LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
The bell tolled, sounding the evening’s six o’clock hour . When the echoes of the seventh toll suffused and reluctantly faded into the city, night had fallen upon Altana . It was the final bell of the day, as the bells only sounded the time from six o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening .
Though it was hardworking laborers who found it most useful, as their workdays began early in the morning and finished with dinner and a nightcap, many others used it too, as their signal to close up shop . Meanwhile, for food stalls it marked the busiest time of day, and for taverns it heralded the influx of patrons .
And for Sherry’s Tavern, from the six o’clock bell until well into the night, they enjoyed their best business; large numbers of Crimson Moon members visited then, looking to replenish their spirits for work the next day .
Tonight, however, Sherry’s was livelier than usual . Members of Crimson Moon were not the only ones present; elderly craftsmen, young apprentices, portly merchants, charming businesswomen, and even soldiers from the regular army could be found scattered about .
Everywhere Haruhiro looked was crammed full of people, and even the spacious second floor seemed cramped . And naturally, all the seats were taken, so many remained standing—not just on the first and second floors, but in the stairwell as well .
Everyone had packed themselves into Sherry’s tonight after having heard a certain rumor .
Normally, a well-known Crimson Moon member would be referred to by the clan to which they belonged . That Man of Clan This or That Woman of Clan That . Though humans were the predominant race in Altana and the surrounding areas, the further one ventured from human territory, the more unfriendly races or monsters one could find in strength .
Often, they relied on their superior numbers to kill any humans they encountered . Therefore, clans were born out of necessity, and if the objective was to achieve certain military goals, it was best to join one . In fact, it was perhaps more accurate to say that joining was a must; an indispensible measure .
Despite that, there existed a party that had fought clanless this entire time . Four of them were Crimson Moon members, and one was an elf . One of the Crimson Moons, Pingo, was a Necromancer, and counting Zenmai, the human construct he created, that brought their party up to six members .
They were considered the best of the best and their reputation in Altana always preceded them . They were the only Crimson Moon members ever to have been invited to a dinner party hosted by the Earl of Altana, Gerran Vedoy . They had even declined to attend .
“Souma, now is a good time, don’t you think?”
At the voluptuous woman’s urging, Souma rose from his seat . That alone caused a hush to fall over a tavern so boisterous only moments before . It was to be expected, of course . After all, everyone was here to listen to the announcement he was to make . What was the point if they did not hear him out in silence?
At any rate, today was a day for the history books . Today was the day that the famed Souma was, quite against expectations, going to form a clan . Rumor had it he came to recruit members .
But was the rumor true? Maybe it was nothing more than a groundless, false whispering . Many thought exactly that, but Souma hadshown up for real at Sherry’s, and he was mere moments away from addressing everyone gathered .
“Shima,” Souma said .
“Yep,” the voluptuous woman gave him a slight smile and slight nod .
Souma then turned his attention to the man with dreadlocks . “Kemuri . ”
“Here,” the dreadlock-man called Kemuri replied, lazily flexing his neck; left, then right .
Souma met the gaze of the child-like man . “Pingo . ”
“Mmm…” Pingo’s gaze was on the ground and he let out a long sigh . “I dislike things like this . ”
“I see . ” The corners of Souma’s mouth crinkled in the slightest of frowns before he turned to the construct and its fearsome mask . “Zenmai . ”
Slowly, deliberately, Zenmai gave a single nod .
Souma’s eyes then went to the final member of his party, the elf . “Leelya . ”
“Yes, Souma . ” Leelya stared back with striking sapphire eyes .
Souma, closing his own, took a deep breath and mouthed one final name .
“Nino . ”
She was neither here nor there, not any longer . She was once their Priest, and when they lost her, Kemuri changed his class from Warrior to Paladin; Shima left the Thieves Guild, went to the elves dwelling in the Forest of Shadow, and became a Shaman; Leelya joined them, too, around this time .
Ever since Nino’s death, Souma had been seeking a way to bring her back, but to this day had not yet found the means . He suspected that there were clues to be found at the resting place of the Deathless King, deep within what used to be the Kingdom of Ishmael, but no one really knew .
A means to bring back the dead might not even exist in this world . This world . What was this world anyway? Where had all of them come from, and how did they end up here? How could a ridiculous world where the moon shone crimson, where monsters were an ordinary part of life and beasts ran around as they pleased, ever be real?
Once upon a time, Kemuri had commented softly, “This is like something out of a video game…” and Souma had replied with, “Yes, yes it is . ”
Or so they had thought at the time, but a short time afterwards, they no longer knew what they had been talking about . What was this thing called a “video game”? The feeling of unease had gradually faded and at times almost been forgotten, but it never completely left Souma . Even now it remained carved in his heart .
What if this world was not real, but some some sort of elaborate mimicry? Some sort of doppelganger? Then supposing that Souma and the others had come from the real world, what would have happened to the Nino who died in this world? Could it have be possible that Nino had simply returned to the real world? Could she be still alive?
It was a possibility, yes, and nothing more . Still, as long as the possibility existed… as long as it wasn’t zero…
Souma opened his eyes . “We’ve decided to form a clan . ” Those words alone caused a stir throughout the tavern . “Our goal is to invade the former Ishmael Kingdom, the domain of the undead . ” Though he wasn’t trying to speak loudly, his words carried through the entire room .
His voice alone was deep and menacing; easily intimidated monsters ran away with their tails between their legs . Monsters that could make a stand before Souma were indeed the strongest of the strong .
“We’ve obtained information that the Deathless King is showing signs of once again returning to deathlessness . We intend to investigate this further, and if the Deathless King has indeed returned, we will destroy him once more without hesitation . Of course, we don’t expect it to be easy, but we must find a way . We need strength . Strength in numbers . Power beyond just the six of us . ”
All the Crimson Moon members in the tavern began speaking at once, while the civilians and other non-members applauded and whistled . The thunderous roar of clapping, cheering, and clamoring threatened to tear the very air apart .
But all Souma had said was a half-lie . Naturally, he would reveal his true motives to those deemed trustworthy, but in time .
“Please, lend us your strength!” Souma called . “Those who consider yourselves one of us, please join us!”
“Give us a name! What’s the name of your clan?!” someone shouted .
Souma nodded . “From now on, we shall be known as the Daybreakers! Those who are valiant, those who are wise, those who are noble-hearted, and those who are dignified and resolute, join us! Do not fear death; defy it! We welcome all those who dare to seek life in its midst!”
In the wild whirlwind of excitement that erupted in the tavern, Souma inwardly whispered, “Nino…”
I will unravel the mysteries of this world, and then, perhaps one day, we shall meet again…
Haruhiro could never have known how their destinies would cross, and what awaited them at the end .