Anxious to return to the party, I rush to the Whistling Willow with Lili in tow. Unease brews in my core, and upon passing the inn doors, they become fully realised. Before me a dozen adventurers are discussing some plan with Sen at its helm. They immediately notice my presence and make room in their circle. Looking at the table in the centre, I make a painful mental groan: they’ve already recovered the maps and schedule from the innkeeper’s home.
“Sen, I hope you’re not doing what I think you’re doing.”
“We’re going to strike these excavation sites and save the captives.”
“Sigh, that’s exactly what I thought you were doing.”
“You don’t have to partake in this, Enbos, Lili. We have more than enough people for the operation.”
“And yet not enough for you to see reason…”
I naturally turn to Minna for support, but she’s watching from the side in frustrated silence. It seems not even Minna could stop Sen, although I’m sure that deep down she’s empathetic to the idea. Norf is standing beside her, probably waiting for everybody to finish before he can speak with Sen in private.
“Please everyone, now is not the time to fight but to heal. You’ve only had a night and a morning to recover from your month-long captivity. As your healer, I cannot approve this.”
“Lili is right. None of you are in any condition to launch an attack. We understand your frustration, but this is reckless.”
“It’s not like we’re moving out immediately. Even I know that’s asking too much. But come tomorrow, we’ll have recovered enough of our strength. For equipment, we’ve helped ourselves to the cultists’ arsenal of weapons and magical items. We can win this.”
“And how would you know that? For all you know, there could be a dozen high rank cultists out there. We know too little to be attacking them.”
“Actually, Master Enbos,” intercedes Borris, “we already know what we’re facing. We all dug holes for those cultists at some point, and I can tell you now they’re not many or even particularly skilled. The prisoners are wrapped in magical shackles that inflict hellish pain at the taskmaster’s discretion. However, they only have a limited number which is why nobody at the village was wearing them.”
“And once we cut down those taskmasters, the prisoners will be free. The tides will turn and the camp will be ours. Simple.”
“No, your plan is flawed. You’re treating each camp like a self-contained group when you’re really stirring the hornet’s nest. If any of them manage to alert the others, you’ll lose the rest of the hostages and endanger us all.”
“We’re not going to blindly attack them, Enbos. The cultists regularly change captives to keep them fresh, and their last convoy was just before our return from Tiel Woods. All we have to do is disguise ourselves and enter their midst to prepare an ambush.”
“All it would take is a single signal baton for everything to fall apart.”
“I’m of the same mind, Sen. It’s far too risky.”
“We have no choice, you guys. Can’t you see? Our presence interrupted their agenda, but they’ll grow suspicious if they don’t see replacements soon. We have to strike now while we still have the chance!”
“And I’m telling you that there is no such chance! They infest these lands while we’re trapped between two forests and a web of rivers. Even if we manage to rescue them, we’ll only leave a bigger gap in their network that’ll draw more attention.”
“If we’re going to be found sooner or later, we might as well do it! At this point it would be better to build our numbers while whittling their own.”
“It doesn’t matter how many people we gather. Before a horde of necromancers and zealots, our rag tag group can never be a match. Even their hierarch is somewhere in these lands. We have no choice but to wait until I can-”
“Wait!? Are you really suggesting we should leave them to slave away in chains? We can’t just ignore them, Enbos! They might even be moved to God-knows-where while we just sit around and do nothing!”
“Better that than letting you drag us into a bigger mess! Where’s the point in saving them if we can’t guarantee everyone’s safety!? How many people will we lose in your plan!?”
“This isn’t a matter of survival but a matter of doing what’s right! Don’t you feel anything for them, Enbos? We have a duty as adventurers, nay, proper men-”
“Don’t kid yourself, Sen! The truth is you never thought of saving them until you heard about Eric! You don’t even know if he’s in those camps, and yet you’re risking the lives of everybody here. Did you ever stop to think what if you don’t find him? Will you keep striking place after cultist-infested place until you do? Stop claiming to be a hero when you’re nothing but a selfish idiot!”
“E-enbos, I think that’s too-”
“No, it’s alright Lili… Enbos is right. I’m not trying to be a hero.”
“As much as I feel for those captives, I can’t deny I’m only acting for the sake of my friend… but I’m not alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“You forget, Enbos, but everyone here has lost someone to those cultists. While it may be a personal wish… it’s not mine alone.”
For a moment, I stop to look at the volunteers by his side. Sure enough, they all share the same determined expression, driven by equal parts comradery and vengeance. To my discomfort, they also remind me of that adventurer.
“You can’t stop us, Enbos. Knowing that our friends are within reach, knowing that those dastards are just a few hills away… It’s too much for us to bear! We’d do anything for our comrades, even if it costs our lives.”
“All the more reason I can’t agree. Consequences aside, you’re all just losing yourselves to your emotions.”
“It’s no different from everything you’ve done! Were you not the one who risked his life to hold back a Treant, challenge a Mellivorath, and face a legion of cultists? You would do the same in my place!”
“This is different, Sen.”
“How so, Enbos!? Or are we so weak that you have absolutely no confidence in us!?”
“Whether it be the Treant, the Mellivorath or the cultists, when things turn sour you always try to handle everything on your own! Even Hachirou is no exception. I do not doubt your heart, but sometimes it feels as if you’ve never seen us as comrades. Well enough’s enough! You may be stronger, Enbos, but that doesn’t mean we’re worthless! Even if you don’t have the will to do this, we don’t need your overbearing approval!”
“Sen, you’ve gone too-!”
“Fools! You know nothing of resolve.”
Activating my evolved skill <Horrify>, I silence everyone with my aura and send then reeling in shock. Cold sweat immediately breaks out among them and the closest have fallen on their backs. Sen continues to stand against my skill, but even he’s too stiff to be deemed unfazed.
“Look at yourselves. Look how shaken you are from a single skill! You think the worst is death? It’s nothing but a release! You have no idea what it’s like to risk your life, only to lose so much more… and live. I knew a man no different from any of you. In the end, he succumbed to despair… and I’m little better. You think I act this way because I’m strong? No, it’s because I’m a miserable shell of a man. The fear you feel now is proof you still treasure yourself, so don’t forget it.”
Although my words apply as much to the surrounding adventurers as Sen himself, we all know this is between me and him. We reach a tense standstill as both sides are unwilling to see eye-to-eye, and yet, unable to hate the other.
Suddenly, the kettle in the nearby kitchen begins to whistle. As Sen begins to blink, I relax my skill and allow everyone to breathe. Capitalising on that interruption, Lili hurriedly steps in to offer a resolution.
“In the name of our Lord, may we all spare a moment to settle down? There is no need for this tension. Enbos, if you find Sen’s plan disagreeable, do you perhaps have an alternative? I’m sure you must have thought of a resolution before coming here.”
“… There’s a communication system the cultists use for long-range contact. If we can rework the spell, we may be able to contact Catorrem.”
“I see, and once we tell them everything, the lord’s army and holy order can mobilise and save us all, including the prisoners. Right, everybody?”
“Y-you want us to leave it to the knights?” says one of the adventurers.
“With all due respect Holy Maiden, but they’re the ones who let this happen right under their noses!” follows another.
“Lili, we can’t just-”
“Please Sen, let them handle this.”
“M-minna!? You too, Norf?”
“Sen, the knights will be far better equipped and trained to handle this than us. We should listen to Lili’s and Enbos’ words.”
“But we don’t know how long they could take! By then, the captives might be gone.”
“They can always find the cultists lair and sort things out from there. We can even volunteer to participate. So please Sen… you already know this is best.”
“… Fine, Minna. We’ll go ahead with their idea.”
Ultimately succumbing to Minna’s timely persuasion, the discussion shifts to defending the village and designating scouts. Still, repressed frustration can be found on their brows, and me and Sen are still unwilling to look the other in the eye. As the meeting ends, Sen takes the map and leaves the inn with the rest of the adventurers. The only ones left are Minna, Norf and Lili who are looking at me with great concern.
“Please don’t take what Sen said to heart. He was just being stubborn.”
… but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.
“Enbos, would you like some time to yourself?”
“I think I will. Thank you, Lili. I’ll meet you at the innkeeper’s house later. Minna, Norf… please tell Sen I’m sorry.”
“We will, Enbos.”
I leave the three at the table and make my way back to my room. My heart is heavy, and what I did before coming here has not been lost on me. I don’t feel like going outside as I might bump into Sen. However, I begin to dread every step as I remember there is still one more person I must face.
“C-come in, Enbos.”
Returning to my inn room, I am greeted by Hachirou who’s laying in bed, recovering from last night’s ordeal. I haven’t seen him since he left the barn, or rather, since I closed myself from him. Now, I’m brazenly visiting him after my argument with Sen. Naturally, an awkward silence ensues as we each wait for the other to break the ice.
“… Are you feeling better, Hachirou?”
“I’m well enough. Healing magic is truly a marvel.’
“I see. Honestly, I would love to cast light magic too. It’s a shame it would turn me to ash.”
“I heard everything outside.”
“I thought you had.”
“D-did you really mean to use that skill?”
“I did, but intended nothing more. I wanted Sen to realise how blinded he was by his emotions, but in the end, he never backed down. I should have talked it through instead of trying such a stupid idea.”
“W-what you said wasn’t wrong. It’s just… by the end I felt you had lost yourself as well. In truth, you wanted to protect Sen and the others, both from the cultists and from themselves.”
“That, or I couldn’t forgive how they belittled their own lives. They shouldn’t be inspired by a wreck like me.”
“You’re not a wreck Enbos, b-but I do believe you need to value your own life too. More than your lack of humanity, more than your self-consuming spiral of power, I-I worry your selfless nature will destroy you.”
“… Do you… also think I’m overbearing?”
“In truth, I can empathise with Sen’s sentiments, but I know I am not ready. I have a long way to go before anyone can rely on my strength. However, for Sen, I’m sure he feels otherwise. He spent his entire adventuring life trying to meet his friend, b-but now, you’ve become an obstacle to all his efforts.”
“Are you changing your mind?”
“No. Contacting Catorrem is still the far better plan. But at least, I feel I can face Sen again.”
“I’m glad my words have reached you, Enbos.”
“… I’m sorry about last night, Hachirou.”
“It’s alright. I understand how it feels to desire solitude.”
“It was no way to treat my best friend, and in the end… I broke our promise.”
“You’re speaking with me now, and I know you’ll do better. I forgive you.”
“… Thank you.”
Really, it’s amazing how much Hachirou has grown. While I’m lost in my emotions, he’s already overcome his inner weakness. While I’m marking myself in cultist blood, he’s already becoming the kobold he wants to be. I’m sure he can smell the scent of burnt flesh on my clothes, and yet he isn’t pursuing it at all. Honesty, I can’t fathom what he sees in me that could inspire him so, but I hope my new path won’t erase his respect.
“I-I’m sorry Enbos, but I best not keep you here any longer. You need to help Lili find the communication item.”
“I suppose. Rest well, Hachirou.”
“Goodbye Enbos, and p-please try to be more open with Lili.”
“I will, as soon as you stop trying to train in secret and get some rest.”
“Y-you could tell?”
“Of course,” I say as I reach for a dry cloth and toss it to him. “Your pillow is damp with sweat, and I know you can be awfully stubborn at times.”
“I’m sorry, Enbos, but whenever I try to close my eyes, I-I feel I am squandering my time.”
“You’re not an undead, Hachirou. I can’t just fix you when you break like you do for me. Sigh, but I know that won’t stop you. Looks like I’ll have to spare some time to resume your lessons.”
“No… On spirit arts.”