Dragged to the veranda of the gala where a night view of Orario could be seen atop the side of a spire, Shirou watched as Tsubaki let go of him and stared him down with growing apprehension.
Born a half-dwarf, Tsubaki did not inherit the short stature of the race and grew to an adequate size, but what she inherited instead was tan skin and dwarven strength. Her fingers left imprints around Shirou's wrist which he shrugged off when Tsubaki noticed and looked apologetic. It would heal anyway.
She had long black hair tied up into a ponytail, red eyes, and wore a red hakama, sandals, and a sarashi that supported her ample bosom. Oddly enough, she wore an eyepatch despite not being blind.
"You, ugh, y-you?!" Tsubaki kept spluttering, unable to find the right words until she clapped her cheeks and hardened her expression. "Forgive me."
The peculiarity of the words undoubtedly took Shirou aback. Unlike most Gods who had reservations about lowering their dignity to do something questionable in a public place, Tsubaki had no such qualms.
As a Master blacksmith, she was already quite a hands-on person. Her cheerful personality generally offset impulsive behavior, but this time, she was determined.
"For what-" Shirou barely managed to mumble before Tsubaki began groping him, analyzing the shade of his hair, to the firmness of his muscles, down to the color of his eyes.
Freezing, Shirou awkwardly stared at Tsubaki, brow twitching as he coughed and pushed her away. He wasn't against her coping a feel, but there was still a part of him that felt guilty towards the woman waiting for him at Utopia.
Tsubaki didn't even seem to register that Shirou had distanced herself from her as she stood in a daze, muttering under her breath loud enough to be audible.
"I don't get it." Tsubaki grumbled as clarity returned to her features.
"I don't either," Shirou grouched, Tsubaki having the decency to grow sheepish in retrospect of her actions.
However, it wasn't long before Tsubaki regained her fervor.
"You don't have to," Tsubaki snorted. "There was something I had to verify, and I realized I went the wrong way about it. Forgive me, will you?"
Shirou hesitated. Tsubaki was lucky she wasn't around. Regal as she could be, monarchs still coveted what they thought precious, let alone what they considered a reverse scale.
"Right." Shirou shook his confusion off.
Part of the idea of staying longer in the gala was to leave an impression, but he didn't have to actively participate. Rider and Archer were more than enough after Shirou demonstrated the utility of his support. He didn't have to do much else if others considered him an auxiliary to the subjugation except to mingle with other support types.
Granted, Tsubaki was a Master Blacksmith, but he wasn't quite feeling inclined right now.
"If there's nothing else, then I should get going." Shirou tried to rescue himself, but Tsubaki was suddenly in front of him again.
Her dwarven stubbornness was rearing its head. Just because she initially went the wrong way about it, didn't mean there weren't other methods.
She'd tried to judge through her sense of observation and skill as a blacksmith, and although she learned much, it was a foolish approach. It might have worked with Welf or other blacksmiths, but it wasn't a method to determine anything concrete since she wasn't a God with Divine Sense.
"This," Tsubaki pulled out a lump of ore, making a show of judging the weight and eyeing it to make certain of its properties in her head.
"Can you analyze this?" She suddenly asked, pushing it into Shirou's hands.
Shirou wasn't stupid. He stared at the lump of metal in his hand and understood that this was some sort of test. Further observation revealed the symbol of a hammer and anvil peaking through Tsubaki's exposed skin.
The name came to the forefront of Shirou's mind, enabling him to reassess his thoughts. Tsubaki's scent didn't reek of divinity, so it was unlikely that she was Hepahstues, therefore, a member of Hephaetus's Familia? It was the more likely conclusion.
Shirou's current identity was one shrouded in half-truths and misunderstandings with Zelretch even attributing his existence to a Servant Class known as 'Pretender.' He was not ignorant to what others thought of him as an existence able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rider and Archer. It was only natural to think that he too was a Demi-God. His inclination towards weaponry and Hestia's fixation with Hephy hinted to which parent others thought he had.
He was apologetic to Hephaestus, but given the circumstances, a child of Hephy was his surest bet as a disguise. Moreover, access to Hephaestus's forging techniques was freely given when Rider allowed him to personally analyze his shield and armour.
For that reason, he knew what Tsubaki had in mind when she'd forced the ore into his hands, structural analysis making the ploy all too simple.
A gleam of magic energy soon took the form of circuitry patterns that flickered over the metal, a flick of his finger mimicking the way Hephaestus himself would test the composition of ore's before use.
The subtle twitch in Tsubaki's expression as she watched him do this would have had those that knew her cackling. Her face was an open book.
"It's an alloy," Shirou said, detailing his analysis. "A mixture of chrome, nickel, and a hint of Mithril."
The subtlety of Tsubaki's expression broke into a cold sweat, but she valiantly tried to keep her cool. "You didn't have to measure the weight or scrutinize the colour of the metal?"
Rather than answer with a yes or no, Shirou merely elaborated.
"Nickel comprises 70% of the alloy, giving it a shade closer to gray, but 27% chromium shifts the colour to a lighter blue, before the last 3% of mithril not only enables a teal sheen, but creates a stable foundation for both. Are you thinking of making a weapon out of this? It seems more suitable for armor given its high stability."
"…Yes." Tsubaki said dully, not realizing she was falling into her thoughts.
"I recommend crafting into either greaves, spaulders, or vambraces. The material can be smelted and mixed further with iron to enable easier molding."
It was the exact kind of advice Tsubaki had already heard from her Goddess. It was practically word for word, and the method of analysis itself was all too familiar.
"If you'll excuse me."
Shirou gestured to where Iris was waving at him, Rider, and Archer so that she could open a mist door back to the abandoned church.
Mingling time was over.
"Ah?" Frozen like a statue, it was only when Shirou left that Tsubaki unfroze with mixed feelings.
Tsubaki opened then closed her mouth, shoulders slouching as her suspicion was unerringly shifted towards her Goddess.
"And she bitches about not finding a man…Which bastard was it?"
Loki had a lot to think about as she watched Iris depart the gala with Shirou, Rider, and Archer. Freya's condition was still odd, but there was a layer of obsessive fixation in there that Loki had not seen in a long long time.
With Iris gone, Loki had no inclination to stay at the gala for any longer other than to watch Hestia and Apollo quarrel, but with Ganesh still mediating it shouldn't deteriorate to blows.
There was much to do and consider given the gathering's revelations, not the least of which was elevating the influence of the Thetis Familia. The potential of the Zeus Familia making a comeback with that man named Heracles also couldn't be ignored.
'The glory of Hera.'
It was almost ironic in a sense given Zeus and Hera's relationship, but Loki didn't think too much into it.
Rather, the aspect of Thetis channeling her arcanum into Rider was something Loki and many other Gods had no choice but to be wary of. That kind of power without repercussions tipped the scales like never before, but it was also because of that power that hope of completing the Grand Quest was rekindled.
A double edged sword?
Other Familia without a Demi-God had no choice but to be put at a disadvantage. Loki estimated that it would take a majority of her Familia just to subdue Rider alone if Thetis tried to fight for hegemony in Orario.
This boded the question, how did Thetis and Zeus do it?
Loki blinked, could she have a child too?
She shook her head. They were thoughts for later.
Riveria greeted Loki as Loki returned to the Familia's estate still intact due to its proximity away from Babel.
Riveria's features were dark, fatigue forming gray circles beneath her eyes. She hadn't been sleeping properly for the past few days, and it was showing in the overall mood of the Familia. Even Bete wasn't as loud or as obnoxious, granted he'd lost an arm, but that wasn't what was weighing him down. Usually a subdued demeanor would be a good thing because it showed that Bete was learning humility, but in this case, it caused Loki's lips to curl.
"Riveria, I have an announcement to make." Loki declared, slitted eyes uncharacteristically open. "Gather everyone here. Everyone."
Riveria winced. She knew exactly what Loki was hinting at.
"Ais and Tiona are-"
"Get them here too. The sooner the better." Loki clicked her tongue, eyes narrowing as she considered Tiona acting up and souring relations with Caster before they could even begin.
"I'll find them," Riveria nodded and left.
Loki clicked her tongue. She hated the current atmosphere of her Familia. The contrast between before and after irked her to no end. It was depressing enough that Loki hadn't even bothered to antagonize a dolled up Hestia when she saw her at the gala.
Moving to a private location in the Familia, Loki sighed as she stared at Finn and Tione's corpses. They'd been cleaned and preserved for safekeeping in hopes of finding Caster to revive them. Finn was cut in half at the diagonal, and Tione was decapitated. Each of them had a blanket covering their bodies to obscure the sight.
Frustration built up in Loki again, but she held it down knowing that there was still room to fix things. That was what was important.
She flicked a finger and gathered Finn and Tione's corpses for transport before heading back to the Familia's main audience chamber where her Familia was gathered.
Loki didn't question how Riveria managed to round up both Ais and Tiona in such a timely manner, but she could guess given the frostbite on Tiona's legs. As for Ais, Riveria must have found her wandering aimlessly through Orario again. With the dungeon blocked off, Ais had been wholly left to her thoughts, and Caster's ability was not helping her mentality.
Unfortunately, Loki knew this announcement was going to affect Ais in one way or another, but there was no helping it. It wasn't as if the other Gods would remain silent either. Better to announce things in her own terms than for them to hear it offhand.
"The Subjugation of the One-Eyed Black Dragon has been relaunched." Loki declared solemnly.
Ais widened her eyes at the declaration, the turbidity of her pupils shaking in the dim light.
"Members of the subjugation team are being recruited as we speak." Loki could never allow herself to lose out to Freya, knowing that Freya seemed all too eager to participate. "We of the Loki Familia will also contribute."
"Finn's dead." Tiona muttered, biting down on her lips. Her hands were balled so tightly that the whites of her knuckles were showing. "My sister's a headless corpse, and Riveria can't leave as the sole Captain of the Familia left. We should be focusing on-!"
"I've secured an appointment date with Caster." Loki intervened before Tiona could continue raising her voice in her grief.
Tiona shut her mouth. "R-Really?"
Loki nodded, and Tiona fell to her knees, sniffling. Meanwhile, Ais shuffled on her feet, not knowing how to broach a certain topic and looking uncharacteristically emotive.
The gloomy atmosphere began to abate bit by bit, causing Loki to hum.
"If all goes well, our Familia's focus will divert away from the dungeon while demolition crews clear the wreckage. We will use this time to aid and complete the final Grand Quest." Loki announced with finality.
Everyone waited with bated breath.
"Ready your things for tomorrow. I will be taking a small group with me to meet with Caster at a designated point. If Caster's as good of a healer as the rumors make him out to be, Bete is coming along to get his arm healed. As for the rest, decide for yourselves, but no more than two others. I don't discriminate in my Familia."
Ais glanced at Tione, Riveria, and everyone else, then hardened her gaze. Caster was someone she absolutely needed to see.
A game of rock, paper, and scissors was not going to cut it.
"A job well done."
Iris smiled contentedly as she spoke on behalf of everyone gathered in a circle of church pews. She eagerly leaned forward and steepled her hands as she thought of the future.
"With this, operations may begin in full. The last known sighting of the One-Eyed Black Dragon was the battle to drive it away to the north with the Zeus and Hera Familias. Alfia would know best, but until she recuperates enough, or if Hera decides to cooperate, Alfy won't be up any time soon."
"How strong is the dragon?" Archer asked for a comparison.
Iris mulled the question over, and settled on something that was fact. "It's stronger than any Dungeon monster encountered on the known floors of the Dungeon."
"Which doesn't say much," Rider shrugged, causing Iris to huff, cool features tightening as she adjusted her glasses.
"Look, I've asked my husband Zephryus and his Familia to use the wind and listen for any news. Right now, there's nothing, but in time that may change."
"Well, what about Assassin?" Rider turned to Shirou and asked. "They were acting as the relay between Lancer, Berserker, and Saber while investigating the black dragon."
Shirou shook his head. "No word yet, but I can feel that they're all fine."
"Hmm," Rider hummed before chuckling. He called Archer. "What do you think the chances of slaying that Dragon are if we teamed up?"
Archer grew thoughtful.
He and Rider both were respectively Heracles and Achilles, the two greatest heroes of Greek legend. Individually, one completed twelve seemingly impossible labors, and the other changed the very tide of a war on his own, requiring Apollo's intervention to kill him. Combined, there was merit, wasn't there?
But Dragons were Dragons. None were easy adversaries let alone a Dragon of another world.
"Impossible," Iris answered before Archer could respond. "We are a team. Not individuals. If I agreed to such a plan, your mother would be the first to strangle me."
"She's not that bad," Rider defended, wilting at Iris's flat stare, daring him to get her started.
Neither Shirou or Archer rose up to aid Rider in this argument.
Coughing to turn the direction of the discussion back around, Shirou glanced at Bell who was listening in on the side. Bell looked like he wanted to participate, but was being held back by the pressure of Rider and Archer's demeanor. At the same time, stars of admiration had taken root in his gaze when he'd heard of Rider's feats in Orario.
"How many people should be included in the subjugation team?" Shirou asked.
"Including Achilles and Heracles, you said there were others like Lancer, Assassin, Saber, and Berserker already included. I'll trust your judgment on them, but in the meantime, I've requested two or three high-level members of other Familias to join if they are able." Iris admitted. "You're welcome to join me during recruitment screening if you wish. It's not like us auxiliary support-types go to a battlefield anyway."
Right, a support type?
Shirou carefully kept his expression blank, and considered whether he should correct the misunderstanding now or later when everyone was present?
For now, he was willing to take Iris up on her offer.
"If you'll have me." He spoke.
"Oh, don't sell yourself short," Iris consoled. "The people with the most connections in Orario are those who create outstanding weapons. Speaking of which, why didn't you tell me you could do that?"
"The weapon thing." Iris extrapolated. "Where do you store them? They appeared and vanished into thin air, or was that channeling one of Hephaestus's divine Authorities?"
"It's a personal magic," Shirou said, not diving into the specifics.
Iris nodded, her arms crossing. "Understandable. You wouldn't need a Falna to use Magic if you have divine blood in your veins anyway."
The conversation came to an abrupt halt as Thetis came running in, throwing herself at Rider and patting him down in search of any injuries. It was overly excessive by anyone's standards except for a mother's.
If anything, Thetis could be considered a helicopter parent in every sense of the word.
"M-Mother, please." Rider had never felt so acutely flustered in his life. The weight of the eyes that fell on him might as well have been blades.
The atmosphere was no longer suitable to discuss further plans, but at least they had an idea of their immediate priorities.
Politely, everyone left, giving the family some privacy. Thetis was thankful, but Rider felt like burying himself in a hole.
Smiling wryly as Thetis fussed over him, Rider was reminded of another awkward matter he'd been putting off. Seeing as Thetis didn't look as disheartened, perhaps there had been some progress?
"So, ugh, how's father taking it?" Rider tentatively broached the topic.
Thetis grumbled, pursing her lips and puffing air.
"He's still terrified and confused." She whispered something fierce. "He keeps looking at me with sad eyes for apparently 'not telling him' he was a father all these years after we first started fuc-"
Rider hurriedly muffled his mother's mouth, quickly grumbling when he noticed the mirth in her eyes.
She was playing him, her nature as a nymph bleeding through.
"You're precious," Thetis cooed, pressing a finger into Rider's cheek.
Rider begged to differ but soon ducked his head and changed the subject. "A-Anyways, that isn't the point. You know what I mean-"
"Achilles." Thetis's tone hardened.
Peleus was one thing, but what Rider was hinting at was about Thetis herself. There was no way she didn't find it odd to have a child she had no recollection of birthing.
"You are my son." Thetis thought otherwise. No- actually, she thought something entirely different. "More than anything, blood doesn't lie. Does the 'how' really matter? Besides, Iris is suspicious about the inability of Gods to conceive children with mortals."
Here Thetis's tone grew sharper; the topic reaching the main inflection point she'd had no choice but to consider given the visions she'd seen and the things she'd experienced.
"Let me ask you again, Achilles." Thetis wet her lips, pinning Rider down with her earnest gaze. "Were you taken from me? The memories of you, blurred by the interference of another God until the visions revealed what was lost and what was to come?"
It was certainly not unheard of for Gods to meddle with each other, let alone interfere and fabricate another's memory if taken by surprise. The memories of Achilles's childhood, raising him up and watching him grow, were too firmly imprinted for Thetis to have had no recollection until now.
Mnemosyne, a Goddess of memories in Thetis's own Pantheon had the authority to pull off such a bold maneuver let alone other Gods.
What if the blanks in her memories, the inconsistencies between visions and reality were signs of tampering?
Thetis's reasoning was the only conclusion that made sense to her using her world view, but not Rider's.
Rider knew the truth, but could not bring himself to answer given the restriction on his Master to maintain the secrecy of a parallel world.
He looked away from Thetis's eyes, missing the sheer murder flickering inside them.
Lying to his mother caused Rider's expression to sag at the worst of times.
Thetis arrived at her own conclusion.
Her baby boy was really taken away?
She smiled, hugging Achilles and saying she was fine to alleviate pressure on him, but inside she was bloody seething.
Perhaps the truth was closer to speculation than one would think. If not fully, then partially.
A shiver suddenly crawled down a certain God's back, enforcing the natural order of the lower world to prevent its ruin.
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