[20] Stench
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Nighttime came and they stopped within the forest. Mr. Boris Melt parked the carriage, feeding the horses, and the trio settled down in a clearing. Claire and Alicia used chairs of ice for sitting but Via switched to a crate, finding that she rather not be cold.

"I'll set up the tents," Boris Melt spoke as he brought supplies out of the carriage, "So you girls just relax for the time being. Unless you happen to know how to set them up, as well?"

They looked between themselves and all shook their heads. Claire and Alicia usually slept within the Glacial Tower and Via practically lived within an inn in Aclair. Even when they had participated in the Dungeon Raid, none of them had needed to place down a tent as they had reached the dungeon city of Mosted.

"Tsk tsk, the new-age adventurers huh?" Boris laughed. "In the olden days, when money came hard, or inns were full, you'd prop up a tent just outside of a city and call it a night."

He stuck a pole into the ground and grinned, reminiscing about the past. "Just like this."

He sighed and stood straight up, handling another pole.

"Now I hear you all even have towns and inns in the dungeons? That's advancement for you. I wonder why we didn't think of that back then."

Claire shrugged. "Difficult?"

"Yup." Via nodded as she crossed her legs, arms folded. "First, Erza Lamillion was freakishly strong. She practically wiped out the monsters in that area of the dungeon until they were too scared to go back. Then, well, you need people willing to build and make business in a dungeon. And you need defenders in case of monster attacks. All of it was easy for a princess that powerful to make happen. After she showed it could work, merchants and adventurers worked together in other dungeons and just copied her example."

"I see, I see," The man muttered and continued setting up the tents. "Well then, I'll focus on this. You girls relax, I'll have things done in a jippy."

Even with their strength, Claire thought he treated them as if they were young girls he had to take care of but, Alicia was hundreds of years old, Claire supposed she herself had already turned 18 by now—her birthday had been quite close to the time she entered this world—and Via didn't seem all that young.

As she watched the man, eyes etching his every move into her permanent memory, she would remember how to set up a tent, Claire asked her companion, "Via, how old are you?"

"Huh? I'm 19. What of it?"

"So you're a year older than me. . ."

"Oh?" The ears of the bunny perked up. "That's not half-bad. When will you start calling me big sister?"

Claire looked at her as if she was foolish. Her eyes were cold, frigid. The answer was clear.

"Never," She replied.

Via rolled her eyes, then changed the conversation. "Well summon that golem of yours. We can get some training in while we wait."

A lantern flickering with fire illuminated the small clearing as Claire waved her hand and Asta was summoned. Immediately, he looked confused, but then Via stood up.

"Yo," She said, mildly waving as her white boots crunched the forest floor and her skirt fluttered, "Get your weapon out."

She stood before him.

"Huh. . ." Asta's faceless head remained on her. He seemed pensive about standing before her again after she broke his previous body with a slash.

"Calm down, I can't kill you anyway," The bunny said as <Lover's Maws> swerved around her.

Via's golden chain shaped into a single long sword at an end and she gripped it, the rest of the item floating in the air about her back. The bunny clearly thought it was batter to teach swordsmanship to someone using only a singular weapon.

"Alright," She said, eyes glancing over the golem. "Today, I'll teach you basic stances, slashes, and maneuvers. They should be easy for most beginners. If they aren't, then you just suck. As we advance, you'll naturally form your own fighting style with my bashing."

Asta nodded. "Aye aye, sir!"

"Sir?" She raised a brow.

"Huh—ma'am. . .?"

She narrowed her eyes. "Get your sword out."

For some reason, <Loki> came to hand, he felt as if he had somewhat angered her? Claire chuckled as the two stood a distance from one another and their training began.

"The most simple slash is stepping in and swinging your blade. You, however, extend too much movement when you do so yet stall in the wrong place as well. You're fast, so it doesn't matter now, but we better fix that before you face an opponent as fast as you," Via spoke.

Her right foot shifted forward, she stepped and slashed in one fluid motion. Her blade cutting through the air.

"You see how I did that? I completed the attack at the same time as I stepped closer to you. As far as my ears picked up, you usually do so after. As if you can't find your footing well when you move too fast. That was how I could keep up with you even though I'm slower; I just listened to your steps then blocked the points an amateur would attack."

Well, she wasn't wrong, Asta was just getting used to having a humanoid body and he really was an amateur. He had always just attacked the chest area during their duel; slicing down from her forehead down.

"Now, lower your speed, and copy me."

The boy nodded and executed what she had just done. He lowered his speed until his usually blurry figure was gone and replaced by a more steady handling of his weapon.

"Oh? Not bad. Let's move on."

As she watched and listened to their training with rapt attention, Claire toyed with a bubble of water absentmindedly—floating above her palm. Shaping and reshaping it. Extending, elongating, and releasing it. Freezing and taking it back to liquid form. She was getting a better grip with her powers while etching Via's free lesson in swordsmanship into her mind. Though with the Water Seed, something that would have once required her full focus had now become as easy as breathing.

'My assimilation percentile is now at 25.3%. . .' Claire thought. It increased slowly with time and continued use of her abilities. If there had been a way to speed it up beside those two, she supposed Igris Neihime would have told her.

By the time Boris Melt finished setting up three tents, their first lesson had already finished and he turned puzzled to the new addition.

". . .is that an ice golem?" He asked.

"Yes," Claire replied.

". . ."

Claire held a hand to her chin as she looked at Alicia then the tents. It would be the first time they would be sleeping outside. They couldn't just hop off into the Glacial Tower to snooze in their modern-like house like usual. No. As much as Claire would like to doze off on a soft, fluffy, bed, they had to stay here in case the carriage was attacked by beasts or, worse, other humans.

A sudden realization struck her.

"Oh wait a minute," Claire said, "I have a golem that doesn't get tired."

She turned a glance at Asta.

". . ." The boy shuddered in the midst of executing strikes Via had told him to practice.

She smiled. "Won't you think of it as additional training?"

Yet, at that moment, Alicia's voice came.

"We should stay," The vampire spoke with nose twitching, she had understood the Ice Queen's thoughts but disagreed. "I smell the stench of blood and beasts."

Almost immediately after, the forest rumbled and the trees shook. Claire furrowed her brows as she listened to the land around them. There was a distant roar and many more followed after it, like dominos. The once silent land had suddenly leaped to activity and even the wind seemed rushed.

"What do you think is happening. . .?" She asked.

"A beast tide!" Mr. Boris Melt yelled over the noise, hands caressing cowering horses as he tried to tame and soothe their anxiety. He turned and stared at the jagged mountains far off in the distance which seemed to rumble. "Sure looks a heck of a lot like it!"

"No." Via shook her head. A deep frown crossing her face. She turned in the direction of the noise, bunny-ears twitching and shuddering in irritation. Though Alicia could smell blood, she could pick up a lot as well.

"This isn't a beast tide. . ." She mouthed, "I'm hearing the entire forest and mountains freaking out. Goddamn. This isn't a beast tide. This might as well be called an ocean."

Boris Melt glanced at her. "Really? That bad? Cron just faced a tide and you're saying an ocean is coming? It might be destroyed before we even get there."

Having heard enough, Claire stood up. Reminded of Vander, and not being without morals, she rather not have another village destroyed.

"Well, how about we speed things up, then?" She said, "Mister Melt, I just need directions."

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