Chapter 15 – Line Between Life and Death
LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
Chapter 15: Line Between Life and Death
Haruhiro remembered it all… or he had a feeling he did. He suddenly recalled many things… or he thought he did. But the memory left as fast as it returned. There was no doubt he had been able to grasp the memory for a moment, but it was out of reach again. A second ago, he had recalled everything. Or what he thought was everything, since he couldn’t be sure. But he couldn’t remember anything now.
Why couldn’t he be sure? Why didn’t he know? He had known a few moments ago. That feeling was the only thing that remained. Deep within himself, something remained. A feeling that something had once been there but was now gone, as if whatever it was had been pried clean off and left a hole where it had once been. If he were to inspect the hollowness, he could somehow make a guess at what it used to contain.
The return of his memories of Choco, forgotten once more. He had a feeling that the memories had something to do with Choco. Haruhiro probably knew her. They were acquaintances, maybe even friends. But that was all he knew. He couldn’t remember anything else about her. Nothing was left, not even the tiniest clues that could have hinted to what their relationship was.
“Haruhiro!” Ranta shook him hard. “Hey! Quit spacing out at a time like this!”
“I—I wasn’t…” Haruhiro croaked. He wasn’t? Really? No, Ranta was right. He had spaced out.
The Guardian Zoran Zesshu, his honor guard, and the orc shamans had descended upon the first floor of the keep and begun a massacre. Nearly all the reservists who had been there were dead. Choco. Yes, Choco too. She was dead and so was her party. They were all dead. The leader, the Warrior, their Priest, the girl with the short hair, and Choco herself. What about the oafish Warrior? He was sprawled next to a wall and at least wounded, if not dead. Probably heavily wounded. They had all been killed by the orcs.
Choco had been killed.
Her death had taken Haruhiro by surprise and he was completely shocked by the turn of events, but he wasn’t as sorrowful, outraged, or pained as he perhaps should have been. It was more of an intense dissatisfaction at the way things turned out. Was it really okay that things turned out like this? He thought to himself. He felt a sort of deep consternation at it. After all, they were both Crimson Moon reservists and she was his junior in the organization. They talked on occasion and… maybe they had known each other before they came to this world. And now she was dead.
Haruhiro felt something was intrinsically wrong with his reaction to her death. He should have felt more… more… well, more than what he felt now. But he didn’t. It wasn’t a natural reaction. It was terrible for him not to feel anything more at her death. Yet he didn’t know why it was terrible. They might have known each other, but he had no idea what kind of relationship it had been. Maybe they had been mere acquaintances and talked once or something and that was it.
Now wasn’t the time to think about it. Ranta was right; their current situation needed his immediate attention. The remaining reservists, Team Renji included, were fiercely battling Zoran as a group, yet even Renji himself couldn’t gain an upper hand over the orc leader.
No, never mind gaining an advantage; Renji was barely able to ward off Zoran’s powerful attacks in the first place. Renji was blocking and dodging desperately, unable to counterattack. And he was covered in blood. It wasn’t a fatal injury, but he had taken a blow to the head and was bleeding profusely.
Ron let out a loud battle cry, intending to join the fight, but Renji shouted, “Stay away! You’ll only get in the way! Stay back!”
It probably wasn’t about having a manly duel one-on-one with his opponent for the sake of pride, Haruhiro realized. It was simply too dangerous for anyone else to approach. Zoran’s reach, the raw strength in his arms, his broad shoulders, and powerfully built chest… even his movements were far superior to Ishh Dogrann, the last orc Haruhiro witnessed Renji fight when Altana had been invaded.
One hit. That’s all it would take. A single hit from Zoran would mean instant death.
Even members of Zoran’s honor guard were careful to keep a generous distance away from Zoran, as if they feared accidently getting caught by a stray attack. So it was Renji and Zoran fighting one-on-one while the other reservists, including the rest of Team Renji, took on the other orcs and the orc shamans. And they were losing. The reservists were being overwhelmed.
Ron locked blades with his orc opponent, but it was obvious to Haruhiro that he was having a tough time. Chibi, Sassa, and Adachi had been forced to retreat until their backs were nearly against a wall. Haruhiro wondered how many of the reservists remaining could hold their own against the orcs. Probably not many. Even now they were fighting a losing battle and the tide didn’t look like it was going to change.
“A shaman!” Shihoru cried.
One of the orc shamans was approaching the spot beneath a stairwell where Haruhiro and his group were huddled. Mogzo leapt out first to meet the shaman head on. The shaman halted then lifted up the large flask-like object hanging off its belt high. It pulled out the stopper and things started swarming out. Insects. A massive horde of them.
“What—!?” Mogzo gasped.
The insect swarm went straight for his face. Mogzo was wearing a helm, but the bugs were small and poured in from the gaps. Mogzo let out an agonized shriek and looked as if he was about to go down. Shit! Without Mogzo they were in trouble.
“Mogzo! Stay on your feet!” Haruhiro exclaimed. “You can’t go down! You can’t stop!”
“AAAAAAAGH!” Mogzo shouted, staggering about and swinging his sword wildly around.
“God damn it!” Ranta jumped out from the stairwell and rushed towards the shaman. Midway there however, his entire body suddenly went rigid and he stopped moving. Ranta let out an ululating howl but couldn’t do anything more.
“What the—!?” exclaimed Haruhiro.
It had to be the orc shaman. It had sicced its insects on Mogzo and now had its palm raised towards Ranta.
“Is that what Bri meant by psionic abilities!?” Haruhiro wondered.
Yume pulled out her bow and shot an arrow at the shaman. When it jumped to the side to avoid getting hit, Ranta was free to move again. But while that was a good thing, Yume’s arrow also narrowly missed Ron’s face after it flew past the shaman.
“What the hell!?” Ron yelped.
“S-sorry!” apologized Yume.
“Yume, you can’t use a bow in here!” Haruhiro said. “The fighting’s too chaotic!”
“Umm…” Yume thought about it for a second, then. “Okay, got it!”
“Oom rel eckt pram das!” Shihoru fired the [SHADOW COMPLEX] spell from her staff. The elemental flew in a tight spiral towards the shaman, hit it in the face and started seeping into it through its nose and mouth.
Was it enough? The shaman swayed on its feet for a second, then shook its head vigorously but that was it.
“It resisted the spell!” Shihoru said between clenched teeth.
“I’ll kill it then!” shouted Ranta. “[HATRED’S CUT]!”
Ranta’s movements were swift but the shaman had anticipated the attack. It sprang backwards effortlessly and, at the same time, Orc A from Zoran’s honor guard stepped forward to take its place. Orc A blocked Ranta’s attack with its own sword in a resounding clang of steel. They almost locked blades before Ranta yelped and leapt back, trying to put distance between them with [EXPEL FRENZY]. Orc A chased without hesitation, not intending to let Ranta get out of range. It attacked immediately and crushed Ranta’s guard.
Shit! Ranta was in huge trouble now. They had to back him up or he was finished. But can I actually do it? Haruhiro whispered to himself. He had no choice but to try. Just as Haruhiro made to join the fight, another orc emerged and cut him off. Orc B was also an honor guard member and the air of intimidation surrounding it was incredible. Haruhiro broke into a cold sweat. Do I really have to do this? A part of him wondered. Seriously?
Orc B attacked in rapid succession while Haruhiro deflected with [SWAT]. The orc’s attacks were so powerful, Haruhiro’s head spun and his arm went numb. He was terrified. Scared witless. No way… there was no way he could fight this orc. It was too strong. He was going to die.
Mary’s attack was impeccably timed, but ultimately unsuccessful. The orc immediately brought up its shield to block. It turned its head towards Mary while keeping its body facing Haruhiro. Maybe Mary hadn’t completely failed after all. Now! Haruhiro threw himself at the orc. Perhaps Orc B intended to whack Haruhiro with its shield, but Haruhiro sidestepped it and, imitating what Sassa had done earlier, raised his dagger and aimed for the orc’s neck.
He was close. So close. He gasped as a swarm of insects assaulted him before he could carry out his attack. He shut his mouth and eyes tight and dropped low to the ground. What the hell!? Bugs… bugs everywhere. Bugs, bugs, bugs. Where were they coming from? When did the shaman attack? Bugs. Bugs all over him…
“Haru, get back!” Mary yelled.
As much as he wanted to retreat, he had no idea which direction to go. They were in his mouth now. The insects. It made him reflexively want to spit, but if he opened his mouth, more insects would pour in. He couldn’t open his eyes either. What was happening? He had no idea anymore. Shit. He was in deep shit. He was going to die. Even now, Orc B was probably moving to finish him off. In another moment, he would be cut down. Dead.
“Over here, Haru!”
Yume’s voice. She grabbed his wrist, pulling him away somewhere. Water, was the first thought that came to his head. Water. He fumbled for his canteen, opened it and poured its contents over his face then rinsed out his mouth, spitting bugs out. He could see again. He could breathe without inhaling insects.
“I’m okay now!” he told Yume. He wasn’t okay though. Nothing was okay. Everything was going to hell.
Ranta was being overwhelmed by Orc A. He could go down at any moment. Despite having been assaulted by insects, Mogzo had somehow managed to draw Orc B’s attention away from Haruhiro. Mary was attempting to defend Shihoru from Orc C’s attacks and probably couldn’t keep it up for much longer. He had to do something.
Team Renji was also struggling. Renji was in a constant state of retreat, trying to fend off Zoran’s attacks. The other four members of his party were grouped close, fighting defensively and trying their best to cover each other. Were any of the other reservists still alive?
That was the only word that came to Haruhiro’s mind. The others had been completely and utterly annihilated. No way. This had to be some sort of joke…
“Yume, help Mary!” Haruhiro ordered while moving to help Ranta himself.
The problem was, how was he going to help? He couldn’t get in position behind Orc A without exposing his own back to another orc. He suddenly spotted a sword lying on the ground. He didn’t know whose it was and didn’t care. He scooped it up and hurled it at Orc A in desperation. Orc A blocked it easily with its shield, but did stagger backwards a little. That gave Ranta a moment’s reprieve.
“Fuck!” Ranta yelled. “This is bullshit! Seriously, what the fuck!”
“What happened to Zodiak!?” said Haruhiro.
“Gone! Taken out in one hit!” Ranta replied. “Stupid weak ass demon! [ANGER THRUST]!”
Haruhiro had to give Ranta credit for having the guts to take the offensive again in these circumstances. Orc A was prepared, however, and knocked Ranta’s longsword aside with ease. Its counterattack caught Ranta on the head.
“ARGH!” Ranta yelled wordlessly as he reeled from the blow.
He was wearing a helm, but a hit like that to the head was still devastating.
“I won’t let you!” Haruhiro tackled Orc A with no regard for his own safety—or rather, made it seem like he was going to tackle it.
The orc took the bait and turned its full attention to Haruhiro now. It attacked, and Haruhiro deflected with [SWAT], [SWAT], [SWAT].
“Get up, Ranta!” shouted Haruhiro.
“You don’t need to tell me!” Ranta yelled back. “[HUNDRED CUTS OF REPENTANCE]!”
Was that even a legit skill? Ranta was making shit up again. He rained a flurry of blows in rapid succession on Orc A, all of which the orc blocked. But at least the orc was on the defensive now. Now was the time to press the attack. Even if it was in desperation, even if it was only a single orc, they had to decrease the number of enemies.
Haruhiro had to get into position behind Orc A to [BACKSTAB]. He would finish it in one blow. He had to. And in the moment he made up his mind… Yume’s sudden cry rang in his ears. She had been sent flying head over heels by Orc C. A wide strip of red blood ran from her shoulder down the front of her chest. Orc C began to stalk after Yume to finish her off, but Mary stepped into its path.
She spun her staff around in a wide arc at the orc, but it deftly caught the attack on its shield and shoved her aside.
“No!” Haruhiro rushed towards Orc C, but he wasn’t going to make it.
Yume, however, hadn’t given up yet. She pulled out a throwing knife and, gasping “[STAR PIERCE]!” lobbed it at the orc. Orc C stepped to the side and the knife flew harmlessly past, but it bought them another brief moment. Thanks to that, Haruhiro got there in time. At this point, he couldn’t care less about his own safety anymore. He was going to full body tackle the orc and whatever happened to him next would happen.
That was his intention, but something in the corner of his eye caught his attention. Something to his left. Haruhiro didn’t mean to look, but was glad that he did. An orc shaman was taking a deep breath and preparing to exhale. What was it doing? It opened its mouth and… Fire!
Haruhiro threw himself to the ground and narrowly avoided getting enveloped by the stream of fire that erupted from the shaman’s mouth. Hot! Hot, hot, hot! His cloak had caught fire. But he didn’t care about that, he had to get to Yume.
But it was over. Orc C was standing over her, mid-swing in the finishing blow. Yume was done for. Dead.
Or not. It wasn’t over yet. They had Mogzo. By some fortuitous providence of chance, Team Haruhiro had Mogzo. Mogzo slammed his body into Orc C and sent it sprawling back and away from Yume. But the orc shaman came again. It spit out another stream of white-hot fire that seemed to swallow Mogzo whole. Mogzo never stopped however. He swung his sword around with terrifying determination and the shaman, cowed by Mogzo’s force of will, quickly scrambled away.
“Fall back!” Haruhiro shouted, realizing that it was the only thing they could do now. “Retreat!”
This wasn’t a battle they could win. If they tried to fight, they would all die. If they kept trying to fight, the entire team would be wiped out. It wasn’t his own unwillingness to die. He was less afraid of death for himself than he was of his companions dying. He didn’t want the others to die here. He refused to let them die here.
“To the watchtower! Fall back for now!” he said again.
But would they be able to retreat successfully?