Grimgal Of Ashes And Illusion / Grimgal of Ashes and Illusion Vol 1 Chapter 1

LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening

Chapter 1: Without Knowing Anything

There were areas where buildings made of stone lined the streets and there were areas filled with nothing but wooden ones. The cobblestone street was full of so many twists and turns that it was difficult to see where it led. Muddy water flowed down narrow waterways along both sides of the broad road, but not in any great amount. Now and then, a stench that might have been human waste filled their noses, but after a while of walking no one seemed to notice it anymore.

Hiyomu led the group of twelve into the city that had been visible at the top of the hill. According to her, the town was called Altana. The group passed a large number of what appeared to be the residents, as might be expected in a city, even though it was still quite early in the morning. The townsfolk stared at the newcomers as if they were exotic animals. But the opposite was also true, just because the townsfolk were all dressed so strangely. Their clothing was much simpler, with no decorations, and rather shabby compared to their own.

“Is this place…” Happy-Go-Lucky began. “I mean, is this place like some foreign country?”

“Ahh…” Messy-Hair tilted his head to one side as if that answered everything. “A foreign country. Country? Hold on, which country am I from? Weird, I don’t remember. I don’t know my address either… Why?”

“You haven’t noticed yet?” Silver-Hair said in a low tone. “I can’t remember anything but my name either.”

Something about the way everyone phrased it bothered the boy. Can’t remember. The connotation was different than if it was simply something they had forgotten. Maybe like himself, when Silver-Hair tried to recall certain memories, they also disappeared before he could fully grab hold of them.

“Name?” Messy-Hair thumped his chest. “My name’s Ranta… But errr, I don’t remember anything else. My memories are gone? Seriously?” His tone came across as something the wise guy would say in a two-man comedy routine.

“Putting it that way…” And the boy felt himself beginning to playact the straight man. It had been unintentional, and he regretted it a little, but he couldn’t stop now. “Sounds like maybe you’ve got amnesia… or something… probably…”

“Hey.” Ranta sighed. “If you’re gonna play the straight man, do it with more—you know. Say your line with more confidence. Doing it in a half-assed way makes my retard act look weak and no one’s laughing either. Whatever, I’ll forgive you this time. And your name’s?”

“You’ll… ‘forgive’ me?” And Ranta was calling him a retard? Ranta’s the one who sounded even more retarded, saying weird things like that. He didn’t want to leave it just at that but… name. What was his name? “My name’s… Haruhiro. I think.”

Messy-Hair, Ranta, toppled himself over in an exaggerated fashion. “You think? Don’t tell me you don’t even know your own name! We just went over this, right? This whole conversation’s about remembering nothing but our names, remember?”

This kid. This kid was exceedingly annoying, Haruhiro thought, eyeing Silver-Hair as he walked behind Hiyomu. What was the silver haired guy’s name? He wanted to know but was too afraid to ask. Haruhiro was not looking to avoid asking Silver-Hair on purpose, but still he instead asked about the silky haired boy next to him. “What about you?”

Silky-Hair gave Haruhiro a smile. He seemed like an extremely composed, cool-headed person. “I’m Manato. Can I call you Haruhiro? No need be too formal right?”

“Oh. Yeah, sure, that’s fine. Can I call you by first name only too then?”

“Sure, I don’t mind at all.”

Manato grinned and Haruhiro returned it without thinking. Outwardly Manato seemed like a good guy, a trustworthy person. Meanwhile the brat’s name was Ranta. As for Silver-Hair, he was too afraid to ask and Buzz-Cut Boy had a rather unfriendly demeanor. Haruhiro got the impression that Gaudy-Girl was from a completely different world and even though Glasses-Boy looked approachable enough, he found him hard to actually ask for some reason.

What about Twin-Braided Girl, Shy-Petite Girl, and Super-Small Girl? Shy-Petite Girl was nearest to him and he had been wanting to strike up a conversation with her for a while now. For starters, maybe he should try asking her name. But when Haruhiro opened his mouth to ask, he began to get a little nervous.

He gave a short cough. “Excuse me.”


“It’s uh, it’s nothing really but, um, not that it’s important and I don’t mean to pry or anything—”

“The name’s Kikkawa!!” Happy-Go-Lucky loudly cut in, striking a queer pose. “Forget about the boys though, let’s start with the girls! How about getting to know each other, right now, all in one go?”

Twin-Braided Girl tilted her head to the side. “Or how about no.”

“Awww…” Happy-Go-Lucky, Kikkawa, was pathetically shot down in one blow.

Haruhiro thought it kind of served him right, but thanks to that he also regained a little of his own composure. “Erm, what’s your name?” he asked Shy-Petite Girl, doing his best to make the question as direct and short as possible. “I mean, it’d be easier to talk with you if I knew. Well, easier than not knowing.”

“Umm…” Shy-Petite Girl’s gaze dropped and she tugged rather forcefully on her bangs, as if she were doing her best to hide her face behind her hair.

Her features were all rather modest but there was something considerably cute about her face. There was definitely nothing to hide.

“My… My name is Shihoru. My first name. Probably. Sorry…”

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“I’m sorry, it’s a bad habit. Sorry, I’ll be more careful.”

Shihoru was trembling like a newborn baby deer. Was she really going to be okay? Haruhiro couldn’t help but be worried; she was the sort that he instinctively wanted to protect.

“You’re pretty tall,” Haruhiro said to a seemingly mild-mannered but giant of a guy. “How tall are you?”

The giant blinked, his expression rather vacant. “Height? 5’9”.”

“Five-nine!?” Ranta cut in. “You mean that makes my over 5’6” officially short?!”

“No, that’s not right…” the giant said. “I think it’s something like 6’1”, maybe. Oh. My name’s Mogzo. Probably.”

“Give me 5 inches right now, Mogzo!” Ranta demanded impossibly, poking him. “If I get 5 inches from you, I’ll be 5’11” and you’ll be 5’8” and our places would be switched! Awesome, right?”

“I would if I could…”

Haruhiro didn’t have anyone to blame but himself for having his conversation taken over again by Ranta. “You’re not over 5’6”, you’re only 5’5”.”

“Shut up! And that’s bad how? Judging by looks, you’re the same as me!”

“I’m just under 5’6” though.”

“You’re such an ass! A jackass that discriminates against people because of one little inch!”

“You are seriously one bratty little kid.”

“Did you say something? I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?”

“Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”

“Liar! You just called me a lying perverted fiendish bastard, didn’t you! You can’t fool my devilishly good ears! I heard what you said! You said, ‘Go to hell, curly haired bastard’!”

“I seriously didn’t say anything like that.”

“And you called me curly! No one’s allowed to call me that! The very word is banned!”

“I told you, I didn’t call you that. Don’t put words in other people’s mouths.”

“I heard you! These devil’s ears hear too much! I listen so much my ears get talked off! Whatever. For now, just remember this! I’ll never forgive anyone who goes so far as calling me curly! It’s the death penalty for anyone who does. Death!”

“Curly,” Silver-Hair said, turning around. “You’re making a scene. Shut it.”

“Yes sir.” Curly Ranta seemed to shrink. “I apologize. I will now stop talking.”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t forgive anyone who called you that,” Haruhiro said with a shrug.

“Idiot,” Ranta said in a whisper. “I’m a man who chooses his time and place. They call me the Choice-Master. I’ll become King of Decision!”

“Yeah, okay. Become whatever you want, King of Derision.”

“Not King of Derision, King of Decision! When I’m king, I’ll show you…”

“Curly.” Silver-Hair stopped and turned to look back at Ranta again. “Shut up.”

Ranta immediately went to his knees and bowed. “I beg your forgiveness!”

“Instead of the Decision King,” Haruhiro said, gazing down at Ranta, “why don’t you aim to become the Prostration King?”

“Prostration King?! No way! No matter how good I’m with prostrating myself, that’s just too uncool!”

“Curly.” Silver-Hair’s tone now had a dark edge to it. “This is the third time.”

Ranta again went to his knees, bowing so low his forehead touched the cobblestone road. “I-I’m super ultra sorry! Please forgive me. Pleeeeeease…”

This guy’s already the King of Prostration, Haruhiro thought, but kept it to himself. If he said anything, Ranta was going to have a retort at the ready and the conversation would never end. They walked on in silence until Hiyomu brought them to a halt in front of a two-storied stone building.

Raised above the building was a flag with a red crescent moon on a white field, and the same symbol appeared on a signboard. ‘Alt front my serve for son on’ was written there, but something didn’t look right. Upon a closer glance, he noticed that parts of the words were faded and some of the letters had fallen off.

“Tada!” Hiyomu pointed to the sign. “We’ve finally arrived! This is that famous place! Altana Frontier Army’s Reserve Force, Crimson Moon’s Headquarters.”

“Crimson Moon,” Haruhiro breathed, looking at the sign once more. Indeed if the missing letters were added back in, it read: Altana Frontier Army Reserve Force Crimson Moon.

“Let’s go on in!” Prompted by Hiyomu, they entered the building to find that the inside looked much like a pub. The room was spacious, equipped with tables and chairs, and there was a serving counter at the back. Behind the counter stood a man with his arms crossed in front of his chest. No one else was present.

“This is where Hiyomu leaves you!” Hiyomu bowed to the man behind the counter. “Bri-chan, would you be kind enough to explain to them the details so on and so forth like usual?”

“Right,” the man called Bri replied simply, waving Hiyomu off with a hand, his belly flopping with the waving motion.

“Then if you’ll excuse me, bye-bye!”

The tension in the room seemed to increase after the door swung shut behind Hiyomu. Perhaps it was due to the way Bri was looking at them, as if conducting an inspection. No, not ‘perhaps.’ It was definitely because of Bri. He was odd. Very odd.

Bri leaned forward, placed his elbows on the counter, and rested his chin atop folded fingers. Haruhiro noticed he had a cleft chin. Enough about that though, it was his hair color. Green. And that maybe he had lipstick on, but the color of his lips were black. That he had long, bushy eyebrows encircling blue eyes… a gorgeous sky-blue, which made them remarkably frightening. That his face was covered very heavily with makeup and his cheekbones were highlighted with bright red blush.

But no matter how Haruhiro looked at him, he was definitely a man.

“Hmm… very good,” Bri said, nodding. He straightened and continued, “Welcome, young kittens. My name’s Brittany. I’m the commanding officer, or ‘boss’ if you will, of Altana Frontier Army’s Reserve Force, Crimson Moon. You can call me ‘commander’ or Bri-chan. Whichever you use, make sure you use it affectionately, like a child to his mother. Got it?”

“Commander.” Silver-Hair strode up to the counter and tilting his head to one side, demanded, “Answer me. I got that this place is called Altana. What’s the Frontier Army? What’s the Reserve Force? Why am I here? You know, don’t you?”

“You’ve got spunk!” Bri remarked pleasantly, laughing. “I like kids like you. What’s your name?”

“Renji. I don’t like homos like you.”

“Is that so?”

What happened next, Haruhiro didn’t quite catch. Bri’s movements were not only fast, they were smooth as butter and almost casual.

“Renji. Let me give you some advice,” Bri had said, eyes narrowing to slits. But by the time Haruhiro realized what had transpired, Bri was holding the tip of a knife right under Renji’s chin. “No one who’s called me a homo has ever lived long afterwards. You seem like a smart kid, so you should understand what I’m saying. Want to keep pushing me?”

“Really?” Renji replied. Haruhiro gasped as Renji grabbed the knife with a bare hand. He was gripping it firmly enough in his fisted palm to keep it fixed in place; blood was running profusely from where the edge cut into the flesh below his thumb. “I never had any intention of living a long life anyway, and it’s not in my nature to back down to threats. If you intend to kill me, then kill me, Commander Homo.”

“Eventually…” Bri licked his black painted lips and stroked Renji’s cheek. “I’ll do you perfectly. Again and again. In a way you’ll never forget.”

“You know,” Ranta whispered to Haruhiro, “when he says ‘do’ he probably means a different ‘do’ than the usual do. Mostly likely.”

“How exactly is he going to ‘do’ him?” Twin-Braided Girl asked Ranta, expression confused.

“Err, that’s uh, I mean… He’s gonna put ‘it’ in where it’s not originally supposed to be put in. You know, the place where it usually comes out. You know what I mean? Right, Haruhiro?”

“Don’t get me involved. You started this conversation, you take full responsibility.”

“That’s cold. Are you anti-social or something? Your people skills are lower than absolute zero.”

“Hey, hey.” Happy-Go-Lucky Kikkawa inserted himself between Renji and Bri. “Didn’t you two just meet? There’s no point in fighting over a misunderstanding. Let’s just forgive and forget! Be happy and get along, okay? Okay? For my sake!”

“For your sake?” Renji scoffed, glaring at him. But nevertheless, he let go of the knife.

Bri also withdrew the knife, wiping off the bloodied blade with a cloth. “There always seem to be a few reckless ones in every group. Eight boys, four girls. A little short on girls, but I like it that way better anyway. Boys tend to be better at fighting, so no problem.”

Manato’s eyebrows narrowed. “Fighting?”

“You heard me,” Bri chuckled softly. Actually, the sound kind of grossed Haruhiro out. “Fighting.”

“This place is the reserve force’s headquarters so…” Manato glanced downwards. “We’re volunteer soldiers?”

“Very good!” Bri applauded slowly. “You show promise too. Precisely right. You can all become volunteer soldiers. Though you do have the choice to decline.”

“Choice-Master,” said Haruhiro, patting Ranta on the back. “Looks like you’re up.”

“Oh? Ah! Right! That’s right! I’m… up?”

“You all can choose,” said Bri, flicking his index finger lightly at them. “Take my offer or leave it. And my offer is this: Enlist as a member of Altana Frontier Army’s Reserve Force, Crimson Moon. Well, to start you’ll be trainees, meaning you’ll be learning how to become self-sufficient soldiers.”

“Just what,” Gaudy-Girl asked, her expression frightened, “do members of the reserve force do?”

“Fight, of course.” Bri flicked a hand in annoyance, as if reluctant to explain. “Here on the frontier, we humans clash with the other races, and there are lots, and I mean lots, of things we call monsters. The frontier army’s job is to kill those monsters and protect our borders. But to be honest, it’s not an easy job. The frontier army has their hands full just maintaining Altana as a forward base. That’s where we, the reserve force, come in.”

“In other words,” Glasses-Boy said, pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, “while the frontier army stays back and protects this city, the reserve force goes out to quell their numbers. Am I right?”

“To put it simply…” Bri said, putting his hands together then opening them in an impression of a blossoming flower. He was doing it to look cute, but in reality, it came off as rather disturbing. “Actually, we’re a part of the regular frontier army. Protecting the border isn’t just about defending. Expeditions are sent out to hit our enemies where they lurk. However, these small-scale operations aren’t for something the size of the regular army. Moving such a big force requires planning and preparation of logistics, supply lines, and such. That’s where we’re different.”

Kikkawa nodded enthusiastically, perhaps excessively, at Bri’s every word. “And how’re we different?”

“The reserve force.” Bri folded his hands and twiddled his fingers. “We’re mobile and adaptable. We scout, infiltrate, hit and run. We weaken the enemy’s ability to fight. Even if we were to cooperate with the regular army, we wouldn’t employ the same tactics. We’re organized in small groups of about 3 to 6 people per group and each group uses their own wits, ability to collect information, and judgment when taking on enemies. This is what we, the reserve force Crimson Moon, do and how we operate.”

“And…” Renji flexed the fingers of his right hand. The bleeding seemed to have stopped. “What if we were to refuse your offer to join?”

Bri tilted his head to one side, and then thrust his hips back and forth. Was he trying to be funny or was he making a threat in some comical sort of way? Whatever it was, it was actually rather scary. “Nothing. I said it before, you all can choose. If you choose not to become a member of the reserve force, you can leave here now and never come back.”

“In that case, I guess I’ll pass,” said Ranta. He ran his hands through his disheveled hair. “I still don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I’m a pacifist by nature.”

“I see,” Bri said. “Bye then. Take care.”

“That’s it!?” Ranta, who had been making his way to the door, stopped and turned on his heels. “You’re as cold as Haruhiro! But hold on a sec, if I were to leave now, what should I do?”

“I take no responsibility regarding that,” Bri laughed. “If you don’t want to become a member of Crimson Moon, you’re free to go. If you decide to enlist as a trainee, you’ll receive ten silvers from me. That’s enough to live on for the time being, I think.”

“Silvers?” Manato’s eyes widened as he searched his pockets for something. “I forgot… money.”

Haruhiro searched the front and back pockets of his pants too and pulled his hands out empty. He had no money.

“Part-time job,” Ranta groaned, crumpling his face. “Need to find a part-time job. Maybe. Temporarily…”

“Best of luck,” Bri said with an exaggerated shrug. “Other available jobs are way more difficult than volunteer soldier. Even if someone were to hire you, your wages are so low you’ll barely scratch out a living. You’ll also start off as pretty much a slave-boy to your new master.”

“Guh,” Kikkawa smacked himself on the side of his head. “I’m no good at being a slave-boy. I guess there’s no choice but to go the soldier trainee route?”

“I said it already, whether or not you enlist is up to every single one of you,” Bri said, pointing a finger at them all one by one.

Renji heaved a long sigh. “Then tell me, in practical terms, what I have to do.”

“Oh, Renji, you disappoint me. Weren’t you listening? You fight enemies using your own wits, ability to collect information, and judgment. That’s how we operate.”

“So you’re telling me, that we’re supposed to figure out what we’re supposed to do as trainees on our own?”

“In a nutshell,” Bri nodded, placing red colored coin-like objects and small leather pouches in a neat row on the counter, until there were twelve sets total. Bri picked up one of the coin-like objects, which portrayed a crescent moon in relief.

“This will serve as identification, and a symbol that you are a Crimson Moon trainee. This will be the only proof that you are a trainee, so don’t lose it. Well, holding onto it all the time isn’t a good idea either, but anyway, when you have the means to purchase your service contract for twenty silvers then you’ll become a full-fledged Crimson Moon member with all related privileges and distinctions.”

“Wait a minute,” Buzz-Cut Boy said, rebelliously. “You’re making us pay money to enlist as volunteers?”

“Yes. Is there something wrong with that?”

“That’s unacceptable.”

“Would you be able to buy food or clothes or do anything without money? Don’t complain about something because you have no money. If you don’t like it, then go die in a field somewhere.”

Renji grinned. “Even when life is hell, it still costs money, eh?”

“‘Hell’?” Bri cocked his head to one side, unfamiliar with the word. “Something like that, I suppose. Having said that, you will all need to figure out what you’ll do and where you’ll go from here for yourselves, but it would be wise to make your first priority the purchase of your Crimson Moon contracts.”

“Fine then,” Renji said, picking up a Crimson Moon coin and a leather pouch. “Reserve force trainee or whatever, I’ll do it and go from there.”

Buzz-Cut Boy went after Renji, taking a red coin and leather pouch for himself. Gaudy-Girl, Manato, and Glasses-Boy did the same.

“I’ll take one too, thankyouverymuch!” Kikkawa stated, picking up a coin and a pouch. He made to pick up a second pouch as well.

“Oy!” Bri scolded, slapping his hand away.

Haruhiro couldn’t see any option but to enlist. But for what? He didn’t know. Maybe for the money and to survive in this place? If joining Crimson Moon was the only way to earn money then he didn’t see any other options, but a part of him didn’t like it at all.

Shihoru, Twin-Braided Girl, and Super-Small Girl all looked hesitant. So did Ranta and giant Mogzo. Bri’s sky-blue eyes fell on them. “And what about all of you?”

“I get this nagging feeling I’m walking into some sort of trap,” Ranta muttered to himself while making his way to the counter.

“Where there’s a will-a-will, there’s way-a-way and where there’s no will-a-will there’s no way-a-way…” Twin-Braided Girl said, following Ranta.

“Um,” Haruhiro turned his head towards her. “I don’t think we say ‘will-a-will or way-a-way…’”

“Oh, is that so?” Twin-Braided Girl turned to look at him while reaching out to grab the red coin and pouch. “That’s the way Yume remembers it though.”

“There’s the problem right there, then. The correct way to say it is ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’.”

“Oh, I see. But isn’t will-a-will and way-a-way so much cuter? Yume thinks cute is important too~yan.”

“…I guess that does raise your cuteness a few notches.”

“Yep!” The Twin-Braided Girl, apparently called Yume, giggled with genuine happiness.

While Haruhiro was talking to her, the super small girl had picked up her red coin and leather pouch as well. The only three remaining were Mogzo, Shihoru, and himself. For some reason, Haruhiro didn’t want to end up last, so he took a coin and pouch too. As Haruhiro was checking the contents of his pouch, Mogzo slowly made his way over and took his share from the counter as well. Shihoru was the last to pick up hers.

“Congrats,” Bri applauded, putting on a smile for them. “You are all Crimson Moon trainees now. Work hard and become independent as soon as possible, okay? When you’ve become full members, you can even come back and talk to me if you have anything you feel like discussing.”

Suddenly, there was a dull thudding sound accompanied by a grunt. When Haruhiro looked, he saw that Buzz-Cut Boy had fallen to the floor on his buttocks. It happened so fast, he hadn’t turned in time to see anything, but it seemed that Renji had kicked Buzz-Cut Boy’s legs out from under him. Tripped him on purpose? Why?

“Get up,” Renji said, face expressionless.

“What’re you doing?!” Buzz-Cut Boy shouted as he scrambled to his feet. Renji shoved him back down, putting him on the floor on all fours.

“What’s the matter?” Renji said. “Get up.”

“Bastard, what the hell are you doing?”

“The moment you saw me, you had thought to yourself, ‘Is he stronger than me or weaker than me?’ I’m about to show you. Get up.”

“Damn it!”

Renji was waiting to attack the moment Buzz-Cut Boy tried to get up to his feet again. That much was obvious, even to a bystander like Haruhiro. All Buzz-Cut Boy had to do was block him. But no, Buzz-Cut Boy tried to dodge. Renji punched him before Buzz-Cut Boy could fully evade, then kicked him again. Renji grabbed him by the ears, pulled him up, and with a shout, kneed him in the chest. Not just once but several times in a row. Renji then took Buzz-Cut Boy’s head in both hands and headbutted it with full force.

There was a loud cracking sound and Buzz-Cut Boy slumped to the floor on one knee.

“You really are blockheaded,” Renji remarked, poking his forehead with a fingertip. Blood trickled down as Buzz-Cut Boy’s forehead started turning red. “Your name?”

Buzz-Cut Boy was still down, one hand on the floor and the other across his knee. Probably, fully being down on all fours was not something he could bear.

“Ron. You’re strong, you bastard.”

“You’re pretty tough yourself. Join me, Ron.”

“Ahh. For now then.”

“That’s good enough. Who else…” Renji glanced around the room, his eyes stopping on Manato.

Manato returned his gaze, his own eyes narrowing just the slightest bit.

Renji looked away first and his eyes settled instead on Glasses-Boy. “You look like you can fight. Come with me.”

Glasses-Boy blinked several times and crossed his arms over his chest. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and gave a sharp nod, as if he were pulling his chin back. “Fine. I’m Adachi. Good to be on board, Renji.”

Renji smiled crookedly, then his eyes fell on Haruhiro.

What? Me? Is it possible that… Haruhiro thought. Surprised, his heart seemed to leap in his chest. It was just that… not only did Renji, by all outward appearances, look strong, but he had proved it judging by the way he had beaten Ron so easily. He also had the ability to think fast and take action. It seemed difficult to work with him without being in a constant state of fear, but if he could somehow get past that there was no doubt Renji was a person that got things done. If Haruhiro joined Renji’s group, things from here on out would be a lot easier.

Haruhiro admitted it: Yes, he wanted to join Renji’s group. Very much so.

But he was soon disappointed. Renji, the one central to the entire group, had turned his gaze elsewhere. Haruhiro had been passed up.

“You, runt.”

“Ay?” The Super-Small Girl squeaked. The smallest out of the twelve, and her voice was slight too.

“Come,” Renji gestured with a single hand. ‘Chibi’-chan looked confused but staggered over to Renji, then looked up at him. Renji patted her head.

“You seem like you’ll be useful. Follow.”

Chibi-chan nodded, “…ay.” Her face was red, like the color of boiled octopus. It wasn’t that she was attractive; it was more that her actions and presence were by themselves incredibly cute, like a mascot.

But useful? Really? Renji had judged her to be more useful than Haruhiro. That irritated him and made him feel pathetic at the same time.

“We’re leaving,” Renji said, gesturing with his chin towards the exit.

As Renji, Ron, Adachi, and Chibi began to leave the gaudy-girl cried, “Wait! Take me with you!”

Renji heaved a short sigh. “I don’t need anyone I can’t use.”

“I’ll do anything,” she said, clinging to him. “I’m Sassa. Please, I’ll do anything you ask. Anything.”

“Anything, eh?” Renji said, pushing her away. “Never forget those words.”

“I won’t.”

“And don’t touch me without permission.”

“I… understand.”

“Good. Come then.”

“Thank you, Renji!”

Sassa opened the door and Renji’s group filed out, Sassa leaving last. When the door closed behind them, only the seven rejects, the seven failures remained.

“Gah,” Kikkawa frowned, scratching his head. “I wanted to be on Team Renji too. Renji and Ron are invincible in a fight, Adachi looks like a smart guy, Chibi-chan is adorable, and Sassa’s sweet and a beauty. Such a good party. But no use complaining about it now, so I’m going to go take a look around town. Bye bye!”

And just like that, Kikkawa was gone. Haruhiro’s eyes met Shihoru’s for a brief moment before she looked away.

“I guess I’m going too,” Manato said, heading for the exit. “Not going to learn anything by standing around here. I’m going to take a look around and see what I can find out. See you guys later.”

“Right, see you,” Haruhiro said, waving him goodbye and at the same time wondering if it was better to follow. Unlike Renji, Manato was easier to approach and he seemed like a good guy; someone who could be depended on.

Haruhiro didn’t care about Ranta, but what about Shihoru and Yume? What were they planning to do? And Mogzo was still here too. Oh, right. Maybe if they all followed Manato together… but it was too late. Manato had already left. Though if they left now, it might not be too late to catch up.

“Hey, everyone, let’s all follow Manato. It’s no good staying here…” Haruhiro began to say when the door suddenly opened.

Had Manato returned for them? Haruhiro thought, but no. The person who entered the building was a different man. He seemed older than Haruhiro and the others. His upper and lower body was covered with leather, on his head was some sort of feathered cap, and a bow and quiver were slung across his back. His eyes resembled those of a fox and his mouth was crooked.

“G’afternoon, Commander.”

“My my,” Bri turned to the man. “If it isn’t Raghill. What happened? Is there something you need from me?”

“No, nothing from you,” the man called Raghill said, glancing at Haruhiro and the others. “I heard that a new group just arrived.”

“Word sure travels fast. We only got twelve this time and only five are still here.”

“The dregs, huh?”

Ranta’s expression became stony. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“What else could it be but bad?” Raghill said glaring at Ranta before turning his gaze to Haruhiro and the three others, sizing them all up briefly. “Hmph. Our group’s missing a tank, so you there, big guy. You’ll do.”

Mogzo pointed to himself. “…Me?”

“Yes, you. Who else here is big and a guy? We’ll let you join our party and teach you the ropes. As for money, we’ll even loan you some. It’s an amazing offer. If you’re smart, you’ll take me up on it.”

“Ah, okay…”

“Seriously, Mogzo? You’re going to go with him?” Ranta grabbed Mogzo’s left arm. “Don’t do it. It’s obvious he can’t be trusted…”

“Ah, right…”

“I’m not untrustworthy! Forget about him and just come with me!” Raghill pulled on Mogzo’s other arm. “It’s unheard of for a trainee to get an invitation into a party. You should be thankful!”

“Uh, okay…”

“Don’t let him fool you, Mogzo! Untrustworthy bastards will never say that they’re untrustworthy!”

“Uh, um… ow… that hurts…”

Ranta let go. “Oh, sorry, sorry.”

“Let’s go!” Raghill yanked on Mogzo with all his strength and dragged him out.

Shihoru’s shoulders slumped. “…He’s gone.”

“That leaves…” Yume counted them, pointing at each in order. One, two, three; Haruhiro, Ranta, Shihoru. Finally, herself. “The four of us.”

“Just how long,” Bri said, stifling a yawn, “do you all plan on being here? I’m a busy person and I’ve got work to do. If you’re just going to stand there, I’m going to throw you out.”

Ranta, looking like a dog with its tail between its legs, turned to Haruhiro and the others. “Let’s go?”

“Yeah,” Haruhiro replied, looking just as pathetic and defeated.

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