The warm sunlight of late morning filled one corner of the human base known as the inn town.
Beatrice sat motionless with her hands over her face. She did not know what to say to the others in her level cap group: White Witch Filinion who hid her body below a cape, a far-too-short dress, and shorts and Fighter Priest Armelina who wore a priest outfit with a bold slit up to above her hips.
The other two hesitantly spoke to the girl who had gone red to the ears and had steam rising from her head.
“U-ummm. Beatrice, we came all the way to Ground’s Nir. I know you experienced a pretty bad failure, but we can only stay here for a few days at a time, so can’t we make effective use of that time by getting to the Labyrinth?”
“If you can explain that failure to yourself, then it’ll be okay. No matter what you think on the surface, you’ve finished processing it deep down and have it stored away inside you. Don’t drag this along with you, Beatrice. We need to think about the future instead.”
She understood their point.
They could not see it now, but the Sage’s hidden plotting had to be continuing. And she would be doing more than enjoying this age on a whim. Whether or not she was Beatrice from the future, Beatrice needed the power to stop her if it came to that. That was not something that would just fall into her lap. Step 1 was the Labyrinth. Step 2 was the Labyrinth. Even if she had to sit out Steps 3 and 4, Step 5 was the Labyrinth. She had learned just how inexperienced she was in that previous battle, so she had to work toward earning a ton of Experience Points and learning new Magic.
“…I know that. I really, really do know that. But…”
“Isn’t sitting around only giving you more chance to remember that shameful memory of your own making? I feel like it will do less damage in the long run if you force yourself to keep moving at times like this.”
“I feel like that would turn her into something like a workaholic father who neglects his family. And if she relies on her combat skills to drive out her embarrassing memories, she’ll probably turn into a complete berserker.”
Beatrice sniffled, but it was true they only had so much time. And she did not know when she would run across the Sage again. When that time came, she did not want her own or someone else’s life to be lost due to a small moment of sloth.
“…So where should we begin? The trendy hunting ground at the moment is Ice Burn 72. To be blunt, that’s a bad Elemental match for me and my fire.”
“Oh, in that case.” The glasses girl clapped her hands in front of her large chest. “The rumors tend to fly right past you, Beatrice, but the inn town has recently gained a bar that gives you powerful and long-lasting Buffs. If you have trouble with ice, why not get some temporary Water Resistance?”
“I’m not going to forget how you slipped in an insult there, cow. But Buffs, huh?”
To use a more complicated term, Buffs were strengthening support Magic. They were used to increase one’s basic Stats such as HP, STR, and VIT and, as Filinion had pointed out, to fill in an Elemental Defense one had trouble with. The clothing Beatrice and the others wore while in Ground’s Nir was Status-reinforcing Magic taking the form of clothing, so receiving a small accessory would provide some kind of support. However…
“Wouldn’t you be afraid of a Buff from a complete stranger? It’s like reusing surgery tools or taking home a USB card you found in an internet café that anyone can use.”
“You never leave your birdcage, so what do you know about cafés, Beatrice?”
“Heh heh hehhh. As your White Witch recovery specialist, I’ll take that as a sign that the shy young lady trusts me with her body☆”
The teenage girl cowered down at that observation, pouted her lips, and tapped her index fingers together in front of her chest.
“Besides, even if this is another world where Japanese law doesn’t apply, I still don’t feel like drinking at my age. I don’t want to claim it’s a medical act as an excuse.”
“Oh, you don’t get the Buffs like that. I hear a ring made from Magic is dropped into the drink and you pull the ring out and put it on for the Buff.”
“So it’s like a fashionable and effective fortune cookie? Well, if that’s all it is.”
Since the Buff was reliant on someone else, they would not know how long it would last, the third party could intentionally cut off its effects at an inopportune time, and there was even a risk of it interfering with their Shining Weapon’s management terminal when using Magic. They could not be optimistic, but Beatrice was at least willing to check out the popular bar. And if things looked sketchy, she could simply take a peek inside and refuse any Buffs.
“So have you heard what percentage you get?”
“I’ve only heard incomplete rumors, but it’s apparently up to 10%.”
“That’s pretty incredible…”
An Elemental Defense of 100% would completely negate that Element, so 10% might not seem like much. However, it meant a lot to gain an instant boost without using any of your own Experience Points. The gears used as currency contained Experience Points, but it was faster to receive an Elemental Defense directly from an expert than to train yourself up from the beginning of the Magic tree diagram.
“Okay, Filinion, show us the way to this bar.”
“Yes, sir. To be honest, I’ve never been there so it takes guts to go there alone.”
“By the way, there are a lot of different kinds of bars. What does this one specialize in?”
“Heh heh heh heh heh. Meat!! They’re practically brimming with meat dishes!!”
“…I thought you said this was a bar. Why is this glasses cow so focused on the meat?”
That was probably how she (or rather, one part of her: the chest) had grown so big, but the two who had smaller meals (and breastplates) did not want to accept it.
“There used to be a lackluster pizza place there, but once word got out they were shutting down, it seems someone came and bought the place.”
“It can be hard to tell with how similar all the buildings look, but this is a pretty expensive district. If they had waited until the place was vacant, the bidding wars probably would have increased the cost considerably. Whoever it was must have good information sources. I smell a shrewd businessman.”
Every human involved in Ground’s Nir gathered in the inn town, so it was always crowded. The 3 of them passed by a great variety of people on the way to the bar.
“A lot more people are insisting on pajamas lately, aren’t they? It used to be that you didn’t want to take anything more into the Labyrinth than absolutely necessary, so everyone learned some barrier Magic to use like a sleeping bag.”
“That’s because sleep is directly related to the recovery of Willpower which is at the base of our Magic. If the goal is to efficiently recover as much of it as possible in as short a time as possible, it makes sense that people insist on tools for more comfortable sleep. And trendy Ice Burn 72 is especially cold, so you’ll really want some warm pajamas or a thick blanket, right?”
“I’m sure it’s just a temporary fad. And we really are simple if sleeping is enough for us to recover.”
The 3 of them continued walking while glancing over at the roadside stands selling fabric made from Ground Spider silk or Large Deceptive Silkworm cocoons as well as completed costume pajamas or negligees.
“Oh, I think it’s right around that corner there. It’s called Girl’s Grill and its excellent reputation for cute-looking dishes just keeps rising. The only downside is that it’s so popular so soon after opening that it isn’t easy to get a seat.”
“Filinion, you’re always full of information that has nothing to do with exploring the Labyrinth. Where do you get it all from?”
“Heh. Fashion is all about ignoring the practical and seeing how many pointless and inefficient things you can add in.”
A real college girl was mocking a real teenage girl, so Beatrice had no choice but to put her in a headlock.
“Ow, ow, ow! Beatr- my glasses, the sides of my glasses are digging into my temples!!”
“Then curse the karma that led you to be born with glasses, cow.”
“I wasn’t born with them! And it’s starting to become standard by this point, but the damage is building up as you call me a cow all the time!! Do you have any idea what’ll happen if this anger explodes!?”
“What a pain.”
“…They’re going to get even bigger?”
“Wait a second!! These aren’t bags of stress, you know!?”
At any rate, the Holy Swordswoman held onto the White Witch’s head as they rounded the corner.
“Welcome to Girl’s Grill! Will it be 4 of you?”
The voice of the waitress standing at the entrance reached them outside. It was a lively, lovely, and gentle voice that carried well but was not at all piercing. Beatrice was honestly impressed because that was not a technique she could emulate. However…
The Sage wore a cute, frilly waitress uniform with a beaming smile on her face.
It was so sudden.
She wore twintails that did not suit her alluring body in the slightest. The Holy Swordswoman was not at all mentally prepared for this sudden arrival of danger in an assumed safe zone, so her legs tangled up and she tripped quite spectacularly onto the stone-paved road.
The Sage had a heart-shaped cloth over her chest. The miniskirt and stockings accentuated the thighs visible between.
While lying face down, Beatrice raised her head and shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Wha-…you-…wait just a minuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute!!!!!!”
“Oh, dear. Are you okay, miss? Here, use this wet towel to wipe the dirt off of your face and body. And, um, will it be 3 of you?”
“What are you doing…? Why are you opening a bar here while walking around looking exactly like me!? We were in a real fight to the death over the truth of the Iberian Orc village, weren’t we!? Weren’t you the kind of person who arrogantly sits on her throne within the demon king’s castle in the deepest depths of the demon world full of rock and toxic swamps!?”
“Oh ho ho. Now, now, miss. Saying we look exactly alike is an exaggeration. There are differences. For example, chest size. Also? Chest size. And the one that’s like night and day? Chest size.”
“Do you want me to kill you right here and now!!!???”
“I was merely stating the truth. Now, miss, let me show you to your table.”
The way she responded with a perfect smile made Beatrice look like the villain.
The people around them did not know the truth and their eyes on her were painful.
“…Doesn’t anyone find it odd that there are two people here who look exactly alike?”
“Eh? But one look at our chests and-…”
Beatrice silenced the puzzled response by grinding her teeth. Was the Sage saying that alone made that much of a difference?
She just about called up her fire illusion Magic to draw out the frames and lines out of habit, but it was no use. She had no idea where to start with the connecting lines.
Beatrice looked up from the ground and glared at Filinion, but the glasses cow vigorously shook her head. She had apparently only heard rumors of the popular bar and had not known who exactly worked there.
“B-besides, I know there is a wide variety when it comes to waitress uniforms. And this maybe tricking you into thinking it’s a dress thanks to the headdress, corset, and decorative sleeves, but that’s no more than see-through red negligee, isn’t it!? You can just about see the black underwear below it! In fact, it’s bad enough that I can even tell it’s black!! And that’s my appearance you’re using!”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, but business is booming thanks to this.”
“Are you a living case of defamation!?”
“Pajamas are the in thing right now, so I thought it might be good to ride that wave.”
Beatrice did not quite understand that metaphor, but the customer floor was about the size of 2 school classrooms when counting both the counter and tables. There would also be a kitchen and food storeroom in the back. The cow had claimed the place was known for its meat dishes, but the interior design was somehow reminiscent of a ship. There was a ship’s wheel, a wooden life buoy, and other things on the wall. The lamps in the center of the round tables were reused ship lanterns.
“Did they reuse all of these materials? I feel like we saw some similar items on the Next Voyager grounded on the southern beach.”
“Stripping materials and furnishings from a ghost ship that houses a Vampire sounds like a good way of getting yourself into trouble…”
The Sage maintained her service industry smile and ignored Filinion and Armelina’s comments.
“Here is your table. I will be your server for today. Please look over these menus while you wait.”
They heard a hand bell ringing.
“Hurry! Bring out my extra order of meat!”
“How many shots of increased Water Resistance can you get again?”
“I think I’ll get a drink for STR, for INT, and…oh, for AGI and LUK too! I’ll take all the super attack Buffs!!”
“Yes, yes, just a moment!” cheerfully said the Sage as she moved over to that table. This was not just a one-shot gag to harass Beatrice. She really was working here.
“I-is she really working dressed like that…? Looking just like me is bad enough, but why does she have to be wearing a see-through negligee!?”
“Hmm, maybe it’s because of that old cliché with waitresses in a fantasy world. I mean, she does have a far larger chest than you, Beatrice.”
That was too much for Beatrice even as a joke, so she poked Filinion in the eyes with a gauntleted scissors. With the sound of thin glass breaking, the cow was left writhing on the floor with her hands over her face. This was not the glasses girl’s lucky day. Although the White Witch did bring it all onto herself. Beatrice ignored her and continued observing the bar.
The wooden building was not very large, but the dishes were only being carried out by 2 waitresses: the Sage who was in charge of the tables and another one at the counter. Beatrice’s group had filled the last of the empty seats, so it had to be difficult for just the 2 of them to run the entire bar. Even with a handwritten memo pad on their waist, it was impressive they did not get orders wrong all the time.
“Anyway, Ice Burn 72 is way too cold, so I need to warm up my body.”
“Yeah, that cold gets to you no matter what you wear, so it’s way worse than the Gimmicks or Traps. You can’t get a wink of sleep without any preparation, so you can’t recover your Willpower either.”
“It would be great if I could get 100% Water Resistance, but, well, as you get closer to 100%, the amount of necessary Experience Points rises like crazy in a quadratic curve, so that would be inefficient.”
Unlike the Sage, the other waitress was a girl with bodylines too thin to even call slender. She had her long blonde hair in twintails just like the Sage, she had blue eyes, and she had oddly pointed ears. The inn town generally refused anyone who was not human, but she might have been some kind of Elf.
“Sibyl-chaaan, mixing conflicting Elemental defenses won’t make them negate each other, will they? I want both water and fire, but is there some kind of fine print there?”
“Yes, yes, yes. You will gain both effects, but even if you double up with the same Element, the time remains unchanged: 24 hours only. Make sure to write the starting time on the back of your hand so the end of effects doesn’t catch you by surprise down in the Labyrinth.”
…Had someone used Magic to make herself look like an Elf, or did it not matter if someone was a Nonhuman if they were skilled and beautiful? Beatrice felt it was not fair that Boo Boo was so strictly rejected yet Sibyl was readily accepted as she carried out colorful drinks with a ring at the bottom of each glass.
“Hehh. I was expecting some crude local beer, but they have a decent variety. They also have gin, vodka, oh, and even whisky. The selection of cocktails looks good too. To brew it all in such a short time, I imagine they used one of the large Alchemy pots the distillers use, but I wonder what Ground’s Nir ingredients they used.”
Armelina seemed to be enjoying herself as she viewed the menu. She glanced over at some other customers who were stacking Gears up on the edge of their table to pay their bill.
“And they do a good job of getting customers in and out. The Buffs only last a limited time, so to make the most use of their effects, the people will want to get to the Labyrinth right away instead of sitting and chatting. That explains why they’re doing such good business. You won’t find many bars back in reality that get new customers in every 10 or 20 minutes.”
“Th-this is no time to be praising them. The Sage might be smiling out in public, but who’s doing the cooking in the back? I just hope half-rotten Disaster isn’t wearing a chef’s hat and waving a frying pan around.”
That was an amusing image, but it would be no laughing matter if it actually happened.
After all, the Sage had spent decades hiding in the shadows of history, but now she was boldly showing herself. She would not have done so on a whim. She had to have some kind of goal. And this change had been triggered by Beatrice’s group storming into the Sage’s hideout.
There was more to this.
This felt like the harbinger of a great disturbance.
The Sage had used the corpses of many Iberian Orcs to create Disaster as her pawn, so what kind of damage would she bring to the humans’ inn town?
“Hey, Filinion, Armelina. Do you think anyone would believe us if we said that was the Sage they’ve sought for so long?”
“Not a chance. They’d only doubt our sanity. She’s probably taking advantage of the fact that she’s stayed in hiding for so long.”
“When an art museum is transporting a famous painting, they apparently use a normal bike courier instead of putting together a largescale escort convoy. But this still requires a fair amount of guts in addition to meticulous calculations. She really understands how the world works and how to manipulate it.”
Eventually, the Sage returned to their table even though they had not rung the hand bell. Her skirt was so short it was right on the borderline of seeing her underwear and the way it swayed as she walked made it all the more risqué. She held a round tray to her belly and used it to lift up her large breasts while maintaining her perfect smile.
And this was the person with enough strength to wipe out the powerful Iberian Orcs in a single day.
“Are you ready to order?”
“Yes. We want to make an attack on Ice Burn 72, so I’ll take whatever Buffs you recommend in a nonalcoholic drink. I’ll also have some food that won’t interfere with the drink. I’m willing to spend about 5 Small Ruby Gears.”
Beatrice’s smooth request transformed the Sage’s smile into a wicked grin. That vague order might sound like a test of the waitress’s skill, but it contained a fatal flaw.
Without knowing the Holy Swordswoman’s Stats, the Sage could not provide the optimal Buffs to reinforce her strengths and make up for her weaknesses.
“Understood. Our clothing and decorations are Magic, so you can find yourself unable to equip an accessory if it requires more Willpower than you have. But the greater your Willpower capacity, the less likely that is to happen. I am sure you will be pleased with the results.”
Nevertheless, the Sage in the red negligee modified into a waitress uniform did not pause even for a second.
As if to announce she understood Beatrice more intimately than anyone else.
“Now, what would you 2 like?”
The Detached Magic Palace was a kilometer-wide green paradise cut out of Roppongi, Tokyo. Misoka, the middle sister of the 3 maids there, was dumbfounded.
The girl in charge of the mansion had no idea.
Haruka, the adorable third sister and a nervous small animal of maid with glossy black hair worn short, would wildly strip off her apron dress the second her master was not looking. She would then don nothing more than a baggy track suit top over her naked body, lie on her bed with her legs innocently bared, and munch on potato chips (an economical family-sized bag of consommé flavor).
“Wh-wh-what do you think you’re doing!? It’s almost dinnertime!”
“You know, I don’t serve this black-hearted mansion built with a pool of tax money. I serve milady! I can’t work up any motivation without her around!! Sighhh… Whyyyy does she have to spend the night in Ground’s Nir again?”
“The lady is busy gathering the Pieces needed to revolutionize the world for the better, so it can’t be helped! She even injured herself in order to distort the completion of that room temperature superconductor that could have been used to create satellite-mounted large-caliber railguns…”
“I wasn’t asking for that kind of teacher’s pet answer! Now get lost!!”
“H-hey. You’re in charge of cooking today, so if you can’t get motivated, what are we supposed to do about dinner!?”
“I don’t care. You can just pick up a bento at the convenience store or get takeout at a gyudon place. You’re civilized people, aren’t you? Ugh, everything’s so boring when milady isn’t around.”
She lay face down on the bed, grabbed some chips, and drank cola directly from a bottle with no “diet” qualifier. She did not seem to care that her small butt was just about sticking out from below the track suit top or that the modest curves of her chest were almost visible through the neck.
She’s hopeless, thought Misoka in all seriousness.
If she was allowed to grow up like this, she could easily become a cook who got drunk in the kitchen. And if her course in life was to be corrected, now was the time. They had to strike while the iron was hot!!
“By the way, Haruka.”
“Whah ih iht, Onee-chan?”
“…I recorded this entire conversation on a digital recorder, but what kind of future do you think you will have if I let our sister hear it? A bright one???”
Haruka frantically got up as Misoka waved around the stick-shaped electronic device.
“It sure would be embarrassing to receive a serious spanking at your age. And we both know our sister really will do it. There’ll be a shine in her glasses and she’ll expressionlessly pull up your skirt, pull down your drawers, and count to 100.”
“I-I thought we had a private gentleman’s agreement behind the scenes! Surely you aren’t going to say that didn’t count because we didn’t actually sign a document! Right!? Right!?”
“If you understand, then go prepare dinner. You’re a maid, aren’t you?”
Misoka sounded exasperated, but she had not actually hit the digital recorder’s record button. She took their gentleman’s agreement seriously. She only wanted her little sister to get to work and to shake free of her laziness that was limited to when their master was not watching.
And after Misoka hardened her heart to act like a big sister, the oldest sister, Iroka, called in from outside the room.
“Misokaaa, you don’t seem to be working on the hallway flower arrangement like I asked. Should I assume you are shirking your duties? Oh, dear. Am I going to have to count out the spankings on my little sister’s butt at this age?”
“Wait, wait, wait, waaaiiiit!!!???”
It was an ominous sign.
But with no objective proof that this was the Sage and no idea how to actually fight her, grabbing her Shining Weapon rapier and randomly swinging it around would only make Beatrice the villain.
Establishing a popular bar and gathering favorable attention from across the inn town seemed to be one step in a larger plan. That bar was quickly becoming an indispensable pillar of the inn town. At this rate, attacking the waitress Sage could mean making an enemy of every human in the inn town.
But someone was entirely unaware of Beatrice’s worries.
“Boo, boo, boo.”
In the mountains dyed by the colors of sunset, Boo Boo the Iberian Orc was once more humming through his prized nose and spending the day in search of food. He wanted the power to protect Beatrice and the others he cared about from the threat of the Sage. Sutriona had put together a special training menu for him, but he could not abandon his daily life either. He was entirely self-sufficient, so he could not just use a convenience store or online supermarket. Neglecting that necessary cycle would only lead to death.
“Yeah, I managed to dig up this Steak Potato really well!!”
Boo Boo crouched down at the base of a thick tree and dug up the dark soil with both hands. He held something that looked like a thick tube. That king of vegetarian cooking tasted like fatty meat when sliced and cooked, but despite its great size, it was difficult to find and incredibly hard to pull up without breaking. That made this an important catch. Sutriona would be happy since she was eating with him more often due to the special training menu.
(Boo. When I find something tasty, she always smiles!)
“That is a good one, but it’s been in the ground for a little too long. Steak Potatoes that have started to sprout can be a little bitter, so you should lightly boil it before cooking to get the bitterness out.”
A gentle voice spoke to him without warning, so Boo Boo snapped his head in that direction. So many wild animals lurked in the mountain, but he had not at all noticed this person approach. Their presence was as fleeting as a ghost’s, so they were more frightening than a ferocious beast that cracked branches underfoot and knocked over trees in a rude approach.
The ghost wore red armor and a white miniskirt and her silver and red hair was long and straight. She leaned against a nearby tree and pointed at her feet.
Still smiling, she spoke like they were old friends.
“Why not grab some Cheerful Alraune while you’re at it? Throw that in the pot and it will suppress any unwanted odors while you boil out the bitterness. You’ve always been fine with bitter and spicy foods, but you were terrible with herbs and medicinal smells. Well, that might have more to do with your nose than your tongue.”
“Oh, c’mon, Boo Boo.”
She spoke in a gentle voice with the corners rounded off.
But before she finished speaking, she had already left the tree and entered within Boo Boo’s deadly range.
“Call me Beatrice. Just like old times.”
He did not have time to speak, much less fall back.
The red-armored Sage slowly raised a single index finger. She did not draw her Shining Weapon rapier and she did not clench her delicate hand into a fist. She only lightly touched the center of Boo Boo’s belly with her fingertip.
It was a kind action, like mischievously tickling a lover’s body.
Nevertheless, a great roar exploded through the mountains like a giant drumbeat. That mass of powerful muscles had outmatched even a 1000-meter dragon, but now he doubled over. A dreadful impact passed through his stomach and out his back, so he remained in place while the trees behind him were felled by an invisible wave passing in a straight line.
He was not given a chance to resist or fight back.
He had been holding the Steak Potato like a stuffed animal or body pillow, but he dropped it, could not support himself with his legs, and collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
As she watched the Iberian Orc slowly collapse, the Sage brushed her long hair back with a hand and gave a satisfied nod.
“You lasted 3 whole seconds? You have been training, Boo Boo. You were really manly☆”
With that, she kept her eyes facing forward but sent her left hand out to the side.
Her fingertips cut through the empty space like a bullet and lightly grabbed the torso of a palm-sized Fairy in a pink dress.
It was Boo Boo’s unauthorized roommate, Meridiana, and she was still confused even after being captured. And this was unusual. Fairies tended to be extremely shy because they were at the bottom of the food chain, so this short-haired Fairy would not normally fly within arm’s reach of someone else. It was like scooping up a small fish in your palm or snatching a small bird from a tree branch: they would just flit or flutter out of the way. The Fairies should have been another of those neighbors who were close but out of reach. And yet…