Dusty dawn accompanied them on the way towards the gate. The people became awfully quiet seeing the four hero, gazing unsurely at their faces and weapons. At first, Katsumi thought it was because of her outfit. She was aware her clothes were a bit revealing, but couldn't do much about it, as her shirt got completely ruined yesterday and she had no money for a new one. In fact, even if she had a penny, she'd have to give that to the heroes' guild, as her debt was only increasing.
– Mister Tarax! – Aeren broke the awkward silence. – Why are they looking at us?
– So you noticed? I was hoping you wouldn't. The man we're going to kill, Gladiolus, is known by every local. But worry not! His terror brought him not just fame, but the highest bounty in the region, which we'll all take for ourselves!
– How much are we talking about? – Katsumi asked.
– Five hundred gold!
He smiled while waiting for loud gasps. Unfortunately, neither Katsumi or Aeren knew how much that's worth and just gazed at the man with unchanged expression.
– It's enough to buy five thousand beers. – Chase helped. – Been thinking of that since yesterday midnight… ah, my sweet beer… almost as sweet as cherry…
Katsumi gazed into the distance. Five thousand beers? How much is that? Well, let's say an average cheap beer costs one dollar. One beer in this world costs one silver coin, which is one tenth of a gold coin, so that means…
– That's five thousand dollars! – she screamed. – Aeren! Aeren, we're gonna' be rich!
– How much?
– Aeren, listen closely Aeren! – she leaned down to the boy with a large grin. – If my numbers are correct, and I'm betting they're correct as I've read enough fantasy manga… it's enough for us to buy a house!
– How would that help us on our quest?
– Don't be stupid, idiot! – she slapped the boy then pulled him closer. – Aeren, do you have a place you can call home?
– I've been getting cozy with my bench.
– Now imagine… if you could not just sleep on that bench… but also live in that bench…
– No way…
– That would be so cool! I never heard of anyone living in a bench!
– Then buckle up, boyo! If we complete this mission, you can have all the benches you want!
As they approached the gate, people ran up to them to give their goodbyes and best regards. Chase was especially popular with young women, so they ran up to him with flowers and cookies, but only as an excuse to earn some kisses from the tall dog. Tarax was the most popular with children and old men, as they were fascinated by his gargantuan size and respectful behavior. Aeren got surrounded by other adventurers, who tried to paint themselves more experienced than they actually were with tales disguised as advices.
Katsumi got a few nods, but she was the most unpopular by far from the quartet. Her unbuttoned uniform revealed her upper body and bra, which would've attracted some young males, was it not for her eyepatch and boyish stance. She was taller than most gals and the large knife in her pocket proved she needed no protection. Rather than being the damsel in distress, she herself was the distress.
Letting out a loud sigh she walked towards the gate, but a little girl stood in her path. Her skin was grey and she had a small puppet in hand.
– Hi! – Katsumi smiled and crouched down to her.
She held up her puppet. It was knitted from a thick material and had two brown buttons as eyes, red hair with two pigtails and a cute little shirt on its torso. It was green, the same color as Katsumi's outfit.
– Cute puppet!
From afar it looked as if she was giving her the puppet. Katsumi thought that was her intention at first, but looking in those small eyes proved otherwise. The girl was too young to speak, so she asked a question the only way she could. With her gaze.
It took her some time, but she finally understood.
– Oh, you mean… yes! It is I, your puppet! I came here to defend not just you, but your friends and family too! You feel that something is wrong, don't ya? You're scared because of the loud noises and crowd? Well, don't worry boyo! I'm here to save all of you!
She raised her hand for a high-five, but the little girl jumped and gave a tight hug. This took Katsumi by surprise. Still, she didn't push the girl away. In fact, she hugged her back.
– It's alright. The puppet will defend you.
They were sent away with much more than planned. Chase received enough sweets for a week, Tarax wore a flower crown and Aeren got dressed up in way more armor than required.
– Can you walk with all of that? – Chase asked between two cookies.
– They said these are… huff… very special armors… huff…
– Hey-hey! Give me that helmet, it looks ridiculous. Wait… you have three helmets?!
– I'm trying to… huff… not disappoint…. huff…
– How is this possible? This is made out of iron! How did they manage to bend it?
– I'm… huff… getting…. lightheaded…
– Kid? Hey, kid!
After dragging the Aeren away from sight, Chase began undressing him while Tarax watched. Katsumi didn't join them. Her gaze was fixed upon the forest on the hill, towering into the skies with morbid trunks.
– Why did you come? – Tarax approached her.
– There's a big baddie in that forest and you needed help taking him down.
– You consider yourself help?
– More than that. I consider myself necessary.
– I'm a level twelve barbarian. The second highest ranking person in town.
– Tsh, I earned myself two levels just yesterday. It's not so hard.
– You might believe that, but Titannica is dangerous ground. I don't know where you came from, but this place wasn't made for the weak. We're really close to the frontier separating the empire from unknown lands. The magic and enemies around here… they are unpredictable. Even after spending months here, you cannot get used to the ever changing darkness that rules these lands.
– By you being so low level yet one of the highest ranking heroes, I'm guessing the other big fishes got too comfortable and died.
– Some of them. The few smart enough left.
– Heroes, eh?
The forest was a fifteen-minute walk away. They could see the entire road running up the hill and disappearing into the forest. Katsumi could even see the stone in the distance, which she made sure to not forget.
– I might've been wrong about you. – Tarax said, before continuing on the road. – We'll see when it comes to that.
Entering the forest for the second time wasn't so mystical. The threat of enemy lurking behind every trunk killed the magic that made its dark corners all the more inviting.
– Katsumi – Aeren whispered, so the others won't hear them –, are you scared?
– Last time we waltzed in here I lost an eye and later got called 'lucky' for barely surviving. Of course I'm scared, but… that's natural. I accept my weakness and keep the facts in mind.
– You got lucky because they disappeared?
– The robot lady said they found you fighting with the air. They didn't see the enemies like we did.
– Yeah, that was… weird.
– And you fought them? – his eyes glittered. – The invisible enemy?
– Not to boast or anything, but I fought them so hard, the old man ran away in fear!
– Is that true?
– Yes! I surprised even myself! My fists gained some sort of… magical effect and I summoned ghost animals with each punch. It was hella' cool! I summoned a rhino with a kick, and then a tiger, and then…
As if time slowed down, Katsumi could see every millisecond of change in Aeren's expression as an arrow flew between them. She could see its wooden core and the sharp metal the head was made out of. Tarax and Chase heard the arrow land behind them and fast reached for their weapons. While they got into formation, Katsumi grabbed the boy's hand and rushed behind a trunk.
– What was that? – Tarax's shout shook the trees.
– An arrow flew by us, we're getting attacked!
Chase grabbed the arrow before rushing behind cover. He sniffed it and growled.
– Looks like they were expecting us.
– What? – Tarax didn't take cover. – Fine! They have a death wish? I shall grant them!
Like a kid reaching for his toy, he easily brought forth the heavy axe, slicing through the air and cutting spores in half. That weapon wasn't ordinary. The handle was made out of rough wood almost two times the size of an average man. The black blade was double bitted, which means it could cut from both sides.
Between the cracks, under the fallen off pieces, it could be seen that the weapon wasn't originally like this. Under a thick black layer hid the real blade, reflecting the light upon its grey, razor-sharp surface.
– Let's go! – Tarax screamed, leaping towards the invisible enemy.
He slashed left and right with drawn-out moves. The axe cut through the trees with little to no resistance, making them fall left and right. Katsumi watched in horror the display of force. She felt drawn towards the weapon as if each swing created a miniature vacuum behind the blade, sucking the enemies to their end.
– What is wrong with him? – Katsumi yelled. – He's going to kill us!
– No worries, cupcake! I've been with him for some time now and trust me, he knows how to do the job.
– Yeah? His job's gonna' turn us into pancakes if he doesn't watch out!
While she wasn't looking, Aeren took deep breaths. Dark mist began approaching him from left and right, circling around his hands and slowly taking form.
– Pegasus Starfire! – as he said those words a shortbow materialized, which he immediately aimed towards where the attack came from.
– Jesus, stop shouting!
– Featherless Fall!
– Are you deaf? Wait… why are your hands glowing?
Katsumi fell back as a white arrow of light shot out of Aeren's bow, traveling through the air and searching for a target. Aeren closed his eyes, gaining control and sight of the arrow. He flew through the trees searching for an enemy… yet there wasn't any.
– That was a cute way of not swearing. – Katsumi sat closer, but Aeren ignored her and ran towards Tarax, shooting his homing missiles into the air.
– Katsumi, can you defend yourself? – Chase asked, ready to go with the rest.
– Well… yeah, sure.
– Good luck! – and he ran into the trees.
Katsumi watched from afar as two of her teammates wreaked havoc. Her face was devoid of emotions. Being weak is not a bad thing as long you're aware of the facts… right? Yet she couldn't help but feel useless.
'Don't be sad', she hushed her mind. 'My time is yet to come and when it does, I'll steal the spotlight with the very special skill I got…'
Another arrow flew by her. Turning around, she was met by a fist in the face, to which she retaliated by stabbing the knife straight through the hand and leaping away from the attack. It was one of the hooded figures that attacked them before.
– Aeren! Tarax! They are here!
Lost in the destruction, they didn't hear Katsumi. The titan she stabbed looked at her with a smile, raising her wounded hand and licking the blood off of it.
– Fucking psycho! You look way too confident for someone about to die.
More titans showed up from behind the trees. They wore the same robe, undistinguishable from one another beside the varying weapons in hand. Hammers, chains, clubs… all against one with a knife.
– Scared to face me alone, brought your buddy-buddies? Sucks to be you, I've learnt some new skills since last time we met! Get ready to feel the might…
…of a level three Battlecook!