Chapter 16 – Last Stand
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LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
Chapter 16: Last Stand
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Long answer short, yes, they got out.
Haruhiro remembered ripping off his burning cloak, hurling it at a nearby orc, dragging Yume to her feet and forcing her to run. After that, he was so preoccupied with getting away that everything was a blur of events he couldn’t recall with any clarity.
They eventually ducked into one of the stairwells leading up to a watchtower. Another party had hidden themselves there without any intention of joining the fight on the ground floor. Haruhiro didn’t recall whether they switched places or chased the other party out, but that’s where Team Haruhiro stopped now to catch their breath.
Mary had healed the critically injured Yume right away and was now working on Mogzo. His armor and helm were still intact, but he had taken the brunt of an orc shaman’s fire blast and was badly burned. Was he okay? Haruhiro didn’t think so.
“Thank you, Mogzo,” Yume went to sit down beside the Warrior. “If you hadn’t come, Yume would’ve been killed.”
“Oh, uhh…” Mogzo hesitated. “We’re friends, right? We look out for each other.”
“Yeah,” Yume replied. “You’re right.”
Ranta sat on the stairs, knees drawn up to his chest, uncharacteristically silent. Neither Mary nor Shihoru said a word either. Even Haruhiro didn’t feel like talking. Shit. The silence was suffocating. It was a miracle that everyone was still alive. If anyone had made even a single mistake—no. They had made lots of mistakes already. It wasn’t about messing up or doing everything perfectly, in the end it came down to sheer, dumb luck.
If they had been unlucky, one of them would’ve died. And if one person had gone down, then a second or third person would’ve followed and then the entire team would’ve been gone in the blink of an eye. It was pure luck; fortune was the only thing that had saved them.
Was retreating the right call? If one of them had been cut down as they withdrew, then the majority of them, if not the entire team would have followed. The only reason it didn’t happen that way was because their luck had held. Haruhiro was glad that it worked out, but he also knew that it wasn’t due to some brilliant decision he made in the heat of the moment. It was because they had gotten lucky.
“What now?” Ranta whispered.
Good question, Haruhiro thought. What were they going to do now? Going back in was out of the question. They were too outmatched; it wasn’t a fight they could win. If even Team Renji was struggling, then it was impossible for them. And struggling was probably an understatement—Team Renji looked like they were going to be overwhelmed sooner or later. Maybe they were all dead already.
Haruhiro looked up. When he saw the gazes of all his companions locked on him, only then did he realize that his eyes had been glued to the floor this entire time. Why was everyone looking at him? Oh yeah… because he was the leader. Everyone looked to him for instructions, for a decision. What were they going to do now?
Even if that was the question they were all silently asking him, he didn’t know. He couldn’t make a decision and he wished that they would quit trying to shove the responsibility onto him. He didn’t have what it took to be a leader. The responsibility was too heavy a burden to bear. I can’t do it. I can’t. There was too much death. Everyone was dead and he was afraid. Just quit it. Stop it already. He was terrified that his friends would die too.
She had already died. Choco. And Haruhiro’s companions would follow. Even Team Renji would die. Just like Choco, everyone would die. He wanted to say to the others, I’m finished, I’m done. I can’t make a decision, so quit looking at me. He didn’t want to be the leader anymore. He couldn’t do it; he had no idea what to do. He wanted to tell the others to go do whatever they want. Just do whatever the hell you guys feel like. Don’t look at me for answers and don’t expect me to have any. He couldn’t shoulder the weight, he couldn’t lead.
Let’s just all die. The situation was hopeless and there was nothing left to do but die. That was his decision and if anyone had a problem with it, then they could be the leader instead. They could come up with another idea. They could tell him what to do next.
But he kept those thoughts to himself. No way he could say something like that out loud because if he did, their party would fall apart. He could imagine it happening in his mind’s eye. He had to keep himself from falling apart for their sake. No, that wasn’t right. He would be lying to himself if he said that he was doing it for the others.
In the end, it was for his own sake. Even in a desperate situation like this, Haruhiro wanted to keep up appearances, wanted to act cool. He didn’t want to disappoint his companions. He might not be a great leader and maybe he would never become one, but he didn’t want the others to see him as bottom of the barrel pathetic. He didn’t want the others to hate him and he didn’t want them to abandon him. No matter how things ended, Haruhiro wanted to be part of this team until the very end.
When it really mattered, this was the type of person he turned into? He wasn’t a Manato, but this? No, it was too pitiful. There was a limit to how pathetic he could be. If he said what was really on his mind, it wasn’t merely a matter of coming off as uncool.
“I’m going to assess the situation,” he announced instead. “Stay here.”
Everyone was currently perched a little ways up the stairs. Even from here, they could hear the sounds of pitched battle but no one knew what was really going on. No one wanted to know. That’s why they were hiding here. That’s why no one wanted to leave this spot, Haruhiro included. But doing something was better than enduring the greedy stares of the others demanding answers from him. Maybe it was too harsh to call it “greedy” but that’s what it felt like. Their gazes were terrifying. He descended the stairway, reached the ground floor, and poked his head out.
“Renji…” he whispered through gritted teeth.
Team Renji was still fighting doggedly. Ron and Chibi were covered in blood, struggling to defend Sassa and Adachi from the orc onslaught. Renji was still heroically fighting Zoran one on one. Zoran looked mostly uninjured while Renji bore so many wounds that Haruhiro didn’t know how to begin to describe it. Even so, Renji was still on his feet, dodging Zoran’s attacks and moving without pause. Renji was epic. There was no other way to describe it.
There were maybe five or six other reservists still in the fight, but the orcs had hardly suffered any casualties. How did the situation become this bad?
Everyone had come down to the first floor through the roof access stairway and then spread out to search the watchtowers. Zoran had not been present then. Had the Guardian and his underlings been hiding somewhere? There were other rooms besides the watchtowers on the ground floor, but all of them had been searched and cleared out. Zoran hadn’t been on the first floor then. Maybe there was a hidden sublevel? Zoran concealed himself down there, biding his time and waited for the reservists to scatter to the watchtowers before coming out. Haruhiro guessed it was something like that, at any rate.
Zoran’s honor guard consisted of twenty orcs, including three shamans. They were the elites, plainly two or three times stronger than the average orc. Team Renji consisted of five members, there were six—make that five, other reservists, and six in Haruhiro’s party. The orcs not only outnumbered them, but their fighting ability was probably superior, too. Was this what you called a hopeless situation?
The party-less reservists would go down first. Then the orcs would eliminate one or two members of Team Renji, and the fight would be hopelessly lost. What about the current situation though?
In terms of numbers, the sixteen here wasn’t their entire force. Kajiko and her Wild Angels were still searching one of the watchtowers. They were eighteen in number; at least fifteen even if they lost a few. Kajiko herself was a strong fighter. If they joined the fight, the tables would turn in moments. What about Bri? He said that he was going to check the situation at the main gate. The strategy had called for the reservists to act as a distraction while the regular army broke through the main gate and took down the fortress. Maybe it was taking them longer than anticipated, but the regular army would come sooner or later. Supposedly. When the army arrived the battle would turn in their favor for sure.
Should Haruhiro and the others wait then? If they stayed hidden in the watchtower stairwell until reinforcements arrived… no. There was no way of knowing when reinforcements would get here. If Team Renji got wiped out before then, they were all finished. The orcs would search the keep for any human survivors and eliminate them. Even if they hid at the very top of the watchtower, they would be found sooner or later.
They couldn’t wait for the regular army, but Kajiko… maybe it was worth the risk to wait on her. They could remain where they were until Kajiko got here. Would Renji’s party be able to hold out until then? Haruhiro honestly wished he could say yes. He didn’t want to put his companions in danger. Team Haruhiro would stay hidden, Team Renji would stay alive, and Kajiko would come. The tide would then turn in their favor. It was the ideal scenario, but there was no guarantee things would work out that way.
A part of Haruhiro wanted to help Renji, too. To Team Renji, Haruhiro and his party might have been worthless dregs, but it didn’t change the fact that they all arrived here at the same time. And Team Renji now stood at a precipice. Haruhiro grasped the terrible significance of this moment of decision and deciding to do nothing now didn’t sit well with him. If he failed to take action, he would never sleep well at night again.
There was one more consideration to take into account: Team Renji needed to be alive when Kajiko arrived. Haruhiro didn’t know how good the Wild Angels were, but if they lost Renji, his team, and the remaining five reservists, Kajiko’s arrival would at best even out the numbers. Depending on how many she’d lost, the orcs might still have a numerical advantage. Zoran was too strong for him to assume that Kajiko’s Wild Angels could win against the orcs alone. And if Kajiko lost, then Team Haruhiro was in danger of dying too.
How long had he been standing here deliberating? Haruhiro didn’t know but he knew that they didn’t have any more time to dawdle. He didn’t know much else, but he knew that he had to hurry and make a decision.
If they sat back and did nothing, they would probably all die. Actually, all of them already had one foot in the grave. Thinking about it that way, things seemed more clear. Choco… I might be able to see you again soon. We can take our time talking and recall all the things we’ve forgotten, one by one.
Haruhiro returned to where his companions were waiting.
I’m sorry, everyone. I know it’s horrible of me to ask, but we need to get back in there, is what Haruhiro wanted to say, but he didn’t. We have to help Renji. We’ll go after the shamans. The other orcs are less of a threat. He didn’t give voice to that either.
“The orc shaman Avaael is probably down there,” Haruhiro said instead. “His head is worth fifty gold. Zoran might be too tough for us to take on, but we can definitely claim Avaael’s bounty. It’s fifty gold. Let’s do it.” He was lying to his companions; lying to himself. But for some reason, he didn’t feel the least bit guilty.
“YESSSSSSS!” Ranta exclaimed. “FIFTY GOLD! ALLLLLLLLRIGHT!”
Ranta was as simpleminded as they came. He started to rush down the stairs, eyes glittering with the prospect of hitting the jackpot.
Haruhiro patted Mogzo on the back. “We’re counting on you, Mogzo. I know you won’t let us down.”
“Right!” Mogzo replied with swift confidence that surprised even Haruhiro. He followed Ranta down the steps.
Next, Haruhiro nodded once to Mary, Yume, and Shihoru. That was good enough, right? Yes, it would have to do. The moment they reached the bottom of the spiral staircase, Haruhiro spotted a shaman. They would take all the shamans down one by one. Haruhiro pointed to Shaman A.
“Him first!” he ordered.
Team Haruhiro attacked as a single, unified unit. They ignored both Zoran and the orcs in his honor guard. Shaman A noticed Haruhiro and the others approach and began to open the lid on the flask at its hip, but it was too late.
“[ANGER THRUST]!” shouted Ranta.
Ranta lodged his sword into the base of the shaman’s throat for an instant kill. They were off to a good start, but Haruhiro suppressed the urge to let that small victory affect him. Stay calm, pick off the shamans one by one… The honor guard orcs noticed their presence now and lumbered over, but Mogzo leapt out to meet them first, roaring a guttural battle cry. Haruhiro spotted another shaman.
“Him next!” Just as Haruhiro pointed to Shaman B, Zoran’s guards went to cover him. The orcs realized what Team Haruhiro was up to now.
It didn’t matter. They would force their way through without getting distracted from their real target. Mogzo stepped to the front, cutting open a path for them. Haruhiro blocked incoming attacks relentlessly with [SWAT]. Shihoru used [SHADOW BIND] to immobilize nearby orcs while Mary rained blows down with her staff, forcing the orcs to block with their shields and back away. Yume did the same by hurling throwing knives left and right, exclaiming each toss with a cat-like “rawr!” noise. Haruhiro wondered what that was about, but whatever.
Ranta was the first to reach the now wide-open Shaman B. From this range, he could use that skill…
Just as Ranta reached Shaman B, he rotated his body around so that his back was to the orc. From Shaman B’s point of view, it must have looked like an attacking human had come at him then suddenly and inexplicably turned around. Before the shaman could make sense of it, Ranta’s butt had crashed into him and Shaman B stumbled backwards in shock. Ranta’s ass attack had knocked it off balance and it looked like it was going to fall over.
Now! Haruhiro thought and dashed towards the fallen shaman at full speed. He rushed just slightly past it, reversed the grip on his dagger and buried the blade into the side of the shaman’s neck. It was the modified [BACKSTAB] technique, borrowed from Sassa. Shaman B went down instantly.
“That’s two down!” Haruhiro called out.
As if the announcement suddenly instilled renewed vigor in Team Renji and the other reservists, the humans began to assault the orcs anew. It was all about momentum. Momentum and morale. But now’s not the time to get caught up in the excitement and act carelessly, Haruhiro thought, more to himself than anyone else. But if not now, then when?
“We can do this!” Haruhiro encouraged.
He didn’t know whether he should have acted with more restraint, but he didn’t want to regret being overly cautious. The situation might have called for it, but now wasn’t the time to hesitate. The tide could turn again at any moment and then it would be too late. It wasn’t the time to be afraid of making the wrong call.
“We can defeat them!” he shouted again. “Fight!”
A familiar high-pitched battle cry filled the room. Once the momentum shifted, good things happened… she was here, the owner of that terrifying voice: Kajiko and her Wild Angels. They poured out of a watchtower staircase, Kajiko in the lead. Two of Zoran’s honor guard were cut down—cut to pieces—right off the bat. When Haruhiro saw that, he no longer doubted that they could win.
If they kept this up, total victory was theirs. And at that moment, Haruhiro believed it without a shred of doubt.
The last orc shaman, it had to be Avaael, let out a jet of fire towards the Wild Angels who were still coming down the staircase. But it wasn’t just fire… he had shot something else at them as well. Ropes? No, they were moving, squirming. Snakes. Live snakes. And not just one or two, but scores of them. They were slithering furiously along the ground at the feet of the Wild Angels. Cries went up as the all-female clan was thrown into a hysteria.
Zoran Zesshu then suddenly disengaged from Renji and went after the main body of the Wild Angels, double swords hacking and slashing in a frenzy. Four, five of the Wild Angels died in the blink of an eye.
“Don’t panic!” Kajiko commanded as she moved to stop Zoran.
They clashed. Kajiko’s sword met Zoran’s double blades in a shower of sparks.
Kajiko backed, not because she wanted to, but because she was forced to by Zoran’s raw strength.
“Shit!” Kajiko cursed. “We can’t take any more losses! Everyone except Mako, Kikuno, and Azusa retreat!”
Those she didn’t name did as they were told. Renji came chasing after Zoran and it looked like he got through, but his attack was suddenly effortlessly turned aside by the Guardian. Zoran was toying with him. The orc boss was toying with a person like Renji. But Renji was injured and exhausted. No way he wasn’t fatigued. Something had to be done about his wounds at the very least.
Chibi, however, was occupied with healing Ron. If Haruhiro remembered correctly, light magic had a good cast range. Priests could use healing magic at a distance. And they had a Priest, someone besides Chibi.
“Mary!” Haruhiro said. “Heal Renji!”
“He needs to stop moving first!” came Mary’s reply. “Heal spells have a limited area of effect!”
“Limited area!?” Haruhiro echoed.
Oh yeah… Healing magic’s light spells illuminated the area where they were cast and only worked if the person being healed remained there throughout the duration. While Renji remained engaged with Zoran, he couldn’t stay in one spot.
“But Renji’s not gonna last like this!” Haruhiro said. They had to give Renji a chance to rest, even for a few seconds.
“I’ll go! I got this!”
The voice didn’t belong to Ranta. It was Mogzo. There was no hesitation, no doubt as Mogzo clashed violently with Zoran. His swings were powerful and fast; each blow was forceful and heavy. They were almost on par with Deathpatch’s attacks. Zoran was forced onto the defensive. Renji was about to renew his offensive as well—hold on! That defeated the entire purpose of Mogzo going in. Haruhiro grabbed Renji’s arm.
“No!” Haruhiro yelled. “You need to get yourself healed!”
“Let go,” Renji said.
“Forget it!” Haruhiro replied. “Mary, now!”
“Understood!” Mary etched the hexagon emblem in the air as she ran towards them and pressed her palm to Renji. “O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [CURE]!”
As soon as the God of Light’s spell took effect, Renji stopped resisting. Haruhiro didn’t know whether he resigned himself to getting healed or what, but he no longer tried to move. Mary healed Renji’s head and shoulder injuries first, then pressed her hand to the deep gashes on his chest and ribs. But no matter how many times Mary healed him, there were so many wounds, it seemed like she would never be done. Renji’s breathing was labored and his face looked ashen as well. He had lost too much blood.
Ranta was busy with one of Zoran’s underlings and Yume with another. Yet another was coming for the exposed Shihoru and Haruhiro intercepted it with [SWAT] just in time.
“That’s enough,” Renji said, cutting down the orc that had attacked Shihoru with one savage blow of Ishh Dogrann’s sword before running towards Zoran. “Outta the way, dimwit!” he said to Mogzo. “Zoran’s my opponent!”
“No way!” Mogzo said. “Don’t try to take him alone!”
Mogzo shifted to his left, leaving a spot open on the right. Renji moved in smoothly, filling the gap. It was two versus one now.
“And I’m not a dimwit!” he yelled. Mogzo swung his sword in all directions endlessly. In his all-out offensive. He never paused, even for breath.
Renji also made Ishh Dogrann’s blade dance in his hands. To Haruhiro, the two of them were the amalgamation of power and finesse; Mogzo with the power and Renji the finesse. Mogzo fought with strength, Renji with technique. Between the two of them, even the dual-wielding Zoran had his hands full fending off their attacks. The scene before his eyes was so incredible, Haruhiro could hardly believe it.
“That’s right!” Renji replied. “No, you’re not! Show me what you’ve got, Mogzo!”
He was like a different person… or perhaps Mogzo was really like this all along. He must have been called dimwitted and dumb all the time. They couldn’t remember who they were or where they were from before they had come to Grimgar, but the effects of the relentless teasing must have remained with him. That’s why Mogzo never had much self-confidence.
But then he joined with Haruhiro and the others. They fought together and struggled together, and Mogzo had become an outstanding person. Mogzo was the core of their team. If something happened to Haruhiro, then Mary could fill the role of leader and the team would be able to move on. But without Mogzo, they would be in trouble. He was irreplaceable and everyone knew it. Mogzo was the most dependable of all of them and he knew that the team relied on him.
He remembered that now and his self-confidence had returned with a vengeance. Finally, he was fighting at his full potential. And it wasn’t just in this battle, his newfound confidence would serve in all the ones to come, too.
Renji had misjudged. Mogzo truly belonged with Team Renji. But since Renji had underestimated him and passed him up, he had joined Haruhiro’s team instead. For that, Haruhiro felt obligated to thank Renji for giving them the chance to meet Mogzo and having things work out this way.
“Letting boys do all the fighting ain’t my style!” Kajiko said and attacked Zoran from the back.
Zoran sidestepped and jumped back. The orc boss ran. That Zoran Zesshu was actually running away from them.
“We split the reward evenly!” Kajiko shouted.
“Back off!” Renji demanded.
Kajiko’s reply was to chase after Zoran. Renji and Mogzo weren’t far behind.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!” Ranta shouted.
Avaael. The orc shaman shot a stream of fire at Ranta, who couldn’t avoid it and was engulfed instantly by the flames. Avaael was nimble and quick, using hit and run tactics to avoid being attacked. Ranta and the others were having a horrible time trying to pin him down.
“Mary! To Ranta!” Haruhiro said.
“I know!” Mary acknowledged.
“Yume, cover Shihoru!” he said next.
“Waah!” came Yume’s reply.
“Waah? What’s that supposed to mean!?” Haruhiro asked, having no idea what she was saying.
It didn’t matter because Yume shifted over to stand closer to Shihoru. Maybe she meant to say “yeah”…
“Oom rel eckt pram das!” Shihoru chanted.
Shihoru’s [SHADOW COMPLEX] spell hit its target and caused it to fall into a state of confusion, but it was like a bucket of water on a goddamn forest fire. There were more than ten of Zoran’s honor guard orcs left, not to mention Zoran himself and Avaael. They only had Team Renji’s five, Team Haruhiro’s six, four remaining from the Wild Angels, and three other scattered reservists. Wait… that means they won? No, they had the advantage in numbers but it hardly meant victory.
Avaael toasted another reservist with his fire stream attack. The guy took the brunt of it and went down. Crap, someone had to heal him. Actually, his clothing was distinctly Priest class. Even if it was on fire. In that case, he would have to take care of himself. Even if he wasn’t in any condition to. Because neither Chibi nor Mary could be spared to heal him.
“We’re going after Avaael!” Haruhiro declared.
Mogzo, Renji, and Kajiko were too busy with Zoran. Ron was covering Sassa, Chibi, and Adachi and wasn’t in a position to move.
“Mako, Kikuno, Azusa!” Haruhiro called, recalling the names of the remaining members of the Wild Angels. “Avaael is the priority!”
Each of the three was engaged with one of Zoran’s guards, but one of them had just finished off her opponent. She was a Warrior almost as big as Kajiko. Avaael was probably waiting for that exact moment. The orc shaman shuffled quickly towards her and opened up the flask at his belt. Insects came swarming out. Before the woman could react, the swarm of insects was on her. She screamed.
The woman attempted to swat the bugs away. It was a reflexive response and Haruhiro couldn’t blame her, but it was still not the right reaction. Instead, she needed to get some distance between herself and Avaael, and this time, the shaman didn’t run. Instead, he purposely approached her, intending to do… something. But maybe this was his chance, and even as Haruhiro thought that, he was moving.
Avaael was armed with a short mace. He clobbered the woman in the knee first and then smashed it into her head. The woman’s helm prevented the blow from being lethal, but she still went down in a heap. Avaael then spun around. Crap! The shaman had noticed Haruhiro’s approach.
“Gashu grasha!” the shaman hissed, swinging the mace at Haruhiro.
The mace wasn’t large, so Haruhiro could have deflected it with his dagger but he was already ducking out of reflex before he realized what he was doing. Avaael was running away before Haruhiro even managed to straighten.
“He’s fast!” Haruhiro gasped.
As he went after the shaman, Haruhiro wondered if he was making the correct decision. Right or wrong, he had no idea, but he knew that letting Avaael run around doing whatever he wanted wasn’t good. The shaman was too dangerous. He could whittle their numbers down one by one until the orcs had the advantage again.
Haruhiro was terrified though. Could someone like him handle Avaael alone? He didn’t think Avaael was the type of opponent that anyone could handle alone.
“Whoa!” Haruhiro hurriedly threw himself to the ground again because Avaael had suddenly turned around and Haruhiro thought that the shaman was going to throw another attack at him.
Haruhiro’s instincts were right. A jet of flame roared over his head. If he had been a half second slower to react, he would have been caught and roasted alive. Avaael ran again and Haruhiro pushed himself back up to chase; this time though, he kept a little more distance between them. This isn’t going to work, Haruhiro thought to himself. He couldn’t catch Avaael and even if he could, there was the problem of what to do once he did.
He was worried about his companions, but he knew he couldn’t take his eyes off Avaael, even for a moment. Meanwhile, Avaael occasionally stole looks back at Haruhiro. Then all of a sudden, Haruhiro lost sight of him. The shaman was gone. Haruhiro stopped cold in his tracks.
“Osshu!” barked one of Zoran’s underlings as he attacked Haruhiro.
Haruhiro dodged and backed away, but another orc came charging at him from behind. Just as the second orc got into attack range, Haruhiro twisted sharply away to let the second orc crash head-on into the first one. While the two orcs untangled themselves, Haruhiro slipped away. He scanned the room as he moved. How could he have suddenly lost sight of Avaael?
It wasn’t possible. The ground floor was entirely open space so he would find the shaman sooner or later if he kept looking. But no matter how much Haruhiro searched, the shaman was nowhere to be found. Avaael had simply disappeared. Now that he thought about it, Avaael always seemed to disappear and reappear. But that was impossible, of course. Actually, Avaael was simply dodging behind the other orcs and then appearing again when everyone’s attention had turned elsewhere.
Haruhiro wanted Avaael to think that he had turned his attention elsewhere, too. To Avaael, Haruhiro had lost interest and forgotten about him. Then the shaman would come out to attack. So when Avaael appeared again and began moving towards Ron, Sassa, and the others, Haruhiro pretended not to see. Or maybe it was towards the two remaining Wild Angels members? Wait, or was it towards Renji, Mogzo, and Kajiko? Damn, the shaman’s movements were hard to predict.
Is that how Avaael closed in and attacked by surprise? In that case, Haruhiro mimicked him. Like the Thief he was, Haruhiro stole Avaael’s movement techniques. Then, he figured it out. Avaael’s next target.
It was Adachi. Team Renji’s Mage was using Kanon water and ice spells to obstruct and injure enemy orcs. Avaael was intending to get into range to throw a fire spell at Adachi but the moment before the shaman could, Haruhiro struck with [BACKSTAB].
Just before Haruhiro’s dagger found its mark, Avaael twisted around. Haruhiro’s dagger sunk itself into the shaman’s left shoulder. Haruhiro’s attack had failed, but rather than counterattack, Avaael ran. It seemed that the orc shaman was the type who didn’t engage in a fight unless the odds were overwhelmingly in his favor. He sure was meticulous. It was cowardly, yeah, but smart too. Cunning.
With that, Avaael probably figured Haruhiro out. The shaman knew that Haruhiro had stolen his strategy and was using it against him now. The same thing wouldn’t work twice. He couldn’t let Avaael get away again. If he did, the shaman would constantly be on his guard for the same trick and there would no longer be any openings for Haruhiro to exploit.
“[MODIFIED PROPEL LEAP]!”
Avaael yelped in surprise. In that moment, he had no idea what happened. The orc shaman never imagined that some human would fly at him from the side and attack him with his butt. Eating Ranta’s ass attack, the shaman stumbled back. What the hell is up with Ranta’s timing!? It was perfect. Too good. So good it was dirty.
Now that the fight was completely in their favor, Haruhiro was confident he could finish it even if the line didn’t appear for him. Being extra cautious, Haruhiro used [WIDOW MAKER] rather than [BACKSTAB]. He jumped onto Avaael’s back, put the shaman in a full nelson hold, then jammed his dagger up under the shaman’s chin in a single, swift motion before leaping away.
“NOOOOO!” Ranta groaned.
Was the kid an idiot? Yeah, he was. Ranta lifted up his long sword then brought it diagonally down onto Avaael’s neck but it only cut halfway through. Ranta then kicked the orc to dislodge his sword and swung again. And again, then a third time until Avaael moved no more.
“YES!” exclaimed Ranta. “Got my fifty gold! AND a Vice!”
Ranta was Ranta and would always be Ranta. It was really quite admirable. Or not. Yeah, not.
“Only Zoran now!” Haruhiro said.
Several of Zoran’s underlings were left, but Zoran Zesshu was the priority. With the ever present danger of Avaael’s backup out of the picture now, it was truly three on one. They could win.
“MOG—!” Just as Haruhiro called out to Mogzo, Zoran jumped into the air.
The orc boss somersaulted forward, avoiding Kajiko’s swing at his back and flew away from Mogzo and Renji who were attacking from the front.
“What—!?” exclaimed Renji.
“Damn it!” Kajiko cursed.
“Huh?” said Mogzo.
Zoran let out a long, ear-shattering roar and then spun. He added several full rotations to his front flip before landing. Then he began to spin horizontally like a top. He was fast and the spin was incredibly powerful. Renji and Mogzo couldn’t do anything but back away, and even then, they didn’t back up fast enough. Both their swords got caught by Zoran’s rotating blades and Renji and Mogzo were sent flying.
The orc then pressed the attack on Mogzo without hesitation. When Renji approached to back Mogzo up, Zoran turned to him immediately, using a single, powerful sword stroke to drive Renji back. The orc then slashed at Mogzo again with both blades.
Kajiko let out another high-pitched cry as she attacked Zoran from behind. Zoran spun around and forced her to retreat with one swing then another of each of his double blades. Then he turned his attention to Mogzo once more, going after the human stubbornly and methodically. When Renji attempted to interfere, Zoran swiftly did that forward somersault-spin combo and returned his focus on Mogzo.
Why? Why was Zoran so intently focused on only him? Mogzo was barely blocking the orc boss’ attacks with his sword; his plate armor was in tatters and his helm dented and crushed in. It was like Zoran was whittling Mogzo down little by little. Haruhiro wanted to help, but he didn’t know how.
Emboldened by Zoran’s vicious offensive, the other orcs started to chant “Osshu! Osshu!” as they attacked the humans anew. One of them came after Haruhiro, too, and even as he blocked with [SWAT] he knew that he was outmatched. The orc was too strong and its attacks nearly ripped the dagger out of his hand.
“PARUPIROOOO!” Ranta shouted.
Ranta’s backup arrived just in time to prevent Haruhiro from getting into a really bad situation. But why the hell is he calling me that!? Ranta did save him though.
“Argh!” Kajiko yelped as Zoran’s blade ripped her helm off her head. Her entire face was covered in blood.
“Get her away from here!” Renji shouted angrily, and one of the three remaining Wild Angels members came and dragged Kajiko away.
They were finished. The fight was lost. Haruhiro really thought that they could win when Kajiko and the Wild Angels arrived but he was wrong. Zoran Zesshu was not Ishh Dogrann. He was just too strong. He wasn’t an orc, he was a goddamn monster. But Haruhiro also noticed something… something off about Zoran that he couldn’t quite describe. Balance. Yes, that was it. Balance. What about it? Zoran’s body, the orc’s left and right sides. Whenever Haruhiro turned to look, Zoran was always turning to his left. The exception was when he did that spinning attack, he spun to his right. Why? Haruhiro couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it nagged at him.
“PARUPIRO QUIT SPACING OUT!” Ranta yelled.
Haruhiro wasn’t spacing out though. And he wasn’t Parupiro either. Ranta might think he was daydreaming, but Haruhiro’s mind was racing. And he had a feeling that he was onto something significant. Zoran was dual-wielding, but… could Zoran possibly be left-handed? What made him think that?
Because of the occasional stiffness in Zoran’s movements. He handled the sword in his left hand way more smoothly than the sword in his right. The orc never really swung the sword in his right hand up and down. All he did was thrust it forward, and it seemed like the muscles in that entire sword arm were tensed all the time… like they were overexerting themselves to prop something up.
An old shoulder injury or wound to his right side, for example. If not, then Zoran wouldn’t be moving like that. It wasn’t as if he was doing it on purpose, but flesh and bone naturally worked around injuries like that. Renji and Mogzo were fighting Zoran up close and they probably didn’t notice. Haruhiro was watching from afar, so he picked up on the slight incongruity.
So what now?
“Ranta!” Haruhiro said.
“What!?” replied Ranta.
“Do you want a hundred gold!?”
“HELL YEAH! Why even ask!?”
“Then you’re gonna have to draw Zoran’s attention!” said Haruhiro. “You’re the only one who can do it!”
“Ha! So you’ve finally figured out how to use me to my full potential!” Ranta declared. “Tell me what to do!”
Haruhiro quickly explained. Ranta’s job was dangerous, but not difficult. For a Dread Knight like Ranta, it wasn’t about succeeding or failing, all he had to do was try. That made it easy. The problem was communicating the plan to Renji and Mogzo.
“Mogzo! Renji!” Haruhiro called. “Zoran’s got a habit of favoring his left when he turns! He’s weak on his right side! Maybe an old injury or something! Ranta’s gonna attack head-on! You two hit him from behind!”
Did they understand what he was talking about? And even if they did, would they be able to pull it off? There was no way to be sure. Haruhiro glanced in Mary’s direction. She and Yume were covering Shihoru, fending off attacks from Zoran’s underlings. Shihoru was casting [Shadow Bind] at an orc further away.
Choco… I hope you’re still alive. But her prone form was on the ground, lifeless. Once you’re dead, everything is finished. And so it was time to finish this, too. Time to bring things to an end.
“Ranta, you ready!?” Haruhiro asked.
“I’m a hundred gold ready!” came Ranta’s reply.
“That’s the spirit!” Haruhiro took off towards Zoran at a run, even as the orc rained vicious blows down on Mogzo and Renji.
Zoran was sharp. Haruhiro was moving to get into position at Zoran’s back, but Zoran saw him coming from a mile away. But that was fine, because…
“Hey, pigface!” Ranta taunted, jumping out right in front of Zoran. “I’m more than enough for a wimp like you! You hear me, pigface!? Fight me, you big, fat piggy!” Ranta thrust the point of his longsword at Zoran’s face in a dramatic pose.
Yeah, he distracted Zoran just like Haruhiro wanted but damn, Ranta was crass. Even if orcs didn’t speak the same language, he figured Zoran knew that he was being insulted—and it pissed the orc off immediately. Zoran did a front-flip and started spinning again, shouting his rage all the while.
Rather than get knocked back, Ranta jumped back first in an attempt to avoid Zoran’s spinning blades but it wasn’t far enough. When he landed, he was still in range of Zoran’s attack.
“GAWRRRRRRRR!” Zoran roared.
“Idiot!” Ranta scoffed. “I see right through you, pig—[PROPEL LEAP]!”
It seemed like Ranta had pushed his luck too far and was now frantically trying to get away, but every time he used [PROPEL LEAP] to put distance between them, Zoran immediately closed the gap. It was exactly as Haruhiro planned. In battle, Mogzo and Renji were way more skilled than Ranta. If Ranta was fighting Zoran one-on-one, Ranta would definitely lose. However, it wasn’t as if the two of them did everything better than Ranta. There was one thing neither of them could match Ranta in.
When Zoran performed that somersault-spin combo, there wasn’t anything Renji and Mogzo could do but defend with their swords. It wasn’t just the first time, when the technique had caught them by surprise, but every time after that too. Neither Mogzo nor Renji were dumb enough to let themselves get caught a second time, but even if they knew the technique was coming, all they could do was block. The attack was too fast and the range was too long for the two Warriors to properly avoid it.
But Ranta could and did dodge it. Part of it was the [PROPEL LEAP] skill, because it allowed those of the Dread Knight class to disengage from an opponent when Warriors couldn’t. In other words, a Dread Knight like Ranta was better equipped to counter that technique than Warriors like Renji and Mogzo.
“GAWRRRR! GAWRRRRRR!” Zoran chased.
“[PROPEL LEAP]! [PROPEL LEAP]!” Ranta retreated.
The orc boss was infuriated. He couldn’t seem to catch Ranta, which enraged him beyond reason. Thanks to that, Haruhiro was now at Zoran’s back, chasing. So were Renji and Mogzo.
“Remember, he favors his left!” Haruhiro said.
If they were going to attack, it would have to be from the right or the back. Zoran rapidly countered attacks from the left, so if they hit him from the right or from behind, where Zoran was a touch slower, they would have time. Not a lot of it, but some.
“Hahaha!” Ranta laughed. “You can’t kill me if you can’t catch me!”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when Zoran roared and attacked with the somersault-spin combo again. And once more, Ranta used [PROPEL LEAP] to dodge it. However, the moment Zoran came out of his spin, Renji attacked from the right. It was a single silent, swift, sharp and savage strike. He had approached quickly and quietly, then chopped down at Zoran with his sword. And Zoran’s reaction was… just as Haruhiro expected.
The orc spun towards his left, swinging the sword in his left hand in a backhanded arc, and blocked Renji just in time. But it was close. One fraction of a moment slower, and Renji would’ve had him. Though the attack had failed, it was still different this time as Zoran’s sword was knocked aside. But the orc was dual-wielding. He swung his other sword at Renji’s stomach.
Renji had put everything he had into that one attack, betting that it would connect. He hadn’t left any way to defend himself if it failed and now he was wide open. Zoran got him.
“Ugh…!” Renji groaned as Zoran’s sword connected with armor. It didn’t penetrate through the steel plates, but it was a clean hit. Renji went down.
Shit! His plan had failed. Haruhiro stopped in his tracks, but Mogzo kept going.
[RAGE CLEAVE] or not, it was too reckless. Mogzo had put all his power into the technique, bringing his sword up high overhead and slashing down diagonally. But Zoran wasn’t caught by surprise this time. The orc was ready and waiting. Zoran didn’t even block; the orc was faster so he attacked first. He hit Mogzo in the left shoulder, then the upper right arm, then the right forearm, then the right hip, and finally the head. Zoran’s sword came crashing into the upper left side of Mogzo’s head.
Haruhiro didn’t even know that plate mail and helm could withstand such a beating. None of Zoran’s blows had cut through the armor, but that didn’t mean Mogzo was okay. His plate mail was dented and unrecognizably misshapen. There was no way Mogzo was alright underneath it, but he was still standing. He wasn’t even on one knee or bent over or anything. He was still standing tall and firm.
Oh yeah… the [STEEL GUARD] technique. It allowed Warriors to reinforce their armor and defense for up to twenty minutes to deflect any attack an enemy could throw at them. But to Haruhiro, it didn’t look like any of Zoran’s attacks were being deflected. Mogzo was taking hit after hit. How much longer could he last? As tough as Mogzo was, no one could take that kind of abuse indefinitely.
Which meant that there was only one thing Haruhiro could do. He moved without thinking. Haruhiro was a Thief. He was a coward who always positioned himself behind an enemy’s back and this time was no different. Zoran’s attention was wholly on Mogzo. The orc must have been wondering why the human he was pounding relentlessly refused to go down. Strange, weird, inexplicable, Zoran would’ve thought. Maybe the orc was even starting to get worried.
Haruhiro approached Zoran, aiming for his back. What about the line? No such luck. It didn’t matter. Haruhiro knew where he had to target. Zoran was wearing bright crimson plate armor and a helm, but between the helm and chest plate was a small gap. Probably wide enough for his dagger to slip through. Zoran was tall, so Haruhiro reversed his grip on his weapon. He brought it up, aiming for the space between Zoran’s neck and upper back.
His dagger slipped through the opening and pierced into flesh. In that instant, Zoran’s entire body stiffened. Haruhiro pulled the knife out and was about to stab it in again, but Zoran spun to his left and attacked, forcing Haruhiro to jump away.
Just as Haruhiro hit the ground, Mogzo came in again with [RAGE CLEAVE], catching the orc boss right in between neck and shoulder. Zoran viciously kicked Mogzo away, and then began to scramble away from them. I won’t let you run! Haruhiro grabbed Zoran’s right leg. Zoran immediately stamped his heel into Haruhiro’s head and for a moment, Haruhiro blacked out.
When he came to, Kajiko had reengaged. Ron was also nearby. Adachi was hitting Zoran with Kanon magic while Chibi smashed her staff into him. Ranta was also attacking and Shihoru fired [SHADOW ECHO] at Zoran. Yume was slashing frantically with her kukri while Mary pounded on him with her own staff.
Still dizzy from being kicked in the head, Haruhiro wasn’t sure what was going on, but it seemed like everyone had ganged up on Zoran and was beating the shit out of him. He sort of understood the reason. Zoran was scary as hell and everyone wanted him dead. Yes, Zoran was terrifying beyond words.
The orc boss was on the ground now and no longer defending himself. Was he still alive? Haruhiro had no idea. What about the orcs in his elite guard? There were a few left, but the majority of them were dead and none of the ones left alive were in any position to help their boss. Now the numbers advantage was firmly on the reservists’ side. The entire Wild Angels clan, the reservists that had stayed out of the fighting before now, all of them had reappeared. They surrounded the remaining orcs and would finish them off soon.
Haruhiro touched a hand to his head. No blood. But when he got stomped, his nose and chin had smashed into the ground and he was bleeding from somewhere. It was also a little hard to breathe, so maybe his nose was broken?
“That’s enough,” Renji said, getting back to his feet.
He pushed Kajiko, his own teammates, and Haruhiro’s companions aside as he approached Zoran. Ranta, seemingly angry about something, refused to move. Renji slugged him in the face. He raised Ishh Dogrann’s sword high overhead. No one attempted to stop him. Renji brought his sword down, neatly decapitating Zoran.
“There. It’s done,” Renji declared.
Silence fell in the room.
“Watch out!” someone shouted.
Several of the remaining orcs in the room shouted something their language and tried to attack the Wild Angels. They were beaten back.
“Haru!” Mary came running. “Are you alright?”
Haruhiro nodded. He wanted to say something, but his voice wouldn’t work properly.
“A HUNDRED GOLD!” Ranta leapt into the air. “YES!”
“Renji’s the one who killed him!” Sassa protested, to which Kajiko shouted, “We split it evenly!”
Haruhiro didn’t really care what they did with the money. Well, maybe he cared a little because it was an unfathomable sum. He could use it to learn new skills, or move into more private housing, or buy arms and armor, and plenty else. Maybe armor first. His gear had gotten pretty worn down, so it would have to be repaired or replaced.
Ugh… he couldn’t think straight. All of the remaining orcs were dead now and Shihoru was crying in relief that it was all over. Yume wrapped an arm around the Mage’s shoulders, patting her head and whispering, “It’s okay, it’s alright… I’m glad it’s over too…”
“Can you stand?” Mary asked him.
Yes. Wait, no. The lie had bubbled to his lips unwittingly, because if he said no, maybe Mary would be nice and sympathetic to him… but he decided against it.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Haruhiro said, getting to his feet. “Forget about me though, I’m more worried about—”
Why was Mogzo just standing there? Everyone else was celebrating the victory, arguing about the money, getting healed or whatever but Mogzo was just standing there. And something seemed off. Both his arms hung limp at his sides and he was no longer holding his sword. Actually, Haruhiro was amazed that he was still able to stand.
In his condition, just being on his feet in and of itself was an impressive feat. His helm wasn’t just a misshapen mess, it was slanted off to one side on his head. Blood seeped from all over and trickled to the ground. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he started to fall over. He fell as if the supports holding up something heavy had suddenly been removed.
Mary’s breath caught in her throat. Haruhiro called his name.
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