"Let's see how good you really are…"

Just like before, Phryne stood over him, her sickly green eyes boring into his. But unlike their last encounter, she wasn't smiling. This time, the expression she wore was an unmistakable burning anger. Bell took a hesitant step back, his body unconsciously retreating as the amazon lifted her axe once more, brandishing the razor sharp edge towards him.

"Go…"

He tried to shout, only for his words to come out in a shaky whisper.

"W-What?"

Beside him, Haruhime stammered nervously.

"Go!"

His voice rose to a shout as Phryne lunged forward, her arms rising above her head with a bloodcurdling shout.

Boom!

The axe fell through the air as he jumped back, slamming into the ground. When he opened his eyes, the dust had settled and Haruhime was gone, merely a piece of fluttering red cloth in the corner of his eye.

Shk.

Metal scraped against stone as Phryne wrenched her axe out from the ground. In a single strike, the axe had carved through the stone like butter, burying its head completely in the ground.

That's insane..!

"Quit running, and face me like a man!"

The amazon swung once again with an unexpected speed contrary to her lumbering frame.

"—gh!"

Bell raised his knife in a desperate attempt to parry her strike only to cry out in surprise. The force of her swing threw his arm aside, nearly wrenching the blade from his hand. The ensuing painful wave of shock that ran through his trembling hand and up his arm was nearly enough for him to cry out once again, but he bit his tongue and kept silent. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of his pain.

"Bell!"

His eyes flickered to the left for just a second, widening as he barely had the time to register Aisha's figure, her arm outstretched and pointing across the courtyard. A smile crept over his face as he saw her, only to vanish instantly as a blur of movement brought his attention back to Phryne.

"Where do you think you're looking?!"

In that single moment where he looked away, the woman had closed the gap between them yet again.

I can see it… I can dodge—!

His eyes had locked onto her incoming fist, watching it travel through the air, but his body refused to move. Phryne drew her grinning lips back in a savage grin as her fist connected with her target with a satisfying crack. Yet again, Bell's body was flung across the courtyard, rolling over the dirt in a tumbling swirl of black and white.

"…!"

He opened his mouth to cry out, to speak, to make any noise at all, only to wheeze pathetically as he struggled to simply breath.

What… what just hit me…?!

Just one hit had completely winded the boy, bringing him down to his hands and knees as black dots danced over his vision. The woman's strength was unbelievable. With just one punch, he was already seeing stars.

But…

Bell shook his head, a nervous grin shakily crossing his face.

I've taken worse…!

Thud.

His head snapped up as a massive foot stepped in front of him. Above him, Phryne's grin only spread further as she raised her axe yet again.

"It's awful, right?"

Phryne laughed as Bell fought his way to his feet.

"Once her magic leaves you — it feels like you're moving in water… right!?"

With her last word, her axe dropped into a swing that once again sent Bell sprawling across the ground.

"—gh!"

His eyes shook and rolled in his head as the force of her massive weapon colliding with his knife sent waves of pain rippling through his body. But it was true. His reactions, his movements, his body - they weren't in sync anymore. That amazing surge of power that was granted to him wasn't without cost. As it disappeared, the sudden drop in strength had left him dumbstruck.

He panted as he crawled to his knees, sweat dripping from his face as he propped himself up with shaking arms. He craned his neck up to watch Phryne approach, her disgusting smile still plastered all over her face.

In order to reach the top… they all went through this, didn't they?

Compared to the even the captain before him, they were still so far away, still so distant. Ais, Allen, Ottarl - the pinnacle of Orario's adventurers still remained out of reach. But he was sure of one thing. In the past, each of them were brought face to face with a fight against a mountain of their own, an unyielding obstacle they had no choice but to fight.

And they conquered it.

Coincidentally, the woman standing before him was one of those very hurdles faced in the past by the knight with golden hair. Perhaps it was destiny that he stood before her now - a comical turn of events that placed him as the Kenki's student before the toad here and now.

As she raised her axe again, he felt a burning flame of determination gather in his chest. However, even as death loomed straight above him, his eyes were focused on something else. Something distant, something much, much further away.

Move!

His legs screamed out in pain as he leapt forward, rolling past the swing and to his feet.

That's right… If I lose here, how could I look her in the eyes ever again?

"Thanks…"

He dropped a quiet word of gratitude with a smile as his hands wrapped around the hilt of Aisha's broadsword. Without pausing for even a second, he spun, the sword trailing behind him in a heavy arc.

"GAAHHH!"

A tremendous shout rose into the air as his swing connected with a loud clang.

"You little—!"

Phryne cursed as she just barely turned in time to react. Her hand was half a second too late in raising her axe, evident by the splash of blood that sprayed into the air as his blade bit into the woman's shoulder.

Clang.

Her axe hit the ground as her left arm went limp, a river of crimson flowing down her bronze skin.

"I'm gonna kill you, Aisha…"

She swore as she passed her axe to her uninjured hand, her eyes glaring at her comrade standing a bit off to the side.

"Not with that arm, bitch."

Aisha couldn't have been happier. A gleeful smile had appeared below her weary eyes, a spark of fight still evident in her words.

She raised a fist in the air and cheered out as Haruhime lent her her shoulder.

"Kick her ass!"

Bell could only stare in wonder as the amazon gave him a brash smile. There was no time to think about the consequences and repercussions of her blatant insubordination. Winning came first.

Yeah… I got it…

"Grr..! You goddamn…!"

Phryne growled, her face growing redder and redder with rage.

"Once I'm through with—gh!"

The woman turned back to face Bell, only to stumble back as the boy's blade sliced through the air.

She's stronger… but I'm faster…!

A spray of sparks fell through the space between them as Phryne brought her axe up, parrying his strike.

"Don't get ahead of yourself, brat!"

Her voice stopped as her eyes fell to his outstretched hand, mere inches away from her face. As his blade was forcefully redirected into the air, Bell took a quick step forward, lifting his free arm in an instant. Phryne's eyes widened as the blood drained from her face, a ghastly look of fear of what was to come freezing her where she stood.

"Y-you—!"

"Firebolt!"

A stream of fire erupted from his palm, forcing her back as the cone of flame enveloped her face point blank.

"GAH!"

She screamed out as she retreated, her axe wildly slashing through the flames with little to no effect.

Don't give her a second to think…!

The moment he had casted his magic, he moved. With the fire hiding him from sight, he sprinted straight towards Phryne without hesitation. He lunged through the cloak of flames, his blade flung straight ahead as the steel edge parted the curtains of fire.

"—!"

"My… my face…!"

Phryne stumbled back, wailing in anguish as she brought her hand away from her face. A splotch of blood was smeared over her palm from where Bell had left a long cut on her cheek.

"You… you'd dare…!"

Oh… shit.

To say she was angry would be an understatement. As Bell looked up at Phryne's trembling figure, he couldn't help but feel a tinge of regret. Regret that he had kicked the beehive, that he had missed his opportunity to end the fight.

"Oooh…. I'm… I'm…"

Her shoulders shook up and down as her expression darkened. Her lips trembled as she struggled to speak, and yet her eyes remained fixed on the boy before her.

"I'M GONNA RIP YOU AP—!"

Shkk.

Her raving screams were cut off by yet another spray of blood. In her fit of rage, the woman had let down her guard. Her anger blinded her, leaving her vulnerable and full of openings.

As if I'd miss that chance…

The moment she blinked, Bell moved. He pushed his legs to their limit, darting forward and pushing past his opponent in a white flash. Behind him, Phryne stumbled slightly as a red streak opened up on her body. Bell touched down lightly, standing still for just barely a moment before turning and moving again.

"—GAH!"

She swung wildly, hitting nothing but air as Bell streaked past her.

Shff.

His feet slid across the ground as he slowed to a stop. Two bloody lines on the ground followed his movements where his blade cut through the amazon's flesh.

Her back is to me… this is it!

He lunged forward, his eyes focusing on her exposed back, only to gasp in surprise. The woman whirled around, her head swiveling to face him with blood thirsty eyes.

"—!"

A heavy fist swung back towards him, moving to intercept his charge.

I can't stop!

"—gh!"

Bell breathed out heavily as he skidded to a halt, his blade dragging across the ground. He had just barely managed to avoid a direct hit by swerving and twisting his body off balance.

"DIE!"

Phryne shrieked as she rushed forward, her axe whistling through the space before her. Once more, a shower of golden and white sparks flew into the air as he met each of her strikes with one of his own. Even in the grips of madness, Phryne was still a first class adventurer. Her speed was considerably lower than his own, but her fighting prowess was top notch. In just two slashes, she had already adapted to his attacks and moved for a counter.

Damnit—!

Bell winced again as Aisha's sword was nearly thrown out of his hands. Her attacks held no pattern, no form or plan, and yet the sheer weight and power behind each of her strikes made up for it. Each of her attacks flowed into another, seamlessly connecting her stream of unyielding blows. No matter how many openings or holes she left in her guard, it meant nothing if he couldn't get a chance to attack. All his focus was on defending against the unending barrage of steel in her hands.

Look… keep looking for a chance…!

He took countless steps back, his feet continuously moving as he danced out of the way of her more than lethal swings. With each parry he made, the soreness and numbing feeling in his arms only continued to grow. But somehow, surprising even himself, he managed to remain calm. His crimson eyes remained focused, glaring out from behind his blade as he traced her every movement.

As he gave ground, he continued to focus his vision. The ringing of their blades connecting faded away as his eyes glowed behind the flying sparks and clashing steel. Each of her movements, each of her swings, he watched it all, just waiting for that one mistake.

There.

Phryne lifted her axe into the air with both hands, roaring as she slammed it down in an attempt to crush the boy beneath her. But the splatter of red she was expecting never came. Bell raised his sword above his head at an angle, letting her axe slide down its sloping edge and bury itself harmlessly into the ground.

"—!"

Although he had redirected the blow, his arms still shook and trembled to the point where his fingers had fumbled, nearly dropping his weapon. A counter with his sword was out of the question, and so Bell bit back a curse as he was left with only one option. He spun in place, lifting his leg and lashing out in a high arc.

Thud.

"Gah…!"

His attack had connected - a perfectly timed counter that stopped Phryne in her tracks. But even his steel toed boot whipped around and slammed into the Amazon's head, he couldn't help but wince as the impact shook his leg, reigniting the pain from his previous cuts and wounds.

"That's right… I almost forgot…"

She's—!

Bell hopped back, gingerly stepping on his injured leg as he backed up.

Shff.

His eyes flickered down as his foot stepped in a familiar dark fabric on the ground.

My robe…!

"I had heard that the Sword Princess ended up adopting a pet rabbit…"

Phryne took a slow step forward, clutching her jaw as she spoke. Her head tilted from side to side with a series of cracks as she stretched her neck.

"I wonder… if I dropped the skinned and stuffed body of her pet at her door, would that pretty face of hers cry?"

"Wha— w-who're you calling a pet!?"

What… did she just say…?

He did his best not to let it show, but her words did more than just unnerve him. It made him remember her.

Tap.

Bell took an uneasy step back.

She's lost it!

Her expression darkened as she neared him, her olive eyes emanating a cold, frigid rage.

"You're just like her, aren't you?"

"What… what are you talking about…"

He took another step back. Her attitude had shifted. He could see it in the way her entire body quaked and shivered, as if her bloodlust was causing her to tremble uncontrollably. Her rage was growing exponentially with every passing second, but her anger wasn't boiling hot like her fuming state before.

This anger was cold. It was frozen over from years and years of retaining a hideous, spiteful grudge towards the one he held so dear. And it made her all the more dangerous.

The one he had fought and beaten seemingly so long ago was cold, calculating, and manipulative. But when she snapped, when she reached her breaking point and crossed into the final threshold, she had turned into a wild animal. Crazed, panicked, backed into a corner with nowhere to go. In that state, she had been willing to lash out at any provocation, ready to trade what was left of her humanity for the chance to shed blood.

However, with Phryne it was different. She started out with explosive power, swinging her weapon and raging with seemingly no tact at all. It was unpredictable, unstable — a different kind of dangerous. But what Bell was seeing now was just as threatening. The first wave had come and passed. Now, was the moment of silence. The brief lull in the chaos, the eery calm before the storm.

"Don't try and lie to me. I can see it."

Boom!

Phryne slammed her axe into the ground, sending cracks and fissures spreading through the courtyard. Bell flinched as a small crack stopped just before his feet.

"It wasn't so obvious before… but now that I'm looking, I can see it."

She lifted a finger to point towards him accusingly.

"She's the one who taught you, wasn't she? That kick… those movements… it's hers."

Bell shivered as the woman spoke. Her eyes remained unblinking, her shoulders half frozen and half twitching.

She could see all that…?

Even through her obvious tilted mental state, she was still an experience adventure. Years and years of experience lay behind those crazed eyes. Countless hours of combat and training rolled off her body, emanating alongside her almost visible bloodlust.

Any second now… she's gonna—!

He leaned forward, his mind and heart racing as he prepared to receive her attacks.

Damnit… come on, this would be the perfect time for a new skill..!

He begged that line of text on his back to respond, to give him a sign, anything at all. But nothing happened. Lasers didn't shoot from his eyes, his hands didn't surge with magical powers, and his body remained in the same agonizing state it was in. If anything, it hurt even more.

"I-I don't—!"

His words choked up in his throat as she moved. In an instant, her axe was at his throat, just inches away from carving through his flesh.

She didn't even—!

Bell fell backwards, leaning back reflexively to let her blade pass over him. Unlike her previous outbursts, this time she didn't give any notice to her attack. Without warning, without a single sound, she went for the kill.

"—gh!?"

My foot…!

As he tried his best to retreat, a heavy weight stopped him in his tracks. Phryne stepped on his foot, pinning him to the ground.

Damnit!

"You're not going anywhere."

As he fell to the ground, the only thing he could see was her. Phryne looked down at him with a cruel smile, her massive figure blocking out the lights above and casting him in a dark shadow.

His eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of her axe once more falling down straight towards his face.

Move… move…!

Tap.

His hand stretched out, slamming against the ground and stopping him from falling. Somehow, his body reacted and moved on its own, continuing its fight to escape death.

Thud.

His free leg snapped into motion, kicking up as he twisted and turned his body to the side. His entire body shivered as her axe passed right before his eyes, wedging itself into the ground. In that heart stopping split second, his tiny twist had allowed him to dodge his falling death sentence.

"Ghehe…!"

A shiver ran down his spine as he looked up. His blow had connected, and was successful in forcibly turning her head to the side. But even as his foot slammed into her cheek, she pressed against it with a smile, keeping her eyes locked onto his.

Damnit…!

Phryne had brought her axe around and was already set in a low swing set to undoubtedly cleave him in two.

Shff.

His fingers closed into a tight fist around his robe on the ground, clutching onto it as if it were a lifeline. In a single movement, he fell, lifting and holding the cloth like a shield.

This is… gonna hurt…

His eyes squeezed shut as he braced for impact.

WHAM!

His breath was forcefully ejected from his lungs as the axe slammed into his chest.

"—!"

A searing hot pain shot up his leg as the force of her blow sent him into the air, wrenching his foot out from her hold. He hit the ground, his head snapping back viciously upon impact, and tumbled uncontrollably to a stop. As he rolled, the fabric tangled up with his body, wrapping around his waist and limbs. Every cell in his body was on fire, every inch of his being was screaming out in pain, and yet he couldn't feel it. He was aware of the spreading flames that were consuming his flesh and burning him up, but still at the same time, he felt nothing but numbness.

"…gh…"

His lips parted to let out a faint groan. His mouth was dry, his throat parched, and the only thing he could hear was an insistent ringing in his ears. As he lay there, looking up to the wide expanse of the pitch black sky above, he couldn't help but feel the urge to close his eyes and rest. To give into his body's desires and give up and let it all fade away.

What am I… doing…?

Thud.

The ground shook beneath his head, the sound seemingly far away and distant.

Oh… that's right…

Thud.

His senses were coming back. Gradually, slowly, and ever so painfully. With his hearing came the approaching cackle of his opponent. And with his sense of touch, came the worst part.

"—gh…gah!"

A sharp metallic, bitter taste had flooded his mouth with a cough. His fingers dug into the ground, scraping against the rough surface as he fought to regain use of his hands. The cloth from his robe had shielded him from getting split in two at the cost of what was bound to be a very, very sore morning tomorrow.

Thud.

Her shadow descended upon him as she stepped into view.

"Khehe… don't tell me you're already dead…"

She kicked away his sword, sending it spinning away over the ground. His heart sunk as he watched it leave alongside his chances for victory.

That's… unfortunate…

"Hey… say something…"

Bell's hand tightened into a fist, clutching his robe around his right hand as she leaned down over him.

"—grk!"

"This… this is where the fun begins…"

Phryne grabbed his throat, lifting him up to eye level.

"I'm gonna enjoy this."

Her rasping voice leaked from her smiling lips as she brought her axe to his face.

"—gh…!"

Bell winced as she pressed the edge slightly into his cheek, carving a line of blood into his face. He clenched his jaw, fighting back a cry of pain as the blade continued down the side of his neck and into his chest. But still, he didn't let go of his cloak.

"…mmh…mmph…mmgh!"

"Hmm…?"

Phryne's eyes lit up with a sadistic pleasure as she loosened her grip for a moment to let him speak.

"You're gonna have to speak up… I can't hear you…"

Bell lifted his free hand to grab her wrist, craning his head back in order to breath.

"That's what they all say…"

His crimson eyes flared with amusement as his lips curled into a bloody smile.

"Hah… so… gh… lame…"

"What… y-you…!"

Fwwp.

Bell opened his fist, letting the dark cloth wrapped around and covering his hand fall to the ground.

"Ha… idiot…"

A glowing white light filled the air along with the sound of fluttering wings. Phryne's eyes widened as she looked down, watching the pulsing orbs of light circle and dance around his hand.

"Don't—!"

"Firebolt!"

Bell lifted his hand, slamming his palm against her chest and once more firing his magic point blank.

BOOM!

In an instant, the grip on his neck was released, letting him fall to the ground. As white flames and light burst forth, the deafening sound of an explosion shook his ears and drowned out Phryne's screaming voice. It hadn't been long, he didn't even count the seconds, but it was enough.

As Bell looked up, clawing his way to his hands and knees, his eyes fell to Phryne's body lying where it had been thrown across the courtyard. Black scorch marks formed a line from where she lay, and a few scattered embers remained around her body. But as he watched, they slowly died away and vanished.

"…ah…ngh…"

Bell brought a hand to his neck, pressing it gently as he struggled to regain his voice.

"Gods, why is it always the throat…"

He gasped for air as he tried to stand, only to stumble to his hands and knees. Around him, he was acutely aware of the movement and sounds of the onlooking Ishtar adventurers. With his final strike, the crowds had fallen silent save for a few shocked whispers and murmurs.

"No…way…"

Out of the corner of his eye, Bell spotted Haruhime holding Aisha steady as she staggered forward. Her hair had dropped down, partially covering her face as she stared at him with shocked purple eyes. Beside her, Haruhime smiled tearfully, a hand clasped over her mouth. Her trembling emerald eyes seemed to be just moments away from crying.

"Told you… I'd win…"

Bell flashed them a weary smile as they began making their way towards him.

"You actually—"

"That hurt… you little shit…"

Oh come on…

Phryne's rasping voice stopped them in their tracks, causing them to back up quickly and retreat a safe distance away.

"I'm not done just yet…!"

Damnit… am I really going to have to…!?

Bell could almost hear his bones creaking and clicking as he forced himself off the ground. Beneath him, his injured leg wobbled and threatened to give out, but still he pulled himself to his feet.

"Yes. You are."

KSHHH!

"AAAGHHHHH!"

A deafening boom filled the air as a blinding golden flash filled his vision. Each and every hair on his body stood on end as the air itself crackled and popped from the intense display before him.

No way… who was that!?

A bolt of lightning had fallen from the sky like a shimmering spear, crashing into the amazon. As her screams rang out into the night, Bell could only stand back and watch as her body convulsed and her eyes rolled back into her head.

In just an instant, her voice faded away. She fell back to the ground, smoke rising from her collapsed, unconscious body.

"Huh? Why'd you cut it off short — shoulda just killed her."

Is that…?

Bell lifted his eyes to see Allen sitting up on the wall, a group of Freya Familia soldiers crowded around him. Among them was the elf he'd briefly seen during the expedition, his raised staff still glowing with magical energy.

"Allen!"

The group descended from their perch in one fell swoop, already swiftly spreading through the courtyard.

"Lucky brat, how many times is that now?"

"T-Thank you…."

The soldiers fanned out around him, forming a semicircle around the front gate.

"Tch. I shoulda let her kill you after what you pulled…"

"S-Sorry about that… er… what's going on…?"

"Just watch."

Across the courtyard, the onlooking Amazons stood by, speechless as their weapons lowered hesitantly. The war was over and they knew it. Their captain had fallen, and the enemy forces had occupied their castle — it was checkmate.

"What… What are you doing Phryne!?"

Bell looked up above them towards the figure of a woman leaning out from the tower.

"Who…?"

The woman slammed her fists into the railing, her hair flaring around her head as she continued to scream.

Is that… Ishtar?

"Get up! Fight! Y-You usele—!"

Boom.

The raging goddess flinched as a loud metallic bang cut her off.

"W-What… what was that…?"

Her hushed voice drifted out over the courtyard as all eyes turned to the front gates, or more specifically, the fist that had just pierced through the massive steel doors.

"Hah… you guys are really fucked now…"

Allen smiled and stepped back, leaving Bell to join the others. As he moved, the other Freya familia members turned away, sheathing their weapons and standing up straight.

Creeaak.

The metal doors groaned as they gave way to the man behind them.

"H-Hold on, is he… no way…"

A ripple of fear shot through the onlookers as a pair of hands began to tear through the gates. The sheets of steel warped and bent under his fingers like paper. Bolts and rivets popped out of their sockets with metallic clinks as the gate screeched and crumpled under his grasp.

"Ottarl."

The name fell from his lips in a forced breath as he watched in shock as the strongest adventurer in the city tore through the gates, forced them open, and stepped inside.

All with his bare hands.

His dull, brown eyes swept over the courtyard, his head swiveling silently as he scanned the crowds. No one spoke. No one even dared to breath too loudly, nevertheless move, as it was simply not their place to do so. That was the effect the man standing before them had.

The king. The warlord.

With just his presence, just his stature and his deafening silence, he had pulled all eyes to him.

I knew he was strong… but…

Bell shivered as the man towered over the other Freya familia members. He'd seen him up close before, he'd even seen him slightly wounded after their expedition. But never before had he seen him actually fight or use his strength. He was the top of Orario. The pinnacle of strength, the very definition of power in the vast city. But just like that, they all watched as the walking legend stepped aside, bowing his head as he waited expectantly besides the gate.

"Thank you, Ottarl."

Clack.

"Y-You…!"

Bell nearly choked as she stepped through the ruined gates. Above them, Ishtar barely managed to stammer out a single word in shock.

Clack.

Each step she took echoed through the courtyard like the ringing of a bell. In the darkness, her gleaming purple eyes seemed to glow under the dim light.

"What do we have here?"

She was beautiful. Even without the light of day, just standing there and looking at her was hard. The way her hair fell elegantly down her shoulders, the way her cloak - despite being dull and modest - still clung to her shapely figure. Just like every other time he had seen her, he was reminded full force that she simply was beauty incarnate.

"Lady Freya…"

Bell bit his tongue and bowed his head politely. Gods, she was hard to look at. A dazzling radiance seemed to emanate from her body despite the lack of light. The way her hair flowed down her back, the way her hips swayed as she —

Fight it.

He looked straight ahead, his mind steeled and his emotions locked away behind a golden wall in his heart.

"We meet again, Hestia's child."

She stepped closer, her purple eyes locked onto his red ones. He winced inwardly at the name.

"I… I'm actually part of Loki's familia now."

"So I've heard."

She looked at him closely, almost curiously, tilting her head ever-so slightly as she did so. Was that a hint of amusement he saw behind her eyes? Or was that disappointment?

"That was a marvelous fight—"

His breath caught in his chest as she raised a hand to gently rest upon his cheek.

"—you really are exceptional."

Despite his best attempts not to, he felt his face redden slightly - much to the amusement of the goddess in front of him.

"L-Lady Freya… u-uhm…"

Words! Speak!

"Thank you — I mean, I… I didn't get the chance to meet you before… so I was hoping to, ah…"

His mind was fuzzy, his words were all jumbled, but that was all. His heart, no matter how much it raced or beat under her touch, didn't flutter like it did with her.

I can fight this.

With a single breath, he cleared his head and steadied his breathing.

"Oh, so you wished to see me?"

Thump.

Her teasing words hit like hammer, nearly knocking the wind out of his chest.

"I-I… I guess, yeah…"

She laughed slightly, her unwavering smile still frozen on her face.

"Well lucky you. For you, my door is always open."

She leaned in close to him, dropping her voice to a whisper with a coy wink.

"Consider that a standing invitation…"

Like a bolt of lightning, her words cut through his thoughts, sending an electrical shock through his head.

"O-Oh, ah, I…!"

He stuttered, further sending that embarrassing heat across his face.

"…b-but… I'm sorry, like I said…"

He raised a hand behind his head and smiled nervously.

I really need to learn how to talk to pretty girls — this is humiliating!

"I've joined Loki familia, and I don't really have any plans on leaving any time soon, so…"

She raised an eyebrow at his response, standing back up straight with an almost disappointed look on her face.

"Oh, is that so? A shame."

The silver-haired deity smiled once more before turning her eyes to focus on something behind him.

"I apologize, but you must excuse me. I actually have some unfinished business to take care of…"

Unfinished… business…

Bell turned back, following her gaze to land on Ishtar.

"W-wait!"

He took a half step back, surprising even himself with the volume of his voice.

"Er, s-sorry… but… there's actually one more thing…"

I can't believe I almost forgot.

He kicked himself mentally as he began to speak.

I really can't let my guard down at all.

"It's about… all this, actually."

"You have my attention."

"I-I…why…"

For the first time since she arrived, he was finally aware of his surroundings. As soon as he laid eyes on her, everything else had vanished. Allen, Ottarl, Ishtar, even Aisha and Haruhime. They all melted away into the background, victims of his forced tunnel vision.

But now, he could feel it. He could feel the heat of the burning district around them. He could feel the sting of the numerous cuts and scrapes over his body, the drip of sweat down the back of his neck, and the numbing pain that threatened to buckle his knee.

He also remembered why he was there in the first place.

"I know that it's not my place to ask you this, but, isn't there another way to work this out?"

Freya blinked upon hearing his request.

"I assume without further bloodshed… am I correct?"

Bell nodded. Without putting a name to it, she understood what he was asking. The girl behind them still remained a target, after all.

"Yeah…"

"You know that as long as she lives, her mere presence puts my familia and I in danger."

He wanted to laugh. Instead, he smiled. He may have been a fool, but he wasn't stupid. Ishtar familia's main strength was their overwhelming numbers. Other than that, most of their adventurers were level 3 and below - with only a handful of 2nd class, and a single 1st class adventurer. Even with the level boost, Freya familia still had many more higher ranking adventurers. Their numbers weren't anything to laugh at either - despite falling short of Ishtar's headcount overall, they still weren't behind by much.

And also…

His eyes drifted to the side, quickly glancing at the hulking form of Ottarl.

They have him.

"Somehow… I doubt that."

"Hmm? Do you now?"

She looked at him quizzically, as if surprised by his casual tone.

"I-I mean—! I meant no disrespect, it's just that, uh, I…"

Behind him, he swore he could feel Allen's glare burning a hole in the back of his head. However, Freya seemed to simply be amused by his honesty.

"Hah… I understand. After all, my children are very capable, aren't they?"

She lifted a hand to gesture around her, bringing his attention to the fiery red glow that emanated from beyond the compound walls. Outside those walls, the fires and conflict still carried on.

"However, only destroying the stone still carries quite a bit of danger for me. It may not be today, nor tomorrow, but as long as she lives, the threat remains. A stone can be replaced, but her magic cannot."

She leaned in close once again.

"But… I am a reasonable god… and with that understanding in the open, I'd like to propose a deal. A trade of sorts."

Bell blushed as she smiled at him, blinking slowly and staring at him through her eyelashes.

"I-I… but… I don't even have anything of value to offer you…"

"Don't worry about value, child… my proposal is this: I understand you wish to save a life, but by doing so, you ask me to keep mine at risk. In exchange for letting that happen, I simply want a favor."

"A favor?"

"Yes. Nothing too big. Just somewhere down the road, when you have something to offer me, I will come to you with a task. And you will accept."

He glanced back towards Haruhime and Aisha. They were still standing back, watching him intently.

"I…"

But what if she—

"Oh — and I won't ask you to leave your familia, if you're concerned about that."

Oh. Question answered.

"Then… I accept."

Freya's smile widened as she clasped her hands together. Her eyes glinted with an unmistakable joy as he spoke.

"Wonderful."

Should I have… thought this through more?

She took a step forward, cutting the already short distance between them in half.

"Contracts between mortals and deities are uncommon - even more so outside of a shared familia - as there is no absolute way to ensure mutual cooperation…"

She took another step even closer, leaning in close and lowering her voice.

"But with you, I feel like that won't be a problem. After all…"

She shifted her gaze slowly and purposefully between Haruhime and Allen.

"…there is nowhere in this city where my blade cannot reach."

Bell nodded. That much was obvious.

I was only able to stop him that one time out of sheer luck…

"And now… to seal the contract…"

She smiled playfully, rolling her lips together slightly.

"How about, a kiss?"

A… k-ki…kiss!?

"W-W-What!?"
"Lady Freya!"

Behind him, Allen raised his voice in protest. In the corner of his eye, Bell also caught several confused and surprised looks being shared by the other soldiers. Even Ottarl turned his head to look at them, his eyes still stone cold and expressionless. But the goddess ignored them all, her eyes twinkling as she focused intently on him.

"Yes, a kiss. Unless you happen to have a quill and paper on you?"

She's… she's teasing me, right?

"I… ah… I'm sorry… I can't."

As soon as he spoke, the courtyard fell silent. All around him, he could feel the gaze of shocked eyes burning into him alongside smoldering glares filled with jealousy — not all of them from Freya familia.

"You… can't?"

For the first time, Freya seemed taken aback and at a complete loss for words.

"I-Is there really no other way… to…?"

Bell shifted nervously as he waited for her to speak.

"Pfft."

"—wha…"

His eyes widened as Freya brought a hand to her lips, her shoulders shaking and rolling as she laughed.

"W-Why are you…?"

Her silver hair rippled and danced as her body shook lightly, her laughter ringing through the courtyard like a silver chime. It was intoxicating. Just watching as she laughed and giggled like a young girl was enough to capture every individual's attention at that moment.

"H…Hah… I… I apologize, Bell…"

She brushed a finger under her eyes, wiping away the small tears that had just begun to fall.

"That was the first time a man has turned me down in… well, a very long time." (beGONE, THOT)

She straightened up again, her smile receding in a flash.

"I see then… you already have someone close to your heart, hm?"

"Yeah. I do…"

"A shame… in that case…"

Freya raised a hand, pointing to the side.

Huh…?

He turned, only to see nothing but empty space.

"Mmh."

"—!"

His heart skipped a beat as she leaned forward, pressing her lips against his cheek.

"A-Ah…wha— !"

"There. Now, before I forget…"

She turned away, raising and waving a delicate hand into the air. Behind her, Ottarl stepped off to the side wordlessly.

"L-Lady… Freya…?"

Bell lifted his hand to touch his blushing cheek, feeling the lingering warmth of her touch.

"Hm? Oh… how cute."

She tilted her head slightly, smiling at his flushed expression.

Shff.

"I really am jealous of that Loki…"

Her hand reached forward, brushing through his hair before trailing down his cheek. Her finger drifted near the cut Phryne left on his face.

"What a shame she went for the face… you're welcome to come train with Allen any time you'd like. I rather enjoyed your little visits."

"Stay back! D-Dont…!"

Bell turned as another voice snapped him out of his trance like state. Above them, Ishtar cried out nervously as Ottarl extended a hand in her direction.

"A-AHHH!"

The goddess threw her hands over her face, recoiling in terror as she shut her eyes and looked away.

KSHH!

He could hear it clearly. Ottarl had plucked the stone from her grasp and crushed the jewel with seemingly no effort.

"That's my end of the deal, Bell. Be sure to remember yours."

She moved her hand to rest on his shoulder as she stepped past him, moving towards the main tower.

"Now, run along. I'm going to have a little talk with Ishtar…"

Bell turned to watch her go, his heart still racing and thumping in his chest. As Freya exited the protective circle, Allen bowed slightly before accompanying her - however not before casting one last malicious glare back his way. The other Freya familia soldiers remained at their posts, their hands folded behind their backs as they waited for their goddess' return.

And just like that, he was left alone.

"Bell—mmph!"

Bell turned his head to see Aisha clamp a hand over Haruhime's mouth and pull her back. Her eyes shouted out a silent warning, and she lifted her head, nodding towards the gate.

Go.

He smiled, lifting a hand in a silent goodbye as he turned and stepped through the gates. It was time for him to go. Haruhime's life had been spared, the stone destroyed, and Phryne defeated. Bell almost laughed as he half-ran through the dark streets. As soon as the burning buildings and smoldering ruins were left behind him, the boy slowed to a stop.

That's not good…

Bell pressed his lips into a thin line as he touched his leg tentatively. The flow of blood had yet to stop. His pant leg was soaked with the liquid, sending freezing chills along his leg.

"…I needed to wash this anyways…"

He winced, shuddering slightly as he wrapped his cloak around his wound as neatly as possible. With a sharp, painful tug, he completed the knot and let go.

"You're… Rabbit Foot?"

A series of steps brought his attention up just in time to see a group of armed adventurers stop in front of him.

Oh no.

Behind them, he recognized the black and white uniforms of the Guild workers. The woman who called him out stepped forward, a spear in hand. Her piercing blue eyes scanned him quickly, looking him up and down.

"U-Uh, yes ma'am!"

This woman… her name was…?

"Captain Shakti! The fires are spreading further, we have to go!"

Behind her, a man wearing a white elephant mask spoke up, his hand outstretched and pointing towards the red glow on the city horizon.

"Damnit, let's go!"

Her expression twisted with agitation as she waved the rest of her group forward before turning back to face him.

"You better hurry home. We got word of Freya Familia moving in on Ishtar's territory... and from the looks of things, it's not gonna be pretty."

"Ahah… is that so? W-Well, thanks for the heads up I'll just be—"

"Wait."

She grabbed his arm as he turned to leave.

"Your leg…"

She eyed him suspiciously before looking back to the glowing flames.

"Damn… you're Loki Familia, right?"

"Y-Yeah…"

She let him go and moved to rejoin her group.

"Get that looked at."

With that final parting word, she left him and continued running towards the growing flames.

She knew who I was…?

His beating heart had stilled as he walked alone, his aching leg limping slightly behind him. Up ahead, the dim lights of the Twilight Manor shone faintly through the windows, welcoming him home.

That could be… trouble…

However, Shakti wouldn't be the last surprise guest of the night.

Is that…?

Two figures rested on a bench outside the gates, cast in a shining gold glow from an adjacent streetlamp.

"Aisha… and…"

The amazon put a finger to her lips with a smile. Next to her, Haruhime rested quietly, her chest rising slowly as her arms remained wrapped around Aisha's. Her head lay on the woman's shoulder, her eyes shut and her lips slightly parted.

"How did you…"

"We ran — well, she tried to… but…"

She smiled as Bell lowered his voice and sat next to them.

"She's not exactly… cut out for running. But, she wanted to see you again, and so here we are."

Aisha's smile loosened as she raised a hand to brush a stray strand of golden hair out from the renart's face.

"Heh, the fool couldn't even stay awake long enough."

"Are you sure you'll be okay, leaving like that…?"

Her smile faded and her eyes hardened once more, a serious glint in her gaze.

"Psh, yeah… Phryne would've tried to kill me if I stayed anyways, so…"

"But… what about the others? Your family—"

"Is right here."

Aisha tilted her head, nudging Haruhime lightly. The girl murmured incoherently, shifting slightly and snuggling closer to Aisha.

"I see. That's… nice."

He couldn't find any other words to say at the moment, no fancy flourishes to truly describe the warmth that bubbled up through his chest. But still, he meant what he said. Watching the two sitting before him was reason enough to accept the pain that dug into his body.

"You were right."

"Huh?"

Aisha looked up at him, her eyes still straightforward and serious. However, that sharp edge he had seen the first time they had met seemed to be gone.

"About familias… about family… about everything."

She raised a hand to brush through Haruhime's hair, running her fingers through her silken locks.

"You know… when she first came to us, she didn't even know how to take care of her own hair."

Her lips curled into a warm smile as memories unknown to Bell flashed before her eyes.

"I had to brush it every night for the longest time… and I always said I hated it, that it was annoying and bothersome — I mean, look at this mess — but, then again… I might've enjoyed it. Maybe a little."

Bell sat silent for a little longer, his eyes turning up to the sky. Aisha did the same.

"…where will you go…?

The woman lifted a shoulder in a half hearted shrug.

"Anywhere that takes me, really."

She turned her head to look at Haruhime, watching as the sleeping girl's head rested on her shoulder.

"As long as they take this idiot too… But first we gotta get rid of the emblem on our backs. I reckon Ishtar won't be so happy 'bout that, buuut we'll make it work. Even if we gotta bring an envoy from the Guild or hire some mercenaries to protect us… whatever it takes to get Ishtar to get this thing off our backs, we'll do it and start over."

She looked at Bell with a wide grin free of regret and worries.

"I heard Hermes has a thing for Amazons, maybe we'll head there?"

"A-Aisha…!"

Bell laughed as the amazon winked with a devious smirk.

"I'll tell her you said bye. You better get going, your cap—"

"Oh. I almost forgot — I actually have a question for you."

She raised an eyebrow curiously, her interest only growing as Bell averted his eyes with a slight blush.

"Really? For me? You're stronger than me, and besides fighting all I know is—"

She stopped and leaned forward, lifting a hand to cover her growing grin.

"Oooh my, Bell…. that's a surprise, aren't you a bit young to—"

"W-Wait, n-no, I just was wondering…"

He shifted nervously in his seat, his embarrassment setting his face on fire with each passing second.

"H-How do I… uh…"

He stopped short, his eyes glancing around their surroundings before leaning closer to her and whispering in her ear.

"…."

"I see…"

"…."

"Mhmm…"

"….."

"Really?"

Aisha grinned as Bell sat back, his face still completely red.

"Buckle up kid, class is in session so listen close and take some notes. Consider this my thanks — I'm boutta run you through an Amazon's crash course on girls."