LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
“Ranta! One headed your way!” From Haruhiro, a warning.
“I know! No need to tell me!” From Ranta, an immediate reply.
Mogzo and Manato were positioned ahead, while Yume and Shihoru fought from range. One of the three goblins that Mogzo and Manato fought had slipped past them and gone for Yume and Shihoru. Ranta was closest to the one that broke through; though he and Haruhiro supported the front lines by staying behind and attacking enemies on the back and sides, they were there to defend the two in the back as well. Ranta moved to intercept.
Even though Ranta would still sometimes break formation to run off and do his own thing, their teamwork had improved in the thirteen days had passed since they first came to Damroww and started hunting goblins. And today he was right in step with the rest of them.
Ranta let out a battle cry, “[ANGER THRUST]!”, and attacked.
Or maybe he wasn’t. Ranta had thrust his longsword at the goblin with his newly learned skill, but from outside the technique’s range. It missed spectacularly.
“I missed?! It can’t possibly be a normal goblin!” Ranta declared.
“Of course it’s a normal goblin!” Haruhiro snapped, exchanging a glance with Manato.
Manato and Mogzo could definitely hold their own against two opponents, so Haruhiro rushed to maneuver himself to sneak up directly behind the goblin attacking Ranta with its rusty sword.
“Damn it!” Ranta cursed, looking at Haruhiro as he deflected the goblin’s blows.
Quit looking at me! Haruhiro thought even as tried to decide on a point to target.
It wasn’t just Ranta who had learned a new fighting technique. Everyone had returned to their guilds and came back with one new skill each. However, they were all still at a level where they only understood how to use it in theory; none of them had the confidence to make practical use of their new techniques in a fight yet. But without at least trying to actively using their skills in a fight, they would never reach a practical level of proficiency.
Since he had paid a good amount of money to the guild to teach him the new technique, Haruhiro was determined to make use of it.
Easier said than done. The goblin had somehow suspected him and looked behind itself often, clumsily swinging its sword at Haruhiro in an attempt to thwart off any impending sneak attacks. He had a hard time finding any openings. If Ranta could just get its attention… but that was too much to expect out of a guy like him. Ranta wasn’t the type to fight an enemy head on and Haruhiro was the same.
They were both afraid to face an enemy directly, preferring to attack from the back or at the very least from the side. Because of that, both Haruhiro and Ranta circled the goblin, trying to get into position behind it. The goblin, of course, didn’t want any enemy at its back, so it circled too and soon, no one had any idea what was going on any more.
“Someone do something!” Yume drew her kukri and leapt at the goblin.
Taken by surprise, the goblin stopped moving for a fraction of a second, and Yume slashed with her kukri in a crisscross pattern. “[CROSS CUT]!”
The goblin shrieked and quickly backed away, bearing a shallow cut from shoulder to chest. It now had its back to Haruhiro.
Now! And even as he thought it, his body moved. In an instant, he had closed the gap between them and thrust his dagger into its back; [BACKSTAB]. The goblin donned only soft leather as armor, so Haruhiro’s dagger went a good four inches into it. Grunting in effort, he pulled it back out and retreated just as the goblin twisted around.
The goblin coughed blood, looked like it was preparing to do something, then suddenly fell over, twitching. It was still alive, but finished. If not, then it would have kept fighting.
“Huh?” Haruhiro stared at the downed goblin. It stared back at him. “Did I… stab it in a good spot? Or I guess a bad spot?”
“Gotta kill it!” Ranta jumped towards the goblin and slashed its neck with his longsword. “YESSS! Got my Vice!”
Yume narrowed her brows. “Yume thinks the same thing every time but Dread Knights really are savages.”
“I’m not a savage! I’m nobly cruel! Us Dread Knights do the bidding of Lord Skulheill. ‘Inhuman we are, heartless by far; we knights bloodless, tearless, our foes will blades mar’.”
“Oom rel eckt,” Shihoru chanted, drawing an elemental glyph with her staff. “Vel dash!”
Mages used the power of magical beings called elementals, and the shadow elemental that Shihoru had just summoned in front of her had the appearance of a frizzy black strand of seaweed. It was the [SHADOW ECHO] magic spell and it flew forward with a peculiar voash! sound.
Shihoru could have chosen to learn Alev, the magic of fire, Kanon, the magic of ice, or even Pfatlz, the magic of lightning. But instead she chose Das, the magic of shadow. Haruhiro had a distinct feeling that that was perhaps Shihoru’s personality starting to reveal itself.
The shadow elemental hit the goblin Manato was fighting square in the back of the head. However, it didn’t only affect its head; its entire body began to tremble.
“Gah! Gah!” The goblin cried in a strange voice.[SHADOW ECHO] wasn’t magic that burned, froze, or shocked, but rather did its damage through high frequency waves. As expected of Manato, he followed up with a blow using his short staff, then kicked the goblin down.
“[HATRED’S CUT]!” Ranta viciously attacked the fallen goblin.
Attacking something while it was already down was one of Ranta’s “special” abilities. Common sense would say that it wasn’t necessary to use their fighting techniques on already weakened and nearly finished enemies, but it was a fact that was lost on him. Ranta’s longsword slashed through the air and… didn’t finish it. It had been deflected, having hit the gobin on the hard, boney side of its head. Ranta was immediately enraged.
“BASTARD!! Who do you think you are! Take this! And this! And this!” Ranta screamed, beating on it again and again.
While Ranta abused the dying goblin, Mogzo was still fighting the single one remaining. They had to finish it. But it didn’t seem necessary for Haruhiro to help. The goblin attacked with a wild cry, slashing at Mogzo with its rusted blade. Mogzo intercepted the attack perfectly, using his bastard sword to lock blades with it, and stopped the goblin’s movements.
It was here that Mogzo had the upper hand. He had a good amount of strength and had learned a follow-up technique. With a grunt, Mozgo spun the goblin’s sword around using his, then used the tip of it to cut into the goblin’s face; [SPIRAL SLASH]. Mogzo didn’t have speed, but he was fairly agile. The goblin winced and retreated back.
Haruhiro shouted in encouragement, “Go, Mogzo!” and Mogzo went.
He stepped forward, then slashed diagonally with all his strength, shouting. “THANKS!!”
Mogzo’s technique, [RAGE CLEAVE] was the most basic of basic skills taught to Warriors during after their initiation into the Warrior’s Guild. It looked like something that could have been mastered just by watching and imitating, but it wasn’t a skill that was easy to land. The reason why Mogzo shouted “thanks” when using [RAGE CLEAVE] was because it stood for “thanks for letting me kill you” amongst Warriors.
But behind such a seemingly innocuous word was a formidable amount of strength. Mozgo’s bastard sword had cut the goblin from the top of the shoulder to the middle of its chest. He spun around and the goblin was lifted into the air by the bastard sword, still stuck in its chest. Then, with a grunt of exertion, Mogzo hurled it away, sending it flying as he pulled the sword back out.
Ranta ran after the goblin, letting out a loud cry of triumph then starting hacking at the goblin with his long sword. Yume didn’t just think so; Ranta really was a savage. What he was doing was completely barbaric. And when he was done chopping at the goblin’s body, he used a knife to cut off one of its pointed ears.
“Three Vices in a row!” He laughed with glee. “That makes eleven total and an upgrade to my demon’s power! If it feels like it, it’ll whisper things in the enemy’s ears to distract it! Awesome!”
“What do you mean, ‘If it feels like it’?” Haruhiro sighed. “So a Dread Knight’s demon is useless in reality.”
“Hey! I heard that, Haruhiro!” Ranta shot back. “Don’t openly diss my Zodiac! I’ll have it curse you!”
Apparently ‘Zodiac’ was the name Ranta had given to his demon. Or was that its real name? Perhaps a pet name? Haruhiro didn’t know but it didn’t matter. It didn’t change the fact that it was useless.
“I’m right though. You can’t even summon it during the daytime,” Haruhiro said.
“Idiot! After I collect eleven Vices, it levels up! I can now summon it at sunset and sunrise!”
“We’ve returned to Altana by sunset and no one’s awake at sunrise.”
“That’s right. But.” Yume had joined in; her cheeks were puffed out in annoyance but her eyes glistened. A complicated expression to read. “Since it’s master is all bumble-brained, it’s probably kinda cute in that way too.”
“I’m not its master! Demons aren’t like pets! Zodiac sort of possesses me. It’s a demon after all!”
“So that means,” Shihoru said, chuckling softly and avoiding Ranta’s gaze, “that before you can use it to curse Haruhiro, you’ll be cursed yourself.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right. Wait, WHAT?! Seriously?! Zodiac, is that true? Answer me, Zodiac! Oh, it’s still daytime so he can’t hear me…”
“Good work, everyone,” Manato said, looking at everyone with a smile. “Is anyone hurt? Doesn’t look like it but I’ll heal anyone who is. If everyone’s okay, then let’s take a look at the goblin pouches.”
“Me! Me me me! I’ll do it! Let me!” Ranta instantly volunteered.
Inside the three goblin pouches were seven silvers, two precious-looking stones, three fangs and bones which no one was sure could fetch a price or not, and a few pieces of junk that were definitely not worth anything. Depending on how much the stones would sell for, that meant that they had earned around ten silvers—or, at the very least, eight silvers.
They had left Altana at seven in the morning, had reached Damroww at about eight o’clock and now it was past noon. They proceeded to bury the goblin corpses in shallow graves then took a lunch break in an area a little ways away. Everyone had packed lunches consisting of bread, dried meat, and the like in their backpacks or bags and brought it with them. It was an enjoyable time for all.
“Need to give thanks.” Yume cut a little a few thin strips off the dried meat she had packed and placed them on the ground. Closing her eyes and folding her hands together, she prayed. “Thanks, Eldritch. Here’s an offering for your continued protection.”
“Is praying and making offerings,” Haruhiro asked, taking a bite of bread, “before each meal something that’s required by the Hunter’s Guild?” He had bought it from Tattan’s Bakery just outside of Nishimachi. It was hard as rock, but cheap and tasted fine.
“Yes,” Yume opened her eyes and turned her gaze towards Haruhiro. “The White Goddess Eldritch is a giant wolf and there’s bad blood between her and the Black God Rigel, who is also a giant wolf. It’s because of the protection of Eldritch that we can hunt and pass our days in safety.”
“In other words, Hunters worship her, right?” Haruhiro said. “The Goddess Eldritch, that is. Is it really okay to pray so informally and offer so little?”
“It’s fine,” Yume laughed. “Eldritch is big-hearted; I don’t think she’ll get mad at something like that… Not that there’s anything to get mad about.”
“I think…” Shihoru was holding some sort of bagel or other donut-like bread delicately in her hands. “The Goddess Eldritch understands Yume’s feelings. Or at least I believe so…”
Manato took a drink from a leather flask and nodded in agreement. “Sure, words and such are important, but even more important are the feelings behind the words. When we Priests use light magic, the spell doesn’t work if we get the incantation wrong, but that’s not really the same as Yume’s prayer to Eldritch.”
“Yume is bursting full of feelings,” Yume said, spreading out both arms wide. “When Yume sleeps at night, Eldritch comes to her in her dreams. Yume asked if she could ride Eldritch and Eldritch said yes. Yume climbed onto her back and Eldritch ran so fast! It was incredible!”
“So,” Ranta said, frowning as he chewed noisy on a strip of jerky, “where’s the punchline? I’ve been listening to that silly story this entire time waiting for the punchline, so where is it? If you haven’t prepared a good punchline, I swear I’ll punch you!”
“Punchline?” Yume blinked and tilted her head to one side. “There’s no punchline.”
“What!?” Ranta tipped himself over dramatically. “Idiot! What’s the point of such a long story without a punchline?! What are you going to do when I drown in a downward spiral of shattered expectations?”
“How is that a bad thing?” Shihoru said in a tiny voice. “If you just go drown and die.”
“Hey!” Ranta pointed his finger at Shihoru. “Hey! Hey! I heard you! I heard what you said, Shihoru! You want me to die!”
“I was just saying. How is it a bad thing if you were to die by drowning?”
“If you suggest the cause of death it doesn’t matter if you do it politely! You’re the worst! The worst human being ever! The worst rotten villainess in all of history!”
“Just ignore him, Shihoru,” Yume said, hugging Shihoru and gently petting her on the head. “No need to listen to anything the lowest of lowlifes says. Shihoru hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s the lowlife who’s bad. He’s so low that he can’t even be considered human, really.”
“I am human!”
“A curly-haired human?” Haruhiro said and Ranta affirmed with, “Yes, curly-haired…” Then glared at Haruhiro as he caught on.
“Curly hair has nothing to do with it!” Ranta said, pulling at said hair. “In fact, a curly-haired person is a good person! People without curly hair aren’t people at all, so there!”
“In that case,” Mogzo swallowed a mouthful of bread the size of a fist. “It’s okay if I’m not human.”
“Yume too,” Yume said.
“…Me too,” Shihoru added.
“Same here,” Haruhiro agreed.
“Hold on,” Manato said, his expression almost, but not quite, solemn. “Let’s think about this rationally. Is curly hair really the problem? I don’t think it is. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with curly hair in of itself. In fact, curly hair might even be the victim here…”
“Huh?” Ranta pulled on his hair. “Victim? My hair? So does that mean I’m the criminal?! And it’s because of me that curly hair has become a bad thing!?”
“Ranta, I’m just joking.”
“God damn it, Manato! You’ve always got that grin on your face so I can’t tell when you’re joking or being serious! You’re a masked black-bellied traitor!”
“H-h-he’s not!” Shihoru suddenly stood up, her face a bright red. She looked so outraged that steam seemed to rise from her head. “Manato’s not black-bellied or a traitor! You take that back right now!”
Ranta flinched. “H-hey, I have a point though, right? If you think about it, if I have to take it, I have the right to dish some out too.”
“Take it back!” Shihoru demanded.
“Fine, fine! I get it. I’ll take it back. Manato’s doesn’t have a black belly. His belly is white. I see it in the baths every day, so I know it’s white. It’s white, that Manato’s belly. Seriously. White. For a guy. Even for a girl, it’d be a high level of whiteness.”
“White…” Shihoru swayed back and forth a little. “Manato’s… belly… baths…”
“Whiter than a girl, huh?” Manato lifted up his Priest’s outer robes and then the shirt underneath. “I don’t really think so, but Haruhiro, is my belly that white?”
“Er, well…” Haruhiro looked from Shihoru to Manato, then to Shihoru, then to Manato again.
Indeed his abdomen was white, but Shihoru’s skin was fairer. But that wasn’t really the point. Haruhiro already somewhat suspected, but now he knew for sure. Shihoru liked Manato. Was Manato pretending that he hadn’t noticed? If so, then Haruhiro felt bad for her; however, he also had a feeling that wasn’t the case.
“I guess it’s pretty white, now that you mention it. Yeah, white. And your skin is very smooth too,” Haruhiro said.
“Smooth… skin…” She looked as if she was going to fall over at any moment. “Skin… smooth…”
“Shihoru… are you okay?” Yume moved to support the unsteady Shihoru. “It’s really not good to fantasize too much all at once. It’s better to fantasize a little bit at a time. Shihoru? Shihoru?”
Shihoru sighed heavily and leaned against Yume, in a complete daze.
Oops, Haruhiro thought. Maybe I overdid it… But at that moment, he suddenly noticed how interesting, that is to say cute, Shihoru was.
Ranta scoffed in apparent disgust and turned away. He began to eat his lunch, putting on an air of general disinterest. Was it possible that Ranta liked Shihoru? And Shihoru seemed to be interested in Manato, so Ranta was upset over that?
If so, Ranta should rethink a great many things. He had done nothing so far that would make a girl like him. In fact everything he’d been doing seemed to make girls hate him.
“We’ve really become a good team,” Manato whispered.
“Oh?” Haruhiro replied.
“We’re able to take on three goblins at a time with no problems now and no one was hurt, meaning we were able to defeat them quite easily. Yume is much better handling a kukri than a bow; in fact, she’s quite good with it. If we plan carefully, we can probably take on four at a time.”
“I see…” Haruhiro thought about it for a moment.
Mogzo and Manato could take one each while he, Ranta, and Yume would handle the other two. Shihoru could immediately disable one with her [SHADOW ECHO] skill and if they could finish it off quickly, then he had a feeling four was manageable.
“Yeah, we can probably handle four,” Haruhiro agreed.
“Mogzo’s become indispensible to us. He’s so big that just his presence in a fight intimidates our opponents. He also handles that blade with a fair amount of accuracy, so when he swings it, hits tend to land.”
“I think so too,” Haruhiro said. “Mogzo’s swordplay is pretty skillful.”
Mogzo swallowed another mouthful of bread. “R-really? I don’t know about that, but I do like handling jobs that require precision.”
“That doesn’t suit you!” Ranta burst out angrily for no apparent reason, making Mogzo flinch. “Or at least that’s what I think.”
Haruhiro glared mildly at Ranta. “It’s a good thing. Mogzo isn’t just some good for nothing juvenile delinquent, unlike someone else here.”
“Oh?” Ranta shot back. “Are you talking ’bout me? You know my nickname is ‘Precision Whirlwind Machine,’ right?”
Yume, who was patting Shihoru reassuringly, peered at Ranta coldly. “Yume is sure no one has ever called Ranta that, not even once.”
“Ranta’s amazing,” Manato’s solemn expression indicated that he wasn’t joking around this time. “He’s always on the offensive, attacking all out. He’s not afraid of failing, so he will probably master skills faster than anyone. Everyone else, myself included, we’re averse to risk. If it wasn’t for Ranta, we’d never be able to keep advancing.”
“Is that so?” Ranta’s expression looked uncertain. “In that case, my nickname’s ‘Advancement Cyclone Machine’?”
“What happened to ‘Precision Whirlwind Machine’?” Haruhiro remarked as the straight-man.
“And Shihoru…” Manato paused. He must be carefully considering Shihoru’s thoughts, Haruhiro guessed. “Shihoru has a good understanding of the bigger picture. The majority of Das spells confuse or stun enemies and support the team in fights. She chose to learn shadow magic so she can help us in a pinch. Right, Shihoru?”
Shihoru looked awestruck with surprise for a moment, then gave a silent but decisive nod. Haruhiro thought it was rather fitting of Shihoru to choose the rather specialized Das over easier to understand fire, ice, or lighting magic. Maybe it didn’t exactly suit her, but Shihoru didn’t simply pick the one she liked most, she had actually thought things out for the sake of the team before choosing.
I’m such an idiot. Haruhiro thought. I don’t really know her at all.
Manato shifted his gaze to Yume next. “Yume is brave. She probably has more courage than any of us. As a healer, I sometimes wish that she would be more careful, but if anything happens, Yume wouldn’t hesitate to jump in to help.”
“Yume wouldn’t?” Yume pointed to herself. Her expression softened. “Yume doesn’t really feel scared in fights, but Yume’s never been called brave before. Maybe you’re right. Sorry for not being good with a bow, even though Yume’s a Hunter.”
“Everyone has areas where they’re weak and things that they can’t do well,” Manato said, more to himself than anyone else. “There’s times when any one of those things might become fatal flaws for one lone person, but we’re a team. We cover each other’s weaknesses.”
“True,” Yume nodded several times. “Very true. From now on, Yume will try her brestest to not drag the team down.”
Ranta scoffed. “You mean ‘bestest’ as in ‘best’. Not ‘brestest’, right? ‘Brestest’ sounds like some sort of special type of breasts.”
Yume ran her hands across her chest. “Yume wonders what having brestest breasts would be like. They’re probably a completely different type from Yume’s small ones.”
It was too good of an opportunity not to interject, so Haruhiro said, “Maybe it’s a sub-type.”
Yume looked at Haruhiro, her expression completely serious. “Haru, you really think so?”
“Err… maybe. Who knows?”
“What kind of sub-type? Brestest. It does have a cute ring to it.”
“B-br…” Mogzo started to say. Everyone’s attention suddenly turned to him. Sweat suddenly started to run down his forehead and he wiped it away with one hand. “U-uh… Nevermind. Really, nevermind.”
“Now I’m curious,” Shihoru said, eyes never leaving Mogzo.
Mogzo turned his own gaze to the ground and after a while, finally said, “S-sorry.”
With his apology, no one else pursued it any further but… what in the world was it that he wanted to say? Shihoru wasn’t the only one who was curious…
The chit-chat went on for a while longer as they finished their lunches. Then the afternoon portion of their goblin search began. It was only after they had started off that Haruhiro realized something. Manato had plenty of praise for everyone else, but didn’t say a word about Haruhiro. Maybe Manato had just forgotten about him. Or maybe there was nothing about himself that was worth praising.
Did Manato have a low opinion of him? Even though they often spoke, did Manato see him as nothing more than someone to make small talk with? It made him quite depressed to think so. But it wasn’t like he could go up to Manato now and ask, ‘Hey, what about me?’ Fishing for compliments was just too pathetic.
Forget it, he told himself.
Manato had either just forgotten or the direction of the conversation had changed before Manato had gotten to him. It had to be one of those two reasons, Haruhiro decided. He felt a little, just a tiny bit, better.
Concentrate. He had to concentrate on the task at hand.
Haruhiro raised a hand, a signal for the team to halt. “Something’s there…”
Reconnaissance went first so everyone quickly concealed themselves behind cover while Haruhiro, as usual, went ahead alone. Ranta would also come along on rare occasions, but to be honest, it was easier when he was just by himself and the only person he had to worry about was himself.
Of course he was doing his best not to make any noise as he moved, but once he had enough money, the Thief class skill [STEALTH WALK] would be one that he wanted to learn. There was definitely some sort of trick behind being able to move silently and he wanted to learn it. He wanted Master Barbara to teach him.
The goblins were inside a crumbling two-story building made of stone. The balcony-like second floor was basically non-existent and a portion of the walls on the first floor had collapsed. On the second floor was a goblin in plate-armor with a sword strapped to its back. A second goblin was sitting on the ground on the first floor. It was big for a goblin.
Normal goblins were about the height of human children and usually just around four feet. Any goblin that reached four and a half feet was considered a giant for the species. That goblin sitting on the first floor, though, was somehow different. It was hard to tell from that distance, but it seemed to be one or two sizes larger than the goblin on the second floor.
It was the first time Haruhiro had seen a goblin like that, and he couldn’t quite see what kind of weapon it carried, though it was wearing chainmail armor. Haruhiro continued to scout the areas around the building, but no other goblins were around—so then it was only the plate-armored goblin and the giant. Haruhiro returned to the others.
“Bad news,” he reported. “There’s only two but one is huge. Almost the same height as us.”
Manato’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “A hobgoblin. A sub-species of goblin but bigger and stronger than a normal goblin. They’re savage but not very intelligent. Goblins use them as servants sometimes.”
Ranta licked his lips. “If it has a servant, it must be pretty wealthy. It’s definitely gotta be carrying a bunch of valuables.”
Haruhiro scratched his chin with the tip of a finger. “You may be right. It had plate armor on and the hobgoblin was wearing chainmail armor, complete with a helm. That helm might even be big enough for one of us to use.”
Mogzo sighed loudly. For Warriors, the ones who had to face their opponents head on in fights, protective gear was especially important. However, armor was expensive. Brand new gear was out of the question, so the only other options were only to chance upon used armor that fitted properly, which was extremely rare, or go to a blacksmith to get the size of used armor adjusted. Because of that, everyone, Mogzo included, were still using the second-hand gear their guilds had provided.
“Two goblins.” Manato cast his gaze downwards, deep in thought.
Yume’s eyes were slightly skyward as she said, “If it’s just two, Yume thinks we could take them.”
“If I can bind one with my magic,” Shihoru said, refreshing her grip on her staff. “It should be easy after that.”
“Yume will also try to attack with her bow. If Yume misses it’ll still get the gobbie’s attention so Yume also thinks we can manage.”
Manato glanced at each of his teammates in turn. Maybe it was because they had been complimented by Manato earlier, but everyone else’s morale was high and they were eager to engage. The tension in the air was thicker than usual. Haruhiro himself didn’t particularly share in that feeling, but he didn’t want to put a damper on everyone’s excitement either.
“We going to go for it?” he asked, to which Manato nodded.
“Let’s do it.”
A battle plan was quickly devised. Haruhito, Yume, and Shihoru would go in first, attacking from a distance. After the enemy realized they were under attack, Mogzo and Manato would take up positions at the front. While Mogzo took on the hobgoblin, Manato would engage the plate-armored goblin. Haruhiro, Ranta, and Yume would press the attack from the sides while Shihoru supported with magic from afar.
The entire team formed a circle facing each other and stacked hands at the center.
“Fight!” Manato called in a low voice, to which the rest responded as one with, “All or nothing!” in equally soft voices.
They had started that little pre-fight ritual some time ago, but inwardly Haruhiro always found it a little odd. “Why the words ‘Fight! All or nothing!’?” he thought out loud.
Shihoru tilted her head to one side. “I don’t know… But it feels familiar for some reason.”
“Yume has that feeling too,” Yume said. “But Yume doesn’t know why. Strange.”
Haruhiro led the way with Yume and Shihoru towards the two-storied building. Manato, Mogzo, and Ranta followed from about twenty to twenty-five feet behind. Yume’s bow had longer range, but Shihoru’s magic had a range of only about thirty-feet. Could they get within thirty feet of the goblins undetected?
It wasn’t going to be easy, and perhaps impossible even, due to a wall that fenced off the building. There was a good fifty feet of open space between the wall and the building itself. As soon as they crossed the wall, the goblins were sure to notice them.
Haruhiro drew close to Shihoru. The faint scent of something sweet filled his nose. Lips right next to her ear, he whispered, “Shihoru, are you wearing perfume?”
“…Huh? What are you talking about?” said Shihoru.
“Err, nevermind. Sorry. It’s a little far, but can you hit the goblin from here?”
“I’m not really sure… but I’ll try.”
Shihoru pressed a hand to her chest and took a calm, deep breath. Yume had her bow up and arrow nocked and ready. Neither of the goblins were looking in their direction. Yume and Shihoru simultaneously stepped halfway out from behind the cover of the wall, and Shihoru drew an elemental glyph with her staff.
“Oom rel eckt vel dash!”
A frizzy, black, ball-like shadow elemental burst from the tip of her staff with a voash! at the same time Yume released her arrow. The arrow flew over the plate-armored goblin’s head, surprising it, while the shadow elemental hit the hobgoblin on its left arm. The hobgoblin grunted as its entire body began to tremble.
The plate-armored goblin turned to look in their direction.
“They’ve noticed us!” Haruhiro shouted.
“Let’s go!” Manato commanded.
The hobgoblin picked up an enormous spiked club near its feet that it had put down earlier and got up clumsily. The [SHADOW ECHO] spell had done its job. The plate-armored goblin was also holding something in its hands. What was it? Some sort of weapon? It looked sturdily-built, with something like a miniature bow fixed on the end. And the plate-armored goblin was pointing it straight at Haruhiro and the others with him.
Haruhiro quickly grabbed Yume’s and Shihoru’s shoulders and opened his mouth to warn them to get back in cover. But before the words came out, an arrow came flying at them. Yume and Shihoru fell backwards, pulled down by Haruhiro. He grunted and quickly scrambled back as well.
Then pain hit him. His right arm. An arrow. An arrow was sticking out from his right arm. It hurts. It hurts, it hurts, IT HURTS. He bent down, crouched on his heels. It hurt when he moved, it hurt when he stood still. He was in so much pain, he could hardly breathe.
Shihoru let out a gasp of shock when she saw.
“Haru!” Yume placed a gentle hand on his back.
Haruhiro groaned in pain. Don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me. Because it hurt. This was bad. Was he going to die? He was going to die, wasn’t he? Death. No way. He didn’t want to die. But the pain. THE PAIN. Help me… Someone… This was bad. He wasn’t going to make it like this.
It was Manato. Manato had come for him. And without any warning whatsoever, he pulled the arrow out of Haruhiro’s arm. As the arrow came out, Haruhiro felt as if a huge chunk of something else had been yanked out with it. Blood was flowing from the wound fast and thick. Manato, I’m going to die. You’re going to kill me, doing something like that…
But Manato paid no attention as he promptly formed a hexagon with his hand and began chanting, “O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [CURE].”
The light that spilled from Manato’s hand began to bind up Haruhiro’s wound. Though it was probably healing, the pain wasn’t fading at all. Haruhiro gasped and gasped and gasped again. It hurt so badly he couldn’t exhale.
Finally, the pain began to recede. He was finally able to breathe normally once more, and he tentatively touched his right arm; it was soaked in blood, but no longer hurt.
“Manato!” It was Ranta calling. “Hurry! I can’t stall it forever!”
“Will you be okay?!” Manato shouted at Haruhiro, and Haruhiro began a nod, but Manato was already moving away.
Oh, right. While Manato was healing Haruhiro, the others were still fighting. Haruhiro glanced at the building and saw that Mogzo was battling the hobgoblin while Ranta and Yume were fiercely engaged with the plate-armored goblin. Did Manato intend to go reinforce Ranta and Yume? Shihoru was hitting the hobgoblin with [MAGIC MISSILE], but it was barely even affecting it.
Haruhiro got back to his feet in a panic. If Manato was going to join Ranta and Yume, they could probably take on the plate-armored goblin. But something had to be done about the hobgoblin.
“Hang in there, Mogzo!” Haruhiro shouted encouragingly, while getting into position at the hobgoblin’s back.
The hobgoblin must have been only focused on Mogzo, because it paid zero attention to Haruhiro. If that was the case, then it should have been easy to land [BACKSTAB] but for some reason, he couldn’t get close enough to use the skill at all. The hobgoblin was a little taller than Haruhiro, but not as tall as Mogzo, though it was much more broadly built.
The spiked club it wielded was made of wood, but it was heavy and thick. If it landed a hit with it, even the chainmail armored Mogzo wouldn’t be able to just shrug it off. On top of that, the chainmail that the hobgoblin was wearing was a problem. It wasn’t just its upper body that was protected; the chainmail shirt was linked to chainmail pants, and its head was also protected by a helm. There was no place for Haruhiro to target; its entire body was covered in armor.
“THANKS!!” Mogzo shouted the Warrior’s [RAGE CLEAVE] battle cry.
A sudden cheer almost erupted from Haruhiro’s mouth, but died just as quickly. Mogzo’s bastard sword had hit the goblin square on its left shoulder, but the blow barely made it flinch and its counterattack was instant. Mogzo was barely able to deflect the incoming club in time. No, in fact Mogzo didn’t deflect the attack; the blow had caused him to stumble backwards. His fighting stance had been crushed. This was bad. Mogzo was going to go down.
Haruhiro rammed himself into the hobgoblin’s back in a full body tackle, thrusting his dagger into it at the same time. The knife made a horrible noise at it scraped against metal. It was no use. His weapon couldn’t penetrate the armor. Haruhiro did, however, manage to take its attention off Mogzo, and now the hobgoblin was swinging its club at him. He jumped, dodging the incoming blow—not just barely, but with room to spare.
Still, this was bad. He was frightened. He felt like all his internal organs were collapsing in on themselves. He felt as if he were half dead already. Not able to help it, he backed away.
“I-I can’t do this…” He whispered to himself.
“Oom rel eckt vel dash!” Shihoru chanted. The shadow elemental hit the hobgoblin’s side and it began to tremble violently.
Mogzo brought down his bastard sword on the momentarily shaking and immobilized hobgoblin’s head. Sparks flew as the sword connected with its helm and put a large dent in it. It staggered.
“Now!” Haruhiro shouted, rushing towards it with a dropkick.
The hobgoblin was scary, but if they could bring it to the ground… Before Haruhiro could get back up on his feet, Manato shouted his name. “Haruhiro, over here! Ranta’s… !”
“What?!” Haruhiro saw that Ranta was down, blood running profusely from his neck. “He got cut in the neck!?”
While Manato tended to Ranta’s wound, Yume was forced to face the plate-armored goblin alone. The goblin was slashing its sword at Yume, forcing her to scramble back. This was bad. Haruhiro faced the goblin and forced himself between it and Yume.
“Oy, gobbie! Over here!”
Just as Haruhiro had intended, the plate-armored goblin’s attention was now wholly on him. But that also meant that he was the one who would have to trade blows with it now. No, there was actually no way he could do that. The sword that the plate-armored goblin was swinging around was about the same length as Ranta’s longsword. He dodged its attacks. Block, parry, and dodge—that was all that he could manage.
This goblin was unlike any of the other goblins he’d faced before. It was quick and agile and Haruhiro had a feeling that it had also had formal training with weapons, as it wielded its sword quite adroitly. Defending himself only with a dagger, if he made one careless move… he didn’t know what would happen.
Was Mogzo doing okay alone? Haruhiro was worried, but didn’t have the luxury of taking his eyes off the plate-armored goblin to look.
“[SWEEPING SLASH]!” Yume attacked the plate-armored goblin from behind.
It was a powerful sideways sweeping attack using the kukri, but the goblin had read her movements. It spun to meet her attack then countered with a blow that stripped the kukri from Yume’s hand. The plate-armored goblin prepared to finish her with a final follow-up blow.
“I won’t let you!” Haruhiro threw himself at it, but the goblin had predicted his movements as well.
It turned towards Haruhiro, sword raised. No way! Haruhiro thought. He brought his dagger up to meet the incoming attack, but he couldn’t stop the other’s blade. The goblin’s sword slid along his dagger’s edge with the shriek of metal on metal. Not even the cross-guard would stop it.
The goblin’s sword bit into his right arm, making him shout in pain. Haruhiro’s dagger fell from his hands. The goblin moved in, pressing the attack. I’m going to be cut down, Haruhiro thought.
“[ANGER THRUST]!” It was Ranta. The plate-armored goblin’s attack missed Haruhiro by a hairsbreadth.
Ranta had jumped in from the side, thrusting the tip of his sword at the goblin. It ducked, avoided Ranta’s attack, and without even stopping to take a breath, counterattacked. Ranta retreated straight back to the side.
“Shit! Quit fucking around, you rich bastard!” Ranta cursed.
Ranta’s face was pallid and he was sweating profusely. His wound had been healed but that didn’t mean the blood he had lost had been put back in. He did save Haruhiro, however. Though barely, Haruhiro was still alive. His arm hurt terribly. The goblin’s sword had cut deep. The pain made it impossible to move his right arm, so he picked up his dagger with his left.
“Haruhiro!” Manato had come running and immediately prepared a light magic spell. “O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [CURE].”
Haruhiro gritted his teeth against the pain. As the wound healed, his eyes darted about the area. Mogzo was somehow managing to hold his own against the hobgoblin’s attacks, but not without difficulty. He was beginning to become unsteady on his feet. Shihoru was crouched, probably exhausted from overusing her magic. It wasn’t possible to expect more help from her.
He had a feeling that although clumsily, Ranta would be able to keep dodging the plate-armored goblin’s attacks for a little longer. Yume’s arm had been cut somewhere and was bleeding.
“Done,” Manato said. Haruhiro touched his arm to confirm it had healed and turned his gaze towards Yume.
“Yume! Over here! Manato will heal you!” Haruhiro shouted.
“Yume’s fine!” Came Yume’s reply. “Yume can still keep going!”
“Haruhiro, switch with her! Yume, come here!” Manato ordered.
But even as he moved to obey, Haruhiro was filled with uncertainty. He noticed that Manato’s breathing had become a bit ragged. Had he been using his magic too much? Haruhiro’s class was Thief, so he had no idea about the rules of magic. It was a matter of whose judgment he trusted more, his own or Manato’s. Of course he trusted Manato more. So it was fine. He should still be okay. There shouldn’t have even been any question in the first place.
Haruhiro switched places with Yume. He wanted to put pressure on the plate-armored goblin but hesitation made him unable to do anything. If he attacked, he was afraid that he would be counterattacked. Was Ranta thinking the same? That goblin was too skilled of a fighter. There were no holes in its defense to exploit.
At some point as well, the goblin had donned a helm. It was now helmed and plate-armored. No way. Even if Haruhiro could land a hit with his dagger, it would only be deflected by the armor. The same held true for Ranta’s longsword. What about Mogzo’s bastard sword? But Mogzo had his hands full with the hobgoblin, he couldn’t take two at once.
Checkmate, Haruhiro suddenly thought. They had been checkmated. They couldn’t win this fight. There was no way in hell they could win. But he had already known. He had realized that they had lost a while ago. What would happen if they lost? If they were defeated? Would they die? Would all of them die?
Haruhiro glanced over at Manato, who was nearly finishing tending Yume’s wound. They both came over to Haruhiro’s side.
“Haruhiro, help Mogzo!” Manato said and Haruhiro nodded reflexively.
He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to leave them, but Mogzo did need help. Haruhiro moved to take up position at the hobgoblin’s back.
It was then that it happened. The hobgoblin let out a monstrous war cry and swung its spiked club down at Mogzo. He brought his bastard up to block, but he couldn’t stop the hobgoblin’s attack.
The hobgoblin struck again and again, raining blows down on Mogzo’s sword. The club was made of wood, but it didn’t show any signs of breaking. Mogzo, at his limits, grabbed his sword with both hands, one at the hilt and one near the tip, to fend off the hobgoblin’s hits. The attacks were overwhelming and soon, he was forced down to one knee. Blood was running down his head from where one of the spikes on the club had struck him.
The hobgoblin kicked Mogzo to the ground and started to bear down on him. If Haruhiro let that happen then… this was bad. Very bad. Without any self-consideration, Haruhiro latched himself into the hobgoblin’s back. He would have liked to be able to pin down its arms as well, but it was just not possible.
The hobgoblin struggled to shake Haruhiro off; Haruhiro clung desperately on. It let out a long howl of rage.
“That’s it, Haruhiro! Keep it distracted!” Manato shouted as he healed Mogzo.
No way. It was not possible for Haruhiro hold on for much longer. The hobgoblin elbowed him in the ribs so hard that it didn’t just hurt—it almost made Haruhiro lose consciousness. This is bad. If he passed out, then it would be over for him. If he got thrown off he would die. He would definitely die.
It was then that something truly frightening happened. He had no idea what had actually transpired, but he was thrown off and had hit the ground on his back. The hobgoblin kicked him before he could get up, sending him tumbling. He couldn’t breathe.
“H-hel….” He croaked. Help me… He didn’t know who he was turning to for help, but it came.
Manato landed [SMASH] on the hobgoblin’s head with his short staff. The hobgoblin had a helm to protect it from the blow, but even so Manato’s technique seemed like it had done enough give the hobgoblin a minor concussion.
“Hurry!” Manato shouted. “Haruhiro, get up! Run! Everyone run!”
Yes, Haruhiro thought as he jumped up to his feet. Run, yes. They had no choice but to flee. He turned to go, then stopped suddenly. “What about you?!”
Manato was attempting to retreat even as he continued to attack the hobgoblin. “Of course I’m going! Hurry and run!”
Mogzo, whose head wound had just been healed, focused his sights on the plate-armored goblin and shouted, “THANKS!” as he attacked with [RAGE CLEAVE]. He missed, but it did make the plate-armored goblin shrink back.
Ranta and Yume turned their backs to flee, and Shihoru was also running away. The plate-armored goblin shrieked and slashed Mogzo across the back with its sword, but thanks to his chainmail, he didn’t suffer any injuries. Haruhiro was right behind them, turning to look back as he ran.
“Manato, everyone’s clear!” he cried. “Get outta there!”
“I know!” came Manato’s reply, as he hopped back and paid the pursuing hobgoblin two successive hits to its chest.
The hobgoblin faltered and Manato swiftly turned and ran. The plate-armored goblin sheathed the sword it was using, pulled out another, then swiftly gave chase. They weren’t out of danger yet. Haruhiro focused on keeping going straight ahead. At that moment, the plate-armored goblin threw something at them. It spun around and around in the air before it seemed to hit Manato in the back.
A grunt escaped Manato’s lips and he seemed to lurch forward.
“Manato!” Haruhiro cried.
Manato replied instantly even as he regained his balance. “I’m fine!”
His feet were now solidly back under him, so the injury was probably minor. Both the hobgoblin and the plate-armored goblin were right on their tails now. They had to run. Just run away. It was a good thing they had made the maps, because knowledge of Damroww’s layout now came in handy. They didn’t get lost as they fled, and were able to avoid areas frequented by other goblins.
Haruhiro and the others kept running. They ran even as their breathing became ragged, even as they became exhausted, and even as if they felt like they were about to drop dead. They ran on even after they could no longer see their pursuers. The first to stop running was Manato.
No. No, he hadn’t stopped running. He had suddenly fallen to the ground.
“M-Ma–” Haruhiro tried to called Manato’s name, but no words came out.
His back. Manato’s back. Something was sticking out of it. Something bladed. The blade was curved. It looked like a throwing knife. No one said a word. Everyone was looking at him, but no one said a word. No one had any words. What could they say?
Manato gasped for breath, trying to get back onto his feet. He couldn’t. The best he could do was roll to his side. “I think… it’s… okay… to go…”
“Manato!” Haruhiro dropped to his knees by Manato’s side. Was it okay to touch him? Was it not? He didn’t know. “Manato… your wound… magic! Use your magic to heal yourself…”
“R-right.” His right hand moved to touch his forehead, then fell limp back to the ground as if the strength to keep it raised was drained from it. “My magic… I can’t… use it…”
“Don’t talk!” Ranta shouted. “Just take it easy, don’t try to talk! What do we do!?” he asked the others.
Shihoru staggered to Manato’s side and dropped to the ground opposite of Haruhiro. She reached out with her hand, and just as trembling fingers made contact with the throwing knife lodged in his back, she drew them back sharply. Her face was drained of all color.
Manato face too, wasn’t just white, it was deathly pale. Mogzo’s entire body was still and rigid as stone, like a large statue.
“W-wha…” Yume was rifling her hair, making a tangled mess of it. “What do we do?”
“What… what do you mean what…” Haruhiro felt like something was being ripped out from his chest.
What were they going to do? Think! What could they do? There had to be something! They couldn’t just sit there! Manato, please tell us… Please… Tell us what to do… Manato…. But the breathing of the person he pleaded for was shallow, raspy.
“Y-you’re going to be okay,” Haruhiro said. “You’re going to be fine, so hang in here… Hang in there, okay?”
Manato looked at Haruhiro. “…Haru… hiro…”
“What is it? Manato, what is it?”
“I… I’m… sorry…”
“What? Why? For what?”
“I… can’t… everyone… Haru… hiro… please…”
“Please? Please what? What do you want me to do? No… no, don’t say stuff like that, Manato…”
“I… can’t see… Is… everyone… here?”
“We’re here! We’re all here! Manato, everyone’s here, so don’t go!”
Manato seemed to exhale deeply as if sighing.
“No! Don’t go! Manato! You can’t go! Don’t go, Manato! Please… don’t go…”
He inhaled, then exhaled once more. And at that moment, his eyes seemed to glaze over as if turned into glass.
Shihoru placed her hand on his chest. “His heart’s stopped…”
“C-CPR! Give him CPR!” Ranta yelled in what Haruhiro admitted was a good moment of insight.
They started CPR as if it would solve everything, everyone talking all at once about what to do. They pulled the knife out and rolled him to his back, giving him CPR and mouth-to-mouth. Minutes passed, tens of minutes passed, maybe even more than one hour passed as they tried to revive him.
“S-should… shouldn’t we stop?” Mogzo looked as if he was about to cry. “Poor Manato… We shouldn’t do that to him anymore…”
“Then what do you want us to do?!” Haruhiro snapped angrily, before getting a grip on himself. He continued in a softer tone. “…What should we do? We can’t just leave him here. We can’t just leave Manato here.”
“Magic.” Shihoru looked up. Her eyes were swollen and bloodshot. “There may be a way to save him with magic. Light magic can heal.”
“That’s right,” Yume said, nodding vigorously. “Shihoru’s right. Magic will work. It’s got to work. We can take him to the Priests guild and their temple.”
“Temple of the god Luminous?” Ranta wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. “Me go there? You’re saying for a servant of the Dark God Skulheill to go into enemy territory?”
Mogzo lifted Manato up into his arms. “I’ll take him.”
“Let’s go,” said Haruhiro with a nod.
Ranta and Haruhiro both offered to take turns with Mogzo and help to carry Manato, but Mogzo brushed them off. He alone carried Manato all the way back to the north end of Altana until they reached the temple of the god Luminous. The moment they set foot inside the temple, they were stopped by a group of men all dressed in the same colored robes, white lined with blue, as Manato was.
There was one amongst them that seemed to recognize Manato. Master Honnen seemed to be his name, according to what the others were calling him. The master came to them straight away. He was built like a monolith, resembling a Warrior more than a Priest.
The first thing that came out of his mouth was, “What has happened?”
His voice was rather distinctive and it reminded Haruhiro of something Manato had once said, about his guild master’s voice being loud enough to hurt his ears. As the memory came flooding back, Haruhiro couldn’t hold himself back anymore. He threw himself down on his knees before Master Honnen.
“Please! Please help Manato! I’ll do anything, anything you want! Please save him!” Haruhiro begged.
“Foolish boy!” Master Honnen thundered. “Even the bright shining god of light, Luminous, cannot bring a person back from the dead! Manato, you fool! One so young with such a promising future is rarely seen. We took you in with such high hopes, taught you with such care, yet you have thrown your life away!”
“You bastard!” Ranta made to grab Master Honnen. Yume stopped him, interjecting, “No, don’t!”
Ranta didn’t fight her, perhaps because he saw the stream of tears that flowed freely from Master Honnen’s eyes. Shihoru sunk down to the cold temple floor; Mogzo stood frozen, though he still held Manato in his arms.
“The only thing we can do for him,” came Master Honnen’s voice, rock steady, though the tears had yet to cease, “is bury him properly. Here on the frontier, those who are not given a proper burial come under the Curse of the Deathless King and become his servants. At the most, the transformation into a zombie takes five days. Some have turned in as little as three.”
Suddenly, and for some reason, Haruhiro wanted to laugh, even though he knew this wasn’t any time to be laughing. “So you want to cremate him?” Haruhiro asked.
“Yes. The crematoria where we burn the bodies is located just outside of Altana. After the body is purified by flame to prevent it from falling under the curse, the remains are buried at the top of the hill.”
“One more thing,” said Haruhiro, “if I may ask.”
“What is it?”
“Will it cost money?”
“I will pay for it, if you cannot afford it.”
“No.” Haruhiro sighed. It was a deep, deep sigh, filled with anger, even though being angry was by itself useless and dumb. “We’ll pay. It’s not like we don’t have money. Even if we don’t have enough, we’ll figure something out. Manato was more than just our friend; he was our teammate, and precious companion. We owe him at least that much.”