LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
PART 1 of 2
It was almost dawn. No one moved or made a sound—everyone was even trying to keep their breathing to a minimum. In the profound stillness and silence, idiot Ranta suddenly pressed his hands over his mouth and leaned forward then back again. A sneeze? What the hell? He was trying to suppress a sneeze? He had to be goddamn joking! What the heck was he thinking!?
Oh crap. Ranta was going to sneeze… he was actually going to do it. Crap. Crap, crap—just kidding. He had somehow managed to stop himself. Haruhiro breathed a small sigh of relief. They were safe.
The moment he thought that, Ranta sneezed, “ACHOO!”
He couldn’t manage to stop himself after all. Everyone’s heads suddenly snapped towards him. Rather than apologize to all the Crimson Moon members now staring at him, he made a gesture that seemed to say, ‘Quit making a big deal outta nothing!’ The idiot wasn’t afraid of anything. He had skin thicker than a brick wall.
Haruhiro poked his head out from behind a mountain-like mound of debris left from timber logging. Orc-made tents were scattered all over, one or two and sometimes even three under each lookout post. Some of the posts were manned while others were empty. There was no sign of movement. The sound of Ranta’s sneeze hadn’t caught the attention of the orcs, Haruhiro was relieved to see.
The sun hadn’t risen yet, but it was light out already. The members of Brittany’s Green Storm Regiment, assigned to assault the eastern wall, had concealed themselves behind logs, cloths, and boulders of former orc camp sites. These camps were the remains of previous attacks made by Altana on Capomorti Fortress. The camps were attacked and the orcs manning them killed, but when they had failed to hold the fortress, the camps outside were also rebuilt in slightly different locations. That left the landscape cluttered with clumps of debris that was now being used as hiding places.
But even if they were all hidden, Haruhiro had this uneasy feeling that they would be discovered anytime now. Maybe it was just his nerves. Playing the hide-and-wait game was nerve wracking. Can’t we just start and get it over with? he wished. That was almost preferable to what they were doing now.
The fortress and its three watchtowers formed a sort of corner shape and loomed in the distance like an ill omen. The fortress walls were made of stone, held together by some kind of black-colored mortar that filled every crack and crevasse. Some kind of pattern was painted on it in red—a word or maybe a letter. It was also studded with spikes made of either metal or wood, a measure clearly more for defense than decoration. The western and eastern walls were both thirteen feet high. It wasn’t an impossible height, but still too tall to scale without ladders.
The orc camps were littered with animal carcasses. Some had been picked clean while others were… not so picked clean. The latter were animal heads, and had been placed on spikes or strung up on sticks and arranged in neat rows. So that’s why this place was called Capomorti Fortress. It was the fortress of dead heads. Haruhiro hoped his head wouldn’t end up like that.
Nah, I’ve got nothing to worry about… right?
Haruhiro’s attention went back to the ladder he was carrying under his arm. It was heavy, but more than the weight, the damn thing was just bulky and extremely unwieldy. The square plank that he was going to need to shield him from orc arrows was slung over his back with rope. That thing was bulky and unwieldy too.
Bri suddenly stood up. He glanced at his pocket watch, nodded once, and raised his hand. Haruhiro’s breath caught in his throat. It was about to begin. Bri then lowered his hand with a swift chopping motion.
“Attack!” he commanded.
Battle cries filled the air almost immediately and Haruhiro couldn’t tell whether it was from their regiment or the Wild Eagles.
“Go, go, go! Take out the orc camps!” At Bri’s command, the reservists streamed out of their hiding places behind the debris and charged the camps as ordered.
“C-C’mon! We’re going too…” Haruhiro’s voice came out more high-pitched than intended.
He hoisted the ladder under his arm and followed everyone else from the tail end of the Green Storm Regiment formation.
“O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous,” Mary chanted. “[LIGHT OF PROTECTION]!”
A hexagonal symbol appeared above his left wrist and he suddenly felt his body become lighter. How was everyone else doing? They were all still with him. He wanted to go at a full run, but couldn’t actually do it. The ladder was cumbersome and slowed him down a good deal. Oh, and he was extremely nervous. He had no idea what he was doing. Was Choco still okay? Where was she? Wait, now wasn’t the time to be thinking about that.
Everyone around them was amazing. They were cutting down the orcs manning the camps one after another, burning down the tents using Alev fire magic, and knocking down the lookout posts. Camps were systematically obliterated before his eyes. How far had the front line advanced? Haruhiro couldn’t see them so he had no idea. He didn’t think they had reached the eastern wall yet, but maybe he should pick up the pace in case they had? Not that going faster was possible, though.
“The smoke signal’s been lit!” exclaimed Mary.
Haruhiro turned towards her and saw that she was pointing towards something in the direction of the fortress. A thick column of smoke was billowing from the watchtower that occupied the corner position between the other two. The signal calling for reinforcements. This time though, Steelbone Stronghold was also supposed to be under attack so no reinforcements should arrive.
“There’s smoke comin’ from over yonder too!” Yume cried.
Yume was right. Several pillars of smoke were also rising from a distance in the west. What was that supposed to signify? Maybe it was one of many relay stations along the way to Steelbone. The Stronghold was twenty-five miles away so there was no way they’d be able to see smoke coming from Capomorti directly.
Wait… isn’t that two columns of smoke rising from the relay station? Haruhiro wondered. Suddenly it clicked. Smoke signals weren’t used only by Capomorti; if Steelbone got attacked it would light up a signal too. Both locations were being attacked, so both were trying to communicate to the other. That meant the Capomorti orcs would now know that they couldn’t rely on Steelbone to send reinforcements.
If they thought that reinforcements would come, they would probably attempt to hunker down and hold out until help came. But if they knew they couldn’t expect reinforcements, how would their strategy change? Would they fight desperately to the death, attempting to resist to the end?
Well, Haruhiro figured that the higher-ups would have already considered that possibility. It wasn’t something the rank and file needed to concern themselves over. All they had to worry about was doing the job assigned to them, which meant the ladders.
Once the other reservists had taken care of the camps, they’d run the ladders up the walls. It looked like the majority of the camps in the area had already been destroyed. Choco’s party was behind them and was moving slower than his own team. Yes… we can do this! he thought for a split second before rejecting the notion. Things were never that easy.
He hadn’t even completed the thought when two orcs managed to somehow slip past the other parties and came charging straight at him. No, not at him. They were going for Choco’s party.
“Watch out! Two orcs coming your way!” Haruhiro shouted, trying to give the alarm.
Choco’s party stopped in their tracks—wait, what!? Why were they stopping? It seemed that the members of Choco’s party had no idea either.
“Oy!” one of them shouted.
“Crap!” another said simultaneously.
“The ladders!!” cried a third.
This was bad. Really bad. Everyone in Choco’s party was completely panicked, running around like headless chickens. There was no way they would be able to put together a defense against the attacking orcs.
“We can’t afford to lose half our ladders!” Haruhiro yelled. “We have to help them! Drop your shields and ladders for now and take out the orcs!”
“R-right!” Mogzo placed his ladder on the ground and unstrapped the shield buckled to his back.
Shihoru picked up the shield that Yume dropped and stacked it on top of her own. Mary nodded to Haruhiro and placed the ladder she carried on the ground at her feet.
“We’ll do this without magic for now!” Haruhiro said, sprinting forward.
He decided to test the strength of the orcs first. It was too early to expend magic; they still had a long fight ahead of them… probably. Team Haruhiro slipped neatly between the orcs and Choco’s disarrayed party. Mogzo attacked Orc A straightaway while Ranta set his sights on charging Orc B. The orcs were equipped with scale mail, helms that covered everything but their faces, and durable looking swords. Orc A’s yellow hair spilled out and down from his helm as did Orc B’s red hair. Both of them were green skinned.
Haruhiro winked at Yume then took up position behind Orc B’s back. Orcs were huge, not so much in stature but in bulk. They were taller than Haruhiro and not quite as tall as Mogzo, but their bodies were broad and thick. Two humans side by side could probably fit inside the skin of an orc. All considered, Haruhiro’s impression was that they were probably one size above Mogzo, and Mogzo was about six feet tall. And these orcs were probably just average. No wonder it was said that orcs were the biggest humanoids that occupied Grimgar. And they were as strong as they appeared.
Of course, Ranta was being pushed back by his opponent and using [PROPEL LEAP] repeatedly to retreat. Naturally, the orc gave chase, forcing Yume and Haruhiro to chase after it in turn. They couldn’t get into their respective positions at the flank and back of the orc.
Mogzo was having a tough time too. In fact, he was taking several hits and only his armor was preventing him from being cut down. If armor could be counted as a defensive strategy, then Haruhiro would say that Mogzo and Orc A were about evenly matched with a slight edge going towards the orc. The difference was in the orc’s raw strength and sheer bulk.
Orcs had stronger muscles than humans; it wasn’t just in their arms, it was their legs too. Even if the extra muscle density gave them more weight, they had longer endurance running over distances and they were able to jump higher. And just because they looked big and bulky didn’t mean that they were slow and dumb. Agility was also related to muscle mass, after all. Orcs had wide mouths with tusks sticking out of them and their noses looked like something that got smashed into their faces.
To humans, they were NOT attractive. Actually, they were rather hideous. But they didn’t seem stupid. For example, they possessed enough intelligence to build lookout posts and design tents. The carcasses and animal heads stuck on poles made them look like savages, but they were wily enough to offer the human kingdom real opposition. And it was perfectly possible that they purposely kept their camps looking grisly and barbarous to frighten humans.
Orcs were physically superior compared to humans and intelligence-wise they were probably on par. If so, then in a simple, straightforward fight an orc would probably win against a human.
“Don’t let yourselves be intimidated!” Mary called out. “We can take them if we get used to fighting against them!”
She was right. Or at least Haruhiro couldn’t afford to let himself think otherwise. If he didn’t believe he could win, then he would lose, even when victory was possible.
PART 2 of 2
“Mary’s right!” Haruhiro exclaimed. “We’re just not used to fighting orcs yet, that’s all! Mogzo, you got this! You’re stronger than any orc!”
With a grunt of effort, Mogzo went on the offensive. Or rather, he used the heavy-armor skill [STEEL GUARD]. He purposefully warded off Orc A’s swing with his shoulder pauldron and, while the orc was reeling from the recoil of its own deflected blow, Mogzo returned the attack with his huge meat cleaver sword, The Chopper. The orc managed to block, but Mogzo’s swing was powerful enough to crush through it.
Orc B saw its ally stagger backwards, and its own movements faltered for a split second. In that moment, Haruhiro’s and Ranta’s gazes met.
“No need to tell me!” shouted Ranta.
When Orc B stepped forward this time, Ranta didn’t use [PROPEL LEAP] to retreat. Orc B’s movements were slower, more hesitant than before. With a yell, Ranta leapt forward and met the orc head on. He pressed in against the orc with [EXPEL FRENZY] and then followed with [ANGER THRUST]. To Haruhiro, the combination looked well executed, but the orc managed to twist its body sideways and dodge.
It was a close call though. Probably too close for the orc’s comfort; Ranta’s attack missed it by a hairsbreadth.
“I know!” said Ranta. “I’m invincible!”
“Since when!?” Haruhiro shot back.
Haruhiro was finally in position directly behind the orc. The
failed to appear so he settled for [WIDOW MAKER]. Before Haruhiro could latch onto its back though, the orc sensed the attack coming and avoided it. It was a good thing Haruhiro wasn’t alone.
Yume leapt in with a [SWEEPING SLASH]-[CROSS CUT] combination. The orc deflected Yume’s kukri with a loud clang and moved to counterattack. Yume yelped and quickly rolled away using that pit rat dodging skill of hers. Orc B tried to pursue, but hadn’t gotten the fact that he was up against a team through its thick skull.
Ranta charged in again, longsword raised high, shouting at the top of his lungs. From the way Ranta was moving, it seemed like he intended to tackle the orc. While it was distracted by Ranta, Yume got back on her feet and Haruhiro moved to get behind it again. Orc B was feeling the pressure now and clearly panicking. Another round of attacks… all they needed was another round to bring it down.
Their chance came.
“THANK YOU!” Mogzo sunk his sword into Orc A’s shoulder with [RAGE CLEAVE]. The orc wasn’t down, but it was completely off balance and staggering blindly. It could no longer properly wield its sword. Its defeat was only a matter of time now.
Meanwhile Orc B had become thoroughly confused. Haruhiro was directly behind it, so he couldn’t see its expression but he could tell from its movements. Haruhiro stealthily closed the distance between them and with [BACKSTAB], buried his dagger into it. Even without the
Haruhiro did a decent job of getting his dagger between the scale armor and into the orc’s flesh.
He didn’t think the wound was fatal, but it was enough. Just as Haruhiro jumped back and out of the way, Yume came in and slashed at the orc once, twice, three times. Her kukri was shorter than a longsword, but its blade was broader. Even if it didn’t cut through the orc’s armor, the damage inflicted by the sheer force of the blows was significant. Orc B teetered, on the brink of collapse.
Ranta’s attack came unexpectedly from outside the range of Orc B’s reach and it couldn’t react in time to block. Ranta’s sword slashed into the orc’s shoulder but glanced off its armor. Was that on purpose? Haruhiro wondered when Ranta didn’t try to cut through the sturdy scale armor but smoothly swung his sword around, aiming for the orc’s exposed face. What happened next… No way Ranta had planned it, he just got lucky, right? Ranta’s longsword sliced through the chin strap of the orc’s helm and in the same motion hooked itself under the helm to strip it completely off its head.
“Take that!” Ranta shouted.
Ranta was wearing a darkish bascinet helm and his visor was down so that it covered his face, but Haruhiro could swear that Ranta was sticking his tongue out at the orc right now. He brought his sword up and then cut—actually, it was more like struck—the orc over and over. The orc went down under the rain of blows but Ranta didn’t let up and didn’t stop pounding away at it.
By now, Mogzo had finished off Orc A with [RAGE CLEAVE]. Orc B, too, soon stopped moving. Only then did Ranta finally relent. Choco’s entire team was backing away from them, appalled. This time though, Haruhiro didn’t criticize Ranta for his savagery. It might have been gruesome to watch, but Ranta wasn’t in the wrong here. Cruel as it was, there was no stopping until the enemy was dead.
Living creatures, hung stubbornly on to life. When death came, it came quickly. But while living creatures clung to life, they fought viciously and desperately, attacking and counterattacking through injury and pain.
“Ahahaha!” Ranta laughed. “Got my Vice AND graduated from virginhood! CONGRATS TO ME!”
That was true enough. No one was injured, and Mary and Shihoru hadn’t been forced to use magic either.
“We were amazin’!” Yume jumped with glee.
“Whoa!” Ranta snickered. “For being tiny triple A cups, they sure jiggle hard when you—OW! Quit punching me!”
“Then quit sayin’ things to make Yume punch you!” Yume shot back.
Mogzo pumped his fist into the air and gave everyone a single nod. Shihoru’s response was more muted but even she couldn’t help smiling. Mary looked obviously relieved. Haruhiro, too, felt an inexplicable feeling welling up within him. It started from the tips of his toes and worked its way up from there, filling up his chest and filtering through all the way to the top of his head until he felt himself becoming almost intoxicated by it. It was such a good feeling, he wished that he could lose himself in it for a while.
“That was incredible…” the leader of Choco’s party whispered.
“As expected of veterans,” the oafish Warrior said in a manner that could be taken the wrong way depending on the listener. It seemed devoid of sarcasm to Haruhiro though.
“W-we’re saved,” the Priest sunk to his knees, still looking terrified.
“Whoa…” Choco’s short-haired friend stood shell-shocked.
Choco herself gazed at Haruhiro, mouth slightly agape, astonished expression similar to her friend’s. I could get used to this,Haruhiro thought. Then the tall Warrior went and ruined the mood.
“Whatever,” he shrugged. “Everyone’s killing orcs everywhere. It ain’t no big deal.”
“Hey!” Ranta pointed his bloody longsword in the Warrior’s direction. “Quit being a frickin’ wet blanket when people are trying to feel good about themselves! What are you, Wet Blanket Man!?”
“Am not! What’s a ‘Wet Blanket Man’ supposed to be anyway?” the Warrior retorted.
“How the hell am I supposed to know!?” replied Ranta.
“You’re the one who said it!”
“Shut up! Shut the hell up! Just ‘cause you’re tall doesn’t mean—” Ranta started.
“Ranta, enough!” Haruhiro made his way back to the area where he had dropped his ladder and shield. Now wasn’t the time to bicker with the obviously socially awkward Warrior. “We gotta get the ladders to the wall!”
Haruhiro quickly slung his shield behind his back and tucked his portion of the ladder back under his arm. A few of the other reservists were already at the wall. Team Haruhiro ran as fast as they could and Choco’s party followed slightly behind. All the orc camps they passed had been obliterated, their former occupants now corpses.
Suddenly Haruhiro thought that Yume was shouting something like, “Rows, rows” before he realized that she was actually crying, “Arrows! Arrows!”
Orcs were lined up at the top of the outer wall, bows and arrows at the ready. No, not just at the ready, they were firing them.
“Damn it! Shields! Everyone, get your shields up!” ordered Haruhiro.
Arrows rained from the sky. Haruhiro held his shield up like an umbrella, making it extremely difficult to also carry the ladder. There was no choice but to do it though. Although the number of arrows coming down at them wasn’t overwhelming, they did come. Getting hit by one might mean death.
“Hurry up with the ladders!” the reservists already at the walls shouted angrily at them.
“We’re coming!” Ranta exclaimed, gearing up to charge the wall so he could run his ladder up.
Haruhiro grabbed him before he could take off, saying “We gotta assemble them first!”
“Oh yeah!” Ranta acknowledged.
“Mary, Yume, Shihoru!” Haruhiro called. “Cover us with the shields!”
The three of them locked shields while Haruhiro, Ranta, and Mogzo worked on the ladders under cover. In order to assemble the ladders, they had to stack the overlapping joints together then fasten them into place with nails. Haruhiro’s hands were shaking, unsteady. Every time an arrow thudded into the locked shields, Shihoru gave a small yelp. Haruhiro couldn’t steady his hands enough to hammer the nails in properly.
“Here, let me!” Mogzo was suddenly with him. He took the hammer from Haruhiro’s hands and steadily pounded one nail after the next into place. He tested the connections by pulling then pushing on them then nodded. “Done! Let’s go!”
Both the ladders were now assembled at their full thirteen feet plus length. One person could no longer carry it alone so Haruhiro and Ranta took one while Mogzo and Yume got the other. The orcs were growing desperate. The closer they got to the wall, the heavier the arrows rained, and the harder they hit. Arrows smacked into their shields at an incredible rate.
Isn’t this— Haruhiro thought frantically. We’re being targeted!?
“Crap!” he shouted. “Crap, crap, crap!”
Ranta and Yume, even Mogzo was shouting now.
“Just a little further, we can do this!” someone, Haruhiro wasn’t sure who, encouraged.
Someone else said, “We’re okay! As long as we’ve got the shields, we’re okay!”
Don’t stop. Don’t stop no matter what. If he stopped for even a split second, Haruhiro knew that he wouldn’t be able to continue. They were going to get the ladder to the wall in a single attempt. There wasn’t any choice but to get them there in the first attempt. He charged on, shouting who knows what, feet tumbling and tangling beneath him as he ran as fast as possible. Finally, they set the ladders against the spike-ridden outer wall.
The Green Storm Regiment let out a wild battle cry as one cohesive unit. The air vibrated, the ground shook. It almost sounded like a victory shout and made Haruhiro feel even more elated than when they took down those two orcs. We did it! We succeeded! Look at us, we’re awesome! His head spun from the realization.
“Outta the way!” Renji shoved Haruhiro aside and started climbing the ladder.
He had no shield even though orcs armed with bows above him had him directly in their sights. The crazy brave Renji showed no fear though.
“Renji, stop!” Bri’s voice carried over the chaos of battle. “We’re not in a rush to go over the wall!”
The air vibrated, the ground shook once more. But it wasn’t them this time. Was it coming from the western wall, on the Wild Eagle Regiment’s side of the fortress? No, the voices weren’t human. The orcs were bellowing their own battle cry. Their voices rose as one, shaking heaven and earth. It had to be coming from…
“The main gate!?”