LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
It would be morning soon. It didn’t matter if someone died; morning came just as it always did.
It was about eight o’clock and everyone was gathered at Altana’s northern gate. The echoes of the eight o’clock bell had yet to fade, but Ranta was there shouting at the top of his lungs.
“…So there you have it!” he cried, sounding just a tad distressed. “Everyone, I would like to introduce to you our new friend! Please give a round of applause to Mary, our new Priest!”
Haruhiro and Mogzo clapped hesitantly, but Yume and Shihoru were obviously dismayed. They had been unceremoniously woken up that morning and dragged out, so Haruhiro understood their confusion. It would have been odd if they weren’t, at least a little.
However, they weren’t even bothering to greet the young woman, Mary, even though it was their first meeting. To be fair though, from outward appearances, Mary seemed cold, almost hostile, and very… obstinate. Not exactly the approachable type. Haruhiro wished, though, that they would at least put a little more effort in doing so.
Haruhiro was beginning to see why Kikkawa said that even their party would be able to recruit her.
Ranta gestured once more to Mary. “A round of applause for Mary!”
“N-nice to meet you,” Shihoru stammered, with a slight bow.
Yume, too, bent forward a little. “W-welcome.”
Mary didn’t respond in kind. Her eyes narrowed to slits as she peered unblinkingly at Yume and Shihoru. Haruhiro, too, had been subject to the scrutiny of those same eyes last night.
There was one thing, though, that he couldn’t stand. She was beautiful. Not just normal, run-of-the-mill beautiful either. No; her big eyes, her curving lips, her shaped nose and the sheen of her straight hair could not be called merely “pretty”. Her features surpassed anything of this world. It was like she wasn’t even human. What was it exactly that made Haruhiro think so?
It was the combination, the balance. The smallness of her head, her style. Just one look and anyone would say that she was something different. She had an air about her. It had made Haruhiro extremely nervous the first time he stood before her.
Then he noticed. Her gaze was cold. Ice cold. Haruhiro had a feeling then and there that this person was trouble. She was the type who you did all you could to avoid coming close to; beauty to be appreciated from a distance. Unfortunately, the present circumstances required that they recruit her for the team.
According to Kikkawa, there was no small amount of Crimson Moon members without parties, but few of them were Priests. Skilled Priests were always in demand and few in number, so teams competed to recruit them. Moreover, Haruhiro and the others were still trainees, so they weren’t even in the running compared to veteran parties like Kikkawa’s. Even Team Renji, formed at about the same time, would be considered superior.
In other words, Haruhiro’s group ranked the lowest of low within the Crimson Moon organization. They were so low they might as well have been slithering around on their bellies, so not in a position to pick and choose. Whether it was Mary or whoever else, they were thankful just to have a Priest willing to join their team.
Mary tucked away a loose strand of hair and shifted her gaze to Haruhiro. “Is this everyone?”
“Er…” Haruhiro quickly looked down.
He didn’t want her to accidently catch him staring at her, but he couldn’t help it. It wasn’t fair. She was a Priest, so her clothes were white, lined with blue. They looked stylish on her and weren’t all that tight, but all the curves of her body were still plainly visible.
Recovering, Haruhiro continued. “Yeah, counting you, six total.”
“I see,” she said, her expression just a touch disdainful. “Fine. As long as I get my cut, I don’t care. Where are we going? Damroww?”
“Y-yeah…” Haruhiro looked at his companions. The general mood wasn’t good at all. Was everything really going to be okay? “…I think.”
“You think?” Mary said. “Be certain.”
“D-Damroww. We’ll head to Damroww’s Old Town. Look for goblins… we don’t really know any other creatures.”
“Fine. Go promptly then. I will follow.”
“Umm…” Ranta said, purposely avoiding looking right at Mary. “Can you talk a little less, uhh… and act a little more… you know…”
Mary’s icy eyes seemed to pierce right through him. “What?”
“N-nevermind! S-sorry… just forget I said anything…” Ranta quickly replied.
Mary was scary. She was terrifying. She was beyond terrifying. She was… just as Kikkawa had said.
According to him, Mary had a number of nicknames. “Wicked Mary” and “Scary Mary” were just a few of them. Mary was almost constantly without a party and would often receive invitations to join from parties lacking a Priest. Mary never refused any invitations, but she also never stayed in one party for any extended period of time. She didn’t think of others as real people, and also, her reliability as a Priest was questionable.
No one had anything good to say about her. Sure, she was a beauty, but she lacked anything that resembled team spirit. And apparently, though she accepted invitations to parties quick enough, invitations for a date were rejected at superluminal velocities.
Kikkawa knew from personal experience, having been rejected himself. The attempt must have been valiant though. A real gentleman, that Kikkawa, Haruhiro thought sarcastically.
In the more or less hour it took for them to reach Damroww, no one said a single word. It was an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Mogzo and even Ranta were just plain terrified of Mary. Yume and Shihoru were doubtful, distrustful, and therefore disconcerted. They both seemed confused and angry at the same time. Haruhiro had no idea how to react.
Maybe they were upset because of Mary’s attitude. Maybe they were upset because of a new Priest joining so soon after Manato died. And actually, a small part of Haruhiro did think that maybe it would have been at least somewhat better to have waited a little more. On top of that, they hadn’t discussed the decision to invite Mary with Yume or Shihoru. The three of them had just decided at the tavern, right there and then.
They shouldn’t have, though. They should have taken their time and thought things over. If it had been Manato, he wouldn’t have let things turn out like this.
Damroww. The place where Manato had died. It was too soon to be coming back here. Much too soon.
“What if we bump into them again?” Haruhiro whispered to Ranta.
Ranta replied in a dark tone. “Then we fight them. I want to slice off the ears of both the armored goblin and hobgoblin bastards and offer them on Skulheill’s altar. I won’t be satisfied ’til I do.”
“But…” Shihoru began coolly. “We can’t win. Not like we are now.”
Ranta scoffed. “I don’t care. I’m going to fight anyways.”
“And what if Ranta dies?” Yume’s voice quavered slightly. “If Ranta dies, Ranta loses everything.”
Mogzo gave a vigorous nod. “Don’t die. I don’t want anyone else to die.”
“Are we going or not?” Mary said, frowning. “If we’re going let’s go. If we’re not going, fine. Whichever it is, be quick about it.”
Ranta stuck his tongue out at her. Then he said, “Be quick about it, Haruhiro.”
“Right…” Haruhiro replied.
Who was this team’s leader now anyway? Mogzo wasn’t the type that could inspire others to follow him. Yume and Shihoru were the same. Me, then? Haruhiro thought. I’m no leader. I can’t make any decisions on my own.
But Manato had asked him to. In the end, he was calling me by my name, saying ‘please.’ He was trying to say to me, ‘Please take care of everyone.’ But Manato, I can’t. He couldn’t do it. Haruhiro wasn’t like him.
“L-let’s go,” Haruhiro said to everyone nonetheless. Even a phrase as simple as that and his voice was shaky, small. He sounded pitiful, even to himself.
Using the map they had been making, they searched in areas where goblins were known to frequent. Now that Manato was gone, taking on three at a time seemed unwise. It was just their luck that only in times like this all they could find were goblin groups of three or four. By the time they stopped for lunch just past noon, everyone was full of impatience, irritation, and weariness. Haruhiro had developed a stomachache.
They couldn’t keep going like this, and it wasn’t just about money either. Haruhiro had already inwardly made his decision. They had a Priest, after all, so if there were no groups of two, they would go after groups of up to three. Somehow, they would make it work.
Their chance came soon afterwards. Three goblins standing around a fire pit in an open area enclosed by a fallen wall. One was donning chainmail armor and carried a short spear, but the other two were dressed in plain clothing. One had a hatchet at its belt, the other a short sword. The spear-goblin was bigger than the others and seemed to be the one in charge, with the hatchet-goblin and sword-goblin being subordinates.
They seemed manageable enough.
“Yume and Shihoru will attack the spear-goblin first. Me, Yume, Ranta, and Mary will keep the hatchet-goblin and sword-goblin busy while Mogzo and Shihoru take down the spear-goblin. If it puts up a fight, either me or Ranta will go help. If we can take down the spear-goblin, the others should be easy.”
“Wait.” Mary’s voice was edged with steel. “You’re telling me to fight the goblin?”
“Huh?” Haruhiro wavered. “Is that… a bad thing? Why?”
“I don’t fight in the front. I’m a Priest—you should know this already.”
“Hey!” Ranta was getting riled, but he held it back. “Lady!”
Mary’s eyes, sharp as daggers, flicked to Ranta filled with near killing intent. “‘Lady’?”
“N-not ‘Lady’ but… It’s not right! I can call you whatever I want!”
“No, you can’t.”
“…M-Mary. Mary, then.” Ranta’s veins were bulging in rage. “That thing you Priests carry, you don’t lug it around for nothing, right? That staff-like thing. It’s for hitting, right? Or do you just carry it around for decoration?”
Mary stood tall, gazing down on Ranta from her full height. “For decoration.”
“M-Mary. You… you’re… it’s… it’s that… FUCK. I don’t know. Whatever. Do what you want.”
“I always do what I want. I don’t need you to tell me.”
“Right.” Ranta laughed fakely. “Right. I knew that. Damn it… who does she think she is…”
“Could you not talk so filthily all the time? It dirties my ears.” Despite how it sounded, it was definitely not a request.
“I’m sorry! My bad! If it bothers you that much then just cover those ears of yours!”
“Why should I even have to bother doing something so annoying?”
“Okay, okay,” Haruhiro said, rubbing the back of his neck. “We get it. Mary will stay back, act as backup. Stick with Shihoru. Shihoru is our Mage so she’s never in the front. That fixes it, right?”
Mary tossed Haruhiro a glance that seemed to cut him down. “It’s only proper, isn’t it?”
“Right, okay. Let’s go with that.” Haruhiro was as relieved as he was angry.
Why did they have to go that far to make her happy? She had only joined their team today. Though it was true that she had more field experience, wasn’t she just equal with the rest of them? But Haruhiro didn’t have the guts to say so much to her face. She terrified him.
Usually now what they would do was gather in a circle, and then everyone would put their hands in the center for their pre-fight ritual, but this time it didn’t seem right.
“Yume, Shihoru, go ahead,” Haruhiro said instead.
Yume and Shihoru nodded silently. Were they so upset that they didn’t want to speak? Both of their expressions told him that they were not in good moods. He wished they would stop it. Their moods were making him irritable in turn. He couldn’t do anything about it, but he wished that they made more of an effort to understand how he was feeling, too.
He knew though, that if he spoke up about it, there wouldn’t be an end to it, so he had shoved everything deep down inside of himself. Yume and Shihoru did what they were told and went on ahead. Shihoru should be in range soon. When she was, Haruhiro signaled her to attack.
Shihoru spoke the incantation in a low, lifeless tone as she drew the elemental glyph with her staff. Yume nocked an arrow onto her bow and pulled the string back. The shadow elemental shot out from Shihoru’s staff and hit the spear-goblin right in the chest. Its entire body started trembling uncontrollably, making it drop its spear.
Yume’s arrow missed, flying massively wide of its target.
“Not even close.” Mary’s voice was a low whisper, but it traveled well enough for Yume to hear. Yume’s grip tightened on her bow.
“Don’t worry about it!” Haruhiro said to Yume, drawing his dagger.
Mogzo and Ranta were already moving to engage. Time for him to hurry up and move too. They would take down these goblins. They had to win. If they lost, they might die. They couldn’t afford to lose.
Mozgo was prevented from reaching the spear-goblin by the hatchet-goblin and the sword-goblin. Meanwhile, the spear-goblin was recovering from Shihoru’s attack. Ranta moved in to engage the hatchet-goblin, trying to get him off Mogzo, but the sword-goblin proved more of a problem. Mogzo couldn’t get away.
Haruhiro went in. “[BACKSTAB]!”
He used the technique the moment he was in position behind the sword-goblin, but it turned around at the last moment and Haruhiro’s dagger grazed it in the ribs. The goblin lunged with its sword at Haruhiro, shrieking in rage.
“Whoa!” Haruhiro stepped back, dodged to the right, and retreated. The sword-goblin’s movements were nimble, quick, and Mogzo probably would have had a hard time fighting it. But now, Mogzo’s way had been cleared. The spear-goblin came lunging at him.
Mogzo deflected the goblin’s spear with his bastard sword. They were now all fighting one-on-one. No, Yume was coming to Haruhiro’s aid. She held her kukri slanted, and slashed down at the sword-goblin.
“[CROSS CUT]!” She yelled.
The sword-goblin bent low and sprung back a good two meters, avoiding her attack. They came across these types of goblins from time to time. Small, light, and agile, they didn’t have much offensive power, but their evasion skills were off the charts; they were very difficult to bring down. These lightweight-class goblins were a pain to deal with.
“Oom rel eckt vel dash!” Shihoru had used [SHADOW ECHO] and the shadow elemental flew straight at the spear-goblin.
The goblin dodged it. However, Mogzo was right there with the follow-up, already swinging his bastard sword. He did it too soon though and his attack sliced nothing but air. The spear-goblin launched a series of rapid thrusts with its weapon at Mogzo, who had no choice but to back away. It was a short spear, but even so, its length was longer than the goblin’s height. Mogzo couldn’t close in enough to get back into the range of his own weapon.
Now that Haruhiro thought about it, this was the first time they had ever faced an opponent that wielded a spear. Inexperience. It was one of the reasons why Mogzo was having such a hard time with his opponent.
“Gah!” Ranta let out a shout of pain as he jumped back. His left calf had been cut, and bled.
The hatchet-goblin was crouched low and swung its weapon in a circular motion, aiming below its opponent’s waists. This fighting style was also difficult to deal with.
“Yume, I got this one!” Haruhiro said. “Take Ranta’s place with the hatchet-goblin! Ranta, go get healed!”
“No,” came Mary’s immediate reply.
“No?! What, why?!” Haruhiro exclaimed.
“It’s not an injury that requires immediate attention. Suck it up.”
“Baaaaaaaastard!!!” Ranta attacked the hatchet-goblin furiously. “Bastard! Bastard! Bastard! Just because you’re hot doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want! Fuck you! Fuck you! FUCK YOU!!!”
Haruhiro and Yume chased the lightweight, sword-goblin all around the place but they couldn’t catch it. “Ranta! Does your leg hurt?!”
“OF COURSE IT HURTS!” Ranta shouted. Ranta brought his long sword down on the hatchet-goblin in a diagonal slash. “[HATRED’S CUT]!” The hatchet-goblin avoided the attack easily. “Look at how much I’m bleeding! How can this NOT hurt?! IT HURTS GOD DAMN IT!!”
Yume fell on her back as the sword-goblin swept out her feet from under her. This was bad. Yume was going to be cut down. Haruhiro threw himself between Yume and the goblin, dagger raised, intending to use his own body as a shield. Rather than face Haruhiro, the sword-goblin jumped backwards.
In a series of short, quick hops, it had retreated beyond the range of Haruhiro’s dagger.
“Quit wasting time,” Mary said softly.
And whose fault is it that we can’t finish the fight quickly? Haruhiro thought. If it had been Manato instead of Mary with them, they would have been able to take on these three goblins with ease. Manato had been just as much of a tank as Mogzo; he was also their healer, their strategist, and their leader. If Manato was here, it was like having a hundred more people on their team in a fight. That may have been an over-exaggeration, but to Haruhiro, that’s how much different it felt.
Manato wasn’t like you, Haruhiro thought bitterly at Mary. A Priest who refuses to do anything but heal, then refuses to heal, too… The difference is so big, you don’t even compare.
But Manato wasn’t here anymore. He wasn’t anywhere now. They had lost him.
What are we going to do, Manato?