Shihoru was worried.
She'd awoken that morning, stretching the lingering soreness out of her slowly developing muscles, excited. No training today, after all! She and Yume had decided the night before to sleep in a little, planning to awaken to yet another wonderful breakfast courtesy of their fearless leader. She'd had the rest of the day planned out too – she was going to have Yume help her invite Shirou out to the marketplace, after which the huntress had already agreed to find some excuse to slip away and leave the two alone. It would almost be like… a date. Her first date, perhaps? Amnesia was a tricky thing.
Her first clue that something was wrong was the smell, or rather the lack of it. The sun was already full in the sky and shining through her window… She couldn't have missed breakfast, could she? Shirou would have waited for her, or sent someone to wake her, right? Hmm. Perhaps he was planning on a brunch? She could live with that.
She nudged Yume, who awoke with a cute little snort, and hurriedly changed into her mage robes. It was a little unfortunate that her work clothes were also her best clothes, but it was either that or her dull beige sackcloth dress that barely preserved her modesty.
Hurrying downstairs, she was just in time to see Moguzo and Ranta coming through the front gate of the barracks with a basket of groceries. Confused, she scanned the rest of the courtyard for Shirou, but next to the oven where he would normally be standing was only a large plank. She approached it and read the neatly carved message with a rapidly sinking heart.
"So he didn't tell you either, eh?" The boys had come up behind her while she read. Moguzo had already started chopping vegetables, and Ranta was leaning against a pillar with arms crossed, watching her. "Hmph. Guess he doesn't want to spend any more time around us than he has to, after babysitting us all week."
Shihoru said nothing, but her head dipped dejectedly.
"Whatsamatter, huh? Upset 'cause Sempai didn't bother to let you know what he was doing all day? I bet he's out in town somewhere, probably picking up chicks. That's what I'd be doing, if I were him. Pretty slim pickings around here, eh?"
The last bit seemed to be directed at Yume, who had finally made her way downstairs and just finished glancing at Shirou's note. She wrapped her arms protectively around Shihoru from behind and glared at Ranta.
"Don't be mean," Moguzo rumbled. "You're just grumpy because no breakfast was waiting for you when you woke up." Ranta huffed and stalked off to get some water. "Sorry, ladies. It might not be up to our usual standards, but I should have breakfast ready in a few."
"Thanks, Moguzo." That was just about all Shihoru could muster in response. It had been going to be a perfect day – ruined already.
Yume patted her back encouragingly. "Don't you worry about it. I'll be your date instead, alright? We can walk around town and buy some nice food and look for Shirou, it'll be like an adventure! And when we find him it'll prove that Ranta's a stupid meanie-head. And if somehow he's right, we can beat up Shirou together, ok?"
Shihoru couldn't help herself – that mental image made her giggle a little bit. Her, beat up Shirou? There was a better chance of Ranta secretly being a mudgob in disguise.
Haruhiro finally wandered down the stairs, rubbing the omnipresent sleep from his eyes.
The four sat to a breakfast that was, all things considered, very good. Shirou might have had an edge over Moguzo, but it was a slight one.
"You know," Ranta half mumbled between huge mouthfuls of food, "If we ever retire from being soldiers, we could totally start a restaurant, Moguzo. Just you, me, and Shirou. You two could be the chefs, and I could handle the finances!"
Moguzo smiled. "I'd actually like that, Ranta. Good idea."
"Of course it's a good idea! All my ideas are good ones!"
"Have you guys seen Manato?" Yume cut in, having learned from experience that when Ranta started bragging it was a good time to head him off before it got out of control.
Moguzo shook his head. "He never came back last night. Today was our day off, after all, so he didn't have anything to wake up for, and decided to spend the night on the town. I'm sure he'll turn up later."
There was a bit of an uncomfortable silence as everyone spared a thought to their finances, and how rapidly Manato must have been plowing through his.
"Let's try not to worry about things like that on our day off, alright?" Haruhiro hesitantly offered. "We're already way better at fighting than we were a week ago, right? I'm sure Shirou will have us out hunting again soon, and with our new skills we'll be making plenty of money."
There were nods all around.
"Let's just enjoy a peaceful day today."
The small group of four goblins chittered in anger. They were clad in a ramshackle arrangement of various pieces of rusty armor, wielding similarly rusty but no less deadly weaponry. The three in front spread out, menacing their target, while the one behind them took sight with an old crossbow.
With a metallic twang, the bolt was shot forth. The aim was perfect, and the projectile traveled faster than any human could hope to react.
Shirou, regardless, managed. Tilting his head to one side smoothly, the quarrel whistled past his ear. Releasing his own arrow, the crossbow wielding goblin let out a squawk as it fell backwards, dead.
The other three, oblivious to their companion's death behind them, took the archer's release as an opening, and charged in unison.
With reinforced legs, Shirou leapt backwards and away. Before his feet touched ground again, two more arrows had already been projected and loosed, and two more goblins had fallen. It was an old sniper's trick – when taking on multiple targets, killing from the back forwards stopped the foremost enemies from scattering upon seeing their companions fall. The third, which had been closest to him and had not ceased its charge, drew close as he landed and chopped down heavily with an axe resembling a woodcutter's splitting maul. Shirou pivoted neatly out of the way, tapping the side of the axe with the top half of his bow as he did so and exacerbating the goblin's overextension. The axe crashed heavily against the cobbled ground, and before the goblin could even try to pull back for another swing, a projected dagger had already slit its throat.
Shirou paused for a moment in the sudden silence after the fourth body hit the ground, listening for any enemy reinforcements. Satisfied that none were forthcoming, he put down his bow and set about gathering the spoils of war from pouches secreted about the goblins' bodies. Similar skirmishes had made up the majority of his morning as he made his way to the spires, and his own purse was noticeably heavier. The goblins weren't putting up much of a fight, at least compared to his own skill level. He hadn't had any reason yet to project any noble phantasms – on the bright side, that meant his prana reserves were still running strong, but on the other hand it wasn't as if he was gaining much in the way of practice.
He looked up at the tower that he'd finally made it to, and judging it sufficient, entered and began to climb the stairs.
To truly test himself and improve his skills, he would need either an improved quality of enemy, or increased quantity. Something told him that he would outclass even the strongest of goblins in Damuro, so he would have to settle for sheer numbers. For that, of course, he would need some way to attract sufficient attention…
He reached the top rather swiftly, and climbed through a half-ruined ceiling to get to the very top of the spire. Perched like a bird of prey, he held out an empty hand.
There was a crackle of electricity, and for a few moments blue light coalesced around and out from his arm, leaving him holding a weapon more finely crafted than any of the steel blades and arrows he'd used to kill goblins thus far. It was a nameless blade, not a noble phantasm, but it was perfect for his purposes. Enchanted with spells of fire, vibrant blue flames flickered across the exposed steel, but they radiated no heat – instead, the light they produced seemed to spread far further than such a small blaze should produce. It had been designed as an adventurer's weapon, to illuminate dark corridors without the need for a free hand to hold a torch. With another pulse of prana, Shirou altered the sword, stretching the hilt and pommel out until it was several feet in length and as thin as a pencil, and shrinking the blade down to a thick triangle only a couple of inches long. The flames, concentrated down to a much smaller point, made the tip almost blinding to look at directly.
Then, with another influx of mana, the tip suddenly bulged out a bit, and there was a slight cracking sound as Shirou Broke the arrow. An advanced application of reinforcement akin to overfilling a cup to the point that only water pressure kept it from overflowing, by pushing just a bit more mana into an object than it could hold, it could be made unstable. For most weapons, this would be of dubious usefulness – the next blow would certainly shatter the weapon in question, causing a powerful explosion as the prana inside went wild, usually amplifying the magical effects of the weapon if it was enchanted and at the very least sending shrapnel everywhere. In most cases, this would leave the wielder unarmed, and possibly injured, albeit having also just delivered a powerful attack to their enemy. For a magus who could project new weapons at will, however, and who could launch them as projectiles, it was perfect.
With a twang, the arrow-sword was launched straight upwards, leaving a blue streak behind it. It didn't ascend far, no more than a few dozen meters, before it violently exploded. Countless shards were sent flying in all directions, each of them glowing a vibrant cerulean and leaving lingering trails in the air. The overall effect created would not have been out of place in a fireworks show, looking something like a weeping willow's branches highlighting the tower Shirou was stationed in.
Already, Shirou's reinforced ears could hear goblins chirping far below him, and as antlike figures began to emerge from nearby structures and move to investigate, he drew his bow.
Manato woke up with his head pounding. He forced open his eyes and blearily looked around. This wasn't his bed…
He peeled his face off of the slightly sticky wood in front of him, and let out a small groan as he sat up. He was at his usual table in the tavern, and the owner was behind the bar polishing a glass, staring at him with disapproval.
"Finally up, are you? Only reason I didn't throw you out on the streets last night is because you're a regular, and the other patrons seem to like you. Don't let it happen again, alright? Now get out of here so I can clean your table."
Manato complied almost automatically, stiffly getting to his feet and shuffling towards the door. He gave his coin purse a light squeeze as he did so, and frowned slightly upon realization that it was completely empty.
If only that damn Shirou had let them go hunt goblins, he wouldn't be in this mess…
He wondered when he had fallen into the trap of thinking that he needed Shirou's permission to do something. It wasn't as if the other boy outranked him, after all. Besides, he certainly didn't have to ask his permission when he went out drinking, did he? It was a sweet, if small, act of rebellion.
An act that would be coming to an end presently, if he couldn't find some cash quickly.
He leaned against a nearby wall, holding his head and trying to think through his hangover. What were his options?
As far as he knew, there was no way he could take out any loans from Yorozu's bank. He was well liked at the tavern, and some of the other regulars would certainly buy him a few drinks in return for his previous generosity, but that only solved the problem of drink, not of food.
The answer, he realized, was obvious. He'd even already thought about it, in fact. Today was nominally a rest day, according to their self-appointed leader, but that just meant that while Shirou was off doing whatever it was he wanted to, Manato and the others could do the same, so why not go hunting?
Before he knew it, he was already outside the barracks. He took a moment outside the gate to brush himself down and straighten his robe. Having a purpose clear in mind was already helping to clear up his headache, and he'd always been good at acting less hungover than he actually was.
He walked in naturally, closing the gate behind him. Yume and Haruhiro were clearing up the dishes from what appeared to be a late breakfast, or perhaps a brunch, while the other three sat talking at the dining table. Manato was relieved to see that Shirou wasn't present, as it would make convincing the rest of his companions much easier if he could speak openly here instead of trying to find some pretense to get them in private.
Ranta swiveled his head from where he was sprawled lazily on one of the benches. "Yo, Manato. You didn't happen to see Shirou on your way back in from town, did you? He ditched us all this morning and got lover-girl here all in a funk."
Manato ignored Shihoru's stuttered protestations and shook his head. "I didn't, no, but actually there's something I wanted to talk to you all about anyways that would be better said without him present."
Ranta raised one eyebrow at that, as Manato pulled up a nearby stool and sat at the head of the table. Sensing the seriousness of Manato's tone, the two dishwashers quickly finished up what they were doing and sat down with the others.
Manato inwardly grimaced as he took in the varying levels of apprehension on everyone else's faces. He'd already known most of them were pretty pro-Shirou, but if even the mention of a discussion without him set them on edge, they might be more brainwashed than he'd thought.
"Quite frankly," he began slowly, "I don't think he's doing a very good job as a leader."
He held up one hand to forestall the protestations that were already forthcoming, especially from Shihoru and Haruhiro. "Wait, hear me out first. I'm not saying he's not a skilled fighter – he's proven that enough times. It's just that he doesn't seem to have any idea how to manage a group like this. All this training, it's not how things are supposed to go. Our time in the guilds was for training, and now we're supposed to use the skills that we paid for in time and money out in the real world!"
Moguzo looked uncomfortable. "I understand where you're coming from, Manato, but we tried that at first, remember? In the last fight we had, if Shirou hadn't been there…"
Manato waved a hand as if to swat away Moguzo's protestation. "One mistake, and we learned from it, right? It won't happen again." Sensing that another rebuttal was on its way, he quickly played one of the cards that he'd been saving for this argument. "Listen, you all remember Renji, right?"
There were hesitant nods all around.
"His party is already so far ahead of us it's not even funny. Just the other day, I saw them at the tavern, each and every one of them wearing brand new armor and weapons. Do you think they made that kind of money just sitting around and training? Look at yourselves! Aren't you tired of only having one pair of clothes?"
It seemed as if he was getting through to them a bit, or at least he was being forceful enough in his argument that they were reluctant to directly oppose him. Oh well, if none of them were very strong willed, it would make his job easier.
Haruhiro was the first to respond. "What do you expect us to do, Manato? Shirou was pretty adamant that we weren't ready yet, and I'm more inclined to believe him than not. And even if I did agree with you, it's not like we can just go out and make the money ourselves."
Perfect. One of them had suggested it, which would make the idea seem more reasonable than if he'd had to bring it up himself. He raised his own eyebrows, as if the thought had only just occurred to him. "That's it, Haruhiro. That's the perfect solution – today, we can go out as a group and kill a few goblins. Not only will we earn some money, which I know you all are running low on, but it'll also prove to Shirou that we've learned enough to be trusted to go hunting again!"
Manato focused his gaze on Ranta for a moment as he finished his proposal, sending the smaller boy a look that seemed to convey "I believe in you, you are strong." He knew that all he had to do was knock over one domino, and Ranta was by far the most predictable…
The hothead didn't disappoint. He stood up from the bench excitedly, and proclaimed, "Manato is right! We've been training for like a whole week already, which is way more than Renji's group has, I'm sure! In fact, this is probably a test from Shirou to see if we're ready, and we have to take the initiative!"
Wow. That was almost too easy.
"It's only been three days, Ranta," Haruhiro said blandly.
"Yeah, sure, but it feels like a week! I'm way better than I was last time I saw a goblin – the next one I see will learn to fear the power of the Dread Knights!"
"Hmmm…." Moguzo let out a low rumble. Manato knew he was close with Ranta, which likely meant that he would go along as well… "I could use some money… Warrior equipment isn't cheap, and I feel like I could better protect you all if I had at least a helmet… and Shirou didn't say we shouldn't go out and hunt today… a couple goblins couldn't hurt."
"Maybe not explicitly," Haruhiro responded, "but have you already forgotten the way he looked at us when he saved us from those goblins? I don't think—"
"Well, I'm going," Manato said, exuding confidence. "And Ranta and Moguzo are coming with me." He looked at the other boys, having made their decisions for them, and was met with an enthusiastic nod from Ranta and a more delayed one from Moguzo. "That's half of us already, and you wouldn't let us go without you, would you? I'd feel a lot safer if you three were with us."
He could see the conflict in their minds as clear as if they were saying it out loud. Come on, just one more…
"…Fine. If we can't change your minds, then just because I don't want to have to explain to Shirou that you three ran off and got yourselves killed while he was away," the Huntress said with a sigh.
Haruhiro looked defeated. "Well, if the majority is going… I can't very well refuse. And I could use a bit more money…"
Manato finally turned his eyes to Shihoru, who looked terrified. Whether that was at the thought of going out and fighting again, or at being potentially left behind, he wasn't sure, but either way he gave her an encouraging smile. He was met with a sharp nod in response.
"That settles it, then!" Manato clapped his hands together and stood up. "Today, we prove that we're soldiers!"
The ground below was covered in corpses.
The goblins had come en masse to investigate whatever it was that had caused the fireworks – nearly two hundred of them. Almost enthralled by the light, they had stood and watched until the last of the blazing trails had finally faded away while Shirou waited and watched. Finally, after the lights were no longer visible, there had been a mad scramble to get inside the tower and climb to the top and see whatever had created such a wondrous display– but with only one entrance, it was slow going. Shirou estimated that it would take the smaller humanoids around five minutes to climb to the top of the tower if they hurried, so he had waited for two, by which time nearly half of those who had assembled had managed to squeeze their way inside.
Then, he rained death from above.
To save time, he had projected several quivers of arrows in front of himself. As a result of his height and distance, he didn't have to fully draw his bow; gravity would do most of the work. He moved like a machine, grabbing a handful of arrows out of a quiver at a time with his draw hand, it was the work of an instant to nock, half-draw, aim, release, repeat. Including the time spent "reloading" the cluster of arrows held from the quivers in front of him, he averaged two shots per second.
Naturally, each and every one was lethal.
As he had before, he started from the back, targeting the goblins that were furthest away from the tower. By the time any of them noticed the deadly rain, dozens had already been slain. There was panic, then; with the throng around the entrance to the tower still thick, many goblins tried to flee, but they were rapidly picked off before they had a chance to reach any of the nearby buildings. Seeing this, the majority of those remaining went for closer shelter instead and redoubled their efforts to enter the tower. After picking off the few stragglers still trying to escape, Shirou simply sent arrow after arrow down into the teeming mass of goblin flesh stampeding the door – several were crushed by their own kind in their haste.
Finally, the last goblin still outside fell still. In under a minute, around one hundred goblins had been killed.
Shirou took a deep breath in, and held his hand over the edge of the tower, projecting another sword. He didn't close his hand around the hilt, simply letting it fall to the ground many meters below where it sank into the cobblestone with a heavy crunch just in front of the tower's door.
The sword in question was around ten meters tall, and made of solid bronze. Despite its weathered appearance, it was actually one of the more modern pieces found in Unlimited Blade Works, having been created on earth in 1983 as a part of a monument in Norway, Sverd I Fjell. It made for a rather solid door-blocker.
He turned away from the edge and jumped back down through the hole in the roof, taking up a position near the top of the staircase that spiraled around the walls of the tower. Readying once more his bow, he didn't have to wait long before the first group of goblins entered his view, chittering in excitement as they took in the sight of a single human with no armor and having no idea of what had befallen those behind them.
Rather than draw from quivers as he had before, Shirou projected a handful of arrows at a time. It was slightly less efficient in terms of prana, but it was better than quivers when it came to moving and firing at the same time.
He sniped the first four goblins when they were on the opposite wall from him. Two fell over the side of the staircase, plummeting down to the bottom floor, but the other two corpses rolled back down the stairs the way they had come, impeding the movements of those behind. At that, Shirou began to walk down the stairs slowly, projecting and firing more arrows as he went. The more that fell, the more the momentum of the goblin horde slowed, and then it began to reverse as falling bodies started to push the living back and the smarter individuals tried to turn around and run the other way. By the time Shirou reached the point on the stairs that the first of his victims had settled, a full retreat was underway – a retreat that ended in disarray when they realized that try as they might, they could not budge open the only door more than a few inches, as there was something unbelievably heavy and sturdy blocking it from the other side.
From that point, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
. . .
All in all, recovering the valuables from the many, many bodies took far more time than the killing of them had. He projected a backpack to hold his spoils, with one smaller compartment that he filled with what coins he salvaged, mostly coppers but with a healthy smattering of silvers as well. The main pouch of the pack was filled nearly halfway with various baubles ranging from damaged coins to glass marbles to animal fangs and everything in between.
By the time he returned to town, it was around two in the afternoon. His first stop was at Yorozu's bank, where he deposited the liquid assets of his foray first. The perspicacious girl gave him an odd look as he poured out all the coins onto her table, but professionalism took over nearly immediately and she informed him that he had collected nearly sixty silvers worth of total value. He chose to deposit twenty-eight and the remaining change, and exchange the rest for an even thirty silvers that he would distribute to his party members, reasoning that the sum should assuage their monetary fears for the time being. Rather than glut the market with an influx of goblin trinkets all at once, and entrusting the diminutive banker to secrecy, he chose to deposit the rest of his loot as well after she informed him that the bank was perfectly willing to store physical items for only a fraction of their total cost as a fee.
This time, as he poured out the rest of his spoils, her shock was unmistakable.
Looking at him with wide eyes, she asked him, "Where did you… I've never seen such a large collection of such inexpensive trinkets. You're a first timer here at Yorozu's, and I wonder, how could someone have spent the time to hunt so many goblins without ever using our services? Nearly every Crimson Moon member has an account at Yorozu's. Have you been carrying these around with you all this time?"
Shirou looked a little sheepish at that. "Ah, no. I'm actually a rather new member of Crimson Moon, it's just that, the circumstances for hunting recently were… ideal." He'd never been a very good liar, or even good at twisting the truth, but he did his best. "I—we used a pretty clever trap, and were able to kill quite a few of them in a rather short time. I suppose they must have been carrying an unusual amount of loot, so lucky us again, right? Anyways, this is all that we've made in the past four days, so…" He let out a nervous chuckle.
Yorozu still looked a little suspicious, but in the end she accepted his statement at face value. "I see. Well, according to current market prices, the total amount you have here comes out to one gold, thirty-four silvers, and twenty coppers. We charge a two-percent fee for the deposit of goods, so for us to hold all this for you will cost you two silver and sixty-eight-point-four coppers. Will that be all today?"
Thanking her for her help, he finally returned to the barracks. They were empty – well, it was to be expected, really, that everyone else would be enjoying their day off in town.
It was just, something felt off. He hadn't seen any hint of them when he'd walked through the fairly busy market, but they could have been inside any number of buildings…
Then he realized why he was uneasy. Moguzo's sword, which was taller than Ranta, was too cumbersome to be stored in the tiny barracks rooms, and since they were the only ones staying at the trainee barracks, the giant boy had a habit of leaving it out on one of the weapon racks flanking the courtyard where they did most of their training – and it was missing.
And it was certainly too cumbersome to bring into town for a day of fun and relaxation.
He hurried upstairs, and ducked into his own room to confirm his suspicions. Manato's staff was likewise gone, as was Moguzo's armor and Ranta's sword when he burst into their room next. He hesitated only briefly to knock on the door to the girls' room, but when there was no answer he entered there as well as his heart sank even further. Shihoru's staff and Yume's bow were nowhere to be seen.
He then spared a thought to what would be the likely aftermath of his actions today in Damuro. Due to the massacre in the city, it was possible, if not probable, if not certain that goblins would avoid the scene of his slaughter like the plague. They would flee the area, rushing into zones that would have otherwise been considered fairly safe, like the forest, or the ruined "Old City." In other words, the places his companions were most likely to go if they were doing what he thought they were.
Without a second thought, he took off running for the town's gates once more.