I want this to be done already! But, get this, I had to cut this chapter in half. Here's the first 12k chunk. Hopefully I'll have the rest out by the end of the week... or early next week.
Originally, I wanted this to be a meaty 20k chapter. A sort of special "season finale". But noooo. Being a responsible adult SUCKS!
Stay in school kids. That's seriously the best advice I can give.
Noob, this last part is for you. I'm going to need more time. It's a bit longer than I promised, I know, but I have a should have my evenings this week free. I'll get back to you once my research is complete.
Now without further ado, ON WITH THE SHOW!
"…There is something wrong," the Doll said.
Gehrman groaned as he made his way back to his wheelchair, his pegged leg thumping against the upturned stone walkway. The ground was uneven and he had difficulty pacing back a few dozen meters back to his comfortable chair. Now that the rage of battle was over, he was starting to feel the aches only age could bring.
All around him was destruction. The bridge was crumbled, the outer walls of the castle were coated black by all sorts of elements and raw magic, and there were so many corpses littered about. Blood soaked his clothes and dripped off his scythe.
In complete contrast, the Doll remained pristine. She pushed his chair forward, meeting him halfway. The rubble seemed to part away from her path. No, more like as if they were never there in the first place.
"What is it?" he asked once he was back in his chair.
She stared up at the sky. This far down in the Dungeon they couldn't see the outer walls or the ceiling above them. All around them was complete darkness. Not even monsters roamed around these parts.
"The Good Hunter," she spoke softly, tilting her head slightly after giving a slow blink. "He is moving further away from the Dungeon."
Gehrman pulled out a piece of cloth within his person and began to clean his blade. "Is that so? You sound as though he won't come back. He aims to be a hero, does he not?"
She didn't say anything. She continued to stare up at the vast emptiness as though the abyss would have all the answers she needed. Her head tilted to the other side as though she had been given a response.
"Something is interfering," she spoke eventually. "There is something taking him away from the Dungeon. And… keeping him away."
"I didn't realize that could be possible," he grumbled irritably. "Are his actions no longer his own?"
"They are always his," she countered. It almost sounded emotional; Gehrman must have imagined it. "Even now, he is of his own will. This must be… a fantasy he wishes fulfilled. A selfish desire within his subconscious."
"Does this have anything to do with the Vileblood Queen?" a new voice questioned.
Gehrman turned his head to regard the other Old Hunter. Ludwig was just as bloodied as the old man; his white robes and leathers dyed red in their invader's blood.
The Doll looked away to have her eyes search within Ludwig's.
"Perhaps," Gehrman muttered in a thoughtful tone. "That boy has always been a womanizer. Perhaps this is a result of guilt or regret? Still… it's quite a strong wish to do this much. And to take him away from his dearest desires? What must he be thinking right now to convince himself from turning away at becoming a hero?"
The Doll lowered her head as she raised her hands at chest level. A dim red light dance around her fingertips. The sounds of wailing and bell chimes sang as the lights began to spread across her palm.
"As fascinating as this is," Maria quipped as she stepped into their circle. Her clothes were drenched in blood— both of her enemies and her own through the use of her tainted heritage. "It does not help us at the moment. If we are to stay idle and ponder this mystery, he will get further away."
Gehrman gave a dry chortle, "And you are offering to retrieve him? Will you be able to slay your kin and convince the boy to return? Force will only have you slain by his blade, Maria."
She frowned, "I gave that all up a long time ago, Gehrman. Cainhurst means nothing to me now. As for Bell Cranel… I am sure there are ways to persuade him."
"I believe you have done enough," Ludwig's was like a whip. "Your scheming has diverted us away from our original purpose. We let you roam freely so you may lure him into the Dungeon, not drive him away. I will go in your stead."
"Can we afford that?" Gehrman asked. "Is your crew capable of venturing the Dungeon while you, their strongest, leave for the surface?"
"We can do more than afford it," Ludwig assured him. "Our quest is complete. We have found what we were looking for."
Rather than confidence and glory, Ludwig had reported in a grim and almost frightened tone. What he had found shook his foundation and question his sanity. This was what they read on his expression.
"You will both go," the Doll spoke suddenly. She raised her head while the dancing of Blood Echoes continued to flow at her fingertips. "You must make sure he will return. And remain here."
"Such an arduous task," Maria huffed. "He has nothing but enemies in the city with friends incapable of helping his plight. He has all the more reason to flee to Cainhurst if he is not welcomed in his own home."
The Doll remained still. A normal human would have assumed the look of contemplation. To her, there was nothing but absolute stillness. They were reminded the Doll was, as the name they gave her, just a plain doll.
And yet, when those eyes flickered at Maria once more, they saw something more within them. Something that should not be real and something so beyond human comprehension it drove them mad simply questioning it. All they could do was pretend the Doll was nothing more for the sake of their sanity.
"Make sure he cannot leave," the Doll said. Though her voice was as monotone and lifeless as ever, they could have sworn there was something like an edge within. "Kill Annalise. I will make sure he will remain here."
Without another word, the Doll bowed to them like the humble caretaker role she had assumed and stepped around them. She walked towards the bridge, towards the edge, and kept walking. The darkness consumed her when she reached the furthest edges their castle's light could touch. They could not hear her footsteps any longer.
Bell stirred out of a dreamless sleep. He felt refreshed as though all he needed after a few days of abuse and malnutrition was a good night's rest. It felt more like a really bad dream he had already forgotten.
His eyes fluttered open. He half expected to see the dark ceiling of the Guild's dungeon cellar. Instead, he saw the creamy texture of a tent roof… along with a few strands of silver hair.
Delicate hands brushed at his hair. He moved his eyes further upwards.
"…Annalise?" his voice was almost distant as he was waking up.
"Yes," the queen whispered back in a soothing voice. She had a small smile as her head peered down at him, her eyes still covered by a strand of silk lace. "Thou art in our company, away from those who hath sought thou'st harm. Thou art safe… for the time being."
He sat up; she didn't stop him. He looked around and saw he was in a tent the size of the antechamber of the church he and Hestia lived in. All sorts of fancy and expensive décor was spread about in the name of luxury, comfort, and sheer bragging rights. The one candelabra sitting on a desk could feed him and his goddess for months! And Annalise's room was full of all sort of expensive things!
They were on a lounging sofa. Annalise had her legs tucked under with her hands resting on her lap, watching him behind her silk mask.
He noticed he wasn't dressed in his soiled tunic and trousers. Annalise had dressed him in new clothes. They weren't fancy (though definitely made out of finer material than he was used to) as he had just been sleeping in them.
They also weren't alone. What he assumed to be servants stood around, awaiting commands and ready to come to Annalise for any requirement. And standing on guard at the tent flap was… the Bloody Crow, still dressed in his armor.
Bell tensed at the sight of the man and instinctively went for a weapon that wasn't at his side.
The Bloody Crow turned its head slightly at sensing the hostility but didn't give Bell his full regards. He went back to watching the outside through the smallest sliver in the tent flap.
Bell wanted to ask what happened. Why was he here? But he already knew the answer to both. The Cainhurst Royal Guard had told him everything he needed to know before betraying his orders and try to kill him. Annalise had sent a rescue party to break Bell out of his cell and bring him to her.
"Thank you," he muttered after a moment. He meant those words to both Annalise and to the Bloody Crow… even if the latter he had mixed feelings for. He had expected the Bloody Crow to remain as his enemy after their duel in Yharnam, not to save him and allow him the chance to save Eina.
"Of course," Annalise replied back. "Thou art precious to us. We could not allow one such as thyself to rot away or be put on display."
"But… my goddess," he realized something. Panic began to seep out of his voice, "Annalise, my goddess is still in the city! I can't leave her behind! What if they try to do something now that I'm here?"
For a moment, her smile shifted. It had remained but he could feel jealousy radiate off of her being. Even someone as blind and dense as Bell could understand how she felt. Her masked glare was just as piercing as any other woman's he's come across.
"Worry not," she said in a simple tone. "We hath taken all the necessary precautions."
She waved a hand at one of the servants. The woman dressed in red and black maid's dress bowed and rushed out of the tent to carry out what silent order the Queen demanded. Annalise said nothing to him as she rose to her feet.
A moment later, the Bloody Crow pulled back the tent flap to allow someone else to enter.
"Bell?" his goddess blinked with surprise as she was escorted by the same maid. She had once worn a thick scowl but completely flipped it around at the sight of him.
"Goddess?" he was just as surprised as she was. He stood, ready to go to her.
"Bell!" she squealed, ran towards him, and then leapt onto his chest. Her legs wrapped around his waist with arms around his neck. She squeezed the life out of him while he fumbled around to remain on his feet.
"Goddess, are you alright?" he asked while he held her up in his arms. "What are you doing here? How did…"
His eyes flicked over to Annalise. The Queen kept her hands at her front while she observed the two of them behind her mask.
"It was all her," Hestia answered Bell… while remaining latched to his body. She waved a hand in the general direction of Annalise as she explained, "Some of her dark knights came into my room in the middle of the night and snatched me away. They didn't explain anything until I got here! I thought I was going to be used as a bargaining tool against the city, Bell. But… seeing as you're here too…"
Slowly, almost reluctantly, she unlatched herself from Bell and parted from him. She stood straight with her head upraised. Her eyes bored into Annalise with the gaze befitting of a goddess.
Then, she bowed, "Thank you, Queen Annalise. I am indebted to you for freeing my Bell from an unjustifiable execution."
"Wait, what?" Bell blinked. "Execution?! They were going to—"
"Raise thine head, Goddess Hestia," Annalise spoke in her crisp, regal tone befitting of a queen. "We dost not act on thy behalf but for the honor of Cainhurst. Bell Cranel is still our husband-to-be and future King of Cainhurst. Our ploy was a selfish one."
"…You know I'm still not okay with the whole marriage business," Hestia muttered dryly as she stood straight to glower at the much taller queen.
There was a shadow of a smile on Annalise's lips as she tilted her head ever so slightly. Or Bell could have imagined all of it. Her hands shifted with her fingers gracing the rim of the brilliant ring he had given her in the other world. Hestia started to fume where she stood.
"Um… now what?" Bell asked. Hestia looked ready to attack the Queen and the presence of the Bloody Crow not too far away— armed as well— made him wary. "Annalise, Orario will see you as a criminal for what you've done. They're going to send really strong adventurers for you. A lot of people might die."
"Yes," she turned her head towards him. Her voice was somber, if not a little unsettling. "This we hath considered. But the sacrifice we know to be worth it. Just as it was thou who risked all to return us to our throne, we must do the same."
Before Bell could say anything further, she addressed the entirety of her servants, "Prepare for departure. Dress them for the journey ahead. We shall hold court once more in the meantime."
Right away, the servants began to scramble around the room. They took down the tapestries, the furnishings, and all the decorations with practiced efficiency. Ropes and baggage were used for the linen, cushions, and her dresses.
"Leave?!" Bell stepped forward in alarm. The two servants who came to him in order to dress him flinched away and bowed their heads. "What do you mean leave?"
Annalise looked at him with consideration. She stepped towards him with an intimate closeness but did not take the final step for them to touch. She spoke softly, "Good Hunter, thou'st cannot remain here. Orario craves thine head. Thou must return with us; thou wilt be safe behind the walls of Castle Cainhurst."
"But…" his eyes were wide. He almost took a step away from her… if not for his goddess. Hestia grabbed onto his arm and kept him in place. "Goddess?"
"Bell…" Hestia looked up at him with a hardened expression. "She's right. We can't stay here. They think you're the Crow and no amount of evidence is going to say otherwise. They're determined to put you to the chopping block no matter what. I think… it would be best if we fled to Cainhurst. At least for a little bit until we can figure something out."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Leave? Leave Orario? The Dungeon?
Leaving meant he would no longer be able to explore the Dungeon and fight against the monsters deep within. He wouldn't be able to further his dream in becoming a true hero or even the greatest adventurer like how he promised to his grandfather. He would no longer be able to gather magic stones to feed his goddess nor have weekly meetings with his Guild advisor.
And there was another thought: Eina. He would never be able to see her again. Not just her— his teammates, Welf and Lilly. He would be leaving them behind.
He would never be able to see any of his friends. Not Miach Familia who helped him with potions. Not the girls at the Benevolent Mistress who rooted for him on a daily basis… especially Syr, who had confessed her love for him and desired to couple with him.
He would no longer be able to hold training sessions with his admiration, Aiz.
"Dost thou still desire to be a hero?" Annalise spoke, sensing his thoughts. Or, perhaps, noticing the way his eyes stared at the tent flap leading back to the highroad. "Thou owest nothing to them. Thou art already a most glorious and prized champion. We are living proof of thine triumphs. Thine blood… is proof enough of the most accomplished deed. Dost thou disagree, Paleblood?"
He looked at her. She knew all about him. She somehow knew about everything he accomplished in the Hunt.
"What more dost thou wish to prove?" she took the final step and took his hand in hers. "Thou hast already traverseth through an adventurer none else could complete. Thou art the greatest adventurer. Thy duty is complete. Let others resume thy plight while thou takes thy rightful place at our side. Ist not the greatest hero worthy of becoming a king?"
His duty… complete? No, it was far from over. If anything, the Dream had been nothing more than an interruption. Before, he was an adventurer who was unfortunate enough to be killed by a stray Minotaur. When he returned from the Dream, he was back where he started.
He was still an adventurer to his core.
But… the Dungeon was in the heart of Orario. And Orario wanted him dead.
"Bell," Hestia took his other hand. She shot Annalise a jealous and petty glare before turning back to him. "I know what you're thinking. But think a little more carefully. I know that you'll be leaving your friends behind. I get that. But you can't help them. They'll be in danger if you stay. Until this whole Crow business blows over, they'll be criminals through affiliation."
While his friends were on his mind, they weren't at the front. Everything in his body was screaming at him to return to Orario and dive into the Dungeon. Now more than ever, with the threat of potentially never returning, he wanted to go into the Dungeon and fight monsters.
It was from recognizing this sudden craving did he recall several things:
The warning Lyu gave him about bloodlust.
The parting words from Lady Maria.
The advice from the man at the Gathering of the Gods.
The accusation given from the Bloody Crow.
…At what point did he start to become the very thing he swore to never become? When did he start to crave the Hunt? How deep was he in bloodlust and madness that he didn't recognize the signs until the threat of never hunting again made him worried?
"Will I ever be able to come back?" he asked them both.
Hestia didn't have an assured answer. Her eyes flicked up towards Annalise.
"One day," Annalise told him. "But not as an adventurer. It shall be as the King of Cainhurst. Mayhap, with the Goddess Hestia, thou wilt be able to walk through those gates."
It meant he would be under the same political scrutiny as Annalise. She was only allowed to come and go through Orario because she was using the city as neutral grounds in order to talk to Rakia's representatives. He would need the same permission… provided Orario would be willing to let someone like him back in at all.
"One day," he said, promising more to himself than to either of them. "Okay. I'll go with you, Annalise. But please promise me I'll be back here."
He had no right to ask her of this. She, who had deployed her best warriors to illegally escort him out of the city. Regardless if that one Royal Guard turned traitor, there was still blood attached to her name. That man killed a few of the security guards and attempted to kill Eina.
…Not to mention it was the Bloody Crow himself who sent Apollo back to Tenkai.
"Of course, dear husband," Annalise promised. "Time is not our ally. We depart immediately before the city cometh for thou. We will send for thou once matters are settled with our court."
Her hand lingered on his a little longer, no more than a breath. She released her grip and stepped away from him. She bowed regally, and he returned with an awkward version of his own out of politeness. It caused her to smile in both warmth and humor. With that, she turned and strode towards the Bloody Crow.
It was then did the servants standing aside leapt at him. He yelped as a few arms tugged on him and his clothing. His shirt and pants were off of him before he could understand what was going on.
Hestia, meanwhile, was gracefully escorted behind a screen before the maids tended to her.
"We must make haste," Annalise said once she was out of the tent. The High Chamberlain followed her, acting as her shadow and matching her steps in perfect stride and rhythm. "Assemble the court and bringeth to us the prisoners. Thou wilst take command of half of our forces. Thou will stall as long as possible. Prevent Orario's adventurers from pursuing us in our retreat."
She stopped to turn to him. She owed him, her most loyal of servants, this much.
She was asking him to leave her, to make a final stand, and to die for her.
There was no doubt in his abilities and loyalty. She knew he was as strong as the best of adventurers. He had ventured through the previous world just as the Good Hunter had. His story never ended, having served her for a century as they climbed to power through blood.
He was, in a sense, her one and only friend.
He understood this. All of it. Without hesitation, he performed the Cainhurst salute: a hand to his chest with the other extended out towards his side as he bowed at the waist.
She read through his movements. His bow was full of undying loyalty, absolute and unquestionable fealty, and… a touch of romanticized love and adoration. Just as all other Vilebloods, he had desired to be the one to grant her a child of blood.
When he raised himself, he stepped away. He moved to meet her demands, vanishing like a dark wind.
She continued to stride towards the tent used to hold court. She knew by the time she arrived would her precious Vilebloods and their sacrifices to her would be ready.
Underneath the Guild was a grant antechamber carved out of stone. Rather than being lit by magic stone lamps, large torches burned with fire along the middle pathway. A large stairway led up towards a throne. And upon that throne sat a single individual dressed in black robes with the hood drawn to shadow his grim face.
"Mardeel," Uranus, the god who secretly commanded the Guild, gazed down from his throne at the fat elf struggling to kneel afore him. "I have orders for you."
"Yes, Lord Uranus," Royman Mardeel, the head of the Guild, lowered his head as he awaited commands from his true master.
Uranus said nothing at first. His eyes narrowed as though displeased by Royman in some way. The elf chanced a glimpse upwards through the ridge of his brow, wondering what caused the ancient god to pause for so long.
"You will issue a Mission to Hermes Familia and Loki Familia," Uranus said, his voice echoing throughout the antechamber. "They are to retrieve Bell Cranel and bring him back to the city."
"Yes, Lord Uranus," Royman bowed his head and began to raise to his feet.
"There is more," Uranus said suddenly. "You will pardon Cranel of his charges relating to the god-slayer known as the Crow."
"L-Lord Uranus!" Royman blanched. "With all due respect, sir, but the boy is clearly guilty! Even if we do pardon him, there will be unrest throughout the city! It'll be like five years ago all over again!"
"I am aware and have already executed a plan," Uranus cut him off from further telling him what he already knew.
"It is not for you to be concerned about. Evidence of Cranel's innocence will come to light in due time. Your job is to make sure he returns to the city."
Royman fidgeted where he knelt, "My Lord, if I may be so bold as to ask… why Cranel? With Cainhurst declaring war on us, wouldn't it be best to allow him to leave? Cainhurst has what they want. If we pursue, there will be more blood."
"Do you ask out of the concern for those lives or for the stipulate the Guild will have to pay for the familias whose children will be lost?"
"For the lives, of course," Royman answered hurriedly, patting against his brow with a handkerchief as a bead of sweat rose quickly.
Uranus' eyes narrowed slightly but did not call him out on his obvious selfishness. "Very well. Once Cranel is back in the city, you will make a public announcement. Cranel… is the remaining survivor of Zeus Familia."
"E-Eh?" Royman dropped his handkerchief. "Is this true?! But… that's impossible. Zeus Familia and Hera Familia were completely wiped out."
"It is not but it will be used as an excuse to explain his current Level," Uranus answered readily. "You will announce the Guild has been keeping his identity a secret in order to secure his status from the former enemies of Zeus Familia."
Royman lowered his head and thought silently. "Yes… it might be able to explain a few things. Not everyone will be fooled, but if it comes directly from the Guild they can't argue. However, it might cripple the credibility of the Guild itself. The gods at the Denatus will surely be upset by this overruling. My Lord, why are we using our own expenses to assure his safety? This I do not understand."
Uranus didn't answer right away. He grimaced as his head turned towards his right. They glared at something. Though, he knew, Royman would not be able to see what lay in the darkness. Nevertheless, it stared back at him, watching everything with careful and undistracted precision.
"We will use this to gain a debt with Hestia Familia," Uranus explained. "There are only three Level Seven adventurers in Orario; one belonging to Freya, who goes along with the Guild when it suits her, and the other a criminal belonging to a god who wants nothing but destruction. Bell Cranel is the third and belongs to a goddess with no worth in the grand scheme. However, if we secure his future in the city…"
"Then the Guild gains a Level Seven adventurer of their own without breaking any of the accords," Royman gasped in awe. "That's brilliant, Lord Uranus! I see it now! I will carry out your will at once."
"You may leave now," Uranus said as he leaned back in his throne.
Royman grunted as he struggled back to his feet, bowed in respect to the primordial god, and wobbled out of the underground temple.
"…It is done," Uranus growled with irritation once he knew Royman was gone from the vicinity.
"Thank you, God Uranus," returned the abomination from elsewhere. It stepped out of the darkness with the reds and yellows of a nearby torch lightings its face. It wore the skin of porcelain just as easily Uranus wore his dark cloak. It did not represent who he was, which wasn't it point.
Just like his cloak, the guise as an autonomous doll hid its true form.
"Will you return them now, outsider?" Uranus demanded, unable to hide the sneer of disgust at the thing's identification. He knew its name. But he dared not speak it. Names had power along with acknowledgement. He didn't want to acknowledge the thing that didn't belong in his reality any further than the damage it had already caused.
"Yes," the thing said in a monotone voice. "However… we will be keeping Freya's prized children. The rest we will make sure reach the surface safely."
"That's not what we agreed to," Uranus said, his hands gripping onto the armrest with enough power to make the stone crack.
"Perhaps," the thing said with a tilt of its head. It mimicked human emotion, never emulating or sympathizing it. It only performed what it saw. "We need a reason for the Good Hunter to venture into the Dungeon. You will make him. Through… a Guild Mission, just like the one you made just now."
He didn't retort. He could argue with the thing further but it would only wind up in the same outcome. He would make a counter and so too would it. Dozens of points and threats would be made on both sides and they would return to right now.
"I must ask the same question as my subordinate," Uranus spoke up. "Tell me, what makes Bell Cranel so special to… something like you?"
It didn't try to fool him with some feigned ignorance or cluelessness. The thing went still, sinking into its true self while its outward appearance was petrified through inactivity. It would be liken to someone in this reality pausing to consider their answer.
Suddenly, the thing began to move. It moved its head around as its eyes darted across the underground temple. It observed its surroundings as though seeing them for the first time ever. And with as much observational care, its eyes traced his entire being.
"It's curious," the thing began. "He's never seen you, nor is he aware of your presence. And yet you are here. You involve yourself in the machinations of this world as though you wield actual importance. Are you like Gehrman? No… you act as a guide… just as I once did."
Uranus went still. He understood the words of the abomination.
"So he's that then," he said more to himself than to it. The answer shook him.
The thing bowed, dismissing itself, and returned to the shadows. He knew it was gone as soon as the last light of the flame was off its shroud.
"Uranus," someone spoke up once the invader was gone.
"Fels," Uranus answered.
Another appeared at the footsteps of his throne. A skeletal being beneath dark robes that hid his entire being. This was Fels the Fool, an alchemist worthy of legend who had created the Philosopher Stone and acquired as close as true immortality as anyone else in history.
Despite no longer having vocal chords, Fels spoke clearly, "Are you sure it is wise to listen to this creature? If it is what you believe it to be, wouldn't it be best to destroy it while we had the chance? A simple blast from my magic would have sufficed."
"That would have only destroyed the vessel," Uranus shook his head. "No, for the time being, we will play its game. There is much we do not know about it… as well as these Hunters it brought with it."
Fels bowed his head while he clasped his hands through the sleeves of his baggy robes, "It frightens me how similar their Blood Echoes are to excelia and falna. But, if you say they do not share the same origin, I will believe you. However… it cannot be excused they have already defeated Freya Familia."
"Hence why a bargain was made, Fels," Uranus almost growled. "We cannot afford to lose Freya Familia. If we lose them, the city's power will become destabilized. Many will try to claim that power for themselves."
"…And the Evilus will have another reason to no longer be afraid," Fels finished. "But to keep their elite warriors? Freya's power will be crippled regardless. I don't believe that will be enough to put us in the red. Can we not ignore its demand? It seems issuing a rescue mission is exactly what it wants. And it wants Cranel for some reason."
"You told me… the Hunters are after him, is this not correct?"
"Yes," Fels answered immediately. "There have been a few skirmishes against him. Most of which having against Maria of Monsterphilia. I believe she started to antagonize him as early as a month ago, a week before Monterphilia. Other than that, two others have attacked him in the Dungeon. Their bodies were disposed of. I haven't been able to gather anything further than that."
This information had been shared before. Uranus was only being reminded.
"Uranus," Fels spoke in a bold voice. "What is it? You know exactly what Cranel means to that thing. I saw it in your eyes. Will you not share so I may better understand?"
Uranus frowned, "It is worse than we feared, Fels. We thought to use Cranel's power against Evilus when the time was right. But… it might be best if he never returned to the Dungeon.
"I fear… if Cranel reaches the bottom of the Dungeon, our entire world will end."
Finn felt worse than that one time he tried to outdrink Gareth. He felt dehydrated, his head was ringing, the light of the room hurt his eyes, and every fiber of his being was screaming in agony.
Well, that's usually what happens when he tried to body-check an arcane blast from a Crozzo sword. Sure, he still managed to kill his target, but at what cost?
As he slowly stirred back into consciousness (while not fully waking up), he recognized the voice of a highly concerned and overly passionate Tione.
He heard her sniff, and then, "Caaaaptaaaaaaain!"
And then throw herself on top of him. Now he was awake. His chest burned worse than the time that elder dragon shot him with a fire missile.
He may or may not have screamed like a prepubescent boy. And if so, he wasn't ashamed of it. The perks of being a prum… kinda.
"Tione," he hissed, biting back the pain as her Herculean strength grappled him. Her head was on his chest while her arms squeezed him hard enough to make his ribs groan. "I'm awake! I'm awake! Please let go of me."
He was on the verge of grabbing the nearest object— a basin of water— and smacking her head with it before she loosened up and raised her head. Her eyes were full of tears as she looked up at him.
"Captain," she sniffed. "They said you wouldn't wake up. Even when Riveria healed you… there were all those burns and scars. She said the magic interfered with her healing. I thought… that you…"
Oh, he could imagine Riveria having to explain everything to a frantic Tione. Then Tione threatening the elf into doing a better job. Then Riveria putting Tione down because not even Gareth and Finn could talk smack to her when they grouped up against her.
"I'm alright," he assured her with a sigh. Honestly, this girl was so much trouble when it came to her affections for him. Still, he patted her head, which loosened her deathly grip on him. "It was my fault anyways. I wasn't expecting a Crozzo magic item when I should have. After all, they originated from Rakia."
While Tione began to calm down, he checked his perimeter. They were inside a new tent he didn't recognize but his instincts told him they weren't too far away from the battlefield. This was probably a new station commissioned since theirs was destroyed in cannon fire.
"Tione," his voice returned to that of a commanding general once things calmed down enough. "Tell me what happened."
"Yes, Captain," Tione brushed off the tears with the back of her hand and looked at him squarely. No matter how serious she looked… he couldn't help but notice she continued to lay on top of him. "Riveria was able to take out nine of the twenty-one projectile weapons with her magic. Five others were destroyed by us or other adventurers. The battle escalated until both sides received heavy losses. In order to recover our wounded, both sides accepted a ceasefire. That was over seven hours ago."
"That means there are seven cannons remaining," he grumbled sourly. "What about our losses? How many did we lose?"
"Everyone from the leading group survived," Tione answered dutifully. It meant all of Loki Familia's elite survived. "However, we lost a lot from the lower ranks. Some were taken prisoner by Cainhurst. The same could be said with other familias. You will have to ask Riveria for a specific number."
He scowled as his heart lurched. Those that were taken prisoner would not be returning. The Vilebloods would sacrifice them to their queen in order to increase their strength. He cursed himself for his inadequacy and his unpreparedness. He should have seen the invasion coming as well as their tactics. He had the information from both words for fuck's sake!
"Captain?" Tione spoke softly.
He cursed himself again. His anger was showing.
"I trust Loki was able to get away?" he asked, trying to avert the question in her eyes.
"Yes," she answered immediately, nodding with her chin running up and down his chest. She still refused to get off of him. "Aiz took her back to the gates and joined in the battle shortly after. She saved a lot of our skins with her magic. I think that's why we were able to salvage so many of our members."
"I trust with all this noise Finn is awake?" Riveria stepped inside, brushing the tent flap aside and scowling at the two of them.
"Ah, Riveria!" Finn smiled at her. "Please save me."
"Eh?!" Tione looked at him with betrayal.
"As much as I don't want to intrude," Riveria began dryly, "now isn't the time for these things. Tione, I need Finn. We received a Mission from the Guild."
Tione pouted but got off of him. She returned to her seat at his side while he was allowed to sit up. He winced as his chest throbbed. He was covered in bandages and ointment. His body was also sore.
He bit back the pain and kept his face stoic, "Tell me what they want."
Riveria joined their company and announced, "Late last night, Cainhurst infiltrated the city walls and abducted a number of people. Their attack outside was just a distraction. Bell Cranel, Goddess Hestia, and Welf Crozzo of Hephaestus Familia were taken. The Guild is demanding we retrieve Cranel at any cost."
"Just Cranel?" he wanted to confirm. "What about Crozzo? If Cainhurst manages to get their hands on his family magic weapons…"
"He is currently in the hands of Rakia," she answered.
"Is that why Rakia joined with Cainhurst?" Tione sat up straight. "They wanted more Crozzo weapons and helped Cainhurst for that?"
"We can only assume," Riveria answered. "With Rakia and Cainhurst preparing for an emergency retreat from our lands, the city's attention is divided. One team will be going after Crozzo while we are tasked with pursuing Cranel."
"Both armies are retreating," he half-asked and half-stated. His strategic mind told him it was ideal. While Orario was recovering from the battle before, now was the perfect time to pack up and leave. Even if it meant leaving their wounded behind. Both enemies knew they wouldn't be able to stand up against Orario without heavy losses. Now that they had what they wanted, they had no reason to stay.
"But what of our losses?" he asked. "Is the Guild aware of how much manpower we lost? Are we in any condition to follow through with this Mission?"
"Captain," Tione began firmly, "I think you should let Riveria and Gareth worry about that. You're still hurt. You're not in any condition to be worrying about this."
"I've been through worse," he grumbled, recalling the time he was bleeding out as Simon back in the Fishing Hamlet. He wondered briefly if the Good Hunter wouldn't be in his current position if he gave him the Bowblade. Would the Good Hunter use that instead of the Blade of Mercy? Who knows?
"With Cainhurst crippled," Riveria began, already aware of Finn's habits, including his unrelenting resolve to carry out his job, "the elite members will be the leading front. Cainhurst, at this moment, is preparing to split its army. Half will remain here to stall time while the other half will escort the queen back to the highway. Hermes Familia will be used as a scouting party to keep track of their movements."
"Hermes, huh?" he brought his thumb to his lips. "We don't know the roads as well as they do. Having them involved only makes sense. Actually, yes, we can use this to our advantage."
Both Riveria and Tione blinked at him. The former in curiosity while the latter in confusion.
"We'll go along with the Guild for the time being," he ordered. "However, once the Good Hunter is in our custody, we will keep him housed with us. I'm sure we can come up with some excuse to hold him in our personal care before handing him off to the Guild. This is the best we can do to prolong his execution."
This was good. Very good. Now he had a reason to help the Good Hunter rather than sit with his thumb under his ass. Before, he had to stop two armies from overtaking the city. Now that the Queen went around his precautions and took Bell hostage, he had no reason to not get involved. Now he could save Bell from certain death.
This might be the only time he was grateful to make a mistake. If his defenses had been flawless, Bell would still be in the Guild dungeons and be executed in a matter of hours.
"You're asking us to hold a fugitive of the law," Riveria pointed out.
"No, I'm making it an executive order," he countered. "You know as well as I do the Good Hunter isn't what he's accused of."
"You're putting the entirety of Loki Familia on the line for a personal debt," Riveria continued, but there wasn't a speck of critique in her voice.
"I owe him nothing," he returned. "But he is someone I respect just as much as I do with you. I would do just as much for you."
Finally, Riveria cracked a smile, "I'm sure Aiz will have your full support. That girl hasn't been herself since the verdict was shared."
"I hope not too much," he shared a smile with her. "I already have more than enough to deal with."
They both shared their own version of chuckles— Riveria snorting in a single puff of air while he hummed to himself. In between, Tione's shoulders slouched as she gave Finn a good stare, knowing she was the center of his joke.
"How soon can we move out?" he asked, slowly returning to his commanding tone.
"Operations begin at dawn," Riveria announced. She blinked as her eyes flicked over to the tent wall. She calculated the time since he was unconscious. "Five hours from now. Will you be ready?"
"I will be," Finn said firmly. "Do me a favor and pass on a request to Bete. Tell him to return to the Twilight House and retrieve my sword. I'll need it."
Riveria nodded. Without a word, she stepped out of the tent.
"Captain, you're in no condition to lead," Tione spoke up. "Let Riveria or Gareth deal with the operation. You're especially in no condition to be fighting."
He ran his fingers across his chest. The wounds ached but they weren't crippling. He knew in the heat of battle he could ignore them without making them worse.
Besides, he kept a few Blood Vials in his personal sack at all times.
"I'll be fine," he told her. "I need to be. I'm still the captain of Loki Familia. I will not lay down while other members are risking their lives on this mission. But… I won't be at my full strength. Can I lean on your for the time being, Tione?"
He had her. She gasped and blushed up a storm. Her eyes lit up in dazzle. She promised to support him completely with fire burning in her voice.
Well, that was one distraction out of the way. Now he had to figure out how he was going to fight against a group of Vilebloods who he knew grew tremendously courteously from the last battle.
"Come again?" Hephaestus glowered.
"Now, now," Hermes put up his hands in defense. Asfi wasn't here to help him so he was on his own to ease the wrath of the forge goddess. "I'll say it again. The Guild has issued me a Mission to assist Loki Familia to go after Cranel. Meaning I'm forced to use all our resources and regretfully abandon your request. There's nothing my familia can do for you."
They were in her office when he came to deliver the news. He eyed Tsubaki and the way she was clutching that katana of hers tightly. He knew she would never use it to harm another god, but the murderous intent he felt radiating off of her didn't calm his nerves.
"Then there's nothing you can do for Welf?" Hephaestus asked. She had her hands clasped together and elbows propped. Her one eye glared like the fires of the underworld at him.
"I didn't say that," he adjusted his hat out of habit. He didn't smile at her; not that it would work against her anyways. "I'm saying my familia can't help you with your request. I understand how bad things will be with Mister Crozzo now that Rakia has their hands on him. It'll be disastrous to everyone if he remains there."
"Then what are you offering?" Hephaestus demanded. She wasn't in the mood for his games. "Can you or can you not help me recover Welf?"
Her emotions were too devoted in this, he noted. Welf was something special to her. He had noticed upon that night when he displayed his abilities to his familia. While any other god would have used this to their advantage, Hermes wasn't one such character. He only learned Welf was truly a Hunter.
Okay, so, maybe he was taking advantage of this.
"I can," he said, choosing to not play his typical word game with her. Especially her. He didn't have the stomach to play with someone so invested in this. "Things are just a little more complicated than they should be. I'm going to be blunt with you, Hephaestus— I know Crozzo is a Powder Keg."
He paused to let the revelation soak in. At one, he revealed he knew Welf's status. At another, he knew, which told them a story and a half about him. Tsubaki glanced at her goddess, wondering how she should react with this information. Hephaestus didn't blink, completely unfazed outwardly by this.
"As the leading source of information sharing," he began to explain, "a lot of things come and go through me. My children are all across the continent and some overseas. We hear things. I've known about the existence of Hunters for some time. I recognized Mister Crozzo for what he was on that night at the pier."
"What do you have to gain by telling me this?" Hephaestus questioned.
"An understanding," he offered. "You and I are friends. I have no intentions of abandoning your request. Believe me, leaving Mister Crozzo in Ares' hands will doom us in the long run. But the Guild has deemed Mister Cranel more important."
"Lord Hermes," Tsubaki spoke up, impatience in her tone. "If your familia is unable to assist us, what can you do for us?"
"As I said," his tone shifted. Now came the hard part. "I've known about the existence of Hunters for some time. Mister Crozzo isn't the only one I've come across within the city. There are others."
"And you're saying they are willing to help?" Hephaestus leaned forward. "Who are they?"
He didn't answer right away. His eyes moved over to the file cabinet. While it was used to hold records and keep her schedule organized, Hermes had known Hephaestus for a long time. He knew that if he opened the cabinets in a sequence of order at certain degrees, liken to a combination, the latch hidden behind it would click and reveal a hidden safe within the wall.
And everyone thought her secret forge behind her office was the real secret.
"Hephaestus," he turned and met her gaze. His own was solid. "I'm going to need the Blade of Mercy."
Her brow twitched. An entire conversation was shared between them. That, no, he wasn't talking about the version the Guild had confiscated; he wanted the one he knew she bought from Hestia. And that, yes, he had every intention of using them.
And, yes, he intended to give them to the actual Crow.
"I have one question," Hephaestus muttered in a low voice.
"No one within the city," he answered, already knowing. "It took some convincing. She has an extremely strict creed when it comes to selecting her target. She picks only those who go mad with bloodlust. Normally, I'd ask her to jump in there and free him under cover of darkness. But… a target is still needed. We need to prove Bell Cranel isn't the Crow. Therefore…"
"Someone needs to die," she finished with a heavy frown.
"Two birds with one stone," he tried to lighten the conversation with a smile of his own.
It didn't help. Those who were killed by the Blade of Mercy didn't return to Heaven. Their eternal divine presence was lost forever to the endless chaos. Killing a god with a mortal weapon wasn't the ultimate taboo. Killing a god with the Blade of Mercy was something unspeakable.
And yet, he had indirectly told her he was going to do just that.
Hephaestus didn't move. She remained still while her mind raced. He could only wait for her to answer. He knew what he was asking was a lot. There would be no forgiveness once this path was made. They would be betraying their own if she accepted.
Instead of going towards the file cabinet, she pulled a drawer out from her desk and fumbled with the contents. Hermes heard the sound of something being unlocked… and she pulled out the profaned instrument bundled in black leather.
Well, well. He didn't know as much about her as he had believed.
She carried the Blade of Mercy with both hands as she approached him. She held it out for him. He didn't give her one of his charming smiles as he accepted it. However, she didn't let go. His eyes matched her crimson orb.
"You will return this," she said, her voice refusing any argument. "No one should have the power to kill a god."
No words were needed. He didn't even have to nod. The message was received.
She released her grip.
It had been thirteen hours since the battle at dusk. The land was torn apart and scorched black by the use of Crozzo magic weapons along with Cainhurst gunpowder armaments. The fields were drenched with blood of the fallen, the wounded, and the crazed Vilebloods. Both sides had agreed to a ceasefire in order to tend to their wounded and collect their dead.
However, several adventurers were taken as prisoners of war. Though their respective familias would fight tooth and nail to recover them, Finn had told those he trusted there was no point in it.
Regardless, this had sparked a fire of outrage within the adventurers. Gone was the agreement to deal with the outside invaders independently. The captains of each respective familia acknowledged Finn as the commanding officer in order to coordinate a counter-attack.
As such, Finn stood on top of the hill by the command tent. The table was brought outside that held a map, markers and idols, scrolls and ink, as well as binoculars and telescopes. And at his side, resting at his hip, was the Bowblade retrieved from his private quarters in the Twilight House. A set of Quicksilver arrows were within his reach as soon as he would need them.
The adventurers stood in a wide wing formation, spread out in order to minimalize the effectiveness of the remaining Cainhurst cannons. Loki Familia was at the center; their purpose was to be the main assault while the others would circle around and flank the Cainhurst Vilebloods. Finn had coordinated how many numbers would be in the main army, who will be in the support teams, and who will be in reinforcements should things turn dire.
There were a total of 290 assault adventurers, 112 support, 60 medical, and 25 messengers to relay his orders.
His eyes flicked over to the other side of the lot. The Rakia camp was still preparing to leave. Their larger numbers would require a greater deal of time to coordinate. Still, there was no sense of urgency in their movements. They somehow knew Orario wouldn't be after them despite going against the armistice.
The Queen had already fled before dawn. There was nothing they could do to pursue her— at least not right now. Right now, they had to deal with the army she left behind to cover her tracks.
The previous battle had crippled their already small numbers. What started with 5000 Cainhurst Vilebloods upon their arrival in Orario territory had dropped down to… no more than 300. At the least, 300 of Cainhurst's most loyal stood ready to oppose him. The Queen would have taken at least a quarter of her remaining army for both protection as well as to quickly escape.
But what bothered Finn the most weren't the numbers. There was no doubt the remaining 300 Vilebloods would have grown tremendously because of the amount of corpses to deliver to their Queen. What bothered him were the ones who stood at the front of her army.
He counted ten Royal Guards… and the High Chamberlain at the front.
The High Chamberlain drew his Chikage and rose its tip into the air. He flicked it around, twirling and jerking the blade as though carving out of the sky. Finn had no idea what it meant.
It was a signal, he found out shortly after. The man never once spoke, according to Loki.
Cannons bellowed as they shot their projectiles at the Orario army. Finn didn't issue any command as he watched the cannonballs sail through the air towards him.
Magic shields had been erected by the joint effort of the magic casters within the army. He had told them Cainhurst would try to take out the biggest threats first— that being each familias' captains as well as any chain of command such as squad leaders and messengers. He wasn't wrong. The cannons had been aimed at those exactly.
The chunk of Quicksilver splattered across the magic barrier placed meders outside his tent. He watched it with an almost bored expression.
Cainhurst hadn't tried to bombard them with continuous fire like in the previous battle. They had hoped to cripple Orario with a surprise assault with everything they had left. It had failed.
Now, it was Finn's turn.
"Advance!" he commanded, his voice booming.
Echoes were called and horns were blown. Flags were raised. A universal cry of battle sang through the throats of every adventurer below as they raised their weapons and charged for the Cainhurst army.
The High Chamberlain raised his sword once more. But not in signal like before.
"HOnOr oF CaiNhUrst!" his voice vibrated like a Monster Rex ready to challenge Finn's finest.
"For the Honor of Cainhurst!" his followers roared in unison.
They charged. The High Chamberlain, the Royal Guards, and the common Vileblood rode on horseback with their Chikage and Reiterpallache ready.
And then, there came the inevitable thunderous boom when two armies collided.
Aiz Wallenstein was an adventurer, not a soldier. Though the practice was similar in theory, the actual execution had her in a completely different world. She fought monsters in the Dungeon and was one of the best at it. Killing monsters gave her a number of martial skills with her sword, Desperate. Skills she could use here.
It wasn't the first time she took another life. But never had she done so in such sheer numbers.
War was and wasn't like Dungeon raids. There were things that needed to be cut down, orders she needed to follow, critical targets she had to focus on, and coordinate and support her teammates at every chance. She and her teammates had plenty of experience in this field and were able to put their techniques to use here. However…
There was something different when the thing at the end of her blade shared intelligence.
The lives she took, they were once people with aspirations and goals. They had a history she will never learn about. They were people who picked up the sword because they chose a path they believed in.
While she had considered these things, she put them in the back of her mind. She kept going.
War was hectic, almost— if not just as— chaotic as Dungeon raids. The unified army of Orario started to work together at the first charge, and so too did Cainhurst. Orders had been given on both sides throughout the conflict. But as time drew out, as bodies began to pile up, there stopped being two different sides as both armies intermixed with another.
Still, she made sure to keep track of her most precious teammates. She would run into them on occasion, they share a moment of surprise or offer support, and then they would return to the fray.
There was also something… disturbing about her enemy.
They took pleasure in the conflict. They bore their fangs with their bloodthirsty smiles as they dueled each of the adventurers in private engagements. There was no sense of self-preservation in their moves. They surrendered defense in favor of offense.
They fought with nothing to lose, she realized. They had no intentions of winning this battle. They accepted they would not return to their homeland. They were going to sacrifice everything in order to take out as many adventurers as possible.
Aiz sympathized with them. She might even go as far as to say she admired them. But that was as far as it went. After all, she would never agree with them. They, who gave up getting stronger and had no further interest in it.
She was here to get stronger. For her goal.
The Knight in dark silver armor, a Cainhurst Royal Guard, had taken her a considerable amount of time for her to put down. Every sword skill she had acquired through blood and sweat had been used in their duel. There was a level of respect the two of them shared as their swords clashed. He was powerful, strong and swift enough to challenge her on equal footing. But she was victorious in the end.
She rammed Desperate through his chestplate as soon as she saw an opportunity.
She stared down at what should have been the best of Cainhurst. The man bled out through a punctured heart, twitching his last as she felt his eyes through his faceless helm. She clutched Desperate in a tight grip.
Not good enough. She couldn't get stronger from an opponent like this. She was faster. She was relentless. She had techniques that had taught Aiz so much in every skirmish. This Royal Guard was nothing compared to her.
As if to answer her prayers, something gained her attention. Despite all the sounds of steel clashing, magic exchanging, shouting, and flesh parting, something distinct drew her towards the core of the battle. She turned, her eyes searching for this offset.
It was the leader of the Cainhurst army. He dressed in the armors of the Royal Guards but donned a black suit and shredded cape instead of the chestplate. A trail of blood followed him wherever he moved.
She watched him glide through the rampage of his allies and enemies, cutting down any and all adventurers unfortunate enough to come within his range. His Chikage was not a series of strokes or various techniques, but one universal swing in a perpetual motion. Nothing could stop him. Everything in his path, from be the best swords to the best shields and armor, could not so much as hinder him from meeting death.
He moved like someone who had lived through this one battle a hundred-thousand times and knew all of its secrets as easily as the back of his hand. There was no flaw in his movements. He knew how exactly to kill his target with the minimalist of motions, effort, and power. He was a walking storm of blood and death.
Aiz fought her way towards him, cutting down Vilebloods along the way. Her eyes never left him despite being surrounded by blades and firearms on all sides. She followed the High Chamberlain with the intention of crossing blades against him.
As though sensing her approach, the High Chamberlain altered his course. There was no hitch in his movements. He continued to glide his blade through adventurer after adventurer without the slightest hesitation or slowing of pace. She might have even imagined his sudden change… if not for the fact she was quickly approaching him.
She heard the familiar voices of her teammates within the tides of battle around her. She ignored them. All of her focus was on the High Chamberlain.
They both cut down one last enemy before finding a clearing. Their swords were brought around at another's.
She parried his swipe, danced on her heels to avoid the follow-up that would have torn open her stomach, and brought a riposte.
He brought up a guard. There was the briefest pause, the smallest of twitches in his grip. She would have missed it if she hadn't been keeping track of his habits. He was surprised she was the first to have been able to last this long against him.
The moment past. It was no longer than a flash.
Desperate and Chikage created sparks as they intercepted and exchanged blow after blow. The reach of his Chikage was a few celch longer than her Desperate, but it only had a single edge. However, their styles were different. Despite the both of them being swift in their footwork and favored endless assaults, her technique relied on blunt trauma while his was carving.
Still, for the moment, they were matched. She didn't know how many seconds had passed as they exchanged a total of thirty-nine moves. The noise around her muffled out. Only their duel mattered.
He changed tactics. He sheathed the Chikage and went for a low stance.
Everything screamed at her… death was upon her.
He stepped forward, closing the gap between them faster than she could blink. All the while, he drew out the Chikage. She recognized the technique as a bastardized version of the quick draw favored by the Far East. The swing was faster than it would normally be.
But instead of flashing silver, his blade was red.
With fresh blood.
Her body reacted before her mind could finish the process of what she observed. Desperate was brought around to intercept his Chikage while she lunged back with all her strength.
She felt a sharp pain as his blade sailed around, missing her sword entirely. It should have missed her… but the blood coating the edge of his weapon had extended its range by an additional ten celch.
She clutched at her wounded side. He had drawn first blood.
He gripped his Chikage with both hands, the sword raised at his front. The blood coating it, reflecting an unnaturally bright red color, dripped down and puddled at the guard.
Blood dripped onto the dirt. But not from the sword. It came… from his gauntlets.
She understood now. The use of blood as a weapon… it wasn't just her instincts recalling a certain memory. The High Chamberlain knew a technique similar to her. He was using his own blood and a secret skill in order to increase his offensive capabilities.
This… this was what she wanted.
She would grow stronger once she defeated him. She will be one step closer to overcoming that woman. And… maybe a step closer to reaching him.
"Awaken," she muttered as she clutched her sword. "Ariel."
Wind danced around her as she called upon her magic. A powerful cyclone of air revolved around her being as well as coated her sword.
The High Chamberlain did not pause to consider her ace. He moved to attack. He brought his Chikage around in a diagonal arch directed at her collar.
Desperate was there to parry. Her magic, Ariel, had helped her pushed away the blade but, just like when against that woman, the blood was able to pierce through her defenses. However, it couldn't reach her if she could properly defend against his sword strikes.
She turned things around when she went on the offensive. With Ariel supporting her, she brought around a chain of attacks at the High Chamberlain. He met her blade with as much ferocity, his blood splashing around as her wind magic forced his sword back to and fro.
They were now back as equals. Her ultimate sword and shield spell was able to counter his penetrating blood magic. At the same time, he was able to stop her from overpowering him with her unique magic. They were reverted back to using sword techniques to determine which was the superior fighter.
At some point, their duel had gained the attention of everyone around her. The fighting near them had ceased. Their space was cleared as both adventurers and Vilebloods created a ring around them. Even the bodies had been dragged out to give them a fair chance.
It meant nothing to her. She couldn't afford to be distracted by this observation. The moment she lost focus would she lose. It was the same way with him.
But how long would this last? Her magic was not infinite. It was only active so long as she had the mind to keep it running. She didn't have any mind potions with her— even assuming if she could use them with how rapid their exchanges were.
And yet, he was in the same boat, wasn't he? Eventually he would run out of blood.
He knew this. His attacks were becoming less fluid and more frenzied. By no means were they sloppy and reckless. There was as much clinical precision in his attacks as before. It was just… a shift in his mindset.
She thought nothing of it. She was so focused on defeating him she never considered the altercation of what this meant. She only believed he wanted to finish their duel before he bled out.
Their blades collided and they were locked for half a second. But in that short amount of time… she heard a deep growl come from him.
He pushed her away with a surprising amount of strength she hadn't seen in him before. It pushed her a few short meders away with her heels digging into the dirt. She expected him to rush at her like before. But instead…
Her eyes widened as blood exploded out of his back.
A pair of leathery wings stretched out of his back, having extended after breaking free from his skin. They were soaked in blood.
The High Chamberlain began to twitch violently, his head jerking around. He continued to growl.
The growl became a roar as he raised his head towards the sky and let loose an impossible sound out of his throat. More blood exploded from him. His clothes and armor were shredded, unable to fully cover the sudden transformation.
What stood before Aiz was hardly a man. The High Chamberlain had grown an additional meder in height. His suit was stretched to the brim as it struggled to keep the extra muscle and mass. His entire left arm was long enough for the clawed hand to be dragged against the floor. A pair of horns pierced through the roof of his faceless helm while his jaw had snapped off the bottom half. His teeth were triangular and as sharp as knives.
Aiz was left frozen, staring in shock of the monstrosity before her.
The shock nearly cost her her life. Only her survival instincts saved her as the thing that was once the High Chamberlain came at her. He moved faster than before, extending a claw at her. Her Ariel tore through the flesh but he showed no signs of being slowed down. The sharp nails would have ripped her apart.
She dove to the side at the last instance, though not unscathed. He had cut into her shoulder and across her cheek.
Before she could finish rolling back onto her feet, he brought his Chikage around. She had been so frazzled by his monstrous form she had almost forgotten he wielded his blade in his human hand.
Not only was his swing fast enough to make the wind screech, it had power backed behind it. The sheer force of the metal itself was strong enough to overcome her Ariel defenses.
And because his raw strength could do that, the blood coating the blade had no problem reaching her.
However… in exchange for this new form and power, he had given up his graceful movements. No more was he a painter creating a multiple layered canvas. He was a common butcher.
He was a monster. She could fight this still!
"Aiz!" she heard someone— Tione, her mind told her— call out.
There were others. Adventurers not just from her familia stepping up. They were going to interfere.
"Don't," she said. Her voice was quiet, but she made sure they would hear her. She raised Desperate up in a guard while keeping her eyes locked on the High Chamberlain. "He's mine."
She would not allow anyone to assist her. Not since that woman had come and trampled on her pride. The loss wasn't what hurt Aiz the most.
It was the fact she needed to be saved. She, deemed the Sword Princess, had to be saved. It was proof she was nowhere near her goal if she needed to be rescued like a damsel. She needed to grow stronger.
And one day, she will be the one who will rescue the one she admired the most.
One day, she will stand at his side.
Whether anyone was willing to listen to her testament or not, there wasn't enough time to make sure. No sooner than the last syllable was out of her breath did the High Chamberlain resume his assault. His attacks were brutal and harsh, nearly knocking her off her feet with every attack. He cut into her with claws and blade at almost every time.
But she remained on her feet. She was watching him, studying him, looking for the one opportunity she would need to put him down. Her sword would not fail her. And she knew she had the mind to keep Ariel up a little longer.
She tested his defenses. When she found the chance, she brought her sword around. As deranged as he was, he was still aware her blade would harm him. A decent level of sanity remained in his mind despite the beastly frenzy he exuded. He was able to dodge and parry when needed.
Her breathing was becoming haggard. She was sweating with the droplets burning her eyes. She was starting to feel the weight of her body and the aching of her wounds. How much blood has she lost already? She couldn't even get a chance to drink any of the healing potions strapped to her thigh.
But her heart was racing. The thrill of battle was singing through her. How long had it been since she had been pushed this far? This was what she was supposed to have experienced back in the Thirty-seventh Floor if that woman hadn't shown up.
In the next instant, as her blade clashed against his, he used the extraordinary reach of his inhuman limb to clasp onto her leg. Claws sank into her flesh while her Ariel tore apart his skin. She expected him to keep her in place while he hammered her away with his Chikage. Instead… he twisted himself around and flung her up into the sky.
Her body flipped around in the air. She struggled to regain control, her head whipping around back at the ground with each spin so to not get dizzy or lose sight of her target.
The High Chamberlain stretched his wings and leapt after her. His claw was extended towards her while his Chikage was angled to his side. He flew up to meet her.
She stopped spinning. How many meders up in the air had he thrown him? She might even say she was almost as high up as the city walls. With Ariel, she could survive the fall. But she had to first deal with the monster coming at her.
The High Chamberlain was in his element. He was an aviator, a predatory beast of the air who was using his wings to his full advantage. She, a creature of the earth, had little chance against him. Victory was surely his.
This. This was the chance she needed.
She twisted her body around to avoid the claw. The Chikage came next, going to swipe at her as he expected her to avoid his initial strike. His claw was just a distraction while the blade was the true threat.
When the enemy believes they have achieved victory, only then do they create an opening.
She reinforced her magic, sharpened it, focused it into a fine point. The gale surrounding her gathered all along her sword. A miniature storm brewed along her Desperate.
Just the same, she was giving up defense in order to acquire victory. In the end, it came down to which one of them would deliver the better killing blow.
Their blades clashed once more. But…
Neither the blood nor his monstrous strength was enough to penetrate. Her Desperate continued to travel while his Chikage… snapped in two.
Her Desperate pierced through his skull and travel along his spine. It split his wings.
She had won.
They fell together. His body creating a trail of blood as he descended while she took the time to recalibrate her magic to surround her once more. In doing so, his blood cycled around her, creating a layer of red mist.
Her landing forced her down onto one knee as well as a crater to form. But she had survived. Her Ariel had cushioned most of the impact for her.
She was the center of attention from both armies when she stood. The blood of the High Chamberlain danced around her, staining her once immaculate white gown.
A name was thrown around by both spectating parties.
It meant nothing to her. All that registered in her mind was that the strongest of the enemy army was defeated. By her. Their commanding officer was out of commission and the rest of the enemy would soon follow. What would happen from here on out would be nothing more than a chore.
Her eyes flicked over towards the north-east.
"I'm coming to save you, Bell."
Pat reon: Arrixam