LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
The place where they dug a grave and buried Manato’s bones, wrapped in white cloth, would be better described as at the middle of the hill rather than the top . A slab of stone they had carried up with them was placed over the grave . It had Manato’s name inscribed into it, along with the token red-painted crescent moon . Even if they were trainees, they were still members of the reserve force and Manato’s grave was marked accordingly .
Other graves bearing the crimson crescent moon symbol, some old enough that the paint was faded, could be found all around them . No small number of Crimson Moon soldiers called this hill their final resting place . At the very top of the hill was a tower that soared into the sky . It was a loathsome thing .
That tower was where Haruhiro and the others had emerged . How long ago was that? Probably less than a month, but it seemed much longer . Had it really been from that tower? From all appearances, it had no doors or entryways . Where had they exited? Haruhiro didn’t know, nor did he care .
The cremation had cost fifty capas, the grave on the hill another fifty . Everything for the funeral had come to one silver . One silver for the death of a human being . No more than one silver . Haruhiro had paid it with his own money for the time being, but was that really okay? Manato had had seven silvers and twenty-one capas in savings . His clothes were burned with his body, but there was his short staff, his backpack, and other personal possessions . What where they going to do with those? It annoyed Haruhiro to have to think about something like that .
Manato was gone . He was really gone . It hadn’t even been a full day . They took him to the crematoria yesterday evening and were told by a worker there to return at midnight . After Manato’s remains were returned to them, they were unsure of what to do next, so they returned to the Priests at the temple of Luminous . Master Honnen offered to let them store the remains there overnight, but there was no way they could just leave Manato there .
What ultimately ended up happening was that Manato was placed at a corner of the temple grounds . Haruhiro and the others settled in a circle around him, remaining until dawn . No one slept . Maybe they did drift off now and then, but no one slept properly . Was that the reason why everyone seemed to be in such a daze now? Even as they all sat in front of Manato’s grave, none of it seemed real .
Shihoru, exhausted from crying, had both hands on the ground in order to keep herself propped up . Just sitting there seemed to take a tremendous amount of effort . Yume was staring up at the skies, now mockingly sunny and clear, perhaps watching the birds fly by . Mogzo’s large frame seemed to have shrunken and his expression was vacant . Then there was Ranta .
Why had he been staying silent this entire time? If he wouldn’t talk, then who would? Fine . Haruhiro would break the silence then .
“It’s weird,” he started, plucking at the grass . “It doesn’t make any sense . I’m not the only one who thinks so, right?”
Ranta looked in his direction, but didn’t say a word . His expression said that he was currently void of intelligent thoughts .
“Manato said once,” Haruhiro continued, tossing the blades of grass away . “It’s like we’re in a game . I thought so too back then, but what kind of game is this? I don’t know . It’s not a game . It’s not a game at all… I don’t get it . Damn it… DAMN IT . ”
In the end, Haruhiro had no idea what he really wanted to say .
What time was it now? Way past noon, maybe even close to sunset . In Altana, bells rang every two hours to indicate the time . They rang once at six in the morning, twice at eight, three times at ten, and so on . How many bells did he hear last? He couldn’t remember .
Ranta got up, slowly, deliberately . “I’m heading out . ”
“…Where to?” Yume asked .
Ranta gave a short laugh, not caring about how he came across to her . “Does it matter? It’s no use sitting here forever . There’s nothing we can do about it now . ”
“Idiot!” Yume snapped .
Ranta didn’t return the insult . It wasn’t like him at all . He left . Haruhiro went after him, with Mogzo following, but Haruhiro stopped once to look back . Yume had her arms around Shihoru’s shoulders; she was looking in their direction, and Haruhiro was too far away to tell if she was nodding or shaking her head . He had a feeling though, that she was trying to tell him that the two of them would remain there . Was Shihoru going to be okay? She was in shock, probably more so than Haruhiro . After all, Shihoru definitely had a crush on him .
Ranta seemed as if he intended to return to Altana, and Haruhiro considered asking him where he was going, but changed his mind . It didn’t matter . The bell rang seven times before they had reached Kaen Road in the northern part of the city . So it was already eight o’clock in the evening and, as usual for that time of night, the streets were full of people .
Ranta was making to enter a large building . The signboard outside read: Sherry’s Tavern . Haruhiro recognized the name as the place where Crimson Moon members gathered and, although he had passed by the place before, he had never gone in . Manato would go to Sherry’s now and then to get information, but everyone had just left him to it alone . Everyone had just left Manato to do everything .
And I was the same, Haruhiro thought . I just tagged along with him and did whatever he said to do .
Sherry’s was a large, spacious tavern, its entirety dimly lit by lamps that hung off the ceiling . It had two floors, though half of the second was actually the stairwell . It wasn’t crowded yet—less than half of the usual number of clientele were present—but there were still more than a hundred people there . The room was filled with chattering voices, loud laughter, and occasional shouts of anger, mixed with the lively voices of the serving girls .
Ranta found an empty table in a corner on the first floor and took a seat . Haruhiro and Mogzo followed suit at the same table . When a serving girl finally came, Ranta promptly raised three fingers and said, “Three beers . ”
He hadn’t bothered to ask either Haruhiro or Mogzo what they wanted to drink .
“I don’t really want to drink,” Haruhiro protested .
“What do you want then? Milk?” Ranta crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot on the ground . “That’s dumb . This is a tavern . A TAVERN . At taverns, people drink alcohol . ”
“B-but…” Mogzo hunched over, his head seemingly shrinking into his shoulders . “Drinking at a time like this?”
“Idiot! It’s because of times like this you drink,” Ranta sniffed, rubbing his eyes . “Manato . That bastard used to come here to drink right? But he’s… You know, he’s… It’s not like we’re here in his place but…”
“Right,” Haruhiro said, resting his elbows on the table, head hung low . “You’re right . ”
The serving girl returned with their beers and after paying her, the three of them clanked their tankards together and drank . Maybe it was because they were all thirsty, but the bitter brew tasted great . Did Manato order the beer they were drinking now when he came here? Did he like the taste of it?
Perhaps it was the alcohol, but Haruhiro’s face grew hot and his mind went vacant . Ranta’s and Mogzo’s faces too were red . Ranta suddenly slammed his earthenware tankard on the table .
“This is the worst . It really is the fucking worst . I quit . I don’t want to do this anymore . I’m not kidding . It’s not like I wanted to do this to begin with, but I did reluctantly go along . You two were the same, right? What the hell is a Warrior? A Thief? A Dread Knight? A… a Priest? I’ve had enough . I quit . I quit it all . From today, I quit forever . ”
“Quit?” Haruhiro ground his teeth together . “What are you going to do if you quit?”
“I ain’t gonna do anything,” Ranta replied . “Nothing wrong with that . Do I have to do something? There’s no rule making me do anything . Even if there was, I don’t give a shit . ”
“It’s not about giving a shit, it’s about not having a choice . That’s how all of us ended up here . ”
“I didn’t know that!”
“If you didn’t know, then what were you thinking?!”
“How was I supposed to know?!”
“P-please,” Mogzo put himself between Haruhiro and Ranta . “The both of you . Please don’t fight . ”
“Shut up!” Ranta shoved Mogzo off roughly . “Even if did keep going, how would we do it?! What are we gonna do from now on?! Manato’s not here anymore!”
“I know that! It’s not like I need you to tell me!” Haruhiro yelled .
“Then answer me! When you were injured in that fight, it was Manato that came and saved your ass! What are you going to do now that he’s not here anymore, huh?! ANSWER ME!”
“In fact, it was because you got injured so many times that Manato used up all his magic and things turned out like this!”
“…Ranta, you… Is that what you really think?”
“Am I wrong?! Is what I’m saying wrong?!”
“No… you’re not wrong . ”
“It’s all because you suck at fighting! You always got wounded and dragged us down! It’s all your fault!”
“STOP IT!” An angry voice roared . Mogzo . For a moment, the entire tavern went quiet . Mogzo’s eyebrows were knit tightly together in rage . Haruhiro was taken aback . He couldn’t believe that Mogzo was capable of becoming so angry . “This isn’t the time to be fighting with each other! Calm down, both of you!”
Haruhiro shifted in his chair . “…Sorry . ”
“You too,” Ranta shrugged . “You’re getting way too angry . You need to calm down too . ”
When Mogzo glared at him, Ranta shrunk back . “Sorry! I’ll be more careful from now on! Really, I mean it! There’s no need to be so mad…”
“Actually,” Mogzo took a gulp of beer and relaxed his shoulders . “What we’re going to do from now on is a good question . ”
Haruhiro rubbed the back of his neck . “I know, but I kinda don’t want to think about that right now . Not that I really can think straight right now either . ”
“I’ll say one thing,” Ranta banged on the table with his tankard . “I’m not being a pessimist or anything, but I’ve thought it through and it’s impossible to keep doing this without him . Just try counting up how many times he’s saved our asses and you’ll understand . ”
“So,” Haruhiro glanced sidelong at Ranta . “We do nothing? Isn’t that just as impossible? What are we going to do about money? It costs money to eat and have a roof over our heads at night . Are we going to look for other jobs?”
Ranta frowned, resting his chin in his palms . “That’s one option . ”
“It is for me . But you’re a Dread Knight . Your guild won’t just let you leave to take up another job,” Haruhiro pointed out .
Ranta’s jaw dropped .
“Or did you forget?”
“I didn’t forget! But… but once a Dread Knight, always a Dread Knight? FUCK! Why did I become a Dread Knight!?”
Mogzo let out a long, heavy sigh . “Other work…”
“Hey!” The voice that greeted them was one Haruhiro recalled hearing before . When he looked over in that direction, the person it belonged to was also familiar . He waved as he approached . “Hey, hey, hey! It’s you guys! I don’t remember your names, but long time no see! How’re you doing? Staying young?”
“Kikkawa…” Haruhiro blinked a few times .
There was no mistaking it with that happy-go-lucky face of his . It was Happy-Go-Lucky Kikkawa . But he looked different now, or at least his appearance did . He donned armor reinforced with metal plating and had a sword with a fancy pommel strapped to his waist . From his gear, it looked like he was a Warrior .
“Yo yo!” Kikkawa’s grin stretched from ear to ear and he raised his hand for high-fives from Haruhiro and the others . Haruhiro high-fived him automatically .
Without asking, Kikkawa planted himself in a chair between Haruhiro and Mogzo . “Beers, beers! Are beers for everyone okay? Beers!” He called the serving girls and ordered . “So! So so so! How’s everything? How’s everything going? How are you guys? Bringing in lots of money? What was that place called… Damroww! You guys are working in that area, right? I heard! I heard! A little while ago, I met Manato here so I heard it from him! Tell me! Tell me! How’s it been going?”
Kikkawa was as annoyingly upbeat as ever . A bit overwhelmed, Haruhiro replied honestly, “…It’s not been going well . ” Perhaps a bit too honestly . “Actually, Manato’s… Manato’s a little… well, not a little, but…”
“What?!” Kikkawa tilted himself backwards . “What what what?! No! No way! No waaaaaaaaaaaaay! H-h-he’s GOING TO GET MARRIED!?”
“No way!” Haruhiro said, smacking Kikkawa on the back of the head like a true straight-man . Kikkawa yelped, his eyes seeming to bulge out of their sockets, but Haruhiro didn’t regret hitting him a bit .
“…That’s not it,” Ranta said, his expression sour . “He’s dead . Got killed yesterday . ”
“Whoa…” Kikkawa rubbed the back of his head at the same time as he tugged on his chin . “I’m sorry . Sorry . Really, really sorry, okay? I didn’t mean anything by it . It’s just that… I never thought that he would die . I always thought that he was a guy that could get things done, but of a different sort from that Renji . Or maybe he wasn’t different . I don’t really get them, those kinds of people, that is, but… Hey! Our drinks are here! Alright! Chee–I guess this really isn’t the time for cheers . Well, let’s just drink then . ”
Haruhiro craned his neck left then right . He suddenly felt extremely exhausted . “You look like you’re doing okay, Kikkawa . Did you find a party to join?”
“Yep! Almost right after I left you guys, I joined a guy named Tokimune’s team . A good guy, but kinda dimwitted . Is he here? I’ll introduce you…”
“No, don’t worry about it . ”
“I see . I guess there’s no hurry . Manato was a Priest right? The backbone of your party? The death rates for Priests are not low, comparatively . They make for easy targets . ”
Mogzo slowly shifted his gaze to Kikkawa . “Really?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” Kikkawa gulped enthusiastically from his tankard . “What were we talking about? Oh right, Priests . Enemies know that Priests are a party’s healer so it makes sense to kill them first . And Warriors like me? We put ourselves between them and the enemy in order to protect the Priest . That’s how the course of a fight usually goes . The basic course, anyway . ”
Mogzo buried his face in his hands . “…I didn’t protect him at all . All I did was ask him to help me all the time…”
Kikkawa patted Mogzo on the shoulder in sympathy, as an old friend would . Except that he wasn’t . “Don’t kick yourself over it . Everyone fails at some point or another . Mistakes and errors are how we discover the right path . It’s okay, everything will be okay . ”
“But…” Mogzo shook his head . “Manato isn’t coming back . ”
“True,” Kikkawa raised both hands in acquiescence . “That’s true, but the way I see it, you gotta keep going forward . You might think that I can only say stuff like that because I’ve never had a teammate get killed, but on the other hand, I can say that because I’ve never had a teammate killed . Wait . Was that the same thing? Whatever, but for now, don’t look back, just keep looking to what’s ahead . ”
Haruhiro’s gaze fell to the earthenware tankards resting in a line on the table . Was Kikkawa saying that he shouldn’t be looking downwards like this? There was no reason to heed a word of anything Kikkawa had said, but what would Manato think? Manato didn’t have to use words to tell any of them which direction to face . He created an atmosphere where everyone would naturally look forward to the future .
“Even if we were to go on,” Ranta began, half muttering . “It doesn’t matter what’s ahead . We don’t have a Priest anymore . Our party . ”
Kikkawa looked at them, his expression as if saying so what? “So how about searching? For another Priest . Wait . I know what you want to say . ‘There’s no Priest who would want to join a trainee’s party . ’ Am I right? By the way, I’m no longer a trainee . I’ve bought my Crimson Moon contract . I’m a full member now . Want to see? Want me to show you?”
“Not really,” Haruhiro sighed . “But you just said it yourself . No Priest is going to want to join our party . ”
“Actually… there is someone…” Kikkawa said .
“I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me . Crimson Moon members, that is . There’s someone . One person I know . Someone even you guys might be able to recruit . ”
Ranta leaned forward with interest . “Who?”
“But before that!” Kikkawa looked at each of them in turn . “What were your names again? Sorry! I’ve been trying to remember, but I don’t recall at all . Could you tell me again?”