LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
South of Altana lay a series of tall, precipitous mountains known as the Tenryuu Mountain Range. The Tenryuu Mountains divided the Grimgal continent into two parts. The southern part was considered the mainland while the northern area, including Altana, was known as the frontier.
Or at least “frontier” was what the humans called it. The main continent, Altana, and the frontier territories, north of the Tenryuu Mountains, were in the possession of the human Aravakia Kingdom. However, until about one hundred fifty years ago, the frontier hadn’t been a frontier at all. In the past, there existed several human kingdoms, and humans were the predominant race of Grimgal.
However, everything had changed with the arrival of the fearsome, demonic-magic wielding Deathless King. He did not just possess military and magical might, but was a skilled politician as well. The Deathless King brought forth a new race of undead and, as their leader, did more than merely conquer. He convinced the leaders of other races to acknowledge his authority, formed a confederation of kings with them, and subsequently went to war with the human kingdoms. The humans were easily defeated and forced to flee south of the Tenryuu Mountains.
Afterwards, the Deathless King was nominated by his fellow kings to become the emperor and thus the Undying Empire was born. Until the death of the Deathless King about one hundred years ago, humans were largely unable to set foot north of the Tenryuu Mountains, but with the loss of his unifying leadership the Undying Empire fell apart. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the Aravakia Kingdom established Altana as their stronghold in the north and so it has remained to this day.
And of course, all of this information had been obtained by Manato.
The lands across the Tenryuu Mountains south of Altana were mostly used for farming or raising cattle, with villages dotting the landscape. To the north were open fields and forests.
“And around here,” Yume said, brushing her hands across the tall grass as she explained, “there’s deer and foxes and other animals~yan. And because it’s springtime now, bears appear once in a while. Then there’s Chimos; small, fluffy, round animals with beady eyes, long, thin tails, tiny ears, hands, and feet that hop around. They’re pretty good little guys. Then there’s the savage pit rats, big as cats with super hard fur.”
“Really?” Ranta formed a visor with his hands and looked around. “‘Cause I don’t see squat.”
“Err…” Yume frowned. “But when Yume ventured outdoors with Yume’s Guild Master during training, he’d use his bow and arrow to bag game for us.”
“Maybe they’re all just hiding,” Manato said, as he pointed to a forested area to everyone’s right. “In the wooded areas.”
Haruhiro nodded. “You might be right. If I were a wild animal, I wouldn’t feel really safe out in the open where there’s no trees or brush to hide in.”
Ranta snorted derisively. “See? They all know to fear me.”
“So if we can’t find any game, it’s your fault.”
“Shut it, Haruhiro! It’s THANKS to me! It’s all in gracious indebtedness to me!”
“You shut it. Even if there were any game around, yelling like that will scare them off.”
“AND IT’S ALL THANKS TO MY GODLY SELF.”
“It’s no use, the kid’s clueless…”
“Um.” It was the first time in a while that Shihoru, who had been silent throughout the entire exchange, had spoken. “Are we going to be… killing animals?”
Everyone suddenly stopped in their tracks.
Come to think of it, a reserve force soldier’s job was to defend against hostile races and fight monsters. Nothing in the job description said anything about hunting animals and selling the meat or pelts.
“Yume’s Guild Master taught her the importance of giving thanks to the animals whose lives are taken.” Yume frowned. “But Yume likes animals and doesn’t want to kill them. They’re so cute and it’s just sad to kill them…”
Ranta scoffed disdainfully. “Save that sorta touchy-feely kindness for someone else, Princess. All living things eventually die and are embraced by Skulheill. I’ve got no sympathy for things I kill in order for me to live.”
“In that case, then.” Yume suddenly nocked and drew an arrow, pointing its tip directly at Ranta. “It would be okay if Yume killed Ranta so that Yume can live.”
Ranta sprung back. “I-i-idiot! Don’t say stupid things like that, flat-chested girl! Are you serious?! Quit it already! What would you gain by killing me?!”
“Yume will feel good afterwards. You also called Yume flat-chested.”
“Y-you said it yourself first! ‘Yume’s chest is flat’.”
“Even if Yume did, it doesn’t mean she wants it to be said by someone else. Especially by a boy; it hurts Yume’s feelings.”
“S-sorry! I’m sorry!” Ranta hopped forward and prostrated himself on the ground. “See, I’m apologizing! My bad! Please forgive me! Yume isn’t flat! Your boobs are big! Large! Gigantic! HUMONGOUS!”
“Ranta.” More than looking down to him, Haruhiro was looking down on him. “You’re not really sorry at all, are you?”
“How would you know?! How can you tell?! How am I not sorry? Where’s your proof!”
Yume sighed, then lowered her bow and put the arrow back in the quiver. “…Not worth wasting an arrow.”
Ranta exhaled in relief and stood up, wiping the sweat off his brows. “Anyway, you would have missed even if you tried to shoot me. But I was apologizing just in case, you know… Hey! Yume, quit that! Don’t draw that kukri! It was a joke! It’ll be painful to get cut by that! You’ll kill me! I’ll seriously die!”
“No different than killing a wild animal, I’m sure,” Manato said with a wry smile. “Though I can’t be sure, I heard that we don’t have to venture too far from Altana to find mud goblins, ghouls, and the like. Creatures that even trainees can probably handle.”
“Goblins and ghouls.” Haruhiro tilted his head to one side. He had the feeling he had heard of those before. Maybe it was just his imagination, but he visualized them as sort of humanoid creatures.
“So that means…” Shihoru began in a voice that was quite strong, considering the way she usually spoke. “We’re going to search for these mud robins and cools.”
“Mud goblins and ghouls,” Haruhiro corrected mildly, slipping into the part of the straight man again.
Shihoru’s face turned a bright red and she shrunk back.
“Whatever, that’s fine with me,” Ranta agreed frivolously.
“It’s better than killing animals,” Yume said happily.
Mogzo nodded with a grunt.
“Then let’s head towards the forest,” Manato said.
With Manato, the Priest, leading the way, Haruhiro and the others headed toward the nearby woods.
The forest was an actual forest, untamed and unforgiving. Unfamiliar broad-leafed trees and the thick foliage underfoot made it impossible to make out any animal trails. The ground ranged from hard as rock to somewhat soft to downright squishy. It was difficult to find footing, which made walking very difficult.
The rustling of leaves when the wind blew and the singing of birds echoed all around.
“Mud puddings and mools,” Yume muttered softly. “Maybe they frequent watering holes.”
Haruhiro fulfilled his role, ever the straight man. “Mud goblins and ghouls,” he corrected. “You mean like a spring or stream? Or maybe a swampy area?”
“Let’s try finding something like that then,” Manato said.
Manato had naturally taken the initiative, but considering that this was a forest, it should have been more Yume’s area of expertise. She should have been the one in the lead. But whatever. It was fine this way too.
The problem was they couldn’t find any places with water. All the living creatures they’d encountered so far were insects. The sound of birds surrounded them, but not a single one could be seen.
Ranta gulped in an overly exaggerated fashion. “This is like… The Forest of Death.”
“And it’s no doubt all Ranta’s fault,” Yume puffed out her cheeks and stared at Ranta. It seemed like she hated Ranta now for calling her flat-chested. “It’s because Ranta’s being so painful to their ears, all the animals have fled~yan.”
“I’m being quiet! I haven’t said a word this entire time!” Ranta protested.
“Just the fact that you’re here, your very existence is a pain in the neck.”
“Thanks for the compliment! And just the fact that you’re there makes you flat!”
Yume scowled, furious.
“Er—sorry. That was my bad. Just a slip of the tongue, speaking the truth. I—” Ranta suddenly jumped up into the air. “What the! What the hell—!”
Haruhiro blinked several times. Ranta was lifting his feet up and down like he was dancing. There was something clinging to his leg, scratching and tearing at it. It was big as a cat and covered with needle-like fur.
“A pit rat,” Yume said. She started glancing around the area. “They’re supposed to attack in packs. There’s probably more around him.”
Shihoru let out a yelp and tried to turn and run, only to slam into Mogzo.
“Quick!” Manato brought up his short staff. “There’s more!”
“What?!” Ranta danced backwards. “Help me guys! Your first priority is to save me! Help! Someone help me!”
“Fight, Dread Knight!” Haruhiro drew his dagger.
The pit rats were swarming on the ground around them at amazing speeds. Haruhiro had no idea how many. The fighting techniques he had learned from the Thieves Guild were geared towards human or things that resembled human opponents. He couldn’t even begin to guess what to do in a case like this, so he took aim and sporadically stabbed at them with his dagger.
He didn’t even come close to even scratching any of them. As expected. “They’re too fast!”
Mogzo gripped his bastard sword with both hands, lifted it overhead with a grunt, and with a yell slashed downwards… Right at Ranta. Ranta spung away with a yelp and Mogzo’s blade hit the ground where Ranta had been standing just a split second earlier. Dirt flew where the bastard sword had hit hard enough to split open the earth.
“Mogzo, you bastard! Are you trying to kill me?!” Ranta had finally drawn his longsword. But that was all he did with it, because as expected, he ran. “Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! I almost got killed by my own teammate! And he’s going to come after me again! Screw this!”
“Mogzo was trying to save your ass! You should be thanking him!” Haruhiro was getting nowhere with the dagger, so he attempted kicking the pit rats instead. They dodged him with ease.
“He didn’t save me at all!” Ranta swung his longsword with a yell. “[HATRED’S CUT]! My Dread Knight skill! I can’t hit them at all!”
“Quit wasting your techniques’ uses!” Haruhiro chose one pit rat and focused on chasing after it. It ran and disappeared behind a tree. “Argh!” He grunted in frustration.
“Malik em paluk.” Shihoru was drawing an elemental glyph with the tip of her staff as she spoke the incantation.
It was the [MAGIC MISSILE] spell. A ball of light about the size of a fist burst from the end of her staff… And hit Ranta squarely in the back of his head.
“Huh?” Shihoru opened her eyes. It seemed like she had fired off the spell with her eyes closed and had guessed the wrong target. “S-sorry! I—”
“BITCH! I’ll kill you! Or rather, I’ll make you let me touch your BOOBS!” Rubbing the back of his head, he started chasing after Shihoru.
Without hesitation, Manato stuck his staff out at Ranta’s feet. Ranta’s foot caught and he tripped with an grunt.
“What’re you doing!?” Manato said, berating Ranta and striking out at a pit rat at the same time.
As far as Haruhiro could tell, Manato was handling the short staff with a good amount of skill, but still it wasn’t enough to actually land any blows.
“Just a little!” Yume was swinging her kukri around wildly. Maybe that was why she couldn’t get close enough to a pit rat to actually hit it. “Yume’s Guild Master told her that because they’re just animals, we just need to hit them a little they’ll run away! Everyone hang in there!”
Mogzo swung his bastard sword and it hit the trunk of a tree. The force of the blow caused leaves and insects to rain down directly onto his head. Mogzo, now covered in bugs and leaves, howled.
“At this rate…” Haruhiro gathered up his resolve and crouched low, one knee on the ground.
Without running, without moving, he waited for a pit rat to approach him. There. Directly in front of him. A pit rat. It was headed towards him. Haruhiro thrust out his left arm. Come. Take a bite. I dare you. It was no larger than the size of a cat but he was exceedingly scared of it. It was fast. This was bad. But he waited, staying absolutely still.
Crippling pain suddenly shot through his leg, making him cry out.
Another pit rat had approached from behind and was biting down into right calf. He was just about to try to stab it when the pit rat in front of him clamped it’s teeth onto his left arm. “Ahh!”
“Haruhiro! Don’t move!” Manato ran to his side. He swung his staff down in a swift motion.
There was low thud sound and Haruhiro immediately felt the release of pressure on right leg and left arm. The pit rats were running away at amazing speeds. And even while Haruhiro was gawking at the other rats, the pit rat that Manato had struck had disappeared.
“Are you okay, Haruhiro?” Manato was on one knee by Haruhiro’s side, examining his wounds.
“Yeah. I’m fine…” Rolling up his pant leg and the sleeve of his shirt revealed a series of small holes in his flesh; teeth marks from the pit rats, and blood was running from them. The injuries were hardly serious, but they still hurt.
“Let me heal you.” Manato placed his right hand on Haruhiro’s forehead with his middle finger resting his between the eyebrows. His fingers formed a pentagram. “O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [CURE].”
A warm light shot out from Manato’s palm and as it flickered, Haruhiro’s wounds began to close. Three seconds for his right leg, another three seconds for his left arm, and it was done.
“Wow.” Haruhiro touched the areas were the pit rats had bitten him. Blood was still present, but they neither hurt nor itched. And there was no trace of any sort of wound. “Thanks, Manato. And you were the one who chased them off too…”
“Only because you used yourself as bait,” Manato replied.
“I was just intending to use my arm. I figured I could handle it alone…”
“Everything turned out okay. It doesn’t matter who did what.”
“Everything’s NOT okay!” Ranta was sitting on the ground, knees drawn up and stamping both feet on the floor like a spoiled only child. “How is everything okay? We suddenly go attacked by some weird things! Even if we chased them off, we didn’t get a single cent out of it. And look! I’m injured too! Heal me now!”
“Ah, sorry,” Manato said, hurrying to Ranta’s side.
“Why does he need to apologize to Ranta?” Haruhiro muttered under his breath, looking around.
Mogzo was sitting too, perhaps tired out from swinging around his bastard sword so much. Shihoru was doing her best to hide herself behind a large tree, maybe in response to misfiring her spell. Yume was the only one who seemed to be in high spirits, glancing around here and there. Haruhiro met her gaze and she flashed him a grin.
He returned her smile without thinking, even though this wasn’t exactly a good time for the both of them to be smiling at each other. Or maybe it was. He didn’t know.
“…Ranta’s right that we didn’t earn a single cent, even if we did drive them off,” Haruhiro sighed. “Maybe we’re still not skilled enough to be wandering around in this forest.”
“Alright! Good to go again!” Having been healed, Ranta jumped up again and swung his arm around. “Okay! Everyone follow me!”
Mogzo blinked. “G-go? W-where?”
“Idiot! We all said that we’d search for mud goblins, right? Tell me you’re joking if you just want to stop at whatever those pit things were or whatever! We’re not going to back off just because of that!”
“He’s right,” Manato nodded, seemingly deep in thought. “It’s exactly like Ranta said. It’s risky, sure, but pit rats are carnivores, right?”
“They might be omnivores,” Yume replied. “But when they’re in packs like that, they’ve been known to attack humans.”
“Well, it’s true that they did attack us,” Haruhiro said.
“So they eat almost anything.” Manato’s eyes narrowed and he stroked his chin. “If there are animals that hunt for food living here, then that means other game must be around too.”
“Of course there are,” Ranta scoffed. “You figured that out just now? I’ve known it since a while back. If there are animals that hunt for food present here, then that means other game must be around too.”
Haruhito glanced sidelong at Ranta. “You’re just repeating what Manato said.”
“Shut up, Sleepy-Eyes! Go take a nap, little boy, if you’re so sleepy!”
“I told you before! This is the way I’ve looked since I was born! It doesn’t mean I’m sleepy!”
“Haruhiro,” Manato cut in with a grin. “Most of the time, it’s best just to ignore what Ranta says.”
“Hey!” Ranta thrust a finger at Manato. “Don’t say mean stuff like that! Where you just playing Mr. Nice Guy this entire time, you black-bellied traitor!?”
“Who knows?” Manato replied with a sigh, declining to take the bait. “In the meantime, if no one is against it, why don’t we explore a little more here?”
No one was against it, so taking care to keep an eye out for more pit rats, they ventured further into the forest. There, they meandered until the sun started to set, with the only other game they found being a single deer. Yume attempted to shoot it but missed, and it ran off.
They also caught sight of birds on several occasions and were attacked again by pit rats, but were able to fend them off. And that was about it.
It wasn’t funny to even joke about hanging around after dark, so Haruhiro and the others left the forest with heavy strides.
“What are we gonna do?” Ranta groaned. For once, he was hardly his energetic self.
“We don’t do anything,” Haruhiro sighed in reply. Inwardly however, he was starting to feel a sense of desperation. It felt like something inside him was about to snap. “We go back. To Altana.”
“This is like something out of the tale of ‘The Wearisome Adventures of Working Boy’,” Yume whispered.
Haruhiro again playing the part of the straight man whispered back, “Who’s that?” He had a feeling there were four ‘working boys’ here and couldn’t suppress yet another sigh.
“B-but,” Shihoru began to say, hanging her head as if she was void of all energy. “Nevermind. It’s nothing.”
Someone’s stomach rumbled. Mogzo. “I’m hungry…”
“When we get back,” Manato said, looking at everyone in turn. “Let’s stop by the marketplace and get dinner. Afterwards, I know a cheap place where we can stay for the night. Near Nishimachi, there’s lodging for reserve force soldiers. Full-fledged soldiers can show their Crimson Moon contracts to stay for free, but trainees have to pay. It’s cheap though. One room for boys and one room for girls costs twenty capas total.”
Ranta scoffed. “We didn’t earn a single capa today. We should just camp outdoors.”
“No, that’s better saved as a last resort,” Manato said bluntly. “They’re shared facilities, but the lodging also provides bathrooms and baths. Having them and not having them makes a huge difference… especially for the ladies.”
Shihoru renewed her grip on her staff and nodded silently several times.
“That’s true,” Yume also agreed.
“Bathtubs and toilets aren’t life and death,” Ranta muttered.
However, Haruhiro got the feeling that Ranta would be the one complaining the loudest if they had decided to make do without such conveniences.
“I agree with Manato,” Haruhiro said, raising his hand. Shihoru, Yume, then Mogzo also raised their hands as well.
Ranta clicked his tongue at all of them, tut-tut, but didn’t protest any further. And with that, without bagging any game whatsoever, their first day of actually working as reserve force soldier trainees came to a quiet end.