Bell looked up at the mansion towering before him. As he stepped up to the front doors and grasped the handle in his hand, he couldn't help but feel guilty. Just like all those times before, as soon as he crossed the threshold into his 'home', the same 30 seconds of nervousness pricked at his mind. He hadn't done anything wrong — well, not really, anyways — but deceiving his captain, his goddess, his familia, it all simply felt off to him.
Sneaking out… sneaking back in…
He pulled the door open just a crack and peered into the darkness once more. Finn was there to catch him last time, but now the coast was clear. With his many, many late nights, Bell had grown accustomed to silently entering his home. He knew where Riveria set up invisible runes to detect intruders. He knew which floorboards and steps creaked under the slightest pressure. He even knew how far he could open the door without the squeaky hinges giving away his position.
Bell turned his body sideways and slipped through the slim gap, clumsily dragging his wounded leg behind him. He grimaced as he noticed the a few droplets of blood drip to the ground, splattering and leaving behind a rather noticeable trail.
That's going to be a problem.
As he stepped back into his home, he held the door open and let it slowly slide back into place with an almost inaudible click.
First things first.
He stepped quickly through the hall, weaving his way through the forest of unseen magic circles, and made his way to their creator's room. With haggard breath, he quickly moved up the stairs and through the silent hallways. In just a few turns, he had arrived once more before her room. A slight golden glow escaped out from under the door, signaling that she was still awake. But even so, he hesitated to knock on her door.
She won't be too mad… right?
His eyes flickered back down the hall towards Lefiya's room as he stood there silently, weighing his only two options. In the end, it wasn't fear of the emerald haired woman's disapproving gaze or the guaranteed slap on the face from the young elf that made up his mind. It was the cold, slick line of blood that ran down his leg that made him move.
"Ehm… Miss Riveria? A-Are you still…"
He had only just touched the door when the doorknob twisted and pulled open just a crack.
Bell smiled nervously, lifting a hand in an awkward wave as his feet shifted uneasily beneath him.
"H-Heeey… How're you doing?"
The door swung shut abruptly, closing in his face. He had only managed to catch a glimpse of the shadowed expression that lay behind the door, but it was enough to tell that perhaps his late nights needed to come to an end.
"Aw wait, Miss Riveria—!"
Once more, the mage opened the door and glared out at him, her eyes boring into his as his words hung in the empty air.
"Somehow… I'm not surprised."
Her voice was firm yet eerily quiet, as if the slightly open door between them was the only thing holding back a tidal wave of rage.
"H-Hehe… ah… well, you see…"
He smiled again before lifting his leg slightly. With his free hand, he nervously touched his face, wiping away the bloody trail that slowly dried on his cheek.
"You… paulo stercore…"
She pressed a hand to her forehead with a sigh and turned away, pulling the door open behind her as she grumbled in an unfamiliar language.
"Come on… I'll take a look."
Bell winced once again as Riveria unraveled his makeshift tourniquet apart. The wet cloth fell to the ground with a wet slap, and the elf looked up to him with tired, unamused eyes.
Her hand peeled away the soaked fabric from his torn pants leg, grasping the bloodied material without any sign of hesitation or concern of the crimson liquid staining her skin. He sat at the foot of her bed and watched as Riveria held her palm above his wound and whispered a few words.
"Fil… Luna… Eldis…"
A soft emerald light appeared at her fingertips, illuminating her weary eyes as the growing verdant glow melded with the gentle orange and bronze hues of the nearby candlelight. Bell blinked slowly, softening and relaxing as the familiar warmth of her magic slowly stole away his pain. Within seconds, his wound had closed and disappeared from his body without so much as a lingering scar.
The gruesome, bloody cut had been simply erased, with only the memory of its vicious sting as testament to its existence. But even as the light faded, Riveria remained kneeling. With her now red stained hand, she brushed aside the dried blood and clumps of dirt that stubbornly clung to his skin.
Her eyes tore away from the pink and white lines that marked his body. As the cuts faded away and his skin stitched itself back together, those ugly marks were brought into the light. It wasn't the first time she had seen those scars. In fact, she was quite familiar with them - after all, she was the one who had once stood face to face with his bare, broken body and given the near impossible task of bringing him back from the brink of death.
You've come so far…
Just seeing those two lines in the shape of an X was enough to tug at her heart and send flashes of that night back into her mind. The cold, still air, the freezing touch of his chilled skin, the minuscule thump of his failing heart. It would never escape her memory for as long as she lived.
Had she been given more time, or had he been brought to her sooner, he wouldn't have had to live with those grotesque markings forever reminding him of the pain and suffering he had endured all alone.
"I don't mind that you knock on my door so late at night…"
She stood slowly, her robes shifting below her and sweeping over the ground. Once more, the familiar hum of her magic filled the room as she moved on to his other wounds.
"I don't mind that you constantly find ways to injure yourself and make me heal you… that's just my job. That's why I'm here — to catch you when you fall, to pick you up time and time again and brush away your pain."
Bell looked up at her, his wide, round eyes staring up at hers.
Like a pair of gems…
Two rubies beneath a tuft of snow white hair shimmered and glowed as the young boy listened without saying a word.
"But… I do mind when you put yourself in needless danger. When you throw yourself in harms way alone, and out of reach. When I… when we don't know where you are and you come back like this… it's worrisome. So remember…"
His chin fell as he dropped his gaze to the floor, an unmistakeable flash of guilt filling his eyes.
"…whether it be in the dungeon, or on the surface—"
She had reached out, only to stop and pull back.
Bell looked up curiously to see her reach down and grasp the frill of her robes, balling the fabric up and wiping away the blood and grime from her hand.
"Wha— er… h-hey…!"
Riveria reached out once more, brushing his cheek and flicking away some few specks of dirt and dust beneath his eyes. She smiled as he murmured a half-hearted complaint, tilting his head slightly at her touch.
"—you have people, family, waiting and willing to share those hardships with you."
If he was going to get in trouble regardless, there was no reason for him to do it alone.
She cut him off, abruptly pushing down his head and ruffling his hair.
He shook his head, shaking off her hand before moving to stand.
"Good. Now go to bed. It's late."
"Okay… t-thank you…! And… good night!"
With a clatter of hasty steps and the flick of his cloak, the boy ducked his reddening face down and ran back the way he'd came, leaving Riveria behind to watch his fleeting back.
Riveria shut the door behind him with a soft click and turned back to her empty room. Her smile was gone.
"What is it this time…"
Her eyes hadn't missed a thing. His lack of dungeon equipment, the peculiar shape of his wound, the fist sized black and purple circles riddling his body. Those weren't inflicted by any monster you'd find in the dungeon. They were from another adventurer - and judging from the variety of cuts and bruises, it was more than just one person.
A disagreement between adventurers in the dungeon is common… but multiple people? And he didn't say anything…
She sighed again and shook her head. There would be time to discover what he was hiding tomorrow. If she had questioned him now, she wasn't sure if he'd actually be able to stay awake long enough to answer a single inquiry. The boy needed his rest
In the end it didn't matter, anyways. True to her words, no matter the trouble, they would have his back regardless. But not even Riveria, in her infinite wisdom, could predict what was coming next - or who would show up at their front door the very next morning.
The dining hall was even livelier than usual. Everyone in the mansion was awake and already downstairs, even if they were still sleeping, they wouldn't be for much longer.
"Is it true?!"
"Is she going to be exiled?!"
"How much was lost?!"
Each table was filled, every seat was taken. Copies of the morning paper filled all of the Loki familia adventurers' hands, variations of the same bold headline sprawled across the pages.
Freya Familia burns down Entertainment District!
Goddess Ishtar Killed? The Streets Run Red with Blood!
Ishtar Familia in Ruins! Hundreds slain, Millions in Reparations!
Freya Refuses to Give Statement! "That. Bitch." Says Ishtar!
With every new article published in the short span of a single night came a wild new take and most likely blown out of proportion report. But who could blame the publishers? With the conflict between the two goddesses being more than centuries old, the sudden arrival of a dramatic escalation was the perfect climax to one of Orario's most anticipated battles. It wasn't too much of a stretch to say that the news was something several deities actually looked forward to as a respite to their boredom. In fact, there was a surprising number of individuals who held bets and wagers on who would come out on top — of course, all in secret lest they face the wrath of an angry goddess of beauty.
And so, excited chattering filled the hall as each adventurer speculated and debated on last night's incident - a phenomenon that had occurred not only the Twilight Manor, but in each and every Familia in Orario. Word spread quickly of the state of the entertainment district, and in less than an hour, the news had already taken over the city. Indeed, it was a chaotic morning.
Tiona jumped up from her seat, her face appearing above the crowd as she attempted to flag down her friend.
"Good morning… what is all this?"
The bubbly amazon shoved a paper in her hands, practically vibrating with excitement. Her wild smile and gleaming eyes were completely enraptured by the shocking event and Deity gossip.
"How are you waking up just now!? The paper came, like, ages ago! What do you think happened!?"
"I… I don't…."
Ais waved the paper away, bringing a hand up to rub her still tired eyes. Unlike her companion, Ais didn't particularly share the same enthusiasm for the news. However, the mention of the entertainment district was something that caught her attention.
"Have you seen B—"
"I bet Ishtar had an affair with Ottarl, or something."
A preposterous theory literally froze the room as one unfortunate adventurer spoke her mind. In an instant, all eyes turned to glare at the poor girl unaware of what she had just started.
"W-What!? Why are you all looking at me like th—"
"Because you're an idiot, that's why!"
Another voice chimed in, berating the young woman.
"Yeah! Are you seriously implying Ottarl and Freya are — yech — together!?"
"Hey! Those two are always up in the tower alone, and who knows what goes on up th—"
"BOOOO! Just 'cuz Ottarls your type doesn't mean that they have that type of relationship."
"No, no, she's got a point. I've never seen them apart from one another, after all."
"W-What!? How are you even considering that? Obviously, it was Allen that Ishtar tried to get with!"
"They're goddesses of love! It has to be her most loved child that was seduced, so it has to be Ottarl!"
"They're goddesses of beauty, not love you idiot."
"Like you would know anything about beauty."
"Y-You son of a—!"
Tiona and Ais stepped back as the raving crowds mere seconds from foaming at the mouth threw insane theories one after another out into the air. Within seconds, the conversation was reduced to the wild fantasies and ravings on the topic of who was who's pregnant mistress while having an affair with the other's secret husband and long lost sister.
"They've… lost it…"
Tiona's jaw hung open as the sea of bodies continued on with their fiery delusions.
"Because CLEARLY it was—!"
Ais was only free to stare as Tiona launched herself into the crowd, an equally delusional theory already spilling out from her mouth.
"They never had it in the first place."
The elder of the amazon twins lifted a hand in greeting as she walked up to Ais.
"Morning, did you eat?"
Ais glanced at the 'make your own Jagarmarukun' section of the dining hall with a slight longing expression on her face before looking back to the empty stairs leading to their rooms.
"I think I'll wait a bit."
Tione followed her glance and turned away with a lazy wave, moving to get her own food. There was no need for any explanation. All she had to do was read between the lines.
"Aight, I'll save you two a seat."
And so, Ais took a step back, leaning against the wall near the entrance to the dining hall and watched as her comrades bickered and continued to spout nonsense.
But she didn't mind. This was the Loki Familia after all. And what would the Loki Familia be without a bit of noise? In the many years she'd spent living under the same roof as her comrades, she couldn't recall a single quiet night — well, maybe just a few.
"Jeez. Are you guys always like this?"
Ais turned her head as a woman stepped up to her.
"Good morning, Sword Princess."
"You are… Casino Lady? How did you…"
She tilted her head quizzically as the Shakti shook her head, an exasperated look on her face.
"Who told you to call me th— Tch, never mind…"
The blue haired captain of the Ganesha Familia gestured to the front door.
"Tried knocking, but no one answered."
I can guess why.
"I'm here to see Finn."
Shakti held up a small piece of paper with rows and rows of detailed instructions along with the Guild's insignia.
She spoke flatly and easily, meeting Ais' eye-line without any sign of hesitation or reluctance — a feat not many in the city could actually claim as one of their own. If the difference in level or notoriety bothered her, she didn't let it show.
"A summons… are we in trouble?"
Ais looked over the vague document curiously, her lips pressing into a worried, thin line.
"I'm not sure, actually. Maybe. I'm just here to ask some questions regarding—"
Her eyes flickered to the side, briefly glancing at the excited crowd a bit of a ways from them.
"—the event that occurred last night."
"Does the guild thinks someone here was involved?"
"Ah… Lady Riveria."
Shakti bowed her head, nodding respectfully to the mage as she approached, Finn at her side.
"…and Captain Finn."
"Good morning, Shakti, to what do we owe this pleasure?"
Riveria tilted her head ever so slightly back towards the others, and Ais stepped away with a nod. Whatever news Shakti had for them, she could trust Finn to deal with it.
Her brief glance through the paper and its details along with the news carried by the morning paper was enough to piece together a rough picture in her head. The entertainment district, the fire, Bell's promise to reveal his secret; she was an airhead, not blind. By the time she returned to her post waiting by the stairs, Bell was already waving at her with a smile on his face — one that she returned easily enough.
"I wouldn't say that he's a trouble maker… rather, that trouble has the unfortunate habit of following him around."
Finn smiled up at Shakti as she continued to question him. Like the others in the dining hall, he had heard about the fires and destruction spread by the Freya Familia. However, what Shakti was poking at was entirely different.
"But burning down the city? That's something entirely different."
Of all the rowdy adventurers in his familia, of course it had to be Bell that brought an envoy — or enforcer, rather — of the Guild to his doorstep, a wagon full of troubling questions alongside her.
"I'm just following witness statements that put him there on the scene. Obviously, this conflict between Freya and Ishtar was a long time coming, and the Guild is aware of that. But as the sole member of a third party, he could help shed some light on what exactly happened. Lady Freya has agreed to any punishments and reparations decided by the Guild, but aside from that she is refusing to take any statements or give us any information. Lady Ishtar, too, is being difficult…"
Shakti crossed her arms over her chest, looking down at him with a knowing look.
"You of all people should know how much of a pain it is when a deity is being difficult."
Riveria fought back a snicker, sealing it behind her flat, motionless expression as Finn laughed easily.
"Heh, yeah, I do have my own fair share of dealing with difficult goddesses… but you understand that the last thing I'd want is to involve my familia with their mess. Because of that, I find myself a bit hesitant in allowing the Guild to take custody of one of our own — that is, with no guarantee of their safety."
As the two captains continued to speak, Riveria listened quietly. However, as she turned her head to look down to Finn, her eye caught something rather concerning. A tiny red splotch on the ground - barely noticeable, but just enough to draw her attention.
With Shakti coming in with a summons bearing his name and the knowledge she already had, it was enough to confirm her suspicions. Bystander? Unfortunate victim caught in the cross fire? No, not in the slightest.
Riveria bit her tongue and looked away, turning her head to focus on the boy in question as her foot nonchalantly slid forward and covered up the stain. She already knew he was involved, but now the degree of his role was coming into question. Hell, his one and only magic spell was one with the fire attribute. Coincidence?
I think not.
But as much as she wanted to reach out to grab him by the ear and shake him around, she could only watch as Bell and Ais walked away, a smile shared between the two. Silently, she politely waited and listened quietly to Shakti's voice.
"Safety? As a simple witness or even a bystander dragged into conflict, he'd have nothing to fear… that is, unless your defensiveness isn't without reason…"
"Ahaha… you always were a crafty one, Shakti."
"Me? Look who's talking…"
Riveria glanced between the two captains, watching as the two continued their staring match. On the surface, they were all smiles, but she could hear the silent tension lingering just beneath their words and hiding in their unwavering eyes.
"Anyways, custody is a strong word, Finn. The Guild just wants to ask him a few questions about what happened, so they can pass proper judgement on the wrongful party and smooth things over."
"And if they decide that he is at fault…?"
Shakti answered without pause, maintaining an even gaze with the Loki familia captain.
"Then as I said, proper judgement will be passed upon the wrongful party."
She pressed the letter into his hands and moved to leave.
"Don't make a bigger problem out of this than it already is, Finn. I know you're just being protective of the kid, but we both know that it's them who are gonna be the ones getting slapped on the wrist. The Guild wants him to come in, one way or another. And if they doesn't get what they want, I'll be back — next time, with more than just a piece of paper. Trust me, I've been given free rein on this one."
But despite the harsh words, her eyes held no ill intent. They were empty of hostility, devoid of malice. They both knew where they stood — her as an enforcer of the Guild, and him as the guardian of his familia. They were both just fulfilling the roles they'd been given.
"Well, we wouldn't want that now would we?"
Finn smiled as Shakti nodded in agreement. However, there was still something in what she just said that piqued his interest.
"Is there anything else you need while you're here?"
Shakti paused for a moment before answering, her mind clearly hung up on something just at the tip of her tongue.
"ALLEN x OTTARL OTP!"
"What… What was that?"
"Nothing." ~ "Nothing."
Finn and Riveria raised their voices at the same time without hesitation as a shrill screech came from the dining hall. Without even blinking, the two carried out without so much as a reaction to the peculiar exclamation behind them.
"You were saying?"
"A-Ah… well… at the latest Denatus, I accompanied Lord Ganesha and sat in for the meeting."
They all knew the one she was talking about. The announcement of the defeat of the forces conspiring against the city as well as the news of Loki Familia's newest record breaking level up had made the gathering one for the history books.
Her eyes shifted to the side for a second, her gaze wavering for the first time that morning.
"Hah… this new generation of adventurers… they're making us look bad, huh?"
"Well there's that too, but…"
Shakti cracked a slight smile as she answered.
"I heard that he helped take out the one who did in Hashana, but I never actually got a spare moment to talk to him, so… give him my thanks."
Riveria took notice of her words with interest, nodding politely as the azure haired woman said her goodbyes and left the way she came. They stood together for a moment after she left and watched the doors swing shut on her figure.
"He's really something, huh?"
Finn leaned back slightly to look past Riveria and into the dining hall.
"Hmph he's had one foot in the deep end ever since he got here — always getting into trouble and coming back injured one way or another."
Riveria's brow furrowed into a slight frown as she turned to look the same way as Finn, locking onto Bell with an icy cold glare.
"Yes, that… but then again…"
As if picking up on her stare, Finn laughed as Bell perked up, his head turning side to side worriedly as if looking for an unseen danger. Beside him, Ais couldn't have been anymore clueless.
"Shakti doesn't go out of her way to offer compliments too often, now does she?"
"Was that what that was?"
Finn turned away, walking back to his office.
"Go easy on him, huh?"
"That depends on hi— he's running…!"
Riveria disappeared with the sound of her fluttering robes as she moved to pursue her fleeing prey, leaving Finn alone to look at the paper in his hands. It was strange. Normally, a summons would be written for the person in question to appear before an administrator or officer of the guild to be reprimanded. The overseer of the case would have their signature at the bottom of the page indicating their authority over the matter, but in this case there was no such signature. Instead, there was an all too familiar seal emblazoned in place of a name.
A simple circle with a dot in the middle and an arrow sticking up out of the top.
With just one glance, Finn recognized the symbol. He knew its importance, what it stood for, and what it entailed. He also recognized the very, very, big can of worms it brought to the table. Neither Riveria nor Shakti had seen the bottom of the page, or if they did, they didn't say anything.
Questions swirled through his mind one after another, tumbling and crashing through his head like an endless waterfall.
Free rein… really?
He'd never heard of Ganesha rented out enforcers being granted increased jurisdiction except for in the most dire of situations. Her words were clear. Whether it be of his own volition or in chains, Bell would have to make an appearance in response to the summons.
But as Finn folded that paper and slipped it into his pocket, he could feel an irritable tingling at the tip of his thumb. The fuzzy feeling was accompanied by a flood of thoughts, each one analyzing the situation and coming up with hundreds upon thousands of ideas on what was about to happen. Invisible plans were drawn up behind his eyes, each one responding to one of the endless scenarios he foresaw with intricate layers upon layers of contingencies and failsafes.
But despite each of his plans and theories, they all ended up with one big hole in the center — a hole that just so happened to be a perfect fit for a certain rabbit.
No matter how many steps forward he took, he always wound up falling short of a complete picture. It was a troublesome feeling, one that worried him and brought him no shortage of grief.
This… could be a problem.
"Hehe… you did the right thing asking me, Bell."
Aisha puffed out her chest proudly as she offered him a sly smile.
"Listen up. The number one thing that can turn on any girl is POWER."
That doesn't seem right.
"We women are drawn to feats of strength and physical dominance like moths to a flame. Any man who can't even stand before us is simply unworthy of being anything but a tool for reproduction."
Aisha's smile grew as a wild look appeared in her eyes.
"The Sword Princess is no different! A real man should be able to take the woman he desires by force."
The Amazon raised her free arm, grabbing him by his collar and pulling him in close. His face flushed slightly as he was met by an almost predatory, hungry gaze.
"If a man can't conquer his woman, he's worthless. That's why whenever I get a client, I'm always on top."
Aisha shrugged off his curious look and let him go.
"Nothin, nothin. Don't worry about it."
"But… I can't beat Ais in a fight… no one can."
She blinked, her momentary crazed demeanor fading away just like that.
"Huh. I guess you're right."
They sat in silence for a minute as a beat passed between them.
"Pfft… hehe… hahaha…"
Bell turned in surprise as Aisha began to laugh lightly.
"Aisha? What is it?"
"I was just thinking of something…"
The girl looked up into the night sky, stretching her hand far above her head with a yawn.
"I've only seen that blonde doll from a distance, so I can't really say for sure… but MAN are you two both such pathetic bottoms."
Aisha laughed again as Bell stammered, flustered by her confusing insult.
"Listen. You managed to beat me, right?"
"Well… I guess, yeah?"
"And you beat that damn toad too, right?"
She punched him in the arm.
"Then act like you did."
"As pathetic as you are, you're strong — no doubt of that. And if I can see that, so can she. So…"
Was that… almost a compliment? Maybe?
She turned and looked at him, a serious glint in her eyes as she spoke, her sideways compliment still hanging in the air.
"Sometimes, you just gotta take the lead. Even if you have to drag her along in the process."
Her grin widened as that flame reappeared in her eyes.
"And when that happens, the more forceful, the better!"
"The more forceful, the better… huh?"
Bell blinked as he looked at his reflection in his window, silently replaying last night's conversation with Aisha in his head. As he stood looking out into the city, he could already hear the excited clamoring of his peers all the way down the hall and on practically the other side of the mansion.
I guess news travels fast…
He had anticipated that notice of the destruction would make its way to their home rather quickly, but he didn't expect to deal with it this early in the morning. Bell leaned forward slightly, reaching up to his face with his index fingers and lightly poking the two very visible dark shadows lingering under his eyes.
"I really need to stop doing this…"
He sighed as he talked to himself, murmuring to the ghostly reflection in the glass.
Two figures had caught his attention standing near the front gate. Two men other than the normal sentries were facing away from him, both wielding spears and wearing what appeared to be some sort of mask over their faces.
Bell undid the latch on his window with a click and pushed it open, leaning out to try and get a better look. However, a deep rumbling coming from his famished stomach pulled him away as he left his room and hurriedly made his way towards the dining hall.
"No… no, no, no… I can't, Finn, I can't…"
Bell perked up as a familiar voice came from around the corner. In an instant, he flattened himself against the wall and stilled his breathing.
"This… this is too much…"
He peeked around the corner and looked down the stairs to see Riveria and Finn standing before the dining hall, unnoticed by the crowd inside. The mage shook her head, a look of sheer dismay and exhaustion on her face as she stared at the raging adventurers in front of her.
"I haven't even had my coffee yet, and you want me to deal with this?"
The prum laughed at his companion's near flustered, confounded look.
Further down the main hall, he spotted the glint of Ais' golden hair as the girl leaned against the wall, occasionally glancing vaguely in his direction.
Is she… waiting for me?
His heart nearly crumbled as a warm feeling filled his chest. However, before he could step out, a fresh arrival stopped him from moving.
That's the woman from last night — Shakti, Ganesha familia's Captain.
Bell remained still, watching with interest that quickly turned to worry as she shared a few words with Ais, and handed her a document before being approached by Finn and Riveria.
With the intimidating woman preoccupied by his seniors, Bell rounded the corner quickly, half jogging down the stairs as he attempted to clear the empty stretch between him and the dining hall without being spotted.
Ais smiled as she saw him, her lips curling upwards into a warm expression.
"A-Ais! Good morning! U-Uh, c-can we go—"
His eyes flickered back to see Shakti wrapping up her conversation.
She's gonna see me…!
She stopped his fumbling words, standing her ground and blocking him from walking past her.
"Did something hap—"
He could almost hear the frozen crinkling of frost freezing over his body as an icy cold glare was shot his way.
He hadn't even managed to leave the stairs before Riveria spotted him, already staring at him from across the hall, pinning him down under her frigid gaze.
Think. Think. Can I — no, I have to run..!
His fight or flight response had been triggered by the impending danger that was homing in on him. For half a second, he seriously contemplated whether or not he could slip past Riveria forcibly, although that foolish thought was squashed almost immediately.
Now, his mind was kicked into full tilt evacuation mode. With the elven equivalent to a blizzard heading his way, he began thinking of how to do what he shamefully knew only he did best.
Run like hell.
Though, despite his shame, no one could blame him. After all, not even Loki was foolish enough to stand in the way of a something akin to a natural catastrophe.
He grabbed her shoulders suddenly, leaning close with an urgent, almost frantic look in his eyes.
She blushed as he closed in on her with a laser focused gaze.
"We have to go!"
She glanced wistfully back towards the dining hall, skipping over the advancing fuming elf with her single minded pursuit.
He shrieked inwardly as he watched Riveria getting closer, already feeling the sting of her freezing aura lowering the temperature of the room.
"I-I'll get you anything you want in the city! But we have to go!"
Ais looked at him with wide, hopeful eyes as her smile lifted slightly — still unaware of the danger that was aggressively closing in on them.
"Really? But… I'd feel bad if you—"
"I-I NEED YOU TO COME WITH ME!"
He blushed madly as he raised his voice, lowering his head and clamping his eyes shut as he did so.
His heart skipped a beat as he reached out, grabbing her hand as Aisha's approving voice faintly whispered in his ear. But little did he know, it wasn't only his heart that jumped at that moment.
Without a second look over the girl's shoulder, he turned and high tailed it up the stairs, pulling Ais behind him. Her golden hair fluttered in the air behind them as she let Bell tug her along, a confused and shaken smile still plastered on her face. As they ran up the stairs and back towards the living space, his blush only darkened as he passed by Gareth, brushing past him and ignoring his teasing comments.
"Ohoho… where are you two heading in such a hurry this morning—oh shit."
"GARETH! STOP THEM!""
But the dwarf did what any sane person would do when coming face to face with a deadly winter storm — he turned tail and ran, making a beeline down the opposite hall and as far away as possible from the fuming mage now sprinting up the stairs.
"Bell… where are we—"
He slowed down at his door, turning to face her with an out of breath apology.
"Wha — Bell!"
Without missing a beat, he pulled her close and scooped her into his arms, before slamming his back against his door and forcing it open. He could've sworn he felt Riveria's fingertips just barely graze the back of his neck.
In just two steps, he cleared his room, tucking his head down and hugging Ais close to his body before leaping out the open window and into the air.
"B-Bell what are y—ahh!"
Her arms circled around his neck in surprise as the couple suddenly found themselves falling from the third story of the mansion.
He hit the ground, stumbling forward in an attempt to maintain his balance before tripping over his feet and falling to the grass, the two rolling over the lawn jumbled and tangled together.
His head hit the steel fence that marked the edge of the property a dozen or so meters away from where he landed.
How far… did we go…? Is Riveria…?
The world did circled around him as his vision slowly stilled and moved back into focus on perhaps the most beautiful sight in the world.
Bell rubbed his head as he lay there, his clean clothes now covered in loose blades of grass and stained with dirt. Above him, Ais was no different. Her usual white blouse had become speckled with green stains and her normally immaculate, flowing golden hair had balled up and tangled into a puffy mess.
But still, the two were all smiles and laughs.
A sudden shout nearly gave him a heart attack. Ais pulled herself to her feet as the two looked at Riveria leaning out of his window, a rather less than pleased look on her face.
Her mouth gaped open for a second, as if she were struggling to come up with what words next to speak. However, instead of screaming further and berating them, she only hung her head in defeat with a tired sigh.
"Hah…. Don't stay out too late this time, got it?"
He yelped in surprise, a mixture of relief and fear rolling off his shoulders as his pursuer backed away, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Oh my gods…"
Bell gasped for air as the adrenaline rush slowly faded away, before turning to look sheepishly at Ais.
"I-I… sorry about that…"
She didn't seem to mind. If anything, it almost appeared to look the opposite.
"Haha… still need that coffee?"
Finn laughed as Riveria seated herself in his office, a full plate of food and a mug in her hands. From his open door, the prum had seen the chase take place all from the comfort of his seat.
A hesitant knocking came from the doorway, and the two looked up to see Gareth nervously poke his head into the room.
"Is… everything good now?"
"Tch no thanks to you."
Gareth took a second, lingering at the door as he thought of how to interpret Riveria's scowl.
"Anyways… this may be a problem."
Finn slid the summons across the table to Gareth, giving the dwarf a moment to get caught up on the situation they were in.
As his eyes swept over the paper, the dwarf was becoming increasingly aware of the woman next to him drilling a hole into the side of his head with her glare alone.
"So… this was meant for…"
"And that's why you were…"
"And that's why you asked me to…"
A nervous bead of sweat rolled down the side of the dwarf's face as he refused to meet Riveria's gaze, keeping his eyes on the paper alone.
"Did you hear?"
"They say Freya's on a rampage!"
"Aw man, where am I gonna spend my weekends now?"
Bell glanced around nervously as he walked through the city with Ais a slight step in front of him, a basket filled with wrapped Jagarmarukun in her arms. As they passed open stalls and shops, all they could hear was the same conversation over and over again. Normally, nothing would've made him happier than to walk with her, but today was different. Now, a heavy silence sat between them as he waited for her response.
Bell stopped fiddling anxiously with his armguard strap and looked up at Ais as the girl broke the silence.
"You did all that… for that girl…?"
"A-Are… are you mad?"
After getting something to eat, he spilled everything that had happened last night. It had started out fine, actually. She didn't seem too surprised to hear that he had jumped head first into a war between two of the largest Familias in the city, but once he began explaining his motives, that was when things started getting dicey.
Ais kept on facing forward, keeping her back to him.
He could tell by the way she walked, by the way she paused for less than half of a second before answering, by the way her flat voice seemed to be even duller and more monotone than usual. It was in the way her shoulders pinched together just in the slightest, most minuscule manner, and how her grip on the basket's handle appeared to be moments away from crushing it in her grip.
"I-I… uh… I…"
He couldn't think of anything to say. Instead, he just hung his head in shame and continued to walk towards their destination.
"Mmph — what is it…?"
Ais stopped abruptly at the front steps of the Guild, just below the massive arching doorway into the Tower of Babel. His eyes flickered over the area, doing a quick scan only to find nothing.
Ais spoke hesitantly, her hand unconsciously moving to rest on her sword hilt. Her brow furrowed in confusion as she looked around, wary of seemingly nothing.
"I'm… not sure…"
Bell focused his eyes, tuning out the sound of background conversations and movements and listened carefully for anything out of the ordinary.
His eyes flickered to his right as an almost indiscernible sound caught his attention.
Was that… a bird?
Ais had heard it too, her gaze now fixed to the empty steps on their right.
The two snapped out of their trance as a man brushed past them, leading a small group of adventures into the tower. Their intrusion was sudden, breaking into their state of heightened focus and surprising them.
"Ah, sorry, go ah—"
Bell offered a half hearted smile as he looked up at the person's face, only for his words to fade and die away in his throat. With just a passing glance, Bell watched the man in front, taking in with surprise the adventurer's almost cocky smile and gleaming red eyes. A large, ugly scar crossed his left eye, blemishing his otherwise handsome face. Atop his head sat a pair of goggles with tinted, smoky red lenses.
The man hadn't even looked at him, nor had he acknowledged his words. Without breaking stride, he just flashed Ais a quick grin, his eyes looking her up and down.
A beat passed, and he was gone — swallowed up by the doors of the massive tower. The only thing he left behind was the slight scent of smoke, and a similarly lingering feeling of indignation in Bell's chest.
"That was… uh…"
Bell opened his mouth, fighting to find a right set of words, only to settle with hesitantly forced laughter.
Ais shook her head slightly, turning back to look at him.
"It… happens sometimes…"
"Ah… I see…"
They waved it off, but still, the way the man had looked at her stuck with him.
Who am I kidding…
He peeked over Ais' shoulder as they walked in, nonchalantly craning his neck to see if the man was still around.
Is this how Lefiya feels?
A hot burning thorn in his chest was urging him to do something - what that something was, he didn't even know himself. All he knew, was that he didn't like it. The two stopped at the bulletin board, looking over the daily quests and missions put up by the Guild workers.
"How about this one?"
Ais tapped a sheet, poking a crudely drawn picture of winged creature with glowing red eyes and pointed fangs.
"A headhunting request for an abnormally aggressive flock of Wyvern that have nested above the major crossroads between the lower and upper levels…"
Bell read the instructions aloud, causing Ais to blink and look at him in surprise.
"You… you've gotten better at reading…"
"Huh? Oh! A-Ah… haha… well…"
He blushed at the compliment, fighting off a growing smile on his face.
"Riveria has been helping teach me… so…"
A piercing shout brought their attention away from the board to watch a familiar half elf storming towards him, a more than cross look on her face.
"W-Wait as second—!"
The fuming girl brought her clipboard down atop Bell's head with a crack, eliciting a yelp of pain from the boy. Around them, several other adventurers averted their gaze and quickly walked away.
"What did you do!?"
"I-I don't know!"
The advisor grabbed his ear, pinching him and dragging him closer.
"O-Ow ow ow!"
"Don't give me that I heard that you—"
She pressed her lips together in a thin line, looking around carefully before leaning in with a harsh whisper.
"—you burned down part of the city!"
"H-How did you—?"
Bell's eyes widened in surprise as she continued to scold him.
"Do you know how much work we have because of you?!"
"Two weeks unpaid overtime! Weekends too! Our boss is calling it a 'state of emergency' here!"
Ah. I see now.
Behind him, Ais continued to look over the board quietly. However, as Eina carried on chewing Bell out, she did cast a glance or two in their direction. As Eina grabbed his head and pushed it down in a forced bow, she pulled another sheet off the board. When she poked his chest and leaned into his face, another two sheets went into the growing pile in her hand.
"Gods… what am I going to do with you…?"
She seemed to have calmed down a bit after venting her frustrations on the poor shellshocked boy, and now pressed a hand to her temple with an exasperated sigh.
"Anyways… it's in the back. I'll take you to them."
Eina raised an eyebrow at him with a quizzical look.
"You're here for your testimony, right? The summons should've been at your door this morning."
Ais blinked in surprise and smoothed out the papers in her hand as she unconsciously squeezed down, crumpling them slightly.
"O-Oh! Miss Wallenstein!"
Seemingly noticing her for the first time, Eina put on a hasty smile and stepped forward to greet the girl.
"A-Anyways, ah, I believe the papers for your summons were delivered by Miss Shakti earlier…"
Oh… so that was…!
With the presence of a third party established, Eina quickly composed herself, putting on an award winning professional smile. She turned away slightly and gestured for them to follow.
"If you'd follow me, I'll show you where—"
She stopped and looked back, only to freeze as neither Bell nor Ais were anywhere to be found.
First it was the fox girl, then the Amazon, and now the half elf. One after another, girls continued to lay their hands on him whenever she looked away.
Am I… jealous?
It wasn't a pretty feeling. She knew that her feelings towards Bell's mysterious growth were more than just those of admiration or mere curiosity, but this was different. She almost felt a little possessive, or perhaps defensive of the boy. When hearing about or seeing other girls getting just a bit too close for comfort, something in her body made her blood run hot.
But the most troubling part for the young knight was that this was an entirely new world for her. Nothing Riveria nor Finn taught her was enough to prepare her in any way, shape or form for this.
And so, she reacted in the most direct way possible for her at the moment.
Without waiting to hear a response, Ais abruptly grabbed Bell's arm and pulled him away in the split second Eina turned around.
"We… we're going to be late…"
"B-But what if I get in trouble?"
Her grip on him didn't falter, and neither did her immediate response.
"Then I'll get in trouble with you…"
She peeked back at him nervously to look at his face, only to feel an immediate urge to smile as the sight of his flushed expression and averted gaze shook free the butterflies sitting in her stomach.
"Oh, and, these…"
She stopped at the stairway into the dungeon, pressing the stack of papers in her hand against his chest.
"…are for you."
"W-Wait, all of these?! But…!"
She wasn't about to let him off the hook so easily.
"It's… endurance training."
"A bounty for a wild Hellhound pack? And a minotaur horn procurement request? How many of— Fifteen of them!?"
His jaw hit the ground as he continued sifting through the stack in his hands, his eyes widening with each new quest.
"A top tier adventurer must be able to remain in the dungeon for extended periods of time without fatigue…"
It may have been a bit much, but it was still true.
"How… how long are we going to stay here for…"
His head sunk as Ais fought back the beginnings of a satisfied smile.
"Until you complete all of them — all day if we must."
She nodded, masking the small spark of pride she felt bloom in her chest. He got the training he needed, and she would watch over him, protecting him from any unwelcome individuals.
"Then… what about lunch?"
She had coincidentally prepared for that as well, moving her hand to pat the basket in her arms.
"Haaah… okay fine… let's go."
It was going to be a long day.
Bell's blade sunk into the flank of yet another rabid Hellhound, turning the beast to a cloud of ash.
"Hah… hah… agh…"
He panted heavily, out of breath as he straightened up and leaned backwards, stretching his already tired body.
"Was that… whew… all of them?"
Ais stood up from where she sat and relaxed in the grass leaning against a landform, brushing off a small pile of crumbs that had accumulated on her lap. Compared to him, she was quite literally spotless.
"I believe so."
She nodded and lifted the bounty sheet, folding it in half and adding it to the stack of completed requests.
"Aaaahhhhh how many more?"
Bell slipped his knife back into its sheath and took out a small mind potion from his bag, drinking the entire vial in a single gulp. Beside him, Ais sifted through the papers, counting the remaining requests.
"Uh…. pff… eleven more."
"Eleven more!? Wai— you laughed, didn't you!?"
She turned away, looking anywhere but his accusing stare.
"You must've imagined it."
"N-No! I saw you!"
"I would never—ah!"
Bell moved quickly, grabbing her wrist with one hand while reaching for the papers with his other.
"B-Bell! What are you—"
The boy laughed as he pushed her gently, bringing them both down to the ground for the second time that day.
She couldn't help but find herself joining him in laughter as she fought to wriggle out of his grasp and keep the papers out of reach.
"THIS ENDS NOW!"
A monstrous howl cut off their roughhousing, causing them both to look to the side as a new foe made itself known.
The beast had spotted them, lifting its muzzle into the air as it offered a cry of challenge.
"What number is that?"
Ais felt her cheeks redden as they turned back to face each other, mere inches away from contact.
She pressed the bounty sheet into his face with a slight smile.
Bell jumped to his feet, stretching his head to the side as the minotaur approached them, blood and carnage in its eyes.
The minotaur paused for a moment, obviously taken aback by the young boy's more than positive reaction to its appearance. After all, most adventurers on this level would flee or scream for help. But instead, the puny boy in front of it merely grinned and charged straight ahead.
Bell drew his knife and dashed forward, moving quickly and low to the ground with a confident smile.
It had been several hours since they first stepped foot into the dungeon. Of the fifteen missions Ais had pulled off the board, Bell had only managed to complete six. It didn't help that Ais barely stepped in as well — as of the fifth quest, she hadn't even drawn her sword yet. It was only a mixture of carelessness on Bell's part and a hint of boredom on hers that she lifted her blade to finish off a fleeing Wyvern.
And now, they found themselves standing at a very familiar sight.
"Think he's back?"
Ais looked at the paper in her hands, scanning the request.
"It says he is…"
Bell reached out and poked the shimmering field with his finger.
"Want my help with this one?"
He smiled at the offer, but waved it away.
"Hah. I got this."
The boy puffed out his chest proudly, much to Ais' amusement, as he did his best to speak with confidence.
She stepped back, allowing Bell to pass through the Wall of Despair alone.
The moment Bell stepped through, the dungeon began to shake. Once more, the luminous crystal walls of the cavern began to crack and shatter into fragments. But Bell didn't waver. He continued making his way to the center of the room, standing with a certain comfort as if he'd been there hundreds of times before.
"Where are you…"
His head turned from side to side, scanning the area before focusing on the two faint orbs of glowing red light appearing behind a cracking section of the wall.
"There you ar— huh?"
As the Goliath's foot kicked through the wall, bursting free of its restraints and crashing into the ground, Bell paused for a moment.
He looked down at the dagger in his hands before looking back at the towering Goliath that was just seconds away from attacking.
He backed up nervously, looking back to see Ais standing casually behind the safety of the wall, her hands both resting behind her back.
"You enjoyed it."
"I did not."
"You were totally enjoying it."
Ais once more looked away, refusing to meet Bell's gaze, the boy looking rather worse for wear. But she couldn't hold back her smile for long, as she soon broke into a tiny smile, bringing a hand up to cover her mouth.
"Ahah! I knew it!"
"Ha…haha… you… you were… haha!"
Her shoulders trembled slightly as she continued to fail miserably at holding back her laughter.
"Your face when you forgot you only had a knife…"
"Hah hah… very funny."
"And… And when it started throwing you around…!"
Her stomach was starting to hurt as the replayed the fight in her head.
"Hey! That… that hurt!"
Bell's half hearted complaints only managed to fuel her amusement, that, and his awkwardly growing smile that betrayed his true emotions.
As they sat in the grass just outside of Rivira enjoying their lunch break, she shifted slightly, moving to press her shoulder to his.
"You've really grown…"
His mouth clamped shut as she leaned against him, the two simply enjoying the moment together.
"…You really think so…?"
"I know so…"
He smiled, blushing fiercely as she gently pressed her lips to his cheek.
They stayed like that for a while longer, resting in each other's company.
However, that peace wasn't going to last forever.
Just like before, Ais tensed up slightly, her hand already on her sword. Without moving, she looked around, her eyes tracing their environment. Bell dropped his gaze to his knife handle sticking out of his bag on the other side of Ais.
"Can you tell where they are…?"
Bell moved slightly, turning his body and leaning closer to Ais as if to whisper something in her ear. His lips moved, but no sound came out. Under the guise of an embrace shared between two lovers, he reached out with his arm, wrapping behind her and inching closer to his knife.
He closed his eyes and focused on his other senses, listening, feeling for their presence.
But he came up empty.
But Ais merely smiled.
"Behind you… on your right… five o'clock."
I can't reach it in time…
He withdrew his hand, pulling back and sitting back.
Ais closed her eyes, waiting for Bell to make the first move. The second she felt him tense up, she moved, whirling around and drawing her sword with a hiss of steel.
Bell spun around and moved to stand, his hand already outstretched towards the hidden presence. In an instant, a stream of flames burst from his palm and coursed through the air, right on target.
The boy's eyes widened as the figure stepped forward, a gloved hand raised before him. The figure's robes shimmered around him as the space itself distorted, allowing him to step into view. With two words, a deep violet magic circle sprung forth from his palm, shielding his body from the flames.
Without so much as a flinch, the mage stood his ground as the flames collided with his projection, splitting off upon impact and flowing past him.
"A-Ah, Ais, wait!"
He turned to stop her, only to just barely catch a glimpse of her blurred form as she lunged forward, unable to stop from moving.
"I… apologize for interrupting…"
Fels took a half step back as Ais veered off target and skidded to a stop next to him, kicking up a cloud of dust in the process.
"You're the mage from back then…"
The girl straightened up, sheathing her sword as she recognized their guest.
"Why are you following us?"
She wasn't about to let him go just yet, her eyes still staring him down suspiciously.
Fels' warbled voice seemed genuinely confused as he attempted to answer the Sword Princess' question.
"I haven't been."
"Then what about on the surfa—"
He reached into the folds of his flowing robes, searching for an item, only to receive a look of warning from the girl.
"It's okay, here…"
If the mage could smile, he would definitely be doing so right now. Bell could hear it in his voice as he procured a folded up piece of paper.
"Your advisor reported that you had seemingly run away into the dungeon, and so I was sent to find you."
Bell cast a look to Ais, who in turn looked away to once more hide her face.
"S-Sorry, Fels, we just… uh…"
The mage lifted a hand to stop him.
"It's alright, Bell. As long as we have the chance to speak."
"But what about the trial?"
Once again, Bell could've sworn the mage was grinning at him from behind the shadows of his cloak.
"I'm afraid I must apologize again, we've mislead you a second time. Your summons was simply a means to deliver a message to you—"
He glanced at Ais uncertainly.
"—and, ah, you alone."
He bowed his head apologetically to the girl.
"I'm sorry… but may I have a word with Bell…?"
He could practically smell it in the air. A mysterious messenger? A cryptic summons to appear before the supreme god of Orario? There was no end to the extent of suspicious events unravelling before him.
What do I do…?
Ais grasped his hand, squeezing lightly and drawing his attention to her.
"I'm… with you."
He turned back to face Ouranos' messenger with a smile.
"Sorry, Fels... but I'm a part of the Loki Familia now. What you can say to me…"
He wasn't alone in his troubles anymore. And it was about time he started to act like it.
"…you can say to them."
Somewhere above the surface, Riveria sneezed.
"Why do I feel… so fulfilled right now?"