Chapter 1 – Myself, Natural Talent, and Bittersweetness
LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
Chapter 1: Myself, Natural Talent, and Bittersweetness
“Ranta! Don’t get too separated from us!” Haruhiro warned as he circled behind the kobold foreman Mogzo had engaged, looking for an opening to exploit.
Not that it was hard to find. There! Again now! The elder kobold’s defense was full of holes. He could easily take it down. Haruhiro watched as the elder’s tail swiftly swished all around, but he had grasped the pattern of its movements now.
If Mogzo attacked in ‘A’ way, then it would react with ‘B’, then do ‘C’ next. And if not ‘C’, then it would do ‘D’ for sure. Haruhiro was able to predict its movements. He was confident he could finish it quickly with either [BACKSTAB] or [WIDOW MAKER].
But he didn’t close in. He didn’t want to finish it. Simply killing it was not his goal.
He wanted the line to appear for him. That hazy, indistinct line that glowed like fire. He wanted to be able to see it. Master Barbara of the Thieves Guild had once told him, “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.”
She had also said, “It’s not like we can will it to appear by concentrating hard or anything.” And though she told him, “That’s not a bad sign,” she also warned him. “But don’t be mistaken. It’s not anything special.”
It appears once or twice to anyone who’s accumulated enough experience. But it had appeared more than once or twice for Haruhiro. And it had appeared for him bright and distinct when he killed Deathpatch. If the line hadn’t appeared, there was no way Haruhiro would have been able to kill the kobold boss.
Deathpatch would have left Haruhiro behind and gone after everyone else; maybe even killed them. How many would have died? The line had saved Haruhiro—had saved them all.
But it appeared by coincidence. It just happened to appear for him. And if that was the case, then it had been pure luck; Haruhiro had just gotten lucky. If fortune hadn’t been with him, then everyone might have died.
Haruhiro didn’t want to believe that they had been saved by nothing but fortune. He didn’t really understand his own reasoning, but he did know for certain that he wanted to see the line. He wanted to be able to see it at will. If he could make it appear whenever he wanted, then he would be… invincible?
Not that he had any ambitions to become godlike or anything, but he did want to be strong. He wanted the strength to turn the tide of battle when it mattered.
“THANK—!” came Mogzo’s finishing blow.
Line… c’mon, appear! C’mon! Appear, line! Haruhiro begged. But diagonally down Mogzo’s sword came; behind the [RAGE CLEAVE] technique came all of Mogzo’s terrible physical strength in a single crushing blow.
Mogzo’s sword cut a good twenty inches down into the elder kobold’s shoulder, rending the chainmail it wore as if it didn’t exist. Mogzo’s strength was unbelievable. It wasn’t all muscle though, it was also his new sword: The Chopper.
Everyone had given suggestions for the name of Mogzo’s new sword, but in the end Ranta’s suggestion “The Chopper” was adopted. The sword was of average length at about four feet long, but its blade was incredibly thick. And though it had a cross guard, its overall appearance was that of a giant meat cleaver.
It was the sword previously owned by Deathpatch, but Mogzo was also making very effective use of it. He kicked the kobold foreman down with a grunt, then brought the blade down onto its head, cracking its skull open like an egg.
“NEXT!” Mogzo shouted.
Damn. Awesome and badass, Haruhiro thought.
“Haru!” Mary called, while he was being awed by Mogzo’s prowess.
“Er… y-yeah!?” Haruhiro yelled back.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Ranta railed.
Ranta was the last person Haruhiro wanted to hear that from, but he had to admit he’d been a little spaced out just now.
Lately, they had been hunting elder kobolds in the residential-like third stratum of the Siren Mines. Most elder’s talismans fetched high prices at the market, and after they eliminated Deathpatch, the third stratum was a relatively safe place to do their hunting. The income they garnered here was very stable.
That wasn’t to say that the danger was zero, however. This was still enemy territory and they would pay a price if they let themselves become complacent. Mogzo had taken out the foreman, leaving only two kobold workers. Ranta worked on Kobold A while Yume and Mary teamed up to take on Kobold B.
But just then another elder leading three little piggies—er, workers charged towards them from a little ways off. Right when they thought the remainder of the fight would be a breeze because the toughest of the bunch was down, the world went and threw a wrench in their plans.
“Six of them!” Just as Haruhiro finished the headcount, Mogzo yelled “THANK YOU!” and crushed Mary and Yume’s opponent, Kobold B.
“Uh, make that five!” Haruhiro amended.
“Take this!” Ranta locked blades with Kobold A and shoved in hard.
It was his new Dread Knight skill, [EXPEL FRENZY], where he’d press in with his sword to hold back an opponent who had gotten in too close before leaping back and putting more distance between them. It wasn’t supposed to be a flashy technique, but Ranta had a way of over-exaggerating anything he did.
Haruhiro had to admit, though, that [EXPEL FRENZY] did have the potential to combine well with other techniques.
Ranta had executed the technique outside of range, but took a step forward to make up for it and drove his sword into the base of Kobold A’s throat. It was instant death for the kobold and Haruhiro reluctantly admitted that Ranta looked kind of cool for a split-second there.
It wasn’t just his fighting techniques that had improved; Ranta was also equipped with a new helm. The bucket-shaped helmet that he had been so partial to was damaged beyond repair, so he’d bought a new bascinet helm, complete with a pull-down visor. It was used, but painted black and Ranta had said something dumb about that making him look like a kickass Dread Knight should.
Well, Haruhiro had to concede to that a little now, because Ranta did seem very Dread Knight-like in that split-second of a moment.
“Uh… four more to go!” Haruhiro yelled, slightly flustered as he began to call out orders again. He was the leader, after all. “Mogzo, you’ve got the elder! Ranta, take one of the workers and take it down fast! Me and Yume will take the other two!”
Mogzo engaged the elder with a shout. When they locked blades, Mogzo executed [SPIRAL SLASH] and pressed the attack, forcing the foreman back.
“[HATRED’S CUT]!” Ranta leapt at Kobold C. His initial attack was deflected but Ranta kept pressing forward, unleashing an offensive flurry.
Yume attacked Kobold D head-on, and when it countered with a swing of its shovel she performed a low somersault to avoid it; her new skill, [FOX VAULT]. It was actually considered to be a kukri-based technique, although Haruhiro didn’t see why; the weapon was never used directly. Yume closed in again on the surprised Kobold D and executed her [SWEEPING SLASH] and [CROSS CUT] combo, forcing it to retreat.
“Whoa!” Haruhiro shouted, though he wasn’t trying to make a ruckus or anything.
Dueling a single opponent wasn’t really a Thief Class forte. Kobold E swung its shovel at Haruhiro multiple times while Haruhiro deflected its attacks with [SWAT]. The shovels were used for mining, but made with metal from handle to tip, so they were also effective as weapons.
[SWAT] was mostly a defensive skill, but if the opportunity arose, Haruhiro could also use it to create an opening in his opponent’s defenses.
He did so now as Kobold E brought its shovel down in a wide arc. Haruhiro dodged rather than deflecting with [SWAT]. Kobold E realized the danger and quickly drew its weapon back in. It attacked again, but this time with a smaller, more compact swing, going more for speed than power.
Now! Haruhiro thought and deflected Kobold E’s shovel with [SWAT]. It wasn’t the usual [SWAT], though. Haruhiro put strength behind the technique to force the kobold’s shovel off to the side and away from its body. The kobold was now wide open.
Haruhiro stepped in towards it, using his left hand and right forearm to grab and arm lock Kobold E’s right arm. Kobold E yelped when its elbow became immobilized, even as Haruhiro swept its feet out from under it and brought it to the ground.
It was the new technique that Master Barbara taught, or rather, pounded into him: [ARREST]. And while it felt nice when he executed it perfectly, it wasn’t really a flashy technique.
While Kobold E was still on the ground, Haruhiro stamped his foot hard on its jaw. A kobold’s head was shaped like a dog’s; their bite was powerful but the bone structure was delicate. The way their jaws were built made them especially vulnerable to attacks from the side. Kobold E was now unconscious, or close enough.
“Oom rel eckt pram das!” cried Shihoru.
A fuzzy, black seaweed-like shadow elemental shot from the tip of Shihoru’s staff, flying through the air in a tight spiral.
“Yume, watch out!” Shihoru warned.
Yume ducked with a yelp as the shadow elemental flew past where her head had been. It hit Kobold D straight in the face and began to seep into its body through its ears, mouth, and nose. Kobold D’s movements ceased, its body stiffening like a wooden board.
Shihoru’s new technique, [SHADOW COMPLEX], was a spell that literally got into the heads of enemies to bewilder them. She had picked up this particular spell because she wanted more offensive abilities and, indeed, unlike [PHANTOM SLEEP], it would work even on alert and strong-willed enemies. The spell choice suited Shihoru very much and was incredibly useful in combat too.
Even as Yume watched, Kobold D suddenly tossed aside its shovel, looking incredibly confused. Yume attacked furiously with her kukri, punctuating each swing with a shout. By the time Kobold D regained its senses, it was too late. Yume had shredded up its body so badly that there would be no counterattack.
“ARGH!” Ranta finished off Kobold C with the [EXPEL FRENZY]-[ANGER THRUST] combo he had been so enamored with lately.
Mogzo’s grunt came from nearby, and Haruhiro wondered if the elder was putting up a tough fight. No, that’s not the case, Haruhiro realized. The elder seemed to have found an opening and was bringing its sword down on Mogzo’s left arm. But only because Mogzo was purposely letting it.
Mogzo was now equipped with a steel fauld that protected his waist and steel vambraces on both arms. Both were bought used but had been refitted by an armorer. And Mogzo had also acquired a new fighting technique to complement his heavy armor.
The elder foreman’s sword came down on Mogzo’s arm with a heavy clang, but glanced off. It wasn’t simply a normal deflection though; it was the [STEEL GUARD] technique. He didn’t belong to the Warrior’s Guild, so Haruhiro didn’t really know the details behind it, but it was some sort of special way of reinforcing one’s armor with one’s energy so that all the enemy’s attacks would bounce off.
And as if that wasn’t enough defense, the entire team was under Mary’s [LIGHT OF PROTECTION] spell which enhanced physical ability, resistances, and sped up the body’s ability to heal itself. The spell probably had something to do with the God of Light Luminous, as his hexagon symbol floated above everyone’s left wrists while they were under the spell’s effects. According to Mary, it could be cast on up to six people and lasted for up to thirty minutes. Haruhiro felt the spell’s effectiveness as his body became noticeably lighter, which enhanced his fighting ability enormously.
And maybe thanks to [LIGHT OF PROTECTION], Mogzo also moved swiftly to finish off the elder.
“THANK YOU!!!” Mogzo shouted.
Of course Mogzo would use [RAGE CLEAVE]. It wasn’t just his standard finishing move, it was a powerful, stable and most of all, a magnificent, technique. Mogzo’s sword crushed into the shoulder of the already off-balance elder. It was almost the exact same way he had killed the first foreman.
Mogzo’s form and style were elegant and, unlike Ranta, he never resorted to doing weird shit and cheap tricks just to try to look cool. He was a simple person in the good sense of the phrase. He stuck to the same basic techniques, but practiced them so often that he gave them his own customized, unique form of their own.
Maybe Haruhiro was overstating it a little, but there was no doubt that [RAGE CLEAVE] in Mogzo’s hands had gone from an average, run-of-the-mill technique to a devastating killing blow. Of course [RAGE CLEAVE]’s effectiveness must also have been affected by things like the user’s physical strength, proficiency, and weapon quality, among other factors, but what made it so effective for Mogzo was undoubtedly his timing.
Whenever he recognized an opening, Mogzo used it. The precise timing with which he used [RAGE CLEAVE] made Haruhiro want to give Mogzo a standing ovation every time he saw it. In fact he wanted to applaud Mogzo even now… should he actually do it?
As Haruhiro considered that, Ranta attacked Kobold D from behind. Yume already had it on the run, but Ranta’s attack finished it.
“Hahaha! YESSSSS! Got my Vice!” Ranta proclaimed.
“Stupid Ranta!” Yume shouted. “Yume could’ve handled it alone!”
“What was that? You were gonna kill it with your own hands? Ms. Washboard, seeking blood like a wild beast!? Ha! You wanna devote yourself to Lord Skulheill too?” Ranta offered.
“No way!” Yume replied. “Yume is a Hunter who loves the White Goddess Eldritch. Yume just thought that if she’s goin’ to battle against the poor kobos one-and-one, Yume might as well see it through to the end! And don’t call Yume flat!!!”
“Yume, it’s one-on-one…” Haruhiro couldn’t help but correct her but was, as expected, thoroughly ignored.
“Flat-chested is flat-chested! If you don’t want me calling you flat, then grow them bigger!” Ranta shot back.
“Yume doesn’t know how to grow boobs bigger!” Yume said earnestly.
“You do it like this!” Ranta turned to Yume and made some sort of massaging, fondling motion on his own chest.
“Sexual harassment!” Shihoru protested, glaring daggers at Ranta while Mary sighed and muttered, “Utterly despicable.”
“I’m the best!” Ranta shouted, veins in his temple bulging. “The best sexual harasser! The utterly despicable best! Bring it on! Nothing you say will faze me! I’ll become the most utterly despicable sexual harassment king!”
“Hm…” Yume pondered and copied Ranta… or rather, she was actually fondling her own breasts. “Do they really get bigger? ‘Cause I sure don’t feel them growin’! Or is it harder to grow ‘em than it looks?”
Mogzo made some sort of choking sound while Shihoru quickly grabbed Yume’s hands and said, “Y-Yume… that’s not something you do in front of other people!”
“Oh, so it only works if I do it in private?” Yume asked.
“Um, no… I don’t think that’s the case…” Shihoru replied.
Ranta scoffed. “What’s the big deal? Keep massaging them! They’re so small no one watching is gonna see anything!”
“Douchebag Ranta!” Yume cried.
“I’m not a douchebag! I’m the Most Utterly Despicable Sexual Harassment King! It’s my newly gained title and don’t you forget or regret it! Now bow down to my pervertedness!”
“Quit saying that like it’s a good thing,” Haruhiro said as he began to search the kobolds’ belongings.
None of their equipment was sellable, so he contented himself with their talismans. As he crouched near a body and carefully removed an earring talisman from one of the worker kobolds, Ranta suddenly jumped near him and tore off a gold nose ring from a dead kobold nearby.
Haruhiro deeply disliked Ranta’s rough treatment of the bodies. There were also plenty of other things Haruhiro disliked about Ranta. In fact, he disliked almost everything about the guy.
“What?” Ranta glared at Haruhiro. “Got something you wanna say to me?”
“Not really,” Haruhiro replied.
“Let me say this to you then.”
“Haruhiro,” Ranta used his thumb to flick the gold nose ring into the air and let it land in his open palm. “Don’t start getting any big ideas.”
“Big ideas?” Haruhiro asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You think you’ve become some kind of hero, don’t you?” Ranta accused.
“Hero?” Haruhiro repeated.
Only stupid Ranta would think something retarded like that, was Haruhiro’s instinctive response. But the words quickly grew heavy in his chest and he didn’t reply right away. A hero, huh? Haruhiro had never entertained any thoughts of becoming one. None at all. Not even the slightest shadow of a thought. But…
“Your movements in that fight just now,” Ranta continued in a tone so low that none of the others could hear him. Strange, since Ranta wasn’t the considerate type. “Were really weird.”
“No way. It was just the usual,” Haruhiro denied.
“No. You were acting weird,” Ranta said. “Like you were one step slower than usual. Or maybe not slower… you were trying to do that, weren’t you? The one hit kill move.”
Haruhiro didn’t answer but shrugged his shoulders minutely. He tried to keep his expression neutral, but felt himself breaking into a cold sweat. Because Ranta was right. How could a guy like him even notice in the first place?
“You’re not hero material, Haruhiro,” Ranta continued. “Got it? Know your limits.”
He patted Haruhiro on the shoulder sympathetically. Haruhiro wanted to slug him in return, but he didn’t bother. Nothing Haruhiro could say to a person like Ranta would matter. Ranta, would you even understand? No, he wouldn’t. Ranta didn’t understand how Haruhiro felt at all.
Haruhiro had almost died. In return for his companion’s lives, he had almost traded his own. But everyone lived, they even killed Deathpatch, and everything was wonderful. All’s well that ends well, as the saying goes. But it only ended well because they had gotten lucky.
Haruhiro wouldn’t have been able to do it if the line hadn’t appeared. He supposed that maybe he should just be satisfied with receiving fortune’s favor that time and not think too deeply on it. But what about next time? What if they ran into a situation like that again? Should he just leave it up to chance then as well?
No, that wasn’t an option. So what could he do?
He had two choices. The first was to bet that they could avoid getting into dangerous situations in the first place. And, of course, Haruhiro intended to try his best to. The second was to turn chance into certainty. All he had to do was make it so that he could see the line all the time.
But it wasn’t that simple. Master Barbara had told him before, “Sometimes it appears, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like we can will it to appear by concentrating hard or anything.” It wasn’t a reliable technique and becoming dependent on it would be a mistake. And Haruhiro realized the wisdom of her words.
However, he couldn’t resist entertaining the possibility. If he could make the line appear at will, then it would mean that he was a born warrior. Naturally talented. And wouldn’t that be awesome? he thought to himself.
“Haru?” Mary inquired.
Haruhiro hadn’t even noticed that she had crouched next to him.
“Err—something wrong?” he asked.
“I should ask you the same,” Mary said with a slight smile. “Is there something on your mind?”
“No… not really,” Haruhiro lied.
If they weren’t on the third stratum of the Siren Mines and if no one else was around, then maybe he would have confided in her. Or maybe not, regardless of where and who was there.
“I’m fine,” he tried to reassure her.
“Really… if you say so then,” Mary said, entirely unconvinced.
And Haruhiro knew from her expression that she didn’t believe him. The look on her face made him feel like he had done something horrible to her and made his chest ache with a dull pain.
This is… completely unfair.