Actions

Work Header

Dormouse 12

Chapter Text

Many decades ago, when it all started.

An intense earthquake shook the Eastern land, crumbling everything as a deep crater formed below the remains of it. 

Ever since that day, the remote town of Etria changed.

Its people, those who lived next to where the crater had appeared, soon discovered that within it laid a large, mysterious labyrinth. Countless treasures and materials awaited those who ventured inside, but so did the cruel, hostile wildlife that inhabited it.

No matter how much time had passed, none have ever so much as scratched the surface of the labyrinth as it claimed more and more lives. But even so, the wealth, knowledge and resources hidden within its walls prompted the Radha, Etria's government, to make an official statement: The Yggdrasil Labyrinth shall be opened for those willing to risk their lives for the sake of the town. 

Soon enough, many travelled across the world to reach Etria and start their careers: Labyrinth Explorers.

One of them, a young girl who, unbeknownst to her, would soon become an important piece in the town's unwritten history...

 

Dormouse 12

Chapter 1: Pasado

 

Taurus 3 - 6 A.M.

The sounds of birds singing outside, people chatting with each other and some simply moving from place to place; The morning had just shown yet the town was already awake.

She stood still in front of the large entrance, sweat slowly sliding down her clear forehead. The brown-haired girl, no older than fourteen, shook her head as she switched views between the building in front of her and the floor. 

“Explorers’ Guild” was written on a big sign placed next to the building, one the girl had read for hundreds of times as she kept idling in front of the curtains leading inside.

She took a few steps forward, only to back out right as she was about to enter. The more she repeated that motion, the more the girl sighed in frustration.

“What are you doing?” She kept asking herself as she continued to do nothing for what felt like an eternity, a few people wondering if she was waiting for someone instead.

And then, she stopped. It was clear that she wasn’t going to accomplish anything should she keep wavering at the last second. She looked at the armor plates placed above her blue dress, along with a hand axe which she holstered on her waist.

After all she’s done, from travelling all the way from home to buying the equipment she was looking at, it was already too late to start second guessing.

The girl mustered courage. That’s right! She had to be confident: She would step forward, open the curtains, meet the guildmaster and—

"—Become an explorer?"

She jumped, letting out a rather high-pitched yelp as she tripped and fell to the ground on her back. When the brunette turned around to see who talked to her, she saw an older woman staring at her.  

“Why did you do that?!” the girl fumed.

“I just asked if you wanted to become an explorer,” the woman said with a burlesque grin. She lifted the tip of her orange ranger hat to better show her face, though her long, blonde hair covered one of her eyes. “I’ve seen you standing there for minutes by now. Figured I’d give you a push.”

So that was it, the woman was just messing with her. The girl stood up and brushed the dirt off her clothing, her face red with both anger and embarrassment. The teenager was ready to ignore her and enter on her own, until the older woman spoke.

“Actually, I’m planning on doing that as well. See?” The woman grabbed an object on her back, a homemade wooden bow which she showed to the girl. “Why don´t we go together,” she suggested. “We might get recruited faster that way.”

The girl turned towards the blonde woman; She didn’t seem to be lying, but rather she was right about being recruited. The lady, though rather mischievous in how she presented herself, did seem to be somewhat friendly.

The brunette nodded. It wasn’t like she was going to create a guild herself, but then, who would she join? Of all the people at that came and went, she didn’t feel as if talking to them; Anxiousness or distrust caused her to avoid most of them as she stood in front of the entrance.

Yet there was a group of people, still inside the Guildhouse which she had set her eyes on.

“You were looking at those three, weren’t you?” She pointed towards the back of the Guildhouse where indeed, three people were sitting on individual chairs close to each other like a small curve.

The exact same ones the girl wanted to talk to for quite a while.

The Guildhouse was surprisingly a lot smaller than both the girl and woman imagined, only being monitored by a large man with receding brown hair and a black eyepatch covering one of his eyes: The guildmaster, the one responsible for creating each and every guild of Labyrinth explorers.

The room behind him was slightly larger, stretching itself and with various people waiting inside: New explorers who either waited for others to group up with them or chatted with each other in hopes of being enlisted.

The girl looked at each of them and felt fascinated by all the different kinds of gears each carried: Swords, staves, whips. Outfits which ranged from iron armor covering one’s body from head to toe to more revealing attires, filled with shiny accessories, more reminiscent of dancers.

She continued staring with profound curiosity, until she felt someone tapping her shoulder.

“It’s these three, right?”

“O-Oh,” the girl shook her head. “Y-Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.”

The two looked at the trio. Even though they were staring at them, it felt as if the three didn’t really notice them.

The one on the left, a large man with short, ginger hair and full body armor made of steel like that of a knight, was seemingly asleep. The brunette scratched her face seeing him, she could tell he hasn’t gotten much sleep.

And sleep is something that the three seemed to lack overall. The man on the right fought the urge to close his eyes as he played with his long, black hair, rolling it up with a rather strange golden gauntlet. Despite being sunny outside, he wore a dark coat and a blue scarf.

 And the last one, a woman of similar blond, long hairstyle to the one the girl met at the entrance, was instead focused on her yellow bag as if she were hiding something.

The standing blonde woman however saw through it. She noticed a small trail of food coming from the bag and falling into her shorts which she discreetly put back on her bag, trying to cover all this with her doctor coat.

“Hey.”

She let out a chuckle, which made the medic panic as she looked up to see the two.

 “I-It’s not what you—” the medic shuffled the bag and quickly looked to see the two men next to her unaware. She pouted, and looked to the armored man. “Ceas, you’ve got to be…” She let out a frustrated groan and, compared with how subtle she tried to avoid being seen eating inside, elbowed the man awake in the uncovered part of his arm.

The armored man woke up immediately. Both the girl and her acquaintance stepped back as he stood up. The girl barely reached his forearm, she didn’t know whether she was too small or he was too tall.

He seemed surprised, looking at whoever might have hit his arm. However, it quickly ended once he felt the medic poking his back.

“Hey, Ceas…”

“Wait, that was you, Lamia?” He asked bewildered. The medic nodded with a frustrated look on her face, and the man known as Ceas sat down again. “Don’t do that, sheesh.”

The medic, known as Lamia, only seemed to get even more flustered at his comment. “Not my fault you slept late even when I told you Not to do that, you know.”

“I’m the one who slept late?!” The two of them began getting into a rather childish argument, which boiled down to calling the other a sleepyhead bigger than the other.

The woman next to the girl started to get impatient, clearing her throat as she started to stomp her feet with her arms crossed. The girl began to feel her legs wobbly from standing too long, but she tried to compose herself in fear of causing a scene.

But even she felt as if she had been there for longer than she should’ve. Both Ceas and Lamia kept bickering at each other while not even glancing at them however.

At the very least it felt less as if they were really fighting more than they began to tease each other, the girl thought.

But then, as if tired of waiting for them, the silent man to the right looked at the two and let out a sigh as he saw Lamia talking with Ceas.

“Just ignore them,” he said, pointing towards the two next to him. “Are you looking to join?” He put one hand underneath his chin, in an attempt to seem more mature, the girl guessed.

She immediately jumped again, the woman next to her shouted in excitement.

“Finally!” She said, but soon enough she noticed everyone in the room looking at her. She tipped her orange hat, pretending to have done nothing. “I mean we…”

“We do,” the girl took a step forward, surprising the blonde woman. Though she felt extremely nervous about what she just did, she knew things wouldn’t go anywhere unless she did something. She looked at the long haired man with a determined expression that she wondered would break without her noticing, yet she ignored her own worries and instead talked.

“My friend here’s a…” What was the word for it? Right. “Survivalist, yeah. She can cover us with her bow at any time.” her legs were shaking and she was visibly sweating, yet she continued.

“And I…Well, I have an axe. That works, right?” She smirked.

By then, Lamia and Ceas seemed to have stopped and instead listened to the girl. The two were happy to find possible guildmates, and the former moved her chair forward.

“So you’re a Landsknecht then?” The medic asked, looking at the axe which the brunette was showing. She stopped and gave her a confused look.

“A what?” A land snack? Land’s neck? It was the first time she’s ever heard that word and as soon as she listened to it, all the confidence built to that point shattered. Should she say yes? No? She had no idea and instead she kept silent, trying to find a way to change the subject.

The medic was waiting for the girl to answer, but soon she noticed her nervous overthinking. “Landsknechts’ are basically frontline fighters,” she clarified. “Like soldiers charging head-on towards the enemy. Most wield swords but there are those who instead use axes.”

The girl listened, and her agitation ceased slightly. So that’s what it meant, she pretended as if she wasn’t just panicking seconds ago and nodded.

“I mean yeah! Yeah, I’m a land’s net!” She grinned with an unconvincing smile and a worried “Hehe…”

The medic hummed. She prided herself in her self-assured ability to read people, but she wasn’t sure what to think of the girl.

It didn’t look like the landsknecht would be the type to stay calm, but the way she just stepped forward and introduced herself did make an impression of resolve that made her consider.

The survivalist next to the brunette also featured something which was surprisingly uncommon amongst them, a keen eye in how she somehow noticed the fact that she was eating in secret. Lamia blushed as she still felt embarrassed because of it, but regardless, it was a promising thing.

“A Landsknecht and a Survivalist,” Ceas brushed his stubble beard with his steel gauntlet. He smiled and looked at Lamia and the man next to her.

“Yep, I think we got ourselves a full party now with these two! What do you think, Surt?”

“You’re the leader, Ceas.” The man, Surt, said with an amused tone.

Both the girl and survivalist let out a relieved sigh once the three agreed on letting them join.

And it was when the five went to meet the guildmaster that the landsknecht realized what she did.

Her name was inscribed at the bottom of a list containing four other names, their occupations written next to them. It took a few seconds before she figured out she had already reached her goal: Becoming a Labyrinth Explorer. She read the list multiple times to reassure herself, each time her smile becoming wider and wider.

From Top to bottom, the first name shown was Ceas Nalis, the protector and leader of the group. It was the ginger-haired man, and the girl looked at him.

He certainly did meet the looks of a Guild Leader: Tall, with built muscles and a large shield on his back which he looked as if he was ready to put in front of his teammates.

Below Ceas’ name was Lamia Eudi and Surt Muspell, a medic and alchemist respectively. Lamia checked on her bag, counting small envelopes and bottles inside. Surt on the other hand opened and closed his fists, making sure his golden gauntlets were fit correctly.

Then came the survivalist, Natalia Ullr. She was the woman she met at the entrance, and though she looked more laid-back than anything, the girl did feel she would be a reliable guildmate.

And finally, her own name. “Olivia Ropaea, Landsknecht.”

 Her heart was beating fast, and she gulped with excitement the more Olivia repeated her own name over and over. “There was no turning back,” she thought to herself as she stepped outside the Guildhouse.

It almost felt like her life had taken a sudden turn in the matter of one choice, but she looked hopeful at whatever the future held for her.

Either the road in front of her towards her new life would be clear, devoid of any and all dangers, or filled with obstacles ready to overwhelm her. Either way, Olivia gripped her hand axe and grinned with determination.

Taurus 3 marked the day in which Guild Boldhunt was formed, their first trip to the Yggdrasil Labyrinth would soon begin…

Chapter Text

Taurus 3 - 7 A.M. The sun's warm light reached through the many leaves that covered the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, illuminating those who ventured inside.

"Though most of the first two floors have been fully explored, not many have reached past it and lived to tell the tale."  Such foreboding line caused many newcomers to cower as they soon met Yggdrasil's Wildlife.

Others however, took this as motivation to push forward and embrace their fear to overcome any obstacle that may come their way.

Such was the case for Ceas and the rest of his Guild, Boldhunt, as the five soon took their first step inside the Labyrinth...



Chapter 2: Wonder

 

"Everyone, Listen up!" Ceas planted the bottom of his shield to the ground, his right hand holding the top of it, gathering his guildmates towards him.

Olivia didn't expect the entrance to the labyrinth, the main reason why people—including her—came to Etria, would be empty. She imagined she'd be seeing atleast two or three other guilds idling around a corner, or even normal townsfolk watching in awe at Yggdrasil's deceptively serene ambience. But all she could see was her guild.

It came as a surprise to her when she found one of the town's armed guards standing on the other end of the entrance. It was there when they received further instructions on their Initiation Mission: Mapping the First Floor of the Labyrinth.

"From now on we'll have to work together," Ceas said. "So we'll start by knowing each other. Olivia, Natalia." Olivia quickly turned her head towards the protector, having previously been taken aback by the Labyrinth's scenery.

"Y-Yes, sir!"  The landsknecht awkwardly yelled, causing Ceas and Natalia to raise their eyebrows slightly.

"Hey, no need for that. We're just meeting each other."  Ceas continued, the landsknecht kicking part of the ground as her face reddened.

"So as I was sayin', I've known Lamia and Surt for a long while. They're these two by the way." The protector pointed at the medic and alchemist respectively, the latter waving his hand with a stoic expression while the former nodded and moved next to Ceas. 

"You think maybe we should've done this Before going inside, anyway?"  Olivia heard Lamia say. She could tell the medic was just as anxious as she was, moving her eyes around each of every corner and gripping the strap of her bag with her left hand close to her shoulder. She couldn't blame her though.

Ceas seemed to notice as well and gave her a reassuring smile. "It's alright, we're still in the clear here."  The protector took a step forward, everyone else followed him.

Natalia took the initiative and spoke up, "Ah, well, if we're moving I'll have to keep it short." 

"If you feel like it,"  Ceas said.

The survivalist hummed. "Let's see...I'm Twenty-Five and I like fishing, the end."  She put her hands behind her head. "Ok Maybe not fishing. I like fish though." 

Was that it? Olivia gave Natalia a baffled look and soon the latter noticed everyone else was curious, she let out a laugh. 

"Alright, alright. You could say I moved here recently. I come from a small island to the east, Jail Rock, you guys heard of it?"  

Jail Rock...Jail Rock?! The landsknecht jumped in surprise after hearing those words. "You're from Jail Rock too?!"  She asked loudly, like an excited child. But Natalia stood silent. Olivia could see her eyes widening, staring at her with surprise and what she thought was...Sadness?

Natalia frowned and shrugged before curving her lips into a smile. "I see," she stuttered at first, but soon the Survivalist forced a laugh and turned her back on the rest of her guild. "I guess that's it. Found anything interesting yet?"

"Nothing," replied Ceas as he examined the area. "No creatures either, it's odd." 

"So more walking then?" 

"Probably," Ceas said seemingly dejected.

Thus Natalia tipped her hat while moving forward. "Aye aye, Sir." She began whistling.

"Hey I said-" Before the Protector could finish Surt gave him a few pats on the back. He could also see Lamia stifling a giggle.

"Better get used to it big man," Surt muttered. "Or should I start calling you leader?"

"Not from you, smartass." He and Surt both laughed at each other, before Surt noticed Olivia was next to them. The alchemist cleared his throat and crossed his arms, closing his eyes and moving ahead of the landsknecht as he pulled out the map they used as a guide along with a pen.

Behind the two were Lamia and Ceas, she could hear the two casually talk with each other. Something that the girl didn't see before struck her as curious, a silver ring placed on one of the fingers of the medic's right hand.

"Was she left-handed?" Olivia thought to herself before the realization hit her.

"It doesn't sound so bad honestly, Guild Leader Ceas Nalis." Lamia seemed calmer as she chatted with Ceas, which made the latter smile—Albeit with slightly reddened cheeks—at her.

"Oh, not you too."

"A little payback for staying up late yesterday."

"The elbow wasn't enough?"

"What elb-Oh...Sorry." 

The girl soon let the two be and walked up to Surt and Natalia who were ahead of the group. "So what about you, Olivia?" She looked again at the alchemist.

"I did say I'm from Jail Rock too," and then her view shifted towards the ground. "The thing is I...I'm not Really from there."

The alchemist listened curious, but he could tell something was off as Olivia moved her head from left to right and her steps became stiff. "I mean I Am from there but it was for a while, I think. I moved away when I was around four or five." 

"Hmm..." Surt brushed his hair, he didn't press on. "Alright, it's fine if you don't want to say much."

"...Ok then," Olivia continued walking.

Surt tried cheering her up, "Ceas did say we'll be a group from now on, so it's best we take our time with each other." He smiled. The brunette hummed and though she felt guilty, she faced forwards.

It had been around an hour or two since they began their journey, at this point the landsknecht had her hand axe held next to her waist for long enough that her hand felt stiff. Despite their conversations something bothered not just her, but her whole guild.

Guild Boldhunt had took turns at each dead end and looked for materials to possibly sell, but neither she nor anyone else sighted even a single creature. Only the sound of their steps and the occasional banter between the five were heard.

Said banter was interrupted when Surt motioned the rest of Guild Boldhunt towards the in-between of a few trees in front of them. A small, natural spring with clean, cold water was sitting there, like a reward for having walked through the labyrinth for long enough. Upon examining the water more closely, Surt sighed.

"It may be best we rest here for now," the alchemist said as he leaned on a nearby tree; his right hand sliding across his forehead. The spring water was a nice relief for the guild for the time being, and soon enough they had loosened up from their tension. Natalia sat above a large branch, drinking water from a canteen while Lamia and Olivia both took turns cleaning the sweat off their faces.

Ceas on the other hand wasn't so convinced.

Him, Surt, Lamia and Natalia inspected around the area more as they soon felt an unnerving feeling of being watched. The protector's head suddenly spun towards the spring and he ran with his shield ready.

Olivia was drinking from the spring, smiling all the while. "I feel refreshed! Man," she laughed as she poured more water on her face. "This is a lot easier than I thought. Wonder why we even bothered bringing weapons-"

A loud thump was heard, followed by a pained hiss and Ceas' fast breathing coming from behind the landsknecht. The back of the protector's shield was blocking her view. Olivia blinked, still unsure of what really happened. The sound of buzzing and scrapping noises made it clear to her that she had to get up however, she soon dashed behind Ceas and towards Lamia and Surt.

"That's why!" Ceas pummeled the beast that attacked them, a small, reddish mole-looking creature with bright yellow eyes whose claws were sharp enough to get them stuck on the shield.

Both the monster and Ceas stubbornly tried to get them unstuck until the protector gave up and ran to the side of the nearest tree, putting his shield in between him and the mole. With enough force the mole's claws detached themselves from its battered body as it slammed into the tree, a red trail drawing itself as the creature quickly slid to the floor. 

Ceas exhaled as much air as he could, his heart beating fast enough. But then his respite ended as soon as he looked towards his guildmates. That monster wasn't alone; It wasn't alone at all.

A large group of them, accompanied by tall, blue butterflies and pink rats with sharp teeth were attacking the other four members. Though Surt, Natalia and Olivia were fighting back while Lamia avoided the attacks of those who slipped by, it was clear from Ceas' view that they were being overwhelmed. Rushing ahead, he managed to block yet another mole jumping with its open claws before it reached the medic.

"Where the hell did These things come from?!" The guild leader blocked yet another hit, his right arm beginning to tire the more it was pushed back by the unrelenting monsters, all the while Natalia jumped from bough to bough as rats effortlessly climbed each tree in an attempt to swarm her.

The survivalist, realizing their odds whistled loudly. "We're not winning this one!" She said before retreating into the deep woods.

Ceas and the rest looked disconcerted but knew what she was talking about. Soon the five ran towards the entrance, Surt telling them exactly where they needed to go as he switched his view between in front of him and his map. Their path was cut short however.

"You've gotta be kidding..." Olivia whispered in a defeated tone. They were surrounded. Right in front of them were Giant beetles blocking their path forcing them to stop. Panic spread through the group. Even Ceas, who yelled as loud as he could to tell everyone to stay calm had a fearful expression formed on his face. 

A thought struck the landsknecht at the very last second. She was scared, her body trembling at the thought that occurred to her but seeing no other choice she breathed in. 

"I'll get their attention."

Before the others realized what she said, Olivia yelled at the monsters and dashed through a group of butterfly monsters, running into the woods.

She didn't know for how long she had been running, her legs beginning to hurt and falter with each step taken. Her tears were visible, regret mixed with worry caused her heart to beat even faster than ever. The constant buzzing and sounds of scratching behind her didn't help either, she didn't want to look back.

When the landsknecht's life was on the line, her thoughts could only think of those who fell. Whether it'd be monsters or fellow adventurers, at this point the labyrinth would be filled with corpses atleast Somewhere. But there were none.

Olivia felt sick. Her legs tired and her breathing became faint. She put herself behind one of the many trees and ducked, her shaky hands gripping the hand axe which by now was stained in the blood of various monsters.

"Crap, oh crap, oh crap...!"

Rather than calming down, more and more questions rose from her mind. What if she were to die and everyone looked for her regardless, not knowing it was pointless? And if they Were to find her, would they even recognize her?

Would they even care...

Olivia shook her head and squeezed her eyes. All she had to focus on was going back to her guild, and pray that the monsters that followed her were enough to give her guildmates a chance to escape. 

The monsters that followed her...Followed her...Cold sweat ran across her head as she turned around, she couldn't see nor hear any of them. Whatever was trying to get her had disappeared and she was alone in the middle of the labyrinth. Her goal remained the same, but now with an even bigger uncertainty she let out a few tears before running back. 

As soon as she took another step however, Olivia heard the ground breaking under her and fell down. She looked to her left leg, and stared in shock. A small, red hand that emanated from the soil was sinking its claws on her boot and into her skin. Though she couldn't see the wound the landsknecht sensed blood dripping from her punctured leg, some trailing off the iron-like claws.

For a second she didn't know what she was doing, the pain mixed with the sudden realization that she was being attacked caused her to panic. With her right boot she kicked the mole's hand for what felt like an eternity, three more holes showed up near Olivia. Before the other moles could attack her however, the claws gave up her leg as the monster retreated to the underground. The girl got up, adrenaline coursing through her veins.

Olivia tried not to let her injured leg get the best of her, but even she knew she wouldn't be able to run fast enough to lose them. The moles that stayed soon began their attack, jumping at a great height towards the landsknecht with their claws ready to cut her.

Noticing this, the girl rather than fight them head-on decided to instead race towards the creatures and slide below them as they hit the ground. She winced when the dirt brushed her open wounds, and got up again as she panted and readied her axe.

One of the moles shook its head after getting dizzy from the fall. It got up and turned its back, ready to pounce back at its food, but before it could do anything Olivia bawled with her axe raised. The mole stopped moving, a loud crack was heard from inside its head as Olivia bashed it with her axe. The mole's face was smashed as the weapon crushed its skull, blood pouring from its eye sockets and splashing over Olivia's arms. 

The landsknecht soon jumped, with the mole still stuck on her axe, back as the other two moles recovered. She almost fell over as her injured leg gave up when she landed, but as the two moles closed in on her and struck she blocked one of them using the corpse as a meat shield.

The squeamish sound of flesh tearing as the mole tried to free itself from the body made Olivia shudder. The remaining beast gave part of her left leg a gash, causing her knees to give out. With her remaining strength she screamed as hard as she could while raising her axe the most she could, the mole still stuck in it braced itself as Olivia swung the axe towards the monster on the ground.

The two remaining moles crashed each other and were sent flying into a tree where they hit their backs.

Olivia let out a few breaths. Avoiding eye contact with the mole still on her axe, the landsknecht slid the mangled body off her weapon. She limped towards the unconscious monsters, and with two strikes she ended the fight.

The girl couldn't believe herself. It was over, she won! A wheeze came out of her mouth, and soon a celebratory laugh. She was still alive, she managed to beat the monsters, she yelped as she felt the sound of an arrow flying right behind her neck, followed by a thud and a guttural hiss.

She turned around, a fourth mole was convulsing on the ground as an arrow pierced its chest. Olivia noticed the monster's right arm was bruised and covered in blood. The mole soon stopped moving, the landsknecht looked around to see where the arrow came from and soon saw a familiar survivalist above a tree.

"My friend here can cover us? You know I can't do that if you run off like that."

Natalia seemed to have been in a fight as well, multiple bite marks and cuts were seen across her arms and legs. Nonetheless the older woman jumped off the bough and moved towards Olivia.

"Where's everyone?!" Olivia immediately asked. Natalia gave her a smile, but it wasn't reassuring as she frowned.

"They're...Somewhere, turns out Dark Hair was thinking the exact same thing as you."

Surt? The same thing as her? Olivia was left confused for a second before Natalia continued.

"See, while you ran to the left, Surt decided he'd go in front and distract those giant beetle things." Natalia sounded calm, as if she were unfazed by the whole situation.

"We got rid of the monsters on our end but soon big leader guy and snack lady decided to go look for him."

Olivia didn't know what to think. "What's with the names?" She said baffled.

"I thought they were funny; After all I'd rather keep high spirits in times like these." The girl nodded, unconvinced.

"So as I was saying, before leaving I told Ceas I'd go look for you. I could've reached you earlier but..." 

"You got caught, right?"

Natalia shrugged, "By a bunch of man-eating rats of all things."

"Hey, it's not like you could avoid fighting monsters all the time. Just look at...Look at my..." The girl tried showing her injured leg to Natalia, but by then her adrenaline had subsided. A sharp pain caused Olivia to plummet to the floor, her whimpers alarming Natalia.

"This is bad...Hold on." The survivalist pulled out a few bandages, Olivia wondered whether Lamia gave her some or if she always brought them as the survivalist lifted her off the floor and let her sit upright behind a tree.

"You'll have to make do with this until we reach the others so no bleeding out, alright?" 

Natalia began cleaning Olivia's leg with the canteen. the cold water falling on top of her wounds hurt but it did make her feel slightly better when her limb wasn't all covered in blood. The survivalist then began wrapping her leg with the cloth, the landsknecht's pain seemed to dissipate slightly and when Natalia finished she could move her left leg though not as well as her right one.

"That'll do I think, can you walk?" 

"Yeah, a bit." Olivia got up with Natalia's help. She was still limping and with each step she could feel her cuts sting, but now that the two weren't being attacked she could relax a little.

Natalia hummed as she crouched near the arrow impaled on the mole's chest, after a few pulls she sighed and stood up however.

The survivalist's laid-back tone turned into a weaker, much deeper whisper.

"Why did you run?"

Olivia didn't answer, she herself didn't even know Why she did what she did. It could've been fright, her mind at high alert begging her to escape at any cost. It could've also been selflessness. She was a good person, or atleast she wanted to think she was, but even in a situation like that she'd rather stay with her group. So why...?

"I..." Before the girl could respond, Natalia lowered her shoulders. Once again Olivia could sense something was off about her. Her face wrinkled and her eyes were half-open, staring at the grass beneath her. And her voice, it further changed into a concerning whimper.

"It won't happen again," she muttered to herself multiple times, as if reassuring herself, before she heard Olivia's voice.

"Are you alright?" 

Natalia stood silent for a few seconds before letting a wheeze and nodding, like someone wearing a mask and swapping it with another in the blink of an eye.

"Yeah, of course I am," she smiled as she began examining the ground closely. 

"Ok...So now what?" 

"We'll follow your steps, see?" Natalia pointed at parts of the dirt on the ground, they were faint but footsteps could still be seen.

"Doubt we'll miss the others if we follow along this, especially the leader." The survivalist took a step forward, confident.

"But I also doubt we won't run into any critters. I think I missed one or two on the way here." Two steps, one from Natalia and the other, slightly behind, from Olivia.

"You get me, right?"

The two began hearing the sounds of critters closing in on them, "Yeah, I get you." The survivalist looked at Olivia with a hopeful smile, and readied her bow.

"Alright then. Let's have a little walk through the woods, shall we?"

 

Chapter Text

Taurus 3 - 10 A.M. The day had just begun for those above Yggdrasil, strolling around the town of Etria like usual. On the labyrinth however, each passing hour still alive was a blessing for those inside.

Their breath was heavy and running out with each step they took. The two explorers disregarded their multiple injuries, for the safety of their guildmate was more important than anything else. But even then, their energy was spent to the point they had no choice but to slow down.

Ceas groaned as he slid his back behind a tree, a gash on the left side of his forehead leaking blood which slowly dripped onto his cheek. "Dammit Surt," he grumbled; His frustration peaked after everything that had happened so far. 

Chapter 3: Regroup

 

Looking at a small clock she brought in her bag, Lamia noted they had been running for almost an hour since they first encountered the monsters. The medic couldn't help but feel powerless and sighed, disheartened and with narrowed eyes. "I didn't...I didn't expect our first trip to go perfectly but..."

Ceas could understand Lamia's grief, she wasn't the only one to think their first day could have gone a lot better. The sight of a scratched shield held by his right hand left Ceas with a bad taste on his mouth. He was supposed to be the leader, inspiring his guildmates to overcome any and all obstacle while keeping them out of harm's way. And yet his first true encounter was not just an ambush, but one that ended up stranding two people whom he had no idea if they were still alive or not. 

He let out a sigh. Surt was one thing, he knew the guy long enough, he couldn't just die out there. But the others...All he could do was hope that Natalia would come back alongside Olivia, because otherwise he'd never forgive himself...

Thinking of all this, an air of resolve surged on the protector's mind. "We'll make it. All five of us." Ceas stood up and reassured Lamia, stroking her long, blonde hair as she looked at him.

"I know, Ceas." Her voice sounded calmer. Though they tended to argue over the most trivial of things, at the end of the day Lamia trusted Ceas and supported him as he did to her. Lamia stood up as well, and opening her arms, she hugged the protector.

"You're hurt..." Lamia focused on the cut Ceas had on his head, and tried moving her left hand towards it as it started glowing green. The protector moved away.

"Don't worry about it. This ain't nothing compared to what the others might be going through." The guild leader assured her as he brushed her palm. It was slightly awkward, given he was still wearing his gauntlet, but to the two it didn't matter.

The protector turned around and began moving once again, now with renewed energy. However, he soon felt Lamia's left hand touching his forehead from behind, the burning feeling of his cut dissipating as it closed. 

"You know cuts like that Can get worse if left untreated, right?" Lamia grinned at him. Satisfied, Ceas snorted.

"Let's go, can't keep Surt waiting after all." 

"Yeah, let's-" The air blew strong, and a loud sound off in the distance startled the two. They were close, very close to Surt, as they could see part of the forest temporarily glowing red along with the roars of fire. "Move!" 

As the two ran towards the sounds of firing, Ceas' fear of something happening to Surt shifted into him doing something reckless. The alchemist Did say there was no need to worry about the labyrinth burning down, but the strong smell of smoke didn't help but make his chest feel heavy.

Needless to say, both him and Lamia were confused when they finally saw Surt, fire coming out of his hands and incinerating a tree wrapped in what seemed to be silk.

"Surt!" The alchemist turned his head to see the two running towards him. However, upon closer inspection they stopped after noticing a trail of blood coming from his mouth. Surt's skin was paler and his breathing was erratic. Immediately, Lamia grabbed Surt and put her hand on his body.

"It's poison..." Surt was still alive, that much was for certain, but he wouldn't be able to last long with the ailment causing him to cough more blood.

"Hold on, hold on...!" The medic motioned her head at Ceas and towards Surt, he understood what she meant and grabbed the Alchemist, putting him on the ground. Lamia's face was covered in sweat as she began to focus. Once again her hand began glowing green the closer it got to Surt. The medic closed her eyes and breathed in.

The pained expression on Surt's face became calmer as she slowly moved her hand from head to toe, then back to head as if she were scanning him. 

The alchemist let out a deep sigh. "You two..." Lamia was alleviated seeing Surt stand up and move, now completely healed. A part of him still itched and felt weak, but his breathing was stable as he no longer felt something obstructing it.

"A bit late, don't you think? Leader?"

"Oh, you son of a..."  Ceas let out a hearty laugh along with Surt and Lamia, seemingly having forgotten his other concern until smoke began showing from under him. The protector grabbed his two guildmates and pushed them away as he himself dashed towards them.

"Right, you idiot. Why the hell did you start a fire?!" He asked, but by then he noticed something amiss.

The fire from the silk dissipated as the remains scattered on the ground. Ceas looked surprise to see the tree was unscathed from the burning, the area completely devoid of flames. He could still sniff the scent of charring around him, that's when he saw the carbonized remains of...Something.

"You do know how to use that thing, huh..." 

"What did you find here, Surt?" Lamia examined the small gray remains dispersed around the grass. The more recognizable ones looked like butterflies, the same ones they encountered back in the spring. But before she could say anything, Surt clarified.

"They're different. These ones are purple and as you may have seen, they're poisonous as well." Surt pointed at the swatted body of a large insect, his description of the monster seemed to match.

"I managed to get away from most of the wildlife before coming here. This place seemed to be a nest of some sort." The thought of it made Ceas shiver. Large critters by themselves were already enough for him but poisonous as well...He tried not to think of the idea of being swarmed by a horde of them, and instead focused on something else.

"Yeah, Right, how come the whole forest didn't burn down by now?" 

"You're really asking me that?" Surt seemed amused. He didn't know the full answer to that, granted, so all that he and others could do was accept that the labyrinth wasn't natural. "This forest doesn't seem to be affected by flames. It does answer why nobody has seen atleast part of it go out in flames but..."

The protector raised his hand, as if he wanted to add on to his question, but Surt interrupted him. His face turned grim as he motioned the two towards him.

"Nevermind, I have to show you something." He said in a regretful tone that worried the protector and medic. Surt pointed near the remains of the Butterflies' Nest and what they saw was enough to petrify them. 

"This is..." Words couldn't come out of Ceas' mouth, Lamia muffled hers as her pupils constricted upon seeing it. 

Covered in the same silk as the trees sat two human bodies. One male and one female. Their cold, unresponsive faces showing off a horrifying expression of fear. Their mouths were opened as if about to let out a hair-curling scream only to be muffled by the red liquid that came out of their throat, dripping into the floor like a small pond. Their eyes, just like their mouths, were wide-opened and bulging, as if they were replaced by porcelain spheres sticking out of their eye sockets. 

"They don't look like explorers." Ceas and Lamia jumped after hearing Surt, being too shocked by the corpses in front of them. But indeed, the two bodies seemed to be lacking any sort of equipment. No bags, weapons or even a map could be seen near them.

"They could've been civilians who managed to sneak inside but..." Something didn't make sense to Surt. He moved closer towards the bodies, and looked in-between them.

"There seemed to be someone else with them." He pointed towards part of the silk. It was broken, as if someone struggled to escape from inside it. Small drops of blood could be seen trailing towards the direction of the entrance, as Surt checked with his map. 

"You mean..." 

Surt stood silent. Though his face was stoic and his voice was calm through it all, he was as shook as his guildmates. The sight of those two dead people and the thought of witnessing the possible disappearance of someone was but a taste of what living as an explorer of Yggdrasil truly was. He felt a knot in his throat the more he tried to piece together what happened to them and who the third person may've been. 

"We...We should go. Now." Lamia's tone was somber; It was clear from her tears that the event affected her. The protector didn't say a word, he escorted her out as Surt followed them behind with a feeling of guilt. 

"All that's left is those two." Ceas tried changing the conversation as the three stepped out of the monster nest, he still couldn't shake the image off his head but he nonetheless tried her best to calm the others. "If all goes well they should be coming for Us now." Surt nodded but before moving he whispered to Ceas, discreetly enough to avoid letting Lamia hear him.

"Should we tell them?"  

"No, we...Just don't. It's enough for us."

Surt felt bothered, it was like hiding an important secret from everyone else. Something that May have saved the life of whoever escaped from there. But then he realized it was nothing but wishful thinking. they were too tired to continue exploring and there was a nigh guaranteed chance their search would end in yet another corpse being found. He sighed in frustration, all he could do now was escape along with his guild.

Suddenly, the three stopped. Steps could be hear coming closer towards them. Lamia stood behind Ceas and Surt as the protector raised his shield. A loud noise, like that of an engine starting, emanated from Surt's Gauntlets as they glowed red. But before anything drastic happened, a familiar high-pitched shout came from in front of them. 

"Waitwaitwait! We're with you!"

All tension dissipated the second they saw the remaining two members of Boldhunt, with various injuries and supporting one another by their shoulders, but nonetheless still alive. 

"O-Olivia! Natalia! You're alright!" 

A surge of emotions overwhelmed the medic, she ran towards the landsknecht and survivalist and with a large smile she hugged them. Olivia could feel her wounds sting as Lamia held her. Rather than focus on the pain however she felt...Happy, oddly enough. A mix of nostalgia and comfort rose onto the girl's mind as tears formed on her eyes, a warm feeling that she forgot long ago quickly came back to her and she embraced the medic as she closed her eyes.

Everything felt so calm to everyone at that point. They were all together again, their morale reaching a new high as they finally found each other.

"So that's what happened with you two. Olivia, you Really gave us a scare back there." Ceas commented as the brunette explained her fights to him. Lamia on the meanwhile was focusing, her hand going through Olivia's bandaged leg while she felt relieved that she'd soon be able to walk normally again. 

"I'm sorry, I panicked and...Yeah." Though she was glad everything turned out fine in the end, she still felt guilty for having abandoned her guildmates at a crucial moment. She said she would distract the creatures but for all she knew that could've very well been just an excuse to run away while she had the chance. Self-doubting thoughts kept coming to her mind the more she thought on the previous question made by Natalia, and she seemed irked by it all.

All she did was probably make her guild trust her less...

Trust...

Maybe that truly was it. Getting the monsters' attention onto her to make everyone trust her and to prove herself. It didn't sit right with her, at all, but it was the truth. She'd be willing to do the stupidest things sometimes...

"But I'm glad you're ok. Your idea did save us after all, even if it was Way too reckless." Lamia's compliments felt sharp to Olivia, like her chest being quickly prickled by a small needle. But as the medic grinned and continued her treatment, she decided to stay quiet and nod with a smile of her own. 

"And you, Natalia. Thanks for looking for her." 

"Just did what I said I'd do," Natalia laughed, lifting her hat before Lamia grabbed the hand holding it.

"Don't move yet," she grumbled.

"Right, sorry."

The five explorers began chatting as Lamia kept treating their injuries. For a moment it almost felt like they were never in any life-threatening situation and were strolling through any normal forest. Laughs, smiles, it all left Olivia with a ray of hope. It'd be a slow progress, but something told her she'd be able to feel comfortable with her new guild.

"That'll do, I think. You two should be good as new by now." Lamia stretched her arms as she finished her healing. Surt and Ceas were previously on watch around the area, looking for any signs of monsters. But after finding none and hearing the medic's words they turned towards her.

"You alright, Lamia?" Ceas asked.

She nodded, "I guess, I feel a little light headed but...Yeah, I'm fine." The protector and alchemist both seemed relieved hearing her. Olivia found it curious, asking the medic rather than her patients about their condition. Maybe it was redundant? She shrugged the thought of it as she stood up. Her left leg, though it had been healed at that point, it still felt stiff. Lamia kept the bandage intact, but even with it she knew her wounds were mostly gone.

"Be careful, your leg might need to rest for a while." 

"You just healed it."

"Well yes," The medic frowned. It was subtle, but nevertheless a chill ran down Olivia's spine. "But that doesn't mean it fully recovered. You might feel like it's slightly numb for now, so don't overdo it."

She wasn't lying. After all it's not like Olivia knew better about healing than Lamia did, so she hummed as the five followed Surt's directions towards the entrance. 

"We didn't have much time to scavenge," Ceas said, bothered as he looked towards Olivia and Natalia. "Sorry. Do you two have any money to stay at an inn?" 

"I uhh..." Olivia scratched her face. It was then when something hit her, something that somehow she failed to take into account before coming to Etria. "N-No." She couldn't believe herself. Obviously her first trip wouldn't be profitable, less so with how it Actually went down, so what was she thinking when she spent all her money on equipment?!

"Ah, hell. me neither." The girl glanced at Natalia, surprised. "But didn't they say we'd get paid for finishing our mission?"

Mission...She was right. The initiation mission every starting guild had to go through completely slipped Olivia's mind. But before she got her hopes up, Surt looked at his map and mumbled to himself before speaking to them.

"We haven't finished it. There's part of this floor we haven't explored yet." He pointed towards the lower part of the map and then the upper right corner of the parchment, where noticeable gaps could be seen taunting the guild.

"Oh, you've gotta be..." The protector groaned. "Can't say I didn't expect that." His worried frown caused both the landsknecht and survivalist to shiver. But before they began thinking on what to do now, Lamia stepped up. "It's fine if you two stay with us for now."

"Stay?" Natalia asked.

"Well, Ceas and I live in a small house. But it's got enough space." Lamia looked at Ceas, waiting for his response. Thankfully, he agreed. Relieved, Olivia followed her guild as they finally reached the stairs to Etria. 

Though it felt like they spent a whole day inside the labyrinth, in reality only three hours have passed. It was still morning. The sight of the gateway to the town after an arduous journey made Guild Boldhunt realize just how lucky they were on their first trip. A sight they knew would become less likely to reach with each step taken inside the Yggdrasil Labyrinth. But regardless, they wouldn't back down. Olivia's resolve caused her to look towards the entrance with determination. She would come back here along with everyone. No matter what it takes, she would live.

Taurus 3 marked the day Guild Boldhunt started, uncertainty running across their mind as they prepared for their next journey.

Chapter Text

Taurus 4 - 9 A.M. Beams of sunlight seeped through the windows an onto Olivia's face as she struggled to open her eyes, instead putting a pillow above her head. By then however, her need to sleep was long gone and she yawned herself awake. 

Stretching one of her arms while holding and rotating her neck with the other, she examined the guest room she and Natalia shared for the night. A bunk bed where she was at the bottom of; a window next to them and a wooden, slightly opened door which contrasted with the bluish colored walls of Lamia and Ceas' home. She stood up to look at the top bed, nothing except for wrinkled blankets barely covering one another and about to fall to the floor along with a familiar hat sitting next to the few pillows still on the bed. 

After getting Surt to the hospital for further checkup and following the protector and medic to their home, Olivia spent the afternoon along with Natalia as Lamia urged them to rest. There wasn't much to do inside, other than some books laying around a small shelf near the entrance that didn't interest the girl much, but nonetheless did make her feel rested after what was probably the most life-threatening morning she had yet.

Reminding herself of yesterday, Olivia then looked at her left leg and shook it around. Before then, with each step she took her leg felt as if it weighed a ton more than usual, like trying to drag an iron ball chained to her ankle and causing her limb to feel static. Now, however, as she hopped around the room she smiled. It was like magic, she thought to herself before a delicious aroma filtered through the door.

The girl walked towards the living room where the aroma guided her. The origin of it was a cup from which Lamia was drinking coffee from, staring at the ceiling with a calm look on her face as she sat on a futon. 

"Ah, Olivia." The medic's view shifted towards the girl, motioning her hand to sit next to her. "Did you sleep well?"

 

Chapter 4: Respite

 

Lamia continued drinking her coffee as Olivia moved towards her. The house was silent. Lamia on that morning woke up with Ceas on her side, he soon left along with his armor and shield stashed on a large bag. Afterwards, Natalia greeted her before leaving too, wanting to see the town for herself. Olivia and Lamia were then the two remaining home. The medic didn't want to leave the girl alone.

"I see your leg's fine now." Lamia stared at Olivia's wrapped leg and how she moved it as if it were nothing, the landsknecht nodded with a grin. "You can take the dressing off now; your wounds should be pretty much gone by now." Enthusiastically, Olivia began removing the wrapping off her leg and sure enough, all her cuts were gone as if she was never injured in the first place.

"That's amazing." Lamia smiled hearing Olivia's words; It's not something she wasn't used to, but looking at the girl made her feel better. She finished her cup and put it on an end table next to her.

"So when will we go back?" Olivia asked. They had yet to finish their initiation mission, this meant that they had yet to become an official guild.

Anyone could create a guild at any moment they wanted, but only those who could survive and map the first floor could be verified as an official guild by the Radha. Boldhunt was not an official guild yet, meaning they didn't have the benefits of one. Though Olivia didn't know what exactly those benefits were, surely getting them as early as possible was the best course of action for them.

"It'll have to wait."

But Lamia disagreed. While she Did want to finish the mission quickly like the rest, she was unsure on whether rushing it was a good idea or not.

For one thing she was worried about Surt ever since he went to the hospital to check on any signs of poison still remaining on him. Their equipment was also something to take into consideration. They had to be careful with it as they already witnessed the strength of the labyrinth's wildlife, being able to pierce even Ceas' shield; There was no guarantee their protection or weaponry would last forever.

"Uh huh..." Olivia scratched her cheek. "I guess we'll be staying here for another day then?" Lamia nodded, and the girl sighed.

It was then that Olivia noticed the silver ring on Lamia's hand, and the curiosity she had yesterday came back to her. She forgot about the ring back when they were exploring Yggdrasil, it faded from her mind soon after they all began chatting with each other and eventually reaching the spring. But now that she saw the accessory on Lamia's right hand she had to know. 

"Umm, Lamia?" She asked, pointing at her ring. "Are you and Ceas..."

"What about—" Lamia asked before getting what Olivia was referring to. She glanced at her hand before letting out a laugh and caressing her ring. "So you noticed."

The silver ring, decorated with a handmade floral motif as crude carvings of flowers & leaves were seen around it had been on her hand for around four years. The more she reminisced on the day Ceas confessed to her, the more she smiled as a warm feeling touched her heart. She continued explaining to Olivia, that same smile continuing throughout her conversation.

Lamia had first met Ceas almost two decades ago, as soon as her family moved to Etria. Back then, the two were still children; Lamia was two years older than Ceas.

"I guess we hadn't changed much ever since," Lamia said. "We used to play a lot by either Verda or in the forest near the gates. Nowadays we tend to just sit there while remembering the times we climbed trees, played tag or ended up getting lost." She snorted as Olivia listened.

To the landsknecht, it was fun hearing others talk about their loved ones. She wouldn't admit to it, but she liked imagining herself in a scenario like that. Someone to live with, talk to and be able to tell them her feelings...

The entrance door creaked open, Olivia and Lamia glanced at it to see Ceas, holding an empty bag on his hand and moving towards them.

"I'm back! Ah, you two are up." The landsknecht and medic both greeted him. Lamia in particular seemed curious.

"So what did Shilleka say?" Lamia asked the protector. Olivia wondered who she was referring to, before remembering Shilleka was the girl running one of the many forges in town...The exact same one she spent all her money buying her gear. The more she thought about it the more she winced at her own decisions.

"Neither the armor nor shield were badly damaged, or something," Ceas said. "But still, she'll have it fixed in a day or two." He sighed. It seemed that along with Olivia, he too wanted to explore. Ceas then snapped his fingers, his mood bettering as he looked at the two.

"That's right, I went to check on Surt. He's been discharged by now!" Lamia's eyes beamed with joy hearing him.

"Where's he?" She asked.

"He should be back home by now," Ceas replied as he crossed his arms, grinning. "Whaddya say we go see him?" 

Lamia agreed, but before she could get up Olivia spoke. "What about me?" She asked, cutting eye contact with the two as she once again brushed her face with her fingers.

Ceas let a sympathetic chuckle. "Obviously you can come with us, if you want. It'll be fun!" 

"Alright!" Olivia felt excited, yet curious all the while. The landsknecht hadn't exactly told them she came to Etria the same day she joined Boldhunt, meaning she had yet to explore the town. Etria was where she was planning on staying for a while, or even living if luck was on her side; She was hopeful Etria would be a good town for her. As soon as she got up however, her stomach grumbled. the couple looked at her.

"...Can we get something to eat first?"

As the three walked around town, Olivia made sure to remember each turn she took. To her, it was similar to exploring the labyrinth ━Minus the monsters━ yesterday. She asked the protector & medic about the various buildings they passed through on their way to Surt's house, and the two became a sort of guides to her.

At the heart of the town was the Verda Plaza, or just "Verda" as Lamia liked to call it. In her own words, "It's like a hotspot for everyone in town. You can meet all sorts of people here," the medic added. "Plus it's connected to pretty much every place in Etria."

Olivia examined the plaza. Many gathered around a large marble pillar to the center, a rather large portion of them in groups and equipped with protection and weaponry. Explorers ready to challenge Yggdrasil at any moment, just like her yesterday. She'd imagined herself waking up early in the morning to sit beneath the pillar, waiting for her guild so they explore the labyrinth and start what she thought was their grand adventure. Perhaps even meet friends, not necessarily explorers, that she could meet there too and make living in Etria easier. 

She grinned at the thought about it, further glancing at the groups gathered. She then heard a voice calling her out and she looked next to her. It was Ceas.

"I guess you went straight to the guildhouse to not know about this place, huh?" Ceas said, brushing his hair. Olivia nodded as she sighed with her head down, before shifting her sight to the protector.

Yesterday she couldn't see it, given Ceas was wearing large, iron gauntlets at the time. But now that he wasn't wearing his armor she examined the alliance on his finger, one the same as Lamia's.

"Olivia?" She shook her head.

"W-Well, I was focused on exploring! And I..." The girl pouted; She tried coming up with an excuse, none of which convinced even her. The landsknecht groaned, and Ceas could tell what she was thinking.

"Hey, I'm not saying it like it's a bad thing. It just means your head's on the right track right now." Whatever the protector meant, it did cause her to feel somewhat relieved that he understood Her...Wait...

"Thanks, Ceas." She stuttered, realizing he figured out about her familiarity, or rather lack thereof, with the town. But then again, why hide it? Natalia didn't have any qualm telling them about it back in Yggdrasil, so why was it so hard for her? Olivia sighed; the more she pondered, the more she found it senseless. She wanted others to trust her when she was doubtful of them, it was something that further made her mad at herself. She frowned, and clenched her fist as she took a step ahead of Lamia and Ceas while facing forwards.

"Let's just go to Surt's place already!"

"That's the wrong way." She then turned around, even more flustered as she followed the couple across the plaza; It had been an hour since they left but, after Olivia memorized her steps as much as she could, they finally reached Surt's house. A small building just like every other one around the three, yet when Ceas knocked the door and were let inside by the alchemist, the landsknecht was surprised to see something barely resembling one.

It was similar to a lab combined with a library, various books scattered around the floor along with smoke and an uneasy boiling noise coming from one of the larger rooms to their left. Surt was standing there, with noticeable bags under his eyes and his long, unkempt hair being drawn back in an equally messy ponytail. 

"So?" He asked, alternating his view between the three and a group of flasks from which the largest one originated the fog; Small flames could be seen beneath, right next to the flasks were Surt's gauntlets. Olivia couldn't find the words to describe Surt; It was like a complete one-eighty from his appearance yesterday. Neither Ceas nor Lamia seemed surprised however, rather they were amused. 

"Immediately back to work, huh?" Ceas said, pinching his nose while trying to imagine what sort of...Things the alchemist was trying to do.

Lamia sighed before glaring at Surt. "You should be resting right now, Surt." She said, but Surt shook his head.

"No," he explained as he moved towards the flasks. "I had to work on an idea I had while at the hospital before I forgot about it."  

"You could write a note instead." Olivia added. The whole place fascinated her in a strange way; It was like stepping into a mad genius' lair and seeing all sorts of inventions she understood nothing about but still intrigued her, even if said inventions were nothing but flasks filled with various liquids emanating gasses.

Surt brushed his hair and looked at her. "I could do that, but I doubt I'd remember That." Fair enough, she thought. 

Surt moved towards the flasks and after examining them closely, stopped the flames underneath them. "After I found that butterfly nest, I thought it'd be worth testing something. Poison." So that's what he was doing, poison...Hold on—

"W-Wait, Poison?! Does that mean the gas-" Before Olivia could finish, Surt held his palm up in an attempt to calm the three down as they instinctively tried leaving the house.

"Don't worry, that smoke has nothing to do with the venom." He sighed, and pulled a small vial next to the flask. Inside it was what seemed to be purple mash. "It's all in this thing," Surt said as he shook the vial.

"Turns out the butterflies' poison was caused by spores produced by their wings." He pointed towards the pulp, "I was wondering if I could replicate a similarly potent venom with my gauntlets using said spores." 

Olivia was out of the loop during all of his explanation, Venomous bugs? a nest filled with them? She questioned Surt about it. "Oh, right. You weren't there. See, yesterday..."

Thus Surt began explaining to Olivia what he had encountered in the labyrinth after the guild split; To her, it was amazing trying to imagine the alchemist fending monsters on his own. For Lamia and Ceas however, a lingering feeling of guilt weighed on their minds.

Surt had omitted the silk-covered corpses, the most disturbing detail the three had found there. They couldn't blame him; It wasn't easy to tell someone what they've seen without them panicking or at the very least turn pale. Yet it felt like covering up something important. Lamia frowned throughout Surt's recounting, wanting him to just get it over with as she gave Ceas a worried look.

"Surt, I think Olivia understood enough. Right?" He looked at the girl.

"Oh yeah, yeah I get it; That sounded really scary...Hehe." She sneered back at him.

Lamia let out a deep breath and with it she walked towards the entrance. "So what now?" 

"I..." It was clear that Surt felt bad for her, he didn't want to talk about it but he couldn't leave Olivia in the dark either. Sometimes a half-truth is what needs to be said, he thought to himself before answering.

"I'll continue my experiment, if it works then I'll be testing it out in the Labyrinth. After I mix the spores then it should only be around an hour before it finishes." 

"That won't happen." Ceas said, "Lamia said you'll need to rest, so you'll do just that." He added, in an effort to console Lamia as she too was bothered. Surt tried to convince them, but he knew what was happening. Instead, he nodded.

"I'm sorry." 

"Don't worry," Lamia looked at the two men. "I guess it's my fault too." 

"Lamia..." Ceas and Lamia both stared at each other for a while, before the latter smiled to reassure him.

"Hey, Olivia. Is there somewhere you want to go next?" Olivia nodded in excitement, she still had yet to see the town fully.

"Alright," Lamia said, now calmer. "Guess we can be guides for a while longer, don't you think so, Ceas?" She gave a laugh which made him blush slightly.

"Well we can't let our guildmates get lost somewhere that isn't the Labyrinth," he laughed back. "See ya later, smartass!"

"Love you too, leader."

And so, the rest of the day was spent going through town, eating some of the local food and seeing Etria's most popular & important places. Olivia even went back to the Guildhouse to look at new guilds being formed, wondering if one day she'd see them again in Etria or Yggdrasil.

After getting her bearings around Etria she was back in the couple's house, near night-time. Natalia was inside, sitting on the futon upside-down while reading a book. Despite the four being there, Olivia decided to continue strolling on her own now that she knew where each place was.

That was just an excuse however. Throughout her journey, she couldn't stop thinking about her talk with Ceas back in Verda Plaza or rather her needless distrust of him and Lamia.

She sat behind the Pillar of the plaza, witnessing bright lights shine through the windows of various buildings and lamp posts as day became night. Not many people were in Verda at the moment, only a few groups either messing around or going towards what she deduced was the inn where most explorers rested in. She sighed, a look of guilt and contempt on her face.

Then, a guitar played, followed by a singing voice. Olivia noticed it after a while, it came from the other side of the pillar. Curiosity rose onto her mind and she stood up, looking towards the origin of it.

There, a young girl sat, the instrument on her hands as a crowd formed around her.



Something about that girl's playing captivated her to the point a few tears slid through her cheeks. Soon enough, she was crying silently amidst the crowd while listening to the guitarist's melody; Her voice and guitar strokes resounding through her ears, and the lyrics of a beautiful song bringing an air of nostalgia and longing to the audience.

A wave of claps surged from the crowd after the girl stopped, followed by the musician thanking them as she held an open guitar case next to her, receiving donations. Though the audience dissipated after a while and the musician was focused on tuning her guitar, Olivia continued crying. It was the troubadour herself that caused the landsknecht to stop.

"Did you enjoy my song?" She asked, with a tone of worry and curiosity on her voice.

"O-Oh, yeah," she said embarrassed. "It just moved me is all." The guitarist chuckled, then patted the floor next to her.

"Why don't you sit down? You look somewhat tired."

"You...don't mind?" 

"Of course not," the troubadour replied cheerily. "That's why I'm asking you!"

The girl insisted, and Olivia did so; She sat next to the troubadour as she continued stroking each guitar string, looking for the right tuning. Guitarists often grow their nails on their picking hand due to the sound that's produced when playing, a much smoother one that's not as easy to achieve with shorter nails; Olivia noticed the girl's were particularly long.

"By sheer chance, do you happen to be an adventurer?" The troubadour asked intrigued, awaiting Olivia's answer. The landsknecht stood silent for a few seconds, once again self-doubt clouded her mind.

But this time, she shook her head; She wasn't going to make the same mistake again, she determined. "Yeah, but I just started yesterday. It was a pretty messy first day," She said. "Thankfully we all made it with only a few injuries." She grinned. While she did so, the guitarist moved from one string to the other. 

"I see, how old are you? Most explorers from what I've seen are adults or even elderly, but you look pretty younger than that." The troubadour finished tuning the third string. She played it along the two above it to confirm. 

"Well, I'm fourteen." The troubadour snorted once again, this time cheerfully. "That means I'm a year older than you!"

"Really?" The guitarist nodded with excitement.

"Yeah. Still, I'm glad there are explorers out there near my age. That Yggdrasil place creeps me out a ton!"

"Tell me about it," Olivia said. "As soon as I thought we'd be safe we got ambushed by like a hundred monsters, we barely made it alive!" She laughed, by then two more strings had been tuned. And while the troubadour began working on the bottom, first string, Olivia began to talk more casually to her.

It turned into somewhat of a ramble as a sort of admiration for her guild grew on her, along with the realization that her first fight was a difficult one that she somehow managed to win. By then, she noticed the Troubadour hasn't spoken a word.

"S-Sorry, I'm sure you don't want to hear me go on and on after we Just met." 

"To be honest...No," The troubadour said. Olivia felt slightly guilty and looked at the floor. But the girl reassured her.

"However, I always enjoy listening to people talk about their lives, as long as I'm not playing." And with the same calm tone she added, "I can't interrupt my songs, but even I want to hit people with my guitar if they keep talking over them. I just resist the urge to do so," she jested.

"S-So..." The troubadour noticed the troubled look on Olivia's face, by then she had finished tuning her guitar and began playing again. Satisfied with how it sounded, she spoke to the landsknecht. 

"Do you like singing?" 

"Singing? Me?" Olivia nervously asked; Singing was something she enjoyed doing, but only while she was alone.

"It's alright," the guitarist clarified. "It's more for the fun of it." She then began to explain, "I've been going solo for quite a bit now and you just happened to be in the right place at the right time. So..."

It was certainly an offer that came out of the blue, but Olivia didn't exactly deny that it Was a fun idea.

"W-Well..." She fidgeted around, looking on whether someone was near. Other than a few people far from the pillar, it was just the two of them. 

"It's ok if you don't want to. Singing with others Does take a lot of courage."

"I-I'll do it," Olivia said with a faint but evident confidence. "But what do I even sing?"

"That's the fun part of it," The troubadour said. "Just close your eyes, let your emotions out; Follow the tune, ease yourself into it and the rest should come naturally. It's how I've always done it until now." 

Olivia didn't know what to make of her advice, but nonetheless she agreed, blushing. As she began concentrating, her emotions were clear to her. About her resolve with the labyrinth, her willingness to improve her flaws as much as she could and her future; She combined all of it into lyrics as she listened to the troubadour's guitar and followed its melody, like a small light guiding one across a dark hallway which lead them to their goal.

When she noticed the girl stopped playing she opened her eyes, only to be met by a rather large crowd of people applauding the two of them as the troubadour thanked them back. The guitarist then moved her view towards her.

"My, didn't know you had a talent for this!"

"HUH?! Since when did I-You-I mean-" Her face was reddened almost completely, and she was completely stunned that the crowd seemingly appeared from thin air. Yet still...!

"I-I thought it'd be just the two of us!"

"I didn't guarantee that," The troubadour shrugged. "Besides, when you close your eyes it almost feels like you're alone with the theme you're playing."

"That's not—" Before Olivia further complained, she noticed the group more closely. They were all smiling, genuinely grateful for their performance without counting that they Did praise their song. "Wait, I did well...?" She asked, to which the troubadour confirmed with a "Yes." 

It certainly wasn't something she was expecting to happen to her on that evening, yet it made her feel accomplished; She had broken down one barrier thanks to that music girl she just met. She let out a nervous laugh as she stood up, bowing the crowd along with the guitarist.

They soon again dispersed and it was just the two of them around the pillar of Verda Plaza. The two were ready to leave, but there was one last question both Olivia and the girl wanted answered.

"What's your name?" The girl asked, "I'd like to see you again soon."

"It's Olivia. Olivia Ropaea. And yeah, it was fun singing with you after all." She said, and the troubadour snickered in response.

"I'm Lila Montes. Alright then, see you later Olivia!" And with that, the guitarist known as Lila left. Her guitar case on hand.

As Olivia travelled back to Lamia and Ceas' home, a genuine smile on her face formed and stayed until she reached the door which she knocked. No response, but the lights were on, she had to wait. 

"They sure take their time, eh?"

"Yeah, I wonder why-" Olivia shrieked, right behind her was Natalia, laughing. "Stop doing that!"

"Can't help it," the survivalist said. "It's just funny...Does that bother you?"

"What, of course it does!" She pouted, and Natalia shrugged.

"I see. Sorry, won't do that again."

"...Just like that?" Olivia asked, uncertain.

"Yeah, I mean what good does it for me to anger a singer as talented as you."

"Huh, ok...HUH?!"

 

Chapter Text

 Taurus 11, 6 A.M. 

"We're…" Ceas, along with the rest of Guild Boldhunt looked incredulous at the map drawn by Surt. Even they couldn't believe it, but it was true.

"Done…?" The first floor, fully drawn outside of the areas they had no permission to enter yet. "We're done!" Olivia exclaimed, letting out a self-congratulatory laugh while jumping in excitement. She stopped. "I mean—" 

"No need to hide it," Natalia laughed, "We're finished with this place!" 

The five explorers soon left the labyrinth. Their initiation mission finally completed, Guild Boldhunt was declared an official guild by the Radha…

 

Chapter 5: Survival

 

Olivia yawned, the rather cold morning air causing her to shiver while she and the rest of her group followed Ceas around town. From yesterday's stroll, she could already tell where they were heading as they crossed the Verda Plaza and stood above a building. On the outside was a post with a deer figure sticking out of the wall next to swinging doors, modest yet noticeable sounds of people drinking and music playing could be heard on the inside.

"Golden Deer Pub. This is it," Ceas said with a grin on his face, soon he stepped inside. 

"Wait a sec, we're not gonna continue exploring?" The landsknecht sounded disappointed; Surely her guildmates weren't going to drink the rest of the day after just an hour or so of adventuring! Lamia entered the bar, giving Olivia a nudge as she did so.

"Of course we are, Olivia," she clarified, "This is where we'll get requests now, remember?"

Requests? It only took a few seconds before it clicked on her; The Golden Deer Bar, besides being The place for explorers to loaf around and potentially meet new allies, was also a popular place for both them and the common townsfolk to ask for help.

"Help me get this material!" or "I need a person who specializes in this!" being the most common ones amongst the large blackboard next to the reception where the barkeeper, an older brownhaired woman, wearing a tidy, dark dress, stood.

Ceas looked thrilled at each post-it note stuck on the board, seeing many familiar names being referred to as the creators of said requests. No surprise however, that there weren't many of them left available, less so ones meant for a new guild like Boldhunt. The protector quickly realized this, and his enthusiasm began to fade.

He sighed, but it wasn't just him, Lamia was right next to the leader and picked one of the notes.

"Hey, Valerie! We'll take this quest!" the medic said towards the barwoman as she handed her the note. 

"This one, huh?" Valerie examined the note more closely, the rather rushed handwriting in it giving her a quick hint as to who sent it. "My, this one's from Shilleka," she said. "She seems to be looking for certain materials again."

"Again?" asked Olivia.

"That girl has been asking for a lot of resources from the labyrinth recently, last time she asked for shells and made an axe with them. Gifted one to the kids helping her afterwards." Thinking about it, back when Olivia first entered Etria she bought a hand axe which, according to Shilleka was new. Perhaps that was it? She found that interesting.

"Now let's see…" The publican read the note to the guild. As always, the storeowner asked for whatever guild who accepted her quest to meet her at her shop for more details, and so the five moved from the pub to her store.

The owner of the forge, a woman with various shiny accessories, black hair drawn back in a ponytail and a rather revealing red and yellow outfit greeted them cheerily. Lamia gave her the note and the shopkeeper nodded her head.

"Ahh! T'anks for helping me wit' t'is one!" She grinned, "Congrats on being qualified too!" she added; Olivia couldn't help but feel confident. Shilleka then began detailing what she needed, how many she should be given and their reward should they finish gathering each resource. Horns and gum hides, which Shilleka said would be used for the creation of a more compact short bow.

Natalia put a hand above her chin as she heard that, a short bow would certainly help her in the labyrinth given it smaller size allowing her to fire rapidly. Given that for the most part most of the monsters attacked her guild head-on, its lower distance range wouldn't matter much. "Yeah, we're doing this one alright," she said.

"T'at's great!" The owner clapped her hands once, "Y'just sell me t'items and it should be all!" With that, Guild Boldhunt began leaving the store, now certain of their objective. They stopped as they heard Shilleka calling them however.

"Ey, don't forget about t'is." Ceas looked behind him, the owner was presenting him what seemed to be a small, ordinary ball of thread.

"That's a…" 

"A warp wire," Shilleka clarified, "If everyone holds and disentangles it, it'll send y'back to town in an instant." The five stood silent, a escape item had been always available, not only that but one that could apparently Teleport.

"Since y'five will be going past t'first floor y're gonna need t'is from now on." She handed the thread to the protector, making sure he held it carefully.

"Always carry one," she said. Ceas hummed, wondering what the item would do for him and his guild, but he didn't question the storeowner either; So far the labyrinth had been anything but logical, for all he knew it could very well save their lives. 

The sight of Yggdrasil's entrance welcomed them once again. Almost two weeks having to explore the same floor had exhausted them, but now that they were free to search below it, a new resolve formed on them, determination to keep going as much as they could. Once they saw a natural formation of rocks, shaped like stairs leading down, they knew they had truly begun.

Throughout their venture inside the bottom second floor, the atmosphere began to turn even more tense with each step. Though they charted the layout of it like usual, they knew they were further and further away from the entrance, further away from safety. The wire Ceas had gotten and later gave to Lamia was essentially their safe net should anything wrong happen, but uncertainty and worry ran their thoughts as they began formulating many possible scenarios where they were unable to use it.

The monsters they fought began to differ from the ones from above as well: Sturdy hares who gnashed their victims with their sharp teeth, even the venomous butterflies Surt talked about days ago were now common to see; The taste of blood permeated Olivia's mouth for the rest of her journey as one of the insects' spores managed to affect her temporarily. Thankfully, Lamia managed to quickly get rid of it mostly, though her body still hurt. It was as if she was constantly spinning before suddenly coming to a stop, she felt dizzy and her head began pulsing an incessant pain.

"S-Sorry, I can't take it anymore…" The landsknecht drew breath as she sat behind a tree, her hand placed on her forehead as it hurt more and more.

Lamia quickly rushed towards the brunette as the other three followed her, she then placed her own hands towards the girl's face; A fever it seemed. Though Surt didn't suffer from it back when he was poisoned, it looked as if Olivia was not as resistant to the venom and even with her healing, her body didn't fully recover from its effects.

"Hold on just a bit," Lamia pulled out a small bottle with a greenish substance in it, like mashed leaves mixed with water. The word "Medica" was written on it. "Drink this, it should ease the pain for now." 

Olivia weakly grabbed the bottle and though a part of her didn't want to, she chugged it down as hard as she could. Just as she expected, it tasted awful, a combination of bitterness and spiciness that caused her mouth to dry slightly; She had to force herself not to spit it out. A minute passed, and she indeed began feeling better. Lamia helped her get on her feet as the five continued exploring, but as soon as they resumed, the sound of gaits and bushes breaking coming from behind alerted them. 

A large, bluish deer was staring at them with its ominous red eyes. It was clear the monster saw them as invaders, and its dark antlers, sharp like horns were its weapon…Wait, horns? "That's our target!" Ceas charged towards the beast, his shield taking the creature's strike as its antlers pushed him backwards. Natalia took the opportunity to fire at the deer's legs, but just as quickly as she shot her bow, the enemy leaped at an incredible speed; Not even the survivalist could see it dodging her attack until it began trotting towards her.

"What the—" 

Before she could readjust her aim, the monster was already in front of her, its antlers ready to pierce her. Then, fire. The deer was pushed on its side as flames burnt its body with an intense force, Surt held his firing gauntlet with his other hand, keeping his sight set on the monster.

"Olivia!"

"Got it!" The landsknecht dealt the final blow to the beast, swinging her axe on its throat. The deer breathed weakly before its pulse stopped; Their fight ended as quickly as it started.

"Are you alright?!" Lamia closed towards Natalia, searching for any possible injuries. The archer was still shaking, her eyes fully opened and her bow drawn; It took a few seconds before she realized she was no longer in danger.

"I…Yeah," she whispered. "It caught me off-guard," she swept the sweat off her face as she looked at the corpse. Its antlers were still intact despite the burning, seeing this, she began cutting them along with Ceas and Olivia before putting them on Lamia's bag.

"Well, that's two down. We should get going—" before she finished speaking, she quickly saw another deer move past them, startling her. She stood up, and snuck next to a tree to get a closer look, the rest followed her but she urged them to stop.

"Be quiet," she said, holding a finger in front of her mouth.

The deer seemed identical to the one they fought, but something was off about the way it moved. It looked as if it was patrolling that specific area and more disturbingly, they could see its mane smeared in blood; Red sprays that contrasted with its golden hair. Its crimson eyes, compared to the other monster were a lot more…fiendish, in a way they could describe.

Its pupils constricted and its muscles tense; It was as if the deer was looking impatiently for any explorer unfortunate enough to cross its path rather than avoiding them.

They were unsure whether the monster's strength would be the same as the one from earlier, for all they knew it could be just like any other enemy, yet they couldn't shake the feeling that something was horribly wrong with that deer. Ceas instructed the four to follow him quietly, but as soon as they tried to pass the road, the deer turned around and the sound of galloping became louder and louder.

"The hell, it's onto us!"

They didn't have to panic, it was just like the other deer; It'd be fast but as long as they kept an eye on it, the monster would go down in no time. Ceas put up his shield, urging the others to stay behind him as he charged and prepared himself to take the beast's attack. They didn't have to panic…They didn't have to panic, yet…

Ceas let out a loud growl as he fell to the floor in pain, his gauntlet sent flying, his hand bent in an unorthodox way and most importantly, his shield, completely broken in half as the deer attempted to stomp his head flat. The protector quickly fought through the pain, grabbing a part of his shield with his other hand to block the creature's hoof.

"What's with this thing?!" he panted.

"C-Ceas!" Lamia's hands glowed green immediately, she ran towards Ceas as the others attacked the deer.

Olivia acted quickly, hitting its leg with her hand axe as Ceas finally freed himself of its strength. The landsknecht flinched however, her weapon recoiled as it made contact with the limb and as far as she could tell, the beast leaped away with just a scratch as proof of her strike; It felt like she had just hit a rock, and her arms hurt because of it.

Ceas looked hopelessly at the fight while Lamia checked his hand, her eyes teary. His wrist was curved unnaturally, part of it turning purple, and his bones went upwards creating a visible mound on his flesh; The protector yelled in pain as the medic grabbed his broken limb with her two glowing hands.

"Hold on, hold on," she repeated.

Surt and Natalia fired their arrows and flames at the deer respectively. The monster didn't seem any more hurt, in fact it only seemed even angrier.

It once again began charging towards them, but this time Olivia noticed something peculiar: Its strength was incomparable to that of the other beast, but it still acted the same way, attacking head-on as if it was too focused on one specific target.

It was her chance, while the deer trotted towards the alchemist and survivalist she yelled, gripping her axe tightly and aiming towards the beast's head.

But then, pain. Her head began spinning as she stopped moving, it pulsing as if it were about to explode.

It couldn't be, her fever was back at the worst possible moment. Lamia did say it was temporary, but for the medicine's effects to end right as she was fighting made her feel pale. Worse still, she didn't hit anything, the deer had managed to reach her two guildmates.

"Olivia!" they shouted as they thankfully dodged the hit caused by the monster. She ignored her headache as much as she could while she tried running towards the deer, taking advantage of the fact that it wasn't looking at her.

But just like how the fight started, the deer turned in an instant, and it let out a bloodcurdling scream as it knocked the landsknecht back.

Olivia's ears rang for what felt an eternity, and her vision blurred as she tried to discern what she was looking at.

Was it her allies, the deer, a tree or even the floor? She couldn't tell who was who as she swung her axe in a fit of panic. She staggered, it was clear that she missed what she hoped was the deer and just flailed her arms wildly at the air.

A creeping sound of heavy steps sounded closer and closer, and the floor trembled with each pace as she frantically kept looking at each corner while limping from tree to tree, blindly trying to avoid danger. The pain in her torso made it clear, she had been kicked by the deer. 

"Was this it?" She thought, her vision didn't get any less cloudy and the steps became even louder.

Many guilds who managed to complete the initiation mission didn't make it past the second floor and soon were forgotten, its members added to the massive, invisible list of casualties within Yggdrasil. She was afraid that she too would end up joining said list along with her guildmates; The door leading towards survival was closed right in front of her eyes, and instead she was to be swept away, dragged by the many who failed before her.

No…It couldn't end like this, of course it couldn't. Though she could neither see nor hear, she had to open that door and go through no matter what. She noticed she was standing next to a tree.

She didn't know whether her guildmates were going through the same as her, but if she indeed was the only one affected by the deer's yell then she had even more of a reason to act.

There was no guarantee she would succeed, in fact she was certain it could possibly mean her own death should it fail, but it was the most she could do if she wanted to defeat that monster. She focused one last time as she ran towards what seemed to be a fight, and she screamed, she screamed loudly enough that her throat dried up and started to ache.

"I'm over here, you damn monster!"

For a second she didn't know who or what exactly she was shouting at, either way she was planning on baiting that deer, using its mindless rushing to gets its antlers stuck on the tree next to her.

Her headache worsening and her whole body feeling weaker with each second, she didn't know if her guildmates would reach her in time or if she was loud enough to attract the deer in the first place. The stomps became even worse then, the second scenario became more plausible.

That's when a blue figure began getting bigger and bigger in front of her, yet the stomps came from another direction. She prepared herself for the worst outcome and sighed one last time before taking a step back, but she suddenly stopped.

Her headache, along with her other injuries, became unbearable to the point that a single step caused her to whimper as she fell to the floor on her back. 

Why now…Why now of all times…She turned around, her hands barely able to reach her face as she tried covering it with them.

It was over, she was going to die. With tears falling from her eyes she began recounting everything that happened to her ever since she left her home to become an adventurer, the two weeks she spent with Guild Boldhunt and became more and more attached to them, Lila, the girl she had met on that evening and whom she wanted to spend more time with, all gone in a single day.

She looked one last time at the fuzzy silhouette before closing her eyes.

And then, nothing. She opened her eyes and stared silently as the blue figure just stood there, being lifted by a much larger shadow.

Olivia blinked a few times, other than the pain caused by her headache and the kick she felt nothing. Both figures stood still as she felt something dragging her away, when she looked to see who it was, she felt a hand going through her face; Her vision and hearing cleared.

It was Lamia, along with the remaining three members. The medic wasn't looking at her however, rather she stared right in front of the two as sweat ran across her anxious face. She heard roars, and looked as well. 

It was something they've never seen before. A creature similar to a longhorn bull with parts of red fur on its head, piercing the deer with its metal horns before throwing it to the floor, effortlessly crushing its body with its large hoofs.

"Thread," she murmured.

Her whole body trembled as the bull made eye contact with the guild. She panted as she immediately began looking through her bag; Surt and Natalia carried Ceas, a clear expression of fear plastered over their faces.

Olivia finally realized the stomps that she had heard came from the bull all along. In a way, she was confused on seeing it as either some sort of unlikely savior or simply an opportunist who saw two distracted victims in one place.

Lamia immediately yelled at everyone else as she hastily took the thread out of her bag, not caring that she dropped other items to the floor.

"GRAB THE THREAD!" she screamed the closer the bull rushed towards them. Panic struck everyone as they began disentangling it to no avail, it wasn't doing anything; They could almost feel the bull's breathing the more they held onto the item. 

But suddenly, a blinding pink light began coming out of the thread. In the blink of an eye, all five members of Boldhunt were in front of Yggdrasil's entrance.

They all stood paralyzed for what felt like hours, people nearby gave them weird looks as they entered and left the labyrinth, yet they didn't even notice; They were too dumbstruck by what just happened to care. 

"We're…" Ceas blinked, multiple times in fact, to confirm that he and the rest of his guild were indeed back home and it wasn't all just delirium. 

"Safe…?" Lamia looked at her hands, the thread seemed to have burnt, and surrounding them were various leaves different to that of the forest they were in. She fell to her knees, tired. Everyone else soon followed.

"We made it," Olivia wanted to say, but before she could open her mouth, she heard Natalia yelling her name.

"What's wrong with you?!" the survivalist exclaimed, frustrated. "Why the hell did you risk your life like that, you think you're some kind of hero trying to get yourself killed?!" Her voice was broken, and tears could be seen flowing across her face.

"I..." Natalia tried to continue, but by then she was an emotional wreck, sobbing uncontrollably in front of the landsknecht. "Anais…" she muttered to herself while hugging her own shoulders, shuddering. 

"Anais…?" The landsknecht wondered who Natalia was referring to, she wanted to comfort her at the very least, tell her she was sorry, but she knew that she was right. Even if her plan had worked, what would have happened there?

Hope the monster simply stand still until it died? Run away just like her first encounter in a vain attempt to give her guildmates more time? It was clear that she was reckless, gambling her life unnecessarily.

As much as she wanted to justify it by saying it was during a tense situation, even she knew that wasn't a good reason to do things on her own like that. "Natalia, I—" 

She winced, and her vision blurred more as her headache and torso began hurting, a sensation similar to that of nausea made her feel lightheaded.

The medic treated the injured landsknecht, and upon realizing she had fractured ribs she began focusing a lot more than usual.

"Lamia, wait!" Surt yelled as he realized what she was doing. Ceas shivered, he ran towards the medic as she continued healing the girl's body.

"Lam—" The protector's eyes widened when her hands abruptly stopped glowing. Lamia went silent for a few seconds, her eyes closed before she coughed violently. There was blood coming out of her mouth and she soon tumbled towards the floor

Olivia sat up, her pain dissipated enough that she could see Lamia's body lying next to her. "L-Lamia...?!" 

"No!" Ceas uttered as he kneeled towards the medic and checked her pulse; She was still breathing. Immediately, Ceas began carrying Lamia even with his injured hand feeling like burning the more he carried his wife.

"What are you waiting for, we need to go!" Olivia stood up worried as she and the other two members followed Ceas to town.

Chapter Text

Taurus 12 - 10 A.M. Lamia opened her eyes, gasping for air as if she had just woken up from a bad dream. Her head was spinning around in place and she placed her hand on it, wondering what happened to her to be laying on bed with sweat running across her body and only a faint recollection of the day before.

Next to her, Ceas was sitting on a chair with his eyes closed, a small bed sheet covering his upper body and a small splint placed on one of his wrists. "Ceas..."  

The protector woke up, and upon seeing the medic looking at him he gasped.

"Lamia, you're awake!" He exclaimed as he checked on her, sighing in relief once he knew she was fine. "You had no idea how much you scared me," he muttered as he hugged Lamia with his uninjured hand, tightly holding her. Lamia stared at him, both confused yet comforted. She then noticed that she wasn't at home.

The walls were painted in a lighter blue, two wooden chairs were placed next to her small single-sized bed, it was clear that she was in a hospital room.

 

Chapter 6: Discovery

 

After Lamia collapsed, Ceas and company had to rush towards the hospital to get everyone treated. Olivia, Ceas and Lamia were then all hospitalized given their worse condition compared to Natalia and Surt. Ceas was let go by the hospital on the same day they treated his wrist, yet he stayed with Lamia.

Ceas looked at his splint, his wrist was still swollen and with each slight movement he tried to force into his fingers it stung. Lamia certainly helped him speed up the recovery process as the doctors who treated him suggested, he was thankful that he wouldn't have to wait weeks or possibly months' worth of resting for his wrist to heal. 

Yet...Lamia...To him, it wouldn't matter if his wrist was completely healed in an instant if it meant Lamia suffered because of it. The more he repeated seeing the memories of his lover fainting, the worse he felt.

"What happened," the medic asked with worry written on her eyes. The protector held his breath but before he could speak, Lamia remembered the series of events that led to their situation.

"Where's Olivia?!" She said as she quickly got up before falling to her knees in exhaustion. Ceas stood up as well and grabbed her before she fell further.

"It's alright, she's fine." He sighed.

"S-She is...?" Lamia looked incredulous, but Ceas' stern expression told her he was telling the truth. The protector then sat on the hospital bed with the medic next to him. 

It wasn't the first time Lamia collapsed the way she did. Ever since she found out her ability to heal naturally, a phenomenon very few people had, to Ceas it was more like a double-edged sword than a blessing. A sword which made him fear that one day, it could cause the protector to lose her. 

He didn't know what to think, nor how to feel. She had saved countless lives before because of it and she just saved Olivia's as well, but at the cost of her own health.

"Lamia..." Countless words sprang around his mind, yet he was unable to utter any of them. He felt something, Lamia's hand caressing his.

"I know what you're thinking," the medic said, leaning her head next to his shoulder. "You don't need to worry."

Ceas sat silently, looking at Lamia with frustration.

"I Am worried though," he said. "It's just," he stuttered as he put his hand away. "It's just not okay for you to neglect your own health like that!"

He hugged Lamia again, but this time the medic could feel his body shaking. He tried to hold his tears back but failed, and he cried with his arm wrapping her. 

The two have had this sort of conversation before, as far back as when she started studying medicine, but each time Lamia promised Ceas that she would take her of herself.

Yet there were still times when she overdid herself and ended up where she was now: Tired, with a faint recollection of previous events and with a slight, but very real pain coursing through her. And each time she woke up she didn't know whether to feel guilty about it or not, and Ceas didn't know whether to feel disappointed or not.

Many would still be sick or even dead if it wasn't for her, but whenever she used her healing hands it was more like she transferred whatever ailed her patients onto herself.

Or rather, it felt as if she transferred part of her own life onto them. 

Lamia hugged Ceas back, comforting the protector as her hands brushed his short hair and built back. "I'm sorry," she said. Ceas looked at her, and sniffed one last time, his fingers passing below his eyes to clean his tears.

"No, I'm the one who should say that." He sighed, putting the back of his head above the hospital bed and looking at the ceiling.

"We went through hell yesterday, I shouldn't be acting like this," Ceas muttered. "Olivia, and all those people you saved back then needed your help, so you didn't have a choice. Besides, I'm the leader and yet here I am, being a crybaby about it."  

The medic couldn't help but let out a small chuckle over that comment, "That's because you Are one." She smirked. Ceas sneered and sat up, faking a cough.

"H-Hey, I don't cry All the time."

"I'm not saying it like it's a bad thing," Lamia said. She wanted to comfort the protector more, but seeing him calmer gave her an opportunity. She smirked.

"...But what about that time you hit your elbow on a wall when we went shopping? Or when you accidentally tripped and your ice cream flopped to the ground, or—"

"That ain't fair, I was like twelve!" He laughed, and so did Lamia; Their worries from before seemed to have dissipated as the two continued teasing each other about miniscule events throughout their lives. Eventually, they heard a knock on the door. Or at least Lamia did.

"Right, right. You had us search for that toy for Hours even though I kept telling you had it home!" Ceas continued talking to himself, unaware that Lamia wasn't paying attention to him and instead she looked at the door opening.

A doctor walked in, letting Ceas know that he should be leaving. Said doctor was accompanied by Surt, who groaned at the protector, who instead kept talking. 

"And not only that," Ceas stood up. "Surt then hid the damn thing, just to piss us both off!" he said before laughing. "I swear he can really switch between being a smartass and being a dumbass at a moment's notice." Surt walked towards Ceas with his fists clenched.

"But don't tell him I said that, you know him well." And soon enough, Surt was standing next to him, his arms crossed. Lamia pointed Ceas towards him, he continued instead.

"Then that idiot—" Surt put his hand above Ceas' shoulder. 

"Not now, Surt. So as I was saying—" And Ceas kept silent. So did Lamia. Surt's fist was fully clenched and raising above Ceas' head, but the alchemist sighed and lifted his arm down. 

"That's the tenth hit I'm saving up, big man."

"No need to remind me, really." Ceas gulped. Surt shook his head and walked towards the hallway outside.

"Come on, let's go. You might need to hear this." 

"Is it something important?" Ceas asked. The alchemist did not respond, but instead gave the protector a frown which was enough to answer his question. "I...I see."

The two men quickly left the room as instructed by the doctor, and Surt checked the hallway to confirm nobody listened in. Once he did so, he turned towards Ceas.

"We'll tell Lamia about this. If she wants to, of course," Surt clarified. "It's not like we could keep the staff waiting here." 

Ceas sighed in relief, but deep down he wasn't sure whether that was what he wanted to do nor how he wanted to feel. "Did you find out more about them?" He asked, walking towards the lobby. 

"The reason why those two corpses were there, actually." Ceas stopped on his tracks hearing Surt. "We haven't found anything they could've defended themselves with," the alchemist said. "Not because they were scavenged, but because they weren't carrying any in the first place."  

"But, then...Why Were they in Yggdrasil?" Ceas asked. "Doubt they wanted to challenge the labyrinth with their bare hands, so how—"

"They were essentially murdered, Ceas, but not exactly by the monsters; They were forced there." 

The protector let out a gasp. He did hear Surt correctly, right? Murder? The labyrinth was known for being an extremely dangerous place with a high casualty rate, yet most deaths inside were caused by the wildlife or plain getting lost. To think that it wasn't the monsters, but a person just like him made Ceas shiver.

Surt felt similarly, glaring at the floor as his fists clenched.

"Who the hell would..." The protector wanted to know more, his mind forming more questions than he could process, and Surt clarified.

"I heard about it from the townsfolk, about a guard who confessed having led three people to their deaths in Yggdrasil. On the 3rd of Taurus."

Three people? Ceas' eyes widened as soon as he remembered the silk which covered the bodies, and the blood trails drawn from inside it to outside as if someone tried escaping. Surt confirmed that indeed, an unknown third person was with them, except their whereabouts were unknown. If they were still alive, that is. 

"Said guard was a thief," Surt said. "He and a few more criminals lead travelers and otherwise non-explorers into Yggdrasil with the gist of it being a safe, protected tour throughout its first floor."

Soon, Ceas began to connect the dots. "That means..."

"Yes," Surt nodded. "Once they reached far enough into the labyrinth, the guards would threaten their targets into either giving up their money or leaving them to die." Whoever those guards were, Ceas wanted to punch them countless times. Surt continued, he too seemed to get angrier the more he talked about them.

"Their victims were often people who didn't want to become explorers," the alchemist said. "The chance of them fighting back were minimal; It'd be the perfect crime. But then..."

"Those butterflies showed up, right?" Ceas' stomach turned at the thought of it.

It was like hanging onto someone's hand as one was about to fall off a cliff, yet the one holding the other threatened to let go unless they obeyed. The one hanging for dear life wouldn't be able to have a say in the matter. But then, as soon as they're about to reach the surface, a demonic hand would grab onto them from below, and drag them towards the abyss. 

"Correct," Surt grumbled. "On the same day we formed our guild, the thieves convinced a family of three into joining them." Thus, the alchemist went silent for a while. Ceas stared at him with an astonished, horrified look on his face. Surt continued.

"Most likely the bastard who started all this wasn't actually ready to carry out his threats," Surt's eyes closed halfway. "Seeing someone Die because of it made him have a change of heart." And with that, he shook his head. "Pretending to be sorry after all he's done to innocent people..."

"At least we won't be seeing him soon, I guess." The protector let out a nervous laugh. Many of his questions were still unresolved, and probably will never be answered: What happened to the rest of the thieves, where is that unknown, third victim and most importantly...

Who were those three people?

The two men reached the lobby, filled mostly with explorers waiting for their guildmates to recover. Surt and Natalia must had been sitting there for a long time, Ceas thought to himself. 

Natalia...He hasn't seen her ever since he was admitted to the hospital. Ceas did tell her that she would be resting on Surt's home until he, Lamia and Olivia came back, so either she stayed there or was with the landsknecht. Which reminded him...

He asked the staff about Olivia, and was relieved to find out her injuries by then had been treated and that it would take a few days until she fully recovered. Lamia certainly made the doctors' job easier, the protector thought with a half-hearted chuckle. 

The time came when the remaining members of Boldhunt were allowed to leave the hospital, a week of waiting finally passed and Ceas waited for the landsknecht and medic outside. 

"Surt said he was busy so he couldn't come here," Ceas said to the two. He frowned soon after. "Natalia on the other hand...I don't know; she hasn't said a word since." He looked at Olivia, her expression being oddly familiar to him. It was similar to the one that Natalia kept during their down time, that of an unrelenting unease that further plagued her thoughts.

Yet Olivia's felt more as if she were doubting something.

Ceas believed it could've been because, in a way, their fight with that powerful deer was their very first loss. That could've been a reasonable explanation, but when he asked Olivia about it, all he could get was a dismissal. "I'm fine," was all she would say. 

Olivia didn't look at either Lamia nor Ceas as she walked outside the hospital. Something troubled her to the point she didn't say anything as the three walked back to the couple's house: Something else that she didn't want to tell them.

Natalia only stared at Olivia as she entered the building and walked towards the guest room, where she immediately jumped to bed and sighed. 

The landsknecht could only hope their next trip to Yggdrasil would go better, yet as night came and everyone else slept, Olivia couldn't shake her feeling of feebleness the more she pictured Natalia's lashing and Lamia's fainting on that day...

Chapter Text

Taurus 20 - 5 A.M. 

Olivia laid sideways as she constantly opened and closed her eyes in an attempt to wake up. The sounds of bird chirping outside the window caused nothing but frustration and she put a pillow in between her ears. 

She had to get up, of course she had to. Yet, she didn't move. Her whole body felt heavy, like if it were a statue, and she stared at the wall with an uninterested look. 

"Hey." 

The teen's eyes moved up, it was Natalia.

"We're exploring today, aren't we?" The survivalist said with her back turned towards the girl. The latter didn't respond, and the older woman left without a word.

It had only been by then that Olivia realized her face was wet. Tears. Tears that she didn't know was letting out, nor did she know why she was letting them out. 

"What the hell am I doing...?"

 

Chapter 7: Anomaly

 

"On my mark...Three...Two..."

Ceas lowered each of his fingers with each passing second as he peeked behind one of the Emerald Grove's many colossal trees. The deer in front of him, named the Ragelope by the few who survived encountering one, had been patrolling the path in front of Guild Boldhunt ever since they entered the bottom second floor, as far as they could tell.

Yet, unlike last time, they were prepared. 

"One...!"

Ceas gripped his new Aspis shield as he began to stand straight, his focus now set on the other side of the path. Next to him, everyone else readied themselves for the brief window in which the Ragelope would be completely still.

"NOW!"

With one swift motion, four of the five members of Boldhunt ran past the deer. The Ragelope, hearing the sounds of heavy steps from behind it, turned towards them. It seemed as if simply running across wasn't going to work, and that they just committed the exact same mistake as last time.

But that couldn’t be further away from the truth; They had learned. Ceas couldn't help but smirk when he felt the Ragelope's devilish sights set on them. 

Before it could even make a single move, an arrow flied towards one of its crimson eyes from above, shattering it and causing the monster to recoil in pain as its body collapsed to the ground. A laugh was heard.

“Sucks being the one on the floor, doesn’t it?!”

Lowering her bow, Natalia jumped from bough to bough and soon reached the ground to meet the rest of her guildmates. Success! They have evaded the Ragelope's rage, taking another step forward! The adrenaline in the five’s bodies soon faded, and they all let out their breaths almost simultaneously.   

“Right,” Ceas cleared his throat and put his shield on his back. “It probably won’t be the last Ehfoe…Whatever that thing’s called.”

“F.O.E.” Surt took a glance at the knocked monster, and he was relieved to confirm that it wouldn’t get up soon. He drew the location of the floor they were in.

An intersection in which they were on the right side of. Surt could tell they were on the east, and down to the south was the body of the Ragelope. He charted both the area it patrolled and the path to the right of the F.O.E, which he remembered from his last trip to Yggdrasil.

“But you’re right,” The alchemist put his pen back on one of his pockets. “This whole floor might be filled with them for all we know.”

Surt had taken the time in which Boldhunt was out of commission to get information from fellow explorers. The fact that there were two identical looking enemies, yet one of them was incredibly more powerful than the other caused confusion amongst many who have travelled below the first floor.

F.O.E. Standing for Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens, that was the acronym fiendish monsters like the Ragelope were assigned by the explorer folk.

The Ragelope was a special case. It was identical to the other type of deer found on the bottom second floor, denominated a “Fender.” Yet one could still differentiate one with the other if comparing their attitudes.

The weaker one, the Fender, was the more active monster. It sought out explorers throughout the floor rather than in specific locations like the Ragelope, more often appearing out of seemingly nowhere rather than visibly show its presence.

For the Radha, drawing the first floor was the requirement to become an explorer. To adventurers themselves, being able to tell between both monsters and live was the True initiation mission.

Or at least that was what Surt believed when he told his guildmates about the term.

“Sheesh, I get it,” Ceas brushed his hair. “They’re like cheap shots for newbies! Didn’t think I’d ever hate deer in my life but whaddya know?”

The protector let out a hearty laugh as he walked towards his guildmates. “How about you, people?”

“We shouldn’t be joking like that.”

He looked to see who said that, and was surprised to find it was Olivia. Rather than smiling like the rest of her guildmates, Olivia kept her eyes half opened as she grimaced, staring at the floor.

“We could’ve died.”

“H-Hey now,” Ceas lifted his palms, trying to calm the landsknecht down. Olivia on the other hand only frowned with even more intensity.

“Someone could’ve tripped, or Natalia could’ve missed, or— “

“Olivia?!”

“…” Olivia kicked the dirt below her as she fumed, gripping her axe. “I’m fine.”

Everyone else stared at the brunette, with worry and confusion visible on their eyes. Yet Natalia felt something entirely different.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Olivia turned her back towards Natalia, who was fuming. She kept silent.

The air became tense as both the survivalist and landsknecht stared at each other with what could only be perceived as increasing frustration. A small drop of sweat trailed through Ceas’ face as he looked at the two.

“Cut it out, this ain’t the place to be lashing out at each other.” He said as he stepped in between the two.

“Oh, but is the entrance a good place to do so?”

He looked back at Olivia. As quickly as she opened her mouth, she closed it and let out an irritated growl. The protector turned his head to the Survivalist. Unsurprisingly, she was just as angry as the girl.

Ceas had to do something, even if he had no idea what happened to the two. Or well, an Exact idea.

But before he could say a word, Lamia stepped in.

Within seconds, both of her hands were pulling Natalia and Olivia’s ears as she gave them a stern glare. “Both of you,” she said. “Sort this out. Now.”

Natalia and Olivia’s eyes both were opened wide. Lamia’s glare could only send chills down their spines, and even Natalia unconsciously gulped.

“I…Well…”

“I’m still affected by last time, is all.” Olivia sighed, “You were just worried. It’s fine.” And with it, she moved Lamia’s hand away from her ear as she stood up. Her feelings of frustration turned to that of loathing and shame.

“I’m sorry,” she let out a laugh. “That whole week we could’ve done Something,” Olivia clenched her fists. “But instead, because of me, we—”

“Olivia.” But Natalia’s frustration only seemed to worsen. “Why are you— “

The survivalist stopped. Her whole body turned tense and she looked everywhere she could as her breathing became more erratic. It wasn’t just her. Surt could feel that something was happening.

“An earthquake…!”

Everyone else gave the alchemist a confused look; They haven’t felt anything.

The two continued standing completely still, while the rest of Guild Boldhunt could only do so much as to wait for them to come to their senses.

Olivia on the other hand was worried. Last time, when she was fighting the Ragelope, she felt the floor shake with each heavy step she heard. Said steps were caused by the other type of F.O.E found on the bottom second floor, the Kuyutha bull.

“Guys, I don’t think it’s an earthquake.” She said, but the two didn’t pay attention to her. She groaned, and along with Ceas and Lamia, she searched for any signs of a Kuyutha being present.

Except, there were none. No matter where she looked, no bull was present. Nothing but tree after tree.

Natalia then balanced herself, and she walked towards the rest of her guild. Surt followed soon.

“It stopped,” the survivalist said before realizing she was still shaking, not from the tremor itself but due to dread. “How come you three didn’t feel it?”

In a way, it was justifiable. The earthquake that had taken place was weak enough that most people would simply not even realize it was happening in the first place. However, Natalia and Surt sensed it and even as small as it was, the two couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was off.

“It might’ve not been an earthquake,” Olivia tried to say. “There are those bulls we met once. They can easily shake the floor with their stomps so it had to be them!”

“She’s right,” Ceas added, gesturing his arms open. “I mean, we All felt those stomps then. Even if us three haven’t noticed a possible earthquake, then— “

“That’s exactly the problem,” Natalia interrupted Ceas. She took off her hat and used it as a fan on her face. “If it Were that monster then all of us should’ve felt it. You said it yourself.”

“Besides, it was continuous.” Everyone turned to see Surt as he looked pensive towards one of the trees.

“The stomps caused by the Kuyutha are strong enough to shake the floor, yes. However,” he lifted a finger up and began to move his hand from right to left, lowering and raising his hand as he did so.

“They were stomps either way. The shaking only occurred in intervals with each step the beast took. What Natalia and I just felt was an actual earthquake, albeit small.”

Ceas hummed silently, and so did Olivia once they found truth in Surt’s words. An awkward silence spread throughout the five, but soon enough, Ceas clapped his hands and everyone’s attention were paid to him.

“What’re we getting all worked up for anyway, it’s just an earthquake. A tiny one to boot,” the protector said. “Come on, you guys!”

“Y-Yeah…Yeah, you’re right.”

Natalia fixed her hat, and soon the five resumed their exploration through the second floor. Just like thought, many Ragelope and even Kuyutha monsters awaited them. 

But to explorers who already faced danger, they proved to be nothing more than mere obstacles to be overcome; Like an athlete jumping through hurdles, Guild Boldhunt avoided F.O.E after F.O.E and soon enough found the stairs leading below.

“This…Took a lot longer than I thought.” Surt muttered to himself as he pulled out the map and charted the last portion of the floor left.

“Should we go back?” Lamia asked, examining the path created by the rock stairs. She took a few steps to glance at the entrance to the bottom third floor, but as soon as she went down, she ran back.

“Nope, we’re going back,” She said exasperated as she opened her bag with clear panic.

“W-What’s wrong?” The rest of her guild moved towards the stairs with their weapons ready.

But they didn’t have to wait for an answer as they saw what, to them, would be the most threatening monster they’ve seen yet.

An incredibly large mantis-like creature with long steel scythes moved at an incredible speed across an open clearing, as if it were floating. It was only when it stopped that they could see transparent wings on its back.

“Son of a…!” Ceas backed away. He wasn’t going to fight That thing now, was he?! Everyone else followed him upstairs, where Lamia sat pale.

“I,” The protector stuttered. “I see now,” he faked laughing. “Lamia?”

“That,” she shook her head. “That had to be the Ugliest thing we’ve met yet. No, doubt we’ll find even worse things…”

She reached her bag, examining and moving each item she wasn’t interested in. Before long, however, she was taking out each object put in there and double-checking every pocket in case she missed something.

“It can’t…” She murmured before dropping to the floor on her knees. “Wire.”

“Wire?” Surt asked.

“I forgot the Warp Wire.”

The silence that had plagued the guild back then had returned, but now for completely a completely different reason.

“Y-You’ve gotta be kidding,” Olivia took a step back away from Lamia. Quickly, she and the rest of her guild checked every inch of her bag in a vain attempt to find the thread, their life-line.

But they found nothing.

The landsknecht’s breathing became more hysteric, and her pupils dilated at the mere thought of it.

They had no means of escape other than their own legs. What was going to happen now? Would they be able to go back home by foot? Should they stay and wait for someone else to help them?

More questions arose from the panicked girl’s mind, until a voice caught her, and everyone else’s attention. Surt spoke up.

“We know this floor,” he said. “There is no reason to be afraid. We’ve avoided every F.O.E so far, after all.” He brushed his long hair as he sighed.

“Surt…” Ceas backed him up. “What he said. This floor’s big but so is our strength!” He said, before a small feeling of regret reached him. He shook his head.

“W-We’ll be fine.” The protector grabbed his shield and held it tightly around his hand. “Just do what we’ve been doing this whole time and we’ll be back before you know it!”

Yes, yes that would be right; Ceas certainly had the right idea, yet Olivia was still unconvinced by it all. The way she and her guildmates looked, it was clear that their energies were spent running away from each and every F.O.E while fighting off the rest.

Seeing the content inside Lamia’s bag be placed on the floor, while they looked for a Warp Wire, made her realize that they were running low on medicine as well. Once again the view of an unconscious Lamia surged on the landsknecht’s face.

She grimaced, and her clenched fists tightened even more as her eyes squeezed. “I won’t mess up this time,” she thought to herself as the five gathered enough courage to take a step back.

At all times, she was expecting monsters or even an F.O.E they had missed to suddenly show up. They knew how to maneuver around the latter, yes, but the more she walked deeper into the forest the more anxious she became.

Yet, on the same intersection they had encountered their very first F.O.E, something entirely different greeted them.

“We…” Surt checked his map, confusion setting on his face the more he looked at it and the view on front of him. “We Did go through here, didn’t we?” he asked.

“How should I know?” Ceas took a step forward, his shield raised. “Everywhere looks the same. We should’ve noticed this immediately.”

“But we didn’t.” Natalia, like Ceas, moved forwards. She blinked to confirm that she was indeed seeing it.

A large crater, hidden beneath the woods, was created next to where they had encountered the Ragelope deer Natalia had shot back then. The creature was nowhere in sight, only a trail of blood which led to the crater itself.

Yet when they followed the trail, what awaited them was enough to make their gag reflex trigger. Around the edges of the crater, the creature had been mauled, gore spraying throughout the grass and into the hole as the remaining upper half of its body twitched as if it were still feeling pain.

No, mauled wasn’t the right word for it. The way it looked, it was more as if it had disappeared completely, only leaving the deer’s insides slowly sliding outside its body for everyone to see.

“What happened here…?!” Olivia couldn’t stand to see the monster as it was, the mere smell caused her to back away.

The corpse was but a distraction to what they should’ve truly focused on. Surt looked at the crater itself and realized that, just like the deer, it was as if it had vanished.

If it were a monster, or someone who had caused it, then there should have at least been signs of struggle nearby. Steps, blood, used or broken equipment, anything. Yet there were none. Most importantly however, both the crater and the corpse should’ve been…Less clean.

The lower half of the deer was nowhere to be seen, and the outline of the hole was like a perfect circle.

Something wasn’t right, yet Surt couldn’t understand what was happening.

And then, the floor shook. “Again?” asked Natalia. But no, this time the shaking stopped, only to continue resuming and pausing.

Before they realized what those sensations meant, the sounds of roars and branches being broken could be heard. A fight had started near them.

“W-What should we do?” Olivia grabbed the handle of a new axe made from bone, yet it almost slipped away from her hand due to the tremors created in front of Guild Boldhunt.

They had to escape; That was the plan they were going for at the start, it’s not like they Had to fight it. Yet…

A human scream originated from where the roars came from.

“The hell’s this thing?!”

The girl’s blood ran cold the second she heard it, a fellow labyrinth explorer was fending off against an F.O.E! Before she knew it, she was running towards where she thought the fight was.

But then, her arm was pulled from behind. Natalia was grabbing it.

“Where do you think you’re going?!” She pulled Olivia back to her group. She was furious.

“Where do You think?!” said the girl, “Someone’s in trouble there!”

“And you’re strong enough to save them,” Natalia scowled. “Give me a break. Look at us! Look at yourself!”

Natalia pushed Olivia back, and grabbed her own hat in frustration, folding it with anger. Olivia stood up, and at that point she was even thinking of punching Natalia in the face. Yet her fists softened when she saw a tear falling from her visible eye.

“Throwing your life like that Again…!” She trembled as she tried to hold back more of her tears. But she stopped when she heard more screams coming from the other side of the forest. The survivalist stood silent, still grappling her hat as she stared at Olivia with empty eyes. Olivia on the other hand looked at the rest of her guild.

“G-Guys!” She gestured her face towards the sounds of fighting. “We need to do Something!”

Ceas had been pondering for seconds that felt eternal. Yet despite his and everyone else’s tiredness, he couldn’t think of anything else.

“We’re going in,” he walked towards Olivia. “Grab your weapons, because I’m sure as hell not going to see others die again.”

The landsknecht looked surprised at the protector, but her questions were put aside as she let out a relieved sigh and turned towards the fight along with Lamia and Surt.

Natalia however, just looked at the four run deeper inside the forest. She took a step and reached her arm towards them, towards Olivia, but they were soon gone.

“What the hell am I doing?” With a groan, she threw her hat to the floor.

Chapter Text

Taurus 20, 12 P.M. 

Ceas huffed with each step he ran. He and most of his guild had followed the sounds of combat that went on for a while.

The crater they had found, and the bisected corpse of the Ragelope near it had taken up most of their thoughts by that point. Yet their questions would have to go unanswered until they reached whoever was fighting on the other side.

As she kept running, Olivia took a look around the forest, at her guild, and noticed something, or rather someone, was missing.

“W-Where’s Natalia?” she asked, trying not to let out a groan from both frustration and tiredness. Her legs were shaky as they were, yet she kept going.

“R-Right, where’s she?” Ceas panted. Soon, a leaf fell in front of him and he looked up, his question being answered in the process.

“I’m here,” Natalia grumbled as she followed the guild from above, jumping between trees. Her eyes were set in-front. Ceas sighed.

“Ya really like jumping from up above, huh?” The protector shook his head and stared at Olivia. She seemed mad.

“Alright, you two,” Ceas groaned, lowering his shoulders. “Why do you keep fighting?”

“Save it for later,” Natalia said from above. On the next bough, she jumped down and joined the rest of her guild. “Or better yet, just— “

“Shut up.” Olivia began running faster, and moved past the rest of her guild, gripping her bone axe tight.

“…I was about to say that.” Natalia let out a small laugh, slight spite coming from it as she followed Olivia.

Soon however, the survivalist’s breathing became heavier. Olivia kept running, yet where she was heading…!

Natalia leaped towards Olivia, pushing her back and causing her to accidentally hit Ceas.

“W-What the—”

Before the girl, and the others could say anything, a large shadow brushed past in front of them, heavy stomps created by it. Natalia had just saved Olivia from a Kuyutha F.O.E

An F.O.E in the middle of a fight…

 

Chapter 8: Fellows

 

“What the hell is with this thing…!”

In front of the Kuyutha, a blonde woman could be seen holding a long, leather whip on her palm. Next to her, a slightly smaller lady panting as she took a fighting stance with a sword thinner than usual.

The F.O.E itself was bleeding, arrows planted on its body left and right. Natalia looked around the field. Soon enough, she saw a similarly blonde man standing above a tree branch, its bow ready to fire against the monster.

Yet the creature deflected the arrow with its horns. It soon began rushing towards the two women.

A flame coming from behind caused the monster to stop however. Surt pointed his arm towards the F.O.E, burning its furred back.

“H-Huh?!” It took a second before the male survivalist noticed the guild that had appeared.

“Qarma!” He said to the blonde woman. She turned to look at him. Ceas as well looked at Qarma, his eyes opened in surprise.

“I gotcha!” She said back. The F.O.E turned its attention towards Guild Boldhunt, yet it was quickly overwhelmed by the two groups of explorers.

Using her whip, the woman known as Qarma wrapped her weapon around the two legs on the back of the monster. It tripped and fell to the floor on its face. She smirked as she pulled the whip back, trying not to loosen up. Ceas smote his shield on the beast’s head, forcing it to stay down.

“Now, Kaguya!” Qarma said.

“Got it!” The woman next to her, Kaguya, rushed towards the F.O.E. She drew breath and began focusing as she ran. With one swift blow, her sword cut through the Kuyutha’s body, creating a large gash where blood emanated from it.

“This…D-Damn…Resilient…Thing!” Both Ceas and Qarma struggled to keep the F.O.E on the ground. Despite its multiple wounds, the monster still squirmed.

But eventually, it drew its last breath. The beast had stopped moving before Ceas realized he no longer needed to keep his shield on top of it. Qarma let out a sigh as she dropped her knees to the floor and let go of her whip, her hands hurting from having gripped it for too long.

“W-We…” She brushed the sweat off her face, and showed a smile to Kaguya. “We did it!”

Kaguya smiled back at her. The two closed to each other and giggled. Qarma’s feet lifted off the ground giving little spins around the air as Kaguya held her with one strong hug.

Olivia couldn’t help but a grin at the sight of them, she scratched her face and moved towards them.

“Hey, you three!” She said, waving her arms towards them.

Qarma, noticing the girl, let go of Kaguya. The survivalist that accompanied the two on the other hand soon jumped to the floor to meet the rest of explorers.

“Are you alright?” The landsknecht tried to say, but her voice was silent compared to that of Ceas. He, Lamia and Surt all ran towards Qarma, the former two with smiles on their faces.

“Qarma!” the protector exclaimed. “You’re really her!”

Qarma hummed, but it only took a few seconds before she recognized the three.

“Ceas, long time no see!” she said, containing her enthusiasm. “And Lamia, and Surt too!” She pointed at the two. “And…Not you.” Then at Olivia. “Who are you?” she asked, rather bluntly.

Did her guildmates know each other? Olivia stared curiously at both Ceas and Qarma. The latter specifically…Kaguya was still hugging her.

“I-I’m Olivia,” the landsknecht said, keeping an eye on the brunette next to Qarma. “I just moved here, hehe…”

“I see! I see!” She attempted to walks towards the landsknecht, but she soon noticed Kaguya as well. “H-Hey,” she blushed.

“You forgot the important part.” Kaguya pointed at her lips, leading to Qarma’s face turning redder.

“Ah, could you give us a few seconds—” Before she could finish, Kaguya lifted herself up and gave Qarma a sudden, but tender kiss. The two women closed their eyes, blushing before their lips parted. Kaguya grinned, while Qarma could only laugh nervously.

“R-Right,” Qarma said. “I-I guess we shouldn’t be talking Here. Amadis?” She looked at the survivalist accompanying her. Olivia turned towards him.

Natalia was with the man known as Amadis. Both survivalists were checking the F.O.E’s body, scavenging part of its hide. The landsknecht sighed, it seemed the two were more preoccupied over getting resources than meeting new people.

And then…

“Rock.”

“Paper.”

Natalia mumbled a few insults that only Olivia understood, and she left as Amadis began attempting to remove the beast’s metal horns.

“So, we saved you.” Natalia said, dejected. “You two look cute together.”

“H-Huh?”

“Thank you!” Kaguya nodded at Natalia. Qarma let out a sigh as she walked towards Amadis.

“Hey, Amadis,” she put a hand on him. “Say something to our friends, will ya?”

“Talkative as always. Huh, sister?” he seemed as frustrated as Natalia, but rather because he couldn’t remove the horn. Being left with no choice, he brushed his own long, blonde hair as he joined the rest of the group. “Yo, Surt.”

“Huh, Me?” Surt looked at the survivalist, he hummed as the two stretched hands. “I mean, Hi.”

Both Ceas and Qarma laughed at the two. The latter stepped forward.

“So as I was saying, we shouldn’t be talking here,” She said. “What’ll you do now?”

“Well we’re…Stuck.” Lamia looked at her bag. “We were about to leave but then…Ceas forgot the wire.” She snorted.

“What Lamia said, it’s Ceas’ fault.” Surt added.

“Oh, come on!”

Qarma chuckled hearing the three, “It’s just like old times,” she thought to herself before speaking. “Good, we were leaving as well, actually!”



“Just follow Guild Halcon.” Qarma straightened her posture, as if wanting everyone’s attention paid onto her. “We may be new, but we treat our friends well.”

The two guilds became one for a short amount of time until they could reach the entrance. As they walked, Olivia looked at both Qarma and Kaguya.

The former’s more provocative outfit, made from dark, tight leather, along with her whip made her wonder what she was supposed to be. On her short time as an explorer, she looked deeper into the titles adventurers were labeled as.

Qarma’s description fitted that of a Dark Hunter, or huntress.

On the other hand, Kaguya looked nothing like something she had seemed before. Ronin, or Bushido for some people, were wanderers who utilized a special type of swords, Katana, which were often thinner yet longer than usual.

This meant Ronin weren’t exactly common among explorers, often enough only being seen in one out of every five or so guilds. 

Both the dark huntress and ronin were talking to each other while the Survivalist Amadis quietly listened.

Before they left, however, Ceas lead Guild Halcon towards the crater they had found.

“What the…!” Qarma took a step back. “Did you guys do this or—”

 “It was like that when we found it.” Ceas clarified. “You guys haven’t seen like an F.O.E or something like that here, right?”

None of the three answered positively. While they were busy on the crater itself, Natalia then noticed something near the crater that made her stop walking, and instead looked further.

It was practically unnoticeable to the common eye, yet to someone like Natalia it was clear that the crater had become smaller, a few millimeters or so, she thought, but it still meant that it had changed.

The grass surrounding the hole was proof of it: The area where blood that left the bisected Ragelope had a very small portion that was clear, and the grass itself felt more…Recent, as if it had been just planted right then and there, with no signs of ever being stepped on by either an explorer or monster.

“You noticed it, too?” Natalia shrieked as Surt stood behind her. He too was looking at the crater’s outline.

“This place is clearly not normal.” The survivalist answered, fixing her hat. “So what now, dark hair?”

“Hmm?”

“I mean Surt. This is probably just another Yggdrasil thing,” Natalia sighed. “Like your flames not being a threat to every single living being here.”

“Back to your usual self?” Surt asked, one of his eyebrows raised.

“No,” Natalia shook her head. “Or…I don’t know; I guess I’m feeling better,” she shrugged. “Somewhat…”

The alchemist sighed. “Natalia,” he said. “I may not be the best person to say this but—”

“Keep it to yourself,” the survivalist stood up, frowning. “Just…Leave me alone…”

Seeing he would go nowhere if he continued talking to her, Surt drew breath and left the survivalist. But right as he turned his back on her, he heard a whisper.

“Why…” Natalia murmured. “Why does she keep reminding me…?” 

“Natalia.”

But the survivalist didn’t answer.

“Let’s go.” Without saying a word and with her eyes half-opened, Natalia left the crater and moved towards Ceas to tell him the same thing.

Worried, but nonetheless slightly understanding, Ceas nodded. “I don’t think we’ll be able to figure anything out from here.” He said before calling everyone to him.

“So,” Qarma clapped her hands. “We Did just beat an F.O.E,” she said. Everyone else turned to see the dark huntress. She smirked before letting out a laugh.

“Yep, drinks’ on me this time!” she wrapped one arm around the ronin.  “I gotta tell you All about Kaguya and I,” she continued as she looked at Ceas. “Plus about you three! This town may’ve not changed much, but you guys sure did!”

A celebration…For all that had happened on that day, Olivia didn’t have any complaints. In fact, she seemed happy, resting was the only thing that she was thinking of.

Then again, it’s not like she would be to drink. Being able to talk with her guildmates, along with Guild Halcon was enough for her.

Her guildmates…That included Natalia, obviously…

“You will go to the pub?” Olivia asked as she shuffled her legs around the floor. “W-Well, have fun. I’ll just…” She scratched her face once again.

Noticing her behavior, Lamia stepped in and gave her a playing push.

“No need to be shy now,” the medic said, giving a reassuring smile. “They’re very good friends.”

“I-I guess but—” Lamia quietly interrupted Olivia.

“You Need to talk to her, anyways.” She looked at Natalia as she listened to the rest of explorers.

Olivia didn’t answer, but nodded. She knew she had to apologize after what happened, most importantly however, there was something that she had to know.

Natalia…Despite being with her for almost a whole month, it always felt as if she was hiding something not just from her, but her entire guild. And her snarky, care-free attitude often changed in a dim to that of…grieving, in the landsknecht’s own words.

After she had fought the Ragelope, and before her wounds worsened, the girl remembered a name which Natalia mentioned in the middle of her rant.

Anais.

Olivia was curious, yet a part of her wasn’t sure whether she should ask Natalia about it or not. The way the survivalist repeated that name made her shudder, as if the survivalist had remembered something horrible and wasn’t able to shake it off her mind.

The eight explorers soon managed to leave Yggdrasil safely. Qarma jumped excitedly the second she saw the gates to Etria, and soon enough they were all gathered inside the Golden Deer Pub.

On the outside, it all felt like just a common, friendly meeting between fellow explorers. But for Olivia…

 

Chapter Text

Taurus 20, 5 P.M.

“Man, I really needed that!”

The clacking of wooden cups resonated throughout the pub, along with the laughter of explorers who celebrated having lived for another day.

After selling each and every material both Guild Boldhunt and Halcon had gathered, the money they’ve gotten was soon spent celebrating their first victory over an F.O.E

All eight explorers sat on the same, large table, their worries seemingly gone.

 

Chapter 9: Sound

 

Qarma had taken a bite from one of the many snacks placed on the table. The tasty aroma of the food she had ordered for everyone, and the lively conversations taking place around her and the rest of explorers accompanying her made the dark huntress relax from a rather intense morning of adventuring.

“So,” she munched her food before continuing. “Let’s start with something simple.” The dark huntress clapped her hands as she stood up and leaned her head close towards Ceas, Lamia and Surt, essentially covering the whole table and startling everyone around it.

“Tell me! What did you three do after my little bro and I left?” She asked, sneaking one of Ceas’ potatoes into her own plate at the same time she slowly made her way back into her chair, laughing nervously.

Natalia gave Qarma a weird look, but kept silent as she began stealing it back from the latter.

“N-Not sure that counts as simple,” Ceas retorted, unaware of the theft. “There’s been a whole lot we’ve done.”

“How long has it been, anyway?” Lamia added as she cleaned her mouth with a napkin, her plate already empty. “Since you left, I mean.”

“About six years,” Surt responded. He glanced at the bubbles floating around the beer on his wooden cup, lifting it up and taking a sip.

“Five, actually.” Amadis said calmly as he leaned his chair back, looking at the ceiling. Surt put his cup on the table.

“Five,” he grumbled. “Anyway, I didn’t expect to find out you two were back,” the alchemist added as he looked at the blonde siblings. “Less so in Yggdrasil of all places.”

“You know me,” Qarma chuckled, “I’m good at surprises.” She placed her hand on Kaguya’s shoulder, “Ain’t that right?”

“To be fair,” In a swift motion, Kaguya grabbed Qarma’s hand and pulled the huntress closer towards her face until the latter could feel the ronin’s breath. “I’m better.”

Kaguya smirked. The others let out a laugh, while Qarma couldn’t stop herself from blushing visibly.

While all this happened, Olivia had been listening quietly at the six ever since she sat down, staring at her food while her hands rested on her legs.

Natalia was on the other side of the table, playing with the salmon she had ordered with a building feeling of awkwardness which caused her to sigh.

Frustrated, Olivia looked away from the survivalist and instead tapped Lamia’s arm next to her.

“Do you guys know each other?” She asked as she shifted her view from the medic to Qarma.

Qarma laughed, still flustered. “Of course, we’re all pals here!” She said as she stood up and held her drink up.

“T-That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“Y-Yeah, it doesn’t,” Qarma sat down again, brushing her hair away from her eyes. “But yes. My little bro and I met these three back then,” she said as she quickly pointed at the couple and Surt. “We used to live here for a few years.”

“And what about her?” Qarma looked next to her. Olivia herself was pointing at Kaguya, who was eating a rather large amount of food compared to the rest.

When the ronin realized they were talking about her, she stopped.

“Of course, I’m her pal too!” She raised her drink as she shouted, making everyone on the pub look at her. She seemed cheeky.

“N-No need to rub it in, you know…”

“Couldn’t help it,” Kaguya sat down with a smile, “You looked cute back there.”

“Kaguya…” Qarma shook her head.

“Soo…”

“Right.” And Kaguya stood up again. Her expression was serious, as if she had suddenly switched personalities. “I am Kaguya, eldest daughter of the Osaki Clan to the north! My mission is to conquer Yggdrasil!” she proclaimed.

“A-Alright,” Olivia moved her chair back as she let out a small, nervous laugh. She went silent for a few seconds afterwards. “…Mission?”

“Ah,” the ronin brushed her short, brown hair. “My mission is more of a personal goal of mine,” she said. “Like most of us explorers, I presume.”

The ronin began to smile as she said that. She looked at Qarma and her grin became even bigger. “I got a lot more than I thought I would, however,” she said as she put her hand above the huntress.

Just like with Lamia and Ceas, whenever Qarma and Kaguya interacted with each other, Olivia couldn’t help but feel happy about it. She had forgotten about her worries as she continued to stare at the two women displaying their love for one another.

“You two met recently then, right?” Olivia gushed. “Like…’Love at first sight’ met?” The more she asked about their relationship, the more excited Olivia became.

Kaguya chuckled at the landsknecht’s question. Qarma answered. “Pretty much,” she said as she hugged the ronin. “When my little bro and I created our guild, she was the first and only one to show up.”

“My mission was to challenge the labyrinth on my own,” Kaguya added before staring at Qarma from the side. “But when I saw her…” She began twirling her hair. “Well, I didn’t mind deviating from it a little.”

“Wow…” That was all Olivia could say. It was straight out of a book, in her own words. She wanted to hear more, and Qarma continued.

“Kaguya and I have been together ever since,” she looked at the ronin before setting her view on Ceas. “The most I could compare our relationship would be like…” But she stopped when she examined the protector’s left hand, the ring placed on it.

“Like…” She began looking around the table and soon enough found out Lamia wore a ring as well.

“Like…!” Suddenly, Qarma grabbed both Lamia and Ceas’ wrists, both the medic and protector jumped back.

“You two are married?!” The huntress asked as she examined the couple’s rings back to back.

The matching designs were enough to answer her.

“It was after you left,” Lamia clarified as she pulled her hand away from the huntress. “But yes, Ceas and I Are a couple.”

“Huh…Huh,” Qarma nodded her head in surprise. She sat down, but it was clear that her confusion wasn’t cleared yet. She made a puzzled expression as she pointed at Ceas.

“Weren’t you dating Surt?” Qarma asked rather bluntly, scratching her face while staring at the alchemist, who looked away with a blush.

Ceas blushed as well, leaning his head back in a flustered shock. “I-It’s…” Ceas stuttered. “Well—”

“Things didn’t work out at the end,” Surt gulped down his beer, “I mean we’re still on good terms but—”

“We preferred being Just friends instead, yeah.” Ceas scratched his hair and sighed. “Can we talk about something else?”

While Ceas said that, Olivia was curious to hear more about their relationship. But both Ceas and Surt didn’t seem to want to talk about it. She decided to stay quiet and instead eat her food.

Natalia had yet to eat hers, and when the two looked at each other Olivia gulped.

She coughed and hit the back of her neck before she could breathe again. Lamia looked at her, frowning.

“Olivia…” She said, dejected, “Come on.”

“Hey, why don’t You ask what her problem is?” Olivia asked with clear frustration. The worries she had before came back. Lamia glared at the girl upon hearing her.

“You have to do this yourself,” the medic said while putting an arm on the landsknecht’s shoulder. “Stop being so childish. You don’t want to keep fighting like this, do you?”

“I…”

Lamia was correct, like most other times. Of course she didn’t want to continue getting angry with Natalia, and she was sure the survivalist was thinking the same thing.

“I don’t.” Olivia sighed. She nodded her head at the medic with honest intent. “But can we wait a bit?”

“Sure…” Lamia patted the girl’s shoulder one last time before going back to the rest.

“So basically, we formed our guild at around the same time.” Amadis put a hand on his chin as he put one leg above the other. “Except sis and I showed up hours later and we just happened to miss each other.”

“Yeah, we’re the veterans here.” Ceas grinned as he began to drink along with everyone else. “But now that I think about it…” The protector put his cup down.

“I wonder,” he said, pensive. “We were obviously not the only guild to have formed on the third. I wonder what the many explorers we saw entering that day are doing now.”

“Yeah…I was curious about that as well,” Amadis responded. His expression became that of nervousness however. “I asked the Guildmaster about it yesterday.”

“And?”

“Well…It’s not exactly good news.” Amadis shifted his view away from Ceas, and into the ceiling. “Fifteen or so guilds had formed on Taurus 3,” he said, his eyes closed. “Ten of which have...Failed.”

A cold sweat ran across Ceas’ face, and silence suddenly sprang across the table.

“Three have yet to finish the Initiation mission,” the male survivalist continued. “And that leaves only two guilds who Have completed it: Boldhunt,” he looked at Ceas. “And Halcon,” then at Qarma.

Olivia couldn’t believe what she had heard.

Were the eight of them truly the only ones who passed the Initiation mission? And the ten guilds that died…She couldn’t imagine what they must have felt like on their final moments, to see their hopes vanish in an instant.

In fact, she didn’t want to imagine it, as she soon realized they might have been the very same people she saw when she first entered the Explorers’ Guild.

The guilds that were still attempting the mission weren’t much better off either; The fear of failing and becoming part of the victims of the labyrinth was still true to them.

No…It was true for every single guild, no matter if they passed the initiation mission or not.

Olivia noticed that Natalia had been staring at her ever since Amadis mentioned the statistics. She couldn’t help but let out a groan, and broke eye contact with her.

She had to be overthinking again, of course she had to; That was why Natalia was angry at her, or at least that’s what she believed was the case. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t.

Apologizing to her meant it had to be just the two of them.

“Sorry,” Amadis shook his head as the mood became damp.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Ceas said, “But we should be happy.” Everyone’s heads turned towards the protector, their eyebrows raised.

“Wait, I don’t mean it like that!” He corrected himself. “I mean we should celebrate…Still being here, ya know?”

One by one, they nodded. Eventually, their silence was replaced by the gulping noises of drinking. In fact, they drank from afternoon to evening, slowly forgetting about what they’ve just heard, and instead laughing it off.

Lamia’s face was flushing red by then, her half-opened eyes were set on Ceas and only mumbles came out of her mouth.

“Ceas,” she whispered. An equally drunk Ceas looked at her with a foolish smile. The medic soon put her face on the protector’s shoulder, snuggling it.

“Ya look tired,” the protector wrapped his arm around her, “Thanks for the food,” he hiccupped, “We’ll just…Go home, right, Lammy?”

“Yeah,” she raised her fist. “Doing…Home things, yep,” she giggled at him.

Olivia didn’t drink, for obvious reasons, even if a part of her wanted to try beer. She looked confused at the two. Despite being drunk, at least she was relieved to find out they still had some sense of responsibility to go home and rest…That was it, right?

Surt stood up and put himself in the middle of the drunken couple, shouldering them. His face was just as reddened as theirs, but Olivia could tell it was for a different reason. She didn’t understand what reason, though.

“I’ll get them home,” the alchemist said before glaring at Amadis. “Don’t you dare eat my food until I’m back.”

“You can trust me,” Amadis said, waving his hand. “Though, you may want to work on your choice of words.”

Surt raised one of his eyebrows, and left the pub while attempting to ignore both Ceas and Lamia’s drunken remarks and quips.

“I’m…” For the first time, Natalia had spoken. Amadis and Olivia both looked at her, surprised. “I’m going outside as well.” She said before standing up. Before leaving, she turned her head back and stared at Olivia.

She shifted her view to the ground for a short time as she frowned, and left. But Olivia could see a slight sense of sadness in her.

“Natalia…” Olivia mumbled to herself, “I’m leaving too,” she said. But she interrupted herself when she saw the remaining people around the table.

Amadis quietly stared at Surt’s food. Qarma and Kaguya both slept next to each other on their seats. The landsknecht hummed and stood still for a few moments, until a hand tapped her shoulder. It was Valerie.

“You can go now, if you want,” the barwoman said. “Kids like you shouldn’t stay here at this hour.”

“B-But—”

“It’s alright,” Valerie grinned. “You’re not the one paying, aren’t you?”

She did feel guilty, leaving Guild Halcon behind but she didn’t have a choice.

“Don’t worry about us.” The landsknecht turned around to see Amadis, he calmly motioned his hand away. “I’m not asleep as you can see here, so you can go.”

“Right…”

And Olivia left the pub. She placed her hands inside her sleeves as she began to look for Natalia. Looking at the lights illuminating most of Etria made navigating through the town at night more comforting.

She went to Verda Plaza, hoping to see her in the center pillar, yet it was mostly empty with the exception of a couple of people sitting around it.

She sighed, and was ready to go to Ceas’ home, but then she saw her.

Natalia.

The girl walked to the survivalist as the latter sat on the ground next to an alleyway. Natalia’s eyes were only set on her hands, calmly wrapping around her own knees. Though her body was relaxed, Natalia’s mind was anything but.

Usually her hair, covered a large portion of her face. She never saw her full face until that point, nor did she comment on it, given it was probably just her hairstyle.

But seeing Natalia’s two emerald-colored eyes did surprise her slightly.

“Why are you sitting there?” Olivia asked.

“I’m tired, that’s it.” Natalia tried to justify herself, but she soon shook her head and stood up. “Can we…”

“Talk?”

“…Yeah,” she began to walk to the opposite direction of where Olivia was going. “Could you follow me for a bit?”

The lights became dimmer and dimmer as Olivia quietly walked along with Natalia. They soon reached the still guarded entrance to the town of Etria, yet Natalia continued to walk past it.

“H-Hey, we’re leaving town,” Olivia said, but Natalia kept going.

“We’re not going that far,” the survivalist said. “I just want some fresher air.”

Soon enough, the two guildmates found themselves staring at the many trees surrounding Etria. Olivia saw some people come and go; Explorers that attempted to challenge Yggdrasil at night, something that she didn’t have the courage to attempt.

She shook her head, and looked at Natalia with worry. She sighed.

“Natalia, I—”

“Are you afraid?” The survivalist asked as she looked at Olivia, sadness drawn on her eyes. Natalia leaned her back on a bough behind her and stared at the entrance from there.

“Huh?”

“I’ll admit,” Natalia glanced at the floor in silence. “I am…A little.”

“Afraid of what, though?” Olivia asked, and Natalia could only close her eyes before opening them again after taking a deep breath.

“Afraid of losing something important,” she said.

Olivia didn’t answer. After everything that happened she understood what she had meant. Yet…

“I…I’m sorry,” the landsknecht muttered. “I guess I’m scared, too.”

“Is that why you keep doing it, then?” Natalia’s voice suddenly became angrier. She clenched her fists, “Risking your own life just because you don’t want to see Us get hurt?”

“N-Natalia?” Olivia stepped away from the survivalist. Seeing her reaction, Natalia calmed down. She sighed once again.

“Just…Don’t do that,” the survivalist said. “When you ran on your own on our first trip,” her voice became shakier. “I just…I just couldn’t shake that horrible image off my head.”

“Hmm?”

But Natalia didn’t elaborate further.

The night was dark, stars being the only light which reached the forest around Etria. Natalia stared at them as she sat on the grass beneath her. Her eyes narrowed.

“I…Heard about this once,” she began talking. “About if you can hear a tree as it falls.”

“What do you mean?” Olivia sat down as well.

“It’s…” Natalia brushed her hair around before snapping her fingers. “Right,” she said.

“Say you’re in the middle of a forest,” she raised one finger up with her right hand, and one with her left. She moved her left hand away from her right, and lowered the finger on it. “A tree falls down far away from where you are,” she explained. “Does it make a sound?”

Olivia scratched her cheek, confused. She didn’t know what Natalia was going for, and for all she knew she could be trying to avoid the subject. Nevertheless, she answered.

“I think, yeah?” She said, tilting her head.

“Let me change the question then, can you Hear it?”

“Well…”

“You can’t. That’s the only answer.” Natalia waited for Olivia to say something, her lips quivering.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Olivia finally asked.

“A lot, actually.” Natalia further elaborated as she started ranting. “When I heard about it,” she lifted her head up. “Usually the explanation for that kind of question revolved around whether something actually exists if we don’t know it does.”

“Huh?”

“I mean,” the survivalist explained. “If you can’t hear the sound of the tree falling, then do you even know if it made a sound?” She frowned. “That might be what whoever made that up was going for.” She brushed her hair once again, giving her bangs a slight twirl.

“But,” the survivalist squeezed her eyes, “I beg to differ.” And she stood up, looking further inside the forest.

“I didn’t give that question much thought until…Years later,” Natalia said. “But now, I see it as something else entirely. A reality.”

“A…Reality?”

Natalia nodded as she looked back at Olivia. “An unforgiving one…”

“You see,” she began to explain. “Normally, if a tree falls, it creates an extremely loud noise as it does.” She stomped her feet, as if to provide an example. “Anyone would be able to hear it should they be nearby.”

“But not if they’re far away, like in the question.”

“Exactly.”

Natalia seemed to be running around in circles with whatever she was trying to get at. Olivia’s confusion didn’t seem to clear any time soon.

The survivalist noticed her lack of understanding, and she sighed.

“Imagine you were trying to look for that exact tree,” she said. “But you only knew of it Before it fell. How would you react?”

Olivia took a few seconds to think of an answer. “I-I guess I’d be surprised to see it on the ground. But—”

“You wouldn’t be there in time to see it fall.”

“Yeah…” And then, the girl’s eyes widened. Natalia didn’t say anything, she instead exhaled air as she wrapped her arms around herself.

“Now…Imagine that very same tree was a person, and the forest is the world we live in.”

“I…” A trail of sweat ran across Olivia’s face once she realized Natalia’s point. “I understand.”

Pensive, Natalia closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Olivia,” she said. “I don’t want you to become that tree.”

“You mean…”

“Each time you risked your life,” her voice weakened. “You were closer and closer to falling.” The survivalist took a step back, she placed one arm next to a nearby bough, as if to balance herself. “And everytime I see it…I remember Her, mocking me for letting the same mistake happen again.”

That last word reminded Olivia of something important.

“W-Who?” the landsknecht asked. Natalia kept silent, but she soon clenched her fists as she continued speaking.

“I,” the survivalist stuttered. “I…” she muttered as she began to shake. Olivia looked at her, surprised.

The way she was acting, Olivia didn’t think asking about Her would be a good idea. Yet…

She had to know.

“Natalia,” the girl put a hand on the survivalist’s back. “Is it Anais—”

And Natalia pushed Olivia away, her eyes widening in shock the second she heard that name. The survivalist’s breathing became violent, and a few tears involuntarily came out of her eyes.

But Natalia soon realized she was crying. She wiped the tears off her face and groaned.

“Please don’t…” She repeated those words before shaking her head. “Don’t say her name…”

Both shocked, yet determined, Olivia pressed on. “I’m really sorry,” she said, “But I need to—”

“Shut up.”

“Natalia, please!”

“Shut up you—”

“You mentioned—”

“Shut the hell up about her!”

Olivia stopped talking. She instead gasped. “I’m…I’m sorry…” She said as she soon felt guilty about having done what she did.

Natalia didn’t answer. She only looked at Olivia with what the girl could only describe as grieving.

“I need some time alone,” the survivalist soon said as she laid on the grass, her eyes once again set on the night sky. “You can go without me.”

“But…”

“Please…”

Olivia wanted to do something about Natalia. But none of the thoughts she had could come out of her mouth, and her body could only stay still.

Frozen, that’s the only way she could describe herself at that very moment. That lingering, crushing feeling of guilt could only make her stand like a statue as she stared at the survivalist.

But eventually, her legs began to move again. Sighing, she turned towards the town entrance. But before she left, she felt something hugging her.

It was Natalia, who had wrapped her arms around the girl from behind.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated as she tightened the landsknecht and tears flowed from her eyes.

Olivia stood still as Natalia continued to cry. Soon enough, she realized she was crying as well. The girl turned around, and hugged the survivalist back.

“Me too,” she said as the two comforted each other. “I didn't mean to push you like that," she sniffed.

“It's alright…”

“It's Not!” The landsknecht shouted as she muffled her own crying. "I keep messing up all the time and," she gulped. "And all I get is a pat in the shoulder."

Natalia didn't say anything, but she stepped back, cleaning her own tears. Olivia kept tearing up, however.

“I’m not gonna mess up anymore,” she said, “I-I promise I won't scare you, or make you sad again…!”

The survivalist stared at Olivia, a feeling of nostalgia suddenly rushing inside her. Soon, a snicker escaped through her lips. She chuckled silently, and Olivia raised an eyebrow.

“W-What?” The girl asked.

“It's nothing,” Natalia shook her head as she soon stayed silent. “Come on, it's getting late,” she said as she moved towards the gates to Etria. 

“I…”

“You promised,” the survivalist smiled. Olivia blinked a few times before she began following her.

“Y-Yeah,” the girl said as she soon brushed her tears away, and grinned as well.

 

Chapter Text

Taurus 21, 8 A.M.

“We’ve tried everything so far, even with those with the condition, but…”

“It’s fine…”

“…I’m sorry.”

She walked along the hallway, her many thoughts flowing through her mind at once causing her to feel lost. Each step the girl took felt as if she were walking through thin glass, any wrong move and she would break it, falling into a dark abyss.

Yet she didn’t know why it felt that way; To her, she had already fallen.

By the time she reached the entrance, Lila looked back at the hospital, her musician hearing allowing her to listen to the wails of the wounded and sick inside.

She put her hand on her chest, gripping her clothes as the troubadour soon began to walk away from the building.

  

Chapter 10: Fear

  

Olivia yawned as she put on her clothes, the lack of sleep causing her to stumble across the floor as she soon left the guest room and stepped inside the small connector between it and the other rooms within Ceas’ home.

There, she heard a few shuffling noises coming from the room the protector and medic couple slept in.

Curiosity got the better of her and she checked inside.

Ceas was grumbling to himself as he sat on the floor, trying to fit parts of his armor inside his bag. Lamia was sleeping with a smile on her face above bed, next to him.

“What are you doing?”

“Ah,” The protector turned to see the landsknecht behind him. “You’re up,” he said, “I just needed to get some stuff fixed, again.”

“Again?”

“Yeah, you know how it is out there.”

Olivia could understand why he kept having to repair his equipment, being the one who took the hits the most meant his usually wore out quickly, after all. Though she couldn’t help but scratch her face wondering if Shilleka ever raised an eyebrow more than once each time he came and left his bag in her shop.

“So,” the landsknecht brushed the back of her hair. “We’re not gonna explore today, right?” Ceas looked at her.

“Nope,” The protector said as he managed to fit the remaining parts inside. “I know it’s only been one day,” he sighed, “But after seeing how messed up that whole floor was, I thought it’d be best we got prepared first.”

“But I thought we knew what to do,” Olivia pouted. A part of her wanted to continue exploring, given she didn’t exactly know what to do now that she could traverse around Etria.

“We do,” Ceas wrapped his bag and soon stood up, carrying it behind his back. “But really, all we did was avoid the…Bigger guys,” he shook his head. “We need to learn to fight them,” he said. Olivia’s eyes widened.

He seemed to be serious, and Olivia started to worry. “D-Do we?” She asked; It was clear she wasn’t exactly sold on that idea, and Ceas could see her frowning. He reassured her, however.

“We probably won’t get anywhere unless we start fighting back,” The protector said, “The Deer and Bulls were pretty easy to dodge so far, but we don’t know the things below us might do.”

The things below...Olivia pondered for a second before remembering that…Monster they found on the bottom third floor, steps away from the stairs leading above. That giant, winged Mantis would surely become a problem if all they knew was to run. The girl nodded at Ceas’ suggestion.

“Until we can beat them, we’ll stay, training,” he said. He soon noticed bags underneath Olivia’s eyes. For some reason the girl didn’t understand, he suddenly began to blush as he looked at Lamia.

“A-Anyway,” he stuttered, “You slept well?”

“I didn’t sleep much,” she answered, brushing her eyes. “There were some weird noises—”

“AH!” Ceas suddenly shouted, “It must’ve been your imagination!” He laughed nervously before quickly stepping out of the room. “See you!” He rushed towards the entrance and soon left home.

Olivia looked at the door for a few seconds, perplexed by Ceas’ sudden change. She shrugged it off however, and soon left the room as well, leaving Lamia to continue sleeping.

She ate breakfast on her own on that day, as Natalia was nowhere to be seen, like usual. The girl left the couple’s home and wandered around town.

Her legs were moving on their own by then, walking aimlessly across each road in Etria; The girl couldn’t think of anything to pass the time other than to explore the town she had already memorized.

Hours passed, Olivia bought a few clothes and checked various places: The quest her guild had accepted had long since been cleared by others who brought the materials to Shilleka, and other than the requests meant for more experienced guilds, there weren’t many available left for her.

The landsknecht then went to Surt’s place, and knocked on the door hoping to see him; She was both curious about how his experiments were going, and mostly about his relationship with Ceas. A minute passed and nobody answered, however. It seemed Surt wasn’t home, and she sighed in boredom before going to the Verda Plaza, sitting behind the center pillar.

Olivia yawned, and closed her eyes before brushing them as she saw the townsfolk come and go. The lack of sleep caught up to her and she began to bobble her head up and down, trying to stay awake, but her tiredness eventually won and she fell asleep, her hands hidden inside her sleeves as to keep them warm.

The lively sounds from the townsfolk did not interrupt Olivia’s napping, in fact the opposite happened, it lulled her further as she laid down and continued sleeping.

Conversations, laughing, running and eventually, a song, Olivia overheard it all in the middle of her sleep. She hadn’t thought about it before, but now that she was alone she figured out there was more she wanted to do in Etria other than explore.

Except, she did not know What to do.

She told herself to not think about it, that it was still too early to worry about, yet the same lingering thought never left her.

What would she do after reaching the end of the labyrinth? What would happen to her guildmates? Would they leave? Even if three of them Lived in Etria, that didn’t mean they would stay there, and even then, would She leave? With Natalia? On her own?   

Her mind began to form more questions which she didn’t know the answers to, what would they find at the end? Would they reach it? Was there even an end? Even amidst her dreams she couldn’t shake her thoughts away, and it only made her feel as if she hadn’t rested at all.

Then, she realized that by that moment, she had heard a couple songs that sounded familiar to her, a sweet voice accompanying said themes which she had been unconsciously wanting to hear.

She woke up, stretching her arms, and soon saw that it was evening, and a small crowd formed around the pillar.

Next to the landsknecht was Lila, thanking her audience for listening to her. She soon turned around to see Olivia awake. “Ah,” she placed a hand on her cheek, “You’re up!” The landsknecht felt a déjà vu, but soon shook her head to wake herself up. She looked at the troubadour and greeted her.

“Lila,” she yawned, “H-How long were you—”8

“About an hour,” The guitarist playfully began counting with her fingers, “Or two, I don’t know,” she shrugged as she let out a laugh. “But I did see you rolling like a baby,” Lila chuckled, “Thought it’d be better if I were near you.”

That last phrase made the landsknecht eyes dilate slightly. So while she was sleeping, Lila had stayed just to accompany her…Olivia stood up before sitting down again, the thought of what the troubadour did for some reason made her feel warm. “I-I,” she looked up, the sky had an orange tint, “I see,” she muttered.

Lila smiled, before shuffling her hands inside a small purse she brought. Olivia looked as she pulled a small water bottle, presenting it to her. “Here,” she said, “Can’t have a dry throat when you have to sing.”

“Oh, thanks!” Olivia said as she grabbed the bottle, she soon realized it was warm, however, and stared at it.

“It’s better to drink while it’s warm,” Lila clarified. As she explained, musicians often were told that they should drink warm water rather than cold before singing. Cold water often tightened the vocal cords, lessening their voice flexibility and potentially even damaging it. Contrasted with Warm water, which instead loosened it and made singing much easier.

Olivia nodded with interest at the girl’s explanation and drank from the bottle. Just like she said, it felt as if her voice was smoother than usual.

Then she figured out the implications of why Lila gave her said bottle.

Olivia didn’t mind, however, in fact it was something she had wanted to do for a long while. “I get what you’re trying to say,” she laughed, “I’ll follow your lead! Like last time!”

And thus, Lila picked her guitar and started playing, with Olivia accompanying her melody with her singing. Time quickly passed in the two girls’ minds, their thoughts only focused on following each other’s steps as the duo soon attracted a crowd of cheering people.

In-between each song, the two girls cheerily shared snacks and stories to one another: Olivia commented on her exploits in the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, while Lila, trying to one up her, mentioned scary anecdotes that occurred to her in her travels.

The landsknecht shook in fear at quite a few of her tales, but the troubadour soon laughed as she told her most of them were fake. Olivia sighed in relief, before wondering what the troubadour meant by Most of them.

Yet, in all that, Olivia soon understood something which made her smile. It wasn’t weird for Olivia to call her guildmates her friends, yet she always felt distant to them, even Natalia.

But Lila…She felt at home with her, like a close friend whom she had met for a far longer time than just a couple of evenings. Whatever it was, Olivia could only look at her and smile, her heart thumping like a drum.

The more she saw her…Olivia looked back on the thoughts that wouldn’t leave her in her sleep. With each song, the landsknecht felt as if she was creating a path towards the answer she had been looking for, taking small steps towards it. She still had yet to know what she was looking for, but Lila’s presence was as if her hand was being held through said path, making it easier for her to reach the end.

She finished singing yet again, and took a sip from the still warm water bottle. The troubadour counted the coins she had received from the crowd with one hand while stretching the other. Olivia waved the dispersing crowd goodbye before sitting down, sighing.

“Man,” she put her back on the plaza pillar, “I’m exhausted. How about you?” She turned to see Lila, but when she did so, something about the troubadour struck the girl as odd.

It looked as if she had spaced out, staring at the floor without making a sound as her head lowered. The troubadour let out a faint breath as she closed her eyes and placed her palm on her face, which slowly turned pale. “Lila?”

But then, right as Olivia neared her, Lila opened her eyes and spoke softly, as if the words she uttered had barely escaped from her lips.

“That Yggdrasil place. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

The landsknecht stared at the troubadour with curious eyes, it was a rather sudden question, and Lila’s usual demeanor seemed to have shifted out of nowhere. “A-Are you alright?” The landsknecht asked, placing her palm on the guitarist’s forehead.

It was warmer than normal, and she could feel some sweat coming from it. “L-Lila, you’re…”

“I-It’s alright,” the troubadour muttered, “I’ve been feeling under the weather recently.” She shrugged with a smile, hoping to dissuade the brunette. Olivia couldn’t stop worrying, however, and Lila could tell. She sighed.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she changed the subject, and Olivia hummed. “You must have seen the labyrinth multiple times, given you’re an explorer.”

“W-Well I am, but…” Was Lila truly alright? The Troubadour’s face turned back to normal, and her smile was back to the way it was before. A trail of sweat ran across Olivia’s face as she sat down again, trusting Lila.

“I wouldn’t really call the labyrinth ‘Beautiful’ or anything,” Olivia answered as she brushed the ground with her shoes. “Just like you said, I’ve been there, and what I saw often…Scared me.”

“Really?” Lila asked with a worried tone.

“Yeah,” Olivia nodded, “I can’t recall the amount of times I almost died while exploring. I don’t even remember the amount of injuries my guildmates and I have gotten there either.” The landsknecht glanced at her left leg.

She still remembered how numb it felt on her first fight, iron claws embedded on her limb, tearing her flesh and letting blood flow out of it.

Yet, Olivia tried to ignore all of it. She knew that complaining about injuries would be foolish, given who she was now, and that she had to endure. It wasn’t until she remembered the pain she had received then that she felt a nudge on her throat.

“You don’t look That injured.”

Olivia turned to see Lila examining her closely, taken completely surprised by her reply. “A couple of scars here and there, but…” Cheekily, she pointed at certain parts of the landsknecht’s arm, which the latter soon covered. Lila stepped back, feeling guilty as she looked away from Olivia.

“Sorry,” The troubadour said, “It must be tough, having to go there every single day, wondering if it’ll be the last time you’ll see the surface.” She placed her hand on Olivia’s shoulder, causing the latter to glance at her. “I shouldn’t be joking like that.”

“I-It’s alright.”

Lila didn’t answer as Olivia brushed her hand away from her shoulder, the latter smiling at her.

It wasn’t that Lila was wrong, or that Olivia’s fears weren’t justified. But the landsknecht did find that being scared wasn’t going to help. Be it her own blood or her guildmates’, it was clear that explorers like her would end up injured one way or another.

But the fact was, that it wasn’t enough to leave everyone else alone while she cowered in fear.

Olivia explained to Lila how she felt; the troubadour quietly listening while the landsknecht stood up with resolve.

“Believe me when I say, I got hurt, Badly,” Olivia said as she placed her hand on her chest; The kick, caused by a Ragelope, which fractured her bones and put her through a week of recovery wouldn’t be easy to forget.

But by that point, the landsknecht had accepted it: No matter how badly she got hurt, she wouldn’t back down.

“Besides…” Though all that resolve wavered a little. Olivia let out a humble laugh as she scratched her face as she sat down again. “Our guild Does have a medic,” she said, “A very good one too.”

Lila nodded with a raised eyebrow, dismayed by how the girl’s speech ended. “A medic,” she said, “Guess that explains a lot.”

“Y-Yeah, it does, huh?” the landsknecht, admittedly, felt embarrassed. Either way, her thoughts were clear to her.

Yet, among all of it, something was still bothering Olivia.

“Why did you ask me about the labyrinth, Anyway?” Olivia asked. Lila kept silent for a few seconds before opening her mouth. She closed it quickly, as if interrupting herself. The troubadour shook her head.

“I was curious,” Lila said. She began to play with her own hair. “I’ve only seen the entrance of it,” she added, her fingers running across each string of hair in a forced manner. “So,” she sighed, “I wanted to hear the opinion of someone who went further.”

“Was…Was that it?”

Lila nodded without saying anything, and took one last sip of her bottle before putting it back on her purse. “It’s getting late,” the troubadour said as she grabbed her guitar, “Are you busy? I’d love to play with you again soon.”

“Well, actually,” Olivia looked at the sky; It was nighttime and somehow she hadn’t noticed until now. Quickly, she stood up. “Crap, I had to explore tomorrow!” Lila stepped back at the landsknecht’s sudden reaction, the latter noticed and blushed; “Sorry,” she said.

“Soo…”

“Hey, I’m not saying I’ll be out the whole day,” the landsknecht said before she sighed. “Everyone wakes up early here, for some reason,” she grumbled.

It was almost a month since she settled down in Etria, yet Olivia never got used to waking up as early as 5 A.M.

Nevertheless, the girl shook her head and grinned at Lila. “I’m definitely gonna sing with you again! Just you wait!”

Lila’s hopeful smile upon hearing Olivia’s words made the latter blush, something in it made her feel warm as well. The landsknecht turned around, putting a hand on her chest as she began to walk towards home, yet before she left, a voice stopped her. Lila.

“I believe in you,” the troubadour said. “Come back…Promise?”

“Promise.”

Days have passed since. Guild Boldhunt had remained in the bottom second floor, bettering their combat skills as well as their teamwork. Their reputation slowly increased as time went on: Explorers who wandered into the labyrinth often saw Boldhunt clearing out various areas of it, while the townsfolk who stayed above thanked them for completing each of their requests.

Olivia on the meanwhile, on her free time, often spent most of the day with Lila.

The landsknecht gave a lot of thought to the conversation she had with her previously, and it was then that she felt a weigh being lifted off her shoulders: She knew that at the end of the day, someone was waiting for her. No matter what, she would come back, with an even more personal reason to do so.

Guild Boldhunt’s training took weeks to complete, but eventually…

Tiger 18 – 9 A.M.

The furious galloping of the Ragelope echoed throughout the forest. Its antlers were set on piercing Ceas, and it rushed towards the protector with blind rage. The protector didn’t back down, however as he himself ran towards the F.O.E, shield in hand.

And then, right as the two were to tackle each other, one of the F.O.E’s legs on its back was struck by an arrow. The Ragelope huffed in pain as it still tried to attack Ceas, limping its way towards him. The latter smirked to himself as he looked behind the monster.

A barrage of flames burned the monster’s back, forcing it to yell in pain as it stood on two legs. Ceas took the opportunity to sneak below the F.O.E, and raised his shield to its body, lifting the Ragelope with it.

Ceas screamed as with one strong throw, the monster was in the air. He wasn’t the only one yelling, as Olivia prepared her axe, and swung it towards the deer mid-air.

The monster fell headless behind the girl, and she panted, her heart beating fast, as she looked to see its head next to her bloodied weapon. Olivia let out a celebratory laugh, but soon enough she began to cough, spitting in disgust.

 “I got blood in my mouth.” She shook her head, the smell of gore making her feel ill. Lamia ran towards her, and gave her a towel as the rest of her guild grouped up.

“Are you feeling alright?” The medic asked to everyone else, Olivia nodded as she cleaned the blood off her face. Ceas grumbled however, “I’ll feel that in the morning…!” He stretched his back, the others chuckled at him before he sighed and looked at the F.O.E. He grinned with a frown.

“Payback’s a—” He turned to see Olivia, then back at the corpse. “…Baddie.” The landsknecht raised an eyebrow.

Guild Boldhunt’s morale on the Eighteenth reached an all-time high, and soon, the bottom third floor was in their reach as they stared at the stairs leading to it…

Chapter Text

Taurus 21, 10 A.M.

A trail of smoke came out of the palm of Surt’s gauntlets, pointing towards the charred corpses of monsters who had snuck up on him.

The alchemist closed and opened his hands repeatedly, cooling his equipment as he sighed before looking at a map he had drawn. The map itself however, was different from the one Surt brought whenever he explored along with his guild. Instead, it was a copy of it, with cleaner lines, as well as the overall quality of the parchment as proof.

Yet, there was an important difference between it and the original: A small, red circle which wrapped a certain portion near the center of the map; A reminder of a place Surt wanted to revisit on his own.

He had found truth in what Natalia had said, back when they figured out the crater they discovered had shrunk. It might have been a similar phenomenon to the forest itself being invulnerable to flames, therefore it wasn’t anything he should concern himself with. But still…He had to confirm that was the case.

However, when he reentered the area where the crater was supposed to be, he found something which made him gasp.

Not only had the crater shrunk down even more, to the point that it was nothing more than a small hole on the ground, but various people were surrounding the area: Guards scouting each and every corner with their lances ready, and Researchers wearing long coats and golden badges, signifying their status as Radha Officials.

The alchemist took a step forward, his curiosity reaching its peak, what would the Radha, Etria’s government, even be doing inside the labyrinth? Let alone in such a specific spot? He had to find out, as it was soon clear that the crater had been more than just an unexplainable anomaly.

But, before he could get any closer, a voice called out to him.

“Stop where you are!”

Surt stopped on his track as a guard ran towards him. The suspicious look on everyone else’s faces as they quietly stared at the alchemist made him shiver, and he gulped as sweat ran through his face.

“This is a restricted area!” The guard shouted, brandishing his weapon, “Unless given explicit permission from the Radha, you must return immediately!”

“What…?” Was all Surt could say. There was no way for him to get any closer without the guards apprehending him, or worse. The threatening stare the guard gave to Surt, along with his silence made it obvious that he wouldn’t answer any of the alchemist’s questions either.

Frustrated, the alchemist quickly left the area. He didn’t know whether Guild Boldhunt or Halcon remembered the crater or not, and given their drunken state the day prior, it was very unlikely that they did.

Either way, he was at a loss, and even as weeks passed, he couldn’t shake that scene off his head. There had to be an answer somewhere, even if the Radha themselves didn’t want him to reach it…

 

Chapter 11: Challenge

  

Tiger 19 – 6 A.M.

Guild Boldhunt was gathered at the end of the bottom second floor, their sights set on the stairs leading below. Yesterday’s victory was enough to tell them that they were ready to tackle whatever awaited them at the end of the stairs, yet their anxiousness was visible.

Lamia double checked her bag before entering the labyrinth, but even then she still looked at the contents of it, verifying she brought everything needed: Medicine, gauze, warp wires, a few half-eaten snacks even; They were all present.

The medic took a deep breath. She glanced at the rest of her guildmates before speaking, her voice getting their attention. “I know we're ready for even the worst but,” she said before shaking her head. "I can't help but feel anxious."

“It's alright, we all feel like that.” Ceas’ shoulders loosened up, and he put his hand on Lamia’s shoulder, taking the chance to caress the hair resting next to it. “But we haven’t fought all this time for nothing,” The protector said, before putting himself before the rest of his guild. He placed his hand on his chest, gripping his large, iron shield with the other.

“We’re Boldhunt! We can do this!” He shouted, raising his arm and energizing himself, and the others up. “If we’re not winning, then at the very least we’re not dying either!” He said, and the rest nodded.

Surt listened silently to his friend’s speech. Even if he didn’t want to admit to it, he was just as invigorated as the rest of his team.

Ceas put his hand in the middle of the group, asking them to put theirs above his. “We’re going down, beat the crap outta that monster…” And then, everyone raised the hands. “And then we get Surt to pay for everyone’s dinner!”

“Yeah!” Olivia shouted, ecstatic, before letting out a “Huh?” as she looked at Surt. He was glaring at Ceas.

“Eleven,” he muttered before taking a step down the stairs.

The alchemist instinctively counted down each tread he passed through, feeling the echo of his and his guildmates’ steps along with his own breathing, making his legs shake subtly.

Walking into a new, unexplored floor had been a sensation Guild Boldhunt hadn’t felt in a long while. That feeling of wonder, curiosity and even fear as they would soon traverse through uncharted territory was prevalent among each explorer, and their thoughts could only ask themselves what would lie ahead of them.

No…They have seen what awaited them at the entrance, and they knew none of their questions would be answered unless they cleared the large obstacle right in front of them. A minute passed, and Guild Boldhunt was now in the bottom third floor.

Surt held his breath when he felt grass underneath his feet, sunlight illuminating everyone’s path as now they were inside an open clearing within the labyrinth.

And there it was.

The large mantis they spotted weeks ago was levitating around the area, its wings creating a sickening flapping sound as leaves were blown away from its body. Ceas grumbled and took a step back, but then he shook his head. Without looking back, he sighed.

“Natalia.”

“On it.”

Her bow held tightly, and her hat fixed, the survivalist quietly moved across the clearing and entered deep into the forest surrounding it. All noise she made as she began to climb atop one of the trees felt loud, a tense feeling, like sneaking through a room filled with sleeping lions, ached her. She held her breath, her heart beating fast.

“Olivia, Surt, Lamia.”

The landsknecht, alchemist and medic respectively followed Ceas from behind without saying a word, their movements just as careful as Natalia. Lamia gripped her bag, her hand placed on its button.

The incessant flapping of the monster’s transparent wings became louder and louder, almost overtaking their voices once the explorers neared it. Yet, they stood tall against the F.O.E, even as its large, bright eyes stared directly at them.

They had reached the point of no return.

Olivia shrieked in disgust as the monster opened its large mandibles, spattering a dark, viscous substance which tainted its long scythes along with the ground. The landsknecht however soon faced her fears, and turned her axe on it.

The beast’s body immediately leaned towards them, one of its scythes raised while the other razed through the grass. Olivia and Ceas answered by running towards the monster as well, thus giving Natalia a signal to strike. An arrow closed towards the side of the creature’s face, but as if it had foreseen it, the F.O.E spun vertically in place, blocking the projectile with its limbs as dirt and grass flied around and covered its body.

The two explorers, who hadn’t reached the mantis yet, jumped back in surprise. Olivia’s feet slipped after touching the ground, but Ceas quickly caught her in his arm mid-fall, pulling her towards the rest of the group.  

“So this one ain’t as dumb!” The protector groaned, holding back insults to lash out at the monster, and instead focusing on its movements as the F.O.E began to fly towards around them. Its movement was erratic, as if it were dancing around the field, dodging and blocking all projectiles fired at it as the remaining explorers couldn’t move near it. It was clear that it wouldn’t give up its prey nor leave them any chance of escape.

And then it struck.

Ceas groaned as his shield and body could barely maintain the weight of one of the monster’s scythes, which now struggled to overpower the protector. Ceas didn’t relent, however, and yelled to the top of his lungs as he began to push back the limb. The mantis recoiled, its other scythe attempted to block the many flames and arrows sent its way, but some managed to reach its body, forcing it to hiss in pain.

Olivia moved for the finishing blow, her axe ready to take down the F.O.E.

But the mantis acted.

As if the monster had braved through the wounds inflicted by Surt and Natalia, it let go of Ceas’ shield and instead twirled in the spot. Olivia gasped; The same scythe that kept Ceas in place was now moving at a fast pace towards the protector’s back.

Lamia gripped her bag, her eyes wide opened and her pupils constricted. She screamed at Ceas, her warnings barely reaching him as the protector managed to look behind to see the scythe about to take his life.

His shield, however, was still in front of him.

Ceas fell to the ground, a weak yell coming from him as his body felt the cold grass caressing him. Lamia blinked a few times, silently. She put her glowing hands over her mouth, tears forming on her eyes.

But soon enough, the glowing faded, and her hands lowered.

Ceas let out various fast breaths as he turned around, looking at his body for any injuries. Instead, he found Olivia grabbing his legs, with her heart beating just as fast as him. “You’re really heavy,” the landsknecht complained before quickly running backwards towards the medic. Ceas shook his head, and fixed his shield.

There, he saw the monster’s scythe embedded in the floor. The mantis pulled it out, attempting to kill Ceas as the arm swung towards him like a buzzsaw. He rolled to Lamia’s side in time and he stood up, his shield ready like before.

“I’m alright, I’m alright,” the protector said to the medic as he could hear a few whimpers coming from her, keeping a close eye on the F.O.E. “Olivia?”

“I’m here.”

Ceas sighed in relief, the adrenaline in his body subsiding as he stared directly at the monster. Its body was riddled with arrows and burn marks, yet it continued to fly around, blocking oncoming projectiles as if they hadn’t hurt it in the first place.

“So what now?” Olivia asked, holding her axe. While she did so, Surt ran back to them, panting as he barely dodged an attack from the F.O.E.

Surt couldn’t think of anything that would help defeat the monster. Having Ceas stop it again would only risk the protector’s life, given the creature’s agility, and as far as the alchemist guessed, the F.O.E could very well resist his flames.

So what could they do…? Surt couldn’t rationalize still nor ponder calmly on any possible solution as he soon jumped back, a gash forming on his arm as he barely dodged a slash from the monster. He braved through the pain and fire came out of his fingertips, but the F.O.E quickly covered its body with its scythes, blocking it. Amidst the flames, Surt could see an arrow stabbing the side of the monster’s body.

The alchemist’s eyes then widened. It was so obvious.

“Its arms!” He yelled to the rest of his guildmates before diving sideways to the floor, dodging the creature’s tackle attempt. “Get its arms!” The alchemist repeated, now aiming directly at the scythes. The monster slashed the ground, tearing dirt and grass on its path to Surt, yet he continued to dodge and fire.

It wasn’t until Ceas stepped in that Surt could finally get some breathing room. The protector kept his distance, blocking the tip of the F.O.E’s scythes so as to not corner himself again. Lamia rushed to Surt and grabbed his arm, healing it. Olivia and Natalia continued fighting on the meanwhile, the latter distracting the monster while the former attempted to reach its head. Surt yelled.

“Its arms! Idiot! Break them!” The alchemist quickly stood up, brushing a surprised Lamia away as powerful flames engulfed the monster’s scythes. Olivia stepped to the side, avoiding the flames as she turned to see a frowning Surt glaring at her.

Olivia didn’t say anything; she was amused, and a small laugh escaped her. Nevertheless, the landsknecht dashed through the field and towards the mantis as it blocked Surt’s fire with its scythes. Her axe collided with one of the scythes, and the mantis attempted to get away, but by then it realized that it was surrounded.

Natalia’s last arrow punctured the back of the monster’s head, causing it to groan in pain as Ceas, from the opposite side of Olivia, tackled the F.O.E with his shield. Natalia jumped off the tree, a dagger she brought for gathering purposes in hand, and quickly jumped to the back of the monster as she began to stab it.

The survivalist flailed around as the monster attempted to get her off it, but by then, a loud crack was heard.

Olivia stepped back as the scythe she attacked broke in half. The F.O.E grunted, as if it were paralyzed, which gave Natalia and opportunity to stab directly into its head.

The mantis did not move. Its body fell to the ground like a statue, creating a thud as Natalia backed away. Her clothes were covered in red, and sweat continued to run across her face as she dropped her bloodied dagger to the floor.

“We…”

“We did it…”

“We really did it!”

“I KNEW IT!” Everyone turned around and looked at Surt, their expressions being that of surprise. Surt faked a few coughs as he walked towards the F.O.E’s corpse, his face reddened and trying hard to seem genuinely stoic. “It was a close fight,” he stuttered. He examined the broken scythe on the floor, its heavy weight barely letting him lift it.

“Are you guys alright? Any injuries?” Lamia quickly asked each of her guildmates, healing any injuries she could see. Until she reached Ceas. She kept silent as she looked directly at him, before throwing herself on the protector, hugging him. Ceas smiled with sympathy.

“Gave you quite a scare, huh?” He hugged her back, removing his gauntlet as his bare hand caressed her hair and back. “Sorry,” he closed his eyes, and kissed her. The others grinned, Olivia especially, before turning her attention towards something she found rather curious.

“Hey, guys?” She pointed at the corner of the field. Hidden beneath the many trees of the forests was what seemed to be a wall, and upon inspecting it closer she realized something was placed there. “What’s this…?”

A golden door, covered in vines and rocks. One which neither she nor the rest of her guild have seen in their time exploring. She attempted to open it on her own, but it wouldn’t budge no matter how much she pushed. It wasn’t until the rest of her guild followed her that she could open it. Natalia stepped in and attempted to slide it.

More of the same forest awaited them at the other side of the door.

Olivia stared confused at the object. Why was it there? It clearly wasn’t natural, but then again neither were the stairs connecting each floor. Just…What was the labyrinth? Her questions were interrupted, however, as a familiar flapping sound came from the other side of the door.

Natalia glimpsed at the origin, but as the landsknecht attempted to do the same, the survivalist shut the door immediately. “Of course it wasn’t the only one,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Another big insect, I mean.”

It took a few seconds before it dawned on her, she stepped away from the door along with the survivalist. “I’d call it a day if I were you,” she muttered to Ceas without looking away from the gate.

“So would I,” Ceas nodded. “I really hope there’s nothing stronger than that thing…”

A bright flash of light soon engulfed the field, and Guild Boldhunt escaped the labyrinth. The third floor’s entrance was now empty, only the corpse of the mantis F.O.E, now lacking the broken scythe, being visible in the middle of it.

That was all she could see as she soon figured out no one would step there soon. The flame haired girl gripped her bunny plush on her arms as she climbed down the tree she was on, her hands, pale as a corpse, holding the wood.

“They defeated it,” she whispered to the person next to her. A female ronin with long, dark hair and a large scar on her forehead. The ronin hummed, without saying anything else. “Ren?”

“Tlachtga,” the ronin, Ren, said. “I understand.” Tlachtga nodded.

“He was with them as well,” The girl said, putting her plush inside her dark robes. “The alchemist.”

Ren stood silently, and stared at her sheathed katana with a frown. She shook her head, and sighed as she looked at the F.O.E once again. “We must report back,” the ronin said, “The chieftain might know what to do now.”

And another flash soon appeared, the third floor’s entrance now completely devoid of people…

 

Chapter Text

Tiger 25 – 8 A.M.

A loud thump shook the floor. The large, injured body of a mantis laid atop the grass of the Emerald Grove, blood emanating from its neck.

Ceas sighed as he cleaned the gore off his sword, his heart still beating fast from having survived yet another F.O.E encounter. “You guys doing fine?” He asked, glancing at each of his guildmates.

Olivia nodded before wincing when she felt Lamia’s hands grab an open cut on her leg. “C-Careful,” she complained at the medic, who hummed and focused on her injury. Seconds later, Lamia let go of the girl’s leg and cleaned the blood off her hands.

“That does it for now,” the medic wrapped cloth around the landsknecht’s leg, “You’re good to go.” She said before standing up. “Natalia, Surt, are you two done yet?”

“So heavy…” Natalia grumbled to herself as she lifted the upper part of one of the mantis’ scythes. Surt held the opposite end and nodded to the medic, “I swear, if we find Another one, I quit,” he muttered to the medic in secret.

“There, there,” Lamia chuckled. “Ceas?”

Before the protector could answer, they heard a loud thud nearby. “The hell…” he said before preparing his shield and moving in front of his group. “Stay behind me,” he told the others, who soon readied their weaponry as well.

However, when they slowly made their way towards where the noise came from, they didn’t find a monster. Or rather, they didn’t find a live one. Another Mantis F.O.E was lying decapitated on the grass as an unfamiliar woman calmly wiped the red off her sword, using its unharmed yet restrained corpse as a towel.

Another unknown person was near her: A small, pale girl covered in dark robes grabbed the ronin’s clothing, the golden bell and medallion wrapped around her torso chiming, before pointing towards Ceas.

“They’re…”

Neither Olivia nor Natalia know who these two women were, and while the taller lady seemed to be of the same profession as Kaguya, the smaller one was a complete mystery. Yet the remaining three members recognized them quickly.

“So, you must be Guild Boldhunt.”

Chapter 12: Promise

 

The labyrinth was quiet, no sounds other than the ones made by the explorers staring at each other along with the wind could be heard. Ren stepped forward, sheathing her katana as the girl next to her, the Hexer Tlachtga, followed suit.

“We have heard of your recent achievements,” Ren said, walking closer towards Ceas, “A newly formed guild who, in the span of almost two months, has gained notoriety for their accomplishments.”

“Y-You know about us?” Ceas let out a foolish laugh, his eyes widened upon confirming they were indeed them, and he lowered his shield as a childish smile formed on him. Natalia and Lamia both could only stare at him, dumbfounded. Surt on the other hand tried to avoid looking at them.

And Olivia…Olivia was at a loss. She looked at the two women with various questions forming on her head. Who were they? And what happened with the F.O.E near them? The more she examined the monster’s corpse, the more she wondered.

Its body was completely intact. No gashes, no bruises. The only thing resembling signs of struggle were stretch marks wrapping its arms and torso, as if it had been immobilized by a whip which Olivia couldn’t see anywhere near. The head was torn clean from the body, a trail of blood cutting off at random intervals as if the body part had rolled around before finally coming to a stop near a tree.

She blinked a few times before shaking her head, and instead asked Ceas. The protector soon hummed, dismayed at her.

“Wait, you don’t know?!” He asked, scratching his hair before composing himself. “Right, right, guess we haven’t told you All about this town, huh?” He laughed as he began to explain.

The two explorers in front of them were, what Ceas called, “The best explorers in town, working under the Radha’s orders themselves.” Surt could only look at Ceas with skepticism; something about what the protector said didn’t sit right with him.

“Big deal, huh?” Natalia soon butted in, “So I guess they’ve been here longer than most of us.” Ceas nodded upon hearing her, his excitement clearly visible.

“Yeah!” The redhead laughed, raising his hearty voice, “These two are like heroes. I never thought I’d meet—”

“Ceas...” Lamia cleared her throat, patting the back of her husband’s shoulders while looking flustered. Ceas’ posture loosened as he himself turned red. He took a step towards the two women, who stood silent the whole time.

“S-So,” The protector chuckled nervously, “What can we do for you two?”

The Hexer and Ronin glanced at each other, as if they were unsure they had the right people. Noticing this, Ceas stared at the floor with disappointment. Ren’s voice made him look up, however.

“We appreciate the compliments,” she sighed, “But there are more important issues needed to discuss.”

“Issues?”

Ren pointed at a door next to them, an identical design which gave Boldhunt a slight feeling of déjà vu upon seeing it. “The common adventurer is not allowed to explore beyond this point,” she said. Ceas worriedly turned his head towards her, and tilted it. “Not until the threat below has been dealt with, the Radha have stated.”

Threat…? A trail of sweat ran across Olivia’s face as she heard the ronin, and slowly looked back at the mantis’ corpse. Was there truly something worse than those F.O.Es that the government itself would rather let people deal with them than with whatever might be below? Perhaps, because of those monsters, they had reached a dead end, given how unlikely it’d be for Ren and Tlachtga to let them pass.

“So…” The landsknecht sighed, “I guess this is it?” Ceas glanced at her.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Olivia shuffled one of her legs, “We’re done with the labyrinth for now. We Are still new at this, so…”

Ceas wanted to reply, but stood silent. Was she right? She was right, wasn’t she…Or at least that’s what the two thought before Ren spoke up.

“Don’t misunderstand us,” The ronin stood in front of them. “The Radha have recently taken an interest in your guild, Leader Ceas Nalis.” Upon hearing this, Ceas smiled enthusiastically—Albeit blushing—and Olivia let out her breath in relief. Surt on the other hand couldn’t shake his feeling of wrongness in what Ren said. The ronin continued.

“Your victory over a Stalker F.O.E today was enough proof that they set their eyes on the right guild.” Ren pointed at the Mantis, as if she knew they were unaware of most creatures’ names. Upon seeing it, Ceas’ smile became even bigger, and he instinctively held Lamia and Surt to his side, much to their surprise.

“You guys seeing this?!” He hugged the two, almost feeling their hair on his face. “We’re making it Big! Hell yeah—”

“Ceas!” The protector let go of Lamia as she pouted at him, her arms crossed as if she were about to scold a child. “This isn’t the time to act like that! Don’t embarrass us in front of Them!” She said, but Ceas couldn’t help but laugh as he then held Surt with his free arm.

“Lammy, come on! As if you weren’t a fan of them either!”

“I-I wasn’t—Lammy?!”

“And what about you, Surt?” The alchemist didn’t answer, and instead sighed as he pushed himself off the protector, feigning ignorance. The protector chuckled once again.

“Right, right!” He said as he shook his head and clapped once. Now calmer, he turned towards the patient ronin and hexer. “So, what’s the big deal below?”

Ren and Tlachtga both nodded to each other once again, the latter fixing the plush still inside her robes. Ren proceeded to explain then, as she stood in front of the door leading to the rest of the third floor.

“Have you begun to notice an increase of monsters throughout the upper floors, recently?” the ronin asked, sighing. Ceas didn’t know how to respond, but Natalia stepped in, curious.

“Began wouldn’t be the word I’d use for it,” The survivalist brushed her hair, pensive, “But I still remember our first trip,” she blinked once before grabbing her scarf. “Monsters left and right, as if they had all gathered on the same floor, waiting for people to overwhelm like flies swarming rotten food.”

 

Olivia nodded as she remembered their first fight, which was also their first time getting ambushed. She then heard Ceas.

“Yeah, I get what she’s getting at,” The protector nodded, “But what does that have to do with the guys below, anyway?”

Ren nodded silently at the protector before continuing. Both her and Tlachtga’s gazes were cold from the moment Olivia first saw them, like statues, or paintings, which made the viewer feel as if they were being watched with an uncanny expression glaring at them from behind.

“You were not the only ones to notice the increased danger within the labyrinth’s entrance,” The ronin spoke, “And you may have heard of the increased number of casualties within new guilds in the recent months as well.”

Casualties, yes, Olivia still remembered the statistics brought by Amadis on Boldhunt and Halcon’s reunion, something which still shook her slightly.

“I-I think I know where she’s getting at,” she muttered. Ren glanced at her before continuing.

“There is a reason behind the rise in numbers of monsters,” she said, as she began to stare beneath the many trees surrounding the explorers. “You may have realized some of the creatures you rarely found on the upper floors became more common the further down you went,” Ren walked around Boldhunt, Tlachtga quietly following her from behind. “Monsters like the Stalker originally resided on the fourth and fifth floor.”

Olivia became quiet after that moment. So that meant there Was something even the mantises were afraid of…The landsknecht shuddered, yet Ren kept speaking.

“Just like Venomflies, who were native to the second floor, but have been reported to have created a nest in the first floor before it burned down. It’s likely to be a failed attempt from certain monsters to migrate to the upper floors.”

A nest on the first floor…Olivia wondered what she meant by that before a realization sprung on her mind. She looked at Surt, but he was staring directly at the floor, grimacing. Soon, she saw Lamia and Ceas with a similar expression on their face.

“It all has to do with an F.O.E, or rather a group of them, which have been terrorizing the fourth and fifth floor.”

“A bunch of F.O.Es even the wildlife’s scared of, huh…” Natalia fixed her hat as a sense of both curiosity and fear reached her. “Let me guess, we have to get rid of them, Right?” She asked.

“It all depends on whether you choose to go further or not,” Ren put simply, and Natalia didn’t answer as she brushed the tip of her headgear. Instead, she asked something else.

“So what’re they, exactly; Bugs? Animals? Maybe even the trees themselves,” The survivalist let out a chuckle. Neither Ren nor Tlachtga’s expression didn’t change in the slightest.

“Head over to the Radha Hall, they’ll give you a better understanding of what lies beyond this door.”

“H-Huh?”

Olivia stepped back, surprised at the ronin’s sudden non-answer. Ren didn’t seem as if she would talk beyond that, and even if she wanted to speak, she held back, slightly frustrated. Sighing, she turned back to her guildmates. Ceas and Lamia were both looking at the hexer and ronin duo, while Surt and Natalia both glanced at each other with doubt.

“So let me get this straight,” Ceas spoke, “We Do have permission to go past here, right?”

“Only if you apply for the annihilation mission,” Ren pressed her back on the door, her voice as stoic as always. “Otherwise, we’re tasked to not let even a single person in.”

Silence sprang through Boldhunt then, everyone stared at Ceas as he put a hand above his chin and pondered quietly, his sight set on the grass waving on the ground by the still reaching wind. He then spoke, his tone being that of confidence.

“What do you guys think?” He asked his guildmates.

As he was the leader of Boldhunt, Ceas had the power to simply accept the Radha’s request and bring his guildmates along, no questions asked. But he didn’t want that, especially for something as dangerous as hunting F.O.Es. He wanted a confirmation, a Yes coming from everyone else to help him thank the townsfolk of Etria, his home since birth, for all they’ve done for him and his friends.

 “I’d say we should take the mission,” he said as he looked hopeful at the rest. Lamia nodded and stood next to him.

“I agree as well,” the medic said. “If it means there will be less casualties, then I’ll do it.” She put her hand next to Ceas as she stared at her guildmates, holding it as the medic placed her other hand on her chest.

Just like him, Lamia wanted to help the townsfolk she had lived with for many years, even if it cost her…No…It wouldn’t cost her anything, it couldn’t; Lamia would make sure everyone would make it out alive.

Olivia wanted to agree as well, but she couldn’t help but feel as if something was…off. She could tell Natalia and Surt weren’t set on the idea either. Ceas grumbled as he gently grabbed Surt’s shoulder.

“Hey, Surt,” he shook the alchemist slightly, “You’re in this too, right?” Surt glanced at the protector, his frown visible to him.

Surt had been conflicted the whole time. For an odd reason even he couldn’t tell, the two guards in front of him didn’t give him any sense of trust, and in fact the opposite made him stay behind the rest of his guild, silent. Ren mentioning the Radha’s interest in Boldhunt didn’t help either, and ever since the alchemist discovered their involvement with the Second Floor’s crater, he felt as if he had found something he shouldn’t have.

But even then…

“I…”

Ceas and Lamia: They were people Surt had met for years, called them friends and the former even a lover for a while. The alchemist himself had to admit that the two, especially Ceas, were the only reason why he became a labyrinth explorer; To help them, to not let harm go their way no matter what…

“I’ll go,” The long haired man finally said, lifting his head, “Someone has to take care of our airheaded leader, after all.”

“That’s my line,” Lamia snorted as she smiled at the alchemist. “Thank you, Surt.”

“Sheesh, you two…” Ceas chuckled before turning towards Natalia and Olivia, “And what about you two girls? Can’t do much with just the three of us,” he crossed his arms. “We’re not Qarma’s.”

Natalia glanced at him before her view shifted to Olivia. The sudden shift of events made her remember that conversation she had with the landsknecht on that particular night, and though by then they made up with each other, what Ren said awaited them below made her worry once again.

“Olivia? What do you think?” She said, her voice lowered.

“Me? I…”

Lastly, Olivia. Her conversation with Lila came to mind as she began to look back and forth between her guildmates and the door leading to the rest of the floor. Though afraid, she wouldn’t back down, nor run away and abandon her friends. Most importantly, she would complete the mission and come back, alive to see her again. Her thoughts repeated the name Lila over and over as her decision became clear.

“I’m coming as well!” she yelled without warning, causing Ceas and Natalia to step back in surprise. “S-Sorry,” she soon said, scratching her hair, “I’m in.”

The survivalist stared at her for a few seconds then sighed, clinging the scarf around her neck. “No need to say it twice,” she grinned at the protector, “Wouldn’t sit right with me if I were the only one to say no, now would it?”

“Damn right it wouldn’t!” And Ceas said with joy. He turned towards Ren and Tlachtga, who had been waiting for roughly a minute. “You hear that? We’re doing this! All of us!”

“Speak with the Radha, not us.”

“…”

Slightly embarrassed, Ceas glanced at the mantis’ corpse, who had been there the entire time. Remembering the one He had defeated, the protector and the rest of his guild backtracked to it, bringing one of its scythes with them as a Warp Wire brought them back to the labyrinth’s entrance.

Olivia let out a small sigh of relief, one she often did each time she left the labyrinth. Ceas and Surt were both carrying the scythe from opposite ends, like workers carrying planks, but Surt soon had to deal with the arm’s entire weight on his own as Ceas let go of it, yelling in excitement along with Lamia.

“I Can’t believe this is happening!”

“Ren is so cool!” Lamia squeed, as if she had been holding it for a long while.

“Big man, you dense…!” Surt instead let go of the scythe as well, breathing in and out as he rolled his eyes over his two friends. Olivia and Natalia both laughed silently before the latter moved ahead of the group.

Walking backwards and with her hands behind her head, Natalia called Ceas.

“So are we going to the Radish or…”

“Radish?” Ceas stopped his gushing and didn’t answer, before getting what she meant, “Oh, right, yeah,” he nodded, “We’ll sell the stuff we gathered first, though.” Kneeling, he grabbed one end of the scythe as he looked at Surt. “Surt,” he whistled. The alchemist grumbled and grabbed the other end.

“I don’t think the Radha will need Everyone to go to accept the mission,” the protector added, “So you guys are free to go wherever. Just remember to go home later.”

“Right…” And with it, Natalia stretched an arm as she stared at Olivia with one eye opened, “Wanna go somewhere?” she asked, making the landsknecht curious, “I’ve been wanting to try going to that new ‘Jackson Restaurant’ place,” she chuckled.

“Ohh, I haven’t gone there either,” Olivia said, before looking at the survivalist’s clothing, “…Maybe you should change first,” she muttered, and soon Natalia realized her outfit had been covered in mantis blood the entire time.

As afternoon came, the girl followed Natalia around town, making small talk as the two sat down and ate their lunch next to each other. The survivalist chuckled as part of the girl’s food slipped off her tray, and Olivia let out a nervous laugh as she cleaned it up—not before attempting to eat it regardless.

Despite having fought an F.O.E in the morning, the rest of the day felt pretty peaceful for the two explorers, and Natalia could only grin with nostalgia as Olivia conversed with her, talking about Lila and their recent “hits” as she called their performances.

Yet…Natalia was still concerned about it all. The memories of her younger self sprang as she glanced at a cheerful Olivia, those calm days in Jail Rock where she rested on the grass and saw the blue sky, no worries or anything that disturbed her inner peacefulness.

And next to her…Anais.

Anais…Ana…Natalia sighed the more she could imagine herself near the ocean, looking at the young girl as she played around the grass field while Anais smiled at her with the same childish expression she hadn’t seen in years. Putting a palm over her face, the survivalist shook her head as she stared at the pavement, its repeating pattern making her focus on it in an attempt to distract herself from her thoughts.

“Natalia?”

Olivia’s voice pulled the survivalist out of her daydreaming, a short shriek coming from her as she jumped back slightly. “A-Again?” the landsknecht muttered to herself, feeling guilty, before scratching her face and making a quick apology.

“I-It’s alright,” the survivalist said, brushing the dirt off the back of her clothing. The brunette nodded, but wasn’t exactly convinced by Natalia’s attitude.

“Are you sure…?”

Natalia didn’t answer. She sat back as she crossed her legs and put a hand on her cheek, as if pensive. She knew that they were about to embark on a dangerous mission, one she knew they would take possible months trying to complete, or at the very least survive. All of that meant one thing to her. To talk.

“I…” She stuttered, “I think now is the time…” She stood up once again, giving Olivia her hand.

“Time for what?” The landsknecht took it, and Natalia helped her get on her feet as the latter stared at the outside area of town.

“Just follow me,” Natalia said, smiling in hopes of reassuring her, “It’s about last time.”

Olivia didn’t understand what she had meant by that, but she could see that the survivalist’s smile wasn’t genuine. Something was troubling her, and the landsknecht decided to follow her along in silence. The two guildmates walked towards the entrance, where, as always, was filled with tourists and explorers, both veterans and newcomers. Yet, they walked past them without saying a word, and soon reached an open clearing behind the town.

Natalia sat on the grass, her hands hugging her legs as her back was behind a tree. “We really are doing that mission,” The survivalist brushed the hair off her face before looking at Olivia with her two eyes, patting the ground next to her.

“You know you don’t have to act vague all the time.” Olivia sat next to Natalia, staring at the crown above the two as a cold, but gentle breeze made her feel relaxed. The survivalist didn’t reply, and instead leaned her head on the bark.

“I know, but…” Natalia sighed, “It’s important.”

“Important…” The brunette repeated to herself. The survivalist’s look was similar to the one she had when they confronted each other a month ago: spaced out, as if she were deep in her own, troubled thoughts and ignored everything around her. Sighing, the girl put a hand on Natalia’s shoulder.

“It’s alright,” Olivia said, “I’ll listen.”

Natalia kept silent as she stared at Olivia, but nodded, her eyes half-closed. “Thank you,” she said before taking a deep breath.

“I’m…” Natalia closed her eyes before speaking, “I’m nervous,” she said.

“About the F.O.Es?” Olivia asked, “Yeah, I can see why. We don’t even know What they are, just that there’s a lot of them that we’ve got to deal with…”

Natalia hummed, her wonder being matched by her uncertainty. “Just…” She stuttered, as if she were trying to come up with anything to tell Olivia. “Just remember what we talked about last time, alright?”

“Natalia…” Olivia frowned slightly, less in anger and more in concern. She could tell the survivalist in front of her was mincing her words, dancing around her own thoughts in an attempt to avoid mentioning them. “Do you trust me?”

“Huh?” Natalia seemed surprise, “Where did that—”

“Please, just tell me…”

“I…” Natalia muttered, “I do.” She didn’t understand why Olivia asked her that question in specific. The girl’s worried look however made her feel as if she did something wrong. That’s when Olivia spoke.

“Then why do you keep everything to yourself?” The landsknecht raised her voice, frustration reaching her as she climbed to her feet. Her expression softened, however, as she realized what she was doing. “S-Sorry,” she sat down again, but her irritation persisted.

“Please, talk to me. I promised I wouldn’t scare you, or make you sad, but…” Olivia stared directly at the survivalist, a glimpse of sadness in her eyes, “But I can’t do that if you keep acting like this without telling me Why.”

“Olivia…” Natalia could only blink as the girl in front of her looked as if she were about to burst into tears, yet Olivia tried to maintain her composure all the while her face wrinkled. “Have I really sounded like that?” the survivalist asked, a sigh of guilt following her question. She soon kept quiet and rolled her hair between her fingers.

“Sorry, I Really do trust you,” she said, regretful, “In fact, you’re probably the only one I feel I can talk to. I just…Even to this day, I thought keeping my thoughts to myself would be better.”

“Better?”

“Deep down, All I wanted was to tell someone,” she murmured, a small fracture in her voice causing her to stop momentarily, “But I couldn’t. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to confront that horrible memory…” Seeing as she herself felt as if she were walking around circles, the survivalist shook her head and took one last deep breath. “And yet, I had to do it eventually.”

Olivia nodded in sympathy, trying to amend for last time, and left the survivalist to take her time. A minute passed, and Natalia spoke.

“You already know about Her, right?”

“Her…? You mean—”

“Anais.”

Neither Olivia nor Natalia said anything, the latter trying to look away from the landsknecht as if attempting to hide her lament. Sighing, Natalia continued.

“It’s been a year by now since she…She died.”

Olivia hummed. It was something she had expected, but for Natalia to actually say it…She didn’t want to know how the survivalist herself felt. Natalia put a hand over her forehead, frothing it with her fingers as she battled with her own emotions.

“Anais…” Olivia repeated that name to herself before glancing at the blonde. “Was she…?”

“She…She was my sister,” Natalia replied, “My younger sister, to be precise; I was only eight years old when she was born.”

Olivia, for all she could remember about her family, was an only child. She never had experienced living along siblings, let alone one below her age. All she could do, however, was imagine how terrifying it must have felt for Natalia, having lost someone important to her, someone she took care of since the very beginning…

“I’m sorry,” that was all Olivia could say, but Natalia soon shook her head, calling her.

“You don’t need to say that,” the survivalist said, “I’m doing this out of my own will.” She sighed before continuing.

“Mom used to take care of us, after dad passed away months before Ana was born.” Natalia placed her hands on her legs as she stared at them, her voice low and her eyebrows down. “But eventually, my sister’s birth proved too much, and she soon left us as well.”

“Natalia…”

“The neighbors were kind enough to help us, but even back then, I knew I had to do something on my own; for her sake.” She glanced at her hands, opening and closing them as she stared at the few injured marks still on her fingers. “That’s pretty much how I got the hang of archery,” she said, letting a small laugh of relief, “Most of our food came from the forest, and I often had to mash fruits and meat so my sister could eat as a child.”

Olivia leaned her head towards her crossed arms while listening to Natalia. The thought of having to take care of oneself is one that made her shiver. Sure, her guild was there for her and she was lucky enough that she didn’t have to pay every day to stay at an inn. But what would happen if all of a sudden everyone was gone? What would she do, then? She didn’t know the answer to that, but all the girl could think about was how Natalia herself probably thought the exact same thing back then.

“Were you alone when you went hunting?” The landsknecht asked, a worried tone on her voice. “I…I probably would’ve been scared if I were you.”

“I Was scared; you know?” Natalia replied, causing Olivia’s eyes to widen. “But I Had to do something, even though I wanted to, I couldn’t simply cry to myself, asking for help which I knew wouldn’t last forever.”

“So…What did you do?”

“I turned to her,” Natalia answered after a few seconds of quietness, “My sister was my strength, even as an infant who didn’t even have a name when she was born.” She placed one hand on her chest, feeling her heart beat as she grabbed her clothing. “Each fall I took, each bite I got; they were all so my sister could live well.”

Olivia listened quietly to the survivalist as she bent her legs towards herself. Even if she said it with a determination that the girl could feel, the landsknecht still imagined how difficult it must have been just finding said resolve.

“You really cared about her...”

“She was my sister, after all.” Natalia said, giving a smile which lasted for only seconds. It was soon replaced by a weary expression of sadness. “Once she learned how to speak, all Anais would do was ask me to let her join me in my hunts…”

And then, a sigh. Natalia closed her eyes once again as a tear fell from one of them unwillingly. She brushed it off with one finger as she shook her head.

“It wasn’t until she was fourteen that I eventually taught her how to use a bow.”

“I knew that the same fear I had would soon befall her, or rather she already had it, which is why she pressured me so much.” Natalia stared at the grass beneath her feet, its gentle movement created by the wind comforting her slightly as she put her arms above her legs. “If only I could go back then and stop her…Then maybe she…” Another tear came out of one of her misty eyes, along with a sniff as her face reddened.

Gulping, the survivalist stopped talking, instead laying on the grass as she put one hand over her face. Olivia could only glance to the side of her shoulder as she gloomed with sympathy over Natalia, whose whimpers were muffled by her palms.

“I…” The landsknecht wanted to say something, anything to calm her friend down. She wondered for how long Natalia held her emotions for her to start crying like that, and if it was something she did before, given she never really saw her in town on Boldhunt’s free days. She could see the mask she had grown accustomed to slip away permanently, as what was left was a young adult bursting in tears.

 As soon as she tried to move closer, Natalia raised herself back up, her face now wrinkled but calmer as she sniffed one last time. “I got carried away a little,” she tried to get herself to laugh, but all that came from her mouth was a weak, irritated groan.

“It just happened so fast,” Natalia said, holding her own hands. “I got into an argument with her, and the two of us didn’t speak to each other when we went out to hunt food. One of our prey got away, and…” She gripped her palms tightly, her nails pressing her skin. “It was there that…She went ahead without me…And then…Then…Growls…A scream…” Before she continued, she felt Olivia holding her shoulder. She turned her view towards the landsknecht’s worried look.

“You don’t have to say much,” the girl said in a calm manner, “I…I get it.”

Natalia blinked, her eyes shifting away from the landsknecht and her lips quivering as she cleaned the last remains of her tears.

“I was lost when I first came to Etria, I’ll admit,” She spoke, her voice slowly returning to normal. “Even though I came here with the faint idea of becoming an explorer, I never wanted to experience loss ever again. But then…”

The survivalist interrupted herself before taking a deep breath.

“I saw you. I saw Her.”

“Me? Her?” The landsknecht leaned away from the survivalist as she began to remember the day she became an explorer. Thinking back on it, Natalia had never been the inviting type, or at least, not to anyone but her.

 “I know it sounds stupid,” the survivalist replied, letting a dry laugh out before sighing, “But even then, I knew would never forgive myself if I didn’t talk to you, and that I would never be able to sleep, wondering if you were still alive or not.”

“Is…Is that why you invited me back then? Why you joined Boldhunt?”

Nodding, Natalia confirmed the girl’s questions as she closed her eyes and let herself feel the breeze around her: A moment of reminiscence as the survivalist looked back on the days she spent in Etria. Those nights when she jumped to her bed, exhausted, but glad to be alive as she heard Olivia’s snoring coming from below her, or bantered with her, laughs coming from the two of them as she could still feel Anais’ presence in the landsknecht.

Maybe it was because Olivia reminded her of her sister that Natalia even stayed in Ceas’ house. Maybe it was because Olivia reminded her of her sister that she was the one to argue with her.

Such thoughts made Natalia reflect on who she truly believed Olivia was, because deep down, she knew she was doing something wrong.

Olivia was but a random girl she met for only two months, not the sister she had lived with for years.

Olivia was but a simple teenager she simply became guildmates with by sheer chance, not the sister she took care of for over half of her life.

Olivia was still alive. Anais was not.

When the survivalist opened her eyes and glanced at the girl next to her, all she saw was Olivia staring at her, Anais nowhere in sight.

“Olivia…” was all Natalia could whisper, slowly leaning her body towards the landsknecht. “You’re Olivia…” she repeated to herself as she soon wrapped the girl around her arms. When she blinked, Natalia realized her face was once again soaked in tears, and Olivia was hugging her as well.

It was hard for the survivalist to admit it. Every time she looked at the landsknecht, she instead saw Anais running away from her, while Natalia still tried to reach out to in a vain attempt to catch her. Yet, with each time she repeated the landsknecht’s name in her head, her hand slowly moved away from Anais, as if she were slowly stopping to give chase.

Tears flowed like a miniature stream as the survivalist eventually stopped on her tracks entirely, the breeze letting her know she was no longer pursuing the sister she could never reach. And then, Anais stopped as well.

The late sister turned to Natalia one last time, as if awaiting a response from the blonde survivalist. Natalia kept eye contact with Anais, and though her throat was sore, eyes and face red after crying for so long, she felt relieved.

One final smile coming from both of them was enough for Anais to rest, as the girl’s image soon vanished from Natalia’s mind.

“Natalia.”

Olivia’s voice made Natalia open her eyes, now blurry. She looked around and saw herself lying on the ground, her head placed behind a tree as next to her was the landsknecht. Her voice upon attempting to speak was raspy, and the survivalist quickly realized she had fallen asleep ever since she hugged the girl.

Brushing her eyes in an attempt to fully wake herself up, she looked at the orange-tinted sky and soon stood up, pondering.

“I feel better now,” Natalia said as she stretched her arms and legs, feeling much lighter like before; a weight that had finally been lifted off her. “We’ll be hunting down F.O.Es very soon, huh?”

“We will,” Olivia nodded before she stood up as well, her worry still present. “Are you Sure you feel better?” she asked.

“I said what I said,” the survivalist grinned as she looked back at the landsknecht, but her expression soon turned pensive, and her view shifted towards the grass.

“I…Figured something out,” she then said, blinking. “I just wanted to let you know.”

Something about her dream made Natalia think quietly. As she stared at the afternoon sky and its clouds moving from one side to another, the survivalist could feel as if she was quickly reaching an answer she never realized she was looking for.

“We’ll do fine, just like always,” Natalia muttered to Olivia as she looked directly at her, brushing the hair away from her face so the girl could see both her eyes. “But…I still need to tell you this.”

The girl hummed, curious as she quietly listened to the survivalist.

“We don’t know how hard this mission will be,” Natalia began to speak, “nor do we know how long we’ll be on it.” Her voice was deep yet calm, like a teacher giving out lessons to a troubled student. She continued.

“The only thing we know for a fact is that it will be dangerous, or even lethal.”

That last word made Olivia gasp. What was she saying? She asked in her mind as confusion set most of her thoughts. Yet before the girl could say anything, Natalia spoke further.

“I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, and this is something that I don’t want to happen at all.” Natalia took a step closer towards the girl, a frown forming on her face. “But not all of us might make it.” The survivalist placed a hand on Olivia, but the latter slapped it away as she shouted.

“What’s wrong with you?!” The landsknecht stepped away from Natalia, clenching her fists. “I can’t believe you just said that! Of course we’re all going to—”

“Please, listen to me!” But Natalia continued, grabbing the landsknecht’s arms in an attempt to calm her down. “You’re right, we Will survive this, but please, listen to me first.”

Olivia nudged away as one of her fists tried to reach the survivalist’s face, but seeing the serious expression on Natalia made her hands loosen up. The girl’s shoulders lowered, and though frustrated, she kept silent.

“I just told you about Anais, how hollow I felt knowing the sister I loved died in front of my very own eyes,” Natalia slowly let the girl go as she straightened herself up, sighing. “I don’t want you to go through the same hell I went.”

The brunette’s eyes widened upon hearing her.

“Just because we want to believe that everything will be alright, that no matter what, nothing will go wrong…” Natalia closed her eyes, as if trying to prevent from crying once again. “It doesn’t mean that we’re guaranteed things will go our way. It only means that once something bad happens, it will hurt even more.”

The blonde let out a long breath before finishing, her posture rigid and her hands halfway closed.

“Please, Olivia,” she said, “Just know that whatever happens, you have to be strong. Don’t make the same mistake as I did with Ana and wish for things to be like before.”

The girl didn’t reply, nor did she get angry and leave. She was confused by what Natalia was saying, how blunt she was about it all, as if she was Expecting someone bad to happen.

But even then, when she thought about it…

“Like before?” Olivia asked as she began to remember her own past, or rather, what little remains she wanted to remember. She shook her head soon enough, however, just wanting to hear what Natalia had to say.

“I used you, Olivia,” Natalia nodded, regret filled in her voice. “I deluded myself into believing you were someone else, just so I could pretend to be the same, naive girl I used to be.” The survivalist glanced away, frowning. “I pushed the real you away for a long time, and only Now have I realized how wrong I was.” She sighed, putting one hand over her face as she became calmer.

The sky’s orange tint became darker with each second, and the air around them turned cold. The survivalist didn’t care about the passing time as she thought of her next words.

“I trust you, Olivia,” she said. “I know you’re strong, much more than I, and you've kept your promise ever since, so…Whatever happens, don't chase after those old days. You'll only hurt yourself more...”

In a way, Natalia was telling this to herself as much as she was to Olivia, and the latter could tell as the survivalist quickly turned away, staring at the night sky as she began to walk towards Etria.

“I…I get what you’re saying,” Olivia said after seconds of silence. “Nothing will happen, I’m sure of it, but…I’ll do it.”

Natalia let out a miniscule gasp. She was still facing away from Olivia as she smiled, comforted.

“Thank you.”

That was all Natalia said before she left the clearing. A minute passed as Olivia only stared at where the survivalist used to be, a myriad of thoughts forming on the girl’s mind as she repeated the conversation she just had over and over as she too began to walk back home.

Natalia on the meanwhile was already in front of the gates, watching the lake below the bridge connecting Etria to the outside world. The reflection on the water showed her many people come and go Etria. But a part of the mirror caught the survivalist’s attention.

A young girl, carrying a guitar case and a purse was quietly staring at the entrance gates from afar, not moving at all as her view shifted to the direction of Yggdrasil.

Natalia quietly watched in secret, as Lila fumbled a few steps towards the labyrinth before stopping herself, a growing frustration making her frown.

Clenching her fists and letting out air from her nose, the troubadour turned around and went back to Etria with only a groan leaving her lips…

Chapter Text

Tiger 25 – 8 P.M.

Ceas dropped his back on his double sized bed, a deep sigh of relief leaving his lips as his muscles relaxed and his eyes closed. His hand brushing his forehead, the protector huffed himself up as he sat on the edge of the bed, now glancing at most of his equipment stashed inside his brown, silk bag.

Though spent, Ceas joined his palms with each other and repeated the events that happened throughout the day in his head, like a student reminding themselves of an exam’s topics. Loosely blinking, the protector stood up and began walking across his room, now thinking of a suitable approach for the days to follow.

Boldhunt’s new mission would soon begin, Ceas knew, as it was all that was lingering around his head right then…

 

Chapter 13: Briefing

 

Earlier on the same day, Ceas had finished stuffing his armor inside his bag. His two guildmates, Lamia and Surt, were supposed to wait outside as the protector searched around for the certificate of his guild, yet when he left his home, only the medic was there. Upon noticing her husband arriving, Lamia turned his way.

“Where’s Surt?” Ceas asked, unable to spot the alchemist across the walkway. Lamia loosened her shoulders before answering, her expression being no less curious than his.

“He left rather abruptly,” the medic responded, “something about continuing his work—Surt stuff, really,” she shrugged and took a step where—amidst the many buildings surrounding the town—the top of the Radha Hall, a tall watchtower stood out.

“So I guess it’s just us two, then.” Ceas crossed his arms, letting out a sigh as he joined the medic and began moving forward.

Etria was buzzing with activity as always; explorers who marched in group from one side of town to another, looking for anything to do. Many came and left the various establishments that Ceas and Lamia passed through, bars, stores, the hospital, places which by then the two had visited at least once per day.

Their destination, however, was not somewhere most explorers stepped into frequently.

Despite it being the place every newcomer must be to begin their initiation, the Radha Hall was devoid of explorers. Instead—above the black and white ceramic tiles, and surrounded by silver-colored bricks—the long coat wearing elderly quietly walked back and forth from floor to floor, the golden buttons of their clothing and their steel shoulder guards marking them as part of the government.

Even as native Etrians, neither Ceas nor Lamia were familiar with the hall, only entering back when Boldhunt was formed—Besides the one time the latter snuck inside while playing hide and seek before getting lost, the former stifling a laugh as he remembered. The medic raised an eyebrow, curious.

Focusing, the protector hummed once and roamed the hall, looking for the person he knew he should talk to. After a couple of minutes spent asking for him, the couple was eventually greeted by a younger ginger-haired man adjusting his glasses.

“Glad to see you were able to come, Guild Boldhunt.” Subaltern Quinn fixed his peach-colored long coat before stretching his arm towards the couple, inviting them like old friends. “I suppose the rest of your group must be waiting outside, correct?”

“Y-Yes, sir.” Ceas and Lamia took turns shaking his hand. Despite his young age and affability, Quinn was still respected among explorers who had passed the initiation mission—He was the one who they had to speak to, after all.

Quinn led the explorers further inside the building, soon reaching a small room where a large wooden table was placed amidst a long line of paperwork and certificates. The subaltern closed the door and sat behind the table in front of the two, urging them to do the same.

“Well then,” the subaltern cleared his throat, “Ren must have informed you about the situation regarding the lower floors, correct?”

 “Indeed,” Lamia confirmed as she straightened herself on a chair, her hands stiffened above her lap. “They’ve told us to come here as normally, explorers aren’t allowed past a certain in the third floor.”

“Very well,” Quinn nodded upon hearing her, “Then I won’t delay further,” he said as he shuffled the contents inside the table for a few seconds, Lamia leaned her head in an attempt to see what the subaltern was looking for, but as quickly as she did, Quinn pulled a large book and placed it above the desk.

“Recently, reports of a surge of a specific type of F.O.E in the lower fourth and fifth floor have surfaced,” the subaltern said as he brushed each page of the book aside, looking for a specific one as his eyes shifted from right to left. Ceas and Lamia glanced at each page, quickly realizing it was some sort of bestiary; Monsters both known and unknown to them were given names, portraits and even descriptions which, from what little time they had to read, seemed to specify their abilities and weaknesses. Quinn continued.

“Upon further investigation, The Radha declared access to said floors limited, for now, that is.” 

Eventually, the subaltern stopped, and rotated the bestiary in front of them.

“This is where you, and a select group of others, come in.”

“That’s a…”

Lamia stared at the portrait shown in front of them, reading the name of the monster in front of them aloud as they analyzed its description.

“A wolf?” Ceas asked incredulous, That’s what made people so worried? Not the giant mantis abominations his guild had to fight, but a simple, slightly adorable wolf? “S-Sir, you may have shown us the wrong page,” he stuttered, but before saying anything else he turned to his wife.

“I see,” the medic said as she finished reading the Forest Wolf’s bestiary entry, thoughtful. “I think I understand why the Radha would limit access to the lower floors now.”

“Huh?” Ceas raised his eyebrows, flabbergasted by the medic’s reaction, but kept quiet as Quinn began to explain.

“As far as two months, exploration across the fourth and fifth floor have slowed down considerably because of the Wolf pack.” The subaltern upped his glasses as they slowly trailed off his nose, continuing as Ceas switched views between him and the monster’s sketch. “Of course, the labyrinth has shown to be more dangerous the deeper people go, but after reports of wolf attacks increased with each day, us Radha could not simply ignore this.”

“So…Huh.” Ceas scratched his hair the more he tried to figure out what the deal was; even if he wanted to look professional in front of the subaltern, he felt as if Quinn and Lamia were both playing a joke on him.

“How big is that thing, anyway?” the protector asked, done with his wondering. “It doesn’t look That bad to me, at least not compared to the guys we’ve seen before,” he let out a short laugh as his mouth twisted. Quinn tilted his head while Lamia, upon hearing him, kicked his leg, looking away and feigning carelessness.

“I suppose by themselves they don’t pose much of a threat,” The subaltern then said, his voice comprehensive, “However, their main strength comes from their numbers.”

“Hmm?” Ceas finished rubbing the faint pain off his leg and shifted his sight to Quinn, “You mean…”

“They attack, no, hunt in groups, Ceas,” Lamia said, reflecting. “They’re wolves, after all, it would be rare to see one on its own.”

“Indeed,” Quinn nodded, “So far only a couple have survived their attacks,” he added, before grimacing as his fists subtly clenched. “Very few of them were able to escape unharmed, but the rest…I doubt they’ll be able to go back to their normal lives anytime soon.”

“It’s that bad…” The protector lowered his shoulders in response to the subaltern’s reaction.

F.O.Es were something that by then have become something Ceas and his guild had become used to in their day-to-day exploring. But it was only there that he realized most of his encounters with them were individual, no distractions nor sudden ambushes in the middle of the fight. The only exception to this was the Kuyutha that appeared the first time Boldhunt got into an F.O.E fight, but even then, the bull struck the deer before crushing it, thus still making it a fight against a single enemy.

Whether this meant he was lucky not to have been ambushed mid-fight or not was irrelevant, he’d never imagine F.O.Es to just gang up on explorers like the common monsters he defeated hundreds of. No, their first encounter with Any of the wildlife was already one that almost proved fatal for everyone involved, simply because one side took the upper advantage and overwhelmed the other, imagining F.O.Es to do the exact same thing gave the protector pause, a slight fear that made him hum to himself, his hand placed below his chin.

“So what do we need to do?” Ceas concentrated and, instead of lingering around in his own thoughts, lifted his head up to see Quinn directly. “If they’re gathered in groups then maybe we can get rid of them one spot at a time,” he suggested.

“We’ve thought of that before.” But Quinn wasn’t sure of what Ceas said. “There Are certain areas where wolf packs tend to stay more than others,” he said, contemplating the ceiling above him, “However, it isn’t enough to just defeat them. It’s proven that, even should we wipe out an entire pack, a new one will replace it as if nothing had happened.”

The protector opened his mouth in confusion, but soon closed it, no words being able to come out of it. Lamia however, snapped her fingers.

“Then what about their leaders?” She asked, her voice raised, “As far as I know, wolf packs are usually kept together by at least one,” she then said, tapping the table in front of her with her fingers as she tried to remember her studies.

The subaltern grinned, “You seem to know plenty about animal behavior,” he said, “Yes, we have been looking for a way to find and exterminate their leader.” Quinn turned the bestiary towards him, grabbed it, and soon began to flip through its pages once again.

“Thankfully the first part is done, as you can see here.”

 And with it, the subaltern placed the book down, and both Ceas and Lamia examined the pages presented to them closely.

The sketch on the left page was similar to the Forest Wolf shown to the couple previously, in fact some could say it was a mistake and that they put the same monster twice. But upon reading the Skoll’s description, the difference between it and the Forest Wolf was clear: Larger in size; stiff hide; extremely aggressive, even when compared to their smaller counterpart and most importantly, always follow closely to the leader of the wolves, shown on the right page.

Fenrir barely, if at all resembled a wolf from what its barren sketch could show: A furred creature the size of the average man with two striking blade-like teeth sticking out of each extreme of the monster’s mandible; A wolf in the form of a white saber-toothed cat. The description of it, compared to the rest of the bestiary entries was scarce as well, most likely from the lack of reports available, the reason for it obvious to the couple and subaltern. All that was known of it was an intense cold that emanated from the area where it laid waiting for prey, and nothing else.

“Both our scouts and explorers skillful enough to sneak behind F.O.Es such as these were able to confirm their presence within the fifth floor,” Quinn added, his voice resounding trust, “The leader of the pack, Fenrir, appears to reside near the floors connecting the fifth floor with the sixth; Where the main den, and by extension the Skoll are theorized to be.”

“And that’s our objective, right?” Ceas asked. The more he looked at the two entries, a bigger sense of responsibility fell on him. Now that Boldhunt was considered for such a dangerous mission such as hunting down a pack of extremely dangerous F.O.Es, he more than ever felt that he was helping Etria and its townsfolk. He felt ready, but not just him. Lamia glanced at her own hands, which she made glow faintly on purpose. Completing a mission like that would indirectly save the lives of many explorers whom she was used to seeing hurt in the hospital her whole life. Any discovery she would made regarding medicine or even her own powers would be one she’d gladly accept, even if it meant facing the wildlife that hid it away.

“Correct,” Quinn fixed his glasses one last time as he stored the bestiary back into his desk.

“Simply put, this is an extermination mission. We want you, and other eligible guilds, to annihilate the wolves that plague the fourth and fifth floor of the labyrinth, with Fenrir being the main target.”

The subaltern let out a deep breath and brushed his hair aside. Now that the objective was clear to the couple, he stood up and searched between the many lists stashed away in the room the three were in. As he did so, he spoke.

“I’m sure you two have figured it out by now, but I’m gonna ask you anyway.” The couple glanced curious at Quinn. “Many people have fallen to the wolf pack over the course of the year,” he pulled a long paper out of the many that laid behind a small end table, “and speaking not as Radha, but as myself, I know I’m putting your group, and many others at huge risk by letting you partake in this mission.”

“You don’t need to remind us,” Ceas nodded in confidence. Lamia followed. “We’ve talked with our guild, we’re more than willing to help,” she added, “Sitting around with our arms crossed would do us no good, regardless.”

Humming, the subaltern walked to the desk with the list in hand as he accepted the couple’s determination. Giving the couple a quill pen along with the parchment, he sat down. “Well then, your signature, Mr. Nalis.”

Reading through the list, Ceas and Lamia quickly realized it contained many of Etria’s more successful guilds as of late, along with a signature next to each of whom they believed was the leader. Ceas could recognize plenty of the guilds shown there, some which have been established as far as back when he and Lamia were children, others which were completely new to him, and one that stuck out the most to him, Halcon, which was exactly below where Boldhunt was located.

The two grinned upon knowing Qarma’s guild accepted the mission, now feeling slightly more confident now that a personal friend of them was going to work with Boldhunt. However, something else caught their attention.

A number was displayed before the guild name, most guilds had a five, others just one and a couple of them thirty. Lamia supposed the numbers corresponded to the amount of members present in each guild, as thirty was known to be the hard limit, and Boldhunt had a five in it.

But she found it curious that a Five was next to Guild Halcon.

Upon pointing this out to Ceas, the two looked at each other, wanting to know more once they met Qarma again.

Thus, Ceas signed his name next to Boldhunt and left the Radha Hall as nighttime came in town. The protector’s eyes felt heavy the second he laid on his bed; a long, busy day had just passed and he just wanted to rest. Lamia felt the same way, and as she finished drying her hair with a towel, she dropped next to her husband and wrapped his arm around her.

“We Are ready for this, aren’t we?” asked the medic, uncertain of whatever the future might hold for her and her guild, “I mean, we are, but…”

“Something troubling you?” Ceas held Lamia’s shoulder, caressing it as he moved his face closer towards hers, “I won’t let anything bad happen to you, nor anyone.”

“I know.” Though comforted by his words, Lamia’s mind was set on something else that caught her attention back in the Radha Hall. Something, something that made her instinctively turn sideways and hug Ceas, nuzzling her head next to his neck. As she did so, Ceas let an honest laugh out as he reciprocated.

“Hey,” he said, brushing the medic’s hair, “that reminds me, when did you start studying about animals and stuff?” He grinned, “you surprised me back there.”

“Oh, please, it was common knowledge.” Lamia said. It was true to a certain degree, but she had been studying about animal behavior regardless. Wolves were often kept together by a pair, one which took care of the pack, feeding them, protecting them and overall caring for them. In a way, Lamia found it touching in a personal manner, feeling as if it was something she had done ever since she learned about her healing power: Being able to take care of those she loved, those she wanted to see grow, like a…

Like a…

Pulling herself more and more towards Ceas, the medic slowly trailed her hands across his back, her eyes closing as she soon began to sleep calmly, her resting breaths soothing the protector as he followed suit.