Chapter 54: Between Heaven and Earth
Ais's blade shined under the glow of the torchlight as she sliced through the sickles of the mantis-like monster in front of her, severing them from its body before driving Desperate through its head, causing it to slump over dead.
"More new species," Finn said as he drew his spear from the corpse of a similar creature that had been butchered by the pallum, revealing only internal organs and blood…yet missing one crucial component that common sense had told mortals about monsters. "However, they don't seem to have Magic Stones…curious."
"Did Evilus find them?" Ais wondered out loud but Finn shook his head as he glanced over to the half-eaten corpses in white robes.
"I think they were surprised about these monsters as we are," Finn replied. "If I had to guess, they appeared with this new Labryinth."
Finn then glanced around for a moment before continuing.
"Ais, you've probably read Argonaut's Comedy recently, right?" Finn suddenly asked.
"Yes?" Ais answered, completely confused at the sudden question.
While he had been possessing Bell, Argonaut had said that Ais was almost identical to the princess that he had gone to save, albeit with golden eyes instead of blue ones. This, and the talk of heroes and spirits she had with him afterward, had prompted her to go back and read old legends by Orna the Storyteller before bed, with Argonaut being the first one she had read but found no detailed descriptions of the characters within the tale.
It didn't even mention Argonaut's sister, whom he had claimed was a half-elf when he apologized to Lefiya for mistaking her as such.
"Remember in those stories, Argonaut had fought several monsters on the way to the minotaur…I'm just wondering if that tale is influencing why we are facing so many monsters now."
"Are you talking about Lefiya's theory about Spirits?" Ais asked and Finn nodded.
"Yes. I think that it would be careless to only consider the heroes of those tales," Finn said as he led the way forward again. "After all, the hero is only as captivating as their villain."
"…I do not think a Spirit would willingly become a monster and keep their mind," Ais said, refusing to believe Hestia Familia's Berserker could be counted amongst the same level as Argonaut and Saber…or rather the legendary Dragon Slayer Sigurd.
Though she did find it strange that his name had been recorded as Siegfried…then again, several names of heroes had changed throughout the ages.
"Maybe…it certainly would not be funny if it became something like the Demi Spirits."
As they passed through a doorway leading into a large room, the pair stopped at the sight in front of them.
Within the large room were countless monster corpses. Not just the new mantis-like monsters but the new spider-like monsters they had seen before Knossos shifted into the new Labyrinth. It was as if two armies of monsters met in this room, fought, and devoured one another. It certainly led credence to the theory that the mantis monsters were even more abnormal than the other new species that resembled the violas and virgas.
"Tread carefully," Finn said as they quietly made their way through the corpses. "They might not all be dead."
No sooner did he say that did one of the mantis leaped up toward the pallum, despite missing several arms and a huge chunk of its head, only to be smacked away by him with one fierce swing of his spear. The mantis flew and smashed against the wall, the rest of its internals splattering out from the holes in its body.
It was a rather horrid sight.
"…I never thought I'd say that I wish they were only virgas," Finn muttered, with a wry smile. "At least they have Magic Stones so such a grisly sight can't be seen if we destroy it."
Ais couldn't help but agree with all her heart. But if these monsters were against Evilus, she wasn't going to say no to a third enemy that can distract them while they found the rest of their Familia.
"But…that Revis and masked person are Tamers, aren't they?" Ais reminded Finn. "Isn't there a chance that they could use these New Species against us?"
"Considering this room, they probably won't be able to get too many," Finn said, gesturing to the corpses with his chin.
Just as Ais nodded her head, she felt a change in the wind.
With a shout, Ais swung her blade down with all her might as Finn quickly repositioned himself behind her.
The green wind smashed into an incoming torrent of red fire that had been launched out from the opposite end of the room. The winds scattered the red flame, causing it to envelope and completely annihilate the remaining monster corpses in the room.
"…Guess we found her," Finn muttered as the flames died down to reveal a red-headed woman with green eyes stepping into the room.
In one hand was an eerie looking black longsword while in the other was a blood red Magic Sword that was no doubt the source of the flames with another identical black sword strapped to her back.
"It's been a while, Aria," the woman, Revis, said. "I don't know what trick you pulled to change Knossos like this, but it must have involved those unknown Spirits."
"She knows about Saber and the others?" Ais thought, glancing over at Finn who remained silent as he carefully watched Revis.
Finn's eyes bounced back and forth between the two identical black blades in Revis's possession. His eyes then went wide.
"…Archer…" Finn breathed.
Revis then swung the Magic Sword forward once more, sending another wave of flame out toward the two Adventurers. Ais's wind shot out to meet it, barely splitting the flames once more. But before the flames even died down, Revis shot forward, splitting the stone floor underneath her as she did, and dived right into the flames, abandoning the crumbling Magic Sword behind her.
It was fast. Nearly as fast as Saber was during their spars. Ais found herself unable to switch from defending against the fire to defending the oncoming strike in time.
"Spear of magic, I offer my blood! Bore within this brow…!"
Finn's voice sounded out underneath the torrent of fire in the form of an ultra short chant.
His sky-blue eyes became dyed in a blood crimson red as he shot out from behind Ais's shield of wind and into the flames to meet the oncoming strike.
One of Finn's Skills, Ail mac Midna, activated and provided him some resistance to the flames around him as he deflected the sword from striking Ais. The opening he gave her allowed Ais to switch her stance and thrust into the gap provided by her Captain but Revis quickly drew her second sword and blocked the riposte.
As she did, an eerie black aura began to envelope Revis, as if the Creature was taking in a Curse unto herself and use it as a weapon against the Adventurers.
Gold and silver steel danced against the torrent of black curses. Each strike was was painful and Ais did everything she could to keep the Cursed Swords from striking her.
Were it not for Saber's training and Finn being beside her, Ais might not have been able to even see the strikes at all.
The memories of that bout surged forward from the depths of her mind. Fighting a Great Hero who fought with the power of a dragon.
And thus the wind roared.
Cladding herself with Ariel, Ais shot forward.
The wind smashed against the onslaught of curses, forcing it back. The green winds formed around her, almost as though it was creating a solid wall between her and Revis.
Ais had finally regained her composure with a single thought: As fearsome and frightening as the monster in human skin in front of her was…it paled before the dragon that resided within that Great Hero.
If she was to stand on the same level as those Heroes, she cannot afford to fall here.
Despite being forced back however, Revis showed no sign on frustration and instead showed a dark smile. Ais's wind had carved large gashes in Revis's skin but the Creature's accelerated healing was already kicking in, closing up the wounds without difficulty.
"Don't stray too far," Finn said softly as he stood beside Ais. "It's going to be a battle of attrition so we just need to wait a bit for the situation to change."
"Right," Ais replied as the ground began to rumble.
Revis's smile seemed to grow as a swarm of the spider-like monsters came swarming in through from corridor the Creature came in from.
Not only that, several violas also came in from the entrance that Ais and Finn came from.
Just as it seemed that the the situation had changed for the worse, a green flash cut through several of the violas behind them, causing them to freeze before quickly dissolving into dust as their Magic Stone was destroyed.
"Light of stardust, tear my enemies asunder!"
And following the death throes of the monsters was the soft tones of glittering stardust.
The stardust erupted in a brilliant green storm, launching outward and destroying the remaining violas as well as several of the spider monsters around Revis in dozens of explosions, forcing the Creature to leap back to avoid it.
"Did we make it?" Came a familiar distorted voice.
"Teacher?" Ais called out as the black clad form of Saber stepped out of the ashes of the monsters with an unfamiliar woman wearing a green hood and mask that covered her face. She wasn't Lancer or any other member of Hestia Familia that Ais could recognize.
Still, she seemed familiar but Ais couldn't quite put her finger on it.
She turned toward Finn but the pallum had a wry smile on his face before saying, "I see nothing," as the elf woman gave him a nod before turning toward Revis and jolting slightly.
"…Is something the matter?" Saber asked but the woman shook her head.
"…No, I thought I recognized her for a second but it isn't someone I know," the woman replied.
Revis glanced at the two newcomers before clicking her tongue in annoyance.
"Evilus is useless as expected," she muttered before she readied her sword again, seemingly unconcerned about facing four people at once as more spiders started pouring in from the door.
Whether it was confidence, bloodlust or simply apathy…or even a mix of all of the above, Ais wasn't sure. But Ais knew that so long as she had both Finn and Saber at their side, they had already won.
But as both sides stared each other down before Ais, Finn and the elf rushed forward while Saber waited in the rear.
The Adventurers cut their way through the monsters and reached Revis easily but that was all that was simple.
The elf struck first, only for her weapon to be knocked aside and for her to be kicked away without Revis even batting an eye.
Finn was next with two thrusts with his Fortia Spear with each strike moving like a viper going for the throat. Yet each one was deflected via lightning fast strikes to the shaft before Revis swung the second black sword, forcing Finn to defend against it as he was launched aside.
But even as Finn was knocked back, Ais was already barreling down on Revis from above. Although she fell with the speed of a star, Revis avoided the strike by leaping back yet Ais kept up the assault. Her silver Desperate cut through the air, bathed in her Ariel, and though she could not land a direct hit, the wind was enough to keep Revis from escaping too far.
Then, as the Creature moved to retaliate, a green light shot forward and crushed one of the black swords in her hands.
It moved faster than one could blink but Ais managed to catch what the projectile was.
It was Saber's sword.
Rather than using it like a melee weapon, the man had punched the bottom of the blade and launched it like an arrow toward Revis. As it flew past them, the blade began to move at impossible right angles as it attempted to return to its master.
At the blade's first turn, Saber had launched himself forward with the force of a dragon's roar, scattering the corpses of monsters and the stone floor around him. He blew past Ais and threw a punch at Revis.
The Creature maneuvered her other blade between herself and the Hero. The black blade successfully blocked the blow of his fist but the sheer power behind it was enough to send the woman flying, embedding her into the wall deep enough that she also smashed into the adamantite underneath the stone.
Such was the power of a Legendary Great Hero.
As Gram flew back into its master's hand, Saber glanced toward Ais for a moment before turning back toward Revis. Maybe he was wondering if Revis had been the one Ais was training to defeat? Frankly, she didn't care who defeated her so long as she was removed as a threat for good.
But as Saber gripped his blade, preparing to unleash the energy held within, the labyrinth began to shake around them once more.
As the battle raged between man and monster, two monsters were waging their own war below them.
Two mirrored existences, the ones who bear the name of "Minotauros" clashed against each other in a storm of red lightning and black steel.
Both minotaurs understood the intention of their opposite on sight. A sort of mutual understanding had flowed between them, exchanging the necessary information all at once.
The black bull wished to do battle against the young man that the white bull loved as a friend and Master. A bloodstained battle of not only pleasure, but one to the death as his soul demanded. But the white bull had vowed to protect the boy, no matter the cost to his own body.
Thus the two opposites had no choice but to face each other. Even then, there was no animosity between them. In fact, the two of them might even be friends should they be given the opportunity, ones that do battle on occasions where they were not needed to defend their comrades, the ones born with a heart from the walls of the Dungeon.
But it was not to be.
These two, whose names meant "Lightning," had goals that ran counter to one another. One wished to fight a young man in another bloody duel while the other wished to protect him with his newfound life. That single fact was all that was needed to turn them into enemies that did not hate each other.
Each step they took shook the earth around them. Each swing of their mighty weapons scattered lightning and thunder against the stone corridor, blowing out the walls and adamantite beneath it them.
Their monstrous strength were at a level beyond that of ordinary mortals, even those that received the blessings of the gods. Only those that reached the pinnacle of humanity could stand on the same battlefield as these monsters.
But even in this battlefield, the differences could be seen.
The white bull's halberd swung down with enough force to cleave solid stone but the blow was caught by the black bull's axe. Nevertheless, the strength behind the swing was enough to send the latter's feet digging into the stone, scattering rubble everywhere.
While the halberd was restrained, the black bull's Magic Blade, shaped in an axe, began to crackle with energy.
The magic axe came down with all of the black bull's strength, only to be intercepted in turn by the white bull's second halberd. The mysterious metal of the halberd had completely repelled the lightning magic from the blade.
The next instant, the black bull was blown back by the strength of the white bull's swing.
The white bull's strength surpassed that of the black bull.
Each blocked blow sent tremors that shook the black bull's bones to his very core and he could tell that the longer the battle went, the worst it would be for him.
And yet, despite the regret he was feeling at facing a comrade that could understand him better than any of the others, a rush of excitement ran through his body. It was a battle that sent jubilations down to his very soul.
It would not do for it to end so soon.
A distant roar caused both of them to freeze in their place. The white bull's head tilted upward slightly to look behind the black bull, prompting the latter to turn to look over his shoulder.
A mass of sickly green caterpillar-like monsters were rushing toward them…looking nothing like any other monster the two had seen before. No, that was wrong. The white bull seemed to recognize them from somewhere as it rushed forward and past the black bull, intent on putting their battle aside until the monsters were erased from the world.
A burst of steam flew out the black bull's nostrils before it turned and followed after the white bull.
Their battle could wait until the distraction was taken care of.
But when he swung his axe against the monster, its blood seemed to corrode the metal of his blade. That would be a huge problem as his axe was of rather high quality and he didn't want to lose it before the battle could continue.
The black bull glanced at one of the halberds the white bull was using that retained its sheen even as it carved through several of the exploding caterpillars in a single swing, but a simple glare from his mirror, it was clear it wasn't sharing.
The black bull did not want to lose his precious axe simply due to how hard it would be to get a new weapon. He would have to find one and take it from an Adventurer and that had its own dangers.
However, he remembered that his comrades had said something about making contact with a blacksmith who made weapons on the surface. The black bull decided to request an axe to be made for him the next time they meet.
But for now, the bulls had to clean up the mess in front of them.
Tiona's Urga spun like a buzzsaw as she sliced her way through the strange green kobolds. Several of them were cut down with each swing, but the monsters ignored their wounds and continued to claw and snap at her.
They were weak, but they attacked without fear and without pain.
"Why the hell are there so damn many!?" Tiona shouted before raising her sword up as a bullet bounced off of it.
It certainly didn't help that the fake Archer was still taking pot shots at them in between shooting down Archer's arrows.
Both of them had the same face and build and even the same magic. The only difference was their hairstyle, their clothes and the fake's skin was slightly darker than Archer's tanned skin. It was as if someone had taken Archer and burned him from the inside out.
To Tiona, it was like she was looking at a male version of her and Tione, as stupid as that sounded.
Except they were seriously trying to kill each other.
While the twin Archer's bullets were still haphazardly being shot at Bete and the twins, each one fired at Archer went straight for his heart.
The same went for Archer's arrows.
The black swords that he transformed into his arrows would fly in impossible angles, avoiding the kobolds and try to hit his twin dead on but they were shot down mid-flight without fail.
One walked under the sun as a member of one of the most famous Familias in recent history while the other lurked in the shadows as an ally of Evilus.
How could they have turned out so different?
Did Archer come to Orario to hunt down his own brother?
As she cut down another kobold, Tiona glanced over toward Tione. She couldn't tell what her sister was thinking in the middle of this chaos, but the troubled look on her face made her think she was thinking something similar at least.
Bete on the other hand…
He burst right through the altered kobolds and got right in the fake Archer's face. He swung his sword toward the fake's neck, only for it to be blocked by the man's weapon which had instantly morphed from a gun to a sword similar to the ones Archer always used.
It seemed as though the moment he realized it wasn't Archer in front of them, all hesitation flew out the window.
The moment their swords clashed against each other, the werewolf spun around and delivered a kick toward the man's chest, only for him to block it with his arm. In spite of this, the sheer force behind the blow was enough to send him sliding back across the stone floor, but other than that, he showed no outward signs of injury.
"Tch…like kicking solid metal…" Bete cursed.
It would seem that at the very least, Archer's twin was sturdier in close combat that he was. Considering he could extend blades out of his body, Tiona wondered if he might literally be a walking metal statue with a skin covering.
…Was Archer the same?
"That body is formed of Iron and Flame."
Bete's eyes widened for a second before he narrowly managed to avoid a bullet that hit one of the green kobolds instead, prompting blades to form out of it.
A metal shield quickly flew through the air, placing itself between Bete and the monster, allowing the werewolf to grab it as the monster exploded, showering the room with shards of metal. Bete, who was right next to the explosion, was able to whether the storm without issue thanks to the shield while Tiona and the others were far away enough and had enough meat shields in the way to avoid it.
Now Tiona understood why the fake Archer brought along so many weak monsters. Even though they were weak, they fought without fear like normal monsters and they were numerous and expendable enough for him to turn them into bombs with super short chant that was near identical to Archer's.
The four of them were basically fighting him in the middle of a field of living bombs.
In spite of this however, the Fake Archer didn't do anything drastic like turn every single monster into a bomb. Either he did not have the capability of doing so, or he was indeed holding back as a form of resistance or harassment to whoever was giving him orders.
That being said, he certainly wasn't holding back when it came to trying to kill Archer. He would look in Archer's direction with a derisive sneer while Archer would look at him back like he was a monster that needed to die.
Tiona had seen Archer in what she thought was his "serious" mode back when they fought the Demi-Spirit down in the Depths but the look in his eyes was beyond even that.
It reminded Tiona how Bache was completely afraid of her own sister, Argana, and the less said about Argana the better.
For Tiona who loved her sister Tione, even though they didn't always get along, seeing two siblings hate each other so much drove a nail into her chest. She and Tione were able to avoid killing each other because Tiona had requested Kali to let them leave and the goddess allowed it without too much fanfare, allowing them to leave Telskyura and travel to Orario where they became members of Loki Familia.
Two silver knives flew forward and impaled themselves into the chest of one of the kobolds and Tiona recognized them as Tione's zolas. Considering they had all been destroyed, these ones must have been created and thrown by Archer. Tiona's sister accepted the gifts with a smile as she reached forward and tore the knives out of the monster's chest and threw Bete's sword back toward him.
The werewolf dropped the shield, snatched the sword out of the air and swung his swords at the fake Archer, who deflected the blows with the blades on his guns while also firing them wildly as he did.
To Tiona's surprise, the bullets were bouncing off the stone walls and floor, cutting right through the monsters as if they were paper, making the Adventurers realize that they definitely did not want it to hit them.
"What the hell is this!?" Tione asked as she blocked the bullet, only for it to shatter her knife on impact. "Archer, you're slaking!"
"I have created over a thousand blades."
If it were the normal Archer, he'd probably scoff or make some witty remark about how easy bouncing projectiles off the walls were, but he simply tossed Tione another one without another word.
In fact, both Archers were deathly silent outside of saying the lines of their chant, as if they were nothing more than dolls that were trying to kill each other.
"Never yielding yet never amassing anything."
The guns in the fake's hands disappeared and were replaced by a dark red sword that started glowing the moment he placed both hands on its hilt.
"A Magic Sword!" Tione realized what it was instantly.
"Shit!" Bete said as he jumped away from the man while Archer stepped forward with his right arm extended.
"Have withstood pain to create many weapons."
Tiona realized what he was trying to do. It was the same spell he used to protect the Expedition team from the Demi-Spirit's second magic after Riveria and Gareth had been taken out by its first one.
As she quickly jumped behind Archer, her sister and Bete were close behind.
As soon as the three were safely behind him, the magic shield expanded out, covering the entire space of the corridor just as a wave of flame enveloped their surroundings, bringing back horrible memories of seeing Riveria disappear in a sea of red before Gareth threw himself in front of them.
Even with Archer's magic shield in front of them, Tiona could still feel the heat blowing past it, smashing multiple layers of the shield in an instant. It was even hotter than the fire breath of a valgang dragon but not as bad as the Demi-Spirit's spell…maybe.
"Thus, that life has no meaning."
But just as the flames died down, the fake Archer appeared right in front of the shield with a golden sword in his hands. The golden blade smashed into remaining three layers of the magic shield and shattered them all with that single thrust…as if it was a weapon that was always meant to do so.
Then, as soon as the last lights of the shield disappeared, the sword's hilt suddenly extended and the golden blade shot toward Archer's heart.
But just before the blade could reach him, Tiona shot forward and jabbed Urga in the space between the two men.
The golden blade clashed against the flat of double-headed blade and Tiona swung it with all her might. The sound of metal shattering reached her ears but she put it aside as the fake Archer was launched back, the golden blade having turned into a golden spear instead. The stone around them had been shifted and melted like a flowing river of stone save for the island where the four Adventurers stood.
And her precious Urga…was half the size it used to be.
But that was the furthest thing from her mind at the moment.
"Archer! Are you-" Tiona began only for Archer to extend his hand and create a copy of Urga for her without a word.
No word of thanks or snarky comeback of how he didn't need her help.
This cold attitude was as painful as it was frightening…just like the two's mirrored Magic Chant. The twins were so similar to the point that they could be the exact same person were it not for the different clothes and haircut.
""And so…as I pray…""
As the two seemed to be nearing the end of their chants, the Dungeon around them started to shake violently, something the two men simply ignored.
"What the hell is going on now!?" Bete shouted as the magic around them erupted.
At Gareth's shout, the Adventurer's all leapt to the walls of the corridor as the massive green Demi-Spirit simply charged straight down the path, unheeding of any obstacles in its way. The statues and pillars were simply plowed through as if they were made of glass and even the walls that were as tough as adamantite were shattered.
It was an entirely different beast compared to the one Loki Familia encountered down on the Fifty-Ninth Floor. While the first Demi-Spirit was stationary and launched catastrophic spells one after the other, this bull-like Demi-Spirit charged forward using its unimaginable weight and destructive power.
"What do we do!?" Cruz shouted over the destruction as they continued to run down the path.
"Even if we run, it's not as though we know where an exit is!" Narvi added.
"Didn't Berserker give you something, Raul?" Anakitty asked as they all followed the man holding the siren on his back.
"Yeah!" Raul replied. "I've been following it since it seemed to create a trail in the same direction Berserker was going before he got Cursed, but considering how far we fell, even if we went this way, who knows how far we need to go!"
And with the Demi-Spirit hot on their heels, they may grow exhausted before they reach the exit.
And so, Gareth made a decision.
"Raul, you lead the others out of here!" The dwarf ordered as he slid to a stop and turned around. "I'll keep it from chasing after you all!"
"Sir Gareth!?" Lefiya called out in surprise but Gareth would have none of it.
"Go! Anyone else would just get in my way!"
"…Got it!" Came Raul's reply. "Good luck, Gareth!"
As the rest of the Party retreated, Gareth could only chuckle to himself.
"Considering we fled from one bull only to find an even bigger one, I don't think I have much luck left," he said as he turned back to the Demi-Spirit as it wrenched itself out of the wall.
"This thing's looking for Ais too, huh?" Gareth muttered. "Was it actually following us or were we heading toward Ais's position as well?"
All the more reason not to let it follow the others. He had to stop it in its tracks
Before it could regain its bearings, the dwarf lunged forward and slammed his axe into its leg. A clear red gash had form where he struck but its body was so hard that his axe had lost a sizable chunk from its head.
The weapon will shatter long before the Demi-Spirit does. But even so, he had to take out at least one of its legs in order to slow it down.
"You wish to play?" The Demi-Spirit asked, turning its horrifyingly beautiful head toward Gareth's direction.
The bull that made up the Demi-Spirit's lower body suddenly let out a great roar, making Gareth wonder if the two entities had two separate minds. If it was created from one of those parasite things, it might have latched onto a power bull, a monster found in the Deep Floors.
The monster's legs smashed against the floor sending shockwaves that smashed against Gareth's body like a wave and the tremors made it hard for him to brace himself against them.
The only chance he had was to strike at the monster's Magic Stone and kill it in one hit, but he wasn't sure his axe would survive for that long.
One thing he could do was take a leaf out of Berserker's book and destroy the ground to send it falling to a lower floor but that would be putting off the problem for later and he didn't have the equipment to fight the Demi-Spirit in a prolonged battle.
So there was no other choice but for him to take it down here and now.
Gareth was Loki Familia's strongest warrior, a veteran who braved the Dungeon Depths hundreds of times over. Although the Demi-Spirit in front was something completely new, it wasn't different enough from the one he had encountered before that he would be thrown off balance.
"…Pierce, spear of lightning! Your envoy beseeches thee, Tonitrus! Incarnate of thunder! Queen of lightning…!"
So when it started its chant, one shorter and faster than any mortal could hope to cast, Gareth had been ready for it.
The dwarf launched himself off the shattered stone floor as the bolt of magic flew over his head. It left the beast wide open for Gareth to carve into its leg, losing another portion of his axe but he had been able to cleave through it, sending the giant bull down to the ground.
As someone who was always trusted with the rearguard, something of this level, while no doubt dangerous with awe-inspiring power, it was all it had. No matter how powerful it was, it meant nothing if it couldn't hit Gareth.
However…the same could be said of Gareth.
Despite bringing the creature down to its knees, it was only a temporary victory. He could not reach its core to deliver the final blow as it thrashed around with its remaining legs and even its tail that split off into two razor sharp blades.
As he was fighting all on his lonesome, the Demi-Spirit only had one target to focus its fury upon. Not that the others could have done anything to help if they had stayed. Perhaps if one or two of the other Level 6s had been with him, they could have finished it.
But even so, he couldn't stop here.
His instincts were screaming out to him, something in his very soul was telling him to keep fighting. That help would arrive so long as he remained standing…so long as he was still alive, he would be victorious.
But just as he launched himself at the beast to continue his assault, a twisted smile appeared on the Demi-Spirit's face.
"Rage, fury of the skies!"
A Magic Chant consisting of a single stanza. A super short-chant spell.
A veil of lightning formed around the Demi-Spirit, somewhat reminding him of the magic that the amazon from Hestia Familia cast. A lighting enchantment-type spell.
And just like the amazon's spell, the lighting surged forward and outward from the beast's body as it slammed its hooves down on the ground.
Countless shockwaves tore through the corridor, cutting through not only Gareth, but the walls and ceiling of the corridor, destroying everything in its path as Gareth could only let out a scream of silent agony. Not only did the lightning course through and sear his body but it also flung him around the room as if he was a child's toy ball.
The only thing keeping the corridor from being destroyed and sending the two of them further down to the depths of the Labyrinth was the layers of adamantite in the floor.
And then, it stopped.
The air was silent save for the Demi-Spirit's cruel giggles as it glanced at the dwarf's body, buried under several layers of rock.
However, just as it finish regenerating its leg to continue on its way, the rubble on top of Gareth shifted.
"…Where…do ya think you're goin'?" The dwarf demanded as he pushed himself off the floor.
Compared to the flames of the Demi-Spirit on the Fifty-Ninth Floor that had turned his very armor into liquid, the lightning was little more than a love tap. A very painful one to be sure, but it was not enough to stop the man that the Gods above had awarded the Alias Elgarm.
"You think that's enough to stop me!?" Gareth roared. Even though his axe was nothing more than a metal club now, he still had the strength to keep on fighting.
But the Demi-Spirit could only regard the heroic dwarf as an amusement that had outworn its welcome.
It lunged forward and smashed into the dwarf, crushing his body under its massive legs. The stone floor was crumbled to dust and the adamantite metal was rent and crushed beneath his body.
But just as its leg lashed out at the dwarf, it suddenly was caught by the man's arms and pulled to the ground with a massive battle cry.
"Yer gonna have to do better than that!" The dwarf roared as he flew through the air from the force of his own throw. "Come on! I can still throw you down as many times as needed!"
All traces of amusement vanished from the beast's face as it stood back up. Then, it let out another roar as it charged once more at Gareth.
But just as the dwarf braced himself to catch it, a familiar voice spoke out from beside him.
"Well fought…I acknowledge your heroics."
Golden lights surrounded the dwarf and in a flash of white, the beast was launched back and away from the dwarf.
Golden wisps of light then appeared in front of Gareth before it took the shape of a very familiar man.
"…Yer late," Gareth found himself saying with more than a little bit of annoyance earning a bout of laughter from the king.
"I did not wish to interrupt such a splendid battle," Caster said with a smile before snapping his fingers.
A golden staff appeared by Gareth's side and started to emit a warm light that spread throughout the dwarf's body. In an instant, the dwarf's fatigue and pain seemed to wash away before the king held out a golden bottle before him.
"A prize worthy of your efforts," the king said tossing the bottle of elixir toward Gareth. "Take it and rest. You shall need that energy to escape this place."
"…Fine then," Gareth said as he planted himself on one of the larger pieces of rubble, feeling too tired to argue. "I'll leave the two Spirits to fight amongst themselves. A show for a show, right?"
Caster's brow raised slightly before another chuckle escaped his lips.
"Indeed. You should be grateful…however, this is nothing more than a farce. It shall not take long."
Caster then started walking toward the Demi-Spirit as it was getting back to its feet.
"I had came here to laugh at you," the king said as the stone tablet in his hands vanished. "This is Gugalana? This is the mighty Bull of Heaven? This wretched and pitiful creature does not deserve to bear that name."
In Caster's hand was a golden key that he seemed to turn in the air as if unlocking some giant vault.
"But you bear that name nonetheless," Caster continued as golden light surrounded his body. "Therefore, it is only proper that you are treated to the full might of the king."
As the light vanished, the king was encased in golden armor from the neck down. A golden armor that espoused a quality beyond what mortal hands could ever hope to create.
But the Demi-Spirit didn't seem to register what it was seeing. It merely tilted back and forth as it wasn't sure what to make of Caster's appearance.
"…You are in the presence of your king," Caster said as he ran his hand through his hair, slicking it back like a blazing flame. "So kneel!"
The space at the beast's forelegs distorted in a haze as a dozen beautiful blades appeared beside them in empty space, each one at a quality worthy of being wielded by the highest of Top-Class Adventurers…and each one was shot at the beast as if they were nothing more than disposable arrows.
The blades cut into the beast's knees, many of them shattering and splintering much like Gareth's axe, but the sheer amount of them was enough to sever the bull's legs, bringing it down once more.
"Nameless lost Spirit! Ye whose existence is closest to the gods and ye who has lost their life to the Dungeon Depths, my name is Gilgamesh! Humanity's oldest and one true king! By my name I shall set you free from your cursed existence and return that life to the gods!"
Great Hero-King Gilgamesh.
Such a grandiose name must have some equally grand meaning tied to it.
Unfortunately, the name was unfamiliar to Gareth as he didn't have the habit of pursuing old stories like Tiona, Lefiya or Finn so it went over his head. Nevertheless, at least he had a proper name to check with the three when they all got back.
Even though Caster, or Gilgamesh or whoever, severed the Demi-Spirit's legs, he did not make a move to strike again. Instead, he wore a rather amused grin on his face as if he was giving his permission for the Demi-Spirit to strike back at him.
All traces of amusement and confusion vanished from the Demi-Spirit's face as it began another chant, prompting Gareth to stand up and prepare himself.
But a small chuckle escaped from Caster's lips as he positioned himself directly between the dwarf and the Demi-Spirit.
There was no chant to be heard. The man simply jutted his chin up with a sneer, causing over a dozen more of those priceless weapons to appear out of the air around the creature. Even compared to the Demi-Spirit, Caster's magic was even faster and beyond mortal comprehension.
Countless weapons flew toward the Demi-Spirit just as it finished casting the veil around itself. They fell like raindrops upon a glass window, scattering themselves across it without care until they pierced through the veil of lightning and struck true against the Demi-Spirit and the power bull body it possessed. Even then, the weapons were being thrown so haphazardly and without care that some even missed the beast entirely, crashing into and even piercing through the stone and adamantite walls around them.
As he witnessed this, Gareth had a feeling he found the true source of all the weapons that Archer could recreate.
As the dust cleared, the Demi-Spirit's body laid battered and broken on the ground. Whether by pure luck or by Caster's design, the countless blades had missed the Demi-Spirit's Magic Stone and the beast was still alive.
"…I find myself disappointed, Elgarm," Caster suddenly said, turning toward Gareth. "Was this thing truly so dangerous when you fought it down in the Dungeon Depths?"
"This thing is completely different from the one below," Gareth replied, shaking his head. "The one down there had a body sturdy enough to shatter my axe when I attacked its vines. This one, I could actually cut through. If I had to guess, this one didn't eat as many Magic Stones as the other one. When we found it, it was gorging itself on the Magic Stones of those virgas things."
"I see," Caster responded with a nod of understanding.
Monsters devouring Magic Stones was the equivalent of an Adventurer gaining Excelia and getting their Falna updated by their god. The more a monster devoured, the more powerful they became.
"Because they chose to bring this one close to the surface, they must have not fed with nearly as many Magic Stones in order to be able to keep it under control," Caster surmised. "It would not do for it to rampage before their scheme, whatever it is, is complete…or perhaps it is because they were planning to gift this creature to someone and they kept it weaker in order to be able to kill it if its recipient were to turn on them."
"What kind of lunatic would want to keep this thing as a pet?!" Gareth asked, completely aghast but Caster simply chuckled as he tapped the side of his head with a finger.
"Well, there is no point in discussing its existence any longer," he decided, placing one hand on his hip and the other held up over his head. "It will die here and-"
Caster suddenly froze as his head shifted upward ever so slightly toward a hole in the ceiling.
Gareth frowned as he looked from the Hestia Familia Captain toward the same hole.
There, in the distance, he could see another corridor where two people in robes were running. The shorter of the two was wearing robes that clung tightly against their body, accentuating their figure to the point that it was clear that they were female. From the looks of things, they were running around completely lost in this new Labyrinth as the rest of them.
However, they were so far away from Gareth and Caster's current position that Gareth wouldn't have noticed them if Caster hadn't suddenly stopped moving to stare at them.
With those words, Gareth felt the air drop to almost freezing temperatures. A ghastly chill clung to his body as he found it difficult to even take a breath.
The words had been said by the man in front of him. His kingly aura now had a layer of rage and hatred over it, wiping away any traces of the smug amusement he had when facing the Demi-Spirit.
The lax attitude and atmosphere he had since he had appeared was gone. All that was left was a king ready to lay down judgement on the condemned.
"It is time…" Caster's voice was barely above a whisper and yet Gareth found himself wanting to take a step back. "Awaken…Ea."
He was calling out for something. A name. A weapon.
In the language of the gods, it meant a separation of Heaven and Earth.
But rather than letting the weapon appear like the others had, Caster smashed his hand against the air itself, causing what look like a crack to appear in the space between him and the wall. When he pulled his hand back out, an incongruous sword came with it.
A cylindrical sword, one made of three parts, with each part is turning slowly in different directions like querns.
That was the only emotion Gareth could feel as he gazed upon the drill-like sword, if it could even be called that.
"The time of Judgement has arrived," Caster began to chant, raising the sword above his head as he did. At his words, the sword's sections began to spin, creating a torrent of black and red winds and flames full of magic energy that was beyond any of Riveria's spells. "I speak of the beginning. The Earth and Heaven are separated, void celebrates creation. My Sword of Rupture splits the world. Millstone that turns the stars, the Hell above Heavens is the arrival of the world creation's eve."
The magic energy was enough to blast open the walls around them, grinding the stone to dust and creating an opening for Gareth to see the vast layout of the Labyrinth around them.
"Wait!" Gareth shouted even as he was unable to do anything but shield his face from the energy that was flowing around Caster. "If you fire that big thing upward, you'll blow the entire city to kingdom come!"
What was the point of destroying Evilus if the entire city died along with them?
But Caster showed no sign of caring of the damage he could wreak upon the city…as if that lone figure in the distance was worth the deaths of everyone in Orario.
The energy gathered to the tip of the blade and was ready to be unleashed upon the world.
"Your death shall be claimed as tribute! Enuma El-"
But just as he was about to swing that sword, something stopped him.
Countless chains had shot out from the space around him, wrapping around his chest and the arm holding the blade as if desperate to restrain the king's rage. It even wrapped itself around the sword itself.
The sudden appearance of the chain surprised even Caster.
The energy contained itself at the tip of the sword and simply remained there as Caster slowly lowered the blade without unleashing it as he gently held up one of the chain links with his free hand.
The aura of rage seemingly dissipated under the chain's embrace.
"…Now?" Caster seemed to ask the chain as if it was a tool to talk to someone who could no longer respond. "Only now do you concern yourself with restraint in the face of our hated enemy? No…that's not it…? Had the attack been unleashed, the entirety of Eastern Orario would have been annihilated. I suppose I would no longer be able to rule over those children if that had happened."
Caster then let out a decidedly unkingly sigh.
"Really now…why is it that you concern yourself with these mongrels so much, En-?"
With the typhoon of magic in front of him, Gareth had momentarily forgotten about the Demi-Spirit. It had managed to heal enough that it could cast another spell, one aimed directly at Caster.
Before Gareth could shout out a warning, a clap of thunder equal in power of the Demi-Spirit's spell shot forward from the space above Caster and smashed into the incoming magic.
The thunder had shot forward from several golden discs that were hovering around Caster. However, parts of the chain had been destroyed, causing Caster's eyes to contract with rage into snake-like slits once more.
"…To interrupt the king's reverie…" Caster muttered, his body floating up into the air as he glared down at the wounded beast. "The punishment for such a transgression can only be death!"
And the sword's sections spun once more.
The heavens screamed and the earth cracked.
All the energy stored within the drill-like sword was unleashed in an instant, devouring everything in its path.
The Demi-Spirit's gazed into the oncoming abyss with blank eyes.
And then…it smiled.
And then…she was free.
"Hey, I've come bearing souvenirs~"
The goddess Dia greeted one of her friends from Olympus with a smile as she stepped into the room where they had been waiting.
"I found some good wine in my last trip," she said as she held up a bottle. "And by good, I mean the last of its kind. The winemaker and his family were all killed when a neighboring kingdom invaded. A shame really. I always made a point to stop by if I was in the area."
Her friend simply shrugged their shoulders in response.
"Well, that is life in Gekai I suppose," Dia agreed. "Fleeting and over in an instant. Would you like the honors? No? All right then."
She had offered to let them open the last bottle themselves but they insisted that she do it as it was part of her old duties.
She filled up two glasses and offered one to her friend, taking a sip herself first to show that it was fine to drink.
Once they both drained their first glass, she filled them both up again before speaking again.
"Were you the one who goaded Apollo into attacking Hestia?" She asked with a smile. "Really now, getting him all drunk like that. As if he wasn't a moron before… Well, I suppose you do know your wine. Oh, I'm not particularly angry. I just thought that it was rather blatant of you. I had thought you were more subtle than that. Are you getting impatient?"
She took another sip of her wine.
"Hmm? You want to know why I'm not blabbing to Ouranos about your plans? Well, why should I get in the way of your fun? It's quite exhilarating, really, seeing the demise of a centuries old kingdom. I let my Child do it, so why should I stop you from trying to do the same?"
She drained her drink and held the clear glass between her fingers, spinning it around while watching the droplets fall to the bottom.
"That and I suppose I don't really think you'll succeed anyway," Dia admitted. "You always end up making a mistake at the very last moment…oh don't you pout, you know it's true. Oh fine, I suppose someone does always pop out of nowhere and do something you couldn't possibly plan for."
She set her glass down with a sigh.
"Well, just let me know before it happens. I want to be on the other side of the world to watch the fireworks. I mean, you're sure you've accounted for everything…right?"
Before her friend could answer, the ground suddenly started shaking violently, sending their glasses tumbling to the floor as she lunged for the wine bottle before it could break. Even outside the room, she could hear people screaming and foundations cracking.
Two large groundquakes in one day….
"…Well, that didn't sound good…" Dia muttered before her friend hurriedly left the room with Dia rushing out as well to return to her Familia.
Deep below the Guild, Ouranos suddenly stood up from his throne.
"…What has your Child done, Hestia?" Ouranos asked, urgency and fear sounding out in his voice despite it retaining his usual calm inflection.
"Huh?" Hestia could only sputter in confusion as she picked herself off the floor. "What? What happened?"
"The Dungeon…the Dungeon has…"
Seeing the world shake around them, Saber rushed forward to end the Creature in front of them but as he swung Gram down, the scene shifted in front of him and all he managed to cut was a green stone wall.
Spinning around, he saw Ryuu, Finn, and Ais still there, looking confused.
"…This is bad…" he muttered.
Did something happen to Berserker?
Either way, the Crete Labyrinth was gone and Knossos had returned to its rightful place.
They had lost their advantage and the enemy has regained theirs.
A wail rang through his ears.
An unearthly and utterly inhuman wail rang through the halls of Knossos, one that brought all four Adventurers to their knees. No living creature could make such a sound. No mortal, spirit or monster could wail with such agony and anger.
Like a thousand nails being drawn across a slate, it was enough to split Saber's skull in two.
One of their number falls to the ground, her body trembling in fear as her hollow eyes stared out in the darkness.
"A-are you all right?" Ais asked as she knelt down beside Ryuu while desperately covering her ears with both hands.
"Run…!" Ryuu cried out. "We need to get out of here! It's…it's coming!"
"What is?" Finn asked but Ryuu was in no condition to respond. It was as if she was trapped within an old trauma. "This isn't good. Ais, although it's a bit rude, please grab her. Saber…right? I trust you have a way out?"
"Yes," Saber said as Ais carefully pulled the elf's arm around her shoulders and helped her to her feet. "We need only to follow this thread."
He held out the ariadne thread and it revealed its rainbow link to its anchor for them to see.
"Got it. You take point, Ais and your friend will be in the middle and I'll take the rear."
Saber nodded his head in agreement as he turned and followed the thread down the corridor.
But he could not shake the worry in his head that his comrades were in great danger.
Gareth slowly lowered his arms, having used them to cover his ears from the unearthly wail and opened his eyes.
There, he saw the man standing before a large hole in the green stone corridor of Knossos, his lips stretched out into a thin line. Almost as if he was barely holding back in saying, "Oops."
"…What a failure," Caster muttered as he glanced over at Gareth. "Elgarm, I trust you have rested enough. We are to move, immediately."
"No need to tell me twice," Gareth replied, picking up the remains of his axe.
As he did he saw a blur rush toward Caster's head, only to quickly twist and force itself to change direction in mid-air as several blades extended themselves out defensively beside the man's head.
With a click of his tongue Caster turned his body to face his assailant.
There, standing in the large hole…or rather tunnel leading into the depths, were three bony looking monsters with elongated limbs.
Like most creatures, it had two arms and two legs. They were long and thin and bizarrely out of proportion with the body with its legs bent backwards like that of an ostrich. Its bony, nearly fleshless form was covered in a shell that at first glance looked like a coat of armor. It glinted with a strange dark-purplish-blue light that was clear despite the green flames and was over three meters in length, not including the hard four-meter-long tail that extended form the base of its back. To top it all off, its head, one as large as an adult man, resembled a beast's skull with two floating blood red orbs for eyes that spoke of pure malice.
"…Never seen those before…" Gareth muttered.
That alone made them bad news. It was fast enough to appear to be a blur and to avoid the storm of blades Caster sent out in defense.
And there were three of them. Or rather, three that they could see. Who knows how deep this tunnel went and how many might have wandered into the halls of Knossos.
As Gareth resolved himself, he glanced over at Caster. The man's face was stretched into an expression that said "what a bother."
Gareth needed a plan.
"Hey, how about a contest?"
"Contest?" Caster repeated.
"The one who kills more of these things treats the other to some booze once we get back to Orario," Gareth said with a smile.
Judging from what he had seen, Gareth surmised that Caster was the one behind the thunder back during Grand Day against the black tornadoes created by Behemoth Alter. Although he had devastated majority of the monsters, several of them were still alive.
Caster was most likely the type to leave things half done because they were a bother and left it to others to finish it up.
Thus he came up with this idea.
"…Do you plan to challenge me with that thing?" Caster asked, looking down at Gareth's destroyed axe.
"Well, it's only fair for a Level 6 to give a Level 1 a handicap, right?"
Caster snorted in annoyance before he held up a hand and pulled out the golden axe he had used during the War Game and Gareth took it.
"I want that back," Caster snarled as he put away the red drill-like sword and pulled out two golden blades shaped like thunderbolts instead.
"That's fine, gold's not my color anyway," Gareth retorted, causing Caster to huff. "What about you? Won't that armor get in the way?"
"Fool, this armor is a masterwork!" Caster shouted before letting out a small cough. "…But yes…it does. That is why I am a Caster, fuahahahaha."
The two then turned back toward the tunnel.
"Well, don't complain if I win becase you're too slow to move" Gareth asked.
"None of your concern," Caster replied as the three monsters jumped the duo.
"What was that?" Tiona asked as she looked around to only see the green walls of Knossos, her sister, Bete and Archer standing around her with the Fake Archer nowhere to be seen.
The two of them were just about to finish their chant when the world shifted and wailed with such intensity that Tiona felt like her skull was going to split in two.
"Sounds like someone pissed off the Dungeon or something fierce," Bete replied as he glanced around. "Smells like Knossos…so guess that weird Labryinth's gone…"
Archer suddenly twitched as he started moving down the corridor, only for Tiona to grab his arm.
"Wait, where are you going?" She asked.
"Where do you think?" Archer snapped back. "I'm going to find him and kill him."
But what, really? What exactly could she say to him about that.
"It ain't a good idea to let Evilus run around with their own 'Archer' like that but this is Knossos again," Bete suddenly said. "If that other one's basically as good as you, then shouldn't you regroup with your Familia?"
"T-That's right!" Tiona agreed, unable to believe she was feeling thankful to Bete of all people. "You'll need backup if you want to fight someone like that, right?"
Archer wrenched his hand from Tiona's grip before he pulled out what look like a piece of string. The moment he held it up into the air however, wisps of rainbow light extended from it toward some unseen anchor.
"This way," he said before he started running.
"Worry about that later," Tione said as she smacked Tinoa's back prompting her to run after him.
They didn't need to go far before they ran into sounds of battle. Or at least, the final moments of one as the death shriek of a monster reached their ears.
"Captain!" Tione shouted as they found Finn and Ais, the latter of which was holding a woman in a green cloak, and a man in a black armor which Tiona suspected to be Saber considering Archer walked right up to him and started a hushed conversation with him.
"Looks like you three are all right," Finn said with a relieved smile.
"Oi Finn," Bete began, glancing over at Archer for a moment. "We ran into a-"
"Someone with Archer's magic, right?" Finn finished, prompting the three to look at him in surprise. "We saw the results of his handiwork a bit earlier."
"A bunch of suped up Magic Swords?" Tiona asked and Finn nodded. "Also…what's with her?"
Tiona pointed toward the shaking and panicked looking woman Ais was carrying to which Finn simply said, "Don't worry about her."
Saber walked over toward her, traced his finger in front of her face and the woman immediately slacked forward, falling unconscious.
"I will take her now," Saber said to which Ais nodded and handed her over. Saber then lifted the unconscious woman up in a princess carry as if he was used to doing such things.
"Well, we'll have a lot to talk about once this is over," Finn said to which Saber simply shrugged his shoulders and Archer gave no response.
There were indeed a lot of things to talk about…whether or not they'll get any answers was another thing though.
Ever since the wail caused the Labyrinth to vanish and return Knossos to its place, Lefiya's group had been hounded by monsters spilling into the manmade Dungeon.
Not just the strange bug-like and green monsters that made up of Evilus's forces but black-hide monsters from the Dungeon itself. A mixture of Irregulars and Enhanced Species.
As Raul was busy keeping the siren safe, Filvis volunteered to lead the way as Raul lost the thread Berserker gave him somewhere in the chaos of Berserker being Cursed, getting chased by the Demi-Spirit and Knossos returning. Not to say that the siren was dead weight however. From her spot on Raul's back, she was able to fire her sonic magic at the monsters, temporarily disorientating them for the others to take down. The fact that she could do so relatively quickly and without a chant and without prompting made her a surprisingly helpful addition. It certainly was strange however, that the monsters made a beeline for her, and Raul by extension, the moment they saw her though.
"I think that explains why talking monsters aren't exactly common," Narvi commented as she patted the siren on the back after it suddenly fell into another coughing fit. "If monsters go crazy and rush them on sight, there probably aren't too many of them that survive."
"Doesn't help that Adventurers aren't exactly going up to each one and seeing if it can say 'Hi' first either," Cruz added before frowning a bit and glancing at the siren's face. "Still…it…she? She doesn't look like any other siren in the Dungeon."
Cruz had a point. "Normal" sirens had horrible wrinkly faces like that of old crones and smelled of excrement and other foul things. This siren, however, had a smooth face that many might actually consider beautiful if it hadn't belonged to a monster.
"Worry about that later!" Aki said. "First we gotta get out of here before…whoa…"
Before them laid a massive tunnel. It definitely was not natural in terms of being purposefully constructed. It looked as if a huge wave of magic had blown through the walls of Knossos, utterly destroying the stone and adamantite walls and floors.
"…That probably leads down into the actual Dungeon," Raul noted. "Look…over there!"
Gesturing with his chin, Raul drew their attention to various items scattered around the tunnel.
"Claws and horns?" Lefiya asked. "These are…Drop Items?"
"Someone else must have gone down this tunnel from above," Filvis noted. "Probably whoever created it in the first place."
"Should we go after them?" Lefiya asked but Filvis shook her head.
"The monsters from the Dungeon are swarming in from that direction," she said. "And we don't know if it's one of your Familia or a member of Evilus that made this hole."
Thus the group decided to cross the tunnel, feeling the heat of the recently melted stone beneath their shoes, and continued traveling through the maze. However, Lefiya still couldn't help but be worried about Gareth who had stayed behind to hold off the new Demi-Spirit, and the others who were still missing. She could only hope that they hadn't been caught up in whatever made that blast.
The High Elf along with several other members of the Familia were standing in the middle of a frozen wasteland, surrounded by several violas that had been turned into ice sculptures by her magic.
"Why are you here?" Lefiya asked.
"Loki had enough waiting and sent us in after you," Riveria explained. "Especially after two groundquakes and-"
She then stopped as her eyes fell upon Raul and the siren he was carrying.
"…What is that?" She asked.
"I-I'll explain later," Raul said quickly. "Once we're all back since explaining it more than once will be exhausting…"
"Just thinking about it is exhausting…" Aki added, rubbing her forehead.
Riveria raised an eyebrow as she looked from Raul to the siren, who shrunk back a bit and tried to hide behind Raul's head.
And just like that, that single word cause Riveria and all the other Loki Familia members to freeze and gape at the siren.
"…Indeed," Riveria agreed with a nod. "Loki will definitely need to hear about this. What happened to the others?"
"I think we all got transported to different parts of the Labryinth," Raul replied. "Finn, Ais, Bete and the twins were separated from us so we don't know where they are. Gareth stayed behind to hold off another Demi-Spirit…"
"I see," Riveria replied with another nod. "First we'll escort you to where Loki and the rest are waiting then I'll head back in to find Gareth."
"Let me go with you!" Lefiya requested but Riveria shot her down with a shake of her head.
"You are running ragged and are almost out of Mind," Riveria said, appraising Lefiya's condition with a single glance.
"What about the others?" Aki asked.
"…Loki believed that Hestia Familia have entered the Labryinth as well and are most likely with them," Riveria said slowly, sounding unsure of herself but willing to trust their goddess. "Thus we are operating under the assumption that they are together and will be exiting through a different location."
Everyone nodded their heads.
No one was dumb enough to ask "But what if you're wrong?"
At this point in time, with all the chaos that was happening, Loki was prioritizing a retreat while trying to save as many as they can. They just had to have faith that the others would be able to escape on their own.
"Where did this giant hole come from!?"
Lily's words accurately described the feelings of everyone as they reached the Twentieth Floor.
The great forest had a massive hole in it, as if a large star had plowed its way through the Dungeon from the very heavens themselves.
"…That's bad…" Rei muttered as she glanced over toward the wall that had a huge hole in it. "The village was supposed to be over there."
"A-at least it wasn't being used, right?" Fia muttered but that didn't help their situation any.
The hole had not been there scant minutes before. It must have appeared within the short time they spent traveling up the stairs between the Twentieth and Twenty-First floors when the huge explosion and unearthly wail rang throughout the Dungeon.
"Bell, are you all right?" Emma asked. "You're looking kinda pale."
"I…" Bell began as he rubbed his chest. "I think…this was Caster's doing."
Aside from Rei and Arles, everyone else stared at him.
"For a while, it felt like the others were in constant combat," Bell muttered. "And…it felt like Caster was angry enough to use…whatever it was that made that hole."
"Jeez, how many floors down does that thing go?" Welf asked. "Careful kids. One wrong step, and you'll be falling for an hour."
"Don't make this tension any worse!" Gina shouted, smacking Welf on the leg before Lancer held up a hand.
"Quiet," she said softly but it was enough for everyone to clam up immediately.
After a moment of silence as everyone glanced around at the hole and the remains of the forest, Fia spoke up, "I don't hear anything."
"…No, she's right," Rei said, her eyes turning fierce. "Everything is too quiet. No monster cries or sounds of Adventurers. Everything seems still…"
Lancer and Rider shared a look before Lancer held out her spear to the side like a barrier as she gestured for everyone to close ranks.
Bell, Lancer, Rider and Rei stood on the outside of the circle, followed by Arles, Assassin, Welf and Gina, and then the rest in the center.
Even if they couldn't see anything, Bell could feel eyes glaring down on them. Like they were prey being stalked by a predator. He scanned the tree-line but he wouldn't be able to make out anything at this distance. It was like the one watching them was waiting for them to panic first…and judging from the extremely short breaths Primo was making, it wouldn't be too long before that happens.
Bell, Lancer and Rider's head shot up at the same time.
There, above them, was a monster Bell had never seen before. It clung to the stone walls like a giant spider far larger than any human being and in its mouth was-
Primo let out a scream of fear and horror as the beast snapped its mouth shut, biting through what used to have been an another Adventurer.
"Lancer!" Bell called out and the Servant shot up toward the monster like a flaming arrow.
"Fia, you stay here!" Rei ordered before taking off after the Servant.
Lancer smashed into the side of the wall where the monster, the massive juggernaut, was perching, but the beast quickly leaped away before she reached him. The impact created a massive crater in the wall, which only grew even more when Lancer shot back out again.
"Everyone, get behind me!" Rider called out as she yanked Bell by the back of his shirt and threw him back before he could voice any objections.
As soon as she did, Rider quickly raised her shield just as the monster slammed into it and bounced off, sending the Servant rocketing in the other direction from the impact, blowing everyone else off their feet as she flew past.
"Miss Rider!" Primo screamed as Rider's body slid across the ground and off the cliff.
Acting quickly the woman's sword hand shot forward and she managed to grab onto the ledge before flipping herself up with one hand.
"Don't worry about me!" Rider called out as Lancer came down like a shooting star, forcing the monster away from the Party. "Don't let that thing out of your sight!"
But the monster was more powerful than anything Bell had ever seen before. Its legs were powerful enough to send it over twenty meters into the sky like it was nothing. Not only did it have frightening agility but it had enough power to blow back a Servant like Rider who specialized in defense.
The monster launched itself from the walls to the trees to the ground almost like a child's toy ball, never staying in the same spot for more than a second, forcing Lancer to play catch up with it.
If Bell and the others weren't here, he felt that Lancer would easily be able to blow it away. But as it was, the Servant was unable to properly focus on it, being too worried about Bell and the others should she stray too far from them.
With a shout, Bell quickly leaped back, narrowly avoiding its massive purple claws as he felt his breastplate be torn off his chest, sending him sprawling to the ground.
"I'm fine! Don't worry!"
One of the girls called out to him but Bell quickly shouted back to keep them from rushing toward him.
Gold and crimson needle-like feathers flew toward the monster, forcing it away from Bell and leaving it open for another attack.
"Don't you hurt Mommy!" Came Assassin's cry as she appeared right beside the monster in midair. Her daggers lashed out like fangs as she pounced the monster. It narrowly avoided one of the daggers but the other one struck home, embedding itself into the monster's armored shell and leaving cracks along its body.
It let out another roar before its tail swiped through the air and smacked into Assassin, sending her sprawling to the ground.
"Jack!?" Bell called out but Assassin slowly pushed herself off the ground as she rubbed her cheek. At the very last moment before impact, she had pushed herself away from the juggernaut, reducing the damage dealt to her. Blood was trickling down out of her nose and mouth but she didn't seem fazed in the slightest.
"Jack, move out of the way!" Gina shouted and Assassin immediately leaped back just as Primo's song rang out through the air.
"Blast away these hapless rejects! Lumine Pleiades!"
The seven beams of light locked onto the monster yet it made no effort to dodge the magic. Then, at the moment just before the violet lights hit their target, the purplish-blue shell encasing the beast pulsed with light.
The beams contracted, flickered, and then reversed direction back toward the tiny elf girl.
"Primo!" Bell screamed just as someone jumped between the girl and her reflected magic while holding a large metal shield.
The lights hit the shield and exploded against the two girls, blowing them back and across the ground.
"Miss Emma!" Lily's voice screamed out and Bell realized that Emma had once again thrown herself in harm's way to protect Primo. Even as the two of them were on the ground, the older girl's ruined and mangled arms were wrapped protectively around the elf girl while the latter's eyes were wide open in horror as she stared at the empty eyes of the former.
"…You!" Lancer's soft yet sharp voice cut through the air as she reappeared in a flash, her tranquil violet eyes burning with a divine fury. Several runic scripts were glowing on the woman's arms and legs as well as her weapon.
The weapon flashed, faster than anything Bell had ever seen. The moment it struck the monster right in the center, the beast, along with half the cliffside, exploded in white-hot flame.
Even if the monster had an ability to reflect magic, it couldn't do so at such close range.
Lancer's fury at her loved ones being hurt ensured that nothing of the monster remained.
But Bell didn't wait for that to end.
As soon as Lancer appeared by the juggernaut's side, Bell had already started running toward Emma and Primo.
Because something else was moving toward them as well.
But just as Bell threw himself between the fallen girls and the purple blur, someone stepped in front of him and knocked him down followed by something warm and wet splattering across his face. Bell slowly opened his eyes and slowly looked up.
Standing before him was Bell's sixth Servant…with one arm stretched forward blocking the claws of a second juggernaut that had appeared while they were distracted by the first. The claws had extended far beyond the reach of her small buckler, making them embed themselves not only in the metal shield but into the left side of her body as well. Her sword arm was uninjured and was currently in the process of digging deeper into the monster's throat.
"Hey…" her soft voice began before a roaring heat erupted from it, as if she was seeing her hated enemy in front of her. "Just what…do you think…you're trying to do to my children!?"
With a roar, the Heroic Spirit of the Mount pulled her blade out in an arch, severing the beast's head, sending it flying into the air before landing in a thump a few feet away.
"…Are you all right, Master?" Rider asked, putting on a smile as blood seeped out of the numerous wounds on her chest and even her head…and despite the fact that her arm from the elbow down was only just barely hanging on.
"R-Rider…" Bell gasped as her red hair fell onto the ground, having been severed by the beast's claws as well.
"I see…then everything's all right," she continued, her smile never leaving her face even as she stumbled back.
"Rider!" Bell shouted again as he lunged forward and caught her before she hit the ground, only for her arm to fall anyway. "Rider…! Why!?"
Of course she would jump in the way. She is a Servant and you are her Master. If you die then she would be quick to follow either way.
"Bell, get a hold of yourself!" Welf shouted as he appeared by Bell's side. "Come on man, don't lose it now! We're not out of the woods yet!"
"Lily, potions!" Karen shouted as she placed her hand against Emma's neck.
"W-who does Lily…" Lily asked, looking back and forth between Emma and Rider.
"Help Miss Flores first," Lancer ordered as she rushed over to Rider. "Rider's Skill will allow her to survive…so long as her Foundation remains whole."
"Miss Rei," Lancer continued, looking over to the siren who straightened her back upon being called.
"Y-yes? What is it?"
"It might be best for you and Miss Arles if we go our separate ways from here," Lancer decided. "We must make our way to the surface and we cannot ask you to go any further than this. It would be best for you to reunite with your comrades."
"Are you sure?" Rei asked, looking between Emma and Rider.
"Yes. You have fulfilled your end of the agreement so there is no need for you to do any more."
"…Very well," Rei replied before turning to Fia.
"I…I'm going to stay with them a bit longer," Fia answered before Rei could ask anything. "I…want to make sure they're both okay…"
"Of course," Rei accepted her request with a smile and a nod. "Stay safe, okay?"
Arles hopped over toward Assassin and carefully placed her paw against Assassin's cheek, causing the girl to wince in pain before pulling the al-miraj into a hug.
"Let's play again next time, okay?" Assassin asked and Arles cooed in agreement.
Then the two Xenos left, with Rei grabbing Arles with her talons before taking off to the air.
"Now we must leave as well," Lancer said. "Miss Morris, please carry Miss Flores. Mister Crozzo, Rider."
"G-got it…hang in there Mom…"
"Come on, Primo…" Gina said as she helped the near catatonic girl to her feet. "Emma will be fine, okay? We just need to get out of here first."
There was a ripping noise and everyone turned to see Lily tearing off several bandages before morbidly wrapping them around Rider's severed arm.
"D-don't anyone say anything…" Lily said quietly as she carefully lifted her newfound package up. "Lily doesn't want to hear it…!"
"…Thank you, Lily," Bell found himself saying.
"Lily said she doesn't want to hear it!"
Despite everything, Bell found himself smiling for a moment before he felt a presence drawing near. Turning around he saw a massive hand reach up over the cliff and pull itself up.
"Beru…hurt?" The minotaur asked despite being covered in several bleeding cuts and patches of darkened skin that looked like it had been fused together by some kind of poison or flame.
"Man, I never thought I'd be glad to see a minotaur…" Welf muttered quietly.
Berserker knelt down beside the elf and gently lifted her up in his arm. The girl shifted for a moment before turning and burying her face into his mane, letting out a loud wail as she did.
"I'm sorry to rush you even though you've only just arrived, but we really must go," Lancer said. "Berserker…can you fight while carrying Miss Libera?"
"I…protect Primo…and everyone," Berserker replied with a nod.
"Then please lead the way. I shall take the rear. Master, follow close behind him."
"Yes," Bell said as everyone gathered their things and started moving, leaving the bloodstained battlefield behind them.
A little bit away from the battle, Rei and Arles were flying close to the edge of the wall where they spotted an armored giant sitting on a fallen tree.
Arles let out a few squeaks and Rei nodded her head before lowering them down beside the armored form.
"Asterius, are you all right?" She asked the minotaur who was wearing a large plate armor with a helmet that was covering his entire head. "And where did you get that armor?"
"…I found it," came the curt reply as he stood up, turning his head toward the hole in the wall. "Up there is where the surface dwellers are keeping our comrades."
"What!?" Rei gasped before looking up herself.
"I met another one of my kin," Asterius continued. "As we fought together, he said that all were dead save for one…but he lost her in the battle. They were last seen with other surface dwellers that he trusted."
"I see…it must have been the one Fia met then," Rei muttered. "Then the enemy's base is up there?"
"What's left of it," came the minotaur's reply as he shook his helmeted head.
It must have been members of Bell's Familia that assaulted them then. They must have done considerable damage to them, all things considered. But there was no point in Rei and Arles going up there by themselves and by the time they returned to the others, the Dungeon would no doubt have repaired itself, sealing off their way into the enemy base anyway.
"What are you going to do now?" Rei asked. "Are you going back off to the Deep Floors again?"
"…No, I want to talk to Fels for a bit," Asterius replied. "I'll be imposing on you all for a bit."
"After what happened today, I wouldn't mind at all."
Night had fallen over Orario and all of Hestia's Children had returned home.
However, there was no celebration to be had.
Caster and Archer were both furious about something and neither were in the mood for Hestia to ask what happened.
Saber and Lancer had solemn expressions before disappearing off to who-knows-where for a spell.
Rider had lost an arm and was currently resting until they could get into contact with Fels to heal it but Ouranos's Mage was off inspecting the damage done in the Dungeon.
Assassin and Bell were holed up in Bell's room, the latter having gone straight there without a single word to Hestia when he returned home.
Emma was also injured and was currently resting in her room where Lily and Karen were watching over her.
Welf had gone straight into the forge when he got back with Gina slipping in behind him, not wanting to leave him alone with his thoughts.
And lastly, Fia and Berserker were sitting in the back yard, unable to fall asleep as Primo was clinging against the minotaur as if he was a security blanket, refusing to let go for any reason.
Even though all of her Children were home, Hestia felt as though something important was breaking due to the failure of the Expedition.
"…What am I supposed to do at a time like this?" She wondered as she tearfully placed her head down against her desk. "What can I do at a time like this?"
He was here once more. Here in the world of dreams.
And He was struggling all his might against His mirrored self as the latter grabbed hold of Him.
In front of Him was a woman who showered Him with love and affection. In front of Him was that same woman being dirtied and defiled by countless monsters wearing human skin. His vision was a blood red as He roared and screamed but His mirrored self would not release Him. There was no point to His anger after all…for this was naught but a dream. Naught but the visions of an event long ago.
His lashing out would accomplish nothing but His own satisfaction, even as His mirrored self was biting down on his lip, drawing blood and frustration at their mutual powerlessness to change the past.
And finally…the debauchery was over.
The monsters exited, leaving the woman to crawl over to another body who had suffered the same indignities as she had. But as she cradled the body that resembled her so much in her arms, she received no response as the body could no longer answer her. None of the bodies around her could.
The only thing that answer her was the wailing of her own voice…
At once, the scene in front of Him erupted in flame.
Gone was the previous scene as a scene of blood and fire burned before Him.
People were being trampled left and right as an army raged through the city before them.
Women and children were cut down all around them and the initial scene played back over and over only with different people reprising the roles.
And at the head of this monstrous army…was the same woman that had suffered at the beginning. Now she was the one spreading the same indignities and horrors that she suffered as the head of an army of monsters.
His mirrored self's grip slacked at the sight, allowing Him to break free. He screamed the woman's name as he ran up to her, moving through the other bodies in the way.
But His voice would not reach her as she was. Her eyes no longer saw anything except the destruction of her enemy.
That roaring flame of resentment would burn the very earth to ash until it burned itself down to nothingness…
A sad flame of a mother that had lost everything…
Bell's voice leaked out as he found himself reaching for the ceiling, reaching toward someone who would not listen to him.
Beside him, Assassin let out a soft groan as she stirred from her sleep.
"Mommy? What's wrong?"
Bell didn't answer her as he sat up, prompting her to jump out of his bed and let him out. But once he was out, she clung onto him immediately.
Bell didn't mind as he found his target immediately.
The two of them descended the stairs where they could hear someone moving things in the kitchen.
As they peeked inside, they found Rider with her back to them as she was reaching for something on the top shelf…her long flowing red hair now cut short to just above her shoulders.
Bell broke away from Assassin as he quickly closed the distance between him and Rider. The next thing he knew, he had pressed himself against her back with his arms wrapped around her waist in a big hug.
"Whoa!" Rider let out a cry of shock before she turned around. "Bell! You surprised me…"
But Bell didn't say anything as his eyes caught sight of the stump of her left hand, making him squeeze her harder as he pressed his face against her back.
"Come now, Bell…" Rider said softly as she gently tugged on his arm. "You're the Vice Captain. You can't make such a face right now."
But Bell simply shook his head and refused to let go.
Bell never knew his mother. As soon as he was aware of his surroundings, the only person around him was his grandfather. He never understood the feeling, but he supposed he must have felt lonely as he saw the other children in his village.
So when his grandfather, his only family, disappeared, the loneliness threatened to crush him.
That was why he sold his farm and headed toward Orario. Not to search for a harem…but to search for a Familia…a family.
And yesterday…the thought of losing his family nearly broke him. So all he could do was cling onto the person that he had come to think of as a mother and pray that she wouldn't disappear. If he could act like a child just this once, he was sure no one would blame him.
Finally…after who knows how many minutes, he released his grip on her, prompting her get down on one knee and place her hand on his cheek, wiping away the trail of liquid leaking from his eyes.
"Come now…a young man can't be crying about something like this," she said softly. "You need to keep your chin up, no matter what happens or else everyone else will feel down as well."
Bell let out a big sniff as he nodded his head.
"Come to think of it, you haven't eaten yet, right?" Rider asked. "Take a seat at the counter while I whip something up."
Bell wanted to say that it was okay and that she shouldn't push herself but something inside him told him that that was the wrong thing to say. That he should let her cook as a way to show that things would be back to normal soon.
So he obeyed and sat down at the counter, prompting Assassin to run up and cling to him again.
The two of them watched as Rider opened the fridge and glanced around inside.
"Hmm…what do we have…hmm? What's all this here…really now…he's such a busybody…"
Though she said that, there was a small smile on Rider's face as she pulled out a tray containing several chicken breasts that had already been deboned. It didn't take a genius to figure out who had done so.
Next, she pulled out several cartons of eggs and set them aside before dropping them into a pan where she heated them up until the skin turned brown before deftly moving them to a cutting board. She did this several times until all the chicken breasts were slightly browned and began cutting them into small bite-sized pieces with a knife.
Bell could only watch in awe of the woman's skill with the knife.
As Rider started beating the eggs in a bowl, someone pulled up in the chairs next to him.
It was Welf and Gina, the former looking rather exhausted while the latter held up a finger to her lips with a sad smile.
Then, a moment later, Fia poked her head in from the window with Primo and Berserker next to her.
When she started cooking the chicken again, the counter became a bit more crowded as Karen and Lily came down while helping a weak looking Emma who had both of her arms in casts.
"Emma…" Bell whispered but the girl simply smiled back at him as Primo suddenly crossed the space between the door leading to the backyard and the counter in an instant to bury her face in Emma's stomach.
Rider continued to cook, showing no signs that she noticed the newcomers aside from the fact that she had set aside enough bowls for all of them from the very beginning.
Just as the eggs and chicken were about done, one more person came walking in.
The Familia Goddess walked right up to the empty bowls and started filling them up with rice that had been clearly prepared beforehand.
Rider turned to the goddess in surprise but Hestia simply smiled back as she held the bowl of rice up to her, allowing Rider to shift the eggs and chicken mixture into it.
Then, one by one, the bowls were set in front of Bell and the others.
Then, as one, they all spoke at the same time.
"""Thank you, Rider."""
"…You're all welcome…"
As the mortal members of the Familia ate their late meal, three Servants stood outside the hall by themselves.
Archer had his arms crossed as he leaned against the wall while Saber and Lancer were peeking around the corner with contentment on their faces.
"…Chicken and egg…" Saber noted. "Parent and child both in the same bowl."
"…Quite the poet, are you not, Archer?" Lancer asked with a soft smile.
"You're putting too much thought into that," Archer replied as he pushed himself off the wall and dematerialized into the night.
"Such a shy man," Lancer noted to which Saber shook his head.
"He is far from the biggest offender in this Familia," he noted, glancing up toward where a certain King had been watching from his seat of authority.
No matter what trials and tribulations awaited them, the bonds between the members of Hestia Familia will see them through.