"We're getting closer now. Are you guys okay?" asked Ludd after eliminating our last enemies. We had been walking deeper into the Forbidden Land, the home to many kinds of ferocious monsters and demons. So far, we had no problem battling the frenzied demons. Apparently, the consciousness of the ancient worm that could threaten the safety of this realm could reach the surface world and affect any living thing in one way or another, according to Ludd. It's our job to stop the worm, Eternal Nidhogg from spreading its consciousness any further.

"So far so good…" I replied, sheathing Karma. "And my regeneration rate is enough for me to heal my wounds, so there's nothing to worry about," I said. My Coat of Darkness had this innate ability to regenerate my health. It was a bit unfair, though, from a gamer's perspective, because equipment that could auto-regenerate was said to be exclusively made for high-leveled players, and I was barely a medium-leveled fighter with average fighting skills. Perhaps being a chosen hero had some perks.

"You can self-regenerate?" Kamui asked, looking at me.

"Yeah, thanks to this…" I answered, pointing at my own black coat. Kamui went towards me, touching my coat.

"It's a fabric of darkness. Grade S. Where'd you get it?" Kamui asked. "This kind of thing is rare, even in the black markets."

"Umm… someone gave this as a present or something like that," I shrugged. Well, it was 'technically' true because [the Reaper] gave both Karma and the Coat of Darkness to me, for whatever reason I didn't really know. Whether it was an attempt to screw me hard in my ass or something else entirely, I couldn't really tell.

"I see…" Kamui mused. "So that means you're really a Dark Knight, huh? A simple swordsman wouldn't even dare to wear something made of pure darkness," she said. "And you can use that shadow stuff with your black sword, and that purple miasma too." She looked at me suspiciously. "I can't tell whether you're a human or a demon."

"Believe me, he's pure, 100% human," Ludd said, grinning.

"Thanks a lot, Ludd. Yeah, I'm full human," I said. "Umm… Kamui, I hope you don't mind me asking this, but are you doing here? Besides stopping Nidhogg's consciousness, obviously…"

"Didn't I tell you that before? I came here to stop this evil presence," Kamui said. "There's no other reason at all."

"So… how could you enter this place? I mean, you'd need a permit to enter Forbidden Land, right?" I asked.

"I sneaked in, obviously. They don't offer the permit freely, you know?" Kamui informed.

"Uh… are you a ninja?" I asked.

"Hmm… you can say that I'm a combination of a ninja, assassin, samurai and fighter. You can say that my real Class is Berserker, with Assassin as Multiclass," Kamui informed me while flashing a polite, sweet smile. From the way she talked, she didn't look like a Berserker at all. In fact, she looked like a friendly housewife I usually met around my neighborhood. Just thinking about that made me feel a bit homesick. "Umm… Mister Yuuto, are you alright? Is there anything you want to talk about?"

"Oh, i-it's nothing," I replied. "I-I'm just… reminiscing, you see?"

"Hmm… Yuuto, are you, by any chance, reminiscing about your home world?" Ludd asked. I was a bit surprised, thinking that Ludd might've read my mind. "I can see it in your face, Yuuto. You're homesick," he told me.

"Y-you can tell?" I looked at the Musketeer before I sighed. "Well, to tell you the truth, I am a bit homesick," I closed my eyes, remembering my time at home. Maybe my life wasn't exactly a bed of roses, but even so, it was someplace that I could still call home. I imagined the smell of my room and the sounds of people bustling in and out of the station. I also imagined the tastes of food you could find in your conveniently-placed family restaurants. Just thinking about it was enough to make me smile. Maybe my life was a butt to countless jokes, but after living here, I began to understand how it felt to really miss home.

"You're… homesick?" Kamui asked, seemingly a bit curious. "Are you from a land faraway or something?" it seemed that she didn't know that I was from an entirely different world.

I smiled. "You could say that," I said.

"Guys, I think we're almost there…" Ludd said before we stopped. "I think we're closer to the place where Nidhogg's consciousness leaks out. Prepare yourselves…" He drew both his musket gun and rapier. "We still don't know what is ahead of us, and we will come to direct contact with the ancient worm's presence, so please concentrate on our mission. If we're not careful enough, we may end up being consumed by madness."

I nodded as I brandished Karma. Gulping, I could sense the overwhelming presence from one direction. I could tell it was Nidhogg, or rather Nidhogg's presence. If its presence could put such pressure onto us, what about the genuine article? If Nidhogg's presence could affect those around it in one way or another (which wasn't really pretty), it would be foolish to not watch our steps. As I held my sword, Kamui also brandished her katana, cautiously watching our surroundings.

A Berserker was a Class with unique features. Most Berserkers relied on brute strength and overwhelming powers during battle, and it would be logical for an ogre to become a Berserker. At one time, Ennis told me that one of a Berserker's unique features was Blood Haze, which augmented their strength, agility and power while turning them into a pure killing machine. And Kamui was capable to turn into that, a fact that made me gulp nervously.

"Yuuto, concentrate…" Kamui told me.

"Y-yeah…" I responded. "Alright, let's go."


Blade/Arc

Chapter 11: The Wraiths

The enemies were getting tougher as we continued onward. And they didn't attack in smaller group, but in such large groups. There was one time when we were ambushed by more than forty enemies, and we barely made it.

"Man, this mission is tougher than I thought," Ludd said, reloading his musket gun. Small injuries began to appear on our bodies. While I was lucky to have the Coat of Darkness, which helped me to self-regenerate, Ludd and Kamui were in different situation entirely. Two gashes could be seen on Ludd's shoulder. I offered to lend him my Coat of Darkness, but he turned down my offer, telling me that I should concentrate on keeping myself alive. And as for Kamui, despite her near-invulnerability, she also got a fair share of injuries (emphasize on 'near').

"Kamui, are you alright? Should we rest for a while?" I asked. Kamui's arm was wounded.

"I'm alright. Don't worry about me, Yuuto. This is nothing…" Kamui said, giving me a reassuring smile. But I knew that she was worried that her usually impenetrable skin was scratched and wounded by the attacks of our enemies. "We're still good to go, and the presence is getting stronger and stronger as we proceed. It is stupid to stop now…"

"You're right," Ludd agreed. "We're almost there. We can't falter now."

Seeing that both Ludd and Kamui were determined to put a stop to this madness, I nodded. Even though I was just a rookie, I wanted to believe that I could do something worthy so I could protect both my teammates. After taking some healing potions, we continued onward before we finally arrived at the place where the presence escaped. On the barren land, there was a huge crack in the ground, and I could feel something ominous coming out from that crack.

"Nidhogg is underneath the ground below our feet now," Ludd told us. And it would be foolish for us to challenge that beast now, considering that it was still sleeping. "It's best if we can stop its presence from reaching the ground," he took out something, which was a paper which looked like a talisman. "We'll purify this patch of ground now to stop Nidhogg's consciousness from reaching the surface. Yuuto, Kamui, please step back. I need to concentrate…"

"What is he doing?" I asked.

"Purification," Kamui told me. "In order to ward away evil spirits, someone needs to perform the purification ceremony in one place, and Ludd is doing exactly that. But, usually the ones who perform the purification ceremony are Paladins or White Mages, so it may take a while for him to finish the purification. In the meantime, in order to allow him to finish the purification, we need to guard him. If his concentration is broken, he will need to start all over again…"

"R-right!" I nodded as I looked at Ludd, who was focusing on the purification ceremony. He seemed to chanting some kind of strange language as blue light spiraled around his body. "I know you can do it, Ludd…"

And at that moment, I felt it.

"…!"

It was a strange presence, which was completely different compared to Nidhogg's. While Nidhogg's presence could cause uneasiness, this new presence was… suffocating. It felt like being squished by some kind of invisible pillows. It was familiar, much to my surprise. With this familiarity, this enigmatic entity, [the Reaper] came into my mind.

"No… that's not it…"

No, it was different. It wasn't [the Reaper]. Compared to that [thing], this presence was slightly weaker, but was enough to cause painful discomfort. And usually, the presence of [the Reaper] was accompanied by the sickly, purple miasma, but this presence was accompanied by green miasma. Even Kamui noticed this discomforting presence.

"No way…" Kamui muttered. Apparently, she knew the significance of the green miasma. Ludd was bothered by this presence as well, but he tried his best to concentrate on the purification ceremony. He didn't want this new presence to interrupt the purification ceremony. "Yuuto… put your guard up! We are ambushed!"

And at that moment, the green miasma thickened before several ghost-like creatures appeared in the air. At first glance, they resembled [the Reaper], but their presence was slightly weaker compared to [the Reaper]. Their tattered cloaks were made of dark blue shadow-like fabrics. There were five of them, each of them was equipped with a pair of wicked-looking chained sickles. I could see their ghostly forms producing the green miasma as they floated in the air.

"They're… Wraiths…" Kamui said. "The harbingers of tragedy and painful death, these are the creatures made of darkness, bringing forth misery and destruction in their paths. To think that they are to appear in such place…" the ogre girl grimaced. "No way, this can't be right. Wraiths are the creatures that can only appear if summoned. And yet, they're here…" I could sense fear in Kamui's eyes, which didn't help at all.

"D-do you mean there are people who wanted to stop us from stopping Nidhogg's consciousness?" I nervously asked. If Wraiths were summoned creatures, it meant that there were people who wanted to stop us from completing our mission.

"Who knows?" Kamui said grimly. "Ludd, we're going out! There's no way we can stop these things!"

But surprisingly, Ludd responded in such cool manner. "Heh, even if you say that, there's no way I can stop this thing…" he said as he tried to retain his composure. I was amazed by his ability to keep his cool even in such situation. "I can't allow myself to back off… even in the face of destruction…" he said apologetically while still holding the talisman. "Sorry, but I'll try to finish this as fast as I could. Please hold them back while I'm doing this…" he smiled before he continued.

"If you insist…" Kamui turned to look at the Wraiths. "I guess we're going to fight these things after all, Yuuto…" she gulped. She took out one of her lenses, scanning our opponents. As the lens broke, she gritted her teeth. "As I expected, they're immune against most of my attacks…" she looked at me. "Undead creatures are mostly immune against lightning, and they have no corporeal form, so physical attacks won't work much on them. Do you have anything that can kill undead?"

I shook my head. "Sadly, I'm just a rookie. The only thing I know is Shadow Arc, which is pure darkness spell. I bet it won't work on them," I sighed.

"It can't be helped, then. Let's just attack them!" Kamui said before she charged towards the Wraiths, trying to swing her katana onto one of them. I also went to attack the Wraiths, but most of our attacks were completely ineffective against these ghost-like creatures. As Kamui swung her sword, her blade just passed through the Wraith's body without even harming it.

"Damn it! It's not working!" I cursed as my chained attacks didn't work against these creatures. My attacks were either blocked by their chained sickles or completely nullified as my blade just passed through their bodies.

"Take this!" Kamui tried to slash one of the Wraiths, but like before, it was useless. Then one of the Wraiths fired a darkness spell towards the ogre girl, sending her flying. "Kyaah!" her body slammed against the ground. She tried to pick herself, but apparently the darkness spell affected her body, which gave her some kind of difficulty to even stand on her feet.

"Kamui!" I yelled. I tried to go and assist her, but one of the Wraiths fired the same spell towards me, so I used Karma to block the spell. And as a Dark Knight, that spell would be rendered useless against me anyway, and my sword could consume darkness as well. But that hardly even helped me at all because these Wraiths were able to inflict physical damages as well with their chained sickles. As they tried to attack me with their sickles, I tried my best to deflect and block their attacks, but I wasn't skillful enough to deflect all of them. "Nrgh…!" several of their attacks hit me before I was overwhelmed by their endless attacks. "Nggh… d-don't… underestimate me!" I screamed as I stabbed one of the Wraiths.

"Kkkaakkakakkkaaaakkaka….!" the Wraith let out a strange, hellish noise as Karma stabbed through its spectral body. The hilt of my sword let out such searing heat, which numbed my hands and mind before something felt like rushing out from my body. With that, the Wraith let out a scream before it vanished.

"W-what was that?" I was surprised as I managed to take out the Wraith. My mark of Dark Knight had emerged on the back of my hand, and I could feel darkness pulsing through my veins.

"Y-you… you banish that Wraith…" Kamui said as she managed to stand up on her feet. "I see. One of Dark Knight's skills is Banish, which enables you to banish spectral creatures like Wraiths and ghosts…" she walked to my side, still panting due to the damages she had earlier. "Yuuto, can you do that again?" she asked me.

"I'm not sure…" I answered. "It just… happened. I'm not sure how…" I admitted.

While I managed to kill, or banish one of the Wraiths, there were four of them left. And that skill earlier had drained me greatly, so it would be hard to do the same thing again four times. Slowly, my Dark Knight's mark faded.

"Well, this is very problematic…" Kamui said before she looked back at Ludd, whose purification ceremony was almost completed. "Ludd, have you done yet? We need to go now!"

"Just a bit more!" Ludd replied as he continued the purification.

The remaining four Wraiths were floating before us, brandishing their chained sickles. I gulped while thinking the best way to deal with them all. This Banish skill sounded cool, but I didn't know how to use it again, and after using that skill for the first time, I was greatly drained, which was a bad thing. Ennis told me that one should refrain from using an energy-consuming spell too much, and because I was just a rookie, I was not really good with conserving energy and stuff like that.

And then, unexpectedly those Wraiths looked at each other before they dissipated into the thick clouds of miasma, disappearing from our views, leaving us. It took us a while before we finally realized that we were safe before I fell onto my knees. Panting heavily, I placed my hand on my chest, trying my best to catch my breath. I had to admit that I was terrified by this encounter.

"Yuuto, are you alright?" Kamui kneeled by my side, seemingly concerned. "Y-you're pale… a-and," she gasped before she got up, taking several steps aback. Her eyes widened in horror as she saw something emerged from my body. "Y-you…" my body was engulfed by a cloud of purple miasma and I could feel several marks appeared on my skin, and it felt like being seared by hot rods.

And at that time, Ludd had already finished his purification ceremony before he rushed towards me, placing his hand on my shoulder. "Yuuto, snap out of this! You're experiencing power incontinence! Better start calming yourself first or you may turn into a demon!" from his voice, I could tell he was worried about me.

For a Dark Knight, being unable to control one's will might result in painful transformation. So, I tried my best to control my emotions and my breathing before everything went back to normal. I shuddered as the purple miasma dissipated. I began losing my consciousness before my vision turned black.

"Yuuto, hang in there! Yuuto, you're going to be alright!"

Before I could fall down onto the ground, a pair of hands held me tightly. And then, I lost my consciousness. And the last thing I could remember was Kamui's warmth as her arms held me.


"Yuuto, Yuuto…! Yuuto, please open your eyes! Yuuto!" someone's voice that was calling upon me managed to wake me up from my unconsciousness. Slowly, I opened my eyes, only to see Kamui, who was on the verge of tears as she rested my head on her lap. Her fingers were caressing my cheeks as she looked at me with her teary eyes. "Yuuto…! T-thank goodness you're awake!" she immediately hugged me, much to my bemusement. After a while, she released her hug before she looked away, seemingly in embarrassment.

"W-what happened?" I asked, still feeling a bit groggy. "And where are we?" I asked, looking at our surroundings. We were no longer in the Forbidden Land. The land was grassy and the sky was clear, compared to the barren land and red sky of the Forbidden Land.

"We brought you out…" Ludd suddenly said. He was standing nearby us, leaning against a nearby tree. "It's quite an exciting episode, if you ask me, since Kamui doesn't have any permit to enter the Forbidden Land…" he looked at the ogre girl, who signaled to Ludd to keep it quiet.

Perhaps it's better if I didn't have to know about that incident.

"So, what happened after I lost my consciousness?" I asked as I got up.

"We've completed the purification ceremony," Ludd explained. "After you fainted, we immediately brought you out of the Forbidden Land. And she's the one who carried you on her back, so please thank her, okay?" he ended his explanation with a broad grin. Kamui let out a cute whimper as she blushed.

"Y-you… did?" I looked at the ogre girl. Apparently, she was the one who carried me out. To think that she was the one who carried me on her back, I was amazed. "W-well… thanks, Kamui…"

"P-please don't mention it," Kamui stuttered as she tried to hide her blushing face. "I… I was just helping you, is all…" she cleared her throat before she smiled. "After all, you are my comrade."

"I-I see…" I mused. For someone who had known me for a few hours, Kamui sure was a person with team spirit. And she was the one who showed me her relieved face as I finally regained consciousness. Not to mention that she hugged me as I finally woke up. "Kamui, if you don't mind, is it okay if I ask you something?"

"Yes?" Kamui looked at me. "Please ask, Yuuto."

"We just knew each other less than one day. And yet…" I stopped as I tried to find the right words to tell her. "You looked relieved to see me finally regaining consciousness. How can you, a person I barely knew, show so much care towards me?" Part of me was still wondering about that. I was born in a society where people only cared for themselves. "I-I'm sorry if this question offends you, but… I just can't help but to wonder…" I averted my eyes, feeling ashamed as I said that.

"What do you mean, Yuuto?" Kamui gave me a curious look. "Did I do something to you? If I did, I apologize…" she gave me an apologetic look.

"N-no, that's not what I mean! It just that…" I hesitated. "Y-you're just too kind towards a stranger like me. I… I don't feel like I really deserve this," I admitted. Even Ennis showed me some kind of hostility in one way or another the first time I saw her. But Kamui, she treated me with kindness after we cleared our misunderstanding. And I didn't deserve any of this.

"Is that so?" Kamui's expression turned serious. "So, do you prefer a hostile treatment? Is that what you really want?" she asked.

"W-wait, t-that's not it! I… I'm sorry…" I felt like a bastard after saying that.

"Yuuto, it's not strange for someone to treat you with kindness…" Ludd said, interjecting. "We don't really know your upbringing, but judging from your words before, I can sense that you lived in a place where kindness is rarely, if ever appreciated," he smiled at me. "Somehow, it does make sense, Yuuto. You've lived in quite a harsh world…"

"W-well, if you put it that way…" It wasn't really a harsh world, but it wasn't quite a fulfilling life as well. "Y-you can say that. I'm sorry…"

"No need to apologize, Yuuto…" Kamui said kindly. "You are a kind person, so that's what really matters…" she touched my shoulder as she looked into my eyes. "And we, ogrefolk really appreciate kindness. Don't feel bad about this, Yuuto."

"Yeah, don't feel bad about this," Ludd grinned. "So, with our mission completed, let's go back to Davren. I'm sure Ennis will be glad to see you again, Yuuto." Then, the Musketeer looked at the ogre girl. "And Kamui, what are you going to do after this? With our mission completed, you have nothing to do in your mind, right?"

"Yes. With the evil presence banished, I will have to become a wanderer once again, but…" Kamui looked at me. It felt like she was sending some sort of message as her eyes looked into mine. "I wish I can stay with you, Yuuto. You fascinate me, and I wish to learn more about you…" She smiled. Her words managed to send some kind of electric shock into my brain, which caused me to lose my composure. I could feel my heart bumping faster, pumping my blood straight into my head, which caused my face to become red due to embarrassment. "What's the matter, Yuuto? Is my presence to you… undesirable?"

"W-what are you talking about?" I exclaimed as I tried my best to hide my embarrassment. "A-are you saying you want to stay with me?"

"Well, she can be a great help to you, Yuuto…" Ludd said, grinning. "And because you're the chosen hero of Highleans, having another teammate for your own party will help you greatly," he reasoned.

I wished I could protest, but I was unable to do so because no matter what kind of intention was inside his head, his words were reasonable enough for me to accept. I still needed teammates in order to vanquish Nidhogg in the future, and Kamui would become one excellent addition to my party.

"I-I see…" As I finally retained my composure, I looked at Kamui. "So, I guess you'll be joining us, then…" I held out my hand. "Glad to have you on board, Kamui."

"It is my pleasure to join you, Yuuto. Please take a good care of me," Kamui shook my hand. "I'll try my best to assist you."

"Y-yeah, take it easy," I responded to her. So, my party had another new addition. After having Ennis and Miya, Kamui joined my party. But about Ludd, I wasn't sure yet, so I looked at him and asked him about that. "Ludd, how about you?" that was the question. "Are you going to join my party as well?"

"I'd love to, but I'm a busy person, so I won't be able to join you guys," then, he gave me an impish grin. "Now that you mention it, you're the only male in your party right now, and with Kamui as the new addition, you have three beautiful girls fighting alongside you. Man, you're one lucky bastard, Yuuto!"

"L-Ludd, what are you talking about?" I stuttered. I was aware that my teammates consisted of some beautiful yet deadly female warriors, and with Kamui as the new member of my party, there were already three of them.

"Oh? So you already have your harem warriors, Yuuto?" Kamui asked in innocent tone.

"H-harem warriors? K-Kamui, p-please don't get any wrong idea! They're teammates, I say, teammates!" I tried my best to clear the misunderstanding. "A-and what do you mean by harem warriors anyways?"

"It's typical for warriors of high status to have harem warriors fighting by their sides," Kamui explained. "It's also a part of the cultures of ogrefolk, so I don't really mind to be a part of your harem warriors," she said in such casual manner, which didn't really help at all. "But it's regrettable, though, since I'm the third one to join, I won't become the first harem warrior for you. Who's the first one, Ludd?" she looked at Ludd.

"Ah, her name is Ennis Heartstring. She's quite a nice girl, so please look forward to meeting her," Ludd said, still grinning impishly. I wished I could punch him right into his face.

"You've got it all wrong!" I wailed. "And Ludd, please stop feeding her with false information! Please, I'm begging you!"

Well, despite that, our way back was a peaceful one, with fewer monsters attacking us and stuff. Everything was fine.

Boy, you've overcome yet another trial. You never cease to amuse me. You are indeed one splendid mortal I have ever seen!

But, will you be able to overcome the next trial? Will you overcome it as you did to the previous ones? Or… will you succumb to the will of fates? Yes, this anticipation is the only thing that can cure my unending boredom.

Will you be able to fight against fate? Or will you be another toy that will be crushed by the spinning wheel of fate? Will you, the one who has received my blessing, the blessing of [the Reaper], be the one who will topple fate itself? Or will you be crushed underfoot by the fate? Even I, the one who was born from the concept of [Death] itself, cannot foresee your destiny.

Continue onward, mortal. Show me the strength of someone with the blessing of [the Reaper], and prove your worth, as the one who bears the mark of darkness, to fate itself.

Yuuto Kobayashi…

Nero…

Don't disappoint me.

TO BE CONTINUED

*beta-read by Kilian Grey*