Is it wrong to be a Hero in a dungeon?

Chapter 5: and so it begins…

To be fair he never expected this to happen…

Sure he knew of Caladbolg properties as a sword and had seen it been used as an arrow before and yes he had used it before too.

It was the first time,however, that he used it on an underground dungeon.

His attack had pierced the dungeon walls that had self regenerating properties and continued unabated for many more miles.

Soma prices begun to hike exponentially due to a large section of the Soma Familia vineyard being damaged by a freaky underground explosion.

Shirou had, unknown to him, made the god Soma cringe and burst into near tears at the tremendous loss of his hobby.

But that was not what was important…

Due to her situation and Shirou being uncomfortable of having so many people on their diminutive (as it were) HQ, he decided to stay on an inn with Lilly, while this may be somewhat of a drain on them they could support this with their dungeon crawling especially since they had her as a supporter.

What mattered more was what was not known to the adventurers, something happening on the top of Babel.

Babel Tower top floor

"Ottar. The boy has gotten stronger."

"Is that desirable, ma'am?" Ottar replied

"Why, yes."
The room was dark. The weak light of dusk filtered in from outside the window.

The corners of Freya's lips curled upward in the flickering light from a single magic-stone lamp sitting on a table.

This was the top floor of Babel Tower, built directly above the Dungeon itself.
There were few furnishings in the room. While that might not have seemed suitable for the highest-class suite in the tower, each individual piece of furniture was beyond lavish. Likewise, every item was placed perfectly within the space to complement everything else.

The décor included a massive bookcase, a bed so big that a normal mind could never have thought of it, and a stylish, dark red carpet. Framing the interior were large murals of the sun and moon.
There, the silver-haired goddess Freya held a wineglass in her hand as she enjoyed a conversation with one of her followers.

"I misjudged him. This isn't simply about status. Just by obtaining magic, the boy's soul now shines even brighter…To my eyes, it looks as if he has been polished."
She held her wineglass up in the cold moonbeam, gazing at the light as it reflected off the lazily sloshing liquid.

The young white wine was crystal clear with no depth. And no flavor either, of course.
But Freya smiled with her silver eyes as she brought the glass to her lips, almost as though she considered that pale color itself to be prized above all else.

"His soul's growth…is it so remarkable?"

"Perhaps so. I wonder," she replied to the stone-faced Ottar as he stood quietly in the corner of the room.
He stood at attention, his eyes on his goddess.

Her silver eyes meeting his rust-colored gaze, Freya slowly and deliberately lowered her eyelids.
"However, there is something…just one thing keeping him from shining through. It's holding him back, like shackles on his soul."

"Yes, he has enough spirit to shine. Be that as it may, he lacks a strong core. No, he has a remarkable core, but it looks clouded to me…as though something is missing, or blocking it.

"Any ideas, Ottar?" asked Freya over her shoulder, seeking his opinion, as though needing the perspective of another male.

The male animal person, built like a boulder, opened his lips to answer his mistress.
"Perhaps his attachments."

"His attachments… ?"

"Yes, it is as you have said, Mistress Freya: the boy's attachments, his connection with the Minotaur…He may not even be aware of it himself, but some part of his past has become a thorn, constantly tormenting him from within."

Ottar knew of Bell's encounter with a Minotaur in the dungeon. While Freya herself didn't exactly hear the story from Bell's mouth, she had gotten enough information to put the story together.
It wasn't much more than a guess, but she was fairly certain that Bell, with that weak body of his, had indeed lost to a Minotaur.

Freya ran a curled finger down the side of her cheek, down to her chin.
"He has some trauma, then…The children really are delicate. We may have a few attachments, but gods are not held back by the past. Very interesting…On the other hand, perhaps you see us as merely whimsical?"

"Don't be absurd."

"If you'd humor me every once in awhile, I wouldn't be so bored…"
Ottar's face remained unchanged. "Ah, well…" Freya muttered to herself as she cast her gaze back out the window and onto Bell.

"So tell me, what can we do to free him from these restraints?"
Freya narrowed her eyes as she glanced back at her servant and challenged him with the question.

"A person can only break free from the chains of their past by their own hands. There is no other way."
The ever-stoic Ottar responded directly to his goddess's question.

"…Is that from personal experience?"

"I believe that men are doomed to repeat their own mistakes."

Freya laughed quietly to herself before breaking eye contact.
A cause for concern had just come to light. Freya's good mood carried her deep into thought. If the shadow of this Minotaur monster is the cause, then the answer is simple: I don't have to do anything, save wait. That boy will grow stronger still and climb over that wall…
With enough time, Bell would become strong enough to defeat a Minotaur.

All he had to do was escape from the past that still had him by the tail. There was no problem to solve.

And the moment he slays the Minotaur, he will shine brighter than ever before…
Once that happened, he would appear before her like a flower in full bloom; one radiant enough to make her fall for him all over again.
She couldn't wait, she admitted to herself. Bell was at the center of her universe now; he had become more appealing to Freya than anything else.
She wanted him, very much.
She wanted him to always be close enough to reach out and touch.
Once her thoughts came to his point, Freya asked Ottar another question.
"Ottar."

"What is it, ma'am?"

"Do you not feel anything? I am becoming entranced with that boy, ignoring all of you already in my Familia."

Ottar's face remained unchanged as Freya continued.

"What would you do if that boy becomes stronger than you?"

"…"

"I might treasure him more than you. That place you are standing now might become his."

"As your heart desires, Mistress Freya."

"You wouldn't be jealous?"
Ottar responded with utmost sincerity and trust, without betraying any emotion as he spoke.

"Your love is fair to all. While some may be special, no one is above the rest."

"…"

"Even if you were to dismiss me from this post, I wholeheartedly believe that your love for me will not disappear."
Silver eyes locked with rusty ones.

In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Ottar bent his gargantuan body forward and silently lowered his head.
"I have said too much."

"I don't mind. In fact, quite the opposite. You have become dearer to me."

"Your words bring me great joy."
They casually traded words as though they were so many blows.

Freya let out a conniving laugh as she spun her beautiful voice into her response.
"But it's a shame. You're always so rigid. I would've loved to see you green with envy."

"If that is what you desire."

"…Ha. Hee-hee! Ha-ha-ha! Would you please, Ottar? Please don't make me laugh! If I saw your serious face burn with jealousy, I don't think I could contain myself."

"…"

Freya laughed, seemingly finding the notion truly amusing. She placed the palm of one hand over her mouth and hugged her waist with the other, as though she were a young girl trying to contain herself.
As for Ottar, seeing his goddess like this finally got a reaction out of him, a small twitch of an ear. One of the catlike ears on the top of his head suddenly pointed in a strange direction.
Once Freya had gotten her fill of laughter, she wiped her eyes and turned to face her very embarrassed subordinate to change the subject.

"So Ottar, what do you think?"

"…How do you mean?"

"About the other boy. Am I worried over nothing?"

Ottar immediately repaired his posture.
"He will oppose your plan, he is in good terms with the one you are after… so he may disturb your plans."

"…"

Indeed and that was not even considering that mysterious person who launched such daring attack.

Both boys were interesting, but having never personally seen the other she would remain fixated on Bell.

"Ottar, do you think time will solve this problem, too?"

"Yes, indisputably. Given enough time, it will happen. It's just…"
Ottar let his words hang for a moment before speaking with full confidence.

"Those who do not go on adventures will never break out of their shell. That is a fact."
He fell silent.

His true feelings had been revealed.
Somewhere else in Orario, there was a half-elf with the opposite opinion.
These, though, were the words of a man who had survived many close calls—a mature adult who had been forged in the flames of battle. He clearly stated that those who don't go on adventures would never rise past a certain level.

Ottar had pointed out the possibilities of an unknown that even Freya couldn't see.
Indeed, it wasn't Freya, but Ottar who saw what the boy could become.

"…I leave his development in your hands, Ottar…. Do as you see fit"
The Goddess of Beauty set the glass of white wine down.
Closing both eyes, it was as if she had turned her back on him.
It was only then that Ottar couldn't hide a hint of suspicion on his face.

"…And what caused this change in the wind?"

"It's it obvious? You now understand the boy better than I do."
Freya's head was down, her voice sounding like that of a pouting child.
She then raised her head, laughing in a very glamorous fashion.
"Enough to make me jealous."

Nearby inn

"so… you are done with the Soma Familia" Shirou asked his do minute roommate.

"Yes, Lilly is done with them, thankfully due to what you did down there they believe that I am dead" She said.

"Still… be careful… keep your magic on as a precaution, other than that just keep being our trusty supporter" Shirou said with a kind smile.

Throb

Lilly smiled as her heart beat faster when he saw him smile.

Lilly remembered how he looked… when he managed to save her.

He held such a smile of relief when he saw her alive.

That smile… it was hers and hers alone.

"Lilly is feeling all dokidoki" she thought to herself

"Let's go wash up and then go for something to eat… I swear I need to get a kitchen soon or I will go crazy" Shirou said to himself. "Maybe I can convince Mama Mia to let me cook some more"

They finished doing all their morning routines and went over the church to greet Hestia and Bell, as it was still early.

Hestia did not like her.

To be honest she disliked her a LOT.

She had put Bell and Shirou both in danger and almost had them killed… the worst was that Shirou managed to rescue her after she was caught by her previous targets.

She understood WHY she did what she did, she understood the desperation she had… however that did not excuse her actions.

They all had gone through rough times… and they managed.

But they both were okay with her... they forgave her and gave her a second chance.

"I want you to know this so we are on the same page, I don't like you… but those two are fine with you and are adamant to have you around, they are very forgiving… more so than even me… do NOT betray that trust they given you… understood?" Hestia said.

Lilly bowed her head. "No, Lilly swears not to ever be that Lilly ever again… Lilly wants to be a better Lilly"

The gods and goddesses had the power to detect any lie here in the earthly world of Gekai, if they felt like it.
"…Hmm, okay. I'll believe those words."
Hestia's words put a merciful end to an extremely long minute for Lilly.

All of the air that had built up in Lilly's lungs was suddenly released as the muscles in her shoulders relaxed.
"Supporter, Bell is a very special person to me. He's my pride and joy, the center of my world. My first member, my first family. I can tell you honestly that I don't want to lose him, Shirou is also a dear child of mine, to be honest without him we would always be on the red and Bell's growth would been slower than it is now… both of thrm are children that i adore...so I want to warn you… if you ever endanger them again… I will make you pay"

Lilly couldn't move-

For a moment, she forgot how to breathe.
A very important fact had slipped her mind. While the girl in front of her didn't look much different from anyone else around them, she was from a completely different world. She was a goddess.

It was so obvious that Hestia had the power—like all deities from Deusdia—to turn this entire city to ash in an instant, that Lilly had forgotten it.

Under a blue gaze so cold it sent icicles through her heart, Lilly drew power from her true feelings to make a response. It took all of her might to open her mouth to speak.

"…Lilly swears to you. She will never do anything to put Mr. Bell or Shirou-sama in danger, Lady Hestia in danger…or even Lilly herself, ever again."
Other café patrons continued their casual conversations with no idea what was unfolding behind them.

The two of them sat there in silence for some time before Hestia closed her eyes, signaling the end of that conversation.
Blinking several times, Hestia mouthed, "Okay" to the girl. Seeing that broke the ice that had kept Lilly's body rigid, and she went limp. She was about to fall face-first into the table but managed to catch herself at the last moment.

After delivering her warning, Hestia crossed her arms in front of her incredibly bulbous chest and eyed Lilly silently. She started sulking. Lilly noticed the heavy aura emanating from the goddess.

"…Supporter. I'll be honest with you."

"Y-yes?"

"I hate you. I don't want you anywhere near Bell."

"!"
Lilly's eyes shot open as Hestia continued.

"It should be obvious. I knew you were bad news from the moment I first heard about you—taking advantage of Bell's and Shirou's kindness and doing whatever you please. Even now, you're trying to gain favor by acting like you've already paid your dues. What's your scheme, you deceiving vixen?!"

The cat ears on top of Lilly's head from her "Cinder Ella" magic began to shake. The prum then broke out in a cold sweat, confused by Hestia's choice of words.
"Besides, what's with you? You've been making that downcast face ever since I sat down. I'm getting depressed just looking at you!"
It was like she was claiming Lilly's very presence made the food taste bad.
The goddess kept going, pouting like a toddler.

"I'll bet you were thinking about Bell, weren't you?"

"!"

She wasn't really thinking about him… rather…

"How did I know, you ask? Because I saw a look on your face that I only see when I look in the mirror! Ahhh, I hate this! I don't want you spending time with Bell!"

"Lilly thinks the goddess erred somewhere here"

"Being saved by them made you turn over a new leaf, huh? Did you stop to think that you're just going to cause him more trouble because they are too kind for their own good?"

"?!"

"They won't do anything to you for revenge, so you're feeling the crushing weight of guilt on your shoulders. But if I may say so, you're just taking advantage of them. I really, really hate you."
Hestia's words were blades, cutting deeper and deeper.

Hestia's eyes locked squarely on the prum. Lilly couldn't make a sound.
"Fine, then. I'll punish you in their place. But just so you know, you have no right to refuse. I'll give a pure 'Judgment' right here and now."
Air shot of out Hestia's nose in a flow of anger.

A dazzled Lilly could do nothing more than nod. There might even have been a part of her that accepted the words of Bell's goddess and wanted to go along with them.
Lilly waited for Hestia's mouth to open again, every nerve in her body about to explode.

As for Hestia, she was grinding her teeth together, menacingly towering over Lilly…until words failed her. Hestia let out a deep sigh.

"Please look after them… I have no way to do so when they are out in the Dungeon… I worry for Bell… he is growing fast… but he can make mistakes and Shirou… he is always trying so hard to help provide the Familia… they are both exemplary children… ones that I would never regret meeting nor having them join me… so I ask that as your punishment you care for them… watch their backs for me" she said.

"Lilly will do so even if you hadn't asked" she replied.

Shirou returned with Bell with their food and drinks and sat down.

They noticed that something had changed in the atmosphere around these 2.

"So… Soma Familia… how can we get you out of there permanently? Your current situation, while being better than your previous situation, is still far from ideal" Shirou said.

Bell closed his eyes as though a sudden headache had struck him. Forcing his eyelids half-open, he looked over at Hestia.

"Supporter, what are the conditions for leaving Soma Familia? Is it forbidden altogether? What did your god say about it?" She asked.

"Soma has never said anything directly…But most likely, Lilly thinks it involves a large amount of money." Lilly answered.

"Money, huh…"
Besides members, the main thing that Hestia Familia lacked was money.
Thanks to both her children efforts in the Dungeon, the 3 of them were much better off now than they had been a month ago, but they still had to save as much as possible. The most money they could hope to offer at this point would be around 100,000 vals. They had to save more now since Shirou decided to go to an Inn… true they shared the costs of it but it was a bit of a strain on their income.

And even if by some miracle Bell, Shirou and Hestia were able to raise enough money to pay for Lilly's release, there was no way that Lilly would be willing to accept it.

"Is it that difficult to break away from a Familia… ? I know someone who has…" Bell said.

"It's up to the god. Some will listen to that kind of request, others won't." Hestia said.

The risk of leaving a Familia was all on the person leaving; it was also hazardous to the Familia itself. The biggest risk was, of course, information being leaked.
No matter how dissolute the god or goddess was, this level of Familia management needed to be handled very delicately. Generally speaking, deities preferred to avoid their members leaving the group.

"The person you're talking about might have circumstances that they can't discuss." Hestia spoke to Bell after a quick glance at Lilly. Both Bell and the prum understood what she was getting at.
Lilly still belonged to the same Familia, but at the same time was separate. She was no different from a street cat, a stray adventurer.

As for the person who had received permission to leave their Familia—Mama Mia, the owner of The Benevolent Mistress—Bell had a feeling that Hestia was right. Considering a few things that Syr Flover and the others had let slip in conversation, it's very possible Mia might have some "special circumstances."

Even without asking directly, Bell was getting a good sense of just how difficult life was for people who left their Familia.

"…What about people who didn't choose to be a part of the Familia? They don't have a say it in it?" Bell asked.

"A child is part of the family. Farmer's children become farmers. That's how it is, Mr. Bell." Lilly explained.
If a child's parents were already members of a Familia, that child was destined to join, whether they liked it or not.
Looking at it from the god's or goddess's perspective, the child was the parent's responsibility. It wasn't as though the god had asked to have a crying baby in their home, so they weren't likely to take care of it.

To be blunt, it wasn't the god's concern.
In the end, permission to leave a Familia came down to the god's disposition. Did they have a generous streak, or not?
Because if the member was unlucky, they could be asked for an unreasonably large sum of money, or be given an impossible task to complete as their god watched from a distance, enjoying the show.
Bell looked over at the smiling Lilly with concern in his eyes.

"Without Soma's assistance, you can't update your status…and I suppose you can't covert." Bell said

"Probably not…" Lilly answered.

"But you're not planning to stay at this level forever, right? Are you planning to pay him a visit at some point?" Shirou asked.

"Yes. Lilly knows it's not an option right now, but Lilly will go to Soma when the time is right. Lilly's not sure if he'll listen to her, though…"

With Lilly's words, the conversation came to a sudden end. The four of them sat in their chairs, deep in thought.

"I wonder would Rule Breaker even work on a divine level contract? Should I toy with the possibility? How much power would I need to do so… and how will it affect Lilly? Will her stats vanish and be reset to 0? In the end I will need to experiment… perhaps I should try it on adventurers like the ones who tried to harm Lilly" Shirou thought to himself.

"Shirou… are you okay? You seem deep in thought" Hestia asked.

"Hestia… have there been any cases of someone having their Falna removed?" Shirou asked.

Hestia did not quite understand so she asked Shirou to elaborate.

"Well… as I see it the Falna is like a contract… correct? As in "Join me and you will be able to grow" type of deal… the Falna being both the contract and the reward for joining" he elaborated.

Hestia noded.

"Is it possible to render the Falna null and void without harming the person with the Falna? Be it with a magical item or something like that?" Shirou asked.

Lilly looked intently at Hestia.

"As far as my knowledge goes… no, I am afraid I do not know… but that isn't my specialty… you will need someone who deals in arcane and occult stuff… but Shirou… what you say is dangerous… please do not bring that up again, someone would misinterpret what you meant to say" she warned.

Shirou noded.

Rule Breaker… the athame knife a gift from the gods to Medea.

She used it, according to legend to kill her own sons from the man who betrayed her and fled, it was later used by one of her sons who heard her story to kill her uncle and save her.

Due to its legend of treachery and deceit it gained the ability to sever all contracts without any penalty to either side.

But would the same apply to Falna?

He would be going to Eina and see if there was a bounty hunting reward for rogue adventurers… perhaps he could experiment with those.

"Wow… I am starting to sound more like a proper magus" he thought to himself.

It has been 3 days since they rescued Lilly… and one morning Bell took Aiz's invitation to train with her.

They meet on a wall on the outskirts of town, the place was desolate and perfect for them, while Loki and Hestia were hostile to each other their Familia were 'enemies'... so as to not cause any undue stress they decided to train were no one would see them to object.

And so they started.

"let me see what you got" she said.

Bell took his knife out.

Taking a runners stance, he lowered his body.

"he looks… like a bunny" Aiz thought.

He rushed in.

He put his off hand on the butt of the knife as he attacked.

A jackknife attack, but doing that he would have the strength of both arms in this single attack.

"fast.. but not fast enough" she thought as she jumped over Bell.

Bell, seeing his attack dodged simply rolled forward to avoid her overhead attack. He skidded on the ground until he came to a stop and rushed in.

Aiz was a sword fighter, giving less reach to an opponent who had a weapon with longer reach will unsettle then and won't let them use their whole strength.

As he continued to attack and dodge he remembered another lecture from Shirou, about giving the opponent a smaller target to hit.

So he crouched and laid as low ass possible to limit the amount of areas that could be hit while maintaining mobility.

However Aiz was a superior warrior and after a few minutes she begun to adjust properly to Bell.

He was through trashed afterwards.

He was knocked out.

He woke up to something soft on the back of his head… apparently Aiz had decided to do a 'lap pillow' for Bell.

Bell jerked awake.

"You are awake… good, let me tell you a few things, your combat style suits you very much, however you rely too much on your weapon, most people who use knives like you tend to mix melee attacks and martial arts with it in order to cover certain weaknesses and gaps, you should look into that… it seems the style you use was self developed right? You should keep working on it… we should do this again soon" she said.

They started on the morning… it was now near dusk.

Both of them walked into town proper, Bell told her all about Shirou and his lessons and about how strong he was.

"Yes really helped me a lot… without his guidance and training I don't think I would have lasted as long as I did against you" Bell said.

Aiz simply nodded.

"What can you say about him? Your partner Shirou?" she asked.

"Him? He is strong… very strong, I don't know why but he has a very heavy 'feel' on him, he likes to cook and has a very strong sense of justice, and is always ready to give a hand to anyone in need" he said.

As they walked into town and took their paths back to their own HQs something was happening underneath them. The plan of a goddess.

Dungeon

Up, down, left, right—any direction he looked, his vision was filled by rugged dungeon walls covered in all sizes of rocks.

Despite the extremely high ceiling, the walls always looked like they were closing in. Boulders jutting out of the walls could fall at any moment, their overwhelming presence looming in every direction. Sources of light were scarce and unreliable, making every shadow ominous.

Of course, the footing wasn't smooth, either. The path here was an uneven gravel trail that made simply walking forward a challenge.
A cave, a mine, a deep shaft.
Many words came to mind while traveling through this level of solid rock with no pattern in its layout whatsoever.

"A long time has passed since I prowled this floor…"
The seventeenth floor of the Dungeon.

Ottar, an animal person of unusual size, continued his solitary quest on the floor, a floor typically used by Level Two adventurers.

Passing under one of the lantern-like luminescent rocks, the man's impressive frame emerged from the shadows.
He wore only light armor for protection. Despite being able to wear full-body plating, he chose to wear only enough armor to protect his vital points.

On the other hand, each piece of armor he did have was incredibly thick. It looked almost as though he had shields built into his body. Whether or not his equipment could be categorized as "light" armor, even he didn't know.

He carried an extremely large and durable bag over his shoulder. It was stuffed to its absolute limit, on the verge of bursting.

"Then again, I'm not sure how long it's been since I was in the Dungeon at all."
Ottar's powerful steps made his body shake as he walked. However, where there should have been a small tremor or two in his wake, the man's feet didn't make a sound. An ominous, silencing aura followed his every movement.

His was a presence that could not be ignored, could never go unnoticed.
No monsters appeared before him, almost as if they were getting out of his way in fear.

"…Jealous, huh?"
His eyes and ears might have been busy scanning every nook and cranny of his surroundings, but Ottar's mind was on his recent conversation with Freya.
She'd asked him if he felt jealous.

He'd responded with complete honesty at the time. No matter what happened, he would never doubt Freya's love for him, and would continue to serve and worship her.
The Goddess Freya's love was like a wind embracing the world.
Even if someone reached out to catch it, they would fail. Her love would envelop them like a soft breeze, but the moment they thought her love was theirs, it would slip through their fingers.

Wind could not be contained. It was no one's possession. It could not be stopped.
Above all, wind sought no companion.
Wind chose a direction on a whim and drew its own path under the sky. If it should find a traveler on an open plane, it would smile and go to embrace him. But as soon as the traveler turned to face it, the wind had already moved on.
At the same time, the wind was fair.
It brought the good fortune of a cooling breeze to everyone it passed.
Sometimes, it was harsh; other times, gentle. It could flow down from the north, or waft up from the south.
It would always whisper in your ears as it blew by. Wind never stopped. Wind was eternal.

As long as Ottar and the other children were on this earth, no matter where they went, the wind would always reach them.

"The fact that I'm here now, is that the answer?"
What if the wind had a sky to go home to? A sky that the wind yearned for?
As a person of this world, all he could do was look up at that sky.
If looking up at it from far below triggered a petty emotion from within, then yes, it very well could be envy.

Envy and jealousy were sides of the same coin.

Childish…

A painful smile broke through his hard, emotionless exterior. This would have been very surprising, if anyone had been there to see it.

In truth, he had accepted this the moment he agreed to follow Freya's command. The wind had blown past him.

Keh! A single laugh filled with self-mockery echoed through the cave.

"…Hmm."
Ottar stopped walking.
The two boar ears sticking out of his black, thin, almost frame-like helmet twitched in response to something up ahead.

His feet changed direction to the source of the sound. Sure enough, not far from the tip of his boots, the red-black head of a bull emerged from a hole in the wall that had been hidden between two boulders.

"Mmroooo…!"

"There you are."

The bloodshot eyes of the beast found their new prey: Ottar.

Minotaur. A large-category monster with the body of a muscular man and the head of a bull. This one stood even with Ottar—perhaps even slightly taller. Starting with their height, the two combatants had a lot in common.

This was the reason Ottar had been prowling a level of the Dungeon filled with monsters far below his own level.
He was here to catch one of these violent beasts.

"Mmmmmrrrrrgh…!"
The Minotaur was getting excited.
A landform was in its grasp. This natural weapon found within the Dungeon itself was shaped like a stone ax.
The edge of the weapon was covered in a crimson liquid. Either it had just finished off an adventurer, or it had covered the ax with its own blood. Ottar couldn't see any damage on the beast itself.

This is the one, Ottar thought as his rusty eyes narrowed.
Reaching for his belt, Ottar let the bag over his shoulder fall to the floor with a loud thud. Along with the sound of the ground cracking on impact, metallic jangling sounds also echoed.

The sound of the crash was as good as a starting whistle for the Minotaur. It squinted its eyes as it charged headlong at Ottar.

"Mrroooooooooah!"
The beast's strides hit the ground with such force that fragments of broken rocks flew backward in its wake. The Minotaur held the ax high over its head with one hand as it closed the distance.

Faced with a charging Minotaur roaring loud enough to make the walls shake, Ottar didn't bat an eye.

Holding his pack upright with his right hand, Ottar let his left arm hang loosely. He waited, unarmed, for the imminent arrival of the Minotaur.

The instant that the Minotaur planted its foot—hard enough to leave a small crater—in front of Ottar to strike, the massive man calmly raised his left arm.

"Mrooooh…Mroa?!"

"…Well done. You've been chosen."
Ottar blocked the stone ax completely.
In fact, it was the ax that took damage. The blade cracked, bits and pieces falling to the floor.

The Minotaur had put all of its weight into that attack, only to be blocked by Ottar's armor-lined arm.

While the armor itself had to be considered, this level of Defense was otherworldly. Ottar stood flat-footed on impact, but his massive body didn't budge. Without taking a defensive stance, he had taken the Minotaur's attack head-on.

Ottar looked like he was a gigantic tree, rooted to the spot, as he delivered his appraisal of the Minotaur.

It might have been instinct, but the Minotaur took one, then two steps backward, its eyes shaking in fear.
It had learned a little too late that the creature in front of it was even more of a monster than it was.

"Groh… ?!"

"You are welcome to try again. If not…"
Ottar's penetrating gaze made the Minotaur freeze in terror.
Ottar watched as the stone ax fell from the Minotaur's limp fingers, and got an idea.

He reached behind his waist. Keeping his eyes locked on the Minotaur, Ottar grabbed one of the twin swords strapped to his belt—a greatsword, really—pulled it out, and tossed it in the Minotaur's direction.

"…Uwwa?"
"You demonstrated good technique. Now use this."

With an eerie charm that would've unnerved anybody watching, the Minotaur cocked its head in confusion at the hilt that was thrust at it.

Its eyes jumped nervously between Ottar and the sword over and over again, before it timidly reached out and took hold of the hilt.

The Minotaur's fingers carefully wrapped around the handle, and then it took a firm grasp.

"On my life, Mistress Freya, I will not hold back."

Freya had said it herself: She'd left the boy Bell's growth in Ottar's hands.

As he had replied in that conversation, there was only one way for him to grow.

Freya gave him the order, knowing full well what could happen.

This Minotaur would fight Bell.
The path Ottar was preparing for Bell was a cruel one, full of thorns.

"…These might be more than mere preparations."

Up until this point, Ottar had encountered many Minotaurs, but felt them unworthy.

And all to remove the last chain within the boy's soul. To bring out the "glow" that Freya desired.

For Level One adventurers, defeating a Level Two monster like the Minotaur was next to impossible. Due to the difference in pure strength and ability, a Level One adventurer would have to have a death wish to even challenge one of them.

Despite this, Ottar had given his chosen Minotaur a weapon.

Ottar's "guidance" was so severe, it bordered on tyranny.
Ottar had to admit a faintly absurd emotion had taken root in his heart. He had been forced to think about a boy named Bell.

Was he, perhaps, trying to erase the boy from Freya's sight?
Ottar asked himself that question, and answered with a resounding no.

Should the boy die, there was no doubt that Freya would pursue his soul. She would be willing to go all the way to the heavens to hold him in her embrace. If she weren't, she would never allow Ottar to put him into such a dangerous situation.

At this point, it didn't matter if Bell lived or died. No matter what happened, the goddess of love would be waiting for him.

This was not jealousy.
This was a trial.
If you're worthy of her love, survive this.

Ottar wanted proof that Bell was deserving of special treatment. Proof that he was right for Freya.

He didn't care if he lost her affection. He was willing to accept that all of her love would go to Bell alone.

However, he refused to allow someone unworthy of her attention to dirty the name of the goddess he worshiped.

"Now that you have her attention, it is your duty to prove yourself worthy." It was this emotion that drove Ottar.

"Mroooaaaah!"

"…Correction. I'll have you use the weapon correctly."
Ottar easily deflected the Minotaur's first errant swing of the greatsword.

In order to prepare the beast in front of him for its role, Ottar was prepared to "train" it and fully intended to do so.

The sound of swords clashing echoed, flashes of sparks from steel colliding with steel erupted for hour upon hour.
All for Freya.

Ottar simply followed orders to the best of his ability.

"the problem will be the other one… for a level 1 adventurer to make a powerful level 5 adventurer as Bete withdraw… contingencies will be needed"

"Moooh" the Minotaur roared.

"Apologies… that was rude of me… you have my undivided attention"

With that he continued to 'train' this monster to become the 'tool' needed to polish the boy.

Top side… 2 days later

Bell's POV

"Mr. Bell, why are you a mess before going into the Dungeon?" Lilly asked.

"Ha-ha-ha…Well, you know, this and that."
I weakly laugh off Lilly's question to reassure her.

Somehow I've made it through two days of Aiz's pulverization…I suppose I can call it "intense training."

Shirou just took one look at me and chuckled as he shook his head.

Lilly gives me a look like she knows I'm hiding something, and I can't blame her. The way my body looks now, she probably thinks I was run over by stampeding monsters or something.
But I can't tell her the truth. I don't want to tell her. I don't want her to know just how unbelievably uncoordinated I am.

I couldn't block a single strike. Not one. And now I'm an absolute wreck.

Aiz has learned how I fight and has been beating the ever loving cap out of me to teach me, painfully, how to correctly block.

I knew going into these training sessions that it would be foolish to think I'd get better right away…But to come away every time no better than a breathing punching/kicking bag, what confidence I had is gone.

I knew I wasn't that strong, but I didn't realize just how far I have to go.
There's her level, and then there's my level. There's still enough distance between us to make my head spin just thinking about it.

I walk into the lobby of Babel Tower alongside Lilly, feeling slightly depressed.
The lobby is absolutely massive. The floor is covered in large circular patterns of deep blue and white. But the most beautiful feature of the lobby has to be the stained-glass windows made to look like flowers that line the walls.

Many adventurers are here now, either on their way into the Dungeon or coming out of it. By the looks of it, most of them are, like us, about to head down into the labyrinth. However, there are some who look like they've been in the Dungeon overnight.

The contrast of the smiling, happy battle parties and the slouching, downtrodden battle parties is very striking.

The amount of loot adventurers bring back from the Dungeon tells all. Nodding slowly to myself as Lilly Shirou and I make our way through the crowd, I promise myself that we won't look like the depressed ones at the end of today.

It's a problem we all share, and nothing to scoff at. Nothing at all.

"Lilly's sorry, Mr. Bell, for making you carry Lilly's things when you're so tired."

"Don't be, it's my fault I'm tired…and anyway, I can still carry an empty backpack."
Lilly looks back at me with a very apologetic expression as we descend the first stairwell leading to the Dungeon entrance, her shoulders sinking. I crack a big smile and jump up and down a few times, saying, "See? So light!"

We've switched places—or at least that's how we're dressed right now. Basically, I'm carrying Lilly's bag, so I look like a supporter.

Meanwhile, Lilly's not wearing her usual cream-colored robe, but a sturdy-looking leather jacket on top of lightweight clothing. The icing on the cake is that she's wearing my protector like a sheath across her back, the baselard sticking out of it…so she looks to everyone else like an honest-to-goodness adventurer.
Why are we putting on this façade? To keep Lilly's existence a secret from Soma Familia.

Of course, Lilly is using her magic to disguise herself, but at her height and carrying something as distinct as that oversized backpack of hers, anyone with a good brain in their head might be able to connect the dots.

Prums, being one of the shorter races of people, don't usually carry bags almost twice their own size. The same goes for children of other races.

We're being extra careful, and that's why we came up with this act.

"And we'll switch out soon anyway, no need to worry about me."

Since we're just posing as each other's role, we need to be out of sight before we change back.

The best spot seems to be right before the tenth level, somewhere on the ninth floor. The fog on the tenth floor is another bonus; we don't have to worry about other parties of adventurers catching a glimpse of us by accident.

We divide up the loot evenly for the return trip so that things don't look that strange when we get back to the top.

Only a few days have passed since Lilly's "death," so I think going a little overboard to protect Lilly's identity is just about right.

"Mmm…Lilly is in debt to Mr. Bell and Shirou-sama, and so recent, too. Lilly feels bad doing this to Mr. Bell…"
The tone of Lilly's voice falls, almost to the point of pouting as she spoke. The wolf ears on top of her head fold down, tips below the base.

I laugh helplessly and take another look at her.

For me, the baselard is a short sword, but it suddenly looks a lot bigger strapped to Lilly's back. That realization makes me smile. The hilt of the baselard is sticking out from under long, ash-colored hair.

With eyes like golden harvest moons, she must have decided to try to be a lycanthrope today, a werewolf.
The long hair was such a change to her usual image that I didn't recognize her at first. Kind of like going from an energetic, prankster type of child to a mature, book-loving, almost royal appearance.

A few other things here and there are different, too; she's completely different from the Lilly I'm used to.

"Ah, um…what, is it a bit too much?"
She must have noticed my eyes. She's looking up at me, a bit unsure of herself as her voice quietly shakes.

I don't know if she's talking about her adventurer outfit or the werewolf transformation, but I just smile and shake my head.
I tell her that she doesn't look strange at all.

Shirou then spoke

"You just look so different…a fresh look, maybe? Actually, I think you look pretty cute."

"R-really?" she said

"Yeah, you look good like this." he nodded.

She nervously looks up at him before her eyes start to twinkle with happiness.

Lilly turns back to face forward, but her wolf ears perk up and I can see a tail swishing back and forth under her skirt.
I don't think I meant to, but seeing how Lilly responded to a compliment, seeing how happy she is, makes the corners of my mouth curve up without my even thinking.

I feel like I've got a cute little sister. And that feels…nice.

I'm watching all the adventurers who pass by us…Maybe we look like brother and sister to them.

"A hare and a wolf…"

"Wolf and bunny…"

"The rabbit is the supporter…Oh, I wonder if he'll get eaten"

"Emergency food supply in a last-resort scenario…how miserable!"

"Scary, scary. Can't judge adventurers just on looks and status, now can ya? Better keep my guard up."

…This is weird.
Why do I feel like I'm being insulted?
Whisper-whisper. I can hear all of you, right here, you know?

I've never felt this kind of kind gaze from adventurers—it's like I'm the center of attention in a pity party.

Especially the remark of that male elf a second ago. What did he mean by "how miserable"?

It didn't help the fact that Shirou had turned around and was, to my point of view, forcibly trying to suppress a chuckle.

At least my smile is carrying me through this, but a new question jumps into my head as I take another look at "adventurer" Lilly.

I open my mouth to ask her. I can tell she's still in a really good mood just by looking at the side of her face.

"Hey, Lilly. You can't upgrade your status anymore, can you?"

"What's Mr. Bell talking about?"

"…You know, since you can't go to Soma Familia, you can't meet up with your god, right?"

Careful not to be overheard; I lean close to her ears as I speak.
It's impossible for Lilly to go anywhere near Soma for the time being. Therefore, the status on her back won't change.

As an adventurer, not being able to update my status would be a death sentence. I imagine it's the same for supporters, too. As I go to deeper floors, the monsters get stronger, which means it's more dangerous…

"Aren't you worried?" I ask her with concern in my eyes.

"To tell the truth, Lilly is a little worried…but it's probably fine. At the very least, Lilly's okay for now."

"R-really?"

"Yes, Lilly is good at finding ways to deal with monsters…After all, Lilly hasn't had a status update in almost half a year now and been okay."

"H-half a year?!"
Her words throw me for a loop.

I don't think I need to spell it out, but without a status update, she won't get stronger after everything she's been through. All the times she's taken a hit, fought a monster—it's all been meaningless. Talk about high risk, no reward.

Lilly grimaces when she sees the shock on my face and explains.

"To get a status update in Soma Familia, Lilly had to make quota."

"Wha…isn't that… ?"

"Yes, it's Soma's…condition."
According to Lilly, Soma doesn't do many status updates for anyone at first.

It seems strange to me, but it sounds like he only does status updates on an "as-needed" basis. He commits all of his time and money to his one true passion, making wine. So if someone like Lilly isn't making money for him, it's a waste of his time to make her stronger. Without money from his adventurers, he can't make wine.

On top of that, his Familia is quite large. To update all of their statuses probably takes a very long time and would have been a real pain…

So with all that in mind, he apparently announced, "Once you meet your quota, I'll have a look at your status."

"So Lilly, you couldn't update your status without making a certain amount of money?"

"Not quite, Mr. Bell. Lilly didn't want to stand out."

"Stand out?"

"Meeting the quota regularly means that that person has skills. Lilly can't fight, and everyone knew that. So if they saw Lilly making her quota, they would get suspicious."

"What a despicable lot… that Soma Familia is" Shirou said as his hands curled into fists.

"Ah…" The sound escapes me before I can stop it. That's what she was getting at.

So in that case, Lilly…
"Actually, Lilly made enough to pay the quota every time, but Lilly never turned it in. If Lilly carried money, that would give her away. Not being able to update Lilly's status was a sacrifice Lilly made to hide what she was doing."
Even going to those member meetings was just to keep up appearances.

She says that she updated her status a few times after she learned her magic, but not even once over the past six months.

Not updating your status out of concern for what others in your Familia will think… ? That Familia is broken.

I'd known that she was alone over there, but hearing this lets me know just how alone.

With such a meager status, she must have been able to survive day after day in the Dungeon only because she'd grown up in such a cruel environment.
She's made it this long because of her intelligence and strategies. The confidence to go into the Dungeon armed with only those, knowing your status would never improve, had to be the result of that strange upbringing.

I feel my face tighten into a frown.

"Do you despise her after all?" she asked.

"Eh?"

"The Lilly who fooled everyone and anyone. Lilly's a monster in disguise…"
Almost as if she can foresee where the conversation is going, Lilly changes the subject.
Her golden eyes don't even glance at us. She just keeps looking straight ahead.
Her voice is so soft. I can't say anything back.

"Lilly hates adventurers. With the exception of Mr. Bell and Shirou-sama, Lilly still carries a grudge…an intense loathing of them."

"No matter what Mr. Bell or Shirou-sama thinks of it, Lilly has no intention of apologizing for anything she's done…and has no remorse, either."

That's a lie.
Something inside me knows that she isn't telling the truth, but alas, I can't say it.

I can see the stern expression on her face as she voices her harsh emotions. Without much of a pause, she starts right back up again.

"Would Shirou-sama despise this Lilly after all?" she asks one more time, not breaking stride.

Her voice is normal now. Her eyes look like they're facing forward…but something's…does she notice?

The wolf ears on top of her head won't sit still. They're twitching, almost out of fear.
Blinking rapidly, I let words build up in my mind before releasing them.
I know it's not the time for a smile, but it just kind of comes out of me as I speak.

"…It's hard for me to despise people who can't be honest with themselves, I think."

"Heh… true… you remind me of someone I cared for a while back… she had a personality like yours… really rotten" Shirou said with a smirk.

"Eh?"
Her feet stop, and her head whips to face me.

"It's okay, Lilly. I like who you are, so I can't despise you, let alone hate you."
It's just how I feel.

To help her wipe away any concerns or misgivings she might have, I give her the honest truth.

Shirou had the same idea trying to alleviate the tension.

But I didn't know Lilly's gaze could be this strong! It feels like she's looking clear through me as her face turns red. The wolf ears that were folded down and shaking suddenly perk up.

I'm startled. Lilly's tail is going crazy under her skirt.

Lilly's eyes are still on Shirou, her cheeks a rosy pink as she shrinks away.
"Asking Shirou-sama what he means would be…a stupid question, wouldn't it?"

"Who knows… you can sure try" he said with a bit of sarcasm.

Just looking at her from behind, I'd say that she's in an even better mood than before.

Did we cheer her up? Before I know it I fall behind and rush to catch up.

"Shirou-sama's voice rings clear in Lilly's heart."
Her voice is always soft.

Deeper into the dungeon

"Hyaaaaa!"

"Giiii!"

Little demon monsters—imps—fly at me, shrieking at the top of their lungs.
Their bodies are black from top to tail. A small horn sticks out of their oversized heads, their bodies small by comparison, giving them an unbalanced look. But they're capable of pulling off quick, sharp movements that I would have never thought possible just by looking at them.

Their tails whip around, following their bodies' twists and turns, the little hooks on the ends flicking back and forth.

"!"
Coming at me side by side, they look like they're hopping up and down in midair. I arm myself with the Divine Knife and the baselard as I face them down.

I sidestep toward the right-hand imp.
Now they can't attack me at the same time, and the one in front of me is in the other one's way.

This is as good as one-on-one. Brandishing all sorts of claws and teeth, the first imp comes up to my face with its right arm held high.

"Giii!"

"Much. Too. Slow!"
—This is nothing compared to the speed of her kicks! This is nothing against the onslaught of never ending chain of attacks from Shirou.

It's planning to take a swipe at my face with its claws, so I swing the Divine Knife up to meet them.

The instant my eyes see the flashing purple arc of the blade, not only does the imp lose its claws, but the severed fingers of its right hand go flying.

"Ge, Gii?!"
Amid the imp's sharp screams of pain and surprise, I keep my momentum going by sending my body into a full spin.
I've seen so many flashes of blond hair that the form has been pounded into my mind. It's about time I tried doing her move myself.

Spinning over my right leg, I slam a powerful spinning jump kick into the monster in front of me in one swift motion.

"Higya?!"

"?!"
My left foot hits the light monster square in the chest and violently sends it flying backward.

And straight into the other imp just behind it. That imp manages to make an aerial recovery after its fingerless friend smashes into it, but I'm already going into my next attack.

Tucking my right arm behind my back, I thrust the baselard straightforward!

"Gigi?!"

My strike impales both of them.
Both bodies convulse in their death throes.

Silver liquid and guts drip out of their wounds, and their bodies' spasms make the hilt of my blade shake.
"Mr. Bell! Behind you!"

—I know!
Lilly doesn't have to warn me. I can feel the presence of another monster coming at me.

Widen your vision. Don't leave any openings.

I let go of the baselard as I spin to greet the newcomer, readying my knife in the processes.

Going on the offensive, I jump at the new imp, slashing with both blades once.

"Gee—!"

"Whoa…Nice one, Mr. Bell." Lilly said.

Legs. Body. Head.

I jump through the monster; all three parts of its body hit the ground as I land a meder beyond.

I'm already scanning the area, looking for more. There are still many black shadows in the fog. Their numbers haven't gone down much.

Lilly picks up the baselard for me, and I jump straight at the shadows in the mist.

We're on the tenth floor.

The floor on this level is covered with grass, and its rooms and hallways are wider than any level I've seen so far. I can't tell where it's coming from, but a thick, white fog fills the air everywhere I look.

Choosing a particularly spacious dead-end room as our base, Lilly and I are working this floor of the Dungeon today.
This is my opportunity to use what Aiz has taught me over the past two days in battle against real monsters.

After getting through that life-or-death situation, it's my duty to use what I learned from her and try harder.

"HYAAAAAAA!"
Lilly and I are currently fighting against a swarm of imps. These little monsters are far more common than orcs down here.

They use sheer numbers as a weapon—I feel like I'm getting nowhere against them, no matter how many I take down.

Imps are clever. They might look like goblins, but there is one big difference between the two: these little bastards are smart. They know how to use a strategy.

They never attack a target one at a time; they swarm in packs. As a group, they are a serious threat. Unlike other groups of monsters I've fought before, these things have a plan. It's actually kind of impressive.

And on a floor where a big white cloud gives them constant cover, it's said that a pack of imps is more feared than even the gigantic orcs that wander around.

"Gii!"

"Hnh!"
I definitely agree. They're so fast that if I block an attack with my protector, they're already retreating back into the fog by the time I launch a counterattack. It's enough to make my mouth twitch in frustration.

Then they use the fog to sneak up on me from any and all directions. That's how I know imps are clever. They spread out and work as a team.

If I move somewhere that they can't surround me, they start clicking their tongues and shrieking at me from behind the cloud. There are eight of them, for now. More and more are coming.

Shirou was,once again, not killing anything other than anything that decided to attack Lilly.

There was no need for him to do anything since he could go 5 floors deeper on his own.

Which made me wonder… has he updated his Falna at all since the last time?

It has been a couple of weeks, nearly a month.

A few of them took that as an opportunity to attack as my focus was elsewhere.

The Imps are clever… but were limited in intelligence… we had made a plan for this.

Lilly, being behind hidden by the fog, further protected by Shirou, attacked any that got by my guard with her mounted bow.

Golden arrows flew and pierced the imps thinning their numbers.

This was great… he had people that he could rely on.

While Lilly played a role of the little sister for him… he thought that Shirou would be the role of the big brother.

They decided to wrap up after a good while of dungeon crawling.

Orario outer city walls

Bell was once again sparring with Aiz.

He had taken the beat down as a lesson and decided to spice things a little.

While still maintaining an agile hit and run tactic that he developed fighting monsters and his daily training he had with Shirou.

He rushed in going in low, he went for her legs.

She used the sheath of her sword to block and vault over him.

He didn't stop and kicked overheard to surprise her by getting her off balance in mid air.

The git managed to get her unbalanced.

"shit… I can't believe that worked"

With newfound confidence he rushed in.

While she had been caught flat-footed, as she did not think Bell would be quick on the uptake, this was not the first time she was caught like that and thus decided to teach Bell not to take things for granted.

To be honest Aiz was fainted how Bell managed to grow as an adventurer, his growth was fast.

Inhumanly fast.

Adding his misterios Familia member that had trained Bell somewhat and he was close to being a level 2 adventurer very soon.

She wanted to see this.

They continued they dance for a while longer.

"…Can I ask you a question?" Aiz said.

"Huh?"
My train of thought had taken me far away when Aiz's voice brings me back into the present.
Turning to face her directly, I find that she's hiding her sadness with a very serious expression.

"How are you getting strong so quickly?" she asked.

"S-strong… ?"
Her choice of words made my eyes spin for a moment.
Strong—I didn't know someone could use that word when talking about me. This has never happened before. How am I supposed to react? While Shirou had been training me a lot this time I had not tought I become much stronger…

All the most pathetic experiences I've ever had flash through my head. I just want to curl up in a hole and bury myself right now. But that look in her eye makes me stop and think for a moment.
How I got strong…No, why I've tried to become strong up until now…
"…You see, there's a person that I want to catch up to. . I put all my effort into chasing them, and now I'm like this…So…"
My brain's going a mile a minute; my words aren't coming out right.

Then again, the "person" I'm chasing is sitting right next to me, but I can't say that directly to her! Way too embarrassing.
Feeling a bit disoriented, I manage to string a few more words together.
"…I think it's because there's a goal I have to reach, no matter what."

I think I see Aiz's eyes open a bit wider when she hears me.

She sits silently for a moment before leaning her head backward.
"I see."
She wraps her arms lightly around her knees and just looks up at the sky.

A slightly stronger breeze rolls through; Aiz's blond hair tickles my nose.
"…I know the feeling."

"Huh?" The sound jumps out of my throat in response to her sudden words.

"I, too…"
A strong burst of wind blew in, and took the rest of her words with it. I have no idea what she said after that.

This wind is strong enough to make me shut my eyes.
It's a sudden cool breeze from the west. The wind sounds like a flute as it passes through the wide avenues of the city.

When I finally reopen my eyes, there she is, sitting in exactly the same position like nothing happened. Her eyes are still gazing skyward.
"E-er…"

"?"

"Ah, um, it's nothing."
She tilts her head, showing almost no emotion on her small face. I can't say anything.

What's the point in asking her? I ask myself as I sit in front of this girl, with a look in her eyes that I've never seen on her before. They've made so many expressions—but not this one. It stops my thoughts in their tracks.

Our conversation stops there. Just when I was starting to feel restless.
A bell rings from Orario's eastern bell tower. It's noon.

I let the deep echoes of the bell fill my ears. It sounds a lot like church bells, actually. But at the same time, I hear the sound of horses coming from outside the city, beyond the wall. There must be some merchants trying to enter the city gates, and the Guild is conducting an inspection of their cargo.

We're sitting on a wide stone path on the top of Orario's city wall. There's a barrier about chest-high on both sides of the path. A gorgeous view of the city spreads out on the inside of the wall. Looking the other way, I can see a large mountain range surrounded by dense forests and wide plains going far into the distance.
Listening to the unusual mix of bells and outside commotion, it hits me: the weather is spectacular today.

My eyelids droop as I feel the bright warmth of the sun and gaze at the white, puffy clouds in the distance.
"Haah…"

I turn my head to find the source of that sound, only to see Aiz with her hand over her mouth.
Her small mouth is open, lips quivering slightly…she's yawning.
Bathed in the warmth of the sun, she puts her arm back around her knees like nothing happened.
Shortly thereafter—
"Shall we practice napping?" she said.

"Huh?"
My eyes shrink into little dots on my face as I consider her rather strange suggestion.

Turning her head to face me, Aiz suddenly starts speaking with vigor.

"You have to be able to sleep anywhere at any time, while in the Dungeon, after all." she said

"It's important to recover your strength quickly." she said sagely.

She might have a good point.
I usually spend the day prowling the Dungeon and go home at night, but if I want to go deeper, I'll need to spend nights down there, too. That means that I'll need to be able to sleep knowing that there are monsters in there, too, and without a nice warm bed. It's a problem that I, as an adventurer, will have to face sooner or later.

Aiz explains the importance of getting to sleep quickly, regardless of location, with all seriousness.
But as for me, I can't even look at her without my face contorting into an embarrassed smile.
"Are you…maybe…sleepy?"

"…"
She then slowly turns her whole body my way and says:
"This is training."

"R-right."
Her face is just a few celches away from mine. Sweating profusely, I nod again and again until she backs away.
She looks a bit angry. Did I hit a nerve… ? But her cheeks…it's only just a little, but they're turning pink.

I…I can't breathe…! What am I, an idiot… ?!

"W-well um…are we going to sleep here?"

"Yes." She gives a quick nod as she slides away from the wall, before lying down on the stone surface.

This goes without saying, but these stones are hard. To the builder's credit, the path on top of the wall is very well constructed, but there are some uneven places here and there.

But Aiz doesn't care about that. She lies right down and starts dozing. So this is the true power (?) of a top-class adventurer.

For someone who has to be able to rest anywhere in the deepest parts of the Dungeon, sleeping here—without any difficulty, I might add—might just be a walk in the park.

"Are you not going to sleep?" she asks.

"Ah, um…No, I'll sleep."
Feeling really awkward as she stares up at me, I make a little space between us before sitting down.

She's sprawled out on her side, completely defenseless. If I were to do something impure—not that I would!—I'd have the opportunity…But then I see the blade of her saber, glistening in the afternoon sunlight. That puts an end to such thoughts rather quickly. Trying to pull a fast one on her all but guarantees she'll mount my severed head on a wall somewhere.
And it's not like she isn't somewhat aware of what's going on around her. Maybe this is another way for a master to test their student? It could be her own style of a test.

…And this is training, after all.

"…Well, then…"
Cautiously inching my body forward, I lay down next to Aiz.

Yeah, I'm not sleepy, at all. My heart is beating too loud for me to even relax.
I take a quick glance at Aiz out of the corner of my eye.

This was way beyond rediculous… and it did not help I heard he voice of my grandfather egging me to do something to Aiz.

And so we (?) Napped.

Later

Following the long corridors and steep stairwells inside Orario's City Wall, we finally arrive at the door that leads to the city and open it.

The heavy wooden door creaks as it swings to the side, to reveal a back alley cloaked in shadow.

The alleyway itself is strewn with dirty, wooden boxes, piles of old building material, and scrap metal. It looks like someone was using this spot as a storage area and forgot about it, as well as the door in the city wall. Aiz and I make our way through the bric-a-brac and into the maze of backstreets.

We continued training after waking from a surprisingly refreshing nap, before making our way down here in the late afternoon.

"A-Aiz, don't worry about it. It was an accident, anyway…"

"It's not a problem. My stomach is empty, too." she said.

…In the middle of a flurry of swift attacks, you see, my eyes following only the shadows of her movements, my stomach decided to…speak up.

Aiz saw me blush out of embarrassment and suggested getting a light snack. That's why we're here now.
I know I only ate breakfast today, just still…ugh…

Holding back tears of shame, I follow Aiz with my shoulders down around my ribs somewhere.

The unguarded door that Aiz found to the normally restricted city wall was on the outer edge of northeastern Orario. After turning many tight corners in the alleyway, we come out into one of the wider backstreets, close enough to Main Street to hear people busily going about their business.

This spot is filled with houses and lined with fancy, pole-shaped magic-stone lamps. This is all new to me. My head on a swivel, I take in as much as I can.
"Can I ask where we're going?"

"North Main. Tiona told me about a potato puffs stand over there."
That's her answer. Tiona…must be another member of Loki Familia.

Right now, Aiz and I are going through the backstreets because we can avoid being seen. And while it's great that we're being so cautious, something else is making me nervous being alone with Aiz right now.

Potato puffs…I know that from somewhere. Why do I have a bad feeling about this?

My ears pick up on the hustle and bustle of Main Street. We're here.

The sun is still in the sky, but very close to setting. The sky is starting to turn red.

North Main is alive with elves, dwarves, and demi-humans of all races heading home after work. We really stick out, being in armor and all…Wait, it's not me.

They're looking at Aiz. I try to make myself as small as possible as we make our way through the gawking crowd.

Aiz isn't paying them any attention; her eyes are scanning the buildings. She must have found what she was looking for because she suddenly turns into a side street.

It's not too wide, maybe one of those horse-drawn taxis could fit through, but that's about it. I take a few steps down the street, and there it is. A street stall selling potato puffs.

—But my body freezes as it hits me.

"Welcome to our…stand?"
A clerk greets us as Aiz pulls back the cloth "door" to reveal…the goddess. Time stands still.

The goddess's face is stuck somewhere between a welcoming smile and a look of wide-eyed shock.

Reflected in her gaze are Aiz…and me, standing right next to her.
Suddenly, my face is blue.

"…"

"…"

"Two sweet-bean potato puffs, please."
Aiz happily orders potato puffs as the goddess and I stand like statues next to her.

The "clerk" slowly starts to move, putting two fresh puffs with frosting on them into a bag and saying, "That's eighty vals," as she holds out the bag. Aiz sets the money on the counter, says, "Thank you," and takes the food out of the goddess's frozen hand.

The clerk suddenly loses her composure, and all the muscles in her face twitch as she runs out from behind the counter and in front of us.

Meanwhile, I'm experiencing an avalanche of cold sweat running down my back.

"—WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOINGGGGGGG?!"

"S-S-S-SO-SO-SO-SORRY!"
In front of the goddess's blaze of emotion, all I can do is scream my apology at the top of my lungs.

I never told her about my training sessions with Aiz, only Shirou knew of it and he hasn't told anyone because "That's your business, not mine"

That was literally what he said to me.

By and large, it's not good to have connections with someone in another Familia. I know that my goddess isn't on good terms with Aiz's goddess, Loki. And then there's the fact that the goddess really doesn't like Aiz herself, either…

I knew that she wouldn't allow me to train with Aiz if I told her, so I accepted the risk that something like this might happen, and kept it a secret.

"Walking around, alone, with the Kenki?! What's gotten into you, Bell?!"

"Th-there's a reason for this, s-so…!"

"No excuses! Spill it, now! …Get away from her! GET!"
The goddess's voice shrieks as she practically dives between Aiz and me.

Aiz looks slightly troubled as she glances down at the goddess, who was looking up at her like an enemy while creating a physical barrier.
"Explain! Why are you with the Kenki?!"

"Eh, um, you see, we just happened to bump into each other… ?!"

"…NO ONE CAN LIE TO A GOD!"
She spins to face me, throwing up her arms and screaming, "UGAAAHH!" I shrivel up into a little ball, tears leaking out of my eyes.

Her jet black twin ponytails seem to come alive, smacking me in the face as the goddess shakes with anger.

She's passing judgment on me for my little white lie that was supposed to comfort her!

"Um…I'm teaching him, how to fight."
Aiz, who had been silently watching this unfold, speaks for the first time.

It must have been really hard to watch. She tells the truth right away, trying to protect me.

The goddess's neck snaps around, eyes blazing as she looks back at Aiz. The moment she understands what the girl had said, the goddess's shoulders start shaking violently.

"Bell, you haven't by any chance shown her your status, have you?" she asked looming at me.

"Of course I haven't. Why would there be any reason to?"

"So that means that your growth speed hasn't been noticed… ?!" she asked in a hushed tone.

I couldn't really make out what she said there, but I can see her staring down (or up, in this case) Aiz like she was her sworn enemy.

Without warning, the goddess wraps her arms around my chest.
Wha-what's going on here?!

"You're trying to claim my Bell for your own, aren't you! I won't let that happen. I was with him first, no matter what you say!" she declared.

After all the shenanigans and Hestia taking her leave of the job the decided to go back.

On their way the encountered Shirou who had just came out from the Benevolent Mistress after a hard day at the kitchen.

So they decided to go to their respective HQs.

However, something made Shirou tense, there was a change on the air in the area.

Then… someone noticed something amiss.

…Huh?
Looking at the face of the girl walking next to me, my thought process is a little slow.

Her face is as beautiful as always, but her eyes look sharp, like they're tracking something.

Whoosh.
My head spins around like it's been slapped.

There's a wide path that connects to this backstreet. It's completely shrouded in darkness and so silent that it gives me chills. That kind of complete absence of noise and light is unnatural.

Just as I start to get a bad feeling, my eye catches one of those fancy pole-shaped magic-stone lamps.

…Someone broke it?

The pole part hangs from a wooden stand, but the broken light looks like it was hit with something, hard.

"!"

"Wha—?!"
Aiz freezes in place and Shirou places himself in front of Hestia.

Only they can sense something is wrong at first, but I stop right next to her. The goddess nearly loses her balance in surprise.

Aiz's golden eyes don't try to hide how alert to danger she is right now. I follow her line of sight with my own.

Shirou brandished his own blades, his own eyes flinty and glaring at the darkness.

Sure enough, a large shadow emerges from a small space between two buildings.

A cat person…?

The figure blends in with the darkness using black armor, dark clothes, and a black visor over its face.

The visor is made of metal and hiding the top half of the person's face. However, I can see cat ears sticking out of the top of his head. I'm pretty sure it's a man.

Maybe he's the one responsible for the strange aura engulfing this street?
Many questions simmer in my mind as the cat-person adventurer, who stands about a head shorter than me, continues to advance on our position.

There are about two meders left between us when he suddenly plants his foot in the ground.

Thud! A light impact echoes off the stone surface before he vanishes into thin air.

"—"

Less than a breath later, a shadow appears just in front of my face.
Extremely close quarters.
It only took him an instant. His Agility must be off the charts.

My eyes and body shake in response.
Light from the moon sharply reflecting off his metal visor, he silently brings a spear down from above.
Time stops as my life flashes before my eyes.

"?!"

A white blade flashes in front of my nose from the side and intercepts the spear just a few celches above my head.
Sparks fly all around me as the white blade pushes the spear back with incredible speed.

Time comes back to me. A fresh wave of cold sweat covers my body, my mind suddenly snaps into action, and I take a fighting stance.

The attacker jumps back to get out of range of Shirou's blade. The blond girl silently takes a step toward him.

Both of them charge an instant later, colliding in another explosion of sparks.

"W-what…what…what's going on?!"
The goddess's panicked screams mix with the sound of metal on metal. The backstreet has turned into a war zone.

—They're too fast!

I'm seeing afterimages of spear arcs and saber slashes, only to hear an impact in a completely different spot.

I can't keep up with them. It's impossible! I can't even follow their movements!

The goddess and I stand to the side and watch as black and golden blurs clash over and over.

Shirou stood still to act as a guard in case someone else tried to jump into the mix.

That's when I see them.
Above Aiz's battle with the cat person, four shadows lurk in the darkness.
The shadows leap from the top of the houses, heading straight for the battle.
Sword, whip, spear, axe.
All of them have weapons drawn, glistening dangerously in the moonlight.

"AIZ?!"
Aiz's momentum changes at the same time I call out to her.

Shirou then materialized his black blade… the twin to his white one and flick them both towards the assailants.

They spun as sawblades as they changed trajectory in mid air… honing into the group and hitting them all.

My eyes fall open in awe as the metallic echoes of their armor reverberate around me.

"Damn…monsters." They groaned as they fell into the ground unceremoniously… some bleeding from the cuts Shirou's blades had incurred on them.

Shirou walked up to Aiz "need help?" he asked.

"not nessesary… all of them are very weak" she said.

"I noticed… you get ambushed a lot?" he asked.

"it is not the first time" she said.

"I see… but if that's true… then why are there so many low level adventurers trying to attack you, who has a reputation and a title, with such a pathetic attempt… no… I don't think is you they where looking for" Shirou said as he had noticed they they all had been aiming to where the goddess was.

No… not the goddess… but.

"Firebolt!"

I can't let this go on… I don't want to be a burden nor do I wish to be constantly saved. I want to stand next to him… to Shirou and prove he could stand with them.

With a quick move I managed to dispatch another rogue adventurer with his quick fire attack.

"this would be a good opportunity to experiment with it" Shirou thought.

"Trace on" he intoned.

I noticed a small jagged dagger, it was thin and multicolored, it did not seem look ideal for an attack, it looked quite brittle.

Shirou twisted his body to allow an attack to pass him by harmlessly and stabbed the dagger on the rogue adventurer's nape.

"Rule Breaker" Shirou said as the dagger glowed.

The adventurer's eyes rolled back into his head.

I saw a flash of light from the adventurers back and I hoped he was alright.

I had little time to think about them as another attacked me.

I managed to drive him back and it was swiftly beaten by Aiz.

"He learned magic… with no spells… this is indeed worthy news... she will be pleased" the cat person said as he pulled his comrades away.

"this is too flashy… the fire will draw eyes over here" another said.

With that they skulked back into the shadows carrying their injured and wounded.

"Bell…" Hestia said.

"Ah! Excuse me, Goddess…"
I let go of the goddess—she was still pressed against my body by my left arm—giving her a quick apology.
Rather than stepping away, she stays close to me and reaches up to my cheek.
"Are you hurt?" she asks.

"…"

Her eyes are full of anxiety as she asks me if I'm okay.
She can probably tell. That makes me even more depressed. More than likely she can see that, too.
With the warmth of her soft fingers on the side of my face, I somehow manage to force a smile.

"No injuries?"

"Ah, yes, I'm fine. What about Aiz… ?"

"I, too, am fine."
Aiz walks toward us without a scratch on her. Even her face is back to its normal emotionless state.

Shirou was also okay, it seems that even if we both are the same level he has more ample experience with combat and tactics, as he could keep up with Aiz and still cover me and the goddess when needed.

She just now saved me—heck, she's always saving me. I bite my lip and force my brain back to normal to ask a question.
"So who were they? Attacking us out of the blue like that…"

All of their faces were hidden, and I couldn't tell if there was a Familia insignia on any of their armor.

Not only did they attack when we were alone, they destroyed the magic-stone lamps as well. Given all that, this was clearly a planned attack with a specific target.

Is there a reason someone would want to ambush us under the cover of darkness… ?

"Ambushes happen, all the time."

"They do?!"

"Yes, however it's rare that they happen outside the Dungeon…"

So then this kind of thing is normal in the Dungeon. I'm speechless. I had no idea at all.

And our attackers were at such a high level…They had to belong to an extremely powerful Dungeon-crawling Familia.

"There's something I can't understand. If they were after Wallensomething, that's one thing. But they were after us—no, after you, Bell." Hestia said.

"Well…"

"On top of that, your attackers were about your level, like they were chosen specifically tailored for you."

…I must admit that the goddess has a very good point.

The ones who fought Aiz would have wiped the floor with me, and yet I could fight and win against the others. Were they set up for me? If I didn't know better, I'd say they were trying to measure me.
That's nothing more than a guess, though…

"Do you know of anyone who would attack you like this, Miss Wallensomething?"

"…Quite the opposite. There are too many." she answered.

"Yeesh, Loki's got one dangerous operation going on over there." Hestia said.

"I apologize…" Aiz said.

"Uh…W-well, that doesn't matter. Let's get out of here right now. Someone was bound to hear that explosion and see smoke."

Aiz and the goddess's conversation ends with us deciding to leave this street behind. With everything that's happened, not only will townspeople come to investigate, but some people from the Guild might descend on this spot at any moment.

We need to put some space between us and getting caught up in a bad situation. That's the plan for now.

The goddess takes off at a brisk pace through the thin backstreets. I follow behind her.

That's when I feel it.

Zing! My whole body twitches.
It feels like a hawk snatches my heart out of my chest. But what is this feeling? Am I being watched?

In my mind, I can feel a strange gaze, and a seductive smile.

I look up out of reflex, in the same direction that the cat person had just a moment ago.
There it is: the massive white tower of Babel.

For some reason, my body trembles as the enormous structure looms over me.

I see Shirou also staring at the tower, it seems be also noticed that feeling as well.

The goddess is busy explaining something to Aiz while the blond girl tilts her head in response. But I stop moving.
Something is coming, I'm sure of it. A black messenger is coming for me.
Beneath a sky of sparkling silver stars, I feel a mysterious rush of cold air blowing from somewhere.

"Bell… we should be careful… this is not the first time I felt this strong a gaze looming on you" Shirou warned in a low voice.

It seems he did not wish to further worry the goddess.

The next day

It was a rough day for Bell… it seems Aiz had leveled up and was now on level 6.

"She seems to be getting further away as I try to close the gap… will I ever reach her I wonder?" Bell said to himself.

Shirou sighed, in a way he understood him better than maybe even the goddess Hestia.

They both been saved by someone who was galaxies their superior.

They both fell in love with that strong female warrior that saved them.

And they both were stupid (suicidal) enough to shorten the distance by combat.

"Is like I am watching myself in a distorted mirror" Shirou thought.

Eina pulled me apart "It seems like miss Aiz Wallenstein defeated a boss monster, no, the the regular ones on the too floors but the ones on the bottom...a monster Rex.. and she did so on her own"

I gave a whistle to show how impressed I was.

Those monsters were strong… with the handicap I forced myself I wouldn't be able to beat them at my current level, I managed to get a good read on their power, speed and habits though… for future references.

Bell looked down, he really was a sorry sight.

Shirou then gently patted his back.

"Hey… is not the end of the world Bell, this just means we need to venture deeper into the dungeon and kill everything we find, they say is quality over quantity on monsters for high yielding excelcia, but… quantity is also a quality as well… in the end is all about hard work and perseverance… don't worry I will have your back should you ever need someone to bail you out, ok?" Shirou said.

Bell looked appreciative towards Shirou's sincere efforts to cheer him up.

As we walked by a certain familiar girl came to us.

"Syr?" Bell said.

They apparently walked as far as the Benevolent Mistress.

Swishing blue-gray hair is running toward me. Syr?

Have I already come as far as The Benevolent Mistress?

Syr grabs our hands without warning.

"Huh… ?"

"…"

"I've been looking for you two…!" she said with a happy smile.

"…"

Clatter, clatter. The sounds of running water and dishes fill my ears, steam in my face as I work my way through a never-ending stack of them.

The cat-people chefs are busily running around the kitchen while I quietly wash dishes in a corner, alone.

"I really appreciate this you two! To think you'd volunteer to help me at work!"

"I didn't volunteer to do anything! You practically forced me!" Bell said with a glare.

Shirou did not mind as he was put in charge of the kitchen for the time being.

She stopped her trotting feet to give a light bow of apology as Bell yelled back with enough force to send spit flying out of his mouth.

This was not what Bell had in mind when she asked them to come in at all.

"I ignored a lot of chores and went out this morning…That made Mama Mia really mad at me, and now I've got so much more to do than before" she said pitiously.

"That would be 100 percent your own fault" Bell said with a deadpan look.

"come on… I'll feed you" she said.

Bell stopped and tought for a bit.

"how much?" he asked.

"A week" she said.

"Two weeks" Bell counter offered.

"One week and I will add dessert" she said.

"Deal" and with that he went back to washing dishes.

"Are you okay, Mr. Cranell?" a voice asked.

"Huh… ?" I looked and saw her once more, the elf girl that works here.

"This amount is daunting. I shall assist." she said as she took place next to him.

"I can't belive Syr dumped her work on you" she said.

"She even bribed me... imagine that" he said.

Now I have a guest—another bar employee next to me at the sink.

Arms so thin they seem like they're about to break set to work next to me. The girl's long, thin ears flash in my vision.

An elf with light blue eyes, deep as the sky itself, looks up at me. It's Lyu.

"S-sorry. I know you're busy, too…" Bell apologized.

"No, the situation is Syr's fault. And blame also lies with us, the employees who couldn't cover for her. We owe you the apology. On behalf of all of us, allow me to convey our apologies." she said.

"No-no-no-no, you don't have to go that far!"
Bell stopped washing for a moment to face the always-serious Lyu, who's almost too serious right now, and respond to her. I know she's very conscious of manners and protocol, but this is a whole new level of correctness.

Whatever it is, Lyu must be a great example of elfish integrity.

"Has something happened?"she asks.

The sudden question makes me reply on the only way I can.

"Eh—"

"I don't mean to be forward, but you appear to be depressed." she said.

Bell stands next to her in shocked silence as her hands fly around the sink, washing the dishes with amazing precision.

Elves are known for their good looks. Lyu is no exception. Even just looking at her profile, she's a radiant beauty with a bit of a cold aura. It's enough to make me nervous standing this close to her.

"If you consider me worthy, I'll listen." she said.

"I owe you for your assistance at this station. If you have no reservations, please allow me to help."

Honestly, standing here and admiring her beauty like this, part of Bell wants to tell her everything about anything.
But no, he can't do that. He doesn't want to.
He couldn't tell her that the person he idolizes has left him in the dust and expose just how weak and pathetic he is.

There's still some sorry piece of himself that has hope that he could catch up to her by trying harder.

It feels a bit cowardly, but he decided to ask Lyu about something else instead.

After hearing that Aiz had leveled up earlier today, there's something he wanted to know.

"Um, Lyu…Were you an adventurer?"

"…Yes. There was a time I was known as one. What are you getting at?"

I quickly explain to her that I'm not trying to find out about her past, before asking my question.

"It's about getting stronger…How does an adventurer level up?"
I've always thought that if I continue fighting and gaining excelia I'd rank up eventually, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

The difference between Level One and Level Two…It feels like there's a wall between them. A very steep wall, one that he'd have to climb over if he is ever going to level up.

Lyu listened to his question, her eyes on him. She opens her mouth to respond.
"You must do something great."

"…Huh?"

"You must complete a great task, something that even the gods cannot ignore."

Great… ?

"Defeat an enemy more powerful than yourself…Acquire an incredible amount of excelia in one shot. That is the requirement."

Bell's POV

Gaining a large amount of excelia all at once…So that means no matter how many lower-level monsters I slay, I'll never rank up. Only my basic stats will improve.

If I don't take down something really powerful, if I don't pull off something great like the hero in Tales of Adventure…I'll never reach her?

"An adventurer's level is the strength of their soul—a 'container' within them. A god's blessing allows the soul to grow, but only those who have proven themselves deserving." Lyu said.

"Well, what about my abilities? My basic stats… ?"

"In short, they are there to prepare you to do something great. Nothing more." he answered solely.

It seems as Shirou was somewhat correct, just not in the way he said it.

We made it to floor 15 once before… but we escaped when I heard that sound…

Still at least what I done was not for waste, I just have to think of all of this as preparations.

"…I have advice to offer you. Is this acceptable?" she said

"Ah, yes. Go ahead."

"Mr. Cranell. Every adventure has a meaning." she said.

"…"

"No one knows what awaits them on an adventure. However, do not lose sight of the meaning of setting out, the purpose."
Pausing for a moment to give me a chance to think about her words, she continues.
"You are an adventurer."
Her words plunge into my ears and make their way to the bottom of my soul.
"What you seek, most likely, cannot be obtained without venturing forward."

"U-um…"

"But no, please don't worry about it. My intuition is often wrong… if nothing else you have a reliable companion who will be there for you"
For a second there, I think she smiles at me. I blink quickly to clear my eyes, and she's wearing her usual cold expression.
I rub my eyes, just to make sure. She asks me if I'm all right; I wave it off and say it's nothing.

After that, the two of us manage to conquer the beast that is the mountain of dirty dishes.

"Well then, Mr. Cranell. Please visit us again when you have an opportunity."

"Sure, I'll drop by again soon."
Lyu has more to do, so she sees me out of the kitchen as I walk through the door into the main bar of The Benevolent Mistress. The bar is alive with voices, busy as usual. I look into the kitchen where Shirou is cooking a rice based dish.

It was pretty popular apparently.

It was when I noticed what he was wearing.

On his head there was a piece of cloth covering his hair and a white apron on.

He was working a deep frying pan (wok) with ease.

"here is another order of fried rice! Syr hurry up!" Shirou shouted.

"Ah on it!"

After finishing the rush hour Shirou wiped the sweat off his brow.

"That was great! I needed to unwind a bit" he said with a smirk.

Shirou was one of those people who had weird ways to unwind.

But far be it for me to complain, Mama Mia allways let's him take the leftovers and there where plenty of em.

He put 2 containers in my hand and he took 2 himself.

"That's for you and Hestia, eat up when you get there, this will be Lilly's and mine… so see you later" he said as he went to his inn.

Seems me and the goddess are gonna have a small feast.

Shirou's room

Shirou opened the door as he held 2 carry out containers.

"Hey… I brought dinner" he said as he out the containers on the table.

Lilly was wearing a pair of leggings and a shirt long enought to reach a bit above her knees, it seems she had gotten out of the shower.

"Wow smells good!" she said as she begun to salivate somewhat.

"Eat up! I managed to get this after working as a cook for Mama Mia" Shirou said.

"Eh? Wait… does this mean?"

"Yup… made it, so… how does it taste?"

Lilly looked at him suspiciously but took a bite of the food.

Then another and another.

Her cheeks turned into a rosy pink "Lilly thinks this is delicious!"

"glad you like it… here try some sushi" he said feeding her a piece.

Lilly blushed a bit as she took a bite.

"Lilly thinks she is being pampered too much… but Lilly doesn't mind… this is...nice"

The next day

Crack!

The handle of a mug broke off.

"…"
Hestia stopped moving, her gaze snapping to the spot.

The white mug broke on its own, the separated white handle teetering on its back like a seesaw.
It was a clean break; the mug had become a handle-less cup.

"…"
Hestia stood there quietly, staring at the former mug, feeling uneasy. This kind of a break wasn't normal.

The sound of hurried footsteps and heavy clothing made her turn her head in time to see Bell walk past the table.

He had just finished his training with Aiz. Whether he was anxious to put his new skills to the test or not, he seemed like he was in more of a hurry than usual to get an early start in the Dungeon.

Hestia looked at Bell as he passed by. The boy paused for a moment, just past the broken mug. A sudden feeling of dread overtook her; she had to stall him.

"All finished cleaning up, Goddess! If you could turn off the magic-stone lamps before leaving, that'd be great!"

"Ah…Bell!"
Hestia managed to get words out of her mouth the moment that Bell had one hand on his light-armor-filled backpack, and the door handle in the other. She knew that there was no way she could convince to him to stay here today just because she "had a bad feeling." She didn't fully understand it herself.
However, she couldn't ignore the tightness in her chest, either. She felt like the cup was trying to warn her. Hestia finally took her eyes off of it and looked up.

"A, ah—…Wha…what about your status? We haven't updated it in a few days, yeah?" Hestia said a bit awkwardly.

"That's…true…" Bell conceded.

"What are you worried about? It'll only take a minute, so…please?"
Hestia tried so hard to hide her unease that a confused smile emerged on her face. Seeing this very strange look appear on his goddess, Bell let his eyebrows relax and accepted her offer.
Hestia did her best to get the cup out of her mind and quickly set to work.

"…So, um, Bell. How are things with your supporter?" she asked.

"Goddess…you've asked that at least ten times already." Bell said, besides.. she spends more time with Shirou as they are both rooming on an inn.

"I-is that so?"
The silence was getting to her, so Hestia said the first thing that she could come up with to start a conversation, but it only got an uncomfortable smile out of Bell.

Hestia had her own reasons for wanting to know exactly what was going on during the days that Shurou, Bell and Lilly went into the Dungeon together, and as a result had been asking almost nonstop since she'd allowed them to work together.

Her face went red as she sat on the small of Bell's back. Pricking her finger on a needle, she drew out the ikoru—the power in her blood—and set to work inscribing hieroglyphs into Bell's back.

"Moving on, it's only been a week, right? The Kenki must have beaten the living daylights out of you. Your Defense has increased enough to close the gap with your other abilities."

"…Ha-ha-ha-hah."
Bell's empty laugh in her ears, Hestia quickened her pace.

It had become the usual pattern. Whenever Hestia updated Bell's status, her mood got steadily worse as time went on. The cause of her foul mood was, of course, the skill behind Bell's rapid growth rate: Realis Phrase.

Hestia didn't look at all amused as she suddenly asked something that had been bugging her since she'd found out about his training sessions with Aiz.

"Bell. Sorry to bring up the past, but you and that Kenki…You didn't do anything…touchy-feely, did you? Like having your head in her lap or something like that."

Bell sputtered from his facedown position on the bed until: Cough, cough. As she watched, his ears turned bright red.
Damn you, Wallensomething…! Hestia clenched her teeth.

The boy's status had made a considerable jump, for some reason. Judging by Bell's reaction to Hestia's question, she had more than enough reason to believe that they had much more contact than just his head being in her lap.

That vixen! Jealousy reared its ugly head in Hestia's heart.

"A-ah, Goddess! Do you know if my status can go up without fighting monsters in combat? Like, through training?" he said desperately trying to change the subject.

Ran away, didn't you? Hestia thought, but didn't make any comment on the matter.

She was a goddess, after all. She had the ability to do that much.

Her needle hand slipped.
Bell could only whimper in pain. Hestia ignored it as she answered the question.

"Yes, it'll grow. Excelia can be gained through fighting monsters or training to do so. However, playing around will do nothing for you. Remember that only hard, honest work will leave an excelia imprint that I can use to make your abilities increase." she answered.

"So what you're saying is…" Bell said happy to hear this.

"Whether you're taking your experience seriously or not. Your focus determines the excelia that is left behind. After that, all gods have to do is find them in a status update." she said.

This winding conversation was close to Hestia's way of explaining how to use his Skill, but she didn't come right out and say it. She thought that putting it this way would be easiest for Bell to understand.
Once Hestia finished updating Bell's status, she sat back for a moment to see what it said. Her lips started to quiver.

"Dah…! Goddess, look at the time. Sorry, I've got to get moving!"

Bell happened to look up at the clock and started to get up.
Shifting his weight to the side so that the goddess would fall lightly to the side, he jumped from the bed. Grabbing his backpack, Bell was out the door seconds later.

"B-Bell! Your status…!" she yelled holding the piece of paper on her hand.

"Sorry, tell me when I get home tonight! See you then!" he said as he rushed out.

Bell looked very rushed as Hestia watched him close the door.
Alone now, Hestia lowered her outstretched arm and let out a long sigh.
She glanced up at the broken mug on the table again, before sitting up to look at the spot where Bell had been just seconds earlier.

She thought about what see had seen written on his back.

Bell Cranell
Level One
Strength: S 982 Defense: S 900 Utility: S 988 Agility: SS 1051 Magic: B 751

"Just what is 'SS' supposed to mean…"
Hestia put her right hand on her cheek, as if holding her head as she spoke under her breath.

She then remembered.

"Damn it… Shirou… he also needs an update! He hasn't had one since nearly a month!" she said worried.

Dungeon

Bell's POV

Ping. A sudden pain in my neck.

"Mr. Bell?" Lilly asked concerned.

I rub the spot with my hand as I look around the area.

A wide room with a thick, grassy floor and yellow walls. We're on the ninth floor, but I can't hide my anxiety.

Lilly's staring up at me, but there's no way I can make an excuse.

"Is there something bothering you, Mr. Bell?" she asks.

"…It's probably nothing."
…Is something watching me?
I just can't shake the feeling that there's an eye on me right now.
It doesn't feel like it wants to hurt me, or anything like that…I just feel this strange weight on my shoulders.

Lilly, Shirou and I had decided that we'd prowl the tenth floor today, so I left early to get a head start. I think I saw a few adventurers a couple of floors up, but the Dungeon is still mostly empty.

"Lilly, could we swap equipment here?"

"Ah, yes, sure." Looking flustered, Lilly quickly takes my protector and the baselard off her back and hands them to me.

I get my light armor out of the backpack and equip everything, double-checking that every piece is strapped on tight.
I was hoping that the feeling of protection that this armor gives me would help alleviate some of this nervousness…but the weight in my neck and shoulders is still there.

It's putting pressure on my heart. My insides are screaming.

"Isn't this a little strange… ?" Shirou asked

"A little strange?"

"There aren't enough monsters."
I finally mention another thing that had been bothering me for a while. Even Lilly looks back over her should and whispers,

"Now that you mention it…" Lilly says.

The Dungeon has been eerily quiet ever since we arrived on the lower ninth. We've been here a while, too, the stairwell that leads to the lower tenth is just a room or two away, but we haven't encountered a single monster yet.

Well, there was a group of goblins running around, but they didn't attack us. It looked more like they were running away from something, actually.

Anxiety is sinking even deeper now; my guts are twisting into knots.
I've felt like this before, and it's bringing that back into my mind.

Yes.
On that day, the Dungeon was this quiet, too.

I violently shake my head.

"M-Mr. Bell?"

"…Let's go. To the tenth floor."
My hand over my mouth to steady myself, I manage to get words out through my fingers.

I want to say, "Let's get out of here," but I just can't.
It's like my spirit is trying to push my body forward, away from here.

We enter the next room. It has two exits. One I remember leads to the stairwell—that's when it happens.

—Now then, show me.

Wha?

A voice, suddenly in my head. Not my voice—it's like something is talking to me from inside. I'm on full alert.

A second later…

"—Mrooooooo—"
My legs freeze.

"…"

"W-what was that… ?"
Lilly is saying something. I don't hear her.
My ears are busy with something else.
That sound…it sounds too much like that sound. Every nerve of my body is on fire as the noises are on replay in my mind.

Like a rusted door with no grease, my neck clicks ever so slightly until I can see behind me.
The sound is coming from the room we were just in. There's something in the exit.
I'm hyperventilating. My fingers are shaking. I can't make a fist.

My throat won't budge, but in my mind I'm thinking, It's not true. My mental voice sounds like a kid crying.

Lilly's eyes are shaking; she sees it, too. I'm praying to something like my life depends on it.

Then…

"…Woouu!"
There it is.

"—Huh?"

I was right. Damn it.
Then again, there's no way I could forget that voice.

I don't know how many times I've heard it during nightmares. It's impossible to guess how many times I've heard similar howls from other monsters and flashed back to that day.

I can't count how many times I've been scared by it.

"Woooohoooohooo…"
Minotaur.

"W-why is there a Minotaur on the ninth floor… ?"
That's what I'd like to know.
But there's something I do know.
I know this feeling of helplessness.
This despair that words can't describe, I know it too well.

My body has felt this uncontrollable shiver before.
It's the same.
Exactly the same as before.

"Stand back… both of you go to the 10th floor while I take care of this" Shirou said as he brandished his twin swords.

"No… you will not" a voice said.

So fast that it went by as a blur a big 'thing' tackled Shirou down to the next floor while collapsing the entrance to it.

We are all alone now.

With Shirou even his precede would be comforting and he would have a plan to dispatch the monster… he killed one once, his swords cut trough it rather easily.

But now they were cut off… they only hopped Shirou could get to the alternate entrance.

"it should take him somewhere between 10 to 20 minutes.. well… I can do that.. I can buy us some time at least"

I wanted to sound tought but honestly I felt like I was hyperventilating.

Fear had a hold of my spine and my body shivered.

DAMN IT MOVE GOD DAMNIT

But it was no use… fear had me paralised.

It was then when the Minotaur charged.

"Mr. Bell MOVE!" Lilly shouted as she tackled me out of the way.

My eyes suddenly see the ceiling, and a soft cry hits my ears.

Even before I realize I'm still alive, I sense Lilly's warm body make contact with my stomach.

I look down and see her head, as well as a heck of a lot of blood.

"L-Lilly… ?"
I've been thrown to the ground. The beast didn't hit me; this has to be from the force of Lilly's tackle.

Thanks completely to her jumping into me from the side, I managed to get out of the path of the weapon. But in return, Lilly got hurt.

Did the sword hit her? No—but one of the rocks the Minotaur kicked up in its wake must have.

My body hits the ground at a shallow angle. Grass and chunks of the floor fly into the air behind me as I slide a good meder or two.

Lilly's head shifts, and a soft moan comes out of her mouth.

Gah…My whole body comes back to life, burning from the inside.

Energy floods into my cowardly muscles as I climb to my feet.
I'm scared. I'm absolutely frightened. Utterly terrified.

Seeing that Minotaur right in front of me is even scarier than when it was at the other end of the room. I can't control my fear.

But the thought of Lilly dying is far more terrifying!

"MROOOOOOOO!"

SORRY! I silently yell to the girl in my arms as I throw her to the side with all my might.

I don't wait to see where her small body lands. Instead I turn to face the beast's heaving, gigantic frame head-on.
I brace my teeth against my quivering lips. Staring down the beast as it raises its sword for another killing strike, I raise my right arm and scream at the top of my lungs:

"FIREBOLT!"

"Mrooo?!"

Dungeon 10th floor

Shirou landed on his feet… he immediately positioned himself to react to any attacks should any come.

There was a large tall beast like man in front of the entrance to the next area… he was looking at Shirou.

"Why did you do this?" Shirou asked as he stared at the man.

With his build he looked like he could pass for Berserker's younger brother.

"My mistress ordered for the adventurer Bell to be tested" he said.

Shirou moved slightly towards the exit only to find his way blocked.

"Move" Shirou said with irritation leaking into his voice.

"This is a test for Mr. Bell and him alone your presence is not required" he said.

"move… or I will move you" he said as he brandished his sword.

Ottar had to admit, his blade looked of fine craftsmanship, worthy of powerful adventurers… but he knew he was a level one.

How did he managed to get such a blade? Did he found it while crawling on the dungeon? Inherited?

The young man got into a stance.

Otter inwardly snorted, his stance was riddled with holes, he must be a complete novice.

Shirou disappeared from his sights.

With relative ease he put his sword up to block a rather speedy blow to the neck.

"fast… faster than I expected him to be" he tought as he pushed him away.

"I see… you don't see me as a threat so you are using the bare minimum to repell me and keep me here, not bad… but I will make you regret it" Shirou said.

"Boy… you will not pass, our levels are too vast in difference for you to even hope to overcome" he said.

" True… our levels are vastly different… but" Shirou's eyes hardened.

Ottar was changed back by the sudden change in the air.

"I will simply have to stop playing around" he said.

The pressure rose.

Ottar was sure he could win… but why… why was this man exerting such powerful aura?

"I am the bone of my sword, steel is my body and crystal my heart" Shirou chanted.

His body got a boost from reinforcement, his eyes, his nerves… everything got boosted.

He would need every single iota of power he could muster to pass this behemoth of a man.

Thankfully, due to being a demi-human, his sword effect would be increased… meaning he would be able to deal more damage.

Once more Shirou vanished.

Ottar had to hastily block the attack from the black blade. He had appeared underneath him and was ready to stab him in the chest.

His reaction time was beastly and managed to block and fend him off. This did not dissuade Shiri as he attacked once more from the side.

Ottar had to block again and attacked as well.

Shirou moved around the large sword and delivered a roundhouse kick to his face.

Ottar blocked with his shoulder, feeling a slight sting.

Shirou appeared this time from above.

With a mighty swing he brought down his sword with both hands.

"it seems I need to break you for you to undersrand" Ottar said.

He swung his blade upwards, meeting Shirou's blade.

The sound of metal grinding against metal filled the area as sparks flew from the pressure.

Shirou's blade broke into many fragments.

Ottar rushed with his hand curled into a fist.

Shirou smirked.

"Trace… on" he muttered.

SHING

Slash

Ottar found his arm diverted by the same white blade he had broken scant seconds ago and a slight pain on his arm and side.

It seems that the sword had managed to pierce his armor somewhat armored managed to cut into his skin somewhat, enought to make him bleed.

The attack to his side was deflected due to the inherent properties of his armor, thankfully it protected more on the sides, but it chipped off a few layers off it.

"Dual blade user… I see… that was dangerous… I did not even see your other blade" Ottar said.

He showed some respect, a Level 1 managed to injure him… a level 8.

He would show him respect by using more of his strength on him.

Shirou and Ottar went back and forth as they and tracked and defended and switched their roles very often, Ottar was impressed. Was this boy really a novice adventurer?

He was very observant of Ottar and went for any openings he showed with no hesitation.

Ottar however was having a difficult time actually managing to do anything but knick him, sure he managed to cut him in some places but those were not deep enough for it to count… at least to Ottar's mind.

No… rather it seems as all his attacks to the holes on his defence were parried and then exploited to counter attack.

This fool… he was using himself as a trap!

This boy was suicidal, any attack of his if connected would be his death, there was no uncertainty of it.

The young man looked at him not once had his eyes drifted elsewhere.

Shirou's attacks were an onslaught of continuous chains of attacks that showed precision that could only be found on machines.

Ottar silently thanked his goddess for this.

If he desired to fight with his life… then he would take it if necessary.

It had been 8 minutes since the start of their fight. Shirou was riddled with cuts on his body and Ottar had his armor broken in certain places.

"20… 20 times… that's how many times I have broken your blades, are they magic blades? Is that their ability?" Ottar asked.

"who knows?" Shirou said with a sarcastic smirk.

Shirou had had enought… he needed to end this quickly.

He threw his two blades at Ottar.

They spun around like buzzsaws as they flew at him.

"Trace on"

2 more joined in and then 2 more.

That's when Ottar noticed something… be was caged in.

He decided to break out of this cage and thus rushed forward, receiving numerous slashes.

But it was a trap.

Shirou was standing still with a black bow on his hands.

"take"

The arrow flew… it went so fast.

Ottar's reaction was faster.

Ottar used the flat of his blade to block the arrow.

He never expected this to happen.

It pierced his sword and lodged into his stomach sending him reeling back.

"What… what penetrating power…" he tought as he righted himself.

Shirou panted, he was tired. While he had received the least amount of damage possible his stamina was dwindling.

On the other hand, his opponent was on the other side of the spectrum… he had done a great deal of damage but he was walking about almost normally.

"I will found out who planned this… and I will make them pay for this should Bell die" Shirou said.

Ottar stood up straight

"You will cease you foolishness now" he said.

With a powerful shove that used all of his true strength, Ottar shoved Shirou painfully into the Dungeon's wall and then stabbed him with a large sword.

"Gah" Shirou yelled in pain. As blood poured out of his mouth.

"You should learn your place... don't ever threaten to harm my mistress ever again… I will take my leave, this amount of damage should prevent you from helping them should you even be able to reach them…" Ottar said.

He got curious… how was he able to match him? To fight him to this state.

He tore him off the wall and ripped the sword off him, making Shirou yell in agony.

He went to rip his shirt off to see his Falna. He needed to know… was he a possessor of a unique skill? He needed to know… his mistress had shown interest on the boy and he showed promise.

"My body… is made of… blades"

Stab stab stab stab stab

Ottar's hand was pierced by blades that erupted from Shirou's back, piercing his hand and his leg.

Ottar retreated… to go to such lengths.

The boy had literally swords sticking out of his own body.

He decided to let go of now.

Shirou crawled to the wall to help stand up… and slowly he trudged his way to the nearest exit to the floor above him.

"Bell and… Lilly… I got to… got to get back...up"

Slowly he made his way as he marred the walls with his blood as he stumbled by.

Unnoticed by all a golden glow permeated from his many wounds.

Chapter end