Grimgal Of Ashes And Illusion / Grimgal of Ashes and Illusion Vol 2 Chapter 7
LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
Chapter 7: Leave it to the Master
An elder kobold’s talisman fetched quite the price. Whether it was an earring, nose stud, or on occasion a necklace, any was guaranteed to sell for over five silvers due to the precious stones embedded within. There were even cases where one stone alone sold for over forty silvers.
While in the second stratum were low-ranked kobold workers’ dwellings, the third stratum housed the higher ranked kobold workers. The elder taskmasters of these workers were called the “foremen”. The foremen were similar in physique to the worker kobolds they led on the second or third strata, but, unlike the workers, they were properly outfitted in combat gear.
Those foremen and their subordinate kobolds were the main target of Haruhiro’s group. The difficulty of the fight depended entirely on the competence of the foreman. It wasn’t just the foreman’s martial prowess, but its ability to command its subordinates as well. Counterintuitively, fights where the foreman preferred to stand at the front and fight all by themselves were comparatively easy to win. On the other hand, when they encountered a foreman who stayed back to issue orders, it made for a tough battle.
Humans were the same. In general, humans tended to focus entirely on the enemy standing before them first, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. Going after a different enemy while ignoring the one right in front of you was a sure way to get yourself killed. Nobody was that silly, of course, so pragmatically speaking, the first priority in a fight was eliminating the immediate threat.
But, sometimes priorities change. For example, when a companion is in trouble, you might risk leaving yourself open to attack in order to help them.
Then there were times when it was a command, not a choice.
Haruhiro would never force anyone to put themselves at such risk, but kobold foremen were different. They would howl and signal at subordinates to ignore Mogzo or Ranta and attack Mary or Shihoru instead. And whether it was out of bravery, submissiveness, or timidity before the alpha-male, the subordinates would obey without concern for the preservation of their own lives.
If they were actually able to get past Mogzo and Ranta, that would land the team in big trouble. Shihoru’s mage class in particular had no close combat ability and needed everyone to protect her. Their battle formation would collapse and the fight would become a disaster.
On the other hand, if they could take the foreman out of the fight, the subordinates hardly posed a threat. The way Haruhiro saw it, all they had to do was come up with a strategy to take out the foreman as fast as possible to render the rest of the kobolds helpless.
Currently, there was always one foreman and two or three subordinates in every fight. With this predictable enemy group composition, they held an advantage, and they had also become skilled at hunting them. At this rate, descending to the fourth or fifth strata didn’t seem like a bad idea, and when the next ladder rung came into view so naturally, everyone’s motivation went up.
They had been working on the third stratum for ten days and had saved up some money so it was decided that they would return to their guilds to acquire new skills. Everyone was eager to broaden their combat abilities and being able to do more in fights would give them a sense of achievement.
Haruhiro returned to Master Barbara and the Thieves Guild and paid four silvers to learn the Thief technique, [WIDOW MAKER].
“Shall we get started then, Old Cat?” Master Barbara smirked.
The training area was a room within the Nishimachi Thieves Guild Compound called the “Killing Venom Room”. It was a scary and foreboding name, but most of the rooms in the compound were named in a similar manner. The Killing Venom Room itself was quite spacious, but contained not a single window. A chandelier filled with candles which could be raised and lowered hung from the ceiling and provided some light, but even a generous person couldn’t call the room well-lit.
If not for the candles, the room would be pitch black even during the day. The entire atmosphere made Haruhiro slightly uncomfortable.
Master Barbara was in her usual revealing clothing, except today, the lower half of her face was covered by a black scarf. Long hair concealed even more of her face, including one eye, making her appearance quite terrifying.
“Er… yes, ma’am,” Haruhiro replied politely.
“You’ve really toughened up, haven’t you? Or have you been working just on hardening yourself down there?”
“No, ma’am. I haven’t been particularly trying to—”
Haruhiro could not finish his sentence, because Master Barbara had suddenly moved behind him. Before he could even begin to turn, Master Barbara had him in a full nelson hold… or something. She had both his arms firmly locked, but she also had her right leg snaked around one of his legs, rendering him completely immobile. And her knife was right against his jugular.
“[WIDOW MAKER] is a technique where you instantly seize your target from behind, like so, and then mortally wound them. If I wished, your throat would already be slit. If you don’t have a knife, you might just break their neck. And when you want to disable, rather than kill…” Master Barbara moved the tip of her knife from his neck to down to his crotch. “You may stab them here. It’s particularly effective on males.”
“Uhh… right,” Haruhiro said. “Yes, ma’am. Er… would it be possible… to let go of me now? ‘Cause, you know…”
“Hmm? Oh, yes… You’ve never been intimate with a woman before, have you? Not used to being held like this?” Master Barbara chuckled softly.
“Errr…” Haruhiro tried to bend away, but Master Barbara held him down firmly. “Wah! W-would you please q-quit it with the ear?!”
“What’s wrong? I’m just breathing normally,” she replied.
“I-it’s just… that’s, er, my weak spot…”
“I see. In that case…”
“Huh?” Haruhiro had no idea what happened next. He was suddenly somersaulting through the air before landing hard on his back, knocking the wind out of his lungs. Master Barbara peered down at him from above.
“If you can combine [WIDOW MAKER] with other techniques, there are plenty of ways you can manipulate your opponents,” she continued. “But first, I’ll have you be intimately familiar with the technique’s effects on yourself… and we’ll keep at it until you hack up blood.”
“…Um, and I won’t die? Ma’am.”
“No point in worrying about it, is there? You won’t even realize that you’re dead. But rest assured, I’ll make sure you’re cremated, and then the Curse of the Deathless King won’t zombify you.”
What was he going to do if he died? None of the others knew it, but even since their first meeting Master Barbara had been like this. Though, to her credit, she always stopped short of actually killing him and Haruhiro had gotten fairly proficient at using the fighting techniques she taught him. Maybe he just had to trust it and leave his training to her. Maybe. Perhaps. Was it seriously okay, though? Really?
For the next three hours, Master Barbara used [WIDOW MAKER] in all its variations on Haruhiro, up until he collapsed and couldn’t get back up.
“What’s the matter? Now’s not the time to be lazy, Old Cat.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“If you can’t stand, then I suppose we’ll have a break,” Master Barbara said and promptly sat herself on Haruhiro’s stomach. Haruhiro made a half-gurgling, half-choking noise. “Bear with it. Your training doesn’t stop when you’re resting. Toughen up those abdominal muscles. And maybe we can even do something for those groin muscles, hmm?”
“I’ll die, I’ll die for sure…”
“But this is tolerable, isn’t it? Not that many people have died from my training, you see.”
“People have actually died?”
“I’m joking. Why would I want to kill a precious source of monetary income? Now, level up.”
“Urghhhh…” Haruhiro groaned as she pulled in a leg, increasing the weight on him. He was already putting a lot of strength into keeping his stomach muscles tight. If he wasn’t, there was no way he could have borne the weight.
“And double that,” she said as she lifted up her remaining leg.
The entirety of her body weight was now on Haruhiro’s stomach. This was supposed to be a break? If this was her idea of a joke, it wasn’t funny.
“Let’s chat for a bit,” Master Barbara proposed pleasantly.
“C-can’t,” Haruhiro wheezed.
“Stupid boy. Don’t talk back.”
She was demanding the impossible. As usual. And if Haruhiro didn’t obey, the consequences would be even worse.
“U-uhh… talk… about what, ma’am?” he acquiesced.
“You could tell me a story.”
“I don’t… r-really have any, ma’am. S-stories.”
“How boring. See, that’s why you’ll never be able to bed yourself a girl.”
“I-I suppose… so.”
“You have girls in your party, right? How many?”
“T-three,” Haruhiro gasped.
“You need to at least claim one. Of course, claiming all three would make you quite the alpha-male.”
“N-no, ma’am… that’s t-too…”
“That kind of drama between party members is too much of a hassle?” Master Barbara ventured.
“I-I… don’t know, ma’am. I don’t… h-have any experience with that…”
“Even if it’s a little bothersome, a bit of it is quite necessary. It makes me recall when I was like you are now… Going at it in secret with the party leader, while toying with our male mage at the same time, and while playing around with the leader from another party. Well, our party fell apart shortly after that and other things happened…”
“…M-Master Barbara… when you say ‘fell apart’… y-you mean you’re the one who broke it apart, r-right?”
“Ah, the springtime of youth. Don’t you feel it too?”
“It… s-sounds more like… crazy blind passion, ma’am,” Haruhiro said.
“Don’t say things like that,” Master Barbara chastised.
Haruhiro gasped, unable to take it anymore when she lifted up both her legs and wiggled her butt deeper into his midsection. But if he tried to twist around to throw her off, he didn’t know what she would do to him, so he had no choice but to remain motionless and take it. He had to admit, though, Master Barbara’s sense of balance was amazing.
“There’s no time but now,” she continued. “You’re what? Sixteen? And surrounding your sixteen-year-old self are girls and boys. It’s sink or swim. Once the time has passed, you’ll never be able to get it back. Never. If you don’t make your move now, the girl you like might get stolen by someone else. Basically, other boys are going to want to do the girl you want to do too, and then she’ll be gone. And when you realize that because you catch them making out in public, it’ll be too late.”
“B-but, ma’am… there’s no girl that I like,” Haruhiro replied.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Old Cat. You seem to have a tendency to always play it safe. You’re just holding back because you don’t want to cause any friction between your party members, aren’t you?”
“In my experience, boys fall in love with girls who are close by. Boys are built that way by nature—to fall in love with the girls around them.”
The girls around him. Yume, Shihoru, and Mary. He didn’t hate any of them. He sometimes thought that Yume’s air-headedness made her pretty cute, and they had hugged each other once. It had been under some fairly unique circumstances, sure, but the way it felt still lingered. Or rather, he hadn’t forgotten. But if asked whether he had “feelings” for her, he didn’t think he did. Probably.
Shihoru… well, her boobs were really big. What. Why is that the first thing that comes to my mind about her? Was he some sort of barbarian? A primitive caveman? He was the worst. The absolute worst. And there was also that…
Shihoru had liked Manato. Or so it seemed. No, forget “seemed”. There was really no doubt about it. There was no way he could… no, just no. Out of the question.
Mary, then? Mary was… Stylish and beautiful. Haruhiro, a completely average person, didn’t have a chance in hell of getting close to somebody like her. She was his teammate, so there had to be some degree of closeness, but Haruhiro didn’t really think there was anything else between them.
Not too long ago, during a conversation about their types, Mary had said that her type was Mogzo. Did that mean she wasn’t just superficially into good looking men? But if it was Mogzo, then Haruhiro had zero chance, didn’t he? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. But it wasn’t like he had those feelings for Mary anyway. Probably.
He just… wished he could make her smile more.
It would touch him deeply if he could see someone as lovely as her smile for real. That would be more than wonderful. But he wasn’t interested in her in a romantic sort of way, he didn’t think.
“Err… Master Barbara?”
“Yes, Old Cat?”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course it’s about girls, yes?”
“Pathetic boy. Trying to change the subject now, are we?”
“No, ma’am. I wouldn’t dare. I wouldn’t even think about it. That’s not it. Really.”
Haruhiro told her about the line that appeared now and then during fights. The lower half of Master Barbara’s face was concealed by a scarf so her expression was difficult to read, but Haruhiro had the feeling that she was listening intently. She also placed her feet back on the floor as he talked, taking her weight off him.
“I see,” she said at length. “That’s not a bad sign.”
“But don’t be mistaken. It’s not anything special.”
“Mistaken? I don’t even know anything about it…”
“Slow, aren’t you? An old cat in every sense.”
“Slow? I don’t think I’m slow, ma’am…”
“No, you are slow. But. For someone so dull-witted, your instincts aren’t bad. The line that you see—feel, perhaps is a better way to describe it—appears once or twice to anyone who’s accumulated enough experience.”
“But it’s not just once or twice, ma’am. I can’t say that I see it all the time, not even once a day, but…”
“Yes, that might be the case. The difference is rather large depending on the person.”
“What about you, Master Barbara?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes it appears, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like we can will it to appear by concentrating hard or anything.”
“But when you do see it, are you able to execute [BACKSTAB] perfectly too?”
“It’s not something you can rely on though, no?”
“…Of course. It’s too erratic. Almost like it’s completely random.”
“Exactly. Work on perfecting your fighting techniques. And build up those muscles.”
Haruhiro gasped once more as Master Barbara lifted up her legs again. He couldn’t see her expression, but she was probably grinning like a madwoman under that scarf.
“You still have a ways to go. You have to build the stamina and strength to last going once or twice with a girl after killing five, six orcs. Because you’re not really an old cat.”
“I-I’m fine with being an old cat, ma’am…”
“Don’t be cheeky, brat!”
Master Barbara had hit him in the groin, almost making him pass out.
“Whoops. Put a little too much oomph in that just now…”
If he kept training here, Haruhiro had a feeling that sooner or later, he would be rendered sterile.