Grimgal Of Ashes And Illusion / Grimgal of Ashes and Illusion Vol 2 Chapter 2
LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
Chapter 2: Inept Executive
“…And that’s kinda how it happened!”
Haruhiro still couldn’t get over what had transpired even when he related the story to his companions later. Ranto, Mogzo, Shihoru, and Mary were all sitting at a corner at the back of Sherry’s Tavern, but it wasn’t just them. People drinking nearby were listening too. The attention made Haruhiro a little embarrassed.
He cleared his throat and went on. “Anyways, Team Renji’s amazing. And Renji the person is beyond amazing. That orc Ishh Dogrann seemed really strong too, and halfway through the fight, I thought Renji was done for. But he wasn’t. Not for real, anyway. It was like he was faking it, kinda like tricking the orc. Even I was completely sure that he couldn’t use his left arm—so was Ishh Dogrann.”
“Whoa!” Ranta mussed and pulled at his already messy hair. “So you’re saying that his disadvantage was really his trump card? And he kept it up his sleeve until he was at a bigger disadvantage?! Screw that! Goddamn showoff! Fuck him! I can do that too! I can do that one hundred percent!”
Yume glared coldly at him. “So you’re okay with dyin’ if you mess up?”
“I won’t mess up! There’s no way I could mess up! It’s a known fact!”
Shihoru, who ended up having to get a new hat, also looked disdainful. “What makes you so sure?”
“What? Um… Because…” Ranta fell silent in thought. In the end though, it didn’t seem like he could come up with anything. Instead he said, “Stupid! I don’t need any shitty reason! I just know it! SELF-CONFIDENCE! It’s all about self-confidence!”
Mary sighed softly as she brought her ceramic mug to her lips. “I think that’s true.”
“See?! Mary agrees with me! You guys are all amateurs and she’s the veteran so she’s right and you’re wrong! Amateurs!”
“But overconfidence may also become one’s undoing,” she added quietly, gazing meaningfully at Ranta.
“Er—” Ranta seemed to be at a loss for another comeback.
Mary had spoken the truth. She knew better than any other. Three of her original party had died this way. Because things went so well for them at first, they ended up overestimating their own ability, falling into disaster.
“B-but still,” uttered Mogzo. As usual, his prized helm lay on the table next to him. “Team Renji’s really something. We all arrived here at the same time, but they’re miles above us…”
Once Haruhiro had finished “The Legend of Renji”, the other clients who surrounded their table to listen in laughed good-naturedly and slapped Haruhiro on the shoulder.
“Work hard and catch up, Goblin Slayers!” they told him, and went about their own business once more.
Ranta stuck his tongue out at them and hissed, “Piss off. Don’t take us for losers!”
“Don’t get so worked up,” Yume said, resting her chin in both hands. “Yume thinks we’re fine goin’ at our paces.”
“You mean our own pace, Yume,” Haruhiro corrected mildly, nodding in agreement. “And I agree. I mean, now that I’ve seen Renji in action first-hand, it’s like he’s cut from a different cloth. We couldn’t imitate him even if we tried, and to be honest, I don’t even think we’ll get anything out of paying attention to him…”
“To force ourselves…” Shihoru started, but quickly fell silent.
Her gaze dropped to the floor, as if she was trying very hard to keep herself from saying whatever it was she wanted to say. Perhaps she was recalling their own precious, lost friend.
“And if we end up in a situation where we’ve got no way out, we might lose everything,” Haruhiro pointed out.
“You guys have no ambition!” Ranta pointed from Yume to Haruhiro to Shihoru. “Do you know how pathetic you guys sound?! No pain, no gain! No guts, no glory! No risk, no return! If you want a high return, then you gotta man up and risk it all!”
Haruhiro felt his temper rising. “I think it’s better to minimize risks and maximize returns as best we can. In fact, that’s what we’ve been doing all along.”
“All along, huh.” Ranta scoffed disdainfully. “I’ll say it right here and now: That’s why we’re rock bottom! Don’t you get it? Guys, look around you!”
“What’s there to see?” Haruhiro said skeptically, but looked around the tavern nonetheless.
When he did, he realized Ranta’s point. Out of all the other Crimson Moon members gathered at Sherry’s, their appearance was the shabbiest of all. But Haruhiro felt they couldn’t do anything about how they looked. Most of their armor and weapons were used, and because they were still living in the shared lodge with no locks, they carried all of their valuables with them.
It didn’t matter whether they were in Damroww or at Sherry’s Tavern; they wore the same clothing no matter where they went. To be sure, it did make their appearance look grungy and dirty.
“Did you guys even think about it before?” Ranta said impatiently, tapping the tabletop with his finger. “So what if Renji’s on a completely different level? He started out when we did! Don’t keep saying shit like ‘there’s nothing we can do about who-what-where’. We’re in a different position now!”
Mogzo dipped his head, and he looked up at Ranta. “What do you mean by that?”
Ranta continued. “From what I hear, a new batch has arrived. We’re not the newest arrivals anymore. Before our group, there was a batch of three. Actually, they haven’t even bought their Crimson Moon contracts yet, but they’re considered something of a deviant case anyway. Now, our group was twelve, but this next group’s even bigger. They’re all still training with their guilds now, but that’s gonna be over soon. They’ll form parties and maybe even start working in Damroww.”
“So what?” Yume replied, pouting. “If they come, let ’em come. If we’re greedy and wanna keep the area all to ourselves what are we gonna do if we get into trouble? And Yume reckons with more parties around, we can all team up and take out bigger gobbie groups.”
Haruhiro acknowledged Yume’s opinion, but Haruhiro found that he couldn’t welcome the newcomers as wholeheartedly as she did. Not counting Mary, Haruhiro’s party was the least experienced of all Crimson Moon members. They couldn’t help it if they were the weakest and most ineffectual.
But it was just as Ranta said. Haruhiro realized they were rock bottom now, and when they were the newest of rookies, maybe there hadn’t been anything they could do about it. But their situation was about to change very soon. They would no longer be the newcomers.
If they took it too easy, they would be surpassed by the new batch. Wasn’t that just… beyond pathetic?
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to be too impatient,” Mary said, as if she had read Haruhiro’s mind.
Maybe she’s right. Even if they wanted to rush to advance, they were only capable of doing so much. Maybe some people could skip stairsteps or leap up entire flights, but not Haruhiro. Running risks would be fine if failure meant they could get back up and dust themselves off, but failure could very well mean death. Better to advance step-by-step, slowly and cautiously.
But… A small voice inside Haruhiro whispered. Are you sure you’re advancing at all? Are you sure you’re still moving upwards? Or are you just running circles around the same place?
“What if,” Haruhiro ventured, purposely keeping his gaze down at the table rather than meet anyone’s eyes, “and this is a very hypothetical ‘if’… but what if we tried somewhere other than Damroww? We can’t keep hunting goblins forever, right? I don’t think it would be a bad idea to go somewhere else, maybe. Of course we don’t have to move, but it seems like we’ll get stuck in a rut if we’re in Damroww all the time. And if it starts to get monotonous, we might get careless or something like that. I think maybe we’d need something fresh and exciting. But I mean, it’s just an idea…”
“Haruhiroooo,” said Ranta, grinning from ear to ear, “you come up with some pretty good ideas once in a while. Only just once in a while! And of course I’m completely for it!”
“In that case,” Yume replied without skipping a beat, “Yume ain’t.”
“Then me neither,” Shihoru said.
Clearly Yume and Shihoru’s rebuff was based on their overriding dislike of Ranta. Mogzo didn’t reply right away, but his expression was that of someone deep in thought. What about Mary? What did she think? Haruhiro could glean nothing from either her expression or body language.
“I’m not really proposing anything,” Haruhiro said, rubbing the back of his head. “It’s just hypothetical. Something to think about, maybe. But we’ve explored Damroww’s Old Town from end to end, and I think maybe it’s a good idea to think about what we’re going to do next.”
“Do next?” Yume fiddled with her twin-braids, pulling them right then left. “If things were nice today, ain’t that good enough? What’s wrong with doin’ the same thing every day? We haven’t gotten ourselves into any really dangerous fights lately, and we’ve been savin’ up our money, too. Yume’s alright with the way it is.”
“That’s ‘cause you’ve got no desire to move up in life!” Ranta stuck his tongue out at her. “Maybe you’re not even human, ‘cause if you were, you’d aim to grow. You’re like a pig in its stall!”
“Baby piggies are just darlin’!” Yume shot back. “But once baby piggies become big ol’ pigs, they’re not as cute, so Yume reckons it’s better for them piggies not to grow!”
“What?” Ranta said. “Why are we talking about piglets all of a sudden? What do piglets have anything to do with anything?! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“That’s ‘cause Ranta’s stupid. Not Yume’s fault,” Yume replied curtly.
“Quit blaming other people all the time! And I’m not stupid, you’re stupid!”
“Idiot! Retard! Jerk!”
“Could both of you please stop?” Mogzo said, but too gently for his words to have any effect.
Haruhiro took a sip of lemonade from his wooden mug. Was he in too much of a hurry to advance? He couldn’t completely deny feeling the need to pick up the pace, but he wasn’t really considering catching up to Team Renji either. They were on a completely different level, after all. Even so, was it okay for them to just remain the way they were?
He could understand where Yume was coming from, but what if they really were surpassed by the next batch? Haruhiro was definitely not okay with that. Maybe he would be kind of upset if that happened. Perhaps even… quite upset.
What was their main goal? For all practical purposes, it was and had always been survival, at least for the time being. To live from day to day and to maintain at least a minimal standard of living.
They had their Crimson Moon contracts now, so they got to stay at their current lodge for free. It was shabby, but it served to keep the wind and rain out. And since housing was no more than a place to sleep, the money they saved by not finding housing elsewhere was well worth it. Cheap food was available if they were careful in picking the right places, so minimal food expenditures were entirely possible.
But staying in shabby lodgings and scrimping on food made for a hard life. It would be nice if they could rent a room equipped with a lockable door for a month, or even at least a week or so. There were more personal possessions all around lately, so they were carrying a good amount of stuff with them everywhere they went.
If they continued working in Damroww, they would definitely be able to afford better housing… one day. They wouldn’t have to take any risks, and they wouldn’t have to push themselves too hard. What if they decided to take on a new challenge and ended up meeting disaster?
Maybe they’d die. Not maybe. Meeting disaster meant they’d definitely die, and nothing less. Like Manato. Haruhiro didn’t want anyone else to die. He didn’t want to make that mistake again, so the current matter needed to be given the utmost gravity.
Which raised the question—if life was at stake, then what was wrong with just doing what they’ve been doing? However, when Haruhiro thought about it, he realized that after they had bought their Crimson Moon contracts, they weren’t returning to Damroww day after day for money to learn new skills with, or spells, or to buy weapons and armor. Not anymore. They were doing it without any real purpose.
Everyone’s enthusiasm had been much higher when they were striving to accomplish a real objective. There was a sense of urgency—a need to constantly push themselves to be better. Everyone knew that without becoming stronger, they would never be able to succeed in their desire to avenge Manato.
But those days were over. It was a job well done, a mission completed.
Or so it felt to Haruhiro. Was he able to say that somewhere between then and now, everyone hadn’t become lax? That everyonehadn’t become comfortable and complacent?
That wasn’t to say that carrying on as they were now was bad. It meant simplicity and an easy life. But Haruhiro couldn’t help but think that eventually, it would really come back to bite them in the ass.
When no one offered any further opinions, the discussion ended without reaching any real conclusion.
Shihoru timidly suggested, “Um, should we call it a night?”
Haruhiro and the others got up, said their goodnights to Mary at the exit, and started on their way back to the lodge. Halfway there, Haruhiro stopped.
“You guys go ahead,” he told the others. “I’m going to, uh…”
“You’re goin’?” Yume blinked. “Goin’ to what? Something wrong?”
“Err… restroom! Yeah, the restroom! I don’t think I can hold it all the way back, so…”
Ranta snorted lightly. “Just go behind a bush or something. There’s plenty of them around here. We’ll wait for you.”
Why is it, Haruhiro thought with annoyance, that only when I need him to the least, Ranta thinks to be courteous? He probably wasn’t doing it on purpose, but it irritated Haruhiro to no end.
“No way I’m going to pee in public,” Haruhiro replied. “I’ll find a shop or something and use their bathroom.”
“Sure, Mr. High-Class-Act,” Ranta scoffed. “Whatever.”
Haruhiro allowed the irksome Ranta return ahead of him with his non-irksome companions, while he doubled back to Sherry’s. He did have a feeling that he had seen Mary reentering the tavern after they’d left earlier and a quick look around upon entering confirmed it.
Mary was sitting alone at the far end of the bar. He approached her now and indicated the seat next to her. “Mary. Can I sit?”
Mary seemed a little surprised, but nodded. “Sure. Didn’t you all leave?”
“I thought the same for you,” Haruhiro replied with a slight smile as he settled into the chair next to her. “You’re actually drinking? Something alcoholic?”
As if a little embarrassed, Mary dropped her gaze and pulled the ceramic mug closer to herself. “I was in the mood for one last cup of mead.”
“Is mead that honey liquor? Then I think I’ll have one too.”
The whole reason Haruhiro returned was to talk to Mary about a certain subject, yet he found it hard to start. Though it had been quite a difficult subject to broach with everyone else present, for different reasons it was quite a difficult subject with everyone gone, too.
The serving girl returned with the mead. It wasn’t honey colored, but reddish. Other ingredients must have been added to it. Haruhiro took a drink and discovered it to be sweet with a hint of sour.
“It’s flavored with a bit of raspberry syrup,” Mary informed him.
“Ah, I see. I thought it tasted a bit fruity. It’s good.”
“Is something the matter?”
Pathetic, Haruhiro scolded himself. His inability to start the conversation was pathetic. I suck. I completely suck.
“Mary, you’ve been in lots of parties, right? I just wanted to ask…”
Haruhiro thought he might have seen a change in Mary’s expression, and knew right away that he had blundered. Mary was a committed team member now, but that did not mean she had left her past behind, nor that she had returned to the cheery self she used to be. It was understandable not to want reminders of those events past, and Haruhiro regretted it.
But Mary gave him a tiny shake of her head and said, “It’s alright. Don’t worry about it.”
“Really? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable because—well, I don’t want to, uh, y’know—I mean, I’m the one who brought the whole thing up—” Haruhiro was blabbering nervously.
“What did you want to ask me?”
Maybe he was just reading too much into it, but Mary’s expression seemed to harden. Stopping now, however, would make it worse.
“I was just wondering,” Haruhiro said carefully, “what you think about our party. How well we do. Wait, actually, not ‘we’. Just me.”
“How well you do in what, Haru?”
“Err… It’s kinda strange for me to talk about myself this way, but I’m, you know, sorta kinda the leader?”
“Sort of, kind of? You’re not the leader?”
“Um, maybe? I’m acting like it and doing leader-like things, but…”
Mary closed her eyes, thought about it for a moment, and then said, “From my experience, leaders can be divided into two general types.”
“The Dictator and the Executive. I just made these names up, so don’t take them too seriously.”
Haruhiro nodded. “The Dictator is like someone strong, right? Someone that leads by dragging people along by force? Or something like that?”
“Precisely. Most of them possess very fierce, uncompromising personalities, and they have the ability to force loyalty from others. The others in the party operate according to their will, and their will alone—and if they fail to obey, then they are either punished or thrown out of the party. Members who can’t be completely happy with that person’s leadership don’t last.”
Renji’s that type of leader, Haruhiro realized. No one would dare disobey him.
“And the Executive is the opposite?” Haruhiro asked. “More diplomatic?”
“That’s right. They’re charismatic and eloquent; very good at taking the opinions of others into account. They don’t have to be especially strong or skilled at combat, and in fact they can be pretty useless at fighting altogether. At first glance, it seems strange that that type of person can lead, but it’s them who can settle disputes and bring everyone together as a team.”
“Right. The Dictator and the Executive. Got it. And… which one am I?”
He was definitely not the Dictator type; that much he knew beyond a doubt. So that left Executive? But he wasn’t really personable, and neither was he particularly articulate. He didn’t consider himself to be charismatic, and even if he did possess a certain amount of willpower, it wasn’t really enough to inspire loyalty.
But even though Haruhiro knew that he was lacking in many areas, if there was a type he aspired to become, it was the Executive.
Which type had Manato been? No matter how he thought about it, Manato was definitely the strongest fighter in their party. However, he didn’t drag anyone else along. Everyone just naturally obeyed and followed him.
“Is there something like a type that’s between Dictator and Executive?” Haruhiro asked.
“Of course,” Mary replied. “I was overgeneralizing just now. There’s no clear line separating the two. There’s the archetypal Dictator, but there are also leaders who possess a mix of Dictator and Executive traits. Sometimes, it depends on the situation too.”
“In order words, everyone is different. And you can be anywhere on the continuum.”
“Yes. Sorry, I know my answer is not really helpful,” Mary added.
“No, it’s helpful,” Haruhiro reassured her. “If I had to pick one, I’d say I’m the Executive type, I think. Right?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Hmm,” Haruhiro shifted his gaze up towards the ceiling. “I think that as an Executive, maybe I need to be more assertive. And say things like, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that, it’s better if we do,’ or something. Within the team, isn’t the only person who really speaks his mind Ranta of all people? The rest of us, myself included—we just kind of passively go with the flow.”
“You feel a little lost?”
“Well, it’s not that I feel not lost—” Haruhiro cut himself off. “Ah, you see? I just keep going back and forth.”
The corners of Mary’s mouth seemed to quiver ever so slightly. Suddenly, Haruhiro was reminded once more of how beautiful Mary was. And it was just the two of them, all by themselves… No, if he thought about stuff like that now, he’d confuse himself and things would get awkward.
Was it really okay for him to be here now? He couldn’t really help but think that, despite how it looked, Mary wasn’t comfortable with him here.
“…Do you feel like you’re unwelcome?” Mary inquired.
“Uh, I said that?”
“I thought you said something like that. Perhaps it’s just me,” Mary said.
Haruhiro forced himself to smile. Careless. He was thinking aloud and Mary almost heard it. I need to get a better grip on myself, he thought. I can’t keep messing up like this. He was the party’s leader so he had to live up to the role.
But it wasn’t like he was the leader because he wanted to be. He was the leader because he had no choice.
“About the conversation earlier…” Mary began.
Haruhiro realized it then. Mary was definitely being considerate of him. He was making her concerned for his sake.
“R-right,” Haruhiro forced his expression to become blank again. “Earlier? What do you mean?”
“About working somewhere other than Damroww.”
“Oh. Yume and Shihoru were against it because Ranta was for it, so the discussion stopped there. Stupid Ranta.”
“If you’re not suggesting it out of impatience, then I think it’s an option worth considering,” Mary said.
In truth though, Haruhiro admitted maybe a part of him was in a bit of a hurry to advance. He wanted to be honest with Mary, but he also didn’t want to look lame, especially to her. But maybe it was already too late for that.
“I see. But if we were to go to someplace different, then where?”
It was almost as if she had the answer prepared.
“The Siren Mines,” Mary said simply, without hesitation. Her expression was completely blank.
“But that’s where…” Haruhiro began. But he fell silent. Wasn’t the Siren Mines where Mary’s previous teammates had died? There she had fought Deathpatch and his kobold minions and lost three companions. He recalled Michiki the Warrior, Ogg the Thief, and Mutsumi the Mage.
What had become of them? Retrieving their bodies should have been impossible. And because their bodies hadn’t been burned, they would have fallen under the Curse of the Deathless King. Wasn’t it better to avoid such a place? Or perhaps it really was the logical next place to go? Haruhiro had no idea where to even start in considering the issue.
He ended up asking Mary various questions regarding kobolds before calling it a night and heading out.
I really… suck at these things, Haruhiro thought to himself.
At any rate, it wasn’t a decision that had to be made right away, so he decided to give it more serious thought after his head had cooled down a bit. That was the plan, but that wasn’t how it would turn out.
It was back to Damroww’s Old Town the following day.