Touma Kamijou and the Goblet of Grimgar 01
He was dreaming. It was the only explanation why the air pressure in his lungs hadn't exploded or why his body didn't get burned from cosmic radiation. He was in a cloud of colors in the vast emptiness of space. Stars glimmered and shined light years away. He was floating, he realized. Or drowning, rather, when a hole cracked into space and sucked the clouds, the dust particles, and his body into the Einstein rosen bridge. It was all so hazy, like a dream. He knew, instinctively, nothing bad would happen to him. He would forget it all once he opened his eyes and travel beyond the wormhole into the great unknown.
A familiar voice called out to him in the vacuum, one he categorized as both friend and foe.
"This is strange." Othinus tapped her head. "I can't seem to remember how we got here."
The petite blonde girl looked at Touma. Her green eye immediately glimmered with joy. She had an eyepatch covering the right side of her face, a witch hat, a cape, a short red dress. The hem barely covered the tip of her thigh and led down her lovely legs to black high heel shoes.
"What are you looking at?" she cheekily asked Touma.
He shook his head and looked away, ignoring the blush on his face. "Nothing."
"So it's like amnesia?" Accelerator asked. The albino clicked his tongue and scowled. It was a default expression, Touma intrinsically knew. Accelerator wore a white long sleeved shirt, denim pants and Converse shoes. He tapped the black choker on his neck in irritation.
"Ah shit. Why'd I have to be stuck with you?" Mikoto glared at Accelerator. The feeling was mutual. Touma knew the brown haired girl and the white haired boy did not get along. He didn't know how he knew, only that he knew. Again, instinct. Mikoto pushed her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear, pouted and buried her hands in her yellow jacket. She wore white shorts and tennis shoes. Ill-fitted in the dreary location they found themselves in.
More and more people spoke each other's names. Touma stood beside one of those people he instinctively knew. Index. A girl with long silver hair, milky white skin, and innocent green eyes. She wore a sundress and white rubber shoes. He wore a blue jacket, a white shirt, black pants and similar shoes. Index rubbed her shoulder and shivered. Touma removed his jacket and covered Index's back. She smiled cutely and thanked him.
"Ugh." Mikoto rolled her eyes. "What are you. Her boyfriend?"
"Just helping a pal out," Touma said with a nervous laugh.
"I won't mind if you helped me out," Othinus purred and traced her finger up her thigh. Touma gulped. He knew if they were alone he would happily flirt back, but not in front of everyone else.
"Strange how we all sort of know each other," Motoharu said. He had brown hair dyed blond, brown eyes under his sunglasses, and a black jacket, pants and boots. His arm was hooked around the shoulder of a black haired girl dressed like a maid. Maika, his mind told him. She looked scared, and he looked protective. They didn't question the emotional connection they seemingly had. Touma knew as well as Motoharu it was right.
"Where was all the light coming from?" Touma asked. The room was unnaturally bright. The light source was the ceiling glowing yellow-white.
"It's me," Othinus said, creating an orb of light from her hand. She bounced it like a ball. "My power's back, even though I don't know how I lost it. For some reason I think it has something to do with you though." She poked his chest.
"Sorry?" Touma apologized, not quite sure what for. The wall was made of rocks. Likewise with the floor. There was a pathway and he took it, followed by all the others. Candles were affixed to the wall, but overshadowed by the light Othinus created.
They stopped in front of an iron gate. Touma glanced at Accelerator. He nodded and flipped a switch on his collar and kicked the iron gate like it was made of paper. It flied, breaking parts of the entryway made of rocks as it slammed against the opposite wall across the hall.
"What is this byplay?" Touma asked and tapped his chin. Accelerator shrugged. He didn't know either. They found the entryway leading into stone stairs. Again, Touma led the way, Accelerator and Othinus on either side behind him. A bored expression was on Accelerator's face. A cat-like playful smile on Othinus. He knew with those two they were unstoppable.
But how did he know?
They found another gate. Accelerator inserted his fingers on the space between the gate and slid it sideways, ripping it apart. Metal distorted and flew. It led to a stone room. There weren't any windows. But Accelerator could simply kick the wall open and Othinus could create a bridge of light for the group to exit. Touma knew their abilities, and it disturbed him how much he knew.
An armored man gaped at them.
Touma tilted his head. "Who are you?"
"H-how did you do that?"
"Ignore it," a busty blonde girl cheerily said. Her star-like eyes shined. The man sagged like a zombie.
"Misaki?" Touma raised a brow.
She winked. She wore a white hoodie, yellow skirt, stockings, and shoes similar to Mikoto's. Tennis shoes... He wondered if they were playing tennis before they got here. Another strange term. How did he know tennis but not his own past?
There are two types of memories, semantic and episodic. Semantic memories dealt with knowledge independent of context like mathematics and science. Episodic dealt with information pertaining specific time and place. Touma was startled by the sudden trivia popping into his brain but shrugged. It was normal, he guessed.
He tousled Misaki's head, finding it natural, and she preened.
The guard answered their questions. The world was called Grimgar. They were in a summoning tower not far from a frontier town called Alterna. There was someone else waiting for them beyond the wall. A guide. They would be expected to fight for their lives against monsters, some of them dying in the process and others learning to cope with the violent lifestyle imposed upon them by the new world.
"I've heard enough," Touma said, feeling uncomfortable. He ran his hand over his spiky black hair and looked at the wall. "Open it." The guard pulled a black switch on the wall. There was a small quake, and then the wall slid to the side, revealing an exit. Better than the one Accelerator would've made.
"Can you remove his memories?" Touma asked Misaki. She nodded and made a v with her index and middle finger, stuck her tongue out and struck a pose.
"You can count on my dependable ability."
Among the crowd behind him he caught Mikoto rolling her brown eyes.
It was dark when they left the room. It was dark. There weren't any stars in the sky. He didn't know how far down they were. He saw flecks of light in the distance. It gave the imagery of a small medieval town. Because it is, the knowledge in his brain told him.
"Othinus?" he asked. Misaki glanced behind the tower with a knowing smile. Her eyes flashed. Touma knew she already took control of the guide. A woman emerged from behind the tower, dressed in light armor, a skirt, sabaton, and a green cape.
"I'm on it." Othinus waved her hand. The orb flew from her and grew. It took the shape of a saucer. Light from inside the tower joined with the growing saucer, coalescing into a large, flat disc. Everyone got onboard, all glancing at Touma's right arm. He made sure not to touch the solid light disc.
It flew down the tower. They didn't get to see much of anything due to the darkness. The disc dispersed when they were five hundred meters from the town. They walked the rest of the way. Misaki was the most tired, unfit for bodily activity. Touma had to give her a piggyback ride the rest of the way through. She wrapped her smooth arms around his neck and sighed blissfully. He felt two soft orbs press against his back and blushed once more. Those were smaller long ago, he thought. And then he wondered why he thought that.
Flashes of memories burst through his mind. A slimmer Misaki. A whistle. A promise. He shrugged. Without context all it did was confuse him.
A collective gasp made him look at his companions. They were all staring into the sky. He was mistaken. There was a moon, simply hidden behind dispersing clouds. It was a crescent moon. He furrowed his brows. There was something peculiar about it, though he didn't know how.
The red color… He just didn't think the crescent red moon was anything but strange.
"It's the first moon I've seen, but I don't think it's normal," Index said, voicing all their thoughts. She tilted her head in wonder. "But why isn't it normal?"
When they were outside the large wall used to defend the villagers against siege from monsters, the guide told one of the watchmen to let them in. The town was a mixture of stone and wooden buildings built at random. They passed by a bridge, a watercourse beneath it. The stench made him grimace. They stopped in front of a two story building made of stone. A pole protruded from the wall. A flag hang from the pole. Touma couldn't see it clearly, but he knew it was a red crescent moon. The guard and the guide both said so.
"Altern Fronter Arm Voluter Solder Cops Red Mon," Index read the sign illuminated by Othinus. "It's supposed to be red moon." Othinus illuminated the flag. It unveiled the crescent moon. They entered the building. A large room reminiscent of a pub greeted them. Tables and chairs were scattered around. On the back of the room was a counter. A man sat behind it.
"Well, that's it for me." The guide smiled. Misaki smirked, Touma knew, from the shape of her lips pressed against his scalp from where she nuzzled the back of his head. The guide left the building, probably waiting outside for Misaki's orders.
"Misaki?" Touma asked.
"Don't worry," she whispered. "I have her on autopilot. We need more agents in this unknown world."
"You must be Bri," Touma said. Misaki got off him and he approached the counter, Accelerator and Othinus flanking him. Bri raised a brow.
"How do you know my name?" he asked. Already, his eyes rapidly analyzed Touma and the others. There was none of the tension that belonged to beginners in the new world. Touma knew he should be alarmed by the memory lost, but it was a familiar kind of alarm. Like he experienced it before. The stronger ones were apathetic or alert. They congregated as a group in sync, with Touma as the source they gravitated to. The guide spoke much of her first impression on the group when Misaki inquired her. Bri must be thinking the same thing.
Touma looked him over and he was thankful for the lamps that illuminated the room. Bri had a cleft chin, green hair, black lipstick, and colored thick lashes. There was powder on his cheeks. He must've used make-up. He was a homosexual, Touma thought. Not that Touma had a problem with it. Academy City was a city of science, apathetic to superstition and other, bigoted views. They had their own.
Academy City? What is that?
"You're Britney," Index clarified. "The guide Hiyomu said so. I don't forget much. The signs on your building is missing letters. You should have that fixed. It's called Volunteer Soldier Corps of the Alterna Frontier Army. Right?"
Britney grinned like a wild cat and blurred from behind the counter, reappearing in front of them. Something must've tipped him off about them. A sixth sense or sheer impulse. He was fast, and strong, Touma noted. But there were also other fast, and strong people around him. One of them was the albino who caught Britney's knife in the palm of his hand. Britney already released it, jumped to the countertop and leaped back from the ledge to the space behind the counter.
Accelerator tilted his head and crushed the knife into a ball as he clenched his hand. "Britney. Tell me with total honesty. Do you see yourself winning against me?"
The voice inquiring lacked the tone of boasting. Bored red eyes void of fear analyzed Britney. He released the knife, crushed into a ball. Britney watched it fall to the stone floor with a clang. Accelerator opened his palm. It was uncut.
"Don't bother analyzing us. I'll be suppressing information anyway," Misaki chirped from behind them with a happy smile. Touma glanced at her and squeezed her cheek. "Ow. Stop it." She rubbed her cheek and pouted when he let go.
Britney nodded stiffly.
"Well." Britney licked his lips and feigned a smile. False bravado, Touma could tell. He knew the man never experienced anything like the number of dangerous people congregating in one room like he did today.
"Even though I don't think you'll need it," he said, glancing between Touma and Accelerator. "I can offer you membership of the Red Moon Volunteer Soldier Corps as part of the Alterna Frontier Army. You'll be starting as trainees…" He paused. "Pretending to be trainees," he amended, "into becoming fully fledged volunteer soldiers."
He shrugged helplessly. "Not like you need it. But if you want to drive suspicion from your back then pretending to start from the bottom is the way to go."
"And all we're going to do is kill a bunch of monsters?" Mugino Shizuri asked. She had brown hair, a pretty face, and a nice figure. She was dressed in an oversized red jacket that reached her mid thigh, and black rubber shoes. Beside her Hamazura wore a white tank top, blue jeans and brown loafers. Touma knew the jacket was his. A lazy looking girl in a pink tracksuit stood on his other side.
"Yes, that's basically it." Britney nodded. "I'm sure you're all already informed. But in case you aren't, here in the borderlands there are races hostile to us humans. That and a lot of monsters. It's the Frontier Army's duty to exterminate them. But it already has its hands tied just maintaining its front line base in Alterna. It's where the Volunteer Soldier Corps comes in."
"I'm in," Mugino said. Her hands covered in Hamazura's oversized jacket held her waist. "Not that different from my job back home. Although it's strange how I can't remember much of anything else."
"So you're going to give use twelve silver coins, right?" Touma asked.
"Ten," Britney corrected with a nervous quiver of his lips. They all knew who held the power in the discussion. "But I can sweeten the deal and give you a gold coin if you leave me unharmed."
"Each," Accelerator said with a malicious grin. "Give me a gold coin each." He stared into the crowd. "We all obviously know each other one way or another. That or a degree of separation. But we can function better as a group. We pool our resources in and work as a gestalt until we've stabilized our conundrum."
No one protested. With a shit eating grin Accelerator put his arm on the counter, palm waiting expectantly and said, "Cough it up."
Reluctantly, Britney began digging for money.
"We'll pay you back later," Touma promised with a gentle smile. Britney gave a dubious look as he rummaged the counter for his money. He placed a gunny sack on the counter and filled it with gold coins. He also put red coin-like objects on the counter. It was a Trainee Badge, Touma remembered the guide tell them. Proof they were volunteer soldiers. They could buy a Corps Badge worth twenty silver and become full member of the Volunteer Soldier Corps, but it didn't really make a difference.
"Do you know any good tavern here?" Touma inquired. "Nothing too expensive until we get a stable income. But not too shabby either, you know?"
Britney nodded, his eyes widening with opportunity. He was probably thinking he had a chance to escape and alarm others of the dangerous people that extorted him.
"Misaki?" Touma glanced at the star-eyed girl.
"Our guide's still waiting," she said with a wink. "Go to sleep, Britney-chan. I'll make this all a bad dream." She snapped her fingers and he fell asleep, sliding his back on the wall and falling on the floor.
They went outside as a group, with the guide waiting for them.
She led them to a place called Iron Tavern. Accelerator paid the counter for all of them while he discussed some things with Motoharu, Maika and Index. Index managed all the funds, with Maika helping her. All the combat experienced people of their group agreed to leave the less battle hardened members managing their accounts instead. They took rooms. Touma inspected the room he was going to share with Index and Othinus. He felt it was normal. Right even. Othinus and Index should be with him, rather than other girls. And the fact he found it normal was in itself abnormal. The floor was red. The stone wall white. The ceiling the same. There was a large bed in the corner. Misaki and Mikoto were going to share a room. Accelerator and Motoharu the same. Hamazura was snagged away by Mugino and the girl in the pink tracksuit who introduced herself as Takitsubo.
Othinus entered the room with a smile. Index followed her, carrying the gunny sack.
"Isn't that heavy?" Touma asked as he sat on the bed. The place was sparse. There was a pub on the first floor serving food so he wasn't that troubled. The barkeep boasted the Iron Tavern was better than someplace called Shirley's.
"Othinus put a spell," Index said, quirking her lowered the sack next to a bottle. "Makes it easier to carry."
"I'm sleepy. Let's eat in the morning." Othinus pushed Touma's shoulders and his back to the bed. He yawned. A stone illuminated the ceiling, fueled by magic. A switch was on the wall. Index removed his jacket and left it on the gunny sack, kicked off her shoes, blushed as she looked at Touma, with Othinus curling on one side, and the space on the other waiting for her. Index turned off the light.
The next day they ate on the pub. A server delivered steaks on plates to the various tables full of customers. If only they knew where all the money came from they would've called the authorities. Instead they welcomed Touma's group with open arms.
"I'll buy some clothes," Mikoto said, sharing a table. She eyed Touma. "For all of us."
"Oh really?" Accelerator asked as he passed by her.
"Except you, asshole," Mikoto sniped. "I don't know why that guy pisses me off."
"Nothing too expensive," Touma warned her.
Index calculated the cost and slid three gold coins across the table. It drew the attention of customers that weren't part of their gang. Misaki, who sat on a stool by the counter, gave an amused grin and twirled her forefinger in the air. The customers returned to their activities.
"I need to have the money changed in a bank," Index said. "The bartender said there's a Yoruzo Deposit Company that manages money. I need someone strong with me to make sure I don't get robbed."
"I'll come with," Mikoto offered with a grin.
"I can make Dark Matter guns," Kakine said from the nearby table. Accelerator and Hamazura joined him. There was a bite mark on both of Hamazura's cheeks. He must've had a steamy night with Mugino and Takitsubo. Lucky son of a bitch.
"They were like, super noisy last night. I wondered how Maika was even asleep," a young girl called Kinuhata Saiai complained as she pulled a seat and joined Touma's table.
"Too much information," he groaned.
"We slept like babies!" Index said and held her glass cup of milk. Kakine was still discussing the new gun with Hamazura and Accelerator on the other table.
"Can I use them too?" Touma turned his chair to the side and asked Kakine who eyed his right arm.
"Probably not," Kakine said. "If your power does disrupt others, then my creations are as good as useless."
"Drat," Touma said and lowered his face to the table and his hands covered his head.
The server lowered hot steaks in ceramic plates and bowls of meat soup. The scent of food made Touma's stomach grumble. Kakine and the others all changed the topic to exploring the new world. Because of their strange camaraderie, Touma's group openly shared information with one another in the assumption of friendship. But it was that same camaraderie that made them inclusive and distrustful of other people outside their monkeysphere.
An armored man approached Misaki and she waved him away. Misaki repelled anyone troublesome, and so far no one showed resistance to her power. With her on their side navigating the world would be a breeze.
They didn't trust anyone because they were kidnapped, was the conclusion Touma came to. He gripped the handle of his glass mug and took a swig of his ale. He wondered what future awaited him.
What is a guild? Why is it important? Accelerator asked these questions to their guide. Guilds were organizations that existed in the frontier. They functioned as trade unions for blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, chefs, and various other jobs, up to including those used for violence. Fighters, mages, priests, paladins, hunters, dark knights, thieves. Guilds benefited society for people in the same trade, an association to defend their rights, and an organization where they could train together.
You didn't have to be a volunteer soldier to join a guild, but you had to join a guild to survive if you were a volunteer soldier. At least, that was how things went until they arrived. Misaki gathered information beneficial to their group and suppressed information that could compromise them. They learned something of the former, and were quite eager to see the new recruits.
"Another group arrived?" Accelerator asked the informant. Britney nodded with a smile from the counter, the events of last night forgotten.
"Yes, Accel-chan~" Britney winked. "This is unheard of. For two volunteer groups to arrive hours between each other. The gates were broken, though no one knew why." It was because of Accelerator. And Misaki made sure to suppress the information of their abilities.
To Britney, Accelerator was a reliable friend.
"Where are they?"
"On their way."
Accelerator wondered how Britney knew. He inquired and learned there was some strange communication magic between Britney and the guide Misaki enthralled. He was caught by surprise last night because the guide didn't inform him of their arrival. This time he was much calmer and crossed his arms over his chest.
"What do you plan to do with them?" Britney asked.
"Offer them aid because they need it. And we're more reliable than whatever this town has to offer. I won't interfere with your business if you don't interfere with mine."
"Sounds reasonable." Britney chuckled. "So you'll extort them."
"...What exactly do you see me as?"
"A friend. A felonious one, but a friend nonetheless."
"Great," Accelerator grumbled. He wondered what Misaki implanted in Britney's mind.
"Come in, come in!" The guide, Hiyomu, said cheerily as she entered the lobby. A group of twelve people followed after her. Eight men. Four women. Accelerator's eyes were drawn upon a little girl. She couldn't survive on her own in this world. He would take her to Iron Tavern and make sure she stayed safe.
"Well, that's it for me!" Hiyomu bowed to Britney and Accelerator who leaned his back on the wall beside the counter with his arms crossed over his chest. "Unless you need me for anything?"
Accelerator shook his head. "It's fine."
When Hiyomu left, the tension in the room grew. Partly due to Britney's pervert-like eyes scrutinizing the men and bringing them discomfort. But also due to Accelerator's red eyes intensely examining everyone else.
Espers, a term that stuck in their group for one reason or another, all knew in their hearts they couldn't use magic because it will kill them. Guilds were therefore useless to them. The rest were disinterested in joining any guild that wasn't already a part of their own group and so stuck in Iron Tavern. Accelerator didn't mind even if none of them worked. No one deserved to be forced to risk their life for a place that took them from their own world.
"Hmm." Britney nodded to himself several times and then stood. "Very nice. Come here, little kittens. Welcome, I'm Britney, the chief and host of this office of Red Moon, the Volunteer Soldier Corps of the Alterna Frontier Army. You may call me Chief, or Brit-chan will do." He threw his thumb to Accelerator. "And this is the local gangster."
"What?" Accelerator asked, glaring at Britney. His companion grinned, and Accelerator's scowl deepened. His expression probably spoke for itself and misled the newcomers into buying the image of him being a thug.
"Chief." A strong looking man with silver hair approached the counter and cocked his head to the side. "I know that this town is called Alterna. But what is this Frontier Army and Volunteer Soldier Corps about? Why am I here? Do you know?"
"It's a place for you to become a soldier and risk your life fighting monsters," Accelerator spoke up. "I'm just like you." He got his back off the wall and strolled to the newcomer, his hands on his pocket. The newcomer eyed him up and down and nodded in respect. Accelerator gave that kind of air, he knew. "What's your name?"
"Accelerator. Welcome to Grimgar, Renji. I'm going to offer you," he said and glanced to all the others. "All of you, membership in Iron Tavern."
"Iron Tavern?" Renji raised a brow. "If that's your gang name it isn't very impressive."
"It's a place, you dipshit." Accelerator grinned. "But you'll still have to join Britney's condottiere."
"His what?" A short kid asked him with smugness radiating from his body.
"What's your name?"
"Join Britney's group, Ranta. He'll give you ten silver coins."
"Let me guess," Renji said. "And you'll be taking them in exchange for protection? I'll pass."
"No, you can keep them. I don't need your money," Accelerator sneered. "I've got my own."
"The offer to join my group is mandatory, I'm afraid." Accelerator shook his head. "You can stay there for three nights at the Iron Tavern, and if you want to leave feel free to do so. You can come back anytime. We're here to back each other up. We're in the same boat as you all are, and none of us are keen on our current situation. Believe me."
Renji nodded slowly. He narrowed his eyes and scrutinized the authenticity in Accelerator's words. "If you lie, we all leave."
"Deal," Accelerator said. He offered a hand. Renji shook it. None of the other people spoke up, feeling comfort in knowing others watched over them.
Someone else entered the office. He wore an outfit made of hide, a feathered cap, and holstered a bow and arrow over his shoulders. He was a few years older than Renji's group. He had eyes like a fox and crooked a mouth.
"Heya Chief." He eyed Accelerator who buried his hands back in his pocket. "Who's this?"
"A new guy, Kuzuoka-chan," Britney said playfully. Kuzuoka nodded and inspected Accelerator and smiled, impressed.
"I came here for some newbies, and you my boy have the makings of a warrior." He ambled to Accelerator, ignoring everyone else. "I'll let you join my party. Show you the ropes. Even loan a little money. It's a pretty sweet deal, don't you think?"
"Get your fucking hands off me and fuck off," Accelerator said calmly. Not an ounce of ire in his voice. He slapped Kuzuoka's hand away.
Kuzuoka grinned. "I like you. You're tough." He extracted a knife. "Let me show you the difference between our skills."
Accelerator ignored the knife slashing his shoulder. It reflected from his skin, the knife curling in the process. He caught Kuzuoka's forearm and squeezed. Kuzuoka screamed in pain. Accelerator kept on squeezing until Kuzuoka's knees fell on the floor. Accelerator kicked his chest and sent his head bouncing against the floor. Just like that, he was knocked unconscious.
"Bitch," Accelerator said. "Why don't you go fuck off next time I tell you to, huh?"
Renji clapped his hands. "I am impressed. Mind telling me how you did that?"
"Join a guild," Accelerator said. The crowd parted as he made for the entrance. "I doubt you'll be able to create the stuff I do. But likewise I wouldn't be able to recreate whatever you'll learn." Not that he needed to. He waited until they gathered the badge and pouches of silver coins. "Follow me." He offered his hand to the little girl. "We're going to Iron Tavern."
She shyly approached him and took his hand. Renji, with his arms crossed, nodded in approval.
Haruhiro enjoyed the delicious meal on the table in the pub of Iron Tavern. The place looked expensive, and he was thankful Accelerator paid for all his expenses. He wasn't interested in knowing any of the other people, except maybe Renji because he was so cool.
Haruhiro was wiry compared to him. Renji was already speaking with all the important members of Accelerator's gang. They were kind in speaking with Haruhiro and the others, but apathetic to everyone else other than the workers of the Iron Tavern.
Haruhiro chugged his beer and sighed happily. That hit the spot. He knew he was living the good life. Other than the prerequisite of joining a guild and accompanying some of Accelerator's gang members in killing monsters, he didn't have to do anything.
"Haruhiro, is it?" Index, a senior member of Accelerator's gang, approached him. "Mind helping me carry something to the bank?"
"Sure, but what is it?" Haruhiro inquired as he got up.
"Gold," Index said and winked. He blushed. He found the bag by her table and slung it over his shoulder. Alongside Mikoto, the trio left the Iron Tavern. Index moved like she knew the place by heart, knowing which building to turn to and which street to walk through.
They arrived at a building that resembled a warehouse. A sign in gold relief out front spelled Yorozu Deposit Company. They entered the front door and reached an open hall. Beyond a short stone stairway was a counter. There was a small line, and when it was their turn Haruhiro carried his bag to the counter. Behind it was a massive leather chair and a ten year old girl.
"Aren't you a little too young to work here?" Mikoto teased with a grin as she pointed at the girl. She wore a gaudy red and white outfit accented with gold, gold-rimmed glasses, and a golden pipe.
"What?" She scowled at Mikoto. "You dare belittle the Yorozu's capabilities, insolent one?"
Mikoto laughed. "You're so cute. Isn't she, Index?"
Index nodded and smiled. "Are you sure you can count all the money?"
The child who identified herself as Yorozu nodded smugly. "You are more respectful than the insolent one. I am the Yorozu. The fourth Yorozu. As is customary with my name, I know my clients' names, faces, balances and transactions by heart. Still, I do keep a ledger, because others are not as blessed as me. Allow me to enter you to the ledger. What is your name?"
"I see." The child leaned forward, opened the ledger and wrote something with a quill she took from an inkwell. "There. Now, you may make deals with the Yorozu Deposit Company."
"I'd like to deposit twenty gold coins," Index said with a grin.
"Twenty?" The Yorozu raised a brow, surprised, and shook her head. "But of course. Anything for my customers. We shall of course charge one percent of the deposit."
"So two thousand copper coins?" Index asked. The child widened her eyes in surprise, nodded, and smiled.
"You are as good as I with the numbers. What else are you capable of?" The Yorozu inquired.
"Eager, are we?" Mikoto teased.
"Of course, insolent one. We do not let potential workers go to waste."
"Before that, I'd like to have some changed. My friend here wants to buy some clothes."
"Ah. Then I recommend this wonderful place…" As the girls talked and bartered, Haruhiro grimaced. He already knew what his job was. Being a pack mule for two beautiful ladies still wasn't as bad as fighting, he thought.
"I'm not even registered in the Warrior Guild yet. Me and Moguzo are going in later," Renji complained as he accompanied Kakine and Hamazura south of Alterna.
"Look kid," Hamazura said. "You're more reliable than the other newcomers. There's something about you, I dunno, mature?"
"Sensible?" Kakine offered. Hamazura snapped his fingers.
"Sensible," he parroted and grinned. Renji rolled his eyes and looked ahead. The Tenryu Mountain Range was a line of incredibly high and inaccessible mountains. The land called Grimgar was bisected by the mountain range. To the fair side of the south was the homeland. At least according to humans. The Kingdom of Arabakia, to be specific, which ruled over the homeland Alterna. The north side of the mountain was the frontier.
That is to say until the No-Life King attacked, one hundred and fifty years ago. Now there was nothing. The No-Life King created a race of the undead, united all the other monsters into kingdoms with elected kings, and launched an attack on the human race. They were wiped out or forced into the south. Humans couldn't set foot north of the Tenryu Mountains.
And then the No-Life King died one hundred years ago. Ironic, Renji thought with a smirk. Not so immortal are you, you prick. With the Undead King dead, the Undead Empire splintered. The Kingdom took that opportunity to establish the fortress city Alterna, and the rest was history.
"I think it's stupid to rely on brainwashed kids to kill monsters," Renji commented. Hamazura snorted and laughed.
"Tell me about it."
Renji eyed the white contraption Hamazura held. It had a sleek white grip, curling into a large barrel not unlike a canon, and possessed a trigger under the barrel, covered by a trigger guard.
"Hey, Hamazura, what the hell is that?"
"Oh, this?" Hamazura grinned, the scraggly man waving the contraption. "It's a DMCV1."
"Short for Dark Matter canon version one," Kakine added with a soft smile. "If you're patient then I can give you one too. But for now you'll just be watching from the sidelines, okay? You and Hamazura. I'll test myself against these monsters and if I'm not enough we should all retreat."
The area to the north consisted of fields and forests as far as the eyes could see. Renji was getting bored walking, but these men were watching after him and the other newcomers. He owed it to them to help anyway he can. They entered a pathway to the woods to the right. Mud goblins, ghouls, and other monsters that were easy to kill for newcomers were available this close to the town. He observed the forest, from the broad-leafed trees to the thick undergrowth. The detritus was either soft or squishy, making it slightly difficult to walk. Not that the two ahead of him showed any trouble. Birds sung. A passing wind rustled nearby leaves, increasing the noisy distraction.
Something burst from the shrubs. It was the size of a cat with needle-like hair. A pit rat. With unnerving accuracy Hamazura pulled the trigger. An orb of green energy was released from the DMCV1. It tore through the pit rat's body, burning flesh, bones and blood. Pieces of meat stained the forest floor red.
"Nice shot," Kakine complimented him. More pit rats emerged from behind trees and under bushes. White wings exploded from his back. They looked inorganic, resembling machines more than bird wings, Renji noticed. Kakine flapped his wings once. Renji felt the heat from the wind his wings created. All the pit rats were burned into cinders. And even that disappeared with the passing breeze.
"Wow," Renji said.
"I know," Hamazura added. "Dude, you make this thing look like shit." He referenced the DMCV1.
Kakine rolled his eyes and retracted his wings under his clothes that were somehow undamaged. "Those things are not shit. They are beautiful works of art."
"Speaking of your power. Are you going to make clothes for us?"
"Wouldn't hurt. None of the girls want to though. They'd prefer if Othinus made them clothes instead. That's fine with me. Poor Touma though. He can't wear any of it."
Renji listened quietly to their discussion. Touma was often mentioned. He caught glimpses in the pib. He was a man with spiky black hair, was one of the high ranked members of their group and he was often surrounded by girls. Renji wondered how long it would take him to approach the man he was sure was their leader.
By proving his worth to these two, he imagined.
Kakine tilted his head and glanced up to the canopy. Liquid-like matter burst from his back and solidified. He flapped his white wings. Two objects fell from the tree. They resembled a scrawny human child. The skin was yellow, wrinkled and covered in mud. The hair from their armpits was like seaweed. They had pointy ears. Their black round eyes were open in horror. Their tongues stuck out of their mouth, spittle leaking into the earth. The scent of urine and feces almost made him vomit. He held it in though.
"There should be some loot on them," Hamazura said. He approached the dead bodies, stepping over the excrement, and pulled something from one goblin's neck. It was a string with an animal fang and a coin with holes drilled to them. Hamazura took the other string and frowned. "The coin's worth thirty coppers. The fang one silver. All in all it's two hundred and sixty copper coins. It's gonna take a lot of dead bodies to accumulate enough wealth to take care of all the people we're with."
Kakine nodded. "I agree. How about this. Let's venture as deep as we could into the north and see how many monsters we'll attract, and kill them all."
Hamazura shrugged. "Works for me. We need an escape plan though. Neither me nor Renji have wings so we can't fly away like you."
"Oh contraire." Kakine pointed his hands, palms open, into the earth. White liquid burst from his palms, taking shape and solidifying into white wings attached to white packs with two straps around the wings.
"Holy shit," Hamazura said.
"Put them on. You too Renji." Renji gulped and approached one of the packs. He kneeled, inserted his arm in one strap, and then followed with the other.
"H-how do I control this thing?"
"With your mind," Kakine said with a smile. Renji closed his eyes and concentrated. He imagined flapping his wings like a bird, or more like Kakine. He was in the air, hovering and defying gravity.
He opened his eyes. He almost hit a branch. He yelped and swerved away. Only when his face touched the leaves of the canopy did he realize he was flying. He laughed. He was flying!
"This is exclusive to our gang, Renji. You understand?" Kakine inquired, floating beside him.
"Yes! I understand," Renji answered with conviction. Kakine nodded, satisfied.
"I want you to focus on a tree and imagine cutting it. Visualize the wings as swords, and then flap them." He did so. Renji chose a thick tree. The branches looked sturdier than metal shields. His wings flapped behind him. He imagined them as extra set of arms and threw them towards the tree. The wings sharpened like blades and cut through the tree. It fell down the earth, leaving a stump.
"W-whoa," Renji muttered, looking in awe. He grinned at his wings, which gave a thumbs up with its feathers. "This is amazing!"
"Indeed. Now get down." Kakine lowered to the earth and hid his wings. Hamazura's pack became transparent, and then invisible. Renji was curious as he followed and his feet landed on the earth. He mimicked what Hamazura did, making his pack see-through, and then invisible to the naked eye. He reached his hand to his back, trying to touch the pack. His hand went through it. Interesting.
"Why though?" Renji inquired. "If we can fly-"
"We'll draw unnecessary attention," Kakine said. "I'll name those Dark Matter Packs Version One, by the way. Or DMPV1, for short."
"Packs? Not wings?"
"Too much of a mouthful."
They laughed and strolled in enemy territory without a care in the world. Renji had to admit, he liked these guys. It wasn't until hours later when they found something interesting.
"What are those?"
They lost track how deep they were. Hamazura's wings carried over one hundred fangs and holed silver coins. Overall it didn't amount to much. Just a bit of gold. None of them were willing to go home, however, until they found something more reliable.
They looked like pigs, Renji thought. Pink skin. Large snout. Hoofed toes. They stood on their hind legs. They were over seven feet tall and very large. They had large tusks. Shiny tusks.
"Those are worth gold," Hamazura whispered. "Each of those tusks. And there's four of them." There were two of the pig creatures. They held sticks. Humanoid corpses were impaled and stacked on those sticks. The pig creatures were looking for a fire, most likely, to burn them with.
"So we need to keep the corpses intact," Kakine said. "If they die they're gonna release a lot of shit." Renji and Hamazura grimaced. They had to cut the tusks fasts then.
"Renji, you're up," Hamazura said, looking at him seriously. He was going to fight them? This early? Renji grinned and flew into the canopy. His wings sharpened, ready to skewer the pigs.
Their monstrous eyes caught him. They snarled, threw the sticks away and took large warhammers from the earth. Somehow he missed those weapons. No matter. DMPV1 could cut through anything.
One pig took a step forward, shattering a large branch with its mighty hoof.
And then it fell on its face. Dead.
Its companion tilted its head.
It followed a second later.
The corpses released their bowels. Kakine, the one responsible for their deaths, flew away, unable to handle the stench. Hamazura, despite the wings holding multiple items, still managed to fly and followed Kakine up the canopy.
Renji gagged and cried with the stench. He approached the two corpses with a grimace and cut the tusks. He hoped it was worth it. If he learned these things were worth shit those two were in for an earful.
"We've obtained an investor," Index said. She wore an expensive looking white dress that covered her feet. "I've managed to liquidate all the goods for a total of three hundred and fifty gold. Those tusks didn't have value in themselves, but those monsters packed quite the bounty. They've apparently killed a lot of people already. The tusks simply proved their deaths. If we had known we would have gathered the entire body. It's not Hamazura's fault for mistaking the tusks as something similar to loot. The end results are the same. And on that note, Renji did a good job on cleaning duty so he gets ten gold coins. The rest will be stored in the safety box."
"Can I have some?" Hamazura asked, raising his hand from the red table. They were seated on a red table on the second floor balcony of the Iron Tavern, which Misaki reserved for their group, costing them ten gold coins.
Accelerator, garbed in armor under a hooded white cloak, rolled his red eyes. "We're not in school, you moron."
"Whoops. Sorry." Hamazura lowered his hand.
"Sure thing." Index nodded. "How much you want?"
"I was thinking fifteen gold? I mean, it's got to be higher than what Renji earned."
"What else did you do other than collect loot?" Index asked earnestly.
"Kill a pit rat," Hamazura chuckled.
They stared at him.
"I'll give you eleven gold coins!" Index offered, raising her middle and forefinger. Her smile was infectious. Hamazura acquiesced.
"Sure thing." She extracted eleven gold coins from her pouch and slid them across the table. He happily accepted the wonderful little things.
"Are we buying this place?" Touma inquired as he approached the table. He replaced his clothes with a loose blue tunic, black trousers and brown slippers. There were more tables behind him, filled with other members eating and drinking and chatting about their day. The newcomers were getting to know the older ones who arrived a few hours earlier.
"Looks like it," Index said and beamed at him. Touma opened his arm. Index hugged his side.
"This balcony is quite spacious," Touma noted as he took a seat beside the silver-haired girl. The number of people joining their group increased, and there was still room in the balcony for all of them. He glanced at the ground floor of the pub. People were eating and drinking, just like them. However, sometimes glances went up to their location. It was rare for an entire group to make a reservation on an entire balcony. A table, maybe, but a deck? Expensive and almost pointless if it was anyone else. But he wanted a haven for him and his friends.
The lodging on the Iron Tavern was also quite expensive, though not as much as the balcony. It was only fifty silver per room, per twenty-four hours. If they kept hunting those pig-like creatures, it wouldn't be a problem. And that therein the problem lay. The couldn't hunt monsters forever. It was simply unfeasible. They needed a more stable, less dangerous source of income. Something that will get them paid immensely, and with less the effort. But what?
He eyed Hamazura's DMCV1 laid on the table. The gun looked expensive. The sleek white style helped sell the image. Could Kakine mass produce those? If they began selling long weapons more efficient than bows and arrows, they'd draw the ire of the Hunter's Guild.
Touma wasn't keen on fighting fellow humans over something as ridiculous as money, but he needed his group to survive as well.
What if they don't sell it to the masses, but to some wealthy individual? There was a royalty living in Tenboro Tower, but they already had an army of wizards. What good would a single gun do in comparison?
"Thinking of something, chief?" Hamazura asked.
"Just wondering how we're gonna earn more money."
"What do you mean? Those pigs earned a lot just fine."
"And when they run out?"
"There's plenty of monsters in the sea."
"That's the problem, Shiage." Touma used his first name. Some of them remembered a single name, while others more. Hamazura Shiage was one of those who remembered both his first name and surname. "We won't be young forever. One day we're gonna grow old and slip, and die realizing we're weaker, slower and frail. The gold's going to be good in the short run, but it won't last forever. We need something more. Something sustainable."
Hamazura rubbed his chin. Accelerator took a swig of his beer. Index nudged Touma's shoulder. They shared a grin. Hamazura looked at his gun, and then back at Touma. "Have you thought of selling Kakine's guns?"
"Yeah. The Hunters Guild's gonna be mad at us."
"We can take them."
"I don't want us to hurt innocent people. They're gonna lose jobs over this."
"So we sell something else then."
"Like loaning them? Become some kind of loaning company?"
"It's unreliable," Accelerator said, lowering the mug to the table. "Any loaner could just leave the town after getting the gold. It's that easy. And if they can't pay us back we just lose more money."
"Hold on," Hamazura said, his eyes widening in an epiphany. "What if we create something that needs something else. Like, what if we sell something like this gun, but not necessarily this gun, and with a limit. Once it reaches that limit, they have to buy more."
"Like placing a fuel on the DMCV1," Accelerator nodded. "We're just fucking with them, then."
"So?" Hamazura shrugged. "Better than nothing. I've been throwing ideas on the wall and seeing what sticks. You haven't given anything."
"No. I'm not criticizing you. It's a brilliant idea. But what can we sell?" Accelerator stared at the gun. Touma combed his head with his right hand. Index yawned and wiped her eyes. Hamazura scratched his head with his wings.
When he looked back at the three they were staring at him.
"What the fuck is that?" Accelerator asked.
"Oh, these? They're DMPV1. Packs, essentially."
"They let you fly?" Accelerator asked, his red eyes scrutinizing the wings intensely.
"Yeah, man. Kakine made these on the spot back at the forest."
Touma tapped his knuckle on the table. "We've found our solution."
"And the Guilds?" Hamazura asked.
"We sell the wings one gold each. But we can give the Guilds free ones in an act of kindness or whatever diplomatic term it's called. The fuel's going to be the costy one. Ten silvers a gallon? Make it last a day too. And they'll keep coming back for more."
"We can enter a partnership with Yorozu Deposit Company," Index interjected.
"Or we can mind-control them into giving us money," Hamazura offered. It was possible. But it left a discomfort on all their chests. It was one thing to steal from Britney. They were going to give it back. But to take the earnings of a company that worked from the ground up to what they were now left a bad taste on Touma's mouth.
"Let's stick to the fuel plan for now," Touma said.
"What do you think they're talking?" Haruhiro asked his companion and pseudo-leader of their group. Renji held a fried chicken leg and took a bite. They had their own table deep in the second floor, away from the balcony. Now and then he could see Touma talking with other people in their gang, including Accelerator who helped them out earlier.
"Knitting," Chibi, the little girl now attached to Renji and sat beside him answered.
"Is that what you did today?" he gave a gentle smile and asked her.
"Yeah." She nodded proudly. "Othinus-sama taught me and the others how to knit!"
"Good girl," Renji said, patting her head. "So what's the plan, Haruhiro?"
"Are you going to hide behind Touma's protection the rest of your life. That's no way to live."
"Why not? It's not like it was any of our choice to come here. What's wrong with living a peaceful, cozy life and letting someone else deal with all the monsters that want to kill us? Accelerator-sama and the others want us to hide under their protection and I'm taking them on that offer."
"And I'm taking the other offer. The implied ones. The subtle ones. Offers they don't speak out loud and require you to read between the lines. If you're content being a loser mooching off others then good for you. I'm gonna earn respect in this group and hard work is the only way to do it."
"Hey, guys!" Ranta, the curly haired one interrupted their discussion by helping himself to a seat. "Hey Chibi."
"Hey." She gave a wave with her small hand.
"So what guilds are you joining tomorrow?"
"Warrior," Renji said offhandedly. "A cliche, I know. But a good one." His rogue grin made Haruhiro jealous inside his heart. He wished he could be as cool as Renji.
"Chibi will be a healer so she can support Renji," the little girl said in third person. Renji and fondly tousled her hair. So she'll join the Priests Guild then.
"I'll be a thief," Haruhiro said. "Mikoto-sama recommended it to me." That caught all of their attention.
"Mikoto-sama asked you specifically to join a guild?" Ranta laughed. "Get outta here man."
"I wish it was a joke." Haruhiro raised his hands to cover his face and muffled his groan. "I want to be something else. A safe position. Join the Wizards Guild and be a mage like Shihoru and Adachi. That'll allow me to be away from the front line and attack from a distance."
"Mages Guild," Chibi corrected him.
Renji smirked. "What's wrong, Haruhiro? I thought you were going to hide under Touma's protection forever?"
Haruhiro snorted. "I am. But let's be real. There's always going to be a chance I find myself in a position where I have to fight. I'd rather prepare for that eventuality than be caught with my pants down."
"So when did Mikoto-sama tell you?" Ranta asked with a dubious tone, doubting Haruhiro's words.
"We all went out with a bunch of seniors, right?" Haruhiro referred to Touma's party, that arrived earlier as the seniors and making their group in turn the juniors. Not only because of the chronological order, but also because of the sheer power Touma's group brought into the equation.
"Well, I went shopping with Mikoto-sama and Index-sama and as I expected, I was relegated into carrying all the clothes we're wearing now." His clothes were local but nice to look at and comfortable. Just a simple jacket and cut off trousers and the shoes he arrived with.
"That's a lot of clothes," Ranta said. "I don't think you have the muscles like Renji or me to carry them all back."
"Where's your muscles?" Renji asked, glancing at Ranta's bare biceps. He nervously chuckled and hid his arms from the older man.
"I had to go back and forth. Mikoto-sama and Index-sama offered to help me, but I couldn't accept their offer in good conscience when they've already done so much." Haruhiro sighed dreamily. "They're so wonderful and pretty and kind too."
"I'd cut those thoughts if I were you," Renji warned him. "They've only got eyes for Touma."
"W-what thoughts!?" Haruhiro asked, flustered. He wasn't thinking of anything indecent! "I'm just admiring them because they're wonderful, that's all."
"Who's wonderful?" Mikoto asked with a grin as she pulled a chair and sat beside Haruhiro. Renji looked at her, at his chicken, lowered it to his plate and coughed. Ranta was a little less subtle in his surprise and gaped at her. Chibi got out of her seat, went to Mikoto's side, hugged her leg, and returned to her chair.
Haruhiro felt embarrassed by the smile she gave his way and in an effort to dodge her eyes looked her up and down. Mikoto donned a white hoodie, black skirt, thigh high socks and shoes. The bare skin between her skirt and socks were incredibly enticing.
"U-um," Haruhiro stuttered. "Nice clothes."
Mikoto looked at her clothes, laughed, straightened her skirt and crossed her pretty legs. "Thanks. Othinus is making them. I don't know how she does it as fast as she did. I didn't like most of the clothes in this world and talked to her about it. She was painting at the time so she drew the clothes I wanted and told me she'd have them within the hour. If you three want anything custom-made just go to her, okay?"
"Yeah!" Chibi raised her small hand into a fist.
"I see," Renji said, cupping his chin.
"That is so cool!" Ranta exclaimed as he pushed his chair and stood up.
"As expected of Othinus-sama," Haruhiro shook his head in awe.
"But enough about that. Who's wonderful?" Mikoto asked, giving a knowing grin.
Haruhiro blushed. "Um…" he scratched the back of his head and looked to Renji for help. Renji gave a nod and looked straight into Mikoto's chestnut brown eyes.
"You," Renji said.
"Aw. That's so sweet, Haru. Thank you." Mikoto's bright smile made Haruhiro's day. Though it did have the adverse effect of making him a blushing mess. "Are you okay?" Mikoto asked, worried, and nudged her shoulder with his. It was so soft, Haruhiro thought. He mumbled he was fine. She shrugged and combed her short brown hair behind her ear.
"Anyway, I wanted to get to know more of the people I'm with." Mikoto nodded at each of them. "Even though I don't have memories of the people I came with, I think I knew them from wherever it was we came from. How I quarrel with Misaki, dislike Accelerator, get along with Touma." Mikoto shook her head. "I wouldn't be surprised if me and Index were best friends or something. The byplay, it's insane. It's like there's a program we're following even after our memories have been rebooted."
Renji crossed his muscular arms on his chest and nodded. "Now there's a thought. If the theory that something kidnapped us and played with our memories like Othinus-sama proposed is in fact real, then that's a bit worrying."
"Some kind of god rewriting the world and treating humans as their playthings?" Ranta shivered. "I'd hate it if Othinus-sama's words were true. That would suck!"
Mikoto shook her head. "That is so crazy I'd call it unlikely. Not impossible, given the magic and the various abilities we've all displayed."
Renji raised a finger and pointed at her. "Mikoto-sama, forgive me for being presumptuous."
"You're forgiven," Mikoto tilted her head and gave another charming smile. Renji rolled his eyes.
"You often differentiate yourself with those who use magic, like the Mages Guild. Are you sure your abilities are not simply another form of magic?"
Mikoto shook her head. "No. It's not."
"You seem so sure of that. How so?"
"It's like a sixth sense." She lowered her hand to the table, palm facing the ceiling, and curled her fingers. Her fingers twitched. Bluish white electricity discharged from her fingertips. "I know how my power works, even if I don't know how I know. There's a science behind it. Electrons. Neutrons. All those wonderful things I have no clue how I obtained. And I know deep in my heart it isn't magic." She shrugged. "Othinus and Index use magic, I think. Or at least they're more aligned with it. As for Misaki, Shizuri, myself, Kakine or Accelerator? Nah."
Haruhiro wondered why she gave the names in that order, with herself as the 3rd.
"You're right," he spoke up, forgetting his blush. He focused on the oddities in her speech. "There's some stuff that doesn't add up. So if we're going by instinct I guess we'll have to rely on whatever it is you're feeling."
"Haruhiro has a crush on you!" Chibi exclaimed. At that moment she lost all of her cuteness.
"No I don't!"
"Couldn't stop talking about you like a man in love." Renji shook his head and glanced at Haruhiro as he added fuel to the bonfire.
"Shut up, Renji!"
"Haha he's blushing like an idiot again!" Ranta pointed at him and laughed.
Mikoto joined in on the laughter and had a good time alongside everyone else at his expense.
"Saw you cozying up to the others," Touma said when they were alone. Most of the newcomers went to sleep and retired in the lodge behind the pub. The Iron Tavern was quite spacious, and Touma was grateful for the accomodation. The barkeep was cleaning some mess with a broom, with Motoharu and a waiter helping put the chairs on top of the tables.
"You jealous?" Mikoto grinned cheekily and sipped her beer. A slight blush tinged her face. She was slightly inebriated from the alcohol. Not that he was any better. Touma sat beside her. Mikoto pressed her shoulder to his.
"Yeah." he sported a grin and rolled his eyes.
"Heard from Othinus the colorful stuff you did last night." She wagged her eyebrows suggestively. "Two girls, Touma? I never took you for an animal."
"What the hell are you even talking about? I just slept with two girls in a totally platonic way." Touma sighed and rubbed his face with his hand. "Get your head out of the gutter, Mikoto."
"Only gutter here is where you'll be sleeping if you call me a pervert." One of her fingers wrapped around her glass mug pointed at him. There was an intensity in her eyes that made his cheeks warm. "So you think they're your lovers or something in your previous life?"
He shrugged. "You tell me."
She quaffed her drink and slammed it on the table. "That's the stuff!" She drank three more cups before Touma stepped in. He gently pried her fingers from the mug and took her hand in his. She didn't pull away, with did raise a brow. "Getting a little touchy there, Touma." she slurred a bit when saying his name.
"Don't you think you've had enough?" he asked, looking worried.
"I am fiiine."
"Yeah, no. You're drunk. Come here. I'll carry you to your room."
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" she asked, pushing his abdomen. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her to his chest. She blushed and looked up to his face.
He leaned down, his lips touching her ear, and whispered, "Carrying a pretty girl."
The blush spreading on her face expressing surprise was so cute he had to state it. "You're so cute," he said out loud, blushed, and pretended he never spoke the words. She pouted and harrumphed. Her soft warm body gave an intoxicating scent that reminded him of lemonades.
"N-no," Mikoto said, refusing him even as her hands gripped his chest and pulled his shirt. "Not like this."
Touma nodded, slipped his hands behind her back smooth and around her lissome thighs and carried her dainty body to her bedroom.
From another table Kakine, Shiage and Accelerator stared at the two who disappeared down the stairs.
"Damn," Hamazura said, shaking his head. "That guy works fast."
"Hmm. I don't think so. Their relationship isn't that different from yours with Mugino and Takitsubo. The emotional attachment was already constructed, the relationship prepared without any effort into it. You only needed to provide the steps to make it work." Accelerator stood up and looked at Kakine. "What do you think of the plan?"
"It has merits, I admit," he said. "But I'm going to need a favor in exchange for it. Well, lots of favors actually." He ate his meal. Accelerator waited for Kakine to finish and continue. "I've been interested in bounties placed on various traitors, murderers and thieves. They're humans, but they pose a threat similar to high level orcs, undead and other assortment of monsters."
"You want us to go after them? Why."
"I want to see how strong the people of this world are in comparison to us." Kakine's explanation didn't interest Accelerator, but his power was essential for the entire group's survival. "Index told me there were some agitators and agent provocateurs stealing money from the Yorozu Deposit Company. They're willing to pay us in gold for terminating their enemies."
"Discreetly," he added, after sipping a cup of water. "Their targets are aligned with the Margrave. If the Yorozu Deposit Company openly opposed the Monarchy they'd be in trouble. They think we're the solution they've been waiting for."
"How did you know all this?" Hamazura inquired with a perplexed expression. "You wouldn't have time to speak to the Yorozu because you were with us when we hunted monsters."
"And if I were to go along with this fuel plan I'd have to retire from hunting monsters. In the front line at least." Kakine meant he could still supply them with weapons. His fingers drummed the table. "Okay. Othinus told me. She went to the bank, met up with the Yorozu, Mikoto, Index and continued chatting with the Yorozu after Index and Mikoto left. She must've used her magic or something. That's the only way to explain how Haruhiro made no mention of it. And Misaki was gathering intelligence from her thralls. If we're interested, because they see us as a group, they're willing to send a middleman to negotiate the terms and conditions of the business venture and insulate themselves from potential fallouts."
"All this business talk is frustrating." Hamazura scowled. "If they want us to kill someone just say it."
"They can't in lieu of their targets being important people in power," Kakine said. He propped his elbows on the table and pushed his fingers against each other. "So, what do you think?"
Accelerator nodded. "Why not. If it pays good I don't care."
"Um, I'm not willing to hurt innocent people." Hamazura squirmed in his seat. Kakine and Accelerator in a rare synchronized moment both rolled their eyes.
"Do the words murderers and thieves sail through your head? In one ear and out the other," Accelerator said. To Kakine, he added, "We're in. Have Motoharu meet up with the Yorozu representative. Call me if there's trouble. I'll get rid of it."
He left with a lazy wave. Hamazura sighed. "That guy needs to get laid."
Kakine nodded. "Tell me about it."
Haruhiro and Sassa stood on the corner of an area called West Town. The buildings were old and run-down or crumbling. It was a ghetto, Misaki told them. Vagrants glanced at them. Seedy characters passed by, sometimes gazing at Sassa's beauty but not staying long to take their chances. The repellant stood in front of the two, held his neck and tilted his head. His white hair stood out in a crowd.
He radiated an aura of danger.
He wore a black jacket, a white scarf, black pants and boots. All made by Othinus. Haruhiro, Sassa, and countless others upon learning she could design them clothes began asking for ones that made them comfortable. Those same clothes were quite different from the ones of this world, and it made him curious as to why that was.
Sassa raised her right arm and gripped her forearm with her left hand as she stretched to the side. Her yellow halter top didn't cover her midriff, the motion uplifted the hem even higher, showing more skin.
She was either ignorant or apathetic to the attention she grabbed. It didn't matter. Accelerator who served as their guard kept them safe. Or he kept Sassa safe. Haruhiro doubted he'd be mugged because he didn't have anything valuable with him. All he had were clothes that caught an eye or two due to how strange they were in comparison to this world, and nothing else.
The building they approached was strange. It was like an amalgamation of various other wooden and stone buildings complexly weaved into a whole. Narrow alleys around it were blocked by wooden or stone walls. Accelerator was tempted to kick them open, but thought otherwise. It wouldn't look good for the aspiring thieves to ruin their chance of tutelage.
They stopped at one low doorway at the end of an alley. It was a rusty door. A hand mark was beside the door knob. A key hole was visible was in the palm. Accelerator tapped the door. It dented slightly, but he made sure not to break it. "Open up," he said. "Or I'll break it open."
His voice was factual. He didn't boast. The calm tone prompted a response.
"State your business," a voice echoed in the alleyway.
"Get these two to join the guild." He extracted a gold coin from his pocket and flipped it on his thumb,. The coin spun in the air. The gold shined and he caught it in his palm. "I've got more where this came from." The door clicked. Accelerator lazily reached an arm and held the knob. He effortlessly slid the heavy door to one side. Beyond the door was a cramped, dusty hallway. There were shelves on either side of the hall. Rope, metal clasps, wheels and other items packed the shelves. Accelerator waited for Haruhiro and Sasha to enter and then closed the door. They followed a bright light to its source. A wall lamp. The hall turned into a corner. It progressively narrowed further inside. Accelerator sighed and his elbows and head broke the ceiling and walls that tried to constrain him, creating gouges with the touch. Haruhiro and Sasha shared a grin and welcomed the space he provided them. They finally came out into a dimly lit room. There was a desk in the room. A woman sat on the table cross-legged. She was playing with a knife. She had long hair, covering half her face. She was scantily clad. Her arms, chest and thighs were all exposed.
"You want to join our thieves guild?"
Accelerator flipped the coin to her. She swiped the air, caught it in one hand and grinned. She got off the table and sashayed towards him. Haruhiro was unable to help himself and was distracted by her hips. Accelerator was not so. He raised a hand and signaled the woman to stop.
"I want them to join. Not me. There's nothing you could teach me I couldn't learn myself." He illustrated his words by walking towards her. Her eyes were drawn to his feet. He didn't make a sound. He tried explaining his abilities to Haruhiro and Sasha on the way over. His super strength, speed and durability apparently all came from one power. Redirecting vectors. Haruhiro didn't get the math, but so long as something had direction Accelerator could control it, is what he understood. Right now he repelled the footfalls made with his footsteps. Haruhiro didn't understand how that worked, but simply shrugged and ignored it.
"Is that a fact, or a challenge?" The woman went one way. Accelerator went the other. They made a circle as they eyed each other's body. Accelerator focused on the weapon in her hand. She looked for anything on his. Like Accelerator, she too didn't make a sound with her footsteps. But she used a skill instead. It was called Sneaking. The skill to move without making footsteps. Something learned in the thieves guild.
Different methods to achieve the same effect.
"How are you doing that?" The woman asked, fascinated.
"I wonder the same thing," Accelerator said, glancing at her feet. He stopped and crossed his arms. "Can you teach them?"
She nodded and looked Haruhiro and Sasha over. "From the looks of it, you're both volunteer soldier trainees. And not as skilled as him, either." She pointed a thumb at Accelerator behind her. "If you're going to be joining us, you'll be going through the seven-day training. I don't normally do this, but I'm willing to make an exception and teach you both."
"Go easy on me," Haruhiro said wearily. Sassa elbowed his shoulder and bowed. He hastily followed.
"Please take care of us," Sassa said. Haruhiro echoed her words.
"But let me warn you." She wagged her knife. "I'm a harsh mistress. If you can't keep up, then prepared to be punished, okay?"
The woman laid a hand on her waist and looked at him. "Did you find my words funny?"
"Just the presentation of it," he said. "My name's Accelerator." He offered his hand. "What's yours?"
She winked and walked towards him, shaking his hand. "Barbara."
"Well, Barbara, I'd love to chat but I'm a little sparse for time. You can find me in Iron Tavern. See you there." He nodded to Sassa and Haruhiro and left the room. Barbara crossed her right arm under her breast, lowered her left elbow to her right hand, propped her left arm up, and rubbed her chin with her thumb. She licked her lips.
"He's an interesting fellow," she said to her two new students. "Are you part of his clan?"
"More like a gang, but sure." Sassa shrugged and answered airily. "There's no formal structure, but there is a chain of command." She caught Haruhiro's worried look. Why was she telling Barbara all these? Sassa waved his worries away. If she was acting under orders she should've told him earlier.
"Do those two things not contradict each other?" Barbara asked with a tilt of her head.
"Well, not a structure as organized as guilds at least. The command's simple. Accelerator and friends are the top. Me and Haru here and all the other newcomers are at the bottom. We follow orders and get someone to watch our backs."
"Noted." Barbara turned to Hiro. "Do you know the code of the thieves guild?"
"There isn't one," he said, recalling what Accelerator told him.
"Anyway, since I've already received the payment, you'll now have to take your oath. Technically speaking. But our guild members are freedom-loving, libertine, and take responsibility for themselves. Now you're one of us. Pretty easy, huh?"
"I guess?" Haruhiro didn't know the right response.
"Awesome," Sassa said, giving a thumbs up.
"That's quite the lethargic response. Maybe I haven't impressed the value of our membership. Let me rectify that idea with the seven days we'll spend together." Barbara threw her knife. Haruhiro flinched. Sassa yelped and tripped, falling backwards. She winced and rubbed her backside. Haruhiro offered a hand and helped her up, all while keeping an eye on the crazy woman who almost killed them. He was about to complain when she pointed behind them. He looked at where she pointed.
"No way," Sassa muttered in disbelief. There were two knives buried on the floor by their shadows. But Barbara only threw one. Did she?
Barbara nodded to herself with a grin. "That's more like it."
The target was a priest and an old man. He lived on a wooden house on a hillock a few kilometers from Alterna. His lower body was charred and splattered on the wall. The wound from his stomach was cauterized, keeping his internal organs and blood in his body.
Motoharu wondered what he did in his previous life to remain apathetic to the sight of a dead body.
His right hand gripped his DMCV1 and pointed it to the floor. The house was sparse. Nothing much in it. Up ahead green light tore through the wall and unveiled a hidden room. Mugino looked in surprise at what she found. A little girl trapped in a cage.
Disgust grew in Motoharu's chest at their old victim. He was originally horrified when they knocked on the door and upon sight, Mugino immediately killed their target without a second thought. But the horror and apathy was replaced by satisfaction.
Mugino's fingers released small orbs of green light. She destroyed the bars with a swipe of her hand and offered one to the scared little girl.
"T-the bad man…" The girl shook her head. "He'll hurt me."
"He's gone," Mugino said. She stood up and left the room, returning to the porch. The little girl saw the dead body and gasped in surprise. She followed after Motoharu and Mugino with a skip in her steps.
"I brought some food." Motoharu rummaged through his bag and retrieved some bread in a paper bag. "You hungry?" He took out a canteen. "Here. Some wine too. We'll get you water back in the tavern." While the girl sat beside him on the green hillock Mugino stared into the distance. A breeze swept through her hair and her dress. "You know, Mugino, it wouldn't have hurt if you took Shiage out for dinner before taking him in bed."
She snorted and smiled. He found it odd, somehow, despite the smile being genuine. He thought there was a disconnect between the smile and who wore it. He wondered again why he thought such things.
"Please. It's not that different from whatever you've got going on with Maika. I just decided to act on my feelings on the first night."
She shrugged. "They're both mine." He didn't understand and he didn't try to understand. Once the girl was finished Motoharu retrieved the paper bag and the canteen and returned the items into his bag. He offered the girl a ride on his back and knew when they returned his group would adopt her. Motoharu returned inside and gathered the priest's substantial wealth in the form of a chest full of gold and expensive-looking weapons. It made him curious about the target's identity. He should do some research later. After he finished ransacking the place Mugino raised a palm releasing her power and green energy tore through the house. They left a burning crater and made their way to the forest. He pitied any monster unfortunate enough to find them. Or rather the esper he was with.
Esper… Another word he was familiar with, and no explanation as to why that was.
When they returned to Alterna Mugino took the girl to the Iron Tavern while Motoharu went to an old building in West Town. He shifted his gun into a wristband and entered the building. A cloaked figure waited for him. A thief, most likely. Motoharu didn't hear a sound when they walked. But he already knew their location thanks to the heat sensors of his sunglasses Kakine designed. They were Dark Matter disguised to appear ordinary. Well, as ordinary as anything else brought into this world. The sunglasses also provided night vision, so it was incredibly useful.
The cloaked figure led him to a hidden room behind a stone wall. The hidden room led to a clean hallway and into an extravagant area. There was a bear mat. A chandelier. A red sofa facing an armchair with a table between them. A red girl sat on the armchair, smoking from an expensive looking pipe. She nodded at him.
"Yorozu?" Motoharu raised a brow. She motioned for the sofa and he took a seat. "Isn't it dangerous for you to be here? You should let someone else manage these things to give you plausible deniability in case your employees get caught."
"I am quite aware of your unease and I can assure you they will be unfounded. I have to make sure this job I have outsourced to your group will not backfire on the rest of the company, hence my presence." She tapped the table with her foot. "Can you give me proof of your success?"
He extracted a splendid dagger. The handle was made of gold. A small ruby was etched on the bolster. It belonged to the warrior he killed.
"I can buy that for fifty gold, in addition to the money I'll be paying you."
"That's fine with me but why buy it?"
"To destroy the knife, of course. I can't have anything that'll lead back to me. No offense, but having someone possess an item of one of my enemies is incriminating evidence I'd rather live without." She clicked her fingers. The cloaked figure went to another room and returned with two pouches. "Here is your reward. I shall expect more from your group in the future."
Motoharu accepted the pouches from the hooded figure, lowered the knife to the table and thanked the girl. He left the building, and then West Town. When he returned to the bar of the Iron Tavern he spotted Mugino by the balcony sharing a table with Hamazura and Takitsubo. She raised a mug of ale. He nodded. Misaki was at the far corner talking to someone he didn't know. He found Kakine on a stool at the bar and passed him one pouch as he sat beside him, nodding to Accelerator who was drinking away. Kakine took a gold coin and returned it to Motoharu.
"That's it? All you're taking is one coin?" He asked in disbelief.
"Money doesn't really interest me," Kakine said. A waiter delivered a plate full of hot steak and eggs and a mug of mead, alcohol made by brewing honey and yeast with water. Kakine licked his lips and took the utensils on his plate. "I'm quite content just providing whatever the team needs."
"But you're the one who hooked us to this gig."
"Only to get something for my services. I'm not satisfied giving things for free, but as long as there's an exchange I'm fine with it." Kakine sliced the steak with a knife and pierced it with a fork. He took a bite of his food. After chewing and swallowing his meal, he gave a happy sigh. "This is the life."
"You make it sound so well deserved."
"Probably. I don't know. I think my previous life, if I had one, was more stressful. I can feel tension whenever I'm with Accelerator or Othinus. Sometimes I think those two killed me."
"Don't be preposterous. If they killed you you wouldn't exactly be here now would you?"
Kakine only laughed.
"Anyway," Motoharu continued. "Mugino and I'll get twenty five percent each and leave the rest for Index to manage. I'll see you around, yeah?" He raised a fist. Kakine bumped it. He opted not to mention the chest and expensive weapons he kept to himself. He'll have Maika deposit the gold under her name and sell the weapons to passing merchants to avoid Yorozu learning he didn't give her everything. He might give Mugino half, just to avoid the possibility of getting killed by her power. She was too unstable.
"See you." Kakine continued eating and Motoharu took his gold, arrived on the balcony where he found Index, Othinus and Mikoto surrounding Touma, left the rest to Index and went to a stairway leading to the lodge hall. He opened his room and found Maika, dressed in a maid outfit custom-made by Othinus, lying on her stomach on his bed.
"Maika?" Motoharu smiled in delight and sat on a chair beside her. He really loved this girl. He didn't know who she was in their previous life, but even just being with her made him want to hold her and never let go. The feeling was mutual, he knew. Her beaming smile was like the sun. He leaned down and kissed her head. Her hand sought his and interlaced their fingers together. Maika blissfully sighed and nuzzled Motoharu's leg.
"Where were you?" she asked.
"Don't you find it strange how we're close despite only a day's worth of knowing each other?"
"We must've been close in our former lives. Answer the question."
"I was doing some missions."
"Stuff I can't tell you. Sorry, kiddo." He ruffled her hair. She puffed her cheeks. She was so cute.
"I'm not a kid, you sanctimonious asshole."
"You're younger than me. That's good enough."
"By the way, Mugino brought in a kid today. A little girl." Her eyes scanned his face for telltales of deceit. "Any idea where she found her?"
"Probably somewhere," he said, trying to dodge the question. "With people?"
"Yes. With people. Genius. You knew where she came from, didn't you?"
"That gun you're always carrying. Where is it?"
He tapped his white wristband. "It's one of the many convenient features of Kakine's powers. Honestly, I think that guy's got infinite potential."
"Hmm. Yeah." Though Kakine couldn't create some of Othinus' more insane abilities on the spot, his powers were more reliable when it came to mass production. At least that's how Motoharu interpreted the different ways similar powers were used.
Motoharu sat on the bed and Maika made herself comfortable using his lap as her pillow. He combed her hair and kneaded her head. She closed her eyes and purred like a kitten. "I love you, Motoharu. I don't know why, but that's what I feel."
"I love you too, Maika."
She opened her eyes. "So can you please stop doing whatever it is you did? Leave it to Mugino and Accelerator and the others. They're strong."
"Stronger than me?"
"You don't hold back, do you?" He laughed. "If that's what you want, then expect me to lie more often."
"Yeah…" She caressed his shin. "I'd rather you be honest. But it sucks you're so stupid, you know?"
"You literally don't have to do anything. Let the others take care of the violent aspects of our life here and you can help manage the bar. The owner's a kind person who thinks we're the break they've been looking for. Did you know they haven't earned as much money until we showed up?"
Motoharu simply smiled. The truth was, he was addicted to action. It was like his body was built for violence. He knew a multitude of ways to hurt people and he enjoyed hunting others down. He doubted he could ever get rid of it. So he indulged himself in that bloodlust with the safety net of stronger fighters like Mugino and Accelerator accompanying him to make sure he doesn't die. That's what Motoharu promised himself. So long as his life is insured, he wasn't really in danger.
Maike reached a hand to cup his face. Motoharu in turn caressed her cheeks. The two indulged and basked in each other's presence.
"So tell me more about yourself," Misaki said. She found an interesting person that piqued her attention.
"I'm a spy hired to observe your group."
"Interesting." She sipped her lemonade juice and made a playful smile. Misaki wore a yellow dress, the sleeves covering her wrist, the skirt her legs. A white ribbon was tied on the collar of her dress. She also wore white button gloves and stockings. She didn't know why, but she really wanted to wear them. She even specified some of the lacy designs for Othinus to sew.
Misaki's job was to suppress information concerning her allies in Touma's faction. She didn't really care for the others, sans Mikoto, but she was willing to do anything to keep Touma happy. And the best way to ensure his continued happiness was to preserve his existence. To achieve that meant protecting his being. The best way to protect him was to maintain the survival of the group surrounding him. They were all individually powerful, but the cohesive cooperation as a group trumped individual strength.
Misaki was scanning the minds of the crowd when she noted one individual taking details of members of her group. That was interesting. Wanting to have a chat with the observer, she invited him for a meal. Her treat.
She was nothing if not a lady.
Misaki brushed her blonde hair behind her back and smiled. They were seated at the back of the bar. Accelerator was taking a swig of ale at the counter. Near him Kakine was enjoying his meal. Mugino was having brunch with Takitsubo and Hamazura on the balcony of the second floor.
She didn't really need additional help when a snap of her fingers was enough to leave a person incapacitated, but knowing people were watching after her made her feel a little braver.
"So who hired you?"
"I don't know. I'm a thief specialized in stalking my targets. I usually work with a crew of people. We have a handler. Someone who wears a cloak. I don't know their real identity. It's for their protection so things can't be traced back to them in case we get caught."
"Smart person," Misaki said, cupping her cheek. "Can you tell me where your party's at? Maybe I can have a chat with them too."
"Oh? Why not?" She lowered her face and bit her lip. "Is someone jealous?"
"No. You can't speak to them because they're already dead."
She blinked. "Well. I certainly wasn't expecting that. Did you kill your own team you monster?"
"It wasn't my team. I told you. I usually work with a crew."
A crew. So it keeps changing? What kind of people did he work with? "So how do you know they're dead?" she asked instead.
"My handler gave me pieces of their body. Fingers and eyeballs. I threw them under the bridge on my way here." She inquired why they were killed, to which he answered he didn't know.
"And what was your plan with your handler?"
"To lure one of you into a bait so we could capture you. I don't know what my employer will do after that. I will get paid ten gold and be on my way."
Misaki crossed her enticing legs and cupped her chin. Her star-like eyes twinkled with mirth. She had an idea. But first.
"How much gold do you have?"
"Ten on my pouch. One hundred more hidden on various safehouses."
Misaki grinned. She liked the sound of that.
Later that night the target left the Iron Tavern. She wore a black robe over her dress. A hood covered her head. But there was no mistaking the honey-blonde hair escaping from her robe or the attractive figure the robe wrapped and failed to hide. She took a turn from the Iron Tavern and traveled to West Town.
The hunter licked his lips. His entire body was covered in black armor. A red line led from his helmet down his bevor and split into either side of his pauldrons. A blood-like claw mark was embedded on his cuirass. The rerebrace up to the gauntlet was glowing a soft red of magical energy. The cuisses gave a similar glow, becoming darker from the poleyn down the greaves and unleashing concentrated power on his sabatons. Just by taking a step on the rooftop he created a crater. His awesome magic was too difficult to contain. He had to unleash it and he had the perfect target in mind.
A red cape billowed behind him, marked with a white claw. This was his kill. He is the one who hunts. He was originally a warrior who had an aptitude for a specific type of magic. His blood boiled. It created energy he could unleash into awesome lightning bolts to strike down his enemies.
With the combined abilities of a warrior and a mage, he was unstoppable. And he had a thirst for blood. Born from the mainland, he held disdain for his countrymen and favored the warriors of the frontier. At sixteen he ran away from home and joined the frontier city fighting tooth and nail day and night an endless battle for its very life. It was perfection. His contact found him surrounded by the corpses of his enemies. They gave him a future hunting other people, and he found more satisfaction killing humans than he did monsters. Humanity was the greatest species, and the most defiant of prey.
Something scared the thief. After giving their mutual handler the information the thief bugged out. The hunter did not blame the thief. After all, it was he who killed the thief's allies. They displeased their handler and so the hunter was tasked with terminating them. Even though the thief didn't offend the handler and was in fact commended for a job well done, it was not unreasonable for them to find the hunter's presence uncomfortable. Perhaps he could treat the thief to a beer after the hunt was over.
Blood red electricity discharged from his gauntlets and greaves. Heat scorched the air and burned the crater on the roof. The claw mark on his cuirass glowed red. With a grunt the hunter bent his knees and jumped in an explosion of power. He found his target crossing the street. He raised his arm and aimed in the air. A red orb of energy charged from his palm. His fingers gripped the sphere in his hand and aimed. He threw the red orb of devastation. No human has yet to survive that attack.
'Oh shit,' the hunter thought. He went overkill. His handler would not like a baked corpse as his captive. He'll just have to catch another one then.
A white blur flew from behind a building, tornadoes as wings, and met his red orb head on. The orb detonated, catching the white blur in a crimson explosion. Smoke shrouded the air and blocked the hunter's view of the street, but he had obtained another chance. He shall merely knock the target unconscious.
The smoke dispersed. The white blur hovered in the air, revealing a pale man with white hair and red eyes.
"Impossible!" the hunter gasped. The albino flew towards him. He charged his fist with energy and met the albino's punch head on. Their fists collided and the hunter's gave in. His gauntlet bent and dug into his skin. The pale fist tore through his armor, leaving a gouge, and shattered his helmet. The impact the knuckle made on his face combined with the front of his helmet pierced his skin, shattered his jaw, nose, cheekbones and broke his teeth.
Misaki disrobed with a smile. Touma felt his throat dry at the display. Misaki sashayed towards him, turned around and sat on his lap. The dwarf-manufactured clock hanging on the wall told him it it was eleven in the evening. Touma looked at the unoccupied bed space in his room and said, "Uh…"
Misaki leaned back and pressed herself against Touma's chest. She was so soft.
"Um, what are you doing?" he asked.
"Just making myself comfortable. I was with Accelerator and a rather naughty individual. We tried to get along, but Mr. Naughty wouldn't tell us anything useful."
Mr. Naughty? Could it be Kakine? Touma was aware of Kakine's dealings behind his back. Accelerator and Shiage informed him. He didn't mind so long as it didn't hurt anyone that didn't deserve it. And he wasn't even the leader of this group. For some reason people just gravitate towards him.
"What did Mr. Naughty tell, or not tell you exactly?"
Misaki pouted. "Wouldn't tell me where he was getting the information for his new friends."
Yup. Definitely sounds like Kakine. Misaki's power didn't work on certain people in their group. Touma was the chief example due to his ability to negate magic and superpowers with his right hand. For some odd reason Misaki's power doesn't work on Mugino, Mikoto, Kakine or Accelerator either. Even Index was immune. Or rather there was something hidden deep within her mind that made Misaki hesitant on exploring her thoughts.
"You know it surprised me last night when you carried a drunk Mikoto into my doorstep. I was further aggravated today when I learned she's having a sleepover with Othinus and Index in our room."
"Take it up with them. I have nothing to do with it." Despite being strangers Touma followed his desire to pet her head. Misaki's blissful smile was a treasure he wanted to covet for himself. He sighed, wrapped his arms around her soft stomach, ignored her yelp, and moved to the far side of the bed and rest his back against the wall. "I wonder who you were, Misaki, to make me feel this way."
She blushed and turned to hug him and bury her face in his chest. "Same."
This is weird. Stop acting like we're so close. Get off my lap. These thoughts crossed his head, but he didn't voice them. He wasn't actually against a beautiful girl flirting with him, and if he made her comfortable then all the better. In fact, even if he didn't lose his memories he was sure he'd have been reciprocal to her direct manner anyway. Touma was still perplexed what chain of events led to him and various other people into losing their memories, or who he was to be so close to a lot of girls before he stepped foot on Grimgar, but for now he'd make do.
Haruhiro held his elbow, rolled his shoulder and winced. It had been a grueling week of training with Barbara-sensei. His only respite was sharing his pain with Sassa. The beautiful girl ambled beside him, hands behind her back and gazing into the sunset. They made their way to the market. It was a lively area. Both sides of the street were tightly packed with food carts and street stalls. The stores had a wide variety of foods, clothing, sundries, and even more displayed out front. Energetic voices from all directions called out to get people passing by, shouting at them to try each shop.
"Sure is lively here," Sassa said, her hands behind her head. After they finished training, the pair was rewarded with old thief cloaks, well-used daggers, an equally well-used set of thief tools, and second-hand pair of thief boots. Haruhiro had an extra weapon gifted to him by Accelerator, although he was forced to promise not to tell anyone why. It was a double-edged, one-handed straight shortsword sheathed in a scabbard tied to a swordbelt over his shoulder. Haruhiro couldn't help but glance at Sassa's direction every few seconds. Despite being from the same guild, her clothes were more revealing than his and showed a lot more skin. Why was that? He wondered. Neither of them asked for more expensive versions from Othinus, who served as the main provider of anything they needed. Partly because they were proud of earning these items from the guild, but also because they didn't want to leech off Touma's group too much and wanted a little bit of self sufficiency to prove they weren't completely useless without someone holding their hand.
"Still, I can't believe Barbara-sensei gave me the code name Watermelon. I don't even like that fruit," Sassa muttered. Haruhiro could guess there was another factor which made her earn that codename, and it wasn't the green fruit.
"Yeah, well at least it isn't Old Cat," Haruhiro said in resignation and hanged his head. Sassa made a wry smile and patted his back, consoling him. "Couldn't she at least have given me a cool name? Like Panther, or Cougar, or something."
"You think Cougar's a cool name?"
"It's better than Old Cat." They stopped at Dory's Skewers. It was a shop selling meat skewers. Accelerator nibbled on a skewer of meat. He was accompanied by Ranta, Yume, Manato, Moguzo, Shihoru, and Misaki.
"Misaki-sama?" Haruhiro greeted the blonde girl in a cloak longer than his own. She winked and gave a cute smile.
"I'm here to repossess Sassa-chan," Misaki said, pirouetting to Sassa's side and wrapping her slim arms on the girl's own, trapping Sassa's arm in her buxom. "Sassa here is designated for a different team, you see. One I made with my genius ability. Well, we'll be off." Misaki pulled Sassa away. Haruhiro's eyes followed their back until they were lost in the crowd of people.
"Ah…" Haruhiro missed Sassa already. He felt their shared misery under Barbara-sensei forged a sort of friendship he couldn't share with any of the others. He glanced at his party. Manato was a good looking guy in chainmail, leather gloves and boots. A bastard sword was sheathed by his side. He greeted Haruhiro with a handshake. Moguzo was a large man, but gave the impression of a gentle giant. Strangely his equipment and Manato's were similar. He nodded at Haruhiro. Shihoru was cute, but shy, and busty. She wore a pointed black hat and a cloak of the same color. She refused to look Haruhiro in the eyes. Yume was a girl with braided auburn hair and wore a bow and a quiver of arrows behind her back and a large machete by her side. She gave a bright smile. It was infectious and Haruhiro smiled too, though he lost it when greeting Ranta. He had curly hair, was shorter than Haruhiro, which was amazing, and wore leather armor and possessed a longsword.
Accelerator ignored him. The albino wore another white jacket and clothes custom-made by Othinus. If Accelerator was anything like Barbara maybe he could recreate the atmosphere that would make everyone unite in their mutual dislike of their teacher?
"We don't have a priest," Accelerator said. "I don't need any healing because I doubt there's anything that could hurt me. But I can't say the same for the rest of you. Oh right. I don't know if there's a rule about having more than one warrior or whatever in a party but we're ignoring that."
Accelerator's words were so apathetic it was like he wasn't even bragging. But then again, he was that strong, if the impression he left on Barbara was any indication.
"Ah, speaking of," Manato said. "I was going to be a priest. But Mikoto-sama suggested I become a warrior and I couldn't turn her down."
"You know it weirds me out why you give her, or any of us, honorifics. We haven't actually done anything that special."
Manato just smiled. Haruhiro wondered if they were going to add a priest to their line-up.
"A-are we…" Shihoru paused. "Waiting for someone?"
It was like she read his mind.
"Come to think of it, Yume guesses we're going to need a priest in case of emergencies, right Accelerator-sama?" Yume spoke, referring to herself in the third person.
"Drop the honorific."
"Okay." Yume giggled, put her hands behind her back and grinned. "Accelerator-kun."
He rolled his eyes.
"I'm sorry I'm late," A girl said, walking to them. She was dressed in a hooded outfit with blue lines and ending in a skirt, and blue boots and she held a staff. She gave a cool expression, ignoring Haruhiro and the others, and deferred solely to Accelerator, who gave an apathetic grunt.
"This is Merry." Accelerator pointed to each of them. "Manato. Moguzo. Yume. Haruhiro. Ranta. Shihoru. Be nice."
"...Nice to meet you," Shihoru said, trying for a greeting, but her words came off as nothing more than a whisper. She squirmed under Merry's intense gaze.
"Well, well, well. Not bad, not bad." Ranta ignored Merry's look and smiled, rubbing his chin and nodding to himself. "We've got a cool beauty, a busty one and a ditz! None of you are as good as Mikoto-sama and Misaki-sama and the others, but you'll make do!" He gave a thumbs up. Haruhiro looked at him in disgust.
"Yume thinks you're a little rude." Yume clicked her tongue. "She doesn't have zits."
"...Creep," Shihoru whispered.
Moguzo blushed and scratched the back of his head.
Manato gave what he thought was a charming smile and offered his hand. "My name's Manato. It's nice to meet you, Merry."
To Haruhiro's surprise, Merry shook his hand. "Likewise."
Damn. Haruhiro wished he was that good speaking to other people. He felt a little jealous towards Manato. Manato just gave a reliable impression, not unlike Renji or anyone from Accelerator's group.
"Where is Misaki-san?" Merry looked for the blonde girl. "She was the one who offered me the job."
"She's busy managing another party," Accelerator said, burying his hands in his pants pocket. "We wanted a priest and you offered your services, right? Come on. Let's hunt some monsters."
It had been a few minutes since they passed by the north gate into monster territory beyond the frontier town. The woodland was oddly quiet. It soothed Haruhiro's mind. Unfortunately someone chose to disturb it.
"Here's the announcement," Ranta said, breaking the silent trek with his annoying voice. "I was going to become a warrior, but I didn't! The whole warrior thing just wasn't me. I felt that I was brimming with talent that would bloom in a different dimension, and an alternate dimension, and so I didn't join the warriors' guild!"
"Nobody cares," Haruhiro said, feeling a little proud when Shihoru gave a slight nod in agreement.
"Now listen here, sleepy eyes, I understand why you wouldn't comprehend the depths of my choices. The dark god called out to me, and told me not to become a warrior. That's not who I am. I'm bigger than that."
"We already have two warriors. I don't think a third really mattered."
"See? This proves my intellectual prowess! Man am I a genius. You should all be praising me for my smart choices."
"What guild did you join?" Manato inquired. Haruhiro was quite curious himself. Now that he scrutinized Ranta's equipment, it was quite different from Manato's or Moguzo's. Ranta grinned and pulled out a necklace with a skull trinket. Then he pointed to the breast area of his chestplate. There was a skull emblem burned into it too. "Whenever I kill, I collect vices! With enough vices I can summon a demon!"
"A demon?" Accelerator suddenly turned to Ranta, making everyone pause at the intensity of his eyes. "Qliphah…" Accelerator grimaced and buried his fingers into his scalp. "Puzzle…" He looked like he was experiencing a migraine. "545…"
"A-are you okay, sir?" Ranta asked, looking pensive.
"I think," Accelerator said, grinning victoriously. "You and I are going to get along. Let's summon demons later, Ranta-san." Accelerator patted his head like a man would pet a dog.
"Y-you're a dread knight too, sir?"
"So that's what you're called. I think Brit mentioned something about worshipping Skullhell and being opposed to Lumiaris or something."
Merry nodded. "We of the priests guild guide people to the light. Ranta here is a stray who fell to the darkness."
Ranta snorted. "You make it seem like Lumiaris is better than Skullhell, Merry-san. Let me tell you how wrong you are."
Haruhiro ignored the theological debate that followed and contemplated Accelerator's words. If he also had a demon that meant he was a dread knight. But summoning a demon required vices and earning vices required sacrificing lives. Then again, he didn't find it hard to imagine Accelerator accumulating that much vice in a single day.
Accelerator always gave the impression of a bloodthirsty monster restraining itself, at least to Haruhiro.
"Bah!" Ranta pointed at Accelerator. "Even Accelerator is a dread knight! Doesn't this prove the dread knight guild superior to you priests and your inexplicable worship of Lumiaris?"
"Accelerator-san never claimed he was a dread knight, you idiot," Merry said.
"Who are you calling an idiot? And common sense dictates that anyone who could summon a demon would be a dread knight. Is that head of yours only there to make you look pretty? You have a brain. Use it."
"I am using it. My brain's telling me to ignore you when you get stabbed. Thank you, Ranta, for imploring me." Merry nodded solemnly. Ranta must've irked her quite well to make her that talkative in the brief time they've known each other.
Ranta gaped, looked at Accelerator who he assumed was his fellow dread knight and would therefore back him up, received a snort from the albino, and realize he was all alone. Ranta narrowed his eyes, raised his arms, and moved.
He got on his knees. "Oh please forgive this lesser one for insulting you, Merry-sama!" He kowtowed and accidentally hit a pebble with his head. He immediately sat up with a scream and rubbed his head. Merry passed by him, following after Accelerator. The bruise located on his forehead was visible for all to see.
"I'm not healing that," she said.
The south of Alterna was a place Hamazura, Kakine and Renji traveled. Renji warned them of the dangers if they went too far, but then assured them they would be fine so long as they had Accelerator with them. In the distance Haruhiro observed the Tenryu Mountain Range.
"We'll be hunting mud goblins, ghouls and whatever else this world has to offer." Accelerator kicked a pebble into a hole in the earth. They passed through the forest, led by the albino. Maybe because they were being escorted by someone powerful the threat didn't feel real. Haruhiro didn't know what he would've done if it wasn't for Accelerator recruiting them into his gang. He'd probably be living on the streets.
"We'll be following the area Kakine explored. You need experience points for violence on the off-chance you're in a situation where none of us could help."
They all nodded. Right now Accelerator functioned much like a teacher and they his students. Merry tilted her head. Technically she was an outsider, but since she was a volunteer soldier that came from the same tower as them they didn't mind as much, is what Accelerator told him.
"You speak as if you plan to protect them forever," Merry said. "That's quite a boast, sir."
"People shouldn't endanger their lives just for cash. I don't know what world I used to live in, but I don't want it to be the normal in this one." Accelerator continued into the forest. The rest of them paused, sometimes surprised by the burned detritus or goblin corpses lying around. What a graveyard.
He stopped on a clearing, a slope beyond it overlooking a spring. The first thing that came to Haruhiro's mind was scrawny. It was the size of a human child. With yellow skin wrinkled and covered with mud. It had pointy ears and a string tied around its neck. It was a mud goblin. It crouched and made slurping sounds, drinking from the spring.
Two more mud goblins emerged from behind a large tree, ten meters away.
"Okay, here's the plan." Accelerator huddled them all together, forming a circle between them. To his right was Ranta, and to his Manato, and to his Moguzo, to his Merry, to hers Yume, to hers Shihoru, and to Shihoru's Haruhiro. "This is just practice, all right? We have all day. For now I want you to try your weapons. Or in Shihoru's case, magic."
Accelerator turned to the three mud goblins. "I'll take one down. You hurry up and terminate the other two."
"Right!" Haruhiro said.
"Understood," Manato added.
"Roger!" Yume gave a salute.
"...Okay," Shihoru confirmed.
"Sure thing." Moguzo unsheathed his sword.
"I'll protect Shihoru. You can count on me," Merry said, nodding to Accelerator.
"You've got it boss!" Ranta all but screamed, tipping off the three mud goblins. One of them had a bow and a quiver of arrows. It nocked an arrow into its bow and released the string. Merry paused, looking in horror. The arrowhead was an inch from her left eye. Accelerator held the shaft and snapped it in two.
"Stupid," he said, glaring at Ranta, who turned white. He faced the three mud goblins and grinned. "Not bad! My turn!" He leaped down the slope, covering the distance between them. The archer goblin fired another arrow. It hit Accelerator's chest.
"Accelerator-san!" Merry bit her lip in worry. She glared at Haruhiro's group. "What the hell are you all waiting for? Help him!"
"Okay," Haruhiro said, looking queasy. He extracted his dagger and looked to Moguzo and Manato. Holding their bastard swords, the two led the party into the spring. Despite taking an arrow to his chest, it slid down Accelerator's skin and fell to the ground. The archer goblin panicked as he closed the distance. Accelerator stepped towards it and buried the arrowhead into its eye. The mud goblin slumped. The nearest one two meters away hissed and grabbed its baselard, a heavy short sword. Accelerator grabbed the dead goblin's head and used its back as a shield, blocking the slash with its skull. The hostile goblin released a battle cry and took another swing. Accelerator spun the halved arrow in his fingers and buried the shaft into its throat, drawing blood that sprayed into his face, and then back to the mud goblin. He grabbed the baselard from its fingers, slashed its nose and cheeks, and threw the baselard into the back of the remaining mud goblin running down the spring. With inhuman speed he slid down the earth and reached the falling mud goblin and stomped the back of its head, snapping its neck with a crack.
"A-Accelerator-san?" Merry asked, looking worried.
Haruhiro wasn't. He looked in awe at the sheer carnage. So did most of the others. Except for Manato, who approached one of the bodies. When Accelerator left the water, Haruhiro noticed the lack of wet shoes. His clothes were completely dry. It was his overwhelming power that bested Britney and impressed Barbara. But now Haruhiro witnessed its application on a whole new level. They witnesses his fighting prowess on a whole new level.
"None of you attacked?" Accelerator tilted his head. Yume was busy collecting the arrows from the quiver of the dead goblin. Haruhiro at least managed to look sheepish. To his surprise Accelerator nodded in approval. "If one party member can handle the fight, the rest of you should be watching out for potential enemies from your immediate surroundings. We're in hostile territory, so it's never safe until you've returned into the city. That was going to be my lesson, but it seems you're already aware. Good. Pick up the loot if you want. We don't really need it but whatever."
"H-how did you do that?" Merry rushed towards him, looking at his chest. "I saw it. The goblin released an arrow. It hit your chest. But there's no wounds?"
"Relax. I'm unhurt." He took a gentler voice, befuddling Haruhiro. Accelerator typically held a no-nonsense attitude and didn't appreciate those who wasted his time. But he didn't mind Merry checking his body for wounds and calmly waited for her to reassess her assumption.
"You're not human?" Merry tilted her head and concluded.
"Nah. I just have superpowers. Think of them like Shihoru's magic, but unique to me." He returned to the spring and pulled the baselard from the back of the dead mud goblin. The baselard glistened with red blood. "This shit ain't bad. Oh, and Merry. Try to keep your knowledge of my abilities to yourself."
"Good. Come on." He licked a large tree over the spring, creating a bridge. "Let's hunt more goblins."
They found another mud goblin on their way to the woodland beyond the spring. Accelerator slammed his forearm on its head. As if it was hit by steel, the mud goblin's neck snapped and it was buried into the cavity of a tree beside it. He took its dagger and sunk it into the forehead of the next goblin they found, who had a companion looking in horror. Accelerator raised the baselard. The goblin raised its machete. It lost an eye in the exchange. Accelerator slashed the baselard down its wrist, lopping its hand off. He took the machete by force and swung, beheading the mud goblin.
Leaves rustled from the canopy. Accelerator looked up. He threw the machete. A scream of pain followed and then a mud goblin fell on its back on some shrubs. It clutched the remainder of its leg, missing the shin. Its foot was a distance away. Blood dripped from the tree branch the machete was impaled to.
"Shihoru," Accelerator called.
"Y-yes?" She stepped forward. The rest of the group gathered the loot from the bodies. Hollowed coins and wolf fangs were extracted from the strings on their neck. One was soaked in blood from the goblin missing its head, and Ranta was the chosen one destined to take it. Shihoru looked deathly pale and afraid.
"Try your magic on this stationary target." Accelerator pointed to the wounded mud goblin with disinterest. It snarled and pulled a dagger from its back. Accelerator threw the baselard into its shoulder. It released the dagger and howled in pain.
"She's so lucky," Ranta said, looking longingly at the wounded goblin. "I wish I could kill it."
Haruhiro felt disgust at his fellow human being.
"I-I…" She bit her lips in worry and hesitation. Not good, Haruhiro thought, as Accelerator looked at Shihoru with impatience. Manato stepped forward and swung his bastard sword into the goblins' head. It stopped moving.
Manato glared at Accelerator, Shihoru shrinking behind him. Surprising all of them once again, Accelerator nodded in approval. "Not bad, Manato." He turned, the dead goblin behind him, and ambled forward. "Not bad at all."
"Ah, man. It was a test? I wish I knew so I could look cool like Manato." Ranta spoke to Haruhiro like they were the best of friends. It made him shiver.
He vanished into the forest. A second later something else came out screaming. A goblin landed on top of the group, who immediately formed a circle. It coughed dirt and wiped spittle from its mouth. It clutched a familiar weapon in its left hand. A heavy short sword.
"Son of a bitch!" Ranta moved in panic. He swung his longsword into its head. The mud goblin raised its baselard and blocked the attack with a clang. It punched Ranta's pelvis, drawing an agonized cry from the dread knight. It motioned its knife for a thrust. Merry swung her staff on its head, breaking its nose. Moguzo slammed the flat of his sword into its chest, sending it flying. Its back hit a tree.
"Yume's got this!" She nocked an arrow. It sailed through the air and pierced the goblins' shoulder, digging into the bark. The goblin snarled and pulled it out with a hiss. Blood dripped from the wound. It clutched the baselard and tried to make a run for it.
"Marc em Parc…!" A bead of light was fired from Shihoru's staff. It struck the mud goblins' wounded shoulder. It cried in pain and lost its balance, its face falling into the earth. Haruhiro charged after it, and in his haste missed the large root snaring his foot. He followed after the mud goblin and tripped on his face. They were eye to eye. Haruhiro yelped and slashed with his dagger. The goblin slashed with its baselard. It proved stronger and pushed and pushed his own blade against his throat. Haruhiro and the mud goblin exchanged desperate snarls in their attempts to live.
A slash tore its arm holding the sword from its shoulder. It yelped in surprise and looked at the blood spraying from its stump. Haruhiro buried his knife into its eye socket. Manato followed with another slash, cuttings its forehead.
Haruhiro was sprayed with blood from Manato's attack. And then the dead body stopped bleeding. He got up and sighed. Manato was similarly drenched in red from the stump that pointed to his direction when he cut its arm off.
"You okay?" Manato asked, ever the caring leader.
"Thanks to you," Haruhiro said, smiling wryly. From the periphery of his vision Merry closed her eyes and made the sign of the hexagram. She did that for every mud goblin they killed. And including Accelerator's victims, that was a lot.
"Good work," Manato said, sighing in relief. He briefly closed his eyes and then approached his companions.
"Good work, Shihoru." Manato patted her shoulder. "Yume." He gave her a thumbs up. "Merry." They shared a nod. "Moguzo." He offered a fist. Moguzo bumped it with his own. "Ranta." Manato kneeled beside Ranta who was lying on the detritus. "Good job."
"What are you congratulating me for? I'm useless." He looked away.
"That's not true," Manato said, vehemently shaking his head. "You were the first to move and drew all the goblins' attention into yourself, protecting the rest of us. If it wasn't for you, one of us could've seriously gotten hurt."
"Oh, so what happened to me perfectly a-okay." Ranta growled. But he accepted Manato's offered hand and was pulled to his feet. He saw the corpse and whistled. "You all did a number on it, huh? And I'm supposed to be the dark knight here. Who needs me when we've got all of you?"
"Is anyone hurt?" Merry inquired, ignoring her counterpart. "Manato? Haruhiro?"
"We're good," Manato said, smiling charmingly. Merry returned it. She gave an inquisitive glance towards Haruhiro. He felt embarrassed by his dirty state from the blood stains on his face to the dirt and leaves clinging to his clothes. But he wasn't hurt.
"I'm good," he said. Merry nodded and sighed in relief before returning to her stoic self.
"This is the first time you've all went out on an excursion, is it?" she asked.
"Yup! And we did swellingly!" Ranta puffed his chest and grinned. "All thanks to me! Even Manato said so."
"Don't get it in your head, or Yume will pop it up if it swells too big." Yume threatened him by nocking an arrow.
"Hey, is that the way to treat your savior? I'm the reason we're all alive! It's thanks to me. Me!" Ranta screamed when Yume shot the arrow. It flew an inch from his cheek and dug into the tree behind him.
"Don't ya wet yourself now," Yume said, passing him to retrieve her arrow. "Funny way to end the day."
"Who said it's ending?" Accelerator emerged from the woods. "It's not over until I say it's over, kiddies." He grabbed a tree and sunk his fingers into its bark. He uprooted the tree, a tremor following his deracination. He threw it beyond the canopy. Cries and snarls were heard across the forest. "Here they come," Accelerator said in excitement.
"I can't believe you." Manato groaned and stepped beside him, the two forming the vanguard. "Moguzo?" The gentle giant joined them. "Shihoru, Merry, get behind us. Yume, Haru, protect them. Ranta, be the rearguard."
A chorus of shouts met his orders. Accelerator just grinned, amused. Something glimmered and emerged from the darkness of the forest. Manato swung his blade and blocked the arrowhead with the edge of his sword.
Yume narrowed her eyes and nocked an arrow. The first mud goblin that emerged from the shadow carried a spear. She released the arrow. It pierced the mud gob's right eye. The mud gob shrieked in pain. It grabbed the arrow and tried to pull it out. A second arrow sailed harmlessly over its head. "Marc Em Pac…" A bead of light slammed into its chest, knocking it into the ground. Another arrow pierced its left eye. It stopped moving.
"Y-Yume, when did you become so good!?" Ranta exclaimed.
"Yume doesn't know either!" Yume nocked another arrow. "Incoming!"
Three more mud goblins emerged, wielding a dagger, a short sword, and the last picking up the spear of the fallen. It didn't have its own weapons? From behind the three mud gobs, five more spread out. All of them carried wooden spears with the tips sharpened into points.
Spears? And why was one mud goblin unarmed? A more experienced marksman would've taken it out with a good shot to the head. Yet it chose to make itself vulnerable just to pick up a fallen weapon? Haruhiro felt like something was wrong, somehow. He panicked. He couldn't do this. There were so many of them. He was going to die. Oh god he was going to die. His hands shook from how he clutched his dagger. Manato and Moguzo kept up a brave front, but they were special. Ranta wasn't able to completely hide his shakings ether. Shihoru was about to cry. Yume and Merry were made of stronger stuff, Yume appearing determined, and Merry gazing into Accelerator's back.
Something hit him, like a wave or a gust of wind, and made him dizzy. No. He could say it was the complete opposite. It made him aware. He had to do this. He had to survive. He dismissed the negative thoughts. Introspection could continue later. They were in for a battle of their lives. He retracted his dagger and unsheathed his shortsword, feeling better holding a larger weapon.
"Rah!" The dagger mud gob charged to Accelerator. The short sword mud gob attacked Manato. The spear mud gob stabbed for Moguzo. Accelerator ignored the slash, the blade bending when it touched his skin, and reached for the mud gob's neck. He snapped it and threw the body away. Manato blocked the short sword, slid his blade down and attempted to cut the mud goblins' fingers off. The mud goblin jumped back at the last second. A shadow followed behind it. The mud goblin slashed in panic. Accelerator blocked the sword with his palm. He redirected the blade and it cut the mud goblins' face. Manato charged the mud goblin poking Moguzo with its spear. It saw his approach and stabbed at him. He blocked the thrust. Moguzo slashed sideways. The mud goblin blocked the bastard sword. It shattered the wooden spear and tore the mud goblin in half. Two more of the spear mud goblins charged Moguzo and Manato. Accelerator was about to join them when another arrow sailed through the air. He blocked it with a swipe of his arm. He scowled.
"I hate snipers." He grabbed another tree and threw it beyond the canopy. Another tremor followed. Ten more mud goblins charged from the woodland. Haruhiro didn't have anymore time to focus on the fight. A spear stabbed at him. He blocked it with his shortsword. The mud goblin snarled and kept poking at him. He wasn't as good with a sword as he was with a dagger and could only defend. Haruhiro grimaced. He was at a disadvantage. He needed an opening. Yume similarly struggled against another spear wielding mud goblin. Yume tried to attack one with her machete. It simply pulled back and thrust from a safer distance. Ranta was the only one trading blows with his enemy on equal ground.
"Marc em Pac!" A bead of light hit the head of the mud goblin attacking Haruhiro, disorienting it. He lunged, extracted his dagger, stabbed into its eye, and slammed his palm into his pommel. Blood seeped through the wound, trickling down the eye socket. The mud gob fell. Haruhiro sheathed his knife and sword and grabbed the wooden spear. He stabbed the goblin attacking Yume, sinking the spear into its foot. The mud goblin howled in pain and tried to stab at him while it retreated. He stepped out of reach of its spear. It wasn't able to do the same when Yume swiped its arm. She didn't cut it off completely like Accelerator did, but the arm snapped and bone protruded from the skin. Haruhiro thrust the spear into its thigh. The mud goblin cried, holding onto its weapon even as it fell. Haruhiro continued stabbing its legs, one after the other. The mud gob made a futile attempt to defend itself, but it was limited with its legs torn into pieces. Haruhiro speared its eye and pushed until the spear emerged from the back of its head. Yume took the spear of the dead mud goblin and charged the one facing Ranta. Her spear penetrated its knuckles and burst through its palm. The mud goblin shrieked in pain. Ranta slammed his sword into its head, again and again. He wasn't killing it with the blade, but smashing its head with blunt force.
Haruhiro gulped and extracted his shortsword, looking at the two mud goblins with their very long spears. He blocked a thrust. Another poked his forearm. He bit back a scream and ignored the heat growing from his arm. The adrenaline kept him going. Another block. Another poke. This time to his left thigh. "Gah!" Haruhiro screamed. Ranta and Yume must be facing off against more opponents if they couldn't come to his aid. He blocked a thrust. Another spear whacked the side of his head and cut his forehead. Blood leaked from the wound, seeping down the left side of his face.
"O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you. Cure!" Light shone out from behind him. The warm light startled the mud goblins, making them take two step backs. That same light sealed Haruhiro's wounds in an instant. Three seconds for his shoulder. Three seconds for his forehead. Three seconds for his thigh. The healing was complete. The mud goblins charged simultaneously. One spear aimed for his shoulder, the other for his leg. Haruhiro blocked one spear. A staff slammed on the ground and halted the other with a thud. "You will not harm my teammate!"
Haruhiro and Merry were stuck on the defensive, blocking and dodging the pokes of the mud goblins. But they weren't pushed back. They stood their grounds. It was just a matter of time. The backdrop of weapons cutting flesh and dying cries painted a grim picture of battle in Haruhiro's mind. The mud goblin poked. He swiped. The spear thrust. He blocked. It slashed. He dodged. A blur charged from his left, the mud goblins' right. Its body spun, fingers releasing the wooden spear, and its head flew in the air. Manato slashed the second mud goblins' wrist, and then its head.
"Are you two alright?" Manato asked. He was coated in as much blood as Haruhiro, but none of it his.
"We're fine!" Merry said. "We need to get out of here! This place will be the death of us!"
Manato shook his head. "We're not leaving."
"What!?" Both Haruhiro and Merry said in unison and disbelief.
"Accelerator's our only ticket out of here, and he doesn't want to back down." Manato raised his bastard sword and pointed behind them. "Let's go. Up there."
It was a mountain of mud goblin corpses stacked on top of each other. A rivulet of blood circled the foot of the bodies. The sheer number of bodies required to create a hillock was mind-boggling. How many enemies did they kill? And he couldn't even handle two of them? He spotted large trees on either side of the stacks of corpses, accumulating the bodies without letting them spread. When did that happen?
"Haru!" Merry said, shortening his name in a hurry. She stepped on the back of a dead mud goblin, Shihoru further up ahead. "Come on!"
"R-right!" He stepped on a mud goblins' head, the tongue sticking out of its mouth. He took another step, on a goblin missing its back. He could see the cavities, the ribs, and the organs that weren't crushed on the hole on its chest. He took another step, this time to a mud goblin with its head facing its back. The next one had a sword impaled on its head and emerged from its chin. Another had its intestines outside its stomach. He stepped on something squishy beside a mud goblin missing the top of its head. It might've its brain. One mud goblin was missing its eyes. He stepped on the head of another. Its mouth opened involuntarily. Two eyeballs rolled down its tongue. Did Accelerator pluck those out of the other mud goblin? He stepped on the spine of a mud goblin missing its arms. It cried in pain. It was still alive!? A longsword swung down its neck, killing it.
"Nice!" Ranta said. He looked like a maniac, grinning with blood soaking his cheeks. A large gash was spread across his chestplate. "I am accumulating so many vices right now!"
"You say that but Yume's been the one doin' all the killin'!" Yume nocked an arrow and shot something beyond Haruhiro's line of sight. There was a cut on her fingertips, probably from using the bow for too long. Her quiver was almost out of arrows. Only ten remained. "Come on. Accelerator-sama has a plan!" The rearguard consisted of Manato and Moguzo frantically killing the stragglers that got through Accelerator. A large body of mud goblins marched to their deaths fighting Accelerator with no sense of self preservation. They couldn't have been farther from humanity than at that moment. One of the dead mud goblins had an arrow sticking out of its chest. Haruhiro felt a pang of jealousy. He came from the same batch as Moguzo and Manato, yet they fought side by side with Accelerator and he did not. It was stupid, but he envied them fighting on the front lines.
A large gust of wind exploded from Accelerator's back. Four tornado-like wings took shape behind him. Moguzo and Manato retreated, following Haruhiro and the others up the slope of dead and dying mud goblins. Haruhiro reached the peak of the corpse mountain and looked down the other side. It was only ten steps, maybe twenty. Why did he feel so tired? His breathing was ragged. His clothes drenched in sweat. There was a stench of feces and urine permeating the air, mixing with the blood and organs littering the forest. The detritus must be soaked in red, Haruhiro guessed. Accelerator slammed into thick trees, uprooting them and then sending the uprooted trees tumbling down, blocking the pathway to the clearing. He repeated the action a few more times. It was like miniature earthquakes occurred with Accelerator at the epicenter.
And then Haruhiro saw no more as he ran down the slope.
Six mud goblins waited for them at the foot of the slope. Spears at the ready. Haruhiro was surprised. Where did those come from? They must've hidden themselves among the dead and waited in ambush. Shihoru, caught off guard, tried to step back. A spear pierced her shoulder.
"No!" Haruhiro screamed. Yume nocked an arrow and released. It hit the shoulder of her target, the mud goblin growling as it charged her. Letting go of her bow, Yume responded with a war cry and met the spear with her machete. Ranta screamed in fury and slashed with his longsword, his opponent blocking it with their spear, their faces inches apart. Merry grabbed the weapon of the spear wielding goblin attacking Shihoru and furiously slammed her staff on its head repeatedly. Moguzo sliced from the side. The mud goblin nimbly dodged his bastard sword, stepped on the flat of his blade and thrust its spear. Manato killed one goblin in a single thrust of his sword and frantically fought another. Haruhiro ran behind the mud goblin Merry was attacking, locked his arm around its throat and his dagger stabbed its back. Backstab was apparently a skill learned at the thieves guild, refined to perfection. Haruhiro couldn't hope to recreate that on his own and his version was messy and didn't sink immediately. He hit bone and had to push forward, grunting with the messy kill. The mud goblin snarled even as it coughed blood. He twisted the knife, pulled it out, and stabbed it again. When the mud gob stopped resisting, he let it fall to the ground, soaking its head in the rivulet of blood.
"O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you. Cure!" Warm light from Merry's palm shined upon Shihoru's wound. While Merry tended to Shihoru, Haruhiro charged the mud goblin fighting Yume. It saw his advance and poked the spear towards him. He backed off. Yume slashed with her machete. The goblin fell a step back. Haruhiro ran around it. It turned to the side and slashed at him with its spear. The tip cut his elbow, but hit bone. He groaned. Yume slammed her machete into the goblins' back. It cried and responded with its spear, offering its back to Haruhiro. He took it, leaped a step and buried his dagger into its spine. Yume grabbed the arrow from its shoulder, pulling it and drawing another cry from the struggling mud goblin, and then pierced the arrowhead into its eye socket. Moguzo was done with his opponent cleaved in half and slashed at the one fighting Ranta. Manato's blade emerged from the back of the mud goblin he was fighting. He pulled it out with a twist and kicked the body into the pile.
They were all gasping, exhausted from the sheer scale that happened in less than five minutes. From watching Accelerator kill their enemies and collecting the loot, to taking down the first mud goblin Accelerator offered, to fighting off an entire horde.
A deafening explosion followed. Wind smacked against his body. Haruhiro felt his eardrums burst. He held his ears. Something red stained his hand. Blood. He was bleeding. Haruhiro fell to his knees. Most of the others were in similarly stunned states. Merry was taxing herself healing everyone else. "O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you. Cure," she said, over and over, burning through her energy just to fix them up. They rested for two minutes in complete silence afterwards.
"And it's our first day out," Haruhiro complained even as he looked wearily at every tree and bush, as if they hid an enemy. "If everyday's this crazy I don't think I can survive it." Shihoru shivered and hugged Merry. Despite her attempt at a poker face, Merry gave in, revealed a caring expression and rubbed Shihoru's back.
"Why were they all using sticks?" Manato asked, looking at the mountain of corpses. "The first eight mud goblins had a variety of weapons. One of them even lacked a weapon. But other than the dagger goblin, sword goblin and the archer goblin, none of the other ones in this forest used anything other than spears."
Haruhiro internally agreed, but didn't voice his opinion. Those mud goblins could've used the spears to stab his throat or eyes, but he almost always blocked it with his dagger even when he was a novice? Accelerator could only do so much to protect them. Still, it was just a passing thought. No enemy would be crazy enough to risk their own lives playing with rookies. Not with Accelerator on their heel.
"Who cares, man?" Ranta spat into the open mouth of a corpse. "These things are dead. Maybe we ran into a weird tribe or something. Who knows how these gobs operate."
"Let's just get out of here," Haruhiro said, still on edge. "It's a miracle we're still alive at all. I'm surprised none of us are dead."
"It's Accelerator-sama," Moguzo said. Yume nodded.
"That man helped Yume out when she was bindin'!" Yume chirped.
"You mean, in a bind?" Haruhiro inquired.
"Shush," Merry said, raising a hand. "Listen."
Haruhiro did. He frowned, closed his eyes, and noticed something odd. There was no sound. Not a shriek of pain or the last cry of death. That meant Accelerator won. The party formed a circle, with Manato at the vanguard, Haruhiro and Yume flanking Shihoru and Merry, and Ranta and Moguzo as the rearguard. Their group ran around the tree surrounding the stacked mud goblin bodies. The clearing was a mess. Gouges were left on unearthed land where trees used to be. Accelerator was observing a mud goblin by his foot. Its entire body was flattened. The field was littered with flat bodies. The trees he uprooted covered most of the pathways through the rest of the forest. It was now a dead-end.
"You're all still alive." He smirked. "Good job. If anyone wants to get the loot feel free." He raised an arm, offering the mountain of corpses. Haruhiro grimaced. He might get sick doing a job as taxing as gathering all the strings from the countless dead bodies. "Well," Accelerator continued, walking pass them to the exit, the same path they took into the forest. "I'm outta here."
They all shared a look and hurried after him. He was the only one strong enough to continue fighting even after battling an army. The rest of them wouldn't last against one enemy. And so they followed him back into Alterna.
Misaki stood on the cliff of a hill overlooking the forest. A breeze swept over her alluring body covered under her cloak. Her blonde hair was like gold, melting with the sun on the sky. Her star-like irises twinkled with mirth and her lips curled into a playful smile. Sassa couldn't help but admire the beautiful girl before her, more ethereal than flesh.
A yellow creature kneeled on the grassy land behind her. A static sound clouded her mind. Sassa shook her head, ignored it and approached her lady. "Misaki-same! I've made more spears!" She held a bundle in her arms tied with a red rope. The tip was sharpened with her dagger and then thrown over the ledge.
"Oh?" Misaki extracted a white doll from a bag under her cloak. It was a way to channel her powers, she explained when Sassa inquired. She couldn't take all the brain waves flooding her mind and needed a way to limit herself from imploding. "Are you aware why we sent Manato's team into the forest?"
"To learn from Accelerator-sama?"
"More than that." Misaki combed her hair behind her ear. "They needed to grow out of their shell. They're rookies from a batch oddly less experienced than ours, no offense." None taken, Sassa wanted to say. She settled for a nod. It would be rude to interrupt Misaki. "The disparity in abilities is simply staggering. They wouldn't survive by themselves out in the wild. This serves as a practice for them in a controlled environment."
"Doubly serves as a confidence boost." Misaki rolled a thread of her hair in her gloved forefinger. "Let us hope from here on out they can manage for themselves." She turned to Sassa. "You can let go now."
"Oh. Huh?" Sassa released the bundle of sticks over the ledge and watched it careen into the forest below. What are those sticks for? She wondered.
"What sticks?" Misaki raised the doll over her mouth and spoke in a funny voice. Her eyes shimmered with power. "There aren't any sticks here. Mr. Dolly says so."
"Right." But then, what have they been doing the entire day?
"We were getting to know each other."
Sassa smiled. Of course. Misaki was so thoughtful like that. She glanced at the kneeling creature and frowned. There it was again. The static sound in her mind.
"Oh, right. I should remove the filter before I forget." Misaki snapped her fingers.
It was a mud goblin. Sassa gasped, glared at the ugly creature and unsheathed her dagger. "Misaki-same! Behind you!" The mud goblin rose to its feet and looked at her, widened its eyes in realization, and growled. Strangely enough, it didn't even register Misaki's presence, ignored her like she wasn't even there, invisible. Just as well. Sassa rushed the mud goblin, that chose to glare at her instead of doing anything else. It didn't even block her dagger burying into its eye, although it did shriek in pain. Sassa slammed her boot into its chest and pushed it off the cliff.
"Good work." Misaki cupped Sassa's cheek. Misaki bit her lip and giggled. "You're amazing, Sassa-chan."
"T-thank you," she croaked, heat rushing into her face. Misaki pulled back her hand into her cloak and made her way into a small forest. In the clearing there was a swirling gold portal hovering above a circle drawn on the earth. A one-eyed totem pole stood at the center. Misaki entered the portal. Sassa followed her, leaving the hill.
When they returned to Iron Tavern they all washed up and met back at the pub by the second floor. Haruhiro rested on a chair with his back to to the wall. They chose a table away from the balcony where most of the members of Accelerator's group dined. He was nursing a wooden mug of mead with his hands and savored the sweet flavor.
There was a minor difference, however.
"So Accelerator was like, super amazing, am I right?" Saiai was a girl younger than Haruhiro. She had brown hair in a bob-cut. Bright brown eyes. A face he wasn't adverse into saying would be cute. She was cheerful, but not as thoughtful as Mikoto and Index. She wore a pink sweater and extremely short shorts. Her boots kicked the floor in her excitement. "Tell me more about what he did."
"Yeah, well, it's not just him, you know?" Ranta said, unable to help himself and his inability to stop bragging. He wore a red shirt and black shorts. Skullhell's logo was marked on his left chest. Custom-made by Othinus. Haruhiro wondered where she got all the material to design these things. "We all did something amazing. A bunch of beginner adventurers on their first night out lasting that long was pretty fucking cool, and I did most of the heavy lifting. After Accelerator-sama, of course."
Saiai ignored him and turned to Manato, who smiled charmingly. He wore a blue turtleneck, brown pants and shoes. He must've been a scholar in their previous life to ask for those kinds of clothing. Saiai grinned like a cat and laid her arm into the table, her hands cupping her cheeks. "You were super impressive, Ranta, I'll say. I heard you took down enemies with a single stroke. That's truly something," she said, praising Ranta while obviously referencing someone else. Manato humbly lowered his head, acknowledging her praises. Ranta, not taking the hint, puffed his chest and bellowed a laugh.
"See? She gets it! Why can't the rest of you see the light!"
"Keep talking like that and your head's gonna get bigger." Merry's cool gaze tempered Ranta's ego-trip. Every now and then she would look at their strange clothes in fascination.
"If that does happen Yume can pop it up like a balloon," Yume said, miming a nock. What's a balloon? Haruhiro thought. Yume wore a tank top and shorts under a jacket, all white with velvet lines on either side.
"H-hey! Speaking of, speaking of! You almost killed me earlier, you know? I almost died when you shot that arrow!" Ranta angrily pointed at her.
"Why are you disappointed?" Yume puffed her cheeks. "Don't ya want to embrace darkness and be with your lord Skullhell?"
"After I enjoy life! We'll all be embraced by Lord Skullhell, master of death and god of darkness. Praise be to his name!"
"...Why are you here, S-Saiai-san?" Shihoru inquired. She wore a violet floral dress. Her hair was still wet and a white towel dangled from her neck.
"What? Don't like the company? It's okay I can leave."
"N-not like that…" Shihoru whimpered.
"What she meant was she was just curious about you joining our table," Manato intervened. He paused and checked passing people. Sometimes he would look at the people passing by, looking for their missing member. No sign of Moguzo yet. What was keeping him so long?
"If you're here to discuss Accelerator-sama, then that's all well and good. But remember, we just survived a ridiculous battle on our first day. We'd like some time to ourselves. Though I am surprised to find you here, Merry."
"Actually, I was with Saiai." Merry wore a blue dress and a shawl. She sat beside Saiai. She coughed when she drew everyone's attention. "As you are aware, Misaki-san was the one to recruit me into this organization. I am quite familiar with Shinohara-"
"From Orion," Saiai said, interrupting her.
"And he in turn introduced me to Misaki," Merry continued, not missing a beat. "Who at the time was with Sassa and Saiai. I am actually quite surprised to have tagged along with Accelerator-san's team at all. But I ran under the assumption he was a seasoned veteran. He certainly gave the image. And goblins are not that dangerous in small numbers. What I didn't expect was Accelerator-san's sheer power. What was that?"
Saiai shrugged. "Our batch has a lot of unique individuals."
"Surely none as mighty as Accelerator-san. He was strong, fast, and impregnable to harm. What's more. He could control the wind itself."
"You saw those wings too?" Ranta laughed. "What the hell was that? I mean, I get the whole strong, fast, and tough deal. It's a superhuman package. But wind?"
Haruhiro, Shihoru, Yume, Manato and Saiai looked at him disbelief. Is he an idiot? Accelerator was quite open with them about his abilities. Merry tilted her head. He imagined a question mark popping above her head. She was curious about their secrets, but thankfully didn't press for more.
"Where's the big guy?" Saiai asked, counting them. "I swear there was six of you, discounting Merry."
"And I'm actually working for Misaki-san," Merry added. "She paid me in addition to the money we distributed from the loot Index-san sold. I'm actually quite surprised by the function of this group. It's quite organized."
"Hey!" Ranta slammed his hand on the table. "Are you telling me you got paid more than us? After everything we've been through? After everything I've been through? That's not fair, girl."
"Girl?" Merry narrowed her eyes.
"Um, I mean, madam. Yeah. That works. Madam. That just ain't fair! Why should we give you any of the cut if you're already paid more than us!?"
"Because I fought with you? I even healed that ugly contusion on your head you didn't even acquire from battling mud goblins but by slamming your head into the ground."
Saiai laughed. "Is that true, oh great and mighty Ranta-sama?"
"I-it's only because Merry's so scary!" He cried when her eyes sharpened.
"Keep diggin' that hole," Yume said. "We might just bury your head in it."
"...How much is she paying you, Merry-san?" Shihoru asked. Merry opened her hand. "F-five gold?"
"Per day, is the agreement we came to." Merry gave a rare grin. "It makes me feel important. I don't know what Misaki-san saw in me, but I'm thankful for the employment and strive to do my best. Technically, I only joined your party on her order. Officially I'm her new retainer."
"How the hell did she get so rich!?" Ranta cried. "I-I want to have money, too. Money to spend on booze and girls and all those good stuff!"
Shihoru looked at him like he was a disgusting bug. Yume rolled her eyes. Merry let out a small sigh. Saiai laughed. "You are a sad little man if you think spending money is the key to getting laid. Be more like Manato. He won't spend a copper. Hell, I'm sure people would buy him drinks to get into his pants."
"It's her power, probably," Manato said. "I'm not quite sure what it is."
"Mental Out," Saiai said without meaning to. She covered her mouth in surprise.
"Yeah. I sort of know people's abilities in my batch. Not all of them, of course. I don't know Index or Othinus' abilities, but I know the others. Not inclined to tell you unless they do. It's a need to know thing. No offense."
"None taken. I have been wondering why your batch works so well together."
"It's Touma," Saiai said. "For some odd reason most of the people that matter follow his lead. I don't particularly care about him. Mugino and Takitsubo share my sentiment. Hamazura however likes Touma, a lot. And well, I like Hamazura so I'm just hanging around."
"You think it's because you all came from the same area from your past life?"
"Definitely. Whatever we do know constantly overlaps. Like Academy City. Ever heard of it?"
"Not quite. Does anyone here do?" He looked around the table. They all denied it.
"A shame," Saiai said. "That's a super downer. Hey, wanna get some beer? It's on me."
"Aren't you a little too young to drink alcohol?" Ranta asked.
"Changed my mind. Everyone but Ranta. Drink's on me."
They all cheered. Except for Ranta. His complaints fell on deaf ears.
Merry, out of pity more than anything else, decided to treat Ranta to a meal and some drinks. Moguzo arrived, wearing a black shirt and brown pants. He was apparently late because he met up with Renji, who took an interest to him. As a party member, he clarified, to avoid a misunderstanding. A waiter arrived with food and drinks.
Haruhiro needed to use the bathroom. He told them he'd come back and left the table. Down the stairs to the first floor a hall led to the bathroom. After doing his business and washing his hands from a bucket constantly filled with water. A gasp from one of the wooden stalls caught his attention. It was slightly open. He peeked and found attractive legs leading into a hand gripping a backside wrapped in a short black skirt, revealing a fit body in a black dress, the shoulder up covered in light brown hair. Another girl was beside her, in a disheveled pink thing called a tracksuit, pulled upward and baring her midriff and holding Mugino's ass. Mugino's back and Takitsubo pressed to the wall, with the latter groaning, eyes half-lidded and a slight drool trickling down her lips as Mugino held her shoulders and bit her neck. Takitsubo groaned, tilting her head, and tried shaking Mugino off and pointing at Haruhiro. Mugino mistook her action for resistance, pressed her knee between Takitsubo's legs and sunk her teeth deeper, drawing a pained moan from the other girl. Realizing Takitsubo's intent, Mugino paused and turned to the door. Haruhiro already left. There was a separate room for girls! Why were they in the men's room!?
"I saw a young girl with Hamazura earlier," Moguzo said when Haruhiro returned. He cut a fried fish with a knife. Haruhiro saw something more, but he didn't voice it. He opted to forget the whole thing by drowning himself in alcohol. He grabbed his mug and took a swig.
"Yeah. We adopted her. She's a cutie pie. The girl Mugino took in." Saiai took a swig of her ale. "We're thinking of sending her to the priests guild. And later maybe the mages guild. The priests first so she can learn to heal herself in case she gets hurt, and then the mages so she can have offensive abilities that don't require physical exertion."
"That's surprisingly sweet of you," Haruhiro said, smiling slightly.
"Surprising? So you think I should be more rude and uncaring?" Saiai asked. There was a slight blush on her face. Must be from the alcohol. "And thank god you've finally spoken up. You've been sitting quietly since the moment I got into the table. I thought you hated me or something. Were you just constipated and needed to let it out?"
He ignored her last sentence. Anything that would remind him of what he saw was a big no-no.
"I don't hate you," Haruhiro said. "I reserve that for people who have curly hair."
"Hey," Ranta complained, pieces of fried pork staining his face from what he was eating.
"Or dread knights."
"Hey! Haruhiro! I have a heart, you know!? Stop stabbing it you asshole."
"Says the asshole."
It was either the alcohol giving him liquid courage or he felt particularly snarky at the moment that explained why he was being so verbose.
Saiai burst out laughing. "I like this Haruhiro. Where have you been all day?"
Drawing attention to him made Haruhiro hide back in his shell. "I don't know?" Everyone was busy having their own little discussions, but they were starting to look into the spectacle. He didn't want to be the center of attention and so changed the subject. "By the way, Saiai-san, do you work for Misaki-sama as well?"
"Mhm. I'm going to. Mugino says it's better than getting my lazy ass drunk all day."
She always paid importance to Mugino, Hamazura and Takitsubo. Haruhiro wondered why. "You seem pretty close to those three."
"Yeah?" Saiai hummed. "Truth be told, I don't know why either. It's just a feeling, you know? These three matter. Hey Haruhiro, if you get that feeling about someone, latch on to them, okay?"
"Even if I don't really know them, I think those three were a part of my life. I like them. I want to get to know them again. Although I'd love it if they kept their voices down at night."
"WHAT!?" Ranta slammed his fist on the table, again. It was starting to get annoying. Saiai scowled, expressing her displeasure. "Hamazura-sama sleeps with both the beautiful Mugino-sama and the cute in her own way Takitsubo-chan!? That guy's a legend, I tell you. A LEGEND. Shagging two girls is the way to go!"
"Yeah, about that." Saiai grabbed Ranta's fork and crushed it in her palm. "Talk about any of them like they're fucking trophies and I'll super hurt you."
"You're pretty strong," Manato said, looking surprised. Saiai blinked and looked at the broken utensil.
"It's my power. Offense Armor. I turn nitrogen into armor, basically. Makes me super strong and durable. That's not exactly accurate but I don't feel like extrapolating right now. I don't remember much about the old world, but anything related to my power's still in my head. Weird, huh?"
"Not really. It's basically the part of the brain that keeps your ability to maintain your motor functions and computations being separate from memories pertaining events that transpired in your life," Manato said, giving a lecture like a teacher. He rubbed his chin in thought. "What I said just now. Where did that come from?"
"Like, super shocking, right?"
The group continued discussing inane topics Haruhiro sometimes participated in. But he mostly kept to himself, simply enjoying their company. He contemplated the existence of his party. Technically they were led by Accelerator, with Misaki leading another party Sassa was in. Most likely Renji's. If Merry did work for Misaki and she was only in Manato's group because Misaki ordered her to, then there was a chance she could pick up and leave on Misaki's order. Under the assumption the assumption she's permanent, he looked at Saiai. If she became an addition to the team, then that would increase their overall fighting capabilities. Right now the only one that shined out in their team was Manato. His take-down of goblins was incredible. If that was a sign of his talent Haruhiro couldn't imagine how strong he'd be in a few years time. Saiai didn't join a guild because she was disinterested, but she didn't need to join either. She already possessed superpowers unique to her. Most of her batch seem well-equipped to combat. She must've come from a more violent lifestyle than the one he held. All of them, from Accelerator to Saiai to Hamazura. His mind wandered to her earlier question.
What kind of place was it, he wondered. Dark and dreary, but full of super-humans? Maybe he'd be more useful if he came from that place too. A superpower would be so helpful right now.
"Then," Shihoru said, paused, gulped, and continued. "Saiai-san, you'll be… working with us from now on?"
"Oh! Yume sounds the likes of that!"
"Yume, it's 'like the sounds of that'," Haruhiro corrected her.
"It is indeed a possibility," Merry said, sharing a glance with Saiai. "If you are durable as you are strong, then having you as a tank protecting Shihoru would be quite useful."
"Oh. Well, I was just saying I'd work for Misaki, but if you want me to work with you in the field you could've just said so, Merry-chan!"
"Ah. There's no need for such presumptions." Merry blushed and looked away. Saiai grinned and continued pestering Merry. Haruhiro was envious of Saiai's ability to evoke emotions from Merry. Then he realized he was envious and shrugged it off. They were coworkers. He was just someone in a party Merry was assigned to aid. Haruhiro wished he worked for Misaki. She was bright and chirpy. Way better than Accelerator, cold and dreary. Strength could only appeal so much. Not to mention Misaki's beauty. If he had to look at his boss all the time he'd rather it be her.
Not that he'd admit it, of course.
"So let me get this straight," Ranta said, slurring at the last word. He was drunk. No doubt about it. He raised an arm, almost fell, managed to find his balance and pointed a finger at Saiai. "Y-you're gonna get paid by Misaki-sama to work with us, and in addition to what s-she'll g-g…" He hiccupped. "Give you, we'll still have to split what meager earnings we have with you?"
'Oh boy. Here we go.' Haruhiro wanted to point at Ranta and laugh, but he might state something stupid himself, so he decided instead to watch the scene unfold.
Merry was covering her mouth. Yume smiled in amusement. Shihoru buried her face in Yume's shoulder and hugged the hunter. Moguzo wasn't paying attention, having drunk a lot himself. Manato was simply enjoying the atmosphere and raised his mug for a drink. Saiai bit her lip, barely holding back a laugh. She coughed and forced a blank expression into her face. "Yes, that's super it, Ranta. I'm glad we've come to an understanding."
Saiai closed her eyes. "Okay. I'll be honest. There's going to be something going on tomorrow." That drew everyone's attention. "It's nothing big. Just an outing. Us and a few others are going. Accelerator and Mugino included. Takitsubo and Hamazura too. Because why not."
"Where are we going, exactly?" Haruhiro asked. He wasn't ready for another crazy fight after today. And it was his first day, to boot!
"The Old City. We'll be taking it."
William Hughes was a prisoner of Alterna Dungeons. He was in death row and was in line to be executed the day after tomorrow for the crime of murdering children.
He was curled in his cell when the warden opened the iron door. To his surprise, he was unshackled and released. The warden introduced him to their new boss. A blonde girl with star-like eyes gave him a strange offer. In exchange for his freedom, which he knew was not real freedom, he would have to kill someone important. He assumed this pact would continue until he would no longer be useful to her, but he acquiesced. He did not have much of a choice. He would simply try to look for an escape after terminating his target.
He rubbed his wrist as he walked down the gloomy street. He passed by the Iron Tavern, a place still rowdy with customers. There were people with strange clothes going in and out of the place. It had been five years since his time as a free man. A beer would do some good. Alas, it was not to be. He had a job and the dingy robe covering his body would not suffice to hide his identity from locals that might recognize him.
He had messy red hair, sharp blue eyes, a stubble, and a scar on his left cheek. His thin frame belied a strong power. He was one of many experiments created by a conspiracy desiring superhuman soldiers to take the fight to the monsters. That was in the homeland. Although it would not surprise him if they continued their operation here out in the frontier.
He peeked from the side of a building and observed the location of his target. It was a rundown building in West Town. He was either killing a lowlife who crossed with a wealthy noble or he was being set up for a trap. It couldn't have been the latter. He could have been executed in prison if the warden's new boss so deigned. It was because of his abilities he was set free.
His target would be in that building. He rounded a street around it and approached the building from the west. Red electricity discharged from his feet. He knew one other person who came from the same facilities as a delusional armored warrior who fashioned himself a hunter. A dead man.
He raised his hand. Red electricity coursed through his fingers. He tapped the wall. His power transferred to the wall, reshaping it and leaving a circle open. He took a step inside the building, tapped the entryway and transmuted the hole back into its proper form. He was in a room. A cockroach scurried about. A cobweb was on a corner of the ceiling. Cracks were visible from the walls. Dust filled the floor. It was a dirty room in a dingy building in the ghetto of Alterna.
He was about to reach for the door when he heard the creak from the sliding of the second floor window. It was faint, and the footsteps that followed even fainter. Hughes raised his arm, palm pointing to the ceiling. Electricity arced upwards. A tiny hole was formed, connecting the first floor ceiling to the second room floor. Not enough to be noticed by the other inhabitants of the abandoned building, but enough to let him hear anything important.
The footfalls doubled. There were two of them.
"Accelerator, just to be clear, tomorrow we're not doing anything more than necessary, alright?"
"Technically none of this is necessary. With my powers I don't need to do anything. I'm just tagging along to see where this'll take me. Besides, Maika isn't in danger of getting hurt. Now come on. Let's visit the prisoner."
A prisoner? Was this a human trafficking operation? Was Hughes going to be a hero, albeit unintentionally? Who was the one who set him free? Why did they choose this location, of all others? Curiouser and curiouser.
Hughes remained on the room for the rest of the night. He wouldn't act immediately. He would first observe his target, where they go to, who they talk to, memorize their hobbies and habits, and make a decent profile. When he strikes, they won't see it coming.
It was early morning the next day. Haruhiro wore a jacket over his thief gear and shortsword. He would return the jacket to his bag when the sun would come up or abandon it later if it slowed him down. His team was all in Manato's room. They all had the option to remain alone or share a room with someone else. He assumed that option was given due to Accelerator's group already having members close to each other despite the lack of memories. Haruhiro's group didn't have that. Or at least he didn't have that sort of attachment with anyone.
Haruhiro sat on one bed, Yume beside him. Manato sat on another bed facing them, with Shihoru seated next to him. Despite being alone, Manato's room still provided two beds. Ranta sat on the floor with his back to the wall. Moguzo chose to sit on a wooden chair next to the bathroom door.
They were all quiet, waiting and bored.
Merry and Saiai had yet to arrive. Haruhiro decided to break the silence. "How's your head?" he asked Ranta.
"A pain, man. A pain. Fucking hangover is killing me." He rubbed his head.
"That's what ya get for bein' drunk!" Yume said. She narrowed her eyes and braced herself for his snappy response. To her surprise, and everyone else's, Ranta chose not to engage in another argument.
"...Weird," Shihoru murmured. Haruhiro nodded. Moguzo yawned. Manato looked at the door.
"Everyone else is still asleep. What do you all think of Saiai's team?" Manato asked.
"By her team, um, you mean us, right?" Ranta pressed his thumb to his chest. "If so, I think we're pretty awesome! Of course ninety percent comes from me. The other nine percent is shared by Manato and Moguzo."
"What about us, Ranta?" Haruhiro asked, trying to ignore how whiny it made him sound. Ranta looked at him dismissively.
"Eh. You can share the one percent, I guess."
"Yume agrees with Ranta."
"Nice one, Yume! You've finally seen the light that is my greatness!"
"If you mean ninety percent useless, then sure." She nodded sagely.
Ranta nodded along until he processed her words. He scowled. "Hey, I'm not useless, you bitch!"
"Don't call Yume a bitch, bitch!"
"I'm not a bitch! You are!" Haruhiro watched in fascination as the two argued for another five minutes, barely even taking the time to breathe. He glanced to the others, wondering what they thought of the debacle. And then he found something interesting. Shihoru was blushing. Was it because she too had a hangover? Manato rolled his shoulders, bumping one against her. "Sorry," he apologized, giving a smile.
"…I-it's fine," Her lips trembled as she answered. Ah. Shihoru has a crush on Manato. Was it mutual? It was painfully obvious to Haruhiro after one look. Manato would have to be blind not to see her strange behavior. Maybe he wasn't interested.
"Anyway," Manato interjected, stopping Ranta and Yume who were both flushed, perspiring and breathless. "I was actually referring to Mugino, Takitsubo and Hamazura-san. Saiai is particularly close to those three. It will only be a matter of time before they start working together. Those three. What do you think of them?"
"Fucking hot, man!" Ranta exclaimed, always the horn dog. "Mugino is just so sexy and beautiful. And Takitsubo has a nice rack and pretty cute herself!" Ranta cupped his chin and grinned. "Mugino has that dark aura that you know means she's in control of the bedroom. Takitsubo gives that submissive type feeling."
How did he know? Ranta was on point. Everything from the glimpse Haruhiro witnessed described those two perfectly. Was he psychic? Or was he stalking them?
"So let me reiterate. Hamazura is one lucky guy. God, I'd settle for one of them. Having both!? What the hell! Where's my harem, damn it!?"
"Ranta, are you stalking them?" Haruhiro inquired, interrupting him.
"He probably was," Manato said with a lazy grin. The slight blush on his face hinted at his interest in Ranta's words, or rather the topic he spoke about. Shihoru pouted. Definitely jealous.
"I'm tellin' Saiai-chan!" Yume got up and ran for the door.
"No, wait!" Ranta got after her and tripped on his face. He groaned from the floor, rubbed his nose and tried to crawl after her. Shihoru looked at him with contempt. If she was worried Manato would leave her for someone else she better hurry and confess then. Go! Haruhiro wanted to tell her. He would definitely support their relationship. Granted it wouldn't be much of one due to Manato's disinterest, but at least she could be honest and reveal her feelings to their entire team, and probably the entire building and inhabitants of Iron Tavern.
"Eh?" When Yume opened the door, Saiai stood outside it, dressed in an orange hoodie and blue shorts, courtesy of Othinus. Merry was behind her, donning her priest garb and held her staff in her left hand.
"What's up, Yume." Saiai grinned. Warm and approachable. She acted like they were friends even though they didn't know each other that well. A trait not unlike Manato's.
"Good morning." Merry nodded to her. Cold and detached. It was like the events of last night didn't happen. Or she was trying to give a professional act because she was on the job.
"Saiai-chan!" Yume wrapped the younger girl in a hug. Saiai appeared displeased, but didn't push her away. She waited patiently for Yume to let her go. Once Yume was finished, she said, "Yume wants to ask something important."
"Who's gonna bring food?"
"Ah. That'll be Mugino and friends. By the way, the adopted girl's called Cutie Pie. Yeah we're calling her that now. Just a nickname, but her real name brings a lot of bad memories for her so stick with the nickname, okay?" Saiai looked behind Yume to the rest of them. Despite being childish she could be so mature. She specifically narrowed her eyes at Ranta. He gulped.
"Yes ma'am!" he said.
Saiai pointed at Moguzo. "The big guy's asleep." Haruhiro turned to their other warrior. Moguzo had his eyes closed from where he stood with his back to the wall. Even Ranta was surprised, and he sat on the floor beside Moguzo. None of them noticed.
"So that's why he's been quiet," Haruhiro said.
Ranta poked Moguzo's shin. "Wake up!"
"Be gentle!" Yume admonished him.
"Come on. The cook's cooking up some soup. Merry bought some bread on the way over."
"Misaki –san asked me to," Merry said. "And is she sleeping on Touma-san's bed?"
Touma-san? Haruhiro had seen a lot of the man called Touma, but never interacted with him personally. He never participates in any operation and doesn't oversee any party the way Accelerator does Manato's group and Misaki does Renji's. But the way the organization functioned it was like Touma was at the center of it calling the shots, even if he doesn't.
"No way!" Ranta gasped. "T-Touma-sama too!?"
"Too?" Saiai glared at him. "And no," she continued, turning to Merry. "Touma's not one to fool around like that. It's cute, actually. Misaki just decided to stay with him cause Index and Othinus are making a ruckus with Mikoto in her room. " She focused on Manato. "Get your group. Rise and shine! The cook loves us cause we pay him gold like crazy. Same with the barkeep, servants and waiters of the Iron Tavern. Come on. The soup's delicious."
They made their way to the pub. This early there were still some people sleeping on the tables by the first floor. Some were being woken up by the waiters and given free bowls of soup and bread. There were lots to spare. The bakery was contracted into delivering hot bread daily into the Iron Tavern. A deal made by Misaki. Merry was quite surprised the baker was there. He greeted her with a kind smile. Haruhiro made his way to the counter, sat on the stool and was passed a bowl of soup and a paper bag of warm bread. He took a wooden spoon and began eating. He tasted the soup. It was delicious. He soaked the bread with the soup and began eating.
Manato sat beside him and was served the same meal. Manato was surprisingly a quick eater and finished faster than Haruhiro. Ranta and Moguzo took two more stools while the girls chose a table.
"You know, that discussion really went nowhere," Manato said once he was done. Haruhiro nodded. Manato was asking reasonable questions about their opinions on Saiai's team and Ranta derailed it talking about how good they looked. "Not that it mattered, I guess. If Saiai was going to knock on the door anyway we would have postponed the topic until she was gone, which would be tonight if our expedition would take too long."
"You notice how Merry's a little conflicted?" Haruhiro asked, slightly changing the subject. "She tries to be cold to us, but also approachable to Saiai."
"It's because they're coworkers under Misaki's employ," Manato said. "I think this is the first time Merry's receiving a wage this big. She's trying not to push Misaki away, and assumes Saiai would be monitoring her or something to that effect."
"Still thinks it's bullshit she gets more than us," Ranta ranted. "Totally bullshit!"
"I can hear, you know?" Merry said. She didn't overhear Manato and Haruhiro's discussion, but Ranta's complaints were loud enough to fill the entire tavern. Ranta hastened his eating and asked for seconds.
Haruhiro didn't see the point in his complaints. Healers were essential to the team. If it wasn't for Merry Haruhiro would've been bleeding, deadweight or actually dead if no one took care of him. It was the same with Shihoru when she was ambushed. Accelerator may have the strongest offensive capabilities, but when it came to helping allies healers were the core parts of the party. Well, healers and tanks.
That, and Accelerator gave them one gold each as a reward for surviving. Haruhiro had Index kept his. She was like their own little accountant helping allocate funds. Ranta lost his gold, apparently, which was why he had to have Merry treat him last night. The idiot.
"Any of you excited about the Old City?" Moguzo asked. "I mean, I know we won't actually do much. But we can see more of the world."
"You're right," Haruhiro said. "We haven't explored much of Grimgar at all. We've just been staying in Alterna. With good reason of course," he added. "And there's nothing wrong with that either. Staying in Alterna, I mean," he stammered. He wasn't good with speeches the way Manato was.
"What?" Ranta asked. Haruhiro chose to finish his soup instead.
"There's nothing wrong with choosing to be safe instead of being adventurous," Manato said. "It's a nickname for volunteer soldiers, by the way. Adventurers. Because our lives are one big violent adventure."
Ranta burst out laughing. Moguzo chuckled. Haruhiro didn't find it funny, but laughed alongside them to avoid being the odd one out. Manato once more gave a charismatic smile. Haruhiro felt safe, under his leadership. Even if Accelerator was the one overseeing their party, Haruhiro didn't miss how he left the reigns of the team to Manato. Haruhiro felt comfort in that. Being told what to do and apologizing if he messed it up. It made him feel part of something bigger than himself. Important.
More and more members of Accelerator's gang, group, clan, whatever the term, emerged from the hallway leading to the lodge. Most came to eat, but some were preparing for the little outing. Mugino stood on the foot of the stairway, wearing a short green dress, yellow leggings and brown boots. On either side of her were Hamazura and Takitsubo, the former in a black jacket and blue trousers and black shoes, the latter in a white blouse and black skirt and sandals. There was a bandage on the side of her neck where Mugino bit her last night. Haruhiro gulped. Mugino spoke to the little girl Cutie Pie, seated on the steps, who was pouting. They seem to be in disagreement. Mugino crossed her arms under her breasts and shook her head. She was the one who wore the pants in the relationship, apparently, with neither Hamazura nor Takitsubo speaking in defense of the little girl. The little girl harrumphed and left, running to the hallway to their room.
"What was that about?" Ranta asked. Moguzo shrugged. Haruhiro ignored him. Manato scratched his neck.
"I think Mugino doesn't approve of Cutie Pie, was that the girl's name? Cutie Pie going with them wasn't something Mugino approved of. Hence the argument. I'm surprised Mugino let the girl argue at all. She's more tolerant than I thought."
Haruhiro furrowed his brows. Manato thought Mugino was something of an authoritarian? Where did he get that idea from?
"Hey, new kids," Mugino called out to them. Haruhiro, Manato, Ranta and Moguzo turned towards her. "Try not to die later, alright?"
"Thank you for your concern," Manato said, nodding and speaking for all of them. Mugino snorted and left, Hamazura and Takitsubo following her. Saiai bit her lip and tapped the floor impatiently, wanting to join them but sticking with Shihoru and Yume instead. Merry drank a cup of water and sighed in satisfaction, having finished her breakfast. She didn't have as much of a problem sticking with Haruhiro's group. Why would she? She's getting paid to babysit them, after all. And now so will Saiai.
"Funny," Ranta spoke in a lower voice. Low for him, anyway. "For being the ones to bring food, I didn't see them carry anything."
"I think they're serving more of a security detail for the actual cooks," Manato proposed. "With Mugino protecting the cooks, there's nothing to worry about even in the heart of goblin territory. And we're not going to Damuro, but the place where exiled goblins live."
Four kilometers northwest of Alterna, there was a city. It would take an hour's worth of travel to reach there. The remnant of a city was occupied by goblins. Eighty percent of the defensive wall that protected the city had crumbled. Seventy-five percent of the buildings had collapsed. It was full of rubble. Weed grew in places. Rusted swords and spears lied about, some stabbed to the ground. Skeletons were scattered all over.
"The job is simple," Accelerator said. "Just kill as many goblins as you can. If you're tired, winded and being chased after by a horde, just run to us. Me, Mugino, Misaki. Mugino will be guarding the camps the chefs will set about in preparation of a large meal. Misaki will be accompanied by ten priests from the priests guild temporarily under her command. They're going to provide assistance to the wounded. I'll be moving about just killing anyone in my way. You need help, just look for us."
Mugino, Hamazura and Takitsubo were helping various chefs set out their tents and tools for cooking in an open field. She looked to Haruhiro's group. No, to Saiai.
"Take care. I'll kill you if something bad happens to you."
"Scary," Saiai said, laughing.
Mugino frowned. "You better be afraid. No one's allowed to hurt you but me."
"Geez, Mugino. If you're trying to comfort her do a better way of it," Hamazura chided her. Mugino scowled and walked away to a nearby derelict building. Hamazura patted Saiai's head. She mewled. "Take care, squirt."
"Call me squirt again and I'll super fuck you up," Saiai said, but she didn't pull away from his hand.
"Ah…" Takitsubo spoke, paused, and scratched her chin. Haruhiro had the faintest sense of déjà vu and glanced at Shihoru. "Take care."
"Right back at you," Saiai said.
"All of you too," Takitsubo added, her lips curling into a smile as she glanced at Haruhiro. She tilted her head. He screamed inside. Oh no. What if she recognized him from last night? Luckily, she didn't. Hamazura waved them goodbye. Manato led the party further into the Old City.
Long ago, Damuro had been the second-largest city in Arabakia. It had been much larger than Alterna. However, the No-Life King's allied forces had invaded and destroyed it, bringing it under undead control. It changed after the dissolution of the Undead Empire. The goblins, once a slave race without a king, revolted and drove out the undead to make the city their own. Now, Damuro was a den of goblins.
The southeast corner of Damuro, called the Old City, had gone unmaintained and fallen to ruins. The only goblins that occupied it were those exiled from the goblin capital.
"That's a cat," Saiai said, pointing at a quadruped, walking on rooftops and crumbling walls. It ran away when they tried to get close. There were crows cawing everywhere. One ruin had become home to tens of crows. Possibly more. "I wonder if we can eat them?"
"Not if you want to remain healthy," Manato said. They took a turn and paused. They found a house missing one wall and a ceiling. Mud goblins were a variety of goblins. The goblin they found was similar to mud goblins, but had yellowish green skin and wasn't filthy. It even wore clothes and carried a dagger, larger than Haruhiro's own. It had a bag slung over its shoulder, referred to as a goblin pouch. The mud goblin kept its valuables on a string around its neck, but these goblins carried bags like that around. Apparently goblins had traits to valuable things in the bag and carry it at all time.
The goblin sat with its back to the wall, its arms crossed, its face cast downwards, its eyes closed. It was early morning, so it was reasonable why it was still asleep. "Just one goblin?" Ranta asked. Haruhiro understood the sentiment. The battle yesterday might've clouded his image of goblins. And the most lethal ones that made him bleed all wielded spears. A dagger was nothing compared to that. He knew and extracted his own.
Manato walked up to the goblin, heedless of the noise his footfalls made with the rubble, and when he reached striking distance slashed its throat with his bastard sword. The goblin cried awake, clutching its bleeding throat and tried to stab at him. Manato threw another slash, cutting its wrist. The hand holding the dagger fell beside it, leaving a stump on its place. It tried to reach him with the bleeding stump. Manato stepped back, not wanting to get bloodstains.
"That was easy," he said. They watched the goblin die, hand to its throat. It tried to prevent the bleeding but failed. Merry closed her eyes and made the sign of the hexagram. Manato removed the goblin's pouch slung over its shoulder. He extracted the contents. "Four silvers."
Ranta made an awkward laugh. "Hey, guys, listen. Remember how I lost my gold last night? None of you would mind if I keep all that silver to myself, would you?"
"In your dreams," Haruhiro said.
"Yume thinks he might lose those coins even in his dreams."
"I already treated you last night. That's not enough for you?" Merry chided him.
"…Loser," Shihoru muttered.
"You actually lost your gold? What are you, stupid?" Saiai asked.
"It's okay," Moguzo said, clapping Ranta's shoulder when he hung his head.
"It's not okay!" Ranta screamed. They heard growls in the distance, alerting goblins to their presence.
"Well done," Haruhiro said, glaring at Ranta. Ranta didn't even look at him, having unsheathed his longsword and picked up a small piece of rubble the size of his thumb. Saiai formed the vanguard with Manato and Moguzo, despite being barehanded, having no weapon, no shield. Three goblins emerged. They held a spear, a club, a bow and quiver. The bow goblin nocked an arrow and shot at Saiai. The arrow fell when it impacted her chest. The club goblin and spear goblin charged. The spear gob rammed its spear into Manato. He blocked it with the flat of his blade. Saiai grabbed the spear, ignoring the thwack striking her face, and skipped. She punched the goblin, sending its head flying. The club goblin swung its club at Moguzo. The bow goblin ran backwards, away from Saiai and followed up with a shot aimed at Moguzo's head. Moguzo blocked the club but was defenseless when the arrowhead penetrated his shoulder. He grunted with pain.
"Marc em Pac," Shihoru said, casting Magic Missile. A bead of light blasted from her staff and struck the bow goblin's head, incapacitating it. Ranta threw the small rubble to the club goblin's chest, distracting it. Manato slashed its back, earning him a cry. Saiai rushed to the bow goblin, grabbed its head and twisted it to the side with a crack.
Manato raised his sword and struck the goblin's head. Moguzo stepped back and watched it fall with his weapon lodging its skull. He picked up the handle and sheathed the sword in one fluid motion. He inspected Moguzo's wound. "Is it poisoned?"
"I… don't know." Moguzo hissed when Manato held the shaft.
"This'll hurt," Manato said. "Sorry." He pulled out the arrow. Moguzo grunted. Blood flew from his wound.
Merry pressed her hand into the wound. "O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you. Cure." Warm light shined from her palms, healing the wound. Merry and Moguzo shared a smile.
"T-thank you," he said.
"It is my duty." She stepped back, closed her eyes and made the sign of the hexagram.
"Okay. Time to check the rewards." Ranta whistled and ambled to the dead goblins. "If they're this easy to kill I'm surprised more people hadn't taken back Damuro."
"Are you stupid?" Haruhiro said. "We were dying just fighting off the goblins yesterday."
"Yume thinks Ranta's an idiot," Yume added.
"Oh shut up." He inspected the bags and returned with twelve silver. "Not bad. We keep this up and we might earn back my gold."
"You know we'll be dividing those between the eight of us, right?" Saiai raised a brow.
"Yeah, sure, of course." Ranta sighed. A crow soared in the sky. "It's going to be a long day."
Haruhiro didn't feel too worried. With three tanks on their side, and with Manato's incredible skill and Saiai's overwhelming strength, they wouldn't have much to be worried about.
"Yume's sorry," Yume said, apologizing to Moguzo.
"Huh? Why?" He looked bewildered.
"Yume just stared while you got shot. She should've done somethin' but she didn't."
"I-it's fine," he said, trying to console her. "It was beyond any of our control."
"Still, Yume thinks it isn't fine!" Yume stepped forward and took Moguzo's hands in hers. "Yume will strive to help the tanks next time so she doesn't feel like deadweight. I promise."
"Okay," Moguzo said, blushing. Yume blushed as well, but followed with a grin. They released hands and continued their goblin hunt. They soon found themselves between two derelict walls, giving them a bit of shade.
To their surprise a goblin appeared from a corner of a building, whistling in some sort of language they couldn't understand. It was taking the corner towards them, eyes closed, sword over its shoulder. Manato was the closest to the goblin and unsheathed his sword. The goblin opened its eyes, yelped in surprise and raises its own to meet his slash.
Manato was faster.
He cut the goblins' eyes with one swing of his bastard sword, severely reducing its fighting capabilities. The goblin shrieked in pain. Blood and eyeball dripped from Manato's sword. The goblin frantically swung its weapon in the air to no avail. Manato took a step back into their party and looked at Yume. Her lips curled into a smile and she extracted an arrow from her quiver, nocking it and releasing a shot. It penetrated the goblins' throat. The goblin made gurgling sounds and fell, face first into rubble. The arrowhead emerged from the back of its neck, coated in blood.
"Manato sure is amazing," Yume said, praising him.
"I'm not," he said, scratching his head and giving a wry smile. "I wouldn't have lasted this long without all of you, either. Believe it or not but two days worth of fighting felt like a lifetime after the hectic battle we experienced yesterday." He looked behind him to Merry. "Was it the same with you, Merry?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. Merry must've recalled some bad memories because she withdrew into herself, her expression turning blank, her left arm holding her right shoulder. "What happened yesterday was an anomaly. It's usually ten days into this job until we meet our end."
"That's pretty grim," Saiai said, hands buried in her pocket. She pulled up her orange hoodie when Haruhiro wasn't looking, and the image further cemented her young age compared to the rest of them.
"It is what it is." Merry made another sign for the deceased.
"Manato's pretty good though," Moguzo said, agreeing with Yume.
"Isn't he?" Yume chirped.
"Quite," Merry agreed.
"Please, you're overselling me." Manato shook his head. "Let's collect their loot."
A cry made itself known. Manato raised his sword and blocked a blade with a clang. A goblin hissed, holding the sword against him. More goblins climbed up the top of the walls. The one who died must've been their companion and the sudden battle alarmed them to the location of Manato's party. Or they were simply separate goblins congregating towards hostile forces. Either way Haruhiro was in for a fight.
"Ambush!" Saiai said. The goblins were wielding all sorts of weapons. Haruhiro counted four on one side, five on another. Adding the one Manato locked blades with, there were ten of them in total. Another goblin jumped behind Manato, holding a dagger. Haruhiro moved to intercept it with his shortsword. Ranta was quicker.
A third goblin, wielding a club, attacked Haruhiro. Sounds of battle followed all around him. He was stuck on the defensive while getting glimpses of Ranta's battle with the dagger goblin.
"Why you piece of shit!" Ranta screamed. He didn't have time to pull his sword, so he wrapped his arms on its neck and pulled it with him to the ground. The dagger goblin growled and slammed its head back against Ranta's face. The first attack cut his lips. The second broke his nose. Ranta held tight, squeezing its neck. The third attack slammed his head against the nearest rubble. Blood leaked from a wound on the side of Ranta's head. He hissed and didn't let go. Soon the goblin was coughing for air. It pierced the dagger into Ranta's leg. He screamed. The struggle continued, the goblin clawing at Ranta's arms as it fought for survival. But in the end its attacks weakened, and finally it released its grip on the dagger. Ranta held it for a few seconds longer and then threw the body to the side.
The club goblin, who watched the same struggle, let out an angry cry. Perhaps because the dead goblin was its comrade, it suddenly gained strength to push Haruhiro away. He slammed against the opposite wall. A goblin atop it held a spear and tried to stab at him. Haruhiro's legs slid into the ground and he fell on his back, avoiding the tip by mere inches. He rolled to the side and saw the club goblin rushing towards Ranta. Ranta hastily unsheathed his longsword, but the club goblin was faster and raised its club. An arrow pierced its shoulder. It hissed and jumped to the side, avoiding another arrow that sailed through the air. That was enough time for Ranta to get up and hold his longsword. The wound on his thigh disabled him from moving. Haruhiro decided to help. He rushed the enemy goblin and slashed his shortsword into its spine. It barely grazed the goblin, which leaped away from him. But by doing so it ran straight into Ranta. His sword slashed its chest. The goblin swung its club, pushing his sword away. Haruhiro sheathed his sword and extracted his dagger, burying it into the goblins' right shoulder and slammed his palm into the pommel, forcing the goblin to drop his club. Ranta released his longsword, letting it fall to rubble and began punching the goblins' face. Ranta's knuckles were coated with blood. He didn't stop pounding its head until it sagged against Haruhiro's hold.
"That was really stupid!" Haruhiro said, criticizing him. Why would he let go of his sword and bruise his own fists just to beat the enemy?
"You wouldn't understand, man." Ranta wiped blood from his lips and picked up his sword. "It was payback for the free shots I gave the dagger gob." He spat on club goblins' corpse. Manato rushed past them, aiming high to the spear goblin on the wall. It jumped, dodging his blade. Haruhiro looked back at the goblin Manato was fighting. Its throat was cut.
Manato continued fighting the spear goblin even at a disadvantage. The sun was peeking from behind the clouds. Sunlight became the goblins' advantage. Manato couldn't hit accurately, but he in turn weaved around its thrusts and pokes. Haruhiro took the dagger of the fallen goblin and threw it in the general direction of the spear gob. He was met with a surprised cry of pain. Manato acted quickly and pulled the spear forward, dragging the goblin into the ground. The dagger cut its shoulder, barely hurting it. But the distraction was enough for Manato to sink his sword into its back.
Saiai and Moguzo, suited in the front lines, were facing two more. Yume, Merry and Shihoru were behnd them. Merry held her staff, which was black and slimmer than Shihoru's, with a silver tip shaped like a star, with both hands. Yume was the same, having drawn her machete and looking wearily for the other enemies. The other goblins were gone from the wall, having retreated. Saiai rushed her enemy, surprising the goblin when its blade was pushed back by her skin, and caught its throat. She slammed it against the wall, staining it with blood, and then threw the goblin into the other one facing Moguzo. They both fell down. Moguzo heaved and slammed his bastard sword into the back of one goblin which was piled on top of the other. The remaining goblin tried to push the corpse away. Saiai ran towards it and spun as she fell, throwing her elbow into its head. The back of its head exploded, pushing its skull and brain pieces into the earth and rubble.
Haruhiro noticed none of the blood stuck on Saiai's arm. It reminded him of Accelerator's own ability. "Nice one," Ranta said, leaning against the wall.
Merry approached Ranta and raised her hands. "O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you. Cure." Warm light washed over his body, healing his wounds.
"Thanks, Merry! I knew you liked me," Ranta said.
"I only healed you because you're the first goblins like to target."
"Uh, isn't that our three tanks? Not me?" Merry scowled. "Okay, it is me! I am the goblin bait! Ranta humbly apologizes to the righteous Merry-sama! I am sorry!"
"Be careful!" Manato said. "There's still four of them! If they call reinforcements we have to retreat!"
"Reinforcements? From who?" Ranta asked.
"The other exiled gob-gobs, you gobhead!" Yume exclaimed.
Gob-gobs? If she was trying to make their enemies sound cute she was succeeding. Gobhead Ranta on the other hand made Haruhiro grimace like he had bitten a nasty fruit.
"Hey, gobhead," Haruhiro said, using Yume's nickname for Ranta in a chiding tone. "Use your head. Or is goblins all you think about?"
"Do you think he likes them? You know, in a naughty way," Saiai added, laughing. "Bet he wants to play with their corpses too."
"It would explain why he keeps spitting on them. Marking his territory." Haruhiro nodded.
"Y-Yume! Why'd you call me a shitty name!" Ranta said.
"…He's so rude," Shihoru said.
Ranta began extracting the loot from the deceased goblins. Merry closed her eyes and made the sign of the hexagram. Doesn't she get tired doing that? Once Ranta was done, he nodded to Manato.
"Let's go!" Manato said, rushing out of the walled pathway. Haruhiro followed after him, and then Saiai. Merry, Shihoru and Yume were at the center of their party. Moguzo and Ranta covered the rear. They didn't get far.
Eight goblins waited for them, armed with longswords and spears with intricate design. The goblins thrust their weapon, forcing the group back into the walled pathway littered with rubble and dead goblins. Another set of goblins waited on the other side blocked the exit, armed with a variety of weapons.
"Fuck!" Saiai said.
They were boxed in.
Haruhiro couldn't retreat. He wasn't made for frontline combat but he was forced to take the onslaught of attacks alongside Manato and Saiai. Saiai blocked most of it with a wide arc of her arm throwing the weapons aside. Manato was fighting two to three attackers at a time. Haruhiro settled for two opponents and he was getting his ass kicked. He couldn't even attack with his shortsword. He used it more as a shield and hang on to dear life as the goblins repeatedly attacked him.
'Excuse me for being normal!' he wanted to scream. Fortunately for him, his enemies were both using spears. Only Haruhiro would constitute that as good luck.
"Haru-kun! Duck!" Yume said behind him.
"Marc em Pac!" Shihoru casted.
He fell on his chest against the ground and looked at his two opponents. An arrow popped an eyeball of one goblin. A bead of light followed, hitting its chest. The goblin gurgled, blood and spittle dribbling from its mouth, paralyzed by Shihoru's magic. The second spear goblin jumped back a step, barely dodging Manato's slash. The paralyzed goblin was not so lucky and lost its head. Haruhiro scurried back to his feet. He watched in awe as Manato and Saiai held seven goblins back. Saiai would have killed them were she alone, he assumed. It was only because she was protecting the Haruhiro and the others that she couldn't leave her station. Manato began using her as a shield, hiding behind Saiai whenever a goblin got too close. She tried to take their weapons, ignoring their attacks that didn't even scratch her skin, making the goblins weary of her. Saiai was the sole reason the party wasn't getting demolished.
Another goblin got too close. Saiai ignored it. Manato made to slash at it. The goblin jumped back. It was a feint. Manato used the tip of his blade to flip the spear of the dead goblin towards him and threw it at the jumping goblin, stabbing its throat. "Haru!" Manato said, "help the others! Saiai and I have this side covered!"
"R-right!" Haruhiro said. Manato was amazing as well. He and Saiai had this side covered. It turned out the other side had it worse.
"Yeah! Take this! And that! And some of this!" Despite his bravado, Ranta was on the receiving end of a beat down. He and Moguzo were on the frontlines, and it was mainly Moguzo that kept this side from being overwhelmed.
"Ranta, get yer ugly head outta the way!" Yume nocked a shot. Ranta crouched to his knees.
"Marc em Pac!" Shihoru said, casting the spell for Magic Missile. An arrow shot out, accompanied by a bead of light. There were so many bodies it was impossible to miss. The arrow pierced a chest. The magic hit another. The momentary pause was enough.
"Thank you!" Moguzo heaved and swiped his sword to the right. He didn't cut the goblins so much as he hurled them with blunt force, throwing their bodies against the wall.
"Yes! Now's my chance!" Ranta's sword pierced the throat of one goblin, and then he moved to attack the other. A goblin tried to attack Ranta while he was focused on its fallen brethren. Haruhiro blocked its sword with his own. Ranta rose from the ground, his longsword pointed upward, and attempted to skewer the goblin alive. Another goblin blocked Ranta's attack with a round shield. Ranta began hammering it with blows. The magic wore off and other goblin managed to pull back into the safety of its allies.
"Ranta!" Moguzo said. Ranta stepped back. Moguzo replaced him, pulled his sword up and threw all his weight into the slash, cutting the shield in two. The goblin fell to its back, revealing a cut on its collarbone to its stomach oozing blood.
Moguzo's pretty good himself, Haruhiro thought. He wished he was that good, instead of being stuck on the defensive. The goblins were wild and uncoordinated. But the same was true for Haruhiro's party. The only difference was the strength the other members brought to bear.
"Haru! Pull back!" Manato said. Haruhiro did so, disengaging with the goblin and stepping backwards into the group. Manato replaced him, attacking the goblin with a flurry of blows. He was so fast the goblin barely kept up.
"Yume's joining too!" Yume returned her bow to her quiver, extracted her machete from her side and weaved between Moguzo and Manato, swiping at random to any goblin slow enough not to notice her.
On the other side Saiai was a beast. Her arms substituted for blades and tore through goblins that tried to get passed her with sheer brute force, leaving chunks of meat on the rubble and gore staining the walls.
"Hey, help me up!" Ranta sheathed his longsword and pointed to the wall. Haruhiro wondered what he was thinking but went with it. He was the only reactive member, all the others being proactive except for Merry. But Merry was a healer and he was not. Merry nodded to him, approving of their action. With a shrug Haruhiro sheathed his shortsword and offered his palm, supported by his other hand. Ranta jumped on his palm. Haruhiro grimaced, the weight almost too much on him. Ranta leaped to the wall, his arms hooking on the ledge and hanging on. He climbed the rest of the way up, turned and reached his hands. "Grab on!"
'Oh. We're doing this?' Haruhiro jumped and caught Ranta's grip. Ranta pulled him up and the two jumped over the wall, crouching as they landed on their feet. Haruhiro and Ranta rushed back to the entryway of the walled pathway, where the backs of goblin bodies were vulnerable to them. Those goblins fought Manato and Moguzo, the former noticing Haruhiro and Ranta. Haruhiro extracted his dagger. Ranta unsheathed his longsword. They didn't even shout and simply stabbed their weapons into two backs. Ranta's sword burst out of one goblins' chest, Haruhiro's dagger buried into the back of another.
Cheers were made from Manato's side. Horrified screams from the goblins. Now it was their turn to get trapped, and Saiai prevented the other side from providing backup. The goblins were demoralized, while Haruhiro's party was energized. Yume, Manato and Moguzo increased the pace of their attacks. Two goblins engaged Haruhiro and Ranta. The frantic battle was finally decided when Manato sent one limb flying and sliced the goblins' neck. He provided assistance to Moguzo, attacking the goblin from the side. While it blocked his attack, Moguzo was free to launch his own and slammed his sword into the goblins' shoulder, reaching the collarbone. The goblin fighting Yume tried to disengage and retreat. The combined forces of three people battling it forced the goblin into a crumbling defense. Eventually it missed a strike and was cut in half by Moguzo's bastard sword.
The goblin facing Ranta didn't look back and was slashed by Yume's machete.
The goblin battling Haruhiro did, blocked Manato's sword, and screamed when Haruhiro's dagger sunk into its neck.
A glance at the other side confirmed Saiai neutralized the threats. With the knowledge he could stop fighting, at least for the moment, he could relax.
Haruhiro didn't realize how exhausted he was until the world spun around him. He rested on the wall and slid down the rubble to sit. His hands clutched his dagger and shortsword. He was gasping for breath. Almost everyone was. Ranta was out of the entryway and lied on his back in a patch of grass. Moguzo sat on a large piece of rubble beside the dread knight. Of the ones participating in the action Manato was the least worn-out. His breath was steady. His eyes were calm. He sheathed his sword and sat beside Haruhiro, nudging Haruhiro's shoulder, and when Haruhiro gave him an inquisitive look, simply grinned in response. Yume, Merry and Shihoru were resting on the opposite wall, similarly worn-out, Yume due to the fight itself, Merry and Shihoru from the stress.
"Nice job," Saiai said, blowing her brown bangs as she looked at the dead bodies from their side. Feces and urine mixed with the scent of blood to fill the stench of bodies from a battlefield. A stench Haruhiro was becoming familiar with, much to his consternation. And he wasn't even complaining.
Renji's words got to him. He didn't want to be a useless leech mooching off the hard work of others. But he disliked risking his life battling monsters too.
Saiai wasn't even winded. She looked as good as when they left the Iron Tavern. The goblins she killed were all torn apart. The bodies were scattered across the bloodstained walls. Her power more than made up for her lack of weapons. In fact, she didn't need weapons. She was one. No parries. No blocks. None of that. She ignored blows thrown towards her and just had to reach her opponent and they were as good as dead.
Again the similarities with Accelerator became apparent. From the invulnerability to the super-strength, her power was like a downsized version of his. Not that it mattered. Even if they were, they wouldn't remember it. And they weren't close anyway. Saiai gravitated more to Hamazura's group, and Accelerator for some odd reason to Haruhiro's.
"You did all that?" she looked at Manato.
"Haruhiro and Ranta broke their ranks, actually." Manato chuckled. Saiai looked at Haruhiro in surprise.
"We get a break, right?" Ranta was out of breath. "Not that I'm tired, of course. Just, giving the enemies a chance to recover, is all. Wouldn't want Ranta the great and magnificent to be known as a murderous maniac."
"Yeah, sure." Saiai glanced at Manato. He gave a rueful smile and got to his feet.
"I shall come with you," Merry said, following after them.
"Uh, what about the break, guys?" Ranta asked. "Saiai's strong, but Merry and Manato have limits. Not like me, of course. But I feel a little sorry for the little guys and I'm willing to give them a chance."
"I'm not," Saiai said. "Merry's getting paid, same as me, to do a job. And someone from your team has to do yours to represent Accelerator. Leaving an impression matters. Right now you're undergoing a test, and the easiest way to fail is to return to Mugino and have some nice food and cold drink under her protection and call it a day. But in real fights we don't get breaks. Touma has big plans. I think. I dunno. The higher ups don't tell me anything. But I am super interested in contributing to this project. I like you guys. It'd be a shame if any of you gets left behind."
Left behind. Haruhiro imagined being alone, staying in his room and enjoying good food. It wasn't a bad deal. He'd be safe the rest of his life. But he would also be alone. What if the others decided to go on without him? Then that meant he'd be the laughingstock people would point at and talk about behind his back in derision. That couldn't no.
"NO!" Haruhiro got up. "I'll come too!" When everyone's attention was drawn on him, he almost shied back. But the thought of being a loser threatened his miniscule pride. "I-I mean, I can't just let Manato do this on his own. I-I want to help. I need to help." 'I need to avoid being the last one in.' "Manato, Merry, Saiai, you can count on me."
"Yume too!" Yume's eyes sparkled with delight.
"…Me as well..." Shihoru reluctantly complied.
"I suppose I'll go." Moguzo made a gentle smile.
Saiai winked at Haruhiro and nodded with a satisfied smile. What was the wink for? Did she understand his intent? He hoped she didn't, or if she did she wouldn't tell anyone.
"What the hell!?" Ranta gaped at Haruhiro. "Y-you want to go fight? I took you for a coward! You know, a scaredy cat. And not one of the cute ones, either."
"All cats are cute," Merry said.
"Whatever. I'm the last one to join so that makes it look like I was peer-pressured. But let me remind you all that with Ranta the magnificent dread knight by your side we shall never lose! Who's with me!"
By the time he was done talking they were already leaving.
"Wait! Come back! Don't leave me alone!" Ranta chased after them.
They found another group of goblins, five all in all. The five goblins were talking in hushed whispers, not that it mattered even if they were screaming their words. Haruhiro wouldn't understand any of it. The goblins were in an old building that miraculously maintained its walls and roof. Haruhiro peeked through the window. The goblins looked alert. If he were to hazard a guess it would be due to the number of casualties Accelerator and Misaki were raking up in the Old City. It was a theory the exiled goblins, normally despondent from being forced out of Damuro, would congregate in mutual fury of an existential threat. It would give them a cause worth fighting for, and if the goblins were victorious, something to take pride in.
They wouldn't, of course. Accelerator alone would crush all goblin resistance and drive them to despair. And then drive them six feet under the ground.
The glimpse he saw of Accelerator's power and the result to the opposition hinted at the man's personality, or at least persona relating to battle. He was not nice.
Haruhiro returned to the others and informed them of the goblin party, and his opinion on what was happening in the wider range of the Old City.
"Yeah. If we take goblin land we'll be in for a siege. Not that it'll matter with Accelerator on our side." Saiai rolled her shoulders. "Okay. I'll make this quick. Haruhiro, be the eyes that guide me."
Haruhiro was so surprised he was the one called instead of Manato Saiai tapped his sternum. "Grimgar to Haruhiro. We need you back here. Get your head off the clouds. You with me, Haruhiro?"
"Y-yeah. I'm with you."
"Good." Saiai approached the building and raised a foot. "Then I'll make this easier!" She kicked the wall. Rubble burst inside the house and pelted the five goblin bodies. One fell immediately. A large rubble bounced off its head, denting its skull. It fell to the dusty floor. Saiai jumped into the fray. Haruhiro heard weapons drawn in response to her attack. He looked to the others and found them gone. With a gulp he unsheathed his shortsword and entered from the new hole.
Saiai was fighting three of the goblins. She caught one neck and squeezed. Eyes bulged from the sockets and popped out. A sickening crack followed. She threw the body into the other two, already wounded from her surprise attack and too disoriented to respond properly. Not that it mattered.
One goblin drew its rusty sword and slashed at Haruhiro. He parried the attack with his shortsword. He was useless in direct combat. He could only take down his enemies from behind or when their focus was elsewhere. But maybe he could try something else. Haruhiro held firm with one hand maintaining the stalemate with the goblin while the other went behind him and extracted his dagger. Before the goblin became aware of his plan Haruhiro stabbed his dagger into its eye. It shrieked and tried to get away. Haruhiro wouldn't let it. He extracted the dagger, dripping with blood, and slashed the goblins' shoulder, raking a line down its elbow into its forearm. It hissed and jumped back. The wounded arm hung limply at its side, and it lost one eye in the exchange. Haruhiro was still good to battle. While the wounded goblin regarded him wearily he glanced at Saiai. She had pulled out the goblins' head from its body. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth, dangling alongside its eyeballs held by its optic nerves. One part of its body remained, however. Saiai whipped one of the remaining goblin with the spine, and then slapped a sword away with her other hand.
The wounded goblin snapped its tongue in indecision. Turn its back to Haruhiro and it might get stabbed. But if it continued facing him it would ensure its death to Saiai's hands. As if to drive the point home, Saiai threw an uppercut and sent a goblin flying. Its head smashed into the ceiling. It kicked its feet frantically, and then slowly, and then stopped.
The goblin circled Haruhiro, and he watched it in turn. He noticed too late that he was positioned between the goblin and Saiai, with its back to the hole she made. Getting up on some rubble, it laughed and ran away.
A goblin head sailed through the air, its spine moving like a tailbone, or slithered like a snake. The dangling eyes bore into him, irises reflecting Haruhiro's gaping expression. Blood dribbled from its outstretched tongue. It scored a hit on the back of the retreating goblins' head. The head rolled against a wall. The wounded goblin fell on a piece of rubble, the slope tilting its head with an audible crack. The remaining goblin was shaking, unable to hold its weapon properly, as it faced Saiai. There was a cut on its face from where she whipped it with a spine. She ambled towards it. The goblin gave a battle cry and charged. Despite being invulnerable to its blade, Saiai made the effort to dodge the attack. She ducked under the next swing and threw a left hook, tearing through its face. Its skin, jaw, teeth, nose, and tongue were stained the wall with gore.
"Good fight," Saiai said. She looked almost mournful.
She turned to Haruhiro with a forced cheer and tapped his shoulder as she approached him. "Good job hunting it down. Them," Saiai corrected herself. "Hunting them down."
"Saiai, I've been meaning to ask," Haruhiro said, approaching the topic gently. "But, you've killed before, haven't you? Before entering this world, I mean."
Saiai gave a playful grin and wagged her finger. "Uh-uh. Don't ask too much from a girl if you're not ready to see her ugly side."
"I'm ready," he said. She lost her playfulness and observed him with a blank expression.
"I think so," Saiai said, looking to the dead body by the hole in the broken wall. "I can't feel regret over something I don't remember. But I know how to kill people. It's just a part of who I am. You have a problem with that?" She was already walking to the hole.
"It would be hypocritical of me to do so," Haruhiro said. "Even if they aren't human, these things we kill… They're a lot like us, aren't they?" They showed fear, tactics, camaraderie. While the goblins from the forest made a plan, they continued the assault even when it killed them. Those goblins were strange, different from the denizens of the Old City.
"Hmm." Saiai paused to stare at him, searching for something in his face. Once she found it she gave a nod. "Let's keep hunting goblins." She explained the plan. The rest of the party will be following Saiai and Haruhiro from the shadows, tailing them and see if there are other hostile stalkers.
"So you're giving them a break," Haruhiro surmised. Saiai raised a brow. He extrapolated. "You want to give them time to rest so you make up some stupid mission and do the job yourself. But the goblins might wise up and avoid your location. You're not exactly subtle. That's why you have me scout our enemies so you can ambush them and I get to hide behind you. Rinse and repeat. You know, for someone trying to make herself look bad you're actually pretty kind."
Saiai laughed. "I super don't know what you're talking about."
Saiai stopped moving and Haruhiro began hunting the Old City for more enemies. Each time he did so he would come back to Saiai and tell her their location. He spotted two goblins armed with a dagger and a spear out in the open. He led Saiai to their location, upon which she charged at them and tore them to pieces with swipes of her hands. She hurried back towards him and he continued looking for more. Three goblins were patrolling the side of a two storey building missing a wall. Haruhiro let himself be seen and acted in surprise. The goblins chased him with swords. When he reached Saiai he extracted his dagger and charged alongside her. A goblin stabbed at her and another slashed. She ignored their attacks and grabbed their throats, crushing their windpipes. Haruhiro frantically dodged the sword of the third goblin, unable to find an opening to unsheathe his shortsword. Saiai made a cute roar, literally saying the word, and flailed her arms about. She swiped the goblins' sword-wielding arm, leaving it defenseless to Haruhiro's dagger. He stabbed its chest, stomach, forearm when it tried to block him, and finally its right cheek. The goblin fell on its knees. He caught his dagger before the goblin continued falling on its face and into a pool of its own blood from the numerous wounds and the stump from its missing arm.
This was completely easier than the battle at the walled pathway they had earlier. This goes to show the difference between a superhuman and a regular one.
Along the way they found mutilated corpses of other goblins. The violent deaths reminded Haruhiro of the hillock of corpses. Accelerator had been here. There were entire buildings destroyed, gouged soil and bodies pulverized by large rubble. Despite being on the same side, Accelerator left a dark atmosphere in his wake Haruhiro wanted to run away from.
There were also other peculiar remains. An entire group of goblins laid, weapons withdrawn, and their heads smashed. It was the same every time. A clean and efficient way of killing. The only other party here was Misaki's. It must've been her doing.
Haruhiro peeked on the window of a derelict house. It was the same time a goblin chose to look out and observe the scenery.
Haruhiro and the goblin stared at each other. He immediately jumped away from the window and unsheathed his double-edged one-handed shortsword. The goblin took a weapon lying against the wall. It was a shortsword with a curved blade broadening at the point, a scimitar. The goblin jumped out of the window, attempting to kick Haruhiro as it landed. He sidestepped to the side and slashed at it with his shortsword. The goblin parried it and thrust its scimitar forward. Haruhiro blocked it with his sword. Haruhiro tried to push his sword one way, and the goblin attempted to push it the other. They both glared at each other, growls and grunts traded as they fought for their lives.
This was the problem of a scout. They didn't have back-up. Haruhiro went with the mistaken assumption that Saiai functioned as his bodyguard. She didn't. And now he was paying the price for his delusion.
Haruhiro pulled his sword back. The goblin swept low with its own. Haruhiro buried his blade into the ground, blocking the scimitar with a clang. He grinned, his hand reaching for his dagger. He viewed it as his trump card. After he stabbed the goblin maybe he could relieve some stress killing it.
'Got you now!' His dagger went low and sunk into flesh, penetrating the goblins' right thigh. The goblin hissed. Haruhiro expected it to pull back and give him some time to retake his stance and slowly whittle it down. What he didn't expect was for the goblin to pull a similar trick. It revealed a white fang-like knife and stabbed it into Haruhiro's stomach. His eyes widened and his mouth opened to scream in pain. Haruhiro panicked and tried to pull up its sword. The goblin slapped the handle away. The sword fell in the opposite direction from Haruhiro. He tried to grab his dagger. The goblin twisted its knife. Haruhiro cried in pain. The goblin snarled and kicked his wounded stomach, making him bite his lips strong enough to draw blood as he tried to escape his death. He fell on his back and saw blood drip from the white fang.
"Wait," Haruhiro said. "Please don't kill me." He clasped his hands together and begged for his life. The goblin kicked his jaw. He almost bit his tongue. His teeth scraped it. He tasted iron, the flavor of his own blood. The goblin stomped his head. Haruhiro tried to cover his face with his arms. The goblin stomped on his forearms repeatedly. He felt his bones break and dislocate. He cried with the pain. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Tears escaped his eyes. Mucus leaked from his nose. He continued begging for his life despite never giving the same chance to goblins at his mercy. The goblin kicked at the wound on his stomach. Haruhiro gasped and tried to clutch the wound. The goblin grinned and kicked the side of his head. He thought his brain was going to jump out of his head. He began seeing red and felt a burning sensation on his forehead. There was probably a cut. Blood mixed with his snot and tears. Haruhiro cried and in his desperation to live kicked his legs. He accidentally hit the goblins' thigh. The same one he stabbed. His dagger was still in its body. The goblin shrieked and fell on its knees. It straddled Haruhiro and began throwing punches into his face. His cheeks went one way. His jaw went another. His teeth jumped from his mouth. Spittle and blood stained the ground and rubble on either side of him.
The goblin raised its knife. The sun glared brightly above it. It sunk the knife into Haruhiro's throat. Before it did more than scratch his throat he blocked the knife with his palm. The tip burst through the back of his hand. Haruhiro's free hand grabbed his dagger and twisted it inside the wound. The goblin shrieked once more but pushed onward, trying to force its knife beyond his hand. Haruhiro grabbed his dagger, extracted it from the goblins' wound with a swish, and stabbed the goblins' wrist. The goblin panicked and tried to push his hand away. Haruhiro kicked at its thigh. The goblin screamed and released its grip on his knife and leaving his dagger stuck in its wrist in its haste to escape. Haruhiro caught its leg with his foot and tripped the goblin. He grabbed the nearest rubble and crawled over its body. He raised the rubble and smashed the back of its head.
"How-" He smashed it again. "Do you-" And again. "Like-" The goblin tried to cover the back of its head to no avail. "Me now!" Haruhiro continued hitting the head, losing count of the time until all that was left was a stain on the ground. He threw the rubble away and fell on his back, his arms spread around him. He was gasping for breath. He was bleeding. Was this the end? Kind of a pathetic way to die, honestly. The bruises, black eyes, cuts and all the other minor wounds accumulated into a white burning sensation hurting his entire body. He clutched his stomach, checked his hand and saw it covered in blood.
It wasn't his dying state that made him swear.
It was the goblins observing him from a nearby building. They looked at his beaten body with glee. Five goblins emerged from the house, led by an armored gray goblin with two large fangs and a sharp jawline. It was muscular too, and probably as tall as Haruhiro if he could stand up and compare their height. The gray goblin moved with a swagger. The gray goblin dragged a spiked ball by its shaft. A morning star. The gray goblin was going to use that to smash Haruhiro's brain into the soil.
He glared at the gray goblin, making his disdain for it known. He wasn't going to beg, not after it led him nowhere. Maybe if it worked he would've tried again. But anymore. Not after all the wounds he suffered. He raised his arm and gave it the finger. The gray goblin held its shaft with both hands like it was a cane and narrowed its eyes, making a curious sound. Was it speaking to him? That was pointless. They couldn't understand each other anyway.
The goblin raised the morning star with one hand, not even straining with the weight, and tilted its head, looking at Haruhiro like he was an insect it wanted to squash.
It lost its arm. The morning star fell on rubble, crushing it. "Ra?" The gray goblin tilted its head, fascinated by the blood leaking from its stump like a hose. And then its head flew. Its body crumbled. Manato spun on his foot, his bastard sword glistening with the blood of the fallen goblin and immediately attacked the four remaining goblins. It was a battle no single person without superhuman capabilities should've lasted long at all. Yet Manato parried all four goblins without taking a step back. Because if he retreated that meant he would risk Haruhiro's life even further.
"Just run!" Haruhiro said. 'Leave me behind.'
"Good idea!" Ranta exclaimed, misunderstanding Haruhiro's words and emerged from a corner, charging the group of goblins. Yume, Merry and Shihoru a step behind them followed the dread knight into battle. With a battle cry they met the goblins' weapons with their own. Moguzo was suddenly behind Haruhiro and carried him by his shoulders away from the battle. Merry hit the head of one goblin Shihoru incapacitated with her magic, noticed the tank retreating with the wounded party member, and followed them behind a crumbling wall.
"O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you… Cure!" Warm light enveloped Haruhiro's entire body. The pain from his stomach, his hand, his arms, and all the accumulated wounds all over his face vanished, as if burned away by the holy light. He sighed blissfully. Maybe he was seeing things, but he could've sworn there was a halo over Merry's head.
"Where's Saiai?" Haruhiro asked. Merry shook her head.
"We don't know."
"We were looking after you," Moguzo said. "But we got stalled by some goblins. I've never seen Manato so angry before. If it weren't for so many of them blocking our way we wouldn't have let those things happen to you at all. We're sorry."
"No, don't be." Haruhiro grinned like an idiot. "I'm just glad you came back for me at all." He sat up. "Come on. Let's help the others."
Merry raised a brow. "What for?" She pointed to the battlefield. There was only one goblin left. Manato's blade was covered in a thick layer of blood. He stabbed the sword through the goblins' chest and threw its body into a wall. It slid down the wall, leaving a bloodstain. Ranta, Yume and Shihoru were done fighting their opponent, a single goblin, and watched Manato finish his. "Manato did all the work," Merry said. She closed her eyes and made the sign of the hexagram.
"Haru?" Manato immediately looked for him. When he found Haruhiro, he sighed in relief. "You're okay," he said, seemingly in disbelief. "I'm so glad."
'Since when did he start calling me Haru?'
Manato's sword was still dripping with blood. He thwacked it on the air. Red droplets stained the rubble and soil. He really was something else.
"What were you thinking, fighting that goblin all on your own?" Manato asked. Haruhito felt like an arrow stabbed his heart. He knew Manato didn't mean it that way, but the implication Haruhiro couldn't even manage fighting one goblin made him feel like an incompetent person who can't even take care of himself.
Haruhiro clenched his fists and took cold comfort in the fact he dealt with his enemy all on his own. Outwardly, he smiled. "I was just caught by surprise. It won't happen again."
"Let's take a breather. A little rest won't hurt anyone," Merry suggested. Being a healer, she was probably more aware of the party's limits than anyone else here. "To be honest, this situation is quite strange. I've never before been with a party as fresh as yours that hunts enemies with manic desperation." She sighed. "Then again, I too partook in this extermination you call an outing."
"What happened yesterday, in that forest," Manato said, approaching them, with the rest of the party behind him. "That wasn't normal, was it?"
"No. Maybe if they were goblins from Damuro, or even exiled goblins fighting a losing war from the Old City. But to have mud goblins, the lowest kind from their society, organize a battle for a measly group of newcomers? Unheard of. And they kept throwing themselves at Accelerator-san even after witnessing his power. It was so ridiculously strange."
"Guys!" Saiai ran to them, stopping a meter from Haruhiro, slouched and held her knees. She was breathing heavily. Her skin glistened with sweat. She straightened her back and closed her hands into a fist. "I was looking all over for you, Haruhiro! I was super worried! But now that Merry's here I guess it's fine." She looked at the remains of the dead goblins from the open field to the one with its back to the wall. She took an interest in the goblin with its head smeared into the ground.
"What did that goblin do to you, Manato?"
"Haruhiro did that," Manato said.
Saiai whistled. She gave Haruhiro another look. He tilted his head and stared back. She shook her head.
"What, what is this?" Ranta asked. They ignored him. "Telepathy? Is that what you're doing? Some sort of voiceless form of communication?"
Haruhiro continued ignoring him, but Saiai did not. "Where did you hear that word from?" she asked.
"I don't know. It's one of those many things that stuck in my head. Like, I can't remember my past but I know the definition of some words."
Yume looked at him in disbelief.
"What? I'm not an idiot, you know."
Yume covered her mouth and gasped in a further act of disbelief.
"…Liar," Shihoru said.
"I happen to be very smart, for your information. Tell them, Haruhiro."
"What? Don't drag me into this," Haruhiro said, crossing his arms into an x.
"About my master plan earlier! You know? When we were stuck in those walls?"
"Oh. Yeah. Ranta suggested we climb up. Definitely."
Saiai looked at Ranta dubiously. "If you say so."
"I have been doing a lot of un-priestly acts today. I shouldn't be in the frontlines, you know," Merry said, looking at Saiai.
"Don't blame this on me. We can't control what happens in a fight. Plans don't survive first contact with the enemy and all that super wise jazz."
"Jazz? What's jazz?"
"I don't know either. Hmm. What is it…"
"Enough of those weird words!" Ranta pointed at Saiai. "Do we get a break or what? Haruhiro almost got killed earlier! And it's because of your 'brillaint plan'." He made quotation marks with two fingers on each hand. "If it weren't for that, we wouldn't have been panicking like crazy trying to save his sorry ass."
Despite Ranta's harsh words, Saiai didn't retort angrily but instead squirmed and blushed, looking embarrassed. Haruhiro was also ashamed because it was Ranta of all people who chastised her with him as the topic.
"You're right." Saiai took a deep breath, sighed, and facing Haruhiro, lowered her head. "Haruhiro, I'm super sorry for getting you all beat up."
"W-what?" He shook his head. "It's not your fault, Saiai. It was mine for being incompetent."
"No, it's not. If I didn't let you into that situation you wouldn't have gotten hurt."
"Well, the moment I signed up for this job getting hurt was just part of the course." Haruhiro scratched the back of his head. "And I had the option to back out, remember?"
"At least let me treat you to some food."
"Fine." He gave in. But he didn't feel all that good being treated because of his own inability to avoid getting into that kind of scenario.
Saiai made a small smile. Haruhiro returned it. She offered a hand, he took it, and she helped him up to his feet.
"Goblins!" Yume said, warning them. Haruhiro looked at where she pointed. Between two buildings, ten goblins were running towards them. Haruhiro wasn't worried. Not with Saiai and Manato. Shihoru glanced at his shortsword, hurried to pick it up, and return to him with a kind smile.
"Thank you," he said. Shihoru nodded and went behind him. Saiai stood at the frontline, Manato and Moguzo beside her. Ranta and Yume flanked Merry and Shihoru. Haruhiro stayed at the rear. Two goblins stayed behind, wearing quivers and holding bows. They nocked and shot at Haruhiro's group. Saiai caught one arrow, snapping it in two. Manato slapped another arrow down. Yume nocked and shot back.
"Inside the building!" Starting with Haruhiro, they entered the entryway of the building the gray goblin came from. It still had walls and a stairway leading to the second floor. It was missing a roof, but made for a good vantage point against the enemies. With Saiai as the vanguard, he doubted any of these goblins would get through. The two bow goblins stopped shooting and hid behind two derelict buildings.
The goblins reached the entryway, meeting Saiai who stood there to block their path. Three goblins swiped at her with their weapons. She ignored their surprised grunts and punched the head of the one in the center. Her fist emerged from the back of its skull. She extracted her hand and watched the faceless corpse fall. Another goblin took its place. Goblin cries were heard from all around the streets surrounding the building. Those two bow goblins must've called from reinforcements. The exiled populace of the Old City became united against a common threat, that being Haruhiro and everyone else that was a part of Accelerator's group.
More goblins surrounded the house. There were windows on the walls on either side of Haruhiro. A goblin climbed up window a. An arrow pierced its head. It screeched. Yume shot another arrow from half-up the stairway, penetrating its forehead. The goblin went limp. Two goblins pulled its feet and threw it on the ground, another one moving to replace it. A goblin stabbed at Manato from window b. He sliced its arm off. The goblin cried and looked at its bleeding stump with a horrified expression. It was pushed aside by another goblin.
"Moguzo! Guard it!" Haruhiro said. Manato was too busy slashing at any limbs that tried to get in the house to make orders, so Haruhiro substituted for him.
"Right!" Moguzo heaved his bastard sword and thrust out the window. He scored a lucky hit and pierced through the head of the goblin standing outside it. The upper half of its face flew. Moguzo pulled back his sword, revealing the tongue and the lower teeth of the goblin. Another one replaced it. Haruhiro stabbed at the goblin. It blocked his shortsword with a wooden shield. Moguzo raised his sword. Haruhiro pulled back. Moguzo slammed his sword through the wooden shield, tearing the goblins' arm. Before it could do more Haruhiro slashed its head. It was pulled back before he could even verify it was completely dead. Another bow goblin nocked and shot from outside. Haruhiro cursed and jumped to the side, hitting his shoulder against the wall. The arrow bounced off the opposite wall. Another goblin tried to get in.
"Yume! Do something about the archer!" Haruhiro said.
"Roger!" Yume went up the stairs. Moguzo pressed his back to the wall next to the window. He and Haruhiro shared a glance. Another goblin pressed its arm through the window, holding an iron shield. Moguzo slashed at it. His sword dented the shield but didn't go through. The goblin held a rusty sword on its other hand, blocking Haruhiro's slash. It suddenly jumped the rest of the way through. Beyond the window two more goblins pulled back their hands before Haruhiro could cut them. They pushed it through the window? The goblin hurried up to its feet and blocked Moguzo's bastard sword with its shield. Moguzo pulled back when it swung its sword. He parried the next hit and began clashing with the goblin, leaving Haruhiro alone to defend window a.
Where the hell was Ranta?
"Take that you fucking gob!" Ranta said from the second floor.
"Haru-kun! They're tryin' to climb up!" Yume said. Haruhiro was more interested in the goblin nocking a shot. Before it could release its arrow, another arrow penetrated its shoulder. The goblin cried. It disappeared in the crowd of yellowish-green bodies. Another goblin carrying a sword and a shield tried to get through the window. Haruhiro's sword didn't even dent its shield when he slashed at it. He parried its attack and kept on hitting it, hoping to buy time for someone else to help him.
"Marc em Pac!" Shihoru's voice filled him with relief. He glanced back. A bead of light hit the goblin fighting Moguzo. His bastard sword hit its side. The goblin died, cut in half.
"Moguzo!" Haruhiro called out to him. Moguzo pulled the dead goblins' shield and rushed to window a. The goblin tried to slash at him. Moguzo ignored the attack and slammed his shield to the goblins repeatedly. When its body pressed against him he didn't budge. Haruhiro slid his sword from the side, stabbing into the goblins' shoulder. It cried in pain and released its shield with its limp arm. Haruhiro pushed his sword further into its body. The goblin desperately tried to pull away, but the goblins behind it kept pushing its body against Moguzo's shield. Moguzo continued hitting its head until blood stained his shield. Haruhiro pulled his sword back just as the body was dragged out. A spear goblin thrust through the window. Moguzo blocked the hits with his shield. Haruhiro crawled through the floor and picked up the shield the last goblin left behind. Moguzo's shield was slowly denting. It wouldn't be long before the spear or the weapon after it would simply pierce through the shield or hit it with enough blunt force to tear it apart. And Moguzo didn't have infinite stamina either. He could only take so much punishment before something breaks. Him or the shield.
"Haruhiro!" Manto called to him. Haruhiro released the shield and rushed to window b. "Cover this window! I'll go help Moguzo!" Manato left the window to him. Haruhiro looked outside it. Goblins glared at him from the other side. A fat goblin beat its chest like a gorilla, raised a sword, the tip glinting with sunlight, and pointed at Haruhiro. It ran up the platform made of goblin corpses Manato killed and jumped through the space. Haruhiro cursed at his own gawking and swiped at it. The goblin blocked his shortsword and bent its knees when it landed on the floor. It snarled. Haruhiro felt the pressure of his eminent failure when another goblin made to enter the window. He didn't have the speed or strength to battle multiple opponents like Saiai or Manato. He parried the goblins' attack and tried cut the arm of the goblin trying to breach their defenses. The goblin from the window pulled its arm out and snickered. The fat goblin bellowed a roar and lunged forward, stabbing at Haruhiro's feet. He sidestepped the attack, parried a slash, and counterstroke.
The fat goblin blocked his sword.
A spear pierced the side of its head and exited from the other, accompanied by blood and brain. It was a familiar spear, the one from the goblin Moguzo was fighting. Manato held the spear, raised it and batted the corpse out the window. He spun the spear between his fingers, held it in a firm grip, pointed at the window, and thrust three times. With each thrust the dying cries of goblins followed. After the third thrust an unusually large goblin wearing a chainmail and a helmet raised a ridiculously large sword and swiped the spear, tearing it in half. Manato looked at the broken spear, shrugged, and threw it above the large goblins' shoulder. It pierced the eye of a goblin unfortunate enough to stand in its way. The goblin shrieked, pulled it out, and fell on its back. Dead. Manato unsheathed his bastard sword and began battling the large goblin.
"What is that?" Haruhiro asked.
"A hobgoblin," Manato answered.
"Haru-kun!" Yume called out to him.
"Go!" Manato said. Haruhiro gulped and nodded. He took a final glance at the two other defenders. Moguzo was trading blows with a blue colored goblin twice as tall as regular ones. It also donned a chainmail, a helmet, and used two pointed, prong shaped metal baton, with two prongs from each handle. His teacher Barbara called it a sai. The goblin preferred dodging Moguzo's attacks instead of meeting it head-on, and then stabbing and chipping at him while he pulled his sword back, light on its feet.
Saiai was still killing the goblins that attacked her and couldn't survive her retaliation. But less of the frontline goblins were willing to mindlessly anger what appeared to be an invincible human. It was only the impatient goblins from the back that pushed their way into the front, slashed at Saiai, yelped in surprise when their weapons bounced off her skin, and ill-prepared for her punches that ignored their armor, tearing their bodies like wet paper. Sometimes a goblin was pushed towards her. She happily jabbed their heads off their bodies. A number of corpses littered the ground.
Haruhiro ran up the stairs.
A large caw resounded from the sky. A murder of crows circled above them. The sun beamed beyond the clouds. It was the dead bodies that attracted the birds. It might take some time, but the corpses will decay, becoming carrion for the crows to feast on. A wooden ladder was pressed against the south-side wall. The tip was visible from the ledge. Haruhiro raced towards it. He saw a goblin climbing up, a dagger between its lips. Haruhiro gripped both sides of the latter and pushed it down. The goblin fell back, the impact of its back against the ground and the weight of the ladder punching the air from its lungs. But the ladder didn't break. And there were more being piled on all sides of the building.
He was so tired. He didn't even do much of anything but he was so tired. Perspiration soaked his clothes. His lungs burned. It was getting harder to breathe. He took off his jacket. He dried his forehead with his jacket, grimaced, and rushed for his teammates. On the east-side Ranta was trying to push a ladder off, but goblins from the ground held it steady. A goblin made its way up.
"Ranta! Let's do this!" Haruhiro said.
"Yeah!" Ranta grinned. They waited for the goblin to climb up, growl at them and unsheathe its sword, and try to balance its legs from the rung. Haruhiro stabbed with his shortsword, Ranta with his longsword. They stabbed it to death. When the corpse fell the other goblins got out of the way and it landed with a thud. A goblin climbed up the south-side. They ran towards it, glancing at Yume perched from the north-west, nocking an arrow and releasing the shot, shooting a goblin. At the north-side of the building Shihoru casted Magic Missile, followed by a bead of light blasting from her staff and stunning a goblin about to drop its foot into the ledge. Merry clubbed the goblins' face with her own staff, sturdier than Shihoru's and made for combat. She then hit its fingers. The goblin lost its balance and fell from the ladder.
Haruhiro and Ranta reached the goblin a little too late. The goblins' foot caught the ledge and it left the rung. Ranta swore and aimed high. Haruhiro swiped low. The goblin parried Ranta's longsword and jumped from Haruhiro's shortsword. It began a frantic battle with its back to the ground. A single misstep could decide its fate. Yet the goblin was calm as it fought them. It was buying time for its companions. If they wasted more time battling this goblin then it increases the likelihood of others gaining access to the second floor. Like the east-side they left unguarded.
"Moguzo!" Haruhiro said, calling for their tank.
"Go!" Manato said from the first floor. "Saiai and I can handle this!"
Moguzo rushed up to the second floor, breathing heavily, saw a goblin climbing up from the east-side, and released a growl as he heaved his bastard sword and attacked. The sound of metallic weapons clashing followed.
"Get behind me!" Saiai said, her voice closer. They must've moved to the stairway to block the only entrance to the second floor. "I'll kill everything that moves. Focus on the ones that get passed me!"
"Understood!" Manato answered.
"You're pretty tough!" Ranta snarled and slashed his sword downward, aiming for the goblins' head. It raised its weapon and blocked his attack. Haruhiro hit low, trying to cut its feet. The goblin nimbly stepped sideward; dodging his blade. Another goblin was climbing up the south-side ladder. "Haruhiro! Let's just pummel it to the ground!"
Did Ranta mean to attack at the same spot? That was how Haruhiro interpreted his words. He nodded. The goblin blocked another thrust from Ranta. It looked surprised when Haruhiro did the same, attacking the sword instead of the goblin. It grinned, probably thinking him mad. Haruhiro threw a fist to its stomach. The goblins' eyes gleamed, seeing an opportunity. It pushed their swords back and aimed for Haruhiro's wrist, intending to cut it off. Ranta was faster and whacked his sword against its face. It jumped away with a hiss. An ugly cut marked the left side of its face. Blood leaked from the wound. The goblin hissed. They both aimed low. The goblin parried their attacks. Ranta kicked its leg. It bit its lip and pirouetted away. An arrow struck its shoulder. It cried in surprise. Haruhiro gave Yume a thumb up. He noticed the arrows on her quiver were running low. She nocked another arrow and shot at a goblin that reached the south-side of the second floor. It fell off the ledge. Merry was clobbering a goblin that refused to let go of the ladder. Yume aimed an arrow towards it.
Ranta was now managing the goblin alone. The wound on its face and shoulder was enough to slow it down and give Ranta the edge in the fight. Haruhiro focused on the south-side ladder. He didn't bother kicking it down. They'll just push it back up. The next goblin that reached the top tried to stab him with an arrow. It wore a quiver behind it. If he managed to take that he could replenish Yume's stockpile.
His sword aimed for its neck. To his absolute horror, and that of the goblins', it went through. He tried to grab its body, but it released the ladder and slipped off the rung. He watched it fall, clutching the bleeding hole on its throat. The one time he wanted to avoid killing his enemy, he succeeded. Stupid. He was so stupid. He glanced at Ranta's fight. The dread knight managed to inflict two more wounds on the goblin. A cut on its right shin and left forearm. Despite those wounds the goblin valiantly fought to the bitter end. Haruhiro was surprised though.
The goblin offered its back to him.
Not one to miss an opportunity, he charged at the goblin and stabbed its back. It screeched. Blinded to pain, it was unable to block Ranta's neck move. His sword slashed its head. Haruhiro pulled his sword back. Ranta kicked the beaten goblin off the ledge. Its face was panicked and its arms flailed about, trying to reach anything to hold onto. Its back hit the ground. Blood splattered around it. The goblin stopped moving. Haruhiro looked at his allies. Yume was down to her last five arrows. Moguzo, Shihoru and Merry looked winded, incredibly tired from having fought nonstop.
They need help. Merry gripped her staff and prepared to battle the next goblin. "Ranta, take care of this side," Haruhiro said, walking to the north-side and standing beside Merry. She frowned at him.
"Is that wise?" she asked.
"Ranta can handle it. You two look like you're about to faint." Shihoru moreso than Merry. She was the frailest of their party, lacking the stamina to last in a long battle. And what magical energy Shihoru had she was burning up from the constant contenders desiring to take her life.
A gray goblin climbed up, holding a spear and a shield. It blocked Haruhiro's thrust and warded off Merry with a pierce. She stepped back to avoid its spear. Haruhiro instead got closer and struck the rung. He cut one side loose. The goblins' weight pushed it down, and the goblin moved its foot away. It glared at him, knowing what he was trying to do. Haruhiro aimed for the other side of the rung. The goblin blocked his sword with its spear and tried to hit him with its shield. He sidestepped it and slid his sword up its spear, attempting to remove its fingers. The goblin raised its spear, thrusting for his face. Its spear had longer reach than his shortsword. In a contest of speed it would come up victorious.
Merry smacked its head. It faltered slightly. Haruhiro tried to dodge its spear. He wasn't able to completely avoid getting hit. The tip sliced his cheek, creating a cut. His shortsword sliced its fingers. Blood leaked from the severed hand. Yet its grip on the spear remained. The goblin tried to stab at him. He blocked it with the flat of his sword. It pulled its spear back and attacked Merry. She stepped away from its spear. The goblin increased its weariness, alternating its eyes between the two of them.
An arrow penetrated its left eye. Merry lunged towards it, raising her staff. Despite the pain it must be feeling, the goblin was able to point its spear and thrust at her. She backed away again. The goblin raised its shield, blocking Haruhiro's sword. It pushed him back and turned its shield to the other side, stopping Yume's next arrow from reaching its skin. Haruhiro fell on his knees and slashed his sword to the rung, cutting it free. The goblin lost its balance, and for a second it was distracted. Merry rushed the goblin and slammed her staff to its sternum. Its eyes widened in horror as it fell. With a last act of defiance it threw its spear, piercing Merry's shoulder.
"Merry!" Haruhiro inspected her wound.
"Ouch." Merry grimaced.
"I'm sorry for this," he said.
"Just get it over with." She screamed when he pulled the spear off her shoulder. She began healing her wound. Despite fixing her shoulder, Merry was not better off. The fatigue was catching up to her. Her breathing was deeper. She was struggling to maintain her balance. She had to support herself by gripping her staff with both hands. Shihoru held her shoulder and helped her up.
"I'm out of arrows!" Yume said cheerfully, nocking her last one. She shot a goblin Ranta was fighting. The arrowhead buried into its ear. Ranta tore its chest and pushed it down the ledge with his sword.
"You idiot!" Ranta said. "I had that one in the bag! Stop wasting your arrows on unnecessary things!"
Yume grabbed her machete. "Shut up, Ranta. If it wasn't for Yume you'd be dead!" She stood vigilant on the west-side area. Ranta was on the south. Haruhiro, Merry and Shihoru observed the goblins from the north-side. Something strange was going on. The goblins stopped attacking, at least for the moment, and were huddled and talking in their own language, probably for a change of attack.
"Moguzo!" Haruhiro checked their warrior. Moguzo sat on the east-side ledge a meter from the wooden ladder, having just finished taking down another goblin. Despite his soaked and exhausted form, he managed to give a smile and a nod.
"I'm fine," he said. Haruhiro didn't know how much more they could take.
It was almost a hopeless situation with no way out. The only reason they maintained a relative optimism was due to Saiai. She was the answer to every single goblin here. None of them could hurt her, and she could hurt all of them. They just needed to buy time. But how much more?
"…I don't think I can do this." Shihoru crumpled where she stood and kneeled on the floor. "It's so tiring."
Ranta snorted. "Goes to show how your large tits are weighing you down. Be more like Yume! At least she's useful despite her tiny tits."
"They're not tiny!" Yume made to draw from her quiver. Ranta was about to bolt and run. Where to? Who knows. But then Yume found she was empty of arrows and pouted. Ranta grinned.
"Ha! Stupid Yume! Remember the number of your arrows next time."
"Shut up!" Yume raised her machete threateningly and chased him. Ranta ran away, the two passing Haruhiro and the others in their antic.
An arrow pierced Ranta's shoulder. "Gah!" He pushed Yume to the floor. Another arrow sailed over the space Yume previously stood on. Ranta ducked and hissed. Yume looked at him worriedly. Haruhiro sought the perpetrators. It was an archer goblin. It closed one eye, nocked a shot and aimed. They ducked. Yume whispered something to Ranta's ear, he nodded, and she tore the arrow from his shoulder.
"O Light, may Lumiaris' divine protection be upon you. Cure!" Merry healed Ranta's wound. Despite his wound being removed, he looked even worse. He was running on fumes, Haruhiro realized. All of them were. This was not something rookies should be doing.
"They're moving!" Moguzo said. More arrows sailed through the sky. They couldn't dodge all of that.
"Back down the stairs!" Haruhiro said. They ran for it. The arrows buried on the floor. They reached the stairway and stopped halfway through the steps. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were stained in the blood and bodies of torn goblins. Saiai looked at them in surprise. Manato kneeled on the foot of the stairs, his sword impaled on the floor and his hands held the hilt. He looked at them.
"What's wrong?" Manato asked.
The south wall exploded. A large rock passed the other wall, destroying it. Dust clouds shrouded the room. Rubble littered the floor. The goblin bodies Saiai killed were pushed into the street. Whether due to sheer luck or the buildings' structural integrity, it beat the odds and remained standing.
An empty street.
"They have a catapult!" Manato said.
"Manato, remember what I told you!" Saiai said. Silhouettes formed from the holes. Eager shrills; growls and cries accompanied the cacophonies of weapons being drawn.
"Let's get back up! Return to the second floor!" Manato said. Saiai retreated to the foot of the stairway. Manato met Haruhiro up the steps and ushered them into the second floor. Goblins climbed up the ladders on all sides. A hobgoblin bellowed a battle cry, raised its falchion, a large sword shaped like a cleaver, and hacked at Manato. He nimbly dodged the attack. The falchion plowed through the floor, shattering the surface, pulled the sword back up and tore chunks of rubble.
Manato's sword bounced against its pauldron. It also wore chainmail, a helmet, and greaves. It was a step-up from the more defenseless goblins. Manato ducked under its swing and cut its forearm. Its skin was thick enough to stop the sword. Manato sidestepped another attack and pulled his sword from its limb, running behind it. The hobgoblin, probably sensing he was the strongest foe among their party, chased him to a corner of the floor.
Three goblins remained, armed with a sword, an axe, a mace. They stood side by side, growling at Haruhiro's group. Ranta was to his left, Merry to his right, and to hers Yume. Shihoru was behind them. Maybe it was due to momentum more than anything else, but when Haruhiro, Yume and Ranta met the goblins' charge Merry fought alongside them. She probably couldn't cast another spell and was now throwing herself in the frontline. He wasn't sure. He'd ask her later.
Haruhiro fought the axe-wielding goblin. It swung at him. He blocked with his sword. He grimaced, feeling the weight of the attack. His back pressed against something large. He looked behind him. Moguzo was fighting another hobgoblin holding a spiked club. So that's where he went. It must've been waiting behind one of the ladders and attempted an ambush while they were focused on their enemies. Moguzo spotted it and the two began fighting.
Behind the axe goblin Ranta was parrying the sword goblin. He jumped away, to the side, pounced, disengaged, again and again. Haruhiro realized Ranta was edging closer towards them. When they were four meters apart, Ranta leaped away from the sword goblin and struck the axe goblins' back. It gurgled blood, attempted disengaging Haruhiro and escape. He didn't let it. Haruhiro went on the offensive and hammered its axe repeatedly. If it wasn't wounded this would be an act of inefficiency, but it wasn't at full health. It took all of the goblins' effort to concentrate on the defensive. Haruhiro lucked out and managed to cut its neck. The goblin didn't give up until the very end. The wounds it gained accumulated, and when it was bleeding profusely and barely holding on to life he kicked it off the ledge.
He checked his teammates. Merry and Yume were battling a single goblin. It lost its weapon in the exchange and was badly bruised from Merry's staff. Yume finished it off by impaling her machete through its chest. Manato's sword went through the hobgoblins' skull. He pulled it off and hastily came to Moguzo's aid, which was stuck on the defensive against the spike-clubbed hobgoblin. Ranta wasn't doing so well. The ambush on the axe goblin costed him his left hand. The knuckle bled where the sword goblin must've struck it while Ranta aided Haruhiro. He decided to help his ally. The goblin was more aware than the one Haruhiro killed. Either because it had heightened combat instincts or do to sheer good luck, it managed to dodge his shortshort simply by tilting its head.
"You have got to be kidding me," Haruhiro said.
"Tell me about it!" Ranta spat blood on the floor. Haruhiro went right. Ranta went left. The goblins' eyes darted to and fro, made a decision and jumped backwards, beyond the ledge. Ranta laughed. "Did that son of a bitch just kill itself!?"
"No!" Haruhiro checked the ledge. There was a wooden ladder. The goblin clung to the rung. Haruhiro tried impaling the goblins' fingers. It released its hold on the rung and dropped a step down, catching the next one. It laughed at him and began climbing down.
"I've got this big sword!" Ranta dragged the hobgoblins' falchion from the dead body and threw it over the ledge. It pierced through the goblins' mouth and tore its head in half. The upper half fell to the ground. The rest of its corpse tangled with the rungs.
Three more goblins climbed up from the three other ladders. "This is getting us nowhere!" Ranta cursed. Haruhiro agreed. Manato was finishing up the second hobgoblin. It was no match for the teamwork of their two warriors. While Moguzo took all its attention Manato unleashed over a dozen cuts. He ended the fight by slashing the back of its leg. The hobgoblin fell on its knee. Moguzo cleaved its head. Its skull split open.
Without taking the time to rest, Manato immediately fought the three goblins. It was like he never ran out of energy. He killed them one after the other. "Come on!" he said, pointing at one of the ladders. "The plan-"
"Arrows!" Yume said. Arrowheads gleamed in the sky.
"Behind me!" Manato said. Haruhiro and the others picked up the corpses around them and covered themselves with the bodies while Shihoru made herself as small as possible behind Manato. He kicked up one of the dead goblins' weapon, a longsword, and held both swords in his arms. With speed that defied logic he cut through the arrows. A few got pass him and impaled the head of the dead goblin Haruhiro hid behind. Another set of arrows rained on the second floor. Manato never slowed down on his speed. He was a whirlwind tearing everything out of that got in his way. Another arrow impaled the dead goblins' back. Blood began leaking from its stomach. Haruhiro cried. Ranta and Moguzo were doing better off, in part due to the sturdier skin of the hobgoblin. Merry and Yume weren't receiving as many stray arrows either. So it was just him and his bad luck, then.
"Move!" Manato said, dropping the blade. Haruhiro pushed the corpse off his body and got up, the others doing the same. "We'll be climbing down the ladder!"
"What? Are you crazy!?" Ranta said. "We're gonna get skewered!"
The sound of limbs being torn, screams of pain and cries of death were heard from the ground floor. No doubt about it. Saiai finally exited the building and brought the battle to the horde of goblins. Haruhiro assumed they couldn't go through the ground floor due to the sheer number of goblins. If they did, they would've been overwhelmend. Saiai would shear the horde and give some space on the south-side area of the building, the only side left with a wall still standing. It was strange how the building remained standing at all.
"Shihoru! You go first!" Manato said.
"Hurry!" Merry ushered Shihoru to the south-side ladder. Saiai was circling around the building from the north-side, punching and chopping through the cluster of bodies. She went out of her way to kill those with bows, throwing dead goblins, weapons, rubble, and hobgoblins at them. She was preventing another volley of arrows from being shot into Haruhiro's group. Shihoru looked pale and weary, but she must've felt the desperation of the group. Without voicing any complaints she lowered her feet to the rung, gripped the side-rail and began climbing down.
Goblins emerged from the stairway. Without Saiai defending the first floor stragglers were inbound to realize the rest of them were free for the taking. Four goblins rushed towards them. Haruhiro, Yume, Moguzo, Ranta and Manato met their charge. Haruhiro locked swords with his. Yume did the same. Manato killed his enemy almost immediately, as did Moguzo. Manato passed by Yume, his sword almost flickering with its speed, and sent the goblins' head flying. He was behind the goblin fighting Haruhiro, took its arm off, and Haruhiro impaled his shortsword on its neck. Moguzo slammed his bastard sword on the goblin fighting Ranta. It tried parrying him. The weight of his attack broke its arm. Ranta sliced its eyes, nose, cheeks, tongue, chin, and neck.
"That was so unnecessarily brutal," Haruhiro said. The goblin died gripping Ranta's longsword, cutting its own palm trying to break free from the pain he must've inflicted upon its body. Haruhiro checked their healer. Merry was the second person climbing down the ladder. She caught his gaze and nodded.
"Live," she said, and disappeared from the ledge.
Five more goblins rushed from the stairway. Yume gave a determined face and prepared for another battle, but Ranta faced her and said, "Go." He pointed at the ladder.
"Yume can still fight!"
"No you're not! You're useless without your arrows!" Ranta said. "Hurry and get down there! Shihoru and Merry need more help."
Yume huffed, looked at the others, and found them all silent. They were looking at the goblins. One decided to battle Manato alone. A foolish decision. It lost its hand in a single second, and its head in another. Yume shook her head. "You boys better not die!" She hurried down the ledge and climbed down the ladder. "Especially you, Ranta! Stupid idiot!"
"Whatever, loser!" Ranta snarled and slashed at one goblin. Moguzo and Manato were really amazing, the two killing one enemy after another. Haruhiro decided to help Ranta finish his off. He struck from the side. The goblin blocked it with its shield and parried Ranta's attack with its sword. Haruhiro dropped his sword and grabbed its shield, trying to pull it from the goblins' hand. The goblin was shocked by the stupid act and tried to capitalize on his defenselessness by striking at him. Ranta struck its sword, reminding the goblin he was still there. Haruhiro continued pulling. The goblins' arm was dragged alongside its shield. Haruhiro released his grip and backed away. Moguzo's bastard sword cleaved through its right shoulder.
"Thanks!" Ranta said. Moguzo nodded and prepared for the next batch. So did Ranta. Haruhiro had a problem with that.
"You know, Ranta, you were surprisingly sweet." Haruhiro picked up his shortsword. The only reason he tried to pull the shield was in his attempt to look cool emulating Manato, Accelerator and Saiai in their style of taking the enemies' weapons and using it against them. If Accelerator ever caught wind of his stupid act Haruhiro would be in for a lecture.
"What the hell are you on about?"
"You told Yume all those mean stuff to get her off the roof," Haruhiro said. "And if you don't get off the ladder, I'll tell her myself."
Ranta sighed. He punched Haruhiro's shoulder. Ouch. What an asshole. "Don't try to die, Haruhiro. It's not your time yet." Ranta climbed down the ladder.
"Yeah, whatever." He already turned his back to the dread knight and stood behind Moguzo and Manato. He didn't know why he was still there. Was it honor from a thief? Haruhiro didn't even fight like one, preferring the sword Accelerator gave him. Maybe he should switch to warrior class after this. Nah. He didn't have the arm-strength to pull off the methods Moguzo and Manato did. Three goblins emerged from the stairway and attacked them. Haruhiro could only stall for time as he blocked its spear. To its surprise both of its companions died immediately against Moguzo and Manato. Moguzo swung and cut it in half.
"Moguzo, go," Haruhiro said. Moguzo nodded, sheathed his sword, clapped Haruhiro's back, and left. When he was gone, Haruhiro shook his head. Why didn't he leave? Was it because he wanted to feel important by being the kind of person who would tell others they'll hold back the enemies and die buying time for their allies? That wasn't it. He just felt safer with Manato.
Manato glanced at him with a serene smile. "You'll stay with me to the end, huh, Haru."
A blue colored goblin spun its two sai and lazily climbed up the stairs like it was taking a stroll.
Haruhiro shrugged. "I don't know. I think I'm just scared."
It was the same one that fough Moguzo earlier.
"Quite the scaredy cat you are Haruhiro, remaining on the second floor with me against a tough opponent."
The blue goblin crossed its arms over its chest, tilted its head and tamped the floor impatiently. It ignored the bodies of its kind scattered throughout the area. It sniffed and rolled its shoulders. Despite its obvious eagerness to fight, it made no move to rush them. It was confident of its fighting capabilities.
"Haruhiro, just try to live," Manato said, echoing Merry. Haruhiro nodded. He wouldn't get in Manato's way. The blue goblin noticed the shifts in their body language, grinned and raised its sai. Manato lunged first, striking downward with his bastard sword. Its prong-like side guards blocked the attack. Haruhiro slashed its leg. It flicked its hand, redirecting his sword into the floor.
Manato and the blue goblin began trading blows in speed Haruhiro could only wish to cope with. Now and then Haruhiro would try to interject with a stab or a slash, but the blue goblin always parried his attacks without even looking at him. He was actually impressed by that. Even Saiai and Accelerator made sparing glances to their enemies, no matter how beneath them. To not look at Haruhiro's direction at all was something else.
Haruhiro kept poking its defenses. The blue goblin had to give somehow. It couldn't focus on both him and Manato. If it did it should've already defeated Moguzo during the earlier battle. It deflected, blocked, parried and repelled every attack Haruhiro launched, and that was on top of the fast-paced combat it took with Manato. The goblin stepped forward, finally launching an offensive. Manato blocked its left sai. The goblin slid its right sai on the edge of the blade, wedging Manato's sword between the prong-shaped center point and the side guard. It tilted its hold on the sai, moving Manato's sword towards Haruhiro's slash, blocking the attack using his own ally's weapon. Its left sai lunged towards Haruhiro while his sword was down. He released the handle and fell back. Not fast enough. The sai cut his chest. He fell on his back and slid down the floor. He stopped beside a dead goblin, in its hand a sword. He took the sword and charged back into battle.
Manato released a furious growl and pulled back his sword. The goblin didn't stop him. Haruhiro went behind it. The blue goblin looked between him and Manato, turning ninety degrees, and pointed at them with its two sai. Haruhiro slashed. Manato thrust. It parried their attacks. Its counterstroke forced Haruhiro back a step by the sheer strength of its blow. Manato didn't have that problem and responded with a riposte. One on one the two were about even. Haruhiro felt like a third wheel in this battle, but knew if he wasn't here there was a high chance Manato would lose his life.
Haruhiro felt his arms aching the longer the fight went on. His lungs were on fire. Yet he couldn't stop fighting. The battle would decide who lived and died. Clangs resounded again and again. Haruhiro swept its leg. His sword was caught between its prong and side guard. However he didn't try to break his sword free, but instead held firm and tried to tilt his sword, dragging the blue goblins' sai with it. It was a maneuver based on the goblins' own trick against Manato. It saw through Haruhiro's plan, kicked his stomach, and sent him tumbling. It fought Manato one-handed and threw the sword wedged against its sai behind it. Haruhiro scrambled into a roll, barely dodging the projectile. His left hand found a dagger. His right hand quested another sword when an idea struck him.
He grabbed the goblin corpse, heaved, and threw it on the blue goblin. It stabbed the body, glanced at the corpse, continued fighting Manato, and then realized something was wrong when it looked a bit longer at what it stabbed. Another dead body was thrown towards it. It batted the body away with the butt end of the handle. Manato slashed at its face. It blocked the sword with its sai and tilted its head. It probably wondered why he repeated an attack that would bring the same result. Haruhiro grabbed the large spiked club. It took all of his power not to faint on the spot from the sheer weight of the weapon. The adrenaline must be the reason why he managed to carry it at all. Haruhiro heaved it over his head, almost tripped, grimaced, and threw more than slash the spiked club at the blue goblin. It blocked the club and cried when its fingers broke. Manato pulled back his blade and smirked. It released the sai. Haruhiro released the club. Not like he could carry it. The goblin twitched its fingers and laughed. It spun the remaining sai with its hand. Haruhiro grabbed the nearest weapon near him. He held the spear that stabbed Merry's shoulder. He stabbed at it. Manato swiped. The blue goblin dodged Haruhiro's more clumsy attack and parried Manato's stronger one. It tried to pierce Manato's hand. He blocked the sai with his sword. Haruhiro aimed for its ankle. The blue goblin didn't look at him, raised its foot, stepped on the shaft, and then sneered at him. Manato raised one hand and punched the goblins' face. Haruhiro extracted the dagger he found and stabbed its back. The goblin gasped in shock even as its elbow struck Haruhiho's face, breaking his nose and sending him tumbling for the third time, and jabbed Manato's cheek, cutting his skin with its thumbnail. It screamed.
With newfound strength the blue goblin batted away every hit Manato struck and counterstroke with such skill Manato was forced into retreating. Haruhiro observed the match. The dagger did not hit bone. In fact, it was a miracle the goblin was still fighting at all. Manato realized it too. He was waiting it out. Even though Manato was on the defensive, he did not suffer any lethal wound. The swell on his face was a small price to pay for the dagger on the goblins' back. His sword locked against its sai. It growled and threw another jab. Manato responded with an uppercut. Both fighers fell back, Manato winded, the goblin in pain. Its back was bleeding profusely. It was only prolonging its suffering. The two exchanged another series of blows, neither of which managed to harm the other. It was the fist-fight that reaped damage. They continued slugging each other, and then disengaged. Manato spat blood. The blue goblin was drooling blood. It wiped the blood on its lips, looked at the red stain on its knuckle, glared at Manato, and raised its sai. It was expecting a final clash. Manato raised his bastard sword. The two charged at each other. At the last second Manato dodged the sai and pulled away. The goblin fell on its face. Blood pooled from its mouth and rushed from its back.
Manato fell on his knees, breathing heavily. Haruhiro's world was spinning. That was how taxing the battle was.
In the distance, Haruhiro saw a wooden catapult. Goblins were piling the bucket with a payload of large rubble. Not as large as the rock that tore through the walls, but enough to break the derelict buildings of the Old City.
"Manato!" Haruhiro said, pointing at the catapult. Manato looked in horror. "We have to go!" Manato sheathed his bastard sword. Haruhiro grabbed his shortsword. Haruhiro threw a leg out the ledge, his foot caught the rung, and his arms gripped the side-rails, and steadily climbed down. Manato followed after him in their descent. It all seemed so slow. He wanted to go faster. Why couldn't he go faster? Haruhiro didn't know the state of his party, but hoped they were alright.
"What the hell took you idiots so long!?" Ranta screamed. Their party was still alive and well. Haruhiro actually smiled at Ranta. He lost that smile at the sight of over a dozen hobgoblins. They warily looked at Saiai, keeping out of her reach. She was the only one who could tear them to shreds, and the only thing stopping her was her exhausted teammates.
"We need to go! Saiai, make an opening!" Manato said, drawing his blade, as did Haruhiro.
"What? Why? We-"
"No time!" The payload blocked the sunlight, drawing everyone's attention into the sky. "Shit!" Manato said. The first impact tore through the building they were in. The second impact killed twenty goblins to the east of them. The third impact gouged the ground around them. More projectiles landed with a boom. The goblins were sent into disarray, running anywhere just to avoid getting squashed.
"Right!" Saiai led the charge, raising her hands towards a hobgoblin on her way. It swung its machete. She flung her arms. The hobgoblin was ripped into shreds. The party ran away from the area to a road with buildings between them. The goblins shrilled, united by the humans that killed so many of their kind. A horde chased after them. It became a running battle. Whenever a goblin got too close, Haruhiro, Ranta, and Yume would bat it aside. The goblins didn't get too close, wary of Saiai's presence, but they didn't leave that much of a gap either. Haruhiro's group, led by Saiai, rushed into the entryway towards another building. He grimaced but prepared for another siege. So it surprised him when Saiai barreled through the wall with her shoulder. "Keep going!" Saiai exclaimed. They just ran in a straight line. A goblin either smart enough to realize Saiai didn't have time for it or stupid enough not to think of the possibility at all caught up with Haruhiro, swinging at him with its shortsword. He parried the blow and struck its face with the flat side of his blade. The goblin fell on its back. Haruhiro didn't have time to kill it. He just needed to run. Ranta was trading blows with another goblin that caught up. He pierced its shoulder. The goblin cried and released its weapon, leavin Ranta to continue with the rest of the group.
Shihoru was the slowing down. She had the weakest physical attributes. "Moguzo!" Haruhiro said. "Carry Shihoru!" Without asking her permission, Moguzo took her body over his shoulder and continued running. They passed by more dead bodies. Some of them were missing their limbs. Others were bleeding from their orifice. One goblin splattered a wall, its blood painting the building red. In other areas the buildings were completely leveled. They passed a large crater with a cursory glance. They didn't have time to dawdle. An arrow sailed over his head.
Haruhiro's lungs burned. His entire body ached. He was seeing white patches from the corner of his eyes. It took all of his willpower to remain steady on his feet. Ranta, Yume, Merry, and Moguzo all ran with that same forced desperation. Shihoru was gripping Moguzo's neck, his arms carrying her legs. Manato looked determined, giving the image of a perfect leader despite how exhausted he was on the second floor minutes earlier. Saiai was the only one steady on her breath. Either she had another power that enhanced her stamina, or she was really physically fit.
A group of five goblins was strolling when they saw Haruhiro's party. These goblins must've been unaware or apathetic to the events going on in the Old City. They saw people running for their lives and assumed an easy kill. They didn't see the sheer panic and fear in Haruhiro or the others. The goblins unsheathed their weapons and prepared for combat. "Get the fuck out of our way!" Saiai punched one goblins' head off and punched through the chest of another. Manato punctured a goblins' neck. They finished off the other two. Haruhiro, Ranta, Yume, Merry and Moguzo ran ahead. They couldn't stop. Not when it meant certain death. It was sheer determination that kept him running. If Haruhiro ever stopped, he didn't think he could continue. He would fall and struggle to use his legs. He wasn't like Saiai or Manato who were at the peak of physical fitness. He was average, mediocre, normal. He had limits. Now those limits were being tested to the absolute most, and a single failure would lead to his death. Got to keep running. Just keep running. He couldn't afford to die. Not here. Not now. He still had dreams and aspirations and girls to ask out and turn him down. He wanted to live. He wanted to live!
"We're stopping here!" Saiai indicated to a two storey building missing a wall. "Just stay inside, understand? Don't go to sleep yet. Take turns if you have to. But someone has to kill any of the goblins that get past me."
"We can still keep going!" Yume said.
"No, we can't! At this rate you're all going to fall over and get killed! At least this way we can prepare! Get in the building! Hurry!"
Haruhiro entered the dilapidated house, followed by Moguzo, Shihoru clinging to him, Ranta, Yume, Merry and Manato. Ranta slid down the wall facing the entrance. Moguzo settled Shihoru down the stairs and sat beside her. Shihoru laid her head on Moguzo's shoulder. Haruhiro and Yume sat together on the left wall of the house. Merry through willpower stronger than Haruhiro's own managed to remain standing beside Manato. Heavy breathing was the only sound Haruhiro heard, overpowering even the large cries of the goblin horde.
Different goblins must've been added to their rank. It was the only explanation as to why they threw themselves into Saiai with the thought blunt force and stab wounds would work on her. She grabbed the head of a goblin failing to hurt her with its spear. She pulped it in her left hand and threw the body into the crowd. Another goblin swiped at her with its sword. Her right arm lashed out and tore its neck off. A goblin tried to run pass her to Haruhiro and the others. Her foot buried into its back and painted its blood and flesh on the border of the floor and the soil. Saiai didn't need to worry about her own well-being. Her power functioned like impenetrable armor and protected her from harm. She could focus fully on the offensive and suffer no consequences, ignoring the limits of the human body with her ability. No wonder her power was called Offense Armor.
Goblins died one after the other. They were pushed into the frontline due to the sheer momentum of the gathering. Every goblin wanted a piece of the action, thinking their enemy easy game. Haruhiro might be, but Saiai wasn't. The quantity of the goblins was no matched for the quality of Saiai's powers. But she wasn't the only target. They wanted a piece of Haruhiro and the others too.
Another brave number of goblins charged at her. Swords, spears, clubs, and other assorted weapons failed to so much as scratch her skin. Saiai in turn tore them apart with hooks and jabs. In the frenzied massacre a goblin got through. It cheered in victory like the fact it survived Saiai's presence was in of itself worth celebrating. The sound drew her attention. Ignoring the goblins trying to tackle her, she reached for the cheering goblin and tore its head off. The beheaded corpse fell on the floor. Blood flowed from its neck, ebbing into its surroundings. She threw the head to the nearest goblin, and then pulled its throat. She tore one goblins' arm off with a squelch. She smacked the arm on another goblins' face and shoved it down the goblins' throat. It released its weapon and tried to pull the arm from its mouth. Saiai slapped its head. Its face turned one hundred and eighty degrees, facing the horrified goblin behind it. She punched its head. A brave hobgoblin slashed at her. She ignored the sword brushing against her skin and threw a fist. Her hand went into its stomach. Its back exploded, showering the goblins behind it with blood and intestines. She kept killing, and killing, and killing.
Two quieter goblins got through. Manato raised his sword. Merry picked up her staff. Haruhiro grimaced. His breathing ragged, he forced himself to stand, holding his back against the wall in his attempt to get on his feet. Yume looked at him curiously. "Take in after five minutes," Haruhiro said. Yume nodded with a forced smile. Haruhiro couldn't let Merry fight alone. She wasn't equipped for combat. The goblins finally broke their silence by drawing their swords and clashed with Haruhiro and Manato. Merry provided support whenever she could, striking when the goblin was focused on Haruhiro. It parried her staff and slashed its sword. Haruhiro repelled the attack. Merry bashed its elbow. The goblin hissed and tried to stab her. Haruhiro blocked it, their swords clashing with a clang. Merry hit its head. The goblin yelped and once more tried to strike at her. Haruhiro found this goblin weaker than the blue goblin he fought with Manato. The difference in skill was incredible. It didn't last long under their continued assault. The goblin blocked Merry's staff. Haruhiro's sword pierced its neck. Merry leaned against Haruhiro, struggling to stand up.
"I'm sorry," she said, heaving for breath. "It's taking everything just to keep fighting." He jerked his head. Manato battled three goblins simultaneously. Five more were dead beneath his feet. While they were battling one goblin Manato fought off the rest. Merry cursed and pulled away from Haruhiro.
"Wait," he said. "Let Manato take care of this. I think he's just finishing up."
Manato actually did the opposite, slowing down and looking worn out. Merry looked at Haruhiro in disbelief and raised her staff, preparing to join the battle. She hadn't needed to. The goblins, seeing Manato worn out from all the grueling battles in rapid succession finally gave in to his exhaustion. They lowered their guards. And then with a sudden burst of speed beyond what the goblins or Merry expected, Manato's sword cut the air. The turbulence caused by the movement created a swish.
Three heads fell. The bodies followed.
"Whoa," Ranta said.
"Yume agrees." Yume clapped her hand and smiled in delight. Shihoru hesitated, and then did the same.
Merry sighed. "You really had me worried."
Manato shook his head. "That can come later. We've got bigger problems."
Behind enemy lines a group of hobgoblins carried a large tree. It was probably going to be used as a battering ram against the walls. Saiai couldn't follow after the siege engine without risking the remaining goblins flooding the house and killing Haruhiro and the others.
She would kill them all in revenge, obviously, but Haruhiro wouldn't be there to see it due in part, to being dead.
A wild looking hobgoblin stepped forward and growled, the crowd stepping aside to make room for the mighty being. Saiai tilted her head. The hobgoblin raised a large sword and pointed at Saiai, and then at itself. Was it challenging her into a duel?
It swaggered towards her, and then when it was a step away, rolled its eyes to the back of its head and fell on its back.
"Whoa," Ranta said, looking at Saiai in amazement. "I didn't know you could do that."
"I didn't!" Saiai said. The goblins screamed, thinking it a trick. Another goblin fell. And then another. It was like a domino effect. The chain reaction sent them all falling, immobilized, and dead. No, they were still breathing. Asleep, then.
After a minute, three hobgoblins remained standing.
Haruhiro rushed outside the house, looking at all the incapacitated bodies around him. Some goblins held their weapons, others facing away, trying to escape, and others still bleeding to death from their missing limbs Saiai tore off. Various hobgoblins surrounded the battering ram, some even sleeping on top of it.
"Oh, there you all are," Misaki said, walking towards them like she was taking a stroll. There was no haste in the attractive woman's legs. She held her neck and made a playful smile. "Accelerator's been worried sick. But don't tell him I said that." She winked.
She was accompanied by ten figures in white robes and blue lines. Priests. They each held staffs. One priest pressed his eyeglasses to his nose and grinned, dragging a bulky warhammer to one sleeping goblin. He bashed its head. Blood and brain matter splattered on the soil. He moved on to the next.
A hobgoblin too foolish for its own good screamed in anger and charged towards the priest, who grinned in response. Misaki waved her hand. "Sleep." The hobgoblin fell on its face. She pointed to another one. "You too. Sleep." It fell as well. She waved her hand to the third, commanding the same. It fell sideways, landing on some rubble.
If Saiai was incredible, Misaki blew her out of the water. Misaki took down in one minute an entire army of goblins. The sheer disparity in abilities between her and Haruhiro was so great he shook his head in awe.
"Tada-kun, be a dear and use your healing abilities on the others," Misaki said with a teasing smile. Tada, the glasses wearing priest, nodded and approached Haruhiro. He killed a few more goblins along the way. They were all defenseless to Misaki's power. It was cruel and callous, her methodology. But it was incredibly effective. If that worked on all her enemies there was no one that could actually oppose her. Misaki's star-like eyes twinkled in amusement and she grinned at Haruhiro, as if reading his mind.
He blushed and looked away. How long had he been staring? She must've thought him strange. Haruhiro sighed. Manato glanced at him, and then turned back to the others. "Are any of you hurt?"
"No," Merry said. She closed her eyes and sat on the floor, ignoring the dead bodies surrounding her. "But I'm tired."
"Same, I guess." Ranta snorted. "But only because the enemies bored me!"
"I-I'm fine." Haruhiro felt dizzy. He wanted to sleep.
"What about them?" Tada pointed his warhammer at Moguzo and Shihoru. The stress must've gotten to them. The moment Misaki made herself known, their bodies knew they could finally relax. Shihoru's head rested on Moguzo's shoulder. His back was to the steps. They slept on the stairway.
"Okay, I'll wake them up," Haruhiro said.
"Don't bother. You're not in danger." Tada raised his warhammer to his shoulder. "At least not so long as you're with her." Misaki winked. Haruhiro blushed once more. "That girl's crazy powerful," Tada continued. "Sure, I was willing to accept some gold and a good fight. But to learn I was only there to heal people? And clean up the bodies, of course. I don't know how she puts them to sleep, but if her power works on orcs and undead too then we might just finally take back Grimgar."
Tada continued pulping goblin heads and whistled. A white horse arrived, drawing a brown carriage. The horseman nodded at Misaki.
"Take care now," an old priest with a long white beard said to Merry.
"Yes, master," she said, giving him a genuine smile. "You always look out for me. I can never repay my debt, it seems."
The old priest laughed. "Hush now, child. I did nothing at all! There's food in a basket waiting for you in the carriage. Enjoy your meal. If you are as you say part of Misaki-san's group, then that means you're not leaving until this entire location has been cleared of goblins." He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "I never thought I'd see the day we could retake Damuro, but I might just participate in its retaking."
"Yes," Merry agreed. She said her goodbyes, and to promise to meet with him in a later date. She nodded respectfully to Misaki, joined with Haruhiro, the two of them last into the carriage. The rest of the group was sleeping in the spacious interior. Two booths faced each other. Manato, Ranta and Moguzo occupied one side. Yume, Shihoru and Saiai occupied the other. They were all asleep. Merry sat beside Saiai and joined in their slumber.
There was a basket beside Ranta. Haruhiro opened it. There were bread rolls cut in half, with slices of meat and cheese between them. Sandwiches. Haruhiro took a bite and felt nirvana. It was so good. He took another bite and looked out the window. The passing buildings made way for open fields. They stopped outside a hamlet. Mugino opened the door, homed in on Saiai, entered the carriage, and carried the smaller girl in her arms. She nodded at Haruhiro and left, taking Saiai to a large tent. She left the tent and beckoned him to join her. He left his party, not wanting to wake anyone up, and followed Mugino into a wooden table surrounded by chairs. They took seats, facing each other. A cook delivered a bowl of soup and warm sandwiches.
"Go on, dig in. You've earned it." Mugino smiled in amusement. Haruhiro did so.
After he was finished eating, he said, "Thank you."
"For the food? It's for free. If you're a part of our group, that is. And I should be the one thanking you."
"Taking care of Saiai or something? I don't know. I don't even know why I care for that girl. I don't understand myself, sometimes." Green energy flashed from her eyes. She crossed her legs, crossed her arms under her breasts and looked at the people passing by. "I don't really care for all the grand plans and schemes of the other members. I'm just a part of this group for the convenience. It offers safety and protection in numbers and all that shit. You too, right?"
"Me too, w-what?" Haruhiro stammered. Mugino rolled her eyes.
"You're also a part of this group for the safety net."
"I guess… Not that I had much of a choice in it." It felt surreal, having a meal and talking to a beautiful girl after fighting for his life. "It's so strange. I don't think I was a fighter, before all this. My hands aren't callus enough for the job."
"I was." She looked at him. "A fighter, I mean. Then again, whatever violent hellhole I came from probably designed it that way. Under the theory everyone else is from the same place, and knew how to fight, then whatever my previous home was probably not that kind to weaklings."
Haruhiro bristled in irritation but held it in. Mugino must've noticed it anyway, and shook her head. "I'm sorry for offending you."
"It's fine. That's the truth anyway."
Mugino didn't offer additional apologies. She scrutinized his face, nodded, and returned her gaze to the other people.
"Honesty," she said. "I like that. Most people can't stomach the fact they're weak. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Hamazura isn't that different from you. In fact, without his little toys, he's actually much weaker. That doesn't stop me from wanting him."
"Speaking of," Haruhiro said, trying to chang the subject. "Where is Hamazura-san anyway?"
"Cuddling with Takitsubo in our tent. I can fetch him if you want."
"N-no thanks. Are there any for us? I want some sleep."
"Yeah." She stood up and left the table. Haruhiro followed her. She led him to a tent. "This is yours. The empty ones beside it are for your other teammates. Good job." She left. Haruhiro yawned and crawled down the groundsheet. There was even a pillow. How nice. Closing the fabric that functioned as a door, he stretched his back and lied on the groundsheet. He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
He awoke hours later. At least, he assumed it was hours. His limbs still ached. His body was sore. But some of the exhaustion was alleviated. He left his tent, found Manato seating on a table with the rest of their party and joined them. Saiai waved at him. "Where have you been, Haruhiro? You're super late!"
"I was asleep and no one bothered to wake me." He covered his mouth and yawned. A red shawl covered Saiai's head and shoulders. Haruhiro was glad he wore his coat under the cold air. Wait. He looked at the sky. It was night. That meant he had been out for over half the day.
"Relax," Ranta said, eating a sandwich. A pile of sandwiches covered his plate. "We've just woken up too." Shihoru was munching on some bread. A bowl of soup and some skewered meat was on her plate. Yume was eating a lot of barbecues. Moguzo was drinking a mug of beer. Merry ate fried fish. Manato was nibbling on a baked potato. Saiai herself was indulging on some corn soup. Corns were on her plate. "Sit down, Haruhiro. You're making me uncomfortable."
"I should be telling you that." He scowled at Ranta and sat beside him.
"There's a lot of food. The cooks are gonna be cookin' all night," Yume said, grinning at Haruhiro.
"Good evening." Shihoru smiled.
"Good evening, Shihoru." Haruhiro was surprised she woke earlier than he did. Wasn't she more tired than him?
"The food's good," Moguzo said. He raised his hand. A server took another plate from a makeshift counter. A chef cooked on the kitchen behind it. The plate replaced the one Moguzo recently finished. On it was fried pork.
"Here." Saiai passed him a corn.
"Thank you." He began eating the sweet corn. The kennels made his mouth water. The scent was so good, the flavor moreso. He felt bliss just eating the food. He had another, and also ordered some fried pork from the same booth Moguzo obtained his meal from. The server delivered him a fresh plate full of fried pork. He rolled on between his fingers and took it in his mouth. The crunchy texture, the delicious fat, the tasty meat all combined into a delicious flavor that made him ask for more.
"Crazy day, huh?" Saiai asked.
"Tell me about it," Haruhiro said. He continued eating.
"If everyday was like this?" he asked. "I don't think I could bear with it. This life's gonna kill me."
"Suck it up, loser," Ranta said and laughed. "All you need is me and you're as good as immortal."
"Shut up, Ranta," Merry said.
It wasn't the best way to live, but it could have been worse. At this moment, life was good.