Chapter 5 – Just a Feeling
LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
Chapter 5: Just a Feeling
I know, that’s why I gave it my best shot…? Kinda sorta…
In order to get more information about the directive, Haruhiro had approached some of the veteran Crimson Moon members he often saw around the tavern and attempted asking them. It was unfortunate that none of Shinohara’s reputable Orion Clan members were there tonight. Shinohara himself was kind and well-mannered, and members of his clan tended to be the same. Haruhiro knew that as long as he was mindful of his own manners, any Orion Clan member would tell him what he wanted to know to the best of their knowledge.
Other than the Orion members, the only person Haruhiro knew well enough to ask questions of him freely was the well-known, overly-cheerful Kikkawa, who had arrived in Grimgar the same time he did. Haruhiro often talked with Kikkawa at Sherry’s, but as luck would have it, he wasn’t here tonight either.
Haruhiro wondered where he had gone. Kikkawa had ended up joining a veteran party led by someone named Tokimune, so he got a huge head start and was now frequenting areas way beyond the ability of Haruhiro’s team. In fact, Haruhiro recalled Kikkawa saying something about a place called the “Wandering Abyss” somewhere on the Kazahaya Plains being their main area of operations recently.
Haruhiro slumped down against a wall in a hallway on the first floor of the reserve force soldier lodge. Mogzo and Ranta were in their room, fast asleep. Whenever they drank, both of them tended to snore very loudly. This was one of the things, perhaps among many, that kept him up.
He had talked to a few Crimson Moon members who already accepted the directive to participate in Operation Twin-Headed Snake, and every one of them was of the opinion that taking Capomorti Fortress would be easy. When Haruhiro asked them why they were so optimistic, they said that it was because Altana had already managed to take the fortress several times in the past. And they told him that it remained ripe for the taking whenever Altana felt like capturing it.
It was only the threat of reinforcements from Steelbone Stronghold that had prevented them in the past. Even if they left the orc fortress alone, there was no way the orcs would try to mount a large-scale attack against Altana from Capomorti anyway. Incidents like Ishh Dogrann’s raid weren’t going to topple a fortress town like Altana.
Even if, by some highly remote possibility, a large orc army managed to use Capomorti as a staging point to attack, all Altana had to do was shut its gates, hunker down, and wait out the siege. The city was well-supplied and reinforcements from the Aravakia mainland would come. The orcs were well aware of this as well, so they never sent forces to attack Altana in earnest.
Capomorti Fortress was at most an observation post the orcs used to keep an eye on the human kingdom. And, as a mere observation post, it was lightly manned and guarded. If Altana were to mount a serious offensive against it, it would fall quite easily.
Apparently, all of the above was common knowledge and no one in Crimson Moon doubted that the assault on Capomorti would succeed. They would capture the fortress again, just like they had many times before. The only uncertain factor in the overall strategy was Steelbone Stronghold. Altana had never tried to capture it before, so no one could predict the outcome. But of course, everyone was confident in their odds of winning.
Altana’s regular army was committing a huge portion of their resources towards the assault on Steelbone and a large number of very strong reservist clans, including Souma’s Daybreakers, were helping too. The offensive should succeed.
Every one of the Crimson Moon members Haruhiro approached thought that way, so none of them doubted that victory was assured.
Isn’t it fine to participate then? Haruhiro thought.
The one gold, a full one hundred silvers compensation, was not a small sum. Haruhiro’s party had been operating in the Siren Mines lately and an elder kobold’s talisman sold for no less than five silvers apiece. On a really good day, they could make up to thirty silvers each after splitting their earnings, but on average, each of them ended up pocketing less than ten silvers a day.
But while their earnings were greater than before, their expenditures had become higher too. They were all eating better, they frequently visited Sherry’s tavern for drinks, and they spent money on various other things as well.
It was little advertised, but apparently, in addition to the one gold—after totaling the advance and completion portions of the normal compensation—there was also a thirty-silver stipend for every whole day they spent participating in the fighting. Because of this, Haruhiro figured that the higher-ups anticipated that it would take no more than one day to take the fortress.
One gold in one day. It was a huge amount. Enormous, even. It tempted him sorely.
It was going to be an easy fight and the amount of money they would earn was appealing. Why, then, was Haruhiro so hesitant about signing up?
After they exited Sherry’s, Haruhiro had considered going back to confer a little more with Mary. She had a habit of staying for another drink or two after Haruhiro and the others called it a night, so if he went back, he would have had a chance to talk to her alone. But he didn’t. Why?
He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but recently he felt as if there was some sort of wall between them. He had no idea when that wall had popped up, but it was constantly there, not just when they were in the tavern. And it wasn’t just with Mary either. It was a wall between him and everyone else, separating Haruhiro from the rest of his companions.
Maybe it was just a feeling, maybe he was overanalyzing it. They were a team. How was it possible for him to be on one side while they were on the other? But the reality was, the gap was there.
Everyone else was now self-assured; they had found their confidence. Haruhiro also agreed that each of them had grown stronger. They could handle anything the third stratum of the Siren Mines threw at them with ease. With the danger of Deathpatch gone, no one felt that they couldn’t handle any fight they faced.
As a team, they were strong enough to take on groups of seven to eight kobolds at a time, if it came down to that. Of course, it depended on how many elders were mixed in there, but one elder could be considered the equivalent of two or three normal kobolds. Fighting three elders was about the same as taking on a group of five worker kobolds; if they really had to, they could probably handle it—not that Haruhiro would ever want to put the team in such a risky situation.
And that was the crux of the matter.
He didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. The lives of his companions were the most important thing to him. It was the one thing that was constantly on his mind. He didn’t want any deaths. He wanted to keep casualties to a minimum. If he could, he would keep the number of deaths at zero. Yes, zero was the ideal. No matter what happened, he didn’t want anyone to die. But fear was always with him. The possibility that zero might become one or more terrified him during all their fights.
But none of the others felt that way. Only Haruhiro. Even fights that he knew they would win scared him. They could overestimate their own ability in a given battle, lose and die. Maybe they would go into a fight overconfident, do something weird, and pay with their lives. Maybe someone would make a slight mistake and it would end up costing someone their life. Haruhiro couldn’t say that any of the above was out of the realm of possibility.
“What am I thinking…” Haruhiro whispered to himself, holding his head in his hands.
Does this mean… I don’t trust my companions? Or was it just himself that he didn’t trust? Was it really okay for someone like him to be the leader? Can a party with someone like him as a leader survive? Or was he over-thinking things again? It’s not like they had failed in any spectacular way since he became the leader… it was just the possibility of failure that he was afraid of; the possibility that if they messed up, someone could be permanently crippled, or even end up dead.
What the hell. Had that possibility never occurred to any of the others? If so, didn’t it mean that they were taking everything way too lightly? Or maybe they were entirely too optimistic.
No, Haruhiro knew that, in the end, it came down to one fact: None of the others was the leader. They could be carefree because they didn’t bear the burden of responsibility.
Haruhiro heaved a deep sigh. This train of thought was starting to annoy him, though he felt that he’d been riding it often, lately. I should just care less, he thought. And not think about it too deeply. Let the majority vote make the decision of whether or not they would respond to the directive. If the team wanted to participate, then that was that.
“But…” Haruhiro said out loud, shaking his head. It wasn’t right. He couldn’t just neglect his duty as leader…
Suddenly, Haruhiro heard someone let out a small gasp a little way down the corridor, along with the sound of footsteps. The footsteps stopped and Haruhiro figured that seeing his crouched form in the middle of the hallway must have surprised whoever had come. Maybe they thought he was some weirdo lying in ambush or something.
When Haruhiro looked up, he saw a girl with a bob-cut hair style standing with her toes pointed in towards each other, looking nervous.
“Um…” Haruhiro let both his hands fall to his sides, after which the girl resumed walking towards him.
Her approach wasn’t scared or timid, but still cautiously slow. Haruhiro figured that she probably intended to pass him without a word. Of course that was what she was going to do. What was she doing out here in the first place though? It was late enough that everyone should have gone to bed, and Haruhiro hadn’t thought that anyone else would still be awake.
He had to admit though, that perhaps a small part of him had been hoping that he would bump into her again. Okay, maybe a large part of him. They ran into each other here once before, so maybe they would again. He would be lying if he told himself he wasn’t thinking that.
At this time of night though, he was hardly expecting it to actually happen. He wasn’t supposed to see her here. And she was supposed to walk past him now without a word. But she didn’t. She stopped.
After what Haruhiro thought was a moment’s hesitation, she suddenly bowed her head slightly.
“Hey,” she said in a brusque, haughty tone.
Depending on the personality of the person that sort of tone was directed at, some might even think that she was trying to pick a fight. Haruhiro wasn’t perturbed, though. She had chosen to stop and greet him even though she could have just walked past without a word, after all.
Though he was looking at her, she refused to meet his gaze. It looked like her better judgment was telling her that she should leave immediately, but another part of her wanted to stay, so she was currently trying to decide between the two. Seriously, just go? Haruhiro thought. He wanted her to walk off, but at the same time, he wanted to strike up a conversation with her, even though he had no idea what they would talk about.
He couldn’t think of anything to say. Nothing that even resembled the thing called “words” came to mind.
“Heh… heheh…” Since words wouldn’t come he resorted to chuckling instead, which elicited a sigh from the girl. She started to leave.
“What?” she demanded, stopping.
“Err, nothing…” Haruhiro said.
Whoa. What was he going to do now? He had asked her to wait without thinking and now his mind had gone blank. Completely white. No, that was a lie. It wasn’t white, but maybe a sort of blue.
“Uh, what… do you mean by what? Just what? Yeah… nothing… I guess…” Haruhiro blabbered.
“I see,” she replied.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“What?” she demanded again.
“Huh?” he asked.
“Uh… what? What’s what…? Umm… I mean…” he said.
Crap. There’s no way she wouldn’t think that he was some weirdo on drugs or something by now. Maybe he should apologize? Was this a good time for an apology? Would that be weird too? Too sudden, maybe. Crap. Crap crap crap.
The girl gave a small snicker, but quickly covered her mouth with her sleeve. She was… laughing?
“Weirdo,” she said, the bottom half of her face still hidden behind her sleeve.
“Am I? Ahh… maybe,” Haruhiro replied.
“Weirdo. And freak,” she clarified.
“No way!” Haruhiro protested.
“You serious? No way…”
“What’re you doing here then?” she asked, glancing left then right.
“I’m, uh… er… I’m not doing anything weird. I just… had some stuff on my mind. Like a normal person,” Haruhiro explained. Even though he hadn’t said anything funny, the girl seemed like she was about to laugh again but was doing her best to contain herself. “What are you doing out here, Choco?”
“We’re friends now or something?” Choco said. “Mind your own business.”
“S-sorry, I was just…”
But the question came so naturally that it almost felt like a friend casually asking another friend. Haruhiro couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t make things even more awkward than they already were. But the truth was, he did feel a sort of familiarity about her.
Choco narrowed her eyes at him. “So it’s your hobby to get close to every girl you meet? You don’t seem like that kind of guy though…”
“No way,” Haruhiro denied. “What you see is what you get. I don’t chase after girls, so I guess we’re not friends.”
“If we were friends,” Choco stated.
“Really…” Haruhiro replied, doubtful.
“Yeah. I get the feeling that… never mind.”
“Get the feeling what? I want to know,” Haruhiro pressed.
“I can’t say it.”
“Really? Fine then.”
“Okay,” Choco agreed.
“No, it’s not okay! Tell me even if you can’t tell me!” Haruhiro said.
“Dork,” Choco replied.
Haruhiro’s eyes went wide and he felt his pulse suddenly speed up. What was that just now? Dork. Choco’s words… he had heard it before. Or he had a feeling he had. He had a feeling that it wasn’t just some common, everyday word. Or at least it wasn’t a word he had heard before.
No, that wasn’t right. He had heard it before.
“Choco…” Haruhiro started.
“You don’t remember, do you? Your life before coming here.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I don’t either,” he said. “I don’t remember my family or my friends.”
“So then… for example, I might think that I met the others in my party for the first time after arriving here, but that might not be true, right?”
“So you’re saying that you might have known them from before?” Choco asked.
“I’m saying that the possibility is there,” Haruhiro corrected.
“Yeah, true. Then maybe we knew—” her gaze fell on him for the briefest of moments before she looked away again. “—each other.”
Haruhiro took a deep breath before saying, “It’s… possible.”
“But…” Choco began.
“Yeah, I know…” Haruhiro agreed.
“It doesn’t mean anything if we can’t remember it.”
“Wait, you can’t just—” Haruhiro stopped.
He intended to say, You can’t just dismiss it like that, but he realized that she was right. It didn’t matter what had happened between them or what their relationship was in the past if neither of them could recall it. They could have been friends, family, even lovers, but if they couldn’t remember, then they were nothing to each other now.
“By the way, I don’t think I ever asked you your name,” Choco said.
“My name?” Haruhiro repeated.
He felt like someone had just punched him in the gut. She doesn’t even remember my name… Then he realized, of course she wouldn’t. They’ve only just met. Maybe it was a coincidence after all… It was a simple coincidence that he had known another girl named Choco before he arrived in Grimgar. The Choco who was standing in front of him now might share her name, but she was not the person he knew.
The way he seemed to recall having heard the word “dork” before too, that was just a feeling. Only his imagination.
“My name’s Haruhiro,” he finally replied.
“Haruhiro…” Choco repeated, her eyes narrowing slightly. Again her gaze flicked to Haruhiro then away once more. “Hm. How about I call you ‘Hiro’ then?”
Haruhiro didn’t reply immediately.
Strange. This was just too strange. He felt almost moved to tears and he had no idea why. Yume and Mary called him ‘Haru,’ and that was how everyone usually shortened his name. But he had a feeling that he had been called ‘Hiro’ before. By someone. At some time.
“Sure,” Haruhiro finally managed. “That’s fine.”
“Fine,” Choco said. She bent down towards him, scrutinizing him closely. “You okay?”
“Huh?” Haruhiro rubbed his eyes with a finger. “I’m fine. Why?”
Choco didn’t seem to believe him. Haruhiro stood up and stretched.
“I should get some sleep,” he finally said. “It’s really late. What are you doing up anyways?”
“Taking a walk,” she replied.
“Yeah. It happens. Sometimes.”
Then maybe we’ll meet again here. Sometimes. It didn’t matter if neither of them could remember their pasts. What matters now is what happens from here on out. The Choco standing in front of him now was slightly sullen, unfriendly, and hard to approach. She had large eyes that resembled those of a small animal—full of caution and avoided the gazes of other people. However, on the occasion that her eyes did meet his, it made his pulse quicken.
This was his type of girl. Probably. Or at least he was rather interested. Wasn’t that good enough of a reason?
“Choco, are you a Thief?” Haruhiro asked.
Choco hesitated for a second before asking, “How did you know?”
“From your clothes. I’m a Thief too.”
“Yeah, you look the part.”
“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You look like a weakling,” she clarified.
“Well, that might be true,” Haruhiro replied hesitantly. “I’m not strong, so that’s why I joined the Thieves Guild. Wait, you think all Thieves are weaklings? Then why did you join?”
“No particular reason.”
“You just happened to end up on the front steps of the Thieves Guild complex?” It was a rhetorical question.
Choco replied anyway with, “Something like that.”
“What’s your trade name?”
“Trade name? You mean the one that Thieves call each other?”
“Yeah. We’re both Thieves Guild members, so…”
Choco was silent for a moment. “I kinda don’t want to tell you.”
“Well, it’s not like I really like mine either,” Haruhiro admitted.
“My master just gave it to me without even asking my opinion, so…” Choco said.
“Okay, then how about we tell each other at the same time?”
“At the same time?”
“Yeah, I’ll count to three and we’ll both say it at the same time.”
“Fine,” she agreed.
Haruhiro counted, “One, two, THREE.”
“Cheeky Cat,” said Choco.
“Old Cat,” said Haruhiro.
They stared at each other.
“Pfft,” Choco was the first to break the silence with a small snort.
“W-what?” demanded Haruhiro.
“C’mon… ‘Old Cat’? Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I know. I was told it was because my eyes make me look sleepy all the time so I look like some old geezer,” Haruhiro explained.
“Yeah well, mine probably came from the way I glare at people…” Choco said.
“Just the way you glare? I get the feeling it’s your mouth as much as your eyes.”
“So we’re both cats,” Haruhiro pointed out.
“Crazy coincidence,” Choco said.
“Yeah, I know,” Haruhiro agreed.
Was it really just a coincidence though? Of course it was. What else could it be?
“Does your mentor happen to be Master Barbara?”
“Who? Never heard of her.”
“I guess not. Master Barbara is a member of the Thieves Guild. She’s also a mentor.”
“Your mentor is a man then?” Haruhiro guessed.
“Yeah. He’s scary,” Choco said.
“Master Barbara is terrifying too, even if she’s a woman.”
“Then why don’t you just quit?”
“From what I hear, the other guilds are just as tough.”
“No easy roads, huh.”
“Doesn’t seem like it.”
“I hate this ‘work your butt off’ kind of thing,” Choco remarked.
“I think an easy life is the best life too,” Haruhiro said.
“Too much work otherwise?”
“Yeah. I’m always thinking ‘This is waaaaay too much trouble and I don’t want to bother’ right off the bat with everything.”
“Hiro,” Choco said.
“Yes?” Haruhiro replied.
“Is your party also going to participate in the directive?”
The question took Haruhiro completely by surprise. It felt as if he had been hit in the chest with a blunt object.
“Also?” Haruhiro asked. “You mean your party is going to fight at Capomorti? In the offensive?”
“It wasn’t my idea and I don’t really want to do it. It sounds really dangerous,” Choco sighed. The breath of air made her front bangs puff out. “But yeah, we’re signed up.”