THE GATHERING OF FOOLS
Six pairs of footsteps trailed along the winding road through the forest, occasional animal corpse lining up next to them. The forest was well know around the Hope Town as it was a place where both Mercenary Groups and individuals could prove their worth by slaying strong beasts. However, as most of them lived quite deep in the forest, one had to walk for nearly a week before even having a chance to prove themselves. At the end of the footsteps was a blazing campfire, above which a rather meaty boar was being roasted. Surrounding the flame were seven people, currently resting and talking.
“No way!!” Freya suddenly exclaimed, her eyes like stars focused onto Lucky who had rather proud expression. “You really killed a Mountain Ape?!”
“Of course!” Lucky exclaimed. “We fought for nearly two hours before I finally managed to down the damn bastard!”
“Hey, weren’t you running away from him when he tripped and fell down the ravine, dying in the process?” Shaneine commented from the side. Freya smiled awkwardly as Lucky’s eyes burned with anger, pointed toward Shaneine. “Don’t hate the messenger. Hate the liar.”
“Humph, liar? Weren’t you bragging to the guys how every single man from your village wanted to marry you?” Lucky suddenly said as Shaneine’s body jolted for a moment.
“When the reality is that you proposed to every single one of them and, get this, she was rejected every single time!! Ha ha ha ha!” while Lucky laughed, Fish, Kraval and Smite looked at Shaneine oddly, refusing to comment.
“... aah, still,” Freya sighed, leaning back onto her arms. “You guys have so many amazing stories. I’m really jealous.”
“... hey, in no time, you’ll have stories to share too,” Aeala said, smiling. “Like today’s... incident.”
“... yeah, being peed on by a bird - twice - is really something I will share in the future.” Freya said, shuddering.
“Eh, it’s not bad. Fish here gets pooped on all the time by random birds.” Smite said.
“It’s true,” Fish said, nodding. “I don’t know why, you know? It’s like they see me as a target practice dummy or something.”
“Maybe they’re just trying to see whether it’s possible for you to stink even more?” Lucky asked.
“... eeh, it’s possible. Trust me. It’s possible.”
“Guys, can we not talk about poop, pee and stinks while waiting for our dinner to be done?” Aeala asked, smiling awkwardly.
“No, we have to talk about one specific stink.” Smite said, frowning. “The worst of all.”
“The selfish, self-centered, arrogant, ‘why should I do that?’ stink, right?” Lucky quickly added.
“The ‘I’m too special to do missions’ stink!” even Freya joined.
“You mean Lino?” Shaneine asked, tilting her head.
“Who else but that bastard!!” Smite exclaimed, leaping onto his feet. “We’ve been here three months, working our butts off and climbing all the way to becoming C Ranked Group, but has he done a single mission?! Yes, yes he has! He once stole a job of mine that entailed escorting a beautiful maiden on a dual journey!”
“Oh, is that why he suddenly started hiding when he came back?” Kraval asked. “Because that strange woman kept looking for him?”
“Stop!! Don’t bring up his success stories!”
“Where is he anyway?” Fish suddenly asked. “Lady, do you know?”
“... no clue,” Aeala replied, sighing bitterly. “He said he found ‘another interest’ and that he would be ‘exploring his options in near future’.”
“So, another woman?” Shaneine added, not noticing the sudden awkward atmosphere.
“Khm, anyway,” Kraval said, breaking the silence. “Enough about him. He did promise he’ll make us each a weapon next week, so maybe that’s his way of making up everything he’s missed.”
“I’m gonna squeeze every ounce of talent out of his perky ass for the best pair of daggers I can!” Lucky said, licking her lips while her eyes shimmered in greed.
“He does have perky ass, doesn’t he?” Freya added.
“Can we not talk about another dude’s ass while I’m here, please?” Smite joined in. “Oh, the boar’s done.”
“I’ll cut.” Fish said.
“I’ll get the water.” Kraval added.
“I’ve got the seasonings here.” Freya took out a few small bottles from her knapsack.
“Here are the plates.” Aeala said.
“Anyone got a sharper knife?”
“Oh, thanks. Wow, it’s really sharp!”
“Yeah, that bastard’s Qi is really good for sharpening weapons.”
“Don’t judge me! I like my babies well-tempered---alright, that came out wrong. Moving on.”
“So,” Freya said as the group slowly began eating. “How long have you guys been together?”
“Hmm.. probably since the Lady picked us all up like stray dogs off the streets?” Shaneine said, tilting her head sideways slightly.
“Yup, pretty much.” Fish concurred.
“Same here.” Lucky added.
“She stole me from military.” Kraval joined.
“She stole my heart and forced me to run away from my well-off family.” Smite said. “So worth it, though.” he added, smiling at Aeala who merely sighed.
“You two are really sweet together.” Freya added, looking at Aeala and Smite.
“I know your intentions aren’t pure,” Smite said, inching closer to Aeala. “But, girl, you just made my day. Whooooooaaaa!!”
“Oh, for the love of...” Lucky mumbled. “Unless you have a complete do-over on your personality, I’ll never hand you over to my Lady!”
“Our Lady.” Kraval interrupted.
“Our Lady!” Lucky said.
“What do you mean a complete do-over?!” Smite asked, staring daggers at Lucky. “I’m a charming, funny, handsome prince-type that all women can’t help but swoon over!”
“Let me voice everyone’s thoughts,” Fish said, coughing briefly. “There are four women in this group, and not a single one wants to see you naked.”
“Thanks, thanks a lot asshole!” Smite cried out.
“No problem buddy. Anytime.” Fish smiled.
“Freya,” Aeala suddenly looked toward the girl who was happily - and messily - eating a piece of boar’s meat. “You never talk about life as a Princess. I’m actually quite interested.”
“... there’s not much to say, really,” Freya smiled meekly as she replied. “Every day was... pretty much the same. Wake up early in the morning, have some women do the most basic things for you because my father thought I was a cripple incapable of washing my own face, then go to breakfast where entire family would gather and not a single word would be spoken, then go to random classes for random skills I’d use as someone’s wife... I don’t miss it.”
“... yeah, being taken care of really seems depressing.” Lucky said.
“Having a family to eat with every morning sure sounds awful.” Shaneine said.
“Never needing to worry about anything is definitely the worst thing ever.” even Fish joined in, smiling lightly.
“Mmmm!!” Freya pouted, her cheeks puffed like hamster’s, slightly flushed, staring at them.
“Ha ha, come on guys, give her a break,” Aeala said. “It couldn’t have been easy, being a dreamer in a place like that.”
“It wasn’t! So you understand!”
“Nah,” Smite said. “She was just pulling whatever sounded the best out of her ass. Trust me.”
“Yeah, I’m definitely never having sex with you.” Aeala flashed him a beaming smile, yet her words were more akin to swords piercing Smite’s heart.
“See?! See what you did newbie?!” he lashed out on Freya. “I hope your hair goes gray---oh fuck this. I’m off to sleep.”
“Have very nice dreams where she blue-balls you!” Lucky said causing Smite to nearly trip over. However, he braved onward without even looking back at her.
“Were you being serious?” Kraval asked Aeala.
“Of course not.” she replied with a smile. “But he doesn’t need to know that. Seeing his tortured expressions is quite fun, eh?”
“Why are you all looking at me like that?” Aeala asked, frowning.
“Yup, what he said.”
“It’s definitely not because you’re a sexual deviant. Definitely not.”
“It’s because you’re weird.” Freya said honestly. “Why’d you torture someone you like?”
“...” it was everyone’s turn to look at Freya oddly.
“Oh, sweet innocence...”
“You are... you are just beautiful... never, ever, ever change, got it?”
“We mustn’t let her near that stinking bastard ever again, lest he corrupts her pure heart.”
“Protect the Princess! By any means necessary!”
“Y-you guys!! You suck!” Freya puffed out and moved away, ready to sleep as well.
“He he, she’s really adorable,” Lucky said. “Too bad I can’t bring myself to like her.”
“Because she likes Lino?” Aeala asked.
“What’s your problem with him anyway?” Shaneine asked. “Besides being the only one in the world who can make sixty puns out of your name, I mean.”
“... sixty?! Wasn’t it fifty-eight just a week ago?!” Lucky asked.
“Oh, it was,” Kraval added. “But, while you were out, he came up with two new ones: ‘luck always finds the way’ for when we realized you came back and ‘luckily she didn’t hear that’ immediately after.”
“I WILL KILL HIM!!!!”
“... you don’t like him because he reminds you of Shawn?” Aeala suddenly asked, her voice growing gentler.
“Who’s Shawn?” Fish asked. “Oh, don’t give me the stink eyes. You two were asking the same thing in your head. I just have enough balls to say it out loud.”
“Or, you know, you’re just stupid enough to ask out loud.” Shaneine commented.
“Yup, that’s probably it.” Fish said, retreating into his corner and chewing on the piece of bone.
“It’s her older brother.” Aeala replied.
“Hey!!” Lucky exclaimed, staring angrily at her.
“I’ll tell them either way,” Aeala grinned. “So it’s probably best if they hear it from you instead.”
“... I don’t want to talk about it.”
“So, when she was younger--”
“Fine!! Fine!! Goddammit, you’re almost as bad as him!”
“Oh? So you told him?” Aeala exclaimed softly.
“Hell no!! And,” she suddenly took out a dagger and brought it closer to her throat while slanting her eyes. “If anyone does, it will be the last gossip you ever shared. Got it?”
“My lips are shut.”
“What he said.”
“... he was, uh, eight years older than me,” Lucky said, lowering her head. “And was pretty much a father figure to me and sis. Lady’s right, he was a lot like Lino,” her voice grew slightly warmer. “Brash, straightforward, gofer, really, at the end of the day. He never thought much about himself and instead did his hardest to repeatedly endanger his life to save others... until, well, it cost him. I was eleven when I found his body by the river, alongside two younger boys. They were killed by a local bandit group.”
“...” everyone remained silent, unable to think up proper words to utter, embracing the heavy atmosphere.
“Serves him right, heh,” Lucky said, stealthily wiping her eyes. “Idiot thought he could save the world. He couldn’t even save himself.”
“... and that’s why we both hate him.” Aeala was the one to break the silence after nearly a minute.
“I... I don’t hate him. I just wish our leader wasn’t a complete moron.” Lucky quickly added.
“... it’s pointless,” Kraval said, sighing faintly. “You all know... it’s really impossible to ever guess what he’s thinking. Or why he does the things he does.”
“I know why,” Lucky suddenly said, getting up. “For the same reason my brother did. He can’t help whatever’s eating at his soul, so to fill that void, he helps others. The saddest part is that... none of us matter to him enough for any of that to change.” she walked away with slightly sporadic, yet weak-looking steps, ready for sleep as well.
“... do you think she’s right?” Fish asked Aeala.
“... yeah.” she smiled lightly. “He’ll leave us, soon enough. I imagine that’s why he’s not trying to become ‘part of the group’.”
“... figures.” Fish said, taking the nearly emptied gourd of wine and downing what was left.
“Why would he stay, though?” Shaneine added, getting up. “None of us ever gave him a reason to.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kraval said, smiling lightly and getting up. “Even if he leaves us behind, it doesn’t mean we should be like this. We’ve got each other. Smite abandoned everything to follow us, Freya also seems to have realized we are the family she belongs to, Lucky wants nothing more than for us to succeed together, and, well, we know your story... Shrine Maiden.”
“... don’t call me that.” Shaneine said, though her voice carried a trace of unusual anger and frustration.
“Get some sleep, guys,” Aeala interjected, getting up. “We ought to reach forest’s depths by tomorrow noon.”
“We should really stop these gatherings around the fire,” Fish said, sighing. “They always start out with funny stories only to wind up being more depressing than my love life.”
“... yeah, sorry bud, I don’t think that’s possible.” Kraval said.
“... you couldn’t let me dream even for a second, huh? Asshole.”
Though the night appeared serene from the outside, countless complex emotions were woven into their hearts. Some thought of past, some of present, some of future, some of stories that have and that are yet to unfold, some of faces that might or might not be there come morning, and some simply of ways to understand the fairer sex. No thought was alike, that night.