Chapter 8 – Meat Shield
LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
Chapter 8: Meat Shield
The sky was still dark but the vicinity just outside Altana’s northern gate was lively and boisterous. The division assigned to the attack on Capomorti Fortress was called the Azure Snake Brigade. The soldiers from the regular army consisted of five hundred Warriors, a hundred Paladins, a hundred Hunters, and around seventy Priests. They were led by Brigadier General Ren Waters. Thirty-seven Crimson Moon parties were assigned to the Azure Snake Brigade as a detached brigade, totaling a hundred and ninety seven reservists under Commander Bri, short for Brittany.
Others were present too, including townsfolk who came to see the brigade off and curious onlookers, as well as with opportunistic merchants attempting to sell their wares. There must have been over a thousand people gathered; no wonder the area was full of clamor and noise.
On the other hand, the force being sent to Steelbone Stronghold, called the Ruby Snake Brigade, consisted of a thousand Warriors, three hundred Paladins, two hundred Dread Knights, a three-hundred member strong cavalry unit, and a healer corps composed of five hundred Priests. The regulars of Ruby Snake Brigade alone were eighteen hundred men strong and were led by General Graham Lasentora himself. Add to that fifty-five Crimson Moon parties, over three hundred highly mobile reservists centering around Souma’s Daybreakers, and it was a force to be reckoned with.
Altana’s defense was left to the remaining members of the regular army under the command of Brigadier General Ian Latti. Haruhiro had heard of both Latti and Lasentora, but knew neither personally.
General Waters had been standing near the doors of the north gate the entire time. Manly and handsomely clad in shining off-white armor, he looked like the old-fashioned, meticulous sort. While he didn’t seem like a bad person to Haruhiro, he seemed to regard the reservists with a condescending air, which made him come off as just a bit arrogant. Emblazed on his armor was the hexagonal sigil of Luminous, the God of Light, which must have meant that he was a Paladin.
The Azure Snake Brigade ranks were formed up in a way that could be easily understood, even to those uninitiated in military matters; Paladins and Priests stood closest to General Waters, followed by the Warriors behind them, and finally the Hunters. The Crimson Moon members milled about at the rear of the formation, their reservist ranks messy and disorganized compared to the neat rows of the regular military, even with officers occasionally barking at them to form up properly. Moreover, the reservists were grouped by party and everyone meandered about, and sat or stood as they wished.
The faint-hearted part of Haruhiro wondered if behaving so casually at a time like this was really okay, but no one else seemed to be worried about it. Reservists were irregulars and a separately commanded division for all intents and purposes, so they were mostly left alone. The regular army soldiers must have looked at them and thought, ‘We’re different from that bunch of idiots standing behind us so we don’t give a damn anyway.’
It wasn’t like Haruhiro had any friends amongst the regulars, but having lived in Altana for a while now, he sensed the divide between the regulars and the reservists. And besides, Crimson Moon was full of foreigners and outsiders who couldn’t be trusted anyways. In fact, they weren’t even liked by the locals.
The exceptions were people like Souma, whose track record and reputation set him above the rest. The problem was, reservists like him were all attached to the Ruby Snake Brigade which naturally left Azure Snake Brigade with the dregs. The thought made Haruhiro, whose party was at the rock bottom of the dreg pool, want to crawl under a rock to hide.
There was one clan among them that deserved at least a passing glance, however. The Wild Angels, led by Kajiko, stood out like a sore thumb amongst the other trash-tier reservists present. The Wild Angels were an exclusively female clan, and all of them were dressed in white cloaks with a white feather affixed to their headgear, be it a helm, cap, bandana, or headband.
Not only were they all women—they wouldn’t even let men come anywhere near them. If a guy tried to approach, he would be threatened loudly until he was forced to back off. All of the Wild Angel members were scary. Especially the tall, terrifyingly beautiful Kajiko, who wielded a katana-like long-sword. It was her eyes. Haruhiro swore that one look from those eyes was enough to kill. There was one other party here that gave off the same air of overwhelming formidability.
Renji and his party arrived at the same time as Haruhiro, but the grandeur of Renji’s presence among the reservist ranks alone was like a low rumbling echo and Haruhiro found that the sight of his towering, fully upright form was so radiant that he couldn’t stand looking at the other directly for long. Slung across Renji’s back was the sword that had once belonged to the orc Ishh Dogrann.
Renji’s previous sword had gone to Ron, who was crouched nearby. Renji regarded the scene before him impassively, like a lord regarding his subjects while Ron stared overtly at Renji. The skin-headed Ron’s presence was clearly overshadowed by Renji’s, but the gaze of someone who had such blatant tendencies towards violence wasn’t something that everyone could simply ignore. Renji, however, seemed perfectly unperturbed.
Behind them was a very ‘adult’ looking Sassa, who had apparently set her sex appeal meter to overload before coming. Black-rimmed glasses boy Adachi looked as if he surely possessed genius that could shake any world to its foundations. Next to Renji was the diminutive and unbearably adorable Chibi. Just on the account of being on Team Renji, she must have possessed some sort of mind-blowing secret mascot ability hidden in that tiny frame of hers. That was exactly the kind of power Renji’s existence lent to those around him.
He even seemed to have the attention of the intractable Kajiko, who had been openly staring at him for some time now. If Renji noticed, he thoroughly ignored her. For the future’s sake, Haruhiro hoped that the two wouldn’t become sparks that started any wildfires, but maybe he was just worrying too much. No, he was definitely worrying too much. Both the Wild Angels and Team Renji were like gods, or goddesses, compared to Haruhiro. They weren’t even the same species of human being.
Haruhiro suddenly spotted Choco. He gave her a nod in greeting, which caused her to immediately drop her gaze to the ground. Haruhiro’s party was lined up behind the main army, at the very back of the reservist ranks. Muster order was decided by experience and ability, so Haruhiro supposed that it was appropriate that they were at the very back. Except that Choco’s party was positioned ahead of them.
Was he really okay with that? Yeah, he was.
From the looks of it, Choco’s party was led by a handsome, nonchalant Warrior whose looks probably made him pretty popular with the ladies. His party was formed up around him in a circle with everyone chattering away at him, so there was probably no mistake that he was the leader. The girl with short hair who was with Choco the day Haruhiro first encountered her at the lodge was also there. Her clothing made it clear she was a Mage. They also had a male dressed in Priest’s robes and two other males outfitted like Warriors. One of the Warriors was a very tall, dour and unfriendly looking fellow; the other seemed something like a bit of an oafish goof. The Oaf Warrior was making obvious passes at Choco, who seemed highly annoyed by his unwanted advances.
Quit it, already. You’re pissing me off, was the first thought that came to Haruhiro’s mind but he also knew that he had no right to be angry. That guy was Choco’s teammate and companion, while Haruhiro on the other hand had talked to her a grand total of twice.
Next to him, Mogzo was breathing hard. Excited for the battle to come, maybe? Or just plain nervous? From the way he kept taking off his helm and putting it back on, Haruhiro guessed the latter. He patted—more like pounded—Mogzo on the back.
“What’s the matter, Mogzo?” Haruhiro asked. “Nervous?”
“Yeah, a little,” Mogzo admitted, then amended, “Okay, a lot.”
“I don’t blame you, this is a first for everyone,” said Haruhiro.
“You don’t seem nervous at all though,” Mogzo pointed out.
“I guess I’m doing a pretty good job of hiding it then,” Haruhiro replied.
Even though he wasn’t perfectly calm, Haruhiro was actually not that nervous. He had hardly gotten any sleep so he was more sleepy now than anything else.
Yume made a strange giggling sound and declared, “Haru’s always stout-chested!”
“Uh… I have no idea what that means,” Haruhiro said.
“Hmm… I think she means stout-hearted,” Shihoru said, doing her best to interpret.
“Stout ‘hearted’?” Yume repeated, cocking her head to the side.
“Oh,” Haruhiro said then added, “Stout-chested means something different, Yume. At least it’s better than Ranta’s ‘broad-hearted’ though…”
“Ohhh…” Yume nodded in understanding, then raised her hand, palm out towards Haruhiro. “Broad!”
Haruhiro reached up, met her palm with his own with a smack and asked, “Broad?”
“Chested!” Yume exclaimed as she offered her other hand.
“Chested?” Haruhiro took the cue nonetheless, high-fived her with his other hand, and now they had their hands up in the air, both their palms touching the other’s.
What the heck is going on…? Haruhiro thought.
Yume then gave both his hands a firm squeeze and said, “Broad-chested!”
“Uh… right,” Haruhiro replied. “Okay?”
“It’s a salute to the broad-chested!” Yume explained.
“Yume doesn’t really get it either,” she said. “It’s just instinct.”
“Instinct…” Haruhiro repeated.
For some reason, Haruhiro suddenly found himself looking in Choco’s direction again. Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, she just happened to be looking at him as well. As soon as they saw each other, Choco dropped her gaze to the ground just like before. Haruhiro had a bad feeling about this…
“Uh, Yume?” he said. “Can you let go of my hands now?”
“Oh. Right,” Yume said, as if she had forgotten. “Um, Haru? Hey, Haru?”
“Yume noticed just now, but why are your hands so warm?”
Haruhiro touched his left palm with the fingers of his right hand. Yume was right, it was pretty warm. But isn’t this normal? He didn’t know though, because it wasn’t like he noticed these sorts of things.
Mogzo had returned to nervously putting on and taking off his helm repeatedly once more. It seemed like Mogzo’s nervousness wasn’t so easily dissipated. Still, Haruhiro had a feeling that it wasn’t a good idea to just leave him in that state and was about to say something reassuring, but Mary beat him to it.
“Mogzo,” she called.
“Hrmph?” Mogzo half yelped.
Hrmph? What’s a ‘hrmph’? Mogzo’s expression was akin to that of a land animal encountering a deep sea fish for the first time.
Mary placed a hand on his shoulder and said, “Deep breaths, Mogzo.”
“D-d-deep breaths?” Mogzo asked, but did what he was told anyway, inhaling then exhaling slowly.
“Good,” Mary said. “Nice and easy now…”
“R-right,” Mogzo inhaled again, then exhaled once more.
“One more time, calmly.”
Mogzo did so, and when he exhaled a final time said, “I think I feel a little better now.”
“Breathing is normally automatic,” Mary started to explain. “So if you actually concentrate on doing it consciously, it also gives you a chance to get a grip on your emotions and the like. Whenever I can’t seem to calm down, I just stop and take a few deep breaths.”
“T-thanks, Mary,” said Mogzo. “I feel like a bundle of raw nerves…”
“That’s probably because—” Haruhiro started to say, but cut himself off.
For a moment, Haruhiro considered whether or not it would be better to stay silent. In the end though, he decided to say it anyway. Now was a good opportunity and he had been wanting to say it for a long time. Never having had the chance had started to bother him.
“That’s probably because our entire team depends on you so much,” Haruhiro continued. “It probably puts an unfair amount of pressure on you to perform.”
“A-ah… but that’s… I don’t…” Mogzo stuttered.
“But to be honest, I don’t think we can stop relying on you any time soon,” Haruhiro admitted. “Of course you’re our Warrior and our frontline tank, but it’s not just that. It’s because you’ve clearly demonstrated that you’re someone who we can depend on without fail. So have more confidence in yourself! Out of all of us, you’re the one who’s improved the most. There’s no one else here who has come further than you and we all know it.”
“Bullshit!” Ranta sprung to his feet like an angry ape. “I’m the one who’s improved the most, retard! Forget Mogzo! If Mogzo is level twenty-five then I’d be level thirty!”
“Isn’t that difference too modest for you?” Haruhiro said dryly.
“WHAT!?” Ranta exclaimed. “Uhhh… in that case… if Mogzo is level twenty-five then I’d be level fifty!”
“Raising yourself rather than lowering Mogzo, huh,” Haruhiro pointed out.
“Hell yeah! I’m a GOD among mortals!” Ranta declared loudly.
“Everyone around us is laughing at you,” Shihoru commented with a frosty, humorless smile.
“What!?” exclaimed Ranta. “Uhh… seriously…?”
“Yume thinks Mogzo’s amazin’!” said Yume. “If we didn’t have Mogzo, we’d be in real trouble. He’s like our meat shield!”
The corners of Mary’s mouth twitched ever so slightly as she repeated, “Meat shield?”
“Huh?” Yume blinked. “He can’t be a meat shield? Yume thinks the word’s just darlin’ so it was a compliment!”
“U-umm, I… but…” Mogzo shook his head then nodded immediately after. “It makes me really happy you think so. If I could, then I’d like to become a meat shield.”
“Awesome!” Ranta hugged Mogzo around the shoulders. “That’s my partner—I mean, meat shield—for you!”
“E-er… in your case, I’d rather be your business partner…” Mogzo confessed.
“Oh. Really?” Ranta asked.
Ranta’s unasked for interference earlier pissed Haruhiro off, but Mogzo seemed much calmer now so Haruhiro decided to let it slide. It was a relief because he was not exaggerating when he said that Mogzo was the axis upon which the entire party rotated. The team simply wouldn’t be able to function without him. As long as Mogzo was with them, the team could lose someone like Haruhiro, for example, and still be okay. That’s how crucial Mogzo’s presence was.
“Alright, alright,” Commander Bri clapped his hands loudly. “Everyone, attennnnntion please! Gather around me and listen up! I’m going to explain the plan of attack so quickly now, quickly! Gather up!”