Chapter 85: Theft of the Forbidden Fruit
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To Ichiro’s surprise, Garden of the World Tree did not make his battle against Meg and Neph trivial. Though they were individually far weaker than he was, their teamwork had grown leaps and bounds in the couple weeks they had been separated. It was as if they had suddenly spent years working together in their new forms, using intimate knowledge of their partner’s abilities to let loose incredibly effective attacks.

 Were he able to let loose lethal attacks, he probably could have ended the fight earlier, but he was trying to save these girls, not kill them, so his options were limited. Garden of the World Tree greatly boosted his physical stats and nature magic while it was active, but those same boosts meant he had to hold back even more against them, putting him in an awkward position.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that both Meg and Neph were able to fly now, Meg with her wings, and Neph by simply running into the air, jets of fire trailing behind her as she did. They used this ability to stay out of reach of the trees, nimbly dodging as Ichiro attempted to manipulate the trees to capture them.

And, all the while, the battlefield slowly began to grow darker and darker, and the pain in Ichiro’s head grew and grew as Neph’s nightmare abilities grew in strength. After a couple minutes of this back and forth, Ichiro decided that he would have to stop holding back if he wanted to properly capture his friends, even if that meant roughing them up a little.

He stomped on the ground, and in response the trees grew as swiftly as an arrow flew, the sudden movement catching Meg off guard and knocking her away as a tree grew directly into her. She floundered for a moment in the air, and that was all Ichiro needed to cast a spell, ensnaring her in the branches of the same tree that had pushed her away, then drawing her into its trunk.

Neph dodged the tree that was growing underneath her and didn’t miss a beat as she descended back down to the ground, nimbly weaving through Ichiro’s attempts to snare her. She drew close to him again, and then seemed to vanish entirely, the pain in Ichiro’s head intensifying.

Quickly, he reached back and laid a hand on the bark of the Echo of Yggdrasil behind him, a small fruit forming on its surface. He grabbed the fruit and ate it in one swift motion, and the pain in his head lessened, the figure of Neph becoming visible once again. She was dangerously close to him, so he did the first thing that came to his mind and sprung forward, tackling her to the ground and pinning her beneath him. She struggled under his grasp, but the roots of the Echo of Yggdrasil erupted from beneath her, swallowing her whole just as Meg had been earlier.

With the two of them safely captured within the trees, he began to transfer them to the Echo of Yggdrasil’s main body, where he would begin to perform the greatest healing magic he knew.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of clapping from above him. “Not bad at all.” A familiar voice said. Ichiro whirled around to find a woman who matched the description of Amelia sitting on one of the branches of the Echo of Yggdrasil, nonchalantly eating a fruit of Yggdrasil. “Pretty neat little spell you have here, but…not enough. I mean, the construction is sloppy at best, and you have no safeguards against other mages appropriating it for themselves.”

Dangersense blared an alarm, and Ichiro threw himself sideways as a spear of wood erupted from the Echo of Yggdrasil, piercing the space he had been standing just a moment before. “See?” Amelia said. “It’s not hard, anyone with a half decent understanding of magic could do it.”

That was a bald-faced lie. Ichiro was the best spellcaster in the very prestigious school he attended back home, and even if he wasn’t, Garden of the World Tree was a spell he only had access to because of his status as a Hero. Even then, he had to lean heavily on the system to fill in the more advanced parts of the spell, and the system was notorious for having tightly secured spells.

But…the power he sensed from Amelia wasn’t on the level that Neph had been building her up to be. She was strong, yes, but barely stronger than Meg and Neph. Even if she did appear to have a very high-level grasp of spellcasting, he could just overturn that with raw power. So, he focused, channeling his will through the Echo of Yggdrasil and forcing her influence out, then entrapping her within a pocket of wood formed from its branches.

“Too slow.” Amelia said from behind him. “Seriously, this is what we were worried about? Pathetic.”

Her taunts were little more than empty words, though; he could feel her magic power draining, that one teleport having cost her about a quarter of what she had come into this fight with.

“Yeah, yeah, keep yapping.” Ichiro growled, causing the ground around Amelia’s feet to erupt into spiky growths. “I can do this all day.”

“I’m sure you can.” Amelia said, giving a dismissive flick of her wrist and causing all the growths to bend sharply away from her. “If by all day you mean roughly ten more minutes. I mean, really, this spell is hideously inefficient, I could have done better than this as a child.”

“Big talk from someone who hasn’t even been able to counterattack.” Ichiro said, reaching his hand out and grabbing a wooden sword that he formed from the ground. He dashed forward and swung down at Amelia, who cast a magic shield in response. The shield held for a moment then shattered, the sword coming down and slicing into Amelia with sharpness that wouldn’t normally come from a wooden blade.

“Hm.” Amelia said, looking down at her wound. “Well, that’s all I needed to know, he’s all yours, ladies.”  Amelia’s wound knit itself back together before Ichiro’s eyes, and she moved to teleport away, but Ichiro grabbed her, invoking the power of the Garden of the World Tree to keep her trapped inside its area.

“Fine, fine, I’ll play with you a little more.” Amelia said. “But I’m not going to deprive my companions of all the fun.”

Dangersense once again triggered an alarm, this time indicating that the threat was coming from all directions. He tried to grow a tree out underneath him to propel him upwards, but the floor in this particular area was significantly harder than the rest, and the tree came out a fraction of a second too slow, and he was clipped by a couple of spells.

And those spells hurt. Despite being very basic spells, they displayed a power that was far greater than they should have otherwise contained. He quickly cast his gaze about, noting that four more people had been teleported into the arena. There was Lia, a pale green woman dressed in leaves, and two identical twin wolfkin, all of which had their eyes locked on him.

The biggest threat here was clearly Lia. She had the most magic power of any of them, and the rings on her fingers were likewise bursting with strong magic. So, he made a snap judgement and transitioned the Garden of the World Tree into phase two, the various trees withering away as the Echo of Yggdrasil grew brighter and brighter.

The tree underneath him morphed and twisted, the wood flowing up and around his body, solidifying itself into a full-body suit of armor. The strength of his nature magic faded slightly, but in return his physical abilities increased explosively, allowing him to dash forward and completely ignore the attacks from the wolfkin and the green woman, the armor retaliating and ensnaring them in branches as he passed them on his way to Lia.

Lia only had a moment to react as he bore down on her, fists flying as he struck over and over, each blow carrying the force of a truck. She was able to get a magical shield up, yes, but even though it was oddly strong, he could sense that it would give way any moment.

Yet, despite all this, Lia was smiling. “Checkmate.” She whispered.

Dangersense gave off a warning that made all other warnings it had given him seem inconsequential, and he whirled to see Amelia, calmly walking towards the Echo of Yggdrasil. Though her posture was relaxed, her strength had somehow increased tenfold, and magic circles were filling the air around her, spells already being fired off at Ichiro.

He dodged to the side, but most of the spells curved, unerringly seeking his position before impacting his armor, cracking and even breaking it in a few places. Ichiro ran towards her, raising his arm and using a spell to shoot a spike of wood out from his hand, but it froze in midair before rushing right back at him, plinking harmlessly off of his armor.

“Let’s see…” Amelia said, laying a hand on the Echo of Yggdrasil. “Given this construction, I think this should work…”

Ichiro felt a deep, pulsing sensation in his gut, accompanied by Dangersense’s continued warning. The air seemed to chill, the shadows lengthening as Amelia spoke one simple sentence, packed to the brim with power.

“Theft of the Forbidden Fruit.” She said, causing an enormous wave of magical energy to wash over the area. Ichiro felt the power of the Garden of the World Tree fade, his armor becoming little more than a weight on him, not responding in the slightest to his magical power.

A spherical white fruit appeared out of the Echo of Yggdrasil, one which Amelia grabbed before teleporting over to Lia, crushing Ichiro’s attempt to block her teleportation with the ease one would use to crush an ant.

Ichiro tried to dismiss the Garden of the World Tree, but found to his horror that the spell was no longer his own; though his magic power was still being sapped to maintain it, he had no control over it, no ability to change its function or even stop feeding it power.

He was able to eventually break free of his armor, but by then Amelia had handed the fruit to Lia. “Eat.” She commanded.

Lia obediently bit into the fruit, and Ichiro watched in horrified fascination as the buffs that had been applied to him just moments before were transferred onto her, her power swelling dangerously. A layer of a thin, off-white substance covered the partially eaten fruit, and then it disappeared, and Lia turned her attention towards him.

Still, he had a hope. Connie! He cried out. Help me! I’ll do whatever you want, give you anything after I get through this if you do! I’ll devote my everything to you!

I hate to break this to you, but you don’t have anything I want, and Lia can get anything I want done better.  Maybe if you weren’t treating me like a prize to be conquered, or thought about the situation objectively for even a moment, things would have been different, but as things stand, you only ever see things the way you want to see them, and I can’t work with that. Maybe when you’re part of the swarm we can work another deal out, okay?
P.S. – If you couldn’t tell, I’m sick of your flirting. You can go make a harem while in the swarm, I don’t care, but leave me out of it. It’s not happening.

Ichiro reeled at the betrayal, not just towards him personally, but towards all sapient life. How could a god side with the swarm instead of the Hero they had picked to be summoned to this world?

And then Lia was upon him. With the buff from the Garden of the World Tree and some body strengthening magic, she was able to easily overpower him, pushing him down to the ground as the same off-white substance that covered the fruit was excreted from her hands, flowing over his body like a cover. He desperately tried to struggle, but Lia’s iron grip kept him from moving, and every time he so much as thought about casting a spell, Amelia was already ready with a counterspell.

And the last thing he saw before his consciousness faded was Lia’s face, an infuriatingly pitying expression on it. “You’ll be treated well, don’t worry. You’ll understand once you see how we do things.”

Lia finished coating Ichiro, letting out a sigh of relief as she did. “Is everyone alright?” She asked.

“Fine, just really low on Mana.” Amelia said. “He may be an amateur, but he put a lot of Mana into this spell.” She leaned back against the giant tree Ichiro had made, modeling wax flowing out from her as she did. “Help me cocoon this thing, I’m forcing the spell to keep going for a bit, and I want to convert him with it and that fruit.”

The base of the tree opened up, and Meg and Neph were spat out. “Did…did we win?” Meg asked.

“Yeah, we got him.” Lia said. “He was stubborn, but once Amelia was unbound it was over, like always.”

“Seriously, I don’t think he ever used this spell before.” Amelia complained. “It makes me wince each time I look at the spellwork, it’s awful.”

Lia refrained from pointing out that it was still probably better than anything anyone but Amelia could make, instead looking around for Rose and Ophelia. “Rose, Ophelia, you two are fine, right?”

“We’re good, just…stuck.” Rose said, struggling against the branches she was stuck in. “I don’t think he saw us as threats, so he just left us alone.”

“I made it through somehow.” Ophelia said. “My bodies are a little bruised, but otherwise fine.”

Amelia tapped the tree, and the branches holding Rose and Ophelia vanished.

“Thanks.” Rose said, stretching a bit and beginning to walk towards the giant tree. “That was…not very comfortable. Amelia, can you produce another one of those fruits?”

“I have enough Mana for one, and it’ll remove the effect from Lia, though I guess that last bit isn’t important right now. Why?”

Rose place her hand on the tree and began to channel modeling wax onto it. “I want to be reconverted with it.” She said. “I’m feeling a little left-behind in terms of strength, and I feel like my power would increase if I took part of these into myself.”

A sad expression crossed Amelia’s face. “I didn’t know.” She said softly. “You should have told me, we can get this taken care of for you.”

She stopped dumping modeling wax into the tree, and the air grew tense, the shadows lengthening as Amelia closed her eyes and focused. And it wasn’t like it was when she cast Theft of the Forbidden Fruit, either. Lia could feel the raw emotion Amelia was pouring into the spell, the wish for Rose to be happy, the desire to give Rose back some of the strength she previously held, the will to make things right.

Like when Amelia had cast Theft of the Forbidden Fruit, Lia felt a strange, unspoken question from Amelia, one she doubted Amelia even knew she was asking. And, like she had before, Lia answered in the affirmative, feeling her Blood Money drain from her…and drain…and drain until there was nothing left.

Even that didn’t seem to be enough for Amelia. Lost in the spell as she was, Lia doubted Amelia noticed what was happening, but Lia certainly did, even if she didn’t know how. Amelia reached inwards, towards the reserves of power that the gods had sealed away, pushing at the bonds, straining to get even a fraction of the incredible might that was kept from her.

There was a moment of tension, of charged anticipation, and then Lia felt the touch of another being in Amelia’s soul, unlocking the seal for the briefest of moments before locking it once again, but that was all Amelia needed. She dumped every ounce of that power into her spell, and the very world around them seemed to warp, bending until the fabric of reality broke, a luminous white fruit slipping through the tear and into Amelia’s hand as she spoke. “Transference of the Tree of Life.”

And then everything was back to normal, like Amelia hadn’t just cast some world-shatteringly powerful spell. The only one besides Lia and Amelia who even seemed to have an inkling that something monumental had just occurred was Rose, having stopped putting modeling wax on the tree to gawk at Amelia. “What…what did you just do?” Rose asked.

“I-I’m…not sure.” Amelia said faintly. She stumbled forward, using the tree to keep her steady as she presented the fruit to Rose. “E-eat this.” She panted. “Y-you shouldn’t need to be reconverted with it, just…eat.”

Rose gingerly took the fruit, Amelia swaying slightly before collapsing against the tree, slipping into a deep sleep. As she did, the tree pulsed, then vanished, whatever Amelia was doing to keep the spell going ceasing to work as she went unconscious.

Rose deftly caught her with an arm, then looked at the fruit in wonder. “Do you think it’s safe to eat?” She asked.

Lia paused, then nodded. “Yes.” She said. “I don’t know what it is, but I could tell that it was made with Amelia’s feelings for you in mind. I’m still working out how this strange strength that comes from Blood Money works, but intent is very important, and it was filled with an overwhelming sense of…tenderness for you.”

Rose nodded, gently laying Amelia down on the floor before taking a bite of the fruit. Her eyes glazed over, and, as if in a trance, she finished the rest of the fruit, laid down on the ground, and went to sleep.

“Okay, this is really touching and all…” Ophelia said, “but how are we getting home now? They could be like this for days for all we know.”

I will prepare some rooms in the palace, adjacent to my own. Alisha said. I have done one of my “normal” rotations of staff, and now everyone in the palace is a member of the swarm. You will be well cared for.

“Thank you, Alisha.” Lia said. “Neph, could you please cast an illusion to make us look like normal people?” She asked, leaning down and putting Ichiro’s cocoon in her dimensional storage. “We don’t want to draw too much attention on our way over.”

“Of course, my Queen.” Neph said. She muttered a quick spell, and the group’s appearances shifted, becoming that of average people.

“Thanks.” Lia said. “Let’s go.”

So...the fight. I'm not great at fight scenes, but I did my best, and that's what matters, I guess. I didn't quick manage to convey the proper feeling I wanted, I don't think, but what's done is done at this point lol.

That being said, I want to touch on what Amelia did at the end there. That was another spur of the moment decision I made when I realized Rose would likely want to be reconverted with something that would make her stronger, I've said before, Amelia doesn't do half measures.

I wanted to get into what exactly Amelia did, but there just wasn't space in this chapter, so I've moved it to next chapter. Still, let's play a little game with it: if anyone can figure out what exactly Amelia did, you get an internet cookie (confirmations or denials will be in spoiler tags, so don't assume a person is right because there's a spoilered reply). Here's a couple of hints, one of which is basically restating the chapter's events in less...obscured terms, and another is new information, so don't read if you don't want spoilers I guess:

1. What Amelia did required her to use Worship, and Jerry specifically came in and allowed her to use her system Worship for this one thing.

2. There is no net power difference for the swarm following what she's done.

Is that too obvious? I don't know, I don't have an objective view of things, so...we'll see what you all think lol. Next time we'll reveal this little mystery, so look forward to it!

And, as always, thanks for reading!