought him into the Central Park, where Adventurers were coming and going. It was a nice day that was the same as usual for Orario as far as he could tell in the time he had been there, such a tight yet bustling feeling. The sensation of life and open movement all around him was a strong contrast to the coffin and blood-encrusted streets of Yharnam at night, where only the beasts that stalked the shadows lurked.
The memory of the Hunt stilled his feet as it briefly floated to the surface of his mind. But he shook his head vigorously, slapping his cheeks and letting the sting bury the memories once more. He wasn’t going back there.
I’m going to continue on my life as an Adventurer, not a Hunter. Resolve in mind, he was about to take another step forward—
“Move it you lousy Supporter! We’re running late!”
—when he heard someone commanding someone else to move just barely above the rabble of the Adventurers around him. He turned to the source of the sound to see a male adventurer, one in a party of four, complaining about being late to enter the Dungeon to a small figure that was dressed in a plain robe that looked ragged at the edges.
He couldn’t make out the person’s face to determine their race or gender, but they looked so tiny that they could’ve been a child. Yet, the backpack they were carrying looked to be the size of a person, thrice their height. It must’ve weighed a lot for them, even if it was empty. But their party was telling them to move faster as they forced their way past the other Adventurers into Babel.
Since their destination was the same, Bell could only follow in their footsteps into Babel until they mixed into the crowd that was heading down to the basement floor. That would take them to the spiraling staircase leading into the gaping maw of the abyss below. Into the Dungeon.
He went the other way, towards the wide lobby that was past one of the many arches that surrounded it. The blue-and-white, expansive floor never failed to impress him as he entered it, and it was there he found what he was looking for as a rough looking man stepped onto a circular pedestal and pressed a button on what looked to be a console. Glass rose up to wall him off from the rest of the lobby and he ascended on the elevator that Eina had mentioned in her instructions.
Bell approached one of the pedestals himself, intrigued as he tried to work out how it could function. He wasn’t all that accustomed to the conveniences of Orario compared to his village, but given it was the source of a good deal of the magic stones in the world he could reason out they had more chances to develop devices like this. Bell pushed the button to activate it and felt gravity being defied beneath his feet as he ascended the heights of Babel for the first time.
This is pretty cool, he mused silently as he pushed open the glass of the elevator when he found himself on the Eight Floor. It had a good number of Adventurers roaming around, weaving in and out of the various stores that had displays of weaponry and armor for those who would brave the Dungeon. Bell was naturally drawn to the various shops but had to stop himself from wandering off and went into the one on Eina’s instructions.
The inside of the shop that was that of stone and wood, lined with steel in the form of weapons and armor that had been forged in fire and tempered by the hands of the blacksmiths working under the name of the Hephaestus Familia. On the walls were weapons and shields, alternating as they decorated the solid stone, price tags placed in view at prices that weren’t drastically above what he had on him at the moment. Short shelves that the walls were used to support the smaller arms or unique pieces that drew in more than a few curious eyes.
Maybe it was just because he was still relatively new to Orario, but it still amazed Bell as he looked at all of it. Even with the fact that Hestia had told him before of how she and the Goddess of the Forge were old friends, and that her Familia was one of the best when it came to blacksmiths. It really highlighted the differences in their Familia that Bell couldn’t even properly grasp the perspective or the amount of valis it would take to rent out all these floors for their blacksmiths.
Bell figured that he could spend hours just window shopping if he didn’t already know what he’d come in for. It was lightweight armor to replace the breastplate he’d lost setting foot into Yharnam. Something stronger than the one he’d gotten from the Guild, given that a sickly beast in Iosefka’s clinic had torn into it, while the claws of the Cleric Beast ripped it apart completely and took a pound of flesh with it.
Lacking any armor when he’d gone into the Dungeon and met the War Shadows could have been a death sentence. It would have been if not for the fact that blood still healed him since he’d gone in without any potions either. He couldn’t skimp on the armor from here on out.
So, Bell ventured towards the back of the store where the armor was placed on mannequins. From the look of it, the more expensive and extravagant items were closer to the front of the store, where more people would be inclined to buy them. That meant the more practical pieces would be further back.
The backside of the store had larger shelves that rose up above his head, sorting into aisles that had different items. More of the customers were looking through them, paying little mind of Bell as they inspected the different pieces. There were also barrels at the ends of some of them, containing larger weapons like spears.
Bell went past them, moving further back to where the lightweight equipment was. Most of them didn’t have mannequins but were instead housed in boxes of equipment pieces. Each one had a different style of handwriting on the tags, so if he had to guess the ones who made the armor were the ones who stocked it.
He went past the different pieces until he found one that drew him in. The polished metal that was pure white like the moon glinted in his ruby-toned eyes with an almost enthralling allure. Bell pulled out the main piece and just stared down at the breastplate meant to shield the vitals of the chest, including his heart.
It felt light. Even lighter than the one that he’d gotten from the Guild when he joined. Yet, he got the feeling that it was harder despite that. It was probably made from a different kind of metal than the standard one used for Guild-issued armor. But would they bother putting something like that in a box not even worth displaying?
They probably might in a shop run by this Familia, he figured before looking at the rest of it. There were guards for the joints, knees, and forearms along with plates for the lower back, shoulders, and hips. Additional bits and pieces that didn’t have the same grade of protection that full armor would give, but more than necessary for simple lightweight armor. And all of that at only 9,900 valis.
Flipping it over, he spotted the signature beneath a stamp that had a rabbit silhouette. The name “Welf Crozzo” didn’t ring a bell to him, but he hadn’t been there for very long. And if he was famous then there’s no way they would have put it back here. He must’ve been a novice blacksmith then.
Well, if this works out then I’ll keep that name in mind. Decision made, he took the box with him to the counter and paid for his new armor before heading back to show it off to his Goddess.
Once night fell, it was Hestia’s turn to venture out from the small but homely comfort that was her room beneath the Church.
Her destination was the home base of the Ganesha Familia, which had been established within a massive statue surrounded by a stone wall, with the entrance being the statue’s crotch. The various Gods and Goddesses had gathered for the celebration being hosted, a cacophony of communion between the different deities that made their home here in Orario. That made it the best place to gather information on Achelois’ whereabouts.
Hestia started her search at the buffet table, where she spotted Hermes and Takemikazuchi. The latter was being egged on by the former on in trying to finish a large plate of meat, dressed in his formal montsuki kimono adorned with his Familia’s emblem. The Goddess of the Hearth looked down to her own ordinary clothes and fought down the slight feeling of inferiority that she felt upon seeing how well he’d dressed when she didn’t even have celebratory clothes.
But Hestia shook her head to drive away those thoughts before touching the ribbon that had been elegantly tied into a bow around her neck. She wasn’t here for her own reasons, but for Bell’s sake. That thought allowed her to approach them both with a somewhat cheerful, “Take! Hermes!”
Takemikazuchi forcefully swallowed his meal upon noticing her and then cleared his throat so he could speak. “Hestia, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Hestia’s response was a good-natured retort. “The same could be said with you. Don’t you have a bunch of children waiting for you at home?”
“My children actually insisted that I come, citing that I should mingle with the others instead of working tirelessly for them.”
“What considerate children you have.” She then turned to Hermes. “And Hermes, I was looking for you too. I don’t think that we’ve seen each other in a long time.”
“Well, my Familia does travel a lot so I’m usually out running message and errands.” He snapped his finger as if something came to mind. “Though, I’ve heard you have a child in your Familia now. Mind if I ask who?”
“His name is Bell and he’s a very sweet boy. He’s only been at it for a short time, but he’s hard-working and even managed to get down to the Sixth Floor on his own.” She puffed out her chest in pride as she boasted of how special her child was, even though she was frustrated that he’d gone deeper than that on his own. It was a complicated feeling, to be honest.
That was partly why she had come. She didn’t have much to her name and she had few friends. But if she could at least have them help her keep him safe, then that would be something she could do as his Goddess.
Hermes only smiled in a mischievous manner. “He sounds like an adventurous one. You’ll have to introduce me some time.”
Then I’d be worried you would rub off on him, Hestia thought to herself before moving onto her first question now that the pleasantries had been done. “Anyway, I was wondering if either of you had seen Achelois? I’ve been looking for her, but I can’t seem to find any trace of her.”
“Achelois?” Takemichizuki put his hand on his chin and looked up in thought. “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her at all since I arrived in Orario two years ago.”
“Miach said the same thing, so I thought that she might be outside of Orario. So, if anyone of us would know, it’d be Hermes.”
Hermes held his hands out and shrugged. “Well, I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but I’m afraid that I don’t know where she is either. The last time I heard from her she was still searching for someone to join her Familia with little luck. As I’m sure you know, it’s fairly difficult to start a successful Familia these days if you don’t have much to offer.”
Yes, Hestia knew that very well. The more established Familia within Orario were the ones everyone wanted to join. And if you didn’t have much to your name to start with then few would take the gamble to help. “That’s true, but I can’t imagine that she went back above. So, she has to be somewhere.”
“Well, I could try sending some feelers out when I leave again. But why exactly are you looking for her?” he asked.
“Ah… that’s… a bit private, actually…” It wasn’t like she could just say what was going on with Bell to them. Especially not in such a crowded event. “Let’s just say we need to have a Goddess-to-Goddess talk.”
“Aww, yer worried she’s gonna poach yer child?” Hestia tensed, a shiver running up from the base of her spine to the top of her head. That voice was the last one she’d wanted to hear tonight.
“Loki.” The Goddess of the Hearth practically hissed that name as she turned to find said Goddess right behind her, grinning in her sleek, black dress. “What do you want?”
“Just saw the crowd and came to say hello,” she claimed. “Well, that and I heard ya talkin’ about your child. That’s the one that ran into a minotaur a while back, wasn’t it?”
“And I think we both know who’s responsible for that,” Hestia said. “Bell could have died!”
“That’s the risk of goin’ in the Dungeon.” Loki’s small shoulders rose and fell before she took a sip of the drink she held in her left hand. “Besides, kid made it out fine under his own power, despite being a Level 1. Makes a lotta sense that ya’d hafta worry about him falling into the arms of another Goddess when a shrimp like ya can’t even afford a decent dress.”
Hestia’s temper flared. She rose on the tips of her toes to get right in Loki’s face and struck her weakness. “This coming from one who can’t even grow a decent pair to fit in a dress!”
Then Loki’s temper flared. She scowled, baring her teeth. “Them’s fightin’ words!”
“Bring it on!” she answered in response, but before either of them could act on the animosity, the guys stepped in. It wouldn’t do to have the two come to blows after all. Takemichizuki put his hands onto Hestia’s shoulders and gently pulled her away as Hermes did the same for Loki, albeit with a lot more effort.
“Easy, Hestia,” he told her. “Your child would be disappointed if he learned about you getting into a needless fight.”
“Hmph.” Hestia folded her arms and looked away. “She’s the one who started it.”
“Sparks still fly like fireworks whenever you two meet each other, huh?” a third voice spoke, their tone lacking in surprise while drawing their attention. There stood the Goddess of the Forge, Hephaestus. “Goodness, the others were starting to take bets.”
Hestia’s frown was replaced with a brighter smile. “Hephaestus! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a while now.”
“If it’s for a loan, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not giving you one,” she said, setting one hand on her hip.
“No, not that,” Hestia insisted. “Since you and Take are both here, I just wanted to talk to you about a few things, like if you have any children who might want to join in a party with mine?”
“What’s so great about just having two lumps of meat hanging off your chest,” Loki muttered indignantly as she grabbed another drink from a passing member of Ganesha Familia and leaned against a wall, watching bitterly as Hestia tried to arrange a playdate for her child.
Then the sound of high-heels clicking against the floor drew her eyes up to the approaching beauty. With skin as white as ivory and smooth as silk, her dress hugged her body sinfully tight and showed off her mature shape. It was the Goddess of Beauty in the flesh.
“Having a bad night, Loki?” Freya said with a soft, naturally-seductive smile.
“Whaddya want?” Loki demanded, pointedly looking away from the cleavage on display in front of her.
“I overheard your discussion with Hestia and something you said caught my interest. Mind telling me more about it over a drink of Soma?”
In stark contrast to the clamor of the Gods and Goddesses in Orario, there was only a single conversation that permeated the absolute, serene silence of the Hunter’s Dream.
The Plain Doll, her pale and porcelain body dressed in clothing that were finely-crafted and exuding a benign warmth that had been woven into the stitch, sat among the luminous flowers that rested on a hill by the phantasmal headstone. Her head was bowed before it as her soft voice rang out ephemerally in prayer.
“Oh, Good Hunter. I pray your suffering spirit has found comfort in your fleeting respite. I pray your tender heart has been soothed. But the Dream beckons thee to bring the long night an end. And the Hunt awaits your presence once more…”