Shirou found himself walking on his own around the vicinity of the abandoned church, his thoughts wandering. With everything that had gone on so far, it made him consider whether he was taking the right path or not. In his pursuit of his Saber, Zelretch had never failed to send him into other worlds both for Zelretch's amusement, and as a learning experience. He honed his battlefield perception, mastered his craft, and even learned a couple things here and there that he never considered possible as a third-rate magus.
No doubt, Zelretch's active involvement with him had to have some semblance of influence from taking Rin on as a student when she transferred over the to Clock Tower. Old friends, old favours, and the like. War buddies even, but reminiscing in those memories wasn't the main aspect of his considerations.
Different from all the other places Zelretch had taken him to, this time the old marshal specifically said that what he sought was here at the bottom of the Dungeon.
Zelretch was an eccentric old man, but he was no liar. The more Shirou thought about it, the more he had to consider if everything Zelretch had done so far led up to this point.
The Hero's journey never starts with a willing character.
Circumstances arise, followed by challenges, and realizations that culminate to the climax.
Shirou's goal was here, laid out with only two strict conditions stated by Zelretch himself.
-Obscure his identity so as to not be rejected by the world.
-And clear the bottom of the dungeon.
What exhausted Shirou was the lack of people other than his own Servants that he could confide with. There were none, rather he was unable to. Divulging the secret was too much of a risk when he didn't know the consequence of why Zelretch stipulated the condition.
All he could do was move forward with mixed feelings as Hestia poured her familial affection on her 'nephews.' Some of which actually were, but not all.
To Shirou it felt like he was being shameless to use Hephaestus's name as a shield, but if the smith God was anything like the alternates Zelretch mentioned, he could potentially win him over through blacksmithing.
At least, that was the plan should they ever meet face to face.
Walking towards a clearing in the forest behind the abandoned church, Shirou heard the sounds of grunting and short exclamations accompanied by the clang of metal.
It was neither Caster or Rider's doing surely.
Both of them were too preoccupied with other things.
Namely, Caster had shut himself in his medical ward, detailing changes in Alfia's condition which the mute woman could respond to by blinking unlike the other comatose patients.
And Rider, well, Thetis had been rather clingy and had embarrassed him enough times that he found it safer to find other places to relax, leaving Thetis behind at the church. In all likelihood, Rider's absence was to give Thetis and Peleus some privacy to sort things out with their family situation. Rider was always considerate like that.
As for Iris, she was slouching and lazing on a make-shift cot after exhausting herself with all the messages and mist doors she'd created in a short time frame. Above all, she pleaded with everyone not to let Thetis know she was hiding in the church's attic. There was a certain dynamic between the two, and Iris wanted a break from it.
Shirou could respect that, but with Iris, Rider, and Caster out of the question, that left Hestia, Bell, and Archer. Hestia was out working a croquette stand to provide some warmth to the capital dungeon break survivors, so she was out, meaning it was likely Bell and Archer up ahead.
Reaching the small clearing, Shirou saw Archer standing with his arms crossed, and Bell trying to land a hit on Archer.
Despite his large build, Archer was remarkably agile. Bell could not land a blow and eventually fell on the ground panting for breath.
"You use too much excess movement," Archer said, giving advice. "It makes it easy to determine where you're trying to hit."
"Why does it feel like you're talking about fighting other people?" Bell moaned, pushing himself back onto his feet. The effort left his knees wobbling, and he fell back down on his butt, exhausted. "Aren't monsters the only danger in the dungeon?"
Archer remained silent for a moment before shaking his head.
"What defines a monster?" He asked, not giving Bell time to respond before speaking. "You can never truly understand the heart of a person through the façade of their faces."
"What is that even supposed to mean?" Bell scratched the back of his head while slowly recovering his breath.
"It means, to not blindly trust others," Archer answered before he took note of Shirou's arrival, but Shirou waved him off.
"Don't let me distract you," Shirou said, stopping to watch from the side.
Shaking his head, Archer helped Bell onto his feet. "It's fine. We're about done anyway."
"Ugh, man. I still can't catch up to him. How does he move like that?" Bell murmured, but quickly nodded at Archer with gratitude. "Thanks for taking the time to help me."
"A request from an aspiring warrior should be aided by his fellow warrior." Archer answered, much to Bell's exasperation.
"I'm not a warrior though? I'm just training to fight monsters in the dungeon and to pick up-"
Archer stopped Bell's words there. It wasn't the first time he'd heard Bell's true aspirations, but he'd heard of warriors with similar goals. It was better than plundering and pillaging, so it was at least tolerable, but Archer was trying to do a favour for Hestia. She'd faint if she truly knew Bell's motives.
"This is enough for the time being," Archer said before nodding at Bell. "I have matters to attend to."
Saying that, Archer moved to stand next to Shirou in tacit understanding.
"Oh, is that thing with Caster, today?" Bell asked.
Iris had asked Shirou and Archer if they could escort Caster's first official patients to the abandoned church for treatment. Iris would have done it herself through a mist door, but she'd been pushing herself too hard lately and would turn into a mummy if she forced herself any further.
"Can I come?" Bell asked Archer.
Archer looked at Shirou to decide, but ultimately saw nothing wrong with it.
The three departed in the direction Iris had specified they'd meet Loki and three additional of her Familia members at.
The meeting point was at an obscure part of Orario where Shirou and Archer's appearance wouldn't trigger an onset of attention after their reveal at the banquet of Gods. Most civilians and ordinary adventurers would not recognize them, but Gods would. By now, it was likely that information pertaining to the existence of Demi-Gods have made its way into the ears of various Familia.
To not attract attention too much, Shirou and Archer were wearing cloaks. The attire itself drew eyes, but not in the same way it would have if Shirou and Archer's faces were recognized.
"Are you guys famous?" Bell was the one who found the experience jarring. He'd been aware that Shirou, Archer, and Rider had attended a banquet that Hestia was participating in, but nothing to this extent. "Is it because you said we'd be forming a new group to attack the One-Eyed Black Dragon?"
"Discretion is also a warrior's tool," Archer sighed while muffling Bell's mouth. "But you can think of it that way."
Shirou observed the interaction between Bell and Archer, and found himself amused. Archer had been rather reticent as of late, and Bell's innocence was helping to draw out his personality away from his heroic demeanor.
"They should be up ahead," Shirou said, staring at a small building that appeared to once be a pub. In light of the dungeon break, it was basically rubble with only the sign post surviving.
By the sign post was the Goddess Loki and three of her Familia members, Bete, Tiona, and Ais.
Bete appeared subdued, growling at others who stared at him and his missing arm for too long. And cursing at others who gave pitiful looks at the coffins Loki was using to transport Finn and Tione's corpses.
Tiona and Ais were better off, but the both of them were sporting bruises and smear marks over their bodies. Tiona had a split lip, and the shine of Ais's armour was marred by dents and scratches. Even the side of her cheek had a dirt stain as if she'd been punched and landed with her face on the ground.
Loki was the one who looked the most discouraged while holding her tongue at Ais and Tiona who had taken things too far in the selection of who would accompany Loki. Loki regretted not just choosing to begin with at this point, but she'd been too caught up in her head to think straight at the time.
Shirou watched Loki perk up at his approach. Tiona and Bete were the same, but Ais was staring at Bell in abject surprise and wonder.
"B-Bell?" Ais stammered in a soft voice. "Why? H-How?" She stared at Bell then to Shirou and Archer, then back.
"Ais," Bell swallowed before hardening his expression when he took in Ais's black eye. "W-Who punched you?!"
Tiona flinched, and Loki grimaced at the inside story. Ais blushed and awkwardly kept quiet when Loki glared at them all. It spoke volumes right now that Loki was even considering that Bete was the most tolerable at the moment.
"Heracles, and…?" Loki gave a nod to Archer before giving a prodding look at Shirou.
"Shirou," Shirou introduced himself.
"Right," Loki scrutinized Shirou further, trying to find a clue to what Freya had found so interesting, but soon turned her attention to Archer. "You still look as imposing as ever."
Archer grunted, unused to a female Loki. The one he knew was a trickster of the highest caliber who got freaky with who knows what to conceive a horse, a snake, a wolf, and even Hel as children? Even now, there were doubts regarding Loki's preferences, considering the horse child was made when Loki turned himself into a female, got frisky with a stallion, and gave rise to Sleipnir.
"…Are you thinking bad of me?" Loki's squinted eyes sharpened as her intuition kicked in.
"No," Archer said stiffly.
It was the first time Shirou saw Archer's calm demeanor break, but Loki wasn't buying it. She curled her lips at him, but let it go since there was a more pressing issue.
"We'll lead the way," Shirou intervened, Archer perking up in appreciation.
"Hnn," Loki grumbled, but relented.
Ais looked like she wanted to speak with Bell, but Shirou began leading the group back, and it wasn't her place to speak up when Loki stressed to be formal.
Leading the way, Shirou naturally became a focal point of the group while Archer actively steered clear of Loki who grunted at him. It just wasn't clicking in Loki's mind because Archer seemed too uncomfortable with her. She'd showered, and she was in better condition that the rest of her current Familia, so what was the problem?
No matter, she had other things she was curious about.
"You make weapons, right?" Loki sped up to walk beside Shirou, the rest tuning into their conversation.
"It's my primary ability," Shirou answered truthfully. When dealing with Gods and Goddesses, no lie ever works.
Loki eye smiled. "Can I see one you'd supply for the subjugation?" She asked. She wanted to compare it with other weapons made by the Hephaestus Familia to determine quality if Shirou were to be the one supplying the equipment and arms.
The request was simple enough.
Raising a hand, a Mystic Code appeared hovering above Shirou's palm before he gave it to Loki who studied it with curiosity.
"Did you imbue magic in this?" Loki asked, tracing a finger over the sword's blade and feeling a current of magic energy within. How was it possible? The energy inside felt nothing like the Falna of Hephaestus. Did Shirou himself have a unique energy as a 'Demi-God?' There were too many questions with no answer in this category.
"It has an enchantment," Shirou explained, gesturing for Loki to give it back to him. She complied and Shirou held the weapon at the hilt. "I call this a Black Key, naming wise it doesn't matter as much to you, but its ability increases lethality against evil and demonic entities. Also, shadows."
Shirou turned around towards Bell to ask for cooperation in a demonstration, but realized everyone was listening intently to him.
"What do you mean by shadows?" Loki asked.
"Bell, would you mind if I used you for a moment?" Shirou asked.
"Yeah! No problem!" Bell readily agreed, his mood lifted somewhat after meeting Ais.
Nodding, Shirou threw the Black Key at Bell's shadow, everyone watching what the point was. You have to understand that the group didn't stop walking while talking, but the moment the Black Key pierced Bell's shadow, he froze mid-step, unable to move.
Loki narrowed her eyes at the demonstration, the first out of her group to correctly analyze what had happened. "A restraining enchantment? How many of these can you make at once, and how many other weapons do you have?"
Both questions were in consideration for the Grand Quest and the subjugations team.
Rather than answer, Shirou gestured to the air and formed a dozen more Black Keys. Then, looking at Loki, he answered her latter question. "Whatever ability or weapon you need; I likely have it."
Light gleamed in Loki's eyes. "A bold statement. I'll have to test it at another time."
Glancing at Bell, Shirou dismissed the Black Key and watched as Bell, Tiona, and Ais looked at him in shock. Loki and Archer weren't as surprised because they were already aware of Shirou's capabilities to some extent, but Bell and the others were different.
"Who is he?" Ais quietly asked Bell, unable to keep silent any longer.
Bell opened his mouth, and then noticed Archer giving him a flat stare. Women were temporary, brotherhood was eternal.
The actual interpretation of Archer's stare was a reminder of Bell's blunder with Caster and getting himself and Ryuu banned from the medical ward. It was a continuation on the lesson of discretion and to learn from mistakes. Not repeat them.
"T-That's," Bell wilted under Archer's pressure. "A friend I made," he eventually decided on.
Archer nodded in approval; Ais pursed her lips.
Tiona urged everyone to pick up the pace, but Loki wasn't wasting the opportunity to ask questions while on the way to the abandoned church.
"What sort of confidence inspired Iris to believe in this subjugation succeeding where the other failed?" Loki asked bluntly, getting to the heart of the matter. This time, she was looking at Archer with interest.
Words would be wasted without showing proper justification in the first place. Even at the gala, Rider had only flaunted the level of his divinity rather than show his capability. In this aspect, Archer supposed a better demonstration was in order.
Nodding at Shirou, Archer took out the massive axe-sword strapped on his back and wielded it with one hand.
"Look closely," Archer said to Bell more than the others.
Unlike Shirou and the others who hadn't trained with Bell yet, Archer had noticed Bell improve markedly whenever he was motivated.
Archer raised his sword, gaze travelling to a passing cloud in the sky.
"Without any wasted movements, and channeling the magic energy of your Falna into your weapon, swing down with the surety to crush your adversary."
Lightning crackled over the weapon Shirou had Traced for Archer from the beginning, and in the next second, the sound barrier was broken.
Archer swung down, a shockwave violently blowing wind and rubble away from him who stood at the epicenter.
Bell shielded his gaze with his arms, waiting for the wind to subside before tentatively lifting his gaze up. No one was speaking. Ais, Tiona, and even Bete not knowing what to say while Loki confirmed what she'd been thinking from the start.
Up in the horizon, the cloud had not only been cut, but blasted away by the mere pressure of Archer's swing.
Demi-Gods would change the power balance of the lower world forever.
From then on, the group walked in silence, digesting what they'd just seen for themselves.
When everyone returned the abandoned church, Loki's eye twitched while Ais got her answer as to how Bell was involved in all this.
The rumour of Demi-Gods and even Caster, Bell lived with them all.
Hestia was the one who greeted everyone at the door, having returned from her croquette stand.
"Hohohoho," Hestia craned her chin up, the back of her hand raised over her mouth. "If it isn't the washboard!"
"Geh," Loki clutched at her heart, weighing the odds of getting away with slapping Hestia silly. "Y-You, what are you doing here?!"
Hestia placed her hands on her waist and motioned for Bell to stand next to her. "I live here!" She declared.
"You broke Goddess, that shouldn't be something to brag about!" Loki was not having it, but managed to forcibly restrain herself as it was made known that Caster had converted the church's upper floor into a makeshift medical ward. "How did you get the right to be here when you don't even have Familia able to participate in the re-subjugation?!"
"As I am a merciful Goddess, let me show you my hospitality," Hestia ignored Loki and gloated, running into the church prayer room, and coming back with a basket of croquettes. "Relish it. My hearth has room for all."
Squeezing a croquette between her fingers, a vein popped over Loki's temples. As far as she could tell, Hestia was making fun of her. Why else would Hestia offer croquettes as hospitality when she knew Loki wasn't a fan of them?
Ais was less annoyed and silently nibbled on the croquette, earning brownie points from Hestia, until Hestia remembered she was mortal enemies with Ais who kept stealing her Bell's attention.
Tiona cared more about Caster and helped carry the coffins containing Finn and Tione's bodies to the upper floor.
"What do you mean I can't go in?" Tiona growled, her voice echoing as Loki and the others followed suit.
Caster was standing in front of Tiona, not even batting an eye. Upon noting Bell arrive with everyone else, Caster wasted no time in delegating the problem.
"You can ask him," Caster pointed at Bell and turned his back to Tiona, gesturing for only Bete and Loki to follow him in.
Bell winced, growing flustered as both Ais and Tiona looked at him until Hestia appeared between them, hissing and misunderstanding the reason two women were eyeing her Bell.
Hestia would have continued too if she didn't suddenly stiffen and drag Bell off with her.
Noting the peculiarity in his aunt, Archer quietly followed.
"Hestia, wait what's going on?" Bell asked as Hestia dragged him to the church's prayer hall and into their makeshift room.
"Stay here, Bell," Hestia cautioned. "I just felt someone I know approaching my hearth. He's deplorable, and I don't think its above him to kidnap you and use you against me."
"Huh?" Bell shook his head, but noticing Hestia's pursed lips, he relented. "I-I trust you."
"I knew you would!" Hestia gave Bell a quick hug before darting out of the room, and out of the church itself.
Hestia was the Goddess of the Home and Hearth. Her divine authority had marked the location as a 'home,' and there was no owner who would be unaware of all those that would approach it.
Out of sight, Archer followed Hestia as she appeared running to the boundary of the abandoned church's property where she came face to face with an armed Familia.
"…Apollo," Hestia hissed. "I told you I have nothing to say to you!"
"And I have everything to gain from you," Apollo was serious this time. His expression was hardened to the point that even the Familia members he'd brought were affected by the mood. "Cooperate with me and tell me what I want, and I promise I'll leave you alone."
Hestia shuddered, pursing her lips.
"No," she said.
Tiona paced back and forth, leaving Ais alone to stand uncertainly in front of the door leading into Caster's medical ward. She clearly wanted to speak with Caster, but was holding herself back. Caster only allowed Loki and Bete inside because Bete was a patient, and Loki was a required blood bag, not that Loki admitted to what she was going to do.
Glancing at Ais, Tiona found herself distracted. Tiona was pacing, and waiting for the news of her sister's recovery, but Ais must have been here for a different reason to have fought so desperately that Gareth and Riveria withdrew and gave up their position to her.
Neither Gareth or Riveria fought with Tiona either considering they all knew that Tione was one of the people set for recovery. How could Tiona not fight tooth and nail to come?
So here she was now, but that damned Caster and his stupid rules wouldn't let others who would disturb his work in. Apparently, some other bitches ruined it for everyone, so even those related could not gain entry.
Tiona pursed her lips, but knew better than to bicker with the man who was going to save her sister.
All Tiona could do now was wait just like Ais.
After waiting in a tense silence for over ten minutes, Tiona became distinctly aware that she was being watched by an amateur. Tresses of long blue hair were visible from the corner, and pearl-like eyes constantly flickered to Tiona before Tiona grew frustrated and stared them down.
Caught in the act, there wasn't much need to conceal herself anymore.
"Y-You, you're an Amazonian, right?"
Tiona realized that Caster wasn't the only occupant of the abandoned church.
Other Gods beyond Hestia stayed in the church too, one of which was a parent to that Rider- no, Achilles was his name.
In any case, Tiona refocused.
There, awkwardly peeking her head out and staring at Tiona, was Thetis. From the start, Tiona could tell that Thetis attention briefly fell over Ais, but eventually focused entirely on Tiona.
Tiona wet her lips; her throat drying.
There was something odd in the way Thetis was looking at her that sent shivers running down her spine. Goosebumps travelled down her arms, but Thetis was still a Goddess, and her son wasn't someone to mess with considering how he'd torn apart that monster barehanded.
"Uhm, yeah." Tiona answered dully, backing away as Thetis stepped out of the corner and advanced.
Tiona glanced at Ais for help, but upon Ais noting that it was just Thetis and not an enemy, Ais, the reticent knight, was back to staring uncertainly at the medical ward.
Swallowing, Tiona steeled herself. There were no enemies here. Loki would not have made such an error, so then why did Tiona feel disgusted at the almost slimy expression on Thetis's face? No, not slimy, eager to the point of making the recipient shrink back?
The hairs on the back of her neck rose.
Thetis's eyes were shining in a way a gossiping academy girl could only do, and her sense of personal boundaries had also deteriorated rapidly.
Without warning, Thetis was right in front of Tiona with unwavering determination to meddle. To meddle in what was something no mortal should dare pry into when it concerned the Gods.
"I think you're a bit too close-" Tiona stammered, but was cut off.
"You wouldn't happen to know a Penthesilea, would you?" Thetis's cheeks were reddening as if she was flustered from imagining the future.
Tiona opened and closed her mouth. It was incomprehensible, but it was name that was impossible not to have heard of as an Amazonian. But still, "…Why?"
"So, you do?"
Thetis smiled and mouthed.
"No reason…now where's Iris?" Thetis muttered, moving away from Tiona and getting lost in thought. "I need to send a message to Aphrodite and orchestrate a collaboration with the Amazon Queens."
Tiona shivered as Thetis let out a low laugh.
Instantly, she tried to back away before realizing that Thetis was clasping her hands and not letting go.
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