Grimgal Of Ashes And Illusion / Grimgal of Ashes and Illusion Vol 2 Chapter 6

LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable

Chapter 6: Taking the Long Way Around

Human beings, though, were mysterious creatures.

After waking up refreshed from a good night’s sleep, it was like all the annoyance, doubt, and despair from the night before never existed. Ranta seemed completely normal too, unchanged from his usual self.

Everyone already knew they planned to return to the Siren Mines today, and that decided, they were also acutely aware of the need to increase their earnings. They entered the mountain, easily cleaning up any first-stratum lesser and worker kobolds they ran into, and proceeded to descend to the second stratum.

They had gotten this far yesterday, so today’s goal was to reach the third stratum. Haruhiro wasn’t convinced that everyone was completely used to fighting kobolds yet, but it was obvious they were predicting and following the enemy’s movements better than yesterday.

Easy. We got this, no problem, Haruhiro thought. But optimists were often in for a rude awakening.

The sink well down to the next stratum appeared in the distance. Next to it was…

“Is that a kobold?” Haruhiro wondered out loud.

With what appeared to be an enemy in sight, everyone waited while Haruhiro scouted ahead alone. When he got up close, he couldn’t believe his eyes. It was huge. Was that an elder kobold? Normal kobolds were just under five feet, and he had heard that elder kobolds were about a half foot taller.

Only five and a half feet tall? No more?

The especially large kobold had three underlings with it. The underlings were equipped defensively: plate armor, helms, round shields and swords. They looked larger than any of the regular kobolds Haruhiro had seen before, but even so, the large kobold was one or two sizes larger than them at about 6’5″. It wasn’t just its unusual height though…

“Black and white…” Haruhiro whispered out loud.

It had black fur with patches of white mixed in. Patches… Haruhiro’s pulse quickened. Shit! It didn’t seem to have noticed him yet, but if it did… Not funny… This was some joke, but it wasn’t funny at all. Shit shit shit… Its sword. What the hell?! Its sword was probably around four feet long with an incredibly broad blade… it looked like a man-sized carving knife.

That thing could probably split a person in two with a single swing. The sword must be enormously heavy, but the kobold carried it like it was feather light. It must be monstrously strong. Mary’s previous party fought that thing?

That’s just insane, Haruhiro couldn’t help thinking. We’ll die. We’ll all die for sure.

The strongest enemies they’d ever fought were the plate-armored goblin and the hobgoblin, but this was on a totally different level. It wasn’t even in the same league. Shit. It was strong. Crazy insane strong.

Haruhiro returned to the others. Even though he couldn’t see his own face, he knew it must be as white as a sheet.

“It’s Deathpatch. He’s here,” Haruhiro reported.

Shihoru gasped and Mogzo exhaled sharply. Perhaps Mary had already been expecting something like this, since she merely furrowed her brows and gave a slight nod.

“Deathbatch…” Yume whispered.

“Deathpatch,” Haruhiro corrected automatically, the familiarity of the routine calming him a little. He looked over at Ranta.

“Let’s go! No choice but to take him on,” Ranta laughed softly. Maybe he was trying to be a badass with that grin on his face, but all he was accomplishing was idiot.

Well, Haruhiro expected this from him by now.

“Okay Ranta,” Haruhiro replied. “You go ahead. We’ll wait here. Good luck!”

“So that’s how you’re gonna be, huh?” said Ranta. “Fucking coward.”

“Sure,” Haruhiro agreed pleasantly. “So. You going or not? What’ll it be? Hurry up and decide.”

“Looks like there’s no other option—” Ranta brushed his thumb across the edge of his chin “—but to put it off ’till later. Lucky for Deathpatch, he gets to live a few days longer…”

“Yes yes, very lucky for him.”

“Go tell him, Haruhiro. He just barely managed to escape death at my hands,” Ranta commanded.

“Go tell him yourself. I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

No one but Haruhiro made to involve themselves in Ranta’s antics. Even Yume, who was always quick to rebuke him, remained silent throughout the exchange. Perhaps that just went to show just how tired she was of him. Haruhiro realized then: being the only one humoring Ranta while everyone else stayed out of it must have made them seem like best friends. The thought thoroughly disgusted him.

There were five sink wells that connected the second and third strata, so it didn’t take long to find another. There was no sign of any presence, kobold or otherwise, in the vicinity of the sink well, and nothing seemed to be at the bottom when they peered into it. Their view from the top was fairly limited, though.

“I’ll go down first,” Haruhiro said. “If it’s all clear, I’ll let you guys know and you can follow.”

“What if you run into trouble?” Yume asked, blinking.

“Um, I’ll yell, so come save me.”

Yume smiled broadly. “Got it.”

Feeling his spirits lifted a little, Haruhiro returned the smile and said, “Here I go.”

The rope ladders hanging off the lip of the sink well looked worn and well used, but they still held Haruhiro’s weight when he began his descent. Being a Thief, keeping his balance on the way down was simple and he reached the bottom quickly. When he turned around though, the kobolds were waiting for him.

“Er… good afternoon,” he greeted meekly. The kobolds growled at him. “No time for pleasantries, huh?”

Haruhiro jumped out of the way as one of the kobolds sprang at him. It was big—not as big as Deathpatch, but still large. An elder?So this is an elder… It was equipped with chainmail and a single-edged sword. Two underlings accompanied it, armed in a similar manner.

“Guys! Down! Enemy! Bad! Hurry! Help!” All Haruhiro managed were single word phrases.

Haruhiro circled around the elder kobold and its underlings, trying to put distance between himself and them. However, he couldn’t run too far from the sink well either… not until everyone else had come. He was limited to this general area, but with three of them… If it had been just one, he might have somehow managed to keep it running in circles, but with three it was proving nearly impossible.

When he tried to run straight, in front of him was a kobold. When he turned back around, kobold. To his side, kobold. Kobold, kobold, kobold. It was a goddamn kobold-palooza.

Haruhiro dodged an incoming attack from the elder, grunting as the kobold’s sword nicked his cheek. He hardly felt the pain, but getting cut caused him to panic anyway. He lost track of the enemy and had no idea if his companions were coming at all. Panicked and helpless, he simply ran the other way whenever a kobold appeared in his field of vision.

Staying in the area below the sink well was not going to happen. He didn’t have the luxury; no way there would have been such luxury.

He heard Ranta’s shout and wondered if he’d ever thought of Ranta as this dependable before now. Nope. Never. Not even once. Ranta scrambled down the rope ladder first and immediately engaged the elder kobold, even though it would have been better for him to help Haruhiro first.

But Ranta never thought before acting. He simply went for the closest and biggest enemy that came into sight, his actions lacking the motivation of a need to protect his friends or help a teammate in trouble. But because he never thought too deeply about anything, he did have a sort of ability to attack instantly and without hesitation. Maybe it was something like good and bad rolled into one.

Haruhiro heard Mogzo’s battle cry and then Yume shouting, “Haru!”

“Oom rel eckt vel dash!” Shihoru had come too.

“Haru!” Mary’s voice.

Everyone was down the ladder and with him now. Gradually, he felt calm fill him again. Ranta had engaged the elder kobold first but at some point had switched with Mogzo. Now, he and Yume took on one each, Kobold A and Kobold B, respectively.

“Haru, what about your wound?!” asked Mary.

Haruhiro gingerly touched his cheek, and, although it stung with pain, it would be fine as long as he left it alone.

“I’m fine! Heal me afterwards!” he replied on his way to support Yume. He maneuvered around Kobold B, aiming for its back while assessing the situation around him.

I don’t have the ability or the qualifications, but for the moment, I’m the leader.

All things considered, Ranta was doing fairly well. He employed [PROPEL LEAP] and [JUKE STAB] to stay out of the enemy’s range while waiting for his chance to attack, and then struck with [HATRED’S CUT] or [ANGER THRUST]. As usual, Haruhiro thought all that moving around was both unnecessary and inefficient, but maybe that was more just a Dread Knight’s fighting style than Ranta specifically. Still, it was the fact that this particular Dread Knight was Ranta which irritated him.

Mogzo and his opponent looked evenly matched. He hadn’t managed to land any heavy blows on the elder kobold, and once in a while the elder would land a blow or two on him. Wait, no, that’s not quite right… Mogzo was allowing the elder kobold through his guard.

He was wearing plate mail so a graze here or there would just put scratches on the armor, not actually hurt him. Mogzo was blocking heavy blows with his bastard sword while letting the plate mail absorb everything else.

“The hobgoblin was stronger!” cried Mogzo, suddenly stepping in aggressively and locking blades with his opponent. He immediately followed up by wrapping his bastard sword around the kobold’s sword, then pulling his own sword back. With a shout, he unleashed [SPIRAL SLASH] straight at its face.

Mogzo’s attack grazed the kobold’s cheek the same way Haruhiro’s had been grazed, causing it to jump back in panic. Mogzo pursued, closing the distance once more. Watching Mogzo sent chills down Haruhiro’s spine. The aura of stability Mogzo provided in a fight was amazing… but was that due in part to Ranta’s ability to keep one enemy fully occupied?

Indeed, Ranta looked less harried now than he had been in yesterday’s fights. Was that thanks to experience? Ranta had preposterously insisted on fighting that last kobold alone yesterday. Maybe because he had forced himself to go a bit over his head, he figured out the best way to deal with the kobolds for himself.

We won’t know unless we try… Is that what it was?

Facing everything with caution, not reaching for anything beyond their grasp, and having this safety first mentality meant advancement was impossible. Even if they did advance, the pace would be terribly slow. Without anybody to dispute Haruhiro’s leadership, it would be only a painstaking improvement.

Do we need Ranta around after all? Haruhiro wasn’t convinced and maybe he didn’t want to be convinced. But Manato acknowledged Ranta’s necessity, even if he didn’t really like Ranta as a person. So a decision had to be based on more than just personal likes and dislikes? But Ranta never butted heads with Manato the way he did with Haruhiro. When Manato was killed, Ranta, in his own way, had been just as upset as everyone else.

What’s the difference between Manato and me? wondered Haruhiro.

Naturally, there were plenty of differences. In fighting ability and wits, Manato clearly had him beat. But Manato had established a sort of peace with Ranta, while Haruhiro just couldn’t get along with him. What was the difference? Perhaps it was fine just to blame it on ability and wits and leave it at that.

The line appeared, completely unexpected and unintended. That indistinct line of light, glowing hazy and faint, connecting the point of Haruhiro’s dagger to a point on the kobold’s back. It wasn’t straight nor just a simple curve, but more like a winding trail.

Haruhiro knew what to do: Follow the path it provided. He wished that he could see the line every time, but that was just wishful thinking. It appeared less than one in a hundred times, if even that many.

When Haruhiro engaged an enemy, the first thing he did was get in position behind it. Then it was maneuvering to remain at its back while checking every second—or even more frequently—for an opportunity to strike. He had repeated the process more than a thousand times now because he didn’t know of any other way.

He couldn’t fight an enemy face-to-face. Those first fights with the pit rats and mud goblin had instilled deep into him that he didn’t have what it took to win against any enemy fair and square, pound for pound. So even though it was sneaky and underhanded, he attacked from behind where the enemy was least protected.

He admitted he was a little pathetic for using such methods but he didn’t consider it that horrible. Fights were to the death and both sides battled with all earnestness and desperation. Nothing else more desperate, nothing more solemn; because it wasn’t easy nor simple, no method was forbidden…

Or so Manato had once said.

When Haruhiro saw the line, he kept his breathing calm. When it became ragged and unsteady, the line that finally appeared for him would disappear. It would disappear if he tried to bend his knees to crouch, or if he tensed his wrists, elbows, or shoulders. He didn’t even have time to think about letting this chance get away. He had to move immediately—no, that wasn’t quite the right way to put it…

When the line appeared, Haruhiro felt as if his body reacted without him thinking. It would be impossible to land his attack if it didn’t work that way.

It landed this time as well. Haruhiro’s body followed, smooth as butter, and his dagger slid into the kobold’s back without resistance. Perhaps it was inaccurate to say that Haruhiro consciously followed the path the line provided, since he was already en route by the time he noticed.

The kobold made a gurgling noise, then fell to the ground as its final breath left its body.

“Wh—?!” Yume blinked repeatedly, awestruck.

“Yume, onto the next one!” Haruhiro exclaimed.

Yume nodded several times. “Sorry! Yume was just surprised, that’s all!”

“Oom rel eckt vel dash!” Shihoru chanted, casting [SHADOW ECHO]. Voash! The black seaweed-like shadow elemental flew at the elder kobold. It noticed and tried to dodge, but not quickly enough. The spell grazed its right shoulder, and, while the chainmail armor prevented the spell from injuring it, [SHADOW ECHO] didn’t work like fire or electricity. It caused convulsions rather than doing damage.

The elder kobold’s right shoulder began to shake, preventing it from moving for a fraction of a second.

“THANK YOU!” came Mogzo’s [RAGE CLEAVE]. The elder kobold blocked with its sword, but its stance was broken. Mogzo pressed down with his bastard sword, forcing the elder kobold’s weapon to the side, then reversed his swing and rammed his blade into the side of the elder’s head.

The elder kobold made to return the attack, but before it could move Mogzo kicked it onto its behind and then brought his sword straight down, crushing its skull.

“YES!” Haruhiro pumped his fist.

One more worker kobold to go. Ranta was still trying to use [PROPEL LEAP] to retreat and try to draw the kobold back with him, but as expected, the kobold was having none of it. It refused to step forward so Ranta leapt in again, throwing [HATRED’S CUT] at it. Again, the kobold read him like an open book and deftly dodged to the right.

With Ranta effectively sidestepped, the kobold took advantage of its perfect positioning for a counterattack. It swung at Ranta, forcing him to throw himself to the ground with a grunt. The kobold’s attack just barely missed.

“Ranta!” Haruhiro began to run over to help.

“Stay away!” Ranta yelled, up on one knee while deflecting the kobold’s attacks. “I can still do this! I’ll kill this one on my own! I’ll fucking kill it dead and get my Vice!”

“What happened to being flexible?!” Haruhiro countered.

“Two birds, one stone! [PROPEL LEAP]!” Ranta leapt backwards, still down on one knee. “Whoa! It’s a new [PROPEL LEAP]! I just fucking made my own original skill!!!”

“It didn’t look all that different from the old skill…” Yume said coldly.

“Yeah,” Shihoru agreed.

“True.” And Mary as well.

Mogzo forced a dry-sounding laugh.

“Filthy maggoty bastard scum!” Ranta cursed the kobold over and over as he attacked frantically.

Just let him at it, Haruhiro decided. Or at least until he looks like he’s about to get killed.

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