Aoot Ch19

Fire…?

Haruhime stood from her bed, moving to the window overlooking the pleasure district. In the slight distance, a burning ball of flame had shot into the sky. She leaned forward, her breath caught in her chest, her eyes widened, as the pillar of fire reached her eye level before dissipating.

"It can't be…"

She felt the slight bite of cold metal diggings into her palms as her hands wrapped around the bars over her window. It was just a feeling. A tiny tugging at her heart that made her look.

"He wouldn't…"

Her emerald eyes stared intently over the city, searching for the source of the flames.

There? No… further…

With a slight gasp, she moved a hand to cover her mouth as she found it. They were no bigger than ants far below her, but she could never mistake that color. That small blur, that shockingly pure snow white spark in the otherwise drab city.

"Why did you…"

"Did you say something?"

The girl spun as a deep, rumbling voice came from her door.

"N-No! Uh, there's just—"

"Whatever, just keep it down. It's your fault that I'm stuck here anyways."

Outside her door, her comrade growled in frustration.

"Kh… all because you mistimed your magic."

"But… you were the one who told me when use it…"

Bang.

"Hey!"

Haruhime jumped as something heavy slammed against the door, sending dust falling from its hinges and rafters above.

"Don't make me come in there."

"Y-Yes… sorry, captain…"

"Hmph… just shut up and keep quiet. We'll be starting soon — and you better not be getting any funny ideas."

"N-no… of course not…"

The woman guarding her room fell silent once more. Inside, Haruhime let out a defeated sigh and moved back to the warm embrace of her bed. She hugged her knees to her chest, pulling the blankets over her body.

It was an honor - a privilege - to die for the familia. That's what they had all said. She owed this to them - most of all, to her. They were the ones who had saved her, the ones to bring her into their home from where she had nothing.

They had given her life, so it was only right that they be the ones to take it away.

But still…

She squeezed her eyes shut, silent tears falling across her skin as she lay there.

I want to live…

She cursed herself for her thoughts.

Who am I to feel this way?

After all, she was nothing - the absolute lowest of low - a dirty, used, girl who had nothing to offer anyone besides her body and her life.

And yet…

She moved a hand to rest over her beating heart.

And yet he saved me… he saved this worthless life…

She continued to weep in silence, tears flowing freely without a sound. She had long since gotten used to muffling the sound of her crying.

And now, he's coming again… to free me from this tower…

Guilt flowed through her body, filling her heavy heart with shame and grief. Outside, she heard a series of bells ringing as the distant voices of her sisters raised the alarm. Even Phryne began to move, her heavy footsteps echoing down the hall as she abandoned her post.

Please… don't…

She begged him to leave. She begged him to go, to turn away and let her be.

I don't deserve to be saved…

And yet, the insistent thump of her racing heart betrayed her true feelings.

Please…

"You have your orders."

Allen raised an arm, pointing towards the enemy compound. He turned his head to look around, scanning over the rows of silent warriors before him. Most were in the courtyard, but a few remained posted on rooftops or lingering in adjacent alleyways.

It didn't matter to him. As long as they heard his commands — her commands — and obeyed.

"Go."

He tightened his grasp on his spear, rolling it in his palm. If any of them objected to the new plan, they didn't let it show. After all, while they couldn't even begin to be compared to the cold man commanding them in terms of skill, their utter devotion and loyalty was another matter.

It was for their goddess that they would stoke into the flames of war without hesitation, that they would bare their fangs and turn their blades onto the enemy without mercy. It was for her that they would lay down their lives and die if she said the word.

It was this zealous, borderline fanatic, loyalty that made up the monster known as Freya Familia.

With his final word, they moved. Each and every masked soldier under his command moved without question. In a clatter of metal and ruffle of cloth, they disappeared from view, slinking down alleyways and slipping over rooftops to carry out their missions.

Although… it does annoy me that it's all for him that she decided to change our plans…

He turned and looked up to the second story window from which his goddess watched, her ever-present calm smile over her face. Her eyes shone with a piercing violet gaze through the glass, causing a chill to run through his frigid heart.

As always, he lowered his head and raised a hand to his shoulder in a slight bow before turning to leave. He sighed as he felt her steady gaze follow him out of the courtyard.

Always causing trouble for us, no matter what Familia he's in, damn brat…

Among those to whom he had relayed his orders, his Captain was not one of them. As usual, the Warlord kept his silent position at their goddess' side. And unless specifically ordered to move, that was where he would stay.

Fine by me.

Allen stepped out of an alleyway, moving into the fading light of day. All around him, his keen senses were already picking up hints of the beginning battle. The sound of blades clashing, the scent of smoke and blood in the air. It all sent an electrifying sensation through his body - a surging mixture of excitement, adrenaline, and anticipation.

Ahead of him, an Ishtar Familia patrol let out a surprised shout as they noticed the advancing adventurer. He watched with a savage grin as weapons appeared in their hands and fear mixed with recognition filled their eyes.

That just means I get to have more fun.

The first flare went up, then the second, and the third. Bell stood silently at his perch, his mouth hanging open in awe at the light show before him. Dozens of trails of fire had been shot into the sky like shooting stars.

This isn't what he said was going to happen…

Allen wasn't the type to lie, at least not in this situation. As briefly as Bell had known him, he was rough and straight to the point, sure. But he wasn't a liar.

What are you trying to tell me…?

Through his rubellite eyes, he saw it all unfold.

Pillars of smoke drifted through the air and the heavy scent of ash made his eyes begin to water.

The city was burning.

Fires set by the Freya familia spread all throughout the district, engulfing the buildings in a raging inferno. Embers drifted through the air like crimson snowflakes, sparking new fires wherever they touched down, burning everything and anything without prejudice.

A seemingly endless amount of soldiers donning jet black armor had appeared out of thin air, torches and flames in their hands as they marched through the streets.

In just an instant, the ringing of blades and cries of battle began to fill the air as an equally formidable number of Ishtar familia adventurers engaged their masked foes.

As Bell watched from his perch high above the sea of flames, he couldn't help but find himself frozen by the chaos developing around him. Aisha wasn't exaggerating when she described the severity of their conflict. It was mayhem down there. It was war.

"—!"

He flinched as a particularly grotesque scream rang out, crying in pain to the dark sky above.

Somewhere down there… someone just…

He fought the urge to avert his eyes.

No… I knew this would happen…

He coughed slightly, wincing as he recognized the burning taste of bile in his mouth. And yet, he made up his mind. He wouldn't look away. Instead, he focused his gaze on his target - and that's when he saw it.

The gates were open.

Amazons were streaming out from the central compound, armed to the teeth as they split off in groups to spread throughout the district. Rather than moving to assassinate Haruhime as Allen had previously mentioned, his forces had flooded the district, setting fires and drowning the streets in the sounds and chaos of war.

"Go! This is your chance!"

He could practically hear Allen screaming for him to move. Even if the man had been there beside him, it couldn't have been any clearer.

"I hear you…"

Bell smiled and stepped off from his position. He didn't know what had changed the man's mind, but nevertheless, he was grateful for the chance.

"Thanks."

He clung to the shadows, sticking to whatever cover he could find. He hid behind crates, fences, and pillars with hushed breath as the war continued to rage around him. He ignored the clatter of steel clashing against steel, the incessant hum of magic being cast, and the bloody shouts of the fighting and wounded.

All to keep moving forward.

His eyes focused in on the rapidly approaching bridge, the towering steel gates, and beyond that, her.

"—!"

Bell's heart skipped a beat as he rounded a corner only to jump back in surprise.

Did they…?

He peered back around tentatively at the group of five or six amazons running down the street.

No. I'm safe…

Their eyes were focused elsewhere - namely the roaring blaze that was currently sweeping across the district, engulfing the city in its raging inferno.

Let them pass...

Bell pressed against the building, flattening himself as best as he could as he raised the dark fabric of his cloak to help blend in with the shadows.

"Bring water! Search for survivors!"

The amazons shouted out with panicked voices as they ran past him, not taking their eyes off the approaching fire for a moment.

Bell stood still, his breath caught in his chest as he watched them pass and eventually disappear from sight.

Good. The bridge is right around the corner here… if I can just —

"A-Ah!"

He stepped around the corner, moving swiftly and quietly, only to find his red eyes staring straight into a pair of brown ones.

"Uh…!"

A young man who, from the looks of it, couldn't have been much older than himself stood right in front of him. For a beat, they both stood silently, staring at each other wordlessly.

"S-Stop right there!"

The man stumbled back, raising a spear between them.

"I…"

Bell's gaze flickered to the right, just over the man's shoulder.

The bridge… it's right there…!

"Listen… I'm not here to fight, I'm just—"

"Back away, just leave! I-I don't want to have hurt you!"

Oh.

Bell felt a slight stab of pity pierce his heart as he got a good look at the person in front of him.

He stood almost shaking, his knees bent awkwardly, his trembling hands mere moments away from dropping his spear.

His eyes were wide, shaking, and filled with fear.

He's scared.

Of course he was. It was obvious that he was a new adventurer, still inexperienced, still a stranger to the sight of blood. If anything, he was probably left behind while his seniors left to fight.

His armor wasn't even on correctly. In just an instant, he saw mismatched straps, upside down or even missing pieces of gear. It would be a miracle if the man could fight properly without being hindered by his gear.

If he were to fight out here… the only thing waiting for him is death.

"Hey! What's the hold up!?"

The guard turned his head as another voice rang out behind him, shifting his eyes back and away.

A pang of guilt stabbed his side as he moved.

Sorry.

Without warning, he flung his hand out, knocking the spear to the ground.

"A-Ah!"

The guard flinched and yelped in surprise as Bell closed the distance between them, sticking close to the ground.

"Hold your breath."

"Wha—!?"

In a single movement, Bell pushed off the ground, grabbing the man's clothes and throwing him with all his might.

"Huff!"

With a breath of exertion, he flung the guard back towards the bridge and watched as he fell into the moat with a splash. The man's screams had followed him all the way to the water below.

One.

All that was left was the other guard.

But for some reason, he didn't feel like it was going to be as easy. He approached the bridge, walking straight towards the amazon who had just called out.

Unlike the first guard, she didn't seem fazed at all. She also seemed to be properly dressed.

"Aisha told me you'd probably show up here."

She crossed her arms over her chest, raising an eyebrow as she looked him over. At her hip rested a single curved sword, still in its sheath.

"Level five…? Really? You…?"

She scoffed, shaking her head with a slight smirk and jerked her head towards the gates.

Are all amazons like this…?

"Come on. She's waiting for you."

No… Miss Tiona and Tione are really nice…

Without another word, the amazon turned and walked away. Bell followed her silently, a hand resting on his dagger hidden within the folds of his cloak. As he kept his eyes following the woman's back, he silently came to the conclusion that perhaps it was just an Ishtar familia thing

As they walked, the sounds of combat continued to follow them. And yet, the woman didn't seem to mind.

A veteran.

It was obvious - she was used to fighting.

"Thanks for taking care of the newbie."

"Huh?"

"That dork you threw in the river?"

The woman in front of him turned and chatted over her shoulder.

"Oh… yeah, sorry about that…"

"Don't be — here we are."

They stood before the inner gates leading to the main compound. Two massive steel doors blocked any further passage.

"Ta-da…"

They're just letting me in?

Unlike the outside, he had no idea of what awaited him other than the three buildings. In addition to the moat, the inner walls and the wall of steel in front of him had blocked off almost all view to the inside.

It's not like I have any other choice though…

"Hey! Open up!"

His escort knocked on the door twice, rapping the metal with her bare knuckles. In response to her shout, the clattering sound of chains rattling began to fill the air.

Woah…

"Welcome to our humble abode, I present to you: the Ishtar Familia."

The gates swung open to reveal an amazing sight.

The three spiraled towers were even larger up front and in person. Lights, ornaments, and other decorations gave the towers a glittering, almost sparkling look. Red and pink spotlights danced up and down the sides of the spires, shifting around as the crimson hues covered the whole area with an extravagant light show.

Bell stepped forward, his eyes turned upwards, as he took in the sight.

"It's… amazing…"

"W-What?"

"A-Ah… I mean…"

The amazon behind him laughed coldly and pushed him all the way through the gates. Behind them, the two metal doors swung shut with a massive clang.

"You're nice. How cute. You're gonna make me feel bad."

"Huh?"

"Glad to see you made it."

She smirked and jabbed a finger over to a familiar figure approaching. Behind him, the other woman whispered one last set of words before stepping away.

" 'Cuz we're gonna watch Aisha kick the shit out of you."

The amazon stopped a short distance from him with a smile. She had already drawn her massive steel sword.

"…Miss Aisha."

"Hey, Bell."

The two greeted each other like old friends. But even as they smiled and faced each other, they both knew what was about to happen.

"You really won't change your mind?"

She spoke up first, breaking the silence.

"You won't step aside?"

He answered her with a question of his own, to which she simply shook her head with a sad smile.

"Nope…"

The sound of shuffling footsteps signaled the arrival of a small group of amazons - all wearing the same tense, weary expression on their face. But they didn't step forward. They remained at a distance, positioned in a half circle behind Aisha.

"You remember what I said, right?"

Bell nodded.

"Something along the lines of… kicking my ass, right?"

"And don't you forget it."

I couldn't even if I tried.

"You can't stop me. You already tried… remember?"

In response to that, Aisha merely laughed. Her body moved, stepping forward, her blade swinging around her in an elegant, deadly dance.

"Yeah… I know. I can't beat you in a fair fight."

Oh…

A single orb of light had lowered to circle around her body, following her dancing steps, hovering just over her skin.

"But who said anything about being fair…"

So she's nearby…

Bell smiled and reached up to his collar, unfastening his cloak and letting it fall to the ground.

"Bring it on."

His hand dropped to the hilt of his knife, his fingers wrapping around the familiar handle, feeling each and every notch and groove of the weapon.

"Tsk…"

Aisha clicked her tongue as she watched him drop his shield.

"Should've kept it on…"

"Last chance to —erk!"

Bell swerved back as Aisha lunged forward, the tip of her sword appearing just before his eyes.

That was… close…!

The amazon continued her charge, her sword flashing before her as her blade flew through the air. Sparks flew into the air where their blades clashed, shedding droplets of light over the dirty, scuffed ground below their feet.

She's faster than before..!

Following his hasty step back, she pressed her advantage, using her momentum to push him back step by step.

"Come, champion of the savages… manly warrior, strong hero, greedy and unjust hero…"

Bell's eyes widened as Aisha continued to press him back.

She's… chanting a spell? Already?

His eyes focused on hers, bewildered by the glinting steadfast purple that shone from behind her curtain of steel.

He could feel it. Every time he raised his dagger to parry an attack, he could feel every ounce of willpower and strength being forced behind her blade. It was different from any fight he had been in in the past. This time, he wasn't the victim, the weak one fighting against the fangs of death.

He was still stronger - and they both knew it.

So this is what it feels like to be on the other side…

Bell hopped back as Aisha slammed her blade into the ground, sending rubble flying into the air and clearing the area with a tremendous display of strength.

"Show your worth if you desire the girdle of the empress…"

She spun, continuing her chant as she whirled around and built up momentum for a single strike.

Damnit…

Bell regained his balance, focusing on the threat before him.

I really didn't want it to come to this…

Aisha stood firm, her magic seeping into her blade as she shouted out her command.

"…kill my body and prove your worth… my starving blade — Hippolyta!"

With a final shout, the woman slashed through the air. From her blade, a glowing crimson arc of light flew from the steel, clearing the distance between them in a heartbeat.

It's fast… but I can dodge—

He froze in his tracks, raising his blade before him as his body fell still.

Behind that attack, behind that sword, was just another adventurer - another fighter giving it her all. There was simply an indescribable force that wouldn't let him run. He decided he would face her head on, push through and overwhelm her power with his own, and force her to submit.

"Haaa!"

The runes on his blade flared a brilliant blue as he took a step forward, swinging his dagger forward and meeting the attack with everything he had. In a flash of crimson, sparks flew into his face as his knife clashed with the wave of magic.

"—!"

With the unmistakable sound of a metallic snap, his blade sliced through the crimson magic with ease.

That was…

Smoke billowed through the air, blowing up and towards his face causing him to squint reflexively.

Weak… weaker than I thought…

His arm swung to the side, carrying on with its arc as the unexpected lack of resistance forced him to continue his momentum.

His dagger had cut through the wave, dispersing the spell and sending the remaining shards of energy to explode harmlessly behind him.

It should be clear now. She can't win—

He opened his eyes, blinking away the dust and peering through the shimmering air only to recoil in surprise. Through the remnants of her broken spell, Aisha's gleaming eyes appeared just before his, lunging into view from behind the smoke.

She's close—!

"I knew you wouldn't run...!"

She grinned as his shock clearly splayed across his face. In a hasty attempt to clear the distance, Bell stumbled back, his eyes widening as she gave him no opportunity to rest.

"Come on!"

A glint of silver flew forward, aimed straight for his head.

Shkk.

Bell opened his mouth with a cry of surprise as the blade cut across his cheek, drawing a fresh line of blood over his skin.

"—ngh!"

He fell back, tumbling and rolling to the ground as he flung himself to the side to avoid a lethal hit.

"You…"

"…gah…"

Bell gasped aloud, his heart racing as just barely managed to avoid her attack.

I can't believe it…

He climbed back to his feet, touching his cheek as he felt the familiar sting of pain spread from his cheek.

Did I just… underestimate someone? No…

His heart sank as he realized his mistake.

I overestimated myself.

It was a simple mistake that had nearly cost him his life. But that wasn't what troubled him, not by a long shot. He hadn't meant to, not in the slightest, but he had let down his guard. He had relaxed against this 'weaker opponent', and in an unconscious act of hubris, allowed himself to hold back.

And it had just come back to bite him.

Since when have I ever looked down on someone else?

"…Sorry…"

Aisha blinked in surprise.

"Hm? What, this—?"

She lifted a hand to her hair, holding her now uneven bangs away from her face and observing the fresh cut. Somehow, as he fell, Bell had managed to lash out with one hand and just barely miss her face.

"—no big deal, I can grow it out again once I beat you."

"No, I meant… never mind…"

He tightened the grip on his weapon, feeling a surge of energy - of magic - rush towards his hand.

No more of that. I'm going all out.

Above him, the full moon had begun making its way up and across the night sky, traversing the pitch black canvas as it moved into position overhead. Time was running out.

I need to hurry…

"Oh? You're fighting back now?"

Aisha lifted her sword before her, flashing him a confident smile as they squared off.

"…don't blame me for what happens next…"

15 seconds should — no, 20…

He brought his hands up to guard his face - his dagger in one, the swirl of light in the other - and stepped forward.

Once more, Aisha lunged forward, effortlessly swinging her blade in a crescent before her.

But he saw her coming.

He could see it in the way she moved. Her sheer desperation, and beneath that her anxiousness, her nervousness. Despite her confident exterior, it was easy to see that the importance of her victory was weighing heavily on her nerves. Once more, he watched as she charged forward, putting everything she had into attacking.

She knows that she's backed against a wall…

Her panicked emotions made her rush. It made her predictable. Their levels might've been the same, but that status boost was all Haruhime's magic could offer. She couldn't account for the personal adjustment a person would have to go through to get used to the sudden growth in power - after all, Bell had yet to see magic that could account for experience.

Bell tucked his guard close to his body, ducking low to the side and letting the blade swerve past him.

Almost…

"You..!"

She shouted out and changed the direction of her slash - but once more, Bell moved and swerved out of the way.

Done.

He took a step forward, pushing past her blade, and felt his magic pulse in his fist.

"It's over!"

Aisha's eyes widened as he lashed out with all his might, throwing forward his 20 second charged attack.

"—!"

But before his attack could connect, a jolt of sorts ran a familiar chill through his blood, making his skin crawl. Someone was watching him.

This is… behind me…!?

"—gah!"

"—erk!"

Aisha cried out as his fist swerved off target, just barely catching her chin. In an instant, the woman was flung back, rolling across the dirt as the glancing blow still delivered a fraction of its force.

"Y-you…"

Bell's body hit the floor as a sharp crack accompanied a painful, heavy blow to the back of his head. His vision blurred, flashing black for a good second before snapping back to focus.

I'm… on the ground…

"…g…gh…"

He groaned aloud as he rolled over, just barely crawling to his hands and knees. With a painful effort, he lifted his face to look across at Aisha.

My… head…

"Don't look at me like that…"

Aisha smiled, a line of blood dripping from where she bit her lip. Her hair was draped over her, hiding half her face behind the dirt stained strands. Behind her, two amazons bent down and grabbed her, helping her to her feet.

"Heh… sorry…"

Bell's chest heaved up and down as he stared accusingly at the guard from before. She stepped out from behind him, giving a small wave alongside a wink and a smile. In her hands was a plain war-hammer, looking more like a brick on the end of a pole more than a proper weapon.

The amazon circled around him to rejoin Aisha, spinning the hammer in her hands with a devious smile.

"Huff…I told you…"

Aisha panted slightly as she stood again, her weapon already back in her hands.

"I wasn't going to fight fair…"

Beside her, the group of amazons stepped forward - a wall of swords, spears, hammers and axes bristling as they pointed towards him.

Aw man…

Bell let out a sigh as he looked over the new group of enemies before him. In addition to Aisha, three of them had the same glittering ball of light swirling around their bodies.

That's just cheating…

"What was it you said…? Oh, yeah… don't blame me for what happens next—!"

Bell cringed slightly as Aisha threw his comment back in his face, an embarrassed flush briefly flashing over his face.

"—huh?"

Instead of attacking, the amazons just glanced at each other, confused looks on their faces as they looked to Aisha for an answer.

The amazon trembled as an unmistakable anger crossed her face.

"What is she—!"

She spun, turning back towards the central tower. She raised her head, gazing at a certain balcony that overlooked the courtyard.

"What the hell are you doing!?"

The amazon shouted out, her voice shaking with disbelief and anger.

That's…

Bell smiled as he raised a hand before him, opening and closing his fist experimentally as he rose back to his feet.

"I-I'm… sorry… Aisha…"

Haruhime spoke from the balcony, beads of sweat visibly rolling down the sides of her face as she half-slumped over the railing, gasping for air after expending so much mind.

Thank you.

"…but… I didn't want to… see… either of…"

Her voice trailed away as she sunk to her knees, all but a glimpse of her red robes disappearing behind the railing.

"That… that… idiot!"

Bell smiled and straightened up, stretching his neck to the side, listening to it crack lightly as he felt a surge of energy rush through his body.

"Heh… don't worry Aisha… after I beat you, consider her saved…"

"You little brat… getting cocky just because of her magic? You're not the first high tier we've taken down you know…"

Aisha grinned nervously as her team spread out, circling around him without a word.

Five… six… seven… wow… eight of them…?

Bell turned from side to side wearily, watching carefully as the amazons continued to move, shifting constantly and unpredictably.

They're used to group hunts…

But from the looks of it, Aisha seemed to be the only level 4 in the group. The rest looked to be level 3 and below.

Although two of them are being boosted…

Silently, they continued their ever shifting pattern, keeping his attention split between all of them. Even with their level gap, he felt a twine of uncertainty roll over his shoulders. There was no easy way out of this.

"Burn, burn, pool of fire…!"

His eyes snapped to the right where an amazon shouted out, beginning her magic chant.

At the sound of the girl's voice, everything around him plunged into chaos. His heart pounded against his chest as his breath quickened and his vision filled with a swarm of movement.

Focus…!

He gathered himself in an instant, turning his body and taking a half step towards the caster.. Around him, he was acutely aware of at least four separate attacks in immediate striking distance.

There.

"Haah!"

The first attack entered his peripheral vision - just the single flash of the tip of a spear in the corner of his eye. He stopped abruptly, leaping back as the polearm flew across his vision. In an instant, he reversed his direction, dodging the first attack.

Next…!

Steps flooded his surroundings as the rapid approach of enemies all around him signaled that his time was up.

Move!

"—gh!"

He leaned back, swerving and stepping quickly as more attacks continued to rain down. The familiar sting of a blade grazing his arm had meant that he wasn't able to dodge all the attacks perfectly. But in front of him, a familiar hammer swung through the air, just barely missing his neck.

That would've hurt…

He spun, moving back as the women around him continued to attack with their weapons.

"Tch…"

Bell winced once more as he blocked a slash on his right, only for another blade to draw a line of blood across his back.

No way around a cut or two—

"—ah!"

An intense heat blossomed from his leg as another cut appeared behind his knee, this time, deeper. He stumbled momentarily, his leg bending awkwardly beneath him.

At this rate…!

"You little —gah— monkey! Stop running and take your hits like a man!"

Aisha lunged forward, swinging wildly as she watched him lose his footing. But once more, Bell evaded the hit, rolling back under a swing as Aisha's blade gouged a deep scar in the ground.

"Firebolt!"

Bell sprayed wildly, sending arcs of flame spewing across the courtyard as he pushed off the ground with his other hand.

It doesn't matter if it hits… I just need to occupy them!

He grinned as a rush of adrenaline flooded through his body, sharpening his movements and filling his mind with the thrill of the fight. The pain of his cuts had faded away, but he couldn't help but grimace at the thought of how sore he would be the morning after.

"How do I fight multiple opponents?"

Faces flashed before his eyes as he fell - the curious look on Ais' face when he asked her for help, and the glowing expression of joy Tiona wore as the two consequently teamed up and mercilessly beat him into the ground.

"Keep moving. Never let them surround you… you won't stand a chance against multiple opponents at the same time…so—"

Her answer was clear and simple. With an unwavering gaze, the knight had responded to his question with an answer built from years of experience.

—separate them… take them one on one… and fight them on my own terms…!

As he landed on his feet, he didn't waste a single second before continuing moving.

"Firebolt!"

He continued chain casting as he charged forward, darting between the flames and rising pillars of smoke, moving as fast as his legs could carry him. Like a white flash, he darted through the courtyard, weaving past fire and enemies alike.

"Gods… get him!"

Through the smoke and flames he smiled as Aisha's agitated voice rose above the noise. His smile grew as he heard the sounds of his opponents coughing amidst the smoke as he left them behind.

"U-Uh…c-come forth, great inferno!"

In front of him, the caster stammered nervously as Bell rushed her, ignoring all the others thrown into confusion by his magic.

"Burn!"

Bell dove to a roll, slipping past yet another brilliant column of flame that erupted from the ground.

"A-AH!"

The amazon shouted out as Bell lunged forward, sweeping his leg out like a blade and catching her side, sending her tumbling to the ground from his full strength kick.

Level 2…? Or 3 maybe?

He almost felt bad. For a moment, the thought of a level '6' mercilessly attacking a low level seemed unfair, but that feeling was instantly squashed as he turned back around.

"—!"

"You—!"

Two more rushed him, emerging from the flames as they shouted out a cry of challenge. In a split second, Bell's eye's flickered to the glittering light that swirled around one of the amazons.

The other one first then…!

Bell fought back another smile as he pulled strength from his boosted status, his heart racing as he felt himself surpass his previous limits with ease.

This... this is the strength of a level 6…?

The rate at which the flood of power came to him was addicting to say the least. The mere sensation of exerting his newfound strength was more than euphoric, it was almost dreamlike. Without breaking a sweat, Bell danced around a hasty sword swing and ducked under the stab of a spear.

He wove his way past the spear holder's reach, positioning himself so that she was between him and the one with the sword.

"L-Liscia, move out of the way!"

"I can't—ah!"

Bell lunged forward, knocking her off balance and sending her stumbling back.

"Watch it…!"

"S-Sorry!"

He winced inwardly as he extended a hand to where the two amazons bumped into each other, almost regretfully casting his speed-cast magic.

"Firebolt!"

Four, five times. Flames shot from his hand in a small barrage, blowing up at their feet and covering them in a cloak of fire.

Sorry…

He turned away as they screamed, falling back and turning in the direction of the moat.

"You've really done it now…"

Bell laughed nervously as he turned to see Aisha and the remaining Ishtar familia adventurers glaring at him. With a sweep of her sword, she cut through the flames and fanned away his cover.

"A-ahaha… uh…"

Damn… I thought I could've gotten at least one more before they regrouped, but…

He curled his hand into a fist, letting it gather magical power once more. As the light fluttering sensation of his magic flowed down his arm and into his fingers, he almost shivered in anticipation. Curiosity to test out the new extent of his magic had taken over.

"Aisha… what… what do we do…"

One of the amazons spoke up hesitantly. The sword in her hand wavered and lowered slightly.

"What!?"

What…?

Aisha turned to her ally in surprise.

"We… we can't beat him…"

"W-What are you talking about!? We've taken down plenty of first tier adventurers together!"

Wait...

Another girl spoke up from beside her.

"She's right — all those times, we had the toad with us anyways…"

Aisha stared in shock as the last two without Haruhime's support voiced their concerns.

"You guys… we can do this! Just a little more!"

She snapped back around to look at Bell, raising her weapon again. Her eyes blazed with a violet fury, one fueled by her burning will to fight. Behind her, the same couldn't be said for her allies.

"Lena! Samira!"

The two looked at each other hesitantly but still faced forward, determination written across their faces. Around them, a floating white light fluttered and spun around their bodies.

"Aisha… wait…!"

The amazon ignored him, only choosing to rush forward at full speed. The other boosted ones followed suit, with the remaining two almost reluctantly spreading out to try and circle him once more.

"I…"

He turned his eyes to watch them approach, focusing intently on the ones closest to him.

Those two… they're as good as dealt with… it's just these three that stand in my way…!

Shnng.

Bell raised his dagger, brushing aside the first blade to reach him. Almost immediately after, he stepped back as another swing came from the side. Without fail, the three amazons moved in unison, their three blades clashing with his over and over again. Like waves crashing against the shore, they relentlessly pushed him back, taking two steps forward for every one he took back.

Aisha's strikes, in particular, were especially heavy. Each time he locked blades with her, he could catch a glimpse of her face from behind her sword. Same for the others, every time the shifted his attention, all he could see was the pure desperation in their eyes.

Shff.

His back foot slid to a stop, his back coming into contact with the inner wall. He had run out of space to run.

"—!"

Sensing victory at hand, Aisha raised her blade above her head, rushing forward and slamming it down without regard for her own defense. Likewise, the two beside her followed their leader's example.

But he still saw it coming. No matter how heavy his heart weighed in his chest, no matter the amount of sympathy he had for their struggle, he still had his own problems to deal with. After all, she wasn't the only one who couldn't afford to lose.

White sparks fluttered around his arm, shining as he completed a 30 second charge. He lowered his gaze as the enemy blades neared his throat, giving one last somber look of regret before opening his fist and aiming at the ground.

Damnit.

"Firebolt…"

"…are you… okay…?"

"Bastard…"

Bell smiled slightly as Aisha grumbled and swore.

"Hah… you're okay."

"That… wasn't… fair…"

Aisha cracked open one eye to look at Bell leaning over her. Her body was covered in scrapes and cuts, her clothes singed and blackened. But otherwise, aside from the burns and wounds, she wasn't in the worst of condition.

"Just wait… I'll kick your ass once I get up…"

He smiled again, laughing lightly as he shook his head.

"No… it's over. You guys are done…"

"Gah… damnit…!"

He jumped a bit as Samira slammed a fist into the dirt from where she lay nearby. Next to her, the other girl - Lena - lay silent and immobile.

"Bell…!"

"…h-hey…"

His heart sank as he looked down to where Aisha had latched onto his ankle.

"…you don't have to—"

"Shut it…"

She looked up at him, shouting as her body remained unwilling to move.

"Aisha… just…"

"I swear to Ishtar… if you tell me to give up…"

"I…"

Bell fell silent, at a complete loss for words.

I don't know what to say.

"—gh… What… kind of sister would I be… if I gave up here…?"

Aisha dragged herself closer, slamming a palm into the dirt as she forced herself up onto a shaking elbow.

"Why… why are you going this far…"

"You'd do the same for your home, wouldn't you!?"

She grunted through gritted teeth as she forced the words out of her mouth.

"It's a shit hole… but it's my home…!"

"I—"

"Bell!"

They both turned their heads as Haruhime's voice crossed the courtyard. The girl was back on her feet and sprinting towards them, her gold hair and red robes fluttering behind her. She fell to her knees besides them, panting heavily as she kneeled next to Aisha's body,

"H-Hey what are you…!"

Aisha stammered quickly, startled as Haruhime lifted her head into her lap.

"…Aisha."

The renart whispered lightly as she grasped Aisha's wrist, tugging lightly at her hand.

"You…"

Aisha closed her eyes with a defeated sigh, releasing her grip and letting Haruhime take her hand in hers. As he watched Haruhime hold her steady, Bell's attention was brought to the white orb of light at her side. He watched silently as the light flickered and blinked before slowly fading away. As it vanished, he too felt his body relax as her magic left him.

"Fine… stupid girl…"

Haruhime smiled wearily as Aisha leaned her head back and let Bell step away.

"You hear that…?"

She glared at Bell once more from where she lay.

"You win… go destroy the stone…"

Haruhime looked up at him, tears flowing from her emerald eyes.

"…Thank you… thank you so m—"

Boom!

"—ah!"

She cried out, raising her hands to shield her eyes as a deafening impact sent clouds of dust billowing towards the three of them.

What—!

Something massive had just crashed into the courtyard beside them.

"I thought I told you to stay in your room…"

"Damnit…"

Aisha cursed as a large, familiar figure began to approach them.

Phryne…

The massive woman stepped out from the crater she made with a chilling smile. Her sickly green eyes swept over the three of them before focusing on Aisha.

"That was pathetic…"

Holy…

As she continued to step forward, Bell realized for the first time how truly tall the Ishtar familia captain was. Her figure towered over the three of them, cloaking them in her shadow. With each step she took, Bell found himself slowly tilting his head back until he was looking almost completely straight up.

"U-Uh…"

"Loki's little brat…"

Her expression twisted into a dark scowl, her lips pulled back in an ugly sneer matching her hate filled eyes.

"You got a pair on you, boy… coming here alone…"

Calm down… don't look scared…

Her hand reached up to her shoulder, grasping the hilt of her massive axe strapped to her back.

"You're gonna regret doing that."

His pulse quickened as she moved, her axe arcing up and whistling through the air down towards them.

Wait…is she…?

Clang!

Her axe slammed into the ground, burying itself deep within the brick courtyard.

"What the hell do you think you're doing…"

At the last moment, her eyes shifted. They moved away from him, instead focusing on the two laying behind him.

Tap.

Bell's foot touched the ground lightly. He didn't let it show, but the part of his leg that had kicked aside her axe was burning with a searing red hot pain. It didn't help that the extra movement had caused the cut on his leg to start bleeding once more.

Don't let it show.

Phryne's smile grew as she lifted her axe once more, letting it rest upon her shoulder.

"Just teaching them a lesson for their failure."

"You…!"

Her eyes widened and her lips parted in mock surprise.

"Oh! You thought I was going to kill them?"

Her feigned shock spread over her face as she laughed.

"No, no… a severed limb or two wouldn't be enough to kill someone as tough as her…"

She stopped, meeting his gaze with her own putrid stare.

"You got lucky last time."

"Me? Or you?"

Her guise had fallen away. He could practically hear her teeth grinding together as her jaw clenched tightly. Her eyes shook with a boiling anger, twitching as her scowl deepened. But that didn't sway him at all. For he met each and every ounce of red hot anger in her stare with a glare of his own.

"You little rat... let's see how good you are without the Vanar Freya here to hold your hand."