LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
Shihoru suddenly came to apologize as they left the lodge the next day . “I—I’m… I’m sorry! Yume explained everything . Because I thought it was for sure that kind of relationship… I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions…”
Although the apology was all well and good to Haruhiro, he kind of wished that she hadn’t made it with Ranta and Mogzo in earshot .
“Relationship?” Ranta’s nostrils flared as he brought his face close to Haruhiro’s . “What kinda relationship is ‘that’ kinda relationship’? Relationship between who, hmmm?”
Haruhiro leaned away from him . “None of your business . ”
“That ain’t true . Tell me . C’mon! Spit it out!”
“Like Shihoru said, it was just a misunderstanding . ”
“I want to know about every single detail and exactly what sort of ‘misunderstanding’ it was . ”
Yume cut in . “You see—”
Haruhiro, afraid that she was going to say more than necessary again, hoped beyond hope that his fears would turn out groundless . But it was just as he thought .
“Yesterday,” Yume continued, “Yume asked Haru to hold her tight and Shihoru walked in on us . And—”
Mogzo made some sort of surprised choking noise and his eyes went wide .
“What?! What the hell, Haruhiro!” Ranta’s eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets . “Are you serious?! Are you frickin’ serious?! Since when did you get to second base?!”
“What do you mean by ‘second base’—” said Haruhiro, and stopped himself . “No wait, forget it . I told you, it’s not like that—”
“How’s it ‘not like that’?! You were gonna do it but panicked and stopped because Shihoru walked in on you! You had to hit the emergency brake!”
“But Haru was crying…” said Yume, starting to explain .
“Yume,” said Haruhiro, “you didn’t have to mention that…”
“Crying?!” Ranta looked back and forth from Haruhiro to Yume several times, and then ran his hands through his already messy hair . “…I get it now . So that’s what it was all about . In other words… You got rejected . Yume rejected you, then she felt sorry for this eeeeediot and tried to make you feel better . I see . It’s all so obvious now . ”
“You’re completely, absolutely, thoroughly wrong, but whatever . I don’t feel like explaining it to you anymore . ”
“At any rate…” Yume began speaking, completely ignoring Ranta . It was an ability Haruhiro was rather jealous of . “Yume’s decided that she’s going to try to get along with Mary-yan . Shihoru said she’ll try too . ”
Shihoru was hugging her staff, her gaze downwards . “…I don’t think it’s going to work, but I’ll do the best I can . ”
“Get along? With Mary?” Ranta frowned . “Not gonna happen . That girl doesn’t have any intention of being friends with us . ”
Mogzo hung his head . “But—but we can’t keep going the way we are now . We have to at least try convincing her to heal us in fights…”
It was just as Mogzo said . The problem was more than her lack of desire to even try befriending the rest of them . She wouldn’t heal them in battle . More specifically, she would ignore them if the injury was light when they asked her to heal, no matter how much it hurt . Well, not exactly ‘ignore’, and more like ‘outright reject’ . She would only heal them if it was an injury that impeded movement or if it was life-threatening .
Her attitude towards teammates who were in hurt and in pain was unacceptable . Manato used to heal them right away, no matter how slight the injury . Even if it wasn’t a wound that needed attention, him being there for them provided a sense of security in a fight .
With Mary, there was no such peace of mind . What if one of them was badly injured and she suddenly refused to heal them? Everyone was afraid that she would ditch them the moment they needed her the most .
“As a start…” Haruhiro began to speak, looking at each of the others in turn . Each except for Ranta . “We need to build up trust with her . We won’t make any progress without doing that first . Who knows? Mary might have her own way of looking at things . Maybe we’re not getting along with her because we don’t know what she’s thinking . ”
Ranta scoffed . “You sure it isn’t purely because she’s a horrible person? It’s gotta be some sort of disorder . Psychological disorder . Chronic Innately Horrible Personality Syndrome . With no known cure . ”
“But we have to have a Priest…”
“In that case, Haruhiro, you become a Priest! Then it’s goodbyeeeeeeee forever to Mary! It’s settled, then! BEST IDEA EVER! Damn, I’m good!”
Haruhiro had already considered it, but changing his class was best left as a last resort . Going off to scout alone, always positioning himself at the back of an enemy… being a Thief suited him and he was looking forward to improving his skills as one .
Also, he had realized something when speaking with Yume yesterday .
“Ranta,” said Haruhiro .
“Me, you, and Mogzo decided to invite Mary to join the team, right?”
“Yeah, and it was a huge mistake so that’s why I’ve been saying we should kick her out ASAP . ”
“But she became one of us, our teammate and companion, when she accepted, right?”
Ranta seemed as if he was going to say something, but then shut his mouth, turning his gaze downwards . He looked almost ashamed .
Haruhiro continued, clasping his right wrist with his left hand . “Mary is who she is . We can’t suddenly discriminate against her for being who she is . If she always feels that it’s us five versus her, she’ll never feel comfortable around us even if she wanted to . It’s not like she’s a magical healing machine . ”
“True,” Yume said, putting a finger to her chin and nodding . “Mary’s been treating us coldly, but maybe we’ve been treating her the same-yan . ”
Mogzo nodded his head slowly and gave a grunt of agreement .
“May—maybe…” Shihoru said hesitantly as if she didn’t have very much confidence in what she was about to say . “Mary’s actually a good person… on the inside . ”
“NO WAY!” Ranta immediately turned his back to them . “No frickin’ way! There’s no way in hell that’s even possible . She’s a stinkin’ hell-spawned harpy to the core . I don’t care what you guys say, I’m not changing my mind! We should just get rid of her and eeeeediot Haruhiro should become a Priest . ”
“If I become a Priest,” Haruhiro said, “then I won’t heal you no matter what . You’re a Dread Knight . The dark god Skulheill is the enemy of the god of light Luminous . I’m not nice enough to heal my enemies’ wounds . ”
“Disqualified! You’re disqualified from being a Priest! Mogzo! Mogzo’s a… wait, we can’t not have a Warrior so… Yume! You become a Priest!”
“Yume wants a wolf, so she can’t quit being a Hunter,” Yume stated .
“Damn it! Selfish brat! Shihoru! What about you?”
“I… I don’t think I’m suited to be a healer . If anyone gets hurt, I’ll panic and…”
“Useless! All of you are seriously useless! You’re a good-for-nothing bunch, the lot of you! Because of that—” Ranta coughed . “Because of that, it’s… better to have that girl around than not . Just pray that she’s just an ice bitch on the outside… But what if she’s a true ice bitch and suddenly, she falls for me and wants to become my bitch and…”
“Umm… I-I doubt that’s gonna happen…”
“Shut up Mogzo! Mogzo?! I was just told off by Mogzo of all people?! No waaaaaay…”
At any rate, their course of action had been decided . They would treat Mary as one of their own and, hopefully, she would begin to feel like she was part of the team too . Things had to start from somewhere, and everyone agreeing on the first step was indeed a start . Without clearing this first hurdle, there wasn’t any way they could advance .
However, it wouldn’t be an easy path ahead by any means .
Mary was waiting for them at Altana’s northern gate as usual . Haruhiro thought it was best to start off by greeting her properly, so he cheerfully called out, “‘Morning!”
It was just a normal greeting, so why did she have to gaze at him with that terrifyingly cold stare? Was she looking down on him? Trying to ridicule him? It was as if she was saying to him with that gaze, Burn hot, trash . And go rot, ash .
Only after she finished piercing him with her freezing, absolute-zero eyes did she finally reply . “Morning,” she said brusquely . “Hurry up and get going . I’ll follow . ”
So, that’s the way she’s gonna be, huh, Haruhiro thought .
Even so, Yume and Shihoru attempted to engage Mary in conversation while they went to Damroww’s Old Town . Where in Altana did she live? What did she usually have for breakfast and dinner? How long has she been a member of Crimson Moon? The questions were harmless but Mary refused to give any sort of answer .
They endured terse replies such as “Who knows” or “Whatever I feel like”, but when Mary’s temper flared and she replied with “Why does any of that even matter?” both Yume and Shihoru fell silent .
A formidable foe, she was . Well, not really a foe because she was actually their teammate . But even if a normal conversation with her proved impossible, at the very least Haruhiro wanted to improve their teamwork .
Luck was with them that morning, as they chanced upon a group of three goblins . Haruhiro steeled himself for a hard fight and decided to engage . If they could work together as a team and win a fight, things were bound to change for the better .
“Mogzo, Ranta, you guys take one each . Me and Yume will take the third . Shihoru and Mary, support Mogzo and Ranta from range!” Haruhiro commanded .
Even though he had tried calling Mary to support them so normally, what ended up happening was that she just stood there, staring contemptuously at Shihoru as the Mage hit the goblins with [SHADOW ECHO] and [MAGIC MISSILE] . She pretended not to notice Ranta’s wild shout of pain when his left arm was lightly cut .
When Mogzo lost his nerve after being grazed on the temple, she berated him with, “You’re a Warrior, aren’t you?! Why are you backing off just because of that?!”
“Damn it! Who do you think you are?! You’re just standing there not doing shit!” Ranta kicked his goblin with all the strength he could muster .
It went flying backwards, but Ranta quickly closed the distance and thrust his longsword straight out . “[ANGER THRUST]!”
The goblin made a gargling sound as Ranta’s sword went clear through its throat . It struggled violently for a few moments then stopped moving .
Apparently a Dread Knight’s sword techniques and fighting style were based on avoiding true close quarters fighting . It favored medium-range combat, where the Dread Knight would close in only to attack while staying just outside striking range at all other times . Haruhiro had a feeling that what Ranta just did wasn’t exactly the perfect picture of a Dread Knight, but in the end it worked out okay .
With Ranta’s kill, it meant only two more enemies left .
With a grunt of exertion, Mogzo locked blades with his opponent, then used [SPIRAL SLASH] to make the goblin stagger backwards . Without hesitating he followed up with his bastard sword down onto the goblin, giving a shout . The blow split the goblin’s head open and it crumpled to the ground .
One more to go .
“Malik em paluk!” Shihoru chanted, drawing the elemental glyph with her staff .
A beam of light about the width of a fist hit the final goblin square in the head, eliciting a howl . Being hit by [MAGIC MISSLE] was about the same as taking a roundhouse from a fully grown man . The goblin was stunned for only the briefest of moments, but in that slightest of openings, Yume stepped in .
The goblin yelped and leapt diagonally back to avoid the attack . It now had its back to Haruhiro . Now! Haruhiro thought, and his body moved on its own . He inhaled and held his breath as he used [BACKSTAB] . The dagger pierced the goblin at precisely the right point and the blade slid easily through the goblin’s back and exited through its abdomen .
Haruhiro knew for certain that that was the result when the technique was properly executed . The goblin staggered about, as if all its strength had been drained from it . Haruhiro pushed the dagger’s blade deeper up into the goblin, then swiftly pulled it back out . The goblin toppled over and didn’t move again .
“Muwahahahaha!” Ranta stripped a claw from the dead goblin’s corpse, laughing high-pitched all the while . “Teamwork was shit, but because of my awesomeness we won! I’m the best! I guess things wouldn’t be interesting if everyone got along perfectly from the start . My arm hurts! Mary! Heal me now!”
Mary thoroughly ignored him and deliberately started to make her way over to Mogzo instead .
“Sit,” she said .
“Yes ma’am . ” Mogzo sat down on the ground obediently, the image of a pet dog .
Mary examined his forehead as well as the back of his skull, then touched the cut on his temple . Mogzo grimaced and Mary replied in voice too low for Haruhiro to catch .
Mary then formed a hexagon with her hand and chanted, “O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [CURE] . ”
“She’s perfectly happy to heal after the fight’s over…” Haruhiro muttered to himself as he collected the goblin pouches .
The contents came to two silvers, two shiny stones, and some animal fangs . Depending on the value of the stones, Haruhiro guessed that the total came to around four silvers .
“Hey, lady! Enough with Mogzo, get over here and heal me!” Ranta demanded .
“Your wound’s nothing but a scratch . ”
“That’s not true! Look! I’ve been bleeding all over the place! It just… sorta kinda stopped though…”
“How about putting some spit on it then? And don’t call me lady . It really does try my patience . ”
Ranta backed off . And he was left unhealed with that . Haruhiro had to admit, Ranta would bawl like a baby at even the slightest of cuts, moan and groan at the lightest of grazes .
To put it mildly, Manato was very sensitive to the well being of everyone on the team and he could never completely feel at ease unless everyone was in perfect condition at all times . Now that Haruhiro thought about it… was it really necessary to use healing magic on every little scratch and cut? It did seem like overdoing it just a bit . Especially where Ranta was concerned, the kid had been spoiled rotten by the coddling .
After they had disposed of the goblins’ corpses, Haruhiro approached Mary .
“Could we be the ones that are going about this wrong?” he asked bluntly . “As a healer, it seems like you’re pretty set on the way you do things . Maybe… Is that the norm for other parties?”
Haruhiro winced . That ‘what’ alone was almost enough to make him lose his nerve . He wished she would stop using that .
Somehow, he recovered and continued . “It’s nothing, really, but… isn’t there, you know, different types of Priests or something like that? It’s just that… I really don’t know anything about you guys . Call it lack of experience, or something like that . ”
Mary looked as if she was going to reply, then let out a long sigh as if answering would be too bothersome .
“Why ask me . ” She crossed her arms over her chest and purposely turned away .
And there it was . The ‘why ask me’ monster rears its ugly head again . Haruhiro felt himself beginning to grow irritated .
“Can’t you just… just tell me? I’m a Thief, so I don’t know much about Priests . I’ll never know at this rate, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to not know anything…”
“That’s your opinion . My opinion is that it’s perfectly fine . ”
“It’s not fine—” Haruhiro cut himself off and took a deep breath, trying to subdue his rising temper . He had almost let it get the better of him .
He needed to stay calm . But what was up with her and that attitude? It pissed him off .
“It’s not like it’s a personal question or anything,” Haruhiro persisted . “But in fights, there’s the general flow of battle and everyone’s roles to think about . I think it’s something we should talk over more as a team…”
“How about saying it straight out if you don’t like the way I do my job?” Mary replied . “I’ll leave immediately . ”
“No, that’s not it, it’s just—”
“Then there’s no problem, correct?”
“Uh… No… no problem . ”
Haruhiro wanted someone to tell him, was there any way to have any sort of discussion with her? There didn’t seem like any .
Aftwards, Yume and Shihoru valiantly continued to attempt engaging Mary in conversation, but were bitterly rejected at every go .
By evening, they had killed seven goblins, earning themselves two silvers and five capas each . It wasn’t too bad for a group like their own, but compared to how Renji threw around golds like they were pocket change made Haruhiro clench his jaw at how pathetic they were .
Mary left as soon as she had received her share of the cut, so the remaining five of them had dinner and then went to Sherry’s Tavern .
“Sure is crowded,” Yume said . “Yume doesn’t want to drink, so Yume will have juice . ”
“And kind of noisy too,” Shihoru agreed . “I don’t want alcohol either…”
This was their first time at Sherry’s so both Yume and Shihoru were looking all about, wide-eyed and a little nervous .
“Quit gawking at everything, you two!” Ranta admonished, sounding for all the world like a regular . “There’s nothing outta the ordinary! It’s just a normal tavern, so seriously, quit it!”
Yume and Shihoru, however, probably didn’t hear a word he said . When the serving girl arrived soon after, everyone ordered and paid for their drinks . Haruhiro also passed on alcohol and had a lemonade instead . It tasted great; naturally carbonated water from the Tenryuu Mountains, mixed with lemons and honey .
“So Mary is the source of the problem after all,” Haruhiro led off .
“Yeah,” Yume nodded . “Yume and Shihoru tried to talk to her all day, and it mattered for nothing . ”
“Naught,” Shihoru corrected immediately . “The saying goes ‘it mattered for naught’ . ”
“Oh?” Yume blinked . “Yume thought it was ‘not’, no a ways about it . ”
“…It’s ‘no two ways about it’, Yume . And it’s n-a-u-g-h-t . ”
“Huh? Yume’s messed up again?” Yume said . “Yume seems to mess up a lot, yan . ”
“There’s nothing for it but THIS,” Ranta said, drawing his hand across his throat, as if beheading . “THIS . Just do THIS and get it over with . If we do THIS to that girl then everything will get better . THIS, I’m tellin’ you guys, THIS . ”
Ranta really seemed to like doing that gesture, probably because he thought it was cool or something . If so, then he was even more messed up than Yume .
“Er—” Mogzo cut in, looking towards the entranceway to the tavern .
Speaking of the devil really is a thing, Haruhiro thought . There she was . Mary . She entered and looked in their direction briefly . She pretended not to have noticed them, but Haruhiro would have bet at ninety percent chance that she had . There was an open seat at the end of the bar, and Mary settled in .
“What the hell!” Ranta slammed a fist on the table . “What’s with the attitude! Even if it’s just for right now, we’re still in the same party! It’s normal to at least maybe give a nod in our direction!”
“Yume gets the feeling,” Yume said with a pout, her brows knit tightly, “that what’s normal for normal people isn’t normal for Mary-yan . But even Yume got just an eensy bit annoyed just now…”
However, Shihoru tapped on her lips with a finger . “But we didn’t greet her in any way either,” she pointed out . “It’s like the pot calling the kettle black…”
“Hmm…” Haruhiro rubbed the back of his neck . “I guess you’re right . We kinda expected to get ignored, so we didn’t even bother . Yeah, that’s not really good either . ”
“Fuck that!” Ranta exclaimed . “Why the hell do we have to treat her nice?”
“You’ll be hated by all girls of all sorts with that attitude,” Yume remarked .
“Shut up! There’s no way flat girls can talk for all girls!”
“Don’t call Yume flat!”
“Flat, flat, flat, flat, flat-flat-flat!”
Yume glared angrily at Ranta .
“Ranta,” heaved Haruhiro, “you’d be considered an all out lowlife no matter who talks for who . ”
“As if you have the right to talk high and mighty, Haruhiro!” Ranta shot back . “I don’t care about a girl’s feelings! All I care about are the chest, butt, legs, and arms!”
Shihoru glanced at Ranta as if he was some filthy, despicable creature . “It makes me sick to think that someone like you is human . ”
“Y-you didn’t have to go that far!” Apparently even Ranta realized that he was in a bad spot now . “It’s not just the chest, butt, legs and arms—I care about their faces too! It doesn’t matter how good their bodies are if they’ve got animal faces! Wait . Why do I get the feeling you’re even more pissed off? Why?”
“Someone’s talking to her,” Mogzo said, pointing in Mary’s direction .
“Whoa . ” Haruhiro blinked several times . “No way . ”
Though it wasn’t exactly surprising, it was not something Haruhiro had really expected . Haruhiro knew him, the smiling person talking to Mary . They had met and spoken once . That friendly face . Those white garments, covering him from head to toe; that armor under his tunic, and that sword .
“That’s Shinohara, of Orion,” Haruhiro said .
“Orion?” Ranta craned his neck to get a better view . “Seriously? Orion’s that pretty famous clan right? And Shinohara’s Orion’s leader, I think . Not that I care or anything . Why’s he talking with her? Hey, our drinks are here . Hey! Let’s toast, guys . Cheers!”
“C-cheers…” Mogzo was the only one who actually replied out loud .
Haruhiro clanked his wooden cup against Mogzo’s, Yume’s, and Shihoru’s and took a sip of the lemonade . Sweet and tangy, it was delicious .
“Hey, Haru . ” Yume tugged on the sleeve of Haruhiro’s shirt . “What’s a ‘clan’?”
Haruhiro began to explain . “A clan’s what they call it when…”
It wasn’t like Haruhiro himself was highly knowledgeable on the subject, but from what he understood, clans were groups formed in pursuit of some ideal or goal . Parties usually consisted of five or six people, always including a Priest, whose light magic-based protection was indispensible . However, there were cases when only six people weren’t enough to deal with large groups or unusually strong enemies . There were also places where it was too dangerous for one lone party to enter . It was in these cases when several parties joined up and formed a clan .
“…There’s several well known clans,” Haruhiro continued . “The ‘Dark Berserkers’, ‘Iron Knuckles’, the all-girls clan ‘Wild Angels’ . Oh, Orion is pretty famous too . ”
“Look,” Ranta said, pointing to Shinohara . “His cloak’s got seven stars in an ‘X’ shape design on it right? That’s Orion’s clan emblem . There’s a few others in the room with wearing the same emblem too . ”
Ranta was right . There were several others scattered about the tavern with the similarly decorated cloaks . Shinohara did say once that he and many other Crimson Moon members frequented Sherry’s . Haruhiro supposed that he should greet Shinohara at some point or another, but… he didn’t think now was the time . He was reluctant to interrupt Shinohara while he was talking to Mary .
What sort of relationship did Shinohara have with Mary anyhow? From what Haruhiro could tell, Shinohara was doing most of the talking while Mary just gave obligatory replies at the appropriate times . However, it didn’t look like she was particularly annoyed by Shinohara; if anything, she seemed apologetic . Shinohara finally withdrew, and after continuing to watch him for a bit, Mary returned to her drink .
Ranta snickered softly . “Those two are doing it . The THINGY . ”
“It didn’t seem like that to me,” Haruhiro replied .
“Haaaaaaruhiroooo… You’ve seriously gotta be blinder than a bat . ROMANCE was in the air! They’re doing the THINGY . One hundred percent, the THINGY . ”
“I’m going to go say hi to Shinohara . ”
“Hey! Don’t just ignore me! You’re making me sad here!”
Feel free, Haruhiro thought, and just as he rose from his seat, a hushed clamor of voices began to rise from the other patrons . The reason for it soon became clear .
“Hey, that’s Souma…” someone said .
“Isn’t that Souma?” said another .
And yet another, “It’s Souma!”
Souma . It was the one name being spoken by all the other Crimson Moon members in the tavern . Who was he? No doubt it was a male name, but…
A party of six, consisting of both men and women, entered . Souma must have been the name of the group’s leader . He looked young and… different . Way different . Most apparent was his armor . His entire body was covered in black armor, which fitted him so perfectly, no odd angles or juts could be seen . The material looked incredibly light as well .
It was probably some sort of scale armor, forged by overlapping countless small metal plates . Here and there, orange light seemed to leak from within, rippling and simmering as if drawing breath . His lower body was covered in an unusually long tasset, probably part of the same set of armor that covered his upper body . It was asymmetrical on either side but looked incredibly awesome nonetheless .
The large blade he carried strapped across his back was curved like a katana, the workmanship beautiful and sinister at the same time . It was a sword that would capture the imagination of even the unlikeliest of warriors . The blade at the man’s waist was similar to one on his back, only shorter, and it was of equally splendid craftsmanship . Honestly, Haruhiro would have taken that over the larger one .
The facial features of this man who owned such unique equipment was hardly ordinary, either . He couldn’t be called handsome in a manly way, or gorgeous in a feminine, but it was clean-shaven and elegant . His almond shaped eyes were deeply serene yet menacing at the same time; they were filled with infinite calm and deepest sorrow . It would be impossible to be scrutinized by those eyes and not be unnerved .
Clearly the men and women who followed him were not your average Crimson Moon members either . The large, dark skinned man with upturned eyes and dazzling green armor was taller than Mogzo . He seemed to be quite a solid build; however, a small head made him appear more lanky than muscular .
Behind the dark skinned man was the exact opposite . A tiny man with a childish face–except that his eyes were anything but innocent . One look from those eyes was surely a curse upon your head . The man next to him had arms that were so long, Haruhiro wondered if he were human at all . That man’s face was hidden behind an eerie looking mask, so it was hard to tell, but Haruhiro had a feeling he was a creature of a different sort . Armor that could have been anything, leather or even metal, covered him from head to toe, and hanging off his back was a giant saw-toothed blade that was probably was just as deadly as it looked .
The two women behind him, though… One look at them and Haruhiro’s heart began to melt . He felt as if he could rest his eyes upon them forever . Souma’s party was composed of four men and two women, and the two women were both gorgeous . One was slightly older and stylishly outfitted, with toned skin . She wore something akin to a dress but her legs and chest were boldly exposed . She also sported an assortment of necklaces, rings, and bracelets, and she was armed with an expensive looking staff and a short sword . But despite all the accessories, she didn’t come across as showy in the least—probably because her beauty was on par with that of the jewelry .
The other woman reminded Haruhiro a bit of Mary . It wasn’t that their faces looked similar or anything; it was her otherworldly beauty that made him wonder if she was even human . She looked younger than him yet older at the same time . He couldn’t tell whether she should be called a beautiful woman or a beautiful girl .
She wore an elaborately engraved breastplate, but was otherwise lightly armored . A sword hung off her belt which… made her a Warrior? Female Warriors were rare indeed . That aside, her lovely silver hair was wholly different from Renji’s . It was as if every delicate strand was made of melted silver, and with eyes of sapphire set within . And if there were such thing as skin white as snow, Haruhiro would call hers as fair . Of course, she wasn’t made of snow; her skin was faintly tinged pink . Mary’s cold ice wasn’t nearly as bright as she was .
But she wasn’t human . Her ears . They were pointed .
“Isn’t she an elf?” Ranta whispered .
“Elf…” Haruhiro echoed unthinkingly, so awestruck that he forgot to blink as he stared .
Elf . What was that? He had no idea what an elf was, but at the same time knew exactly what it was . Elf . That’s right . That woman was probably an elf .
“Hey hey hey!”
Someone’s voice came . That voice . That overly hyper, overly happy voice couldn’t have belonged to anyone but Kikkawa .
“If it isn’t Harucchi, Rantan, Mogcchi, Yumeppi, and Shihon!” he cried . “How’re you guys?! I’m GREAT, thanks! Hey, hey! Did you guys notice? Isn’t Souma AWESOME?! Never thought I’d see him in the flesh! I’m so lucky! EVERYONE’S SOOOOO LUCKY!!!”
Kikkawa was more hyper-excited today than last time . Perhaps it was because of Souma .
“Kikkawa… who is he?” Haruhiro asked .
“Whaaaaaaat?!” said Kikkawa, disbelieving . “Harucchi, you’ve never heard of Souma?! No waaaaaaaay! You’ve gotta be kidding, right? There’s no way! Souma’s—you know! Souma’s Crimson Moon’s best warrior! The warrior of warriors!”
Kikkawa barreled on without slowing . “Well, there’s some dispute about his actual fighting ability, but no one doubts that he’s the best . This is my first time seeing him for real too, but he’s something else, isn’t he? Way different! Way cooler! If I were a girl, I’d want him!
“SOUMA, I LOVE YOU!!!” he illustrated, and grinned . “Just kidding . I can’t say I’d go that far, but isn’t he awesome? He’s highly respected by everyone . I hope I can become someone like that someday…”
“Hell yeah!” Ranta agreed, his eyes literal stars . “God damn it! How did he get his hands on that sorta armor? I want armor like that!”
“…I-I’d like…” Mogzo’s eyes dropped to the floor . “…I’d like a helm . And if possible, plate armor . If I had those I could be a little more…”
Shihoru bit her lower lip as a thought came to her . “I want to learn more spells . I want to help everyone more in fights, with my magic . All I can do now is…”
“Yume… Yume wants armor too,” Yume said . “Yume’s no good with a bow, so she’s fighting in the front all the time . Yume thinks having armor would help…”
“I want…” Haruhiro paused, his eyes still glued on Souma and company . What did he want for himself?
To be honest, unlike Kikkawa and Ranta, Haruhiro had no desire to become like Souma . In fact, he didn’t even believe they could fill the gap between themselves and Renji’s team . To become as well respected and liked as Souma was nothing but a pipe dream . They had no hope of reaching Souma’s level, so why even try? They would only look like idiots for the attempt .
So was staying rock-bottom fine then? a small voice inside him asked . No, not that, either . Haruhiro wanted to keep advancing . Even if they couldn’t climb the ladder skipping rungs like Renji, he wanted to keep moving up, if only one rung at a time . Even if it was only one step at a time, there shouldn’t be any reason why they couldn’t advance higher .
Manato definitely would have thought the same . He wanted to move forward at their own pace, hopefully higher today than yesterday, higher tomorrow than today . But it was useless just to want; they needed to take action to make it happen .
What should I do? Save up more money and use it to learn more skills? Buy better equipment? Money was important, sure, but it wasn’t everything .
Manato had asked him to take care of the others . Did he mean Haruhiro should do the same thing Manato had done? In other words, become the leader? Was he capable of leading? It was true that someone had to fill the position . But did it have to be him? He didn’t want that . He didn’t want to take on the burden of the spotlight, the responsibility of leadership . It was too much work .
What about Manato? Did he take up the role of leader because he wanted to? Because he liked leading? Did he fill the role gladly—or did he do it reluctantly? Maybe he hated it, and he really wanted to hurl the responsibility out of the window, but he grit his teeth and endured having to drag everyone else along behind him? Haruhiro didn’t think that was the case, but he couldn’t say for sure .
“…No! But but but!” At some point, Kikkawa had sidled up shoulder to shoulder with Ranta, and they were both snickering about something . Haruhiro never thought he would see the day Ranta found someone he could get along with . “I never thought I’d meet Souma! I heard his main operating area is where it was formerly Ishmael so he doesn’t come to Altana much . I’m SO LUCKY it’s scary! Well, not really scary but…”
“Kikkawa! Let’s go make friends with Souma! If it’s me and you WE CAN DO IT!” Ranta proclaimed .
“Friends? LET’S DO IT! Rantan! Let’s go!!!”
Kikkawa and Ranta both got up from their seats simultaneously . It seemed like they were serious about approaching and introducing themselves to Souma . Haruhiro half rose out of his own seat and looked around the tavern . Souma’s group was sitting around a table near the counter, and already a horde of people swarmed around them, more joining by the second .
Mary remained where she was, drinking from her own tankard . Shinohara was nowhere to be seen . Where did he go? Haruhiro sat back down and took a sip of lemonade . When he looked up again, it was straight into Yume’s eyes . She tilted her head to one side, silently asking Haruhiro what he was going to do .
Haruhiro shook his head, indicating to her just as wordlessly that he wasn’t planning to do anything, and brought his cup to his lips for another drink . But doing nothing probably wasn’t wise .
A leader, huh? Did Haruhiro have it in him to become one?