Grimgal Of Ashes And Illusion / Grimgal of Ashes and Illusion Vol 2 Chapter 16

LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable

Chapter 16: Resolution and a Wish

Haruhiro noticed how things had calmed down. His ears, rather than his eyes, told him.

He and the others had hidden themselves inside a pen occupied by neither pigrats nor pigworms. They were a fair distance from where they thought Ranta was, but before, the clamor the kobolds had made around Ranta had been obvious. Not anymore.

Either the kobolds had caught Ranta or he had gotten away. Which was it?

In the latter case, he could possibly even be up to the third stratum by now… such a possibility now occurred to Haruhiro, and the fact that he failed to consider it earlier greatly unsettled him. Someone smarter would have been able to imagine the possible scenarios and pick out the most probable. Unfortunately, Haruhiro didn’t think himself endowed with such intelligence. He could only do the best he could with what he had.

Let’s get a move on. We need to find him, he thought, and was about to say it out loud too, but clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s okay, Haru.” Mary put a hand on his shoulder. “Just do things your own way.”

“That’s right!” Yume said, patting him on the head. “Be you ’cause you’re you!”

Haruhiro had no idea what she was saying but that was probably because what she said didn’t really mean anything anyway and wow, being petted by her sure felt so embarrassingly good, so whatever.

With a grunt, Mogzo got to his feet. Shihoru took several deep breaths. They moved out, heading towards where they thought Ranta was. Haruhiro had been right: Few kobolds remained in the area now—and what he meant by few was absolutely zero. Not even one. It was almost too quiet.

As they walked from creature pen to creature pen, Haruhiro started to get a really bad feeling about this. It shouldn’t be this quiet, whatever the situation. Maybe… Ranta had been caught after all.

Ranta! Haruhiro wanted to try calling his name. But he didn’t. It would just feel weird. That wasn’t all though; saying anything in a loud voice probably wasn’t a good idea. Looking at the others’ expressions, Haruhiro got a good idea of what they might have been thinking. No one was imagining anything good, that’s for sure.

“We can’t be certain yet,” Haruhiro whispered, realizing only afterwards that the way he said it hardly inspired confidence.

He should have said something like “Ranta’s definitely fine” instead of something so apparently half-assed. Do it your way, they had told him, and while it made him really happy that his companions were so supportive, he also knew that his shortcomings needed work. But real human beings didn’t change with a flip of a switch.

A long howl split the air.

Mary halted in her tracks. “Was that…?”

“Did we get spotted?” Yume glanced around hurriedly.

“No,” said Shihoru wide-eyed and shaking her head slightly. “Not us.”

“Then… Ranta?” Mogzo drew his sword and assumed a defensive stance.

But where? To their left. The kobold that originally howled had fallen silent, but other howls followed from that direction. It didn’t seem like there were that many of them though. Or so Haruhiro guessed. The noise was much more subdued than before.

What to do?

“Let’s go!” Haruhiro broke into a run.

Was this the right decision? He might be leading all of them into a really dangerous situation… What if his guess was wrong? If it looked bad, then they could just turn back. Right. Yes. It wasn’t like they were at the point of no return. Or so he told himself. But why did he always tell himself these kinds of back doors? His own indecisiveness irritated him. He wanted to be a confident leader, but maybe it just wasn’t in him.

If he really couldn’t do that, then what he could do was at least project an image of confidence. Just fake it. He’d come off cool and masculine, and everyone else would feel less uneasy to boot.

There they were; three or four—no, make that five worker kobolds and one elder chasing a lone human at a run. There weren’t that many of them, but they had their target surrounded. The human was armored and swinging a longsword in wide arcs with his right hand in an attempt to keep the kobolds at bay. He was not succeeding. The human leapt straight back to put distance between him and his attackers but the kobolds closed the gap easily.

“Ranta!” Haruhiro cried.

When Ranta looked, the expression on his face was like someone who had seen a ghost.

That’s what I should say, Haruhiro thought, which was the wrong phrase, since Ranta hadn’t actually said anything. What was the expression for that then? Not “say” maybe… wait. Now wasn’t exactly the time to be thinking about that.

Shocked at everyone’s appearance, Ranta halted in his tracks, just as a worker kobold leapt at him.

“Argh!” Ranta grunted as the kobold brought him to the ground.

“We’re coming!” Haruhiro shouted.

The other four kobolds remained focused on Ranta and his kobold, not paying any attention to Haruhiro and the others. This might actually work.

“Everyone, attack as one!” Haruhiro ordered and just as the words came out of his mouth, the line appeared.

The hazy, indistinct line of light ran from the tip of Haruhiro’s dagger to one of the kobold workers then curved around to end at the back of the elder foreman. Whoa, that’s a pretty long… Haruhiro mused inwardly.

He didn’t have to think; his body moved on its own, as if it was being controlled by some unseen passenger. First he stabbed his dagger into the worker kobold’s back, and next the elder. Haruhiro couldn’t describe how it felt as his blade pierced both kobolds in fatal spots. It was like a sudden tightening in his chest and instant awareness that the kobolds were dead.

At the same time that Haruhiro’s targets went down, Mogzo finished another with his signature [RAGE CLEAVE]. Mary struck a worker with her staff and Shihoru followed up with [SHADOW ECHO]. Yume pressed the attack with [SWEEPING SLASH] and [CROSS CUT] in tandem. Mogzo then finished it, using [RAGE CLEAVE] once again.

“Damn it!” Ranta yelled, as he was forced back by a kobold’s attacks.

Haruhiro didn’t respond, but rather drew himself near the kobold’s backside. He grabbed it from behind, pulled it to the ground, and thrust his dagger into its throat; the [WIDOW MAKER] technique.

“I’ll heal you,” Mary said, helping Ranta to his feet then casting a light magic healing spell immediately.

Ranta glared at Haruhiro sidelong, shoulders heaving. “Don’t suddenly shout my name like that! You almost got me killed from surprise, idiot!”

Despite his bravado Ranta looked worse for wear. Mary was concentrating her efforts to heal a particularly deep-looking wound on his left arm, but his face was torn up too. It was hard for Haruhiro to get angry, seeing Ranta in that condition.

“Sorry,” he replied sincerely. Ranta looked away.

“Heeey…” Yume sauntered to the other side to get a better look at Ranta’s face. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Ranta… are you crying?”

“No, I’m not!” Ranta spat vehemently.

“But you’re all teary-eyed…”

“That’s ’cause it hurts all over!” Ranta insisted.

“No need to act like someone hogtied you by your underpants…” Yume said. “You’re alive and we’re all able to see each other again.”

“I really hoped I would! No! I mean—” Ranta quickly amended, flustered. “I mean, I didn’t mean I wanted to see you guys again! I meant I thought I’d never see your faces again and my chest got all… my chest got…”

“Got what?” Yume pressed. “Got all tight like your heart was breaking?”

“S-shut up!” Ranta shot back. “I don’t want to hear it from someone with a washboard for a chest!”

“Don’t call Yume a washboard!” Yume cried.

“I’ll call you whatever I want! If I want to call you a washboard a gazillion times, I will! Washboard! Washboard! Washboard! Washboard!”

“Stay still,” Mary commanded, grabbing Ranta under the chin. “And be quiet. Or would you rather not get healed?”

Mary’s face was expressionless, her tone flat—and it only made her all the more intimidating.

“U-uh, n-no…” Ranta sat up ramrod straight. “Sorry.”

“Now you’ve made her mad…” Yume taunted, invoking a glare from Ranta but nothing more. Ranta was deathly afraid of Mary, and he remained absolutely still.

“I’m… so glad,” Shihoru said, sinking to the floor.

Mogzo heaved a heavy sigh. “Me too.”

We can’t let our guard down yet, Haruhiro thought. Not at a time like this… They had to stay alert in this situation. Their worst enemy would be any mistakes they made when they let their guard down. Haruhiro swept his eyes around the area. There! He was right; two, maybe three kobolds, leaping out of a pen in the distance. If that was all of them, the team would be able to clean them up without a problem, but there was no guarantee more wouldn’t come.

“Mary, how’s Ranta?” Haruhiro asked.

“He’ll be fine,” she said.

“Okay, we’re leaving then. Ranta, get up. Can you run?”

“Of course I can! Who do you think you’re talking to, idiot!”

Who are you calling idiot? You should be thanking me for saving your ass! Haruhiro thought but did not say. Yume once said that it couldn’t be helped that Ranta was Ranta and he would always be Ranta because he was Ranta. Haruhiro concentrated on how much he agreed with her at the moment, and let it go.

A long, high-pitched howl filled their ears.

That particular howl was the kobold’s alarm call and it was exactly what Haruhiro had thought would happen. Good thing they had already begun to make a run for it, even though that didn’t change the fact that they were being chased. Again. Sure it was still a scary situation, but overreacting posed a far greater danger.

“We’re gonna head back to the third stratum!” Haruhiro decided. “Sorry Mary, but can you take the lead? I don’t know the way as well as you! Get us to the closest sink well!”

“Yes!” came Mary’s voice.

“Ranta, stay with Mogzo and watch our backside!”

“Fine!” Ranta shouted. “But it still pisses me off to take orders from you!”

“Quit talkin’ back all the time!” Yume admonished, saying what Haruhiro was thinking. Thanks to that, Haruhiro didn’t get as annoyed as he usually did.

With Mary leading, their path was clear and certain. Haruhiro realized this unconsciously. Maybe she had always borne the desire to return here and, because of that, she had reconstructed the layout and paths within the mines over and over in her mind. She said once that she wanted to move on, to be free of this place.

Was there something left, some unfinished business for her to do here? Something that she had always hoped to do but never mentioned? To Haruhiro, it had to be revenge. In other words…

They reached the sink well. The girls went up first, followed by Ranta, Mogzo, and finally Haruhiro bringing up the rear.

“Why aren’t we staying to fight?” Ranta protested, despite everything that had transpired.

Haruhiro, as much as he trusted his teammates, didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. By the time they had all reached the third stratum, signs of pursuit from the kobolds had disappeared. Everyone was exhausted, so they searched for a relatively hidden area devoid of glow blossoms where they could rest.

Or that was the plan, at least.

It was dark. So completely and utterly dark that they couldn’t see a thing; like suddenly being surrounded by a pool of darkness.

Haruhiro suddenly stopped. “Wait. Do you guys hear that? That sound…”

“Sound?” Shihoru repeated, craning her neck.

He strained his ears.

Clack, clack…

He could hear it.

Clack, clack, click…

Clack, clack…

A faint sound. But something was moving. Not a kobold. It didn’t sound like a kobold…

“Hold on,” Ranta said, then ran off somewhere.

He returned moments later with a bundle of glow blossoms in his arms and started to place them, two handfuls at a time, in a circle beyond the darkness surrounding them. The clusters of light from the glow blossoms revealed… footprints.

“G-g-g…” Mogzo shrank back. “G-ghosts…”

Yume let out a yelp and jumped back, crashing into Ranta and clinging to him. When she realized who it was, she let go just as quickly.

“Don’t try anything funny!” Yume said to him.

“You grabbed me first!” Ranta shot back.

“Do you think it could be…” Shihoru grasped her staff even tighter, her breathing heavy. “S-skeletons?”

“Yes,” Mary replied, stepping forward.

When Mary tapped the ground with the tip of her staff, a shoom sort of sound reverberated through the air.

“When the transformation first begins, the Curse of the Deathless King breathes false life into a corpse,” Mary explained. “Skeletons are what they become when their flesh begins to rot away and fall off.”

“It can’t be…” Haruhiro stopped, at a loss for words.

The skeletons—the people—illuminated by the faint light of the glow blossoms, were… they were…

There were three of them. Each of them was fully clothed and equipped with weapons and armor but their flesh, or more accurately their white and sickly-yellow bones, peeked out from underneath all their gear. One was covered in plate armor, sword held high. Another, dressed like Haruhiro, held his dagger out as if guarding. The last wore mage’s robes, accompanied by a staff.

“It’s been a while, everyone…” Mary said.

What kind of expression was she wearing? She was standing in front of him now, so Haruhiro couldn’t see her face. Her voice was rock steady, though, as if casually greeting an old friend after a long time apart. Mary had probably made up her mind long before this moment.

She had lost three friends down here in the Siren Mines. No one had said anything about having come back to retrieve their bodies. Even if she’d wanted to hold a proper funeral out of respect for her lost companions, the situation at the time had probably made it impossible. She had no choice but to leave their bodies behind.

But out here, on Grimgal’s frontier, a body not cremated three to five days after death was all it took for the Curse of the Deathless King to take hold and begin their transformation into the undead. Mary knew all along of this cruel fate that awaited her former companions.

“Michiki. Ogg. Mutsumi.” Mary whispered their names softly. “I’m so sorry…”

“Get ready!” Haruhiro shouted as he saw the skeleton mage, Mutsumi, raise her staff.

A pile of bones shouldn’t be able to talk. Mere bones didn’t have voices, but somehow they all heard her voice. “Derem… hel… en…”

It sounded more like a rush of wind than words. It was one of the most eerie things he’d ever heard.

“Everyone, dodge!” Mary yelled as she leapt to the side.

Haruhiro and the others followed suit after a split second, jumping left and right.

The skeleton mage continued her chant, “Van… alev…”

Wind. They were being blasted back by a flurry of wind, but not normal wind. It had the heat of fire.

“Whoa!” Haruhiro raised his arm to protect his face.

The wind felt almost hot enough to burn. Scorching. The heat defied belief. If he opened his eyes, he was pretty sure his eyeballs would melt. Probably. Maybe not.

“I’m going to [PURIFY] them from this blasted curse!” Mary shouted. Unlike usual, Mary aggressively moved to the front of party. “I need to get closer!”

There’s no stopping her, Haruhiro thought. It was no use telling her to fall back just because it was dangerous. Now, it was just about letting her do it in her own way. All they could do was support her.

“Mogzo, take the warrior! Ranta, the thief is yours!” Haruhiro ordered.

Mogzo engaged the skeleton warrior Michiki with a shout, sword swinging.

“I got this!” Ranta yelled, leaping at the skeleton thief Ogg.

“Yume!” Haruhiro cast his eyes in Yume’s direction.

Mary probably intended to use [PURIFY] on Mutsumi first. He and Yume needed to help, or she wouldn’t be able to get the spell off.

“Right!” Yume nodded.

It might have been futile, considering that their opponent was a skeleton, but Haruhiro yelled at the top of his lungs and attacked Mutsumi head on. Yume did the same. Mutsumi moved as if she was going to cast another spell, but dodged instead. That spell earlier was probably [SIROCCO], a fire element spell. Fire magic was offense-based and focused on destruction, so getting hit by one of Mutsumi’s spells meant trouble.

“Derem… hel… en…” Mutsumi chanted as she carved an elemental sigil into the air with the tip of her staff.

There it was again. Derem hel en, it sounded like the same spell she cast earlier.

“Run!” Haruhiro shouted.

He dodged left while Yume went right, running for all they were worth.

“…Rig… alev…”

What? Fire. Flames. Actual, real flames. A blazing curtain right in front of Mutsumi.

“That’s [WALL OF FIRE]!” Shihoru shouted with surprise. She brought up her own staff and chanted, “Oom rel eckt nem das!”

It was Shihoru’s [SHADOW BIND] spell. The shadow elemental fixed itself to the ground exactly where Ogg was about to step. The skeleton thief stepped in it and found himself unable to move.

“Nicely done, Shihoruuuuu!” said Ranta, extending the last syllable as he charged headlong at the stuck Ogg. Ranta unleashed a flurry of attacks.

Ogg, however, was the same class as Haruhiro. He simply used [SWAT] to deflect, deflect, deflect Ranta’s longsword. If the attack had been something heavy like Mogzo’s [RAGE CLEAVE] the technique wouldn’t work, but since it was Ranta, even Haruhiro would probably be able to deflect his attacks. It didn’t look like Ranta would be able to bring Ogg down by himself.

A short distance away, Mogzo grunted as he locked blades with Michiki. They pressed against one another with terrible strength. Mogzo intended to twist his sword around Michiki’s and follow up with [SPIRAL SLASH], but Michiki was also a warrior and knew the same techniques. It wasn’t going to be easy to pull them off on him. It meant that in the present state of things, Mogzo had a tough fight on his hands.

“W-what do we do now?” Yume asked, stopped in front of the wall of fire.

Mutsumi was on the other side, but they couldn’t see her behind the flames.

“I’m not su—whoa!” Haruhiro bent back, trying to avoid a ray of light launched from behind the wall.

It hit him right in the face. For a second there, he actually thought himself dead. But he wasn’t. It felt like he’d taken a roundhouse to the jaw, and though hurt like hell, he wasn’t critically injured. Was that… [MAGIC MISSILE]?

“Ahh!” Yume cried. She’d been hit by the spell too.

[MAGIC MISSILE]’s rays of light were flying everywhere. Haruhiro backed away from the wall of fire, unable to do anything more than avoid getting hit by the spell. He didn’t even know that spells could be combined like this.

Suddenly, Mogzo shouted. Is Mogzo down? was the first thing that came to Haruhiro’s mind. No, it appeared as if Mogzo was able to barely avoid getting hit. Michiki. And that technique. Haruhiro only caught a brief glimpse of it, but it looked like Michiki had performed a front-flip while bringing his sword down at the same time. It must have been a warrior skill, but Haruhiro didn’t realize warriors could possess such acrobatic techniques.

Mogzo immediately moved to counterattack but Michiki leapt back swiftly, and the two were deadlocked once again. Michiki. So strong. He was more agile and his techniques were better than Mogzo’s, though in terms of strength they were pretty much even.

If the fight remained one-on-one, Mogzo would eventually be at a disadvantage. Already he was beginning to get pushed back. If Mogzo went down, no one else would able to take Michiki on. Sure, they had the advantage in numbers, but that meant nothing if their opponents managed to take them out one by one. They needed to back Mogzo up.

The moment Haruhiro came to that conclusion, Shihoru fired another spell.

“Oom rel eckt vel das!” she chanted.

[SHADOW ECHO]. The black seaweed-like elemental hit Michiki in the shoulder. But it wasn’t enough. The spell might have made Michiki tremble all over, but it sure didn’t look like it did anything significant. Maybe the [SHADOW ECHO] was less effective on skeletons.

“Shihoru, use [SHADOW BIND]!” Haruhiro said.

At the same time Ranta shouted, “The spell’s wearing off!”

Haruhiro looked and saw that Ranta was right. Ogg was moving about freely again, moving in and around Ranta, seemingly toying with him. The duration of [SHADOW BIND] was about twenty-five seconds. Had it been that long already? No, Haruhiro had a feeling that it had been less than that. He wasn’t really an expert on magic, but as far as he knew, magic worked better on some types of opponents than others. Depending on the caster’s strength of will, among other factors, a spell could sometimes be less effective.

“N-now! Oom rel eckt nem das!” Shihoru cast [SHADOW BIND] once more, again at the spot where Ogg was about to step next.

This time though, he saw right through her. He stepped over the spot on the ground where the shadow elemental had fixed itself and pressed the attack on Ranta.

While all that was happening, [MAGIC MISSILE] rays never stopped shooting out from the wall of fire. Haruhiro was forced to continue dodging them. What are we gonna do?

“Mutsumi!” Mary shouted her friend’s name.

“Wait, Mary!” Haruhiro cried in disbelief. “What are you—”

What was she doing? What the hell was she thinking? Mary had leapt straight into wall of fire. No way! She was going to get burned to a crisp. She was going to die, doing something crazy like that. Haruhiro wanted to stop her, but there was no way he would reach her in time. She disappeared behind the flames.

“O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [PURIFY]!”

Haruhiro heard Mary’s voice and moments later the flames began to die out, then disappeared altogether. Mary crouched low. At her feet a mage’s staff rolled on the ground near a mage’s robes, hat, and… a pile of ash.

Haruhiro’s voice caught in his throat. He had no words for this.

“It’s alright,” Mary said, getting to her feet.

Alright? Haruhiro thought to himself. What’s alright here? Nothing. Nothing is okay right now at all. Her hair had been singed, her face and other places burned raw red. But it wasn’t just that. Mutsumi was her teammate, maybe they had even been friends, and with her own hands, Mary had… she had… How was that alright? How could anyone ever say it was?

But any sort of consolation would have to come later.

“Yume, Shihoru, get to Mogzo!” Haruhiro said.

“Got it!” Yume replied.

“O-okay!” said Shihoru.

Leaving the two of them to backup Mogzo, Haruhiro concentrated on taking up a position behind Ogg. But Ogg was a thief too; he moved nimbly, keeping Ranta in check while careful not to let Haruhiro get behind him. He’s more skilled than me, Haruhiro realized. Despite being a skeleton, Ogg’s motor skills were far superior. Skeletons must have retained the same abilities they had before becoming undead.

Haruhiro would lose, maybe even quite easily, if they went head to head. I hate to do this to you, Ogg, since you’re Mary’s old friend and all. Yeah, I’m weaker than you, but sorry buddy, I’m not fighting alone!

“Ranta!” Haruhiro cried.

“Let’s go!” said Ranta sharply.

Ranta and Haruhiro switched places. The two of them were surprisingly in tune with each other at times like this. Ranta’s instincts were good.

Ogg appeared confused for a moment as he tried to find Ranta again. Finding his opening, Haruhiro attacked. Ogg deflected with [SWAT], then counterattacked, and this time it was Haruhiro’s turn to [SWAT]. When Ogg attacked, Haruhiro used [SWAT]. When Haruhiro attacked, Ogg used [SWAT].

Around the fourth time they exchanged [SWAT], Ogg did something that made Haruhiro’s blood run cold. Bit by bit, Ogg had been modifying his [SWAT] skill so that on the fourth time they clashed, Ogg came dangerously close to making Haruhiro drop his weapon.

I was right, Haruhiro thought. I can’t win against him. But he didn’t have to. Haruhiro suddenly stepped forward and thrust his dagger out. [SWAT] was, at its best, a defensive technique meant to block an opponent’s attacks. In order to execute it, you had to devote the entirety of your concentration to your opponent’s movements for at least a moment. The technique became almost second nature once you got used to it, and executing it became somewhat habitual.

In other words, you ended up using it automatically, whether it was a good thing or not.

Ogg used it now, against Haruhiro’s sudden attack.

“Take this!” Ranta came in from behind, his diagonal slashing attack impeccably timed. His long sword connected with Ogg’s right leg.

To be honest, chills went down Haruhiro’s spine. He and Ranta hadn’t coordinated anything beforehand, but still… Ranta, you knew exactly what I was thinking. It made Haruhiro feel a little dirty, actually.

“Ogg!” Mary called.

With one leg shattered, skeleton Ogg was no longer able to stand. Mary approached him now.

“O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [PURIFY]!”

Haruhiro wasn’t sure if it was good or bad that he witnessed what unfolded before him next.

Blinding light enveloped Ogg and moments later, his body—or rather, his bones—crumbled slowly into dust. The sight made Haruhiro’s heart ache and almost brought tears to his eyes. Perhaps it was a relief for Ogg, to be freed from the curse by his companion. But to Haruhiro, it wasn’t anything to feel glad about, because for Mary, it must have been almost unbearably cruel.

Mary dropped down near the pile of ash that had once been Ogg and scooped up a handful. No matter how tightly she clenched her fist though, ash continued to spill from the gaps between her fingers. Without looking up, she nodded.

“Only Michiki now,” she said.

“Oy!” Ranta pointed the tip of his sword at Mary. Haruhiro had no idea why he would do such a thing. Ranta continued, “You’ve got all of us with you now! Don’t forget that!”

Oh. Haruhiro understood the point Ranta was trying make, but he had a feeling that there were gentler, more appropriate ways to put it. And why did he need to point his sword at her too?

Haruhiro didn’t pursue it though, because Mary looked up at Ranta. “You’re right,” she said with a slight smile.

“Haruhiro!” Shihoru shouted.

“Let’s finish this!” Haruhiro replied, turning to Michiki.

Mogzo retreated continuously from Michiki’s attacks while Yuma and Shihoru tried to support him, but it was in vain. Even if Shihoru tried to cast [SHADOW BIND] it could backfire if Mogzo was caught in it instead.

“Now it’s me-time!” Ranta attacked Michiki from the side.

Michiki blocked with ease, but it gave the exhausted Mogzo a chance to catch his breath. Haruhiro set his sights on Michiki’s back. The skeleton warrior was nimble, but not agile as Ogg. Ranta was attacking with everything he had. Mogzo possessed a certain grace when fighting in tandem with the team; he was pretty skilled at coordinating with everyone else. They could do this.

Now! Haruhiro latched onto Michiki’s back. Since Michiki was a skeleton, it was useless to stab him, so Haruhiro went for his neck instead. He grabbed Michiki’s skull with one hand and his neck vertebrae with the other and twisted in opposite directions. Mogzo followed up by smashing Michiki’s right arm with his bastard sword, forcing Michiki to drop his weapon.

“O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous,” Mary invoked.

She rested the fingers of one hand, formed into a pentagon, on her forehead and pressed her middle finger between her eyebrows to complete a hexagon; the symbol of Lord Luminous. She then threw her palm out at Michiki.


Despite how bright it was, it was a sorrowful light. Michiki started to crumble in Haruhiro’s arms. It was uncanny, how nothing but ash remained of his body. But it had been the same for Manato. It was the same for everyone, once they died. That’s what death ultimately meant.

The light faded and Haruhiro slumped to the ground. He couldn’t say anything, he couldn’t think, not a single thing came to mind. Mary crouched down in front of Michiki’s remains. Mogzo and Ranta were still on their feet, as was Yume. Shihoru held her hat down with one hand, breathing hard.

“It’s done,” Ranta said simply.

“Yes,” Mary scooped up a handful of Michiki’s ashes and closed her eyes. “With this, it’s finished once and for all. I did what I had to do. And I was able to do it because of you all. Thank you.”

“He was strong, Michiki.” Mogzo sighed. ” I have to become stronger too.”

Shihoru nodded emphatically. “I want more attack spells. I’ll learn offensive magic… I have to.”

Ranta snorted and stuck his chin out, expression thoughtful. “Maybe I’ll make up a secret killing technique that’s perfect for me.”

There he went again, saying stupid things. This one was easy to let go.

“Yume wants a wolf companion,” Yume said. “A wolf pup costs one gold but it’ll take time to raise it ‘till it’s big…”

“What are you planning to do until then?” Haruhiro ventured tentatively.

“Mmmm…” Yume tilted her head to one side. “It’s gotta stay with me, or else we won’t bond. I guess I’ll just hafta carry it in my pocket.”

“Will it fit in there?” Mary asked.

Yume patted her shirt pocket. “Hmm, dunno… maybe it’s a bit small after all. Or maybe I’ll buy a puppy bag…”

Ranta, as usual, ruined the mood by interjecting, “That’s a pretty big bag to carry around.”

“Yume’s gonna carry it herself so why does Ranta care?” Yume said. “And Yume’ll never, ever, ever, EVER let Ranta touch it.”

“Why not?” Ranta asked. “Me petting it isn’t gonna hurt it. In fact, it’ll make it stronger for sure!”

“No it won’t!” Yume said.

“Yes it will!”

“No. It. Won’t.”

“It will!”

“No way in tarnation it will!”

“Hell yeah it will, dumbass!”

“You know,” Haruhiro cut in with a wry grin. “They say, ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.’” He let out a sigh and left it at, “but whatever.”

Become stronger, huh? Stronger. What did that mean for him? Sure, he had a few skills in mind that he would like to acquire, but he didn’t think that they would suddenly make him dramatically stronger. Working on refining [BACKSTAB] and [WIDOW MAKER] had its limits too. In any case, raising his combat abilities was important for his own sake, but if he became a better leader, that would result in raising the level of the party as a whole.

He had a feeling that such advancements weren’t exactly visible to the eye. But that was fine; Haruhiro was best suited for backstage roles after all.

“Mary…” Haruhiro began.

“Yes?” Mary replied.

“Is it really okay? I mean, not getting a memento or something. To take back with you.”

“Ah—” she said, blinking rapidly as if caught off-guard by the question. “I hadn’t thought of it. You’re right. I think I’ll do just that. When we return to Altana, I have to let Hayashi know too…”

“Yeah,” Haruhiro nodded. “Right. I’m sure he’ll be relieved to hear the news.”

“I hope so…”

Mary started looking through Michiki’s leftover equipment. Haruhiro was tempted to ask her to heal those that needed it, but stopped himself. It was probably best not to disturb her while she was with the last remains of her precious friends, Michiki, Ogg, and Mutsumi.

“It’s been a hard day,” Shihoru whispered.

“Agreed,” Yume said, rotating her shoulders slowly.

“We’re not out of this yet,” Haruhiro reminded them, careful not to make it sound like a reproach. “It’s better not to let our guards down until we’re back in Altana… not that I think we’ll run into any more trouble.”

“We might,” Ranta snickered unpleasantly. “Who knows…”

Haruhiro wished Ranta would quit it. It’s because he said stuff like this that trouble always found them. A chill suddenly ran down Haruhiro’s spine. He turned to look behind him.

“De—” Haruhiro began.

“Huh?” Ranta turned too. “Whoa…”

“Not good…” Mogzo said.

“Eh?” Yume looked dumbstruck.

Shihoru let out a tiny gasp.

“It can’t be…” Mary whispered.

Why now? Of all the times, why now? Not that there would ever have been a good time for this.

“R-run—!” Haruhiro couldn’t think of anything else to say.

He was coming. He was here. What? Come on, don’t do this. What the hell… Black and white spotted fur, so large that it was hard to believe he was a kobold, holding a huge, thick-bladed sword that resembled a meat cleaver… Deathpatch. The monster kobold breathed in heavy huffs as he ran, saliva running down his chin in streams, and his blood red eyes shone as he closed in.

Deathpatch had three elder kobold minions with him, each equipped with plate armor and full helms, swords and round shields. No way could they win a fight against those. But could they turn tail and run? No. If they turned their backs, they would just get cut down, one by one.

Haruhiro didn’t want to do this, but he didn’t see any other alternative. And if standing to fight was the only option, then he couldn’t let himself get mentally defeated before the battle began. They had to win, and to win, they had to…

“Mogzo, sorry, keep Deathpatch busy! Everyone else, the elders!” Haruhiro said.

In his panicked state, Haruhiro didn’t hear their replies. He couldn’t help it. That didn’t change that they had to bring down the minions as fast as they could though. After the elder kobolds were down, the real fight would begin.

“Oom rel eckt nem das!” Shihoru cast [SHADOW BIND], stopping one elder in its tracks.

Thanks to that, Haruhiro was able to calm himself down a little.

“Ranta, take one on by yourself! Yume and I will take the other!” Haruhiro said.

Both shouted their agreement.

“I’ll help too!” Mary held her staff at the ready, following close behind Haruhiro and Yume.

Haruhiro was about to stop her, but decided against it. Until the minions were down, maybe it was better to have Mary actively fighting too. After they took care of the elders, she could retreat to the back again. Yes, that was good.

“THANK YOU!!!” Mogzo unleashed [RAGE CLEAVE] with all his strength.

Deathpatch, handling his meat cleaver sword as if it was made of tinfoil, deflected Mogzo’s attack with ease and counterattacked immediately. The force behind the blow was monstrous. Deathpatch then continued to rain blows, and Mogzo barely managed to block. If even one of those hits got through his guard, it would be fatal for Mogzo, armored or not.

It scared the shit out of Haruhiro, but Mogzo must have been even more terrified. He couldn’t think about Mogzo right now, though; he had to find a way to block out Mogzo’s fear. But was there something else he had to do? No, that wasn’t even a question. He had another job right now…

The two elder minions ignored Deathpatch and Mogzo, their attention focused entirely on Haruhiro and the remaining party members.

“[HATRED’S CUT]!” Ranta leapt at Minion C, and it shrank back.

“I’ll go!” Haruhiro said, rushing past Yume and charging directly towards Minion B.

However, he had no intention of actually attacking it. Minion B swung its sword at him repeatedly, and Haruhiro used [SWAT] to deflect, deflect, and deflect again. In the meantime, while Minion B had its attention on Haruhiro, Yume and Mary flanked it on both sides and attacked simultaneously.



Minion B blocked one with its sword and the other with its shield, but it was knocked off balance nonetheless. Now! Haruhiro thought. He deftly maneuvered himself behind Minion B and used [WIDOW MAKER]. Clinging onto its back, he lifted up the visor of its helm, plunged his dagger into the elder’s right eye, twisted it in, and then pulled it back out before leaping away.

It wasn’t dead yet, so Mary bashed it again with her staff while Yume kicked it to the ground. It didn’t get back up. Two more to go. Their options were finishing Minion A, who was still bound in place by Shihoru’s [SHADOW BIND], or helping Ranta with Minion C. Haruhiro didn’t hesitate to go for Minion A, and Yume and Mary followed his lead. It couldn’t move, so the fight should be easy.

Yume and Mary were right behind him as he circled around to Minion A’s back and executed [WIDOW MAKER]. The three of them killed it the same way they killed Minion B, then it was on to Minion C.

How was Mogzo doing? He was probably having the hardest time of all. Every blow from Deathpatch’s meat cleaver blade was bringing Mogzo down to one knee. He was somehow finding a way to get back on his feet between attacks, but Haruhiro knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer by himself.

“I’ll finish this one on my own!” Ranta shouted.

Haruhiro wavered for a moment, before replying, “Thanks!” He trusted his companions. He believed in Ranta. “Mary, fall back!” He ordered, while he and Yume moved to engage Deathpatch from the back and side.

The question was, even with the two of them helping, would they be able to keep Deathpatch contained? Why was he feeling so intimidated? Deathpatch had his back to Haruhiro now and wasn’t even thinking of tossing a glance back. Despite that, Haruhiro had not the faintest idea how he should make his attack. It seemed to him that nothing he could throw at the monster would be effective.

It didn’t matter. Effective or not, he had to try. There was nothing for it now. They were committed to this

He’d try [BACKSTAB] first… or he’d intended to at least. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground, tumbling head over heels. Huh? Had he gotten kicked by Deathpatch just as he was closing in to attack? He vaguely recalled something like that, but he wasn’t really sure.

Was he injured? He tried getting up. His body was sore all over and his head was still spinning a little, but otherwise he felt okay. Probably. He couldn’t really tell.

“Take this and this and this and this!” Ranta attacked with a lightning fast succession of blows, stripping both the sword and shield from Minion C’s hands. With a shout, he rammed it with his shoulder, bringing it to the ground.

It was nothing but a display of brute force, but it worked. Ranta used his sword to knock the helm off Minion C’s head and thrust it deep into the kobold’s throat.

“Haha! Another Vice for me!” he declared.

Haruhiro couldn’t believe that Ranta could think about collecting Vices at a time like this. But though there was much to be said about his lack of character, Haruhiro had to admit that Ranta was pretty dependable.

“Only Deathpatch left now!” Haruhiro shouted as loudly as he could, attempting to boost morale.

But a part of him knew it was futile. Haruhiro heard Deathpatch’s guttural shout, Wro-ga-huah! Wro-ga-huah! Wro-ga-huah! and in that moment, Mogzo was completely overwhelmed.

Of course Haruhiro, Yume, and Ranta all wanted to come to Mogzo’s aid, but there was something holding them back. An air of intimidation… or something. Was it really for such an uncertain, unclear reason?

No. It was the way Deathpatch moved; dynamic and swift. He lunged and bounded as if he had springs installed in his legs, all while deftly handling that meat cleaver sword of his. And he never stopped moving, so it was hard to find an opening to attack.

There had to be some pattern or habit that they could exploit. Haruhiro and the others just had to find it. But nobody had time to carefully analyze and pick apart his movements.

“Oom rel eckt vel das!” Shihoru’s [SHADOW ECHO] came with beautiful timing, but it wasn’t enough.

Deathpatch swung his blade with a roar and neatly sliced the seaweed-like shadow elemental in half, making it disappear. It was then. It was almost too small to be called an opening, but it was then that Mogzo struck. For the first time since the fight began, he went on the offensive.

He was completely out of breath and injured all over, but Mogzo must have known that he would be cut down for sure if he took any more abuse. He had no choice but to take a chance and go all in. Mogzo had made a calculated decision and Haruhiro thought it was okay. No other conclusion was possible. But just as this conclusion crossed his mind…

Gro-huah! Deathpatch shouted and blocked Mogzo’s bastard sword not with his blade, but with his left arm.

What the—! Is that even possible?! Haruhiro thought. He was completely and utterly shocked; Mogzo probably even more so. Surprised or not, it wouldn’t have changed what happened next.

Deathpatch brought his sword down viciously on Mogzo’s left shoulder. The blade tore through the plate armor, the chainmail beneath, and down and down and down.

“MOGZOOOO!” Ranta threw himself at Deathpatch.

Shit! Ranta wasn’t ready to take on an opponent like Deathpatch. The huge kobold swung his sword at Ranta with enough force to both crush him flat and cut him in half. Somehow, Ranta ducked in time to avoid the blow. Good move. And thanks to Ranta’s intervention, Mogzo was able to roll away and get some distance between himself and Deathpatch.

However, his wound looked awful and was bleeding heavily.

“Mary, heal Mogzo!” Haruhiro needn’t have said; Mary was already on it.

She cast a healing spell on him straightaway, but it would take time to work. They had to buy more time for her. Yume had drawn her bow at some point and now loosed an arrow at Deathpatch. At such close range, it was impossible to miss. The arrow buried itself in the kobold boss’ side. Deathpatch roared and turned his attention to Yume.

“You don’t have time to look away!” Ranta shouted, attacking again.

Deathpatch blocked Ranta’s longsword with ease and then came for Yume violently. Yume, of course, ran for it.

“Wah! Scary scary scary…!” Yume yelped, flinging her bow away and using her pit rat rolling skill to get away.

Haruhiro chased after Deathpatch, but couldn’t catch up. It wasn’t just now, either; Haruhiro hadn’t been able to get into position since the start.

“Shit!” Haruhiro grunted.

“O Darkness, O Lord of Corruption…” Ranta chanted a spell. “[DARK INVITATION]!”

A purple-black, headless torso appeared from out of nowhere. It had two eyes like pits and a rip for a mouth. A demon. Zodiak.

“Get him! Zodiak!” Ranta commanded.

{I don’t wanna! Don’t wanna! Don’t wanna! Don’t wanna! Keehehehehe… Heehehehe!}

“I knew it…” Ranta sighed.

Haruhiro couldn’t even begin to express how disgusted he was. Of all the idiotic, lazy… he didn’t even have words. Yume cried out as Deathpatch kicked her. It was hard, and it sent her flying.

“Stupid demon! Come here!” Ranta caught Zodiak by the arm and pulled him close.

Haruhiro didn’t even know that demons could be grabbed like that. Ranta then spun towards Deathpatch and hurled Zodiak at Deathpatch with all his strength.

{Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOUUUUUUUUU!}, shrieked the demon.

The demon hit Deathpatch smack in the face. Except it wasn’t really “hit” so much as “got stuck on.” Deathpatch immediately peeled the demon off and flung him away, but that moment of inattention gave Ranta the chance to close in again with [ANGER THRUST].

The attack was aimed straight at the kobold boss’ throat, but Deathpatch twisted away just enough for Ranta’s longsword to only shave a few inches off the fur at the side of his neck and nick the skin a bit. While blood didn’t spray all over the place, Deathpatchwas bleeding a little.

Yes! Haruhiro thought. They had finally scored a hit. Deathpatch wasn’t invincible and this wasn’t a losing fight after all. They could do this. He was an opponent they could fight if they did things their way. Haruhiro had a feeling that maybe they could even win. That feeling evaporated the next moment.

Deathpatch let out a horrible shriek. The color of his eyes had changed; up until just a moment ago the light that shone in his eyes was somehow a different shade. Suddenly, in less than a fraction of a second, Ranta was down and unmoving on the ground.

What just happened? Haruhiro hadn’t seen it. All he saw was Ranta’s form prone on the ground, his body in a pool of blood, and Deathpatch lifting his sword high over its head to deliver the finishing blow. Something clung onto its sword arm however… a purple-black shape. Haruhiro couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Zodiak?!” Haruhiro muttered.

{Keehehehe… Eehehehe… Heehehehehehe!} snickered the demon.

Deathpatch half-grunted, half-sneered as if to say “you’re in my way,” grabbed the demon like an eagle would its prey, and slammed it to the ground. With a hissing sound, the demon evaporated like rising steam and disappeared. Thanks to Zodiak’s interference though, Ranta’s life had been saved.

When Deathpatch lifted his sword once more and turned his attention back to finishing Ranta, Mogzo jumped in and blocked the kobold’s meat cleaver sword, just as Deathpatch was bringing it down. What would have happened had Zodiak not obstructed Deathpatch when he did? Mogzo most likely wouldn’t have made it in time. Zodiak had just saved Ranta’s life.

Shihoru was helping Yume up, but she had one hand pressed against her midsection and was clearly in pain. Mogzo, even as he was being slowly beaten back by Deathpatch, made sure that he was drawing the kobold away from Ranta.

“Deathpatch gets stronger the more he’s hurt!” Mary said, as she ran towards Ranta. “Haru! I’m almost at my limit! I can only cast two more spells, maybe three if I push it, but that’s all!”

Haruhiro held his breath, jaw clenched tight. Mogzo. Even if Mary had healed his wounds, she couldn’t restore stamina, and he was already showing signs of fatigue. Deathpatch. The more he was hurt, the stronger he got? That meant the more hits they scored on him, the tougher the fight would get. What the hell was that? How were they supposed to fight something like that? They couldn’t.

They had to run. That was their only option now. But could they really escape? Were that an option, they would have run from the start. No, Deathpatch had three elder minions with him then. The circumstances were different. Now, it was just him. The question was, would all of them make it to safety if they ran now?

Deathpatch was fast. If the kobold decided to give chase, they wouldn’t be able to outrun him. If they were attacked from the back as they ran, they’d be finished. They would be cut down in a fraction of a second. One fraction, one person. Two fractions, two people. Three… and yeah. Not an option. Haruhiro had hoped everyone could retreat together, but the reality wouldn’t allow that.

If they all ran, then a number of them would get killed for sure. If they were lucky, maybe a few of them would make it out. If they were unlucky, all of them would die.

One. At the very least, one of them had to stay behind. One of them had to keep Deathpatch occupied. It would be a fight to the death. Whoever stayed behind would die. One would die, the other five would live.

That was their only option now. Haruhiro understood that. There was nothing for it. Even as he debated with himself, Deathpatch might kill Mogzo at any moment. If Mogzo went down, then it was over for all of them. If Mogzo died, everyone would follow. That was the worst possible outcome. It had to be avoided at all costs.

Let Deathpatch kill one person so the remaining five could live. Who then? Who would remain behind? And did Haruhiro have to be the one to ask? Did he have to say to one of the others, “everyone’s going to run now, so keep ‘im busy while we do that”? Did he have to ask one of the others to die for them? Maybe someone like… like… Mogzo.

Ranta, with his healing spell resolved, sat up with a grunt.

Haruhiro closed his eyes. “Everyone, I’m sorry…”

I’m sorry for being such a pathetic leader… But doing the impossible was just that, impossible. Haruhiro jumped onto Deathpatch’s back just as the kobold was about to beat Mogzo to the ground. The maneuver didn’t knock the wind out of the kobold boss, but Haruhiro was able to latch on with unexpected ease. His decision was made, he didn’t have anything more to fear. Or that’s the way it felt, anyway. Whatever will be—will be…

Deathpatch spun, trying to throw Haruhiro off. I won’t let you! No way he was going to let himself get shaken off. Haruhiro clung on with desperate strength, hitting Deathpatch again and again and again on the top of the head with the pommel of his dagger.

As he continued to pummel the kobold, he shouted, “Mogzo, Ranta, Mary, Yume, Shihoru…! Now, while he’s distracted…! RUN!”

“B-b-but!” Haruhiro thought it was Mogzo talking, but he couldn’t be sure.

“It’ll be okay!” Haruhiro said, but all of his concentration was on emptily pounding away with his dagger.

Hit, hit, hit. Continuously hit. Deathpatch was a kobold, and as such, his body was built differently from a human’s. A kobold could reach backwards with more range than a human, and Deathpatch took advantage of that to hit Haruhiro. Even though he couldn’t reach that far back with his sword, Deathpatch still landed blows all over Haruhiro’s back and head with his elbow.

Shit. Haruhiro wanted to whimper in pain, but felt that all his strength would leave his body before he had a chance. But his strength did not leave.

“Don’t make me throw away my life for nothing!” Haruhiro yelled instead. “I’m this beaten up already! There’s no saving me now! I’m finished so just GO! Please, run! PLEASE!”

“Let’s go!” Ranta shouted.

Ah, Ranta. Good. That was good. That was what made Ranta who he was. They needed someone like him, or the team would have been in real trouble. He could persuade the others to go. Only Ranta could do it. I’m counting on you, Ranta… In the corner of his eye, Haruhiro saw Yume turning her head to look back at him, but her body was facing the other way. She was going too, which reassured him a little.

If Yume went, then Shihoru would too. Yume. He recalled how good it felt when Yume petted his head. Shihoru… he hoped that she wouldn’t keep dwelling on Manato.

“Haru!” Mary called.

Go. Just run for it… He was just starting to like Mary a little, so he wanted her to survive and live on. So go on, get out of here… He could hear Mogzo’s shout and it rang distant. Yes, alright, Haruhiro thought. Run, Mogzo. You’re strong and you can get even stronger. Become stronger… Mogzo was the team’s core. We’re nothing without him.

Except that it wasn’t “us” anymore. Haruhiro wouldn’t be part of the team anymore. It was just him left now. There was nothing for it. He had made the decision because there was no other way. He couldn’t ask one of the others to die for them. He would die himself, rather than asking someone else.

It would be tough on everyone though; no one could feel good about being alive, because Haruhiro had sacrificed himself. He didn’t want them to think of it that way, but they probably would. He hoped that they would at least be able to get over it eventually. If they didn’t, then doing something stupid crazy like this wouldn’t be worth it.

Michiki. Ogg. Mutsumi… If he died here, would Haruhiro become like them? If so, he hoped that Mary would return and [PURIFY] him. Please, turn me into ash… By that time, would the team have found a replacement for him? The thought made Haruhiro feel hopelessly lonely and depressed.

It was good then that he didn’t have to think about it further, because he was at his limit. He felt as if he was could float up and out of his body any moment. Shit. He’d been thrown off. Deathpatch had finally thrown him off.

Haruhiro hit the ground and Deathpatch turned to run after the others. He wasn’t going to kill Haruhiro? Deathpatch would let Haruhiro go and Haruhiro would escape death while the kobold chased after his companions? No. No, no, no, NO!

How much time had Haruhiro bought so far? How far away had everyone else been able to get? His internal clock told him that a good amount of time had passed, but maybe it only felt that way. Maybe no time had passed at all. He didn’t know.

“Hey! Over here!” Haruhiro shouted.

Haruhiro got to his feet, but Deathpatch didn’t look his way. Can’t let him get away, can’t let him get away! It was then, in that moment—honest to god—the line appeared. It wasn’t the hazy, indistinct line that he usually saw, this one was sharp, defined and glowed bright. Haruhiro felt himself move.

So slow, he thought to himself. Why am I moving so slowly? But it wasn’t just his own movements; Deathpatch moved also as if the air was molasses. Maybe that was a good thing. Easier for him to close the gap that way. He was close now. There!

Haruhiro leapt forward towards Deathpatch. There, a point on the kobold’s back, a vital organ or something. Haruhiro’s dagger slipped in smoothly with no resistance at all to hit that vital spot.

Haruhiro had not the slightest doubt. It was over. Deathpatch pitched forward and slumped to the ground. For a moment, Haruhiro’s head was buried in the kobold’s patchy, dirty fur as they fell forward together, but he quickly rolled off and to the side. He wanted to say something, but all that would come out from the base of his throat was a heavy grunt-like noise.

He felt his head and neck and realized that they were covered with blood. He hurt all over too. A thought suddenly occurred to him.What if I’m left behind down here like this? Shit, not good. But he didn’t think he could move right now.

“H-hey! Guys! Everyone, come back!” He finally managed to call after the others, believing, without a doubt, that they would come back for him.

And they did.

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