Chapter 4: A Doting Brother
Seconds before his outstretched fingertips touched the door, the body of a man flew through the door beside him, narrowly missing Clarke’s nose by mere inches.
From behind him, Clarke hears one of his comrades yell in surprise, followed by the sound of the body hitting the ground, tumbling over and over.
Before Clarke could even turn his head to confirm the situation, the door next to him was flung open once again, and from inside someone yelled, “Someone, stop him!”
As someone else came hurtling through the door, Clarke, with the reflexes he had honed long and hard, instantly flung his arms out to stop and hold the man back.
Clarke caught the man around the waist, joining two other men – one with his arms wrapped around the shoulders, the other with a bear hug around the waist. Both of those men were straining heartily against the force that was dragging them out the door. And now, Clarke was also included amongst them to make them a total of three.
But the man they were attempting to hold back completely ignored them.
There was the sound of coins scattering onto the ground as that man threw something at the dazed body lying on the ground, in the middle of the square where he had stopped tumbling.
Quite a few silver pieces and one or two gold pieces flew every which way as they bounced squarely off the fallen man’s forehead.
“Take your chump change and get the fuck out of here! You think I’m going to sell my sister to some spineless louse of a coward who can’t even talk to the girl he likes before asking to buy her like some shit-for-sale slave? Get out of here, or I’m going to pull your intestines up through your throat!”
Clarke gritted his teeth as the man he was trying to hold back roared an insult-laden threat.
Although it wasn’t a deep baritone, the sheer loudness of the roar had caused his teeth to reverberate.
With a squeal, the man who was lying on the ground hurriedly gathered up his coins before he tore through the square, disappearing behind a house.
The instant he disappeared, Clarke felt the ridiculous strength leave the torso he was struggling to push back.
“Tch. Spineless toad.”
With that statement, the man Clarke and the others had tried to hold back spat on the ground and glared at the spot the other man had fled from.
Since it wasn’t his hobby to hug random men, Clarke quickly released the stranger and stepped back.
From the angry yelling and violent behavior, he expected to see a heavily muscled, brutish man, maybe with a scar running down his face and a ferocious scowl, but he was surprised to see a young man with delicate features.
Although the scowl was certainly there.
Come to think of it, Clarke did think the man seemed slender for the strength he exhibited.
The other two men whom Clarke had joined in their exercise of strength, slapped the scowling youth on the back.
“Good grief. It’s one thing to cherish your sister, but you really go overboard.”
“Hahaha! Hey, Laurie, if that guy wasn’t good enough, then how about me?”
The youth, Laurie, kicked one of the men lightly behind the knees, almost causing him to stumble, and yelled, “Yeah right, you freaking womanizer! No way! And you’re over twice her age!”
Laughing and conversing light-heartedly – is this how you should react right after that ruckus?
Shocked dumb, Clarke stood there staring at the doors that swung closed once again, and then looked back towards his traveling companions.
The four that were his bosom comrades through thick and thin, and the other seven that they crossed paths with once in a while.
All eleven + Clarke, that is, all twelve of them, stared at each other, then shifted their gazes, staring in mute amazement at the doors that had closed behind Laurie once again.
Monsters, demons, and bogeymen run rampant through the Seven Countries, and the country of Sylrona is no different.
And just like the Seven Countries, Sylrona, who can hold its own against them, lacks the military power to keep every little town and farming community safe.
After watching their money drain away, through war and public safety, it was the young (at the time) Duke Baxter who thought of the idea.
Let us start an organization in order to organize the strong who remain un-enlisted. While general public order should remain the roles of the National Guard and the local guards, the dangerous work of culling monsters, demons, and bogeymen could be easily out-sourced.
Naturally there should be pay for the work done, and furthermore most of the money should come from the government, but doing this, despite the large initial cost, should save over half the budget that is often thrown away to public safety.
There would be no need for room and board, no salaries, and no need to provide funding, supplies, and weaponry to the expeditions that are usually needed to perform the same task.
Despite political opposition, Duke Baxter invested his own money to open up an office within the capital of the Baxter territory.
It was simply called the Guild.
The Guild’s success went further than anyone could imagine.
Branch offices spread out far and wide, and many, many people came to offer their services, make some quick coin, or, surprisingly, to post jobs with their own money as the payment.
Even within the Seven Countries, they had begun emulating the Guild.
Over time, the warriors and adventure-seekers who traveled the lands in search of jobs and monsters to slay became known as Hunters. The Guild became the Hunters Guild. The success became Duke Baxter’s rise to eminency.
With this great success, many Hunters began to flood into the Hunters Guild, and soon the Hunters Guild discovered the necessity of ranking them in order to insure job completion. And to a lesser degree, the survival of young, promising Hunters who had yet to unleash their potential.
After some trial and error, the rankings that the Hunters Guild adopted runs as:
Wood, Stone, Iron, Copper, Silver, Gold, and Galvorn.
However, most Hunters are divided amongst Wood, Stone, and Iron Ranks.
Wood and Stone Ranks signify Hunters who are either new to the Guild, had poor track records, had poor reputations, or were unable to take difficult missions. Naturally, the pay for jobs that Wood and Stone Rank Hunters are able to take are low, and Wood Ranks have poorer opportunities than Stone Ranks.
Iron Rank Hunters are considered true Hunters approved by the Guild. The majority of work given out by the Hunter Guild can be taken with an Iron Rank tag.
Then what is the point of holding a Copper, Silver, Gold, or Galvorn Rank?
A Copper Rank for a den of monsters,
a Silver Rank for a horde;
a Gold Rank for a tiny dragon,
Galvorn for a demon lord.
There aren’t very many Hunters, solo or party, that hold the “Precious Metal” Ranks.
To receive a Gold Rank requires the approval of either a Duke or Royalty. There are less than five parties that have received a Gold Rank. There are only two people who have ever received a Gold Rank as solo Hunters.
It might be redundant to state it, but there are very, very few Galvorn Rank Hunters. To the tune of “one party” registered as Galvorn throughout the country of Sylrona, and it is doubtful that they could hold their own against a demon lord.
That is to say, the Silver Rank parties Black Stones and Dark Wolves are already considered elites among the Hunters.
So, for the Silver Rank parties to be commanded by an Iron Rank boy who looked barely wet behind the ears in Hunter-dom, Mosen of the Black Stones couldn’t take it.
“What is with this? Weren’t we picked out by the Guild because we’re Silver Ranks? This is a job for Silver Rank Hunters, right?! Why is some young-ass Iron Rank calling the shots? Clarke, say something about this!”
Laurie, the young-ass Iron Rank, was walking casually through the forest with his hands behind his head. At Mosen’s outburst, he looked over his shoulder.
“Hey, if you don’t want me around, I’ll just take off and you can wander around Devil Pointe’s Pit Bogs by yourself,” he said with a shrug and an insolent tone.
Mosen’s face turned an ugly black, but he swallowed his words.
The Pit Bogs. If you set foot on the wrong part of the marshy ground in this forest, you would get sucked in and never come out again.
Mosen couldn’t deny that they definitely needed a guide through the Pit Bogs, but he still chafed at being under the leadership of an Iron Rank like Laurie.
Laurie’s arrogant tone wasn’t helping much, either.
“Oniichan. As the leader, you’re not allowed to say something so irresponsible.”
Laurie’s arrogance, after being chided by his little sister, crumbled in an instant and he made a comical grimace.
Mischa, a female member of the Black Stones, spoke softly to Mosen, but although the tension in his shoulders eased off, the deep furrows between his eyebrows didn’t smooth out at all.
Clarke, the leader of Black Stones, said nothing.
Certainly, many people thought of Hunter Ranks as indications of the strength of a Hunter, especially when talking about the Precious Metal Ranks, but the Rank system isn’t actually well-designed for that.
They WEREN’T designed for that, in the first place.
After all, everywhere you went, there were strong people who shirked responsibility and hid their true strengths by keeping a lower rank than their abilities should carry.
Although many people have become blinded by the Ranks, Clarke decided to trust his instincts that said this Laurie was strong.
That being said, he understood the dissatisfaction of someone who had not been recognized for outstanding achievements by the Guild being the leader of a large group of people who HAD been recognized by the Guild.
As long as Mosen didn’t do anything that would jeopardize their job, Clarke decided not to do anything to discipline him.
Mosen was a loud-mouth with a short temper, but he wasn’t a fool who enjoyed picking a fight, after all.
All of a sudden, Laurie stopped in front and a tense air settled in.
“What is it?” Clarke asked.
“A presence, at around 2 o’clock.”
“Sorry, a little right to directly in front of us. It’s a bit far away, but it’s sensed us and is coming over. It might be better to be prepared for battle. It has some miasma, so it might be a demon.”
As he said so, Laurie loosened the longsword he had sheathed to his back.
Clarke didn’t sense a thing. He had some confidence in his abilities to sense miasma, so he felt a little troubled over this.
At Clarke’s call, the woman nodded and she closed her eyes, using Presence Detection.
“Kent, Julianne, you two as well.”
Hogan, the leader of Dark Wolves, called out to the two mages in his party.
There aren’t many people who were more powerful mages than Mischa – at least among the Hunters – so it wasn’t useful for the other mages to try to out-detect her.
It’s a useless waste of mana – is what Clarke wanted to say, but he held his tongue.
Not only was it the instruction for another party, but Clarke himself wasn’t the leader of this expedition, so it was pointless to invite an argument.
“… I don’t sense anything, Clarke … wait.”
Mischa frowned, her brows knitting together, as she held motionless, sending her perception out and struggling to sense the presence she just felt the barest hint of.
That was enough for Clarke.
“Hey, get ready you guys, hop to it!”
Without even a sarcastic quip, the archer Mosen, the water mage Mischa, and the swordsmen Repart and Bollen were ready for battle within the minute.
Clarke smiled. The members of his party are indeed excellent.
The Dark Wolves weren’t bad either, though it took them a bit longer to get into formation.
Clarke took a quick glance at the little sister who was tagging along.
She had long since moved herself so that both Silver Rank parties and her brother were between herself and the direction that Laurie had indicated the presence.
Since when? Probably as soon as Laurie had stopped and pointed.
Her role, after all, was to simply stay alive.
Now, even without magic, all members could hear the crashing through the underbrush.
A few moments later, an oozy body with maybe a flipper, maybe fur … a mess of a chimeric creature coming out of a gelatinous ooze burst out at them.
“A mireling! Tch. Stay sharp, men!”
Hogan, the Dark Wolves leader, barked out the identification of the horrific creature, and then the battle was joined.
The stench of rot flung clung to them as the large mass attacked.
A leg, or a paw, or things that couldn’t quite be identified, stretched out with a splorch! and attacked everyone all at once.
A demon that was going to be born, that had yet to decide on a shape.
A threat that could not be handled by your average Hunter.
But the Dark Wolves and Black Stones weren’t Silver Ranks for nothing.
And, although Mosen wouldn’t want to admit it, that Laurie’s strength really was the real deal.
Clarke couldn’t help but admire the way Laurie wielded his sword. For a younger guy, at 17 years of age, he definitely held great promise.
Clarke felt a bit of desire to train the young man.
Pretty soon, the battle was over in less than 10 minutes.
All that remained of the mireling was a corpse that turned a poisonous shade of black, and a contagious-looking dark smoke.
“We can’t leave it like that; it’ll corrupt the area. Hey, Clarke, can your guys’ mage purify it?” Hogan yelled over, poking at the corpse with his sword.
“I think so. Mischa?”
“That’s fine. I have mana –“
“Hang on,” Laurie said, interrupting them, “Mischa, was it? Your Presence Detection, was that the maximum range it could go?”
Startled, Mischa simply nodded mutely.
“If that’s the case, you should reserve your mana. If the mirelings have come this far from the origin, it will get more difficult from now on.”
“Then I could…”
The little sister, Emi, stepped forward, but Laurie cut her off.
“No way. I told you, your priority is to take care of yourself, so reserve your mana. If I get wrapped up in something, you’re these guys’ only guide back to town, so don’t get yourself in battle if you can help it, and only use your magic for protection.”
So the little girl could use magic? And was able to control it enough to purify a demon’s miasma?
All the mages in the group were staring at her in surprise.
Emi blinked and stared at Laurie.
“… That’s fine, I was just making a suggestion. There was no need to give me a lecture, Oniichan. You should listen to everything I was going to say before jumping to conclusions.”
Laurie collapsed on the ground.
“Emi… can’t you be a little nicer to your Onii-chan?”
“If Oniichan is going to act like that, there’s no need?”
Mosen couldn’t take it too long.
“Hey, your sibling relationship game is all well and good, but what are we going to do about that? You’re not just suggesting we leave it just to conserve a little bit of mana!” he said, pointing at the mireling’s carcass.
“Haaa…” Still depressed over Emi’s bluntness, Laurie reached out a hand, tapped the carcass of the mireling, and the dark, festering mass made a cracking sound before it was scattered to the winds.
All members of both Black Stones and Dark Wolves froze up at the sight.
“You, you can use magic?”
Still staring at the ground in depression, Laurie mumbled, “Huh? Yeah. I’m a mage after all.”
Clarke felt his brain freeze for a moment.
He’s a MAGE?
Then what was that potential he displayed earlier?
If he were a less experienced Hunter, Clarke would have assumed that Laurie didn’t know his own abilities, or that he was a youngster who wanted to show off what little magic he had. However, Clarke had been a Hunter for almost fifteen years now. He knew how to judge people.
The analysis Laurie had made, the ability to judge the mana the others had in comparison to his own simply by how they used Presence Detection, there was no way he was some half-assed magic using Hunter.
Even though he knew that, a chill ran up Clarke’s spine.
If the sword is his secondary combat trait, then what will his main combat ability be like!?
There was no reason for that thought. It was his instinct.
Laurie heaved a huge sigh, breaking Clarke out of his reverie.
“I’m bothered that mirelings have come this close to Devil’s Pointe. I’m going to scout ahead. Be back in a bit.”
Still exaggeratedly depressed from being scolded by his sister, Laurie vanished unnaturally into the forest.
Magic? Physical prowess?
Clarke couldn’t judge how he had moved like that.
“Ah… Clarke, should we take a lunchbreak, then? It’s about that time, and the timing is good,” Hogan said.
“… I suppose. That’s right. He’ll need to brief us on his findings when he gets back, too,” Clarke said in agreement.
Used to making camp on the go, both parties worked quickly, setting up a safe area and designating watch shifts.
Even though it’s not nighttime, the farming community and this part of the forest wasn’t called “Devil’s Pointe” for no reason, so vigilance was required at all hours.
“… Hey, Emi was it? Your brother is an interesting character. He’s so protective of you over little things, but then he brings you along on a dangerous job like this, huh?”
Julianne, the female mage of the Dark Wolves, addressed the little girl first.
Although she seemed quiet, the Hunters saw from her interactions with her brother that she had a bit of a cheeky tongue, so Julianne thought it wouldn’t be too difficult to talk to her.
“Oniichan taught me everything he knows as a Hunter, and if he thinks I’ll be okay, then I should be fine,” Emi said.
“Uwaah, you two are close~. He dotes on you so much, throwing guys who want to marry you out of the Guild like they’re a sack of potatoes.”
Emi made a bit of an annoyed face. Evidently, she was already well aware of her brother’s antics.
“… I don’t … approve of it, but I don’t have any intentions of getting married anytime soon either…” she said with a conflicted expression.
Mischa sighed, startling Julianne and Emi.
“Whoa, you scared me, Mischa. What’s up?” Julianne asked. Though they were in different parties, Julianne and Mischa often got along as female mages and colleagues.
Mischa gave a wry smile and said, “… I was just thinking that if my brother had been like that, I wouldn’t have run away from home.”
“Aaaah… see, Mischa used to be a Count’s daughter. That’s why she’s one of the strongest mages among Hunters. But the Count wanted to marry her off to some old, pig-like man, so she ran away and became a Hunter,” Julianne explained to Emi.
“So I’m actually jealous that you have a brother like that,” Mischa said.
Emi colored a little.
“It’s … Oniichan’s not that great…”
“By the way,” Julianne said, quickly changing the subject, “What’s this ‘oniichan’ thing you keep calling him? A nickname? It’s kind of … cute? Well, it’s kind of foreign-sounding, actually.”
Emi frowned. There were a lot of mysterious things about her brother, and this was one of them.
“I don’t know. Onii – Laurie says it means, ‘best brother in the world,’ but he’s that kind of brother, so I don’t really know if that’s true. By the time I realized it was weird, I had already been calling him that for years, and he gets really upset if I don’t call him that.”
“Ah… yeah, that sounds like something that would happen with THAT kind of doting brother.” Across the camp, the other girl from Dark Wolves, a swordswoman, spoke up with a laugh.
In contrast to the girl talk happening in one corner of the camp, the men stood, waiting for the brother’s return in tense silence.