Chapter 4: Congregated Men
Lower Fire Month (9th Month) 3rd Day 04:01
Brain’s accumulated fatigue hit him all at once, and so he slept for almost a full day upon entering Gazef’s home. He woke up to eat a little, and then went right back to bed.
He did not wish to admit it, but he could rest easy in Gazef’s home because he felt safe there. He knew that even his rival Gazef could not endure a single blow from that Shalltear, yet the home of his former nemesis was now the safest place in the world for him. It relieved his tension and allowed him to sleep soundly.
Light fell across Brain’s face through the slats of the louvred window.
The light woke Brain from his dreamless sleep.
He opened his eyes, but the piercing rays made him squint them again. He reached his hand out to block the sunlight.
Brain propped himself up on one arm and then swung his legs over so he was sitting on the side of the bed. He looked around the room like a frightened mouse. The plain room only had the bare minimum of furniture in it, and Brain’s wargear was piled up in a corner of the room.
“Is this the room which the Kingdom’s Warrior-Captain uses to receive guests?”
As Brain looked around the empty room, he let a few biting words fall from his lips as the lack of people put him at ease. Then, he stretched himself, and his joints made cracking noises as his stiff body relaxed and the blood circulated through his body once more.
A huge yawn escaped him.
“...He must have let his people stay the night here in the past, no? They must have felt so disappointed.”
The reason why royalty and nobility led such luxurious lives was not simply because they enjoyed it. It was also for vanity’s sake; to protect their image.
Similarly, when the men saw their leader’s opulent lifestyle, it would spur their desire to make a name for themselves and give them motivation.
“...No, it’s not my place to say such things,” Brain mumbled. Then he snorted; but it was directed at himself and not Gazef.
It must have been because he had been pulled back from the brink of madness, the place where he had nearly been driven by those twin mental shocks. To think he would actually be thinking about such trivial matters.
As Brain thought about that powerful monster, he found that he could not stop the tremors in his hand.
“As I thought…”
The terror which clung to his heart had not been removed yet.
A figure of absolute power, one whom even Brain — who had abandoned everything else in pursuit of sword skills — could not possibly match. She was a monster among monsters; yet one whose looks were the sum total of all the beauty in the world. She was a person who wielded true power.
A thrill of fear shot through his heart at the mere memory of her.
He had lived in constant terror of that monster’s pursuit, and once he had reached the road to the Royal Capital he had not slept or even rested, only fleeing for his life. The spectre of Shalltear appeared before him when he did sleep, and the night seemed to take her shape as he ran along the roads. Crushed under this disquiet, he had not been able to get a good night’s rest. All he could do was run like there was nothing else in the world for him.
He had chosen to flee to the Royal Capital because he believed that he could lose himself among the masses of people there and throw her off his trail. However, he had not expected the heavy toll which his gruelling flight had taken on him, or the lack of self-preservation which had developed as a result.
Meeting Gazef was an unexpected development. Perhaps Brain imagined that Gazef could eliminate Shalltear, and so his legs had unconsciously brought him in search of his rival. Yet, he had not found his answer.
“What should I do now…”
He had nothing.
He opened his hands, and they were empty.
He looked at his wargear in the corner of the room.
He had obtained a 「Katana」in order to triumph over Gazef. Yet, what would he do after beating Gazef? He now knew that there was a being several orders of magnitude more powerful than himself. If he could not defeat said being, what was the point of triumphing over those who were beneath it?
“I should probably go take up the plow instead… it would probably be more meaningful.”
Then, Brain sensed someone outside just as he was about to mock himself.
“Unglaus, are you awake? ...You should be, right?”
That voice belonged to the owner of this home.
“Ah, Stronoff. I’m up.”
The door opened and Gazef entered the room. He was fully outfitted in his battle panoply.
“You sure slept for a long time. I was shocked by how deeply you were sleeping.”
“Yeah, thanks for letting me be. Sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry about it. However, I need to head out to the Palace right now. Tell me about what happened after I come back.”
“...It’s pretty bad, you know? You might end up like me.”
“Even so, I have to listen. I guess it ought to be better if we drank while we talked to lighten the mood… Treat this place as your home until I get back. Ask the household help if you want to eat anything, they ought to be able to throw something together for you. And if you want to head out… you’ve got money, right?”
“...No. But… If I need anything, I can sell my magic items.”
Brain showed Gazef the rings he was wearing.
“Is that really okay? They’re not cheap, right?”
“It’s fine. I don’t care.”
He had bought these items to defeat Gazef. Now that he knew there was no point in doing so, what meaning was there in treasuring these trinkets?
“High-priced items can be hard to sell at times. The buyer does need to raise the money, after all. Here, take this.”
Gazef tossed him a small cloth pouch. Brain caught it, and heard the sound of metal clinking from inside.
“...Sorry about this. I’ll be borrowing this for now, then."
Lower Fire Month (9th Month) 3rd Day 10:31
Sebas strolled leisurely as he pondered how to deal with the five people who had been following him ever since he had left his home. He believed that moving his body would lift his mood and help him think of a good idea.
Soon, he saw a crowd of people jamming up the road in front of him.
The sound coming from them was either vicious cursing or mocking laughter, accompanied by the sound of something striking something else. Cries along the lines of “Someone’s going to die” and “Better get the guards” rose up from them.
The crowd blocked his line of sight, but he was certain that some kind of violence was in progress.
Sebas thought that perhaps he should change his path and take another path. He hesitated for a moment — and then he continued straight onwards.
His path took him into the center of the crowd.
Sebas wove through the onlookers with those words and reached the center of the crowd.
The sight of an old man moving with a bizarre, fluid grace shocked and unnerved the onlookers, and the people who saw Sebas passing before them were stunned with surprise.
There seemed to be someone else trying to get to the heart of the crowd other than Sebas. Said person went, “Excuse me”, but he could not advance through the throng of humanity and was stuck, unable to advance or retreat.
Sebas stepped into the center of the congregation with no difficulty, and there he saw what was going on with his own eyes.
Several unkempt-looking men were kicking and stomping on something.
Sebas moved on without a single sound, stopping only when he was within arms’ reach of the men.
“Fuck you doing, old man?!”
One of the five men had noticed Sebas approaching and snarled at him.
“This place seemed a little noisy so, I came to take a look.”
“You want a piece of this?!”
The men ran over to surround Sebas. As they left their original positions, they revealed the object they had been kicking around all this time. It looked like a boy. He was curled up on the ground and bleeding from his face. It was unclear if the blood came from his mouth or his nose.
Apparently the boy had passed out after being brutalized for so long, but he still looked like he was breathing.
Sebas looked at the men. The smell of alcohol hung about their mouths and bodies. Their faces were flushed red, but not from the exertion of physical activity.
Had they lost control of their violent impulses because they were drunk?
Sebas had a blank expression on his face as he asked:
“I don’t know why you’re doing this, but don’t you think it’s time to stop?”
“Hah?! This punk got his food all over my shirt! How could I let that slide?”
One of the man pointed to a spot on his shirt. It did look like a stain. However, the men’s clothes were filthy to begin with. That being the case, the stain was hardly obvious.
Sebas looked at the one who seemed to be the boss of the five young men. The difference might have been too subtle for an ordinary human being to detect, but Sebas — who had a warrior’s keen sensory perceptions — was able to pick him out.
“Still… public safety in this city is quite bad.”
Sebas spoke as though he had just confirmed something he had observed from afar. The men thought he had trivialized them and made noises of displeasure.
“Ah? The fuck you say, old man?”
“I’ll say it again - begone.”
The boss-like man flushed red and clenched his fist — and then he collapsed limply to the ground.
Sounds of shock came from all around them, including the four remaining men.
What Sebas had done was simple enough. He had simply formed his hand into a fist and struck a blow at the man’s chin — albeit at a speed which humans would be hard-pressed to even see. That had given the man a high-speed brain concussion. He could also have sent the man flying with imperceptible speed, but that would not have served to frighten the others. Thus, he had held back in his strike.
“Do you still wish to fight?” Sebas quietly said.
His calm and strength cut through the men’s intoxication. They backed several steps off and chorused an apology.
Sebas thought, you’re apologizing to the wrong person, but he did not actually say it.
The men grabbed their unconscious colleague and fled. Sebas did not bother watching them and instead went over to the fallen boy. However, he stopped in his tracks halfway.
What was he doing?
Right now, he ought to be dealing with the problem he was facing. Only a fool would go and take more problems onto himself at a time like this. Had he not ended up in this precarious state because he was too sympathetic and acted without thinking?
In any case, the boy had been saved. He would have to be satisfied with that.
That thought crossed Sebas’ mind, but he still headed toward the boy. He touched the immobile boy’s back and infused a bit of ki into him. Channelling the full measure of his ki would probably heal all his wounds immediately, but that would be far too eye-catching.
Thus, Sebas did the bare minimum necessary, and then he pointed to someone who happened to meet his eyes.
“...Please take this boy to the temple. His ribs might be broken, so please take care when loading him onto a board for transport, and don’t shake him too much.”
The man Sebas had ordered nodded, and then Sebas strode forth. He did not need to push to the crowd, because they cleared out of his way when he took a step forward.
Sebas continued ahead once more. Before long, he sensed that the number of presences following him had increased.
However, there was one problem — namely, the identity of his tails.
The five people who had followed him from the house were most likely Succulent’s men. In that case, what about the two who had joined them in stalking him after he had saved the boy?
They seemed to be grown men by the sound of their footsteps and their pace, but he had no idea who they were.
“I can’t think of an answer. In any case… I should probably apprehend them first.”
Sebas turned a corner into a dimly-lit region. His followers remained on his trail.
“...Still, are they really hiding themselves?”
They had not concealed the sounds of their footsteps. Did they lack the ability to do so, or was there some other reason? He decided not to think overmuch on the matter. After all, he could verify the truth after capturing them. Sebas decided to make his move once he could no longer sense the presence of others around them.
Just then, a hoarse — but youthful — male voice came from one of the people who had been following him.
Lower Fire Month (9th Month) 3rd Day 10:27
Climb was thinking on his way back to the Royal Palace.
He thought about the battle he had fought with Gazef that morning, replaying the fight in his mind over and over again and considering how to fight with greater skill. What tactics will I try if I get another chance, he thought.
Just as Climb slowly reached his conclusion, he saw a group of people huddled up in front of him. Angry cries came from them, and two guards watched from afar, unsure of what to do.
The sounds of an argument came from the center of group, and it did not sound like an ordinary squabble.
Climb’s expression turned cold, and he walked up beside the guards.
“What are you doing?”
The guard jumped in fright, given that someone had called out to him from behind, and he turned to look at Climb.
The man wore a chain shirt and carried a spear. He wore a surcoat emblazoned with the Kingdom’s crest on top of the chain shirt. This was the standard uniform of the average guard in the Kingdom, but Climb could sense that neither of the people in front of him was well-trained.
To begin with, neither of them had honed physiques. For that matter, they were also unshaven and their chain shirts had not been polished. A faint air of grime hung about them and they seemed quite slovenly in overall appearance.
Climb was younger than himself, so the guard responded to him with a tone that was a mix of bafflement and annoyance.
“I’m off-duty at the moment.”
Confusion spread across the guard’s face as he heard Climb’s staunchly insistent voice. Perhaps it was because he radiated an aura of superiority despite being younger than them.
The guards seemed to have concluded that they could not go wrong by taking a submissive posture, and they straightened up.
“Seems to be a civilian disturbance.”
Climb resisted the urge to castigate them by saying I knew that already. Unlike the Palace guards, the guards who patrolled the city were drawn from the civilian populace and were not well-trained. In truth, they were merely civilians who knew how to use weapons.
Climb turned his eyes from the nervous guards to the crowd. It would be quicker to settle the matter in person than wait for them to do anything.
While poking his nose into guard business might be considered an overstepping of his authority, he would not be able to face his beloved mistress if he simply stood by while a citizen was being ill-treated.
“You wait here.”
Without waiting for their reply, Climb firmed up his resolve and pushed into the crowd, forcefully thrusting his body in. While there were spaces between each person, he was unable to get through the through. No, it would not be normal for anyone to be able to do it.
He was nearly shoved back out, but he struggled to shove his way forward. This was when he heard a voice from the center of the crowd.
“Ah? The fuck you say, old man?”
“I’ll say it again - begone.”
This was bad.
Those thugs were not satisfied with the beating they had administered; now they wanted to strike an old man as well.
Climb’s face flushed red as he desperately shoved his way forward, and when he got through the crowd, he saw the figure of an old man before him. He was surrounded by a group of younger man. At their feet was a boy who had been beaten so badly he looked like a crumpled rag.
The old man was elegantly dressed, and gave off the feeling of being nobility or the servant of nobility. The men surrounding him were muscular and looked drunk. The villainous side was apparent at a glance.
One of the men — the one who looked the most muscular — clenched his fist. Compared to him, the old man seemed far inferior, be it in the sturdiness of their bodies, the bulging of their muscles, or their bloodthirsty brutality. Surely the younger man could easily send the old man flying with but a swing of his fist. The people around them realized this, and gasped in horror at the tragedy which was about to befall the old man.
Amidst all this, only Climb felt that something was strange.
Indeed, the younger man looked stronger. Yet, Climb could sense an aura of absolute power coming from the old man.
He froze for a moment, and lost his chance to curb the younger man’s violence. The man raised his fist—
—And then he collapsed limply to the ground
The people around Climb exclaimed in shock.
It would seem that the old man had made a fist and struck the other man square on his chin, at incredible speed. Even Climb’s honed vision could barely keep up with the swiftness of that blow.
“Do you still wish to fight?”
The old man directed this calm and grave question at the remaining men.
The combination of his inscrutable exterior and his calm tone broke through the men’s drunkenness. No — even the people around them had been frightened by his presence. The men had lost all will to fight.
“Er, um. We, we’re sorry.”
The men backed up and chorused an apology, and then they grabbed their colleague — who had been disgracefully laid out on the ground — and fled with their tails between their legs. Climb did not think about following those men. After all, the old man’s ramrod-straight posture, with his chest upthrust, had stolen his heart and left him frozen in place.
He looked like a masterwork blade. It was a sight that would fill any warrior who saw it with reverence. Small wonder that he could not move.
The old man patted the fallen boy’s back, as though examining his wounds, and then he ordered a passer-by to get the boy to treatment before striding off. The crowd cleared a path for the old man to walk. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on his back, such was the allure of the old man’s presence.
Climb hurried over to the fallen boy and then took out the potion Gazef had given him after their training session.
“Can you drink this?”
There was no answer. He had fainted dead away.
Cimb opened the bottle and poured the liquid on the boy’s body. Many people believed that potions had to be drunk, but the fact was that it would work even when splashed on the flesh. Magic was truly great.
The boy’s skin seemed to absorb the liquid as it disappeared into his body, and the color returned to the boy’s face.
Climb nodded in relief.
As the crowd realized Climb had just used an expensive item like that potion, they were every bit as awed by him as they were by the old man’s preternatural skill.
Climb did not regret using the potion. Having taken the people’s taxes, it was only natural that he — as one who lived on said taxes — should protect them and maintain public order. He felt that he ought to be able to do that much, even if he could not defend the people.
The boy ought to be alright now that Climb had given him the potion, but it would be best for him to go to the temple just to be safe. He looked to the guards standing by and noticed that the pair had become a trio. Apparently someone had arrived late.
The crowd had been tossing critical glances at the guards ever since just now.
Climb addressed a very uncomfortable-looking guard:
“Take this boy to the temple.”
“What happened to him…?”
“Someone assaulted him. I’ve already used a healing potion on him so he should be alright, but I hope you’ll take him to the temple for a checkup, for safety’s sake.”
After handing the cleanup to the guards, Climb concluded that there was nothing left for him to do here. As a soldier assigned to the Palace, it would be better not to interfere in the matters of other places.
“Can I trouble you to question any eyewitnesses about the details of what happened here?”
“Then I’ll leave the rest to you.”
Climb noted that the guards seemed to have gained confidence and moved more quickly upon receiving their orders. He ran ahead without another word.
“Where are you going…” one of the guards called, but Climb ignored him.
He only slowed down when he reached the corner which the old man had taken.
After that, he began trailing the old man.
Soon, he saw the old man walking along the street.
He wanted to call out to him, but he could not work up the courage to do so. That was because he sensed an invisible wall between them; a sense of awesome power that seemed to crush him.
The old man turned a corner and headed into a darker region. Climb followed. He was walking behind the old man, yet he did not dare speak up and address him.
Was Climb not stalking him?
Climb began to feel annoyed by what he was doing. Even if he did not know how to approach the old man, he could not keep following him like this. In an effort to change the situation, Climb continued following in silence.
Once they had entered an empty back alley, Climb took several deep breaths, as though he were a boy psyching himself up to confess his love to a girl. Then he summoned his courage and said:
The old man turned around after hearing someone call out to him.
His hair was white, as was his beard. However, his back was straight, like a fine blade forged of steel. His handsome face was wrinkled, giving a kindly cast to his features, but his eyes were keen and as focused on their prey as those of an eagle’s.
He even had an air of nobility about him.
“Is something the matter?”
The old man’s voice sounded somewhat aged, but it overflowed with an undeniable vitality. Climb felt an invisible pressure rolling out towards him and he gulped.
Climb could not speak, overwhelmed as he was by the man’s presence. As he saw this, the old man appeared to relax and let the tension escape from his body.
“And who might you be?”
His tone was gentle. Released from the immense, crushing strain, Climb’s throat regained its ability to function.
“...My name is Climb, and I am a humble soldier of this nation. Thank you for your courageous action in completing a task that should have been rightfully mine.”
Climb bowed deeply in thanks. The old man fell into thought, then narrowed his eyes. After that, he quietly went “Ah…” as he realised what Climb meant.
“...It’s fine. Then, I’ll be going.”
The old man broke off the conversation and made to leave, but Climb then raised his head and asked:
“Please wait. Actually… well, this is somewhat embarrassing, but I’ve been following you for a while because I have a request to make of you. I know I might sound like I’m trying to bite off more than I can chew, and you are free to laugh at me, but if you don’t mind, could you teach me your technique from just now?”
“...What do you mean by that?”
“Ah. I have been studying the martial arts for a long time and I would like to improve my skills further. After I saw that impeccable movement of yours just now, I was hoping that you could teach me a little of your technique, if it pleases you.”
The old man sized up Climb.
“Hm… show me your hands.”
Climb extended his hands, and the old man carefully examined his palms. It made Climb feel a little awkward. The old man turned his hands over, glanced at his nails, and nodded in satisfaction.
“Thick and hard. These are truly a warrior’s hands.”
Climb’s chest heated up as he heard the other man praise him. The joy in his heart was much like how he had felt when Gazef had offered his own words of praise.
“No, someone like me… is barely hanging on to the title of warrior.”
“I don’t think you need to be so humble… May I see your sword next?”
The old man accepted the sword and inspected the handle. Then he turned his keen gaze on the sword’s blade.
“I see… is this a backup weapon?”
“How did you know!?”
“As I thought. Look, do you see this dent here?”
Climb looked at where the old man was pointing. Sure enough, part of the blade had been damaged; probably from when he had struck poorly during that practice bout.
“I apologize for this shameful display!”
Climb was so embarrassed that he wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground.
Climb knew that his skills needed further refinement, so he had gone to almost neurotic lengths to care for his weapons, in order to improve his chances of victory. Or at least, he thought he had... until now.
“I see. I think I have a handle on you now. For a warrior, his weapon is like a mirror which reflects his personality. You are a very admirable man.”
The tips of Climb’s ears were still burning as he raised his head to look at the old man.
He saw a benign smile, gentle and full of grace.
“I understand. Then, I shall try to train you a little. However—”
Just as Climb was about to offer his thanks, the old man interrupted him and continued speaking.
“I have a matter I would like to consult you about. You said you were a soldier, am I correct? Well, several days ago, I rescued a girl—”
After listening to the the old man’s — Sebas’ — story, he was livid with rage.
He could not hide his displeasure at the fact that Renner’s slave manumission laws had been misused in such a way, and that things had not changed until now.
No, that’s not right. Climb shook his head.
The Kingdom’s laws forbade trading in slaves. That said, it was a common sight for people to be forced to work in poor conditions in order to pay their debts. Loopholes like those were everywhere. In fact, it was because of them that the law against slavery had been passed.
Renner’s laws were useless. That chilling thought swept through his mind for a moment, However. he soon chased that thought away. Right now, he had to think about Sebas’ situation.
Climb furrowed his brow.
Sebas was in a very bad position. Perhaps if they could investigate the girl’s contract, they could turn it against them, but Climb did not think the opposition would not have prepared for that eventuality.
If this matter went to the courts, Sebas would lose for sure.
His adversaries had probably not filed a suit because they felt they could soak him for more money this way.
“Do you know of any righteous individuals who could aid me in this matter?”
Climb only knew one such person — his mistress. He could say with all confidence that no noble was more upright and trustworthy than her.
Of course, he could not introduce Renner to him.
Given that these people could go to those lengths, they must surely have far-reaching connections within the halls of power. Any nobles involved with them were sure to be movers and shakers. If the Princess — who was affiliated with the Royal Faction — attempted to investigate or send aid and thus damaged a member of the Noble Faction, it might well spark all-out war between both sides.
The use of power was a tricky business, especially in a divided country like the Kingdom. Civil War was a very real consequence of handling the situation poorly.
He could not make Renner do something that would tear the country apart.
That was the conclusion he had reached while talking to Lakyus and the others. That was why Climb had said nothing — no, could not say anything.
“I see,” Sebas said quietly.
There was no telling how he had managed to pick up on Climb’s inner turmoil, but those words had a palpable impact on Climb.
“...According to her, there were several others there, both men and women.”
How could this be? There ought to be only one brothel run by the Slavery Division. Is there another? Or... is that place the brothel we were talking about earlier?
“Perhaps we could think of a way to free them… I have to ask my liege first, but given that my liege controls a domain, if we could let those people escape there…”
“Can you do it? ...Does that mean she could take shelter there too?”
“...Forgive me, Sebas-sama. I will need to clear that with my liege as well. However, my liege is big-hearted. I don’t think there’ll be a problem!”
“Oh… Your liege must be an amazing person if you hold them in such high regard.”
Climb nodded deeply in response to Sebas. Indeed, there was no greater mistress than Renner.
“Let’s move onto another topic. What would happen if there was evidence that this brothel violated the law? For instance, if they were proven to be involved in the slave trade. Would this evidence be destroyed as well?”
“The possibility does exist, but once the relevant information is taken to the proper authorities… I hope the Kingdom has not decayed to that extent yet.”
“...I understand. Then, another question, if you please. Why do you want to become stronger?”
“Eh?” Climb squeaked. That was only to be expected, given that this topic change was more drastic than the last.
“You just said that you wanted me to train you. I trust you, but I would also like to know why you wish to become stronger.”
Climb narrowed his eyes at Sebas’ question.
Why did he want to become stronger?
Climb had been an abandoned child. He had not even seen the faces of his parents. That was not an unusual occurrence in the Kingdom. Orphans dying in the mud was hardly big news.
Climb had originally been fated to die in such a way on that rainy day.
And then — on that day, Climb had seen the sun. He — a being who could only crawl amidst the muck and filth — had been deeply entranced by that gross incandescence.
As a child, he had only felt admiration. But as he grew older, that feeling inside him grew ever more unshakeable.
—It was love.
He had to quash that emotion. It was a miracle, of the kinds which the bards sang in the heroic sagas. It could not possibly take place in real life. Just as no man could touch the sun, Climb’s feeling would not be able to reach her. No, he could not do so.
The woman whom Climb loved so deeply was destined to be someone else’s bride. As a princess, she could not belong to someone like Climb, whose origins were unclear, and who was even lower than a commoner.
If the King passed away, the First Prince would inherit the throne, and Renner would be married off to one of the Great Nobles. In all likelihood, the Prince had already arranged something like this with one of them. She might even be sent to another country as part of a political marriage.
The fact that Renner — who was of marriageable age — was still single and had no fiance was quite surprising.
Their time together was so precious that he would pay any price to halt the march of the clock’s hands, just so he could preserve these golden moments forever. If he did not spend his time on training, he could enjoy more of these moments.
Climb had no talent. He was a mere man. Through repeated practice, he had become quite strong for a mere soldier. Then, should he not be content with that? Should he not stop training, stay by Renner’s side and not waste their brief time together?
But — would that really be a good thing?
Climb admired that sun-like brilliance. It was not a lie, and neither was he mistaken. It was Climb’s sincere wish.
“It’s because I’m a man.”
Indeed. Climb wanted to stand by Renner’s side. The sun shone brilliantly in the sky, and a mere man could not hope to reach it. Even so, Climb wanted to climb the highest peaks in order to get as close to it as he could.
He did not want to merely admire and praise the sun from afar.
This was a young man’s feeble wish, but at the same time it was a wish that perfectly fitted a young man.
He wanted to become a man worthy of being joined to the woman he admired, even if their union could never be.
He could endure his friendless life, his harsh training, and his labors which took away from his sleep because of his wish.
Let others laugh at him for his foolishness.
After all, they could not understand how he felt unless they truly loved someone.
♦ ♦ ♦
Sebas narrowed his eyes as he studied Climb. There was a stern look on his face, as though he were trying to decipher the compressed subtleties of Climb’s simple reply.
Then, he nodded.
“After hearing your answer, I have decided how to train you.”
Just as Climb was about to offer his thanks, Sebas’ outstretched hand stopped him.
“However — and I pray you will forgive my bluntness — you have no talent. Proper training will take a very long time. However, I do not have that time. I wish to train you in a way that will show results quickly, but it will be an… arduous process.”
Climb gulped again.
The look in Sebas’ eyes sent a chill down Climb’s spine.
Those eyes were filled with unbelievable power, exceeding the spiritual pressure which Gazef exerted when serious. Thus, he could not respond right away.
“Frankly speaking, you might die.”
He was not joking.
Climb’s instincts told him that much. Climb did not fear death, but he wanted to die for Renner. He did not want to throw his life away for a selfish reason.
He was not a coward… no, perhaps he might be very craven.
Climb gulped once more, and froze. Silence filled the surroundings for a while, and he could even hear the clamor from the distance.
“Whether or not you die depends on your attitude… if there is something important to you, something which makes you want to live, even if it is only to scrabble along the ground, then it ought to be fine.”
Was he not going to teach him martial arts? That question surfaced in Climb’s mind, but that was not the question now. He pondered the meaning of Sebas’ words, made sure he understood it, and then gave his response.
“I am prepared for it. I leave the rest to you.”
“Do you believe you will die?”
Climb shook his head. He did not.
That was because Climb would forever have his reason, one which would keep him clinging to life even if he had to do so by crawling like a worm.
Sebas looked into Climb’s eyes, as though divining his intentions through them. Then he nodded heavily.
“I understand. Then, we shall begin here.”
“Yes. It will be quick. A few minutes will do. Please draw your sword.”
What’s he going to do?
Climb drew his sword as asked. His heart was a blend of uneasiness and confusion about the unknown, with faint underpinnings of curiosity and expectation.
The sound of the sword leaving its sheath echoed through the cramped alley.
Climb braced his weapon in a middle stance, and Sebas’ eyes were fixed on him.
“Here I come. Please try and remain conscious.”
And in the next moment —
—It felt as though icy razors had exploded forth in all directions from Sebas.
Climb could no longer speak.
Sebas now stood at the heart of a vortex of murderous intent.
This bloodlust felt like it could crush Climb’s heart in an instant, and it seemed almost visible as it washed over him like a tsunami. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the scream of a soul being pulverized. It felt close to his side, yet far away, and perhaps the voice might even have been his own.
As the obsidian flow of killing intent swept him away, Climb felt his consciousness slowly bleaching away into whiteness. This overwhelming terror made his body want to abandon his mind, which was carried away by the wave that swamped him.
“...Is that all a ‘man’ is? That was only a warmup.”
Sebas’ disappointed voice seemed abnormally loud through the depths of Climb’s fading consciousness.
The meaning of those words pierced Climb deeper than any blade. It even made him forget the fear before him for a moment.
His heart pounded heavily in his chest.
“Huuuuuuuuuhhhhh!” Climb gasped.
He was terrified. He wanted to run. But he fought the urge to do so, even as the tears streamed down his cheeks. His hands trembled as they gripped his sword, and the point of his sword danced around like a demented bumblebee. His chain shirt made rustling noises from his full-body tremors.
Even so, Climb clenched his chattering teeth and tried to bear up against the mortal terror which came from Sebas.
Sebas laughed at the pathetic sight before him. Then he brought his right hand before his eyes and slowly clenched it into a fist. In the blink of an eye, the fist in front of him was as round as a ball.
He then pulled that fist back, like he was drawing a bow.
Climb understood what was going to happen, and shook his head. Of course, Sebas paid his response no heed.
“Now then… prepare to die.”
Sebas’ fist ripped through the air with a whoosh, like a fully-drawn arrow being loosed.
—It was instant death.
As time seemed to slow to a crawl, Climb’s instincts spoke to him. The image of his certain death dominated his mind, like a massive wrecking ball that was far larger than himself, approaching at incredible speeds. Even if he raised his sword to block, that fist would surely smash it easily.
His body was frozen. It had gone stiff from tension.
—He could not escape the death before him
Climb’s resignation to his fate filled him with anger.
If he could not die for Renner, then why had he not died back then? He should have frozen to death in the rain and shuffled off the mortal coil by himself.
Renner’s beautiful smile appeared before him.
It was said that on the brink of death, people would see their lives flash before their eyes like a zoetrope. The common opinion the brain was desperately searching through its past records for a way to escape its current predicament. However, it was somewhat laughable that the last thing Climb would see was the smile of his beloved princess.
Indeed, Climb saw Renner as she smiled.
When she had saved him, the young Renner had not smiled. When had she started smiling upon him?
He could not remember. However, he vividly remembered Renner’s timid smile from back then.
How would she react if she learned that Climb had died? Would that smile darken, like the clouds obscuring the sun?
—Are you kidding me?!
A blaze of anger roared up within Climb’s heart.
She had picked up the life of his that had been thrown away along the roadside. That would mean his life was no longer his own. He lived for Renner… to grant her joy, however miniscule it might be—
Isn’t there any way I can get out of this—!
The exploding passion within him burst the chains of fear that held him prisoner.
His hands could move.
His legs could move.
The eyes that sought only to be closed slowly opened, desperately seeking the image of the fist which was streaking in at him.
His senses were pushed to their very limit, to the point where he could even sense the faint movements of particles in the air.
There was a phenomenon called an “adrenaline rush”, where the brains of people in extreme duress would release the limits on their physical bodies, allowing for a burst of incredible power.
At the same time, the brain would secrete vast quantities of hormones and the mind’s full capacity would be focused on survival. The brain would compute vast quantities of information to find the best possible way to live on.
In that moment, Climb had stepped into the realm of a first-rate warrior. Yet, the speed of Sebas’ attack was beyond even that lofty domain. Perhaps it was too late to dodge Sebas’ fist. Perhaps it had always been too late. Even so, he still had to move. He could not give up here.
As time slowed to a crawl, Climb saw that his own movements were as slow as molasses. But still, he turned himself, trying to move.
Sebas’ fist roared past Climb’s face, with the sound of thunder. The gale which followed clipped off several strands of Climb’s hair.
A calm voice filtered into his ears.
“Congratulations. How does it feel to conquer the fear of death?”
Climb stood there dumbly, unable to understand his meaning.
“How was it like to face death? How was it like to surpass it?”
Climb breathed heavily, looking at Sebas like his soul had been stolen away. There was no hostility around Sebas, as though it had been nothing more than a lie. He relaxed as he began to realize Sebas’ intent.
Climb collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut, as though he had been supported by the murderous intent from just now.
He fell on all fours in the alley, hungrily gasping fresh air into his lungs.
“...Fortunately you did not die from shock. These things happen when one is so certain of one’s death that one gives up the will to live.”
There was a bitter taste in the depths of Climb’s throat. He was certain that it was the taste of death.
“If you repeat this a few more times, I am sure you will be able to overcome ordinary fear. However, one thing you must know is that fear triggers the survival instinct. If you are numbed to that sense, then you will be unable to feel even clear and present danger. You must be able to clearly tell when a true threat approaches.”
“...For-forgive me for prying, but what kind of man are you?” Climb groaned from his place on the ground.
“What do you mean?”
“That, that killing intent was not normal. What exactly…”
“I am simply an old man who has some confidence in his skills. For now.”
Climb could not tear his eyes away from Sebas’ face. What seemed to be a congenial smile also looked like a savage grin from one of absolute power; one who far surpassed Gazef.
He was probably a being who was greater than Gazef, himself the mightiest warrior of the surrounding nations.
—Climb willed his curiosity to be satisfied. He felt it would be best not to continue prying into that mystery.
Even so, where had the old gentleman Sebas come from? That was the sole question that burned within his heart. He even wondered, Could he be one of the Thirteen Heroes?
“Then, let us try again—”
“—Wait! Please wait! I have something to ask you two.”
The voice of a frightened man interrupted Sebas from behind.
Lower Fire Month (9th Month) 3rd Day 10:27
Brain left Gazef’s home.
He looked back and thought about how he would get back, and then he committed the house’s exterior appearance to memory. His mind had been blurred from hypothermia when Gazef brought him here, so his memories from back then were hazy.
He knew Gazef’s address because he had been planning to challenge the man to a duel someday. However, that information had been gathered by word of mouth, and it was somewhat inaccurate.
“There’s no sword stuck in the roof.”
He cursed the information broker who had told him that, and carefully inspected the house.
It was much smaller than the noble residences, and it looked more like a commoner’s dwelling. However, it was more than enough for Gazef and the husband and wife who lived there with him.
After memorizing the house’s exterior, Brain set forth.
He did not have any particular destination in mind.
He did not want to buy weapons, armor or magic items.
“What should I do from now on…”
His mumbled voice faded into the air.
He was not particularly opposed to just vanishing somewhere. In fact, the notion was still quite attractive to him.
He searched within himself for what he should do next, but he found only a yawning void within his heart. His goal had been destroyed, utterly annihilated without leaving a trace behind.
That being the case, why—
He looked down to his right hand, which still held his 「Katana」. He still had his chain shirt on under his clothes.
It was fear that had kept his sword in hand during his journey to the Royal Capital. He knew that his blade was useless against that monster who could deflect his best attacks with her pinky fingernail, but going unarmed still frightened him.
That being the case, why was he still holding his blade? He could have left it in Gazef’s home. Was it because he was still afraid?
Brain thought about it, and then shook his head.
That was not it.
In that case, why was he holding his 「Katana」? In the end, the answer still eluded him.
Brain recalled the first time he had come to the Royal Capital as he walked. Some buildings had remained the same, like the Magician’s Guild or the Royal Palace, but there were many new buildings which were absent from his memories. Just as Brain was savoring the difference between his memories and reality, he noticed a commotion ahead of him.
The noise made him furrow his brows. He sensed violence coming from the crowd ahead.
Brain was about to turn and head elsewhere when an old man caught his eyes. The old man wormed into the crowd, like he was sliding his way in.
“...What, what’s that? What’s with the way he’s moving?”
He blinked several times, unconsciously gasping in awe. The old man’s movements beggared belief. Brain wondered if he was dreaming, or if he had been affected by some kind of magic.
Perhaps even Brain might not be able to move as the old man had. It was a godly technique that required one to keenly grasp the will of one’s counterpart, or in this case, the flows of strength and motion within the entire crowd.
—In other words, those movements were at a sort of a pinnacle.
His feet carried him toward the crowd without hesitation.
Brain shoved others out of the way, and when he reached the center, he saw the instant when the old man struck the younger man’s chin.
What? Could I… could I have blocked that blow just now? It’d be hard, right? Did he draw away the other man’s vision and attention? Am I overthinking this? Still, that was a magnificent strike. You could teach it in a textbook...
He grunted to himself as he replayed the punch he had just seen in his mind.
Granted, he had not gotten a good look at it, and it was very difficult to measure swordsmen and pugilists on the same scale. Even so, that brief glimpse had made Brain realise that the old man before him was incredibly skilled.
For all he knew, that old man might even be stronger than himself.
Brain bit his lower lip as he compared the profile of the old man’s face to the list of martial exponents in his memory. However, he did not find a match.
Who on earth is he?
The old man left the crowd in an instant. A teenaged boy trailed behind him. On a whim, Brain followed the boy, as though he had been hooked by some bait.
His instincts told him that the man had eyes in the back of his head, so did not dare tail him directly. However, if he followed the youth, he would not have to worry about being spotted. From a more cunning point of view, he would still be safe even if the boy was discovered.
While following them, Brain sensed several other presences. However, Brain did not care about them.
Before long, the two of them turned a corner and entered a darkened area. Brain felt uneasy, because that move seemed like it was calculated to lure him into a trap.
Doesn’t that kid find it strange? Just as he began to feel surprised, the boy spoke to the old man.
The two of them spoke near the turning point of an alley. Thus, Brain took cover around the bend and eavesdropped on them.
In summary, the boy was asking the old man to train him.
As if. An old man like that would never accept a punk like that as a disciple.
If one were to compare the two of them, the boy would be a pebble, while the old man was a gigantic gemstone. The two of them lived in completely different worlds.
...How sad. Not knowing how badly you’re outclassed is truly sad. Give it up, kid.
Brain did not speak those words, merely mumbled them to himself.
Those words were directed at the boy, and they were also a frank criticism of an utter idiot who had once thought himself invincible — namely, his past self.
He continued listening in — although he had no interest in the brothel — and it would seem that the old man was willing to train the youth up. Brain had no idea what that kid had to offer that interested that amazing old man.
What’s this? Have I misjudged someone again? No, that can’t be. That kid has little ability as a warrior. Surely he can’t have any talent!
How was the old man going to train him? He could only hear them from here, but he could not see what was going on. Curious, Brain concealed his presence and eased himself forward to spy on them. But before he knew it—
A terrifying aura shot through him.
He screamed wordlessly.
His entire body froze.
It felt like a massive carnivore pressing its face against his and exhaling all over him. The oncoming torrent of murderous intent actually dyed the world a different color. He could not even blink, much less move. For a moment he thought his heart had stopped beating.
Brain felt that Shalltear Bloodfallen was the most powerful being in the world, but what he felt now was comparable to her.
It might actually have stopped the heart of a weak-willed person.
His legs trembled, and then dumped him onto his butt upon the ground.
Even I’ve been reduced to this state. Doesn’t that mean that kid’s going to drop dead on the spot?
If he were lucky, he might pass out first.
Brain crawled along the ground, nervously stealing a glance at the two of them. What he saw shocked him to the core, to the point where he forgot his fear for a moment.
The kid was still standing.
His legs were trembling like Brain’s had. But he was still standing.
What, what’s going on? Why is that talentless punk still on his feet?!
Brain could not understand why the youth could still stand while fear had reduced his legs to a puddle of quivering jelly.
Did he have some sort of magic item or martial art which resisted fear? Or did he have some special talent?
Indeed, there was no way to guarantee he did not possess such an item. However, his instincts told him that none of the above applied as he looked at the kid’s wavering back. The answer was hard to believe, but it was the only one possible.
That kid was stronger than Brain.
Impossible! It can’t be!
The kid looked like he had been training himself, but he did not have enough muscle on him. After observing the way that the kid moved while trailing him, Brain had concluded that the kid was hardly talented. And yet, this average kid was standing where he had fallen.
What, what’s going on? Am I really that weak?
His vision blurred.
Brain knew he was crying, but he could not bring himself to wipe his tears.
He tried to swallow his moaning, but the tears continued flowing regardless.
“Why, ah… why.”
Brain clutched at the dirt and tried to force himself back to his feet. However, the tsunami of killing will rendered him immobile. His legs refused to move, as though under someone else’s control. All he could do was lift his head and watch the two of them.
He saw a back.
The boy was still standing, even now.
The boy could still stand against that old man and his wave of murderous intent. That feeble back now seemed so far out of his reach.
Was he really that weak?
By the time the surge of bloodlust had dispersed like mist, he had only managed to get back onto his feet. That fact frustrated Brain.
The old man and the boy looked like they were going to train further, but Brain could no longer contain himself. Gathering up his courage, he rushed out from around the corner and shouted:
“—Wait! Please wait!”
Brain no longer thought about not interrupting their training session, or even picking a good time to make his appearance.
The youth turned around as he heard that desperate cry. His shoulders shuddered and there was a look of shock on his face. In his position, Brain would probably have done the same.
“First, please let me apologize to the two of you. I simply could not wait any longer.”
“...Do you know him, Sebas-sama?”
“No, I do not. I see, so he was not a friend of yours either.”
The two of them turned suspicious looks on him, but Brain had already expected as much.
“Please allow this one to state his name. This one’s name is Brain Unglaus. Please permit this one to apologize once more to the two of you. I really am very sorry for this.”
He bowed lower than he had before, and he could sense a slight movement from both of them.
After waiting for a sufficiently long time to convey his sincerity, Brain raised his head, and he sensed that their caution towards him had dulled somewhat.
“Then, what brings you here?”
In response to the old man’s question, Brain glanced at the youth.
“How did you do it?”
As he saw the clueless look on the kid’s face, Brain asked once more, like he was coughing up blood.
“How… how could you remain standing before that murderous intent?!”
The boy’s eyes went wide. Since he typically feigned a blank look on his face, even this small change signalled a huge emotional upheaval inside him.
“I just wanted to know. That surge of bloodlust was more than most people could bear. Even I… pardon, even this one could not endure it. Yet you were different. You endured it. You stood against it. How did you do it? How did you accomplish such a feat?!”
His excitement was making him repeat himself, but he could not tamp it down. When faced with the overwhelming power of Shalltear Bloodfallen, he had been so afraid that he had fled. Yet, this boy had faced the same degree of killing will and held his ground. He wanted to know what was the difference between them.
He had to find out, no matter the cost.
Brain seemed to have conveyed his earnest passion to the kid. He was confused, but he carefully considered the matter before answering:
“...I don’t know. I don’t understand it myself. I have no idea how I could take that storm of bloodlust. Still, maybe… maybe it was because I was thinking of my liege.”
“Yes. As long as I think of the great person whom I serve… I have the strength to carry on.”
How could anyone endure like that for such a reason, Brain almost shouted. But before that, the old man quietly explained his meaning.
“In other words, his loyalty was sufficient to overcome his fear, Unglaus-san. People can exert great strength for something they cherish. For instance, a mother can hold up a pillar in a collapsing house to save her children, or a husband could hold up his wife with one hand before she falls. I feel that is the power of mankind. In other words, this young man has tapped on that power. It is also not limited to him. As long as you have something which you will not forsake, you will certainly be able to draw on strength you could never have imagined.”
Brain could not believe it. His goal, the thing he would not forsake — was his thirst for strength. But that was meaningless now. That dream had been shattered with ease, and all he could do was run in fear.
Brain’s face turned gloomy, and he lowered his head to look at the ground. Then, the old man’s next words made him jerk his head up again.
“...Something built up by yourself is fragile. Once you fall, it is the end for you. Do not rely on yourself for everything. If you can build your confidence with someone else and give of yourself for others, then you will not fall even if you suffer a setback.”
Brain fell silent. Did he have something like that?
He could not think of anything. That was because he had abandoned everything else save his quest for the sword. Could be that the things he had discarded in his search for strength were actually the most important things?
Brain could not help but laugh. He laughed at his mistake-filled life. Neither could he help the bitter complaint that next escaped him.
“I abandoned it all. Is it too late for me to take them back?”
“You’ll be fine. Even someone without talent like me managed to do it. Someone like you can surely do it too, Unglaus-san! It’s definitely not too late for you!”
There was no basis to the young man’s words. Yet, strangely enough, his words warmed Brain’s heart.
“You really are a gentle and strong person… I am truly sorry.”
The boy froze as Brain apologized to him out of the blue.
Brain had taken such a brave lad as a punk and looked down on him.
I’m a fool. I’m such a fool...
“Ah, yes, you said you were called Brain Unglaus… were you the same Brain Unglaus who fought Stronoff-sama to a draw in the past?”
“... So you knew that too… Did you watch that fight?”
“Ah, I didn’t. I just heard someone talk about it. Stronoff-sama said that you were an amazing swordsman, and that you were easily in the running for the strongest man in the Kingdom. After seeing your movements and calm poise, I now realize the truth of Stronoff-sama’s words!”
Swamped by the sheer force of Climb’s goodwill, Brain struggled to stammer out an answer.
“...Er, thanks… thank you. I feel I’ve got a long way to go, but it... pleases me to receive such praise from you.”
“Sir, please call me Unglaus. There is no need for you to be so formal to a mook like myself.”
“In that case, I am Sebas Tian, but I hope you will call me Sebas… Now then, Unglaus-kun.”
Being addressed as “-kun” embarrassed Brain a little, but given the difference in their ages, such a term was only fitting.
“Can I entrust you with training of Climb-kun? I believe that will be beneficial to you as well, Unglaus-kun.”
“Ah! Forgive me! My name is Climb, Unglaus-sama.”
“Were you not going to be trained by him… forgive me. Was Sebas-sama not going to train you? I believe I interrupted the two of you while you were in the middle of discussing something…?”
“Indeed. That was my original intention, but it would seem we have guests. I had intended to call them over — ah, they are here. It would seem they took a while to prepare themselves for battle.”
Sebas looked off to one side. Brain took a bit longer to look in the same direction.
Three men slowly revealed themselves. They wore chain shirts and carried sharp daggers in hands protected by heavy leather gloves.
They were not radiating hostility, but full-on murderous intent. Said intent seemed to be directed at the old man, but they did not look like the kind who would let witnesses live.
Brain was visibly shocked as he saw them, and he screamed:
“No way! They’re still coming even after feeling that bloodlust? Just how strong are these people?!”
If that were the case, then each of them was probably on par with Brain — no, they would be stronger than him. Could it be that their lousy tailing skills were because they were trained warriors who were not adept at following others?
And then, Sebas eased Brain’s worries.
“I trust you’re aware that I only directed my will at the two of you, right?”
Even Brain felt that his reply sounded very stupid..
“The murderous intent directed at Climb-kun was to train him. In your case, it was because I did not know who you were, and wanted to draw you out. Either that, or sap your will to fight, hostility and so on. But I viewed them as enemies from the start, so I did not direct my killing intent at them. It would be bad to frighten them off.”
Brain was shocked beyond the capacity to even express it as he heard Sebas casually explain the startling truth. Being able to finely control killing will of that intensity was beyond what he knew to be possible.
“I, I see. Then, do you know who they are, Sebas-sama?”
“I can guess. Still, I cannot be sure. Thus, I wish to capture one or two of them for questioning. However—”
Sebas dipped his head in apology.
“It would seem I accidentally involved the two of you in this. May I trouble the two of you to leave this place?”
“Before that, I wish to ask you a question. Are they… criminals?”
“...They feel that way to me. They’re obviously the evil-doing sort.”
A fire blazed up in Climb’s eyes as he heard Brain say that.
“Perhaps this might be getting in your way, but I wish to fight as well. As a man who protects the public order of the Royal Capital, it falls to me to defend its people as well.”
It’s not like we’re sure that Sebas is on the side of good here, Brain thought to himself as he played devil’s advocate to that statement. Indeed, given his honest and straightforward attitude, Sebas certainly seemed to be in the right compared to that lot. However, they could not be sure of that.
He’s really green...
Still, he could understand how the kid felt.
Even Brain could instantly conclude who to help, between the man who had saved a kid from a bunch of drunken toughs and the other men.
“Personally, I don’t really think you need the help, but… Sebas-sama. Please allow me… er, no, please allow this one to lend you a hand.”
Brain took his place by Climb’s side. Sebas did not need their aid. Indeed, he had even said that they could leave and he would be fine. However, he wanted to learn from Climb, who fought for others. He wanted to choose the path he would never have travelled in the past. He wanted to protect the boy with a strong heart, but whose swordplay was lacking.
Brain saw the weapons they were holding, and frowned.
“Poison, is it… Using a double-edged sword like that indicates they ought to have some experience under their belts… are they assassins?”
The daggers they were using were called mailbreakers. There were reservoirs carved into the the blades of their weapons, and said reservoirs reflected the oily glow of a dangerous liquid. The fact that these men seemed to prioritize agility and ease of movement — unlike professional swordsmen — was a better indication of the truth than Brain’s self-directed mumblings.
“Climb-kun, you’d best be careful. Unless you have a magic item that resists poison, don’t let them nick you so much as once.”
Someone with Brain’s level of physical prowess was pretty much immune to poison, but people like Climb might succumb to strong toxins.
“They’ve appeared in front of us but they’re not making a move yet. Are they waiting for the other two people to circle around behind us? Since this is a rare opportunity, why don’t we break through them from the front?”
Sebas deliberately raised his voice loud enough for them to hear, and the men’s movements froze. They had clearly been shaken by the exposure of their encirclement plan.
“That seems about right. It would be safest to crush the ones in front and then mop up the ones behind.”
It would seem Brain shared Sebas’ opinion. However, Sebas himself rejected Brain’s words.
“Ah, but that would let them get away. How about this — I’ll deal with the three in front, so could I leave the two circling around behind us to you?”
Brain nodded, and so did Climb. This was Sebas’ fight, and they were the ones imposing on Sebas to let them help. They ought to listen to Sebas, so long as he had not made any fatal errors.
“Alright, let’s go.”
After saying that to Climb, Brain turned his back on the men. The reason why he dared show that defenseless side of himself to those men was because Sebas was around. As he left his back to Sebas, he felt as safe as though he were defended by a thick castle wall.
“Well then, while it is a shame… please allow me to be your opponent — oya, please do not harbor any designs on those two, alright?”
Looking back, Brain saw Sebas with three daggers trapped between the fingers of his right hand. He opened up his hand and the daggers which they had hurled at the otherwise-vulnerable Brain and Climb clattered to the ground.
The men’s killing intent was getting weaker.
But of course. Anyone would lose the will to fight after seeing their thrown daggers blocked in that way. Do you finally see how powerful Sebas-sama is now? However, you’ve learned that too late.
They were all trapped within the old man’s palm. Even splitting up three ways would not save them now.
Climb stood by Brain’s side,
“Indeed. I’d believe anyone who said that Sebas-sama was the strongest warrior in the Kingdom.”
“Even stronger than the Warrior-Captain?”
“You mean Stronoff, right? Hm. Well, that old man is someone that I… myself… … sorry, I’ll speak in a more relaxed tone now. Even if Stronoff and myself went up against him at once, we’d still lose for sure… oh, here they come.”
The other two men had circled around and appeared behind them. Those two were dressed the same way as the first three.
The sound of a sword clearing his sheath came from beside Brain, and a moment later, Brain drew his own blade.
“They probably didn’t keep someone in hiding to throw knives at us because that old man saw through them.”
Ambushes only worked when they were unexpected. If someone had seen through it beforehand, then they would only be splitting up their forces. The enemy must have judged that it would be better to attack all at once now that they had been exposed.
“How naive… Climb-kun, I’ll take the one on the right. You handle the one on the left.”
After examining their movements, Brain sensed that one of them was weaker than the other and indicated as much to the youth beside him. The young man nodded, and raised his sword. His unhesitating movements were those which one could only find in those people who had fought for their lives. Brain was relieved that he was not an untested newcomer to combat.
Climb-kun ought to have the advantage, but… given his opponent uses poison, it might be a close-fought victory.
Even if Climb had actual combat experience, Brain did not feel that he was a blooded warrior who had faced poison-using opponents. For all he knew, that might be his first time doing so.
Even Brain had trouble against monsters who used flesh-corroding acids or powerful venom. When fighting them, he became overly cautious and could not bring his full might to bear.
Should I kill this guy immediately and then help him out? Would that help him? Would it hurt his pride if I went out of my way to help him? Should I fight them on his behalf? Or did Sebas-sama intend to help if there was any danger? If Sebas-sama doesn’t step in, does it mean I should? To think the day would come when I’d actually worry about something like this...
Brain scratched at his head with his free hand and stared down his foe.
“Alright. Do excuse me for using you as a sacrifice to make up for my time spent idle.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Sebas stepped into range of the three men, who could not even react to him, much less defend themselves. Then he punched three times and the battle was over.
But of course. Sebas occupied the pinnacle of Nazarick’s combat power. He could deal with assassins of that calibre with only the tip of his little finger.
The men keeled over, collapsing limply to the ground like cuttlefish. Sebas turned away from them and looked at the battle behind him.
Brain had overwhelmed his foe from start to finish, which put him at ease.
The assassin facing him seemed to be looking for a chance to flee, but Brain did not let him off. In fact he even looked like he was toying with his opponent… no, that was not playing with him. Sebas sensed that Brain was running through his repertoire of moves to re-hone his rusty skills.
Right, I think I heard him say something about a “time spent idle”. Also, he seems to be worried about Climb-kun. Thus he’s not fighting in earnest so he can come to his aid at any time. He seems like quite a nice fellow.
Sebas turned his attention from Brain to Climb.
Hm, he ought to be alright.
The battle went back and forth. The fact his opponent used poison made him a little uneasy, but there did not seem to be a need to rescue him right away. He felt uncomfortable about involving an outsider — particularly one whom he favored — in his own matters, but—
If he hadn’t said he wanted to become stronger, I’d have gone to assist him. A fight for one’s life is very good practice. I’ll help him if he’s in danger.
Sebas stroked his beard and observed Climb as he fought.
Climb blocked a thrust with his blade.
A trickle of cold sweat flowed down his back. It had almost hit his armor. A hint of disappointment flashed across the cruel face of the man he was fighting.
Climb stabbed forward, measuring the distance between the two of them. He noted that his foe was slowly backing off, and he did not want to let the man get away.
Climb’s usual fighting style was to defend with the shield and simultaneously attack with the sword. Being forced to fight with only his sword was a tortuous experience. The poisoned blade also made him very nervous. Mailbreakers were weapons specialized for thrusting attacks, so he knew he only had to worry about thrusts. Even so, the fact that he could not allow himself to be so much as grazed by the weapon made his movements stiff.
He calmed his breathing, which had been thrown into disarray by his physical and mental fatigue.
The other guy’s the same too. I’m not the only one who’s tired.
His foe’s forehead was covered in sweat. The man used his agility to make a mockery of his foe, which was a truly assassin-like way of fighting. Thus, wounding any of his limbs would make him lose the advantage and upset the balance of fighting power.
The battle would be decided in one hit.
This was the source of both parties’ tension. Granted, all evenly-matched battles were like that, but it was that much more obvious in this fight.
With a sharp expulsion of breath, Climb swung at his foe. The swing moved slowly and he did not put much force into it. That was because he would leave himself wide open if he went for a full swing and his opponent dodged.
The assassin easily dodged it and reached into his breast pocket. Climb observed the upcoming attack and kept an eye on the assassin’s hand.
A dagger flew forth and Climb cut it out of the air with his sword.
He had been lucky. He had managed to deflect it since he was paying attention.
However he could not breathe easy just yet. The assassin had already lowered his stance and slid into attack range.
This is bad!
His spine turned to ice.
He could not block the follow-up hit. He had swung too hard when deflecting the thrown dagger out of fear. His sword was now hanging out of position in mid-air, and it was too late for him to turn it back to intercept his foe. He thought to evade, but the assassin’s agility was superior to his own.
There was nothing else to be done. Maybe he could use his arm as a shield—
Just as he resolved himself, the incoming assassin clutched his face and stumbled backwards.
It would seem a bean-sized pebble had struck the assassin just above the left eye. Climb’s perceptions, heightened by the dangerous situation, confirmed that fact.
He knew who had thrown it even without looking back. Sebas’ voice from behind him was the best proof of that.
“Fear is an important emotion. But you cannot be ruled by fear. I have been watching you fight from just now, and I feel that your fighting style is too plain and conservative. If your foe had been willing to sacrifice one arm, you would assuredly be dead. If your physical abilities are inferior to your opponent, then you must defeat them with your spirit. The strength of one’s will can sometimes surpass the weakness of one’s flesh.”
Climb answered “yes” in his heart, and he was quite surprised to find himself much more relaxed. He did not feel like he could depend on someone else to watch him, but he was relieved that someone else was watching him.
Of course, his fear of death was not completely gone, but even so—
“If… if I die, please tell Renner-sama… her Highness… about my glorious battle.”
He expelled a long breath, and then silently brought his sword up into a ready stance.
Climb sensed a gleam in the assassin’s eyes that was different from just now. It had only been a short while, but he felt like he had connected with the assassin’s spirit on some level during this life or death struggle.
The assassin sensed that Climb was prepared for death, and he seemed to have placed his life on the line as well.
He stepped forward, without saying a word, of course, and closed the distance in a single move.
After verifying the assassin was within his attack range, Climb brought his sword down in a scything chop. At that moment, the assassin leapt back. It would seem the other man had gotten the measure of Climb’s swings and had used himself as bait to make a feint at Climb.
However, the assassin had forgotten one thing.
Perhaps he might have grasped the speed of Climb’s. However, he did not know this move. Climb had the utmost confidence in this downward strike of his. It was faster than all his other moves, and more forceful.
The chop at the shoulder was stopped by the chain shirt and so it did not cleave the man bodily in two. However, it easily broke his clavicle and crushed his flesh along with his shoulder blade.
The assassin collapsed heavily to the ground. He was drooling from the intense pain and howling in agony.
Sebas appeared behind him and casually stomped on the assassin’s belly.
With that, the assassin fell silent, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He must have fainted.
From the corner of his eye, he saw that Brain had already finished off his assassin. He waved casually to Climb to celebrate his victory.
“Then, I shall begin the interrogation. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.”
Sebas brought over one of the men and slapped him awake. The man regained consciousness with a shudder, and Sebas placed his hand on the man’s head. Sebas had not used much force but within two seconds the man’s head lolled back, then snapped back to its original position like a pendulum.
The man’s eyes were now unfocused, like he was drunk.
Sebas began asking questions. The assassin, a man of a traditionally tight-lipped profession, sang like a canary. Faced with this bizarre sight, Climb asked Sebas: “What did you do to him?”
“This is a skill called the [Puppeteer’s Palm]… fortunately, it looks like it worked.”
Climb had never heard that technique before, but he frowned at what the man was saying.
They were assassins trained by Six Arms, the strongest combatants of Eight Fingers. They had apparently followed Sebas in order to kill him. Brain asked Climb:
“...I don’t know much about them, but Eight Fingers ought to be a major crime syndicate, right? I think they have connections with some mercenaries…”
“Yes, and Six Arms are the scariest of them all. Six Arms refers to the six fighters who make up the organization’s strongest fighting force. I heard that each of them can rival an adamantite-ranked adventurer. However, I’m not sure exactly who those six people are, since I’m not too clear on the details of their organization.”
The man went on to say that Succulent, the one who had visited Sebas’ house, was a member of Six Arms, known as “Devil of Illusions”. His plan was apparently to eliminate Sebas and do as he pleased with the young lady of the house.
As he heard this, Climb felt a chill wind blow over him. The source of that cold was Sebas.
Sebas slowly rose, and Brain addressed him.
“What do you plan to do next, Sebas-sama?”
“I have decided. First, I will destroy that troublesome place. Besides, it would seem that Succulent is there as well, according to this man. It is best to stamp out fires before they can grow.”
Brain and Climb both inhaled sharply at that casual answer.
The fact that he had declared his intention to fight his way into the enemy headquarters indicated that he was confident of defeating an adamantite-ranked adventurer — in other words, a man whose fighting power was at the zenith of human achievement.
However, neither of them was surprised.
He could defeat three skilled assassins in the blink of an eye and even the renowned Unglaus-sama showed deference to him. What sort of man is Sebas-sama? Could he be a retired adamantite-ranked adventurer?
“...Also, I hear that there are other captives in there. It would be best to move quickly.”
“That makes sense. If the assassins do not return, it will arouse suspicion. We will not be able to save the captives if they are moved elsewhere.”
Sebas was in a situation where time was not on his side, but on the enemy’s.
“Then I shall be heading there presently. I apologize, but I am set in my course. Can I trouble the two of you to drag these assassins to the nearest guardpost?”
“Please wait, Sebas-sama! If you don’t mind, could you let me… could you let this one lend you a hand? Of course, that is only if you are willing.”
“Me too. Protecting the peace of the Royal Capital is my duty as Renner-sama’s loyal servant. If the Kingdom’s citizens a
re being oppressed, this sword of mine shall hasten to their aid.”
“...I don’t think Unglaus-kun will have a problem, but it might be a bit dangerous for you.”
“I understand that.”
“Climb-kun… I guess Sebas-sama thinks you might get in the way, no? Although, I’m probably the same as you in his eyes.”
“No, no, that was not what I meant. I was simply worried about you. I hope you understand that I cannot protect you like I did just now.”
“I am prepared for that.”
“...What I am doing next might not win honor for you or your mistress, you know? I feel that there will be other chances for you to stake your life in battle, do you not think so?”
“If I watch mutely from the side because things are dangerous, that’ll only prove that I am a man who does not deserve to serve his mistress. Just as my mistress saved the common folk, I too wish to do everything I can to lend a helping hand to those who are in dire straits.”
Just like how she reached her hand out to me—
Sebas and Brain looked at each other. Perhaps they had sensed his iron determination.
“...Are you prepared for this?” Sebas asked.
“I understand. That being the case, there is nothing else to be said. I hope the two of you will lend me a hand.”
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